On the top of Mount Yeckel, 11,700 feet up in the Colorado wilderness, it was hard for the Socrates Program participants to miss the darkening sky and gathering clouds a few miles in the distance. “The mountains are mercurial,” Paul Andersen, the seminar co-moderator and trip leader, had noted as the 15 scholars set out on the inaugural Socrates Wilderness, Nature, and Society seminar. The diminishing sunshine and dropping temperature proved Andersen right. As the group gathered on the mountaintop, Stephen Ambrose’s account of Lewis and Clark’s journey west, Undaunted Courage, began to find purchase as more than a historical text read earlier that day. The mountain range really did stretch west as far as the eye could see, the steep ascent required “the greatest exertion,” and despite the approaching snow, “there was nothing for it but to proceed.”
Based on a seminar developed by Elliot Gerson, the Institute’s executive vice president for public and policy programs, with counsel from William Cronon, one of the country’s leading environmental historians, the Socrates Wilderness Seminar includes texts from Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Rachel Carson, Peter Singer, Emma Maris, and E.O. Wilson. Along with Andersen—an author and the founder of Huts for Vets, a wilderness-therapy program for veterans—Gerson and David Monsma, the executive director of the Institute’s Energy and Environment Program, served as seminar co-moderators. Over the course of three days of hiking, discussing classic and contemporary texts, and camping, Socrates participants delved into perceptions of the wild and discussed current environmental issues. They hailed from around the world, from California to Amsterdam, with backgrounds in government, nonprofits, the private sector, and academia. The group comprised backcountry experts and camping first-timers, each contributing to a meeting of the minds in the wilderness above Aspen.