Sixteen days. 225-plus miles. Too many blisters to count. And most notably, a firsthand knowledge of Northern California’s history of sustainability and social justice. Along with 16 other undergraduates and 4 staff members, I recently returned from SCU’s Walk Across California, a Spring course that ends (or begins, depending on how you look at it) with a trek from Ocean Beach in San Francisco to Yosemite Valley.
The brainchild of Theater and Dance Associate Professor David Popalisky, Walk Across California aims for students to view the Golden State in a new light: investigating the historical relationship between Californian people and their environments, while experiencing these encounters in a modern setting. Additionally, participants choose an artistic medium for aesthetic reflection acknowledging the natural world, human relationships, and inner spirituality that developed along the trip. Essentially, the class combines environmental and social justice learning with collaborative--yet also highly personal--hands-on engagement. Students in the course satisfy both their Arts requirement and Experiential Learning in Social Justice (ELSJ) requirement.
From the start of our journey, the people we met were inspiring examples of leaders in sustainability. Walking through impoverished West Oakland, we came across People’s Grocery, an urban garden food cooperative whose main goal is to create a healthy community. With programs like the Growing Justice Institute, People’s Grocery help build the local food system by educating people on growing, cooking, and sharing their knowledge on healthy ingredients. We were also fortunate enough to stay a night in the fields of Enos Family Farms, an organic operation in Brentwood, where we learned about the difficulties facing non-conventional, small-scale farms. These places perfectly embodied the values of SCU’s Food, Hunger, Poverty & the Environment Pathway - established with insight from SCU’s Food and Agribusiness Institute - which the Walk Across California course is associated with.
As we walked further and encountered the diversity of the Californian landscape, the medley of cultures also became more evident. From impromptu discussions with ranchers in the Central Valley to the Mi-Wuk tribe’s spiritual relationship with the land, we found that although people take very different approaches towards their environment, the overall sense of stewardship is the same. Witnessing the peaceful activism at the Sierra EcoSUMMIT Festival in Groveland, our group gained a deeper understanding of the human instinct to connect with nature.
Nearing Yosemite, the destruction caused by last year’s Rim Fire was obvious - often, burnt trees would cover every mountain around us. In the Pines National Forest, we met with a U.S. Forest Service Ranger who explained the complex role of managing forest resources, especially logging rights and wildfires. The truth is hardly as simple as Smokey the Bear: choosing which fires to let be as natural processes, and which ones to halt as a threat to humans, is a highly debated subject. The Rim Fire’s widespread devastation was due in part to an overload of highly flammable “hazard trees” left by wildfire suppression over the past several decades. The fire reminds us of the consequences of disturbing the rhythm of the natural world, and the elaborate planning that must go into resource management.
My studies in the Environmental Studies & Sciences Department have opened up a world of information to me. Yet, the Walk Across California was an experience that taught me much more than I could learn in a classroom. The act of walking, rather than driving, slowed things down considerably and gave me time to take in my surroundings. Seeing the variability in these people and their habitats, but also their dedication to a more sustainable way of life, is inspiring for the future of the planet.
If you’d like to learn more about the Walk and see the group’s aesthetic reflections, visit the upcoming Fall exhibit at the de Saisset Museum. Also check out this recent article in The Santa Clara newspaper and this GoPro video montage!
Contributed by Blair Libby ‘16, Intern, Waste Diversion
Photos by Analisa Fuentes ‘16 and Brian Droz ‘15