February 2, 2018

On going away periodically and fallowing the fields

Any visitor to the house is interesting when you live in the country, up a quarter-mile lane. During my childhood, my mother routinely entertained the Avon lady with her lotions and smell-goods, and sometimes the mailman ventured up our lane with a package for my father. But the encyclopedia salesmen were the most interesting, as they always carried an example volume ("A", typically, but sometimes "N"). Their visits seemed timed to ensure that my brother and I would be home, so we could devour brilliant pages of Antarctica, Antietam, and Appaloosa while my mother smiled and listened for the price. "Maybe next time." 

Seriously, trying to sell encyclopedias in farm country in Iowa during the emerging farm crisis of the 1980s must have been only job more challenging than farming at that time.

At some point, however, a decision was made to purchase the entire set of Encyclopedia Americana with the two-volume dictionary. I don't know if it was a good year for corn or a smoother salesman, but it turned out to be a well-used purchase. My brother was (and is) publicly known for this behavior, but the actual truth is that both he and I used to sit in our shared bedroom and leaf through "P" and "R" and "C" and their peer volumes into the night, exploring the world that existed beyond Rural Route 4, Creston, Iowa. 

And, what a world it was. Tribesmen of Indonesia danced in those pages, and the wildlife of Africa and Asia charged around the spine of the books. The volumes put our lives in context, there on the farm. Thinking about it now, I'm sure that Donald Trump never sat down with an encyclopedia.

Fast forward to 1998, the year I finished my doctorate program and decided to take a pay cut from my short postdoc in Georgia to accept a full time teaching gig at a small undergraduate University in eastern Iowa. Like the encyclopedia, there was something about a career in academia that seemed enchanting. After 20 years of teaching and research, I can confidently say that the workload is never ending. No teacher at any level every says "Well, I'm all caught up, now." And, the bane of a research professor's job is that there are only so many minutes in the day, and our brains are wired to continuously think of new ideas and new possibilities for exploration. It is easy to lose oneself in the job.

The way out is the academic sabbatical--an every-seven year break in routine, which, tangentially, had its origins on the top of Mount Sainai with Moses. Leviticus 25 records the following direction to Moses:
When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. 3Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; 4but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. 6You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; 7for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.
As a wildlife biologist working in agricultural landscapes, I find the ethic behind these directions to fallow the fields in the seventh year intriguing. Incredibly insightful, actually. 

But, I find the ideals hidden in that passage even more interesting as I begin an academic sabbatical period in the pastoral lands of southern England. Our family has arrived for a multi-month stay, during which I will be engaged with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to assist with research on grouse in agricultural landscapes. A break for the mind. No pruning. None of the general reaping. Instead, preparing for the next period of our lives by living off the energies that have been invested over the last years. Side note: if the energies we invested to clean our house and prepare for the sabbatical abroad are included, we have no worries of running out of energy...

I am a big believer in taking advantage of the sabbatical opportunities afforded to university faculty. Our job is a unique one, for sure. And, it is stimulating and rewarding to have the opportunity to step away periodically and engage in a new direction--to bring back new experiences and information to our courses and research back home. It is certainly breath-taking, almost 40 years after first viewing "England" in the Americana set, to wander into the little village that serves as the backdrop for this time with family and new friends. 

Today, it seemed worthy to record the first day of this adventure--with a feeling like opening the first page of an unread volume of the encyclopedia. What comes next? Not sure, but it doesn't matter.  I'm on sabbatical.   

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