Wolverines, Wonder and Wilderness
Why the Wolverine Matters to a Kid Who Has Never Seen a Raccoon
by Megan McGinty
IT IS APRIL AND I AM SITTING UNCOMFORTABLY on the cobbles of a gravel bar on the Skagit River in the North Cascades National Park with a group of local fifth graders, talking about the special rocks we just found. Ranger Paula arrives and greets us, asking the kids about their day and if they’ve seen any wildlife on their hike this afternoon. Excited, they all talk at once, clamoring to describe the chipmunk that ran across the trail and the robin they tried to take pictures of as it flew into the canopy. Paula begins to talk about the wildlife research being conducted in the park by scientists and asks the children “What animal would you most like to see while you are here?”
At this last, my answer, the kids all turn and stare at me quizzically. Paula laughs and explains to the kids what a wolverine is and that they require a large amount of wilderness for their habitat. “How do you know they exist?” one asks. “Good question.” replies Paula.
For many of the kids, these two nights in a paved campground, using a bathroom with flush toilets and running water, eating out of a group kitchen with a gas stove and a refrigerator (albeit at picnic tables under a roof with only two walls), will be the most rugged outdoor recreation experience they ever have. For nearly all of them, the most pressing environmental issues they will come to terms with will be economic, as the area’s historically resource extraction-based industries dwindle. There is less land, less water, fewer trees and not enough fish available for these kids to follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents. Some of the students are already coping with the effects of illnesses caused by exposure to pesticides, industrial pollutants, lead in their drinking water and a myriad of other difficulties resulting from low-income residency. Given the realities of daily existence for some of these students, the fact that they are living within two hourís drive of one of largest areas of wildernesses within the contiguous United States is of little importance to them. Or is it?
Wilderness has long held a role in Judeo-Christian culture; its effects are still felt each year as millions of devout practitioners observe Lent. A significant portion of modern American culture still grapples with the issues raised by wilderness, from literary classics such as”The Call of the Wild” to the hit TV show “Survivor”. Many aborigine cultures used wildlands as the foundational setting for rites of passage and seeking insight. As we began to define ourselves as human and civilized, we also needed to label that which we were distinguishing ourselves from. It seems that as soon as man began to exist, so did wilderness.
Environmental education first came about as a movement when conservationists and educators recognized the effects of an increasing disconnect between society and the natural world. The need to rekindle that connection inspired efforts to get kids out into the woods, to take them out into the wild, because that’s where “real” nature was. It was assumed that a big part of the reason for the growing alienation from nature was due to the fact that there was no nature worthy of inspiring a connection in the cities and suburbs we live in. As school budgets tightened, the likelihood of such field trips and opportunities became scarce. At the same time, many thinkers began exploring the connections made to the natural world during childhood and realized that for many kids, it happened in the more common places such as vacant lots or backyards, places that they were allowed to have daily contact with. Educators began to wonder if the connections being made had less to do with the “wow” factor than with intimacy and immediate relevance.
Recent trends in environmental education have rendered the phrase ìplace-based-educationî a hot term, and rightly so. More curricula are available that allow the local schoolyard or drainage ditch to be a laboratory for ecological study. Innovative teachers have devised lessons that allow even the most urban settings to serve as the source for environmental theory. Students living in heavily-impacted areas are now more likely to be exposed the concepts behind environmental justice than to a canned curriculum about the Brazilian rainforest. By bringing a concrete (literally) relevance to the students’ daily lives, environmental education is being brought closer into the fold as a valid academic discipline.
The problem is this: wonder thrives on apparent irrelevance. I think of my friend Diego, born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the South Bronx. When he was fifteen, he went to a wilderness program in the Appalachians for students from the South Bronx High School who spoke English as a second language.
Incredibly out of place in an alien land and culture, he fell in love with climbing and returned to the program as an intern and later as a staff member. He now spends his free time in alpine wildernesses and climbs in some of the most remote parts of North America.
In this more recent vein of locally-focused programs, many kids are not introduced to the large chunks of land and water that are todayís wildernesses. This is often done with the assumption that this is best for them. Every educator is charged with the task of assigning importance to some lessons over others. The best educators begin with assessing what their students already know and where they are coming from.
There are many students with a wide range of experiences, so a sort of middle ground is aimed for, that is, the lessons are designed for the greatest commonalities among the students and the experiences they are most likely to already have. To be sure, Diego is an anomaly, but he is also an example of a student that flourished by getting a chance to see the wide world beyond his backyard.
It can easily be argued that a wilderness area isn’t needed to teach a group of fifth graders what watershed they live in or where their food comes from. A significant number of environmental education programs never reach a point where wilderness issues become pertinent and of those that do, there is rarely room in the curriculum for the issue. However, an educational program that is not prepared to address the question of wilderness is limited in its ability to handle the larger philosophical questions that environmental education tends to beg. (Should we preserve lands? Which ones? Why? What is ‘preservation’?, etc.) Even though the instructors often have to work with constraints such as lesson time, program length, or student background, they need a solid fundamental philosophy from which to base their lessons in order to effectively grapple with the more abstract aspects, the “big questions” of environmental education.
As we make lessons more real and connect them more intimately to students’ daily lives, we must not forget the importance of the great unknown. Appealing to the sense of wonder, to the promise of discovery, is of essential importance when convincing future generations to become active conservationists. When we introduce schoolchildren to the mysteries of their backyards, we cannot answer every question, nor should we try to. If they receive the message that all the answers have been found, that everything is under control and fully explained, there will be no reason for them to continue discovering and questioning.
By presenting the backyard as what it is, a test case, a fraction, a tightly bound series of parameters that can only serve as the roughest of sketches for the great ecological mysteries of the wildlands, we are giving them the most honest of lessons. No longer are they schoolchildren on an outing following a curriculum designed to lead them towards a predetermined outcome. They have been initiated as citizens of the planet who will play a role in shaping its future. How these kids will feel about their role in the environment can be decided by whether or not they know or don’t know that there are places on the planet where human impact is not yet a primary shaping factor.
Environmental issues cannot be conveniently contained with the boundaries of a city, state or even a country. Instead, they ignore the abstract divisions we have attempted to draw and reinforce the interdependence of ecosystems on both big and small levels. We need clean air, clean water and healthy soil, and preserving the areas that are still reservoirs of these things is as important as cleaning up the areas that are dangerously contaminated. Letting kids think that recycling and picking up litter will be sufficient to address the current and pending environmental issues is not far from lying to them.
The value of something beyond that which we know and see in our daily lives is of absolute importance when trying to convince people to work towards a goal that does not have immediate or tangible results. Kids need to be encouraged and to believe their efforts will have results, but we should not deceive them about the magnitude or pace of environmental progress. They will need inspiration for the work that lies ahead, be it in the form of a magnificent photo in National Geographic, a video of an amazing rainforest or tales of strange and fantastic creatures that live in remote wildlands.
When I was young, before I could read very well, one of my favorite books was a Dr. Seuss volume titled “McElligot’s Pool”. The story is simple: a farmer is teasing a boy named Marco who is fishing in McElligot’s Pool, a small pool in the middle of a cow pasture that people throw junk into. He thinks Marco will catch nothing but an old shoe. Marco concedes that the farmer may be right, but wonders if the pool could be connected to an underground river that flows to the sea. He imagines the progression of the secret river that connects the puddle to the great sea and the increasingly more bizzare creatures that live there. As a kid, I was absolutely captivated by the idea that the mundane things in my backyard could be connected to bigger, more exotic things that lay far beyond. Suddenly, pretending to be exploring the Amazon while catching and identifying spiders in the vacant lot next to my friend’s house did not seem quite so farfetched. In fact, it made the spider-hunting seem less like playing and more like training for someday exploring the great unknowns that still remain in the wildlands.
Megan McGinty lives in Bellingham, WA and is an Environmental Educator with North Cascades Institute. Photo by Benjamin Drummond.
The Transformative Power of Wilderness Education
A graduate student finds an understanding of the effect of wilderness on the development of young people’s sense of self-worth
by Rory Crowley
n July 7th, 2001 I lie huddled in my sleeping bag, shivering as I survey the cloud of water vapor that floats above my head. It’s 2:00 am and sleep is distant; I realize that I am unprepared for my first solo backpack. I’ve brought a waif of a summer sleeping bag into the high-country, and as snow covers my lonely two-man tent and the ground steals away the heat, I shiver. The Nalgene bottle under my knees is cold; I pull it out, undo the top and gulp the cool water. I open the tent door and pour the rest of the water into my camp stove. I am boiling water for the fourth time tonight; I watch the blue flame in anticipation. I need a warm water bottle under my knees to keep the night bearable.
“What am I doing here?” I say to myself, echoing what I’ve been thinking all night. I have come to Cathedral Provincial Park to test myself but I have also come in search of wildness, to find something that a city cannot supply. I just don’t know what I seek.
The simplicity of wilderness travel attracted me to strap on the hiking boots for that solo and embark on a career in environmental education. Carrying everything I need to survive a week, and leaving behind the overabundance of technology and distraction. Wilderness travel requires simplicity because of the load limits of the human body. Furthermore, wilderness travel resigns the distractions of the modern world to the subconscious. Gary Snyder eloquently warns people who seek the wild that
“Wilderness can be a ferocious teacher, rapidly stripping down the inexperienced or the careless. It is easy to make a mistake that will bring one to an extremity. Practically speaking, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.” (Snyder 1990, 23).
During my first solo I was searching for my self-definition as an adult. Self-definition — ”defining, or interpreting ourselves to others, so that people in our social environment have a clearer understanding of who we are”— is a constant evaluation to see if our actions reflect our values (Williams et al. 1989, 170). I wanted to exhibit the “Mountain Man” persona as a symbol of my personal values. But there is also a cultural aspect; this self-image is desirable because the natural wonders of the wilderness are symbols spiritually and aesthetically unique to my Euro American culture. I came to Cathedral Provincial Park with a very anthropogenic goal. Unfortunately, like me at twenty-one, many “weekend warriors” do not go beyond the personal benefits of wilderness — views, peaks, the workout — disregarding their interconnections to the natural world. Learning is facilitated in wilderness when “the learning is necessary to solve basic problems of comfort and even survival” (Miles, 1987, 7). However, wilderness education needs to be sure to go “beyond the simple act of holding classes in the great outdoors” and embrace the experience and personal growth possibilities (Grumbine, 1999, 125).
Much of my summer (2004) was spent in the backcountry in North Cascades National Park. I was at the halfway point of a graduate program jointly administered by Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University and North Cascades Institute. The Master’s of environmental education is centered on place-based education, leadership and non-profit administration gave me the opportunity to teach in the backcountry while fulfilling course requirements.
During a 6-night canoe camp, my co-leader and I took a group of participants, aged 14-16, up a difficult hike to the top of Desolation Peak and a fire lookout. Rob, the oldest and most experienced participant who had attended two previous camps, set out to try and summit Desolation, a peak that his earlier instructors had never attempted with their groups. After ten minutes of strenuous hiking Rob sat down for a drink of water. Gasping he said, “I am never hiking that fast again, it sucked.” At this point I thought to myself, “okay, I guess we won’t make it to the top, but we’ll make a day hike out of it.” I was wrong. As the group quickly started leaving Rob behind, I sent Rob’s best friend in the camp, Stan, back to hike with him. Stan talked Rob all the way to the top, reaching the lookout just thirty minutes after the rest of the group. The weary hikers were greeted by a fire raging in the distance, the lookout making her daily observations, a helicopter flying through the smoke, and the ghost of past lookouts.
About a month after the trip I received an e-mail from Rob’s father. Rob was doing really great in alternative school this year, especially in English class. Our lessons during the hike had centered on Jack Kerouac, who spent the summer of 1956 as Desolations Peak’s fire lookout. Our lessons, combined with the accomplishment of reaching the summit had convinced Rob to read both Desolation Angels and Dharma Bums. Most importantly, he had started writing. Although Rob said he hated hiking at the time, I am happy to hear that after some reflection he has incorporated some positives from the day into his daily life.
Rob was receptive to coming to the wilderness and striving towards self-improvement. His actions exemplified this commitment. The wilderness of Ross Lake differs from Rob’s daily hectic life in urban America. Contrast and attunement during time in the wilderness humbled and empowered Rob.
With increased visitation to wilderness areas as population grows, stress on our protected areas increases. As a result, programs that do not depend on the pristine wilderness should take place elsewhere. But if the program depends on the healing and restorative powers of wilderness the activity will be inferior elsewhere. In my opinion, Rob likely would not have received the same personal benefits if the canoe camp was on a local lake and the hike was on a less significant peak near his home.
During the summer of 2004 I also began to explore what it means to be a mentor and a facilitator. I tried to make the experiences I led as valuable as possible, exposing youth to wilderness’s restorative capabilities, while modeling positive behavior in the backcountry. Although a recent resident of the North Cascades, I have further sought to exhibit the qualities Barry Lopez suggests in his essay “American Geographies,”
It resides with men and women more or less sworn to a place, who abide there, who have a feel for the soil and history, for the turn of the leaves and night sounds. Often they are glad to take the outlanders in tow… they are nearly flawless in the respect for these places they love. Their knowledge is intimate rather than encyclopedic, human but not necessarily scholarly, it rings with concrete detail of experience. (Lopez, 1998, 132-133).
It was in this vein that I set out on successive hikes up Sourdough Mountain with participants from the Washington Conservation Corps.
“What are you doing Cait?” I yelled as I looked back to see Cait walking backwards down the trail. Cait, a member of the Washington Conservation Corps, was close to finishing a long day-hike to Sourdough Mountain lookout which included a talk with Northwest poet and fire lookout Tim McNulty.
“It feels like needles are poking into my toes! Like a thousand needles!” she shouted over her shoulder as she limped down the trail to catch up with the waiting group. “My stupid boots are cutting into my toes. Walking backwards makes it feel better.”
“What’s wrong? Do you want me to check for blisters?” I probed. We were still at least an hour from the trailhead.
“No, let’s just get down,” she said, tears swelling in her red eyes. “How long until we get down?”
“Ah… thirty-forty minutes…if you walk facing forward” I fibbed. We continued down the trail from Sourdough, one of the steepest and hardest hikes in North Cascades National Park, but also one of the most rewarding. From the fire lookout you can see six different river drainages; Ross, Ruby, Thunder, Stetattle, Big Beaver and the lower Skagit. We had an amazing day in the high country: blue skies, mountain flowers, views, poetry and writing advice. An hour and a half later we reached the vehicles and Cait immediately stripped off her dust-covered boots. Her toes were red, raw and inflamed but with no noticeable blisters. Her boots must really be terrible. Now in sandals, Cait soothed her toes in the cool river before we got into the trucks to go back to camp. Her feet will be fine tomorrow.
Back at camp I noticed that Cait was not at dinner. After climbing over 5,000 feet in five miles I expected everyone to be devouring their food. I tracked her down walking back from a payphone, her eyes red and swollen. She had phoned her boyfriend because she could not wait to tell her partner about her amazing day; so amazing she could not wait another minute to share it with him. As an aspiring writer, Cait met one of her idols and it has had a profound impact on her. It was at that point that I realized I had facilitated a day that Cait would remember for a long time. Cait’s amazing day can be summarized as experiential wilderness education.
Cait saw the hike up Sourdough was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Author Tim McNulty was in the lookout crafting his work. While at the lookout she observed his everyday tasks of a lookout. Cait understood the purpose of a writer spending time in seclusion and wilderness. Tim gave her advice of different techniques to make her writing better.
Since our hike Cait has had the opportunity to independently write and apply what she had learned. In a chance meeting she indicated her writing had never been better and that the advise from Sourdough was very helpful.
Cait and Rob exemplify the amazing metaphoric benefits to wilderness education. They have been able to apply the positives from the wilderness to their everyday lives. My time as wilderness educator has also been metaphoric for me as a leader. I knew wilderness could impact someone in a positive way, but I needed to actually witness a transformative experience to fully believe in the benefits of wilderness education.
Learning and teaching during my time working with North Cascades Institute causes me to reflect on my time huddled in my cold sleeping bag in the Wilderness of Cathedral Provincial Park. I was grasping for a connection to nature. The myth of the “Mountain Man” brought me to the wilderness, but the effect has been something deeper. For me wilderness has become a metaphor of a deeper connection to the land, a source of inspiration and, most importantly, a positive influence on me as a member of society, a citizen and a resident of the earth.
Grumbine, E.R., “Going to Basho’s Pine” ISLE, 6(2), 1990.
Krumpe, E.E., “Managing Wilderness for Education and Development.” Preparing to Manage Wilderness in the 21st Century, U.S. Forest Service, 1990.
Lopez, B.H., “The American Geographies” Barry Lopez: About This Life, Toronto: Random House, 1998.
Miles, J.C., “Wilderness as a Learning Place.” The Journal of Environmental Education, 18(2), 1986-1987.
Miles, J.C., “Wilderness as Healing Place.” The Journal of Experiential Education, 10(3), 1987.
Snyder, G., “The Etiquette of Freedom.” The Practice of the Wild, San Francisco: North point Press, 1990
Spray, R.H. & Weingert, P.D., “The Wilderness Environment: Training Wilderness Managers.” Wilderness Benchmark 1988, U,S, Forest Service, 1989.
Williams, D.R. et. al., “The Role of Wilderness in Human Development.” Wilderness Benchmark 1988, U.S. Forest Service, 1989.
Rory Crowley was a Graduate Student with Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University and the North Cascades Institute. Funding was provided by the Skagit Environment Endowment Fund who support conservation, stewardship and education in an around the Washington and British Columbia’s Skagit Watershed.
The Hunger Games and the Nature of Rebellion
By Natalie Gillis
In my nature explorations, I’ve always been fascinated not just with identifying the species I encounter, but with digging deeper and learning their backstories. There are many stories behind the plants and animals that fill our landscapes. Sometimes they’re hidden in history, myths and cultural narratives. Sometimes they’re hidden in our very words.
ith Catching Fire, the second film installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, fans of Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic dystopian world will be celebrating. Many educators will too, since the film’s release will revive the series for students, and thus its relevance in language arts programming.
From a literary perspective, The Hunger Games is an action-packed hero’s quest told through the eyes of a strong-but-flawed heroine fighting to survive in a dystopian future. It’s a great entry point into explorations of the monomyth, and it can be easily compared to other classic quests like The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Lion King and many comic-book superheroes.
But The Hunger Games is also about a society that is completely broken—as unhealthy as societies can get. Even though it only glosses over most of the issues it touches on, it is a great springboard to deeper examination of all sorts of environmental and social justice problems. Panem is post-climate change North America. There are parallels with the Occupy movement (Panem’s 99% live with ongoing environmental strife, food insecurity and resource depletion while the remaining 1% live in the Capitol, where the nation’s wealth and power are concentrated). And just why is Panem still coal-powered, anyway? Enter conversations about technological innovation and sustainability.
The Dystopian Nature Disconnect
The Hunger Games can do more than just raise sexy contemporary issues, though. The symbolic role of nature in the story is a portal to a deeper examination of the characterization of nature across the genre. After reading The Hunger Games and thinking more broadly about dystopian fiction, I concluded that many, if not most, fictional dystopias are set in highly urban environments or ravaged wastelands. Even those that are set in relatively healthy landscapes isolate their characters from contact with the natural world, as in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where the countryside is the domain of the exiles. The Hunger Games is no different: the land has been wasted, resources have been depleted, citizens are prohibited from wandering freely in the forest and gates surround the districts to separate humans from their natural environment. Wild landscapes and the animals that inhabit them are perceived as dangerous—a continuation of the civilization versus wilderness binary that is a fundamental aspect of colonial and postcolonial culture.
The Nature of Rebellion
Why is this such a common element in dystopian fiction? I think it’s because the primal connection humans have with the land is fundamentally incompatible with dystopian power structures. Beyond providing sustenance, nature has a healing and revitalizing power and is intrinsically linked to human freedom and happiness (Children & Nature Network and IUCN Commission on Education and Communication, 2012). Seen through the lens of the dualistic nature/culture paradigm, a dystopian superpower cannot effectively control its subjects if the people have healthy relationships with the land, which is by definition wild and uncontrollable. Excluding nature’s light and beauty excludes hope, which enables control. Separating people from the place in which they live is necessary in dystopian worlds, because a return to nature would lead to rebellion and independence. Seen in this light, the staging of the final battle in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (in which the Rebel Alliance finally succeeds in overthrowing the Galactic Empire) on the lush forest moon of Endor was highly symbolic. In The Hunger Games, the return to nature and freedom is played out through the heroine, Katniss Everdeen.
Katniss’ deep connection to the land is fundamental to her survival throughout her life. As a young girl, the sight of a single dandelion inspired her to hunt and forage to keep her family from starving and to provide healing medicines. Because these acts are illegal in Panem—all resources belong to the state, and wandering in the woods is forbidden—Katniss’ relationship with the land defines her as a rebel before the story even begins. Aside from the resources the woods provide, Katniss also finds existential freedom and relief there. This bond with the natural world and the vitality it gives her is in stark contrast to the dreary hopelessness of the other residents of her community, who remain caged within the district fences, and to the shallow, overconsumptive urbanity of the Capitol residents, who do not realize they are imprisoned by their luxury.
Once she enters the Hunger Games arena, it is Katniss’ skill as a forager, hunter and herbalist that keep her alive. She knows how to read the land as efficiently as readers of books can decode symbols on a page. But beyond these skills, I think it’s Katniss’ lifelong immersion in nature that gives her the self-assurance and freedom of mind needed to defy the Capitol and ultimately spark a rebellion against its repressive regime.
Dystopias: Utopias for Educators
Katniss’ ecological literacy gives educators an opportunity to forge curricular connections with environmental stewardship and traditional ways of knowing. Questions on the links between nature, rebellion and freedom in the dystopian genre could lead to a comparative study of other dystopian novels. And it’s easy to draw parallels between the expulsion of nature in dystopian societies and our own society’s impoverished nature experiences. What is the existential and symbolic importance of natural spaces to healthy societies? With so many students already in love with The Hunger Games series, the release of the second film offers a cornucopia of discussion topics on nature and society.
Children & Nature Network and IUCN Commission on Education and Communication (2012). Children & nature worldwide: An exploration of children’s experiences of the outdoors and nature with associated risks and benefits.
Natalie Gillis is a Grade 6–7 French Immersion teacher in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. She likes books and backpacking, and thinks more people should ride bikes.
Author: Douglas Brinkley Publisher: HarperCollins
Book Review by Orlay Johnson
Whether you have only thought of Teddy Roosevelt as a stuck-up war-mongering aristocrat or as the first modern and progressive US President, I think you will like this book. It is well researched, detailed, and a fun read. The book focuses on Teddy’s (Theodore, to his friends) preservationist side, addressing the questions of how, why, and when he went from a rich city kid, with little formal schooling, to perhaps most effective conservationist in US history. For at least 100 years, he protected more of America’s natural real estate than all other presidents combined. True the book does ignore most of his the war mongering, but in other ways does not hesitate to show his weaknesses and class blindness. However, above all else, it brings us a wealth of new information and insights, not only about TR, but also about America and our history of resource exploitation at the cost of human and environmental devastation. I think it is must for anyone serious about making America greener, not to mention it is a fun read. (more…)