June 12, 2000
Volume 52, No. 35
Patterson's students discover 'rockness of rock'
By Cathy Byrd
If you knew that finding your place in the world meant drinking deep from nature, then you would already understand the quiet idea behind "Wilderness Spirituality and Philosophy," a new course that examines the concept of "wilderness" from spiritual and philosophical perspectives.
The course was developed by religion Visiting Assistant Professor Bobbi Patterson and William Edelglass, a Dean's Teaching Fellow in the philosophy department.
Patterson described their twofold purpose: "We were interested in exploring and understanding 'wilderness' and 'wild' through the investigation of theory integrated with practice."
According to Patterson, "Part of our quest is to define the word 'wilderness,' to examine it critically, ethically and personally as if it were a jewel. Ancient communities chose the wilderness as a place in which they could focus on the wilderness inside themselves. It was a way of understanding their own passions and desires in order to connect with communities around and beyond them. In Buddhist and Christian traditions, truth and/or God would be found in a setting with less distraction."
Students began with the reading of Forest Meditations, a Buddhist text that discusses the ways meditation encourages the practitioner to empty out the self and become interwoven with the surrounding world. The writer, Talaputa Thera, said to be a disciple of the Buddha, talks about the idea of sitting on a rock until one "becomes" rock. A sense of interdependency with nature comes from paying deep attention to what Patterson calls, "the rockness of rock."
To reinforce the idea of profound interdependence with nature, students were assigned phenomenological exercises. In one instance, that meant finding a six-inch space outdoors and observing in detail what went on there. Observers were encouraged to record what they saw, but not to interpret its meaning.
Class participants learned about the teachings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers (monks and nuns) of the third, fourth and fifth centuries. The Ammas and Abbas, as they were called, told short parables about the basics of life.
"They went into the Egyptian desert to learn how to focus, to be more aware of the world," Patterson said. "By watching the evening sky and seeing the sun come up, they learned how nature moves and so how God moves-and loves."
Over spring break, the class made its own six-day journey into the wilds with a trip to Big Fat Gap in North Carolina's Joyce Kilmer Forest. Students learned backcountry technical skills as well as leave-no-trace environmental practices. They shared tea in silence together, practiced meditation, held community meetings and discussed their readings in terms of their experiences. They also dealt with weather shifts and the wildness of nature.
"Nothing could have been as powerful as the time we spent in the wilderness," said Patterson. "To my complete delight, we became a living, learning community. We were holistic learners together."
Lara Freeman, who graduated last month in anthropology and human and natural ecology, found the course outstanding. "It was an incredible trip with Bobbi and William and the rest of the class," she said. "The biggest part of our experience was building up a community, figuring out what that meant and putting it in the context of environmental issues."
Patterson is intensely committed to the college's Theory Practice Learning program. She directs TPL, an associate program of the Center for Teaching and Curriculum.
Edelglass recalled how he became involved. "Bobbi and I met a year-and-a-half ago," he said. "I've been working as a guide for Outward Bound and other organizations for 10 years now and wanted to teach a course on environmental philosophy that would take place in the wilderness. I believe in experiential education that takes place on multiple levels, including practices and personal engagement with the subject matter and the learning process.
"Participating in the course has provided a model for my future teaching, a hope for the same depth of student engagement in my own classes," he continued. "The important thing for me to see was how the students have found the course so deeply satisfying."
Patterson agreed. "This course allowed us to probe very deeply the
interdependence of theory and practice. It was intellectually, pedagogically
and ethically transformative for us all."