Mariel Colvin: The Spring of Youth

I fight myself to not tell her how lovely she is.  She has dark almond eyes that take in the world with an observant urgency, and her hair shines like oil in the sun.  She is a beautiful child on the crest of adolescence and mischievously intelligent.  She reminds me, just a bit, of myself at that age.  There is one stark difference between this girl and myself at eleven, however, and it is the reason I cannot tell her how wonderfully her hair shines in the light.  K. Sue is Hopi.  In Hopi, nothing is given any kind of extra value for aesthetics.  The best compliment one could give a Hopi is a comment about her humility.  This cultural standard is quite different from my own, but it is not my place to take it from her.  So I refrain.  Still, she is an extremely beautiful child.

Her well balanced steps make me feel large and awkward as I follow her up the narrow trail to the spring on her grandmother’s property.  She cups her hands in the cool clear water and holds it to her face.  “It’s fresh!” she exclaims and encourages me to drink also.  I reach my fingers into the small pool and press the liquid to my lips before it runs down the backs of my hands.  She’s right.  This water is fresh.  It tastes sweet and untampered with.  I am stunned by the simplicity of our activity, and it occurs to me that K. Sue truly loves this place.  I think of all the memories she will collect here, and I am tempted to tell her not to grow up to fast.  I resist the urge however, as the phrase is cliché.  Likely she wouldn’t understand anyway and would push forward even faster in order to know what meant.

I watch K. Sue’s eyes widen with a thought.  “When you go to Kachina tomorrow, you’d better watch out for the Hopi clowns!” she warns as spring water dribbles down her chin.  Kachina is an incredibly important ritual for the Hopi.  It is performed to bring water and fertility to their crops.  K. Sue is rather knowledgeable about the subject and is well up to the task of telling me all about it – without taking any breaths.   To be honest, half of what she said was wholly incomprehensible.  It is okay that I didn’t understand her, however.  The important aspect is that she knows what she said.  More importantly even, is her excitement to be a part of it.  She is genuinely interested in Hopi culture; her culture.

All children are living a rare opportunity.  Without knowing it, the survival of entire cultures rests in their small, developing hands.  Today, the world is becoming more and more globalized by television, cell phones, and all kinds of distractions that encourage them to pay less attention to the traditions being passed on to them.   They become uprooted and detached from the lands that bore their ancestors.  It is imperative that the wonder for their own culture persists as it has in K. Sue.  Children like her are the only reason Hopi culture as well as others have remained intact, and will continue to thrive.  Children like her are the key to creating resilient societies that will last hundreds of years.  Children like her, are beautiful.


Kevin Maher: A Small Farmer in a Hard Place

As our caravan of freshly christened backcountry travelers sped down the highway, I couldn’t help but to notice how barren and void this landscape was to me. Rocky bluffs of sandstone strewn across the dusty landscape baking in the desert heat. Bare rock and stone as far as the eye could see without the slightest hint of vegetation. This is a hard place, I thought to myself, the most unlikely place to find a vegetable farm. I was crossed by a spell of disbelief and excitement that we were going to meet the organic farmer we had been reading about, here in the middle of nowhere Utah.  

His name was Randy Ramsley. He was short compared to the average sized man. His long, dirty blonde hair was pushed back behind a baseball cap, while his suspenders held up a new pair of blue jeans. His skin was red wrinkled and sun burnt from half a lifetime spent doubled under the heavy heat of the southwestern sun. His light blue eyes were easy and welcoming, though there was a fire behind them that caught my full awareness and interest. We piled into the small farm house and were immediately served goat cheese aged five months to the day. It was thick and creamy, and tasted like goat. This is how I would remember this man. Freshly baked loaves of bread were cooling on racks to our left as we walked out the back door towards the farm.

We stood before three to six acres of untilled sun scorched earth with a newly blossoming orchard in the back. Including the farm house we entered there were five structures into total: a green house, a creamery, a goat barn, and a tamarisk topped shanty for shade. Beyond that through the rising heat waves the land dropped down into a dry wash and then suddenly rose four hundred to five hundred feet vertical forming a dry butte. Why anyone would want to farm this land I could not understand, though it is here, and it is the only thing Randy has.

Located on the Aquarius Plateau in south-central Utah, Randy’s farm falls under a rain shadow making the region particularly arid. The normal annual rainfall in the area is three to sixteen inches; however the region has been experiencing drought lately and has only received three to five inches this year. Randy is therefore dependent on upstream water taken from the Green River. He is entitled to 12.5 cubic feet of water per second and diverts it to his farm using a small diversion damn and pump system. A small man-made reservoir adjacent to the green house had black and white tubes poking out like straws, which then snaked around the fields to deliver water, a method known as drip irrigation. Drip irrigation, also known as localized or trickle irrigation, is a method which saves water and fertilizer by allowing water to drip slowly to the roots of the plants, either onto the soil surface or directly onto the root zone. With the deserts heat intensity during growing seasons, drip irrigation helps avoid rapid vaporization. With this method, the once barren landscape is now a green oasis.

Randy led us through his fields towards the orchard and goat barn pointing out small grasses and wildflowers he had planted the previous year. We passed through a wired fence door and into the barn and were met by a dozen nervous yet playful kids. They were born several weeks earlier and had probably never seen so many people at once before. The rest of the herd was soon let loose and we were then swimming in goats of all ages and sizes. “These goats,” I heard Randy say through a clamor of yelps and collared bell jangles, “are essential to me.” “They give me meat, milk, and manure. The manure fertilizes the soil and the vegetables grown in that soil give me a profit. Without them I would have nothing.” His love and passion for his goats was obvious, for he suppressed no emotions. He spoke with a pure, honest, and quite rare conviction for his beliefs. Our group was so deeply moved that we needed time to reflect on his words and wisdom before moving on.

In my reflection, this is what I found to be most powerful and inspiring about his man. Despite his tribulations from water rights stipulations and upstream users over-pumping their claim to health inspectors, drought, unproductive crop yield, and debt: he was happy. Perhaps one of the happiest and most energetic humans I’ve met. His happiness was not superficial, or simple contentment, but a deep rooted happiness that radiated from his being. It was happiness unlike most people I’ve met because it was genuine and wrought with validity. It was the response of someone who has sought their passion and dream and pursued it with an undying love and commitment. His happiness came from doing what made him genuinely happy. He could have done any number of occupations that would have promised material wealth and possessions along with any number of titles, but at the expense of his passion, or at the expense of what he knew in his heart would bring him happiness. Instead he quit his job and choose the life of a farmer and goat keeper because that’s what he truly wanted.

He left us with a token of advice that has influenced this entire trip, along with my personal priorities and desires. “Not everyone needs to be a farmer,” he said. “We need doctors, and writers, and business men and women to; just as long as you can demonstrate with your life that you can be happy with what you do.” For a group of college students with a lifetime in front of them, where some of their most elevated decisions are to be made now, I’d say that is some of the best advice we could have received.

Lucas Thompson: Awake My Body

There are days that wear on along the trail. Days of kicking up dust, feet dragging, and eyes on the hot and dusty (trail). Observation and attentiveness has hit zero capacity and the vision of the camp chair and a cup of tea becomes fixated within the mind. The first day of entering into Dark Canyon was no such day. It was one that blessed our senses with an overload of the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures of life in this magnificent ecosystem. It filled our minds with a complex of interactions and functions; thoughts that kept our packs light and legs strong in descent. It is days and locations like that of this day that confirm a naturalist’s gratitude for nature. As Thomas Fleishchner writes; “the role for natural historians as communicators is another turn in the spiral of offering – naturalist paying close attention to the world, feeling gratitude for glimpses of transparency between self and non-self; nature offering peace and insight back; and naturalist offering translations back to human community.” This day gave me many gifts but it was in the glimpse of peace that I received through sense for which I am most grateful. Here is my offer to communicate and translate.

A downward drafted breeze crawled into my sleeping bag, cracking my eyes to consciousness. The groggy, morning awareness brought forth the fact that nighttime dew and sub-freezing temperatures had laid down a thin layer of frost over all of our essentials. We shook off the cold by fueling bodies with breakfast: hot nutrition harvested from stuff sacks, originating from places now far away. This meal combined with the rising sun to warm us and this fine side of the world – the stone and thriving inhabitants included.

We departed our camp, the Woodenshoe trailhead, and even before hitting the trail became spectators of an epic struggle for life between two organisms. The predator of scale, a gopher snake, had wrapped within its coiled body a chipmunk, a mammal of fur that still had the tenacity to fight back. Upon closer inspection through magnifying optics, one could witness a problem. In the effort to trap the chipmunk, the snake had grasped a large portion of its own body in its jaws, as well as the tail of the chipmunk. If it detached its jaws, if possible, it would lose the chipmunk, a least a week’s worth of food, and remain exhausted from a fruitless battle. It had no choice but to hold on until the chipmunk was defeated from fatigue, even if that meant sinking its jaws in deeper, drawing more blood from its own muscle tissue. The chipmunk had its own perspective and concern however, and with bounds of energy, attempted pulling away from the snake, yet inevitably remaining trapped. It placed vicious bites and scratches on the reptile, only to sprawl back on the ground, legs scratching at the soil on the trail.

I lost myself in the perspectives of these two beings – both fighting for life, both with equal and intrinsic right to do so. Is this what Fleishchner meant by transparency? A glimpse between self and non-self? I was at one point the snake; pained by my mistake, forced to follow through with the consequences, regardless of the outcome. I was then the rodent, shocked and frightened, becoming desperate in my attempts to free myself from the grip of death.

Finally, in five incredible thrusts of energy, the chipmunk moved forward, dragging the entire body of the snake with it. By the fifth jump, it broke free. Even though with tail stubbed and leg broken, it would survive for now. The snake, with jaws still latched, feebly slithered into the grass to possibly rehabilitate. A battle without a victor…

Our senses were stimulated now; eyes searching and minds open to the insight that this place was able to give us. We continued down the trail, passing stands of enormous ponderosa pines, spruce, fir, juniper, and cedar. The olfactory nerves were next to be awakened in these thickets as we occasionally stopped to inhale the sweet, earthy red bark of the pine. It was upon the identification of this smell, like vanilla and honey, which I realized it was permeating throughout the entire forest. It was a smell that wrapped me in a state of pleasant thought and uplifted feeling in my soul. The innumerable molecules that I was sensing followed me for the remainder of the day while we traveled further along the trail, descending further into what is known as Dark Canyon.

We came across a few new plant species that we had not yet seen in our travels. Low-lying phlox covered the ground in many places, its green shrubbery and white flowers a stark contrast to the dark and rocky forest floor below. The Scarlet Gilia stood high above the ground via a woody stalk. Its display of vibrant, red flowers that flared out its four petals was not much unlike a firework. Its red color and high position is perfect for hummingbirds to feast on its nectar. This interaction is an unwritten agreement between flora and fauna characterized by trust that the behavior developed by one organism will continue to be complementary to and supportive of another mutual organism.

By lunchtime we had found a place to set up camp and loaf for the rest of the afternoon. The final gift for the day was presented after dinner, when the last gasps of sunlight had streamed over the earth. Our ears were given a concerto from Woodhouse toads, whose throats – swelling to half their body size, bellowed forth a shrill serenade of love. A Mexican Spotted Owl moved in with the grand finale, its unique pattern of hoots echoing into the night. At the end there was no applause, only the sound of crickets as the night pressed onwards under starlight.

With my senses set aflare I felt very much a part of this place, rather than simply a visitor. It is in the blending of self and place that I felt peace. A peace of the mind as its whirring slows into vanilla scent and visions of sunlight glinting off pine needles. And a peace of the body as muscles relax and melt into embracing beds of grass. It is that for which I am grateful.

Patrick Long: Losing Touch with Reality

One thing that I often find myself thinking about is our connections and disconnections.  I feel that in our current society, we have lost most of our connections with nature, with ourselves, and with each other.  Many of us are no longer aware of basic things like where our food comes from, where our trash goes, or even who our neighbors are and what they do.  I think that connections such as these are what are real in life, and in losing them we have, in a way, lost touch with reality.  Instead, we often sit in the artificial climates of our living rooms, watching what we call “reality” TV.  We eat food from who knows where, and set the scraps and trash on the curb where it magically disappears.  Many of us likely have a stronger connection with “reality” stars than we do with our own communities.  Although it now seems to be second nature and normal to live without these connections, things have not always been this way.

Historically, people had a direct connection with nature, themselves and the people around them.  They either produced their daily and life needs personally, or knew someone in their community that did.  People relied upon themselves and their community to stay alive.  I think that these connections are fundamental to all life, and to live without them leads to an unsatisfying and unsustainable life.

When visiting a farm, run by a 71 year-old Hopi woman named Dorothy, we got a chance to experience some of these connections for ourselves.  This farm, though it is small, has no electricity and its only source of water is a seep located on the property.  Dorothy tries to follow in the traditions of her native ancestors while maintaining the farm.  One of these traditions is dry farming, planting crops with no irrigation at all.  While staying at this farm, we repaired her bread oven and, and planted one of the dry fields.

To restore the bread oven, we mixed water and clay from the earth to make a mud.  We then used this mud to fill in the cracks and thicken the walls of the oven.  We got a little dirty, and had to use a little muscle to mix and spread the mud.  But we all thought it was an amazing experience to create a structure using only materials found there in the earth, and getting a little dirty was just another bonus.  The next day, our work more than paid off when we were treated to delicious bread that Dorothy baked in this oven.  This is one example of the many connections we have with the earth.  Nature supplied the clay and water, and in turn we were able to enjoy some delicious food.

The next day, we went to work preparing and planting one of the dry farming fields.  In the hot sun, we pulled weeds and loosened the soil with shovels and hoes.  If the weeds were left to live, the crops would need to compete with them for water.  After all the weeds were pulled and the rocks carted away, the field was finally ready to be planted.  But the work wasn’t done yet; we still needed to measure and stake out where the corn and beans would be planted.  With dry farming, the plants need to be much more spread out to account for the little natural rain that falls in this region.  So we divided up the field, allowing 4-6 feet in between each proposed planting spot.  Finally, we went around to each spot, dug down to the wet sand below to drop the seeds, and then covered them back up.  This was a tiresome and hot day, but our work will not go unnoticed and will eventually help provide food for Dorothy and her community.  We were also able to immediately reap the benefits of out work in a way with dinner, when we ate a meal consisting of last year’s harvest of corn.  Although it was not us, the work we did this year was also done last year to provide this food, and someone next year will be eating a meal produced from our work.  This work is a necessary connection to the land and nature; without it the food would not grow and would therefore not help to nourish Dorothy and her community.

Experiences like these reconnect us with the world.  I first felt this connection when doing an internship at the University of Montana’s CSA farm.  It was a wild and life-changing feeling to know that the work I was doing was actually helping to feed my community.  When talking to CSA members picking up their food, or dropping some off at the local food bank, it was easy to really feel the connection with the community.  Just to know that what I was doing was actually real was amazing.  I helped reconnect me, even if only a little in one aspect of my life, back to reality.

Without connections like these, it is easy to overlook what goes into living our lives.  I think that when we lack these connections it is easier to justify living lifestyles that are completely unsustainable, but have come to be the norm.  If people experienced everything that went into the technology we use, the cars we drive, and even the food we eat; I think that we may feel differently about the lives we live.

I believe that establishing these connections has the potential to lead us into much more satisfying lives.  If we work to establish these connections again with nature, ourselves, and each other; maybe we won’t feel that life is about keeping up with the trends or buying the next “best thing”.  I think that we could maybe be satisfied knowing ourselves and our world, knowing that there is a community behind you that supports and cares.  I think that these relationships and connections are fundamentally necessary, and could allow for a satisfied feeling in life.  Satisfaction is not easily obtainable or common in our society that constantly advertises something better, things that no one can achieve. But that’s just one thought from one person; I believe we need to reconnect the dots between ourselves and nature in order to live a life that’s both sustainable and satisfying.

Kiersten Kemp: Nature: the mediator between heaven and the human heart

Sense of place results from a connection you develop by interacting with and therefore forming a relationship with your surrounding environment. Dorothy, a Hopi woman who has dedicated her life to keeping the Hopi traditions alive on the land her family members tediously cared for generation after generation, strongly believes that your sense of place defines and completes you. She claims to have been lost, not knowing who she was until she married a Hopi man, moved in with his family, and began to learn about and practice living out a traditional Hopi lifestyle.

Dorothy pleaded that upon completion of our excursion through the Colorado Plateau, we discover our own sense of place.

The raw emotion that lingered in her voice as she declared this request ignited a desire in my soul to discover my own sense of place. My first instinct was to resort to my Irish descent. My family has always been proud of, and worked hard to keep our Irish heritage alive. Celtic Crosses, Irish blessings, thick stews, and tales of the lush green rolling hills that sustained my ancestors for generations were a constant presence in my youth.

The more I pondered my Irish heritage in comparison to my time with Dorothy, the more I realized that there was something that burned stronger still within my heart–a connection that burned continuously, portrayed through the overwhelming beauty of my surroundings. My sense of place was not from a specific place, or cultural traditions. Rather it was from my God. I exist because of him. He is love. He is guidance. He is comfort, hope, and peace. He is in the soft golden glow, that dances across the earth at the dawn of each new day. He is the delicate string of dew drops that decorate his intricately designed flower petals. He is the gentle breeze that softly rolls across your shoulders, providing relief from the heat of the day. He is the sweet perfume that fills the air with a sweet scent prior to the fall of every drop of rain; God is the strength of the Sandstone and Wingate walls, that remain powerful and protective through the ages; He is the awe of the canyons, the mystery of the risen plateaus; he is the gentleness of a butterfly as it floats through the air; God is the comfort of the stars and the moon as they illuminate the sky; he is the soft lullaby of the crickets with setting of the sun; he is the relief of a cool, refreshing mist breaking the heat of the day; he is the shade of a boulder in the middle of the desert, the mystery of the blooming flowers in the midst of a drought; God is the elegance of the water skippers as they dance across the glistening pools of life; He is the haunting cry of the coyote as it echoes through the night, and the flight of the bird as it swims flawlessly through an endless sea of sky.

Nature acts as a mediator between God and the human heart. He decorates the world for each and every one of us differently each day. He does this because he loves us, in return he asks only that we love and respect his gifts. That we share his beauty. That we linger in its presence and allow it to fill our hearts with happiness. I believe that humans were created to have a connection with the land. The farther removed are from it, the more lost, alone, and incomplete we feel.

Terry Tempest Williams describes this bond perfectly as she explains, “Nature held the secret to unity, not just outside us, but inside us, no separation” (When Women Were Birds).

Discovering my sense of place has made me whole. I challenge you to discover your own, search your soul, search the land–it is there just waiting to share it’s gifts with you.

Christer Wheat: Navajo Sweat

While crawling on my hands and knees through the threshold of a traditional Navajo sweat lodge, a rush of extreme heat accompanied by utter excitement consumed me.  I have spent countless hours in saunas and steam rooms at gyms and at home, but this was different, this felt authentic and raw.  Once inside this smoldering chasm, the blanket doors closed allowing darkness to swallow my comrades and I whole in enlightenment.

Our gracious host Richard instructed me to make sure that any gaps in the blankets were closed completely, shutting us off from the outside world.  “We do that,” Richard explained, “because it keeps the human, worldly problems, such as fear and hunger, from getting to us.”   With all the small gaps filled, prohibiting the troublesome light from encroaching upon our well being, complete darkness surrounded us.  All that could be seen was a slight glow from the basalt rocks while they radiated an intense heat.

Beads of sweat were accumulating on my brow when Richard informed us that the Navajo used their sweat lodges as a means of socializing as well as a cleansing of the body and mind.  Although Navajo men and women don’t sweat together, there is no sense of inequality when partaking in a sweat.  Your job, your standing in the community, your economic status… none of this mattered in the sweat.  At that moment I didn’t feel as though I was a student among other students or that Richard was our Navajo host, but that we were just a group of men withstanding a great amount of heat in the attempt to get to know each other a little better and cleanse ourselves in the process, simple as that. No need to assign any further unnecessary labels to each other or ourselves.

This was a new feeling for me.  Up until this experience I hadn’t seen sweats, whether in a sauna or a steam room, as a social experience.  I thought of it more as an individual experience where one would want to shut themselves off from everything and everyone else around them.  But for the Navajo it was more of a time to open up to the people around you.  Not only to socialize and enjoy yourself, but also to build a sense of community with your peers and in turn learn more about yourself as an individual.

By this point I was drenched with sweat.  Richard told us that it was good to rub the sweat into your skin, its good for the skin and opens the pores.  While my friends and I were busy rubbing our sweaty selves, Richard began to sing.  He was singing a beautiful Navajo song in their native tongue that we later learned was about the six sacred peaks that define their land boundaries.

With Richard’s entrancing singing I decided to close my eyes, even though it wasn’t necessary because I couldn’t see anything anyway, and think about nothing in particular and everything in general.  I thought about the places our group had been, the concepts we had learned, and the experiences that were to come during the remainder of our trip and thereafter.

Then I realized that the only thing that should be on my mind was what was happening at that very moment.  I was participating in a traditional Navajo sweat, something I had always wanted to do, with incredible people, and was lucky enough to have someone with an immense surplus of knowledge on Navajo culture leading me through the process.  After that epiphany I remained fully in the moment.  Allowing any contradictory thoughts to float past the scope of my attention unnoticed like the clouds in the sky.

I concentrated on my breathing, in through my nose and out through my mouth.  The hot dry air stung my sinuses with every inhalation and I felt any stress departing from my body and mind with every exhalation.  I could feel the constant streams of sweat cascading down my body when the beads of sweat became too large to stay stationary and fell victim to gravity.

Richard finished his song and we thanked him for sharing such an amazing song with us.  We lingered silently in the scorching stale darkness for a bit before Richard hinted that we should probably get ready to exit.  Although I didn’t want to get out, I was sufficiently sweaty and needed to replenish my body’s water supplies before our next round.  Richard called out for someone to open the door and an instant later our sanctuary of unwavering heat and seemingly unending darkness was inundated with light.

We emerged from what seemed like the core of the earth to see that the world we had temporarily left remained the same.  Although the outside world had not changed, it felt as though I had.  Not a complete transformation by any means.  I was still myself in every way except for the way I viewed our small group of academic nomads, my place among them, and the land that we were traversing day in and day out.  I felt as though an unspoken, unbreakable bond was formed between us and the sense of community had been solidified.  These people don’t judge me and I don’t judge them, everyone is accepted and is a valued member of the community.

As the second group of unsuspecting individuals crawled into the shadows of the sweat lodge I hoped they would take away as much as I had from this experience and felt a twinge of pride pulse through me.  If only for the mere fact that they were willing enough to crawl into what looked like just a small hole in the side of a hill to brave severe heat, I was proud.  I was proud of every one of those individuals who had experienced their first traditional sweat along with me.  I was proud to be a part of this group of extraordinarily open and curious people, and I was excited to take what I had learned from that experience back home with me and implement it into my own community.

Ruth Crystal: Wrangling Meat

       Coming from a family of vegetable enthusiasts, meat has never been a center point in terms of meal planning or meeting nutritional needs. When I do eat meat, however, I try to buy organic, humanely treated, local meat whenever possible. That way my carbon footprint and moral conscience can be somewhat eased. I was always aware that farming and ranching require a tremendous amount of determination and effort, and was therefore appreciative of high quality, healthy food.  Several days ago, I had my first hands-on livestock experience on a Navajo reservation, taking care of sheep and goats by administering vitamins and shearing their winter coats. Now, I’m realizing there is a lot more to meat consumption than deciding what meat is the most ethically pleasing to purchase. This culture shock opened my eyes to the fact that no matter how aware we are of meat production, there is still that element of disconnection between raising livestock and pleasing our primal meat cravings.

      It was a dry, dusty afternoon when we pulled up to the open lands of the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Our group of twelve was getting adjusted to the new landscape of blinding white Aspens, towering pine trees, and abundance of ground cover against the rich orange soil. Going from over a month spent in the canyon land back country, to the bustling town of Moab (which was coincidentally hosting the annual car show), to an unfamiliar reservation was a lot to adjust to in several days. Not knowing what to expect, we were greeted by Navajo tribal member, Robert, who gave us a brief history of the Navajo culture and then asked if we were ready to help with daily tasks. Figuring we would be feeding sheep, watering plants, or preparing food, my stomach sank as Robert uttered words I hoped to never hear, “okay, we’re going to go vaccinate sheep.” Officially out of my comfort zone and seeing spots as my squeamish ways began to surface, I set out with our group of 12 up the hill and to the sheep pen.

       For everyone’s sake, I figured it would be best to take on the least invasive job possible: wrangling. Running around half trying to grab a hind leg, half hoping I would fail, I couldn’t help but laugh at how pathetic I must look to the Navajo residents. A fourth grader, Nakota, was sitting on a nearby fence pointing out which sheep he would aim for and telling me when to lunge in hopes of helping me catch at least one sheep. After much jumping, lunging, tripping, and squealing, I finally managed to grab a hind leg with both hands as the sheep tried with all its might to break away from my grasp. Kicking and screaming, I dragged the confused sheep out of the corral to then be injected with vitamins, have its ears cleaned, and then be sent on its way once again. With a sigh of encouragement, I repeated this process with others several more times until every sheep was checked off as healthy. Stunned, but relieved, we patted ourselves on the back as a job well done as we cleaned up and gathered around Robert for our debrief. Apparently please with our hard work, we were then invited back at nine in the morning to help sheer the four goats. At this point, a traditional sweat was much needed and appreciated to prepare my muscles to once again be placed out of their comfort zone and handle the livestock.

The morning was warm, food plentiful, and silence peaceful. We then packed up the trailer and began our walk, once again, over to the corral full of woolly livestock and one camouflaged sheep dog named Justice. Unlike sheep that can be sheared quickly with electric blades, goats required the traditional, two-bladed, hand-held sheers which requires a much greater deal of concentration and technique to complete. The process of sheering a goat is lengthy, and entails wrangling (but not dragging) one by one, tying three legs together, flipping them on their back, supporting their thrashing mass with your body, and then sheering in a straight line as close to the skin as possible. In all honesty, I was terrified as I stepped back and watched people go up one by one to attempt to please Robert’s brother, Richard, by doing a clean and efficient job. As flashbacks from the day before kept surfacing in my mind, I was searching for ways to help with the process but not get involved with any physical livestock handling. After three volunteers happily left the corral to help prepare a hearty breakfast of fry bread and blue cornmeal and lamb stew, I was left watching group members switch out one by one, until I was the only one left who hadn’t experienced the process of traditional goat sheering. With nowhere else to run, I pushed past the mental block of forcefully handling livestock and made a few snips myself. Thanks to reassuring nods and encouraging words to try something new, the goats made it out of our trial run unharmed, and looking better than ever.

Farming and gardening has always been a huge part of my life. It gets you outside, clears the mind, keeps you active, and makes you truly appreciate a homegrown meal of fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs. It is also extremely rewarding to see what hard work and time can produce. As we drove away from the reservation, I kept thinking about the experience and what it meant to me in terms of feeling connected to the food choices I make. Raising livestock is a long and difficult process, and requires being able to be forceful with these animals in order to make sure they are happy and healthy. The Navajo reservation livestock have a pretty lavish lifestyle, complete with free ranging and a supply of food and supplements. Only once and a while they need to be collected, wrangled, and cared for. The fact that this process made me want to physically run away and never turn back made me realize how disconnected I was from the process of raising livestock for meat.

If there is anything I took away from this experience, it is that purchasing meat requires much more thinking than what labels are printed on the packaging. Just as we need to be conscious where and how our fruits and vegetables are grown, we need to remember where and how our meat is raised. Putting in hard days of work to grow a garden and appreciate a freshly picked meal is one of my favorite feelings in the world. If I had to properly raise a sheep and put in as much effort as growing a garden, I would not feel the same rewarding feeling. That being said, this experience on the Navajo reservation created a shift in my thinking. The next bite of food you take, remember how much effort it took to make the meal possible. Ask yourself if you’re willing to wrangle your dinner first.