pc steph biophilia

It’s February in Montana, 23 degrees below zero. A gentleman by the name of Hal Herring skis and sometimes stomps post-holes through the Bob Marshall Wilderness collecting snow samples this time of year. The Bob Marshall Wilderness is remote, even by Montana standards, and working within the expanse as a Forest Service snow survey volunteer is certainly no easy task. During their outings, volunteers like Hal use a snow sampling tool known as the Mount Rose Snow Sampler to quantify water content from a winter’s snowfall. Although a seemingly minuscule task, snow survey collection is essential to better understanding Montana’s extremely dry climate. Snowfall accumulation creates varying quantities of stored moisture which turns into fluid runoff during warmer seasons. Surface and subsurface water flowing annually towards streams, lakes and plant-life undoubtedly serves as an essential lifeline to many living things.

During this year’s WRFI course we were lucky to hear Hal speak directly to his work while visiting a public library in small town Augusta. Hal began our discussion by describing ways he utilizes his journalism and recreation skills to explore conservation and share relevant facts with those, “too busy or removed to gather the information themselves.” During one memorable recollection, involving a very strenuous day, he expressed love and admiration for Wilderness areas like, “The Bob.” Hal’s reverence for and fascination with often unseen Wilderness phenomena and naturally occurring places, those free from human presence, will forever invigorate me. I felt his stories tapping my curiosity, especially those about ways he is able to connect and sense or realize ‘place.’ When asked to describe connections to nature, Hal referenced ways he constantly aligns himself with the essence of EO Wilson’s book Biophilia; specifically how Wilson utilizes Biophilia to inspire readers about an, “urge to affiliate with other life forms.”  As Hal reflected upon Wilson’s writing he went so far as to eloquently express his own biophiliactic tendencies – especially those driven by memories of catching snakes while exploring his rural Alabama home.

As I sat listening to his stories, it suddenly dawned on me that not only did Hal and I share a common desire and freedom to roam wild as children, we were also inspired by influential people who valued reading and power of education. The description of his childhood and knack for the outdoors, specifically his close-connection to nature, resonated with me and it felt good drawing back upon wild and far-away childhood places in my mind.

I was born and raised in rural North Carolina and feel fortunate to have been given a chance to free-play while exploring the woods and rivers around my Appalachian home. Collecting and admiring rocks from some of our planet’s oldest mountains still stands out as one favorite childhood pastime. To this day, I like to think my love of the outdoors influenced a strong desire to better understand and ground myself in place – especially when life isn’t feeling so grounded. I have teachers, friends and family to thank for sharing the essence of education and wilderness with me. It will forever be their spirits that serve a constant reminder saying, “no one can take knowledge away.” I will always be grateful for these parts of my life – especially the ones directly responsible for shaping and forming not only my moral compass but an ongoing appreciation for all things wild. I’m happy to report that Hal and I very obviously share a wonderfully perplexing condition called biophilia.

Now, as a Montanan, I make time to explore and better understand wild things whenever possible. This wonderful place became my new home in 2013, while following my loving heart and yearning desire for a change in scope and community. While settling in Missoula, it was hard to not get distracted by so many questions forming in my mind about landscape, flowers, trees, animals, and the “newness” of such a vast and amazing place. Eventually I explored and learned alongside both local and fellow transplants how exactly realizing place can be more than just identifying parts of naturally occurring world. In the beginning I experienced awe by meeting challenges, feeling solitude, seeing beauty, conquering fears and the unknown, and how to humbly foster and respect others.

More than ever, my sense and realization of place is being deepened over the duration of my 700 mile cycling trip and I owe a lot to Montana’s rural places, its people and their crossroads. While journaling, I find myself in awe of my daily experiences. Riding through scenic Montana especially has granted me time to notice so many things I would have typically quickly passed by. My eyes catch normally unnoticeable birds in flight, flora in bloom, and fauna playing the wind. Who knew so many odds and ends would ever find their way along such a long and winding roadside? It’s as if my curiosity of each cited item takes my brain into a meditative state which is sometimes interrupted by annoyance and even discomfort. My discomfort is hard to describe, but certainly brings to light a certain and harsh reality of challenges that simply being outside can sometimes bring. All the while, I’ve noticed that my discontentment has actually heightened my awareness and love for these far removed places.

As skies clear, days grow warmer and winds pick up right on schedule, dehydration settles in. At this point being so parched and sun beaten seems to almost force an inability for me to gauge any level of comfort. Feeling this way is new to me and so too is deciding how to best cope with these levels of exhaustion. I feel myself growing and learning about how the joys and struggles that come with exploring this place by bike can bring a fantastic sense of gratitude and brand new reverence for a familiar yet brand new place, even under strenuous circumstances.

With each pedal rotation I am given more time than ever to contemplate deeper understanding of place and how it might nurture possible cross-roads for my own future. My values are deeply rooted in preserving and protecting the natural world and I’m convinced that I will always prioritize working to protect it; as consumer, educator even recreationalist. For the first time in my life I see how affection towards Wilderness areas, creeks, and backyards might even extend to overgrown parking lots. Needless to say, Hal made a lasting impression on me. If only, like him, we looked to connect “wilderness” in all of its forms, for the solutions necessary for bridging such vast value sets our nation currently upholds.

At last, it’s July in Montana. This side of the solstice still yields 89 degrees, above zero, as new found muscle groups power my bicycle from Wolf Creek to Augusta along the mesmerizing Rocky Mountain Front. In the confines of my close-knit group I push along rolling terrain hearing a familiar and peculiar song from the Western Meadowlark, my state bird. It’s call makes me smile and, as if it wasn’t enough, I then spot an osprey with a meal clasped in its talons, notice a cricket working its way to the edge of the road, and follow Lupine reaching for the sky as the hot sun reliably evaporates their seasonal lifeline. With every breath I willingly inhale the blissful essence of sage and it reminds me of one special person that I hold dearest to my heart. I know full well this meditative state won’t last forever, but I do now know that it’s entirely possible for me to return to this state of mind, body and natural sense of place. Embracing the rhythmic demands of cycling paired with a mind’s-eye glimpse of the things I love most, are and will remain responsible for getting me up, over, down and around from this point forward. I am so grateful for friends; what I’ve learned through this experience; what it means to be here, in this place, experiencing all that nature has to offer; and the importance of being guided by a deeply rooted value-set. I couldn’t be happier knowing I’m destined to forever being a Biophiliac.