Gavin Ratliff: Restoring the West in Who’s Image?

Gavin Blog 1From Missoula to the Rocky Mountain Front, we’ve read and met with Montanans about what’s valued in an inclusive, working landscape. As our readings and guest speakers have so far indicated, defining the ‘Original West’ is tricky, if not counter-productive. But a question lingers in many of our class discussions and peeks its head around bison herds, burnt conifers, and small western general stores: to continue enjoying and relying on this powerful landscape, what needs to change?

We tend to picture the American West as untouched wilderness before European settlement: fenceless ground with a fully sustainable ecosystem. Our time in the Scapegoat Wilderness gave us a similar impression: the ‘Wilderness’ sign abruptly turned cow prints to deer, and a rustling bush into potential danger. Yet before white settlement, there were millions of people thriving throughout the plains and mountains, draining wetlands and damming rivers. Wilderness areas today are maybe even more ‘wild’ than the land was on the frontier! Do we return the west to a pre-human, pre-European, or pre-vacationer landscape? All three have altered the terrain and culture of Montana to some degree.

The ideal western landscape has bits and pieces from each group who inhabit this place—some benefitting Native Americans, some ranchers, some developers and recreationalists. Despite some isolated efforts to work together on a collaborative landscape, we’ve seen little physical evidence so far on this field course. As we read William Cronon and Aldo Leopold, and meet with a fascinating variety of Westerners, I’ve begun to play with the idea of what the West could look like if interests remain individual; how would fragmented regions perform, splitting these beloved mountains into territories of agriculture, recreation, preserved wilderness?  Traveling through reservations, national parks, and ranch lands we’ve seen these groups at home in their west. But they could each easily belong to different countries the way they avoid coexistence.

Still, these thoughts imply an anthropocentric landscape. Where do the plants and animals come in? Do these taciturn species have no say in the future of the landscape?

Our two weeks on the Rocky Mountain Front and my college years in Colorado, the Tetons, and Bozeman have proven to me that West is as much a mindset as it is a place. The west, in European history, has been a cultural push back against outside authority—stemming from our roots in Manifest Destiny to a country voting red last November. Like the west, the rebels who first journeyed into unknown territory have been romanticized and admired in society. Are environmentalists—and those in favor of restoration—the next wave of western rebellion, challenging the way we live with the land?

For me personally, restoration to an imagined wild past holds the wrong implication. While our journey through Montana so far has certainly shown some of our misuse of the land, to discount the place humans have in this landscape seems detrimental. To remove species and developments critical to a working land’s future would be a step backwards in Western progress. Instead, why not work with our current ecosystem striving for a more unifying and holistic approach to conservation?


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.

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.

Shane Randle: Ways of Knowing

shaneLeaves made of a single whorl of diverging leaf-parts, with barely visible netted veins.  Thin, wispy white hairs coat a leaf-stalk which fades in color from the bright green of the leaf down to a bright magenta where the basal leaf stems sprout from the top of the root.  Only four specimens are visible within this small square of habitat, hidden among the diverse montane undergrowth.

How long does it take to get to know someone?  How much individual time do you have to spend with them?  A day? A week?  A year?  A lifetime?

How about a native plant species?  In order to get to know an individual plant, I spent three hours with it despite the fact that it’s only a four-inch-tall piece of the world.  Over the course of this time, I examined everything I could about it—the leaves, the stem, the root.  I sat, I paid attention, I wrote down every detail I noticed, I drew pictures.  By the end of my time, I felt that I’d gotten to know the plant truly.

But I didn’t know its name.  I still don’t know its Latin species name.  I know this single specimen of this certain species with such intricate detail, but I don’t know its name.

Before our “Plant Study Assignment,” when I thought about “knowing” a plant I thought about naming.  To me, if I could identify and name a plant I saw in the wild, I “knew” it.  (If I really knew it well, I could also spout out some fun or medicinal facts about the plant.)  But now I’m not so sure that this form of naming is knowing or vice versa.

Through this class experience, my knowing became intimately structural.  I got to know my plant by how it is physically instead of how to communicate it to others.  I believe that the act of naming a plant inherently ties it to the human world, as names are a way for us to describe and explain our experiences.  This communication, however, only passes on a superficial form of what we’re talking about.  In terms of plants, if I start talking about a buttercup, you’ll understand the general concept but you won’t necessarily know the exact stem-and-leaf structure, or the habitat, or even what type of buttercup it is.  You would only understand what I’m talking about on a surface level.

When I spent three hours with my plant, I got to know it in a way which cannot simply be communicated through its name.  I could point to this plant and tell someone that it’s a buttercup (Ranunculus spp.) and they may remember and later identify it by name, yet that wouldn’t mean they “know” the plant.  Or, at least, they wouldn’t know it in the same way I do.

How would it be possible to “know” an ecosystem if you can’t even know a plant species within it?  We use names to describe plants, plant communities, ecosystems and landscapes.  With the words we have, we attempt to learn about and explain the places which we care for.  It is with the same words that we write policies to protect these places.  But if we cannot truly know what these words describe, how can we create accurate conservation policies?  It is not until we truly know the land that we can do what is best for it.

Ben Warzon: The Uplift of Education

benWe often spend our days of academia sedentary, stimulating only our brains, and that’s on the best days. For many of us on this course, sitting in one place being showered in fluorescent light is one of the hardest tasks of the day. Sure, if you asked me to haul an 80-pound pack up 8,000 vertical feet in a day, I would do it. But sitting in a plastic chair for two hours of PowerPoint guided lectures? I’ll pass on that. Of course, this is no revelation. This topic has been studied, discussed and experienced by many people for years.

The true realization though, comes with living in a state of both education and exercise in the field. On our layover day of the Scapegoat backpack, we participated in an hour long study of a single plant. This was one of the most interesting academic exercises I have ever done, and still, I could not truly focus. I gained a plethora of information and certainly appreciated it, but I was not feeling satisfied immediately after. The afternoon held a hike up Scapegoat Mountain for 5 of us. Leaving camp sometime around 3 pm, time wasn’t plentiful, but vertical gain to the top certainly was. We endeavored on a roughly 6-mile round trip with 2700’ to climb, and then descend. As we motored out of camp, lactic acid and heavy breathing came very quickly. The focus I had lacked that morning came even faster though. The lung-busting, screaming-quad climb was as much mental therapy as I have ever had. My mind was instantly able to focus on the Shrubby Cinquefoil, my plant friend from the morning.

As we sat atop the striking Scapegoat, one of my biggest life lessons of the course this far was certainly not novel, but it was starkly clear. Our mental and physical selves are much more integrated than they are separate. This course and form of education in general, give us the invaluable gift of working both concurrently and equally. The words “holistic” and “unity” are often condemned as “hippie ideals,” but, as we are in touch with ourselves, the two halves integrate so instantaneously. Do we really believe that the minds of young women and men will be more open while in physical captivity? Certainly the education system is much more good than bad, but this is a huge oversight it has.

As I move through the landscape dominated by towering limestone cliffs, I can’t help but relate to it. These striking features formed through eons, first born as an ancient sea bed. The land lay dormant and gathered huge amounts of material as creatures passed away and sediments settled. Physical motion caused the uplift 170 million years ago that made this into an inspiring landscape able to share its lessons readily. Much like these mountains once buried and since uplifted, it is our motion and exposure to the real world that makes all of the material we have gained in school usable and impactful.

Bonita Pernot: Nature’s Gift; Enjoying the Present

14484798_1316796038332926_3848645577341254572_nPracticing mindfulness can be difficult—and sometimes nearly impossible—in day- to-day life. Forty hour work weeks, stacks of schoolwork and social media are just a few of the distractions that keep us from being fully present. I often find myself battling between keeping up with the speed of society and taking time to absorb the world around me. While being mindful can be challenging, there are ways that I can achieve it. Being in the back-country is where I find myself fully present, and after spending eight days in the Scapegoat Wilderness, I was able to reflect on the things that make it easier to be present in the back-country than in everyday life.

There are many aspects of backpacking that allow me to be more mindful, the first being the opportunity for solitude. The vast expanse of land that the back-country offers makes it easy to find time to be with myself, time that is necessary for personal reflection. With personal reflection I am able to take note of my needs, wants, temperament, emotions, physical well-being, and spiritual state. It is important to take time for inward reflection in order to be fully aware and present. While it is possible to find such time in everyday life, it does require a bit of effort, which ultimately takes away from living in the present. In the back-country finding solitude is quite effortless, allowing mindfulness to take its rightful place within my life.

Another aspect of back-country life–which fosters mindfulness–is exposure to the elements. Being outside 24/7 not only forces me to deal with the changing weather, but it also requires that I pay more attention to what is going on around me. On our third night in the Scapegoat, a lightning storm rolled in as we were preparing to start our lesson on Blackfeet culture. Needless to say, our lesson did not pan-out as it was intended to; our first priority was putting on our rain gear and finding a safe place to assume lightning position. We put on our rain jackets & pants, numbered off, and dispersed ourselves among the trees.  As we crouched down and waited for the storm to pass, we began our lesson. The rain maintained a steady pour, the thunder boomed on, and the lighting illuminated the darkened sky as our instructor yelled out our lesson. This was not what I was expecting class to be like on this night, but it was beautiful and enriching in its own way.

As I experienced on the third night in the Scapegoat, each day brings a new set of systems, which have the potential of changing by the hour, or even by the minute. There is no way of knowing exactly what is to come, and no true escape from any harsh conditions that I may be faced with. While this is challenging, it ultimately forces me to be fully aware of the present conditions in order to be prepared for what I am faced with. Beyond that, enduring the elements allows me to appreciate varying conditions for what they are: intense sunlight warms the soul, rain storms quench the earth & awaken the senses, bitter cold reminds me that I am truly living. Often times I find myself most absorbed in the present moment in times of fear, hardship, or even discomfort.

Perhaps one of the most obvious ways that back-country living enforces mindfulness is through minimalism. When backpacking, there is no desire for luxury items; since all of my possessions must fit in my pack, there is only room for items that are truly necessary. Anything extra turns out to be a hassle, and unnecessary items left at home are never deeply missed. By cutting down on material possessions, I am able to spend less time worrying about silly things like what I should wear, bring, or use. Through this process, I am able to focus on what is happening in the present moment. Less time with material objects means more time to engage with the people and places that I am currently in.

So backpacking allows me to be more mindful, but why is this so important? Mindfulness equates to happiness in that it forces acceptance of conditions that are out of my control. Learning to enjoy “the now” is the only form of truly living. This may seem like a bold statement, but take a second—or two, maybe three—to think about it. Why trap yourself in the hells of dwelling on the past or being anxious about the future when you could simply be enjoying the present moment for what it has to offer? The next time that you find yourself worried or stressed, I challenge you to find the things that allow you to be mindful, to be present. Slow down, take a walk, breath fresh air, and focus on living in the moment. Choose happiness; choose life.