The first time I tried to start a chainsaw, things didn't go well. My unseasoned arms, too weak to pull the cord properly, dangled uselessly while the sawyer boss looked at me with pity.
“Maybe there’s something wrong with your saw—Let me give it a shot?”
Naturally, he got it started on the first try. After that, I never wanted more to fade from existence and become one with the trees. Or just spontaneously combust. How can you save face when you’re surrounded by burly ranger dudes who’ve been felling trees for longer than you’ve been alive? Sometimes all you can do is smile meekly and silently berate yourself for not working out more, then spend the evening feverishly rehearsing your violent struggle with the engine’s starter rope until you are finally able to pull that unmerciful machine to life. Later you promise yourself to never tell anyone back home about this moment because you’re out here to be a cool lumberjack, dammit! Not to confront the grim reality that maybe your parents are right and you do not belong.
My time with Conservation Corps North Carolina in 2018 was a far cry from what my Chinese immigrant mother and father had envisioned for my summer after high school. Their notion of what a petite, glasses-wearing, college-bound daughter should be doing with her life—perhaps some summer classes or a local volunteer gig—certainly did not involve me running around the woods with strangers for seven weeks.
But nooope, I became a dirtbag! I, with five other crew members and two crew leaders, spent the days maintaining hiking trails in state parks. Our sleep cycles aligned with the sun and we only went into town on weekends for laundry and groceries. I left my phone at home and communicated with friends via snail mail. Books? I read those. Muscles? Beefed up. Campfires? Practically every night—it helped with the mosquitoes. Deep existential talks about our personal struggles to find meaning in life? Yes yes yes. I’d never felt more at peace.
For context, I had just graduated from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a selective residential high school where expectations and burnout run high. Something inside me broke in that atmosphere of competition and self-destruction. I learned I was in fact not good at STEM, and that was stressful. Sure, at least I knew what wasn’t making me happy, but how could I be who I want without letting down everyone around me? And what is happiness when you’ve been socialized to only view yourself in comparison to others? After spending my formative years training to be the next Chinese American model child, I was ready for an escape from that life.
And what an escape it was. My hands, once soft from sheltered indoor living and piano playing, became hard and calloused. I went without showering for two weeks. And despite that initial chainsaw fail, I ended up certified and soon graduated to felling 80-foot-tall beetle-infested pine trees. With every trail improvement, shimmering dance of fireflies, and hour spent in our crew van criss-crossing the state, I could feel the accumulated weight of academic stress, draining relationships, my parents’ expectations, and my own damaging perceptions of myself as a worthless Asian lifting from my soul.
Existence was simpler. We set up camp inside whichever state park was hosting us for the week—a roaming assemblage of tents, tarps, and hammocks. Our projects varied from clearing hazard trees to replacing steps, all under the general objective of trail maintenance. The work was grueling, but also fun. Our leaders, Nick and Alex, both seasoned in the corps world, regaled us with tales of past adventures. We’d talk shit about that one ranger who barked “Y’all got FEMALES on this crew?” when we first rolled up. Sometimes there were acapella covers of “We Are Young” and other early 2010’s hits. Don’t worry, we were productive too! It’s just more bearable to work through sweat dripping into your eyes when you’re community building at the same time.
Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Once at a Walmart in Goldsboro, I was browsing the canned goods aisle when a young boy pointed at me and exclaimed to his parents, “Look at that Asian girl!” Sigh. I was only looking for beans! Save the public exhibition for another day? The parents gave me the side-eye and pulled their son closer as they hurriedly and silently walked away.
Incidents like that were limited because I was scared to detach myself from my crewmates. For me, it wasn’t just safety in numbers, but safety in uniform and adjacent whiteness. Traveling through rural North Carolina was simply not something I would have felt safe doing alone, or even with my family. However, our crew stuck out no matter where we went, and I told myself all the stares we got weren’t just because I was Asian. I felt a sense of legitimacy as an AmeriCorps member, something where my ethnicity had no bearing on my ability to serve.
As the youngest, shortest, physically weakest, and only non-white member, I could have easily spent the summer feeling like a square peg in a round hole. But the radiating warmth I received from my crewmates made me feel unconditionally accepted while I was with them, teaching me the path to growth is lined with shared meals and laughter among friends, not crippling doubt and self-hatred. And that was the most transformative part of my corps experience.
Is this a story of assimilation? I’d like to think not. My time with NCYCC dramatically expanded my own perceptions of what I could do and who I could be—a revolution in itself. I’ve eaten cold and congealed leftover pasta with coffee and brown sugar stirred in for breakfast. I’ve survived working in 90-degree heat plus humidity while wearing steel-toed boots, long pants, chaps, long sleeves, and a hard hat amidst thickets of bloodthirsty mosquitoes. I’ve dropped trees that most full-grown men aren’t qualified to do. And the best compliment I’ve ever received was from Nick when he said:
“Trail life was waiting for you.”
Several key aspects of my lived experience gave me the privilege to fully thrive that summer. As a child of the suburbs, I had never struggled financially and I was able to take the relatively low paying AmeriCorps position without concern. I grew up speaking English, so I had no obstacles to understanding or being understood. Finally, I had the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an assured gateway to realms of future possibilities, awaiting me that following fall. In effect, my “unfulfilling” pre-corps stability paved the way for me to enjoy myself so freely that summer, like I had saved up for a vacation.
And like all vacations, this one had to end. Though I fantasized about keeping the trail life alive by dropping out to roam the country from seasonal position to seasonal position, I thought about how much it hurt to have nobody to converse in Mandarin with for so long. How I often played a game with myself guessing how many miles away the closest other person of Asian descent was. How I felt forced to still smile at and greet the white hiking passersby who looked at me a little bit differently and for a little while longer than they did the others. In stepping away, I realized the corps gave me the clarity and springboard I needed to build a life I wouldn’t have to run away from.
With my chainsaw memories fresh in mind, during college I set out to unpack the exclusive foundations of conservation and the lack of diversity in outdoor recreation. For my senior capstone project, I wrote a research proposal designed to evaluate modern environmental stewardship programs’ white male legacy and how affinity crews for underrepresented groups (e.g. indigenous youth crews, women’s saw crews, and ASL inclusion crews), which are becoming more popular, can help shift the paradigm.
Now I work for the U.S. Forest Service as a Resource Assistant in the Pacific Northwest Region, tasked to make communications and community engagement more culturally relevant. My days are spent indoors on a laptop rather than on the trail swinging sledgehammers, but the impact of that summer still resonates.
Once I recognized my capacity to take my corps experience beyond its internally transformative value and join the ranks of people championing anti-racism and inclusivity in the outdoors, that too was fulfilling. My trajectory happened to start with an in-depth immersion into a very white space, but I know that’s not for everyone. The conservation movement’s reckoning is long overdue, and there are countless ways for people from all walks of life to get involved. Here’s to making that happen!
If you are interested in learning more about conservation corps, visit https://corpsnetwork.org/ to find an organization near you!