Habitat for the Human Spirit - Fall 2023


The Thoreau College Semester Program is a full time, in-person program incorporating intellectual work, fine arts and folk skills, manual labor, self-governance, wilderness expeditions and, and engaged community life.  Each semester explores a unique theme, while sharing many similar activities and elements shaped by the natural and agricultural year and by the Five Pillars of the Thoreau College Curriculum. Together with an intimate cohort of up to 14 fellow students, Semester Program participants embark on an immersive four-month long journey of discovery and growth through the changing seasons.  

The theme of the 2023 Thoreau College Fall Semester Program is “Habitat for the Human Spirit.  It is a common experience for a person living in the modern world to feel not at home.  Whether it is in their own bodies, in the natural world, in the political or cultural sphere, or in the cosmos at large, we have all experienced a sense of homelessness, or an alienation from our context.  During this semester, we will be exploring what it means to make and have a home fit for a human being, on levels from the practical to the sublime.

Our exploration of this theme will involve discussions of readings drawn from a cross-cultural selection of literature, philosophy, and sacred texts both ancient and modern, as well as texts related to architecture, place, and human habitat.  It will also involve practical experiences with homemaking –  fall harvest and food preservation skills, working with wood and natural building materials, and participation in service work and seasonal celebrations in the context of our vibrant rural community.  Throughout the semester students will learn a variety of practical manual skills and folk arts, including spoon carving, basket making, basic timber frame construction, foraging for wild foods, canning, pickling, and fermenting harvesting fruits and vegetables, and, for those who are interested, butchering chickens, pigs, and deer.  The semester will also include two week-long group expeditions and a sequence of three forest solo experiences of 24 and 48 hours. 


 Curriculum Overview


The semester begins in late August with a week-long canoeing expedition on the lower Wisconsin River, a beautiful waterway rich with natural, cultural, and historical significance, including a large number of ancient effigy mounds and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin located near its banks.  In late October, students will participate in a weeklong hiking expedition across another part of the local region as autumn begins to turn towards winter.  In addition, students will take part in a series of solo forest experiences ranging from 24 to 48 hours in September, November, and December, offering a hands on experience in making and keeping a temporary home in different seasons. 


During the semester, students will participate in a series of  three 4-week-long blocks of classes exploring different aspects of the theme through reading, discussions, local field trips, and hands-on experiences with arts and manual skills.  As an intergenerational community of learners, we will harmoniously weave together the strands of written text, creative and practical work, oral tradition, and deep conversation to arrive together at a deeper understanding of what the patterns and forms of a “Habitat for the Human Spirit” might look like.

BLOCK 1:  MAKING HOME – September 5 – 29

What does it take to make a house a home?  Obviously it takes more than wood and stone, but the design and materials of our physical spaces matter too, as do our tools, our food, and our ways of keeping warm. When we learn that the root “eco” in the word “ecology” comes from the Greek word for “home,” we also begin to suspect that we might also have a lot to learn from the rest of nature about homemaking.  This block will zero in on the practice and philosophy of homemaking on the most material of levels.


  • Henry David Thoreau, Walden
  • Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
  • Christopher Alexander, et al, A Pattern Language
  • George Nakashima, The Soul of a Tree
  • Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching


  • Wooden spoon carving
  • Basket making
  • Fall Foraging
  • Pickling, canning, and preserving
  • Round wood building


BLOCK 2:  BUILDING COMMUNITY – October 2 – November 4

What makes a location into a place?  And what makes a population into a community?  In modern Western culture, both places and people tend to be reduced to abstractions – interchangeable and impersonal data points on spreadsheets of coordinates and demographics.  No wonder we feel alienated and homeless!  In this block we will explore these dynamics, as well as the ways in which cultures throughout history have built a sense of community by consecrating space and time through ritual, celebration, pilgrimage, and communal art.


  • Vine Deloria, Jr., God is Red
  • Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America
  • bell hooks , Belonging: A Culture of Place
  • Marko Pogacik, Sacred Geography


  • Basic timber frame construction
  • Making Biodynamic Preps
  • Community service
  • Earth Art
  • Puppet making and community celebration

BLOCK 3:  CRAFTING COSMOS – November 6 – December 8

What transforms Chaos into Cosmos?  Originating in ancient Greek, the word “cosmos” suggests both order and beauty, the antithesis of the disorder and ugliness suggested by Chaos.  The creation myths of cultures and religions from around the world are filled with vivid and mysterious accounts of how the beauty and order of the world came into being through the work of the gods, often in cooperation with human beings and the other creatures of the Earth.  In this block, we will explore these profound fruits of human culture, while working with visual arts, storytelling, theater, and song to discover a cosmology that might permit us to feel at home once more.


  • The Popol Vuh (Mayan)
  • The Book of Genesis (Judeo-Christian)
  • The Book of the Hopi (Hopi)
  • The Prose Edda (Norse)
  • Plato, “Timaeus” (Greek)


  • Wood block printing
  • Knitting & Felting
  • Storytelling and drama
  • Painting
  • Making soap, cheese, and sausage


Afternoon labor will take place between 1:00 and 5:00 pm on Monday-Thursdays, or roughly 16 hours per week. Labor will be focused on work in the Thoreau’s Garden greenhouse, outdoors at the Thoreau College Campus and Compostella Farm, and at various sites around the local community where students do service work.  Skills that will be learned and practiced during this semester include:

    • Homemaking:
      •  Canning and pickling fall produce
      • Root cellaring
      • Making apple cider and grape juice
      • Cheesemaking and fermented dairy
      • Cooking, baking, and meal planning
      • Household maintenance and winterization
    • Farm and Gardens:
      • Harvesting grapes, apples, potatoes and vegetables
      • Pasture management and care for sheep and chickens
      • Sheep, chicken, and deer slaughter (optional)
      • Fall garden bed preparation, mulching, and planting
      • Garlic planting
      • Equipment repair and maintenance

    • Greenhouse:
      • House plant care and propagation
      • Seed starting planning, tools, soils, seed prep, and care
      • Building maintenance
      • Business skills, including marketing, business planning, customer service
Gray Feather

Program Calendar and Schedule


Thoreau College strives to cultivate a harmonious balance of activities that engage head, heart, and hands across all programs and all periods of time.  In practice, this means an integration of open discussions of ideas and perspectives with the arts and hands-on physical activities in all courses.  A typical day at Thoreau College begins with a Morning Circle with students and faculty incorporating singing, movement activities, and announcements.  The rest of the morning is devoted to a single block of class time focused on an academic topic or an artistic or manual skill workshop. Following a mid-day break, afternoons are devoted to labor activities in the greenhouse, gardens, farm, or community partners.  On Friday, there is a community-wide meeting over lunch where important questions of shared governance are discussed and decided upon.  Evenings and weekends are generally unscheduled, although students will have opportunities to participate in elective courses offered through the Driftless Folk School and the Thoreau College Community Seminar.

The semester is punctuated with expeditions and solos and there is a weeklong break for the Thanksgiving holiday in late November.  Through the program, we will mark and celebrate the changes of the seasons, the cycles of the sun, moon, and stars, and the festivals of several different cultures and traditions.


Schedule of a typical week