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.