Face Down Hockey

FACE DOWN HOCKEY  (Unpublished and originally written in 2005)

It’s a cold January morning in the deep freeze of a long, snowless winter. I walk gingerly on an ice-covered bike path in the residential section of a small city. Some winters are defined by ice. A snowstorm morphs into freezing rain. A thick, mild rainstorm is followed by very cold weather. Roads are always slippery. Every step is perilous. You yearn for snow, but there is only ice.

The bike path sits on an old railroad bed, so it is slightly elevated above the surrounding landscape. On one side of the path there’s a row of modest houses. A shallow, but steep depression separates the path from the houses, so the backyards form a bowl. A few days ago, a flooding rain preceded a snappy freeze, the perfect sequence for a frozen topography. These shallow backyard bowls are now mini ice skating rinks. 

I observe two young boys, perhaps ten or eleven years old, sprawled on the ice, lying about forty feet apart. They’re wearing hockey jerseys and handling hockey sticks. From their prone position, laying face down on the ice, they’re sliding a hockey puck back and forth, in a laid-back rhythm, as if they are marking time. “Let’s call this face down hockey,” one boy yells. “No, let’s call it lazy man’s hockey,” the other responds.

Several months later, during the lime green days of New Hampshire Spring, the ice is gone, an ephemera, replaced by a tidy, green lawn. There are roughly a dozen balls scattered around the premises—tennis balls, wiffle balls, soccer balls, all species of balls—marking the arrival of a new season, and hence, new sports, too. In the corner, I notice a netted backstop, and the boys, now joined by several friends, are playing some backyard baseball variant. Nearly every afternoon the boys are outside playing ball, forming their own narrative of players and teams, emulating major leaguers, engaged in the tangible delight of their home grown game elevated to the fantasy of a world-class championship scale.

On returning from a late May vacation, I notice that during my absence a trampoline appears. Throughout the summer, the trampoline is teeming with neighborhood kids, both boys and girls, animating the landscape with their incessant jumping. The baseball continues, enlivened with the springing motion of youngsters bobbing up and down.

With Autumn and the changing foliage of maples, oaks, and birch, the glorious colors are framed by a mottled, leafy lawn, with goal posts on either end, deftly placed around two soccer nets. On alternate days, the boys practice kicking field goals or playing one on one matches of soccer. Sometimes there are groups of a dozen boys (and a few girls) playing touch football.

My prevailing memory of this four-season collage is observing two boys practicing many different sports, spending their childhood outdoors, through all kinds of weather regimes, enduring and enjoying the elements as the dynamic backdrop for their cavalcade of sports. There is much to reflect on here about the purity of play, the virtues of their pursuits, or the celebratory relationship between atmosphere, landscape and play. 

Why is it fun to lay face down on ice, during a cold dark evening, shoveling a hockey puck back and forth?  Although there is a relaxing rhythm in the regularity of a relaxed toss, it does tend to get boring after awhile. Far more compelling is the sensory delight of feeling the ice. The play challenge is unremarkable without the novelty of the ice. 

A few nights after observing “face down hockey” I decide to try the same activity, without the hockey sticks—face down ice sprawling. Why is it so much fun to do this? The sheer visceral sensation of lying on frozen water is amazingly pleasurable. Ice is simultaneously wet and dry, sticky and smooth, bumpy and flat, hard and soft, fragile and strong, slippery and supple. In just a few moments you notice all of this and marvel at the remarkable variety of contrasting qualities. As a field of play—frozen water—it is infinitely interesting because of its visceral complexity. Pushing a puck back and forth is only fun on ice because the puck is designed to respond to these qualities. The puck is an elegant and graceful human-designed play response to the mystery of ice.

Ice as frozen water is a biospheric medium of great power and mystery. Water’s ubiquity displays an elusive mobility. Typically, we observe liquid water in various movement forms. Ice reduces the pace of water’s movement to a grinding halt, almost as if it is also freezing time, or at least reducing the flow of events to very slow motion. Ice provides a visible record, a history, of water’s most recent movement. Every crack and bump indicates a change in temperature. When you lie on the ice on a cold winter night, even if you don’t consciously observe these things, you just know they are true. Such direct knowledge comes with the experience. Ice is a phase of water in a place you are visiting and you know what it’s like to experience that place frozen.

Ice’s mystery is enhanced by what it hides and reveals. Ice displays gradients of opacity, translucency and transparency. Sometimes you can see the depths and levels of frozen water, or plants that lie just below the surface. Other times you can’t see a thing. Ice masks depth. It can be a mirror of glass or a sheath of white.

For the boys, the ice is a matrix of safety. In their backyard, the water is shallow enough that even in the most misleading of circumstances, if they were to break through the ice, they would get wet and cold, but emerge safely and walk a few feet home. However, walking into the middle of a frozen pond no matter how cold it’s been and how solid the ice appears, or how well you think you know the places of running water that no freeze will thwart, there is an element of danger, even if it resides as a modest uncertainty in the depths of your imagination.

Recently, I have taken to skiing the four-mile circumference of a local pond. I know that when snowmobiles and ice fisherman have left their mark, it’s surely safe enough for me. There’s an island in the middle of the pond and I ski to it often. There is a stretch between shoreline and island when you are far from shore. No matter how frozen the pond appears to be and how free you may feel, there are moments of vulnerability. This mystery of ice reflects freedom and vulnerability and the combination of the two, in the right proportion, is one measure of why playing on ice is fun. For some people play is enhanced as the vulnerability factor is increased. They are most free when most vulnerable. For others, the opposite is true.

When I am biking down a hill at twenty-five miles an hour on a balmy summer day, I know that there is some danger. I’ve had a blowout in such a circumstance and took a resounding and painful fall. Yet that doesn’t stop me from riding fast. I continue to ride down that hill, despite, or perhaps in relationship to that danger, because I feel free when I do so.

Ice hockey (which I’ve never played) had its origins on frozen ponds and streams. The idea of skating at great speeds while handling a puck and firing it at a net is both dangerous and beautiful. I imagine it’s the ice that makes the game fun. In the Harry Potter novels, Quidditch is a type of ice hockey in the air, played in a different medium, with a touch of magic. It’s a game that is simultaneously elegant and dangerous.

Perhaps it’s a great leap to compare “face-down hockey” with Quidditch. What I wish to convey is that they are games played on fields of nature and it is the fields that provide the mystery, the challenge, and the fun. Whether you are lying face down on the ice, or skiing at a modest pace around a shallow pond, or cruising your bike down a long flowing hill, or flying through the air on a broomstick, you are engaged with a biospheric medium. It’s the mystery of that medium, scaled to the activity of your game, which is the source of your play. I suggest that the heart of the sport, so deeply rooted in our Pleistocene origins, is the sheer joy of experimenting with our bodies and minds, while feeling free in the fields of biospheric play.

From childhood through adolescence and even into my adult years, my most vivid, enthralling and engaging landscapes of play revolved around making, erasing and reformulating boundaries in a seemingly unbounded setting. Wild settings were the ultimate challenge. Play became a confluence of landscape and imagination. Improvisational flexibility was intrinsic to both rule making and play narrative. Improvisational play was erecting boundaries (and rules) in a wild landscape.

I grew up on the south shore of Long Island, only fifteen minutes from Rockaway and Atlantic Beach. I spent hours inventing games on a sandy beach at the boundary between ocean and land. I admired the daunting spectacle of power and change, the inexorable shifting of surf, tide, and sand. Until early adolescence (I was the same age as the eleven year old face-down hockey players) my favorite activity, transcending even baseball, was to experiment with the magnificent variations of the shoreline. I remember an inlet, only about ten feet wide, and how much fun it was to build dams, only to see them succumb to the force of an incoming tide. I enjoyed low tide because you could always dig just a short distance and create a pool of water. My friends and I created underground networks of pools and tunnels, but it would only last until the tide came in. Our structures finally crumbled, slowly at first, and then catastrophically. Watching the structures disappear was as much fun as creating them.

Creating, modifying, directing, and channeling watercourses were fine early lessons in understanding the flow of landscapes. It was a great day in my suburban neighborhood when someone chose to wash his care. The stream of water coming off the car flowed downhill and we followed the runnels and channels to see where and how far they went, how long they lasted, and how we might direct them. Each runnel seemed to have its own personality so we named them as befitting the character of their idiosyncratic course.

As an eleven year old, I built enormous “ball castles” on the beach. I would dig a large hill, packed with mud and sand, making it stable enough to carve tunnels and paths. The challenge was to create a series of roads and runways so a tennis ball placed at the top of the castle slowly rolled down, disappearing for awhile, and then mysteriously emerging from a network of invisible paths. These were very hard to build as the tunnels would constantly cave in. But we had an unlimited supply of sand and water and all the time in the world.

We would invent baseball games, too. There were games that involved playing at the boundary of the incoming or outgoing tides, in which your challenge was to catch the ball before it hit the water. How spectacular it was to make a diving catch as you were falling into the ocean. We devised miniature baseball diamonds, with the ocean boundaries serving as the outfield wall.

Tennis balls were soon surpassed by the Frisbee which had the unique quality of riding microthermal air currents. Once you learned how to toss it (easier than learning to ride a bike), but not quite so simple as throwing a ball, you could experiment with it in many interesting ways—throwing it so it would return to you, tossing it so it would bounce and hop, flipping it so it would make successive upward hops, and flinging it so it would start out traveling in one direction and finish in another. The Frisbee is a wonderful biospheric toy because it is designed to ride the wind. Your mastery of the Frisbee depended on more than your skill as a thrower and catcher, but also on your ability to read the weather, not just the wind speed and direction, but also the humidity. Every unique weather situation and landscape subtly influences the flight of the Frisbee.

There were probably hundreds of Frisbee related games, with regional variations, eventually condensed into more formal rules systems such as “Ultimate Frisbee.” On the beach we played Frisbee football, Frisbee running bases, and various track and field type events involving distance, speed, and accuracy.

Years later, when I moved to a small house deep in the New Hampshire woods, my then pre-adolescent son and I devised a Frisbee golf game. We played it every Sunday morning before watching New York Giants football. We each had a Frisbee and alternately found landmarks between fifty and one hundred yards distant—tall trees, mailboxes, boulders, protruding branches. You’d try to reach and hit the target in as few throws as possible. Each week we’d find different courses and challenges, all emanating from our house. However, the final “hole” was always the basketball hoop on the garage. You’d have to make a basket with the Frisbee.

Forested landscapes and all varieties of settled and/or wilderness settings provide terrific backdrops for tossing a Frisbee or tennis ball. Throw either object through the rows of a parking lot or the tall trees in a forest, in each case, figuring out the space available, the obstacles to be overcome and/or incorporated, the openings for flow and movement, and the slight possibility of danger and loss. Watch the Frisbee sail beyond your grasp into the valley below. Watch the ball roll under a car or into a busy street. Feel the remorse as either Frisbee or ball gets stuck in a thick tree, or lost in an inpenetrable thicket. And who hasn’t inadvertently broken a window?

Several years ago I was with some new colleagues, traveling from Los Angeles to the High Sierras to teach a Sense of Place workshop. We stopped in a desert town in Southern California, piled out of the van, and after relieving ourselves and refueling accordingly, we tossed a tennis ball around a funky parking lot at the edge of the desert, undaunted by the heat and sagebrush. We did this with great glee, becoming friends while doing so.

To this day, and perhaps later today when I take my walk, I derive great pleasure from bouncing a tennis ball, and then on the homeward, mostly downhill journey, dropping the ball down the hill seeing how long it will follow the path, staying within the boundary, using gravity until it comes to rest, waiting for me to pick it up and once again initiate its passage.

From my earliest childhood days, I have always loved throwing, catching and navigating balls. Playing ball has always been intrinsic to my life experience, as genetic as the color of my hair. An object relations psychologist will insist that the matrix of warmth and play represented by rolling a ball to my mother and father, and the support and love surrounding the activity was the source of my pleasure. An evolutionary psychologist will argue that my ball-playing predisposition reflects a Pleistocene practice, a way to prepare my eye-hand coordination for hunting and other survival skills. A cultural anthropologist may suggest that I grew up in a culture surrounded by toys, one of which was balls, and that I learned to play with balls because of their ubiquity and as a way to adopt to the cultural rules of play that I learned in infancy and early childhood. And they will all tell me that there’s no way I can objectively dispute their interpretations based on the impression of memory, and the biased retrospection of my life narrative.

But I will insist anyway that all of these interpretations (each of which may convey some measure of truth), both for me, and for all ballplayers, are incomplete. I love playing ball because it is an amazingly engaging way to come out of myself and into nature, to learn about movement and pattern. Balls are agents of exploration and discovery. As I watch a ball float through the air or down a hill, or perhaps disappear into the brush, or land in a mitt, I realize that the ball’s life story and mine are inextricably entwined. We are the same being, rolling down the hill together, swishing through the hoop, traveling through many hands. Balls, too, are agents of mystery and wonder. Is it too far-fetched to suggest that balls taught me about the infinite varieties of landscapes, weather systems, and environmental change, about the intermingling of air, earth, and water, that they were tools for learning about the biosphere? And more importantly, they were a means to engage and participate in biospheric play. Or still further, they taught me to celebrate life.

When I realized at age four or five that the ball would be the subject of a broader story or game, the focus, for example, of baseball, and eighteen players could play a fascinating game in an enclosed playing field, all interacting together around a common devotion to the ball, I realized there was a deeper narrative of meaning and participation. I vouch no overblown sacred qualities to these games. I declare no metaphorical significance. I only suggest that something about playing with balls, and doing so with others, taught me about my place in the world, and taught me to appreciate the world, and celebrate my place in it.

To this day, reflecting a life long pattern, whenever I see people playing ball, I turn my head to watch them. If I am passing them in a train or car, I hope for traffic so I get to observe them for awhile. If I’m taking a walk, I’ll stop and watch (as long as I am unobtrusive). Whenever I see a game of baseball or basketball, regardless of the age group, even as a fifty-five year old, I long to join them.

Surely there are dozens of reasons why people long to play ball—to compete and test oneself against peers, to find community and identity, to work through aggression, to accomplish something or to gain recognition—you name the reasons. I, too, have played ball for all of these reasons. But transcending these explanations, there is a deeper level of engagement. I play ball to know my place in the landscape, to ground myself in the topographical logistics of my mind and body, to engage with weather, landforms, and watercourses, to enter a state of biospheric awareness and participation that I can’t surpass in any other way.

John Muir, the great environmental archetype of American wilderness writing describes his glee and fascination with rolling rocks and boulders down scree slopes in the High Sierras. Muir would in no way have been inventing baseball games (although he may have known about baseball). Muir didn’t roll those rocks to score points or achieve some navigational goal, he was just interested to see what would happen as the rock made its way down the slope. Who wouldn’t love to do something like this? Muir was undoubtedly intrigued to observe that each toss was different, and that each corresponding path varied as well. But patterns began to emerge, determined by landscape, soil type, slope, and gravity. He could become the rock, vicariously experiencing the same journey, a geomorphological probe. When you sit on a sled and careen down a hillside, sure the speed is a rush and the navigational challenge is fun, but the finest sledding moments are the most carefree when you can just close your eyes and float freely, noting where you might arrive as if you are a pebble bouncing down a scree slope in a high glacial valley. I can’t say for sure that this impulse is at the core of Muir’s playfulness, but he was a keen observer of nature and he surely did love to play.

Muir was also known for his classic tree-climbing adventures in the middle of snowstorms. Perhaps he was the nineteenth century equivalent of today’s “extreme sports” participant. He wanted to place his body in the elements, not only to practice agility and alacrity, but simply to experience his body swaying with a tall tree, in the wind together, merging with the snowstorm by playing with it. 

Snowstorms are turbulent weather phenomena, the result of clashing, interpenetrating weather systems that span the tropics and the arctic. In their convergence they sweep moisture from the ocean, pushing it skyward high into the atmosphere, freezing the moisture and turning it into snow which falls to the landscape as it is driven by the wind—a pressure gradient pushing air across vast landscapes. Are snowstorms merely a form of biospheric play?

When a snowstorm strikes, there’s little you can do. Cars grind to a halt. The streets are quiet. Commerce diminishes. Transportation stops. Sometimes there are power outages. The biosphere sweeps over you and you are powerless to stop it. What better way to pay homage to the grandeur of such a process than to go outside and play with it, to walk face first into the wind, and then to turn around and have it push you? Look skyward and count the snowflakes before the daunting infinity of scale and variation completely overwhelms you as you feel a snowflake land on the tip of your nose. Every child knows that there is nothing more fun than snow. It’s delightful to watch because of the beautiful patterns it beholds. It’s fun to play with because you can mold it and shape it as you require. Yes, there are snowballs, too, and all kinds of games you can play with them. You can jump in it or glide in it or use it for recreational transportation. It’s only the most cold-hearted, work-hardened, indifferent person who forgets the great celebration of playing with snow.

Remember the boys who were playing face-down hockey? Well, five years have now passed and I never see the boys outside anymore. Perhaps they’re involved in organized sports now. Or maybe, God forbid, they’ve moved inside to use their Playstations. Perhaps other demands of adolesence have rendered their backyard too small for their expanding cognitive horizons. Or maybe the family has moved. I’m reminded of the beautiful, but sad lyrics by Gene Lees for the famous Bill Evans tune, “Waltz for Debby.”

“One day all too soon she’ll grow up and she’ll leave her dolls and her prince and her silly old bear. When she goes they will say as they whispered good-bye. They will miss her, I fear, but then, so will I.”

Surely their forays into biospheric play will never be as naïve and innocent as they once were. Yet I am confident that any childhood that entails biospheric play nourishes a person for life, and that for these boys, whatever their future beholds, they will always have a foundation for both participating in sports and observing nature.

In their darkest and loneliest moments, they may fondly remember shoving a hockey puck back and forth on a cold, icy night. When they have young families of their own they may provide their children with the space and time to play outdoors. As they ponder various life choices and possibilities, they’ll have face-down hockey as a measure of purity and participation, as an aspiration and a possibility for how to live well. In the ritual of their outdoor games, they will celebrate the landscapes of their lives—with every toss of a ball, fling of a frisbee, or bike-riding descent of a long, steady hill.

 

 

 

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Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.

PACO

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Since 1967 I’ve had three different dogs, all the same breed—the miniature Schnauzer. In keeping with my own preference for beard and hair, and with respect to the adage that dogs and their human partners bear an uncanny resemblance, I’ve let the hair grow on all of these dogs, so they took on a wilder look, shedding the dandy coiffures given to most Schnauzers.

I’m telling you about these guys because of their remarkably distinctive approaches to play. Three different dogs, same breed, same level of love, friendship, and attention. The first dog, Poncho (1968-1986), on waking in the morning, would race to your bedroom, grab a sock from under the bed, or one that you were about to put on, retrieve it, and then take it to another part of the house, play with it under a table, and encourage you to come and get it in a tireless game of keep away. However, Poncho showed virtually no interest in chasing balls, gathering sticks, or running with you. His favorite activity was tug of war, the one game that all three of these dogs had in common. Despite all of my best efforts, and believe me I tried, I could never get Poncho to play ball with me. He just wasn't interested.

Ponchos’s successor, also named Poncho (1988-1997), was reared in the woods of New Hampshire (the first Poncho spent his first seven years in the Long Island suburbs). His favorite activity was to roam the woods on his own for hours at a time. He didn’t particularly like people, immediate family excepted, was rather intimidating to strangers, and for the most part showed no interest in balls, catches, sticks, or joint jogging. Let me explain his favorite game. The kids would go to the top of our spiral stair case. They tied a dog biscuit to a string and would slowly lower the biscuit into Poncho’s jumping range, while swinging it like a pendulum. Poncho would fall for the bait each time. The kids tried to get him to stand on his heels for as long as possible, eventually rewarding him with the biscuit. As far as fun and games goes, that was it. Poncho’s idea of a good time was a very long walk in the woods (either with or without you). Fittingly, but with great distress to our family, he met his end in a tussle with coyotes.

Paco (1998-2013), name change at the behest of the kids who said its time to move on, was intrigued by all kinds of toys and games. He loved stuffed animals and had a little box (lying next to his extensive bone collection) with about a dozen of them. If my wife and I were sitting on the living room floor playing a board game, he’d walk over to his toy box, grab a stuffed animal, bring it over to us in hopes of engaging in a game of toss, keep away, or tug of war. When he was on his own outdoors he would hardly ever leave the vicinity of the house other than to visit a neighbor’s dog, but rather he’d find plastic bottles, old boxes, or anything he could play with, alternately chasing, dragging, shredding or crushing it. He spent hours chasing chipmunks, squirrels, mice, and shrews just as the Ponchos did, but with a transcending intensity and perseverance. On a balmy spring day, he would dig holes for hours on end, trying to snuff out a chipmunk. Every so often he’d catch one, kill it, and then play with it, carrying it around, shaking it, flipping it, exactly the way he did it with stuffed animals. However, he was much more private with his live prey (thank goodness) and didn’t urge us to play tug of war with it as he did with stuffed animals.

Paco was a big-time ball player. He loved nothing more, indeed, he eagerly awaited those precious moments when you hit balls with a bat (he liked wiffle balls in particular) so he could retrieve them. We had a collection of a dozen balls lying around the driveway (our house is nestled in a woodland setting), and I gathered the balls, hit them down the driveway into the woods as Paco pursued them with great purpose and intent. He made some incredible catches. Our son nicknamed him Ray-Ray, in honor of the Mets superb fielding shortstop Ray Ordonez, after Paco made several consecutive over the shoulder, turn around leaping, mid-air catches. Paco would play ball anytime or anyplace. Like me, he was born a ballplayer.

Paco also loved to fetch sticks. At the furthest point of a long walk, just after we’d turned around to return home, he would find a stick, the bigger the better, and drag it part of the way home. He’d do this for a short while and then look for another stick and continue the game, especially if you stayed interested by encouraging him, and this process would prevail all the way home. I’ve always been amazed at what I can only describe as Paco’s creative ability in finding objects to play with in diverse environments. Perhaps most astonishing is that I’ve observed him, on his own, find a stick and use it to knock a plastic bottle around the driveway. This is a dog who excelled at improvisational play. By the way, Paco would not grab socks and hide them, nor would he care much about dog biscuits dangling from the spiral staircase.

What accounts for the intriguingly different play habits of these three dogs? There are all of the obvious interpretations. Maybe vigorously shaking stuffed baby elephants is a way to practice shaking dead chipmunks. Maybe gathering a stick is a way of bringing something back to the home base hearth. Or perhaps play, in this case, is nothing more than a wonderful inter-species communication medium. Perhaps Paco merely wishes to please us and he does so by engaging in play.  

Yet I’m convinced that dogs play simply because they enjoy doing so. It is a tangible way to explore their world, to gain pleasure from doing so, to “live” in the moment, to use their bodies and stimulate their minds. Of course they are dogs and we are humans and we should do our best not to anthropomorphize their behavior. Dogs and humans have a long and complex Pleistocene relationship, and crucial to our deal and intrinsic to why we like each other is that we can play together. Dogs are fun because they are terrific players. They coax us to play, just as they seek to protect us,  and in so doing reward us for providing them with food and shelter. They play with us not only because they enjoy it, but they know that we do too.

It gives me great pleasure to watch dogs play and to play with them. All of my best friendships with people and animals alike are based on mutually enjoyable play behaviors and styles. When I ask why dogs play, I do so to further enter the mystery of mammalian behavior more generally, and ultimately to better know myself and our species. But mostly when I play with dogs I have no such deep thoughts and I’m quite sure they don’t either. But in playing together we come to know life better and we get closer to nature too, both through the challenge of our game, and the interspecies link to our mammalian ancestry. Perhaps human play is an attempt to get to the core of mammalian behavior and we are searching, ultimately, for our Pleistocene origins.

 

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Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.

MARBLES

 

“Basically, in all cultures, marbles games fall generally into three categories: chase games in which two or more players alternately shoot at each other along a makeshift meandering course; enclosure games in which marbles are shot at other marbles contained within a marked-off area; and hole games in which marbles are shot or bowled into a successive series of holes.” Fred Garrett, The Great American Marble Book

 

At the opposite extreme from golf, a game in which you smack a small ball a long distance on a vast landscape, is marbles, a game which uses small glass (originally wooden) balls in the confines of a bounded playground, dirt lot, or small room. In my early childhood (1950s) older boys still played marbles outdoors in playground settings or on sidewalks. But by 1960 public marble games were very, very rare. However, within the confines of my room, between the ages of 7 and 13 (1957-1963), I played marbles indoors for hours.

One great things about marbles is that you could get a lot of them. Even kids could afford them. After several years of collecting marbles or receiving them as gifts, I had several hundred. They were colorful, pleasant, even beautiful to look at (I especially enjoyed translucent marbles that I could hold up to the light), they made a great sound when knocked against each other, and each marble had its own special qualities. At the peak of our marble playing and collecting (my brother and I were mainly in this together), we had an entire community of marbles, each distinctive for its size, color, speed, condition, and overall attractiveness. There were some nondescript marbles. But some marbles had remarkable characteristics, even an identity, and that identity emerged or evolved as the marble was more or less successful in play. As it grew in stature, it revealed an unfolding narrative. 

We had one steel marble, undoubtedly a renegade marble from some other game, appropriately named “Steely” whose speed and slickness presented a streamlined efficiency as captain of your marble team. There was “Whitey,” just a plain ordinary sized solid white glass marble. You saved Whitey for clutch moments as he always seemed to succeed. Grandpappy was an oversized catseye with a white spiral in a clear glass. You didn’t want to overuse him because of his age, but you could always count on him to capture several marbles. We had four other oversized catseyes whose sheer size made them formidable. How could I forget “Peewee,” an undersized marble with super speed and finesse!

We played several kinds of home grown marble games. Some involved only a few marbles with games that emphasized accuracy and capture. There was a game which required you to roll your marble as close to a wall as possible. We loved using marbles along with our building blocks, setting up mazes, ramps, and tunnels, and all sorts of contraptions, similar to the ball castles we liked to build on the beach. There were games that involved shooting marbles around the house, trying to get from one room to another with the fewest rolls, taking into account different floor surfaces and spatial arrangements. Block baseball used marbles and we invented marble football and ice hockey.

The game that we played most often was a shoot and capture game of our own invention. It was best scaled to my brother Peter’s room as there was a good carpet for marbles, it had smallish dimensions, and I seeded the floor by randomly tossing out ten marbles. Each player would choose fifteen marbles to shoot at the others. If you struck one or more you would retrieve them all and they would become part of your stock. If you missed, the marble remained on the field. The game ended when all of the marbles were captured. When you shot “Grandpappy” you took on the persona of an old man who still had strength and power, all saved for one great shot. You would talk like him, truly becoming “one with the marble.” Peter loved Grandpappy and would always choose him in our pre-game draft. I would choose the bulky oversized marbles as I wanted their capturing bulk. My brother went for speed and personality. 

I also had favorite marbles, although I valued them less for their “athletic prowess” and more for their astonishing beauty and mystery. Marbles taught me the concepts transparent, translucent, and opaque. I took great delight from admiring a colorful translucent marble that I could hold up to the light and then bring close to my eye, peering into a world that became incredibly near, that I could hold in my hand, but could never quite enter. Still, I could imagine myself inside the marble, bathed in its mysterious light, knowing I couldn’t fully enter its magnificent translucency. I had one marble that reminded me of pictures I had seen of Jupiter in my treasured book, The Golden Guide to the Stars. I had others that looked like Uranus and Neptune. How could it be, I wondered, that a marble and a planet could look so much alike, could have so much in common, be so close to me, and yet so distant and unknowable? How I adored the correspondence between Neptune and my translucent marble, depicting a world outside myself that I could only enter through imagination and wonder. I had marbles that resembled the ocean surface and some that looked like the desert. Many years later when looking at a translucent green ocean I would remark to my kids that the ocean reminded me of a marble that I had as a child, repeating that idea so often that it became a family joke and cliche. As a young child, it was easy to move from marble to planet to ocean and then back again. These were the marbles that I held most dear and I still own some of them today, residing in a glass jar containing marbles of memory. 

We stopped playing marbles some time in early adolescence. It was surely no longer cool and it seemed tedious and awkward to be crawling around on the floor. We literally outgrew the marbles and they were no longer the right scale for our play. When my kids were small we tried rolling marbles on the floor but it didn’t work as well for them, perhaps because I was too cautious with some of marbles that contained my cherished memories, as if a fracture or chip would somehow diminish the very best moments of my own childhood. Or perhaps because there were now new toys, invented by my contemporaries, that involved infrastructures specifically designed for use with marbles, plastic conglomerations way beyond the capacity of wooden blocks. My kids had remarkable marble towers and chutes and they loved playing with them. These were toys with ingenious architectures, designed for racing marbles down winding paths. 

I took my most cherished marbles, put them away in a glass jar, and gave the rest to the kids. I don’t know whether their marbles had the same magic as mine, or spun similar narratives. I never bothered to ask them. However, I know that my children (like countless others) were best left on their own to discover unique ways to play with their toys. I know they invented complex stories and characters, and learned similar lessons of scale and pattern, although not necessarily with marbles.

As I write this I’m sitting on the floor of our living room, my back propped against the low platform that holds the wood stove. There’s a tightly woven wool rug covering the floor. Its perfect for playing marbles. There’s an 8x8 area, bounded by couches and walls. With just a few modifications it could be a perfect marbles playing field. I’ve retrieved my childhood marbles and carefully spilled them onto the floor. They lie huddled in a nine inch diameter circle. There are exactly one hundred and fifty marbles. I took the time to count them, holding each one in my hand, reconnecting with the cumulative narratives. Yes, Grandpappy is here! He hasn’t aged a bit. The red, oversized catseye is here too! I don’t see Peewee or Whitey. Peewee was so small that he probably got lost. Whitey was just too generic and probably got swept up by some other game.

There are marbles here that I received as gifts. There’s a batch of lovely nineteenth century ceramic marbles. There are several oversize marbles, laced with interesting spiral patterns, designed so that if you roll them they take you on a whirring, spiraling journey. There’s a marble designed in the shape of a small globe with a map of the world imprinted on it. It’s a planet marble. You can roll the earth around in the living room! Yet as much as I admire these newer marbles, they just don’t move me as much as the ones that I used to play with. By playing with the marbles I entered their world, or at lest projected my identity onto marble play narratives. They were my extension, a means not just for exploring stories of childhood and early adolescence, but they provided me with a visceral understanding of space and time.

I notice the marbles that were my planets—Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. Sitting elegantly in the midst of this lovely pile that now resembles so many things—a coagulation of planets, a multicellular organism, a weave of color and pattern. And there’s the green marble planet Neptune, at once a planet, and then the color of a swirling ocean on a cloudy day, that emerald silver-green you notice under the waves just as they crash to shore. I hold the marble up again and travel backward in time, back to childhood, and then outward in space to Neptune, and back to New England across the hills and valleys to the rocky shore of Maine to the timeless Atlantic as I once viewed it from Monhegan Island every May. This marble is now a portal to the way our planet might have looked several hundred million years ago when the continents were swirling on a restless ocean. I roll the marble across the room, gently with caution and reverence, and then I put it back with the others, in the marble community where it belongs. I roll the marbles all together, cradling them in my hands, watching their shifting shapes and colors. There are marbles that resemble the sky at dawn, small mountain lakes, city streets. There’s one that even resembles an old friend. I listen to the gentle clack of the marbles knocking together, blending with the wood chimes on my porch, punctuated by the crispy patter of rain falling on the roof. I pick each marble up, examine it, and then place it back in it's resting place until such time, many months or years from now, when I will beg their reacquaintance.

Comment

Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.

GOLF

GOLF

 

I am not a golfer. I appreciate the skill, challenge and aesthetics of the game. There are three reasons why I don’t play. First, if I have three hours to spend outdoors, I prefer aerobic activity. Second I am just not cut out for such an unforgiving sport. Third, I have my doubts about the ecological problems of golf as a land use activity. 

Nevertheless I admire golf as the ultimate landscape sport. To play well you have to study the contours of the landscape, its smoothness and roughness, its curves and lines, its sweeps and swerves—these micro-topographical variations are intrinsic to high quality golf course design and the requisite skill of the golfer. All good golfers are experts in micro-topographical interpretation, although the substance of their expertise is oriented exclusively towards how a small ball travels on the landscape, not the soil series, or the glacial geomorphology.

Golf shares an interesting structural similarity to pinball. You are trying to hit a ball into a small hole, steering it around and through obstacles, using ricochets to your advantage, using spins and slices. However they are on opposite ends of a spatial landscape scale. Golf is played over hundreds of yards, one hole can be almost a quarter of a mile. You are gauging the spaciousness of the field, navigating the ball within and through that spaciousness. Pinball is contained within three square feet, using multiple balls, navigating them through a crammed space, with many more artifacts of ricochet, obstacle, and pathway. Yet both hold a similar attraction for people who are interested in steering balls through interesting landscapes. Perhaps their similarities are most apparent in their simulacra, especially the computer, where the golf landscape is reduced in scale to the size of a screen and you flick your wrist to control the ball and navigate it accordingly. The computer screen is the meeting place of golf and pinball!

What’s the middle ground between a full-sized golf course and a pinball machine? Why it’s a miniature golf course, a landscape game that takes into account the best of both venues. With miniature golf you’re hitting a golf ball through space into a hole, but similar to pinball, the golfball is rarely (or shouldn’t be) airborne. It navigates many more obstacles and the artful ricochet is more crucial to success. If the miniature golf course is well designed, the ball will travel into some very unusual places and take on a life of its own. Your ball will travel an underground and overground trail, taking on shamanic significance, as it builds a narrative on its way to the final resting place, where it will sit, neatly nestled, finally arriving home.

I adore miniature golf. The scale of the game is perfect. It’s not as daunting as real golf where the small white ball is dwarfed by the enormity of the landscape, and I, for one, too easily get lost in the infinite possibilities of such boundlessness. Miniature golf is a cross between a sport and a board game. It requires dexterity, finesse, tactics, strategy, and luck. Unfortunately most miniature golf courses are either too much like golf, that is, they try to simulate the real thing and lack imagination, or they get carried away in some tacky narrative, mistaking silly statues and buildings for imaginative design. Really interesting and challenging miniature golf courses are rare.

All games of golf, real and miniature, strike me as both deeply serious and entirely frivolous. There are miniature golf championships. During the 1960s there were Putt-Putt courses which sponsored national matches, and even a few professionals. Of course real golf is replete with a finely stratified series of levels, expertise, professional organizations, and paraphernalia. Although I would never consider baseball or basketball frivolous (as humorous as they can be), because I take both games so seriously, I’m enough of a golf outsider that I can see the game as something of a fool’s errand, and on some level, absolutely ridiculous. I don’t mean this to be disrespectful. I am sure that if I viewed baseball or basketball in the same way, I would see them in an entirely different light. Watching eighteen men or women dressed in matching uniforms with team logos, throwing a ball at a bat and then running around to catch, throw it, and avoid being tagged, seems like a perfectly reasonable human activity to me. But watching a man or a woman standing quietly on a grassy knoll, trying to whack a small ball into a hole several hundred yards away at the other end of the field seems silly. And yet I can see myself, later in life, when all prospects of basketball have faded with age, taking up golf, and pursuing that same small white ball with the same depth of concentration, and even love, with which I now handle a basketball. The frivolity of any game is in the eye of the beholder. It serves us well to view all sports as simultaneously sacred and frivolous, secular and parochial, community minded and individualistic, meaningful and meaningless. 

As a critic of golf, I find the game too strident in its domestication of wild open space, too big to be a garden, too disruptive of local ecology, whereas baseball and basketball are more appropriately scaled. Golf conveys a form of nineteenth century privilege, steeped in enclosure, a perversely recreational fencing, fox hunts turned to golf carts. I know if I loved the game I wouldn’t feel this way, or I would just accept it as another sacrifice of the ecosystem. I know, too, that if I give myself another chance I could be pulled by this game too. In many respects it is the ultimate landscape game.

One day last winter I packed my cross-country skis into the car and took a ten minute drive to the Dublin Lake and Golf Club. It sits in a beautiful meadow in full view of the northern face of Mount Monadnock. I enjoy skiing on the golf course and using it as an entree to several miles of backcountry exploration. It was a lovely, crystal blue, mid-Winter day, a fresh February early morning sky. The snow and sun were not yet too bright. There was a brisk wind, covering the golf course with deep drifts and icy patches. I was alone on the golf course and the lack of tracks (or the restless wind) meant I would cut a new trail. Skiing this landscape is refreshingly inspiring, a pure blue sky against the white backdrop of fresh snow. The golf course is now a different kind of playing field, an open space, allowing me to explore the winter micro-topography, in the ecological and physiographic context of Mount Monadnock, the Laurentian forest, and the various animals tracks (deer, fox, coyote, snowshoe hare), all of whom traverse this landscape too. We mammals gather here at different times and places, searching for food, mates, or information.

In a few months the snow will melt and the golfers will return. This course is a private club. I’m sure if I played the right social networks I could score an invitation to play a few rounds of golf. But this is an exclusive club, ultimately beyond my economic pedigree, reflective of a particular class and attitude. I may bond with the landscape but I would feel vaguely out of place in its resident social network. Whenever I ride my bicycle through here on a summer day I’m glad to see the golfers with their clubs and carts. I hope their successes outweigh their frustrations. I hope they find solace, satisfaction, and companionship in both the golf game and the landscape. This wonderful place, whether it functions as a golf course, a cross country ski track, an avenue for wildlife, or a nesting place for birds, is a playing field on an ecological landscape.

Humans will always find ways to steer balls through space. It’s just an archetypal thing. There are few better ways to challenge the mind and body than playing with balls—throwing them, catching them, steering them—watching them roll, fly, bounce, and ricochet. It’s inherently interesting. My explanation is simple. It’s a magnificent way to better understand the ecological landscape through a playful, physical extension of the human body. Wherever I am, and I hope wherever you are, wherever humans go, I know that we will all find ways to play with balls in space and time.

I hope that some day someone will design an ecological golf course, not just a place with organic greens, devoid of pesticides, serving whole foods in the lounge, but a playing field that mindfully balances the domestic and the wild, where people play in teams, running through the landscape, rolling throwing and striking balls together, scoring points and overcoming obstacles, and while doing so are observing, identifying with, and immersing themselves in the very biospheric processes which make their play possible. They explore a playing field that merges humanity with the biosphere—rolling balls down hills, around city corners, across watercourses, lifting them high in the air and back again, rebounding off trees and buildings, until they return to their resting places, a neatly dug hole, a home plate, a goal post or a rim and hoop perfectly designed to receive the gift that was meant for it.

Comment

Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.

PINBALL

I’ve always been attracted to various types of pinball games. As a very young child (five years old or so) my parents would take me to Far Rockaway beach. There was a boardwalk there, lined with concessions. We’d get a Tuckee cup (a hard noodle cup filled with Chow Mein) and then walk over to Sam’s Italian ices, freshly squeezed lemons and oranges, my earliest exposure to the sublime pleasure of summer confections. Then we’d go to the Skee-Ball parlor. On one wall there was a row of Skee-Ball machines. You would roll a ball up a modest incline aiming it so that it would land in the bullseye of a circular arrangement of scoring holes. On the opposite wall there was a line of pinball machines, including various baseball games. I took great joy in the baseball pinball games, marveling at how you could push a button and a fat steel ball lurched from an opening, spat out in a straight line. By pushing another button or pulling a lever you could hit the ball. The batted ball would roll into an out alley, or if you hit it well, and were a tad lucky, it would roll down a single or double alley.  I remember one machine with little ramps. If you hit the ball up the ramp it would land at a higher level. That’s where the doubles, triples, and home runs were. You could hit the ball so hard that it would bounce off the glass. It was fascinating to watch all the places the steel ball might travel.

Next to the baseball games were the traditional pinball machines. These were exceptional devices and I was hooked from the first moment I saw one. To think that you could insert a nickel and then push a button, watch a ball appear, and then shoot the ball with a spring loaded lever, so that the ball careened around and slowly made its way through a field of bumpers, buzzers, bells, and other obstacles, all of which constituted a system of prizes, scores, and incentives, on a mysterious path, to the bottom of the machine, closer to you, where you had flippers that you could control, miniature bats swinging at a metal ball, that allowed you to keep the ball in play and gain more rewards. This was a battle against gravity, luck, and time, where it was your job to keep the ball alive. What a joyous responsibility! To insure the ball’s life was to prolong the fun, the possibilities, the endless loops and bounces, creating sounds and rhythms, movements and rebounds, routes and passages. I wondered how a ball could live such an enchanted life—drop through holes into secret passages, only to reemerge elsewhere, disappearing into a vortex, traveling up and down ramps, bridges, and elevated highways, in their own convoluted, simulated, transportation system. As a five year old, I knew these things, although I couldn’t describe them this way. Most importantly, it was the mystery and magic of the pinball machine that I found so appealing. 

It was amazing to me how all of this was contained in a big machine, one so tall that I needed a stool so I could reach it and play with it. The glass and metal served as a containment barrier, deepening the mystery, beckoning me inside as both participant and observer, allowing me to identify with the ball and to watch its progress reflect my skill and desire. The narrative of the ball itself was far more compelling than the silly artistic themes that served as the patina for these games. I never paid attention to the clowns, cowboys, or dinosaurs, or whatever storyline was stamped on the package. It was the life story of the ball that enveloped me and how its fate and mine were inextricably entwined. 

To this day if I discover a pinball machine in the lobby of a movie theatre or in the lounge of as motel or wherever it might appear, I’ll take out a few quarters and give it a spin. However, I typically emerge disappointed as I find these machines too noisy and loud, screaming instructions that I can’t decipher, telling me what to do and where I am and what I should aim for, not unlike a modern baseball stadium where your told when to cheer (“Everybody clap your hands”) and there’s music and noise blaring at you from every conceivable direction. Still, underneath the surface, and within the tacky, ridiculous, often blatantly sexual or violent themes, there is a ball waiting for me, now launched automatically, now moving through an even more complicated system of paths, and still finding its way to the bottom of the field, yearning to extend its life, requesting a partnership, a temporary agreement between its world and mine, so that for a brief moment we can share stories of movement and frolic, exchange identities, and set ourselves free. How can I explain this to the young boy who is bemused at watching a big bearded man, old enough to be his grandfather, hunched over the pinball machine, searching perhaps for his own boyhood, recalling his wonder, keeping it alive in such an unlikely places, through the fleeting life of a steel ball?

When I was ten I thought it would be fun to build my own pinball game. That was the only time during my childhood (or for that matter in my entire life) when I took up the hammer and nail. I had no interest in such tools when they kept me from doing what I most loved (playing ball or music), but in this case I could put them to good service, using these otherwise uninteresting tools to construct a field of play for my marbles. The basic idea was to find a piece of wood about 2x1 feet, to elevate it slightly providing the necessary gravity and momentum, and using nails, tacks, and rubber bands, I would build a home-grown, miniature pin-ball game. There was a lot of trial and error involved, dropping the ball from the top of the board, seeing how it would travel and where it would land, learning how to direct its passage so there would be enough variety and intrigue. The most fun was building bumpers out of rubber bands, finding exactly the right tension so there was enough spring to send the marble back where it came from or to guide it down a choice of paths. These homemade pinball games were always much more fun to build than to actually play. They lacked the speed vitality, and I suppose electricity of the real thing. Yet in the construction process you always held out hope that you could build a path and network for your marble that would take it on a glorious ride, and that as its creator, you could take great pleasure in its passage.

Many years later with the advent of personal computers I took great interest in the emergence of virtual pinball. My first piece of gaming software was the Electronic Arts Pinball Construction set as it allowed me to relive my childhood projects viscerally with more detail and action. One of the great accomplishments of computer gaming is its ability to simulate ball physics, first exemplified with Pong, a very sophisticated way of playing catch, and eventually elevated to all manner of marble races, moving ball puzzles, pinball variants, and countless games based on guiding balls through complex networks of passages and obstacles. I must confess my admiration for many of these games and the ingenious minds (who obviously shared my childhood fascination for watching balls move through networks) who have translated this interest into computer simulacra. How far the pinball has travelled from its primitive electro-mechanical steely origins to its digital, pixellated, morphing through infinite visceral landscapes. In merely two generations, pinball has become so complex and embellished. Yes, I’ve gotten lost for hours in computer pinball games—old Macintosh games like Crystal Caliburn, and now on my iPad, where the classic games have reemerged, and new dimensions of pinball are continuously morphing. 

I still get a thrill when I can extend the life of a ball beyond its typical sixty-second journey into a death defying, life extending, boundary navigating extravaganza of speed, balance, and vitality. I both loathe and relish the utter frivolity of it, guilty of squandering time when I should instead be doing something much more virtuous, temporarily forgetting that sometimes a few moments of meaningless entertainment is a healing lacuna. Really there is nothing meaningless about iPad pinball, just as there is nothing meaningless about tossing a Frisbee on the beach, or practicing three point shots on my driveway, or playing wiffleball in the backyard. We use the ball to find our way through the world and often the path is more circuitous and complex than we imagine. 

Comment

Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.

STICKBALL

My favorite baseball variant was stickball. Here’s the version we played. You found a suitable schoolyard wall. You drew a batter’s box on the wall. You marked off a distance from the pitcher to the batter, measured so that the pitcher had a reasonable advantage, more closely resembling what we imagined to be a major league batting situation. The pitcher threw a tennis ball. The batter used a broomstick, although by the mid-1960’s you could buy manufactured stick ball bats. The game was best played as a 2 on 2 or 3 on 3 matchup.

Depending on who you played with and where you played, there were different rules for hits and outs. Typically a ground ball hit past the pitcher was a single. A hard ground ball fielded cleanly by the pitcher was an out (a double play if hard hit with men in base). Fly balls caught by the outfielder were outs.

The most intriguing aspect of the game was delineating the foul lines and the extra-base hit boundaries. We searched for schoolyards that were appropriately scaled. The ideal schoolyard had a tall fence or wall in the outfield, simulating the grandeur of hitting a home run out of the ball park. Every schoolyard had unique dimensionality and boundaries which in turn determined the rules of the game.

Stickball wasn’t as benign as softball, but less dangerous than hardball. Some kids could throw the ball with blinding speed, and if it hit you, it hurt! There was a dose of fear when facing a fastball pitcher. To be a good hitter you had to overcome that fear.  My strengths in stickball (and in every athletic endeavor) were good eye-hand coordination and excellent game playing intelligence. I could always read situations well and then figure out with my totally average running, speed, strength, and quickness, how to accomplish what I was most capable of achieving.  I was a contact hitter with modest power. As a pitcher I had sneaky side-arm speed, good control, a slow curve, an ability to assess my opponents strengths and weaknesses, the foresight to change speed and location and to never throw the ball right over the plate. 

When I was in high school I used to love to get in the car with three other friends, drive to a schoolyard (I especially liked number 3 school in Cedarhurst) and play stickball. Number 3 had perfect dimensions—a high fence, a reasonable distance from home plate to the fence, all neatly framed by a peaceful, tree-lined street. There were fences all around the yard so you’d never have to go to far to retrieve a ball unless you hit a home run in which case you didn’t care. We literally played inside a cage yet we felt incredibly free.

Comment

Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.

PICK UP GAMES

PICK-UP GAMES

I’ve always been a pick-up player. I went to a big high school and a big university. I wasn’t athletically talented enough to compete on a varsity level. In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, with the exception of little league, there weren’t multiple levels of organized sports for kids. Only the very best players had the opportunity to compete in more formal settings. 

For the rest of us, through all levels of schooling, there were intra-mural sports, or whatever you could organize on your own. I found intra-mural competition entirely unsatisfactory. Games were almost always too short, the reffing was a joke, and the schedules were limited.

In the fifth grade I played one year of little league. I was the best player on a weak team. I was shocked at the level of interference from parents who cared way more about their own kids playing time than they did about the good of the team or the development of the players. I watched a parade of horrible pitchers (placed on the mound by bullying parents) sabotage all of our games. I didn’t feel sorry for the gullible, intimidated, and misguided coach who gave in to the parents. They were autonomous adults, weren’t they? Our team was 1-11 that year and I was so disgusted by the experience that I never played Little League again.

My favorite childhood team was Mrs. Kirschenbaum’s class in our self-organized fifth grade softball league. I organized a Friday afternoon league in which each of the four fifth grade classes played a twelve game schedule. We played our games between April and June. I kept the standings and posted them on the fifth grade bulletin board. We formed an all-star team that played another school in a neighboring town. This league was organized by and for kids. There were no parents or teachers involved. We did ask several parents to serve as umpires. We made the rules and even devised our own playoff system. The games were fun and competitive.

With basketball it was less necessary to organize a league because there were so many ways you could play the game. All you needed was two players per side for a good pick up game. On any given weekday or weekend, almost twelve months of the year, barring extreme heat or cold, all of the schoolyards and parks were filled with kids of all ages playing hoops. Typically a playground would contain about a dozen hoops and you’d find a different game at each one. It was too much of a luxury to play full court. There were too many players and not enough baskets.

When you arrived at the courts you would survey the scene and find both your age group and skill level. Most of the games were 3 on 3, winner stays on. As your game improved you could move up the hierarchy and play with the better players. You would have to earn this right as a lost game meant the whole team would sit. You could trace your improvement over a season by determining whether you improved your level. 

Again, there were no parents, teachers, or refs. You got on your bike, rode to the courts, played for a few hours, and went home. I don’t wish to overly romanticize this play landscape. Of course there were fights, interminable arguments, bullying, intimidation, and nastiness. But there was much more camaraderie, teamwork, laughter, competition, and joy. I learned to avoid the nasty courts. If you wanted to play basketball, you went to the playground and found, or even co-created your game.

Sometimes I regret not having played a varsity sport. I wish I would have had the skill, confidence, and intensity to try out for and make a team. I would have gained from the coaching, the toughness, and the discipline of a varsity sports setting.  But I do not regret the pressure, exploitation, and manipulation that is inevitably involved in playing environments that urge victory in front of demanding spectators. I remain ambivalent about organized sports. I love the spectacle, the spirit, the heroism and greatness, and even the regalia, just as I detest the ruthlessness and obsessiveness that form its dark side. I’ve seen these darker qualities emerge in myself as player (in city league softball and basketball as an adult) as coach (of a fifth and sixth grade team), and as a parent of a high school and college varsity basketball player. I always had the self-awareness to step back from the dark side, but it always lurked just beneath the surface. 

 

Comment

Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.

BACKYARDS AND ROOMS

FIELDS OF PLAY: BACKYARDS AND ROOM

 

As an eleven year old child I was most happy while deeply engaged in delightful moments of outdoor play. Mainly I organized those moments around various ways to explore balls and bicycles, although any sport or game captured my attention. Any outdoor (and even indoor) environment contained the potential for a ball game. I scoped the possibilities wherever I happened to be. 

I will explore the full range and variability of these games, organizing my memories according to places (or fields) of play, noting the cognitive and ecological significance in each venue. There were games of city, town, house, room, attic, backyard, neighborhood, schoolyard, park, and trail. Cross this geographic and spatial scheme with games that ranged from wildly improvisational to rules-based order, or from physical to cerebral, and you have a three fold axis of possibility.

House and neighborhood were the safest places to play. They provided a regularity of seasonal variety, a stable group of players, and a secure, bounded field. The exterior of our suburban house could serve as right field wall, basketball backboard, and provided the means and backdrop for any game that allowed us to throw a ball against a solid surface. Our yard was small and contained, big enough to have a catch, or to play wiffle ball, but not really large enough for more than two kids to run around in. We could play one on one wiffle ball (a game I continued to play well into my teenage years), one on one basketball (although there was barely any lateral flexibility), one on one tackle football, and a variety of solo games including stoop ball (throw a tennis ball off a stoop), roof ball (throw a ball onto the roof and catch it as it falls), and other games for sidewalks and driveways.

Our father suggested some of these games, always happy to share his own street ball memories from Brooklyn. Sometimes his memories would spark an idea for us, but we were much less interested in his games and mainly wanted to devise our own. Indeed my brother and I invented different solo games for our own purposes. We had different versions of stoopball. However, we would find ways to invoke common rules when we managed to play together. 

There were all kinds of neighborhood street games. We played them on a nearby dead-end “court” road, a three minute stroll from the house. We had a terrific four on four softball game, highlighted by self-service batting, a neatly laid out stadium, with appropriately scaled distances proportioned for doubles, triples, and home runs. I’m not sure how we invented these games. The first time we’d play we’d figure out some rules. If the game was fun and we could attract a regular group of players, we’d continue to play it, make up some more rules, and somehow we’d have a consensually derived tradition of play. 

Each room in our house presented a different rule-making challenge. My small room had a desk and drawer alignment that was symmetrical enough to resemble a baseball stadium. I invented “card baseball.” I organized an arrangement of baseball cards on the floor according to players positions on the field. The batting team used a baseball card as a bat. I would toss a small piece of rolled up cardboard, made with paper and spit, hit the little cardboard ball with the baseball card, and depending on where the ball landed, there were a series of rules allowing the cards on the field to retrieve it, while the batting card ran the bases. It was a decent game, but much more fun in its conception than execution, as I spent far too much time crawling around the floor. 

Far better was block baseball, a game we played in our “finished” attic. I would build a stadium with blocks and use smaller blocks to represent the players on the field. In this two player game, the pitcher rolled a marble. The batter hit the marble with a pencil and if the marble hit one of the player blocks on the field the batter was out. Block baseball could get very raucous and it was also more interesting in theory then practice. It was great fun to build the stadiums and even more fun to destroy them. 

My brother (Peter) and I also played hockey in the attic. We set up two chairs about thirty feet apart in a room of 30x15 dimensions. We had “real” hockey sticks that we used to knock around a tennis ball with the object of knocking the ball between the legs of the chair. This was a great game as we bounced the balls and each other off the attic walls.

Peter perfected “door basketball.” You would shoot a tennis ball at the molding on top of the door and score a basket if the ball caught the angle of the molding. We played this competitively, but mainly this was a game that my brother engaged in. He invented elaborate fantasy players on teams that combined real basketball stars with both real and imaginary friends. I preferred to stack chairs in our “den,” leaning them against the brick wall of a fireplace, stick a garbage pail on top, and shoot the tennis ball into the pail. The trick was to place the pail high enough that the game was a challenge, but not so high that it was too hard to retrieve the ball. I would play this in Saturday afternoon while watching the NBA game of the week (early 1960’s). This was when the game of the week was a big deal as television coverage of professional sports was much more limited than it is today.

I spent thousands of hours playing more cerebral board games both of the commercial variety and games of my own design. I invented dice baseball games that I played with my baseball cards. I ran countless tournaments and leagues while keeping notebooks of statistics and standings. My cousin Byron and I played a commercial game called Red Barber baseball. It was a game of pure luck but we invented variants that allowed it to more realistically reflect major league performances. We each kept our own notebooks of statistics and after a month or so we would exchange them and continue with each others leagues. Of course we had the most fun when we got to play these games together.

I invented numerous versions of dice baseball, dice basketball, dice football, and dice hockey, games of pure luck that somehow seemed skillful. For some of these games I would regularly write down the results. Other times I would keep it all in my head. As a result, I became so adept with numbers that I could go to the supermarket and tell my mother the total cost of her shopping more quickly than the cashier could ring it up on the cash register.

In my teenage years when I discovered the Strat-O-Matic series of games, I was absolutely overjoyed that there were games of so much realism in which players would perform so accurately. Yet the dice assured enough mystery and randomness to keep these games interesting, thus fueling my imagination about the seemingly unlimited ways the games could unfold. 

 

Comment

Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.

PLACE OVER VICTORY

I have few memories of personal athletic heroism mainly because I was a good player and not a great one. Between fifth grade softball, intramural games, pick-up ball, and city leagues, I don’t think there are more than a dozen circumstances when I made a last second basket or smacked a game-winning hit. Given the venues, I’m not sure I ever achieved this in front of a crowd of more than one hundred fans.

And of the dozens of teams I played on, there have only been three championships, countless runner-ups, and scores of ho-hum seasons. I have a modest collection of second place trophies that for many years sat on an unseen shelf in an unused basement. I’ve never known what to do with them, thinking that they might be more useful as bird feeders. Far more useful as a means of displaying modest prowess I have quite a few award t-shirts, some commemorative, and others announcing an accomplishment. I still have my twelfth grade intra-mural softball championship t-shirt which I won well over forty years ago. It no longer comes close to fitting me (I believe seeing my then teenage daughter once wearing it), and it now sits on a shelf next to my old teddy bear. I have several well worn t-shirts from three on three basketball leagues, two championships and lots of runner ups (we only once managed to beat Dave Goldsmith’s team).

Three on three basketball is my most skillful game as I have an accurate, sometimes deadly, very long range three point shot, and on a good passing team I can score a lot of points very quickly, especially when there’s a good big man who the defense is worried about. Still, a lemon yellow shirt that reads Keene Family Y 3 on 3 champions, 1982, wasn’t very imposing. Yet I wore it with great pride, both as a measure of my affiliation with basketball, my pleasure at living in southwest New Hampshire, and as a tangible link to childhood dreams of glory.

These jerseys represent more than nostalgia, conviviality, and community, all qualities potentially intrinsic to memorabilia. More importantly, and transcending and incorporating these qualities, is how they bind me to a place that I love, engaged in one of my favorite things to do. My sense of place and my territorial affiliations are linked to the teams I play on and the teams I route for.

I knew I belonged to the Monadnock Region of southwest New Hampshire when I was playing softball on a field in Troy, NH, early in May, with snow on the hillsides, and the temperature for our late night D league game was 39 degrees. Our Antioch New England Graduate School team (made up of a few Antioch folks but many community members) was playing a road game against a blue collar team. Antioch professors, staff, and their friends never really gained respect in Keene until they proved they could play softball. I stood on the field, knees crouched, playing second base, looking up at the night sky, hoping a ground ball would be hit my way. The ambiance of the game—professors competing against mill workers—the respect for sportsmanship, our common endurance, the respect we generated just by playing ball in these wintry conditions, generated all kinds of unprintable, yet oddly friendly banter. These are my lasting memories, far surpassing the actual game result. I have no idea who won the game or how I performed. Rather I recall the settings, the feelings, and the place. I could spend the next few pages providing you with vivid descriptions of a dozen softball fields scattered around the city of Keene and its environs, writing about the weather conditions, the light of the sky, the vegetation, but I can remember few game scores, who won or lost the games, or how many hits I might have gotten. I remember playing a double header against Hubbard Farms in Walpole, NH, on a beautiful grassy field on a mild but cloudy July day. For some reason I played the outfield that day. The grass was covered with thick white clover. It looked like a green and white sea. The air was fragrant and the valley was calm. I know we played two great games but I can’t tell you who won.

What I am suggesting is that for me, and I think for others too, the place as the field of play is as important as the game itself. At the time of play I’m fully engaged in the game situation and potential outcome (I really like to win). I am very attentive to batting orders, counts, the condition of the field, who’s fast and who’s slow, and all the things that an aware ballplayer should be observing. Most good and heady players can describe all of these situations to you in detail, as complex as they might be. As a player you must respond to those conditions if you are going to accomplish your objective—pitching, hitting, or catching the ball. However, many years later, I can only provide details of absolutely seminal game moments, but I can fully describe the setting in which I played. It was the intense focus on the game that allowed me to observe the landscape in such vivid detail. It was the field of play that planted itself in my memory.

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Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.