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.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Part 5: Post 9: Complex Systems

It’s rained the past week, mostly, and it feels like a Fall rain. I can’t explain how. My friends back at my old college are starting classes again—they’re sophomores now. Since we don’t have distinct classes here, I guess I’ll never be a college sophomore. Not that I mind, I don’t think I’m missing out on anything that important, it’s just odd to think about. Here, the apples are coming in, bushels and bushels of apples. We’ve had apples before, but not like this. I still hear cicadas sometimes, and there are days when it’s still warm enough to bike down and swim at the lake, but I agree with Kit; it’s fall, now.

My birthday is coming up in a few weeks, and my mother asked me for my birthday list, where I want to go for dinner…part of me thinks I’m getting a bit old to let my mother orchestrate my birthday, but part of me also thinks I can be an adult the other 364 days of the year, so why not let her? Anyway, I like presents. 

And the semester continues. The fourth class I’m taking is called Complex Systems. It’s a physics class, the third one I’ve taken here. And it’s a bit different from the other ones I’ve taken. I mean, I’d never taken a physics class before this year, but I thought I knew what physics is. I basically thought it was about the stuff they write science fiction stories about—space and time and subatomic particles—and all that stuff came up in the first two physics classes I took. It was interesting, but it seemed a little remote. This is different. This is the physics of life.

Complex systems science is what I’d always thought was called chaos theory, not that I really knew what that was—I remember one of the characters in Jurassic Park was a “chaotician” and kept saying “life will find a way,” and otherwise making a lot of dark and snarky comments about the inadvisability of reviving dinosaurs. I’d gotten the idea that chaos theory meant studying things that are unpredictable, like the weather.

And it turns out that’s both exactly right and exactly wrong. Studying the weather does involve complex systems science, and on one level it is impossible to predict the weather exactly. But on another level, the weather is amazingly predictable. Like, we all know what a summer storm is like. We even know what those storms smell like. That’s not unpredictability. Turns out, I’m a complex system, too—no one knows exactly what I’m going to do next, but I’m predictably Daniel.

What I’d always thought science was, it turns out, is only half of science, what's called reductionism—the idea that you can thoroughly understand a thing by taking it apart and studying its pieces. And obviously that works, sometimes, but it seems kind of sterile. Like, I’ve always liked science, but I’m not sure I liked scientists—not that I knew any, but I imagined them as guys in white lab coats doing weird things to animals and having no social life…obviously, I didn’t think about any of this carefully, I’m not an idiot. But, thinking about it, reductionism is sterile. Because sterile things, by definition, are not alive—you sterilize things by killing all the live things on them. And reductionism is terrible at understanding life. If you take me apart, you won’t learn anything about me—I won’t be there anymore. 

Life, love, spirit, all these things have always been things science—reductionist—science couldn’t explain. I was raised with that, the idea that some things can’t be explained. But there’s this other strain of science that isn’t reductionist that’s been around all along, and complex systems science is part of that. At first, when the ally teaching the class said that, I wasn’t sure that I liked it. I thought maybe studying some things would make them less magical. But I think I was still thinking in terms of reductionism, sterility. Complex systems science is not sterile, because complex systems, by definition, cannot be sterile.  We’re spending most of the class just trying to wrap our heads around what a complex system is-- complex systems are things that are more than the sum of their parts, and that more only exists while the system functions. When the system stops functioning, something is lost—so they can die. So maybe they’re alive. I mean, I’m alive, but hurricanes and ecosystems are also complex systems. Since they can die, maybe they’re alive. They cannot be precisely predicted, so maybe they have free will.

I’ve read people talking about quantum physics as inherently magical, but we talked about that last semester in Einstein and Atom, and it seemed clear to me that isn’t right. Things work differently at the quantum level—that’s kind of the whole point of quantum physics—so the fact that an electron can disappear over here and immediately appear over there without traveling from one place to another doesn’t mean that a whole person can teleport. But I’m starting to think that maybe complex systems science is magical—that magic is not separate from the rest of the world.

I saw a phoebe today, in the lilacs by the old nest. It perched there for a minute or so, flew down to the ground and caught something I couldn't see, and flew away. Maybe it was one of the chicks, back for a moment to see the place where it started out.

[Next Post: Connections]

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Part 5: Post 8: Environmentalism for Dummies

[Sorry this post is a day late--the baby was sick over the weekend and we all spent Sunday night in the hospital. Monday I had paying work to catch up on, and we're all exhausted. Thank--whatever it is one thanks--she's ok now.--D.]

I was on my way to lunch today when I found a feather, dark blue and black and white with stripes and splotches. It was just lying on the ground. I picked it up to look at it--the tip was kind of see-through, like the way a t-shirt gets when you've had it for too many years. I've been noticing feathers lately.There seem to be a lot of them on the ground. I was thinking I should maybe take this one back to my room and make an altar of my desk with it, the way Charlie does with pine cones and what-not. And right as I thought of him, Charlie walked by, also on his way to lunch.

"Hey, Charlie!" I called, on impulse, "Come look at this, this is cool." Almost as soon as I said it I regretted it, worried he wouldn't think much of an old feather. But he came over to me and I showed him what I'd found. "What kind is it?" I asked him, though I was pretty sure I actually knew.

"Blue jay," he told me, looking at it with some interest. I didn't regret calling him over anymore.

"Charlie, look at the tip--it's all sort of thread-bare. I've found five or six feathers like this in the last couple of weeks. I can't decide if it's unusual, or if I've only just now started seeing these things. I've never noticed thread-bare feathers before." Charlie's eyes lit a moment, an almost catlike excitement, but the rest of his face remained calm, focused. Calmly, he looked at the feather with me.

"That is something," he agreed. And I almost missed it. It took me a good couple of seconds before I did a kind of double-take. Charlie made a visible effort not to laugh at me.

"Oh, you mean it's 'Something,'?" I asked. In the class, Messing Around Outdoors, Charlie had given us a mysterious assignment to show him Something, and four weeks into the semester I don't think any of us had been able to figure out what he meant. He grinned and nodded. "But I wasn't meaning to attempt the assignment!" I protested, realizing, too late, that I shouldn't try to talk my teacher out of giving me credit for something. Sometimes I just can't shut up.

"Too bad," Charlie told me, lightly. "You get credit for it anyway."

"But why? What did I do right that Donna did wrong?" Donna had written up this pretty little note about a butterfly wing and a spider's web, but it had cut no mustard with Charlie. I didn't think he was going to tell me at first, he just looked at me oddly, like he knew a secret and was trying to figure out if I knew it, too.

"You showed me something, something you thought worth looking at," he told me, "not your best guess on what would get you a good grade, and not your thoughts projected into something. You let the world in."

I wasn't sure how to respond to this. I think I grinned nervously or something.

"Why is the feather like this?" I asked, finally. "Is it unusual that there seem to be so many?"

"What do you think? What's your best guess?"

"I don't know," I began. "Maybe feathers get like that when they brush against things? I'm pretty sure there weren't so many feathers earlier in the year. Are there more birds on campus now or something? Or has somebody been letting the cats out more often?"

"Good thinking. You're half-right. It's molting season. They can't grow new feathers and breed at the same time, and they can't grow new feathers while they're migrating. New feathers must be metabolically expensive, or something. So they do it now, after the chicks fledge, between things. The wear on the tip is because the feather is old. It's an end-of-season feather. Kill sites usually have a lot of feathers, not just one at a time."

"Do blue jays migrate?" I asked in surprise. "I thought I saw some here last winter." Charlie shrugged.

"Some do, some don't. Nobody knows why." With another smile and a curt little nod, Charlie excused himself and went inside. I suppose he was hungry.

It's a curious thing--sometimes it seems so strange that Charlie is here. I mean here in a social or institutional sense, not here as in campus. Sometimes it seems like he must have popped out of the ground like some kind of male dryad, he belongs here in that sense, but he kind of sticks out among the others. He talks about science while pretty much everybody else talk about magic and mystery. Or Magick and Mystery, I suppose. I can hear the capital letters, almost, when Kit talks. But nobody else says "I don't know," or "nobody knows" as often as Charlie does. I know Mystery is a but different than mystery in the common sense, that it means a bit more, but I think not knowing--and trying to know--must be part of it.

Speaking of science, I wanted to talk about Environmentalism for Dummies, the other class I'm taking with Charlie this semester. In some ways it's the opposite of Messing Around Outdoors. The other one is the lighthearted, deceptively easy-looking thing, which this one is quite obviously a very hard class. There is a ton of homework, for example. Charlie reads voraciously and seems to think everyone else should, too. Fortunately, all our books for this class are popular science books, and very readable. In Intro to Ecology Charlie had us us reading a couple of actual research papers, alongside the books on the syllabus, because he was trying to introduce us to ecology as a discipline, as a structure. This time, though, it's all about content, and as the name implies, he's assuming at least some of his students are not interested in the science so he wants the content to be as accessible as possible. So that means popular science books written for ordinary people. We read and discus them, and Charlie fills in missing pieces during his lectures. We started out with Silent Spring and now we're into Song of the Dodo.

Rocking Llama in the Great Hall
We don't have enough of these books for us each to borrow one, and most of us are pretty close to broke so we can't buy them. Between our library, the town library, people buying their own copies, and Charlie getting a few to lend from previous students, we've collected about five copies of each of the books on our syllabus. Five books for fifteen people. Fortunately, we all live together,so that makes it easy to share. On Charlie's suggestion, we put all our books in a couple of milk crates in the Great Hall of the Mansion and we return them there whenever we're not reading.

The point of all this reading and discussion and lectures is to communicate the science behind the major environmental problems we hear about: pollution, extinction, invasive species, and global warming, mostly.

As Charlie said early in the course, "if your human mother was sick, you'd damn well want to find out why, right?"

[Next Post: Friday August 30: Complex Systems]

Friday, August 23, 2013

Part 5: Post 7: Lies, Statistics, and Illusion

The Lies, Statistics, and Illusions class has now met five times, so I can talk about it with some sense
Classic Illusion
that I know what I'm talking about. The semester is only in its fourth week, but the semester is ten weeks long and these classes all have twelve meetings, so they each take turns meeting twice a week.

This class isn't required--none of the classes I'm taking this semester are, but they are kind of the default options for meeting our credit requirements in specific areas. For example, this class carries three credits, two in psychology and one in what they call earth science literacy, which is kind of a catchall. We need more credits in all those areas, but we don't have to take this particular class to get them. We could take a whole series of workshops and seminars or design an independent study instead. Or an ally might teach a different but comparable elective at some point. But I actually think everyone who can is taking this course--people say it's fun.

I didn't know, at the beginning of the semester, how a class that includes statistical literacy could be fun. I'm starting to take these kinds of things on faith, so I signed up for it, I just didn't know how Allen was going to pull it off. I shouldn't have worried; Allen's classes are almost always fun, which is one reason he's the second most popular teacher here, after Kit.

The basic principle of the class is that human brains are not very good at certain kinds of tasks, and that means we make certain predictable mistakes that are exploitable by both illusionists and less honest manipulators. Or, as Allen said the first day;

"Basically, you're stupid. But I'm stupid, too, so don't worry too much about it. Even the smartest people are stupid sometimes. But the problem is that we're predictably stupid. That's how stage magic works. If I show you a card," and he made a card appear in his hand, "I can be sure that none of you saw where it came from. Not that some of you didn't see it, or that most of you didn't see it, but that every single one of you didn't see me pick up the card and get ready to show it to you. Every single one of you made exactly the same perceptual mistake at exactly the same time, and you'll keep on making it, even if you make up your minds not to. Here, I'll do it slowly for you--"

And he made the card appear and disappear for us several times, but none of us ever saw where it went or where it came from. We tried guessing--asking if it was up his sleeve and so forth, but he showed us the insides of his sleeves and both his empty hands, and everywhere else we thought he might be hiding a card. No card. Then the card reappeared.

"But what makes you think you can actually trust your senses to find the hidden card when you know you couldn't see it when I moved it?" he asked, after a few minutes of this. We were all silent.

He wouldn't tell us how he had hidden the card. He doesn't give away professional secrets except to students actually learning to be magicians. He did show us several non-professional illusions, just to convince us of the limitations of our perceptions. One I'd actually seen before.

It turns out that the retinas in our eyes are not actually photo-sensitive across their entire surface--there's a blind spot in each eye where the optic nerve passes through. To notice this blind spot draw two small crosses on an otherwise blank piece of paper a few inches apart. Hold the paper close to your face so that each eye can look straight ahead to the cross right in front of it. Then, without turning your head at all, close your right eye and look at the right cross with your left eye. The left cross vanishes.

Here, it works on a computer screen, too. Try it;

                                     x                                                                      x

I did this in school in fourth grade and I thought it was cool then. I think it's cool now. It's kind of neat to see something vanish like that. But Allen asked a question none of us thought to ask in fourth grade;

"Why don't we see the blind spots under regular conditions? Why does our field of vision look continuous when we know for sure that it isn't?"

We guessed that maybe one eye compensates for the other, since one eye can see where the other one cannot. Allen conceded that this guess what reasonable, but then asked why the blind spot doesn't show up when you shut one eye. And it doesn't; we all tried it. Even through just one eye, the visual field looks continuous unless you do the exercise with the crosses.

"I'll give you a hint," Allen offered. "Does the exercise have to be done on a blank background?"

It does, more or less. If you place a fingertip over the crosses above and try the exercise, one fingertip vanishes. If you try again with your fingertips held up in the air, so you can see the rest of the world behind them, the trick doesn't work. Your finger-tip looks kind of fuzzy and vague, but it doesn't vanish. We couldn't figure it out. Allen explained that the brain fills in the blind spots based on what it can see. Using a blank background forces the brain to fill in the blind spots with blankness, which is why we can finally notice the blind spots that way.

"We don't actually perceive what our senses pick up. We are not computers recording incoming audio, video, and olfactory feeds," Allen explained. "Instead, we perceive a model of the world constructed by our brains based on our sensory input. Usually the filters and shortcuts our brains use produce a manageable and reasonably accurate model. It doesn't matter that we have those blind spots, for example, and being able to perceive them all the time would be pointlessly distracting. Occasionally, however, the model fails. And we make a mistake to pretend it doesn't--to rely too much on our subjective certainty."

From then on, that became the rallying cry of the class--don't rely too much on subjective certainty. Allen has been using every class to trick us, one way or another, and then explain what quirk of the mind made us vulnerable to the trick. And we've been trying to avoid getting tricked and it never works. He always gets us. Sometimes the tricks are not so much about us being wrong as predictable. He asks us questions and records how many people gave which answer--and then shows us a poster he'd obviously made up ahead of time showing how many people gave each answer. And the poster is always right--the poster usually lists a range, but the real answer is always inside the range and the range is narrow enough to be embarrassing. It's like he knows what we're thinking better than we do.

At first, the tricks were mostly about perception or memory.  For example, he showed us a video of people in black shirts and white shirts passing basketballs around and had us count the number of times the people in the white shirts passed the ball. Then he asked us another question about what we remembered from the video, which half of us got wrong. Click on the link to see it yourself--I won't ruin it for you. It's not an optical illusion, it's a selective attention illusion that results in about half of all people remembering what they see wrong.

In more recent class meetings he's been shifting over to tricks based on emotional reactions--I don't mean overt emotional reactions; you don't think you're reacting emotionally at all. I mean tricks that make you come to what feels like a rational conclusion that is completely wrong and completely predictable because your subconscious mind has been hooked. It's funny, but it's also scary, to see how easily we can all be manipulated. And as Allen points out, con artists, liars, advertisers, and propaganda producers know all of these tricks and use them all the time. There's a reason why they call this class "Defense Against the Dark Arts."

And in each class he's been talking about how to respond to these tricks. Because there is no way to not be tricked. You can't turn the vulnerabilities off. But he's been teaching us to recognize where our weaknesses are, to step back and think clearly, to withhold snap judgements, or even just admit we don't understand or don't know something. But he's also been asking how we might try finding out the truth behind these illusions and mistakes. He's brainstorming with us. And this week he started explaining how to find out. This is where mathematical and statistical literacy come in.

Mathematical literacy--I'm good at math, though I'm aware that not everybody did. I did not realize that a third of my fellow students didn't know how many thousands make a billion and half of those don't know how many millions make a billion. Now, what I want to know is how does a person know how many thousands make a million and how many millions make a billion, without also knowing how many thousands make a billion? But a lot of us don't. And even I got caught in the trick, a complicated word program equivalent to making six and half a dozen seem like different amounts. Makes you wonder what the point is of news reports about the national debt, whether they mean anything to anyone. Statistical literacy is the same kind of deal--like noticing that ten percent and one in ten are exactly the same, even though they hook the subconscious mind differently. Or hearing a news report about some product that doubles the risk of cancer or something and remembering to ask what the risk was to begin with--because if risk doubles from 0.000002% to 0.000004% there's really no reason to worry about it.

But it's more than that. Because as Allen says we can be really wrong without knowing it--while actually being completely sure we're not wrong. Confirmation bias, for example, makes it easier to remember events that seem to confirm things you already think are true. So if you think your magic lucky baseball cards works you'll remember all the times things went well while you were carrying the baseball card and forget about most of the times things didn't go well, even if the card doesn't actually change your luck at all. Statistical tests are the equivalent of looking at the crosses on a blank background--the trick that reveals the illusion, the way to force the mind to see past its vulnerabilities.

Allen's daughter, Alexis
"People tend to think that science and magic are different, that scientific method undoes magic somehow," Allen said. "I happen to think magic is more powerful than that. Science as we know it was invented by philosophers and alchemists--people who were practicing magic. And what we can do today, in terms of harnessing and manipulating natural forces and the human mind, dwarfs anything that could be done in ancient times. The fact of the matter is that when magicians invented the scientific method, they got a lot better at magic."                      

[Next Post: Monday August 26 Environmentalism for Dummies]

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Part 5: Post 6: Messing Around Outdoors

I decided this time I should wait until I've been in a class for a while before writing about it.

Caterpillar on a Thread
Messing Around Outdoors has now met three times. As I think I mentioned, Charlie teaches it and it is his most popular, and probably easiest class. It's like all the fun parts of several different science without much in the way of homework, but I'm inclined to think that 'easiest' and 'easy' are not the same thing, and that we're going to get out what we put into this. And of course, Charlie is still being Charlie and therefore a bit difficult to deal with.

For example, the first day he said that he wouldn't assign homework every week, and on the weeks when he didn't assign anything specific we were to work on a semester-long assignment; to find something.

Find what?

We have to figure that out. When we think we've found out, we're supposed to write him a note explaining what we found and why we think it's "something," with drawings or photographs if necessary, and he'll tell us privately whether we've succeeded.


We'd pretty clearly been given a puzzle or a riddle (riddles for homework are not actually uncommon here), so we spent a while chipping away at it, to see if we could get any hints. He answered all our questions, except the one about what "something" is to begin with.

Could we talk about our attempts with each other?

"Yes, but don't tell anyone if you figure it out. That means no asking if someone's figured it out, either."

Is "something" necessarily the same for all of us?

"No, not necessarily."

Is it possible for one of us to genuinely think we've found something, but not actually have found it? This question was to find out if many "something" could be just anything. But Charlie said yes, failure is possible. If we didn't find "something" by the end of the class, would we fail the course?

"No, not necessarily. Not if you've done everything else you need to to pass. But extra points if you do find it."

I don't know what Charlie means by "extra points," given that we don't work on a points system to begin with. It's all just pass/fail; you can't pass better than the next person. But he talks about extra points, or points deducted, fairly often anyway. As in extra points to the first person who notices a wasp nest (never "be careful, there's a wasp nest" not in class, anyway), or extra points to anyone who asks a question Charlie can't answer.

I know of two people who have tried to show Charlie "something" so far. Brad told everyone he was going to send Charlie a note, but he wouldn't tell us what he found and he hasn't told us what Charlie said to him about it. We could assume this means Brad was successful, but I do not; Brad isn't the type to share his failures. Donna did tell us what she found and how Charlie told her it wasn't right. She'd found a piece of butterfly wing stuck in a spider's web and she wrote this awesome little note all about the symbolic significance this thing had for her. She was really proud of it, but she says Charlie just looked it over quickly while she waited and handed it back to her.

"This is about you. It isn't about anything you found," he told her, dismissively. "It doesn't show me anything. Try again when you can show me something." Just telling the story she looked like she was about to cry. I don't know if she cried in front of him or not, but he must have been able to tell she was upset.

"He told me that I shouldn't try to seek his approval because his approval is too rare and not important anyway," she told us, wiping away tears with angry stabs of her palm. "What the hell? I know he's brilliant, I'm glad he's here, but why does he have to be such an ass?"

"I don't think he's being an ass," I ventured. "I think he was giving you pretty good advice, actually."

I have not tried finding "something" yet. I have been enjoying the class. It's been all field trips so far, and all of them on campus or in the school woodlot. The first week we hunted caterpillars and counted the number of different kinds of insect damage we could find on plants. We didn't collect anything except pictures, and we looked up as many of them as we could in the guides Charlie brought. He seems to know most of them from memory, but insisted we try looking them up anyway. "Extra points to whoever spots any of these species in adult form!" he told us.

The second week we spent estimating the heights and ages of various trees. Getting the height involved some geometry; you find a stick the length of your arm and hold it vertically at arm's length while standing far enough from the tree that the top of the tree looks even with the top of the stick. That gives you a big right triangle (your eye, the base of the tree, and the top of the tree) and a little right triangle (your eye, the base of the stick, and the top of the stick). Since you know the lengths of all the little triangle's sides and you know one of its angles, you can calculate the angle where the triangle meets your eye. The big triangle has that angle, too, so now you know two of its angles. Pace out the distance to the base of the tree and you have all the information you need to calculate the height of the tree.

Age was both harder and easier. We just had to guess, based on size, species, and bark characteristics, but after we'd all taken our guesses on a half a dozen trees, Charlie grinned and pulled out one of those big screws they use to core trees. He showed us how to use it and we practiced counting rings, but it turns out he's cored most of the trees around here already and has most of their ages memorized. This is astounding, but in Charlie it isn't that surprising. These trees are his friends, and I know how old my friends are, after all. He showed us one that he says is exactly the same age he is. "It's grown faster than me, though," he commented.

This week he set us to reading the history of the landscape based on the shapes of bumps on the ground and what-not. There was a book we had to read to prepare for doing this, but I wasn't surprised that most of us couldn't see a fraction of what the author of the book evidently could. What did surprise me was that for once Charlie didn't seem to know much more about it than we did. He openly admitted that he didn't know the answers to most of the questions he was asking. I remember seeing a copy of the same book on Charlie's bookshelf and noticing that it seemed much less badly worn than the others. On a hunch, I've just checked its copyright date; the book is only three years old. Charlie's still learning, I guess.

Bumps on the Ground that Tell a Story

Kayla is one of my classmates, now. I've been in classes with her before, but only because she liked to sit in on the lectures sometimes. This is the only class she's actually being graded on, and she's been taking it all year--Charlie offers it every semester, but since different things happen outdoors in different seasons, the course is always different. She says that in earlier semesters they counted amphibian eggs in vernal pools, took an inventory of road-killed animals over the course of a week, examined soil samples, picked apart scat, and dozens of other projects. I wish I'd spent all year when I was twelve or thirteen messing about outdoors.

I think this class is how Charlie teaches most of the students--everyone who isn't me--to begin growing some ears or eyes. Rick called it "building intimacy with the world." But this is also one of the most wondrous things we've done here yet. Like, Kit talks about magic, as do Greg and Joy and--Allen, of course, but his magic is of a different sort, though he keeps saying it isn't. Kayla says that over the summer they would sometimes have additional class meetings in the evenings, and on one of those Charlie took them to a clearing in the woods and played a recording of a barred owl--and the owls came, maybe a half dozen of them, and replied to the recording and then spoke to each other back and forth, a conclave of owls, and argument of owls, and sometimes one of them would fly across the clearing and Kayla would see it,for a moment, silhouetted against the stars. That is magic.

Also, Charlie seems to be having fun.

Barred Owl

[Next Post: Friday August 23 Lies, Statistics, and Illusion]

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Part 5: Post 5: Lying to Lambs

Goat Kids
I don’t spend a lot of time paying attention to the farm animals here, but I have friends who do. Sometimes, of course, the animals are hard to ignore, like when they’re pastured right in front of a building I use every day. When the sheep and goats were in front of the Dining Hall I liked to stop and watch them sometimes, especially the lambs and kids playing and getting into little arguments. There are more sheep than goats, I guess because the sheep give wool. 

There are a lot of farm animals here, whether I pay attention to them or not. There are two flocks of chickens, plus another flock of chicks—they keep them separate so if a stray dog or a fox or something gets into one flock we won’t lose all our chickens at once. They let each flock out to run around and hunt bugs every third day.  I can usually hear the roosters, one for each flock of hens. There are enough sheep and goats that we can all get a little milk and cheese every day. There are Joy’s horses. There are two dogs we keep to guard the animals. There are four or five barn cats, but I hardly ever see them—they’re mostly kept in the barns and greenhouses, so they don’t kill animals they are not supposed to kill. All the cats are rescues, they’re all altered, have their shots, etc.  It must be a lot of work to take care of them.

I don’t pretend that all these animals will be alive a year from now. I remember, particularly, that we ate a lot of meat in February and March, and a lot of it was either lamb or something I didn’t recognize. At the time I assumed it was just seasoned oddly. Now, I’m sure it was goat meat. A few times we had chicken. The reason we raise the young animals here is so we can quickly replace any adults that die unexpectedly, but that also means there are a lot of surplus animals on campus every year. We could sell them, but that isn’t how we do things here. Everything is kept on campus. The flipside of getting most of our resources from on campus as possible is that we can’t afford to let resources leave.

All of this is to say that I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found Joy pointing a gun at one of the lambs.

“What are you doing?” I asked, thinking the question was stupid as I asked it. But to my surprise, she wasn’t doing what I’d thought she was doing. She was kneeling with a lamb, away from the rest of the flock, holding a handgun to its head, and speaking gently to it. She looked up at me when I spoke.

“I’m lying to this lamb,” she said.

“Lying to it?” I asked, confused.

“Yes. I’ve decided he’s one of the ones I’m going to kill this winter, when he’s big enough. But I don’t want him to be frightened, so I’m teaching him not to fear being taken off by himself and having a gun pointed at his head. Which is not true, of course, because eventually I’m going to shoot him with it. So I’m lying to him.” She said all this in a kind of sing-song babytalk totally at odds with what she was saying. I think she realized it sounded weird, because she looked at me again and smiled before adding “lambs don’t actually speak English.”

“Joy, can I ask you a question?”


“You’re a vet. Aren’t you uncomfortable killing animals?”

“I’m a large-animal vet,” she corrected me. “Most large animals are not pets. Most of the people I went to vet school with have patients being raised for slaughter.” She let that sink in a bit while she released the lamb and watched him run back to his mother. “When he incarnated as a lamb, his spirit made an agreement to live the life of a lamb, including his service as a giver of meat. I don’t expect him to remember that, of course. No incarnate being wants to die. I think of that agreement sometimes. More often, though, I think of myself as his guardian. My job is to give him a good life and also a good death. We all have to die, but not all of us die quickly, and not all of our deaths serve anything.” She paused again, watching the lambs. “One thing to consider is he will never have to grow old.”

“Holy crap, is that a silencer?” I’d just noticed it; I’d never seen one, except in movies, of course. She looked at her gun casually.

“Well, I don’t want the neighbors to be frightened, either,” she told me, with a smile.

I’ve been thinking of this conversation. I’ve known people before who raised animals for slaughter—a few of the kids I went to high school with raised a few chickens. One of my uncles used to raise hogs. And of course I’ve known people who had pets put down for one reason or another. I’ve never before heard anyone explain why they thought they had a right to make such a decision. I’m not sure if I buy Joy’s reasoning. I’m not sure about agreements made when we incarnate, or any of that sort of thing. But I can’t think of anyone else of whom I could ask the question. I don’t think there is another place where a question like that would even be asked. 

[Next Post: Monday, August 19: Messing Around Outdoors]