WRFI alumna (Restoration Ecology ’21) and field intern Zoe Tanstrum reflects on her recent support of the Montana Afoot and Afloat semester course, finishing in Missoula on October 25.

On our last backpacking section in the Big Snowies, we summited Great House Peak. Climbing out of the drainage where we were camped, we passed through the deep damp of lodgepole forests and whiskey-colored hills sprinkled with the reds of rose hips and purple faded sticky geranium. Great billows of fog drifted from the tips of Halfmoon Pass, rolling down to greet us in the valley. As we continued to climb in elevation, we walked straight into those clouds, seeming to pass through the thin veil between the earth and the universe. At the ridgeline, it felt like walking between two worlds. To our left, fog filled the valley so densely that the crowns of the whitebark pine were our only indication the world didn’t end at our fingertips. To our right, we could clearly see past the mountain range to the plains laying beyond. The fog line followed the ridge line exactly, dividing our known from the unknown, illuminating our path to the summit.

For the past 3 months, I have felt like I’ve been tight roping between two worlds. In July, I interned for Environmental Ethics and soon came running back to join Montana Afoot and Afloat (thanks, Matt!). Exploring Montana landscapes with a tight knit community of extremely thoughtful and lovely human beings feels like pure magic; wonder-filled, it seems like a separate realm where we get to live out our most central hopes and dreams for our lives, showing up exactly how we were born to be, held and supported by both the land and each other. Because (let’s be honest) when you’re crouched in lightning position with hail pelting your back, you have no choice but to show up exactly as you are. And when you watch the full moon rise and illuminate the Missouri River, her limbs extending to greet your face so firmly, your shadow appears and whatever words escape your lips in that moment have never been more true. Whenever I come back into the front country, I feel completely disorientated. Everything is loud and moving so fast. We walk past each other without truly seeing one another. I become paralyzed standing in the grocery aisle, spending 15 minutes choosing peanut butter. It feels strange to me that this all used to feel normal, that I didn’t question why we allow consumption to govern our lives, why we create our separate worlds from nature, building barriers and distractions to keep out the world in which we came. And this dichotomy is the problem, right? If we don’t see ourselves as part of nature, how will we ever solve our ecological crisis?

Ending my time in the field feels like walking head-on into the fog. As a recent college graduate, I have felt terrified of navigating this so-called ‘real-world’. How will I find something that feels as beautiful and true as being on course makes me feel? How can I possibly bridge this gap between backcountry experiences and the issues we need to address, to align our lives with ecological systems? Essentially, how do I rid this separateness in myself and carry that knowing forward into my life and work?

By the end of my time in the field, I felt less afraid. As I returned to society, many beautiful learnings from the field emerged with me. They have given me hope to connect these two worlds, carrying all the WRFI magic I’ve discovered into the next chapter of my life. Here are just a few:

  1. Everything is defined relationally. I am, because you are, because we are. When we harm the earth, we harm ourselves. When we uplift and empower each other, we lift our own spirits. Community is not just important, it is essential. When we see that we (humans, animals, plants, water, soil, space dust) are all connected, we see that every action has rebounding and rippling effects, simultaneously having an impact beyond our imagination and affecting our own central being.
  2. Stillness. When I am still, I am able to truly listen. Whether it’s the rustling of cottonwood leaves along the Missouri, or sandhill cranes in Paradise Valley, living outside reminds us of the life continuum. Life has been happening for billions of years before us and will continue after us. Our problems are likely not that unique at all. And the answers we seek already exist, embedded in the systems and patterns spiraling from the beginning of time. Nature is speaking to us–can we be still and listen?
  3. Biophilia. Love for life. Surrounded by students and instructors who carry a genuine joy for life is a gift that keeps expanding. Joy isn’t just an aspect of who we are, it becomes the medium in which we move through every action. Mid-morning dance parties, pausing class to bird watch, staying up late to stargaze, playing tag to warm up on frosty mornings, watching prairie dogs sunbathe, dyeing each other’s hair in the Lewistown laundromat (sorry Mom and Dad, my hair is now purple), laughing at the same jokes over dinner each night, hiking in watercolors and cribbage even though our packs are full. When joy is the default, it becomes gratitude. How lucky are we to exist in this absurdity of the universe? And gratitude translates to responsibility; a commitment to care for each other, for all members of the earth.

Back in the Snowies, we followed the fogline to the summit, linked hands and raised our faces to howl at the sky, laughing as rain and wind howled back at us. On our descent down, the most peculiar thing happened. The dense fog had shifted sides completely. What was once obscured revealed itself to be a spectacular view of more mountains and valleys. No longer was it the possible end of the world, but a continuation of a landscape we had come to love. Meanwhile, the path we had taken up had become barely visible. But we were unafraid. We knew this way, this land. After all, it was where we came from.