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What is nature?

Philosophy and experiential learning form a practical theology in the Tahoe Semester program.

What is nature?

I am 50 feet below the summit of Gale, a peak near the southern terminus of the Clark Range in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Looking back, I see the bright orange climbing helmets of ten college students bobbing and weaving through the granite as they make their way up a sharp ridge dividing Ansel Adams Wilderness and Yosemite National Park. It is a perfect day, and we are in the third week of a new semester. Most of these students have never even been on a backpacking trip, yet here they are in the middle of a six-day backcountry excursion making their way to the 10,495-foot mark on the summit of Gale. Arriving at the summit, we congratulate each other, don another layer, and have a celebratory Jolly Rancher as we attempt to process what we are seeing: the “shark’s teeth” of the Minarets as they rise out of the Ritter Range to the east, the lakes and granitic domes of Yosemite to the west and the Clark Range as it stretches out to the north. The sky is bright blue, contrasting perfectly with the emerald of the Chain Lakes beneath us. Our campsite on Rainbow Lake looks Lilliputian, a testament to what can be accomplished in a few short hours when you get off your tuchus and get after it. It is simply too much to take in and a sense of inarticulate awe falls upon each one of us.

I have been standing in places like this with students for over 20 years. On these trips, I have the privilege of functioning in the dual role of teaching them how to travel in the mountains and guiding them as their philosophy professor through the wild country of ideas (the latter being far more treacherous, in my opinion). Whether we are standing on a peak or camped on top of eight feet of snow looking at the stars or stopping to gawk at the beauty of Lake Tahoe from the saddle of a mountain bike, I am continually wondering how we are processing what we are seeing. To what extent are the historical layers of Western science from the early Greek cosmologists to Darwin affecting our conceptual awareness of what lies before us? How would the first inhabitants of the Tahoe Basin, the Washoe People, have seen what we are seeing? What is our place in all of this? How we answer these questions determines how these students will care for the planet.

In A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor argues forcefully that we live in an entirely immanent frame — in a state of “excarnation” as opposed to “incarnation.” In this state of excarnation, we “deal instrumentally with the realities which surround us, but their deeper meaning, the background in which they exist, the higher reality which finds expression in them, remain ignored and invisible.” We need, according to Taylor, to redefine our understanding of the term “nature.” He cites poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins for their ability to open up new conceptual and linguistic spaces for us to understand our relationship to the natural world. We need to continually answer the question, “What is nature?”.

The difficulty is that there is very little space for this kind of reflection in the contemporary political, educational and ecclesiastical landscape. Engaging with nature in our modern context is usually consumed with a call for immediate action and driven by ideological debates. But if we want to prepare the next generation to be good stewards, not only of wild spaces but of the planet, I believe we need to zoom out and think philosophically before we think practically. This is what I aim to do in my work with college students. Together, we ask: “What is nature?”

The Tahoe Semester

The Tahoe Semester functions as a partnership between Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities, and Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center. It offers both a fall and spring semester as well as a January term. Students reside in a dormitory directly on the Tahoe shore at Zephyr Point and there are three full-time student life staff members on property along with three faculty members, two of whom reside at Zephyr. The faculty and staff involved create programs that combine wilderness experiences in the Sierra Mountains with university courses focused on nature. This program has a heavy co-curricular focus, integrating all aspects of the students’ lives and overcoming the bifurcation between students and staff present on most college campuses. Faculty, staff and students share meals and wilderness experiences as they form a community equipped to investigate the meaning of nature using their minds, bodies and spirits.

Since this is a collegiate program, learning is, of course, emphasized. Our curriculum creates a dialogue between the humanities and the sciences by considering nature from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Students are required to take an environmental lab science course that focuses on the Tahoe Basin and the surrounding Sierra Nevada Mountains, a course in religious studies that examines the relationship between the environment and religion dealing with Indigenous as well as Western and non-Western traditions, and a philosophy of science course that examines the rise of Western science from the early Greeks to contemporary postmodern critiques. There are two plenary sessions each week where students and faculty meet to discuss issues at the intersection of all their courses such as climate change, the relationship between wilderness and race and Indigenous land rights through guest speakers and field experiences. The semester includes extended field experiences to the central coast of California and Yosemite National Park, where students and faculty have the space to examine the issues being discussed in their coursework firsthand.

But the Tahoe Semester goes beyond traditional classroom experiences. If one is going to make any headway on the question, “What is nature?”, the body matters. As Taylor writes, “To undo the [instrumental] reduction would be to rediscover the way in which life in our natural surroundings, as well as bodily feeling, bodily action, and bodily expression, can be channels of contact with fullness.” To fully engage the body in our scholarly explorations, all students participate in a six-day wilderness trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the third week of the semester. There, they learn the art of navigating using map and compass as well as basic wilderness skills that allow them to plan their own trips for the future. Additionally, all students complete a two-day wilderness first aid course so they can care for themselves and others while engaging our central question. These activities are not mere diversions but weave the role of the body into the heart of the curriculum.

The final key component of our curriculum focuses on the spirit of students through lessons in leadership. During the six-day wilderness trip, each student functions as a “Leader of the Day” and oversees navigation and group leadership. As part of their grade for the plenary course, students are provided clear criteria and lots of feedback to develop their own capacities for leadership, a focus that continues throughout the semester in subsequent outdoor adventures.

Combining academics, body, and leadership create two key opportunities for students in the form of risks and relationships. Structured risk in the mountains helps students see that there is far more to them than they realize. I have seen, time and time again, how physical risk-taking materializes into greater intrepidness in the classroom. Real academic inquiry requires real risk and when those risks are taken corporately, they lead to deeper relationships. Secondly, in a culture that values radical individualism and with educational systems that connect knowledge and power, we can lose the necessary and intimate connection between knowledge and friendship. Education is a collective practice cultivated best in communities that foster relationship between friends. I know my students and, for better or worse, they know me.

What does wilderness travel have to do with being a scholar?

I write this section of the article having just completed the beginning of the spring semester backpacking trip with students. Winter trips in the Sierra can be filled with warm sun and high temperatures during the day, but they can also include high winds, massive amounts of snow and biting cold. We got all three of the latter during the first days of our trip, but the last 24 hours blessed us with a brilliantly blue sky and a descent through untracked powder and snow covered pines. As we took our last break at the edge of a beautiful meadow, the students had that unique look of weary joy knowing that they endured a hard thing and that that thing was done well (and that that thing is nearly over). They knew that they were about 20 minutes away from donuts and being able to check their phones. So they were willing to indulge a bit of professorial speechifying.

I always give a version of this talk before we head back to warm showers – a convenience that seems almost unbelievable after five days of melting snow for water – because what we just did seems so completely unrelated to the academic focus of the Tahoe Semester program. What does wilderness travel have to do with being a scholar? While my sermonette is far more inspirational on the edge of a snow-covered meadow surrounded by friends, here are the three points I always try to make.

First, the worlds of scholarship and wilderness travel are more related than you would think. When you hoist a backpack and put on snowshoes, you enter what is, for most, an alien world. Many people experience a bit of trepidation and some disorientation at the lack of the familiar in this space. Being dropped into the wilderness of a novel or a physics problem is no different. You need to figure out where you are and how to navigate effectively.

On this trip, we give students a map and compass and teach them the basic skills they need to flourish in an environment indifferent to their flourishing. The same is true in pursing our question, “What is nature?”. It sometimes feels like there are no boundaries and that this question is too big to take on. But if students don’t feel a sense of vertigo in their academic journey, then they are probably not asking hard enough questions or questions that are even very worthwhile. Students need to map out where they are and make a plan.

Second, the virtues we develop while traveling in the wilderness are virtues that aid us in our academic quest. After five days, students know each other’s stories. They have, quite literally, borne each other’s burdens. While there are individuals who manage to make headway on difficult academic problems alone, the ethic of friendship and self-sacrifice that students develop as they endure difficult things helps them face big questions. It teaches students that they need each other; they need patience and they need forthrightness if they are to get anywhere.

If students thought breaking trail in two feet of snow was hard, they have not read Aristotle deeply nor faced the question of how race impacts ideas of wilderness. There is harder stuff yet to come, but students are better prepared because of what they just accomplished. The texts and problems they will encounter are far heavier than their packs. Students need to rely on each other.

Finally, being in the mountains for five days inspires reverential humility. In the backcountry, things are out of our control, and students are made keenly aware of their limitations. Paul Woodruff in his book Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue writes, “Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies beyond our control. … Simply put, reverence is the virtue that keeps human being from trying to act like gods.” Reverence does not need to be tied to religion, but it must be part of a well-functioning community. There are things that transcend all of us, and if we forget that, we lose our humility. I don’t mean the kind of humility that revels in impotence and prides itself on a lack of knowledge, but the kind of humility that the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch labeled, “the selfless respect for reality,” that Socrates called wisdom or “knowing what it is that you don’t know,” and that Micah 6:8 connects to justice and community.

While backpacking, students deal with a world whose harshness throws into relief all its poetry. My hope is that this experience inculcates within them a sense that there are things that transcend all of us. That should not stop us from taking a stand on hard positions, but we must realize that there is always more to know and extend that grace to our opponent.

Why is this important?

As an educator with a passion for creation, I constantly ask myself, “What am I doing to prepare the next generation to be good stewards of the planet?” I sometimes hear a criticism of the Tahoe Semester that calls it impractical in the face of a climate crisis. After all, when your house is on fire, you don’t retreat and start contemplating the nature of a house. Why should we contemplate the nature of creation in the face of global warming?

I certainly understand that the issues we are facing require action, but there needs to be a season for students when they can pull back and examine the fundamental questions that have faced every human community from the beginning. That season, once a robust part of a university education, is fading rapidly. I have spent the entirety of my career combining wilderness experience with academic inquiry because it is the best way that I have found to approximate the liberal arts ideal: scholarship carried out under the auspices of friendship in a tightly-knit community with the integration of academic disciplines and an emphasis not just on the mind but on the body and the spirit as well. I am hoping, even though the odds seem stacked against it right now, that the liberal arts ideal endures and that students, nourished by it, take their place as part of our best hope for the survival and flourishing of the created order.

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