Peregrina Unplugged

I once read that if you have to have an automatic out of office reply, it should be short and either to the point or humorous.  My tendency is for funny.  People don’t laugh enough.  Here’s my out of office email message.


I’m sorry that I am not around to read your wonderful email.  I am out of the country during June and will not be checking my email or doing anything else on a computer.  Yes, that’s right, I am disengaging my neurons from cyberspace for a month to recharge my organic hard drive with sunshine, rain, and meditative walking in Northern Spain.  I’m even going to break out the pen and paper to write up some results and research plans the old-fashioned way.  Please bear with me as I reboot my system and upgrade the software.  🙂

When I return at the beginning of July I will respond to your very important email as soon as I humanly can.  My apologies in advance if it is urgent.  In the meantime, I wish you a terrific start of the summer season!


I focused on the fact that I’m going to disengage with technology on this journey.  I’ve not gone this long without email since… I really can’t remember.  The mid-1990s?  *shudder* That’s just so wrong on so many levels.  Thank goodness I don’t facebook or have one of those fancy phones with wifi, I might start imagining babies crawling on the ceiling.

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Pilgrim Baggage

The Camino de Santiago is not like the ATC or PCT or any sort of long-distance hike in the US.  Actually, I wouldn’t consider it a hike.  It is a long-distance walk.  For the Catholic religious, a holy pilgrimage whereby you earn half off your time in purgatory.  For other Christians, it is also a holy pilgrimage without the purgatory reward.  And for the non-Christians, agnostics, and atheists, I would suggest it is a meditative walk and perhaps even a pilgrimage since the route was used by the Celts on pilgrimage to Finisterre long before Christianity arrived on the Iberian peninsula.  They went to shed their old life and be reborn in the sea.

With this in mind, the landscape is simultaneously transient/transcendental pilgrim, natural areas, and working rural/urban Spain, with a lot of historical buildings, infrastructure, and locations built in.  Towns, villages, and cities have developed industries that provide for pilgrims as they journey.  So, unlike the ATC or PCT you don’t need to bring your own tent, cookware, food for more than a day, etc.  You can, but you don’t have to.

A lot of pilgrims learn the hard way that they carry too much baggage – literally and figuratively.   The first time I did the Camino Frances, I had a large backpack filled with stuff I thought I’d need for my year of traveling abroad.  I did end up using everything in the bag, but for the pilgrimage walk I moved about 15 pounds of the 40+ I carried to the top and that was all I used.   Between that year of traveling, and extensive fieldwork in Africa that followed, I’ve learned to pack lots lighter.

One of my friends in Colorado always marvels at how little I pack.  The reality is that you can buy pretty much anything these days on the road.  (Although finding dental floss in Europe is really difficult for some reason – but not in SE Asia or southern Africa.)  Here you go E.:

I bought my backpack as a birthday present this year.  It weighs 1.1 kg and has a space of 26.5 cubic liters.  My pack currently weighs ~20 lbs total, but this will decrease as I walk.  I have packed stuff that will get used up like toothpaste, shampoo/conditioner, tissues, etc.  Here are the contents:

I forgot to take out my rain poncho – Galacia in NW Spain can be rainy.  It is bright orangey-yellow.   There are also some hidden things in the photo.  My underwear is stacked, I have a pair of sleep socks between my green shirt and pj bottoms, and the first aid kit contains a bunch of odds and ends that don’t really fit anywhere else.  The Chewbacca change purse can be pinned to the inside of my clothes and keeps my money/credit card safe.  My passport is pinned elsewhere.

You might notice that R2D2 is coming along.  I think it might be fun to photograph him.  Also, despite any loose screws, he always seems to come through in a tight fix.  He, like me, enjoys cussing – it’s true, every line he uttered in all the movies and cartoons has been bleeped out.  It’s too bad we don’t have time to visit Sevilla in Andalusia.  I could photograph him back in Theed at the Plaza de España.

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On el Camino again, I can’t wait to be on el Camino again…

I have a semi-horrible Willy Nelson earworm at the moment, albeit completely understandable.  On Monday morning I leave for Spain, and by next Saturday I will be on my way to Santiago de Compostella.

The Way of St. James – an ancient pilgrimage route in Spain.

It isn’t my first pilgrimage or long-distance walk.  I first walked the Camino Frances (yellow) from St. Jean Pied du Port in southern France to Santiago back in 2003.   That followed on the heels of a long-distance walk from Dublin to the tip of Valentia Island in Ireland about 2 months before, and walking the West Highland Way from Glasgow to Ft. William in Scotland the year before that.  After the Camino, I trekked in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco (climbing Jebel Toubkal) and the Lycian Way along the Turkish coast.  In 2006, I completed the Camino Portugues twice – Porto to Santiago to Finisterre and Tui to Santiago – including the final traditional leg out to the Coast of Death/End of the World where I bathed naked in the sea and emerged reborn.  I have a thing for walking.

On this pilgrimage, I will be walking ~327 miles from Burgos to Santiago along the Camino Frances.  This is the most heavily trekked route, but part of me needs to connect with others.  I am looking forward to the combination of meditative walking during the day and socializing in the evenings.  In between, I’m hoping to squeeze in some writing and planning.  However, my primary focus is on the moment and let that lead me.

I’m making this journey a no-internet and minimal tech trip.  I have my camera, because I love photography, and my cell phone for emergencies.  I don’t expect trouble, but my parents are not in the best of health and my brother lives in tornado alley, aka Oklahoma City.  If something happens, it would be good to know.  So, I won’t be posting until I get back to the US.  Truly, excerpts from my Terran fieldnotes.

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So I won’t need to rob a bank…

Good news! I got my first research grant as an assistant professor.  It feels good, like I might have some ideas that could go places. The award comes through the BSOS Dean’s Initiative which provides funding for pilot and start up research to recently hired assistant professors.  The hope is that the newbie prof will use the results, techniques learned, etc. to write larger grants for submission to government funders like NASA, NOAA, and NSF.  However, with sequestration and the Recession who knows how much money will be left for funding scientific research – let alone social science research.

I was nervous.  I’m never quite sure if the crazy thoughts that wake me up at 3am or occupy my mind on the running trail every morning are worth anything.  Monkey on my back, thy name is Self Doubt.  I also submitted a gigundo proposal to NASA’s NSPIRES Terrestrial Ecology program this week, so the relief I felt with the news on the Dean’s Initiative settled me.

So what will I be researching with this pilot funding?  The work builds on my dissertation work in Matutuine District and adds a photovoice component.  I foresee a lot of self-study of visual anthropology over the next few years.  I am looking forward to this.  Finally, I can combine my personal loves of photography, story-telling with my lifelong passion for natural and social science.

I will be working with local residents to build a model of the local socio-ecological system, understand their perspective of how the different parts (plants, animals, human communities, markets, etc.) interact, and what signals they pay attention to anticipate change in the system.  I hope to present on the theoretical background of this project at the AAA meetings in November this year and get some feedback before the fieldwork starts.

Signals in the Noise: Local Indicators of Change in a Complex Savanna Socio-Ecological System

Local environmental knowledge (LEK) supports household and community-level decision-making about resource use and management during stable periods, and adaptation during uncertain times, when other information is limited and/or non-existent. Socio-ecological system (SES) complexity suggests that LEK users focus their attention on specific indicators to forecast future climate and other environmental changes. LEK of the connections and interactions between various SES socioeconomic and biophysical elements and processes is then drawn on a second time to analyze response risks and make decisions. This local SES model offers opportunities for exploring variation that may be lost in the large, aggregated datasets used for global and regional SES modeling. Considering recent findings that critical thresholds and tipping points in complex systems are often preceded by a slowing of key indicator variables, comparisons of LEK indicators with regional and global indicators may also suggest variables for further analysis. This proposal outlines a pilot project to investigate socio-ecological system (SES) complexity in Matutuíne District, southern Mozambique using local environmental knowledge (LEK). Living in one of the world’s most climate vulnerable countries, residents of Matutuíne District use their LEK daily to navigate the uncertainties of climate, globalization, and conservation policy. Ethnographic, visual, and ecological methods are proposed to build a local model of the savanna SES, explore local indicators of environmental change, including climate, and examine local perceptions of environmental risk and uncertainty, as well as socio-ecological sustainability.

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When I was 6 months old, my mom tells me that she threw me into the pool – or at least let go of me – to begin teaching me how to swim on my own and not be afraid of the water.  Apparently, like many babies, I did just fine.  I kept my head above the surface, although I wasn’t precisely happy at the time.  Later, when I took swim lessons, I was never afraid of the water unlike my younger brother who refused to stick his face in the water until he was 10 (my mom never gave him the sink or swim lesson).

However, I discovered at an early age that I could not float.  One day in swim lessons our instructor had us practice the dead man’s float – an emergency position to conserve energy if you are too far out or get a cramp or are injured.  You put your face in the water and rest, only coming up for air every 20 sec – 1 minute.  When I came up for air, I had to swim 10 feet to the surface.  I panicked.  That event put a damper on my enthusiasm for swimming.  The rest of my family can float.  They tell me that I’m too anxious, that I can’t relax, that I need to put my arms up, that I just need to lay back and trust.  I’m dense.  I can lie on the bottom of the pool and watch the other swimmers pass by as I hold my breath.  Density is an advantage when you SCUBA dive – less weight on your belt – but a pain in the ass on a hot summer day.  Swimming is a struggle for me and because of this I rarely go swimming.

This morning I attended an NSF grant writing workshop taught by a well-funded, tenured professor from another university.  There were many shiny, assistant professors in attendance, as well as a few postdocs, grad students, and even some associate and full professors.  We were all there to learn the secrets of writing a successful proposal.  The speaker did an excellent job laying out the structure and key elements.  He gave good advice – much of it I’d never heard, or at least heard but it had not registered.  The workshop isn’t the point though.  How I felt at that workshop is.

I sat through the 2 hours feeling like I could finally breathe.  Like I’d surfaced from the depths of a dark murky pool.  I was floating finally.  All around me were people engaged in scientific research.  They have ideas.  They are actively pursuing research goals or at least attempting to get the funding to do so.  Some of my friends from other departments were there.  A couple of friends from my own department were there.  Why did I feel so light and happy and inspired?  And then I thought about returning to my own department and office and quickly shoved that thought back into the back of my brain.

As I walked slowly back to my office following the workshop I could feel myself sinking back into the depths and thinking about why.  This term I attempted to clear my Mondays and Fridays for just research related activity.  This worked as planned for a good many days.  However, brain overload from all the other required stuff and quick decision-making hampered my creativity and thinking time to plan out research.  I’ve also felt isolated.

So why did it feel like I could finally breathe at the workshop?  Because for a brief moment I was.  I had a space to think and time to plan.  I was surrounded by people in the same position.  There was a person in the lead giving basic, yet substantial, advice.  We were all breathing together and floating.   I’m not afraid of the water.  I just get tired of holding my breath.


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An offer I can’t refuse…

My chair, and unofficial mentor, just offered to buy me a beer for every manuscript I write and submit by 23 January. The 23rd is the start of the Spring 2013 term – hence the deadline. While I am not a beerophile (is that a word?), I can’t help but want to take on the challenge.


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Beginning 2013 with a do over

While I don’t want to redo the entire year, there are a few things that need re-doing before this year’s work can begin.  It sucks, but there it is.

One of those redos is a manuscript I’ve been working on now for about a year.  I got back my second set of reviews from a second journal in mid-November.  They weren’t terrible, actually pretty constructive, but they pointed out a major flaw in the manuscript.  The framing of the work I was writing about, and its theoretical underpinnings, just didn’t cut it.  My co-authors and I were trying to sell apples as oranges.


Last night I called my co-author K.  After getting the reviews, she too was having second thoughts about how we were presenting our work.  The story was how we developed a set of tools to fit a complex situation and allow for adjustment to future uncertain conditions – at the request of a community.  Not that it was an educational intervention.  Chalk it up to another learning experience.  I sooooo want this manuscript off my desk.

Meanwhile, another manuscript in a similar situation sits in my filing cabinet awaiting similar treatment.  Well, at least I won’t run out of writing projects anytime soon.  Way to ensure that I’ll keep my new year’s resolution to write more.

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I found this video today.  The video was made by Dr. Alex Rivest and he explains more about it on his blog.

Apparently, the Earth’s atmosphere gives off its own glow through a process called chemoluminescence.  During the day UV light from the sun excites oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the thermosphere.  At night, the atoms lose this energy and give it off as photons.

There is some cool science, but mostly the zen-nature of the video makes my heart happy.

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Low visibility

It’s been a rough first semester as a shiny assistant professor. Multiple department hires, a brand new, never-been-taught class, prepping for fieldwork, and publish or perish pressures.  I oscillate between overwhelmed and tired.

Yet, I’m still thrilled by the challenge.  I wake up every morning excited to go to work – even when my allergies are acting up.   My students seemed to have learned.  My colleagues still like me.  And I’m prepping for 4.5 weeks in the field.

Have you ever driven in a blizzard?  The type where the road is slippery with ice and you can’t see more than about 5-10 feet in front of your hood?  So you open your door while driving to look for the side of the road to stay on track and creep along at 15 mph max.  It’s exhausting work but you know eventually the whiteout will thin a bit and you will get home somehow.  Yeah, that’s how I’m feeling.

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I’ll meet you there.

The Sufi poet, Rumi, writes

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about
language, ideas, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.

This afternoon, my students, will be doing a bit of mythbusting in class.  I teach Anthropology and Climate Change.  We’ve just begun discussing climate change in the contemporary period and our topic today in “Deniers, Skeptics, and the IPCC.” On Tuesday I handed out a list of 40 of the top arguments against anthropogenic climate change.  They come from a list of 150 gathered together by Dr. John Cook on his website, Skeptical Science: Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism.  I asked the students to circle all the arguments they’ve ever heard and then rank the top 5 they feel are most important.

Today, in class after discussing a framework for assessing fact validity and ways arguments backfire, the students will break into small groups and come up with counter-arguments to the top 6 anti-climate change arguments.  They will then present their work to the rest of class.  My belief is that if you are well-armed, you are far more confident and able to hold your own when the need arises.

So what does this have to do with Rumi?  Well, it is a myth-busting activity… and I googled MythBusters… and this video about the awesomeness of science and scientific discoveries featuring Adam Savage appeared this morning serendipitously on School of Fail.  Adam talks about how different scientific disciplines are referred to as fields.  Fields are open and inviting of/for discovery rather than tiny enclosed spaces. Hence Rumi and his notions of fields out beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing.  Fields of thoughts and ideas and coming together.  I love serendipity.  And science.

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