The University Record, January 21, 1998

U-M literature program takes students into the deep woods

NELP students 'see the same mountains Robert Frost was writing about, they chop wood as Frost did and wrote about.'

NELP students do more than hike and read--they participate in everythinginvolved in daily living, including kitchen duties.

Students in the summer program appreciate literature and writing innatural and sometimes remote surroundings. Photos courtesy JackieLivesay


By James Matthew Wilson
News and Information Services

Students take for granted that a U-M education opens new paths to knowledge and careers, but each year, 40 U-M students blaze wilder trails than to the library or an internship. They hike deep into the woods of New Hampshire, where, for six weeks, they write and study the literature, culture and lifestyle of New England.

The New England Literature Program (NELP), which will hold its 24th session this year, gives students credit toward their degree while they live at Camp Kabeyun on Lake Winnipesaukee, 100 miles north of Boston. Once there, the typical separations between life and education, student and professor, fade as the participants create a living-learning environment.

"It allows students to integrate literature with the culture in which it was written, and with the joy of learning in a small community, where they have to take charge of their own education and learn not to be intimidated to assert their ideas," says Jackie Livesay, lecturer and one of NELP's directors.

"At one point, we take the students out into the woods at night, where there is no light, except for the moon. And we teach them to follow a trail by using senses other than sight. They learn to listen to the wind and tell the difference between the sound it makes blowing through the leaves of a birch tree, or the needles on a pine.

"It is hard, but once you can do that, there is no reason to ever be intimidated by a work of literature again. If you can find your way through a dark woods, you can find your way through a difficult poem."

Some students challenge themselves to do things they would never have dared before. "At one point I climbed a mountain and camped at the top all by myself," says Erin Galligan, a senior from Grand Rapids.

Students at NELP do more, however, than learn "about things as different (or similar) as the rhythm of a poem and the song of a bird," says Jesse Jannetta, a senior and former NELP participant.

They surrender nearly all the amenities of urban life. As Thoreau put it, they "front only the essential facts of life," which means giving up stereos, television, alcohol, drugs, telephones (except in emergencies) and even the conventional measurement of time. "NELP weeks are nine-day periods," Jannetta says.

Each week begins with a three-day camping trip to such places as Acadia National Park in Maine, and mountain climbing expeditions to Mt. Chocorua and Mt. Washington, during which the students learn to survive in the wilderness and camp in an environmentally sound way. Their surroundings influence how they read and learn. "They see the same mountains Robert Frost was writing about, they chop wood as Frost did and wrote about," Livesay says.

The wilderness helps their writing also, says Diane Cook, a senior. "I sat on a boulder in the middle of a rushing river that led to a waterfall, looking around me every five minutes for bears, and wrote the best story I've ever done."

They spend the rest of the week in camp. Students help teach and design informal classes on American authors, or subjects, ranging from New England religion to science fiction. In the afternoon, they sometimes hold class or set out on field trips to discover local traditions.

On one such trip, to a Shaker village, Livesay notes, "we saw how much the residents had done over the years to keep themselves from getting annoyed, which was important since they wanted to create heaven on earth. They carved out niches around door handles so that they would not accidentally scrape their knuckles when they opened the door. The paint inside the buildings was made to last, and it was over 100 years old, yet almost perfect."

The students also take charge of their own and everyone else's survival, sharing cooking and cleaning duties, and they entertain one another by reading aloud, telling stories or playing a musical instrument. They also paint and do other arts free from the competition of the classroom.

A daily journal is a central part of the program; students meet in groups twice weekly to share and discuss their latest writings. "I learned to write on a daily basis and to really use writing to get me through the day," Jannetta says. "It helped me focus on who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. I changed my future plans all because of NELP."

The opportunity to live and learn in the great outdoors has proven popular. NELP generally receives twice as many applications as it has slots for participants. The program costs approximately $3,000, which includes everything from room and board to tuition and books.