Legend: Map of the Known Universe

Editor’s Note: For TSS graduate students’ final assignment of the year, they are tasked with synthesizing all that they learned, experienced, and came to understand from the year into a final product. Some create written pieces and some create artistic pieces. As we celebrate the graduation of TSS’s 22nd graduate class, we’ll publish two of these culminating pieces on the blog this week. First, we have Nicole Gautier’s key or legend to a map of her experiences from the year, which celebrates some of her greatest and most challenging teaching moments as well as an important wildlife encounter.

Let the beauty you love be what you do.

~ Rumi

This year split open with the howling of wolves on a day so cold it hurt to breathe. Last night, I stopped my car in the middle of Ditch Creek Road to watch two owls wheel around each other. It was the time of day when shadow and form overtake color and detail. Deep dusk closing in over sagebrush. Twilight. I flushed the owls when I got out of my car, but instead of flying away, the pair circled twenty feet overhead. I craned my neck and could see their faces peering down at me. It is one thing to know that owls fly silently and another to be so close to them, to watch their wings beating, but to receive no auditory triggers. It felt like the world was on mute. I understood.

And there is experiential education. Ideas taken out of abstraction and witnessed. Felt.

This is a directory of sorts to the contour lines of our own learning, neuron connections and emotional growth (not to be underestimated, harder to put into words). I have a map of the area with a few artifacts, and a collection of words that were particularly meaningful to me.

During Capstone planning week, Aaron Nydam, Graduate Program Faculty, asked us to share a reading to open our morning meetings. I chose the start of a book by Ellen Meloy, a favorite writer of mine. She needs to reacquaint herself with home and creates a “Map of the Known Universe” with which to do so.

In this place, we are constantly reacquainting ourselves. With the landscape equation, with the formation of glaciers, with the trail systems, and with each other.

So this is my spin on that. An old boyfriend used to tease me for the various collection piles I had around my room, unintentional shrines of faded notes, stones, candles, ceramic do-dads, and glass jars. I used to sleep under 35mm film photos I had printed, strung up like prayer flags on ribbon with clothespins. It’s because of just what Jerry told our students out there on the glacially-scoured granite of Alaska Basin: you create your own narrative. I deeply believe this, in the visual sense as well.

It has been said before, and is a thing that we understand intuitively: places are like people. You fall in love with some irrationally, wildly. Briefly or for a lifetime. I have come to love this place through learning about it, and through the opportunity to teach within it. I didn’t feel an immediate connection to the Tetons. I thought them abrupt, with a cragginess so classic it was almost dull. But now I have sweated over their talus fields on the wrong approach trail, come to understand the fault block, and led students up the canyons. I got to know the neighborhood.

The closing day of Capstone was immensely meaningful. I was blown away by what students shared around the group circle.

Anna talking about the ripple effect. How the faculty share their passion with us, we share it with students, students take it home. The weight of it.

The hard truth is that not all of our students walk away from this into a life that will allow for transference. I was in a host role for Fort Washakie, and after Capstone, looking back at that program, there are so many things I would like to have done differently. That week pushed me because of the intensity of the emotions and the immensity of the injustice the students lived within, where loss is a regularity.

I was angry. Angry that a student who lives just south of here, who has roots in this landscape that far surpass any of our own, is the one we as a society are the least able to protect, or talk about the cruelty of history with, or make reparations for.

Volatiles sublime.

Back in the circle, there was Randy. “You are the people that fill an empty cup.” He repeated this in tears later in the evening, confessing that he covered up his sadness over his parents’ separation and leaving the Dominican Republic with jokes and a ready smile. It was a clear moment of catharsis.

It made me feel effective. We created an environment where these students could come and create their own strong bonds with each other, and at the end, have this place and the friendships as a community that supports their growth. With that sense of belonging can come the realization that you not only have a place, but you have the voice and skills to make positive change.

I wrote in my “This I Believe:” “Aesthetic, intellectual, and physical experiences, shared or solo, reveal responsibilities and access beauty and joy. When the experience is shared, there is incredible potential to solidify community. Capstone is already structured to be one of those experiences, and I am so excited to have the responsibility of facilitating that for students.”

We achieved that. And I am so proud of it. I am still reeling from the feelings of the last day, mostly because of the wall of realization that we are going to be doing the same thing next week.

I don’t know how to say this any other way except that it truly made me hopeful. That first airport pickup, not a single call home was in English. Vietnamese, Spanish, Chinese. We had Brooklyn. We had our high achieving young women from the Midwest. In her exit interview, she shared with me that she is thinking about being an educator. She said that people like her first instructor at TSS, and now her Jackson Hole Science Expedition instructors, changed how she saw the world, opened new ways of being and processing. She told me she wants to be remembered like she remembers us: “You are the person that taught me that.”

It was a crazy feeling to hear you are having that kind of influence. It made me want to do even better.

Parallel processes. Pithy things. They sink and then drift to the surface under novel circumstances. They take on new meaning. These are what I want to carry with me as the universe expands outwards.

Keep it to what is relevant and to what we can change.

Come alongside the mind of the student.

Hold the tension.

Put people first.

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