We have been at IslandWood since August—a whole four months and yet only four months. Part of me feels at home here on Bainbridge Island and on the IslandWood campus. Part of me, however, is still mystified by nearly everything I encounter here on our little island.
During winter break, I headed down to Southern California to spend our nearly two weeks off doing a glorious amount of nothing. I grew up in the mountains of San Diego County. These mountains are dry, filled with scraggly, low-lying brush and dozens of varieties of lizards and snakes my brother and I chased as children. One of my fellow graduate students, Martha, joined me on a visit to my hometown on our way to Joshua Tree National Park to meet up with another cohort-member, Sean. I was overjoyed to share the environment that I grew up in with them. The forests of the Pacific Northwest have become our common language. We learn via their history—a history that starts with glaciers carving mountains and fjords, clearing space for the plants and animals we know today—and we teach through the forests' enormous potential to inspire wonder. I was eager to share the language of my childhood land with my classmates.
During fall quarter, our cohort took a class called “Natural History and Ecology of the Puget Sound.” Our cohort calls a wide range of places home—the Puget Sound, California, New England, the Midwest, Alaska. The idea of the class was to familiarize us with the environment we would be teaching in, but it ended up being much more than that for me. It was a chance to see how my classmates view the world in the context of their own upbringing and how those influences shape their sense of place here on Bainbridge. We talked a lot about how plants, animals and people are referred to as native to a place. Does something have to originate somewhere to be from there? It is a question we could never seem to find a satisfactory answer to, but not for lack of deep thought.
Martha, Sean, and I made our way to Joshua Tree where we camped, hiked, and enjoyed some much needed sunshine. I am a creature of the sun. Having spent nearly every summer day in a pool or ocean growing up, I crave the place where sunshine meets water. Although Joshua Tree lacks an ocean, I was ecstatic to be wearing a tank top and walking through the desert in December. I could feel the sun heating up my shoulders and crisping the first layer of my skin. Sean, having lived in the desert, was a great guide to the plants and animals living in the area. Even without Sean’s ability to tell us about the bird species and famous Joshua trees, though, I knew the minute we got there that I was home. Although I had never been to Joshua Tree, I felt a kinship with the scraggly bushes, giant yucca trees, cholla cactus, and sandy soil. It was just similar enough to my San Diego mountain ecosystem that I felt comfortable navigating and enjoying myself without having to name each thing we came upon.
Martha was unsure about this environment. She enjoyed it and could see the beauty, but doubted she would ever feel truly comfortable in the desert. Instead she craved the trees of her childhood in the Midwest. Her apprehension at this place was compounded by the presence of lizards in the desert. We had many a conversation about the absence of lizards in her Midwest, and it was delightful to see Martha’s surprise when a lizard would skitter across the trail while we were enjoying a walk among the Joshua Trees.
As I sit in the airport waiting to return home to Bainbridge Island, I am confronted with yet another few months where I won’t feel sunshine on my shoulders. Instead I will find comfort trekking through the woods of the IslandWood campus with my SOP students and seeing ferns, salamanders, and all variety of trees that just four months ago were entirely unknown to me. When did this little island become home? Will I ever be as comfortable here as I am in Southern California? With every walk I take down the path to my little cabin in the woods I feel comfort creeping in, and with every laugh I share with my cohort I am reminded of the feeling of sun on my shoulders.
Caroline Bargo is a student in IslandWood's Graduate Program, offered in partnership with the University of Washington College of Education. Learn more about the program here.