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Camp blends environmental philosophy and exploration

  • Biocitizen School founder and director Kurt Heidinger of Westhampton gets ready to lead an older group of “Our Place” campers on a hike in Chesterfield last week. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Biocitizen ”Our Place” summer program instructor Phoebe Gelbard, center, of Williamsburg and counselor-in-training Emmet Spencer, left, 12, of Northampton last week lead campers on a river walk in the middle gorge of the Westfield River. From left are Naama Greenwald and Haliyah Friedman-Kassis, both 8, August Hindle, 7, and Luana Greenwald, 8, all of Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Biocitizen "Our Place" summer program instructor Phoebe Gelbard of Williamsburg helps a camper learn investigate what he found while exploring the middle gorge of the Westfield River in Chesterfield. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Eric Hindle, 6, of Northampton steps into the Westfield River while his fellow campers finish lunch during a hike to the middle gorge in Chesterfield last week. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Campers in the Biocitizen "Our Place" summer program take a lunch break while exploring the middle gorge of the Westfield River on a hike in Chesterfield. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Biocitizen "Our Place" camper Lily Wilcox, 8 1/2, of Sunderland hikes down to the middle gorge of the Westfield River during a hike in Chesterfield. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Oliver Wilcox, 6 3/4, of Sunderland hikes to the middle gorge of the Westfield River on the second day of a week-long Biocitizen "Our Place" summer program in Chesterfield. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ezra Rich, left, 7, of Whately and other campers in the Biocitizen "Our Place" summer program cross the Westfield River on their way to explore the middle gorge on a hike in Chesterfield. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Siblings Oliver and Lily Wilcox, 6 and 8, of Sunderland hike along the Westfield River on their way to the middle gorge during a Biocitizen "Our Place" summer program visit to Chesterfield. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Campers in the Biocitizen "Our Place" summer program take a break after hiking to the middle gorge of the Westfield River in Chesterfield. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Eric Hindle, center, 6, of Northampton and Ezra Rich, right, 7, of Whately negotiate some rough terrain in the Westfield River during a Biocitizen "Our Place" summer program in Chesterfield. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Biocitizen “Our Place” summer program instructor Phoebe Gelbard, left, of Williamsburg last week examines plants in the Westfield River middle gorge in Chesterfield with campers Luana Greenwald, center, 8, and August Hindle, 7, both of Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Instructor Phoebe Gelbard, sixth from left (with "guard" pad), of Williamsburg takes her turn re-introducing herself to a circle of campers on the second day of a week-long Biocitizen "Our Place" summer program. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Biocitizen "Our Place" summer program instructor Phoebe Gelbard, left, helps campers Luana and Naama Greenwald and Haliyah Friedman-Kassis, right, all 8 and of Northampton explore the habitat in the middle gorge of the Westfield River during a hike in Chesterfield on Tuesday, August 23. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING



For the Gazette
Wednesday, August 31, 2016

On a sunny Thursday morning in August, 8-year-old Sophie Levin, of Florence, stood on a natural rock dam in Turners Falls clad in a black life jacket and eyeing the small falls below before joyfully launching herself into the air and landing in the Connecticut River.

She was quickly followed by many of her fellow campers participating in the Biocitizen “Our Place” summer program.

The camp is run through the Biocitizen School of Field Environmental Philosophy, which is based in Westhampton and operated under the direction of founder Kurt Heidinger.

He and his team of instructors bring children on exploratory adventures into the natural world, sharing age-appropriate information on plants, animals, geology, hydrology, cultural history and ecology. Campers swim, hike and experience the local environments within the Connecticut River watershed, or what Heidinger calls the “Nonotuck Biome.”

Each day, based on the weather, Heidinger and his crew decide what region the group will explore. They may hike Mount Tom, traverse through a forest in Chesterfield, find dinosaur footprints in Holyoke, or swim and investigate life on the Westfield and Connecticut rivers.

“We use the rivers a lot because rivers are the lifeblood of the biome,” Heidinger said. “The river connects everything so we can teach from the top of Mount Tom down to the sea.”

At the Rock Dam near the Turners Falls Dam, campers ranging in age from 6 to 13 swam and played while investigating mussel shells, otter tracks and sharing stories of their other adventures.

While there, they learned about the geologic processes that formed the falls and the mountains that rose up on the other side of the river. They heard about the indigenous people that used to live in the region, and how the river was subsequently dammed by those who later colonized the area.

Many were surprised to hear that the very place they were swimming was a critical habitat for a population of shortnose sturgeon between the Turners Falls Dam and the Holyoke Dam. They also learned that an endangered mussel species lives in that area of the river.

“I really enjoy this camp. I like that we learn something new every day and go to a different place every day,” said Mariam Kokosadze, 10, of Northampton . “And that story about those fish that have figured out how to survive here was amazing.”

Biocitizen intern Julie Sullivan, who just completed her master’s degree in sustainability science from the University of Massachusetts, said that the campers love being immersed in the environment and learning about their surroundings.

“You can learn a lot more swimming in a river than you can swimming in a pool,” Sullivan said. “Here they uncover little wonders on a daily basis.”

On that same outing, Sam Pappadellis, 13, of Easthampton, spoke about his prior trip to Chesterfield.

“One of the things that I thought was really interesting to learn is that in this place called Indian Hollow, there is a forest that actually used to be an ancient beach.”

Pappadellis said enjoying a hike through a forest and hearing about the historic environmental changes helped him understand how the land and its creatures evolve over time.

“By the end of five days, the kids have had a great time and they really know a lot,” Heidinger said. “We try to give them a very powerful adventure and joyful experience that forms a memory. Then when they read and study in an institutional setting they can draw upon that background.”

Phoebe Gelbard 18, of Williamsburg, was once a Biocitizen camper and now serves as an instructor. She said that she has incorporated a lot of what she has learned at camp with her high school research on water quality and invasive species.

Gelbard will be studying conservation, public policy and urban planning this fall at the Commonwealth Honors College at UMass.

‘Land ethic’

Heidinger said that exposing children to the natural world in a fun, meaningful and educational way lays a firm foundation for developing an understanding of the “land ethic” and becoming a “biocitizen,” concepts that are the cornerstone of Heidinger’s school.

The Biocitizen School of Field Environmental Philosophy was incorporated in 2009 and provides educational services the field of environmental philosophy through conducting scholarly research, developing curricula, training teachers, providing internships for college students, and offering lectures and presentations.

“Biocitizen” is a contraction of the term “biotic citizen” coined by prominent conservationist, forester, philosopher, educator, and writer Aldo Leopold.

He is perhaps most well known for his book “A Sand County Almanac” published in 1949, that includes his essay “The Land Ethic,” which broadens the understanding of community to include “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively - the land.”

Heidenger said that a biocitizen is an individual who incorporates the land ethic in their everyday life, “a citizen of a nation but also a citizen of nature.”

“We prepare kids and adults to think outside,” Heidinger said. “The end goal is creating biocitizens that protect the land organism, because the land organism is everything.”

The school blends it’s Leopoldian philosophy with scientific research and works with universities and international organizations including the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve, the Cape Horn Sub-Antarctic Research Center and the Omora Ethnobotanical Park in Chile.

This summer Biocitizen hosted 25 year-old Rika Tsuji of Japan, Fulbright Scholar and doctoral candidate in the department of environmental philosophy at the University of North Texas.

For one week, Tsuji assisted teachers during the camp expeditions as part of her research on how environmental philosophy curricula can be created and implemented for elementary and middle school students.

“Science is one thing and it is very important, but it only describes the situation. Environmental philosophy helps us figure out what to do with that information,” Tsuji said. “It is about how we translate the messages from nature.”

Scholarships available

The Biocitizen “Our Place” camp is offered during the summer only for youths ages 6 to 13. The fee for a week is $310.

The school offers 10 full scholarships a year to families who may not otherwise be able to send their children to the camp. These scholarships are made possible through an annual fundraiser held in conjunction with the Lone Wolf Café in Amherst.

The school also provides more rigorous outings throughout the year for people 13 and older.

One such adventure features hiking the Madison Gulf trail, a steep rock trail that traverses over the headwalls of glacial cirques, or valleys formed by glacial erosion, that surround the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Among the classes is the “Land Organism” that introduces teachers and homeschooling parents, education activists and naturalists to the philosophy of Leopold and takes them out on field study excursions in the “Nonotuck Biome.”

“Now Voyager”  is an 11- day trip for college students and other adults that goes through south-central Chile, following the path of water from the Pacific Ocean in Pichilemu across the Central Range, the agricultural Central Valley, and onto the high Andean peaks of the volcanic Tinguiririca Range.

And “Words in the Woods” is a course that invites girls ages 10 to 12 to explore the natural world and to cultivate a greater understanding of themselves through walking, hiking, thinking, reading and writing.

Heidinger, 54, has been developing and teaching field environmental philosophy cour-ses since 1994. He taught at the University of Connecticut Storrs from 1994 to 2004, and was a visiting research professor at the Center for Environmental Philosophy based at the University of North Texas from 2005-2007.

He lives in Westhampton with his wife Robbie Heidinger.

More information about Biocitizen is available online at biocitizen.org.