The U.S. Forest Service’s own bluegrass band is joining in on Mancos Public Library’s celebration of the land this month, and is set to perform at the Absolute Bakery & Cafe in a week.
The San Juan String Band is a small group of Forest Service employees and volunteers who perform songs about the environment and public lands. Their upcoming Mancos performance is part of the Four Corners One Book Initiative, a collaboration between six local libraries.
“It’s a labor of love,” said mandolin player Joni Vanderbilt about the band. Vanderbilt is a hydrologist with the Forest Service. “We put a lot of volunteer hours into it, put a lot of work into thinking about good songs and how that relates to things we want to talk about.”
Vanderbilt and her guitarist forester friend Laurie Swisher came up with the idea for the band about 12 years ago. They took it to the Forest Service leadership, who laid out the parameters.
“We all have a big passion for connecting with the community through music,” Vanderbilt said. “And also just talking about what we do at the Forest Service and public lands appreciation.”
Oftentimes, they find that people don’t know what their work entails, and music offers a mechanism to make that conversation happen.
Volunteer Carol Calkin joined them later as a fiddler.
Since their inception, they’ve been able to perform for a wide range of children’s events and programs. They’ve joined with the Durango-based Bluegrass in the Schools program and take their tunes to students in Mancos, Dolores and Dove Creek.
“It’s so gratifying,” Vanderbilt said. “The kids will come up to us later and they know our songs.”
Bluegrass is conducive to their mission of connecting people to the land and making the Forest Service more approachable, Vanderbilt said.
“If the songs aren’t about murdering or alcohol, they’re all about the outdoors, so it’s perfect,” she said. “We’re able to weave in things about the wildlife or the streams and what we do in our role in protecting those resources.”
They are particularly proud of their harmonies, she said.
Previously, volunteer Joan Green was a songwriter and bassist with the band, writing a variety of eco-related songs for them to perform, with topics ranging from dirt to humidity. Green died last year, but by playing the songs she wrote, they can honor and commemorate her, Vanderbilt said.
“We miss her, but we celebrate her still, we play her songs and keep them alive,” Vanderbilt said.
Their Mancos performance is set for 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Absolute Bakery & Cafe. Cookies and refreshments will be served.
This is the second of three events that make up the Four Corners One Book initiative. The first was Oct. 3 with a discussion about land and resource conservation. The final installment will be Nov. 7, when author Chuck Greaves will talk about his book “Church of the Graveyard Saints,” which is set in Southwest Colorado.