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.

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).

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.