brief notes on nature and democracy

By Lee Myers, AP’19

Nature is often conceptualized as something distinct from the human inhabitants of the planets; it is “the other” and falls into a constituted realm of the human imagination where brushes are overgrown, non-human animals live their lives uninhibited from the encroachment of civilization, and represents an “authentic” element of the Earth. During Arete, 12 students (of widely diverse backgrounds) are brought onto an island in south-east Alaska and are asked to examine the relationship between humans and the natural world. This blog entry is, more or less, my individual thoughts on the work we’ve done throughout the course so far.

My thoughts on the issue start at a locale of social-consciousness. Without espousing an entire philosophical thesis on what exactly is “social-consciousness”, I will leave my definition and usage here: our perceptions of the world and how we reason are influenced by a plethora of social, historical, and political factors that carve up our ideas of the world. Each student in Arete has a social-consciousness attached to them that is wholly unique given that their experiences rests heavily on their own identity, environment, and life experience. Recognizing this, students must also navigate how to relate to each other as well as figure out what the natural world looks like because, as you might imagine, each student has a different idea of what exactly constitutes “Nature.”

Given each students’ individual consciousness, our coursework has us sharing perspectives over a given piece of reading or lecture that gives us an individual perspective of Nature or a brief overview over the ecological and cultural history of Southeast Alaska. For example, we discussed problematic ideological conceptions of wilderness through the writings of William Cronon, briefly explored the Tlingit indigenous history and culture, and are currently examining ecological and socio-economic dynamics with the reintroduction of Sea-Otter populations in the region. Our class discussions have been rich with discussion as we learn about the area surrounding Glacier Bay as well as we try to develop a comprehensive understanding of the natural world.

For me personally, I have found the very concept of Nature to be one that is imaginative and rooted heavily in historic circumstances. Cronon, for example, traces the ideas of wilderness throughout history as something to be initially feared to something to be conserved and protected. He identifies change through ideological forces primarily Romanticism and American Pioneerism. This interpretive and subjective aspect of nature and wilderness suggests to me that there is no metaphysical substance that we can successfully identify as “Nature” or “Wilderness.” The natural world, as a conceptual being, becomes a product of a particular social consciousness and that shapes the attitudes thereof. Keeping this in mind, it’s important to recognize that these concepts are not isolated from us at all and while we can change how we perceive Nature, we cannot fundamentally disconnect ourselves from it. First, by virtue of being an imaginative concept of human ideology. Second, by our very clear impact on wilderness as a finite conceptual being and through our attempts at ecological maintenance. This, for me, establishes the framework in which we ought to conceptualize our relationship with the natural world. There exists a fundamental interconnectedness between humans and the land in which they live and the monumental task set forth from such an interconnectedness deals with how to preserve a world that nurtures ecological diversity whilst simultaneously being conducive to human flourishing.

Lastly, Arete has students participating in a face-to-face democratic experiment wherein the students govern themselves. This runs as a countertrend to institutionalized procedures of current academia where governance of student participants is either partially shared, extremely limited, or non-existent. This cohort has established an organic procedure where each meeting has a nominated facilitator who compiles an agenda of priorities. It functions as an organic needs-based system of community management and prioritizes open communication and transparency in concerns and interests within the student community. Self-governance of a student community not only empowers students to participate in democratic processes, but is, itself, a reorientation of governance priorities that puts the needs of its participants first; this exists as a much needed alternative to existing governing bodies.

In short, the Arete Project develops a series of priorities that existing institutions lack; it helps participants situate themselves firmly in the natural world as well as build the type of space needed to sustain social reform. One can only hope that Arete helps spur other projects geared towards a sustainable and just human presence on this world. It is certainly an experience I found rewarding and one that further solidifies my commitment to seeing equitable justice a reality on this world.

Lee Myers is a member of the 2019 Glacier Bay Session cohort. He studies philosophy at Berea College. 

the step crew

By Pema l’Anson, AP’19

I’ll be honest – during the whole application process, planning my trip, and even after getting here, labour hasn’t been the part of Arete that most excited me. Our labour sessions are divided into maintenance, garden, and kitchen work, and I’ve had my fair share of each. After breakfast, we divide ourselves into work crews according to different projects, needs, and interests. I enjoy the cooperation, the learning of new skills, the variety, but at eight a.m. every morning I wake up and think that if we didn’t have labour, I might feel a bit more rested.

All this changed when one day, I was assigned to the step work crew.

I’d seen other people engaging with the step. The back steps, not much used, going from the deck of Elizabeth towards the outdoor freezer, had an awkward jump to and from the last one, not wooden like the others but concrete. Previous maintenance work crews had been adjusting this step, pushing it into the others to reduce the jump, raising it with stones and gravel. When I joined, I didn’t much fancy my chances of enjoying this project. It was only two of us – Jenny and I – and I’d seen other crews with three, four people working on the step together. I’m not particularly strong, and it didn’t seem like an exciting project, not like going to the dump with the recycling or building the new chicken coop.

However: it turned out the big old concrete step had been satisfactorily moved, and a wooden frame for a new step below it had been built. Jenny and I spent the first morning adjusting the wooden frame, first digging it out of the gravel that had been put around and inside it (the problem with none of us being skilled labourers is that we often spend hours undoing mistakes!) and then removing some of the larger stones; we took parts off the frame and put them back on; we dug under the frame and created space around it so we could drill. All of this was to adjust it so the step we would make within the frame was perfectly to the measurements of the steps above. We wanted to make climbing this staircase an enjoyable experience, and the best way to do that is by evening out the distances between steps, standardising step widths and heights, and solidifying the foundations. At the end of that first morning of labour, we had wrangled the frame to the exact place we wanted it, and the satisfaction that came with that moment was enormous. Looking at the level we placed on top, the bubble perfectly balanced in its glorious middle (signifying the step being flat), the tape measure reporting the exact measurements we wanted every single time we checked – I can’t explain how good that felt.

The next day, Jenny and I, invigorated with power, returned to our project, this time voluntarily signing ourselves up for the step crew. That morning, we solidified the position of the frame, making sure it wouldn’t wobble, added a few extra pieces so the concrete wouldn’t bulge when we put it in, and secured the rebar (those thin metal sticks that go inside concrete to make it strong). Returning to a project, being able to continue work I’d begun, something I was finding satisfying and educational, was amazing.

Yesterday was the penultimate day of the step project. Tal (the labour coordinator) brought in a concrete mixing tray, and we spent the morning mixing gravel, sand, concrete mix, and water to make concrete. We used a lot of baking comparisons that day; the bright orange sand as turmeric, etc. It felt weird, but to actually begin making the step we’d been preparing for all this time was great – the baking tin of the wooden frame was being filled in. Thankfully we had extra help on concrete day, because though Jenny and I are pretty capable, concrete is really heavy and rough, and this meant we could alternate jobs with Ele and Tal. By lunchtime, we all felt so invested in this step, all the hours of sweat and laughter and work, that we continued past 12 so we could finish. Levelling off the final layer, making it as smooth as possible and carving our initials in, I finally understood why people willingly do labour. At home, my parents have a smallholding (a few fields, some chickens and sheep) and there have always been opportunities for me to pitch in with the garden and maintenance work there. But I’ve avoided it, partly because I know my dad is capable on his own, and partly because I don’t feel the attraction or enjoyment. Building this step opened my eyes to what it means to undertake work, push yourself, learn new skills, and come out with a final result that you’re really happy with. The smoothness of that step is testament to the work we put in. No longer will people trip on their way to the freezer, no longer will those with limited leg mobility have to walk further, no longer will those steps be avoided. We’ve done something, contributed to the AMS campus and left a permanent mark on this place. A proof that we were here. A proof that we worked, and we did it well. A proof that we learned something. A proof that labour is, after all, valuable.

Tomorrow, we’re going to take the wooden frame off, and the step will (hopefully) be dry and functional. I can’t wait for that first moment, where I put my weight on it, and know that I made this. I worked, with my friends and teachers, to create something useful, something longer-lasting than the kale we picked for lunch.

In the future: please call Jenny and I for all your step-building needs.

On Freeing Clover

By Simone Liu, AP’19

I started week four hunched over in a three-walled shelter, trying to dress myself as quietly as possible before meeting up with two other students to milk the cow, Clover. We filled a metal pail with warm water and walked to her summer field. I shocked myself a little on the electric fence as I reached to fill her trough, and then we welcomed her into the run-in and tied her to the stanchion, which looks, to me, like a bladeless guillotine. Two of us tugged at Clovers body at a time, while the other pet her slowly and whispered to her (a task which we call “modeling serenity”). Clover was remarkably still, somewhere between calm and resigned. After we “stripped her dry,” we filtered and stored the milk, then used the two hours before brunch to nap and read and do yoga.

This week, the slogan “Free Clover” has become something of a rallying cry among our cohort, or at least it has begun to pick up steam. We scrawl it on the tupperwares where we deposit her milk twice a day, laugh in a game of superlatives about who would be most likely to actually let her loose.

Many of us were drawn to Arete in part by an interest in feeling connected to the labor and growth that fuels our lives; many of us have felt excited to harvest blueberries before baking them into muffins, to watch squash swell to massive sizes over the course of a few days, to repair our own roofs and flooring. Because of Arete’s small scale, we can trace the effects of our daily labor and identify how it supports the community by feeding us and keeping us dry. I, at least, hoped that Arete might be a space where I could feel like my contributions were meaningful, and it has been so far.

Still, proximity to the production that sustains me hasn’t been so simple as a feeling of connection to myself, my work, or the land. In class on Monday, our instructor asked us to go out into the land around campus and write about what we saw. I waded through a stream to a rocky place to sit and stared out at a landscape that looks almost impossibly picturesque, except for an unruly branch of rhododendron jutting out across the water and hanging, limply. I looked at that branch and remembered being taught how to lop it, how to sever its limbs from its trunk. For me, a close-up view of how people interact with land that isn’t paved over has exposed how violent humans are to everything around them, and that those who choose to live close to nature must also confront and perform that violence in carving out rustic home space.

I have no doubt that the conditions of the AMS garden and barns are more ethical and sustainable than those of commercial farms, but it still feels twisted to learn that the baby turkeys which arrived so charmingly in the mail will never be able to mate, their bodies warped by generations of breeding for oversized breasts and thighs, and that not killing them isn’t a particularly humane option because their bones won’t be able to support their weight when fully grown. Many of us feel unsettled by our participation in taking milk from Clover’s body, but we also know that if we let her out of her field, she might not fare well in these woods. Domestication means a certain lack of self-sufficiency, and rewilding isn’t something we can do by unlatching a gate. More than anything, I’ve been feeling pessimistic; human violence and self-centeredness is everywhere, and divestment from exploitative structures is a difficult task. Our cohort has been engaging in a lot of conversation about why we’re here and whether or not our presence feels selfish or self-cultivating—in establishing the limited boundaries of our isolation policy, some members voiced that they felt as though checking out of outside communities was largely not an option, and that doing so would feel irresponsible. What kind of privilege does it take to choose not to engage with a wider world for two months, and what kind of security does one need for that to feel like a reasonable choice? Isolation, to me, feels like an impossibility: it is presented to us in Nunnian communities as a flexible yet necessary thing even though participants enter such spaces already tethered to people and communities and structures that inform how they live, think, and interact with others. We bring our histories with us wherever we go, and that has communal implications—from a need to make space for people to deal with trauma to often-harmful impulses to replicate norms that make us feel comfortable without considering how they might impact those around us. The call for isolation allegedly furthers a focus on in-person community, but functionally can erase the backgrounds and connections of the people who make up that very community. Self-governance and a lack of structure doesn’t mean we’re building a community free from larger or outside influences, although it sometimes means that those influences aren’t adequately resisted because their presence is denied. Denial of harm allows oppressive systems to self-replicate without disruption. In witnessing human interaction with animals and the land, we also witness the pervasiveness of violence and self-prioritization, as well as the inescapability of those things in allegedly idyllic spaces. There is no way to be clean in a complicated world, and that’s something we’re going to continue to wrestle with for the next four weeks. How can we each work to mitigate harm without denying that it’s happening or expecting congratulations?

the deep dive

By Mandy Nguyen, AP’19

I don’t come from a life where I can pluck salmon berries from their bushes—bursting red, orange, pink—and pop them into my mouth. The abundant natural life and resources here are overwhelming. I feel rich here, in a way I feel I have no right to be.

The first day we went fishing in our kayaks, we headed towards The Laundry, a stretch of water named for it’s crisscrossing currents that Tlingit people have historically fished in. As we paddled, the giant snowy foothills of the fair-weather mountains at Glacier Bay emerged and greeted us with a whip of cold air. I gaped at the view as my kayak partner cast her line into the turquoise waters. A fish snagged onto it in less than a minute, and she pulled up a rock fish. Then another. Then another. All around us, the other kayaks were pulling up fish, whooping and cheering at the shared bounty which we were to fillet and eat that same day. In an hour, we had caught enough to feed the homestead when two pillars of water shot into the air and the slow arc of a tail sliced through water not far from where we were.

I don’t know how to describe the instantaneous switch of the mind when you realize two humpback whale are heading towards you. Time slowed down to match each stroke of the whales’ tails, and their slow, laborious curve out of the waters and back, as they swam past us, hardly fifty feet away. Our kayaks gently bobbed as they passed, and in my stupor, I felt that I wouldn’t mind being capsized by something as beautiful as them. They spouted a few more times after passing us, and we sat there silently, looking out at the whales as they swam away, their backs gleaming in the tinny light of the southeast Alaskan sky.

Gaping at whales, learning to fillet fish, weeding the garden, following deer trails in the old-growth forests, exploring the history of the native Tlingit people, whose historical land I stand on, and the implications of being here—this is my education now. I came to the Glacier Bay Session because I wanted to explore what my relationship to the natural world could be, but I didn’t expect to feel as decentered, destabilized, and as joyful I as I have. I’m content to spend hours hunched in the damp earth, transplanting little lettuce sprouts to proper garden beds. I’m often stunned by the beauty of the fog curling over the mountains which surround us, the gentle rumble of the creek, and the crisp air of the old growth forest. I’m learning what stewardship and respect for life other than your own might mean when you consider yourself as part of the natural world rather than something apart from it.

I also think that maybe you can’t learn some things until you feel them. Can’t answer some questions until you live them. What does it mean to respect life different than your own? What about non-human life? What does the blueberry bush or the sea lion mean, especially when you’re this close? I’ve never experienced nature like this, and my mind is having a difficult time catching up with my heart. But I don’t mind. This is the education I prefer.

Mandy Nguyen is a member of the 2019 Glacier Bay Session cohort. She grew up in San Jose, CA, and recently graduated from Minerva Schools at KGI.

far from home

by Maria León, AP'19

I’ve always thought of myself as a fairly urban creature. I grew up in Mexico City – one of the most densely populated regions in the continent -which meant that the nearest patch of forest was at least an hour’s drive from my house. My comfort zone has long been limited to the concrete streets, the smog, the artificial landscape, and the few parks of my native city. I’ve also grown used to the issues that come with urban sprawl: spending hours in crowded public transportation services and wading through streams of people to cross the street. I thought Mexico City was where I felt most comfortable, because it was the place I knew best.

Spending the summer in the mountains of North Carolina felt scary and important for that reason. I wondered what it would feel like to sleep in the Appalachian shelters, vulnerable to rain and bugs, or to walk down a trail all by myself without really knowing where it would take me. I thought I would feel afraid most of the time. I’ve been surprised to find that the opposite has been true. In the woods, I feel free and safe.

This week, a few of us went on a hike up to a meadow near Celo Community. We wandered up the complicated trails that branched off every few kilometers and I didn’t even think about it. I enjoyed the surrounding beauty of the forest, the view from the summit, and the cheerful descent back to eat brunch. I didn’t have to watch my back as I walked home with my pepper spray in my pocket and my GPS location activated as I do at home. It is very much a privilege to be able to wander around without fear of what might happen to you, and something that I don’t regularly experience. I didn’t have to think about the systemic violence that seems to be present everywhere back home. After all, it turns out that rain and bugs don’t feel like such a threat to me.

I’ve also really enjoyed proximity to the process of producing my own food. I’d never even seen how tomatoes grew, and now I’ve learned to prune and trellis them (this is one of my favorite garden activities). We will eventually eat a few of them, and I’ve heard that they are sweeter and juicier than any store-bought variety can ever be. This area and this land allows for something beautiful to happen: being at least partly responsible for the food you consume and the process that precedes it. I want to try to replicate that on my roof in Mexico City, but the conditions are certainly not the same.

The experiences I’ve had so far at Arete feel like a direct challenge to what I know about the world. Isolation, and the chance to be close to nature feels like a gift. This also makes me even more aware of how problematic cities are. It is a privilege to be able to retreat away from huge monsters such as the threat of violence and industrially produced food. I’m trying to come to terms with all that I’m learning and experiencing, while recognizing that access to these sorts of spaces where you can be safe and more self-sufficient does not feel possible for me and for many folks in the near future.

Maria León is a member of the 2019 Blue Ridge Session cohort. She grew up in Mexico City and studies political science at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

a week of unsettling

by Natalie Wilkinson, AP'19

Week two was a week of unsettling. After a first week of getting oriented in our tasks and surroundings, the second week was marked by the mishaps and miracles that happen when you do something independently for the first time after being taught once (or not at all). Some of us milked Clover the dairy cow for the first time without Kavita’s guidance, some went on a hike in the pouring rain as our first foray into the mountains of the area, some of us cooked for twenty people for the first time, and all of us had to begin adapting to the dampness and insects in our shelters. After the honeymoon period of the first days it became increasingly felt and troubling that there was a power dynamic present in our self-governance meetings, classroom discussions, and in the little interactions during labor.

In the second week here, it became clear that the “community” we aimed to build was not existing, even –or especially– when we were all together in the same space. Several students of color/non-white students organized crucial conversations and shifts in how our “community” regards itself, including an in-class activity that gave visibility to how identity and trauma shape our engagement with one another. The activity itself revealed the necessity for a complete reconfiguration of the classroom space, entailing a split into two classes that allow students of color/non-white students to do learning without having to bear the burden of teaching their fellow students about race, power and privilege.

For me, week two helped prompt some crucial questions to consider as I think about being responsible for where I am (the land, the people, the resources, the impact of my presence):

What is meaningful about prioritizing “community” when the very terms of our engagement here are highly exclusive? Some students voiced their discomfort with the split, concerned that it would hurt the wholeness of the community. And yet, even when the eighteen of us are all together in a room, there are ways we are already fractured. “Inclusivity” is a shifting and contested thing. A community is not made merely by having everyone literally in the room. It is, in my opinion, always being made. And often, when power dynamics go unchecked, everyone gets harmed.

E.g. In self-gov, white students and upper-class students were doing a lot of the talking during the first week, including discounting the comments of students of color/non-white students. This was exacerbated because the default norms of the space prioritized vocal and assertive participation, which centered those who had been raised in spaces that trained them in assertiveness. Meanwhile, our decision-making process did not always give space for students to safely express how they really felt about the dynamic or particular decisions.

How can we de-prioritize the learning of white folks and folks of privileged backgrounds?

Having separate groups for conversation has proved enormously generative and crucial.

E.g. “Labor” has different resonances for people of different racial, class, ability, and gender backgrounds. Labor is not necessarily a novel and exciting learning experience for those whose families and communities have done physically demanding work in order to make a living. We all come to Arete with bodies and minds that are capable of different things, not all of which are captured in the definition of labor as something visibly productive or physically challenging. Further, the labor required to make the community function takes place often in ways that go unacknowledged by our current definition. It includes supporting people through feeling isolated, guilty, and hurt, or doing the work of planning or logistics for group activities.

What does participation and rigor mean?

There are ways we are already participating in spaces together merely by being there. We have the unique experience of having very few places to truly be alone, so our presence and movements create little micro-shifts in the movements of everyone else. One thing I find refreshing about Arete is the spontaneity of connection with other people, but on the other hand, it means people can get caught off guard. Our expressions and words have an impact that we are responsible for (whether we take that responsibility or not.)

(I challenge us white people to think of rigor not in terms of how much our analytic minds are challenged, but rather in how much our comfort/expectations are challenged.) I hope we can have some rigorous weeks ahead.

Looking over past blog posts, and hearing from alumnx, it sounds like these conversations surrounding privilege at Arete have come up before and are major considerations of many alumnx who are still involved in Arete. In the coming weeks I hope to be thinking about how Arete could be reshaped to make it feel invigorating and less bad for people.

I will end with a list of some of the plants and animals that fed us throughout: fresh blueberries, picked from a large bowl by hand, eaten sometimes messily in handfuls, sometimes in slow one-by-one bites; Clover, who has been patient with our grasping clumsy milking style as we get better (every week) at pulling milk from her body, and who has seemed reluctant to leave the milking area –out of loneliness, willfulness, to spite us?– who has still not kicked over the milking bucket although she surely could; kale, which was harvested en masse by many hands, more kale than I knew could come from the little patch of ground it grows from, something like 1,300 kale leaves, which we ate in every meal, sometimes hidden in sweet breads and sometimes just unabashedly plain and un-massaged in salad; the hens, who have been laying blue-ish and brownish eggs, and who have been predictably pissed when we try to take their precious things from right beneath them; one time, needles from a pine tree when we paid to have an edible plant teacher visit but they only told us things (for a large fee) that Kavita had mostly already told us (for free) in addition to some things that I would have paid them not to say; and some vegetable broth made from leftover onion and garlic skins.

Natalie Wilkinson is a member of the 2019 Blue Ridge Session cohort. She grew up in Bozeman, MT and studies comparative literature at Williams College.

millennial processes of homemaking and of changing the world

by Brenda Gutierrez, AP'19

We made it! All of the 2019 Arete Project Blue Ridge Session Cohort is here and ready to build. This first week was filled with getting to know each other and the Arthur Morgan School campus, settling into our Appalachian style shelter and our daily routine, and full of building community. We’ve been making space for conversations around expectations, community guidelines, and institutionalizing sustainable community practices.

We had some birthdays in the cohort, which we celebrated in theme with rustic living, decorating homemade cakes with Daylilies and other edible flowers. For another birthday, we decided it would be appropriate to all take one sip from one cup of fire cider (a special detoxifying brew made by Kavita.) Although it burned going down, at least we all did it together. To be surrounded with like minded individuals committed to leadership, service, and learning feels like coming home — an important foundation when away from home for eight weeks.

Creating an intentional community takes time, trust, and patience. To get our foot in the door we decided to incorporate icebreakers into our self-governance meetings. Polly and I led a “Human Knot” activity; our only tool timer set to ten minutes. Everyone partook giving directions and receiving directions and were a few moves from completely undoing the knot until stopped by the timer. It was the most cited comment during the reflection part of our activity.

In terms of the classroom, our syllabus looks promising. We are lucky to be in the classroom with Abbey Otis Chung. Abbey was raised in the North Carolina woods and is currently a creative writing professor from Oberlin College; the perfect person to guide us through the region and its rich social and historical landscape. Our theme is “A Refuge of Renegades” and it couldn’t fit us better.

All in all, I am grateful to be in community with these honest, hilarious, and unbelievably kind powerhouses. We know no one achieves anything alone, and we know we can change the world if we work together. Supporting, holding, growing, building. Community is built in the fragments of care in between and during cooking, labor, class, chores, and self-governance meetings. We have the rest of the summer to connect with this beautiful region and we can’t wait to get started.

Brenda Gutierrez is a member of the 2019 Blue Ridge Session cohort. They study anthropology at U.C. Merced.

Escaping the Garrison: A North Carolinian Summer

by Rose Ghaedi, AP'18

The part that people remember most vividly when I tell them about my Arete experience is the fact that we slept in three-walled shelters completely open to the elements and nature. For the most part, I shrugged off people’s concerns about wandering animals or flooding rain, thinking that the summer would be survivable, if not comfortable.  But the truth was that I just couldn’t imagine myself living entirely outdoors for two months: I’d never even gone camping before. 

From my first moments in North Carolina, I began to realize the extent of the engagement with nature that was expected of me. As the bus struggled to make its way up the Blue Ridge mountain trails, it began to rain so heavily that I could no longer distinguish any of the scenery outside the window; but, the moment we reached the Arete homesite, which would comprise my entire world for the next eight weeks, the rain stopped. This was my first interaction with what would become one of the most important characters from my summer experience: the torrential afternoon rains that would seemingly drown the world for a few hours each day before receding behind the mountain peak as if they’d never existed. 

Settling into my shelter and looking around surreptitiously at the four other girls with whom I’d be sharing the space for the entire summer, I wondered if I was the only one for whom such a complete immersion in the outdoors bordered on surreal. Against my own expectations, I fell asleep easily that first night, listening to the sound of a stream running not five feet away from my bunk. Halfway through the night, I woke to the sound of shrill screams: a large spider had crawled onto one of my bunkmate’s face as she slept. I realized that I was not the only cohort member new to this style of living.

On our first day of labour, as we carved rain gutters into the side of a hill, a girl I’d yet to interact with admitted to me that she’d always felt intimidated by the “richness and whiteness of outdoorsiness” and that she’d never been surrounded by so much green before. She said it with a look of deep shame and a side-long glance at two other cohort members (an ex-sailor and a geological engineer). I wondered for a moment why she’d chosen me of all people to be the recipient of her confession, before I realized that the two of us were the only brown women in the cohort and that, to her, my skin tone must have signified a discomfort with nature. What frustrated me was that she was right.

The very next day in class we read through Wendell Berry’s essay “A Native Hill.” Speaking about his family history in Kentucky, Berry writes, “And so such history as my family has is the history if its life here. All that any of us may know of ourselves is to be known in relation to this place. And since I did most of my growing up here, and have had most of my meaningful experiences here, the place and the history, for me, have been inseparable, and there is a sense in which my own life is inseparable from the history and the place” (601-602). It was a beautiful piece, but it also left me feeling deeply uneasy. Reading Berry’s argument that settlers, due to their lack of respect and understanding of the natural landscape, “still have not, in any meaningful way, arrived in America” (611), I was uncomfortably reminded of my own relationship (or lack thereof) with nature. What did it mean to be so disconnected from my immediate environment, especially when the Canadian consciousness is so full of that vast and unknowable wilderness? Where was my native hill? I realized that neither the landscape I was born in (the Maranjab desert, halfway across the world and filled with a history and culture I know nothing about) nor the landscape I’d grown up imagining (the Laurentian shield, which filled me with both pride and terror) were any more familiar to me than the surface of the moon.

Every Wednesday, we’d stop class early and go on a two-hour nature walk with a local naturalist. The first concept we learned about on our walks was the idea of plant blindness, an inability (coming from inexperience or a lack of focus) to distinguish individual plants and species from amongst the great mass of greenness. It was immediately apparent that I suffered from a near-terminal case of plant blindness; by the end of the summer I could identify only two plants: the rhododendron shrub (the most common plant in the area) and poison ivy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the nature walks and was always deeply moved by them.

For our second-last nature walk, the naturalist took us to a local field to look at some rare orchids. The field had been recently cut, the grass shorn close to the ground, but the orchids were tall and visible, like skyscrapers in the middle of a low-rise neighbourhood. The owner of the field, who grazed his cows on that land, had noticed the rare orchids growing and found them so delightful that he had painstakingly re-located his cows and cut the grass around the orchids to protect them. This attention to and respect for nature is characteristic of the Celo community, where every resident is focused on living together with the local landscape.

Although I was touched by the culture of respect and attention cultivated in the Celo community (a communal settlement in the Blue Ridge mountains, populated mainly by retired artists and academics), I also saw some of the hidden issues with this seemingly-idyllic society. The sublime beauty of the mountains, the kind that I imagined would inspire great painters and poets, was not a universal experience. Looking out across flat, ugly fields of dead grass and hillsides scarred by coal-mining operations, I began to understand that you had to pay for the beauty in Yancey County. The almost pristine landscape, the ability to withdraw from the world and live with nature, was bounded by lines of class and education.

The realization made me reconsider my own identity and relationship to Canada’s landscapes; what had once seemed like a grounding attachment to the city now seemed hopelessly restrictive. I remembered reading about theories of the settler garrison mentality, the idea of an ingrained (and, to my mind, unproductive) fear of nature that kept settlers within their garrisons. I wondered if Toronto had become my own garrison, if the comfort of living in a safe space like Toronto, where I was surrounded by other middle-class people of colour, had kept me from fully engaging with the entirety of Canada. Perhaps my narrow-minded focus on the Toronto cityscape had actually been an expression of anxiety about my place in Canada.

I resolved to take full advantage of this unique opportunity to be, in every sense of the word, immersed in nature. Two decisions I made early on were to spend as much time as possible barefoot (inspired by the many locals who felt little to no need to wear shoes while traversing the forest trails) and to go on as many solo nighttime hikes as I could. Those walks quickly became more than just a habit: they felt like true journeys, the kind where I came back stranger than I was when I left.  The mountainside at night had a terrible kind of beauty: intimidating and surreal, the aged trees and ancient streams were illuminated by bioluminescent fungi. I would often scrape my feet on sharp rocks or accidentally stumble into a stream, but these were small inconveniences when compared against the liberating feeling of wandering the forest alone at night. 

This isn’t to say that I became some sort of wild, roaming mountain woman. On the last day of our four-day trip, we decided to visit Asheville (the largest city in the area), and I noticed that, as we approached the bustling city, I began to “settle into” myself, as if the entire summer so far had been a fanciful dream and I was now waking up. All my time in the wilderness, the two months I’d spent outdoors every moment of the day, where there’d been no escape from the sound of cicadas at night or the rain pounding against the ground, where I’d made a habit of skinny dipping in the pond at night and splashing around in the local river during the day, immediately faded to a nostalgic, almost sepia-toned memory. I was painfully aware of the ways in which elements of the cityscape—the sharp angles, the delightful griminess, the sense of constant hurry and urgency, the thousands of seen and unseen incentives to consume—made me feel at home, in my element.

I worried that returning to my “real life”—a space where learning was motivated by historical and economic factors as much as interest, where access to natural spaces was not guaranteed, where I was not isolated alongside fifteen of the most brilliant and caring people I’d ever met but was instead vulnerable to the thousands of disappointments and compromises of daily life—would mean a loss of everything I had gained at Arete. I was lucky enough to spend a summer in such a space, but I knew realistically that I had to go home, to my own life and my own landscapes.

Today, I’ve gone back to a life of cement roads and indoor sleeping, a far cry from my nights in the open-air shelters. I’ve populated my apartment with potted plants of all shapes and sizes, but in many ways, it seems like an incomplete and insincere gesture. Much of what I found at Arete has been lost to me; the idea that I ever had access to it feels like a miracle. The idea that I may never again wander through a magical forest glowing at night or dive into a flowing river in between classes haunts me.

But now, when I look at outcroppings of nature at home in Canada, I can see the gradation between plants: their secret lives, the existence of an inaccessible other, the history of the place I call home. I have much left to do before I truly understand the landscapes around me, before I “arrive” in Canada—but last week, waiting for the bus to save me from the grey slush of the streets, I noticed a tiny purslane stem peeking out from between the sidewalk cracks. It felt like seeing an old friend.

Rose Ghaedi is a member of the 2018 Blue Ridge Session cohort. She grew up in Toronto and currently studies English Language and Literature at Western University.

building self-confidence

by Julia Palmigiano, AP'18

They say that if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere. However, after participating in the Glacier Bay Summer 2018 program, I don’t think this statement holds much ground anymore. The stark transition from living in a big city to a secluded island in Southeast Alaska was one I was excited about, but could not fully prepare for. I wanted a change in pace, and challenging myself to participate in the program seemed the best way to get that. Though I welcomed the challenge, the idea of putting my mind and body to the test still made me nervous. I had never done anything like this before.

Upon arriving to Inian Islands Institute, my nerves seemed to settle. I began meeting not only other students from where I am from, New York, but students who expressed the same internal struggles that I was facing as well. I was immediately comforted. The warm welcome I received from the staff also helped in soothing the little voice in my head that was giving me every single reason to turn around and go home. One way or another, I would get through the next four weeks, and I was positive that the people around me would help to make that happen.

The program quickly started, and before I knew it, I was down in the dirt, my hands tightly gripping the handle of a metal shovel with the new work gloves I had bought only a week before. The first week of labor was the most intense, but the most satisfying as well. Seeing all the people around me committed to a common goal was extremely motivating. They pushed me to do my best, but also assured me that my best would not be the same as that of others. And that was ok. For our labor project, we are building a wood shed that will allow for the family to cure and store wood during the harsh winter. The foundation of the wood shed, like anything in life, was the hardest part to get started. Digging three-foot holes for hours was not exactly what comes to mind when I think of confidence building. But I have been pleasantly surprised more than once on this island. I felt an overwhelmingly strong sense of community all around me, and was encouraged to power through our labor project. After a days work, and a two foot hole, I saw my insecurities fade away into the pile of dirt that had been accumulating just to the right of the shed site.

“Great work you guys, lets go grab some lunch.”

Sighs of relief filled the air, and we gave each other high fives of accomplishment as we walked back to the main cabin in search of our lunches. I sat on a lawn chair outside to soak up what little South East Alaskan sun we had left for the day, and thought about how physically tired I was. But the strange thing was that I couldn’t complain. Satisfaction and pride had pushed out all the other emotions I had expected to feel. I had just spent a good portion of the day doing hard physical labor. This was nothing like running for the train in a New York City subway station, or lugging around a heavy backpack for school. This was physically straining, but yet so fulfilling. Who would have guessed that the young New York City girl who was hailing cabs just a week ago would have dirt underneath her nails and mud all over her pants. But this is Southeast Alaska. And I am convinced that if you can make it in the Inian Islands, you can make it anywhere.

Julia Palmigiano is from Queens, NY. She studies at City College of New York, where she majors in English Literature.

getting out of the muck

by Margaret Heflter, AP'18

Though our expedition to Taylor Bay was a deeply meaningful experience – defined by illuminating exposure to the scientific process and awe-inspiring encounters with the natural world – as a group, several unanticipated curveballs knocked us off our feetLuckily, I think we were able to meet these challenges with ingenuity and grace, teaching us new forms of problem-solving that wouldn’t be possible in the typical college classroom. For me in particular, the ‘quick mud’, which forms as ocean tides flow in and out of the mud flats where brown bears and moose roam, became a particular source of consternation. The first day, as I ventured out in my quick-dry pants and rubber ‘Xtra-Tuf’ boots, I figured I’d be adequately prepared for whatever the landscape might throw at me. Of course, ten minutes later, I found myself stuck in mud up to my knees, unable to get my boots out from the sticky, sinking mud. Eventually, I had to ditch the boots and run across the muddy patch in my wool socks to avoid sinking further. Luckily, Tania Lewis, the Wildlife Biologist for Glacier Bay National Park, had an extra pair of socks to lend me, and Laura helped unwedge the boots from where they were stuck. Still, I was pretty grumpy about the fact that one of my two pairs of pants were now totally soiled. The next day, decked out in my fresh pants, I figured getting stuck would be a one-time thing, but of course, on our way back from the old growth forest, it happened again: I was shin-deep in the mud. So, both of my pants were now wet and muddy, as were my socks. I figured I could either sulk about the situation, or try to laugh off my new-found filthiness. Laughing it off proved to be the much more productive attitude to take, and, learning my lesson, the next day I brought along an extra pair of socks for our 10-mile trek to Brady Glacier, as well as the flexible attitude I was determined to cultivate. 

Our group met several, more serious, challenges as well: when we arrived at the campsite, we had no idea where fresh water was located. This was our most pressing issue, as we had roughly 11 gallons of water and sixteen thirsty people. Camp crew set out to search for water, and eventually discovered water fresh enough to drink. Still, how best to haul the water containers through the mud and back to the campsite? The group eventually discovered that sliding a thick piece of driftwood through the handle of the water containers made it so the weight of the gallons could be easily distributed over the shoulders of two different people, making the haul far less painful. The question still remained of cleaning the water to make it drinkable. We discovered that a bandana works splendidly for removing an enormous amount of dirt and sediment from the water, and, after allowing the water to reach a boil on the propane stove, the fresh water was ready to drink. On the fourth day, however, a new issue arose: we were out of propane, and still had several meals left to cook. Dimitri proposed using an aluminum can to prop up the pot we used to cook in the campfire. This improvisation meant that the smoked salmon pasta packed for dinner could still be eaten. Other clever improvisations abounded amongst the cohort: sand works well to clean pots and silverware in lieu of sponges or steel wool, a piece of drift wood works nicely as a cutting board, and a puffy jacket makes a perfect pillow.

Though facing these challenges could be both anxiety-provoking and frustrating, in learning to cope with them, the cohort flexed mental muscles of improvisation and flexibility in new and exciting ways. Obviously, it would’ve been fantastic to have fresh water immediately accessible, endless propane, and a mud-free environment, but by pulling ourselves out of the proverbial and literal muck, I think we all grew stronger, both as a community and as individuals striving to embody the ideal of Arete

Margaret Heftler is a member of the 2018 Glacier Bay Session cohort. She studies English Literature at Georgetown University.