“Are you feeling okay?”
My friend keeps asking me this question. We are with our teacher and seven of the other students in the class “Wilderness in the North American Imagination,” riding in a motorboat across the Long Island Sound on our way to Horse Island. For the next 24 hours, this island is going to be our classroom.
I smile. “I’m not seasick,” I tell her. I don’t tell her that I’m terrified.
Now in its 30th year, “Wilderness” is one of Yale’s more eclectic seminars. The course is funded by an endowment from Charles Simonds ’60, who stipulated only that the course be called “Wilderness in the North American Imagination” and include a trip and dinner. The syllabus differs from year to year, as does the instructor, who has free rein to decide what the class covers. Our teacher, Carolee Klimchock GRD ’14, titled the first class meeting “Was Thoreau a Hipster?” and plans to end the course with a discussion on counterculture and LSD.
“I’ve wanted to tap into that place for students where being lost in the beauty or wonder of the wilderness can be mysterious, beguiling, and sometimes also unsettling,” Klimchock wrote in an email. “I’ve interpreted wilderness broadly to include the wilds of the outdoors and the wilds of the mind, because one’s own mind can be a very wild place.”
Klimchock, 38, is an American Studies graduate student whose dissertation focuses on coach driving during the Gilded Age. She’s no environmental scholar, but she’s drawn upon her extensive background in performance studies to come up with projects for the class.
Almost every class session has featured some kind of hands-on activity. On the first day of shopping period, Klimchock led a group of 30 to 40 students on a walk to the Peabody. We’ve finger painted sunsets, meditated, pretended to negotiate between settlers and Native Americans, and collectively written poems. We walked to Grove Street Cemetery, hunted for the graves of notable people, and read short eulogies.
A cemetery might not seem like such a wild place. Klimchock’s definition of wilderness, however, includes anything “mysterious, beguiling, and unsettling.” And that’s what the course is supposed to reveal: you can find wilderness anywhere. It’s in the Peabody, it’s on East Rock, it’s all over New Haven, it’s in the basement below HGS. It’s within the depths of your own mind.
And, of course, there’s wilderness on Horse Island. Our class had decided early on that we wanted to go somewhere far away from civilization for our class trip. When someone proposed Horse Island, where Yale owns a rarely used ecological laboratory, the class was overjoyed. An abandoned island, a body of water and a few miles between campus and us sounded just right to everyone — except me. I’d never even used a port-a-potty before, I thought. How will I survive in the wild?
There’s no electricity on the island. I’m underdressed for the 30-degree night. We unload our bags and carry them to the center of the 17-acre landmass, where there is a house that belonged to the island’s previous owners. The house is supposedly haunted — a rumor corroborated by the two knives on the shelf upstairs, with “I am loved” scrawled on the wall in red crayon.
We go outside to explore. I follow some classmates onto a rocky beach, where we lie down and watch little waves hit the rocks. In the distance, geese quack, and we think we hear seals barking. Everywhere else, there is silence.
I know I’ve taken the wrong path on the way back to the house when I find myself in the midst of a thicket. Thorns are hooking onto my pants, and later I’ll find they’ve left cuts all over my skin. I push on.
Back at the house, I grab a sandwich and think. I spin around. I can see the water everywhere through the trees. I don’t see any people. I drag a plastic lawn chair off the dilapidated porch onto the grass. I sit. I remain there for an hour, staring at the ocean, the sky, the wilderness. I sit there, unperturbed.