- Staff Stories
My arrival at Lowenwood was like stepping into a dream. On a staff training trip early in those first weeks, we paddled into the Sylvania Wilderness Area. The shores of the lakes were mysterious; treasures lay waiting in corners I didn't yet know existed. A few weeks later, after CS11 (Fall 2015) had begun, I got lost on campus. History and English teachers, Michael Salat and Jeff Rennicke, were holding their annual triathlon, which consisted of canoeing, biking, and running. We were supposed to bike around the blue trail but turned right where we should have turned left, and found ourselves twisted in the maze of campus trails. Many of us at Conserve School, staff and students alike, know that getting lost in the woods is an invitation to explore and come to know a place. It was then that I, like Conserve students, became the protagonist to my own story of discovery.
One of my new colleagues, Cathy Palmer, Director of Student Life, told me that Lowenwood is a snowglobe in the wintertime. I told my childhood self that I had found my dream world: fairyland, magic in the woods, lunar eclipse over harvest moon. Sunrise paddles on Big Donahue Lake brought stillness to my days, listening to the tremolo of loons. I followed fox tracks through powder snow and set out to understand what it meant to be a child of nature.
Spring came to CS14 (Spring 2017), and a small group of students asked me, "Would you paddle all the lakes on campus with us?" A tradition was born after that paddle; the Lowenwood Portage. Each semester since, I have paddled with students, all nine lakes on campus Little Bateau, Black Oak Lake, Penny, Dollar, Inkpot, Big Donahue, Little Donahue, Lake Elaine, finally ending on Big Bateau with a celebratory dip in the chilly waters. We bore the weight of canoes on our shoulders, jumped from bog to bog eating cranberries and wondering aloud, reveling in the delicate dance between land and freshwater.
To the north of Conserve School lies the border with the Sylvania Wilderness Area, our own forbidden forest. While looking out from the sledding hill, the Sylvania is dark and vast, marked by a series of yellow stakes identifying the border. I found myself drawn to the hemlocks. As a student in elementary school in New Hampshire, my class often ventured to a hemlock-shaded creek, a mile walk down to the ravine behind the school. I picked a stretch of the creek to study and come to know. With each visit, we made observations and drew what we saw. I came to know the bugs, stones, and ripples. I watched the creek change over the seasons. A seed was planted, to be nourished by loving teachers and mentors over the years. I have continued to grow into a deeper sense of self, always rooted in that dark, hemlock-shaded creek.
When I was studying Environmental Conservation at the University of New Hampshire, an exam for Introduction to Natural Resources required me to successfully navigate the woods using only a compass and my own pacing. Years later, those skills were brought to life, necessitated by the uniquely disorienting landscape of Sylvania. I wandered, heading north, fearful of getting lost, yearning to know this new place. I paddled the five-lake loop; Big Bateau, Cub, Deer Island, Loon, Florence, and back to Big Bateau. On exploration week trips with students, I ventured deeper. Finding hidden lakes and secret passages off Mountain Lake, learning where the best wild leeks can be found in spring, where manoomin (wild rice) grows, and where swans flock on Crooked Lake.
Former Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, once said, "What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other travel. Travel a thousand miles by train, and you are a brute; pedal five hundred miles by bicycle, and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred miles in a canoe, and you are already a child of nature."
On one trip, I slept under a tarp, surrounded by the fallen leaves of sugar maple and yellow birch in the fall. We fished, laughed, and ate together with members of the Conserve School community around the fire. We spoke truths, softened by the singing wilderness around us. Swans flew overhead, barred owls called at night, the morning air was crisp and breathless.
CS15 (Fall 2017), student Rosa Koehnlein wrote, "Mom, I'm an earth child! I was five then. It was the early spring, and I was naked... head deep in the dirt alongside my one-year-old brother, Henry. The garden was freshly tilled. The musty scent of Earth filling the air after a whole winter of being covered in snow and ice."
To be a part of Conserve School is to nurture. Students came to the semester program curious and wide-eyed, trusting, and nervous. Staff responded with kindness, offering guidance, and creating space for growth. Together as a learning community, we asked, what is environmental stewardship? Throughout the semester, we continued to nurture the idea that humanity can be of service to an ecological community.
In an essay written for Orion Magazine's Places Where You Live series, former Conserve School Teaching Fellow, Rachel Button wrote, "I came to Conserve School to teach Environmental Stewardship. But I've learned stewardship is superficial when not grounded in reverence." Reverence was fundamental to our work at Conserve School, and for good reason. The late Donella Meadows, systems thinker and environmental studies professor at Dartmouth College, learned that to change the world, we need to understand leverage points in systems, some having a more significant impact than others. Donella learned that the highest leverage lies in changing the paradigms out of which systems arise. This means our worldviews must be challenged. Who and what do we revere? Who do we include in our understanding of community? What are the goals of our economic systems? In what ways are we complicit in systems of oppression and exploitation? Ultimately, for systems to change, we must change. Donella Meadows reminds us, "Stay humble, stay a learner."
And so it comes back to learning, we are a school after all. In the book "The Courage to Teach," Parker J. Palmer claims that learning happens within the community of truth, a challenge to the notion that the teacher is the expert in the classroom whose work is to transfer information to the receiving student. In the community of truth, all participants become active knowers, engaged in direct relationship with the essential subjects of the discipline, mobilized by the "grace of great things." Inspired by that quote from Rilke, Palmer writes,
"By great things, I mean the subjects around which the circle of seekers has always gathered--not the disciplines that study these subjects, not the texts that talk about them, not the theories that explain them, but the things themselves.
I mean the genes and ecosystems of biology, the symbols, and referents of philosophy and theology, the archetypes of betrayal and forgiveness and loving and loss that are the stuff of literature. I mean the artifacts and lineages of anthropology, the materials of engineering with their limits and potentials, the logic of systems in management, the shapes and colors of music and art, the novelties and patterns of history, the elusive idea of justice under law."
The great things came to life at Conserve School, taking center stage to dazzle students and teachers alike. In science, this meant exploring the world with curiosity. On the first day of class, while hiking around Little Donahue Lake, students were asked to make observations of the diverse forest communities on campus, and generate questions as they went. Students asked questions that can be answered through observation and experimentation; questions that can be answered by referencing prior studies; and questions that exist beyond the realm of empirical knowledge, and serve to challenge us philosophically, ethically, and spiritually.
Throughout the semester, the practice of science was brought to life by focusing not on memorizing a body of knowledge, but by building and constructing knowledge using science as a method. Students spent significant time observing natural systems and generating good questions. In science, good questions share some commonalities. They are novel, they challenge our assumptions, they are creative, and when answered, they can be transformative in society. As lessons progressed, and the Conserve School learning community developed and more sophisticated methods of answering our questions were introduced. Yet, still, the foundation was rooted in the fundamental elements of science and inquiry. Science begins where observations meet curiosity.
One of the first questions CS20 students were asked to consider in science was, "how does light vary across the landscape?" To answer this particular question, classes ventured into the hemlock forest on Little Donahue Lake, looking for wisdom. Students found that the hemlock forest is dark, very little light penetrates to the forest floor, and only small spots called "sun flecks" become illuminated. Tolerant of shade, hemlocks, sugar maple, and yellow birch form a unique old-growth community. Some ecologists entertain the notion that hemlock forests are a climax community, the idea in ecology that if given enough time with limited disturbance, a plant community will find stability in a natural endpoint. The forest creates conditions that perpetuate itself and will continue to do so. Humans crave this kind of order, control, and predictability, but it turns out that reality is not always cooperative. The theory of a climax community is weakened by stochasticity, randomness in nature. Researchers from the Harvard Forest have explored the historical rise and fall of hemlock over the last ten millennia by reading pollen records left in lake sediments.
"We have emerged with a critical lesson from these ancient ecological events: natural systems are extraordinarily complex and spatially variable. As a consequence, we should expect that their dynamics will likely surprise us in many ways as human activities continue to perturb the Earth's ecological and climate systems in significant ways."
Currently, hemlocks are threatened throughout their range by an invasive species, the hemlock woolly adelgid. Researchers from Harvard Forest expect that hemlock will be functionally extinct by the year 2025. The neatly packaged climax community succumbs to stochasticity. Nature is our teacher, and our work is learning how to listen to her lessons. In listening to the hemlocks, CS20 learned of ephemerality, uncertainty, and letting go. As CS20 marks the end of the semester program at Conserve School, these lessons seem as real as ever.
If the semester program as we know it was ever supposed to end, it was to end sweetly, ushered to rest by its shepherds, with offerings of poetry, a final paddle, and candlelight ceremony. It was not supposed to end fragmented amidst the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stochasticity is at play, a reminder to us that we are not in control. Dissolve expectations.
As we say goodbye to the semester program, I wonder how we have changed. Education is a relational exchange, and in the learning community, all members leave transformed. How will our students grow into caring adults, nurturing the next generation of Earth's children? Do their hearts ache, longing to return to their home in Lowenwood, or does the memory remain as a gentle pulse, beating steadily in a chaotic world? How have the families changed, are their hearts swollen and full of pride as they watch their children venture into an uncertain world, confident and strong? And what about the staff?
I believe that staff have been transformed as well. Each semester staff was offered the opportunity to see the world through the curious eyes of young people, eyes that were bright focused, and full of wonder. I think overall, I learned to seek humility, to be of service to something, or someone greater than myself. John O'Donohue wrote, "I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding." Like the hemlocks, Conserve School is ephemeral, rising and falling like the breath.