“COVID Crew” lives and works as an isolated pod at Yale-Myers Forest

The COVID Crew lived and worked as an isolated "pod" at Yale-Myers Forest. Crew members from left to right: Shrabya Timsina ‘20 MFS, Zhi Li ‘20 MFS, Austin Dziki ‘21 MF, Schuyler Bordon ‘20 MF, Karam Sheban ‘20 MF, Brittany Wienke ‘20 MF, and Devon Ericksen ‘20 MF.
September 25, 2020

Like every aspect of life, COVID has thrown a wrench in plans and traditions. For the Forest Apprenticeship Program, affectionately known as Forest Crew, COVID reshaped the summer 2020 program. Fortunately, Director of Yale Forests Mark Ashton, Director of Forest and Agricultural Operations Joe Orefice, and Forest Manager Jess Lloyd avoided cancelation of the program. The leadership team submitted an application to Yale University outlining strict protocols and rationale for Crew to still occur, as forestry has been essential in New England during the pandemic. Crew received the greenlight to begin with Phase 2 of re-opening in late July, kicking off a condensed 5 week version of the traditionally 12 week program.

Forest Manager Jess Lloyd ‘20 MF believes “forestry is COVID compatible; we [foresters] work alone in the woods.” While this is true, there were still challenges and difficulties in preparing for “COVID Crew.” As a May 2020 graduate, Jess described her first weeks on the job as Forest Manager as dedicated toward safety and administrative planning to create the COVID Crew “pod,” in which members underwent quarantine and testing before living together exclusively at camp for 5 weeks, and designing how to safely use camp spaces. COVID Crew member Austin Dziki ‘21 MF called it a “Hail Mary Pass” that Crew happened after a long limbo, which then took off with “pedal to the metal.”

And that it did. Located in the Morse Division this year, Crew set off learning silvicultural practices on the ground, amongst dense mountain laurel and pine regeneration and wetland habitat. Dziki reflected on his frustration moving from textbook to field forestry, noticing there are “so many variables that you see in the field and in a complex forest.” It takes time to make sense of the nuances and then adjust your eyes to looking at the forest in this way. Crew member Devon Ericksen ‘20 MF described her grounding at Yale-Myers Forest, too. “You can talk a big game about a wood economy, but it’s like eating chicken without ever having killed a chicken yourself. We came out to the woods to ‘kill our chicken.’” Often, students are struck by the responsibility of sustainable timber harvesting once in the field and the deliberation it takes to mark trees for harvest with the intention of future forest regeneration.

With this in mind, Yale-Myers Forests provided a space for not only fieldwork but joy. After a very long and intensive spring quarantine across Connecticut, Crew members found themselves with a place of in-person community, outdoor space to explore, and communal meals, learning, and gatherings that are very rare in 2020. Hurricane Isaias, which struck Connecticut as a tropical storm, added to that coziness by knocking out power and water at camp for a week, creating challenging yet funny moments of bonding that are traditional for Crew. In those seven days, Crew members bathed in lakes, carried water from Morse Reservoir down to the bathrooms, and spent evenings singing their summer theme song, “The Girl from Ipanema” around the campfire.

Even though COVID created a condensed experience and members were restricted to camp, Crew members became very present and very absorbed in life at YMF. Both Jess and Grounds Manager Steve Prinn, who cares for camp and its grounds with dedication, commented that the students raised to the challenges and did so with optimism, excitement, and enthusiasm. As a new staff member, Jess remarked on how much work, dedication, and energy it takes to make these programs happen, something she and the COVID Crew are thankful to Mark, Joe, and Steve for. In the coming months, staff hope to get creative about how to engage with YMF’s neighbors in the Quiet Corner, researchers, and other Forest staff who could not all be present at camp over the summer.