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The Hard Work of the Physical vs. The Hard Work of Words

<d a lot of expectations about how returning to the wilderness was going to give me space to think. Looking back through the journal I kept in the Canyon, I found that I wrote mostly personal reflections, and I think I did come away with several important personal realizations.

I remembered, as I always do, how much I like hard work–that tired feeling that comes with it–and the comfort of knowing you have everything you need on your back. I remembered how much I love what Sigurd Olson calls the “simple life,” where eating, sleeping, and moving are enough to keep you occupied and happy. My previous wilderness experiences have helped me to realize my best self is the one that lives like this: where being kind and working hard are all that matter.
It was nice to revisit my past and return to being someone I am proud of being. However, I think our time in the Canyon helped me realize something more important than that. Our meetings with the Park Ranger Trainers, with the manager and environmental head of the concessioner company Xanterra–these experiences taught me more about our place in the world, not just my place in my life.

In our group reflection at the end of two weeks, many of us commented that we went into these meetings with certain expectations–e.g., we expected the worst from the concessioner Xanterra, we expected a complicated picture from the Rangers. However, as we discovered, both the National Park System and the Xanterra corporation are extremely complex entities, and contain individuals that are in fact working to shift their economic and affective forces so that they do better: so that they do good. These systems, in short, are filled with humans–and often, caring ones.

Now, with that said, Xanterra is still a profit-based company. The National Park System is still a government agency. Both systems are incredibly large and hard for one person to effect change within. And yet, both are also entirely susceptible to the hard work that people do.
In the Canyon, I came to understand just how complicated and constantly changing these institutions actually are. I was very inspired by the tangible work that both are doing, including the ban on bottled water in the park and Xanterra’s sustainable marketing in the lodge rooms regarding recycling and water conservation. The big entities I thought were permanent are shifting, and the realization that systems I don’t like are not permanent is a consequential one in terms of my struggle with feeling small and uninfluential.

The other important conclusion to draw from this experience is that the people in these systems are working just as hard as I worked when I was hiking out of the Canyon. For me, it is much easier to give my all to something that is tangible and physical: I can set my mind to hiking 8 miles on a rough trail, and then do it. I know that I will be tired at the end of the day, and probably have blisters and sore muscles, but I also know that I will enjoy dinner more because of it, and sleep well that night. It is easy to put my mind to it because I can trust my body to do it, and can trust that this work will ease my mind.

It is much harder, however, for me to apply that kind of work ethic to things that are not tangible, and this is what connects to my life at Carleton. I find myself submitting half-baked papers to professors, with good ideas and poor executions. I justify my actions with the typical “No fucks left to give” mindset. In the effort to preserve my sanity, I distance myself from my work, and don’t make connections between Carleton work and meaningful work in the real world.

What I am discovering this term, with research projects that make me go out into the world and talk to people and do tangible things, is that schoolwork very much can make a difference. It can impact the way bigger systems work.

Just as the people we met working in the Park are doing their small parts, our work at Carleton doesn’t have to be written off as undergraduate garbage. It can–and does–make a difference whether we work hard or write work off as meaningless. Because, in the end, isn’t submitting a half-assed paper the same thing as eating raw potatoes for dinner or sleeping in a half-pitched tent? Why is it that, when we don’t depend on something directly for our survival, the quality of its existence is allowed to go out the window?

Making this connection between the hard work of the physical world and the hard work of words is where we can find meaning within the academic sphere. I still want to live the simple life, of working and eating and sleeping. But I think the systems of society are important enough, are malleable enough, that I can make a bigger difference than just that–and so here I am, tiredly typing on, trying to carve meaning out of my keyboard, blindly trusting that it exists and that my fingers can carry me to it.

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