Bing tracking

Learning from the environment

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By Wendi Wheeler ’06

College students who take a literature course expect to do a lot of reading. But few who register for a course titled “Environmental Literature” would imagine being asked to go camping, wear the same clothing for a week, or borrow someone’s book and not return it.

A student wouldn’t expect this—unless he or she had taken a course from Colin Irvine, associate professor of English and environmental studies. In order to encourage his students to experience the literal and literary landscape more deeply, students in Irvine’s spring semester course found themselves taking on some creative challenges.

Want to take on the challenges for yourself?

In addition to reading books and taking exams, students were asked to observe a spot in nature and note its changes over time, learn to identify Minnesota’s birds, wear the same outfit for one week, spend 24 hours in the great outdoors, and go “off the grid” for an entire weekend.

The point of these unusual assignments was to challenge students to move outside of their comfort zones. “I wanted, as Thoreau suggested at the outset of Walden, to wake them up to help them see their world—not the distant world connected with wilderness but the one they inhabit daily—as being connected to a dynamic, ultimately dangerous living, evolving world. I wanted them, in short, to feel challenged, unsettled, unsafe,” Irvine says.

“It’s a risk when you put these kind of things in the syllabus, but I got away with it.”

On this page, students share some of their blog and journal entries about Irvine’s challenges.


Become a budding penologist (pun intended)

Select a plot of land and visit two to three times a week. Spend time in your place observing, recording, and reflecting on what you find, hear, note, and think.

Spring in the city

DAVE MADSENIt seems as if my professor was right in his recommendation to visit our sites twice a week. If I had followed his advice, perhaps I would be able to better appreciate my hillside. Where I stand right now, I am unsure as to how much has changed and how drastically so. The snow is slowly receding into an indistinguishable brown mass of diamond dirt. Wildlife can be heard through the dripping trees as well; the chattering squirrels, the squawking crows, the cooing mourning doves. Something that strikes me as I stand here is the indescribable sense of movement I feel from my site. The water from the once frozen crack in the concrete dam is now a dull trickle on the hill. In the right moment, a flash of sun bounces off of the stream and hits my eye.

This sharp glint always jars me awake from my hypnotized state; I feel a bit silly admitting this, but I often lose myself in the sight of the hillside. It’s as if all of the attempts of description are fruitless as my words hold no candle to the majestic power of nature. The subtle movement of the water almost gives the land a pulse. With each trickle of the stream, the surrounding leaves shift and rearrange. The grass sways above the mud’s restless state and the flow of the dirty water draws me in; it’s almost as if the pulse of the hillside is acting as a siren. The movement in the grounds suggests a voice; a voice that beckons me to join with the land. To see my plot of land move, so see it breathe, this is an experience I have never had before.


This one’s for the birds

Learn to identify the birds of Minnesota by their physical characteristics and by their calls.

March 1, 2010

I’m so pleased that now I know what a cardinal sounds like—a great mystery of my life, solved! There are three of them—two males and a huge female—that frequent my mulberry bushes and the neighbor’s tree, but somehow I’ve never made the connection before that they’re the ones whose song I wake up early to on work days. I’ve been late more than once on my way to the coffee shop; I can’t help but pause and watch them hop and flutter from branch to branch, circling each other in some birdish dance that I suspect is carefully organized, though I can’t tell what they’re doing.

The downside of my new bird watching discovery is that I can’t whistle. When my dad would take me hiking as a little kid, I was constantly fascinated by his ability not only to identify birds by their calls but also to repeat them, and I’ve tried my whole life but never learned how to do the same. When I was five, I remember writing a list of things I had to learn how to do: zip zippers, cartwheel, snap my fingers, raise one eyebrow, tie my own shoes, and whistle. The cartwheel and the whistle have never been checked off.



Going off the grid

Go off the grid for three days—a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Though there are many reasons tied to this course that I am presenting you with this challenge, here are four of the most important: first, when we are plugged in, we are often tuned out to the natural sights and sounds specific and central to this course’s focus on landscape; second, when we are off the grid, we are more inclined to sync with those around us, an important consideration given the emphasis in this course on communities; third, unplugging means consuming less and thus preserving/ conserving more; fourth (though not finally), much of today’s communications- based technology reinforces the idea that having instant access to information in small bits represents progress.

Jessica was determined to go off the grid one weekend, but she was waiting for important news from her family. She received the call and then checked her e-mail to find a message from her graduate school program, which required her to log on and register for classes. She didn’t make it entirely off the grid—she didn’t call anyone and checked e-mail only twice a day. She wrote, “But I know, deep down, that this doesn’t count.”

Going off the grid: mission impossible (excerpt)

JESSICA FANASELLEI have become entirely trapped in our mechanized society. The demands placed on me are not the be-all and end-all of the world, but it is easy to define them as such. This being said, I do not completely resent the technology I have allowed to enter my life.

My family has always been very close, and even now, as a senior in college, my parents call me at least three times a week to check in. I do not resent their phone calls, but I relish the contact I have with my family, it helps me feel connected to them. In the same way, some close friends that do not go to school here talk to me via various types of communication. It helps to keep us together when we cannot be physically together. I think there is a danger in setting aside the people we are physically present with for those who are distances away, but there is also a danger in shunning people we could be communicating with for those that are closer. I don’t think technology is evil; it, like everything else, can be used poorly and abused. The key is to use it wisely.

I would like to try to go off-grid some other time, because there is no way to understand how to truly utilize technology if we don’t know what life is like without it.


Bear Grylls has got nothing on you

By the end of spring break, spend 24 uninterrupted hours in Minnesota’s great outdoors.

3/21 It’s freezing!!

We didn’t anticipate these temperatures. The night dragged on, freezing temperatures resulted in tossing and turning and shivering all night. I think we all learned a valuable lesson—it’s impossible to share a mummy bag. 24 hours later and the land seems unchanged except for the layer of frost that confirmed the freeze. It seemed like time froze along with the water in the bottle outside of the tent (note: always take the time to tuck the water bottle UNDER the tarp INSIDE the tent). It was hard to fully appreciate the hours without sun. No sleep, the shivers, numb toes, sounds like initiation criteria. It’s amazing how a few hours of pain and uncomfortable conditions can change how you feel about the outdoors, I’d been winter camping twice before but this was definitely more of a challenge. We may have underestimated the amount of preparation and anticipation that was needed but by morning it didn’t matter.


Can I borrow your book?

Borrow Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit from someone—perhaps a stranger—and then convince that person to let you give the book away to someone else.

I used to believe

I used to believe, before coming to Augsburg, that ‘try’ was a useless word. I used to believe that if something couldn’t be accomplished fully, successfully, it wasn’t worth much. I used to believe that everything I did meant only what value could be found in final products.

I think my journey away from this belief has taken place slowly over the last four years but it seems perfect and fitting to me that this Environmental Literature class, with its challenges, has come at the end of my Augsburg education. The challenges of this curriculum represent everything I was wrong about before coming here. Education, growth, things of beauty and worth are rarely born from end products. Trying to spend 24 hours outside, trying to spend a week not planning outfits each morning, trying to memorize Minnesota birds, trying to find a copy of Ishmael that someone would let me borrow then give away, trying to spend hours writing outdoors in the bitterness of February, these attempts taught me more about myself and the world around me than easily succeeding ever could have.

Some of the challenges I completed, some I completed creatively, and some I failed but I don’t feel that any taught me less than another.

One of the best examples of all this, I think, was the challenge to find a copy of Ishmael to borrow and give away. In my search, I learned who around me had read the book and wanted to talk about it when I’d finished (though none from that group still had the copy they’d read), who wanted to borrow it from me when I was done, and what it would mean for me to give up a book that had no intention of coming back to me in physical form. Now I understand, in a way I didn’t before, that a conversation with my father (who will receive Ishmael from me) about the book is worth more that the book’s long life on my shelf.

When I couldn’t find a copy of Ishmael from anyone I knew, I ended up making a trade for the book at a used bookstore in St. Paul. “Ishmael?” the girl behind the counter said as she handed it over, “this book will change your life.”

Having finished reading it, I know she was right but that she may not have understood entirely what she was saying. The book has changed my life, to be sure, but the journey to find it and the conversations that will come are life-changing things as well. We do not grow through successes, final products, and exams but through journeys, challenges, and trying things once, twice, or fifty times without fear of the result.


Online exclusive: Want to take on the challenges for yourself?

Environmental Literature Challenges

Excerpt from syllabus by Colin Irvine for ENL 270

Challenges: During the term, you will be invited to participate in a number of challenges designed to encourage and, perhaps, enable you to think more deeply about the materials we are studying and, as importantly, about your relationship to the texts and to the landscape (literal and literary) of which they are a part. Put another way, the intent here is to help you learn to “think like a mountain” (Leopold).

Challenge #1: Becoming a Budding Phenologist (pun intended)

Your task is to select a plot of land you can visit two three times a week for a few minutes at a time (it can be on campus, near the river, near home, wherever, as long as it’s outside). You will spend time there in that space/place observing, recording, and reflecting one what you find/hear/note/think. You are welcome to be as creative as you like in the way that you handle this task: you can simply record your observation in a notebook; you can create a blog; you can mingle pictures with reflections, whatever, just as long as you carefully observe, record, and reflect on what find and think in that place.

Challenge #2: This One’s for the Birds

Twice each week, I will post on Moodle a bird from the Birds of Minnesota Field Guide. Your challenge will be to learn to identify these birds, sometimes by their physical characters and at other times by their calls. On the midterm and again on the final, I will provide a matching section which will involve matching a description/picture with a name or description/call with a name. If you think this is unreasonable, you can give me a bird if you wish.

Challenge #3: Stop Frittering Away Your Life

“Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.” Thoreau. The challenge, five days straight in the same outfit: why waste precious time and energy (real and figurative) picking and wearing and wearing clothes when you could be reading something wonderful or writing something amazing or, better yet, doing nothing outside?

Challenge #5: Bear Grylls has Got Nothing on You

By the end of spring break, spend 24 uninterrupted hours in Minnesota’s great outdoors. Log your experience through reflections and photos; report back to the group one where you went, what you did, what you saw, and what you learned. (Yes. I am assigning a camping trip. You’re on your own. Go when you want, where you want, and with whomever you want. Enjoy.)

Challenge #6: Going Off the Grid

You will be asked to go off the grid for three days—a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Though there are many reasons tied to this course that I am presenting you with this challenge, here are four of the most important: first, when we are plugged in, we are often tuned out to the natural sights and sounds specific and central to this course’s focus on landscape; second, when we are off the grid, we are more inclined to sync with those around us, an important consideration given the emphasis in this course on communities; third, unplugging means consuming less and thus preserving/conserving more (if I need to explain this further, I will, though I hope it’s not necessary); fourth (though not finally), much of today’s communications-based technology reinforces the idea that having instant access to information in small bits represents progress—I am hoping we can explore the counter idea that long, sustained, complicated ideas earned through persistence and focus might likewise be worth pursuing when one is trying to wrap her/his mind around something as involved as the biota and something equally complex as the problems besetting it (one doesn’t learn to dive deeply by taking short breath; one must instead train the body and the brain).

Challenge #7: Can I Borrow Your Book

You will note on the calendar that the last book we will read for the course is Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael. You likely already noted that it’s not available in the bookstore. So, here’s the deal: you need to borrow it from somebody (perhaps a stranger), and you need to convince that person to let you give it to somebody else (even though it’s not your book). Good luck.

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