Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Alex’s Work Pants

This post was written by Alex Brechbill, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year.  Alex has a great aptitude and personality for environmental law and policy work, but not to the detriment of his outdoor work ethic – as you’ll see here.  Also – Stay tuned for an announcement very soon about the application period for the next round of our Fellowship.

After graduating college with a degree in political science, I was convinced I was going to dive headfirst into a cubicle. There was something very exciting about it. I would have my own desk, the ability to throw on a sweater because the A/C is just a bit too chilly, and maybe, if I’m lucky, two monitors on my computer. This image was so idyllic because most of my work experience includes me being knee-high in mud (and probably not mud, if we are being honest), saturated in sweat, and consistently covered in perma-dirt, no matter how fancy I get with my laundry.

I was convinced I would have that dream cubicle. I wanted to, and still want to, pursue environmental law in some capacity: paralegal, administrative assistant, research, etc. Despite having plenty of outdoors jobs, I’ve had my fair share of indoor positions, slowly building a collection of slacks, khakis, corduroys, and dress pants for the day that I finally get my name on a desk. However, that collection will have to keep gathering dust, because my favorite pants are my workpants.

They are khaki canvas Dickies, with the classic red patch on the right butt cheek. They are size 32×32, but depending on the day, they would ideally be about two inches snugger and two inches longer. I’ve had them for four years. They were originally intended for my dad, but I intercepted them as they were my size.

Are these pants freshly laundered or have I worked in them for three weeks? You can never really tell by just looking at them.

Workpants are the physical manifestation of how much it takes to keep ecosystems in their desired condition. Without a little elbow grease, most of our prairies would be thickets of Siberian elm, a sea of musk thistles, or thatch dense enough you’d have to Bear Grylls your way out. Growing up, I marveled at how beautiful landscapes could regulate themselves without any intervention. However, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work. It takes folks out in the field every day of the week, not just when it is convenient, but when it’s raining, windy, hot, cold, summer, or winter. It is by no means glamorous work, but it’s rewarding, beautifully messy work. My pants have borne the brunt of that labor, from mud to paint. Every spot, snag, hole, wrinkle, or stain has a story.

In the last seven months, I have conducted a very scientific study regarding the reasons I have washed my workpants. Although the research is ongoing, I have some results that I think are notable for this audience. One might ask, “are most scientific studies done in colored pencil and marker?” The answer is that although it may seem archaic, I assure you it is still very scientific.

Life-long scientific research. Still trying to get it published in Workpants Quarterly.

Some of the preliminary findings are that there has been a lot of poison ivy this year and that I’ve done a lot of chainsaw work, as shown by the lingering smell of two-stroke exhaust. After looking at the raw data and punching some numbers, I found that there is a clear correlation between my pants not fitting and how long I have been chainsawing. On occasion, after I take off my chaps, one may think that I’m wearing a second pair of chaps underneath my chaps, however, that is merely the outline of my sweat from where the chaps were once occupying.

This is the Achilles’ heel of any good pair of pants, the classic backpocket wallet hole. I prefer the hole in my backpocket to be somewhere in between “that’ll be fine” and “I think I lost my wallet in the prairie.

Once upon a time, these pants used to be more of an orange-khaki color, as shown by the color under the cuff. Over the years they’ve been sunbleached and built up a good patina. They get better with time, like a fine wine.

Permadirt and blue stains. Really it’s a match made in heaven.

Although it made a small appearance in the above data, breaking through the ice was one of my favorite experiences. In February, I and the other field staff were preparing for crane season, and one of the objectives was to remove cattails to make a clear view of the roosting cranes on the river. The river was still frozen at this time, but I was still wary of the thickness of ice. From the bank of the river, I removed all the cattails that I could reach. However, there were still cattails out further that were blocking the view of the river from the blind. Thinking of the cranes, I braved the ice. As I reached the outer edge of the cattails, I knew my goose was cooked. I plunged two feet down into the brisk water and got stuck in the muck, the murky water flowing into my boots. Within an instant, the stale winter air became rank with pungent, marinating muck that had not been disturbed for months. The damage was done, my Muck Boots were filled with literal muck, and I wasn’t going anywhere. To my demise, I finished the job, removing the cattails. To exit the icy water, I laid the weedwhacker on ice near the bank and beached-whaled myself out of the mucky water. Like I said, it’s not glamorous work, but it’s rewarding. The science is still ongoing, but if you’d like to contribute to my (very scientific) research, I’d be curious if you have any good stories about your trusty workpants!

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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16 Responses to Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Alex’s Work Pants

  1. Melissa says:

    ROFL – this may be one of my favorite Hubbard Fellowship blogs ever! I particularly liked the graph to accompany the pants study. Thank you for giving me a great laugh on a Tuesday AM. As someone who is “living the cubicle dream,” I’m glad to know you are enjoying those workpants while you still can!

  2. Mary says:

    So glad you are on the prairie’s team! I think you should continue your scientific study as long as possible and continue to provide us with reports. Thank you!

  3. Mary Voges says:

    What a great post! Plants and Pants and sometimes, Ants!!! Alex, wherever your future leads you, your sense of humor and writing skills will take you far. Thank you

  4. Eliza P says:

    Hahhaha!! YES

  5. Gay Gilbert says:

    Great story! good writing…..all best wishes for much success in your brilliant career!

  6. Maria dB says:

    Delightful blog – please continue showing your sense of humor when you get behind that desk!

  7. Patrick says:

    I need work pants for different seasons. Heavy pants are just too hot to wear in the summer, so I go with light hiking pants. I don’t need to wear them every day (living the desk job life), and they’ve been surprisingly durable. Probably at least 5 years worth of cedar sap stains festooned my pants like paint splatters. But finally, in my most recent tango with a cedar, the tree successfully sought revenge on me for cutting it down by tearing open a hole in my pants. A little bloody, but not beaten, my pants took to the washing machine like a trooper, and came out ready to fight for the prairie some more.

  8. Ernest Ochsner says:

    Thanks Alex, fun reading this and relating it to my painting clothes that slowly become soiled but much better in terms of comfort and to my eyes looks over the years of use.

  9. James McGee says:

    I was starting to wonder if any hard manual labor was getting done, or if all you guys do is take pictures. I’ve dug out well over 1000 sweet clover plants so far this year (not to mention other tasks) and honestly it is nice to know other people are also doing hard work. Where I volunteer I have uncomfortably become a kind of spectacle. People occasionally even take video of me working without my permission, which I think is rude. I wonder if someone wearing old dirty clothes and pulling/digging weeds is really so novel it deserves to be videotaped. Whatever the reason, one couple seemed to think my clothes and work were very funny.

  10. Charlotte says:

    Great post! Poison ivy is one of my top reasons to wash field pants too. There’s also “I sat down on a baby prickly pear and I’m not sure I got all the spines out”.

  11. Sandy says:

    An enjoyable read, Alex. Keep at it. I’d love to read more.

  12. Sandy says:

    An enjoyable read, Alex. Keep at it. I’d love to read more.

  13. Alyssa Petersen says:

    Great read and very well written! You keep me intrigued the whole time. Those pants are one of a kind! Thank you for dedicating yourself and your apparel for our environment!

  14. Martha says:

    Great post and if you ever get that cubicle job, I hope it involves writing. (I had a cubicle job, working myself up to a corner office for 30 years. I am now happily grubbing out invasives and selling native plants!)

  15. Dan Doty says:

    Love this article Alex. Reminded me of one summer I was guiding in the Boundary Waters and I wore one pair of jeans all summer without washing them. Understand they were only my trail jeans. They practically fell apart when finally washed. Does your Dad know you took them from him?

  16. Natasha Hongsermeier-Graves says:

    This is the greatest thing I’ve read today—not only highly scientific, but also entertaining! :) Thanks for all the work you do to keep our prairie ecosystems healthy.

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