Ryan Feidt: Overcoming Self Challenges


Well, I hope you’re not claustrophobic because this story might freak you out. If you are an avid climber, on the other hand, you might want keep reading. This semester I decided to do something different: I signed up for the Wild Rockies Field Institute‘s Resilience and Revolution of the Colorado Plateau course. I didn’t do any research about the area I was going to before I left because I thought it would be a nice surprise to me. And surprised I have been; not only is WRFI academically challenging, it’s physically challenging too. As the first of five sections of the course comes to a wrap, I’ve reflected back on what I’ve done.

It was day six and our second layover day. Dave, one of our instructors, said today’s hike was one of his favorite in the canyonlands and that I would be going to a place unlike any I had been to before.

Being a climber, I tend to enjoy learning about rocks. While hiking through the canyon, I was surrounded by big bulky, loose sandstone. In my opinion these big juggy, sandstone holds have the potential to make great climbing, but sandstone breaks with the slightest pressure. My other instructor, Ryan (who also is a climber), pointed out this weird black stuff on the canyon wall called desert varnish.

Now apparently nobody fully understands varnish. From what we know it’s basically water mixed with iron and manganese oxide to form a solid outer layer. This means it turns the delicate sandstone to a sturdy surface. What we don’t know is how it’s created. Some say it is made when rainwater is mixed with clay. Others say bacteria create it. The point is, varnish makes really good holds when climbing.

As we continued our hike, the ground started to split apart into a tiny canyon. That is when Dave said we are going down there. He was right; I have never been to a true slot canyon before. The entrance to this slot canyon was not easy. It was a six foot slither down, under a boulder, into an ankle deep pool of ice-cold muck water. To make matters worse, there was only three inches of dry canyon to land on before the pool. I was first. I tried to slip through the hole but I didn’t like going into it blind. Instead, I had to take the more challenging route of going over the boulder where I had to give extra effort to land in the dry spot. I’m an amateur climber and a pretty in-shape person so part one’s descent wasn’t too hard for me. Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky. One of my classmate’s foot took a swim. I was -am still- proud of all my classmates for challenging their fears head on and making it past part one.

The first descent was a breeze compared to the second descent. We all sat in a side room deeper in the canyon. We were roughly twelve feet below the earth’s surface, and after scoping out part two, I realized there was at least another ten foot incline down into the sunless darkness of the canyon. I had to drop through a hole no more than twelve inches in diameter, with a destination that could not be seen from above. I slipped in feet first. By the time I was chest deep in the hole, I had yet to feel the ground. My feet were dangling and I didn’t know how far of a drop I had below me. I slowly lowered myself. As soon as my arms were fully extended I reached the ground. I descended even deeper into the canyon, knowing I was soon approaching a narrow spine followed by an unavoidable puddle. I had to be twenty five feet below the surface of the canyon rim. When I finally reached the narrow path, the walls were only eight inches apart. Successfully squeezing through this stretch meant I was to fall into the unavoidable pool. Nervous, I just had to go for it. My head was facing to my right without enough space to turn it, feet ducked out, unable to turn them, and my chest completely exhaled just so I could fit. It was only a few feet to pass through, but breathing was limited, so I stopped whenever I could take a breath, and so I could get a glance of the pool ahead of me. I saw the walls were just close enough that I could challenge myself to get across the pool dry. I spidered across this lengthy stretch of water, seriously testing my strength and stamina, but I came out dry.

Part three was a breeze. Although narrow, it was a three hundred meter stretch of flat slot canyon hiking. At the end of the canyon there was an opening overlooking a two hundred foot drop into breathtaking, green canyonland. At this moment I realized the Colorado Plateau needs to be preserved. This place is too beautiful to be developed or damaged.

I set some exhausting challenges that day for myself, and I will only be setting more as I progress in this course. But right now, I need help with my current challenge. I need you to go from a reader to becoming the voice for the Colorado Plateau. I need you to spread the word that the Colorado Plateau needs help in being resilient to the challenges that humanity is pressing upon it.


Sierra Deimling: The Hunt for Attentiveness

Sierra Blog 1

If you’re a WRFI student meandering down Horseshoe Canyon and it happens to be both Easter and April Fool’s Day, consider yourself lucky.  We departed our sandstone haven of a campsite and headed down the canyon that special holiday morning, eager to explore more of the canyon’s wonders.  As we walked I pondered my reading from earlier that week. Practicing natural history was something I had never heard of prior to reading Thomas Fleischner’s essay “Natural History and the Spiral of Offering.”  Becoming a natural historian requires “intentional focused attentiveness and receptivity to the more than human world.” I was too caught up in trying to implement Fleischner’s idea into my hike to suspect any Easter of April Fool’s affiliated mischief from my instructors.

WRFI instructors Dave and Ryan have been helping us practice natural history by creating activities centered around one of eight principles of natural history.  The principles include attentiveness, reciprocity, expression, vision, accuracy, humility, affirmation, and gratitude. The activities have undoubtedly been the most pleasant school assignments I’ve ever been given.  One day our group sat silently at the head of Horseshoe Canyon as Dave instructed us to focus on just one of our senses for several minutes to teach us attentiveness. We listened to the chirps of the canyon wren. We felt the damp sand grind between our sore toes.  We smelled the stagnant pool of water littered with juniper berries and pine needles. We saw the Earth hold us like tiny fish in an enormous bowl. So, yeah, natural history assignments don’t suck.

We continued to descend the canyon and my mind wandered from natural history to Easter eggs and family.  My family spends Easter in the wild, and while I was stoked to be with WRFI, I was missing the Deimling Easter egg hunt.  My stomach sadly growled at the thought of my sister ripping into Cadbury Eggs while I crunched on more stale granola.

Dave and Ryan stopped us at the bottom of a draw to give us our natural history activity of the day, focusing on the principle of receptivity.  We were to walk up the draw and stop every 20-ish steps to do part of a yoga sun salutation, involving sweeping our hands high to the sky and down to the earth.  I slowly cruised up the draw and did everything I could to be receptive, not once thinking anything suspicious of the activity. You can imagine I was quite taken aback hearing another student scream they found a chocolate egg.

A scale large enough to measure my stoke upon realizing I had been tricked into going on an Easter egg hunt does not exist.  Picture hiking through the desert for days, where both water and chocolate are extremely scarce, only to find candy in a prickly pear cactus!  Discovering a juniper tree decorated in Hershey’s reminded me of a hunt my parents would set up. I was ecstatic.

Of the eight principles of natural history, three were particularly relevant to our surprise hunt, with attentiveness being the most obvious.  If someone else didn’t yell that they found candy, it’s likely I would have made it up the draw completely unaware that I was flanked by treats.  Realizing how unattentive I had been made me wonder what else I had missed during the course. How many wildflowers have been ignored in my pathway?  How many lizards have darted across my toes while I wasn’t looking? How many shooting stars have been shielded by the shelter of my sleeping bag? I don’t want to miss candy in the desert, but I especially don’t want to miss these special natural phenomenons.

A second principle the hunt helped me embody was our word of the day, receptivity.  To be clear, I did not conclude that if you successfully practice natural history the land will offer you processed sugar.  The meditative portion of the hunt helped me receive endless opportunities to connect with the land. I receive astonishment from watching incandescent sandstone pierce the crystal blue sky.  I receive a sense of caution from pricking my finger on a petite barrel cactus. I receive clarity from looking at the fragile ecosystem as a whole and remember why I am a WRFI student and environmental studies major.

Above all else, the hunt brought me gratitude.  Grateful to be guided through this land by two instructors who care about us enough to get up early and hide candy in desert crevices.  Grateful we hiked for six days without seeing a trace of civilization. Grateful to be spending my semester covered in dirt, sleeping on red rock, happy as can be.

There may not be any more surprise Easter egg hunts around the corner, but the lessons of natural history will remain with me.  I am preparing to wander the Dirty Devil Canyon with Fleischner’s principles in mind. I will pay attention to the varieties of lichen brightly splattering the rocks.  I will reciprocate the good the land does for me by leaving no trace as I travel. I will sing wildly and off-key with my friends to express the joy I feel in canyon country.  I will visualize my place in this ecosystem once I’ve left it, thinking about how I can defend it. I will embody accuracy by filling my brain with the knowledge of others, not diluting my experience with my opinion alone.  I will be humble under the grandeur of the cliff faces. I will affirm my ability to survive with my pack full of resources by marveling at the coyotes surviving on next to nothing. I will forever and always be grateful for my time taking in the Colorado Plateau.

Zoe: Water is Life

zoe blog 2

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?

Sra Feigelman: A Resilient Culture

sra blog 1

“What happens when life gets easy? You get lazy. You lose your momentum, your morals, your values,” a native Hopi woman and our host explained to us at her farm on the Hopi reservation. “That’s why we’re still here. Because life has never been easy for Hopi.”

In this section of the course, the group has been incredibly lucky to spend time on both Hopi and Navajo Reservations, where we’ve learned about their respective cultures first hand from the people that live it. One of our hosts welcomed us into her farm for a few days, a property which has been in her family for hundreds of years. In great detail, she enlightened us with the traditions, practices, food and beliefs of her people; concepts totally novel to us as participants of modern Western culture. She was also careful to explain the systematic and diabolic oppression unleashed upon her people by the U.S. Government throughout history; an oppression that remains seeded in Western culture today. However difficult, she explained Hopi history to be, she maintained a strong notion of resilience by the Hopi people.

Through waves of forced movement, murder, and religious imposition upon the Hopi people throughout hundreds of years, they have endured. In recognition of this cultural strength, I was dumbfounded. How could a culture such as the Hopi live on in the face of an entire country that wanted nothing less than to obliterate it?

In class we have defined the concept of resilience as a system’s ability to constantly return to a balanced state in a sea of positive and negative forces. However, given the presence of these ever-acting forces, resilience can also exemplify a system’s ability to change and adapt to great disturbance within its environment, however maintaining its ability to come to a regular, balanced state.

In Hopi culture, our host explained, it is deeply engrained values and practices that have maintained such resilience. Hopi tradition millennia old, like celebration of mother earth and father sky, culturally unique organic farming and technique, and a society structured by staunch equality and reciprocity represent only some of what has perpetuated Hopi peace and strength over such a grand and complicated tapestry of time.

Although peace has been declared, reservations set aside and formal apologies made, the struggle of the Hopi endures. Although Hopi Nation is sovereign by definition, the overarching presence of Western culture continues to weather Hopi. New age Western value of individuality, success and capital gain remain at war with Hopi tradition. Hopi youth are often incentivized to leave their reservations in search of better education and employment, leaving behind the wobbly economy and infrastructure left for them by the U.S. Government. Our Hopi host explained that to survive in the modern world, many young Hopi leave behind their culture so as to embrace these Western values of individual success, which often run opposite to Hopi thought around community and societal balance.

She described the subsequent weakening and loss of Hopi language, values and tradition.

However, she happily noted the persistence of Hopi heritage. Time has shown a revival: her children have returned to the land on which they were raised, and all in her family are encouraged to re-learn the language and participate in ceremony.

Growing up Jewish, my parents explained to me how important it was to stick to my culture. As a youngster, I don’t think I really ever understood why: my rationale was clouded with resentment for Sunday school and difficulty reading Hebrew.

Instead, as a confused adolescent, my values resided more with myself. Fitting in yet standing out, being liked by my peers, keeping up with fashion trends and possessing talent constantly swirled around my developing brain, leaving very little room for attention toward, let alone appreciation for, my culture. My culture that taught me morals and values, life lessons and the importance of family, gratitude and humility. I threatened my parents relentlessly with the promise that after I became bat-mitzvah, I would ditch my culture and everything I had learned for good.

However, Judaism too thrives off of its own resilience in a world that has never wanted it to. It wasn’t until I learned about these impositions of threat and violence throughout history that I came to understand the resilience of, and pride, I have for the Jewish culture. For no matter how hard survival has been for the Jewish people, it too remains, through tradition, community and celebration. And even in a society of aggressive individualism, I find that my Jewish heritage is always something I can draw back to.

In a world of change, culture is dynamic, culture is resilient.

Anna Martone: A Chance to Listen

Anna M

The crisp morning air pierces the only visible skin on my body, reddening my cheeks as I slowly move from the warmth of my sleeping bag to the cold outside world. Gradually, awareness enters my body as I begin to realize the bathroom isn’t the closest tree, but a code locked door behind which lies conveniences only the front country can provide. We are no longer scrambling down slickrock in Horseshoe Canyon, trudging through quicksand in the Dirty Devil River, or cozied up in Richard Begay’s Hogan. Today we find ourselves in Blanding, Utah. Situated in the southeast corner of the state, this small town may have more controversy than the passerby might have originally perceived.

As Chamomile lavender tea steeps in my blue enameled cup, my hair sprawls out in every direction, unwilling to be tamed, and eye boogers still resting comfortably in the corners of my eye, I sit daydreaming of the adventures soon to come in Dark Canyon. Suddenly, a big red ford truck pulls up behind our overflowing trailer at the base of the campsite. As I sit, still fully immersed in my thoughts, I barely notice a short, stout man sporting a camouflage jacket and hat walking up to our picnic table. As he slowly approaches the table, decorated with food from the night before, he states in a deep voice, “I believe you are the ones I am looking for.” Thrown off guard, as the speaker wasn’t supposed to arrive for another hour, we scramble to adequately prepare ourselves for him. Malcolm Lehy, a native of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe has graciously agreed to come and speak with WRFI about the Bears Ears National Monument.

The Bear’s Ears National Monument, designated through the Antiquities Act by President Obama in 2016, is a diverse landscape of approximately 1.35 million acres filled with as writer Anna Brody described it, “ deep sandstone canyons, high red rock mesas, aspen studded mountains and wide turquoise sky.” In the heart of the canyon sits two distinct buttes, jutting out forming what is commonly referred to as the Bears Ears. These sagebrush filled hills hold sacred and historical importance to many native tribes in the region, still being used for ceremonies and spiritual rituals yearly. The ears; however, aren’t the only areas of this land in which indigenous peoples use, but scattered around Cedar Mesa, ruins and ancient sites can also be found, leaving remnants of the original inhabitants of this land. As Malcolm speaks about the importance of this land, what it means for his tribe, and the reason he speaks out about it, I am enamored by the passion and vigor he holds in his voice. Sharing cultural significances, personal thoughts, and historical events, Malcolm spins us a web of stories, all of which express the importance of knowledge. As he asks what the most powerful thing in the world is, he points to his head and states, “This is. Use your mind. Your mind is the most powerful thing in the world.”

As I sit on the picnic table, my hair flying everywhere, my long underwear and fleece jacket pasted to my body and my tea untouched, I listen intently to a man, so willing to share his knowledge to anyone who will listen. Questions fly around my head, as I wait for a chance to ask them. I wonder about the formation of the Tribal coalition, his role, if any in advising the land management of the monument, his thoughts on the opposition to the designation, and the list goes on. Waiting for a chance to ask questions, a chance that never comes.

Just as Malcolm started, he finishes; abruptly and suddenly, leaving only gratitudes and pleasantries left before he is off. As I sit there waving as he drives away, I am reminded of what Barry Lopez has said, “When we enter the landscape, we are obligated, I think to pay attention rather than constantly pose questions.” I believe this also can apply to listening to people. Although I was ready to ask questions, the need wasn’t there. All I needed to do was pay attention, listen.

I am thankful for the opportunity to meet Malcolm Lehy. I am thankful for his willingness to share. I am thankful for the ability to listen.



Sra Feigelman: Growing through disturbance

sra blog 2 photo

Photo by Nick Littman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Eleanor Babcock: The Beauty of Backpacking


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

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

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

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

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