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SEP. 26, 2018

The Antidote to Too Much Technology

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If you are a parent of a teenager you have probably spent a lot of time thinking, reading, and talking about the impact smartphones, the internet, and social media, may be having on your child.  There are thousands of articles, hundreds of books, and countless ongoing conversations about the amount of time a typical teenager spends on a screened device.  Many studies have been conducted and more are in process right now.  And yet, even with the plethora of written material that can be found on the subject, this is still a new concept in our culture. We have only scratched the surface in our understanding of the positive and negative effects of technology on individuals and on our population as a whole.  Many of the conclusions being drawn in the media and academic studies suggest that our digital developments are having more negative effects than positive.

Of course, the longitudinal studies on technological use are incomplete since this current teenage population, plus and minus five years, is the first generation to be raised on it. As Frances Jensen, chair of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, shares “What this generation is going through right now with technology is a giant experiment, and we don’t know what’s going to happen.”  According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 73% of teenagers, ages 13 to 17, have or have access to smartphones.   Studies suggest that smartphones are getting between adolescents and their enjoyment of and engagement in face-to-face interaction.  We’ve all witnessed teenagers sitting in small or large groups quietly focused on their personal screens.  And they see us, as adults, doing the same thing, perhaps with a little more moderation (but not always!). That’s the concerning news.

The good news is that, according to the Pew 2015 survey, more than half of teens worry that they spend too much time using their cell phones.  This is the world they are growing up in and they don’t know any different. Yet, this generation is recognizing the potential pitfalls of too much screen time.  This is where The Outdoor Academy comes in.

Back in 1994, The Outdoor Academy welcomed its first semester of tenth graders, just as computers with dial-up internet were becoming a standard feature in schools and in many homes.  As had been the tradition at Eagle’s Nest Camp, OA decided that internet connected computers, email, and phone lines were not going be a part of the students’ semester. While at OA, they would engage in an experience free from such distractions. For 4 months, students were to immerse themselves in the place they were in and the people they were with, to receive the unending opportunities to learn in the greatest context there is – the here and now.  Fast forward nearly 25 years, and being free from the distractions of modern society takes on a whole new level of importance for teenagers.

Having been at OA in the late 90’s and then returning in 2015, the decision made so long ago for OA to remain free from cell phones, internet, email, social media, gaming, etc. now seemed to me as cutting-edge.  As people across the US and the world grapple with “internet addiction,” one of the primary and most effective treatments is proving to be wilderness therapy.  The woods, the forest floor, the creek that ripples by, the sound of rustling leaves, the trail that invites conversation, the mountain vistas that invoke quiet contemplation – these things, these places, and these experiences are the panacea of the ages.

During the admissions interview with OA applicants, I ask the question, “How do you feel about stepping away from technology for four months?”  Many parents worry that this may be the one thing that will stop their teenager from wanting to attend OA.  Often, parents can’t imagine their child’s life without their cell phone in hand or their computer at their fingertips.  Well, the answer I hear from OA applicants nearly every time goes something like this: “I am really excited about that part.  I know I spend too much time on my phone and my computer, but I just can’t ignore it no matter how hard I try.  Being with people where no one has that around will be so nice.” Often, an applicant will recount stories of a short day hike they took with a friend or their family.  They will express how amazing it was to be with another person or a group where there were no phones and instead find themselves talking to the people around them. They will talk of the sounds of silence, of bird calls, and the sounds of the woods.  They will talk of how awesome it was just to focus on what they were doing at that moment.  The feelings they describe are those of a sense of place, a sense of awe, and a unique closeness to the people around them. This again is good news.

Our youth have a knowing inside them, a recognition, that there is an imbalance in the life consumed by their personal device, social media, texting, emails, and YouTube videos.  I am of the belief that as this generation ages into adulthood, they will find ways to regulate their personal technology use.  They will incorporate the strategies that they have found works for them and share these strategies with their children.  We owe it to them to share our ideas and experiences and to help them create this toolbox.

So long as the human species exists on this planet, the natural world in some way, shape, or form will continue to exist.  Our job as the adults, the ones who facilitate the day-to-day options and ways of living and being for our children, is to first and foremost take our children to the woods.  For it is there they will find their way. It is there where they will hear their own thoughts.  It is there where the miracles of life offer the lessons that can only be found in the natural world. As Jensen said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen” as a result of this technological experiment. But what we do know, and our youth are reminding us, is that there is no greater antidote for a distracted mind, a disconnected heart, or a soul longing for peace than to be in nature.  As Rachel Carson wrote, “Those who dwell in the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”

By Julie Holt, Admissions Director

FEB. 12, 2018

There’s Always Something Stirring Around Here

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Although it is seemingly quiet these days in the woods around campus and we often think of winter as a dead time, the natural world in our southern mountains never really goes quiet. Few mammals actually hibernate here, really just some bats, since their extremely high metabolism forces them to shut down when their insect prey is unavailable. Bears, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, mice, and even groundhogs may sleep through a cold snap, but they are up and about again during any warm spell. True hibernation in the endotherms (warm-blooded mammals) requires a drastic lowering of the heart rate, respiration, and metabolism and our winters are just too mild and short to call for such measures.

Life is definitely different for the ectotherms whose internal temperature reflect the ambient conditions. These reptile and amphibian species must have some adaptations to cope with those sub-zero days. Snakes are barely functional below 50° F and seek out deep dens (or the barn) to find stable temperatures. The Eagle’s Nest frogs and snapping turtles have burrowed into the mud at the bottom of the pond. One of our few terrestrial frogs, the wood frog, can be frozen solid for months due to antifreeze compounds like propylene glycol and glycerol in their systems. In this torpid state, its breathing and heartbeat actually stop, defying the definition of the word “alive”. Normally, the formation of ice crystals means death for cells, but these frogs have sidestepped that particular fate, with as much as 65% of the water in their bodies crystallized into ice. When warmed, they immediately go about the business of finding mates, none the worse for wear. Not surprisingly, scientists are interested in borrowing this adaptation for the cryopreservation of living human organs for transplant.

Certainly, not all of our summer Appalachian birds leave during the winter. Our feeders are full of chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and finches. Some of these birds are northern migrants, but many have only migrated down the mountain into our protected Little River valley. They have a short trip back to their breeding territories in the spring. And some birds, like the kestrel, a tiny falcon, come from colder northern habitats to spend their winters hunting here. Even most of the insects aren’t really gone or dead. Many species overwinter as larvae or even as adults and can occasionally be found out and about. Every rock you turn over in the Davidson River in February will be crawling with mayfly, damselfly, stonefly and alderfly larvae. Our yellow jackets colonies, so numerous and feared in the summer, are represented by young queens, the only survivors of the swarms we run from in panic in August. They have been fertilized by males in the late fall and will spend the winter in barn attics or under the bark of a dying tree, ready to start new underground colonies in the spring.

Well, I guess what I’m getting at is that there is always something stirring around here, even in the depths of winter. I’ve heard spring peepers call during every month of the year; Great Horned owls calling for mates in December, fox tracks in the snow, spotted salamanders eggs in March, copperheads sunning in February; groundhogs eating greens in a frosty pasture; and springtails—tiny, hopping insects—leaping on snowy rocks in a frozen river. The natural world doesn’t ever really stop, so don’t let the cold slow you down either – get out there with your binoculars and magnifying glass.

-Ted Wesemann

NOV. 14, 2017

Our Relationship with Food

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In Environmental Seminar, we have been examining our relationship with food. We started by looking at the facts of where our food comes from, from the industrial food chain of conventional meat, produce and processed food to the organic and /or local farming operations. We’ve asked ourselves some difficult questions, such as “If I am going to eat meat, should I be able to kill an animal?” and “What are the hidden costs such as food miles required to eat organic produce in the winter?” We’ve debated the merits and challenges of chosen diets, from omnivore to vegetarian, vegan to freegan, and found that there are many “right” ways to eat, not just one. We’ve explored different concepts around eating traditions, such as our family’s food culture, eating seasonally, and homesteading, and we’ve expanded our view to explore the global impact of food, such as food shortages, riots, and food economics. We’ve explored the impact of corn and soy in our diet, especially around our physical health.

For as many questions as we answer, there are more that are raised. The privilege of our food choices in this country create many opportunities for experimentation and exploration, and in this class we have tried to look at each new concept from all points of view, even those not as popular or exciting. It’s easy to demonize one type of food culture and glorify another, until you explore all sides of the issue. My hope is that these students emerge from this class with the understanding that in order to really make smart choices about the food that we eat, we all have to be a bit of a detective. Look at the food labels. Ask the farmer at the farmer’s market about her spraying practices.  Do the research to determine if migrant workers rights were abused in the growing of this food. It’s not easy, and sometimes you don’t want to know, but it’s important.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned together, it’s the power of the individual to make a difference. As Michael Pollan said, we get to vote three times a day with what we choose to eat. Students are encouraged to find farmers in their area at home, to go to a farmer’s market, and to investigate what CSA’s are available in their community. In a few weeks, we will learn how to start a small garden at home. Our relationship with food can be global, and it can be in our own backyard. Learning how to balance the two is the challenging opportunity of our time, and these students are well on their way toward embracing that challenge.

Susan Daily, Outdoor Academy Student Dean

 

MAY. 11, 2017

Garden Work in the Transition of Seasons

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When I took a walk down to the Eagle’s Nest Garden this week to see how progress was coming for this summer’s growing season, I half expected Bella to thrust a pair of work gloves or a tool into my hands.  For all that she has been doing this semester to prepare for the sunny days of the western North Carolina summer, Bella was just as eager to pause and talk about the work that has already been done and the many projects that lay ahead.

For those of you who have not heard, Bella Smiga joined the Eagle’s Nest community over the winter as our Foundation’s Garden Manager.  After wrapping up an undergraduate degree in Environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Bella worked in the solar energy industry.  During that time she started exploring gardening on her own, found that she enjoyed the simplicity of growing food and the sense of self-reliance it brought her, and began dreaming about a career of feeding people without further damaging the earth.  Last year she completed a Master’s degree in Sustainable Food Systems at Green Mountain College where her education focused on both the practical application of low-impact farming and using sustainability-minded agriculture systems to build community.

Since her first afternoon at Eagle’s Nest, Bella has been working with the weekly Outdoor Academy garden work crew on projects to prepare the land for spring plantings.  These projects have included trimming back and rebuilding trellises for the raspberries and blackberries and pruning locust trees to let more light onto the growing beds.  As we stepped through the willow fence and out onto the fields, Bella explained her next steps.  The garden is at the transition point between the winter and the summer.  Cover crops, meant to replenish the soil with nutrients and stave off the erosion of rich topsoil, still cover most of the fields.  Seedling plants, including peppers, beets, broccoli, yellow squash, onions, several varieties of tomato, eggplant, zucchini, watermelon, and many herbs are being carefully nurtured in their infant stages as they await planting.

As winter fades and the threat of the last killing frost disappears, Bella is starting to experiment with new growing methods.  “One teaspoon of healthy soil contains more living microorganisms than there are people on the planet,” she reminds me.  Most farmers till the soil every spring to integrate new nutrients and prepare the land for new crops.  Yet, Bella fears the damage tilling can do to the soil life—healthy dirt makes healthy vegetables, after all.  While she explores no-till growing methods, Bella also has plans to refurbish the raised planting beds used to grow crops.  These are great teaching spaces for students and summer campers to relate back to a growing scale they might have seen in a home garden.

Bella will continue to plan planting and harvesting schedules, track growth of the plants, and weed rows of crops.  Throughout the year, different young people experience different parts of the farming process.  During these last two weeks of spring at the Outdoor Academy, Semester 44 will continue to enjoy some of the early plantings that are ready to be harvested, such as lettuce, kale, garlic, and radishes.

Eric McIntyre, Resident Wilderness Educator

APR. 13, 2017

Reflections from the River

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Clara Ruth Logan, one of our semester 44 studetns, wants to share her experiences during the last paddling trip.

“There are many moments at The Outdoor Academy when I feel my body and my mind getting stronger, and our 3-day paddling trip last weekend was one of them. With the sun on my arms and the postcard view of the Appalachian Mountains over the French Broad River, it seemed impossible to feel unhappy.

On the first day, nervousness and excitement bubbled up inside of me as our instructors, Lucas, Eric and Ryan, told us the plan. As soon as we got on the river, we would have to ferry across against the current to avoid a strainer on the left of the river. I hopped in the bow and my partner Margo got in the stern of the boat. I was so scared but we did it and I felt so strong! Margo and I continued down the river and enjoyed the sunshine, the beautiful view, and the occasional splash of water on our skin.

On the second day of our trip we had some crazy rapids! I loved the wave trains because our boat would gallop down the river while tons of water splashed over us. We learned that if we paddled hard and really focused on our boat control, we could let go of the fear, and our excitement and happiness would take over. I felt strong and capable on the river, and most importantly, I felt truly happy.”

Thank you Clara Ruth for sharing.

Rodrigo Vargas, Spanish Teacher

APR. 6, 2017

From Trash to Statement Piece

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“We live in a world where we thrive off of materials. We need to decrease our consumption, repair and recycle the goods we do consume, and over all CONSERVE!” – Tess, Carmel, IN
Art Piece: glass bottles, cans, acrylic paint, paper cut-outs

Last Friday the 24th, Semester 44 took part in our third OA Cornerstone Day. Named Legacy Day, this particular Cornerstone Day is a brain child of Katie Harris, Dean of Academics and English teacher, and Brian Quarrier, our Crafts and Environmental Seminar teacher. Cornerstone days are best described as an interdisciplinary exploration of a broader topic; for example the ‘Legacy’ we leave behind for future generations.

Cedar Ann ceramic pot, glass, flowers. Brevard, NC In every piece of trash there is a life. this piece represents the beauty and life that can come out of something someone else thinks is trash.

Cedar Ann
ceramic pot, glass, flowers.
Brevard, NC
“In every piece of trash there is a life. this piece represents the beauty and life that can come out of something someone else thinks is trash.”

The students spent the day studying an integral part of our culture’s lasting physical residue: trash. As part of the week building up to the Cornerstone, Brian and Katie required the students to carry their waste in their own personal trash bags. When Friday rolled around, the students began the day with a morning tour of the Transylvania County Landfill, which was the first time many of the students had ever been to a major dump. The culmination of the trash-carrying activity came when the students were able to deliver their bulging bags of trash for the week directly to the landfill and experience first-hand the monumental amount of garbage we amass on Earth every day.

Davi cigarettes, gloves, cans, plastic bags, other trash Atlanta, GA This is a picture of a beach but made of trash. This represents how the oceans and beaches are being filled with trash. I want the viewer to feel sadness about the pollution from us ruining nature. I’m specifically raising awareness about our trash getting carried out into the oceans, beaches, and islands.

Davi
cigarettes, gloves, cans, plastic bags, other trash
Atlanta, GA
“This is a picture of a beach but made of trash. This represents how the oceans and beaches are being filled with trash. I want the viewer to feel sadness about the pollution from us ruining nature. I’m specifically raising awareness about our trash getting carried out into the oceans, beaches, and islands.”

In the afternoon, the students moved on to create some positive change in reaction to their morning at the dump by picking up a densely-littered public area. The students of Semester 44 ended the day creating art with materials from their afternoon cleanup. The photos here document some of the pieces created by our talented students. We have also shared and some of the thoughtful statements from the artist in which they reflect upon confronting the mountains of garbage we leave for future generations.

Robbie deBurlo, Math Teacher, Medical Coordinator, Wilderness Leader