Sierra Deimling: Feeding Spiritual Hunger

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If there are two things that have my heart, it’s quality food and sustainability. Industrial agriculture is riddled with such a vast array of environmental and social justice problems I could combust simply typing about it. Issues include, but are not limited to, inexcusably low labor wages, storms of pesticides and herbicides on the loose, monocultured land that diminishes any chance of biodiversity, monstrous overuse of fossil fuels, and desertification of already arid land. Though America is dominated by these nemesis farms, I have found salvation in unsuspecting corners of the desert. My agricultural heroes of the Colorado Plateau include a 66 year-old organic farmer with the vibrant energy of a small child and a 76 year-old Hopi woman with a garden rooted in ancestral spirituality. These two have taught me that a spiritual approach to farming inevitably leads to sustainable farming.

If you ever find yourself on the outskirts of Hanksville, Utah, do yourself a favor and stop by the Mesa Farm Market. Within the market dwells owner Randy Ramsley, sporting a gray ponytail as he creates culinary masterpieces. “Food is important to spiritual development,” he explains as I feast on the salad he picked a few minutes prior. Randy’s philosophy on farming goes as such: by putting his love and energy into the crops, the crops will grow full of high-quality energy, which gives the consumer high-quality energy, who can then return that love and high-quality energy into the “collective consciousness” of the universe. Randy is asked if he thinks his farm adds to the resiliency of the land, to which he responds yes, because when birds fly by the farm, they say “Look!  Randy doesn’t spray crap! We can hang out here!” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Randy’s farm is about so much more than making money. I ask about his financial situation, and he answers “I barely make enough to stay afloat, and I’ve never been happier.” For Randy, the satisfaction of growing and cooking food that nourishes the land, the body, and the spirit is all the reward he could ask for. I walk away from Mesa Farm Market feeling physically and spiritually full from the fresh-baked bread, salad still flecked with soil, and yoghurt made from the goats I see happily munching on invasive cheatgrass in the backyard.

After our visit with Randy, we travel to the Hopi reservation to meet with Dorothy Denet of the Butterfly Clan. “We Hopi are two things. We are peaceful, and we are farmers,” she tells us. I scan the plateau and see no sign of farms or land that could have enough water to sustain a crop. Dorothy disproves my assumptions at her desert oasis of a garden, tucked back in the juniper scrub hills away from the village. “It’s simple, and it’s complicated.  It’s complicated, and it’s simple,” is her answer to nearly everything, particularly on how she can sustain a garden full of life amidst a drought-stricken desert. The simple answer is that there is a spring which provides irrigation for the garden, a rare luxury in this country. This spring has provided water for Hopi farmers ever since the 1400’s, leaving Dorothy’s crops to grow in culturally significant soil. Terraces of ancient gardens crumble down the side of the hill, allowing the imagination to run through what it might have looked like when it wasn’t just Dorothy’s garden, but the gardens of a whole village. For Dorothy, gardening is about keeping cultural traditions alive. “You must care for the seed as you would care for your child.” It is about love, and it is about faith.  In the valley below where springs are absent, Hopi farmers rely on nothing but faith in rain to irrigate corn and bean crops. Singing and dancing to encourage storms replace the task of hauling in water.

I don’t run an organic farm.  I am not Hopi. I do not have access to land that has been cultivated by my ancestors for centuries. I do, however, deeply resonate with Randy and Dorothy’s spiritual approach to farming. I am not religious, but have found spirituality in connecting to land. For me, spirituality is acknowledging my place in the world. It is seeing the inseparable connection between myself and the Earth. Growing food is a powerful tool in finding that spirituality, a tool I discovered from working on an organic farm in Montana. Eating the food I grow with love nourishes my body and spirit – a feeling that is impossible to achieve from eating an apple off the shelf in the grocery store.

The connection between spirituality and sustainability is clear when looking at Randy and Dorothy. “We can’t find a proper, sustainable relationship to nature, each other, or the institutions we create, if we try to do it from role of omniscient conqueror,” writes Donella Meadows in her essay Dancing with Systems.  Randy and Dorothy embody Meadows’ point.  The low price of industrial produce has blinded many of us from the reality of the system we are a part of. Land, food, and people are within the same system – you cannot separate one from another. To diminish the quality of one is to diminish the quality of all.  My heart is warm knowing that people like Randy and Dorothy are honoring these relationships with gardens and farms that protect our land, and in turn, our bodies.

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Brianna Rykken: A Day Behind Glazed Eyes

Bri blog 2 photoWith this piece I am portraying two of the values of the wilderness; accessing the concrete, physical attributes that surround you and the reflective thought that they provoke. Some choose to see value in what is before their eyes whereas others find value in the opportunity to explore what goes on behind them. I have found the two to be more connected than one may think. Here is a day in the two intertwined realities that wilderness inspires.

                The day began heading down into Woodenshoe Canyon. The crisp morning chill was still in the air but the hot desert sun was making its way into our skin. This canyon is immediately different than the previous trips. There is a cleared, single-file trail for one! Also, a new rock layer is present, the Cedar Mesa Sandstone. It switches back and fourth from a deep red to a muddy white. It is home to many more tree than we have seen before. There are so many trees! Ponderosa, Pinons, Junipers. Everything is so green. It feels so alive.

Everything is green. It feels so alive.
I haven’t thought that since I was back home in Minnesota.
I wonder how everything is back home. I haven’t had much thought
of my family, we have been so busy. How are my parents? My sister
graduates soon. I am so excited to see them again.
Everything is green. It feels so alive.

                Camp is finally in vision. Hips are red from where packs rested all day. The wash near our site is dry but walking upstream, a vibrate swamp comes into vision. There are scattered pools throughout. The water is covered in a fine layer of pollen, but for tonight it will have to do. There are little flowers everywhere. The Naturalist Guide says they are Carpet Phlox. Nearing camp, there are tracks in the mud. There are bear prints! They have five short toes. This one must have been huge! It is so nice to be back in the wilderness.

It is so nice to be back in the wilderness.
What exactly is wilderness? Thomas Fleischner think it is where we
fall in love with the world. Wallace Stegner thinks it is simply an idea that
keeps him going. Funny how he sits at a desk and thinks about the
wilderness whereas I sit in the wilderness and think about him.
Its so nice to be back in the wilderness.

                Class begins in the late afternoon. The canyon walls rise high above us, forming the boundaries of the Dark Canyon Wilderness. The reading for today was The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature by William Cronon. “Wilderness, in short, was a place to which one came only against one’s will, and always in fear and trembling.” Why did they see things so differently?

Why did they see things so differently?
It’s a fair excuse, they didn’t know any better. I wonder who it is in
todays world who is so unable to see. Is it the miners? Or the environmentalists?
Or is it me?
Why did they see things so differently?

                The buttes around us glow under the setting sun, signaling that the day is coming to an end. A chill is creeping back into the air. Its smells of fresh pine. It is time to start tonight’s reading. Land management of Bears Ears National Monument is the focus. The administration justified this change by stating that the Monument was not “confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected…” as the Antiquities Act states, although this matter is still in litigation. It also stated that “Public lands will again be for public use.”

Public land will again be for public use.
Does this mean the workers who want the land for its resources?
What about the Native Americans who revere the land for its
sacredness? Or simply the hikers who love the land for its beauty? Is it
crazy to imagine that one day we could all see eye to eye?
Public land will again be for public use.

                The night has gone cold. One by one, the illuminating lights of headlamps are turned into darkness. The silence is only occasionally broken by the wind blowing through the trees and the deep breathes of the slumbering creatures who fill Woodenshoe Canyon tonight. The world is lit by a sliver of light brought by the infinite number of stars.

Keagan McCully: Of Time and Energy

CottonwoodI sit perched on a sandstone ledge overlooking a bend in the wash of Larry Canyon. From here I can see the white salt deposits from the stream, blanketing the dry regions of the wash beneath the luscious green cottonwood leaves. A light breeze keeps the gnats from buggin me. Occasionally the breeze picks up, rustling the pages of my journal, allowing my gaze to drift upward. I’m surrounded by red cliffs, reaching hundreds of feet into the air. The visual differences between the rock layers—boxy and jagged darker rock and the lighter, smoother, tafoni-filled sandstone—symbolize the different environments that this landscape has seen throughout history. Every few moments, the overcast sky gives way to an expanse of blue. The bold contrast of the blue against the red rock is unlike anything I’ve seen. Here you hear the wind before you feel it. A brief period of silence is interrupted by the distant howl of the breeze flowing like water through the canyon. It rustles the cottonwood leaves and then it reaches me, wrapping and warping itself across the contours of my body, raising hairs on my arms as it passes.

Each element that fills my senses does not aid in helping me grasp the complexities of the concept of scale. Scale of size, magnitude, distance, time. I am miniscule compared to the canyon walls that surround me, yet I tower in comparison to the sand grains whose intricate crystalline structure allow the cliffs to tower above me. A gnat comes and lands on my hand. Curious, it crawls around for a few seconds before returning into the air. In a few days its life will have passed. That doesn’t seem like a lot of time to me. I wonder if the canyons feel the same way about me. My lifetime is but a heartbeat to them. Here, time seems unfathomable.

If you look closely enough, you can read Earth’s history from the layers and composition of rocks. Their near-permanence has harbored billions of years of knowledge, embedded in minerals, crystals and their chemical composition. One story told by these ancient beings is about the Earth’s climate. On geologic timescales, rocks exert a great amount of control on the climate. The chemical weathering of carbonate rock (as well as volcanic outgassing of carbon dioxide) has provided life on Earth with carbon—which helps keeps the temperature of the atmosphere relatively warm and is perhaps the most essential elemental ingredient for life. But rocks also take in carbon from the Earth’s surface, and recycle it back into the asthenosphere. Carbon-clad organisms that fall to the sea floor eventually become part of new rocks and are brought into Earth’s interior through the subduction of oceanic plates. For billions of years, this system has been one of the main drivers of climate on Earth. Now global climate has begun to shift on a rate never seen before as humans fill the atmosphere with carbon that has been naturally sequestered in rock layers over the past hundreds of millions of years. This is happening all over the world, Utah is certainly no exception.

The sun was fading, hiding itself behind the western cliff above Angel Cove, our first campsite along the Dirty Devil River, as we settled down to begin class. Our topic for the day was energy—primarily fossil fuels and their extraction in Utah. Our discussion recalled several points from the day before, when we met with Sarah Stock, a WRFI alumna and current environmental activist in Utah. Sarah described to us how the state’s geological landscape has allowed for the extraction of petroleum and uranium, and another non-conventional oil source known as tar sands. Similar to petroleum, tar sands are the remains of organic material that has been chemically transformed into a thick substance known as bitumen. Unlike petroleum deposits, which tend to concentrate into locations known as traps, this substance is spread throughout layers of sand. Extraction methods vary by location, but in many areas in Utah steam extraction is used. In this process, steam is pumped into deep holes drilled into the deposits. This heats up the bitumen, making it less viscous, and then it is sucked out of the rocks. Before the oil can be refined, it must be separated from the sand. The whole process is extremely energy intensive—it has been estimated that tar sand mining produces five to ten times more carbon dioxide than conventional oil extraction (already a very dirty process), and requires copious amounts of water, a resource which is very limited in this landscape. If this were to happen on a larger scale in Utah, the environmental effects would be immense. Luckily, due to the relatively cheap price of oil, tar sand extraction is uneconomical. But if the global oil market were to shift, it may make this process financially appealing to US energy companies. Sarah is working to combat the industries which still seek to extract these tar sands, engaging with local and statewide communities fighting for the health and future of the planet. Her stories were inspiring to us, as we have learned and recognized the severity of the impact of climate change and environmental degradation on local and global socio-ecological systems.

 

A few miles down the river, we settle into a quiet cove. Perennial shrubs and invasive annual grasses spread across the flat valley. Scraggly oak trees stand rooted in groups along the eroded slopes where the canyon walls meet the ground. I dodge the cryptobiotic soil and settle down in an open spot facing the south canyon wall. These must be the biggest cliffs that we have seen yet in the Dirty Devil. The warm evening light kisses the red canyon walls as the sun sinks below the horizon. There is an intoxicating stillness here, interrupted only by the sound of the wind rustling the oak leaves and the occasional laugh of one of my friends, echoing off the varnished walls. Deep in thought, I am able to contemplate my purpose here. I look to the Earth for guidance.

These canyons have stories to tell. Tales of cultures, of ecosystems and of a landscape that we will never see, of times so far from our own that they seem otherworldly. These canyons are our cathedrals. To me, they harbor a sense of infinite wonder, spirituality and sacredness, and allow my curiosity to fill every pore, crack and void within their surface. They represent but a taste of the Earth’s beauty and history, yet are now so deeply embedded in my story. For this moment, we live here. Beneath the cloudless, starry desert sky, we fall asleep in the softest sand. We are nine unique souls, each searching for something different, with the privilege to experience firsthand the unrivaled beauty and tranquility of this magnificent landscape.

Renne Baldwin: A Land of Little Water

dirty devilPeering over the rim of Horseshoe Canyon, I sifted through shadows of boulders, junipers, and pinyon pines for evidence of water. I knew there must be some, as it would be our drinking water for the next week and a half, but no water was in sight. As we descended the steep sheep herding trail, and I could clearly see the bottom of the wash, I began to question whether we would find water at all. But our instructors were not surprised at the lack of water. They simply headed up the canyon, following some sign I did not yet know how to read.

That sign was a deep alcove about a quarter mile up the canyon. As we approached and turned toward the rock face, I noticed a different collection of plants flourishing: cottonwoods, wild rose, and willow. I eventually spotted the water, trickling over a rock before disappearing into the sand.

In this land of little water, places with moisture have been foci for humans for centuries.  Native Americans left their rock art on the cliffs, ranchers brought their cattle, hikers explore the landscape, and politicians vie for rights to the water for the cities and industries they represent. One of the most visible impacts of humans in Horseshoe Canyon is the presence of cattle grazing. Approaching nearly every water source, there is a cattle trail. Some of the trails are evidence of feral cows, uncatchable and still residing in the canyon, but other trails are leftovers from permitted ranching decades ago. Once a trail is made it remains for hundreds of years, until the biological soil crusts are able to recover. The soil crusts are like two-inch tall villages, made of mosses, lichens, fungi, and algae; all of which help fix nitrogen, retain soil moisture, and provide habitat for seed germination. When trampled by humans or cows, the soil crusts die, thereby affecting nutrient cycling and plant regeneration.

Luckily for the soil crusts, cattle grazing in the region is on a downhill trend. During our resupply in Hanksville, we met with Mrs. Ekker, a local rancher, whose family began their ranch in 1909, amidst the maze of canyons known as Robber’s Roost. The canyons had sufficient water to sustain the family’s herd of over 10,000 cows, but as the biological soil crusts died and perennial grasses gave way to grazing-resistant, but drought intolerant, annual grasses, livestock productivity diminished. The federal government stepped in, a move counter to the individualist spirit of the West, and established a permit system that restricted grazing areas and the number of cattle a rancher could graze. The Ekker family was given a permit to continue grazing in Robber’s Roost, but many other ranchers were not able to obtain permits because they did not own land nor have access to water. Nonetheless, the Ekker family’s permit limited the number of cattle they could graze on the land, and the land was able to support fewer and fewer cattle, despite grassland restoration led by the Bureau of Land Management. By the 1970s, the Robber’s Roost herd was down to 440, hardly enough to make a living. Today, much of the water that sustained the herds is being protected for native species and for human recreation, and water is trucked in for cattle in the area, adding to ranching’s downward trend in the West.

Another major consumer of water in the West is the growing human population. Water from the Colorado Plateau joins the Colorado River and travels from Utah to California, supplying water for drinking, irrigation, recreation, and industry along the way. Water is piped from the river to distant cities such as Las Vegas and San Diego, and some of the nation’s driest landscapes are used to grow food.

Already, water from the Colorado is over allocated, and the area is in an extended drought. Snowpack is minimal, and aquifers are not able to fully recharge. The Dirty Devil River, through which we are now hiking, is lower this year than it has been in the past, and potential tar sands mining operations threaten to claim more water from the river. How long will it be before the Dirty Devil runs dry and the human populations relying on it can no longer sustain themselves? Perhaps Mrs. Ekker will be right that, “When we build a pipeline from Alaska, it won’t be for oil, but for water.”

Sarah Bartz: Layer by Layer

layer by layerAs our group sits beneath the glow of the evening sky, the smell of a warm peanut butter, soy sauce, brown sugar, veggie, and rice noodle feast wafts around us. It is our first night back in the wilderness after a quick resupply in Hanksville, and I am happy to be immersed in the backcountry of the canyons once again. This section will allow us to take a deeper look into some of the different rock formations we journey through during our time on the Colorado Plateau.

“What is something you all feel a strong connection to,” asks Bri. Savoring our first few bites of dinner, we contemplate the question. Tonight marks our 16th dinner together, and each night the cooks of the day have come up with a new topic for the group to discuss while we eat.

“I have always felt a deep passion for music,” says Keagan. “Good things always seem to come my way when I’m out of my comfort zone,” states Madison. “I feel most at peace when I’m outdoors,” adds Sierra. Around the circle we go, revealing the things our minds are drawn to and gaining insight on each other’s lives.

Beginning our journey down Horseshoe Canyon, and now continuing it through a section of the Dirty Devil River Canyon, through dinner chats (serious and light hearted) and by experiencing this landscape together, we are slowly exposing our inner selves. As we discover more about one another, we are also building our knowledge and observations of the ancient rocks that surround and intrigue us.

The WRFI trailer shudders around us from the force of a 50 mph sandy wind storm. Unlike anything we have experienced before, there is nothing to do but huddle together and take in the power of the Colorado Plateau. On our breezy descent into the Dirty Devil River Canyon, we begin a more in depth identification of the different formations of sandstone we see. Dave points out the top layer we will be studying. This dark, reddish-brown cap rock (being harder than the rock below it) is known as the Carmel Formation, and is the youngest of the rocks I will be discussing. It was created around 160 million years ago during a time of shallow seas transitioning from marine to continental landscape. Similarly to the way in which the Carmel layer holds and protects the layers beneath it from the elements, sitting upon this first layer’s crust brought us closer as we protected and comforted each other from the elements of a desert wind storm.

The Carmel Formation is much thinner than the rest of the layers and we quickly spot and discuss our next type of sandstone. Making our way down the remaining sloping cliffs to the river below, we trek across gritty slickrock and over ledges of vegetation.

Upon reaching the base of the canyon, we wade into the cool, cloudy river beneath smooth, tan cliffs of Navajo Sandstone. Distinct groupings of lines travel along the walls with us. These markings, known as cross bedding, tell us this rock was formed by the compression of ancient sand dunes. The particles of sand that formed this layer are said to have blown all the way from the ancient Appalachian Mountains and were likely part of the largest dune field in the history of the planet. Erosion of this layer creates many amphitheaters and alcoves with beautiful acoustics, which gave me the confidence to push past some of my self-consciousness and sing from my soul for the group.

Slowly making our way down the river, feet occasionally getting stuck in the gooey sediment, we start to notice a new geologic formation emerging beneath the Navajo. Darker reddish-brown tones sparkle amongst chunky, box-like walls with layered, ledgy swoops and curves. The Kayenta Sandstone that unfolds around us originates from the deposition of perennial rivers flowing from the ancient Rocky Mountains. Its erosion in uneven patterns creates many small shelves for vegetation. I enjoy this layer because with some imagination you can pick out figures and faces in the sides of the old, textured rock.

After a long day of hiking, we set up camp and spend another night sleeping amongst the stars. The morning sun of another cloudless day leads us further down river, exposing us to the vast cliffs and alcoves of the Wingate Sandstone. Similar to Navajo, this layer was also formed by ancient sand dunes, except these geologic masterpieces hold compacted sand from past North-West American regions. Tall, sheer, reddish-tan walls showcase a key feature to this layer- sporadically placed and grouped swiss cheese-like holes known as “tafoni.” Wingate’s tafoni are caused by the high porosity of its interior particles, allowing water to seep through and erode small to large, varying shaped caverns on its face. These holes remind me of miniature, mystical elven cities carved into the side of a hill and make this my favorite layer of sandstone we’ve seen thus far.

Desert varnish is also very visible on Wingate Sandstone. Its black/grey streaks down the cliff wall result from the minerals manganese and iron oxide mixing with water, and can be seen throughout nearly all the layers of rock I discuss.

Nearing the end of our 7th day on the Dirty Devil River, Chinle Sandstone begins to reveal itself. This geologic layer varies widely in texture, shape, and color. It holds reddish brown boxlike layers with edgy grooves (similar to Kayenta) to purple, green, grey, yellow, blue crumbly walls mixed with conglomerate rocks. Its wide range of formations and differential erosion is attributed to its varying depositional environments, including marshes, rivers, and seas. We found an abundance of petrified wood while walking through this layer, and its uranium stores have been of great mining interest throughout the years.

As we continue the rest of our way down the canyon, we encounter additional formations of Moenkopi and White Rim Sandstone. These are the oldest rock we have seen, formed around 250 million years ago. I run my hands along their surfaces and can feel the immense natural history and wisdom they hold.

Similar to the particles that form the ancient rocks around us, each of us on this journey come from a variety of landscapes and histories. The more time we spend together in these canyons, the greater understanding we have of each other and the environment around us. By immersing myself in the many layers of geology here and the people experiencing them with me, I begin to discover the different layers that form myself as well.

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.

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.