True, we live in a curtain’s-usually-open era where as much is reported about, say, the relative level of beverage consumption backstage at the Oscars as the performance that won the award. But creating on a remote high desert ranch provides one heck of a curtain. In fact “unreasonably remote” might be where you have to perform (by which I mean, “live”) in order to even possess a (with apologies to Google Earth and military satellites for even presuming to use the word) “private” dressing room. For instance, if I didn’t mention it, you wouldn’t know I am panting as I type.
In this Dispatch, allow me to part the curtain slightly and temporarily. The reason for my current minor hyperventilation is that I and my very young assistant just spent a solid hour sequestering day-old ducklings — more to the point, their mother. Not an easy task. Remember the training scenes in Rocky I? Rock’s manager considered the Italian Stallion in-shape when he could catch a chicken — believe me when I tell you duck moms are faster.
I wanted (and eventually, with the help of my toddler, got) the little quacking family in the “nursery” section of the chicken coop so as to protect them from predators and the Funky Butte Ranch rooster. As a result, few minutes ago, I was finally heading up from the livestock baby shower to begin this Dispatch (not to book a fight with Apollo Creed), when it occurred to me as I passed the dazzlingly colorful and morning backlit clothesline my Sweetheart has going at the moment (it struck me as accidental art, like a Pollack), that if you have home-knitted wool diaper covers line-drying through the dewy Monsoon morning, life is probably pretty good. (Inspired now, I broke into a trot.)
Further, if you’ve recently spent time hand-feeding colostrum to a pair of hour-old goat kids, life might even be better than good. (Panting beginning at this point, more from fear of forgetting what I wanted to type than the significant uphill between chicken coop and ranch house, with my fingers too covered in duck poop to pull out my analog notebook.)
And (don’t worry, these all connect), if your two-year-old son witnesses all of this, well, life, in my book, is bliss. Especially when considering things from the Accidental Homeschooler perspective (the same remoteness that allows me a veneer of Digital Age privacy also places my kids about an hour from the nearest high school).
Growing up as I did in the New York suburbs, when I first landed on the Funky Butte Ranch I used to get a lot of questions originating back East along the “yes, but what are your kids going to do for culture?” lines (this at a time when your options for big hits on Broadway consisted of Monty Python reruns performed by the brother from Frasier and Shrek reruns performed by, well, a green ogre, although I understand that the big new production for the coming season is the almost snootily highbrow Spider-Man).
I answered the Culture Question enough times with an invitation to do a quick YouTube search: “So, which version of La Boheme would you like us to watch right now? Something from the Met, or a non-lip-synched Pavarotti performance from his prime? I apologize if you feel we’ll lose authenticity since the risk of mugging, parking hassles or polluted air inhalation will be small en route to the performance.”
So a little solar-powered Internet takes care of the high-falootin’ areas, and when it comes to the down-to-Earth fields like biology, I’m starting to think folks might want to send their kids here to the Funky Butte Ranch. In addition to witnessing mammalian and avian births this summer, my oldest son can now tell me about the amphibian metamorphosis from tadpole to toad, as we’ve been observing and discussing it for weeks on our hikes. He has a theory that when the creek-side pools in our canyons begin to dry out between Monsoon storms, the tadpoles bury themselves underground until it’s safe to come out. “They sleep in mud?” is what he actually said. I haven’t looked it up yet, but I think he might be right. I already see his junior high school thesis assignment coming into focus.
“’Bye, Pop, I’m going on a hikeâ€¦er, I mean, going to do some amphibian research.”
OK, I made it to the laptop, and have paused once I got most of this down for a sip of non-chlorinated aquifer water. I see that while I type my son is perusing The Complete Winnie the Pooh. He’s saying something about our bear hero getting stung by the same kind of bees we saw pollinating the orchard earlier this morning.
Educational experts vamp a lot these days about the tragic modern trend toward “overspecialization,” as opposed to the astonishingly varied Renaissance education that broad thinkers of the Jeffersonian model once received. As though most parents today are aiming for hemp-cultivating, multilingual revolutionaries, not least ones who were personally men of faith but who were far-thinking enough to mandate keeping religion out of government.
But I am.
I fervently believe that it’s going to take a thinking-on-his-feet, connecting-the-dots individual (this last a sacred word to me) in order to thrive in the years to come. From the Cosmic (remember when life somewhere other than Earth was science fiction?) to the microscopic (which bacteria will allow the Earth’s soil to heal to feed coming generations?), there’s no fixed curriculum which is going to ensure the kind of “get yourself a good job and invest well” security that served as an educational mantra, in fact as education’s raison d’etre, for the past century.
My little duck-rustling helper sees the geometry and geology of Cambrian boulders evolving every time we step outside (not to mention asking me when the migratory owls who live in said buttes are going to return and hatch more chicks), and he learned how a battery works when he asked me why our Thermos of tea got cold overnight while we were camping.
Indeed, this is now how I answer when someone asks me how I homeschool: “By telling my two-year-old, on a hike, â€˜This Thermos is just a battery, which eventually, like all batteries, “runs out.” That is to say, “returns to blend with the Cosmos harmoniously according to the Law of Conservation of Energy.”‘ It’s physics, environmentalism and theology all at once. Ah, we’re all carbon-neutral organisms. I’m just trying to also be one on a much smaller circle while I’m still â€˜charged’.”
The Thermos discussion is just an example of one day’s lesson plan. As he gets more curious by the day, my son’s questions for me on our hikes are as varied as the 18 distinct kinds of wildflowers I counted on our most recent expedition. Today I felt it was time to expand from “purple” into ”mauve” and “fuchsia” in our color lessons.
And as we focus on each day’s learnin’ in this excellent meadow study atmosphere (with a hummingbird soundtrack), what’s made me most proud of my eldest this past week was when I saw the little squirt stick a piece of wild grass between his lips. I’m a big fan of grass dangling from the mouth. It conveys a certain attitude, life philosophy, and pace. Like wearing a sari, or a loincloth. No one wearing a loincloth would order a carpet bombing.
In interacting with (that is to say, educating-while-playing-with) my kids, I consciously try to make room for the Now, for improvising, and for down time. Because I believe that what’s missing most from current education is not just variety and breadth, not just flexibility and jazz (that is to say, an emphasis on improvisation and thinking on one’s feet) not just awareness that the future “job” is distributed (as opposed to in a cubicle), but the underlying understanding that, in the end, the reason for being here at all is to know and enjoy ourselves.
Mental health is no small thing. And without making any claims as to whether I have achieved this crucial PhD (though I can say that the life and location I have chosen are endlessly inspiring to me: Aquinas had his privy, I have my canyon’s Funky Buttes), this is probably the best description of the “major” for which I am trying to prepare my offspring. Too often we forget that last and long-argued-over phrase in Jefferson’s most famous screed: the Pursuit of Happiness.
Yes, a major in Overall Contentment with a minor in Variety, that’s the degree with which I hope my children graduate. Or maybe a double major in comparative consciousness and inter-species relations, with a minor in Sources and Varieties of Small Town Social Pathology.
Giving conscious thought to my kids’ “future” always makes me think of one of those well-meaning, annoying things that grandparents and visiting contractors tend to reflexively say the moment, for instance, they see your tot applying a simple tourniquet to a dog: “Say, looks like he’ll be a vet.”
When it comes to my youngsters’ education, I hope the wide-angled observation is more like, “Say, looks like he’ll either be an astrophysicist or an Anasazi bean farmer.”
Or, more likely, something we wandering Israelites of the early Millennium couldn’t have imagined. If one of my kids comes to me and says he wants to mix midwifery with re-forestry, soil biology and xeriscaping, plus a touch of banjo composing? I’ll proudly reply, “OK, hang that out on the shingle of your locally-built small home.”
Wherever their interests take them, from this very early stage I have very little worry either about their education or about their ability to adjust to Twenty First Century life as independent, self-aware and hopefully happy adults. I’m optimistic that my children will be open to new paradigms unfettered by (but not knee-jerkingly antagonistic to) old ones.
In fact, I believe that this magic moment — the solar-powered Digital Age set in a living ecosystem (since my kids witness the impressive goat digestive system before breakfast, and see the smear of our galaxy at night, there’s no need for solar system mobiles or games that tell you “what a duck says” â€“- they hear it every day; real animals are their soundtrack and real constellations are their planetarium) — allows for a Renaissance Man again. A Big Thinker after the Jeffersonian anti-model. They come along every couple of centuries.
Some educational theorists (and, in turn, historians) would call this moment of organic/digital classroom synthesis a “revolution.” And by extension, the kind of schooling that could one day bring forth thinkers who generate ideas as paradigm-shifting as The American Revolution.
Just as I’m catching my breath here, I see my Sweetheart is coming in with the Monsoon-scented clothes I took a moment to photograph a few paragraphs ago, and given the river trip we have planned this afternoon, I suspect I’m going to be in hot pursuit of some more happiness yet again very soon. Nothing like a field trip.
Will this panting never end? With that thought, I will close the curtain, and return to what frustrated inquiring minds will probably one day refer to as my “intensely private life.”
Speaking of biology, by the way, the latest video on the Funky Butte Channel concerns the Profound Fertility that can result when one settles into a healthy, wild life. May your own continuing education allow the most individual, content you to emerge.
Only Responsible For the Human Pregnancies
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