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January 2018

~ Connecting to Nature with Usal Project

Usal Project, currently based in L.A., is connecting people to nature and to community through guided outdoor experiences and sustainable hobby classes. I spoke to the founder, Michael Washington, about his vision for Usal, nourishing your spirit with a shared meal, and the importance of being a novice.

Leina: What’s your background?

Michael Washington: I’m from Texas — I grew up in San Antonio, TX; born in Houston TX and I currently live in L.A.. I’ve been in L.A. for 10 years. I’m 32 and went to college at University of Colorado. I continued my way further west as I got older and moved to L.A. after college specifically to work in the music industry where I worked for the past 10 years, only up until a couple months ago where I left every position I had in the music industry to pursue Usal exclusively, which started officially at the end of April. We’re only about two and half months into getting things going.

L: How has those first two months been?

M: Yeah, I mean I spent a good better part of the year preparing to launch, so it wasn’t something that happened overnight. I definitely have been thinking and wanting to do Usal and a mission similar to Usal for a long time. It kind of just took me a while to understand a little about how and where I can serve and what the best intentions were. My goal was ultimately helping people get into nature and to use nature as a way to find fulfillment and a breath of fresh air between a very busy work life.

L: Yeah I love that cause I feel like the outdoor industry there’s a lot of barriers into entering whether it’s just having the knowledge, the gear or the friends even to go out and enjoy nature together so Usal seems to be that bridge to help people connect. What is L.A.’s connection to nature?

M: It’s a perfect kind of incubation and starting ground for what I’m doing because it is a city where there’s a different type of landscape that we’re adjacent to depending on what direction you go. But what makes L.A. so interesting to me is the longer I’ve lived here, it’s taken me a long time to realize and understand how much is at our fingertips just through my own exploration — but it’s not something you immediately think of when I moved here and it’s something people don’t realize that they have. However, if you go west you’re at the most beautiful beach and if you go east you are in the desert, but even before that you’re at the mountains with the snow caps on them and you can go snowboarding two hours away from L.A., but then if you even go further east then you in one of the most beautiful deserts landscapes there is in Death valley and joshua tree, obviously, and you go north and you’re at Sequoia National Forest and then things like Big Sur and the list goes on and on.

It’s surrounded by nature and I think that it’s a city that doesn’t have an outdoor history or an outdoor cultural viewpoint. That is what makes it so interesting to me to work and start this here because that is the kind of city we’re trying to infiltrate, you know, when we do grow from L.A. and grow into cities that also have that similar identity where it’s not necessarily well known that they have so much close to them.

I think NYC is definitely our next venture that’s a similar place. However, it’s there, it’s about uncovering the people who are actively pursuing that work and live in the city, but they also built a way of inviting nature into their lives in a way that brings fulfillment and joy and it’s the kind of thing where through example, other people feel like “oh, I can do this as well.”

L: What’s the vision for Usal?

M: We are a project that is centered around hand selected guides and professionals. We work with them because we find that they have similar ideals — who offer workshops, classes, trips. We do that in L.A. currently, but we want to grow and take this same idea of being very eclectic and selective in the types of classes, people, and guides we work with and take that to other cities that we think would benefit from having this kind of thing.

Because to me, what I’m preaching is that you don’t have to be a full on, 100% outdoors person to enjoy nature. You can live in a city, work a nine to five and you can still find opportunities to bring this into your life. Whether that’s with sustainable hobbies, classes, workshops you can do in the city or these trips that get you out of the city that are ways to escape. I think you can find excitement in both experiences. It doesn’t always have to be this huge destinational outdoor experience to get the feeling. Also, kind of trying to preach that you can do all the things you want — here, where you are — feeling grounded, not needing to fly halfway across the world to interact with nature. Reclaiming what we have in our backyard is something we’re trying to teach people as well.

A lot of experiential trip projects are very much based on the idea of trying to get people to, like, cross the world and in different countries. One, they’re extremely pricey and I think only represent a certain amount of people that can actually pay for those kinds of things. Two, keeping nature in the form of vacation is not the message. We’re trying to make it so people realize that nature doesn’t only need to be experienced on vacation, once or twice a year, you can find ways to do that in your everyday lives. We’re trying to preach that synchronicity between just living life and having nature work its way in[to your life] in some kind of a natural way.

L: How do you incorporate nature or the natural environment in your life?

M: I think it’s just all around us. And taking these classes are even helping me. I mean, I preach myself as a novice still, in terms of my learning and I’m in no way a savant. I very much take pride in feeling confident in being a novice. That’s where you are the most curious, most excited. You’re the most inventive in how you kind of want to bring that into your life. So, I try to tell people who feel kind of contrived, sometimes, about being new to a hobby or an outdoor experience or whatever it is — that “no, everyone wishes they were you and doing this for the first time. They have been doing it their whole lives and you’re coming at it from these fresh perspectives and just be very attentive to learning and hearing from people who have done it for a long time.” And that’s the kind of where we come in. Like here’s an opportunity to learn from somebody.

Obviously through these trips I’m doing them all the time but, again, the big thing we do is reclaiming where you are, like through neighborhood foraging hikes to reconnect with their environment. I have a new excitement and energy around my daily life because I’m seeing things and thinking about things in a way I didn’t before. And that is purely through going through these courses and learning.

L: Yeah it’s kind of like sparking the innate desire to be outside. I really feel like that is in everyone but it’s difficult to unlock that. Are there any events that you hosted or are coming up that you are particularly excited about?

M: We’re at the point where we’re doing three a week, so our calendar is very full. The ones that I get excited about are the ones that we haven’t done yet. This month we have two: intro to freediving and fish species identification course. So we’re gonna take people out and it basically sets people up if they wanna spearfish. But essentially it’s just freediving, getting comfortable going deep, and learning about different fish species we have off the coast of California and understanding which ones are native or invasive. Spearfishing is about being in tune with what fish you can and can’t catch. A lot of people don’t realize there’s a lot of ways to interact with the coastline. The ocean is just amazing. There’s a lot to learn from it. We are still so far away from knowing where we live. L.A. is a coastal city and it is crazy how little we work in our lives.

We’re doing a farm trip, which we’re partnering with Windrose farm up in San Luis Obispo. We will be camping on their property, waking up on Saturday, and basically doing volunteer work. It’s a chance for people to understand and learn what it feels like to work on a farm. They’ll get that opportunity to harvest and prune and weed and at the end of the day, they’ll be able to take their yield. We’re bringing in a chef, her name is Ariana Malone, and she’ll be creating a beautiful meal using the yield that people have harvested that day, as well as a lot of the livestock for the protein of the meal from the farm so that people feel what it’s like to work on a farm and eat from that farm. The eggs, the milk, the protein, the produce — and sit around in the field where this was all happening to share a meal with your friends and then go sleep and camp right there in the field.

To me, a lot of the stuff we do it’s all metaphorical and all of this together creates this new experience. When you bring this whole experience together, that is where you start to get these moments that are truly unique and this is what people learn the most from. You can’t walk away from something like this and not feel inspired to conserve your food, learn a little bit more about where you food comes from, to be less wasteful. People tend to romanticize working on a farm, but there’s nothing romantic about it, it’s extremely hard. It is a thankless industry. A lot of times farms are struggling to stay afloat. They don’t make that much money — they do it because they love it. And so people should realize how hard it is to actually get the food that they order to their table. And spearfishing is the most one-to-one humane way to catch fish and hunt fish and it’s so hard to do. But the experience, the process, of finally catching a fish makes it very worthwhile and you savor it and you feel the religious kind of feeling that you get when you take it. And this experience grows within you as you bring yourself to other scenarios and you just become a way more in tune human when you’ve done these types of things before because you’re not just floating around — oblivious to how things actually work its way onto your plate when you order a meal. It’s great how instant all of our food comes to us, but it’s crazy how easy it is to forget the processes that go on and we tend to be so disillusioned from it that it doesn’t mean anything to us.

But food can really be a great way to learn about yourself, about your community. Food is community. Communities were built on being able to provide food for each other, to come together around a table and have a meal every night. People spent their entire days working to bring food. It’s been cool for me to be able to find myself through this project and we’re getting back to the primal instincts of what community building was and always will be. And taking that and learning from that and see what other ways communities can stem and grow from.

I think a lot of people don’t really understand what it means to be a part of a community. So I’m really interested in what it takes to start a community and asking questions about what it takes to build a community. I’m trying to get people back into that mindset of being community -oriented. We need to be reminded that the simplest things — like sharing a cooked meal with friends — can be community.

L: Yeah I’ve definitely experienced that before where I feel like a shared meal is so much more nourishing to my body and my spirit than compared to eating alone. That sense of community that you build around the table brings such a visceral feeling of being whole and connected with others.

M: Yeah.

L: Have you heard feedback from people who’ve taken your classes and how it impacted them?

M: Yeah, it’s only been positive. Which is really awesome. I mean it’s not like that’s what I expected, but it’s hard to be at these events and not feel good. So anyone who either really got into it or not can’t step away feeling like it wasn’t at least something. Thankfully these classes are inherently really fulfilling, but our community is growing because a lot of the people that come are just coming to every event. They’re like “ok I just did ceramics, what’s next week?” They’re curious.

We’re at a certain age, post college, where we’re not asked to be curious anymore. So if we don’t ask that of ourselves, then we stop being curious. We have to always remember that it’s our job to remain curious, that’s how we grow as people. When you’re in a classroom or you’re doing curriculum, you’re always curious because that’s your job to be curious, to do research, to study. But once that’s no longer asked of you, a lot of people stop and that’s where they start to stand still and be like, “well I learned everything I learned up to this point and I’ve learned enough. I’m good.” To me, that’s where a lot of people start to experience depression or anxiety, a lost sense of self, and question where they stand in the world. That comes from not allowing yourself to try new things and feeling like you can’t do this stuff anymore, “oh, I’m too old.” So a big thing we preach is that everyone should remain curious their entire life and that is what is going to keep your spirit, your lust for life, your zest through old age. It’s good to put yourself out there and try new things, which people are experiencing through Usal. A lot of the stuff we offer is all over the place. To me, it makes perfect sense. But on paper, it can look [confusing]. Like, we’re doing woodworking, climbing this insane snow capped peak, and you’re doing trail running. Where does this all make sense? What is your community about?

But, for me when I was doing this by myself, my friend who is a ceramist, spoke the same language about life and ideals and what he gets out of it the same way as my friend who’s a crazy backpacker. Like they don’t realize it, but they both held a certain language for how they described what they find important in life. Usually, I find that a lot of people just want to get to “be.” Like get me through this as quickly as possible, the process doesn’t matter. I just want quick, quick, quick. But a lot of people who do these kinds of things, they’re more about the process “to be.” Like we’re growing this garden that we’re gonna eventually eat, climbing to the top of this mountain, and getting there. The “get there” is what we all love. That is why we do it. That’s where we find fulfillment, happiness that never ends. If you’re just looking “to be” you’ll never be satisfied. If you’re just looking at the finish line as the source for happiness, then you’ll never be satisfied. But everyone just enjoys the process of things. That to me, is how people who enjoy an outdoor activity or sustainable hobby are connected. It just felt right. These are the same people, same morals. It’s not about these crazy, intense outdoor trips. You can get the same thing out of a hike as growing a garden.