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  • Writer's pictureRoberta Rathert


I woke early Sunday last week. My tent side that faced the stump field lake was bright from morning sun on the rise. Hyphen shapes silhouetted over the entire surface as if a person sprinkled them and worked painstakingly to be certain they were widespread. The shapes were small the size of quarter inch nyjer seed. I squinted at the other three sides and the top of my tent, nothing the same on these. When I unzipped my tent flaps, the air was filled with the shapes but flying in front of my camp and over the early morning stillwater. It was so hot already but even now the shapes looked like snow. Walking forward into it, I realized it wasn’t just to the front but all across my portion of this sandy island. When I turned back to see them landed on the nylon of my tent, the ones that had settled there were no longer alive. They looked like lint from a new cotton blanket sloughing over a couch. Some people call these white flies, others say woolly aphids. But whatever, every one of the thousands of them did the identical thing. Hatched, flew, then started dying all since last night’s sunset. Some likely laid eggs, maybe. But whatever details, the flies did it together. One was not discernible from another. It was programmed into them a long time ago and seemed they've done it since. Creatures do this thing intrinsically. Innate is another way to put it, built right in from the start.

I was out paddling in a lagoon during early summer and went along banks and concrete abutments with riprap to pick off unoccupied dragonfly nymph shells. One was left gently rocking in my hand while the dragonfly itself had not yet emerged from its casing. It took an hour or more to make its way out. Then it leisurely unfolded its wings by trembling its insect blood through them. In the end, it flew from my palm as if it had already been taught to set sail. Always near water, dragonflies dart about eating tiny creatures. I have not seen a dragonfly eat but, besides its flight, eating is its main activity. It devours nuisance bugs like mosquitos and gnats, but also bees and beetles, moths, butterflies, and any flying insect that fits its mouth. We might say these things are innate in a dragonfly because it didn’t have to learn any of it. I have not witnessed an old dragonfly model flight and speed to a new one waiting in my hand. They just know it completely at once. Dragonflies reproduce always the same. The male finds a female, cleans out sperm left by another, hooks onto her, then flies a while to secure his genes take hold. He thinks this ensures his sperm is used before a rival, but it is well known the first sperm has long since been used. Even though all dragonfly males perform the cleaning-out ritual to think they are the one, it's just over before they begin. This complete behavior is programmed in, not ever learned. I love to observe and appreciate this, but it does not make sense in the end. Yet it is innate to the dragonfly.

What do humans do innately? Much more complex than bugs and lesser creatures, we still argue how humans learn. It may be a little this and a little that which makes us who we are or influences some ways we live out a day. People can learn by watching, listening, or copying. Yet there are some things we don’t need to be taught, like breathing, desiring food, digesting, startling, and desiring human association. Of course, we are influenced by many things but one of the most basic emotions with us at birth is the need for sensed belonging. This necessity to belong is about our emotional need to connect with our own species, although some of us connect better with our dogs or cats or a bird. This may be a result of a variant that is difficult and complicated to know. Humans are very complex over all other living beings.

No matter the level of intricacy and multi-faceted nature of humans, their country of origin, spoken language or dialect, texture or color of natural hair or skin, or favored foods to eat are non-issues when recognizing all humans thrive from mere acceptance and belonging. It is a critical need inside everyone in our human race to be understood and accepted by others of our human species. A dog can react to our need to cuddle, or a bird might like to sit on a shoulder and sing. But it never fills the space inside that linking human-to-human will bring. We long for it when we do not have it. We want to preserve it when we do have it. When we had it then lost it, we grieve and yearn for its return. Like air, it is a full necessity, yet we are frequently not cognizant of its importance which causes us to bicker and judge those different from ourselves.

I was fascinated to discover white flies surrounding my campsite and belongings. I wanted to know more about them. Insect hatches are remarkable, each day bringing an entirely new population. Typical hatches die in a few hours or a day. But no matter the intrigue, getting back home to our own species is essential to our continued existence. We must never withhold from another human the opportunity to experience belongingness if it is in our hands to offer it. It was on this day, six weeks and two days after beginning my paddling for hope, I packed my kayak and started upriver. I was sick and my family was coming for me.

We attempted a rendezvous at Jim Hollow, a place we agreed I could paddle by going upstream from the stump lake. It was early when I pushed my boat offshore with white flies coating its surface. The water was flat, and no breeze caused a current. I paddled an hour to reach the east side of the stumps but aimed northeast to make best use of crossing. No human in sight, not even through my spotting scope, but only large groups of pelicans gathered in shallows too early for flight. Feeling poorly, I went gently across the water, my paddle strokes softer than before. I was satisfied with a peaceful trip toward our meeting point. Using navigational coordinates and hope that we would meet at Jim Hollow, I glided along indifferently. I wondered if I would return here. I could not imagine it while feeling so unwell, but my heart was heavy still. I was so hot by now that my glasses steamed when I exhaled. I wondered what might have changed in me.

Two hours in, I was close to the coordinates and only saw vast lily fields and thick water plants extending from the banks. Even with a scope, it was not possible to see a break to the landing, so I sat still in a pool studying its edges. Suddenly I saw rustling from a dense brush less than a quarter mile east of me. I thought bear or deer and fawn maybe. Then I saw humans waving and jumping up. There was my family.

It was Monday when heatstroke/AKI was diagnosed by my provider and treatment was given. At home, I continue rest, hydration, good light food, more rest, and movies. I can do this, I thought but as I heal, I wonder, will I go back on the river? I heard from a friend who was paddling just below me on the Mississippi. He has gone home also, after heatstroke ended his journey. Temperatures downstream have risen to over 100 degrees, with 104 forecast this week coming. I asked the doctor when I could return but the answer, “not at all. A second heatstroke would not be tolerated by your body,” she said, “and you will not be so blessed.”

The paddling of Paddling for Hope has ended 650 miles and approximately 250,000 paddle strokes on the river. I have come home to the familiar, my family and community, where I feel my sense of belonging. It is this hope in Paddling for Hope that I want to continue.

The principle of belonging has two key characteristics: all humans need constant, positive, personal interactions with other humans, and we need to know that the bond is secure. If this mutual concern is the bedrock we nurture with only certain others, in our family but not in our neighborhood, in our workplace and not in our community, at our churches but not at our schools, in our friendships but not at our businesses, it is not fueling the growth and development that will help our city and all the people flourish. We each know how to protect and provide. These are functions in areas of our lives, with our children or friendships or marriages. It is my hope we use the skills and beliefs we already know to allow spreading toward others. Let it spread to those we do not know or recognize, toward community members who look different, choose different ways, maintain behaviors unfamiliar to us, while acknowledging the same human need to belong.

Paddling on the river for this hope was difficult for me many days. But it was my chosen action to recognize my La Crosse neighbors with a loving and open heart. Please continue with me to keep the initiative alive as we welcome all to belong right here where they live. It is a remarkable accomplishment for a city of citizens to achieve a strong group identity while maintaining individuality. I invite you to continue with us at Paddling for Hope as we spread this message across the city: unity and belonging. This is a challenge to open our hearts and embrace everyone’s needs to belong and make the great city of La Crosse their home.

I hope you accept my invitation to continue reading my blog posts as I reveal more of my river adventure, and my hopes and love for our blending community. A book is in the works and will be available in coming months as the hope in Paddling for Hope spreads among us and throughout our communities. I appreciate and value your continued involvement and support.

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