Voices in the Wilderness: Lauren Mitchell and the Song of Bug Markers

In 2011-2012 I spent the winter in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Mountain pine bark beetles were spreading through the forests at a record rate and there was a lot of concern about the health of the forests and the amount of standing dead timber. The governor of South Dakota had just implemented his “Black Hills Forest Initiative,” declaring the mountain pine bark epidemic an emergency situation, but also “a disaster we can see coming.” He wanted action before fire took over, and action meant the parks had money to hire freshly graduated college kids like me to go and find the bugs. 

I wrote the following piece in December 2011 after working in Custer State Park for a few wonderful months getting intimately familiar with the terrain. It’s a story about the tribulations of working in the public sector and joys of working for the land. A story about finding happiness in getting dirty and solace in wild landscapes. Finally, it’s a tribute to the ways that our public lands are adored and protected by people from all walks of life. I hope you can find yourself in my story. 

‘The Song of the Bug Markers’

Before working as a Land Survey Technician, I worked as a “Conservation Foreman” for Custer State Park, a.k.a. “seasonal forester,” “bug marker” or “bug person.” We have many names.

We started out small. There were only three of us. Myself and two crazy boys who had competitions to see who could mark the most trees or go the longest without eating (that ended with a feast of four pizzas).

Then another girl joined us and there were four. We found the biggest bug spot together, over 1,300.

And then we were fired.

And rehired! And given a raise! The park was granted a bunch of money to fight the bug war! And then our numbers began to grow exponentially.

We’ve been joined by a diesel mechanic from Hermosa, a wildlife major from Iowa, a jeep driver from Custer, a swing-dancing-cowboy from Iowa, a lumberjill from Paul Smiths and two of my college friends from New York. And five more are coming!

And the paint is flying! We hike, scramble, crawl, scale and fall over, around, under and in the Black Hills as we identify, locate and mark the trees that are infested with mountain pine beetle. We cover ourselves with paint, bruise our knees, run into branches, slide down hills and rip our pants on barbed wire fences. 

But there are days that remind us why it’s worth it. The places we climb to, the views that we see, the experiences we have; make each paint covered piece of clothing worth it. We’re getting to know the park from the inside out, in a more personal way than people who have worked here for years have ever experienced.

The other day I had the strange feeling that each time we started to mark trees that a theme song should be playing, weird I know. I had no idea what song it would be or even what genre. But I started to think about it and suddenly I began to hear a few notes drifting in.

There was the crunch of our boots in the snow, the irregular rhythm of our labored breathing, the misting spray of the paint cans, the chorus of “yo!’ when we lost each other, the wind moving through the trees, the chirping of angry birds and squirrels, the distant buzz of chainsaws and the occasional thunderous rumble as another chunk from Crazy Horse was blasted away.

The theme song was there, perhaps drifting on the edge of consciousness, but there all the same. 

And the bug markers of Custer State Park will continue to add to the music of the park as we grow to 16 strong. Watch out bugs, the battles just beginning.

Lauren lives in Sandpoint, Idaho and is pursuing a career as a Land Survey Technician. Before settling in Idaho, she traveled across the United States to do conservation work and ecological research in incredible places from Arizona to Utah to South Dakota. 

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