Out for Errands…

…with Shaft.

Got a good drive around these beautiful campuses, these seats of pure learning. It has been such a gift to reconnect with New England on this visit. So much of my childhood happened in New England, albeit a strange part of it — beaches and tennis courts on Cape Cod. But I was educated some years here, and then led a working-life while saving up money to attend long retreats in Korea. But we digress.

It has just been nice, on this visit, to enjoy some simple rides about this rolling New England movie set, these pre-Revolutionary War houses still standing (and so many freshly painted and well-maintained). The house of Emily Dickinson is just a few hundred meters up the road here: I’ve passed it several times already. It’s hallowed ground, these parts. Until now, my New England had been limited to Cape Cod, Boston/Cambridge, a retreat center near Shutesbury where the KAPOW happened, and some visits years back to a girlfriend’s home in deep-woodsy Vermont. But I never touched one of these old seats of learning.

But this little brain spot out in Amherst, alchemized in the brain-space created by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the explosion of pure philosophy and science and natural law, fermented out of here, in these five colleges I have only briefly heard of, out in these rolling farms, amidst this pastoral sanity, is a blessing to experience, however cursorily. This holy region of territory, this Concord-to-New York shaft of earth, produced and inflamed the ethical revulsion at the institution of slavery. These institutions (and like-minded Ivies) maintained the flame of outrage that gave moral opposition to the war in Vietnam and the subjugation of Blacks. It really feels like a pilgrimage to drive through the old green (“the Commons”) and see the old houses situated just so, and the neatly laid out streets shorn of decoration or show. I also notice the distinct lack of racial diversity, save in the coffee shop where we stop for croissants and some java. It is powerful to experience such a mammoth state school, to feel its force and its resources, nestled chock-a-block practically with these quieter, more curated colleges modelled more on the ancient lyceum than some science-driven state project. The difference in mentalities between the two types of institutions was jarring.

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