How to be Human
Andrew Deaett, Science Teacher

“His role then was to learn not how to control the world as a human, but to learn from the world how to be human.” - Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass. This question, how to be human, has been an underlying theme throughout the semester in AP Environmental Science class.  While technology and industrialization has certainly played a positive role in the lives of many, increasing food production globally, decreasing the prevalence of infectious disease, broadening our understanding of science, and making our lives more comfortable in myriad ways, I argue that it has also caused a rift between humans and the world around us. It is rare that I meet people who truly feel a part of this world, a oneness that transcends the subject/object relationship that so many of us experience. When we as humans view the world around us as objects, label old growth hemlocks with the pronoun “it’, and view living beings as “natural resources,” we are perpetuating a myth that we are not only disconnected from our world but dominators of the very beings that sustain our lives.

Light coming through trees

Photo contributed by Jeff Rennicke, English Teacher.

To begin answering this question, how to be human, we set out on August 20th, the first day of class, to start our relationship anew. Entering the corridor of trees (a segment of trail on campus with five marked trees), students were asked on that very first day to meet their new neighbors. Often in ecology, or science classes, relationships with trees begin with identification and the application of common and Latin names. I fear that if a name is given too soon, a hemlock tree remains a hemlock, or at best, we might scratch the surface and apply the Latin name Tsuga canadensis. When we have a name, it is all too easy to think we know that being and move on.  

Lake and trees

Photo contributed by Jeff Rennicke, English Teacher.

Our relationship in AP Environmental Science began differently. Students were asked to refrain from using those trees’ common or Latin names, even if they brought with them that prior knowledge. The first step was to observe the lifeform in front of them as if meeting for the first time. On this very first day of class, students were given a task that would be carried out over the duration of their semester, come to know these beings. Come to know them beyond their names, beyond their use as a resource. Form a relationship with them through study, play, observation, and deep experience. When you think you know them, go back in a new light, and know them again. Then again you think you finally know them, go back and view yourself. Whenever you think you’ve come to “know,” is exactly the time when you need to look deeper and challenge your assumptions.

Fall colors on the lake

Photo contributed by Calli, CS17, Reedsburg, WI.

Over the semester students have slept in the forest, immersed in old-growth stands dominated by Tsuga canadensis (eastern hemlock), Betula Allagheniensis (yellow birch), and Acer Saccharum (sugar maple). They have been reliant on the fire was given to them by the bark of Betula papyrifera (paper birch) while cooking alone in the woods over solos.  They have studied the logging history of Pinus strobus (white pine) and mourned the loss of these once great pinelands. They have popped the resin blisters of Abies balsamea (balsam fir), and now that snow has fallen, they’ve also learned that this being is the one who holds the best snow.  Whether or not they know the common names or Latin names of these individuals, they know them on a deeper level than a name could ever provide. They know how they look on a cool fall morning shrouded in mist, they know how they hold themselves with dignity as the temperatures drop to 9 below zero, they know which provide the best, sturdy limbs, for climbing with friends, and they now know how it feels to be familiar with the world around them.

Photo Contributed by Calli, CS17, Reedsburg, WI.

After four months of building these relationships, the world around us has become known to the students of CS17.  Each one of them knows their phenology spot in rich ways that no one else does.  With open minds, bodies, and hearts, students have formed the basis of a relationship with nature.  Their phenology spots challenged them to return to a place, even when they thought they knew it.  Yet when they returned, they always learned something new or saw their spot from a new perspective.  With each new question, their relationship deepened, and they were drawn back yet again, to continue their observations.

homework

Photo contributed by Calli, CS17, Reedsburg, WI.

As we come to the end of the semester, we have been struggling to answer this original question, “how to be human?”  I think it is rather preposterous to attempt to answer this question in four months, so my goal has instead been to further define the question. I remind students of my words at the beginning of the semester.  “I have to apologize now, for I doubt that I will provide you with many answers this semester.  I will, however, help you come to know the question.”  Four months later, these words ring true.  I don’t have the answers.  However, through our explorations of the world around us, and our own inner landscapes, I believe that each student has come to know the question, “how to be human?”