Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ecological Interning

By Andrew Huff

A year after his 1836 essay Nature” gave breath to a burgeoning Transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson proposed a more radical thesis than simply reclaiming one’s intimacy with nature in his speech “The American Scholar.” 

In that speech, Emerson earnestly proposed to Harvard University’s Phi Beta Kappa gathering the oxymoronic claim that academia’s most dynamic complement is hands-on agricultural labor. Pairing these antithetical worlds, he explains, guards against the scholar’s devolving from “Man thinking” into “a mere thinker,” disconnected from not only personal inquiry, but also inquiry’s connection to other labors.

Emerson praises scholarship, yet duly recognizes that it is one facet of life. Engaging with nature offers a greater fountainhead of wisdom than intellectual jockeying alone. He reminds his audience, at the threshold of graduating with academic prestige, that “there is virtue yet in the hoe and the spade, for learned as well as for unlearned hands.” Physical labor, for Emerson, enables thought to be balanced with action; to gain form through it.

In 1971, as the Harvard University Press published a compendium of Emerson’s texts and speeches (Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume I: Nature, Addresses, and Lectures), his principles found an avid champion in Sue Coppard, who was working as a secretary in London. After several weekends volunteering at Emerson College’s organic farm in Sussex, United Kingdom, Coppard institutionalized the practice by founding Working Weekends on Organic Farms, according to the organization’s website (“History of WWOOF”). Now named World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), the organization facilitates partnerships between host farms (nearly 12,000 in 2010 according to a 2012 press release) and volunteers (known as WWOOFers). The latter exchange their physical labor for food, housing, and the opportunity to study organic agriculture firsthand.  

This brand of “eco-interning” makes the liberal arts more visceral while enhancing this education method’s values of experiential learning and inquiry-in-action. As a testament to Emerson’s appeal, WWOOF USA Director Sarah Potenza noted in a November 2013 interview with the San Francisco Gate (“WWOOF volunteers pitch in on organic farms”) that college students currently demonstrate high levels of interest in participation. 

Emerson’s intellectual standard now has the opportunity to meet an agricultural need for economical labor. According to the most recent data from the Agricultural Survey of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average age of the primary operators of US farms has been rising since 1978, reaching 57.1 years in 2007 (“2007 Census of Agriculture: Demographics”). 

The survey also found that expenses directly associated with hired farm labor in the US that year totaled $21.79 billion while more farmers are seeking off-farm employment to compensate for lack of income from farming itself (“2007 Census of Agriculture: Farm Labor”).

Linking young scholars with direct agricultural education opportunities has the potential, then, to simultaneously complement academic pursuits while revitalizing the farming sector. 

Andrew Huff is a senior at Goucher College majoring in Political Science. Goucher College is home to the Beta of the Maryland Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.