More than a Field School
By Tania Lewis, Wildlife Biologist at Glacier Bay National Park, and President of Inian Islands Institute’s Board of Directors
Do you remember the first time you fell in love with something wild? Maybe it was the waves pounding on the sand when you first saw the ocean, or a group of deer grazing peacefully when you began wandering the woods, or a deep green pool of a cascading mountain creek on your first backpack trip. For many of us, these early memories shape our lives, how we live, where we travel to, and how we devote our life’s work. Experiences in wild places generally make human beings feel profoundly good, connected to a larger universe, less alone. Research has shown that spending time in nature decreases anxiety and increases feelings of empathy and altruism. These feelings lead to healthy stewardship of our land, resources, and community. Many of us believe that connecting people to nature may be our best shot at turning this world around.
A basic goal of Inian Islands Institute is to turn young people on to nature and facilitate their connections with the natural world and each other. Inian Islands Institute will do this using four areas of focus: environmental education, scientific research, sustainability, and community. By teaching environmental education in a remote Alaskan wilderness setting, we hope to inspire appreciation and awe of nature and thereby the next generation of environmental advocates and leaders. Scientific research of the ecology and socioeconomics of Southeast Alaska not only provides a way for students to learn about the area, but also provides an opportunity to help work on solutions for specific problems facing this ecosystem. Sustainability, or the ability to obtain food and resources locally without impairment, is a key to reduce the use of fossil fuels as well as connect people to our local environment. We will teach sustainability through gardening, fishing, foraging and other survival skills that will in turn feed our community. We will create a community in which love, healthy communication, empathy and trust are more important that individual achievement and personal gain. Students and staff will be immersed in an environment of learning, growing, and connecting with each other and the land and ocean surrounding them.
The perfect location for this transformative field school is the Hobbit Hole. Right now I am at the Hobbit Hole caretaking with my husband Eric and 12 year old daughter Ula over the winter holidays. We have spent a portion of each winter here since Ula was four, and are deeply grateful for this time. Although we live in the small nearby town of Gustavus, between school, work, projects and friends we usually feel pretty busy. Here we have few distractions – no social engagements, no driving, no shopping, no schedules. Our days unfold spontaneously, dependent only on the weather and our moods. As a family we decide the day’s adventure: a kayak trip through Middle Pass, a hike to Magic Beach, or perhaps we should hunt for deer if our meat supply is low. It is hard to describe the clarity and quiet of a mind without distraction, but it feels delicious. I think this clarity and peace is essential for profound learning to take place, and for this the Hobbit Hole is an ideal place. In addition, the Inian Islands are located where Icy Strait meets the Gulf of Alaska, between old growth forested islands to the south and retreating ice fields to the north, making it an ideal place for research. The area is rich in resources such as salmon, deer, wood, and water that can be utilized sustainably. And the isolation promotes community; with so few people we learn to depend on each other that much more.
I feel fortunate to have been involved in Inian Islands Institute for over a year now, and for me it is much more than a field school. Inian Islands Institute is a new way of life. A new way modeled after an older way, in which people looked out for each other and only took what they needed. A place where time slows down, where we make space to watch and listen and be part of the natural world. A place where all beings on this planet are respected and revered. A model of a community in which humans are a healthy part of a greater whole, to inspire positive change across the planet, and maybe even just turn this world around.