Bates College is one of the oldest colleges in New England (and the first to grant a degree to a woman). It has a great legacy and reputation. As is unlikely to surprise many on this blog, one of my favorite things about Bates is its annual AESOP experience, or the Annual Entering Student Outdoor Program. The Outing Club takes first-year students into the gorgeous Maine wilderness for a 4-day, 3-night trip. I was saddened therefore to see an editorial by Justice Geddes in The Bates Student, where he attacked the tradition as an exercise of “white privilege. The article has caused a backlash among conservatives.
However, in an article entitled “Aesop and the Outing Club Are Made of White Privilege,” Geddes took exception.
An outdoor expedition that’s part of Bates College’s freshman orientation, and the student group that runs it, recently came under fire from one student critic who accused them of perpetuating “white privilege” and “prehistoric policies regarding gender.”
Geddes, the layout editor of the The Bates Student, authored a piece in which she condemned the annual AESOP experience, or the Annual Entering Student Outdoor Program, and the group that runs it, the Outing Club.
“Many of us have heard AESOP horror stories; friends and peers had AESOP experiences they wouldn’t care to relive, and in my experience, many of those friends are those who inhabit marginalized identities. Women of color on white-majority hiking trips that are entirely made of microaggressions, queer first-years surrounded by straight people making eyes at each other across canoes, or simply geeks forced into a beach camping trip despite social anxiety–these experiences, while not at all equatable, are somewhat parallel.”
The column further asks “Why couldn’t there be an AESOP dedicated to anti-racist activism in Lewiston? Why isn’t there a trip focused on queer identity formation in tabletop role-playing games?”
The objections suggest that somehow nature outings are white-oriented or exclusionary events. The opposite is true. We can all find common ground in nature — connecting to something that transcends identity politics and divisions. Indeed, hiking has been embraced as a transformative experience by minority groups, women, and urban kids. Moreover, as we have previously discussed, hiking has been found to have tremendous psychological benefits. The Japanese called it “forest bathing” and as a lifelong backpacker and hiker, I can attest the impact of being in nature can face on stress and mood. With schools dealing with rising levels of depression, hiking has been found as effective or more effective than medication. It appears to have a lasting impact on brain operations with a pronounced impact on depression.
I truly hope that Bates does not yield to such misplaced characterizations and continues this wonderful tradition. Indeed, I could not read Geddes’ column without thinking “Geez, this person needs a long hike in the Maine woods.” That is not to say that nature resonates with everyone, but, for those who vehemently oppose such excursions, the problem often rests not within Nature but the nature of the critic.