Independent Study Proposal

Deadlines: May 1 (for upcoming Fall term); December 10 (for upcoming Spring term)

Please type directly into this word document or print and write neatly in dark ink. Attach additional pages as needed. This form establishes minimum guidelines but should not inhibit the creativity or depth of the proposal. If accepted and completed, this proposal will be attached to the student’s transcript when it is mailed to colleges.

Name: ­_Declan Ross­­­­_          Study Advisor: _Ms. Wang_

Dates of Proposed Independent Study: _SUMMER_          Year: _2020_            

Proposed Title: Daoist Rock Garden


My inspiration for this independent study is twofold. I’ve long had an affinity for Asian cultures, enjoying everything from Japanese cartoons to Buddhist and Daoist teachings. I also founded the OCEF fundraiser club at DA and traveled to China last year on the Capstone trip. At the same time, as the tumultuous political climate swirled around me these last few months, I contemplated—with the challenges of COVID-19 and my town’s racist past and present—how I could give back to my community as a young white man. At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, I witnessed Chinese-American friends and strangers face cruel discrimination, and I found myself searching for ways to affirm their presence in my life and in our community. Additionally, as I walked through UNC campus last week in solidarity with the nationwide protests in response to George Floyd’s death, I understood how much our community could benefit from a public meditative space, dedicated to the ideals of self-reflection, balance, and peace. We must be mindful of our need to rest and renew as we continue to stridently advocate for justice and reform. In this independent study, I will research ancient Chinese history, study poetry, begin a practice of the language, experiment with Tai Chi, and understand the Daoist practices of inner peace. I will be constructing an area on the library grounds in the Town of Chapel Hill inspired by Chinese rock-gardening tradition and open to all who are seeking a place to restore their inner-strength, and thereby our collective strength and desire for peace.

Process: Preparation: How have you prepared already? How do you plan to prepare?

            I have already contacted the Town of Chapel Hill and initiated a conversation with the Parks and Recreation department about the physical portion of my project. They expressed enthusiasm for the project. I’ve collected most of the resources (books, websites, recordings, monographs, etc.) I will need in my studies. My final paper in AP English this year was also focused on the teachings of Daoism and my experience visiting China, which helped me transition into the mindset for this project. I have attached that essay along with this proposal document.

            I plan to solidify my ideas with the Town of Chapel Hill and finalize the construction schemes for the North Carolinian climate-friendly, low-to-no maintenance, Chinese meditative rock garden space. I’ve also started studied of the early stages of Chinese language through Duolingo, which I intend to continue throughout the summer and beyond.

Readings: What books (or other material) will you study?

  • Cohen, Kenneth S. The Way of Qigong. Random House International, 2000.
  • Deng, Ming-Dao, and Laozi. Each Journey Begins with a Single Step: The Taoist Book of Life. Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc., 2018.
  • Deng, Ming-Dao. Scholar Warrior: an Introduction to the Tao in Everyday Life. Harper & Row, 1990.
  • Hammond, Kenneth James. From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History. Teaching Co., 2004.
  • Swartz, Wendy. Reading Tao Yuanming Shifting Paradigms of Historical Reception, 427-1900.Harvard University Asia Center, 2008.
  • The Taiflow YouTube channel.
  • The Li Ziqi YouTube channel.

* I also plan to supplement my study with various scholarly websites and articles to reinforce any necessary teachings that these materials might miss.

Meetings: Where and how often do you plan to meet with your study advisor?

            I will meet with Ms. Wang over Microsoft Teams once every 2 weeks or when necessary. This project does not require much oversight from an adult supervisor, but I will always share my progress with Ms. Wang, who has offered me many resources. The research, reading, and meditative practices will continue all summer, with the rock garden build beginning in coordination with the town, possibly as soon as June 29. I am interested in traveling to visit a renowned Chinese garden in Seattle, Washington, but the pandemic will likely prevent that aspect of my plan.


            Exhibition/Display: How will your share the results of your study?

            I hope to spread the knowledge of my meditative space to my peers through word of mouth, flyers, and/or email/social media. Ms. Wang can also bring her Chinese classes to visit the location as we move back to in-person teaching in the fall. I hope the results of my project can serve people beyond the bounds of the DA community and make a broader impact.

            I’m also considering building a website to document my studies and progress while building the garden. I want to be able to share this experience and everything I learn with others who are interested. I took AP Computer Science last year, so this should be no problem.

            Documentation: What physical product do you plan to produce?

            I will be constructing a “garden” area inspired by ancient Chinese tradition somewhere in Chapel Hill (on the premises of the town library or possibly along a public trail). The area will ideally measure something close to 10 by 10 feet, and I will incorporate my studies into its construction.

  • I’ve researched the individual pricing for some of the materials I might use, but it’s somewhat difficult to calculate a comprehensive budget estimate without knowing the size and shape of the worksite. The money I receive from The Jack Linger Independent Study fund would be spent solely on building materials for the public meditative space.
  • (Rough) Budget: $245 total for rocks and soil, $650 total for plants, $100 for cedar bench materials, $150 to construct the necessary water feature, $200 for to-be-determined fencing materials, and $100 for decorative aspects. That sums to $1,445. Again, these could be adjusted up or down based on the size and shape of the space given to me by the Town of Chapel Hill.
  •                                                       This link helps to explain the basic, necessary traditions of a Chinese garden.
  • Currently, it might be difficult to fit an Independent Study into my fall schedule. I’m taking five AP courses with two free periods, but also balancing testing and college application work. I’m also not sure where I would take the Independent Study as I created it with the intentions of completing it before the summer’s end. Is this a problem? Do I need to re-evaluate my goals for this project?
  • I’ve looked into the Asian community organizations in my area but most of them are Christian Church-affiliated which isn’t exactly what I’m interested in. 
  • I’ve already talked to the Parks and Recreation department affiliated with the public library and they’ve scheduled an internal meeting to discuss my project—I’m currently waiting for a response which should arrive by the end of this week. No matter what, I’m going to arrange the project in a manner that I am legally able to do the required labor. If that means doing some construction at home and then transporting it to the site, that will be okay, but there was no indication that doing the work myself would be an issue.  
  • With the COVID-19 pandemic having cancelled the majority of my summer plans, I will be spending a large amount of my time working on this project (everyday). By all means necessary, the rock garden should be complete before the school year begins. However, in the event that I am unable to complete construction, I can work to complete it over the first couple weekends of fall. 

This proposal has been submitted sincerely and with adequate planning. The independent study is manageable in scope (both within the semester time limit and the academic schedule of the student).

Signed: _Declan Ross_

Below, please find my final AP English 11 essay:

Declan Ross


AP English 11

Ms. McCarthy

Li Jie 李杰

My first steps off the plane in China, after a 26-hour stretch of flights, were crisper than I expected. Any lingering effects of my transcontinental slog—a daze of legroom-less middle seats and aluminum-wrapped mashed potatoes—wafted from me in the cool, Chengdu breeze. I left baggage claim, floating along with my half-empty suitcase, through the airport exit. I’d packed light with a purpose; I was hoping to bring something home. I met Ricky outside, on the sidewalk, next to a 14-person minibus. He was a middle-aged man, in the clothes of a 19th-century newsboy, cap and all, and introduced himself to my American tour group using his Chinese given name: Li Jie.

Ricky walked like a rabbit and talked as long as anyone was around to hear. At the start of the tour, I landed the walking spot two strides behind Ricky simply because my pace was faster than the rest. As the hikes progressed, I gravitated toward that place near him for different reasons; as loquacious as he was, I felt lucky with the chance to tap his wisdom. As Ricky led us around his territory, he told me about his life. He was born in Chengdu. He enlisted in the Chinese military as a teenager and served for 10 years. I knew Ricky was proud of his nationality by the way he described his service in the army, but wrinkles sprouted across his brow as he spoke of his time after discharge. As I understood it, Ricky was lost in those years, with no life to return to at home. He told me how familial bonds in China are different and more distant, and that he could find no sense of purpose in what was once his childhood home. At 24, he left for America, where he mastered English and fascinated himself with Western culture. He later moved to Japan to study Japanese and immerse himself in East Asian religion. He had returned to China and started as a walking guide only two years before I met him in Chengdu. Sometimes on our walks, my footsteps matched the rhythm of his strides, and I knew he was speaking directly to me. I never thought the universe lost Ricky, but I sensed then he had found his place in it. In the days I spent with him, he was most at peace when he shared what he had cultivated—the shoots and leaves of his years of synthesis and discovery. Months passed after I arrived home before I realized what he gave me.

One morning on my journey within the Great Wall, I woke to fogged windows and a post-deluge smoglessness uncharacteristic of China’s cities. I showered and dressed quickly, anxious to meet Ricky and the others. We set toward Dujiangyan City, and within it, Mount Qingcheng. On our trek to the temple’s entrance, Ricky told us the Chinese called it the “cradle of Daoism.” I knew nothing of the faith, but I did know I wanted Ricky to be the one to introduce me. While he spoke, I gazed up at the huge, infinite set of stone-cut stairs, twisting back-and-forth around the mountain while tourists’ sandals slipped on the dew. Verdant foliage hugged the smooth, gray, and mossy trail. Broadleaf evergreens, an endangered species in the Sichuan Basin, watched me, a white speck, weave between brown cliff and red watchtower; I, in turn, watched them, swaying in the wind, and together we listened as Ricky spoke of the Dao. Wide fronds folded under the rainwater, dripped onto the next healthy, open branch, and the droplets, in descent, mirrored the flow and balance of the world.

We reached the first of several red gates. While most of the group was worn out, I chose to march on behind Ricky, to the top. At the summit’s entrance, I found a white-stone courtyard of spellbinding design: the stones seemed to interlock and overlap, carved in such a way that centuries-old rock could bend and melt before my eyes, like Yin and Yang. Hot, thin fumes of incense hung down from an altar above us, and I watched Daoists gather on floor-pillows in worship. I’m not a religious person, or at least I don’t know if I am. I’ve never felt closer to whatever “God” is than in those moments, at the peak of Mount Qingcheng.

As I left with Ricky down the backside of the mountain, I asked about one of the sculptures in the temple—the faintly-green turtle, trapped beneath the altar, with displeasure chiseled across his face. The story he gave me, in the form he told it, I’ve been unable to find anywhere. I remember this:

Somewhere in China, a prince refused his seat upon the throne. He left home, seeking purity of soul and oneness with the universe. Daoist deities advised him to cleanse his innards of sin in the river. As he washed, his large intestine escaped his hands, slipping down the stream, and morphing into a great and immortal tortoise. The creature terrorized China, flooding farmland and setting fire to villages, seizing control of the mortal realm. To save the empire, the prince outwitted the beast: he asked, “If you are the strongest, will you lift the heaviest book?” The tortoise agreed. But when the prince set the book of Dao—“the way” of all things, past and future—on the tortoise’s back, neither could he lift it, nor could it break his shell. The tortoise was trapped for eternity.

In the paper-puppet show Ricky put on behind the curtains of my eyelids, I understood the singularity of the journey toward self-discovery. Human conceit and the desire to hold the past or master the future threaten to entrap us. Knowledge and the pursuit of inner peace promise to humble and empower. In that secluded temple, staring up through a jasmine-scented haze, Ricky’s stories of torrents, infernos, serpents, and turtles were real to me. I took them home. I think I will follow the Dao.