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.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Creative Disturbances

I wanted to tell you more about the physical campus, and I should have done it before this. I know people who would excuse this with reference to “pagan standard time,” but I have never claimed to be pagan. I’ve also never claimed to really have my act together.

Briefly, then, the main part of campus was a large rectangle looped with several gravel roads and dominated by three main buildings—the Mansion, where we all lived, the Dining Hall, and Chapel Hall, where the auditorium was. Plus there were the barns, various sheds, the cider house, several mobile green houses that could be pulled from one bed to another on tracks, and various gardens and spinnies of trees and pushes. There was no lawnmower on campus; the grass was cut by the sheep, goats, and horses, an arrangement that cut down on the amount of hay we had to buy, and anyway, Charlie hated lawns. He would insist he was allergic, then wait a beat for someone to say, incredulous, you’re allergic to grass? Here? Half the campus was grass!

“No,” he would grumble, delighted to be set up but never showing it, “I’m allergic to bullshit.”

The other half of the campus, the other long rectangle, was the farm that fed us and that Sara managed, with help from various students.

I could describe the Mansion and the Dining Hall, but I think you can probably imagine them fairly well from the names alone. The former was all rough blond stone and porches below, with rebuilt third and fourth floors ringed with balconies and huge, double-paned windows above. The latter was low and broad with a huge basement for storing the produce of the farm in cans and jars, barrels and sacks. But Chapel Hall was like nothing I’d seen before, and nothing I’ve seen since. The ground floor was just offices with a large, open hallway from the door on one side of the building to the door on the other. The floor in between sported a large solar seal and dust floated in sunbeams and the smell of old books. The second floor contained a few classrooms and bathrooms, but was dominated by the auditorium. The auditorium was two and a half stories tall, so the third floor of the building was interrupted; there were classrooms on either side, but to get from one side to the other you had to either go back downstairs and walk through the auditorium or go upstairs to the fourth floor. The fourth floor had a hump in it, where you went up three steps, over twenty feet, and down three steps again, to accommodate the great curved ceiling of the auditorium below.

The basic architecture of the building required a certain mystery; it usually took yearlings a week or two to work out how to navigate the thing. But apparently certain of the faculty liked to exacerbate its confusing charm, because the fourth floor was divided up into a warren of interconnected rooms that had no numbers, only names. And the names would change every year. But no one ever admitted that the names were changing; when someone told a story about something from a previous year, he or she would always use the previous year’s name for the room, as though the actual rooms would change out from year to year. And I suppose that by some reckoning, they did.

The fourth floor had a sloping ceiling, except at its very center, and where the ceiling sloped down on either side to about five feet there were side walls with attic space behind in the eves. They used the eves for storage, but since they opened by cabinet-style doors on each room, and since the eves had no internal divisions, the faculty would sometimes use the eves to play pranks on each other. The first time I saw this, I was in a workshop being team-taught by Kit and Alan when Charlie leaped out of the cabinet.

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” he shouted, school robes swirling. He was teaching a class in the neighboring room, and had crept soundlessly through the eve space. Kit startled beautifully with a shriek that made Charlie’s students in the other room laugh. But Kit was incidental to the joke; she and Charlie rarely interacted unless Alan was present, since he was friends with both of them. Alan had jumped, though he didn’t shriek, and then he busted up laughing. He had this awesome, boyish laugh. There were multiple students who would go really far out of their way to get Alan to laugh.

Kit didn’t laugh. Instead, she glared at Charlie.

“Oh, please. They would have burnt you, too,” she said, dismissively. Charlie raised his chin a fraction and his eyes flashed. Then he half-grinned.

“Fire?” he said, nonchalantly, “I’m not afraid of a little disturbance.” And he left the way he had come, closing the cabinet door behind him. At the time I thought he was simply giving Kit a hard time for being scared, though Kit wasn’t scared, only startled. I don’t think Kit was ever scared of anything. But I found out later that fire is what ecologists call a disturbance, and that unlike the rest of us, who tend to think of the world as groups of objects, ecologists think of the world as patterns and patterns of patterns. To use, a forest is an object and a fire is the end. To Charlie and to people like him, fire is only another part of the pattern. Trust my teacher to embed his jokes several layers deep in a field most of the rest of us didn’t study.

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