Lessons from the Arctic

February  27, 2013

Catch up with all of Steve Bahls' photos and blog posts from his sabbatical.

How do you measure a sabbatical? By its very definition, a sabbatical refers to space and time away from the time and space we normally occupy. It is special time: Sabbath time.

Last summer, while Jane and I were away from Augustana and our normal callings here, we traveled more than 20,000 miles, including 17,000 by car, 2,000 by train, and another thousand by a combination of hiking, boating and bouncing over the tundra in a bush plane.

But that doesn’t measure a sabbatical, which — like the Sabbath — is time away to recharge, refocus and refine, all to the benefit of our callings.

Of recharging, there was much: meals eaten with First Nations elders; sleeping beside swift streams running down from vast glaciers; a picnic on an Arctic plateau, overlooking a landscape both stark and serene.

As for refocusing, few elements are more effective than distance and high mountain air to calibrate one’s perspective. Sometimes seeing the forest from afar helps us better appreciate individual trees when we are once again in their midst.

And like a refiner’s fire, a sabbatical can help burn away the dross that too often demands our attention. For Jane and me, it left us with a heightened appreciation for the precious gift that is Augustana College.

Now that Augustana is in the process of formulating a new strategic plan, I have given considerable thought to the lessons gained from my sabbatical, and how they might be useful as we consider Augustana’s future.

Perception is not reality

When Jane and I arrived at Churchill, Manitoba, about halfway up the western shore of Hudson Bay, we looked out over the dramatic sight of ice beginning to break on the bay, and noticed a massive ice cliff in the distance that had to be at least five stories tall. After letting us make our estimates of its size, our guides informed us that the ice cliff we were seeing did not exist at all. Thanks to an optical phenomenon known as the Novaya Zemlya effect, those breathtaking cliffs were simply a mirage.

As Augustana thinks seriously about its future, all of us need to challenge our perceptions. To do this, we need to invest in the hard work of using critical thinking. Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” In order for a perception — or a long-held sacred truth — to be validated, we must be so rigorous in examining it that we risk casting it aside if unsupported.

Just as important, we need to place ourselves in the shoes of others. In The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis wrote: “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing.” I take that to mean that in order to test our perceptions, we must be willing to adopt the perspective of others, especially if they come from a different part of the world, a different generation or from a different economic, ethnic or religious background.

Mosquitoes vs. bears

When you’re in the Arctic, mosquitoes and bears are facts of life. But while one is a nuisance, the other can be a life-threatening danger. And much hangs on that distinction.

Arctic mosquitoes are all business, and have no time for polite buzzing around your ear. In a place where you might be the only warm-blooded creature for 25 miles in every direction, mosquitoes attack en masse any exposed skin within seconds.

And the black bears that we’ve encountered camping in the Rockies are far removed from the grizzlies and polar bears that rule the Arctic. The bears of the Far North are less cautious and potentially deadly; and when your pepper spray dispenser encourages letting the animal get within 10 yards for accurate discharge, you begin to suspect that avoidance is the better part of valor.

My father often said, “Remember to keep the main thing the main thing.” In the Arctic, annoyances like mosquitoes are a sideshow; bears are the main thing.

We do well to make a clear distinction between annoyances like mosquitoes and threats like bears. In strategic planning, we need to make sure that we don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time on mere annoyances. We need to focus our energies on the main thing: overcoming any obstacles that stand in the way of providing Augustana’s students with the best possible education.

The Big Bad Wolf isn’t always so bad

From the chilling predator depicted by Jack London in The Call of the Wild to the compelling enigma portrayed by Farley Mowat in Never Cry Wolf, the writers of the North are fascinated by wolves.

As is our family. In all our travels in the Rocky Mountains, we’ve had only one wolf sighting, and that at a great distance. Last summer, along the banks of an Alaskan creek, Jane and I were watching chum salmon spawning, when from the trees on the far side of the creek emerged a pair of wolves. The male caught a salmon and, after failing several attempts to catch a second, he shared his meal with his mate. The male wolf was determined and patient. But when he could not catch a second fish, he was tender in the way he shared his one salmon with his mate.

There are “wolves” prowling the landscape of higher education: changing demographics, rapidly developing online alternatives and ever-greater challenges faced by families trying to finance a high-quality education.

Much depends on how we approach these wolves. Instead of fearing demographic change, Augustana has embraced a more diverse and more dynamic student body. Instead of dreading technology, faculty members are finding new ways to use technology to augment their already outstanding work with students. In the face of rising college costs, Augustana has worked hard to increase financial aid.

In the end, I believe the schools that best learn to live with the “wolves” will find the most enduring success in decades to come.

Respect the Clamshell Line

Only a few hundred people per year are permitted to visit the ancient villages of the Haida people of Canada’s Inner Passage. Though National Geographic considers the national park in which the Haida Gwaii (“Lands of the People”) are located to be the Best National Park in North America, permission must be sought to visit the long-vacant villages of the Haida, which were nearly wiped out by the introduction of European diseases in the 19th century.

In addition, you must be accompanied by a Haida Watchman, a duly appointed representative of the tribe who interprets the village artifacts and enforces the Clamshell Line.

As its name implies, the line is a carefully laid string of white clamshells that non-Haida are not permitted to cross. Our Watchman, a young man named Doug, told us about the glory days of the Haida, a sophisticated society whose ocean-going canoes made possible commerce and conquest across great distances. Doug talked with us while straddling the Clamshell Line, one foot on either side of the inviolable border between the sacred, sequestered past and the present, with its outsiders, their ideas, and the threats both represent.

As I think about Augustana, I often think about our own Clamshell Line. On one side is the necessity to meet our students where they are, and do so by providing the kind of contemporary education demanded by today’s world. But on the other side of the line are the history and traditions that extend back to — and indeed beyond — the founders of the college.

While I’m grateful for these lessons, I am yet more grateful to be back at Augustana. Though Jane and I walked through the arboreal forests of British Columbia, there is nothing better than a stroll through the Augustana campus when the leaves turn in the fall. And though we met friendly and fascinating people everywhere on our trip, there is no place we’d rather be than back in the community we know as Augustana.

Steve Bahls