Gaston & Catawba

Mountains, skies make for a splendid classroom

The watercolor, done on a small piece of sketching paper only 8 inches wide and 3 inches deep, will never hang in exhibition and will certainly never win any awards.

Dark gray and blue clouds hang over a mountain range, with cloud separated from mountain by a narrow and uneven boundary of white. The hills themselves vary from blue to brown to gray, with a tiny green meadow at the foot of one knob.

Any knowledgeable artist would say the work is crude at best, and an artist who is perhaps less than kind would add that it looks as if it could have been painted by a second-grader.

But the work is not that of a second-grader. It was instead crafted by a 52-year-old English teacher who had to step outside his own comfort zone and feel the challenge of working in a different medium with different tools and with different expectations.

To become a student again, and to experience the fear of the unfamiliar and the pleasure of new creation, was but one of the joys of a summer week spent at the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching in Cullowhee.

The center, which was established by the N.C. General Assembly at the behest of Gov. Jim Hunt in the early 1980s, aims to provide quality enrichment and renewal programs for public school teachers from across the state.

The center and its staff surely accomplished those aims for me and 22 other educators recently with a weeklong seminar called “Exploring the Landscape through Art and Writing,” a program designed to develop ways for using the outdoors as a classroom.

Certainly, such a topic could not be more timely. More and more educators, psychologists and spiritual leaders are recognizing the increasing disconnect between our young people and nature, a disconnect which some have labeled “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

The virtual world of cell phones, text messaging, e-mail, MySpace and Facebook can occupy them for hours on end. The natural world of forests, streams, wildflowers, animals and stars seldom gets even a cursory glance.

The seminar's goal was to help each of us deepen our own personal connection with nature through art, writing and reflection and to develop methods for sharpening the inquiry skills of our students and sparking student curiosity about the outdoors.

We listened as Chrystine Keener, an art professor at Western Carolina University, talked about the relationship between nature and the romantic artists of Europe and the United States in the 1800s.

We were guided through the works of the English romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, by Brent Kinser, an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina.

We watched in awe as noted watercolor artist Elizabeth Ellison demonstrated how she turns a blank canvas into multicolored, heart-stirring rendering of the Great Balsam Mountains through the blending of shades, colors and hues.

We learned from naturalist and writer George Ellison how to identify the profusion of wildflowers that populate the Appalachian forests, as well as the history of how those mountains and forests came to be.

More importantly, we hiked to high peaks in the Balsams, walked quiet trails in the Great Smokies, sat beside waterfalls deep in the forests, painted our own pictures, wrote in our own journals with the same sort of quill pens the romantic poets used, and discovered the joys of quiet and of stillness in the natural world.

In just five short weeks, a new school year will begin. I'll be teaching mostly new students at a brand-spanking new school – Draughn High School – sitting on a high bluff overlooking the Catawba River and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

What better place and what better time to share with young people my own renewed passion for the natural world?

What better place and what better time to encourage them to look upon that world through new eyes – through eyes of awe and appreciation?

And what better time and what better place to increase their understanding of the environment and to celebrate that understanding through words, through art, and through their own spirits?