The Subject Is the Land and the Sky and Yourself (The New York Times Education Supplement 9/76)

 One of the results of the ecology movement of the late 1960s has been a trend toward outdoors-oriented education, programs for youngsters interested in becoming farmers or conservationists.

Several dozen private schools have emerged in this alternative-school grouping and some educators regard them as one of the most exciting recent developments in secondary education.

Their schools, which cater to students in their mid to late teens, vary widely in method and approach. One of the most successful is the Grassroots Project, an intensive, 30-week program being offered in and around the picturesque little town of Craftsbury Common in the heart of rugged, northern Vermont.

Most of the 70 students in the project, now in its third year, are fresh out of high school, and others on leave from college. They have come from all over the country to gain insight into the land, the elements and themselves. The cost: $4,000, and an occasional case of the chills.

Some of the schools, like Trailside Country School, in Killington, Vt., operate almost entirely outside the bounds of traditional education. A pioneer in the environmental education movement, Trailside takes its small, hardy band of students on a year-long camping expedition through dozens of ecosystems around the nation, often stopping for intense discussions of the group’s problems and their observations and experiences.

Staff supervision is kept to a minimum. The emphasis, in the words of director Michael Cohen, who also serves as chief pathfinder and chaperson, is on “spontaneity” and “making sense of things.” Nature is the only real authority.

The Chewonki Foundation, of Wiscassett, Maine, sponsors a somewhat similar program called Maine Reach, an alternative program for 11th and 12th graders that uses the state’s lush forests, its fields and harbors for its classroom and observatory. In addition to long wilderness trips, the students on Maine Reach gain perspective on the environment and its uses by spending brief internships with fishermen, carpenters, foresters and others who have first-hand, professional knowledge of the state’s ecology.

The Grassroots Project, designed for a slightly older, more mature type of student, may be the most rigorous of these so-called “wilderness” or “survival” schools. “The emphasis here is on practicality, discipline, and the learning of employable skills,” says Steven R. Wright, the flinty director of the partially academic, partly vocational school. “If students have fun in the process — and I think they do — so much the better.”

The Grassroots Project makes use of the faculty and facilities of Sterling School, which, until its “greening” in 1973, was a conventional boys’ prep school where ties and jackets were required at mealtime and the boys were forbidden to mingle with local girls.

Today the school is coeducational and students stride into the Sterling cafeteria after a hard day in the fields carrying axes and wearing brightly colored hard hats. The conversation, like the food, is hearty.

When they first enroll, the students, who range in age from 17 to 20, declare a major in either “wild area services” or “livestock farming.” Wild area majors spend most of their class time developing such skills as tracking, bridge building, woodlot management, white-water canoeing, guiding, mapping, wildlife identification, surveying, and chain-saw maintenance. Meanwhile, their counterparts in livestock are out tending cows, driving draft horses and tractors on Sterling’s 120-acre demonstration farm.

All students must take several courses in conservation history, botany, geology, forestry management and agriculture studies. Some of these courses are taught by instructors from the University of Vermont, in nearby Burlington.

Finally, everyone participates in the Bounder program, in which students climb ropes, crawl up high poles, and ford swamps and streams. The aim is to enhance physical fitness as well as to prepare for the school’s climactic, midwinter camping expedition, which is sometimes held in driving snow or subzero temperature.

The first Bounder meeting this term took place in the dead of the night. Students were given maps and compasses, blindfolded, and driven into separate, unmarked locations 10 to 15 miles away. Then they were told to find their way back. Hours later, the students strangled back to campus, exhausted but exhilarated. They had just received their first lesson in map reading.

Mr. Wright, the Grassroots director, is weary of linking the school with the ecology movement. Nevertheless, he concedes that without it, Grassroots, and schools like it, would not have been possible. “Ten years ago students blinked when you used words like ecosystem,” Mr. Wright says. “Now it’s second nature.”

Obviously, the Grassroots project is not for everyone. The school catalog gives this warning: “It is neither feasible nor desirable to have a staff member in many activities undertaken by the student, including some that are inherently dangerous. Students not prepared to accept individual responsibilities under these conditions should not apply for acceptance into the project.”

But responsibility is exactly what the students want. “The thing I like about the project,” says Gary Neuwrith, a recent high school graduate from Midtown, N.J., “is that it tests you. It gives you an idea of your limits.” Gary is undecided whether to go in for journalism or conservation.

About 60 percent of the students go on; others, using skills learned here, go into farm or conservation-related jobs.

Herrick C. Kimball, a recent product of Choate, is equally enthusiastic. He likes the way the faculty shifts quickly from theory into practice. “I learned more about botany in one day here,” he says, “than in a whole year at Choate.”

The culmination of the project, is the solo, held in May, when each student goes camping in the woods for three days to ponder what she or he has learned and experienced over the year.

As Beth Miller of Philadelphia said recently, “After this, college should be a breeze.”