Zach Brown grew up surrounded by the wilderness of Southeast Alaska. With parents in the National Park Service, Zach had ample opportunity to explore the mountains and fjords of this region, experiences that gave him a lasting love of the natural world.
His schooling took him from Alaska to Standford for his PhD, and onto the Arctic and Antarctic. Completing his studies in the spring of 2014, Zach set off on a 111-day/2,300-mile solo trek from Stanford to his home in Alaska, on foot and by kayak to raise money for his dream--a field school and non-profit organization based in the Alaskan wilderness. (Spoiler: he did it!) Now living in his hometown of Gustavus, he is working as executive director of the Inian Islands Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to education, research, and environmental leadership in Southeast Alaska.
Zach is one of the most driven people I've ever met, and I applaud him for his work in environmental education.
1. Starting big: You've created one-of-a-kind institute in the Alaskan wilderness—no small feat! What drives you?
During my graduate studies in the Arctic and Antarctic seas, I came face-to-face with the dramatic reality of climate change. I also came face-to-face with a society almost wholly disconnected from the natural world. I came to learn that these two realities were linked.
In a place like Inian Islands Institute, an incredibly remote, off-grid homestead on an island at the wildest edge of the continent, I believe people can connect deeply with the natural world – through adventure, science, and subsistence. By exploring the wilds, observing them scientifically, and living off the land, we come to realize that we are intimately linked with the natural world. Living locally reduces our carbon footprint, but more importantly, falling in love with the natural world inspires our young environmental leaders to fight for conservation and climate justice. They say you only protect what you love, and you only love what you understand. We seek to give students both knowledge of the natural world, and the passion to protect it.
2. Say that I'm interested in leaving my south Philly row home and moving to a remote homestead in Alaska, what are your three best pieces of advice?
First, leave behind all your cotton clothing. Hypothermia is a big concern up here – the laconic saying is “cotton kills.” Oh, and get yourself a pair of Xtratuf boots, preferably the old Made in USA ones if you can find em.
Second, don’t be afraid to try new things, don’t be afraid to fail. In the modern world, people work for money, then use money to buy all their services – food, water, electrical power, home building, and everything else. Homesteading cuts out the middle man: you do those things yourself, rather than paying other people to do them. This means you don’t need much money, but you also have a steep learning curve. A homesteader friend of mine says “when we pay people to fix it for us, we pay to be dumber.” Why not learn to do those things ourselves? Another friend calls supermarkets “amnesia factories.” Why not learn to grow our own food, reclaiming those skills and memories? But you’ll never figure those things out without some failure.
Third, have fun. Life is too short to spend all our time sitting at desks and cursing the traffic. I believe there’s a better way out there. And you don’t have to move all the way to bush Alaska to find it.
3. What would you consider your biggest accomplishment? Biggest failure? From both experiences, what did you learn?
Biggest accomplishment, hiking and kayaking 2,300 miles solo up the Pacific Northwest coast, from Stanford University, California to Inian Islands, Alaska, in 111 days. From this, I learned that happiness is other people.
Biggest failure, letting my relationships with friends and family stagnate (and in some cases end) while I worked so hard and traveled the country to raise funds for Inian Islands Institute. From this, I learned that familial support is just as important as financial support – I truly need both in my life.
4. What advice do you have for young people interested in environmental education? What common advice should they ignore?
Fall in love with the world. There’s so much beauty still here, but our senses have been numbed to it, and our spirits have been estranged from it. Having profound experiences in the more-than-human world is incredibly curative for our bodies and our minds. Most importantly, it fuels our environmental passions, to fight for what we love.
Those of us who grow up in families, communities, and cultures that care about the health of the planet’s living systems face deep, deep challenges that threaten to crush our spirits. As we watch environmental tolls mount, it’s tempting to say that humans are a cancer on the world, and many people do. That’s the advice I’d tell you to ignore.
People are beautiful. We have beautiful bodies, beautiful minds, beautiful creativity. But we happen to live in a culture and a moment in history when our relationship with the natural world has been broken, and our system celebrates corporate profits over human and environmental well-being. You caring students out there – you are not the enemy. You are beautiful. The enemy is a system that allows oil companies to reap billions of dollars in profit while they destroy our climate and sow confusion and denial over the issue, while disadvantaged communities live in poverty and face climate change impacts. Fight against that system. Do not berate yourself: believe in your own beauty, and that of the world.
5. What can you not travel without?
The old green Kelty backpack I inherited from my mom. Oh yeah, and earplugs. Gotta get good sleep wherever you end up!