The Trail of Eyes
Jeff Rennicke, English Teacher

Students in English Class Face Their Fears in the Forest

Things that go bump in the night, “nature red in tooth and claw,” bigfoot sightings, and more: whether we realize it or not, fear is still often at the heart of our relationship with nature. Fear of the dark, fear of wild animals, fear of the unknown hoots and calls and footfalls in the dark define for many of us at least a part of our experience with wilderness. To be an effective environmental communicator we must acknowledge that fear and seek to understand it both in ourselves and in others.

Students in the forest with paper eyes doing an exercise on fear in the outdoors.
Students posing with a tree that has paper eyes on it.
Students posing with a tree that has %22eyes%22

In this unit of Conserve School’s English class, we talk about our own fears beginning with a hike through a "Haunted Forest" where the trees have eyes. Then, once our hearts have stopped racing, we gather for a discussion of the origins of fear of the wilderness going back to the stories of indigenous peoples during hunting and gathering eras (such as the Inuit tale "The Man Who Became a Caribou") as well as post-Neolithic Revolution or agrarian lifestyle-based stories such as the original version of "Little Red Riding Hood." Other readings in this unit include "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and "Nature" by Chief Luther Standing Bear. To reinforce our understanding of the origins of these fears, we read Chapter 1 ("Old World Roots of Opinion") of the classic wilderness text Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash. Students will express these ideas creatively through the creation of a "Field Guide to Wilderness Spirits" including descriptions of some of the monstrous creatures that once peopled the human mind if not the actual landscape, as well as some of the early figures such as Eastwick Evans, Saint Francis of Assisi, Petrarch and the Chinese landscape painter Kuo Hsi who began to change the public's mind on the evils of nature. 

smiling student standing next to a tree with eyes.
Student smiling and leaning on a tree with paper eyes affixed to the trunk.
Student kneeling next to a broken tree with paper eyes.

One of the biggest weapons against fear is knowledge. It is the first step in many journeys: facing our fears. By walking the “Trail of eyes” and reading stories of cultures far and wide, students take look both nature and themselves straight in the eye and face their fears.

Photos contributed by Jeff Rennicke.