The thing that seems the simplest in paddling down a river is that you always know your direction. You dip your paddle and propel yourself, but the river does most of the work. And like paddling down a nicely moving river that carries you where you need to be, it seems almost too easy to take the river as a metaphor for the SLLP – the Sustainable Living Leadership Program. People at the Rivershed Society of British Columbia LOVE using the river metaphor. And why not? They are about rivers. They work for rivers and with rivers. They travel rivers. And they know the importance of river systems to the ecosystems as a whole. Not to mention that the river is a tried and true and beautiful allusion to a great many things: change and continuance, movement and health, dependence, connection, and return. In this blog entry, I am going to unapologetically use the river as a metaphor for life and for the SLLP, and tell you about the ways that it has carried me forward.
I am 28 years old now. I was 23 when I applied for the SLLP. I am of this generation called Millennials. It is a generation that is hard to define and categorize because we’re right in the middle of it. Millennials are shaping what it means to be Millennial every day. I am educated and traveled, yet I work low paying jobs. My ‘career’ has not come about exactly as I had imagined it would. And I live in a part of Canada I never thought possible, the mountain-less Lanark County, Ontario. But I am happy and I love the life that I lead. And I think often about how much it was guided by my experiences on the SLLP and my involvement with the Rivershed Society.
I am an easy paddler. I enjoy the occasional rapid section to test my skills and hone my abilities, but I spend more time in the flow of the main channel, carried wherever it may be. What I love about rivers is that there is a constancy that is not boring. The forks, the animal surprises, the shifting landscapes bring change. The fork in the river is the great challenge for many a paddler. With an ever-decreasing amount of time to make a decision, we panic and try and wrap our heads around the choice. And then we choose, for better or worse, and at times we wonder at the possibilities of the alternative. What could have been down the other route? The SLLP was one of the great forks of my life. But it was one that required no real consideration, for there are times when the river is moving so perfectly that the paddler knows not to fight it.
I knew that I would enjoy a month of paddling down a river, sleeping on the banks, exploring its secrets, and learning about sustainability in a river classroom. I didn’t have to be convinced. And I wasn’t wrong. It was all I could have asked for and more. What I didn’t know was just how much that window of time on the river would carry me forward, just as the river carried us forward for twenty-five days, for better or worse, to whatever lay downstream. In my opinion it still carries me.
A major aspect of the Sustainable Living Leadership Program is the community project. Each participant is required to design a project in sustainability that they work through on the trip and implement in their community back home. My project was to be a dialogue on sustainability in the urban environment, using my home town of New Westminster as a case study. I grew up in that small city, next to the river that no one ever spoke positively of. It was dirty and polluted and dangerous. It was an industrial river, a shipping and logging highway. But as a young geography student in my idealistic prime, I looked at this city and started asking questions. Mainly, I asked them about sustainability and liveability and community. Why couldn’t New West be the place we wanted it to be? Why couldn’t we love our river and use it? Why couldn’t New West be attractive to young and creative minds, a leader in sustainability? With the help of Fin and the Rivershed Society, I organized a night of asking questions. Joined by a city counsellor and a Douglas College professor, the Sustainable Spaces Dialogue really was a dialogue. People brainstormed ideas and shared them. The most far-fetched and the most practical were discussed. And though no motions were passed and no documents were signed, the evening got people excited and that was the point. And what’s more, I like to think that then-counsellor, now-Mayor Jonathan Cote, who was in attendance, took some inspiration from it all.
In the months leading up to and following the SLLP I thought I wanted to be an urban planner. I came to realize I don’t. I don’t even like living in cities and have little patience for the bureaucracy of government. But I value the experiences I gathered in those days: attending community meetings, organizing and protesting, writing about the North American urban environment and all the ways we ought to change it. The SLLP took me to a job at Mountain Equipment Co-op. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that. The hiring staff seemed to take a special interest in my month-long river adventure and spent half the interview asking about it. There was another SLLP alumni working there, it turned out, and together we involved ourselves in the Rivershed Society and remained close with our river community. I must have known early on that customer service at MEC wasn’t my passion, but the people I met working there set me on a new current, and I spent the next two years exploring the mountains of British Columbia and the Yukon.
When I’d had enough of the city I moved to Nelson and got a job at the co-op grocery store. Maybe MEC being a co-op got me that job. I’m not sure. At the co-op I learned more about cooperatives and food that’s good for the earth, as well as the complexities of the food system and the difficulties in changing it. And outside of work I explored the mountains and forests of the West Kootenays. I did much of this alone, and came into my own in the backcountry. I taught myself the basics of backcountry survival through books and experience, and I learned that to truly know a place and the life that lives within it, you must spend time there. Month after month after month, in all seasons.
The idea of going back to school had been in my head since I finished my first degree just before my summer on the river. But I wanted to go back with a passion and a purpose. Through extensive reading and my backcountry explorations I found it. I wanted to research the idea of ‘wilderness’. I wanted to go deeper into the many writings that criticized it, mainly for its erasure of Indigenous perspectives and occupation, as well as its reliance on a nature-culture dichotomy. I wanted to show in research and in writing that however true those critiques were, it could not be ignored that wilderness and wild places inspire us, set us alive, and ease our souls. I knew this from my month on the Fraser River and from my many wanderings throughout British Columbia and the Yukon. So I left Nelson to go to school in Toronto, the unlikeliest of places. But I found comfort there, both in the city that was new to me and in the research that everyday connected me back to wild places.
That was almost three years ago. Since then I have completed my Masters with a thesis I was proud of, even to the end. You can read my thesis here. I did my summer fieldwork in the Yukon Territory and it was there that I met the woman that led me to where I am now: Perth, Ontario, in the mountain-less but river-prevalent Lanark County. I am not where I expected to be following this degree, but that’s fine. The river changes and guides us in unexpected ways. And if we follow its flow we don’t always get where we thought we were going. But we get somewhere, usually to where we need to be. The values that I found so strongly emphasized in the SLLP still carry me. Be good to yourself and to others and to the Earth. Connect with your community and always try and expand your network. Be the change you wish to see in the world. And have fun doing it. Since moving to Perth less than a year ago, I have found work at a small bakery called Little Stream, which bakes bread in a wood fired oven, grinds its own flour, and uses only organic ingredients. In Perth I have found a community of good people; people who are living actively and sustainably and honestly. I cannot help but wish for them all a chance to spend a month on the river with the SLLP.
I have been taught, both in school and in life, to look for meanings and find connections. I knew there was meaning in the SLLP and the Rivershed Society the minute I heard about it. The program not only offered me the chance to get to know the river that had run by my home for my entire life, but guided me into an actualization of all the enviro-sustainability knowledge that came to me in school and in books. The SLLP presented me with real world solutions to environmental problems. It showed what community involvement and cross-culture knowledge sharing really look like. And it presented me with an optimism that has never left. The SLLP is a river that carried me from the past to the future while reminding me that there is only the present. It is a fork in the river of my life that led me to a new and exciting current. And the SLLP, too, is the rapid section that spat me out at the end with a whole new perspective. It transitioned me from my youth to wherever it is I am now. And it influenced everything I have done since.