Wyatt Zahringer: The Insanity of Energy Production

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The title of this blog should be a good indicator of what is about to come. And yes, I am going to provide you with the definition of insanity. Insanity is doing something over and over again while expecting different results. Some might even say this about both the coal industry and environmentalists. One side believes that if we have a resource in the ground that is to be used, we should use it. Why would this be an option when we know the environmental costs of coal mining and emissions from energy production with the use of coal? On the other hand environmentalists see this as humans overstepping their boundaries as we try to bring the Earth to its knees in hopes that we will someday control it.

I also think that a form of insanity comes along with the task of dismantling careers that support thousands of families. The aforementioned “control” comes in the form of energy production. Something that is important in a world that has a population that is ever growing. The topic of energy production casts a wide shadow with many stones to be overturned; which is what has brought me to the state of Montana. I choose to seek enrollment in the Wild Rockies Field Institute’s (WRFI) Cycle the Rockies course looking for some of these answers. WRFI provides exploratory educational opportunities for students to learn about these issues, as well as being able to talk to individuals who live and work in regions affected by energy production. These opportunities help to bring understanding to these people’s stories and lives in respect to energy production. Oh, one last side note… we will be riding 700 miles by way of bicycle from Billings, MT to Whitefish, MT.

Our first stop on this 700 mile journey brought our bunch to Steve Charter’s cattle ranch near Shepherd, MT. As we approached the driveway of the ranch with sweat-filled brows and sore legs, a new world opened before our eyes. Little did we know that the pungent smells that filled our noses with disgust would soon be a topic of discussion.

The next morning we were able to walk through a small section of Steve’s ranch with his colleague, John Brown, who had a vast knowledge of soil and plant biology. Little did we know what they were trying to achieve on this allotment of land in Southeastern Montana. This was not your average ranch, Steve and John, along with Steve’s two adult children, are adopting a more holistic take on agriculture. One that rivals what they called “more-on” agriculture: that type of agriculture that requires farmers to apply large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous to their fields for ample crop production. John informed us that by doing this you essentially kill off the natural organisms that should be providing plants with these nutrients. They need these grasslands to provide food for their cattle. The problem is cattle also need a solid water supply, which Steve feels could be in jeopardy because of a large coal mine near the Bull Mountains. If only I had some perspective from the individuals who work in those mines…

It just so happens that the next day of our month long journey brought us to the very mine in question, Signal Peak Energy. After a grueling uphill climb we arrived for a tour of the mine, something I had never done before. We met with our guide, Byron, one of multiple generations of workers in the mining industry, currently including his son and daughter. After swapping out tennis shoes and spandex bike shorts for steel toe boots and full body smocks we were off. He displayed the larger conveyor belts that fed the almost monster like crusher. Next, he displayed the holding stacks that fed lines which in turn packed rail cars with coal. The most memorable parts of our conversations revolved around the importance of safety and family. He stated that this mines main purpose is to provide high quality coal while not jeopardizing the safety of their employees. These were people and not the money-hungry coal miners I had envisioned less than 12 hours ago. They had mouths to feed and families to cherish, just like the Charters.

So where does all this insanity come from? Could it be that we have cornered ourselves to believe that coal miners are hell bent on destroying the Earth at the cost of the all mighty dollar? Or that we continually portray those in opposition of fossil fuels as a superhero posturing for the crowd? This makes me think of my own personal life back home in Wisconsin.

With both of my parents working in the paper industry, I have seen first-hand the effects this industry had on the waterways of my hometown. These waterways include but are not limited to the Fox River and Lake Winnebago. With a nickname like Lake Winneseptic it is hard not to be cynical towards an industry that has polluted these waters to eternity. What I would give to see what those ecosystems looked like in their prime. Nonetheless this industry has provided me with a limitless life. A roof over my head, clothes on my back, and most importantly an education. Yet, I still find myself coming to verbal blows with my father over what should be a peaceful cup of coffee. These conversations usually end with the same quote, “Don’t speak ill of something that has given you life.” This quote has flown through my head several times in different situations over the past two days.

I find myself empathetic for people I had not in the past and on the edge of my seat for more information about topics I thoroughly enjoy. Maybe the insanity is not in the production of energy, but something much bigger than that. I think that this insanity comes in the form of stereotypes of each group. When in reality we need to think of new ways to find systems that can provide clean energy that do not degrade the Earth at unsustainable levels. We also need to remember that everyone has needs and potentially have people that rely on them for those needs. Who am I to take food out of someone’s mouth while I try to make myself feel better about shutting down another “dirty” coal mine? On the other hand, who is to say that Steve and his gang do not have the right to maintain his lifestyle and a fair shake at his piece of the pie? Most importantly, when does the Earth gets its time to attempt a recovery of the scars we have left behind? When will we as a society open our eyes to the rapidly changing climate and the implications that has for the human race as a whole?

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Sloane Adams: My First Backpacking Experience

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I signed up with Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI) at the end of December, eager and excited. After waiting only a few weeks, I got an email from WRFI notifying me of my acceptance. In the back of my mind I was completely questioning my motives and “How in the world would I be able to complete a six week backpacking course all while learning four different subjects?” Originally I wanted to join WRFI because of the amazing opportunities it would offer and because it was a 12-credit course taking place in the backcountry – an entire semester in the woods!  Not only was I a bit nervous but I was also skeptical of my ability to complete this course of study. I was worried I would not be physically prepared, even though I was told to start working out months in advance. Additionally, I believed myself to not be scholastically prepared. The semester before this course, I struggled academically due to my lack of focus and preparation. Because of this my confidence lessened drastically, causing me to question my abilities.

But my confidence and persistence has ensured my success here. As the months turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into days, the idea of this all happening finally started to sink in: I was actually going backpacking for six weeks. Of course not only was I nervous about the course, the backpacking itself, but also the people. I was worried I would be unable to make friends or that the group dynamic would be different than I pictured.

Things began falling into place from the get-go. My fellow students are very accepting, easy to talk to, and non-judgmental, making it the perfect group to bond with. This has been key, because as soon as the backpacking finally began, things started to become very real. My first backpacking trip was harder than I imagined: the entire time I had one thought in my head, “Why did I ever believe I could do this?” If I had a general idea of what backpacking was like before I went on this course, I would have thought it to be very difficult but maybe easy to pick up on; so far it has been both.

Not only did I not know anyone very well, but I was also carrying a 50-pound backpack. When backpacking with a group, our communal items – the pots, pans, food, etc. – are distributed among each hiker, comprising what’s called “group weight.” We all had some kind of group gear to carry; for instance, I carried two bottles of fuel and a night’s dinner, and some thick natural history field guides. This made my backpack quite heavier than I imagined. If I got the chance to go back and buy everything all over again, I would most likely buy strapped sandals for walking around camp and for crossing creeks – rather than my heavier street shoes.

As soon as we got to our first location, “Heart Lake,” my body finally started to feel at ease, and I could finally relax. But then the real work began: learning! Now this is not meant to be discouraging for anyone who wants to go on a backpacking trip to get a few credits. This is meant for anyone who dreams big, but never chases it. Because there is one big thing I forgot to mention: this has been by far one of the best experiences ever! You get over the feeling of “I can’t do this,” because you can. Your body becomes accustomed. The classes become more interesting as the days pass. I became really comfortable in our class setting, considering it was always outside. I started to engage more in the conversation, asking questions and getting involved in debates. I contemplate my curiosities. I could never do this sitting in a classroom full of 300 students, but out here in the wilderness with just nine students, it becomes easier. The course readings became genuinely interesting for every topic we’ve tackled. And these classes pertained to my major, which made them more fun to learn about. One topic in general pertained to biodiversity and ecological restoration, and my major is resource conservation. So being able to dig deeper into the background of these critical debates in my field prepared me for my studies back at school.

There is no substitute for place-based, active, experiential learning: it engages me physically, intellectually, and emotionally. There are some things that become a once in a lifetime opportunity, and this is one of them.

Parker Eversoll: Coal Stops Burning, yet Green Jobs Start Turning

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Photo of Harlowton, MT which was once booming due to its railroad influence from the coal mining industry. Photo credit: Stephanie Fisher

The multi-billion dollar coal industry is dying; there I said it. Many of you most likely already know that coal operations are being shut down, downsized, and once-prosperous energy moguls are filing for bankruptcy all across the United States, particularly in the Northern Plains states. Since coal is moving towards its inevitable termination over the next decade or two, the energy market’s next task will be how it replaces the electricity generation and respectable jobs that were once provided through the coal industry.

I am majoring in geoscience and environmental studies with an emphasis in renewable energy systems and resources. I have immersed myself in the transition away from coal to renewable energy with hopes to work in the renewable energy field that will be ignited from the migration away from coal. I am travelling from Billings, MT to Glacier National Park with 12 other energy and climate change enthusiasts on a touring bicycle for the next month while visiting a coal mine and camping on the outskirts of towns that have been impacted by the coal boom and bust cycle. This cycle has promoted short term prosperity, but induced long term struggle on the towns.

There is no doubt that the coal industry has been the backbone of states’ economies such as Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado for years, but due to oil and natural gas exploration and advancements, expensive and dirty coal is being replaced. While this transition may be a huge step in the correct direction to combat climate change and other issues that coal mining and burning has caused to the environment, it does mean that a large workforce will be losing their job in these Northern Plains states. While the negative environmental impact that coal has on the Earth caught my attention and influenced my career goals of working with renewables, this is not the case for many workers in the coal industry. Job loss and unemployment has become a central action point in politics, so the transition off coal will be heavily influenced by political decision making. The interests of large coal corporations center on squeezing every last penny out of the dying industry, but the job situation runs much deeper than profit return.

Towns that I visited in Montana such as Roundup and Harlowton directly stem from coal mines popping up with the potential for great profits. Since the 1970’s when coal began being used more extensively for electricity, Roundup and other nearby communities were funded almost entirely by the tax revenue created by the coal industry, including the nearby Signal Peak. Their infrastructure such as schools, municipal buildings, and roads were critical to happiness and continued residence in the town, which were often hard to come by in western mining towns. From my interactions with some residents of Roundup who grew up with the Signal Peak providing tax revenue benefits, there was almost a feeling of being indebted to the coal industry for their contributions. An elderly lady at the church where we spent a night at in Roundup expressed the appreciation she had for what the coal industry had provided her and her family. Based on the tax benefits that she had experienced, she still supported the use of coal for electricity generation. In order to make a supported transition off coal, the workers of the coal industry must be accounted for and taken care of through job security.

Most people are supportive of coal use for purely economic reasons. With growing awareness of the impact of fossil fuels, people are slowly noticing the urgency and viability of renewable resources and their potential for electricity generation. For me, a career in either thorough remediation of land impacted by the use of fossil fuels or the implementation of renewable energy systems would be ideal. Whenever I tell others about turning this passion of mine into a career, I am bombarded by people of all generations with comments about how vital this profession is to the environment and how intriguing and cutting edge the field is. Those comments are primarily coming from liberal-minded, Madison, WI community members, where I go to college, which is generally a completely different perspective from those involved in the coal industry.

It is never ideal to switch jobs and start over in a new profession; however, working in a dying industry without any backup plan for its closure could be detrimental. Replacing coal industry jobs with renewable energy jobs is a very likely, transferable, and cost effective solution. Transmission lines already run from central Montana to Seattle and can be dispersed to west coast states that are on the forefront of the movement to using renewable energy in the United States, meaning buyers with large scale demand. The lines can continue to carry electricity from Montana to their buyers, but instead, the lines will be filled with clean, green electricity.

In regards to transferable jobs, the coal operations will have to be properly decommissioned, which includes reclamation of the mines, proper handling of polluted ash ponds, and large scale demolition of the structures if they cannot be converted to a compressed natural gas plant or other applicable usage. This will include skills that are acquired while working in the coal industry, such as heavy machinery experience, manual labor, environmental, civil, geological, and mechanical engineering disciplines, steel and iron work, and pipe fitting to name a few. Miners and technicians familiar with the particular mine or similar work may be the best prospects for its cleanup force. These job skills do not just apply to the ending of the coal industry, but also to the implementation and upkeep of renewables. While renewable energy is not something brand new, especially in Montana, the number of workers in the industry will need to increase significantly in order to take on the load that coal still consumes. The necessary workforce can be achieved through those currently employed in the coal industry as well as the influx of new job-seekers like me with an environmentally-minded approach. The combination of hard-workers from the coal industry and recent college graduates with an environmental emphasis could catalyze the renewable industry. In return, renewable energy implementation will create jobs that are available for those with skills in applicable engineering disciplines, environmental assessment and impact specialists, heavy machinery operators, metal work, electricians, and other specific technicians, many of which exist in the coal industry.

The manager of the Invenergy Judith Gap Wind Farm called working in wind a blue collar job with a white collar background, especially in electrical knowledge. Thus wages are competitive and comparable to working in coal mines, with wages exceeding $40 per hour for experienced technicians. While visiting the Signal Peak coal mine, the ground operations manager stated that nearly 98% of his new employees in the past four months have been younger and do not have prior mining experience. This indicates experienced miners are retiring and providing opportunities to the younger generations to fill openings. If workers can be thrown into a coal mine and be successful, there is no doubt that the same transition to renewable energy jobs can be made too.

Northern Plain states reaped multiple benefits from the coal industry, but the one that was harmed from the industry was the environment. In order to continue to admire the great outdoors, like I am doing on this bike tour through Montana, we must be mindful of our actions on the Earth. With the decline of the coal industry, it is the perfect time for renewable energy adoption to swoop in and fill the jobs that were provided from coal. The current dedication to coal is based on a fear of losing well paying, consistent jobs, but that fear can be diminished using skills acquired from coal work and transferring them to the renewable energy job sector.

Sarah Bartz: Valuing the Intrinsic in an Instrumental Valued World

Sarah blog 2 photo B.jpgI sit on the shore of Lake Powell. My wristwatch reads 6:16 pm, the sun is creeping below the horizon, and the warmth of the day is still tickling my skin. I stare across the glassy blue water to the sandstone cliffs on the other side of the lake.

Below the peaceful surface lies a deep canyon, widely unknown to the many tourists that camp along the lake’s edge and speed across it in motor boats. But I, along with my groupmates, rest along its gritty, slickrock rim and imagine the vast canyon that once lay before us.

How deep did this submerged canyon once plummet? How much sediment now fills in the many cracks and alcoves the elements took such care and time creating?

Gentle ripples lapping at the water’s edge were once gentle gusts of wind. Fish swimming beneath the surface mimic birds soaring between canyon walls.

Gazing across the lake at a butte illuminated by the evening light, I wonder how it feels to spend your whole life dancing with the clouds, watching over the flora and fauna below, and suddenly being suffocated by the rising Colorado River, your oldest companion.

While the beauty of this refreshing water is undeniable, the underlying feeling of wrongness is unquestionable.

There was a time when the Colorado River flowed freely down the heart of Glen Canyon, whose wonders compare to that of the Grand Canyon. But that abruptly changed with the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. Completed in 1966, the dam drowned this relatively untouched wilderness with the powerful water of the Colorado River, transforming it into the Lake Powell of today. This traded the intrinsic values offered by Glen Canyon for the instrumental value offered by the Colorado River, utilized by the Glen Canyon Dam. This change appeals to some but is viewed as a tragedy in the eyes of many others.

A landscape, such as Glen Canyon, or a resource, such as the Colorado River, holds intrinsic value in the guidance it offers to humanity from its very existence and instrumental value in its measurable, useful benefits. In his essay In the Black Chamber, Paul Kingsnorth states that we need to believe and confidently state that “nature has some intrinsic, inherent value beyond the instrumental” to protect and leave it undefiled.

Instrumentally, the Colorado River, harnessed by the Glen Canyon Dam, now offers hydropower, flood control, tourism, recreation, and a large water reservoir in the water-scarce desert. But many would argue that the intrinsic benefits of Glen Canyon offered irreplaceable values and significance from its ancient indigenous history and glowing sandstone canyons, now altered forever.

I ponder this with the mind of a biophiliac, one who has a passion for loving, interacting, and protecting other forms of life and the natural world, ultimately supporting the lost intrinsic values found in Glen Canyon now lying deep beneath the rippling surface of Lake Powell. How do we stress the importance of intrinsic values while living in a world of biophobics, those with disregard and discomfort to the natural world, who are inclined to focus on quantifiable instrumental values?

The writings of Kathleen Dean Moore state that “there is worth in these products of time and rock and water far beyond their usefulness to human purposes.” Might there be a balance of intrinsic and instrumental values, biophilic and biophobic mindsets, that doesn’t compromise the future integrity of wonderous landscapes, and the ultimate connector of all living things, water?

I now sit and paddle down the Green River. Walls of varnish-painted sandstone stand proud on either side of me. Willow trees sway to the rhythm of the breeze on the banks. A Blue Heron, still as a statue, watches as I float by. The radiation of the sun from above and bubble of water below soothe my soul.

I cannot measure this moment or put a price on this place and the peace it brings.

I begin to understand the magnitude of loss felt by those who experienced a similar intrinsic value of floating down the Colorado River in Glen Canyon prior to its incarceration by the Glen Canyon Dam. Were the free-flowing Green River to suffer the same fate, the tragedy would be unfathomable and a special part of my heart would drown with it.

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Ryan Feidt: What I’ve learned from a Great Blue Heron

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As I awaken in the early morning, I look to the east; the sun just barely peaking over the horizon. The sky is lit with reds, pinks, oranges, and yellows. There is a sweet smell of coffee brewing in my stove. I look off into the distance and wonder about my day to come. What will I see as I canoe down the Green River? How many millions of years’ worth of rock layers will I travel through? What animals will I encounter? I ask these questions because I am practicing natural history. Thomas Fleischner, a professor at Prescott College, defines natural history as “a practice of intentional focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more-then-human world, guided by honesty and accuracy.”

“The fact that we have to make an intentional effort to practice natural history says a lot about the disconnect of our species” (WRFI instructor James Mauch, 2018). The average worker must make time to explore nature. But, do they make the time? Do you? Do you take the time to be observant enough to wonder about what is happening around you? If you don’t, you should; it’s worth every second you put into it. Sometimes you can discover something magical like I did.

A long day has passed as we paddle into camp. A brand-new camp, not only to us students, but to the instructors as well. Nobody has been at this camp in a very long time. This is evident because the footsteps in the sand are covered in rain drop impressions, it hasn’t rained in a month. There are two cottonwood trees just close enough together where I put up my hammock to sleep for the night. I take a seat and admire the evening light reflecting off the west-facing Navajo sandstone canyon wall. Never will a canyon wall look so beautiful as it does in the light of a setting sun. As I sit in my hammock drinking hot cocoa and finish my readings, the sun has fully set to reveal the blanket of stars shining in the dark sky. I gaze at the sky for a few minuets then snuggle into my sleeping bag and lay for the night. I have nothing but the sound of silence as I finally start to fall asleep. Then there is a noise. I am awoken with the sound of heavy wings flapping no more then perhaps a few feet away. I can tell this bird is large; is it going to land on me? It lets out a cry so loud and so edgy, that I can only think a pterodactyl is about to land on me. It’s time to investigate. I emerge from my slumber and look around. I don’t see anything. Another cry, this time louder and scarier. I look up and see the shadow of a Great Blue Heron. This is a bird I’m familiar with in the Midwest, but the desert? In a nest?

To think if I didn’t take the time to observe what was happening around me, I wouldn’t have known that Great Blue Herons lived in the desert. Herons are dependent of aquatic ecosystems, so I figured a desert, where there is limited water, wouldn’t house a bird like the Great Blue Heron. I now know that riparian areas, like the narrow strip along the Green River, are the exception. It is experiences like this that encourage me to practice natural history. Because the practice of natural history helps us connect with the environment around us, everyone should take the time to observe their surroundings. So, I encourage you to eat your lunch outside, go for a walk in the park, or just take a minute to stand outside your front door and use all your senses to cultivate your sense of wonder.

Keagan McCully: Reorientation

P1040260-X2A couple nights ago I awoke with a pounding in my head. My throat was uncomfortably dry, I was damp with sweat and my face felt like it was being pressed into the sand. I had somehow managed to position myself deep inside my sleeping bag, and I couldn’t see anything. I wanted to get out. I twisted myself around, extending my arms as I searched for the zipper that could set me free. My fingers grasped the warm metal. As I unzipped it, I felt the cool night air seeping into me. I pulled myself out, emerging from the capsule that entombed me. Gazing upward, I almost felt reborn. Thousands of stars were scattered in the sky above me. There was no moon, but I could still see the silhouettes of the canyon cliff faces that surrounded me. I could make out the croaks of woodhouse toads amongst the trickling of the nearby spring. I let out a long sigh. The wind seemed to agree with me.

Since entering Dark Canyon, I’ve been struggling to cope with my emotions. A certain part of me has been feeling apart from me. My mind isn’t fully present. Traversing through the winding slopes of the Woodenshoe Trail, I’m burdened with distracting thoughts which feel as though they are eating at me, taking away from my experience. They cause me to zone out in moments where I should be more attentive. Maybe it’s because I’m tired, potentially burning out, maybe I’m not getting enough time alone with myself. I feel disconnected. I long for moments where I can stand amongst the towering pines, breathing in the cleansing air, graceful and content in my own being and embracing what surrounds me. Is that too much to ask?

“What are you hoping to gain from this experience in the desert?” I am taken back to a conversation from several months ago with a friend of mine. “I don’t know,” I responded. In his eyes I saw the look of disappointment, causing me to add a little. “Hopefully I’ll strengthen my connection with the Earth.”

I chose to participate in WRFI because I longed for a stronger connection with the Earth. Knowing that it would be a profound experience, I walked into the wild with an open mind. Little did I know that I was also heading into the uncharted wilderness of my mind. Here there is no limit to where my thoughts can fester. With each step that I take down the trails of the canyon, my feet colliding with the dry earth, I step further into the reaches of my often chaotic mind. There are times where I just want to embrace what my sight brings me, study the sounds that make their way into my ears or let sensations permeate through my skin, but oftentimes my conscience has been louder that the landscape surrounding me. It yanks me from the slickrock beneath my feet and returns me home for split-seconds. There are people I want to see. Conversations that I’ve been yearning to have. Relationships I want to rekindle. Am I homesick? No, not necessarily… All I can do is exhale, attempt to release these thoughts from my mind, and return to where I am. Dave’s voice echoes through my mind. “Don’t leave the canyon before you leave the canyon.” I’m sorry, Dave. 

Despite my inner conflicts, there are moments when I am blessed with clarity, moments where peace upwells from deep within me and relaxes my mind. A few days ago, I stumbled into camp after a soul-testing 12-mile trek in search for water. Our camp was positioned in between towering sandstone cliffs which loomed above us like mountains. It was nearly evening; the sunlight had shifted to a golden hue and was desperately trying to work its way through the partly cloudy sky. I lay, exhausted beneath a towering ponderosa pine. My shoulders were aching, and my hips felt numb. I closed my eyes for a minute in attempt to let my mind become at ease.   

A soft breeze caused my eyelids to flutter. A solitary birdsong brought me back to reality. I let my eyes open, and almost immediately felt overcome by beauty. Above me, the ponderosa branches accepted the embrace of the wind. Their needles were shimmering, dancing in the evening glow. Behind them, the clouds had opened and brought forth an array of golden beams of sunlight, magnificent in their entirety, dancing in and out of the clouded darkness like ripples on water. For a moment, all in me was still. I felt held by the ground, and embraced by the wind, appreciated by the sun. I felt present, unoccupied by anything else, except the gifts that the Earth was allowing me to witness. 

There must be reason behind my mental wandering. Maybe I need to recognize it as a gift that the wilderness is providing to me. Where else can I witness the most stripped down, truest side of myself? Navigating through this unfamiliar landscape gives me the space and time in which I can navigate through my own head, meditating, contemplating, and even worrying. I can connect to myself and recognize my thoughts in a place where nothing is holding me back. The Earth can provide comfort which reminds me who I am and where I’ve come from. Surely this is the reorientation that I have been seeking.

Once again, I’m walking through an unfamiliar landscape. The path that I follow rises along a slope, winding through a grove of beautiful, young aspens. For a moment I stop, and listen to the whistling of the wind fluttering through the golden green, shimmering leaves. It’s truly magnificent to behold. Suddenly, a thought pops into my head. “I wish you could be here to see this.” I am swept back, paralyzed by this idea. A robin flies from behind me, landing on the trail several feet before my eyes. It looks at me, cocks its head, curious to see me. The bird returns to the sky. Smiling, I return to my thought, changing my outlook. “I can’t wait to tell you about this.” In this moment, I am here. Present in a place of such beauty and tranquility. The Earth has reoriented me, and given me the opportunity to listen to the songs that it sings. What a gift.  

 

Renne Baldwin: Everything We Do is for Rain

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Rain in the desert is magical. The sky turns dark and fog settles into the canyons. Moments after the first raindrop, the sagebrush alerts our noses to the water by releasing a pungent odor. The pitter-patter of rain hitting the soil creates little dimples that give way to rivulets and then streams. The cacti grow roots, as quickly as the lightning flashes across the sky, to absorb the precious resource, and mosses turn green, photosynthesizing once again. Several minutes later, the rocks are iridescent, and our boots are encased in colorful layers of mud.

But rain in the desert is rare. In the past five weeks, it has rained three times, and we’ve been told that snowpack is 65% lower than average in some areas. This already dry region is facing another year of the 20-and-counting-year drought. During our past two weeks on the Hopi and Navajo Nations, we have learned that the indigenous people who live in this area rely on water from rain, melting snow, and springs to support wild plants, provide drinking water, and provide moisture for their crops. The recurring statement from our hosts has been, “Everything we do is for rain.”

One morning in the Hopi Nation, we met a Hopi runner named Bucky. Sitting on his blanket-covered couch, we listened to Bucky recount his days as a young child, running age-old trails between his village, his family’s fields, and the shrines and springs in the area. This running held cultural significance; the paths the Hopi ran were seen by the Cloud People, and “when the Cloud People see you on the trails, they’ll bring rain.” When Bucky returned to the Hopi Nation after boarding school, he found many of the old paths gone or forgotten. The tradition of running for rain was being lost. Bucky began running the trails again and began an annual “Water is Life” ultra-marathon across the Hopi Nation. “It’s not a race. It’s about prayer” and keeping the Hopi tradition of running for water alive, explains Bucky. As Westerners, we may not see running as a religious activity, but for the Hopi, running brings rain, a necessity for life.

Later that afternoon, we drove west from the Hopi Nation to the Navajo Nation, where our hosts invited us to participate in the rituals associated with upkeeping their sweat lodge, which were also focused on rain. After cleaning the inside and building a platform at the entrance, we began to mix water and soil to replaster the exterior. As we finished the task, a small amount of mud remained in the wheelbarrow. Our host grasped a handful with his already-muddy hands and encouraged us to mold the mud into figurines while praying for rain. The frog I made sits atop a slab of slickrock near the sweat lodge, waiting for rain to fall on the valley below. It will remain as a call to water until it is washed back into the earth.

The final rain ritual for the sweat lodge involved covering the top with water. The ten of us held our water bottles and surround the earthen structure. We took a drink and sprayed the water from our mouths onto the newly finished sweat lodge. Then we emptied the remaining water in our bottles onto the structure and walked a full circle around it, again praying for rain. The labor we put into improving and maintaining the sweat lodge was more than labor; it was a call for rain.

From these two experiences, as well as other stories and experiences of singing, dancing, praying, and watching the skies while on the Hopi and Navajo Nations, I have come to appreciate the importance of rain for the indigenous people on the Colorado Plateau. The first times I saw it rain on this landscape, I found it beautiful, but inconvenient. I had to don my raingear and suffer heavy, muddy boots. But after seeing how rain is the livelihood of the people who live here, next time it rains in the desert, I’ll appreciate its value and beauty over the inconvenience. When it starts to sprinkle, I’ll raise my hands to the sky and sing and dance. I will draw in the clouds and ask the skies to continue to bring this landscape to life.