“Hope and future are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” Henry David Thoreau was very much endeared to a specific kind of beauty—he learned from the East Coast, from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lush property and from Walden Pond. This quote connects deeply to Walden School Philosophy because at Walden we learn truth from the world around us as well as in books and in the classroom. While Thoreau spent time discovering himself by the famous Walden Pond, Waldenites gain experience from the amazing, rare, and unique ecotope that we’ve created at the school.
Thoreau is often criticized because he would make bold claims about escaping humanity and embarking on his own, only to take in numerous visitors at his cabin, send his laundry back to his mother, and head to town to spend an evening in the tavern. We named our school after Thoreau’s book in hopes that we could, like Henry David, learn by creating makeshift shelters, foraging for food, and gazing at moose. Anybody associated with Walden can tell you the extent to which we have taken Thoreau’s words to heart—in the spirit of emulating his idealized “impervious and quaking swamp,” we have acquired reptiles, more than a little mud, and sometimes even a pair of waders worn as a fashion statement. Our ecosystem also contains a few decrepit couches, large piles of pseudo-wearable detritus, and many moldy Tupperware containers.
We operate as something of an ecosystem—after witnessing nature on our many Walkabouts and Moab expeditions, we seem to have done a great job of emulating the organic, symbiotic communities that are present in the mountains and deserts of Utah. Many say that 80% of Walden’s biomass consists of one species—a certain barefooted, heavily empowered herbivore with certain political views and a fondness for outlandish clothing. Though many students fit this description, I think it’s safe to say that many also defy the stereotype. One such mammal is a friend of mine who has very different political views from me. One issue he is very passionate about is gun control and second amendment rights. About three times a week, we have a conversation that sounds like this:
“Oh hi, Ingrid! Listen. You know I totally respect your beliefs, but let me tell you about this article I was reading that supports my argument!”
Then approximately forty-five minutes of lively debate ensue, during which we both learn about the issue and practice what we just learned in class about the rhetorical triangle. The discussion inevitably ends with, “Well Ingrid, I may not share your views, but I just love ya to death. Thanks for talkin’ to me.” And I say, “Well, the feeling is mutual. At least we can agree on that!”—regardless of who fits the Waldenite stereotype, I think the most important thing we have in common is respect and love for each other… at least, while we’re not in the middle of a heated political argument. This little-know biodiversity translates into an amazing education when it is placed on fertile soil.
Anybody who has experienced the stunning Fiery Furnace hike in Moab has been subjected to the Cryptobiotic Soil video—it is shown mandatorily at the visitor’s center before any hiker may embark. At Walden, this piece of cinematic genius is a classic—though the dialogue is occasionally lackluster and the aesthetics experimental, we all heed the oft-repeated warning that hikers should NOT walk off of the path for fear that the vitally important living soil that is the foundation of the arid ecosystem will be disturbed. Like Cryptobiotic soil, the Walden faculty is an often underappreciated foundation of the school’s ecosystem. Though our teachers may not contain many lichens, mosses, or cyanobacteria, they are a earthy, dedicated, and expert part of Walden and of the lives of the students. Cryptobiotic crust is known for its ability to improve stability of otherwise easily eroded soils, and similarly, I have seen many teachers help the current graduating class with college applications, coaching them through the infamously hectic and draining senior year. My math teachers along the way have had to deal with some real emotional instability on my part, for any long and seemingly incomprehensible equation can sometimes render me teary-eyed and whimpering. The crust also serves the purpose of increasing water infiltration in regions that receive little precipitation, and the teachers have been extremely gracious when it comes to making sure that students have access to and knowledge of every cultural opportunity in Utah. I will never forget afternoons spent this fall in Park City watching documentaries with Bev, or going to physics lectures in the Marriot Center (with such speakers as Neil Tyson and Brian Greene), or that amazing field trip we took during my sophomore year to see Michelle Obama speak in Salt Lake City. And, of course, the faculty is never hesitant to lead us halfway around the world if that is what it takes to quench our cultural thirst. This metaphor, however, is somewhat weak because the Walden teachers are significantly more resilient than soil—a simple footprint is enough to destroy a patch of cryptobiotic crust, whereas I’ve seen the teachers weather the literal and figurative elements many times.
Teachers, in case you are ever discouraged or have moments where you believe that your tireless work has been in vain, I would like you to know that you have made an enormous difference in my life. I came to this school feeling discouraged about and intimidated by my own education, feeling like I had no future and no talent, and I graduate today, having been treated and taught as an individual, which has given me the understanding that even frightening subjects can be my friends. You have instilled in this class an enormous and insatiable intellectual curiosity, and I cannot thank you enough for the education you’ve given me. In addition, I believe that there are students whose lives you have not only changed, but literally saved. Watching your tireless dedication to service has inspired many students to follow in your path—I cannot tell you how many of my peers have told me that they want to become teachers because of how much they respect and admire you. Your passion for your subject areas has shown us the value of pursuing our own passions. Thank you.
The Walden School was founded with Thoreau’s ideas and journeys in mind, and has evolved into a strange and lovely ecosystem. This week, Walden took a group of students to Capital Reef. Standing at the top of a cliff with my classmates and teachers, I knew exactly what Thoreau was talking about when he noted that hope and future could be found in the wild swamps rather than the manicured lawns—I saw hope and future reflected in the wild, untamed beauty of the sagebrush and the boulders, but I also witnessed it in the wild, untamed beauty of my fellow Waldenites. Ecosystems in their natural state function in a seemingly chaotic, but in fact perfectly balanced manner. As you cultivate your minds, don’t neglect your inner wilderness—our world could really use the symbiosis that the uncivilized wilderness seems to have perfected. Congratulations to the class of 2010, today is your day!