Dear Governor Ducey,

The other day, I said aloud, “I think I could pick up garbage for a living.” I was talking to my friend who reminded me David Sedaris does around his home in France. Once I realized someone else had written a book about it, my real motivations revealed, I decided perhaps cleaning up garbage was not meant for me. That was on Wednesday. On Saturday, I really did go clean up garbage at Fort Tuthill. A group of volunteers peeled little pieces of plastic from the clutching ground—the dirt held on fast. But we were stronger and we pulled sled bits, Cheetos wrappers, Walmart bags and the little hooks that hold gloves together so shopkeepers can display them. The garbage was myriad. I loved collecting it. Detail after specific human detail. But after two hours, I realized, this is a lot of work, touching your toes a thousand times in two hours. Perhaps my true calling is inventing an exercise program based on cleaning up this dirty planet. We could plant trees for squats. Row down waterways collecting plastic. Scrub the ducks covered by oil spills. Pick up trash. Sweep instead of leaf blow the dirt off of our driveways, out of the gutters.

Picking up garbage reminds me of mushroom hunting. At first, when you’re mushroom hunting/picking up trash, you don’t see anything. Then, you see your first one. Ah ha! There must be more here. You widen your eyes. Is that garbage? No, that’s just a stick. Is that a mushroom? No, that’s a little rock. Still, over there! Yay! More plastic. Over there! Yay! A bolete!

You might think of this as a kind of confirmation bias—that you see what you want to see. I see it more as a paradigm shift, albeit a small one. You can’t see what you’re not looking for, but if you believe you know what you’re looking for, it will come.

I can confirm, Governor Ducey, that things are getting worse. Way back in February, you promised a bigger budget line for education. But then, members of the state legislature started making their own bills. What creeps out of the committee meetings is frightening. Here I was, just looking for a nice chunk of trash, and what do I find but a dead bird or used toilet paper. Here’s some toilet paper: There’s a new bill that says if teachers talk about politics in the classroom, they can be fined up to $5,000. It’s very clever to make teachers even more afraid to communicate with their students. Between preparing students for standardized testing and prohibiting them from talking about certain subjects, teachers are down to saying, “Please choose that answer that best solves the question and fill in the bubble fully” and, “Trees photosynthesize.” Wait. Maybe trees photosynthesizing is political. Perhaps teachers should elide that detail. I mean, some people have the gall to suggest that trees absorb carbon which might be a good thing if there’s too much carbon in the air. Who is a teacher to ascribe good or bad to carbon? Dear Robot Teacher, please refer to page 239 of your teaching manual, “How to Instruct Students to Fill in Bubbles Properly,” the one pedagogical detail where teachers can feel safe.

It’s a war on knowledge. The less we know, the safer your job is, Governor Ducey. You can tell us, 20 percent raise! New budget lines? And everyone goes back to work, including the legislature who continues to pass bills that allow dark money to fund campaigns so we don’t know who is backing whom, to pass bills that ensure students don’t learn anything about politics for fear they actually understand the way dark money might affect elections.

The war on knowledge is coming from everywhere. It happens in higher ed, too. As room schedules and information technology and finance become centralized, professionals become cut off from departments of which they were once experts. By separating staff from faculty and departments, the years of know-how about how to maximize class space and plan for expenditures disappears. Consultants who don’t know much of the details say that the details don’t matter anyway. But if you go looking for details, or trash, or mushrooms, it will take awhile. You have to adjust your mindset. You have to say, mushrooms, or trash, or details, are important. And then, once you see one, you start to see them everywhere.

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Nicole Walker is a professor at Northern Arizona University, and is the author of Quench Your Thirst with Salt and a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg. She edited, with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, and is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment from the Arts. The thoughts expressed here are hers alone and not necessarily those of her employer. For more letters, visit www.nikwalk.blogspot.com



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