Monday, April 21, 2014

Patagonia: an inside perspective

Kaleb Goff, a participant in the Winter 2014 program Natural History of the Patagonian Cordillera: Argentina and Chile, shares his enthusiasm for nature and experiential learning in this wonderful essay. Why not let nature be YOUR classroom?

In modern Western society, education is dominated by a paradigm that works to be as efficient as possible - imparting knowledge to students through a stream of facts and information. This form of education is particularly extreme at many universities, and millions of students pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for this institutionalized approach to education, aiming to absorb required facts and hopefully apply this information to a set of skills which are determined depending upon an intended career path. Around this dominating and ironic modern educational system lies a plethora of other techniques - from the autodidactical to the heavily institutionalized. Education forms also exist in a wide variety of settings, from the dark and musty concrete lecture hall of 500 students to the vast and windswept Patagonian Steppe. So called “outdoor education” is a broad educational dogma that removes the student from the classroom setting and aims to divert the constant stream of spoon-fed information, ideally creating an educational paradigm that is dynamic and question-driven, promotes the hands-on development of practical skills, and harnesses the evolutionary and evident need for the connection between humans and the more-than-human world. Outdoor education in our modern civilization fundamentally seeks balance - to balance the efficiency of institutionalized education with the advantages of outdoor education is an immense challenge and a worthy pursuit.

This course, Sierra Institute Patagonia 2014, is its own unique form of outdoor education, nuanced with its own personal challenges and triumphs. From my perspective, this course focuses particularly on combining the personal and academic aspects of being a student, which is particularly applicable due to the nature of studying natural history - it is truly happening at every moment. Also, this course has a particular focus on teaching students how to learn, which truly means breaking down the habit of instant information and promoting self-driven, question-based learning that each student has a personal relationship with and responsibility towards. The course dives headlong into the challenges of combining an intimate group dynamic with a rigorous academic schedule and the challenges that the natural world can bring to conducting classes.

My personal experience in this course has been profound, challenging and wondrous. I began this course with some background knowledge, as a 3rd year Plant Science student. I had completed basic courses and begun some of the more advanced topics in the university setting, as well as personally learning and exploring the skills of a naturalist. Reflecting on it now, I knew very little of what was taught during this course, and the academic content of the course was a perfect extension of my background knowledge. Much of what this course explored academically is not immediately taught in the university, some not taught at all (for example botany is a class generally taken late in college, and there is no class at UCSC I know of that details the entire Kingdom Plantae and its varied and beautiful life cycles). All this said, I learned a tremendous amount academically, and more specifically I learned a tremendous amount about things I love and care about immensely. This experience has been one that will continue to nourish me academically in the future.

I have gained more than ever could be formed into words and paragraphs. I gained a wider view of our home, the Earth. I gained academic knowledge that I will use to look more closely and make tighter connections in my love and exploration of this world. I learned how to travel, live and learn with a group of 10 other people, and how to relate on all of these levels simultaneously. I also gained a more open perspective of myself as an outdoor educator and facilitator, which I hope to explore more deeply in the years to come.

In conclusion - I am overwhelmed by the immensity of this experience. It is one that will continue to nourish me for the rest of my life, in my pursuit of being the deepest lover and student of the Earth that I can possibly be. Moreover, my inspiration to facilitate others in their observation and learning about our home has greatly grown, and I will not cease to share what I have learned on this trip with all I meet. My wholehearted and ardent gratitude for all that has been given to me on this trip. May it continue to shine.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

California Wilderness: A new beginning in Death Valley

The Spring California Wilderness group has just finished the first segment of their journey: Death Valley. In this passage, John O'Mara shares his experience of wild horses, turquoise mines and how time in the wilderness has already impacted him profoundly.

On April 4th a group of complete strangers embarked into the Death Valley wilderness.  We arrived at Cottonwood Springs in the afternoon and immediately we were awestruck by rolling plains, jagged mountain ranges and warm soft sand between our toes.  The spring boasted of watercress, which became a staple in our nightly cooking.  In our time here at Cottonwood springs we explored the local history, and found traces of past life-- run down shacks, burned treasure chests, arrowheads, beads and remains of big horn sheep.  On one of my very first mornings of watching the sunrise, sitting in the big field overlooking the entire canyon I was approached by a wild horse. He was just as timid and nervous as I was, but over the time of our stay here at the springs this horse became a part of our group.  One morning, he even  came into our camp and made himself comfortable.  Through this experience I became so enthralled by the beauty of these majestic animals.  A few days later a herd of wild horses came and visited us, an experience that I will never forget.

In our days here we explored the surrounding areas, to an old turquoise mine and a mud flat overlook of the entire park.  A birds-eye view of a birds-eye view.  The experiential knowledge of the wilderness that I have gained in participating in the program has blown away any expectations that I had.  The sense of community that we have built amongst us is an extremely comfortable, tight knit and compassionate feeling.  I wake up every morning to the glow of dusk and go to bed every night in awe of the stars.                                                                                                                       

Academically our studies are an integral part of why this experience in nature is so special.  The curriculum is paired with each location; the wheels of knowledge are turning as our legs are churning out mountains and through meadows.  With each other we have a constant conversation of our academics foreshadowing the beauty of the state of California.  Almost daily I am struck with a moment of wonder in reading, discussing and critiquing the readings.  Personally this material has helped me reflect on my life thus far and what in life is important to me.  The time alone that we have the opportunity for has opened me up to see the value in what I am doing for my personal fulfillment as well as my contribution to a community.  Campfire dinners are boasting with flavor and the music that we collectively make with rattles and cans runs a euphoria through my body, as if I become part of the inspiring land with every meal and every song.  

The people that are in this program with me make the experience what it is.  Despite our age differences, interests, areas of study, we come together to create a transformational experience.  The opportunity to participate in Sierra institute is something I plan on sharing for the remainder of my life, the integration of nature and learning is like nothing I have ever or will ever again experience.  I plan on shifting my style of learning for the remainder of my college career, as this program is creating change within me that has and will positively affect me for the rest of my life.