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DEC. 19, 2013

A Sense of Direction

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The other day, Resident Becca remarked to me that she was astounded at how difficult it was for new students to find their way around the woods. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “at the beginning of the year, our students go into the woods and set up a bear bag tree, and then when they go back to hang up their food, they can’t find the tree. It’s as if they don’t register any landmarks.”

Her observation set me to thinking about my own struggles with my sense of direction. How, until I was sixteen, I could not have given you directions from my house to school, even though there were only three turns. How I can still get lost driving around Brevard. However, put me in the woods with a map and compass, and I can keep the lay of the land in my head pretty well.

Having directional sense in the woods is often a challenge for people who are used to using street signs, houses, and businesses as landmarks. At first, all trees kind of look the same. Moreover, the environmental volatility of the woods changes the appearance of landmarks. A neon sign is always neon, but that white stump might become dark with rain and impossible to single out at night.

When we studied tracking at Buffalo Cove Outdoor Education Center, Nathan Roark emphasized the importance of being aware of natural patterns, and being able to detect when those patterns had been disturbed. Leaves compressed by the weight of a boot look minutely different than the usual ground cover. Knowing what the woods are supposed to look like requires spending serious “dirt time” exploring nature and being observant. Paying attention to how this tree looks different than that tree, or how a freshly broken stick looks different than an old break, intensifies our sensitivity to changes in natural patterns—including the changing topography. Somehow, zooming in on microscopic details strengthens our awareness of our place in the macroscopic landscape, and our students can find their way back to that bear bag without thinking twice.

Last week, our students spent the night alone in the woods, each in their own quiet clearing in our campus forest. After so much hectic, active learning, they did little but sit, think, write, and observe. Mostly, observe. It is a skill they often practiced here, in navigating the backcountry, in tracking each other through the woods, and in mediating conflict resolution. As they turned their powers of observation inward, I hope that they found some resonance with what Wendell Berry describes in The Unforeseen Wilderness: “And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”

And now, as they turn their sense of direction outward to their home communities, I hope they continue to seek solace in the woods and continue the long journey of being at home wherever they may be.

Felix Dowsley
Head Resident