This past summer, I did something completely against my nature. Having just completed my third year as a music composition, horn performance and mathematics student at Oberlin College and Conservatory, I left my tiny dorm room and musician friends in Ohio to spend 10 weeks living in a house with 10 science students at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire.
As a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) participant, I accomplished two goals. I created a musical representation of water cycle data that had been collected at Hubbard Brook the previous year. I also assisted other researchers at Hubbard Brook with their own experiments.
But I also had a life-changing experience, one that forever altered my ideas about science and nature. Everything about that summer, from my work and living arrangements to the outdoor environment, was different from what I was used to. I went into the experience ready to do something completely foreign to me, and it paid off.
I didn’t start out as a nature person; I was very much a people person. Not a lot-of-people person, but a few-good-friends people person. When I would go camping in the wilderness, the parts I enjoyed most were the conversations with my friends and the games we played.
On these trips, the people I was with would ooh and aah over sunset or mountain views. I was never too impressed. I often felt like the titular character of Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, who loved technology to no end.
When Faber’s plane crashes in Mexico, the other passengers remark at the beauty of the desert and the moon. They comment on what an “experience” it all is. Faber, meanwhile, is nonplussed. He notices the moon and how, yes, it shines in the night, and feels that the mountains are just mountains, nothing more. “How is this an experience?” he asks. “Why should I experience what just isn’t there?”
My thoughts aligned well with Faber. I did not feel any great sense of awe at nature, was never blown away by a sense of it. As a result, it was easy to write off the beauty and power my friends were “experiencing”.
This was who I was when I embarked on my journey to be an REU student, where, as I understood it, I would be living in a forest with a bunch of nature people while I wrote a piece of music about dirt. I had no idea what to expect, and was a little frightened and nervous about this new environment.
Living with all of those people was certainly great, and they helped me get through some tough times that I was just coming out of. They were also incredibly eager to share their love of science with me, the one very out-of-place band geek. They patiently answered all of my simple questions, like “What kind of bird is that?” and “What kind of tree is that?” and “What is a hardwood tree?” and “What does WEIR stand for?” (turns out it’s not an acronym, but the name of a structure that records water data) and “What is a Hubbard?” (news flash: It’s just the name of the brook).
As they shared their knowledge, excitement and passion, I too came to care about nature. Part of my initial reluctance was simply not having the vocabulary to talk about science, or to even understand what the scientists were saying. Scientists would give talks and, by the end of one sentence, I would have four words in my head that I didn’t have a definition for. Even when I asked for a definition, the answer often included yet another unfamiliar term.