I pick myself up from the ground for the fourth time today, emerging from the dense underbrush, the ensnaring weeds, and fir branches. I take a moment to orient myself among the sea of foliage. My assistant crew leader, Henry, is just a few feet ahead of me, weaving through the brush with much more elegance and athleticism. We’re out here in the middle of the Payette National Forest collecting data on tree species for the Forest Service Fuels department, but right now I can hardly discern anything in this jungle, apart from the Doug Fir currently clattering against my hard hat.
I keep following Henry, careful with my footing. I’m using him as my teacher, watching where he places his feet, what he leverages himself against to mount the steeper inclines, and what jutting roots he uses to pull himself up with, all while navigating with the map on our tablet. “We’re halfway through the unit,” he says. Just keep wading through, I repeat to myself.
At times like these where I can hardly see ten feet in front of me, I wonder why I chose to give up the comforts of home and of city life. I think about being spread out along my couch, not soaked with dew, not mud-covered from the third time I slipped. I might even doubt the work we are doing, confused by its importance or wondering how much it matters, how much it even means for me to be logging this data. My feet scuff. I stumble slightly. I take a moment to catch my breath and watch Henry start to pull away from me, all until he notices my lack of motion and glances over his shoulder.
Fifteen minutes later, the brush thins. Every tree is more visible, these trees I now know by heart. I can finally walk without getting tangled in roots or plant stems, and I can see sunlight bleeding through the gaps in the canopy. A breath of fresh air. We emerge at a higher elevation, a height I might not have even noticed we climbed, and there’s some Southerly, rocky meadow teaming with white wildflowers. We step out into the clearing and pause there. We can see the forest for miles, the cascading hills backed by the bluest afternoon sky, the smattering of cottony clouds, and the other flowery ridgetops all along the valley. My mind clears with the foliage. I know the reason I’m out here. I realize the importance of the work we're doing. I can start to imagine what the healthy Payette will look like once these units have been thinned, and I understand why the data we’re collecting will help accomplish that. Most of all, I understand the craving for these quiet moments between the brush, for every ridgetop, and every clearing.
I am ready to dive back into the forest, excited for the next.