Thinking back, it is hard to remember exactly what we, the students of Semester 53, were thinking. Ann was introducing us to “Human Ecology Projects.” We were vaguely aware of them, as part of the handbook talked about them. Still, many of us were unclear of what exactly was to come. We were circled in the Ellis Room, watching the blackboard before us as the writing expanded, circles and lines painting a picture of a possible project. Leaving that meeting, we were still confused, still uncertain of what was expected of us.
Human Ecology Projects or HEPs, are self-directed learning opportunities focusing on ‘human ecology’. Human ecology, if you are unsure of what it means, is the study and improvement of human interactions with the environment. How specific. We were each asked to choose a topic we were interested in studying that would meet that expectation, as well as a few others. Notably, it had to be connected to either the student’s home region, or the Gulf of Maine. This was more of a restraint, and disappointing to me, as Maine is rather lacking in tropical rainforests being deforested.
One other thing that really shocked us was the complete lack of teacher direction. After a brief proposal form, we had to understand we needed help, because no one was checking on us. I, being a student from an expeditionary learning school, was more prepared for much of HEP than others, but this level of independence still surprised me. We were given the chance to follow our own path. By and large, we took advantage, generating a range of topics from making a lake swimmable again, algal biofuels, to migrant works, passif haus architecture, and on to music and writing.
To truly understand a student’s experience of HEP’s, you have to experience it. From the first confused meetings, to the rush of work in the week leading up to presentations, to presentations themselves. It was hectic. It was short. It was a brief, incredible experience. It helped me realize that writing was what I wanted to do in my life, to play with words on a page. It started in that circle, or perhaps a different one, on the fifth day of the Semester. For that meeting, we gathered in the Whale Room of Chapin Hall, and spoke to what human ecology was and what was encompassed in it. We asked how “normal” school subjects could connect to human ecology, and as importantly, which were not. The answer surprised us. We could not come up with a single example of a subject that had no bearing on human ecology. Then, we forgot about it under a whirl of starting school, learning names and figuring out the Semester.
Time was still flowing, though. The first three weeks flew past, and we were gathering for wilderness trips before we knew it. So, we were surprised when, amidst the chaotic preparations, teachers still had time to introduce us to the projects. We gathered in the Ellis, to talk about the projects one Friday evening, after dinner. Ann, Steve, Pete, and others reintroduced us to the idea of projects. They showed us the projects of the past semesters. We talked with Quinn about his project investigating the economic feasibility of putting solar panels on his home. Then, we were dismissed for the night, and told that we would reconvene in the morning.
Which lead to that Saturday, with Wilderness Trips nearing. We were not told to worry about them, just to think on trip about what was something we would be interested in studying. For me, it was nature writing. HEPs required each student to create a product- a lesson plan, a short story, a hydraulic RAM pump- anything that demonstrated the knowledge we gained. I wanted to practice my writing, so I decided to investigate nature writing in Maine, how sense of place had informed it, and how it had changed.
I had a clear place to start. I had to define nature writing. I am not comfortable with a short explanation. I wanted to dig. So I searched for articles, and came across a definition of nature writing as not being a novel, nor philosophical treatise, or even a book of nature. Nature writing is a peculiar field that exists halfway between science and philosophy. Nature writers avoid anthropomorphism. They deal with facts, but not in the way of a scientist. Nature writers, I decided were one form of Wallace Stegners “poets of place.” Nature writing, therefore, is poetry of place. It is the expression of a place you could visit. All sides of it. For nature writers, there is no subject unworthy of intent. Nature writing exemplifies ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’ Yet it is no book of science. For nature writing also delves into the realms no scientist does. Nature writers’ love is clear in writing. They have taken the time to stop, to wait, and to share. They do this out of love, and in writing that belongs not to science, or to literature, but to humanity.
I had nature writing down. Next I had to define sense of place. This one would prove less controversial, but no less difficult. The reason for that is that sense of place comes in many varieties, and has to separate components. One is connection to place. The other is a sense of community attachment. Nature writers more often share the former in this sense, as their words are of the rocks and trees, not the people they meet.
The only real way to investigate nature writing was to read it. I set out to do so with great alacrity, only to be slowed swiftly by the fact that nature writing is not something you read quickly. It is something to be savored, like a warm cake. The faster you read it, the less it speaks to you. My plans to read a multitude of works went out the window. Instead I read sections of Thoreau, Henry Beston, Robert Kimber, and Susan Hand Shetterly.
Then, I was on to the writing.
My writing took place over my solo, as I had intended it to. I did not write a multitude of pieces. I did not compose an essay of earth-shattering import. I wrote a letter. To someone I do not know. It could be you. In the letter, I asked what people thought of where they were. I said that we are turtles in a metaphorical sense. Our homes are always with us, even if they are only memories.
The fun part was over. Now it was time for presentations. Each presentation was different, as each project. All we had in common was a question, a product, and a contribution. For me, one of the hardest parts was actually figuring out my contribution. Question was easy- that was the entirety of the project. Product- writing. The contribution was still unknown. The contribution needed to be a way for you to share your knowledge what you had been working on for the past six weeks. The only way I could think of to share my knowledge was by getting it published. I could not think of where to publish it.
I reached my decision late in the process- with less than a week to go. I asked Anne Leslie, who puts the Chewonki Chronicle – a twice yearly newsletter featuring Chewonki’s events. She replied that it was, and also said that the woman in charge of the blog was interested in publishing it there. It’s up now, titled Dear Stranger.
All in all, I think HEP was a great experience. It taught me about my work habits, my interests, and my ability to write. I learned that when I have writer’s block, knitting is a great solution. Most importantly, though, I learned about appreciating the beauty of simple things.
-Dillon Kelly, Casco Bay High School, ME
For more photos from the Human Ecology Project Presentation Day, head over to our Flickr page.