Rebekah Bloyd: A Tree Army

With unemployment rivaling Great Depression levels, some have suggested reinventing the Civilian Conservation Corps to create jobs and protect public lands. Rebekah Bloyd's family made good use of the program in hard times.

When I hear calls for a new “Tree Army,” a 21st-century version of the Civilian Conservation Corps, my Uncle Kenny comes to mind.

As part of the CCC, Kenny cleared underbrush in Wisconsin forests, dug roads on Orcas Island, Washington. He was 18, and, like most of the nation in 1935, down on his luck.

In between his two CCC enlistment periods, he was back with his brothers and parents, tending charcoal kilns and cutting cordwood near Houston, Texas, to survive another year of the Great Depression. My father, at 13, learned firsthand about physical toil, meager earnings — and the surprises of environment — that helped to sustain the family. Like Kenny, he never forgot the “elegant fragrance” of yellow jasmine that permeated the forest in springtime, the armadillo meat and dewberries that broke the monotony of their diet.

Later on, Kenny picked fruit in California as a transient farm hand; served in World War II; worked in the factories of his home state of Illinois.

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Writing of the 1930s, he recalls not only the tiring physical labor for so many folks around the country — but also the rewards of the shared experience. Listening to country music sung to guitars and mandolins, evenings in the “Hoovervilles” — shanty towns built by the homeless. Enjoying with camp mates some Gipps beers that rolled free when a truck veered into a culvert off Route 66. Hitching to town for a movie after building up roads under the hot sun, in his final posting to Camp Hinsdale near Chicago.

“The time was well spent,” Kenny wrote. “In Depression years jobs were extremely scarce.” Unexpected pleasures were intensified, human connections, too. Today, employing a range of people, our new “Tree Army” could renew public lands — and ease, in part, our human suffering.

With a Perspective, I'm Rebekah Bloyd.

Rebekah Bloyd teaches writing and ecological practices at California College of the Arts.