A Letter to my Students

The following words were read to the Waynflete upper school before departing for our annual Outdoor Experience trips. 

…….I wasn’t a great student….but I was a really good thinker, and the place(s) where I did most of my thinking was outside. This wasn’t a mistake. Woolf, Einstein, Wadsworth, Tchaikovsky, and even Jobs, all recognized the cognitive and emotional benefits that result from moving in and through the out-of-doors. They all walked daily. Now, I’m not trying to pretend that I felt like “Einstein” every time I came home from hiking, fishing, or building forts….but I definitely felt focused, inspired, and more aware of the world around me.

In my adult life I still enjoy going outside on a regular basis, and getting lost in the rabbit holes of thought that movement in nature inspires. Recently, I have found that my daydreaming has been focused on letter writing. Perhaps this is my subconscious making up for what are at best, subpar communication skills (a fault that my Mom will quickly attest to). Regardless, when outside I am inspired to think and write without ever actually putting pen to paper. The unfortunate reality is that many of these ideas and feelings are never actually expressed to the people who deserve to hear them. So, in an effort to share more with others, I thought I would take this time to read a letter that I wrote this summer.….to you.

“Dear Students,

It is 4:00am on June 28th 2017. We are crawling out of tents that are perched on a ridge at 11,000ft on the side of a volcano. My decision to sleep on snow instead of rocks was a poor one, the consequences of which were exacerbated by the previous day’s decision to go “light weight” by leaving the heavier (and much warmer) sleeping bag at the trailhead. This is an example of a tightly coupled system, when one choice ripples through numerous others. Nature is good at highlighting the compounding effects of poor choices. I digress though, I’m not writing to you to discuss systems thinking. Via headlamp I am organizing our climbing and skiing gear while across the horizon the sun is just starting to cut across the darkness: it is a thin sliver of orange trying to divide an ocean of darkness. While I welcome the warmth, I will miss the stars, you all would have been amazed at the stars.

The snow I am standing on is old. Not generations old, it must have fallen sometime in January or February. But just like rings on a tree, I am in awe of nature’s ability to preserve the past, allowing us a glimpse at what once was, and to hypothesize about how other organisms in this same place might have engaged with the snow underneath my boots. Most likely it fell silently and without notice, but I like to imagine that someone else climbed or skied over it as well, or that someone huddled over a small camp stove, watched these flakes fall. Or maybe only the marmots and ravens have seen this snow before….that’s ok, marmots and ravens deserve tranquility too. I hope you get to see this place some day, this mountain with all its snow, marmots, and curious ravens.

Truth be told, I am worried that we haven’t done a good enough job of sharing places like this with you. You deserve to be here. All of you, regardless of who you are or where you come from, you belong here. This space is for you to explore and enjoy as a means to help you lead rewarding, exciting, and happy lives. Note: if mountains, marmots, and ravens don’t inspire you then go to grasslands, rivers, oceans, jungles, deserts, and hills. These are your places too. Moreover, how you choose to engage with and travel through the natural world is your decision. There is no right or wrong way. Run, walk, draw, think, observe, climb, wander, paddle, sleep, your engagement with the landscape is yours and yours alone. Own it, and honor it.

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Right now Doug is finishing making coffee that at home would barely pass as lightly caffeinated water, but in this time and place, it is a luxury I will readily enjoy. Meanwhile the orange divide across the early morning sky is growing ever wider; we have to start going up before the sun crests the horizon. The friends scuttling around our small camp are good people, great people. I am glad I am here with them, and in fact without them I couldn’t be here at all. Traveling in this landscape by these means requires honest, thoughtful and competent people to be at your side. I encourage you to dedicate yourself to the hard, but rewarding, work of making close friends.

We are standing around the small snow kitchen dug into the side of the mountain. Our backpacks are filled with the necessary calories and gear, our skis are in hand, ready to go on our feet, and we proceed to do one last check…each individual taking on the responsibility for the safety and well-being of the person next to them. The excitement and enthusiasm in this small circle is palpable. However, I am still nervous. In fact, if I am being honest with you, I am almost always nervous in these places. Not because the slope is steep, or the weather is suspect, but simply because it is new, it is foreign and thus my mind lacks the ability to accurately forecast what is around the corner, or above the next ridge. The unknown can be intimidating. But, I find comfort in knowing that I have prepared well, brought good people with me, and that more often than not, history has shown new places to be exciting, rewarding and the catalyst for bringing forth the best parts of me. I encourage you to explore new places in a similar fashion.

It is time to go up now. I will do my best to leave this place as raw, pristine, and wild as I found it. As I said before, you deserve to be here.”

Sincerely,

Blake

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