Morgan Krakow: Intentional Detours

Morgan Krakow

The American way is innovation. Lightbulbs, modern democracy, telegraphs, the postal service – the U.S. spirit of progress has plastered the nation’s history. And in many ways, the American West finds itself at the forefront of today’s innovative spirit, rooted in the longstanding values of frontier, exploration and a departure from the everyday.

Swap Edison for Bezos, the Pony Express for Gmail, and you’ll most likely find yourself somewhere along the central to northern California coast: Silicon Valley. You might end up also in L.A., Portland, or Seattle. These startup hubs are leading the way to an easier and cleaner future. So why then, in a class about climate change and renewable energy, do we find ourselves between mile marker 125 and 126 along highway 12 wolfing down couscous and showering for the first time in a week? It’s because there’s a whole other American innovator who doesn’t sip $6 lattes or check Twitter more than they go outside (regrettably, I often fall into the former category). Out here, off the busy interstates and narrow shoulders, along ranchland that calls to mind a Thomas Hart Benton piece, sprawling widely across the horizon, there’s a crop of people who are living and breathing the spirit of American innovation.

On this trip we have met and been hosted by a variety of people who believe in rural risk taking, and disobeying status quos. We met ranchers and landowners who have passive solar homes, like Steve Charter and Jean Wallace, coal miners whose work powers parts of South Korea and Japan. The miners feed their families and take part in the community of their workplace. We met Hutterites using top-of-the-line farming technology and we met climate activists in the small Montana towns. Everywhere we looked, innovation felt inherent in our conversations – new ways to burn coal, homes that didn’t need the grid anymore, renewable energy fairs in the 1970s that helped jumpstart the early environmental movement.

We arrived at Steve Charter’s ranch on a day that felt like the sun was just a little too close to our shoulders. We washed our hands in his sink and set up camp around back. Starting our grilled cheese feast, he and his friend John took the time to talk to us about Steve’s ranchland and the sustainable farming methods they had been incorporating into their soil process.

Then, Steve told us about the early days. He spoke about the 1970’s and forming the Northern Plains Resource Council, an organization that fights coal and allies ranchers to lobby the legislature. Being a rancher on land that has mineable coal is no easy task, and often it takes a level of innovation and trust in self-reliance to fight the battle.

In 1980 Steve and his wife Jeanne built a passive solar home. Almost everyone told them it was impossible. No YouTube videos or Google searches to aid in the process – just a couple of library books and strong will.

It’s hard to be an innovator, Steve explained to me as we sat on different portions of a sawed up tree trunk overlooking a sloping grassland below. The innovator takes the risk and often doesn’t reap the financial reward, but they’ve paved a path. Steve has paved many paths. He’s in the process of setting up a vermiculture business toward more fertile soil, and has led a life against coal companies and land degradation, in hopes of making a more sustainable world for his grandchildren who live just up the hill.

This trip changes how the brain works. The constant cycling, waking up with the sun, and shifting worries from career and grades to effective Shotblock rationing and how best to care for extreme heat rash has left me a lot of time for reflection. Over the last 9 or so days, I’ve tried to spend time thinking about the type of journalist I want to be, and less about the type of career I need to have. I’ve become less future-oriented. I’ve stopped monitoring every move for maximal hiring potential. Instead, I’m finding myself living minute to minute. And I’m enjoying it.

I’m surprised by how intrigued I am by rural and small-town America. I love the phenomenon of innovation in a place that can get slogged into a singular category of old and dated in a national narrative. As I continue to reflect, I find that I am drawn to these places.

It’s easy to get caught up in fads as a storyteller. The Tesla-driving entrepreneurs of my generation are on the future’s forefront. They’re my friends. They create helpful apps, love the outdoors and big cities. They’re all over the science and tech section of every major newspaper and magazine. Young people living in major cities seem to be creating a bigger, better and more sustainable tomorrow at every moment. But for me, true storytelling will deviate from these narratives.

This trip is a lesson in view finding. When everyone else seems to be flocking to a shiny gadget or app, I’ll be taking a detour off the major highway and onto a dirt road far from a Starbucks or Apple store, with shorter lines and quieter alleys. The best stories of American innovation sometimes happen where everyone seems to be overlooking. While I might not be able to hitch onto a bike and send it to rural Montana for every story, I’ll take the lessons I’ve learned from the pace and space of this trip long into my career.

P.S. if anyone reading this hears about job openings for bike-bound journalists, give me a call.

Sra Feigelman: Growing through disturbance

sra blog 2 photo

Photo by Nick Littman

I snapped into consciousness by a cold gust of wind and a smattering of rain across my face. The fly of our tent, the only thing that had separated us from the storm that bore down upon us, had cast off into the wind. It was my second night in Horseshoe Canyon, and my second night ever in the backcountry of Utah. In a sleep-smitten frenzy, my tent mates Calla and Zoe sent me out into nature’s brewing violence to retrieve our weather-protection apparatus. After struggling to get out of my new sleeping bag, I finally made it out to grapple with getting the fly secured to the tent. I retreated to home base, soaked and shivering. I stuffed myself into my sleeping bag and shut my eyes tight, putting tomorrow on reserve to consider what the hell I was getting myself into with the Wild Rockies Field Institute.

I signed up for WRFI on a whim, for a change. My study abroad plans had fallen through (not enough people had signed up to go study food systems in Mexico). Nonetheless, I was still itching to expand my academic and physical horizons. I was craving movement, perspective, and realistically I only had a sense of what went on east of the Mississippi, never mind west of it. I hadn’t any idea of how other corners of the country operated in culture, in politics, in environment. Plus, I heard that backpacking builds character.

I had spent my whole life thus far on the east coast, in similar bubbles of lifestyle and approach toward success. In high school, knowledge was quantifiable, in the form of letter grades and GPAs, which put heavy constraints on qualitative understanding of what I was studying.

Truth be told, I felt my life as a collegiate beginning to dwindle in momentum. Although my studies had begun to pick up in content, I couldn’t help but participate with lagging initiative. I was beginning to sense a cap on what I could retain in the classroom, in a chair nailed to the floor, enclosed in a lecture hall, furiously copying notes from a screen, alongside 50-100 other students; every single day. Valuable conversations were going in one ear and right out the other.

And so, without much thought and minimal experience, I jumped into a two month alternative semester of schooling on the other side of the country.

Oh, how unprepared I was for what was to come. Within days of arriving to Green River, Utah, our group of nine was miles deep in a canyon of what seemed like infinite sandy desolation. Any green was manifested in the form of a stunted shrub. To the common eye, water didn’t exist. In 24 hours, the temperature dropped from high 80’s to 30’s. To myself, I thought, “How could anything survive here? How am I going to survive here?”

Through the days that followed, my being was jostled by great discomfort. I was bombarded with all sorts of stimuli unfamiliar to my system. I could barely process what was in front of me. I was wandering through an environment of alien flora and fauna, shapes and shadows, formations, faults and climate. At first, I saw nothingness in this odd terrain, in the rocks that I stumbled over, in the bristled juniper bark that tugged at the netting of my pack, in the pale sand that I clobbered through in new hiking boots. Sand stuck to us with magnetic force, and got into every available crevice within our gear. The daytime sun was so strong that my eyeballs often burnt. The nighttime air was cold, and the moon bright. After dinner, my stomach cranked laboriously through our meals, consisting of mostly carbohydrates and cheese. We stacked miles upon miles into our days, and after finally reaching camp and collapsing into the dirt, we still, as a group, had to make time for class and discussion, homework, and sleep. I had to quickly make way for a whole new routine, set of knowledge, and way of life. I was exhausted and confused: it was hard to tell which way was up.

The intermediate disturbance hypothesis states that at moderate intensity and occurrence, disturbance to an ecosystem can encourage and maintain the system’s overall resilience (Noss & Cooperrider, 1994). Too little disturbance leaves a system vulnerable to shock beyond repair when it is disrupted. Too much disturbance might push a system over its edge immediately. Essentially, an intermediate amount of force can prompt an ecosystem to stay on its toes, making it able to adapt to the chaotic forces that ebb and flow around and within it.

Systems ecology is defined as a way to, “understand the processes and structures that define the working of ecosystems of all kind, from microbial to global” (Think Academy, 2016). The natural world, indeed, is a massive system in itself, and a conglomerate of dynamic systems that interact with and respond to each other. However, systems ecology and theory extends further than the “natural world.” It encompasses humankind and all of its happenings as well, giving, “equal attention to the human dimension” (Think Academy, 2016).

Humans obviously operate within ecosystems. Although we are encouraged to see ourselves as something separate and above Mother Nature, in reality, we operate in and as a part of it (Cronon, 1995). Subsequently, humankind, in all its chaos and complexity, can learn from the behaviors and patterns that encompass the natural world. Systemic disturbance keeps any system (or organism) in check, prompting its ability to adapt to different conditions and environments and maintain diversity within them.

Indeed, the Colorado Plateau is a harbor of disturbance. Given its harsh climate and terrain, one might consider the impossibility of life to thrive here. However, over time, the Colorado Plateau flora and fauna have adopted this variability and unpredictability into their design and behavior. For this reason, the Colorado Plateau serves as a hub of species diversity and ecosystem resilience, as organisms have learned to thrive in many different extremes, from aridity to flash flood, from frost to heat waves.

A plant I’ve been privileged to spend some quality time with, Mormon Tea (also known as Ephedra viridis), embodies said resilience. I’ve found it alive and well in the parched sands of Horseshoe Canyon, alongside the muddy waters of the Dirty Devil River, freckling the Four Corners front country, throughout the alpine zone of Dark Canyon, and up on the banks of the Green River. This singular species has acclimated to each of these unique climates and their extremes. Over time, Mormon Tea has developed characteristics in response to the variable disturbances that shape its lifestyle. For example, instead of photosynthesizing through leaves, Mormon Tea has adopted scales of chlorophyll, through which it processes sunlight. This reduces the plant’s water loss and keeps its temperature regulated, enabling it to tolerate various environments. By embracing the spectrum of disturbances offered by the Colorado Plateau, Mormon Tea is able to thrive throughout different environments.

Before WRFI began, I functioned within one corner of life, one basin of attraction. This system that I call my life was accustomed to the same structure and forces, to my East Coast lifestyle. I was so well-adapted, so comfortable in my basin of attraction that nothing moved or changed. I had no push to explore or learn, and minimal space to do something different.

WRFI shocked my system. It scooped me up right out of my familiar lifestyle and placed me in a new realm of understanding. I learned to work with unfamiliar physical and social environments, and to practice group dynamics in a new backcountry setting.

In the wake of the Colorado Plateau’s challenges, I’ve learned to adopt a fresh set of skills, values and perspectives. I can pack my life onto my back in 30 minutes in one morning, traverse an 11 mile stretch of a canyon in one afternoon, dive into a fervent class discussion before dinner, and make it to bed before 10pm. Indeed, I will carry this new knowledge across the threshold that separates me from my pre-WRFI self. With practice, I know I will be able to move between the two, incorporating new skills with old and vice versa. Perhaps with time and exploration, I will learn to acclimate to more basins of attraction, lifestyles, and ways of understanding and interpreting the world.

 

Eleanor Babcock: The Beauty of Backpacking

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Look down at your legs,” Isa’s positive voice exclaimed. “They brought you here!” Twelve days hiking through the chocolate silted waters of the Dirty Devil River Canyon had induced sore muscles, blistered toes, and soil streaked faces, but also incredibly happy campers. Isa made sure to proclaim our collaborative success as we looked out over the entrenched dirty waters, glazed over by daytime dust. We left the Dirty Devil behind, holding the memories and the beauty of the place we called home for those twelve days close to our hearts.

The past two months permitted us to walk our way through sandy washes in Horseshoe Canyon, trudge our way through muddy quicksand in the Dirty Devil, and march through beaming sun rays in Dark Canyon. These extensive trips gave our footsteps purpose and new stories about place to tell. Backpacking is no easy feat. Each morning we dance our way through the packing routine, filling each open space in out packs with loose socks and canvas tent bodies, hoping the weight will balance out well on the trail. As we chugged, deep into the folds of the earth, sunbeams warmed our noses and happy shouts from out group echoed off red canyon walls. Just as Isa notes, our legs power us forward, building strength with each step.

We endure and embrace this type of travel so we can experience portions of the world very few others have seen. We enter into disjointed places from developed civilization which, in our society, we classify as wilderness. These places are defined by the untrammeled characteristics of its earth and its community. Places where taste, touch, smell and sound differ from the developed lands we call home. While backpacking through wilderness, the beautiful rhythm of our step pulses from the arches of our feet to the bounce of our unkempt hair and settles back into the earth. The earth greets our presence by blowing sand particles through our hair and chilling our blistered toes at night. The give and take from the earth while backpacking creates a sense of harmony between us and the untrammeled characteristics of wilderness.

Our time in society and ultimate search for comfort has evolved to dissipate our connection with nature. William Cronan, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has critiqued societal views of wilderness to be “the dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural,” separating the developed world from perceived wilderness. The beauty of backpacking is that it allows us to break the division between humans and nature and carry our lives, packed tightly and held close to our backs, into wilderness with the purpose to temporarily live in harmony with nature. My experience backpacking in Horseshoe Canyon, the Dirty Devil Canyon and Dark Canyon has given me harmony with nature as I allow the earth’s red sand to rest in my hair and as I practice attentiveness to the non-human world. This attentiveness allowed me to touch papery Aspen bark, fuel my body with spring waters and smell the damp red rust rock waft through the air. How can we take this harmony backpacking creates and break the dualistic vision Cronan describes between humans and nature? Can we work to apply attentiveness to the non-human world in our own backyards to bridge the gap between wild places and us?

We don’t all need to trudge through murky waters, or carry half our bodyweight on our backs to experience wilderness. Wilderness is what brought our societal norms to be. Wilderness helped us create cities and fuel our modes of transportation. The beauty of backpacking does not need to be experienced through backpacking. We can walk through our everyday system of life in harmony with the land as we choose to recognize the value of nature shaping our lives. The islands of wilderness do not have to be islands if we drain the sea of dichotomy between nature and development through the application of attentiveness to the non-human world. Awe and wonder can be experienced through our front door if we choose to open it and embrace the sunbeams which radiate over the world, potentially bridging the gap between humans and nature.

Garrett Hartley: Life of a Dammed River

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was extremely energy draining as I sat in the WRFI van melting into my seat due to the extreme heat we experienced while driving into northern Arizona to Navajo Bridge. Upon arriving at Lee’s Ferry campground I was forced to leave the air conditioned van into the even hotter and drier world outside. Coming from the coastal community of Laguna Beach, the lack of water to swim in to lower my body temperature has definitely been the hardest part of this course for me. Luckily on this day I was told by my instructors that the Colorado River had a chilling temperature of about 45 degrees and if we wanted we could run down for a dip.

A few other students and I immediately took advantage of the opportunity and quickly made our way down to the shoreline. Once we arrived at the small beach I noticed an extremely murky section of water extending about six feet from the shoreline before jutting up to crystal clear blue water of the main water flow. I had noticed many fly fishermen standing in the murky water casting their lines only to the clear water. What I experienced next really intrigued me and provoked even more questions.

As I prepared for the cold water, to my surprise this strange murky layer was incredibly warm! Then at the merging of the murky brown and clear blue there was a bone chilling, skin numbing change of what seemed like a twenty degree difference of temperature. Why is there such a drastic change in temperature? Does the increase in sediment result directly in a higher heat capture? Telling my instructor James about this, he informed me that the murky water is the Paria River merging with the crystal clear blue water of the Colorado River. Why is there such a difference between two rivers flowing in the same general area? What are the effects of this difference?

Just up river from Lee’s Ferry is the Glen Canyon Dam which splits the Colorado’s flow into an upper and lower basin. Craig Child’s writes an article specifically addressing the effects of the Glen Canyon dam and how “when rivers are slowed by dams, the water can no longer carry its sediment.” Furthermore he explains “the Colorado used to carry about 90 million tons a year through the Grand Canyon…it now carries about 15 million tons.” What effects does this loss of sediment have on the environment?

“A Biological Mandate” by the United States Geological survey described how four native fish once endemic to the Grand Canyon are now endangered or extinct. The humpback Chub, Razorback Sucker, Colorado Squawfish, and Bonytail all face major threats from altered water chemistry, flooded habitat from reservoirs, and predation from introduced non-native fish. After asking a fisherman what he was trying to catch, he told me trout which is a non-native species introduced after the dam’s construction. After dams are constructed, fish hatcheries will often be put in place.

Looking at this day when I saw the confluence of the Paria River and the Colorado I can see the direct effects of how a dammed river looks compared to a non-dammed river. Naturally rivers like the Colorado have a very diverse watershed and if we keep imposing changes to the watershed with things like dams the system will suffer. Low sediment levels result in changes to water chemistry which in turn affects the native species ability to thrive.

Ella Mighell: Beyond Bioregionalism

wildflowers of labyrinth canyon

 

Halfway through our Green River, Labyrinth Canyon final section, we stopped at Trin Alcove for a layover day to work on our final papers and take in our surroundings. Midday we were given some “silent solo” time, a specifically non-academic chunk of time to hike up one of the three side canyons, find a spot to sit, and simply be.

After turning around at a poison ivy fenced alcove, I walked to the opposing wall of the canyon. Hidden in the shade, a puddle of life existed. With red rock dust caked into my legs and warmth soaked into my shoulders, I submerged myself into the small pool. Cold sand formed around my legs and I noticed a group of minnows hiding behind a rock. Their yellow and black bodies graced through the settling water as they swam up to me, unsure of this foreign object. Precautionarily dancing around my feet one grazed my skin, surprising my nerves and causing a sudden jerk. Realizing the fear I had caused when they fleeted back to their rock, I tried to relax into the system. Emerging once again, one of the minnows swam up to a clawed mini-crustacean that I had not seen before. I felt as if I were watching them converse. As suddenly as I had seen it, the crustacean flew backwards in the water, jumping away from my movement.

Quickly thereafter, I noticed the sunscreen from my arms seeping into the water. Worried for the effect it would have in this ecosystem, I hopped out and observed from the shore. With the afternoon sun on my back, I embraced the wonder. The awe of this ecosystem and all that happens within it. The humility of its more than human existence and the imposition that I had caused. I wondered about the future of this pool. In the coming months would a flash flood connect them to the greater Green River? Or was it their path to end their lives with the beginning of the dry summer heat? What would the effects be of the chemicals I unintentionally spewed or the sand that I stirred up?

While questions of their future, species names and habitat zones circled in my head, I was also taken with the simple beauty of this singular ecosystem. The “sudden surprise of the soul,” as Descartes worded, that had taken control of this moment. Dorsal fins reflected sun while water skeeters’ shadows formed dots on the sand below; beautiful, whole, interdependent, resilient. This system existed without me, but how lucky I was to have been able to see it.

Further downstream in Labyrinth Canyon, the article “Introduction to Bioregionalism,” by David Barnhill, synthesized many of the place-based experiences and emotions that I have had. “Bioregionalism is an ecological movement centering on one’s local geographic area – one’s bioregion. On the personal level it focuses on cultivating an intimate personal connection to the local bioregion. On the community level, it seeks to develop social, political and economic structures in harmony with the specific land of the area” (Barnhill). It encompasses ideas of decentralized politics, economy, agriculture and power. The idea fosters localization and intention towards interdependence. However, one thing this article and other readings on bioregionalism have failed to acknowledge is the Indigenous ecological knowledge and spirituality that bioregionalism “synthesizes.” In quoting Peter Berg, a bioregion activist, Barnhill writes that “a bioregion refers to both the geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness – to  a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place.” While this consciousness includes ecology, geography and a sense of place, I would argue that a “sense of wonder” should be included in defining bioregionalism.

During the course of WRFI, I have come to learn some of the bioregional knowledge that the Colorado Plateau has to share. With time I have come to learn the orientation of mountain ranges and water arteries, the geologic layers and environments of deposition that we have hiked through, which plants are invasive, how to identify a swift verses a swallow, tricks to reading canyon topography, and knowledge that goes beyond identification and classification. What I have learned about natural history and bioregionalism here will now be a part of my perspective in any bioregion and landscape that I travel through.

Beyond this, I have an awakened sense of wonder! Kathleen Dean Moore, in “Ethics and the Environment- The Truth of Barnacles: Rachel Carson and the Moral Significance of Wonder,” poetically states how “wonder is the open eyes, the sympathetic imagination and respectfully listening ears, seeking out the story told by nature’s rough bark and flitting wrens, and by that listening, entering into a moral relationship with the natural world.” I shall continue this sentiment and pursue the idea of wonder as the morality of interconnectedness.

In describing Rachel Carson’s piece “The Edge of the Sea,” Moore explains how “Carson shows us that a sense of wonder is not just a way of feeling or a way of seeing, it is a way of being in the world. To contemplate, and thereby acknowledge the meaningfulness and significance of the other, opens the door to a moral relationship.” Imagine the possibilities of cultivating a wonder relationship with every bioregion that is inhabited by humans, the awareness, humility, intent and sense of community that it would bring to many aspects of life. But rather then imagine, this way of being can be lived.

“Some philosophers and scientists would have us believe that they are separate worlds, the “is” and the “ought.” But I believe the worlds come together in a sense of wonder. The same impulse that says, this is wonderful, is the impulse that says, this must continue. A sense of wonder that allows us to see life as a beautiful mystery forces us to see life as something to which we owe respect and care. If this is the way the world is: extraordinary, surprising, beautiful, singular, mysterious and meaningful, then this is how I ought to act in that world: with respect and celebration, with care, and with full acceptance of the responsibilities that come with my role as a human being privileged to be a part of that community of living things. Wonder is the missing premise that can transform “what is” into a moral conviction about how one ought to act in that world.”                                                                                 – Kathleen Dean Moore

We must “savor the rush of remembered delight” (Ibid), “live openly, deeply and gratefully” (Moore), live with respect, relationship and reciprocity towards all life, have an inclusion of interdependence throughout all movements, and cultivate, embrace and celebrate a sense of wonder so deep it goes beyond a childlike sense of curiosity to include a humanlike sense of true being.

Eleanor Babcock: Rocky Capsules of Time

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Grallator Tracks

A short, toe-numbing wade across the chai tea latte textured Dirty Devil River on this clear morning was as far as our feet needed to take us away from our campsite. “There’s a really cool surprise around here,” our amazing professor Katie announced as we reached the sandy, willow covered bank.

We had heard this statement before on previous day hikes. Katie never lies about cool things as she has generously led us to ancient petroglyphs and creamy slot canyons. We spread out across the floodplain in search of the next experience that would make our hearts beat fast.

After scurrying around the soft sand bank with passion for new discoveries and tall rusty walls encompassing our views, cheers of delight echoed off the canyon walls as we found the next cool thing. There, sitting prominently amongst the cheatgrass and sagebrush, a fallen table of sandstone protruded up towards the sky. Multi-directional dinosaur tracks stared up at us inverted on the sandstone table. Overhangs on the sandstone layers above us flaunted more foot tracks. These prints were preserved in this sandstone layer for over 200 million years! As I placed my palm on one of the perfectly preserved three-toed ancient footprints, a million questions raced through my mind. How did these tracks get here? Were these goose sized tracks baby dinosaurs or fully grown? The dinosaurs who laid down these tracks could have never imagined that, more two hundred million years later, our group of college students would stumble across them.  What were they doing?  What were they thinking?

Finding a moment in time captured by environmental forces gave us all a sense of awe and wonder. Imagining small, turkey-sized dinosaurs running across the mudflats of the time made me wonder what other sorts of secrets the flaky, red rock layers held.

The dinosaur tracks, which fit in our palms, were made by Grallator. This genus is unique because it is an ichnogenera, only identified by its preserved tracks. Paleontologists assume them to be adults. The multiple tracks we saw were thought to have been laid down at different times.

How can two very different species reach the same moment in time in two vastly different worlds? Rocks. The answer we seek is held in the abiotic, mineral substance of our world. Rocks are capsules of time, which are moved by wind and water, transformed everyday, every year, every century to give us glimpses into the past. Grallator tracks, inverted towards us were quickly preserved by sand particles filling the depressions in the mud and exposed by erosional forces allowing us to reach the mudflat, tropical environment Grallator once thrived upon.

Just as the sculptor molds their next creation, the wind and water acting on the grains of sand shape moments in time. Wind and water mirror the sculptor’s work as they gnaw away, layer by layer, at the rock formations to expose biological existence. These erosional forces gave way to Grallator tracks allowing us to fall, palm to palm, with this ancient species.

The sculpture of the Colorado Plateau is a unique story. A long time ago, the preserved Grallator tracks sat 4 to 6 thousand feet lower in elevation. The whole plateau once sat much below my feet and held unfathomable life forms. Five million years ago, forces deep within the earth shuttered raising this section of crust to the wind and water sculptors, exposing the past.

Evidence of you, me, and the Grallator species can be preserved in these mineral sculptures. Our biological properties give us an endpoint. The crystal grains of silt and sand are continually sculpted into moments in time, which are preserved beyond our existence. The rock creations cannot be interpreted on their own. They need us, the living, breathing, multi-cellular organisms to examine the earthen sculptures they mold. The Colorado Plateau provides a body of artwork in which the wind and water sculptors present us with a looking glass into almost 200 million years of time. Biological existence is a small window compared to the rocky sculptures whose art forms are strong and more stable throughout generations. These unique places and erosional forces allow two drastically different environmental times to collide giving us a sense of the past.

 

Isa Caliandro: Finding Hope in What We Can Create

18198226_1554237051255489_3435545922079622624_n (1)

“If we lose faith in ourselves, we can in those moments forget ourselves and dwell on the future of the larger community, on the blessing of neighbors.” –Barry Lopez

Sitting below a massive deep purple sandstone wall, looking out between Navajo sandstone cliffs, past cottonwoods bright green with the freshness of spring, Katie, our instructor, asked us: “what gives you hope?”

There are many things that give me hope; my friends, my mother’s strength, big snowfalls in winter, the cultural awareness of my younger sister, heavy yellow mellow mornings, community gardens at the end of summer brimming with food. Yet, I can’t ignore the fact that I have been extremely fortunate on my path so far. Many others, even this landscape have had to endure great hardships greater than I will ever understand.

Continuing forward between canyons and now into the front country, I have been trying to gain more insight about hope in this landscape. Where have these cultures found it? How can we be hopeful as people of the world, in times where it is hard to ignore the glaringly real heartbreak of the world? On this section of the course I have been rolling the question over and over of: is my hope a sign of my privilege and my distance from these problems?

As the sun melted down the side of the opposing wall of the canyon, I felt the smile of the day warm my face. Sitting up, I looked down the canyon to the open expanse before me; a road snaking between easy hills, a raven flying overhead, all of it framed by pale sandstone cliffs. Off in the distance, the San Francisco Peaks provide depth and stand steady among the clouds and purple hazy hues of the early morning.

Down the ridge from where I sleep stand the bare bones of a sandstone-brick house now framed by half-standing walls and empty windows. This place is quiet and each nook marks a different stage of history and resilience. The broken pieces of pottery scattered and mixed in the soil of the garden we toiled mark at least three generations of artistic style. The gnarled fruit trees, growing out of sandy soil, mark the Spanish influence that at one time dominated agricultural influence. The rusted metal cans tucked between rocks and plastic bottles blown up against rocks mark a recent cultural influence of western culture and imposition of goods. Dorothy, our Hopi host, and her family, have cultivated these dips and ridges I am tucked between for at least a few hundred years. Throughout drought, cultural persecution, and pressures of imposing western cultures, Dorothy’s family has held strong here in their desert oasis.

It is easy to imagine that through all of their hardship the Hopi people would have at certain points given up. There was a period of time where the US government mandated that Hopi children be sent to federal run boarding schools where they were not allowed to practice their culture. The children’s hair, an important part of their cultural identity, to the Navajo representing their memories, was cut without explanation. This hair cutting represented a literal severing of ties from their families and homes.

When hearing these dark marks upon the history of our nation a sense of guilt fills my heart and mind. How is it that I am just learning of these people’s stories? How is it that even today they are under the weight of systemic oppression? How have they kept a forward momentum and maintained their culture? When in conversation, Dorothy explained that even if everything else in the world is falling apart her people will always have their culture. They will always have their ceremonies to keep in touch with their history and the land. She explained it is in their roots, their creation story. The Hopi people were told to keep going past the tempting lush land and they would find their land where they were made to farm. It was the land of sandy soil, mesas, spectrums of reds and oranges, where they were meant to live. This land is so “barren” that the U.S government didn’t even try to take it from the Hopi because they saw it as undesirable. Here the Hopi have rooted down in their dry farming techniques and culture.

He sat, one leg crossed over the other, long hair loose behind his shoulders, and he explained gently to us of his personal story of activism. He is Bucky, a tribal elder, and Hopi. The mining operations on the reservation have affected the aquifer levels as well as the water quality due to contamination. Bucky has been working as an activist for many years now, trying to bring light to the problems involving water on the Hopi reservation. As a tribal elder, he holds a leadership position within the community. Though, he explained to us not everyone in his tribe supports his actions. Even so he works tirelessly to protect his people’s land. He has run literally hundreds of miles to raise awareness; more recently he has organized the Water is Life run. This run is 50k and takes place on the reservation. Bucky has created a shift of energy that brings in room for a new kind of history. After hearing of his successes, trials, and goals I wonder again: Is my sense of hope in hearing this because it is something that is not a lived reality for me? What responsibility do I hold in the past events that have led to this point?

It was through reflection on my conversation with Dorothy, as well as an essay of Barry Lopez’s “The Rediscovery of North America” that I found my answer. Thinking back to the garden beds that we created, twelve inches deep, twelve feet long, with two feet between, I smile. Remembering the hundreds of miles Bucky has run, he has shaped history. It is important to acknowledge our dark history as a nation. It is important for me to recognize my positionality and privilege. It is important for me to know that I get to step away from these problems when I leave the course; but I can take this knowledge and try to make something from it. I can create new marks, take brighter steps, and leave behind a new kind of history. Stories of community, tolerance, creation, and hope that I can strive to better the colors of yesterday.
“We repudiate the greed. We recognize and condemn the evil. And we see how the harm has been perpetuated. But, five hundred years later, we intend to mean something else in the world.” – Barry Lopez