BROWNFIELD – The illusion of a clear, bold rainbow rising out of the ground during a field trip to the Kennebunk Plains stayed with the University of New England students for a good two weeks.

On their next field trip taken with Professor Owen Grumbling, the college juniors and seniors were still asking questions about the apparition-like phenomenon that seemed to arc out of the ground.

“Why did I not go to it? Why didn’t I go to the end of the rainbow?” asked senior Janel Harrington.

All questions, even those semi-serious, are encouraged by Grumbling’s nature writing class that is now legendary at the university, where he has taught it since 1976.

Grumbling’s class is not all hikes, river paddles and walks on the beach. The students read the works of Henry David Thoreau, Jack London, William Wordsworth, William Blake and Williams Butler Yeats. Then they consider how the experiences shared on field trips relate to the works of the classic authors.

It’s a course in the College of Arts and Science offered to environmental studies majors.

“I’m old-fashioned. I think if you spend the vast hours of your day walking outside, it shapes who you are and your values. You can’t help but get students learning outside in the environment,” Grumbling said.

Grumbling’s work is also in the curriculum, as a chapter he wrote in the 1996 textbook “Greening the College Curriculum.”

Last year, Grumbling received an award from the Environmental Protection Agency for his work helping to conserve land in Wells, and for “teaching generations of youth” about conservation through his writing class.

But Grumbling credits the success of his signature course to his students, classic people who love the outdoors and “only need a good pair of boots” to have a good time hiking in the rain.

The most poignant part of the students’ shared double rainbow experience was how it echoed in a very different place two weeks later in a pouring cold rain.

For this outing, following the one that showed them the bright sunshower on the plains, they hiked in slippery conditions up Burnt Meadow Mountain in Brownfield. They were still discussing the rainbow breaking through the sun as they marveled at the heavy fog that surrounded them.

The fog created a strange dream-like tunnel up the mountain. And even though it was biting cold, the students enjoyed the moment.

Their conversations ranged from classes to childhood memories outdoors to that incredible rainbow.

“I still can’t explain it. There are no words. I just wrote in my journal: ‘Amazing,’ ” said junior Hannah Goodnow.

Grumbling said the biggest impact of the class is the memories it creates of shared experiences outdoors, and the inherent good in that.

“It’s not just an individual thing because they’re with people who really want to be there and really want to understand how nature works in this place. And they’re all glad to be there,” Grumbling said.

Harrington and Goodnow said they didn’t know how they would use their environmental degrees, but they hope to somehow help keep the environment lightly used.

They said Grumbling’s course made them consider this gentle approach. Sharing silent hikes as a class every few weeks makes them think about ways to do that, they said.

The students are encouraged to hike, paddle and observe in silence, but they frequently come together and share their thoughts.

At a plateau on Burnt Meadow that was covered in thick fog, Grumbling stopped to explain that on “Henry David’s” first hike up Mount Katahdin, fog was all Thoreau saw. And the view, the place, the wet experience all made him happy, Grumbling said.

“I’m happy,” said Emily Baisden, from atop a huge boulder.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

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