Perspective — September 3, 2014, 8:00 am

On Maleness and Deep Springs College

An alumnus reflects on the possibility of female students at Deep Springs

Deep Springs College has been around for almost a hundred years. In 1917, a crew of about a dozen students, mostly ruddy young things from back east, were brought to a remote desert basin halfway between Yosemite and Death Valley by an entrepreneur and educator named L. L. Nunn. His idea was to form “whole men” — and only men, it being Nunn’s contention that a single-sex institution was the ideal way to achieve his goals — who would be as comfortable at a desk as in the field. He offered the boys two free years of education in exchange for a pledge to devote their lives to serving humanity. The first group built the dormitory by hand.

I’m pretty sure kids built the concrete building where I lived on campus last year, too — a place so cold in the winter that I dragged an oil-filled heater around my apartment like it was an IV pole. Nowadays, though, architects usually draw up the school’s building plans, and professional crews handle the construction. This is but one of the changes to the place over the years. Soon enough will come the biggest one yet: pending a final ruling by the Superior Court of California on a challenge to a decision made by trustees in 2011, Deep Springs College will soon begin admitting women.

There are now seven hundred living alumni of the school, among them aspiring New York congressman and Facebook husband Sean Eldridge, as well as authors William T. Vollmann, Benjamin Kunkel, and, well, me. Last September, I was hired on to teach a semester of creative writing, to live once again in a community of fifty people in a valley the size of Manhattan, at 5,000 feet above sea level. All of the college’s housing is clustered around a main circle, surrounded by mountains that extend another 2,000 feet up. The nearest town lies over a difficult mountain pass. Whether you like the college or not — and I’ve loved it most of my adult life, first as a fresh-faced student from Miami in 1997, less so a few summers ago when I learned the college would go co-ed, and then as much as ever when I returned as a thirty-four-year-old professor — being at Deep Springs has always meant facing a certain level of rugged discomfort. Which: fun, romantic. Which in winter: very cold.

Farm work at Deep Springs College ©© Sean Fraga (Flickr)

Farm work at Deep Springs College ©© Sean Fraga (Flickr)

When I’d driven into the valley in the summer, a farm team of half a dozen students was out irrigating some of the college’s 150 acres of alfalfa, which they would then process into large bales for sale. In addition to their studies, pupils here work at least twenty hours a week in the Labor program, which stands with Academics and Self-Governance as the college’s so-called three pillars.

First thing, I sought out Adam, one of my old classmates and the school’s current farm manager. When we were students together, we called him Cyborg. He could do fifty pull-ups with weights strapped to his chest. Now he’s a father, as I am. We took his girls to the swimming hole where he and I had graduated fifteen years earlier, in a small ceremony for which members of a younger class burned an item from each of us on a raft — things that marked who we’d been when we arrived and that we would no longer need. For me, it was the boots I’d worn when I was dairy boy; for a friend, a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions; for another, a well-worn early music CD.

Adam and I swam alongside his girls, the older one cutting through the water like  a peach-colored dolphin. Then we walked back to the boarding house just ahead of the dinner bell. I learned that one of my writing students was the school’s butcher. Another was cooking most of the food. We sat down to a meal of pork chops, salad, and applesauce, with milk from the college’s cows. As a student, dairy was my favorite job — I came to love the intimacy of laying my head each morning against a giant mammal’s heaving warmth, and it didn’t hurt that milking made my forearms hard as steel.

Surrounded by young man-boys with ripped T-shirts, dirty hair, and sunburns, I thought about the fact that as students we’d shower together unselfconsciously, that there was a lot of hugging, and that we all achieved a kind of closeness and tenderness that, at the time, felt like a direct and special byproduct of the college being single-sex. Once, we held a wrestling competition in a makeshift ring lit up by the headlights of three pickups. Something like twenty Deep Springers came to my wedding, and I consider at least ten my best friends. I’m protective of what I think I gained. But sitting there at dinner, a father of a daughter, I began to understand the questions — about inequality, purpose, privilege — that came with attending an institution this exclusive and inessential and fragile and ridiculous.

For nearly 100 years, the Deep Springs formula has been simple: students stayed for two years, three at most, and during that time they hired and fired faculty, and constituted a majority of the admissions committee. Faculty typically stayed for a semester or a year, and the cap was seven. A few of the nonacademic staff — there’s typically a ranch manager, a farm manager, a cook, and a mechanic — have lasted a couple of decades, but life here is isolated and repetitive, and the charms of a student-run school wear thin, so most staff log a couple of years and move on. For everything wonderful about Deep Springs, it’s not always easy to live in a place that’s trying to be paradise.

As a student I both dreaded and loved the idea of going into the real world. During a trip to Harvard and other East Coast schools — we needed to transfer to a four-year university in order to complete our bachelor’s degrees — we’d hand-roll cigarettes, strike matches on belt buckles, and ash in our hats, feeling dazzling even as alfalfa fell from our pockets. Now I’d been out for a long time. I’d earned my degree, married, thrived in and then abandoned various jobs in New York. I’d lived in half a dozen cities, including Beirut, Istanbul, and Riyadh. I was a dad.

When the semester got underway, I settled into a routine, drinking coffee at night until I couldn’t see straight, printing out and marking up endless copies of a book manuscript. My wife began a new job in Los Angeles; our daughter started preschool. It pained me that they couldn’t be with me, but they were starting normal lives that didn’t involve social utopias in the middle of the desert. Within weeks, I was going through long stretches of not shaving or changing my clothes. Being alone was wonderful and awful. It afforded me tremendous amounts of time to work. But soon I forgot why and for whom I was working. One night, I spilled beer all over my manuscript. I began to think more and more about isolation, and how males act in the absence of females.

In class, everyone got sick. A tall, reedy guy from Michigan — one of my best students — handed a coughing classmate a lozenge. The cougher, who wore a denim jacket and a natural snarl, ignored the lozenge. His essay that week was called “In Defense of Shitholes.” During the response period, a student from Mali, a former special-forces paratrooper, asked, “What is ‘real America?’ ” We struggled to explain what a shithole was. Later, the butcher told us how, just before class, they’d gone to drop off the guts of a freshly slaughtered cow at the Dead Animal Dump, and the truck nearly fell in. The dump lies in the desert just beyond campus, and at night, coyotes circle the place, howling. When I was a student, I carried a gun and went to class with blood on my hands, too.

What it might mean to become a man at Deep Springs turned into a rather more urgent matter one night, when one of my other students decided to eat a spider. It was a Tuesday night, when the entire community traditionally gathers to hear students give talks, and he walked up to the podium with a hot plate, a cup of oil, and a jar containing a live black widow. When the oil was hot enough, he tipped the jar. There was a sizzle, and then he plucked out the cooked spider. I held my breath, hoping it was dead. Then he ate it (and survived). It was hard to imagine this happening at any other college.

Not long after I’d graduated, a student one year below me died in a tractor accident in the hills above the college. As a result, Deep Springs developed new regulations, covering who could use a power tool, how much instruction was required before a student could drive the backhoe, and the number of students required before a college vehicle could be used for an official trip. The black-widow incident was a rare show of risk. By contrast, in my first few weeks as a student, I was handed a chainsaw and pointed toward a pile of boards. When I hit a nail, the saw kicked back and nearly tore me in half. Whatever we built back then, it was ours. But at least some of what we built could have been better.

On Thanksgiving, I brought out my family for the first time. The meal was astonishing — delicate baked goods, mounds of steaming meat, deep bowls of fresh ice cream. My daughter found a deer’s tooth lying on my porch. She was both terrified and thrilled. “Daddy, is that a dead tooth from a dead animal? And when am I going to die? Daddy?? Tell me!!!” She fell in love with three different students and was overcome with a joy I hadn’t previously seen.

I realized, holding her hand, walking around a campus I’d known and idealized and wanted to protect my entire adult life, that maybe the most basic purpose of Deep Springs was to teach us to welcome challenge, and to do so with grace. Because of how much I’d loved the place, my line had always been this: I don’t want it to change. Deep Springs had been very good to me. I’d learned how to be at home in the field and at a desk. Now, as the father of a little girl, I was ready to see what else it could do.

Share
Single Page
is the author of Friday Was the Bomb, an Amazon Best Book of the Month. He teaches writing at the University of California, Los Angeles and has published essays in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and The New Republic, among others.

More from Nathan Deuel:

Personal and Otherwise August 21, 2013, 8:00 am

America by the Yard

From Baghdad to the Menard County Fair

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Post
CamperForce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After losing their savings in the stock market crash of 2008, seniors Barb and Chuck find seasonal employment at Amazon fulfillment centers.

Cost of a baby-stroller cleaning, with wheel detailing, at Tot Squad in New York City:

$119.99

Australian biologists trained monitor lizards not to eat cane toads.

Trump tweeted that he had created “jobs, jobs, jobs” since becoming president, and it was reported that Trump plans to bolster job creation by loosening regulations on the global sale of US-made artillery, warships, fighter jets, and drones.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today