Eulogy for the Outback

Last August, I stood in my daughter’s new room in the Pitzer freshman dorm and peered out the window. She was lucky. The view encompassed the steep blue face of the San Gabriel Mountains. And even more unusual in this urban setting, her room looked over an expansive stretch of undeveloped land, a dense tangle of desert shrubs and cacti. Later that day, after strolling through the elegant oaks of Pomona, the imperial courtyards of Scripps and the abstract aesthetic of Pitzer’s xeric landscaping, I found myself drawn back to that curious piece of ground.

_x000D_
_x000D_

In the scorching sun of mid-afternoon I slipped around the backside of Sanborn Hall, took a quick and somewhat furtive glance back, and pushed my way through a thick wall of brush. I was in another world. No affable orange trees and smartly shaved lawns here. Before me stretched a snarl of almost impenetrable shrub. It was a ragged piece of ground, unkempt and chaotic.

_x000D_
_x000D_

My senses went on alert. In that instant I could see—and feel—that this was a wild place. What would I find here? Rattlesnakes? A lurking coyote? A stoned student? I had crossed a border. This is an outback, I thought, having no idea that others had given the place the same moniker.

_x000D_
_x000D_

Warily, I made my way forward. At first I came across abandoned objects, a rusting oil barrel, a collapsed picnic table. But as I made my way deeper into the place, detritus from the world beyond disappeared. I was alone in a world of bramble and sky. I spotted the spiky tips of a cactus and headed toward it. Up close—or as close as I could get—the cactus was huge, big enough to fill a dorm room, and exquisitely beautiful. Grey blue stalks the width of my waist pierced the sky. I stood before it for a long time. How old was this plant? What had it witnessed? I felt like a child before an elder, somehow safe within the invisible shadow of its grace.

_x000D_
_x000D_

I was forging my way back through the thicket when I saw the woman. She was almost invisible in the splintered light. She stood straight-backed beneath the shelter of a tree, her arms hanging down, her head tilted slightly to one side. Her hair was bound tight in a coil atop her head like a Sikh. She was naked. And she was made entirely of rusted twisted wire. “The Keeper of the Outback!” I shouted. I grinned crazily, bowed my respects, and then slipped back into the ordered world.

_x000D_
_x000D_

When I said goodbye to my daughter the next day, I left with extra delight. I knew that Pitzer not only offered her the opportunity to engage as deeply as she dared with an extraordinary community of scholars and students. It also provided the chance to wander a bit in a place beyond the border of the tamed and named, and encounter—however uneasily—the unexpected, ineffable, and awe-inspiring.

_x000D_
_x000D_

Months later when my daughter returned to Pitzer after the semester break, my phone rang. It was a picture message, a photo of bare scraped earth, utterly flattened and denuded. The message read “The Outback.”

_x000D_
_x000D_

Another remnant of wild ground lost. The Keeper of the Outback obliterated.

_x000D_
_x000D_

I do not begrudge Pitzer the need to clear ground for the construction of new dorms. Indeed, Pitzer deserves credit for its xeric landscaping and community gardens. But I mourn the demise of the Outback because of what I relearned by crossing into that scrappy but still wild piece of ground: we need the wild within reach of our educational institutions. There is something about encountering wildness that de-centers us, shifts us out of our usual ways of thinking and knowing, and compels us to pay attention with our bodies as well as our minds. If we are lucky, it reminds us of the ineffable mysteries that surround us, and leaves us more curious, and hopefully a bit more humble, in how we approach and engage the world. From my perspective, this is such a critical part of learning, essential not only to our personal well-being but also the well-being of the planet.

_x000D_
_x000D_

I am left hoping that the remaining fragment of the Outback will be left intact—for its sake and ours.

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply