According to Henry David Thoreau, my favorite American author, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” So do some teachers. After an academically and emotionally challenging day with students, there are still papers to grade and lessons to plan. An educator could easily find herself overwhelmed. Regardless of the amount of work I have to complete at night, however, I always make sure to engage in my favorite pastime—reading.
Thoreau was a voracious reader, but he did not believe in subsisting on books alone. In order to live a fulfilling life, he believed, one must also seek experience. Thoreau did exactly that, sojourning in the natural world he loved dearly by living, for a relatively brief time, in a cabin on Walden Pond. He believed he could transcend everyday experience by observing nature, and then reading and writing about it.
To keep myself motivated during the school year, I always plan a summer trip involving extensive reading and reflection. Like Thoreau, I, too, love nature, but while he never felt the need to travel a great distance, this past August I traveled to the deepest bush country in Africa—Botswana. Just as rewarding as the trip itself is the fact that I can use the experience throughout the year to enhance my lessons.
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While Thoreau spent two years in a cabin just a few miles from downtown Concord, Massachusetts, I spent several weeks in a tent often quite distant from civilization. In order to reach our camp in the Okavango Delta, my travel companion and I took a 40-minute flight over a vast wilderness where waterways snake through swamps and scrubland. Even from the air, we could see elephants, zebras, giraffes, and hippos. After landing, we drove an hour by Land Rover and were then met alongside a river by locals, who paddled us through reeds in a mokoro (dugout canoe) to our remote camp north of Pom Pom Island.
Because the camp was wild, there were no fences separating us from the large mammals that live there. Hippo prints were evident, and during the night, elephants woke us by eating from the trees behind our tent. Giraffes, antelope, and leopards also live on the island, but, fortunately, the lions roaring at night stayed on the mainland.
I cherished quiet mornings in the mokoro, drifting amid the lilies, watching the abundant bird life, such as the African fish eagle and the Carmine Bee-eater. During the afternoons, we also took guided walks and watched elephants shaking coconuts from palm trees. To cool off, we took a dip in the same water where hippos wallow, as was clear from the dung that floated around us. At sunset, meandering through narrow channels in our mokoro, we could hear them grunting just beyond the reeds.
After leaving the delta, we made our way through the Moremi and Chobe game parks. The five-day journey was at times tiring as we drove over roads roughened by dried elephant tracks. But the smell of wild sage and the numerous animal sightings—elephants drinking at a water hole, two male lions eating from an elephant carcass—made the excursion worthwhile. In the evenings, we watched zebras graze peacefully, but worried about the lions, hyenas, and Cape buffaloes wandering close to camp.
Some of the most inspiring moments included sleeping outside of the tent while at the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, sitting beside a nighttime campfire after a braai (barbecue), and watching lightning illuminate the sky before a storm.
Staying in such a remote location also requires one to give up some modern conveniences. For example, we took bush showers as warthogs watched and used a shovel whenever nature called.
Thoreau believed that we should “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” which is a good description of my adventures at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. While hiking down the gorge along the Zambezi River and rafting through Class 5 rapids, I felt I was indeed transcending everyday experience.
When I came back to that everyday experience and my usual school routine this fall, however, I felt rejuvenated. And I had a trunkful of African experiences to use in the classroom.
Since I teach English, I will share the journal I kept and the various drafts I go through as I revise. When classes do self-selected reading, I’ll pass around the books I purchased on the trip about Zimbabweans who’ve been evicted from their farms by the latest government.
In my junior-level English class, we’ll read Chanda’s Secrets, a novel for adolescents set in Botswana. Because the story deals with a young girl’s family that is affected by AIDS, I will share the most current statistics—for example, 24 percent of the country’s population is HIV-positive. I’ll also teach the students about the wildlife in Botswana, so that they know the country is a beautiful place.
During my Modern Media Communications class, I’ll display the photographs I took in Africa and post them on my Web site. And I plan to share my experiences with others in the building. I’ll speak before the gifted-and-talented students, and I’ve already begun to work with my traveling companion, the school’s video technology teacher, on a documentary he’ll use as a model in his video production class.
Thoreau wrote that you should live the life you’ve imagined for yourself, and I am. I hope that I can inspire my students to do the same.
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as The Call of the Wild