Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Into the Source
Classes begin next week at my university, and that means faculty meetings this week, workshops, syllabus tweaking, library runs, etc. (but fortunately, *not* Tropical Storm Fay!). It always means reflection for me: for close to my whole life, the new year doesn't actually begin in January. It begins in late August, time being reckoned by the academic calendar. For close to my whole life, my birthday has always been the first week of school too; nowadays *that* means I look at my fresh-faced freshmen and ponder how I'm getting older but they're not.
This year I also think about when I was a fresh-faced freshman at Emory University in Atlanta, twenty (!!) years ago. I still have my booklet from orientation week with all the activities and logistical matters; I pulled it out for nostalgia's sake recently and smiled at my scrawls in the margins. Everything that week seemed so new, so scary but filled with promise.
For some reason, I've also reflected on an artwork on the Emory campus, which by the way, is one of the most beautiful university campuses there is. I first learned of the environmental sculpture "Source Route" by George Trakas in art history survey, when we were given a list of artworks to choose from for an essay assignment. "Source Route," we were told, lies in the deep wooded ravine behind the art history building. It was commissioned by the art history department in 1979 for a symposium and has been there ever since. I remember going to the bridge crossing the ravine and peering down to find the artwork: it's twin paths of concrete, steel, and wood, one leading down into the ravine, the other on the opposite bank leading out of it. In between, in the ravine's bed, flows a small creek. There's no bridge or stepping path across the creek: Trakas wanted you, the viewer, to find your own way across the creek and up the path out of the ravine. "No way," I thought. "I could slip and fall and hurt myself, or mess up my clothes. I could get my shoes wet or dirty." On a more mercenary note, I thought I couldn't get a 4 page essay out of that and still get an A. So I did not go into the ravine that day. I picked something else from the list, wrote my essay, and got my A.
I can't really remember why I did eventually go down the Source Route, except that it was junior year. I think one of my friends told me he'd gone down it and thought it was neat. So one day, when I had on suitable footwear and it was nice and dry so I wouldn't slip, I went too. I did worry about falling on the way down, because Trakas didn't want it to be easy, but I felt that I should go the whole way, not turn back. At the bottom--a surprise. The creek looked so different close up. Everything looked different, sounded different. The ravine was so deep I couldn't hear the passing cars hardly at all, or see much except for the road-bridge. But I could hear the birds and the wind in the trees, and for just that moment, I didn't care very much about getting my shoes dirty. I felt very bold indeed as I crossed the rocks of the creek, and, when I emerged at the top of the ravine, I felt I had made a journey. And I realized I could have written a very nice 4 page essay after all.
I'm certain Source Route was intended by Trakas to be a life lesson. About the passage of time--because the sculpture changes with every passing season. (I read that a big tree fell across the ravine near the sculpture a few years ago, for example.) About the impermanence yet permanence of nature in the face of change, nature as the root of all life. (The ravine had actually been planned to be filled in and construction to take place -- the university's decision not to do that helped inspire Trakas.) And perhaps most of all, about the need to be courageous and willing to take a journey, even if it looks tough. Even if your shoes might get dirty.
[The photo pictured comes from a 2003 article about the sculpture in the Atlanta edition of Creative Loafing. Surprisingly, you will find next to nothing if you Google the sculpture. It's still Emory's secret.]