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, January 22, 2017

Year 4: Part 8: Post 7: School Days

Hi, all, Daniel-of-2017, again.

In my last post I forgot to say that I actually finalized the application process for both my summer job and my grad school while hiking the Appalachian Trail. I interviewed for both by cell phone from the tops of mountains that got decent reception. I think, in both cases, that my unusual circumstances helped win my case.

My summer job was as a back-country caretaker, meaning I lived at and was responsible for a hike-in-only campsite and a section of trail nearby. I did basic trail and site maintenance and Leave No Trace education--I had no enforcement authority, I just had to somehow explain to people why doing the right thing is a good idea. I had a radio to call for law enforcement if I needed it, but I never did.

It was remarkable how much of the caretaker training was review for me--Charlie had basically covered it. I'd even already read many of their recommended books. I don't mean that I didn't learn anything--I did--but that I kind of started out with a step up. I could pay a lot more attention to the parts of the training that I didn't know.

What I learned...I'd already become a naturalist and a student of place. I'd already become an educator, of sorts, since I'd been leading various workshops at school. What was different was that, as a caretaker, I was responsible for a place. I was its guardian. And I was the one deciding what kind of education different people needed, what kind of teacher they needed me to be. Sometimes I gave formal natural history talks. Sometimes I sprinkled information into my conversation so subtly that the other person didn't know I was trying to influence their behavior at all. And everything in between.

I spent a lot of time learning about the area and simply being there. I could sit quietly enough that I frequently saw animals, even at very close range, before they saw me. Often, human hikers didn't notice me at all, unless I wanted to. Once, I "decloaked" quite suddenly in order to tell a group of young boys not to damage a group of mushrooms they'd been poking at and I accidentally frightened them. I saw myself then, reflected in their eyes, as some kind of gnome or forest-sprite, a crazy and half-mythical man of the woods, and I thought of Charlie.

In August, as planned, I left my tent site in the mountains and started grad school--and ran straight into serious culture shock.

It wasn't so much that grad school was all that different, culturally, than what I had been in before. I mean, most of the students and, I think, all of the faculty were American, as am I, so it's not like there was this huge gap. Living at a strange little pagan seminary for four years couldn't completely change my background. It didn't make me become someone from another planet.

No, the jarring thing wasn't the culture, it was the expectations of the culture. It was as though I were approaching grad school from the opposite direction as everybody else.

As Charlie had suspected, the graduate program I chose prided itself on its environmentalist values, its progressive/liberal politics, and its dedication to community, but it wasn't as dedicated to any of that as the school I'd come from--or the employer I'd just left. At the same time, it probably was "greener" and more progressive than most of the other places the faculty and my fellow students could have been. So while everybody around me was either celebrating or joking about what a leftist, artsy, granola-greenie place they'd landed, I noticed the lights left on in empty rooms, the vehicles used for no clear reason, the profit motive lurking behind certain decisions made by the Administration. It was like getting directions to a place from someone heading South, except you're heading North, and neither of you knows it.

I don't mean to suggest any kind of pervasive, organized hypocrisy. Most of what I noticed was probably the result of simple institutional compartmentalization. There were faculty members who could explain in brilliant detail exactly why disposable plastic water bottles are bad, but those weren't the people deciding what to sell in the campus book store--which did sell bottled water. The other problems was that the school wasn't residential. We only spent a few hours a day together, and only, really, for a few months. Mine was a two-and-a-half-year program, but much of that time was occupied by off-campus internships and research trips. Even had the school leadership been interested in actively shaping a campus culture, there would have been small opportunity. And so each of us simply retained whatever interest in whatever values we'd started out with, and a thin, temporary, but on the whole caring, community grew out of our brief and hurried interactions.

And, on the whole, I liked it, once the disorientation of the first few months wore off.

I did well in my classes, of course, but for the first time in my life I did not shine among my fellow students. As far as I can tell, I was about in the middle of my class, academically, or sometimes somewhat below it. For one thing--honestly, I'm really smart. I know that. But in grad school, all of a sudden, all the other students were really smart, too. So the classes were designed to challenge people at least as smart as I am. I'd never had to work to pass classes before, but, all of a sudden, I did.

Then, I had never before taken a science class designed for budding scientists. Even Charlie had always proceeded from the assumption, probably accurate, that most of his students needed to be cajoled into taking any interest in scientific process at all. And I'd never before used a computer for anything other than typing up papers and playing video games (and, in the last few months, email)--while I was living in Brigadoon, the Internet revolution had happened, the virtual world moving from a curiosity reserved for geeks to the place where virtually all scholarship and professional communication occurred. I had to catch up, and quickly.

I was ahead in some classes. I was surprised to learn I was a better naturalist than almost all my fellow first-year students. Even most of the plant-geeks didn't know as much about plant identification as I did, and I was shocked to learn that even the professors assumed that you can't track animals except in snow. Many of the data collection techniques we were taught I already knew from Charlie's Messing Around Outdoors classes. What I didn't know, and needed to learn, was what to do with the data once you get them ("data" is plural, another new discovery!), and why you want to collect those data to begin with. I'd never before learned how to ask a question answerable by science, how to organize the rigorous search for knowledge.

I also didn't know bird identification. Charlie has only passing interest in it, but the student body included several enthusiastic birders and so I bowed to peer pressure and signed up for ornithology.

I thought of my friends back at school often. I thought of Allen midway through my first spring semester when I stepped out of the school building after studying late, looked up, and realized I hadn't thought to look at the stars in months. I hadn't spoken to anyone, other than my immediate family, about anything other than homework in about as long. I could not remember the last time anyone had hugged me, or the last time I'd sat doing nothing in the woods. I felt as though I'd been asleep, or worse than asleep, and was awake, just for a moment, before I slipped under again. I saw no way not to. I had homework to complete, responsibilities to meet. I had no time....

And I thought of Allen then without clearly understanding why. I had to wake up for several such moments over the course of almost a year, before I realized that Allen had in fact predicted my situation. I'd been working hard to do everything asked of me, and to do it well, just as I'd always done, except in the past, the people telling me what to do had all made a point of telling me to attend to my spiritual life, stay involved in my athletics, call my friends, and so on. Now, the only demands being made on me were academic. At the very first opportunity to take responsibility for keeping my own life full and vibrant, I'd become a lonely couch-potato with tunnel vision.

And yet, the longer I was in grad school, the more I noticed that the depth, the mystery, the magic I'd known was here, too. I just had to pay more attention.

Some of the school's traditions--even those I understood to be typical of academia in general--looked an awful lot like the ritual structures I'd learned from Kit and Joy. Some of the phrases some of the professors used reminded me an awful lot of the bits of mysticism and alchemy I'd learned. Some of the places we visited on field trips were obviously sacred sites and the professors clearly knew it--though they never said so.

Speaking in a mundane way, I'd say that some of the other people at grad school, including some of the faculty, may have had spiritual interests that they considered unprofessional to mention but which leaked out sometimes. But I doubt that's all of it. I thought about how, back at the school whose name I do not provide, Kit and all of the others would be so obviously mysterious. It was like the entire school was a giant neon sign blazing MAGICAL SECRETS HERE! TRY TO FIGURE IT OUT! But at grad school, there was no sign. That didn't mean there were no secrets.

In fact, I gradually realized that whatever interest in the occult individual professors may have had (and I never was able to confirm that hunch), I had entered another initiatory process. Learning to think like a scientist is every bit as much a transformation as learning to think like a priest or priestess is. The only difference is that the secrets of the craft are not hidden--

--Which makes them harder to find. For example, words like "theory" and "experiment," mean very different things to the general public and to the scientist, but because everyone thinks they are the same words, nobody realizes that scientists are, in fact, saying radically different things than everybody else--things you have to transform your mind in order to think. But nobody ever tells you that the transformation is about to take place, nor even that it is a possibility.

Kit and Charlie and Allen and the others put magic in a big pile, more or less directly in the way of everybody else, and kept making you trip over it until you finally realized it was there and started asking the right questions. In the larger world, I discovered, the magic still exists, and many people know about it, but if you don't notice it's there you can just walk on by it and nobody says anything.

Every minute is another entrance test.

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