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The best stories come from experiences in nature

By Rachael Gleason
SPRING 2010

It wasn’t a typical construction site. But then again, it wasn’t going to be a typical house.

I stood in a sea of deformed wooden boards and studied the structure. It seemed to tilt slightly to the left. There wasn’t a flaw in the construction — just the materials. And Dan Phillips likes it that way.

The Huntsville, Texas resident builds affordable housing for low-income families in the area. He uses recycled materials and incorporates sustainable features like rainwater harvesting systems. Bottle caps, bones, egg shells — nothing is off limits to Phillips.

A dozen of his houses are scattered throughout Huntsville. Although aesthetically unique, you’d likely miss them if you weren’t paying attention. I spotted Phillips building his first “Bone House” during a stroll nearly two years ago.

The dwelling looks like a tree house — plenty of protection from the elements, yet still a part of nature. He even incorporated recycled cattle bones in some of the design elements. I wrote a feature story on the dance professor-turned-atypical architect for the local newspaper.

The experience taught me to get out of the office. Sure, you can find interesting ideas staring at a computer screen. But the best stories come from venturing out of the newsroom with a curious mind.

The same goes for life: Sometimes you have to leave the comforts of civilization to learn the most important life lessons.

I’ve always had a passion for learning about the environment, so I hitched a ride last year with a traveling history and writing class after graduating from Sam Houston State University. We started in Huntsville and explored at least a dozen western states.

We spent most of the three-week trip camping in national parks, reading books about the places we visited, writing in travel journals and hiking. The journey wasn’t about sightseeing — it was about participating in nature.

Here are some important lessons I learned along the way:

The world is a scary place sometimes. I nearly fell off a cliff while hiking to Delicate Arch at Arches National Monument. My hiking partner and I misread the trail markers and ended up climbing through the arch instead of approaching it safely from the other side. The experience gave me a much-needed reality check. We tend to think of nature as well-maintained city park. It’s not, and we are still very much at its mercy.

Plan for the unexpected. It rains in the desert — trust me. We almost lost one of the vans to a ditch during a downpour at Chaco Canyon, N.M. Keeping a vehicle from losing traction in the mud isn’t easy — we had to run alongside the van to ensure its course. Keep an umbrella and extra pair of boots on hand. You never know when you’ll need them.

Knowledge is power. I explored many environments on the west, but the visit to the Battle of Little Bighorn National Monument in Montana stands out. Instead of bringing us directly to Gen. Custer’s grave, our environmental history professor told us to look around. The area was covered with large, round hills. He explained how the Indians had the upper hand in battle because of their intimate understanding of the landscape.

Getting to know your local environment may not give you battlefield advantage these days, but the awareness may enrich your life. The United States Environmental Protection Agency lets you search a wide variety of environmental information by location on its Web site. Local conservation clubs are also a good resource.

But always, the best way to learn about nature is to be in it.

Rachael Gleason is a first-year graduate student studying environmental journalism at Michigan State University. This is her first year as editor of EJ Magazine.

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