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Seminar Proposal

Following are excerpts from the SAIL proposal for Wilderness in the Anthropocene written by seminar leaders Jesse Ellis (biology, Coe College), Chris Fink (English, Beloit College), and Pablo Toral (international relations and environmental studies, Beloit College).

How the Topic and Site Inform One Another

The Coe College Wilderness Field Station (WFS) is a one-of-a-kind setting for exploring the theme of wilderness. Set on remote Low Lake, the station is a natural outdoor lab for learning, and a gateway to the Boundary Waters (BW). From the field station, participants can paddle from lake to river to bog to beaver pond, examining the interactions of plants and animals with their environment without undue human influence.

Pictographs in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

However, though wild, the area has a long human history, raising questions about what makes it a wilderness. The WFS is only 30 minutes from Ely, Minnesota, where a new international mining venture has exacerbated divisions among various parties with deep-seated views about the mine’s possible benefits and costs, raising urgent and timely questions about how communities use and view wilderness....

Looming over this local conflict is the specter of climate change, which, regardless of the region’s level of protection, could slowly convert the iconic boreal forest to oak savannah. Between actually experiencing the Boundary Waters by canoe and analyzing the conflict over the wilderness in Ely, faculty will have intimate knowledge of a case study that can be used in a wide variety of curricula, whether it’s comparing the chemical impacts of sulfide mining and iron mining on the ecosystem, understanding disagreements in communities over local resources, or considering the connotations of wilderness when an area has already been deeply shaped by human activities.

Components of the Seminar

The seminar leaders imagine offering a suite of overlapping interdisciplinary, team-taught modules built on a set of common readings and experiences in an intimate, collaborative wilderness setting, as follows:

Key readings, both creative and analytical: on wilderness, field-based research, and interdisciplinary learning. We will compile and distribute a seminar reader.

Wilderness experience: Participants will take a four-day long canoeing expedition in the wilderness, where we will explore the physical and biological natural history of the Boundary Waters and visit sites of historic (and pre-historic) importance. Besides this trip, every day time will be available for individuals and teams to explore the wilderness around the field station.

Activities: discussion on common readings, breakout sessions to discuss individual or group projects, development of interdisciplinary projects. Group and individual time allowed every day for contemplation and project development.

Experts: visit to key stakeholders in the community.

Field trips will include selections from the following: Listening Point (environmental writer Sigurd Olson’s cabin); International Wolf Center; Bois Forte Ojibway reservation in Tower; Soudan Mine State Park museum; Hull Rust Mahoney open pit mine in Hibbing (largest open pit iron mine in the world); Twin Metals (Chilean mining company planning to open a sulfide mine in the vicinity of the Boundary Waters); Up North Jobs (local organization that advocates for the rights of veterans and is a leading advocate of the proposed sulfide mine); Sustainable Ely (NGO that opposes mining in the Boundary Waters watershed); Wilderness Outfitters (leading business in town); Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness (NGO created in the 1970s to advocate for the creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness), and the Steger Wilderness Center, a unique, off-the-grid sustainable meeting center built by polar explorer Will Steger.

Sigurd Olson's cabin

Sigurd Olson's cabin at Listening Point

Relevance of the Seminar to Different Disciplines

Given that wilderness has not only a biological basis but a long and dynamic history in human thought and art, and is currently a topic of debate for its worth to society, the seminar topic is intrinsically multi-disciplinary....

Those exploring the natural sciences will find in the Boundary Waters’ unique geology and protected ecosystem an excellent teaching and learning ground to illustrate pre-boreal habitat. Past and recent disturbances have turned the Boundary Waters into a perfect lab to study the impact of wilderness preservation, old-growth and second-growth forest, introduction of non-native species, and evidence of climate change.

Humanities and social science faculty can explore the role that the Boundary Waters area played at different stages of the history of the US. The area’s archives and museums are replete with artifacts, as well as primary and visual documents that tell the story of human settlement in the area. Issues to explore include the role the region’s forests and mines played in the process of economic development and nation-building since the late 19th century; the arrival of European immigrants and the displacement of native American Ojibway communities into reservations; the leadership of local environmental activists, writers, and artists in the conservation movement; the region’s role in the development of new US environmental legislation, including the creation of the “Wilderness Act;” and the challenge of achieving sustainable development.

Insights and Resources for Creating Curricular Materials

The Wilderness in the Anthropocene seminar provides ACM faculty an opportunity to develop innovative teaching in the areas of interdisciplinary field research and pedagogy. The Coe Wilderness Field Station affords faculty in every discipline a wealth of excellent teaching resources to try different field-research teaching techniques, and the intimate learning environment allows leaders of different seminars to collaborate on research and their team projects.

Taking the current tensions in Ely over a proposed mining project as a case study illustrates the possibilities of interdisciplinary inquiry in the seminar: A Chilean mining company plans to open a mine upstream from the Boundary Waters to mine for precious metals.

  • Geology explains why precious metals exist close to the surface that make this an ideal place to mine.
  • Chemistry helps us understand the potential dangers to the water posed by sulfide mining, and biology helps uncover the threats to the ecosystem.
  • Physics explains the engineering challenges of the project.
  • Economics reveals why this project might be either financially viable or destructive. International relations helps explain why a firm from Chile is involved and where the funds are coming from.
  • Social sciences give us tools to study the ways in which the local community is torn over this project along ethnic and class lines.
  • Arts and humanities explore the ways individuals and communities express their relationship to a wilderness area under duress from extractive industry.

Such an interdisciplinary approach will develop advanced-level coursework and case studies on our home campuses to the benefit of our students. Interrogating the intersection of environment and community empowers students to build knowledge on their own life experience, to gain the reflective judgement necessary to ethically and respectfully engage the world, and to develop the research skills that they will need after college in work or in graduate school.