Dr. Grauer's Column - Only Connect
(On Expedition in Baja with Trevor as Guide)
This is life unseparated from creativity, but for the wrong reason: we don’t belong here in particular and unlike the rest of the life forms, we are making adaptations all day long to get along.
If you get in a van and drive around 10 hours directly south from Encinitas, past desert landscapes, the largest cacti in the world, and a plethora of Dr. Seussian plants sprouting out of sand and crags, you can get to the tiny fishing village of Bahia de Los Angeles … LA Bay, but this is not LA, which is of course 2 hours to the north of Encinitas on a good day.
I’m not recommending you make this trip, there is almost nothing here, unless that sounds like a good reason and, as we remind the students way down here, this is not America. But you can catch fish as big as Trevor’s smile, Shelley’s heart, Clayton’s soul, and Simon’s strength. Tristan and Lucy both did, and I almost did. Dorado. Sierra. Yellowtail if you are really lucky. There are beaches, and a little cove with Hawaii level snorkeling, but it’s hot, hot, and primitive. The sky is the color of my most washed out jeans, the sand is more an absence of color than a color, unless grainy is a color. All color down here is overexposed. It is a great place for our hurried, suburban kids to completely downshift and reclaim nothing but time and space to be in the natural world. Rest.
The sun is big and turning, the water is warm and balmy. But it does not take kids long to notice that nature is filled with death and sharp objects and critters you rarely see but that have not been relegated to the outskirts of anything down here. Human systems have not taken over and a fair percentage of teens are inclined to sort of poke everything with a stick, anyhow.
We go primitive. I and the other chaperones explain to these 11th and 12th grade students what a septic system is, and where stuff really goes when you flush a toilet, and what an army shower is, the preciousness of fresh, no-salt water to humans, and the real meaning of plastic in an environment like this. There is so much nothing here that just a couple pieces of paper or some table scraps seems like significant trash. There is no place to put it. It’s dawning on me that “trash” is a uniquely human construct and a terrible one, so I try to explain that to some students.
This is life unseparated from creativity, but for the wrong reason: we don’t belong here in particular and unlike the rest of the life forms, we are making adaptations all day long to get along. The panga boat captains Yonathan, Matteas, and Pancho, and the Mexican cook, Alejandrina, make it fun, though. Best quesadilla ever, and the first ever for some of our students.
LA Bay is our playground for serious fun. From our boat we see some whale sharks breaching, and we motor alongside one. This whale shark is around 7 meters long, the size of our panga, and cruising fast so it may not see any food here. Then it slows down—some krill to feast on? We dive in and swim along. He flips his tail and we assume he means no harm. Why? Well, because a whale is pretty. And friendly. That’s why. Anthropomorphism is why. A bat is ugly and scary. Why?
Our stories can be pretty crazy, but we’re used to them. We are down here for new stories, the stories we need. You cannot get stories like this in the city.
Later, kids sit around tables and invent conversations that are like games, quizzing each other on life, what person in history would you be, where would you travel, for hours. Some fillet fish with knives so sharp their moms would be horrified.
After 2500 generations, a pretty good run, the possibility of the disappearance of our species in, oh, say 3 or 4 more, is real given global warming and desertification, and we are reconnecting with nature in this rudimentary, sunbaked, beautiful way. This is our reengagement with life. The earth is crying, says Thich Nhat Hahn. This is our effort to connect and listen again, bliss outside of Disneyland.
Since I am such a good teacher, I want to tell my students that they have a better teacher, the whale shark, and to please leave him alone. He does fine without your petting him, he is not even a pet, he is the real teacher: observe him. Plus, he’s friendly.
Second to the whale shark, Trevor Olson, The Grauer School's Athletic Director, is the real teacher here. Trevor makes this whole world of exploration look like the most natural thing in the world, and I keep flashing back to the literally hundreds of times he stopped by my office sweating details so fine that none but an expert would have even noticed them.
I want our students to learn from nature and most of them only recognize learning about nature—but not all of them. A few arrived with a sense of awe and Hawaiian slings or flippers—Embry, Tate, Massin, some others—and I think in a few days or weeks this could infect the rest of them, help them see nature as the puzzle it is. But so far, most are so tied to small circles of human kids that they might not cross over. A few weeks with Trevor and they’d be re-wilded completely, in the best way.
For now, I hope for just a little apathy, my first time having this hope as a teacher. I want to see withdrawal from school business, reclamation of the simple child, and I want to start this education thing over without all the disconnects: science from history, trash can from land fill, perfect peas from pesticide factory, human from ego, school from life and freedom and human purpose, and of course body from mind from spirit. Only connect.
This will take some doing. We pull into a rest stop and half the kids run, they race, to buy coca cola. I feel like such a failure. Where do we even begin? Don’t they know about the plastic waste and the water rights and the refined sugar production and the corporate exploitation of the third world? I keep reading about things like universal harmony, and I don’t think you can teach universal harmony. I think you can just philosophize about it or write poems—that’s probably better than nothing, but I want my students to live it. Carl Jung said the earth has a soul, and I know that intuitively, but I want to know what to do about that. I want access to that soul for my students.
We are dropped off on a deserted island and find a vertebra. It is dried and bleached out. Sage and Arthur and I debate what animal it is from. This can’t be from the same earth we are in service to up north, or the life force. Oliver is building a workout gym of driftwood and stones. Savannah is swimming in emotional expression. Thatcher is soaking a puncture wound. Lourdes is presenting soccer gear to the local team after our game on a giant salt flat.
I want parents reading this to know that we understand this may not be the standard reason for a school field trip or what any parent is looking for at first cut, but it is what makes us show up for your children. The primitive life tells us that ecological chaos is not a problem our students can solve, only a life they can live their way out of.
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