by Julie Riddle
This isn’t about summer reading, but about how reading returned to me the summers of my college years and rendered them anew. I worked four summers for the U.S. Forest Service, and was based at the ranger station near my hometown of Troy, Montana. During chilly early mornings and hot, hazy afternoons my boss and I cleaned a route of campgrounds throughout the county – we picked up trash, and hosed down the insides of outhouses and poured glugs of a foul-smelling liquid down their holes to mask the fouler-smelling human waste heaped at the bottom of pits I avoided looking into.
My third summer with the Forest Service I was made the leader of a riparian-mapping crew. Two co-workers and I, wearing hard hats, long-sleeved shirts, jeans, leather gloves, and leather boots wedged into clumsy hipwaders, hiked (or crawled) the length of mountain streams, mapping their banks and the surrounding vegetation.
In late July through August each summer my daily work would be interrupted when I was summoned to join crews fighting wildfires sweeping across mountainsides in northwestern Montana, as well as in Idaho, Washington, Nevada and northern California. I kept a bulging backpack at the ready so I could leave at a moment’s notice. Sometimes I was gone for a few hours, sometimes for up to 10 days. A few times I worked alongside shackled prison crews, and once I called my parents from a payphone at a fairground after working a 44-hour shift; my crew was the first to respond to the fire and we had arrived in the middle of the night. When my parents asked where I was, I looked around dumbly and said, “I don’t know…somewhere in California.”
I was fresh out of high school when I started the Forest Service job. I soon learned that Spike, my campground crew boss, was hilarious and shockingly profane. During those summers I also learned how to drive a stick shift and how to fell trees with a chainsaw. I rode in a helicopter for the first time, and dragged a skinned, human-looking bear carcass from a river. I learned to identify native plants, read a topographic map, and evaluate the effects of stream erosion caused by clear-cutting. At wildfire-fighting camp I learned how to back-burn with a drip torch and wield a Pulaski, and how to locate hotspots by hovering my bare palm slowly over ash.
As entertaining as some of these stories might be, I have not written about my summers with the Forest Service. I sensed, but hadn’t been able to express, deeper significance in my experiences, and so these memories remained colorful anecdotes I used to share with family and friends, but seldom think of now.
But then, this spring, The Writer’s Almanac featured the following poem by Wendell Berry:
What a wonder I was
when I was young, as I learn
by the stern privilege
of being old: how regardlessly
I stepped the rough pathways
of the hillside woods,
treaded hardly thinking
the tumbled stairways
of the steep stream, and worked
unaching hard days
thoughtful only of the work,
the passing light, the heat, the cool
water I gladly drank.
(“VII.” by Wendell Berry from A Small Porch)
As I read the poem’s final line my chest ached and I felt briefly stunned at the recognition Berry had raised in me, twinged with gratitude and wonder and a quick stab of grief. Berry’s poem distilled the meaning of those four summers into the clarity of spring water cupped in my hand, and elicited poignancy like the hotspots my palm had sensed hovering over ash. Berry, a prolific poet and novelist, and an environmental activist, lives in Kentucky and is now 83 years old. Yet he articulated for me a time when I (of curious mind, able body, and vital spirit then) lived connected and attuned to the natural world.
After reading the poem, I remembered once, while mapping a stream, stepping from shaded forest into a small meadow, lush and glinting with sun-dappled aspen, the stream winding quiet and slow between low, grassy banks. I stopped and stared, feeling as though I had just stumbled into Eden. The crew and I did our work and ate our lunch there. I didn’t want to leave. We had traveled veining roads high into the mountains to reach the stream, and I knew I would not come back. It seemed, in fact, that the meadow would disappear as soon as we left it, too beautiful and tranquil to be of this world. Berry’s poem restored this fleeting Eden for me. I hope that place still exists, wherever it may be, even though I can never return.
Julie Riddle is the creative-nonfiction editor for Rock & Sling and the craft-essay editor for Brevity. She works as senior writer for marketing and development at Whitworth University and is the author of the memoir The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness (University of Nebraska Press). Learn more at www.julieriddle.net.