Ana Quiring (’14, above right, with fellow EL major jaQ DeJong, ’12, left) hails from Fresno, CA. Her study abroad blog from Fall 2011’s British Isles Study Program (which who knows, maybe she’ll start up again) is http://allswankandstuff.tumblr.com/
Ana submitted the photos, including this “lamely poserly Instagramed photo of the back 40” and the creative nonfiction below, her response to a group event in EL 245 Creative Writing.
Here’s Ana: For our nonliterary event, we decided to venture “beyond the Back 40,” exploring areas of and beyond Whitworth that we’d never seen before. Because we viewed the simple walk as an adventure to be constructed in postproduction, as it were, even familiar landmarks took on a new perspective. We posed by backhoes, slipped through a narrow fence, and wandered in the neighborhood behind the Back 40. This was a rather unorthodox approach to breaching the Pinecone Curtain—not traveling far away, outside our comfort zones and into totally new regions, but barely pushing the edges, seeing what is directly outside our stiff borders. The experiment was rather like a slow beginning to understanding the world outside of Whitworth, starting not a square mile outside.
The Back 40, a stretch of fairly uninhabited forty acres behind our school, is not our refuge, but our refuse. Just as the scent of pine starts to waft, we’ve reached a service road, tattered by construction rigs. Just as the sound of dorm life disappears, we reach the wan and close-clipped grass of an abandoned soccer field. Even that grass is strewn with garbage—the chaff of endless mowing, dry and soft like gerbil bedding.
The woodsy bits of the hillside behind our school are dark with needles, scattered with decomposing pinecones, but tan lines of path are carved into the dirt. We can look across a sunny patch and see the white shorn ankles of a thousand trees, where they used to be, slender and underfed.
The trees aren’t underfed by their environment, because a mile, two miles away, the pines bloom into deep prickly mazes. They’re malnourished in the Back 40 by lack of silence. They never have to wonder about “If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s nobody there to hear it”—East Hall, two hundred yards away, will hear.
The Back 40 is not a forest.
We’re bleeding it dry because it has to be so many things to us. First thing in the morning, it cracks its back, rubs its dusty eyebrows, and gets trampled immediately with the training montages of a hundred different sports. It lets in legions of soccer players, linear troops of track runners, faces slack and hot. Lone girls with demanding jeans in their drawers sprint up the flattened trails. A black silhouette stands at one side of the field, crosses it in pumping violent strides, hop-skip-pivots, comes back.
But the Back 40 can’t be only a training montage. It is a reclining nude for haphazard photographers, a wind-swept moor for gloomy writers, a spiritual thin place, a spiritual wasteland. It is a study break, a scavenger hunt, orientation games, prayer zone, escape, battleground, backlot, hideout.
We’ve worn it out, using it for so many different things. Those pinecones aren’t a gentle flood of shedding seasons, they’re a thousand virgin-catching failures. Sometimes we wonder if the spiritual fabric of the place has been ripped right out the bottom. How many earnest nineteen-year-old prayers can it bear until it cries out to us, “I am only forty acres! There’s major streets on both sides of me. My forest is cut by asphalt roads, and I see more people in a day than does a national park. You want me to bear your break-ups, your psalms, your team-building and your quad-building. You want to worship in me and smoke cigarettes and pipes and other things in me; you want to dig out my roots and make forts with my leftovers. You want to climb my trees, make my dark corners into twisted metaphors, hide from your roommate in me, dig in me to China. I have been molded like Silly Putty into the form of your hand, Whitworth University, but I am only forty acres and I can’t be your refuge and your strength. I am only a dusty handful of trees.”
And what do we say back? We pick up a pinecone, fresh and buoyant, that bounced when it fell, and pick it apart, slowly, scarring our fingertips. We absently braid brown strips of pine needle. We breathe hard and deep up the steepest hill and say in the quiet places, “We know you are dusty trees. Do we not know who you are? We have cried on your shoulder, we have kissed under your shade, we have rolled down your gentle slopes, we have sprinted up your highest mountains. We know we have depleted you, needed you, violated you. We can see it; we see how your hair and your trees grow thin, how every neighborhood around bleeds into your borders. We have done it. But you are molded into the shape of our hand. You rest, silent and dirty, behind the vast hysteria of being nineteen, of college, and we are too young to be so old.