With frozen toes and tired eyes I tread up the hill that rises high above our camp at Halfmoon Park in the Scapegoat Wilderness of Montana. My body is in a great amount of discomfort from the past four days of backpacking, and the fact that it is 6:00am doesn’t do much to relieve that. If I were back in Vermont right now, I would be cozy in my bed (without numb toes) enjoying the next few hours of sweet slumber. But these details do absolutely nothing to diminish the internal power of watching the sunrise.
As we reach our vantage point on the hill, I turn around and stare up at the towering mountain that is almost too massive to comprehend. The air is crisp and chills my nose as I take a deep breath. No one speaks. The only sound is the wind ripping through our camp below. In awe, we patiently wait for the rocky face of Scapegoat Mountain to come ablaze as it basks in the deep red orange of the rising sun.
There is no rush.
I find that every time I am in a vast wild place for an extended amount of time, the emotional connection that crystallizes between me and the environment is not something that I can easily articulate. These new relationships quell the internal turmoil caused by my boiling curiosity about the world. But, in no way does it rob me of my motivation to search for answers, either. In fact, it does quite the opposite. Here in Montana, the bond I am experiencing with the environment brings me to a state where I can calmly and critically ponder my unanswered questions, and this unique way of learning is only attainable by immersion. So, here I am studying in the beautiful state of Montana with the Wild Rockies Field Institute.
As I write this I can barely feel my fingers, but I feel my heart alive with a burning flame of passion and gratitude. There is nothing else in the world that can be so humbling, yet fill me with so much inspiration and hope. How is it possible that we have only been here for a week and everything I’ve learned so far couldn’t be taught in a lecture hall in an entire semester?
Yes, in a traditional college classroom, one may learn how a bird flies and why a plant flowers, but in no other environment but this can a bird’s call be felt and a flower’s petals be examined for hours at a time. As Robin Kimmerer, who has a PhD in botany and also is a respected member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, beautifully puts in an interview, “Patience and commitment are the key to learning from a being or a place. Unfortunately the institutions of science don’t commonly make room for the slow, steady approach” (Tonino, 2016).
Let me backtrack. I could never argue that learning in a classroom isn’t a productive use of time because I have taken many in-class college courses that have brought me closer to understanding natural processes. Even though being lectured at can be painful at times, it definitely has created a deeper appreciation for the forests I ran around in as a child.
Now, walking in those same forests as a young adult, I feel as if tiny mechanisms are hard at work to keep life at an equilibrium, more mechanisms than I could ever start to comprehend. The beauty of the deep relationship between plants and fungi or the way a rodent makes a perfectly crafted safety corridor through bushes and weeds are just a few mechanisms that come to mind. Honestly, I feel that the more I learn about the natural world, the more questions and confusion arise. Maybe this unease stems from the separation most feel from the dirt that formed them.
I tend to view myself in the world using two lenses. One being a physical connection and the other an emotional connection. My physical connection to the world stems from my lifelong interest in science. Taking classes in physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, and environmental conservation has given me the structure to base my view of the world upon. I think every single day about the physical and chemical forces that sculpted everything from the vast forests of incalculatible amounts of life to the lead in my pencil. Even though the physical world is so complex that we will never understand completely why or how the tiny hidden perfections (or chaos) are driven, but understanding just a little of what is going on below the surface is enough to get my heart pumping. When I gaze out at the world from the top of a mountain I feel like the tiniest part of this beautifully orchestrated circus, but somehow that still puts me into a mindstate of peace and contentment. As Thomas Fleischner wrote in his essay, Natural History and the Spiral of Offering (2001-2002), “Natural History keeps us listening to the voices outside, and they often provide context and perspective on own our internal concerns.” Learning about how I fit physically in this world can be overwhelming, but it gives me hope. And I believe this hope translates to power.
My emotional connection and perceived place in the world is far more complicated to explain in words, simply because it’s something I feel in my heart as opposed to in my brain. Although this may be harder to describe, I hope that providing context on my intellectual journey to this dynamic perspective will help to make it more tangible.
Although my public education through high school taught more of a westernized view of American history and knowledge, I have been fortunate enough to have had various eye-opening experiences learning about indigenous culture from native communities. These experiences have completely altered my view of the world. This new knowledge has been the mortar to the stones of my foundational understanding of the world around me. Without it, my conceptions of nature and life would crumble.
During the summer of 2017 I took part in a student program through Round River Conservation Studies that took place in northern British Columbia. Throughout the summer I worked on various conservation projects and was in close communication with the Tlingit First Nation. From talking about aboriginal culture to discussing important current events in the tribe’s traditional territory, I learned so much about what it meant to live every moment with a more intimate relation to the land. Taking everything I learned to Montana with WRFI has already augmented my experience. When I found out that the “Montana: Afoot Afloat” course had a large focus on Native American culture, I was immediately hooked. I can’t wait to dive deeper into these cultural perspectives in the weeks to come.
In Cordova’s book, How It Is: The Native American Philosophy, it is explained that “Consciousness, awareness, is assumed to be a characteristic of the universe. Communication may be limited to specific groups of living being, but consciousness is everywhere” (2007). This is one of the most influencial pieces of indigenous perspectives I could have ever learned. This has completely changed the way I see the world.
As I sit at our little perch on the hill, and watch as the magnificent sun casts light on to our little camp far below, I am reminded that, although I am just a speck of dust in the ever-flowing mystery of the world, I too am powerful beyond my wildest dreams.