Flying the Coop
January 27, 2013
Griff Radulski ’14
I dithered for so long that I laughed for joy when I finally made the decision.
I've been talking about taking time off for more than a year now, since I began worrying about where my sugar came from. Concern about cane sugar quickly snowballed into concern about the source of my pants, my toothpaste, the energy that heated my co-op, and Oberlin's endowment. I managed to tame my anxiety by letting go and letting God. But it has stayed with me. I love Oberlin passionately, but I am deeply disappointed in some of the decisions we as an institution are poised to make, and I need some dirt time to clean out my head.
There are references in old posts about taking PLOA (personal leave of absence) this fall semester, and the reasons I didn't are complicated and personal, but I'm glad I stayed. I grew a lot this semester. And I learned a lot: about cell signaling, meristem development and neuroanatomy, yes, but also about things I will carry for longer. I learned a lot about handling disappointment. I learned a lot about taking advantage of the resources available to me, which are vast in scope. But the most important lesson I will take with me is the knowledge of the net under me, held tight by friends who catch me when I'm falling. I have often been falling. But I am caught and held until I struggle upright, every time.
Now I feel like I'm bouncing out of the net, but I know it will be within reach. No one in Oberlin will be able to hug me when I'm in Pennsylvania feeding pushy dairy goats or poking seeds into the soil with cold fingers, but phone lines and ethernet cables will mark my way back. And love and care will follow me, even across mountains, even across months of separation.
I will miss those hugs, though. There are things like shared experience and shared presence that are hard to replace. So why am I leaving? In some ways, it's because of how acutely I love Oberlin. I am keenly aware of how lucky I am to be here, and I want to appreciate it as fully as I can. And right now, I'm not.
Many of my reasons are personal: I want to be a farmer, for one, which means I am greedy for experience on a real farm. Now is a great time to take a semester off from my own mini-farming experience at the AJLC, because my remaining hens have retired in sunny Michigan and I don't need to raise new chickens until May.1 I also want to be a functioning social primate, which is difficult sometimes, and I think I want to be a functioning social primate elsewhere.
But many of my reasons are institutional, too. I respect that the decisions Oberlin has made on our central campus heating system and our credit system are necessary and that they have been made with consideration and care. I think the trustees and the faculty, respectively, have the best interests of Oberlin and its students in their hearts as well as their minds.
But I disagree with them. I think we have the money to go beyond the feasible and install a truly sustainable source of campus heating energy, instead of natural gas boilers that will contribute to the contamination of our water and the pollution of our air. And I think the credit system we have, however flawed, is superior to a "simplification" that creates parallel systems of credits and courses, relegates learning assistance classes to co-curricular status, and awards the same credits for an introductory three-hour lecture and an upper-level chemistry course with a separate lab.2
I think that these decisions have been made and will not be unmade. I think that there are great evils to be fought in the world and that these decisions are grains of sand compared to the vast and shifting deserts surrounding us:
I think I need to find an oasis. Oberlin has been my refuge for so long, but I need one with more nonhuman people. Just for one spring.
Of course, there are reasons to stay tugging always at my heels. This spring was my only chance to take a class called Vertebrate Structure and Evolution, which I have been planning my schedule around since my first semester as a bio major. I would have loved to learn about the phylogenetic ties that bind families together. I would have loved to learn about synapsids (mammals, and their ancestors) and diapsids (most extant reptiles, including birds); homology and analogy; all the bones of all the animals I have loved from afar. More pragmatically, I would have wanted to know how goats and sheep and chickens are put together and why.
But I can learn more about chickens and sheep and goats than their bone structure and their ancestry. I can learn how to husband them: how to shelter them from the cold, how to feed them and make them comfortable, and how to help them give birth to the next generation of vertebrates. This is what I want to learn and teach.
My curricular studies at Oberlin have almost nothing to do with that. I dithered over the "almost," but it would be unfair to say that Plant Systematics, in which I got comfortable with plant families, has had no impact on my ability to plan a garden.3 And among my several plant biology classes I am sure I will find one or two facts that will be useful.
But of course, learning facts relevant to a career is often not the point of a liberal arts education. Maybe it should be, but it's not. A liberal arts education is allegedly about maturing one's ways of thinking, ways of learning, and ways of being, and although it's a very expensive way to do those things, it's a very good one. I have learned to view the world through the lens of its evolution (blurred by anthropocentrism, but who among humans can help it?). I have learned to try to see further than the present: back to the childhood of the earth and forward into the future of her citizens.
Part of that has to do with my own future. Right now I don't see a future in which I will benefit from a bachelor's degree. I do see one in which my Oberlin education - in the broader sense - serves as a rock to stand on in the aforementioned desert. Still, it's hard not to think about what I would do with the same money, were it given to me. I could buy land outright and not labor in the knowledge of debt that will take a long time to pay down. I might even have enough to build a little barn and a tiny cabin. If I just didn't come back next year, I could leave a fourth of that money in the bank while pursuing my real education. And when I found a little parcel like the one I'm dreaming of, on a gentle southern slope with a talkative brook and plenty of land for my animals, I would be able to quit dreaming and buy it.
But I am coming back. How could I do otherwise? On January 3rd I drove back to Oberlin to meet Emily, with whom I'm farming during Winter Term. I'd only been gone since the 22nd of December, but I felt like a stranger coming home. Walking into Harkness made me dizzy. (To be fair, after a ten-hour drive, the dizziness might just have been due to standing up.) I greeted my plants, and watered them well, of course. As I talked aloud to my plants and to Whitman, who drove West with me, I was also silently greeting Harkness itself. Harkness has ghosts. Friendly ghosts, mostly. Traces of memories, mine and others', that settle on shoulders and wind around heels. They carry miscellaneous weight and hover when a Harkie comes home.4
I stayed in Keep with Whitman for the two nights I was in Oberlin (having already moved out of South, I was spared the need to find excuses not to sleep there). I lived in Keep my first year - some of the signs I put up as CLEC still hang above the trash cans - and being there reminded me what Oberlin was like before my days revolved around Harkness and my seasons around the Environmental Studies Center. It was already home. It's possible that in some ways it always will be, but of course, most of the people that make it home will be gone in not too long.
I can't describe to you, readers, the people I will be coming home to. There are too many people who fill my heart up and the adjectives that imbue them with life lie flat on the page. Compassion and courage are such empty words when applied to unspecified people; dogged idealism sounds oxymoronic, although many of the Obies I admire possess it in spades. I will come back to artists, anarchists, animal-keepers. I will come back to co-opers and their kitchens, groundskeepers and their gardens, and my own loved ones who have sent me on my way with hugs, well-wishes, and one rainbow scarf.
These are my personal reasons, but some of them are institutional.
I mentioned, briefly, that I am frustrated with Oberlin's submission to the reasonable in our campus energy policy. So are hundreds of students, and many of them protested the trustees' dinner in the science atrium when the trustees came to visit. About two-thirds of the space was filled with tables, chairs and mingling party guests. The remaining third of the atrium was filled with silent students, still dripping from the rain outside. I don't know what would have happened at other schools. At Oberlin, they were given the mic.
John Bergen delivered a statement on behalf of all the students present, speaking to the need for the consideration of alternatives and the importance of community input. The trustees heard him out. I don't know what will happen at this school, in the long run, but it would have been so easy to usher the protestors out. Instead they were ushered in.
I also mentioned that the resources to help disillusioned students are vast in scope. The academic support I have found at Oberlin deserves its own post (one I plan to work on while homesick next semester). I have been buoyed up by weekly check-ins with an academic counselor; extensions from professors; diligent note-takers; and amazing teaching assistants. I'll still need some of that help even as a senior, and I'll be glad to know I'm coming back into the fold of a college that does what it can to support struggling students.
Meanwhile, I'll be out with the goats. I'll see you all in May.
- -- - -- - -- - -- - -- - -- - -- - -- - -- -
 May is late to start raising chickens, and laying hens won't be as productive as they could be their first year, but they will be fully-grown and well-equipped to handle winter weather.
 Please comment or email me if you differ in my assessment of the new credit system. I'd like to discuss any specific points of difference, but rehashing all the reasons that I think it's a bad move just makes me anxious.
Plants in the same family often need similar nutrients from the soil and are susceptible to the same pests. For instance, tomatoes and potatoes are both in Solanaceae, and they are both prone to the same late blight. Sweet potatoes are in the morning glory family, so they aren't. It gets a lot more complicated, but families are a good place to start!
Calling somewhere home requires a caveat, because I had a wonderful home before I had ever heard about Oberlin, and I still consider my parents' house my home. After all, my family is there! I just consider Oberlin my home too. And it's one that particularly hurts to leave because I know the net that welcomes me back to Connecticut will always remain tightly held in place between my parents, my brothers, and my dog, while the one that currently spans Oberlin will stretch thinner as people graduate. Soon it will be a very loose net, although it will span the country and the world.
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Responses to this Entry
Let the net be a trampoline. Not the unsafe ones that insurance companies hate, though. A cool one that sends you flying into space, gives you the ability to do back flips, and then catches you on the way down.
And if farming doesn't thrill you, you should write a graphic novel.
Love this post!
Posted by: mom on January 27, 2013 9:11 PM
Good post. I'm going to miss you, but I'm so happy that this is what you're doing (and I love your drawings.)
Posted by: Eleanor on January 27, 2013 10:43 PM
Thanks, Mom! Thanks, Eleanor!
Mom, I'm counting on the trampoline effect to keep me airborne all semester (I'll be bouncing back to Oberlin at regular intervals).
Eleanor, when I was looking for chicken pictures I came across our Tetrapak pictures and started missing you all over again. I'll still be in town on the 2nd, so I'll see you then.
Posted by: Griff on January 27, 2013 11:00 PM
Your astonishing ability with words(and pictures) takes my words away.
Down the road, when you are given miscellaneous and manifold awards, for writing, environmental studies, animal husbandry, etc.,etc., it will be an honor to say,"I knew Griff when...".
Posted by: Padre on January 28, 2013 8:38 AM
I'm sad that your semester away means we won't have any more time overlapping as Oberlin students. Although we haven't spent a lot of time getting to know each other, it's always a delight to run into you at contra dances, activist events, or strolling through campus. It's wonderful to read your thought process, and know that you are seeking out the experiences you will find most valuable.
Posted by: Nora on January 28, 2013 6:11 PM
I could say so many things here, but no words can really capture what I want to say to you because all of it is bringing tears to my eyes. I'll leave it at this:
You captured emotions that few can capture. It was your drawings that excited me so when you applied to be a blogger, and I'm so pleased they materialized in this post. I'm excited to see you, your discoveries, and your creativity blossom and can't wait to bask in it when you return.
(Also I agree whole-heartedly with your mom. She's a smart one.)
Posted by: Ma'ayan on January 29, 2013 1:10 PM
I second the suggestion that you should write a graphic novel. Those are wonderful drawings!
And, Griff, silly as it is I'm glad that we are taking personal leave at the same time. Missing the chance of taking Vertebrate Structure with you was one of the regrets I had about my decision :)
As you follow your dream of farming, I hope our generation produces many others like you - who are willing to take on the crucial task of producing food in a sustainable way.
Be well & take care, tell stories, make good art!
Posted by: Kelly on January 29, 2013 1:52 PM
This post brought tears to my eyes. There are many of us that share your burden; I'm encouraged to see shreds of optimism among your struggles. It takes a certain amount of optimism to endure the challenges our world is facing. Best of luck to you, Griff.
Posted by: Bridget on January 29, 2013 2:53 PM
This is an excellent post...insightful writing and drawing. I have a few comments.
1. I think it's easy to fight against a new system without fully realizing the downsides of the old. Don't get me wrong--I was at the front of the protest against natural gas, and I have some qualms with the new credit system too, but don't forget we are coming from coal. One of the rarely-asked questions is, why did students let the administration get away with using coal for so long? Also, we can and should complain about fracking all day, but until we present an alternative that they consider feasible, nothing will come of it...
2. Next time you get rejected from OSCA, try Kosher-Halal coop. Despite the fact that I am not Jewish, Muslim, or animal-consuming, I love the small intimate environment, and for a coop its size it is surprisingly well-endowed with great chefs. KHC is way less competitive to get into, because many people think you have to be Jewish and/or fill out the application to get in--in fact, you just sign up like any other coop. It may not be Harkness, but it is still unmistakably OSCA--with some interesting quirks of its own, and great people to boot.
Posted by: emi o. on January 29, 2013 4:40 PM
I love this post. I love the Harkness ghosts, especially the happy oven ghost that's shaped like a cat. I love your thoughtfulness and sense of perspective. I love your courage to leave, and to write about it with grace and humor.
Have a wonderful leave and a wonderful life.
Posted by: Tess on January 29, 2013 4:51 PM
For a blessing on your journey, may each successive oasis be filled with more and more trees to still the evil winds.
Posted by: Glenn on January 29, 2013 5:01 PM
I always knew we're smart but you can spin those words like Pulitzer Prize writer. Hope those goats and other critters appreciate your talents. Be well
Posted by: Jim p on February 2, 2013 7:14 PM
I am in awe. Love, Dad
P.S. You get the degree; I'll buy the land for the farm.
Posted by: Actual padre on February 2, 2013 10:31 PM
Thank you, padre! It's already an honor to say I know you. When I talk about my faith journey and my growing reverence for life I think of you often.
Posted by: Griff Radulski '14 on February 4, 2013 10:09 AM
Nora, I'm also sorry that we won't run into each other, but I'm glad to be corresponding. My first letter should be in your OCMR soon!
Ma'ayan, thank you! I am finding it equally hard to capture as much thank you as I mean, so you will just have to trust me that it's a lot.
Kelly, me too. I'm glad we're both taking time off to do what we need to do. I hope all is well with your plica (and then without it) and that you have a fulfilling semester off. Thank you for your well-wishes. I hope you, too, take time to make art and tell stories, and come back glad.
Bridget, thank you for your kind words, and for all your work. Although some of us have to be beyond the feasible, shouting, more of us have to be on the front lines of the feasible, fighting, and I'm glad you are one of the people working to make our new energy system the best it can possibly be.
Emily, you're right. I do think the new system is an improvement on the old, but it frustrates me that the change is only happening now, under duress. What else students could have done to convince the administration to get off coal is an interesting question, and one that is particularly relevant as students push for solid deadlines on the new energy system. I think the question is rarely asked because there's no clear path of action - no way to say that if half of the student body had done a certain thing, we could have successfully pressured the administration into taking certain steps. Most people feel powerless. Maybe that's the answer to that question. I agree that there is likely no feasible alternative to using fracked natural gas and I support the system as planned, as long as deadlines are set. But as I said above, someone has to be beyond the feasible, pointing out that we could do better. Otherwise we never will. Thanks for the tip about KHC. My number after registration difficulties was so bad that I don't think it mattered, but if I decide to do OSCA again, I'll certainly sign up - I've heard great things about the community there.
Tess, thank you! I was inspired to do the Wilder sketch by your chalkboard drawings from way back when, so thank you for that, as well. I'm partly taking leave so I don't have to graduate early, and I admire your willingness to go out into the world. What are your plans for the semester?
Glenn, thank you. May there be trees aplenty for all of us and good pasture for your sheep.
Jim, aw, shucks, thanks.
Dad, thanks. P.S. I have to buy my own land, but it's all right - Joel Salatin's "You Can Farm" emphasizes how much you can do with just a little, and that it's the skills, not the land, that make a farmer a farmer. I can start with apprenticeships and go from there. Maybe if I end up strapped for cash, I'll come home and turn the backyard into a market garden. Watch out!
Posted by: Griff on February 4, 2013 11:42 AM
This is beautiful. Best of luck to you with the farming, both this semester and after you graduate.
Posted by: Joe Sheeran on February 11, 2013 5:41 PM
Wonderful posts. Your posts have opened up a window for me to peer into your world. I remember you as my cell molecular biology lab partner who's always into farming and raising chickens, and i remember your incubator in your room when you were in hark, but stumbling onto your posts today have allowed me to uncover so much more that's going on and your determination to find your path in permaculture and sustainable farming. I want to tell you that you are amazing. All the best!
Posted by: weelic on May 28, 2013 2:36 PM
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