Scabs mark legs and arms, the remnants of mosquito and fly bites, trips and falls; new, faint scars of thin twig and thorn scrapes start red, become faint; rough calluses on fingers still being formed by tools, on toes being formed by boots; poison ivy sores look like raised burn marks, weeping out potential infection; bruises in strange places and of varying shades of purple and mauve grow then recede…
Our skin is a mosaic of where we’ve been, what we’ve gone through. We’ve protected it with long pants and long sleeves, leather boots and leather gloves, thick layers of sunscreens and bug sprays, and that Student Conservation Association awareness that our safety is a priority. But, as no life is ever free from incident, neither is a week and a half out doing trail work.
First hitch it was the hangnails that I remember most. My new, fully leather pair of gloves had to be broken in. Digging my covered nails into the sand at Winthrop Beach to pull out the long rhizomes of the invasive plant called quack grass seemed to do the trick; the leather would push against the force of my fingers and leave me with stinging, miniscule strips of raw flesh. They became caked with dirt once we moved onto new trail at Breakheart Reservation digging out roots and rocks. The motion pushed my cuticles even more to the edge, something a manicurist would probably be pleased with. I was pleased with my missing cuticles, my awful hangnails because I was proud of this painful proof; the proof on my hands that I was doing something with them.
A less painful, more irritating sign of trail work began my second hitch somewhere between Cutler Park and Riverside Park and it has plagued me ever since: my first ever poison ivy rash. Either I’ve previously been immune or extremely lucky not to come across the dreaded plant in a way that caused the itchy, oozing rash. I mistakenly believed I was still immune to it when I didn’t develop a rash during hitch when at least three others did. When, on the very last day, a small strip of raised red flesh appeare I figured I had done a great job with Tecnu rinses to have earned only that small, non-itchy mark. But by the third hitch I had it up and down my right forearm, itching like crazy. Halfway through that hitch it spread to my stomach and right thigh despite never seeing it in any form atop a mountain on the Mahican-Mohawk Trail. Unwashed gear was the culprit. Now, as the last bit of poison ivy from yet another hitch clears up, I know that Tecnu is one’s friend and that this proof of trail work is not one I can say I’m proud of.
Battling swarms of mosquitos and flies have left my skin red with bumps and marked by restless fingernails alongside the rashes and the hangnails. Some seem to be invulnerable to sprays, many like to live next to your ear, antagonize you as you try to work while others just come out of nowhere and suck your blood, bite a bit of skin. They seem to do this particularly on work that requires less movement, such as the bridges I helped build in Harold Parker State Forest or the bog bridges in Hawley Bog. They remind me that we are big bags of flesh and liquid that small things just love to nip at and that we’re in their territory. But at least the number of tick bites has been minimal due to the mind-warping heat.
Besides the heat, it will be thorns that remind me of the hitch at Borderland State Park where we cleared growth from an historic rock wall and I managed to get the tips of four thorns in my fingers. Again one that was more a learning experience than a proud moment of hard work because I had my much thinner, much older gloves on and not my thick ones on. The thin scars on my arms may have been helped by a long sleeve too but there was the chance of getting snagged, of still getting scraped, and the temperature was too high to really consider that much fabric. Most of us chose cuts over heat exhaustion. As with many of our safety precautions, we had to weigh the pros and cons of each decision; sacrificing some skin protection in order to stay cool was one of those minor ones.
Blotchy skin from holding milled lumber is the most noticeable of many of my skin stories. Some of us don’t bruise, some of us bruise easily, and many of us will bruise if the heavy edge or mere weight of oak six by sixes is repeatedly rested or carried on the same body area; I fall into the last two categories. But the superficial bruising is worth it to slow down the erosion of the Hawley Bog trail and allow safe passage for hikers. And mixed in with the bruising is the deep muscle soreness that has been felt throughout the summer in many ways and indicates the potential for growth and increased strength.
I hope none of this sounds like I’m complaining or that the work we do is physically awful. I wasn’t expecting my skin to stay unblemished this summer- did I mention most of us have farmer tans or peeling skin from sunburns?- but neither was I expecting to take a twisted pride in the fact that it is blemished ,that even the poison ivy rashes and thorn pricks mean I was out there, outside, doing trail work. The sore muscles, the fatigue, the memories are proof internally and photographs show that work externally. But there is something about the skin- its uniqueness, its closeness, its outwardness- that tells the stories it wraps us in.
This work by Sarah Holmes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License