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?

 

 

Semester One Complete

When I first arrived in Tromsø, I had my giant red suitcase, a backpack, and a slip of paper with a name and the bus stop I was supposed to get off at. I knew I was meeting a man named Simen who was my Norwegian sister’s dad’s cousin’s son. I had never met or spoken with him before, but I also had no place to stay for my first night. I got off the bus to find nobody there. Pretty soon this man comes running down the sidewalk to greet me. He was helping an elderly woman with her groceries and then he didn’t see the bus come. He snatched my suitcase and we set off for his house. He gave me a tour of downtown Tromsø, fed me, and helped me figure out how to get to the school the next day. He fed me three meals the next day and then helped me get to my apartment that I would be living in for the next year. All in all, I’m grateful to have met Simen and to have his help for the first few days. I met my three roommates who happened to all be from Norway. I moved into my empty room that still seemed pretty empty after moving in my stuff. Part of that might have had to do with my sleeping bag and wadded up sweatshirt for my bed.

I had missed the international debut week which showed me around town, figured out my classes, helped you with your shopping, and let you meet other international students. Instead, I jumped into the Norwegian student debut week. We went hiking, hung out, and they helped me out with everything I needed. Here are some pictures from the campus!

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During my time here, my theme is to focus on the daylight (or lack of) and how the community copes with it. Because Tromsø is in the Arctic Circle, there are several months in the winter time where the sun never rises. When the nights began to shorten every day, it was definitely exciting. They gave a course to the international students on “How to Survive the Darkness”. We were advised to take lots of vitamin supplements, dress warm, and get outside even though it’s dark. There were celebrations to “send off” the sun and the city and houses were covered in lights.

The top left photo and bottom right photo were taken around noon downtown and that is about as light as it would get during that time. The bottom left was the tree lighting celebration and the top right photo was a walking street downtown. Everybody was particularly active and there was a lot going on during those months. A lot of people looked forward to those months because there was a lot going on. It’s also a time where you really appreciate and practice being “koselig” inside. The closest translation is probably cozy, but it’s more than just cozy. It’s that feeling of lighting candles all around the room, drinking tea, having good conversations with friends, feeling warm, and it’s hard to explain, but it’s a really good feeling. Norwegians take being koselig very very seriously. Up North, it’s a survival technique for the dark months. Here is an example of being koselig Christmas style. There are walnuts, Christmas cakes, and Christmas soda with family and candles. 16443947_1609563149070260_147529817_o16388718_1609563595736882_634924867_o

After the excitement of the dark began to die down, I did notice a difference though. Waking up in the morning was almost impossible because when I opened my eyes and saw the dark, all I wanted to do was go back to bed. I noticed that the students and the professors around me became less motivated and everybody was tired all of the time. It was interesting how hard it becomes to get outside and do things when it’s always dark out. The sun returned on January 21st, but we have yet to see it from the island of Tromsø because we are surrounded by mountains. Each day is getting lighter for a longer amount of time though. When it isn’t snowing or raining like crazy you can almost tell. I was lucky enough to have a month long break from the darkness because I spent winter break with my Norwegian family in the South. I spoke with a few international students that stayed in Tromsø during winter break (the darkest days) and they said it wasn’t great. They reported sleeping a lot. I don’t blame them at all. The day that I flew out of Tromsø to Oslo, the sun was sneaking through the clouds with the moon on the other side of the plane. 16442875_1609611809065394_1799507539_o

After a month or so, our days will be more normal again. Then the sunlight will increase about 15 minutes per day until the sun never actually goes down behind the mountains. This gives us midnight sun! Woo! All in all, the dark period wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. The Norwegians have adapted their lifestyle to it and made it something to look forward to. Depression is a problem, but not spoken about very often. However, they have lots of resources to go to if you’re not feeling well and they try to take care of you. My favorite part was the colors of the sky. It wasn’t pitch black, but sort of this blue haze. In the beginning and now that the sun is returning, we get these beautiful pink, orange, purple, blue skies that are beyond words or photographs. There are snow covered mountains and beautiful skies. Norway is very easy on the eyes. 14922989_1500662733293636_1904907192_o

It has been a very interesting opportunity to look at America from the outside. Norwegians are particularly educated on what is happening with our country and political system. To be here during the presidential election was very eye-opening. I was never interested or involved in politics while in the US. I almost felt guilty when the Norwegians knew much more about everything than I did. They would tell me their opinions on a specific manner or ask questions and I had no idea what to say. I started to educate myself and get more involved. I engaged in political conversations, asked questions, listened to opinions from many people of different nationalities, and then I filled out the form for an overseas ballot. I think overall it was fascinating to realize that the world seems much more involved with our politics than we are sometimes. I asked a few people (in the most polite way possible) why they cared so much about our politics and their answers were across the board that it affects them too. 14536572_1463436780349565_921227338_o

“We are all USA experts!”

While being in Norway, I’ve realized that it is very centered around helping yourself. You have to be able to motivate yourself. You don’t get help choosing classes, with the paperwork, etc. like you would in the states. That was very difficult in the beginning when I was trying to figure everything out. I had to step up and take charge for myself. This improved my leadership skills in a way that was more self-directed than towards others. However, in the beginning of the second semester, I was a leader for the new incoming international students. I had to lead them around and help them out with all of the practical stuff. This helped me with taking charge for others and helping them with what they needed so that they didn’t have to do it by themselves later on.

Being in Norway has raised many questions for me. I am constantly comparing my culture with Norwegian culture which raises a lot of questions. Fortunately, I have plenty of Norwegian friends to ask them questions about differences or opinions on different matters. It has also raised a lot of personal questions on where I want to end up and what I want to do. I do think I would be asking those questions if I was at home as well, but every day raises new questions and hearing about so many different views also makes me question where I stand on different matters as well. I’m so thankful to have this experience and I am so happy that I chose to stay for a year and have 6 more months to learn that much more.

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Athens, Greece

The end of 2016 blessed me with the experience of a lifetime. I was able to travel to Europe for a whole semester where I went to go to school at the American College of Greece in Athens, Greece from September to December 2016.

At the American College of Greece, I was able to further explore my Franke GlI Global Theme and Challenge. My theme is human rights and my challenge is women’s rights. I had the opportunity to take a class called Family and Gender Roles, in which I learned about women’s roles throughout history, how men and women’s roles differentiate, how women have gained more rights throughout the years, and much more. I believe that this class has been vital to me for learning more about women and their roles and how I can contribute to women’s rights. I am most passionate about women’s rights within the human trafficking industry. While victims of the human trafficking can be men and children, most victims are women. Human trafficking remains a huge issue today around the world, and even in the U.S.  I believe that it is important to educate people about human trafficking and to help others understand that human trafficking is a huge issue that needs to be solved.

Along with learning more about my Global Theme and Challenge, I was also able to learn about European and world history, to travel to places I have always dreamed about traveling to, learn new languages, meet new people, and experiencing different cultures. One of the highlights of my trip was being able to go on a sixteen-day backpacking trip to six different countries. During this trip, I learned so much about World War II. I visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, learned about Hitler’s rise to power in Berlin, and learned about the many victims of WWII at Auschwitz in Poland. Being able to experience our history, even the terrible parts, has been a great opportunity. I know have a greater appreciation for history.

During this experience, I believe that I have developed my leadership skills. I went on several solo trips during my semester and learned how to rely on myself during these trips. I am a better leader now because I am more trusting in the decisions I make, I have learned how to make important decisions that need to be made, and I am more confident in my abilities. I believe that I am also a better leader because I have come home a more open-minded person to other cultures, beliefs, languages, and more.

This experience has taught me so much. I think that I have been changed for the better and I am extremely thankful to all that have made this experience a reality for me.

 

New Zealand

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Eating lamb shank in New Zealand is one of the quintessential experiences of that country.  Everyone knows there are more sheep in New Zealand than there are people. However, on my last night in New Zealand, after my Beyond the Classroom Experience studying sustainability there, that lamb shank represented a lot more to me.

That piece of meat came from a farm in New Zealand, like the one I had visited weeks earlier.  It was raised on the rolling, green hills of the nation, cared for by Kiwis, as New Zealanders affectionately call themselves. That lamb grew up in the shadow of mountains, thrust up by the tectonic forces that shake the islands.  It never knew the factory farms common back in the states.  That lamb came from a place and a people where the environment stands all important.  It came from a place where sustainability is forefront and present.  It was cooked and plated next to local, seasonal vegetables in a restaurant lit by 80% renewable electricity.  The clear, blue water that the heards of sheep drink from is the same water that powers hydro-electric dams and ripples in the wind that turns electric turbines.

To eat lamb shank in New Zealand for me is to recognize all that I had learned in my time there, and all the work that is yet to be done.  What a wonderful time to embrace sustainability as my Global Challenge; it’s time to get to work!

Native bumblebee Bombus dahlbomii landing on Fuchsia magellanica flowers

Plant #17: The Perfect Partner

After only three days working in the field I found my favorite fuchsia shrub. Our 22 study plants were spread out over about 6 square kilometers of thick, Valdivian Rainforest. They ranged in habitat from lakeside beach to inland marsh, to shaded riparian forest. I grew to know this forest by heart. Sometimes I would even shut my eyes to see how far my senses could take me. To reach Plant #17 I would turn left on the large path from the research station. I followed the pathway over two small hills and down along the beachside until reaching the giant Coihue tree on my left. There, I turned towards the tree to head up the arroyo (little stream) where plants #14-20 were located. I would continue up the small path past all of my memorized turn offs, through a small gate, and up another hill until I reached a final uphill slope. Four fuchsias would meet me on the right and I would continue along the narrowing pathway. Finally, I would walk through a cut out fallen log and step down a staircase of 7 roots to reach the streamside. From there, I hopped on top of a large moss covered fallen Coihue, where I would perch before jumping down to streamside stones to greet my beloved Plant #17. During my 5 months in the field, I spent countless hours sitting on a moss-covered rock, admiring its spindly branches, and listening to the rush of the stream alongside us. So here is my ode, written one day on the moss covered rock, to Plant #17.img_0230

Ode to Plant #17

You learn towards gurgling creek,

wanting to listen closer to its stories.

You are crooked, but so strong.

Your trunk emerges from rocks

wearing hodgepodge green moss sweaters.

Your base is split, with small arm

reaching towards fallen tree below.

Your trunk rises 3 feet before fracturing

body into 5, reaching out to

gather in sunlight and knowledge

of your surroundings.

You reach out to me and suck away

my worries into saturated green,

aged motely brown, and fuchsia fire.

You make me feel comfortable

with my sadness, for you are strong

but damaged as well.

Your leaves remain green

but are munched by the hunger

of cryptic caterpillars.

Your bark is gnarled, but contains

patterns of beauty-

messages passed from earth

through roots

fueled by creek and sun

only to reach my privileged presence.

You, Plant #17, are the perfect partner.

I am eating a lot

First week in Lyon, France has been an amazing stressful mesh of things. I have experienced so much more than I ever thought in just one week. And I am eating A LOT, but at the same time… nothing at all. I have had at least one baguette everyday since I have been here. That is not a healthy amount of bread, people. I can’t stop and I probably won’t. My apartment inhibits me from cooking anything that doesn’t come in a microwave bag sooo bread and cheese have been my vice. I’m sure as the semester goes on I will get more creative, but for now, I am eating a lot, of bread.

The street shops are not helping my ever growing addiction to bread and various decadent goods. Patisseries here are out-of-this-world delicious. For now it is a free for all. As I am getting comfortable here it is important for me to have those comfort foods. It has been a pretty hard adjustment to set up my life here in Lyon. (The study abroad program did not prepare me for anything.) With any adjustment it’s important to keep yourself sane, and the best way so far has been so eat.

I am not worried about my weight because with every piece of bread I have comes over a mile of walking. I have probably averaged about 5 miles a day at least and boy is my body feeling it. So yeah, I am going to keep eating.

Stay tuned to my adventure in Lyon, I promise it will be exactly like all of the other study abroad blogs you have read.

Au revoir

Melisande

Fall in the Swan

 

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Now many weeks into my Beyond the Classroom experience, I have realized that I will not be able to fit all of the things I have learned into this short blog post. I will not be able to tell of the many people I have met with and their views on issues like logging, farming, ranching, forest fires, or water rights; nor will I be able to perfectly explain the way that the Swan Range looks in the morning, the sun creeping slowly up and over the crest while a light powder from the night before glistens against the pink morning sky. I will not be able to show you the changing colors of the larches or the size of the grizzly bear track I found this morning, but I can tell you that it is these moments in particular that have made this semester one of the most enriching, educational and valuable experiences of my life.

As a third year environmental studies student at the University of Montana, the global challenge that I chose within GLI is to examine the teachings of environmental education through hands on learning techniques, particularly among youth. This semester, I am a student of exactly that. Living in the Swan Valley of Montana with nine other students in an old homestead barn, we are learning to interpret the natural world around us every day in the field. From snorkeling and identifying native fish in the Swan River, to identifying flora and fauna around the valley, we have been interpreting and experiencing first hand what it means to live in rural Montana.

Living in a town of nearly 600 year-round residents, I have witnessed the connectedness of a community formed of sheer numbers. I have understood their rural lifestyles and the needs for hunting and fishing when the closest grocery store is 45 miles away. I have recognized the pride and love that each community member holds for the Swan Valley and their appreciation to be able to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Coming from the “big city” of Missoula, it has been interesting to switch places and accept the view that locals have on the environmentalist city slickers that live there, much like myself.

And through this vision, I have learned that there is no right or wrong in any of this. I have agreed with environmentalists and loggers alike, have spent a weekend bear hunting and shooting pistols alongside the yellowing snowberry, while continually being astonished at the Mission Mountains caked in snow.

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One of the most applicable things I have learned this semester is the idea that “values trump facts.” As I continue down this tract of environmental conservation, desperately searching for some middle ground that people can agree on, I will keep this forever in my mind as a tool to apply to any single person, whole community, or even on a national scale. You cannot try to change people’s beliefs, but you can listen, interpret, and be aware of yourself as well as others in the place that you inhabit.

So as I sit on the back porch of the cabin we call the cookhouse, looking out over the grazed pasture full of horses and deer alike while the Swan Range towers over like the dramatic backdrop to a movie, I know that I am lucky to have these experiences. I know that although I may not be able to explain all of the different viewpoints I have heard and things I have seen through the writing of this small piece, I have learned and will be able to apply these skills and knowledge to other natural resource and sustainability issues around the world.

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Living the Dream (Internship Week 1)

My medical internship was at Peking University Shenzhen Hospital, which is one of the teaching hospitals of Peking University School of Medicine. Jet lag and endless warnings for turbulence confused my senses. Listening to people speaking in Mandarin made me realize that I had arrived at my destination after over 30 hours of flight and transition. It was so familiar, but new and exciting at the same time, because this was my first solo adventure in a new city as an adult!

First life lesson I learned from my internship: Never be afraid to ask for help! When I first arrived at the hospital, I started my “scavenger hunt” for my supervisor, internship office, my dorm arrangement, and where to get my work clothes/name tag. So, I started with finding my supervisor, Dr. Li, and dragged my luggage among a crowd of patients at the busiest hour in the morning. I asked volunteer guides where to go almost every 5 minutes.

First excitement: I received a white coat to wear for the duration of my internship! It was the first time that I could be so close to my dream career. On the second day of arrival, I started my internship at Department of Plastic Surgery in the OR. Even though I was just getting oriented to observation protocols, I noticed the striking similarities with what I saw when I shadowed at American hospitals: equipment, procedural standards, and infrastructure. My supervisor, Dr. Li, told me that she received part of her medical training at USC, CA. She also shared that large percentage of the equipment and materials for plastic surgery were imported from American companies. I was excited to learn of the existing medical collaboration between the U.S. and China. It encourages my dream of becoming a physician who wants to participate in the global effort in improving people’s life quality via wellness.