November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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James Guignard

What Would Rachel Do?

 

I wonder how Rachel Carson would look in lycra.

These are the kinds of thoughts I have when out on a ride in the north Pennsylvania hills where I live and teach. Usually, such thoughts occur near the top of a tough climb, when the oxygen goes to my legs instead of my brain.

Today, I’m heading west on Cherry Flats Road, mashing the pedals of my steel and carbon fiber road bike up a steep grade, sucking wind, and marveling at the lime green leaves emerging from the hardwoods scattered on the north-central Pennsylvania hills. It’s been a long winter, and I’m enjoying riding my bike without multiple layers and freezing digits. After the climb, my breathing slows and I’m settling into a moderate pace when my gaze is jerked upward by splash of black against the sky. I see a raptor—an osprey, I think—winging toward me about 70’ above a small pond. I watch, transfixed, as the bird wheels 180 degrees, rises slightly, and plunges toward the water. As the osprey dives, I hear myself saying “oh, oh, oh,” then “boom!” when the bird hits the water. I realize that my hands are above my head, as if I have just won a stage of the Tour de France, while the raptor rises out of the water and wings south. I turn my head to follow its path and see water streaming off its wings. Too surprised to think about stopping, I face forward again and find that I’ve veered toward the yellow lines. No big deal. No cars anywhere nearby. Grabbing the bars, I steer toward the edge of the road as I replay what I saw in my mind. The glance, the focus, the turn, the plunge—I was shocked and awed, though probably not as much as the fish that nearly got nicked.

I’m fortunate that I live and work in this part of Pennsylvania. Though I don’t see ospreys fishing on every bike ride, I see animals and birds in greater numbers than I’ve seen elsewhere. I see deer, beavers, groundhogs, bobcats, turkeys, hawks, bald eagles, barn swallows, cedar waxwings, red-winged blackbirds, bobolinks, and killdeer. One recent ride, I saw the youngest fawn I had ever seen trot across the road in front of me. I’m always wowed by these encounters, and they have become a welcome aspect of my rides, in part because they remind me that there’s so much life out there.

I also ride my bike because it gives me space to think about teaching. I teach composition and environmental literature at Mansfield University, a small public university a few miles north of where I saw the osprey. And one of the things I ponder most as I ride are ways of capitalizing on this “wow” factor in my class on environmental literature (comp, too, to a lesser extent). For environmental literature, I assign Thoreau, Susan Fennimore Cooper, Leopold, Beston, Carson, Abbey, Hogan, Gessner—the usual suspects (well, except maybe for Gessner, but I’ve got a weak spot for essays about pissing outside). There are always a few of my students, usually from the sciences or English, who devour the texts and write essays that reflect awe and understanding when looking at nature. They get the “wow” factor—in the texts and outside of them—and it changes the way they think. These students get the idea that we need to care for the places where we live, and we need to do it now. But there are many more that don’t appear to care, and those are the ones that I carry with me most on my rides. It’s not that they don’t think there are problems with our treatment of and attitudes toward the environment. They do. And it’s not from a lack of contact with nature. Tioga County is rural. Local schools close on the opening day of deer season, farms dot the hillsides and valleys, and bears wander through campus during exam week. Many students eat off the farm. Many are intimate with land and animals in ways I never have been. But they don’t seem overly concerned about environmental problems. They just want to become better writers—at least, that’s what they say in my class anyway—and they want a degree and a job.

  Enroll these students in a small university working to distinguish itself as Pennsylvania’s public liberal arts school, and the pedagogical issues get interesting. How does an English professor teach these students the value of a liberal education and the need to think critically and draw on multiple disciplines to solve problems like global warming? As I mull that question, the first thought that comes to mind is: I don’t. That’s a huge burden to put on one class, and the best I can do is help students find their own way into this perspective. These are students who, like me, didn’t grow up questioning authority as much as acquiescing to it, taking the written or spoken word at face value. A liberal education, however, asks students to look for ways to ask hard questions of one’s self and the public, and it insists that we discuss environmental concerns and the need for public action. But this is a difficult thing to do when you’re worried about passing your classes and making it to your job on time. My students want good jobs close to home, and they want to start families. The environment can take care of itself. So, I’m always wondering about ways to get them to buy into the idea that education is about more than getting a job, more than going through the motions and walking across the stage. I spend a lot of time on my bike thinking about this issue, and I have two main questions. One: How do I get students who grow up in families that are not predisposed toward liberal education (or any education, really) to understand the all-encompassing importance of it? Two: How can I stop being so damn serious about it? If I were one of those students and I heard me babbling about the importance of liberal education, caring for self by caring for the public, blah, blah, I’d run straight toward the nearest bar.

  “Damn straight,” a voice blurts behind me, and I turn to see David Gessner pedaling up beside me on an old Cannondale while Rachel Carson slides her Raleigh into our draft.  

“Do you always talk to yourself when you ride?” he pants.

Gessner wears a beer jersey and baggy shorts, his hair unruly in the wind. Sweat drips off his nose. Carson wears a wool jersey and shorts and a slight smile. In contrast to Gessner’s, her hair ripples calmly.

“Now, David, don’t get into one of your moods.” Carson says. “Don’t you want to help this young man answer his questions?”

We ride by the spring where I often stop for water. Maybe that climb was steeper than I thought. The road rises slightly and my breathing deepens. So does Gessner’s. Tucked in behind us, Carson appears to be riding effortlessly. It doesn’t hurt that she probably weighs thirty or forty pounds less. But I’m willing to trade a draft for some answers.

The road levels and Carson pulls between us. Gessner and I catch our breath.

“OK,” I ask, “what do y’all think?”

“About what?” Gessner replies. Carson begins to speak, but Gessner continues. “Being earnest is a buzz kill. Relax. Have fun. Beware serious conferences, serious people, and serious talks about nature.”

“But I enjoy those serious conferences and serious people and serious talks about nature,” I reply, while Carson nods in agreement. “I can’t help but be serious when I think about the way that my university sells itself as this public liberal arts school when the students who come here have no idea what the liberal arts are all about. They grow up in families like mine—working class, little understanding of the way colleges work. They sense education is important—at least, some do—but they have no idea what it means to make education and learning a part of every single facet of your life.” Gessner starts to speak, but I raise my hand. “I know, I know, that sounded serious. Earnest even. Ugh.” I look up the road, a bit frustrated because I can’t even articulate clearly what I’m trying to say.

“There’s you answer,” Carson offers and points to the white back of a bobolink zooming low over a field. We all look, freewheels ticking, as the R2D2-like bloops and burbles cascade over our eardrums. The bird swoops left in a low arc and settles on a stalk of hay. It’s one of those “wow” moments.

“But that’s so cliché,” Gessner responds. “Cool, but cliché.”

“Yeah,” I agree. “I love seeing those things myself, but I’m not sure that showing my students bobolinks will in any way help them grasp what I want them to. Nor do I think it will help my administration understand just what we are trying to do. Jesus, I sound gloomy. Maybe even whiny.”

“Definitely whiny,” Gessner says.

Definitely whiny,” I say back.

“You know when I wrote Silent Spring,” Carson begins, “I wasn’t really looking to create that kind of hoopla, but I felt the story had to get out. I had suspected that pesticides were a problem and followed the research, and eventually our carelessness and ignorance just got to be too much. We were not using pesticides well, and those actions masked a deeper problem concerning the way humans viewed the world. That bothered me and motivated me. But there was another motivation, one that might help you here.”

“What’s that?”

Carson looks at me, then away, in time to flick her bike around a chipmunk carcass. She says: “The sense of wonder. The ‘wow’ moment, one might say. I wrote about this, too, a long time ago. I believed then, and still do, that it’s best to enable students, kids, anyone to feel nature, to experience it on a visceral level. That’s probably more important than knowing whether you’ve seen a bobolink or a robin. So the question of how to teach one’s students to appreciate the wow moment is answered in part by getting them outside. And the potential for change there is much greater.”

“Change, smange,” Gessner grumbles. “We’re writers and Jimmy here is a teacher. We don’t have that much of an impact on how kids view nature. We’d have more effect swinging these bicycles at them than showing them bobolinks.”

“I’m not swinging my bike at anybody,” I say. “I don’t want to hurt it.”

“David,” Carson says, “ask yourself how many times someone has taken students outside and given them permission to look and time to do it. You won’t reach everyone. I surely didn’t. But some will enjoy it. They will rekindle an emotional attachment already present or they may being to develop one. The key is to help them feel their connection in the pit of their stomach.”

“This is all well and good, Rachel—it’s ok if I call you Rachel, isn’t it? This is my bike ride and my essay, after all. Anyway, I’m picking up what you are putting down, and I’m liking the way this conversation is justifying the way I teach my environmental lit class by focusing on the different perspectives of nature as presented by the writers. Oddly enough, you and Gessner provoke the most reactions in class. Students get fired up when reading Silent Spring, and I once spent a large portion of class listening to my students wax eloquently about the pleasures of pissing and shitting in the woods after reading ‘Marking My Territory.’ But, and this is a big but, I’m not sure that’s enough. Are you saying I should take my students outside? They’ll love that, I’ll get the rep as the easy prof on campus—you know, we look at trees, that kind of thing—and I’m afraid my students won’t learn anything about the importance of educating themselves. Because, with all due respect, they need knowledge to go along with those feelings. I’d argue that many of my students come from families who make many decisions based on feelings and little knowledge. Pardon me, but that’s fucked. That’s the same kind of mentality you ran up against when Silent Spring was released. I mean, that book is not about the ‘wow.’ It’s about the need for education. Because of that book, I hold you up as the prime example of what a liberal arts education put into action can do.”

We drift downhill toward the town of Cherry Flats, moving single file to let a rattly Ford pickup pass. Gessner and Carson resume their spots beside me. I take a swig from my water bottle and notice that Gessner and Carson don’t have any. Weird.

Carson’s voice breaks through the hum of our tires: “Do you believe what you are doing is important and that your perspective matters?”

I nod.

“Then why the doubt?” The question hangs in the air. I glance at Gessner, hoping for a comment about how things are getting too serious. No such luck. He looks out over the field to our left and fidgets on his saddle like his ass hurts. Pansy, I think. We’ve only ridden about three miles together. I know I’m stalling, knowing that I don’t have a good answer, and knowing that I’m a better doubter than cyclist.

“That’s a good question that I can’t fully answer. I feel it often, even after a good class. I think part of it stems from the fact that I’m not even convinced that my students need to be bothered with tales of terror about the environment. They need jobs. People have been hammered in this part of the country. Hell, I’m part of the economic elite, and I’m an English prof, for God’s sake. How are my students supposed to care for the environment if they can’t keep a roof over their heads? Part of it stems from the fact that I never feel like I’m doing enough, either professionally or personally. I give talks on campus about caring for the environment and make students laugh—I can be funny, David. A lot of students show up, too—more than faculty—which is cool. I push our administration to make changes to the campus that would show us taking responsibility for our impact on the environment. Let’s see, ummm, that’s about it.”

“So, you’re doing what you can do,” Carson says. “That’s a start. I don’t have much to offer, except that you need to live your convictions and continue doing what you are doing. It’s fine not to be yukking it up all the time. Just be sure it’s not gloom and doubt making you serious, but hope and purpose. Oh, and be sure to relish your “wow” moments. They will keep you charged up for facing a room full of students who are perhaps not as passionate about this world as you are. David, would you like to add anything?”

Gessner squints thoughtfully. “Yeah, I’ve got to piss.”

Carson slows and I ride on, figuring the pair will catch me before I turn onto Arnot Road. They don’t though. Maybe Gessner blew a tire. I think about turning around in case he needs my pump. But if he isn’t smart enough to bring water, then why should I baby him?  

   

James Guignard is Assistant Professor of English and Director of Composition at Mansfield University, where he teaches composition, advanced and professional writing, composition theory, and environmental literature. He is the co-editor of Literature, Writing, and the Natural World (Cambridge, 2009), and has published essays in Liberal Education, Elsewhere: A Journal for the Literature of Place, and Virginia English Bulletin.  Currently, he is researching the rhetoric of the natural gas industry in northcentral Pennsylvania.