Rolling the day away

It’s been a bad day at work. A vision-squeezing stressful kind of day. When the headache persists after a cup of tea, comfort food and some venting, one of us somehow summons the motivation to get out. And then, faster than second thoughts, we are out the door with our bikes. Out to the fields, out to the forest.

When the wheels hit the trail we are pedalling fast out the gate, racing our demons, chased by them. It is already late and the light is dusky and heavy with humidity. Parched by days without rain, the forest colours are muted, and here and there I notice the trees looking somewhat crumpled. Even the trail is a dull brown ribbon snaking through the undergrowth, a smudged canvas on which we roll out our frustrations.

We attack the first hill and I wrestle my bike and my brain to keep both glued to the trail, but there is not much time to savour the satisfaction that I’m making it before the sourness and burning starts. That taste in my throat – I don’t know what to call it, it is a mile-run-time-trial-in-the-6th-grade taste – but it goes with that lung-bursting feeling that goes with that leg-burning feeling and it is awful but it feels so good. So good to have something real to rage at: the pain, the hill, the bike, the burning.

At the top of each hill, we collapse onto our handlebars, rip off backpacks, helmets, gloves – everything is so oppressive – I feel like I won’t be able to breathe if I don’t get it all off of me. The weight of not just the things on our backs but the weight of the storm-laden air, of my heavy breathing, of the world: I can’t tell if they are adding up or canceling out tonight. And so we push swiftly on into the next climb, knowing the leg-exploding is around the bend and plunging into that place anyway. At the next break we are nauseous, gasping, speechless.

A third climb, and finally the frustration has been squeezed out, or maybe we just know the worst is over, and we are coasting, rolling, loving this upper section of open forest. The deepest part of the woods is ahead, and up there lies a rough stretch of rocks, but the darkness takes the edge off and reminds me to lift my head and look further out, and then I’m flying down the last open curves, leaning into them, gently pulling, firmly pushing, simply riding. Relaxed now, I let up on the brakes, roll over rock and root, faster and faster, the speed smoothing the trail under my wheels. Feeling the flow, finally. Finally feeling everything good there is to feel about this, about everything in this moment.

Fulfilled, I can go home and rest now.

Update: 2017

Welcome back to you, and to me! I started this blog in 2011 and kept it fairly active until sometime in 2013, when other things took priority. It’s 2017 and I feel inspired to write again, so I’ve re-opened Learning Conservation.

A few words about where this blog has come from and where it’s heading. It was first called “At the frontier” and focused purely on conservation. While I studied for a masters in Conservation Leadership in 2010-2011 I changed the name to Learning Conservation. And in 2012 while I travelled across Asia by bike with my now-husband (then friend) I wrote about environmental issues and some travel.

Near the end of the trip I wrote a post about what I called “Responsible happiness“. That post seemed to resonate with my readers, and since then I have wanted to write about everything I learn because what you learn in the process of being human can all be applied to how you do conservation.

So from now on I hope to write both about things I learn for my conservation job, and about things I learn about being a human being.


Learning for conservation

Have you heard of MOOCs? It means Massive Open Online Courses, which are pretty much just that – plus from what I have seen they are also free. I am now taking one through called Social Psychology, hoping that I’ll learn more about why people and groups think and behave the way they do. I’ve always felt that one of the biggest challenges in conservation is to understand and change people’s motivations and behaviours. 

This course is Coursera’s largest to date, with 230,000 students currently registered! To take part, you sign up on the website for free, and watch the video lectures and read the assigned material at your own pace each week – the course is time-bound which is a useful motivator. Each week you are expected to complete a homework assignment. Homework is peer-assessed, so you also review at least five assignments from others in the class. The course is taught by a professor at Wesleyan University who, along with the five teaching assistants, has done an amazing job putting together clear and professional video lectures. 

It’s not too late to sign up, so if you have any interest in how people think about, relate to and influence each other, give it a try! 


When synthetic is better than natural

Reviving stale bread with cinnamon and sugar!

In contrast to conservation where natural tends to be preferred to synthetic, and control of our environmental destiny seems to be further from reach than we would like, synthetic happiness is within reach.

Happiness is very trendy these days. I was just sent a whole playlist of happiness talks and in the last two years have been given two books on the subject. There is a lot of advice on how to find it but this TED Talk I just watched says that actually the happiness we make is just as powerful as ‘natural happiness’ and possibly more enduring.

You should watch Dan Gilbert’s talk, but as a self-experiment to create some happiness I will try to quickly summarize and post this blog because according to Gilbert we are more satisfied with irreversible decisions.

If you are given a Monet painting that wasn’t your favorite one from the set you were looking at and then asked a while later to rank according to your preference that same set again, you are likely to rank the one you own as higher within the set. People actually learn to like what they have better.

Here’s a simpler example: you go on a date with a guy who picks his nose, you don’t see him again. Your husband picks his nose, and you say he has a really big heart.

Why? Well for starters our ability to predict our own happiness is not very good, and secondly we have a kind of “psychological immune system” that can help us make the best of what we have.

I think this is the explanation behind why I loved the freedom of traveling by bike, including the freedom of having only one ugly, unflattering and stained shirt to wear every day in front of the guy I hoped would fall in love with me. It’s the paradox of choice, whereby logic says that more choices will bring more happiness, but as one of the world’s most indecisive people, my observation is that happiness comes from packing light (metaphorically speaking).

So though we think that if things don’t go as we hoped they would we will be less happy, what really happens is that our “psychological immune system” takes over and if served lemons our minds (and hearts) make lemonade.

I’ll stop there and recommend again that you watch Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk on the Surprising Science of Happiness, for some very surprising and reassuring insights about creating your own happiness.

“Conservation must be done differently!”

When you keep finding yourself reading articles on the same idea you start to realize it might be an issue on your mind. Just the other day I was thinking to myself, wow everyone seems to be talking about how we need new ways of doing conservation.

For example, Jem Bendell talks about the spirit of adventure that we need to tackle conservation and sustainability in a new way. Hilary Rosner on examines whether conservation is extinct ( ! ) and says we need a new ‘map for conservation’ but at least we all agree about that. 

And then it hit me that all these articles are popping up because that’s what I’m looking for. Currently at a transtion point with a background in species conservation, a masters in conservation leadership, and a year’s worth of spirited adventure, a new way of Julie doing conservation is definitely on my mind.

So where will it be? In the heart of a conservation organisation? In an economic one? In a company working on improving their sustainability practices? Please share links in the comments below to any other articles that may be providing you inspiration on new paradigms for conservation.


How do you rearrange the world when you tell a story?

“On the long journeys doubts were often my companions. I’ve always admired those reporters who can descend on an area, talk to key people, ask key questions, take a sampling of opinions, and then set down an orderly report very like a road map. I envy this technique and at the same time do not trust it as a mirror of reality. I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges it in his own style. In literary criticism the critic has no choice but to make over the victim of his attention into something the size and shape of himself.”

– John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

I took this photo while we were having a fried-rice lunch at a roadside stand in southern Thailand. I thought this man looked very pensive. I could say he was worried. He might have been satisfied. Then again he was probably just enjoying his cigarette. Whatever I tell you it’s my mirror of reality.

The trail is the thing

“The thing to remember when traveling is that the trail is the thing. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for.”

Louis L’Amour

My blog has a whole new look but in the spirit of writing, I am posting a photo from today’s trail. We ran out the front door, down the hill to Route du Soleil and then up to Clambin (the cluster of chalets where the lovely Chez Dany restaurant is). 

Reflecting on personalities here and there

Amazon delta, Ilha de Marajo, 2003
Amazon delta, Ilha de Marajo, 2003

One thing that can be hard about traveling is the loss of your identity. I had the same feeling when I was 14 and my parents moved our family from California to Switzerland. I didn’t speak French, but I was put into a French public school (we lived near the border) and one of my strongest memories is of the frustration of standing around at recess trying to make new friends and not finding the words that would demonstrate my personality, my wittiness.

I just read an author comment about a family in Laos, where she observed their distance from “modernity’s slick coolness” and their lack of “irony, cynicism, sarcasm, and presumptuousness“. This reminded me of the earnestness with which many people across Asia told us about their lives and asked about ours, and how in that situation you do not tell your life story with any of the witticisms, sarcasm or humor that you might here in the west. So this aspect of your personality is erased, and for the most part you repeatedly find yourself telling people “Yes we’re married. Three years! No we don’t have children [pointing to bikes] we have bikes – no room for children. Later we get rid of bikes and have children.” 

The thing is, that list of traits missing from that family in Laos are not such great things and I don’t know why we missed those means of expressing ourselves. It is easy here to be self-deprecating or critical of others or other things. When you travel you have to practice having a simpler, purer personality. It’s probably a good thing to practice. What if “slick coolness” came from being honest, generous, interested in others and excited about life?

Leave a comment >>


This is it! A video of the bike trip

Did you know that our trip is helping to raise awareness about melanoma skin cancer? I’d love it if you’d watch our video to find out why. Please also consider donating to Melanoma Institute Australia, the charity Adam chose to support. Adam is aiming to generate $5000 in donations for them, and every little bit helps. Here’s a link to the donation page.

View the This is it! video by Adam Hughes on Vimeo or right here:

A snapshot of true Tajikistan

Father and son, Pamir Highway, Tajikistan

What is the feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? –it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

– Sal Paradise in On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

I took this photo the morning that we said goodbye to the family that took us in for the night, fed us dinner and all their vodka plus the neighbor’s, and made us sleep in their only bedroom while they all slept in the living room.

If you liked this post you might also enjoy reading: