Wednesday, June 26, 2013

California Wilderness: The Last Leg

Packing up for our final journey into the wilderness was a surreal feeling. Did two months really just pass? Are these 11 people surrounding me really still relatively new friends? I shake my head and laugh with wonder at the ability of humans to adapt and thrive in their surrounding environment.

I look at my stockpile of food that I am planning on putting into my 70 Liter pack. How did I get so much food? This has been a recurring theme throughout the entire trip. Since I know that there will only be one hard day of hiking, I throw off any preconceived notions about how much I should carry, and end up adding a minimum of 10 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables for my trip. Granted, I have been getting stronger throughout the trip, but it seems that my pack has been getting proportionately heavier too.  I feel a knot of dread as I am forced to admit to myself that it just won’t fit into my backpack.

My old practical self would have abandoned some of the food and carried in what was reasonable, but this is my new self: limitless. A dreamer with high hopes. A Bear (coincidentally my trail name) that has learned to embody its inner strength. I will carry in the 5 onions, 3 carrots, head of cabbage, basil, flatbread, parmesan, 2 salami sticks, 3 avocados, 8 apples, 2 lbs. of trail-mix, 3 pounds of coconut raisin granola, powdered goats milk, cookie butter, grapefruit, pancake mix and bottle of syrup. But first, I have to ask Autumn Fox if I can borrow his 110 liter pack for this hike. He said yes, and I managed to fill it to the brim.

I wasn’t the only one who went all out for our last hike, but luckily we all survived and landed on a beautiful  grassy hill on a cliff by the Eel river.  The sky threatened rain, so we set up our tents before going on with the day. Somehow we got a window of sunshine warm enough for us to lay out in the sun by the river. The mixture of feelings that swarms through my body and mind are overwhelming and intangible. I am happy to be here, in a beautiful place, surrounded by beautiful people, but the future is becoming more and more inevitable. There is anxiousness tied to the excitement of hugging my friends again, and the nervousness of what will become of my current relationship, and the reality of concrete and metal and manicured nature as my next home…

We have become so comfortable in the backcountry that we co-exist with all of the elements and each other. Our last leg is filled with play in the sun, tying up the loose ends of our course, and reminiscing on the experience we all had together. We are all sad to leave this adventure, but at the same time, ready for the next leg: Life.

-Hannah Bangs (aka Alder Bear)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

California Wilderness: Going Solo by the Eel River

Overview: In the second half of the California Wilderness program, students have the opportunity to complete a “solo”, a period of time to take leave from their classmates and instructor and be alone in the wilderness. Those who choose to embark on this solitary journey often emerge with greater self-awareness, the satisfaction of having faced and conquered their fears, and new confidence in their ability to survive in the wilderness. This is the story of Thomas Conneely’s four-day solo in the Yolla Bolly Mountains.

From Tom Conneely:
Our feet gently sunk into the sand of Asa Bean Flat as we hobbled across the misshapen silver-green rocks of the Eel River. The first days were hot and, we spent the days reading and swimming between classes. We began to explore the depths of pan-pyschism – rigorous theories of encountering the world transnationally, rather than exploiting it and objectifying it through our limited scope. More so than other readings, these first academically challenging days at Asa Bean let the reader engage in worldviews not commonly presented, not even in college lecture halls.

As the heat evaporated into a handful of rainy afternoons, the prospect of the approaching solo began to nearly burden my mind. Would I drive myself insane after four days alone? Having barely spent a single day alone in my life, I was embarrassingly nervous as the solo washed into reality, like the sweet river water washed onto the stones.

My solo was a mindful time of guitar playing and river watching, practicing the art and beauty of moon gazing and insect-listening. In a nearly indescribable manner, my solo felt much like a homecoming to a place that I had never left. I knew that something had changed, though nothing clicked or instantly snapped. I faced myself and my own fears, and felt a sense of intrinsic confidence that took a journey like Sierra Institute to fully realize.

Our group reconvened and, through the unspoken gratitude of seeing other people again, emerged a single unit – not a patchwork of people and ideas, but a single entity, very much a real tribe. The afternoon passed into evening casually, and we spent the time laughing and consciously enjoying the presence of the family that we had slowly become over the past 2 months. I felt like a more whole self after solo; I knew that my fears had not been discarded- they never will- but they had been stared straight down the throat, witnessed and disowned. I knew I was ready for the next step – to begin the summer of my life.

“The forever river, looking up ahead
                                        here I come
                                                here I come.”

Saturday, June 15, 2013

California Wilderness: Lost Coast Journey


The Lost Coast is a 25-mile stretch of wild Pacific coastline with road access only on its north and south ends. The interior portions must be reached on foot. In spring, the whales are migrating north and can be seen spouting and breaching. Poppies, lupines, and other wildflowers are in abundant bloom. The sound of the pounding surf is omnipresent. Classes are often held sitting in green meadows while hawks circle and line pelicans fly off shore.

From Francie Seidl Chodosh, aka Cocoflakes:

After reading and discussing John Muir, I had a whole different outlook on the wilderness, and more specifically how I view myself in the wilderness. A few days ago on the first leg of the lost coast some tribe members and I hiked up to Kings Peak. I started out the hike excited to summit Kings Peak but that excitement slowly left my system when I became more tired and hungry with every step. Why is scrambling up a mountain fun anyway? But things changed when we stopped for a breather about half way up the mountain. I got to listen to the wind and watch the trees. I got to smell the earth and soak it all in.

John Muir was all about experiencing nature, pushing the body to its limits, and finding your own personal philosophy in the nature. It all made sense on that hike. I feel like I am becoming more aware of who I am with every day I spend in the backcountry.

From Cedar Kirwin, aka Mogli:

The Lost Coast leg of our journey began with a short hike from Shelter Cove to Gitchell’s Creek, where we flung ourselves into the ocean and reveled in the unseasonably warm weather. Once at our camp we quickly settled into our wilderness routine: classes after breakfast and some yoga, usually in a beautiful poppy filled meadow overlooking the ocean or tucked into the Doug Firs on the flanks of the steep hills. We talked about the previous day’s readings, did journaling activities, or discussed big questions and concepts from the readings.

The days were then filled with reading different nature poetry and prose writers such as Gary Snyder, Robinson Jeffers, Mary Oliver, and John Muir to the meditative sound of the surf. All of the different readings and authors are gearing us up for our final papers, helping us to explore and discover the importance of nature beyond seeing it as simply a resource and instead recognizing its role as an integral part individuals and our success as a society.

The Lost Coast has been one of my favorite legs of the journey in terms of academics, place, and personal growth; I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place to be in, from sandy beaches all the way up to misty King’s Peak!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

California Wilderness: Poetry in the Domelands


The Domeland Wilderness is in the southern Sierra, along the South Fork of the Kern River. It is open sagebrush country on the valley floor, with pinyon pines on the slopes. Naked granite domes and spires dot the ridgelines and mountain tops. The river meanders among willows, where beaver build their lodges and make dams.

From Chelsey Otis, aka Bubbles

The mornings are slow and whimsical, allowing me the time to gather myself and set intentions for the day. Splashing my face with water, I chant a little tune that one my tribe members made up in Death Valley: “Honor the water in my body. Honor the water cleansing my soul. Honor the water in the valley. Honor the journey to the watering hole.” This reminds of the sacredness and necessity of water, and is also a practice that I can carry with me when I return home.

The greatest day in Domelands was my solo river adventure. I took my Emerson book, lunch and sketch book and headed off down the river. Venturing through the reeds, barefoot trekking through the refreshing water…I had no agenda, no goals, no time limit and infinite imagination. It was the first time that I walked and explored for pure experience, for simply being with nature and openly experiencing every sensation and message it brought. I arrived at a beautiful spot in the river and let the poems flow…

From Roxy Friedman, aka Gayatri

Class discussions gather wisdom from the group and dive deep into engaging, thought provoking, and fulfilling questions such as "What is our purpose as human beings on this earth?" and "What is soul and spirit and how do we identify with these concepts?" The readings consume my mind and I notice the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau lingering around well after we discuss them, continuing to inspire my love for poetry and nature awareness.

As night falls, the campfire simply calls for us to gather around in a circle sharing song and making music. My time here has sparked some of the most powerful moments of personal growth in my life.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Tradition of Trail Names

You may have noticed that Sierra Institute students sometimes refer to themselves by two different names, their real name and an assumed one. Somewhere in the past history of Sierra Institute, it became an informal tradition for students to take on trail names. It has always been optional, and it has always varied considerably group by group as to how many students actually adopt a temporary name.

The basic tone of trail names is playful and, similar to nicknames, their use has a way of conveying intimacy. Sometimes a trail name arises as the group characterizes or teases an individual in a certain way. More often, a student chooses their own name.

In my own programs, I often introduce the trail name option with a more earnest slant to complement the playful approach. I liken the 9-week program to a "heroic journey" as described by mythologist Joseph Campbell, among others. In that journey, the hero leaves the known and familiar world to embark on an adventure that includes challenges and lessons and finally concludes with a return to their original community. Upon return, they bring a new and enriched self to share with others as a gift. To take on a trail name can be a way of emphasizing the "separation phase" of the heroic journey. Not only is the hero leaving family and friends, they are also leaving their established identity behind to explore new possibilities of self.

-Walker, aka Autumn Fox

Friday, June 7, 2013

California Wilderness: Reflections from Death Valley


The spring California Wilderness 2013 program begins with a backpack into Death Valley. Since the early stages of a program can emphasize the so-called "separation phase" of the journey, Death Valley is an especially favorable starting place because it is unfamiliar and challenging to most participants. Discomfort is quickly dissipated once we have settled into our basecamp under cottonwood trees with spring water nearby. In the expanse of desert, the days pass and seem to float independently and timelessly, losing their connection to any calendar.

From Antonella De La Torre, aka Pachamama:

Under the afternoon sun of Cottonwood Springs, we sit in shady sit spots reading, journaling, and watching the wildlife interact with both earth and sky. Cottonwood Springs shelters a plethora of migrant birds, colorful lizards, wild horses, and even a few snakes! Because of the amount of life in this seemingly barren desert, I never felt alone during this last stretch of our educational adventure.

Inspired by all the amazing readings by authors such as William Everson, Bill Plotkin, John Tarrant, Jon Young, Starhawk, and other ecopsychologists, my ecological and personal consciousness expands with every day that passes. Endless learning and infinite questions pervade my Sierra Institute experience so far, and what I am getting out of this is beyond any sort of knowledge I’ve gained in the typical educational institution.

From Kelan Ilya:

As we enter the Oasis of Cottonwood Canyon, we endure solitude to the highest degree. We face the reality of the emptiness of the desert.The dialogues that take place in such an astonishing setting allow us to relinquish the stresses of our everyday lives. Both personal and universal mysteries are addressed and investigated in a manner that enables the group to express themselves freely.

The group dynamic is sophisticated and enables an intimate bond similar to one of a native tribe. Being a part of such a unique community is an honorable experience and seems unachievable elsewhere in society.

A wild horse in Death Valley 
To see more images from the Spring 2013 California Wilderness trip, visit Sierra Institute on Facebook.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Welcome to the Sierra Institute!

A note from Sierra Institute Director and Instructor, Walker Abel:

I recently returned from instructing "California Wilderness: Nature Philosophy, Religion, Ecopsychology," a nine-week series of backpacking excursions into Death Valley, the southern Sierra, the Lost Coast, and the Yolla Bolly Mountains. Teaching this program after more than a year's absence from field instruction renewed my great appreciation for the remarkable education that Sierra Institute offers.

I participated in a Sierra Institute program as an undergraduate in the mid-1970s. At that time the Institute was still young, and offered only two programs a year, both in California (notably the Sierra). When I returned in 1988 with graduate degree in hand to join Sierra Institute's teaching staff, the school had grown to over 100 students a year, with programs in all parts of the country and several international locations. Sierra Institute continued to grow until its height in the mid-1990s, when enrollments neared 200 annually in up to 16 separate programs worldwide.

Since that peak, for reasons not entirely clear, enrollment has declined. Let me say that I do not think it particularly important that Sierra Institute be big rather than small, but as an ecopsychologist I find it interesting to consider that this trend of declining enrollment could in part reflect broad cultural and societal patterns. We might sum it up by saying that, as our culture increasingly distances itself from nature, there will be diminishing interest in programs that derive their very structure and content from nature.

The students in our recent spring program gave up, for the most part, cell phones and internet access. They went without hot showers, electric lights, soft beds, and current TV episodes. They passed up on many parties, concerts, and activities that their friends on campus undoubtedly enjoyed. Perhaps they even interrupted a more conservative 4-year college plan or degree requirements that technically should not include an off-campus quarter of this kind.

However, the spring students quickly discovered that Sierra Institute rests on the premise that often what we see as deprivations are actually gains. A recent body of research has demonstrated that distance and lack of direct contact with nature can contribute to physical and emotional problems in children and adults alike ("nature deficit disorder"). Sierra Institute is an antidote, but we might think of this as a peripheral gain.

The highest goal of Sierra Institute programs is to provide the best college learning experience for the specific academic topics covered by each program. For example, the California Wilderness program includes a course titled "American Nature Philosophers." Students follow the historical progression of environmental thought through Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Muir up to current writers like Mary Oliver and Gary Snyder, including schools of thought such as deep ecology and ecofeminism. While it is certainly possible to study these authors in a campus classroom, I believe there is an important benefit to reading and discussing them in natural environments similar to those that originally inspired each author. It becomes much easier to understand and empathize with John Muir's passion for the Sierra Mountains while backpacking and camping in those very mountains.

The same is true for Sierra Institute’s science-oriented programs. In spring 2014 we will offer "Natural History Field Studies: the Ecosystems of California." This program will travel around the state to conduct hands-on field biology and botany studies while camping in various locations. There is no better way to engage with this type of academic material than to live in it. Thoreau once said of his natural history endeavors, "I wanted to get to know my neighbors". With Sierra Institute, the trees, animals, rivers and mountains become our neighbors, and we can learn about them in intimate and direct ways.

I will teach again this summer, and while I will at times miss my comfortable home, neighbors, and friends, I know there will be richer gains. I will enjoy the closeness that develops as a small group camps together for weeks. I will enjoy the deep intimacy with the wild earth that backpacking fosters. And I never tire of studying the ideas of inspirational authors, many of whom warn against our society's advancing disconnection from nature and who would be full proponents of Sierra Institute's motto: "Let Nature Be the Classroom."