Saved by the Tree Army

by Mark Blackwell
drawing by Joe Lee

I once heard a feller say that, “music is the best argument for the existence of God” and I believe he may be right. Just the other evening I was out back of the house, which is to say, I was in the woods and I was treated to the finest opera ever composed. The stage was a rolling landscape of hundred-foot-tall oaks and poplar trees lit by a near-to-full moon ascending the neighboring ridge. The chorus was a complement of crickets, katydids and tree frogs. There were solos by a couple of whip-poor-wills, one owl sang a lonesome lament and the whole thing was rounded out by a crescendo of coyotes singing a soprano aria. It truly was a feast for the ears and not a rare event out here. But just three or four generations ago this crepuscular chorale was silent because there was no stage set—the trees were gone.

Eighty years ago the ridge I inhabit was described this way; “The slopes are seamed with ravines and present a meatless, barren backbone effect. In many places there is not a vestige of vegetation on the hillsides. It is non-productive soil in the main and several deserted cabins testify to the inability of the owners to dig a living out of the soil washed hillsides.” It wasn’t neglect or laziness on the part of the homesteaders up here. When I visit the old home sites the signs of love and concern are still evident in the carefully spaced maple and oak trees that flank the entrances. Stands of ornamental yuccas (where they came from and why are mysteries) and riots of daffodils escaped from their beds still blanket the door-yards of non-existent cabins. The homesteaders on my ridge were caught in a desperate cycle of dwindling crop yields and rising taxes.

The trees were cut to use for firewood and to sell as cross-ties and lumber. The income from them went to pay taxes on the land that was disappearing out from under the farmer as it eroded down the steep hills. It wasn’t greed or an absence of love or pride that caused the clear cutting of the forest and the resulting erosion; it was the confluence of hard times and bad luck that ravaged the ridge.

Times were already tough in 1900, Brown County had lost 581 folks in the previous ten years and the population sank to 9, 727 people, by 1930 conditions had gotten so bad that only 5,168 folks remained. There was no way to make a living on marginal hill farms and the natural resources of the forests had been harvested to near extinction. But, at the height of the Depression, good luck showed up in the form of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to reclaim and improve the land and put unemployed folks back to work.

In 1936 two federal programs came to Brown County, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It was the combination of these programs that rebuilt large portions of the natural landscape here. Abandoned farms and lands in the mostly western section of Brown County were taken over by the government and folks who owned and were still trying to scratch a living from played-out farms were compensated and relocated. It was these denuded, eroded, scabbed over properties that the WPA and the CCC reclaimed to become what is now Yellowwood Forest.

The WPA generally employed local folks, while the CCC recruited young men from all over the country, particularly focusing on the urban areas. Roosevelt understood that during the Depression, America had two major wasted resources. One was the land itself and the other was a large population of young men with no work to do. The solution to both problems appeared obvious to the President—recruit, train and organize these young men to go out and heal the land. And so the “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” was born.

But who were these guys?

There were 600,000 men enrolled in 2,650 camps across the U.S. by 1935. The average recruit was 18 1/2 years old, 5’8” tall, and weighed 130 to 140 pounds. A recruit generally had an eighth grade education but there was about a one-in-four chance that he would be illiterate. These young men would sign up for a minimum stint of six months and be assigned to a camp most likely outside of the recruit’s home state. The camps were organized on a loosely military basis. The early camps were outfitted with tents and cots. Recruits were issued uniforms and strict schedules wee adhered to. The work included, building roads, fire towers, dams, park shelters, clearing brush, digging ponds, filling in eroded gullies and planting trees.

What did a CCC man get for all of this? He got food (and it must have been pretty good because the men experienced a weight gain of 12 to 30 pounds), clothing (an ill-fitting uniform and boots), and shelter (a tent or cot in a barracks). He got training, job skills and a chance for more education. And he got $30 dollars a month, however, of that $30 dollars $25 was sent to his parents and family back home. I wonder if the men who reclaimed these forests got as much out of the experience as I have received from their labors.

So, now when I’m out in the woods at dusk and the opera is warming up for another performance I think about a man who would now be about 90 years old, a man who helped plant 2,000,000 trees. I think about all those young men of the CCC and I am thankful for their efforts in restoring the18,000 acres that re-set the stage for God’s opera here in Brown County.