Political Ecology: My Fulcrum

The surprise came early.  7th Grade.

All through elementary school, I was an academic wizard. Well, as magical as non-grade grades could be. “Outstanding” and “very good” were accompanied by “Danny is an enthusiastic learner” or “Danny loves to sing.”  My two much older sisters were also academic stars, but with actual grades to prove it.

So, when I started 7th Grade and got only a 3.0 GPA, it was more than a disappointment to me and my parents.  It was a surprise.  Worse, the numbers steadily went down from there. My high school guidance counselor instructed me as a senior to pursue technical training. “You know, Dan, college isn’t for everyone.” He pulled an Al Campanis[1] and claimed that “some folks just don’t have ‘the necessities.’ But that’s OK!” He meant it comfortingly.

I didn’t listen to him.  Entering Western Washington State College directly from high school, I quit after one quarter. My 2.02 GPA belied a deeper reality.  I had no idea where I was going, who I was, and what I wanted. And my D in French was undeserved.  I should have flunked.

A succeeding year of unskilled dead-end jobs and flirtations with the wrong side of mental health came to focus my mind. Conclusion? I needed SOME career track, and for reasons no longer remembered,  decided it was as a biologist.  At 19, I enrolled at Bellevue Community College with that aim.  Oddly enough though, if one wants to be a biologist, one does not actually take biology classes.  Chemistry – yes.  Physics, trigonometry, calculus – absolutely.  Liberal arts “breadth” classes in English, political science, anthropology – of course.  But not biology.

This community college late bloomer (as my dad called me at the time) began to come into his academic competence.  For the first time, my numerical grades were good. Quite good actually. In approaching the decision of where – not if – to go on to a four-year school, I spent intense hours looking at academic catalogs. Each college wooed prospective students with heimishe photos, playful graphics, and haughty statements of the institution’s noble purposes and fine accomplishments.

Flipping through The Evergreen State College’s catalog, I read about a program called “Political Ecology.”  Initially bewildered and enraptured at the same time, reading program details delivered a self-recognition. For the first time, my values and passions had a structure to inhabit.  An epiphanic moment!

Heck – speaking to myself – I read newspapers. Volunteered for political campaigns.  And I wanted to be a biologist.  Was there actually something that included all that?! Later, I was to find that that something was called land use and environmental planning. 

Evergreen’s catalog did the trick.  I enrolled there, though never did take “Political Ecology” as it was a program for lower division students.  Rather, I took “Environments:  Chemistry, Ecology and Politics,” an upper division program that covered many of the same topics.  Starting as the chemistry expert in ECEP, I ended the program more attracted to the politics angle than anything else. As I learned more about land use planning, my academic and career goals fell quickly and smoothly into place.  I set myself up with a bizarrely specific goal – to be a Planning Director of a small city or rural county on the edge of a metropolitan area.  Eight years later, at age 30, I achieved that career objective precisely, as the Community and Economic Development Director for the city of Tumwater, Washington.

The “Political Ecology” moment proved decisive.  It would link personal growth with personality orientation and eventually professional advancement and accomplishment. So much of my identity would be wrapped in that professional milieu. Citizen involvement, public policy development, governance structure, land use, environmental and fiscal analyses became much of who I was.  Not just what I did.  

Possessing an identity, being someone you want to be and present yourself as, is crucial to a healthy life.  It provides meaning and purpose. A cohesive narrative of self. So much of my identity was derived from my professional work.  Yet, there were doubtless downsides in integrating ones work tightly with identity.

I ponder how different it must be for those folks who don’t “find themselves” in their work. Is it hard to maintain an interest and purpose in one’s daily toils? Retirement now is a test of that proposition.  Certainly, a career also keeps one away from much in life.  People can and do find their identity outside of paid work. Hobbies. Avocations. Family and friends.

I count myself lucky to have had the epiphany of “Political Ecology.” In general, I feel blessed where it took me. But there is only so much one can do and be in this snippet of time we have on Earth.  My epiphanic moment cut off options to explore others. Fulcrums open and close paths. Whether we want them to or not.

Choosing life is about seeking and embracing those fulcrums that may still be to come.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_Campanis

12 thoughts on “Political Ecology: My Fulcrum

  1. Hi, Daniel

    I enjoyed reading your article, and for the record, I never “found myself” in my work although I really liked being a co-chair and planner as a Board Member for the Washington Educational Research Association (WERA) Conference (2006 – 2009). Later on, I was the editor for the WERA newsletter and got a lot of internal “noches” for this as well. But after three years, with my parents needing my love and attention at KG, I made the decision to pass the torch to someone else, who never had his heart in this endeavor. I think my “real” job at that time was as a volunteer at KG. It gave me a genuine sense of purpose and I re-learned the Yiddish that I had lost over the years.

    Did I ever find my “identity?” In talking to our tree guy (arborist) about what to do with the menacing but beautiful deodor in our garden, after that windstorm a few days ago, he referred Marco and me as garden/tree “preservationists.” I like that.

    If we’re lucky, we keep on keeping on and learning…

    zei gezunt




  2. Ah the twisted paths we navigate to our work lives, and as you point out you were come of the lucky ones whose path led to a satisfying career and retirement.


  3. Thanks Dan for sharing your memories…I always appreciate people’s journey. I HOPE THAT YOU AND JEAN ARE DOING WELL. HUGS TO YOU BOTH

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad


  4. Hi,

    Good to read another inquiry into the life and mind of Daniel Farber. I’m interested in discussing this piece and other topics. Do you want to plan a walk later this week? What’s your schedule?


  5. What a beautiful and thoughtful road.There are jobs for those who must support themselves, jobs people take because they are proud that they can provide for their families, and jobs which encompass the latter but also provide interest and meaning in one’s life.  Those of us with interest and meaning are very fortunate.Your cuz,Roberta 


  6. Hi Dan, My path was different and maybe even more circuitous. I thought I knew what I wanted to do since maybe 5 y.o.- be an M.D. I got to H.S. and became distracted. I took Chem. as Junior & decided to pursue that first & then medicine. Then I took physics and fell in love with that & decided maybe should do that first?? Then I decided I wasn’t hi-ability re: math so that counselors recommended doing chem. and some kind of biology as a lead-in to medicine. At CAL essentially double majored in Zoo & Chem. Then in junior year I flunked out at Berkeley. I had come down with hypothyroidism and turned into a genuine cretan. I ignored my room mate’s admonitions, asserting my home-town physician knew what he was doing. I returned To CAL in senior year and did OK self-medicating. Then off to US Army,& Korea (after K.W. end (1957). Got out a little early to return and enroll in Zoo. grad school. Managed to stumble on to wife-to-be at CAL. We both finished up in 1960 & I took the easy path & started teaching h.s. while Nancy taught elementary. She was a natural, I was not. Probably should have returned to MD path but teaching had very substantial intrinsic rewards.

    Have you seen Billie Holiday vs. U.S, Gov.? Quite a movie and provides framework for govt. actions re: African Americans in post WWII era.

    Thought I’d share a bit of writing with you regarding CAL Berkeley actions to atone (?) for the past.


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