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Lucy's Green Semester

Lucy's Green Semester

WSHS junior Lucy Nelson spent all of last semester learning about environmental stewardship at Conserve School in Wisconsin

In the woods of northern Wisconsin, near the border of Michigan’s upper peninsula, the Conserve School is spread out over 1,200 acres of land and lakes, most of which is wild space. “It’s beautiful,” remembered Lucy Nelson, a Winona Senior High School (WSHS) junior who spent all of last semester living and learning at the Conserve School. “It wasn’t real to me until we drove in for the first time.”

An ecosystem all its own, the Conserve School in Land O’ Lakes, Wis., is a semester school intended for high school juniors (and some seniors and sophomores) that emphasizes environmental stewardship. The campus has a main academic building with a cafeteria, dorms and a recreational center, but the heart of the school resides in its outer boundaries of forests, lakes, meadows and bogs. “I reclaimed my awe of nature,” Lucy said of her time spent at Conserve School.

Students who apply and are accepted come to the school from all over the country, and are taught the required high school academics along with an array of environmentally focused electives and extracurricular activities, which fit into a daily eight-hour schedule, in contrast to the six-hour schedule at WSHS. “There were art classes, a nature photography class, earth art,” Lucy explained. “We had speakers come in and talk about environmental science and college environmental stewardship.” Students were also required to take physical education, but unlike regular P.E. classes, the course at Conserve School focused on field instruction, which consisted of physical activities such as learning to build fires, rock climbing and canoeing. “I learned to cross-country ski,” Lucy said. Her skills were put to test throughout the fall, especially during “exploration week” and a solo camp experience. “For exploration week we went backpacking for five days,” she explained. “We walked the North Country Trail in Michigan’s UP.” The 50-mile trek is chronicled in photographs of Lucy and her group, posing against a backdrop of red leaves that indicate the beginning of October, and a paper notebook, evidenced by the crinkled pages and ink smears from the rain throughout the trip. By late October Lucy and the 61 other students were scattered throughout the Conserve School’s acreage for a solo camping experience that lasted two nights. “I learned self-sufficiency pretty early on,” Lucy remembered. “My plastic spork broke the first night and I had to fix it with a twig and grass.” She said that she spent the majority of her solo time at Ink Pot Lake in quiet reflection. “I was tending the fire, writing and reading a lot,” she explained. “It was reflection time without all of the noise pollution.”

Lucy believes that she learned a lot about herself through many solitary times, which included her phenology reflection spot, an area of wild space that she picked out at the beginning of the semester and for hours at a time observed the area’s wildlife and natural changes. But she also learned about community, through her fellow Conserve School students and through volunteer work around the area. One of her favorite activities involved her and a group of students who worked on an outdoor garden, growing greens, herbs, potatoes and tomatoes, which were used in many of the meals served at school. “Our slogan was ‘eat the rainbow,’ and we wore rainbow bandanas,” she fondly remembered.

Similar to the changing woods and lakes around the campus as fall advanced toward winter, Lucy, too, completed a transformation. The Conserve School solidified and encouraged Lucy’s interest of environmental conservation and stewardship, which she intends to be involved with for the rest of her life. “She went away not having any idea what she wants to do when she grows up, or what she wants to go to college for,” explained Lucy’s mother, Stacie Blair-Nelson. “It gave her life good direction.” Lucy said that she would like to major in an environmental area, perhaps environmental law or environmental studies. “Something about economics [and the environment],” she said, explaining that she would like to learn how to make the modern world a better, more sustainable place.

Green life in Winona

Back in Winona, Lucy and her younger brother, Carl, grew up with parents who encouraged environmental stewardship and conservation. Blair-Nelson owns Be Kind Naturals, where she makes handmade soaps with natural ingredients. “We’ve always tried to instill conservation,” Blair-Nelson said. “That’s always been a way of life [for us], to have a little footprint.” 

Lucy’s family owns seven chickens and grows their own herbs, lettuce and various vegetables throughout the year in both their front and back yards. “My family goes camping and hiking a lot,” Lucy said. “[It’s in] my nature to like being outside.” The straight-A student said she learned of the Conserve School through her mother’s co-worker’s son, also a student at WSHS, who had an amazing experience at the school. “I saw the website and I loved it immediately,” Lucy remembered. She started the application process right away, later learning that she was the first person to apply as well as the first to receive admission, or, in Lucy’s case, early admission. “We were so excited for her,” Blair-Nelson said. “We knew it would be a life changing experience for her.”

On the last day of school the tight-knit community of students spent what Lucy guesses was “two hours of hugging and crying,” although they all plan on remaining friends. “We have a Facebook group to keep in touch,” she explained. “I made a lot of lifelong friends.” Although she was sad to leave the breathtaking campus that had been her home since late August, Lucy has returned to Winona with a renewed commitment to environmental stewardship. She recently decided to stop buying new clothes as a way to conserve and protest the fashion industry, and she also plans on joining the environmental club at WSHS next semester. “[The Conserve School] is not for everybody, but it’s a great place [for those who have an] open mind,” Lucy said. “[You have to be] ready to deal with lots of different things and meet lots of different people. You have to go with all your heart.” 

To learn more about Conserve School visit www.conserveschool.org.

This article originally appeared in the Winona Post