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Conversations with a Mountain

Rochelle Strassner

Guyana and the Makushi culture/people, went from being something I had never heard of, to a country and culture I will never forget.

My experience in Guyana this past summer was filled with academic, cultural, and personal exploration. Learning about traditional farming practices, interacting with a local youth nature group, participating in the extensive and intricate process of preparing cassava, and traversing a forest shared by howler monkeys and harpy eagles, are just a few examples of how we spent our time.

Conservation and culture were so seamlessly intertwined throughout this course, and really offered a different perspective and approach towards conservation efforts. How and should indigenous ecological knowledge be considered when designing conservation projects? What are the benefits? What are some possible challenges? How do you preserve this knowledge in a rapidly changing world? It’s a lot to consider.

Enter stage right – the mountain.

A lot of wonderful and thought provoking information and experiences were provided, and I found myself taking most unplanned moments to get lost in my thoughts, high up on the mountain in the distance.

I had never seen that many different shades of green within a landscape.

I had never been immersed into a culture so dedicated to traditional ecological knowledge.

I had never experienced conservation initiatives so focused and driven by traditional knowledge – which was, unfortunately, being lost.

Being able to process all that I was doing and really appreciate the environment that I was lucky enough to call my classroom, ended up being a really important part of my journey in Guyana. Through this overall experience I was able to think about cultural and conservation issues in a way that I never would have been able to in a traditional classroom setting.

When most people think about graduate school they think about desks, classrooms, tests, and lectures. When most people think about graduate school they don’t usually think about the type of immersive learning that I experienced in Guyana. It’s one thing to read about a culture and how it influences conservation practices, but it’s another thing to be able to listen to community elders speak about their experiences, help tend to a traditional farm, and learn biodiversity tracking methods from an experienced indigenous ranger.

Education and learning should not only be focused on the amount of course material students gain, but also focus on the student’s understanding of themselves and the “real world,” and how to connect both (Orr, 1994). Now, don’t get me wrong – I learned plenty in terms of course material, but the connections and parallels to my every-day life are the learnings I value most.

Being able to connect to real places, real people, and real issues instead of just reading about them is an extremely valuable educational process that is highly underutilized in the education system. My time spent in Guyana was eye opening and allowed for a richer perspective on global environmental issues. Guyana was a country that I never even knew existed, but now their environmental issues are something I am invested in.

Having (internal) conversations with a mountain is not an experience many people can say that they have done, but one I would recommend everyone try. They are great conversationalists, encourage reflection, offer multiple centuries of traditional knowledge and perspectives, and allow for a connection and understanding to a place in a way you wouldn’t expect.


References:

Orr, D. (1994). What is education for? In Earth in mind (pp. 7-14). Washington, DC: Island Press.

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