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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