Living consciously in the natural world |

Living consciously in the natural world

by Lisa Gavon
R-C Alpine Bureau
Paul Burow in the Piñon Pine Forest.
Lisa Gavon

He folded her hand gently over the pine cone he had brought. She slowly opened her eyes and looked at him. This silent message acknowledged their shared love of the natural world and the tight bonds of family. They were all there when his Grandmother passed peacefully from this earth, leaving each of them a rich legacy of how to live a life with passion and connection.

Paul Burow has built on that strong foundation, diving into each day with an open awareness. He was born in San Rafael, spent his early years in Petaluma, and then lived in Sacramento. Although he grew up urban, his grandfather had been camping at Grover Hot Springs since the 1970s and he had been going up since he was baby. It was the family’s favorite place in the Sierra. Fifteen years ago they bought a cabin in Shay Creek. It was part of the ethos of his upbringing to be outside as much as possible, and his time there was spent hiking and backpacking.

Today, Paul does not view nature as a recreational element, but simply as a way of living. As the time he spent increased in more elemental environments, he became an avid hunter and fisherman. It is something he refers to as “putting yourself in a different mindset.”

Finishing his undergraduate studies at UC Davis, Paul majored in economics and international relations. He completed quantitative surveys with farmers to inform local and national environmental policies. This led to a job in a Washington, D.C., “Think Tank.” Even if he took the time to “escape” from work into the mountains of West Virginia, it was not the position for him. He reported that it was a place of vanity and self-centeredness. It was often forgotten that “there is a lot you cannot learn in a book.”

Perhaps it was the open landscape of the West, with the twinkling stars overhead every night that taught him this. Paul says, “It is clear I am a very small part of such a huge world.” His whole demeanor manifests this humbleness. This has also given him the gift of actually being able to listen to what people are saying, rather than focusing on what he has to present: an unusual trait with great benefits.

Not surprisingly, he came back to traverse through the wilderness working as a back-country skiing, hiking, and climbing guide. One of his favorite spots was Forestdale Creek in Alpine, but he developed a love for many other wild areas, recognizing the special qualities of each diverse and complex community.

After taking a few years to wander, he started work for a nonprofit advocating indigenous rights in the Amazon Basin. This led to a Butler Koshland Fellowship, and Paul began doing fundraising, assisting with community programs, and outreach for a coalition of land conservation groups in California and Nevada. Covering areas from the Feather to Carson Rivers, he worked with the group for over two and a half years before deciding to return to school.

Wanting to study the human dimensions of conservation, in 2016 he began the Ph.D. Program at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Along with attending classes, he stayed in Montana researching bison history and working for tribal governments to help identify tools for getting their land back. Paul outlines this process as “excavating our connection to history, learning about ways to recognize it, and creating ideas about how to contribute back.” His goal is to “make another model” that is more equitable on both moral and practical levels.

“We all know the critiques,” Paul comments,“Now, what are we going to do about it?” He does not want to sit in an office, but rather to be “out on the landscape.”

So when they started cutting Pinyon Pine groves near Bridgeport, Paul chose to become involved in investigating ways to proactively manage forests with their cultural values in mind. Created by the Nevada Indian Commission, the Bi-State Tribal Natural Resources Committee was formed to address this and other issues. Paul has been studying the cultural and natural history of these forests and their contemporary importance to communities as a forester, anthropologist, and environmental scientist as part of the work for his Ph.D. dissertation.

Paul spends a lot of time talking with different groups, looking for common ground. Following this process, he finds that some answers “emerge organically through a kind of magic that can’t be readily explained.” As the pieces fit together, all the different groups and viewpoints find how they are linked.

“Historic deforestation has had a big effect on the landscape as it appears today.” Paul observes. The legacy is even-aged stands where the trees came back at exactly the same time. This takes the complexity out of the much needed mosaic of forest ecosystems.

Paul feels that,“Science can tell you a story, but not the story. There is a world beyond this particular empirical method.”

By 2023, Paul’s years of investigation on the piñon will be distilled into a book. He is comfortable enough to open himself up and let people see who he is, so the volume will also illustrate the personal way he has found the path most suited to him.

Paul comments, “How I see the world is influenced by all the people around me. I am in a privileged and unusual position to go around and hear what different people think. Not many occupations afford that kind of opportunity. I would like to think it gives me a more well-rounded perspective on the world, but it also requires suspending one’s own judgments to understand where someone is coming from. Empathy is very important. There seems to be so little of that in our current climate of political vitriol and I have no interest in reproducing it. I want to model something collaborative and community-based. We all have a stake in the health of our environment, and the well-being of people, too. The two are inextricably linked.”

Perhaps the greatest gift passed down from his grandmother was being able to hold on to an enchanted view of the world no matter how difficult. He has the ability to take a moral stand and as an independent researcher does not have to toe the line of any particular group or organization. He has not been rigid in his thinking throughout his education as both a social and environmental scientist.

“There is no alienation,” Paul comments “when we can find our true interrelationship to the animate world.”