Field as teacher

John Cheever in Massachusetts at the age of seventeen…

The spring of five months ago was the most beautiful spring I have ever lived in. The year before I had not known all about the trees and the heavy peach blossoms and the tea-colored brooks that shook down over the brown rocks. Five months ago it was spring and I was in school.

In school the white limbs beyond the study hall shook out a greenness, and the tennis courts became white and scalding. The air was empty and hard, and the vacant wind dragged shadows over the road. I knew all this only from the classrooms.

I knew about the trees from the window frames, I knew the rain only from the sounds on the roof. I was tired of seeing spring with walls and awnings to intercept the sweet sun and the hard fruit. I wanted to go outdoors and see the spring, I wanted to feel and taste the air and be among the shadows. That is perhaps why I left school.

In the spring I was glad to leave school. Everything outside was elegant and savage and fleshy. Everything inside was slow and cool and vacant. It seemed a shame to stay inside.

~ John Cheever, “Expelled,”  The New Republic, October 1, 1930.

* * *

I think it important, even redemptive, that I spend time in nature, away from the classroom or ranch house, walking in pasture and grove.  Yes, I know, it is all nature, even within four walls — the air, the sunlight, the particles of dust and skin floating within the house.  Without walls, however, weather intrudes, scents come sharply and trees present their foliage.  Wildlife intersects the trail.

When I lectured at T. C. U. one semester, I taught from a second-story lecture hall with an array of seven or eight windows looking out upon elms and green grass about the campus.  It was a western civilization class of thirty students.  Often I went to the windows while lecturing, propped my elbow on the ledge and instructed undergraduates while frequently glancing into the seasons outside the panes.  I liked that classroom and sometimes dream of it.

* * *

Field work in anthropology never tired me.  Surface surveys for isolated occurrences of stone tools or hearths carried me from arroyo to mesa in New Mexico.  Boots dusty, sweatband wet and Levis soiled at the end of the morning offered solid evidence of my toil.  I thought of people, long ago, that walked the same good ground, gazing at Cerro Pedernal.  My students that I led into the field, without fail, always returned to the classroom the next day invigorated, talkative and inspired.  The field instructed, not me.



John Cheever, “Expelled,” The New Republic, October 1, 1930, reprinted in The New Republic, January 5, 2011.


Filed under Life in Balance, Nature Quote of the Day, Quote of the Day

13 responses to “Field as teacher

  1. This morning it is cold (at least for California), around 30 outside, yet I am looking forward to spending this morning out wading around in the pond, catching invertebrates and other interesting specimens that I can share with the second graders who will come to learn about wetland habitats. We will spend the whole morning in our outdoor classroom where there are no walls to separate us from the sights, scents and sounds of nature. These mornings more than any other, though uncomfortable in some ways, are the ones I look forward to most.

  2. Well said, Jack. Nature is the master teacher, the spiritual guide. We humans have grown distance from her teachings and the turning of the seasons with our air-conditioned edifices, fast cars, concrete jungles. Nature speaks in the soft breeze whispering through pine barrens, the curl of water over eons-old rock, the curve of the eagle wing. She holds all the answers in those great stretches, those silences, those unknown reaches. Thank you for sharing!

  3. I am a huge Cheever fan. What a wonderful excerpt. Right now, I look forward to many days in the outdoors soaking up all it offers. It has become essential, it seems, to my well-being. Yours, too. Aren’t we fortunate to have recognized the value of choosing Nature?

  4. Ahhhhh. John Cheever. Did anyone ever say better what we felt about life in general? Great post – hope your New Year is treating you with great joy!

  5. The natural world, the real natural world that is, makes not only a wonderful but the best classroom. I teach most of my graduate level ecology classes in the field. I have learned that students cannot effectively learn about the ecological world from a book, or from me lecturing, but being there observing all that is to behold, now that is another story.

    I really liked the image of you standing by the window, your elbow hanging slighly outside, while you taught your students. What an image! So visual!

  6. It seems to me that the field is a great teacher because it is only there that full understanding can be achieved.

  7. Kittie Howard

    Great post, Jack. Cheever is such an icon. His words sing softly, but powerfully, like a butterfly’s wings. I also love the image of you looking out the T.C.U. window. Yes, it’s perfect.

    I think Bonnie’s comment says what I’d like to say.

    Happy New Year to you and yours!

  8. What a nice way of bringing the nature to us again…even in the deepest winter we have up in Canada. You post made me think of my daughter when we were gardening. She was only about 6 or 7 years old then, but it was fun finding a handful of worms. All crawling in her hands trying to get somewhere else other than her tiny hand. They all ended up back in the dirt where they belong and aerate our garden……

    • Jacqueline: Thank you. Aren’t daughters wonderful? And our sons, too. I so much enjoy your nature and craft. I’ll drop by soon after getting over Lilly and see your beautiful work.

  9. and me, new to Cheever! Thanks so much for this particular excerpt. I love the discussion you provide off of it – the view out from within. The right window, the right passage through, where ” Wildlife intersects the trail.”
    Vantage point so important for us these big-headed, narrow-pelvised, babes-born-soon creatures that we are. Our shelter, our cover – important. The Prehistoric Preschool, my job since August, will focus on NM Habitats, and we will be creating a Bear Den for the wee ones …

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