Natural Treasures: A Personal Investigation


After the storm.

Since elementary school and before, I’ve had a passion for the natural world. One of my first pet obsessions concerned lone tent caterpillars—I’d collect the creepy crawlies (whom I viewed as cute and fuzzy), feed them their favorite multiflora rose and hawthorn leaves, and carefully handle them daily until they became lethargic and started trailing tiny threads of silk. Holed away in their faux natural environment, one by one the caterpillars would find a secluded space under a pile of leaves or in the corner and go to work, spinning themselves up in silk and disappearing in a cocoon. Days would pass. Maybe a week or two. I didn’t mind—there were other caterpillars to play with. One by one, I’d find a cocoon broken open, messy like something had been born there. I’d know that somewhere in the miniature jungle I’d created, a new moth was ready and waiting to be released.

Until middle school my family lived in a small neighborhood with limited natural treasures, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Sometimes we’d go visit SUNY IT and stroll the campus, with me gawking at milkweed, monarchs, and one day a spectacular Luna Moth. (It’s amusing to me that I have memories of SUNY Poly stretching back 10+ years, though I became an official student only two years ago.) When we moved a few miles away to the “country,” I was surrounded by woodland on most sides, utterly enraptured by the acres of nature suddenly available for me to explore. By this time I was homeschooled and able to spend hours hiking, observing nature, discovering new species (new to me), and taking thousands of photographs. And though now I’m a college student, so busy that I often forgo my hikes, my passion for nature remains.

I still live at home and I’ve seen the trees go down around the neighborhood, new houses go up, elderly neighbors pass away and the next generation arrive. Part of me laments the decreasing wilderness of the area and the increase in human presence, with the occasional shouting and laughing, music and light pollution, and the general need to respect the neighbors. Part of me realizes that I was once a newcomer here—we knocked down trees to build our own house, and became a human presence where there had been none before. Some of our neighbors have been here for 50 years—Norm planted the red pine trees to our North, now towering adults 60 feet high. Everyone was a newcomer to this wilderness once.

I’ve been a junior docent at the Utica Zoo, and taken an Environmental Science class at MVCC. I’ve realized that the solution most environmentalists call for is more legislation, stricter laws to protect the environment. I don’t agree with this. Not yet. I’m a diehard Libertarian and it will take a lot to convince me that government is the answer, but I also have a deep love of wilderness and it hurts me to see wild areas disappear. What is the answer? Is there even a problem?

There are many reasons to want to conserve wild areas, but my biggest reason is that these places are valuable to me personally as places of otherness and connection to a bigger, older world. I want wild areas to exist, but I want humans to be free. My best answer to this “problem” right now is education—show the world the beauty of these places, through writing, photography, film, even through captive organisms, and hope to inspire a respect for and connection with wild places.

Not Made for a Classroom

“We’ll create this project for an imaginary client.”797266

“Here are the instructions, now get started on your film.”

“Imagine the client wants this type of design. Think about the audience, and start researching.”

As a senior Communication major, I’m starting to notice a pattern in my class projects: that is, a glaring absence of an actual client and real world experience. There are reasons for this absence, and perhaps the most significant is America’s widespread mindset that education is synonymous with a classroom setting. This is strange—and inaccurate—and tends to result in practice-based subjects getting the short end of the stick.

My major is attempting to straddle the line between practical professional development (which you learn only by doing) and academic rigor (which isn’t related to practical skill—for example, think of these master writers and filmmakers who didn’t learn their craft in college). In my opinion, a four year COM major should be made up of at least two years of legitimate real-world on-the-job high-stakes achievement—maybe like trade school—as well as the option of a media theory course. In order to add academic rigor, COM majors should pick a separate subject to specialize in (bio, psych, physics, sociology, history, tech, etc.) so that they’ll have a pool of knowledge to draw from when creating media.

We’re trying to train communicators, right? Is being able to explore within a sheltered environment for four years really a beneficial experience, disconnected from real clients and all the associated challenges of working with them? When do you learn how to deal with humanity—the demanding client, the client of prolonged silences, the client who can’t make up their mind? Many communicators are freelancers. These are legitimate concerns.

On the other hand, some subjects do seem to fit right into the classroom environment. In my personal case, I’m only motivated to learn mathematics while in a classroom setting. However, when I think about this I start to wonder . . . I know a few students who take joy in learning math on their own, and they hardly get anything valuable from these classes. Is it possible that classrooms are made specifically for those who are not already accomplished in the subject area?

A classroom is an academic arena. It’s a place for ideas and arguments to grow as they encounter one another, a place separate and distinct from the outside world. Sometimes it’s a padded starting ground for those who are beginning to learn their craft-based professions, but no matter your initial writing ability or your filmmaking ability (graphic design is a bit of another story in my opinion), the classroom will not be an ideal skill-honing environment. In fact, I don’t think people with professional communication aspirations go to college to learn their trade (at least I hope not…), but rather to get a broader base of knowledge, new experiences, a respected credential, and practice navigating the world as an adult.

The Moment

I haven’t posted for a while (for 13 weeks!) but I’m keeping track of these unborn posts. I’m a senior in college now, taking 20 credits, trying to figure out the graduate school application process, and life’s been getting beyond hectic. It’s at times like this—in the middle of the semester, right before the tests, when it seems there’s barely time to breathe—that I remember something.

Life isn’t about trying to get through things and leave them behind. It’s not about pushing through all the assignments just so I can say “done.” It’s about savoring the moment, because that’s all there is. Soon my senior year will be over and this will be past. I’ll be on to new adventures, but if I don’t enjoy the moment, what will I enjoy?

In the midst of chaos, take a moment and hold it. Enjoy the sunlight and the fall leaves. Savor the feeling of helplessness that comes just before an intellectual growth spurt, and know you’ll never be the same.

Don’t live to put life behind you—take time for the present.

Seasons of Change

Spring has long been my favorite season. I love to feel the aura of growth everywhere, of the world waking up. Even at night I can sense the change through the temperature and tone of the wind.

Now it’s late summer, and change is coming again. The sun’s light is clearer with lower humidity, so everything looks brighter. The slanting rays will get much lower before the leaves fall, but this year I can feel that the warm days are numbered, and it seems the plants and insects know as well. In spring the change is more sudden, but fall’s magic is just as strong.

Morning glory, dill seeds, and cilantro blossoms in my garden.

These are the two turning points of the year. I think they’re the most spellbinding.

Oddly, when seasons change in my own life, they don’t get a warm welcome. After a few years of college and attempting to be a grown-up, I know that events I feel the most apprehension about are the ones that change me the most and result in the most learning. Driving a car. Figuring out how to manage a film shoot come rain or shine and only one chance. Attacking unexplored subject material. I fear the unknown, but after looking back on the new experiences I’ve survived, I see that excursions into uncharted territory yield the strongest memories—they make me feel more alive.

Seasons of change are beautiful. They come in bursts. And just like Autumn’s leaves of fire, they don’t last for long.

Stereopair with sumacs!

Repeat After Me: A Science Education

I watch the clock while eating a banana in the Student Center. It’s my first semester in college, and 1pm is approaching way too fast. I swallow a last bite, pack my stuff, and join the mass migration of college students heading to afternoon classes. My stop is 2144. Biology lab.

Today we’re investigating the fat content of different foods. We have brown paper towels and selected bits of edibles—cauliflower, yogurt, cheese, banana. My stomach grumbles, having not finished lunch, but I don’t dare eat anything in the lab. We watch as the professor shows us how to smear food across the paper and look for the resulting translucency that signifies fat content. My team goes to work smearing food and recording our findings. Unfortunately, our records don’t match the “correct” results on the professor’s answer key. We lose points for reporting deviant observations. Hastily we scribble out our findings, and instead write down the textbook answers our instructor provides. Our grades restored, we hand in the report.

This is an extreme example of a pattern I’ve noticed in all my introductory natural science classes, which are structured in a way that encourages students to memorize facts and vocabulary but discourages actual exploration. In other words, students are taught what has been discovered through science rather than the process of science itself. In biology lab, my team was punished for our unexpected yet honest results, and then rewarded for our textbook answers. Contrary to the spirit of science, we were taught conformity rather than curiosity.

I understand that an education in established scientific knowledge is important. Without it, how would students know where to push the boundaries? But this sole focus on known facts can destroy the natural appeal of learning for me.

Students should be allowed to explore. Even when rediscovering the most basic of facts, at least students will gain a sense of accomplishment and experience to associate with the new knowledge. In non-science classes, I’ve had professors provide suggestions about the “right” way to do things (about the scope of a project, about tricky yet labor-saving software), but they allowed me to go about exploring on my own. Sooner or later, I came around to seeing things their way, but it happened in a natural process that made me feel as if I was discovering the knowledge on my own. I worked through the problems, devoted more brainpower to the task, and retain this hard-won knowledge better than I would a sterile, impersonal fact.

Science is about pushing the boundaries, questioning the status quo, and systematically exploring the unknown. Science classes—especially introductory ones—should reflect that.

Discovering Your Career

It can take years of adult life before an individual realizes what they’re really good at. Years! Since I’ll be applying to graduate programs in a number of months, I’m inclined to speed up that process.

I’ve found that passionate interest can be very hard to tell from practical talent, and when pursuing a career, talent (more than passion) is what counts. Passion is a prerequisite to talent, and acts as the necessary motivation to devote time and effort toward an activity. However, the presence of passion doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of skill.

Take for instance my three years of competition in speech and debate. What got me started in the league was my passionate interest in oral interpretation, a form of storytelling and acting. I also experimented with debate out of curiousity. As the years went by, my interps never ranked very highly (though I loved performing them). Debating, however, was another story—I consistently ranked higher as my skill level rose. Despite my own bias towards interp, dispassionate panels of judges helped me realize where my strongest talent existed.

The ingredients of speedy self-discovery seem to be experience, second opinions, and (to a lesser degree) contemplation. When all these components come together, it’s hard to ignore the boundaries separating talent from pure passion.

Problems with Pruning

The morning glories were strangling my tomatoes again. I didn’t mean to plant them so close together—in fact, the morning glories sprouted on their own from last year. As it happens, if I dare plant morning glories purposefully, the rabbit will come by and eat them. Feral morning glories are the only ones I’ve got.

Eventually I toughened up and pruned back the morning glories. Pruning is something I almost never do—I’d rather have an overgrown garden, a wilderness of variety without space to breathe, than pull up beautiful plants. No wonder my gardens can be unproductive.

Pruning and weeding is something done by all good gardeners, and all good writers, and all busy people. Often, good things have to be sacrificed in the name of better things. Morning glories for tomatoes, and paragraphs for books. The problem with pruning is that it’s hard to know what’s worth the loss.

Do I really need a monstrous tangle of morning glories, or just a few? Since last week when I pruned them, the vines have started strangling the tomatoes again. They’re not going down without a fight.

These tomatoes are some of the sweetest heirlooms in the world. They’re worth it.