Monday, June 3, 2013

Welcome to the Sierra Institute!

A note from Sierra Institute Director and Instructor, Walker Abel:

I recently returned from instructing "California Wilderness: Nature Philosophy, Religion, Ecopsychology," a nine-week series of backpacking excursions into Death Valley, the southern Sierra, the Lost Coast, and the Yolla Bolly Mountains. Teaching this program after more than a year's absence from field instruction renewed my great appreciation for the remarkable education that Sierra Institute offers.

I participated in a Sierra Institute program as an undergraduate in the mid-1970s. At that time the Institute was still young, and offered only two programs a year, both in California (notably the Sierra). When I returned in 1988 with graduate degree in hand to join Sierra Institute's teaching staff, the school had grown to over 100 students a year, with programs in all parts of the country and several international locations. Sierra Institute continued to grow until its height in the mid-1990s, when enrollments neared 200 annually in up to 16 separate programs worldwide.

Since that peak, for reasons not entirely clear, enrollment has declined. Let me say that I do not think it particularly important that Sierra Institute be big rather than small, but as an ecopsychologist I find it interesting to consider that this trend of declining enrollment could in part reflect broad cultural and societal patterns. We might sum it up by saying that, as our culture increasingly distances itself from nature, there will be diminishing interest in programs that derive their very structure and content from nature.

The students in our recent spring program gave up, for the most part, cell phones and internet access. They went without hot showers, electric lights, soft beds, and current TV episodes. They passed up on many parties, concerts, and activities that their friends on campus undoubtedly enjoyed. Perhaps they even interrupted a more conservative 4-year college plan or degree requirements that technically should not include an off-campus quarter of this kind.

However, the spring students quickly discovered that Sierra Institute rests on the premise that often what we see as deprivations are actually gains. A recent body of research has demonstrated that distance and lack of direct contact with nature can contribute to physical and emotional problems in children and adults alike ("nature deficit disorder"). Sierra Institute is an antidote, but we might think of this as a peripheral gain.

The highest goal of Sierra Institute programs is to provide the best college learning experience for the specific academic topics covered by each program. For example, the California Wilderness program includes a course titled "American Nature Philosophers." Students follow the historical progression of environmental thought through Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Muir up to current writers like Mary Oliver and Gary Snyder, including schools of thought such as deep ecology and ecofeminism. While it is certainly possible to study these authors in a campus classroom, I believe there is an important benefit to reading and discussing them in natural environments similar to those that originally inspired each author. It becomes much easier to understand and empathize with John Muir's passion for the Sierra Mountains while backpacking and camping in those very mountains.

The same is true for Sierra Institute’s science-oriented programs. In spring 2014 we will offer "Natural History Field Studies: the Ecosystems of California." This program will travel around the state to conduct hands-on field biology and botany studies while camping in various locations. There is no better way to engage with this type of academic material than to live in it. Thoreau once said of his natural history endeavors, "I wanted to get to know my neighbors". With Sierra Institute, the trees, animals, rivers and mountains become our neighbors, and we can learn about them in intimate and direct ways.

I will teach again this summer, and while I will at times miss my comfortable home, neighbors, and friends, I know there will be richer gains. I will enjoy the closeness that develops as a small group camps together for weeks. I will enjoy the deep intimacy with the wild earth that backpacking fosters. And I never tire of studying the ideas of inspirational authors, many of whom warn against our society's advancing disconnection from nature and who would be full proponents of Sierra Institute's motto: "Let Nature Be the Classroom."

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