• English
  • Staff Stories
Cutting To The Core
Jeff Rennicke, English teacher

The rasp of a two-person crosscut saw and the smell of sawdust may seem unlikely aspects of the first day of English class, but not here at Conserve. During the first class in the Conserve School English class, American Literature, and the Land: Wilderness Voices, CS20 students used a crosscut saw as an entry into a classic piece of environmental literature and as the jumping-off point for their first writing exercise.

Aldo Leopold’s famous essay The Good Oak (part of his book A Sand County Almanac,) uses the metaphor of the tree rings of a lightning-struck oak as a structure to explore nearly a century of Wisconsin environmental history. Year by year, as his saw cut through the annual rings of the old oak, Leopold laid out the highlights of that history and planted the seeds of thought that grew throughout the classic book and into his famous arguments known as “The Land Ethic.” 

As we read the essay, students considered the words of Leopold, and his actions by working together to saw wood of their own; the tree rings appeared before their eyes, the ideas grew like piles of sawdust beneath their saws. They heard the singing of the saw that Leopold speaks of in the essay, smelled the fresh-cut wood, and felt for themselves the human-nature connection that fuels the philosophy of "The Land Ethic."


Then, using the tree rings they had cut themselves as an example, students were led in an exercise to look deeply into their own environmental history. Each student was given a tree ring symbol on a clipboard. Using the center point (the “pith ring” of a tree) as their date of birth and the outer ring as the moment they came to Conserve, they were asked to list three essential times in their lives that had helped them connect with the natural world. These moments could include books they have read, camps they have attended, national parks visited, moments under the stars, collecting frogs, watching fireflies, etc. Sharing those moments of connection in a five-paragraph essay due next week serves both as a way for students to get to know each other more deeply, and gives teachers a sense of what writing skills each student brings to their Conserve School experience. Sawdust and literature, trust and trees, writing and working together, cutting straight to the core of our English class, American Literature and the Land: Wilderness Voices.

Photos contributed by Jeff Rennicke, English and Photography Teacher.