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  • Bruce Moreton

Camps Must Reintroduce Boys to Nature

Updated: Nov 6, 2022

Boys gathering cattails in Vermont wetland

Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world. We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe. To smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.”

Summer camps have the opportunity and the obligation to reintroduce children to Nature, its power, and its beauty in order to offset the negative influences of society. Night Eagle tries to restore some of the austere living of our ancestors to allow young people to have more contact with the wilderness.

However, in this time of rising costs and competition for campers, it seems that most camps tend to place an emphasis on recruiting large numbers of campers with fancy buildings and lots of cool equipment. There are many camps that are not even camps: swim camp, soccer camp, basketball camp, computer camp, etc.

I’m familiar with one camp that offers movies on Saturdays (complete with a full bag of candy, pop corn, and cookies for each camper) and build-you-own banana splits on Sundays. Thoreau would be disheartened to say the least.

There is another popular camp that is set on a beautiful lake in New England. When campers go on trips out of camp, they stay in motels, at beaches, or near tourist spots like Mount Washington.

I know the history of summer camps in the U.S., and I know how much today's camps have strayed from their original purpose. Each of the above camp examples is a far cry from the camping movement of the 1870s and 1880s when parents signed their sons up for camp so they could escape the conditions of the big cities and spend some time in nature where they could live primitively and learn to build fires and shelters like their ancestors.

Perhaps the camping movement of the 1870's was spurred by horrible conditions in the cities brought about by the Industrial Revolution in the United States, or maybe it was spurred by a letter written to President Franklin Pierce in 1854 by Chief Seattle of the Squamish tribe warning that: “Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

Today, Chief Seattle's words are more meaningful than ever before, and ecologists and environmentalists are telling us the same thing. For centuries the American Indians have known that the earth was alive and necessary for their very existence and kept their children close to its softening influence. However, fewer and fewer of our children are spending time in in the woods.

Man is inextricably tied to the earth and, in order to survive, we must learn to respect, not only the earth, but all things that come from the earth. Spending a summer at Night Eagle is one of the best ways to start (or continue) to learn what we can do to save the beauty around us for future generations.

I know that Night Eagle will not shirk its obligation to today’s boys. We will remain small, and our campers and staff will continue to enjoy communing with Nature, not just being surrounded by it.

Two boys taking cover in an unfinished debris hut

At Night Eagle we have the opportunity to shed our egos and learn humility and respect for the earth through Native American stories and a much simpler lifestyle. In the Sweat Lodge, we see how our Mother, the earth, is responsible for our very lives and those of past and future generations as well. On our Quests, we are awed by the wonders of nature and learn lessons from the many creatures that we encounter.

Each summer, Night Eagle deliberately sets out to create a world that is significantly different from the one we normally live in. In doing so, we invite boys to explore and be daring, to examine themselves and their values, and to look beyond themselves and toward their relationship with the earth and others.

From the time a boy and his family arrive at Night Eagle, they know they are not in a typical sleep-away camp. They shoulder their gear and, with the help of other campers and staff, they walk the 3/4’s of a mile into camp. The journey along the dirt road takes them past the canoes and the sweat lodge, between our two lakes patrolled by hungry, diving Kingfishers and often frequented by a Great Blue Heron, past Skunk Junction and the Black Bear Buffet, and up a gentle hill toward camp. When the clearing and tipis come into view, the magic truly begins.


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