Volume 21: Editor’s Note — Metamorphosis

by Nat Morgan, Editor

One of my Antioch classmates is obsessed with caterpillars. Sam has dedicated his life to finding, photographing, raising, and teaching people about these curious beings. He is able to predict and describe each stage an individual monarch will undergo throughout its month-long life. At first, I found his dedication for such seemingly unremarkable creatures strange, but I have come to appreciate their elegant developmental processes for what they might teach us about our own life changes.

However, when humans undergo metamorphosis, it is much harder to clearly see the beginning, the end, or even the direction of our transformations. We don’t get to physically retreat into a protective barrier until we are ready to emerge fully developed, and the timelines for such changes often last years. Only with the benefit of hindsight am I able to see the slow internal re-adjustment that has led me toward a master’s degree in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Environmental Education.

In 2007, a childhood friend and I biked the 2,700-plus-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail from Banff, Alberta, to the US-Mexico border in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. Dragging trailers full of gear behind us, we passed through two Canadian provinces and five US states. All along the way, we experienced some of the most remote, majestic, awe-inspiring natural areas left in North America, including the Red Rock Lakes Wilderness in Montana, the wild horse–populated Great Divide Basin in Wyoming, and the whole region around Banff, Alberta.

I have tried to identify a single moment during that trip that led me down my current path, but the forces at play are distributed more widely. During that summer, I was repeatedly struck by the beauty and complexity of these places, their effects on me, and how other people would be impacted. Up to that point in my life, I had been more concerned with getting myself out into nature, but I began to think about the influence I could have on the lives of others, and on society in general, by facilitating authentic learning opportunities in real natural settings. There was no incident that fundamentally changed me, but more of a gradual unfolding of something inside of me.

If I had to compare my self from the bike trip to an animal that undergoes a significant change in their life, I would choose something less popular than the butterfly: the tunicate. Tunicates, or sea squirts, begin their lives floating freely in the ocean currents as microscopic larvae. When they find themselves forced against a rock or pier pylon, they attach and begin their transformation into the slimy, gelatin-looking critters that are more familiar to us. Like the larval tunicates, I think that I was just looking for a rock to attach myself to, which the bike trip provided. But having a landing spot is the beginning of their transformation, and likewise, my growth had only begun.

Metamorphosis is generally defined as a change of form, shape, composition, or condition undergone by a species, individual, or inanimate object, or any segment therein, and we have all experienced some form of it or another. Sometimes it is an obvious process that we are able to observe in its entirety, while often we are just exposed to a brief snapshot of a piece of the continuum. There have been many graduate school nights when, as I drank black tea and started another reading on leadership techniques in alternative settings, my path’s beginning and end seemed distant and unrelated.

Not surprisingly, many of the pieces in this volume reflect this conundrum of trying to clearly address such an abstract process, on scales ranging from an individual to the world as a whole. Of course, the most sobering example of planetary transformation is the onrushing force of climate change, or as backcountry skier Catherine Doucette puts it, “the slow spiral of dying winter.” Kristen Przyborski addresses the issue by examining two species of pteropods native to the Southern Ocean, which due to its temperature, location, and composition, makes these marine critters “the oceanic corollary to the coal mine canary.” Her piece serves as a cautionary example of the damage a warming ocean will initiate, while professor, glacier-lover, and environmental educator Kimberly Langmaid tackles the issue from a different perspective. Revisiting a trip to Glacier National Park taken in an attempt to clear her head and reconnect with the environment, she asks, “What will this glacial valley be like without glaciers?” It is a deeply troubling question that no one can yet answer.

Gary Nabhan explores why it is crucial for us to support the foodsheds that sustain us in the face of such mounting climatic changes. While he readily admits that “transformations of our entire society will certainly not be easy,” he discusses April 14, 2014, the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Rachel Carson, as “a Day of Action and Contemplation of our relationships with Creation,” as a focal point for these efforts.

Some transformations are much more easily grasped and captured in our minds than the scale and magnitude of global climate change. Emily Monosson, toxicologist, examines our reliance on chemicals to limit the environment around us and “the resilience of life, particularly in those species we try hardest to control.” She talks about how “we are challenging nature to a game of adapt or die, and it is a game we will surely lose,” which reminds me of the struggle that each of us faces in our own life, even without the outside pressure we are putting on these species. Robin Boyd’s poem, “Floating Bog,” describes the slow transformation of a moving channel of water from a “swale to bog that won’t hold my weight, to wetland, maybe to lawn?” This change, while certainly part of a natural process, is representative of our lack of control over nature and its lack of concern for human needs.

John Calderazzo presents a triptych of lyrical essays titled “Evolution,” “In Yellowstone Winter,” and “Spirit Lake.” Instead of attempting to capture any one metamorphic process from start to finish, he provides personal snapshots of different metamorphoses in nature, which most clearly represent how I experience it in my everyday life. When viewed at an ecosystem level, metamorphosis is ever-ongoing at various scales. Fern G. Z. Carr provides some serious food for thought as she describes “the metabolic function of respiration” as “a loan from the natural world shared by living beings.” This intriguing thought prompts her to ask, “Whose air did I breathe?”

Fred Taylor offers a different, deeply reflective view of similar scale in “Streams of Metaphor,” since the transformational properties of water apply not only to the landscape, but to individuals that observe it. The sensitivity of those who are impacted by their surroundings was troubling to him as such a person himself, until he “began to sense that this quality of permeability and receptivity, rather than a liability, might be a pathway to a deeper kind of metamorphosis,” a kind of metamorphosis that relies on a true connection with one’s surroundings and “becomes a two-way process of relationship that transforms us.”

This personal, transformational relationship is something that Lyssa Anolik relates to in “Eating Italy.” She notes that this culture that so loves their food also loves the sources of it. Her phrase, “the farms feed the towns,” hints at that transformational relationship on a number of levels as she concludes, “I swallow the setting sun.” Los Angeles native Stephanie Speights describes her placemaking efforts to transform an alleyway into an area for community gathering and relationship-building, finding that “the outcomes have been profound” in creating a healthier, more resilient community.

As I write this, my plane is lifting off the tarmac in Anchorage, and my time in graduate school is coming to an end. I’ve just completed a three-week field study course in Alaska as the capstone to this latest chapter of my education, and with its completion I cannot help but feel a sense of bittersweet closure. But reflecting on metamorphosis, I have come to realize that this personal transformation began for me somewhere in the wilds along the Great Divide and is still ongoing. And I will still need much time and perspective before I will be able to describe where I am now with the clarity of Sam’s description of a caterpillar shedding its cocoon.

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Nat Morgan is a recent graduate of Antioch University New England’s Environmental Studies MS program with a concentration in Environmental Education. He currently lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with his wife and their runty puppy; loves being in the wilderness; and is passionate about giving young people authentic opportunities to connect with nature.

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