People, Life’s Sweetener

I’m not sure where the time went, but I’ve been in Montana for a week. I’m at Carroll College in Helena for a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar entitled Re-Enchanting Nature. The goal is to learn new ways to get kids excited about the environment through literature, poetry, and music – to build, as Wendell Berry might say, their affection for the place and space they inhabit.

I’d be lying if I said that’s all I was thinking about. My mind’s on home, family, and especially my dad. He comes up all the time – whether I’m reading, out for a hike, or listening to another teacher talk about their pedagogy. I’ve found focusing on the here and now to be an elusive concept. When life fundamentally changes so quickly, it seems it’s difficult to keep the day-to-day in perspective. Luckily, a few things have helped along the way.

Mountains

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Nearly every day, before or after our sessions, I climb one of Montana’s gloriously engaging mountains. I’d say distracting, but that’s not what I mean. No matter how gentle the trail, a mountain demands your focus if you want to climb it – demands the attention of every part of your being. Mt. Helena is my old reliable – I’ve been up and down four times, morning, afternoon, and evening. On my first full day in town I summited the mountain and then took the circuitous ridge trail seven miles back into the wilderness – no bears (I checked), just rolling green hills punctuated by bitterroot flowers, scattered forests, and the odd western tanager.

The best hike so far has been up Mt. Edith, a soaring, 9,500 foot peak still sporting patches of snow on July 6. The Coloradans in our group might go on and on about “soloing fourteeners,” but Mt. Edith’s the highest I’ve taken myself on two feet. There’s something about being in the thinner air – something piercing, something clarifying, something that says, “You are small, and so are your worries,” but not in a condescending way. The world is a big place to live in, and looking across 120 miles to the impossibility that is the distant, snow-capped Rocky Mountains drives that point home beyond a doubt.

There’s too much in this world for one person to worry about it. How can one worry about a mountain? Mountains?

Poetry and Place

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Among the readings assigned by the seminar directors was a book of poetry by Melissa Kwasny entitled Pictograph. Kwasny wrote the sixty-five poems included in the collection as meditations on pictographs in Hellgate Canyon, just across the Missouri River from Helena. Pictographs are ancient paintings done on cliff faces, often using red ochre. Kwasny spent the last several years learning everything she could about them, calling equally on tribal representatives and university scholars. The ones in Hellgate are faded from weather and time, and although they’re not easy to understand, they are easily reached via a short hike.

Kwasny joined us on a trip to Hellgate as our interpreter. She led us as we burned sweetgrass and left tobacco offerings, then forded a stream to view the pictographs. Many of them had deep white scratches – not from modern vandals, Kwasny said, but from ancient visitors to this sacred space looking to take a bit of its power with them. The limestone cliff face was cracked, and fragments of the murals littered the ground. I’ve seen similar places where the walls are protected from the elements by plexiglass, and part of me wondered why the same hadn’t been done here. I don’t know for sure, but vulnerability may be part of the nature of the the space. This was not a museum we visited, but a living sanctuary, open to all who would worship there.

Back at Carroll, Kwasny modeled teaching methods to help students write poetry, then read a few of her own poems. They’re written in prose, a choice she made to avoid the interruptions inherent in verse. A standout is poem 52, “The difference between loneliness and solitude.” It ends:

But what is the difference between solitude and isolation? Last winter, I was busy. This winter, I talk to you. I tell you solitude contains loneliness as a sweetener.

Even when we’re alone, Kwasny seems to say, life continues to be about one thing more than anything else:

The People, The People, The People

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Early in the week, another teacher asked me what the most important part of my Fulbright experience was. As I’ve done in the past, I fell back on a Māori proverb passed on to me in Aotearoa New Zealand (or at least the common English translation):

If you ask me what is the most important thing in the world, I will reply, “The people, the people, the people.”

The same could be said for my time in Montana. The seminar wouldn’t be as rich or as enjoyable were it not for the other teachers here with me. Teaching is a solitary job sometimes, and it’s an incredible thing to hike, learn, and break bread with such a talented group of educators. Whether or not we solve the problem of environmental education, each of us will leave Montana with new tools, new ideas, and new perspectives on education.

In the end, you can’t beat the view from the mountaintop – unless, that is, you reach the summit with incredible folks like the ones I’ve met in Montana.

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