On the 28th of August the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center gained eight new residents—graduate students in cohort 12, ready to take on the mountains.
For me, it was a homecoming. I spent the last two years working for North Cascades Institute as a Seasonal Naturalist, leaving only for five months during the spring and summer this year to start my new role of Graduate Student.
Now, back in the mountains, I feel the familiarity of the big trees, the teal water of Diablo Lake, and the towering mountains that surround the Learning Center.
We’ve just ended three weeks of training that graduate students, seasonal instructors, and full-time staff collaborate on twice a year to learn, teach, and share knowledge about the local geology, botany, and natural history of the Upper Skagit. Training also focuses on Mountain School, the Institute’s longest-running educational program.
Last week several other graduate students, our Science Coordinator, and I were talking about ecology. During this conversation, I learned that the prefix—eco—comes from the Greek “oikos,” or home. So ecology, the study of how organisms interact with the natural environment, is really the study of home.
I like the image this brings to mind. Nature is our home.
Crisp fall sunshine hits part of the Sourdough Creek Trail at the Learning Center. Photo by the author.
Part of this graduate program is about instilling in each student a sense of place. This idea is something that North Cascades Institute talks about a lot and that makes an appearance in most Institute programs.
So what is a “sense of place,” and why is it important? The way I see it, having a sense of place is about really knowing and caring for the place where you live. It’s learning the plants, animals, and birds. Learning to feel the first sign of a season changing before you hear about it on the news. Knowing your neighbors. Walking through your neighborhood. Life moves at such a fast pace these days that it’s hard to be still long enough to learn these things. But if you do, you see home in a different way.
I think about this when I teach Mountain School. We try to instill this interconnectedness with each student who comes here. We talk about communities, ecosystems, our effect on predator-prey relationships, food chains, and how we’re all connected through the web of life.
There’s a reason people are drawn toward natural environments and outdoor spaces. Maybe deep down we have some long forgotten sense that tells us we’ve come home.Leading photo of Cohort 12 graduate students, with professor John Miles, and Cohort 11 student Katie Tozier at the Sourdough Creek waterfall. Photo by Stephanie Bennett.