Mia Tompkins: False Summits

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A short man with a furrowed brow emerged from an old rickety wooden building. We were nearly 20 miles from the nearest town, out of water, and I was beginning to see stars dance across my plane of vision. The building was surrounded by a fence with a big “no trespassing” sign, and around the house itself were scattered “stay the fuck out” posters in case anyone was unsure about the message of the first few signs. As he approached we quickly explained our predicament. He looked us up and down, and kindly offered up his spigot around the back of the building. I saw the flash of an idea emerge as a grin spread across his face. Here it comes, I thought. What will it be this time?

“This is gonna sound cocky, but I could spray you gals down with my hose” The man looked at us expectantly. He waited awkwardly to be rewarded for his seemingly clever joke, and was met with silence. I sighed. Matt frowned, and Liv whispered “gross” under her breath behind me. I filed his comments somewhere in my brain with the various others that we had encountered, and that I wasn’t sure how to deal with. This had become a frequent occurrence for our all-female student group. Belittling questions like, “who changes your tires?” or decorative posters titled, “12 Reasons Why a Handgun is Better Than a Woman” can be discouraging. It’s a challenge to celebrate our accomplishments after battling 25 mile per hour headwinds, or reaching the end of the arduous and seemingly endless false summits while also trying to digest how others respond to the choice we all made to embark on this journey. Number 8. A handgun doesn’t fall asleep after you’re done using it, and Number 3. A handgun functions normally every day of the month, are, unfortunately, seared into my brain.

Cycle the Rockies is a course during which we get to bike with all of our gear over 700 miles across the massive state of Montana. We have the privilege of speaking with farmers, ranchers, coal miners, wind workers, journalists, etc. as we earn college credit for studying climate change and Montana’s energy systems. Using nothing but our mental and physical strength to transport ourselves has demanded patience, tenacity, and teamwork. Each day we soak in the rewards of our efforts through the surrounding views that continuously evolve from eastern Montana’s golden wide open spaces to the rolling hills and towering Rocky Mountain Front. For some reason, only women signed up to take on the challenges of the Cycle the Rockies course this year.

A false summit is a peak that appears to be the pinnacle of a mountain but upon arrival it becomes apparent that the real summit remains higher. It feels like the landscape is betraying me, like it’s mocking me while demanding the exertion of more effort, time, sweat, and the occasional tear. We always make it though. One pedal at a time. I listen to my breath and the rubber tires gripping the hot pavement. I feel my heartbeat and blink away the salty sweat that drips into my eyes. Soon the incline relaxes, but my relief quickly dissipates as I look up to see the invitation for another taller mountain to tackle that had been just out of sight. This is what “no trespassing” man’s degrading comment feels like. Just when I thought I’d catch a break, or receive encouragement, or the reward of a nice downhill glide after a long strenuous uphill climb, we’re instead hit with comments on the tightness of our shammies, and encouraged to “lighten up” or “smile” when we fail to laugh at degrading jokes that are at our expense. So the climb continues, the work continues, the disappointment continues. But the strength and grace of the women with me on this course doesn’t just continue. It expands, and it’s contagious.

We bend around a long curve in the road and just ahead of us the pavement juts up from the flat land like a skyscraper. I hear groans behind me. 40 miles in and we’re at the mercy of 90 degree heat. Our exhaustion leaves us beyond the capacity to complain. We approach the final hill before Townsend, MT in a single file line. As the incline steepens, I put my head down and look only at the tires in front of me. My quads ache as I hear the sound of nine other bikes shifting into lower gears. I sneak a peek at how far away it is until the steepness subsides, which was a disheartening sight. Instead I look at the women in front of me. Their calves are flexing with each pedal and their backs are glistening with sweat in the radiating heat. Progress is slow and gradual. I pick my head up any time I feel discouraged and stare at the persistent push of the cyclists in front of me. They press on, therefore so do I. We reach the top and catch our breaths, congratulating each other. I watch the final cyclists behind me huff their way over the summit and towards our hoots and hollers. Our smiles reveal our relief, exhaustion, and pride in what we’ve just accomplished.

The willingness to go in blind to an unknown experience called for an extensive amount of courage from the students who signed up for this course. As this trip comes to an end, I feel endless amounts of gratitude and admiration towards my fellow classmates and instructors. We all had similar responses to the patronizing commentary, and we all encouraged each other into being courageous and staying motivated as we faced the cat calls and condescending comments with our chins up. Navigating a landscape in which I haven’t always felt welcomed or acknowledged has felt more like a learning experience rather than a personal offense because of the people accompanying me along the way in this course. They have helped emphasize the importance of a curious approach to the longstanding power structure in our society that is so deeply ingrained. But have also prioritized recognizing the negative implications of such a structure and the importance in honesty while addressing them. It has been a fine balance between self-respect and empathy for others. There are more hills to climb, and more mountain passes to cross in Montana’s male dominated landscape. There will be more false summits. And I will continue to look towards the inspiring women who surround me for the motivation to sustain forward movement.

Hailey Moll: Walking in Two Worlds

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Our guide at the Ktunaxa Interpretive Center, Jared, led us down a long hallway that was warmly lit with refurbished wood fixtures and plush Oriental rugs padding the floors. The original bricks from the school were fighting through the dry wall and wallpaper. As he reconstructed what the fully-operative establishment would have looked like in our mental imagery, there was an evident melancholy that seemed to emanate from the architecture.

From 1908 until 1970, the St. Eugene Mission, later remembered as the Red Brick School, would take indigenous children from their Ktunaxa First Nation [too-na-ha] and strip them of their cultural upbringing and heritage through forced religious enculturation. Completely unqualified teachers of the Christian leadership would expel the children’s prior way of life, culture, and language through rigorous academics, familial and gender segregation, and even violence. With each generation, more of the Ktunaxa’s cultural knowledge and beliefs eroded. This ubiquitous assimilation practice across Canada was a means of European settlers gaining complete sovereignty and control of the land. Attendants of the school recall being beaten, separated from siblings, and returning home in the summer unable to speak the same language as their parents.

By the time this tragic establishment had its last students roam its classrooms and dormitories, the Ktunaxa still had an arduous battle to reclaim both the land and their culture. Now, the building is a year-round resort completely owned, managed, and operated by the Ktunaxa people, and Jared says his people are proud of that. However, their culture greatly suffered; their language is considered critically endangered, and their elders are dying along with the traditions and knowledge of their people. Through this relentless cultural genocide, relations between the Canadian government and the indigenous people of Canada are contentious, to say the least. You can still feel that resentment in the grim stories of Ktunaxa people relating their experiences at the Red Brick School. I left the Interpretive Center with a burdened heart and a genuine sense of the infringement of their rights and way of life.

The battle for Indigenous sovereignty and land rights with the Canadian government continues to this day. The area of focus–and the location of our final backpack excursion pivoted around the Jumbo Valley in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia. For the past 25 years, there has been an ongoing conflict around the development of a proposed ski resort in the valley. Architect and developer Oberto Oberti and his team envision an enormous island of coffee shops, condos, lifts, and gondola rides. Meanwhile, conservationists, local residents, and the Ktunaxa First Nation are fighting relentlessly to protect this area permanently. To the Ktunaxa, Qat’muk (Jumbo Valley) is sacred to them and the Grizzly Bear Spirit. This reciprocal relationship between the people and the bears is fundamental to Ktunaxa history, and it guides their stewardship principles to the land. I strongly felt the sacrosanct effect of this landscape one evening we hiked up into the smoke-hazen peaks just behind our cabin, and the sheer immensity of the Purcell Mountains commanded my respect and reverence.

As has been the case for hundreds of years, the lack of recognition of indigenous sanctity and culture has threatened their land and way of life. It is difficult for people of a Westernized worldview to try to value a different worldview, and often this difference dictates decisions with ultimate disregard for different ways of knowing. Even as the Western world attempts to understand ‘traditional ecological knowledge,’ we are still doing an injustice to Native people by trying to harness and condense this knowledge using Western-derived concepts, words, and ideas. In order to begin this slow process of healing, we must first try to value Western knowledge and indigenous knowledge equally; these two divergent views should complement one another to better coexist in the same human and natural landscapes. Backpacking through Jumbo made me realize how little I actually know about the area. I respect that I will never be able to view the area in the same lens as the Ktunaxa. Yet, I know that protecting this beautiful valley will help preserve the knowledge about it indefinitely.

Stephanie Fisher: A Whole New Light

19990243_1636411139704746_1210859589059172452_nBreathing heavily, sweating profusely and looking back on my personal trials of life, things have certainly not been quite this easy. Now, more than ever, as I rely on human power to pedal along a demanding Montana countryside, I’m given ample time to rehash past and present health challenges beyond my control. My mind reluctantly wanders, back to a timeframe which most would consider prime of life, where I was overcome by extreme discomfort, perplexity and an unfamiliar sense of fear.

Beginning my sophomore year in high school, while feeling strong and on the verge of graduation, I woke to unbearable pain and uncertainty. To put it lightly, my life quickly went from placid to tough and, after three trying years visiting with specialists, I stooped to accepting the label, “hypochondriac.” I mean, how could I deny it? Each time a trusted health care professional drew a blank diagnosis for my condition I felt alone, with no reprieve, little choice and an overwhelming sense of self-doubt. As time went on, with sprinkles of struggle and mounds of perseverance, I was thankfully able to piece things together and find a pathway forward. I was ultimately diagnosed with an autoimmune disease known as ankylosing spondylitis (AS). It’s hard to describe how I felt when I learned of my condition but in this moment, looking back from atop my saddle, I see myself relieved in knowing my illness is real yet conquerable, neither debilitating nor imagined.

I’ll never forget that pressure-relieving day where my alternate reality, insecurities, and pain were suddenly validated, even by those closest to me. I now had a name for my illness to replace questioning eyes and unnecessary comments around my being too young to chronically feel high levels of pain. Having a name for my illness somehow also served as a first healing step towards better understanding both my body and mind. During these progressive times, diagnosis did not immediately relieve my aches and pains; however, finding proper medication did. Literally, after one injectable treatment I could sit up on my own and with ease! So, I sat up, stretched, and dressed myself utilizing what only 24 hours prior felt like 90-year-old joints.

Now, breathing easy and feeling comfortable within a 30-year-old body, having cycled nearly 700 miles, I see this physically and emotionally demanding journey as my reward for sacrificing years of being patient, enduring and almost accepting a debilitating disease. I sincerely thank WRFI for their encouragement and support before and during this journey. Their work has helped me see the meaning of accomplishment in a whole new light. I feel capability beyond belief – a condition I once believed impossible.

At the end of the road I will step away from my bike within a ‘place’ filled with impeccable self-awareness, exploration, and a brand-new desire to share a short stint of my personal journey.

Liv Sears: It’s a Breeze

Liv Blog 2In 2005 Montana’s first wind farm, operated by Invenergy Services, took shape among the rolling hills of Judith Gap. Our group was given the opportunity to visit the farm as a quick day trip while staying in nearby Harlowton. With unloaded bikes, we traveled 13 miles north to where the ninety turbines of the Judith Gap Wind Farm rise high into the air over green meadows. Each able to produce around 1,500 kilowatts, they yield energy which is then contracted to Montana’s largest utility, Northwestern Energy. For all those in favor of finding alternative energy sources, one would hope that wind could have the ability to open many doors of opportunity for renewable energy in Montana, a way to veer far from coal. Coal has lasting effects on surrounding towns, polluting drinking water and undermining ranch land.

We made sure to get started on the road early, hopefully avoiding chances of wind; it generally isn’t blowing in the morning, but usually picks up later. Lucky for us, it played out in our favor and we had a pleasant outing, arriving just as the turbines started to turn for the day. This is in comparison to other days where we didn’t quite luck out in the same way, often facing headwinds that varied from a mild breeze to intense gusts, forcing us to lean into it to prevent from swerving into the grassy landscape that parallels the road. With our experiences, it’s hard to believe that wind wouldn’t be an efficient and abundant energy source in Montana.

Invenergy is a privately owned (and primarily renewable) energy producer with about 35 sites in the United States and even more internationally, generating energy through wind, solar, and thermal, and even trying to make progress with the battery storage obstacle. During our visit we were able to both explore the wind farm system as well as understand the center of operations that control the turbines and the energy that is produced.

Our guidance through this day came from the facilities manager, Michael, a man with experience in the wind energy production business. After a similar job elsewhere, he relocated to Montana to begin work with Invenergy. However, he expressed that this job was not taken only because it was familiar, but because he can appreciate the opportunities that develop from a rural lifestyle. While experiencing enjoyment from what Montana has to offer with recreational activities, Michael also cherishes the isolation of wide open space, the “big sky.” That, I can understand. I went into this day expecting compelling conversations and similar views in regard to the other half of our course that supports the topic of energy… climate change. But when climate change was mentioned, Michael confessed that he was not convinced. Maybe I was wrong to assume that a manager of a renewable producer would consider the effects that humans and fossil fuels have on the environment. He could admit that things are changing, but things change all the time, right? It’s a perspective we hear often from climate change skeptics.

So why was he working so hard to find success with wind energy while coal is still more reliable? As he explained, energy prices in Montana are inexpensive, and Northwestern is getting a good deal with their energy and transmission. It’s all about the economics. And that is what I realized goes for Michael too. Of course a steady income is top priority for some, so maybe it’s too idealistic to think that everyone would be motivated to pursue these projects because it is simply good. It’s hard to look past the disconnect between the motivation and the end goal. But if that motivation does happen to be money, Michael and Northwestern have found themselves an effective and inexpensive opportunity. Simply shown in data from the Public Service Commission, a board of individuals who regulate services such as energy and transportation, costs of energy production for Northwestern energy (per megawatt-hour) is less than half at Judith Gap than it is at Colstrip, the largest coal producer for the company. Not only that, but when considering the initial build, maintenance, and costs to operate the business, it is still significantly lower than coal, and continuing to decline as technologies advance.

Emma Thompson: An Eye Opening Experience

emma blog 2I’ve always been intrigued by Montana. In elementary school my family would make the trek from Austin, TX to Bozeman, MT to visit Jim Adams and his partner, Mary. Longtime friends of my dad, Jim and Mary would welcome us into their home nestled into the mountains outside of town during the blistering winter months. The memories I made there were countless. From learning how to ski on the slopes of Bridger Bowl, to finding out the hard way what happens when you scoot too far out on the ice of a not-so-frozen stream (disclaimer: you fall in and somehow don’t die of hypothermia). While experiencing the bliss of snowcapped mountains and the not so blissful feeling of a snowball getting stuffed down your pants is great, I was also introduced to an eclectic array of cuisines that expanded my palate. Some of these dishes included tender bison stew and juicy elk burgers, as well as a host of various dishes made from poultry raised by local Hutterite colonies. My dad and Jim would always rave over the quality of the meat that the Hutterite colonies produced which made them a staple of our visits. For a long time, I didn’t know much about the Hutterites, in fact, until this trip I knew very little of their history or lifestyle.

Hutterites are a religious group whose beliefs trace back to the Radical Reformation of the 16th century. Following a lifestyle based on humility and simplicity, their main trade is in the agricultural sector–farming and ranching. They also have a smattering of colonies across Montana, several of which have been along our route. On our travels we were given the opportunity to visit Springwater Colony outside of Harlowton. They have signs along the highway that boast fresh vegetables for sale, so we stopped by after a day spent touring Judith Gap Wind Farm in hopes of gathering some leafy greens for that night’s dinner. As we approached we were greeted by industrial style machinery and the strong musty smell one generally associates with livestock. Hutterites function as one economic entity, allowing them to spend the money made on top of the line farming equipment for their agricultural endeavors.

As we rode further into the colony, we came upon a school bus with a dozen young boys dressed in traditional garb clumped together. They greeted us in unison and directed us to a gentleman who kindly showed us to the produce they had for sale. After acquiring carrots, lettuce, and other fresh greens, we were offered a tour of the garden area. The young boys followed us around, giggling and joking with us. I felt some discomfort knowing that we were very untraditionally dressed in spandex and jerseys, but no one we met seemed offended or taken aback. After our tour of the gardens, another man offered to show us where they milked the cows.

By this point, we were the talk of the colony, groups of people coming to greet us, mainly men. We were invited to see the cows being mechanically milked and a gaggle of their babies that were only a few weeks old. Another Hutterite offered to send us home with a carton of eggs which we gladly accepted. Myself and my fellow bike pal, Morgan, followed the gentlemen to a building on the compound. We were led into a large room where the eggs are processed, cleaned, and inspected. The machinery was all very sterile and industrial. Before handing us our prize, our tour guide took us to a door that had warning signs not to trespass or allow visitors. He opened the door to a room filled with chickens in topless cages. I was informed that the room had 10,000 occupants.

It was very apparent that the Hutterites are immensely proud of the work they do and the efficiency with which they achieve their agricultural goals, yet what I saw was uncomfortable to say the least. My naivety had led me to believe that the Hutterites were in the business of small scale farming, instead I was struck by how much they appeared to be following a factory farming model.

The whole encounter was immensely fascinating and I am grateful to have been able to experience such a different way of living from my own. Yet, I am still unsure of what to make of the way in which the Hutterites go about their work. I felt blindsided and naive for not doing more research into their practices. All these years myself and many people I know have come to be under the impression that the Hutterites simpler way of living somehow made them unsusceptible to new age farming methods. Clearly, this sentiment was incorrect. The experience made me more aware of the importance of knowing where my food is coming from. The farming practices aside, it also opened my eyes to the alternative ways that certain societies function and how important it is not to judge those who live differently than myself.

Biophilia: a solution for change by Stephanie Fisher

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It’s February in Montana, 23 degrees below zero. A gentleman by the name of Hal Herring skis and sometimes stomps post-holes through the Bob Marshall Wilderness collecting snow samples this time of year. The Bob Marshall Wilderness is remote, even by Montana standards, and working within the expanse as a Forest Service snow survey volunteer is certainly no easy task. During their outings, volunteers like Hal use a snow sampling tool known as the Mount Rose Snow Sampler to quantify water content from a winter’s snowfall. Although a seemingly minuscule task, snow survey collection is essential to better understanding Montana’s extremely dry climate. Snowfall accumulation creates varying quantities of stored moisture which turns into fluid runoff during warmer seasons. Surface and subsurface water flowing annually towards streams, lakes and plant-life undoubtedly serves as an essential lifeline to many living things.

During this year’s WRFI course we were lucky to hear Hal speak directly to his work while visiting a public library in small town Augusta. Hal began our discussion by describing ways he utilizes his journalism and recreation skills to explore conservation and share relevant facts with those, “too busy or removed to gather the information themselves.” During one memorable recollection, involving a very strenuous day, he expressed love and admiration for Wilderness areas like, “The Bob.” Hal’s reverence for and fascination with often unseen Wilderness phenomena and naturally occurring places, those free from human presence, will forever invigorate me. I felt his stories tapping my curiosity, especially those about ways he is able to connect and sense or realize ‘place.’ When asked to describe connections to nature, Hal referenced ways he constantly aligns himself with the essence of EO Wilson’s book Biophilia; specifically how Wilson utilizes Biophilia to inspire readers about an, “urge to affiliate with other life forms.”  As Hal reflected upon Wilson’s writing he went so far as to eloquently express his own biophiliactic tendencies – especially those driven by memories of catching snakes while exploring his rural Alabama home.

As I sat listening to his stories, it suddenly dawned on me that not only did Hal and I share a common desire and freedom to roam wild as children, we were also inspired by influential people who valued reading and power of education. The description of his childhood and knack for the outdoors, specifically his close-connection to nature, resonated with me and it felt good drawing back upon wild and far-away childhood places in my mind.

I was born and raised in rural North Carolina and feel fortunate to have been given a chance to free-play while exploring the woods and rivers around my Appalachian home. Collecting and admiring rocks from some of our planet’s oldest mountains still stands out as one favorite childhood pastime. To this day, I like to think my love of the outdoors influenced a strong desire to better understand and ground myself in place – especially when life isn’t feeling so grounded. I have teachers, friends and family to thank for sharing the essence of education and wilderness with me. It will forever be their spirits that serve a constant reminder saying, “no one can take knowledge away.” I will always be grateful for these parts of my life – especially the ones directly responsible for shaping and forming not only my moral compass but an ongoing appreciation for all things wild. I’m happy to report that Hal and I very obviously share a wonderfully perplexing condition called biophilia.

Now, as a Montanan, I make time to explore and better understand wild things whenever possible. This wonderful place became my new home in 2013, while following my loving heart and yearning desire for a change in scope and community. While settling in Missoula, it was hard to not get distracted by so many questions forming in my mind about landscape, flowers, trees, animals, and the “newness” of such a vast and amazing place. Eventually I explored and learned alongside both local and fellow transplants how exactly realizing place can be more than just identifying parts of naturally occurring world. In the beginning I experienced awe by meeting challenges, feeling solitude, seeing beauty, conquering fears and the unknown, and how to humbly foster and respect others.

More than ever, my sense and realization of place is being deepened over the duration of my 700 mile cycling trip and I owe a lot to Montana’s rural places, its people and their crossroads. While journaling, I find myself in awe of my daily experiences. Riding through scenic Montana especially has granted me time to notice so many things I would have typically quickly passed by. My eyes catch normally unnoticeable birds in flight, flora in bloom, and fauna playing the wind. Who knew so many odds and ends would ever find their way along such a long and winding roadside? It’s as if my curiosity of each cited item takes my brain into a meditative state which is sometimes interrupted by annoyance and even discomfort. My discomfort is hard to describe, but certainly brings to light a certain and harsh reality of challenges that simply being outside can sometimes bring. All the while, I’ve noticed that my discontentment has actually heightened my awareness and love for these far removed places.

As skies clear, days grow warmer and winds pick up right on schedule, dehydration settles in. At this point being so parched and sun beaten seems to almost force an inability for me to gauge any level of comfort. Feeling this way is new to me and so too is deciding how to best cope with these levels of exhaustion. I feel myself growing and learning about how the joys and struggles that come with exploring this place by bike can bring a fantastic sense of gratitude and brand new reverence for a familiar yet brand new place, even under strenuous circumstances.

With each pedal rotation I am given more time than ever to contemplate deeper understanding of place and how it might nurture possible cross-roads for my own future. My values are deeply rooted in preserving and protecting the natural world and I’m convinced that I will always prioritize working to protect it; as consumer, educator even recreationalist. For the first time in my life I see how affection towards Wilderness areas, creeks, and backyards might even extend to overgrown parking lots. Needless to say, Hal made a lasting impression on me. If only, like him, we looked to connect “wilderness” in all of its forms, for the solutions necessary for bridging such vast value sets our nation currently upholds.

At last, it’s July in Montana. This side of the solstice still yields 89 degrees, above zero, as new found muscle groups power my bicycle from Wolf Creek to Augusta along the mesmerizing Rocky Mountain Front. In the confines of my close-knit group I push along rolling terrain hearing a familiar and peculiar song from the Western Meadowlark, my state bird. It’s call makes me smile and, as if it wasn’t enough, I then spot an osprey with a meal clasped in its talons, notice a cricket working its way to the edge of the road, and follow Lupine reaching for the sky as the hot sun reliably evaporates their seasonal lifeline. With every breath I willingly inhale the blissful essence of sage and it reminds me of one special person that I hold dearest to my heart. I know full well this meditative state won’t last forever, but I do now know that it’s entirely possible for me to return to this state of mind, body and natural sense of place. Embracing the rhythmic demands of cycling paired with a mind’s-eye glimpse of the things I love most, are and will remain responsible for getting me up, over, down and around from this point forward. I am so grateful for friends; what I’ve learned through this experience; what it means to be here, in this place, experiencing all that nature has to offer; and the importance of being guided by a deeply rooted value-set. I couldn’t be happier knowing I’m destined to forever being a Biophiliac.

Zoe McCully: Water is Life

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Listening. To the wind, whipping the Colorado River into a frothy turquoise skin. To the sound of rain pattering across my sleeping bag.  To the slow hollow slap of Lake Powell against the washed out rim of Glen Canyon. To the voices and experiences of multiple speakers and hosts: Steve, Dorothy, Buckey, Richard, Clorinda, Deryl and his sons. To our brand new instructors Uncle Ben and Aunty Eva. To the crackle of a fire burning apple wood and juniper.

This third section of WRFI has been one of wide open spaces, and open ears.  As we’ve traveled from Utah to Arizona, we’ve driven over mesas, past the Vermilion Cliffs, and over the Rainbow Bridge and Glen Canyon Dam, to visit Hopi and Navajo reservations. The sky has opened up and the wind has rushed south easterly across the land.

We have had MANY speakers share with us their lifestyles, thoughts, history, truths, and culture. We visited Glen Canyon Dam, looked down into the carp filled waters of Lake Powell and swam in the deep clear blue waters of the Colorado. We worked at the Star School, saw the application of solar energy and hydroponic food growing systems, and stayed at a home “off the grid.” We drank from a spring on the Hopi reservation, and used its water to plant cloves of thick stemmed garlic.

A reoccurring topic that comes up is water.  In the Southwest water is scarce, yet companies like Peabody Western Coal Company use it to slurry coal across the country and the Bureau of Reclamation has created an evaporating bathtub called Lake Powell. One of our hosts this section, Dorothy, let us work in her garden and described to us how Hopi people farm without irrigation using a method called “dry farming,” yet rely on springs to sustain themselves. She talked about how the water on the Hopi reservation has levels of arsenic so high she always hauls her water from these springs or buys bottled water jugs, to avoid drinking the contaminated tap water.

An elder from the Hopi Reservation, Bucky, shared with us information from an organization called Black Mesa Trust, also related to water. He also wouldn’t drink the reservation tap water and discussed how Peabody Coal, the company that runs the Navajo Generating Station, is depleting the springs, washes and aquifers that the Hopi people depend on for drinking water. He organizes the “Water is Life Run” a truth that is becoming an increasingly used expression.

When we stayed with Steve who lives off the grid outside of Flagstaff, it was clear that interacting with the resources you consume, by growing your food, or hauling your water, creates awareness for the source and scarcity of the things we depend on. I find in my own life complacency sets in when I live in a city where any food item I want is available year round, and water is always potable if it comes from a tap. So many systems are in place to support this instant gratification consumerism, so many corporations profit off it, and it is dangerously distancing people from the reality of the land.

Hearing the phrase “Water is Life” and learning about all the issues relating to water in the southwest made me think about how these issues parallel the Dakota Access Pipeline. Peabody mine is wasting water, depleting springs and aquifers, and the whole generating station that provides jobs to many people who live on the reservation is closing in 2019. The tap water is contaminated with high levels of arsenic. The reservation economies are dependent on coal and natural gas.

This is not so different from the high profile situation with Dakota Access in North Dakota. This pipeline has desecrated sacred burial grounds and threatens the land and water of the Sioux.  It puts the Missouri River, and drinking water of 7 million people in the Midwest at risk. A similar thing is happening in Utah and Arizona with coal and uranium mining on Hopi and Navajo land.

How many more front-lines or instances of fossil fuel companies exploiting the life giving water and land of Native people, and all people, are there?

How many corporations get to do their own environmental assessments and investigations when things go wrong?

Is there no accountability or responsibility to the people and land?

How many people are so distant from the resources that they consume, so used to a culture of fresh vegetables in cold winter climates, that there is no understanding of resource scarcity, availability and the reality of what the land can provide?

In the midst of these questions that swirl around my head daily and nightly, one of the things I have realized is the power of listening. It is a skill to be able to observe, absorb, and hear what people tell you, rather than make assumptions and automatically begin to analyze things before you start to even understand them. It is overwhelming to sit round a fire past bedtime, and hear so many stories, histories and current realities of exploitation, and not feel your brain jumping to guilt ridden solutions.  Randy Ramsley told us, “The land will show you what it wants to give you.” I believe this is something that can only be discovered through observation, and listening to people and the land they live on.

There is power in stillness; in slowing down from a culture of constant questioning and accepting the words of others. There is respect in silence and peace in the moments where all you hear is the raging of the wind as the sun sets over the sagebrush. However, I can’t help but wonder, what will happen to the world’s water, here and everywhere, if we continue on this trajectory of taking not giving, and masking the reality of the land?