A ribbon of delicate smoke rises and then floats into invisibility from the weightless yucca. Like a dancer borne out of resisting friction, it dissipates as it escalates into its ambient surrounding. I find the familiar aroma of delicate smoldering black fibers comforting and nurturing, particularly on cold, dark nights in the Sonoran desert. A cup of hot lentils and rice and the accompanying fire soothes the body and soul after an oft physically and emotionally draining day.
I needed these moments while working for a youth wilderness therapy camp (non-punitive, mind you) in central Arizona for almost a year after ending my AmeriCorps service with an Oregon watershed council. I had decided to work in this demanding but personally transformative field before beginning graduate school. I found tremendous meaning in the work there. My days were filled with the challenges of trying to love sincerely without expectation, connecting with young people, listening, modeling what I was trying to teach, and simply living. The lessons from this time remain with me, reminding me that people and relationships are the most enduring things, a conviction that grounds me when my present world of academic minutiae begins to crowd out reality.
The unconventional schedule of eight continuous days around the clock and six days completely off allowed me to go to my mother and stepfather's home on the Navajo Reservation often. I was able to spend time with my grandmother learning more about her life and our family history, and I visited with her more in the past two years than I have my whole life. But I knew I needed to continue with my formal education even as, alas, my mother's words from years before returned to my mind: "When are you going to come back home? You're always running off to other places, other countries, but we need you here."
Though I was often "home" in between weeks on the trail, I felt I was not ready to commit to a longer, more indefinite period of making meaningful contributions to my community. I knew that my formal education was not finished. "Our professionals that do come back always leave after a few years," my stepfather adds. I wonder if there is ever hesitation to encourage the young people to pursue an education, as though a diploma is a one-way ticket off the reservation. "There's no economic development, the young people have no home to come back to, no jobs here. They pay more in the city. It's a brain drain." The lack of economic opportunity and lack of professional retention often find their way into everyday conversation topics at home, though my parents still assume there is a place for me, and I hope that there is as well.
I have become increasingly aware of how my cultural and spiritual identities are linked. This linking may be in part a quest for wholeness and meaning, especially when cultural influences have an impact upon my direction in life. The melding of these two identities fulfills a part of me.
I often lean on my spiritual identity when I stumble and yield to other voices. It is these voices, real or imagined, that would attempt to render my cultural identity inauthentic, thereby invalidating an intrinsic portion of my existence. At times like this I have leaned on my spiritual identity to steer my doubting mind in a direction that assures the reality of the identity that can never be rendered invalid.
My spiritual identity connects me to all those around me, to everything that is around me. While we may not share genetics and heritage, we do share a common spiritual lineage. This can never be invalidated though it is often ignored in the way we treat each other and ourselves. It is this identity that clears my mind, strengthens me, and helps me realize, own, and love that which I am: a whole being made by my Creator; Navajo, Jewish, Mormon pioneer, and divine.
When my mother hears anthropologists claim that Navajos are a polytheistic people, based on their interpretation of Navajo teachings and figures such as the Diyiin Diné'é, or the Holy People, she often says, "We are not polytheistic; we believe in a supreme being. The holy people in our stories are not gods. They are people, messengers. We are all holy people."
Feeling I was not yet prepared to be a useful instrument to my community, I find myself now in Tucson working on a master's degree focused on climate and society. My somewhat miserable entrance back into academia was fueled by a feeling that each daily entrance to campus transported me out of the beautiful Sonoran Desert of Arizona and into an ivory tower in Southern California. I entered in part because I knew I wanted to continue work on the interface between society and the environment, and the school had strong Latin American and Native American emphases as well. When I began the program, I explained this to my advisors. I made it clear that I wanted my research to focus on applications relevant to stakeholders in one of these broad communities. With my previous work on the trail and at the watershed council behind me, both of which had emphasized direct and meaningful application, I started searching for directions in which to focus my research topic.
Almost all of my work and studies have centered on relationships between the environment and society, and it is this broad niche where I see myself in the future. Without the human component, the meaning wanes for me. While in graduate school, I had the opportunity to create a weeklong project for Navajo high school students in Monument Valley, Utah that focused on culture, climate, and the land. Sounds a little buzzphrase-ish, but I sought to find tangible examples where these themes intersected each other in relevant ways to Navajos. I enlisted some gracious friends studying climate on the southern Colorado Plateau to assist for a few days.
I pass out the papers for the students to take notes on the more important points of my lecture. I realize I could tell them anything, I could be an imposter, but to them, I am the temporary resident expert. In a way it is freeing, allowing me safe passage through the forest of words and phrases in my mind that anxiety might otherwise hinder.
One of the works I drew upon heavily incorporated a framework for teaching geosciences through a Diné (Navajo) paradigm of sequential processes. Transferring this traditional worldview into a structure that applied to earth processes was a technique we continued to use throughout the project. We also explored other dimensions of the influences we were examining while continuing to teach physical processes. For example, wind is one of the three main factors of sand dune formation, along with vegetation and sand supply. Wind also holds a vital role in Navajo stories and teachings: from it we were granted the breath of life. Examples like this taught me that there are multiple layers, manifold ways of seeing, and numerous levels of application that potentially connect us to each other and to this earth. As usual, the teacher became the student. The world of inanimate interacting factors is overlaid by a living world full of interwoven symbols, relations, and ways of knowing.
As I teach, I wonder, "Does this make sense and connect in their minds? Do they see the connections I do? Is there a way to create action from the connection or is it an impotent and isolated theory tucked safely away in my mind, an interesting but conveniently inapplicable idea? How does this all translate into tangible reality? Is it my responsibility to create action from these ideas?"
Was my climate-culture-land outreach project my way of searching for relevant application for my studies? Perhaps each person can decide what he or she would do with these ideas. I was taught that all reality is conceived in thought before it is born into existence. Perhaps by creating accessible ideas, shaping young minds as they shape ours, and intersecting the contemporary with the traditional, we can create what will exist. But first, all must be conceived.
My experiences on the trail, in service with the watershed council, and in the academic arena have been the birthplace of many ideas and my current path. The trail taught me that there are many types of education and many ways of knowing, and that relationships are the most central theme of life. My encounters there grounded and prepared me to reenter the academic training grounds with an amplified awareness of what I want to do with my future and principles to guide me. Academic experience demonstrates that for me to be an instrument of service, I must possess a certain amount of dedication and depth of knowledge. It is this academic perspective that offers practical instruction on points to consider and standardizes the search for patterns in this world, and it is within this framework that I have discovered many intersections between the two distinct paradigms of traditional knowledge and Western science. A practitioner of traditional knowledge and professor told me years ago that the most effective path to true contribution would be to know both sides and to know them well.
1. Novak writes, "I wonder if there is ever hesitation to encourage the young people to pursue an education, as though a diploma is a one-way ticket off the reservation." Have you ever sensed a similar feeling of disconnect between higher education and the "real world"? What kinds of culture shock seem to accompany a return to the academy (or, conversely, leaving to begin a term of service or to return home to your community)?
Rachael Novak is a native of the Intermountain West and Southwest, an adoptee of the Pacific Northwest, a member of the Navajo nation (Diné), and a sojourner of the South American continent. As a 2004 Krista Colleague, she served as the Watershed Education Specialist for the South Santiam Watershed Council in Sweet Home, Oregon. She is a graduate of Oregon State University (B.S./B.A. Environmental Sciences/International Studies) and the University of Arizona (M.S., Geosciences). Currently, Rachael lives in Washington, DC working on issues related to climate change impacts on water quality at the Environmental Protection Agency. She misses the West and will return soon.
2. Reflecting on her roles as student and as teacher, Novak recalls, "I was taught that all reality is conceived in thought before it is born into existence." Do you agree or disagree? Why? Has there been an experience either in your own life or that you have observed where "conceiving" an idea then "gave birth" to actions?