Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Inspiration is at Our Feet

This post was written by Katharine Hogan, one of our two current Hubbard Fellows.  The photo is hers as well.  Katharine has shown to be an introspective thinker and writer, in addition to a curious and hard-working member of our conservation team.  I think you will enjoy this and other posts she writes.

After a rigorous morning spent chain sawing trees on the Platte River Prairies, I headed inside to finish a half-completed blog post. It would be nice to get off my feet; I was breaking in my new fire boots acquired for performing prescribed burns, and my feet were a bit sore from the new stiff leather and soles. It would also be great to finish this blog post that had been persistently hanging around in my head. However, to my dismay after working at it for some time, it simply kept falling apart the harder I tried to make it fit together. Finally, I conceded defeat, but was also frustrated in my attempts to settle on an alternative topic. As my frustration grew, I decided to go for a walk in hopes of the remnants of a crisp autumn day yielding some inspiration.

Annoyed for having spent such a chunk of time on nothing that turned into more nothing, I put on my well-worn, much loved hiking boots that have seen me through countless work and pleasure hours across the country. They were more comfortable than the tall, black boots I had taken off earlier, for sure! I decided to walk up into the sand hills south of the house, get a higher perspective on the land, and enjoy another stellar Nebraska sunset against the golds and reds of prairies grasses falling asleep before the advance of winter.

Even if I didn’t come up with any ideas, going for a walk outside is always good, I thought, as I headed out. Never waste time doing something important when there’s a sunset to watch, right? (I got that one from the dusty, back corner shelves of the Internet…). Yet I had barely even gotten into the pasture when I realized something felt different. My old boots suddenly felt different from all the unspoken familiarity with which I had apparently subconsciously come to associate them. Had they always been that sensitive to the terrain on which I was walking? What a distinct texture the inside of the boots had, and how perfectly fitted they were to the shapes of my feet! But no big deal, I said to myself, just keep walking and your feet will adjust and feel normal.

But they didn’t. I was hyper-aware of myriad sensations in my feet with every step through the crispy vegetation. I couldn’t stop being distracted by it. My normal had changed that week to those fire boots, which in my mind are in some strange way the pedestrian version of being inside a tank, fitted with impressive protection and defense features. Changing from that back to something previously familiar had made that familiar new again, and had made me aware of aspects of those old boots that I otherwise would never have noticed.

I never thought I would add footwear to the list of unexpected teachers in my life. Ultimately, good work boots are pivotable to land stewardship and field science, though, so maybe it shouldn't come as such a surprise.

I never thought I would add footwear to the list of unexpected teachers in my life. Ultimately, good work boots are pivotal to land stewardship and field science, though, so maybe it shouldn’t come as such a surprise.

Is this a large part of how humans learn, constantly yet perhaps subconsciously? Do we make retroactive observations and connections about familiar places, people, and concepts best upon exposure to the new and different? This experience reminded me of other observations that I had previously regarded as unconnected, small events. Upon travelling to Missouri I realized the swathes of cottonwood along the Platte River in Nebraska don’t create the same familiar comfort as the hardwood forests of more eastern regions because they are more monocultural woody systems. Comparatively, forests from hardwood regions are symposiums of many tree species with rich myriad canopy hues throughout the growing season.

Conversely, during a recent trip back to Vermont, I had never realized how imbalanced the scattered old fields and open green spaces of the northeast felt; they are scars that the advance of trees (so undesirable here on the prairies) inexorably tries to heal. The resilient grasslands of the Platte and the Niobrara, practically exploding with a diversity of species and habitats to which I was hitherto unaware, allowed me to see ecological challenges of my old home. Prior to my experiences elsewhere in the country, I arguably was assessing these childhood surroundings with rose-tinted glasses (or maybe glasses tinted with the fiery colors of New England autumns). Even after finishing college in Indiana, I had no real comparison as a backdrop.

There are other observations I could list, but suffice it to say I learned a lesson that day, as I found myself simply standing in the middle of the prairie under an orange tinted sky, staring at my feet. Yes, I’ve always been a proponent of learning through new experiences, but it hadn’t occurred to me with such force how much we stand to learn from new experiences about the places we have already been. We become so readily comfortable in our routines that we lose sight of the immediately surrounding world. This is simply how our brains function to avoid constant stimuli overload. But what exciting potential there is for us if we see our new experiences as a sounding board for our old experiences, and not only the other way around!

I never did end up going for the rest of that walk, nor did I see the sun set. Instead, I found myself heading straight back for the house, laughing aloud at myself at my eagerness to write about the unexpected results of simply wearing a new pair of boots for a few days. This wasn’t the type of post I was originally planning to share with you all, but I hope it may give some of you a little excitement about the hidden world of inspiration and discovery that may be right under your feet.

Or on your feet. Who knows? I sure didn’t.

The Wrong Boots

It’s not like I didn’t know. 

Beside the fact that our standards for protective fire gear (including boots) are very clear, I’d actually had trouble once before.  When I was taking a fire training course in South Carolina, I was mopping up the remains of a controlled burn when I noticed that my feet were getting really warm.  Looking down, I realized that the heat from the smoldering pine needles I was walking through was melting the soles of my boots.  That was my first lesson in why wearing the right boots (with Vibram soles, for example) is important.

Despite my previous experience, when I arrived at the aftermath of the big wildfire on the Niobrara River a couple weeks ago, I hopped out of the truck, donned my Nomex shirt, helmet, and leather gloves, and went to work.  …I should have changed boots.  About 20 minutes later, I was spraying water on some hot coals when I noticed that the front of the sole on my left boot was flapping.  That’s odd, I thought – these boots aren’t that old… 

Within about two minutes, the sole of my left boot had come off completely, and the right one was gone by the time I hobbled out of the hot spot I was mopping up.  Apparently, the adhesive that held the soles on my boots wasn’t designed for the kind of heat I had just been standing in.

The remains of my boots. I never did find the other sole.

I walked gingerly back to the truck and got the boots I should have been wearing in the first place.  Anybody want to buy some used boots?