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Findings From the Road II
August 8, 2008 - 9:46am


As far as I know, summers off from school have their roots in agriculture. Students needed the time to tend the crops, cut wood, make repairs, put up food, and after harvest they could come back to the classroom. This cycle matched to the natural world also provided scholars the time to do field research and to write, so summer vacation became to academe what the stirrup was to warfare.

Some say our wired lives no longer require three months off each summer, since we’re plugged in 24/7, year-round, and besides now we have gas-powered log splitters. To them, I say, go make hay while the sun shines, and if you don’t want to do that, hit the indoor track and then the tanning beds. A break will do you good. No head-sick handworkers, no heartsick headworkers, as Mother Jones used to say. Is that what she used to say?

After a summer of hard work that wasn’t teaching, my family and I are on a short vacation up a long mountain. Yesterday we drove around to the next valley to see the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. The presentation and tour were decidedly low-tech, considering NRAO looks into deep space to discover the secrets of the universe.

But this was for two reasons: First, the facility’s budget, provided by the National Science Foundation, is only $10 million per year, and among other things, they have to maintain the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope, and 17 million pounds of chipping and scraping. Second, stray radio waves of any kind interfere with the incredibly weak signals they’re capturing from space and trying to analyze. Even the handheld battery-powered fans they used to sell as novelties in the gift shop had to be discontinued to keep from generating RF signals that might ruin years of research. A short DVD in a shielded visitors’ center, a brief talk by an interpreter, and a bus ride around the grounds in a Navy-surplus diesel bus was about it.

Still, it was a great daytrip, and it was mind-boggling to see what they’re accomplishing there, both in the lattice-work dish rising above the trees and in the photos it produces of, say, the black hole at the center of our galaxy.

As an added bonus, NRAO is in what’s called the National Radio Quiet Zone, a bowl in the mountains that blocks stray signals from the rest of America, which means that most of the modern communications devices we’ve become attached to are defunct. (“Cell phone free fun,” the Science Center’s brochure says.)

Here in our comfortable but Spartan condo almost a mile up, I can look out with Starbuck’s binoculars over the receding ridges and see a single cell tower in the carpet of red cedar, rhododendrons, maples, and oak, but it’s so low wattage that service is spotty at best. There’s no Internet and only fuzzy cable. Even my electric peppermill has quit, and I needed that for the flank steak. What will I do now?

Starbuck and Wolfie have seen three black bear cubs, innumerable white-tailed deer, a vulture eating a snake, a hawk, and a groundhog (running from a hawk); they ate wild blackberries, learned to make a popgun from a weed, and pedaled boats around a lake. How odd that both the highest-tech and the lowest are here on Cheat Mountain, both providing opportunities to look for the essence of life.

And how did I post to my blog? I’ll tell you how: I dodged logging trucks, a mountain lion, a wolverine, and 42 skunks to get to the one place for miles around where I could get some business done. Sort of like walking across campus to the Admin building. Ha ha ha ha, just kidding. No, really.


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