By Kathryn Caldwell
“My mind is being blown. I thought this only existed in Photoshop!” exclaimed my eleven-year old daughter, Josie as we reached the 4700-foot peak.
Surrounded by 360 degree views of purple-blue layers of mountains, we (my husband, daughter and I) were only 1 mile into a 7-mile day-hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We stayed at the summit for nearly an hour to bask in our exhilaration. We had just completed the so-called “toughest” part of the trail, 1,000 feet of elevation gain via boulder climbing. We were not daunted by the terrain. We had had a great time the whole way up, singing songs, making jokes, telling stories. We three were now hiking enthusiasts, at one with our surroundings, stopping for “comfort breaks” off the path; needing only the food and water in our packs. Self-sufficient. Strong. Simple.
It hadn’t started out that way. The day before, as we had set out on our 3-day wilderness hiking trip, my 11-year-old daughter had mumbled “I just can’t wait until this trip is over.” Despite a welcoming path, padded with pine-needles, dappled with just the right amount of sunlight, buoyed by the cool, babbling Gale River, my daughter was not buying-in to this trip. The straps of the backpack needed adjusting, a mosquito had flown in her ear and we couldn’t seem to get it out, boots needed retying, wasn’t it time for a break, a snack, a drink of water…How much longer was the trail? At this rate, we would be lucky to reach our mountain hut in time for dinner. But then, just as I was on the verge of losing my sense of humor about it all, something began to shift. Was it the adrenaline rush we all experienced when we saw the tracks on the trail? Bear? No, dog. But now, we were open to the possiblity…
And then the trail changed.
Abruptly, our path became a straight-up boulder scramble. A mile of it. Josie said how strong she felt, and how much she was enjoying the challenge. She could actually feel her muscles getting stronger! She liked this part of the trail best. While my husband and I were saving our breath for the next boulder-pull, Josie began to talk . She had ideas about a story for a book, and for an hour, climbing becoming second-nature, she outlined the plot of an interesting story idea. Then there were observations of moss-covered rocks, questions about the flowers by the path, excitement about the peek-a-boo views of what was to come, and even a new technology idea (patent pending). After 5.5 hours, by far the longest hike we had ever completed as a family, we arrived at the hut at 4,200 ft. Tired but feeling accomplished, we took in the mountain meadow, our cozy hut, the valley below, the blue skies and cool breeze. Time was altered. Had we only entered the wilderness this morning? Our minds were freer. Our needs were fewer.
The mother in me watched with pure joy as my daughter began to connect with our experience, notice the beauty of the wilderness around her, find herself in the flow of hiking. She was no longer concerned with the latest posts on Snapchat (which was off limits for the duration of the trip anyway) her hair style, clothes or other material concerns. She was present. Here. Now. Her imagination was turned on. Conscious, but lacking that painful self-consciousness that dogs her middle school life back home, I had not heard her talk so much all year. Exchanging knowing glances, my husband and I watched and listened as our daughter’s identity took on new aspects before our very eyes. A writer, inventor, nature-lover. Strong, competent, creative. “Mom, I have a new thing to add to my list of passions.” She actually said that.
“We will not fight to save what we do not love.”1 – SJ Gould
The teacher in me was thrilled about what was happening here on the trail. Our experience together as a family, and for Josie, was a textbook example of the principles of ecopsychology, and validation for the tools and techniques I use in the classroom in my ICSM seminar, Healthy Psyches, Healthy Planet.
Connection, identity, consciousness, care. When we connect with a place deeply enough, it becomes part of our identity. Identifying with a place, we become more conscious of that place. We are more likely to care for that place. What becomes important shifts as we begin to notice what we did not see before. Up in the mountains, Josie learned how the mountain huts that sheltered and fed us were totally off the grid, using solar and hydropower, composting food and human waste. College students staffing the huts shared all of this with us while cooking a meal for 36 guests after carrying tomorrow night’s food for on their backs up the same trail we had just crawled up. Delivered by these charismatic role models, the information sank in deeply. We were inspired. The way we live could be different. I knew that learning had happened for Josie two days later, when, eating at a restaurant in Lake George on our way back to Ithaca, Josie made the observation of how much energy was used, how much waste created by the restaurant compared to the mountain hut. Connection. Identity. Consciousness. Care.
This fall semester, for the fourth time, I will meet my Ithaca Seminar students. Brand new first year students. Expectant. Curious. A little nervous. Their devices are extensions of their bodies. Most of them can’t imagine going somewhere without their phones, or internet. Many of them have not spent much time in forests, mountains, wilderness. Some have. What I would really like to do is take them all to the wilderness and the mountain top. Since that isn’t feasible, I will do what I can to bring the outside into our classroom and our classroom outside. Inspired by artist Andy Goldsworthy, we will create nature art, we will go for hikes nearby, and meditate by the pond. Writing poems and blogs, we will reflect on these experiences and how they relate to the concepts of the course.
- A healthy psyche is conscious of its place in the natural world, learns to notice the many vices and devices of denial that keep us separate from the truth of our current environmental catastrophe. Connection and care lead to grief to be sure, but also, relief. Freedom from anxiety and the shear effort of denial.
- A healthy environment heals the psyche. When we are in wild and natural places our minds are less cluttered, our creativity expands into the quiet open space, our connection and love for the place and the people in it, begins to grow.
- Time in nature can change our perspective on life, and our perception of our place in the ecosystem. To quote Josie on her experience in the White Mountains, it can be “life transforming”.
These are the some of the concepts, backed by research, we explore in the classroom. More importantly, these are the concepts I hope students will experience- more than thinking them, I hope my students will feel them.
1Gould, S. J (1993). Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History. Norton: New York , p. 40.Orr, D. (2004). Earth in Mind. Island Press: Washington.