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Picks, Pulaskis, and Poems

by Lowell J.

It’s my job to hike into the wild, track down a trail crew, sit with them in the middle of their workday . . . and read them a poem. A poem? Indeed. What good might that do?

Montana Conservation Corps enlists crews of hearty twenty-somethings who swing picks and pulaskis in the backcountry, rain or shine, eight hours or better per day, in the name of community service. During long periods of isolation and hard work, it’s difficult to keep in mind the larger meaning of “community” and “service” when your back aches and swarms of black flies are feasting on your sweaty earlobes. It’s a good idea to take a break, chew a handful of raisins, pause and reflect. It’s a perfect time for a poem.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” I read to a crew cutting new trails. A coalition of conservationists had worked hard to secure access to these lands from timber companies, the National Forest Service, and private owners. Not everyone wanted shared access; nearby landowners had been sabotaging trail and posting no-trespass warnings.

“What is it that doesn’t love a wall?” one of the crew asked. “What does Robert Frost mean?” Someone mentioned the Berlin Wall and a popular song celebrating its fall. Someone else said he was curious when he faced a wall to know what was on the other side. Then one of us talked about invisible walls between strangers, how good it felt to surmount those walls and get to know someone better. Most agreed; walls between strangers should come down. Others weren’t so sure; they valued privacy, anonymity, a room of one’s own where they were happy at times to close the door, shut the world out.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” I repeated. But that’s not always true, said a young man who had been silent. The U.S. and Canada are good neighbors—without a fence. He went on: wasn’t his crew tearing down walls, crossing boundaries between private and public land, linking people for the greater good of getting along and sharing the splendors of these forests? This thought brought a long silence.

“Why,” said a new voice, “do people want a wall between the U.S. and Mexico?” Another long silence. As discussion leader, I knew the group had glimpsed the depths of this issue; I’d best keep quiet, let them find their own thoughts.

“Fear,” someone answered. “of losing what they’ve got for themselves.” “Change,” someone else said. “Change is hard.”

“And inevitable,” said another.

“Frost says his neighbor who advocates good fences is like an ‘old stone savage armed/ moving in darkness,’” I added.

“Sounds like the people who don’t want this trail built,” said a crew member. She added, “Maybe if I owned land near here and liked peace and quiet, I’d be afraid of change. I’d be afraid of a lot of people making a lot of noise and littering and tearing the place up.” Ah, the enemy had become one of us, no longer a faceless, malevolent abstraction. Opening this space to many could spoil it for those living nearby. And now we talked about practicalities of managing the trail. Should horses be allowed? Dirt bikes? Snowmobiles? Would crews be needed to police the trail, prevent vandalism, pick up trash? Who would lead? Who would decide?

“Now we’re back to tearing down walls,” a young man said, “we’re tearing down walls between us and our opposition.” He went on, “That’s the real challenge here; how do we live together? How do we respect each other’s differences?”

I’ve summarized our discussion more neatly than it happened, but the gist of it is what I hope to show. Like any good humanities discussion, we raised more questions than we answered. We concluded nothing, though each of us left with a wider understanding of complexities. Poetry made it possible.

The Meaning of Service (MoS) is a national reading and discussion program for service volunteers featuring discussions that use short philosophical and literary texts on the nature of justice, service, and related themes.

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