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A Forest Almanac

David Haskell’s The Forest Unseen has been my favorite book we’ve read for HRCS all semester, but something was nagging at the back of my mind: I got the distinct impression that I’d read something very similar before and couldn’t quite put my finger on it. There was something about the meandering reflections and attention to detail that called up something I’d stumbled across years ago, and it took me until this week to place the connection — in many ways, The Forest Unseen is a modern-day companion to Aldo Leopold’s classic A Sand County Almanac.

I’ve read Leopold’s collected essays more times than I can remember — as an HSE major interested in conservation, any environmental literature class I take would be remiss if it didn’t include at least an excerpt from his groundbreaking work. Like David Haskell, Aldo Leopold was a keen student of his surrounding landscape, and generated a great deal of philosophical thought from his own wanderings in the woods in the early 20th century. Leopold developed the idea of a “land ethic” — a responsible relationship between humans and the land they inhabited — and illustrated the concept with beautiful, near-poetic prose. Haskell’s call to pay careful attention to what the natural world can teach us and maintain a connection with it is its own sort of land ethic, and the two books seem like spiritual kin. Each author’s voice is uniquely their own, of course, but their eye for detail, fascination with the smallest and most delicate organisms they encounter in their daily wanderings, and sense of connection to the ecosystem around them are very much aligned.

So if you like The Forest Unseen,  A Sand County Almanac will be right up your alley. I’ve linked to a piece called Thinking Like A Mountain, which I’ve read for half a dozen different classes and like enough to recommend to you all the same. It deals with the ethics of wildlife management, and if you’ve ever heard a passing reference to “the green fire” — this is where the phrase originated. Content warning for animal harm, but I promise it’s worth the read. http://www.eco-action.org/dt/thinking.html

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Making it work (or, Thoughts on The Collegiate Way Of Living)

I am a huge fan of the TV show Project Runway. My family’s watched it together for over a decade, and while it’s often as fluffy as any other reality series on air, it’s got a number of elements I really respect: designers who go above and beyond in their creative use of material and design, uniquely artistic challenges, and Tim Gunn — a mentor figure who constantly provides thoughtful feedback for the contestants, encouraging them to push their creativity even further and edit their designs into something that will actually work on the runway.

I watched a new episode of the show last night, so maybe it’s no surprise that the idea of tailoring has been on my mind. One-size-fits-all looks are rarely flattering for anyone, whether they’re supermodels or communities, and I think it’s worth extending this metaphor a little to take a look at The Collegiate Way of Living.

Yale’s residential college model is pretty fantastic, but it did not spring, fully-formed, out of nowhere. It evolved naturally, growing from the shared desires of the community and changing when something wasn’t working or when new opportunities appeared on the scene, and it is fully a reflection of the students and faculty who shaped it.

I think this is an important thing to keep in mind here in the HRC. It’s difficult to imagine that a residential college model developed at Yale would be possible to duplicate here at Virginia Tech. There are, after all, a number of significant differences between the student body at these two schools — not in the caliber of the student or our academic interests, necessarily, but in our backgrounds and collegiate culture. And that is not only okay but completely to be expected! All colleges and the communities they maintain are different, and that’s something that should be recognized and celebrated.

The problem comes when we try to follow Yale’s model to the letter and expect it to work exactly the same way in a different community. It’s a fantastic starting point, but we need to make sure that we’re flexible in our adoption of this model and give ourselves space to edit as necessary. A residential model perfectly tailored to one specific university isn’t going to fit another like a glove by default, in the same way a jacket tailored to perfectly flatter one person’s figure might pull across the shoulders or hang too loosely on their friend. The trick, as any good designer knows, is to use the basic form and then work on perfecting the fit for the individual who plans to wear their garment. The same goes for the structure of a community — if something’s uncomfortable or difficult to move around in, changing it is best for everyone involved.

The HRC has grown a lot in the three years I’ve been here, and will only continue to evolve in the future — almost certainly in some unexpected directions. I would encourage community members to draw inspiration from, but not cling to, Yale’s residential college model for its own sake, and instead remain open to putting a new twist on this classic piece. I believe that if we strike a balance between the residential model we’re using as a pattern and our own new ideas, we really have a chance to make this thing work.

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