Tactical Thomism

photo 1 (8)Pretty frequently, especially during the summer, volunteer groups come spend a day working for the nonprofit that is my day job. They take the ferry over from Battery Park to Governors Island and for a couple of hours they get to do some of the hands-on aquaculture work that the kids do year-round– the students at the school the nonprofit supports, I mean, who spend their afternoons learning how to drive (and build) boats and raise oysters and SCUBA dive in the Harbor.  For a couple of hours, these adult volunteers get a taste of that life, and one of my favorite things is watching them as they do.

They tend to be earnest knowledge workers of various kinds– fledgling lawyers, software developers, that sort of thing. They always have water bottles and they’re always in that strange mood that white collar people are in when they see their colleagues in shorts and t-shirts.

Today the group was from a data analysis company called enigma.io.  Its mission is to make public data accessible.  I think this is probably a very worthy mission.  Today, they learned to haul heavy stacks of trays full of half-grown oysters out of  the East River; to tell the difference between several month old baby oysters and yearlings who had detached from their parent clusters; to clean the fouled trays and re-stack the oysters properly; to tie two half-hitches in the bridles that truss up the stacks of trays that hold the oysters, and to lower the trays back down again into the water, where they’ll spend another year– or however long they need– feeding on algae and growing big enough to get deposited on the reefs that the students will monitor and tend.

The hatchery manager, showing one of the data analysts how to snug up the half-hitches tightly, says: “do you have good finger strength?”

“Well,” she says., “..I type a lot.”

A friend and I used to bat around the idea of creating a curriculum of what we called Tactical Thomism, modeled on Tactical Urbanism.  It’d be a set of experiences that demonstrate the reality of good philosophy.  I don’t really know enough yet to call myself a thomist, but I will anyway.  And it seems to me that this oyster-farming workshop could well be a part of such a curriculum.  It at least teaches, on a primal level, the reality that we are physical creatures who live in a physical world; it teaches the pleasure of movement and of learning physical skill; it teaches that when you do some of the tending and keeping that Adam was made to do, you feel… human, you feel human.

I came home today on the F train covered in Harbor mud, because I’d spent a little bit of the day working alongside them.  It’s been a while since I’d done that: ridden the train smelling faintly of the Harbor.   It’s not an objectionable smell– not after the Clean Water Act of 1972 and years of remediation.  But it is not a smell you get if you analyze data all day.  And I’m happy for myself, and happy for the data analysts.  This is a good world.

One response to “Tactical Thomism

  1. Thomism and the “feeling of being human.” I would have liked to see these two dots connected with more explanation. I too understand little about Thomistic thought, and the article has motivated me to research this question of what Aquinas taught about “human” feeling and being.

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