Fly on the Wall—The Vast Mountains, the Hike of our Lives

Convocation as the Peak We've been Waiting for

Fly on the Wall—The Vast Mountains, the Hike of our Lives

In his award-winning book, Big Lonely Doug, Rustad gives eloquent descriptions of the nature of untrammelled forests, never staying far from his central message that the majestic giants of the Pacific coast deserve preserving. Likewise, to explain our studies to others is usually about justifying them in the big picture of our life narrative and personal development.  Apparently out of the element of education: a classroom, we’re nevertheless the little scholar trees that made good.  We are the ecosystem managers of our own life, so to speak, and attending convocation brings focus to the struggles and triumphs of our AU careers.

What Rustad does, and this resonates with me as an AU student, is glorify a single tree that, as a worker, he’d marked for preservation while much of the surrounding forest was left to be logged. The book’s namesake Doug fir thus attains a noble status even though it has lost its original surroundings.  We too at AU have typically long ago left traditional classrooms and are in that sense icons of a time gone—at least in the eyes of family and friends who look back, in some cases way back, to their scholarly days of yore.  Convocation paints a recognizable sheen onto our studies; everyone knows what graduation looks like and the festivities are real out at Athabasca.

Our student lives are more than just stock characters in a play about growing up, however. AU is a unique experience for each of us, and not amenable to simple explanations. For his part, Rustad uses woolly imagery to glorify the nature of forest trees and the pesky humans who threaten them.  In this way he projects much of the angst our species feels toward our human role in nature and, I would suggest, is seen when others ask with incredulity why we at AU are still in school or why we’ve decided to go back to school. Our choice can seem intuitively unnatural just like cutting a tree down rather than letting nature take its course! It can seem to others as though we were released from a prison cell only to turn on our heel and march right back into class: didn’t Alice Cooper teach us to never look back once school is out?   Or, perhaps, we might appear as a bird in a gilded cage, a bunny in a well-cleaned hutch, or a doggy in a backyard run, who, finding the metaphoric gate left open chose to simply snuggle up at the entrance and wait for their master to return. School for many carries a malodorous odour of submission and stupefaction, after all.

Convocation: Where the Truth Comes Home to Roost

Convocation is thus a prime chance to wrangle together as many peers and family as possible and show them just how joyous and admirable our journey has been.  Finally, there’s a beautiful campus for loved ones to recall when they think of us bunkered in our study shed or wherever else we’ve wiled away our productive times working on assignments and projects. Just as the cover of Rustad’s book depicts the dolorous condition of the last fir in a forest, photos from our convocation can go a long way to illustrating literally the triumphant glory of our AU studies.

Sometimes What’s Left Out is What’s Most Important

What Rustad leaves out, in his desire to paint a clear and distinct environmental picture without too many glaring contradictions, is the all-too-human aspect of life whereby things aren’t always easy to summarize. Just as a book can’t cover all of the forest and its workers and protectors, no convocation captures the full reality of a given university’s student life.   Any of us at AU could probably write the essay of our lives detailing all the interpersonal, familial and workplace challenges we’ve had to adapt to and overcome so that we could succeed at our studies.

In Rustad’s case, taking ourselves as stand-ins for his isolated fir tree, he describes the fir’s namesake David Douglas and notes that, after discovery of what he originally termed the Pacific Spruce, Douglas “died eight years later, on June 12th, 1834, while hiking a volcano in Hawaii in search of new plants” (Rustad, 40).  While strictly true, the details of the botanist’s demise remain contentious and murky to this day. What is known for sure is he didn’t just die collecting pine cones; he was found dead in the pit of a wild boar trap.

Academic and local sources suggest that he may have been murdered by an ex-convict or a nature guide; whatever happened, the rumours remind us that even while alone in nature (or in our personal study chamber) we are never truly outside society. After being shown boar traps he supposedly retraced his steps and managed to fall in; would this lifelong hiker have made such a grievous error? Some doubted whether his lacerations could have been caused by the trap of the boar he shared it with. (Greenwell, online).

Possibly foul play was involved; it pays to look deeper at the circumstances and this type of critical inquiry is what education is all about.  “A surveyor, A.B. Loebenstein, said he had heard from Native Hawaiians that Douglas was incautious enough to show some money when he was at Ned Gurney’s house. The bullock hunter was seen following Douglas, but the natives were so afraid of Gurney, that they never dared tell of it. Gurney was said to have killed Douglas with an ax and then deposited his body in the bullock pit.” (Fullard-Leo, online).  Rustad leaves out these lurid details just as convocation speeches can’t cover all the trials and tribulations of AU life; our boar trap is one of the mind, spirit, and attention span but it pokes and jabs at our essence nevertheless—ouch!

Details, Details

A simple factotum account of our studies might reference the hard labour of attaining course objectives but the non-academic aspects of AU life are just as vital to our success.  We had to make space for that study regime of ours and it’s not like we went to a university every day like normal students. Not every pyjama day is a party at AU; there’s work to be done.

Like any rhetorician or speechwriter, Rustad’s book paints a picture that illustrates his point, in this case, about the need to preserve ecosystems.  When we tell the tale of our AU conquests, we, too, will want to focus on the theme of our success, but it behoves us to also note our tragedies, our failures, and our disappointing marks along the way.  In many of our cases the reality that led us to AU in the first place was failure itself: many of us experienced unsuccessful forays into university studies or simply didn’t go away to college due to our geographic isolation. Kids who grow up in college towns see the world much differently than those of us from rural locations, after all. This is echoed in the echo chambers of brick and mortar university nature clubs who contrast sharply with hook and bullet gatherings of small town outdoor enthusiasts.  We may not have been impaled in a boar trap but our journey through the jungles and forests of academia weren’t a walk in a manicured university parkland either.

Parting Thoughts: Lifelong Learning is the Gift That Keeps Giving, if we Keep Our Critical Abilities Intact

Finally, as we bask in the convocation glow it helps to remember that whatever the speakers say in congratulation, we’ve each had our own private path to the top. Sometimes distance education can seem like it fits all types of lifestyles and other times it seems to match distinct types; chatty Kathys probably are less suited to solitary studies than Booker T. bookworms.  Yet beyond it all is the fact that, like any experience that, let’s face it, we do pay for, there has to be a certain amount of marketing and branding that goes on.  So, if at convocation we hear something from the stage that doesn’t’ match our own narrative or fit our own story then we can recall the case of Chief Seattle, an ostensible spokesperson for environmentalist anti-colonialsm.

Chief Seattle is famously attributed with the bumper sticker line “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money” (Quote Investigator, online). The truth, it turns out, is that the real Chief Seattle was pressed into propaganda service by well-meaning, but somewhat duplicitous screenwriters. Seattle  “did give a speech in 1854, but he never said “The earth is our mother.” Nor did he say “I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train.” There were no bison within 600 miles of the chief’s home on Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest, and trains to the West were years away. The words Chief Seattle have become famous for were written by Ted Perry, the screenwriter for Home, a 1972 film about ecology” In fact, “Chief Seattle is probably our greatest manufactured prophet,” said David Buerge, a Northwest historian” (Snopes, online). At AU, our success is more than a caricature as comeback student of the millennium.

Unlike Hollywood movie convocations, with their glitz and vapidity, Athabasca convocation is a unique and authentic experience.  We don’t need to create mythologies around our studies; we know how awesome we are.  And we don’t have to exit through the gift shop or endure any cultural appropriation along the way.  The essence of the AU student body isn’t a pep rally or a politicized activist desire that, when meeting setbacks, requires a comfort puppy or pony.  AU success is about the satisfaction of an academic job well done; the rewards are in our work.

So, just as we have to be wary of difference when thinking of the very real shared experience we have with other Athabasca students, we have to take a critical stance toward quotes and perspectives than seem natural and believable. The essence of the Athabasca experience is as diverse as the planet we inhabit and the only statement that really summarizes us all is: we are resilient.  Removed from what appears to be our natural learning environment, a classroom, we succeed where others fall.

Whatever our expectation of convocation, I can guarantee the experience will be fascinating—not because it matches what we imagine in advance—but because it surpasses what we’ve come to expect from our mental stereotypes about distance students and, indeed, the fairly isolated town of Athabasca itself.  Whatever our image of our fellow students may be, the best way to test that hypothesis is to attend actual convocation and have a few conversations with tutors, instructors and workers in and around the campus and the town. We may feel like that last student in a class, and like the last tree in a forest, but meeting and greeting others of our ilk is an enlightening and worthwhile experience.  If I could I’d attend convocation every year.

Fullard-Leo, B. (2006). “Who Killed David Douglas?” LBD Coffee Newsletter 2016-17. Retrieved from
Greenwell, J. (1988).  “Kaluakauka Revisited: The Death of David Douglas in Hawai’I”. The Hawaiian Journal of History. University of Hawai’i: Manoa. Retrieved from
Mikkelson, D. (2007). Chief Seattle Speech: “Did Chief Seattle Give the Environmental Speech He’s Become Famous For?”. Retrieved from
Rustad, H. (2018). Big Lonely Doug. Vancouver: Walrus Books, House of Anansi Press.
‘When the Last Tree is Cut Down…’. QuoteInvestigator. Retrieved from