Today, many grade-school children do not know that milk comes from cows and eggs come from chickens. They think it all comes from the refrigerator. And if it is not there, it comes from mom—and she brings it home from the car. The Texas Nature Project in Mason, Texas, is a program initiated to help such students develop a better relationship with nature and understand that bounties do not come from mom’s small kitchen but rather, the generous kitchen of the All-Merciful and All-Providing, one as broad as the earth. Kelli Angelone interviewed Dr. Sherra Theisen on this project. Since locating to the 100-acre Northpoint Ranch in June of 2006, the project has provided hands-on programming for over 10,000 college students and their families on site, and over 100,000 young Texans through outreach programming. Dr. Theisen also has a book published online The Thoughtful Child's Book of Rhymes with Reason that guides caregivers in helping their children aged 3-12 or so, to work through the kinds of moral dilemmas they already face. Book proceeds support programming for Texas Nature Project. Poetry by Jan Schultz, Illustrations by Sherra Theisen.
“Oak trees always make acorns. How do they know? They don’t have to know, but somebody does!” Dr. Sherra Theisen gestures to the landscape just a few hundred yards away. The two of us lounge on the porch behind her big country home in Mason, Texas. My travelling companion drifts comfortably back and forth in Dr. Theisen’s porch swing and our photographers alternate between exploring the property and photographing our conversation. Millie the Beagle can’t decide whether she should lie in Dr. Theisen’s lap or continue making friends with the photographers traipsing around in her yard.
Millie’s yard is big enough for all of us. It extends for a hundred acres, and she need not worry that the nice young men might ruin the grass. Most of her ‘yard’ is forested land, with rocks, a stream, cactus, and even a herd of deer that pop in every evening, right behind the fence that separates the house from the wilderness. Dr. Sherra Theisen, doctor of philosophy, is a one-woman (pacifist) army out on the front lines of the war between community and apathy, justice and chaos.
She and Ms. Jan Schultz organized the Texas Nature Project in Mason, Texas, a program through which they help high school and college students to have a better relationship with nature. They live in a house on the edge of Texas wilderness, inviting students to visit and learn about nature and, by extension, about themselves. The Texas Nature Project was born out of the Saint Augustine Program at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. After designing and implementing the St. Augustine Program to introduce incoming freshman to nature, God, philosophy, and service learning, Jan and Dr. Theisen realized they could be offering a more intensive program that reached out to students of all ages. In addition, they hope the Texas Nature Project will soon be able to offer college credits.
As a former student of Dr. Theisen’s, I was thrilled to learn about her new program and the philosophy behind it, which was surely similar to the St. Augustine Program, but much more exciting in the wilderness setting. The University of St. Thomas is located in the middle of Houston, Texas—not quite as breathtaking as the beautiful scenery around us in Mason.
K.A: What do you hope students will take away from the Texas Nature Project in relation to the environment?
DR. THEISEN: Can you imagine thinking that we don’t need trees? Thinking that planting trees is some kind of luxury, or something childish? More than 50% of Americans live in urban areas. And that means that they don’t have experiences like people my age took for granted. If you didn’t live in the country, you always knew somebody who had a farm. So you would spend some time [there], and you knew how to milk cows and you knew how to pick up eggs...
Today, grade-school kids—many of them don’t know that milk comes from cows or eggs come from chickens. They think it all comes from the refrigerator. And if it’s not there, where does it come from before that? From mom. Where does mom get it? She brings it in from the car. I’m serious. This is what I do when I go to do the outreach programming [for Texas Nature Project]—letting the parents see that the kids do not know that they are natural beings themselves, that their health depends on the health of the whole planet.
Americans now spend 4% of their time outdoors. Four percent in outdoor activities. Because they’re terrified, terrified of the outdoors… Kids are more and more two-dimensional. And they have computers everywhere they go, technology everywhere they go, cell phones, video games, big screen televisions, computers, but it can have an alienating effect because what you can learn on the computer is about rainforests and everything else, and that you have no power to effect any change. So it can be overwhelming. And that’s why we’re focusing on ethics of place.
K.A: Who wants to go outside when they think their air is bad, when there is ozone depletion and it’s dangerous to go outside?
DR. THEISEN: [That] could be, but if you’re afraid, the thing is that the fear comes from what we don’t know. Like how healthy it is for us to be outdoors.
At the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic university, the mission was to try to connect and educate the entire human person. So, at the Augustine program that you were a part of, that was the goal. We knew that everything is integrated, that what it means to be a human person is to be an incredibly complex reality, a totality that has an intrinsic relationship to self, to others, to nature, and to the Divine, we would highlight each of those aspects in the readings, but also in the service.
What we found again and again was that it was the experiences in nature that were the most powerful and effective for absolutely everyone. And that is where people found themselves! Suddenly, instead of being very egocentric, students became aware of something larger than themselves that they don’t have complete control over. They encountered the world, the universe in its vastness. And that humility lets them find out who they are in relation to an entire universe, the need for more than one person in the universe.
Really understanding of the land and conversation with it, working together, that co-creative act and then [the students] start to see the Divine in just the vastness and the beauty and the order, the purposefulness, the intelligence…the evidence is suddenly overwhelming for it. From a philosophical standpoint it’s that St. Thomas approach where he says “It’s impossible to deny the existence of God, if you just pay attention.” ‘There’s this whole world—I didn’t make it, I can’t make it, I can barely understand it, but something does, and it’s bigger than me.’ And that’s opening up to the Divine.
K.A: How is the program run? Why bring it to Mason, Texas?
DR. THEISEN: That experience, [the Augustine program] after four years, was incredibly successful and continues to be: people like yourself continue to come back. We’ve developed these long-term friendships and associations, and people’s lives have changed to service-lives. What we decided to do was to do [the same program] in a more directed and serious and intensive way.
Jan was the co-creator of that program and then co-runner. Hers is more administrative and student development, mine is more academic and service maybe. And that’s the origin of Texas Nature Project.
We want to make this available to all Texas college students instead of just the ones that happen to be at ‘this’ university, we want to do it year-round, we want to be able to do it for every major, which is really a critical thing too. We don’t leave it to the experts—we recognize that there’s purposefulness in every single human life. If we didn’t need 7 billion people, they wouldn’t be here.
K.A: Do you hope to do that with the Texas Nature Project also (as was done with the St. Augustine Program)—bring in people of different faiths and different backgrounds?
DR. THEISEN: It’s about the shared experience of, well, there’s just this one planet (laughs). That we share our common humanity, that we share the planet, and people relax in nature, that’s the other beautiful thing—every architectural structure is somehow inculcating culture, right? And you have presuppositions about what is an appropriate activity that occurs in this space or that space. When you get outdoors, it’s open. And everybody kind of relaxes and breathes, and they can warm up, and it is a place to share everything in a safe way.
K.A: What role does science play in your curriculum?
DR. THEISEN: Science has a really important role. Now again we’re operating from a trans-disciplinary viewpoint. What that means to say is that it’s interdisciplinary, but frequently the idea of interdisciplinary is [the thought that] maybe I can connect 3 or 4 disciplines, but what we mean to say by transdisciplinary is (and I didn’t make up the word, it was Vartan Gregorian that introduced the word. He was president of the Carnegie Foundation) that we recognize everything is connected.
But, education has come so far with specialties and sub-specialties and sub- sub-specialties that it becomes more and more fragmented in practice. And if somebody is going to specialize in biology, they can’t even do that. It’s got to be microbiology or macrobiology or plant biology.
K.A: That’s what I’ve found with my own career.
DR. THEISEN: Yes, and what you need now is a specialist who’s a generalist as a speciality. That’s what a philosopher’s always been, so perfectly natural. But, so what you do is you specialize in the connections.
Scientifically, we’re working with the LCRA, which is the Lower Colorado River Authority, in doing monthly water testing of the Llano River. So we have on this property a live spring and two seasonal creeks, and they feed into Comanche Creek, and Comanche Creek feeds into Llano river, and the Llano River feeds into the Colorado River which means that you’re serving millions of people in Texas with water.
Then you get a sense of the whole, how land use is filtering into the water that people are drinking a hundred miles away. And so again you’re seeing the interconnectedness instead of doing chemistry just in a classroom where you test a sample that you picked up somewhere.
K.A: What other philosophical leaders, or founders, thinkers, not even necessarily philosophical thinkers, have you based this program on?
DR. THEISEN: In some ways what we’re doing is not brand new. A somewhat influential philosopher in the West—Plato, [she says with a grin] in the Republic, his most mature work, says, “All education begins at birth, and it starts with a noble lie. And the lie is: The earth is your mother. And the rest of your formal education, until you are 35 years old, or 50 if you intend to be a leader, will be based on that: The earth is your mother.”
It’s noble because if you don’t understand it, you will not live in the right ways. You will not be able to defend and protect your mother earth, right? And so you get your nobility from your recognition that the earth is your mother. It’s a lie because the earth is not your biological mother and of course you have a biological mother, but so much more is the earth your mother because she is a means of providing you with food and shelter throughout your entire life, and your biological mother does not and cannot.
Up until that time, 15-1600s, everybody who went to college was a philosopher because it meant you had to know everything. In order to answer any question you had to have a view—a universal view—of how your specialty fit in. It was all philosophy, all PhDs—that’s why it’s called a Ph.D.—a doctor of philosophy. So for the last 400 years though, now we’ve got these specializations, sub-specializations, so literature is still a Ph.D., but they don’t get that they need a bigger view. So the economist, it’d be a PhD but they don’t get that they need the bigger view, and the biologist is getting a Ph.D., but they don’t get that they need the bigger view because they’re working so hard on their own specialty.
K.A: There needs to be a connection to the bigger picture?
DR. THEISEN: [She nods] Our program is integrative, trans-disciplinary. Not just integrating disciplines, but integrating theory and practice. Connecting learning and life, so what we’re connecting is people to other people, people to their communities, learning to other learning, and all learning to life—not just the practical life and theoretical life, but the day to day living. I’m sure you know that service learning is kind of a new idea, maybe a decade old in universities, because students were reporting again and again that they found their education irrelevant.
As soon as they graduated they didn’t know why they spent all that time just to get a piece of paper. They didn’t see how it connects to their life. You need to be more deliberate in not just talking about how it connects but day to day showing people. That was what the Augustine program was about, day in and day out a community of research and of education and discussion and getting the connections. ‘Interdisciplinary’ in getting the connections between, but in the end you get a universal so you always know how you fit in. And so that ethics of place is: how do I live given this is my ecosystem?
K.A: So, is there an inherent connection here between philosophy and environmental science?
DR. THEISEN: Absolutely. The number one overriding concern of philosophy and philosophers is justice. Justice is the achievement of the good for everything and everyone. And what we’re always trying to do is bridge the gap, but there is no gap. It’s one place. It’s your home. It’s all about what is the right way to live? What is a good way? A worthwhile—not ‘right’ in the oppressive way but what’s a worthwhile way for human beings to live? The worthwhile way is that I work hard to achieve your good because your good is my good.
You can find more information about the non-profit Texas Nature Project at: www.texasnatureproject.org. The website contains information regarding the program’s curriculum as well as contact information for Dr. Sherra Theisen and her co-founder, Jan Schulz. The Texas Nature Project is currently accepting donations through its website to further its goals of nature education and community involvement.
Kelli Angelone is a former student of Dr. Theisen's. She currently works as an Air Quality Planner in the Houston area, managing grants and conducting outreach. Kelli is also working on her Master of Liberal Arts in English at the University of St. Thomas, where she previously received her Bachelor's in Environmental Studies and minors in Creative Writing and Philosophy.