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Wilderness Writing

Photo by Riley Nelson

I had no way of knowing what a wonderful impact one class could have on my college experience when I first heard of the wilderness writing class offered at Brigham Young University. It wasn’t simply the things I learned, but how I learned them, and with whom. I feel that I didn’t gain knowledge that would just help me advance in academia or a career but knowledge that would help me in everyday life. This, to me, is the best kind of learning: connecting book smarts to everyday living.

I’ve been excited to write this post so I could write about the reasons why I believe this class worked and proved so valuable. It’s going to be a personal post because I want to share how significant it was for me. Coming to face fears head on, learning about myself, and being taught by incredible teachers enriched my college experience in such a new way.

To give a little background, the wilderness writing course was actually two classes taken together: creative writing taught by John Bennion and a recreation management class taught by Stacy Taniguchi. We’d focus on reading and writing in the first, and through the second we’d gain fuel to help us improve on the first: we cross-country skied, snowshoed, took a cabin trip, backpacked, and had a winter cookout. These out-of-classroom experiences were crucial in opening a way for us students to be more honest, vulnerable, and free in our writing. I came to recognize that the people I was sitting next to in desks weren’t just fellow students, but fellow humans. This understanding fostered deep connections that opened up my mind in a receptive manner to new ways of thinking.

The Unresolved

One of the big concepts I gained familiarity with through this class is that it’s okay and even WONDERFUL and IMPERATIVE to exist in, be in, sit in, think in, accept and embrace the unknown, the unsettled, the unapproved, the different.

A means of discovering this was in learning about the open-ended form of the essay. A classmate of mine, Polly Johnson, said this: “Something I like that was taught repeatedly is that with most good essays, the writer doesn’t know the conclusion when they start writing. I like that idea because it lessens pressure while writing and it makes it fun and challenging at the same time. It is a beautiful process to explore, discover, and grapple with what you are writing about."

Getting to journey with our class to the outdoors drove that concept home. Nothing is fully “finished” in nature. It’s dynamic. Always changing, growing, dying, transforming. As with essays, our education, our selves--it’s okay to just let things unfold as do the seasons. A mantra I often repeat to myself is “journey before destination.” Learning how to cross-country ski (or at least not fall over every five minutes), going on our snowshoe winter cookout, backpacking into the Uintas--it was just enjoyable to be with classmates and experience what was happening. We didn’t need to get to the end or master the awkward winter sports in order to enjoy ourselves and grow. I thought about that often with my writing, and wanted it to unfold as naturally and unhurried as the world around us on our excursions. The fact is, our whole lives are going to be lived with jobs unfinished, relationships uncertain, goals unchecked. As I learned to accept that in class, it translated into my overall life.

Self-Knowledge Allows Further Connections

Another take-away from this class was the opportunity to learn more about who I am. I recently heard someone talking about “finding themselves” in nature. That’s something I experienced while backpacking in the Uintas. Having a massive backpack crushing down on your shoulders while simultaneously working to stay standing on unsteady skis will strip any excess frivolities from a persona. I felt foolish and uncertain and insufficient in my skills. Within a few minutes into the trip I was flat on my back. Well, not exactly flat. My giant backpack was under me and my spine was curved uncomfortably around it as my skis were jammed into the snow at painful angles for my ankles. I felt embarrassed and helpless, two very humbling emotions. A classmate soon came to the rescue and helped me back up, manifesting his kindness in being willing to risk the chance of his own fall for my recovery. I remember Stacy talking on the first day of class about titles and degrees and how that all fades away when we’re faced with hunger and sore muscles and tiredness. But then traits like generosity come to the surface when someone offers a granola bar to a hungry classmate or shows patience when waiting for the others lagging behind. Throughout the semester, I personally became more aware of my tendency to prefer a slow pace through most things in life, and that awareness has really helped me accept and work with myself in a more forgiving way. Improving the relationship with myself in such a way has allowed me to be more receptive to further learning and growth.

In the book The Geography of Childhood, Stephen Trimble and Gary Nabhan make this point:

“By forging connections with plants, animals and land, by finding ways to experience some relationship to the Earth, individuals can gain a sense of worth. Herein lies security…The natural world does not judge. It exists. One route to self-esteem, particularly for shy or undervalued children, lies in the out-of-doors… The Earth enfolds people in storm or warm sun, in the glory of light filtering through the canopy of deep woods, or in the eddying flow of rivers—without regard for whether we say the right words, wear the right clothes, or believe the right dogma.”

This release from the construct of man-made societies and expectations allows for natural reflection. When I know I’m being watched or measured in any way (a teacher looking over my shoulder or working for a grade), I freeze. My performance falters and my thinking is curtailed. But when I’m away from the structure and expectations, my creativity flows and my natural instinct to learn and reflect rushes in. In John Bennion’s essay "Enticing the Sacred with Words," he says: “The classroom is full of boxes inside boxes, conventions laid upon conventions, heavily constricted. Inside that space a certain kind of true learner feels claustrophobic.” Venturing to the outdoors, we were able to move away from those restrictions and claustrophobias and learn about each other and ourselves.

Professors are Humans

Another one of my favorite things about this class was the opportunity to connect with the teachers. The same way my classmates become more than two-dimensional additions to the classroom, our professors became more than unrelatable adults who drone on in lectures and hand out grades. Through discussions and excursions and teaching and laughing, they became people I wanted to learn from, instead of just obligated to learn from.

Another wonderful, relatable professor at BYU, George Handley, said this in a blog post: “Professors need to open up their hearts so that students can see who we authentically are. We need to have a relationship with them that goes beyond the formal contract of assignments and grades. We cannot hide behind the façade of expertise and authority and expect to transform their lives unless we are willing to make ourselves vulnerable and unless we are willing to get to know them better as well.” He was talking about research that’s been done to determine what factors in a student’s life make the biggest difference. What he said has been confirmed in my own experience. I remember when we started reading John’s writing that he assigned us. It was the most personal writing a professor of mine had ever shared. Hearing his experiences and his reflective voice, we as students were allowed to get to know him. S. Mark Palmer says that “true teaching will happen only in an atmosphere of trust,” and that’s what getting to know John allowed. The same went for Stacy, as he shared with us his personal experiences all about his outdoor adventures and life path. Through them both telling us about circumstances they encountered throughout their lives and careers that were difficult to overcome, we were able to see they were more similar to us than surface interactions showed. This was so beneficial for me, because I undoubtedly learn best when I am comfortable, and I think we all assimilate information so much better from people we trust.

During the semester, I came across some words from Parker Palmer that so beautifully sum up John and Stacy’s role in teaching: “One of the things this society is most deficient in is safe spaces for truth-telling about the condition of our souls…I think first of all, safe space needs a facilitator. I don’t think it happens automatically...I think there are some simple rules…one of the simplest is no fixing, no saving, no advising, and no correcting each other. Well, what we’re going to do in the absence of those behaviors, is we’re going to learn to listen deeply to each other, and we’re going to learn to ask honest, open questions to hear each other into speech.” John and Stacy were those facilitators. That’s not to say that John didn’t give us suggestions on how to improve our essays or Stacy didn’t share pointers on how to better stay upright on our skis…but it meant that when we were vulnerable in our learning, they understood. They never got upset at our level of skill. They listened and they allowed us to exist in the imperfections, the unknowns, the questions.

In conclusion, I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to take this class. Taking it opened my eyes, mind and heart. It was truly the best experience I’ve had in a college class so far. It felt like I was actually gaining something from my time and effort, instead of just going through the motions. I wasn’t simply checking off boxes or writing to get in my word count or grade. I was being challenged and stretched and given new opportunities for relationships and perspectives. True education.