Gardening on Solsbury Hill

This past week at the Educause Learning Initiatives conference I had the pleasure of reconnecting with my good friend Gardner Campbell. Every time I meet up with Gardner I am faced with a rush of epiphanies. It is as if he really were a gardener, churning up the soil of my mind, feeding it with nutrients, and sprinkling in a few nitrates which sometimes prepare a fertile ground on which new ideas grow, and other times simply explode the ground I once walked upon. This is just a bit of an excerpt from a conversation we had. (I wish I had the capacity to remember everything we discussed. Fortunately Antonio Vantaggiato recorded one of our conversations, and it should be available online soon.)

This post will not be a simple recount of the conversation, but instead a venture into my own imagination. I want to let you in on some of the explosive revelations that Gardner was creating as we talked, and give you some sense of the rich and powerful experience that this brief moment of conversation was for me.

Some years ago Gardner took a group of students to Bath in Somerset, England. For 5 weeks they faced the rush of experiencing new worlds, the kind of mix of wonder and awe that only seems possible when we are at once part of something and not quite part of it at all … More than anything, Gardner was inspired by the opportunity to see his students as complete human beings, full of their own specific insights, talents, questions, longings, worries, foibles, and all the other little things that make us all who we are that somehow seem hidden when we treat students as nothing but detached little heads processing our assignments in class. Among many highlights, they saw a piano where Elton John had once played. One of the students, a talented pianist, sat down and played Fiona Apple. Gardner started to tear up a little bit as he talked. My mind quickly filled in the blanks. I got it. This was not 5 weeks of pure bliss. It wasn’t as if everything went exactly “right”. This was 5 weeks of the rich, blooming, buzzing complexities of life … 5 weeks full of genuine meetings between these students and a new world they were only just beginning to understand and explore.

On the last night they went on top of Solsbury Hill. By this time, Gardner’s voice is cracking, and he struggles to complete the story. He says he told them the story of Solsbury Hill. Knowing Gardner, he probably could have recited the entire song of Peter Gabriel as part of that story, and that’s exactly what I imagine him doing on top of that hill. And of course I forgive him for not completing the story to me. The tears said more than words.

Just see if you can do it yourself. Put on your favorite Fiona Apple song in the background, imagine you just spent 5 of the best weeks of your life with students living in a total state of wonder as they open themselves up to the world, and then try to read the following without tearing up a bit.

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night
He was something to observe
Came in close, I heard a voice
Standing stretching every nerve
Had to listen had no choice
I did not believe the information
(I) just had to trust imagination
My heart going boom boom boom
“Son,” he said “Grab your things,
I’ve come to take you home.”

To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
‘Though my life was in a rut
‘Till I thought of what I’d say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey” he said “Grab your things
I’ve come to take you home.”

When illusion spins her net
I’m never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don’t need a replacement
I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey” I said “You can keep my things,
they’ve come to take me home.”

I keep reading it over and over, pulling out more meaning every time.

Gardner regained his composure to conclude the story.

“So there we were on Solsbury Hill, looking down at the city where we had just spent the last five weeks. ‘That’s your life down there,’ I said. And the students just looked on with a silent, contemplative recognition. Eventually one of them spoke: ‘Normally we all just feel like we are on a conveyor belt.’”

I thought of the best 2 minutes on YouTube:

Gardner’s secret, what makes him such a great “gardener of the mind” is that he seems to be involved in an ongoing “genuine meeting” with the world and those around him. He never jumps to the final chord of the song. He invites you to play and sing along, because he is himself joyfully playing along, even when he doesn’t know where the song goes next. You can’t help but be inspired by that. You suddenly “feel part of the scenery,” and “walk right out of the machinery.” Your heart goes boom boom boom. Forget your things, you’re already home.

In short, Gardner is a great example of somebody who lives in wonder, and it is wonder that we need more than ever to inspire in our students. It starts with ourselves. If we don’t live with wonder, we will struggle to inspire it in our students. The stakes are high. Wonder allows us to see the world for what it is, and for what it might become, while also inviting us to recognize that we are its co-creators. The alternative is disengagement and alienation. Today’s world is full of seductive technologies that will magnify this difference. Those living in wonder can harness and leverage the bounty of information and tools to learn and create like never before. The rest will merely be distracted and seduced by its growing offerings of passive entertainment.


Associate professor of cultural anthropology. Ed Traceur. Hacker. Car-free.

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23 Responses

  1. Alan Levine says:

    You gave captured the essence of Gardner so wonderfully, Mike. I know that feeling well. I think he should be named the Poet Lauret of Education.

    I’ll take another helping of Wonder, please.

  2. Shelli Fowler says:

    What an incredibly beautiful post, Mike. Gardner is very much a cultivator of curiosity and wonder, an expert and gifted “gardener of the mind,” as you say (and of the heart and imagination, too) for students and colleagues alike. Thanks for this powerful celebration of the remarkable ways he embraces wonder and encourages all of us to play and sing along.

  3. jr cline says:

    I love the video!

  4. There’s so much to say here, but maybe this sentiment will suffice. We (a grad student writing group at Baylor) just read this aloud, adding many an amen, head nod, and sound of affirmation–Gardner Campbell, Alan Watts, and Peter Gabriel evidently make an agreeable medley. This may be pandering, but I’ll say it anyway: there’s a remarkable resonance between the video, your concluding remarks (not jumping to the final chord) and Frost’s, “The Figure A Poem Makes”–”It [insert Art, Education, Life] must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader.” The adventure *is* the process, not the end point.

  5. Addy Meira says:

    I could not agree more with your description of Gardner, your post, and the comments. When reading the post I almost cried and could not wait to share with the other students that had the honor of being in Dr. GARDENER OF MINDS Campbell presence.

  6. I’ve never met Gardner IRL. Only online. His prose drips poetry and passion every time I’ve heard him speak. You’ve articulated here the thoughts & feelings I have as I listen to him. In particular both your own and Gardener’s passionate call for eliciting wonder in learning for our students comes across powerfully here.

  7. Please, can you tell us if, and where, we could find a copy of the interview between you two?

    BTW, Alan Levine, your photo of Gardner Campbell.

  8. Sorry. Your photo of Gardner Campbell is lovely.

  9. mariana says:

    this is a great article thanks a lot.
    after reading it many times, some parts still scape of my understanding but I’ll make a better intent today.
    please keep posting. L,

  10. max says:

    Hi Professor Wesch!

    Thanks for this article and the great work you do! I’d love to ask a favor of you and your classes. I”m a performing artist, working on a one-man-show made purely of youtube re-enactments. I wondered if any of you would have time to send me some suggestions – as you know, youtube is a big place to be exploring! I”m looking for everything – the funny, the sad, the heartfelt, the ridiculous…. anything that one person can re-enact. thanks!

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