Living in Italy: Life on the Farm

Day 1:
I arrived here at the farm about midday and I was soon greeted by the entire family. The Acetia Malagoli Daniele, named after the father Daniele Malagoli, is a small family run business managed by their eldest daughter Sofia. The family of four and their grandmother live in a beautiful yellow house in the countryside along with a herd of donkeys, several sheep, an army of chickens, a cow named Rosa and a few peacocks. They greeted me with open arms and showed me to my room for the next two weeks.

I met with the other volunteers at the farm, Sabine and Floris from the Netherlands and Anna from Australia, they promised to show me the farm tomorrow along with how to feed the animals and some other daily work. Tonight, however, Daniele had asked us to pick cherries at a nearby farm so that Barbara, his wife, could make some jam and cherry liquor. So off we went, the five of us packed into the back of an old car equally entertained and terrified as Danielle drove about 80 mph down country roads while singing opera in his deep baritone voice. We did survive and returned home with about 75 pounds of cherries. (This is not an exaggeration, we later had to pit all of them and it took several hours over the course of two days.)

Though I have only been here a day I can already see how much the Italians value their food, not just the recipes but also the ingredients. We all eat dinner together, with the ten of us seated around a table piled high in pasta and fresh vegetables. We talked about the differences in cherry names and what you use each kind for, today we picked large sweet cherries that are best for eating raw or cooking down into jam.

Day 2-5 The art of faccina and more cherries:
The past few days have been a whirlwind, I learned how to feed and water all the animals on the farm, how to pit a couple thousand cherries (by hand) and the ‘art’ of faccina. Now what is faccina you might wonder? Several days before I arrived the other workers helped to trim the vineyard, after feeding the leaves to the goats the remaining sticks were loaded onto a bigger pile of sticks and that where our new job starts. In the mornings before the temperatures climb into the 90’s we break the sticks down into usable sizes and then bundle them. In all seriousness faccina, or creating bundles of sticks, is an important part of making balsamic vinegar. The sticks help create the fire that the grape juice is cooked over eventually turning it into a thick sugary liquid that is then aged into vinegar. The work is quite monotonous but it has been good to spend time getting to know the other workers, talking about international politics and why we all decided to work here.

Flo (Floris) and Sabine, are taking a few months off work to travel. They have spent the last few months in Southeast Asia and decided to spend their last month away from work volunteering and learning some new skills on the farm. Anna, a graphic designer, just finished her work in Germany for Adidas and wanted to take a break from normal city life while she looked for new work. They are a really great group of people all with different strengths and experiences working and traveling abroad.

Today was also the final day of pitting the cherries and I am really happy it’s over. Tomorrow Barbara, Danielle’s wife, will start making the jam and other sweets. Now we will start preparing for a large tour of cyclists coming on Saturday. The Acetia offers a tours to a variety of different groups. Sofia manages all of the public relations for the family, and has really turned her family’s passion for vinegar into a business. The family used to make balsamic vinegar as a hobby and give what they made away to friends and family. (This sounds a little crazy when you realize that the family has at any given moment about 700 barrels of balsamic vinegar.). Sofia decided to turn the family hobby into a business and has since expanded their product to several different countries. Barbara however does the majority of the work. She is the one in charge of making the vinegar, bottling the vinegar and maintaining a high quality product. She is incredible.

Day 6
The cyclists came today, what we expected to be around 200 people ended up being closer to 50 because of the heat. The next few weeks are going to be hot as a huge heat wave moves through Southern Europe. It was a little disappointing not having a big turn out but it was never the less a good event. In the morning we helped set up tables, prepared food and cleaned the yard. It was also the first day I got to go into the acetia.

The acetia is actually located right above my apartment (thankfully my apartment doesn’t smell like vinegar). Walking into it you get hit with this overwhelming smell of vinegar, it’s not bad but it definitely grabs your attention. Inside all the walls and floor space is filled with vinegar barrels, some of them almost 200 years old. The sizes range from wine barrel to bread loaf. In the process of aging the vinegar you move the vinegar from largest to smallest barrel, the smallest barrels are at least 25 years old and contain the most expensive vinegar. While in the acetia Sofia gave the cyclists a tour and I aided in passing out samples. She talked about the aging and production processes and the importance of following the traditional method of balsamic vinegar production. In Italy balsamic vinegar that follows a strict traditional production method is labeled with D.O.P., meaning it is only made with cooked grape juice grown in a specific region in Italy and aged in wood barrels without any artificial additives. Vinegars with the D.O.P label are considered to be some of the best in the world.

Day 7-12
The last few days have been hot, really, really hot. We moved an old bathtub into the yard and have been using it as a swimming pool. Whenever it’s too hot to work we fill it with the hose and sit in it for a few hours. Beyond that things are going well (with the exception of the peacocks who decide to sit outside my window and scream for all hours of the night. If we get to choose what animals get eaten next I’m choosing peacock). In the mornings we feed the animals and over the last few days have done quite a few odd jobs. Moving hay bales, moving chickens, finding new chickens and putting them in the incubator, stoning about 50 lbs of peaches, and splitting giant logs are a few of the most memorable. Today Anna found several newly hatched and abandoned ducklings (we think a fox got onto the farm the other night because several of the birds abandoned their nests, these eggs hatched from the heat. It’s really hot here). Anna has since adopted the ducklings, they have imprinted on her and now accompany her in our daily chores.

We have moved into the vineyard and have started to prune more of the grape vines. It’s fun work and very rewarding when you finish a row. I am feeling very thankful to have been given the opportunity to travel and to find myself in the company of so many talented and kind people, not to mention this beautiful landscape. I am really enjoying staying with the Malagoli family, all of them are very kind and personable people. Barbara has been teaching us about traditional Italian cuisine and showed me how to roll tortelloni, Danielle has been helping us to finish some of the wood cutting. We actually managed to break an industrial wood cutter that Danielle designed because the wood was so hard. Taisia their youngest daughter has been hanging out with us a little between studying for her final exams next week. It feels like I am part of the family.

One very memorable thing that happened the other day was that I met an Oscar winner, Roger Ross Williams. About three days ago Flo was whisked off by Sofia to accompany her on some ‘errands,’ so he got to go and tour cheese and meat factories with the Oscar winner for best documentary. All of us working at the farm were invited to go and see a screening of his movie Life, Animated, in Bologna. So the four of us hopped into Flo and Sabine’s car, drove to Bologna and then met Roger at the movie theater with his friend and guide Lucas Tabareli, a local pasta maker and entrepreneur. I highly recommend Life, Animated, it was a beautiful and touching story that I won’t go into detail about here, but you should watch it. Afterward Roger took us out to the film festivals after party as his ‘official entourage.’

Day 13
Today was weird. A good weird but I’m still working out the details in my mind. So the morning was as usual, fed the animals drank some espresso, nothing too crazy. But then Sofia mentioned that there was a street party in a nearby town and all of us were invited to go. We decided that it would be fun and agreed. Then Danielle asked us if we wanted to go to his friends BBQ and we agreed to that too. So come about 7 at night we arrive at Danielle’s friend’s house which was in a beautiful and kind of secluded, forestry area. Things are good, everyone is socializing, eating and then they lighted a large bonfire. Apparently we agreed to go to a pagan summer solstice celebration and before I knew what was going on I was covered in sage smoke and jumping over a fire and rolling dice to help me decide what I would accomplish in the next year.

Then we went to the street party at about midnight. It was a completely different world from the solstice festival. Loud music, people dancing, strobe lights and some really crazy outfits. We hung out for a few hours and then made out way back to the house. Upon arriving home we were scared by a peacock hanging out in a tree above us like a ghost from a horror movie. Like I said, it was a strange day.

Day 14
Today is my last day here and I am sorry to go, it has been such a great experience getting to learn about agriculture in such a small and intimate setting. I feel like I have learned a lot about Italian culture, food and various international perspectives on farming, politics and what it means to be connected to one’s cultural roots. On my last day here Anna and I headed out into the vineyard with her ducklings to trim some of the plants and then had a great lunch with the family. I have a new appreciation for traditional food products and quality food. I have always loved cooking but being in Italy has taught me about the history behind their food and why it is important to keep alive these century old traditions. Food is the glue that holds Italian families together, everyone is involved in either cooking, eating, cleaning, shopping or making something that contributes to the meal.

I am incredibly thankful for the Malagoli family for this experience. Now I leave for Spain to do a month long course in Spanish in Almeria, Spain. Thanks again to everyone I met in their past month, you all taught me so much!

 

Me in Japan and the world

Kyoto, the emperor’s home of the past and today’s cultural heart of Japan. This is the setting of my study abroad experience. Upon arriving I had a lot of challenges ahead of me, from learning a new transportation systems to studying the language. Some challenges are easy to overcome, while others take time. When considering GLI, I’ve taken the challenge of trying to come to an understanding of how cultural differences might affect relations, especially economical, between Japan and other countries, in particular the United States. My study time here is not yet over, but I feel like I’m coming to a level of understanding where I can confidently contrast the two with accuracy and confidence. While in Japan, I feel like I’ve come to know my own country better than ever before. To give and example, let’s take a look at work in Japan versus the United States. With my time here, I can confidently say that the Japanese are hard workers, and I can also say they tend to take this admirable trait too far at times, overworking themselves. Given this comparison, I began to see how much and at what level Americans value personal and family time in relation to work. When talking about social topics like this, it becomes difficult to leave out parts of the grander narrative, which includes a country’s culture and politics all the same. Having so far spent much time with Japanese friends, international friends, and from time to time Japanese families, I would say my perspectives on Japan’s culture and politics has definitely broadened. Although with the past year’s tense elections, both in the US and Europe, I have also been able to see the reactions of events taking place around the world. Whether or not this experience has greatly developed my leadership skills is yet to be tested. However I do know I am more confident now, especially when it comes to subject matter such as Japan or politics. Given I were to be involved with these topics, I would no doubt feel comfortable in taking a position of action. I have come to really love Japan, though I will say there are also things I have discovered to dislike as well. The likewise can be said for America. This brings up some big questions, both societal, and personal. In particular, personally I’ll likely one day have to make the decision of where to live and work in the world. What is better, Japan, America, or some other country? Unfortunately the world is not cookie cut into good and bad pieces, which makes such questions difficult, to say the least. So instead, with my remaining time in Japan, and at The University of Montana, I’ll have to continue thinking about a variety of things. What is valuable in the American culture? How much should politics affect my actions regarding international matters? Does culture affect economy, and if so at what level? With time, it is my hope I can come to a right answer to at least a few of these questions.

Thank you for reading.

Best,

Isaac LaRowe

Decompressing: a reflection on my time in Greece

It has been a whirlwind these last few weeks.  Literally and physically my mind is half a world away from school and finally the repetitive cycle of class and homework has been broken. Though, out of habit, I do find myself checking my email for homework updates.  I have not posted before this because it would have been a disservice to the places I’ve visited and the people I have met to write about my experiences before letting my surroundings and sink in and letting my mind quite from the semester before.  For those of you who do not know me (or neglected to fully read the title of this article) I am in Greece, a country that  is beautiful as it is gritty, an insoluble mixture of history, catastrophe and perseverance.  In total I am here for a little under a month, the focus of my experience is on agriculture and sustainability in the developed world.  I have traveled to Nicaragua and I have seen the efforts of farmers and conservation activist there.  It is hard work in developing nations to balance a respect for the natural world while trying to make a living.  I wanted to see what is was like in heavily developed countries.

My trip will bring me to three different countries in Southern Europe, Greece, Italy and finally Spain where I will be attending the University of Almeria for a month.  So armed with only my backpack I started off in Athens.  I spent the first few days exploring the city and doing some cite seeing.  It is incredible to be surrounded by that kind of history, the remains of those structures are still awe inspiring hundreds of years later.  But outside of the tourist attractions something else grabs your attention in Athens.  The city is dirty, covered in graffiti, historical buildings are crumbling due to neglect and though it could be considered an ugly city it is still quite beautiful in its modern decay.  Flying into Athens reminded me of looking at a black and white photos of the favelas in Brazil.

I quickly learned that there is no logical way to travel though the streets of Athens.  I would say that I spent about 90% of my time in that city lost but it was a great city to be lost in.  In hopes of gaining better bearings and to learn more about the food culture of Athens I took a tour.  A group of about eight of us met in the central square across the street from the Greek grave of the unknown solider.  The tour took about four hours, took us to several different neighborhoods and provided us with some good information about the history of Athens.  Greeks are big espresso drinkers and the tour started out with their ‘national’ coffee beverage, Greek coffee.  Greek coffee is more of less exactly the same as Turkish coffee but due to conflicts between Greece and Turkey in the 1900’s (and before) all things that that were ‘Turkish’ became “Greek’ about thirty year ago.  Without going into a play by play of what I saw, I would say that Greek food, though diverse, follows a few guidelines: authenticity, craftsmanship and local production.

People care about where their olive oil comes from and if their neighbors canned their tomatoes.  Athens contains about half the population of Greece and most people that live in Athens have immigrated to the city from another part of the country.  Our guide promoted this idea that Greeks wanted to be reminded of their homes  when they cooked and because many don’t have the opourtunity to visit their families often.  Food becomes their connection back to their villages and roots.  Apart from home cooking we also learned about several unique products that Greece manufactures.  One particular product is called metexa, it is sap collected from a bush that grows only on one island in Greece.   You can consume it in many ways the most popular are either chewing it as a gum or drinking the liquor they create out of it.  It tastes like pine needles smell, not unpleasant and it has been shown to have a variety of oral and digestive benefits.

Finally one of my favorite parts of the food tour was an explaination of a curious Greek street staple.  Athens is not a very green city, it does not have many plants with the exception of citrus trees.   There are orange trees (and other orange citrus fruits) everywhere.  They all produce fruit, though I can’t say I tried any of it.  It would be like walking through New York and having an apple tree in place of every street lamp.  Our guide explained that in the past during difficult times people would grow orange and other fruit trees in the streets to feed themselves and provide supplemental nutrition to their families.

My time in Athens was short, five busy days went by very quickly.  Next I headed to Crete, starting in the east and moving west I met many great people and visited a few farms.   That however is a story for a later post.  Athens is the great mixing pot of Grecce, bringing together all the food and cultural traditions from the surrounding areas.

Traditions of Relaxation in a Stressed Society

Having you ever wondered about the customs surrounding Japanese onsen culture? Take a look at my blog to learn more about my experience at a traditional onsen town.

Montana-jin in Japan

Even in the west, we have heard crazy stories about the Japanese work ethic. Well, unfortunately some of these are not stereotypes but facts for many working in Japan. The Japan Times wrote an article in October of 2016 reporting that 1 in 4 Japanese companies admitted that their workers put in 80+ hours of overtime per month. The term karoshi refers to “death by overwork,” and actually happens. In 2015 the Japanese government recognized 96 strokes and heart attacks as work related. In the same year, the National Police Agency reported 2,159 suicides that were at least partly related to work stress.

But alongside this intense work environment lives deep seeded traditions of relaxation, one of the most prevalent being bath culture. The vast majority of Japanese people prefer bathing (generally at night) compared to Westerners who more often prefer showers. Visiting a traditional onsen (hot springs bath) is very popular…

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Week Fourteen: Moving to the Mountains

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See more photos and read about my trip at http://www.jacksondcrawford.com/cape-town-blog

My internship technically ended two Fridays ago, but my boss and I agreed that I could keep coming in to work through the rest of my stay. I’ve been in South Africa about three and a half months now and have two and a half more to go! I’ve been interning at a film company called Kalahari Film & Media with Michael Murphey (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, District 9, Dredd, etc.) and making a documentary about renewable energy on my own.

I had to move this week, since my contract for my old house expired along with my internship. Luckily I decided to just spend all my time in the mountains, so I don’t even need a bed (hah). In all seriousness though I found a new place on Gumtree, South Africa’s Craigslist, and am really happy with my move. The house use to be a church before it was renovated to become a textile factory and restaurant. Now, after more renovations, the restaurant piece has been converted into a beautiful 6 bedroom home – and I’m one of the first people to live in it. It’s a massive space with an absurd amount of bathrooms (six toilets, four showers, and two urinals), a long outdoor veranda, a pizza oven, a courtyard, and two beautiful living rooms.

I’ve been camping a ton over my trip now that I add it all up. I’ve spent nights at Cederburg, Sandy Bay, Die Dam, Langebaan, Simon’s Town, Slangkop, and Kogel Bay over the past eight weeks. I don’t plan on stopping either. There’s so much more to see and everywhere I go I find something new and amazing.

I woke up on Sandy Bay beach this week after spending the night with a big group of friends. We drove to Hout Bay market for breakfast after gathering our things and trudging up the dunes, then drove back to Obs in time to see Julia’s art exhibition. She’s a young award winning American artist, definitely worth a look. Monday and Tuesday I got out and about after work, relaxing on Blouberg and Llandudno beaches. My coworker Monde invited me to watch a film she helped create through the City Varsity Film School called Sodium Day on Wednesday, and I went and watched it in lou of regular work. It was a very interesting film commenting on the school system in South Africa and how it prioritizes high income students over low income students, and what differences that creates in the youth. In the evening I took a short rainy walk above the Rhodes Memorial.

Thursday through Saturday was a flurry of hiking and moving. I went up Skeleton Gorge early on Thursday with Julius (Germany), Hannah (Michigan), and Simona (The Netherlands) and was amazed by how quickly we summited Table Mountain and the views from the top. We meandered along the tabletop for a while before descending down to Constantia for lunch. It was my friend Cara’s last day in Cape Town on Thursday as well, so I went to her favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant with her, Chelsea, and Andi. It’s a place called YARD that is home to three different menus for the same restaurant (Mucky Mary’s for breakfast, Bitch’s Tit for lunch, and Dog’s Bollocks for dinner) as well as a coffee shop, and a biker bar. While we were there it was Dog’s Bollocks, offering plate sized burgers and wings.

Friday morning I got up early and moved all my things into my new house before the two and a half hour drive to Cederburg. I made it to Gecko Creek Lodge in time to swim and relax in the sun with the crew before we all cooked dinner and went on a walking tour of the property to check out cave paintings and rock formations. Our guide brought his drum and played as we climbed up the rocks to watch the sunset.

Saturday we spent the whole day in Cederburg. After waking up and cooking at the lodge we walked the windy and poorly marked trails that wound up and down the sandy hills until we found Elephant Rock about an hour and a half down the trail. Of course we climbed the rock and took pictures for a while then walked back to camp. In the afternoon we drove an hour deeper into the Cederburgs to reach the Cederburg Winery – the highest altitude winery in South Africa. The road was rough and steep, forcing my yellow cheapie to chug along at less than 20km/hr, but luckily I came out unscathed. Cat’s car, on the other hand, hit a nail and popped a tire. We made it in time for a tasting and a tire change then buzzed off to the Stadsaal caves.

Stadsaal Caves is a must see if you have time in South Africa. It reminds me a ton of Arches, Zion, and Bryce Canyon national parks. It’s an expansive area of badlands, caves, rock formations, and dunes that you could spend a lifetime exploring. It’s home to ancient cave paintings from some of the earliest known people in history and it’s actually very easy to navigate and climb around the rocks. Everywhere you look when you stand in Stadsaal is a brand new and unbelievable sight, from massive vistas of rocky and rugged landscapes to tight winding cave corridors. We stayed as long as we could, but as the sun began to set we had to drive back down to our camp. As we drove, a massive thunderhead rolled in backlit by the sunset. Everyone but the drivers were hanging out the windows in the rain hooting as lighting struck the mountains, overcast by the puffy red-orange clouds.

– Jackson Crawford, http://www.jacksondcrawford.com

Permanence

By Christopher Morucci (Posted April 12, 2016)

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The future has been on my mind quite a lot as of late. At this point in life it seems to be the bases for most things. I never felt a sense of permanence in my home town. I always knew that sooner or later this dance piece or production would be replaced with another. Going to college, even though quite a commitment, really only stays the same for about 4 months at a time. Then you’re on to new classes, people drop out, new students transfer, and a new weekly schedule gets slated. I feel overly aware of the temporariness of my current life. I can’t quantify if it is due to the fact that city life is constantly changing, the NPO has had constant turn over for staff, or the fact that my time sitting in the park under the sakura with my close friends, going on day trips, eating at my favorite restaurants, and even walking the bright streets at night are all marked with an expiration date that goes by the name of a return flight from Tokyo to Portland, and then Portland to Missoula.

It’s caused me to think a lot about what my future looks like and what I want to get out of it. I have twelve or thirteen tabs open on my browser right now with job descriptions at various organizations and their minimum requirements for application, none of which are in the realm of careers I would have pictured myself reading up on even last year. I set search requirements for “Humanitarian” and “Global” and “Mental Health” or “Counseling”. I pictured myself as a “Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Manager” in Nepal, or the coordinator in Syria, both of which require advanced graduate degrees of social sciences in one field or another. Then I pictured myself in graduate school. Pushing on to get my Masters, publishing research articles, doing both a pre and post doc internship. Finally being awarded my Philosophy Doctorate of Psychology. That person I picture is different from the person I feel like I currently am. It’s not in any obvious way, but still it’s there. I think it has to do with a level of mindfulness that I don’t currently have but hope to reach. He’s no longer the kid who listens to meditation podcasts while filling out excel spreadsheets at work. He’s the person that has dedicated a part of his day solely to his practice. He doesn’t walk around watching beautiful things happen and be afraid to put himself out far enough to make something of his own. He has a sense of understanding for other’s cultures that allows him to not only communicate fully, but understand people to an extent in which positive growth can be made for both parties involved. A person who’s things. But not a person that knows so much he can stop learning.

Accompanied by one of my roommates I went for a hiking trip up Mt. Takao this weekend. The whole experience was very much unlike any hike I have ever done before. The paths were paved. There were vending machines along the route. There was even a lift that you could use a train pass to get on if you didn’t want to take the time to actually walk all the way up. About half way to the top there was an observatory, which is to be expected, however, there was also a plethora of shops and restaurants filling the paths that felt like they came out of nowhere. Feeling like it was unnecessary to do your shopping for the day we continued forward until we reached a garden, a monkey garden. There was no way I was going to pass up my chance to hang out with these lively fellas. As a trainer gave a presentation I could in no way understand, my roommate and I flocked to the railing in order to obtain the best view possible of or primate brethren. we watched the interactions of the monkey community for far longer than two grown men probably should have. Afterwards we regained our composure and continued on our trek. Once at the top you could see the expansive metropolis that goes by the name of Tokyo in the distance. It was odd to think about how little of this space I have covered despite my constant efforts to get as lost inside of it as I could. It also reminded me of being back home in Montana and being able to look out at my surroundings from atop a mountain peak. It was comforting and felt familiar. Maybe minus the vending machine 10 meters away from me.

Read more of Christopher’s blog at christophermorucci.wordpress.com.

 

 

Nagoya Castle and Hommaru Palace

For my first FGLI blog post I would like to share with you my experience at the famous Nagoya Castle and recently rebuilt Hommaru Palace. I also offer my reflections on the experience. There is even an original vlog video at the end of the post 😀

Montana-jin in Japan

At the beginning of February the Center for Japanese Studies at Nanzan University arranged a field trip for all of it’s exchange students. We went to see Nagoya Castle and the recently reconstructed Hommaru Palace that is on the castle grounds.

It was a chilly 9 degrees centigrade that day and not everyone, including me, had bundled up appropriately. Just one of the many lessons I learned during my first month abroad. Even if it looks sunny and warm, it won’t feel like it due to the humidity. Because Montana is much less humid, it look a while for me to adjust to this very different kind of cold.

Before entering the grounds, our CJS guide broke us into groups each with it’s own tour guide. My group had an adorable elderly lady who spoke amazing English. When our group member told her that we could speak Japanese, she started…

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Track and Sign: A Different Perspective

My experience tracking animals previous to a Wilderness and Civilization trip with a world-renowned tracker consisted of spending time outside, seeing tracks and signs, and thinking little of them. From what I learned, track and sign has a lot to do with paying attention to what you see and using biological knowledge to interpret this “data”. As a science-minded person, this process of guess-and-check hypothesis development is particularly appealing to me. Tracking animals requires some knowledge of their life histories and biology, but a lot can be learned from simply observing patterns and guessing their significance. For a beginner tracker with good critical thinking skills, this process is appealing to me.

The November morning  we went out was cold and foggy, and I thought that I wouldn’t want to be a buck hunkered down in his bed at this time. In my down coat and hard shell, I was still cold in this record warm year. Yet, herds of elk and deer, coyotes, river otters, beavers, and magpies had been about in the last few days, their tracks remembered in the sand and the dirt during the warmer parts of the day. As the sun came out and we emerged onto the sandbar, I warmed up, and we examined the record of these species upon the sand. We were asked a series of questions about different tracks and signs. We were given time to develop hypothesis about each scenario, and then we discussed them as a group.

Often, I was not aware of the biological phenomenon or specific morphological feature of an animal that created the tracks or signs we examined; however, I found that I could more times than not hypothesize the correct cause of each phenomena. In many ways, this process mirrors the scientific method. Scientists create hypothesis that that explain the phenomena they observe without knowing their cause (or, in some cases, even being able to directly measure them). Trackers do the same.

Putting oneself into another’s perspective can be an important exercise. To track an animal, you must think from its perspective to understand how and why it did what it did, to interpret track and sign, and to create a narrative of its movement through the landscape. If we repeated this exercise by putting ourselves in the shoes of other people, considering the “how” and “why” of their movement through the landscape—literal or figurative—we might better understand each other. Increased awareness is always good, whether it cues us in on the actions of another animal or another human.

 

Blackfoot Challenge

I worked for the summer on a plant ecology project in the Blackfoot Valley. We had ten field sites throughout the valley, some on the Blackfoot Clearwater Game Range, some on land managed for waterfowl production, some on the UM-owned Bandy Ranch, and some on private land. These different sites were under different management regimes, and it was very interesting to me to observe the differences in plant biodiversity among sites. I enjoyed living in the Blackfoot for the summer, but I was unaware of the invaluable work being done by the Blackfoot Challenge and its partners in the area. Traveling to Ovando for a Wilderness and Civilization field trip, I learned a lot about the place I called home for the summer and was inspired by the effective collaborative work being done.

As a future scientist (in some capacity), I think often about how scientists can take a more active role in implementing management and policy changes. Often, regardless of science, the largest challenge in solving ecological issues is getting land owners and land managers—private and public—to change behavior and policy in order to improve management. In many cases, it doesn’t matter how much data there is supporting a certain solution. Without changes in how we manage and interact with the landscape, effective progress will not happen. Blackfoot Challenge is a great example of how a community has come together to make meaningful behavioral and management changes to conserve land and water resources.

Over 80% of the Blackfoot Valley is currently under some sort of conservation easement or other type of protection, which is unheard of. Worldwide, only a very small fraction of all land is protected in any way. Image the impact if this ratio were applied worldwide! To me, one of the most important factors here is that land in the Blackfoot Valley is under protection, but it is still able to be used by the people who live there to make a livelihood. Jim Stone is a big proponent of conservation, but he is still able to make a living ranching on his land. His process of improving grazing is largely trail-and-error, but he is taking steps to improve his grazing practices to improve plant diversity and wildlife habitat.

I think a lot about how we can change our interactions with the landscape in the interfaces through which we effect it the most—ranching, farming, and extractive industries—in order to improve ecosystem health. Of course, protecting land is important, but the large amount of land that still must be under use by humans in order to support our populations cannot be sacrificed. I appreciate how the Blackfoot Challenge has implemented many types of solutions—creating conservation easements, managing invasive weeds, restoring tributaries of the Blackfoot River, providing educational opportunities, etc. Together, these different methods achieve a much more comprehensive effect than relying on one strategy to improve ecosystem function.

The Rock Cult

The capstone of the Wilderness and Civilization program, in a way, occurs in its first ten days, which are spent backpacking through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. On a trip of this length, you’re bound to find out a lot about yourself, the people you’re hiking with, and the place you’re traveling through. Perhaps a little more than you want to know…

The trip began in the last week of August, still summer, though temperatures at higher altitude where we would be backpacking had already fallen. It rained eight out of the ten days, and we spent many hours with wet boots and clothes slogging through mud. The scenery was beautiful, of course, and there were thimbleberries along the trail to be had, but after a few days of cold and wetness that we weren’t ready for in August, our morale was low.

On the third day, our group leader came across a large rock (at least 10 lbs) with a hole right through it. He’d tied it to a string and forced himself to carry it around his neck as punishment for leaving his trekking pole behind miles before when we had stopped to pick huckleberries. Here begun the rock cult. The rock was to be called Lenny and the purpose of the cult was to convince others to carry Lenny the very heavy rock for no reason at all. Good luck, I thought.

By that night, Lenny had already been smashed due to foul play, so I figured the Rock Cult was over. Turns out, we found another nearly identical heavy rock with a hole through it just down the trail, and the cult was revived. Even the sound of the water squashing around my shoes couldn’t down out the sound of the cult members chanting what sounded like “E-R-S-2 Lenny-day. E-R-S-2 Rock-we-day”. Whatever that means, I thought. Couldn’t they find something more interesting to talk about? Wasn’t this supposed to be an educational experience?

By the end of the trip, we had gone through three Lennys (Lenny, Lemmy, and Lenora), all equally lovely large rocks with holes through them. There had been a Judas-style betrayal in the cult, recorded in our trip journal, the betrayer had been re-baptized into the cult using the water from a stream, and Lenny had thrice been murdered in some way (however you might murder a rock, that is). While at the time my mood had often been clouded by grumpiness generated by being wet, cold, and a bit hungry, I look back on this trip and the Rock Cult fondly.

As children, we freely make believe, changing the world we are experiencing before our eyes. When it’s snowing in August and you’ve been hiking in wet boots for six miles, who wants to talk about the current state of the world? What’s the point of laboring over evolutionary theory, or contemplating strategies of wilderness management? Part of physically removing yourself from society by getting out into the wilderness is mentally freeing yourself from its constructs. Why not, for that matter, create a new society where a heavy rock is King and you are to do his bidding?