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Finding the sacred at Cal

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NOVEMBER 15, 2018

As the bells echoed from the ancient tower, a timed procession descended the hill toward the ocean, past the garlanded ox skulls and over the meandering brook.

Just another day at UC Berkeley.

Well, Sather Tower might not be all that ancient, though to a 20-year-old it probably feels that way. It does, however, originate from a pre-modern Italian tradition, and the name derives from the Campanile di San Marco in Venice. It is certainly majestic, commanding, axial. And dare I say… sacred?

And those garlanded ox skulls? That’s the phrase from the Biosciences Divisional Services website describing one of the friezes on the Valley Life Sciences Building, or VLSB. Inside VLSB, you’ll find ancient fossils of riveting megafauna. The Campanile also, apparently, is filled with fossils from the La Brea Tar Pits.

At times when I’ve been on campus at sunset, if I’m lucky, a musician plays the carillon in a way that takes me to a different place. Somehow, even when somebody decides to play Lady Gaga on those bells, they have a magical quality. There are few places you can go to hear a carillon, and yet on campus we are blessed daily with its music.

UC Berkeley is actually full of little blessings and magic, but it is easy to forget when you descend into Gardner Main Stacks or glue your smartphone to your face. It is actually full of pagan symbols, sacred trees, religious imagery (e.g., the Campanile) and scheduled rituals. It is a public space without vehicles, where almost everyone travels on foot and interacts directly with each other. Well, at least more often than usual. On our way, we pass over babbling brooks named after wild strawberries and through groves of some of the world’s largest species of trees.

This campus is too easy to take for granted. I sat inside for four straight days this holiday weekend writing about the political economy of food for an upper-division class. I almost forgot to eat.

It is ironic, actually — I used to grow food in Chicago, but now I study it. I rarely have time to cook, and it feels like I’m constantly doing coursework. I had a friend at Berkeley City College who said, “I see how stressed out all those (UC) Berkeley kids are. No way am I going there!”

It is impressive how well the rat race can snatch you up. I spent the last two decades living what many people (er, hippies) consider the dream. I worked part-time for decent cash. I had few possessions. I moved frequently and traveled often. I hopped freight trains, went to cultural events, ate well, grew food when I wanted to, worked when I felt like it, had lots of sex. I went to ayahuasca ceremonies, protests and international conferences. I had no debt, no property, no kids, no diseases and no health insurance (yes, the luck health plan). I camped a lot and left the city when I needed to.

Then I fell in love and moved to California. The end? Not quite. I decided to go work my ass off at UC Berkeley to start getting real about making change in the world. And while school is in session, I no longer volunteer, or protest, or camp, or do drugs (honestly) or grow food. I don’t take a lot of walks through the forest or get my hands in the soil. I have forgone so many of the sensual things — or rather I do them less frequently. My energy has migrated to my cerebrum.

But often when I am walking through campus, preoccupied with this or that assignment or obligation, I look around and think, “Damn, this is so much nicer than the University of Illinois campus!” I don’t know how many of you have been to Champaign–Urbana, Illinois (where I made my first attempt at college), but trust me: You’ve got it really good right here.

When I first looked at colleges in the late 1990s (yes, I’m one millenium old), I traveled to Tucson, Arizona, where I fell in love with the American West. Having grown up in Chicago, I had never had the experience of feeling like a creature of a landscape, but in Tucson every cell in your body tells you that you’re in a desert. You really feel the “placeness” of where you are.

And when I ride my bike to campus every day, if I haven’t died from smoke inhalation, wildfire, earthquake or drought, I marvel at the botanical garden that I’m bicycling through. This is such a unique biome to be living in, rich with earthly pleasures and beauty.

Arriving on campus, I ascend toward the tower. Water flows down through the redwoods, and unseen flocks of birds sing through the trees. I pass the griffins and Babylonian priests under the cornices of VLSB. While we spend our days here unlocking the secrets of the mind, what about the secrets of the land? We can appreciate it, but can it also teach us something?

Let’s not forget this land, our blessing.

Mark Shipley writes the Thursday column on his experience as a Gen X transfer student. Contact him at [email protected] .

NOVEMBER 15, 2018