The Way of the Woods: Experiences in the Wheaton Woods

By: Sophie Dubois, Anthropology, 2021 

Nominated by: Professor Gabriela Torres 

The Wheaton Woods has been a sanctuary to many students through the decades. The firepits that can be found at various points in the woods have been a testament to this. Since I was a freshman, the woods have always been my safe place. An escape from stressful assignments and pressures that come with college life. The woods hold many good memories that I have made with friends. I have always wanted to do a project about the Wheaton Woods and this year has given me the opportunity to do so. As an anthropology major, we are expected to complete an original thesis and research. Given that there are only four anthropology seniors and a pandemic going on we were allowed to do something that was non-traditional.

I have always been fascinated as to what stories the woods can hold. I always had wondered what other past student’s experiences with the woods were like and what stories they could tell. I thus set forth to collect as many interviews as could, not just students but from professors and alums as well. I began the task of trying to contact as many people throughout campus as possible. I went to Alumni offices to see if any alums were willing to participate in the project. At the time I was doing this I was taking a geology class and the professor directed me to several professors in the science department who frequently used the woods as their classroom.

Throughout the fall semester, I conducted over 50 interviews ranging from 20 minutes to almost an hour. I did countless zoom meetings while also meeting with students that were on campus. The more memorable interviews were conducted in the woods themselves. I conducted at least 10 interviews there. I had a couple of walkthroughs with professors who would point out different plant species or talk about taking their class out in the woods. There were a couple conducted during several bonfires through the semester which prompted the storytelling setting that I wanted.

The most memorable was an hour-long walk through the woods with a senior who had many experiences with the woods throughout their career. In the middle of it, it started to torrential rain on us, instead of turning around we embraced the rain and continued to our destination the “Crack Shack”. The shack a small building that had been built by previous Wheaton students. Little did I know that was going to be my last time there. When everyone came back this semester we all found out that someone from the town had destroyed on suspicion that a homeless person was taking shelter there.

Through all these interviews I had come into a vast collection of stories ranging back to the 1960s. The uses of the woods have changed vastly through the decades. In the times before the school went co-ed the woods was used mostly as an outdoor classroom, most notably for the Quadrant Project. As the school went co-ed, the fire pits start to appear through the woods and it became more of a social space. The woods through the years have been severely encroached by several major constructions of the college. I was told by many alums they probably wouldn’t be able to recognize any of it, with all the changes. The science professors found a couple of ways so that woods could be preserved, the vernal pool project playing a huge role in that.

Covid has changed the world in many ways, yet it hasn’t changed the woods from being an escape. Students told me that the woods was the one space that they didn’t need to be in fear of. The place that was outside the four walls of their dorms. There has been a renaissance of the woods, I’ve seen more people out there than I have in my entire time at Wheaton. I have found several new creations made by students. The cultural spot, known as “Red Rock” receiving several more layers of red paint and designs. The traditions of the Wheaton Woods have been more alive than ever and will hopefully continue well into the future.