off the road

Like many, I traveled the country this summer.

I visited national parks, like Arches, where the massive sandstone formations which often stand like sentinels have names such as The Three Gossips and Courthouse Towers. Names that reminded me of the very human impulse to examine natural phenomena and make them familiar. To anthropomorphise. To create myths about those rocks. Or stars. Or land formations. To tell a make-believe story.

At the little-traveled Capitol Reef, I saw petroglyphs etched into a canyon wall from a thousand years ago.

I marveled at the self-portraits of the Fremont people. Round-faced figures, some life size. Next to them, big-horn sheep in profile, their horns curving backward. Were these petroglyphs the story of a hunt? A diary entry?

A fictional account? A horror movie? A poem?

Poet Jack Gilbert, in The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart, points out that when ancient Sumerian tablets were first translated they were thought to be business records. But what if they were in fact poems or psalms, he wonders? What if what we think of as ledger entries were really the stanzas of the most tender love sonnet?

At a wedding, in a barn on a nature preserve in Montana, I enjoyed the display of a quilt with squares sewn by family and friends – the guests at the wedding. Sitting near the quilt was a photo collage of everyone present. We were each asked to send a picture of our ourselves with our own partner. There was no need for text – we could make our own meaning from the set of photos, from the individual couples kissing or smiling or looking into the camera from years past.

I drove through a Goblin Valley, a Devil’s Spine, Walla Walla, and the Bitterroot Valley. I saw Joshua Trees in the Mojave Desert, experienced vertigo at Escalante National Monument, saw the black pumice of Craters of the Moon.

The National Council of Teachers of English says “Good writing may be the quintessential 21st century skill.” Who am I to argue? I saw grounds to support NCTE’s claim on my trip. The ability to tell stories can have a lasting impact as evidenced by the awe still inspired by the Fremont petroglyphs. The visual compositions of a wedding quilt. The myth-making of sandstone rocks, whose names and stories were probably echoed thousands of times during summer-trip slideshows all over the world.

Yet, I think NCTE is slightly off. I would say that the quintessential 21st century skill is a precursor to good writing and is actually the same skill that has been the most critical since the moment we achieved self-awareness. And that is the ability to imagine. To look at a canyon wall and see a canvas. To take in a trio of rock spires and hear gossips. To hold disparate cloth pieces and know that what will be constructed is a collaborative work of art.

To see things as they are and wonder what might be.

Of course imagination is not quantifiable. I’m pretty certain, for instance, that the Fremont people did not work from a rubric. A student’s imagination is not part of the value-added data being pushed to measure teacher performance in Los Angeles. In fact, it takes little imagination on the part of a student to be considered a proficient learner in any subject by the standards set by state departments of education today.

All this despite the wise words of one of the most famously imaginative and brilliant thinkers of our time, Albert Einstein, who wrote on his Princeton blackboard: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”


Filed under education

16 responses to “off the road

  1. Joseph Mc

    Fabulous (in the lineage of fable, as toward moral truth) words! Can barely wait for the photo essay or digital media production.

    • Thank you, Joseph. I think one problem I have with my writing at times is that it can tend towards moralizing. So it’s good to know that wasn’t a negative here.

  2. I am amazed at how you were able to weave together our sprawling summer adventures into this one, lovely piece! And thank you for bringing me back to Jack Gilbert’s hauntingly gorgeous poem. ❤

  3. I too love your weaving, taking us on your literal trip and then moving to the next layer into the arena of what is lost with this obsessive focus on “the test”.

    Did you hear about the October 2 March on Washington?

  4. Thomas Maerke

    Paul, you’re a smart dude and a really good writer. I’m jealous of your experiences and your ability to bring so much together.

    • I was just telling someone the other day about your trip in your unairconditioned car across the desert, Thomas. And how you were unshaven and had a head scarf around your face. And the reactions of people who saw you. Now THAT story would make for a good blog post.

  5. Lovely, understated piece, Paul. The way you weave together place and geographical features made me think of Niel Gaiman’s “American Gods,” a powerful evocation of the potency and raw power of place… anthropomorphize, indeed! And the interplay of the graphic and graphophonic representations of our imaginings continues…

    • It’s interesting that you see elements of American Gods, Fred. I just finished that novel a couple of months ago as part of “One Book, One Twitter.” Perhaps I was more influenced than I realized. Thanks for your comment and kind words about the piece.

  6. lynnjake

    Lovely, lyrical even. Images to hold on to, that lead to one zinger of a final point. The truth and heart of the whole piece. Thank you for taking the time and soul searching to write this piece. It’s just perfect.


  7. aprilestep

    Not much to add…You did a beautiful job! I’m pretty sure the Einstein quote will be going up on my wall tomorrow.

  8. H.K.H

    I thought the petroglyphs were ancient records of UFO sightings? 🙂 Fascinating response to your summer travels.

    • Well, if we can’t share office space, I guess we can still share blogs. You’ll notice that YOUR wedding was referenced in this post. Thanks for being one of my first and most loyal readers, Heather.

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