Last week I had the pleasure of delivering a high school commencement address, speaking to a small group of young women and their families at a therapeutic boarding school for troubled girls. Located on the Canadian border, in the remote, pine-clad hills of the northern Rockies, the school is noted not just for academics, but for inspiring the kind of quiet confidence so often afforded those who keep the company of nature.
As I often do, at one point I asked the directors of the school if over time they'd seen any changes in the sorts of issues facing their students. Their response was one I've been hearing a lot as of late: that while today's teens are completely steeped in the virtual world of social networking, full of Facebook and texting and Twittering, increasingly they seem to be suffering from the ills of isolation. In particular, they routinely lack both confidence and social skills, which for some can dramatically increase the appeal of drugs and alcohol. But here at this small school in the woods, the girls had learned to play again. They'd come to know the pleasures of beauty and community. They'd found enough space to notice all the things emerging inside.
Outdoor schools and programs are sometimes dismissed as escapes from reality. In truth, of course, nature has no trouble laying claim to a full share of reality. But more to the point, in our time the natural world, be it the wilderness or the garden, is among the very few settings that are both enticing, yet free of spin. Places offering both the brand of contentment that slows the breath, as well as the brand that quickens it. Places where reality expands - reclaiming for us the delights of an inconceivable potential.