This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Muddy and fulfilled

The day I came home smelling like fish guts was one of the grosser days during my time as a Washington Conservation Corps crew member. That day, my restoration crew was getting ready to plant trees and shrubs along a creek inlet to enhance the channel for salmon migration. Part of this meant wading into said inlet dotted with spawned, decomposing pink salmon carcasses to retrieve willow branches to plant. Every time I heaved a pile of willows onto my shoulder, a thick string of fish goo smeared across my sweatshirt and pants and I had to concentrate on not gagging.

Fun stuff, eh? It is, actually. My restoration crew works in riparian areas in King County, Wash., primarily to create and enhance salmon habitat. We work 10-hour days, four days a week in rain or shine, identifying and planting native plants, mulching them, and then coming back to free them from encroaching invasive species.

I’ve learned a lot about both riparian ecology and myself in both my first year as a crew member, and now in my second year as an assistant supervisor on my crew.

For one, nature teaches constantly, if you pay attention.

I see symbolism everywhere during my workdays outdoors. I’ve found myself especially drawn to rocks, which dot stream-side banks and riverbeds that we plant alongside. I’m mesmerized by their contours, their colors, both subtle and brilliant, their differing sizes and their rugged submersion in the earth. During breaks I’ll shuffle my feet along the riverbank, rolling the rocks and stones over with my boot so I can see their full shape.

Rocks make me feel both significant and gloriously small. I see my own stories in rocks’ multiple shades of white, green, grey and gold. I see my own triumphs and failures in their colorful bands, indentations, divots and chipped edges. Tiny pieces of shell or pebble molded into the rock I roll between my fingers illustrate to me that my stories matter, and are a permanent part of who I am — and yet, they don’t define me. (And rocks are just one example — give me an hour and I could tell you about the metaphors in grubbing out invasive blackberry roots or in the saltwater emergent species that crave the push and pull of the tide.)

Laborious work can be empowering.

I’m talking about physical strain here. Tasks that aren’t necessarily enjoyable or glamorous are part of our job, like carrying heavy buckets of mulch 300 feet through the mud to dump around a plant, and doing it for hours on end. As someone who entered the job with little upper body strength, I was surprised both by how quickly I got stronger, and how empowered I felt by this. It feels satisfying to see a task through, and come home sore in places I didn’t even realize I had muscle. Multiple times a week I feel grateful for a healthy body that allows me to do strenuous, repetitive tasks and I’ve come to realize this has had a positive effect on my body image. I feel more connected to my body than I ever have in my life; I notice how different foods affect my energy levels, and I feel more spiritually grounded with this connection and awareness.

In my current role as a crew assistant supervisor, I’ve also become more vocal in encouraging fellow women crewmates in tasks stereotypically deemed as male. I’ve been privileged to work alongside supervisors who don’t assign lifting tasks to male crew members only, and I’ve been impressed again and again by the physical strength of my female coworkers and supervisors.

There’s beauty in un-groomed wilderness.

I’m a destination hiker, often choosing trails that lead to an alpine lake or a summit. But my job with WCC takes me to places I never would have wandered, to the seemingly dull pockets of land behind agricultural fields, or the middle of dense thickets of forest beside a meandering river. These places aren’t a classic image of beauty — they wouldn’t appear on a Northwest Landscapes calendar, or draw visitors wanting to kick back and relax. But these places are so real — piles of soggy grasses clinging to sapling trunks show the height of recent floods, and slender branches of a willow tree blocking my path show the resiliency of a tree knocked over, yet growing over and up to reach nourishing sunlight. I feel an intimacy with the natural world that comes with seeing it in its most brilliant and impressive landscape in addition to it’s every day reality, untamed, raw and rough. I see God in these places and feel they are as sacred as the alpine lakes and mountaintop summits.

As Michelle Voth wrote recently on the Femonite blog: “As I have come to see it, life is all about connection. Connection to ourselves, our community, our planet.”

In the midst of close encounters with salmon goo, I’ve developed connections this year — to myself, to the earth, to my body. I’m grateful for this.

Laura Schlabach is completing her second year with Washington Conservation Corps in Seattle. This first appeared on the Femonite.

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