Really Into the Wilderness

“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value.” Our man Aldo Leopold said that in his 1948 book, A Sand County Almanac. “Wow, that’s a whole lot of sphagnum moss.” I said that, but it was typical of the respect and admiration and total sphagnum love expressed by 14 high school students exploring a stretch of Vermont wilderness along the shores of Somerset Reservoir this week. The program, led by philosophy professor (and long-time Outward Bound instructor) William Edelglass, is one of two this summer offering prospective students a tantalizing taste of college-level intellectual antics.

That’s right, while most teens are enduring summer jobs at Kmart or playing video games or working on a seamless tan at the pool, this hearty band of students braved mosquitos and muskrats to read Leopold, Peter Singer, Mark Woods and Arne Naess in the woods. They discussed environmental philosophy and theories of “the wilderness” over a smoky fire, then physically explored the wilderness itself on the western slope of Haystack Mountain. They delved deeply into “deep ecology,” elbowed their way into ethnocentric arguments against wilderness and pondered the ethical equality of animals, without even a peep about their iPhone apps or favorite TV shows. You would think they were actually enjoying the reflective mental stimulation, but fresh air does weird things to people.

By all accounts, the highlight was paddling out onto the lake late at night and floating under the starry skies, finding constellations and naming a few new ones, listening to loons and barred owls carrying on. Some students had never camped out before, let alone seen a sky that clear or heard loons that loony. I mean, they came from as far away as Texas, where they probably don’t even have sphagnum moss.

Meanwhile the other precollege program, which took place last week, hit students right in the abdomen. Politics professor Meg Mott led a mouth-watering exploration of the connections between economics, politics and food called Eating Against the Machine. When they weren’t learning to hoe at local farms and cooking a variety of yummy local foods, students discussed the social, cultural and ethical aspects of the food we eat and where it comes from. One student said the best things about the program were “farming, eating, laughing and hiking.” If you, or an intellectually adventurous teen you know, missed your chance to contemplate moss or artisanal goat cheese this year, look for an expanded offering of precollege programs next summer.