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The Origins of Culture

old growth
Recently, whether out in the field or at home in my cozy cabin, I have had one major question echoing in my brain. What is the oldest culture on planet Earth?

Is it Mesopotamia, the land of rivers and the “cradle of civilization,” or the ancient Mayans, leaving behind their iconic pyramids? Could it be the Taoists, as we have seen many of their symbols used by other early cultures including the Mayans? Or does this title belong to mythical Atlantis, with its secrets locked beneath the waves?

Scholars have made arguments for each of these and many other civilizations, but we still have no definitive answer. I believe that our egocentrism as a species has kept us from seeing the obvious answer – the first “culture” is the Earth itself. Our planet has been the backdrop and the primary force influencing the thoughts, social constructs, and survival systems from the first human ever born to the children coming into the world as you read this now.

The mountains inspired this initial thought. Standing on top of the continental divide, I am struck by these prolific mountains of North America. Their presence is responsible for all the ecosystems surrounding them – arid plains, lush forests, vast tundra. These mountains, although relatively young from a geological perspective have seen more people live and die, more cultures rise and fall and impacted more ideologies and strategies for survival than any culture alive today.

The Rocky Mountains dictate our weather and therefore political policies on the most important resource of all, water. They inspire mythology and science based on geological clues left behind for the observant eye. Artists and poets paint pictures of toothed rock, piercing the heavens letting the celestial blood drip from the sky giving us our picturesque sunsets. The notion of perpetuating ideas, the transaction of knowledge through stories and the creation of art are all grounds for a sound culture. It just so happens to not be of human creation in this case, but instead human interpretation.

If you’ve ever walked through the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, you know the heavy quiet when sound is dampened by the immense amount of life exuding from the moisture-laden soil bellow. Some have ventured to the canopy tops to become a part of the forest high rise. Some cultures even have words just for the experience of walking through a forest. The Japanese call this Shinrin-yoku, translated as “forest bath.” These trees have been here longer than our own country has been in existence, albeit a very young nation.

We have now found that there are civilizations within these great giants. Mycorrihzal fungi in the trees’ root systems allow roots to reach nutrients stored in much smaller and compact soils while also connecting the trees to one another, allowing them to communicate, share resources, nurture their young, heal their sick and communicate danger. These traits, considered specific to humans and animals, are clearly more universal as we delve into the vast labyrinth of knowledge and wonder of our planet.

We don’t know enough yet to understand whether our planet has any kind of consciousness or intent behind what it does and how it reacts. But we can clearly see that Earth is our influence and benevolent dictator behind our human culture.

I have a word I use for this influence the Earth exerts on human civilization – Eco-Emanation. If “culture” describes human habits, beliefs, and mythologies, then Eco-Emanation describes the creative force or canvas upon which all cultures are conceived. After all, don’t we owe everything to the ever-changing and evolving land beneath our feet, even our most sacred and valued possessions, our thoughts themselves?

Coming Full Circle

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In the advent of a new year, we often reflect back on years past, wondering what exactly has brought us to the current place we occupy in time and space. Looking back I can recall the day my 9-year-old self stepped onto Keystone Science School campus for the first time. Now, 13 years later, I get to call this place home and revel in the chance to share life-changing experiences with the students who visit us.

Growing up we spent summers at my family’s cabin in Silverthorne and our neighbor at the time had worked at Keystone Science School and encouraged my parents to send me to Camp. Little did I know how much that first KSS summer experience would fundamentally change the way I viewed the natural world and affect my direction in life.

I vividly recall making dream catchers one afternoon during Camper Choice. Our counselor told us that anytime we picked a flower, we had to pick a piece of hair and give it back to the earth. This strangely interesting exchange may not have struck a chord with me at the time, but now hits home with the clear representation of our need to give back to nature, though we take so much more than we give.

Fast forward to 2013. As a 20-year-old college student I was looking for a summer job after studying abroad. Thinking back to the summers I spent in Colorado and my summer at KSS I reflected on the deep-seated love for nature I had developed over the years and wanted to share that same experience with others.

To that end I earned my Wilderness EMT, gained some outdoor leadership experience, and worked hard to get the job as Keystone Mountain Adventures Lead Instructor. I was excited to be at KSS again, not realizing how impactful it would be to make the transition from student to teacher and share my own experience with other young people. After a summer of leading trips, I knew that I had to continue to be part of all that Keystone Science School has to offer and returned in the summer of 2014 as a Crossover Counselor and stayed on this winter as a School Programs Apprentice.

Coming full circle from camper to KMA Instructor to Crossover Counselor to School Programs Apprentice has taught me more than I could possibly imagine. I can say with confidence that we truly make an impact on children’s lives because I’ve experienced it firsthand in my own life. The community created here allows for children of all ages to feel at home in the outdoor environment, gain a better understanding of human impact on the environment, and build a lifelong bond with nature. In addition, by instilling a passion for science and nature at a young age, Keystone Science School will undoubtedly continue to create a more engaged and educated community for years to come, and I’m proud to say that I’ve been a part of that in so many ways.

Give Where You Live

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We are so pleased to be a part of Colorado Gives Day this year. Colorado Gives Day is an annual statewide movement to celebrate and increase philanthrophy in Colorado through online giving. This is our first year participating as an independent nonprofit and we are so grateful for all the support we have already received. 

Witnessing the Impact of KSS from All Sides

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My experience at KSS began in 5th grade when I came with my Breckenridge Elementary class for a three-day snow science program. I have very fond memories of the trip from sleeping in the Bighorn dorm, to cross country skiing across a very large field (though it doesn’t look so large anymore), and digging snow pits to look at snow crystals.

Twelve years later I started my career in education as a middle school classroom science teacher. When I began my job I was told that I would be in charge of leading the outdoor education program for the 6th grade. Without hesitation, I immediately chose to bring my class to the place where I built such wonderful memories, Keystone Science School. Our first School Programs was phenomenal; many of my students had never been out of the city before and spent time hiking around in the mountains. The stories they brought back to their families and friends at school were ones of excitement, hope, and joy. I listened to my students tell stories of new friendships, challenges that they overcame, and memories they shared up in the mountains.

The following year, I was excited to take my new 6th grade class back to KSS. This class was made up of some of the sweetest kids I had ever met, but with a different class comes different dynamics and a different set of behavioral and academic needs. But there was one student in particular who continues to inspire me every day as a KSS instructor. This student was in the 6th grade, but read and wrote at a 1st and 2nd grade level. He rarely participated in class and preferred not to work with his peers. He was defiant to his teachers and often had angry outbursts which would send him out of school. He did not spend time with many other students in his class. He refused to write and was rarely prepared for class. While he clearly did not enjoy being at school, he still wanted to be a class helper, but didn’t know how.

Other faculty were worried about sending this student to KSS in fear of him exhibiting any of these mentioned behaviors. At the last minute, it was agreed upon that he would come and that he would be in my field group. We met our instructor and set off for the day into the woods, and what I observed for the next three days still brings tears to my eyes. When asked to take out his pencil, he took out one for himself and enough for everybody in the group. This boy raised his hand to respond to every question and had many questions of his own about the natural world around him. He not only came prepared with his own gear, but with extra gear for some others in the group. Other students started to speak with him and joke around with him. As this student started to interact more and more with the group, the other students started to warm up to him and to form friendly relationships with him. When asked to sit in the woods for eight minutes to make observations, he sat and drew well beyond the time allotted. He was a different student. He was happy to be learning, anxious to participate, friendly with his peers, and exhibited responsibility. Despite all of these wonderful observations however, what happened next was absolutely amazing.

After arriving back at the school, I had the students spend the first 10 minutes of class drawing a picture of their favorite memory. Typically, this student would sit at his desk and pretend to be marking with his pencil. But I noticed that this time he was actually drawing, so I did a quick pass and I noticed he was drawing our whole group on our hike in the forest, getting stuck in the snow, with lots of happy faces. After discussing the trip I assigned the last 20 minutes of the class period for the students to write about their experiences. Typically I would need to be sitting with this student, urging him to write, and we would be lucky if just a couple sentences would get down on the page before his defiance would kick in. But this time, it was different. This time, I didn’t have to go over and sit with him. In fact, I just sat at my desk and watched. I watched his hand madly move across his page. I watched him write and write and write, for twenty minutes! After class all the students turned in their writing and when I saw his, I felt a tear fall down my cheek. He had written an entire page with no outside help, and the first sentence read, “the camp of Keystone is a great camp. I love it.”

This wonderful place inspired this student to do something he hadn’t been successful at all school year. This is why I work at Keystone Science School. This place is magical and it is the source of many positive memories for kids of all ages and backgrounds. All of my students had an amazing experience at KSS, but the story of this one student is the reason why I know I belong here. This place changes lives, it inspires learners, it teaches to protect our natural world, and it brings joy to so many faces every day. And for this particular little boy, the Keystone Science School gave him a new perspective on life, a push in the right direction, and most importantly a big smile on his face.

Making History with Water

 

On November 12th, Keystone Science School was scheduled to run our annual H2O Outdoors program, an exciting grant-funded program for High School students made possible through key partnerships with Denver Water, Aurora Water, and the Colorado River District. Students from around the state applied to the program and, once accepted, were invited to come to our campus free of charge to learn about the complex water issues facing Colorado and the Colorado River Basin. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for the Colorado River, 18 inches of snow derailed our plans and forced the cancelation of this program. So today we wanted to share the above video with you to illustrate the truly inspiring reason that we run this program each year and the kind of collaboration that we hope to inspire in everyone who participates. 

The culminating event for the H2O Outdoors program is a classic element available for many of the academic programs we offer at Keystone Science School, a Town Hall Meeting. During this Town Hall Meeting, the Science School instructors take a step back and allow the students to propose projects/compromises/ideas to make a positive impact on the various issues that they have learned about.

It was an especially exciting year to be running the H2O Outdoors program because, as this video from the Sonoran Institute shows, actual collaborative meetings (similar to our Town Hall Meetings), have resulted in an exciting ecological victory/experiment. In the Spring of 2014, for the first time in almost 50 years, the Colorado River reached the Gulf of California.

Additionally, Colorado is in the process of drafting a State Water Plan, due on the Governors desk by December 2015. Roundtable meetings and opportunities for public input will continue to be held over the next year as the Water Plan takes shape. Collaboration, compromise, and an understanding of the complexities of water related issues will be key to creating a comprehensive and successful Water Plan.

While it's sometimes easy to get frustrated with today's political climate and grid-lock, seeing these real-world collaborations being carried out across the state, nation, and international borders might be a source for optimism. For me anyway, it gives affirmation that what we do at the Science School (teaching about the facts, illuminating complexities, and facilitating Town Hall Meetings with collaboration as a core tenet), has real-world application and value.

As of now it is unknown whether H2O Outdoors 2014 can be rescheduled. While I am disappointed for the missed opportunity to connect with the students who applied for the program, I am looking forward to the winter/spring teaching seasons and continuing to explore these topics with students at the Science School.