Connor Shields '13 chats with development staff members Steve Bloomer and Marnie Dugan during his recent visit to Monmouth College.
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When he leaves in a few days for California, Connor Shields will be embarking on his third major adventure since his graduation from Monmouth College just five months ago
An art major with a minor in philosophy, Shields also became an accomplished horticulturist during his college career as a key player in the development of Monmouth College’s Educational Garden and mini-farm. He also participated in an entrepreneurial tea venture, so it is perhaps not surprising that gardening, farming and tea have been central to his postgraduate adventures.
The diversity of Shields’s experiences at Monmouth might earn him the title of poster child for the college’s new strategic plan, which emphasizes active learning beyond the major, the integration of business with science, and the pursuit of a meaningful vocation or lifelong purpose.
“After graduation, I went back to Naperville for a couple days, then I took historic Route 66 to New Mexico,” said Shields. “It was a three-day, two-night trip, which was a cool experience all in itself. I met a lot of cool people.”
Shields was headed for the Fa Yun Buddhist Monastery in Taos, N.M., where he spent three months studying Mahayana Buddhism and working as its gardener. The opportunity came his way through the college’s alumni network.
“I had a good last supper, because there is a super strict diet at the monastery,” said Shields, who learned about the opportunity through a Monmouth alumnus. As an example of the diet, he said no onions or garlic are allowed “because they believe it takes more energy to digest those types of food – energy which could be devoted to their religious practice. Everything is prepared a certain way, and absolutely no processed food is allowed. It’s pretty much eating vegan every day.”
He added, “They are so focused and have such incredibly strong mental power. They have the sheer will to relentlessly study the teachings of Buddha. They are so calm and so unattached to the dregs of everyday life.”
Situated 2,100 feet above the city of Taos and 9,000 feet above sea level, the monastery’s location contributed to a feeling of isolation. Shields chanted every day with the monks, who rise daily at 3:30 a.m. to start their practice. They meditate before breakfast and don’t eat anything after noon.
“I wasn’t an avowed monk, so I snacked some on nuts and that type of thing in the late afternoon, but I tried to adapt as much as I could,” he said.
Shields would drink tea in his house before starting his workday at 8 a.m. to noon. After a meal, he’d continue working until as late as 7 p.m.
“It was actually much easier work than the Educational Garden,” said Shields, who spent a good part of his MC residential experience living at the site in the Garden House. “The challenge was being in a totally different climate and figuring out how to make it work. I planted a lot of trees, flowers and shrubs, and built new beds. I’m proud of the work I did. It’s already an extremely beautiful place. I helped make it a little more beautiful.”
Monmouth faculty member Craig Watson, who often worked side-by-side with Shields in the garden, can speak to Shields’ dedication to the project.
“Connor was a founding member of the Educational Garden and Garden House, and as such worked hard and steadily to put both the project and the residential experience on good footings,” he said. “I think of him as a one-person R&D wing, specializing in creative chaos. He was not only the new projects maven, but the camera’s favored color commentator when the garden attracted regional and national attention. We miss him, his adventurousness and his ebullience.”
At the monastery, flowers and shrubs weren’t the only things being developed, as Shields grew spiritually, too.
“My only prior experience with Buddhism was casual and uninformed,” he reported. “I thought I knew more than I did. I had never thought about being Buddhist, although I had meditated to help with my art. I had no perception of the metaphysical part of Buddhism, although I learned very quickly. Once I practiced with them, it made me explore within myself to see what I believed. It took me a while to understand and know intrinsically what this was all about. I had to ask, ‘Can I make this make sense to me?’ I had to process ideas like interconnectedness, reincarnation and impermanence.”
“My spiritual views have changed a lot,” replied Shields, whose spiritual framework came from the Catholic faith. “I won’t become an avowed Buddhist yet – I don’t know if that’s right for me. There are parts of my spirituality that don’t fit in with the Buddhist view. But I do practice quite a bit. I stayed there exactly three months, and I felt I didn’t need to stay any longer. That branch of their monastery is not for me.”
Shields was exposed to another branch of Buddhism when he left the monastery in mid-August and lived and worked on an organic farm, growing fruit trees and vegetable crops in exchange for meals and housing.
“They practiced Tibetan Buddhism, which is a much different practice,” he noted. “It was good to be able to commune with them. I drank a lot of tea and exposed them to the teas from David Lee Hoffman. I basically geeked out for a month on tea and farming.”
Shields met Hoffman through Monmouth’s tea project, when the “tea guru” spent three days on campus. That time with Hoffman has led to Shields’ next adventure, which will be a six-month internship at Hoffman’s company, The Phoenix Collection, in Lagunitas, Calif. In addition to learning more about tea and about Hoffman’s business, Shields will also be assisting him in farming heirloom wheat and more than 80 varieties of heirloom potatoes recently acquired from the high mountains of Peru.
“If it goes well, I could work for him after the internship, or I might find another adventure,” said Shields.
A talented sculptor and painter, Shields is not currently creating any works of art, at least not in the traditional sense. But these adventures have certainly had a creative aspect to them, he said.
“I had a lot more time in the wilderness, and a lot of time to think about a lot of stuff. Art is on the back burner for me now, but one of the things I was able to think about is making every moment an artistic expression. It’s an aspirational endeavor, too. So I’m taking these philosophical practices and trying to live with intention and create beauty for myself and those around me.”