Allie Leber: Learning to Dance in the Rain

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In all of my 16 and a half years of education, it wasn’t until I started taking adventure classes in college that I realized how rarely we are asked to problem-solve in our everyday lives, to put ourselves out there and do something truly challenging. Sure, we ask kids to figure out how to score well on a four-hour-long multiple choice test, and how to juggle five A.P. classes with playing a varsity sport, but our world has evolved to emphasize academic challenges, often leaving out other types of challenges. When I started working on ropes courses, this fact became extremely apparent to me.

Children would come to climb, often for the first time, with minimal problem-solving skills. Kids would frequently start to climb an element, begin to feel tired or frustrated, and then look down at their belayer to ask, “what do I do now?” We almost always responded, “you climb.” It’s not the answer the kids were looking for, but it was almost always effective at getting them to continue on and at least try to solve problems for themselves. Yet, I don’t blame the children themselves at all for their initial responses.

In our world of modern conveniences, we’re used to instantaneous answers. If we don’t know the answer to something, we Google it. If we can’t fix something, we call someone else to do it. We’re used to instant gratification, and we’re certainly not used to discomfort. I don’t mean the kind of discomfort felt when someone sits too close to you on the subway, or when a lecture hall feels unbearably warm and stuffy. I mean the type of discomfort that requires deep introspection in order to push through. I mean the type of discomfort you feel when you’ve been outside kayaking in the cold, in two straight days of nonstop rain, with no foreseeable end to the rain in sight.

From this very experience—one that, until recently, I never expected to encounter—I realized that in our everyday lives, when we’re wet and cold, we pretty much always have the promise of a warm dry shelter waiting for us. I also learned that, when you don’t have that promise, you have to find other ways to stay positive and motivated. I never realized just how much I rely on my warm dry house, and just how pathetic most of us feel without one. It seems to me that the only way we can ever learn to truly appreciate the simple things is to go without them for a little while.

In doing this, I realized that experiencing such difficult and uncomfortable times can only help us build character. It reminded me to be grateful and appreciative of the basic conveniences with which I and so many others are blessed, and it reminded me that it is possible to be creative and strong-willed, and to push through the discomfort we feel in all aspects of our lives. As our wise intern, Ben, aptly reminded us as we discussed a completely different topic (our fear of the future post-WRFI), “most obstacles are mental, not physical.”

So why was it that, in the past, I could always recognize that a kid who thinks they can’t climb to the top of an element is facing a mental block, not a physical one, yet when faced with the obstacle of physical discomfort, I (and many others) could not recognize the uselessness of having this type of negative mental barrier?

I believe this mental barrier of negativity only results because we are so unfamiliar with this discomfort. I also believe that once we’re used to solving one type of problem and pushing through one type of discomfort, we gain momentum at it. Therefore, it is crucial for us to continue doing so. We should keep finding things that make us comfortable, things that seem like we aren’t capable of doing, and then push through them.

We are living in a time when people are expressing more and more dissatisfaction with their lives. We are consuming more and more goods, and yet have very little to show for it. Statistically speaking, the number of people who describe themselves as “happy” has been on the decline since the 1950s. Why is this? Bill McKibbon, professor of religious studies at Middlebury College, suggests that “we need time with family, we need silence for reflection,” and that “we need connection with nature.” He quaintly titles this need the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Effect.”

He asserts that we have lives rich in material, but deprived in the aforementioned areas. He also asserts that we need to achieve the inverse. “We don’t need candy,” he reminds us, “we have candy every day of our lives. We just haven’t figured that out, because the momentum of the past is still with us: we still imagine we’re in that Little House on the Big Prairie.” So how do we change this attitude?

I propose that we challenge ourselves by putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations. While the average person may be asked to do seemingly impossible tasks like doing eight hours of work in three, how often in the course of our everyday lives can we say that we pushed through something truly demanding? How many people can say that they kayaked and camped along a stretch of nearly 50 miles of the Missouri River in freezing rain?

This type of challenge may not be for everyone, and that’s ok. What’s important is that we continue to find things we think are too difficult or uncomfortable, and we tackle them. While this type of experience may not necessarily sound like the best or easiest way to spend time, it certainly seems like a step away from the “candy”- the things we get far too much of, and toward the things we lack: “reflection,” “connection,” and “adventure.”

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Danielle Sidor: Real Food

Danielle Sidor Blog PhotoIt’s funny how road tripping and being in the backcountry for two months has brought me to realize how much food plays an important role in shaping who we are. Living a backcountry lifestyle has forced me to think about food in ways that would easily be overlooked at home in the city. Who knew that one of the things that I would miss most about being home would be cooking?

Albert Borgmann, a philosopher and professor at the University of Montana, states the value of cooking and choosing one’s food perfectly:

“Cooking demands some awareness of the world you live in. You have to know and navigate it through the decisions you have to make- going to the farmers market rather than the supermarket, selecting this lettuce rather than that. Food like this is no more expensive than junk food and it has the virtue of displacing the hidden machinery of McDonald’s food engineering with the comprehension and competence of the cook.”

Making these conscious food decisions has not been easy. I’ve struggled to find the balance between excessive and not enough, between comfort foods (cookies) and whole foods (raw almonds), and between perishables (fresh fruit) and processed foods (meat sticks). As Wendell Berry puts it,

“A responsible consumer would be a critical consumer, would refuse to purchase the less good. And he would be a moderate consumer; he would know his needs and would not purchase what he did not need; he would sort among his needs and study to reduce them.”

Except my food “standards” have changed out here. I’ve realized that foods society has told us are perishable are not actually as perishable as we think. Blocks of cheddar labeled “refrigerate after opening” have tumbled around my backpack for weeks insulated only by long underwear and t-shirts. Healthy eating habits are thrown out the window and junk foods that you never would eat at home become mentally, physically, and emotionally comforting foods. After three endlessly rainy days paddling the Missouri all you want to do is sit in your tent and eat a whole row of Chips Ahoy Cookies.

When you’re packing everything out that you brought in, you realize how much packaging waste is generated from food. Granola bar wrappers, oatmeal pouches, tea packets, applesauce packets, foil tuna pouches fill your pack. This really made me realize how much packaging is saved through buying in bulk. But buying in bulk is hard to achieve when access to and selection of grocery stores is limited and unpredictable. Our grocery shopping has ranged from tiny roadside Conoco gas stations to large town co-ops to chain grocers such as Albertsons. Sometimes when you’re faced with 20 minutes to grocery shop for everything you need for the next two weeks it can be quite daunting. No time to read ingredient labels for added sugars and corn syrup, to check where your apples were grown, to look for non-gmos and added fillers, and to seek out sustainable business practices. No time to compare and weigh options if there are any.

And then I take a step back and think about the people who live in these small and remote Montana towns we visit. Oftentimes these people only have one option of what to buy. As I walked in to the Lame Deer trading post for a grocery resupply I was immediately surrounded by sugary cereals, white bread, processed meats, aisles full of candy and salty snacks, and a very small section of fresh fruits and vegetables. The reality of food deserts in marginalized communities really began to hit me. This was a low-income community with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. The aisles were full of dried, canned, and processed foods low in nutritional value and high in fats and sugars. I became cognizant of the wealth of food options I am fortunate enough to have in my daily life. I realized how desperate the need is to take action on changing our food system.

Thinking about how to take action to create equity within our food systems left me with a flurry of questions: How can we help people eat locally and seasonally within their own communities even when their communities are in the arid prairie of southeastern Montana?  How different would our diets look if we began to do this? How can we begin to bring back a sustainable food culture which fosters an acute awareness of the world we live in? How can we begin to see food as a part of who we are and what we stand for?

Brooke Reynolds: Shifting from the “East of Billings” Mindset

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WRFI Instructor, Nick Littman, posing along the Tongue River. Photo Credit: Ryan Marsh. 

Towering yellowed Cottonwoods loom above me, filtering the sunlight through their dancing leaves so that amber light ripples across my hands and face.  The world is completely silent except for the sweet song of the wind and the gentle rhythm of paddles dipping into the cool, calm waters of the Tongue River. Not a single cloud touches the cerulean sea of sky.  Here, there is a sense of serenity pumping through my veins and it seems the same for those around me (except maybe not for Clark). Something is uniquely beautiful about this small, meandering prairie river and its arid valley of a home; we all know it and feel it with every new bend and riffle.

John Hamilton, a farmer in the Tongue River Valley says, “People think of eastern Montana as a wasteland. They don’t realize what we have down here.” John is right… they don’t.

Never have I seen the moon so bright, the sky so frighteningly big, the earth so calm, and so fierce as I have here on the prairie in eastern Montana. There really is not a word to describe it correctly. And yet, this landscape has long been ignored because this area, the Tongue River Valley, and the rest of the bioregion is “East of Billings.”

People are funny things. We have this weird conception that some places in this world are better than others, that there are places on this earth that people deem worthy of every environmental preservation regulation in the book, and that there are places that are only worthy of being toxic waste dumps because of they lack our conventional view of beauty.  Flora and fauna do not have this insane bias. They live and grow where they can live and grow. Sagebrush grows on the prairie because that is where it can exist, not because it is more beautiful than other biomes or other biomes are more beautiful than it.

Humans do not do this. We exist, or want to exist, in places that we have socially constructed as being beautiful: mountains, oceans, vast deserts, lakes, and rivers. This construction has caused us to live within a specific paradigm: wasteland vs. Eden.

I’m tired of our society viewing some land as waste, as a place that can be ruined in order to preserve other “prettier” places. No land is wasteland. It has value. There is value to the people that call it home and to the people who once called it home; there is value to the fauna; there is value to the flora. And, no matter where you go, you can find beauty in a place. Maybe it is the way that the sun hits the horizon line every sunset, or how the rain gently falls into the caressing earth, or how the earth tucks itself into bed every night.  No place’s value should be determined by its beauty, or really be given a value at all. All places are beautiful and valuable in their own unique way.

The Tongue River Valley is threatened with potential coal development, something that will irrevocably alter the landscape, likely in an unfavorable way. Yet, the coal developers and the state of Montana do not seem to care, because the Tongue River Valley is “East of Billings,” a wasteland. To reiterate John Hamilton, “They don’t realize what we have down here.” If they did, they being the government of Montana, coal development would not even be considered. This place is too precious, too remarkable.  And yet politicians and bureaucrats think that the Tongue River Valley and eastern Montana is an unpopulated, flat landscape. Which it is; but it is also so much more.

And so we need to change our worldview of land. No land is meant for waste. All land is worthy of existing in its most natural, or healthiest state. Mentalities like “East of Billings” cannot exist. Otherwise, our earth will be destroyed, since we will not properly take care of all of her land.

Wherever you go, look for those moments like those I had on the Tongue: the sunlight rippling across my skin, the quiet voice of the wind, the soaring trees up overhead. Find these precious observations and hold onto them, because they will make you realize that no land is wasteland.

Kiki Kane-Owens: The Universality of Biophilia

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One morning during our backpack in the wooded wilderness of the Big Snowy Mountains near Lewistown, MT I woke up to a pink morning sky and the remnants of the night prior’s full moon on the banks of Swimming Woman Creek. I walked into the woods to have a moment alone, pulled some rock-licking hippy crap and hugged a tree for a few minutes—it looked like it needed it, and I felt it asking for one.

Later that morning we sat in a circle around the campsite’s fire pit and started class for the day which was focused on discussing biophilia: human’s love and desire to be connected with the natural world. We discussed the way in which biophilia is manifested and the perceived gradual disappearance thereof in the modern cosmopolitan world while each of us outlined the way in which we developed a love for nature. Many pointed to the central role that the open and wooded landscapes they grew up played in the creation of their relationship with nature, asserting that access to green space is of paramount importance. My biophilia, however, was not born of access to green space or awe at natural landscapes; it was born within the concrete walls of New York City.

Growing up, I spent weekend afternoons sitting outside of my Dad’s restaurant, a little café called The Crooked Tree Creperie. It sat in the middle of Manhattan’s East Village on the bottom of St. Marks Place and was marked by a tall crooked tree in the middle of the block. I spent each day with a motley crew of locals and passersby as my dad kept an eye on me through the window. As the hours of the day came and went along with the short conversations, the crooked tree was a constant. Every so often, I would glance at it, noticing its bark, its leaves and the way it moved with the wind. It provided as a reminder of nature and its beauty in a life consumed with people and their creations, it provided a comfort of familiarity.

I watched that crooked tree transform throughout the seasons and years. In the early spring, as the snow on the sidewalk melted it grew little green and brown bulbs that turned into pink as the temperature rose and the weeks passed. The cornucopia of bulbs eventually popped into florescent big green leaves in the summer that turned into the yellow and red leaves that scattered the sidewalk in front of the Café in the fall. As winter came, the tree’s branches rid their leaves and became bare—holding the snow up off of the sidewalk. I don’t know what type of tree it is, nor do I care, it’s just a crooked one that has become important to me, a piece of nature I felt personally connected to.

Since my tree-watching days, I have developed a true love and respect for nature using my crooked tree as a proxy for that. My tree allowed me to think of natural beings as important entities to which I could develop a personal relationship. Biophilia is not an inaccessible privilege of those living in our world’s more natural environments; it is a universally accessible privilege. The development of a relationship with a single natural being brings forth the idea that natural things are worth loving, a sentiment that spreads outwards and breeds love for the natural world as a whole. So it is to say, to develop a biophilic mindset, you don’t need much more than a single blade of grass and some time.

Maize Smith: An Ode to Red Ants Pants

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I was ecstatic when our mud covered van pulled into the sleepy town of White Sulphur Springs, Montana. Among the post office, two gas stations, and a few bars sits the Red Ants Pants store. I could barely contain my excitement at the site of floor to ceiling stacks of workpants that greeted me inside the casually decorated storefront. As I stared up at the pants I thought back to the last time I needed to buy work pants…

In the summers, I lead youth trail crews in Idaho, an occupation I am probably too boastful about. Empowering youth, especially young women, through hard work in rural places provide the most exhausting and most fulfilling experiences of my life. Felling trees, moving cow sized boulders, and swinging a pulaski requires high quality, durable, well fitting pants. Halfway though the season I was due for a new pair of pants, my used Patagonia work pants had worn so thin the patches wouldn’t hold. So, I ran to the nearest ranch store to grab some new duds. I headed to the women’s section out of instinct, only to find one single table of Carhartts. My choices were between regular or “slim” fit. I tried on a few pairs in various sizes and, not to my surprise, none of them fit, especially not the “slim” fits. Red faced, I started combing for other options when a store clerk asked if they could help me. I asked if there were other work pants for women in the store. She sheepishly replied no and urged me to transfer my size to men’s pants. After a few warranted complaints, I obliged. The men’s work pants were stacked floor to ceiling, numerous brands, in a million different sizes. I tried on pair after pair after pair, nothing fit quite right. But, I needed pants, so I settled on a pair that were too long and rode high enough to touch my upper ribcage.

These pants did their job… kind of. They kept the sun, dirt, and bar oil off my skin, but they did not fit. How the hell am I supposed to dig topline and keep a bunch of teens swinging their tools if my pants keep cutting off the circulation to my brain?

Hence, my ecstasy when entering Red Ants Pants, these weren’t just any old pants, these were hardy pants made for women. Let me say that again, pants made for women. Well fitting, well made, pants for working women.

And the pants just scratch the surface. Not only does Red Ants Pants create a high quality product for hard-working women, they have become an integral part of the small town community in White Sulphur Springs and Montana in general. For instance, the creator of Red Ants, Sarah Calhoun, made a conscious decision to base Red Ants in an old saddle shop in White Sulphur Springs, a former timber town located in one of the poorest counties in the country. When the store opened its doors in 2006, Sarah worked hard to become a meaningful part of the community, but also support women and girls in rural spaces. Which lead to the creation of the annual Red Ants Pants Music Festival and the Red Ants Pants Foundation. The music festival brings together the people of Montana and beyond for three days of great music, local beer, and camping on a ranch just outside of White Sulphur Springs. The festival brings additional customers to local businesses and also raises money for the Red Ants Pants Foundation, which then supports leadership roles for women, the protection of family ranches and farms, and the preservation of rural towns. As a woman working in rural Idaho, I understand the value of connecting to places through your livelihood, especially for women who were historically told these spaces and this work was not for them.

I sure as hell am not the first, and won’t be the last, to admire the work of Sarah Calhoun. She built a small business that has extended its reach far beyond pants. Red Ants Pants has built community and support for women to realize their immensely beautiful potential in all spaces, and look damn good while doing it.

Allie Leber: Contemplations on Coal

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It’s day 57. On the schedule for today, two guest speakers. First, we’ll be meeting with one of the men who was key in defeating a major proposed coal development. At this point we’re used to being presented with multiple viewpoints of an issue, we’ve even come to expect it. Sometimes we get these viewpoints over the course of a week, or even just a few days. And then there are some days when we see them both within a matter of hours. This was one of those days. We learn that just a few hours after meeting with our first speaker, we’ll be touring an open pit coal mine.

Not long after waking up, we head to meet with our first speaker of the day, Clint McRae. He and his father were major opponents of extracting the coal found in Otter Creek, one of the largest coal deposits in the world. We also learned they fought in opposition of the Tongue River Railroad, a railroad proposed as the main method of transporting said coal. After learning all of this about Clint, I was greatly taken aback to hear him open with the words “I’m not anti-coal.” But you see, Clint McRae is hardly what you’d call a communist, environmentalist, rock-licking hippie. He’s a fourth generation Montana cattle rancher.

He expanded his statement, “I’m not anti-coal, but I expect the neighbors of these facilities to be treated right. And they haven’t.” He explained coal in a way that seemed completely non-partisan. It wasn’t about whether this political party was invested in coal, or if that one was opposed to it. For him, it came down to protecting his land, and the land of his neighbors, for future generations.

It seemed to me that Clint was touching on something we’ve been studying continuously for the past two months, the 80/20 rule. This rule says that with any given mix of people, you may never be able to reach an agreement on 20 percent of the issues. These are things fundamental to people’s identities that they are not willing to compromise on.  The other 80 percent, however, is often surprisingly easy to agree upon. In general, we all want a good future for the next generation, and often, we all just want to keep things the same as they are.

This type of conflict resolution is key in reaching understandings. We are living in an era in which there is a stark division between the ends of the political spectrum. Journalist Naomi Klein says this “culture-war intensity…is the worst news of all, because when you challenge a person’s position on an issue core to his or her identity, facts and arguments are seen as little more than further attacks, easily deflected”. Clearly, facts and figures are not always key to cooperation. Understanding what people value is.

With this mentality of being open to listening to the values held by opposing sides, I tried to keep an open mind while touring Spring Creek Mine. Right from the start, it was easy to see that the people who worked there were not evil or malicious. They were good people doing what they believed to be best for them, just as Clint was. They were proud of the care Spring Creek took while extracting coal and then attempting to reclaim the landscape, and maybe rightly so. They were certainly making better efforts than any company I’ve seen back home on the east coast. Are these actions enough to qualify Spring Creek Mine as a responsible coal operation? I’m certainly in no place to decide.

I’d like to end with another quote from Clint. Echoing his opening statement, he passionately asserted, “I don’t have a problem with coal development if it’s done responsibly, but I’m beginning to wonder if it can be done responsibly.” These should be the questions we ask ourselves. The lines we draw shouldn’t be between parties, but between what is damaging to the land and to future generations, and what is not.

Lulu Orne: On Individualism in an Intentional Community

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It is a facet of all intentional communities that each member surrenders some amount of autonomy for the community to function. The Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI) is no different. Without that unspoken agreement to forfeit some of our individualistic tendencies, our group would be a dysfunctional crap storm.

What underlies this agreement is willingness to self-sacrifice for the best interest of our group.  This willingness of self-sacrifice is the same willingness that the future of humanity hinges on.

The false promises of freedom and individualism of our capitalist society, obliterate any incentive to act selflessly in our economic system. We worship mavericks of the economy who “redefined” technology and business (i.e. Bezos and Buffet). We in Western society fear the shame and discomfort of poverty. I don’t blame anyone for fearing poverty and engaging in capitalist pursuits. I know that humans are not the malicious and greedy creatures we were said to be in our Anglo-Christian creation story. We are creatures enslaved to a system that hangs like translucent silk webs, enshrouding our lives and obscuring the truth. The truth being that we don’t have to live as fear stricken creatures, subservient to a capitalist system that destroys the physical and spiritual health of the land and its inhabitants.

As I grew more and more disheartened with every profit driven person and place I encountered, I began to fear the complete destruction of the earth and its inhabitants. Ready to delve back into the discouraging throws of society after our forty eight hour recess, I climbed into the WRFI van, Garth, and watched the rolling hills pass across the windshield on our way to our first speaker of section three.

The O’Hallorans, an organic farming family based outside of Lewistown, MT, told us that living your truth in this system whose values undermine all of your own, can be found in this mantra: “Don’t be afraid of poverty or hard work.” The O’Hallorans have made it a point to foster and maintain a personal and ethical relationship with their land and animals. Within our capitalist system practices like the O’Hallorans’, that focus on engaging morally with the land rather than exploiting the land for maximum profit are selfless acts. They are selfless acts lived out in the intentional community of the earth and its inhabitants.

Within our group of ten students our sacrifices are smaller than the O’Hallorans, though not insignificant. We become our most upbeat selves in less than ideal conditions in an effort to maintain group morale. We compromise and discuss when making decisions in order to address the needs of the group as a whole rather than individual members. We share what needs to be shared (space, time, food), and we most often do so without prompting from our group-mates.  We give up our autonomy to maintain our schedule. This schedule is the main tool we have for obtaining our goal of educating ourselves on the land and how we ought to live with it.

These “sacrifices” I have made as an individual do not feel like sacrifices, and the O’Hallorans echoed this during their time with us. These “sacrifices” have become an inseparable part of day-to-day life. They are habits. They are expectations, and humans have an unyielding ability to rise to the expectations that are set for them.

If we as a society were to step away from capitalist rhetoric and towards a more communal culture focused on living with the land rather than against it, we would be achingly close to the society we need to create. Sacrificing some “individualism” for the sake of our species and the earth seems a justified trade to me.

These are not “sacrifices,” this is a way of life.