For as long as I can remember, all things I have ever truly loved doing have always involved some measure of getting dirty and sweaty. From playing in (and eating) the dirt in my mother’s garden as a chubby 2-year-old to hot days of breathing in the scent of horses and saddle soap as a young equestrian and finally to my love of running and hiking today, I have always been most happy when I am completely immersed in the physical environment around me.
As an extremely tactile learner, experiences that have involved all of my physical senses have always been the ones that have taught me the most, as I have been lucky enough to engage in here in Wisconsin. From smelling fresh handfuls of dirt (but now that I am older, remembering not to eat it) on evening farm tours to watching how the dew of knee-high grass parting in front of me melts and dissipates as I walk through open fields along the farms we have visited, every chance I can get to better understand the dynamics of the Red Cedar ecosystem has been unmeasurably improved by getting right into the thick of it… quite literally.
Driving around over the past week to visit farmers to distribute the surveys that we are using to complete our social analysis framework of our project, I found myself needing to adapt my cravings for physical activity in a different way in order to keep learning the way I know works best for me. The long hours spent in the car have encouraged me to continue exploring the environment I am inhabiting this summer by the way of impromptu swims in the lakes that our group is working so hard to understand and speeding along on the highest gears of my bike to race home before the stillness of heavy afternoon air translates itself into fat raindrops and thunderclaps. Now whenever I hear from farmers just how extreme the wetness of the early spring and summer seasons have been this year specifically, I can remember my own shock at the intensity and energy of the rainstorms I have been caught in since being here.
Not long ago, an opportunity for yet another kind of this physical learning came up when the biology team of our LAKES group needed help assembling a raft of phosphorus-absorbing plants. Along with a few others, I was charged with attaching collard greens securely to their raft with wire and zip ties and helping to launch it in the waters of Lake Menomin. Getting to wade in the murky water that day with the biology team provided excellent motivation for my own research in surveying farmers’ perceptions about water quality in more ways than I could have imagined—I am so grateful that the LAKES program encourages the kind of interdisciplinary approach that allows this collaboration to happen.
These moments of dirt, sweat, wetness, and discomfort (all very temporary effects I must add) are what continue to fuel my curiosity for learning more about this town and its natural landscape. As a testament to the “learning by doing” strategy, now whenever I am in the midst of a survey with a farmer who is telling me about how the soil quality on his farm has changed drastically over the years, I can recall just how the Wisconsin soil that I have had the opportunity to crumble in my own palms felt and smelled. That alone feels invaluable to me.
What I am slowly discovering for myself is that these stories and patterns that I am gathering this summer are only as useful as the experiences I can manage to relate them to in my head. This is why I am determined to push myself to be a part of everything that I can during my summer in Menomonie. Fortunately enough, the LAKES program and the Menomonie community at large has been more than inviting and inspiring in guiding me towards the experiences I rely on for my education, both socially and scientifically. I can only grow more excited for the weeks to come.