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I’ve decided to make public the summary of my lessons, thoughts, feelings, and experiences from my Watson year so anyone interested can benefit from this immensely transformative personal experience of mine. You can read my five-page summary report to the Watson Foundation along with their reply here.

In other news, this weekend is my last weekend living in Lake Tahoe, California. I’ve been here for a month staying with my good friend David, trying to decompress from a year of world travel while beginning the exploration of my home country. On Wednesday, I will catch a train to San Francisco in order to attend the Bioneers conference, a gathering of some of the world’s biggest sustainability thinkers, activists, and innovators. Very excited to connect with amazing people and projects afoot here in the U.S.!

A few pictures to give a flavor of my Tahoe experience:

Lake Tahoe viewed from 9,739 feet (2,968 meters) from the top of Mt. Tallac. Notice that you can't see it all - this massive lake is the second deepest in the U.S. and the 26th largest in the world.

 

looking West from Mt. Tallac at the Sierra Nevada mountains in Desolation Wilderness

 

wise old tree stands alone in Desolation Wilderness; Tahoe lurks in the background

 

looking out across Desolation Wilderness from Mt. Tallac. Lake Gilbert, middle, provided a nice home for the night

Caspar David Friedrich's painting "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" pretty well encapsulates my feeling upon winning the Watson Fellowship

On Friday, March 12, 2010 at approximately 1:50 p.m., the course of my life dramatically changed for the better. I found out that I won a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to travel the world for a year!

It was a drowsy day for me, having stayed up past 3 a.m. the night before, not being able to sleep for anxiousness over the weighty, life-altering decision that would announce itself to me the next day at an unknown time. Sitting at my computer node in the Washington, D.C. offices of The Wilderness Society, I held my breath while booting up my computer, loading Firefox, and entering my Gmail credentials in anticipation of a 9 a.m. inbox check for the email that would change my life. Gmail’s screen was blank, save for the blue indicator bar that told me “Loading ‘thequestionofwhy@gmail.com…'” Out of the white void, my inbox appeared. Nothing was there, at least nothing that my future was looking for.

I went on to wearily execute my tasks for the day, checking my email at fifteen-minute intervals (or, perhaps, a lot more frequently). Noon rolled around, I refreshed my inbox once more, and: nothing. Not being able to keep my eyes open, brain crumpling from exhaustion, I announced to my intern colleagues David and Jyhjong that I would be heading home for lunch to my apartment, conveniently located two blocks away. Lunch turns into an hour-long nap, which I half-heartedly cursed upon waking. I ate a hurried lunch and headed back to my office sometime after 1:30.

Enter communal cubicle. David and Jo-Jo (the rendition of her name used so as to be pronounceable to American tongues) greet me. I sit down in front of my screen, refresh my Gmail inbox, and see “Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Announcement” sitting at the top of my inbox. “It’s here!” I exclaim. They swivel in their chairs to watch as I execute the mouse click of fate.

Message loads. First word seen: Congratulations! “I got it!” I yelled, instantly swiveling up and out of my chair, turning to David behind me and giving him a huge hug. Jo-Jo is also out of her chair, cheering and hugging me from behind in what becomes a Tim sandwich. Short, swift breaths escape my lungs in rapid fire to decompress the anticipation. I settle back into my chair to read the rest of the email along with the attached documents that outline the new direction my life will be taking.

I have been awarded a Watson Fellowship to travel through seven countries on five continents over the course of a year, independently carrying out my self-designed project “Holistic Environmentalism: Community Approaches to Sustainability,” which can be summarized as follows:

Holistic Environmentalism: Community Approaches to Sustainability
Argentina, Australia, India, New Zealand, Nicaragua, United Kingdom, Thailand

“Permaculture communities, ecovillages, and Transition Towns are three types of communities that have emerged as international movements in order to attempt ecologically, economically, socially, and spiritually sustainable lifeways. I will travel to five continents living in these three types of communities in order to study the theory and practice of sustainability in intentional and conventional communities across cultures. I intend to explore the ways in which human life can become more holistically sustainable with respect to environment, economy, society, and self.”

In layman’s terms, I am going to live in communities that are trying to lead environmentally-adapted lifestyles to see how and how well their visions of sustainability translate into reality. Click here for a more detailed project description, here for the personal narrative I wrote explaining the development of my project, and here to see all the other awesome projects that were accepted.

This all started last year, when I received an email from my Dean on April 14, 2009: “$25,000 to Go Anywhere in the World–Interested? See Below!” Hell yeah, I was interested. I read about this thing called the Watson Fellowship that allows graduating Seniors to explore a long-standing, deep-seated passion of theirs in the form of a self-designed project involving travel to any countries outside of the U.S. where one has not previously visited.

The email contained an attached “Watson Description Memo,” which read: “The mission of the Fellowship Program is to offer college graduates of unusual promise a year of independent, purposeful exploration and travel outside of the United States in order to enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership and to foster their humane and effective participation in the world community.” I was completely intrigued and thoroughly appreciative of their mission.

I continued reading: “The Program provides Fellows an opportunity for a focused and disciplined year of their own devising—a period in which they can have some surcease from the lockstep of prescribed educational and career patterns in order to explore with thoroughness a particular interest. During their year abroad, Fellows have an unusual, sustained, and demanding opportunity to take stock of themselves, to test their aspirations and abilities, to view their lives and American society in greater perspective, and, concomitantly, to develop a more informed sense of international concern.”

Surcease from the lockstep of prescribed educational and career patterns? The phrase struck me and firmly resonated. It was as if someone had designed this Fellowship precisely for me. This was obviously the opportunity I had been waiting for to test my ideas about how life might be. What other chance would I get to break away from the set path and really try out my own ideas about how life and the world might be? Who would pay me to explore my path of inquiry in the world? Who would pay me to live my dreams?

As the Watson Fellowship press release said, “FORTY COLLEGE SENIORS ARE AWARDED WATSON ‘DREAM’ GRANTS.” Nothing could be more accurate. That is how the Watson Foundation should market their Fellowship: the Watson Dream Grant. It is this exactly.

As cliché as it sounds, I’ve always been a dreamer. I try to systemically analyze the problems and then craft creative, intelligent, holistic, systems-thinking solutions. As an environmental activist and as a philosopher, there is nothing more pleasurable to me than making an idea become a reality. I love it when my ideas or words on a page become manifest in the real world. So far, this project has proved to be my best and most valuable idea: 6 pages turned into $25,000; many years thinking turned into a year of traveling. I will milk it for all it is worth and begin spinning the web of a life’s work out of all that arises from my inquiry and activity along the way.

I sometimes wonder whether the achievement of an idea or an ideal would spoil its intrigue and motivating power. I’ll soon find out, I suppose. Do the thoughts in my head and the letters on my pages translate into lived experience in the world? Is the actuality of traveling the world exploring your passion really as dreamy as it seems when it is in your mind? Are the utopian-esque attempts to live ecologically harmonious lives really amounting to anything in their physical manifestations?

Environmentalism seeks to deliver the fullest, healthiest expression of human existence in the context of a robust, thriving non-human community that includes a variety of organisms, soil, water, and air (collectively: what we call the “environment”). Up until this point, (the most dominant strain of) humans have lived in ignorance of or at least in opposition to their broader environmental context. They sought to tame nature and appropriate all things non-human solely for human use. That which was useful became commodified, and that which had no place in our collective affairs and pursuits (collectively: the “economy”) were discarded or overrun by the human community. The environmental movement simply seeks to establish (or re-establish) a provident human place in nature that is healthy for humans and non-humans alike. We cannot harm the environment without harming ourselves. We cannot help the environment without helping ourselves. We are an integral part of nature and have always had an appropriate place in ecosystems; it is only recently within the last 10,000 years that we have overstepped our capacity or “overreached,” as Aristotle would say.

It’s easy to forget why exactly we engage in the struggle for creating a sustainable society amidst the doom-and-gloom, often negatively reactive work that can characterize environmentalism. Quite simply, it is about one thing: life. Life, individually and collectively, existentially and biologically, in all its complexity and diversity and beauty, in all the different species manifestations in the plant, animal, and bacterial worlds. Life, the only thing that could matter to us as living organisms. And yet, so much seems to impede this visceral, joyous imperative to live and flourish among the expansive wonder of this planet we simply call Earth, the source and stage of our existence. To live life fully amongst life lived fully: this is the ultimate spirit of environmentalism. To breathe in the fresh air, to drink clean water, to eat delicious food from the healthy soil, to mindfully inhabit, care for, and contribute to the systems that create and sustain us. Without these things, life is meaningless. Ecovillages, permacultures communities, and Transition Towns are three small attempts at living environmental lives.

But let me not get ahead of myself. There will be plenty of time to wax philosophical, and there’s certainly no way to figure it all out (tonight in this blog post, this year, or even in a lifetime). If you’re interested in reading more about my thoughts on sustainability and the environmental movement, check out this abridged version of my Haverford Senior thesis in environmental philosophy entitled “Beyond Environmental Morality: Towards a Viable Environmental Ethic(s).”

I’ll undertake this journey for those who don’t have the privilege to, for those who might already be locked into the career lifestyle or path-to-career training that we call education. Everyone should be able to have a Watson year or more. Perhaps a Watson lifetime would be ideal: to constantly pursue your interests and grow and develop and travel and explore and learn and think and write and experience and live. I will do so for the next year and more, sharing what evolves here.

I’ll leave you with the closing lines of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day“:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”

Cheers,

Tim

p.s. if you have ideas on how to best capitalize on this unprecedented windfall opportunity that is the Watson Dream Fellowship, do share them with me by email: thequestionofwhy (at) gmail.com.