By Stephen Rodriguez, Phase I Fellow
I swing the heavy steel mattock over my shoulder and down into the wet, sweet-scented soil once more, while working with Pen and Patrick to dig out the dwindling upper spring in search of fresh, crystalline water. “You boys have earned yourselves a hot shower tonight!” Pen assures us. “After all, you’re working towards the most important resource on this mountain. There’s no life without water.” We take turns digging deeper into the hillside and shoveling out the loose dirt and clay, occasionally pausing to hack through spruce roots that are thicker than a baseball bat and twice as dense, unsure of how far we will have to dig to reach and amend the spring’s dam. When at last the clean water pushes its way out of the dirt and into the muddy puddle that has formed around the outsoles of our boots, I feel as if I am seeing the glistening heart of the mountain for the very first time. There is something miraculous about the potential of water. It is the life in every plant we grow and every tree that shades us. It drifts overhead in the clouds and glides over rocks beneath our feet. It fills our cupped hands and quenches our thirst. Our work on the spring is only half-done, but we have found what we desired, like mountain climbers who have reached the summit.
At times, hiking down the abandoned logger paths that traverse the woods on AMI’s campus, I imagine my footsteps as the course of a transient stream. When I go on hikes, I don’t always know where I’m going or how easily I’ll find my way back to the Lodge. I do, however, know that I will come back with a renewed sense of inner peace and respect for nature. Lately, I’ve been trying to learn more about plant and mushroom identification, having felt inspired by the foraging workshops we’ve had, led by Pen, Charlie Aller, and Luke Cannon. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is that the slower you go, the more you see. Last week, while returning from a solo hike, I saw something glowing out of the corner of my eye. It was an incredibly beautiful mushroom, like a luminous piece of white coral, resting on the forest floor. When I looked it up, I found out it is called a Black-Staining Polypore, and is edible. After doing a little more research on the mushroom (and quadruple checking to make sure there were no toxic look-alikes!), I decided to harvest it for food. Upon harvesting the mushroom, I felt an unexpected sense of solemnity wash over me. This was an undoubtedly different kind of gift than the water from the spring. The more I observe the Fungi kingdom, the more I feel humbled by its wisdom and intricacy.
As we move past the halfway point of Phase I of the AMI Fellowship, I feel increasingly aware of the brevity of our time as Fellows to explore this space and get to know each other. For my Capstone project, I’ve chosen to create maps of some of the old trails and logger paths, in hopes of facilitating future Fellows’ exploration of the mountain. This project has given me more opportunities to explore the woods and go on walks with other members of my own cohort. It has also given me chances to connect with members of the surrounding communities who share a love of the outdoors. Though my time on the mountain is limited, and I have no way of knowing where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing a year from now, I do know that I’ll carry the human and non-human interactions I’ve gained here with me wherever I go. To me, that’s the lasting joy and wonder of crossing paths.