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Campus embraces history and environment

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Posted: Saturday, August 23, 2008 9:00 pm

Summertime and water. These two words could not fit more perfectly together. However, for Gonzaga University's incoming class of 2008, these things have more value than just fun in the sun.

The schoolwide theme for the 2008-2009 academic year is "water." The recent high school graduates were asked to read a book relating to this theme prior to the first day of fall classes.The proposed assignment was developed by members of the GU Forum and Steering Committee, faculty members who agree to coordinate events around a specific theme.

The creation of the theme took much time and thought - it had to be one that would spark students' interest and get them involved in other campus events throughout the year. It is the goal of the faculty to have students - the incoming freshmen in particular - look beyond the physical institution that is Gonzaga, and consider the surrounding ecology and environment.

Previous years' themes have ranged from globalization to food. The goal is to focus on one component of the theme at a time. Themes should balance sustainability and also the impact they have in other parts of the world. This year's theme of watercan be broken down and looked at from many different angles, from the scientific aspect of the actual physical property to the religious meanings and interpretations of water.

Dr. Heather Easterling, an English professor at Gonzaga and who is chair of the GU Forum, believes the summer reading program is a good way to get groups on campus more in touch with each other and together in the community.

"One goal [of the freshman summer reading program] is the experience of reading it then interacting in the environmentof the book and sharing a common experience with your peers," Easterling said. "And rather than having totally discrete things going on around campus that are unrelated to each other, getting the freshmen reading books to combine with these things will be neat."

The book that was chosen is Jack Nisbet's "Visible Bones: Journeys Across Time in the Columbia River Country."

"It's a non-fiction, seminatural history/environmental account that is germane to where we live," Easterling said. "It is very narratively driven rather than strictly an academic report. It is a good balance between 'This is interesting,'versus, 'I have to read this'."

Easterling continued: "He [Nisbet] is basically telling stories about this community using personal experiencesalong with historical references to get us to question how we observe the environment we live in," she said.

By reading this book, the committee members along with the University are expecting an increased sense of communication. Local and out-of-state students alike can use "Visible Bones" as a connector to link them to more profound thoughts about the region they are coming to, which is something Nisbet himself has become very good at over the years.

Nisbet, a North Carolina native, moved to Chewelah, Wash., in 1971 after graduating from Stanford with degrees in English literature and natural history. His first job out of college was writing a column in a weekly paper that didn't pay at first. He then became a teacher at local public schools teaching natural history, because he says it allowed him to get out and walk around a lot.

"I tend to get obsessively interested in something," Nisbet said. "I pitched the idea [of my book] to an editor 10 years ago and he told me, 'When you can put it on a postcard, let me know,' so I had to simplify it and write it a few different ways."

He chose at first to write about a dozen different species and landmarks for "Visible Bones" because he was already familiar with them. They came from the heart of the river and he could research and write more about those who had already discovered them, such as Lewis and Clark, Native Americans or a wandering fur trader. The most interesting parts of writing the book to Nisbet were about tobacco and Jaco Finley.

"I can't tell the difference between human and natural history," Nisbet said. "I wanted to find out about the family [of Jaco Finley] and I'm still chasing them around learning about them.

"I want people to finish my book with a sense of curiosity and asking what's out there. To ask questions like, 'What did this bend in the river look like before the school was built here?' Circles mirror life better than straight lines do."

Just where might you find his book in the university bookstore? He's not completely sure himself.

"Maybe in the personal essays section or even in with the regional history books; I just think of myself as a story-teller," Nisbet said.

If all goes as planned, a lot more story-telling among students will be happening this fall.

"I do feel strongly about the value of these programs. The importance is that it brings staff and students together in dialogue outside the classroom and almost forces us to explore ideas outside the box," Easterling said. "I love the idea of the first year book and coordinating events around it. It benefits not only the students but potentially the entire community."

Nisbet couldn't be happier or more honored that his book has the opportunity to reach as many people as it will this summer.

"I want there to be a better understanding of community through time," Nisbet said. "We can't predict or controlhow it's going to change, but we can at least try to recognize and appreciate when it does change."

Nisbet and members of the GU Forum and Steering Committees will be getting together to tack down a specific day for him to make an official campus visit and speak. They are tentatively planning for some time in September.

"I don't only want to speak in English classes. I can get enthusiastic about it all," Nisbet said.

"We are shooting for creating a sense of place that can get lost in the shuffle sometimes," Easterling said.

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