Leigh Bercaw: Renaissance woman

By Rachel Adler

The Mac Weekly sat down with Anthropology major Leigh Bercaw ’12 to talk about water buffalo, cow knees, and “Accordion Heaven.” TMW: Let’s start with the basics. Where are you from? What’s your Major? And what is your spirit animal? Leigh: Oh man! Those are good questions. I’m from Berthoud, Colorado. Technically [Berthoud] was a French explorer, I guess, so it should be pronounced like “bear too,” but if you’re from my town it’s “birth id.” So I’m from Berthoud. I’m an Anthro major, and my spirit animal…well, my sister will claim that if I were any animal, I would be a water buffalo. While I feel reluctant to accept that as a spirit animal, there are some qualities of the water buffalo that I admire. What are those qualities? They’re pretty nonchalant, but they’re not ashamed of themselves. They take up a lot of space; they’re out there roaming on the wild plains looking for water. I just like them a lot. Plus, their horns are out of control! Way loopy. Mountain goats are also really cool because they have those tiny hooves to hop around on those crags. I think that’s the story behind hiking boots; they want you to feel like you have tiny hooves so that you can just bound from rock to rock. At least I know I feel that way when I’m in my hiking boots. You were a panelist at this year’s International Roundtable. Can you talk a little bit about the work you presented? I was asked to present a response paper to Tonderai Chikuhwa ’96’s presentation [“Children of the World: The Dialectic of Promise and Vulnerability”]. When I first was invited I was still [studying abroad] in Madagascar. And I was like, vulnerable children? What do I know about vulnerable children? Then Diana [Shandy] told me that she chose me because I don’t pull my punches in class. Like, if I’m really confused about something I’ll immediately be like, “What? I don’t get this! Somebody tell me! You guys buy that? I don’t buy that!” So I think that’s what she wanted out of me. Professionally speaking, I did a response paper to this really amazing speaker. It was really terrifying to do, and it was actually really fun in that terrifying kind of way. Then your photo from the Roundtable ended up on the Macalester homepage. How did you react when you first saw your photo on the website? You know, I noticed that I had my mouth open and finger pointed as if in argument and I thought, typical. It’s really weird to see myself. The other day I was hanging out on a couch with the men’s rugby team, and someone asked me, “Hey, is that you on the homepage?” And I was like, “Errrr..what?” Usually people I know just come up to me and say, “Leigh on the homepage!” But he was a complete stranger, and I was like, “I’m sorry, I’m not very photogenic.” And he said, “No, it’s great. It’s very well done.” And he just gave me this solid look. I thought, man, I just earned the respect of a stranger. What I didn’t know about the homepage, and this is scandalous, is that a lot of people do that as self-promotion; they’ll email the homepage themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a lot of people thought I had done that. How was your study abroad experience in Madagascar this past spring? It was an adventure. That’s all I ever really say about it. It was horrible and it was wonderful. I know that there was a big research component to your program. What did you work on while you were there? Well I wanted to have “legitimate” field experience. My First Year Course was taught by Olga Gonzalez, and she loves telling stories about her fieldwork. Seriously, her stories always end with, “And that’s how I got a parasite.” Or, “I was walking up this pathway in the Peruvian Andes…” She said that one time she drank this herbal tea that consisted of the dung of a hermaphrodite armadillo. That was my inspiration for my study abroad experience. I tried to do as much as possible. I did two months of independent research after getting a grant to stay a little bit longer. I had all the right adventures; I got a parasite, I ate huge locusts, I ate cow knees, I got lice, and talked to my lice. There were all sorts of ranges of the human experience during my study abroad. I was studying food security in villages in and around the national parks in Madagascar. I’m sort of the conservation downer in my conservation classes, where I’m really pessimistic about conservation and environmentalism in general. I’m a downer. I am a problematic student [laughs]. I like to critique conservation a lot, and food security was one of the most fun ways to do that. I hung out with farmers, talked to them about their rice fields, I worked in the rice fields, and I made a house out of cow dung and mud. I shelled a lot of peanuts; I am mad talented at peanut-shelling now. You’re known as a bit of a renaissance woman. What are you currently involved in? Well, I just bought my first beginner’s accordion book from “Accordion Heaven” down on Randolph. It is the most legitimate accordion shop in the Midwest region, at least according to what I’ve read. It’s a cool place. Even if you don’t play accordion, you should stop in. With my good buddy Larsen [Husby] I run Thistle, where we talk about writing once a week. I’m also on the Macalester Women’s Hockey Team. I am the Van Driver Captain. What’s the team’s record? Oh man! I am so excited about us. We just tied and before that we were 2-0. My first year, we lost 10-1 like our first ten games, so this is unprecedented. We are the perpetual underdog team playing against our own mothers basically. We play women the age of our mothers. This is the movie “Miracle.” If there’s any game the Macalester community should come to, it’s the game against Carleton, which is going to be on Valentine’s Day. Instead of love, let’s play hockey. I also dabble in chair building. I keep trying to build a chair with questionable success. Do you have any hidden talents? Growing up, I was best friends with a Mormon. When I was in fifth grade, I went to a weeklong Mormon girls’ week… I forgot the actual name of it. So part of it was a talent show, and I decided that the best talent I could showcase was making a magnet out of just a nail and copper wire, which is something my dad had shown me. It seemed like the best talent I could show the world. So that maybe is my secret talent. Pretty nerdy. Is that listed on your resume? Should it be? Maybe it could help you land a job out of college. Leigh “Magnet Maker” Bercaw. What are your plans for the future? I mean, far into the future. I actually have no idea about the far future, but I kind of might know what I’m going to do in the immediate future. I was planning to stay here over the summer, and then go back home for a few months and wait until the ski season and work in a ski area. I love to spend the winter legitimately in the mountains in Colorado. After four years of reading books, I can’t think of any better way to spend my time than smiling at strangers and helping small children onto chairs. Which you may or may not have built yourself? A ski lift chair? No way. That’s complicated business. So I was thinking after that, I may be a seasonal worker up in Alaska for the summer after that. Maybe after that, back to Africa. I don’t know. Maybe grad school. We’ll see. Any last words? Well, I probably shouldn’t say anything about John Wayne; he’s a politically precarious figure.