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Carmen Phillips '08 - Senior Project
Living Nature: An Experimental Field-Based Wilderness Project
Since she was a child, Carmen Phillips '08 has been drawn to the world of nature. As a teenager, she began studying primitive skills, turning the childhood games of "plant soup into real meals of chickweed and dandelion leaves. Working with philosopher John Visvader, she planned her final project as a wilderness immersion in Virginia's Briery Creek area. She came in with little more than the clothes on her back, a knife, some fish hooks and line, a couple of field guides, one pot to cook in and one to hold water. She built a shelter - a wickiup - from saplings and leaves, and for seven weeks, most of it alone, she foraged and fished for food, cooking on fires kindled with the bow-drill she made. Each day, she kept a journal of her experiences. The following excerpts are from her senior project, "Living Nature: An Experimental Field-based Wilderness Project." Carmen is now back in the wilderness, having achieved her dream of becoming a teacher of wilderness ways.
In designing my final project for COA, I knew it must be in line with my passions and life's vision. I knew I wanted to continue to teach the skills of the wilderness after I graduated and that the best teachers teach from experience. After eight years of practicing primitive skills, I wanted some feedback from nature on where my abilities lay. The objective of my senior project was simple, to become as "primitive" as possible.
Yesterday I set out to the big beaver meadow of Little Briery Creek to gather willow to make a fish basket. I nibbled raw goldenrod roots for the first time - a "tonic nibble." They made me feel really good - like an uplifting inside of me. I collected the leaves and flower heads to dry for an astringent for wounds. I've got so many scratches on me! It's called Briery Creek for a reason! But it's a good awareness upkeeper. I also tried raw strawberry leaves for the first time - not bad. And I peeled a raspberry stalk and chewed it - not the best.
. . . I can't find my pouch of fishhooks. They must have fallen out of my bag. It had really been bothering me and I realized I was afraid. I only had one fish hook left. But I questioned why that fear was there and I realized it was because I didn't have any assuredness that I could make my own hooks. This is why there is so much fear in modern society - people are dependent on so many outside sources and know that if it were up to just themselves, they would be dead. . . .
I studied some rabbit tracks for awhile, once again realizing how much can be learned just from staring at the ground. That's what I love about tracking - the more you do it, the more mysteries are revealed. I wound my way downhill to a beautiful swampy area, nibbling on jewelweed and smartweed.
I made it to a willowy area and stopped to eat some fruit and nuts. I then decided to harvest willow another day. The heavy clouds and cool breeze said rain to me. I wanted to be closer to camp if it started.
I collected some grasses - I have an idea for layering the inside of the wickiup with grasses for waterproofing. One thing that has resonated is how much care and attention shelter takes. Even in my second week, I am still making improvements.
Humans are social animals. We like to be around others. . . . When you are by yourself, you have much less leisure time because you have no one to help you with the necessary tasks of the day. But beyond this. . . I believe humans like to be together. I often struggled with loneliness tugging at my soul. . . . I came to really enjoy dreaming because it was my chance to interact with other "people." The fire became a great companion.
Then I happened to run into Ginger. How refreshing it was to talk to another human, even if only for a short moment! I told her she was the first person I had seen in a week and her reaction was, "Oh! Isn't it nice! . . . I mean . . . how is it?"
Her reaction put into perspective how lucky I was to have all this time to myself. I had been telling myself it was my choice to feel lonely or not. Yet I still struggled. . . . Suddenly, I had a reason greater than myself to enjoy being alone. I must enjoy it for all those people who would never experience it.
My bouts with that nagging feeling of loneliness did not magically stop. However, they lasted only for short periods. I became used to being alone. My perceptions of the personalities of all the animals and plants around me became enhanced. Just the sound of a crow was such a welcome voice.
Once I was back around people, I realized how I had come to appreciate being around others' company. All our personal plans and desires are nothing compared to the relationships with have with one another.
Yesterday morning I went in search of wood for making a bowl. I also collected more grasses for the debris hut - it got really cold the night before.
Fishing in the afternoon yielded a huge sunfish! I tucked the fish into my willow fish basket, filled with glee at the ease with which a meal was just pulled from the water. . . . I started a fire and finished the doorway awning on the wickiup. I then went down to the lake to clean and gut the fish. I feel like an otter when I clean fish, squatting at the water. There was a lot of meat on that fish! Afterwards, filled with energy, I climbed a pine in my camp and watched the sun go down.
When I returned to my life in society, it became apparent that my experience at Briery Creek had changed me forever. No matter where I am, I can summon that "woods mind" I adopted, helping me to move at a slower pace and enjoy every moment of life. I could feel off balance living in society and then run to the woods and be overtaken by an incredible sense of peace. I realized that the feeling of spending time in nature was not something I gleaned from nature, but something inside me that nature helped to bring out. I can walk down a busy city street and still maintain the peace of mind I found in the wilderness. I am more grounded now than I have ever been, more in touch with who I am and why I am here.
To those who love the wilderness, I recommend setting aside time to live in it. Bring what you need according to your skill level, but bring as little as possible. The less you bring, the more you will immerse yourself.
. . . The wilderness has a way of knowing exactly what you need to learn and it will teach you, provided you are open to it. Slow down. Have no expectations. Enter with an empty cup; it will be filled in ways you may never expect.