Jesse Miller, CQC Co-Director
I was seventeen the first time I spent a night in the woods. It was uncomfortable, it was interesting, it was even a little fun, and it was more than a little scary. I didn’t have the advantage of having done it throughout my childhood. I never attended a summer camp. It was a five day intensive lead by my high school on the Appalachian Trail. By the end of it, I felt accomplished. I knew I had achieved something.
Something about being in nature for a prolonged amount of time felt immensely enjoyable; important even. It was those feelings that lead me to becoming a camp counselor at Opequon Quaker Camp, and the same feelings that kept me vested in the program and exploring new positions on administrative staff, co-director at Catoctin, and even caretaker. Throughout a decade of this work, I stood by benefits of getting young folks in the forest. I preached the incredible growth that can happen as a result, and had the privilege of interacting and corresponding with parents who agreed and supported us. There was always a general consensus: this is magical – this is something we must do. And throughout all of it, it strikes me that I only recently asked myself two very essential questions: Why? And: Can we do it better?
Ask a counselor why they come to Camp, and they’ll give you the reasons you expect. They’ll talk about how fulfilling it is to help nurture and mentor children; to make it about them and empower them and provide them with a supportive community of radical inclusion and acceptance. It’s all true and cannot possibly be understated, but I like persisting and asking another question: why do you, personally as an individual, come here? I tend to get the same answer. What I often hear is along the lines of, “I come because it makes me feel spiritually recharged.”
There’s obviously something to that. In addition to the community we’re providing – and the fact that Camp is the literal embodiment of work being love in motion – there’s something about the physical space that’s essential to our mission. There’s a reason why we hold Camp in the woods and not in a building, and I think that reason is easily overlooked because it seems like such a no brainer.
Kids like being outside. Nature is important. It’s a good experience.
Those answers are almost instinctual at this point.
Because it’s fun! Yes, but why?
I’m fortunate in that I get to live in the woods full time now. It’s no longer a summer retreat. As I listen to the peace and quiet and stillness, sip apple cider, and stare into the fire in my woodstove I can’t help but feel an immense sense of satisfaction with my current lifestyle. Writer that I strive to be, I know I’m doing my transcendentalist heroes proud. But more importantly, I’ve had the time and setting to really let it sink in and ask myself that question: Yes to all of this, but why?
It’s something I think about a lot these days. While I work alongside Property Management Committee and parents during Family Camp Weekends to do upkeep and maintenance to our camps it’s a question we tend to come back to, and I can’t help but notice a trend in conversation. You’d be hard pressed to find a parent who wouldn’t agree being in nature is an important experience. Due to the fast paced, ever increasing, ever hooked in, always on, expanding grasp of our technology people are thinking about it perhaps now more than ever. But just “doing it”, just getting to nature might only be the first step.
The BYM Summer Camping Program provides that step, but directors and camp people have been hard at working thinking about how to provide more. More than anything, we don’t want nature to feel like a place that you take off and come to then leave. It’s not a theme park. Though many of us unfortunately have less access to locations where you can find it relatively untamed in appearance and in abundance, nature is still something that we all exist in all the time. We’re finding ways to explore that special existence along with our place in it.
Coming to summer camp and leaving is great, but it can be so much more. Every ridge and valley hiked through is a classroom. Every tree is an opportunity for knowledge. Having a garden at Opequon or Catoctin provides more than a fun afternoon activity for campers, it also provides a chance to engage in conversation about our human relationship with food. Fighting multiflora rose at a Family Camp Weekend is important grounds work, but it also opens the door for impromptu discussions on invasive species, conservation, and our impact on forests.
I believe strongly that a big part of the spiritual fulfilment people feel in our program is directly due to not just being in the woods, but being able to gain a better understanding of our primal, base connection to the world around us. In no place could that be more apparent than the wilderness. I’ll leave the expanded doctrine to the heavy hitters like Emerson and Dickinson, but suffice to say that if you bring people together, allow them to shed their experiences down to their most basic needs in a setting indicative to that reality, and wrap them in limitless love and support, you’re opening the door to a lifetime of positive transformation. And we will all be better served if we continue striving toward framing it as something that you can have and take with you always rather than a tram stop at Disney World. As long as we continue to ask ourselves why we’re here, what we can learn, and how that can help us better understand our joint role as caretakers of Earth, I’ll know that we – ourselves and our program – are on the right path.