Students and Faculty Retreat to the North Woods

North Woods Retreat, photo by Karl Clifton-Soderstrom
During the weekend retreat, the group used Sylvania National Forest as a setting for a discussion on framing.
Photo by Karl Clifton-Soderstrom

North Parkers sought the peace of nature to hone writing techniques and find inspiration.

By Keir Quackenbush
Student Reporter for the
North Park Press

CHICAGO (November 21, 2013) — On Friday, October 25, a group of 14 North Park students and four professors interested in nature, philosophy, and creative writing allowed themselves to retreat. No, not from an argument, the prose of Heidegger, or writer’s block, but from the realm of exhaust, excitement, and excess: they retreated from the city.

Their destination was Covenant Point, a bible camp located in the North Woods of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Located beside Hagerman Lake, the camp is idyllic, cozy, and accommodating, providing a perfect fit for their escapist purposes.

For two days they lived quite like Thoreau, simply, deliberately, and with home-cooked meals just a stone’s throw from their living quarters. These meals provided the skeleton structure of their schedule, which they planned out collaboratively to include frequent ‘sessions’ of learning and discussion, intermittent immersion in the forest, and lengthy periods of time spent by the fire.

The focus of the retreat was writing, particularly nature writing. Each of the accompanying North Park professors led sessions about various aspects of nature and writing, from nature journaling and the diverse meanings of ‘wonder,’ to the Native American Trickster folklore and how Arctic landscape mirrors the human soul.

After breakfast on Saturday morning, Covenant Point staffer and North Park alum Dustin Johnson led the first session by recounting how, as a young teenager growing up in the Upper Peninsula, he had stolen an egg from a crow’s nest and raised the bird to maturity. Dustin explained how the crow would cause mischief, pestering the dog for attention and burying his toys, pecking at the window when it felt ignored. He named the bird ‘Homer.’

Through stories like this and a collective intention to be attentive to their environment, the group established a sense of place in the forest. Together they weaved a new, rural weekend narrative, set apart from the urban one that had engrossed them just the day prior.

With the city’s grasp carefully peeled away, junior Anna Sardar enjoyed the calming and wild aura of the North Woods. “I felt dislocated from the glorified world of busyness and felt comfortable to fully rest,” she said. “It was a gift to get away from the man-made and revel in the world that exists without man's permission.”

Freshman Caleb McCoy expressed a similar, more succinct sentiment: “It was a nice break from the city. The total solitude was really refreshing.”

This retreat represents North Park's practice of experiential learning, a teaching technique that Greg Clark, professor of philosophy, has been employing in classes such as Zen and Archery, Intentional Christian Communities, and Philosophy of Nature. These courses instill knowledge that is learned outside of the classroom. Clark also helped organize the Covenant Point retreat.

English professor Reinhold Dooley was impressed by how well the retreat went. “This is the kind of high impact learning experience that sticks with you well beyond the classroom. Such experiences make my profession both meaningful and joyful, not just because of the contact with nature, but because I can better appreciate the quality of students at North Park.”

Adding to the voices of praise for experiential learning, Kristy Odelius, associate professor of English, considers this writing retreat as “a highlight of [her] nine years of teaching at North Park,” adding, “I was so impressed by the students—to see them thinking, dwelling, and growing together incited gratitude and wonder in all of us.”

This retreat was made possible by a grant given to the philosophy and English departments by the Domanada Foundation, a Christian organization that operates mainly in the Chicago area and central and eastern Europe. Clark and others hope that the retreat can become an annual event. He emphasizes that there is a "mutual desire to strengthen the connections between North Park and Covenant Point," adding, "[Covenant Point offers] us a setting where we can reflect on the ways [that] our city lives affect and are affected by the human and non-human lives in rural areas."

During the final evening of the retreat, both students and professors sat around the warming hearth, taking turns reading their own pieces of writing and reflecting upon the weekend. Each expressed a strong sense of gratitude and renewal, and that the fruits of the experience would last far longer than the two days spent in the North Woods. 

This article first appeared in the November 15, 2013, print edition of the North Park Press, the University's student newspaper.

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