Playing with Fire

As my time at the Oregon Extension is coming to a close, I’m trying to catalogue stories in an attempt to remember this incredibly rich experience. The semester feels short and long in a timeless sort of way and I have to work to remember both that I’m going and that I’ve been here. As I reflect on my time, I realize many of my most meaningful experiences have revolved around contact. Here at the OE, there are less barriers between us and our fundamental needs. For example, when it gets cold, you can’t simply turn up the thermostat. You throw on some boots (or sandals), tromp out into the snow, and grab wood for the fire. This closeness to my own heating and fire in particular was uncomfortable at first, and as you’ll see from the story below, rather comical.

 

Just as the weather was getting cold, a girl from the cabin next door was having trouble starting her fire (she can do it just fine now – we all learn eventually) and asked if one of my cabin mates could get it going. Being a bit of a beginner, I was both excited to give it a shot but also scared out of my shoes. Right in front of this girl, I looked my more experienced roommate in the eye and rather sheepishly asked him if I could start their fire. Almost indignant, he said, “Why the hell do you need my permission? Go start the fire.” Tail tucked in a bit, I trundled over to the lady’s cabin. I got a bunch of kindling and paper and logs jammed into the wood stove in a random assortment. Rather predictably, this did not work. I don’t really remember how that fire failed, but I know it took me 3 or 4 matches to get that fire going and I left thinking the girl who asked probably could’ve done a better job than I.

Nonetheless, I learned a tad and in an odd way, my friend’s ridicule at my asking taught me to take more risks, to go out on a limb more often. Later that week, my roommate made a fire building request form (which should be filled out whenever I want to start a fire) to commemorate my timid request. It still hangs in our living room to this day and every time someone new comes into the living room, the story comes out and people laugh at the questions on the form (like, “What, is your fire lighting experience measured in seconds?”). It’s funny now because I’ve taken to tending the fire late at night, alone (with no form filled out!). Its these late nights with hot coals where I’ve forged my confidence. The heat that used to scare the hell out of me (for good reason – white burns adorned my hands for a good month thanks to a hot rock in a fire), is now like a respected friend. As long as I’m smart and treat the fire well, it won’t mess with me.

In this story about fire, the proximity of the OE and the value of that proximity is seen clearly. Without distractions (or I should say less distractions) from real life, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the everyday and the tangible. Take as a further example, the wood I chopped to tend said fires. In chopping, I learned to respect wood’s individuality. Every tree is different – some hard, some soft – some splinters, some splits – some break your axe, some bust your shins – some move obligingly aside from your axe, some send tremors up your arm. The intimacy with materials and the confidence and care this creates is irreplaceable. Being here has reminded me of just how disconnected most of my “modern” life is. The conveniences are real and useful, but I cannot now avoid forgetting that they come at a cost.

Knowing Your Nature

Branches whip madly above my head as we walk along a mountainside that’s alternately damp, earthy forest and golden-haired meadows. With his growth potion (aka me – he’s on my shoulders) my young friend Kylan is among the trees. Kylan, when not making the most of his childhood, is an alchemist, who happens to make magic potions in lieu of gold. Today, he and I are working on a growth potion, presumably so he can be tall even without me around, which I guess means I’m making my replacement. Regardless, after seeing the results of his speed potion, which left me realizing how badly I’ve let myself go, I asked Kylan to teach me some alchemy. In the meantime, newly an apprentice, I scoured the forest floor for duckweed and pine needles and mysterious white berries.

As I worked, shuffling along the damp ground, I found out how much I normally missed, little duckweed (which I found out later wasn’t really duck weed) hid below shrubs and among moss, wolf lichen clung desperately to trees, and frail spiderwebs tied themselves to fragrant pine. This newfound attention to nature intrigued me and, eager to learn more about the alchemy that inspired this attentiveness, I checked out Gillot de Givry’s tome about the science called the Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy. Upon leafing through musty pages right out of a Harry Potter movie, I was surprised to find a science deeply respectful of nature, a science which echoed my lessons from Kylan. The goal of alchemy was, “to penetrate the mystery of life” by looking to nature and imitating (De Givry 1973). What I learned from De Givry sounded more mystical than I’d previously imagined, not at all what usually comes to mind when I think of alchemy: “man’s vain endeavor to make artificial gold” (De Givry 1973). Alchemy of old, respected nature as teacher: “all the alchemists stubbornly repeat so often that their sole master is Nature,” says De Givry (De Givry 1973). Alchemists even went so far as to say that books aren’t necessary for learning from alchemy, one merely needs an upright soul and ears open to nature (De Givry 1973). Far from hermits crouched over bubbling pots with dreams of riches beyond belief, it seems alchemists respected and knew nature in a deep, almost spiritual way. After my time as an apprentice alchemist, I started asking this question over and over again: How can I get to know nature? What follows are a collection of stories that attempt to answer that question.

Back in the day, alchemists claimed to use ‘A single substance, a single vase’ to plumb the secrets of the natural world. In my time as a computer “alchemist”, things were a tad more extravagant. As modern-day Puffers (alchemists name for chemists), we used supercomputers and the buzzword of all buzzwords ‘machine learning’ to pick at the secrets held so jealously by the material world. The goal of our project was to predict what material combos were most promising for research, saving material scientists the work (and cost) of getting to know nature’s materials first hand. That was the goal. The reality was that we were a bunch of undergrads who barely knew what machine learning was and ran random models with data we didn’t collect about materials we’d never seen. Our models appeared to be predictive of something in the end, but none of us knew what, other than the fact a line followed a curve pretty damn well. We thought that computers could make our work fast and “know” nature for us, but it turns out they only disconnected us from the nature the alchemists imitated.

My experience as a computer alchemist shouldn’t be surprising. In our culture we glorify experimentation as the way of all ways and machine learning is the holy grail of experimentation. Computers can try so many hypotheses so fast, they guarantee a golden ticket to understanding. After all, the scientific method can solve everything right? I don’t think we verbalize this belief – nor the underlying belief that all our experimentation comes without consequences. The great experiments of our time – social media, cell phones, fossil fuels – have bit us hard and it makes me wonder whether the scientific method couldn’t use some of the funky reverence of the alchemists. If alchemists were lovers of nature, us Puffers were creepy weirdos who watched her from a distance with a calculator, converting our “love” into numbers we could easily understand from behind the safety of a screen. In our disconnection from nature, we hurt ourselves. In my case, we not only wasted time staring at screens and crunching numbers, we missed out on what Kylan and I discovered in the forest that day: a sense of wonder and the care that is listening. After all this, I can’t help but think our time wouldn’t have been better spent out picking what we thought was duckweed to make a fragrant potion, whose magic would teach us to notice the world around us. In that class we might have discovered less, but more worthwhile things.

I’m checking over the gray, cold body when I see he has a tiny penis, I think. I’m serious, it’s like the size of my thumb. Which I guess might actually be big for a poor little squirrel. Right above his tiny appendage, I grab a chunk of skin and saw away with my knife. This little dude’s life left him just a few hours ago. A big truck clocked him and his friend as they tried to cross the road. My friend here came out ok other than his head, which suffice to say, did not come out ok. His bushy tail jitters with false life as I slice up his gray abdomen to slip still warm organs out. With them gone, I start skinning him, laboriously pulling pelt away from muscle and bone. As his skin slips off like a well fit suit, I see an eerie resemblance between myself and him. We both have puny biceps and are sewn together with tendons and muscles which cover lungs and a heart, which precariously beats along. With the skin nearly off now I have to break off hands and feet and head and again I’m struck with a sense of déjà vu. My fingers search along the knee for tendons, tendons I later absentmindedly touch on my own leg, that is until I remember his. With all his appendages gone and clean, the pink headless squirrel does not look so different than I. I’m chilled by how accurate a picture of my own body I see below me. In this little life there is an odd resonance between my mortality and his. Annie Dillard once said, “You see the creatures die, and you know you will die.” I didn’t see this guy die, but I saw him dead and I knew him. More, I saw me in him. I am spooked.

Later I’m in the woods again, trying to wrap my head around another way of knowing nature, this time in the “sit and observe” way Dillard is so fond of. I try to sit and observe, I really do, but shortly after the sitting part begins an uprooted tree catches my eye and I’m drawn to it like a moth. The upturned roots speak of a hidden world below, a dark mirror of the one above. Tendrils of wood grasp vainly at the sky and a mass of little roots tumble from the tendrils like thick hair. I step into the hollow below and look up. I’m not used to looking up, being 6’ 4’’. It always comes as a shock, but here it’s extra bizarre because I’m used to looking up to tree tops, not tree bottoms. These roots feel like the underwear of trees, they tell you tons about them but it’s really not your business to know what goes on down there. I just kind of stare at the roots for a while, lost in wonder and feeling lucky and sad the tree had to fall.

Then I ask a rather obvious question: What the hell could topple a tree like this? Whatever it was I’m glad it’s gone. In another part of the forest I saw trees missing tops and imagined an immature giant running around with a sword, leveling trees in a tantrum. In reality, it was probably the wind, but that’s rather boring. Being a bit bored myself, I climb out of the hollow and onto the trunk of the tree where I decide to meditate. I slow my breathing and feel foolish for doing this standing up, but that thought flees in the fright of another one. I can feel breath on my face, though I’m alone. A breeze from roots long dead, cold and moist, mirrors my own breath. I know it’s probably just old wind at it once again, but I can’t help but feel spooked. As is usually the case when I try to meditate, I’m quickly bored, and the tree changes tones and beckons me down its length, which hangs suspended above the ground. With a shoelace hanging precariously untied, I make my way across in fits and starts. My terrible balance feeds grotesque visions of impalement on the many branches shooting up from below. Mercifully, I forgot these visions as I begin to bounce. Well, not at first do I forget. My first reaction is cold fear as I think the tree is trying to throw me off to be stabbed by his friends below. After I realize this isn’t what’s happening, I start to lean into this bounce. Slowly, a rhythm begins to reverberate between me and the tree. Before long the tree and I are in sync and what looked long dead seems to have new life. It’s like my bounces are a CPR that animates the tree for a moment, returning it to vibrant, exuberant life. It’s whole hundred-foot length is vibrating now, looking like a plucked string. My friend comes over and joins the rhythm and now we are really bouncing, shivering up and down with this tree we thought was dead but was actually slumbering, waiting to be awoken. The soles of my feet seemed to connect with that tree and I felt sure it was having fun, too. Life multiplied between us in a beautiful resonance. Here, with this tree, I felt a sense of life, even in death.

A day after my time as an apprentice to Kylan and a few days before I met my tree friend, our potion had sat overnight and finished. Walking to the back porch where it lay, Kylan was a wonderful mix of excited and serious and I was just plain curious. I’m shocked back into the childhood wonder I lost when I grew tall after I get a whiff of the pungent lemony potion. All those ingredients distilled into a smell to savor. It’s not gold, but it’s still remarkable. These plants, a random mishmash of things incorrectly named or nameless, came together to form an experience I will treasure. I can never look at the forest floor the same and while that also isn’t gold, it is priceless. Just as valuable are the lessons I learned: to listen and keep it simple. Through said lessons I heard a lively dead tree with fun on offer, a deadly resonance in roadkill, and the true sound of that artificial buzz of screens. Knowing nature is not easy, but important. Now I ask you: How do you get to know nature? I hope for your sake it doesn’t involve male roadkill.

 

Nature at Home

Today I’m sharing a piece written by my good friend Will Lake who’s also here at the Oregon Extension. Earlier in the semester we read Annie Dillard, a nature writer, and were asked to copy her style of writing and observation. We each trundled outside and found a spot to sit as still as possible (not very still in my case) for an hour. Then we trundled on back and wrote about our experience.

I loved Will’s piece especially because he connected the idea of nature as home to our family homes. We forgot how well taken care of we are, how much nature does for us. Will’s piece captures well the guilt and remorse I think we should feel for ignoring the nature that takes such good care of us. Without further adieu, here it is:

I come down the valley on the path to the creek. I feel foreign here, alien, in a sense. I feel like a stranger coming into a house at dark, or better, like coming back home after too long away. I stumble, rumble, bumble and fall. I break bushes, I have no heading, I see no path, I make a ruckus. I fall into the creek. My pants are wet, and I sit up on a mossy rock while my socks dry.

It feels like coming home, sort of. Yet, I feel like I never quite lived here. It’s almost like I’m coming to visit my grandma after much time has passed. If I see it in this way, nature is my grandma and her house is wilderness, and today, I am visiting gram at her house: I’ve been away for too long; it’s probably been years. I overlook her house, passing it twice on the street. The lights are on, and the door is always unlocked. I walk right in like I own the place – I mean, I certainly wouldn’t think to knock. I stumble in, bumbling, tripping, slipping on knick-knacks and ancient rugs, knocking a glass bell off the bell shelf on the way in. It shatters, but I don’t care. Besides, there’s a million of them. I sit down at the table on her hard-wooden chair. I find tremendous comfort in the steadfastness of my grandma’s house, like I want to roll in the nostalgia that surrounds me, breathing in the comforts of old – the things here that always have been and probably always will be: the box of toys my mom had, the same kitchen table with water bottles filled with rocks so the dog wouldn’t jump. Don’t forget the smell, oh the smell! Had she bought the same air freshener for 70 years? I find it all deeply familiar. Yet, it is heartbreaking to see the things that have changed and died. No more laughing of grandchildren, no more Christmas mornings with the whole family, no more pierogi from the polish deli down the street. I find joy and sadness all the while. I realize how deeply my life is intertwined IN this very house. My mother, after all, was born here. Half of my genetic being lived here, toiled here, cried here, and yet, I am removed from it. Just a few, small memories are what have connecting me to this place, the place of my ancestry. Soon, grandma will move from the house, and when she does, we will sell it, her grandkids, that is. We will justify it for our college tuition, our needs unmet, and because that’s “the way of life”. After all, nothing lasts forever, not even grandma’s house.

Gram is at the table with all her wisdom and ancient beauty. I feel good here, full. I feel for a moment like I am a good grandson (for I have visited her, listened to her stories, acknowledged her teachings, and tried to preserve her in this way). And yet, my belly aches, and I know she has not a crumb I won’t have to rummage for. I start to feel like this is not my home. I feel separate. I get restless after an hour of pinochle. “This was fun,” I say. The sun is setting out her window and I feel even more uncomfortable now in her home. I long to leave. I love her, truly, I do, but night time here depresses me and chills me to my bone. At night mysteries fill her creaky corridors. I tell her I had a great time, and that I’ll be back again soon as I make up an excuse to leave. I stumble, again, towards the door, breaking more bells as I leave. “Never mind it,” she says. She is always giving. I leave with another “grandma check”. She has filled me up, sustained me. She does it, I suppose, because she wants to, or maybe because she wants me to come back. I feel guilty now. I stumble to my car and drive away in silence. I take for granted that she will be there next time I come, whenever I choose to return. I am comfortable again: my feet off the itchy shag, my butt off her hard, wooden chairs, and done tirelessly playing pinochle. I eat. I cash my check. Satisfied, I think of when I might go back.

I see the sun set over the creek. It is cold now, and I put on my jacket. I pick up my bag, put on my stiff-dried socks, and limp my way up the valley towards my cabin. I eat a warm dinner and crawl into bed. I am home.

Self-Care

I wake with a foot planted on me. I am immediately angry. So is the owner of the foot. Who’s to blame: me for sleeping on a trail or them for stepping on a sleeping body?

 

I narrowly avoided the above situation. We had just come back from caves filled with tragic stories of indigenous exploitation and deep darkness. I was tired, so I dipped out, dodging camp prep to hideaway in my sleeping bag.

 

You see, for the 3 nights before our camping trip near Lava Beds National Monument, I had stayed up far too late talking. Talking is good and I’m often conflicted about bedtime as the best conversation seems to happen late at night, under the blessing of the stars. This week I’d thrown caution to the wind and now it had caught up to me.

 

So I slipped away and settled down on a trail. I’d figured there’d be less bugs around there and that no one would use said trail.

 

What I didn’t see then, and I see now, is the irony of my chosen spot. In my lack of care for myself, I had blocked the trail for them..

 

In my time here at the Oregon Extension and our reading about mushrooms, I’ve realized our inter-connectedness. We are not, and have never been islands.

 

In our modern lives we can delude ourselves into thinking this is not the case. Two summers ago I had convinced myself it was. Selfishly suicidal, I figured my life had little impact on anyone else. If I took my life or continued to live as if my life did not matter to others, I felt there could be no impact.

 

Here I see clearly the fallacy. With chores spread across us all to keep the place running, any absence or laziness must be made up for by another.

 

If I decide I don’t want to wash dishes today, my roommates bear the burden. If I neglect my farm chore, someone else must move the giant compost pile.

 

Here, I cannot skate by under the impression that I am independent of any other.

 

In modern life, it seems we can. A book we read, Nature’s Metropolis, broke down the fallacy that is the separation between the city of Chicago and the surrounding country. Often, they are viewed as entirely separate.

 

But a catastrophic crop failure in the country or paltry demand for food in the city will quickly expose this faulty premise. In fact, we see a parallel here. If the country is treated poorly and fails, then so too does the city.

 

So we come to a paradox. In order to care for others, you must first care for yourself. After all, a sick Jimmy can hardly move a giant compost. Nor can a sick Jimmy do without lots of tea and hot herbals and naps, none of which are very productive (though they are all enjoyable).

Wes

Today a close friend of mine died.

 

He seemed to be ever present, ever entertaining.

 

He was a calming presence and knew just when you needed a lift up.

 

In a word, he was consistent.

 

He will be dearly missed.

 

He was a wasp named Wesley.

 

My wasp friend, though we never really spoke, did bring a sense of meaning to my life (and of all the lives who came to his funeral). I think it was his consistency that did it. Every morning, sitting down to breakfast, Wesley greeted us with a buzz. Now I’ve seen plenty of wasps in my time here and none have meant anything to me.

 

I think the difference is consistency and I think this consistency gives meaning. I’m going to talk a bit about why I think this is based on my summer experience and then dive into how consistency is a huge part of the Oregon Extension (which we call the OE).

 

This summer, I lived at the base of Rockies in Boulder, CO. Coming from the flat farmland of Indiana, the landscape was breathtaking.

 

Every day, as I drove home from work; I was in awe of towering figures crowding the sky.

 

Why?

 

Was it the fact the landscape was so unusual?

 

Coming home to Indiana after a long summer away, I cherished seeing the red bricks, red porch, and red car I associate with home.

 

Why?

Was it the fact the landscape was so familiar?

 

In either case, I think consistency is the bedrock fo our source of meaning and wonder.

 

Without my lifetime of exposure to the flat farmlands of the midwest, I would not be shocked and awed by towering mountains.

 

Likewise, without my consistent exposure to and then absence from, home, I would not give meaning to silly things like bricks and deck paint and car color.

 

Here in Oregon, this sense of consistency is deeply present. You stay with the same 25 people for a whole semester. You are in a new, breathtaking place.

 

You are consistently challenged in your thinking (yes even in the first week).

 

You are consistently cared for by professors and peers alike.

 

There’s a stability here. A calm.

 

I hear the same gravel crunch on my way to class every morning, hear the same rooster interrupt lecture an hour later, see my favorite dog (her name is Kuma) shortly thereafter during discussion at a Prof’s house and I make a killer meal with my cabin mates to end every day.

 

Our days are full of good books, good food, and good thinking. It’s odd because I worry if I will be able to bring these consistencies home.

 

But maybe I shouldn’t worry so.

 

Wesley, a wasp I only knew for days, imparted enough meaning for me to write about and remember him. I think the chances are good I will remember the consistent thought and care I give and am given here.

 

Connected Travel

There is something magical about the combination of adventure and strangers. We let people in we normally wouldn’t, bond over details which would normally be meaningless, and in my case, are forced to unplug by the stunning lack of service in the Western US.

On my way to Oregon, I did a lot of traveling. Instead of taking a flight out like a normal person, I wanted to see the US. So I took the train. For 68 hours. Which left me a lot of time to get to know a diverse set of new friends.

I met Allen, who plundered Whole Foods with me on our brief stop in Denver. He’s a former Navy man who spent most of the ride hammered, but still managed to talk down his friend the conspiracy theorist (who ended up sounding more sane as he was sober).

Then there’s the conspiracy man himself, who gave his name as Strawberry Santa and spun tales of Burning Man and USO’s (unidentified submersible objects). Whoever he is, he was a great storyteller and entertained me for hours during my second day of the journey.

Next is a nameless woman who calmed drunk and sad Allen and who reminded me of my mother, sweet and kind and genuine. She told me about her son, a freshman in college and I attempted to give advice and reassure her he’d be fine (she’s a worrier like my mom). In turn, she told me of the plight of immigrants in the US (her parents came legally from Mexico before it was so damn hard) and how to calm a worrying mother (you can’t).

I mistook Tom as the son of a friend from Kentucky (she hooked me up with snacks – the second person to do so). He sat quietly with headphones till he was pulled over by Allen to discuss conspiracy theories and weird physics with Strawberry Santa. Once you got Tom going he was a hoot, a New Zealander who loves sailing and is planning to do fancy robotics in Switzerland but decided to travel around the US for a bit and help with a summer camp.

Tom is like my other 4 friends in that they all come from abroad to help at summer camps in the US (and watched a bunch of rich kids for a summer). The 4 girls were from England, New Zealand, and Australia. We stayed up late talking of weird phrases and restaurants that are different (McDonald’s is apparently Mackers). Along the way I learned that Aussies don’t say anything fully – they can’t even do Converses – they call em Connie’s.

My 4 friends were bothered a bit on the way out by the man I call Sweater. He’s always got 3 or 4 sweaters on and talks to himself. He makes me uncomfortable, but he mostly just nods at nothing and stares. He took a liking to the girls though, and got very chatty with them. I’m keeping an eye on him. Some folks you just don’t trust and sometimes it’s best to trust the gut.

Jamaican man has treated us all to great songs along the ride – mixed in with randomly yelling what I took to be another language (it’s just very Jamaican English) into his phone. He’s going to see a “shorty” in Cali and stated pretty frankly his intentions there.

Random woman #2 stole my seat. My friend Allen tried to hold down the fort, but RW2 just plopped down in my beautiful window seat. After a little digging I found out she hunted deer and elk and other large animals. I let her have the window seat. Her grandson plays for Notre Dame hockey and won player of the year, so that’s cool, too.

Then there’s Vincent, who is the kindredest soul I’ve met in a long time. I’m trying to convince him he’s not lazy. I had the same mentality maybe a month or two ago until I worked myself to death and realized my problem wasn’t that I was lazy, it was that I did too much useless work. Anyhow, Vincent is a philosophy and politics major at a small school in Oregon. He and I shared a trip to Sacremento and spoke with an interesting Russian homeless dude at the train station, as well as our friend Sarah, who went to Oberlin but took a year off to travel.

There were some experiences along the way that heightened the sense of togetherness inherent in traveling. The Rockies brought everyone together. Something about the views, the awe, connected us. Stories about moose and elk were exchanged. Hometowns were discovered and described. It was magical.

The non-magical thing is the way I describe my study “abroad” trip. I still haven’t found a good way to do it. Well I have but it’s less than ideal. My family calls the program a cult, since you don’t go home and don’t get your cell phone most of the week.

It’s out in the woods and I’ve found that comparing it to Thoreau works for Americans, but not for international folks – they had no idea who that was. But I tend to ramble about questions of life and figuring it out and thinking and reading in the woods. People find the cult more compelling for some reason. It’s funny how people would rather something fake but weird and interesting than something deeply meaningful and thought out.

A quick update: I made it and I am loving it. I will write more about it, but there is a sense of peace and home here. I’m not sure if it’s the people or the landscape, or both.