At a time when college education can feel like an extension of high school, with similarly named classes, desks in rows, the teacher lecturing at the front of the room, quizzes, papers, and exams, EEI semesters are unique. We travel, gain understanding of ourselves, our passions, and the good work we can do in the world. We live outdoors and are engaged in learning in deep relationship with our peers, the experienced and dynamic faculty, and the natural world.
EEI students learn to see themselves as a part of, and not separate from, the diverse landscapes humans inhabit. Rather than a focus on the built world and the busyness of modern life, where people are largely unaware of the seasons, the weather, the cycles of the moon, the movements of the stars, the insects, birds, and animals with which we share space, EEI education helps students to truly wake up to all of this and more. Every day as we unzip our tents, aware of the sounds of nature that surround us, we put our feet directly on the earth and are immersed in the planetary systems that support us – that support life. They are the first things that we see and feel and smell and yes, maybe even taste.
While bus students “dorm rooms” are tents, we are generally staying in campgrounds with running water, bathrooms, picnic tables, and, often, showers. However, each EEI semester has several longer backcountry trips of three to seven days each, where we carry all that we need with us: tents, camping stoves, water filters, and wonderful tasty? backpacking meals! As we leave the bus and the human environment behind, EEI students experience themselves as a part of the wilderness landscapes we are visiting. With wilderness increasingly threatened by development and changes in public policies, students have a chance to learn intimately what humans have to gain from the preservation of such places. Their loss becomes more poignant as we develop personal relationships to the wild. We see these places as “home” and have a greater desire to preserve and protect them.
Bus groups also discover the vitality of rural and suburban places through contact with the land and people whose lives are formed by them. One of the practices that is regularly explored in these areas is Permaculture, defined as “an attempt to weave human culture back into the fabric of living ecosystems.” It is a diverse and complex approach based on the belief that
True sustainability requires the transformation of the basic human patterns that have brought us to the crisis point we are at today. Thus permaculture calls for a cultural shift that includes n+ot only how we feed ourselves (agriculture), but also our housing, transportation, economy, social organization, education, energy, health, and the very way in which we understand our relationship to the world around us (i.e. spirituality). http://www.theurbanfarmer.ca/permaculture-design/
Our experiences are often hands on, where we help to build raised beds, living fences, a greenhouse, or learn about the plants and animals that naturally thrive in the region. Overcoming our preconceptions, we find that suburbs can be seen as a bridge between the larger urban ecosystems, the rural, and the wild. We discover the reciprocity between people and place that sustain us over the long haul.
So how do urban places educate us about ourselves and our place on the planet? Early environmentalists often resisted or decried cities, seeing them as unnatural human constructed machine-like places. In the intervening years we have come to see them more as organisms with the potential to be in symbiotic relationship with “its macro and micro ecosystems”. Bus semesters have been engaging with urban ecosystems for the over 40 years of its programming. Busses have been invited into the activist Glide Memorial church, in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco to attend the wild Sunday services and then meet with Rev. Cecil Williams and his wife, poet Janice Mirikitani, to learn about and support the social justice missions of the church. While he was alive, renowned San Francisco based environmentalist David Brower, would host bus communities, querying us about what we believed were the environmental issues that currently concerned young people.
A recent semester took the bus to Portland, Oregon, often touted as the most sustainable city in the US due to its commitment to green transportation, local and sustainable agriculture, and to public policy that favors environmental and social sustainability. During the week they were there, students barely scratched the surface of all that this city has to offer. Their resource experiences included:
- a visit with the City Repair Project, who support creating community through communal public art and building infrastructure;
- a meeting with Dick Roy, co-founder (with his wife, Jeanne) of the Northwest Earth Institute, and more recently the Center of Earth Leadership (Learn more about their work for the city and the planet in this article);
- a visit with EcoTrust, whose mission page is so inspiring in itself that it’s worth sharing;
- and a visit with YouthGrow, who provide interdisciplinary learning opportunities through sustainable garden education programs with the intention of cultivating kids connection to nature and a love of fresh-grown food.
In order to work for a healthy planet, we need to recognize, even experience, how we are linked with the totality of the physical environment in which we live. Urban, suburban, rural, and wilderness interface with one another — sharing oceans, air, land, and watersheds. Wilderness – especially in today’s political climate – depends on human intervention for its very existence. The health of cities – places seemingly disconnected from the wild – depends on the day-to-day renewal of the land, waters, plants, animals, and people that surround and support them. In fact, none of these systems where humans live and work and play exist separate from the other. Through the direct experiences students have on a semester, they learn that interconnectedness is the key!