Monday, July 28, 2008

Final Report

After spending nearly an entire year explaining why I wanted a chance to travel to study cod fisheries, it came as a surprise that the first time I was asked, “so why are you doing this?” I had a hard time finding an answer. As a girl who grew up hundreds of miles from the coast, a lifelong inland dweller, with little knowledge of fishing or marine biology and a pesky tendency to seasickness, it didn’t seem so likely a choice, and I threw myself into the world of fisheries and fisheries management with little preparation. In many ways, though, it was my place as an outsider – a foreigner without experience or background in fisheries – that allowed me to learn from the ground up, not to take anything for granted, to learn without the biases of already knowing what to think. Fishermen learn their trade from fathers and uncles and neighbors and as apprentices, marine biologists go to a university and earn a degree; I talked my way onto boats and asked lots of questions between bouts of feeling queasy.

In addition to not beginning this year as an expert in fisheries, I often found it hard to explain that my goal was also not to become a fisheries expert. Having spent so much time getting to know fishermen, fisheries management sociologists, and fisheries biologists, I have tremendous respect for them as people and for the work they do, but I am convinced that none of these jobs is for me – I want to do something interdisciplinary between science and policy, something where I can apply my love of the unseen undersea world of water chemistry, something that doesn’t require spending quite so much time being seasick. I looked at fisheries management as a model of what works and what doesn’t in creating policy: I got to know a fisheries science structure that fosters extensive international cooperation but is forced to focus on producing specific management-geared reports for government “clients;” I talked with fishermen frustrated by trying to make a living off a resource managed under a clunky bureaucratic structure that is just learning how to give fishermen a say in their own futures; I witnessed attempts to bring together fishermen and scientists to incorporate traditional knowledge and social and economic concerns along with classic science in fisheries research and management recommendations.

I knew from the beginning that I was unlikely to find any new solutions for fisheries management – smart, experienced people have been working on this for years – but observing firsthand how so many places have tried to solve the same problem and how those efforts have played out for people and the resources on which they depend, I have developed my own philosophy of environmental management. I’m convinced that there’s more at stake than possible extinctions or even ecosystem health: there are coastal cultures, family traditions, food sources, and myriad uses both aesthetic and practical for the environmental resources on which we depend. After a year of close consideration, I have lots of specific ideas for fisheries management – getting fishermen involved in basic research, putting all the stakeholders around the table for transparent decision-making, long-term resource allocation plans that won’t consolidate quotas in big companies when the current generation retires. But even more important, I feel like I learned which questions to ask, how to listen to new voices and respect their opinions and weigh their arguments, how my values play out in real-world situations. So even if I don’t apply these lessons to fisheries, I still can take these lessons and apply them: as a better scientist, more in tune with how my research could and should be used; a better educator, helping society understand the relationship between people and the environment; a more conscientious environmental citizen living off limited natural resources.

In many ways, though, the intricacies of fisheries and the lessons of how to design environmental management are just the outer limits of what I learned from this past year. A week after returning to the States, I rediscovered a note I had written to myself a few weeks before leaving for this year-long adventure. Under the heading “Goals for Watson year,” I had written, “1) Give people the benefit of the doubt. Be patient, compassionate, and understanding with everyone and take the time to appreciate the best in people. 2) Be passionate about everything I do, and enjoy the beauty and excitement of each day. 3) Remain positive through setbacks, fear, loneliness, and difficulties both expected and unexpected.” It was a firm reminder of what I had truly set out to – and did – gain from this past year. As much as my focus for the past year has been cod fishing – even when I wasn’t researching fisheries, I chose books to read about fishing communities, learned new ways to cook fish, even knit myself a winter hat with a pattern of fish – the most important lessons I have to take away from this crazy trip have little to do with fishing. The defining feature of this year has been much more my struggle with being on my own far removed from the places and people that make up my sense of home. In the end, I think this is what a Watson is all about – not the Latin names I can recite and my ability to hold a conversation about trawl net designs or even just my sharpened personal environmental philosophy, but the experience of questioning who I am and how to be myself away from my familiar world.

I had not expected at the beginning of this year of travel that I would be homesick, but I hadn’t banked on how much of my own identity was wrapped up in the people and places that define home. Exploring a field where I have little background, without the people I love and who love me, stripped of the context in which I’ve built my outward identity and sense of myself – overcommitted enthusiastic student, contradancer, Jew, friend, even my outward appearance (I left my skirt collection at home) – I was forced to see myself without the support of a past that tells me who I am and reminds me that I am a worthwhile, successful person. I had to get by not on my own merit or anything I’ve earned, but mostly on the good graces of others who offered me experience and information of their own good will. As someone used to being self-sufficient, I was taken aback at home much my sense of self was situational, built on living in a world I know intimately and where I feel comfortable and useful. Instead of proving my independence, leaving my familiar context showed me my dependence on others – both those at home who I missed dearly and those I met abroad whose kindness and hospitality helped me find my way in the places where I felt most lost.

Many travelers leave home armed with devices and advices for how to ward off foreign thieves and rogues and many people I met along the way worried at the idea of a young woman traveling alone, but I found that rather than meeting danger at every turn in new and unfamiliar places, traveling as a lone (and very unthreatening) outsider opened up for me a world of kind, friendly people willing to go out of their way to help a stranger. The shopping mall attendant who talked me through each step of the Icelandic passport photo machine so I could get my visa to go to Denmark – and then gave me the photos for free; the minister’s wife I met at the old saltfish store in Grand Bank, Newfoundland, who invited me home to stay with her family at the rectory only fifteen minutes after meeting me; the woman in the Lofoten Islands who not only gave me a ride to church on Easter Sunday but also translated the entire Norwegian service for me. The people I met and their extraordinary kindness form my most striking memories of many of the places I visited. It is a humbling experience to continually feel indebted to the generosity of others, to constantly remain on the receiving end of help and hospitality with little ability to express my gratitude or return the favor. Traveling in a group of people to look out for each other, or with a surplus of funds to amply provide for expensive solutions to complicated situations, I never would have found myself dependent on the kindness of strangers or fully opened myself to finding the best not only in friends but in people I have never met.

After spending the first nine months of my travels feeling very distinctly an outsider, both as an American abroad and as a newcomer to fisheries, spending my last few months in Newfoundland was in many ways a return to the familiar in the midst of my year of adventure. I felt more comfortable in the world of fishing after nine months of gradually, inexorably gathering knowledge, and after so long traveling, Canada seemed a palpable step closer to home. With the Stanley Cup in progress, Newfoundlanders had something other to say other than “hmm, where’s that?” when I told them I was from Pittsburgh. My accent no longer immediately identified me as a foreigner. I even found a welcoming Jewish community in St. John’s (the first Jews I lived near all year). I also rediscovered the ubiquitous box store strip malls and car dealerships that seem to define North America and experienced my surprise upon return from moderate-sized grocery stores of Europe to the everything-you-could-ever-want supermarkets of North America three months before returning home. Arriving in Canada, I felt less an outsider than I had at any other point during my travels.

My first real adventure in Newfoundland – a trip to Fogo Island, a four hour drive and ferry ride from St. John’s to an island of small fishing communities, in the midst of the sealing season, still iced in at the end of April – proved to me how home and adventure can collide. I was enamored with the landscape, the ubiquitous presence of fishing in the culture and heart of the island, the friendliness of everyone I met. And yet, for the first time since I had left home, I found people who knew, quite specifically, where I came from – I stayed with the family of a woman who lives in my small town outside Pittsburgh. The connection was, frankly, disconcerting: I had spent so long away from anyplace even distantly associated with home that it was hard to talk about my old school district, the local grocery store, things I thought I had left behind. But most of all, it made me realize that the places I had tended to overlook near home could have the same beauty and hidden surprises as the places I had been visiting throughout this year. Although less exotic that many of the possible places I could have traveled, in many ways the familiarity of the landscape during my time in Canada confirmed for me one of the most important lessons from my year of travel – that excitement and adventure are not found only in exotic, distant places but also are waiting close to home.

In the weeks since I have returned to the States, I have not lost the sense of wonder and exploration that became my constant companion as a Watson fellow. My actual return home was anticlimactic – I drove from Newfoundland through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick before crossing the border into Maine – but the gradual easing back into a world I know well seems to have avoided any sharp change that might have felt like an end to adventuring. Instead, rather than feeling like the end of my Watson year, it felt more like a beginning – with a year of adventuring as the prelude to a life full of adventures, whether they be journeys across the globe or in my own backyard. For me, the Watson was not about a year-long adventure but about learning to see the possibilities available in the world and realizing that I am capable of pursuing any of them I want. I’m still passionate about many of the same things I loved before I began – I want to sail, to teach, to study the oceans, to find sustainable ways to use nature – and this long journey has proven to me that these are things I can do, and no doubt provided me with many of the tools and lessons I will use on the way. Beginning in August, I will be sailing Long Island Sound, teaching about the environment and sharing my passion as I consider which dream to pursue next. And so, the end of my journey is not an end but an interlude, as the next adventure begins.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Home again

And so, I'm home. I crossed the border on June 27, a full year from the day my flight landed in Reykjavik and this crazy adventure began. For having been out of the country for a year, my return was entirely anticlimactic. My return journey, rather than a long plane flight like that of most Watson fellows, was by car: I crossed the border between New Brunswick and Maine in a minor road between the small towns of St. Stephen and Calais at the end of a two week road trip from St. John’s.
The border crossing consisted of a ten-minute traffic jam on our way to crossing the bridge into the US. The man at border security didn’t even notice from my passport that I had been away from home for the year, and didn’t bother with a stamp. It felt as if returning to the country after a year away was as normal and routine as the many Maine license plates returning home from a day trip. A bit anticlimactic, I suppose, but mostly it feels lovely and comfortable to be home.

The trip back was wonderful too – a perfect way of easing back into the life I left behind for this year of adventuring. Before I even crossed the border, I had a chance to remember what it’s like to spend time with friends, to relax without having to worry about the details of what comes next, and to get my first taste of summer (and sunburn) since last June.

After a year of wanderings, it seems I should have something profound and conclusive to say at this crossroads in my life, but I regret to inform you that a year of wandering has not taught me the secret of life. I’ve become more careful and nuanced in my views, more aware of the hidden wisdom and beauty to be found in strangers and out-of-the-way places, more thankful for time with people I love and the comforts of familiarity and belonging. But more than anything, the secret is that there is no secret – life doesn’t change because you cross a border.

And even though the official adventure is over, I’ve learned that excitement and adventure and the opportunity to make things happen don’t depend on finding a fancy fellowship. My adventures don’t end just because I’m home again. I have a month to relax and recollect myself and reconnect with my friends and family, and then I’m beginning my next adventure – working as an educator and deckhand aboard the Schooner SoundWaters in Long Island Sound. I’m pretty excited. I’m hoping to spend some of the next few weeks going through the flotsam and jetsam of this past year, the notes and pamphlets and pictures that record where I’ve been and what I’ve seen, and hopefully I’ll slowly work this blog towards a more complete account of my journey before the next big adventure begins. Meanwhile, if you want to catch up, give me a call.