Saturday, November 18, 2017

The pleasure of feeling

A reminder for me....

Backyard basil in September

November crept in on us again, as it will. The shadows lengthen as the daylight dwindles. We talk about the cold and the rain, but we rarely dark of the darkness. Many of us don't see it, our eyes fed by the steady glow of pixels.

Those who see shadow, feel it deep in our bones, have learned not to talk of it. Among the dying it feels rude to talk about death.

Gardeners know.

Countertop sweet potatoes last week


I had a small patch of sand in back, tossed in compost and manure last June, and threw in a few slips of sweet potatoes, bought cheap because bought late, just to see what would happen.

Sweet potato leaves are lovely to look at and almost as lovely to nibble on, and sweet potatoes need about as much care a a patch of dandelions (also lovely to look at and nibble on).

Summer rolled into fall, the sweet potatoes sprawled out of their patch, even flowered at one point. I left them alone, occasionally watering them, more out of habit than out of need. 

I pulled a "test" plant out late October, found no tubers. I set the roots in a bottle, and it sits on my sill for winter now. The first hard frost was coming a weeks later, so I left the rest alone.

Windowsill sweet potato this morning

Last Friday, with the hard frost coming on in before the next sunrise, I went out to my tiny tater patch, not particularly hopeful, but I had already gotten more than I earned. The air was chilly, but the ground still warm and welcoming. 

I pulled up a plant--scraggly roots, no tubers. Oh, well.

The warmth invited my fingers to dawdle in the dirt. I was already on my knees, in no hurry to get up, and digging in dirt with the sun warming my back was what I wanted to do at that moment.

So I did.

And there it was--an inch or two deeper than I expected, the unexpected flesh. I tried to pull it out. It held its ground much as a clam does, snug in its world, not resistance its only defense.

I wiggled it out and ran to get Leslie, and a minute later two happy and excited humans rooted through the dirt, finding tuber after tuber, joyfully sharing our finds with each other.

Fresh dug sweet potatoes

I grew up hearing the Aesop's tale of the dutiful ant and the lazy grasshopper. The ant worked and worked all summer, the grasshopper played. The shadows lengthened, the days grew chilly, the grasshopper knew it was in trouble.
"Making music, were you?" the ants cried. "Very well; now dance!" And they turned their backs on the Grasshopper and went on with their work.

The moral? "There's a time for work and a time for play." It's an awful parable because of its awful message, and it took me decades to throw off its chains. 

There is no need to distinguish work from play or play from work. Turns out the things in life that bring me the most joy mingle  together, and fingers feeling the earth need no justification.




But we will enjoy feasting on the sweet potatoes just the same....


Saturday, November 11, 2017

On the pleasure of seeing

From 2008, with 27 views. I liked it then.
I still like it now.

Mack cleared his throat. “Friends, on behalf of I and the boys it gives me pleasure to present Doc with this here.”

Doc looked at the gift—a telescope strong enough to bring the moon to his lap. His mouth fell open. Then he smothered the laughter that rose in him.

“Like it?” said Mack.

“It's beautiful.”

“Biggest one in the whole goddam catalogue,” said Mack.

Doc's voice was choked. “Thanks,” he said. He paused. “After all, I guess it doesn't matter whether you look down or up—as long as you look.”

John Steinbeck, "Sweet Thursday" 


We need more telescopes in biology.

We keep magnifying and magnifying, driving deeper towards molecules, creating new worlds, and that is all fine and good. But we could use a telescope, or at least a pair of binoculars. I could spend a period or two out in front of the school, just letting the kids stare at squirrels and pigeons.

Until a child has a rudimentary idea what a squirrel is, won't matter to her how close her DNA sequence is to that critter.
***

Ten  years ago late May, I was busy rattling on about something when my eye caught a few bees buzzing near our 4th story classroom window. I stopped whatever nonsense I was doing, probably lecturing back then, and wandered over to look.

The class, a small but gregarious one (13 girls, 1 boy, all sophomores, enough said) suddenly hushed. They knew something was up, but not quite what.

Outside the window, just across the street, honeybees were swarming.

By Mark Osgatharp - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

We just watched. And watched.

The bell eventually interrupted our reverie. We lost half a period, gained a lifetime memory.



"After all, I guess it doesn't matter whether you look down or up—as long as you look"

Friday, November 10, 2017

Bugs, children, and compliance


"Disobedience is not an issue
if obedience is not the goal."

Daron Quinlan via Teacher Tom

The Liberty Science Center was crowded this past Tuesday--tribes of human larvae were running, laughing, pushing through the exhibits, while other organisms prowled and stewed in their tiny glass homes.

I stumbled upon a small glass cage teeming with Australian spiny leaf insects. Most were munching  leaves on twigs, a few were just hanging out, but one was standing on the topmost twig, stretching upwards as though trying to reach the sky.

Photo by Thomas Bresson, CC 3.0
I like watching critters, and this one looked interesting, so I sat down on the small bench next to the terrarium to watch.

The top of the terrarium was covered with a transparent plate, probably acrylic, clearly solid. I could see this one tapping the acrylic.

And then I realized what this critter was doing. After each tap, it moved its foot slightly over, tapped, moved again, tapped, then again, tap, along a line perpendicular to its body. When it reached across as far as it could, the critter then stretched a little more, and started tapping another line.

By the time I left, the insect was fully stretched out, precariously clinging to the twig by just three legs, reaching, searching, aware of something beyond the cramped cage.

I got kids like this in school. Not many. Most have stopped trying to find the gaps, because we knock them down pretty much every time they try. Look at your procedures, look at your school policies, look at your schedule, look at what you are asking your students to do day after day after day.


If one of my lambs keeps tapping the glass, no need to ask why. I'd rather know why the others have stopped trying.



Yes, I am romanticizing and anthropomorphizing a bug.
Maybe it's time we anthropomorphize our students as well.



Sunday, November 5, 2017

EDT cannot save us

A yearly reminder....




Yesterday the sun hung in the sky for 10 hours and 25 minutes in these parts.
Today the sun cheats us out of two minutes, only hanging around for 10 hours and 23 minutes.

Way I figure it, I lost two minutes of Ra time as he travels on his night-barque. 
The eggplants, now barren, cast long November shadows as the world dims.

What possible hour do we think we wrought last night?





If I must chose betwen the sun and hubris, I choose the sun.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Samhain, again

I have spent, in the basest sense of that word, hours
of my God-given life working on a document required of teachers here in Jersey.
That I do these things speaks to a cultural insanity, and mine as well.


And here it is a year later, and I'm doing it again.



Do ghosts exist?

I've lived  long enough to know that they don't.
I've lived long enough to know that they do.

That odd, inexplicable events happen, and happen daily, is evident to anyone paying attention. The shame is that so few of us are paying attention to the natural world, we miss the rhythms and the mysteries that  envelop our modern minds every moment.


Tomorrow is All Saints Day, to celebrate the sanctified among us, as though following some moral order could save us from the coming dark, a world in which wasp larvae eat hornworms alive, from the inside out, and humans die monstrous deaths lying in ICUs with multiple tubes pierced into the body, hoping that like St. Sebastian, we will miraculously recover.



If you need a video to be convinced ghosts exist, you don't truly know what it means to know that the dead are among us.

The question of ghosts is not an idle one. We follow spirits of our own making all the time. We follow rules and rhythms of our own making now, wrapping ourselves in a sad cocoon of  hubris, wiling away our hours fulfilling nothing more than deadlines upon deadlines without a hint of irony.


I'm headed out to a mudflat in an hour or so, under a wet and wild early winter sky, to rake up a few clams, alive as I am, and as alive as I am, I will be as dead as those clams will be tonight in less than a lifetime.




Until you believe in the ghost you will be, you cannot truly live.
Originally posted 3 years ago. I like rhythms.







Saturday, October 28, 2017

Digital learning

Gardening as a radical act.

I wandered barefoot out to the garden at dawn, picked a few dried bean pods, heard them crackle as my hand felt for the seam, then slid my finger down through the velvety crease and stripped bean after bean from the pod into my open hand.

Back inside, I dropped the beans in with the others I collected last week, then plugged into the electronic "world," doing my weekly due diligence on #satchat, a fine group of edu-folk trying to improve our classroom practices.

The conversation went as these conversations tend to go, but the dichotomy of the life I live and the life we push in the classroom shook me this morning, so I'm tossing out these words mostly as a reminder (and a warning) to myself.

Blindness comes in many forms, but rarely voluntary. We are blinding our children to the dirt beneath their feet, to the air they breathe, to the sun and stars above. To the sensuous. To the world.







Monday, October 23, 2017

A pointless life

Self-indulgent and previously posted. But hey....

The garden is dying now—without the energy to keep itself together, a plant falls apart. As the summer sun slides off its altar, reminding us who reigns, the world around us dies. Literally.

From the tired garden yesterday.
Life will return when the sun does, in its glorious ooziness of critters and plants and archaea and bacteria and fungi and whatever else has crawled from our common puddle of life eons ago.

I enjoy being part of this oozy thisness, but we only get to play in its rhythms for a short while, metaphorically for most, literally for some.

If my sister can die, so can you. So can I. And we will, in due time. 
***
I spent part of the afternoon ripping up autumn earth, rich with life, getting ready for the time when the sun will return. Then I took a walk along the edge of the bay, whipped up into a brown frenzy by the blow we’ve had the past couple of days, looking for fossils, reminders of lives long past but still with a remnant of order, a "fuck off" to the entropy that will eventually turn even the stoniest fossils back to dust.

I found two, a broken shark tooth and another I could not identify, and I’ll carry them around a few days until I lose them or give them away. (My students love fossils as much as I love the idea of fossils, so I’ll keep collecting them because it gives me pleasure.)

As I walked up the short but steep sandy path back to my bicycle, passing a ghost crab burrow along the way, I realized, again, just how lucky I am, doing pretty much what I want to do just about every single day, for no particular reason beyond the joy it brings me.

Two Mile Beach, photo by Leslie Doyle


I break clods of rich sod with my hands, drink hoppy ales, ride on an aging recumbent bicycle the kids think is cool, bang on various stringed instruments, rake up clams from the flats, walk along the edge of the sea, stare at the stars and a galaxy or two at night, share what we know about the natural world about half my days, and get to walk barefoot until it snows, and even then sometimes. I live with my best friend, and my kids are decent adults leading good lives.

Oh, and I get to write long, unedited nonsense, which I have not done for a little while, about a pointless life, but that, you see, is exactly the point.

Live every day as if it could be your last, and give the same courtesy to your students, at least while you can. I’m not a bad science teacher, nor am I a great one, but I pointedly live a happy, pointless life.




Self-indulgent, true, but cheap--if you add up the money spent for the above and 
divide it over the couple of decades (at least) that my toys last, 
we're talking about four or five dollars a month, less than 20 cents a day, 
unless you include the beer.