Lessons in Geopoetry

by Stephanie McFeeters | 5/28/15 7:41pm

Some 20,000 years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet began to melt, gradually thawing and retreating, inching up and up and up, at some point shaping the very valley we inhabit. I won’t purport to understand this process better than my B+ in “Marine Geology” suggests. But walking down Gold Coast under a blushing sky, sun slipping west beyond Vermont, or running through Pine Park, or crossing Ledyard Bridge, I often think of this icy ebb and flow, wishing I could better read the glacial striations and grooves carved into this land, better understand the soil on which I stand. I’m lucky to be part of a landscape that prompts me to zoom out like this. A landscape laden with Abenaki history, mining booms and busts, destruction and rebirth. I relish these lessons in geopoetry — some sudden, others taking the form of long, solitary runs.

Last weekend, I hiked up Mount Kearsarge with a group from Aquinas House and Father Brendan Murphy said mass at the summit: all creation, all the possibilities of the planet, laid bare, wind muttering the “inexpressible groanings” of the Spirit. The night before, I stood by a fire at the Organic Farm and sang about Mother Earth in a foreign tongue, fingers sticky from s’mores. Earlier this term, a friend and I huddled atop a snowy Mount Cardigan, sure the gales would pick us right up and blow us away. In each of these moments I felt both insignificant and almighty, connected to something so vast.

Forgive the Kumbaya-ness. This whole nature thing is new to me. To be clear, my first word was “taxi.” I was pretty prissy as a child, honestly, and would squeal when I noticed something in the pantry past its expiration date. I came to Dartmouth from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where our main activity was tooling around air-conditioned shopping malls. My DOC First-Year Trip, Hiking 1, began with a strenuous tour of Hanover. Then we trekked 1.7 miles to the Velvet Rocks shelter, cheap Chinatown frame-pack digging into my back. I was petrified. That was the most outdoorsy I’d ever been.

Since that first fall, I’ve spent a lot of time in Robo, reporting for and editing this paper. I’m not sure what happened, but I think maybe the fumes from the basement and first floor must have wafted up, slowly, subconsciously urging me to explore the wilderness because somehow or another, on a quest for one last P.E. credit, I ended up outside a cabin looking at a bucket of my frozen pee in the far reaches of northern Quebec, wondering what, exactly, Miss Manners would suggest I do. Flipping it over and tapping the base as if it were a ketchup bottle had accomplished nothing. So I found a stick and began whittling away, sprinkled icy chunks of urine onto the snow and returned the nighttime emergency pail to its place on the porch. I’ll be damned if it wasn’t graceful. And that was the civilized part of the journey, before we stuck skins on our skis and trudged up the frozen stream to set up camp atop eight or so feet of snow, before we harvested hundreds of spruce branches to make our tent floor, before we were enveloped by the forest.

So, city girl goes to Dartmouth, mellows out, starts to think maybe the trees have a thing or two to teach us. Is anyone surprised? That isn’t really my story, nor is it the point. Just so you understand, I was initially quite resistant to this project, balked at the narcissism and insularity of it — the newspaper’s seniors co-opting an issue to share tales of love and hurt and realization, lessons always better learned yourself. But I guess sometimes it’s just nice to hear that other people survived. Maybe, eventually, even found ways to thrive. That, in part, was what I treasured about The Dartmouth: it gave me access to so many different nooks and crannies of this College, from campus celebrities to outspoken faculty to students who felt wronged. The work reminded me, day and in and day out, of my itsy-bitsy place in this narrative, of how lucky I was, how lucky I am, to be surrounded by such brilliance.

I’ve learned a lot here: things that shattered paradigms, things that made me want to shout, “did you know,” things that plummeted me into contemplation for days, ignoring texts, cancelling dinner plans simply to think. But the most important lesson is one I cannot share — that I was here to learn for myself. Not to get straight As, not to imitate intelligence en route to some perfect job, not to tick off boxes on the resume of an Educated Person. That I was here, plain and simple, to expand my understanding — that, and the fact I have so much further to go.

Dartmouth has shaped me in many ways, and I’ve relaxed myself into the mold, sometimes purposefully, sometimes unwittingly, but I’ve also resisted, thrust myself against the current. Some realizations I can pinpoint, others developed gradually. I’ve stopped subscribing to rigid hierarchies of intelligence. I no longer believe in eating meat. Today, I stand pretty firmly opposed to the arbitrary exclusivity of the Greek system and secret societies. But I admit there were moments I wavered, when this felt more like a symptom of being left out. Yes, there are times I’ve felt wildly out of place here, times I’ve been deeply disappointed. But those are vastly outnumbered by the times I’ve felt loved and dazzled and inspired.

It’s easy to measure time in short spurts: 10-week quarters, days between midterms, minutes spent in the stir-fry line. It’s natural, too, to seek greener pastures — browsing Buzzfeed in lecture, texting out to see if you picked the wrong basement. But we’re part of something so much greater, something that can’t be captured in kaleidoscopic iCals. Flipping through archives of The Dartmouth, the scale of our concerns emerges: photos of past Parkhurst protests, endless columns arguing for and against fraternities. It’s a cycle. We see but a slice, the way a tree blooms one particular May. Sometimes it’s worth zooming out, finding a new vantage point, looking to sources of strength buried deep in the bedrock.

I’m 22, I shouldn’t be offering advice. But these are things I’d tell myself, were I starting all over again: Listen carefully. Trust your perception. Indulge in your angst, the existential to the picayune. Take time to sit and stare at the Connecticut River. Set your own standards, but make damn sure they’re higher than anyone else’s would be. Forgive yourself when you fall short. Know, and try to articulate, to whom and to where you belong, what you stand for. Say yes. Try again. And again.

We are all, always, constantly, becoming. Thrusting ourselves against ideas that seem incomprehensible, projects and papers that seem overwhelming, hikes that seem insurmountable, relationships that seem impossible, making it out each time a little stronger, a little wiser: granite slowly forming in our bones. We’re in it together, this project we call Dartmouth. But we’re also each very much alone — let that invigorate you. The radiant heat from the Bonfire merging with leaves frozen into Occom Pond, with Orozco’s vibrant paints, with the 6 p.m. chiming of the Baker Tower bells, with the screech of metal patio furniture outside Collis, with trees rustling in the BEMA. Mist atop Moosilauke, slides of Constable’s cloud studies in Carpenter: each equally humbling. Dartmouth as it was and will be.