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Nature discipline : the practice of wilderness therapy at Camp E-Wen-Akee Dunkley, Cheryl Morse

Abstract

Wilderness therapy, the practice of sending troubled young people into nature in order to re-socialize them, poses a paradox. Time spent in wilderness is imagined to produce civilizing effects on young people, rendering them better prepared to live responsible and productive lives in society. Study of wilderness therapy, therefore, provides insight into constructions of youth and nature in contemporary American society. This thesis emerges from ethnographic research conducted at Camp E-Wen-Akee, a therapeutic camping program for troubled youth, in Benson, Vermont, USA. In addition to living with the three groups of campers in their rustic camp sites and engaging in camp activities, I facilitated two camper-run research projects, and interviewed camp staff members, and the state social workers responsible for sending adjudicated youth to residential programs. I find that camp life is an achievement of many heterogeneous actors, some of whom are human and others nonhuman. The resulting work is an ethnography of a nature-culture, wherein I describe how the camp mobilizes various resources to create the conditions for therapeutic change. The differing nature narratives of campers and the adults indicated that expectations for nature are at least in part, outcomes of class processes. Close attention to camp life shows that therapy is a social strategy brought into being at a number of scales: the material body, built and temporal architectures, landscape, and 'public' wilderness outside of camp's borders. I find at each scale a tension between the ordering tactics deployed by camp staff members and resistance posed by campers and 'nature' alike. Campers' identities are meant to change as a result o f repeated performances of prosocial behavior, and the on-going circulation of success stories. Together these practices underscore that what one person does always has effects on others. The irony uncovered i n this research is that while troubled youth are sent to a nature imagined as separate from society, Camp E-Wen-Akee provides young people with an ecological model for social life. Wilderness therapy is the outcome not of a separation between nature and society, but of ongoing relations between the two.

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