August Schield: What is Home?

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At a recent class deep in the Big Snowy Mountains I was asked, “What does it mean to be home?”

This is a hard question for me to grasp. I could give you a specific answer stating that I grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota. Yet as soon as I came to that quick conclusion, I was overcome with confusion: Was that really home? In a great sense, yes, because it is where I grew up and that place is deeply rooted in me. But I can no longer call it home. On this course, I have realized that everyone has their own unique background and upbringing. Through the process of identifying Self, one also identifies what it is to truly be home. Gary Snyder states in The Place, the Regions, and the Commons that all of us “carry a picture” of the environment we grew up in as the building blocks of a sense of place. He further states, “Our place is part of what we are. Yet a place has a kind of fluidity: – It passes through space and time,” and concludes by stating that home is literally based within a Bioregion as the “hearth,” or a home base at which one’s culture and community is centered. I couldn’t agree more except of one aspect: The Hearth of an individual is just as fluid as space and time, and for me, (being quite nomadic lately) it is important for me to affiliate home with my current culture to stay grounded.

Home, as Snyder states, originates with an image. One that is archetypal and forever translucent in my mind. It is the place where the idea of home originated within me, and later blossomed in this strong gravitational force of wanderlust that to this day continues to draw my mind west towards the vertigo of exposed peaks, the mysteriousness held only at the top of the tallest pine. Allow me to share this image with you: my memory originates in the great bioregion of the Pacific Northwest, on a rainy day of course. The thickness of the temperate rainforest is just a quick red rain boot sprint away from my back porch and I am eager to take cover under a tall juniper tree with my father. My frantic sprint comes to an almost immediate halt as I lock eyes with the branches high above towards the tip of a large Douglas fir. Its seems to look down at me as if it is curious about what it might be like to be as tall as a bushel of rustling ferns. In contrast, I wonder what the forest floor would look like from the thick bench-like branch high above, carpeted in a shag-like vibrant green moss. I hear my father call to me, so quickly I scurry to join him kneeling on the moist red earth beneath the juniper. He has on his face an ear to ear smile that seems to hold all the secrets to happiness; in his hand he uncovers a few juniper berries. “Is this a magical berry tree?” I squeak. He laughs as I sit down near the trunk with a low branch clasped in my hand, he watches me cautiously so I don’t actually eat any. We both came to this tree often, and almost always during a rainy day to sit in a nice dry place to take in the density of ferns and thick Douglas fir bark. I would imagine about how far this forest would stretch, and all the adventures I could would someday have, roaming from tree to tree, learning about the secrets they had to tell me. At the ambitious age of three years old, the tall juniper and surrounding temperate rain forest was home to me, but it is no more than a set of archetypal images to me, now acting as forceful sense of nomadism.

Place has become the most fluid aspect of home, where the feeling of home itself is when I feel welcomed and comfortable within a culture. One of six ways Jim Dodge describes a Bioregion, (something I affiliate “home” with) is “Cultural/phenomenological: you are what you think you are, your turf is what you think it is, individually and collectively.” This hearth is based in the culture embodied within the amazing town of Bozeman, MT. It has been a little over a month since I was last there, but when our WRFI caravan drove the great valley between the Bridger and Crazy Mountain ranges the other day, I could feel the presence of home, and could see its spirit blowing viciously atop the freshly snow caked peaks of the Bridger range. Excitement took over me as I began to explain to my instructor, Dave, about the greatness of the high peaks and the chutes I have skied with my friends. It would take a dense novel to explain all the amazing experiences I have shared with my culturally affiliated “homies” of Bozeman. However, like an archetypal memory, the cultural identity I have with Bozeman is translucent, light as thin air, I cannot physically touch it. Bozeman is my hearth. A place I have frequently left, but always felt its rich culture pull me back, like the flame flicking in a hearth, I am drawn to its warmth.

I will return soon, but for how long? With age I have come to realize that this hearth I share with all these wonderful people will one day become as fluid as space and time as Snyder states. It is inevitable, that I will one day migrate again, just as I have the same feeling for all my friends that I share this cultural connection with. This fluidity is Inevitable. I enjoy being nomadic; I have learned so much about myself and other cultures within the past five months. I identify home with culture, and for the past month, that sense of place has been grounded with my ever enlightening classmates and instructors of the Wild Rockies Field Institute. It is important to stay present in the culture you are currently affiliated with as to get the most out of the wonderful time and place we all share. I share my home with these people, our adventures, and all of our distracted, goofy antics. Home is where the hearth always burns.

Claire Anderson: Connection of Soils and Souls

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The Summer Day by Mary Oliver—

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?

The grasshopper I mean-

The one who has flung herself out of the grass

The one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

Who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down

Who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

At first my eyes are drawn to the big trees and bright wildflowers, the turquoise and purple rocks, the birds and bugs. Lastly, they settle on the soil I am sitting on.

We were told to observe our surroundings, so I sat staring at the soil for a while. Just looking at the dirt; searching for any sign of movement or life that I could have missed at first glance. I know there are tons of tiny bacteria and organisms moving around, influencing other essential parts of this ecosystem I’m sitting in, but I just don’t see it. I have difficulty taking time to myself to quiet my mind and pay attention to what’s around me, but the beginning of this course has sparked a conscious effort to reverse this. I want to attempt to acknowledge the processes I understand and more importantly, what I don’t understand, and the significance of relationships happening beneath my feet and all around that are unapparent to me. The soil offers so much more to me than what first meets the eye; a place to sit and reflect on what’s around me.

Our first reading on this course was about natural history and one of the eight steps to becoming a natural historian according to Thomas Lowe Fleischner is attentiveness. Fleischner explained this idea by quoting the poet John Haines, “passionate attention to the world—an attention to which the least detail has its instructive significance—is perhaps the most telling and important trait in our inheritance. Without it there is no art, no love, no possibility of domestic or political harmony. On it alone may rest our prospects for the future” (23).

I really like the phrase “passionate attention” that Haines uses. This suggests a more intense observation of detail that I don’t normally give to things. I’d say I’m good at giving passionate attention to people I care about, but not something like the soil. Yet, it is the soil that helps to sustain the people that I give passionate attention to. The things I pay passionate attention to tell a lot about me as a person, and the things I don’t pay passionate attention to may say even more about my understanding of the “instructive significance” of what I don’t see as important. By starting out with what I care about passionately, say it’s my family, and then paying attention to what sustains them, it is easy to see how connected to me and how precious these tiny bacteria and fungi and lichens in soil are. They strengthen the health of the soil that holds and nourishes the foods that are planted and harvested by farmers and sold to grocery stores or farmer’s markets where a cashier sells the food to my mom or dad, brother or grandma.

This is a very simplified example of how things are connected, but think about what would happen if we did this with everything we are passionate about. I’m a big fan of writing letters, I love having something tangible to give to others that contains words that reassure and affirm just how much they are loved and cherished. What are the resources and who are the people involved in helping me write these letters that are so important to me? I have to think about the paper I have, the person I purchased it from, who supplied it to the store, all the way back to the workers at the paper mill, loggers who cut down the trees, who right off the bat I would say I have no see-able connection to, down to the soil that sustained the tree that grew to give me paper to write my letters and sustain these connections with my people. These materials, people, and processes are absolutely linked to me and the people I know and it’s such a shame to forget that.

Harmony and progress comes through deep connections with each other and that can also be applied to the land. We don’t understand each other because we don’t take the time to sit and listen and quiet our own minds. In order to gain understanding we can have no preconceived notions or biased views of what we’re observing. It is just as important to pay attention and listen to the land as it is other people.

Paying attention to that last detail is hard. I walk over so much soil in my daily life, so much soil! And regardless of taking numerous environmental ethics classes that get me thinking about my connection with the land, I haven’t thought about this soil and all that it holds more than twice, if even that many times.

I think a lot about the poem The Summer Day by Mary Oliver, particularly the ending.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

Into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

How to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the field,

Which is what I have been doing all day,

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

Realizing how little I actually know is overwhelming, but I know how to fall down in the grass, and stroll through a field. Coming upon new environments during our backpacking through the Scapegoat Wilderness, we’ve been asked to sit and use all of our senses to understand the new environment we’re in. These reflections have helped me to be idle.

Just by sitting still and letting my hands slide across smooth rocks and listening to individual water droplets gliding up the shore, I realize that just being open to the fact that I don’t understand how everything works, is half the battle.

So, I do not understand many of the connections that are essential to producing healthy soil and healthy crops, or how much detail and work goes into producing the materials I use every day. I am, however, figuring out how to be still and listen to the earth and realize that it has a lot to say and I just need to listen.

August Schield: The Hypocritical Oath

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I am a hypocrite. I preach conservation of lands, understand the importance of biodiversity, believe in climate change, and spent my precious free time recreating in wilderness and national forest, observing and learning of the natural processes that dictate the ways things are. Yet I play the devil’s advocate because I promote and consume more than the necessary amount of wanted commodities influenced by my mother culture that in turn harm and diminish the world I aim to save. I am no longer, by definition, a wild animal. So I choose or more-so feel the need to have these synthetic objects in order to survive comfortably in these wild lands. I advocate for protection of watersheds so geese can migrate to safe healthy land, but own a $300 sleeping bag made of goose down. I am in the harshest of terms a hypocrite, continually operating on the hypocritical oath. This oath to me is advocating for the environment, against issues such as fracking and booming oil developments and in contrast consuming oil industry products such as skis, jackets, kayaks, cars, you name it. These realizations have been haunting to me as a young environmentalist, and at times make it difficult to find solutions to move forward. However, being receptive of the land and my culture, I am humbly yet shamefully able to ask and answer this question: what is your role in the dying world?

I am only human; consumerism is my way of life. I have realized that conscious thought is the first step to realizing and reducing my own footprint. I am against the 21st century’s oil and gas developments in delicate ecosystems, specifically in the Beartooth front, the ANWR region, and the Badger Two Medicine area; but I drive a truck, own a quiver of 3 pairs of skis, and a plethora of highly advanced synthetic outdoor garments (most of which I replace yearly due to wear and tear). In realizing this hypocrisy I shall move forward into conscious decision making. In such a diligent practice, I can dictate my cultural consumer wants and won’t end up with an abundance of things I do not need. If I continue down this destructive path based on my hypocritical oath, complaining about lack of snow pack, shorter summer ski seasons, and increased frequency in wildfires; then I am a hypocrite. So how do I move forward?

Conscious thought and decision-making are just a part of the process. Taking what I need and leaving what you want to consume does not, in my mind, complete what Thomas Fleishner describes as the “spiral offering,” a way to give back to the land that created your livelihood in the first place. How can I give back to a world that I have, until now, blissfully reaped? It is easy to want all the latest and greatest gear to be comfortable in the wild so that I can focus on my mind experiments and allow myself this wonderful and forever-growing environmentalist mindset in the first place. Now I must take action, learn as much about the natural world as I can and how I can aim to conserve it scientifically. Then I must communicate my knowledge and make noble decisions that set examples for others. No, I am not going to strip down naked and run into the wild to live with the lions and tigers and bears. However, to be a student of the land does not require lavish abundance of gear. I just need to get out there and explore, be receptive and humble as I have the last few days been wandering with an open heart and realize that all I have ever wanted is right in front of me. I am an environmentalist, and although my culture may never able me to break the hypocritical oath, I can practice my ethics to the land day in and day out. In doing this I hope I can inspire you to do the same.

Rae Bronenkant: Paradise Valley Pack-Up

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Rae is an environmental studies major at the University of Vermont. She participated in the 2016 Montana Afoot and Afloat course and wrote this poem about her time in the Paradise Valley.

Three nights in paradise; frozen finger tips, white as fogged breath in the cool morning from the calm practice of of breaking down a tent.
River beside me flows north, across it sits a large silhouette of a Golden Eagle, who occasionally shrieks out across the river, giving feelings of the power of this land.
Though in his name is golden, he does not glow as the Aspens do, who in the light morning breeze blow their leaves, swirling around us to the ground, feeling as though in a leaf globe as the light comes over the surrounding mountain tops and illuminates the leaves even more.
The slow warming of the day causes droplets on frozen blades of golden grass
The angle so perfectly causes a rainbow of gems along the ground
Not diamonds in the sky and only lasting a few moments, this place where we slept last night is littered with gems.
The eagle calls once more, I snap back to breaking down tent poles
Thinking of being woken by the sand hill cranes this morning, my heart sings
This is home
Home is the journey, the moments, the reciprocated wild in my soul, home is ever changing, it is nature and I am in love.

Ben Warzon: What a “place” can mean

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we left the shore of the muddy Missouri, we crossed a cow burnt field and started up a draw. We worked our way through the rolling hills, which flanked the mouth of what would soon be Neat Coulee. We bobbed or way up canyon, slowly pristine white Virgelle Sandstone rose like the walls of Zion. Juniper and limber pine dominated the plant community, species hardly seen down the river. Moist, white sand replaced the gumbo mud and welcomed our softening steps as our heads craned skyward. My neck creaked with the stark contrast from staring at the flat surface of the ‘Mo’ for days on end. With this tinge of pain, I was flooded with confusion. Are we still in Montana? We surely didn’t teleport to the Southwest. But there is no way we are on the plains, or in the mountains for that matter. As we sit at the head of this bizarre slot, all it takes is a moment of presence and it all comes together.

What do I mean by a moment of presence? Basically the simple awareness of where one is by feeling the soil, hearing the wind, and just engaging with the surroundings. The familiar can often let presence slip away, but an unexpected or large change snaps us back rather quickly. For me, the experience of Neat Coulee on the Missouri River was certainly one of those moments.  The initial feelings were definitely unsettling, almost a loss of where I was. Such contrasting landscapes must mean a new place. In reality, however, it meant a deeper understanding of this complex place. This was not an anomaly, rather an important step in understanding the breaks. A billion years of processes have created this place and the experience it provides. It is these intimate interactions that create a sense of a place.

This is a phrase we often hear thrown around but rarely stop to think about what it means. There are many pieces to an individual’s sense of place, but it starts with simply being present.  A sense of place is not an abstract or conceptualized idea. It cannot be defined by science or really even words. A sense of place is as simple as the feeling that you are home after a long day. It might just be a touch of fabric on your bed or the smell of the trees. Truly it is just an awareness of where you are. Without that small awareness, though, we lose our culture, traditions, values and roots. That is place.

On a grander scale, a sense of place means being an engaged participant where you live. We can develop a sense of place by exploring our world–both near and far–all it takes is walking out the door and paying attention. Through these explorations we will become invested in our neighborhoods and communities, we will know more about them and understand what they mean. As I sat in the sand of Neat Coulee, I was able gain a greater understanding of and connection to the mighty Missouri River and the state it is born in.

Shane Randle: Environmentalism & Religion

14976471_1357390087606854_8557159165283576829_oIs environmentalism a form of religion? Environmentalists all share a view on what is important to us in the world: the animals, the land, and the natural processes that surround us. Environmentalism gives us a set of broad ethics that translate into a belief on how to treat the world around us: with respect.

In class we were talking about renewable energy and how solar and wind power are now accessible, cheap, efficient, and being integrated into our national (and global) grid. This discussion followed a tour around the Judith Gap Wind Farm, where we learned about how companies like Invenergy are building large-scale wind farms to accommodate our society’s energy needs and [hopefully] take the place of other types of energy production such as the use of coal. To many of us on the course, we have an ethical obligation to not only support that change, but to also be vocal advocates for that change.

As Derick Jensen wrote in his article “Forget Shorter Showers: Why personal change does not equal political change,” changing our personal habits (in terms of energy use or any other environmental issue) isn’t going to cut it. The amount of water you save by shortening your shower won’t truly help the water issue on a large scale. Instead, we need to work on social and political levels to effect the necessary broad-scale environmental change that we seek. He doesn’t tell us to forego personal changes, however. He simply tells us that those changes are not enough. We need to become activists.

As environmentalists, we generally agree that sharing our views and affecting change is for the benefit of everyone (and everything). We preach saving the earth in order to save humanity. Isn’t this very similar to the evangelizing prominent in many religions? This realization has opened my eyes and changed some of my views on evangelization: people coming to your door to preach religion or talk to you about important environmental measures are just doing what they believe is good and right. Both environmentalism and religion give people not only a moral way of thinking about the world, but also a moral way of acting within it.

These are simply guidelines. Through the lens of environmentalism, or religion, people are able to create their own personal sets of ethics by which to live their life. That’s exactly what we are doing out here. By traveling through the mountains, rivers, and towns of Montana, I’m able to take the general ethics I’ve been taught through environmentalism and make them my own. Then, taking into account my personal ethics, I can become a heartfelt advocate for what I truly believe in.  I can become someone I’ll be proud to be.

Bonita Pernot: Power and Place in the Big Snowy Mountains

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Our group dispersed along the ridge of Great House Peak—the highest point in Montana’s Big Snowy Mountains, standing 8,681’ high—to find a spot to take in the expansive view. It is said to be “the best view in all of Montana,” but all I know is that it had me feeling a little wonder-struck. I looked out onto the plains and distant mountains, felt the wind’s constant rush, and thought about the beauty and power of this place.

I thought that this moment on the summit of Great House would be the highlight of the venture, but this was not the case; on our way down, we stumbled upon a dead bird. We hurried to gather around and see what kind it was and speculate on how it may have died. Initially, I was shocked to see that the bird was a Northern Flicker. What was it doing so far above the tree line? I was in awe over how intact this dead bird was. What caused this bird to die in such a way that it was able to maintain its form? The only sign of distress that the bird displayed was a neck that was weak and cranked to the side. Could it have been caught in an unfamiliar wind current, carried away, and then crashed into the mountainside? These kinds of questions were speeding through my head.

Soon after contemplating these mysteries, a new wonder began to captivate me; the Northern Flicker is a common bird, and while I had often marveled at its flash of orange from under the wings as it flies from tree to tree, I had thought that it was otherwise fairly simple. From afar, the flicker had always looked like a plain brown bird that displayed an occasional flash of orange, but seeing this bird so close, so still, offered an entirely new perspective. There was so much more intricacy to the Flicker than I could have ever conceived. The feathers that had appeared to be a flat brown were actually littered with black speckles, crescents, and spots. Just as I thought that I had observed the full extent of this bird’s intricacy, we flipped it over and opened its wings to reveal even more: the chest was covered with fluffy white feathers that were speckled with black, the tail feathers were sleek, black and long, with orange undertones, the wings revealed a lateral white streak with orange accents surrounding it and black stripes going horizontally near the tips, and a layer of white fluffy plumage created a line near the front of the wings.

Seeing this bird in such pristine condition and marveling at its intricacies was the most powerful moment of my hike on Great House Peak. I examined this bird with curiosity and reverence. I wondered how it had gotten there, but more than that I wondered what this individual had seen, done, and acted like through its lifetime. I longed to know more. Finding this Flicker had me feeling a greater amount of power than I had while looking out at the scenic view from the summit. It’s hard for me to tap into the exact emotions that I felt in this moment, but I know that it was something sacred. I felt the majesty and spirit of the Big Snowy Mountains in looking at this small, perfectly dead bird; a seemingly insignificant moment reminded me of the life and energy that had been surrounding me throughout our entire backpack. It was the dead flicker that filled me with joy, serenity, and reverence for the natural systems around me. My goal had been to reach the top of Great House Peak, but my true treasure was found on the downward slope of the mountain. There is no way of knowing what lies ahead and no way to tell where we will find our true connection with the wild world around us.

Power and place are found in unexpected moments.