Pan & Empanadas

Halfway through our time in Llapallapani and after another long 10-12 hour day, I reach the top of our climb from the work site to the community center. I’ve adjusted somewhat to the altitude, but I’m still slightly winded after the walk. From an exercise perspective, they say it takes 3-6 weeks to fully acclimate from sea level to high altitude and my fitness-driven ego takes comfort in that knowledge.


Ishmael’s oven is out back, to the left

Adam is speaking with a community member outside when I reach the community center and they keep looking at me. Am I breathing that hard, I fret. “Ishmael wants you to bake bread with him. The kind we have for breakfast,” Adam translates. I awkwardly look around to see if he could be speaking to anyone else and blurt, “Me? Why me?” Adam shrugs and confirms Ishmael is specifically asking for me.

The wood-fired outdoor ovens towering outside many—if not all—the village homes have not gone unnoticed and I was certainly not going to pass up this opportunity. “Let me clean up, then I’ll be right there.” However Adam chose to translate my response, it gets the point across.


Forming the patties

Showered and dressed in clean clothes (translation: 2 body wipes + deodorant + my
other, non-work, set of clothes), I make my way next door to Ishmael’s. He greets me and escorts me to where Señora Ishmael is preparing the bread dough. They have already portioned off into balls of dough so our task is to form the patties. I’m too late to help form the empanadas (the same dough + cheese in the middle), but not to pat my share of upwards of 100 patties. Next step: prepping the oven.

Like the pre-prepped dough balls, Ishmael has already seen to gathering firewood—long, spindly dried branches and twigs piled high outside. He demonstrates by picking off a handful, breaking it so it fits into the oven, and then tossing it through the opening into the blaze. Aha! Breaking firewood is something I know how to do. When the branches don’t make it back far enough into the oven we use a long stick, charred at the end, to push it back. The stick is quenched in a bucket of water, its sizzle sparking memories of soldering in high school jewelry-making class.

Time is ephemeral here, with the height of the woodpile and heat of the oven the only indicators of its passage. Eventually Ishmael signals me to stop stoking the fire and gestures to a seat. He has fresh (wet) greenery tied to the end of a stick like a broom and uses it to sweep the hot embers and ashes outside the oven through a side window. He then takes what appears to be a dried version of the greenery hanging next to the oven and “seasons” the oven with it before replacing it with the fresh greenery for next time. Even the oven “broom” is used in its entirety in the process.

Señora Ishmael arrives with the patties arranged on several trays that Ishmael deposits into the oven using what looks like a pizza peel. And then we wait.

After the right amount of time, Ishmael motions to me and indicates it’s time to flip the patties quickly. One-by-one he pulls out the trays and we use our fingers to flip the (scalding) patties before they return for final baking. And then we wait.

It’s peaceful, sitting by Ishmael watching the flames flicker, relishing the utter silence of the moment. Time is easier to let go out here. I can release the constant nagging that I have something to do because here I need nothing more than to be.

After the right amount of time, Ishmael motions to me and indicates it’s time to pull the freshly-baked pan out and into the big basket sitting ready. The next batch goes in. And then we wait.


Fresh empanadas are heavenly (especially after days of stale pan)

But waiting this time is filled with fresh pan to savor. At home, I’ve always said nothing is better than bread fresh out of the oven. Here, it’s a world above that experience—and not just because we’re up around 3,048 meters (10,000 feet) in elevation. I’ve been around made-from-scratch bread making at home, treasuring the process (and results). But those are gas or electric ovens. Here, building and seasoning the flames is just as integral to the experience as caring for a yeast culture or hand-forming loaves. And you can taste it.

Note: More photos of the journey can be found here.


Engineering for Development

We expected it. The lack of resources in Llapallapani, that is. But that doesn’t mean answers come easily at the job site.

With only 1 (finicky) power outlet, we needed someone to hold the plug into the extension cord to get power to the drills. What we lack in equipment we must make up for in manpower.

With only 1 (finicky) power outlet, we need someone to hold the plug into the extension cord to get power to the drills. What we lack in equipment we must make up for in manpower.

I am told more planning went into this particular bridge than any previous Bridges to Prosperity project. Faced with a 128-meter suspension bridge, our work plans are full of well-researched process details. Photos of similar bridge erections. Fifty-four pages of work descriptions, crew make-up and support needs, material descriptions, tool requirements, PPE, estimated schedule, safety and quality risks, preventative/corrective measures, and more for each major component:

  1. Scaffolding  |  Erect scaffold for tower trip and access and remove before launching suspenders
  2. Towers  |  Assemble tower in horizontal position and trip to vertical
  3. Main cables  |  Stage, install, anchor, and set sag in main cables
  4. Cross beams  |  Assemble
  5. Suspenders  |  Launch
  6. Lifeline  |  Stage, install, anchor, set sag, remove lifeline
  7. Decking  |  Space, stagger, and bolt
  8. Spanner cables  |  Install
  9. Wind guys  |  Install and hoist to remove sag
The crew making an evening push to finish the concrete for a wind guy base. The Volcano Method is used to mix the cement and aggregate into concrete.

The crew making an evening push to finish the concrete for a wind guy base. The Volcano Method is used to mix the cement and aggregate into concrete.

But how do people manually trip 2-ton towers to vertical? For that matter, how do we move and hoist those same towers into saddles three meters off the ground in the first place? What can we do to make assembling 127 cross beams more efficient when we only have corded drills and 1 (unreliable) outlet? How long will it take to get more clips/clamps delivered to the site? How do we keep wind guy foundations dry with the water table steadily seeping into the holes and the one or two working water pumps busy serving local farmers? What does “launching suspenders” actually look like in action? How can we mix concrete reliably without a concrete truck or portable drum-mixer?

Each day we find a new challenge that we don’t entirely anticipate. Our solutions get more creative (desperate?) with each passing day.

I overhear Neil giving members a morning pep talk early on during the project. “Keep working hard,” Neil says. “We have experienced American engineers who are here now and only for a limited time. Seize the opportunity to build yourself a bridge.” I have to stifle a self-deprecating snicker. Experienced? Did Neil miss the “Bolivian hammer” (a.k.a., a rock) I just used to connect that suspender and cross beam? Or the way Adam and David have to “go fishing” each time they try and set a main cable?

Kenny employing the American Experience Stick to move launched suspenders down the main cables and make room for more suspenders.

Kenny employing the American Experience Stick to move launched suspenders down the main cables and make room for more suspenders.

We start to call the eucalyptus stick we use to push launched suspenders down the main cables the American Experience Stick.

Perhaps it is the lack of air, but everything seems so damn funny up here. We don’t compromise on safety at the site, and the seriousness of our tasks is not lost on us, but the laughter keeps us going. We feed off it.

I suppose it’s our way of tipping our hats to the fact that, though we bring the engineering and planning experience to the project, our role is as much about providing structure and a timeline. And consistent hands to assemble, legs to climb, and mouths to provide direction in (mostly) broken Spanish.

Llapallapani community members on site. This group of men were some of the most consistent volunteers.

Llapallapani community members on site. This group of men were some of the most consistent volunteers.

But this bridge, it’s not our bridge. We are invested in the project, but the community—they’re invested in the life-changing benefits of such a bridge. We may have spent the last year designing and planning the bridge. But Llapallapani constructed the tower foundations, ramps, and gabion even before we arrive on site. They fed and housed multiple groups of Americans for months. And, perhaps most importantly, the community will be responsible for maintenance of the bridge. That takes ownership. Pride. Investment. Self-policing.

Community members painting the suspenders. These two women were on site nearly every day, tirelessly painting away.

Community members painting the suspenders. These two women were on site nearly every day, tirelessly painting away.

I think this may be one of the biggest lessons I will take home. Community ownership is vital for project success. From ownership grows stewardship for a project once the attention of construction has faded. And that’s just as true for developed countries as it is for developing countries.

Bolivia: What Does the Fox Say?

Packing for two weeks in Llapallapani takes careful consideration. With four flights over a 30-hour timespan to reach La Paz (hell no, I’m not checking a bag), followed by a four to six hour drive with limited vehicle space, necessity supplements my usual motivation to pack light. My two bags—a small backpacking pack and a sport camera pack—carry:

  • 2 sets of sturdy work clothes for construction (one shirt is white. Mistake. I wear the dark shirt for two weeks straight to hide the dirt and grime)
  • 1 set of travel clothes to be kept clean for my return trip (whoever’s flying in 13A and 13C, you’re welcome in advance)
  • 1 set of clothes to change into in the evenings and for sleep
  • 1 pair of worn-in work boots (imprudent is s/he who trusts new boots not to cause blisters when the nearest boot store is a day’s round-trip travel away)
  • 1 pair of sandals for the evenings
  • 1 sleeping bag (the $20 compression stuff sack from REI is well worth the space freed up in my pack)
  • 1 sleeping pad
  • 1 water bladder with in-line Sawyer filter
  • DSLR camera body, two lenses, two batteries, two 32 GB memory cards, cleaning gear
  • GoPro and mounts
  • Passport, immunization records, crisp US bills for visa and money exchange, and other documentation necessities
  • Duct tape (tie dye), flashlights, and miscellaneous camping items
  • Protein bars
  • Toiletries (minimal. Bolivia is a good excuse to leave my daily routine behind)
  • Pens and my fox notebook (if the plans sets don’t show it, sometimes the book has answers)
The locals get it, keeping their feet free in sandals. Most of the male community members wear these sandals made from reused tires.

The locals got it, keeping their feet free in sandals. Most of the male community members wear these sandals made from reused tires.

Critical item? Water filter.

Second best? Sandals. Freedom is feet aired out after a 12-hour day in work boots.

My fox notebook provides solutions throughout our time in Llapallapani. I take my feverish notes from Mairi and the remaining Team 1 members during the one day we have them onsite (they catch a bus across the river at 1 am the next morning…maybe it was The Cruise of The Love).

Pork chop. /pôrk CHäp/ n. a device used to grip cable and hold it in place; shaped like a pork chop of the swine variety.

Pork chop. /pôrk CHäp/ n. a device used to grip cable and hold it in place; shaped like a pork chop of the swine variety.

Most of what I wrote down that first day did not make sense to me at the time. There’s how many different lengths of 5/16 inch wire rope? Never saddle a dead horse relates to construction? We have pork chops onsite? Why does the backstay we are to measure on the pull cables differ on each side?

“The Cruise of the Love”—one of the buses that stop on the road across the river from Llapallapani. The buses have different artwork and words along the exterior in hopes of enticing riders to choose their bus.

"The Cruise of the Love"—one of the buses that stop on the road across the river from Llapallapani. The buses have different artwork and words along the exterior in hopes of enticing riders to choose their bus.

“The Cruise of the Love”—one of the buses that stop on the road across the river from Llapallapani. The buses have different artwork and words along the exterior in hopes of enticing riders to choose their bus.

I call it Brain Dump Day. Just like the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself among native speakers, one of the best—or at least quickest—ways to learn to read plan sets and understand construction terminology and techniques is to have an entire community rely on you, your team, and your ability to make the drawings come to life.

Llapallapani has been prepping the site for its bridge since November 2014. Community members constructed the pedestals and ramps (all that concrete and no concrete truck or even a small, portable mixer drum). They’ve dedicated countless volunteer hours (many of them backbreaking) and significant resources to feed and house the B2P and corporate teams.

Mairi reviews the plan set with Team 2.

Mairi reviews the plan set with Team 2.

One of the first questions I asked when onboarding to this project was why my money was best spent personally traveling to the site rather than donating that money to the local community for the bridge. I was told that having our team onsite lent authenticity and authority to the project (whether that was well-placed is another discussion). We also provided a clear timeline and sense of urgency to stay on schedule—after all, our return flights were leaving regardless of the bridge’s state of construction.

Kenny (estimator, Kiewit), Jolene (engineer, Kiewit), Kirsten (planner, Parsons Brinckerhoff). My dark shirt and camera pack on full display.

Kenny (estimator, Kiewit), Jolene (engineer, Kiewit), Kirsten (planner, Parsons Brinckerhoff). My dark shirt and camera pack on full display.

So here we are, a team of engineers, an estimator, and a planner (any guesses to which one I am?) We have bridge experience. Project management experience. Even some experience with international travel and Spanish. But we soon learn that nearly every decision we make onsite is a combination of that experience and a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your perspective) dose of improvising.

Where are the 1/2 inch clips? Which wire rope is the handrail cable? How do we launch the suspenders? What spacing do we mark the pull cables? How do you say “caution” in Spanish?

*shrugs* What does the fox [notebook] say?

Note: More photos of the journey can be found here.

Bolivia: Same Schedule, Different Day

It’s 3 am and I’m awake. Again. But rather than navigating a bustling airport, I’m now lying in a small room with little protection from the rooster crowing. Exhaustion to the rescue; I’m not awake for long.

Our first full day in Llapallapani sets the stage for our stay. The stories vary each day, though we follow the same schedule:

During the dry season, this pedestrian bridge is used to cross the deepest flowing section of the river. The community fords the river for vehicles and farms the sections of riverbed where the water has receded.

During the dry season, this pedestrian bridge is used to cross the deepest flowing section of the river. The community fords the river for vehicles and farms the sections of riverbed where the water has receded.

Each day, Dog (yes, that's his name) hung out at the site waiting for his person to return from school across the river.

Each day, Dog (yes, that’s his name) hung out at the site waiting for his person to return from school across the river.

Ishmael's house, which sat across from

Ishmael’s house, which sat across from “the office.” Most of the homes in the village had metal doors, which we were told lent a feeling of security to the occupants. Behind Ishmael’s door sat cerveza and singani for sale.

3:00 am Rooster awakes. Cock-a-doodling commences and repeats every 30 minutes.
6:30 am Alarm beeps. I hit snooze and lay in my sleeping bag another 5 minutes before facing the day.
7:00 am Team assembles in the office and boils water for pour-over coffee (+ coca leaves).
7:30 am Pan delivered for breakfast, which we supplement with food we picked up at the grocer in La Paz. The community member then chooses ingredients from our stores to feed us throughout the day (if Adam and Neil are out, this exchange involves much pointing and gesturing). We go over the day’s work plan as we eat.
8:00 am Walk down to site. Right at the little pigs, right at the big cactus, through the abandoned chapel’s courtyard, right at the large pile of soil (fertilizer?), past the big pig. Get to work.
11:00 am Break for eggs sandwiches delivered to site. Supplement with coca leaves when needed. Back to work.
1:00 pm Break for lunch delivered to site (though one day we eat at a community member’s home). Soup, potatoes, rice and/or pasta. One day we got a rooster heart in the soup—not “our” rooster, though, as he happily reminds us the next morning—Kenny confirms it tastes like chicken. More coca. Back to work.
7:00 pm Sun sets. Wrap-up work for the day (a couple times we work through dark using vehicle headlights), clean-up work site, and store tools in the bodega to prevent theft. As our stay progresses, this lapses into leaving tools in the truck bed.
7:30 pm Dinner delivered to the office. Soup, potatoes, rice and/or pasta (twice we convince the community members to take the lentils from our stores. Yum).
8:00 pm Recap day. Plan for next day. Cerveza and singani (Ishmael’s homebrew). Stories from Neil. Laughter.
10:00 pm Bed. I contort myself up the stairs and pass out.

Different days, same schedule. There’s never a dull moment and always something needing to be done. The task and companions are fulfilling.

Sometimes I’m engrossed in the moment and forget where I am. Wait, Kirsten, look where you are. What’s around you. The impact of your actions. This reality that feels so unreal.

Deep breath (at least as deep of a breath as the altitude allows). Notice the mountains and their colors bleeding bright. Notice the varied vegetation—cultivated and wild—that’s evolved in this climate. Notice the way an engineered vision is coming to life right before your eyes. From your hands. Notice how alive you are in this moment.

If I only learn one thing being here in Llapallapani, let it be the ability to just be. Here. Now. No nagging feeling that I have to do something else. This is my task at this instant. No emails, texts, phone calls needing response. I couldn’t even reply if I wanted to. Remember to enjoy this. It will draw to a close sooner than you realize. This is how content feels.

Note: More photos of the journey can be found here.

Bolivia: Settling into Llapallapani

“¡No! Más a la izquierda!” shouts a woman as we pull our vehicles to a stop overlooking the Luribay River valley. Mairi is a staff engineer for B2P and has been on site for a couple months overseeing bridge construction activities. After arriving we have just over a day to gather as much knowledge as possible about the current status of the bridge before Mairi and two remaining members from Team 1 hand over the reins. Whoa.

The towers erected and some main cables hung. Blue and white for Club Bolivar (the community favorite and on the Llapallapani side) and black and yellow for The Strongest (also Kiewit's colors).

The towers erected and some main cables hung. Blue and white for Club Bolivar (the community favorite and on the Llapallapani side) and black and yellow for The Strongest (also Kiewit’s colors).

Team 2 is six strong and like Team 1 split between employees of Kiewit Construction (the project’s corporate partner and sponsor) and Parsons Brinckerhoff. Our project manager, Tom, has been on site through Team 1’s work and will stay with Team 2 throughout our time working on the bridge (the continuity he provides is reassuring).

It’s a Saturday, so help from community members varies. They have been working on site preparations since starting construction of the pedestals and ramps last November; we’ll get a few helping hands on weekends, but upwards of 20-30 people during the week.

Our party exits the main one-lane road along the river, winding down to the riverbed where the Luribay side tower shines against the dusty landscape. We call it the Tiger Tower, though the yellow and black striping is more of a bumble bee. Give the tiger majesty, though—a more fitting association with the mountains towering above.

The tiger has fleas crawling down it. More specifically, Mark and Chris from Team 1 are climbing down the scaffolding to greet us. Where do I sign up for that job? I do like to climb things.

A quick tour around the site and we learn we’re behind schedule. Scaffolding delivered without a list of parts—let alone instructions—and erecting 2-ton steels towers without heavy equipment will do that (I still haven’t quite figured out how Team 1 raised towers using only peoplepower and an occasional loader and backhoe). Team 2 will get to hang the main cables after all, which means more time to climb scaffolding. Bring. It. On.

Team 1 and 2 together have four weeks to complete a bridge that normally would call for at least six weeks to finish.  Barriers—technical, physical, and social—are bound to factor in throughout the project. They already have. But for now, our focus is on settling into what will become our home for the next two weeks. And it’s welcome: I still haven’t completely shaken the throbbing that’s replaced my brain since landing in La Paz.

The path between "the office" and the bridge. Tom, Adam, Jolene, Kenny, and Jazz (one of our consistent canine companions).

The path between “the office” and the bridge. Tom, Adam, Jolene, Kenny, and Jazz (one of our consistent canine companions).

Llapallapani is nestled up and along the mountainside. We’ll be staying up the mountain about a 10-minute drive from the bridge. It’s the last ride I take up to “the office” until the end of our stay—I end up preferring the walk back, which peels off the road and meanders up the mountainside. Past big pig, left at the large pile of soil (fertilizer?), through the abandoned chapel’s courtyard, left at the big cactus, left at the little pigs.

Various community members band together to house and feed us during our stay. “The office” is a one-room community center that serves as our team’s morning and evening meeting place in addition to the sleeping quarters for the four men on our team. Here, we gather each morning to boil water for coffee (a necessity), discuss the day’s work plan, and wait for breakfast delivery—a piece of pan for each of us.

The other woman on the team and I share a comfortable room across the dirt road in Freddie’s house. Our room is accessible via steep, uneven stairs through a hole cut in the second-floor concrete that requires a not-insignificant amount of body-contouring to get through. I note I must go to the bathroom right before bed to avoid risking a spinal injuring in the middle of the night. I am a giant here.

Ditching our gear in the room, we return to the office to hear what’s in store over the next two weeks. I feel like I’m back in undergrad at a 6 AM basketball practice trying to keep my eyes open while our coach is lecturing us (at least here we don’t have wind sprints, burpees, or other instruments of torture character building). My body has yet to forget its lack of sleep the past two nights: best be getting to bed. Tomorrow is an important day—the last before Mairi, Chris, and Mark leave.

But first I sneak outside to catch the sunset. It’s breathtaking here, in all senses of the word. Welcome home.

Sunset in the river valley.

Sunset in the river valley.

Note: More photos of the journey can be found here.

Bolivia: First Impressions

After two sleepless nights flying across as many continents, I find myself in a world both foreign and familiar. It’s 3am. The air at 4,061 meters (13,323 feet) is notably lacking. Welcome to La Paz.

English is almost entirely absent here, and I’m immediately regretting not spending more evenings on Duolingo, reading Bolivian newspapers, and listening to Spanish music. Attenuating ears and a tired brain interspersing unfamiliar words with high school French aren’t helping.

Adam speaks enough Spanish to get us use of a shopkeeper’s telephone to track down the Airport Shuttle we had reserved. It’s not there, and it’s not on the way. Great.

Already, the combined effects of exhaustion, hunger, and altitude (oxygen shots for sale litter the airport lobby area) are creeping into my head and stomach and all I really want is to be somewhere where curling up in a ball is acceptable behavior.

My advice if you find yourself en route to the highest elevation airport in the world? Full, nutritious meals throughout travel, resisting the urge to binge watch all the blockbuster movies you missed in theater because they’re now at your fingertips during an 8+ hour flight, and investing in an Ostrich Pillow. Address exhaustion and hunger and the body has a fighting chance against the effects of high altitude (re: soroche).

The airport is bustling despite the early hour. It’s obvious Adam and I are not locals. Though countless drivers ask us if we need a taxi, we hesitate while discussing how much one ought to cost. At this point, I can’t think straight anyway.

We’re rescued by a pair of Koreans who approach us with “compartir taxi” written on a smartphone screen. Brilliant. The young woman teaches Korean at a local university and negotiates a taxi ride for the four of us for 80 bs (about $12). Though the 20 minute ride smelled of gasoline and did not include seat belts (a component we soon learn is commonly absent from vehicles here), the ride also included a backseat tour of La Paz narrated by a Korean teacher who speaks enough English and Spanish to communicate with both us and the driver.

I’m reminded of how my single language status is quite stereotypically “American.” Addressing this shortcoming just moved up several notches on my to-do list.

We split the cab ride and thank the two Koreans for their help getting us to our hotel. Kindness knows no barriers; this much is familiar.

Early arrivals and departures must be an everyday occurrence at this hotel. We camp out in the lobby (Adam kicking off his shoes and curling up on the sofa while a continental breakfast is visited by early hotel patrons) until it’s a reasonable enough hour to phone our group lead in his room.

A shower, nap, and some food a while later get me to a state in which I can at least travel. The flying is finished, but we still have a long journey ahead in rental cars through various roadside towns. The anarchic traffic here is complete with minibuses stopping when and where they please. Our escape from the chaos leads us down a steep one-way 60+ switchback mountainside dirt road to a community called Llapallapani.

Just a few of the conutless switchbacks down to the River Luribay valley where Llapallapani resides. It was too steep to capture much of the roadway.

Just a few of the conutless switchbacks down to the River Luribay valley where Llapallapani resides. It was too steep to capture much of the roadway.

What brought us to this isolated village in what’s considered the least developed country in South America? The answer goes back about a year and a half to when a co-worker—as Adam and I both work for the same engineering firm—forwarded us an email about a pedestrian bridge. The bridge was being designed for a remote village in Bolivia by a team of Kiewit and Parsons Brinckerhoff employees working through Bridges to Prosperity (B2P). Construction would be lead by the same two firms. Team applications were open.

As the urban La Paz and El Alto faded into our rearview mirrors, we were soon to find out just why the Llapallapani bridge is the most technically-challenging bridge B2P has undertaken to date out of its hundreds of pedestrian bridges worldwide.

Note: More photos of the journey can be found here.


“The left engine won’t start,” is not something you ever want to hear from your pilot. Fortunately, we were still on the ground when we heard that announcement at 12:45 AM this morning and it was followed by an uneventful flight a couple hours later.

So began our 4-leg, 24-hr flight from Portland to La Paz, Bolivia. As I write, we still have a long journey ahead of us before we can begin the work we set out to do: build a 120-meter suspension pedestrian bridge in the remote valley of Llapallapani, Bolivia, to connect the community to essential health care, education, and economic opportunities. During the rainy season, the river becomes dangerous and residents must walk hours to cross over the nearest bridge. The design was engineered in-kind by employees of Parsons Brinckerhoff and Kiewit. Team 1 is wrapping up tower erection and cable installation as I type. Team 2 (that’s me!) will take their place over the weekend to oversee completion of the bridge, including decking and guy wire installation. We will also be on-site for inaguration, which I’ve heard is a moving and memorable experience.

Equipted with a couple sets of work clothes, my trusty sleeping bag and pad, and all the camera gear to my name, we’ll land in Bolivia in the wee hours of tomorrow morning to embark on an adventure quite some time in the making. We were told not to expect internet, so this is likely going to be my only post before arriving in Llapallapani. I honestly don’t know what to expect beyond a kind community, accomodations outside my normal, and the building of bridges beyond the physical. Oh, and stories. Many, many stories.

And so we go!

Feeling inspired and generous? Support the trip here.

Conservation highlight: White Oak Savanna, West Linn, OR

The outdoors is a classroom. Roaring rivers, snow-capped mountain peaks, and flowering valleys have much to teach about the workings of the world and our place, as humans, within it. Childhood summers spent outside playing, hiking, and camping encourage self-awareness, personal efficacy, and an ethic of care. E. O. Wilson’s work speaks of a subconscious pull that humans feel towards other living things—an innate, biological love of nature he termed biophilia.

Miles Ranch, Livingston, Montana

Miles Ranch, Livingston, Montana

And yet, opportunities for nature-based experiences and learning are becoming less accessible.

Challenges, however, can present new opportunities. The stories of our natural spaces do not have to be heartbreaking. How about heartwarming instead? Encouraging? Inspiring? Living testament to the kindness of humankind? One such story is right in Portland’s backyard.

Over ten years ago, West Linn residents Ed and Roberta Schwarz discovered that a tower of Himalayan blackberries (Rubus armeniacus) in a deserted chunk of their neighborhood blocked a sweeping view of the Willamette Narrows. That 20-acre stretch between Salamo Road, Tannler Drive, and Blankenship Road is a White Oak Savanna. Over one hundred years ago, the Valley was covered with White Oak, also called Garry Oak (Quercus garryana). Today, it is estimated that less than two percent remains. So when Ed and Roberta discovered their hidden hiking oasis was slated for development, they decided to do something about it.

Oregon iris (<i>Iris tenax</i>)

Oregon iris (Iris tenax). Photo credit: Roberta Schwarz

Roberta has championed the effort to save the White Oak Savanna for over a decade now by rallying support throughout the greater Portland Metro community. Her goal? To make the White Oak Savanna into a public natural park and wildlife habitat. The upper 14 acres have been restored and preserved with matching fund grants received in 2009 from the City of West Linn, Oregon State Parks, and Portland Metro. The White Oak Savanna has benefited from over 6,800 volunteer hours stemming from a variety of individuals and organizations, including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, high school and primary students from several schools, church groups, the Northwest Youth Corps, neighborhood organizations, and SOLVE. Most recently, the Schwarz’s dining room table was covered with materials for sending out 10,700 mailings to community residents and businesses in a fundraising effort to match Portland Metro’s second Nature in Neighborhood grant. The $500k grant, awarded this time in 2013, must be matched two-to-one—that’s right, they need to raise $1M by mid-2015 to seal the deal and they are right on track to achieving it. Over two dozen fundraisers are planned for 2014. Metro’s grant and the matching funds will provide the means to purchase the remaining six acres of the savanna for conservation, ultimately preserving habitat that supports hundreds of species—deer, ferns, and humans alike.

The While Oak Savanna in West Linn, OR

The While Oak Savanna in West Linn, OR. Photo credit: Roberta Schwarz

You read that correctly, humans. Homo sapiens sapiens. We do, after all, rely on Earth’s ecosystems for our own survival. We inhabit the earth. And there is something cardinal about the physical immersion of ourselves in nature that research is just beginning to capture. Take Dr. Geoffrey Donovan’s research that found a correlation between healthier birth weights with increased access to trees even after accounting for other differences such as socioeconomic status. Or the German biological studies led by neuroscientist Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg that compare the mental health and stress of people living in rural, amenity rich areas compared to those in our cities. Richard Louv focuses on the connection between childhood obesity rates and outdoor play. Then there is Dr. Todd Rosenstiel’s research into the benefits that lichens have on decreasing asthma rates. Google some form of “health benefits of nature” and you will find countless more examples. It all points to what our bodies already know: access to the outdoors is fundamental to our well-being. There is no substitute, no nature pill we can take as a replacement.

View looking down at the Willamette Narrows from the White Oak Savanna after a recent snowfall.

View looking down at the Willamette Narrows from the White Oak Savanna after a recent snowfall. Photo credit: Roberta Schwarz

Health impacts aside, being outdoors is fun! A visitor to the White Oak Savanna can hike the meandering one-mile round trip trail, swing on one of the tree swings, absorb the vistas from one of the ten benches (made of reclaimed wood), listen to the birdsong from one of the over 75 avian species, and witness a deer bound through the grass. With the recent snowfall, an adventurer can add snow-play onto the long list of possibilities.

It goes without saying that the White Oak Savanna is a gift. Roberta and those she has mobilized around the savanna have acceded to the role of stewards of the land. They have accepted the responsibility for its care amongst the hustle and bustle of urban living. With the restoration, they have not only saved a wild place from being paved—their theme song is fittingly Joni Mitchel’s “Big Yellow Taxi” (re: “…they paved paradise and put up a parking lot…”)—they have strengthened the community around it. They are loving and caring for the land. They have planted trees under whose shade they might not ever rest. The story of the White Oak Savanna is one of a challenge-turned-opportunity. It is community-based and it is just getting started.

Indeed, sometimes the gifts we tend to overlook most often are the ones that grow when shared.

The While Oak Savanna is waiting to be explored.

The While Oak Savanna is waiting to be explored.

Project WET, Preschool, and a Summer Sign-off


It’s difficult to believe that I’m already on to my last post as a summer intern at the Project WET Foundation. I have so much to be thankful for—more on that in a moment—including a very fitting close to my time here. Yesterday, Katie, Nicole, and I were able to visit Pilgrim Preschool here in Bozeman, MT, to help the students through a fun and interactive water-based activity.

Project WET has a “mission of reaching children, parents, teachers, and community members of the world with water education.” They do so through a combination of science-based strategies, including:

  • publishing water resource materials
  • training workshops that focus on a wide range of water topics
  • building a global network of educators, scientists, and water resource professionals
  • organizing community water events

Most of Project WET’s material is geared toward elementary and secondary school students—an age group with which Project WET has found much success in making a significant impact. But there are other critical periods in a child’s educational life, and Project WET recognizes this. For some time now, Dennis and the rest of the Project WET crew have had their eye on expanding materials to preschool-age children. I wrote on the importance of early childhood environmental education in a previous post; in summary, the early childhood years are an important time in development and thus education. However, not surprisingly, the biggest limiting factor holding Project WET back from producing preschool-aged materials—such as Little KIDs Activity Booklets—is funding.

Funding aside, our experiences with both Pilgrim Preschool and the younger age group in general speak well to Project WET’s ability to translate its materials into an approachable format for 2 ½ to 5 year olds. Katie, Nicole, and I used the “The Rainstick” with the preschoolers to explore water and its importance in our lives. The activity covered factual, scientific, and cultural information about rainsticks, how to build them, and a story that illustrates how water is life. Here’s what some of the children had to say during the activity:

  • “Desert? How do you live without water?”
  • “We drink water!”
  • “Water is used to wash.”
  • “A small apple floats in water but apple seeds sink.”
  • “You can’t make a rainstick from paper, it needs to be hard!”


If it wasn’t obvious from the children’s comments, the preschoolers were engaged in the activity and had a blast. They shared many stories and insights about water and listened carefully to the story of a boy who discovered how to capture the sound of rain. Many children made comments similar to the one about apples and apple seeds—turns out early this week they learned about sinking and floating (so they listen!) We wrapped up the activity by working together and using their newly-crafted rainsticks to make a rainstorm and build up to a thunderstorm. Some of the parents were even there to listen. It was one of the most joyful rainstorms I’ve been part of!

While at the preschool, I couldn’t help but keep thinking that this is what it’s about. Teaching children about water and leaving with new lessons of our own. Learning is not unidirectional, but a continual dialog that perpetuates and feeds itself. Learning is contagious. And the preschoolers’ enthusiasm and interest was contagious indeed.

I think the experience at Pilgrim Preschool is an illustrative example of the importance of Project WET’s work. One of my earlier posts discussed why we ought to care to conserve water and why we ought to act on that calling. This is one significant reason why: children of today, tomorrow, and the distant future. Their curiosity and wonder are interwoven with their actions. Education at a young age propagates through the child and into the future as she or he grows up and into adulthood. And what wonderful seeds to plant at a young age—seeds of curiosity and wonder, kindness and love.

Source: Animator Frédéric Back.

I have thoroughly enjoyed having the chance to be part of the Project WET Foundation this summer. Project WET has provided an avenue for translating my education into a meaningful and measurable impact. Knowledge in itself is a worthwhile endeavor, but when we can use our education for the betterment of society—in however big or small of way—education becomes lasting. In a way it’s like author Nelson Henderson’s insight: The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit. We may never again see (or see in the first place) the children reached by Project WET, but the impacts are lasting and real. And I think that’s what strikes me the most about my experiences with Project WET—the working endlessly to make a difference in lives of people we may never meet. For Project WET, that is done through worldwide water education. It varies in the how, but each of us has the power to make an impact in our own ways.
I want to thank the entire Project WET staff for welcoming me so graciously into this family and for sharing all the valuable experiences over the summer. I thoroughly enjoyed my work, which included:

  • contributing content to and reviewing Project WET materials for publication
  • authoring weekly science-based and reflective blog posts (like this one!) covering various water-focused topics
  • researching and composing executive summaries on topics as background for publications and proposals
  • developing funding proposals and identifying potential funders for future Project WET materials



School and basketball both start up again shortly, and there’s much to look forward to in the upcoming year. I can’t commit to the weekly posts I’ve been writing during the summer, but I do plan on continuing to post when I find the time and inspiration on my website. I anticipate continuing to write about water-related topics, as well as other natural resource topics, basketball, and life in general.

With that, I bid adieu for now to Bozeman and this wonderful summer working at Project WET. I offer the following perspective in my wake: When in doubt, make tea.

Bringing the Outdoors In

Last week I discussed the role of early childhood education, particularly regarding environmental perception and action. At one point I mentioned strategies for bringing the outdoors inside the classroom as a way of extending experiences with the natural environment indoors. What I didn’t mention is that my mother is the Director and Lead Teacher at Pilgrim Preschool here in Bozeman, MT. The program focuses on development of the whole child through experiences in social studies, science, language arts, math, music, and art. I’ve had the delightful fortune of visiting Pilgrim Preschool periodically throughout my adolescence and young adult life. The children are nothing short of entertaining and I always seem to walk away having learned something new.

(Click to Enlarge)The Montana State Bird, Fish, Animal, Tree, Flower, and Insect.

Last summer my mother and I had the idea to paint some of the preschool furniture with plants and animals as a way to brighten up the classroom and bring some natural elements indoors. After some brainstorming, we agreed that I would revive an adorable set of 6 (miniature) wooden chairs by painting them. We started last summer by painting over the original red with a beautiful sky blue. I then made plans to throw a little education in with the art and nature elements by painting one of Montana’s State Symbols on each of the chairs. I settled on using the Montana State Bird, Fish, Animal, Tree, Flower, and Insect.

I figured using state symbols was a simple means to bring part of nature into the classroom in a way rooted in the local landscape. As I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs, effective and lasting education is most powerful when it speaks to people’s circumstance. And when environmental education is focused locally, it becomes more relevant to a child’s everyday life (Ballantyne et al., 2001; Duvall & Zint, 2007; Zampas, 2011). It is thus my hope with this project that even at a scale as small as furniture in a classroom, a little daily exposure to Montana’s State Symbols just might encourage further exploration into what’s beyond the classroom walls.

Ponderosa Pine
(Pinus ponderosa)

(Lewisia rediviva)

Blackspotted Cutthroat Trout
(Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi)

Grizzly Bear
(Ursus arctos horribilis)

Mourning Cloak Butterfly
(Nymphalis antiopa)

Western Meadowlark
(Sturnella neglecta)

Of course, life moving like it does, it took until this summer for me to actually sit down and do the painting (hence the occasional chips in some of the chairs’ base coats). This past Labor Day weekend provided the perfect opportunity. The whole process took a decent number of hours, so I had ample time to listen to music (found some great new albums) and think. Not surprisingly, I mulled over the whole business of state symbols and what prompted them in the first place.

So I did some digging around.

State Symbols connect the history and culture of a state. They range in categories from land- and resource-centric symbols like those used for the chairs to tradition- and story-centric symbols like State Dance and State Pre-Historic Artifact. Declarations of state symbols, including what categories they cover, is up to the states to decide. Thus, each state has its own unique list of categories for state symbols. Some examples I found surprising:

  • Montana’s State Lullaby: creatively called, “Montana Lullaby,” we have a State Song and State Ballad, too—cowboys and girls like to sing!
  • Oregon’s State Parents: Pioneers Tabitha Moffatt Brown and Dr. John McLoughlin’s aid in the early settlement of the state was enough for this designation.
  • California’s State Folk Dance: dates back to the “Gold Rush Days” when Square Dancing wasn’s the thing to do.
  • Nebraska’s State Beverage: inventing a popular drink can get you a state symbol designation, as Kool-Aid learned following its invention in 1927 in Hastings, NE.
  • Oklahoma’s State Menu Items: there are eleven of them. Buffet time!
  • Alabama’s State Outdoor Musical Drama: The Incident at Looney’s Tavern, a historically-inspired drama that takes place in Civil War-era Alabama.

The plethora of state symbols—many of which are a bit obscure and quite specific—speak to the way our country holds on to tradition and unity through a shared, but diverse heritage. They provide a way to identify with a place culturally, physically, historically, or otherwise. While it can easily seem silly to tie such significance to a thing, I would argue it’s more about the connections made through such things.

If it takes a state symbol to get a child interested in the fish swimming through our rivers, then bring on the wading boots. If a person is inspired to learn more about their family history from a state historical symbol, then call up grandma. I guess what I’m trying to say is that each of us has our own path to the things we care about and love and desire to protect. The important thing is getting to that point—and acting on that desire.

Works Cited

  • Ballantyne, R., Fien, J., & Packer, J. (2001). Program effectiveness in facilitating intergenerational influence in environmental education: Lessons from the field. The Journal of Environmental Education, 32(4), 8.
  • Duvall, J., & Zint, M. (2007). A review of research on the effectiveness of environmental education in promoting intergenerational learning. The Journal of Environmental Education, 38(4), 12.
  • Zampas, G. (2011). The role of education for sustainable development in families’ sustainable consumption. Paper presented at the Global Vision, Local Action: Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship, Bournemouth, U.K.