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Feature Story

Babe In The Woods

by Wendy Lovinger and Gay Daly

A teenager -- and her mom -- explore what it really means to be good stewards of the earth.

THE MOM By sophomore year, my daughter Wendy was fed up with the private high school she attended in New York City. While I was away on a trip that fall, my husband okayed her plan to apply to something called Maine Coast Semester, a boarding school with an environmentally based curriculum on Chewonki Neck, a peninsula north of Portland. I was furious. He had opened the door for my baby to spend four months away from home not long before we'd be losing her to college. However, I quickly saw that this was a done deal. She was eager, he was confident she should have this chance, and I needed to simmer down. I prayed she would not get in. My prayers were not answered.

As I helped her pack her trunk the following year, I found myself wondering whether she considered herself an environmentalist. We had never really talked about it. I had just assumed my children were environmentalists, because I was one myself. But it dawned on me that this unconscious assumption needed some examining because there was plenty of evidence to contradict it. Better to keep my expectations low, I decided -- to just hope that she would come home a person who turned off the lights when she left a room.

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As we drove up to Maine one winter morning, I had one of those parent-of-teenager moments when I realized that we really knew almost nothing about this program except that her school heartily endorsed it. We were about to deliver our daughter into the hands of complete strangers for four months. I was relieved when Willard Morgan, the school's director, addressed the parents. This young man had a carefully articulated, impassioned understanding of his school and of what he expected from our kids -- plenty of work, physical as well as mental, and a willingness to ask hard questions about their responsibility to this community, to themselves, to the land and the plants and animals that live on it, and ultimately to the world beyond. I was buoyed. If my daughter joined in, she would learn and thrive.

Cell phones were forbidden, so e-mails became our lifeline. Three weeks into the term, my curiosity got the better of me, and I wrote: "So, do you think you have become an environmentalist?" She shot back: "Not yet. Still waiting on tenterhooks for that to happen."

THE DAUGHTER On the first day of Maine Coast Semester, February 1, 2006, Willard Morgan, the program's director and resident science teacher, told the 36 students who had just arrived on Chewonki Neck that we would become a "community" over the next four months. My first thought was: "Who does this insanely tall guy think he is?" (Willard is 6 feet 7 inches -- exactly two meters. On science field trips we would measure the height of a tree as five or six Willards.)

Tar-sands workers await buses to take them to the Millennium Camp, where they live.I was a jaded student from a New York City prep school, where the administration constantly told us that we were a community. But we weren't. The fierce competition for spots in top-tier colleges was one of the things that drove us apart. This is not a jab at my high school. I'm only telling you where I was coming from. So, when the c-word slipped out of Willard's mouth, I figured he was off his rocker.

Prior to my rendezvous with Chewonki, I was, to use a term Wendell Berry used in an article we read in English class that semester, an environmental sinner. I threw away soda cans when I wasn't close to a recycling bin; I left all the lights on in our apartment at night because I feared the dark; I wasted water when I did the dishes; and a favorite pastime was flushing my allowance away at the Westchester Mall.

Environmentalism was not a word I associated with myself or my interests. It was a word I associated with radicalism. It made me think of my mother, who carries Coke bottles home in her purse to recycle, and of Greenpeace, the group that tried to hijack the logging ships. Even though I didn't consider myself an environmentalist, I chose Chewonki because I needed to get away from my school, and I had heard from kids who had gone before me that it was an experience that could change lives.

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Wendy Lovinger is entering Pomona College next fall. Gay Daly wrote about endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the Winter 2006 issue of OnEarth

Photos: Beth Perkins

Photo caption (top): Wendy Lovinger stands on a path leading to Hoyt's Point, one of her favorite spots on Maine's Chewonki Neck Peninsula.

OnEarth. Fall 2007
Copyright 2007 by the Natural Resources Defense Council