Young Women Who Fly with the Geese
Confronting an environmental disaster, a woman rediscovers her heart. Now she’s making a new generation stronger. You can, too.
This article appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of Spirituality & Health.
I sat alone, perched on a 200 – foot ridge overlooking the vast Pacific Ocean on Chowiet, a remote, uninhabited Alaskan island, hundreds of miles from the mainland. The wind caressed the tall grasses of this weathered, treeless landscape. Scores of cliff-nesting thick -billed murres tended their nests and eggs. Alone silvery-gray fulmar soared silently overhead.
The year was 1989. Roughly 600 miles northeast, in Prince William Sound, the Exxon Valdez had run aground. Prevailing currents and winds were carrying the oil spill toward Chowiet and eight other islands. Known as the Semidi Islands National Wildlife Refuge, they are breeding and nesting grounds for almost three million seabirds and marine mammals, so volunteers had been rushed here to count wildlife before the devastation.
My mission, along with three other women volunteers, was to count seabirds, eggs, hatched chicks, and fledglings at specific sites each day. The data we gathered over six weeks were entered daily into a laptop computer at our base camp so that comparisons and made me before and after the spill’s damage. But in the peace and stillness of that moment, my mission was forgotten. Time disappeared. Everything was perfect. I found myself passionately reciting the words of Rumi poem to the colony of murres nearby, “What I want is… to swim like a huge fish in ocean water… to be a desert mountains instead of a city…” Tears of joy streamed down my cheeks.
The life-changing moment that brought me to Chowiet had come a few months before. Back home one the Oregon coast. I had helped a local environmental group raise funds to send volunteers to Alaska to join the cleanup. Lying awake one night, I realized that my heart was calling me to go, as well. Ever since I was 13, I had been fascinated with dolphins — their playful, joyful nature, communication, intelligence, and social structure. I devoured any information I could find. Yet after embarking on an undergraduate path to study marine mammalogy, my professors convinced me that job in this field were hard to come by. So I reluctantly switched my major to marine geochemistry.
My career path was smoothly paved from here, and my stories of exploring active undersea volcanoes made me the envy of others at parties. Yet the emptiness in my heart grew with each passing year and each core sample I analyzed. But, lying in bed that night, I realized that the Alaska project would let me move toward a deeper fulfillment I had long ago left behind. The next day I asked my boss for a leave of absence, and her flatly said no. So I quit. The most frightening and freeing choice of my life was made in that instant.
Living on Chowiet was difficult at first. The rain and winds rarely ceased. I was at times lonely, homesick, and frustrated. One cold, dreary morning I woke in my tent deeply discouraged. I dressed and hiked down to the cove near base camp. As I neared the water’s edge, the lounging sea lions roared and rumbled, threatening me. I washed in the frigid water, then headed back to camp, cold and miserable. After breakfast, the trial I had established to my colony of seabirds proved deep with mud. As I sloshed and slid my way up the ridge in my oversized rubber boots, I tripped and fell to my hands and knees in gooey muck. I began to sob. What was I Doing in this godforsaken place? And then suddenly, an answer rushed from my heart. The tears turned to those of ecstasy at the sudden awareness of my absolute connection with the entire universe and everything around me, including the mud.
From that moment on, the simplicity and primal nature of my experiences encouraged a deep mindfulness. Never before had I lived in such communion with the earth. Even as I awoke most days to rainy gray skies, I felt energized. The embrace of this wildness was that of a lover. Between counts I perched at the cliff’s edge, the wind howling and whipping against me, the ocean heaving below, and exclaimed Rumi’s poetry into the wind.
I’m tired of cowards. I want to live with lions. With Moses. Not whining, teary people. I want the ranting of drunkards. I want to sing like birds sung, not worrying who hears, or what they think — Rumi, “Learning to Soar”
Learning to Soar
As a woman scientist, I had considered myself “liberated,” yet while living in the Semidis with just three other women, I realized how often I had deferred to men. I had no idea of the exhilaration that came with being among women, relying on one another for critical decisions and our very lives.
One of our goals was to band endangered Aleutian Canada geese nesting on Kaliktigik Island, several miles north of Chowiet. Most days the strong winds and high seas made the crossing to Kaliktigik a no-go, but one clear, sunny morning the winds dropped to 10-15 knots, and decided to try. It took all four of us to lift the inflatable boat its gear off the beach. Adrenaline rushed through my limbs. If something went wrong, we could die.
We headed out the cover’s protection. The sea lions craned their blubbery necks to watch us in our bright orange survival suits. As we motored toward Kaliktigik, we encountered hundreds of horned puffins bouncing on the ocean’s surface, comical in their formal black-and-white suits and orange-and-yellow beaks. When we got close, they scurried to take off, wings flapping like wind-up toys.
Minutes later, something caught the corner of my eye, and I turned to see the five-foot dorsal fin of an orca glistening in the sunlight. Below the surface its massive body, more than twice the length of our boat, glided beside us. I gasped. We were trespassing, and this tremendous whale could dump the boat, sending us into the chilling ocean. Orcas feed on sea lions, so why not humans? Then, as suddenly as my imagination had run wild, my fear melted, and I smiled in awe. The whale stayed with our boat for almost five minutes, then disappeared beneath the surface. Our spirits danced across the water.
We neared Kaliktigik’s towering rock faces and landed on the sheltered eastern shore. Our task was to band the flightless adult gees — in other words, those we could catch. The birds nested in the tall grasses throughout the island. At first we chased them randomly. Those that could fly took off, while the rest led us on a frantic wild-goose chase. We couldn’t even get close. Eventually we discovered a way. We lined up, arms outstretched, fingers almost touching, and swept the grassy areas. After several attempts, I dove and tackled my first goose. It took all my strength to hold this beautiful bird, with big dark eyes and long, graceful neck, her heart throbbing against me. My teammates placed bands on both her legs — #149. Now scientists could follow her nesting and migration and perhaps save her species from extinction.
After five hours and two twisted ankles, we had banded four geese. As the winds picked up, we traipsed to the boat, anxious to celebrate our accomplishment with a special meal of canned chili and vegetables. As our little outboard motor chugged its way back to Chowiet, the ocean’s undulating, sparkling surface seemed to radiate right through me. I felt an intensified connection with my teammates through the ocean’s brilliant blueness. My heart cried out at the aliveness that was mine.
Learning to Lead
Several years later, in a graduate course in technical writing at Southern Oregon University, we were assigned to choose and outline a research project. Although my passion for the earth and desire to kindle this passion in others had lain dormant for several years since my Alaskan summer, I chose to do a grant proposal for a nature -based empowerment program. I discovered that our community had no such program for girls and young women. As I outlined my project, I typed faster and faster. I could do this! I couldn’t wait. I submitted the proposal and received $5,000, and that was the birth of SEEK (Self-Esteem, Exploration, & Knowledge) the Heart of Nature.
A few months later, a dozen girls sat in a circle, surrounded by vibrantly colored wildflowers, doing icebreakers for our first weeklong SEEK program. We had activities to honor self and nature, cooperative games to learn about teamwork, and outdoor skills for personal empowerment. After a week together, we could see die evolution that occurred in each young woman, as well as in the group. Their journals, like mine from the Semidis, captured the awe and inspiration gained from living attuned to one another and nature.
Since 1997, SEEK has touched the lives of almost 500 girls. Our follow-up studies have found that fully 80 percent have gained self-esteem and life skills and more than 90 percent have gained outdoor skills and an inclination toward earth stewardship. SEEK’s premise, as my Alaskan experiences showed me, is that being outdoors can provide a profound communion with all life, an unconditional source of strength and support, which in turn contributes to family, community, and the earth’s well-being by encouraging young women to give back to the world through service.
Create a Soaring Birthday Celebration for Your Child
Many outdoor cooperative activities require special equipment and trained facilitators, but others don’t. These SEEK favorites are simple, fun, and joyful, and you can lead them by yourself or with other parents. From a place of thorough enjoyment, children can become more confident, capable, and creative as they go through life. Just keep in mind the advice of Anatole France, ‘Awaken people’s curiosity. It is enough to open minds; do not overload them. Put there just a spark. If there is some good inflammable stuff, it will catch fire.”
Ideal group: Eight to twelve girls or boys aged nine to thirteen. The minimum group size is six, the maximum fifteen. Some games also work well with children aged six to eight. Mixed sex groups can also work, especially with younger children.
Setting: We recommend playing these games in nature. Children need room for unrestricted enthusiasm, to see themselves in a different light by being away from home, and to breathe deeply and honor the beauty all around. If no outdoor setting is available or weather is inclement, find a large indoor space.
Facilitation: Having fun is the priority, and safety is essential. Directions appropriate to participants 'ages should be presented clearly and concisely. Demonstrations will prevent confusion about how a game is played. Younger children may need more assistance. Keep in mind that conflict is a normal part of a group's evolution. Encourage children to be open and honest, to be good listeners, and to respect others. Allow participants the chance to explore what happened to find value in every activity, even those not easily accomplished. The group often welcomes an opportunity to try the game again after problems are discussed and resolved.
If you're worried about leading these games, find other parents to try them with you. You'll not only learn about your community but also will probably find help for your child's party.
Games that help participants relax and learn about one another
Have You Ever...? In this fast-paced game, the group stands in a circle with space for children's arms to be outstretched with fingertips touching their neighbors'. Mark each child's spot with a carpet square or a piece of cardboard. One person is "It" and starts in the middle of the circle. "It" asks the others, "Have you ever...?" ending the question with something she has done that she suspects no one else has, for example, ridden an elephant. Those who have done this must find new places in the circle. "It" must also try to find a spot in the circle. If several people have done the thing named, each must scramble for a spot. Because the circle contains one fewer spot than the total of the players, one player is left without a spot. He then becomes "It" and goes to the middle. If no one has done the thing named, "It" asks another question. If only one other player has done the thing named, he and "It" simply trade places.
Safety is important; standing rather than sitting minimizes the risk of injury. For older children, create guidelines on what type of information is appropriate to share. At the close of the game, the facilitator can summarize the activity by asking questions such as, "Raise your hand if you can tell me who has ridden an elephant," or "Who can list one thing that each person in the group has done?"
Spy and Angel: This game requires room to run around. The group stands in a circle so that everyone can see each other. Have each player silently choose another. Then have each silently choose a second person. Then, tell the group that the first one each chose is her "Angel" and the second her "Spy."AII must simultaneously try to catch their Angel and get away from their Spy. The group will run around crazily.
Logjam: Find a fallen log solid and wide enough for players to stand on safely. Once all are on the log, explain that there is a poison peanut-butter swamp beneath it. The players must get in order according to the month of their birthdays without falling into the swamp. If a player falls off, he pays a penalty, such as being blindfolded or having to henceforth sing instead of talk. Be creative — it makes the game more fun for everyone. Once the group believes they are in the correct order, have them shout out their birthdays in order from front to back.
The Human Ladder: You'll need some inch-thick wooden dowels, each about four feet long. Two children hold each dowel, one on each end, so you'll need half as many dowels are there are children. Make sure that the children hold the dowel firmly with both hands and stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Demonstrate and have the group practice this. To ensure safety, the facilitator and another adult should spot closely during this activity.
The pairs then stand in a line with their dowels parallel to each other and the ground, to form a horizontal ladder. The first dowel is lowered to roughly a foot above the ground to allow the first player to climb up. Then, one at a time, each player walks across the dowels, placing hands on the others' heads for balance. Most important, everyone's undivided attention should be on the walker. When the walker steps off the first dowel, the two holding it run to the end of the line and get into position again. Each pair does the same, creating an infinitely long ladder. When the walker is ready to stop, the group lowers her gently to the ground with the spotters' help.
Afterward, ask open-ended questions such as, "What was that game like for you?" "Did you learn anything?" or "How did you feel?" Often players say how hard it was to trust the group at first, but that it was fun and rewarding once they got going; they mention communication, teamwork, strategy, and, perhaps most important, "I can do it!"
Pin the Tail on the Donkey: In this variation, the entire group verbally guides a blindfolded player through an obstacle course of trees and bushes (or balls and stuffed animals) to pin the tail on a donkey, get a soccer ball through a goal, or other task. Give the group five minutes to strategize. Every player must be somehow involved in this guidance. If the blindfolded child hits any of the obstacles, she must start over. The team has four tries or 20 minutes to successfully guide the blindfolded player. Keep in mind that other familiar games can be adapted to be noncompetitive and cooperative.
These create a lasting impression by recapping positive aspects of the event.
You Fill Me up Provide one full clear pitcher of juice and one empty pitcher. Each child pours some juice into the empty pitcher and states the "ingredient" she brought to the group and would like the others to take away. After everyone takes a turn, pour each child a glass of juice and toast the group.
Web of Appreciation You'll need a ball of colored yarn or twine. One player holds the end of the yarn and tosses the ball to another player, stating something she appreciates about him. The catcher then holds his end and tosses the ball to another until everyone is part of the web. The web symbolizes the friendship, trust, and support created within the group.
Secret Friend Write each child's name on a slip of paper and put it in a bag. Each child draws a name and must find an appropriate gift for that person (a stone, leaf, a piece of bark). Then each child must present the gift and say what she appreciates about the recipient. This is a great self-esteem builder for children mature enough to express their gratitude for others' good qualities.
Giant Group Hug Have the group stand in a circle holding hands. The facilitator breaks hands with a person on one side and circles behind him. The group ends up forming a tighter and tighter circle until they are all told to give one another a giant hug. This one can follow any of the others and is a great way to end the event.
Best wishes and have fun!