Ben Warzon: What a “place” can mean

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we left the shore of the muddy Missouri, we crossed a cow burnt field and started up a draw. We worked our way through the rolling hills, which flanked the mouth of what would soon be Neat Coulee. We bobbed or way up canyon, slowly pristine white Virgelle Sandstone rose like the walls of Zion. Juniper and limber pine dominated the plant community, species hardly seen down the river. Moist, white sand replaced the gumbo mud and welcomed our softening steps as our heads craned skyward. My neck creaked with the stark contrast from staring at the flat surface of the ‘Mo’ for days on end. With this tinge of pain, I was flooded with confusion. Are we still in Montana? We surely didn’t teleport to the Southwest. But there is no way we are on the plains, or in the mountains for that matter. As we sit at the head of this bizarre slot, all it takes is a moment of presence and it all comes together.

What do I mean by a moment of presence? Basically the simple awareness of where one is by feeling the soil, hearing the wind, and just engaging with the surroundings. The familiar can often let presence slip away, but an unexpected or large change snaps us back rather quickly. For me, the experience of Neat Coulee on the Missouri River was certainly one of those moments.  The initial feelings were definitely unsettling, almost a loss of where I was. Such contrasting landscapes must mean a new place. In reality, however, it meant a deeper understanding of this complex place. This was not an anomaly, rather an important step in understanding the breaks. A billion years of processes have created this place and the experience it provides. It is these intimate interactions that create a sense of a place.

This is a phrase we often hear thrown around but rarely stop to think about what it means. There are many pieces to an individual’s sense of place, but it starts with simply being present.  A sense of place is not an abstract or conceptualized idea. It cannot be defined by science or really even words. A sense of place is as simple as the feeling that you are home after a long day. It might just be a touch of fabric on your bed or the smell of the trees. Truly it is just an awareness of where you are. Without that small awareness, though, we lose our culture, traditions, values and roots. That is place.

On a grander scale, a sense of place means being an engaged participant where you live. We can develop a sense of place by exploring our world–both near and far–all it takes is walking out the door and paying attention. Through these explorations we will become invested in our neighborhoods and communities, we will know more about them and understand what they mean. As I sat in the sand of Neat Coulee, I was able gain a greater understanding of and connection to the mighty Missouri River and the state it is born in.

Matt Gasper: Knowing Your Place

IMG_9483.jpgThroughout the second section of the Montana Afoot and Afloat course, I have been able to apply knowledge from the first section to understand this landscape more precisely. Being in Montana, first in the Scapegoat Wilderness, and now floating down the Missouri River, I have realized how small I am, but how enormous my actions can be. I wonder how these ecosystems would function without human intervention. Why are we here and what is our purpose? Looking out onto the landscape as we float down the Missouri has opened my mind to the preservation and conservation efforts this land needs to flourish.

The wide, murky Missouri River came as a shock after experience the fresh, vibrant, freezing, flowing mountain waters of the Scapegoat Wilderness. Paddling from Coal Banks to Kipp Landing, I learned about the various types of land ownership. This flowing body of water is in constant motion as it feeds the Mississippi River. This is one of the hydrologic features in the Rocky’s that essentially effects the majority of the lower 48 states.

The Missouri is the first stretch of river that I believe needs cleaning up. I quickly saw the overabundance of cattle and their impact on the river. Water quality is an issue around the world, so why would we promote this style of intensive management when water is one of the most important resources? If we use wag bags to prevent our feces from being engulfed by water runoff, we are simply disposing our waste in another geographic location (out of sight out of mind). I cannot see the nourishment that this river may provide to the species like the sturgeon, the rancher, or millions of organisms and people living downstream by adding more disposal to the river. If we want change, I believe it starts with a positive course of action and one that becomes a daily routine.

We have touched on the relationships ranchers have with each other and with state and national governments. I think we have forgotten about the landscape’s most valuable tool/nurturer, water. My experience on the Missouri has opened my eyes to our actions on this planet much more than what I have been able to grasp while in the classroom in Wisconsin. I believe we are here for some amazing reasons, but we have found a way to destroy valuable assets to our existence and we are the only ones that can repair the damages.

Water is the key component to this landscape and the interconnected body of the environment, society, and economic functions. A simple course of action can spark more people to adopt better methods, even without government or policy intervention. Positive actions for the environment should be the norm. A norm is created by securing some relationship or bond with the land that is acquired over time; in early childhood or even later in life. However, once a person obtains a relationship with the landscape, a deeper meaning and connection to the landscape will evolve. I have learned this through education and seeing how others perceive the landscape. Without the love of the ecosystem there may be a part missing from your soul or true character. I believe early education with our youth needs to include experiencing mother-nature so the next generation of future ranchers or tourists may see the land and water from a different perspective. A perspective that seeks to help preserve, not destroy with a blind eye.

Megan Harrison: A Journey through the Prairie

img_1145The Great Plains for the last 10,000 years has remained an arid grassland receiving less than 24 inches of rain annually. This makes one wonder how can one of America’s longest river be located in such an dry environment. The Missouri river begins its journey in the headwaters in East Glacier N.P., continues through central Montana to North Dakota, and eventually joins the Mississippi in St. Louis, MO. The Missouri river valley is comprised of unimaginable Virgelle white sandstone cliffs, carved out coulees, and a surprisingly diverse plant community. Prior to the dams in the upper Missouri river, spring floods would help establish new river channels, transforming riparian vegetation for cottonwood seedlings. The seedlings would then be placed high on the river banks to avoid being torn out by winter ice. Over many years, the meandering water of the Missouri has laid down inches of sediment like pages in a novel. While kayaking down the Missouri, the geological features that remain redirects my focus and I become deeply observant of my surroundings.

The beginning of my own journey to the prairie began in mid-September. It had been my first kayak down a major river. It reminded me of a three lane highway: cottonwoods, grassland and sandstone cliffs. Early into the Missouri trip,  our group rested the boats on the muddy banks of Eagle Creek BLM campground. When we awoke the next morning, we hiked  from the south end of the campground heading east into Neat Coulee. As the trail enters the canyon, I am soon restricted by the sandstone walls. The sandstone is a yellow tan, but look closer and one will be able to see white Alkali present in horizontal layers. Within the wall that white Alkali has percolated downward by groundwater and precipitated out when it has reached a less permeable layer of shale. Dragging my fingers across these tan and white walls particles of sand fall from my touch. How old and fragile this landscape seems, weathering before my eyes.

Landforms on the upper Missouri are unlike anywhere I have seen in the state of Montana; a sense that I am unaccustomed to in the western Rocky Mountains. The Great Plains are a complex system of large and small rivers. I have come to learn the history water has left behind over the years.  I will remember my kayaking trip as a trip through time, and I will be curious to see how the future landscape will be affected by the Missouri’s hydraulic processes.

Ruth Howe: Water is the Lifeblood of the Earth


Ruth Howe (far right) and fellow classmates on the Mighty Missouri

Humans are 50% water and all plants pull it from the ground – from crops to trees to the scraggliest patch of rock star moss.

We started our journey in the Scapegoat Wilderness. In the mountains water is plentiful and clean. It comes from snow-melt, and from ground wells which are replenished by snow. We purified our water with filters and dissolved chlorine tablets to protect against giardia, but I’m sure we were in some places we could drink it straight. The cool, clear water is the reason we could be in the Scapegoat. Besides being too rugged for settlement, a major reason the national forests were set aside was to protect the source of water for the Great Plains, because it is THE source of water. The Northern Great Plains get 9-14 inches of rain annually, which is nearly a desert.

As soon as we leave the mountains, where the mountains are still in view, people are fighting over the water. Landowners have water rights on a first-come, first-serve basis, and until recently when in-stream flow was added to ‘beneficial use’ they had to divert their allotment for agriculture, mining, or residential use. Some neighbors have serious conflicts over water.

So that takes us (from the rivers that make it) into the Missouri River. Specifically, the Wild and Scenic section between Coal Banks Landing and Kipp Landing where we camped at the same sites Lewis and Clarke camped at 200 years ago, and the view is relatively unchanged. We even met a group of “fur trappers” in a keel boat, wearing all leather, eating form wooden bowls and acting like the world stopped changing in 1820.

But a few things have changed. They’ve changed a few times, evidenced by the abandoned homesteads along the river. The most common “wildlife” is cattle, most hunters are whizzing up and down the river in motor boats, and most importantly the river is tamed by five upriver dams which divert what would be spring floods to crops of wheat, barley and alfalfa. So while the river looks the same, and we camped under beautiful shady stands of cottonwoods and watched bighorn sheep, the changes are there. Many stands of cottonwoods are older than the dams, and the pallid sturgeon haven’t been able to spawn in more than 40 years because never mind getting over the dams, there’s not enough weather for them to get to the dams. The river ecosystem evolved when the river flooded every year, and every 5-20 years there’d be a flood big enough to create new sand bars for the cottonwoods. Now the BLM drills eight foot deep holes and waters every week to get cottonwoods to grow, and scientists have been trying to breed sturgeon with little success.

So, as we leave the breaks, it’s easy to wonder what’s the best use of the water? Is it for bread, beer and beef, which we all consume, or should we restore the system of flood and droughts that the plants and animals adapted to? It’s not an easy question and it doesn’t have easy answers. What would people do without farming or ranching? What will happen when the last stands of cottonwoods on the Missouri breaks die? Could there be a compromise with man-made floods that sustains both? In the 30’s when they started building dams, they didn’t understand that the river needs to flood. Now, as people learn more about the life that a free-flowing river supplies, maybe it’s time for a new system.

Shannon Quinn: The Spiritual Journey Manifests Itself in the Physical Journey: A Story About Floating the Missouri River

“There are two kinds of suffering; the kind that causes more suffering and the kind that puts an end to suffering.” -Buddha


I am a believer in the interconnectedness of the spiritual journey and the physical journey.  The movement from place to place allows for our minds to open up, and for our hearts and bodies to grow.  I often think of a spiritual journey as a mountain.  There’s beginnings, bases.  The upward climb.  The summit.  This is followed by a decent.  Once we work through a struggle, or time of intense change and decision making, we eventually become enlightened with an epiphany, a strong feeling, a realization, it becomes a downhill ride until we reach our next peak that we must conquer.  When I climb mountains in real life, I connect the physical ascent I’m making to my mentality.  I face the duality of the climb, the difficulty and the ease; the changes in the landscape.  The challenge of reaching the summit is what pushes me onward.  The summit is the reward; the realization.  The opportunity to grow and become stronger.  In nature, the reward is a view, a time to relax and rejuvenate oneself before heading back down again.  In a spiritual journey, the reward is the realization of one’s strength and the ultimate mental growth gained from our mental struggles.  The satisfaction of understanding.

As we walk through this life, often times we limit ourselves to the spiritual journey that makes us feel comfortable.  Just like climbing a mountain, it can be hard and painful.  It can make us want to stop in our paths and turn back.  Some of us do turn back, and avoid the mountain all together.  Missing the summit.  Spiritual growth however requires us to weather the difficult and the painful.  That can be when we learn to see the most.

For myself, hiking up mountains is very often difficult, but I love doing it.  During my trip to Montana, I was faced with a feat of wilderness travel I was unfamiliar with.  Learning to kayak was daunting at first.  I was afraid to be on the water, and was afraid of what I did not understand.  Our group had just finished an 8 day backpack through the Scapegoat Wilderness, and I was feeling up for the next challenge.  When actually faced with getting in the kayak for the first time, I felt intimidated.  I wouldn’t have pushed myself to do it if it wasn’t required of me.  It felt uncomfortably daunting to be swept away by the mighty Missouri River, and there were times when I found myself frustrated trying to navigate the boat in one direction when the wind wanted to take me in another.  The banks of the Missouri are made up of sludge that will steal a person’s boots like quicksand if one doesn’t persist against it.  There were times on the trip down the river that I felt like I was fighting against the river.  A few times I thought to myself “I’d enjoy this so much more if I were truly good at it.”  I thought this internal frustration was tainting my experience, but did my best to remain positive and calm throughout.  “Only 7 more days… only 6…”.

Then there was the utter beauty of the experience that I hadn’t expected to find in my wildest dreams.  The vastness of the desert landscapes, the ancient sandstone cliffs, the diversity of the flora and fauna.  We took a detour into the Neat Couley, and climbed some of the sandstone structures.  The way the sun collided with the water some mornings made it appear to be nothing short of pure gold.  I learned to ride the river instead of trying to fight against it.  Acceptance.  I saw my first wild bald eagle, and many more after that.  Despite having to paddle against the wind at times, we had the wind at our backs others.  One night a harvest moon rose above the prairie, and I recall crouching down to view the orange glow through the sagebrush.  I fell in love with that landscape right then and there.

Through all the difficulties of conquering the wild river and overcoming my fear of entering the water by kayak, the beauty of this journey down the Missouri was all worth it when we reached the end.  The summit.  I recognized that along the way, my fear of tainting my positive experience with thoughts of the opposite were part of my ultimate growth.  The difficult, the painful, the uncomfortable experiences in life are the ones that force us to broaden our horizons.  If we only limit ourselves to the spiritual growth that makes us feel comfortable, are we really growing?  Is anything changing?

We come to realizations all the time.  We resolves conflicts on a daily basis.  It is often when the river becomes wild, or the mountain seems impossible, that if we persist, we find the greatest strength within ourselves.  When one allows their body and minds to openly merge, for the mental journey to manifest itself in the physical form, I believe that we can find fantastic amounts of strength within ourselves.  Connecting the physical movement up a mountain or down a river is pleading to be metaphorical.  To manifest your spiritual journey in the movement of your feet creates a rhythm that grows to be new and more wonderful with every step.  Constant rebirth.

I implore you all, readers, to climb a mountain, float a river, or even go for a walk somewhere beautiful without any real destination at all.  Set an intention, ponder it with each step.  Dig deeply, open your hearts and minds. Challenge yourselves.  Sometimes the journeys we are most afraid to embark on are the most crucial.

Rosie Smith: A Sense of Place


Perched on a cliff, overlooking the Missouri River and surrounding plains, I was confronted by the expansiveness of this place. The vast open space was overwhelming and made me feel small, much like the towering North Woods and Great Lakes do back home in Wisconsin. From up there, at the top of Hole-in-the-Wall, I felt humbled, catching a glimpse of myself as being inseparable from my surroundings, embedded in the landscape. This connection, this sense of place, has been an overarching theme and topic of discussion during my time here in Montana.

For the past month and a half I have been traveling through the state, afoot and afloat, on an academic and expeditionary course, with a group from the Wild Rockies Field Institute. When the course comes to an end in just a few short weeks, we will each be tasked with formulating a personal land ethic. So far, through readings, class discussions, time in the field, and meetings with Montana locals and Native tribes, I have become increasingly familiar with the landscape, and have been exposed to many different opinions regarding our human place in and with the natural, nonhuman world. Most striking to me has been the idea that in our modern culture, connecting with nature is a choice.

Dominant Western culture views us, humans, as separate from nature. The nonhuman world, above all else, is seen as a resource, something from which we seek value. Nature is approached with an attitude of domination rather than cooperation. We establish boundaries by designating certain areas as economically valuable, to be used for resource extraction and tourism, others as socially valuable, to be used for recreation and solitude, and others as waste, to become, among other things, landfills. On the whole, nature is valued in terms of what can be gained from it not for being just what it is. By fragmenting bioregions and assigning specific uses to different areas we further divide ourselves from the natural world, making our inherent connection increasingly indecipherable.

In an article we discussed in class, The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Character, Wendell Berry explains that in the past few hundred years, individuals have become less and less directly dependent on the natural world for survival; cultural connection to nature has diminished in correlation with the specialization of jobs and roles in society.  Berry identifies that loss of connection as a, “crisis of character.” Because individuals no longer have to understand their surroundings in order to meet their basic needs, establishing and maintaining any sort of relationship to nature has become a choice, and unfortunately, not a popular one. There was, however, a time when humans lived with the land rather than off of the land. One Native Blackfeet, Power Buffalo, who spoke to our group back in September, shared it was the belief of his elders that, “We (humans) are part of the land, and the land is part of us.” However out of favor in our modern culture, that view of human and land connection has not been lost entirely. Many recognize that, as author Karen Warren concisely stated in a piece on ecofeminism, “difference does not breed domination”; we are different than nonhuman nature, but those differences do not make us better, and certainly should not allow us to feel dominant.

From what I’ve gathered, seeking out a relationship with the nonhuman world is important because it allows individuals to not only feel connected to nature, but to feel increasingly connected to each other;  it fosters attentiveness and curiosity, which, in time, results in understanding and an ensuing love and reverence for the natural world around us. My experiences here in Montana have allowed me to explore and expand my connection to the nonhuman world. From the top of Hole in the Wall, from the peak of a mountain pass, from the center of an expansive prairie, or from a tiny campsite under the big starry sky, it’s impossible, at least for me, to feel greater than this place.

Sam Kinney: How to love


Sam Kinney floating the Mighty Missouri River

What is a land ethic and what does having a land ethic mean? To quote the famous environmentalist Aldo Leopold, “A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” This quote highlights the disjointed relationship between humans and the land. We have no ethical value system that addresses our relationship to nature. We view the environment as property, a resource that exists solely for human use and economic gain, “entailing privileges but not obligations.” This stands in stark contrast to our ethical and moral views that deal with human to human relationships. The question then becomes: Can we extend our moral community to include all parts of the environment, and if so what would that society look like?

One culture that we have been introduced to on the Montana Afoot and Afloat course that has a very different way of interacting with the land is the Blackfeet Tribe. They place intrinsic value on the land and they see themselves as interconnected with their environment, as opposed to our views of the land as property and ourselves as conquerors of the land. One difference between the two cultures that I noticed was that the Blackfeet have a deep spiritual connection to their place and they care very deeply about every aspect of the landscape. In contrast, our society is lacking a deep connection to and knowledge of place, and in turn, we have little to no respect or care for our environment. Could it be that having a spiritual connection to the natural world could be one way of expanding and extending our ethics to the environment?

On this trip we have been having many powerful experiences that have helped us to build a deeper connection to this place and the world around us. It is hard not to feel connected to the landscape when you are deep in the Scapegoat Wilderness literally being blown up and over mountain passes, standing atop them, wind flying through your hair, overlooking the junction of where the plains meet the Rocky Mountains. The wind breathes life into us. Or when we sat and floated in blissful peace through the evening light to finish our Missouri River kayak trip under the vast array of the nighttime stars. I think we all felt our connection deepen as we scrambled up pillars to Hole-in-the-Wall, high above the mighty Missouri.  There we sat, quietly overlooking the landscape and pondering the Earth’s beauty and how we fit in to this greater picture. Or when we woke up to the first snow of the season (in September!) and were greeted by the sight of the massive limestone reef of Half Moon Park highlighted by the soft glimmer of the snow. I realize now that all of these experiences have influenced and affected my relationship with the environment and my connection to this place. We are experiencing the natural history of these places, their beauty and power, both internally and externally. After having experiences like this it is hard not to feel a change in ourselves and our relationship to the natural world.

All of this is well and good but why does building a deeper connection to nature even matter? I think the author Stephen Jay Gould summed up the value of connection to the environment best in his article, Enchanted Evening. He says, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well – for we will not fight to save what we do not love.” We must save these species and environments, not just for their sake, but for ours as well. For don’t we all rely on clean air to breathe and clean water to drink? There are countless rational reasons that we should change our relationship with the environment and establish a land ethic. As Joe McKay (Power Buffalo), a tribal council leader of the Blackfeet Tribe so wisely said, “We need to learn to live with the land rather than off the land.”