COLUMN SIX: Preparing for what comes next

A new graduate recalls order and chaos at Brock

Special to the VOICE

In my first year at Brock University, I had a terrible timetable. This was entirely my fault. I neglected to read closely the orientation guide to online registration and began selecting courses weeks after I should have. I was still able to find a place in each required class, but in the end I was on campus every day of the week, often with gaps of seven or eight hours in between lectures. I considered myself to be relatively studious, but I couldn’t bear to stay inside, working, for that length of time. Eventually I took to taking long walks on the grounds of the school.

This was in the winter of 2014, what you will remember as a terrifically frigid year––Canada’s coldest, in fact, since 1996. Snowfall records were set in parts of southern Ontario, and the Great Lakes achieved 92 percent ice-coverage, the most in a generation. Lake Moodie, Brock’s lake, nearly froze over.

The best way to get to the lake, or at least the most scenic, is to head west from the gym’s entrance and cross the soccer fields. With my inadequate footwear I relied on the footsteps of others to stomp a path through that winter’s record snow. There were times though, often in the morning, when I was the first to make the trek, and in these instances I would sprint across the field, hoping that if I ran quickly enough the snow would be less likely to stick in my shoes. Because the soccer fields were free of natural or artificial barriers, the wind would blow the snow from one side to the other, and in places where the topography dipped, drifts would accumulate. Eventually, I came to know where these were likely to be, but it was still common for me, running at full-tilt, to sink into a sudden mound six inches deeper than I had been expecting and struggle to remain upright.

On the other side of the pitches the path entered the woods, then through them to a barbed-wire fence meant to stop hikers too curious for their own good from getting any nearer to the hydro dam.

The very first time I came to this point, long before winter, when the trees were still full from summer, I turned left and, through a gap in the branches, spotted what I thought was a large, white shed. As I approached it, though, I was stunned to see that at the end of the trail there stood not a shed, but a sizeable lake. What I had seen was merely a square of its surface, glinting white in the sun.

This was my discovery of Lake Moodie, and nearly every day after I would return to it. At a particular point that jutted out into the water, I would put down my bag and lie in the sun on great stone slabs seemingly there just for the purpose. When the season changed, and that bitter winter descended, I would leave the trail and walk out on to the lake. As with the fields, the snow was blown across the ice, but its uninterrupted flatness meant that there were few drifts which could jump up and sink me.

My favourite spot to walk was along the river that brings water into the lake. For some reason, little snow would accumulate on the sand that banked this channel, and in the many hours I spent wandering there, I found all sorts of things that had accrued over the years. There were old ropes and beer bottles and bleach bottles, fishing line tangled in bushes, a shoe or two, and often a rubber boot. Some of the smaller things I picked up.

I wore a great ski coat that winter, and it was so full of pockets I always had a spot to store something else I found. By the school year’s end, I was carrying around a hockey puck, a lump of coal several times the size of a hockey puck, bits of flint, part of a fish’s skeleton, and a deer antler, one so small that it must have come from a buck in his first year of growth. Few walks went by when I didn’t see the tracks of deer, and often the animals themselves.

My coat was pretty heavy by spring, and it was bulky, too. I must have looked quite a sight, coming back inside from those roamings, pulling off my balaclava and scarves and that coat. As much as I tried to keep my feet dry, I was never successful, and always ended up in a handicapped washroom where I could hold my socks under the air-dryer without arousing concern. Then, I would return to class, sit alongside everyone else, and pay attention as best I could.

I have been reading the Bible lately, not out of any particular religious conviction, but because my convocation––and that of several thousand other Brock students––approaches, and I thought it unfortunate to go through an entire undergraduate degree without becoming familiar with the stories foundational to our civilization.

To the uninitiated, the book of Genesis is a confusing read. Are we meant to take its words at face value? At a deeper level? Both? What are the implications of what it is saying?

Fortunately, the bestselling book of all time has been adequately reviewed over the years. I started with Wikipedia.

Genesis’ first verse, “In the beginning when God created the universe,” is relatively easy to understand. Verse two, “the earth was formless and desolate,” is a little more confounding. This is where I turned to The Free Encyclopedia for assistance. “Genesis 1:2 presents an initial condition of creation,” it told me. Before the light has been let in, the world is “tohu wa-bohu,” a Hebrew phrase that describes a condition of chaos. This didn’t exactly clarify everything, but I figured that it was best to not get bogged down in every complexity, and so I moved past the seven days of creation and into the Garden of Eden.

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” The question here is obvious: what exactly is God’s image? Wikipedia’s segment on this matter was, I thought, a little dense, so I ricocheted around the web looking for a succinct interpretation. I found one from a blogging theologian, who argued that the answer was one involving order and chaos. Just as God was supposed to have turned the chaos of ‘tohu wa-bohu’ into the earth we know, humans turned the chaos of the natural world into comprehensible order. That this is happening in a garden makes sense. A garden contains just the right combination of chaos and order; just the right amount of nature and artificiality.

I began to think of the university.

While the division of study within the university seems to be done in a self-evident manner, at a closer glance it is clear that there is a considerable imposition of order upon chaos. Where, exactly, are the natural boundaries between physics and chemistry? In high school, my physics teacher liked to quip that, “chemistry is just another branch of physics,” and my chemistry teacher was equally fond of saying that “physics is just another branch of chemistry.”

In nature, of course, there is no “physics” and there is no “chemistry.” There is just the world––but merely stating this does not help us to understand it. The university divvies up all that there is to study into distinct departments, because otherwise it would all be too overwhelming. The departments we create to study the world are our imposition of order upon the world.

But there is such thing as too much order. Most students can think of professors we’ve had who are so preoccupied with the order of their discipline that they’ve forgotten to acquire conventional social skills. Or consider the sufferer of obsessive compulsive disorder—someone so concerned with cleanliness and order that it’s impossible to get on with the rest of life. Or, in contrast to the chaos of nature, picture the city––so much concrete, so many skyscrapers––where the excess of urban order is stifling and claustrophobic. No wonder we “escape” to the country.

Brock, like all good things, is both orderly and chaotic. For most students, the four years spent there are a hiatus from the two poles of life: we are between the protective order of childhood, where parents are in charge (and responsible), and the coming chaos of the real world, where no one is in charge and we cannot evade that responsibility.

I have never attended another university, but it seems to me that Brock is pretty close to having the right balance. It’s true that it’s some ways from St. Catharines and even further from the true cosmopolitanism of Toronto, but there aren’t many universities around now where you can find a deer’s antlers and the animal they came from on the same day. When learning the techniques of ordering our lives that universities so effectively teach, it is helpful to take note of the chaos that must be there too. For me, Brock did both. ♦

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