- Teaching with Wolves
Wolves oh wolves oh can't you see?
Ain't no wolf can sing like me
And if it could then I suppose
He belongs in Idaho— Josh Ritter, "Idaho"
One of my students, Chrissy Webb from the University of Montana, likens the experience of studying environmental writing in the wilderness of central Idaho to "slurping straight from the creek" as opposed to "drinking from a glass" (Roberts). There's nothing wrong with taking a cool sip of water from a glass, but the direct experience of a place and the understanding of one's animal self in relation to that place is fundamentally different when something essential, like water, flows directly from the mountain into one's mouth.
I've worked in the field of environmental writing and environmental cultural studies for quite a few years now, going back to the mid-1980s when I was a graduate student in Rhode Island, tolerating the urban East but yearning to be back in the American West, back in sparsely populated country with vertical relief. It always struck me as interesting that Henry David Thoreau, lifelong denizen of the Northeast, once wrote in his journal, circa 1850, "What is a horizon without mountains?" (57). Of course Thoreau took various excursions to the monadnocks of New England, as William Howarth documents in the volume Thoreau in the Mountains. But during the five years I spent in Providence, despite occasional drives to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, I never managed to recreate the wild, mountainous experience I'd left behind [End Page 323] in Oregon, where I grew up. It was always my plan, my hope, to migrate back to the rugged backcountry of the West someday.
I never thought I would actually have the opportunity to teach environmental literature and writing in the mountains, though. This finally happened when I moved to Idaho in 2012 and was invited to join the planning team for the University of Idaho's interdisciplinary Semester in the Wild Program. The program had been on the drawing board for several years. It was difficult, apparently, to lure undergraduates to spend an entire semester at the Taylor Wilderness Research Station in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, without cell phones, without daily access to Facebook and other kinds of social media. With a once-a-week, bush-plane delivery of food still needing to be cooked.
Secreted within more than four million acres of wilderness, the research station is the former homestead of Cougar Dave Lewis, purchased by the University of Idaho in 1970. Mountain lion scholar Maurice Hornocker had stayed at the homestead in the late-1960s while working on his doctoral research. The property came up for sale as he was completing his dissertation, and he convinced the university to invest in the forty acres and simple wooden buildings. It is a tiny oasis of meadows and apple trees overlooking the Big Creek River, a tributary of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, which flows seven miles to the east of Taylor.
For half a century, researchers have studied stream ecology, anadromous fish, rattlesnakes, deer and elk, and large predators at this remote location. Graduate students gather data for theses, fish and game technicians operate screw traps in Big Creek to understand fluctuating salmon and steelhead populations, and undergraduates venture into ecological research by visiting as summer interns. However, no formal undergraduate classes were held at Taylor until Semester in the Wild was established in the fall of 2013. Approximately a dozen undergraduates from the University of Idaho and other universities now arrive at Taylor at the end of August each year, ready to spend the entire fall semester living in canvas "wall tents" (equipped with stoves, perched on wooden foundations), preparing meals together on "cook crews," helping out with management of the research station with occasional service days, [End Page 324] and studying a full load of courses that includes ecology, wilderness policy and management, outdoor leadership, environmental history, and environmental writing and literature.
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