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John Harvard's Journal | The Undergraduate

To Catch a Crawdad

The Undergraduate reassesses the rhythms of the natural world.

September-October 2020

Colorful composite drawing of the author, dressed in cap and gown, at home in Cambridge, with scenes of blossoming trees and a yellow moving truck visible through the window.

Illustration by Martin Haake


Illustration by Martin Haake

During exam week, a time normally spent frantically watching lecture videos late into the night, I instead found myself driving a 16-foot, mustard-yellow moving truck through a spring snowstorm in Pennsylvania. As I white-knuckled the steering wheel and stared through the flurries, I was struck by how fast my life had changed in these plague days, how many basic assumptions were undermined. I felt a profound connection with the protagonist of Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove, who is abruptly transformed into a llama and has to get used to it.

Due to the pandemic, Harvard moved classes online in mid March and closed the dorms for most undergraduates. After my eviction, I flew home to northern Alabama for the final months of my now-virtual senior year. I stayed for two months, witnessing the most flowery spring that I can remember—though perhaps my eyes had just grown used to the more muted Aprils in Cambridge. I attended classes in the same room as my parents and brother, all on their own video calls for work or school, all of us battling for spots with a neutral background and access to outlets.

In May, after the most spectacular blooms had withered away, I returned to Boston in that moving truck, to a new apartment. I had opted to start my graduate research program early, more for want of daily structure (and a paycheck) than anything else. I graduated minutes from campus while sprawled on a beanbag chair with mimosa in hand, decked out in novelty “2020” sunglasses and a paper graduation cap secured by elastic string—surely horrifying previous generations of alumni. My Ph.D. studies began four days later. I called it my “gap weekend.” An odd consequence of all this: I am now a graduate student writing the Undergraduate column, a blatant violation of premise that I find delightful in this mixed-up year.

And so, after months of dramatic changes in my life, all sudden and unceremonious, I am left in a situation that is somehow unchanged: a Harvard student living a 15-minute walk from campus, worried about research deadlines and (virtual) lab meetings.

But, of course, nothing is the same. Sometimes it takes a jolt to realign attention. For the animated emperor-llama, a magical transformation allowed him to see his self-centeredness and to change for the better. For me, those unexpected months at home in the green Appalachian foothills, amid a pandemic and social upheaval around the country, forced me to realign my priorities so that care for living things, human and non-human, comes first.

 

Spring in northern Alabama has a gambler’s thrill. Some of the most striking blooms bud at the end of February, risking a premature frosty death for the first chance at pollination. As a kid, my favorites were the saucer magnolias, with enormous purple-white blossoms as big as soup bowls (though I always associated the name with aliens). Saucer magnolia bark is silvery and softly reflective, like the starship Enterprise. The buds, fuzzy and hard, emerge while the rest of the world is bare and gray. Then, in early March, they explode into giant, leathery blooms, covering the whole tree. If you walk barefoot below the branches, you’ll feel the coolness of the petals, coating the ground in a thick layer of color. If you pick one up and rub it between your fingers, it will dissolve almost immediately into a sticky, stringy goo. Magnolias are ancient trees, older than bees, so my early association between them and flying saucers holds up: the trees are so old that they really are like visitors from another world.

We had a late frost before I got home, so the saucer magnolia petals were drooping and brown, their gamble ending in disaster. But spring pressed forward. In my unexpected months down South, I found myself paying ever-closer attention to the natural world—or, because I was stuck in the house, to the unnatural world of our garden. At first, this sprang from a desperate need for distraction from the miserable news. But soon my mind returned to the familiar pace of a southern plant, a slowness I had forgotten since going to school up north. I followed the daily life of flowers from bud to bloom to browning petals with the rapt intensity of a Red Sox fan. The azaleas were spectacular in the cool, wet spring, and I enjoyed their beauty every day for the weeks they lasted. The neighborhood dogwoods were brilliant, as they always are, bursting with white and pink near Easter.

There is a forgotten art to taking plants seriously, whether dogwoods or magnolias or the more practical species in our bread and salads. Life depends on plants transforming air and water into food, a feat of alchemy science has never been able to copy, one that deserves our close attention. But even in places like the South, that still carry on some stories and traditions about native plants and their uses, the old knowledge is quickly fading. There is a break from the unhurried timeline of nature. Oil-fueled fertilization allows land to be mined for its nutrients, with little regard for the life of the soil or the health of the ecosystem. Rather than preserve the land with old methods like cover crops and fallow fields, efficiency demands that the same valuable crops be planted season after season, destroying the soil in the process. There are serious consequences to treating plants like resources rather than living things. The environment degrades, health declines, small towns dry up, food becomes less delicious, and cultures wither into sameness.

The similar hurriedness of Harvard is the natural result of a culture moving at breakneck speed. Professors complain about students cutting corners, not doing the readings, being more committed to extracurriculars than to coursework, but this is hardly the students’ fault. In the aftermath of repeated recessions followed by jobless recoveries, competition is fierce. For those students who don’t win the golden tickets to consulting, finance, or tech, underemployment likely awaits. Few will be able to catch up with classmates who were born rich. Many young people today are miserable, even the select few lucky enough to go to Harvard. The prospect of graduating into a post-pandemic world only makes matters worse.

At home, despite disaster, I saw another kind of ethic, another way of being. Everywhere, I was surrounded by living things that “die into each other’s life, live into each other’s death,” as Kentucky farmer-poet Wendell Berry puts it. There’s a comfort in the cyclical processes that surround us, even as the human world seems poised to change dramatically. This isn’t just poetry. We can return to slower forms of life, more sustainable physically and mentally, but we have to consciously create them.

My forced return to slowness made me learn more from my classes than ever before—not so much from the digital course meetings themselves, which were lackluster at best, but because I finally had time to do my readings and supplement them with others prompted by my own curiosity. Dropping my fourth class and all my extracurriculars helped immensely, reducing the busyness to near zero. Even amid the anxiety and uncertainty of quarantine, I was lucky to have the small perk of time.

That reminded me of what I had learned growing up. As I walked around my neighborhood, I remembered long summer days spent catching snakes and salamanders in the creek that ran behind my house and into the neighboring cattle farm. They were deep lessons that are hard to articulate, except as direction: pay attention, and realign the mind away from private plans and toward the timelines of other creatures. To catch a crawdad, you have to follow its schedule.

 

When I was applying to college, my primary goal was going somewhere else—preferably the Northeast, though North Carolina was sufficiently cosmopolitan. Like many teenagers, I had little appreciation for where I had come from. I felt stifled by the prevailing (if not universal) religious conservatism, and was grateful that college provided an opportunity to assimilate into a different culture and redefine my origins.

After a month or two of adjustment to a rapid new pace, I thrived on ambitious science courses and extreme dedication to my work. But I also felt a kind of emptiness. When I went home for Thanksgiving that first fall, we traveled up to my grandparents’ house in the woods. I brought One Hundred Years of Solitude, assigned for my humanities class, and read it outside under the deep blue sky. My focus, frazzled by school, returned to me, and I was able to read that book more deeply than any other assigned that semester.

“We know that there is a limit to the capacity of attention, and that the faster we go the less we see,” writes Berry. “This law applies with equal force to work; the faster we work the less attention we can pay to its details, and the less skill we can apply to it.” His words, as befits a farmer-poet, are directed mostly at industrial agriculture: its role in the environmental crisis and in breaking up communities rooted in growing food. But the implications are far greater. To Berry, our feelings of aimlessness and anxiety are linked to the abandonment of the rhythms of the natural world—a change that simultaneously destroys the environment and our spirit if not done with extraordinary care. While living things demand care and restraint, machines can be turned on and off at will; they allow human desires to reshape the world, giving us power that we have not yet figured out how to use wisely.

We have long tried to escape from the slow, plodding pace of plants. As Berry writes, the temptation to turn the world into a fully modern, unbound place “thrives by offering material means of fulfilling a spiritual, and therefore materially unappeasable, craving: we would all very much like to be immortal, infallible, free of doubt, at rest.” We would all like to have the certainty of flicking a switch and having what we want, when we want it. Yet, so much good comes from slowing down and paying attention to the natural world.

As I begin a new chapter of my life, I am surrounded by potted plants: not exactly a garden, but as close as I can get for now. They remind me of those saucer magnolias, and of that alternate ethic of careful attention, as life speeds up once again.

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