Ultreia–One Pilgrim’s Progress

For the last two months, my course materials have consisted of a tiny backpack filled with clothes and blister treatments, a pair of hiking shoes (recently exchanged for a new pair), and a foldable book of stamps from hostels and chapels. I am on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a medieval pilgrimage route that leads to a grand cathedral and the remains of St. James in the Galician city of Santiago. Its presence and importance in the history of Europe has its proof in the still intact walking routes that lead to Santiago from all parts of the continent. For some, it leads ninety kilometers beyond Santiago to the ocean at Finisterre, the place people once considered the end of the world. Traditionally, for people in Europe, the pilgrimage begins when you leave the front door of your house, and I have met pilgrims from Germany and Switzerland and Belgium who have done just that. While many know of the Camino Frances, which stretches through Navarre, La Rioja, Castilla, and Galicia, there are also some other very popular routes that lead through the northern coast of Spain, Portugal, and the western stretch of Spain. And then there are even more that lead from Paris, from eastern Germany, even from eastern Europe. I am staying here in Europe until my visa expires to do my best to complete, meet, learn about, struggle with, and come to love the route that takes me from the middle of France (Le Puy), connects me with the Camino Frances, and brings me to Santiago. Over the summer, I completed the bulk of twelve credits of independent study on the history of pilgrimage, pilgrimage literature from around Europe, the Divine Comedy, and nature writing themed around travel and spirituality. Now, I put my studies into practice and make my own journey, taking notes for my own collection of nature writing.

And I am indeed living my studies. Arnold van Gennep, a famous anthropologist, has a term for an experience like the Camino. He studied rites of passage and invented a word called “liminality” to describe periods in which people are suspended, temporarily separated, from their everyday lives in society. Every rite of passage, even the simple rite of walking through a door, has this step. Liminality is the sense of being caught in the middle, being separate from home and customary habits and activities, and at the same time recognizing the time on the threshold (limen is the Latin word) as something that will enrich one’s return to normalcy. Here on the Camino, I am living the words I read. I feel, often, completely detached from my normal life. For a month and a half, I walked through a country where I don’t speak the language. I felt detached from complete conversations as I sat through long meals with groups of five to fifteen social people. For many days, I walked alone for hours.  While I normally walk and hike with ease and speed, I have been walking bewildered, day after day, as I experience one leg problem after another. The slow walking has left me detached from my usual drive to move forward, to fill my days with productivity and force.

And yet, as lonely and difficult as this all looks on paper, this trip has left me feeling light and filled with a mysterious sense of joy. Every time I look back, I remember struggles, but mostly I feel filled with a sense of magic. I remember walking out of a canyon and into a city with a sanctuary built into a cliff. I remember hills of green and yellow and purple in the middle of rural France. I remember fresh, homemade sourdough bread at a donation-only pilgrim hostel. I remember watching old ladies in plain cardigans swaying along with gleeful smiles to a traditional African processional dance in an echoing stone church. I remember laughing with new friends about falling off my top bunk and miraculously landing on my less-injured foot. The route has been filled with unforeseen beauty. The difficulties, though demanding and exhausting, have taught me the importance of slowing down, of believing in the surprises to come, of trusting that not only the Camino, but life itself, will provide for us, even as war returns in Iraq and Ebola continues to make the headlines. I have realized in this trip how much the tiniest things–a bowl of soup, a phone call, a conversation, an open café after miles of rain–can mean to a person detached from home, from ordinary comfort, from usual sources of self confidence. And I have also started to suspect that those moments of relief happen more often than I have cared to notice before.

I came on this trip hoping to process a thing or two about the world, but I ended up learning more about something equally important–myself. Before I came, I spent months reading about the experiences of others on long journeys like this. I read about the experience of pilgrims in the Eleventh and Twelfth centuries in Europe, the Golden Age of pilgrimage, walking over the same bridges I have seen and themselves being confused by new languages and foods, delighted by taverns, and sometimes miraculously cured of ailments. I read of famous warriors like the Cid in Spain, exiled from his Lord’s kingdom, traversing what we now call northern Spain and regaining his wealth and renown through a series of battles with Moors. I just saw his tomb in the heart of his city of residence, Burgos. I read about Perceval leaving his mother’s home to pursue his knightly heritage. So here I am, smack in the middle of a route of extreme literary and historical significance…and every lesson reverberates back to my own life.  It was jolting at first– I felt misdirected, distracted. I was frustrated that I couldn’t focus on history and culture and writing down sagely thoughts because of the constant necessities of food and shelter and ice for my shin splints.

Yet the truth that I have come to see is that am not denying my studies or forgetting them– I am  enacting them, taking the stories I have read and experiencing them in my own flesh. This is not a walk in the park, and it never was supposed to be. I am enacting a central human experience, one imbedded in Catholic history, in philosophy and nature writing, in old European epics and romances, in anthropological studies on human passages. And at the core of all of these genres lies the centrality of the individual’s experience. I came not to study the Cid’s homecoming, but to walk through his home city myself, to feel in my own bones the immensity of the cathedral where he is entombed, to question on site the religious wars that made this Christian route possible. I came not to share commentary on Perceval’s determined quest for the Grail, but to be more ready to understand it by completing a journey of my own with all of its trials. I came not to learn about pilgrims, but to be one. I have come to believe that all art, all history, all thought, all human sharing, is meant to be internalized. It is meant to hit home not just in our heads and imaginations, but most importantly in our lives and physical experiences. 

Time has slowed. I am here for another month, and I feel already more tranquil than ever, despite unhelpful doctors and the necessity of taking busses and resting and the stubbornness of my own legs. The first and most important lesson of this pilgrimage–one that a fellow pilgrim and priest reminded me of the other day–is that everything is a pilgrimage, if we only recognize it as such. No matter if I walk or bus or fly to Zurich or wake up at home in bed, every day will continue to offer me sunsets and rainstorms and surprise friendships and brilliant stories–a mess of lessons and interactions, running through me and filling me, energizing me and feeding me. What good is a liberal arts education if we only use it to get a grade? Over here, I have finally settled down, stopped worrying about the speed or quality of my hiking or thoughts or speech or writing. Instead, the experience has started to flow through me, to impress itself upon me, and to give me lessons I never would have learned had I not gotten out of the way to see them.

There is a  pilgrim greeting here, one that has been uttered since the middle ages between pilgrims parting from one another–ultreia. It is Latin and translates, roughly, as “onward.” The traditional response is et suseia–“upward.” We sing it frequently in a song, which I have seen translated into French, English, Spanish, and German. It is the perfect way to describe what we do as pilgrims, as students of the world, as humans. Walking is a slow, wearying kind of progress–slower still with stubborn shin splints. But it is progress nonetheless. A symbol of our life stories, the slow pilgrimage leads us onward in a continuous way that, when we look back, does indeed flow into a melody. And, going onward, we rise upward into ourselves and into an ongoing love of the surprises the world throws at us.

Ultreia to you, wherever your journey takes you today!

Some pictures:

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The city of Rocamadour, site of a black Madonna statue and the alleged (now empty) tomb of St. Zaccheus

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Taking a rest at one of the many rest stops made and supplied with snacks and water by locals eager to help pilgrims

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Morning mist

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A night of song at a communal dinner in the middle of rural France

More critical questions

Critical questions 3

I was just sitting down thinking about the difference between working artfully and passionately, and working for a profit. I think that being passionate about ones work is something that everyone wants, or that most people want anyway. Anyway I watched a couple dance videos this evening when I was procrastinating on working, one was “Break the Geometry,” the other was “Art of Krump: Journey to Heaven.” Both of them, “Break the Geometry” in particular discussed why the dancers danced. Some of the reasons that they gave were that it allowed them to become what they wanted to and that it allowed them to lose themselves in movement and lines. It was meditative for them. I find these reasons for doing very noble and primitive. I also notice that they seem to turn up more frequently in artistic professions, though many of the people that we’ve had the privilege to talk to and spend time with have also discovered how to integrate artistic passion into their work. I wonder if it was easy/natural for those people to come reach the point of successfully working passionately? I am curious about how to bring that creative primitive passion back into typically less artistic jobs and walks of life.

As we learn more and more about Maori culture I begin to further consider my own. The Maori culture is so intense and so rooted to the place that they live and find meaning. Its interesting to compare culture of the Maori to our culture in the United States, which seems to be packaged up and shipped around the world all the time. The United States is definitely connected to land but not at the same level, the majority of my culture looks to the land to make a dollar rather than for spirituality and sustenance. What would the American culture look like if we connected to the land we live on at a deeper level?

Reflections on Africa

I have been back in America for nearly a month and a half. I have been back at school just about a month. My body is in Montana, though my heart and mind are still in Africa. I have had a lot of time to reflect on my experience and have come to a few conclusions.
America is weird. In coming back I have had a more powerful response to reverse culture shock than I ever had while in Africa. I have realized that Africa is so comfortable. I have lived an incredibly privileged life. I have had supportive parents, friends and community that allowed me to succeed in my chosen activities. I have had enough financial support to send me to college and gain a degree. I have had the security of safety within my community. I have taken a lot of these for granted. After living in Africa for three months, I saw a lot of variety in the quality of life people lived. Some were also very privileged, and others… were not. These stark differences only gave me a slight insight into the world of developing countries.
In my last few years of schooling I have focused on development in Africa with a health lens. One of the concepts we cover in development classes refers to how we measure development. Often times it is in GDP or infrastructural progresses or economic stability, however I have issues with these terms of measurement. If we only encourage communities to grow, they will become yet another society that is unable to support their population as well as increasing the effects of climate change.
I also believe that “development” from a western context does not encourage sustainability or inginuity within a community. If we do not place emphasis on communities developing in their cultural way, then we will soon wipe out all forms of diversity. While visiting the eastern cape, an area known for immense poverty and rural communities, I saw how happy the lives of the villagers were. I believe this is because their communities were small and tangible. People could see where their food comes from, knew who was treating them at the clinic, and were friends with those teaching their children. These small communities are dependent on each other, and thus peace and happiness are emphasized greatly.
It was such a privilege to become part of these communities, and only furthered my passion and curiosity about Africa. I wait with eager anticipation for when I can return to this diverse, untouched, and beautiful land.

so low key that you probably missed it

About two weeks ago I arrived in Auckland New Zealand along with 19 other college students and our 5 teachers (Peter, Na, Charles, Ash, and Aga), to start our next three months together. We stayed in Auckland for two nights visiting sites of historical significance, one tree hill, and pikes point where many Mauri and Kiwi activists occupied land that the government was attempting to take from them to build new expensive housing developments. Starting now every week I will be doing at least two critical questions, on topics that we have been addressing in class. Here are the first few

1: Something that I’ve been wondering a lot about lately is just how ecologically sound agriculture can get. At this point in the semester we’ve seen a few farming ventures, from large-scale organic dairy farming, to Rick and Liz’s home based permaculture food-forest. For the most part all of these farming operations were awesome, but I’m curious if there are some simple ways that they could further improve.

The thing that bothered me about the organic dairy operation and a lot of agriculture in general (I should probably just get over it,) is that the place their cattle grazed was a drained wetland, which is not only un-natural, but likely magnifies many of the issues that currently plague dairy farmers, like erosion control and nitrogen run-off. I’m sure there is a way to tap into the natural state of the land, similar to Charlie 2’s eel farm operation, and am curious if there are other similar ventures into this new territory. Rick and Liz’s food forest was amazingly inspirational to see, and a great step towards perfecting agricultural practices. I’m interested if you could grow native crops with the agricultural model they’re using. I would likely create a great habitat for animals (which hopefully wouldn’t eat the plants,) and provide yummy food! Idk

2: Back home in Missoula I worked at a recycling center for a while and had a blast. It was great to have a job I could feel good about and I worked in an interesting environment with some funky, interesting people. On top of the normal recycling thang we worked on little side projects like up-cycling and booths to educate the public. Because of this background it was really rewarding to visit Rick at xtreme zero waste. It was inspiring to see how him and a few others had bought the land where Raglans old landfill was from the city for just one dollar a year to start their operation, and how they had got a hold of a recycling truck for next to nothing. They have so many great things going on at xtreme zero waste now, including glass, plastic films recycling, and a cool shop were they sell all the reusable materials; which is most of it. They are working on taking organic waste, permaculture, and restoration projects. They also have an awesome business plan: the best recycling company is one that doesn’t exist because the people will be well educated on reducing and reusing everything.

Because of the versatility of the Xtreme waste they are an important and appreciated part of Raglan’s community. I’m curious and hopeful that a recycling company might be able to attain this level of efficiency, versatility, and importance in Missoula, and what challenges may lie along the way to establishing this kind of company in somewhere with a different political structure that Raglan and New Zealand. Could it be attained in a large city such as Minneapolis or Chicago?

3: Something I’ve noticed during our time here so far was how most of the people that we talked stressed that no one makes any change at all no matter what the cause, unless it’s economically beneficial, and we should learn to except that. I don’t agree with that statement. I agree that economics currently play a core role in how the vast majority of people make their decisions. I disagree with the idea that we should accept that.

I think that it is a cultural issue that people factor economics so much into their decision-making, and that we should make efforts to change that, by learning from other cultures that don’t have such purely economic incentives, like the Maori and many other indigenous peoples, along with others such as hikers, and surfers. I’m don’t believe that we can eliminate the economic incentive entirely; or that it’s bad, and I don’t think we should; there is just too much of it right now. I’m curious as to what the right balance of economic incentive is, and how it changes.

How to dance like an Omani

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On one of my favorite nights in Oman, my friend Ashraf (right) and Saleh took me out to watch an American movie at the mall, car dance to Spanish music videos and then sing old Arabic songs on top of a mountain that overlooked our city, Muscat.

It was just after 7 p.m. I knew the call to prayer had sounded but I couldn’t hear it over Ashraf’s salsa music.

With his left hand on the steering wheel he used his right to filter through music videos on his iPad. I was worried his eyes took in dance steps more than the road.

“Ashraf, watch the road,” I said between nervous laughter.

He paused only to dance or swerve through traffic.

“Katheryn,” he said patiently, “you are in my country, I’ll keep you safe and still drive like an Omani.”

From the highway I could see the lit dome of the Grand Mosque. I was taken by the irony.

Just a few weeks ago I had walked within the Mosque’s walls, my hair covered beneath a hijab, my bare feet hot on the sun-exposed marble floors.

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The courts at Sultan Kaboos Grand Mosque

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Inside a prayer room.

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I rarely felt the need to wear hijab, but when in a mosque or a smaller community I always covered up. And to be honest, for short amounts of time it was nice. I felt like I dressed for myself and not those around me.

I Now I sat in the back of my friend’s car, a shawl hiding my black dress as we sped to my first salsa class, which happened to be in an Islamic nation returning to normality after Ramadan.

An hour later a man in traditional Omani clothing bought me a shot of “sex on the beach” and the irony felt overwhelming.

Even now, I feel uncomfortable admitting I accepted that drink. I know some of my Omani friends reading this would never have entered “the club”. In Muscat international hotels play the role of bar, and young Omanis blend in with a mix of Europeans and other East Asians.

To a few of my friends who described me as “not the average American” – meaning I’m not a daily partier and wont date a man that doesn’t get the okay from my parents – that moment might contradict who they think I am.

My personal conflict of whether or not I should write this post is a side effect of my own entanglement with the cultural shift in Oman.

When I left Montana to live abroad for the summer I thought it was a temporary goodbye to my new love of dance. I wasn’t aware the country I was about to live in had a stronger beat then most of Missoula.

My friend Fahm moved around me as I tried to follow.

“Katheryn, I am the man and you are the woman,” Fahm said. “You are supposed to shine. But instead, I am shinning.”

I stopped dancing and jokingly glared at him. “Well, maybe I don’t know how to shine like you.”

It was true. My hips swayed like a dysfunctional robot.

He replied simply and sweetly, “It’s okay Katheryn. I will teach you how to shine.”

He tried. I failed.

Though my friends seemed more comfortable in the atmosphere of the club than I was, it wasn’t due to drinking, since every Omani person I had came with were followers of Islam. I took a break and watched them in their element – Movements felt more passionate, clear without the blur of alcohol.

Dancing wasn’t just exclusive to this mixed niche of foreigners and vibrant Omanis.

I danced Bedouin-style with new gracious friends in my small Omani apartment. We only took a break to have the last meal of the night before another day of Ramadan began and they returned to fast. (A video will be posted in the near future)

I danced crammed in a car with eight Omani women when a beloved song came on the radio. Their wrists flicking to the beat and their heads swaying in a somehow perfect way I couldn’t imitate, much to their amusement.

I danced in a village with an Omani family over Eid when a woman asked me to teach them “American dance” while an Arabic version of MTV was on. The men had left and the woman ran to lock the door. Before I understood my role, she impatiently repeated, “American dance Katheryn! American dance!”

I initially tried swing dance but soon found out they were looking for a toned-down version of grinding. She tried to do the same, allowing her hair covering drop to her shoulders. There was a knock on the door. We covered ourselves and let the men back in the room, suppressing smiles.

I danced alongside two young girls at a backyard tent wedding in front of over 100 people as one of two white people in the room. The crowd of women let out short yells as I failed to mirror their Omani dance, the shy bride smiled. I never saw the groom. Omani weddings are segregated.

The juxtaposition of old and new is apart of this country I may never get use to but I will always love. Thank you for the dance, Oman.

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My new dancing friends in a small village dressed me in a traditional Omani outfit after I taught them “American dance”.

 

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Little boys peer out from the wedding tent at the white stranger outside. When I first took this photo I didn’t realize they were there. My friends and I showed up 30 minutes early for the Omani wedding – we were the first to arrive and waited another three hours for the bride to walk down the aisle in true Omani time.

Also, follow my travels at katherynhoughton@wordpress.com or check out my Twitter, @UMHoughton

 

Traveling

The year draws to a close.

Honestly, I didn’t do nearly as many blog posts as I thought I would, but that’s the way life goes. If there is anything in particular anyone would like to hear about, let me know. Otherwise, this will be the last post in this blog.

For the last post, I’d like to talk about the difference between a traveler and a tourist. (For clarification, a traveller meaning one who travels and not a member of the traveling community)

It’s important to note that, when it comes to being a tourist or a traveler, neither is superior to the other, they’re just different. In fact, I think it can even be considered a skill to know which you are while on your journey. After all, nothing is more annoying than a tourist who thinks they’re a traveler.

But let me elaborate with an anecdote about castles.

Before we came to Ireland, all I wanted to see was a castle so I could stand atop it and survey my kingdom. The first castle we went to was Blackrock, but it had been converted into a science museum so it hardly counts. Thus, the first real castle I saw was Blarney Castle.

Blarney is a really easy and fun place to be a tourist. Not only can you kiss the famous stone in order to receive the gift of gab, but you can also tour the massive grounds with almost all of the flora and fauna Ireland has to offer. It really is a mini-Ireland.

When I went to Blarney, I was so excited to finally see a castle. I took an absurd amount of photos and touched everything I could. I was a tourist and I was having fun.

Here’s one of the photos of Blarney from the inside:

I know, it’s awesome.

However, looking back on it, I realize that seeing a castle wasn’t what this journey was all about, and even though I loved Blarney, my favorite photos are these: 

And frankly, you could crop out the castle and I’d still love the the photos.

When you’re touring, it matters where you go and that people know you were there. The post cards you bring home and the souvenirs you give to your friends matter. And that’s an important part of the journey. But I think when you’re traveling, truly traveling, it doesn’t matter so much where you are or where you’re going, it doesn’t matter if it’s the same or the opposite from home, or how long the plane ride was. Traveling introduces you to people. Traveling reminds you of the people you miss and why you miss them. Traveling makes you feel small in the best way possible. It’s a big world after all, and yet we can still all be so connected. 

So, as I pack my bags and clean the apartment until I almost forget we lived here, I really don’t think back on the castle so much. Because it was never the castle that matter the most. And in the future I hope to tour Europe and South America and, frankly, the world, but I will always take time to travel. Like traveling to a coffee shop just to get to know the waiter, or traveling to a new school just to get to know the students, or traveling back home to get to know my family better. 

There will always be pictures of castles and buildings and oceans, but they will never matter as much as the experiences which can’t be put into words. Maybe there’s a reason there aren’t words for everything. Maybe it’s meant to encourage us all to travel, if only down the road.

So I saw goodbye to this journey in Ireland. We’ll be back, of course, but it will never be the same. We’re coming home, but we’re coming home changed.

We’re coming home travelers.

See you soon, America. 

sittin’ on a chair at the terminal, wasting time

wheeeew! these past few days have been a chaotic cluster of packing, and rushing around, but finally I’m laid back in LAX waiting to board the final flight to Aukland. I’ll be in New zealand for the next five and a half months participating in Hecua’s program: New Zealand Culture and the Environment: A Shared Future. upon arrival in Aukland i’ll join 14 fellow students traveling from Auckland to Wellington over five weeks. We will stay with different communities where we will learn about and discuss the history of New Zealand’s national identity and culture, and how that ties into sustainability and place. In Wellington internship with a l seven weeks I will also be working on an independent project over the course of the semester on a topic of my choice (likely something to do with community engagement and ecological restoration in an urban setting, I’m not sure yet.) Im exited to experience the great people, places, and challenges this semester holds for me, and to keep you (whoever ya are,) updated. But for now I’m just sittin’ on a chair in the terminal.

louse

The Elephant’s Parade // Elephant Head Lousewort

We camped at Big River Meadow, in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. We were assigned to do a plant study; choose a plant to sit with and observe for 1 hour, create a name for it and a creative component and then come back and use the plant ID books to identify the specimen. 

I sat down with, what I named, THE ELEPHANT’S PARADE.

  • LOCATION:
    • still flowering near the creak (Big River Meadow Creek)
    • growing out of wet moss and mud
    • flower buds have closed and seed buds beginning to develop in the marshy areas away from the creek, and more abundant in these areas, it seems
    • the specimen seems to prefer wet and sunny areas and is found with other plants that seem to like the same soil types. The other plants found alongside this one are all relatively the same height, besides the low lying mossy and marshy plants my specific specimen seem to spring up from.
    • found in the mountain meadow (6,000 ft)
    • I do not recognize this plant from the areas we have been, and does not seem to grow in the surrounding forested and shady areas or surrounding hills and mountains
  • PHYSICAL OBSERVATIONS:
    • hardy root system- when I pulled the root out, it wouldn’t come up easily
      • gnarly looking bulbous root system, white and black
      • leaves and stalk come directly out of bulbous root
      • 1 flower stalk and approx 15 fern like leaves
    • Leaf
      • purple around edges, rest green
      • serrated edges
      • fern-like
      • does not lay flat-whorled around stalk and alternating
    • Stem
      • ranging from 5” to 12” tall
      • uneven leaf growth, all the way up the stem, getting smaller and smaller as you go up the stem and leading into the flower buds then the flowers and then the seed heads
      • it seems that the younger plant has a redder stem and as the plant flowers and makes seeds the stem becomes more green
      • alternating buds and flowers
      • flower buds poke out of leave nodules (green and purple)
      • end of stem is tuberous- might be tasty for an ungulate to eat
    • Flower
      • light floral scent
      • looks like a purple elephant
      • shades of purple
  • SPECULATIONS ABOUT THE PLANT:
    • needs an abundance of water
      • leaves aren’t grown in a way that concentrate water flow
    • needs lots of sunlight
      • leaves aren’t grown in a way to max sunlight so needs a lot of sun
      • the tuberous stalk and roots makes me think it is good to eat for ungulates
    • flowers allow for only specific pollinators (a certain type of bee)
    • bright purple attracts pollinators
    • bulb allows plant to overwinter (perennials)

 

So, I took my observations to the books and discovered my lovely little flower was a Elephant Head Lousewort (pedicularis groenlandica). This guy can become a weed in hay fields, and like I speculated it is eaten by ungulates, specifically elk. And a specific bee will pollinate the Elephant Head Lousewort. This flowering plant is a perennial, partially parasitic on the roots of other plants, grows in alpine meadows. The roots can be eaten in moderation, but only depending on its host. If the host is poisonous, then the ElephantHead can become poisonous too. If eaten the roots can be used as a sedative for children and a tranquilizer for adults, but it is not recommended to eat this plant. The Elephant Head Lousewort is part of the figwort family. Many figworts are ornamental, but not this one because of its parasitic tendency’s.  

 

 

 

Sunburst Lake

Writing an essay while watching lightning background dancers

The clouds finally cleared above the lake, after intermittent thunderstorms had drenched our tents. I was huddled underneath the tarp with some of my fellow students. We were finishing our essays, and the time was just before midnight. I needed a break, so I walked 100ft to the edge of the black waters lapping against the shore. Clouds surrounded the high mountain peaks that dipped their toes into the shallow waters of the small snow-melt fed lake.

I turned my nose to the stars. They were bright and twinkling. A bright flash across the sky, a shooting star, burned in my vision. I yelled at the guys, finishing up their essays, to come check it out. Every 10-20seconds, fainter and brighter streaks blasted across the sky, and we remembered that while in the front country the store clerk informed us of the meteor shower occurring this week. All around the mountains that stood like sentinels around this lake gem, dark clouds lit up with flashes of lightning. Thunder rolled, and the contours of the large, ominous and black clouds would be briefly visible. We had a sweet view of the meteor shower, with the lightning background dancers, and the thunderous applause.

The prompt for the essay we were writing was, “What would a sustainable future look like?” Sunburst Lake fed me inspiration to write my essay, I pulled quotes and ideas from the readings we were given. Our instructors had given us a two-inch spiral bound “reader” at the beginning of the two week course. I lugged this thick binder of resources across streams, over logs, up and down mountains, through flowering meadows and finally to this beautiful lake.

Here are some excerpts from the essay written underneath a meteor shower, beside an alpine lake:

“Individuals’ choices and actions will define a foundation for a sustainable future. As individuals begin to realize the flaws that surround, and are braided through our consumer based culture, conscious actions will be made to cut our first-world carbon footprints. I believe that human innovation and creativity will lead the way towards localizing our economies. Through localizing our economies, individuals, young families, entrepreneurs and small business owners will be able to develop a relationship with the place they live. Through their pride of being part of a community that works together and towards a goal for the greater good, they will be called to action to support a global agreement about what the world should do about climate change. This will be a call for consistency in the people of the United States’ morals, and to extend the benefits of cutting carbon emissions to other peoples.

In the United States consumer based culture, where economic growth is prioritized, we as individuals are not happy. As concluded by Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy, economic growth leads to inequality and insecurity. The growth that has been fed by the American public since WWII has never stopped and hasn’t led to any necessarily significant increase in happiness. Although happiness may be considered irrelevant in the climate crisis, I think it is very relevant.
Happiness is relevant to a sustainable future. If individuals are going to make a significant effort to change their day to day lives to live a more sustainable life, happiness and satisfaction must be apparent. According to McKibben, 20% of Americans are flourishing and content, 25% are languishing and the rest are somewhere in between. Thus, I can conclude that the United States pursuit of growthmanship after WWII did succeed in making us wealthier, but we aren’t at all anymore happier. McKibben does say, “Up to a certain point, more really does equal better,” but the amount of riches we have accumulated have well surpassed the amount to maximize our happiness….

(Skipping some paragraphs about some stuff…)

…Society’s one hope for future and long lasting happiness is climate change. Climate change offers a challenge for people to look at their lifestyles, and to really gage how successful their pursuit at happiness is. It is well known the climate change is a man caused phenomenon. Consequently, our carbon-soaked-behaviors are what have led to altering the Earth so drastically that ecosystems are shifting, species are going extinct, sea-levels are rising and ice caps are melting. We are doing something totally wrong here, and our current method of pursuing happiness is drenched in carbon emissions and really not making us, as a society and as individuals, happy. So, as climate change threatens our hope at future and long lasting happiness, and climate change is man caused, we are forced to reevaluate our behavior and to make significant changes…

(Skipping to a section in the conclusion…)

….A sustainable future cannot come from anywhere but the heart. The American vision is the pursuit of happiness, and the continued happiness for future generations. If individuals begin to make conscious efforts to lower their carbon footprints, creativity will be sparked, because we will have to develop new ways of doing things. And as a result of people getting their creative juices flowing, they will begin to actualize their own potential, which will allow happiness to flourish.”

Alaska's Misty Mountains

Saturday, June 28th (All aboard the ferry to Wrangell, AK with kayaks in tow)

We were tasked with interviewing another passenger aboard the vessel. I headed straight towards the old woman underneath the stairs with the bright yellow umbrella, blowing bubbles.

Her name was Carla, a Washington native. She told me she has lived a simple life. She told me how she has always surrounded herself with family, and this is key to fulfillment in life. She grew up with several brothers, raised two daughters, and one grandson. She was a nanny for twenty years and has seen many children grow into young adults.

As we look out on the ocean, she points to a humpback whale breaching on the horizon. We stare in wonder, and she remarks that the beautiful places she has lived have also been a huge contributing factor in her happy and simple life. I can only imagine what other beauties I will find in Alaska as I kayak around Wrangell Island. The mountains that surround either side of the ferry are coated with white, wispy clouds that hide the tops of cascading waterfalls from view and it is hard to imagine anything more beautiful than this.

Carla grew up in western Washington. Commenting on youth’s obsession with playing with cellphones and wasting the hours of the day on the computer, when she was young she’d be on the beach gooey-ducking and enjoying gooey-duck chowder with her brothers. Carla also spent most of her adult years in eastern Washington, right near where I grew up in Spokane. This was where Carla raised her daughters. Now she resides on the west coast, helping her daughter raise her son.

Carla was en route to Prince of Wales Island to see her brother. George, her brother, as she described him, is an old man, a poacher and a wino, who lives off the grid.

Words of wisdom spouted from Carla’s mouth and I drank them in like wine. She told me, simply, that people are most happy doing what they do best and what they love. Carla, in her youth and as an elder,  was born to be matron and loved rearing the young ones to be the best they can. George, on the other hand, was a master poacher, elite moon shiner, and has no criminal record.

We shook hands. As my cold and clammy hand met her warm and wrinkled hand, she remarked, “Cold hands mean a warm and kind heart.”