“A group of trees is called a forest”: An accidental education in the West, the wild, and a changing world

Plan Author

  • Sophie Ackerman, 2018

Fields of Concentration

Sample Courses

  • Course: Apocalyptic Hope: the Literature of the American Renaissance
  • Course: Environmental Philosophy
  • Tutorial: Political Ecology in the American West
  • Tutorial: Science and Climate Change Advocacy

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • Joseph Smith, Mouth Holyoke College


Following the common thread of public lands and wilderness, I have attempted to confront romanticism, the frontier myth, and ultimately, climate change. The first component is focused on land management: I introduce an alternative framework for land managers addressing climate change, and explore its potential contributions through a case study on whitebark pine. The second paper grapples with the American West, examining the origins and contemporary expressions of the frontier myth, and its implications to western identity and invisibility. My third piece is centered around Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and the influences it has had on the American environmental movement’s response to Climate Change. The fourth component is a series of seven vignettes, written about my experiences with landscapes, place, love, and mourning, snapshots of my life at stages crucial in the development of the ideas I have put into this writing. My fifth component is an exam on Forest Ecology.


Ultimately, land managers must accept that the forests of the future will likely look dramatically different from those we see today, and especially so when compared to those prior to European colonization. As species’ ranges shift, the language used to describe them must also; the rigid understanding of what composes a “healthy” ecosystem must be traded for one that accepts and integrates change into its foundational values. These efforts to comprehend change will not matter, however, if we cannot integrate them into a functional management strategy. If the forest structures of the past are an unreliable management objective, what do managers do when tasked with planning for the future?

The legacy of Thoreau’s work is visible in every facet of environmental thought today, the benefits of which are often celebrated and attributed to him. The failures and limits of his pervasive presence are almost entirely left unspoken, despite the damaging cycles of perpetuated inaction that I have described. Thoreau has been victim to misinterpretation in some of this negative influence, as well as in his positive contributions, which I will discuss. However, his philosophy has a central obvious limit, visible in all of the examples I have given, and it runs parallel to humanity’s failure to address climate change in this modern age. The trap of the individual (while not exclusive to Thoreau), is undeniably linked to his influence on the American environmental movement. It prevents effective action, community, and ultimately necessary change that is societal, political, or economic in scope.


The inspiration for my Plan came from a childhood playing in the woods, the school trip to Yellowstone in 2016, and a countless number of authors and experiences that have made me fall in love with the wild. One of the most interesting parts was the three pages describing the shootout between Nate Champion and Wolcott’s Regulators (the cattle baron’s hired army), during the start of the Johnson County War.

My plan is about wilderness and climate change. As I pursue a career with the forest service and other land management agencies, these two topics and their relationship with land management are extremely important to decision makers—and becoming more significant by the day. I aspire to continue to live and work on wilderness

Huston Park Wilderness in the Sierra Madres.
Chart of an Active Adaptive Management Cycle.
Distributions of Whitebark Pine in the northern Rockies, as predicted by climate modeling.