The meadow appeared unexpectedly out of the narrow and tree-thick valley we'd been hiking up all day. It opened out in a slightly convex shape, like an upside-down spaghetti plate, across which we could see the glacier and several peaks of the Rocky Mountains, still wearing quite a bit of snow even in July.
To our left, the river churned over the boulders in its path; to the right, a grove of pines crouched at the base of a sheer wall of mountain. This is where the four of us-myself and three of my former students-pitched our tent.
The meadow was studded with rocks and boulders, the grass splashed with boldly-colored flowers. We could see obvious signs that the meadow had been grazed by everything from elk to snowshoe hare.
The plant life in this part of the world is very different from our prairies in Iowa. It was a treat to meet new varieties and to identify the few common types: columbine, Indian paintbrush, pasque flower-and is that spiderwort? Yet those that looked familiar but still defied identification made us feel as if we listened to a foreign language; bits could be grasped, but the nuance remained elusive.
The unfamiliar flora, the easy companionship and the very mood of the place lent themselves to meditation and lively discussion, and we readily gave in to both temptations. I confess to having to remind myself that these young professionals were no longer on the receiving end of a lesson! In fact, all three are now teaching others, one as a Jesuit volunteer on a reservation in South Dakota, another most recently with the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, the third a teacher in East Moline. During lulls in the conversation I caught myself feeling proud of them, but such moments were few. It took all my attention just to keep up with the pace and breadth of the conversation.
The discussion quickly deepened to the subject each of us, it turned out, had considered privately: Beneath its rocky surface, this mountain system is an intricate network of interconnecting parts. Everything plays a role, from the weather patterns that release the summit snows to fill the river with bone-chilling water each summer, to the larger herbivores, whose grazing stimulates the growth of plants.
We wouldn't have noticed the complexity of this environment had we hiked through. It required that we stop and spend time, care to make observations, surmise the connections, and discuss our perceptions. It is beautiful here, but it's also fragile. Even the mountains, mighty emblems of permanence, are in a constant state of decomposing. As we spent the day weaving among boulders and step-stoning across streams, we became even more aware of how delicate is the balance that keeps everything in its place.
We couldn't help but reflect, more somberly, on the effects that global warming is having on this alpine environment. The glacier in the distance, like glaciers all over the world, is melting much more quickly than ever before. There will come a time, not far into the future, when the balance between climate, resources and organisms will be irreversibly upset. It's sad to think that, should my companions bring their children here a few years from now, it will already have changed.
As if brought on by our musings, dark brooding clouds boiled over the northern rock face and pushed fog and mist against the slopes to the south. My hiking partners and I call this a "Bierstadt sky," after the German artist who'd injected into his paintings of these very mountains his own gothic gloom. Had we done the same? Couldn't we have just enjoyed the beauty of the place without projecting a stormy future on it? I wondered if the conversation as much as the impending storm would spoil our trip, if only briefly.
Yet these young men would not be flooded with hopelessness. Their integrity, informed and molded by their parents and communities and cultivated during their education at St. Ambrose, had into their adulthood been further fed by their own passions and curiosity. As we retreated to the tent with licorice and dominos, the questions came as fast as the rain: How can we do our part? What could we do better as a society? What is SAU doing about this? What personal choices ought we now make, considering the prospect of our future? They seemed reminded of their place in the larger scheme of things. I know I was. While it may be somewhat simplistic to say that humans are just another member species of what biologist Aldo Leopold calls the "biotic community," there's no doubt that people need such places to exist-and these ecosystems need us if they are to continue to exist.
And as I glanced around the circle, I had a sudden urge to get back to the Iowa prairie, back to St. Ambrose, back to class, where I knew I would find more young men and women like these three, who come to and depart from the SAU community every year. Each student brings gifts, and our part is this: to cultivate their gifts and challenge them to shape our future. We need them. The earth needs them.