|Vuya Village- view of the village where Brooke McDavid lives|
|Brooke McDavid having kava in her home with friends|
|Launching the mangrove nursery|
By Brooke McDavid
SNRAS graduate student
I spent the first part of my twenties planning on going into wilderness management. Two summers ago you would have found me at least a day or two's walk from the nearest road on one side of a two-person crosscut saw, clearing trail. It is the time of year when summer in America is winding down and I can't help but miss the crisp mountain air. Now, you will find me in a rural Fijian village where the air is all but crisp. This is the quick and dirty of how I got from alpine to shoreline.
For people with an affinity for open spaces, wilderness is the humdinger. Protected by Congress from development, these areas are vast and wild chunks of the American landscape. The Wilderness Act describes these areas thus:
A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.It paints a pretty picture. Even people who have never gone, nor intend to go, into the backcountry can agree: Something about wilderness is wonderful; knowing there are some places where man is humbled, removed from the top of the food chain. Wild places make my heart sing. To head off the beaten track, rely on your own primitive skills, and be absorbed into the landscape is a worthwhile challenge. These places are gorgeous! Where else can you fall asleep under the stars after skinny dipping in a glacial lake and having dinner over a fire while wolves howl at the moon?
It was wonderful, those three seasons I spent “lost” in the woods. I'm pretty nostalgic about them. Wilderness was, and is, my escape. It is something I am passionate about and enjoy. However, at some point I had a revelation that although it was a great job, maybe my battle should be fought elsewhere. Looking across one alpine basin, I realized that area was already protected, someone had fought to protect it so that we, the public, could enjoy it. And I also realized that there are still plenty of other places in need of protection -- open places people need to use for purposes other than recreation, places people make their livelihoods. Indeed, nature has intrinsic value worth protecting, but it also has utilitarian value.
Additionally, I realized wilderness is kind of a silly “Western world” concept. We were so carried away on the H.M.S. Manifest Destiny that we had to do something to keep ourselves from destroying everything. Though I recognized I still wanted to work in land management, I wondered if there wasn't a way to do it differently -- a way in which people, landowners, communities have a healthy relationship with the environment in which, yes, humans are very much a natural part.
Sub-Arctic to the South Pacific
I decided to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks pursuing a master's of science in natural resources management (NRM). I had fallen in love with Alaska on a backpacking trip there during my undergraduate education, and UAF was one of the few schools with the Peace Corps Master's International program in NRM. Peace Corps was something I had always wanted to do, so why not combine graduate research with a real-world, enriching experience? It seemed like a unique opportunity.
After a year of classes and surviving my first Alaskan winter, I received an invitation to serve in Fiji as a PC Volunteer in the environment sector. Wow, universe! Could you not think of a more contrasting environment? I boxed up my parkas and, well, here I am!
I have been in Fiji for well over a year now. Indeed, parts of the transition were challenging. I am one of the more “remote” volunteers in my group, but it doesn't feel that way. There is a dirt road and a bus. I have a house and a sit-down toilet. My challenge has not been foregoing first world luxuries, but finding my place as a highly independent person in a communal society.
For a year it was roosters and drums with the sunrise, laundry by hand, no electricity. Barefoot dances and late night kava circles. It was grow your own food and share it with your neighbors. Day long bus rides, church on Sunday, and hot, hot sun. It was uncomfortable clothes, dreams of snow, and always standing out. Then one day I fell in love with it all. I was no longer living in a foreign place, I was at home.
It helps that I am doing work that I love. As a Peace Corps Volunteer my role has been to facilitate planning for community development and to build capacity among villagers in regard to sustainable management of terrestrial and marine resources. We're working on a variety of projects including creating a locally managed marine protected area, mangrove restoration, waste management, vegetable gardening, and small business development.
Coming Around Full Circle
As it turns out some of the same things I love about Alaska are the same things I love about Fiji. Both places have rugged and beautiful landscapes where people depend directly on natural resources for their health and livelihoods. This aside, in both places it appears to be a challenge for many to see the benefits of planning for development and land management. In my opinion, it seems desirable to work together to create united visions for the places we love, whether that be a wilderness area, a village, or a downtown. Planning does not restrict us, but provides a way to find practical solutions and consensus on contested issues. It can empower people to achieve their goals.
I have learned so much since spending my first season in the wilderness. I have left behind environmental idealism and adopted a view of conservation that, by default, cannot exclude people. I have been lucky to have my “First World bubble” popped. A few years ago I would have considered myself “anti-development,” but now a better description would be “champion for smart growth.” You cannot remain anti-development when you begin to understand the very real ramifications of poverty that the majority of the world faces.
We are all connected, from Fairbanks to Fiji to France. We all depend on each other and our earth whether we like to admit it or not. We can choose to focus on our differences or we can choose to seek common ground. We can choose to plow recklessly forward or we can strive for smart growth. We each need to challenge ourselves to step outside of our comfort zone and see the world from other perspectives. By working together we can find sustainable ways to create a future we desire.
Serving in the Peace Corps has been one of the best decisions of my life. It is true what they say, that it's the toughest job you'll ever love. It is amazing what you can learn when you just let yourself be open to new experiences. My heart is torn between the frozen tundra and the tropical shoreline, but these two places aren't as different as I expected.
|Brooke McDavid carries an antique crosscut on top of Selden Pass (10,870 feet) in the John Muir Wilderness, Sierra National Forest (2008)|
|Brooke McDavid says goodbye to Alaska in Denali National Park before heading to Fiji, May 2011|
|Brooke McDavid in Alaska|