wasteland & garden

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“In a wasteland, people are fulfilling purposes that are not properly theirs but have been put upon them as inescapable laws.”

Joseph Campbell

Years ago—more than a quarter of a century ago—I walked into a classroom at the University of Montana on a sunny September morning. I was there not to study but for the first time ever to teach a class.

Last week I walked out of a classroom in Littleton, Colorado, closing the door on a long and fulfilling academic year that involved guiding a couple hundred students toward knowledge, potential, empowerment. I did my very best, and am pleased to say it again: this is good work and I am privileged to do it.

Any good teacher of adults knows the work is mainly to motivate people, and once they are motivated, to open the gate into a garden of ideas—and I must insist that is not a strained metaphor at all.

Will anyone deny the world can at times resemble a wasteland, at least by Campbell's definition, above? Which of us can claim to be entirely free of serving purposes other than those we know to be most authentic, most independent and gratifying? I see it in the eyes of many of my students, year after year—that their efforts to learn and improve their lives is an assertive response to the recognition of living in the wasteland. Those who are aware of the deal, who understand themselves and their circumstance fairly clearly, those are the ones I can help. The others, not so much. They need more time to stumble and sweat in the wasteland, to be made humble and motivated so they're ready to strive.

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Will anyone deny the world can at times resemble a wasteland, at least by Campbell's definition, above? Which of us can claim to be entirely free of serving purposes other than those we know to be most authentic, most independent and gratifying? I see it in the eyes of many of my students, year after year—that their efforts to learn and improve their lives is an assertive response to the recognition of living in the wasteland. Those who are aware of the deal, who understand themselves and their circumstance fairly clearly, those are the ones I can help. The others, not so much. They need more time to stumble and sweat in the wasteland, to be made humble and motivated so they're ready to strive.

Writing saturates my classes—artistic, informative, rhetorical. I teach by teasing out and developing metacognitive activity in my classroom. That is to say, I teach my students to think about thinking, or in our case, to think about writing. I ask them to make one of the great leaps so necessary to writing well: examine not just what you write but how you write it, its effects beyond rather than within you, the originator. Expression in language is not the goal, it is the raw material with which a writer begins his or her real work. Refinement of that material requires metacognitive skill, the ability to see the text as a master gardener sees a garden—the potential, the problems, and the occasionally surprising brilliance.

And I'll carry the comparison further. As a gardener, I must finally make some deals with myself about what can and cannot be done with the ground entrusted to me. I can't make the entire wasteland bloom. I can't make anything bloom at all if I don't learn to read things well—the health of the soil, the way the weather really works, the best location for a particular plant. Plants do not do what you tell them to do; rather, they do what they will, but only after you do what they tell you to do. By getting down on my knees, by getting dirt under my nails and the smell of the greenery in my nose, I can begin to assemble a true sense of what's possible.

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And I'll carry the comparison further. As a gardener, I must finally make some deals with myself about what can and cannot be done with the ground entrusted to me. I can't make the entire wasteland bloom. I can't make anything bloom at all if I don't learn to read things well—the health of the soil, the way the weather really works, the best location for a particular plant. Plants do not do what you tell them to do; rather, they do what they will, but only after you do what they tell you to do. By getting down on my knees, by getting dirt under my nails and the smell of the greenery in my nose, I can begin to assemble a true sense of what's possible.

Every learner has to make those acknowledgements, too. Learning is not and never will be about a grade on a transcript. Real, usable knowledge is about absorbing information, developing skills and abilities, and being effectively metacognitive. For writers, it's moving from illusion through confusion to clarity. To put it another way, the most successful students I have often start out falsely confident in their writing, only to reach an epiphany that it's going to take a lifetime to actually master the art. Once there, they can begin the real work.

Look, you can see it here: those tendrils are thin as pins, at once delicate and tough, unfailingly persistent. Just take a minute and look again—see how they've found purchase on the bamboo support, wrapped round it, used it to climb. This is a greenhouse vine, a balsam apple. Like a student in my classroom, it needs a protected start. I know that given the right conditions, I can transplant this vine in a few weeks and it will grow profusely—taller and broader than me, heavy with fruit, remarkably beautiful in August light.

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Look, you can see it here: those tendrils are thin as pins, at once delicate and tough, unfailingly persistent. Just take a minute and look again—see how they've found purchase on the bamboo support, wrapped round it, used it to climb. This is a greenhouse vine, a balsam apple. Like a student in my classroom, it needs a protected start. I know that given the right conditions, I can transplant this vine in a few weeks and it will grow profusely—taller and broader than me, heavy with fruit, remarkably beautiful in August light.

I like this work—teaching and gardening—and not a single day passes that I don't see these activities as interconnected, echoing each other in shape and substance. The good news for me is that I'm on a turning wheel, and I've just clicked over from the academic year to several months where my main activity will be with green things. Spring is spilling into summer, and I get a necessary break from teaching so I can rest and recharge. Who knows, I may even coax blooms out of the bricks, a garden from a wasteland.

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