At the end of class the other day, I said to my college students, “That was fun! I’ll gladly trade our hour and a half together for being closer to death!” They looked at me a little funny, but they’re used to such dark enthusiasms on my part. They know I mean it. We’re not waiting for anything: this is what it’s all about, this sense of connection. We go around pretending we end where our skin ends, yet in fact we are constantly evaporating into one another, billowing ourselves out into the world even as the world flows through us, through our lungs and intestines, in and out through our pores. Ideas too flow through us and between us. We build families beyond our families, bodies beyond our bodies.
For the last 27 years, I have been teaching at Appalachian State University in western North Carolina, working at the intersection of science education and media arts, exploring the physics of light and sound, the biology of perception, and the relationship between the sciences and the arts. I call my ongoing project Human Wonder Research, and I get to work with students who are studying to be teachers, as well as others who want to work in photography and documentary film. I also work with public school teachers and students trying to figure out how to stoke the flame of our mutual curiosity. I realized this fall that I have been in school either as a student or a teacher every year since 1968, which means that I am currently in grade 51. A life of teaching and learning has suited me.
My wife and I have been lucky to live in Celo Community, a 1100 acre land trust started in the 1930s that is currently home to 65 families. We live in a timber-frame house we built with our own hands out of trees we milled from the land. That project took 5 years and was completed in 1999 - and it was one of the joys of my life, as it connected me so deeply not only to the physical space in which I live but to all the friends who helped me and Margot work on the structure over the years. We heat with wood and try to spend as much time as possible touching things in the real world. I walk through the woods every Tuesday night to play music in my friend’s cabin. We grow a lot of the food we eat; my favorite is the popcorn, though the sweet potatoes can be fantastic, not to mention fresh garlic scapes. Oh, and cabbages, buried for the winter, dug up in deepest January, so white and sweet. But I digress, though it’s all digression after all. We built a physics playground in the woods with a 150 foot gravity powered xylophone and bowling ball pendulum wave. I have jumped in the pond at least once every calendar month for the last 30 years. We raised our daughter Julia here, and now are excited to be introducing our two grandsons to the wonders of the forest. It’s a life, and it’s going by, and I’m happy.
Oh how I hope we can figure out how to keep this world going beyond us. Now is the time to put our shoulders to the wheel. Can we beat back the darkness with the flames of our curiosity and our love? Can poetry beat monsters? I know it’s not sufficient, but it is required.