Episode 16: Trusting the Wild Self — Stewart’s Story (Part 1)

Apr 17, 2015


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In the first part of a two part story, Stewart Cubley tells how leaving his path as a scientist led him first into the Alaskan woods and then to the discovery of The Painting Experience.

An excerpt from Trusting the Wild Self, Part 1 . . .

I was in my late twenties when I hit a brick wall. I was a year away from my Ph.D. in Geophysics, studying at the Geophysical Institute, which was part of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. A realization had been creeping up on me for some time that I could no longer ignore: I just wasn’t interested in being a scientist and what that entailed. Part of the writing on the wall was that I had found myself much more interested in the lives of the scientist themselves, in the creative process by which they made their discoveries, rather than in the details of the math and science. I reached a dead end, because I just could no longer do the work. I would go to my office in the morning and stare at the wall. So I made the decision to leave. This was a radical turning point for me, given the investments that my parents and I had made in pursuing this livelihood and this career. One day I walked into the director’s office at the Institute and announced that I would be leaving. In an effort to dissuade me, he began to tell me about a recent study that he had read that by the time you reach thirty your brain cells are starting to deteriorate. It’s downhill after that, and if you’re going to make a contribution to science, you’d better do it now or forever regret your decision.

I took this as encouragement — it made me feel even more that this decision was overdue. The difficult part was that I had no alternative. It wasn’t as though I was leaving one course of study for another opportunity. I had built a cabin outside of Fairbanks off the road and off the grid. What I really felt attracted to doing was going and living in my cabin — and being alone. Part of the attraction was the solitude, the quietness and the simplicity — a real chance to get off the merry-go-round and stop the insane rush towards creating a life. I wanted to take stock of who I was, what my feelings were, what I was really attracted to. So I disappeared into the woods and spent the next three-and-a-half years living by myself in my cabin. I have a vivid memory of the first winter. We had gotten an early snow and I invited my graduate school buddy Ron to take away all my books and notes from my years and years of studying mathematics and physics. I piled his toboggan high and lashed the books down tightly, and I watched through the window as he slowly pulled it down the winding trail. It felt like I was watching my life as I knew it disappear, and I was left with the excitement of being alone and without a plan in a cabin of my own making in the deep forest of northern Alaska.

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