Embracing weirdness, Wendell Berry, and hikes
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This past Tuesday, I took my students on a hike. I asked them to meet me at Schenley Park instead of the cramped third floor classroom in the Cathedral of Learning where we normally gather.
Less than half the class showed up. Some of my “best” students – as defined by the sophistication of their writing and their contributions to discussion – did not come. It was a sublime fall day: a hundred shades of gold and scarlet and plum blooming under a blue sky, seventy degrees, warm breezes stirring the fallen leaves. It was late afternoon and the light was honey.
But they didn’t show up. Those who did show up were nervous. It’s odd, after all, taking a hike with your teacher. I’m supposed to stand in my fancy jeans (e.g. the high rise ones that I like to think make me look hip and relatable to Gen Z but probably aren’t fooling anyone) and one of the two shirts I bought on sale at J.Crew Factory to look “professional,” and write with chalk on the board. I’m supposed to help them when they whine “I don’t get it” by explaining that extractive capitalist man is a HISTORICAL CONSTRUCT based on colonial archetypes and watch as they dutifully write these ideas in the margins of the printed-out Jenny Odell I’ve given them. I am NOT supposed to stand before them in a little knit hat with a nine-year-old and a hound dog, talking about snacks.
But we’re people – the dirty secret behind all of this somber exchange of knowledge, this stiff training of the youth to become “professionals” with their own J.Crew Factory shirts and Important Ideas about the Anthropocene. One of my students offered a chocolate bar to my daughter (there because school was out and Jorge is out of town). One told me his dog had died, and came to pet Little Dude. Nearly all said they’d never been to this park before, though it’s less than a half mile from where they live.
We hiked in silence. The idea was to take inspiration from Barry Lopez’s The Invitation; to see it as our own invitation to pay close attention to the landscape. This was building off of last week’s discussion of Wendell Berry and his admonition to “belong to your place by your own knowledge/of what it is that no other place is.” I thought the hike might be terribly awkward and for a day beforehand considered cancelling, worried about being weird. Even Elena has learned to say “WEIRDO” now to anything that makes her uncomfortable, e.g. anything outside of a norm that already at age 9 has been firmly established.
But as we started walking I forgot all that and realized that I was both 1) happy and 2) comfortable. I wouldn’t have been this way 5, 10 years ago. I would have been self-conscious for the duration of the experience. Were they making those little swirly “crazy” symbols beside their heads behind my back? Were they texting each other in a group chat like “DO YOU SEE HOW SHE KEEPS LOOKING UP AT THE TREES OMG FACE PALM”? But now, I didn’t care. I have come to embody, and love, my weirdness. Cherish it at a time when conformity seems increasingly like an existential threat: to our planet, our humanity, our own peace. It is a gift I have to offer my students.
Don’t get me wrong, I am under ZERO illusion of having some sort of momentous life-changing impact here. I’m talking about like, a little sheen of wonder that lasts for a few hours in the afternoon. I think about a workshop I took with a beloved friend here in Pittsburgh. The subject was “deep listening,” and it was for teachers, mostly K-12 teachers. The friend invited me as a kindness.
The workshop began by smacking different parts of our bodies to get the chi flowing. I’m not kidding you. This with a bunch of suburban elementary school teachers who looked very kind and normal and like they were definitely NOT used to violently smacking their thighs in the name of energy flow which, really, alternative as I may consider myself to be with my backyard chickens and homemade chile oil, I was not either. It was weird. I could feel some of the teachers actively projecting what is this skeptical energy and I was worried for my friend.
Then shit got weirder. We had to creep as slowly as we could around the room, listening as carefully as we could to whatever sounds we heard for twenty minutes. This was a “silent” room, friends, by any definition. But of course it wasn’t silent. We heard pipes and rumbles and conversations from downstairs and cars outside and birdsong and heaters turning on and off. When we settled back in to report what we’d heard you’d have thought we’d trekked through a tropical rainforest. People were exhilarated. Not because the air ducts whooshed on and off but because they paid attention.
When the workshop was over, the teachers brimmed with ideas of how to bring this into their classrooms. How to go outside and listen. To write diaries and poems about what they’d heard. To move with intention and purpose to one’s surroundings. One teacher reflected on how quickly everything moved in the classroom, how little time they had to do anything as luxurious as walk slowly. It was a somber moment for me, thinking about Elena’s school: if we’re not teaching kids the beauty of stillness and profound connection to the world around them, especially the natural world, what are we teaching? If slowing down makes everyone so much happier, so much more attuned to who and where they are, why do we keep speeding up?
My friend said most people assumed little kids couldn’t handle silence, but she’d seen kindergarteners go five minutes in rapt attention, possessed as they were by the task. The task of being in the world, the seriousness and realness of it – listening for the hawk, the deer, the familiar returning voice of a loved one, as we are evolutionarily primed to do. Deep listening as a balm for the shallow “Listen up!” of instructions to complete a worksheet. As a return to what we are so often alienated from.
I learned new techniques in that workshop, but above all I learned to fearlessly embrace my weirdness. If enacted with love, with conviction, with a spirit of generosity in lieu of arrogance or grandiosity, most others will get on board. Happily. With interest.
At the end of the hike many of my students were smiling, in that way you smile when someone asks you to do something that seems goofy and ridiculous but ends up being kind of profound. I was smiling that way too.
We sat in a circle and wrote in our journals, Elena included. She thought for a while and then showed me what she’d written: “It was peaceful and ZEN.” I wrote about noticing on the hike that there was space: not only physical space for us to spread out and be in the world, but space for each of us to process and respond as we needed. Space for thinking, for being, for community.
I wrote, if I teach them nothing else this semester, maybe I’ll teach them that there’s an old and beautiful park of stone bridges and massive oaks where they can come and walk in the afternoons. Maybe I’ll instill in them the merest lived kernel of awareness of what we read from Wendell Berry last week:
then to belong to your place by your own knowledge
of what it is that no other place is, and by
your caring for it as you care for no other place, this
place that you belong to though it is not yours,
for it was from the beginning and will be to the end.”
We went home and I spotted the waxing gibbous moon over the bridge. Elena and I embarked on the frenzy of preparing for swimming and gulping down food and doing the 9,861 hurried things we’ve trained ourselves to do in the afternoon. But I carried the silence from the hike in me like a secret. Old things. Slow things. Ethereal things, difficult to name, measure, and teach.
It is telling that these are the things my students thought they could opt out of. The things that didn’t really matter. A hike? I can use that extra hour to study. To cram in a little bit more knowledge. I get this because I think the same way: why tend to my plants when I could send another email, get a little more work done? Be “productive”? Why meditate or take the dog for a walk when I have a massive list of tasks I need to cross off my sticky note?
It has taken years of active practice and reflection to learn that if I do not value these things – what is not measurable, quantifiable, “practical,” “productive,” honored by our society – I will never do them, and they will shrink. Less time for my child. Less time for cooking. Less time for plants. Less time for nature. But, simultaneously, all the measurable, quantifiable, productive, practical, celebrated “work” I do will not come to mean more, even as it eats up more and more life. It may, in fact, mean less. It will not fill up the empty space.
Ultimately, as Oliver Burkeman writes in 4000 Weeks, “what you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is.” You have to be deliberate with it. Plant knowledge isn’t going to come by sticking something in a windowsill and gazing at it every week or two. It comes with choosing to check in with the soil, to admire the bloom, to turn it carefully upside down and shimmy the roots out and repot it, instead of being “productive.” It comes with choice, often very difficult choice for those of us who’ve been raised to value above all the knowledge, the achievements, the successes, the metrics, the “work,” the doing over the being.
My students didn’t care about the hike because it didn’t seem to matter. And in not showing up they taught me that if we are to alter the trajectory of our planet, we have to realign our sense of what matters. Fewer lectures, more hikes. Less knowledge, more wisdom. Fewer facts, more beauty.
We need the lectures, the knowledge, the facts – but right now they are so dominant we believe we don’t also need the nourishment of the trees. Of each other. We believe we can live off of chalk and words and the repetition and mastery of ideas. But we can’t live off that alone.
We need shared chocolate and silence and stillness and presence and place and deep listening, the moon, a break. We need that which is easiest to dismiss for another study session: the unquantifiable, which, in our twisted world, has come to seem useless just when it is most vital.
We need weirdness. We need to remember: oneness of student, teacher, kid, dog, tree, bridge. The coolness of the stream as we walk alongside it, the sound of the leaves as they rustle free and fall, the space of a foostep. “Found your hope, then,” Berry writes, “on the ground under your feet.”