Union hikes, explores natural potentials
March 12, 2014
By James Anderson
A thin layer of ice-glazed snow, melting fast as temperatures warmed to the mid-sixties, covered much of the trail as the hikers trekked through.
The small cohort – spanning the generational gamut with Graduate Assistants, kids and grandparents – made their way over the slick terrain, stopping on occasion to admire the generations of preserved wildlife waking up after winter slumber.
“So first I just want everyone to be as quiet as possible for a minute because you think of winter and you think of everything as dead and dormant and sleeping,” said Laura Baird, a master’s student in forestry who led the hike. “But everything is really starting to wake up right now.”
Graduate Assistants United, the union for Graduate Assistants at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, organized the hike, which took place March 10, the first Monday of Spring Break at SIUC.
Precedent existed for such a union-organized naturalist excursion.
In the absence of any social welfare or critical cultural programs organized by concentrated power in Spain during the 1930s, the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, or National Confederation of Labor, the trade union known as the CNT, organized “leisure activities, picnics, hiking excursions, theater,” and other events, historian-activist Pat Gallagher observed.
“One testimonial speaks to the thousands that would gather to take all manners of public transportation or transport en masse from Barcelona into the countryside each Sunday to picnic, hike and debate politics all day long,” Gallagher recounted in a June 2013 talk.
Perhaps partly inspired by the community-building syndicalist culture, GAU met in the parking lot across from the Student Center on SIUC campus that Monday morning to transport people to the park.
However, unlike early and mid-twentieth century hikes organized by the Spanish CNT, little contentious debate took place during the trek at Giant City Park.
Instead, a handful of GAs and their families hiked to help relieve the stresses of student fee hikes, over-work and struggles associated with low-wage labor at a University poised to pay their next president $430,000.
In her role as guide, Baird took pains to point out oft-overlooked, subtle sights and sounds of nature.
“You can hear at least four or five different types of birds,” she told the group of about 15, including the five children under the age of 10 – three her own, when they stopped for a moment on the one-mile trail. “I heard a woodpecker earlier, and you can see some squirrels over there. And everything is starting to kind of come back to life. You have some ferns growing on the rocks, and I just love how everything just picks a place and tries to grow there the best it can.”
Sigurd Olson, ecologist and philosopher of wilderness, wrote in the last years of his life about re-cultivating mankind’s perceptive capacities mollified by modern technology. Electronic gadgets, made ceaselessly – and wastefully – through market-based production with the inevitable inequality that ensues, can deaden innate human drives, Olson averred.
He wrote that in, “Reflections from the North Country,” how he often had an organic déjà vu feeling upon leaving “the fabric of technology” to once again remember how “to be alive and aware not only of our environment but of people and creatures.”
“This often comes when I’ve been on the trail, when the life I have been leading seems more natural than the one I left back in the town,” he wrote. “This is perception, this is reaching down into the depths of consciousness.”
But how, Olson asked, can people immersed in technology today “nurture these dessicated nerve ends,” of their “ancient knowing and make them flower again into a fuller life, with more appreciation of beauty and awareness and the potentialities of our relationships to others?”
Xiaolei Pang, a doctoral student in computer science who also goes by the name “Charlie,” came to Carbondale from the Henan province in China not far from the famous Shaolin Temple.
He said GAU organized a “real hike,” which brought underappreciated aspects of the wild to his attention, paralleling the idyllic awareness Olson described.
Rajvee Subramanian, a doctoral candidate in the college of Mass Communication and Media Arts who works as a GA for WSIU Public Television and produces the station’s local TV series “Expressions,” showcasing the diversity of artwork made in the Midwest, echoed sentiments similar to those of both Pang and Olson.
Hiking could be a “spark to get me initiated into being an active member,” he said, emphasizing the “fellowship,” the hike fostered.
“This is a nice chance for me to interact with a GA from business, from computer science from philosophy,” Subramanian said, pointing to grads from different disciplines who came out for the trek, “who I would not [otherwise] have had the chance to meet.”
He said the group learned a lot from Baird, who explained to the children something about trees when the group happened upon a large one lying on the side of the trail.
“Did you know that every year trees grow an extra layer of skin?” she asked the kids. “They grow an extra layer of bark, so you can see how old a tree is by counting the rings in it.”
Baird also explained the details of “Fat Man’s Squeeze,” a giant rock on the trail with a tight gap about the width of two lithe human bodies running up and down it.
“They think what happened is water got in the rock and it froze so the ice expanded and it split the rock,” she said. “And then the big pieces are kind of being dragged down hill, away from the rest. And that’s the best theory they have right now.”
The narrow wedge is the stuff of legend, she said.
“If you get stuck, legend has it that they’ll grease you up from the lodge with their fried chicken grease so you can get out,” Baird said.
“Which is why I got stuck in the first place,” answered Charles Distefano, a doctoral student and Research Assistant in political science who rode his Honda Shadow Saber, an 11 cc motorcycle he said gets about 35 miles per gallon, to the park for the day.
Appreciating the humor, Baird proceeded to describe what was growing on the rock.
“Some of this stuff is called lichen, so it’s a mix of moss and algae and it’s kind of fragile,” she said.
People made lettered carvings in the rock more than a century ago, Baird added, evincing the engraved names on the rock’s surface, dated 1887.
Her husband, William Baird, joked that “apparently, if there’s writing from before 1950,” then it is considered historical and not graffiti or vandalism.
“Just put a date from before 1950 and you’re OK,” he said amusingly.
The father of three of the youth on the GAU hike, he is also a doctoral student studying the philosophy of technology and how this tradition can be enhanced from the perspective of, among others, John Dewey.
Dewey was an American social philosopher who thought “a decent education ought to be creating free, independent, creative human beings,” dissident academic Noam Chomsky who attended a Deweyite school as a lad recalled during an interview at Stony Brook University, “allowing them to follow those natural instincts; those are natural among children—the educational system has to beat it out of them and make them obedient and subordinate and so on. But a decent educational system would allow these natural aspects of human nature to flourish and encourage them. And it would be part of developing a free and democratic society of real participation.”
While market-fixated tech-sector fixes are assailed as dubious when it comes to addressing inequality and lack of democracy, natural human labor and its products possess untapped emancipatory potential were they permitted to flourish without exploitative and coercive institutions.
Chomsky noted that Dewey, although critical of socially injurious modes of production, thought a true democratic society would indeed require industrial democracy, meaning the democratization of production and commerce coupled with “eliminating the whole structure of capitalist hierarchy.”
“Dewey also pointed out that until that’s done, unless that’s done, politics will remain what he called the shadow cast by big business over society and the educational system will be a system of indoctrination and control,” Chomsky said in the interview.
The kids, the young sons and daughters of GAs on the hike, nurtured their natural instincts and held hands at times on the trail to help each other up the steeper terrain. The cooperative environment and environmental education appeared to prefigure on a microcosmic level the democratic society both Dewey and Chomsky described.
After completing the hike, the kids ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Subramanian reflected after the hike, drawing on his experience in media as a form of public pedagogy.
He said the kids and everyone else “learned a lot of new things from Laura,” including something as elementary as wiping your shoes off before hitting the trails to avoid bringing in exogenous species that could threaten the forest’s ecosystem.
Regarding University ecology, he said it is important to “understand the constraints of the institution,” but added that “if there’s a will,” to address the issues affecting GAs, then “there’s a way.”
Subramanian, who goes by “Raj,” said one way forward is for GAU to keep leading the way, and one way to do that is with community-building hikes. He said he appreciates the union organizing the event, but said he will “also insist that they do this on a regular basis.”
James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and the GAU Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.