Thursday, June 28, 2012

In Which a Field School Participant Has a Brief Existential Crisis



In the third week of the field school we have arrived at the subatomic level of Thurston Woods. We have left the comfortable domain of the humanities and entered the domain of quantum mechanics. One of the most basic notions in the field of quantum physics is that the act of watching and observing affects the outcome of the object of study. How much then has our activity been like that of the quantum physicist. We take our tools out into the field and point them at the subjects hoping to get good results. 

We hope see things as if we weren't there; we want to see the neighborhood as it really is and people as they really are. But this never happens, how could it? We know well that people who know they are being observed will consciously and unconsciously alter their behaviors. If only we could throw on our invisibility cloaks and make our measurements out of sight. There is no two way mirror that looks out onto the neighborhood. When you gaze out the windows which overlook the gym at the Agape Center you can expect a wave back. 

What are we looking for? What is it that we are hoping to find and are we only finding what we think we’ll find? How can you find something if you don’t already know what you’re going to find? What exactly is it that we are doing here? Are we trying to develop a neighborhood profile? Are we trying to develop a neighborhood history?

Thurston Woods is real, it is “out there,” it is the people that live and work here, the homes that they live in, the change over time. But how much of Thurston Woods as we define it existed prior to our work, and how much of it being created by our observations? As we get deeper into this project I’m often stuck with the thought that Thurston Wood proper is a creation of our less than clever academic imaginations.

The neighborhood with the name Thurston Woods is not something everyone knows about, not even all those who live there. We approach homes with people on the porches seeking refuge from the summer heat trapped inside their homes. “We’re interested in hearing your stories about Thurston Woods.” The response, “Thurston Woods, where’s that?” The boundaries that someone somewhere at some time had set gave me the notion we were standing in it. The neat little outline I saw on Google Maps gave me the notion everyone would know the neighborhood.

Then there are those who disagree with the boundaries laid out on the neat little brochure which can be found at the Agape Center. “Well they added all of this over here, that isn’t really Thurston Woods. This small area over here is the real Thurston Woods.” How much space can be taken away or added on and still be Thurston Woods?

What does it mean for this area we delineate as Thurston Woods to be Thurston Woods? After all it’s just a name and imaginary lines which correspond more or less to the four major thoroughfares and all the stuff, good and bad, held between these lines. Is there anything besides proximity that ties all of this stuff between the lines together? Most certainly. Just like any other place this is a place with history. The old timer home owners remember fondly the big trees that lined the streets and shaded the backyards. They recall the opposition of homeowners to the placement of sidewalks that would remove ancient trees. They lament change. They are most noticeably pained by the loss of the tree coverage. Each can relate a particularly painful story of a favorite old tree coming down.

Regardless of any doubts which are held in our minds or fall from our lips we continue on fastidiously with our work. Forward ever, backward never. Collecting; collating; ordering; editing. The data piles up over our heads laid down like geological layers marking the eons. (June 11th feels like one hundred years in the past.) A growing mass of ones and zeros, digital data, stored on hard drives and servers. The measurements of homes and their translation into Autocad drawings. The photographs of people, their places, and their things. Computer scans of home plans and deeds. The recordings of voices, memories, hopes, dreams, complaints, and the wisdoms of youth and age. With close enough scrutiny of this agglomeration of data we will learn something about Thurston Woods. In this I am confident.