Wednesday, July 31, 2013

California Wilderness: Rhythm

Enjoy Tito Dixson's poetic take on the Marble Mountains!
If my ordinary life were a scenic pond replaying day and night imagine Sierra Institute as a cosmic stone slipping into my pond. A sight unseen, when the present breaks a barrier the water’s surface instantly engulfs a new vibration creating ripples like waves to the mind’s design. The wilderness experience... Nature as the teacher and the classroom! A backpacking adventure; hiking up steep mountains and down deep valleys, not only a physical battle but mental as well. Scaling past academic criteria, digging out personal achievements and embracing social differences. A chance to look within, take these feet off the street and listen to a new beat.

Driving highways through northern California; in and out small towns, up and over golden hills along the song of river’s bed. Last week past Willows Creek, through the dreamy temptation of reservation, and up north a salmon fork. The trailhead lead the way into Marble Mountain sway. Minimum impact through the woods and a quick lesson to basecamp if you would. Open the books to take a look, inner wilderness and outward alienation. Poets, psychologists, and environmentalists cast a blast of new ideas for the green encyclopedia. Speaking of new ideas I got distracted, after a long hike no words could separate the tribe from the vibe. Igneous rock surrounds the lake, various conifers up like stakes and a certain deerness you could not miss. Social gatherings fill the valley with chants, a powerful sky attacks the eye.

The class reeled me in with ecopsychology and friendly kin. A new begin, with endless wisdom to be seen. I’d felt disconnected from nature but this experience will make sure I never forget. A trip to the mountains, a night around a fire and a hop in the pond or maybe a river, needless to say I’m happy with the decision made. And we’re off in the morning!! Hope i didn’t leave you scorning. 

Happy trails from Sierra Institute!

Monday, July 29, 2013

California Wilderness: The Ecstasy of the Untouched

Allison Dycaico (trail name: Otter) writes about her experience in the Marble Mountain Wilderness, and what Sierra Institute has meant to her:

During our hike up to the base camp for this leg of the trip, I was stunned by the raw beauty of the landscapes though which we traveled. Fields of wildflowers – fireweed, Indian paintbrush, and some species of sage whose small white flowers blessed our trek with their sweet herbal aroma – flourished in fields of gravel between boulders, in stands of conifers decimated by a recent fire, and in marshy areas fed by natural springs and snowmelt.

During this leg of the trip, I particularly enjoyed swimming in Clear Lake, the water source for our base camp. When we first arrived at the lake, sweaty and breathless from our uphill trek, we flung our gear down and plunged gleefully into its tranquil waters. We were delighted to discover there were other swimmers in the lake: green and brown newts with russet bellies. The newts were our companions for the rest of our days at Clear Lake, and a constant source of amusement. The newts, like the other fauna in the area, were entirely unacquainted with humans. As a result, they were boldly curious about us. When we dipped our fingers and toes in, the newts swam with serpentine grace to taste and twine around our unfamiliar appendages.

Newts were not our only animal neighbors. Dragonflies and damselflies frolicked in the air above the lake water, while lazy trout made halfhearted attempts to snare their iridescent prey. By day, the raucous shrieks of Stellar’s Jays followed us as we explored the area, alerting all other animals to the presence of humans. Tiny chipmunks scrabbled up and down the many species of conifers, squeaking in rage when we ventured too close to their home. We soon discovered that our base camp was a favorite night-time hangout for a herd of deer. The deer did not startle at our voices or freeze in terror when a beam of our headlights hit them in the darkness; it was truly as if they had never seen a human being. We were filled with the intoxicating sense that we were camping somewhere truly remote and pristine, a mountain landscape that had somehow escaped human detection.

Why am I writing to you now from the backcountry bliss of the Marble Mountain Wilderness? I love to explore new natural landscapes. I am fascinated by human-nature interactions and alternative education practices. California’s diverse and stunning landscapes continue to draw me out into the wilderness. These factors reigned paramount in my mind when I applied to the Sierra Institute, but what I didn’t foresee at the time was how much fun I would have, and how much I would grow as a person through this program. The academic course, California Wilderness, is similar to those I’ve taken for general education requirements through the UC system. It requires a substantial time commitment; we are required to read around two to three articles and participate in three to four hours of combined lecture and discussion per day. 

When I first heard about the course load, I anticipated that I would have little time for myself or for connecting with the other students. In actuality, I have ample free time to complete the readings, write in my journal daily, bond with the tribe, explore the breathtaking surroundings on my own, and bathe or swim every day. It’s amazing how much freedom we have out here without the constant imposition of clock time, how the hours dissolve into the golden present with only the calls of mountain birds to mark that each moment has a beginning and an end.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

California Wilderness: Find your Calling

Eli Willis (aka River) reflects on her time spent in the Yolla Bolly Mountains:

This entry begins where I am sitting on a small island of stones in Yellow Jacket Creek, just off the Eel River. Douglas Firs grow above and around, while wildflowers and vibrant green shrubs populate the soil closest to the water. Bees, dragonflies, butterflies, water skeeters, and other insects (more bugs than are within my current comfort zone, actually) buzz and hop around. This small stretch of the creek is my sit spot, the place in this unfamiliar region of Yolla Bolly that I can get to know personally, that I can visit daily to be with my thoughts and observe nature doing her thing.

Jon Young recommends the sit spot as the single best practice for creating a meaningful connection to nature; I and several others in the group have taken the sit spot as our 40 day practice. For the past few days I’ve made the short walk to this spot, getting to know the landscape of the journey as well as the spot itself. With my grandma’s bandana tied over my braided hair and my mind wide open to adventure, I feel like a child. With innocent curiosity I look and listen and feel. What is the magic behind this beautiful natural place? How do river and rock, fly and flower, trees and bees interact and exist harmoniously, becoming one entity, one ecosystem? How is it that simply sitting quietly here has such a profound effect on me? These are the questions I ask, and nature subtly responds.

In class we explore these topics, inquiring about humanity’s place in nature and nature’s place within our own lives. The readings are relevant to our experience in the wilderness, and themes from class mingle with my own observations and thoughts. Of particular interest to me is William Everson’s Birth of a Poet, the Santa Cruz Meditations, a collection of transcriptions of his thoughts and lectures to a UCSC class in 1975-76. This book seems to speak directly to me, a current UCSC student concerned with the state of the world and open to new possibilities for my precious lifetime. Everson discusses broad topics such as the uniquely American relationship between people and this land, and personal topics like how we can each find and follow our own path.

He speaks of finding one’s vocare, their calling. I’m thinking about my vocare, my own role in healing our relationship with nature. Somehow those thoughts feel different out here, immersed in nature itself, than in the front country. One phrase we’ve been exchanging around may help explain it: though there is a lot of work to do, we are human beings, not human doings. Being with nature, being nature, is crucial in healing nature. I’m so  grateful to be exploring the real force behind my studies and ambitions: a genuine love and respect for the Earth.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

California Wilderness: Growth

On July 1, the Summer California Wilderness group departed on their six-week journey. The group faced many challenges: several students were backpacking for the first time, everyone was just meeting for the first time, and no one knew what to expect!

As one of their assignments, each student has been asked to submit a reflection from the field. Some may write about their engagement with the course material, others may focus on their relationship with nature, their fellow students, or themselves. What better way to start of than with a post that touches on all three?

From Kai Lee Herbertson:

How am I to communicate what the Sierra Institute has done for me? Although I have only completed one leg of our six-week long trip, I already feel such a connection to the subjects we have discussed, my own personal development, and the growing identity of the group as a whole.

Oftentimes while doing the readings, I laugh outright thinking: this is CLASS! The educational component of our experience is an almost bizarre contrast to what is normally viewed as academic. How lucky we are to sit on a stony riverbank with our toes in the water, and read the words of authors who truly speak to us! Many of my classmates are passionate about the subjects we explore, and whether that is environmentalism, social justice, or just plain great writing, it makes for powerful discussion.

Being in the backcountry has been an important part of my life, and retaining a strong connection to the natural world is something that I wish to carry into the next chapter. Sierra Institute allows for a safe place for that development, both physically and emotionally. A powerful positive regard for each individual in the group allows for everyone to satisfy their own personal needs, everything from alone time to think, meditate, and explore, or opportunities to bond as a community. Teamwork is practiced when we make dinners in pairs, group decisions, or fireside music. The safe, non-judgemental space that we hold for each other here is a huge part of what makes the experience so comfortable for so many different kinds of people.

It has been beautiful to watch the tribe develop, even in this short amount of time. I know for a fact that every person has had their boundaries pushed in a healthy, supported way. For some, that has taken the form of the physical act of packing in; for others, it has been learning how to listen to a new friend with an open heart, or having the courage to speak their truth during council or in our day-to-day interactions.

I didn't really know what to expect when I applied for the Sierra Institute, but so far I have certainly gotten a lot out of the experience. I can only imagine what the coming weeks will bring, but I know already that whatever it may be, it will certainly further each of our development--intellectually, personally, and as a thriving community.

Monday, July 8, 2013

California Wilderness: Explorations of Self

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." –T.S. Eliot

From  Phoebe Reid, aka Starling:

After six weeks in the woods I began a new journey, a journey of expanse and depth unlike any I had taken before. Just like the salmon I have inked just above my left inner ankle, I swam into the ocean of my thoughts, the ocean of the wilderness, and the ocean of hunger, prepared to bob for the four days of my solo, out at sea. I swam away from the stream of my tribe, my idea of the meaning behind Sierra Institute, and my idea of my previous self. Up a river I walked, and then I sat, watching time and Mergansers float by - too slowly - watching my fears and struggles surface and again plunge under like the rapids in front of me.

Day one – I can do this, I thought to myself. This hunger? It's nothing. The time moving so slowly? I can handle it. I am strong. I am everything I thought I was and I'm sure I'm more too. I've got this.

Day two –All I want is corned beef and hash. All I want is for time to move faster... Why isn't the sun going down? Why is it still light out as I crawl into my tent, cold and lonely and falling asleep? Why are there still so many days left?

Day three – Strength returns. I stand on a rock and shout to the air, to the trees and the river, to my past insecurities and my future self.

Day four – Tomorrow's the day. The day for food. For my tribe. For conversation and intimacy and love. If I can just get through today….  But now is the time: a fierce moral inventory, a look at my weaknesses, my sadness and the holes in my life. Where am I flawed? Where do I need healing? These questions follow me as I write letters and finish a book and watch the moon rise. And I gaze across the moonlit tree tops until I know. My answer is revealed, one I had heard over and over again but never understood until now.

Something was clear now that I'd never seen before, something that family and friends said they saw in me too. I still cannot name it, but I can say this: I arrived where I started and suddenly I knew this place – our home in the Yolla Bollys, my home in the tribe, and my home in myself, for the first time.