Luke Taylor: April Showers

11182036_10206575116639282_2534267895599627309_nApril showers bring May flowers. A saying we all learn as children, repeated to each other when spring rains keep us indoors. A phrase so benign and simple that it rolls off our tongue without commanding a second thought. In reality these five words reflect an incredibly complex and important lesson in ecological systems thinking. These April showers are a herald of life, the rain falling from the sky announcing its intent and ability to bring forth this life with each soft thump against the soil. The molecule of water is what sustains our entire culture and way of living. So much of the water on earth is experienced as rain yet today we seem to shun this gift from the clouds. When it begins to fall we shut our doors and try to find a distraction from the “gloominess” outside. Instead we should strip down and burst forth from our homes ready to revel in our planet’s lifeblood. We should dance around as the rain mats our hair and beads up on our nose until it falls to our feet. It wasn’t until I spent some time on the Hopi reservation in Northern Arizona that this realization came to me.

On my Wild Rockies Field Institute course I got to stay on a small farm nestled against the Mesa of Talahogan Canyon within the Hopi Indian Reservation. This farm exists within the Colorado Plateau, an area spanning much of the Southwestern states that is primarily a desert.  Because of this it doesn’t receive much rainfall, less than ten inches in a year and the April showers are the difference between life and death out here. More than May flowers rely on the falling moisture, trees, shrubs, grasses, birds, rodents, mammals large and small, reptiles, and of course homo sapiens and our crops all need water to survive.

The indigenous Hopi tribe are the epitome of adapting and using what is available to them in order to live in the Plateau. Having the oldest continuous settlement in on the continent, approximately 900 years, they have spent almost a millennia perfecting the art of farming in the area. Our host on the reservation Dorothy Denet showed us around her farm pointing out traditional techniques being practiced all around us. At age 73 she led us college kids up the hill and through the bushes to the spring that sustains the farm. While sliding down the sandy soil surfer like, she pointed out the terraced gardens built by her ancestors, mostly out of commission now these beds were originally created to provide enough surface area to collect water for plants to grow.

Throughout the tour we gained an appreciation for how important agriculture is to the Hopi people. Dorothy explained that it is central to their way of life, indeed their entire culture is based around it.  Most of their ceremonies are intended to produce a good crop and just about every waking hour is dedicated to tending the plants. I found myself wondering how it was possible for such an agrarian society to exist in this land so devoid of rain. The spring we had seen brought some water to the land but surely it wasn’t enough, and what of the other Hopi families not lucky enough to have such a solid source of ground water? Later that night Dorothy answered all of these questions while we chatted around the fire.

A testament to the Hopi’s adaptability and resilience they practice something called dry farming.  Dorothy told us that because there isn’t enough water for irrigation in the area they simply don’t do it, instead they omit from watering their plants at all. Pointing towards a plot of land sanctioned for this practice she explained that when we planted corn there the next day the seeds would rely solely on the water in the soil and the precious little rain that would fall on it over the season.

The morning before planting the corn Dorothy pulled out a bag of corn seeds and explained the second part of dry farming, generational seeds. The seeds that Dorothy held were passed down in the traditional Hopi method from one generation to the next for the entire family’s history. Each crop the strongest seeds are saved and preserved to be planted the next season. Because of this only the plants most adapted to growing in the barren landscape and most adjusted to a lack of water continue to grow. Swinging a mattock to make a hole for the corn seeds a few hours after Dorothy’s lesson I realized just how special a process I was becoming a part of. The corn going into the ground behind me represented hundreds of years of Hopi practice and tradition, hundreds of years of their adaptation to the land around them.

It seemed fitting that while we were staying on such a rain dependent land a big storm rolled in the night before planting.  It dumped on us from 6:00 PM that evening until 5:30 the next morning then off and on throughout the day until a final demonstration the next afternoon. The first night of the rain I found myself sitting in an outhouse without a roof or door to keep out the elements. Getting soaked in a bathroom is not something that I am used to and I wasn’t particularly keen on the raindrops falling down on me. As I sat there I began to realize how important this rain was for not only Dorothy’s farm but also the whole area of the Colorado Plateau. In my group’s four and a half weeks out here this was only the second time that it had rained and in between the rains were long stretches of hot days that baked the moisture out of the land.

At the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River the federal government has classified the last fifteen years as being in drought conditions. This statement is reflected in the increasingly lower and lower surface level in the Powell Reservoir, the manmade lake behind the dam. Despite this current level of drought people still use water in wasteful ways, sprinklers can be seen popping up to water perfectly green lawns in some of the hardest hit cities in Southern California and Big Ag and other companies use and waste incredible amounts of water every day.

These water abusers could learn a thing a thing or two from Dorothy and her farm.  In a much less consumptive and wasteful manner she uses what little water she has to grow a good amount of food. Interestingly enough, by her calculations, the drought has only been around for seven years, half the time the government says! This speaks strongly to her water use practices and the sustainability linked in with them. Spending time on her farm has given my hope that America as a whole can adopt similar practices and begin to address the issue of prolonged drought in the southwest.

Walking back to my tent with all this on my mind with the rain falling heavy around me I now saw the drops as a blessing, not an inconvenience. When the rain stopped the next evening the blessings took on a different form. The sun peeked its way out from the clouds after a twenty hour sabbatical. With a fine mist-the only remnant of the storm- hanging in the air the low level light reflected off every angle of the water drops and basked Talahogan Wash in a beautiful light.  The vibrant orange and yellow and rich purple in the sky complemented the green land perfectly. And what a shade of green! Every leaf, clump of moss and blade of grass was rejuvenated by the water in the land and rejoiced in the setting sun.

I observed all of this from atop of Dorothy’s Meas. My vantage point allowed full view of the wash below me and it was easy to see why the Hopi love this land so much. Still I know this place can only exist in such a state due to the rain. As I walked back to the campfire I began to anticipate the next storm to come through the area. How long until the rain kissed the land again? Might it water the corn that we had planted? Will it come soon enough?  What will happen if the drought were to continue for too long?


Braden Lalancette: The Hopi Way

11196354_10206575116959290_5646699350736631260_nA red-tailed hawk soared above us, it’s screech echoing across the valley and off the mesa before us. As we tilled the field with mattock, rake and hoe, I couldn’t help but feel the energy of this ancient land in the air.

I woke up this morning damp in a soggy down sleeping bag. It had rained and poured whilst I tried to snore all night. I find the pitter patter of raindrops on a tent to be soothing and peaceful, but admittedly I was a little grouchy waking up wet.

Morning came; I crawled out of the tent to our perpetually burning fire. As I ate my blueberry cereal and hot milk, Dorothy, our Hopi host explained how special the rain is for the Hopi, and how it was a great day to plant corn. The Hopi believe this is the fourth world, when they emerged here, Masau told them that when looking for a home they would encounter lush landscapes rich with water and game, but not to be tempted by these, and to move on. He told them of a harsh environment in the desolate desert… a place where no one else would be able to flourish in, or desire to live. This place would require a lot of hard work, but would be home for the Hopi. He gave them corn and a planting stick.

A main factor that makes living here so tough is the lack of rain. Traditionally, the Hopi don’t use irrigation, so this rain was very important. I started to embrace it. Dorothy sent all of us males down to the field armed with rakes, hoes, and mattocks. Our task was to till and clear it of all Russian thistle and other plants that had taken over after the fall harvest. About the time we got down to the field, the rain let up and some blue sky peaked through grey clouds. We got to work and quickly warmed off the morning chills.

After a couple days of being cooped up in the van driving, we itched to use our bodies. We came in hot, eager to move dirt and work the field using human power. While swinging the mattock, I thought about who may have been stepping on this same soil thousands of years ago. Dorothy’s farm has one of the only springs for miles that leaks fresh water all day and night, a rich piece of land.

Evidence of past Hopi was abundant. Just about everywhere I stepped were pottery shards. This whole time, a red-tailed hawk was circling overhead. Letting out an occasional cry that cut through the stillness of the air. The hawk made its rounds and then returned to its perch on a nearby old and weathered cottonwood tree, keeping an eye on us below in the field. Once in a while, the hawk’s partner joined in, the two of them soaring around us… supervising.

While this was happening, the women of our group, led by Dorothy, were up at our camp separating corn kernel from cob. When the cobs were bare, they met us at the field, helped finish tilling, and it was time to plant.

We lined up, five men, three to four paces apart, mattock in hand. Behind us, five women each with a bowl of corn kernels, white corn to be specific.  In Hopi culture, white corn is used in the birth ceremony. It’s in the first meal that babies eat when they’re born.

Dorothy told us to dig down until the soil became moist. The Hopi practice dry-land farming with no irrigation, so it is essential to plant deep enough.

I heaved the mattock over my shoulder and made a hole, took three steps and made another… repeat, repeat, repeat. The women followed behind, planting at least 12 kernels in each hole. Why so many? The Hopi believe that some corn will go to the sun, some the wind, and some the rain or snow. Some corn will go to the squirrels and other animals, while some will stay in the earth. Any remaining corn will go to the people. I believe this is the Hopi way of reckoning with and respecting the natural ecosystem.

And so we planted corn the Hopi way, some sand songs to pass on good energy, the hawk looked on. Right when we finished, dark clouds rolled in and unleashed, pouring rain out to bless the seeds with moisture, just in time. Walking back to our camp, raindrops splashed off my face, and I felt the magic of what we just experienced. It was as if the earth had planned for us to plant corn at that exact time. A lesson to learn from the Hopi: respect the earth, and the earth will respect you.

Lindsey Freitag: Growing with Wildness

lindsey photo for blogI step onto the grass and feel the moist soil between my bare toes. My pace picks up into a sprint, freed from the confines of the indoors. I stop abruptly and watch a squirrel in the distance burying an acorn under a giant oak tree. Waiting until it leaves, I scurry over to where it was and dig up the nut and move it. I continue my adventure and feel sliminess underfoot. Looking down, I see dark purple colored mulberries scattering the ground. I eat one, it’s delicious. A few minutes later, I have a stain around my mouth and a full belly. Feeling energized, I scramble over the fence, separating my yard from the neighbor’s. I enter their small patch of pine trees, smelling the aroma they give off and getting lost in my mind. As I come back to reality, I look around and am disoriented, a sense of fear trembles in my body. I begin to run in every which direction, until I hear a call in the distance, “dinner’s ready.” I follow the voice of my mom; hop over the fence and into my house. My heart beat racing, I am overwhelmed by the journey I just had in the wild of my backyard encased by suburbia.

Since eight years old, my perceptions of wildness has changed as I have experienced places like the endless forests of Vermont, pristine coastlines of New Zealand, and remote canyons of Utah. For me the sense of wildness is the feelings and emotions experienced by humans when in the natural world. It is the fear of getting lost and knowing it would take days for someone to find you. It is having the ability to live off the land due to the bounty of flora and fauna, whether is it eating mulberries in a backyard as a child or snacking on prickly pears in canyon country. It is knowing you are part of the food chain, stealing an acorn from a squirrel or fearing a hungry bear in mountain forests. It is the sense of being alone in the landscape vulnerable to the elements of snow, heat, exhaustion. Ultimately wildness gives that sense of primitiveness, where thoughts are concentrated on current needs and comforts, not materialistic desires.

Now, the wildest I have ever felt has been amongst the sandstone cliffs, snowcapped mountains, and vibrant vegetation of the Colorado Plateau. It began as I tossed my 50 pound pack in the trailer, carrying two weeks’ worth of food and gear. As we drove off to the trailhead, my phone quickly was out of service, roads turned to dirt, and telephone lines disappeared. Stepping out of the van, you feel the remoteness of the Dirty Devil. I was in the sticks now. For those two weeks, we bushwhacked through dense tamarisk and pulled Russian thistle thorns from our bare legs. Trails don’t exist out here. We came across the impressions of dinosaur prints in the ancient mudflat rock, a rare sight. But only to realize that we are part of only a handful of people who have and could access this paleontologist’s dream. We found an entire petrified log in the Chinle formation scattering the trail. Such a sight would have been picked over in a less remote spot. On the next section, following the stream bed of Horseshoe Canyon, we only saw people one day, in Canyonlands National Park. The rest were spent alone, where our voices were the only ones for miles. We came across small arrowheads uncovered by the spring winds. As I picked one up, I realized that the last person to touch this artifact was most likely the person who made it thousands of years ago. Then came Dark Canyon, where there was always a conscious thought of bears in the highlands. It is becoming rarer to feel this presence since many of these top predators have been pushed passed their thresholds by humans.

Seeing this change of perspective from a small child getting lost in my neighbor’s yard to living in the backcountry of Utah, I wonder how my definition of wildness will change in the future? After experiencing one of the remotest areas in the country, will I need to find land even more unscathed by humans in order to expand my mind and feel wildness? Will I become a stuck-up hiker, angered by the sight of other people as I hunt for solitude? As this perception grows, it is important to maintain a conscious connection of humans and nature, and not to be over-consumed that people should not be a part of the natural world. Therefore, a sustainable future is one that fosters these senses and views of wildness to raise awareness and establish relationships with the natural world. It is encouraging children to get lost in their backyards or neighborhood park. It is understanding that the sense of wildness does not have to coincide with a designated wilderness area. It is taking time away from the confines of walls and artificial lighting to explore and be humbled by the power of nature. Such a future would reestablish this connection that has been lost as commercialization and technology have filled that void. Therefore, I challenge you to think about your own definition of wildness, and how you can allow this perspective to grow and better not only yourself, but the community around you.

Marisa Kiefaber: Desert Education

star schoolAlong Leupp Road lies an unusual sight. Thin silver poles rise above the juniper trees and shrubs, their blades whirling in the breeze. As we turn our trusty van off the main road a slanted blue roof comes into view and we see dark reflective rectangles lining the landscape’s backdrop. This first sight of the STAR School is quite fitting since the small wind turbines and solar panels are responsible for powering the whole school. The STAR School demonstrates a system of cultural adaptation and tight feedbacks by diverging from today’s norms of energy use and providing alternative education for locals.

At the turn of the century, Mark and Karen Sorenson began cultivating the idea of founding an elementary school on the outskirts of Flagstaff, Arizona. The couple was not satisfied with the performance of the urban public school system and wished to find another form of education for their own children. After much logistical planning and development, the school opened its doors fourteen years ago. The charter elementary and middle school lies just a few miles west of the Navajo Nation Reservation and is currently the largest and most sophisticated school run completely by alternative energy. Solar and wind power supply all energy needs on campus meaning that the STAR School is completely “off the grid.”

When asked why the school chose to work off the grid, the facilities manager stated that they had no choice, the nearest power line is at least six miles away. The reasoning behind using alternative energy sources may be just that simple, but as our two day visit continued, I got the idea that solar and wind energy use had more to do with modern concerns regarding fossil fuels. It seems to me that the STAR School is consciously adapting and changing in response to stresses such as fossil fuel shortages and negative environmental ramification.

By collecting wind and solar energy, the school alters their community system to create tight feedbacks. If students or staff leave lights on unnecessarily, for example, they use up stored energy that cannot be used at another time.  If there is a streak of cloudy days without collected solar energy then supplies become low and consequences of wasted fuel can be easily understood. This quick chain of events linking actions to outcomes depicts the tight feedbacks in the STAR School community. The close connection to energy sources provides those involved with direct incentive to conserve energy.

The founders established STAR School in response to a vacant niche in educational options for their children. The Flagstaff public school that their kids would have attended was known for large classes, a violent atmosphere and subpar education. Instead of joining the urban school system, Mark and Karen adapted by filling the void with a unique approach to education. The STAR School now provides quality and alternative education for about 130 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, with a demographic consisting of 97% Navajo. Another educational void exists in the schools on the Navajo Reservation; they tend to lack funding and, therefore, opportunities. The Star School adapts to this need by providing an engaging and productive education for many Navajo youth.

The name “STAR School” stands for ‘Service to All Relations’ and the community lives by the Four R’s: Respect, Responsibility, Relationship and Reasoning. Students can utilize their Four R’s in regards to being involved in an off the grid community. They use conscious reasoning to respect the relationship between people and the earth. This fosters a sense of responsibility to protect our planet as they demonstrate their adaptation of alternative energy usage. Obviously, the Four R’s can be interpreted in many different ways, but I find them to align nicely with the school’s choice of solar and wind power.

The STAR School has adapted to the need of quality education by providing hands-on learning about progressive ideas. A very visible example sprouts from the earth all over campus: gardens growing vegetables, herbs and flowers play an important role in the students’ education. Middle schoolers conduct science projects about efficient greenhouse building while fifth graders learn about the sun’s heat and the power of bacteria by creating a compost collection. Students of all ages weed the gardens regularly and harvest vegetables bi-weekly to be eaten that day at lunch. STAR School creates tight feedbacks in their food system by growing their own vegetables and purchasing other foods from the nearby reservation. Again, these feedbacks connect community members to the trials and successes of the food system.

The idea of an off the grid charter school seems ideal in today’s world, so why are there not more of them? Many obstacles stand in the way of quality education unfortunately. From the STAR School example, it seems that the key to overcoming money shortages, political opposition and many other challenges in educational development or really any situation is create adaptation. If your stranded off the grid, why not benefit from the sun?

Mary Loomis: A Cliché Story

Mary Blog 4Leadville was nearly named Colorado’s capital. In 1880, the two-mile-high city was one of the world’s largest silver camps and boasted a population of 40,000.  Today, the population rests at 2,602 and the economy has seen a drastic decline since the closing of Climax Mine in 1980.

Green River, Utah was once a notable spot on the map: brought to life by the completion of the railroads in 1883, and later by the uranium rush of the 1940s. Today, the population hovers around 1,000 and closed businesses line Main Street.

In Leadville, I take in the old buildings, classic western main street, high peaks, and lingering tailings. Its former glory days are apparent, yet one can also appreciate its current modest appearance. Since the bust of the mining industry, Leadville has declined in both its economy and population.

As I walk around Leadville now, I think of Green River as we had been through it this past spring. I am sure that it has not changed much. I can imagine Nelly in the Green River Thrift Store shifting through books. I bet that RVs still dot the Green River State Park, and that a few cars are parked at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum. Perhaps the only difference is that the famed watermelons might be nearing ripeness.

The two towns bear an eerie resemblance to each other. Both were born from the American mining industry, both flourished from resource extraction, and both collapsed from dismantled mining productions. Or perhaps the resemblance is not eerie, but rather cliché. After all, both are western towns. Both are classic stories of boom and bust.

Four months ago, my classmates and I tried to familiarize ourselves with Green River, sleeping in Green River State Park by night, and frequenting the Melon Vine Food Store, Shady Acres Gas & Grocery, Green River Thrift Store, and Tacos La Pasadita – the famed taco truck in town – by day. Nonetheless, our curiosity remained. Where the hell were we? It wasn’t until our visit to the Epicenter that we began to piece together the story of the town that sits between canyons and nowhere.

The Epicenter, founded in 2009, is an organization dedicated to providing housing and business resources while promoting the arts, in hopes to create a sustainable community within Green River. Our visit with the founders informed us of the current western debacle: how does one “save” a boom-and-bust town without resorting back to the unsustainable trend of resource extraction, and without losing a town’s culture to industrial tourism?

Perhaps the answer lies 274 miles away in Leadville, Colorado. Since the closing of the Climax Mine in 1980, Leadville has sought to revamp their economy through a combination of tourism, and emphasizing its rich history and opportunities for outdoor recreation. The city has seen modest success through its annual festivities including Boom Days, a celebration of its past mining days; Skijoring, a ski competition held every winter on the main drag; and the Leadville Trail 100 series, the ultra bike and running races. In addition, its local businesses including Melanzana, an outdoor clothing company; City on a Hill, the beloved coffee spot; and Mule Kick, the eccentric vintage thrift store attract tourists and locals alike throughout the year. Though not as strong as it once was, Leadville’s economy has benefited, and the natural landscape no longer suffers from pillage.

So the question is, can Green River follow suit? How does the town maintain its historic culture, while making way for a sustainable economy driven not by resource extraction, but instead tourism? Thus far, the Epicenter has celebrated Green River for what it is through an art and literary magazine, the Green River Newspaper, and affordable housing projects. But what lies ahead? Could the local community be ready to open their town lines to the public through mining festivals or scenic train rides? Can they utilize the Green River and Book Cliffs to the best of their abilities, becoming another outdoor recreation mecca? And are there any entrepreneurs ready to take a gamble and open a local restaurant or business on E Main St.?

Elly Voigt: Experiencing the Colorado Plateau


We sat with the stream, and talked about what we saw. In the expansive desert of the Colorado Plateau, the pockets of water are the islands. What organisms live here, and what do they do when these seasonal streams dry up? How do the plants survive the drought and the flood? We observe the water strider bugs on the surface of the water. Their larval stages are spent in the intermittent streams, then, corresponding to the dry season, they grow wings as adults and are able to move. We noticed the brush high in the trees and shrubs growing in the wash. Do the spring floods reach that high? Along the canyon wall is another clue- a line between smooth, weathered rock and rough, jagged rock. This stream, now low and calm, becomes a roaring river with the spring floods.

This is our classroom- the Dark Canyon Wilderness, the Colorado Plateau, the world itself. I am writing this from under a ponderosa pine, my back to its bark and seated on a bed of its dry needles scattered with open cones. Its branches shield me from the light sprinkling coming from the grey clouds above.

Place-based learning gives you knowledge and connection like no lecture hall or textbook can. The best way to learn about the natural world is to get out into it- to walk through its deserts, forests, and rivers. To touch the layers of rock as you learn their names, to watch the birds and hear them sing. Throughout this course, we have walked through the Colorado Plateau. We toured the Glen Canyon Dam and saw for ourselves the affects it has on the landscape. Upriver, Lake Powell looms as an expansive body of water in the middle of this desert. Bathtub rings on the canyon walls show how full this reservoir was at its fullest, hundreds of feet above where the water is now. Downstream, the change in flood patterns caused by the dam’s regulations of water release has allowed invasive species like tamarisk to take over, crowding out the native species and affecting the ecology of the area.

These are our teachers- every flower we stop to smell; every speaker, local, and expert we have talked to. We are always learning. From reading about the endangered condor, to talking with the condor specialist for the state of Arizona, to seeing two condors in the wild warming their outspread wings in the sun in the same day.

We learned about the ancient people who lived here thousands of years ago, hiked to the ruins of their granaries, looked up at their pictographs, walked by their pottery shards and arrowheads scattering the ground, and meeting their descendants- the Hopi people. We stayed on the Hopi reservation, and planted corn in the traditional dry land farming method- with no watering. We butchered a sheep with the Navajo people, partook in a traditional sweat, and discussed current problems on the reservation, like diabetes and high unemployment rates.

We saw the effects of grazing on the landscape by crossing the boundary between heavily grazed BLM land and ungrazed Canyonlands National Park land. We crossed from barren desert of rock and sand to one full of life. We talked to BLM employees, park rangers, and locals about these grazing problems to get the full picture.

Getting all sides of issues, and learning to understand the complexity and dynamic-ness of our systems has been a theme of this course. Take this a step further- use this knowledge and apply it to your own life. In learning about this landscape, I have learned about myself. This experience has made me really excited about my own education. I love natural history; making observations and speculations, and understanding the interworking of the natural world. I’ve realized how much you can learn about a place by being in it and paying attention. Look around you- notice which plants grow where, cottonwoods in washes and ponderosas at high elevations. Notice the millions of years of built up rock, cut down by water into red canyons. The earth is in a constant state of change, covered in plants and animals constantly adapting to keep up. There is so much to learn about this world, and the best place to do that is out in the middle of it!

Lindsay Ashton: Graveyards in Montana’s High Country–the death of whitebark pine

10986629_1025587500787116_3718035091574894041_nI stand on a ridge of the Snowcrest Mountains in Southwestern Montana. From here I can see nearly a dozen other mountain ranges, including the snowy peaks of the Tetons in the distance. I look down at my feet and find myself just as amazed as I am by the vast vistas. The subalpine hills are blanketed in color: indigo of sky pilot, magenta of shooting star, periwinkle of forget-me-nots, and yellow of alpine sunflower. It’s June in Montana and everything is full of life. Everything, that is, but one type of tree. This tree’s dull gray color stands in stark contrast to the dark green pines around it and the vibrant spectrum of countless wildflowers. This tree is the color of ash, the color of death. From the ridge, over 9,000 feet high, I look down at hillsides covered in these gray trees. Someone remarks that it looks like a graveyard. It is a graveyard I think as my eyes roam over the expansive cemetery. I wonder why this tree alone lacks the life that the rest of this majestic mountain range holds. It doesn’t take long for me to realize that I already know the answer: these trees are white bark pines, a species that is presently in a state of rapid decline. In fact, mortality in this region is likely around 95%.

I look up to see two Clark’s nutcrackers flying overhead and am reminded of their role. Their long thick beaks are designed to pick out the seeds from whitebark pinecones. Squirrels, too, eat these seeds, storing large piles of them in preparation for winter. This is why I observe a stand of multiple white bark pine trunks lumped together while others stand alone. These trees were planted long ago by Clark’s nutcrackers who bury seeds in the fall and return for them in the spring when food sources are scarce. The large pines, white and gnarled, remind me of old men, whose age inspires respect. Whitebark pines, which can live for over a thousand years, deserve equal appreciation. Their long life span makes recent whitebark mortality even more curious. However, this loss is not a mystery—we know who the killers are. White pine blister rust, mountain pine beetle, wildfire suppression, and climate change are often considered the main causes of recent white bark pine decline.

Blister rust is a non-native species that came to the U.S. over a century ago. A plant parasite, this fungus requires two plant hosts to survive, one of which is the white bark pine. Our second night in the Snowcrests we camped near a few rare living whitebark pines. On them I could see the signs of blister rust infection: swollen limbs and small lesions. Investigating this foreign fungus I poked at a branch speckled with lesions; a neon-orange powder spills onto my fingers. Soon my hands are covered in this strange dust, and I silently hoped that blister rust cannot be passed onto humans. I also notice a few high branches that appear to have been gnawed on and learn that animals like the taste of infected trees. I suddenly have the sympathy for this poor tree, not only plagued by disease but by pesky rodents as well. The chance of survival is probably slim. However, blister rust wasn’t always quite so deadly. In the past, it may have caused as little as 10% mortality in some areas.  That rate has spiked in just that past few decades—the same years in which we’ve started to become more aware of warming temperatures. It’s clear that climate change involves shorter winters and hotter summers in some places. This result of warming temperatures can dry out and weaken the white bark pine in its lower elevations.

The mountain pine beetle is another contributor to white bark pine decline. This insect bores into pine trees to lay its eggs, causing damage that kills the host. Mountain pine beetles have swept through the northwestern part of North America, causing extensive damage to forests across the region. Many trees, such as the lodgepole pine, have elaborate defense mechanisms to protect themselves from the beetle. Whitebark pines, on the other hand, appear to have limited defenses. Climate change is also a potential underlying cause of this problem. In the past, pine beetles have been unable to reach high elevations where white bark pine grows. However, as the earth gradually warms, the pine beetle can now survive at these higher elevations and can attack the vulnerable white bark pine. A warmer climate in general stresses the trees, making them weaker and less likely to survive damage from both pine beetle and blister rust.

Wildfire suppression is also detrimental to white bark pine. It allows spruces and firs to flourish, outcompeting the white bark pine, which needs lots of sunlight and open space to reproduce. Between blister rust, mountain pine beetle, wildfire suppression, and the ever-present threat of climate change, the white bark pine is under attack from all directions. It has little defense and no way to escape. Moving to higher elevations in many areas isn’t even possible—above its current habitat the alpine slopes are often too rocky for growth.

So, we know what is causing recent white bark pine decline, but why should we care? Such widespread death of any species is concerning, but it is especially problematic in this case because white bark pine is a keystone species. A keystone species is one that many other species and processes in an ecosystem rely on for survival. The grizzly bear relies on white bark pine nuts as a food source, raiding seed piles forgotten by squirrels. As people debate the grizzly’s status as an endangered species, white bark pine decline is being considered. This is just one part of a very complex ecosystem. I’m learning more and more how difficult it is to fully comprehend all the complexities of large landscapes.

The countless meadows of forget-me-nots make the Snowcrests backpacking trip unforgettable, but the hillsides of dead whitebark pines do as well. This is one example of what makes a course with the Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI) such an incredible learning experience. I could learn about this issue during a lecture or read about it online, but that wouldn’t give me the ability to fully grasp the extent of it. At elevation of only four thousand feet, the university is far-removed from the home of white bark pine. Backpacking through this area gives me the opportunity to see first-hand the magnitude of white bark pine mortality, to touch its swollen branches, to walk through a forest of dead and dying trees. WRFI allows us to truly experience what we are learning about—creating a more meaningful education.

Climate change is a difficult subject to comprehend because it is not something most people see on a daily basis. The carbon cycle, greenhouse gasses, and rising sea levels are practically invisible. Like observing shrinking glaciers, seeing the magnitude of white bark pine death forcers me to think about the impacts of climate change more than I ever have before. I am awestruck and suddenly inspired to study climate change more extensively. I think I’m finally beginning to discover what I am most passionate about.