Ben Warzon: The Uplift of Education

benWe often spend our days of academia sedentary, stimulating only our brains, and that’s on the best days. For many of us on this course, sitting in one place being showered in fluorescent light is one of the hardest tasks of the day. Sure, if you asked me to haul an 80-pound pack up 8,000 vertical feet in a day, I would do it. But sitting in a plastic chair for two hours of PowerPoint guided lectures? I’ll pass on that. Of course, this is no revelation. This topic has been studied, discussed and experienced by many people for years.

The true realization though, comes with living in a state of both education and exercise in the field. On our layover day of the Scapegoat backpack, we participated in an hour long study of a single plant. This was one of the most interesting academic exercises I have ever done, and still, I could not truly focus. I gained a plethora of information and certainly appreciated it, but I was not feeling satisfied immediately after. The afternoon held a hike up Scapegoat Mountain for 5 of us. Leaving camp sometime around 3 pm, time wasn’t plentiful, but vertical gain to the top certainly was. We endeavored on a roughly 6-mile round trip with 2700’ to climb, and then descend. As we motored out of camp, lactic acid and heavy breathing came very quickly. The focus I had lacked that morning came even faster though. The lung-busting, screaming-quad climb was as much mental therapy as I have ever had. My mind was instantly able to focus on the Shrubby Cinquefoil, my plant friend from the morning.

As we sat atop the striking Scapegoat, one of my biggest life lessons of the course this far was certainly not novel, but it was starkly clear. Our mental and physical selves are much more integrated than they are separate. This course and form of education in general, give us the invaluable gift of working both concurrently and equally. The words “holistic” and “unity” are often condemned as “hippie ideals,” but, as we are in touch with ourselves, the two halves integrate so instantaneously. Do we really believe that the minds of young women and men will be more open while in physical captivity? Certainly the education system is much more good than bad, but this is a huge oversight it has.

As I move through the landscape dominated by towering limestone cliffs, I can’t help but relate to it. These striking features formed through eons, first born as an ancient sea bed. The land lay dormant and gathered huge amounts of material as creatures passed away and sediments settled. Physical motion caused the uplift 170 million years ago that made this into an inspiring landscape able to share its lessons readily. Much like these mountains once buried and since uplifted, it is our motion and exposure to the real world that makes all of the material we have gained in school usable and impactful.

Bonita Pernot: Nature’s Gift; Enjoying the Present

14484798_1316796038332926_3848645577341254572_nPracticing mindfulness can be difficult—and sometimes nearly impossible—in day- to-day life. Forty hour work weeks, stacks of schoolwork and social media are just a few of the distractions that keep us from being fully present. I often find myself battling between keeping up with the speed of society and taking time to absorb the world around me. While being mindful can be challenging, there are ways that I can achieve it. Being in the back-country is where I find myself fully present, and after spending eight days in the Scapegoat Wilderness, I was able to reflect on the things that make it easier to be present in the back-country than in everyday life.

There are many aspects of backpacking that allow me to be more mindful, the first being the opportunity for solitude. The vast expanse of land that the back-country offers makes it easy to find time to be with myself, time that is necessary for personal reflection. With personal reflection I am able to take note of my needs, wants, temperament, emotions, physical well-being, and spiritual state. It is important to take time for inward reflection in order to be fully aware and present. While it is possible to find such time in everyday life, it does require a bit of effort, which ultimately takes away from living in the present. In the back-country finding solitude is quite effortless, allowing mindfulness to take its rightful place within my life.

Another aspect of back-country life–which fosters mindfulness–is exposure to the elements. Being outside 24/7 not only forces me to deal with the changing weather, but it also requires that I pay more attention to what is going on around me. On our third night in the Scapegoat, a lightning storm rolled in as we were preparing to start our lesson on Blackfeet culture. Needless to say, our lesson did not pan-out as it was intended to; our first priority was putting on our rain gear and finding a safe place to assume lightning position. We put on our rain jackets & pants, numbered off, and dispersed ourselves among the trees.  As we crouched down and waited for the storm to pass, we began our lesson. The rain maintained a steady pour, the thunder boomed on, and the lighting illuminated the darkened sky as our instructor yelled out our lesson. This was not what I was expecting class to be like on this night, but it was beautiful and enriching in its own way.

As I experienced on the third night in the Scapegoat, each day brings a new set of systems, which have the potential of changing by the hour, or even by the minute. There is no way of knowing exactly what is to come, and no true escape from any harsh conditions that I may be faced with. While this is challenging, it ultimately forces me to be fully aware of the present conditions in order to be prepared for what I am faced with. Beyond that, enduring the elements allows me to appreciate varying conditions for what they are: intense sunlight warms the soul, rain storms quench the earth & awaken the senses, bitter cold reminds me that I am truly living. Often times I find myself most absorbed in the present moment in times of fear, hardship, or even discomfort.

Perhaps one of the most obvious ways that back-country living enforces mindfulness is through minimalism. When backpacking, there is no desire for luxury items; since all of my possessions must fit in my pack, there is only room for items that are truly necessary. Anything extra turns out to be a hassle, and unnecessary items left at home are never deeply missed. By cutting down on material possessions, I am able to spend less time worrying about silly things like what I should wear, bring, or use. Through this process, I am able to focus on what is happening in the present moment. Less time with material objects means more time to engage with the people and places that I am currently in.

So backpacking allows me to be more mindful, but why is this so important? Mindfulness equates to happiness in that it forces acceptance of conditions that are out of my control. Learning to enjoy “the now” is the only form of truly living. This may seem like a bold statement, but take a second—or two, maybe three—to think about it. Why trap yourself in the hells of dwelling on the past or being anxious about the future when you could simply be enjoying the present moment for what it has to offer? The next time that you find yourself worried or stressed, I challenge you to find the things that allow you to be mindful, to be present. Slow down, take a walk, breath fresh air, and focus on living in the moment. Choose happiness; choose life.

Kimberly Rivers: An Old Question with a New Answer

kimberly-riversEvery summer of my life has been spent in my home state – North Carolina – and that has been very comfortable. Easy trips to the beach and long days spent by the pool. This past year, though, something changed. For the first time in my life, I wanted to make myself uncomfortable. It was my last summer before graduating from college, and I knew I needed to step out of my comfort zone a bit. By sheer luck, I found out about Wild Rockies Field Institute from a flier all the way across the country from Montana, in a classroom building at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Fast forward through the application, the invitation to join, and my decision to take the Environmental Ethics course – that’s when I first asked myself my big question of the summer: “What have I gotten myself into?”

Before taking the WRFI course, I had never been to Montana, never backpacked, and had never even been outside of North Carolina for longer than a week or so. After learning more about the intensity of the course and all the equipment we would need, I wondered: “What have I gotten myself into?” When literally everyone I told about the course warned me to watch out for bears, I asked it yet again. I had no experience and really didn’t know what to expect. The closer it got to the start of the course, the more nervous I became. I packed my new, huge backpack before I flew out to Montana, and after struggling to lift it up and put it on, I asked the question yet again.

For our first day on the trail, my new WRFI friends and I were only hiking about 3 miles into the Bob Marshall Wilderness to get to our first campsite in the backcountry. It became clear very quickly, however, that I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. Our instructors estimated that our packs weighed about 45 pounds each, (which is heavy, y’all!!), and of course we got rained on. I just knew that I had made a mistake, and that I was going to be miserable for the three weeks of the course.

I started off the trip doubting myself and the course itinerary, but let’s fast forward one more time – I made it through the trip, and ended up having an incredible time. Together, my classmates and I backpacked in two different wilderness areas and Glacier National Park, spoke with members of the Blackfeet Tribe, swam through a canyon to a secret waterfall, scrambled up to a mountain peak, and engaged in meaningful conversations about climate change and life itself, among other really cool things. I learned so much about myself and could feel proud for what I had accomplished. My whole perspective about traveling and the world changed – I knew I loved traveling and wanted to do more of it before I came on the course, but new ideas about what I could do were exploding in my head. I again began asking myself the same question: “What have I gotten myself into?”, but now it had begun taking on a new meaning.

Before the course, my question had been one of doubt and fear. Now, it’s a door to new opportunities and possibilities. By taking the WRFI Environmental Ethics course, I have gotten myself into a new mindset, and a new perspective. I cannot thank my instructors Pat and Katie, as well as the rest of the WRFI crew, enough for everything they did for me to ensure that an inexperienced girl from North Carolina had the best experience possible through their amazing program. If you’re thinking about taking a WRFI course, I urge you to find out what you can get yourself into. I’m so glad I did.

 

Linden Maurer: Regeneration in the Rockies

 

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As I walked through the blackened and bare burn area of the Scapegoat Wilderness, I contemplated how my view of fire ecology and wildfire had completely changed. Before my Montana adventures, I associated wildfire with destruction, terror, and human loss. In my home state of California, massive unnaturally large wildfires have been raging every summer for the last couple years due to severe drought conditions and the fire suppression policies that began in 1906 with the creation of the Forest Service. However, our instructor Trevor, who does research in fire ecology, opened my eyes to the regenerative qualities of wildfire in an ecosystem.

The lodgepole pine depends on the periodic wildfires to disperse their seeds. According to Kershaw et. al in Plants of the Rocky Mountains, the lodgepole pine “thrives in areas that are periodically burned by forest fires. Although these thin-barked trees are easily killed by fire, their cones require heat to melt the resin that seals their scales shut. Following a fire, huge amounts of stock-piled seeds are released, producing dense strands of young trees” (Kershaw 34).

On our journey out of the Scapegoat Wilderness and into the front country, the charred skeletons of the lodgepole pines lingered on my mind. I continued to ponder the regenerative power of fire and other natural disturbances, expanding my thinking into human-land relations. Not only plant species, but also animal species—including humans and buffalo–can experience a profound sense of rebirth and renewal in nature.

Historically, the prairie along the Rocky Mountain Front burned about every 17 years. Native Americans used fire to manage a historic buffalo-run down by the fen in the Pine Butte Swamp Reserve. The local Blackfoot tribe would burn the area every four years as a management practice to keep the trees from encroaching upon the buffalo run. The tribe would then chase the buffalo through the cleared buffalo run to trap them between the cliff and the river, where they could be easily ambushed and harvested. This relationship between the Blackfeet and the buffalo is central to the tribe’s identity. The Blackfeet use the hide of the buffalo to make the black moccasins that give the tribe their name, and tribe lore predicts that the return of the buffalo will usher in a time of prosperity for the tribe.

In my own life, I have recently experienced a major disturbance and eventual rebirth. In 2014, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which impaired my academic abilities and precipitated my medical leave from college. Although I spent the last two years struggling to manage and heal from my disease, it was not until a recent family backpacking trip that I realized that the backcountry is a powerfully restorative environment in which I can continue to heal and re-enter my academic life. This morning as I watched the sun rise over Ear Mountain from the top of Pine Butte, I felt a deep sense of joy and peacefulness enter my heart. Like the pine sapling rising out of the ashes, I have come to understand that the natural world can truly be a space of regeneration and rebirth.