|Society for Wilderness Stewardship|
I don’t know how the idea became lodged in my head, but for a few years now, I’ve thought that graduating from college meant that I would finally be free to explore Montana (my native state): its people, its physical and political landscapes, its history, and its role in determining my sense of place and my working definition of “home.” I still grasp tightly the idea of traveling around the state in my cherry-red Subaru, Roxanne, with my vintage Raleigh, Ramona, strapped to her hatchback, but I am learning – and will continue to learn in the course of this Spring semester – that my exploration doesn’t have to be and will not be limited to my post-graduate education. No, it has begun in the form of an internship with the Society for Wilderness Stewardship (SWS). I have taken these learning objectives and applied them to a project hardly-begun for the SWS. The project, which will be published under the Society’s new writing series NextGen Horizons in Wilderness and Civilization, will be a collection of articles – character sketches, really – gleaned from interviews I will be a part of this Spring. First, though, a bit about the SWS.
The SWS is an infant of an organization guided by principles based on professional wilderness stewardship practices. The group is “committed to working together with those interested in securing the highest level of professional practice [and works to] maintain an environment that fosters respect, participation, innovation, and the highest ethical standards of conduct.” Their philosophies are grounded in a belief in and a want for sound scientific practices, collaboration between disciplines, nurturing public trust in private and public organizations, and professional excellence among like-minded scientists, managers, educators, government and private conservation workers, volunteers, students, [and] the public.”
My own NextGen collection – under the working title, “They Came to Wilderness” – will be a collection of character sketches written with the purpose of illuminating the career paths and objectives of stewardship professionals. I have lined up interviews with individuals in the Forest Service, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe(s), and former Wilderness & Civilization participants, as well as Montana cattle ranchers, co-operative farmers, and others – all to learn how their careers have changed, how their interpretation of the wilderness (or Wilderness) concept has evolved, and how Montana has played into their professional and personal identities. In order to adequately and purposefully execute these interviews, I sought the help of Dr. Alan Watson, a social scientist working at the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute here in Missoula, Montana. Watson recently presented a lecture to the Missoula public for the Wilderness Institute’s 2015 Wilderness Lecture Series called, “It’s Bigger than Wilderness: Transformative Realizations from Doing Wilderness Science.” The following is an excerpt from my response to that presentation:
Watson, I learned, studies the phenology of varying regions around the United States by translating quantitative and qualitative data collected in the field into what I will call here, environmental conflict resolution. His methodologies, especially in gathering qualitative data, can been seen as a literal bridge between wilderness and civilization; the interviews and surveys he conducts – both vital aspects of his duties as a social scientist for the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute – allow him and his colleagues to evaluate the social and physical effects of land use.
Dr. Alan Watson. Photo courtesy of the
Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute
Watson’s job, like most, is a job overwhelmed by binaries: nature/society; knowledge/wisdom; untrammeled/uncorrupted landscapes; tracks/trails; storied/empty landscapes; land users/managers, etc. These dichotomous abstracts – they are, indeed, abstracts: social constructs of a perceived reality – all culminate, for Watson, in tradeoffs, in ultimate compromise. I left Watson’s presentation feeling the ambiguousness of these binaries. [. . .] He has come to value the uncertainty that has been a part of so many of the stories he’s collected; he has learned to embrace the discovery process of his research. Discovery and research seem synonymous with one another, but when you’re a researcher and an academic of Watson’s standing, discovery – in an exciting, aha! kind of way – becomes, I imagine, increasingly evasive. He is also acutely aware that everyone he encounters in the wilderness has a story to tell, and thus, has a perspective unlike any he has previously encountered.
After hearing Watson speak about stories he’s collected from the field, I felt it necessary to speak with him further regarding his aforementioned research methodologies.
Watson is an approachable character, despite his title and the seeming endless amount of information that he can deliver. He has a father’s mustache and a head of salt-and-pepper curls that are unexplainably inviting. Our two hours in his office on-campus flew fast, and the advice he was able to give me about the interview and survey processes have already proved invaluable. Beyond speaking to me about qualitative and quantitative research and analysis, Watson expressed a profound appreciation for the research process – an appreciation that stems from the art (and it is, indeed, an art) of asking the right questions. What is the most important question? I haven’t yet found it, but thanks to Watson, I know now where to look for it.
I am a creative writer (not this semester, it turns out; writer’s block is real, folks), and I so appreciate this opportunity to combine the practice of writing and the practice of storytelling with my deepening interest and investment in land stewardship. This internship will be, I can already tell, an instrumental beginning to my own discoveries in and of Montana, and will be, I hope, the catalyst for something great.
To learn more about the Society for Wilderness Stewardship, jump on over to:
To learn more about the Wilderness Lecture Series, go to:
And to learn more about the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, visit: