CORVALLIS - Nestled among the foothills of the Coast Range west of Corvallis is a 40-acre nature reserve where deer and elk browse, hawks hunt their prey, and a small spring flows through ferns to a creek. The spring is the symbol of a creative and ambitious program at Oregon State University called the Spring Creek Project.
In its brief existence - the program began about 18 months ago - the Spring Creek Project has created a philosophy of nature course that took OSU students into the Cascade Mountains for a week, a community course and lecture series on Native American thought, public lectures by prominent writers about nature, and a series of conversations among writers and artists, scientists, and philosophers.
Eventually, a cabin at the edge of Spring Creek will be home to a writer-in-residence program.
The purpose of the Spring Creek Project, says director Kathleen Dean Moore, is to explore the relation of humans to the rest of the natural world.
"Our challenge is to bring together the practical wisdom of environmental sciences, the clarity of philosophical analysis, and the expressive power of the written word," Moore said. "Together, we may find new ways to live in healthy relation to the land."
Next fall, for example, the program will bring together six of the nation's finest poets, including Gary Snyder, and six leading forest scientists and managers. "We're going to put them together in a room for a couple of days and see what happens," Moore said, laughing.
Moore, a professor of philosophy at OSU, is only half-kidding. The writers and scientists will spend two days together, though some of it will be out in the forests. Funded by the U.S. Forest Service, the conference will focus on "New Metaphors of Restoration."
"Poets know words," Moore said, "and forest scientists know the woods. They both care deeply about the health of the land. Who knows what ideas may emerge by bringing these folks together.
"We get into ruts with traditional ways of thinking," she added. "We need to look beyond our own disciplines. When we talk with people whose expertise is different from our own, creative new solutions and perspectives can emerge."
The time may be ripe for new ways of talking about forest and watershed restoration, says Tony Vogt, the assistant director of the Spring Creek Project.
"Over the last few years, there have been new ways of thinking about environmental restoration and land management," Vogt said. "The Forest Service recognizes the need for new language used to describe what is going on, something beyond the polarity of 'tree farms' and 'cathedral forests.'
"Metaphors shape the way we think, and the way we think shapes the decisions we make," Vogt added. "The 'healing' of an ecosystem is a medical metaphor; 'rebirth' is a spiritual metaphor; 'reparation' is an ethical metaphor. As new perspectives on landscapes and missions have emerged, land managers and other decision-makers already are turning to creative writers for new language."
The Spring Creek Project is funded by gifts from private donors. A bequest from an anonymous donor will dedicate the use of the land and cabin to OSU's Spring Creek Project, and outright gifts will sustain the program over the next five years. The land serves as a classroom, a laboratory and a "creative well-spring" for ideas, Moore said.
"Spring Creek feeds into the Mary's River," Moore said. "There is a focus for us on the watershed, both literally and metaphorically, with the Spring Creek Project. We are part of biotic and cultural communities that are big and complex, yet our individual actions can have a profound influence on the world we live in."
That notion struck a chord with a group of 15 students Moore took into the Cascade Mountains this September for a new class called "Philosophy of Nature." Part science, part philosophy, the course challenged students to think about the interrelationships of people, animals, bodies of water and land - and the multiple processes that bind them.
"As we talked about how we, as individuals, can contribute to what Aldo Leopold called the 'integrity, stability, and beauty' of our biocultural communities, a sense of despair came over the students," Moore said. "They didn't see how they could have an impact."
What came out of the class was the first research interest group of the Spring Creek Project. The students decided to create a Consumers Anonymous Club, a support group that encourages sustainable use of resources through individual actions.
The students each created a 12-step list of things they could do as individuals to encourage sustainability, and Moore joined in, vowing - among other things - to cut her consumption of paper products by 50 percent.
"This idea took on a life of its own, entirely independent of the class," Moore said. "The members still meet to outline their progress and suggest new ideas for engaging others.
"That's the idea behind the Spring Creek Project," she added. "Bring together people with different backgrounds and perspectives - poets and scientists, artists and forest managers, community members and students, philosophers, musicians, and entomologists - and engage them in creative thought about how to live on this beautiful Earth."
More information on the Spring Creek Project is available on the web.