He was supposed to be “Bear Grylls.” He was also interviewed for other TV shows like “Alaskan Frontier.” The entertaining part is, he wasn’t the best-trained TV personality during auditions to secure the roles.
Maybe it was because this real-life survivalist chooses not to even own a TV.
But Castleton professor Josh Hardt truly is something from a reality show, a reality that the majority of us could barely even fathom.
From the age of 3 to his late teens, Hardt was raised with no electricity, out in the wilderness. His father was in the U.S. Special Forces, specializing in Arctic Survival. His mother was a post-Woodstock woman who was very educated in medicinal plants and botanics.
When his parents had children, they bought a large tract of land in Vermont, and raised Hardt and his brother “as close to the natural world as possible.”
That meant living in a tepee, or at one point in a fishing shanty. Hardt would eat meals cooked over a campfire and was home-schooled until he enrolled in a Vermont public high school for ninth grade.
“It sounds really romantic, and there were parts that were. But I think as a whole, it gave me an outset that I’m really proud of … but on the same token, it was really rugged. It was really hard,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine, and while a once “feral” Hardt maintains “it has given me so much,” introducing himself back into society in high school was no easy thing for the outdoorsman.
Although Castleton students think Hardt is inspiring when he teaches many outdoor education courses, a younger Hardt had a hard-time making friends when he was finally allowed to attend a public school in ninth grade.
Can you imagine trying to make friends when your classmates find out you use an outhouse? Even worse, Hardt’s high school peers would find it more outlandish that he didn’t even have a shower at home.
“It was really hard, because I was a weirdo. Kids didn’t believe me when I told them how I grew up and lived,” he said.
To the point of embarrassing himself, the young Hardt worked hard to incorporate himself into modern society, into the culture of his high school. But fitting in is hard when your family lives in the woods.
“I wanted a basketball hoop and cable TV, and I didn’t have it.”
Eventually, Hardt’s parents built a cabin. And eventually, Hardt would become a successful professional in the field of education. More so, Hardt would be forever equipped with a skill-set that would define him as a person.
When asked about the horrors of growing up in the wild, Hardt laughs.
“That’s what’s so unique, I wasn’t afraid in the woods. What was harder was to incorporate myself into a very fast-changing modern society,” he said.
Although he lived only a half-hour outside Middlebury, home and home school for Hardt was nothing ordinary.
While living in the woods had its difficulties, Hardt laughs as he reminisces about his childhood adventures. Very quickly, a young Hardt figured out that “we had these skills that other people really didn’t have.”
He and his brother would make camp off in the woods, a short distance from where they had scouted college kids camping.
“We’d set our own camps off in the woods, watching college kids partying and being like ‘oh that’s what people do!’” Hardt said chuckling. “We were these little bush-children.”
The college partiers wouldn’t even know they were being watched, Hardt said. He and his brother “would strip down to loin clothes, light arrows on fire and run through a camp with blood-curling screams,” stealing beers and sandwiches while the shocked campers were horrified and startled.
College kids “would be screaming,” and the Hardt brothers would be running off back to their camp with hands full of drinks and snacks.
“We eventually realized that we were pushing the envelope and stopped raiding college camps. It was fun,” he said.
Plato once said that real courage is knowing what not to fear. But Hardt says that there is a certain aspect of the woods he does fear.
“When it comes to the quote un-quote ‘nasties’ and ‘heebeejeebees’ in the woods, those don’t bother me,” he said.
But he quickly said ticks are another story. Hardt preaches to students in his classes about the dangers of ticks.
“The tick has caused me lots of troubles in my life,” he said.
Spending countless nights sleeping in the dirt, Hardt recounts how he would “pull them out of myself all the time.” In his late 20s, the current Castleton professor started getting some “real serious health issues.” Hardt is living with chronic Lyme disease, but has it under control now with medication.
“People like to inflame the potential for dangerous animals, etcetera, but indeed, ticks are a serious issue,” he said.
Hardt loves to teach what he grew up learning. Not only does he teach at a post-secondary level, he founded and runs a high school based around the natural world, here in Vermont. He is the Wilderness Education Coordinator, running a subsidiary program with Otter Valley High School.
“I’ve been given the freedom to teach in a holistic manner, teaching science, philosophy, math, English, etcetera via the catalyst of nature and adventure. And what have I found, much to the chagrin of some, is that students are extremely responsive,” he said.
Hardt also adds that his school is not for at-risk youths, “even though those programs are great too and I’ve done a lot of that. These kids are from all walks of life.”
And Hardt has a philosophical opinion on just how quickly life is changing for modern Americans, and others growing up in developed countries. He doesn’t believe the way children are being raised today is conducive to a holistic human being.
“I think, and I don’t think it’s just Vermont, we’ve become very good at justifying our behavior, and saying we’re increasingly green or environmentally conscious … But I don’t see that.”
Hardt thinks our “pseudo-plastic world” is rapidly drifting further and further away from “really the cradle of civilization,” nature.
“And that, in the end, will be detrimental to society, which I think we’ve already seen, but it is also detrimental to the natural world,” he said.
In class at Castleton, Hardt will ask his students how many care about the environment, and every student will raise their hand.
“And I do believe they do care, and that’s a really beautiful thing to me, and then I’ll ask how many of them can name 10 species of trees around our campus, and maybe only one or two students can do that. But if I ask how many students can download a PDF document on their smart-phone, they all raise their hand,” he said.
Aldo Leopold was an American author, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist and environmentalist. Hardt says his favorite Leopold quote is “one of the biggest rifts with not being a farmer is that one believes that heat comes from a furnace and that breakfast comes from a grocery store.”
“And that’s what I’m talking about, it doesn’t!” Hardt said emphatically. “The point I’m trying to make is that we’re being trained, in society, to believe that the version of success we’re supposed to subscribe to is not based on natural intelligence, rather this whole other man-made entity.”
Hardt asserts that he does think technology has great value, but that the modern world needs a better balance of nature as well.
“We are being groomed to try and invest very little into something and get a large return. It becomes a skill to be able to manipulate a system, with less than a high level of integrity, but not get caught,” theorizes Hardt.
Take one dollar and make it into three dollars? That sounds very business-savvy.
“The beauty is that the natural world doesn’t prescribe to any of that. And when we reduce ourselves to our lowest means, we really find out what’s in our hearts, what’s in our souls, and to me there is no experience more freeing, no experience out there that makes me feel more alive, than succeeding in the natural world.
“It doesn’t mean it’s comfortable, but it’s needed. A real feeling of liberty, accomplishment, and being a apart of something that’s so much bigger than us.”