Finding Community in the North Cascades
“Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn’t you like to get away? Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name! And they’re always glad you came! You want to go where you can see people are all the same. You want to go where everybody knows your name.” – Cheers’ Theme
The lyrics from that familiar childhood song ring true and clear to me these days, perhaps more so than they used to. Having recently moved to the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center, I feel not only transported to a different place, but to a different time as well. Similar to the friends from Cheers who, at the end of each day, gathered on bar stools to clink mugs together and exchange stories, I look forward to seeing familiar, friendly faces around the kitchenette table, sipping tea or coffee and swapping light-hearted tales of the day. And yes, up here, everybody knows my name. And I, theirs.
It might be hard to imagine within the context of today’s constantly connected and communicating world, but picture a small, remote community consisting of twenty-five people. Tucked up in a beautiful corner of the world, this community is surrounded with towering snow-capped mountain peaks, glacial fed lakes and rivers, and trails greener than any you have ever seen. This community lives together: at least one hour from any fully equipped grocery store and two hours away from other “basic amenities” (a hospital, for example). This community works together: some days from seven o’clock in the morning until nine or ten at night – full days that usually require a special kind of energy and attentiveness for engaging with youth. This community plays together: at the end of a long week, down time affords opportunities to climb mountains, canoe across icy turquoise waters, and find hidden sit spots just off trail that allow for peaceful reflection on the brilliant, changing colors of our vine maples. This community doesn’t have cell phones (at least not ones that get reception). And most importantly, this community comes together as a group of individuals, often separated from families and partners by great distance. This community is home away from home. This community is a family – my family. This community is the North Cascades Institute.
In high school, when I asked for a letter of recommendation so that I might apply to college, one of my agreeable teachers concluded his letter by saying, “I am confident that Katie will become an active and engaged member of whatever community she chooses to become a part.” I remember that sentence well, because the word community struck me. “This is my community,” I thought. Picturing my home in the Sierra Nevada foothills, I struggled to see myself anywhere else. “Twain Harte is my community. After all, that is where I’m from.”
I often wonder if this is the same understanding that Mountain School students (predominantly 5th and 6th graders coming to the North Cascades Institute from the larger Puget Sound area), have of their communities. In the Ecosystems Exploration curriculum we work so closely with, where each day has a theme, the third and final day conveniently centers on community. “What is community?” I ask my trail group. One student raises her hand eagerly. “It’s like… a group of people… who work together… to get stuff done,” says the muddy-kneed, rosy-cheeked ten-year old with pig-tales sneaking out of her hood. “Great, thank you,” I agree and continue on. “So what kinds of communities do you belong to?” Understandably, the first thing out of their mouths is their place of origin. “Big Lake! Sedro-Woolley! Bellingham! Seattle!” Yes, all correct answers. But how do we prompt students to think of something broader? Something encompassing more than just the human realm, that looks beyond what they’ve only seen or heard of? Something they can dream about and strive to make their reality?
“Your task today,” I tell them, “is to come up with an unselfish wish. A wish that you will soon share with the larger group.” Sure enough, at Closing Circle (the final activity that Mountain School students, teachers, and chaperones participate in before getting on a bus to head home to more familiar creature comforts) everyone is prompted to share her or his unselfish wish. They do this while symbolically tossing into the fire a snippet of western red cedar, the Tree of Life for many First Nations. My first Closing Circle felt like a spiritual experience: all those people, collectively gathering their positive energy and sending it out into the world! It was wonderful! Going around in a circle, some students say, “I wish for my family to be healthy – I wish that less fortunate people could experience Mountain School – I wish we could stay here forever!” Others say, “I wish people didn’t cut down trees and kill animals unnecessarily – I wish we didn’t pollute and could stop global warming – I wish that everyone in the world could have clean water.” I hear things like this and smile, for these are the people of tomorrow. In their lifetime, they will shape the world in ways I can’t imagine. I know they are the movers and shakers because they know, love, and live community.
But with 7 billion people on this planet (approaching 8 billion), it’s easy to feel like one person can’t make a difference. But I implore you, spend time in a community like this! Start small if necessary, but see the similarities between your community and others. We all live together: some of us with our feet in the sand, umbrellas in our glasses, and a warm, salty-breeze on our backs; some of us bundled up near high mountain passes, snowflakes a flurry with a warm cozy fire inside, awaiting admirers; some of us on rich soils near fertile forests, humming to ourselves as we carry buckets of potable water home; some of us in windy cities with cell phones unsheathed, bumping into others as we walk by, each making our way in a busy world. We all work together: some of us in the tops of skyscrapers with oversized budgets at our disposal; some of us in the hot and humid dish room at a local, family-run restaurant; some of us under the blazing sun with a sweaty, dirt-covered brow planting seeds that we hope will yield for next year’s harvest; some of us working with Women’s groups around the world to raise awareness around contraceptives, HIV and AIDS; and some of us with our Pojar & MacKinnon Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast Guide and a 5th grader by our side, analyzing the spores on the back of sword ferns. We all play together: some of us in off-road vehicles on public lands; some of us at book club meetings and public poetry readings; some of us in long-underwear, playing “travel scrabble” and shielding ourselves from the elements in an all-weather tent; some of us around the fire, singing songs and dancing under the glow of a new moon.
We all belong to a common community: the Earth. I had a hunch prior in life, but now, having engaged in this unique living arrangement where my classmates are also my coworkers and friends, I’ve found this evidently and undeniably true. We are all connected. And with the understanding that each of our actions – from gently helping a confused grasshopper find it’s way from the kitchen sink to the backdoor, to devoting two years of your life to helping people through the Peace Corps, impact the world’s community, I know without a doubt, each person has tremendous power to make the world a better place. Every action counts. Find strength in community, a community like the North Cascades Institute.
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Ghandi