Welcome back to The Americorps Experience Blog. Today we talk to Stuart Blackwell. Stuart is a grower in our community nursery and one of the principal organizers of the Spring Plant Sale. He is a native son of Virginia, and a deep, philosophical thinker. We hope you enjoy this interview.
Vincent: This is Vincent Gabrielle, interviewing Stuart Blackwell for Our City Forest, where are we Stuart?
Stuart: We’re at the community nursery off Hedding on Spring Street, San Jose. Right by the airport.
V: So Stuart I know you’re from Virginia, why did you drive all the way out to OCF?
S: It was part of a long-term process for me. I wanted to do something working in the environmental field and I figured Americorps would be the best place to do that. I eventually want to go back to grad school but I wanted to do Peace Corps before that. I actually just got into the Peace Corps.
V: Oh congratulations!
S: [nods] So after Peace Corps I’d go back to school and then, figure it out from there, I guess. Maybe I’ll end up working for National Geographic or BBC or something.
V: So this has been a long process for you? How long have you had this plan in the works
S: About a year and a half.
V: What made you decide to make this change?
S: I wound up at a desk job and I really hated that. I felt like people were mostly in it for themselves or the money, even though we were helping people get jobs. It just wasn’t want I wanted to do.
V: So tell me about your work here.
S: I work at the nursery, mainly as a grower but I help around other places too. Mostly I go around, taking care of the trees, making sure they aren’t dying, growing correctly.
V: What’s a typical day like here?
S: We get in around 7:30 and chart out the day. Pretty much free reign to do whatever you want on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday through Saturday we have volunteers in the morning so we transplant with them. In the afternoons we do what we can with the 3ish hours remaining. .
V: Do you like working with volunteers?
S: I do, the ones that want to be here. The ones that are forced to come out here don’t see the benefit of working here. They’re harder to work with.
V: It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand you’d like for an organization like a school to encourage volunteering but.
S: A lot of people are really enthusiastic though. Brian started out as a volunteer and now he’s working here. A lot of people just like coming out here so they keep volunteering; it’s great.
V: Do you find that you like what you’re doing?
S: Yeah! I can’t say I’ve ever once wanted not to come to work since I started this job.
V: What’s your favorite part about doing nursery stuff?
S: Just being able to use my head and my hands to work on stuff.
V: Every time I come in here you’re doing something different.
S: That’s another thing. You’re never doing a repetitive sort of thing. There are some tasks that we have to daily but for the most part we’re always doing something different. It’s very self-guided.
V: What’s the most challenging part of working at the nursery?
S: I think the most challenging part of working here is the fact that we don’t have a nursery manager. That being said, it’s one of the most rewarding reasons for working here. We’ve got two people who really know what they’re doing. Nara is very good with all the propagation and knows exactly what she’s doing. Kody knows everything about trees once they’re a decent size. So they help guide us. Even so, sometimes we’re not positive on what we’re supposed to be doing. That makes it a bit challenging but it seems to be going very well.
V: So you take trees all the way from seedlings?
S: Some of them. Especially for the Ullistac Project that we’ve got over there; we harvested the seeds from the site where they’re going to be planted. Some of them we get as bare roots, which we just finished.
V: Bare Roots was a big project.
S: Huge project. Some trees we get as donations. This one guy wants to donate 100 trees to us. Not sure where we’re going to put them.
V: I didn’t know we got tree donations.
S: I didn’t either until recently.
V: That’s pretty cool actually. Most of the donations I’ve seen have been in terms of time, “manhours”.
S: Or seven dollars toward a straw-bale hut that isn’t getting built. That’s Steve’s project.
V: Is that where the fund is at?
S: Last I heard it was at seven dollars.
V: That’s good, you can get… a handful of straw.
S: Most of that was in check form. Five dollars.
V: Who writes a check for five dollars?
S: I don’t know.
[Both think about this while an airplane screeches overhead.]
V: What would you say is the most rewarding thing about the nursery?
S: Watching something you’ve worked on actually grow and seeing a project through, like the shade-cloth was nice to get done. A lot of times in other places I’ve worked people come up with a lot of ideas but they never go anywhere. It’s nice to see that not happen.
V: You mentioned Kody and Nara, do you find that you get along well?
S: I can’t really speak highly enough about everybody I work with here. I really like the nursery team.
V: You guys seem like a really cohesive tribe.
S: Yeah it was a little awkward at first for everybody but we get along quite well.
V: Earlier you mentioned getting out of college and doing a whole bunch of jobs. What was your college like?
S: I went to Virginia Commonwealth University, VCU. It’s known primarily for its art program and its basketball team. I studied politics and religion, a dual degree. That was just what I was interested in. They both helped me make sense about how other people make sense of the world. So, basically I majored in understanding people better but it’s not a very good conversation at a bar.
V: As a biology major I empathize
S: [After that] I stayed in Richmond Virginia for a while, but I didn’t really find work immediately after college, granted I wasn’t looking terribly hard. I worked in a restaurant for about a year. It was kind of fun because I got to do a lot of different jobs. I ran food, waited tables, bar-backed, brewed beer pretty cool, but not great.
Then I started temping in offices for a while, before landing a job at Systems Planning and Analysis. They work mostly on submarines. Have you heard of the Trident Missile System? We worked with that, for the Airforce and the Marines but mostly in submarines.
V: What were you doing with ballistic missiles?
S: I was a recruiter for that company. I helped out a lot in the internship program they did for the summer. Then I left that job. I was making a considerable amount but I just hated every single day of work. I respected my boss, I still do, but she really liked what she was doing.
V: So you were hiring engineers and engineering students to make missiles.
S; Yeah, and interviewing retiring or retired military personnel. I wasn’t super excited about it. So then I started coming up with this idea of going back to school and doing the Peace Corps before that. I figured Americorps would help me get into the Peace Corps. It was only about two weeks before I left, when I put my two-weeks’ notice in, that I let anybody know. I let my boss and work know, I let my parents know and then I let my friends know. It was very quick but very necessary.
V: Just a clean break then. How would you describe growing up in Virginia?
S: Very boring.
I grew up on a street that ran, pretty much, through the middle of the woods. It was really awesome as a kid to run around in the forest when I got the opportunity. We weren’t in the middle of nowhere, fairly close to a lot of stuff. But it was boring because I guess that’s how I was, nothing exciting going on in Vienna Virginia unless you want to open a bank account, get a new mattress or go out to eat.
V: What’s your family like?
S: They’re smaller now.
V: Oh I’m sorry.
S: No it’s just… I used to see my English relatives more often. I don’t so much anymore because of arguments between my uncle and my mom and his wife.
I still see them every once and a while. I haven’t been in a year, maybe two. When we actually do come together it’s a ton of people.
V: So it’s a big family in Virginia?
S: No it’s a massive family in England and not too many people in the US.
V: Have you been to England?
S: Oh yeah. I used go once a year at least when I was a child, dual citizenship, but now I don’t go very often
V: What would you say is the biggest difference between rural Virginia and wherever you were visiting in England?
S: I was visiting London so...
S+V: [in unison] everything?
V: What drew you to politics and religion?
S: It was probably because it encompasses such a large scope, like most of the world believes something along those lines. As an atheist I was fascinated by how other people’s views drive them. Every once and a while I stop and think, “Oh right, people go to church on Sundays and that plays into their lives a lot” or “Oh yeah, people pray five times a day, they have to stop and do that,” I just don’t think of it at all.
Politics was probably because we were too young to vote against Bush. I was really aggravated and disenchanted by all of that when he was in office for 8 years. It just seemed so obvious that it was a bad idea, and people supported it, twice. The first time was more understandable. The second time around, the person he was running against wasn’t very exciting either…
I think that’s why I got into politics. The more I learned about it the more I liked it. I took a series of political philosophy classes were you read from Plato all the way up to present day philosophers and I really liked that. It was my favorite political course.
V: Who would you say is your favorite political philosopher to read?
S: To read? Definitely Nietzsche to read but I don’t identify much with it.
I really like Camus a lot. What did I read by him, The Myth of Sisyphus, I really enjoyed it. It’s odd to open a book and on the first page, the first sentence is “There’s one question, is suicide an option?”
S: Exactly. What. Well you’ve got my attention Camus. So I guess I’ll keep reading. Then it leads into ideas I’d thought about. That life is absurd and there’s not really a point in any of it. Not like, nihilistic but like hopeful because then you get to create your own values, your own meaning, which is what I ended up doing as a kid. I stopped being Catholic while they tried to raise me Catholic. Like “you know what? I don’t think so”. It took a long time and it wasn’t easy and it was confusing along the way but I’m much happier now.
V: Does all that stuff play into the desire to do the peace corps thing?
S: Maybe. I don’t really know.
V: Because if you’re making your own meaning and you’re doing this crazy volunteering thing that we call Our City Forest, and then you’re flying to… where are you flying to?
S: It’s Benin. I don’t know. I like helping people. I also like working in groups of people who like to help people. It’s very rewarding. Obviously, I’m not in it for the money. I don’t know if that part of who I am plays into why I’m doing these things or if it doesn’t.
It seems like a very exciting adventure. That and being in the Peace Corps will show me how a lot of the world’s population lives first-hand instead of just like visiting one of those places or reading about them. You visit and it’s like “oh how sad for you. I’m going home now.” By actually going and experiencing it first hand then I’ll understand why things are the way they are.
That’s why I like reading history too, especially modern history. You get an understanding about why things are so screwed up. “Oh you hate those people because of how they’ve been bombing you”
V: What do you know about Benin?
S: Nothing until that’s where I learned I was going. I learned that it was the birthplace of Voodoo. It’s a former colony, until the 60s.
I don’t know much about it. That’s how I want to keep it until I get there. I don’t want to make assumptions about the place yet. I’m sure it’ll be very different from what I assume. Much like California has been very different from what I assumed.
V: How has California been different than your assumptions?
S: It’s very glamorized when people talk about it. Then you come out here and it’s just another place. I really like it out here and it is quite nice. Not having a winter is pretty awesome but it’s got some serious problems it’s not addressing. I mean, obviously the drought, and supporting farmers and the fact that LA uses a lot of the water and contributes almost nothing to capturing it. Not very good but everywhere has their problems. California’s are just bigger because it’s bigger.
V: I found the biggest thing for me was how sprawling it was. Do you find when you’re driving around that you lose sense of where you are?
S: Yeah all the time especially here. It’s very much the same thing when you’re driving around San Jose. Suddenly you’re in Japantown and you’re like how the hell did I get here?
V: You see a sign saying its Japantown and there’s a slight uptick in sushi restaurants. At any rate I hope you discover what you’re looking for in Benin. Or at the very least find something to make the trip worthwhile.
S: I’ll definitely gain experiences from it. I’m mostly excited about it, 10% terrified.
V: If you didn’t gain experiences I’d be shocked.
S: I would be too.
V: I don’t know how you go to another country for two years learn a language or two and not gain experiences.
S: One of the volunteers here told me that “It’s good that Steve and you are going over there to show people that Americans aren’t all self-centered, me-first-type people.” So I said, “thank you that’s such a wonderful compliment.”
V: Well that’s all we have to do. I want to thank you for taking the time to do this with me.
S: You’re welcome.