Introduction

I slowly peered out into the fog; I couldn’t see a thing. My surroundings were completely foreign to me, and I couldn’t find any landmark or indicator of place. My surroundings were also devoid of any life; I was standing in a wasteland. There were no trees, no animals, not even any tiny green plants crawling along the ground, just bare dirt and rock in every direction. It felt like I was stuck in No Man’s Land during World War I, or perhaps I was on another planet without any biological life. I slowly stepped through the thick fog, searching in vain for something familiar as far as my limited vision around me allowed (only about 10 meters in any direction). Where was I? As far as I know, time travel isn’t a thing yet, so a Western European warzone in the early 20th century was out. We’re also still not quite up to intergalactic journeys, so other planets were off the table as well. Although I hadn’t traveled through time or into outer space, I had traveled about as far from home as possible with current technology. I had traveled from North America (the best part of North America, California, and the best part of California, Northern California1) to Asia (to the wonderful little nation of Nepal). I was deep in the Himalayan mountains, in the Langtang valley, walking over what (two short years ago) used to be a bustling mountain village, full of life. The complete opposite of the surroundings I now found myself in.

Journey Over the Ocean to Nepal

It was May 2017. I had arrived in Nepal about a week or two prior, my plane finally descending into the bowl-shaped Kathmandu Valley after a lengthy flight over the Pacific Ocean from my home in California and a lengthy layover in China. Kathmandu is the busy, bustling center of activity in Nepal. Its population has grown exponentially over the last several decades and urban development is continually spreading out from the center of the valley towards the edges, from the flat bottom of the bowl up into the surrounding hills. For someone from California, simply a walk down the street is exciting, filled with unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells. I was thrilled to be here. The biggest reason I had come was to simply be a tourist, a friend visiting another Californian family had transplanted themselves to Kathmandu for 3 years and hoping to see a snippet of another culture, but I was also there as part of my involvement with SmartPhones4Water (S4W), a California-based nonprofit organization that had been at work in Nepal for a few years (don’t worry, more on this later 😉). This trip was also a chance for me to experience and participate in some of their on-the-ground work and get to know some of the local Nepali staff and volunteers participating in the work.

Gorkha Earthquake

A few years before this in 2015, without any warning, the Gorkha Earthquake had literally and metaphorically shaken the nation of Nepal. Just before noon local time on April 25th, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck and it was followed by severe aftershocks over the next few weeks. It’s estimated that roughly 9,000 people died and over 20,000 were injured; over 600,000 homes were destroyed and the damage to buildings, roads, bridges, and other infrastructure affected roughly one-third of Nepal’s total population. It was a devastating natural disaster that Nepal is still recovering from today.

Picture1Area of Influence for the Gorkha Earthquake (Source: The Washington Post)

The video below contains incredible footage of an avalanche caused by the earthquake crashing through the Mount Everest base camp. (Fair warning: it’s edited in the video, but understandably due to the circumstances, there is a lot of swearing.)

As shown in the video above, the earthquake not only had a devastating impact on the densely populated Kathmandu Valley but caused avalanches and landslides throughout the Himalayan range surrounding the epicenter. National Geographic wrote an article about how hard hit remote areas of Nepal were by the earthquake, but how little news about them was being shared compared to news from the capital in Kathmandu.

Although some ancient temples and historic sites of immense cultural significance in Kathmandu were destroyed in the quake and are impossible to replace (an unofficial catalogue of damage to buildings can be found here), to an unfamiliar observer (myself), for the most part, the city seemed to have recovered to its normal hustle and bustle following the earthquake by the time I visited in May 2017. However, a big part of my visit would include a trek up into the Himalayas with the family I was visiting and with local Nepali staff for S4W, to the Langtang Valley north of Kathmandu. It was a heavily-impacted area and we would see firsthand how recovery efforts there were progressing a few years after the earthquake.

Trek to Langtang

In a straight line across a map, the Langtang Valley is only about 50 km (just over 30 miles) from Kathmandu; it is one of the most accessible trekking locations in Nepal. However, taking the most direct route to the start of the trek on the roads winding through the mountains is roughly 150 km (93 miles). Due to a combination of very windy, back and forth, up-a-mountain-and-then-straight-back-down-again roads, heavy traffic (including everything from public buses to herds of goats to motorcycles carrying up to four people), poor road conditions, and delays due to construction trying to address those poor road conditions, it took us the better part of a day to reach Syapru Besi from Kathmandu.

Syapru Besi is a small town nestled in a narrow mountain valley and spread across a hillside to the west of the Trishuli River, which flows southward out of China (the Nepal-China border is a mere 13 km, or eight miles, to the north). On the east side of the Trishuli, across the valley from Syapru Besi, is a v-notched opening in the valley wall where the Langtang Khola River comes flowing from the east and meets and mingles with the Trishuli as both tumble downwards over rocks out of the Himalayas, joining larger, mightier rivers as they continue southward out of Nepal and into India. The night we arrived we stayed in a hostel in Syapru Besi. We were done with motorized transport. The next morning we began our journey by foot. We would cross the Trishuli River on a suspension bridge, swaying in the wind and dangling high above the rushing water below, and we would begin following the Langtang Khola upstream, as far as we could towards the back of the Langtang Valley, to see if we could catch a glimpse of the river’s source in the glaciers and snowfields of the high Himalayas. If you’re interested you can find pictures from our trek here.

The morning we started out was bright and sunny. Our early trails led us through a dense jungle and forest. Occasionally we would find marijuana plants growing uncultivated like common weeds along the trail, making me chuckle about what must be the origin of the colloquial term I know it by. There were a few terrifyingly large spiders our group found as we hiked, and a few times we saw monkeys scamper across the trail in front of us and out of sight. Beyond the trees, the valley was so narrow that the steep walls on either side seemed to block out the sky. For a few days, we followed the river, always climbing in elevation. Monsoon season was just beginning, and like clockwork, every afternoon we’d get a relatively short but quite intense downpour. We’d always try to find cover before it hit us, not always successfully. We’d stop at little teahouses and in small mountain villages for meals and for a place to sleep at night; we were always graciously welcomed by the owners with big smiles and friendly gestures that I understood perfectly and rapidfire words that I didn’t understand at all2. Every meal we enjoyed was prepared from scratch and cooked over a fire; all of the ingredients made their way up from Syapru Besi the same way we did, one step a time. Everything was carried in on someone’s back3. As we gained elevation, we slowly noticed our surroundings changing.

The jungle slowly turned into more of a pine forest; none of the evergreen trees around me looked familiar, but it felt familiar. I was somehow reminded of the Sierra Nevada mountains I’ve been fortunate enough to spend quite a bit of time in back home in California. Our first night in the alpine forest, we stopped at a teahouse directly adjacent to the river. I remember staying up late talking to the local Nepalis working with S4W who had joined us on the trek, really enjoying getting to know them and sharing conversation and stories, and sharing an experience and creating a memory. Late that night, as I crawled into my sleeping bag listening to the dull roar of the nearby river, I was content and at peace.

The next morning as we were just starting up the trail again, I stopped and looked back and could still see where we had stayed the night before. The little teahouse nestled in along the bank of the river looked (or felt) like maybe it hadn’t changed at all in the last 1,000 years. However, up ahead in the village of Langtang, or what’s left of it, everything changed in a moment when a landslide caused by the Gorkha Earthquake had buried the village a few years earlier.

That afternoon as we continued hiking up the valley we entered a thick fog that obscured all but our immediate surroundings, and late in the afternoon our trail led us directly over what used to be Langtang Village (now buried under rubble), past a memorial to those who perished, and on to where the town was being rebuilt. We stayed that night in a small teahouse just recently constructed. The fog was less thick the following morning, and leaving the teahouse, we wound through a number of homes and businesses in various stages of reconstruction, smiling and waving at the construction workers as we passed. I heard a flurry of words, but the only one I ever caught was ‘videshi’, their common term for us foreigners and outsiders4. All of the materials being used to rebuild this community had been carried in on someone’s back. As we got a passing view of these reconstruction projects and buildings just starting to go up, I wondered how these people had been living in the 2+ years since the earthquake and landslide if construction on many buildings appeared to just be starting. It was also interesting to see materials and tarps with the logos of large world relief organizations in this remote corner of Nepal, to see firsthand that some of my charitable donations made literally a world away truly can physically influence someone’s well-being on the other side of the globe5. That day we traveled up from Langtang to Kyanjin, the final community at the back of Langtang Valley, situated 3,870 m (12,700 ft) above sea level on the edge of a large U-shaped glacial valley. We would spend a few days there, one day hiking to the peak of nearby Tsergo Ri, which tops out at a height of nearly 5,000 m above sea level (officially, it is 4,984 m, or 16,350 ft). This was the highest above the ocean I’ve ever been by over 600 m (about 2,000 ft), but we were still surrounded and shut in by the larger Himalayan peaks towering above us. The tallest we were able to see was Langtang Lirung at 7,246 m (23,770 ft), still more than a mile directly above us. 

After our time in Kyanjin, we turned around and started back down the valley the way we came. We didn’t stay overnight in Langtang, but hiked through in the afternoon. In contrast to the foggy day while we were climbing up the valley, it was a clear sunny day. The destruction that had been obscured by clouds and fog was now on full display. There was a rubble field coming off the Himalayas that covered the entire northern slope of the valley from the edge of the mountains down to the river. Under that rubble was what used to be Langtang, currently being rebuilt a little further up the valley. It was a surreal experience seeing it all, hiking over the rubble, and looking north up into the mountains where the landslide had originated from. It’s a memory still fresh in my mind and one that I don’t anticipate fading as I continue on through life. I couldn’t remember another time that I had been so close to such a great disaster, directly interacting with people whose lives had been devastated; even just passing through and spending a brief moment in their world as an outside observer left a strong impression, an indelible mark. However, I naively categorized it in my brain along with Nepali culture, an experience very different than and very removed from my day-to-day experience of life in California. I was wrong.

Camp Fire – Disaster Comes Home

About a year and a half later, I would be standing in a similar wasteland as that in Langtang. This time caused by fire, not earthquake; this time in California, much closer to home, right around the corner, just up the hill from the city of Chico where I had lived to the town of Paradise (only 16 km, or 10 miles, away). Chico and Paradise are two interconnected communities6. Paradise had burned to the ground when a wildfire ripped into town and straight through everything on November 8th of 2018, leaving only ashes and memories in its wake, and continued roaring westward down the hill towards Chico. It was stopped before it consumed Chico as well, although a few houses on the edge of town burned and much of the town evacuated. Once again, this was an unexpected, unforeseen disaster. About five months earlier, my wife and I had gotten married on a beautiful day in June beside a lake just above the town of Paradise in the hills. For all of our friends and family celebrating with us that day (a lot of whom called Paradise home), none of us could have anticipated what was coming about five months later that year in November.

Picture2Our Wedding in the Hills above Paradise (Source: One of Our Friends!)

The arid western half of the North American continent is no stranger to wildfires. Although they can cause huge property and infrastructure damage (and even claim human lives when they burn hot and spread quickly), the Camp Fire was unprecedented, even in a region where wildfires seem to be growing more and more frequent and destructive in recent years. On the morning of the Camp Fire, the sky filled with a thick black smoke that covered the sky, blocking out the sun for everyone downwind.

Picture3Smoke Plume from the Camp Fire in Paradise, California (Source: Twitter)

Looking at the photo above, it’s hard to believe that up there in the midst of the smoke, a few months prior, my wife and I had been married on a clear, sunny day in a beautiful forest setting. Forest that would be tinder for the wildfire that would come. The wind was so strong on the first day of the fire that it pushed the smoke all the way out to sea, running along to the coast and dispersing above the Pacific Ocean nearly 200 km (120 miles) to the west of the town of Paradise. It (combined with other fires) also created some of the worst air quality worldwide here in California in the weeks following the start of the fire.

Picture4Smoke from the Camp Fire Blowing West Across California to the Pacific Ocean (Source: NASA)

Thankfully, on November 8th, most of the town of over 25,000 people was successfully evacuated7, although many people had horror stories of escaping through the flames and choking on smoke. Just like the rebuilding efforts in Kathmandu and Langtang in Nepal, the efforts to rebuild the town of Paradise and return to normal life will take years. The LA Times compiled a fascinating and sobering collection of before and after images that depict the devastation caused by the fire. As I’m writing this, a little over two years after the fire, the first people are just beginning to return to rebuilt homes in Paradise. For everyone who lived there and was affected, life will never look the same again. When I subconsciously thought a disaster that leveled a town in Nepal didn’t apply to me, my friends, or my community, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Digging for Gold

Deep inside these disasters and the resulting suffering, I knew there must be a lesson to be learned and some insight or wisdom to find. The town of Paradise was originally founded and settled as a gold-mining community during the California Gold Rush in the 1800’s. The largest gold nugget ever found in California was the Dogtown nugget found just outside of Paradise in 1859; it weighed 54 pounds (24 kg)8. Just like the old gold miners sifting through the dirt and grime on a search for gold, I feel like amidst these tragedies and disasters, there must be something valuable to be found, if one is willing and able to search9. My search has resulted in a few nuggets that, unlike gold, do not diminish in value when they are divided and shared; rather they grow in value the more they are shared. Events like the Camp Fire and Gorkha Earthquake can cause us to lose hope. Against those natural feelings, my aim in sharing some of my reflections here is to bring the return of some hope, along with some agency and a sense of meaning and purpose. We have very little control over events like these disasters, but we have a lot of control of how we respond to them and how we live in light of their reality and presence in our world.

Here are the “gold nuggets” I’ve found in my reflections; I’m polishing them off and testing them to see how valuable and pure they are. If they seem valuable and true, I plan to hold on tight to them. I hope you’ll join me in testing them and reviewing them. Hopefully they provide something valuable and meaningful for you to hold on to as well.

  1.     None of us are invincible from an unexpected disaster; nearly all of these disasters are beyond our control
  2.     Within our control is how we choose to live moment-by-moment and day-by-day
  3.     The best way to live your life is:
    • To live in the moment, to learn to recognize and acknowledge the good things (big and small) around you and be grateful for them. No one knows what tomorrow may bring.
    • To live as a good neighbor, in a way that considers the needs of those around you (both near and far) and especially a neighbor that is aware and able to empathize. Beyond awareness and compassion, it is best to live in such a way that your life (in thought, word, and deed) works to alleviate your neighbor’s suffering and bring comfort, peace, and healing.

#1. No one is invincible from or immune to disaster, no matter how secure you may feel at any given moment.

I had been an outside observer in Langtang, feeling sympathy for those living through the devastation and hardship I witnessed and being impressed by their tenacity and perseverance in continuing in the aftermath of such a tragedy. I briefly had the chance to see and meet firsthand those left picking up the pieces after everything has fallen apart, who are beginning to put them back together and rebuild their lives, although they never will look like they did before. However, I had no personal connection to their tragedy, suffering, or struggle. Despite being in such close physical proximity, I was only a visitor and lived worlds away; I was just passing through their lives.

Little did I know it at the time, but tragedy and devastation would strike at home, not much later, when the Camp Fire sparked one morning and burned the town right next door to the ground that same day. I had always felt like natural disasters and tragedies such as these were things that happened far away and to other people, but not to me and not where I lived. However, the Camp Fire showed me I was wrong. And it’s true that every place on our planet has their own version of a disaster that can strike out of nowhere. Earthquakes, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornados, droughts, flooding, landslides, and more. However, that’s not the only form a disaster takes… A disaster can also come in the form of an unfortunate accident, an unforeseen and difficult diagnosis from a doctor, being the victim of a crime, an unexpected loss, or many other things. Currently, right now and looking into the future, we’re all in the midst of one of these, a worldwide disaster. The coronavirus is a global pandemic that has been felt in a unique way in every corner of our world. 

None of us have the ability to definitively predict or take action to prevent these various things from happening. However, even though our actions can’t prevent these or even oftentimes predict them, we still have a lot of agency and power. Recognizing that these things will happen, to us and to others, we can live out our lives in such a way that when they happen, we’re more prepared, and if they happen to others, we can help alleviate their suffering and help them rebuild their lives following disaster. The one-word question worth a lifetime of wisdom is: How?

#2. and #3 (Part 1). The Short Answer: Live with gratitude moment-by-moment and day-by-day

I am not good at this: living in the moment, living life one day at a time, rather than dwelling on the past or being caught up in possibilities of the future. Writing all of this down and struggling to put it into words has inspired me though; it has inspired me to reflect on this in my own life and take a more active approach in my attempts to live in the moment and day by day.

Generally speaking, we all have a tendency to take things for granted until they are gone. In light of the Gorkha Earthquake and the Camp Fire, and considering how the coronavirus has upset all of our lives in different ways, we need to remember to pause in the midst of ordinary normal life and remember the things we’re thankful for. I encourage you10 to dedicate time to reflecting on this and writing these things down, preserving them so to speak, in a journal somewhere. Do it today! If you can’t do it today, schedule time for it sometime this week. Even in the midst of tragedy and difficulty, there are things to be thankful for, little blessings. I encourage you to consider the people that you’re thankful for: family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, public voices that are inspirational to you. Beyond that, I encourage you to reach out to them this week; let them know how much you love and appreciate them; let them know that you are thankful that they are around and have a voice in your life. Beyond the people around you, what other things are you grateful for? Write these down as well. When you encounter them, pause … slow down … breathe deeply… and take a moment to really appreciate them. It could be a beautiful sunrise or sunset, time with a good friend, a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning, the satisfaction of finishing a task, the magic of water, flowers, a unique animal, or something else in nature, or a good meal when you’re hungry. Be sure to think about how grateful you are for both people and things, don’t take them for granted. It doesn’t come naturally to us, but I want to be thankful every day, to live to the fullest, to smile and laugh a lot, and to let the people I love know that I love them.

In my attempts to live in the moment, I also want to leave margin around the edges of my life. I want time to spare, and I know that I need to prioritize and intentionally set this time aside in our busy busy go go go world. I want this time for reflection, for fostering a sense of gratitude and remembering all that I’m thankful for. I want this time for prayer. I want this time to be able to call a friend on the phone who I haven’t spoken to for a while, to catch up on life and share a conversation. I want to have extra time to help the stranger I pass by on the street, to help the needy in my community. I want this time to try new things, to develop new skills that will one day hopefully improve my own life and the lives of others. This is the ideal. I know I won’t perfectly realize it, but the closer I can get to it, the better off I’ll be. Also, if I can live like this, I know that when the unexpected disaster arrives, I won’t see it coming and I probably won’t be prepared, but I also won’t be left with feelings of regret or the sense that I’ve left so much undone.

Ultimately, in the economy of time, we all have the same 24 hours each day to do with what we choose. We all need to sleep11, and much of our days are filled with important responsibilities such as work, school, family, and a variety of chores and tasks. However, even with all of this added together, we are still left with surplus time. This amount varies from person to person. Some people with demanding lives have very little, others may have much more. However, we all have free time to determine what to do with. How can we use that time and live in a way that looks beyond our own wants and needs and is considerate of the wants and needs of those around us12?

#3 (Part 2). How to live as a good neighbor: Casting Seeds and Collecting Data

A good analogy is sticky; it sticks with you after you’ve heard it, kind of like a good story. Without much effort on your part, you can remember it and recall it in the future. I’m hoping what I present here will be sticky.

Picture5Seeds (Source: Pixabay)

The analogy is that constantly, day in and day out, often in little ways and sometimes in big ways, as we live our lives we’re casting seeds. Picture a farmer or gardener outside casting out and scattering seeds upon the ground. Every thought, word, and action represents a seed. We have different types of seeds we can cast (good ones, bad ones, and some that are just kind of meh), and we have different places we can cast them13. We all may have different seeds to cast, but we all have some good ones and some bad ones in our pockets, and we have complete control over what we grab hold of and then cast out to try to grow. Also, as we’re scattering seeds, let’s not forget the old adage that we reap what we sow.

We’re all generally familiar with how plants grow and propagate. They start from a tiny little seed, but have the potential to grow over time into something very very very big14. And not only that, but once a plant is established it will typically self-propagate and develop more seeds that in turn can grow into more plants, continuing to spread and send that same plant to new areas over time. Over time, one tree can turn into an entire forest.

What types of seeds are there? There are good seeds. Seeds that will produce food, fruit and vegetables, that can feed people and animals and satisfy hunger. Seeds that grow and bloom into beautiful flowers that will bring joy to all who see and smell them. Seeds that over time will grow into tall trees, providing habitat and benefits for nearby wildlife, providing a shady place for a lazy afternoon reading a book, and providing life for all of us by growing through the magical process of pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and producing oxygen. There are also bad seeds. There are weeds, which are sometimes not bad in and of themselves but are a result of the wrong seed in the wrong place or at the wrong time. There are also seeds of invasive species: seeds that will sprout into plants that do not belong, that bring nothing positive to their surroundings; seeds that will rapidly grow and propagate like a cancer, dominating areas and choking out any other life that could otherwise grow there. Unfortunately, once these seeds are established, they are incredibly difficult to cut out and eradicate. There are times in life when we grab hold of these and are so tempted to cast them out, little realizing the mess they’ll make that we (and others) will be forced to deal with and try to clean up in the future. Hopefully we can find the self-control to not loose these seeds into the world. So, there are good and bad seeds. What kind of seeds are you scattering as you go through life? I think it is worthwhile to reflect on this, and to consider how you can scatter more good seeds.

As an example of one of my personal attempts to scatter some good seeds, I’d like to share a bit more about SmartPhones4Water (S4W) and our mission. S4W was created out of a passion for people, water, and restoration. It’s a nonprofit organization, based in California but currently doing work in several locations spread across the world. It seeks to use mobile technology, citizen science, and young researchers to improve our understanding and management of water resources. I’ve had the chance to be a part of it from day one, largely because I was a coworker (and good friend) with the guy who started it all. I’d say I’ve got a brain like a Toyota Corolla: it’s reliable, pretty smooth, consistent, but nothing too fancy. It may not go the fastest, but it’ll get you where you need to go (most of the time). However, while I’m operating with a Toyota Corolla, I’d compare my friend’s brain to a McLaren P115. A Toyota Corolla goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about 8 seconds, which is remarkable… until you compare it to a McLaren P1, which goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds. My friend not only has a supercar for a brain, but has hurricane-level energies that he’s been able to channel into a variety of productive ends. It’s been a fun ride being able to provide some support to what S4W is working to accomplish, even if my Corolla can’t quite keep pace with the McLaren.

Our professional background at S4W is that we’re a bunch of water engineers and scientists; that’s what our skillset is, that’s what we know, and so that’s what S4W was founded around. If you’ve got an axe and live in a forest, and you see that people need firewood, you’ll probably start cutting down trees. We understand how important having a good dataset is to wise management of water, a precious and limited resource. Cities need water, farms need water, and the natural environment needs water. It also needs to be available at the right time, in the right quantity, and of the right quality. In order to make this happen (and guarantee that it will continue to happen in our rapidly changing world), we need robust datasets to keep track of our water. We need to measure rainfall, snowpack in the mountains, the flow of water in rivers, groundwater levels, how much water is used by our farms and cities, what the water quality is in all of the above, and how that’s changing over time. In some countries, there is already quite a bit of data being collected and publicly available, which is great! However, in these countries, there are still important, more specific, questions about water resources that are unknown and can be answered through additional data collection. In other countries, there is very little publicly available data about water resources. S4W was founded around these data gaps, trying to close them through creative and innovative ways of data collection, to provide the data necessary for wise stewardship of this important resource. Here’s an analogy to help explain this: when you feel sick and visit the doctor, he or she needs to collect data about your body to determine how healthy you are and what may be wrong with you. They will measure your temperature and your blood pressure, and they will check your pulse, your reflexes and your breathing. The doctor will ask you questions about how your body is feeling or what doesn’t seem to be working right. They will use this information (data), to determine how to best manage your body for whatever may be wrong. Without these data, it would be difficult (maybe impossible) to diagnose and manage a disease or something else that may be wrong. In a way, it is similar with water, but in some places, we aren’t checking the pulse of the water systems the people there rely on, so they don’t know how healthy they are. If they’re unhealthy, and this is not addressed, it’s only a matter of time before the systems will fail those who depend on them. At S4W, we’re trying to help folks collect these data, so that they can better understand the health of their water systems, and if problems are discovered, begin to address them. It’s maybe not as sexy or exciting as performing open-heart surgery, but we think it’s just as important16

In the process of figuring out how to collect these data, we’ve also uncovered some other neat aspects of S4W that have become a core part of our values. Citizen science (ordinary citizens engaged in scientific endeavors) is a growing field; outsourcing scientific data collection to a large group of volunteer (or slightly compensated) citizen scientists opens up the door for new opportunities regarding data collection. Additionally, young researchers in science or engineering who are currently going through their education have the chance to practically apply what they are learning in the classroom out in the real world through participation in various S4W projects and applied research efforts. We hope to provide students with an opportunity to learn and develop some practical skills in their fields and to inspire an appreciation and respect for the resources we rely on among the students who one day will be leading the governmental agencies and groups managing our resources. Incorporating citizen scientists and young researchers into our work, in addition to creating new data collection opportunities, brings the general public and a broader audience into these crucial water resource issues, hopefully increasing awareness and engagement through that process. For those of us who don’t regularly consider where our water comes from, if we started measuring it falling out of the sky, we’d likely begin to connect the dots between rainfall and the water we use daily and need to survive. Finally, smartphones are the tool we use to collect and record these data. Many people worldwide have these tiny supercomputers in their pockets at all times: they include a GPS to pinpoint location, a clock to determine time, a camera to record pictures or video to verify measurement results, and the ability to store data internally and/or transmit it through a cellular network to a centralized location. All of these features make our smartphones an excellent data gathering tool! It’s what all of our citizen scientists and young researchers utilize for data collection, storage, and transmission. Our most fruitful data collection effort thus far within the global S4W family has been in increasing measurement of precipitation (the original source of all of our freshwater). We’ve developed a simple rain gauge made from readily available and recycled materials (and assessed its accuracy), and this rain gauge is currently being used to collect precipitation data in six countries (with a few more planned for the near future). If you’re interested in collecting your own precipitation data and joining the S4W global network, we hope you’ll join us for our Global Rainfall Stories (GloRaS) campaign. We’re encouraging people worldwide to collect precipitation data for the first 100 days of 2021! Find out more if you’re interested here.

Modern technology, word-of-mouth and grassroots efforts, and a variety of personal connections and relationships have allowed us to scatter our S4W seeds broadly around the world, which has been very fun. In my limited travel and experience of other cultures, I’ve always been struck by how different our day-to-day lives can look but how similar our overall lives are. Around the world, we all have families, friends, and community. We have personal interests and hobbies. And ultimately, we’re all trying to sift through the inherent messiness of life, seeking to find things that are good and of lasting value. We’ve been fortunate with S4W to be able to plant seeds in a number of different places. The first seeds were planted in Nepal, and it has been neat to see them grow over time. S4W-Nepal, a local Nepali nonprofit and sister organization of ours, recently celebrated their 3rd anniversary and are leading and inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers, and water managers to steward Nepal’s water resources well. These other seeds were planted more recently, but we’ve also had opportunities to work in Ghana in West Africa, in the Netherlands, in our home state of California, in Afghanistan, in the Near East, and we’re in talks and hoping to plant some seeds and launch projects in other locations as well!

In closing, these are some of the good seeds we’re attempting to sow, trusting that in time, some will sprout and grow, providing an ever increasing benefit where they are scattered. As water scientists and engineers, this seems like a specific way that we can use our knowledge and skillset to try to make a positive difference in the world, to try to make it a better place for our neighbors near and far. My ultimate hope is that it inspires you to try to find a way to use your unique gifting and skills to do the same in your corner of the world. Also, if what we’re doing is exciting to you, we hope that you’ll join us and support us! As I mentioned earlier, you can build your own rain gauge (a fun personal project, or a project for a family with kids) and collect data as part of Global Rain Stories this year17. You can also support us financially18 or by helping us raise awareness about our work through follows, likes, and shares on social media (Facebook & Twitter). Finally, you can join an existing S4W project in your area (if you see one described here), or, if you know what questions to ask and there are some additional data about water resources that would be helpful for answering those questions, you could reach out to us and be the lead on a new S4W project in the place you call home!

COVID-19 and Being Better Neighbors

We are all wealthy in different ways; we also have wealth and abundance in different amounts, but I believe we all have things we can give. If you have extra money, look for good opportunities to give that. If you have extra time, look for good opportunities to give that.

At S4W, you can join us in our mission with your own small seeds: you can collect data, help us share our story with a wider audience, donate some money, or all of the above. There are also countless other worthwhile causes to support, both locally and globally, and I’d encourage you to intentionally seek out opportunities both locally and globally! Find something in your local community to be a part of and do a bit of research to see if you can find an exciting cause on the other side of the world to support as well19.

In addition to supporting specific nonprofits or organizations. I’d also strongly encourage you to take similar steps to cast good seeds in other areas of your life: send someone a quick text message or email to let them know you appreciate them, conserve water and energy, drop off a care package for a sick friend, organize a neighborhood cleanup, plant some trees, share your things with others, buy locally and sustainably produced food and goods, get to know your neighbors, serve your local community, and take an interest in current events. When you hear of something like the Gorkha Earthquake, Camp Fire, or COVID-19, investigate and see what you can do to help people affected. If you’re able, donate a regular portion of your income to worthy causes to support people passionate enough to devote their careers and lives to making this world a better place20.

If there’s one thing that this COVID craziness of the last year has shown us, it’s that we’re all in this together. We really are one gigantic global family, which unfortunately comes with the tensions, jealousy, disagreements and infighting that can be found in families, but which also comes with encouragement, love, and support. We can’t control everyone else in the family, but we can control who we are and how we interact with the rest of the family. I believe everything we can do to improve our global family is worthwhile and valuable.

In Conclusion

This story started with me in a dense fog; I was in an unfamiliar place, unsure of my surroundings, and it was difficult to determine which way was the best way to go. I also had no idea how long the fog would last and I wouldn’t be able to see what was in front of me.

It’s been brought up a couple of times already, but in many ways, the global situation we find ourselves in with the COVID-19 pandemic feels eerily similar to this. I originally thought of this in the Spring of 2020, when there was a great fog of uncertainty and confusion about this pandemic, and in the midst of that, no worldwide consensus on which direction to move in and what steps to take. In the city I live in, people were (and unfortunately, still are) very divided on how to respond and what the best course of action as individuals and as larger communities is. Expanding this up to our local county government, our state government, and our national government, people are deeply divided on what we should be doing, or not doing, right now.

Earlier I mentioned that my reflections on Langtang and Paradise had shown me that none of us are invincible; none of us has the ability to predict or avoid a sucker punch from some type of unexpected disaster. Although COVID-19 has illuminated the gaps that exist between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots21, it has spread across the globe and worked its way into all of our local communities in one way or another. We’ve all felt it; we’ve all been affected.

In light of that, as we’re doing our best to navigate this COVID-19 fog, as individuals, families, local communities, national communities, and as a worldwide community, I hope that we can remember that with every step we take, we’re casting seeds about us. Seeds that will grow in size and influence over time, that will continue to propagate to distances far from us, and that will potentially even outlast us. With each step, I hope we’ll try to find good seeds to spread around.

When the fog of the coronavirus clears and we return to “normal” (whatever that looks like), let’s not forget about events like the Gorkha Earthquake and the Camp Fire that can throw us, or others, into another thick fog in an unexpected moment. If we find ourselves in a beautiful clear mountain valley and are filled with gratitude for what we have, let us not forget that around the corner, there may be some people trapped in a fog, buried under rubble, and unsure of which direction to move or how to get out. I hope that we will plant some good seeds and do what we can to help them, trusting they would do the same for us if the tables were turned.

In the end, after mentally sifting through the dirt and grime of local disasters and global pandemics, I think these are the precious nuggets that I want to both hold tightly for myself and also share with the world. I hope they have some value for you as well.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with some thoughts to consider from folks much wiser than me.

“We are not called to be successful, we are called to be faithful.” Mother Teresa

“Maybe I am really saying only that I feel an obligation to make the attempt, and that I know if I fail to make at least the attempt I forfeit any right to hope that the world will become better than it is now.” Wendell Berry (The Hidden Wound)

“In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.” Henry David Thoreau (Walden)

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'” and  “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” Francis of Assisi

“Unless someone like you cares a whole lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Dr. Seuss (The Lorax)


Written by Brandon Ertis

Brandon is privileged and honored to be a part of S4W. He likes dirty chai lattes, ice cream, a good story, and the challenge of wise environmental stewardship in our modern world. He lives in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California within walking distance of Lake Tahoe (albeit a pretty long walk) with his beautiful wife, and he thinks life is a big messy adventure that is full of meaning and purpose.

Post-script: In case this story inspires you to learn more about what you can be doing to help others, I think a great place to start is the TED Talk below by Peter Singer on ‘effective altruism’ (which is a fancy term for something I think we should all care about). He’s also written a book called The Life You Can Save. It’s available in electronic and audio format for free on this website, and I’ve added it to my 2021 reading list. If you find other great resources or voices on this topic too, please let me know! I think we’re smarter and better together 🙂


Footnotes

  1. It’s true. Facts, not opinion. Don’t like it? Come at me, bro.
  2. In my limited experience (two relatively brief visits), I’ve found Nepalis to be incredibly welcoming and hospitable (despite the obvious language barrier). Also, the economy of the Langtang Valley is dependent on trekkers and tourism. The Gorkha Earthquake didn’t just cause physical damage, it also damaged this local economy. At the time of our trek, locals were very excited to see trekkers returning to the valley.
  3. For the first half of the trail up the valley, until the Llama Motel, that back carrying supplies up the valley could be either a donkey or a person. Beyond the Llama motel, everything needed for human life and habitation further up the valley is carried by people.
  4. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the chance to visit some different countries and cultures scattered across the globe and have also been called a gringo and mzungu. Bonus points for those who can identify these other countries or regions 🙂
  5. If I’m being completely honest, I felt a twisted sense of inner pride at supporting organizations that were helping rebuild Langtang, at my awareness of issues on the other side of the world, and of having the chance to personally visit and support the locals with a few tourism dollars. Humility is hard to cultivate, while pride springs up like an invasive plant with seemingly no encouragement or provocation.
  6. There are a large number of people who live in one and work in the other, regularly visit one or the other for shopping, social activities, church or other religious activities, local sporting events, etc.
  7. There were 86 people who were unable to escape and were killed by the Camp Fire and another 50 people whose subsequent deaths could be linked back to the fire. (Source: LA Times)
  8. Source for largest gold nugget in California: Western Mining History
  9. I also want to acknowledge that I’m in an incredibly fortunate and privileged position (by none of my own doing) of being able to search for the gold in the grime (or the pony in the pile of horeshit). Those across the world in Langtang or right next door in Paradise feel overwhelmed and nearly buried in the dirt and grime of these natural disasters and tragedies and are more concerned with digging themselves out than digging for gold. Since I’ve personally been unaffected by these two events, I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to reflect on these things without trying to sift through the heaviness of how my own life has been impacted.
  10. Just for the record, I’m also writing to myself here, so every instance of you is meant not as a finger pointing at YOU, but a cause for reflection and a challenge for myself, and hopefully for you as well.
  11. Although it is interesting that we need varying amounts of sleep to function. Personally, I need (want) 8+ hours every night. I’m continually amazed at those who can continue to be productive with far less than that.
  12. Or even those far away from us, how can we consider those whose lives aren’t likely to overlap with ours, unless we intentionally choose to live in a way that extends our positive sphere of influence to include those people?
  13. Since we’re all water scientists and engineers here at S4W, my first inclination was to use a water analogy to describe being a good neighbor. If you’re reading the footnotes and have gotten this far, I suppose you may be interested enough to want to know what the water analogy was. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you. The image is a common one, a rock being thrown into the still water of a pond. It breaks the surface and sends out ripples in every direction. It’s actually quite similar to the analogy of casting a seed, but it’s casting a stone. There are big and small rocks, and there are good and bad ripples. The biggest impact occurs directly where the rock hits the surface, directly where we act, but the ripples following that reach far from us and can even be felt on the opposite side of the pond. An example of a good little ripple traveling a long distance would be my charitable donation to a disaster relief organization resulting in them being able to supply building materials to people rebuilding their homes and their lives in the Langtang Valley. The ripples in the pond analogy gets a little more interesting though. Eventually, our ripples will hit the shore on the edge of the pond and bounce back towards us. Things come full circle, although I do not believe that we will be able to necessarily trace the ripples we feel back to rocks we’ve thrown into the pond. However, if we throw in some good rocks and make some good ripples, eventually we’ll feel them coming back to us. The reverse is also true. There are obvious exceptions to this (e.g. bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people all the time), but in a general sense, I think it is true. Finally, I felt a little better about the seed analogy because I’ve heard it used before. Jesus uses seeds numerous times in the many parables that he told when he was alive in Israel about 2,000 years ago (You can find three ‘seed’ parables among others in Matthew 13, and there is a well-written blog here that reflects on these teachings from a Christian perspective).
  14. Here in California, I personally think we’ve got some of the coolest trees you can find on earth. We’ve got coastal redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) growing near the Pacific Ocean; they are the tallest trees on earth and among the oldest. And we’ve got giant sequoias (sequoiandendron giganteum) growing up high in the Sierra Nevada mountains; these are the world’s largest tree by volume. To illustrate how something very small can grow into something very large, a giant sequoia seed cone is less than 8 cm (less than 3 in) in length and each cone can hold over 200 seeds. Each one of these seeds has the potential to grow into a tree that is over 75 meters (250 feet) in height, up to 10 m (over 30 ft) in diameter, and that can live for thousands of years. What a crazy example of something starting small but having a big impact and influence on its surroundings (Source: Just Fun Facts). Also, on a sad but related note (because of wildfire), hundreds of these giant sequoias burned during intense wildfires last year (Source: LA Times)
  15. McLaren P1. Just for comparison, the Toyota Corolla website doesn’t look nearly as cool.
  16. The nonprofit water work equivalent of open-heart surgery may be providing access to clean water for people who lack this basic human right. This is an emergency that needs to be addressed ASAP. There are a lot of nonprofits doing great work in this field that deserve your support. One of my personal favorites is Charity:Water. There is a great video about the background of the organization hereThe founder also recently wrote a book about his own story and the organization’s story that I’ve read and would recommend that hits a lot of the above video’s points in much greater detail. His story is a great example of how each of our unique giftings and skillsets can be leveraged to make the world a better place.
  17. You can also continue collecting data alongside us after the GloRaS campaign ends!
  18. We’d appreciate any financial support you’re able to give. However, if you’re interested in donating a larger amount (anything over $100), please please reach out to us to facilitate your donation so we can utilize your entire donation for our work. GoFundMe takes a small cut for their operations. Also, California staff donate their time to S4W, so your entire donation will support work in other locations around the world! 🙂
  19. For causes on the other side of the world, the easiest ways to give are to donate money or to raise awareness about the cause in your local community. However, from personal experience, I think that if you have the opportunity to travel to that location and experience it firsthand, you should do it! From my time in Nepal, I can confidently say that your life will be enriched from the experience.
  20. It’s true that many people in the world are living hand-to-mouth. My expectation is not that these people would participate in charitable giving, my expectation is that the rest of us would give out of our excess to these people. In Chico, there are a variety of fruit trees that people are able to cultivate near their homes that will provide food. Often, a single fruit tree produces such an abundance that the family (even including friends and neighbors who also take some of the fruit) only are able to eat about half of the fruit on the tree each year. The other half sits on the tree unused; it will eventually fall to the ground and rot. Extrapolating this out (which isn’t fair to do, but hopefully illustrates my point at least a little), the biggest problem may be uneven distribution, not a lack of abundance.
  21. Hopefully these illuminated gaps between the haves (people who may be struggling with increased volatility in the stock market, being asked/required to wear a mask, or having to change their holiday plans) and the have nots (people who are wondering where their next meal will come from, or who don’t know where if they’ll have adequate healthcare if they get sick or who will provide for their families if they get sick) in what are hopefully uncomfortable ways that cause some serious reflection for the haves.

If you’re reading this. You’re amazing! Thanks for sticking it out through this entire thing, including all the footnotes. I really do appreciate you giving your time, attention, and energy to this. I hope it was enjoyable and of some value to you 🙂