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December 5, 2021

Metamorphosis Year #1

Thoreau College – Fall 2021 

“Are we really going to throw away the lungs?”  — Amy Yang, TC2021-2022

This unusual question was put to me in deep earnestness this fall by Amy, one of our 2021-2022 Thoreau College Metamorphosis Year students, as I was introducing her and a group of her classmates to the ancient art of chicken butchering.  As a Wisconsin farm boy, I have been chicken butchering all of my life and have been teaching this useful skill to groups of adults for many years now through the Driftless Folk School. But never, in all of that time, had I heard anyone even ask about the lungs.  And, to tell the truth, I didn’t have a very good answer for her.  Amy, a smart and determined recent high school graduate from Kentucky who had clearly heard Henry David Thoreau’s admonition to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” wasn’t just concerned about the lungs – she was determined that no parts of the chicken that could possibly be used went to waste. So we carefully collected not only the lungs, but also the hearts, livers, gizzards, feet, intestines, and even the heads, and sure enough, over the next several weeks Amy researched, prepared, and artfully served up a series of dishes making use of these neglected organs for her classmates.

I share this story, mindful of the fact that offal is not a traditional subject for an end-of-year promotional article, because I believe it captures something essential about the education offered at Thoreau College and about the young people we are seeking to serve.  Here are a few of the qualities that I love about our students, and which Thoreau College is intended to nurture and encourage:

  • They aren’t squeamish: Not all of the Metamorphosis Year students want to, or are asked to, get their hands bloody butchering chickens, but everyone who comes to Thoreau College is intentionally stepping into a variety of uncomfortable situations that will challenge them physically, emotionally, and intellectually.  This includes butchering and working with cow manure and compost, camping alone and in groups in all kinds of weather, sharing their personal writings and life stories in class in front of peers, grappling with intellectually complex texts and challenging perspectives, and taking an active role in making decisions about life or death issues in the life of the college and our community.

 

  • They don’t accept the first answer given: Being a staff or faculty member at Thoreau College is also not for the faint of heart – at a college founded upon the example of Henry David Thoreau there is no point in trying to hide behind age, title, credentials, experience or other traditional markers of status and authority.  As the teacher of this workshop, I had instructed the students to do as I had always been taught to do –  Pull out the lungs and put them in the discard bucket with the feathers.  But is this the correct, or the only reasonable, course of action?  At least one student in any given Thoreau College class can be counted upon to ask, and to argue the contrary if the answer seems weak.

 

  • They care about doing the right thing: When butchering a chicken, it would be very easy to just throw away the lungs, and the intestines, feet, head, etc.  In fact, it would be easiest to just keep the breasts, thighs, and drumsticks.  Or, come to think of it, you could just go to KFC.  But all of these compromises with convenience come at a moral and ethical cost.  These chickens had given their lives for our nourishment – don’t we have a responsibility to reverently use all that they have to give?  The college had spent the money of students and donors to raise these chickens – don’t we have a responsibility to make the most of it?  Gratitude, reverence, and thrift – Amy saw that all of these values implied that we save and use every part that we could.

 

  • They take action: Even if they understood and accepted the theoretical value of saving and using all of the parts of the chicken, many people in the modern world would still be stymied by just what to do with them.  It is one thing to propose and even advocate for an ideal course of action.  It is quite another to actually make it happen.  Whether it is building your own cabin and living in the woods, starting a new kind of college, or cooking up a dish of chicken lungs and intestines, taking ideals into action requires some banged thumbs and burnt fingers, some research and figuring, and, above all, a willingness to make a big leap of faith.

For me, these qualities, which could be paraphrased as courage, a passion for truth, moral vision, and initiative, are at the heart of Thoreau College and what we are trying to bring to the world.  These are qualities that our country and world needs urgently in these unsettled and uncertain times and there are students everywhere searching for a place to cultivate these qualities and discover their own personal missions and purpose in life.  2021 has been a pivotal year in the development of Thoreau College, starting with a merger with the Driftless Folk School that enabled us to become a 501c3 non-profit and the blossoming of Thoreau’s Garden greenhouse as a thriving college social enterprise. This spring we hosted 18 young people for a semester of elective classes, work in the greenhouse, farm, and kitchen, and internships with a number of local partners.  During the summer we staged a three week summer program that included a 5 day pilgrimage on foot across the Driftless Region, internships at local farms, and a 4 day permaculture workshop. And this fall we launched our first year-long program, the Metamorphosis Year, with 6 students from around the country with the courage to embark on a 9-month journey of personal transformation.

We, the faculty, staff, and students of Thoreau College are deeply grateful to everyone who has made it possible for us to do this work together in a time of such uncertainty and we humbly invite you to join in this work by making a contribution to support our work in 2022 and beyond.