The world still shines. We just have to get out and see it.
I’m not talking about the world of bank accounts and airports and cars and automated systems. We didn’t evolve in that world and it’s a wonder we can stand it. I’m talking about the world that’s been around for 4.6 billion years, strung elegantly like a bright jewel in a universe that is 15 billion years old. The world of ancient rocks and gnarly trees, mysterious oceans and vibrating insects. The world that gave birth to human beings. The natural world. The real world.
This past Spring, on the Southwest Field Semester, we got to live in this world for a full season, sleeping on the ground and living in the open, outdoors, on foot, offline. In past iterations of human culture this would have been perfectly normal. Every human being alive on planet Earth today comes from a culture that lived in this fundamental way, with ample time outside, abundant contact with non-human nature, moving by human power, spending time in small groups, telling stories around campfires, enmeshed in the complexities of the natural world. In the 21st century, a time of increasing globalization, industrialization, and information, this has become a rare and precious opportunity.
We began our journey in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, home of Saguaro and Cactus Wren. Here we explored the broad, sunwashed landscapes of the basin and range country. We learned the intimate nurse relationships between Paloverde and Organpipe, and found stealthily built Curve-billed Thrasher nests amongst many-spined Jumping Cholla cactus. We began to explore the inextricable connection between landscapes and the development of ancient cultures. We laid out on the desert gravel and watched the Winter Circle of stars move across the deep black of the night sky.
Most people do not think of water when they think of the desert. Most people do not picture rivers there. But water defines the desert if for no other reason than its rarity. Even in the form of raindrops and rivulets, water carves into the land. And when it gathers into rivers, it carves deep, spectacular canyons into the ancient sedimentary seafloors that cover the Southwest. Such is the landscape of the Rio Grande and its limestone canyons in the Big Bend of Texas. Here we paddled through Mariscal and Boquillas Canyons, learning river expedition skills and group dynamics, exploring side canyons and fluvial dynamics, as well as the canyons of our own selves and the nuances of group culture and communication.
We returned to Arizona to full desert Spring, with Cottonwoods greening, desert flowers blooming, and hummingbirds whizzing by. We backpacked into the Superstition Wilderness to basecamps set deep within the complex Arizona Upland section of the Sonoran Desert, surrounded by looming volcanic cliffs and ridgelines. We explored secret box canyons and hidden alcoves, the hideouts and ancestral gathering grounds for Hohokam, Mogollon, and Apache, and many other human beings before us.
Next we rose up and out of cactus country, up into the Sky Islands of Southern Arizona, named so because these mountains reach over 10,000 feet elevation and form sky islands of woodland and forest high above the open desert lowlands. We backpacked into the Rincon Mountains of Saguaro National Park, and there found Alligator Juniper, Mexican Pinyon, Arizona Pine, and Southwestern White Pine. We found clear, cold mountain streams and deep kettle tubs, Canyon Tree Frogs, and Coatamundi. Hauling our backpacks up and over the mountain terrain, we found strength both inner and outer as we met challenge after challenge of living outdoors every day.
Then came the Mazatzal Wilderness. You haven’t heard of it because few people have. It is among the most remote and difficult to access places in the Southwest, where roads and trails are terrible and unreliable, where wild and scenic rivers course green and true through riparian gallery forests, past intact mesquite bosques and expanses of sparse, mountainous desert country. It’s the kind of place where you can disappear for two weeks and see no one. But it hasn’t always been this way. For most of human history this place was a nexus of activity, an epicenter of trade and migration. Joined by long-time Southwest Field Semester instructor Matt Brummett (a.k.a. “Smiley”), we spent fifteen days based out of our confluence camp (named for the confluence of the Verde and East Verde Rivers), and from here learned the tactile skills necessary to make and maintain fire, fiber, water and food storage, and simple foraging implements in the traditions of the Southwest, and we used these tools to travel and live in the environment from which they came.
The final weeks of the semester was focused on the Mogollon, or Central Highlands region of the Southwest, one of the most ecologically diverse and understudied places in North America. We explored the Verde River Valley, and made forays to Granite Mountain Wilderness, where we were joined by Tom Fleishner of the Natural History Institute. Our final backpacking trip took us along the Mogollon Rim, where the Sonoran Desert lowlands rise abruptly to woodlands and forests at 7000 feet, the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Here, mixed montane conifer forests of Douglas Fir, White Fir, Ponderosa Pine, and Gambels Oak, support Wild Turkey, White-tailed Deer, Hermit Thrush, and wood warblers. With the sounds of rim country creeks running through our camps and turkeys gobbling, and the forest floor bedecked with violets and spring beauties, we were all reminded of springtime in New England, and home called.
We learned how to breathe deeply without fear, and how to walk with abandon.
What did we learn? We learned how to breathe deeply without fear, and how to walk with abandon. We learned how to live outside full time. We learned what a focused learning environment feels like. We learned how to be organized. We learned how to take care of our stuff. We learned about our non-human neighbors, what they are called, where they live, how they live, and why they live the way they do. We learned what ecology really means: the relationships of a place. We learned about the humans who have gone before us, and how they answered some of the same questions we are faced with. We learned that if we do not take chances with one another we will never break through to more meaningful relationships. We learned all of this through experience. In an age of overwhelming information and unlimited access to it, experience will be the currency of the coming generations.
How do you say good-bye to this life? You don’t. How do you re-integrate into mainstream 21st century culture? You never fully do. Instead, you give thanks for living some of the ways humans have for hundreds of thousands of years, recognize it is your birthright as a human being, and begin to find ways to integrate what you have lived and learned into the rest of your life. You commit to spending more time with smaller groups of people, getting around under your own power, making your own food, watching birds, sleeping with the window open, making a campfire, and when you can’t, lighting a campfire in your own heart for others to gather around.
You recognize that the world still shines, and that you have to get out and see it.