August Schield: What is Home?

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At a recent class deep in the Big Snowy Mountains I was asked, “What does it mean to be home?”

This is a hard question for me to grasp. I could give you a specific answer stating that I grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota. Yet as soon as I came to that quick conclusion, I was overcome with confusion: Was that really home? In a great sense, yes, because it is where I grew up and that place is deeply rooted in me. But I can no longer call it home. On this course, I have realized that everyone has their own unique background and upbringing. Through the process of identifying Self, one also identifies what it is to truly be home. Gary Snyder states in The Place, the Regions, and the Commons that all of us “carry a picture” of the environment we grew up in as the building blocks of a sense of place. He further states, “Our place is part of what we are. Yet a place has a kind of fluidity: – It passes through space and time,” and concludes by stating that home is literally based within a Bioregion as the “hearth,” or a home base at which one’s culture and community is centered. I couldn’t agree more except of one aspect: The Hearth of an individual is just as fluid as space and time, and for me, (being quite nomadic lately) it is important for me to affiliate home with my current culture to stay grounded.

Home, as Snyder states, originates with an image. One that is archetypal and forever translucent in my mind. It is the place where the idea of home originated within me, and later blossomed in this strong gravitational force of wanderlust that to this day continues to draw my mind west towards the vertigo of exposed peaks, the mysteriousness held only at the top of the tallest pine. Allow me to share this image with you: my memory originates in the great bioregion of the Pacific Northwest, on a rainy day of course. The thickness of the temperate rainforest is just a quick red rain boot sprint away from my back porch and I am eager to take cover under a tall juniper tree with my father. My frantic sprint comes to an almost immediate halt as I lock eyes with the branches high above towards the tip of a large Douglas fir. Its seems to look down at me as if it is curious about what it might be like to be as tall as a bushel of rustling ferns. In contrast, I wonder what the forest floor would look like from the thick bench-like branch high above, carpeted in a shag-like vibrant green moss. I hear my father call to me, so quickly I scurry to join him kneeling on the moist red earth beneath the juniper. He has on his face an ear to ear smile that seems to hold all the secrets to happiness; in his hand he uncovers a few juniper berries. “Is this a magical berry tree?” I squeak. He laughs as I sit down near the trunk with a low branch clasped in my hand, he watches me cautiously so I don’t actually eat any. We both came to this tree often, and almost always during a rainy day to sit in a nice dry place to take in the density of ferns and thick Douglas fir bark. I would imagine about how far this forest would stretch, and all the adventures I could would someday have, roaming from tree to tree, learning about the secrets they had to tell me. At the ambitious age of three years old, the tall juniper and surrounding temperate rain forest was home to me, but it is no more than a set of archetypal images to me, now acting as forceful sense of nomadism.

Place has become the most fluid aspect of home, where the feeling of home itself is when I feel welcomed and comfortable within a culture. One of six ways Jim Dodge describes a Bioregion, (something I affiliate “home” with) is “Cultural/phenomenological: you are what you think you are, your turf is what you think it is, individually and collectively.” This hearth is based in the culture embodied within the amazing town of Bozeman, MT. It has been a little over a month since I was last there, but when our WRFI caravan drove the great valley between the Bridger and Crazy Mountain ranges the other day, I could feel the presence of home, and could see its spirit blowing viciously atop the freshly snow caked peaks of the Bridger range. Excitement took over me as I began to explain to my instructor, Dave, about the greatness of the high peaks and the chutes I have skied with my friends. It would take a dense novel to explain all the amazing experiences I have shared with my culturally affiliated “homies” of Bozeman. However, like an archetypal memory, the cultural identity I have with Bozeman is translucent, light as thin air, I cannot physically touch it. Bozeman is my hearth. A place I have frequently left, but always felt its rich culture pull me back, like the flame flicking in a hearth, I am drawn to its warmth.

I will return soon, but for how long? With age I have come to realize that this hearth I share with all these wonderful people will one day become as fluid as space and time as Snyder states. It is inevitable, that I will one day migrate again, just as I have the same feeling for all my friends that I share this cultural connection with. This fluidity is Inevitable. I enjoy being nomadic; I have learned so much about myself and other cultures within the past five months. I identify home with culture, and for the past month, that sense of place has been grounded with my ever enlightening classmates and instructors of the Wild Rockies Field Institute. It is important to stay present in the culture you are currently affiliated with as to get the most out of the wonderful time and place we all share. I share my home with these people, our adventures, and all of our distracted, goofy antics. Home is where the hearth always burns.

August Schield: The Hypocritical Oath

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I am a hypocrite. I preach conservation of lands, understand the importance of biodiversity, believe in climate change, and spent my precious free time recreating in wilderness and national forest, observing and learning of the natural processes that dictate the ways things are. Yet I play the devil’s advocate because I promote and consume more than the necessary amount of wanted commodities influenced by my mother culture that in turn harm and diminish the world I aim to save. I am no longer, by definition, a wild animal. So I choose or more-so feel the need to have these synthetic objects in order to survive comfortably in these wild lands. I advocate for protection of watersheds so geese can migrate to safe healthy land, but own a $300 sleeping bag made of goose down. I am in the harshest of terms a hypocrite, continually operating on the hypocritical oath. This oath to me is advocating for the environment, against issues such as fracking and booming oil developments and in contrast consuming oil industry products such as skis, jackets, kayaks, cars, you name it. These realizations have been haunting to me as a young environmentalist, and at times make it difficult to find solutions to move forward. However, being receptive of the land and my culture, I am humbly yet shamefully able to ask and answer this question: what is your role in the dying world?

I am only human; consumerism is my way of life. I have realized that conscious thought is the first step to realizing and reducing my own footprint. I am against the 21st century’s oil and gas developments in delicate ecosystems, specifically in the Beartooth front, the ANWR region, and the Badger Two Medicine area; but I drive a truck, own a quiver of 3 pairs of skis, and a plethora of highly advanced synthetic outdoor garments (most of which I replace yearly due to wear and tear). In realizing this hypocrisy I shall move forward into conscious decision making. In such a diligent practice, I can dictate my cultural consumer wants and won’t end up with an abundance of things I do not need. If I continue down this destructive path based on my hypocritical oath, complaining about lack of snow pack, shorter summer ski seasons, and increased frequency in wildfires; then I am a hypocrite. So how do I move forward?

Conscious thought and decision-making are just a part of the process. Taking what I need and leaving what you want to consume does not, in my mind, complete what Thomas Fleishner describes as the “spiral offering,” a way to give back to the land that created your livelihood in the first place. How can I give back to a world that I have, until now, blissfully reaped? It is easy to want all the latest and greatest gear to be comfortable in the wild so that I can focus on my mind experiments and allow myself this wonderful and forever-growing environmentalist mindset in the first place. Now I must take action, learn as much about the natural world as I can and how I can aim to conserve it scientifically. Then I must communicate my knowledge and make noble decisions that set examples for others. No, I am not going to strip down naked and run into the wild to live with the lions and tigers and bears. However, to be a student of the land does not require lavish abundance of gear. I just need to get out there and explore, be receptive and humble as I have the last few days been wandering with an open heart and realize that all I have ever wanted is right in front of me. I am an environmentalist, and although my culture may never able me to break the hypocritical oath, I can practice my ethics to the land day in and day out. In doing this I hope I can inspire you to do the same.

Devon Calvin: Lessons from Munching Burnt Quinoa

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There exists some sacred, indefinable core between people who you have munched burnt quinoa with, slept beneath shooting stars and howling coyotes, and shared alpenglow sunsets with. Between our group of students this core transgressed our contrary backgrounds, histories and interests. It caused each and every one of us at the end to be utterly nostalgic at the prospect of heading our separate ways with nothing left but sweet memories and phone numbers. Yet it also taught me to value relationships much more than I ever have before.

Throughout the turbulent years of late high school and early college, I lived by a “wilderness essence,” a vision of a lawless, untouched paradise that I could reach primarily through reckless exploration: commonly alone, running along some mountain ridge and without bear spray or cell phone. This perspective characterized my relationships with people and the outdoors. During college I became infatuated with planning out the places I would go, and only became friends with other climbers or skiers. The realization that I was spiraling into a routine and not having the new experiences I had hoped for in a college experience caused me to take a leave of absence for the following fall semester to find something more meaningful than just my personal athletic development.

Coming into the first day of WRFI my head was very much centered around managing a life back home in Central Oregon, and scrambling to find something meaningful to do in the gap semester after the course was over. I felt distant from my peers- and slightly confined by the group dynamics where conservative decision-making took higher precedent over the familiar pursuit of freedom. On our first front country camp at the Nature Conservancy’s Pine Butte Preserve I ran down winding trails at 5:30 AM to experience the area in the way I was used to: quickly, more solitary, and without a plan. The wild morning encounters with skunks, deer, grouse and winding rivers confirmed my belief in a wilderness essence and in a singular mode of experiencing wilderness.

On our second day of a 30 mile, 8 day hike through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, I decided to wet a line on a small section of the South Fork River during a little free time before dinner. I moved downstream, and found myself a mile down the river casting into deep turquoise holes before I thought to check my watch. When the sense of urgency at returning in time for dinner finally hit, I scrambled up the steep creek bank and started running back. After a few minutes another realization hit me- I had left the borrowed fly box and rod case as well as my license down beside the river! I cursed myself, and took off again back to the fishing grounds. By the time I sheepishly ran back into camp, the group was circled, munching burnt quinoa. It was an illuminating moment. At that moment I recognized that my egocentric wild desires were self-inflicting, isolating, and were less valuable than the time spent with others.

Throughout the span of six weeks I learned that happiness cannot be found just in wilderness, alone. On our last night of WRFI as we munched on burnt quinoa, I looked at each and every fellow classmate, adventurer and friend with a newfound appreciation for giving me a sense of clarity about wilderness, relationships and myself. I learned that my happiness originates through friendships over a mutual enjoyment of experiences. I learned to slow down, and focus on the moments spent outside with others rather than the speed or mode of travel. Within six weeks I began to appreciate others not for their level of gnar, similar perspectives, or granola personalities, but for their enjoyment of life and indomitable spirits. As I forge new relationships and revisit old ones, I believe I will now see in people not only what qualities they possess, but rather the soulful fire that drives them to be such diverse, inspiring people. And as a friend, I will stoke it as best I can.

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2016 Wild Rockies Summer Semester Students

Lauren O’Laughlin: Where the Heart Is

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Flathead River. Photo Credit: Julien Rashid

When I was a kid, I thought the best thing to be was a poet.  I would write simple, horrible poems and ask my mom to edit them for me.  She was kind enough to point out maybe one in seven of my spelling and grammatical errors, always encouraging my reflections.  All of these poems were inspired by my adventures in my backyard or just beyond.  My world was small, but I knew all of it.  Gary Snyder describes these adventures, “The childhood landscape is learned on foot, and a map is inscribed in the mind going out wider and farther.” Though this landscape was inscribed inside me, I would argue it was etched not in my mind but in my heart.

It is strange that now, as I am paddling down the Flathead River, I have been doing these explorations outward over a decade later.  We passed my childhood home near Whitefish, drove through the town I inhabited as a teenager, and caught a glimpse of my first college as we drove through Kalispell.  This journey will end in Missoula; the place I now call home.

In many ways, I feel as much a child in this place now as when I grew up here.  I have spent care free summer afternoons laughing and playing Sharks and Minnows in river waters with my peers, I have knelt down in forest floors to peer under mushrooms, overcome with the same magic I felt as a child that inspired me to look for fairies.  In evening walks around our camps in the Jumbo valley, I have felt indescribably small in the face of great mountains.  Throughout this journey, I have been more present for each moment, I have been curious about and moved by the natural world around me, and I have rediscovered my childlike sense of wonder.

My experiences here have also reminded me of what I later thought was the best thing to be: an outdoors-woman.  And through WRFI a better outdoors-person I have become.  The trees, flowers, and shrubs are familiar to me, and in recognizing them I feel in on “the gossip of the place,” as Gary Snyder would say.  I am happy to see fields dotted with the bright scarlet paintbrush, and I feel greeted and welcomed by the waves of trembling aspen.  I now need no trail to find my way, only some mountains and a map.

It was not long before my outdoor pursuits led to environmental ones.  As I fumbled through my introductions to being an outdoor recreationalist, I bled many times into the mountains.  I found those mountains bled back into me, and I found wild places became essential to me in some way, and their protection even more so.  For years, I have been studying the methods of environmental protection at my university, been steeping myself in the sciences relating to natural resources.  Western science is analytical and without passion, ideology, or emotion.  Without realizing it, I have been seeking to find ways to justify my love for the wild through this language and in ways that fit nicely into these boxes.

This is where WRFI has taught me my greatest lesson.  This experience has been a demonstration and practice of a science that is passionate, emotional, and idealistic.  We have spoken to countless people whose lives are devoted to the protection of natural spaces because they feel within themselves that without them they are diminished.  John Fredrick, founder of the North Fork Preservation Association, spent years advocating for the protection of the Flathead Valley because he believed its beauty was worth more than any coal that could be harvested from its grounds.  Debbo Powers and other residents of the area now speak with reverence about this place they live in and love, and it is this bias that drives them.  With them, and with each of our speakers, they are driven by passion and their hearts are clearly in their work.

Every paddle stroke now takes me toward home.  Soon, I will unpack all the physical things I’ve carried these six weeks, but some of the insights I’ve picked up I’ll never put away.  I don’t know anymore what the best thing to be is, if I’m thinking about careers.  But I do know the best things I’ve been are present, passionate, and full of awe.  That the best place to read poetry is in a quiet forest, and if in being on a mountain top overwhelms me with a joy so immense it brings me to tears, then that is reason enough to protect it.

The best thing I can ever be is where my heart is.

Claire Longcope: To Know a Place

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What a way to get to know a place! As we grilled local bison burgers last night, I was telling Melissa, one of our generous hosts in Choteau, about our trip. She said she bets we are getting to know the state of Montana better than a lot of Montanans do. We would probably need some more time here to really get to know the culture of different Montanan towns (likely requiring some off-course time in the bars). However, it seems like we’ve gotten a pretty full perspective on the state’s energy systems.

The education we’ve gotten on the topic of energy was made possible by the multi-faceted educational approach that WRFI has set out for us. In our 472 pages reader that we each drag across the state, we read opinion articles, energy reports, novel excerpts, and even journalistic articles by our own instructor, Matt Frank. We give Matt a hard time for including 75+ pages of his writing that we’re assigned to read, but I think that having our course leaders be so engaged in the issues we’re learning about is one of the coolest part of this course. This trip in some ways has felt like we’re collecting a big set of data and research for a journal article.

I’ve been amazed by the effectiveness of the structure of this course. The most influential part for me so far has been meeting with people with all sorts of perspectives on these issues. We had a discussion with a self-proclaimed environmentalist who is passionately “pro-coal” due to her devotion to her coal-dependent small town of Roundup. We were treated to breakfast by Alan Olson, the executive director of Montana Petroleum Association, at Jorgenson’s- the place where (rumor has it) the big-wigs meet in the bar to make under-the-radar plans for new legislation. We sat in a snazzy meeting room in the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and discussed their recently released “Blueprint for Montana’s Energy Future” and the possible return of the Clean Power Plan. Later that afternoon, we heard from Anne Hedges of Montana Environmental Information Center about their lawsuit filed against the DEQ. I don’t know of a time other than on a WRFI course that I’d have the opportunity to meet with such a variety of influential figures in the industry we are studying. I’ll keep this in mind in future research projects of my own as an important way to gather multiple people’s perspectives. Despite the potentially differing political or ethical views between the people in our meetings, every discussion has been pleasant and informative.

Anyway, we’re getting to know Montana energy pretty well. Actually, it’s to a point where my knowledge of what’s going on in the energy industry in Maine — the state I call home — is feeling pretty lame. While I feel a deep connection to the place itself due to time spent exploring certain areas of coastline and weaving through the Eastern Hemlocks and Balsam Firs  in Maine’s forests, maybe it’s time to take a bike tour across the whole state and see what I’m missing out on. For example, I recently learned that 26% of Maine’s electricity generation comes from biomass- I’d like to find out more about the wood products that are being burned. What part of trees is most often burned? Are they doing anything to offset the damage done by cutting down trees- such as planting new ones? By the time these new trees sequester carbon out of the atmosphere, will it be too late? These are just a few of the questions I have about Maine’s renewable energy, and I’d like to look into the answers by chatting with people across the state. After Cycle the Rockies, maybe I’ll have the confidence to take Shwayze (my beloved Trek 520 touring bike) for another spin in a whole new part of the country.

Aly Kellogg: Why Natural History is Relevant!

Aly's Blog_chertIt can seem to the untrained observer that natural history isn’t very relevant in society today. What can a sophisticated urbanite learn from a bunch of plants anyway? Let me tell you, this urbanite has learned a thing or two from them already on this trip. Essential natural history practices can be applied to a realm well outside the backcountry. Vision, attentiveness, and accuracy play key roles in any social system and can improve ones understanding of the world around them.

Attentiveness has taken much energy throughout this trip. At each step there is something requiring observation and thought. An obvious example is the constant quest for beautiful chert – a type of jagged stone whose hues vary from white to red to purple. My eyes scan the ground for a glint of something unusual, something that calls my attention more than the rest of the rubble. I hone in on a particularly purple piece embedded in the fine sand floor. I lift it from where it lays to inspect it closer. Purple upon first glance – yes – but with more time a gradient develops, then a rainbow, then perhaps a pattern. The color and shape and angles become apparent and distinct. I rotate it in my hand to see all sides, trying to imagine the larger piece it used to be part of. Only by training my attention does it become obvious that this piece has been manipulated by a human hand and ancient tool. A bigger picture begins to show.

Vision is trickier to master than attentiveness. Our wonderful instructor Dave poured water onto some seemingly black moss clinging to a rock face. It turned green! By some miracle of nature, the moss immediately opened itself to the moisture. There were no signs that the moss would react that way but if you new that after a fresh rain most of the mosses were green, you could guess that water triggered this reaction. Natural history is seeing the unseen. Take nothing at face value. Make observations and try to hypothesize based on them. It is extremely important both in ecological and sociological systems to ask questions about what is happening outside of the obvious and examine the components that seem stagnant or simple. You never know what answers may lay there. One can use vision to prepare for future changes and see multiple solutions to current problems.

To balance vision, one must practice accuracy. Hypotheses are only as useful as they are true.  By assuming too much, one may make other hypotheses that lack a strong foundation. We were asked to spend two hours with a plant and make speculations based on our thorough observation. I thought my specimen was fairly solitary, standing alone for many yards in any direction. There were a few of its kind on the hill above but I wouldn’t have called it abundant or guessed that it was well adapted to the desert. As I continued to walk down canyon, I saw it everywhere! There hasn’t been a campsite since where I haven’t seen it. The assumptions I made based on the original site did not hold true. This is a perfect example of the necessity of accuracy and the dangers of vision. They need to balance each other.

Attentiveness, vision and accuracy all need to exist in order to come up with clear definition of a problem and to see viable solutions. This is the usefulness of natural history. The same principles that help me make sense of this strange, anything-but-barren landscape can be applied to social systems.

Natalie Stockman: Shadows and Leaves

Natalie blog 1I picked up a branch of leaves and observed the shifting shadows as it spun between my fingers. There I sat, starring at an unassuming desert plant. My three-hour plant study had only begun. As I sat in the scorching sun, I wished the plant could create enough shade to accommodate me. I began my observations by noting the obvious features of the plant. Its leaves were garnished with sharp points on every end and grew out of snarly branches. Dusted winter green colored the leaves, with little evidence of possible flowers. Maybe it was too early to tell. After noting every distinguishable feature, I dissected the stem in order to gather a visual on its circulatory system. I noted the details detectable by my naked eyes. Then I moved to speculate about the location of my plant. It seemed to grow close to the stream bank as well as far up the steep canyon slopes. My plant could withstand direct sunlight and possibly had adapted to only living close to a water source, judging by it proximity to the stream and absence later down canyon where the wash ran dry. I hadn’t done much independent speculation of the natural world before the plant study. I’d grown accustomed to stifling the imagination that nature can inspire. Science books and nature guides were often my first stop before employing my own speculations.

During the plant study activity we were required to creatively express our plant in any way we seemed fit. I thought for a while about whether to write a poem or story. I decided that the words I had might not do it justice. I drew, instead, the shadows projected by one of the branches on to my paper. Every incremental movement, as it spun, created a different complex shadow. I soon began to trace the shadows and attempted to explore the myriad of shapes that appeared. I remember thinking they were oddly geometric as a result of the pointed leaf lobes. Each leaf seemed to shade itself while taking into account its particular position under the desert sun. The challenge of capturing one of these shadows on paper consumed me. Soon enough, three hours had passed.  I followed the small stream back to the head of the canyon to meet the rest of the group.

As we shared our findings, the depth of observation and expression of everyone’s plant study presentation happily surprised me. We engaged our scientific observational skills as well as our expressive techniques. During our discussions in class we talked about the two sides of natural history. The scientific and the interpretative aspects of natural history inform each other. Ella’s plant study offered a great example of this. She named her plant the pillow. She observed the composition of the plant. She speculated about adaptations the plant might posses and the ways it is best suited for its environment. Her creative component especially struck me. She wrote,

In the form of a tiny green bud

Not all of a flower or leaf,

But of a plume softer than fleece.

Its details are pristine

Fit for a fairy queen

Pink and black and white and green

They inspire a pleasant tune

That’s hummed about them by the bees.

She artfully used her scientific inferences to inform her expression. As a member of the audience her poem was memorable and incorporated her personal experience within the plant study. She was not alone in her creative expression; Nate wrote a short story about his plant relating it to a little brother. Aly personified her plant as a grandmother because of its small dusty petals that resembled hair curlers. In each case their close observation informed their interpretation, creating a greater depth to our study of the natural world.

Thomas Fleischner wrote in an article titled, Natural History and the Spiral of Offering, about the complexities of natural history. He suggests that a wholehearted naturalist employs a variety of observation methods to be more receptive and “cultivate awareness.” Fleischner emphasizes how important expression is to the practice of natural history. Ultimately the expressive component allows naturalists to present their experience and findings to their community. Expression is not only important to convey findings but it can also add a degree of humanity to the study of nature, for the people who might not be drawn to the natural world independently. In some circumstances the expressive portion can be crucial for inspiring other people to feed their naturalist spirit or to question their environment. The plant study demonstrated the importance of nurturing a creative lens when practicing natural history, not only to present your work but also to inspire others.

Before the plants study, I wouldn’t have looked at the pillow willow, formally known as the Coyote Willow, and thought of it in the same manner as Ella. Her presentation allowed me to have a connection with the plant as well, that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Nonetheless, it has encouraged me to see the natural word with a variety of lenses. Fostering unique personal expressions to nature could have a similar effect on a community as it does on a group of students in a remote canyon.    By inspiring everyone to be a naturalist in there own way, a new widely shared reverence could inspire us to take a second look at the way we treat our environment.