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, April 13, 2015

Year 3: Part 2: Post 8: Food for Thought

The weather’s been lovely lately, warm rains every few days and clear, cool, sunny periods in between.  The grass on the side of the main road has greened up and some of the trees are starting to break bud, though the grass on campus is still brown—it’s mostly native warm-season grasses and they take longer to get going. 

It’s strange, with this warm weather and everything starting to green up, to go into the Dining Hall and find that we’re still eating from the greenhouses and from what we stored last year. Those and the mushrooms—they grow mushrooms in jars and boxes in the Dining Hall basement, maybe four or five different kinds. The mushrooms go year round, of course.

And the thing is, we’re running out of certain foods. I don’t mean we’re in any danger of starving, there’s enough food, and even if there weren’t, there’s room in the budget to buy more if we had to. But the food is starting to get a little boring. 

For example, we had a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables stored in the Dining Hall basement, mostly apples, squash, onions, things that keep. But we must have eaten  almost all of it already, because the only thing in that category I’ve seen in a few weeks is potatoes. The dried fruit is all gone because Sadie found worms of some kind in the last of it last week (grain moth larvae? Maggots?) and made dog food out of it. Yes, the school has three dogs for guarding and herding the sheep and chickens, I forget if I’ve mentioned that.

And, speaking of dogs, two strays from somewhere killed almost half our chickens back in January while the guard dogs all in with the sheep, so eggs are even more tightly rationed now than normal. That will persist until the replacement hens get old enough to lay. 

(In case you’re curious, we’re not raising replacement birds because of the dog attack. Every year, Sarah and her team raise three batches of chicks. When these reach adulthood, they keep however many hens they need to replace those who have died or stopped laying. Sometimes they keep a rooster, since each of the two flocks needs one. We eat the extra, along with any older birds Sarah has culled from the flock for whatever reason. So this spring we might not get to eat any chicken because, thanks to the dogs, there probably won’t be any extra. We don’t know where the dogs came from—Rick tracked them out to the main road and lost the trail on the blacktop).

So, we’re eating a lot of beans and greenhouse kale these days, and a lot of breads made from the flour bought from off campus. It all tastes good, but, like I said, it’s getting boring. And, like I said, it’s strange to be eating from dwindling stores when everything outside is warm and turning green.
I don’t remember noticing this sort of thing my first year, although it may well have been worse, since 1999 was a drought year and I understand we had some crop failure. Then again, maybe the food in spring was better, because I’ve heard we had to buy a lot of off campus food). Either way, I didn’t notice because I was too preoccupied by the strangeness of a local/seasonal diet to really think about the details. Last spring I was preoccupied by getting ready to go to the Island and by a few other things, so if I noticed we were running out of some things I didn’t bother to remember it.

I might not have noticed this year, except I was talking to one of the Ravens about how strange it was to keep eating like it’s winter after things have warmed up and she explained it. She works in the Dining Hall. The issue, of course, is that it takes time for the new season’s food to actually grow. In a few weeks I guess we’ll have asparagus and rhubarb and lettuce.

Meanwhile, classes continue. 

As I’d said before, I’m only taking two classes this semester, Literature of the Land, with Charlie, and Intro to Wiccan Ritual and Myth, with Kit. I’d been a little worried that having those two and only those two as my teachers this semester would be awkward, because they are allergic to each other, but it hasn’t been an issue. Actually, the two classes work together in a really interesting way.

Literature of the Land is a somewhat more organized version of the reading list I took on for Charlie my first full winter—some of the books are even the same, which shouldn’t be a surprise. The main difference is getting to talk about the readings with a group. That, and Charlie directs the discussions more. There are clearly particular points he wants to get across, particular ideas he wants us to have—which some of us seem to find confusing or intimidating, but since I’m entirely used to being confused by Charlie, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t worry about getting it wrong.

The underlying theme, in contrast to some of his other classes, is not so much what the land is (ecology and its various permutations) as how we humans react to it. Of course, part of the class is simply exploring language, which Charlie loves with a passion, but it’s also an inherently self-reflective subject, which at first seemed odd, because Charlie doesn’t exactly encourage self-anything, under most circumstances. I asked him about this one day after class and he said “how do you know you’re not getting in your own way if you don’t know where you are? Scientists begin by recording their methods. The really good ones keep track of their biases as well. We exist, we’re part of the system, our minds are part of the system, therefore, our minds are legitimate objects of study.” 

And, curiously, Kit’s class has the same underlying theme.

I’d kind of thought that her class would be something like a Wiccan equivalent of Sunday school, only without the assumption that all of us should share the same religion. I mean, Kit knows that we’re not all Wiccan, but she is, so I expected to hear about her beliefs. I haven’t. Not exactly.

I should explain that Kit uses the word “myth” a little differently than most people in the outside world do—and of course, most people on campus use the word the way she does, so this isn’t a definition she had to provide in class. But a “myth” is not a misconception. It’s not simply a metaphor, either. 

A myth is a metaphor for something that cannot be accurately and fully expressed in a literal way.
I’m starting to realize that one of the reasons why people around here seldom provide a single, definitive explanation for things is that most of what we’re supposed to be learning cannot be reduced to the literal very well. When I first got here, I appreciated Kit’s willingness to explain the symbolism of various school events and the objects around campus. Joy would explain sometimes, too, though her explanations were usually somewhat different, which I found confusing. The others often would not explain at all—Charlie would growl or change the subject, Greg and Allen would answer questions by asking more questions, and Karen would make short statements that seemed very deep but become nonsensical if you think about them too carefully.

Except occasionally I’d wake up in the middle of the night and suddenly realize how one of Karen’s enigmas made perfect sense after all.

They all still do that, of course, only now I’m starting to get that they’re not just being mysterious for the fun of it but to avoid letting us think we understood issues that we really hadn’t yet. They were leaving room for the mythic. Even Kit’s answers, as clear and detailed as they are, really only provide hints as to the sort of things a symbol might mean. 

So it didn’t confuse any of us that she used the word “myth” to refer to her own class. What did confuse me was how anthropological her approach is to her own religion.

She’s actually explained this point over and over, but I’m only just beginning to get it—the ultimate truth, in her view, is not what might at first seem to be the beliefs of Wicca—the Goddess and the God, the Guardians of the Quarters, the Rule of Three and the Rede (those are basic moral guidelines of Wicca) and so forth. According to Kit, all of those are just working metaphors for something deeper that cannot actually be described directly. They are the set of metaphors she uses, but she insists that any other set could be just as good, provided it works to help a person live well.

Anyway, so she’s using this class to explore Wiccan myth and ritual, what it consists of and how it works. And what it’s more is ultimately to make sense of, and to interconnect, an underlying reality of human psychology, ecology, and an ineffable spiritual dimension Kit ultimately cannot define—all of which are true in a way that transcends religion, the kind of reality that you can trip over if you don’t realize it is there. So, again, how humans relate to the land, as both mediated by and explored through the stories we tell—just like in Charlie’s class.

Kit has a line that she says whenever anyone asks about her beliefs or Wiccan beliefs. She says “belief is unimportant. We know or we do not know—and if we don’t know we can find out.”

And Charlie says exactly the same thing.

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