Alighting the Entire Sky: Happy Thanksgiving!

Sam drawing by Stamati



All this time

The sun never says to the earth,


“You owe




What happens

With a love like that,

It lights the



–Hafiz, Persian poet, “The Sun Never Says,” 1325-1390

Hafiz is right. There exists a reciprocation in ecology and cosmology that would do us humans well to observe and emulate in all of our daily acts. And like the sun’s energy, the gifts of gratitude cost nothing. Deriving from the Latin gratis, or “free of charge,” it is a democratic emotion, accessible to anyone, anytime, anywhere.

Diablo Sun HaleRadiating from behind Pyramid, offering power in many forms. That ol’ sun just keeps on….goin’. Photo by Samantha Hale.

But perhaps most important, this ability to express gratitude might be one of the best prescriptions in the environmentalist’s medicine chest, providing as it does an antidote to Aldo Leopold’s sagely assertion from 1949’s A Sand County Almanac:

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.

Gratitude won’t magically cure the illness, but a dose can’t help but turbo-charge the immune system. Giving thanks is a gracious counter-balance, as well, to the sense of runaway entitlement that could be argued is at the root of our global environmental destruction. Offering small, constant kindnesses humbles ourselves while honoring the others.
In celebration of tomorrow’s Thanksgiving, then, let’s practice a little gratitude, shall we?

“I’m grateful for the rain, for the cold sunshine and for the blustery days. For the frost in the mornings and the (occasional) clear starry nights. For friendships and family, for candles and lots of food. For the approach of winter and the ever-shortening days. I love it all.” – Ryan Weisberg, graduate student and former Chattermarks editor, Cohort 12

friendsgiving.HaleLots of food! An early “Friendsgiving” potluck by the folks at the Environmental Learning Center. Photo by Samantha Hale.

“I’m grateful for having found this graduate program and this institute and the amazing and little-known national park around it!” – Annabel Connelly, graduate student, Cohort 13

“Here we are, deep into 2013 and the year is about to come to an end. I think back on what has been a whirlwind of a year with ups and downs, changes big and small. There are many things to be grateful for on a chilly November day, the first being the sense of rest and relaxation winter brings. I am thankful for the frosty mornings and misty mountains, for the tall green trees to the tiniest of mushrooms and the beauty that rests in-between. I am grateful for the people who have supported me this past year and feel powered by their cheers from the sidelines. From my family to best friends, past teachers and new friends – I am incredibly lucky to have them in my life. My adventure here in Washington has been quite an experience so far and I am grateful to be happy, healthy and to continue exploring where ever this life might take me.” –Katie Komorowski, graduate student, Cohort 13


“We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude,” wrote novelist Cynthia Ozick. There is no other emotion that can be equated with gratitude. For those of us on the path of the Bodhisattva, it is in gratitude that we achieve the softening and vulnerability of the heart that allows true compassion. In my experience, meditations on gratitude are an effective way to put a check on negativity, recognize abundance and reflect on privilege. Although I am loath to “list”, I beg your tolerance of my indulgence. It is a snapshot of my gratitude in this moment alone, my own mindfulness meditation: The beautiful sound of my housemate happily singing in the kitchen as she makes homemade paper, oxygen, a warm fire on a cold night, hot tea, hot water, a warm bed, the way frost sparkles in the sun, a beer and a laugh with a good friend, the sound of a cat purring, a full belly, lavender oil, family, a community.” — Elissa Kobrin, graduate student and co-editor of Chattermarks, Cohort 13

 andriana/FlickrAndriana Fletcher, Group Program Coordinator for NCI, defeated by world-class arm wrestling champion, Ambria Douglas, age six. Photo by NCI staff.

“I’m grateful for our amazing North Cascades Institute community and sour gummy worms!” – Andriana Fletcher, Group Rentals Coordinator


“I am thankful to have found the North Cascades Institute community, full of like-minded people who care deeply about the North Cascades and the natural world. It is a satisfying change from the fossil fuel industry that I encountered so much in my undergrad as a geologist. I am thankful, as well, for the ability to see the world in a way full of positivity and possibility!” — Tyler Chisholm, graduate student, Cohort 13

Tyler/HaleGraduate student and black belt Tyler Chisholm is full of sunshine even when striking a Tae Kwon Do fighting stance. Photo by Samantha Hale.

What else? Living in the shadow of metamorphic peaks harboring stories from middle Earth, the prehistoric ocean floor and flowing streams of ice far beyond what I could ever hope to tell. Being constantly in awe that we live and teach along the Skagit River, the only watershed in Washington with healthy, spawning populations of all five species of salmon (Chinook, Coho, Chum, Pink, Sockeye, plus Steelhead and Cutthroat trout)? Moss cushions feet, fungi alights eyes, decaying logs bear baby hemlock trees — all a reminder of the magical and ridiculous variety that is nature. (Did you know the North Cascades National Park Complex has the second highest biodiversity of any national park in the nation?)
At the North Cascades Institute, I am surrounded by people who embrace, for the most part, a common goal, and a hearty one at that. Get people outdoors! Help them fall in love! I am grateful for Saul Weisberg, Tom Fleishner and Ed Grumbine for having this crazy idea to get people connected with the North Cascades ecosystem way back in the mid-‘80s. Though our wallets become wonderfully neglected while we live at the Environmental Learning Center and fox-walk around the valley, I can’t help but devote significant moments of benediction to both the invasive weeds and the pancake connoisseurs of San Francisco for helping fund my personal graduate-school adventure. Closest to home (sweet home), I’m grateful to my housemate and fellow grad, Kaci, who not only will enthusiastically join me in “debriefing” every single experience well into the witching hour, but also is cool, six quick hours later, when I’m inspired to blast the best riffs in order to muster enough vitality to brave the serious and frosty Cascadian-scape beyond our climate-controlled, cozy apartment. Whew.

moss.KatherineWorlds in miniature. Photo by Katherine Renz.

Yet within all this appreciation, let us not forget the flipside. The shadowed yin to the brightest yang, with a splatter of each mixed into the other.
The big challenge of “gratitude” is being able say thanks for the things we usually wish had never happened — those proverbial skeletons in the closet, the ogres we attempt to disguise with heels and mascara (or use your illusion of choice), all the misplaced rakes we bruised our foreheads upon running through the seemingly benign wildflowered meadows. It is trying at best, agonizing at worst, to honor those trials that pushed or prodded us toward our lives today. But even if we’re not gushing about where we are right here right now, perhaps we will be in the future. Who really knows? That’s what is so cool about being a self-conscious Homo sapiens capable of limitless reflection and especially, specifically, about being an experiential educator: Failures are by nature poised to be re-combobulated as stepping stones on the pathway to success. A get-out-of-jail FREE! card, even if there is a few year’s-worth of brutal reflection required.
Regardless if your thankfulness grows from sunshine, rainclouds or the ultimate synergy of both (rainbows!), do yourself a favor and channel writer and expatriate Gertrude Stein, who once wrote, “Silent gratitude isn’t much to anyone.” So say it loud, say it proud, whether from the high peaks of this amber-waved country where your heart claims true allegiance, or from the tract home cul-de-sac where you’re arguing with relatives over Obamacare and the football game, belly stuffed with tryptophan and far from your normal rituals of the day: What are you grateful for?
P.S. Dearest Sun: Thank you! Love, a few individuals on the third planet out.

Staff Appreciation Jess HaagMost of the North Cascades Institute community, on a recent Staff Appreciation Day at Padilla Bay Natural Estuarine Research Reserve. Photo by Jessica Haag.
Leading photo: Samantha Jo Hale experiments with watercolors at the first meeting of the brief yet bohemian Offerings Art Society. Photo by Stamati Anagnostou.
Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is grateful to you.


  1. Julie

    Thank you for putting to words some of the many things I’m thankful for — and such beautiful words they are!

  2. Christian

    Love this post — it is a cornucopia full of so many elements I am thankful for too, supported by a chorus of thoughtful voices. Thanks for your hard work in rounding all of our gratitudes up in such a pleasing bundle. Enjoy your time in California!

  3. Chris Kiser

    Thank you Katherine for collecting this wonderful post! This winter I am grateful for skies full of stars, snow piling up on peaks, snowshoes, icicles growing as they cling to cliff edges, persistent green garlic shoots overwintering in the garden, warm fires, cups of tea and walks with friends, the return of snow geese to the Skagit Flats, and the cry of the eagle.

  4. Tele

    This is lovely, Katherine – thank you for curating NCI’s Thanksgiving! I love the mix of reflections (and good on everyone who contributed.) Yesterday, contentedly alone on campus, I took your words to heart: I got outdoors, allowing myself time to step away from the writing and explore these glorious surroundings, and I started to fall in love. That was some good advice you gave… Thank you!

  5. Tanya Anderson

    I am thankful that I had the opportunity to live and work at the North Cascades Institute with amazing co-workers and graduate students. I will cherish the memories forever and always.

  6. John Miles

    I’m just thankful for 13 wonderful cohorts of great people who are making a difference, and thanks to all of you up there now, especially Katherine, for this wonderful gift.

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