We are young, but not that young. We are experienced, but not that experienced. We have developed ideas about who we are, and who we should be. These thoughts can drift from cocky to self loathing, optimistic to crushingly pessimistic, focused to so directionless we might as well be blindfolded in space with Russian instructions. It is with these thoughts – good, bad, and ugly – we approach conservation problems. It is with a quarter life’s worth of baggage we develop our ideas about how the world is, and how it should be. We project our deepest darkest fears and twinkley eyed-iest hopes onto the conservation challenges and solutions. It was with this in mind that we developed Projections. As an attempt to challenge ourselves, early in our career, to push back against our own perceptions of the world around us and at the very least ask each other, “how does your own personal baggage affect how you view the world, and how you play on the conservation team?” We decided to explore these ideas on a road trip in a place unfamiliar to all of us.
Using short phrases we each identified a few of our conservation projections, both good or bad, that we reflect upon as the most important struggles as conservation moves into an uncertain future. These range from the physical (e.g. ‘drier,’ or ‘deathyier’) to more existential challenges and hopes for conservation. We spent a weekend driving around trying to find the perfect reflection of our projection in the semi-foreign landscape.
To beat our Projections metaphor to death, we planned on literally projecting our short phrases on the thing that best represented that idea. Turns out that’s hard, and can be expensive so enter our friend the overhead projector! Most of you remember these, even though they have gone the way of VCRs and Full House, as the thing our high school math teacher dropped sweat on and made it even harder to pay attention during 7th period trigonometry. But like the sides of an isosceles triangle, the more things change the more they stay the same. So we decided to print our projections on the clear overhead sheets and take pictures looking through the sheet. (Neat huh!) Here's what we came up with.
When Cari and I decided to visit Farmington, NM, a place neither of us have spent much time, truthfully I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I expected to be surprised. I knew there was a lot of oil, coal, and gas extraction in the area. I knew it wasn’t a place known for competing conservation groups (like say Durango or Flagstaff). Still I was looking forward to learning about a new place and seeing first hand how an area with such a long history of fossil fuel extraction is dealing with the recent push for natural gas through fracking.
To that end I was blown away. There does not seem to be an area off limits to gas compressors or oil derricks. We saw them in neighborhoods, at the end of the natural trail (which is only 0.125 miles long BTW, yes the signs actually measure the distance in 1,000^ths of a mile. 0.001 mi = 5.28 ft), and directly adjacent to an old mission cemetery. For me the compressor near the cemetery, and the cemetery itself was symbolic of the depressing situation that is Farmington. The grave sites were covered in a combination of cheatgrass and Russian thistle. Most haven’t been maintained in decades probably. And anyone seeking out peace and reflection would have to battle the noise of the highway on one side and a noisy gas compressor on the other. Oh yeah, the entrance to the Navajo casino was just across the street adding to the overall bleakness.
We printed out our projections ahead of time because we wanted to be able to challenge our own perceptions and biases and work hard to find images that symbolized our projection or its opposite. I printed out “Rugged Hope” which was inspired by a Tupac line where he referred to someone who succeeds in a tough urban environment as a “concrete rose,” saying “you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete had damaged petals. On the contrary, we would all celebrate its tenacity. We would all love it’s will to reach the sun.” I felt like “Rugged Hope” was a decent equivalent metaphor and I was sure I would find some image that symbolized that idea. I didn’t. The closest thing was a pivot irrigator over a barren field (not *real* hopeful, gotta say).
The closest thing to an environmental group we saw was a billboard that advertised for a “No Dumping” campaign.
Maybe the gloomy weather had something to do with it, but overall the weekend was kind of depressing. Aside from hanging out with Cari, which is always fun, and having some decent pizza and good beer, there wasn’t much in the “happy” or “hopeful” categories. I think we both walked away understanding the broad challenges of conservation are the same that the’ve always been: greed vs. survival, haves vs. have nots, takers vs. givers. Maybe there’s some “Rugged Hope” in the idea that people are still fighting the good fight. And despite all the lost battles we, at the very least, don’t seem to be losing the war. The willingness of every generation to take up the torch for the cause gives me hope, even if it is a little rough around the edges.
The original plan was to meet at Chaco National Park to camp there and drive the countryside by day, hunting for scenes that would represent our “projections.” The Chaco plans were derailed by intense rain that had the potential of making roads in and out of Chaco impassable, so adjustments were made and Farmington was selected as our new destination.
One of the words I chose to project was “Awe”. I read in this here NYTimes Well blog post that one of the healthiest emotions people can feel is that of awe. And from my personal experience, some of the times I’ve been most filled with awe have been when I’m spending time out and about in wild (or wild-ish) places— on a precipice staring out onto a cirque of peaks in Idaho’s Sawtooth range, in the woods with my nose pressed up against the butterscotchy goodness of sun-warmed ponderosa pine bark, or running over sandy trails outside of Zion with pinyon-juniper covered slickrock formations starkly abutting an unfathomably blue sky. In those places I feel “Awe” as the fullness in my lungs and belly and a clarity of mind that hooks me behind the navel. I also feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for these places and for my good fortune in getting to experience them.
These sensations are a big part of the reason people choose to work protecting open spaces and wildlife. And in pursuing careers in conservation and in forming Raucous, we are fumbling about through a process of trial and error. We aim not just to build meaningful professions, but to cobble together rich, meaningful lives.
It was with the word “Awe” etched into my skull that I approached Farmington, but there was not a lot of awe-inspiring fodder for our project. The town itself is pretty run down. Gas and oil rigs festoon everything from agricultural fields to neighborhoods to nature trails. A “Jesus is Still Watching” billboard looms large over the dilapidated adult video store next door to our hotel. That weekend the weather was overcast and our attempts at finding a suitable campsite were thwarted by a) torrential rain b) an abundance of broken glass and general refuse, c) our laziness, and d) my pervasive “baditude” that started out directed toward the state of my personal and professional life and kind of seeped outward from there (I was having a month). But at the end of it all, I did walk away a little bit awestruck. During our projection excursions we saw some really amazing rain falling in sheets, we talked extensively about poop, we did some self-indulgent navel gazing about what we’re doing with our lives, and per usual, we just enjoyed one another’s company. And I think that for some of our Raucous projects, that’s enough. We’re here to gnaw and wrestle with the big questions in good company. It’s not always puppies and rainbows in conservation, but that’s true of all facets of life. And goddamn, when things over here in Conservationlandia ARE puppies and rainbows? They are the fluffiest, snuggliest of puppies and the most vibrant, sky-spanning double rainbows you’ll ever encounter.