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Fall 1994, Volume 11.3



Stan Tag

Teaching the Geography of Hope

Stan Tag (Ph.D., University of Iowa) is an Assistant Professor of English at Albertson College of Idaho. He recently completed a dissertation entitled, "Growing Outward into the World: Henry David Thoreau and the Maine Woods Narrative Tradition 1804-1886."


We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.
                                                                                                              —Wallace Stegner

The room had no windows. We were walled in—twenty-six of us—with no perspective out on the world. The range of light fixtures buzzed softly over our heads as we waited for the bell to ring, and class to begin. A student walked in, set down his books and took off his coat, snow falling to the floor. Outside, the snow had been drifting and blowing all morning. It was early January in Minnesota. We had gathered here—deep in the core of St. Olaf College's Rolvaag Library—for an intensive four-week course on "The Wilderness in American Life." When the bell rang, I sat up on the back of a chair and read "Inversnaid," a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem:

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

In the silence that followed I turned and wrote a single question on the blackboard: "What is wilderness?" A few students gave me those I'm-not-sure-what-you-want looks, but others began writing right away. Half an hour later we started talking about the question, our discussion continuing for nearly an hour. That evening a student wrote in her journal: "Wilderness can be many things at once. Both beautiful and terrible. Both clear and too vast to grasp."


Student responses from the first day of class—beauty, power, fright, retreat, solitude, freedom, peace and independence, silence, tranquility, serenity, diversity, interdependence, danger, peace and death, simplicity, mystery, elusiveness, energy, wisdom, savagery, equilibrium.

Outside. A place.

The smell of pine, a cycle, a natural process, a place where animals survive naturally in their habitats, where nature's work has not been altered, a place in the heart, an escape, a great adventure, a feeling of rightness with the land, a state of mind, a place of confusion, an experience, a refuge, an idea, an altered consciousness achieved in unfamiliar places, a point of view, animals, the absence of humans, regions of the unknown, the unblemished seat of creation, the cradle of civilization, the music of the earth, mother earth.

Cannot be created, only preserved or destroyed.

Wild, untouched, unphotographable, pure, respected, peaceful, healthy, mystical, enchanting and deceptive, disappearing, nourishing, awe-inspiring, primitive, undefinable.


Over forty years ago Aldo Leopold wondered "how to bring about a striving for harmony with land among a people many of whom have forgotten there is any such thing as land, among whom education and culture have become almost synonymous with landlessness." When an educated woman told him "that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof," Leopold asked, "Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?" It is still a good question to ask, for despite decades of increasing environmental awareness, most of us remain ecologically illiterate. According to David Orr, environmental studies professor at Oberlin College and author of Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World (1992), education in the modern world has failed to prepare us to live on a planet with ecological limitations: "We have not yet begun to worry whether or not our children will know how to protect the biological resources upon which any economy ultimately depends. The crisis cannot be solved by the same kind of education that helped create the problems." Orr calls for (and extensively describes) an education "designed to heal, connect, liberate, empower, create, and celebrate. Postmodern education," he asserts, "must be life-centered." At the heart of Orr's vision is a question Joseph Meeker asked twenty years ago: "Is it an activity which adapts us better to the world or one which estranges us from it?"

To take Leopold, Orr, and Meeker seriously means to think more carefully about what we do in the classroom and what implications those activities have on our relationship to land, to wilderness, to the world in which we live, and to life itself. Wilderness literature, in particular, explores the relationships, connections, and tensions between what is outside us and what is within us, between the wild landscapes of the earth and the inner landscapes of our own minds and hearts. In teaching and reading wilderness literature we are continually challenged to reconnect the processes of our education to the intricacies of the earth. The roots of the term education itself mean "to lead out," which is exactly what Orr and other environmental educators are trying to do: lead us back out into the world, bridge the gaps (that Leopold saw) between our education and our experience.

Most of the students in "The Wilderness in American Life"—two-thirds of whom were in their first year of college—were drawn to this course because at some point in their lives they had experienced a wild place and loved it. They had lived in North Woods cabins, on farms, fished and canoed wild rivers, hunted, camped with the Boy Scouts, sailed on Lake Superior, hiked along mountain ridges. For a few, spending time in wild places was "very much a way of life." A student who grew up near Grand Marais, in a small house with no electricity or running water, felt that his experiences there had "allowed [him] to expand [his] imagination." Others, though, had difficulty describing why they were interested in wilderness: "it is just a feeling I have had that has been with me for as long as I can remember." Many had experienced peace and serenity in the wild, and valued wilderness as an escape from what Edward Abbey has described as the deadening and numbing effects of contemporary American society. One student, in Abbey-like cynicism, declared simply that he was interested in wilderness because "it does not lie or betray."

We often used both previous and imagined personal experiences as ways to lead us into the literature. One day, for instance, I began class by reading "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by W. B. Yeats. We had been reading Anne LaBastille's Woodswoman, and on this particular day we were going to discuss how and why she goes about building a cabin in the woods. After the Yeats poem, I asked the students to imagine themselves living in a wild place. Where would it be? What would their dwelling be like? What would they do there? They wrote for thirty minutes. Then we went around the room and heard from everyone. When we began discussing Woodswoman, I realized how valuable the preceding activity had been. By imagining their own life in the woods, the students had bridged a gap between LaBastille's experience and their own. Students began to understand LaBastille's motivations more clearly and to ask deeper questions about the personal, cultural, and natural implications of her cabin building.

Previous wilderness experience may have encouraged most of these students to sign up for this course, but it was the vitality of the wilderness literature itself that kept them there. We began by looking at historical perspectives on wilderness, reading excerpts by William Bradford, Mary Rowlandson, William Bartram, Emerson, Thoreau, Isabella Bird, Plenty Coups, Clarence King, Verplanck Colvin, and John Wesley Powell. That first week we also read Muir's My First Summer in the Sierra and London's The Call of the Wild. Then, after short selections from Leopold and Abbey, we spent the bulk our time reading and discussing John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid, LaBastille's Woodswoman, Doug Peacock's Grizzly Years, Gretel Ehrlich's The Solace of Open Spaces, David James Duncan's The River Why, Gary Snyder's Turtle Island, and Judith McCombs' Against Nature: Wilderness Poems. We finished with two powerful, short texts: Wallace Stegner's "Wilderness Letter" and Joseph Meeker's "Wisdom and Wilderness." I wanted us to look closely at how particular contemporary Americans envision, describe and reflect on their wilderness experiences, and through this process, find ways for each of us to better explore and articulate our own perspectives on wilderness.

Rather than trying to cover the immense topography of wilderness literature, we briefly traced out its elusive borders and some of its key landmarks so that we could spend most of our time together plunging into specific passages and exploring their depths—Muir on the edge of Yosemite Falls, Brower's Sermon, LaBastille communing with the white pine, Gus Orviston following the Chinook salmon upriver. It was what we called the Glen Canyonas opposed to the Lake Powell— approach to reading literature. As Glen Canyonites, we explored the sinuous canyons and streams of each text, paying close attention to intricacy, patterns, complexity and wellsprings. Reading like this was both challenging and rewarding. Each day, though, we had to struggle against our Lake Powellian tendencies to only discuss texts at their easiest points of access, to settle for surface generalizations, and to submerge all that seemed mysterious and incomprehensible.

The students had a heavy reading schedule, kept an extensive reading journal, wrote a personal essay on their own wilderness experience, and researched a wilderness region—which included compiling an annotated bibliography on their region (mapping the region's wilderness of words), giving a creative presentation with their partner, and writing an in-depth essay on an issue or writer connected to that wilderness region. We began each class by reading a couple of poems out loud. The poetry became a daily ritual, a transition from our pre-class chattering to the wild realm of language. By the final week students were readily making connections between poetry and wilderness. They linked the unpredictability of words and woods, the music of language and rivers, and the freedom in each.


Grizzly Hilton. West Fork. Tamanawis River. Big Horn River. The Colorado. The Land of Beyond. Land of the Singing Wilderness. Land of Little Rain. Black Bear Lake. Clam Lake. Boundary Waters. Everglades. Arches. Monarch of the Storms. Katahdin. Klamath Knot. The Range of Light. The Crazy Mountains. Glacier. Turtle Island. Sand County. The Edge of the Sea. Open Spaces. Empty Places. The Remembered Earth. The Country of the Mind. Thinking Like a Mountain. The Call of the Wild.


To read Bartram, Thoreau, Muir, King, and Powell, is to know the great pleasure these writers received from being in the wild. But what about in our contemporary, postmodern American lives? Is there such a thing as a wilderness consciousness? Many of us would want to answer yes, as my students often did, but they also raised many troubling questions about such an affirmation. A typical response came from a student named Andrew. In his journal, Andrew responded with skepticism to Muir's rhapsodic descriptions of the "divine, enduring, unwastable wealth" of nature. "If only he knew," Andrew wrote. When Muir asks "What can poor mortals say about clouds?" Andrew replied, "Does it really matter what is said when the 'poor mortals' fill those clouds with acid rain?" For Andrew, the reality of environmental destruction negated the power of words. How do we teachers of environmental literature address such concerns? How can words, or novels or poetry, matter when the air is polluted, water is not safe to drink, and carrots are full of pesticides? These are questions we must face. The gaps between what we say and what we do, between literature and life, between a green world and a greedy will—these are the crucial places to begin a "life-centered" education, not to deconstruct our lives but to reconstruct them, to build bridges out into the world.

Students found that the issues we confronted in this course often demanded spatial shifts in their own mental and physical environments. One student, for instance, used the physical rearrangement of his room as a catalyst to change his perceptions:

I have…rearranged my writing space in the room to get a new perspective. Strange how in a 12 1/2 by 13 [foot] dorm room…you can achieve so many angles of perception. When inspiration begins to falter, it's good to find a spot in the room that you haven't written in before in quite the same way. For this class, I have arranged my portion of the room so as I no longer face the desk and wall. My "writing" chair now sits in the corner near the bay window facing into the room with easy access of sight to the large pines directly in front of the window. I have also removed the doors from my closet and placed them against the wall near the window to create the illusion of wood paneling. This gives me a cabin-type feel.

This student's rearrangement of his living space is a clever and practical answer to the difficult questions that troubled many other students. Reorient yourself. Try another angle of perception. These are acts which those who live in and write about the wilderness continually perform, sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice. When LaBastille goes to Washington D. C., she has "to learn a whole new set of survival techniques"; one student wrote that LaBastille's "sanity was retained in keeping the wilderness in her heart." When Doug Peacock serves in Vietnam, he keeps his sanity in his pocket: a small road map of Montana and Wyoming.

A wilderness literature course challenges students to reorient themselves to the world: to explore what is out there and to remap the contours of their own interior landscapes, memories, and experiences. It is this educational process that I, as a teacher, am most interested in. One of the best examples of it, from the course I taught at St. Olaf, appears in an extended journal entry from a student named Anna:

While reading Grizzly Years by Doug Peacock I came upon a line which reminded me of a passage from Anne LaBastille's Woodswoman. Doug has been watching a female grizzly and her cubs feeding at an open pit dump. He says "That was the last time I visited the dumps. The place depressed me. The fact that these beautiful beasts had been eating human garbage here for some eighty years gave me no historical consolation."

Anne LaBastille similarly laments the loss of "dignity, wildness, and independence" of the wild bears who feed at man's garbage dumps. Both Peacock and LaBastille see an animal that was once a wild meat-eater lose its wildness by eating trash.

I too remember going to "the dump" a few miles down the road to watch the bears. We often went with our guests as a type of after dinner entertainment. Often when we got to the dump there were several cars already there filled with guests from surrounding lodges and campgrounds. Most people got out of their cars and stood at the edge of the cliff going down into the dump watching the bears romp through black plastic bags full of cereal boxes, orange peels, and old shoes. The bears were so busy eating they didn't care about the people that were watching.

If we were lucky we had a soup can filled with bacon grease that we could throw to them. They loved that stuff. I was about 12 when Cook County closed the dump and put a bar across the road. There would be no more trips to the dump to watch the bears sit in the garbage heaps, smelling foul and scratching the flies off their heads. Now as I read both of these books and reflect back on those visits to the dump I see the sadness of the wildness lost. By throwing down those cans of grease I was slowly destroying the wildness of those bears. Now that the dump has been closed for several years the bears have returned to the woods. The problem is that they may never regain their old pre-dump ways. Now the bears come up to cabins and campsites, robbing food, and we complain about what a nuisance they are. If only we had stopped feeding them on stale cheetos and rotten apples, then maybe they would leave us alone. My only hope is that the bears will, in time, go back to the woods to find their food and regain their wildness and their dignity.

Notice the process of Anna's thinking. She begins "while reading," noticing a similarity between two texts. That textual connection leads her to a personal memory, to relate her own experience of feeding bears at the dump. In the final paragraph she then reflects back on that experience through the lense of her reading, understanding it now from a different angle: what was once fun now seems sad. Finally, she looks to the bears' future. Hopkins' poem "Inversnaid" reflects a similar process: a movement from direct experience and observation (lines 1-12), to reflection or questioning (13-14), and then to advocacy (14-16). For Anna, though, the process of her reflection is triggered by her reading. And that is one reason why words can and do matter in the face of environmental destruction, and why more courses like this should be taught.

In her journal entry, Anna grows outward into the world, thinking now of the bears rather than herself, thinking of them no longer as after dinner entertainment, but as wild creatures deserving dignity. However small the step may seem, Anna's reflection affirms the possibility of a wilderness consciousness in our postmodern world. She has gracefully extended the geography of her hope to include bears and wildness. Let us hope that more teachers will encourage students, like Anna, to reflect on their place in the world, that more of us will challenge our students to think like mountains, or like bears, or loons, or rivers. Maybe then our students will begin to understand what Thoreau meant by "in wildness is the preservation of the world." So, lead your students out. Teach a course in wilderness literature. Help them discover the wild geographies of their own hopes. And, whatever you do, make sure you get a room with windows.



*I thank Anna Nekola, Andrew Urch, and Andy Hageman for kind permission to quote from their wilderness journals.


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