by Laura Walsh
Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com
Over one hundred and fifty years ago, Henry David Thoreau sparked a cultural movement with a paradox; an introspective, self-preoccupied book that taught the lessons of humility and human triviality. Naturally, Walden became more recognizable as the reading requirement of so many high school students, the main domain of traffic for Sparknotes.com, and a has-been phenomenon preaching the distant messages of a less indifferent time.
I was one of twenty who resentfully scanned the book during midterm season at USC. 400 pages. Five other classes. Didn’t my professor know I had work to do and sleep to sleep? I would read the thing, but I’d do it in the span of a few-too-early mornings over a large coffee and something sugary. And I wouldn’t be happy about it. As I flipped through the pages, I was humored by the language but distracted by the sunlight, and it wasn’t until I came across the chapter on ‘Economy’ that I was really paying attention.
“If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences,”
“I would not pursue the common course… to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is made”
I glanced down at my packaged croissant.
“or mechanics and not learned how it is earned;”
I tapped my fingers on my $4.25 Starbucks macchiato: surely going for the recyclable cup and waking up early qualified as ‘earning.’
“to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes—”
I actually had to put the book down. Here I was, literally with sleep in my eyes, trying to inhale a book about slowing down and digesting so that I could regurgitate the message’s bones on a piece of paper.
“…to be devoured by the monsters that swarm all around him while contemplating the monsters in a drop of vinegar.”
Okay, phew. Clearly I was off the hook as a female.
I read on, and finished the book. In time for the test, even, which I did well on, strictly speaking. I told my teacher he had a taste for irony, and he laughed. I went home after a long week, switched off the fluorescents, and crawled into bed.
When I woke up, I was hit head on by a combination most college students leave behind sometime in between registering for twenty something units of classes, sprinting to band/track/intramural practice, printing out hundreds of pamphlets for the environmental movement/political debate/global cause of this week’s revolution, finding a functional printer to promote/denounce said revolution, and trying to stay sane.
What I had that week after midterms was a strange calm of time and determination. I needed to accomplish something meaningful; something that gave me a reason for knowing and a story to tell.
I told my roommates I was going to build a cabin in the woods, they said they’d believe me when they saw it. I told my dad I was finding myself outside of college — he told me I was disowned. I was idle, and all was total entropy.
Luckily, my brief romance with transcendentalism met headfirst with a class that I had signed up for during the prior semester. ENST 298, Integrated Ecosystem Management in Micronesia was sending me along with 25 other USC undergraduates to Guam and Palau to conduct research in the summer. In preparation for soaking in the warm waters of the tropical Pacific, our instructors corralled us into Big Fisherman’s Cove on Catalina Island for a swimming proficiency test in 55 °F water — without a wetsuit. It was so cold. I spent the longest twelve minutes of my life distracting myself from the cold by intellectualizing hypothermia. But it was the 13th minute that had me. I failed the test.
I willed every fiber in my body to go faster, but my limbs just dragged. When I finally clawed up the stairs to the dock, I was in shock for more reasons than one. Not only did I fail the swim test. I tried and failed. In my hundreds of experiences being monitored by a tired looking proctor and an oversized clock, I had never met with such numbing (literally) disappointment. I couldn’t sleep. I went to sleep that night absolutely dreading a physical challenge for the first time since sixth-grade dodge ball.
But for the second time in the academic semester, I finished something I didn’t want to. I must have been pushed into the water at 7:00 a.m. the next morning, but somehow I finished the test regardless. I collapsed on land tired, shivering, and delirious, but surrounded by a completely new sense of accomplishment.
I became a certified recreational diver a month later. I did something very few people get the chance to do, and even less take advantage of when it is offered. I had finished a test that challenged me in a completely new way, but for the first time in a long time, I was rewarded with a real sense of purpose. For passing, I get to learn scientific diving in Micronesia this spring, and research the natural and social environments. I will help advance larger projects, and hopefully help preserve one of the last great regions of biodiversity on the planet.
The lessons don’t end there. Stealing away from the classroom and diving head first into the ocean will forever be a part of me, not just when I am allowed to dive beneath the world’s waters, but when I encounter new and changing obstacles. Learning that opportunity really does lie in the middle of difficulty, as Albert Einstein would have it, has been the difference between having dreams and building them.
Surely this revelation would seem a little ambitious, for the college student who nearly cried after taking a swim at Catalina Island. So here, I turn to Thoreau, who never found it excessive to prescribe imagination to any life when he wrote:
“If one advances confidently in the direction of one’s dreams, and endeavors to live the life which one has imagined, one will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
Getting academic credit from USC Dornsife is just the icing on the cake.
About the Author: Laura Walsh is an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California. She is a double major in political science and environmental studies, and hopes to pursue a career in environmental lobbying and campaigning.
Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.
Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies