Category Archives: Director’s Notes

Welcome to the Spring Semester


The past few days I’ve felt like I was on the edge of a precipice, waiting for the students to arrive. And now…they are here! Jumping off a cliff has never felt so natural. Really looking forward to getting to know everyone better, do a little cooking and learning together, and spend as much time sitting outside in the sun as possible.

~Sarah

Transitioning into Finding the Good was surprisingly smooth. Everyone here is laid back, fun and understanding; it’s a very warm, welcoming community. I’m excited for all the adventures we’ll have and journeys we’ll go on together.

On another note, I’m starting to realize what this experience means. I know I’ll have to step out of my comfort zone a little bit, and being in a new place with new people will take some getting used to, of course. It’s overwhelming at times, but I know we’ll find our flow and that this will be a remarkable experience for me.

~Lily

After waking up to Tom’s melodic knock, we ate a simple breakfast of Granola, and then headed off on a four mile hike along the South Yuba river canyon. It is a beautiful day out, but somewhat chilly. I wore my new shoes that I had gotten fairly recently; they fit fine, except for a rubbing pinky toe on the right side, but this was easily remedied by a band aid. I am writing this entry on a large rock roughly 15 feet above the frigid waters of the Yuba River. The rock is covered in light blue lichen and dark green moss, and I am lichen the lichen. In a few minutes we will head out on the two mile hike back to the van. I have been enjoying my time here a lot, and I am looking forward to the next four months.

~Connor

Arriving at the banks of the Yuba, we are overwhelmed by the ladybug clusters surrounding us. We acquaint ourselves with our surroundings amid exclamations, explorations, and surprises, and share in a delicious lunch of sandwiches; avocado, cheese, carrots, peanut butter, GORP, and fruit. Scrumptious. Eyes and mouths full, we discuss the designation of “wilderness” from an indigenous perspective, and then disperse into different corners of the beach for some journaling, with the constant flow of the river serving as an auditory backdrop for our thoughts…

We began the semester with a discussion about the interplay of sanctuary and pilgrimage. Sifting through these dense topics, we established a connection between sanctuary and the hardships encountered during pilgrimage; this sense of an almost sacred place of safety coming from an understanding of the difficulties that exist in other parts of one’s life. The question that arises is one of time. How fresh do the recollections of these hardships need to be in one’s mind for a place to retain its state of sanctuary, rather than remaining just another physical location that we inhabit?

Our world has seen many variants of conservation and environmentalism, and with my interactions with the current state of these movements, it seems there is a heavy focus put on the state of dilapidation our planet is falling into. While it is certainly important to have a fairly concrete sense of the wrongs currently committed, I am curious to see how the rhetoric of our movements will change as they (hopefully) attain their goals. If we reintegrate with our planet and our communities on a healthier, more sustainable level, I believe our role will change from an endless consumer of natural resources to one of “moderate interaction,” a term used by the author Debra read to us earlier. At this level of experience, where human involvement in our surroundings is based on respect and integration, the term “conservation” becomes null and void. Our goals attained, the very concept of what we are now fighting for will disappear into the ether.

It appears that this is our greatest goal: to create a sanctuary for the future that, in their eyes, will seem merely status quo.

~Mike


North Canyon Spur.
Ladybugs cluster.
Humans move about, stomping, laughing.
Mike speaks to us of treading lightly, careful of the plants, the moss, the fragile soil.
Tender stalks. Lives and homes beneath our feet.

On our walk here, Chrissie and I pick bay leaves for sauces and soups later. We will pick more to dry and bring to friends in Baja later next month.

The river is quieter than usual, for January. The sun warm, but weak. Nine travelers are we. Four students, three teaching fellows, two directors. Nine students in all, nine teachers in all.

Travelers, seekers, everyone of us a rebel in some way, otherwise we would not be here. Brought together by circumstance or design, depending on your point of view. We have work to do and not a moment to lose.

Whatever has brought us here to this place, this unlikely constellation of souls, is a ponder. Our journey will unfold. Welcome.

~Debra

Too excited to get there.
Too scared of leaving things behind.
We go on a tour.
My mom cries when she leaves.
Seeing Fonzi reminds me of my dog Chuy.
After dinner I realize it’s going to be a fun four months.

~Max

So much beauty—and the kind that I appreciate and feel inspired by!

 

I am sitting with history all around me (as Connor pointed out). The California sun is so nice!

 

We hiked about 2 miles (one way), discovering, learning/teaching, and taking photographs.

 

I like this set up of feeling responsible while still being supported.

 

In knowing that we are going to spend the next four months together, the first day of introductions and starting friendships is different. – I like it!

 

The sound of moving water is constant but not enough to make me have to pee all the time. Peaceful, yet strong.

 

I feel healthy: moving around, lots of outside time, laughing and learning, while living very much so in the moment. Sure I have thought of people that I am not with, but not in a sad way. I am where I am both mentally and physically, and the transition is coming easier than I had originally and realistically expected (although it is only day two 😛).

 

I am really loving the fresh, clean air. Even if I am not always not cold, the cool fresh air is really worth it. I will say I do miss my warm flannel, but I am extremely glad that I brought my blue fuzzy sweater.

The sun is setting. It is about to disappear over one of the mountains near the South Yuba River. It looks so amazing seeing the brightness of the sun shine and create countless tree silhouettes. There are so many different textures to look at.

I picked up an acorn cap while hiking, and it is very different from the acorn caps back in PA. (Mom would be proud: I wrote “different from” rather than the grammatically wrong “different than,” which she catches me writing and saying often.)

 

~Kiera

Yesterday the students arrived. The past several weeks have been about acquainting oneself to change, to new routines and new views out of one’s window. It’s like going off and finding that perfect place to write: a mixture of intuition and impulse and then a fair amount of readjustment and second guessing once you are there. The view you have of a place is never the view you have once you are seated in it. Each time I find myself somewhere new I have new information about how best I can create a home there, whether that means I want to know the most minute details of the Bay Laurel tree or those of a new roommate’s last apartment. This is a transitional moment for me, recently out of school and at once wanting to find something steady, reliable, constant, and also to keep moving and exploring: sanctuary and pilgrimage. Here are a few things I do know are important: warm bed, warm food, unconditional dog love, fresh air, a useful feeling, and – perhaps most importantly— a room full of people laughing so hard that their stomachs hurt. I’m looking forward to learning how to transition with everyone, from life here to life in Baja and back to here, on farms and on roads and on rivers.

~Chrissie


Skye’s Story, Fall 2011

Hello readers of the Finding the Good Blog,

Spring semester 2012 starts in 5 days. Chrissie, Sarah and Mike, this semester’s staff fellows have been here for two weeks (we’ve changed the title from “interns” to “fellows” to more accurately reflect the role they play here). The four students, Max, Lily, Kiera and Conner arrive on Sunday. Along with all of the other preparations that fill our days, the FtG blog is back online after a dormant period.

Soon the blog will be updated regularly. You’ll meet the new personalities, and follow our journeys and discoveries. We are so excited about this semester’s projects and team and can’t wait to share it with all with you.

Before we get into the new semester, there is a very important piece that we want to include, one that we couldn’t tell until a week or so ago.

Last fall, we had our first student-intern here at FtG, Skye Jang. Technically she was a gap year student, but since we didn’t run a full fall semester, and there were no other students, we created a “student internship” position and Skye filled it. Skye quickly became one of the “family” here – editing media, cleaning up server files, helping with the library, helping on the ropes course, recruiting new students, and learning how to interview and create educational media.

She also wrote five thoughtful, insightful and highly personal blog posts between October and December, the last one written literally the day before she returned home to Pennsylvania. They are best read as a progression of a series, which is how we wanted to share them. They illustrate a growth of self-awareness in a young person that is at once an intimate portrait and a universal story. And why did we wait till now to post these?

Skye used to joke that being at FtG was her “forced gap year.” Forced because she really wanted to be in college, and in fact had done everything in her power to get herself accepted into some of the top schools in the country. Everything in her power. But not everything was in her power to determine. You see, Skye and her mother immigrated to the US from S Korea when Skye was seven years old. Their green cards had not been issued at the time that Skye applied to college and she had no access to financial aid. Without that, she could not afford college. So she came here, to learn as much as she could, to re-apply to schools, and to do something resourceful while waiting for the green card.

We could have posted her blogs sooner. But her story, told in the posts, includes her disappointment with the US government, the delays, and how at 18 years old, those delays translate into real restrictions. Restrictions not just on financial aid, but on international travel, and on work status. One night, about to post the blog entries, in a moment of doubt I called Skye’s mom, a PhD candidate at Drew University, to make sure she was comfortable with us posting. She hesitated. Maybe we should wait till the green cards come through, she said.

The irony was not lost on any of us. Nor the fear of oppression, no matter if it was real or not. We couldn’t take the chance. Not in today’s climate.

As we prepare for the upcoming semester, we will study democracy closely, and question what one is, and whether we have a democracy in this country. Perhaps most importantly, we will discuss and debate what a real democracy might look like, and if that is the best governance we can create for ourselves.

We invited Skye to come back for this semester, so she can experience a real semester with her peers. She misses California, but she’s moving on now. With her green card issued, she can get a job, and she’s busy filling out all those financial aid applications. We miss her so much, but we are very happy for her, and so grateful that those of us here at Synergia and FtG played a part in her growing up time, and helped her to land more solidly into herself. We wish you the best of everything, Skye, and hope that someday you’ll return to California and see us.

We’ve asked Skye to guest-post on this blog from time to time so you can follow her story as she moves forward into university life. She is considering traveling to Korea this summer to visit relatives and we are hoping to get posts and photos of her trip.

Skye at Bioneers with Lily Yeh and Annabelle

Skye at Bioneers with Lily Yeh and Annabelle

Read on for Skye’s full story, Fall 2011.

And stayed tuned for more posts in the coming weeks!

Warm Regards,
Debra

Director’s Notes

Laguna Ojo de Liebre/Scammon’s Lagoon, Baja California Sur, Mexico

March 19, 2011

“Then the plane cut north across Vizcaino Bay, and I was moved by the sight of a great abundance of gray whales scattered below me! The late morning sun, high but still east, made for perfect viewing. It shown down into the fairly clear sea, so I could see many whales underwater, while others rose to breathe in a wreath of white foam. This was primeval: a sight from the Earth of long ago. Many people share in the credit for this restoration. Perhaps this is a great pre-migratory assemblage? I am so grateful for this sight of abundant whales from on high: a fitting conclusion to a Baja visit that was full of shared discovery and natural wonders. A visit that made feel very very alive, and very young and humble.”

— Paul Spitzer, PhD, Ornithologist we met in 2010 in San Ignacio Lagoon

Coming full circle, I bring you back to Baja, where we have traveled from Bahia de Los Angeles to the Pacific (west) side of the Peninsula, to return once more to the lagoon that bears two names: Laguna Ojo de Liebre (Eye of the Rabbit) and Scammon’s Lagoon. I have heard two explanations for the former and one for the latter: one, that there are lots of jackrabbits in the dunes surrounding this lagoon, and two, that at the peak of the whaling era, the waters of the lagoon ran as red as a jackrabbit’s eye. The explanation for the more mundane and benign-sounding “Scammon’s” is that the lagoon was named in honor of Captain Charles Scammon, the New England whaler who is most responsible for the legend of the blood-red waters. He discovered Ojo de Liebre in 1857, exactly 100 years before I was born. Leaving San Francisco and heading south along the coast, he discovered the Mexican lagoons where the California gray whale comes to breed and calf in the warm, shallow waters. It was here in Ojo de Liebre that he and his men slaughtered so many whales, and brought back so many barrels of oil, that word soon spread and competing whaling ships followed Scammon to cash in on the bounty. Between the lagoon whaling and off-shore whaling, in less than 10 years the population of grays had been decimated to the point that Scammon himself predicted that they would be extinct before long.

And they nearly were. But in 1970 the California gray whale was added to the Endangered Species list. In the intervening years, the whales made a remarkable recovery to the point that in 1994 they were taken off the list, the first marine mammal ever to be removed.

Since that time, eco-tourism has burgeoned. The gray has continued to make the 4,000-mile migration from the nutrient rich waters of Alaska and the Bering Sea, to the warm lagoons of Baja California. Year after year they make the epic journey – one of the longest in the animal kingdom. In 1972, a Mexican fisherman named Francisco “Pachico” Mayoral was the first person to experience a “friendly” encounter with a gray. A solitary female approached his fishing boat in San Ignacio Lagoon and, as the story goes, sought interaction with him. Since that first time, the instances of friendly behavior in gray whales have increased steadily. In fact, in the seventeen years that we have traveled to Baja, as non-scientific observers we have watched the whales interact with humans in ways that are inexplicable and dare I say, wondrous. Mothers lift their babies up to the boat, outstretched arms and fingers bridging the void between species.  Single adults roll on their sides so that, it would seem, they can get a better look at us. Any attempt at explanation is pure speculation. Most of nature remains a mystery, but only when we are face to face with that mystery do we remember this.

And so it has been these past three days, camped beside the lagoon that not so long ago was the stage of mass slaughter of such scale and brutality as to be incomprehensible. Every time I am here I can’t help but wonder at yet another contrast in this land of extremes.

We have arranged to meet our friends Shari Bondy, and her husband, Juan Arce Marron, at the lagoon. Shari is an independent gray whale researcher and naturalist who first migrated with her beloved grays from her home in Tofino, British Columbia, in the mid-eighties. Spending years migrating with the whales from Canada to Mexico and back again, Shari became one of Canada’s first whale watching tour guides more by chance than design. In the late nineties, she moved to Baja permanently, eventually becoming a Mexican citizen. The stories Shari tells of her adventures would fill a book, and will someday if she ever finishes it, but this story is about a young lanchero named Fernando.

“Lancha” is Spanish for “boat”. “Lanchero” is boat driver. The lancheros of the lagoon drive small “pangas” or fishing boats to take people out to observe the whales. The pangas hold ten people, tops. These lancheros – Luis, Leopoldo, Abel, and others — are old acquaintances with whom we share an affection and appreciation, but little real knowledge of one another. The reason is simple: we don’t speak each other’s language. The language we have shared over many years is as non-verbal as the interspecies communication we enjoy with the whales. We talk a little – but it is mostly limited to a “How are you/I am fine” level of communication. Still, their faces light up when they see us, and the handshakes are warm. Perhaps we are like long lost cousins in this land where everyone seems to be related.

Shari is already out on the water when we arrive at the visitor’s center. She comes in with her group, all smiles and stories of remarkable interactions with mothers and calves, and a solitary male who is a little on the rambunctious side. We take a little time to introduce the FtG crew to Shari, although there is no way to prepare them for the five-foot-two-inch powerhouse they are about to spend three days with. We jump right in and head out to the whales, although the wind has picked up and we are not 100% sure of our decision to go out. Windy weather can affect the whale’s behavior, as the animals tend to “hunker down” as we would do. The boats pitch and drift in the rough water, making it hard for friendly whales to approach and stay close to the boat. We decide to chance it, knowing that we may not see as much we hope.

I expect Shari to tell us that Luis or Leopoldo, 20-year veterans and expert whale guides, will be our boat driver. Instead, she informs us that there is a new lanchero named Fernando. “He’s young”, she says, “just a kid really – but he took us out the other day and he’s very good. I half expected him to be kind of a cowboy, being such a young guy, but he was really careful with the whales. And he’s very serious.”

We greet Fernando. He solemnly shakes our hands as we load into the panga, laughing and excited. We head in the direction of the mouth of the lagoon. The afternoon is getting on; the whales are returning from the farther reaches. For these animals, the northern migration is just days or weeks away, and swimming against the tide builds strength and stamina in the calves. These are the kinds of things that Shari has observed over years and years. The whale census peaked at around 1400 animals this year. The estimate now, a little past mid-March, is around 800. Another week and the numbers in the lagoon will drop further as more animals head out to the open sea. It is a long and arduous migration, about one third of the babies don’t make it. (Busch)

I have stood on the shore in Hawaii and watched humpback whales from a distance, but only in the lagoons of Baja have I observed whales up close in their natural habitat. It is unlike anything one can imagine. Due to the small size of the pangas, and the easy manner of most of the lancheros, themselves seasoned naturalists, I never feel like a tourist or an intruder here, but rather a privileged guest. Silently, as the boat leaves the dock, I ask permission to enter their home. A practice of mine when entering any new landscape be it forest, meadow, lagoon, or desert, I am reminded that others live here, and I am a visitor. As the boat skims over the water, one sees the blows first. One here, then another, followed by the slow fluid movement of the whale’s exposed back as she swims along; from a distance it resembles a thin sliver of darkness just breaking the surface. Then, little by little, the waters come alive. A breaching whale in the distance, more blows, maybe a spyhop. It is never the same from one trip to the next – how could it be? This is a living, breathing matrix of interconnected life, and I am a living, breathing part of it.

A solitary whale approaches our boat. It is the whale Shari was telling us about earlier. His behavior is not typical of most “friendly” behavior. Rather than approaching the boat and gently seeking contact head first, he swishes his tail and brings it quite close to the boat, seemingly agitated. He pushes the boat a bit, diving under it, and up to the other side. We talk to him in soothing tones, more for the transmission of intention than sound. His tail flukes are battered – the normally sharp tips bitten off and rounded  – indications of orca attacks. The absurdity of the situation does not escape us. This 30-ton animal could smash our boat to bits with one slap of his tail. And yet, with the grace of a dancer, he maneuvers around the tiny panga knowing where every inch of his 40 feet is. This is due in part to the twenty per cent (by weight) of the gray whale’s brain that is cerebellum, which controls voluntary movement and balance. (Busch) We enjoy his presence but even Shari is a little nervous of his unpredictable and less-than-gentle behavior. Still, we are enthralled. It is impossible not to be. After awhile he swims away and we continue on our way. Before long, a mother and calf approach the boat. Again, we are transfixed as they lift their massive heads toward us and we reach our puny hands and fingers down to them. The mother spends much of the visit at the back of the boat near Fernando; she seems to like him, and the admiration is mutual. His serious demeanor gives way to a broad, shy smile. The pair swims off, and we decide to turn to the dock early so we can go more slowly, avoiding the drenching we will surely get at a high speed in this wind.

We travel a ways when another whale crosses our path. Fernando slows the panga way down, and the whale approaches. It is the same whale! We recognize the tail and other distinctive markings and of course the personality. From our location in the lagoon now, it appears that he has followed us, like a stray dog. It seems the only explanation.  By now I have convinced the rest of our group that this whale is lonely – a social outcast, and traumatized by the orca attacks. Everyone talks to him, quietly, still a tad nervous, but lovingly nonetheless. He seems calmer, less tail swishing. Despite the rough waters that make the starboard side of the boat more difficult for the whale, he comes to where I am seated and presents his head for a few precious seconds. I try to reach him with the tips of my fingers even while I feel doubt as to how he may react. With the rocking of the boat I can’t quite reach and his head slips beneath the surface. I look to Fernando – he points to his watch and gives us a stern look. It is time to head back. We give our thanks and say goodbye to our new friend and head back to the dock.

Juan, a fisherman by trade, and a real renaissance man as well, has brought us a gift of whitefish. Lots of whitefish. Of our little group of seven, one is vegan, one vegetarian, and four do not like fish. That leaves me. It is hard for me to fathom that here by the ocean, welcomed into a culture that has relied on the bounty of the sea for centuries, I am the only of us that is beside myself with excitement and genuine appreciation for this gift. Juan not only caught the fish, he cooks it as well. Luckily our lanchero amigos join us for dinner. Even so, and even after sending them home with several, I am still, three days later eating whitefish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Since this is essentially the only place and time I eat fish, for reasons of moral and ecological conscience, this is fine by me. It will have to carry me for another year. I am grateful to Juan, to the fish, to the sea that could sustain us if we just learned to take only what we need.

Around the campfire that night, we discover another side to Fernando. He is not as serious as first impressions would have us believe. He is talkative, quick-witted, and highly observant, with a good sense of humor. He spontaneously launches us into a campfire language lesson by asking Shari how to say certain phrases in English. Before long he has won all our hearts as he picks up the English quickly and asks for more. His agile mind is hungry. The teachers among us are thrilled – there is nothing we love more. Shari is tired, but true to form she comes electrically alive – ever the life of the party – and teaches around the campfire until we are all happily exhausted and ready for bed. She moves effortlessly from English to Spanish and back again and makes sure that every part of the conversation is translated in both languages. Sometimes the laughter is delayed as a story is passed into the other language, but this has the effect of prolonging the mirth in a kind of wave as the punch line is caught and carried.  Shari’s gift of translation coupled with her love of teaching and watching others connect and learn has turned what could have been a slightly awkward, quiet evening into a night of laughter and exuberant relating. A simple, yet profound experience. Sometimes I think this is all we really need.

A picture begins to emerge, like a black-and-white photo in the darkroom solution tray, and it comes to me that we should interview Fernando if he is willing. At 21, he is the youngest lanchero we have ever seen here. I sense a story, and at FtG, to follow the story means more than sharing news or a journalistic point of view. To quote our new friend, Terry Tempest Williams,

I simply wish to bear witness to the places we traveled and the people we met, and give voice to the beauty and devastation of both. To bear witness is not a passive act.

In rural cultures, so much of what is learned is passed from one generation to the next; father to son, mother to daughter; father to daughter, mother to son. At least that is how it used to be. In the US, the average age of a farmer is sixty-something. Ways of life and centuries-old traditions are dying out all over the world. Languages are lost forever. And yet, mentorship and guidance are not exclusive to an old-world or indigenous way of life. Mentorship and guidance from one’s elders are necessary in order to learn how to take one’s place in the community, to fulfill a vital and essential role in the wholeness of life. It is this that concerns me for our current and coming generations. It is this that draws me to understand more. I want to hear Fernando’s story, and I have a feeling that there is something in it that the students need to hear as well.

Director’s Notes: March 21, 2011

The FtG group gathered before entering the painted caves in Catavina

March 21, 2011

Dear readers,

Many have written begging for more posts, more photos, more tales from the wilds of our journey in Baja California. We are doing our best to chronicle our experiences even as they unfold. Our journals and SD cards are rich with stories of image and word, but getting them formed and posted is always a challenge on the road, especially here in the land of sparse electricity, let alone internet. Thank you for wanting more. Thank you also for your patience, and we will deliver whenever and however we can. We hope you enjoy today’s offerings. We are well, we are safe, we are learning. Life here is an overflowing cup and sometimes we are scrambling to catch the overflow. Today is our last day at Laguna Ojo de Liebre with the whales. Tomorrow we start north again and head to Ensenada and our time there. As always, more to come!

Debra and Tom

 

Photo by Annabelle

Gallery

Director’s Notes: March 18, 2011

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March 18, 2011 Director’s Notes Looking back from Baja California, to Salt Lake City, Utah Feb 24-March 4, 2011   From the previous post, so as to segue into our next moment: …the plan is to tie in our lessons … Continue reading