When students arrive, campus changes: hammocks bridge trees, Frisbees fly, chatter fills hallways. They come from Portland and D.C, Milwaukee and Cincinnati, Brooklyn and Atlanta to spend a semester in Wisconsin’s north woods. They come to study Environmental Science in old growth forest, to learn History while paddling like Lewis and Clark, to ponder wilderness while walking, writing, skiing and snowshoeing.
This summer my husband and I moved to Conserve School, a boarding school in Land ‘O Lakes, Wisconsin, to teach Environmental Stewardship. After a five-month stretch of world travel, Peter and I wondered how to feel, to unpack, and settle. We divided time between nesting and exploring, between drying herbs for tea and running single track trails, tending gardens and paddling lakes, potting plants and wandering woods. We arrived in Wisconsin while daylight still stretched into evening and blueberries still lined the bogs. During school’s first weeks, I held Stewardship class outside. We mapped our homes and the sounds we heard when we sat in silence to listen. We told stories and named hopes.
There is something about learning and living, paddling and pitching tents that changes a collection of people into community. But I don’t know when it took place. When did I learn to identify the people around me not just by their voices and faces but by their strides and silhouettes? When did I start to see my students’ worries and wonders in the subtle shifts in the way they carry themselves to class?
Now, as snow dusts trails and days grow short, we show stewardship by safeguarding the semester’s final weeks. We savor snowflakes, Saturdays, starry nights, and northern lights.
I came to Conserve School to teach Environmental Stewardship–but I’ve learned stewardship is superficial when not grounded in reverence. So here in the north woods, I steward by saying thank-you. Thank-you for fox tracks and fresh snow, for light on lakes and students slip-sliding snow-slicked roads. Thank-you for the smell of balsam fir, for bonfires and backpacking, for the trails we’ve taken to get here and the ones that will usher us forward.