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Gaining an Understanding

By Sarah Sinnema, Communication Studies major, Climate Change Studies minor
Sunday, August 21, 2011

We pull off the road alongside what I would previously have called a swamp, and untangle our eleven plus bodies out of the vehicles.  Andrea Stephens greets us with a glowing smile, looking ready to jump into the murky water in her thigh high waders.  I’ve got to confess, the last thing I want to do is walk into this pool of water.  Every sort of buzzing insect is zipping above the water, floating debris are in various stages of wet decay on the surface, and who-knows-what is living below, out of sight.  But adventure beckons and we put on our waders and prepare to get wet.    
             
The water is cold as it fills my boots with each step deeper into what I now know is a vernal wetland.  Vernal meaning this pool only fills with water as spring melts the snow, and the late summer sun will dry it out again. 
           
Waders and wetlands mix well. Photo by Nicky Phear.We gather around Andrea, who’s urging us deeper and deeper into the water.  Her striking enthusiasm is enough to get us exploring—picking up predacious diving beetles and slick frogs and salamanders.  If you had told me ten days ago I would be up to my knees in this questionably dirty water, I would have laughed and replied, “Uhh, I hope not!”  But traipsing around this pool, I’m having fun exploring, and honestly, I’m impressed by the diversity of this small ecosystem. 

Before meeting with Andrea, and delving into the murky waters of a mountain wetland, I did not know anything about them.  Without that basic understanding, I in turn never thought much about their value for the surrounding area.  But standing thigh deep in it, I’m beginning to understand their capacity to provide water and services for the surrounding forested lands, and Andrea’s excitement sparks a growing interest in us all. 
           
As the day advances, a major theme of our experiences today, and on this trip in general, is dawning on me.  I’m realizing how pivotal experiences are in fostering an understanding—of nature, of a group of people, of any concept or idea in the world.  You never know what you enjoy, and what pisses you off until you experience it.  Having an experience to call upon later also helps solidify information, making it relevant and tangible.  And it connects information to emotions, which can propel us into action. 
           
On the first night of our course, we met with Dan Fagre, U.S.G.S. Research Ecologist studying the effects of climate change on mountain ecosystems.  Dan presented photos from an exhibit titled, “Glacier: 100 years of change,” a series of time-lapse photos documenting the melting glaciers.  Dan commented that the public often does not want to see the data charts and graphs that scientists pour their work into year after year, instead people want to see those simplistic pictures.  The easily interpreted, visual testament to a warming planet has been well received, and furthermore, it provided an experience for viewers.  There is no refuting an experience.

Sarah Sinnema (center) exploring the peat-forming fen wetland. Photo by Nicky Phear.You might understand an experience differently than another participant/observer of the same experience, but there is a process of understanding and value judgment that occurs all the same.  What is so pivotal about experience then, is that it fosters engagement that creates an opportunity for learning, and leads to either valuing or devaluing the event, or visual, or interaction.  

After our day in the wetland, I now care to know that there are important ecosystem services occurring in those murky waters, and I will be able to make an informed decision if ever asked to help protect, or educate about them.

And that’s exactly why we need to get out there and have as many new experiences as we can in life. Because without them, we walk around not caring about so many issues—big and small—and misunderstanding them in ways that create divisions amongst otherwise similar people. And we are hidden from the truth of our own feelings by relying on someone else’s experience and interpretation to make decisions about political, social, and environmental issues. But the more we get out, meet new people, pledge to find the common ground, the more experiences we will have and the more we will understand. If there is one thing I have learned on this trip, it is that school can be fantastic fun if it is on top of a mountain, or in a swamp—it is simply all about the experience.