Danielle Sidor: Real Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kiki Kane-Owens: The Universality of Biophilia

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

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

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

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

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

The Nature of Human/Land Relations by Gavin Ratliff

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Filling the still air with a cry eerily human, a band of coyotes begin the night’s hunting party—in search of a weak deer, rodent, or even some insects if business is slow. Their whiny howl and yips stretch through the trees and gullies, reminding us of shared experience and camaraderie—both within a species and an ecosystem. I have to wonder how long they’ve felt our presence on the north side of Half Moon Pass: a few hours? A day?

When did a dog’s howl cease to put goose bumps on our arms and legs? When did we become so far removed from the wild of nature that someone thought to argue we weren’t even a part of the natural world? Nine days in the Big Snowy Mountains presented us with the question: are we a part of or separate from Nature?

In their essay, Social Construction of Nature, Robbins, Hintz and Moore define nature as: everything that exists that is not a product of human activity. This compliments the idea of Wilderness—a designated, fenced off area outside of human development; to create preserved landscapes in the heart of the mountains solidifies the feeling that human impact of any kind is unnatural. As William Cronon explains in ‘The Trouble With Wilderness’, wilderness was once a description of places beyond human domain. Wild landscapes were barren, desolate, unknown and frightening. Our shift in wild sentiment likely began when more and more people moved off the land into cities—becoming less dependent on the natural world day to day, and thus being able to romanticize it from a dry, warm house.

Certain rhetoric around nature enforces this disconnect. Many describe mountains or rivers as sacred—however inflated that term has become. Sacred, originating from the Latin term sacrare, means to ‘make holy’ or to ‘set apart.’ Within the word is an instruction to set what we hold as sacred apart from our lives. Although many don’t consciously make this connection to the word, the attitude that arises from the hidden meaning hurts our ability to feel connected to other species and landscapes.

The counter to this sentiment becomes obvious when I spend a night in the mountains, or face a cold gust of wind on the prairie. Trekking over Half Moon Pass in the Big Snowy Mountains of central Montana, we walked cow and game trails, often relying on their footprints for the path of least resistance up a mountain. Letting out a yell at the top of the pass, like that of a curious coyote, we made ourselves known and affected the behavior and movement of every species on that side of the mountain.

The thirteen of us on Montana Afoot and Afloat don’t live in the Big Snowies. To us, this range is separate from our daily lives. But active populations do thrive in the foothills, relying on these hills for livestock grazing, outfitting guests, or hunting. The cowboys and hunters we passed on the trail live in our picturesque desktop screen-savers, and they are as affected by the natural system as any animal.

And for a week, we did depend on the natural system—its weather patterns, terrain changes, and water sources. If there is any argument to be made emphasizing our separation from nature, there needs to be an edit: Many people in Urban America have developed further away from the natural world, in an all too separate universe. But they are an exception, in my mind, to the rule that we are a part of the natural world, and human activity does exist in the wildest of places.

It’s my feeling that not acknowledging our place in nature can lead to a litany of dangers for mankind. Most importantly, this mindset leads to a lack of innate responsibility for nature. Growing up apart from the dirt, trees, and rivers encourages a vision of two worlds—one of humans and one of non-concrete, wildernesses; if it’s not a landscape or plot of land you grew up with and have a livelihood attached to, it becomes difficult to feel the commonality between yourself and the coyotes.

Jumbo: The Grizzly Bear’s home by Isabella Kallfelz

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Envision a pristine, sacred, protected land stretching for miles on end, providing a home for the grizzly bear, an important spiritual site for the Ktunaxa people, and a place for adventurers to seek their own sense of serenity. As our group hiked up to Jumbo cabin in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia, our view was filled with mountains and glaciers that would leave you awestruck.

Can you picture this same wild land with a year-round ski resort, 22 lifts, 369 hotel rooms, 240 townhouse units & 974 hotel and condo units? As I sat atop Jumbo pass with my classmates, we stared at the mountain where this project has been proposed for the last 25 years and I thought about how this altered landscape would affect something other than my own experience.

One consequence of the Jumbo Resort would be the encroachment on one of the Ktunaxa peoples’ spiritual places. The grizzly bear holds much significance for the Ktunaxa people.

“For us the grizzly bear holds everything,” states a Ktunaxa tribal member.

The Ktunaxa tell the story of how the bears made room for the Ktunaxa ancestors in this valley. The Ktunaxa declared Qat’muk (upper part of Jumbo Creek Valley) as a refuge for both the grizzly bear & the grizzly bear spirit. The Jumbo Resort would impact the bear’s native habitat, hurt the grizzly bear spirit, and remove the current protection of religious and cultural sites.

The Jumbo Resort would also impact an important corridor for the grizzly bear.

“Essentially, bears offer a window into a larger, deeper environment of a landscape,” says Bruce Kirby. As an indicator species, the grizzly bear is a sign of how the landscape is functioning. Jumbo Resort is threatening one of the largest contiguous areas where bears still roam today. If the land was developed, the grizzly would have to migrate elsewhere and their habitat would become fragmented which could in turn affect the health of the species.

The views we see today include a breathtaking 360 degree view of the some of the largest glaciers in the Purcell Mountain Range. This may change within our very own generation. Townhouses, ski-lifts, half a million visitors a year, and a 55-kilometer road into the center of the Purcells would surely threaten the wild balance of this place. As British Columbia receives a new Premier, my hopes and the local’s hopes remain high for the continued protection of this spectacular place.

Shane Smith: Cycling Through History

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Everything that arises, decomposes. This is a simple, but overlooked reality of life. At first this may seem like a depressing thought, but when it settles in you realize it’s actually quite freeing. In fact, when you look at it from an ecological perspective it is a beneficial thing.

When we started out on our 35 mile backpacking journey through the Bob Marshall Wilderness we saw large swaths of burnt forest. We noticed that beneath these charred, dead trees were a variety of new plants including fields of strawberry, aspen, armies of young lodgepole pine, and many other low-lying shrubs. An important aspect to this successful forest re-growth was the mosaic the fire had created when it went through about seven years ago. When a fire burns a mosaic pattern, some areas are burned heavily, other areas are burned lightly and some areas are not burned at all. Later, we learned that habitat disturbance and subsequent rejuvenation is called succession and is essential for the continuing health of an ecosystem. Five weeks later, this lesson has come full circle with a reading on “panarchy,” which gives new meaning to the importance of rejuvenation in an ecosystem.

Panarchy is a theory proposed by Buzz Holling that states that all systems go through a phase of growth, a decrease in resiliency, a regrowth period, collapse, and then (hopefully) rejuvenation. This “new” system can be a little bit different, entirely different, or anywhere in between. According to Holling’s observations everything goes through this cycle, from the microscopic bacterial cycles that happen on the microsecond scale to the global climate cycles that happen on an epoch time scale. When these cycles are aligned, collapse events can be lined up, causing the rejuvenation process to become a lot harder.

In the Purcell Mountains, we saw this theory enacted first hand where whitebark pine was heavily infested by the mountain pine beetle. From afar it looked like an extremely hot and devastating fire went through, but as we came closer to the trees infected we could see the excessive sap on the trees that came down in defense and the many demarcations in the bark from successful sabotages. A warming global climate allowed for the mountain pine beetle to expand into whitebark pine habitats with populations that seemed to be growing exponentially. Specifically, the warming climate allowed lodgepole pine, a common attractor of mountain pine beetle, to grow into higher elevations where whitebark pine would normally grow exclusively. The increasingly warmer temperatures allowed for the mountain pine beetles to overwinter when they usually would be killed by frost and extended periods of subzero weather as well, exacerbating the problem. This aligning of “collapse events” is what leads to situations similar to that of the mountain pine beetle and whitebark pine– it makes the destruction a lot stronger and recovery nearly impossible.

Similarly, panarchy systems thinking can be applied to our society’s system of thought. In Western cultures, we often have this incessant drive to take more than we need. If we stay rigid in this thought and practice, we could be aligning collapse event cycles— global warming, deteriorating environments, diminishing energy sources… the list goes on. However, if we change our ways and start respecting the environment by working to give back more than we take from it, then we will have the chance of recovery and revitalization when the winds of collapse blow in. Just like the Bob Marshall forest that was able to rejuvenate because of its fire mosaic, our societal rejuvenation will be manageable if there are pockets of strong, localized, and environmentally thoughtful communities.

Mikayla Daigle: A Journey of a Lifetime

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What an amazing experience my time with Wild Rockies Field Institute has been so far…I still can’t believe I’m here.  I have been so fortunate in my life to be able to travel to Montana many times and western Montana has a special place in my heart.  I’m so thrilled that this summer with WRFI I’m spending time there and also in Alberta and British Columbia, all part of the Crown of the Continent, learning about the conservation issues that affect this area.  The Crown of the Continent is a large, intact ecosystem containing Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park; it crosses international boundaries, and contains the headwaters to rivers that flow in three directions to the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and Hudson Bay.  So far, our travels have brought our group across international boundaries and through a variety of protected lands; here is a taste of the places we have been and how the different types of land management tactics have impacted what we’ve experienced.

The first section of the Summer Semester consisted of time in the front-country in and around Choteau, MT and a nine-day, 52-mile backpacking trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.  For a first time backpacker, this was a completely immersive experience.  Besides our seven students and two instructors, we saw fewer than 25 other people; some areas of our backpack were more secluded than others as we went three days without seeing a single other person.  The sights in the Bob Marshall Wilderness were amazing.  We travelled through open, burned areas with young plants growing, large mountain valleys and forested areas with an overabundance of Bear Grass, through canyons next to streams, and trekked up and over mountains.  There was a consistent quiet on this backpack trip only broken by our own conversations and laughs and the occasional passing of other people hiking and horse-back riding.  There were no motorized vehicles, bicycles, roads, or sounds of industry which is usually rare; however, in a Wilderness area this is the norm.  Wilderness areas in the United States are the ultimate protection for ecosystems and species; they are untrammeled or unrestrained by humans, nature is at its most “wild” here.  Trails are sometimes managed in order to stay passable, but other than that, human impacts are minimized in Wilderness areas to offer great protection for the species that live there.

During section two, we visited a greater variety of places.  One of the days we spent at Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park; it was an incredibly relaxing day lounging on the shore at Paradise Point enjoying the weather and working on academics.  The lake was beautiful with its clear, cool water and mountains surrounding it.  But the experience was much different from that in the Bob Marshall Wilderness; the sights were equally impressive but not as undeveloped in Glacier.  The east end of the lake was developed with a historic lodge-turned souvenir shop, restrooms, and boat tour docks.  We also saw more people in the first ten minutes at Two Medicine Lake than we did in nine days of backpacking.  The experience was different because the National Park Service manages their lands much differently than Wilderness areas do; parks are for “the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations” and to preserve unimpaired land.  While the land and species within them are protected, national parks do see a much greater number of visitors as well as vehicle and bicycle traffic.

The backpacking portion of section two began after crossing into Alberta, Canada and spending a few days near Waterton Lakes National Park.  We began our five-day, 20-mile backpack trip from Red Rock Canyon in Waterton Lakes National Park and continued to Goat Lake.  The trails in Waterton, like in Glacier, were wider and better maintained than in the Wilderness area and had greater foot traffic.  The campsite at Goat Lake was also completely different from the Wilderness area; there were log chairs set up for a kitchen area and a bear hang already set up.  “Backcountry” camping in the National Park was easier than in the Wilderness area where we had to find proper camp sites with trees nearby to hang our food.  After spending a night at Goat Lake, we hiked up and along the stunning Avion Ridge that establishes the boundary between Waterton Lakes National Park and the newly designated Castle Wildland Provincial Park.  Avion Ridge provided a stunning 360 degree view of the wonderful, mountainous lands around us with Waterton to the south and the Castle to the north.  Once we entered the Castle, the trails changed immensely; mainly we walked on old trails previously used for recreation, such as four-wheeling and dirt biking, and forestry but now left to let nature take over.  And take over it did, one day we fought gravity on a steep uphill as well as the growing, tangled mess of Alder trees expanding into the old trail.  Since it is a newly designated protected area, the trails in the Castle Wildlands have not yet been maintained, the trail maps were not fully updated, and we didn’t see other people until we were at Bovin Lake, which is only four miles from the boundary of the Castle.  Now that it is a wildland, the Castle in Alberta will be managed similar to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the species and ecosystems within will be protected from forestry and oil and gas industries that used to fragment the area.

It is incredible to be spending the summer in the Crown of the Continent region and seeing how public protected lands are preserving natural wonders, ecosystems, and species in a variety of ways.  I’ve had an amazing time on the first half of the course and I’m so excited for the things we will learn and see in the second half.  My time with WRFI has been a once in a lifetime experience so far and I’m thrilled for what’s to come!

Sarah Wells: A Different Perspective

IMG_3047-X2Let me paint you a picture: the sun is shining and the air smells of wild flowers. You’re excited for the start of a new adventure. There are eight other people and you’re onto your ninth self-pep talk of the day. Not to mention the backpack the size of a six year old that is grasping onto your shoulders and hips. Exhaustion has now started to take effect after the fifth mile of the day and your gaze has not left the rich, dark soil that makes up the hiking trail for the last half hour. Somehow you obtain the strength to lift your head and take in all of your surroundings and all that is ahead. As far as you can see along the trail is a forest with rich vegetation but all of the older trees are completely burnt and dead. It’s obvious that a wild fire has passed through this area within the last decade. Suddenly this picture perfect moment has turned into a post-disaster scene where organisms are doing their best to move on and replenish the land. But is it really such a disaster?

Throughout human history, wildfires have been given this negative connotation for destroying human homes, disrupting wildlife, and tarnishing landscapes. The Bob Marshall Wilderness is only one of thousands of forests that have been scarred by a relentless flame. Although it seems destructive and horrible for the ecosystem, there are actually quite a few benefits to having intermediate disturbances such as these. Wildfires do a ginormous help in returning nutrients to the soil. If a forest that has wildfires as part of its natural cycle, continues to grow without an intermediate disturbance such as this then the soil will eventually run dry of nutrients. This leads to unhealthy forests where organisms will not be able to get what they need. Not only that, different plant species are all competing for sunlight, water, and nutrients. If all of these species continue to grow and get taller, it will then out compete other species that either aren’t supposed to grow tall or will not be able to due to lack of necessities. Wildfires make it so that this is less likely to happen which in turn betters the ecosystem as a whole.

Forest fires can be thought of as catastrophes in our everyday lives. For this backpacking trip: blisters, falling over logs, and rolling ankles are just a few disasters that we have had to overcome. Although these catastrophes can be devastating in the moment, with time, it can become part of the natural cycle which lead to bigger and better things. Being on this Wild Rockies Field Institute course with a group of eight other fantastic individuals has helped me to realize that these catastrophes can turn into beautiful once in a lifetime moments on top of mountains that have a gorgeous view.