Playing in the forest

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Schulman Grove, Inyo National Forest, California

Sometimes I wonder about the wisdom of separation. The bristlecone in front of me would make the perfect fort, tree house or pirate ship for adventurous kids. As a child, I loved playing outside but got bored visiting national parks, where everything worth doing was fenced off. Ed Abbey didn’t learn to love the desert by reading about it on a taxpayer-funded National Forest sign.
And yet, we must preserve, so we stay on the trails. Perhaps there are simply too many of us to use the wilderness without harming it. Abbey wanted his deserts and canyonlands preserved, but not so thousands of other people could come raft down the Colorado. Even non-industrial tourism can be carried to excess. Even the most well-intentioned among us can do damage.
But I hope we never forget this, in our quest to keep ourselves separate from nature in order to save it—children need to play outside.

Camp life on SITW

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Big Pine, California, near Mono Lake
Out here, my body feels like my own. When I’m hungry, I eat and feel full—no deluding myself past hunger with a half-meal of potato chips, plain rice or the remnants of a two-day old stir-fry pilfered from the dining hall. Two hours later, my stomach remains calm—no mysterious pains, no unexplained bouts of diarrhea. I drink tea every day in such quantities that I pee like I’m supposed to—more than twice a day, clear and copious, making the dusty ground smell like it’s just rained. I sleep as close to the sun as I ever have in my life, and when it’s not too cold, my liner and sleeping bag feel more cozy and perfect than the most luxurious bed I’ve ever slept in. Even now, when I’m bleeding, I can barely tell—the cramps that have paralyzed me past the point of walking are completely absent.
Living outside, you feel everything. If it’s cold outside, you’re cold. If it’s warm, you’re hot. If it rains, you get wet. And it’s always dusty, a fine layer coating you, your clothes, books and even choking its way inside your nose, turning your boogers black for weeks at a time.
Here, small things trigger emotions. A single lump of brown sugar dissolving in my mouth or a particularly beautiful sunrise feels like heaven, or at least as close to it as I’m ever likely to be in this life. Similarly, heat or a side glance from someone can ruin my afternoon, causing me to become grumpy, brood and generally refuse to be happy. The good, of course, comes far more frequently and keeps me in a near-constant state of contentment and excitement, alternating between the two sinusoidally as the content of my belly grow and shrink. Out here, food is a constant source of joy. Food nourishes you, leaves you feeling more than just full. Food keeps you going, keeps you human, keeps you humble.

Thoughts while hiking near Reno, NV

It’s hot enough you can feel your breath evaporating the second you breathe out, and I’m still walking. We set off from a house outside of Reno, following no trail, wandering across the public lands that comprise 85% of Nevada. The day gets relentlessly hotter and there is no shade for miles and miles. The endless geology of basin and range is spread out before me, each hill identical, indistinguishable, insurmountable. I’ve moved past dehydration into madness, my steps zigzagging nonsensically through an ocean of sagebrush. I no longer try to preserve my legs; they brush through briars and thorns, so covered in scratches that they look white. Up and up and up, each step a fresh battle, willing myself to continue. I make promises I know I can’t keep—on top of this ridge is ice water, a cold shower, peppermint iced tea. Up, up and I break all of my promises, reaching the crest to reveal an identical mountain in the distance. The downhill should be relief, but my knees protest and it’s as much work to keep myself from running uncontrolled down the mountain as it was to walk up the rise. I find myself wishing once again for the slow trudge towards heaven, where the end is always just a little bit further. Here, I can see the full extent of what I have yet to accomplish. Down, down and there’s dust in my nose, in my eyes somehow despite the glasses, choking me, trying its best to consume me and turn me into a dry mass of uniformity. I push on, resisting with the knowledge that I am mostly water, some part water, at least enough water to separate me from the dust. Down, down, so tired I no longer care if I survive, one foot in front of the other and suddenly flat. No more slope, flat ground, just step, step, step. I see the house on the horizon. How far, I no longer care. It’s flat, and I step on through the dust and sagebrush, still crazy with heat and knowing that this, I could walk forever.

Biotic potential and existence value

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Baker National Forest, Baker County, Oregon

Today, we cut willows to plant by the creek tomorrow. Willows remind me of biotic potential. They’re the natural source of salicylic acid; they’re the reason humans discovered aspirin. I’ve always been a bit wary of drugs. I’ll take hardcore things for serious problems—horse pills of ciprofloxacin when I got sick in Ghana—but I’m not a fan of NSAIDs (aka non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) in general. I feel irrational, because I’d gladly take a tincture of willow bark to relieve pain. Chemically, there’s no difference. So why the hesitancy? Part of me just wants to be a hippie, and part of me is a competitive masochist who wants to push through the pain and let it wash over me. I had to re-evaluate this philosophy over the summer, when my cramps got so bad I couldn’t stand up and was on the verge of passing out at work. I took two tiny pink pills and magically felt better. I felt good, amazing, but it seemed like I was letting the pain win and forgoing the humility I was supposed to learn. It’s healthy to know we’re human. It’s healthy to feel out of control sometimes. To feel weak.
But humans don’t like to feel weak. We always want to be in control, both as individuals and as a culture, a civilization. The most common reason I hear for preventing species extinction goes back to that same willow. If we lost another plant, frog, insect or fungi, we lost their unique DNA. We lose the opportunity to study them, to reproduce and mass produce their compounds, We lose the cure for cancer, the keys to medical progress, the fountain of youth. All this and more, lurking unsuspectingly in the Amazon or the great trenches of the Pacific Ocean. How many lives could we save, if only we brought back the habitat?
This defense reeks of arrogance and pragmatism. We have a long and bloody history of assuming we’re the only species that matters on this planet. Even those who’ve gotten past that idea act as though we have a right, a responsibility, to manipulate nature as we see fit.
I want to cry foul. The rainforests aren’t here to cure our diseases. I think most of us know that. But to expect people to care about things for their own sake—how far can we get with that? We care about things almost perfectly based on how much we will be affected. Even Ed Abbey spoke of wilderness as a place for men to retreat from civilization, a place to wage guerilla warfare against a fascist government. People cry over our disappearing rainforests, so charismatic and colorful. People care about polar bears, pandas, tigers, wolves. Who loses sleep over endangered snails or spiders? Who cries for the lichen?
And should we care? It’s easier to say that a polar bear has an intrinsic right to exist. Does a tree have that same right? How far are we willing to extend it? Until it interferes with a human life? A human’s ability to make money? Or merely dislike and distaste? If the planet we make is one we can support ourselves on, does anything else matter for its own sake?
I want to say yes. I believe in those rights, at least until they interfere with human safety. But it’s so hard to see the world from the perspective of another species. I hope we can get there. Because we need to wake up, and I don’t want to live on a world of only us and the things we immediately need.

Getting past the hurdles

After nearly two weeks in the field, I’ve reached the first bump. This is the stage of the program where I desperately want to be back in civilization. All my underwear smells disgusting. I’ve been wearing the same shirt for five days. It’s pouring rain again. My sleeping bag keeps freezing at night. I haven’t had a proper shower since we left.

Except I think it’s also at this stage where small things start to become really amazing. I splashed creek water on my face today and it felt like the best bath of my life. The view this morning was absolutely gorgeous because it rained all night—mist and fog in the distance, a mosaic of blues and greens across the forest and pasture in the distance. Eating apples has become the best snack in the world—I’m trying to break my addiction to processed sugar.

Somehow, at the end of the day, it all evens out. I know I sleep better and longer here than I ever have at home or school. I eat better, I feel better, and even my perpetually angry stomach has calmed down. Sometimes, I wish we had real shelter, a heater, a shower. But sometimes, I think the whole rest of the country would be better off with less.

I want to be an ecologist

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Baker National Forest, Baker County, Oregon
context: We watched a documentary about a few OSU ecologists doing field work in Yellowstone National Park and documenting the way streams have recovered after wolf reintroduction, because wolves keep elk populations in check, preventing them from overgrazing stream banks.

God, I want to be an ecologist right now. It’s the cheesy music. The cheesy music always get me. And the wolves, the pictures of wolves running through snow and the hope that if I live long enough, I might see that happen someday. I love the way nature works so well. Ecology is like peeling back the layers of an onion. Today, it doesn’t seem scary. All we need to do is bring back wolves and cougars and lynxes and everything else will come back. It seems to beautifully simple and happy. Until you get to the people, and the politics. That screws everything up. Why did I have to pick ES-politics? ES-Bio is full of the possibility of redemption. Politics makes for good papers, good thinking and studying but no optimism. I’ve watched C-SPAN, and even on issues everyone agrees are important, half the things people stand up and say are ridiculous, tangential or obstructive. What chance do wolves have?
I love the fact that you can’t replace wolves. We can try to mimic their ecological functions, but we can’t impart that same fear in elk populations. We shoot indiscriminately, construct fences and do our best to be seen as the top predator, but we can’t pretend to be wolves, try as we might. Wolves live because of elk. The two are intimately intertwined in a way we could never hope to equal. Which is why we need them, so much, to keep that ecological balance.
And I hate the idea of shooting wolves. It pains me so much, viscerally, to think of that bullet piercing through layers of grey hair, the wolf falling, bleeding onto the ground. But I think that hunt might be necessary for wolves to live with ranchers. If you take control away from people, they feel powerless. They act on their own. I think, I hope, that allowing a hunt will help bridge that divide. I hope those few wolves that are shot will help the rest survive. I hope wolves will learn to fear humans, to run at night, to make themselves invisible. I know, if we let them, they will survive. They’re fighters by nature.

Seeing cows

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Baker National Forest, Baker County, Oregon
Today, I went running without my glasses on. I saw the same landscapes I‘ve been seeing all week, but without the sharp focus I’m so used to. Somehow, I think that blur makes it easier to see. Sight becomes a matter of color and pattern, general characteristics spread out across the entire skyline. The specific details tend to fade. A black dot on the horizon moves closer and closer, until suddenly you realize it’s a cow ten feet from you. And then you feel vulnerable, realizing that the cows of the world, organized into reasonably sized herds, could wrest control of everything from people if they put their minds to it. A single cow could trample me to death, leaving my body bleeding in the road until someone noticed I hadn’t come back from mg run. Yet they eat so placidly, wander our public lands and follow each other calmly to slaughter in an industrial warehouse. Tick. Slit the carteroid artery. Tock. Dripping blood. Tick. A resigned moo. Tock. The line keeps moving.
Cows seem almost to belong in this system. They’re thoroughly domesticated, stubborn perhaps in insignificant matters, but complacent as cogs in the wheel of industry. I don’t know this for certain; I’ve never spent time with a cow, birthed a calf or played my part in the slaughter. But looking into a cow’s eyes, I don’t see the wild. They’ve had it tamed out of them.
Can there be honor in a kill like this? Can the predator kill its pretty without the delicate dance between the two that has existed since time immemorial? I don’t think our slaughterhouses and pastures honor that dynamic, but perhaps they honor what the animal is, in itself. This seems like a better medium, though we’ve raised them to be that way. I’ve never killed a cow. I’ve never killed any mammal at all. In fact, I believe the most highly evolved murder I can be held responsible for was boiling a moonsnail and eating it whole on a breach trip freshman year of high school. And yet, I eat meat, after eleven years of refusing. I eat it happily, relishing the taste of flesh, overenthusiastic after so many years of trying to live what I believed was a better way. I eat is uneasily, feeling insincere in my excitement because I’ve never proved to myself that I know what it is to nourish myself with the flesh of another living being. I eat it hoping of a better world, where food is transparent and I won’t have to worry that the labels I’ve decided to screen my food by don’t actually mean anything about the health of my body, the animal, the ecosystem, the planet. I eat it, and I feel nourished. This feeling is what I go back to when I have nothing else to make it ok.