Archive for Photography

Dear Mr President

To the President of the United States, Donald Trump,

I understand that these words may never reach your eyes, but I feel that I need to share them with you and the world. Like many people, I did not vote for you. I did not want you to represent me, but the fact is that you are my president.

There are many things I wish I could say to you, but for now I will focus on a single issue.

After graduating from college in the spring of 2010, I joined the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) and served my nation through a program of national service. I entered into communities and helped to meet needs that were addressed. I was part of Class 17, based out of the Denver campus. For seventeen years before me, members of NCCC had ventured forth to serve communities in projects that focused on infrastructure improvement, environmental stewardship and conservation, energy conservation, urban and rural development, and disaster response.

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During that year, I served with teams that assisted the Huston Parks and Recreation with invasive species removal and linear forestry, helped to create a fire-wise community in Crown King, Arizona, and served alongside members of the Missouri Department of Conservation to remove invasive species, assist in prescribed fire operations, and maintain and improve hiking trails in various locations across the state. After the 2011 tornado outbreak that dropped hundreds of tornadoes across the South, I responded to the Good Friday Tornadoes that hit the communities surrounding St Louis. A month later, we responded to the EF-5 tornado that tore its way through Joplin, Missouri.

During my short time responding to the Joplin tornado, I was part of the team that helped to recruit and supervise more than 75,000 volunteers who contributed more than 579,000 hours of service. This operation, led by members of AmeriCorps who had pledged a year or more of service to their communities, helped to defray over $17.7 million in emergency match dollars owed by the City of Joplin to the federal government.

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A year after completing my term of service with NCCC, I returned to AmeriCorps after a year away to lead a team for the inaugural class of FEMA Corps. I became a Team Leader for an amazing group of young adults who stepped up to face the unknown that was a new program within AmeriCorps to serve alongside members of FEMA. We were tested by fire as I led my team to respond to Super-Storm Sandy after it hit the coasts of New Jersey and New York. My team served the residents of Rockaway and Far Rockaway in the New York City borough of Queens after the storm surge submerged most of the homes and businesses on the peninsula.

Over the following two years, I served alongside the AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT). It was there that I dived into the world of conservation as I assisted the USFS and the Missouri Department of Conservation in prescribed fire preparation and operations. I traveled up to Montana on several occasions to assist the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest with trail construction and maintenance, hazard tree removal, and firewood collection, as well as various other projects, including invasive species mitigation and site maintenance for several campgrounds.

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I responded alongside my teammates to numerous wildfires and prescribed burns, as well as the flooding in Detroit (11-13 August 2014). In my time with the ERT, my teammates responded to multiple tornadoes and floods that hit the Midwest.

A year and a half ago, I completed my fourth and final year of service through AmeriCorps. I joined the growing community of 800,000+ people who have served as members of AmeriCorps since its induction in 1994. I have seen lives changed because of this program; from the teammate who I have served beside and seen grow to become a leader and those who we have served in the field of disaster response, who needed assistance in their darkest hour.

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Recently, you released your proposed budget that would cut funding to the Corporation of National Service, effectively ending the AmeriCorps programs that serve the communities in which Americans breathe and live. Your budget would create a devastating hole in the lives of American citizens who currently have the opportunity to serve their nation and those who have been touched by the hands of service. It would devastate our nations ability to efficiently respond to disasters, both natural and that which is created by the hands of man. It would cripple my generations ability, and the generations that follow, to serve our nation, outside of wielding a weapon of war.

I have already contacted my representatives and made my voice heard, but I am now addressing my President, the man who was elected to serve this nation; If you cut funding to the Corporation of National Service and to AmeriCorps, you are putting our country at risk. Look at the research and see how effective these programs are before you cripple everything we stand for.

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As an American citizen, I am proud to have been a Corps Member and Team Leader with AmeriCorps. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to serve my nation, making it a stronger place to call home. I am honored to be a part of something bigger than myself.

I will leave you with the pledge that over a million members have sworn:

I will get things done for America –
to make our people safer, smarter and healthier.
I will bring Americans together to strengthen our communities.
Faced with apathy, I will take action.
Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground.
Faced with adversity, I will persevere.
I will carry this commitment with me this year and beyond.
I am an AmeriCorps member and I will get things done.

I hope that you read these words and listen to the voices of National Service as we make our voices heard; “Let Us Serve.”

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Sean Kerr
Corps Member Class 17, NCCC – Denver, CO
Team Leader Class 19, FEMA Corps – Vicksburg, MS
Corps Member and Second Year Member Class 20 and 21,
St Louis Emergency Response Team

Taking It All In

Last night, I went up to Greenville to watch the fireworks with a couple people from my community group and Church family. I also took up my camera to take some photos and video of the firework show.

As the night settled around us and the fireworks started to light up the sky, I couldn’t get my camera to work (in the dark, I kept hitting the wrong button to start the video). I took a couple photos, then took the tripod down, sat back and enjoyed the show.

One of the guys I was sitting with stated that the reason he stopped pursuing photography was because he had stopped taking everything in.

I’ve noticed that I do this more often. I take my camera places, but don’t take that many photos because I am too focused on enjoying what is around me. On life as it happens. On the people around me. On the adventures.

Viewing life through a lens limits your vision.

As a photographer, sometimes you have to put the camera down and live life to the fullest. Sometimes you have to relearn how to take in the world around you. Stop looking at the world like a thing to photograph, but as something to experience.

A photograph can capture an image every day. But vision is only one-fifth of how we take in the world. How can you capture the other four senses? Well, you can’t. Unless you take your viewer to that exact place in that exact moment in time to experience it with you.

Hmmm…. Sounds like you should always take someone on the adventure with you.

I’ve traveled a lot. And my camera has always been close at hand. But so many times I just stand there with my eyes closed in the attempt to catch the essence of the place, before trying to capture it in an image.

Sometimes I just don’t even think about the camera because the experience is just too amazing to take time away from the adventure to take a photograph what I am seeing. Sometimes I have made the choice not to take a photo, because I knew that I could not properly capture the emotions, the struggles, or the experience that I was part of.

I think every photographer should take time away from the camera to rediscover what it means to experience life. Spend time playing in the sand. Hike to a waterfall and bathe beneath the falls (or swim in the pools). Run down a trail or bike across the city. Breathe in the fresh mountain air.

Don’t get caught up about composing the perfect image. But learn how to make a photograph part of that experience.

And sometimes that means ignoring your camera.

When Superheroes Come to Life

There are two things I want to speak about. Two things that are opposites, but connected none the less.  Both have to do with ordinary people stepping up to do extraordinary things. The first is a reflection of what I saw this past weekend at SC Comicon (my first Con), while the second are some thoughts on how ordinary people can step up to change the world.

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I spent the past weekend up in Greenville reconnecting with old friends from college and hanging out with new friends I’ve met on this journey. I spent hours wandering through the aisles talking to vendors and artists. I saw heroes of all types.

We are captivated by the stories shared of men who rose above others through force and power. Those who can bend steel and wield the weapons of gods. We stand in awe of stories of warriors who rise again after each death, who wear suits of armor that give them the strength of a hundred men. The tales we know the worlds of Marvel and DC Comics through movies and images that occupy our culture, and those lesser known (but just as vibrant and beautiful) stories of Valiant Comics and those of lesser known origins.

These are the superheroes that rise above all men, and struggle with one it means to still be human. To live beyond their years and yet, still live. To find purpose.

I think we love comics because they reveal what we desire, to rise up and stand where so many have fallen. I believe that each of us want that opportunity to be something more than human.

We cannot all be immortal warriors. We cannot all have the power of flight. Or possess ancient powers that make us like gods. Or armor. Or skills in fighting. Or even the will to fight. But something we all are capable of is compassion.

When I started night shift, several people told me that I needed to have thick skin to survive. During a conversation several nights ago, someone reminded me of this again, stating that to work in this dispatch center. My comment caught them off guard when I simply asked: “Do you need thick skin because of the work we do or the people that we work with?”

It’s harsh to hear, but we, as a society, have an issue. It’s not something that people realize that they are doing, because we are so used to it. It’s an ugly word that everyone wants to deny. It’s bullying.

Picture this: You are sitting with some of your coworkers and somebody makes a mistake. You know it, they know it, everyone knows it. And somebody makes the snide comment; “They are so stupid!” And everyone laughs. And you feel uncomfortable.

Or picture this: One of your teammates makes fun of another member of the team because they are new. Or young. Or introverted. Or just quieter than everyone else.

The old saying goes “Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Unfortunately, this is an absolute and complete lie. Words create wounds that slice deeper than any any eye can see. They strike into our hearts and cut our souls, spreading darkness like an infection. Words kill dreams just as easily as they shed tears.

When we make fun of people, of our teammates, we hurt everyone. If we talk down to one another, then who do we turn to to build one another up? If I hear a teammate curse the mistakes of someone, I ask myself what they will say when I, the new person on the shift, make a mistake? How do I know that they are not talking about me when I leave the room?

Harsh words. Inappropriately joking about one another. Cursing ones mistakes. Talking about people behind their backs. This is the face of bullying.

I know what you are thinking: “What does this have to do with Comicon?”

Heroes are made when you make a choice
– Hero, by Superchick

Every single one of can make a choice to stand. We can sit there and say nothing. Do nothing. To remain silent. To take it. Or we can make a difference. We can be heroes.

We may not have the strength or the power to tear down the walls around us, but we can save a life nonetheless.

I think one of the things that draws us to superheroes is that many of them wear masks. They hide their real personalities beneath strips of cloth and panels that make up their masks. It is the shield that we do not have.

When we step up to be heroes, when we step up to save a life, everyone will know who we really are. And that is a beautiful thing.

::::Side Note: Go listen to Hero by Superchick, and you will realize how much you could change the world::::

What a Year!

It has been a long, exhausting journey these past twelve months. There has been extreme joys, beautiful memories, and a parting of friends to all the corners of the world. There have been the pain of growth and the love of family defined by the blood, sweat, and tears shed side by side with one another.

I look back and I smile because the memories are good. And as the year comes to a close, we reflect back at who we were and what we have become.

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The majority of my year was filled with the experiences of AmeriCorps. I finished my second year as a member of the AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT), which was my fourth and final year of service with AmeriCorps. One cannot put into words the happiness (and struggles) of running around in the woods with individuals that I have come to know as more than friends, but an extended family born out of hard work, laughter, and complete and utter silliness.

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I spent (what seemed like) months working alongside the Missouri Dept of Conservation at the Peck Ranch Wildlife Refuge, constructing fireline through the use of backpack blowers and through the process of felling snags and hazard trees.

It was hard work, but through the company of great people, we made it fun. We spent days running chainsaws, learning from experience, and growing together. Yes, I broke the plastic casing to a GoPro (the final tree in the video above) but it was awesome, none the less.

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I also spent a month (or more) down at Roaring River State Park restoring glades in the back hills of the park. My team had the opportunity to set fire to hundreds of burn piles that were created by others, even though we ended up chasing a couple run-away fires up the hillside. There is nothing better than hiking a mile and a half through the woods in 70 degree weather to burn a couple piles, only to return a week later through the snow and light off over 100 piles, all before lunch.

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I also discovered the different methods of lighting off burn piles. Most of the time, we were advised to keep the fires small and manageable, so the flames were no more than 6 feet tall. Other times the burn piles that we created were up to ten feet tall and lit off from a distance with old diesel fuel, allowing the flames to reach high into the sky. As seen in the photo above, we are standing about 30-40 feet away from the burn pile behind us and were still feeling the heat.

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The opportunity to serve in AmeriCorps is more than a journey of hard work and enjoyable experiences, it is a path of self-discovery. I got to have long conversations with my teammates about life, love, and our purpose in the world. We stayed up late into the evenings watching the setting sun as we learned about one another and ourselves. It is a safe place to express your thoughts without the fear of judgement, a place where you can grow through the thoughts of others and be a sounding board for others.

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As our year of service was coming to an end, I got the opportunity to depart Missouri and make my way up to Montana for several weeks before the rest of the Corps arrived for the end of year celebrations. The six of us piled into a single truck, packed to the brim with supplies and tools, and drove the three days into the mountain wilderness we called home. I worked and camped off the trail in a trailer with three other second years and two amazing ladies who were crazy enough to decide to return the following year to help teach and lead their teammates and assist the program to grow.

We did more than work and play together. We explored. We sang. We made crazy (and funny) videos. Lets just say that Montana was filled with great friendships that continue to grow, despite the distance that separates us now.

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One of our biggest projects in Montana is trail clearing and maintenance. Every year, hundreds of thousands of trees fall in the woods (even more due to the pine bore beetle). A fraction of those land on a trail at some point. We spent weeks hiking hundreds of miles as we cleared trails, including parts of the Continental Divide Trail.

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Many of the trails that we cleared headed right up into the mountains and ended up at beautiful views, glacial lakes, and mountain peaks. On good days, we would be able to spend a little bit of time at the top as we ate lunch (or a snack) and rested our feet before turning around and heading back down the mountain.

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I also received the opportunity to work alongside an amazing group of retired smoke jumpers and two other second year members who are some of my closest friends. We camped out at the cabin and assisted in rebuilding the fence that encircled the area to keep out stray animals and unwanted vehicles. We were basically the pack mules, hauling the logs and fallen trees in from the woods that were used for the jacks and rails.

These guys were awesome. We hung out after work listening to their stories and their adventures as some of the elite wildland  firefighters, and discussed how much has changed since the days they fought fire in the wilderness.

Since departing from AmeriCorps I have wandered far and wide. I spent several months in the process of searching for a job. I put in what seemed like hundreds of applications, from positions with the USFS, DNR, State Parks, and Dispatch positions from Alaska to Flordia, Hawaii to Maine, and everywhere in between. I had several places contact me back for interviews, before I eventually was offered a position with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office in South Carolina as a Telecommunication Operator.

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I started my new position the week after Thanksgiving, where I got to gather with some of my family in Athens with my grandparents.

Looking back, this year has been a blessing of hope and persistence. I continue to write and go through the process of editing Journeys: the adventures of a Nomad. I have started the Drawing Challenge with my cousin, a project to keep us both active in our sketchbooks. I have continued with the 52 Week Photo Challenge Course (this is the last week) and look forward to continuing with the Critique Group in the next year.

I will continue to explore. I will continue to have adventures. And I will continue to learn to live and love to the fullest.

Lessons Learned

This weekend is the 75th Anniversary Reunion of the Smokejumpers in Missoula, Montana. In 1940, the first individual jumped out of an airplane to combat a wildfire. Ever since that moment, young men (and now women) have followed suit to don the parachute and drop through the skies to fight fire. It is a history rich in stories, individuals, and friendship.

This past week, I headed down from Butte, MT to join members of the National Smokejumper Association (NSA), not to be confused with the other NSA, as they volunteered with the USFS outside Wisdom, MT. Myself and two other teammates joined five retired Smokejumpers at Hogan Cabin (just past Big Hole Battlefield) as they began work in the construction of a jackleg fence. Three other teammates headed over to Gordon Reese Cabin (on the Idaho border), where they joined another group of retired Smokejumpers who were cutting and splitting firewood for the winter.

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When I first heard of this project, a couple weeks before it actually happened, I came to the conclusion that this would be a challenging project; Smokejumpers are the elite wildland firefighters. They constantly push themselves, find challenging obstacles to overcome, and are complete bad-[edited]es.  I was expecting these muscular dudes who were stoked about wildfire, jumping out of airplanes, and still fought fires.

What I never expected was to work with a lawyer, a surgeon, a retired marine, and some of the most humble firefighters in the world. These men did not consider themselves heroes, but were at one time young men paying their way through school. Smokejumping back then was not a career, but a way to survive, to gain experiences, and to explore the world.

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We spent the first couple days dragging posts and rails out of the woods. These dead and live trees had been cut by these retired Smokejumpers to provide materials for the fence that we were scheduled to create. It was exhausting work, but we knew, and the guys we were working with constantly reminded us, that this project would have never gotten accomplished if we hadn’t been there for the “heavy lifting.”

Yes, a green tree 21 feet long, even when it is less than three inches in diameter and limbed accordingly, is still heavy. The 12 foot sections that were slightly thicker were just as heavy. Sometimes they were heavier.  Even the dead, dried out posts and rails were a struggle to drag out of the woods.  But we did it. We dragged what seemed like several hundred trees out of the forest, loaded them up onto the trailer, and towed them back to camp.

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As we constructed the fence, cutting the posts to size with the jig, nailing them together to make jacklegs, fixing together rails, supports, and posts, the members of the NSA invited us to constantly learn.  Maybe we already knew some of the things they taught us, but we smiled and enjoyed the friendships and comradery that spanned the generations.

As the evening fell upon us, we sat around the campfire and listened as they shared stories of a time not so long ago, when they were young men and the world was before them. They shared how they trained, partied, and fought side by side and I saw the companionship and the family that they had become through this shared experience. I saw how they smiled and reflected on what made them into the men they were today.

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As younger individuals, they praised us for our dedication to service and marveled at the adventures that we had been a part of through AmeriCorps. Many of them shared how they saw hope in us and poured out advice onto us.  I could probably write an entire post about the advice they shared, but I will shorten it and end with the (often conflicting) advice that the five of them shared with us:

When looking towards the future, we were advised to: Find a career. Find what makes you happy. Follow our dreams. Don’t work for the government. And if all else fails, it’s alright not to know. Don’t worry if it takes you until you are 30, married, or broke.

While I am not a smokejumper (and have no desire to jump out of an aircraft to fight fire), I am honored to have had the opportunity to work beside these amazing men. And while they are old in age, each of them have a youthful fire that continues to burn within.

A View into Life

Sometimes, we get the opportunity to see into other peoples lives through the lenses of photography.  Over the past 26 weeks, I have participated in a 52 Week Photo Challenge Course with Ricky Tims (letsquilttogether.com).  We are over halfway through the course, and still continuing to learn and have fun behind the camera.

Below is a selection of images taken through the class.  I’ve included some, but not all, of the details and notes from each image.

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Week 1: Selective Focus.

The first couple weeks were all about learning how to utilize the camera. The course is designed for artists of other mediums to learn about photography and techniques with the camera (pre and post editing). I decided to focus on my primary medium, painting and drawing.

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Week 3: Windows.

We were given the broad challenge of Windows.  I captured this image looking out my bedroom window over the Soulard neighborhood of St Louis as the sun was rising and I was preparing to head out on project.

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Week 6: Forks.

While not technically a fork, this broom rake was utilized to cook some hotdogs for lunch over a burn pile.

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Week 7: Black and White.

I found these steps above our housing at Roaring River State Park and the contrast of black and white brought them to life.

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Week 8: Abandoned.

Another find at Roaring River State Park.  I wont actually share where it is located, but this self portrait is one of my favorite images.

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Week 10: Board Games.

This week, our challenge was to use board games to establish unity and cohesion in our image.  I chose to use figures from my favorite game, Last Night on Earth, to create an image that I enjoy.

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Week 12: Do Over #1.

The first time I did a mirror image, I didn’t line up the edges correctly, so they didn’t match up to my liking.  So, I retried and used a photo of a burn pile of freshly cut cedars for Fen Restoration.

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Week 13: Composite Montage.

An image of one of my teammates after a controlled burn with the Nature Conservancy.  The second image is of the burnt ground and the remains of the leaves, twigs, and rocks.

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Week 14: Street Photography.

I chose to wander through the Soulard Farmers Market with my camera to capture the images for this week.

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Week 15: Happy.

Some of my teammates cant help but smile.  Especially when hanging out with one another and creating and burning burn piles.

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Week 16: Golden Hour.

This image was captured through the condensation on the truck window in the early hours of the morning as we prepared to head out for project.

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Week 17: Dreamscape.

The staircase of the Stegall Mtn Fire Tower caught my eye, and the Dreamscape technique of editing in Photoshop brought out the sunset on the wood.

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Week 19: Red.

While out at Prairie State Park, I broke out the red face paint and four yards of red fabric and had fun with a couple of my teammates.

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Week 20: Mirror Montage.

Another find at Prairie State Park: the hip bones of a deer.

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Week 21: The Road.

I took some liberties, as this was the closest thing to a road that we could find while working in the Silver Mines Recreation Area of the Mark Twain National Forest.

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Week 23: Stuck In Place.

This week, we were challenged to set up in a single location and not move for over an hour.  These were three of the images captured while up on the roof of my apartment.

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Week 25: Do Over #2.

Last week, this image was chosen as the photo of the week.  This self portrait was taken by utilizing the timer and then laying down in a freezing cold stream.  It only took 20ish tries to finally get the image that I wanted.

As you can see, this year has been both a challenge and a joy as I’ve started to figure out and rediscover how to utilize Photoshop to bring my photos to life.

The Scars That Shape Us

This past Friday, we remembered one of the most devastating tornadoes that struck our nation, running its finger of destruction through homes, businesses, and lives of those who both lived and worked there, and all those who were moved to respond.  Four years ago, on the evening of 22 May 2011, an EF-5 Tornado, one of the most destructive according to classification, ripped through the city of Joplin, MO.

To say that this storm affected our lives is an understatement.  At the time, I was serving as a member of the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) with AmeriCorps, responding to the Good Friday Tornadoes in St Louis that struck just a month before.  That evening, the great wheels of response started, as members of the St Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT) and Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) began their journey through the night to arrive in the midst of the devastation.  The following morning, my team and the 20 other members of NCCC joined the second wave of ERT members to deploy.

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As a child, one of the movies that I watched time and time again (and is still one of my favorites) was Twister.  In it, one of the characters who has never experienced the wrath of nature asked the innocent question of what an EF-5 tornado was like.  Over the silence that fell across the table, one of the storm chasers responds, “The finger of God.”

The six mile path that cut its way through Joplin, over a mile wide at it’s widest point (according to the map of damage that I received before heading out into the field), is a vivid reminder of the force, the power, and the destruction caused by this force of nature.  Many claimed it to be an act of God. I don’t see how it couldn’t be. With winds reaching over 250 mph (some have told me they reached over 300 mph), the storm tossed vehicles, flattened structures, stripped the bark off trees, and turned lives upside down.

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Something happened in those first few weeks we stood on the ground.  We assisted with the Search and Rescue operations. Cleared unnamed streets. Began moving debris. Managed and led volunteers. Fell asleep exhausted. Laid awake unable to sleep because we knew what visions would be revealed in the dark of night. Cried. Mourned. And got up to face it each and every day.

This storm, that tornado left a scar that could be felt. We could see it each and every day out in the field. You can still see it today if you know what you’re looking for. But it reached much deeper than that. Lives were torn apart. Lost. Left amongst the ruins. Ripped apart by what we saw. You could feel it in each and every life of those who responded, those whose feet stood amid the destruction.

I see it more and more each year, in how we continue to live our lives.

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The AmeriCorps pledge states that “[we] will carry this commitment with [us] this year and beyond.” Many of us have continued to serve. Many of us will always serve. We have scattered across the nation and the globe, knowing that we have been shaped by these experiences. Shaped by this storm.

I still see the images. I won’t let them fade. I can’t. For, they are a part of me. They are a part of each of us.

Art, Photography, and Fire

Life has been crazy. It always has, I just sometimes forget to ignore it at times. You see, today (well, yesterday) was Valentines Day. It was also the Mardi Gras Celebration here in Soulard (the second largest, right after Batton Rouge and NOLA if you believe the internet these days). As usual, it was a [edit] show with tons of drunk people, loud music, and yeah, that’s about it. Other than that, the adventure has been “uneventful.”

Uneventful. Yeah, right. If you can believe that, I have some ocean-front property in Kansas that I’m also trying to sell.

You see, life is not, nor will it ever be, a tamed animal within a cage where you can look at it from a safe distance and proclaim, “that’s nice.” No, life is an adventure and a jungle full of surprises, fears, hazards, and joys. It is comprised of the most extreme highs and devastating lows. It will build you up just as quickly as it will tear you down.

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As before, I mentioned that yesterday was Valentines Day.  The Hallmark season of love and affection.  And lets not forget the roses and chocolates that come with that profession of love.  You may be wondering to yourself why the above paintings are just hanging out up there, staring at you.  Well, the simple reason: Love.

Several years ago, I stumbled across the idea of the Barbarian; the Lover and the Warrior.  You cannot have one without the other, just as you cannot separate the two.  The passion runs to deep.  So, we have the warrior and the lover, two distinct characteristics of the same individual (the Barbarian).  Ever since that day (way back when I was still attending Anderson University and attempting to discover what I truly believed) I have done my best to live the life of the Barbarian; a life that is full of living and loving.

This progressed into my life motto: We Live, We Love.  It is tattooed on my wrist, a daily reminder that no matter our struggles, nor the chaos that surrounds us, to fully live, we must learn to love.  And to fully love, we must learn to live.

You see, we must be constantly learning or we die.  It’s that simple.

On a side note, the above paintings will be showing at the 33February show hosted by MySLArt.org, and although I will be unable to attend the gallery reception, I hope that if you find yourself in the St Louis area, you go support these amazing artists.

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A couple weeks ago, I got the opportunity to attend a huge event.  An event like no other.  It was a night full of the Holy Spirit.  Surrounded by inspiring music, some amazing praise and worship, and thousands of individuals seeking out God in their individual journeys, I felt the love pour over me once again.

This was Winter Jam.

For a while, I felt lost.  I felt as if nobody could understand the chaos that was happening in my life.  Like a ship lost at sea, with no way to guide itself home.  And as I sat there, beside people that I had met minutes before, I knew that I was home, no matter where I found myself to be.  That’s the power of love.

I met some amazing individuals that night.  High School students.  Their parents.  College students.  Wanderers.  Thinkers.  All lovers and warriors willing to take a stand for what they believed.

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Oh, I’ve also been keeping myself busy with AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team.  We’ve been having adventures all across the state of Missouri, all of us eagerly waiting to respond to the next disaster or wildfire.  We’ve been doing a lot of Glade Restoration projects; cutting out cedar and burning them in piles to open up the natural areas where native grasses and wildflowers thrive.  It’s been interesting to see the difference between how MDC does it in the SE part of the state and then wander on over West with DNR who does it differently.

Neither are wrong, they just do it differently.  It’s an interesting perspective on conservation.

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We’ve gotten close to wanting to kill one another (you may think I’m joking about this, but who really knows).  We bicker and we go back and forth at times with complaints and opinions, but truly, we all love one another.  We are all about that love, y’all!

In all seriousness, every group is going to have it’s issues.  This is what happens when you put 37 individuals together for an extended amount of time.  Yes, it’s not perfect.  Yes, we screw up.  But in the end, we must ask ourselves if it is really worth it.  I already know the answer to that question.

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So, if you take anything out of this post, let it be love.  And even though I am up at all ends of the night/morning assisting at the Emergency Warming Shelter (all you Second Years owe me!), I love what I do.  I love the life that God has put before me.  Even with the struggles, heartaches, and pain that often accompanies the adventure.  And what I love most are the lives that I have crossed paths with, those friendships that span across the nation and around the globe.  May God continue to bless you and pour out His love upon your life.

Another Year of Service Past (A Look at ERT Year 20)

I heard it a couple of times before that when a group of individuals come together for an extended amount of time, they become family.  I’ve seen it happen with my various teams in the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) and again with my close-knit team in FEMA Corps, so I shouldn’t be surprised to find it difficult to say good-by to this family that has formed over the past year of service.

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We started out the year as a bunch of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed individuals looking for an adventure.  Well, glad to say that we found one.  We didn’t know each other at first, but as we began to dive into this journey, we soon discovered how lucky we were to stand beside one another.

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The journey was one of intense beauty, as we soon discovered ourselves in the midst of the Beaver Head / Deer Lodge National Forest in Montana, surrounded by mountains of bright lights and explosions of color.  For one who has never seen the mystery of the northern mountains, it was like a shock and awe campaign.

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We found ourselves growing closer together due to the spacious living quarters and huge cabins that we stayed in (please, note the sarcasm).  We slept almost twenty in the Yurt that leaked while the rest piled into the tent city that sprang up around our headquarter just south of Butte.

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It wasn’t always that beautiful or easy.  For the majority of the winter, we were gripped by the chill of ice, snow and wind that pierced through all the layers that we piled on as thick as we could.  When I say it got cold, it got cold.  And I don’t think any of us were truly prepared for it.

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To be honest, none of us were truly prepared for what we were to face in the next couple weeks and upcoming months.  We had all heard stories, but in the back of our minds was a constant voice, that fear that kept us alert.  The fear that kept us alive at times.

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Oh, we messed up a time or two.  We got ourselves into pickles, wedged between a rock and a hard place, but somehow we were able to keep moving forward.  And we learned.  Sometimes, we learned the hard way.

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And as we learned, we began to experience things that changed us.  Looking back, none of us are the same individuals that walked through the doors of the Urban Activity Center that first day to complete paperwork.  We became something more.  A family, yes.  But as individuals, we became leaders, tree fellers, and trail builders.

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We also became cowboys and cowgirls, road-hands, rough-necks, firefighters, and friends.  We embraced everything that was thrown at us, from the chainsaw to loppers.  We embraced the culture of the ranches, the mountains, and the woodlands of the Ozarks, becoming one with our teams and with ourselves.

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A lot of what we do is based around conservation.  Felling hazard trees and snags.  Preparing fire line.  Spraying invasive species.  It’s not always glamorous work, but we love it.  Anyone who says otherwise is lying.  We love it because of one another.

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We also got the opportunity to get down and dirty with wild fires.  While a lot of what we did were small prescribed burns and mop up operations, we were glad of the change of pace.  You can only spray so many plants with chemical before you start questioning your sanity.

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We also got the chance to work side by side with the USFS on fire rotation.  I got to go on two large (4,000+ acre) prescribed burns and a handful of wildfires where we got to follow the dozer and conduct burn out operations.  It was a mix of excitement, fear, and confidence that allowed us to persevere.

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And besides, we look like complete bad[edit]s doing it.  Where else would we even get the opportunity to wield a chainsaw like a BAMF?  Admit it, we look awesome.

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Another bonus, facial hair.  That’s right, we don’t always shave, and there’s nothing wrong with it.  No-Shave November has nothing on us, just ask some of the ladies who I got the opportunity to work with.  Razors can’t touch us.  But when they do, nobody can recognize us afterwards.

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And somehow, we find the time to smile, laugh, and have fun while we save the world (okay, we may not be THAT important, but it sure feels like it).  We play games, give one another a hard time, and stay up late laying under the stars, in tents, or cabins talking and sharing our love with one another.

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And now, our paths diverge.  We have come to the end of our year of service, and I can honestly say that I am proud to have each and every single one of these individuals standing beside me on this journey of life.  They are more than friends.  Deeper than blood.  And I smile because I know that I will see them all again in good time.

What I’ve Been Up To

Several times a week I am asked what I do.  Well, it’s kinda complicated.  Not really.  It’s just a little hard to explain.

I am currently a member of AmeriCorps St Louis Emergency Response Team (AC STL ERT for short).  We are a state and national resource in response to natural and man-made disasters.

Now, you’re probably scratching your head asking, why aren’t you guys in Arkansas or Mississippi or Florida?  Why haven’t you done something about the tornadoes or the flooding?  Well, it isn’t that easy.

You see, we cannot self deploy.  As a resource, we have to be requested by the state or by the Federal government (FEMA).  As of now, we have only been requested out in Kansas to help set up the MARC (Multi-Agency Resource Center) and assist with their VRC (Volunteer Reception Center).

In the meantime, while not on disaster, the ERT does Conservation projects throughout the state of Missouri.  We work alongside the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the US Forest Service (USFS), as well as several other organizations throughout the state.

All of us have our Red Card Certification for Wildland Firefighting and our Felling Certifications for Chainsaws (most of us are A Fellers, though we have several B Fellers among our ranks).  Several of us also received the opportunity to take the Public Operator License Exam for Pesticide use (Right-of-Way) through MDC.  Others have received UTV and ATV training through MDC and USFS.

Fire Season has come and past.  Over the past several months we have participated in several Prescribed Fire Operations and responded to a number of Wildfires alongside MDC and the USFS.

We’ve been doing a ton of Invasive Species work lately.  Most of it involves cutting and/or spraying it with herbicide.  I personally have dealt with Spotted Knapweed, Teasel, Japanese and Bush Honeysuckle, Autumn Olive, Black Locust, Garlic Mustard, and Crown Vetch (I’m sure I’m missing one or two here, but whatever).

We either run around with Backpack Sprayers or, in rare cases, spray via the UTV.  It’s not the most glamorous work, but I enjoy it every once in a while.

Other projects we do are Glade and Prairie Restoration, which basically includes cutting out all the pines and/or cedar trees in the area.  Many times we refer to these projects as Cedarcide.

Other times we are felling undesirable trees for Timber Stand Improvement and thinning operations.  Many of these projects have ended due to the fact that the trees and snags that we would be removing are habitat trees for several species of furry critters, including bats.

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So that’s a basic summary of what I do. I’ve left out a bit, but that’s the basics.

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