APR. 21, 2014
It is growing late, and it is raining. Levi bends over the fire pit he dug with our trowel. In his hands he carefully arranges a bundle of “baby fine”—the ultrathin twigs that come off of the low dead limbs of hemlocks. He knows that he probably only has one shot at lighting this wet wood fire, and that if he blows it, he’ll be spending another twenty minutes gathering kindling. The flick of a lighter ignites a single piece of crumpled paper. The flames lick the bundle and the wet twigs smoke. He holds his breath. Suddenly, the hemlock bursts into flames. Levi quickly grabs the next bundle of slightly larger sticks, holding them over the flames until they smoke and then catch fire.
For the next four hours, the students diligently feed their fire. They aren’t roasting marshmallows and singing camp songs. They are boiling water, cooking dinner, and baking rolls in a frying pan. The relationship to fire changes when it is used for basic needs—in this case, calories and warmth—instead of entertainment. The students take turns gathering wood, attending to the pots, and feeding the flames. If they were to abandon their posts for just five minutes, the flames might die and the coals wither in the rain. To top off dinner, Ella dishes out the rolls. She carried the bread dough all day, kneading in the water and holding it on her belly while she hiked to make the dough rise. The rolls are perfectly cooked, brown and crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.
This is why we go outside.
MAR. 28, 2014
Do you know your ancestry? Ted gave a lesson on the ancestry of the inhabitants of Cataloochee at the Palmer house during our trip this past week. We learned about who built and remodeled the very house we were standing in as well as other buildings and houses in the valley. The students gave skits all throughout the week telling stories of these families that have been passed down from generation to generation. Just as we were packing up and gearing up for the paddling and climbing trips, a truck pulled in to our campsite. It was the grandson of a prominent figure in the early settlement in the valley! A number of faculty and students got to talk with him and share what we teach and learn each semester at Cataloochee. He was pleased to hear the history of his family was appreciated.
This has inspired me to learn more about my family generations before me. I do not know much about my family line. One set of my grandparents are still on this earth, and time is precious. I know they have a wealth of wisdom that I have yet to glean. I regret not asking them for family stories every time I got to visit them when I was younger. Ted ended with a charge to the students to be proactive in discovering more of their family history through their own living family members. I wonder if you will take up that same challenge. Who knows what you will discover?
MAR. 27, 2014
A few folks were starting to feel a bit car sick as we pulled around the last of the many sharp turns on the dirt roads leading to the Cataloochee Valley. The air was brisk and misty, thankfully not rainy, when we stepped foot on our campground. Both busses were jammed packed with gear, packs, and food. With the threat of potential rain on the horizon, we got to work immediately setting up camp. Having a number of outdoor trips under their belts, the students were able to put camp together in no time all working together seamlessly. As faculty, having classes in the field is one of our favorite times because we get to see the students demonstrate their competency in many outdoor skills that were introductory in the beginning of the semester. This is also the week that the students take the community to a deeper level and step up into leadership. To signify our support as a faculty, Michael crafted a signal we will give to students when they ask us questions which they are able to answer on their own. We make a heart with our hands in order to say, “We love you too much to get in the way of you having the opportunity to figure out a solution to the problem or answer the question on your own.”
One of the highlights of the week was the day hike to “Little Cataloochee” where we walked the old roads of the settlement in that valley. Along the way we stopped at the cabin that belonged to the Hannah family and learned about cabin architecture. A little farther down the road we did some exploring to discover ruins of the “downtown” where the post office was located. At the top of the hill we spent some time at the Baptist church walking through the cemetery, reading poetry, and listening to a beautiful hymn, “What Wondrous Love Is This?” sung using shape note singing. I enjoyed getting to walk alongside students that I do not get to see often since they are not in my math class. What a great trip! We were blessed with wonderful weather, safety, and an all around good time.
MAR. 3, 2014
In the Sun Lodge after lunch on Friday, I asked Katie what English class was discussing that afternoon. “Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” she replied briefly before Jen came up and asked us, puzzled, why we were standing around the woodstove as it was about 60 degrees, sunny, and there clearly was no need for the woodstove to be going. It was not burning, and Katie and I both kind of laughed at our huddled stance around the cool woodstove. “Habit, I guess,” I replied and all three of us chuckled a bit.
I did not think much of that passing conversation until I was on a run this morning to my favorite spot in DuPont state forest, Wintergreen Falls. As I came up to the sun sparkling on the welcoming falls, I was tempted to hop in for a mid-run swim. One hand in the still-wintry water changed my mind. However, I was still quite amused as I thought back to my previous visit to the falls two weeks ago. I had run through a few inches of snow to get there and amazing icicles had formed that mimicked stalagmites linking the water flowing off the rock to the water splashing back up near where the flow entered the otherwise-calm pool below. The majority of swimming hole area was covered in a thick sheet of ice. It was breath taking and beautiful, but swimming was the furthest thing from my mind.
The quick arrival of spring, whether it is here to stay or not, surprised and amused me. I almost missed it, but I think, maybe for the first time in years, I caught it. Two quick snapshots: the now comical habit of huddling around woodstoves and the breathtaking transition of my favorite falls, bring a smile and much anticipation about what transitions the next few weeks will bring. The temperature, the garden, outdoor programming trips, and even the growth of our students and community will gear up in the coming weeks.
All of this springtime lust leads me back to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
“So, I have been thinking about the change of seasons. I don’t want to miss spring this year. I want to distinguish the last winter frost from the out-of-season one, the frost of spring. I want to be there on the spot the moment the grass turns green. I always miss this radical revolution… This year I want to stick a net in time and say ‘now,’ as men plant flags on the ice and snow and say, ‘here.’… This is the hoop of flame that shoots the rapids in the creek or spins across the dizzy meadows; this is the arsonist of the sunny woods: catch it if you can.”
So to seize the entrance of spring in all its glory, get out there wherever you are, now before it’s too late, and catch it if you can.
NOV. 21, 2013
This past weekend, the students ventured outside of the more familiar Pisgah Forest and up into the windy mountain ranges of the “high country.” Their destination: Buffalo Cove Outdoor Education Center, nestled deep in the hollers close to Boone, North Carolina: a place where pens and paper serve no purpose save to record and remember ancient techniques that have been passed down for countless generations. Leaving their calculators and books back at OA, the students instead laced up their boots, threw on some warm layers, grabbed their sharp knives, and prepared for what would become a truly wondrous and eye-opening experience.
For their entire tenure here at The Outdoor Academy, the students practice living and coexisting in a community with each other, and this past weekend, they learned even more of the skills necessary to coexist with the natural world all around them. With only a knife and a few other tools, the students learned primitive techniques for constructing shelters, tracking and trapping animals, building fires, and cooking without stoves. At Buffalo Cove, the students were not be allowed to use a lighter to start a fire, but instead were required to use the primitive method of “fire by friction.” This approach to fire building uses only the friction created from an ancient piece of technology, known as a bow drill, to start a coal, which is then used to ignite separate pieces of wood. This was only one of the many exciting challenges students faced this last weekend. Other tasks included tracking their peers through the woods, cooking venison stew over a fire, and building trails as part of a work crew.
In an era where our continued dependence on fossil fuels is unsustainable, we, as inhabitants of this earth, must once again learn how to live in harmony with our natural world. It is crucial for new generations of young adults to learn the effects fossil fuels have on our environment and to also learn the hard skills and techniques required to live and exist with as little impact as possible. This I believe, more than anything else, is probably the most important education one can ever receive.
NOV. 19, 2013
At The Outdoor Academy we enjoy joking around quite a bit, but there is one thing that we take very seriously: Giving Day. The last full day of the semester is Giving Day. During one of our first meetings together in September as a new community, each person, students and faculty alike, drew a name from a bowl. This represented the person that would receive a very special, individualized, hand-crafted gift from you. Once we pulled the name of our giving day recipient from the jar and burned it onto our minds, it is tradition to then eat that piece of paper so that no one will ever have a chance of finding out who it is. This mission is top secret!
As I sat there chewing on my piece of paper, I began to feel very anxious about that distant date. I am one who is very artistically challenged. Gifts that people have made in the past include knitted scarves or hats, pictures with homemade frames, carved stools or spoons, and hooks made at the forge. What in the world was I going to make? I decided I would focus my efforts on getting to know my person and perhaps the perfect gift idea would reveal itself in the process. Who is it, you ask? That’s classified information.
That once distant date is now fast approaching. Many of the students’ choice periods and free time is spent crafting that special creation. Around campus you can see stained glass projects, yarn destined to be hats and scarves, and wooden spoons that started from a block of wood. Some days you can even smell the forge. Everyone has been busy learning a new skill or perfecting a natural gift. I cannot wait to see what everyone has made for each other, but this comes with the sad realization that the end of semester 37 is also fast approaching. However, I am thankful for the few remaining weeks we have with these students.