Amanda Giracca’s “Into the Field ” in Orion Magazine
By combining vivid and highly detailed scenes from her experience in field biology classes with history, research studies and expert interviews, this stunning essay makes a passionate case for more experiential learning opportunities in higher education. As someone who experienced outdoor classes as a student and is now a professor herself, Giracca offers a unique and beautiful lens to examine the importance of such lessons. Of an environmental policy course she took that involved a trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: “What is it like to scramble up a little unnamed peak and see the Arctic Ocean, a gray and frothy line in the distance, lapping at the land? That’s something I’m not going to find in any book — except my own.”
Besides simply learning to recognize and name plants and animals, such experiences cultivate a sense of curiosity, wonder, and connection to the natural world that no sterile classroom ever could. Giracca laments the decline of nature education, which was once considered vital.
In this quest to acquire more and more raw information, how does a student learn to pause and ask questions? To make observations and draw meaningful conclusions? It’s easy to dismiss such unquantifiable goals — but without this kind of experiential education, where will we get our breakthrough scientists, those who make significant contributions to how we understand the world not because they retain a plethora of textbook facts — many people can memorize — but because they know how to put the pieces together?
The piece focuses on higher education, but acknowledges that such experiences should start at a young age. I think a case can be made for more natural education in all levels of school. Giracca quotes a Rachel Carson article from a women’s magazine that entreats every mother “that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years…”
This reminded me of when I visited a middle school history class as part of my job with a school system. Every child in the room had a laptop at their desk. I know I was supposed to see this as innovative, as preparing them to be competent Career People of the Future. But it actually made me feel really sad for them. They had the rest of their lives to sit staring at a computer screen—shouldn’t they be enjoying this time with a little more activity and creativity?
This piece brings up so many feelings and memories for me. I am reminded of the times I went with my biology-professor brother-in-law into the forest at night in search of an elusive salamander species. I think back to my childhood best friend with whom I spent most of my time outside: exploring, making up games, climbing trees, dancing in the fields and woods that surrounded her house. Her family practiced the non-traditional nature and life-skill-based un-schooling, while I was just plain home schooled. Now, she is a forestry professor, who regularly shares photos of the outdoor education opportunities she offers her students.
When I chose some week-long camps for my video-games-obsessed 7-year-old son last summer, I thought for sure that the Lego Robotics class would be the biggest hit, but it turned out he couldn’t get enough of the art and nature camp held at a local nature center. Every day, he came home telling animated tales of stacking stones in the creek and spotting animals on trail walks.
Essentially, field experiences don’t just make good scientists, they make good people. And if that isn’t a worthy goal of education, well, then what is?
Anne Brown’s “Michelle’s Case” in California Sunday Magazine
“In the day room, she sat with the other girls – Heather or Cupcake – and taught them to write grievances of their own: Speak factually, she told them. Take the emotion out of it,” writes Annie Brown, telling the story of transgender woman Michelle Lael Norsworthy. But she could easily also be speaking of her own writing.
The story she tells, of a transgender inmate’s struggle for sex reassignment surgery, is a gripping one, full of heartbreak and trauma. However, Brown resists the temptation to add emotional flourish or probe the intense feelings that run as an obvious undercurrent. Instead she lists the facts, gut-rending and confronting, and allows them to speak for themselves. The emotions, as both Brown and Norsworthy intended, well up instead in the reader.
Rebecca Solnit’s “The Ideology of Isolation” in Harper’s Magazine
At a time when the U.S., and perhaps much of the world, seems sharply divided by political difference, Rebecca Solnit delivers an essay that analyzes the roots of isolation and the conservative mindset. Using the idea of individual freedom to connect the image of the lone American cowboy to the Second Amendment, to the tax system and climate change, Solnit’s piece paints a powerful web of the issues at the political forefront that underscores the desire to exist without boundaries, within the realm of one’s own interests. It’s a beautifully argued, bold piece that takes a new lens to sort through the complicated, conflicting views upon how the United States should exist as a domestic body, and as a global player:
The modern right may wish that every man were an island, entire of himself, but no one is wholly independent. You can’t survive without taking air into your lungs, you didn’t give birth to or raise yourself, you won’t bury yourself, and in between you won’t produce most of the goods and services you depend on to live. Your gut is full of microorganisms, without which you could not digest all the plants and animals, likely grown by other people, on which you rely to survive. We are nodes on intricate systems, synapses snapping on a great collective brain; we are in it together, for better or worse. …“Freedom” is just another word for nothing left to limit your options. And this is how the ideology of isolation becomes nihilism, trying to kill the planet and most living things on it with the confidence born of total disconnection.