“Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.”
~ William Wordsworth
A recent backpacking trip took me, yet again, to a magical and beautiful place. I usually go to the mountains to refresh my spirit, test my body, and to be enveloped in beauty and serenity. This trip was all of those things but the goal was to see if there was a certain rare and special little plant blooming. The alpine forget-me-not only grows in one locality in the entire state of Washington and we have the honor of that place being right in our back yard. Er, well a 6.5 mile hike in and a scramble up a boulder-strewn slope, but, hey, that is our backyard after all! This trip had the added bonus of being with folks as deeply interested and moved by the world around us, particularly natural history and ecology, as I am. The company was perfect, the conversations deep, and the observations astute. Not only did we find the little beauty (pictured below), we found a whole “mountain-side” (really just a mountain shoulder) colored by the most vibrant blue I have ever seen. Getting down on the earth with a hand-lens was all I needed to be struck with awe and care for this delightful planet.
I then stood up and looked around, where mountains beyond mountains, snow-capped and rugged, filled the land. Both the micro and macro can inspire us to be better humans, to care for both the small and insignificant and the grand and jaw-dropping. This was just such a place to remember this but really any place, every place is sacred, if only we see it so.
The snow creaked under my footfalls, like walking on a world of styrofoam coffee cups. In the early morning light my long shadow spread across the frozen earth like a cloud over the sun and my hands hurt the moment I took my gloves off to adjust something on my camera. It was still, perfectly so, and must have been -15 or colder. I knew that I could not remain comfortable long in this cold Arctic air so I snapped a few photos and headed back into the school where we were staying and studying all week long.
I entered the warm and closed off world of the Nunamiut School, which felt like a completely different world than where I had just been outside. And it was. It felt strange to be inside the school for so much of our day – we slept in the school, we ate in the school, we played in the school and we even swam in the school (yes, many of these very remote Arctic schools have indoor swimming pools). My students and I were integrated into a 4/5th grade class at the school, where we had classes on local language and culture, science and the environment, and worked on practical projects with the local students. These projects related to environmental stewardship and resulting in the creation of trash art and reusable bags in order to reduce the amount of trash that the community creates. Currently, all of the trash, recycling and compost goes 2.5 miles up the only road out of town to the refuse site where it is burned.
It’s an interesting experience, being an all-knowing, all-powerful American, and seeing something that you think it appalling and then just realizing that you don’t have a clue what the right thing to do is. Yes, burning trash isn’t great and I certainly didn’t stand upwind of it but what else are they going to do with it? Recycle it, which would mean paying for it to be flown out? Make less of it, which worked really well when they were subsisting totally off the land (caribou, wolves, wolverines, bears, berries, fish and the like)? So much of their food is now flown in – prepackaged and highly processed which comes with all sorts of trash. Should they compost their food waste (which they actually do to some degree), but how do you do that on permanently frozen ground (permafrost) with an short and intense warm season?
Burning their trash actually may be the best thing to do and given the scale of their impact (especially compared with ours) in such a vast landscape, maybe it ain’t all that bad really.
I know, I know, I should be more environmental, but what are you gonna do.
Some of the other experiences that we had there are depicted below: cross-country skiing, visiting a local history museum, Inupiat language class, and visiting frozen Lake Eleanor. Each of these experiences deserved a blog post itself – they were deep and impactful. I don’t know if I will have the time to do so but will try.