At Sterling we do a great job with domesticity. We have farms and fields, food, animals, and a village common with perfect white clapboard buildings, all set in the bucolic, pastoral, patchwork landscape of Northern New England. It is a low-key, rural kind of domesticity that some of us refer to affectionately as “folky.” We like to think of our brand of domesticity as a hybrid of the best of pre-industrial and twenty first century ecological land ethics, and it really is.
But what is domestic exists as an extension of what was once wild. Every plant, every animal, every raw material, even every human culture can be traced back to its origin in wild nature. There are no exceptions. Wild nature is the source, the fountainhead of everything we are, everything we do, and everything we make, and the quality of wildness, like the essence of life itself, is permanently embedded in every aspect of our world.
Throughout human history there are those who have cringed at this notion, and those who have celebrated it. Among those who have celebrated it is Henry David Thoreau, who famously asserted that “the most alive is the most wild,” “all good things are wild and free” and “in wildness is the preservation of the world. Every tree sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plough and sail for it. From the forests and wilderness come the barks and tonics which brace mankind.” Others such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold built upon these foundational notions and made wilderness a tangible reality even as the mainstream of western culture industrialized.
This fall intensive Sterling College embarks on an adventure into the idea of wildness and the reality of wilderness. We leave pastoral Vermont and travel to Northern Maine, the last holdout of wild country in the Northeast, the centerpiece of which is Mount Katahdin, known to the Abenaki as “the Great One.” Here is a high mountain plateau of granite and tundra set amidst a sea of Maine woods, lakes and streams, the very landscape that North American notions of wilderness grew out of, and the very same place where Thoreau himself had the transformative experiences with elemental nature that shaped his notions of wildness and wilderness. Here we live outside for two weeks, spending plenty time cooking and conversing around campfires, walking the high ridges, and exploring the writing, history and philosophy of American nature philosophers. The idea here is that if we want to truly understand the ideas these masters espouse, we have to emulate the experiences that inspired them. That means going to the wild, both outside, and inside. It means shedding our domesticity and celebrating being wild for awhile.