Connecting to Place in Central America
The phrase “connection to place” is in every lesson plan and weekly schedule that Teton Science Schools field instructors have ever read or written. We are tasked with instilling that concept in our students through observation and scientific investigations, through leadership initiatives and journal reflections. If the tears, hugs, and evaluations on students’ departure days are any indication, then we certainly do a good job. But do we really know what it means for a student to actually “connect to place?”
At first, it was the differences between the two ecosystems that struck me. As I ascended the volcanic slopes, I passed through a mid-mountain cloud forest—a micro-biome notable for its “cloud-stripping” ability, in which the forest feeds moisture to the soil and watershed by absorbing it from the sky. As if that’s not impressive enough, the biodiversity of the cloud forest was beyond enchanting. Almost without even realizing, I found myself jotting down observations of flowers and insects that seemed to have been engineered by a mad scientist. Compared with the mere fourteen or so tree species that live in the cold and dry Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the tropical climate of the cloud forest contained more than I could possibly count. One observation I recorded was of “four or five different small trees growing out of one branch on a larger tree.” I could have spent weeks in the cloud forest using the “I notice, I wonder, it reminds me of” observation tools that we teach TSS students. My curiosity was expanding by the second; the abundance of life was truly a spectacle.
Perhaps the most breathtaking experience of the entire trip was watching Volcán Fuego erupt plumes of ash and lava as the sun set behind it, and feeling the eerie rumble of those eruptions beneath me as I slept. Watching as the tower of ash reflected the orange glow of dusk, I was overcome by awe at the violent and magnificent show of power. While the experience of seeing a volcano erupt was entirely new to me, I couldn’t help but think about the first time I saw the geysers of Yellowstone, for the feeling was the same: total respect. While the diversity of the new environment galvanized my inner scientist, the natural forces common to both Guatemala and Wyoming made me feel intimate with an unfamiliar place, made me care about it as if it were my home. I felt grateful for the privilege of knowing these two places deeply, but even more grateful that other people, like me, wanted to protect them.
If I were forced to define “connection to place” in some way, however, I would defer to naturalist John Muir Laws, who says that “a useful definition of love is sustained compassionate attention.” I have found evidence to support that claim through all my experiences in nature, including the Guatemalan ecosystem. But perhaps more importantly, I have found that this principle extends beyond the natural world. Even as I left the mountains of Guatemala, I found myself falling in love with the culture, the people, and the crowded public buses, simply because I gave those things my sustained compassionate attention. Every time my students leave TSS, I feel a nervous hopefulness that they will use what they learned here. That perhaps the next time they pick up a leaf, or stare at the mountains, or go someplace new, or meet someone different, they will show some sustained compassionate attention, and care a little deeper.
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