Nature and Nurture | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Environment

Nature and Nurture

At Plymouth's Farm and Wilderness summer camps, it's all about simplicity and stewardship

by and

Published August 19, 2009 at 6:52 a.m.

Back in 2002, author Frank McCourt offered an audience in New York City his philosophy on raising well-adjusted kids: “Give children nothing,” he said, “because American children get everything, and they get it immediately. It’s on the television — ‘I want it now!’ — and they get it now because we have to keep the little buggers quiet.”

McCourt, who died recently, was raised dirt-poor in Brooklyn and then Ireland. When he was young, as he related in his best-selling memoir, his most prized possessions were his dreams of the New York skyline. His point about today’s kids is that they are unjustly denied the privilege of idleness and dreams; their reality so swells with activity and abundance that they have little left to yearn for. McCourt’s prescription? “I want to see children sitting under a tree,” he mused in his lecture. “I want to see them sitting on the banks of the Mississippi or the Hudson or any place, with a fishing line. I want to see them doing nothing, and I want to see them dreaming.”

It’s unlikely McCourt ever visited Farm & Wilderness, a not-for-profit summer camp in Plymouth. But if he had, his eyes might have gleamed with delight. Every morning at this hidden oasis beside the mirror-like Woodward Reservoir, about 450 campers, ranging in age from 9 to 17, spend 20 minutes — 45 on Sundays — in Silent Meeting. Sitting beneath the green canopy, listening to the birds sing, they do nothing but think and reflect. If the spirit urges, a camper may stand up and share a thought. It lingers in the stillness and then floats away.

“The great thing about it,” says counselor Tulio Browning, 42, “is you create a space and they fill it.” Remove on-demand entertainment — iPods, computers, TV — and the campers fill that space, too, with basic games such as tug-of-war, or by pitching stones into a coffee can.

The scene here probably didn’t look too different 70 years ago, when Kenneth and Susan Webb founded F&W on a plot of abandoned farmland. The Webbs were both educators interested in the pedagogical reform philosophy of John Dewey, which centered on experiential and collaborative learning. They were also Quakers who, in accordance with the teachings of George Fox, the originator of the Religious Society of Friends, valued simplicity, equality, honesty, service and nonviolence. These beliefs combined with spirituality and inclusiveness in the idea that God is the light within each person, and that everyone’s light is equally brilliant and worthy of discovery. The aim of the summer camps at F&W, explains executive director Pieter Bohen, “is to facilitate that light to shine as brightly as possible.”

From a single program for boys, F&W has swelled to a co-ed camp with seven separate programs on 4000 acres. In 1973, the Webbs’ family business became a nonprofit educational organization.

For a long time, a “clothing-optional” policy prevailed at the camp: The Webbs were nudists, believing that nakedness was essential to inclusiveness because it fostered an acceptance of bodies. Times changed, and concerned comments from parents started trickling in. In the late 1980s, clothing was mandated everywhere but at the waterfront, but some parents still complained, and eventually the policy began affecting enrollment numbers.

Bohen says the administration wondered if the policy was actually having the opposite of its intended effect, by excluding people — Latinos and Muslims, for instance — who are offended by public nudity. As a result of those reflections, this year is the first that clothing must be worn everywhere at F&W. Not all campers are sanguine about the change. “Who isn’t a fan of being naked?” asks Hilde Alexander, a 16-year old girl with little braids sprinkled throughout her curly hair.

Another aspect of inclusiveness is racial diversity. Bohen says F&W was one of the first racially integrated summer camps in the United States, giving scholarships to Japanese children from internment camps during World War II. Still, ethnic diversity isn’t easy to achieve at a rural camp in the whitest state in the country, and today only about 20 percent of the campers are nonwhite.

F&W started with just one camp — Timberlake, for boys ages 9 to 14, which still teaches outdoor living skills, homesteading and farming, creative arts, and how to build useful things from wood and rock and nails. When I visit the camp on a cool, overcast morning in mid-July, a team of Timberlake campers is building a terraced trail from the main road down to their living quarters — 11-person cabins with translucent roofs and one or two walls. The six boys — some from New York, Vermont, and Poland — are variously wielding shovels and pickaxes and fortifying a berm with logs. Infusing them with his brand of enthusiasm, Bohen declares that “this is a perfect example of work as love made visible.” It’s a common saying at the camp, one that campers repeat to me numerous times during the day.

Indian Brook, the female counterpart to Timberlake, was added to the curriculum in 1941. Nicole Sutherland-Maiden, its current director, calls it “a camp to see if you like camp.” She says she loves watching the girls accomplish something they never thought possible, such as a 12-mile hike, felling a tree with an axe or climbing a rock wall: “There’s an immense will with them.”

Then there’s Tamarack Farm, a co-ed camp for 15-to-17-year-olds who manage a small organic farm and focus on building a community through shared work, consensus decision making and town-meeting-like get-togethers. Just before lunch on the day I visit, the campers are lounging in front of the main lodge, a cedar-shake building with camper-made tables inside, writing in journals, doing chores and reading books such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

At about 12:30, a giant circle forms on the lawn in front of the lodge, everyone holding hands and listening to announcements moderated by two campers in the center. When the meeting is over, they all visit the outdoor hand-washing stations and get a squirt of waterless germ-killing foam — swine flu is the worry — before heading inside to eat grilled-cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.

Tom Barrup, 58, has been the director of Tamarack Farm for the past 26 years. He’s tall, with a lightbulb-shaped head of curly brown and gray hair that narrows into a skinny, deeply lined face with blue eyes. Like many of the staff here, Barrup first came to F&W as a camper. Then he started to work here and just kept coming back.

Barrup has a subtle, relaxed way of organizing that gives the campers nearly as much control as the leaders. He’s a believer in the group leadership model, because it forces everyone to hear everyone else’s opinions and needs. “It’s a really powerful way to learn some empathy,” he says, adding that “it’s more improv than doing theater out of a script. And here, everybody has a part to play.”

Inside, I sit down with four campers, all eager to talk about how much they love F&W. One spent the morning working on the cupola for the new barn. Others tended the garden and harvested hay, or helped build the sliding barn doors. “It was a lot of hard work,” one says, “but it pays off when you get to see it done.”

They tell me a lot of them get “camp-sick” — that is, they miss this place when they go home. Some even start counting down the number of days until camp starts on their Facebook pages.

“It’s so different from outside camp,” a female camper says. “You can actually be yourself here. You can wear a dress or whatever!”

“This is what gets you through the school year,” says another.

“There’s so much love in this place, it’s just so amazing!”

“There wasn’t a single day this year that I didn’t think about camp.”

Sun is streaming through the big bay windows that look down toward the barns, greenhouse, chicken coop and orderly rows of lush vegetables, all of which is overseen by John Adams, the farm manager. Tamarack has a commercial-grade milking parlor, and Bohen says the camp will soon start selling milk to the Woodstock Farmers Market.

Higher on the hillside above the lake, Timberlake and Indian Brook have their own gardens, cultivated organically since the farm was founded. “This is so cool!” Bohen exclaims to me as we walk by a raspberry patch. “Having young boys out gardening!” Most of the campers spend four to six hours a week in the gardens, some more.

These F&W camps are all about agricultural domesticity, but others are geared toward wilderness living. One is Flying Cloud (see sidebar), a remote outpost on Saltash Mountain where boys ages 11 to 14 live in yurts and teepees, run a primitive community and learn wilderness survival skills. Another is Saltash Mountain Camp, a co-ed experience for 11-to-14-year-olds on Lake Ninevah in Plymouth, which melds wilderness and the arts. Also on Lake Ninevah, Questers, for 15-to-17-year-old boys and girls, offers an extended stay in the wilderness and the chance for campers to design and execute their own outing.

Whether they stay for three and a half or seven weeks, work the gardens or live in the woods, the campers are outdoors most of the time. And they don’t get to touch a cellphone or look at their email.

But, judging by their enthusiasm, they don’t mind being incommunicado. Bohen says F&W isn’t about denying technology; it’s about encouraging other, less tangible skills in young people whose lives are already saturated with information. “We’re not Luddites,” he says. “That’s not the intent. The intent is to create an experience that allows us to build a human experience in its purest form.”