Wednesday, April 8, 2015

In Which We Propose to Teach The Circle and Not The Line

My school had me put in my book order for the fall (no contract yet, but at least they anticipate my teaching...). Literature and The Environment has swung back around, and in addition to our anthology, this time I'm adding Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

The introduction by Carson's biographer Linda Lear and Edward O. Wilson's afterword are excellent additions to this edition, and are particularly useful to students. 

Now I have the task of deciding how to "teach" the book--something that always seemed a strange endeavor to me, considered on its own. But having the context of the course brings it down to earth. 
My initial thought is this: I want my students to take their time with Silent Spring, and I want the book to unfold for them as the topics of the course unfold. I'm thinking a chapter or so a week, aligned with our other readings. In addition, I'd like to have the students engaging in some reflective work in relation to those other readings. 

Not to say that Carson's book is the end all and be all. Rather, we can acknowledge that it is the way in which one aspect of the environmental discussion began (the influence of Silent Spring is still being felt, still being debated) and also return to it as a touchstone, seeing how the overall elements of Environmental Lit play out in Carson's writing as compared to the shorter works we'll read.

And there's also Carson's voice. Her prose style in the book exerts its own push and pull; she manages to relate complex concepts affably, to win over her readers in an anecdotal manner, yet all the while she has the force of over fifty pages of principle sources backing her up. There is an intensity that underlies her argument that feels like the building of an immense wave--it can't be escaped. 

So I don't want the book to become a sprint or a chore. Students will be getting a wide selection of readings in the course, and some of the texts make for dense and difficult reading. If there is one thing that students can excel at, it's rushing a text and demanding immediate meaning. I'm thinking, right now, that slowing the pace with the text may slow them down a bit, as well. 

Slowing down is also my own plan for the summer, in regard to reading Carson. I'm hoping to think it through as I go, and also explore the intersections that I see in relation to other texts, other environmental situations, other advancements, retreats, and disappointments. Ideally, students will do this, as well--allow the text and its significance to be a catalyst for furthering their thoughts, rather than a race to the end of that week's reading. 

I'm pretty hopeful in my thinking, but there's still a long stretch between then and now. 

More about Rachel Carson

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Fog and The Spring

Spring is nothing and everything.

This particular spring morning was all fog--dense and silver--as I drove up the "Lincoln Highway" towards Jennerstown. No one thinks of this spiraling ridge road with such a respectable name anymore, though. It's just Route 30, the road up to the Laurel Summit, the way to Route 219 and my place of work in Johnstown.

But this road can wrack the nerves in winter. You're on a precipice where a wrong twist of the wheel could take you full on into the path of a semi or tumbling down the steep ridge. There's only one snaking lane in each direction. Snow and ice make it a wheel-gripper, but today, in early spring, it's the fog that dominates.

To be a traveler through fog on a dangerous road you have to relinquish your hold.  You must abandon your sense of normality and instead accept that the only coherent landscape is the one that presents itself a few feet ahead. Details don’t emerge. There is none of the familiar “all at once-ness” about the world. There’s no horizon. No reassurance of the familiar. No security in landmarks and the Summit climb itself disappears: the road, the late March bare laurels, the stone pillars, the fields, the pines. All gone into a mist of nothing that reveals only one thing: now.

And as you force yourself to slow down and try to concentrate, you understand that the present and its landscape are both ideas you've take for granted. Constant stimulation from our environment and constant reminders of time and commitment  work to pull us away from what the present really has to offer. We don’t often exist in each moment; we exist in the just done, in the planning or the next, or, regrettably, in the mulling over of “what happened.”

It takes something dramatic as fog to pull us back. On that road, there is nothing else that matters but the present moment. Nothing else exists.

It has taken me one year to write this. It has taken me this long to allow a foggy morning to process, because the fog, as it will every spring, came back to remind me of its lessons. 

Spring is everything and nothing. The fog--yeah, it is the push into the now, but once the fog burns off, as you ease back down the Summit, as you ease into April and stretch out into May...the everything of green appears. 

Here's the curious thing: the explosion that is spring, after the long slogging whites and grays of winter, can function much like the fog 

If you are lucky enough to live near a wooded area, some unpeopled space, go there and find the green. I’m calling green the new gray—the fog that spring presents for us is the overwhelming, encompassing green that pushes forth new detail, new growth, a new landscape every year.

And once in this new environment, something strange can happen. All those pressing needs can vanish in the green. You can, if you allow, or try, or practice, get pushed into the now. As much as the fog limits, the green--it expands. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Listening For The Hawk

I took the dogs out this morning. I have a stubborn male Maremma (a kind of Italian sheepdog) and an anxious little Border Collie. We travel a regular route (unless we’re feeling adventurous) up and around the house, across the road and through a neighboring field, then back up the front yard.

It’s always different for the dogs, though, because they are picking up new information each time.

If you’ve had the pleasure of leading (or being led by) dogs, you know that one of their favorite activities is stopping to sniff. My Maremma, Hector, is by far the “lead sniffer.” If he discovers something interesting, he’ll stand and sniff long enough to wear on my patience. Countless dog owners have stood, waiting, for the eternal sniff to end: a patch of grass, a small pile of leaves, a stick, a bush, even rocks. Rocks? What could possibly be so intriguing?

It’s estimated that the amount of sensory cells in a dog’s nose is “somewhere between 125 million and several times that.” Humans? We’re only in possession of about 5 to 10 million.

Dogs experience the world in a way we mere humans never will. Knowing this fact, I’ve been trying to indulge them in their sniffing; I’m the lightweight in this battle, so who am I to say that it’s not absolutely critical that a tiny patch of moss be sniffed for a good five minutes?

It makes the walk take longer, but I know that Hector and Maisy are working at processing an astounding universe of detail that I could never grasp.

Walking back up the yard, though, it was my turn. I heard the sharp cry of a hawk.

Living here, I’ve most often seen hawks in conjunction with crows. The crows make a huge fuss if a hawk (a solitary hunter) is encroaching on something that is seen as dinner. Crows will berate a hawk mercilessly, chasing it from tree to tree, following it, and even engaging it in battle mid-air.

When crows are chasing a hawk, you hear the complaining crows.

But this was a lone, piercing hawk cry.

I scanned the air above me, but couldn’t see him. The dogs and I continued around the house towards the back door.

As we approached the door, I heard the hawk again, and stopped. You’ve probably heard the cry of a red tailed hawk before. It’s used in many mediums as a generic raptor cry. It’s a lonely, soul-stopping sound, the equivalent of a sob-inducing song in a minor key. No other bird cry will force you to immediately understand melancholy, as the high note drops dramatically to the lower, tinged with the world-weary rasp of the search.

I wanted to hear it again.

The dogs stared at me. I wasn’t following the established order of opening the door and getting them biscuits. I was looking up the hill, trying to listen, wanting to hear the hawk.

The trees are bare of leaves now—November—and as I looked and listened, I noticed birds of all kinds. I’m not a birder. I can name only a few.

But they were coming and going from all over--flying from the pines by the ravine to limbs in the stark trees lining the slope. Some would pause a moment on a limb, then continue on to another limb. As I listened, I could hear the cries of these other birds, little chirps and trills, warnings and messages, calls and banter.

Up beyond the hill is a field. I imagined that the hawk was up there, soaring and circling.

There was no wind and the day was bright and blue. Two dogs sat beside me, still in their leashes, looking at me in anticipation. I asked them to wait.

I know those dogs have better hearing than me, too. I have to make due with the measly senses I’ve been given.

Maybe that’s why we humans are impatient with standing still and engaging the senses. We have to shut off our interior voice and pay attention to something other than ourselves. It’s not easy.

But it is worth it for the chances we’re offered and continually choose to ignore. I’m of a mind that listening for hawks allows me a connection, a realization, and a way in.

The dogs eventually got their biscuits.

I got, in the moment that he called again, myself and the hawk and nothing else but the meaning I applied to it. That was enough. No high drama and maybe not earth shattering, but a clear call to pause and listen.

You can hear a hawk’s cry at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

An Invitation

The Laurel Highlands. If you could lift yourself up above and fly, you would soar over the Allegheny Mountain range and orient yourself over Southwestern Pennsylvania. Look for the highest peak, Mount Davis, then begin your downward descent. We are rolling hills and valleys here in the Highlands. We are crests of winking lights and rivers that bend and sigh into easiness. We are little towns of chipped facades and cracked sidewalk pavement, church suppers and streetlights, cattails and black-eyed susans.

Come down further into the hollow between two ridges and find yourself on a little used road. There’s a yellow farmhouse with an old stone retaining wall in front. Pine trees guard the path of a spring fed stream that ends in a profusion of watercress. Follow a winding flagstone path up the yard and there you are, in the middle of it. But realize, too, that you can follow any path to get here.

This place is where I live, but it’s where you live, too—that’s tough to reconcile, but you can’t think about rooms, at this point. I don’t want to show you my living room or any room, really.

I want you to see outside.

So forget the yellow farmhouse. There’s another place to see; it’s where another farmhouse used to be.

You’ll have to walk up along the tall pines, but the slope isn’t too steep. Look down, and your eyes will be drawn to the water: there’s a ravine here, and the water from the spring mazes around down there along moss covered stones. No matter where you walk, you can hear the water splashing like a pocketful of coins.  It’s a bright sound; you like to hear it.

At the top, you’ll have to step onto stones to cross the stream and trust that they won’t move. They won’t. They’ll hold you as you cross.

Look now, towards the top edge of the field; this is where we found the stacked stones that marked an old foundation. The foundation forms a rustic bench, handy for resting and thinking. To your right is the ravine, with the pines beyond. One lonely apple tree is behind you, and then the land moves upward and into the woods proper.

But straight on is the loveliest. Sitting on the stacked stones, you look across the road to a magnificent old barn. At one time, the barn belonged with the house—the remains of the house whose foundation we use as a bench. I like to imagine the owners, stepping out onto their porch in the early morning, looking over to the barn and seeing the ridge rise behind it and the sun coming up over the ridge. The air has the peppery scent of spring growth, and I can imagine the lists of chores running through their minds as they started their days. I can imagine their tiredness, too, and their satisfaction, as they climbed back up those porch steps in the evening, turning their faces upwards to the stars shining in the black silk of Pennsylvania night sky.

And then, there is the Maple Line. It’s only my name for it, but it marks what once must have been the road up to the house. Nine mature and healthy Maples come straight up the yard; your eye follows them from the foundation to the barn.

The Maple Line is a man-made natural demarcation that has survived, even after the people, their home, their chores, their wants and desires, have passed.

And that demarcation is my reminder of the world that most people have lost. This sturdy row of Maples—at once a border and an invitation-- has served to get me thinking about the importance of the call and response we should engage in with our natural world. When one is living in it, as the folks who planted those trees must have, there’s a desire to interact with it. Gardens show us this desire, as do farms, flower borders, walking trails, even compost heaps. 

The Maple Line shows me: someone engaged with the world here, and that engagement had meaning. 

But people forget, and in forgetting, people lose out on some significant connections, benefits, and realizations.

I honestly don’t think they should.