As a high school student, I greatly feared becoming an adult. The dour prospect of being tied to a desk with only fluorescent lights and a dim window looking out on other buildings genuinely scared me. Ironically, teachers like me, who once wanted to avoid desk jobs, sometimes find themselves in a job that feels suspiciously similar. A love for books paradoxically becomes sitting in front of a computer tied to email or having most of your day lit by artificial light. This is why my wife is so adamant about homeschooling: the nature component. Homeschooling offers freedom and time for the enjoyment and observation of beauty in nature and for leisure in the traditional sense. While there are things that classical schools can offer that homeschooling cannot, homeschooling has a distinct advantage when it comes to interacting with nature. However, homeschools do not have a monopoly on enjoying the outdoors and classical schools should give more emphasis to first-hand encounters with nature. This is more than just having an outdoor classroom, a pergola with some picnic tables and a few bushes. Classical schools should encourage teachers to hold classes in the woods.
If you are a teacher, especially a middle school teacher, you might already disagree. There is no way, you might say, I could ever manage my fourth period in the woods, I can barely manage them in a classroom, a controlled environment. Let me posit, nature is good for us, even if it is challenging to be outside with a group of students.
I take my humanities class outside every autumn for at least two class periods. The students love it, and they handle it well. At first, I was concerned about their behavior, but they have always been quick to take seriously the joy of being outside. Autumn hues and the deepening time of September, October, and November are wonderful, perfect for class in the woods. Autumn returns my wonder afresh. In a woodsy class, I hope to impart that delight to my students.
Students bring a lawn chair, blanket, or hammock, and we walk back into the woods and creek area near the school. It feels like wilderness hiking but only for a hundred feet. I am sure to take them into the woods for class on days that are pleasant, cool, damp, sunny, breezy, and quiet. Each student finds a place alone, and some ground rules are given. No sleeping, no talking, no walking around (but you can stand up), no fidgeting with things in your pocket. Respect the bugs and birds. Do not merely look, observe. Observe the woods and creek in a deep and patient way. Be alone and enjoy it.
As students disperse, they are given two things to guide their time in the woods. First, as part of their humanities class, students are given a selection entitled “Solitude” from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The class, 9th Grade United States Humanities, draws on texts like Walden, but many other things can be fitting “wood-reads.” While not everything about Thoreau is exemplary, his chapter on solitude exhibits some of the best natural observations. His 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days in a small cabin on the banks of Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts was purposely directed at observing, enjoying, and living with nature. Thoreau models the recording of observations in his writing. He teaches carefully and sometimes accidentally.
In “Solitude”, Thoreau considers his place alone in the woods. He answers a great many questions about the nature of society, community, friendship, and civilization. Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality is echoed at times, but Thoreau keeps things more personal and plainer. As my students and I read Thoreau sitting in the woods, he chastises us. He says that after two years, “I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude.” I cannot say the same, and I doubt modern man could agree with that statement, if they were in Thoreau’s context. He goes on to expand the beauty of solitude in a heavy rain storm: “Some of my pleasantest hours were during the long rain storms in the spring or fall, which confined me to the house for the afternoon as well as the forenoon, soothed by their ceaseless roar and pelting; when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves.” Thoreau sets an example that we are quickly losing (or may have already totally lost) in modern society. He can sit alone in his thoughts for a long time joyfully. Solitude is pleasant, because “society is commonly too cheap,” he writes. However, we must be the kind of people that can sit with our own thoughts; having things to think about, we can delight in the lack of the presence of another person. While Thoreau can be dense and odd, his chapter on solitude draws out its beauty and encourages the practice of it. I hope that students see this as they read. As they complete the reading, students are then given a second guideline.
Second, students are told to sit quietly and observe in as much solitude as possible. They are to live like Thoreau for a brief time. I think of Blaise Pascal’s proverb, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Woods are not a quiet room, but the discipline of paying attention can still be practiced. Most high schools think they are beyond observation and so get restless after a time, but any good education always includes observation and meditation. Observation is education at the deepest level, and observation requires time. If a student notices “everything” around them in ten minutes of looking, they are observing sloppily. Notice bark and the leaves, the canopy of the trees, a robin, and notice the robin’s personality, the color of its feet, the vast number of hues on an oak tree’s trunk, the number of veins in a yellow maple leaf that has fallen, the color of the clay, the pill bugs beneath the leaves, the rays of sun moving on the forest floor, and the direction the ants are going and why. Give nature your attention. Attention’s root word means to stretch toward something, so I tell my students that they should stretch toward the nature around them, and in so doing, stretch toward God.
In the early 1980s, a woman from California wrote to Wendell Berry stating that there ought to be more about nature in books about anxiety and depression. Berry in a return letter agreed. From this brief story in Berry’s The Art of the Commonplace, he insists that the trouble with young people today is that they are too removed from themselves. Of course, if you know Wendell Berry, you know that being removed from “themselves” means to be removed from nature, and the self that is bound up with the natural world. Berry’s writing is both majestic and enthralling, but sometimes he elevates nature too highly and does not properly consider God the creator of nature (remember St. Paul writes that we are mere pilgrims in this place). However, Berry does strike the right chord when he binds together nature and rest. Just as liturgical practices in classrooms and churches offer islands of security in seas of tumult, nature provides a rest that cannot be synthetically designed, so maybe having class in the woods is really about giving students rest. Understandably, students often seem weary, so teachers try to reward students cheaply with a quick walk outside, less reading, or a plastic-cutlery class party. There is a time for rest and a time for work, and the desire for restful learning is not amiss. However, maybe instead of offering your class a trivial respite, take them to the woods. Give them a tree for a teacher and a finch for a friend, and maybe for a time, as Berry says, they “will rest in the grace of the world” and be “free.”