Shouting at the Sky: Troubled Teens and the Promise of the Wild

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Shouting At The Sky: Troubled teens and the promise of the wild By Gary Terguson Reviewed by Michael Gass, Ph.D., University of New Hampshire Reprinted with kind permission from The Outdoor Network Spring 1999 Vol. 10, No. 1, Page 24

Probably the most common T-shirt I've seen at any outdoor store or local crag is one with the saying, "Climbing may be hard ... but it's easier than growing up." Its commonplace existence has created a sort of apathetic perspective in me when I see it now. For a number of reasons, Gary Ferguson's new book Shouting at the Sky: Troubled Teens and the Promise of the Wild (1999, St. Martin's Press, NY) was a perfect antidote for any complacency I may rhave acquired. It brought me back to the reality that climbing is nowhere near as difficult as becoming an adult in our society, particularly for some adolescents. And like my work with kids similar to the ones whose stories are shared in the book, it led me to hug my own children a bit'tighter and think about my investment in them as a parent.

Shouting at the Sky is Ferguson's effort as a "nonadventure" person to describe the phenomenon of wilderness therapy programming - why it is occurring, where its value lies, what occurs on such experiences, and how it influences participants' lives. Ferguson accomplishes this through the life stories of clients, leaders, and administrators at the Aspen Achievement Academy in Utah. Ferguson does an excellent-job as an ethnographer in the story; he strives to tell us what's going on in these individuals' lives with the ever-present backdrop of the Utah wilderness providing the landscape. Although I sometimes I couldn't keep track of all of the characters in the book, their voices were realistic and telling.

Change or growth in the book is not limited to adolescents; Ferguson spends a fair bit of time discussing staff evolution as well as a bit of his own soul searching and the power of the wilderness.

For people familiar with wilderness therapy programs, there are no surprises in 'Ferguson's stories. The dependence of sometimes "requiring escort services, parents being placed in situations where they are asked to give up their kids in order to get them back, instructors needing to sleep with meds, suicide watches, dealing with runaways; staff burnout, instructors being placed in therapeutic situations without appropriate training, and the all-too-insular nature of wilderness therapy programming are all common themes. What is refreshing to see is the empathy toward clients taken by the Aspen Achievement Academy staff. As accurately described by Ferguson, there are all too many other examples in the wilderness therapy field of the "love you until it hurts" or""tough love in the woods" approaches that have claimed the lives of too many participants. Ferguson's background research on wilderness therapy programs is painfully accurate but insightful for us to hear: "[I was told that] this [Aspen Achievement Academy] was a good program, but good programs are the exception, not the rule" (p. 15).

What I found most remarkable in the book is the type of insight and "fairness" with which Ferguson observes the positive and negative aspects of wilderness therapy programming, as well as growing up as an adolescent in America, The lack of meaningful rites of passage, the obstacles facing youth, the failure in systems meant to support youth, and the constant need for parents and other adults to invest in time with their kids all ring loudly in Ferguson's lyrical, straightforward, and non-therapeutically expressed words.

Ferguson's best writing is achieved in the last three chapters, with the foundation of these chapters having been laid in the previous twelve. The reuniting with families and the real "struggle" and "tests" that face these youth after they leave the loving arms of the wilderness is the central concept that must be addressed by the wilderness therapy field (as well as most of the entire adventure programming field). …