Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.
– Edward Abbey, American author and essayist
In the summer of 2014, Melody Shah, El Cerrito High School teacher and LUNAFEST East Bay Committee member, and her husband, Sati, spent two months hiking a 600-mile High loop in California’s High Sierra. They started south from Sonora on trails to Road’s End in King’s Canyon at the South Fork of the King’s River in the southern Sierra Nevada, and hiked cross-country on the Sierra High Route back to Twin Lakes in northern Yosemite. Their trip, specifically through the 195-mile Sierra High Route in King’s Canyon National Park, is the subject of their talk at the REI Berkeley store (1338 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94702, 510.527.4140) on Wednesday, March 18th, 7 to 8:30pm, and the REI San Francisco store (840 Brannan Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, 415.934.1938) on Wednesday, March 25th, 7 to 8:30pm. “I want to take our experiences and share them with a larger audience,” she said of her objective for the talks. With the Berkeley event sold out and on waitlist, and the San Francisco event almost sold out, Melody will definitely achieve her goal.
When the LUNAFEST East Bay committee convenes in the fall to begin preparations for our spring film festival “by, for, about women,” the 10 of us look forward to hearing about Melody’s spring break and summer backcountry explorations. When we meet in January, we get updates of winter holiday adventures. Just to give you an unfairly brief overview, in January 2013, Melody and Sati paraglided with friends in Yelapa, a small beach town in Cabo Corrientes, Jalisco, Mexico. In the summer later that same year, they lived in the Azores and paraglided off of volcanoes. She has also gone paragliding in Indonesia and British Columbia, and traversed the European Alps from west to east, which included flying, hiking, and backpacking across France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and Slovenia. On that latter paragliding trip, she launched off of flower-covered mountainsides and glided across valleys. “That perspective of these amazing landscapes is so freeing and other-worldly,” she told me. She’s canyoneered in California’s Sierra Nevada and throughout Southern Utah, including Zion National Park and Escalante National Monument, and toured the backcountry of Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains. And in 2005, she spent two months completing 700 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail through California’s high country.
I haven’t been camping in years and I confess I’m acrophobic, and that’s exactly why I am in awe of and inspired by, what I call, Melody’s acts of courage. Since 2004, she’s chronicled her adventures in her interweb, Range of Light!, which boasts some beautiful images of nature across the continents. When I marveled at how fearless she is, Melody interjected, saying, “I have a lot of fears, but in order to overcome them, I don’t deny fear.” When she first began preparing for her outdoor adventures, she admitted that she was “super terrified.” “I didn’t know I could do these things,” she confided. “But as I went through each adventure and gained strength, knowledge, and skills, my confidence grew. One of the most important goals of the experience for me is becoming more capable and then allowing fear to be a consideration and a way to analyze and strategically approach the risks. Fear keeps me smart and safe about the whole adventure.”
Roots: Love of the outdoors, love of design
Melody hails from Merrimac, MA, on the New Hampshire border. Her love of the outdoors can be traced to her mother, Joyce Audy Zarins, artist, sculptor, and children’s book author and illustrator. All of the family vacations taken when her mother was a single parent were outdoor trips, as were many of them after her mother remarried. Melody, her two siblings, her mother, and later, her stepfather camped, hiked, and canoed. “She wasn’t scared to take a bunch of us kids down a river for a few days,” Melody related, with a laugh.
She also inherited her mother’s artistic talents. Melody graduated from Syracuse University in 1995 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in art media, with a focus on 3D modeling and animation. That summer, she helped put together an exhibit for the annual SIGGRAPH conference on computer graphics and design in Los Angeles. She ended up landing a job in the Bay Area, and she’s remained a California resident ever since.
When Melody began working for advertising agencies, the first Internet boom was ramping up. “Young people were the ones who knew about the Internet, so it was a great time to come out of college and find a job easily,” she explained. In her first job, she designed websites for public and private organizations – including the White House – at a time when websites were just emerging. When her work shifted to online advertising, something she didn’t want to do, she went back to school. At San Francisco State University, she studied lightweight composite design specifically for backcountry snowboarding gear, with the intent on being an outdoor gear designer. With her degree in industrial design, she planned to marry her love of the outdoors with her career.
While in school, Melody taught college and adult classes at City College and CELLSpace (now Inner Mission), a community-based hub for artistic and cultural classes and events, both in San Francisco. She taught in the motion graphics department at Ex’pression College for Visual Arts in Emeryville. In 2007, she “answered the call” to teach at El Cerrito High School, and since then has been teaching digital art and design classes as the Lead Teacher of the Information Technology Academy (ITA) – one of the local beneficiaries of LUNAFEST’s fundraising efforts – and digital photography ROP classes and media classes within the Media Academy. “I love the idea of having a job where I can share the things that I’m passionate about with people and feel that I’m contributing to the community in a positive way,” Melody said.
Opening up opportunities and the world
Teaching high school students is “a totally different world” versus teaching college students and adults, but Melody pointed out that the goal remains the same: give students an environment to collaborate, solve problems, and create art and design through technology in a way that is meaningful to them. “In the academy setting, I can foster this community within the bigger school and give kids a place of their own, and empower them with skills that help build their confidence and help them shape their identity,” she said. When companies hire ITA students upon completion of their internships because of the skills that the students learned and brought to the table, she enthused, “It’s really powerful and impactful and validating. Those moments are great.” Melody hears often from ITA graduates who are majoring in art and design in universities and colleges or are now in the workforce, working for companies such as Pixar.
She illustrates visual design concepts in the classroom leveraging content from her travels. In doing so, she shares her love of the outdoors and her traveling adventures with her students. “It introduces an element of fun, but the kids also appreciate and respect me because they see that I have these skills outside of the classroom,” she explained.
Melody has also engaged her ITA students to participate as volunteers at LUNAFEST. She became involved with the film festival when the East Bay Committee invited her to join four years ago while she was teaching a video class at the school. “I feel lucky to be part of that group, being a part of something positive for the community,” she said, referring to the committee members and their work, as well as fundraising for the ITA and the Breast Cancer Fund. “It’s also important for students to be exposed to positive messages,” she added.
She likes that the films selected for LUNAFEST offer such diverse viewpoints in storytelling. “I have a love for the telling of a story; a lot of my work with students is helping them articulate and tell their stories,” she said. ITA students who volunteer at the VIP event and the film festival are not only exposed to the good work being done around breast cancer prevention but are introduced to the filmmaking world – using video as the medium to tell a story. The message she imparts to kids about the film festival: It’s possible to have your story shared and celebrated via a platform such as LUNAFEST and become something meaningful to other people. Her students watch the films in class and Melody admitted that many of the films are “outside of the students’ comfort zone,” but she likes challenging them to widen their world and be open to other messages and styles. “They have responded well,” she reported. “They like being surprised.”
Teaching, Melody acknowledges, is a “funny job.” “There are some things that are very pragmatic and very black and white that you try to give to your kids, but skills are only part of it,” she revealed. “I hope the kids start to think of life as an adventure. I hope they know that they are empowered to advocate for themselves and communicate with confidence about the things that they can do or that they know how to do. I hope that they foster curiosity about the world outside their comfort zone and learn to recognize that being curious is going to open up opportunities that would be missed otherwise.” When her students adopt her enthusiasm for and philosophy of life – and her graduates are proof of that certainty – her hopes will indeed have been realized. And their worlds will open up like leopard lilies along the Pacific Crest Trail high up in the Sierras.