“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Day 11: A Reunion with New Friends in the Adirondacks

Yesterday I took Zoe to the Catamount Lodge, 35 minutes from campus, a hotel and conference center built like a large log cabin on several wooded acres in South Colton.  We were there to see the final presentations of my beloved Adirondack Semester students.  Zoe had met them once: on the last day she had four legs, which happened to be our first day of classes. They'd been asking about her ever since.

That first class, August 31, was the day before she was scheduled to lose her left hind leg where cancer had attacked the canine equivalent of her ankle bone.   I didn't tell the students then; we were just getting acquainted, and I didn't want them to be sad.  There was a plucky young lab in residence out there, Huck, whose human companion, Dave, is the assistant director, and I thought she could have one last good run through the woods while the students and I calmly discussed the opening of Winter, by Rick Bass, and Rick Bass's introduction to Rooted in Rock, a collection of essays about the Adirondack region edited by Jim Gould.

To be honest, it didn't go well.  Zoe was a huge distraction--the reason why we don't bring dogs to class.  She whined when she got bored, and she chased Huck in circles around our tree stump circle, which was kind of what I'd hoped she would do (the running part, not the whining), but it wasn't easy to have an uninterrupted conversation.  The students didn't seem to mind.  They invited her back repeatedly, but I never brought her out there again.

The students on St. Lawrence University's Adirondack Semester live in Tupper Lake at a remote part of a boy scout camp.  They live three to a co-ed yurt, they use a composting toilet, they cook their own food using vegetables and meats from local farms, they heat by wood they chop themselves, and bathe by jumping in the lake, which is quite cold after early September but feels refreshing after a session in their wood sauna. The water comes from the lake, their electricity from solar panels.  Their lives are low tech: they leave laptops (and access to e-mail and Facebook) at home.  The students canoe across the lake to get to some of their classes.  Two renowned woodworkers, Everett Smith and Michael Frenette, teach them to make canoe paddles and, for the ambitious ones, furniture. They write their papers for their classes by hand and do their homework by candelight.

I taught creative writing.  They also took courses in field ecology, Adirondack environmental history, and a wonderful hybrid class called Knowing Nature by the program director, a geologist, where they studied a multitude of ways of experiencing the natural world, including indigenous ones.  The program director also inspired them to meditate, and they spoke often about how this practice, new for most of them, was helping them live in the present during a time in their lives they wanted to savor.  

The epigraph for this blog from Rick Bass's Winter was our shared mantra this fall: "if you go slowly enough, six or seven weeks is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”  We were all in this together.  For them, this quote was a reminder to make the most of a rare opportunity to live simply with kind people close to nature, and for me a reminder not to sleepwalk or rush, especially as my time with my dog is so precious now. Driving out to teach them took an hour, which gave me time to notice as late summer reddened and yellowed into a protracted sun-drenched fall.  Partly because winter came late, time really did seem to stand still.  Often during class we would take a break to sit on the boat launch and listen to the call of the loons.

So I decided, yesterday,  to take Zoe to say good-bye to the students as we gathered together for one last time. 

After Thanksgiving, they had dispersed and spent three weeks doing internships around the North Country--working on small-scale organic farms, apprenticing with our fine woodworkers, helping feed the owls and wolves at a wildlife sanctuary, and working as teacher's aids in schools.  Now they stood before us to tell us what they had learned.

It was startling to see them all, so, well, clean.   It was the first time I'd seen the women in this group wearing makeup.  I had on mascara too, and regretted it as soon as they began their presentations.  

One of the men had built a bed for his parents.  He'd spent 70 hours on it, designing it from local wood, sanding it by hand, and when he and his mother and my colleague, Margaret and I looked at it, we all cried.  Another young man had built a table for his family-to-be; he is about to become a father.  One woman spoke of putting her hands inside a pig's intestines to keep them warm as she and some North Country homesteaders skinned and gutted a pig.  We ate the bacon she'd made from this pig.  A formerly-shy woman led us in the song of greeting and the song of parting she'd learned to sing to her Montessori students; her voice was resonant and strong.  And in a video at the end (this student's reunion with technology!) a radiant young woman from Staten Island who had never hiked before this semester let us inside the second grade classroom where she'd taught children to identify the trees on the trails beside their building.

Many times in the presentations the students talked about the same things: how they had learned, over these weeks of the semester, to live in the present, to acquire a sense of place, and to value their community.  The man who built the bed for his parents had us stop for a moment while he was speaking to take three slow breaths.  He said that he thought if we could relax, he would too.

After the presentations were over, Zoe and Huck, and the lovely white-and-black Aussie mixes that came with Michael, the woodworker, ran together in the snow, and into the woods that lead to a reservoir.  That was my last activity of the semester--running with my colleagues' dogs and Zoe in the woods--and I wanted those few minutes to last forever.

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