Alumni Spotlight | Josh Raff

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Life in the Trees

I interned with Community Rebuilds in the Spring 14 semester and the experience was life altering. I left Moab with no real plan, besides working in the Red River Gorge so I could be back in my home state and climb as much as possible for the remainder of the year.

Two events during the semester really influenced my intuition to find some way to begin learning and working with sustainable food growing practices. The first was a tree planting workshop led by Hokobo and Lillian, a couple from a Hopi rez in Arizona. The planting coincided with the semester’s permaculture course. What reinforced my consideration to learn more about food cultivation was a trip to Goblin Valley with the other interns involving psychedelics. That Fall and Winter I worked at a couple restaurants, applied to a tree nursery apprenticeship through the Quivira Coalition, then left the country for a six week trip to Thailand.

In Thailand I WOOF’ed, climbed, met a lot of awesome people, did a Skype interview for the apprenticeship, and when I returned to the states immediately took off for New Mexico to meet the couple who ran the tree nursery. I learned in our Skype session that they in fact mentored Hokobo in tree cultivation and provided him with the trees for his orchard on the reservation.  That revelation seemed serendipitous, so I set aside reservations and accepted the offer to be their apprentice for the season. For the next 8 months I worked at Tooley’s Trees, a holistic nursery specializing in heirloom fruit cultivars and habitat species, in Truchas, NM. The apprenticeship was arduous and eye-opening as well as rewarding. The isolation of life on the farm was trying and although I learned a great deal, I also became jaded about the idealized scene many so-called students of permaculture portray about the ease of the work, many having never operated a farm or managed acreages.  During the apprenticeship I became conscious that although I wanted to grow food and do what I can in my lifetime to preserve woody plant biodiversity, I also didn’t want to go laboring from farm to farm, making only enough money to eat. While in NM I saw progress photos online of this well crafted, cabin-sized tree house being built as a weekend rental in the Red River Gorge. It was the brain child of a climbing buddy I had met in Thailand.  That Winter I got in touch with him and made plans to start working for his company the following Spring.

That is how I ended up doing carpentry as a member of Canopy Crew this past year. Rigging platforms and framing in the trees has been such a unique and rare method of construction I feel privileged for having found the opportunity to practice it professionally. Our first build of the season, another tree house rental in the gorge, we were in way over our heads from the first week on. Community Rebuilds set a strong precedent for what I could accomplish in a day’s effort after months in Moab spent working through the day and climbing in the evenings. Our current season has ended and I have found Winter work apprenticing in a custom weld shop. This job couldn’t have come at a better time, because there is a lot of custom welding needed for fabrication of the hardware we use to attach structures to trees safely.

At the end of our CR semester Emily said a few words to conclude our “graduation.” The part I recall vividly was when she said we can achieve goals we set from unconventional paths in life, but that we will have to work really really hard. This is true and putting in a lot of hard work doesn’t mean things will succeed. Showing up is half the battle though and it has taught me that breaks will come and skills will emerge, even when you can’t tell whether you’re doing well or not.

— Josh Raff

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