Question: Everything

Question: Everything

I don’t know how the idea became lodged in my head, but for a few years now, I’ve thought that graduating from college meant that I would finally be free to explore my native state, Montana: its people, its physical and political landscapes, its history, and its role in determining my sense of place and my working definition of “home.” I still grasp tightly the idea of traveling around the state in my cherry-red Subaru, Roxanne, with my vintage Raleigh, Ramona, strapped to her hatchback, but I am learning – and will continue to learn in the course of this spring semester – that my exploration doesn’t have to be, and will not be, limited to my post-graduate education. No, it has begun in the form of an internship with the Society for Wilderness Stewardship. I plan to take the learning objectives inextricably woven into “my Montana project” and apply them to the Society’s new writing series, NextGen Horizons in Wilderness and Civilization.

My own NextGen collection – under the working title, “They Came to Wilderness” – will be a collection of character sketches written with the purpose of illuminating the career paths and career objectives of stewardship professionals. I plan to interview individuals in the Forest Service, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and former Wilderness & Civilization participants, as well as Montana cattle ranchers, co-operative farmers, University professors and employees, and others – all to learn how their careers have changed, how their interpretation of the wilderness (or Wilderness) concept has evolved, and how Montana has played into their professional and personal identities. In order to adequately and purposefully execute these interviews, I sought the help of Dr. Alan Watson, a social scientist working at the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute here in Missoula, Montana. Watson recently presented a lecture to the Missoula public for the Wilderness Institute’s 2015 Wilderness Lecture Series called, “It’s Bigger than Wilderness: Transformative Realizations from Doing Wilderness Science.” The following is an excerpt from my response to that presentation:

Watson, I learned, studies the phenology of varying regions around the United States by translating quantitative and qualitative data collected in the field into what I will call here, “environmental conflict resolution.” His methodologies, especially in gathering qualitative data, can been seen as a literal bridge between wilderness and civilization; the interviews and surveys he conducts – both vital aspects of his duties as a social scientist for the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute – allow him and his colleagues to evaluate the social and physical effects of land use.

Watson’s job, like most, is a job overwhelmed by binaries: nature/society; knowledge/wisdom; untrammeled/uncorrupted landscapes; tracks/trails; storied/empty landscapes; land users/managers, etc. These dichotomous abstracts – they are, indeed, abstracts: social constructs of a perceived reality – all culminate, for Watson in ultimate compromise. I left Watson’s presentation feeling the ambiguity of these dialectics and systems of thought. He has come to value the uncertainty that has been a part of so many of the stories he’s collected; he has learned to embrace the discovery process of his research. Discovery and research seem synonymous with one another, but when you’re a researcher and an academic of Watson’s standing, discovery – in an exciting, aha! kind of way – becomes, I imagine, increasingly evasive. He is also acutely aware that everyone he encounters in the wilderness has a story to tell, and thus, has a perspective unlike any he has previously encountered.

After hearing Watson speak to the stories he’s collected from the field, I felt it necessary to speak with him further regarding his research methodologies and met with him at the Institute, which is located on the University campus.

Watson is an approachable character, despite his title and the seemingly endless amount of information that he can deliver. He has a father’s mustache and a head of salt-and-pepper curls that are unexplainably inviting. Our two hours together flew fast, and the advice he was able to give me about the interview and survey processes have already proved invaluable.

Beyond speaking to me about qualitative and quantitative research and analysis, Watson expressed a profound appreciation for research (read: interview or survey) processes. An incredible amount of interpretation is necessary when analyzing what is, inevitably, such an extensive amount of information, and it is within this interpretation and analysis that Watson stresses the importance of The Question. What is the most important question? What is, or what will be, the function of the stories that stem from those questions asked? What question must be asked so that the stories and the answers that follow lead to a productive and thoughtful conflict resolution?

As I’ve previously outlined, I have a specific goal for each of the interviews I conduct this spring: to learn how each subject’s career has changed, how his/her interpretation of the wilderness (or Wilderness) concept has evolved, and how Montana has played into his/her professional and personal identity. What, then, is the most important question I can ask my subjects? With a tremendous amount of help from Watson, I was able to come up with a few guiding questions that will – fingers crossed – allow me the insight into each steward’s land ethic and accompanying professional goals.

What is the value of wilderness/Wilderness to you?

                  What do you believe to be the value of wilderness/Wilderness to society as a whole?

If these values differ, why do you think that is?

How did you come to wilderness/Wilderness?

Did your wilderness/Wilderness stewardship stem from a scientific or recreational interest?

What role does Montana play in your personal and professional identities?

What are the primary aspects of your character?

What has been the largest contribution you have made to your field thus far in your career?

The most important?

How does logic guide your wilderness/Wilderness stewardship?

Does your wilderness/Wilderness stewardship defy logic?

Does stewardship equate to a commitment to your career?

These are but a few of the questions I have collected for my upcoming interviews, and I urge you, dear readers and wilderness stewards, to look for the answers to these questions in my forthcoming character sketches.

I so appreciate this opportunity to combine the practice of writing and the practice of storytelling with my deepening interest and investment in land stewardship. This internship will be, I can already tell, an instrumental beginning to my own discoveries in and of Montana, and will be, I hope, the catalyst for something great.

Lauren Korn is an undergraduate student at the University of Montana. She is an English major, concentrating in both Literature and Creative Writing, and is currently a part of the Wilderness & Civilization program, completing a Wilderness Studies minor. She is a native Montanan with deep roots in conservation and outdoor recreation.

To learn more about the Wilderness Lecture Series, go to:

And to learn more about the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, visit:

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