Driving along Interstate 40 in the state of Arizona, it is very difficult to imagine how all the vegetation around you came to be. The road passes through a remarkably flat and open plain, yet I get the slight sense of claustrophobia as the mountains cup us in from all sides. There are no rivers to be seen, and the sky is a deep and penetrating blue, no cloud in the sky. As a balmy 85 degree wind blows past, it blows my mind to think that anything can not only survive in these conditions, but perhaps even prosper.
Even in what I perceive to be remarkably harsh conditions, nature has found a niche of flora and fauna, somehow struggling against the sun. The trees here look healthy, albeit stunted, and there is wild grass along the roadside. This wildlife must have adapted over thousands of years in order to get to where it is today.
As I look out into where life prospers, I can’t help but be reminded of my friends from SSP. Like the baking sun and the harsh winds, the curriculum and stresses of SSP has shaped who all 36 of us are today, hopefully for the better. We have all had to adapt to this new environment of long lectures and tough problem sets, and somehow we came out of it, hopefully more knowledgable than ever before.
But not only have we adapted, I like to think that the bonds of friendship have been strengthened. None of us could have made it on our own; it was by collaboration and teamwork that we did an orbit determination, and it will be collaboration and teamwork that we will remember in the future.
On the horizon, where the mountain meets the sky, I’m startled to see clouds. Clouds arising from the earth- perhaps smoke? No, as we drive closer and closer, it’s not just one plume of smoke, it is column after column- one bonafide (or bonfire?) wildfire. I face the mountains in awe, as the colors of the fire – white at the tops of the columns, descending into gray haze before tinges of orange and red can barely be seen- wash over my face. Nature hath created, and nature hath destroyed.
But the fire reminds me of a telling story from Sequoia National Park. After the national park was created, rangers worked hard to prevent fires from breaking out, of both natural and artificial origins. Instead of helping the giants prosper, preventing fires caused the forest to wither. No new seedlings took root, and dense brush overcrowded the ground. It was much later that scientists realized the benefits of fires to the forest ecosystem, how it kept the ground clear and allowed for seeds to emerge from pine cones. What seems destructive to humans, nature uses for its own purposes of growth.
The friendships I have made over the last five and a half weeks were tempered by fire and pain. They were bred out of common interests and common enemies- the problem sets, programming homework, observations, JAAAAAAAAAMES(jk)- and I hope that because of these, my friendships will survive when others may crumble. I believe that we will be reunited again, perhaps to face greater global problems and prove, once again, that life prospers under tough conditions.