Participants in the Great West course: from left, Arianna Rambach ’16, Anneke Hart ’16, Meaghan Lyon ’16, Kristin Ober ’16, faculty member Ken Cline, Chris Phillips ’15, Erickson Smith ’15, Zinta Rutins ’15, Madeleine Motley ’16.Participants in the Great West course: from left, Arianna Rambach ’16, Anneke Hart ’16, Meaghan Lyon ’16, Kristin Ober ’16, faculty member Ken Cline, Chris Phillips ’15, Erickson Smith ’15, Zinta Rutins ’15, Madeleine Motley ’16.

For John Muir, father of America’s conservation movement, the Sierra Nevadas were the “range of light,” a wonderland of celestial effects: noonday radiance, Alpine sunsets and “the irised spray of countless waterfalls.” For students in last fall’s field-based three-credit course on the American West, this range of light was a classroom. Whether reading aloud from John Muir’s account of the Tuolumne Meadows (while in the Tuolumne Meadows), volunteering with wilderness managers in Yosemite National Park, or spending the weekend visiting a local ranching family with divergent views on environmental politics, students saw the American West in its own light, impossible to do from a classroom in Maine.

“We wanted to immerse the students in the culture, landscape, and natural history of the West, and to see how those things played out in terms of public policy and management decisions,” says John Anderson, faculty member in biology, who organized the course with Ken Cline, faculty member in environmental law and policy. “Most of the students had spent little or no time west of the Mississippi; we wanted to make sure that they got a good sense from the first that they were in another country.”

Signing up for a three-credit “monster course” means dedicating a whole term’s learning to one topic, but understanding it from myriad angles. One could say that students studied ecology and natural history with John, public policy and the wilderness with Ken, and the literature of the American West with both, but in truth there was never any separation by disciplines. In the best traditions of human ecology, learning extended to every hour of the day and proliferated in all directions. Beginning in California, the class trekked eastward into the Great Basin Desert, south to Yosemite National Park and the Hetch Hetchy Valley, then across the Sonoran Desert and through the canyonlands of Utah to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they participated in a conference celebrating the first fifty years of the Wilderness Act.

Says Erickson Smith ’15, “From the very first day we were taking detailed natural history notes, not only of the animal and plant species that we saw, but about how these were distributed across the 4,000-mile track that we traversed, the weather, the topography and geology of the landscape, the presence or absence of water, and more.”

At each stage of the journey, the class met with government agency personnel, activists, non-profit staffers, ranchers, scientists, nature poets, and alumni active in wilderness management and related fields. In Nevada, at Pyramid Lake, they met with Paiute tribal managers; at Mono Lake, they met with the activists who saved the lake some twenty years ago.

Says Anneke Hart ’16, “The Mono Lake Committee was moved that a bunch of twenty-somethings knew about and cared about their efforts to save the lake.” There, poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder gave an impromptu reading. Playing off the unique history, landscape, culture, and political reality of each setting, different themes were explored along the way: in the Cadillac Desert, part of the infamous Death Valley, the class focused on land development and water policy, a subject starkly conveyed by a trip to Hoover Dam, according to John.

Ken Cline and Zinta Rutins ’15 work a two-person crosscut saw to remove a fallen tree in the wilderness of Yosemite National Park.Ken Cline and Zinta Rutins ’15 work a two-person crosscut saw to remove a fallen tree in the wilderness of Yosemite National Park.

As Ken wrote for the COA News website, “Water defines the West. Nowhere is this more true than with a small fish that exists in isolated pools in Death Valley and the Mojave Desert. In the field with California Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist Steve Parmenter, the class surrounded a small, warm spring pool where most of the surviving Shoshone pupfish in the world live. This ghost of the Pleistocene was thought extinct, but following state, federal, and private efforts, the population is now over four hundred—but all in this one tiny pool.” Later the class joined the biologist in sealing a leak that was dewatering habitat for the highly endangered Amargosa vole.

Before dinner each night, the group reflected on the expedition, discussing passages from, say, the field journal of explorer John C. Frémont—or their own field journals. Over the course of a few weeks, the quality of their insights deepened significantly. Says Erickson, “Having six weeks to explore such different, but abutting, landscapes allowed us to notice distribution patterns and make connections that we probably wouldn’t have made in a shorter amount of time or with a quicker form of transportation.” The literary component, including conservationist Terry Tempest Williams’ Red, an impassioned plea for the preservation of the Canyonlands, Edward Abbey’s controversial essay collection, The Serpents of Paradise, and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, provided its own kind of depth.

By the time they arrived in Albuquerque for the National Wilderness Conference, says John, the students were “clearly aware of the meaning and importance of material that would have been mysterious six weeks earlier,” material that gets to the heart of today’s most pressing debates about land conservation, water policy, and wilderness advocacy and management in the West. There, students discussed their work with some of the nation’s top wilderness experts, meeting Terry Tempest Williams, whom they had just read and discussed, along with radical activist Dave Foreman, co-founder of Earth First. For Anneke, a highlight of the conference was, “knowing what Dave Foreman meant when he told a story about being chased by a musk ox in Alaskan backcountry and realizing that that wouldn’t be a bad way to die.” Six weeks earlier, she says, she might not have laughed—or understood.

The theme of the course was echoed in the keynote address by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who said, “We all know that the best classrooms have no walls.” Ken emphasizes the point: “We taught this class in this ‘best classroom’ and were able to do things that we could never have accomplished back at COA.”

Agrees Anneke, “This course helped remind me why it’s worth going through the struggle of higher education: there is life beyond reading about what happens in the world while you’re stuck inside.”

Michael Diaz-Griffith ’09 is the assistant director of the Winter Antiques Show. He and his husband, Alonso Diaz Rickards ’12, live in New York City.

Save & Share: