Face the Camera

by Ana Maria Spagna on July 7, 2011

The film crew arrived the day after my partner, Laurie, was given the heads up, not a warning exactly, but a familiar blunt blow: her job might be on the chopping block. Nothing new. She’s heard it before, plenty of times, over her twenty-five-year career with the National Park Service. Such as it is. She used to work on trail crew; now she maintains a historic apple orchard, which means she works outside, physically, all the time. She’s no longer seasonal, not yet permanent, but a so-called “term” employee who gets some benefits but must reapply for her own job every four years and is, even at that four-year juncture, officially not supposed to be re-hired. Though she has been. Four times. All this to say her job security, like that of most people who work outside physically all the time, is complicated and tenuous, very nearly ridiculous, and most of the time, she doesn’t care.

“Career” as C.L. Rawlins used to say, “rhymes with beer out here.”

By contrast, the young and likeable leader of the film crew, a one-time seasonal in our little valley, had already secured a permanent job at headquarters — a windowless office building many hours from the actual park out along the I-5 corridor — and now he’d re-arrived with the mission of recruiting volunteers. His job was to make five-minute high-quality video clips, mini-PR films, complete with stunning scenery and inspirational stories about people who work outside.

Will you be in the orchard tomorrow?  he asked.

No, Laurie said. She wasn’t being surly. Just telling the truth. She’d planned to take the day off.

Then she went directly to the woman who has been helping her out this season to offer a little advice.

Just do your regular job, she said. Run the weedeater or the chainsaw. Make sure it’s dirty, loud and smelly.  Don’t do anything pastoral.

But the crew didn’t show up.

There are plenty of problems with the idea of PR in the parks. There’s little advantage for taxpayers in pumping up the base, so to speak, getting nature lovers even more psyched about nature, and frankly, little purpose in gaining new constituents. Enough people love the parks. They’re always high on those ever-dwindling lists of things people are glad to pay taxes for. So what’s the point? To get volunteers to come do work they’re not good at, projects that take many hours of planning time away from people who could actually do the work? Or, worse, to convince young people that volunteering can lead to a career working outside when real paid outside jobs are as endangered as salmon or wolves (and similarly romanticized, come to think of it). It’s complicated, yes, and ridiculous; it’s best not to think about it at all, to just work outside and play outside and drink beer outside and be grateful. But some days it’s harder to do than others.

The film crew showed up the next day.

Laurie didn’t run the weedeater or the chainsaw for the filmers.  She climbed into a nice pastoral apple tree while they asked questions about where she’s from — the suburbs — and how she got where she is — by doing labor for twenty-five years.

Then they asked her to say this: I work for the National Park Service.

Again, they said. With more enthusiasm.

I work for the National Park Service, she said.

One more time, they said. And this time, face the camera.

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Wet Wool: When I was a kid, my favorite play-pretend game was Lost on a Desert Island, and my adult home is not so different from my childhood fantasy. Except that it’s decidedly not a desert, tucked into the famously wet Cascades: mosses and lichens, conifers and hardwoods, salmon and eagles. Not the stuff of Robinson Crusoe, this. You’d freeze in Tarzan garb. It’s not really an island either, just a small valley separated from the outside world by steep jagged mountains, a whole lot of them, and long skinny lake, deep and cold and treacherously windy.

Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington. Her books include Potluck, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus and Now Go Home.

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