Today’s post was written by former Corpsmember Jonathan Kirchabel of Fortuna Center. Jonathan has written a more contemplative piece than a typical Corpsmember profile. Jonathan shows us what goes into the development of a Crewleader in the CCC.
I don’t know how many times I sat and asked myself, “How much longer am I capable doing this?”
It didn’t happen a lot. It was most memorable during long conversations between the silence and myself. I would say absolutely nothing, and the nature would respond in the same manner. While working, spiking out on a project, and especially during my time in Yosemite, it didn’t matter where I went, this conversation would still follow.
When people ask me about my experience, I never know the right answer; only the wrong ones. As a leader in the program, I came to understand that you never want to discourage somebody from doing something just because it’s daunting or hard. You want to be real, honest, and tell people like it is, but you never want to discourage somebody. The program changed me, especially during those long conversations between nature and myself. I can remember finding joy after long tumultuous hikes during my backcountry season and while working to maintain trails around the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and having conversations with the nearby birds as they sent calls between each other. You know, because I went crazy, and that’s a heavy burden to bear.
There’s a certain peace that happens after two years, after doing what I’ve done, and after seeing what I’ve seen. There were two nights in particular that truly resonated with what I intend on getting across: the night that I laid in water for hours, and the night that I didn’t sleep, while in Yosemite.
The night I laid in cold water for hours was a treacherous reminder of why you should not be lazy. On a clear evening, we went to sleep thinking that we did not need to set up any tarps for coverage during the night. We were awoken by steadily dropping rain that only increased into a small storm. Luckily, Jose had swung his tarp over us, and shielded us from most of the barrage. However, I had not cared to bring any extra possible defense against the conditions for the weekend, and as a result my sleeping bag, clothes, and body, were all drenched in water for hours and hours. Jose had been positioned as perfectly as possible, and despite needing to go to the bathroom for several hours, I resisted all urges and uncomfortability until the storm passed four hours later. I sat, shivering in my rain gear, my only dryish clothes, and attempted several times to light a fire with wet materials. Had I not temporarily stopped smoking cigarettes a month prior on my birthday, I would have found solace in those seconds of slowly decaying away with each puff while silently staring into the river beside our campsite. Yet, I only had the river as comfort, as I sat for hours more, waiting for my comrades to wake up. Cuts on my feet, still shivering, and sore from the compilation of all that had happened up until then, I still found more serenity with each step forward back to camp, weight on my shoulders and all.
It’s rather difficult to explain what it feels like to be both excited and disappointed to smoke your last cigarette. I apologize for the rather crude and unhealthy metaphysical descriptions I’ve offered thus, but please, bear with me. You see, I had spent the hours of 12:00 AM to 1:00 AM, chasing off a bear (Joey), from our backcountry camp during my last Kitchen Prep night/day. Your job as a KP is to sleep in the kitchen tent during the night, and warn your crewmates of any intruders, such as a bear, and together, you chase them off. In an ideal world, that’s what would’ve happened, I go back to sleep, case closed. Unfortunately, Joey was not an idealist. Due to my inability to yell loud enough to coax my crew from their sleep, Joey felt comfortable enough to creep into our homestead three separate times in one hour. During such time, I was torn from my attempts at going back to sleep at every sound that crossed my ears, whether it was leaves, or the rustling of the wind, everything caught the attention of my headlamp for a brief check. After the third encounter, I remained awake. Again, during the course of the three-four hours I waited for Jose to wake up (as he was always the first one awake at 4:00 AM every morning), I found myself reminded of this question, this wall, “How much longer am I willing to continue this?” I found myself excited, as I removed my last bit of tobacco temptations for a while, and disappointed that with the last ember being put out under my boot, I was again alone in the darkness, waiting for others to join me.
You see, you don’t go and just immediately tell people these things; you tell people about the beauty behind what actually goes on in the program. That’s the burden sometimes. You tell people about all the trees and native plants you planted. All the volunteering you’ve done and community outreach you’ve accomplished. You tell people about the smiles on people’s faces when they see you in a uniform helping their community. Ideally, that’s what a leader should do. Be honest, but don’t go throwing negativity around in the world because you’re bitter. I remember all the times I had been given written disciplinary actions, verbal warnings, and felt like I had been treated like a child. I had experienced drama on multitudes of levels, including losing family members in more ways than one. I struggled with having a lack of personal time, and time to relax. I remember going from, “This is nothing.” to “Wow, this is pretty intense, running a weed whacker next to a highway for eight days straight during the Summer.” to “I just gotta make it a few more months.”, all in a matter of my first six months in the program. Several times during my overall time in the California Conservation Corps, I asked myself, “Was it worth it?” Undoubtedly, I say yes. I have cried, sweat, sweat, sweat, breathed exasperatedly, lost my temper, gone crazy several times, and questioned my limit at every turn in the trail, and yes, it was worth it; because the trail continues.
I found myself often encouraging others to take on opportunities, even at times when I’d like to be the one pursuing those paths myself. It was the ability to be in a position where your encouraging voice carried an extra amount of weight to it, that drew me to continuing to stick it out, especially when I didn’t think I could anymore. It made me think about the people that influenced me, for both their extraordinary and difficult characteristics. It begs the question, “How would you like someone to be, if they were in the position you’re in now?” From there, that’s all on you, and I love that. It’s an enjoyable feeling to lend out a hand to someone, both physically and figuratively. I’ve often encouraged people to take on difficult tasks, just because I wanted them to experience something that I have done, and be a helping hand for them in case they have trouble finding their way. I’ve found one person for every dozen who are angry and bitter from their time both during and after the CCC. It’s not that the program is terrible, it’s that people are so accustomed to their own cultures, that either together, people shift the culture of the CCC in a positive way, or they let their ways of doing things that they attempted to escape in the first place, continue to bring them down. People join with the goal of changing themselves sometimes, and sometimes it felt like one out of twelve people are truly committed to doing that; one out of twelve seem like they’re ready for the “Change, change, change”. It’s that one person that you stay positive for, and the eleven you stay hopeful. You say, ‘what if they are inspired to follow the right trail for their lives in some way?’ ‘What if my negativity prevents people from seeing the true potential that exists in the world?’ Nobody ever should ask you to be the most positive person in the world, but nobody should also have to ask you to not bring down another person’s spirits or potential.
In the first couple weeks in my time in the Corps, I found myself in the wrong conversation at the wrong time. I had a lot of motivation, self-consciousness, and anxiety when I had joined. I took it out on an individual during one of my first projects, a fuel reduction project, where we were limbing up trees and carrying brush far from a neighborhood and road in case a wildland fire started up nearby during the Summer. At one point, during the heat of the moment, I stopped carrying brush and approached a person on my crew that had been distant, to herself, and not been working effectively in my eyes. After confronting her, I soon realized that not only should I have not had done that, but that this person had recently lost two of her family members within a span of a month, and after having had moved from across the state not even four months prior. It had taken a couple months to backtrack and patch up a work relationship that hadn’t been established in the first place. We had no idea it’d be a bummer to never see each other again after she’d go back home to LA.
I am summarizing these events and condensing them, but hopefully not removing the meaning behind these stories. I had thought of creating some sort of, “How to be a Corpsmember Manual” at some point, but this made more sense for me, and the former idea portrays more of an ego than this already may imply. This is simply an entry into my mind from my experiences, but it is my hope that many entries will be added, and that this idea continues until we decide as a world that we have learned enough about what there is to learn about. Which is never. We should never decide that.
After spending a couple months away from the program now, and while back in school, (specifically my World Religions class) I’m able to dissect my personal philosophies that I had developed in a leadership position while in the CCC. The first philosophy I pointed to was what I grew to learn and adapt to my own beliefs, and I initially gained it from my supervisor. ‘You can do more for yourself, by doing more for others.’ That’s a very Eastern meets Western philosophical idea. You essentially promote others to want to do things for each other by telling them that they have something to gain from it, and in our U.S. capitalistically driven society, you need to worry about yourself foremost. But, what if you could do things for yourself, the people around you, your community, and the environment all in one? And that’s how I began to envision the big picture of the California Conservation Corps.
My leadership was very much an approach to Taoism as well. I believed in making my crew both independently strong as well as strong in unity. I wanted my crew to be more effective without my presence being as a leader, so in essence, we were all our own leaders. When my supervisor told me while I was in backcountry, that the crew was doing better and hitting new highs since I had been gone, I said, “Good. That was the goal.”
I also felt both a Christian and Primal form of spiritualism in my vision for my role in the program. I believed that as conscious beings, we have a moral obligation to restore the environment as stewards of this world and undo the wrongs committed by past human interactions. We are all intertwined from the quantum level, to our cells, each other, the trees around us, all the way to the currently indescribable mechanics on a cosmic scale. We are all unified as living breathing entities; even our earth and the universe itself is “breathing” So we must treat all things as we would like to be treated ourselves, when in reality, there is no real “Self”. That selfishly places us separate from the rest of the living breathing entities out there. And if we separate ourselves, we should at least do so by generously giving back to the interconnected web in which we all rest upon. That’s where the “And More” comes from you, and it’s how you truly get back, what you put in. That’s the program to me.