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Cornell Wilderness Term

Extended Introduction/Description for the Course

How do we, as early 21 st century American readers, encounter both the wilderness and the literature of encounters with the wilderness? I suspect that for many of us, our first encounters with the wilderness have been mediated by the screen, whether through TV documentaries or through Disney. Therefore, the course will begin by considering spectator roles and formative classics: Disney’s Bambi and the camping episode featuring the irksome Vicky in the original The Parent Trap. What messages did we get about the wilderness from such sagas? What might we jettison to encounter the wilderness afresh? Or, perhaps we learned all we know about the wilderness from films such as Deliverance, and consider the wilderness a macho, or at least a male, terrain. Do we come to the wild steeped in tales of mastery and daring-do from trekkers who boast of exploits of mastery, of “conquering” rivers and peaks? Is the wilderness only for the buff and brazen? We’ll do some reading to de-center those perspectives. Or, we may have formed our relationship to the wilderness partly through L. L. Bean, REI Outfitters, and the expedition industry with its catalogues and consumer lures. Is the wilderness only for those who can afford the gourmet gear? Though we will respect and need key equipment for our trip (don’t forget the flashlights and raingear!), we will consider, too, how those outfitters reflect another contemporary perspective on the wilderness for us to ponder.

What other ways might there be to meet with the wilderness? We will consider alternative practices such as Zen meditation, including sitting in silence and stillness, and some Native American approaches, as presented by Linda Hogan in Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World. We will study the practice of artistic creation, written or visual, as one of looking deeply, and thus another way of relating to the wilderness. Before leaving for the Boundary Waters, we will have a class on meditation from a Zen teacher and practitioner. We will see slide shows and films about photographers and artists who approach the wilderness with camera and paintbrush, such as Emily Carr, the brilliant Canadian wilderness writer and artist of the first half of the 20 th century, and Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham of the f64 Group, who in very distinctly different ways used length of focus and the close close up to create art from their encounters with the wilderness. At the Boundary Waters, we will immerse ourselves in the wilderness and the literature, and track that immersion in journal/portfolio projects. We may learn to recognize trees and wolf scat. To capture our own response to the wilderness, we will keep journals/portfolios which may include photography, painting, and sketching in addition to writing. Different approaches for journaling, such as a day of silence, may refresh our responses. For a creative project you could craft illustrations for Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” from sketches you make at the Boundary Waters, for example. Or, you could write a short story or poem for which one of Emily Carr’s dynamic paintings or Ansel Adams’ photographs could be the illustration. Students will provide their own art supplies, from journals to sketch pads and digital cameras, though high tech equipment is not necessary and may prove risky. Keeping it minimal may be the best way to go. Sketches, phrases caught mid paddle stroke, and hasty snapshots can be the best ways to draft your exploration of a wilderness revelation. Waterproof disposable cameras in the right hands can provide sublime photographs.

You may be a seasoned camper, a neophyte like me, or something in between, but the class will all work together to make the course and our trip, memorable. The Field Station is primitive, rustic, and rather raw. Be forewarned. Be prepared to forego showers and to embrace the rustic sauna. Be prepared to do your share in community work like meal prep and dishwashing. Be prepared to do without electricity, laptops, cell phones, and iPods. But it is a worthwhile trade-off, because you gain breathtaking beauty, stunning silence, the physical challenges of hoisting and canoeing, and moments of sublime revelation—plus camaraderie. (“Wake up! Are those wolves howling?! There must be fifty of them!”) Last September was my first trek to this Wilderness Field Station, but my first trip to the Boundary Waters (decades ago, before it was the Boundary Waters) left an indelible mark on me; now it is your turn.

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