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, October 26, 2014

Year 2: 6th Interlude

Hi, it’s Daniel-of-2014 here.

Is it really time to do another "interlude"? This past month and a half has flown by somehow. Did I skip a post somewhere? How is it there have been so few since Mabon?

Anyway, I sit down to start this entry, and I realize I’m about to sound like the proverbial broken record; another interlude, another post about the cuteness of my daughter, the advance of the seasons, and getting together with the others to celebrate the Sabbats.

And yet there are changes. Carly is talking now, not just a smattering of isolated words but two and even three-word sentences. It’s possible to have a conversation with her, of sorts.

And when we get together for the Sabbats, it’s starting to feel less like an exercise in nostalgia and more a new thing, a new tradition with its own wholeness. It’s been three years, after all; the loss of the school as an institution is not a new thing anymore. In those three years, a lot has happened—Carly’s whole life, for example, and a quarter of Aidan’s. This will likely be his last Samhain as a Sprout. Based on his comments at the march in September, he could start next year as a student, which raises the question, how do we have students if we don’t have a school?

Greg articulated the shift for us at a meeting of the Six a few weeks ago.

“We have a decision to make,” he said. “Do we want to move on, or do we want to move on?”

Greg has a knack for saying the things the rest of us know and don’t know that we know. He observes well. He witnesses. But his initial synopsis of a situation is often cryptic. It took the rest of us a couple of seconds to realize what he meant and to agree.

“Yes, it’s time,” said Joy. “The ‘over’ is over.”

“Curious,” observed Karen, “each of us would say it in a different way.” 

Greg nodded.

“How would you put it, Daniel?” asked Allen. “You’re the Chronicler.” 

They have started calling me that, but it doesn’t just mean that I’m a blogger. I thought for a moment.

“I’d say it depends on what story we want to be telling,” I said, after a moment’s thought, “whether the closing of the campus was the end, the beginning, or the middle of the tale.  But” --and here a new idea, a new perspective occurred to me—“I don’t think that’s the best question, because I don’t think we get to decide what story we are telling or where we are in it. We do get to decide whether we are telling one story together, or six different stories.”

The others seemed to think that was profound—their faces changed. I was rather pleased with it myself. I don’t know where half the things I say come from, they just arrive and I let them out. Just like I don’t know how or why I came to join the school in the first place. All my best decisions surprise me.

“Daniel the Chronicler,” Kit said, fondly. “You reflect us, refract us. We would not be what we are without you.” I blushed at the unexpected praise, but Kit continued. “And that, I think, is the answer—Daniel changes our wholeness, shifts the dynamic of us. But he couldn’t do that if there weren’t still an ‘us,’ could he?” The rest of us looked around at each other, a bit stunned, but reassured. Kit was right. But she cut off further discussion with one hand. “But I think we should not talk about the issue further right now. This needs more dreaming.”

And we went on to talk about other things.

I know all this might seem a little arcane, but that is really how the group of us discuss issues. We are used to it, so it makes sense to us. I guess the way to explain it is that instead of talking about pros and cons and wants and needs and opinions, we mostly observe and refine where we are in a decision process. Eventually, we observe that the decision has been made. I don’t mean that we never actually decide things as a group the way other people do, only that we do it less often. Charlie once told me that the big decisions make themselves, and the key is to focus on becoming a person whose decisions are good. I guess that’s what we do as a group—work on being the kind of group that has good decisions while we wait for the decision to present itself.

Each of us has a knack for taking care of a different dimension of the group process—Greg witnesses, Joy intuits shifting energies, Kit entrains with relevant myths, I attend to what narrative we are playing out, and so on. Together, we make a single conversation, a single, gradually shifting entity, the Six (sometimes we are more or less than six, but we’re always called the Six).

I’m not sure that the above conversation is really clear to you, my readers, since you are not used to how we do things. But I’m going to act like a master and be mysterious by not explaining.  I’ll do as Kit said and let it dream a while longer.

In the meantime, my family has been invited to a children’s Hallowe’en party this week. The hosts own the in-home daycare we use for babysitting occasionally, so Carly is friends with some of the other children there. We’re going to the party so she can play with her friends. I hadn’t known kids her age can have friends yet, but evidently she can and does. Fortunately, the party is on Saturday, not on Hallowe’en itself, because Hallowe’en is the same day as Samhain.

The two holidays are very different, as I discovered years ago—the decorations and traditions are mostly the same, but the themes are almost diametrically opposed. As the years have gone by, my wife and I have celebrated Samhain more and more and Hallowe’en less and less, but we’ve never actually made a declaration about it. The two merge into each other. How Carly will sort all of this out, I do not know. 

I should probably ask Aidan how he did it.                    

[Next Post: November 3rd., Samhain]

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Year 2: Part 6: Post 4: Homework

Remember, at the beginning of the semester, when I was all happy that Charlie's class only had one homework assignment? I was psyched. I thought I'd be able to focus on my other classes and basically not do much in that one class because there was only one assignment, due at the end.

Famous last words. I was wrong, of course, REALLY wrong. That one assignment is almost a dissertation. It's due tomorrow.

The class is Creating Campus, and it covers the ecological and horticultural theory behind the landscaping of the school. Each week, we've covered a different principle, like co-evolution, energy transfer, or spatial structure, using campus as an example. It's been fun and interesting. Charlie's assigned a lot of reading--he tends to assume that everyone can read as fast as he does, which is not remotely true--but he said at the beginning that the reading is for us not for him and he's not going check to see if we do it. There's only this one assignment he's really going to check.

We have to design a new feature for the campus landscape plan and fully document how and why it would work.

We're not actually going to build our features, it's just an educational exercise, but he says he's used elements of student plans before and might again. He's also had students go into ecological landscaping after they graduate and adapt their final projects for use with clients. So this is kind of a big deal.

I didn't just start the assignment today, I'm not that bad--I got working on it seriously about a week and a half ago--but I still left myself with too little time. I think I'm going to make it, and I'm doing a good job, but only because I've been staying up late night after night and working insanely hard on it.

Our design has to include at least two of the ecological principles we covered in class, plus is must be attractive, must not interfere with human use of the campus, and must solve some shortcoming of the existing plan. I didn't perceive any shortcoming of the existing plan, so that last part was hard for me. I ended up using as my starting point something Charlie said back in the spring, when we were on the Island together. He was sitting, looking at the water and listening to the waves, as he often did, when he sighed and spoke.

"That's the one thing campus is missing--water."

Allen was with us, and he pointed out that there is, in fact, a pond on campus, not to mention the lake nearby, but Charlie shook his head.

"No, running water, moving water," he said. "Something you can sit and listen to."

So I started thinking how I could design something to fix that. After all, you can build an artificial stream using a pump to take the water from a pool at the the bottom back up to a pool at the top. But even if the pump were solar powered, like the fountains are, I don't think Charlie would like that very much. One of the things he said in class was to pay attention to what the land was already doing. There is a time for making dramatic changes, by mimicking an earlier fire regime, for example, or removing an invasive species and starting over, but if you don't understand the system very well already, always default to going with the flow. "Let the land stay in character," he would say, or "help your site do what it what it was already doing. Don't make it do what it doesn't want to."

And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that our patch of land doesn't want to have a stream on it. But it might want another wetland.

So, in the end I dispensed with the stream idea, and my plan evolved into using the waste water from the Mansion to make a wetland on the Flat Field. I figured that would meet the human usefulness requirement, because that water now goes through a filter and then into a fairly traditional septic field, and I know they are working to come up with some more useful alternative. I figure, why not pipe that water into an artificial wetland and use it to fertilize some flowers? That field also receives runnoff from almost a quarter of campus, including most of our impermeable surfaces, so it's also a good place for a rain garden.

The Flat Field, as you may recall, is the graded footprint of a huge barn that burned down before the School took over this property. It's at least a hundred feet on a side, flat as the name implies, and boarded on two sides by a steep embankment going down and on two sides by an embankment going up. My plan involves scooping out a shallow depression at the corner where the higher ground slopes down to the Field and then grading it out so that the whole Field slopes in to the corner. Then pipe the waste water to a point just inside that slope, above the depression, so the soil could act as a secondary filter and there wouldn't be a pool of dirty water. When it rained, a pool would form for a while, but otherwise the soil would just be wet. I'd plant it with wetland flowers that like a lot of nutrients--yes, I listed them--put stepping stones through the middle of it, and a couple of benches around the outer edge of it. I even charted out the blooming times of the different flowers so it would provide nectar and look good continuously throughout the growing season.

It's taken me a little over a week to calculate the proper size for the garden to handle the water it would receive and to work out the species list. Now, I have to rewrite the whole thing, rework all my visual aids, my maps and plans and charts, and format it. Charlie gave us this detailed list of exactly how the thing has to be formatted, even right down to where the page numbers have to be and what size font we have to use--unusually, it does have to be typed. I don't expect to sleep tonight, especially considering that I have other classes where I also have homework due.

The thing is, I think I've gone completely crazy over the past few days. I'm not thinking about anything other than homework, I'm not doing anything other than homework, I'm like this complete homework zombie. I'm serious, it's mind-altering.

It's kind of the opposite of what most of Charlie's teachings do--open me up, make me more aware of the world. This assignment is making me less aware. It's my own fault, for putting this off until the last minute. I have nothing profound to say.

[Next Post: Monday, October 28th: Interlude]

Monday, October 13, 2014

Year 2: Part 6: Post 3: Turning the Wheel

This week we took the window boxes down from the balconies. The beans that grew in them all summer and shaded our dorms in the head and attracted hummingbirds to our bedroom windows are done. I remember watching the horticulture crew do this last year--lowering the boxes on ropes down the side of the Mansion so they wouldn't get soil on the floor inside. Now, I'm on the team so I got to do it. It's kind of fun, leaning out over the edge of the balcony and working with your partner to keep the thing level so it doesn't dump all the dirt down on the lawn. Sometimes one does tip and make a big mess and everybody shouts and jeers. Once each box was down, Dillon and Diane loaded it on to a horse-drawn cart. Charlie took the cart down to the barn whenever it filled up. I don't know who unloaded it.

There were A LOT of boxes--a hundred and four--and it took the six of us, plus four from the farming team, a good five hours to get them all down. We had to work through lunch and then eat during class. Every window that isn't on the first floor had one. That's a lot of beans, maybe a few hundred pounds, green and dried beans combined. I hadn't thought of it before--I knew I'd eaten them--when I do homework on my balcony the green ones make handy snacks--but I hadn't realized that we must eat from our own sun-shades an average of once or twice a week all year. Of course, there are beans or peas available at almost every lunch and dinner cooked one way or another. We grow about a half-dozen varieties, counting the various beds on the farm.

The Mansion looks oddly naked now, all stone and wood and glass, as it was when I first saw it. Almost all the flowers on campus and in the woods are done, now; even most of the goldenrods and asters are setting seed, little fluffy, messy things. Soon, the witch-hazel will flower, flowers for Samhain. The wheel of the year is turning, as they say around here. And I am one of the people turning it. I helped take down the window boxes. Last week, I helped twine cut vines, ivy, grape, and bittersweet, all through the Great Hall, up the columns near the staircase and beside the windows and doors and out along the wooden beams that support the ceiling. I didn't do the arrangements of gourds in the Dining Hall, Karen and some of her students do that, but I did help cut the dried flowers and the branches they used for the Great Hall. I like being involved in this way.

The forest looks brighter, now, like there are patches of sun in among the trees even on rainy days. It's the Fall leaves, of course, just about at their peak now, I'd say. Decorating the campus as we are, and the forest decorating itself as it is, it's like we're all straining forward in anticipation, building up to some mighty crescendo of the year--and what's actually going to happen is the leaves will all fall off, the land will look grey and dead, and campus will all but close down for months on end. It's an odd thing to strain forward to.

"We live until we die," says Charlie.

"In the beginning is the end, in the end, the beginning," says Kit.

"The leaves are pretty today," says Greg.

In the mundane is the profound. And here, the profound is often mundane.

[Next Post: Monday, October 19th]

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Year 2: Part 6: Post 2: Looking at Fall

It's just kind of hit me that the school year is over in less than four weeks. I'm just completely bowled over, thinking about this.

Part of it is that I'm still continually amazed I'm here at all, let alone that I've been here for almost two years. I mean, yes, I'm used to being here. When I wake up in the morning I'm never surprised to find myself in my room--and I sometimes am surprised to find myself anywhere else, like when I visit my parents and spend the night. I wake up disoriented, not all the time, just sometimes. I'm comfortable living here, and there are times I forget there is any other way, any other place. Of course I'm going running with Ollie in the morning. Of course I'm going tracking with Rick, or discussing art with Ebony, or getting in leaf-fights with Joanna (she started it). Of course I'm doing some godawful, impossible task for Charlie, counting grass blades or something like that. Doesn't everyone wear a floor-length black hooded cloak when the weather gets chilly? But at the same time, there is something about this place that I can never quite take for granted. The mystery never wears off.

It reminds me of a story I read years ago, Leaf by Niggle, in which there is a magical country where you can actually walk into the distance--that is, when you walk towards the horizon, the sense of novelty and promise doesn't recede as you go, but rather you arrive at it, in the distance. It's hard to explain. But in some way, this school is like that. I keep wanting to pinch myself to be sure I'm awake.

But there's another thing about the end of the school year, besides the way it marks how long I've been here,and that is that more people are leaving. They're not leaving at Samhain, of course--graduation isn't until Brigid, three more months after that. But we don't necessarily see each other as much over the winter, and anyway it is everybody running around tying up loose ends before the masters leave that keeps reminding me who's graduating.

In a word, Ollie's graduating this year.

It's not a surprise, of course, but it's strange to think that next year he won't be here. We won't go running together, he won't debate philosophy with me and get on my case when I'm being stupid. I haven't needed him as my "buddy," my guide as a new student, since last spring, of course, but it's strange to think he won't be available, just in case.

It's not just him, obviously; twenty-eight people expect to graduate this coming Brigid, counting mastery candidates. Only one--Zarah, whom I hardly know--is a "one hit wonder," graduating after only a year and a day, but six people from my yearling group are going, including three of the Ravens. I don't know any of the three- and four-year graduates well.

Willa, Ollie's girlfriend, isn't graduating until next year. This, too, isn't a surprise, it's just something I hadn't thought of before. I expect they haven't either, since dwelling on the future isn't really like either of them. But it is a bit of an issue. I'd always assumed Ollie would go on to try for mastery, since he is so much Allen's acolyte--I'd think he'd want to learn as much from him as he could. But to become a candidate you have to do a minimum of three years' Absence, and while Absent from campus you can't have any contact with current students. That would include Willa. I don't know what they're going to do about that.

In the meantime, Fall has definitely begun falling. Between last week and this we've gone from just a couple of trees starting to turn, to almost everything orange and red. The ridge behind campus looks like a pile of Fruity Pebbles, and the birch trees are glowing yellow in among the dark pines and hemlocks that ring the berry orchards and the grape arbor. The first frost can't be far off. When I go walking in the woods, or even some places on campus, I can hear leaves falling all around me. They sound like rain or snow.

Charlie did, in fact, give me a new project a few weeks ago--it seems strange to me to start this sort of thing in the fall, I can't figure out if there's a method to his madness, or if he just didn't think of this project until recently. Anyway, he has me keeping track of everything that's sprouting, flowering, fruiting, or going dormant/dying on campus. By species, I mean. There's a form I have to fill out every week, and yes it includes the woods, too. I don't have to be exhaustive, but I do have to be reasonably complete, whatever that means.

So, of course now pretty much everything is in fruit or dying back, except the asters (and witch-hazel, which will flower later this month). And the problem is, if I don't already know the things that are past flowering, I can't look them up, except for the shrubs and trees--because non-woody plants are listed in my guide books by their flowers. When I've done this sort of thing before--last year, Charlie had me surveying plants in tiny plots--I've drawn pictures or taken photographs of the things I couldn't identify and given them my own names, like Unidentified Thing With Galls #3.That way, if I figured out what they were later, I could go back and fill in my records with the right name. And I got extra practice noticing the details of plants that way, which was probably the point. Charlie's big on noticing things. But I've got such a huge pile of unidentified plants, now!

I asked Charlie about it a few days ago, hoping he'd suggest some guidebook to plants in fruit that I hadn't known about, or tell me I could leave off the project, but he just told me to do the best I could with that I had.

"The fruiting structure tells you something about the flower structure," he told me, "the number of divisions usually corresponds to the number of petals, for instance. And you can see whether the leaves are alternate, opposite, or whorled. Take what you know and see what that tells you. Half answers beat no answers. Usually."

I've found that when Charlie tells me a thing, what he says seldom makes sense until I put it into practice. He doesn't tell me the answer to my question, he tells me how to find the answer, even if I'm finding it inside my own mind, by a process of thought. In this case, once I started taking stock of what I did know about a plant, I could usually narrow it down to family or genus, sometimes to species. So, the advice worked. But that more abstract statement--half-answers beat no answers. Usually. I persist in hearing that as having bigger significance, like he was talking about more than wildflower identification. What process must I go through to find out what he means?

It's that one word, "usually," that gets me.

[Next post: Monday, October 13th: Dreams]