|Charlie Fisher has Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley. He was a professor of Sociology at Brandeis University for thirty years. He taught courses ranging from the history of science through ethnography and social movements to environmental history and meditation. Charlie has spent time in wild places and months in silent meditation, often in nature. A theme of his life is to explore the interrelationships between nature, human nature and meditation. Charlie is an accomplished and entertaining public speaker on topics ranging from evolutionary biology, natural history, the downsides of civilization, to meditation and the history of Buddhism.
I was born in 1938 on the South Side of Chicago. Before the age of ten I roamed the city by street car, the “El” and bicycle. My father, a German-Jewish merchant from New York, taught himself Spanish and German and traveled the world buying and selling the innards of animals. As an adolescent I worked on the floor of a meat packing plant in the Stockyards. My mother was born in the stettl in the Ukraine from which Trotsky came. A revolutionary uncle was arrested carrying a pistol after the 1905 uprising and escaped from prison to Canada. The family followed. My grandfather was a store keeper and Indian trader. An uncle spoke Cree. My parents met in Baghdad.
With some interruptions I was educated from kindergarten through a Master’s degree at the University of Chicago. There I imbibed the Great Books and studied mathematics. In the waning days of McCarthy, consensus society, and the gray flannel suit I aspired to live as a bohemian intellectual. At the University of Chicago, it was taken as a matter of course that one could be both a scientist and humanist.
In 1960 I went to Berkeley where I got a Ph.D. in mathematics, was involved in the civil rights and free speech movements and opposed the Vietnam War. In 1964, I began doing research on the history of science and went to Princeton at the invitation of Thomas Kuhn, author of “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”
In 1967 I was hired by the Sociology Department at Brandeis University where I taught for 30 years. At Brandeis my courses ranged from the Sociology of Science to the study of crowds, social movements and community organizing. My students and I actively opposed the war in Vietnam.
My life dramatically changed in 1969. I accompanied my brother on a canoe trip from the middle of the Canadian Northwest Territories down the Coppermine River to the Arctic Ocean. There I encountered raw nature which shook me to the core. For the next eight years I split my time between being a professor, exploring nature and working with my hands. I helped homestead in northern Canada, worked as a migrant laborer, counted trees in the jungles of British Honduras, and wandered around Mexico and central America.
Another turn in my life came in 1977 when I began meditating. At the time I was living in an old mill house thirty miles west of Boston. I continued to teach university but also grew vegetables for the Cambridge Food Co-op, and did a series of meditation retreats at the Insight Meditation Society which lay thirty miles further west. For the next twenty years my life followed the same pattern: teaching, meditating, and connecting to nature. I studied some biology, helped build meditation centers, and lived in communities. My teaching was drawn from my life. For some 17 years, I taught my students to meditate in classes on the social psychology of consciousness. I also developed a series of courses exploring humans’ relationship to nature as we moved from being hunter-gatherers to denizens of modern civilization
Around 1993 I began work on the two books, Dismantling Discontent and Meditation in the Wilds: Recluses, Hermits and Forest Monks. In 1997 I moved to California where I now live under redwood trees north of San Francisco. I have taught natural history and tracking to First Nation’s youth in northern British Columbia and acted as “old man of the woods” for kids’ nature camps. I occasionally teach meditation, am politically engaged, do pro bono financial planning and write endlessly. I still do natural history and spend as much time as I can meditating out of doors.