As eleven of my classmates and I descended into a slot canyon in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, a nearby hiker stopped and asked, “How come you aren’t in school?” It’s mid-September and we are about as far from traditional classrooms as we could be. The wild, remote landscapes of Montana have become our classroom. “This is school,” we replied, leaving the hiker shocked and smiling, and maybe a little envious too.
We’ve spent the last nine days floating 100 miles of the Missouri River, studying the rich history and complex ecological issues of the surrounding area along the way. We travelled the same path as celebrated historians Lewis and Clark did in the early 1800s, though we are sure the landscape looks different than it did 200 years ago. The White Cliffs still prominently stand, but water levels are stunningly low, cottonwood trees are few and far between, cattle dominate the landscape, and though not as visible, local contention of land use lingers over the monument.
Prior to our river expedition, we hiked through the Bob Marshall Wilderness where we studied the role of disturbance within the forested ecosystems of the Northern Rockies. Along our journey we encountered miles and miles of burned areas without a living tree in sight. This, of course, is an effect of the recent wildfires that have engulfed the West. While we walked next to and over fallen trees, we were left with streaks of charcoal across our legs. With the addition of pine beetle infestations spreading through whitebark pine populations, all that is visibly left is a disturbed landscape fighting against nature itself and the cascading effects of anthropogenic climate change. Just as I began to feel as devastated as the land physically seemed, my eyes were struck by the red, green, and purple hues that are scattered abundantly across the land—it was fireweed that I was seeing. It’s one of the first plants to grow after a burn, one of the first signs of succession (the process of change in the species structure of an ecosystem over time) and a great reminder of the beauty and strength of nature’s resilience. As I studied this bright, showy species, outstanding in a land inundated with charred trees and piled brush, my instructors spoke about the essential role that natural disturbance plays in ecosystems: some plants depend on disturbance like fire for growth. Such is the case for lodgepole pines, a serotinous tree that only releases its seeds after heat exposure, and such was the case for the fireweed in front of me.
Now I sit in a prairie landscape that is entirely new to me. Intact grassland ecosystems are rare. In fact, there are only four major intact prairie landscapes left in the world. One is located here in the mid-western United States, the other three exist in Chile, the Kazakh Steppe, and the Mongol Steppe. After reading about the ecological significance of these lands—the wildlife they harbor, feed, and support—we met with employees of the American Prairie Reserve and learned about their mission to restore 3.5 million acres of Western prairie lands, thereby working to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States. As I look out onto the open fields and rolling hills before me (with a bison grazing in front of me thanks again to the recent restoration efforts of the APR), I think back and imagine all the wild beings that used to roam here. I think ahead with a hopeful vision that those creatures will someday return in great numbers and the prairie will be valued and restored to what it once was.
Like the passing hiker, I am incredulous, too, that these treasured, complex, beautiful places have become the settings in which I get to live and learn. It was this very idea, of immersion and intimacy with the land, that compelled me to forgo traditional academia for the greater, wilder country of Montana in the first place. Sure, I could learn about the same concepts while sitting in an artificially-lit, poorly ventilated classroom back East, but where’s the fun in that? I would much rather be outside. After all, there is no better way to learn about the environment than to immerse yourself in it.
Bethany Kletz is a senior at the University of Vermont where she is pursuing a degree in Environmental Studies.