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OCT. 2, 2015

Decisions Abound – Food Cornerstone Day at OA

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Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students

In his book The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz posits: “the fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better…there is a cost to having an overload of choice. As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options. But clinging tenaciously to all choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety and stress, and dissatisfaction—even to clinical depression.”

Nowhere is our overload of choice more obvious than the average American supermarket. In general, however, we are so accustomed to the dizzying array of options that the abundance seems normal. For our food themed Cornerstone Day, OA students entered two Brevard grocery stores—one a chain, the other a mom and pop health food store—under the auspices of being food anthropologists. They were armed with questions like: “How does the layout, lighting, arrangement and ambiance of the store affect your buying experience?” “Can you easily find sustainably raised chicken?” “How much does one pound of sustainably raised chicken cost compared to one pound of conventionally raised chicken?” “Can you easily tell which produce is local or organic?”

The real test of the day however came when the students learned that they would be buying their dinner that evening using the same $2.60 per person budget that our kitchen manager adheres to. It was a bit of a social experiment (and possibly one with questionable ethics) to release twenty 15 year olds, whose food choice for a month has been scripted, except for their elected flavor of decaffeinated tea, into the cornucopia of the modern American grocery store with nothing more than a budget to guide their shopping. There was tension. There was stress. A frozen pizza per person was considered, as was ice cream as an entrée. In the end, after much angst and the savvy move of signing up for the BiLo bonus card in order to capitalize on deals, the students came home with chicken (conventionally raised), pasta, alfredo sauce, bread, brownie mix and a boat load of cheap soda. They had the boon of supplementing this meal with produce from the Outdoor Academy garden, which was free to them, but of course expensive in labor costs. With the addition of roasted potatoes, stir fried green beans and a mixed green salad from the garden, we truly had a feast, and had soda on the table for the first time in Outdoor Academy history.

food blog 2

Our day, which began on a local Brevard farm learning about and interacting with cows, chickens and a pig, ended with lively dinner conversation about the complexity of our food system. I asked the students at my table if they were glad we didn’t usually have soda with dinner, and they unanimously and genuinely said yes, while happily sipping away.

This nod towards the virtue of moderation and their ability to enjoy the exception felt like a perfect end to the day.

Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students

APR. 8, 2015

Survival Games, Appalachian-Style

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Katie Harris, Dean of Academics

Once again, students of The Outdoor Academy read Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain, debating the finer points of crows, heroines, and anti-heroes along the way. Thanks to the hospitality of Gwynn Valley Farm down the road, however, we also experienced some aspects of the protagonists’ journeys first-hand.

We began the day in a cold and drizzly rain, fog settling on the ridgelines. It was uncomfortable. It was perfect. In the rain, students helped plant potatoes, clean a chicken coop, set up a greenhouse, and make wooden draw horses—farm work that character Ada Monroe struggled to master.  While these ill-fated students toiled, their other classmates enjoyed a pleasant morning underneath a shelter, painting the breath-taking landscape of Gwynn Valley with watercolor—a leisurely pursuit in keeping with Ada’s education as a lady of Charleston, South Carolina. 

Eamon Espey taking a swing on the draw horse.

Eamon Espey taking a swing on the draw horse.

After a lunch together, we took a visit to Gwynn Valley’s corn mill and then headed up the hill into the woods. Students were then challenged to take on the many obstacles that stood between the novel’s other protagonist, Inman, and his beloved Cold Mountain. From foraging to animal trap-setting, we learned that very few of us stood a chance of survival in the woods for days on end. There are simply not enough calories available in the plants of the forest for sustenance, and animal trapping requires years of skill. And all of this while wearing damp woolen clothing…

It is astounding how much hard work and endurance was required of the people of Appalachia in those days. I find it no coincidence that Thoreau observed during this same time period that so much of men’s actions revolved around the getting and keeping of heat: “The grand necessity, then, for our bodies, is to keep warm, to keep the vital heat within us. What pains we accordingly take, not only with our Food, and Clothing, and Shelter, but with our beds, which are our nightclothes, robbing the nests and breasts of birds to prepare this shelter within a shelter, as the mole has its bed of grass and leaves at the end of its burrow!” 

We returned to campus exhausted and rain-soaked at the end of the day. I felt especially grateful for the warm dinner awaiting us in the Sun Lodge, and though a few weeks have passed since our field trip of sorts, I still carry an awe for that older way of life in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Katie Harris, Dean of Academics

NOV. 18, 2014

Big Crafty Field Trip to Brasstown, Part I

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We just got back from our fabulous Folk School field trip and I could not be more proud of our amazing OA students! In Brasstown this weekend the students sang along to sea shanties and ballads and listened to old time fiddle tunes around a campfire at night; they Morris danced and square danced; they made Appalachian “face mugs” at a local potter’s studio, and they visited the homes of local master craftspeople (a basket maker, a blacksmith, and a timber framer/traditional woodworker). They did service work for the Pioneer Project, a back-to-the-land gap year project focused on earth skills and traditional craft; two of our guys even elected to sleep outside under the stars on a rather frigid night—and we were all awoken by the lowing of cows in the morning from the field next to our campsite! We made our own meals over our little camp stoves and we played with the sweet dogs who lived on the property. And that doesn’t even cover our “official” visit to the Folk School itself.

On Friday we woke up and made our lunches while others readied the gear for our trip. Driving the gorgeous Appalachian Scenic Byway and all its twists and turns, our Floridian students were smitten with the frozen trees and icicles that decorated the cliffs and mountaintops. Upon arriving in Brasstown, one bus load visited the local yarn shop, owned by the Folk School’s resident spinner/knitter/dyer, Martha Owen. Our students enjoyed fingering the handspun, naturally dyed yarns and leafing through pattern ideas. I am proud to say that every one of them found something inspiring that they want to knit soon—parents, be warned! I’m doing my best to make fiber-junkies out of all of them.

We met back up to distribute sandwiches and go right into our afternoon activities: learning traditional Morris dance styles (women’s clog Morris for half our group, and border stick Morris for the others). The students were enthusiastic and quick learners—the Brasstown dancers were impressed by the willingness and politeness that our kids displayed. There are a few videos on the OA Flickr page of the stick morris lesson! While the groups weren’t dancing, they took turns making expressive face jugs at local potter Rob Withrow’s studio, Smoke in the Mountains. Probably everyone’s favorite moment of the day was when Rob said we could dig through his pile of “throw away” mugs (literally a pile on a tarp in his front yard)—some of the mugs barely had anything wrong with them, but Rob’s dedication to only selling the best of each kiln firing meant we had plenty of seconds to choose from. Oh boy, free pottery! They kids were overjoyed, especially as they had just worked for 90 minutes to craft their own mugs. They knew the value of the free mugs because they had experienced firsthand the effort, care, and skill that goes into each one.

After the pottery and the dancing, we were ready to go set up camp.  There is a gorgeous piece of property in Brasstown called Lane’s End Homestead that has been used for community-building purposes since it was established.  For the past year it has been the homebase for the Pioneer Project, who were kind enough to let us camp behind their gardens, next to a singing stream, and use their composting toilets and make a fire to warm ourselves by. Michael Ismerio, my friend and a widely known fiddle teacher, square dance caller, maker of leather shoes, and nature educator, came to visit us once it got dark and played and sang for us. Those students who were feeling like night owls got to stay up late, singing song after song, drifting away one by one to cozy up in their tents. It was a clear, brisk night with so many stars.

-Jess Kaufman, crafts and music/dance teacher

NOV. 13, 2014

Trail Tales

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We’re back from our 9-day trek, the students’ longest outdoor expedition of the semester!  We’ve all made it back in one piece, and smiling!  Each of the three groups brought back different stories and memories to share, but here’s a brief recap and some highlights of our experiences.

We set out on Friday and were dropped off throughout Pisgah Forest to begin our respective journeys.  It had been awhile since we had been backpacking, our last trip being Orientation Trek, but everybody seemed right at home as soon as they hoisted up their packs.  They were loaded up with all the food and gear we needed for the first half of our trek.  Over the course of the next five days, the Coyotes, Momcats, and Las Tortugas explored the mountains, valleys, and rivers of Pisgah National Forest.  The weather during our first half of trek was the best we could have asked for, sunny and warm during the day, and clear, starry skies at night.  We waded in chilly rivers, got up early to catch some amazing sunrises, and stargazed while falling asleep.

On day five, some special faculty visitors met each group, bringing in their next supply of food, news from the outside world, and some delicious treats they had made. This second half of trek marked the initiation of the Leadership Phase for the students, where they begin to take on more responsibility.  The routes for the next several days were planned out entirely by the students and the wilderness staff took a step back, allowing almost every aspect of the trip be determined by student leadership.

Working in pairs, each student was given the opportunity to lead the group as Adasehede, keeping everybody on track and keeping up positive spirits.  The groups ventured into new territories, managing to lose and find themselves several times over.  New waterfalls were discovered, back country personalities were revealed, and the idea of “clean” was given a whole new meaning.  All three groups became very close-knit, cohesive, and supportive of one another.

All of this group-wide support was great, because we were all in for a surprise when, over the course of the last two days, temperatures plummeted and a frozen substance unfamiliar to many (snow) made its way into Pisgah National Forest.  This wonderful surprise manifested itself in different ways, from a light dusting in Lower Pisgah, to five inches of powder up in the higher reaches.  The last 24 hours for some were by far the most eventful and exciting, whether it was hiking out into the sunrise or bush-pushing through snowy rhododendron forests just in time to catch a ride back home.  No matter what the experience, all groups came back with great stories to tell and a new appreciation for a hot home-cooked meal.

Grace Brofman, Resident and Wilderness Leader

OCT. 27, 2014

Trek is in the Air

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We’ve been having perfect fall weather this past week. Blue sky days, crisp air and the occasional breeze that sends down rusty orange leaves. But it is time to leave behind our cozy cabins and delicious oven-cooked meals behind and head up higher into the mountains for nine days of trek.

Trek is an opportunity for all of us to truly live to our schools principles of simple living, self-reliance and work ethic. Our days will revolve around meeting our basic needs of food, water and shelter, as well as walking (lots of walking!). We will have everything we need for our time in the mountains on our backs. And we will see, with more clarity than ever, that each person must truly pull their weight in order for our group to function well.

Trek is also the ultimate teacher. Nature doesn’t nag or coddle. If it rains, the mountains aren’t concerned if you’ve failed to water proof your pack or set up your tarp well. And a star filled night or the pink clouds of a sunrise can inspire thoughts and feelings that you can’t quite access anywhere else.

We’ll look forward to sharing our stories when we return.

Arrington McCoy, Dean of Students

APR. 25, 2014

Waking to the Rain

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Splash. The raindrop hits me straight in the face, waking me suddenly. I squirm around in my sleeping bag, peeking my head out. The steady drip, splash, drip and gray colors of the morning are disappointing and I curl into as much of a ball as my sleeping bag will allow. Rain. Everything is, if not soaked, at least a little soggy. My toes are slowly becoming prunes and my rainpants have picked the most inconvenient time to rip. I roll over and look up at the blue tarp protecting me from the damp world. Beep. Beep. Beep!  My alarm screeches in my ear—time to get up.

As I crawl out from underneath my relatively dry refuge, I fondly remember the warm and sunny days. We’ve been out on trek for nine days and in actuality we’ve had amazing weather, sunshine and warm breezes, but it is hard to remember those glorious moments when my shirt is slowly being soaked by my saturated raincoat. I walk over to the kitchen tarp. A few students are meandering around camp looking rather zombie-esque. I help get the stoves ready to boil and check in with the students. They are about as responsive as any fifteen year old is at seven in the morning—mumbles and long faces all around.

Then something wonderful happens. We are all sitting underneath the tarp, waiting for the breakfast water to boil, and we start playing a game. Suddenly there is laughter, there is energy, and the lively spirits are back. How are they so happy when they are cold and wet?!  But they are—their eyes sparkle as they joke around.

And this is not a new phenomenon. The students in my trek group have been incredibly strong and enthusiastic. At times when I, as an outdoor professional and seasoned backpacker, have thought wow! This is less that optimal. They have been smiling. This could be so much worse! seems to be the general sentiment. I am constantly impressed and buoyed by their unfaltering spirits. They are so much fun to be around and brighten even the grayest day. As we pack our soaking tarps and get ready to head out for one last day on the trail, someone starts to sing. Soon we all join in and our happy voices fill the cloud-cloaked forest. It’s going to be another good day on the trail. 

Becca Hamilton
Resident Wilderness Educator