Thoreau College Semester Program

Thoreau College Semester Program:  Spring 2023

Program Dates:  January 30 – June 9, 2023

The 2023 Spring Semester Program is a full time, in-person program incorporating intellectual work, manual labor, fine arts and folk skills, wilderness expeditions, and community self-governance.  A major focus will be work in the Thoreau’s Garden greenhouse and campus farm and garden projects, where they will cultivate skills and knowledge related to plants, soils, land stewardship, and the cultural and cosmic cycles of the year.  The semester will include courses in ecological literature and philosophy, cooking and kitchen skills, training in permaculture design and biodynamic agriculture, greenhouse management, foraging and wildcrafting, and more. Finally, during the final four weeks of the program, participants will have a chance to share what they have learned by helping to plan and lead a month-long May Term course for students from another university focused on food, farming, and local history and ecology.

This is a perfect program for young adults who are mature, tenacious, curious, collaborative, open, idealistic, and ready to get their hands dirty literally and figuratively. The program will take place in and around Viroqua, Wisconsin  from January 30 until June 9, 2023. We are seeking up to 6 participants who are excited to embark on this adventure of discovery and creation during this coming spring!

Applications for this program are now closed. 

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 mid-term break in early April.  Through the program, we will mark and celebrate the changes of the seasons, the cyles of the sun, moon, and stars, and the festivals of several different cultures and traditions.

Curriculum Overview


The semester begins in late January with a week-long hiking and camping expedition in the Kickapoo Valley.  This midwinter immersion is intended to set the tone for personal challenge and team building among, as well as to set a benchmark for observations of the natural world for the coming transition of the seasons.  In early March, students will have a chance to spend up to a week on solitude in one of several local cabins, to think, write, read, and set goals for the coming months.  Finally, in early May, the students will participate in a second group expedition in the midst of the full emergence of spring. 


During the course of the first three months of the semester, students will participate in three blocks of classes exploring stories, images, and ideas about ecology, agriculture, and the relationship between human beings and the natural world more generally.  Incorporating art, literature, spirituality, philosophy, and practical skills, these blocks will be led by different instructors and use different approaches to explore a related set of themes and questions.  Academic classes meet on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9:30-11:30 am.

Metamorphoses in Myth, Literature, Nature (Feb. 6 – Mar. 3) will explore the theme of change and evolution through creation myths from around the world, the writings of poets and great naturalists such as Goethe, Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Robin Wall Kimmerer, and close observation and botanical drawing of germinating and growing plants.
Introduction to Biodynamic Agriculture (Mar. 13 – 31) will introduce students to the agricultural ideas of Rudolf Steiner, known as biodynamics.  Rooted in a spiritual understanding of the laws of nature, biodynamic farming seeks to weave plants, animals, soils, and human activity together into a holistic farm entity managed in harmony with the cycles of the stars, moon, and planets.

Permaculture Design (Apr. 10 – 28) will use the new Thoreau College campus site as a canvas upon which to explore and apply the principles of permaculture design in a real world context.  Permaculture is an approach to agriculture and land management that strives to design sustainable systems for food production and human life that work with, rather than against, natural processes to achieve long-term stability, abundance, and health. By the end of the course each student will create a site plan for the campus and will receive a permaculture design certification.
Elective:  Community Seminar: Program participants are invited to join faculty and members of the wider community for evening discussions of great works of world literature, meeting once or twice each week.  See past reading lists here.


In parallel with the courses listed above, students will also participate in a series of workshops focused on the arts and manual skills, led by a several local masters in various fields.  These classes meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:00-12:00.

Cooking and Kitchen Skills (Feb. 7 – Mar. 2) ranging from the mundane to the sublime, this course will prepare students to feed themselves throughout the semester and beyond, as well as allow them to create nourishing and delicious meals for all occasions. Meal planning, sourdough, fermentation, soups and stocks, and much, much more.
Visual Arts (Mar. 14-30) will be a course devoted to painting, illustration, and/or drawing.  Details TBD.
Wilderness and Foraging Skills (Apr. 11-27). As spring begins to arrive, these workshops will introduce students to local wild edible and medicinal plants and fungi, as well as teaching a variety of traditional crafts using natural materials, such as spoon carving and basketry.
Electives:  Driftless Folk School classes . Thoreau College students are invited to participate in courses offered by the Driftless Folk School, whenever space allows.  Classes typically happen on weekends at different locations around the area.  See recent course offerings here.


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 and outdoors at the main campus and Compostella Farm.  Skills that will be learned and practiced during this semester include:

House plant care and propagation
Seed starting planning, tools, soils, seed prep, and care
Propagation from cuttings and root divisions
Flower arranging
Business skills, including marketing, business planning, customer service

Farm and Campus:
Pruning grapes, berries, and fruit trees
Sheep care, including lambing, shearing, hoof trimming, and pasture management
Fence building and repair
Sheep slaughter (optional)
Care for chickens and baby chicks
Garden bed preparation, mulching, and planting
Equipment repair

MAY TERM COURSES – May 15 – June 9

At the culmination of the semester, program participants will work with faculty to help plan and lead a four-week program for 8 students from other universities as part of a college summer program exploring the anthropology of food and agriculture and the human and natural ecology of the Driftless Region.  This program will include an abundance of spring labor at the greenhouse, farm, and gardens, as well as readings, films, guest speakers, and many field trips to local farms and other sites.  In helping to organize and host this program, Semester Program students will learn a great deal about curriculum design, teaching, and leadership within an educational non-profit.

“No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.”