Max Sovine poses against a forest background
Alumni News

Alum Keeps it Outlandish!

Recent Ecology, Spirituality and Religion grad on queering the outdoors

October 25, 2023

The data is undeniable: time in nature offers a range of meaningful mental health benefits. Getting to and being in green spaces, though, can be stress-inducing rather than soothing. Many people grow up without enough access to or education about the environment, and some face additional barriers because of their identities. Even getting to nature can be difficult, let alone feeling like you belong there. 

Max Sovine (they/them), a 2022 graduate of the Ecology, Spirituality and Religion M.A. program, wanted to change that. Already grounded in supporting queer mental health and community-building, they created Outlandish! to get queer youth into the great outdoors. By leading trips that include both education and experience, Sovine is showing Bay Area teens new ways to connect to themselves, their peers, the queer community, and the natural world. 

What inspired you to start Outlandish! for the LGBTQIA+ community? 

When I was growing up in Wisconsin, I didn’t necessarily identify as queer because terms like “nonbinary” and “gender fluid” weren’t introduced to me until my thirties. But I knew I was different. I never quite fit in with kids my age, for the most part. I was on my own a lot and I always, always, found solace in nature. I never felt judged or teased or left out when I was in the woods…unless I was with a group of peers that I didn’t fit in with. But nature itself was always accepting of me. 

As I got older and started working for various outdoor education organizations, there was a noticeable lack of queer representation in these groups – both in the participants and the leaders. It could have been that there were queer people in these groups, but no one talked about it and no one was visibly out, as far as I can remember. The organizations were clearly hetero-dominant. And again, I didn’t quite fit in comfortably with my co-workers. I was able to make friends and had wonderful experiences, but there was something lacking that I couldn’t put my finger on. Once I finally figured out I was nonbinary and pansexual, it really opened my eyes to why I felt that discomfort my entire life! And it helped me realize how much I would have enjoyed a queer-focused outdoor group when I was a teenager. 

When I brought the idea of starting Outlandish! to the Executive Director at Queer Lifespace, he was completely supportive. I already had access to the resources and networks from working in admin for QLS, so it was a ready source of support to start up the program.

Lastly, I’ve been observing and studying mainstream Western culture’s nature deficit since my undergrad days, and it desperately needs to change. Outlandish! is a small way to shift that paradigm.

Can you tell us a little about Outlandish!’s ethos and accomplishments? 

Outlandish! had its first trip in May 2023. The program had been in the works for over a year and our first trip was to visit the Muir Woods National Monument to participate in their Community Science Program. Three park rangers took us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the park where we learned about local flora and fauna. Since then, we’ve run about 1-2 trips per month. 

At the heart of our mission is the aim to keep the program free for any LGBTQIA+ teens (and allies) who are interested in exploring the amazing areas that surround the Bay. Free and easy accessibility to nature is what we’re all about, regardless of socioeconomic background. 

What is the most important thing you’ve learned? 

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many different youth organizations, schools, and recreational areas have been excited about my program. They all see the value in this idea, and I’ve been so humbled and honored to be supported by them. On the flip side, recruiting kids has been slow. In part that’s due to also working a full-time job at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and not having as much time as I wish to do the promotion that’s needed. And, going back to the nature deficit, I’m fighting an uphill battle to get kids away from their gadgets and into nature, especially with kids from urban areas. 

What sustains you through challenges? 

The support from my partner, Karin. She’s had my back since day one of this idea. I also repeatedly tell myself to be patient. I liken the beginnings of this program to a new band starting out (I’m a huge music fan). For the first few concerts, you’ll have a small crowd. Then you start building a fan base. People come back to your shows and start telling their friends. With enough steady work and promotion, then the momentum builds. That concept helps me feel better about the pacing. Even David Bowie had small crowds in the beginning of his career! 

How did CIIS shape your approach to your work?

The main reason I enrolled in the Ecology, Spirituality and Religion (ESR) program was to help me start to build the foundation of a whole other idea I have. I focused my entire degree on someday soon creating a program that takes dying clients out into nature for ritualized short excursions. I’m passionate about the Death Positive Movement and directly confronting and changing Western culture’s aversion to death, dying, and subsequently nature. It’s all connected. I hope to soon go back to CIIS to get my Ph.D. in ESR and actively do this program for my doctorate. In the meantime, my work with Outlandish! gives me the experience of starting and running my own program (something I haven’t done before). I’m learning everything from the nitty gritty of logistics, website design, outreach, promotion, creating the onsite programming, networking, fundraising, and grant writing, to list a few! This will all directly be applied to my nature/hospice therapy program, when I’m ready to finally get it running.

I’m also currently enrolled in a two year online interfaith seminary program at One Spirit. My partner and I are going through this together. At the end, we’ll be ordained interfaith reverends – or irreverends, as I like to say. Levity is a huge part of my spirituality! This will be a huge boon to my future work. I’m already a death doula, and former hospice and No One Dies Alone volunteer. My work as an EMT for five years gave me a lot of exposure to death and dying and some of the horrible ways that Western medicine approaches it.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to current students? 

This may be obvious but follow your passions! I’m forever grateful that CIIS is a place where I can follow my what could be considered fringe, weird, esoteric, or unusual interests and turn them into a life path. I can openly write about my work with the dead at CIIS and be accepted, that is rare and precious in our conventional society. This is part of the ESR movement: repairing that rift that happened between Western culture and nature centuries ago when a bunch of men decided that humans were better than nature, separate from nature and spirit and thus entitled us to take what we wanted without any consideration. It’s why we’re in this hot mess of climate catastrophe right now.

What are you most looking forward to with Outlandish! as it continues to grow?

I’m excited for the groups to grow! I would love to keep seeing returning participants and developing real friendships and mentorships with them. And I love it when new kids come on the trips. There are so many possibilities of where we can take these kids. I am thinking about finding a sea kayak outfitter to take us out, or a local beekeeper to teach us about the importance of pollinators, or an overnight camping trip, or a sunset hike on the headlands, or even a multi night backpacking trip! So many options ahead of us! We’re so incredibly lucky to have what we have here in the Bay Area with regard to outdoor recreation. And, who knows, maybe someday there’ll be an Outlandish! chapter in many towns and cities across the country.


Learn more about Outlandish! and more about Queer Life Space, which focuses on LGBTQIA+ mental health and community.

The Ecology, Spirituality, and Religion program gives students the tools to tackle ecological issues through study, contemplative practice, and activism.

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