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Why I joined Conservation Corps MN & IA

Three people at waters edge.

By RJ Ruotolo, Ozark Field Crew Member/ AmeriCorps Member

This time last year, I was working from home. My job was to put words in a text box to be posted to an Entertainment website. While many people would’ve loved that job, I dreaded waking up to a screen glaring at me for eight hours a day. It wasn’t what I wanted from my language-based degree. I thought I would be saving the world, writing about politics or the environment, definitely not stories about celebrities and reality TV while alone in my bedroom. A quiet voice drowning in a sea of internet screams.

Three people at waters edge.
From left to right: RJ, Anna, and Josh at Big Spring in the Ozark National Scenic Riverway.

When I got the chance to work outside, it changed my trajectory—I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life. That’s when I found Conservation Corps MN & IA. They offered a year-long term based in the Ozark National Scenic Riverway, and the crew would travel to National Parks for half the year and stay in the Ozarks for the rest working mostly with invasive plant removal. It was a chance I couldn’t miss; I packed up my car and drove 14 hours from Richmond, Virginia to Eminence, Missouri to start my new term.

A butterfly on a bush
A Pipevine Swallowtail pollinating an invasive Autumn Olive shrub

The first thing that struck me was how different Missouri is from Virginia. The town of Eminence boasts a population of a mere 600. My hometown has 120 times that. At first, I found it a bit lonely. It was almost like waking up to a screen again, except this time, I didn’t hear the traffic and sirens and people’s shouts outside my bedroom window but the caw of the Barred Owls, croaking of mating toads, and whispering winds tuning the leaves of the trees. I was instead a piece of something bigger, a small person in a large forest.

While I sometimes tear up at the sight of the budding Oak leaves, the bright red of Fire Pinks, and the rare Spotted Salamander resting underneath a rotting log, nothing compares to the sense of community when working with my wonderful crew. Anna, my crew lead, and Josh, my fellow crew member, are two people I wouldn’t have met if not for this, and I would be worse for it. The way they see the world is so unique, and I love that I get to see how they do. Maybe Josh’s eyes wouldn’t well experiencing the upcoming Spring, but we would laugh together at Anna’s antics (or at her expense). And while I see nature as a miraculous coincidence, Anna sees it as a gift, and it makes me appreciate being outside with her more.

A turtle being held by someone.
An Ornate Box Turtle that attempted to cross the road—Anna safely moved it.

This work is nothing like what I was doing a year ago, and absolutely not what I pictured while studying English in school. I have cuts running up and down my arms and legs from Multiflora Rose thorns, aching forearms from carrying a chainsaw through the woods, and insect bites that I can’t help but itch, but still I wake up every morning, excited to step outside with my crew.