A white dress stood silhouetted again the curving form of an Etruscan tomb. Framed against this Vetulonian tumulus, Madeline exuded a haunting regality that often accompanies her piercing brown eyes—brimming with the thought and wonder that appreciate the intricacies of honeycombs and anthills, that honor the fortitude of the immemorial mountains which line the landscape.
On the day of our interview, however, the twenty-year-old second semester junior in Environmental Engineering at Cornell better exemplified her sweet and bubbly side, gazing intently as I spoke and tilting her chin upwards, smiling through her words, when she answered—her bare feet sinking into the pebbles beneath the table and her face framed by the ivy stretching across the wall. Unapologetically herself, her toes did not shy from the presence of other people; unlike her high school self who was more easily swayed by the cruel comments of others, as Madeline grew up and became more confident, she realized that “life is too short to…take these comments…seriously”—“If I love myself,” she said with sincerity and precision, “it doesn’t matter if someone else has a problem; as long as I’m a nice person and I’m respectful to people, that’s really all that matters.”
This paradigm, however, extends beyond her comfort with her physicality or adherence to the norm: It allows her to fully express the curiosity that defines her, asking questions constantly about others’ work, their lives, or the area and remaining an attentive listener even for topics with which she is unfamiliar. It has, further, permitted her to confidently embrace the unknown rather than feel diminished by it, thanking those around her with more knowledge on a particular topic for answering her questions rather than being ashamed for not knowing the answer. In the case of history, a subject which she has always loved, she uses the gaps in her knowledge as entryways to speaking in-depth with a plethora of brilliant minds with greater experience, “to learn,” through these conversations, “things that [she normally] wouldn’t.” Nonchalant about seeming ignorant to others, Madeline allows her knowledge of what she does not know to inspire her: “I would rather ask a stupid question and then learn from it than…not ask anything at all.” Not only does she use questions to grow, but she employs them as a means to opening up others and understanding them more fully: “Everyone has so much inside of them and so much knowledge in their own way; everyone has something to contribute and something to offer, and if you never…ask people questions, you’ll never know what they have…inside of them waiting to come out…When you ask questions, it’s like opening a door into something further.”
In the spirit of this curiosity, Madeline has a particular affinity for museums, recalling for me how she would frequent the Metropolitan Museum of Art when she was young. Even on our weekend trips, this bubbling mind was always the last to leave the halls of objects and hung images: “Being able to the see the artifacts and knowing that…someone made this once and people used this once…being on these sites, being able to touch these rocks that…were once…part of people’s lives…it’s almost…magical to me…to go back into the past.” Thus, to play the role of archaeologist rather than “passive bystander at a museum,” “to be a part of a team that’s uncovering the past,” has allowed her to participate in that magic in a way that she never thought she would be able to: “When I was a little kid,” she told me, “I always wanted to be an archaeologist…I thought that…door had kind of closed for me, but being able to have that little taste has been really exciting.” Participating in this field school has permitted Madeline to not only bring a childhood dream to life, which she believed to be unreachable due to the path of study that she choose, but to physically partake in the history that she is fascinated by.
In fact, her exaltation of the tangible pulls her into a deep duality. While always taking in her environment and finding power in objects and the physical, even having an altar and crystals at home and finding joy in laying hands on the artifacts and structures pulled from the ground, Madeline is drawn towards the spiritual and to grander narratives: She is “fascinated [by] civilizations as a whole…[people’s] relationship to each other, relationship to the Earth, and how society…[has] evolved over time…in why people live the way they do.” Thus, she turns to spirituality and the traces of belief, an inclination that has fostered her wonder at the votive uteri found near the Podere Cannicci site, as well as to social dynamics such as the position of women within a society—a topic that spills into her fervent feminism regarding her own presence in the world and that of other women.
In the marriage of the tangible and intangible, however, lies her paradigm on the environment. For her, the spiritual magic of nature is derived from the felt power of the trees, the contact of the skin with the grass that fosters a powerful symbiosis. Almost as testament to her interconnection with the surrounding world, as I asked about her affinity for animals, cats in particular, Clandestina—a new furry friend of black and white who has joined our company—bolted from around the corner, mewing, straight into the environmentalist’s loving caress. For Madeline, animals like this kitten crouched low to the Earth have much to teach us because they can feel the moving energy that humans have lost and have retained the magic and purity that comes with instinct; further, groups of people who actively maintain a relationship with nature rather than exploit it, according to Madeline, likewise ripple with this connection to the Earth. Environmental engineering, then, represents this young researcher’s practical intervention to foster change a well as to harmonize the technical and holistic, scientific and spiritual angles of herself. “I’ve always been so passionate about the environment,” she explained, turning her gaze to her past, “my mom always raised me to be aware about [it], so…one of my main goals in life is to somehow give back to this Earth that gives so much to us.” Although she does not have a specific course of action to aid this project, Madeline is beginning to consider how to tackle the pollution of our planet, seeing that “[she] can have such an impact…whether it be developing water treatment systems for [people] or cleaning up…contaminated sites around them…saving people’s lives…saving animals, nature.”
Further, embarking upon the IMPERO Project field school has helped to solidify this passion—not through comparison of the two, but through the differences in their forms of labor. In the dirt, Madeline’s body became one with the work, and her mind quieted, resting from the purely thought-based stress of the previous semester. Taking a break from her major allowed her to silence her doubts, reminding her of why she loves to do what she does, why it matters, and why it is the correct path for her: “This has opened my eyes and made me appreciate what I do,” she testified, and she is able to incorporate her experience of carefully, attentively, and deliberately following archaeological methodology as neutrally as possible as well as the dynamics of team work, prevalent in her major, on site to the requirements of lab work back at home; further, the lectures on non-invasive archaeology have inspired her in the potentials for scientific investigations to exist more harmoniously with the environment around them. In loosely quoting a fellow student, Madeline attested: “It’s not about what you find, it’s about the context”—nothing discovered during excavation exists in a vacuum, and this paradigm of interconnecting the plurality of parts of any site, whether on the level of landscape, settlement, section, layer, or find, fosters a respect for a fuller picture of the past that she can incorporate into building a better future.
For Madeline, this future is worthwhile due to the very things that she means to protect to make any continued existence possible: The objects of her joy for the whole of her life, her “human relationships…plants and animals…and beautiful scenery like [Monteverdi]” that she associates inherently with experiencing new places, all “make life worth living.” As her eyes scanned the horizon and the cypress trees lining the road, contemplating our lucky lives upon “this Earth made of stardust,” Madeline explained that, “to [her], Nature and magic are one and the same.” Thus, in her union of science and spirit, magic is never lost. As Madeline recalled presenting on microplastic accumulation in river fronts at an ocean science conference in Puerto Rico, she described a figure who embodied this union and whose example she aims to follow: The wife of one of her supervisors. When this kind soul made the attendees “a delicious vegan meal” from the contents of her organic farm, she talked of speaking with her stunted coffee plants “after hurricane Maria”; when the woman asked why they did not grow, they replied: “’We’re going at our own pace, how about you?’”—attesting powerfully to a deference towards the natural tempo of life and to the potential of “combin[ing] environmentalism and spirituality” through attentiveness to the needs of the growing things and the health of the soil in which they remain, not simply caring for their quantity as end product as conventional farming methods often do. According to Madeline, when the Earth gives and people take, what is key is respect—to see ourselves “as a part of the picture”—as a part of the magic that moves between the trees, between people, and beneath the soil.
Text by: Elisabeth Woldeyohannes
Photo by: Emma Ramacciotti