Shane Smith: Cycling Through History

shanes blog

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.


Biophilia: a solution for change by Stephanie Fisher

pc steph biophilia

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.

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.

Kimberly Rivers: An Old Question with a New Answer

kimberly-riversEvery summer of my life has been spent in my home state – North Carolina – and that has been very comfortable. Easy trips to the beach and long days spent by the pool. This past year, though, something changed. For the first time in my life, I wanted to make myself uncomfortable. It was my last summer before graduating from college, and I knew I needed to step out of my comfort zone a bit. By sheer luck, I found out about Wild Rockies Field Institute from a flier all the way across the country from Montana, in a classroom building at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Fast forward through the application, the invitation to join, and my decision to take the Environmental Ethics course – that’s when I first asked myself my big question of the summer: “What have I gotten myself into?”

Before taking the WRFI course, I had never been to Montana, never backpacked, and had never even been outside of North Carolina for longer than a week or so. After learning more about the intensity of the course and all the equipment we would need, I wondered: “What have I gotten myself into?” When literally everyone I told about the course warned me to watch out for bears, I asked it yet again. I had no experience and really didn’t know what to expect. The closer it got to the start of the course, the more nervous I became. I packed my new, huge backpack before I flew out to Montana, and after struggling to lift it up and put it on, I asked the question yet again.

For our first day on the trail, my new WRFI friends and I were only hiking about 3 miles into the Bob Marshall Wilderness to get to our first campsite in the backcountry. It became clear very quickly, however, that I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. Our instructors estimated that our packs weighed about 45 pounds each, (which is heavy, y’all!!), and of course we got rained on. I just knew that I had made a mistake, and that I was going to be miserable for the three weeks of the course.

I started off the trip doubting myself and the course itinerary, but let’s fast forward one more time – I made it through the trip, and ended up having an incredible time. Together, my classmates and I backpacked in two different wilderness areas and Glacier National Park, spoke with members of the Blackfeet Tribe, swam through a canyon to a secret waterfall, scrambled up to a mountain peak, and engaged in meaningful conversations about climate change and life itself, among other really cool things. I learned so much about myself and could feel proud for what I had accomplished. My whole perspective about traveling and the world changed – I knew I loved traveling and wanted to do more of it before I came on the course, but new ideas about what I could do were exploding in my head. I again began asking myself the same question: “What have I gotten myself into?”, but now it had begun taking on a new meaning.

Before the course, my question had been one of doubt and fear. Now, it’s a door to new opportunities and possibilities. By taking the WRFI Environmental Ethics course, I have gotten myself into a new mindset, and a new perspective. I cannot thank my instructors Pat and Katie, as well as the rest of the WRFI crew, enough for everything they did for me to ensure that an inexperienced girl from North Carolina had the best experience possible through their amazing program. If you’re thinking about taking a WRFI course, I urge you to find out what you can get yourself into. I’m so glad I did.


Hannah Joki: Natural history on the Rocky Mountain Front

Hannah_JokiAs my first backpacking trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness is coming to a close, I am humbled. I am humbled by the fear of bears outside my tent every night; I am humbled by the fear of injury in a secluded place; I am humbled by the scenery that belittles me; I am humbled by the nine hour days I spend walking through the woods; I am humbled. Not only has this trip tested my physical endurance, but also tested my place on this Earth.

I am just a tiny spec in a large ecosystem that can’t be controlled. Society has tried to become apart of this wild and raw ecosystem that we only force ourselves into. As we walk on the trails, we are faced with the realization that we have no control out here. This may be public land but we do not own it, the millions of species do. Being a Montanan also helps me understand the importance of living with the environment and understanding how important becoming a naturalist is.

In one of the readings, Thomas Fleischner talks about the eight characteristics of becoming a naturalist. The eight qualities are: attentiveness, receptivity, expression, vision, accuracy, gratitude, humility, and affirmation. These are the characteristics that keep us levelheaded and help co-exist with nature, not control it. More then the others, I relate to attentiveness, gratitude and humility.

I have become active in my attentiveness to the trail and the clover hoofs that shape the trail before me. The occasional bear track always grabs my attention, the large pad with five toes and long claws indicate the grizzlies nearby. My hand is only a fraction of the size, making me feel small and helpless.

I stood on the top of Sheepshed Mountain, realizing the small role I play on this planet. I felt a mass flood of humility. The snow capped mountains just miles away and the Great Plains stretching to the East. The sheer size of every land form brought tears to my eyes; the amount of respect gained for the land was unexplainable. “Wilderness is the raw material out of which has hammered the artifact called civilization” (Leopold, 1949). As I stood on the mountain I realized society has embedded itself into this raw, untouched, landscapes around me. Civilization is the tool people used to gain control over the land, to feel the ownership we will never truly have.

It seems that to be a naturalist is to understand the environment to a level greater than most people can imagine. Nature is the base of civilization and only a few people have taken the time to experience nature raw.

I’ve gained gratitude through my time backpacking. I am grateful for the fear of bears that keeps me grounded and for the land I may never see again. I am glad the fear of bears keeps me smart and vigilant, even though we have yet to encounter one. My heart flutters every time I round a corner, continuously reminding me of my place in this world. I am seeping with gratitude for I, and only a few others, have walked where I’ve walked. And once I walk out I may never walk back in, but my gratitude of this experience is endless.

Aldo Leopold states how, “only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf.” This observation is of a true naturalist, realizing the land is wise and the animals that roam it are raw and important to the mysterious complex. So many people will never know what its like to stand in the middle of wilderness and see nothing but mountains. They will never learn to appreciate the lifetimes the mountains have seen, the fires it has burned under, the deaths it has taken, the lives it has given.

As we walk our seven miles out of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, I will recognize the grizzly hairs on the trees as I pass, know the names of many plants in the area, and follow the path of many animals before me. The trail connects me to nature as the elk, deer, moose, bear and I walk step over step, me becoming connected to them. As my journey continues I hope to be humbled even more, becoming a true naturalist in my generation.

Nico Matallana & Chelsea Johnson: The Spirit of the Wilderness


“Alright guys, you need to make sure you have everything on the packing list.” It was the first day of WRFI and we were in a Missoula parking lot, surrounded by the piles of stuff we’d need for the next two months. We had synthetic rain gear, plastic tents, chemicals to purify our water, and apples from Fiji for lunch time snacks. With these, we’d surely be ready to create our own environmental ethic in Montana’s wilderness. Right?

Quickly, the illusion we had of primitive backcountry life was buried underneath our piles of gear. We wondered if it was valid to go into the wilderness with all this stuff. How would dragging our plastic stuff into the mountains teach us anything about being environmental?  Continue reading