Wednesday, February 05, 2003

[This is a very long blog today, and I apologize for that. But I dedicate it to my friend Gregory Koster, and to all librarians everywhere. You're my heroes!]

When I lived in the old farmhouse outside Rutland, Iowa, I became well-acquainted with the librarians in Humboldt, the nearest town large enough to have a library. They were unfailingly patient, diligent, encouraging, good-humored and amazingly knowledgeable.

I researched Anthony Zerbe’s theatrical career there after becoming intrigued with his work on “Harry O.” I discovered the series of books called “The Year’s Best Plays.” I’d look Zerbe up in the Guide to Periodical Literature and go hunt down the references--usually those annual “best of” books, but sometimes a magazine reference. Doing this I was teaching myself library resource skills I would later use heavily in grad school. I also found every play Zerbe was in, and read those, too.

I learned that my sympathies in “Othello” were with the bad guy, Iago. This was partly because that was Zerbe’s role in the play, but mostly because it seems to me that Iago’s the only character without his head up his ass. He’s the only one smart enough to know what’s going on--well to be fair, that’s because he’s instigating most of it--and it seemed like none of the others were aware enough to even feed themselves, let alone cotton onto the outrageously transparent machinations of Iago.

It was the early 1970’s, so environmental issues were in the air. I subscribed to Jacques Cousteau’s 20-volume series on life in the oceans. I had an organic garden, and subscribed to Organic Gardener & Farmer, and applied a lot of their ideas to my own garden. I found, somehow, the book The Organic Gardener by Catherine Osgood Foster, and that *really* turned me on.

All the reading I did, and poring over the pictures, opened up more questions: What is a “cation” that Foster writes about in her description of soil as a living community? I pronounced it “casshun” until I got into chemistry class in college because I didn’t know about ions and how that was the important part of the word.

I stared for hours at the jewel-like fish schools in Cousteau’s books, and the clown fish nestled in its sea anemone protector. How do these masses of fishes know to turn the same direction all at once? How did an anemone know that this was its clown fish and not some interloper?

I read a library book titled The Abyss and thrilled to its first chapter’s description of all the poop and dead microorganisms and creatures’ body parts as a stately, constant rain of nutrients down onto the inhabitants of the sea floor in their eternal night.

One book would prompt dozens of other questions, and send me back to the library. I discovered Inter Library Loan when I’d read every book on biology that Humboldt’s library had.

And still the questions came, springing up out of the pages. I felt insecure about what I was learning, afraid there were some basic things I didn’t know. My thoughts turned to college. There, I thought, my learning would be structured by textbooks and lab experiments and by teachers who really knew it all. I could go forward knowing there were no gaps in my understanding.

My concept of college was built on Dorothy Sayers’ descriptions of Oxford in her Lord Peter Wimsey series; by my one disastrous semester at Dana College--and my rich and highly enjoyable though challenging course in French there under Dr. Sarah Penick; and by a single comment made by one of the college-age senior counselors at Circle R Bible Camp, where I worked the summer after my sophomore year as a junior counselor. “It’s really hard,” she said. “I had no idea how hard it would be.”

I began hungering for that grueling, difficult challenge. I thought all colleges were like Oxford--full of brainy students working around the clock just to keep up, and demanding, if inspiring, professors.

When I at last started at Iowa Central Community College, with a schedule of English, Algebra, Biology, and Chemistry, it was with a wind of terror and excitement at my back. I threw myself into it with all I had. I was almost disappointed when I got all A’s that first semester. How can this be? I’ve never been a straight-A student in my life! This wasn’t that hard!

Of course by the time I graduated from ICCC, my expectations of college and its denizens had altered to a realistic view. Few places were like Oxford--probably Oxford wasn’t quite like my Oxford fantasy had been. But at least I was on my way.

What led my interest, back in that isolated farmhouse, to biology, the subject I’d hated in high school?

Just being there, I guess. Observing the plants (I still remember that the very first plant I keyed out on my own was a spiderwort in the road ditch) and animals (from an abandoned quarry I collected strings of toad eggs and put them into that ditch in front of our house, and couple of weeks later when I went out to the mailbox, there were dozens of pencil-eraser-sized toadlets hopping all over the place) and nature itself (we saw magnificent, eerie aurora borealis almost every winter in that northern-Iowa location).

And I’d been raised with a love of reading. A passion for reading. The library became my lifeline, my connection to a larger world, much larger and deeper than even TV could supply. The farmstead, my family, the local social relationships (community theatre, the saddle club) were not enough. I had a hungry mind, a vivid imagination, and voracious curiosity. The library fed it all, and gave me a step up into the world I wanted to know. I wonder now what those librarians thought of me. Crazy woman? Maybe. I wish they could know how they helped transform my life.

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