Tracing Darwin’s Path: Dec. ’08-Jan. ’09

Emilys.JPGIt didn’t actually hit me until I got off the airplane in Punta Arenas. Everything had gone so quickly – finals, Christmas, and suddenly I was in southern Chile, tracing Darwin’s path. I had first heard about Omora Ethnobotanical Park from Dr. Kurt Heidinger, a former professor of mine who had taught the first class in the Tracing Darwin’s Path series. Although it took three years, I finally secured funding through a grant offered by the Environmental Research Institute at Vassar College, where I go to school. After all I had heard about Omora and the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve, I was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to experience it.

And what an experience it was. As an Environmental Studies major at Vassar, I often discuss with my classmates what wilderness means, what nature means, and how we as humans can make sense of it all. Growing up in Connecticut, I spent a lot of time in second-growth forests. At Vassar, I’ve spent time researching an urban stream that runs through our campus. Suddenly I was hiking up to Los Dientes, following the Río Róbalo, learning what a steam is actually supposed to look like and how it’s actually supposed to function. It may not be completely “pristine,” but it was the closest I’ve ever gotten to it.

Tracing Darwin’s Path put my entire college education into context. The biocultural conservation paradigm articulated many of the things I intuitively felt about environmentalism, especially the idea of reciprocity and respect toward both the land and other human beings. The idea of “changing lenses” was also a very powerful one for me. Sitting at our campsite along the Róbalo, with the sharp-toothed peaks of Los Dientes in the background, I discovered my own environmental ethics. I finally had time to read, to experience, and to think for myself; this particular moment was extremely empowering.

The experiences we shared in the course were unique and absolutely incredible. I am so grateful that I was able to participate in this course, which combined science and philosophical thought in a way that was both relevant and inspiring. It allowed me to view landscapes large and small in a completely different way. As I return to my urban watershed and my suburban home, I continue to think about we interact with our ecosystems, both symbolically and physically – and in that way, I suppose, I am still very much a student of the program.

There is much more to say, but very few words in which to express it.

Much love,

Emily Vail
Vassar College 2009