Vespers is a secular service held at camp every Sunday morning during the summer. Each week, one member of the Agawam community is invited to deliver reflections on a relevant theme. These talks typically reinforce Agawam’s core values, such as leadership, friendship, and honesty. The much-loved ritual of Vespers talks is extended during Agawam reunions, with alumni thinking back on their time at Agawam. At the 100th Agawam reunion, former counselor/volunteer “Swampy” Kathy Dorr Gregg (staff ’90-’92, ’98; volunteer ’95) offered her reflections on the Woodcraft Law of Fortitude.

However- though Beo slays Grendel and his even scarier mother, he catches the hubris virus and falls to the dragon; Achilles falls to the arrow, Macbeth to a hefty dose of greed, ambition, regicide, and Macduff’s magic forest, and the Marvels? Well, no spoilers to be spilled here…
This Vespers talk is dedicated to “Chief” Garth Nelson, who fostered in me a deep regard for Agawam and a belief in myself.

FORTITUDE: “Courage is the noblest of all attainments”, and many would also agree the most challenging. Its common definition is: strength in facing difficulty, adversity, or temptation, which makes this Woodcraft Law appear the loftiest and one relegated for the few. Common synonyms include: pluck, tenacity, grit, moxie, mettle, patience, and of course courage.

For many, the word fortitude evokes images of bravery, especially in battle or situations of danger. From storybook lore, various characters may come to mind and fit the bill- especially for those who teach writing and American and British literature. Here’s a blast from the past from your Harkness tables and a few hot shots: Beowulf- a major stud during the reign of the Vikings and before 1066 when William the Conqueror came in banging the Bible to end paganism; Achilles- especially the Brad Pitt version in his metal skirt..; Odysseus- the one who never pulled over to ask directions when lost; Macbeth- King Duncan’s BFF and loyal protector of Scotland; and -of course- the Marvel superheroes. For the heroes of lore didn’t acquire his/her shiny armor and snazzy suits without finesse in fighting the enemy!

And that leaves Odysseus standing alone. WHY? Like each of his cohorts, he embodies physical strength and courage, fighting the Trojans for 10 years and monsters on his wayward sail towards Ithaca to expunge dozens of suitors from his home. BUT- Odysseus’ long life and eventual “sea born death” is because he employs fortitude in the true sense of the word. For if we further parse the language, fortitude’s Latin derivation is Forti/ Fortis, meaning strength, not of body, but of the mind.

Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, uses the Greek word polytropos in its opening lines to describe our hero. Various translations of that word include “that man skilled in all ways of contending”, or “ingenious”, or “cunning”, and “the man of many twists and turns”. Because- although Achilles was the Greek’s Tom Brady or Joe Montana, Odysseus’ cunning and ingenious nature- in the face of danger and adversity- contrived the perfect gift for his enemy, which ultimately gifted victory to the visiting team. Achilles never makes it out of Homer’s first act, but Odysseus goes on to play the leading role in The Odyssey, enduring another 10 yrs of mental trials before glimpsing the craggy shores of Ithaca. Ultimately, he relies on the strength of mind to conquer Circe, the Cyclops, Calypso, the Underworld, and more.

The central guiding principles for the Agawam community are embodied by the Woodcraft Laws, compiled by Ernest Thompson Seton in the early 1900s.

Of course, fortitude lives not only in epic poems. Consider the flesh and blood giants of humanity who inspire us for their mental grit: Queen Elizabeth I- certainly wielded no sword but was unconquerable- in more ways than one! Nelson Mandela, Jane Goodall, Martin Luther King, Steven Hawking, … to name a mere few. And lest we forget here on our hallowed ground- The Governor, Dave Mason, Commander “Bumpy” Bartels, and Garth Nelson.

Most importantly- fortitude is not relegated only to epic poems, history books, and mind blowing theoretical physics. Fortitude lives in each of us and most importantly beneath these sentinel pines.

For a century, Agawam boys passed through the gates and down the hill to foster their mental moxie. Denizens such as Jobs, Zuckerberg, and the Page/ Brin duo are held at the top of the hill and cannot pass through these gates of Troy, nor can any trickster horse they code get them in. Instead, Agawam’s four pillars, our present and past Chiefs, and the devoted staff collectively whittle away the static of the world, and in the backdrop of regattas, Ag/Wam competitions, Ranger Trail, songs, and general hilarity, these braves learn how to become brave young men.

As E. E. Cummings wrote:

“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves, we risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”

Today, boys and girls face Herculean challenges in navigating the world ahead of them. Yet, at Agawam, boys and staff are taught to embrace and emulate beauty, truth, and love with fortitude and conviction for the rest of their lives. This philosophy and the goal to “be the best, whatever you are” are magnificent gifts and so incredibly important at the present. In the age of the #METOO movement, deep political divide, racial inequities, mass shootings, and looming environmental catastrophes, the world needs men and women with fortitude. EACH of us must “do our share of the work”.

We all face monsters, at all ages. For many here, we turn to fortitude just to get out of bed some days. The greatest battles are not fought on the fields of Troy but in our minds in decisions we make and the paths we choose. We must all deal with “twists and turns”, and one’s iron-clad grit and mettle leads to what is right and good. This is what makes a boy a man, a girl a woman. This is what makes a human part of humanity. But we must also accept the chinks in our armor. “Be the best, whatever you are”, means to accept and embrace what indeed you “are”.

Someone who gives fortitude perspective and a form that fits everyone, not simply the epic heroes, is Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award recipient who passed in January 2019. A woman of perspicacity, Oliver was one of many siblings in a poor family with an abusive father. Oliver attributes her turning to nature as what saved her, giving her purpose and an attainable goal in life. The opening line of her poem “Wild Geese” states: “You do not have to be good”, which may walk back all I just spoke of, but it’s quite the opposite. Oliver penned it perfectly- that one’s focus on “good” is merely a human concept and ultimately up for vast interpretation. However, nature is a clear measuring rod, and geese- the focus of her poem- are symbolic of community, compassion, caring. In addition, like the falcon-spirit, geese embody spiritual enlightenment towards an individual’s path in life.

Thank you, Agawam. In closing I share with you Mary Oliver’s sage advice:


You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile – the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.

Whoever you are, –no matter how lonely–, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –over and over– announcing your place in the family of things.