A few years ago I happened upon an intriguing article written about an indigenous tribe nestled deep in the amazon forest. Some members of this tribe, as far as researchers can gather, have never had any substantial, meaningful contact with the modern world. Observed only from a distance, the Awa know nothing of the cultural and historical events that have shaped our collective understanding of Western reality. For subsistence, they depend on profoundly nuanced relationships to the natural systems that support them, and have amassed an extensive and intimate body of knowledge about flora, fauna, climate, and geology that the Western world has all but lost. The plight of the Awa, who are under constant threat from global agribusinesses, inspire questions about how differently our two cultures engage reality, an interface with the more-than-human world that we commonly, but erroneously, think of as universal. If we could talk to them, would they be able to teach us something profound about our human relationships to the environment? Or would our two realities be so incompatible that any real communication would be impossible? What precisely have we lost—and have long since forgotten about—in our efforts to insulate ourselves from nature? To explore these questions, I designed a writing and critical thinking course that would engage students in a semester-long philosophical inquiry, one that would ask them to methodically examine their lives, their perceptions, and their relationships to the more-than-human world – Thinking Like a Mountain: Environmental Sustainability in an Age of Mass Distraction.

Although generally successful, I realized after a few semesters of teaching the course that something was missing. Something practical. Something concrete. Other than reevaluating their perceptions and their lives, how might students effect change in a world that flirts quite closely with global environmental collapse? On cue, enter Wake Forest University’s Magnolias Curriculum Project. Through this project, and with the help of some very knowledgeable peers (Luke Johnston and Sarah Mason especially), I redesigned the course to incorporate a hands-on approach to local and global sustainability issues. The students in the course maintain their scholarly pursuit of academic writing and environmental philosophy. But now they ground their inquiries by exploring and writing about Wake Forest’s many sustainability initiatives, from the Campus Kitchen and the Campus Garden to the Sustainability Theme House, recycling, LEED certification, and energy conservation. Although I am in the middle of the first semester with this redesigned course, the results are palpable. Wake Forest students strive for a balance between their interior lives and the demands of the material world that surrounds them. As such, the course empowers them to connect their desires for positive, mindful change with realistic, real-world opportunities.

By Dr. Eric Stottlemyer, Magnolias Project Participant 2013