by Rachel Watson
The air is still cold but the closeness of the people in our small running pack makes me feel warm. We begin our ascent up Medicine Bow peak from Lake Marie and run as a full group around the south side of the lake. As the trail turns from paved path to dirt single track and finally to rocky tallis, the group of runners spreads from a tight group to individuals or pairs, many of the latter in deep conversation. The Nordic bodymind of the team coalesces and disperses much like a dictyostelial slime mold; sometimes we exist in close proximity as a melded fruiting body and sometimes as our individual motile forms, but we always find our way back together. I find myself running with Ella and we speak of research, learning, PhD journeys, and the earth's microbiome as we run, scramble and summit the peak together. Very near the summit, we pass by a small patch of snow. We both look at one another and wonder what our new Shanghai teammates did and said when they saw the snow for the first time? In order to accommodate the diverse experience of our group, we had separated and dropped our low-altitude-adapted-teammates at the upper lot before going to the lower lot to begin running. Thus, while every step of the run takes us closer to coalescing as an entire team, we have not yet caught our new team members.
The wind at the summit buffets our hair, eyes and hands but its presence is welcome because its cold contrasts with the warmth of the sun and reminds me that autumn is here. It forecasts the coming winter, a metaphorical score of music in which wind curls to form the first stanza and promises a second verse that stories the nucleation of the first snowflake, the arrival of the winter. We stand just briefly at the summit, long enough for me to ask Ella how many times we have summited in the last few years. My heart asks a deeper question; it inquires my strong but aging Nordic body as to how many times I have reached such peeks and whether I am closer to the last time than the first?
It has been less than six months since Christi and I met administrators from the Shanghai University of Sport in a small room in the University's Division of Kinesiology and Health. In that small room, we agreed to select 10 athletes from eighty applicants, to, in one year, teach them how to ski, ski train, race and coach. We agreed to this lofty outcome because it was clear to me, even when one might presume the pearl of authenticity to be obscured by the shell of professionalism, that the leaders in that room all prioritized and deeply valued the holistic success of the student athlete.
Unpacking what it means to teach someone to be a Nordic skier, to truly embody the soul and the solidarity for the Nordic way of knowing is now, at the top of Medicine Bow Peak, with my hand exploring the surface of a quartzite rock outcropping, what I challenge myself to be able to do. I envision the soul of Nordic culture to be so big that the words would fail to fit into any book bounded by two-dimensions. For me, Nordic culture builds layered strata of memories of the wisdom of those who were my coaches, my mentors and my role models. It is the accent of my first coach, Don Quinn ("Quinny"), an accent that he called "Scandihoovian". Like many in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, his Swedish roots were unforgotten but they were weathered by American experiences of the Upper Peninsula. They were a combination of the guarded, private Scandinavian way of being and the raw, gritty tenacity of the Yupper born of a shared history of the roughness of the lives of copper miners. Just like pasties, the Yupper is crusty on the outside but warm and wonderful on the inside.
Quinny's coaching advice was generally culturally-rooted prose such as, "Yeah, you know, you can't be up hootin' with the owls if you want to soar with the eagles." His stories about training with his twin brother Dave taught us as much about training as any textbook ever could.
"Yeah Rachel, competitors would ask us, "Hey Quinnys why are you skiing so slowly?" We would just look at them and say, "You do your training and we'll do ours and when we get to the race, we'll see what happens."
As Ella and I make our way across the scarp of the face of the peak, the wind continues to buffet my face and eyes. The culture of Nordic is one of sunglasses and Dermatone. The texture of this thick protective face cream, meant to guard surfaces that cannot be effectively covered with clothing brings memories so deep that despite being old they cause my breath to catch and my heart to stop. I remember racing in below zero temperatures in Winter Park and Durango. I remember meeting Christi for the first time. The very essence of the soul of a Nordic skier, she gave me my first pair of sunglasses with yellow lenses. They were lenses that would shield even the fiercest of blizzards. Memories of these glasses overlaid on tacit recollections of the oily feel of dermatone on my face convert Nordic from a construct to something palpable by every sense: touch, feel, smell. Nordic is body meeting soul and it is at this interface
As we begin to descend the peek, the scree gradually turns to dirt trail and Ella and others descend with the speed of youth leaving me to ponder my Nordic memories alone. The culture of Nordic is not just on the trails, it is everything that wraps the moments outdoors. It is Norwegian sweaters, glogg, dry base layers, clogs, thick wood wax benches carved from old nobly trees. Memories of teammates past cause tears to well in my eyes and I have to slow my cadence long enough to make room for the big presence of my Norwegian college coaches. Knut Nystad, now a Manager for the Norwegian National Team, taught me that Nordic is dancing on your skis. He showed me that Nordic is kindness, that in Nordic "team" means telling the raw truth every day, laying oneself bare both literally and figuratively. When I had no hat, Knut took off his own hat and gave it to me. When I needed poles, Knut cut his to fit me. When I began coaching my own team, Knut found a way to outfit us in uniforms and provide skis for those on the team who had none. Years later, those skis were paid forward again and again from earlier teammates to newer members. The Nordic culture forms a web of International connection; it is a web that buoys us and supports our professional and personal success. Nordic is solidarity.
Nordic is the feeling of hot klister turning cold on a weathered thumb that hopes to see so many more races. It is the feel of extra blue kick wax and metal on your teeth when a tube of wax that has seen hundreds of training days is nearing its end. Nordic is the feeling of putting a hand covered with klister into a glove and knowing the sweat will free your hand of the stickiness by the end of the ski in a magical way that seems to evade even wax remover. Nordic is the childlike joy we feel when we see every snowflake, just as it is the intense scientific scrutiny of each of these flakes as we interpret the language of fractal angles and shape so as to select the right wax.
As I near the end of the run and I see the team coalescing in the parking lot, I realize that our new Shanghai teammates are already becoming a part of the fruiting body of the culture of Nordic. They cuddle in lobster mits, borrowed hats and are already celebrating the warmth of down jackets ("puffies"). The culture of Nordic is one that is so deep that it transcends language and I have seen these new athletes learn first through their bodies, with every sense. Like a snowflake that crystalizes in the clouds before it is ever seen by us on the earth, their learning is confirmed in their bodies, their sensual experiences and is daily crystalizing as cognitive understanding of the science and culture of Nordic.
 This term is slang for people of the Upper Peninsula.
 For those who don't know what Dermatone is: https://kk.org/cooltools/dermatone-skin-protector/
 This is a Norwegian traditional drink. It's similar to mulled wine.
The world as we know it is growing,
growing both in beauty and danger
and it is us who are the creators.
We build cities to unite us all but in the same process are developing technologies that may lead to our end.
Our end to a body and a mind, free from the chains of diagnosis, from chemicals, from real human connection, from nature.
And those who are most affected are left behind.
We need not attempt to drag them along but restructure our lives so that they are not they but us and we can all work and live without being thought of as less.
We often emphasize the importance of grit on this team and rightfully so. I’m not sure exactly what grit is, but it’s probably something you need to ski a 7.5k classic at nationals when it’s snowing so hard you can hardly see the skier who started 15 seconds ahead let alone ski in the track they’ve set. I’d also say it takes grit, whatever that may be, to finish a 20k skate, skiing alone off the back of the pack, fighting against fresh powder, cramping muscles, and a self-inflicted black eye. It definitely takes grit to get out of bed and race a 21K went you spent the entire previous day standing outside helping with high school races in negative wind chill until your limbs become completely numb and then racing four rounds of sprints. But really, all those things are just another day on the UW Nordic team. It’s for that reason that Angela Duckworth’s, “Grit Test” was part of the selection process in choosing the ten Chinese athletes that will be joining our team in the coming year.
To understand the selection process, some of my teammates and I also took this Grit Test. (you can too if you’re interested: https://angeladuckworth.com/grit-scale/). We answered questions along the theme of “Do you often set a goal but end up pursuing a different one?” and “Do new projects and ideas often distract you from old ones?” I scored relatively high, but was unsure what to make of the test. I didn’t feel particularly enlightened as to who I am as person nor what it means to have grit. I equated grit to perseverance for sure but I felt there was more to it than just that.
This week marks several transitions for me and many of my friends. This morning, I ventured up to Happy Jack for my first trail run there of the season. I had been there less than a month earlier to ski but the snow was almost entirely gone and wild flowers now covered the ground instead. As I made my way back to my car, I came to what, at least in the winter, is known as the magic circle: a short loop with ski trails branching from it, named for the phenomenon that you “magically” become a better skier if you ski around it without poles. As I ran, I gazed down a grassy clearing, once a ski trail, and pictured myself skating over imaginary snow. My nostalgia was short-lived as the running trail turned downward and my footsteps quickened to avoid rocks (and sidestep the tired dog who was less excited about the whole running than I was). It’s trail-running season now and I’m excited. There’s a spring in my step and smile on my face. Yes, it’s time to leave my love for skiing behind but more importantly, it’s time to embrace the dry trails, get out, and run!
My excitement for a new running season got me thinking back to grit. To me, there is no shame in moving on to new things and I struggle with the idea that grit means sticking with old “projects” in the face of new and exciting distractions. It’s graduation weekend and I plan to spend it with the friends I have made over the past four years (and longer) as they gather the courage to move on to their next adventures. I’m graduating too, but I’m not moving on. I’ll be here, doing my same old thing, working on the same research projects I started years ago. Maybe that’s grit, the thing that would give you a high score on Angela’s test, but it’s nothing compared to whatever it takes to face something new and unknown.
When Christi and Rachel were confronted with the idea of hosting 10 Chinese athletes on small our team, they had the option to stick with their old ways. They could have denied this opportunity in favor coaching the way they have faithfully done for the last 21 years. According to the test, that would have been grit. Instead, they chose to do something crazy, something they had never done before, full of unknowns and obstacles. That, in my opinion, takes a lot more grit.
I had a large internal debate as a result from an interaction at the outdoor program the other day. A young man with some walking and mental disabilities has been using our program heavily for the last year, signing up for every trip he can. Yesterday he signed up for a backpacking trip, this is a very strenuous activity that requires walking with a pack all day. I'm not proud that my first instinct was to discourage him from this trip. In the past, short hikes have been a struggle, he is much slower than the rest of the participants and has a hard time keeping up. Often the leaders have to break up, one going with him and the rest with all the other participants which is difficult. He has a great attitude the whole time and is no problem besides that. The outdoor programs policy is to provide for disabilities within reason. The question was now, was this within reason? There would need to be another field staff on the trip to carry his pack and walk with him at the least. We also would not want to put him in the position where we can't get back from where we are. He was very exited and felt he could do it. At the end of the day there wasn't an outdoor staff available for the trip and so he could not participate. But it made me think about disability, the young man did not see himself as disadvantaged but we had to force it on him. It also made me wonder if there were any other opportunities out there for this young man and others.
The same day I gave a presentation on microbes in my honors class I saw an elementary age girl walking with an adult and her white cane.
When preparing my presentation I was certain to "dumb" down the information to make it easier for my class to digest the information. As I gave the presentation I soon realized that one my "dumbed down presentation was still too complex for the audience of honors students. This could be due to a lacking in the basic understanding of microbes. This goes to show that when in doubt it is important to assume the audience knows nothing which requires you to start from the very basics. By starting from the basics everyone is placed in the same category that allows for the whole group to learn together and leave no one behind so that the more complex information means something to the audience and they are more likely to participate with the presentation.
I go back to the girl with the adult and the cane. When I first saw her I thought I understood but as I continued on my way I realized that unlike my microbe presentation there is little background that the girl could present that would allow me to fully understand who she was and what it meant to be blind. To go to school and learn a different way to read, to be in a visual class and be accommodated for or not and expected to learn the material just the same, to rely on your other senses to guide y0ou through your world that is same to mine but oh so different.
Are we even able to truly understand someone else? Do we just need to meet them where they are? Accept that I can not understand you and everything you are but I can learn who you are.
Its been a beautiful Wyoming winter but I am starting to itch for warm weather. I’m having dreams of riding my mountain bike and I’m thinking of all the places I want to go when the snow clears. I also recently reached a checkpoint in my life when I got a job at a mountain bike camp this summer that had a huge impact on my life when I was 16.
My freshman year of high school some unknown force made me join the high school mountain bike team. I was riding a bike from elementary school that weighed more than I did, and I didn’t know a single person on the team. It also didn’t help I was the only girl. My parents kept encouraging me to stick with it, otherwise I would have to join the cross country running team. That first year was difficult, I was placing last in every race or getting cut off before I could finish. I really enjoyed the races but I didn’t know how long I could stick with the sport, the tipping point came when I went to an all girls mountain bike camp that summer in curt gowdy.
It was coached entirely by women and I immediately had new bad-ass role models to follow. When I showed up my first thought was who are these women and why aren’t there more of them in the world? They were fearless, fast and had such an encouraging atmosphere around them I was willing to try anything. They had serious skills and never held back spreading knowledge and encouragement. I found myself trying new skills and finding success because no one ever asked “Do you really want to try that?” These women were bad-ass because they had spectacular wrecks, laughed it off and then got back on and tried it again. I think if these role models had been around when I was younger, I would have started mountain biking a lot sooner. I think this is true for most girls too, the more bad-ass role models there are, the more girls that get on bikes or feel empowered enough to go out for a sport thats untraditionally a “girl sport”.
Kids ride their bikes everywhere, every childhood included learning how to ride a bike in an abandoned parking lot and skinning your knees up. The only difference between boys and girls is what color the streamers are. When kids get into middle school, all of a sudden there are “girl sports” and “guy sports”. The number of girls in sports narrows even more in high school when competition and stereotypes get more intense. Mountain biking was my way to combat these stereotypes and it taught me exactly what I needed most in that part of my life.
One of the biggest things mountain biking taught me was how to fail. Risks are involved in every activity and sport but in mountain biking they seem more daunting. One of my coaches told me on the very first day “You are going to fall at some point, it’s just a matter of when and where”. This was terrifying to a 14 year old me. Nothing I had ever done had taught me that falling, or failing was OK. The first thing I learned from mountain biking was to accept the fact I would fall, and more importantly that it wasn’t bad! Mountain biking taught me the proper way to fall off a bike and the proper way to fail in real life, as well as how to get back on and try again. I realized no one could ever be good at Mountain biking without any scars. Just like you will never get good at something without messing up in the process. Mountain biking taught me to wear my scars like badges of honor. Everyone always says failure is the greatest teacher, but I never understood it until I was thrown off my bike head first into a creek, with my coaches cheering from the trail.
Mountain biking also let me explore a talent I didn’t know I had. Eventually the time came to graduate out of my old loved bike and move towards an actual racing bike. I had trouble finding a bike that fit, I didn’t have a lot of people to compare or talk to and most mechanics and salespersons were clueless as to what type of bike I needed. *side note* there are very few bikes that are actually “women specific” bikes. Most “women’s” bikes just have a lower top tube… the purpose being so that skirts wont hike up. this is not efficient or logical, its just been this way since women were allowed to start riding bikes. Since it is now the 21st century and most women don’t wear long skirts to ride bikes anymore I hope someone can finally make a frame fit real women. With the help a good mechanic my dream bike was complete, then I had to learn how to keep it happy and running. This was a turning point in my life where someone finally handed me tools and taught me how to fix it myself. Up until this point every time I held a screw driver it seemed to be pulled away at the first sign I was confused, and I never learned. But this was my bike, and my job. If I got a flat tire on the trail there wouldn’t be anyone there to fix it for me, this feeling of self reliance was empowering to have on the trails. If something were to go wrong, I have all the tools and skills I need to be able to fix it myself. I eventually became a bike mechanic, armed with this new knowledge I’m doing my part to spread the empowerment and break stereotypes by helping every person I can with their bike. Possibly most importantly, I don’t fix their bikes for them, I give them the tools and tell the how to do it. I can’t tell you how it feels when I watch a girls face light up with empowerment after I hand her the tools and she fixes her own bike. Mountain biking provided this opportunity for me to finally get my hands dirty on real equipment. It allowed me to realize a talent I never would have been able to explore otherwise.
At so many points throughout our lives we go through transitions. Whether it be from one season to the next, from one age to the next, or even the small things like one technique to the next in a ski race. As the sun begins to shine and the grass begins to green around me I think about all the transitions I'm about to be a part of. While Christi and Rachel were traveling through Shanghai delicately picking our new athletes, school at UW is coming to a close. Right now seems like a critical point in a shift for me. New roles and jobs are being taken on by myself and the people around me. Some are packing up their things to spend their summers away, while others prepare for the adventures that await us in Laramie. There seems to be a buzz in the air as the old comes to a close, and the new open up in front of us. It always seems like a bittersweet time, but why not focus on the sweet. By the time that we reach fall semester, there will have been even more tiny transitions, hopefully, ones to prepare us for out new unknown journey that will be waiting for us come next season. In the meantime, I'll enjoy the sun and think about what I can anticipate for my next chapter.
One of the many texts I read this semester was a collection of poetry by Layli Long Soldier. She is an Oglala Lakota woman and her poetry centers on the history of her people. My instructor, a poet herself, describes this collection succinctly. She writes that Soldier's poems "take place out of doors, and they focus keenly on historical intersections between humans and the landscape. In many of her poems, the line between the human landscape under our skins and the landscape we see through our eyes is blurred; that border is crossed again and again." What could be more reminiscent of the body as a planet and the planet as a body?
After reading the assigned pieces from this collection, my instructor asked me to write a poem in this style. She asked me to capture a moment I've never been able to adequately describe. I chose to write about the nagging sensation I get when someone asks me how I'm doing in passing. I personally find it ridiculous to ask someone a question you have no intention of hearing an answer to. Why do we perform this small talk ritual? Why ask a question if you aren't interested in a genuine answer?
I wrote the poem at Nationals, at a time when I was deeply feeling the value of genuine connection. I think that in our daily lives it's important to look at our intentions and interactions and ask if we are building relationships or simply asking impossible questions. I thought I would share the poem as a dialogue on this idea.
How are you? is such an impossible question
it is as if we all want to be like the aspen grove,
passing water to one another like children
but no one wants to feel the way an aspen feels,
not really, anyway
that kind of rooted comradery requires more than surface portraits, rippled mirrors
I wish I could tell you, when you ask
I am the clementine, eaten with childlike focus and care
I am the rosemary warble of remembering, that jubilant reverie
I am the swan-like chill of snow, floating, softening, muffling, feathering
I am that cedar smell, that juniper dance, that evergreen sky
I am the spider's lace, dew drops casting crystal fractals on silver netting
So when you ask me, how are you?
I'll respond with some half true platitude
because we are not aspen trees
and we ask impossible questions without really wanting to hear the answers
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poem Dirt River Girl focuses on how pollution effect the body making people sick and blames them for being sick even though it is not in their control. This poem supports many of ideas presented in class about cure culture and how, as a society, we try and categorize or label differences and problems in our society. This categorization fogs perspective and creates a bias, However, while reading Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poem I had a different interpretation of what the poems overall theme was discussing.
This poem reminded me of the MeToo movement. This movement is a fight against sexual harassment and abuse, that took place over social media in order to draw attention to the epidemic. Specifically, with the events that I had experienced at the Society of American Anthropology (SAA) conference in New Mexico. The Monday before the conference an anthropology professor had been charged with sexual harassment suit and had been dismissed from the various archaeological societies in his area as well as the university he taught at. It was assumed that the SAA board would bar this professor from attending the conference. However, on the Wednesday of the conference the professor walked in and registered for the conference. Over the next couple of days, it was pure chaos with the trying to get information from the SAA bored on what they were going to do. With a news reporters social media crusade against the professor, and the hostility that surrounded the MeToo movement at the conference. This event, in my opinion was not handled with the most grace by either of the parties.
While the Dirty River Girl poem focuses on how environmental pollution causes sickness, I felt that after reading this poem and with my experience at the SAA that the term pollution has a broader meaning. Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poem’s states:
There is an underground river that whispers: // Abuse survivors are the ones who get weird disease. // The ones who were raped and touched to young, // us whose bodies tell terrible stories, horrible lies. // Our bodies’ walls cave in on the stories they hold that there are too much swell for our banks in a flash flood
I drew parallels to sexual harassment as a form of pollution. Both effect our society causing people to become sick, Pollution physically and Sexual harassment mentally. The poem highlights how people who have been affected by pollution are the ones that get blamed. Society believes it was the victim’s fault for causing the certain events to occur when in reality, it is not the fault of the victim but the form of pollution that came into contact with them thus leaving them in this incapacitated state that society has defined for them. This is a very similar mentality to how people approach sexual assault and harassment. The victim is typically scrutinized for clothing, actions, or both. It isn’t there problem but actually societies actions towards these events.
Through this is not the correct interpretation of Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poem, I feel that it is an interesting one in the fact that it provides a new wave of thought when reading this poem and looking at what we categorize as pollution in both the natural and physical sense.
I am lost. Today is the day that I feel I have lost complete control of my life. With the pressures of finals week approaching, projects needing to be completed, roommate drama, conference presentations, and preparing for the start of graduate school next semester, my mental and physical health are starting to take a nose dive. For a while now I have been trying to hold it together, but it seems that once I finally have some control on the various situations, an unknown variable enters the fray and knocks me down again. My body and mind are exhausted, and I come home every day and collapse in exhaustion and don't want to do any of the tasks that need to be done because I am unmotivated to do anything but sleep and try and let my body recover to survive the week. Recently, I have been getting worried that I am not ready for the next step in my education, that I have made a mistake.
Today was the day I was about ready to throw my hands in the air and say to hell with it I don’t care anymore, that is until I remembered my tree. A tree that stands strong, tall, and proud in a forest filled with other trees that do the same. A tree that is there to shelter me on my worst days when all seems wrong with the world. I can close my eyes and hear the wind as it blows through its branches, I can smell the earthy pine scent that encompasses the trunk when I lean against it. I feel the rough bark against my back telling letting me know its stable and looking to help anchor my overwhelmed body. I take a deep breath in and let the scent and the fresh air that surrounds my tree to calm down my overworking brain and exhausted body telling them to relax and conclude that it will be all right. I stay like this for several minutes, allowing me to have a break from the crazy, allowing my body to be free rather than drowning. Ridding my mind of my worries and realizing I have made the right choices to be where I am.
I take one more deep breath allowing the fresh air to calm my body before I have to leave again. There is always a struggle having to leave my tree. I know that staying would be better for me, but I know finishing what is left is what must be done. I know it will be rough and push me to beyond my limit and to my breaking point, but it will get done. I know I may end up broken and tired at the end, but I am not worried, I have my tree; I can always come back to when life knocks me down.