Gifts Freely Given, Part I: Connection

Over the last few weeks of the program, a self-selected group of BCL5 students invested time and energy into a shared project–a writers’ collective. Each student chose a piece of their writing, and engaged in multiple rounds of revision and editing with a variety of readers. The work is diverse, but each piece is a gift: a clear window into what the writer thinks, feels, and believes. 

The first two installments are written by Peter and Maeve, each of whom explore the power of connection. 

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I believe that the natural world is everywhere, we just aren’t trained to see it. Before BCL I would look around Burlington’s streets and not see much, a tree that was growing, a person mowing their lawn, a couple of cars. In BCL, we talked about the natural world and where to see it. To me, the natural world means anything that Earth created and wasn’t created by humans. The trees in my backyard are nature, and they are surrounded by all of the relationships between organisms.

While walking from the O.N.E. Community Center, off of North Street, to Pomeroy park, we stopped by some bright purple flowers which were growing through a concrete driveway and sidewalk. To the homeowner, they were just ordinary flowers, perched on the corner of their driveway. Maybe the owner was going to trim them because they were taking up space. To our group of students and teachers, they were a home, a safe haven, and a resting spot. Earlier that day, a bee expert, Jason Mazurowski, had come in to talk with us. One thing we learned is how native bees love native plants. We also learned that male bees get kicked out of the nest and have to find places to sleep. A common place they sleep is on native flowers. When we stopped and flipped the flowers at the end of the driveway, sure enough, there were two male bumblebees sleeping. Before that day I never would have stopped, thought about, or seen those bees sleeping on those flowers. If we didn’t stop, would the bees have been there? Would we ever know that there were two male bumblebees two feet away from us? What else is out in nature that we don’t see yet?

When I was learning about nature, not only did I start to put together names with things you see all day such as plants and animals, but I also started searching for more of them. You notice relationships around you. When we were studying natural history and conservation, we talked about how birds, insects, and plants are all tightly woven together. For example, phlox divaricata, a flowering plant, needs adult snowberry clearwings to pollinate. Phlox have a small hole where they keep their pollen,  adult snowberry clearwing have a long nose to extract that pollen.  In order to have larval snowberry clearwings you have to have coral honeysuckle. And in order to have coral honeysuckle you have to have water, air, sunlight nutrients, and space. If one part of this chain were to be removed, it would be detrimental to other organisms that rely on this chain, and the whole system breaks down.

After learning about the natural world, everytime I see an organism, I think about how there is this beautiful piece of nature that other people don’t understand. The next time I go out for a walk through my neighborhood, bike to school, or drive the grocery store, I’ll be keeping an eye out for the natural world and the beauty all around us.

  • Peter Kuypers

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One of my favorite books of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. I love when Atticus tells Scout “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus was completely right, and even if you can’t walk around in someone else’s skin you can listen to them, and be there, and try your best to understand. The more polarized that our society becomes (politically, economically, racially, etc.) the more we struggle with this.

For some people, deep empathy is passed through generations and becomes second nature. One such person is Melody Brook, an Indigenous Abenaki woman who lives in Vermont. When we met with her, she told us about how there are people called contraries who do not fit into the male or female gender, and are something else all together. They were the first to be targeted and were pretty much destroyed by European Colonists, and are now all but extinct. Those remaining live in fear of discrimination. The way that she spoke about contraries in the past and the present showed me how deeply she cares. She actually started crying at one point. That really struck me, because it meant that instead of merely feeling sorry for them, she felt their pain as if it was her own. That was incredible to me, because as far as I know she is cisgender and straight, and so has not experienced being a contrary. And yet, she still cares about them and feels their pain. Many people are able to feel surface level empathy. They see another person in pain and say “I can’t imagine what it is like to be them.” In some cases, it is impossible to imagine what it is like to be in somebody else’s skin, but empathy means that you care enough to try.

Generation Z is at best mediocre on the empathy front. Our problem is not lack of caring, but lack of openness. Multiple times, I have learned about big, scary demons in peoples lives after years of friendship with them (mental health disorders, a traumatic past, etc.). When this happens, I feel terrible that I never thought to ask, because it feels like I should have known. But the truth of it is, people hide their faults and scars with the utmost care because they do not want to be judged or treated differently. I have concluded that asking the tough questions hardly ever drives people away, in fact, it usually brings them closer. It is difficult, because in asking, you become vulnerable and are also asking the other person to be vulnerable as well. Despite that, it is usually an important risk to take because it is nearly impossible to have anything more than surface level empathy for people if you do not know their stories.

The time that we are living in is extraordinarily precarious, and our future as a country and as a species is fraught with uncertainty. Apathy and passivity are pushing us closer to the edge of the cliff, and empathy is the only antidote. Climate change is an extremely important example of this. It affects people unequally, and more often than not, people in a position of privilege simply turn their backs. It is a lot easier to have empathy for the suffering of your best friend than nameless strangers across the world who are dying in floods and fires. It is impossible to walk around in their skin, but we owe it to them to try. I do not have a clear answer as to how, except for keeping track of the news, listening to stories, and paying attention. If everyone tried to have a little more empathy, I believe that we would be taking more action against climate change and would have a better chance of saving our world.

  • Maeve Fairfax

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