Almost two years ago I decided to embark on a culinary journey: make bread just using water and flour, nothing else. What I didn’t realize was that I would set a wheel in motion that hasn’t stopped spinning yet. I mixed equal parts water and flour in a jar and set it out on the counter top, waiting for something to happen. Every day I put a little more water and a little more flour into it and slowly started noticing it come alive and become active. Microscopic bubbles started to form, the sticky mixture started to rise, and a beautiful sour, tangy scent started to waft from the jar. I used this starter culture to make a loaf of my first sour dough bread. After more than a week of waiting I finally had in my hands a loaf of true sourdough bread. I cut a thick slice and spread a healthy amount of butter over the spongy surface. After that first bite, I was hooked.

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What is fermentation?

Bacteria and Yeast exist everywhere: they are in the air, they are on the surface of everything you touch, and they are on your skin and in your body. When given the optimal conditions, these bacteria and yeasts (both good and bad) multiply like crazy. This is why food left out on the counter goes bad, and why you smell like B.O. after a good long run. Smelly feet? Bacteria. Bad breath? Bacteria. When they have enough food, generally in the form of sugars, and when they are put in the correct environment, generally anaerobic (without oxygen) they will multiply until they run out of resources. It’s biological opportunism at its finest, and it’s pretty amazing. A rotting piece of fruit is a tropical rainforest of diversity, beautiful in its own right, even if it means we can’t enjoy its sweetness anymore. When I mixed flour and water, the bacteria and yeasts existing naturally in the flour and floating around in the air found a really nice home. The sugars in the flour let them feast without the fear of running out of food. As they grew in numbers, they released some important byproducts: carbon dioxide and lactic acid. It’s this lactic acid that gives sourdough its characteristic sour taste and smell. Fermentation in its most simple form is setting up conditions that promote beneficial bacteria and yeast growth which in turn chemically alter food to create probiotic food and drinks.

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The good stuff.

Bacteria are a vital part of our bodily processes. They help us digest food, they create chemicals and compounds that are great for us, and they even exist inside our very cells. Mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell) has its own DNA and reproduces independently from the cell in which it’s housed. This separate genome has led scientists to believe that early on in the evolution of cellular life, an ancestral bacterium (later to be known as mitochondria) got absorbed by a large animal cell. The conditions were just right, and it survived. Not only did it survive, it thrived. The larger animal cell offered a comfortable living environment with enough food to sustain the ancient bacteria, and in turn it produced chemical energy that greatly improved the quality of life for the animal cell. They really hit it off and lived happily ever after. Because of this, every single cell in your body has ancestral bacteria in it. If you find this interesting, google “Endosymbiotic Theory.” Not only are bacteria good, they are necessary. Without “them”, there is no “us”. Fermentation is so good for us because when we eat or drink fermented foods, we consume these bacteria and their beneficial byproducts. Yogurt, Kombucha, and Sauerkraut are so good for us because they replenish the bacteria in our digestive tract, they make us more regular, and help us to absorb nutrients we wouldn’t be able to absorb otherwise.

So why do I love it?

It’s slow. Fermenting things take a long time. Days, weeks, sometimes months. Actively giving those little microorganisms exactly what they need. Waiting. Slowing down and being okay with not receiving instant gratification. For me, it is a good exercise to just take it easy and enjoy the entire process. I feel connected to what I’m making because of the labor and time I put into each project.

It isn’t perfect. I have tried making sourdough at least four times. It worked once. One time the starter wasn’t warm enough and nothing happened. Another time it got moldy. And another time it just smelled plain rancid. Each failure taught me more about everything that can go wrong, but each one also taught me more about which conditions are the right conditions. Just last week I tried making ginger beer and just before I bottled it I noticed a thin white moldy film on top of the liquid. After almost a week of effort, I had to throw it out. I have failed much more than I have succeeded, and I appreciate these wild bacteria and yeasts more because of it.

I understand and appreciate food more. Why does sourdough taste so good? Why is beer alcoholic? How is butter made? I’ve been able to do my research about fermentation and answer some of these questions. I think understanding what our food is and where it comes from is a vital part of being human. Food is the connection between us and the earth. It is the backbone of cultures and history. And I never want to stop learning and diving deeper into what food is and why it is so essential to being human. Fermentation is as old as history itself, and I am fascinated by it. Whether its Korean Kimchi, English Ginger beer, or some Garlic Honey, I want to create them all and keep learning.

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Earth Day is amazing isn’t it? We all get together, clean up beaches, carpool to those beach clean ups, make posters, teach our children about the climate, and post on social media. It’s beautiful, for one day the entire world’s attention is focused on Earth, our home, the only home we’ve ever known. This is all fine and dandy, I think it’s awesome. I love seeing people explain what the earth means to them, about how they love going on hikes, about experiences they’ve had in the outdoors that have shaped who they are as a person.

What bothers me about earth day is in the very title of it: “Day.” Just one day. April 22nd we all wake up conscious about our impact on the planet, we all wake up wanting to make a difference on our personal impacts, and for a day it works. For that day we really do care, we read articles about earth day, we outline a few small things we can do to help make a difference, and we really try to make those things happen. But we’re human, and humans tend to get lazy, myself included. After a few days we go back to the same habits: we continue eating at McDonalds, we still buy the cheapest and mass produced food at the super market, we still drive to school or work alone in our cars that could easily fit three or more people. It has a very “New Years Resolutions” vibe to me. In a few days or weeks (or maybe even a month or two if were lucky) we go back to what we were doing in the first place.

I can’t separate myself from all the people who do this, because I am a human being as well and I do it too. I really care about Earth on Earth Day and I try to carry that spirit of care onwards after April 22nd. Sometimes I’m able for a few weeks, but most of the time I continue with my destructive habits of world annihilation. Rip Earth.

Something that irks me about how we view climate change and the future of our planet is that it is affecting the planet itself and only that. Eg. the ice and the oceans and the whales and the butterlies, which is all true, but it’s affecting us the most. The truth is that the Earth’s climate has been changing literally since its formation 4.6 billion years ago and that’s no different today. I think we should look at climate change much more focused and selfishly on the human race. We should focus on saving ourselves. We should focus on shifting the way we live our lives to fit in with the way the natural processes of the world work. If we can do that, we don’t need to go to mars, our planet will be fine. The truth is that if humans didn’t exist Earth would still survive, and in geological time it will return very quickly to a stable state after we (hopefully never) render ourselves extinct. The earth has gone through many mass extinction events and huge changes in climate and it’s still here today. We however, just got here pretty recently and personally I’d like to stay a bit longer. We need to focus on saving ourselves.

What does saving ourselves look like? It looks a lot like saving the planet. If the planet is hospitable then we get to live on it into the foreseeable future. The very nature of our genes is to survive into the next generation, and the next, and the next, etc.

Earth day is great in that people are aware of what’s going on and our impact on our home planet. But I think we’re past the point of awareness. Awareness can only get us so far. Don’t get me wrong awareness is good and it is the first step towards real and tangible change. But awareness without action is pointless. I can be aware about an upcoming test, but if I don’t take action and study then I’m going to fail.

I believe the easiest place to start having a true and measurable impact on the planet is with your wallet. And no, I don’t mean donating to WWF or any other organization. I mean where you choose to spend the money you are already spending. Your money is arguably the biggest way that you choose how you impact the world. Where you spend your money matters. Are you spending your money on clothing that lasts? Are you spending your money on unhealthy food that is mass produced by industrial agriculture? Where does your power come from? That box that arrived on your doorstep today from amazon, where did it originate, who made it, and did you really need it?

Some things we can’t do much about with just our wallets. Unfortunately we are very limited with how our power is generated since we basically all buy it from the same company who owns all the infrastructure. But there is one thing has stood out to me that really does have a positive impact: where and what you choose to eat. Eating at a place that makes extremely cheap food has a huge impact on how resources are used. When food is that cheap, the sole purpose of production is to feed the most people in the cheapest way leaving out all environmental stewardship and personal health. Where we spend our money on food is the single biggest choice we have that can actually change the way we impact our planet. Buying locally grown food, or better yet planting your own garden in your yard with simple veggies and herbs saves you money and saves immense amounts of resources. When you buy local food or grow your own, less damage is done because you aren’t using huge farms that destroy topsoil, you aren’t using oil to fuel the trucks that transport it to your supermarket, and the food isn’t left going bad on the shelf. Sustainable practices make the world healthier and a healthier world means we can live here without fear of extinction.

Driving to the supermarket and getting tasty processed food is so easy, I do it all the time because of that very reason: it’s tasty and cheap and I don’t have to think about it. But, if we look at these issues purely as dollars and cents, we are going to have a problem in the future (which is what we’ve been doing and why we actually have a problem right now). The future of the human species hinging of how much money we save at the supermarket doesn’t sound like a bargain that I want to be a part of.

Planting gardens is a small step towards real change. If we plant even the smallest little garden with tomatoes and radishes and peppers we could save huge amounts of money in the long run.  We can grow good, cheap, nutritious food right in our own backyard, and we can have it be a force for positive change. Yes, it will take effort. No, it won’t be easy. But things like this aren’t easy, and you might even like it! Preserving our planet for future generations won’t be easy at all. But making even a small garden is a really good start. Buying clothes that are made humanely and that last years is a great place to start. Going out and seeing places that have been harmed by our activities and talking about them is a fantastic place to start. We need to see what we’re doing, and start that change, make that first little baby step, because the steps after that first step become a lot easier.

Let’s celebrate Earth Day today, let’s give thanks to everything that it provides us with: food, shelter, water, and spectacular scenery. But let’s go beyond that. Let’s really look at our impact down to the very dollars we spend. Where is our money going? Is it going to people and processes that are destroying our home or is it going towards ones that are changing it for the better? That’s for you to decide, because your money really actually matters. Whoever said money makes the world go round knew what they were talking about. Let’s care about the earth every time we make a purchase and buy a meal (or better yet a pack of carrot seeds). Let’s care about the earth for more than one day of the year. Let’s post pictures of the Earth on this day but let’s also do something about making it better for us and for those we leave it to.

Earth Day is about more than just the Earth, it’s about us. It’s time we step up to the (dinner) plate and make some change.

Those with the privilege to know have the duty to act.

-Albert Einstein

“Aesthetic” is an interesting word. When I was introduced to this word in a 21st century context all it meant to me was a way to make yourself appear to an online community. If your Instagram feed or your blog had a certain look or feel, a desired aesthetic, then you were accepted and praised for your ability to curate your internet presence. I didn’t think much of it, I didn’t really like the whole idea of it, and I forgot about it.

That is, until recently.

“Aesthetic” gained a different meaning for me a few months ago after listening to a ted talk by B.J. Miller. In it he talks about the process of dying and how we should be able to make our last days on earth be ones full of dignity and comfort. (You should watch it; his story alone is worth your time.) Miller mentions “anesthetic,” a word that is common in the medical world. When you’re given anesthetic it is meant to make you numb, it’s meant to make you not feel what’s supposed to come next, whether that be the pain from a healing broken bone or the scalpel ready to cut you open. Anesthetic is meant to separate you from reality and feeling. So, if we were to look at the simple spelling of these two words: aesthetic and anesthetic, it becomes clear that they are opposites. If “anesthetic” means to not feel, then “aesthetic” means to feel. Not just to look a certain way on the internet, but to have a certain smell and touch and sound and taste. To flood your senses with life, to use them for what they were made for.

Merriam-Webster defines aesthetic as: “appreciative of what is pleasurable to the senses.”

“Pleasurable to the senses,” I like it. Miller describes dying when he speaks of aesthetic. How when we get old or ill we shouldn’t be left in a cold dark hospital bed or nursing home. We should be with our families – warm, comfortable, and together. So if we should be able to create an atmosphere that makes dying easier for those when the end is near, why can’t we apply this to our everyday lives right this very moment? Why can’t we live with a certain aesthetic that is pleasurable to our senses right now? After all, we were given these five senses, shouldn’t they be used to their greatest potential?

I think we should fill our lives with things that are aesthetically pleasing. We should read books that feel good in our hands and smell old and wise. We should drink drinks that taste fruity and bitter and funny, cold and hot, bubbly and flat. We should pick flowers that smell like honey. And we should make campfires for the smell, for the cracks and pops, and for the soft orange light.

These everyday experiences that happen already – why not make them entertain all five of our senses?

But then this whole idea falls short when you venture beyond things of the physical world. It falls short when you realize that none of it really matters because you can’t take your favorite book with you beyond the grave. It falls short when material things fail to make your life better. So then how do we please more than just our senses? How do we please more that just our physical lives? I’m not entirely sure but I think I have an idea. Maybe instead of aesthetically pleasing things, why don’t we fill our lives with aesthetically pleasing experiences. Experiences that when we think back on them years down the road we remember the way the campfire smelled but more importantly who was sitting around it with us. We remember the stories those books whispered to us but more importantly how they shaped the way we thought about things and how we lived our lives differently because of them. We remember the warmth and taste of our favorite cup of coffee but more importantly the conversations had over that cup, the friendships strengthened. We remember the cold night sky bursting with confident stars shining through our unpolluted atmosphere, but more importantly the sense of wonder and awe at the shear size of the universe, our place in it, and seeing God.

You may think this is getting crazy but hear me out. Our time on this pale blue dot we call home is infinitesimally small. That idea to some can be paralyzing, and to some can be liberating. And when we get to the end of our little blip here, what are we going to have left? Things? No. Your prized nalgene bottle with stickers from all the places you’ve gone to? Unfortunately not. A warm, delicious pizza? Maybe, if your family hooks it up.

Jedidiah Jenkins, one of my favorite Instagram users and writers, put it rather poignantly in this video a friend of his made on Jed’s little bike ride from Oregon to Patagonia (a whole other story in itself) – He said:

I want to be aware of every day I’m alive, and I want to make it to 85 and be exhausted because I have been alive and awake every single day.

I want to fill my life with experiences that aesthetically please my soul, not just my senses. I want to suck dry the marrow of those memories and hold on to them until I’m on my death bed. Because once I’m there those memories will be all I take with me. They’re weightless, so I’m going to try to collect as many as I can. You should too.

A few days ago I was flipping through this book of poetry I got recently written by Rumi. Rumi was a 13th century Persian Sufi mystic. He has extensive collections of poems on every topic you can think of. In Mary Oliver’s newest book she decided to quote this line from Rumi, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” I had to check him out. As I was reading a few poems I stumbled across a good one, it goes like this:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

I had to read it three more times. It stood out to me, it slapped me in the face. The words popped form the page, I felt like he was right there talking to me. It’s amazing that something written hundreds of years ago still has potency and relevance today.

This was a few days ago, and ever since I haven’t been able to shake it from my mind.

We often try to shake the feelings and emotions of uneasiness, sadness, discomfort, anger, and shame. They don’t make us feel good in the moment. They make us feel alone, small, and fragile. Nobody wants that.

As of my writing this I’ve been in the UK for two weeks. And every morning there are new arrivals at my door. Some joy, some sorrow, some homesickness, some delight. At first I wanted the keep my door shut, to lock out the guests waiting outside. But I eventually let them in and entertained them.

I don’t exactly remember when I decided this, or if it was even a conscious decision that I made at a specific point in time. I think it was more of a realization that I slowly came to. I realized that I wanted to experience everything it meant to be human on this earth living and breathing, to welcome everything that comes my way, whether that be utter heartbreak or complete and unconfined joy – I didn’t want to block anything out. After all, if you block things out then you’re not getting the whole experience. And if you’re not getting the whole experience then what’s the point of being here at all. It’s like seeing a 3D movie without wearing the glasses. This choice I made a few years ago eventually led me to the opportunity to study abroad. So many people that I’ve talked to either believe it was the best decision they made in their college years or it was the thing they regretted most not doing. Nobody that I’ve spoken to has said anything that contradicts this. With those conversations as a reference, there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity for an experience like that. So now here I am, in a little town called Hatfield, 5400 miles away from home, away from good Mexican food.

I don’t regret it. There were times when I was uneasy and doubting if I really wanted to do it. Violence in the media centered around Europe, the fact that I’ve never traveled by myself let alone left the United States solo, leaving behind friends and loved ones for 5 months, leaving sunny southern California – it would have been so much easier to just stay. In those moments when I was truly questioning whether or not I really wanted to do it, it was hard to find the courage to say yes. But I waited it out, entertained both options, invited all the possibilities into my head, and said yes.

Now, when I hear the guests outside my door every morning, I take Rumi’s advice and welcome them in with a laugh. They wanted to see me, they came all this way to sit down and chat, I can’t turn them away. My girlfriend and I always exchange quotes and sayings that we like or find interesting. One of my favorites is from the movie Her and it goes like this: “We’re only here briefly, and while I’m here I want to allow myself joy.” ‘Allow’ not ‘create’ or ‘select’ or ‘pick only this one emotion or this one experience and not the others too’ but ‘allow.’ So when you open your door to allow joy in, let all the other guests in too, blast Adele’s album, make french fries and tacos, have a party, and watch a 3D movie.

“FWAAAP!” Thunder and lighting in the distance.

I can still feel the first drops of water on my face as we reached the bottom of the canyon. A storm was rolling in, or was it rolling out? There was no way to know for sure. But we weren’t turning around. We had walked to the bottom of the canyon; surrounded by Hoodoos, my family, and fellow adventures to whom we never said a word, we still had a hike to finish. When did a good story ever come from someone turning back the way they came at the first possibility of rough roads ahead? Yeah, I can’t think of one either.

We descended deeper, with each step we took it was as if we were taking steps back in time.

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“This places feels so ancient,” I exclaimed to my family, the sense of awe stuck to my words as they hung in the humid air.

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“It feels prehistoric,” Dad replied, snapping us all out of the trance the landscape was putting us in and we marched on.

“That’s the word, ‘prehistoric.'”

A deep rumbling started off in the distance and grew ever louder until it was right over our heads, we were in the thick of it. The fear, like the thunder, was rolling in as well. We stopped for a water break, one of many more to come. Apparently descending six hundred feet and climbing back out six hundred feet isn’t easy eight thousand feet above sea level. We were soon to find out that this was in fact true. After our water break we continued on. The landscape was little different now. No longer surrounded by the deep orange canyons, we came to an opening surrounded by trees and relatively flat ground. The silence was alive. We looked around at all the trees. They were so hardy, able to find life in what seemed to be a hostile environment. Some of them were dead, burned, shocked, probably by the same lightning that was mocking us overhead. A subtle hint for what was to come? Probably. But we kept on.

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With Dad and Meghan up ahead of us, they stopped to drink some water and take shelter under a tree from the ever worsening weather conditions. A much needed break. We were all perhaps a little razzled, but none of us decided to show it. We were now at the point where we would have to start our climb back to the rim of the canyon where we started the hike. Sprinkles were coming and going in waves but it seemed like the thunder was steady.

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“Let’s take a right at this fork, its 0.1 miles shorter so it’ll get us out of this weather quicker.” My dad did not hesitate to agree.

Back into the slot canyons, and back next to the familiar hoodoos. The mud was thickening on our shoes. The stark contrast of the bright orange mud against my monochrome shoes gave me a butterfly of delight. But I decided to keep my head up, there were many more things to see up there. We slowly made our ascent, the altitude making itself very known.

We came across a canyon with two natural stone bridges. Formed by water thousand of years ago, these bridges stood as monuments to the sheer power of water over time. When comparing the two, it seems as if rock is more powerful than water, after all one is a solid and one is a liquid. But give water time, and rock might as well be butter under a hot knife.

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We took refuge under a rock ledge from the rain once again. We could now see a winding path up to what looked like a view point. Time to conquer it. What would have taken five minutes to walk down in dry conditions took us no shorter than three times that in the mud that was now apparently a trail. But we made it to the viewpoint. Thor’s Hammer, as it’s called, welcomed us. A Hoodoo of astonishing size pointed us the way out. As we stopped to admire this creation of time, the rain starts hurting more than usual.

“What the hail?!” Meghan called out jokingly.

“I can’t believe it!” Mom exclaimed.

There we were in the beauty of Bryce Canyon: wet from rain, tried from exertion, and content from our achievements – getting hailed on. The adrenaline rush that followed gave us all enough energy to make it to the top after scraping the mud off the bottom of our shoes. Again a butterfly of joy from the difference in color.

Back in the presence of people, our mini vacation within a vacation was over. We didn’t know how long we were gone. We examined the clouds that made fun of us in the canyon and saw that they were in fact moving away from us. Funny how the brain seems to think otherwise when surrounded in the unknown.

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Back at the car and sitting in the dry warmth, I longed for what I had just experienced. Something was alive in that canyon, maybe it was just me, or maybe it was the trees, the water, the sand, the dirt, the thunder, the Hoodoos, my family, the lightning. We all knew it but we didn’t know how to describe it. Something wanted us back there, back to that state of mind, that state of being. Wet, cold, tired, and longing for more adventure, we were happy.

It was just an idea. And what better place to get an idea than TV. Sitting on our couch doing nothing short of wasting away, Meghan noticed a commercial we hadn’t seen before.

“Hey Brendan, this looks cool. Let’s go.”

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And that’s when the idea was planted to pack up the truck and head to Utah. Zion National Park to be more specific. Recounting these first ideas to go to Zion has me feeling the same way I did months and weeks before our trip: excited.

Before long we had itinerary set up and we were packing up the truck. Everything was ready to go. A few months ago I was sitting on the couch knowing little of what was to come, but someway, somehow, a single idea has led me to be standing in front of our truck at 4 am way too tired but ready. Ready to head through the vast desert on a little road that somehow leads to one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

“Were really doing this.” Meghan said to me.

“I know, I can’t believe it.”

“Let’s go.”

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And we went. It was the first trip my sister and I would take on our own purely for the sake of enjoying the exploration of new places. It was the first time we realized that we could go anywhere our truck could drive us. In a way we were like the pioneers that travelled west, except our carriage was a little nicer. We were going somewhere we had never went before, and that feeling, that feeling of unknown, nervous excitement, was quite frankly intoxicating.