Challenge by choice

By: Lauren Waldrip

Pictured: Hiking amidst the pines affected by the 2011 Bastrop Wildfire March 2016 | Bastrop State Park, Bastrop, TX

Pictured: Hiking amidst the pines affected by the 2011 Bastrop Wildfire

March 2016 | Bastrop State Park, Bastrop, TX

My name is Lauren. I am a member of the Bridges Crew in the Youth Outdoors program, and I’m from San Antonio, Texas.

The Sunday before I left Texas it was over 80° F, and I was enjoying a nap by the pool. One week and 1,250 miles later, my boyfriend and I were walking our dog, Cash, through a snowy park in Saint Paul.

I can’t tell you how many frozen puddles I gleefully stomped on my first week in Minnesota, but I can tell you it was all of them.

I decided to join Conservation Corps primarily to gain hands-on experience in conservation work.

In 2014, I graduated from The University of Texas at San Antonio with a BA in Anthropology and a minor in Biology. Like most people, I bounced around a bit but broadly I was interested in behavioral ecology and human dimensions of conservation. I knew I eventually wanted to go on to graduate school, but I thought I should take some time to decide what exactly it was that I wanted to do in the future.

I was also searching for an opportunity where I could try a variety of projects and practice new skills.

Like blogging!

By mid-March, the Youth Outdoors 2017 crew had already

  • undergone an intro to The Art of Chainsawing,
  • practiced our skills at identifying native plants and trees,
  • completed certification in First Aid and Mental Health First Aid,
  • become licensed Pesticide Applicators,
  • practiced Youth Development curricula,
  • and engaged in a week-long Wildland Fire Training assembly at Camp Ripley.

So, when the opportunity to blog for Conservation Corps presented itself (thanks Bailey!), I thought,

Hey, I like to write. I should try this!

It will be something fun and new, and allow me to work on my writing skills.

My goal for myself this term- what I hope to achieve through this experience- is to get out of my comfort zone.

Pictured: Youth Outdoors Hooligans engaging in the brutal sport of Ninja March 2017 | Saint Paul, MN

Pictured: Youth Outdoors Hooligans engaging in the brutal sport of Ninja

March 2017 | Saint Paul, MN

Here is where I’m going to introduce the mantra of Youth Outdoors:


“Choose your challenge”

“Find your level of optimal anxiety”

Technically, this is a job-training program, and, for most, it’s a way to find out if a career in Natural Resources is the right choice for them.

Yes, definitely- I undoubtedly relate to that. Surely there must have been some greater motivation for my decision to move across the country other than ‘profession-experimenting’. After all, I hadn’t willingly left the city where I was born before now.

My underlying driver for joining the Conservation Corps was the need to challenge myself. I want to do the things that I would normally say “no” to, to persevere through the things that I could easily excuse myself from. I have a tendency to let myself off the hook. As such, here’s another work-mantra, from a previous job, that still manages to haunt me:

 If you want to do something you’ll find a way, and if you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.

*Shakes fist at sky* Curse you, Dylan Patten!

One of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered so far has been learning to use a chainsaw.

Don’t get me wrong, actually using a chainsaw is great. It’s mentally and physically exhilarating. Learning, however, is a true test of character.

Our chainsaw-days became an excellent source for funny stories during my Skype dates with the bestie. From finding the scrench* you never realized you lost, to sacrificing your saw to the laws of physics (also known as ‘pinching your saw’), there has never been a shortage of learning experiences.

* SCRENCH /sk- ren(t)SH/ (noun)  

1.     A tool, used for the maintenance of chainsaws, that combines two wrench sockets and a screwdriver.

I wanted to challenge myself, and sure enough, I got what I asked for.

My favorite part of Conservation Corps has been the people I’ve met.

This sounds like such a cliché. And saying that also sounds cliché…CLICHÉCEPTION.

But really, I feel so grateful for the people I spend my work-days with. There is a great variety of personalities, backgrounds, and interests. Some days I get to spend entirely with my Bridges crew, learning more about one another as we complete our work. On occasion, we are joined by other crews and sharing their company is really uplifting.

Additionally, a perk to being a part of the Youth Outdoors program is that we spend several days a week in ‘co-lead pairs’ with a crew of 6-8 youth members. Youth crew members are high-school students who work with us outside of school-hours to gain work experience and learn more about natural resource work. This part of the job is particularly great because youth members have a totally fresh perspective. I get a ton of great questions from my crew that remind me of the importance of work that we do, and these days always end up being incredibly fun and engaging.

Pictured: The El Rio Youth Crew after a field day spent clipping Corydalis incisa April 15, 2017 | Como Park, Saint Paul, MN

Pictured: The El Rio Youth Crew after a field day spent clipping Corydalis incisa

April 15, 2017 | Como Park, Saint Paul, MN

 So, what’s to come over the next eight months of my term?

Right now, my crew is working on an invasive species removal and habitat restoration project at Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Eagan, MN. This is a continuation of the work completed by the Bridges Crew last fall. We’re cutting down and treating Common Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) with herbicide in order to restore the area to the Oak Savanna habitat that existed before humans modified the area for ranching and farming.

Following the end of this project and the end of our Spring term with our Youth Crews, we will be moving into the “Bridges” component of our year. This is a summer program aimed at teens interested in a future career in the environmental field. Over the summer, we will participate in a variety of experiences meant to expose members to different career opportunities and help them form meaningful, professional connections. This program ends with an immersive three-week camping trip to Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota. Check out more on Bridges here!

Beyond Bridges, our 4-person crew will meet our final group of Youth Crew members in the fall of 2017. We will continue working on important natural resource projects in the Twin-cities and Dakota County area until the term comes to a close in December.

And after that? Well… let’s save that for another post.

Finding balance

By: Kristina Luotto

Prior to my time with Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa, I found myself regularly overwhelmed by all the readily accessible information I was confronted with daily. Computer screens and cell phones were at every turn. Billboards and radio advertisements loudly announced what I was supposedly lacking. News cycles changed hourly. All of my questions could be readily answered by Google, just a few finger taps away.

I am grateful to be starting my second year of service with the Corps because it allows me to find balance in this fast-paced world. I have found that working outdoors provides a new perspective. Now, the friendly chatter of crew mates and the hum of chainsaws are at every turn. Flowers bloom and birds call, loudly announcing the return of spring. Prescribed fire runs across the prairie hourly. All of our hard work today will pay off over the course of years.

Spending my 40+ hour work weeks outdoors allows for me to strike a balance. By focusing on the task at hand, whether it be chain sawing, controlling prescribed fire, or planting trees, I am able to set the drama of news cycles and social media aside. With Conservation Corps, I am able to focus my energy into our projects, instead of feelings of worry and dread. Seeing projects in various phases this year and last, I am reminded that change is a process and takes lots of hard work and time.

My crew has been working on restoring old farm fields to prairie. We use chainsaws to remove invasive trees and shrubs and prescribed fire to promote native grasses. This work is important, yet will take many years to complete. The hard work of my crew today will contribute to the success of the project and focusing on our daily role helps make the project manageable. I am gratified instead of overwhelmed. Working on prairie restoration projects has also taught me that gratification is not always instant. While doing the same work several days in a row can become monotonous, I am reassured that my time and energy is spent for good reason and is all part of a process. I have become more aware and appreciative of the small changes, like rare prairie plants blooming after a prescribed burn. 

I went in to the Corps thinking I would fight to save natural spaces, but natural spaces have also worked on me, shifting my perspective. I look forward to my daily dose of dirty boots and sweaty gloves. My hands are becoming calloused, my forearms tanned, and my muscles made strong by working on the land. The work is not always glamourous, but worthwhile and welcomed. I am grateful to see the work of my crew contribute to the slow transformation of the natural spaces around me. 

Every day, when I see the sunrise through the dew, spring buds unfurling, and saw dust collecting at my feet, I continue my unlearning of all that is assumed in mainstream culture. Instead of feeling perpetually two steps behind, I can trust my two feet standing firmly beneath me, grounding me. I know I have the strength to tackle the challenges of the day, both big and small. 

Lunch Break

By: Alaine Dickman

Lunch break 4/3/17: Fresh homemade salsa, organic blue corn chips, homemade linen napkin

Lunch break 4/3/17: Fresh homemade salsa, organic blue corn chips, homemade linen napkin

Intro: The opportunity to blog for work or a dedicated cause has not been presented to me in jobs I've had prior to Conservation Corps and delightfully this was an easy idea to act on... initially. 

But one thing I perceive to be awkward about blogs or journals is using "I". 

I don't enjoy sharing sacred thoughts or feelings, and opinions are filtered. I'd rather not do "me talk". But, hello. Here I am, feeling enabled and aiming to feel liberated, to be communicative, to live on the raw side.

My less conventional updates will be shared twice a month, for better or worse.

3 cups of oatmeal

2 cups of blueberries

7-8 bananas, ripeness not guaranteed

3 tablespoons of chia seeds

2 cartons of strawberries

4 hard boiled eggs

4 homemade bran muffins

3 apples

2 kiwi

7 clementines

1 avocado

2 cups of cottage cheese

8 carrots

5 protein shakes

1 chicken thigh

1 chicken leg

1 peanut butter and jelly sandwich

1 bunch of kale

1 bunch of spinach

2 cups of quinoa

2 cups of farro

2 cups of black beans

1.5 cups of walnuts

1 tablespoon of cinnamon

Several palms full of fresh and dried herbs

Salt and pepper to taste

1 small, crucial bag of harvest cheddar sun chips

That just about describes the sum of what I consume in a work week with the Corps. The routine is sinking in and settling with it is something new and foreign, to me: Peace.

In 2010 I was hired for my first job and first customer service position since leaving my hometown for college in 2009. The arrangement was made by a friend of my boyfriend at that time, managing the store, needing an extra body to throw scents and textures at shoppers during the Holiday season at Lush Handmade Cosmetics in Macy's at the Southdale Mall. My hours were short and I wasn't concerned with going hungry; I adapted to a skeleton diet during my first year as a poor college student.

College diet... Rice and beans, potatoes, bread, apples and bananas. Soups and deli salads from the Macy's Market Deli on the lowest level. Coffee and tea and cereal.

My temporary position at Lush expired the following February and I moved in as a crew member at Chipotle across the street from the mall. Leaps and bounds, I know. But I learn quickly, I work hard and I usually find myself fitting nicely into my pursuits, grand or insignificant. A one-and-a-half-hour commute on two buses from Downtown St. Paul to the Mall of America to the York Ave Chipotle, boarding at 5:30 AM to make my 7:00 AM shift, into three hurried hours of prep. (Some of my fellow crew members at that time surely believed I took too seriously to that job; my station was complete when set with a timer while I peeled, washed and chopped five pound bags of purple onions. I needed to know I was moving forward.) The team took a break 30 minutes before open with first dibs to the entire menu. Chipotle burritos and bowls moved in as a second breakfast, and chips starred as my insatiable, snacky companion throughout the day.

Chipotle burritos. bowls, salads and chips. fountain soda, apples and bananas, Caribou coffee, Caribou sweet breads and scones, pasta, cereal and granola bars.

Apple Inc., more customer service, succeeded Chipotle. (Phew!) Two weeks of training and onto the floor. Apart from customers assuming upon entering the store that all employees are happy, robotic geniuses, this job is the most normal job I have had. Six to eight hour shifts, regular and appropriate breaks, in a break room. But I was back in a mall. And I rarely packed a lunch. The Macy's deli was reintroduced to my wallet, Caribou was as well, and occasionally I'd eat a fat slice of pizza or just make my dining decision based on the size of the lines in the food court. (I once had a margarita on my lunch break, too...) At home I was cooking more but only on my days off. Summer weekend mornings I woke with a splash of water on my face, slipped into my beloved chacos and wandered freely to the farmer's market. I marched home weighed down by greens and veggies, enough to feed four and at least one succulent plant from my favorite vendor whose wide brimmed hat is decorated with a feather longer than my arm.

MALL FOOD, Caribou, apples and bananas, pasta, homemade pizza, salad, roasted veggies, margaritas, cereal, homemade guacamole and pico de gallo. And, MALL FOOD.

I made my way back to restaurants after Apple. The Buttered Tin opened its doors for the first time in June 2013 two blocks away from my apartment and I needed to be a part of it. I became the Tin's first hostess and not two years later I was managing the restaurant-bakery. I ate and drank The Buttered Tin for 3 years.

The Buttered Tin menu, all that is savory and sweet.

The following gig, another management position, with Brasa Premium Rotisserie...

Rotisserie chicken, chips and guacamole, too much beer.

I'll assume I did not breeze through those two job descriptions too quickly, though to be certain they're covered: Approximately 12 hour shifts, little to no breaks, eat and drink the stress away, away, awaaayyyy.

Reassuring myself that I am moving forward and climbing in life is becoming... well, we've all seen a turtle stuck on its back. Though I fight it I am not immune to measuring and criticizing myself based on my peers' possessions and pictures painted on social media, style of clothes, shoes, hair and makeup, dieting and the quest for the sickest beach bod... vacations or just eating out and enjoying $10 cocktails casually several nights a week. Working in customer service or hospitality strengthens those pressures and will hold you down even before you're completely in the door. You might experience with more intensity that your book is being judged by its cover (nor am I immune to clichés), and shape, and how often it smiles. You might experience stress manifesting in foreign ways and lifting one, maybe four pints of beer to your face the second the minute hand hits the hour. You might make it home after 14 hours, too exhausted for anything but brushing your teeth, setting your alarm and pulling the sheets over your face, because you can't figure out why you care so much about something that maybe shouldn't matter at all.

I am creeping up on two months in with the Corps. The hours are not particularly shorter. I get home after 12 hours still, around 6:10 PM worn with achy feet and cranky knees. But I head straight to the kitchen to clean out my lunch bag, fling it in the freezer and begin making my breakfast for the morning and my lunch for the next day, with ease. Eye lids are heavy but the exhaustion is satisfying and resentment is absent.


       1. freedom from disturbance; quiet and tranquility.

It is during the making of my meals that I most spend time in reflection, in a clean kitchen with a mind full of fresh information, a refrigerator of fresh ingredients, burners on, herbs sprinkling the counter tops: What skills I have picked up as a trainee, student or resource; how my crew interacts while working, solving problems, during coffee breaks and at departure each day; What I did for the world and my immediate community and what I'll do again tomorrow. The word "purpose" comes to mind carried by optimism rather than doubt.

That toxic environment I described earlier is no longer in command or feeding lies or guiding poor decisions. It would take quite some time to describe in full the change I have and am experiencing but I have decided that finally it is a step forward and up (despite what my bank account has reflected as of late)...

And this first post, this public exposure, is my reminder to feast myself on peaceful thoughts and stimulating purpose while I am in my kitchen, peacefully preparing the healthiest of feasts I have fed myself yet.