“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” -Henry David Thoreau
This sentence, first published in Walden; Or Life in the Woods in 1854, has since become profoundly famous. Thoreau’s experiment in simple living on the shores of Walden Pond has earned him a place in the American philosophical and literary canons, and many accolades as an early figure in the environmentalist movement. These words also served as the inspiration for our first lab day of Semester 48, offering up a guiding question for an afternoon of interdisciplinary learning and intellectual inquiry. Lab days at OA provide an opportunity for teachers to collaborate and coordinate to create lessons that would otherwise overflow the boundaries prescribed by their individual disciplines. It allows us to put together creative lesson plans that incorporate ideas and themes from across the range of courses taught at OA in order to engage the students in synthetic and holistic ways of thinking.
On this past Friday, the students headed out into the woods to reflect on the natural space that surrounds our campus through the lenses of science and philosophy, materiality and spirituality. The afternoon began with a discussion on the distinctions between wilderness, nature, and civilization. How do we draw these lines? Are they as clear and precise as we are often inclined to think? This inquiry then led into a lesson on biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson’s theory of biophilia, and the numerous ways in which humans relate or affiliate to the natural world. While Katie worked on giving the students tools to understand the ways in which they interact with the biosphere — morally, symbolically, aesthetically, scientifically etc… — myself, Ted, and the residents scampered deeper into the woods. Thirty minutes later, the students rejoined us, but instead of finding their teachers, they found Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, and Rebecca Solnit, waiting to talk to them.
Impersonating some of our favorite intellectuals from the last two centuries was great fun, and gave the students the opportunity to ask us directly about the material they had been thinking about in class. During the week leading up to this lab day, all of the OA students had read essays and excerpts from each of these thinkers, encountering their ideas and philosophies through the medium of the written word. To suddenly be able to ask these individuals direct questions presented an odd and unusual opportunity for our students, and created an interesting challenge for the faculty as educators. How can we confidently or responsibly answer questions as though we were in fact someone else? How are we to embody or enact the beliefs of others who we ourselves have only learned about by way of the written word? We did our best to be faithful to these thinkers and to engage in a productive dialogue that provoked some critical thinking in our students.
The students then had two hours to sit and reflect on their own experiences. It was a beautiful afternoon in Pisgah Forest last Friday, and we spread the students out around the woods near our campus to sit and enjoy the bright blue sky, the cold winter air, and the opportunity to consider why they found themselves here. One of our foundational principles at The Outdoor Academy is simple living. Just as Thoreau set out to build his cabin at Walden Pond in order to discover the essential facts of life, we ask our students to show up to our campus and live their lives for a few months without the distraction of cell phones and internet, to strip away the excess from their lives in order to more effectively find what is most necessary and vital to becoming who they already are. The experience of sitting by yourself in the forest and being brought into confrontation with your own feelings of boredom can act as a catalyst for all kinds of internal realizations and personal growth: the kind of learning that has nothing to do with classroom instruction.
As our lab day came to a close, the students were grateful to return to the warmth of the Sun Lodge and to take hot showers in their dorms, but also seemed to have enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on themselves and their surroundings, their past and their present. It is still early in Semester 48, but already the eagerness to learn and to grow as a community and as individuals that these young students feel is becoming evident, and can be felt atmospherically amongst the faculty. Our next lab day will take place February 8. I am eager to see the students dive into it with the same verve that I saw last Friday.
-Nolan Bishop, OA English Teacher and Wilderness Educator