Learning to Unwind

30 January 2020

On a mission to learn more about wolves, geology major Ben Lowry ’21 (Watertown, Massachusetts), biology major Maya Hilty ’21 (Grand Junction, Colorado), sociology/anthropology major Katie Babbit ’21 (Lexington, Kentucky), and psychology major Amida McNulty ’21 (Mesa, Arizona) headed to Yellowstone National Park with support from the Four Friends Fellowship. The wolves remained elusive, but the friends learned that many important lessons aren’t academic.

What was your goal for your fellowship experience?

MAYA: I had this idea of doing somehow connecting a fellowship to a book I’d read about wolves in Yellowstone.

KATIE: In Yellowstone, wolves pretty much went extinct. Then they were introduced with Canadian wolves, and now they’ve been taken off the endangered species list. It was a success of how one animal impacts the entire ecosystem.

MAYA: But then there was a backlash against them because of fears of human-carnivore contact. We wanted to see if we could do something relevant to native wolf perceptions—they’re actually really valuable to the ecosystem.

KATIE: Amida does artwork, so we thought we could put what we learned into a children’s book. Our original idea is that it would be subtly political, to preserve our natural parks.

MAYA: And give more of an appreciation for nature.

What surprised you during the experience?

KATIE: Well, Ben had never been camping before. We spent two or three nights camping in the backcountry, and then we did touristy stuff in the rest of the park, too.

MAYA: We were a little bit winging it, but we had enough experience to be fine, even when our stove broke and we realized our iodine tablets were expired. So we had to boil water over the fire. So there were unexpected things we weren’t really planning for, but it ended up being fun.

KATIE: We had a good sense of humor.

MAYA: We struggled a little in backcountry—there was a huge moment where we were like, what do we even do?

AMIDA: In our culture these days, there is constant pressure to be working and to be productive. Even during the summer or our free time, we struggle with the stress of always feeling like there is something we need to do. We found it so interesting to be in a place where there was nothing that we needed to do beyond surviving, and how we actually struggled with that. I particularly found that it was upsetting that we needed to become so removed from society to relax—and even then we couldn’t quite manage it. 

What was the biggest learning moment you had during the fellowship?

KATIE:  We didn’t see any wolves! We learned about wolf migration patterns and how they go into the mountains in the summer, so it’s less likely to see them. But we learned a lot about bison because we saw so many.

What was really interesting was comparing our backcountry experience to our tourist experience and seeing how people interact with their environment. Really the peacefulness and quiet of the backcountry was big for me. Also the hope that the outdoors can be accessible for a lot of people. So many images stand out to me with emotional qualities behind them—simple things like in the morning the way the sunrise looks.

MAYA: We’re used to being extremely busy at Carleton. It’s nice to take time just to be with your friends, away from school.

What’s been your biggest takeaway, now that you’re back?

MAYA: After the camping part of our trip, we stayed in Bozeman for a couple of nights to put the book together, so we went to the library and read children’s books for an afternoon. I was really inspired by that. My favorites were super simple—like A Stone Sat Still—but really made you think as an adult.

KATIE: Since we’ve been back, we’ve been doing a lot of independent journaling and focusing on key takeaways. We’ve found it’s more practical to use simple ideas to tell a powerful message.

MAYA: We decided instead of having a narrative arc, we’d structure the book around images of moments we loved. Like our tent at night and these river snakes that would pop their heads out of the water. And our socks, after we all washed them in the river and laid them to dry on the rocks. Lots of bison. Logs around our campsite, and the little squirrel that ran around on the logs. And the black bear we saw—that’s the end of our book.

KATIE: Now Amida is making watercolor paintings of the images we’ve picked, and Ben, Maya, and I will do the words for them. We’d like to make it a little bit activist—what you can do to help protect your national parks. And hopefully, give people more of an appreciation for nature.

Ben Lowry, Maya Hilty, Katie Babbit, and Amida McNulty ready to research in Yellowstone.
Ben Lowry, Maya Hilty, Katie Babbit, and Amida McNulty ready to research in Yellowstone.