Thoreau College Winter Program


Guest Faculty: Philippe Mesly

Viroqua, Wisconsin — January 15 – February 23, 2024

The Organic Metaphor in Politics is a six-week program which integrates a rigorous academic study of political thought with Thoreau College’s embodied rhythm of craft, self-governance, labor, shared meals and encounters with nature. 

Through twelve seminar style classes we will examine the motivations, implications, and consequences of various instances in which political thinkers have borrowed language from the natural world. Craft and skill workshops, campus labor projects, and a week-long winter expedition will serve to tether the work of our minds to a lived experience. 

We will explore texts from the canons of European political thought, Black and Indigenous studies and some contemporary activist scholarship as well as examining policy documents and archeological records. Possible craft and skills activities include: bookbinding, processing wool from Thoreau College sheep, knitting, orchard pruning, candlemaking, and woodcarving, as well as a slaughter and butchering for those who are interested.

We are seeking a cohort of up to 10 participants who are excited to tackle a rigorous program of integrated intellectual, physical, and social activity.  We also welcome inquiries from people interested in participating in the academic course alone, without the expedition and other components of the program.  Please contact us here if this is of interest to you.

Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis until the program is filled.
Standard Oil Octopus

COURSE OVERVIEW: The Organic Metaphor in Politics

The current multi-dimensional ecological crisis reveals to what extent human life is enmeshed in the natural world. To the extent that politics, the study of living together, must now include all living forms, this crisis demands a reevaluation of the political-economic order that engendered it. Many proposals for a redefined politics have, as a result, consciously taken up the banner of the natural world. 

However, there is cause for suspicion regarding the metaphors by which we construe our political activity. The claim that something is “natural” is frequently a tactic of legitimization, an attempt to normalize what is otherwise contestable. The elevation of “life” as a value can equally, and often does, lead to glorifications of violence. Philosophers of nature may incline toward primitivism, romanticism, or outright racism. This course examines the motivations, implications, and consequences of various instances in which political thinkers have borrowed language from the natural world. We pay special attention to the idea of “laws of nature” and employ a broadly phenomenological perspective. 

Course Components

The primary course requirements are assigned readings, two seminars per week, and two short papers. Objects of study include:

  • Major texts in the history of European political thought (Plato, Hobbes, Marx)
  • Black and Indigenous studies (Fanon, Kopenawa, Yusoff)
  • Contemporary activist scholarship (Donna Haraway, Adrienne Maree Brown, LaDuke)
  • Policy documents
  • Archaeological records
Philippe Mesly

Instructor: Philippe Mesly

Based in Toronto, Canada, Philippe is a writer, translator, horticulturalist, and craftsperson, whose work examines intersections of political economy, philosophy, and environmental issues. He is the organizer of the Great Lakes Institute, which seeks to cultivate an independent, regional intellectual community.  

Learn more about Phillipe, the Great Lakes Institute, and the vision for this course in his interview with GLI cofounder on the Microcollege Podcast below.


WINTER EXPEDITION: Kickapoo Valley Reserve

During the third week of the program, we will have a chance to consider the notion of the state of nature and the social contract by immersing ourselves in nature with nothing but each other to rely on!  This will take place in the context of a 5-day winter camping and hiking expedition in the local Kickapoo Valley Reserve, under the leadership of experienced Outward Bound expedition leader Justys Grenier.  Thoreau College will be able to provide any specialized gear and equipment participants may need for this trip.

Winter Cooking
Winter Campfire
Blackhawk Rock Winter Sunrise
Justys Grenier

Expedition Leader: Justys Grenier

Justys Grenier has spent the last few years working as an outdoor educator with Voyageur Outward Bound School, and is an enthusiastic experiential learner himself. He is passionate about the gifts spending time outside in community can bring to people, and has dedicated himself  to learning how to help facilitate this. He grew up exploring the creeks and rivers of southwest Wisconsin and feels at home in a canoe on those waters.


Program 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.  On most days in this program, Morning Circle will be followed by a period of embodied activity of some kind.  This might take the form of a qi gong session or a folk craft workshop focused on working with a variety of natural materials including wood, wool, beeswax, or leather.

After a communal lunch shared with other members of the Thoreau community, program participants will either have open time to prepare for the twice-weekly class sessions of “The Organic Metaphor in Politics” academic course or they will participate in a period of manual labor on the Thoreau College farm or greenhouse, such as grape pruning, building improvement, or working with livestock.

On Fridays, there will be a meeting for all members of the Thoreau College community 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 Education offerings.

Winter Program Schedule

 Program Details


The program will begin on Monday, January 15 and end on Friday,February 23, 2024.  Participants should plan to arrive in Viroqua, Wisconsin no later than Saturday, January 13.


Private or shared rooms will be available in Thoreau College facilities for up to 10 program participants.  Some participants will live at the Thoreau College campus, which is located on 6 acres of open land on the edge of Viroqua where we will be developing new gardens and other activities, while others will be living a short walk away in town at one of your residential houses with up to 5 others.  Weekday lunches will be provided during the program, but participants are responsible for their other meals. Students will have access to full kitchen facilities and some early season food from our farm and garden operations.


Thoreau College is committed to making our programs financially accessible to as many qualified participants as possible. Upon admission, program participants are requested to select one of our three sliding scale pledge tiers at a level most appropriate to their situation. The financial pledge will cover program fees, housing, tools, books, arts and crafts supplies, local transportation, and weekday lunches.

Supporter Tier:  $1,750
If you move through the world with financial ease and the means to fulfill many of your wants as well as your needs – you are able to eat out when you want, abundantly meet your needs through employment or can comfortably not work, have access to family wealth, own property, etc. – consider paying at this level, which will help us ensure the long term sustainability of our programs while keeping our offerings accessible to those with access to fewer resources.

Sustainer Tier: $1,500
If you are able to meet your needs with relative ease while budgeting your educational and entertainment spending – for instance, you are able to take classes and eat out occasionally as long as you are mindful – consider paying at this level, which will help sustain the work of the College at a modest level.

Supported Tier: $1,250
If you struggle to fund your basic needs and have limited access to resources in your family and community, or if you would not be able to access this program without a discounted payment option, consider paying at this level. We value your presence and contributions to our community and do not want any economic circumstances to be a barrier to attendance!


Please use this link to APPLY NOW.  The application includes personal information and a couple of short essay prompts.  It will also ask you for one personal reference for us to contact, preferably a teacher, professor, or employer.  If it seems like you could be a good fit for the program, we will contact you to set up an interview – in person or via Zoom – with members of our admissions team, including students.

We will fill spots in this program on a rolling basis starting on October 1 and continuing until the program is full.  Please submit your application as soon as you can!


At this time, Thoreau College does not confer any credit, diploma, credential, or qualification.  If you are currently enrolled in an accredited college or university, we would be happy to work with your institution to secure independent study, internship, or study abroad credits if that is a possibility.

“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.”