Rosie Cohen: Heart Map


Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.


Six weeks ago, our instructor, Nancy, read Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” to us in a lush meadow sprinkled with wildflowers in the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I remember sensing the power of her poem. But in many ways, it was a collection of sweet words that I didn’t yet understand. After spending these past six weeks immersed in the tangled beauty of wild lands, I live her words more every day.

Through some sacred, ancient process, or perhaps a wild miracle, I emerged from my time in the wilderness knowing my place in the world. It was fascinating to discover a feeling that I did not know was missing. Before, I remember living with an amorphous feeling of unrest. A vague dissatisfaction that was too subtle to taste or ever fully process. I moved around a lot, yearning for something unknown. Fulfillment slipped in and out of my life like water through my fingers.

In the backcountry, with my beautiful WRFI babes by my side, I felt completely emotionally fulfilled and at peace. Every day, these feelings got stronger. Every day, the vibrancy of the world around me announced itself. There were moments when I would look at the people I was with and the beautiful life we had created for ourselves and I would feel so good I thought my heart was going to explode. I honestly had no idea such a thing was possible. Happiness was a familiar feeling, but it had never before been a lifestyle.

Fascinated with this transformation, I longed to figure out where all this goodness had come from. I wanted to map the path to this feeling so I could always find my way back. I distilled four lessons that I had learned in the backcountry, four ingredients that together made perfect peace.

First, humility. The wilderness, in more ways than I could count, shook me to my bones. It showed me unquestionable reminders that I was small. I remember the deafening cracks of thunder. I remember feeling the soft pulse of a lightning bolt that traveled through the earth to my toes while they hung innocently off my sleeping pad, meeting the ground. I remember being pelted with hail and winds while I tried to cook dinner, clutching the pots to keep the boiling water from spilling on my lap. I remember seeing the fresh tracks of grizzlies in our campsite, and pleading for the sun when the sky wouldn’t stop raining.

These moments bled into my discovery of vulnerability. Vulnerability is no different than honesty. When you’re shivering and you crave warmth, announce your needs. If you’re lucky, soon you’ll be wrapped up in the center of a cinnamon roll hug, or nestled into the heart of a noodleneedle nap. Ask and you shall receive. Be honest about your mushy insides and people will feel safe with you. It’s easier for people to love you when they can see all of you.

Humility and vulnerability settled in my heart after I learned that I was susceptible to the same natural forces as everything else. I fought off the same chilling winds as the wildflowers. I survived the same thunderstorms as the wolverines. I feared the same predators as the elk. All the while, we shared the same joys. We all rejoiced under the hot, sleepy rays of the sun. We all knew how to appreciate a good meal, and how to work for it. After recognizing this unquestionable unity, I saw myself enmeshed in the fabric of the world.

Despite my exposure to certain dangers, simply knowing my place in the world made me feel safe. The world, befriended, was welcoming and comfortable. I was ready to explore. Empowerment, my third ingredient. The rush of scaling a rocky cliff by myself and yearning to climb higher. Scrambling up rocks. Sliding down snow. The unbelievable feeling of gratitude and pride after peaking out on a ridgetop and seeing the contours of the earth carved out beneath me.

Finally, purpose. Just like the elk, I did not spend my nights awake, anxiously processing fears that life is meaningless. I slept deeply, anchored to the earth by the soothing weight of my full heart. Under the stars, there was no question of what my purpose is. I learned, as I know now, that I am here on this earth to be and to love. To love the earth, to be with the earth, to be of the earth and for the earth. To love and be with all the little creatures, and the big creatures, the people and plants that make up the fabric of life.

Now, with every uncertainty, I remind myself, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” I gaze into the beauty and mystery of the world around me, I see my place in the tangle, and I let my heart guide me forward, stepping graciously into my future.


Natalie Stockman: Spirituality and Place

Natalie blog 2After spending a few hours unsuccessfully pushing Dolly, the WRFI van, off a sandy road as the sun set, we walked up the dirt road that rose to meet the mesa. Our host’s car headlights were shining on her willow branch topped hut. A large pot sat atop an open fire with aluminum foil maintaining the surprise of dinner. Everyone smiled, elated to be at our host’s farm.

We stayed with Dorothy on the Hopi reservation for three days to help her tend to her new garden. Every night we sat around the campfire while she shared her cultural teachings with us. The land is central to the long-lived Puebloan religion. Even though our host quickly shared what she felt comfortable with, I learned some of the complexities of Hopi tradition.

My original idea for this journal was to demonstrate the resilience of Hopi culture with what I learned from our host. After thinking on it, I ultimately decided against it because of what we experienced on Hopi. She told us that most research and books published about the Hopi people were published without proper permission or were incorrect. This incredible breach of trust is sometimes used merely for personal profit, with little regard for the effect it might have on the Hopi. The history of information abuse and fabrication by outsiders made me feel all the more honored that our host shared what she did with us.

I grew up in a relaxed Catholic tradition where, as a young adult, I was able to choose what I wanted to participate in. Along with being an American, I feel that my spirituality was never catered to my place. Looking back on it now, my faint sense of place on Lake Champlain as a child was never referenced as a relevant factor of my spirituality. In this way, I can understand how non-native Americans are attracted to a spiritual tradition that is centered in specific landscape. Cultural appropriation can become construed in that way because it often disregards the aspect that makes native religions unique, the place. When we visited our host on Hopi, she described the significance of corn to the Hopi people. But it seems wrong for me to attach an artificial spiritual connection to corn, because I don’t feel interconnected with corn and I don’t consider it mother corn.

It is not unusual for non-native Americans to have a fascination with place-based spiritualties. The nature of European colonization lacked respect for the earth, its resources, and the native people that inhabited it. While ironically after so many decades of brutality and disrespect of Native Americans by non-native Americans, many non-natives have developed a romanticized view of Native American spirituality. Romanticism and ignorance have led to inevitable misappropriation of spiritual traditions. The dominant religion and general mindset in the USA originates in the Christian tradition. Although the religion originated in the eastern Mediterranean, also known as the Levant, because of its history in Europe and it’s use throughout the rest of the world, (often by means of colonization), Christianity has largely lost its connection to place. Christianity transformed to relate to the lives of many different people on many different landscapes; therefore, once in the United States, it became clear, when compared to indigenous spiritualties, it didn’t connect to the landscape or many of the earth’s natural system.

Even though many Americans don’t identify as Christians, it is the predominant religion in the US and it played a large role in the formation of this country and its laws.  I believe that our innate curiosity with native spiritualties stems from this uninformed and disconnected aspect of dominant American culture. While this curiosity should not be completely stifled, as non-natives we can sometimes make uninformed assumptions, exploit the knowledge that we obtain, or inappropriately take culture out of context. Anthropologists can overstep their boundaries in this regard. While the intention to share unfamiliar cultures and religions can be pure, it can often do more harm than good. Native Americans should have complete control over texts and information that attempts to disclose details about their way of life, because it reflects who they are. For that reason in particular I choose not to divulge all the information that was gifted to me and I recognize that though I was granted some new insights with what our host shared, she doesn’t represent all Hopi people nor do I understand the complexities of the Hopi tradition or identity.


Bonny Filker: Flooding Happy Canyon

Bonny's Blog 1It could be the wind’s optimism that pushes up against our burly tents. We’ve set up camp in an alcove uniquely colored with ancient shades of rose and orange layers, deposited sand. I could not have grown to such a point of appreciation for rocks without having walked through these geologic bouquets. This is the White Rim Sandstone.

After days of hiking down the opaque Dirty Devil River, involving escaping quicksand and bushwhacking through buoyant whips of Russian Olive, and thorns of Russian Thistle, we’ve made it to Happy Canyon. At the base of these grandiose walls, about the local resilient species, the slot canyon in front of you is only offering one direction and that’s forward.

The faded walls are meandered by the wind. Curves make it impossible to see much farther past the layered pastel maybe 15 yards in front of you. Describing this scenery is important because it’s at risk of being lost to flooding for Tar Sand development, an energy resource scientists’ have been outspoken against. Its development isn’t cohesive to meeting the 2 degree Celsius global average temperature increase, which holds value in mitigating so we can keep our planet habitable for coming generations of humans and other living beings.

It’s the Bitumen U.S. Oil Sands, a company based out of Alberta, is trying to extract from the sands, which would flood this canyon in the process of diverting the water. The White Rim Stone layer is the remnants from a time where the Colorado Plateau was an ocean. The Bitumen being the ancient, dead algae and plankton after it’s been subjected to the pressures of the ‘Oil Window,’ temperatures between 90-160 degrees Celsius. Tar Sands are essentially expired oil deposits, having gone bad after microbes had the time to eat the lighter hydrocarbon materials with relatively lower Viscosity. That’s why Tar Sand deposits are referred to as ‘nonconventional oil deposits;’ trying to extract the thick, molasses like tar isn’t cost effective because the refining process, which breaks down these long carbon chains, is wildly expensive (notably in energy costs) and wouldn’t even be thought of if there weren’t subsidies for the grime.

Reasons why Tar Sands are propagated include reduced reliance on foreign oil and as an opportunity for job creation. But then why aren’t there subsidies to make cleaner renewable energy sources like solar cost competitive? The state of Vermont employs over 16,000 people in the renewable energy sector, which sees about a 10% employment increase every year since subsidizing Solar, making it cost competitive and a viable option for more Americans. This reduces the energy dependence while creating good paying jobs, facts that disassemble the foundation of these arguments. Also, solar is a renewable resource. When these extractive resources and done what will be left of the landscape and employment opportunities.

Extracting in the Dirty Devil proses devastating risks to the area. The extraction process uses massive amounts of water; a scarce resource in the arid climate. Steamstripping and Sandwashing are the processes in which the Bitumen is extracted from the Earth then refined to become more viscose. In the first year of the Keystone pipeline’s existence, there were over 14 spills the company didn’t know about until community members reported their water being flammable and smelling of oil. If there were to be a spill here, which is statistically likely, no one would be around to report about the spillage. All the life in the area relies on this water source for life, then it flows into the Colorado River, to be used by the Glen Canyon Dam and further down Lake Mead. The Glen Canyon Dam provides water to Page, Arizona among other uses. Further down the water is used by the Lake Mead dam, which provides water to Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and other communities. Plus the long carbon chains will continue to retain solar light energy and convert it into heat energy perpetuating anthropogenic climate change whose physics’ suggest that the arid areas, like this desert, are only going to become drier. Tar Sand development doesn’t make sense to a person who values human health, so why would this be considered and economically rewarded when people are imprisoned for manslaughter. Proud to oppose.

Nathan Huck: The Resilient Range

Nathan's Blog 1As our group began our seventh day on a backpacking trip in Horseshoe Canyon, we started using the phrase “Hike like a wild cow,” trying to follow cow prints to find the easiest routes through the canyon.  After decades in these canyons, the feral cows have found all the best routes.  Their trails are extremely welcoming to a groggy group of backpackers still waiting for the morning coffee to do its magic. As we walk down the canyon wash, we are careful to avoid microbiotic soils – a combination of fungi, lichen, mosses, algae, and bacteria that facilitate plant growth in arid regions.  As we walk, however, I notice a substantial amount of hoof prints in the soil, likely made by the feral cows and wild burrows in the area.  This is slightly upsetting, especially knowing that patches of the soils may take decades to a few centuries to grow.

After walking for another hour or so, many of us notice an old livestock stable that looks as though it has been abandoned for almost a century.  The fence was made from graying and twisted wood logs, possibly made from the local pinyon or juniper trees, and you could tell it had been broken in several areas.  Walking a bit further, we made it to a fence which separates BLM land and an area of Canyonlands National park containing many mixtures of Native American petroglyphs and pictographs known as the Great Gallery.  On BLM land side, the microbiotic crusts, grasses, flowers, and the bushes seemed to be very scarce and dispersed.  On the Canyonlands N.P. side, it was like stepping into a new world.  There were the same plants, yet everything was much more thick and prospering, with much more vegetation everywhere you look.

What was the cause of this?  People often argue about the amount of grazing that should be in this region.  Feral cows and burrows are species introduced to this area during the 19th and 20th century, and were abandoned along with ranching operations.  Over the last few decades the National Park Service has tried to round up all the resident feral cows and burrows.  The difference this makes in an area is astounding.  Resilience on the Colorado Plateau, as well as every other environment on earth, is essential in order to allow humans to prosper and maintain ecosystem health. Resilience, according to ecological scientists Brian Walker and David Salt, is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain basic function and structure.  Too often we see humans destroying ecosystems across the globe in order to make a quick buck.  The idea of optimization, or exploiting a product, such as rangeland, for maximum yield, never works in the long term when applied to limited resources.  Since the National Park Service round up, the resilience of the environment in Canyonlands N.P. allowed it to bounce back to what it is today.  Although it is probably not the same as it was prior to grazing, I can see it has improved quite a bit over several decades.

Overgrazing has been an issue in America for hundreds of years.  The impacts of overgrazing have had a profound effect on ecosystems and humans in the past.  Prior to the Taylor Grazing Act, ranchers across the Colorado Plateau and many other western states ran cattle all over the land with little outside regulation. So many cows and so few regulations allowed cows to trample top soils in several ecosystems, often causing large amounts of erosion in riparian ecosystems, and often allowing sand once trapped under microbiotic soils to blow away with the wind.  This lack of management strategy helped cause the great dust bowl of the 1930’s, destroying farms and ranches and bringing dust storms all the way to the east coast.  Regulations have since been passed to help reduce the impact of grazing on ecosystems.  However, change only came when humans were being directly affected by the consequences.  Does this always need to be the case?  Do people need to always wait until a problem is directly affecting us in order to fix it?  I don’t believe people, at least most of them, wish to disrupt the resilience of an ecosystem and watch it wither away, leaving it useless for future generations.

In The Rediscovery of North America, Barry Lopez writes, “In forty thousand years of human history, it has only been in the last few hundred years or so that a people could afford to ignore their local geographies as completely as we do and still survive.”  People have become extremely disconnected with the environments around them, a connection that once was at the foundation of our basic needs.

Most people still believe they know what is best for the land, and refuse to acknowledge other ideas on what land should be used for. The tendency we have of trying to get the most we can out of the land has proven time and time again to bite us in the long term, but competing markets often make people feel the need to do so, thinking about the short term rather than thinking resiliently of the future.  It is my hope that mine and future generations will begin to clearly see the possibilities of thinking resiliently, and together we will be able to once again work with the world, rather than against it, and truly begin to reach our potential for sustainability.