Learning the Mother Tongue

     New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof's Sunday column this week proposes mandatory study abroad for every US college student.  I like the idea.  But that's like asking them to learn Spanish or Chinese before they've mastered English.  Why go abroad when most students aren't even familiar with their native territory?  By this I don't mean US cities or even regional cultures.  By territory, I mean the land: the biological systems, geophysical forms, water, air, the pace of change, cycles, migration, predation, all the interconnected elements that underlie functioning life on this continent.  I'm talking about earth literacy: getting a weather forecast by looking up, not app.
     Traveling into the wilderness for a summer or semester is an immersion into the mother tongue of all life on earth. Especially given the precariousness of the human systems we have built on top of the earth, it seems that a fundamental earth literacy is a prerequisite to any foray into business, STEM, the arts, medicine, or government. Heck, even raising a family in this era of global warming requires the kind of consciousness that a traveler absorbs. This is why Kristoff advocates going abroad over book-learning: travelers learn something non-factual, non-linear, non-logical by engaging with a different environment and relying on all their senses, their observations, and their intuition. These are the building blocks of an instinctive and long-lasting wisdom.
     I suggest there is one more outcome: a sense of connectedness and interdependence. This is what differentiates an engineer who has been to Africa from an engineer who has never been outside the lab when both are designing a portable water purification system. Which one will be more successful, ultimately, and why?
     My proposal is that by the end of high school, or certainly before traveling abroad in college, all US students should undertake some extended wilderness or backcountry experience engendering in them an earth literacy. At the core, this should include a substantial amount of time in which the student is dependent on him or herself and the land for sustenance. Ideally, food may be brought but should be self-cooked; shelter should not have a door; travel should be non-motorized, preferably self-powered. Electronics are only for emergency purposes. All the good stuff, the earth awareness, happens best within these perimeters.
     Such experiences are readily available at every economic level: you can pay or be paid – or volunteer. Various state and federal Youth Conservation Corps and the non-profit Student Conservation Association offer paid and volunteer experiences on public lands. Traditional summer camps, YMCA camps, scouting organizations, community teen centers and school outing clubs often have programs or pathways that develop wilderness skills and earth literacy. And in many families, hunting and fishing trips are forays into extended wilderness experiences.
     Imagine this: a student from Maine sees cactus for the first time in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona, while a kid from Nogales, Arizona builds water-bars on trails in the Shenandoah National Park. An art student from Brooklyn designs interpretive material for the Appalachian Trail and then hikes the 88 mile section through New York, while a student from Ohio goes to a canoe tripping camp in Ontario and cooks and eats a lake trout he caught. What do these young people share? They have seen the night sky uncorrupted by light; they have had to find, treat and conserve water; they have learned which plants and animals can be food, and which can sting or poison. They have learned to read the weather and where to find shelter. They have followed a map, moved under their own power, entertained themselves without electronics, and left no trace. They have smelled the earth, listened to night animals, and stopped in awe at the beauty before them.
     Earth literate often means self-literate too. What if every college student who went abroad was already earth literate? What incredible depth this would bring to Kristof's proposal. I'm all for it.

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