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, 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]

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