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.

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]

No comments:

Post a Comment