Saturday, June 17, 2017

Seeing the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

           Faster than you could say “America’s Dairyland”, my summer in Menomonie, Wisconsin has officially begun.  In the spirit of finding myself now situated a mere 236 miles away from The University of Wisconsin—Madison, the alma mater of the so-called “land ethic” conservationist himself, Aldo Leopold, I would like to call your attention to one of my favorite quotes of his.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” –Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.

Since being here in Menomonie, I can’t help but to notice just how accurately this famous American conservationist’s sentiments ring true in this part of Wisconsin and beyond.  In the past seven days of witnessing firsthand the capacity for caring for their small town that this community has, I have come to understand that a person need not travel far and wide to come across conservation wonders.  In all kinds of contexts, what we need to remember is to learn how to value what is already right in front of us.  In my eyes, the community of Menomonie already seems to be a step ahead in discovering this process.  So far, from seeing the involvement of various UW Stout student groups in the local landscape to the lake association meetings that I have been lucky to be a part of, I have seen that the Menomonie community holds a steady commitment towards seeing the extraordinary possibilities in the most (seemingly) ordinary of places… their own backyards.

I happened to travel to Menomonie exactly one week after re-entering the United States from a school trip to Brazil.  For anyone who has ever poked around the pages of a National Geographic magazine for anything Brazil-related and found themselves successful, it becomes easy to picture why this particular country has an unending list of natural features designed to astound the human senses.  With visions of pristine waterfall pools, deserted white sand beaches, and colorful birds darting from the rainforest canopy still swimming through my head on my road trip to Menomonie, it was clear that Brazil was capable of dramatic first impressions.  On the other hand, once I had arrived in Menomonie, I soon found that this town had a uniquely different approach for overwhelming my mind with its palpable sense of community and partnership with the land and one another.  As I settled into my new home for the summer here in Wisconsin, I had one goal in mind for myself—to be actively on the lookout for the things that inspired my sense of wonder, no matter where they were found.

In considering this goal of mine, my thoughts wandered back to a conversation I had with my fellow researchers earlier this afternoon about witnessing peoples’ initial encounters with the beach or conversely, the mountains and snow.  Although Sadie hails from Massachusetts and Sarah from New Jersey, they share one thing in common—the beach is a standard aspect of their lives.  For others, they acknowledged, this is certainly not the case.  Not to say that any one of us lacks a sense of appreciation for where we come from, but I was able to generally agree that the presence of mountains and snow in Colorado felt, in my own way, just the same.  I shared with them a story from several winters ago at CU Boulder when some friends and I had a big snowball fight during one of the first major snowstorms of the year.  Something that I will always remember from that day was the excitement on one of my good friend's faces, who was from Indonesia, as the snowflakes kept falling faster and faster all around us.  Even now, recalling this memory for myself never fails to restore my own sense of wonder—even on the dreariest of cold January days in Colorado.

Born out of the conversations and lessons that my mentors and peers (from both Brazil and now Wisconsin) have been able to teach me in the past month, I foresee three paths towards accomplishing my new goal of inspiring my sense of wonder here in Wisconsin:

One, explore everything.

Two, let people teach you.

And three, ask questions.

Allow me to pause at this last point for a moment.  To a certain extent, I have always believed that it is not the answers to all of the world’s questions that matter so much.  Although it is certainly a worthwhile endeavor to seek these explanations, I believe that it is the persistence in coming up with the questions themselves that is perhaps even important for us to consider.  Think of any small child you may have encountered in your own life.  A favorite question always seems to be, “…but why?”.  Not long ago, I was lucky enough to experience this exact situation one afternoon here in Menomonie with the two lovely children of my new research friend, Amber.  Just when I had thought that I had provided a sufficiently satisfactory answer, inevitably, the “…but why?” seemed to echo between the spaces of our small trio.  While exploring the nooks and crannies of the downtown area of Menomonie with them that day, I learned something important from these two small humans.  We can all grow to think that our environment is ordinary—and unworthy of questioning—or not.  It is our choice.  I am choosing to side with Amber’s kids on this one.  

This week, throughout the process of brainstorming research questions between myself, Dr. Paulson, and my research partner, Sadie, I am learning how to develop a more sophisticated skill beyond the constant “…but why?” echoes of my own childhood and even my early college experiences.  Unlike previous years, where I had been primarily using my simple question-generating abilities, just like Amber’s children had been doing, this new collaboration process is slowly teaching me to how to generate the right kinds of questions to get at what will turn out to be the most truly valuable information for instigating change.  And by change, I mean a slow, yet steady, shift in our evaluation of what the environment can be for humankind—a commodity or a community.

As I conclude my own reflections on what my first week in Menomonie has introduced me to, I find myself humming along to one of my favorite Coldplay songs, “Life in Technicolor”.  Although I mention this with the risk of seeming tangentially-relatable at best, I love this song for the concept that “technicolor” embodies.  For those that may be unfamiliar, “technicolor” refers to a film process for developing some of the first true “in-color” television and motion picture scenes commonly found in early films like 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz.

In its heyday, this process was no doubt a revolutionary one to say the least.  But to me, there is a paradox inherent in our fascination with “in-color” film technology: We sometimes we forget that the entire world we belong to as humans is already coded in colors more vibrant than anything humankind could ever take ownership over.  Just Aldo Leopold alludes to in his comments on why we as humans abuse land, we can no longer afford to regard our environment as a commodity that we can develop, purchase, and own much like the vividly-colored landscapes that a technicolor television might paint for us.  Carried on into the future indefinitely, our current tendencies of manipulating Nature as a commodity that belongs to us—rather than thinking of Nature as the community in which we belong to—will only fail every measure of sustainability that has been tested throughout human history. 

 I want to thank the community here in Menomonie for sharing with me the abundance of ways that all kinds of actors—from farmers to lake property owners to biologists to economists to everyday citizens—are striving to become more responsible stewards of the vast land and water resources that their community has to offer.  I can hardly wait to see all that is in store for me as I carry on this summer.  Until then, in order to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, you can find me in my UW-Stout dorm room repeating my mantra to myself: “One, explore everything.  Two, let people teach you.  And three, ask questions.”

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