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.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Year 2: Part 2: Post 4: Natural Questions

It’s been almost two weeks now since the semester started--two weekends and now the beginning of the second week. It’s been, I don’t know, a month, since I got the job on the landscaping crew. 

And you’d think I’d have all kinds of Charlie stories to tell, since I now work for him every day for four or five hours in the mornings, plus the two extracurricular activities, plus I have him in class on Thursdays. But I don’t, really. It seems like we’re hardly even talking.

I don’t mean that he’s giving me the cold shoulder or anything, just that we hardly ever interact anymore unless I’m part of a group of people and he’s giving us instructions or something.

Part of it’s my fault—I know he’s busy and a lot of people want a piece of his time, and I really don’t feel right insisting on occupying his lunch breaks like I did last year, when I’m spending so much of the rest of my time with him. It’s like I’ve had my turn already.

And part of it…see, I’m not even sure we’re actually spending that much less time interacting. There never was much to begin with. We’ve never been chatty. I’d ask him a question and he’d answer it, or I’d tell him how I was doing on one or another project he’d given me, or he’d tell me about some interesting thing he’d found or read somewhere, but mostly we read or listened to birds, or otherwise did exactly what either of us might have been doing if the other one wasn’t there. I don’t know if we were quietly enjoying each others' company or if my silence just saved him the trouble of getting up and going somewhere else when I showed up.

And I still do my homework in the Great Hall or, on nice days, on the Mansion porch, and he’s there reading. And I can still ask him questions whenever I need to. So I’m not sure if much has changed. Maybe it’s only that I’m not used to seeing him so much as the head of a group, treating me kind of anonymously. It’s a problem of proportion.

Anyway, last week we got all the spring trimming on the shrubs done and kind of oriented ourselves on campus. It’s incredible—I’ve lived here a year now and I’ve done all this naming of trees and so forth and even helped Charlie in the gardens more weeks last year than not, and there are still things I didn’t know. Like, I hadn’t noticed that all the bird and bat boxes on campus, except the giant Martin House, came down in the winter and that our job includes putting them all back up. I also didn’t know we have solitary bee houses and toad shelters, which we’re going to have to check and maybe replace. 

On Friday we had a kind of class on invasive exotics, which are species from other areas that can spread aggressively. Today, we worked on plant ID some more, so we can go on invasive exotic patrol starting tomorrow. I think we’ll be doing that, on and off, for a couple of weeks. Basically, it’s weeding, both on campus and in the woods. We don’t have a lot of invasives, because they do this every year, but there are always a few, either because they got missed last year or because they’ve sprouted up again. I’ve seen some multiflora rose, for example.

We’re not going to get rid of poison ivy (birds really like the berries), or stinging nettle (Rick likes to eat it) or anything else unpleasant and native. And some of the exotics we do have to keep an eye out for, like Morrow’s honeysuckle or purple loosestrife, are really pretty. I kind of understand this, but I don’t know why I understand it. That is, I’m not at all surprised that this is the rule (though some of the others on the crew were surprised, especially about the poison ivy), but I couldn’t have explained why, especially as Charlie doesn’t mind all non-natives; some of the meadows are full of dandelions and plantain and he doesn’t do anything about them. He’s fond of dandelions. For dinner (“What? My mother used to pick them,” he said to me last year when I saw him gathering dandelion greens and didn’t know him as well as I do now).

Part of the issue, with dandelions and such, is that they don’t grow outside of lawns. They don’t turn up in the woods, and there aren’t even that many of them out on the front pastures, the Flat Field and the area beyond the Edge of the World that boarders on the maple, oak, and hickory groves. Those places Charlie had completely reseeded maybe ten years ago with native grassland species. The dandelions are mostly in the pastures that are still basically overgrown lawns. Charlie says that dandelions aren’t actually invasive, and they aren’t even an exotic species; they live almost entirely in their native habitat; the European lawn. It’s not the dandelion’s fault the lawns moved…it’s the lawns, he says, that are invasive. And he won’t tolerate them. One day I think he’ll have all of the campus’s grassy areas reseeded, if the lawns don’t finish converting by themselves.

Dillon said something, on Friday, about keeping things natural. We were talking about whether all exotics are bad, and why, and what makes something an invasive, and Dillion suggested that maybe the problem is exotic species capable of spreading into natural areas. Charlie didn’t exactly explode, but I think he’s more or less allergic to the word “natural.”

“If the objective is to leave things natural, then why the hell am I a gardener?” He actually did raise his voice slightly, one of the few times I’ve actually seen him growl in a classroom setting. “I hired you to help me change this place, including changing the woods. How is that natural? And you took the job. What do you think you’ll be doing, with your shovels and your clippers and, if necessary, glyphosate, in the woods next week?”

“I think we’ll be returning this area to what it would have been if humans weren’t here. Healing it. Making it natural again,” Dillon responded, bravely.

“When weren’t humans here?” Charlie asked. “Humans have been in this area for 11,000 years. Before that, there was half a mile of ice. You want to try bringing back mastodons? You’re an animal: you change things by being here. Get over it.”

So, I’m still not sure exactly how to say what it is we’re doing, what underlying principle Charlie uses when he decides which plants go and which plants stay and which plants he goes through the trouble and expense of buying and planting.

And, meanwhile, there is Messing Around Outdoors on Thursdays, which is all about observing and discovering, not changing. We’ve only met once so far, of course, but it was a fun class. We went from one puddle in the woods to another—they’re called vernal pools and they’re important for amphibians since they dry up every summer so no fish can live in them and eat their eggs. We looked for and counted egg masses—all woodfrogs, so far, but apparently they’ll be more species later in the spring, including various salamanders. Part of our homework is to keep track of these pools, what comes here, what lays eggs here…we have data sheets to record all of it. I don’t know what Charlie does with these data sheets. I think he keeps them. I took the fall semester version of this class last year and I’ve often thought it consists mostly of the parts of science Charlie finds fun, without the parts he doesn’t like as much. 

It does seem to put him in a good mood.

[Next Post: Friday, April 4th: Tracking without snow]

Friday, March 28, 2014

Year 2: Part 2: Post 3: Getting Warm

It snowed again the other day, but it was a warm snow, thick and pretty but melting even as it piled up. The wet places in the woods where the frogs live didn’t even freeze over. I think that by tomorrow, or maybe the day after, all the snow will be gone. I think this was the season’s last snow.

That would make it an “onion snow.” Growing up, I knew a few people who called it that. They said that the last snow of the year smelled like onions, that’s how you could tell it was the last one. But I’ve never smelled it.

The whole campus is white tonight, but spring is well on the way. This is something you get from not completely heating the buildings, I think. 

By completely heating…most places, in the outside world, are kept at room temperature year round, right? 78 degrees. In the winter it just costs more to do it. But here, as I think I’ve mentioned before, we only have the fuel wood we can grow and cut ourselves, so we don’t want to use too much of it. When it’s cold out, we let it get cold inside, too, just not as cold. 

The Mansion’s been around sixty degrees, the past few months, unless you’re right next to one of the stoves. At night, when the stoves go out, it can drop to forty. Chapel Hall is even worse, because the building leaks air badly and any heat that ends up in the Chapel itself gets stuck up there next to the high ceiling twenty feet above anybody’s heads. On Brigit we couldn’t get the place much above forty degrees.

The point of all this is that, inside or outside, in the winter it’s cold. I wear both my uniforms at once, sometimes with long underwear underneath, whether I’m in or out. To go out, I add sweaters. I’m still dressing this way to go to class in March—but the difference is, now I’m dressed this way and I’m warm. It takes much less wood to get a building up to sixty degrees when the outside temperature is thirty or forty than it did when it was eighteen degrees out last month.

I’ve had all four of my classes now at least once. Greg’s class I’ve had twice, of course. I want to write more about my classes as the semester goes along, but they are interesting so far.  Dark Waters, Allen’s class on psychological problems, might make an interesting pairing with American Minority Perspectives, given that both are about how people other than me see the world.

I’ve been really looking forward to Dark Waters. As Allen said, in the description that went with the sign-up sheet, that as people who take the existence of magic seriously, we need some other way to decide if we’re sane or not—or, if other people are. I expect most of us will be in the position of giving advice, in one way or another, in our capacity as clergy, and we’ll need to know if someone needs more help than we can give. Plus, you know, I’m curious. I want to know what craziness really is, beyond the jokes and stereotypes you hear about sometimes.

So, Tuesday we had our first class and Allen handed out syllabi. He hadn’t posted a reading list before classes started, so we won’t have a lot of reading right off, like we do with Greg. I don’t think we’ll have a lot of homework at all. 

A few of us asked questions about the syllabus. I wanted to know what “sexual deviance” meant—and yes, I did ask like that and yes, everybody laughed at me. Allen smiled with the others but explained that he wanted to spend a class talking about how psychology defines which variations are pathological and which aren’t. He wouldn’t explain further. He said he didn’t want to get ahead of himself, which means he’s planning lots of trick questions or other such surprises.

Then he talked some about the purpose of the class and the importance of exploring “the deep, dark waters of the mind,” as he put it. Then, he launched into the history of psychology as a discipline, particularly how it defines and approaches insanity.

He talked about the gradual differentiation of psychology from philosophy, experimental psychology vs. psychoanalysis, Freud and Jung, animal psychology (including its frequent abuse of animals), behaviorism, cognitivism, and the rise of drug treatments through psychiatry. In the course of all this, he almost casually mentioned the 19th and early 20th century incarceration of people deemed to be insane, particularly inconvenient women and homosexual men, early definitions of autism as a form of schizophrenia, and the treatment of both nymphomania and hysteria, both which were supposedly real problems but sound like female sex drive and female sexual frustration respectively. He talked about Freud’s theories, in which virtually everything was supposedly related to suppressed sexual desires (why on Earth would any woman wish she had a penis?), Jung’s theories, which sound really too elaborate to be helpful, electroshock therapy, lobotomies, and a lot of different and entirely conflicting ideas about what the mind actually is.

It's a lot of the same material he went over last year, in Intro to Psychology, but with a different emphasis, and somehow this time it all sounded really bizarre. Joanna had a question. 

“No offense,” she said, “but it sounds from all this as though it’s the psychologists who are all insane.”

We all laughed uncomfortably. Allen smiled the way he does when someone brings up a very good point.

“For homework,” he said, pointing, first at Joanna and then at the rest of us with a pencil, “I want you to write me at least a paragraph on how you could assess whether that’s true.”

[Next Post: Monday, March 31st: More Classes]

Monday, March 24, 2014

Year 2: Part 1: Post 2: Starting Classes

Most of the snow is gone now.

We had a long rain the other day, cold and harsh and unpleasant, and it turned six inches of pretty snow into two inches of icy slush and sent up clouds of even, echoing mist. The crows cawed in the mist, caw! caw! and I cawed back at them and got them to reply to me until someone said I shouldn't try to speak Crow if I didn't know what I was saying. Anyway, the sun came out the next day and the weather warmed, and nearly all the snow is gone, now. It's like spring from a greeting card, though there aren't many flowers yet. It could snow again, of course, but I'm enjoying the weather while I can.

Anyway, we've started horticulture work in earnest now, though the ground is still too cold and wet to dig. We've got a lot of plants in the greenhouse, mostly young perennials Charlie wants to give a head start, but also some native annuals he wants to introduce. Today we had to separate and transplant all of them, and starting tomorrow we have to move all of them outside in nice weather and then back in before frost. That's a lot of tiny plants to move back and forth.

Apparently later this week we're going to get a detailed tour with lots of plant ID work (fortunately, I'm kind of ahead there) and then we're going to get into pruning. After that, we go on invasive exotics patrol.

My extracurricular activities--Philosopher's Stone Soup, Paleolithic Dinner, and Dead Poet's Society--all started up in February, but they were all kind of strange for a while, since it was too cold to meet outside. One week Rick did make a giant snow cave for Dead Poet's Society, which was really cool, no pun intended, but a few days later the weather warmed up a bit and it rained and the roof of the snow cave fell in and Rick didn't build us another one. Otherwise we've met in the martial arts studio, which is private enough but sort of lacks the romance of the grape arbor. The two dinners have met in the Bird Room off the Great Hall, which works ok, except it's harder to maintain privacy, and it just isn't the same.

But now that it's starting to get warm and Daylight Savings Time has begun (so it's light out at dinner time), we're probably going to move at least the two dinners outdoors again, at least for this week. That will be nice; I've missed cooking and eating outdoors.

All of this stuff seemed so exotic last year and it seems to familiar and homey now.

Today was also the first day of new classes. As I mentioned, I'm taking four, and Monday is Greg's class, American Minority Perspectives. The idea of the class is that most of us know American history only from the perspective of white, mostly rich, men and that there are other histories that also make up America. Greg was careful to say that there is nothing wrong with white men, which I appreciate, only that ours isn't the only history to learn.

I've got the class syllabus here in front of me. There are eight class meetings, counting today, and they are divided up like so:

Week 1. Japanese-America
Week 1b. Native America
Week 2. Native America
Week 3. Northern Mexico
Week 4. Black America
Week 4b. European Immigrants (Germans, Irish, and Jews)
Week 5. The Old Confederacy
Week 6. Japanese-America

The "week 1b" thing is because, as I think I mentioned last year, the spring semester is only six weeks long, so to get all eight meetings in classes have to meet twice a week sometimes.

Greg explained some of the syllabus today. For example, he said that "Northern Mexico" refers to the fact that much of the United States used to be part of Mexico, and that he intends to tell the Mexican-American story not as a story of immigration but as a story of the Mexican roots of parts of America. Some of us questioned why the Confederacy was on the list, so Greg asked us to raise our hands if we thought it belonged. Six people did. Then he asked if any of us were Southern. The same six raised their hands. Ok, then.

He also said that there aren't multiple Americas, but there are multiple perspectives on America and they don't always see the same things. To demonstrate this he placed a large sculpture-type thing in the middle of the room. It was a sphere full of multicolored dots, I don't know what it was made of, and asked us to describe it from where we sat. Some people saw mostly blue dots, some mostly red, yellow, or green. Some could see patterns in the dots while they looked pretty random to most people. Some people could see one purple dot, but not everybody could.

But it was all the same sculpture.

Just like his Introduction to History class I took last year, he isn't going to focus on giving us information but on teaching us how to get information. After all, we can only touch the surface of a couple of stories in this one class, and there are a lot more stories out there for us to learn.

The way it's going to work is that every week he'll give out a summary and a timeline of American history from a certain perspective and then for homework we have to find a person, place, or incident to talk about from that perspective. At least a third of us have to choose women to talk about, at least a third must choose men, and at least two people must discuss children every week. That means we have to collaborate on our homework. Then, the next class meeting, we'll spend the first half talking about what we found and the second have listening to a guest speaker.

This week, of course, we don't have to do that because the next class meeting is Wednesday and we don't have time. Instead, all we have to do is read Lies My Teacher Taught Me:Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, and A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present.

Of course, those two books together make over a thousand pages of reading in two days, which is absolutely, utterly insane. Fortunately, we've known about these books for a few weeks now, so most of us have gotten started already, but we didn't know we had to get them finished by Wednesday, and I, at least, have a hundred pages of one book and all of the other to get through.

Did I mention they teach us to work magic here?

But before all of this preparation, before all of this discussion of logistics, right at the beginning of class, Greg asked us a simple question.

"How many of you think I'm white?"

I didn't raise my hand because I know Greg doesn't consider himself white, but he looks more or less white, at least to me. I looks around the room and saw a lot of hands go up. There are yearlings in the class who don't know Greg very well yet, plus some senior students who just haven't spent much time around him. A lot of those hands went up, then I saw the people look around, realize that most of the senior students had not raised our hands, then the hands went back down again.

Greg grunted or chuckled and took off his glasses. I don't know if he did it deliberately to expose the shape of his eyelids--he does have a slight epicanthic fold--or if the timing was just a coincidence.

"Who here thinks it matters that I'm not white?" Greg asked.

I know a trick question when I hear one. There's no right answer; if you raise your hand you look racist and if you don't raise your hand you deny the premise of the whole class. I looked around and saw hands go up, then down again, then up again...all the students in the class are white, or, at least they look so to me. Most students at the school are.

Greg grunt/chuckled again and put his glasses back on.

"You can't effectively talk about your thoughts about race if you do not admit you have thoughts about race," he said.

And then he told us his family's story.

[Next Post: Friday, March 28th: Dark Waters]

Friday, March 21, 2014

Year 2: Part 2: Post 1: Ostara

We won the egg hunt.

Jasmine and I spent the past two weeks looking for nests--not just birds' nests, since you get points for other kinds, too--and then today, as soon as the contest began, we ran around getting pictures of all of them, since you get an extra point if the timestamp on the picture shows you're the first one on campus to get it. Then we went around again so Jasmine could get as many really great pictures as she could in our remaining time.

We got pictures of nests for a barred owl pair, a great horned owl pair, two raven pairs (there was only one last year), chickens, and grey squirrels. Jasmine didn't think the chickens counted, but they do; I remember someone got points for pictures of them last year.

We also got pictures of woodfrog jelly, a freshly used deer bed (I'm pretty sure, from the size, that it was a doe and at this time of year she's probably pregnant), and a family of kittens. The kittens were a surprise, since all the campus cats are supposed to be spayed or neutered already, but I guess we've gotten an extra cat from somewhere and she had kittens.

The great horned owl, one of the raven nests, the chickens, the deer bed, and the frog jelly were all firsts, except that Charlie wouldn't accept the deer bed as counting. The ravens, the squirrels, the chickens, and the kittens all got points for being excellent pictures. Not counting the deer bed, we didn't get any nests that nobody else got, and some people found nests (mostly insect eggs--Nora thought to take a picture of the beehives, too, and that counted) but no other team got as many as we did. So we won.

For a prize, Charlie gave us each a little bejeweled wind-up toy; it looks like a golden egg (with a flat bottom so it can sit on a table) but when you wind it up and let it go the egg opens up and a little chick rises up and flaps its wings and opens its beak. He got them at a yard sale somewhere.

I was a little uncomfortable with the prize. I felt kind of like I had cheated, because I started planning how to win this thing weeks ago. I said something to Charlie about it, how I'm not really the best birder, or the best naturalist on campus.

"So?" Charlie said. "The prize isn't for being the best, it's for doing the best. The others could have started a couple of weeks ago, like you did, but they chose not to."

Ok, then.

It doesn't actually look like spring today, since we got six inches of fresh snow two days ago, but the weather's been warm. You could walk around campus in short sleeves today, if you wanted to, and the snow got all slushy and the pools and puddles in the woods mostly melted free (which is how I saw the frog jelly). Now, of course, it's freezing into a crust. But before that there were big patches of open ground, even in the woods, and the frogs sing loudly, snow or no snow, at least during the day. This is a cool thing I've learned recently; wood frogs can not only freeze solid and live, but in the early spring they can spawn in vernal pools by day and be frozen at night. So I guess that's what they're doing now.

When do they sleep, I wonder?

So, it doesn't look like spring, but it pretty clearly is spring, anyway. If you look closely you see it--the maples and the elms flowering, some of the other trees' buds swelling, the animals starting to nest. Maybe that's another reason we have egg hunts? Because spring is something you have to look for?

Anyway, so I was so busy trying to win the contest that I didn't really think about what the celebration is for until afterwards--I remember I was really puzzled by it last year. We had a big feast for lunch, had the egg was fun, but so what? What's the point? This year...the question just seemed strange to me. It's spring, so we did something fun. We had a party. That's the point.

Is it a religious point? The day is religiously significant for Kit and the other Wiccans, of course, and I think I could get them to to tell me what they day is about for them if I asked. I could look it up in one of the books on Wicca in the library. But Kit isn't my spirit master, Charlie is, and Charlie isn't Wiccan. But he lead the campus celebration, so Ostar is important to him in some way--and he did seem to enjoy the party. He seemed happy today. I could ask him if Ostar is religious for him, and if so, what its significance is. He might answer me.

But I tend to think that would be the wrong answer. This is the man who plays love songs to the twilight in secret, who treats ants and flowers with respect. I'm not sure he makes such distinctions.

[Next Post: Monday, March 24th: Classes Begin]

Sunday, March 16, 2014

First Interlude, Second Year

Hi, it's Daniel-of-2014 again.

I don't have much in the way of corrections to make this time, but I've been thinking about love.

Celebrating Valentine's Day this year made me think about Valentines Day on campus, only we almost entirely ignored the day there, so it wasn't anything I could post about. I suppose couples gave each other chocolates or something, but I never had a girlfriend over Valentine's Day, so I never got into it.

And yet, I did have girlfriends on campus now and then, so I got to thinking about them, too.

I didn't have very many--three, I think, over four years--and none of those relationships were serious and all three ended because of my terminal awkwardness with women so there was no possible way I would have written about them at the time because I was so damn awkward about it. Yet they did happen, and the first was during my second year, that summer.

My basic problem was that I didn't know what romantic love was. I thought a romantic relationship basically meant you got to have sex, or, might eventually, anyway. And I'd never had sex, but I really wanted to, and my wanting and my nervousness combined to make sex seem like an achievement of impossibly mythic proportions. Then, too, everyone on campus talked about sex--in the abstract--in very candid terms, so I got the sense that everybody but me was super-experienced and the women I met there would expect me to be some sort of God of Technique.

So, between one thing and another, I was kind of a zero as a boyfriend and not much romance happened.

This past Valentine's Day, my wife had to go up to the campus of our graduate school for a conference they were hosting there, so we asked my parents to babysit and I went with her and poked around town a bit. Afterwards, we went snowshoeing in the park. We stopped by the river for a while and sat in the snow and drank chocolate from a thermos and I gave her a piece of costume jewelry I'd found in town. And she kissed me.

I don't know why my wife loves me. In my head, I'm still that terminally awkward boy. When she kisses me, whenever she kisses me, I feel very lucky. We had a wonderful little Valentine's Day this year. But that's not the main thing I wanted to talk about.

I'd written, around Brigid about how our daughter, Carly, is talking, how she loves to look out at the snow, which she calls "noh," and how one of her first words was "Ma," but that she had no word for me. For two or three months she was saying all kinds of things, but no "Da," or "Daddy," no name for me.

But then, just after Valentine's Day, my daughter walked, in her wobbly way, to our glass back door and reached up to the handle and the light switch. She does this at night when she wants one of us to turn on the porch light so she can see if it's snowing. And I walked up to help her and she turned to me.

"Noh, Da! Noh!" she said.

And I have no words for that. Just none at all.

[Next Post: Friday, March 21st: Brigid]

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Year 2: Part 1: Post 12: Looking Forward to Classes

I got my course schedule today.

Which is actually pretty amazing because we only had sign-ups last week. Sign-ups, of course, had to wait until after all the yearlings got placed--after the masters figured out how many credits in what each of them needed. And that had to wait until after the yearlings all got oriented enough that they could even participate in the interviews and testing they use to assess advanced standing.

I still have friends at other, more normal colleges, and they say that scheduling and placement and grading and so forth all takes a couple of weeks at least. Here, it's always so smooth--like magic.

Anyway, so I don't have required classes anymore, they're all done, but I do have to take a certain number of credits in each of the academic areas. It's just that I get to decide where those credits come from and in what order. I've decided to take a full credit load--that's eight credits because this is a short semester.

I'm taking American Minority Perspectives, with Greg, which is a history class; Deep Waters, with Allen, which is mostly about psychological problems; Messing Around Outdoors, with Charlie, which I took last fall, but the outdoors are different in the spring, so the class will be, too; and Gender Studies. That last one looks complicated. It's actually two classes that mix together. There's a women's-only women's studies class, taught by Kit, and a men's-only men's studies class, taught by Allen, but then both classes meet together sometimes.

I'm looking forward to all of these, though, as usual, I have no really clear idea what they're about. We get descriptions on the sign-up forms, but there's only so much you can get from a blurb and there's always some intangible something that happens anyway, something that can't be described or predicted. There's no way a blurb can explain what a person will learn, even if it does list what the teacher will teach.

Looking over this, what I wrote, it looks so banal--signing up for classes, credits, schedules, etc. Sometimes I wonder what happened to my ambition of last spring, to "learn magic like Harry Potter."

And yet, Harry Potter had to deal with banal details, too--class schedules and homework and everything. The books just seem more exciting because J.K. Rowling didn't write much about all those details and I have to live them.

Anyway, it might not show as much when I talk about the details of my life, but this place really is still full of wonder for me.

I mean, I still sit at breakfast and listen to people explore these fantastic ideas and insights...some of them talking about spirit journeys and spells I'm not sure I even believe in and others talking about subtler kinds of miracles--like Andy slowly recovering from addiction and his other ills, or Kayla triumphing over what happened to her.

Allen does his tricks, Joy whispers to horses, Charlie grows wilderness in his gardens, and Sarah grows the most fantastic things to eat. Like, seriously, you don't need to season or salt these vegetables at all, nothing. They're as good as candy.

And hearing the sigh of the wind in the branches of the spruces and firs, or sitting by the stove in the beautiful Great Hall with the fountain playing in the Green Room nearby, or looking out my window at night to see deer crossing the snowy field by moonlight.... The more I think about it--how could waving your wand and just making something levitate be all that magical in comparison?

In other news, I can tell that spring is progressing, if still fairly subtly. It was warm last week and the snow melted down to just a couple of inches thick in places. There were even a few small, bare, brownish spots, and the remaining tracks on the old snow grew huge, soft, and distorted. But then it snowed again, another inch or so...but it is getting warmer, and the red maples near the Dining Hall are starting to flower, and the birds seem more active...and yes, I've found owl nests.

I am so going to win that contest.

[Next Post: Monday, March 17th: Interlude]

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Year 2: Part 1: Post 11: Finishing the Book Project

It's finally over. All those books.

Back around Samhain, five months ago, Charlie gave me a reading list, twenty books, to read over the winter. I was supposed to get them done by the spring equinox and...I've done it. I've read all twenty books.

I almost thought I'd never be done. I mean, I didn't literally think I'd never be done, I only felt as though the list would go on and on. Twenty books is a lot. And reading has more or less structured my day for months. That and writing the short essays or summaries to go with each book. I'm not really sure what to do with myself, now.

I think I posted the list before, but here it is again;

1. Cultures of Habitat: On Nature, Culture, and Story, by Gary Paul Nabhan
2. The Desert Smells Like Rain: A Naturalist in Papago Indian Country, by Gary Paul Nabhan
3. The Practice of the Wild: Essays by Gary Snyder, by Gary Snyder
4. Walden and Other Writings, by Henry David Thoreau
5. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abby
6. Becoming Native to This Place, by Wes Jackson
7. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, by James Kunstler
8. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist, by Mitch Thomashow
9. A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin
10. The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula K. LeGuin
11. The Farthest Shore, by Ursula K. LeGuin
12. The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M. Aule
13. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard
14. Honey from Stone: A Naturalist’s Search for God, by Chet Raymo
15. John Muir: Nature Writings, by John Muir
16. A Sand Country Almanac, by Aldo Leopold
17. Ansell Adams: An Autobiography, by Ansell Adams
18. A Reason for Hope, by Jane Goodall
19. Encounters with the Archdruid, by John McPhee
20. Refuge: an Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Serena Robin Williams

I didn't read them in that order, I don't remember the exact order. I do remember getting a sense of structure as I read. For example, David Brower (the Archdruid of "Encounters with the Archdruid") clearly lived and worked in a world that John Muir and Aldo Leopold helped create. Like, the stories of all of these people interact, inter-relate. And there are themes and sub-themes within the list...

And I read each one and the way I read it is influenced by the earlier ones I read. Like, David Brower's insistence on leaving wildlands utterly alone (except for the visits of hikers and campers and so forth) seems really strange after reading Gary Paul Nabhan talk about how the Papago people increased wild biodiversity by managing oases in the desert, how the birds would come to their orchards because, they "like people." And Gary Snyder talking about an ethnic group in Japan where the people would hunt or fish and then throw a dance party so that the spirits of the dead animals would be entertained and would go tell their friends that being caught and killed by humans was really a lot of fun--Snyder's idea that human's relationship with the land can and should be reciprocal. 

Even Aldo Leopold says that deer like to bed down in garden terraces built a thousand years ago by long-forgotten farmers. He says he would like deer to bed down in his garden a thousand years from now, or something like that.

I think I would have agreed with Brower before...and I'm not sure I disagree with him now. I mean, it does seem good to me to have some place to go where people aren't, to be able to get outside the human world for a while. I like the idea that something beyond the human world exists. But at the same time...defining conservation as just trying to keep human influence to a minimum seems lopsided or something. Like there should be more than that. And if the Papago were busy making biodiverse oases in the desert, maybe other peoples were making other things in other places? I mean, maybe there's no "nature" in the sense of untouched by humans in any case? In which case, what exactly are we trying to save?

Something. Environmentalists are trying to save something, I just can't put my finger on what.

I wrote about this some in one of the summaries I wrote. Occasionally, Charlie responds to what I write--he'll put notes in the margins when he gives me my writings back. For this one his not was "Inhabited land untouched by humans (e.g., North America pre-contact) = racism. Humans touch."

I think he meant that since humans do alter our environment that referring to an inhabited area as "untouched" is tantamount to denying the humanity of the people involved.

Anyway, I've spent five months kind of soaking in these books--and Charlie's comments in their margins--and I'm sure it's changed my thinking. I'm just sort of used to having all these ideas in my head that I never used to think about before. Sometimes I think they are Charlie's ideas and that I've sort of loaded his ideas into my brain by reading all these books. 

But I can't possibly have exactly the same ideas reading these things as he does. We're different people. I don't even think we're that much alike. We wouldn't both have the same ideas and learn the same things from the same books. I think, more realistically, we do have related ideas because the ideas come out of a similar body of other people's thought. We might--literally--be on the same page about things.

Maybe that was the point?

[Next Post: Friday, March 14th: Looking Forward to Classes]

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Year 2: Part 1: Post 10: Preparing for Spring

So, I have a plan about how to win the egg hunt.

The issue is that I still don't know enough about birds, and there are lots of people on campus who are more likely to be able to spot bird's nests than I am. I need some kind of leg up.

Fortunately, I have a two-week head-start for looking for nests. The yearlings won't know about the hunt until it happens (or, at least, we didn't know about it ahead of time, last year) and most of the senior students won't bother preparing for the contest because it doesn't matter that much to them. So the only people I really have to worry about are the handful of other people who are really likely to spot nests on their own before the contest starts, like Rick and Raven G.

To beat them, I need to be able to produce great pictures. That's the other half of the contest; you have to find the birds' nests and take pictures of them and you get points for both finding the nests and the quality of the photos. Well, I don't know much about photography, but we do the contest in teams. So I have to find a team-mate ahead of time, too. Someone who takes great pictures.

I don't know who takes great pictures and who doesn't, and I didn't want to go around asking everybody if they take pictures because then my advantage would be gone. Everyone would know
what I was doing and why. So, I asked Sharon. She knows everything.

"I do?" she said when I said that her. "I don't know about that."

"Yes, you do. You know everything around here, at least. You're our resident spider." You've got to understand that here at school "spider" is a compliment. A lot of people claim spiders as personal mascots, spirit-helpers, or totems. You don't kill spiders here unless you actually want to become unpopular, and I know people who encourage spiders to live in their rooms as pets or familiars. What I meant was that Sharon is aware of the school the same way a spider is aware of whatever happens on its web.

"I am not!" She was blushing.

"Ok, who's the best photographer on campus?"

"Jasmine. She's a yearling in Elk dorm."


"Good luck with the egg-hunt, Daniel."

I hadn't told her I was trying to win the egg hunt. She just knew.

So, I found Jasmine and introduced myself and asked her to be my team-mate for the egg-hunt.

"Isn't that cheating?" she asked.

"No. They can't stop us from noticing birds ahead of time, so how could looking for them ahead of time be cheating?"

"But we can't take pictures ahead of time."

"No. But once I find the nests, you can figure out how you'll want to take the best pictures, angles and lighting and so forth. Then we'll have less to do on the actual day."

"I don't want to just take pictures for you, Daniel. I want to find nests, too."

"Of course," I told her. "And I want to learn more about photography." And so we made a deal. She'll teach me some about photography and I'll show her how to find nests. Of course, I don't actually know anything about looking for birds' nests, but I know how to sit around quietly and watch and listen outdoors and I expect that's at least half of it.

It seems strange to be talking about nesting birds while there's still six inches of snow.

Speaking of which, we just had Charlie's tracking workshop. Charlie had asked me to get good enough at tracking so I could lead the workshop if he got sick, but I didn't have to. He's had his spring cold already and recovered. I had mixed feelings about that. I mean, I'd kind of been looking forward to doing it.

He did let me help him analyze the tracking data and put together the maps.

It was fun, a completely different way to think about tracks--instead of walking along and looking, I had to rely on photographs and descriptions by people who didn't know what they were looking for. I couldn't look for additional evidence and I couldn't rely on my intuition to put together a scene, since I wasn't actually there. On the other hand, I could see the overview, all the tracks and signs the participants had found over an area several hundred feet on a side. That really made the stories, how the animals were interacting with each other, stand out.

I did most of the work, but with Charlie leaning over my shoulder, making suggestions and occasional corrections. I think I did pretty well. I think I could lead the workshop, if I had to.
[Next Post: Monday, March 10th:Finishing the Book Project]