Steve Charles—Since the day I first read about and then published photographs from Dave Krohne’s study on the regeneration of Yellowstone after the fires of the 1990s, I’ve wondered what it would be like to travel with him and his students, to see the world through the lens of this insightful and adventurous ecologist and biology professor. Just reading his work has changed the way I see the natural world. What is it like for his students to see that world alongside him?

I got my wish last week, accompanying Krohne and six students from his Advanced Ecology course to the Everglades. It was the second time I’ve been invited along on a Wabash spring break immersion trip to chronicle its teachable moments. I came home with the same thought as after the first: If only I’d had this kind of experience when I was a student!

I studied abroad. Twice. And my months living in the parts of Wales that inspired Dylan Thomas’s poetry were the most memorable, life-shaping moments of my college career.
But no one else from my school was on the trip, so when I returned to the campus, my classmates were oblivious to my experience. The friends I’d studied with in Wales were now far away.

Not so with Wabash immersion experiences. You travel to places like Chiapas, Israel, Spain, the Everglades, with the professor and students you’ve been studying with for months. Your common bond—learning about this place or subject. A new culture. Or a work project. Or an ecosystem or living history you’ve never encountered.

Once onsite, you learn together alongside professors who are learning, too, even as they teach. Not unlike that shared sense of discovery student interns may get with professors in bio, chem., or physics labs. But this laboratory has no control group.

At dinner you digest what you’ve seen and heard; at breakfast, you wonder what’s coming next. You learn the little things about one another you never had time for on campus. New tolerance and new respect arises. As Torm Hustvet wrote in his blog from our trip, “This is an experience that I have learned to love through my immersion trips. I have been able to experience life with classmates in a much more personal fashion and I feel that a trip such as this helps encourage the learning atmosphere of the class following the trip.”

So this moveable feast of learning comes back to campus with you. You can relive this new bond whenever you see one another: experiences, stories, even secrets in common.
It’s not better than study abroad. Just different. But today I recommend it to incoming students as an essential part of their Wabash experience.

Those of us chronicling these trips learn a little ourselves. Even though our attention is focused on the students’ teachable moments, we can’t help have a few of our own. It’s not unlike the averted glance method of finding hard to see celestial objects: the only way to see what’s important is to focus on something away from it, catching the essential object out of the corner of your eye.

Here are a few things I noticed out of the corner of my eye while traveling with Professor Krohne and his six biology students in the Everglades and trying to see the place the way they do:

1. The Everglades is a river of grass—shallow, wide, draining the peninsula from north to south. It’s been manhandled, re-directed, polluted, and yet has also been the focus of some of the most loving care men and women have ever showed the planet as they have attempted to restore and manage it. And everything you see is determined by the depth of the water it lives in.

2. It is a fragile system—even during our stay, we learned that nests of the roseate spoonbill, a bird considered a barometer of the health of the Florida Bay, were at their lowest number (272) since 1960. The Everglades protects more endangered species than any other national park.

3. It is a resilient system—we camped at Flamingo, an area ravaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005, and still rebuilding. But Eco Pond, a premier birding spot and closed until 2006, has sprung back. Much of the wildlife and birds have returned. And lots of moonflowers, as our student, Phil Rushton, discovered. We camped in a place that was under three inches of mud two years ago. Flamingo is the kind of place that makes me think of Krohne’s research in Yellowstone after the fires, or of his 2004 LaFollette Lecture “The Geography of Hope”, when he said, “I am an optimist because of, not in spite of, my science.”

4. The things you’d most likely remove to develop an area are necessary for ensuring survival of that you’d most want to keep. One example: the mangrove. They hog the beaches, are nearly impassable, and are, aesthetically, an acquired taste. But they are miracles. They protect the beaches from erosion. They can survive in salt water; their leaves exude the salt. Their branches are home to many birds, their forests anchors for many spider webs, therefore rich with insect life. Their exposed roots nurture algae, barnacles, oysters, sponges, and provide nutrients that support the areas fisheries. As Annie Dillard writes, “ they have shrimp in their toes and terns in their hair.”

Dave Krohne calls them “nutrient catchers.”

And that’s also a good way to describe †these moveable feasts of learning that are beginning to define the Wabash learning experience. Immersion trips are nutrient catchers. Wabash students and professors adapting and learning wherever they take root, no matter how briefly, catching what they can and taking it in to enrich their understanding, their lives, and, in time, the Wabash community.

My lamenting not having had such an experience when I was a student reminds me just now of a conversation several students and I had during the trip. I’m fortunate to call Professor Krohne a friend; I call him by his first name. A couple students remarked how weird that sounded; even long after they’ve graduated, they said, they can’t imagine calling him anything besides “Dr. Krohne.” Such is their respect for their teacher, no matter how informal our Everglades gatherings had been.

“I guess you call him ‘Dave’ because you’re not a student,” one of the guys said. But that’s not true. I am a student. The least knowledgeable in biology on this trip, but still a student. If we’re lucky as we get older, we’re still learning, still in wonder before the world. As Dave himself quoted in his LaFollette Lecture the environmentalist and writer John Nichols:

“Shadows of malignant scaffolds hold the planet in a very negative net. Yet it can be done. And everything commences by refusing to despair; optimism is my one irrevocable act of faith. My dream is never to let them make me a cynical old man.”

Teachers like Dave Krohne and immersion trips like this are a heartening reminder of that act of faith, and an affirmation of the dream many of us old men share.

Read about the Everglades immersion trip here.