Natasha Steinmann

We’re in the Scapegoat Wilderness, just the 8 of us, backpacking for 8 days.  I swat at the multitude of flies that land on my legs.  I freeze in awe as a white-tailed deer bounds out of sight.  I pack in all my food and purify my water.  I gaze in wonder at the sheer massiveness of Half Moon Ridge, or the power with which the DearbornRiver leaps over the falls.  I love being out here, but I am a visitor.  I would not survive “out here” without city provisions.  I do not know how.  I feel a strong and meaningful connection to the Rocky Mountains, since I grew up beneath their eastern edge.  But I still live in a house in the city, still operate submerged in the conveniences of the modern-day world.

If this course has so far made an impression on me, it has been to show me the great variety of perspectives and relationships that different people have with the same landscape and environment.  To urban dwellers like me, the water we drink comes out of a tap, not a spring in the side of an alpine cliff.  Food is bought at the grocery store, and seeing a “wild” animal – such as a bear, wolf, coyote, hawk, or squirrel – is an exciting novelty.  But this is just one perspective.  Others have very different points of view based on very different ways of life.

Part of this course is backcountry, as I’ve mentioned, and the other part is “frontcountry” where we meet with speakers from a great variety of backgrounds and experiences.  On our first quarter of the trip, we met with a Forest Service researcher studying pikas (a small member of the rabbit family) in remote alpine talus fields.  We learned all about the small critters, and how their habitats are being threatened by climate change.  Erik Beever (the researcher) was clearly passionate about the little guys – it was his life’s work.

In sharp contrast, we then stayed with the Thomas Family on their big ranch near Deer Lodge, MT.  At a barbeque dinner they threw for us, I met a family friend of theirs, Denny, with whom I ended up talking about ground squirrels.  To the ranchers, they are not cute little things to be protected (as some environmental folks might argue), they are a nuisance and an extreme setback to their ranching way of life.  Sometimes as many as 5,000 ground squirrels populate their lands, eating the hay the Thomas’s grow, and costing them almost 5 tons worth of earnings in a single year.  So naturally, Denny helps the Thomas’s out by exterminating them with a variety of different rifles he showed me.

On a completely different, but related note, I have understood and experienced vastly different objectives for the uses of wilderness areas.  In this case, I am referring to the Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness on the Flathead Reservations.  We read a paper by Alan Watson (“Traditional Wisdom: Protecting Relationships with Wilderness as A Cultural Landscape,” 2010) that illustrated through research and interviews he conducted, the different points of view that people come from.  From his research (interviews with 10-12 people from both tribal and non-tribal backgrounds) he found that non-tribal residents seemed most concerned with the preservation of biodiversity, opportunities for recreation and escape, privacy, wildlife viewing, and water resources such as irrigation.  In contrast, tribal members viewed the wilderness designation as a tool for protection of not only game animals, fish, traditional foods and medicines, and clean drinking water (its “utilitarian” uses), but also protection of a sacred and deeply cultural place.  For the Missions have traditionally been a place for solitude, ceremonies, and reconnecting with ancestors, an “opportunity to walk in the footsteps of our elders” (8).  So in addition to the simply utilitarian and environmental benefits to a wilderness that tends to be the focus of academic literature, there are also cultural and spiritual ones.  But this again is just one culture’s perspective.  As Winona LaDuke explains in her “Introduction” to All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, the “Native American teachings describe the relations all around – animals, fish, trees, and rocks – as our brothers, sisters, uncles, and grandpas” (2).  How different the world would look from such a perspective.  Part of me wishes more of the world’s population saw our environment as our kin, since maybe then we would be taking better care of our one and only planet.  We all have different ways of relating with and interpreting the world.  That, this course has taught me.

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