Transcendentalism: Hamilton High School students learn about literary movement

2012-10-28T23:45:00Z 2012-10-29T06:55:29Z Transcendentalism: Hamilton High School students learn about literary movementBy DAVID ERICKSON - Ravalli Republic Ravalli Republic
October 28, 2012 11:45 pm  • 

“We need the tonic of wildness. ... At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

– Henry David Thoreau, “Walden, or Life in the Woods”

Lake Como is quite a bit bigger than Walden Pond, but it had the same effect on a group of local students on Friday.

As soon as Hamilton High School AP Language and Composition teacher Jen Carmody had built a crackling fire in the fireplace of the El Capitan cabin on the shores of the lake, she read several poems to her students by Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and other writers of the transcendentalism movement.

Carmody’s goal was to have her students forget the hustle and bustle of the classroom and civilization, and meditate in the quiet calm of the spectacular late-fall scenery of the Bitterroot Mountains.

Transcendentalism was an American literary, philosophical and political movement based around the writings of Emerson, Thoreau and other writers.

“I think this is the 10th year that I’ve done this field trip,” Carmody said. “We pretend we’re sitting at Walden Pond. It’s really hard to teach transcendentalism when you are sitting in a classroom. I thought, ‘How can I teach this in the classroom when I live right here in this gorgeous place?’ So I have them read bits of Walden, bits of poetry about nature, and journal about their observations of nature.”

Carmody said that although people don’t realize it, transcendentalism is still very relevant in today’s world.

“The same stuff they were talking about 200 years ago is the same stuff that Obama and Romney were talking about in the debate on Monday,” she said. “It has a lot of impact even now on world leaders and peace, with civil disobedience and nature conservation. There are long-term implications. My goal is for our students to realize these aren’t new concepts. There are ways to solve conflicts without war. We talked about Gandhi, who used a lot of transcendentalism, and we talked about Martin Luther King. Henry David Thoreau influenced all of them. Kids think that these are recent problems, but these issues have been up for a long time.”

Carmody and her students had a picnic on the deserted beach, and after reading poetry in the cabin they went for a short hike while jotting down observations in their journal.

“Sometimes it’s nice to get out into nature, because it can be hard to think with all the technological distractions we have like cellphones and iPods,” she told the kids. “And we are so lucky to have such a beautiful place right near our school.”

Sometimes slowing down the pace of observation can be useful, Carmody said.

“Thoreau had journals for years on what happened on, for example, May 25 every year,” she explained. “Did the tulips open today? When was the first frost? He kept track of weather patterns and the rhythms of nature. He was a real forerunner in those ways. Keeping a journal, in the long run, helps you make arguments and be critical thinkers. I think the kids always get a lot out of these trips.”

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or

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