Plattsburgh State sophomore expeditionary studies major Mike Herring finds beauty in learning about indigenous cultures. His open-minded attitude inspired him to step out of his comfort zone and appreciate nature.
As a teenager, Herring searched for a major that would complement his love for the outdoors. However, in high school, Herring’s teachers often emphasized the importance of finding monetary success rather than pursuing one’s passion.
“The teachers created this one definition of success where you had to be this professional in a suit and tie working inside,” Herring said. “You weren’t successful unless you had a six-figure job.”
Herring was determined to find success his own way.
One of his friends who majored in expeditionary studies at PSUC told Herring about the program, and it instantly struck a chord.
Herring declared his major in expeditionary studies with a minor in photography. He participated in the major’s immersion program, which consisted of travelling through the Adirondacks and parts of Maine to gain a better understanding of the environment.
“The more you travel, the more you step outside of your comfort zone and the more you can start to gain your own opinions,” Herring said.
Within the last few years, he’s traveled to several countries including Cambodia, Peru, Brazil and Vietnam.
Over winter break, Herring visited Colombia and spent two weeks rock climbing in a town nearby Bogota, the country’s capital. During his trip, one of Herring’s friends reached out to him asking Herring to be their photographer for an expedition in the Amazon rainforest.
“The expedition consisted of studying this tribe that lived in the Amazon called the Matis,” Herring said. “The goal was to capture their practices, the tools they used and the rituals they have because not much is known about this tribe.”
When he arrived to Brazil, Herring took a nine hour boat ride to the Vale do Javari territory near the country’s border.
“There’s this indigenous reserve that’s highly protected,” Herring said. “It’s about the size of Maine and has the largest concentration of uncontacted tribes on the planet. It’s very much illegal to enter this reserve because you’re not trying to disturb the uncontacted people.”
However, the Matis people agreed to travel to the border and interact with Herring.
Herring started to learn about the tribe’s nomadic practices and tool-making skills. He was specifically interested in learning about the curare vine, a South American plant extract the Matis used to create poison darts.
Herring also participated in various Matis rituals, such as taking vision-enhancing eye drops that the Matis people used to hunt monkeys.
“You’re instructed to sit on the ground, rub your knees and call out to the jungle spirits to give us their agile abilities and strength,” He said. “The first minute, the drops kind of blind you and it’s very painful, but after 60 seconds you can open your eyes and everything has that nice, vivid and saturated glow. You have this sense of euphoria and energy come over you.”
Another ritual used to strengthen and instill bravery into the Matis people consisted of older tribe members dressing up as ancestral jungle spirits and whipping Herring with canes made out of palm leaf stems.
Herring trusted the Matis people throughout this process and allowed them to teach him their way of living.
“This tribe has been living in this land for thousands of years, so anything they recommend to us, I had full faith in,” Herring said. “I knew everything they did was going to be relatively safe.”
To Herring, visiting the Matis tribe was the richest cultural experience he’s ever had. It made him realize how disconnected modern societies are from nature.
“We don’t see how closely related we are to the environment and how truly dependent we are of it,” Herring said. “Here I am living with the Matis people who aren’t wearing clothes, have never been in a grocery store in their life, and they’re thriving.”
His favorite memory from the trip was the time when he received a gift from a mother in the tribe. He recalled giving a girl his tie-dye headband. The giggling child ran to her mother and showed off her new gift. At first, the mother didn’t seem amused.
“The mom walked away, and she goes back to the side of hill,” Herring said. “Then she came back with a ceramic bowl and a mug and she said ‘papi,’ which is Matis for mother.”
Herring returned home and shared the gift with his mother when he returned home. He felt moved by the gift exchange and the trust he built with the Matis people.
“Some people have asked me ‘when you went over there what did you try to teach them?’ as if I was doing some community service thing to help these poor people in the jungle,” Herring said. “It’s not that at all, it was definitely what I was able to learn from them.”
Danielle Quinn, PSUC expeditionary studies major and Herring’s close friend described Herring as an upbeat and selfless travelling partner.
“He’s always putting others before himself,” Quinn said. “Going to Cambodia was my first expedition out of the country, and Mike really went out of his way to ensure I was enjoying myself. I’ve traveled across the country to various states a few times with Mike since.”
Associate Professor of Art Sue Lezon met Herring when he took her intermediate photography class last fall. She described Herring as an honest and ethical person with an admirable work ethic.
“He cares deeply about a lot of people,” Lezon said. “He has a great sense of humor and really listens to his colleagues and peers. I have a high level of respect for him.”
Herring aspires to find a job that focuses on international travel and indigenous culture. He attributes his success to being open-minded, exploring different cultures and meeting new people.
“When we put ourselves in this new culture, at first, you feel uncomfortable,” Herring said. “But I strive for putting myself in uncomfortable moments because that’s when you learn the most.”
Email Jasely Molina at firstname.lastname@example.org