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, May 12, 2013

Part 3: Post 4: Island

[Note; I'd wanted to leave out the name of the island, in order to further protect to privacy of the school, but I think hiding its identity is probably both unnecessary and impossible. Yet I think referring to the place this way lends a glamorous mystery to the tale: The Island. So, I shall keep it up.]

Today we began that trip to the island I’ve been talking about. 

Kit actually looks way better than this
 It’s all of us yearlings, except Kayla and Nora (Kayla wouldn’t leave Aidan and Nora’s mother wouldn’t let her go), and all of the faculty members, except Greg. The Masters aren’t camping with us, I don’t know where they are, but they rode up with us, in two of the big veggie-Diesel vans with two trailers full of camping gear towed behind.  We’re all wearing normal clothes, not uniforms, and of course we have to because we’re off-campus, but seeing the Masters out of uniform is always strange. I keep coming back to this, but it keeps on being true; I’ve gotten so used to seeing other students in white and the faculty in brown that brown uniforms say faculty in my mind. To see them dressed, not only the same as we are, but also to see them and us out of uniform together, dressed like...well, to go back to Harry Potter, dressed like muggles—it’s like seeing the cast of some fantasy movie out of character. They look so ordinary.

And for today, they were acting pretty ordinary. Except when they took a turn driving (we can’t drive the vans), they sat mixed in with us, like we were all fellow students off on spring break or something. Kit, especially, looked like just some teenager in her jeans and her hoody, which is doubly strange because she has to be in her forties. She sat next to me and laughed and giggled and flirted with all of us for a couple of hours, and then she fell asleep, her head tipped back over the back of the seat, her mouth open. It looked uncomfortable, and I kept wishing she would decide to rest her head on my shoulder instead, but she never did.

 When we got to the campground the masters stopped acting like students. They unloaded us and our stuff and drove off, headed for some other campsite, hiding from us on their time off, as they usually do. A few minutes later, Charlie came back to us on foot to help us figure out how to set up camp. I mean, most of us have gone camping before, but not with close to thirty people. Charlie knew how we could best organize ourselves, how to set up the kitchen tarps and so on, and he stood around issuing efficient little pointers with the same clear economy that he uses to explain how to recognize plants. That done, our first class on the island began.

This trip is organized as a series of seminars and talks. We’re running the camp ourselves, but the five Masters are going to take turns teaching us whatever each of them thinks the Island can best help us learn. Tonight, Charlie began with a crash course in Leave No Trace.  

Leave No Trace is a system of habits and guidelines to use so people don’t damage wild areas while enjoying them. It’s like a more detailed version of “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” Obviously, don’t litter, but there are also rules about what to do with dishwater, how to store food, how to take a crap in the woods (dig a hole, far away from water), and even how and where to walk. You can’t step on vegetation, and if there is a mud puddle in the middle of the trail, you have to walk through it because walking around it makes it bigger. There are all sorts of new habits to get into for different situations, and there are a lot of otherwise entirely normal things we’re supposed to remember not to do. No loud noises, no bright colors, no approaching or even imitating animals (it irritates them), no, no, no, no, no.

 But before we could decide that Charlie’s directives were all just a big pile of NO, he lead us up a trail away from camp for maybe ten minutes, if that, and then told us to head off-trail (not in single-file, as that would have made a new trail) to a sort of open space in the woods where a couple of trees had died. Everything, the ground and the rocks and some of the fallen trees, was covered by thick moss. Drippy-looking hair-like growths clung to the dead trees. The whole area seemed dim and wolfish under the shadow of the living conifers around us. Charlie sat us all down on fallen tree-trunks and rocks and then told us all to shut up for a while, and then he shut up, too.

The dusk was starting to gather, collecting in blue pockets behind trees and under rocks, while what must have been a half-decent sunset glowed behind the just-budding tree branches above us. It’s much earlier in spring here than it was back on campus, since we’re farther north, and it’s pretty cold, but I don’t think anyone minded sitting there awhile. A single bird sang to itself and its fellow birds. An owl hooted. Another, the same kind, hooted back from farther away. A deer, a young buck, wandered towards us through the trees, minding his own business, then snorted in alarm, evidently surprised to find us there. He turned and ran, his footfalls sounding hard and hollow for a few seconds before he was gone. I was tickled to think I’d spotted the deer before the deer spotted me. Charlie spoke.

“That deer was minding his own business, and he ran when he saw us. He does not want us here. If we leave signs we have been here, that deer won’t come back here, or, if he does, he won’t use this place the same way again. And we couldn’t come back here, either, because this place, as we see it now, would be gone. If we want to be able to visit places where humans do not go, we have to pretend that, as humans, we have not been here. So, no to leaving unnecessary traces—and no traces are necessary here. But yes to this. Yes to this. If, when we leave, that deer can come back and go about his business, we’ve done our job.”

 While he had been talking, the night had almost fallen, but Charlie thinks of everything and so he pulled out flashlights from his bag. There were only six flashlights for almost thirty people, but he said we could learn to share. He sent us back to camp in three groups, each staggered behind the last by about five minutes, since one of the rules of Leave No Trace is to hike in smaller groups. I heard Charlie get up behind me as my group, the last group, moved out, but he didn’t come back to campus with us. And, come to think of it, I’m not sure if he had a flashlight. He did not have shoes.

I’m writing this by flashlight in my tent, which smells of mustiness and people and cold, wet socks. Tomorrow we’re sitting zazen on the rock cliffs above the crashing sea.

[Next Post: Friday, May 17th: The Explorers]

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