Babe in the Woods
For the first month at Chewonki I was...skeptical. In my English class, Literature and the Land, we discussed how the 10 of us saw the natural world. All of my classmates positively adored nature. Furthermore, most of them actually lived near it. They shared stories of climbing Mount Katahdin, of their favorite lakes, and of their farms. The only nature I knew was Central Park. I became the class's favorite example of urban ignorance. My friend Sallie Banta, from Atlanta, loved to tease: "Oh, Wendy doesn't know what trees are or what the ocean looks like. She's from New York."
Driving to the upper Maine Woods in a warm van surrounded by five of my classmates, along with Jenn Barton, my English teacher, and Willard, I nervously anticipated three days of winter camping. As snow fell outside the windows, all I hoped to accomplish on this trip was to not get hypothermia. After we bushwhacked two miles in to our campsite, I set out with another student, Steph Rendall, to collect balsam fir boughs to line our tent. With Willard's advice ringing in our ears - "Take only one or two per tree" - we pushed our way through the dense forest. The snow was up to our ankles, and we could see only what our flashlights illuminated. After unceremoniously ripping two boughs off the trunks of a couple of trees, we began to feel bad about how we were treating them. So we decided to ask the rest of the trees for their branches, to let them know that we appreciated their sacrifice and that we would use each bough well.
Trekking back to camp, Steph and I discussed Walden, and how, after we had been forced to read it in class, we both wanted to build our own wood cabins in the forest and live in them, as Thoreau had done, for two years, two months, and two days. We also lamented the fact that this would be difficult, for there is little if any open land available to most of us. America is not covered by forest as it was when Thoreau was alive. Struggling to get back to camp, weaving through the wild, fallen trees with Steph, I was surprised to discover how pained I felt about the disappearance of our wilderness. There in the darkness, surrounded by trees coated with snow, I thought: Why are we so desperate to replace our forests with buildings and parking lots?
The second night, after returning from a snowshoe hike, the eight of us found that the wind had blown all the snow off the pond near our campsite. In spite of our exhaustion, we ran out to play on the freshly uncovered ice. After an hour of Duck, Duck, Goose followed by tadpole racing - we created a finish line using the beam of a flashlight, then lay on our stomachs and used our arms and legs to propel our bodies across the ice - we gathered in a circle and yelled so our voices would echo in the mountains. There we stood, made anonymous by the night and the remoteness of the place; all we could see was the outline of the mountains and the forest all around us. As I howled like a wolf, the untamed part of myself was freed. Thoreau would have been proud.
Every morning, the nine girls in my cabin woke up at 6:42, rolled out of bed, threw on clothes, and dashed off to Morning Gather, which started promptly at 6:45. After a brief meeting, we would all hurry to our jobs. In April, it was my cabin's turn to do farm chores. My task was to brush the horses. Sal was a beautiful brown workhorse, Braego an annoying white pony. I always started with Sal because she was usually waiting for me in the middle of the barn. Brushing her was easy; she was calm and perfectly mannered. Braego was ill tempered and rowdy; he never stood still for more than 10 seconds at a time.
He became my daily battle. I would talk to Braego, urging him to behave for me. But this was to no avail. He was particularly fond of trapping me between his back flank and the wall in an apparent attempt to crush my feet when I brushed his side. It was tiring and occasionally painful, but I also enjoyed wrestling with this fidgety pony. Each time I completed his brushing, I felt victorious. His fierce streak of independence made me respect him rather than resent his brute strength. I had never worked with animals before. Never even had a dog or a cat.
A week after farm chores were over, I decided to become a vegetarian. Although I didn't recognize then what compelled me to do so, I now understand why: The environment is not "other"; we are a part of it. Deciding not to eat animals was an attempt to honor their right to live, too. Getting to know the farm animals and realizing that they all had different personalities made it impossible for me to eat them.
I thought it would be just another energy talk. Brendan Kober, one of Chewonki's energy experts, would talk at us about the environment, I would feel tired and listen to about half of what he was saying, and then the hour would be up. The 36 of us marched into the Whale Room - so called because a huge whale skeleton is suspended from the ceiling - and waited for the start of his lecture. That Thursday's energy talk was intended to teach us about hydrogen fuel: how it's made, what's good about it, but why it's not yet the miracle fuel some policy makers claim because fossil fuel is still required to manufacture it.
Brendan showed us a series of photos of two cars, one run by gasoline, the other by hydrogen gas. Both cars' fuel tanks had been punctured, and within a couple seconds, the car powered by gasoline was engulfed in flames, while the car that used hydrogen showed only a single, brightly colored flame shooting up from its trunk. With this presentation, he made it clear that hydrogen fuel is not as dangerous as some people think and is indeed another potential alternative to petroleum.
Then Brendan demonstrated how energy is derived from hydrogen molecules. He asked for volunteers to act out an analogy he had devised about a nightclub (I played a hydrogen atom in an H2 molecule trying to get past the bouncer, the proton exchange membrane). Once I was back in my seat, I realized what a powerful message Brendan had sent. For years I had taken biology and chemistry, but I'd never really understood what I could do with this knowledge. Suddenly I was learning about the practical value of being a scientist. Using the chemistry I'd been exposed to, scientists are creating sustainable fuels and making a true difference in the world. The way science was taught in my school, it seemed like just a bunch of facts to be memorized. Brendan's lecture opened me up to possibilities I had never even considered.