Friday, November 30, 2018

A final farewell...

Okay, I'm delaying my cute little blog post about grocery shopping and going straight for what you're all waiting for- What on Earth have I been doing since my "I Quit" post?!
Well, I wrote a pretty personal post about privilege but was too apprehensive to promote it, so if you're really curious you can click the back button my archive.

Since my I Quit post, I've been doing a lot of traveling, a lot of sleeping (who knew the body could stay horizontal for 9 hours at a time?), and a lot of research and applications for graduate programs. Perhaps the most time-consuming task has been compiling my portfolio of experience in Environmental Education. A lot of the pieces I have compiled will make excellent blog posts coming up... but I decided to start by sharing this photo essay. In my portfolio, this essay serves to show many distinctive experiences I've had in EE, but it's a nice look back, as well. 
As I'm looking into graduate programs and teasing with what job can help me afford the applications process, I am starting to say goodbye to my energy-sucking experience in Outdoor Education. It is my goal to stay educating and influencing others about the environment... but I'm realizing that I just don't have it in me to do these residential programs anymore. So, without further adieu, here's a look at my life the last few years.

When my parents came to visit in the fall of 2015, I took them to Base Camp. The pinon were ripened, as I’m showing them here, but I explained not to collect too many because the local animals and communities gather them for food and income. 

 I learned the hard way that some Native cultures in NM don’t like seeing skeletons, much less collecting them. Nevertheless, in American culture nothing is more hardcore than some skulls and bones. I worked with an 18 year old who was attending our 6-week expedition over the summer. She didn’t quite fit in because she came from a less affluent background than the rest of the students, and her interests were less social. I sort of created a niche for kids like that, and when I told her that I had found a half decomposing bobcat in the canyon, which I buried in forest, she told me she would love to help me render it. I think I took the photo with her camera, but at one point after digging up the bones, dipping them in hydrogen peroxide and bleach (separately), and lots of scrubbing with tooth brushes, we had a full spine of a bobcat on a string. I suggested she wear it like a necklace and she did, having me take some pictures of her epic success. 
  My favorite thing about running Family Programs every Sunday for 4 years was the openness it provided. I would encourage every family that walked in the door to explore, play, touch and create. I never had set rules on what you had to do with the crafts on the table, but had lots of opportunities for various levels of interest. In this activity, participants were to make a nest, which these kids filled with painted rock “eggs”. There was no right answer and everyone was encouraged to be creative in their own way. The child on the right didn’t go for nest building, but instead played with the puppets, making up stories and begging me to play the role of the other animals. Additionally I set up experiments to be conducted around the park, and activity to get the families exploring outside, and some sort of indoor craft that would challenge different motor skills like sand paintings or watercoloring with wind (by blowing through a straw). 
  I’ve taken dozens of groups to Bluewater. The last group I went with was a group of 9th graders who seemed uninterested in anything but each other. Nevertheless, I got them all to stop and squat down around a dead snake that I found along the path, and we speculated its cause of death. With other groups I’ve just seen how far we can walk down the canyon before turning back, allowing them to take in as much of the scenery as possible and pausing at only the most important of features, like the one place where you can literally reach out and touch 5 different types of native trees. With other groups I haven’t made it out of sight of the parking lot, where we stop and catch crawdads and make watercolors from the murky brown water. 
Another thing I learned over time from working with (and dating) Dine people is that you shouldn’t touch trees that have been struck by lightning. I explained that to this group, offering that it could be dangerous and they didn’t have to touch if it they didn’t want to. But most opted, like me, to get a closer look and smell the burnt caramel sap and imagine what it would have looked like to see it get struck. 
 I have led a number of adult groups as well. I have grown to rather like these, as they have a deeper appreciation for how I have strung my knowledge together over years of learning and connecting. When I brought my first adult group to ah-shi-sle-pah, an area that every child we work with raves about and could explore for hours if not days, I was sure they would take a look, take a few photos, and turn around. But I was wrong. A 64-year-old woman was with me as we crested the hill overlooking the mushroom rocks in the white wash. She clasped her hands together and strode off with the same boundless enthusiasm as an 8-year-old. I pointed out the dinosaur bone and some of the unique clays, but they were content to roam on their own and take photos. 

  My favorite thing to do with the pre-schoolers that visit the park is ask them to tell me how many arms across our big trees are. The result is a wonderful photo-op of students hugging the tree as the teacher walks around counting the students. That isn’t what’s pictured here, but on this hike we were exploring the texture of a relative giant. Although you can’t see the student’s faces, you can see their interest and engagement in this discovery. 

This was one of my most successful days in my summertime position as naturalist. I had 4 kids choose my activity, which was to go explore the rotting elk carcass that had been hit by a car along the side of the road. You can see my bandana from when we checked it out. Later visits would prove more successful once the maggots subsided. The period started with an unplanned encounter with a snake which I will detail later, but by the point of this photo they had gained enough trust in my passions to stop and marvel at every little thing in the dirt- even button cacti and small sage plants. 
My final photo goes with a little essay I wrote, as my final farewell to the friends I've worked hard alongside. Since they didn't have room to publish it in the last newsletter, I'll drop it here. 
You know that moment when you’re waiting for the thunderstorm to pass and you’re huddled under a tree with an inadequate poncho, watching the lightning strike and hoping it stays far away, and even though you can see the golden rays of sun just beyond this mediocre cloud, the penetrating rain drops are cutting into your planned hiking time, and now you’re wondering if you’ll be able to make it down into the cave and out again and back to the vans before the trekkers get hangry for their snack… That moment seems to last for decade. In fact, your whole summer is strung together with moments like these; or that insufferably long walk to the General Store after Chili night, or waiting for your Outfitters to go back to their cabin to get their raincoat/socks/headlamp/item-you-mentioned-16-times for them to have in their day pack. And yet, despite all these wonderfully drawn-out moments, the summer is over in a flash. You find yourself singing Desert Silvery Blue one last time, trying in the breaths between bars to think about to those drawn out moments, and hold on.

I can’t speak for all the alumni staff at the Gulch, but for at least the last seven summers, I’ve been trying to put our finger on a strange and mysterious concept. This year, we gave it a name, a name that it may have had before, and surely will be carried on. Gulch Time: that crazy dissonance between those long, scattered moments and the apparent brevity by which we all come together in one, perfect, rustic, phone-free space to laugh, cry, sing and grow.
I can only speak to my experience of Gulch Time as a staff person, and even then, my concept of it has shifted depending on what my responsibilities were before and after the summer. But I have observed it’s affect on our trekkers. I have heard countless trekkers sitting with me on airport day, or at our final meal together at Base Camp, express hesitation for going back and immersing into their world, after spending such an intentional summer building community.
A few years ago, a girl on MDT confessed to being hesitant to return to a world where she was compelled to use her phone again, now that she knows she can cope without it. A summer after that, on a Cottonwood hike with two TTers and a boy from WCT, one of the girls confessed that this experience made her be present, and more friendly.
“I wouldn’t even be talking to you if we weren’t at the Gulch.” She playfully told the boy. “At home we’re conditioned to avoid awkward interactions by connecting via screen with our friends. If I was bored, I would use my phone… but here, if I’m bored, I have to ask you questions, make friends, and entertain myself.”
I consider that a success in my book. I saw two articles this week about schools banning phone use during school hours. In one article, they site all the concerns parents have for not being able to connect with their kids. These are valid anxieties in a world of instant communication, but remember, that world is a new creation. At one campfire this summer, near the end of our 16-day expedition, I asked the trekkers what they miss most, and what they are gaining by being here. When one trekker stated that he missed the luxury of google-searching anything on a whim, everyone agreed. Yet, our carefully selected book box had hardly been opened.
This fall I got to hike The Narrows in El Malpais—a land that was totally foreign to me in 2014 when I agreed to move to Albuquerque and help with caretaking and outreach for the Gulch. I thought a lot, on this hike, as I often do. I thought about all the times I have built a fire in the rain, jump-started a car, pushed a car out of the sand/mud, talked two people through a conflict, helped make a salad for dinner, or shouted “Hey Cottonwood Gulch!” with a resounding response of attention. As I trekked from cairn to carin I counted about a dozen times that I’ve traversed this trail, wound up the sandstone steps, and explained the stunning views of lava-flow below. Gulch time means never stepping on the same trail as the same person. 

I’ve been thinking about Gulch time differently this last month—in the deeper sense, of the Gulch’s affect on our life-time. I have worked 7 summers, two seasonal contracts and three full years in various positions at the Gulch. I trekked on 100 treks, exactly, leading over 65 of them. The Gulch has provided my paycheck, an incredible forum for learning and creating, and a strongly woven network of friends. But soon it will merely be a memory, a brand of hardships, perseverance and commitments that will serve as a foundation for my future.