Madison Pettersen-Bradford: Arid Adaptations

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My wristwatch alarm goes off at 7:30 a.m. I am snuggled up to my two other tent buddies buried deep in my sleeping bag with a hat, long underwear, and Smartwool socks on up to my knees. My legs and arms are squeezed up close to my body as I gather the courage to get out of my sleeping bag into the cold desert air so that I could get dressed, eat breakfast and get ready for the day.

1, 2, 3! I rip open my sleeping bag with my limbs still glued to my body while I do a little foot dance/body wiggle until I find my clothes. I quickly throw on my clothes and awkwardly dance to warm up as I walk to the boiling water where my group members are chatting about their body temperatures during the night while eating oatmeal.

Don’t worry, it got warmer that day and I stopped my cold dancing.

Every night is different but eventually I figured out the best attire for the coldest nights. My formula: long underwear + hat + Smartwool socks + rain pants + crazy creek chair under my sleeping pad (for extra insulation) + and finally, my favorite item, which we so rightly named “the second sleeping bag” (a knee length down parka) = warm and cozy night. So there, I adapted. It wasn’t comfortable, I had some cold nights, but I figured it out. The best thing about my system is that there are layers, so if I get hot I can take it off. I can tell you, though, that barely ever happens.

Adaptation in the desert happens in a similar way. Over time, much longer than the couple of weeks I spent figuring out my perfect sleeping attire, plants and animals will adapt to the changes around them. For example, if the environment becomes increasingly dry, the plants that find a way to conserve or find water in some way will survive and reproduce until all of those plants are adapted to the new environment. In the end, the plants will be well suited to their changing environment. Take the cactus, a commonly known desert plant, over a significant amount of time the plant was able to store water in its body as it waited for the next rain. If it rained significantly, the cactus might even immediately grow new roots to trap more water. Additionally, the recognizable spines on the plant are not just a defense mechanism against other animals, but a strategic way to not lose too much water to evaporation which would happen if the cactus had “normal” leaves. Adaptation is not an easy process. It takes many years for a plant to “figure out” how to live in its ever-changing world and many plants don’t make the cut. So then, despite its difficulty, adaptation is necessary for survival.

But adaptation is not just limited to me being cold and the cactus staying hydrated. In the desert, all plants and animals are constantly adapting. Contrary to what I once thought, the desert has a variety of mini ecosystems throughout, each plant and animal filling some niche in the landscape. Backpacking, especially in a group, seems to simulate this pattern. Each person is filling a role in our group so that we can work together efficiently and effectively, kind of like what happens in an ecosystem. Somebody gets the water. Somebody navigates. Someone cracks jokes. Someone has an insane amount of knowledge. Each of us contributing and pushing as we work together to explore the canyons, adapting to any challenges we may face.

Water is one of the most limiting factors in the desert. Much of the adaptations in the desert have revolved around limited access to water. Some plants, like cottonwoods and willows like to “set up camp” near water flows in canyons so they have constant access (much like us backpackers) whereas other plants enjoy constant sunlight, like the narrow leaf yucca, or even prefer growing in rocks, like the round leaf buffalo berry. My point is that it is necessary for the organisms of the desert to adapt to their environment, in the face of competition from other organisms, in order to survive.

As I have alluded to before, I have had to adapt to this desert as well. I don’t have all the luxuries I have at home like food, water, clothes and other things at my disposal. Some days are challenging and overwhelming because I’ve never been exposed to this environment before, but I have been pushing through because I get to experience something so fragile and rare and cool.

Adaptation doesn’t just apply to camping in the desert or being an organism in the desert but can apply to anything one does. Although challenging, by adapting one can experience something they never thought possible. Maybe even think in a new way. In our ever-changing world it is ever more important to be able to adapt in thought and action.

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Ryan Feidt: Overcoming Self Challenges

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Well, I hope you’re not claustrophobic because this story might freak you out. If you are an avid climber, on the other hand, you might want keep reading. This semester I decided to do something different: I signed up for the Wild Rockies Field Institute‘s Resilience and Revolution of the Colorado Plateau course. I didn’t do any research about the area I was going to before I left because I thought it would be a nice surprise to me. And surprised I have been; not only is WRFI academically challenging, it’s physically challenging too. As the first of five sections of the course comes to a wrap, I’ve reflected back on what I’ve done.

It was day six and our second layover day. Dave, one of our instructors, said today’s hike was one of his favorite in the canyonlands and that I would be going to a place unlike any I had been to before.

Being a climber, I tend to enjoy learning about rocks. While hiking through the canyon, I was surrounded by big bulky, loose sandstone. In my opinion these big juggy, sandstone holds have the potential to make great climbing, but sandstone breaks with the slightest pressure. My other instructor, Ryan (who also is a climber), pointed out this weird black stuff on the canyon wall called desert varnish.

Now apparently nobody fully understands varnish. From what we know it’s basically water mixed with iron and manganese oxide to form a solid outer layer. This means it turns the delicate sandstone to a sturdy surface. What we don’t know is how it’s created. Some say it is made when rainwater is mixed with clay. Others say bacteria create it. The point is, varnish makes really good holds when climbing.

As we continued our hike, the ground started to split apart into a tiny canyon. That is when Dave said we are going down there. He was right; I have never been to a true slot canyon before. The entrance to this slot canyon was not easy. It was a six foot slither down, under a boulder, into an ankle deep pool of ice-cold muck water. To make matters worse, there was only three inches of dry canyon to land on before the pool. I was first. I tried to slip through the hole but I didn’t like going into it blind. Instead, I had to take the more challenging route of going over the boulder where I had to give extra effort to land in the dry spot. I’m an amateur climber and a pretty in-shape person so part one’s descent wasn’t too hard for me. Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky. One of my classmate’s foot took a swim. I was -am still- proud of all my classmates for challenging their fears head on and making it past part one.

The first descent was a breeze compared to the second descent. We all sat in a side room deeper in the canyon. We were roughly twelve feet below the earth’s surface, and after scoping out part two, I realized there was at least another ten foot incline down into the sunless darkness of the canyon. I had to drop through a hole no more than twelve inches in diameter, with a destination that could not be seen from above. I slipped in feet first. By the time I was chest deep in the hole, I had yet to feel the ground. My feet were dangling and I didn’t know how far of a drop I had below me. I slowly lowered myself. As soon as my arms were fully extended I reached the ground. I descended even deeper into the canyon, knowing I was soon approaching a narrow spine followed by an unavoidable puddle. I had to be twenty five feet below the surface of the canyon rim. When I finally reached the narrow path, the walls were only eight inches apart. Successfully squeezing through this stretch meant I was to fall into the unavoidable pool. Nervous, I just had to go for it. My head was facing to my right without enough space to turn it, feet ducked out, unable to turn them, and my chest completely exhaled just so I could fit. It was only a few feet to pass through, but breathing was limited, so I stopped whenever I could take a breath, and so I could get a glance of the pool ahead of me. I saw the walls were just close enough that I could challenge myself to get across the pool dry. I spidered across this lengthy stretch of water, seriously testing my strength and stamina, but I came out dry.

Part three was a breeze. Although narrow, it was a three hundred meter stretch of flat slot canyon hiking. At the end of the canyon there was an opening overlooking a two hundred foot drop into breathtaking, green canyonland. At this moment I realized the Colorado Plateau needs to be preserved. This place is too beautiful to be developed or damaged.

I set some exhausting challenges that day for myself, and I will only be setting more as I progress in this course. But right now, I need help with my current challenge. I need you to go from a reader to becoming the voice for the Colorado Plateau. I need you to spread the word that the Colorado Plateau needs help in being resilient to the challenges that humanity is pressing upon it.

Sierra Deimling: The Hunt for Attentiveness

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If you’re a WRFI student meandering down Horseshoe Canyon and it happens to be both Easter and April Fool’s Day, consider yourself lucky.  We departed our sandstone haven of a campsite and headed down the canyon that special holiday morning, eager to explore more of the canyon’s wonders.  As we walked I pondered my reading from earlier that week. Practicing natural history was something I had never heard of prior to reading Thomas Fleischner’s essay “Natural History and the Spiral of Offering.”  Becoming a natural historian requires “intentional focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more than human world.” I was too caught up in trying to implement Fleischner’s idea into my hike to suspect any Easter of April Fool’s affiliated mischief from my instructors.

WRFI instructors Dave and Ryan have been helping us practice natural history by creating activities centered around one of eight principles of natural history.  The principles include attentiveness, reciprocity, expression, vision, accuracy, humility, affirmation, and gratitude. The activities have undoubtedly been the most pleasant school assignments I’ve ever been given.  One day our group sat silently at the head of Horseshoe Canyon as Dave instructed us to focus on just one of our senses for several minutes to teach us attentiveness. We listened to the chirps of the canyon wren. We felt the damp sand grind between our sore toes.  We smelled the stagnant pool of water littered with juniper berries and pine needles. We saw the Earth hold us like tiny fish in an enormous bowl. So, yeah, natural history assignments don’t suck.

We continued to descend the canyon and my mind wandered from natural history to Easter eggs and family.  My family spends Easter in the wild, and while I was stoked to be with WRFI, I was missing the Deimling Easter egg hunt.  My stomach sadly growled at the thought of my sister ripping into Cadbury Eggs while I crunched on more stale granola.

Dave and Ryan stopped us at the bottom of a draw to give us our natural history activity of the day, focusing on the principle of receptivity.  We were to walk up the draw and stop every 20-ish steps to do part of a yoga sun salutation, involving sweeping our hands high to the sky and down to the earth.  I slowly cruised up the draw and did everything I could to be receptive, not once thinking anything suspicious of the activity. You can imagine I was quite taken aback hearing another student scream they found a chocolate egg.

A scale large enough to measure my stoke upon realizing I had been tricked into going on an Easter egg hunt does not exist.  Picture hiking through the desert for days, where both water and chocolate are extremely scarce, only to find candy in a prickly pear cactus!  Discovering a juniper tree decorated in Hershey’s reminded me of a hunt my parents would set up. I was ecstatic.

Of the eight principles of natural history, three were particularly relevant to our surprise hunt, with attentiveness being the most obvious.  If someone else didn’t yell that they found candy, it’s likely I would have made it up the draw completely unaware that I was flanked by treats.  Realizing how unattentive I had been made me wonder what else I had missed during the course. How many wildflowers have been ignored in my pathway?  How many lizards have darted across my toes while I wasn’t looking? How many shooting stars have been shielded by the shelter of my sleeping bag? I don’t want to miss candy in the desert, but I especially don’t want to miss these special natural phenomenons.

A second principle the hunt helped me embody was our word of the day, receptivity.  To be clear, I did not conclude that if you successfully practice natural history the land will offer you processed sugar.  The meditative portion of the hunt helped me receive endless opportunities to connect with the land. I receive astonishment from watching incandescent sandstone pierce the crystal blue sky.  I receive a sense of caution from pricking my finger on a petite barrel cactus. I receive clarity from looking at the fragile ecosystem as a whole and remember why I am a WRFI student and environmental studies major.

Above all else, the hunt brought me gratitude.  Grateful to be guided through this land by two instructors who care about us enough to get up early and hide candy in desert crevices.  Grateful we hiked for six days without seeing a trace of civilization. Grateful to be spending my semester covered in dirt, sleeping on red rock, happy as can be.

There may not be any more surprise Easter egg hunts around the corner, but the lessons of natural history will remain with me.  I am preparing to wander the Dirty Devil Canyon with Fleischner’s principles in mind. I will pay attention to the varieties of lichen brightly splattering the rocks.  I will reciprocate the good the land does for me by leaving no trace as I travel. I will sing wildly and off-key with my friends to express the joy I feel in canyon country.  I will visualize my place in this ecosystem once I’ve left it, thinking about how I can defend it. I will embody accuracy by filling my brain with the knowledge of others, not diluting my experience with my opinion alone.  I will be humble under the grandeur of the cliff faces. I will affirm my ability to survive with my pack full of resources by marveling at the coyotes surviving on next to nothing. I will forever and always be grateful for my time taking in the Colorado Plateau.