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In a treehouse, a Maine school studies the good life

Two brothers climbed a tree, and found it changed their perspective. Now, the Seguinland Institute is inviting gap year students to do the same.

Chester Dunn-Francis, 8, (center) laughs as Aidan Young (left) teaches him and his sister, Elida Dunn-Francis, 6, how to forage for cattails, peeling back the stalk to expose the edible part of the root at the Seguinland Institute.
Chester Dunn-Francis, 8, (center) laughs as Aidan Young (left) teaches him and his sister, Elida Dunn-Francis, 6, how to forage for cattails, peeling back the stalk to expose the edible part of the root at the Seguinland Institute.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

GEORGETOWN, Maine — As they do every morning, the 22 teenagers left their phones in their rooms and went for a silent walk through the woods and along the river for 15 minutes before arriving at the giant treehouse classroom known as “the gathering space.” There they spent an hour doing mindfulness exercises — lots of slow breathing, lots of slow thought — before embarking on their coursework, which changes each day but always involves one overarching question: What constitutes a “good life”?

It’s called the Seguinland Institute, and it’s an experiment in retreating to nature — a vision brought to life on a picturesque stretch of riverfront in this mid-coast Maine village. And it all happened because two brothers climbed a tree.

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Philip and Loren Francis grew up across the river from this property, where their parents, back-to-the-landers from New York City, ran the Back River Boat Yard. They had spent their entire lives staring across at the mammoth pine trees but had never actually ventured over until six years ago, when the land came up for sale.

Almost instinctively, they climbed one of the trees, and found it transformed their perspective of this cove they thought they knew. Not only could they see past the Back River to the mighty Kennebec, they almost could see Seguin Island, way out in the ocean.

They knew immediately they had to do something with the property. And they knew it had to involve the expansive view from those trees, hoping a slight change in altitude could inspire that reflective pause in others.

“We wanted to create a place where people could slow down, step away, shift perspective, and contemplate that big question,” explained Philip, 44.

Philip Francis, who cofounded Seguinland Institute, held a lantern as he stood in front of the gathering space, nestled in a treehouse In Georgetown, Maine.
Philip Francis, who cofounded Seguinland Institute, held a lantern as he stood in front of the gathering space, nestled in a treehouse In Georgetown, Maine.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The “Good Life” question

It was a big idea, and they didn’t really have any money, but in other ways the brothers and their wives were unusually well-equipped to pull it off. Philip has a doctorate from Harvard Divinity School and now teaches philosophy and religion at the University of Maine-Farmington. His wife, Marsha Dunn, is a designer. Loren is a builder (as well as a writer and a musician), and his wife, Ida Lennestal, is a photographer who has worked in social media marketing.

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To begin to pay for the land, they first built three “tree dwellings” high up in the pines, mini residences they hoped would attract vacationers looking for a unique, quiet getaway. The Seguin Tree Dwellings, as they called them, were so successful — they were booked based on Marsha’s sketches even before Loren finished building them — they could move deliberately toward a larger goal, which was to create something of a school in those trees.

Students Anya Brown (center) and Neima Houssein shared a moment as Brown handed out her wintergreen and cranberry popsicles to everyone at the foraged feast the Food Life track students put on at the Seguinland Institute.
Students Anya Brown (center) and Neima Houssein shared a moment as Brown handed out her wintergreen and cranberry popsicles to everyone at the foraged feast the Food Life track students put on at the Seguinland Institute. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“It felt like the stars were aligning,” Philip said, “and we were all ready for something that would engage us intellectually and creatively, with the ability to share and give back as well.”

Philip was teaching at Manhattan College at the time, and they began by bringing small groups of his students up for a retreat on the land for a week or two, eventually building a wooden platform in the trees to serve as an elevated classroom of sorts. But this school year, the Seguinland Institute has reached a new level. The platform is now enclosed, with heat and air conditioning, and last fall the institute introduced “The Good Life Gap Semester,” a nine-week program that combined traditional academics with an opportunity to live closer to the land.

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Students and professors gathered around Henry Bailey's art piece during an art walk held by the Creative Life students at the Seguinland Institute.
Students and professors gathered around Henry Bailey's art piece during an art walk held by the Creative Life students at the Seguinland Institute. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

With many students choosing to postpone college during the pandemic, the timing was perfect, and as the adults describe it, the right sort of students magically found their way to them. The 14 students lived in cabins at the boatyard, formed a COVID bubble, left technology largely behind, and spent the fall connecting with each other and the incredible natural world around them at the two properties (Loren built a small bridge over the river to connect them). Mixed in were courses such as “Radical Love in the 21st Century” and, of course, “Living the Good Life.” Students earned up to 12 college credits through the University of Maine for a cost of about $13,000.

Anya Brown of Westford was one of those students. After graduating Lawrence Academy, she was on her way to Holy Cross last fall until the school announced it was going remote. That night, she somehow googled her way to Seguinland and asked her parents if she could defer college. It was, she said, the best decision she’s ever made.

“The first night I got here, instead of playing the name game or asking people what their favorite color is, we went on a walk in the woods, lit a fire, and burned whatever we were looking to let go of,” she said. “Then we lit a candle to symbolize what we wanted to grow. It was the first time in COVID that I didn’t feel alone anymore. We cooked together. We cleaned together. It was a place where I felt connected, and like I could become my best version of myself.”

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Students, professors, and a visiting artist held hands and gathered around a communal table of food prepared at the Seguinland Institute by the members of the Food Life course, who prepared a foraged feast.
Students, professors, and a visiting artist held hands and gathered around a communal table of food prepared at the Seguinland Institute by the members of the Food Life course, who prepared a foraged feast. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Brown loved it so much that she returned this spring for “The Good Life May Term,” a four-week program, worth up to eight college credits, where the students split into two tracks: the “Food Life” and the “Creative Life.” On a recent evening, the Food Life students prepared and served dinner, including clams they had dug themselves, and then moved to the woods for a multimedia presentation by the arts students.

“The idea is that we’re not ideological. We have no fixed notions, ” Philip said as the students mingled on a lawn after dinner on a recent night, nary a phone in sight. “We’re not a wilderness outdoor program, but we want the students to connect with nature in a mindful way, and it’s amazing how quickly they’ll go from distracted to calm and focused.”

Students laughed, danced, and covered themselves and each other in paint as they took part in a performance art piece that invited the students to dip their feet and hands in paint and create as music played during an art walk.
Students laughed, danced, and covered themselves and each other in paint as they took part in a performance art piece that invited the students to dip their feet and hands in paint and create as music played during an art walk. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Philip has a quote that he often shares. It is from American author Henry James and it says simply: “Life is in the transitions.”

“I know the kids roll their eyes when they hear me say it, because I say it so much, but it’s kind of the core quote here,” he said. And all around him, there was transition. Youth becoming adults. Day becoming night. And lives lived at ground level shifting ever so slightly into the trees above.

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Meg LeMay, a founding faculty member and director of pedagogy, made her way to the gathering space, nestled in a treehouse at the Seguinland Institute.
Meg LeMay, a founding faculty member and director of pedagogy, made her way to the gathering space, nestled in a treehouse at the Seguinland Institute. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.