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 24, 2014

Year 2: Part 5: Post 4: Going by Night

Speaking of trailwork--

I mentioned the craft I'm learning, trailwork, last week. I haven't talked about it in a while. I was really busy for the first part of the summer but there hasn't been as much to do recently.

The trails I'm responsible for are in the woodlot behind campus and the conservation land behind that. Neither is open to the public because the land conservancy behind us doesn't really want visitors--the idea is to protect some rare wetland plants that they don't want anybody in there messing with. We're allowed in, though, because that was a condition of sale--the conservancy land used to be part of the school's property, but the masters sold it on the condition that we could use the land for educational purposes. Now and then, scientists and other people associated with the land conservancy walk through our campus to go up there. The trails are for them and for us.

Charlie's landscaping team also maintains the conservancy land--we've been up there removing invasive exotics a few times this year. I'm doing the trails, though, myself. I had to patrol every single trail in its entirely, removing blow-downs, cutting back brush, and cleaning drainage structures. There's miles of trails back there. Charlie says that there isn't much to do because the trails get so little use, but that must be relative. It took me many weeks to do all of it, because I never had time to do much at a stretch--and if I had to stop halfway through a trail, of course I'd have to re-walk the section I'd already done when I went back to work, so that made it take longer. That project was part of why I was so busy this summer.

Now, I'm done all of it, but Charlie has me surveying for invasive exotic plants we missed earlier, so I have to walk the entire trail system again. I've gotten very good at hiking quickly and now I'm getting good at reading a trail map and using a compass, since I have to mark where the plants I do find are. And of course, I'm still going tracking once or twice a week with Rick. So, basically, I'm spending almost more time in the woods than out of it.

Charlie also keeps assigning me landscaping work that relates to trailwork somehow. If someone has to dig with a pick-mattock or cut with a machete (Charlie's two favorite tools for trailwork, besides the axe), that someone is me. The other week we had to re-do the lining on the frog pond in the Formal Garden, and that involved taking apart the rock walls lining the sides and putting them back together--a job for three people, one of whom was me. I still end up getting stuck with cleaning and maintaining the tools, more often than not, and that is not a coincidence. I know he wants me to learn these skills viscerally, not just intellectually.

"Anyone can memorize the procedure for building a waterbar," he says, "and everybody who can comes up with a new way for how waterbars should be made. You won't find two organizations that do trailwork the same way and you won't find many that will pay you more for your skill than they'd pay a new recruit. But you learn how to work with the soil, how to work with your body, that stays with you."

Spending all this time in the woods, I naturally run into Rick fairly regularly--he comes onto the main part of campus every day and attends classes and other events, but he gathers most of his food and supplies in the woodlot, so he's there a lot. Sometimes, especially if I took my dinner into the woods with me so I could work late, I'll pass him going in while I'm heading out.

The days are getting shorter now. It's dark by 8 PM, and it's sort of surprised me. I've gotten stuck in the dark a mile or two from campus a few times, though of course I always carry a flashlight--everybody does, for moving around the Mansion at night. It's just wasteful to light a whole room up so that one person can spend ten seconds walking across it.

So, last Saturday I was walking out of the woods by flashlight around 9, when I saw and heard a large, moving, dim darkness approaching. I called out and Rick's voice answered me. I turned out my light to save his eyes and we stopped to chat a moment.

"Why aren't you using your light?" I asked him. I'm sure he has one.

"When you go in the dark with a light, you know the light,*" he replied. "But the dark, too, is important to know, and I want to know it. Besides, what if my flashlight broke? What if my eyes broke? I still want to know how to get around."

I smiled in the dark and, on impulse, sang "if I ever loose my eyes and all my colors all run dry, oh if I ever lose my eyes, away-ay-o, I won't have to cry no more.**"

I heard Rick chuckle in the dark.

"Did Charlie teach you?" I asked him, meaning the trick of walking in the dark. "He started to teach me, back in June."

"He taught me it was possible," he said. "I've been teaching myself. He did give me the idea of using a walking stick--it's better than a cane, you know. It can stop me walking into things with my face." His walking stick is as tall as he is, with the hand-grip near the middle, in contrast to canes made for blind people, which have hand-grips at the top and are used only to investigate the ground.

"Heavier, though, I imagine," I said.

"Yes. Ebony's cane looks very light."

"You know," I began, "Ebony would probably laugh if she knew you were out here learning to be blind. Does she know? She has no interest in being blind at all. She's convinced she can see, or that she should be able to. Or something." I still can't quite explain what Ebony says about herself. It comes out all muddled when I try. I could not see Rick's expression. His voice came to me out of the dark.

"I've hardly ever talked to her," he admitted. "I doubt we know much about each other. But she should be able to see, in a way. I imagine that for human beings not to see must surprise the brain. Like missing a step on the stairs, you know? But I should be able to have darkness. I should be able to navigate with my ears and my toes."

I remember Charlie telling me, that night we explored the woods together without flashlights, to pay attention to what I could feel with my toes and how I found I could stay on a trail by texture alone. There was a pause, and then Rick spoke again. He sang.

"And if I ever loose my mouth, all my teeth, north and south. Oh, if I ever lose my mouth, away-ay-o, I won't have to talk."

"Goodnight, Rick," I said, smiling, and without another word he walked past me, into the living, green dark.

I took off my shoes and walked the rest of the way without my flashlight, by the feel of my toes and the shape of my view of the stars. And I got where I was going.

* these words are a somewhat mangled quote from Wendell Berry. Rick could not remember the quote accurately.
** these words are from Cat Stevens, also imperfectly remembered.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Year 2: Part 5: Post 3: Educated Guessers

So, the new classes have started. I'm taking Creating Campus, Healing Workshops, World Myth and Ritual, and Moving Rituals. The latter two are both taught by Kit. They'll both give me anthropology credits, though I understand they both have more of a religious than a scientific focus. Healing Workshops is actually a series of separate workshops Joy teaches. It's possible to sign up for just one or two of them, but I signed up for all three. It's just simpler that way.

Creating Campus is, of course, Charlie's class. Everyone who has him as craft master in landscaping has to take it, because it covers the scientific basis for the way the campus is landscaped. Charlie is my craft master, too, though my craft is trailwork, not landscaping, but of course I'm learning landscaping from him, too, so I wouldn't be surprised if that gets added in somehow. I suspect this class is required for me, too, but that's not why I'm taking it. I signed up because the class looked interesting. Graduation and its requirements seem a million miles away at the moment.

Anyway, the class has met twice now. There's a lot of reading that goes with it, but fortunately, we don't have to turn in anything except one semester-long project. Each week we have to read up on a particular ecological principle, and then Charlie spends class time explaining how that concept applies to the campus design.

I thought all this sounded fascinating, but fairly straightforward, when I signed up. I was wrong.

Charlie started the course, as most professors around here start most of their courses, with an introductory lecture on the course's general topic. He explained the concept of wildlife-friendly landscaping--that by creating an artificial landscape that functionally mimics a natural one, you could replace at least some of the habitat lost to development. He sees it as a way of taking care of the land on behalf of all of its residents, not just its human ones.

He talked about basic principles, like providing food, water, and shelter for a variety of species, thinking in terms of systems and communities, and how naturalistic landscape designs offer psychological and developmental benefits for humans, as well as the obvious benefits foe wildlife.

Then he asked if anyone had any questions.

None of us spoke for a few seconds. I don't think most of us had any questions, but something about Charlie's manner also suggested that he wasn't just asking us if we'd understood his lecture. There'd been a trick, somewhere, and he wanted to know if we'd caught him at it. There was a particular right question he was looking for, and I hadn't a clue what it was.

Brad got it. He's one of the few in the class who has a campus job other than groundskeeping--he's on the security team, and wants to become a police officer. I suppose he's good at spotting tricks, and he's not intimidated by Charlie, which most of the rest of us are--I don't mean I'm afraid of Charlie, of course, but when you know giving the right answer would impress a person and you don't know what the right answer is it can be very hard to speak.

"How do you know all this stuff works?" Brad asked. "Do you know it works? It sounds..too neat."

"DingDingDingDing!" shouted Charlie, pointing. "You got it! I don't know that it works. I'm guessing."

This was sort of a bombshell--he's teaching us something that might not work?

"Why not?" I asked.

"How would you find out?" he asked me.

"I'd look it up. I'd ask somebody," I said, but as soon as I said it I knew what he was going to reply.

"I tried that. No one knows*. So how else would you try finding out? Anyone?"

A couple of us made suggestions, some more scientific than others, some more detailed than others. Basically they all boiled down to comparing the wildlife in areas with naturalistic vs. traditional landscaping. Charlie nodded in thoughtful acknowledgement and then, without a word, began drawing pictures on the white board.

He drew a long row of houses and yards. Some of the yards were big and some were small, some had trees and some did not, some had bird-baths, bird-houses, bird feeders...some had cats (labeled with word balloons that said "meow!"). They were all different.

"Which half are naturalistic?" he asked.

We all mumbled and fidgeted awkwardly. We couldn't divide the pictures into halves.

"Yeah, neither can wildlife," explained Charlie. "The problem is that 'naturalistic' is a human concept. To study the difference ecologically, you'd have to find ecological categories that approximate the human binary, naturalistic vs. traditional landscaping. Human ideas don't always map well onto ecological reality. If anyone of you can figure it out, I will personally make sure you get into one of the best graduate programs in ecology in the country. More probably, 'does naturalistic landscaping work' is the wrong question. The right questions would involve specific techniques, specific circumstances, and very particular objectives. Do butterfly gardens increase local populations of butterflies? Do free-ranging cats create population sinks for small birds? Those kinds of questions can be answered. And in the meantime, we take the information we have, and we make our best guesses."

And here he stopped and looked at us a moment before speaking again in a very different tone of voice.

"I'm not teaching you certainty," he said. "I'm teaching you how to guess."

[Next Post: Monday, August  25]

* This post is set in 2001, when there had been very little research done into landscaping for wildlife. In the thirteen years since, that has changed--and we now know some techniques do work. But there is still a lot of guesswork involved in this kind of landscaping, and the conceptual problems Charlie addresses are still very real.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Year 2: Part 5: Post 2: Second Sight Again

So, I have Monday mornings free this semester--I'm taking just as many classes, it's just that two of them are on Thursday. I'm pretty sure I'll end up using the time for homework or something, but I have no homework yet, so after breakfast I just wandered around campus for a while.

After a while, I wandered past the Mansion and I spotted Ebony sitting by herself on the porch in front of a small, portable table. I stopped, screwed up my courage, and asked if I could join her.
"Of course!" she said, brightly, looking up in my general direction. "Kit is coming back soon," she added as I walked up the steps. "I don't know which chair is hers."

I told her I'd move if I needed to, and sat down next to her. 

Ebony was working at her little table, gluing shapes cut from different grades of sandpaper onto a sheet of plywood, painted white. A collage--tactile art, I decided.
"What are you making?" I asked. I meant her subject matter, but she took the question differently.

"It's a grisaille study," she explained. I knew the word--it's pronounced "grizz-eye," but--

"I know about grisaille from painting..." I offered, uncertainly. It means a painting in just one color, so you can explore  the different grades of light and dark in the image. It's done for practice, or to prepare for a more complex painting, like a kind of sketch. But with sandpaper?

"It's the same thing," she told me. "I wish I could use paint, but I haven't figured out how, yet." I looked at the collage taking shape even as she talked. The different grades of paper were indeed different shades, all of purple.

"So it works both visually and by touch?" I asked. "Neat."

"I'm actually not that interested in tactile art," Ebony told me, still gluing, and not looking at her hands. "The sandpaper is a means to an end. How does it look? Can you tell what it is now?"

I'd been so busy imagining how the piece might feel that I hadn't noticed how it looked. When I changed mental gears, the image leaped out at me. It was stylized, cartoonish, but pleasing.

"It's a black woman standing in water at the beach," I said. "In a white bikini bottom." The figure's breasts were done in large, deep purple teardrops with deeper purple circles in the middle.

"Exactly!" exclaimed Ebony, smiling broadly. "Two-dimensional art is really hard for me. It's not usually how I experience the world."

"Did you used to be able to see?" I asked, wondering if I was about to step in some minefield of awkwardness. I have no idea what's likely to offend a blind person. And, as it turned out, I did step in something, though it wasn't remotely what I was expecting. I wish there was a cane I could use to feel my way through conversations with women. At least, she didn't get angry.

"I can see a little bit now," she explained, "mostly fields of color, and I don't know all their names. My vision has never been better than it is now. But I don't identify as blind."


But Kit returned, carrying a bucket full of cut lavender stalks, so Ebony and I were distracted from our conversation. She looked at Ebony's collage and gave her a few specific compliments and suggestions ("I like the breasts," she said, something I'd wanted to say but couldn't). I jumped up so Kit could have my seat and she took it--I've noticed that, no matter how friendly and personable the masters seem, whenever any of us offer them special deference, they accept it. Seated, Kit took a roll of satin ribbon from one pocket and her bolline knife from her belt and started making something with the flower stalks.

"What were you talking about before I came up?" she asked. "Don't let me stop you--unless you're planning a surprise party for me, or something." But for a minute, neither Ebony nor I could think what we had been saying.

"Oh!" said Ebony, finally. "I was starting to tell him about transability."

"Ok," said Kit. Evidently, she already knew what it meant. She had tied a group of lavender stalks tightly together with the ribbon, then bent them all backwards, outwards. Now she was using the ribbon to weave the bent stalks together. As she worked, Ebony explained that although she was blind, she didn't feel blind. When she heard other people talk about blind people and sighted people interacting, she always identified with the sighted people.

"When people refer to me as blind, it's always jarring. I think, that's not me. But it is."

"I remember something like that, the year before I got married," Kit put in."I'd have to say I was single, like on my taxes and so forth, because I was, but it felt so wrong."

"Exactly. People keep telling me it's impossible for someone born blind to feel like this, to still feel like there's something missing. Like I should just feel pride in my blind identity and do tactile art and everything. But I don't have a blind identity. That's the problem. So I made up this word. Transabled. Because how people perceive me based on my body is not who I am."

"And you're learning to paint," Kit added, with some pride. I'm guessing she is one of Ebony's teachers.

"Yes. I figure, as long as I'm doing one impossible thing, why not another? I want to be an art teacher--a visual art teacher."

"I think I'm lost," I said.

"That's ok," said Ebony. "I confuse myself sometimes, so you can be confused, too. Confused is ok. I'm under no obligation to resolve anyone else's confusion about me."

Kit beamed at her and then looked back to her own work. She had finished weaving the lavender stalks together so they now completely enclosed the flowers. She'd made a tight, club-shaped wand. She tied off the ribbon and cut it free from the roll with her bolline.

"There," she said with satisfaction. "One down, twelve more to go."

"Oo, can I see?" exclaimed Ebony, holding out her hand. Kit gave her the wand and she explored it by touch and smell. "What color is the ribbon?" she asked.

"Lavender, actually," Kit explained.

"Are lavender flowers lavender color?" Ebony wanted to know.

"Not really. Not always, anyway. They are more of a blue. But...lavender flowers smell the way lavender color looks."

Ebony seemed to get a complete kick out of that.

"Really?" she said, excitedly. "Do other colors have scents?"

"I wouldn't say colors have scents," said Kit, "but scents have colors. For me, anyway.  If I can't see something, or if I can't feel it in my body, I guess I make up what it looks like or feels like. I could dance the scent of lavender, if I wanted to."

"That's what I do!"exclaimed Ebony. "When I see colors, they turn into textures, like my eyeballs are finger tips! The way you make scents have color, I make colors have texture."

"Is that like how you can feel colors with your fingers?" asked Kit.

"Wait, what?" I asked. It's not that I didn't believe she could do it--I've learned to believe a lot of things around here--but I didn't know what they meant and I really felt like I'd been left behind by the conversation, like they both understood some kind of trans-sensory secret and I hadn't gotten the message. Ebony started to explain something she called "dermo-optical perception," an ability to identify contrast between colors by touch alone. But she said she wasn't good at demonstrating it because having an audience made her nervous, and that distracted her and made it harder to do..

"I always feel like everyone expects me to be some super-blind person or something. I really think most sighted people could do it, if they tried."

"Well, let me try," I offered.

So, Ebony got her laptop out of her bag, plus a pair of headphones. I guess her computer tells her what the screen looks like, or something? She kept the screen folded up so I couldn't see it, then asked me to shut my eyes. I did, and Kit helped me get my hand on the screen without accidentally grabbing something embarrassing.

"Just run your fingers across the surface and see if you can feel the texture change, like get smoother or rougher." I tried, and felt no texture at all, except the smooth but slightly resistive screen.

"It might not be texture for you," suggested Kit. "Your mind might offer you a different metaphor."

So I tried again, and....

I swear, I felt a temperature difference. Not in my fingers, as if the screen were hot and cold, but in the center of my forearm, wrist, and palm. It was like when I chose my athame last year--it had felt warm in the same way.

I told Kit whenever I felt the temperature change, and she confirmed that the color had changed  every time.

[Next Post: Monday, August 18th: New Classes}

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Year 2: Part 5: Post 1: Lammas

Happy Lammas, again! Or Lughnasadh. Like I said last year, both names work.

This year's Lammas celebration wasn't that much different from last year's. We had a big feast in a big tent out on the pasture in front of the Dining Hall, with a couple  of performances, a kind of open-mike on a little stage inside the tent. Once again, nobody explained what any of it meant, though celebrating the awesome food Sarah grows seems to be part of it.

But this year I picked up a hint of a second theme.

This year Kit didn't sing, but she did perform--not as the star of her act, like last year, but as part of a string quartet. I think of string quartets as playing classical music, of course, but they played three pop songs, and the songs were wonderful and complex and new with the unfamiliar arrangement. They played straight through from one to the other, like a medley, except that they did each song in its entirety. I knew some of them, but not all, but I've asked around and have their titles and lyrics.

Empty Chairs, by Don McLean was slow and sad and had this wonderful, soaring violin piece in the bridge.
Hit the Road, Jack, by Ray Charles, was raw and bluesy with the cello doing the percussive work.
The Rose, by Bette Midler, had Kit doing the melody line and the other instruments weaving around her.

And looking at all three songs, they're all kind of about loss.

Never thought those words you said were true
Never thought you said just what you meant
Never knew how much I needed you
Never thought you'd leave, until you went.

Although The Rose ends on a note of return.

When the night has been too lonely
And the road has been too long
And you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong
Just remember, in the winter, far beneath the bitter snow
Lies the seed that with the sun's love
In the spring becomes the rose.

I've heard that "Lughnasadh" means "mourning for Lugh," Lugh being a Celtic god associated with youth and summer. I suppose that in celebrating the harvest, we're also marking the beginning of the end of something. All the Sabbats are like that, I gather--in one way or another, they're all about beginnings and endings at the same time.

Certainly, Lammas is a beginning and and end of something here at school--the summer semester is over and the fall semester about to begin. The summer camp is wrapping up, too. I never thought about it before, but there's no gap between the semesters--how do the masters get our grades in? I remember they did, last year. It only took them a week or two, even though they were also handling their new classes. Another subtle magic trick, I suppose. I'm going to have a free period this time--nothing at all scheduled for Monday morning. I suppose Charlie will find some crazy thing to have me do with my time--or Joy will, now that I'm her student, too.

I saw the masters all leave again, slipping out of the party one by one, in later afternoon, just as if we're not supposed to notice they're going somewhere. But this year I noticed something else, too--dozens and dozens and dozens of former students came on campus, but they didn't interact with us. I didn't notice them last year because I was inside the tent--is that the reason for the tent? I suppose it is useful in case of rain, though. Anyway, I was just heading back to the Dining Hall to use the john when I noticed this--migration--of people across campus. I suppose I only saw three or four people, plus a couple of cars, but really on a campus as small as ours that many strangers is a lot. They were all dressed in brown uniforms--I couldn't see the rings, but I knew they wore them. All heading for the Mansion. The masters left the party right after that.

I'm guessing they went to the Mansion, too.