Archive for October, 2013

Last month, I was listening to one of the fluffy, human interest stories my NPR station regularly puts on. This one was on “Past Loves Day,” a day (September 17th) apparently designated to immerse oneself in the poignant nostalgia of all those loves lost or given up. It’s all very cheeseball and hokey, but it got me thinking of my own lack of past loves. I don’t actually have any. I did have a middle school “boyfriend” but that consisted mainly of making out behind the tennis courts after school. We were twelve, and I don’t think that counts. By fourteen, I was with Christophe, and we cleaved to each other then, never yet to part, almost nineteen years later. I think that one counts.

Sometimes, when people find this out, they gape, open mouthed, and say something like, “You never broke up? Never saw anyone else? Even for a little bit?” We did not. So I thought about this foolish Past Loves Day, and also about the less foolish premise underlying it: that these relationships enrich a life, open new avenues of understanding, and broaden a person’s horizons. I don’t feel particularly limited, constrained, or hemmed in by their lack, and the reason is clear: I was an English major.

What do you see here, snobbery? Or the salvation of the world?

What do you see here, snobbery? Or the salvation of the world?

When I started college, I had no idea what I would want to do for a job after graduating. I didn’t know if I would go to grad school, and if so, what for? My interests skittered and bounced around from ecology to poetry to history to chemistry. I flirted with several possible courses of study, and settled upon one of the most maligned. English majors, in our ramshackle falling-down Bartlett Hall, with our poetry nights and English Society meetings in a dusty room on the second floor, were derided and mocked by fellow students and by, I suppose, well meaning persons who asked, “And what will you do with that?” No one in the Engineering program was asked such a thing, nor the cynical business majors, though I think the question might be equally appropriate for many of them. “Why study the humanities,” much of the world seemed to sneer, “So you can use proper grammar while you’re serving me my coffee?”

I don’t remember how I used to answer these questions then, but my answer now is clear. I studied the humanities to become human. I’ve just finished reading Mark Edmundson’s collection of essays Why Teach? and his piece on English majors is what, if I ‘d had it then, I would have xeroxed and handed out to anyone who asked me any iteration of that derisive question, “what are you going to do with that?” Edmundson has this to say about our ever dwindling tribe,

The English major is, first of all, a reader. […] But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves–they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay–to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people.

Reading, and particularly the reading of fiction, of plays, and of poetry, alters the mind like nothing else can. I’ve seen movies that have stayed with me and affected me profoundly. I’ve read history, ecology and other sciences that have made me understand the world and its human and non-human machinery as I had never done before. But reading as an English major reads, that alters, to use an unfashionable term, the soul. The images from movies sometimes play across my mind again, but it’s as if they’re still on a screen. Two dimensional, in the lighting and the mood created by the director. The images I carry from books are indistinguishable from my own memory. Just as dreams feel real, like a true, though bizarre memory, so do all the books in my mind. The woodshed where Sethe sawed into her daughter’s neck is dim and dusty and conjurable as my own shed. Dickens’ London, grimy, grim and cast all in grays is vividly real to me, as are the fetid, squalid St. Petersburg rooms where Raskolnikov crouches like a rat in Crime and Punishment.

And if the places are real as my own memories, no less so are the interior lives of the characters. Our society may be coming around to an understanding of how this works; a study out this month points specifically to the reading of literary fiction as fostering empathy (as compared to the reading of non-fiction or of less highbrow sorts of novels and stories.) How does it do this (and I assure you, it does) and what’s it going to mean if English majors go extinct (as appears to be the trend)?

When I read Beloved, I had no children. The idea of killing my own child was all at once abhorrent, fascinating but largely academic. Was Sethe mentally ill? Was she accountable? Was she right, that they’d be better off dead? We would discuss it, write about it, read what other smart people had to say about it, and then move on to another book. But books stay with you, and Beloved may have been submerged in my mind for many years, until I had children, and they had physical bodies, and I watched them sleep and imagined my hands grabbing their slender ankles and swinging them headfirst into a wall, or laying the points of a sawblade against their necks and beginning to pull. Less a question of “was it justifiable?” it had become, “could I do it, and what would it take to drive me there?” I am white, privileged, living in the 21st century, with considerable comforts and assurances, and luxuries, but can I surmount all that and fly to that woodshed with her and look for what tools I can find? I can.

I went on from my English degree to become a veterinarian, and thence to teach biology. I am now making my living off the sciences, smiled upon by the current mania for STEM education. I love biology; it is endlessly fascinating, endlessly amazing, and evolutionary theory is one of the most elegant and beautiful overarching ways of understanding the world that there could ever be. I think I’m pretty good at teaching it, and I hope to become excellent with time. I am glad of my advanced education in science. But I am far more grateful for my English degree. It made me human. I hope the beginnings of this appreciation for English majors starts to turn the tide. That we become viewed not as snobs with a rareified and irrelevant skill set, but as just the opposite: people with an unusual ability to inhabit the minds of other people; to understand, deeply, why they do the things they do, even if those things are terrible, horrific, and seemingly un-understandable. I hope this is the beginning of the rehabilitation of a humanities education. After all, without the humanities, where will we get our humans?

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Days before our government shut down, and all access to the National Seashore was closed, I went for a walk in the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp near Marconi Station in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

Normally, I hike with my kids, so I am surrounded by a flurry of noise and activity that keeps most living things with any capacity for movement well at bay. Add to that, the season when I get to spend much time on Cape Cod is summer. That’s high tourist season, and most creatures hunker down during the day and wait for the throngs to dissipate and the cooler, evening air to move in. For these reasons, I did not expect to meet a fox on my walk in the Swamp last week.
IMG_4885I was the only human being anywhere along the trails that morning, and I was walking along, looking down and fretting about something, I’m sure. Then I looked up, and there was a fox. It’s hard to sneak up on a fox, so I assumed he had seen me. I stopped in the middle of the trail, expecting him to bolt. But something in the leaf litter had captured his attention and he readied himself, all four pointed paws gathered up, tense, under his body, and his tidy javelin face motionless. He pounced, looking for a moment weightless at the height of his arc, and came down on whatever it was in the leaves. A moment later, he had turned and was trotting down the path toward me, slender jaws snapping.

I had pulled my phone out of my pocket when I realized he had not seen me at first, and taken a poor, blurry picture of him as he nosed around in the leaf mold. But when I realized he was coming closer, I switched to video and began to record him.

At that moment, I stopped seeing him altogether.

The rest of the time he was close by, I was focused on keeping him in the frame of my video, and on holding my hand as steady as I could. It was my instinct to get this on film rather than just watch him as he approached, then suddenly must have scented me, and bolted into the woods.

What was it meant for, this poorly done, camera-phone video? I won’t forget that this happened to me, no more than I will ever forget coming upon a bobcat asleep on a boardwalk in the early morning when I was sixteen and visiting Florida. The video of the fox is not for me. I was alone when I saw him, with no one to nudge or to whom to whisper “Look!” Humans like to say “Look!” to someone, and I suppose I didn’t think my remembered fox, or the language I conjured him in would be quite enough to keep people’s attention. There is an expression that arose in my image saturated generation a while back: “Video or it didn’t happen.” Now that everyone has a camera in her pocket all the time, what possible cause would there be NOT to film the fox as it came close? Unless it didn’t really happen.

Now, I can prove it happened. I have the documenting footage. But a camera is not the usual lens through which I see the world. My lens is my language. Only rarely do I see things, hear things, or even feel things just for what they are. I add a gloss, marginal notes, an explanation that I will write down, to direct your attention. “Look!” I say with words, “This is how the fox looked. This is how it ran. This is what happened.” There is the world as it is, and there is the world described. Or there is the recorded image of the fox. There cannot be both.

The other day, Malcolm was climbing in the upturned roots of a felled pine. Sitting up there, ten feet above my head, he surveyed the swamp below. “Mom?” he asked, “Do you have your camera?” I didn’t. He was a little disappointed and I felt momentarily guilty that I wasn’t capturing this–a small achievement of his. Photo or it didn’t happen. But he was there, and I was there. And now I’ve written it for you. My son was up in the roots, kicking down clods of dirt, backlit by the sky. My other son was on the ground beside me, looking up. It was quiet, except for a sparrow whose fat body parted the sedges as it foraged through. It all happened, just like that. I was there.

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Cape Cod walk 1

Last week, I traveled to the outer Cape for a work venture. I had a lecture to give at 10am Thursday morning, and several hours to myself the evening before. Arriving in Orleans around two in the afternoon, I stopped at Rock Harbor Beach to pass the time until I could check into my motel.

For much of the year, winter specifically, which sometimes seems to last six months here, I get a lot of good-natured ridicule from friends living in warmer regions of the country. “Why stay there? No one likes winter up there. They just say they do,” they say. “You could live here, in southern California/South Carolina/New Mexico/etc. and visit New England when it’s nice.” This is out of the question for me. Born and bred here, I don’t stay out of habit, or inertia, but out of love. New England’s weather is sometimes cantankerous, cross-grained and ornery. But when it’s good, it’s very nearly perfect.

On Rock Harbor Beach, everything was all golden sunlight with a brisk wind. I walked a quarter mile down from the parking lot until I saw no one else. I don’t sit still often as it does not come naturally to me, but on my own, with no children to entertain and no one to talk to, I settled into the side of a small dune to watch the gulls.

IMG_4870They weren’t doing much, just standing or sitting, arrayed in their phalanx with their faces into the wind. Some were sleeping, some staring at their feet for several seconds at a time. Occasionally, a new arrival would glide in and drop soundlessly into an open patch of sand. Occasionally, there would be a squabble for it. Back in July, I was out working in a gull colony on Appledore Island in Maine. These birds are not stupid, and my threatening, alert presence in the colony, racing around catching chicks and taking their blood,  was unsettling to them as a jackal in the nursery. I took hits to the head, and was repeatedly bombed with feces. But when the chicks are fledged and have moved on, the parents move on from the island too and now these birds were tolerant of my close presence, my downcast eyes and posture of slouching indifference.

A couple days before, my biology students had taken an exam on evolution and natural selection. I noted a common theme in many of their answers–they took “survival of the fittest” and the Darwinian struggle for existence to mean the biggest, baddest organism always wins. In their minds, evolution was all clashing antlers and broad-shouldered males grappling for dominance in a spectacular show. I thought of how I might convey to them that survival and reproduction, the only parameters that matter to natural selection, are often dictated by something silent and invisible. Sitting and watching the gulls doing nothing at all, or subtly jockeying for position, is watching it unfold. Somewhere, in the dark gonads deep in the body cavity of each gull, cells divide, the replicating mechanism makes small errors, and some are not corrected. Cells that will form next year’s chicks are altered from the parent, and the alteration will hurt, or be fatal, or do nothing at all, or confer a tiny advantage. All this wondrous machinery ticks over invisibly.

IMG_4868As I walked back, the sun was behind me, warming my back under my fleece jacket like a pelt of brown fur. It’s not that this kind of perfect warmth can’t be had any other way; the sensation is the same as sitting close by a wood fire. But by a fire in winter, to feel that same warmth on your back, you have to turn from the light and out at the wan daylight, or, more likely, the long dark that overtakes most of the hours. Right now, this time of year here, the sun is still both warm and bright, slant-angled in its decline and beginning its withdrawal, but still high enough. It is the most beautiful place on Earth, I think, New England at this time of year. I admit, I feel the nervous bracing in myself, looking into the wide maw of winter on the other side of this, but winter has its spare pleasures too. And while maybe it’s true that the mere word February strikes a chord of weariness in me, the deep gratitude I feel when the first wood frogs begin quacking in the icy pools in early spring is an exquisite pleasure that cannot be bought any other way, and one I would not trade it for a whole grove of lemon trees in the backyard.

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