The beading sweat from my forehead drips salty reality onto my lips. Fertilizing thoughts of brisk water that rushes my mind faster then the current wrapped around my feet. My shoulders are heavy, the weight of the pack sits on my raw clavicles. My mind focused on the task at hand. Adrenaline courses through my veins like lightning. One wrong step and the group tumbles into the rapids. Step by step, the slippery initiative is complete. Together, we burdened the weight of the packs and the swiftness of the current, relying on the shoulders and efforts of our classmates to continue on our journey. Fording the South Badger Creek in the Lewis and Clark National Forest is no minute task. It does not come with instructions or bridges, it requires an understanding of the river. A reciprocal relationship that acknowledges its strength and beauty. Same is true with our relationship with the land. The task of repairing our broken relationship is arduous, but it can be accomplished. As human populations rise, urban sprawls expand, and limited parcels of wilderness become dampened by regulations, and resource extraction, our relationship with the land is diminishing, and it needs drastic healing. Restoring this broken relationship does not happen overnight. However, with the collective efforts of many individuals, we can bandage the wounds of this earth.
One place to start is with our relationship with the land. This relationship can be constructed through a concept known as “ecological embeddedness.” Ecological embeddedness, as defined by Gail Whitman and William Cooper, is the extent to which a person is rooted in the land by personally identifying with the land; adhering to the beliefs of ecological respect, reciprocity, and care-taking; actively gathering ecological information; and being physically rooted in the ecosystem. An example of ecological embeddedness is the relationship Blackfeet Indians have with the Badger-Two Medicine area in Northwest Montana. They are deeply connected to the physical landscape, which is apparent in their hunting and fishing traditions. They must become well versed with their landscape in order to know where to hunt and fish. These attributes, combined with a strong spiritual and ecological understanding of the area, make the Blackfeet ecologically embedded with the area. So rare is it in our society today to be grounded in one home for a long duration of time. By creating this ecological embeddedness we are creating a personal relationship with the land–even if only while we’re passing through, and are able to watch the growth and adaptations of a certain place. Through this grounded-ness, we develop a sense of place and reciprocity with the land.
The hardest obstacles to overcome are those that aren’t immediately apparent, such as my two case of dehydration causing me vertigo and discomfort. Much like my body’s dysfunction, causing me those symptoms due to lack of water and electrolytes climate change gives visible signals of its effects on our planet. Just as my body overheated, similarly the Yellowstone to Yukon ecosystem’s keystone species have suffered due to warmer, shorter winters and elongated summers. As we hiked into this landscape we dealt with obstacles, and observed them from within.
As the days had progressed some blisters formed as we climbed higher we came across Whitebark pines that contracted blister rust. Where we apply ointment and moleskin to blisters, trees apply sap to blister rust. Yet, these wounds are open to infection, and for the trees rodents and beetles. Rodents gnaw on the sap filled bark, removing it and in doing so girdle the tree. Just as we have have intruded into these mountainous regions, so has blister rust as it has followed humans from Asia to America, and with global climate change up the slopes.
We followed the blister rust up the mountain, we also spotted another traveler how was moving up the slopes, pine beetles. Where we practice Leave No Trace(LNT), the beetles practice their own concept of the abbreviation by leaving no trees. These beetles are natives of the region, yet have adapted their diet from Lodgepole pines to whitebark pines, due to warmer temperatures. The beetles have decimated many of the old groves of the higher reaches of the mountains, with nearly 1-5 trees left standing out of hundreds. As we’ve taken our problems in stride, so have the pines those that remain are resistant to the infection and can withstand the beetles voracious appetites. These pines will retain the biodiversity of these slopes as silent sentinels biding their time, until they can repopulate the area. As we have focused on minimizing our impact as we trek the beetles have generalized theirs, by including whitebarks as a new food source.
I’m an exchange student from Tokyo, Japan. Although my country is mountainous and 68% of the land is forest, Japan doesn’t have the designated wilderness areas. I took this WRFI course to understand the values of wilderness through experience.
Americans like “freedom.” American politicians often use this word. I want to know, what is “the land of the free”? During my time on the Wild Rockies Summer Semester, I’m beginning to think it refers to wilderness.
My professor at the University of Montana, Dan Flores, says that when many European American settlers arrived in the West, most Native Americans were already gone. This was due to warfare, relocation, and the introduction of European diseases. Before this time, Native Americans had altered American landscape. But with Native American populations dwindling they could no longer influence the landscape to the extent that they once had. Wildlife populations increased and many traces of their culture were buried by vegetation by the time European Americans arrived. As a consequence, settlers began to believe in the pristine nature of the American West. Now, we know that pristine nature is a myth. We know Native Americans influenced the land. Non-the-less, Americans would need the idea of wilderness.
In the days of social media and iPhones, when people know more about Googling the definition of wilderness than how to discover it for themselves, I found myself and six other brave souls stepping into the Badger Two-Medicine area of northwest Montana. This land at the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, we discovered, is a sacred landscape just as wild as any other.
As our shoulders ached under the weight of nine days’ worth of rations, and our feet blistered from the never-ending steps of our journey, our thoughts were directed to the idea of wilderness. As defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964, these areas are “untrammeled,” and void of signs often associated with human contact. In these federally protected lands, not even wheels are allowed. This means no ATVS, no motor boats, no airplanes, no bicycles, not even wheeled coolers are allowed in wilderness spots unless specific exceptions are made. Over our nine days of trekking in the backcountry, the group discovered how these areas and their definitions evolved, as well as the different meanings and significance that these wild landscapes can hold. Despite the notion that these wilderness areas are “virgin” or unaffected by man, these lands have been shaped by their human inhabitants for thousands of years. Even the Badger Two-Medicine, a part of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, is an area sacred to the Blackfeet people. Native peoples roam the plains and this section of the Rocky Mountains, known to them as the Backbone of the world, even today. Though these areas may hold different significance for tribal and non-tribal members, they hold importance in the hearts of many.
As we reached 9800 feet in the Snowcrest Mountains our group of seven was exhausted from a long day of backpacking. With stomachs growling, our feet were blistered and exhaustion had almost overcome us. Despite all of this we took a minute to look around. Immediately spectacular views lifted our spirits. Long ridge lines, snowcapped talus, slopes and saddles backs covered in wildflowers. Deep valleys covered with sage and filled with lakes and rivers juxtaposed the mountain peaks reaching towards the clouds. Only the skeletons of white bark pines could mar such a fantastic view. These trees have been faced with attacks from all angles, a fungus called blister rust, a beetle, and periods of draught. Many things play into the mass die off of white bark pines, with increasing temperatures at higher altitudes due to climate change the tree are less able to fight off the beetle and fungus.
Climate change carries a very negative connotation, and rightfully so. It is a topic surrounded by conflict, hopelessness, confusion, and passion. This is the biggest challenge our generation will face on a global and local scale and I believe that to begin addressing climate change, we need to accept that change will happen and find ways to adapt to it. Adaptation is crucial because we are already facing imminent changes, As a part of accepting it we need to see climate change in a new light, we need to find the silver lining. When it comes to the white bark pine it is easy to fall into despair, but there are two things that have accompanied this loss that may provide opportunities for hope. First, we witnessed a wood peckers going in search of these beetles for food. They excavate nests in these snags. Once the wood peckers abandon these nest many other birds can make there homes there. A system of exchange between species over time like this is known as a trophic cascade. Second, as we looked out across a sea of dead snags there were a few dark green white bark pines that had not suffered the same fate. Those white bark pines with enough genetic variation to survive may open a door to hope for their species. The trophic cascade coupled with the few lone survivors may indicate that these ecosystems may be able to adapt. Although the ecosystem may shift in terms of its functions and appearance it may be able to rebound and recreate its self.