By Katie Fries
Nathan Carson was stranded on a mountain when he had his “a-ha” moment.
Stuck while hiking in the remote Sierras and awaiting search and rescue support, Carson, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Fresno Pacific University philosophy program, engaged in his discipline. “I had a lot of time to think,” he says, “and I thought: Why are we not doing anything with students in the mountains?”
The modern age has turned higher education into a commodity. “People sit in a classroom, consume and move on. I try to consistently work against that model. I thought [it would be] great to bring students here and do philosophy, literature [and] theology outside, where they can also experience a more meaningful community of learning,” Carson says.
Getting students outside gets them closer to more than rocks and trees. “The Bible talks about the redeeming power of creation,” says Katie Burns, FPU wilderness operations director, “and that is my experience having worked outside for 15 years now: There is nothing more powerful than going outside and being renewed, refreshed and challenged by the outdoors.”
Carson’s epiphany came in July of 2017. By the summer of 2018, he had put together FPU’s first Sierra Summer program—a month-long immersive experience that took the classroom outside. Starting with two weeks of base camp in the Sierra Nevada, 16 students and six professors studied environmental ethics, philosophy, literature, science and Christian theology. “It’s a pretty diverse experience,” Carson says, meant to “replicate the model of the interdisciplinary liberal arts model of higher education.”
After base camp, some day trips and a four-day excursion to Palisade Glacier on the Eastern Sierra, students hit the trail for 10 days in the high country of Yosemite National Park and the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Here the work was integrated and holistic: spiritual, intellectual, emotional and physical. “People left their internet connections at the trail head and connected for hours, just talking and hearing each other. When you simply walk on trail with people and have time, and there’s a common goal and community of care, it makes for a massive transformational difference,” Carson says.
One challenge in making this transformation real for students was knowing when and how to integrate the lessons creation was teaching, given that the wilderness doesn’t give rest breaks. “When you’re trying to cook a meal or survive a rainstorm or have an emotional breakdown, you don’t want to be reading and discussing ethics or ecology,” Carson says. “How do you do it?”
For 2019, Carson and his team created three learning tiers. On the lighter side, trail talk involves impromptu discussions where students reflect with a partner on a simple thought or quote on the fly as they hike the trail together. Spot discussions are more intentional conversations held after a day’s hiking is completed—around a campfire or in the morning over breakfast. “A spot discussion,” he says, “is often a single paragraph, a tightly focused passage you can read together and [then] let the discussion flow.” On shorter hiking days, or when the weather is nicer, students can write in journals and have more in-depth conversations on a given topic.
“We can pull any of those options at any point on the trail depending on what’s happening around us,” Carson adds. “If students are exhausted we can go light; if there’s time and leisure we can go heavy. Rotating topics, we can pick and choose and fit the content to the experience itself. It doesn’t feel like school; it’s supposed to be integrated with spiritual and moral development, and of course tuned in to the physical challenges we encounter on any given day.”
Jillian Freeman, associate vice president of university marketing and communications, was a volunteer guide on 2018’s inaugural trip. An avid backpacker and former member of Fresno County Search and Rescue, she helped orient the students and led them on the trails, witnessing powerful moments as the week progressed.
“Intentionally pulling students away from the academic work and letting it take root in the emotional and spiritual self—when you sit with it and you see how it connects to your experience in the wilderness, of God, of others—it’s illuminated in a really full way,” she says.
Juana Moreno, a first-generation college student, had very little hiking experience and no backpacking experience when she signed up for 2018’s Sierra Summer program. Two weeks later she was one of seven students to complete the trip to the Palisade Glacier.
“Visiting the glacier first-hand gave me a place to think of when reflecting on the ways in which our activities can harm the natural world,” she says. “The experience was life changing because it made me realize how valuable the natural world is, not only because of the resources it provides us with, but also simply because it exists just like we do. I don’t think we think about this on a day-to-day basis. I don’t think we take the time to appreciate being surrounded by all the beauty in the natural life around us, and I think that’s why we fail to take care of it.”
This level of engagement is just the point. “Most wilderness programs,” Carson says, are “about experience and skill and recreation. What makes [our] program unique is the attempt to integrate academic discussions and reflection into the wilderness experience. Nobody else is trying to unpack what our obligations to ecology and sustainability are while we’re out there experiencing the backcountry.”
The second Sierra summer experience took place June 2-26, 2019, but that’s just the beginning for the program now known as FPU Wilderness.
Burns came on board as operations director in January 2019. The trained wilderness guide most recently directed student life and co-curricular administration for Azusa Pacific University’s now-shuttered High Sierra program, which Carson calls “legendary.” She brings to FPU her intimate knowledge of nearby wilderness areas, and ability to integrate humanities reflection with wilderness experience.
“Katie knows the Sierra inside out and upside down, and can tell you exactly where a student will give up and lose hope, where snow is and how threatening a river crossing is,” Carson says. “But she’s not just about rivers and passes and elevation gain, she knows how to do discussion and philosophy and literature while doing all that.”
Burns also brings a conviction that the outdoors is for everyone. “I think in general, the outdoors is perceived as pretty exclusive,” she says. “Whatever your abilities, skill level, fitness level, background, gender, race…I want you to feel you have a place out there and that there is a safe space for you.”
Stores like REI have carved out a niche marketing the wilderness to “rich, white people,” Burns says, a demographic that many college students—particularly the average FPU student—do not represent.
Carson concurs, adding that according to the National Parks Service, 80-85 percent of national park visitors are upper middle-class white people. “There are whole segments that never go or never have the chance to go. Racial demographics are narrow, and income is very high. We want to open up world class wilderness experiences to everybody,” he says.
Carson and Burns have ambitious plans. Beginning in the 2019-2020 academic year, FPU Wilderness will host internationally certified wilderness medicine courses for both FPU students and as continuing education for the Central Valley community. Revenue will support the FPU Wilderness program. “Most first responders in the area—police, nurses, paramedics, Fresno County Search and Rescue—need these certifications,” Carson explains. “Nobody is offering them in our area. They have to go to L.A., or San Francisco. We want to become a go-to place for that.”
In spring 2019, FPU also approved a wilderness studies minor. Already, students have enrolled, which will set them up to work in fields such as wilderness guiding, national parks and forest services and outdoor and camp-related ministries.
Other initiatives under the FPU Wilderness umbrella will include short wilderness getaways for students offered by the Student Life Division as co-curricular options, guide instruction to train students to help lead wilderness trips and a wilderness “bridge” program for incoming students. Carson also has plans to integrate excellent Christian scholarship, with FPU functioning as facilitator and host. With Steven Bouma-Prediger, Ph.D., a respected scholar in ecotheology and virtue ethics at Hope College, Carson is co-editing a new interdisciplinary book on ecological issues. A conference to launch the book will bring 20-30 top Christian scholars from around the globe to Yosemite in either the summer of 2020 or 2021, to present their recent work in theology, philosophy, ethics, ecology and literature, all focused on Christian perspectives on what it means to care for creation in our time and place.
FPU Wilderness programs are also the focus of an article on creation care Carson is writing that may reach a national audience through publication in Christianity Today. Carson hopes FPU Wilderness will be a transformative place for students, and put the university on the map in Christian higher education and academia as a crucial meeting place for Christian scholars to discuss pressing ecological issues.
“In general, the wilderness has always served as a unifying experience for us as humans,” says Burns. “It requires us to acknowledge the beauty around us and requires us, no matter what faith background you come from, to acknowledge there is something larger than ourselves. It facilitates a different type of conversation than our modern society allows for.”
Whether students opt for a weekend getaway or a more immersive experience, FPU Wilderness aims to enhance their appreciation and understanding of the natural world, as well as provide a deeper understanding of what it means to be both a citizen and a steward of God’s creation.