About three decades ago, St. Helena High School science teacher Lowell Young sparked a mild community controversy by allowing students to discuss spirituality in connection with field trips to places like Yosemite National Park, the Grand Canyon and the Mendocino coast.
Last week he released his 280-page book, “Biodesign Out for a Walk” ($15.95, Outskirts Press), which describes the experience — and the privilege — of exposing young people to nature and grace over a span of 24 years, from 1973 to 1997.
In his book, and presumably in his teaching, Young purposefully blurs the distinction between nature and grace, attempting to show how student-led discussions about spirituality sprang spontaneously from their close encounters with nature — not from him.
“This book is not about my spiritual quest, but about a class that for some mysterious reason allowed students the opportunity to consider the possibility of their own spirituality,” Young writes in Chapter 8, titled “Storm Brewing.”
In the chapter, Young gives a harrowing account of the time he and his students faced the real prospect of death during a storm while camping on Half Dome. Although everyone survived, the experience of coming through the ordeal together formed a teacher-student bond that Young attributes to some higher authority.
The book is a first-person love letter from Young to his various teachers — from Socrates, to John Muir, to “The Immense Journey” author Loren Eiseley, to his wife Christie.
But mainly, the book is a homage to his students, who play major roles in his remarkable journey from teaching at the head of an indoor classroom to becoming part of a circular worship service in the great outdoors.
One gets the impression that Young is more indebted to his students — many of whom still live in St. Helena — than they might be to him.
When he shares the experience of gratitude he and his students felt when they returned to safety after nearly dying on Half Dome, Young is actually explaining his epiphany that the entire episode was supernatural.
When he tries to explain the unexplainable — an account of a “cryptic message” delivered by two ravens that performed acrobatics for a handful of students — Young is offering a glimpse into the mental challenges posed by the “glorious mystery” that is the Grand Canyon.
Throughout his recollections, Young isn’t a teacher as much as he is a fellow traveler, a guide leading the reader through the exploratory stages of a young person’s unblemished mind. His students come across as full partners in man’s eternal quest for answers to the most vexing questions about the origin of all things, not just the species.
Don’t be surprised if tears well up in your eyes when reading the conversation between Young and Ingrid, the exchange student from the former Yugoslavia, whose father allowed her to come to America and who did not know how she could ever repay her father for the privilege.
The life-changing experiences described in Young’s book are fascinating and touching, as they show young people aspiring to become humanitarians. During one flight home, a group of Young’s students heard the pilot was completing his final flight before retirement. Before the plane landed they produced a retirement scroll that was handed to the pilot as the passengers disembarked.
“This is the neatest retirement gift that any pilot could receive,” he told the students.
Young’s book is a different kind of retirement gift. One gets the impression that, although Young retired from teaching years ago, he has not retired from the business of learning and sharing his experiences. He continues to process the lessons he gleaned from more than two decades working with students whom he regards as his teachers.
One can only hope that Young will continue his quest and write more books.
Thanks for reading.