To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Year 2: Fifth Interlude


Daniel-of-2014 here. Happy Mabon.

Writing about the 9/11 attacks in recent weeks has been harrowing. Not that I personally suffered very much—I lost no one I knew—but it was still a difficult time to revisit. I’ve actually just been to New York City, and with the attacks so much on my mind, the visit felt surreal. I kept thinking of Joe, since he volunteered that week, and how the city must have looked and felt to him. On the way out of town to visit friends, I looked out the window and saw One World Trade. There was something dreamlike about the sight.

I was in The City for the climate march on Sunday. 

I think a lot of people from the school were there, although I didn’t bump into anyone I knew except for my own group. It was a big march.

My wife and daughter and I drove down with Allen, Lo, and Alexis, and Kit and her husband. We actually parked in Long Island and took the train in. We met David, Kayla, and Aidan at Port Authority. They’d taken a bus.

It might seem strange to read about these people now, since you’re used to them as they were thirteen years ago, when Aidan was a toddler and Alexis was four. Alexis is seventeen, now, and a senior in high school. Her hair is dark, like Allen’s, and she’s on the short side, like he is, but she looks more like Lo in the face. A couple of years ago, she got a pair of ferrets and she takes them pretty much everywhere with her. She has a soft-sided carrier for them, but they spent most of the march sleeping inside her shirt.  David is twenty-five and in graduate school for ecology. He’s the one who told us about the march, a month or so ago. Kayla is twenty-six, and dancing professionally. She’s one of those women who looks like a teenager forever. In another year or so, when Aidan hits puberty, they’ll look like twins.

The march was big enough that there were multiple staging areas, each with its own theme. We chose the one for religious groups and spent most of the day tagging along with a group of pagans. They waved banners and drummed and burned incense as they walked. Sometimes we dropped behind and found ourselves in among either of two groups of Buddhists, all ringing bells and wearing robes. Occasionally, we ran into one or another of a group of Franciscans, also in robes.

“Makes me wish we’d worn our uniforms,” Kit said, sadly.

“If we’d identified as a religious group,” Allen replied, “who would we identify ourselves as?” He has a point, since the school is still secret.

“Uniforms!” exclaimed Kayla, who had only half been listening, “I still have mine!”

“As do I,” I told her.

“You have to,” she replied. “You’re a master.” Which I am.

“I don’t have to do anything,” I told her, “except put the welfare of the school community and the rest of the Six first, to maintain my integrity and excellence, and to offer my expertise to interested students.”

“Neither bound nor free,” Kit commented, smiling at my quoting of the vow. That phrase, neither bound nor free, is from one version of a Wiccan initiation rite. It means your actions are constrained by your word, not by anyone else’s power over you.

“Obedience to the unenforceable, as Charlie would say,” put in Allen. That’s from 12 step culture, and it means something similar.

“I never got to wear the uniform in the first place,” said Aidan, sounding resentful.

“Would you have?” asked David, sounding surprised. Like most former Sprouts, he thinks of the school as the place where he comes from, not where he is going.

“Yeah. Of course.”

“You still can,” said Kit. “The school exists as long as we keep that vow.”

“I think you just passed the entrance exam,” I said. “That makes you our first third-generation student.” Sadie, Kayla’s mom, is, of course, a graduate.

My daughter, riding on my back in a carrier, wiggled and bounced.

“Watcha doing, sweetie?” I asked. She didn’t answer.

“She’s mugging for cameras,” my wife said. I really wish people would ask before they took pictures of my daughter, but we had dressed her up to attract attention. She was carrying a blue and green pinwheel and wearing an oversized t-shirt that read “It’s my planet, too!” Her sun-hat was covered with political buttons. 

Some people carried signs in the march, I carried my baby.

Seriously, there are times I can’t even bear to think about climate change because of her. She won’t get to grow up in the same world I did. What kind of world she does get to live in depends on the outcome of this march, whether 310,000 people gathered together is enough to convince the powers that be to sign an emissions-reduction treaty with teeth in it next year.

We never used to pay much attention to politics, when I was at school. I suppose we considered it too worldly, or something. When I was a novice, we never paid much attention to climate change, either. Of course, the school itself was carbon-neutral and had been for five or ten years, but except for one or two required classes, we never talked about it. It was one more thing that belonged to the outside world. By the time I became a candidate, that standard had changed, we’d started talking about climate issues in philosophical and moral terms, but we still didn’t talk about politics. Not climate politics, nor the political implications of any of the other issues we learned about and discussed.

Now, I think the standard has changed again. Some of us are starting to talk as a group about how to engage with the world, how to do what Kit calls “the Great Magic.” Greg calls it “civic alchemy” or “applied mysticism.” We’re talking about how to use what we know and what we have to change the world. I think that if the school still existed as a school, we might begin to teach activism. 

Or, maybe we had to lose the campus in order to learn how, as a community, to reach beyond it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Year 2: Part 5: Post 7: Aftermath

Note: as a reminder, this is one of a series of posts set in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11th, 2001.

This week has been so strange.

None of us here on campus was close to anyone who died in the attacks, but some knew people slightly--two who died in the towers and one who was injured in the Pentagon (but is still alive). A lot of people know people in New York and DC, and Allen has a dear friend who apparently had planned on being in the World Trade Center that morning but had changed his plans at the last moment. When the masters told us the news last week, Allen didn't know if his friend was alive. We didn't find out until yesterday who had survived and who hadn't.

Security Joe has gone to New York as a volunteer. A lot of the personnel from Port Authority have died and they need police. The more senior students and the masters are talking about other volunteers, former students, mostly. They're worried. Apparently, for the first few days nobody thought to issue respirators to the people working at the World Trade Center site, and there is some thought now that could have been a serious mistake. Joy knows some of the dog handlers doing search and rescue and what she hears from them is wearing on her. She's worried about the dogs, and proud of them.

It's interesting hearing all of these connections. We seem so separate here, so set apart, and yet when something like this happens, our community is in the middle of it, just like everybody else. It makes me wonder how many people I saw before I came here might have been wearing a green ring.

Classes were cancelled that Tuesday and Wednesday, but since then we've had a normal schedule. The main difference, other than how bizarre everything feels, is that all the talks and events we have in the evenings and on Saturday have been pre-empted by an ongoing workshop on Islamic and Arab history. We're all strongly encouraged to attend.

The day of the attacks, Greg said "Now we're at war--with somebody." He meant, I think, that America would respond by attacking, whether or not it turned out there is a rational target. When we found out that this was an attack by an Islamist terrorist organization, he got worried. I'm sure the situation reminded him of Pearl Harbor.

"Are you worried about discrimination?" I asked him.

"No, I'm worried about the failure to discriminate," he told me. "I am worried about the failure to discriminate between the people who actually killed Americans and anyone, American or otherwise, who happens to wear a turban." This workshop is his doing, and he teaches most of it, though he's brought in a few former students and other allies who are Muslim, as guest speakers. He has public talks lined up at all the libraries within driving distance. I didn't even know he could drive....He's bound and determined not to let history repeat itself.

"Our culture has a history of responding to fear by exacerbating the perceived difference between self and Other," he said, at the first class meeting of the workshop. "Which is curious, because of course they are never so different from us as they seem, and are usually busy othering us for exactly the same reason. Compassion and empathy are lost. As an historian, as a Buddhist, and as a man who has been othered, I do not want to see this country become bereft of compassion again."

I am not aware of anyone else--anyone outside the school--responding to the crisis by holding an Islamic studies class. But then, I'm not aware of anyone outside the school who has even begun to return to ordinary daily life, as we have. The only thing out there that has gone back to normal yet is that planes are flying again.

During the three days that they were not, the sky was clear--the same extraordinary blue that it was on Tuesday. I remember seeing Kit, on her way into lunch on Wednesday or Thursday, look up, fling out her arms, and twirl around, smiling. When she was done twirling, there I was. Our eyes met.

"It's so beautiful," she said. "It's too bad it takes something like this for us to get our sky back."

Monday, September 8, 2014

Year 2: Part 5: Post 6: September 11

Note: this story is set thirteen years ago, so this week covers September 11, 2001 and its events. I decided to cover the 11th before the anniversary, rather than after it. –D.

Today. Oh, today. 

You already know what happened, because, for once, the big news happened not on campus but off of it. For maybe the first time since I’ve been here, we on campus are sharing an experience with the rest of the country, maybe the rest of the world.

This morning I had my horticulture shift, like normal, so I was going around beetling—this means grabbing any Japanese beetles you can find on plants and dropping them into a coffee can of soapy water. The soap isn’t toxic, but the beetles can’t get out of it and so they drown. Charlie doesn’t do anything about native pests (he refers to caterpillars as bird food and treats them as a kind of crop), but Japanese beetles, as the name implies, are exotic. So we go after them.

I was just finishing up the front gardens by the Mansion—this was maybe 9:30 or so--when I heard a noise and looked up in time to see all these people run out the front door, like maybe five or six people all at once. It looked like every student who was on duty at the time in the Front Office and the Library. I put down my can of beetles and went to the Office. Sharon was at her desk, resting her head in her hands. She looked upset.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Can I help?”

“Get Charlie,” she said, looking up at me. She’d been crying. “Get Sarah. Tell them to come here as soon as they can. Tell everyone—everyone on the landscaping team—we’re having an emergency all-school meeting in the Dining Hall at 12:30.”

I didn’t stop to try to get her to explain. I ran out of the Office, too.

I found Charlie and some of the others replanting the frog pond and I gave them my message. Charlie did not overtly react, which is what he does when something bothers him. It’s like his face freezes. He thanked me, asked the others if they could manage without him, and reminded me to finish beetling once I’d found the others and Sarah.

“When in doubt, do your work, always,” he said, and hustled off to the office.

Later, heading in to the Dining Hall, I found myself next to Rick.

“You notice something odd?” he asked me, looking distracted. Now, obviously, a lot of things were odd, but I doubted any of them were the one Rick meant.

“No, what?”

“Look up,” he said. “No airplanes.”

And he was right. The entire sky was clear, this fabulous, cloudless blue, and there were no jet trails in it. Rick was tracking the sky, and, like Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark in the night, he’d noticed the oddness in what was missing.

We went inside and sat down. Lunch was set out, but nobody served themselves. I got in there around 12:15. People were still coming in. I noticed none of the masters were there. I guessed they were having a meeting of their own, and indeed they all filed in together just before 12:30, all fourteen of them, and stood or sat together at one end of the room. I hadn’t seen them all together like that since Brigit.

Allen is head of the Masters’ Group this year, so he spoke first. He was still dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, his clothes and hair damp with sweat from cycling.

“There’s no easy way to say this,” he said, “so I’m just going to begin. The United States is apparently under attack.” We all made various noises of shock and surprise and he held up his hands for silence.

“I saw it on the news this morning,” put in Aaron, the librarian. “I told Sharon.”

Allen looked at him and frowned slightly. Then he opened his mouth and closed it again, shaking his head. He looked at Greg, who stood up and continued the explanation.

“This morning,” he began, “persons unknown, for reasons unknown, hijacked four large passenger airplanes. Two of the planes were flown into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, in New York City. A third flew into the Pentagon, and the fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Apparently its passengers prevented it from reaching its intended target, which was probably also in Washington, DC. Both of the World Trade towers have now collapsed. It seems as though this attack is over and there are no more hijacked planes in the sky, but thousands of people have died.”

He let that sink in. Nobody said anything. Aaron stood up.

“I expect phone lines, email, everything, is pretty tied up right now. Unless you have friends or family who could have been in the attacks, I really suggest you not try to contact anybody today. The news services have all gone to live coverage, but they really don’t know what’s going on yet. I really recommend you not try to watch the news. There’s no reason to burn those images into your retinas. You can’t help anybody by doing that. I’ll watch for you, and I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

He sat back down again. Allen stood back up.

“We’ve cancelled classes today,” he explained. “I doubt any of you could pay attention to them, and we certainly can’t. Tomorrow we’ll stagger the therapy groups throughout the day so I can attend all of them—I’ll get a schedule posted by breakfast tomorrow. If any senior students want to convene a group and have a session with me, let me know.”

“I think it’s safe to say we’re at war,” said Greg, darkly. “With somebody. Anybody.”

The meeting ended, and we all had lunch together. Even Rick ate with us, though of course he ate his own, wild food. When I went up to get my food from the buffet bar, I found Charlie, of course, making himself a cheese sandwich. I don’t think he ever has anything else for lunch. Some things, at least, are reliable.

“And today was such a beautiful day,” I said with some regret—and no small resentment. There was a part of me that was angry with the hijackers for interrupting my day, like having to be upset was so inconvenient or something. I don’t think that’s what I was supposed to be feeling, but I was feeling it. And I was angry with myself for feeling that way, for being selfish. I wasn’t angry with the hijackers for killing people, not yet. That part hadn’t sunk in. How do you wrap your mind around thousands of people dying at once? I was just mad they’d interrupted my blue sky.

“It still is a beautiful day,” Charlie said to me, sharply, while spooning mustard onto his bread. “Lives end every day. Those beetles, for instance. The world doesn’t cease to be beautiful  simply because this time it’s someone you happen to identify with.”

Monday, September 1, 2014

Year 2: Part 5: Post 5: Food.

I think late summer--Kit would say it's early fall--is the best time to eat here on campus.

Of course, the food here is pretty much always good, so I have a sneaking suspicion that I'd say the same at any other time of year. But now is now, and so I am saying that now is the best time to eat.

The farm is in full production, so everything is fresh. Of course, everything has to be fresh, since they're saving the preserved foods for the winter. It's true there are some foods we don't get anymore because their season is past--strawberries and rhubarb and fiddleheads are all gone--and it's also true that some crops aren't in yet. There are no Brussels sprouts, no cabbage. But we do have fruit, we do have hearty vegetables, and we have plenty of dairy and eggs.

We have no meat. Campus is completely vegetarian at the moment, except at Paleolithic Dinner, where we often have woodchucks, and Philosopher's Stone Soup, where Rick usually brings squirrel, rabbit, or fish. But even if I didn't go to those events, I don't think I'd miss meat much. I tend not to miss the foods of different seasons--not until the end of a season, when I'm ready for a change.

But anyway, everything is startlingly good. Last night for dinner there was steamed rainbow chard, pan-fried green beans with onions, and zucchini bread drizzled with honey from our own bees. There was butter, too, but honestly I didn't use any. I didn't need any. I'm not kidding, it needed nothing. A week ago there was sweet corn for dinner (plus a green salad with sliced cherry tomatoes and goat cheese). We don't get sweet corn very often--there isn't a lot of it planted--so that was a treat, but there were some leftovers anyway. The following day, at lunch, that leftover corn turned up in a wild mushroom chowder. I mean both the mushrooms and the chowder as a whole were wild.

The apples are coming in now. The raspberries are done, but we still have a few of the blueberry bushes producing and the blackberries are going strong. The pears are ripening, too. We don't have as many of them as apples, only two rows in the orchard, two varieties. Pears are ripe so briefly that there is a special rule about them; if you want them you have to take them from the fruit bowl before they're ripe and let them ripen in your room. When they find ripe pears in the bowl the kitchen staff calls out "ripe pears!" and if no one claims them they eat the pears themselves, cook with them, or preserve them. The general attitude around here is that to let a pear go bad is the equivalent of a venial sin. I can't say I disagree.

I go home, sometimes, and my mother offers to feed me exotic, unseasonal food--bananas, lemonade with real lemons (as opposed to sumac berries or wood sorrel leaves), fresh strawberries, lamb (lamb is unseasonal because the spring lambs aren't at slaughter weight yet) and so on. She thinks I'm being deprived on campus and must want a break. My mother is a good cook and I enjoy the food, but the ingredients she has to work with are not so fresh and a lot of it was never very good to start with. Most of what you find in the store is from varieties--of both plants and animals--bred for durability and rapid growth, not flavor. I eat politely, enjoy it about as much as I ever did, which is to say a lot, and I look forward to getting back where I enjoy food more than I ever thought I could.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Year 2: Part 5: Post 4: Going by Night

Speaking of trailwork--

I mentioned the craft I'm learning, trailwork, last week. I haven't talked about it in a while. I was really busy for the first part of the summer but there hasn't been as much to do recently.

The trails I'm responsible for are in the woodlot behind campus and the conservation land behind that. Neither is open to the public because the land conservancy behind us doesn't really want visitors--the idea is to protect some rare wetland plants that they don't want anybody in there messing with. We're allowed in, though, because that was a condition of sale--the conservancy land used to be part of the school's property, but the masters sold it on the condition that we could use the land for educational purposes. Now and then, scientists and other people associated with the land conservancy walk through our campus to go up there. The trails are for them and for us.

Charlie's landscaping team also maintains the conservancy land--we've been up there removing invasive exotics a few times this year. I'm doing the trails, though, myself. I had to patrol every single trail in its entirely, removing blow-downs, cutting back brush, and cleaning drainage structures. There's miles of trails back there. Charlie says that there isn't much to do because the trails get so little use, but that must be relative. It took me many weeks to do all of it, because I never had time to do much at a stretch--and if I had to stop halfway through a trail, of course I'd have to re-walk the section I'd already done when I went back to work, so that made it take longer. That project was part of why I was so busy this summer.

Now, I'm done all of it, but Charlie has me surveying for invasive exotic plants we missed earlier, so I have to walk the entire trail system again. I've gotten very good at hiking quickly and now I'm getting good at reading a trail map and using a compass, since I have to mark where the plants I do find are. And of course, I'm still going tracking once or twice a week with Rick. So, basically, I'm spending almost more time in the woods than out of it.

Charlie also keeps assigning me landscaping work that relates to trailwork somehow. If someone has to dig with a pick-mattock or cut with a machete (Charlie's two favorite tools for trailwork, besides the axe), that someone is me. The other week we had to re-do the lining on the frog pond in the Formal Garden, and that involved taking apart the rock walls lining the sides and putting them back together--a job for three people, one of whom was me. I still end up getting stuck with cleaning and maintaining the tools, more often than not, and that is not a coincidence. I know he wants me to learn these skills viscerally, not just intellectually.

"Anyone can memorize the procedure for building a waterbar," he says, "and everybody who can comes up with a new way for how waterbars should be made. You won't find two organizations that do trailwork the same way and you won't find many that will pay you more for your skill than they'd pay a new recruit. But you learn how to work with the soil, how to work with your body, that stays with you."

Spending all this time in the woods, I naturally run into Rick fairly regularly--he comes onto the main part of campus every day and attends classes and other events, but he gathers most of his food and supplies in the woodlot, so he's there a lot. Sometimes, especially if I took my dinner into the woods with me so I could work late, I'll pass him going in while I'm heading out.

The days are getting shorter now. It's dark by 8 PM, and it's sort of surprised me. I've gotten stuck in the dark a mile or two from campus a few times, though of course I always carry a flashlight--everybody does, for moving around the Mansion at night. It's just wasteful to light a whole room up so that one person can spend ten seconds walking across it.

So, last Saturday I was walking out of the woods by flashlight around 9, when I saw and heard a large, moving, dim darkness approaching. I called out and Rick's voice answered me. I turned out my light to save his eyes and we stopped to chat a moment.

"Why aren't you using your light?" I asked him. I'm sure he has one.

"When you go in the dark with a light, you know the light,*" he replied. "But the dark, too, is important to know, and I want to know it. Besides, what if my flashlight broke? What if my eyes broke? I still want to know how to get around."

I smiled in the dark and, on impulse, sang "if I ever loose my eyes and all my colors all run dry, oh if I ever lose my eyes, away-ay-o, I won't have to cry no more.**"

I heard Rick chuckle in the dark.

"Did Charlie teach you?" I asked him, meaning the trick of walking in the dark. "He started to teach me, back in June."

"He taught me it was possible," he said. "I've been teaching myself. He did give me the idea of using a walking stick--it's better than a cane, you know. It can stop me walking into things with my face." His walking stick is as tall as he is, with the hand-grip near the middle, in contrast to canes made for blind people, which have hand-grips at the top and are used only to investigate the ground.

"Heavier, though, I imagine," I said.

"Yes. Ebony's cane looks very light."

"You know," I began, "Ebony would probably laugh if she knew you were out here learning to be blind. Does she know? She has no interest in being blind at all. She's convinced she can see, or that she should be able to. Or something." I still can't quite explain what Ebony says about herself. It comes out all muddled when I try. I could not see Rick's expression. His voice came to me out of the dark.

"I've hardly ever talked to her," he admitted. "I doubt we know much about each other. But she should be able to see, in a way. I imagine that for human beings not to see must surprise the brain. Like missing a step on the stairs, you know? But I should be able to have darkness. I should be able to navigate with my ears and my toes."

I remember Charlie telling me, that night we explored the woods together without flashlights, to pay attention to what I could feel with my toes and how I found I could stay on a trail by texture alone. There was a pause, and then Rick spoke again. He sang.

"And if I ever loose my mouth, all my teeth, north and south. Oh, if I ever lose my mouth, away-ay-o, I won't have to talk."

"Goodnight, Rick," I said, smiling, and without another word he walked past me, into the living, green dark.

I took off my shoes and walked the rest of the way without my flashlight, by the feel of my toes and the shape of my view of the stars. And I got where I was going.

* these words are a somewhat mangled quote from Wendell Berry. Rick could not remember the quote accurately.
** these words are from Cat Stevens, also imperfectly remembered.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Year 2: Part 5: Post 3: Educated Guessers

So, the new classes have started. I'm taking Creating Campus, Healing Workshops, World Myth and Ritual, and Moving Rituals. The latter two are both taught by Kit. They'll both give me anthropology credits, though I understand they both have more of a religious than a scientific focus. Healing Workshops is actually a series of separate workshops Joy teaches. It's possible to sign up for just one or two of them, but I signed up for all three. It's just simpler that way.

Creating Campus is, of course, Charlie's class. Everyone who has him as craft master in landscaping has to take it, because it covers the scientific basis for the way the campus is landscaped. Charlie is my craft master, too, though my craft is trailwork, not landscaping, but of course I'm learning landscaping from him, too, so I wouldn't be surprised if that gets added in somehow. I suspect this class is required for me, too, but that's not why I'm taking it. I signed up because the class looked interesting. Graduation and its requirements seem a million miles away at the moment.

Anyway, the class has met twice now. There's a lot of reading that goes with it, but fortunately, we don't have to turn in anything except one semester-long project. Each week we have to read up on a particular ecological principle, and then Charlie spends class time explaining how that concept applies to the campus design.

I thought all this sounded fascinating, but fairly straightforward, when I signed up. I was wrong.

Charlie started the course, as most professors around here start most of their courses, with an introductory lecture on the course's general topic. He explained the concept of wildlife-friendly landscaping--that by creating an artificial landscape that functionally mimics a natural one, you could replace at least some of the habitat lost to development. He sees it as a way of taking care of the land on behalf of all of its residents, not just its human ones.

He talked about basic principles, like providing food, water, and shelter for a variety of species, thinking in terms of systems and communities, and how naturalistic landscape designs offer psychological and developmental benefits for humans, as well as the obvious benefits foe wildlife.

Then he asked if anyone had any questions.

None of us spoke for a few seconds. I don't think most of us had any questions, but something about Charlie's manner also suggested that he wasn't just asking us if we'd understood his lecture. There'd been a trick, somewhere, and he wanted to know if we'd caught him at it. There was a particular right question he was looking for, and I hadn't a clue what it was.

Brad got it. He's one of the few in the class who has a campus job other than groundskeeping--he's on the security team, and wants to become a police officer. I suppose he's good at spotting tricks, and he's not intimidated by Charlie, which most of the rest of us are--I don't mean I'm afraid of Charlie, of course, but when you know giving the right answer would impress a person and you don't know what the right answer is it can be very hard to speak.

"How do you know all this stuff works?" Brad asked. "Do you know it works? It sounds..too neat."

"DingDingDingDing!" shouted Charlie, pointing. "You got it! I don't know that it works. I'm guessing."

This was sort of a bombshell--he's teaching us something that might not work?

"Why not?" I asked.

"How would you find out?" he asked me.

"I'd look it up. I'd ask somebody," I said, but as soon as I said it I knew what he was going to reply.

"I tried that. No one knows*. So how else would you try finding out? Anyone?"

A couple of us made suggestions, some more scientific than others, some more detailed than others. Basically they all boiled down to comparing the wildlife in areas with naturalistic vs. traditional landscaping. Charlie nodded in thoughtful acknowledgement and then, without a word, began drawing pictures on the white board.

He drew a long row of houses and yards. Some of the yards were big and some were small, some had trees and some did not, some had bird-baths, bird-houses, bird feeders...some had cats (labeled with word balloons that said "meow!"). They were all different.

"Which half are naturalistic?" he asked.

We all mumbled and fidgeted awkwardly. We couldn't divide the pictures into halves.

"Yeah, neither can wildlife," explained Charlie. "The problem is that 'naturalistic' is a human concept. To study the difference ecologically, you'd have to find ecological categories that approximate the human binary, naturalistic vs. traditional landscaping. Human ideas don't always map well onto ecological reality. If anyone of you can figure it out, I will personally make sure you get into one of the best graduate programs in ecology in the country. More probably, 'does naturalistic landscaping work' is the wrong question. The right questions would involve specific techniques, specific circumstances, and very particular objectives. Do butterfly gardens increase local populations of butterflies? Do free-ranging cats create population sinks for small birds? Those kinds of questions can be answered. And in the meantime, we take the information we have, and we make our best guesses."

And here he stopped and looked at us a moment before speaking again in a very different tone of voice.

"I'm not teaching you certainly," he said. "I'm teaching you how to guess."

[Next Post: Monday, August  25]

* This post is set in 2001, when there had been very little research done into landscaping for wildlife. In the thirteen years since, that has changed--and we now know some techniques do work. But there is still a lot of guesswork involved in this kind of landscaping, and the conceptual problems Charlie addresses are still very real.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Year 2: Part 5: Post 2: Second Sight Again

So, I have Monday mornings free this semester--I'm taking just as many classes, it's just that two of them are on Thursday. I'm pretty sure I'll end up using the time for homework or something, but I have no homework yet, so after breakfast I just wandered around campus for a while.

After a while, I wandered past the Mansion and I spotted Ebony sitting by herself on the porch in front of a small, portable table. I stopped, screwed up my courage, and asked if I could join her.
"Of course!" she said, brightly, looking up in my general direction. "Kit is coming back soon," she added as I walked up the steps. "I don't know which chair is hers."

I told her I'd move if I needed to, and sat down next to her. 

Ebony was working at her little table, gluing shapes cut from different grades of sandpaper onto a sheet of plywood, painted white. A collage--tactile art, I decided.
"What are you making?" I asked. I meant her subject matter, but she took the question differently.

"It's a grisaille study," she explained. I knew the word--it's pronounced "grizz-eye," but--

"I know about grisaille from painting..." I offered, uncertainly. It means a painting in just one color, so you can explore  the different grades of light and dark in the image. It's done for practice, or to prepare for a more complex painting, like a kind of sketch. But with sandpaper?

"It's the same thing," she told me. "I wish I could use paint, but I haven't figured out how, yet." I looked at the collage taking shape even as she talked. The different grades of paper were indeed different shades, all of purple.

"So it works both visually and by touch?" I asked. "Neat."

"I'm actually not that interested in tactile art," Ebony told me, still gluing, and not looking at her hands. "The sandpaper is a means to an end. How does it look? Can you tell what it is now?"

I'd been so busy imagining how the piece might feel that I hadn't noticed how it looked. When I changed mental gears, the image leaped out at me. It was stylized, cartoonish, but pleasing.

"It's a black woman standing in water at the beach," I said. "In a white bikini bottom." The figure's breasts were done in large, deep purple teardrops with deeper purple circles in the middle.

"Exactly!" exclaimed Ebony, smiling broadly. "Two-dimensional art is really hard for me. It's not usually how I experience the world."

"Did you used to be able to see?" I asked, wondering if I was about to step in some minefield of awkwardness. I have no idea what's likely to offend a blind person. And, as it turned out, I did step in something, though it wasn't remotely what I was expecting. I wish there was a cane I could use to feel my way through conversations with women. At least, she didn't get angry.

"I can see a little bit now," she explained, "mostly fields of color, and I don't know all their names. My vision has never been better than it is now. But I don't identify as blind."


But Kit returned, carrying a bucket full of cut lavender stalks, so Ebony and I were distracted from our conversation. She looked at Ebony's collage and gave her a few specific compliments and suggestions ("I like the breasts," she said, something I'd wanted to say but couldn't). I jumped up so Kit could have my seat and she took it--I've noticed that, no matter how friendly and personable the masters seem, whenever any of us offer them special deference, they accept it. Seated, Kit took a roll of satin ribbon from one pocket and her bolline knife from her belt and started making something with the flower stalks.

"What were you talking about before I came up?" she asked. "Don't let me stop you--unless you're planning a surprise party for me, or something." But for a minute, neither Ebony nor I could think what we had been saying.

"Oh!" said Ebony, finally. "I was starting to tell him about transability."

"Ok," said Kit. Evidently, she already knew what it meant. She had tied a group of lavender stalks tightly together with the ribbon, then bent them all backwards, outwards. Now she was using the ribbon to weave the bent stalks together. As she worked, Ebony explained that although she was blind, she didn't feel blind. When she heard other people talk about blind people and sighted people interacting, she always identified with the sighted people.

"When people refer to me as blind, it's always jarring. I think, that's not me. But it is."

"I remember something like that, the year before I got married," Kit put in."I'd have to say I was single, like on my taxes and so forth, because I was, but it felt so wrong."

"Exactly. People keep telling me it's impossible for someone born blind to feel like this, to still feel like there's something missing. Like I should just feel pride in my blind identity and do tactile art and everything. But I don't have a blind identity. That's the problem. So I made up this word. Transabled. Because how people perceive me based on my body is not who I am."

"And you're learning to paint," Kit added, with some pride. I'm guessing she is one of Ebony's teachers.

"Yes. I figure, as long as I'm doing one impossible thing, why not another? I want to be an art teacher--a visual art teacher."

"I think I'm lost," I said.

"That's ok," said Ebony. "I confuse myself sometimes, so you can be confused, too. Confused is ok. I'm under no obligation to resolve anyone else's confusion about me."

Kit beamed at her and then looked back to her own work. She had finished weaving the lavender stalks together so they now completely enclosed the flowers. She'd made a tight, club-shaped wand. She tied off the ribbon and cut it free from the roll with her bolline.

"There," she said with satisfaction. "One down, twelve more to go."

"Oo, can I see?" exclaimed Ebony, holding out her hand. Kit gave her the wand and she explored it by touch and smell. "What color is the ribbon?" she asked.

"Lavender, actually," Kit explained.

"Are lavender flowers lavender color?" Ebony wanted to know.

"Not really. Not always, anyway. There are more of a blue. But...lavender flowers smell the way lavender color looks."

Ebony seemed to get a complete kick out of that.

"Really?" she said, excitedly. "Do other colors have scents?"

"I wouldn't say colors have scents," said Kit, "but scents have colors. For me, anyway.  If I can't see something, or if I can't feel it in my body, I guess I make up what it looks like or feels like. I could dance the scent of lavender, if I wanted to."

"That's what I do!"exclaimed Ebony. "When I see colors, they turn into textures, like my eyeballs are finger tips! The way you make scents have color, I make colors have texture."

"Is that like how you can feel colors with your fingers?" asked Kit.

"Wait, what?" I asked. It's not that I didn't believe she could do it--I've learned to believe a lot of things around here--but I didn't know what they meant and I really felt like I'd been left behind by the conversation, like they both understood some kind of trans-sensory secret and I hadn't gotten the message. Ebony started to explain something she called "dermo-optical perception," an ability to identify contrast between colors by touch alone. But she said she wasn't good at demonstrating it because having an audience made her nervous, and that distracted her and made it harder to do..

"I always feel like everyone expects me to be some super-blind person or something. I really think most sighted people could do it, if they tried."

"Well, let me try," I offered.

So, Ebony got her laptop out of her bag, plus a pair of headphones. I guess her computer tells her what the screen looks like, or something? She kept the screen folded up so I couldn't see it, then asked me to shut my eyes. I did, and Kit helped me get my hand on the screen without accidentally grabbing something embarrassing.

"Just run your fingers across the surface and see if you can feel the texture change, like get smoother or rougher. I tried, and felt no texture at all, except the smooth but slightly resistive screen.

"It might not be texture for you," suggested Kit. "Your mind might offer you a different metaphor."

So I tried again, and....

I swear, I felt a temperature difference. Not in my fingers, as if the screen were hot and cold, but in the center of my forearm, wrist, and palm. It was like when I chose my athame last year--it had felt warm in the same way.

I told Kit whenever I felt the temperature change, and she confirmed it every time.

[Next Post: Monday, August 18th: New Classes}