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.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Part 2: Post 5: Gardening

So yes, Charlie got his pizza. I wasn't there, though. Apparently Dan (he who had not known girls fart) had felt badly enough that he took it upon himself to ask Charlie when he wanted his pizza ordered. Except Charlie has a serious thing against using gasoline, so he wasn't interested in delivery. Instead, he and Dan biked into town together to this pizza place actually run by a friend of Charlie's where everything's organic and they had a great time, and I'm beginning to seriously wish I'd known to go along.

The most familiar garden hydrangea is an exotic, from Japan, I think, but smooth hydrangea is one of two native species. It wasn't flowering yet when I started working with Charlie,.
Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)
 I'm also kind of jealous of the groundskeeping crew. I think Charlie's involvement in both my cases of envy is a coincidence; my issue with the groundskeepers is that they get to be outside a good part of every day, and now that the weather is warming up I wish I were one of them. Instead, I have to spend most of the time I'm not either in class or asleep indoors cleaning. I even clean most of Saturday. I see the sun on my way between buildings and on Sundays. It's horrible.

And I signed up for this, not because I wanted to be a janitor, but because I was afraid I wouldn't get another job offer. I'd heard that Charlie only hires second years, but what if no qualified second years applied? I never even tried. I could kick myself.

At least my supervisor, Joe, lets us leave early if we get everything done well, so I've been working as fast as I can to try and get outside before lunch.

(If you'll pardon a tangent, my supervisor is actually only one of a bizarrely large number of people named Joe or Jo on campus. I mean there are the normal doubles--there's Dan and me, Charlie the instructor and Chuck the maintenance director--plus about half the women in my year all want to be called Raven, which is an odd coincidence but maybe not so odd here. And then there's all the Joes. Besides my supervisor, there are three students named Joseph, plus Jona, Joanna, and Joan, and both Joe, the security supervisor, and his husband, Coffee Joe, who works off campus. I didn't think it was legal for two men to marry, but whatever. Almost a tenth of the whole campus population is called Joe. You can't make this stuff up).

So today I finished my cleaning right before eleven and I was heading back towards my dorm to get something, when I found Charlie working by himself in the ornamental beds in front of the porch. There are several beds there, between the Mansion and the row of arbor vitae at the top of the front lawn, with a dragon-themed solar-powered fountain in the middle. I bet it's very pretty once everything really sprouts. And Charlie was happily digging away in the earth, planting something. I'd never really talked to him before, but asking him if I could help was almost as automatic as breathing.

Virginia rose is native across most of the eastern U.S., though a cultivated form exists that is invasive in Europe. Of course, it wasn't blooming either when I started working with Charlie.
Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana)
 "I don't know, can you?" he growled at me, hardly looking up. When I say "growled," I mean that his voice was gruff, like he wanted me to go away. He does that a lot, but I used to have this dog who would growl at strangers just because he wasn't sure what they were going to do. Once you proved to him you were friendly, he stopped growling. And I didn't want to go away. I didn't think Charlie was being a smart-ass about my saying "can" instead of "may," either, though he is usually a smart-ass when he's not growling, I know that much. I think he was just asking me a question. Not everyone can help in a garden, after all.

"I don't know," I told him, "because I don't know what you want done or how you want it done. All standards are local, and I don't know yours. But I used to work for a gardener, and if you tell me what to do I will do it." He smiled, briefly.

"Which of these plants do you know?" He asked, growling again and gesturing at the garden.

"Only the roses, junipers, and the hydrangeas, and not to species," I told him. "It looks like you plant with natives, not the ornamentals I used before." My being able to speak the right language won me an approving grunt. He asked me a few more questions, and then set me to cleaning the beds ahead of his planting.

We didn't talk much, except when he gave me instructions or warned me away from the juniper where the wasps were starting a nest. When I asked if he was going to leave the nest there, he told me that "we sting worse than they do. You allergic?"

"To bee stings, no. To people stings? Yeah, kind of." That made him laugh.

Red cedar looks like arbor vitae, but is actually a juniper. The way to tell them apart is the foliage. Both have tiny scales, rather than needles, but arbor vitae, or white cedar, has flat twigs with flat, smooth scales, and red cedar has square twigs with prickly scales or spines.
Red Ceder (Juniperus virginiana)
 "You and me both," he told me. And we kept working. The day was sunny and warmish, and the dirt and the plants felt good on my hands. Charlie had taken his shoes off, and I followed his lead. The grass and leaf mulch felt good on my toes.

Towards one o'clock (when we both had to get to Ecology class) he introduced me to the plants, pointing out one or two details from each that would help me identify them, and a few words about why each was in the garden where it was. I've never met anyone else so efficient at explaining such things. It's like he knows what questions I have before I do, knows exactly what to tell me so the plant will stick in my mind. Like, the difference between common juniper and red ceder, which is also a juniper, is growth habit and the fact that the former has leaf scales with a white stripe underneath.

"We'll see how many of those you remember," Charlie told me when we parted, which seemed like a good sign. I've already decided I'll try to work with him again, and if he growls at me that's just too bad.

[Next Post: April 5th: The Drunk's Club]

Friday, March 29, 2013

Part 2: Post 4: Introduction to Physics

Each of my classes has now met twice, and both physics and history have met three times. I'm finding
Here I am on the Mansion porch. I left out some support beams for visual clarity--the porch roof is actually the lowest of three levels of balconies and they must be rather heavy. If you could look in the windows behind me, you'd see the library.
interesting to notice how these different classes seems to be related; physics, ecology, and psychology have all covered the history of their respective disciplines, for example, and the intersections between their timelines are fascinating--and of course, since we're taking history at the same time, applying an analytical approach to these historical sketches feels about natural. Ecology and psychology both touch on  the question of why individuals do things, but from completely different angles--making me wonder how much of human behavior might somehow be an ecological response? Like, is there a way to apply the angle of one subject to the questions posed by the other? Or something like that.

Physics is interesting, and not as hard as I'd thought. I'd been kind of intimidated by it, I think a lot of us were, but Jeff is pretty easy-going. It's not easy, I mean just that it isn't as hard as I'd expected. There's no reason to fear not passing the class--Jeff interrupted himself on the first day to announce that none of us would fail if we:

1. stayed awake in class
2. asked for help when we needed it, either from each other or from him
3. and at least tried every single problem and exercise he set for us.

You'd think he'd write this down, especially as he was holding a marker at the time, but he didn't. He said that there is no shame in not being able to solve a problem, but that it is by pushing ourselves through the point of failure that we grow. I remember that from running, though you had to be careful not to hurt yourself. I hadn't thought that it might apply to academics, too, but it makes sense.

What Jeff keeps coming back to is the existence if rules, laws of physics and laws of logic, the idea that certain things must be true and certain things always happen. I think some of us are having a hard time with this, it feels constricting, so Jeff interrupted himself again and this time he did write something on the board:

The universe does not have laws, it has habits, and habits are made to be broken.

I think I've seen that quote on a button or a bumper sticker somewhere. He asked if any of us believed that, and a few tentative hands went up and then ducked back down again. Whether the universe has habits or not, the instructors here have a habit of asking questions that they expect students to get wrong. We're getting jumpy.

"I don't actually believe that you believe that," said Jeff.  "If you did believe it you would not be here, and you'd be pretty bored and depressed. Anybody ever see any absurdist movies, the kind with no clear plot and anything can happen? You know why there aren't more movies like that? It's because once the novelty wears off, they're boring. It's being able to anticipate what comes next that makes life interesting--even surprise would not be possible if you couldn't be confident in your predictions, because surprise happens when our predictions are violated. You came here, a lot of you did, to learn to practice magic--what is magic but another kind of following the rules? If I could make something float by pointing my wand at it--"

and he pulled out his wand and shouted "Wingardium Leviosa!" pointing suddenly at Nora, who was walking in late at that very moment and was so startled she dropped all her books,

 "--that wouldn't be a violation of the laws of physics, it would be an example of the laws of physics, just one only recently discovered by J.K. Rowling. The law would say that that spell works; there'd be no point in learning it if it didn't work reliably. We can control phenomena only to the extent that we can predict them. If the universe followed no laws, no magic would be possible, no technology would be possible, no complex life would be possible, because we would never be able to do anything and be confident in the result. The laws aren't a limit on our power, they are our power, to the extent that we know the laws. Are some of the laws we think we know wrong? Are some things possible that we think aren't? Yeah, probably. But that ignorance is a limit on our power, not a doorway to it. If we want to do magic, it's our job to learn the laws of physics and apply them."

We helped Nora pick up her books and only laughed at her a little.

And this is what I mean by the different classes commenting on each other. Because this week, the same week, Charlie said something very similar--but not identical.

First, he wrote up a list of statements on the board:

1. Bubblegum takes seven years to digest
2. If you perform three bodily functions simultaneously (e.g., burp, fart, and sneeze) you will die
3. Women are the only female animals who can experience orgasm
4. Girls don't fart
5. Non-human animals have no emotions
6. Humans are the only animals who use tools, language, and art
7. Men only think about sex
8. Native American lifeways were categorically environmentally sustainable

Then he turned to us and said; "each of these statements has been believed without evidence by at least some people, and I will bet all of you a pizza that at least one of you believes at least one of these."

Silence. Then;

"Girls fart?" asked Dan, who is, I hasten to add, not me.

"Large, extra cheese, extra olives," said Charlie, and everyone in class groaned and threw bits of papers at Dan. "And you want to lay off Dan, I doubt he was the only one," he added.

"But the point is not that these statements are factually incorrect; for all I know some of them might be true. I don't know how long bubblegum takes to digest! The problem is believing things without evidence. It's something that people do, make stuff up and then think it's true because they think it ought to be. Now, lack of evidence for is not evidence against, but just assuming something is self-evidently true isn't good enough. Self-evident truth is for moral certainly, not factual details that could and should be investigated. You hear sometimes about scientists conducting studies that prove something 'everybody knows.' Well, sometimes those studies prove that something everybody thought they knew is wrong.  If you want to understand the secrets of the universe, you're going to have to get used to keeping track of what you know and how you know it. It's easy enough to be wrong even when you do everything right. You can't afford to spend your time making stuff up, or believing other people who made stuff up. Get in the habit of paying attention to who is reliable. Get in the habit of being reliable. You can't learn how to make a difference by daydreaming."

So, I'm wondering; I'm thinking about the Inquisitions I read about last weekend, how the Church hierarchy was convinced that people were selling their souls the the devil and women were suckling demon-spawn through third nipples hidden in moles and whatever else--and obviously all of it was balderdash. Thousands of people, many thousands of people, were tortured and died because of balderdash. Is that an example of people making stuff up without evidence? Is that what happens when people don't pay attention?

I'm spending more and more time in the library, trying to find books to sort all this out. It's also a good place to do homework, especially since, if I get stuck, I can usually ask Aaron for help. If he doesn't know something, he knows who does. I've heard legends about this guy. How, you can come to the library and get onliine at three in the morning and email him to ask about a book you heard about years ago and the title had something to do with the Kalahari desert and Moses, or something that rhymes with Moses, and the cover was green....and fifteen minutes later he'll email you back with the complete title, author, everything. And he's entertaining. The parrot was unusual--Ahab (the parrot) usually lives somewhere off-campus--but it's like Aaron to have a pet parrot named Ahab. And he curses at computers. Like, actually curses them, as if they were being recalcitrant on purpose and as if he were punishing them with maledictions

The other day--I don't know what the problem was, I guess something wasn't working right, but he suddenly stood up, pointed dramatically to his computer, and shouted "A POX UPON YOU, ILL-MANORED MACHINE!"

He had to have been being melodramatic on purpose, he just had to have. He can't have thought that his curse could mean anything (how does a computer get a pox?) or that the machine could deserve it. But then, it's hard to tell the difference between people being themselves and people making fun of themselves around here.

[Next Post: April 1st: In the Garden With Charlie]

Monday, March 25, 2013

Part 2: Post 3: Why Ecology?

No, Jesuits were not the primary instigators of the Inquisition.

Yes, I did use this picture last week, but I figured Aaron and his parrot (named "Ahab") made a good introduction today as well.
 You may remember that figuring that out was my homework assignment in History last week. I had no idea how to go about this at all, but I figured the thing to do was to at least find out what a Jesuit was--I'd heard the term, and knew it to be some subset of the Catholic Church, but that was about it. So I went to the library and looked up Jesuits in the encyclopedia. They are an all-male Catholic religious order founded in 1534 by St. Ignatius of Loyola and approved by Pope Paul III in 1540, and they are primarily concerned with teaching and missionary work. Then I looked up the Inquisition. Turns out there were two of them; the Medieval Inquisition, which began early in the 13th century and focused largely on Christian heretics and the Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1481 and focused primarily on Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity. So, I guess that's that. I didn't expect it to be so easy.

I find it interesting that, according to the encyclopedia, anyway, the Inquisition hunted down Christian heretics and Jews, not pagans. Of course, most people here are convinced that the witch hunts were aimed precisely at pagans, and constitute something very like the Holocaust. They call it the Burning Times. And here is the encyclopedia implying otherwise. Of course, the encyclopedia could be wrong--maybe it is hiding something, or maybe its authors were duped somehow....but it's in our library, and presumably wouldn't be if the masters didn't think it was a reliable source. It's an unusual library--except for some of the reference books, like dictionaries and encyclopedias, they only have books the local library in town does not, which is why we all have town library cards. So the collection is quite deliberate. They wouldn't have a book here that they didn't actually want. I suppose this is why we're taking history class, to learn how to deal with apparent contradictions like this.

I hadn't really wondered why we are taking the classes we are, as opposed to Transfiguration and Potions and what-not. I'm kind of just taking everything in right now, and I like to kind of go with the flow anyway, but several of my teachers began by assuming we'd wonder, and it's a good question.

For example, why ecology? Charlie is back, though still blowing his nose occasionally, so this week's meeting was our first with an actual teacher, and he began with the question.

"Why not?" someone answered.

"Well, sure, but why not a lot of things? You could study almost anything that way. Why is ecology one of the first four courses you're supposed to take here?"

No one answered, and so Charlie began his lecture.

"You probably consider yourselves to have some sort of Earth-centered spirituality, right? You worship the Earth-mother, you're animists, whatever. If you were Jewish--you couldn't get away with calling yourselves Jewish if you never read the Bible. So what's our Bible? Where do we go to read something to keep us from falling off into fantasy?

"You," he said, picking out a student at random, "what do you know about oak trees?"

"They're tall, strong, they have...leaves. I mean, they have oak leaves," Jahred stammered and blushed, knowing how he sounded. Charlie waited patiently. "I mean--how do you describe the shape? Anyway, they make good firewood, they're used for growing shitake mushrooms, and they're metaphysically masculine."

"Good," Charlie responded. "The word you want is 'pinnately lobed,'" and he drew a picture on the white-board of an oak leaf.

"Pinnate" means "feather-like," so pinnately lobed means the lobes come off to the sides of a long central axis, like the fringe off a feather.. While not all oaks have lobed leaves, those that do are pinnately lobed, and pinnate lobing is distinctive of oaks.

"English oak is everything you said--strong, big, ancient...I can't comment on metaphysics, but otherwise you're right. Except we're not in England;
Northern red oak is an American oak that fits the steriotype of the big, noble tree. Its bark, when mature, is distinctive for its thick grey ridges that are paler than the (sometimes reddish) furrows between.
Northern Red Oak; Quercus rubra
some of our oaks fit the same description, but  not all of them. Bear oak doesn't; it's a shrub. The name comes because bears can reach the branches for acorns." Charlie mimed being a bear gathering acorns. A few people laughed.

"If you lived in the Southwest, you'd have Gambel oak. It's a shrub, small tree, comes up in little clumps among the pines. Makes good fence-posts. Wildlife like it. I don't know what the people there, the Dine, the Ute, and so on, think of oaks metaphysically, but I bet they don't see them as symbols of power and sovereignty.  You--what do you know about holly?"

"I know they're used for Christmas decorations, because they're evergreen?" Dana sounded unsure of herself, probably guessing that she was going to be wrong.

"Right," began Charlie, "if you lived in England or, say, Maryland. But neither English holly nor American holly grow around here. Our hollies are deciduous. Whatever they mean symbolically, it has to be something else--"

I have seen this tree, but never in the company of someone wearing the school uniform; I put the student in the picture for scale. These trees can grow to thirty feet, but fifteen to twenty feet is more typical in my experience.
Gambel Oak; Quercus gambelii
 At this point Charlie interrupted himself and spoke more gently for a moment. "Relax. If nearly everybody didn't make exactly the same mistakes I couldn't write my lesson plan around your wrong answers, now could I? Someday I'm going to call on someone who has the right answers and I don't know what I'll do." He went back to his earlier tone.

"If you have any serious claim at all to be rooted spiritually and religiously in the Earth, you've got to let your ideas and your symbols grow out of the Earth. You've got to let the symbolic meaning of a plant or an animal or a landscape grow out of what it means to other plants and animals and landscapes, what it really means to you in a practical sense. You can't get that out of some Wicca 101 book. The men and women who study this stuff for real, who really spend their lives at it, are ecologists. They're the ones at whose feet you have to sit. And to have any chance at all of understanding what they're talking about, you have to know their language, the terms they use, the assumptions they make when they talk to each other. And that is why you're in my classroom today."

And that, I guess, is also why I now have about seven hours of homework for a single class.

(Next post: March 29th: Psychology and the library)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Part 2: Post 2: Classes

So, classes have started.

 As might be expected, classes here are an odd mix of entirely normal and really strange. The classes are smaller than what I'm used to from either high school or college, only about twelve people. I don't know if that's normal here, yet. I mean, different sizes might be typical in electives, but these classes are required, so their size is set by the number of people who need the credit, divided by two (each class has two sections, so avoid scheduling conflicts). But small classes don't seem all that strange to me; I've heard of schools that had classes this size before. We have syllabi and homework and assigned readings, just like any normal college, though I'm happy we don't have to buy our books (we're expected to share library books). The subjects we study sound fairly normal; we're not taking astrology, levitation, and herbology, we're taking introductory courses in ecology, history, psychology, and physics.

But even though we're all acting like fairly normal students, we're doing it in our Harry Potter uniforms. And our instructors are green-ringed wizards who take it for granted that students won't have much time for homework on full and new moons and that all of us can get our hands on a magic wand if we want one. And they take it absolutely for granted that none of us are interested in cheating. My whole life I've been in schools where it was obvious the teachers were watching us to make sure we didn't break any rules. They took attendance, required hall passes, hired proctors for tests, and had disciplinary policies...they don't bother with any of that here. I asked Greg about it, because he's the history teacher and history was my first class. He said "if you want to pay thirty thousand dollars a year and not get anything out of it, that's your prerogative."

Sometimes it seems like any no cheating policy they have must be purely definitional, as they actually encourage you to do things that anywhere else would be considered cheating. Physics is the only one of my classes where we're going to have a test, and it's not just open book, it's open book/take home/talk to your friends if you get stuck. That's right; we're supposed to ask our classmates for the answers. I asked the teacher about this, too. The physics teacher isn't one of the masters, incidentally; he's an adjunct, or "ally," as they call them here. His name is Jeff. So, I asked Jeff how anything involving talking to other students could be a test. He said, "look, real scientists talk to each other. I'm not interested in how easily you can recite stuff that you're going to forget fifteen minutes after the test is over, I'm interested in how well you can figure things out using all the tools at your disposal. That includes other people. Now, if you want to just avoid figuring things out by copying down answers, that's a fairly stupid waste of your time and I'm not going to waste my time making sure you don't waste yours."

These classes are short. I mean, each meeting is three hours long, but there are only eight meetings over six weeks. There isn't a lot of room in them to do more than scratch the surface, and that's what we're doing, just getting a taste of each subject. They'll be more classes later in greater depth, I suppose.

Greg, as I said, is teaching history, on Tuesdays. He's still kind of severe, but he has an interesting method; at each class he gives us a statement about history, and our homework is to find out if it's true or not. This week it's "The Jesuits were the secrete instigators of the Inquisition." Class time is for going over homework and talking about research methods, but this first week we spent most of the time in the library where the research librarian gave us a kind of orientation--with a very large parrot riding on his shoulder. The librarian's name is Aaron, and I don't think he usually has the parrot with him, he just couldn't get a sitter, but wearing a parrot seemed to suit him. I've heard he's odd but brilliant, and he must be to stand out as either around here.

Intro to Ecology meets on Mondays, but Monday was Ostar, so it met on Wednesday instead, Wednesday being the "wild day," like a wild card--each class meets once a week four four weeks and twice on two weeks, and Wednesday is the day for most of the extra meetings. Except Charlie, who teaches Ecology, had a bad cold and couldn't make it, so an ally went over the syllabus with us and got us started getting ahead on our readings.

Into to Psychology and Intro to Physics are both survey courses focusing on basic concepts and the history of the disciplines. Allen teaches the former and Jeff teaches the latter. Curiously, the one was a student of the other, and Jeff juggles in class in much the same spirit that Allen does slight-of-hand.

Kayla got to wear a different uniform shirt than the rest of us, one that folded closed, like a bathrobe, in front. I'm not sure you can see the baby in the picture; he was really small at the time.
 Kayla is in my ecology class, or at least she's sitting in on it; the only class she's officially taking is "Messing Around Outdoors," which is reportedly a series of field trips Charlie teaches every semester, but she says Charlie thought that attending the ecology lectures would help. So on Wednesday, there she was, looking like a baby Madonna nursing Aiden by a sunny window while reading one of the ecology books. He's starting to look a little bigger. I spend a lot of time thinking about how ridiculously young Kayla is, and she is really young, but she shouldn't be underestimated. She understands the reading better than I do.

[Next Post: March 25: More Classes]

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Part 2: Post 1: Ostar

[Note; this post is about the Spring Equinox, and written as though looking back on the day, even though the actual equinox is still a few days away. I scheduled the post this way as a compromise among several conflicting timing issues. -D.]

We did get chocolate, actually, though that didn't turn out to be the most important thing about the spring equinox on campus. I'm not actually very surprised--I mean, I like chocolate, but I didn't exactly expect it to be mind-blowing. I'm not four, after all.

Although, you know, sometimes I miss being four--or, not four specifically, but little. I remember Easter when I was little, how exciting, how deliciously mysterious, hunting colored eggs and eating chocolate and jelly beans was. The Easter Bunny supposedly came in when we weren't looking and filled the house or sometimes the backyard with this absolute numinousness that tasted of pastel-colored sugar and smelled of vinegar dye and new-cut grass. Often, if Easter fell late, my Dad would have just mowed the lawn for the first time that year, so the smell of it, the smell of spring and growing things, was everywhere.

Of course, we went to church later in the day, and when I got older I got into that more, but when I was really little it was just all about the chocolate. I said something about this to one of my Wiccan friends a few years back, and she said that what I liked about Easter when I was small was Ostar, an older,pagan holiday that Easter had somehow usurped. I don't think that makes sense, because, you know, what is mysterious and wonderful for a four year old isn't necessarily all that special when you get older. I mean, I could buy a pound of jelly beans myself, if I wanted to, but I haven't bothered, not in years. I'm kind of over it. Whatever else they were, pre-Christian European pagans were grown-ups, or at least some of them were, and so their holidays could not have consisted entirely of fun and games for four-year-olds.

Even having been through the celebration today, I'm still not sure I'm in a position to say what either pre-Christian or Neo-pagan Ostar is really all about; I know the campus Wiccans went off somewhere to have their own celebration, and whatever it was they did, it must have been different from what the campus as a whole did. I was not invited to watch. I'm not sure I can even say what the celebration I did attend was about, because nobody explained it to me. That was sort of weird--when Kit talks about Wicca, she explains it in detail, what everything means, all the symbolism and history and everything. A lot of her students do that, too. But when we do something as a whole campus community, nobody explains anything unless you ask, and sometimes not even then. The best I can do is say I liked it. It was fun.

It lasted all day--I got out of my janitor shift, even, though I had to help with set-up and clean-up instead, in order to get my hours. We opened and decorated Chapel Hall, including stocking the place with firewood. Classes are starting this week, actual classes, and they'll be held in Chapel Hall, in the little rooms around and above the cavernous chapel space itself. So now it's warmed and dusted and swept out and, at the moment, bedecked with pastel-colored ribbon, hung with hand-blown and decorated eggs and bouquets and garlands of dried flowers, and perfumed with little pots of sweet-smelling jonquils. Lunch was a sort of a picnic, in that the food was served outside, but a lot of us took our meals inside to eat. It's still kind of cold, and there are still patches of snow on the ground. After lunch we had an egg-hunt, but we did not hunt dyed chicken eggs.

Instead, we hunted for actual bird's nests. It was like nature scavenger hunt. Charlie was in charge of it, and he handed out digital cameras, memo pads, and good binoculars--one of each per team of two, unless you already had binoculars, which I did not--and told us to go take pictures of active nests. We were supposed to write down why we believed the nest to be active, and where it was on campus. Nests or egg masses belonging to other animals were ok, too. Even sprouting plants were ok, although for them the scoring was a little different. We got one point per nest, an extra point if the time stamp on the picture showed we were the first to take a picture of that nest, and another point if the picture was beautiful or artistically interesting. A point would be deducted for a nest that wasn't actually active, or if Charlie found out that we had done anything to stress the animals. For plants, all the shoots of the same species were treated as a single nest, so only the first person to photograph that species go the extra point, and if you took photographs of different plants of the same species that still only counted as one. Charlie said that the winning team would get a prize, and the best pictures would be printed and hung in the Chapel Hall gallery.

Great Horned Owl
I didn't win, and I didn't expect to, but apparently my team did pretty well. I was partnered with Nora, which was interesting, as she and I had never really talked before. She's not in my dorm. It's funny, she seems so young, but she's only three years younger than I am. I guess that's not that much in the grand scheme of things. She kind of has an attitude, like a chip on her shoulder, but she's also really smart. She had a better idea of how to look than I did, and found our first nest. It was a great horned owl nest in an old squirrels' nest, or drey. She knew roughly where it was because she'd accidentally wandered near it at dusk a few days earlier and been chased off by one of the adults; "f___ing thing was as big a small dog," as she explained. Today I guess the owls were sleeping,because they didn't bother us and we didn't bother them. You can't see the inside of the nest from below, and we weren't sure where it is anyway, since there are a couple of squirrels' nests up there and they all look alike from below, so Nora's idea was to climb one of the pine trees nearby and look down from above. I gave her a boost up to the lowest branches and handed her the camera and note-pad, and she came back down with some pictures of a very sleepy owl. We couldn't see if there were eggs or chicks underneath, but we earned a point.

Common Raven
 Then I found a raven nest inside what I guess is one of four bell towers on top of Chapel Hall, but there are no bells in there and it's all open, so I guess they are raven towers. I spotted  it from the ground, but we climbed another tree to get a decent picture. We ended up being the first ones to photograph the ravens, so that gained us an extra point, which I then lost for us with my picture of a mantis egg case, which turned out to be old. "Good eye, though," Charlie remarked on our memo pad.

Other people found two active squirrel nests, a pregnant doe, various insect eggs and cocoons, and some frog jelly in one of the big puddles in the woodlot behind the campus. Of course, several people got pictures of the chickens, and, surprisingly, got points for the pictures. I'd have thought the chickens wouldn't count, but they are laying and they are birds, so I guess they do. Also someone got a really nice picture of a barred owl nest in a big dead tree near the pond, but apparently that owl family always nests there and the people who got the picture are second-years, so I'm not sure if that's fair.

Barred Owl
 The team that won found three nests, one of them first, and got two really great pictures. Charlie made a slide show for us and showed it in the Great Hall after dinner, so we all got to see each others' pictures. And he explained what everything in the pictures was, which is how I know which owl was which, and what a drey is, and so on.

The winners did get a prize, presented in the evening, with the slide show.  I'd expected the prize to be a five dollar gift certificate or a chocolate bunny, but it turned out to be a pair of beautiful Faberge-style eggs. Charlie had found them in a yard sale, and had paid for them accordingly, but he must have known they were worth a bundle. The things are exquisite, tiny, with precious metals and enamel, and apparently a matched set. Charlie told the winners they could give the eggs away, if they wanted, but could not sell them.

Praying Mantis Egg Case
Someone told me that the prizes are always egg-themed, always a surprise, and always serious pieces of art. Last year the prize was seven Ukranian Easter eggs. I've seen them, their base color is almost black, but interrupted by a marvelous filigree of flower, leaf, and animal designs. The way they're  done is the artist covers part of the egg in wax, then dips it in dye so the wax resists the dye and leaves a white design against some pale color, like yellow. Then the artist adds more wax and dips it in a different, slightly darker color of dye, such as blue, so now the whole egg is green except for a yellow pattern and a white pattern. And so on, until the base color is as dark as can be and every color imaginable is represented in the intricate, symbolic design. When it's done, they drop the egg in hot water to melt the wax off. It's called Pysanke (pronounced "peSHENkie"), and I think somebody on campus probably knows how to make them.

The year before last, each winner got a small silver tree hung with nine tiny ceramic eggs, each a different color and pattern. I've only seen one of those, the other winner isn't on campus right now.  No one knows where Charlie got the egg trees.

Did any of this mean anything, besides a fun time outside on a nice day? Was there any intended message or teaching, or does Charlie just like to send students outdoors to play? I don't know. But, as I said, I liked the egg hunt. It made me feel both very childlike and very grown-up, like the thing inside me that liked hunting plastic eggs in the living room had grown up, so the game had grown up, but I liked it in exactly the same way as I always had.

It's hard to explain.

These are Pysanke, in the same style as the prize from the egg hunt in 1999. Never mind how they're standing up.....

[Next Post: March 22:Gardening with Charlie]

Thursday, March 14, 2013

First Interlude

So, hi.

I'm speaking now as my current self, Daniel-of-2013. For those of you who have just started reading the blog and have not yet read my explanatory notes, I am actually thirty-two years old, married, and about to become a father. I've been writing from the viewpoint I had thirteen years ago, when I was nineteen and new to the school with no name. I'm doing that because I want to take you with me on this journey of mine from when I was more or less a normal American kid to being...whatever it is we who wear the green ring are. It seems the best way I can think of to get you to know and care about this place as we do, which is what I have been asked to do by the others. But I also want to poke in, here and there, with my real, present self, to say hi, as it were, and also to correct some possible misunderstandings that there is no way I can avoid while writing in my nineteen-year-old character.

For example, in describing Kit, I'm concerned that I may have given, or may be about to give, the impression that she behaved seductively with students. That she has never done, although she is a flirt, and flirts even, or even especially, with students. And she was, and remains, a damn sexy woman. I could not have made this distinction when I was nineteen, but I did perceive it, and it was one of the things I always appreciated about her. She was safe.

I certainly would not have used the word "safe," as that would have meant admitting I was scared of women. I was scared of rejection, I was scared of their expectations if one did accept me, and I was scared women would be offended if I even asked. Consequently, I did not ask. I'd had a girlfriend or two in high school, but nothing serious and nothing recent. Of course I thought about sex almost constantly (still do), but I didn't do anything about it. I didn't want to enter that morass of confusion I'd made for myself, and I certainly didn't want to have to decide if I really wanted to end up in bed with a gorgeous professor old enough to be my mother (and married, though I didn't know that part yet). With Kit, I knew the question would never come up, so I could enjoy flirting back with her a little and I could fantasize all I wanted. Kit knew I was attracted to her, and I knew she knew, but there was no awkwardness between us. There still isn't.

So why did Kit flirt with students? I've never asked, but I think she sees it as part of her job. Human sexuality is a big part of her work as a priestess, as an anthropology teacher, and as a dance therapist, and I think she feels a need acknowledge her students' attractions somehow. An ornithologist into whose classroom a bird had flown would do no less.

In writing this blog, I'm using a combination of my memory, the diaries and other records I kept from that time, and the memories and records of other people. Some of the dialogues and other details are reconstructed. I also have begun being a bit free with the days of the week and other details of timing. I mean that I'm ignoring the fact that thirteen years ago the dates fell on different days of the week than they do this year, and that I sometimes write as though events have just happened even though there was obviously no time in the middle for me to sit down and write. I'm going to post about Easter near the day Easter fell in 2000, not the day it falls this year, and I'm going to post about Ostar several days before it actually happens because that works out a bit better for the schedule of blog entries I've written up. So some things are approximate.

Also, I can't avoid using a bit more perspective and self-reflection than I actually had at nineteen. I was pretty much in record-mode, learning everything I could and not processing anything. My diaries were boring, just a long list of events. I remember a lot of things passing by in a blur, or sometimes, as on what I've since called "Tin Whistle Evening," I remember feelings deeply moved and intrigued, but not stopping to understand what had moved me or how or why. My feelings, my motives, were all subterranean. I learned to actually say what I was thinking and feeling from Allen during the group therapy sessions, but only with difficulty and it took a long time. I'm still basically uninterested in myself. Other people and events are still much more interesting, more real, to me. So I'm trying to approximate my younger perspective, but I can't write as I would have written then because it would simply leave too much out.

God, I was such an ass. I remember when Ollie gave me my tour the first day and showed me one of the dorm bedrooms I said something about the beds being too narrow for company, or how do you fit a girl in there, or some other reference to casual sex. Ollie looked at me like I had about five heads on my shoulders, and then his expression cleared and he calmly informed me that "if you want to host sexual partners in your room that is your right, but you should clear over-night guests with your dorm-mates first. And no people from outside the school, at least not for the first couple of months."

"Host sexual partners"? I was shocked--I'd never heard anyone be direct without being crude before. Mostly I'd never heard anyone be direct. Everyone I knew, we were all like the "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" character of Monty Python, full of innuendo and crudeness, but we wouldn't call a spade a spade. And of course, I was a virgin at the time (something I would NEVER have put in a blog), but I was sure I was about to become a "typical red-blooded American male" any day now. But I was not as much of an ass as I might have been; when I did actually talk to "girls" (Kit finally got me into saying "women"), I was mostly interested in getting to know them, and I never got around to hosting anybody in my narrow little bed.

When it finally happened, years later, she hosted me in hers.

How did I end up talking mostly about sex this whole post? Whatever. I can't erase this and rewrite it, I haven't got the time. I've got a deadline looming for one of my clients, the landscaping company I do some work for wants more hours, and somehow I've got to find time to wallpaper the little bedroom before the baby comes.

So, I hope you enjoy the second part of my story, from Ostar to Beltane.

[Next Post: March 18th: Ostar]

Monday, March 11, 2013

Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus

The snow last week didn't last long. It drifted up, inches and inches, fluffy and cozy, but it was a warm snow, with big fat flakes, and started melting soon after. It’s been melting steadily now for days, and this morning I found big patches of bare ground, especially in the open places. I can’t walk out in it much, everything’s mud, but it’s a sight. I haven’t seen bare ground since I’ve been here.
It’s weird, every other time I’ve come to a new place and stayed it’s been in the summer or the fall—not counting ski trips, I’ve never been anywhere for the first time in the snow. So now I’m finding out all sorts of things about this campus that I never knew, because they were under the snow.
For example, the open area out near the back of the barn isn't a clearing, it's a pond. It’s not open water yet, but I noticed that grass was appearing from under the snow everywhere else and not there, so I got curious, braved the mud, and walked out. And it’s a pond.

I'm not sure if you can read the key. The shape of the Mansion is distinctive, the Dining Hall is next to it, the purple square is Chapel Hall, and that red dot is the fire pit.

 Elsewhere, I noticed there’s something odd about the grass. It’s longish and uneven, and there are little shrubs in it in places, prickly things, with broken, chewed-off stems. Chewed? Frozen chucks of horse turd are coming out of the melting snow, too. These aren’t lawns, I don’t think, they’re pastures. Of course that makes sense, there are sheep and goats and horses here, and grazing them on campus would reduce the amount of hay we need to buy. And I don’t think I’ve seen a lawnmower anywhere.

And the roads aren't paved. The campus roads weren't plowed, they just packed the snow down and added gravel and sawdust for traction, but I'd always thought there was pavement under there. Instead, it's just gravel and little chunks of crushed cinder block. Of course, the roads are melting slowly, because the snow is packed, but there are a few open patches.

In the open patches of road I’m seeing, here and there, pieces of broken asphalt, just crumbs, little chunks, so obviously the roads were paved at some point. I asked about this, and apparently when this school moved in the campus was s dilapidated, but fairly standard, boys’ private boarding school. There was a school building, several free-standing dorms, a gym, an athletic field…the place had been abandoned for five years, and some of the dorms had been closed even before that, as enrollment dropped, so everything was grown over and moldy and starting to fall to ruin. The top floor of the Mansion had even burned in a lighting-struck fire. So, when our school came in they had a lot of fixing up to do, and they simply razed the buildings they didn’t need. They unpaved the roads, rehabilitated the ground in the athletic fields and turned it into our farm, and apparently spread the cinderblock and concrete pads in chucks to gravel the roads.

It’s interesting that there were obviously cinderblock buildings here, apparently a lot of them, but there are none here now. Presumably the better-built buildings survived abandonment better, and given the choice between saving the Mansion and saving a cinder-block dorm, I’d save the Mansion. It’s a beautiful building. But, and I’ve thought of this, a parent coming up the hill of the main driveway would not have seen cinderblock buildings first. They would have seen the Mansion and, coming a little closer, would have seen Chapel Hall, which is weirdly imposing and, as I noticed my first day, looks vaguely collegiate, being brick with ornate white trim.  But they would not have noticed any cinderblock buildings. If all the buildings were where I think they were, the more cheaply constructed places would have been either out of the immediate line of sight, hidden by trees, or behind Chapel Hall. I never thought about it before, but a private school has to appeal to parents, or their source of revenue dries up. I don’t suppose the business plan required being honest about how students actually live.

The message of the campus now is very different, if there even is an intended message. Strangers come here so very rarely. I used to work at a landscaper’s when I was in high school, so I notice landscaping, and the campus is definitely planned, but it’s hardly manicured. Again, there are layers of history—avenues of old trees lining the long driveways and an orchard of apples, pears, and peaches must go back to the farm. Foundation plantings of shrubs and specimen trees must date to the boarding school, because they are associated with buildings that are. But the straight lines and clean plantings are all either added to or interrupted. Nothing here is straight, nothing looks cleaned up. Most of the plants look kind of odd, maybe they’re species I’m not used to, or something, I can’t tell. It looked kind of normal and sedate under the snow, and I imagine it must be riotously exuberant in the summer, with the grass and flowers waving in the pastures and everything green, but at the moment winter-bare trees and shrubs reach their crooked twig-fingers out from wild hollows across the mud and rotten, slushy snow of spring, and it looks kind of Grimm.

There’s so much history here, not that I know most of it, but I can see the shadows of former incarnations of this place. Like the chunks of cinderblock and asphalt from the boys’ boarding school, or the big, flat place on the front lawn—I mean, pasture—a big square, with a short, steep embankment on one side where it rises to meet the more normal-looking land in front of the Mansion, and a longer, equally steep embankment where the ground falls off to meet the natural slope on the other side. There must have been a building there, long ago. Perhaps it was a barn, back when this was a wealthy horse farm?

 The Mansion itself shows its history in layers. Once it was obviously a large, but not ornate stone farmhouse, but that was expanded with extra rooms and a new wing. Then, after the fire, we added the fourth floor (I don’t think the building got much taller, though; the first and second stories have fourteen foot ceilings while the third and fourth floors have eight foot ceilings and reportedly are not as cold at night as I am), better insulation, and passive solar heating measures like big windows on the southwest side. The first floor is grand and much of it looks a lot like it probably did back in the heyday of the horse farm, but the floors get progressively…less traditional from there. There are photovoltaic panels on the roof.

And when I say the ground floor of the Mansion is traditional, I mean it is traditional in mood and in a kind of general overview, but not in detail. The Great Hall is all honey-colored wood paneling, with a grand staircase winding up and around an open, vertical well of dusty, sunlit space rising three stories up to a skylight in the floor of a patio the masters have up there. It looks like a good place to host a ball. There’s a sunroom, called the Green Room, off to one side full of plants and white wicker chairs and a little fountain with fish in the basin. Except that the fountain is solar-powered, it looks rather Victorian. The Rose Room, where we have some of our seminars and things, is basically a sitting room, with rose-colored wallpaper and lots of dried flowers—except  the pictures on the walls are all antique-looking drawings (and even photographs!) of fairies and imaginary animals. The Bird Room, next to it, is a formal dining hall all in dark wood and glass display cases, but most of the display cases hold, not china, but huge dead insects and spiders, mounted and pinned. Fossil shells, crystals, and fans of feathers take up space. Eggs of exotic birds collect dust on their mottled shells. Taxidermied birds—a raven, an egret, a gannet—and the mounted skeletons of a hawk and a chicken all regard each other from the tops of shelves and ancient writing desks. They’re all labeled, or I wouldn’t know what they are, and I’m sure none of them except the chicken are new. The whole thing looks, again, Victorian, but slightly askew. There’s a bench along the window, and you can sit there and look out into an almost Japanese-looking garden where copper-roofed bird-feeders in the shape of pagodas attract real, live birds. Entirely modern binoculars, two pairs, hang from wrought-iron hooks by the windows, and they are so powerful you can sit there and find out if birds have nose-hairs, if you want to.

Sometimes, in the Mansion, you can hear voices, or people moving, near the stairwell, and nobody is there.

This was my floor. The third floor was similar, and the fourth floor I'll describe later.. The dotted lines separate rooms; I left the doors off for visual clarity. You can see how small our rooms were; mostly around ten feet square. Most were singles, but the larger rooms had two to four beds. The thing in the corner is part of my map of the third floor. I couldn't figure out how to cover it up.
 And how did I get off on this tangent of description? Andy is back from rehab, a lot clearer-headed than he was when he went in. He seems to be mildly obsessed with the bicycles; he can’t seem to let go of his guilt. Aidan is home from the hospital and growing well. Kayla is actually nursing him, so she carries him around with her most of the time—I can’t say I ever expected to see a twelve-year-old’s breast, but if even if I had, this would not have been the context I anticipated. But unlike an adult mother she never has to worry about babysitting. If Kayla wants to do something else, or if something goes wrong, Sadie figures it out. And Aidan sleeps—or refuses to sleep—on the fourth floor with Sadie, not in the dorm with us. We’re on the second floor, and Nora told me that from the third floor they can sometimes hear the baby cry at night, but we can’t. Kayla gets her sleep, or stays up late partying with us like a teenager. No one will give her any alcohol, though—obviously, she’s breastfeeding, but there’s her age, too. She complained that her mother always let her taste drinks when she was a kid, but Meg, who is kind of matronly, said “well, you’re not a kid anymore,” and Kayla hasn’t asked again.

It’s ten days till spring, or mid-spring, the way Kit says it, since she says spring actually began in February, at Brigid, under all that snow. I don’t know what they do here for the spring equinox, but I know enough to guess that they’re going to do something. But you know what? I’m seven years older than Kayla, I can vote, and Meg lets me drink even if the law doesn’t, but there’s still enough of the boy in me that I’m really hoping that on the equinox we’ll get chocolate.

[Next Post: Friday, March 15th: Interlude]

Friday, March 8, 2013

Part 1: Post 13: Bumping into Allen in Church

I had breakfast with Joanna this morning, among other people. I had oatmeal with honey and slivered almonds and she had miso soup. It was snowing again, piling up outside the Dining Hall windows and looking cozy (and advantage to never having to drive anywhere; snow is a lot more fun), and we talked about this and that. I hadn't set out to have breakfast with her, but when I came in I noticed there was a space my her, and it looked like a friendly space, so I occupied it. It was nice.

We talked so much that we didn't eat very quickly, so we were slow leaving the table and watched other people get up to leave while we finished.

"This school has the best looking faculty, have you noticed?" she asked at one point, and giggled. I looked around to see who she might be referring to, but pretty much all of them were in the room. Allen and Greg were standing together with their trays, talking, and wondered if that's who she meant. I've heard people talk about Allen that way, though to me he looks sort of middling. Not "middling" as in "dumpy," and certainly not bad, but just kind of normal. A guy. Greg is old, so I don't see why he'd catch Joanna's eye, but he's tall and skinny, like me, yet he has a certain dignity. He's pretty fit-looking. I kind of hope I look like him when I am in my seventies. And I hope young women think I'm hot when I'm in my seventies.

Kit walked by, and my eyes followed her. I realized Joanna had asked me a question and I had taken too long to answer it.

"Oh, yeah, I guess they're alright," I told her distractedly. She thwacked me with her arm, playfully. She does that a lot, and I really wish she wouldn't.

"I didn't ask you if you're gay," she told me, laughing, "I meant all of them, collectively."

"What? No, I don't care, they're all hot, whatever, it's fine!" I sputtered. I swear, people here make fun of each other for being homophobes the same way we used to call each other "gay" in middle school, it's the weirdest thing. And I make just as much of an ass of myself with my denials, even though I'm neither homophobic nor gay (I stopped that stupid teasing when I was still a kid). Anyway, Joanna kept laughing at me. I waited until she stopped.

"Kit is pretty," I acknowledged, as though I didn't care much one way or the other, but my ears turned red and Joanna started laughing at me again.

"It's alright to have a crush on Kit," she told me, confidently, "everybody does."


Speaking of getting things sorted out and decided, at Ollie's suggestion I've been checking out the area's churches. There are three within easy biking distance: an Episcopal church and a Unitarian Universalist hall in the town to our east, and a Catholic church in the town to our west. I know there's a Friends meeting somewhere around here, too, but I haven't found it yet. There's no Methodist congregation, not for farther than I want to bike, anyway, so I'm going around trying everything. Of course, I haven't been to church, except on Christmas and Easter, for three years, so I don't know why I should care that I can't find a church of my parents' denomination.

So this past week I went and visited the UUs, and who should I bump into there but Allen. He was actually in the pew next to me when I realized he was there, I jumped about a mile high. I swear he does that sort of thing, shows up unexpectedly like that, on purpose. He greeted me in that friendly, but slightly distracted way teachers have when they see students outside of work. After the service, he asked me how I'd liked it.

"Different," I told him. "I liked it, but I'm really not sure how to think about this, I mean, how does one pick a church?"

"Good question," he told me, and obviously meant it. "We can talk about it later, if you want." By "later" I figured he meant back on campus, when he wasn't taking time off. I've noticed the faculty are wholly and generously available to us, except when they're not. I think they actively hide from students when they aren't working--I never see them going into or coming out of their dorm, for example. I let the subject slide.

"So this is you? You're a UU?" I asked him, conversationally. Oh, jeez, that sounds funny, and I totally didn't mean it to, it's actually just what I said, an accidental joke I didn't get until just now. Allen probably noticed it, but did me the favor of not laughing at me. He did smile.

"No, I'm basically a Scientific Pantheist, these days. But I do come to services here a lot. I find them useful, and they suit me."

I was surprised, both because Allen didn't normally volunteer information about himself and because I'd never even heard of Scientific Pantheism before. My confusion must have shown, because he answered the question I hadn't asked.

"Scientific Pantheism," he explained, "is the understanding that all of existence has spiritual meaning, but that its causality can be entirely understood by scientific means. There is no God separate from the Creation."

"Religious atheism?" I hazarded, "like a spirituality for atheists?" Allen made a sound halfway between a grunt and a laugh.

"It's a new term," he acknowledged, "and in my case it's descriptive, not prescriptive. If my ideas change so that the term no longer fits, I will cease using the term."

"Kit said the same thing about Wicca."

Again he responded with a grunt or a laugh.

"Did she? Well, she would. Neither one of us is much for gurus, despite what we do do a living."

"You probably have something else to do. I don't want to keep you," I told him, aware that politeness and force of habit might hold Allen to stand around talking to me longer than he wanted to on a day off. He grinned like he'd been found out and nodded.

"Feel free to come back here," he told me, as we took our leave from each other, "They're a good group of people."

I walked away a little bit, to give him space to stay and mill around a little longer, and then I sat down in an empty pew and thought for a bit. There was a huge, and really lovely panel of stained glass altar piece, and I looked at it for a while and thought about gurus, religious authority, and what Allen and Kit and the others do for a living. I'd always assumed that religion is prescriptive, I guess, but that you choose the religion whose prescription you like. But that doesn't make sense. It's circular, saying I believe something because my pastor tells me to, or the Bible tells me to, but I pick my pastor, Or I read the Bible, because I like what it says. Completely circular.

So, then why do my parents believe what their pastor tells them? They are not circular people. They are not irrational, and they are not pushovers, either. And what do gurus have to do with it, and why did Allen imply that he is one?

I suppose there are really two paths, prescriptive and descriptive, that's the way out of the circle, to keep them distinct. If you're going to let someone else tell you what to do, it must be because they either have some genuine authority, or because you think they know something you don't. If you're going to be judging the validity of the instruction itself, you might as well stand up and admit you're following reason, not anyone else's doctrine.

You know, I like the idea of following my own reason, it sounds very heroic and noble, but if I'd never accepted any outside teaching I would never have learned to read. Reading was not inside me, waiting to be liberated by self-reflection. And if I wanted no outside instruction now, why would I be at college?

[Next Post: March 11th, describing campus in Spring]

Monday, March 4, 2013

Part 1: Post 12: New Ways

You know, it's an odd thing, but everything here is about as environmentally sensitive as you can get and nobody ever says anything about it.

This is the Great Hall, except I left out most of the furnature because I worried it would make the picture too busy.
The lights, for example. Not only do people always turn them off when they leave the room, half the  time, they don't even turn them on. I mean, the lights are only turned on if someone is going to be using a room, they aren't left on for the convenience of people who might be passing through. And if someone is just moving through the Great Hall on the way somewhere, or poking into the Rose Room to retrieve a lost hat, if the light is off they'll let it stay that way. Everybody carries a little flashlight on their belts, just in case, and half the time I think people just rely on memory to get around. I've gone into the bathroom in the middle of the night, switched on the light, and found two guys already in there, peeing in the dark. They both told me to turn the light out, it hurt their eyes. I suppose this habit of not using the lights if you're just going to be in there a minute saves a lot of power, considering how many people there are on campus and how often somebody or other is just poking in to any given place, but it's kind of weird.

And nobody has said anything about doing it for the environment. If you leave the light on, some senior student will just remind you to turn it off, as if you forgot. If you say anything about it, they'll act like it's just entirely self-evident not to use unnecessary electricity. Except for phone and internet service, the whole campus is off the grid, so I suppose electricity is in kind of short supply anyway. There are solar collectors on all the roofs and a couple of small wind generators, and when it isn't sunny there's usually a breeze, but I'm sure there's none to waste...but nobody talks about why we're off the grid. Everywhere else I've been, if something's environmental, they crow about it. Recycled paper! 10% post-consumer content! Recycled plastic lunch trays! A new initiative to derive 30% of all our electricity from sustainable sources by 2015! I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. And here they've actually done it, they've gone all the way, done everything I can think of to "green" the campus, and it's a total non-issue, a self-evident value.

The food, as I've said, is local. The water is well-water and filtered rainwater--all the rain from the roofs drains into cisterns under ground or in the basements. All the buildings have separate black water and grey water systems, and the black water is processed on site to separate the liquids from the solids and the solids are composted.The liquids are filtered and sent out through a septic field, but I've heard there are plans to build a "living machine," a series of wetland gardens where micro-organisms filter the waste water by living in it. I just attended a talk on all of this stuff today, explaining how the various campus systems work. They make their own soap from animal fat and ashes! These guys are hard core (though most people actually buy their soap from off campus; I know I do).

The cars and other vehicles on campus all run on veggie diesel, which they make here on campus using donated used cooking oil from local restaurants. The cars smell like french fries going down the road, I am not even kidding. And of course, there are the bicycles I keep mentioning.

The bicycles are a good segue into the other thing I wanted to talk about today, which is that we have a new student. I was there when he showed up. His name is Andy, and he's in my dorm.

I understand it's really unusual for someone to come in after Brigid like this, but his is kind of a special case. He's in a bad way, as my mother would say.

So I was in the front office, getting ready to use the phone there, when this man came in. He looked a bit scruffy, thinning hair, maybe in his mid-thirties or so. This was about two days ago, now. So, he walked up to Sharon and, very nervously told her that he had returned the bicycle. I put the phone down to listen, because I thought it was odd that someone I didn't know at all had borrowed a campus bicycle. I thought I knew all the students by this time, so who was he, and why was he so nervous? But Sharon didn't seem to think it was at all strange, she just thanked him and acted like she was about to go back to her work.

"But I'm the one who took it," the man clarified, becoming even more nervous, and I began to see what was going on. The bicycles aren't locked, and outsiders do occasionally come in. I mean, I did, I used to be an outsider. But Sharon refused to acknowledge the thief.

"Yes," she, said to him, "thank you for bringing it back."

"No, you don't understand!" he said, growing desperate, "I'm the one who took it, I stole it, I'm the one who took your missing bicycle!" But Sharon still refused to get angry.

"Yes," she acknowledged, "I knew what you meant, but you see, I don't personally own any bicycles, so you can't steal one. These bicycles are available to be borrowed. You took one and you returned it, so there isn't any problem. Now, is there anything else I can help you with?"

I was having a really hard time not laughing, but Sharon stayed completely straight-faced, bright-eyed, professional, and chipper. The man stared at her.

"Jesus," he whispered, and I thought he was just using the name as an expression until he said it again, but louder. "Jesus! You're talking like Jesus! No one's ever actually treated me like this before! Are you Christian?"

Sharon shook her head.

"Is that a problem for you?" she asked.

"No, I don't know, I mean, I don't know who I am to have a problem with anything," the man babbled, vaguely. Then he refocused. "But Christ is here! I know it! The spirit of Christ is here!" He looked around himself in a kind of crazy wonder and then, to my amazement, he completely broke down. "Let me stay here!" he begged, "Please let me stay! I knew this was a college, but I didn't know what kind--please teach me whatever miracles you work here! I can't pay anything, I don't have any money, but I'll work, I'll do anything, I'll borrow money, I swear I will, just please let me stay!"

He was half raving, but to my ear, he had just passed the entrance exam. Sharon evidently thought so, too, because she got him settled in a chair and told him he could stay.

"But tell me where you're coming from," she asked, gently, "why are you so upset?"

The man introduced himself by name and, with evident discomfort, explained that he'd just gotten sober. I got the feeling he didn't just mean he'd quit alcohol. He said he was on probation after a string of small thefts, mostly small amounts of money or things he could use or sell to support himself. He couldn't seem to hold a job anymore. He was homeless, and had been living in a shelter in the small city nearby, but he'd left because some of the other men there were using drugs. He'd tried to join a local yoga retreat center, but that had fallen through and he was currently sleeping in somebody's garage. He'd wanted the bike to try to get a job, but it wasn't clear how the bike was supposed to help given what he'd said about being unable to hold a job, and at this point his story seemed to get confused. Anyway, he'd recently gotten religion and sobriety and decided he had to give up the bike...given his history, I wondered if he'd been hoping to get arrested so at least he could sleep warm. Listening to him, I was torn between a desire to help him and a desire to be as far away from such an evidently broken person I could get. Sharon, too, seemed lost in thought.

But then she appeared to notice me and called me over. Andy was evidently quite startled that I was there and embarrassed that I had seen his outburst. I smiled at him, lamely. Sharon introduced me to him and asked me to see if I could please go find Sarah. Sarah is the farm manager, and I think she's the only Christian on staff, so I assume Sharon wanted him to be able to talk with a coreligionist before he really committed himself to this place. I wondered briefly why she didn't just send me to find Ollie, but maybe she was trying to protect Andy's privacy.

With that possibility in mind, when I found Sarah I sent her on to the office alone. By the time I got back to the office to make my phone call, Andy and Sarah were both gone and I asked no questions. But now Andy is back, he just arrived today and got settled. He's wrapped up in a borrowed blanket eating sandwiches and cookies by the wood stove now. I think he's leaving tomorrow for some sort of in patient treatment. Some of the senior students have guessed that he's showing signs of chronic hypothermia, as well as lingering symptoms of substance abuse. He really should have gone in today, I suppose, or even two days ago, but I gather there's been some struggle to secure funding for him. Obviously, he has no insurance, and I understand the rules about paying for the care of the indigent are somewhat Byzantine.

I am just blown away by the generosity of this place. It's the same thing as the little tin cup they gave  me my first night, except of course it's so much bigger. He just shows up on our doorstep, passes the exam to get in, and now we're treating him like family, bending over backwards to help him get the care he needs to get healthy again. I'm not sure he has any family; if he has, they're not taking care of him.

I guess some of us come here for Harry Potter and some of us come here for Jesus, and I suppose all of us are going to find what we need here, somehow.

[Next Post: March 8th: Bumping Into Allen in Church]