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English students get creative in the Boundary Waters

February 15, 2008

Nature-based writing and art can certainly be appreciated inside brick buildings.  But for Cornell English students, the Wilderness Field Station in northern Minnesota provides a much richer experience.

Breakfast with scenery

Students in American Nature Writers relax over breakfast during an excursion into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota.

Courses are taught against a backdrop of tall pines and clear lakes, with the silence punctuated by the call of loons, crackling fires, and lapping water.  Here the words of Aldo Leopold, Ernest Hemingway, and Annie Dillard resonate more deeply.

The field station’s comfortably rustic classrooms and dormitories provide a regular home for two Cornell English courses: Glenn Freeman’s American Nature Writers, and Leslie Hankins’ Modern American Literature: Encountering the Wilderness in Literature and the Visual Arts. Both courses include wilderness training and a journey into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), one of North American’s most pristine locales.

Freeman has also taught a writing course at the field station: Wilderness, Language and Metaphor.

“The class provided an excellent challenge mentally and physically,” says Charles Fox who completed the writing course in 2005.  “Teamwork was crucial to our success both in writing and camping/canoeing, so this was a class that taught people to work together despite any interpersonal differences.”

The courses often coincide with Ecology, Conservation Biology, and/or Wilderness Politics courses as part of the annual Cornell Wilderness Term, providing an exceptional interdisciplinary learning environment.   In 2007, English students even assisted biology students with tree surveys on islands within the BWCA.

Freeman calls the courses “a life-changing experience.”

“Whether you are an avid outdoorsperson or a neophyte,” he says in his course description, “be prepared to return to your day-to-day lives with a new set of eyes.”

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