To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Monday, July 30, 2012


I twisted my ankle yesterday morning, so I'm laid-up today. I can barely walk. If I don't feel better by tomorrow, I'll head to the doctor. In the meantime, I can't do any of my chores or errands (darn!). I'm pretty much forced to sit here with my feet up and write this thing. As you can see, it's been a while since I wrote--life got in the way again--so it's probably a good thing thing to be forced to get back to it.

Thinking about being forced to do things, I'm reminded of what Charlie said about everybody needing a boogyman. I almost said "what Charlie always said," when in fact he only said it once in my hearing, but the principle was so much a part of our work together. He "made" me work so hard, harder than I would have ever worked on my own initiative--and of course, I could have quit any time I liked. That he made me do things was a fiction the two of us maintained, and a useful one. It's weird, I'd always thought that once I grew up and didn't have to listen to my parents anymore, I'd be free to do whatever I wanted, but somehow I needed Charlie to tell me to do things I wanted to do, or else I couldn't have done them. It's still like that; I write paid articles because my editor makes me, or because my wife needs me to make my share of the rent. Then I quit writing at the end of the day because my wife makes me socialize. Now you, my readers, are making me write this, or the others who wear the green ring are making me do this, maybe even Charlie is making me write this. I sound like such a total wimp.

And yet, if no one cared what I oak tree grows tall because of the shade and constraint of surrounding trees. Its stature is a reaction to gravity and to its hunger for the sun. The tree's strength is in reaction to the challenge of wind, and its biochemical personality is a fight against caterpillars and galls. Things take on shape and identity because context pushes them to do it, a pushing that is at once constraining and receiving. I never thought about this when I was a novice, as we called the undergraduates (the few graduate students were "candidates"). I was nineteen, and as much as I thought of myself as an independent adult, I was still used to obeying teachers and parents. There is a lot I didn't think to question that I need to think about now.

Speaking of being made to do things, I think it was around this time of year that I finally got all the trees on campus labeled. I went to tell Charlie, but he complained that about thirty trees were not labeled. I could have sworn I'd done them, but I went ahead and did them again. Then another group of trees turned up unlabeled. The third time it happened, I grew suspicious, and accused Charlie of removing the labels. I expected him  to either get offended by the accusation or laugh at me for catching him, but instead he treated me like a schoolboy making excuses.

"I don't care why the trees got unlabeled," he growled, "you've got to get them labeled and keep them that way! When I inspect them in the evening, I want to see every tree labeled!" I was about to object that I couldn't possibly make sure they were all labeled if he was unlabeling them during the inspection, when I remembered that Charlie usually looked over the campus in the early morning. That he'd said he'd inspect in the evening was odd. Charlie rarely talked, and when he did talk he was usually very deliberate about what he said. I realized that he was unlabeling the trees in the morning and inspecting in the evening, meaning that I now had to check every tree on campus for its label every day. I would be done when and if Charlie decided to stop unlabeling more trees than I could label in one day. Before walking away, Charlie told me that when I relabeled a tree, I should not just replace the label but go over in my mind the identifying features of the tree. He suggested I greet each tree by name.

Yes, I was angry with him. I think I complained loudly behind his back. I never complained to Charlie; he was doing what I'd asked him to do. By the time he let me finally stop in mid-September, I knew every single tree on campus individually. There were hundreds of them. I knew them better than I knew my fellow students.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Day in the Life

I'm looking over a daily planner of mine from twelve years ago, and I see my schedule written here in my handwriting. There are no notes, no anecdotes, no adjectives, just what I was supposed to do when, but this note I wrote to myself over a decade ago brings all the details coming back to me across the years, even to the scent of farm animals and green things, the hot, sticky evenings of summer, the cool of the morning before the fog burned away. I'll tell you some the details that I wrote down, and some of the details I didn't.

There was meditation in the morning, of course, though in July the sun was already well up by six, so I usually set my alarm for quarter of five and went running before zazen. Breakfast was always a choice of either miso soup or oatmeal, though there were eggs and sometimes sausage, and home made granola and buns, too, and the tables were set with these beautiful little wooden bowls full of toppings for the oatmeal--fresh fruit, sugar, nuts...that June I remember there were blueberries, we grew blueberries on campus, and I think I mostly lived on them.

I didn't have anything scheduled in the mornings that first summer, my classes were all in the afternoon, so after breakfast I'd put in my hours as a janitor and then go about whatever tasks Charlie had set for me. I could, and did, complain almost constantly about all the ridiculous things he was making me do, even though I'd talked him into being my teacher in the first place, and I'd do it again. He was right about the value of a boogie-man; blaming Charlie freed up a lot of my energy that would otherwise have been expended just getting out of bed in the morning. By July he'd let me slack off on counting birds and gotten me into trees. I had to label every tree on campus, I'm not even kidding, I had to make a little label for every one with common name and scientific name, both spelled right. I could look up every one in a guidebook if I wanted to, I didn't have to memorize anything, but it's hard to table a few dozen of this or that tree and not get "white pine, Pinus strobus," or "sugar maple, Acer sacharum" stuck in your head, and of course Charlie knew that. So I'd spend an hour or two labeling trees every morning, cursing Charlie, and then when I was tired of that I'd quit for the day and go hang out with Charlie. I must have been insane.

Charlie did not have classes in the morning in the summer either, except for some elective, I forget what, on Friday. Instead, he supervised the grounds keeping team, gardened, and puttered about. I was still kicking myself for not having joined grounds keeping, so around ten thirty or eleven I'd go find Charlie and help him with whatever he was doing. He couldn't give me a formal assignment, since those were reserved for his actual employees, but he let me tag along and do whatever he was doing, planting, pruning, checking for beetles or aphids or whatever else. It was a lot like when I used to help my Dad in the garden when I was little. Charlie and I didn't talk much while we worked--Charlie never talked much--but it was a companionable sort of thing, and sometimes he would tell me the names of plants or insects, or quiz me, or tell me why he did things one way and not others. The entire campus, I came to understand, was not just landscaped with natives, it was a single, giant, ecological sculpture, his self-taught, ad hoc attempt to garden for habitat the same way Sara gardened for peas or tomatoes. I have no idea if it worked or not, but there did seem to be more birds and more interesting creepy-crawlies than anywhere else I've been. Campus is one of only two places I've ever seen a living luna moth--go Google them, if you want to, they're amazing.

Anyway, when Charlie got hungry, he'd declare lunch time, and we'd go pick up sandwiches in the dining hall. Sometimes we'd eat with Alan or Sara, or Rick, Rick being another of Charlie's students. Sometimes Charlie had a meeting, or maybe an attack of grumpiness, and left me to eat alone. Sometimes the two of us would go eat our sandwiches together out on the meadow where a large building used to be--I think it was student housing or a school building back when the campus was a private boarding school. I guess it burned down in the same fire that damaged the Mansion--that fire is why the school was able to rebuilt the third floor and add a fourth and make the Mansion into the passive solar structure it is today. But where the other building was is just a flat spot with a drop-off at the end, a little grassy cornered cliff. We called it the Edge of the World, and a good place to have lunch.

After lunch, I'd have class--two days a week I had Introduction to History, the Wednesdays were for martial arts with Karen, and Mondays and Fridays I took various workshops and talks. A lot of the talks were for credit, and though you only got a quarter credit per talk, they added up. In the evening...let's see, Monday I did homework, Tuesday was Philosopher's Stone Soup, which I'll tell you about later, Wednesday was group therapy and then Dead Poets Society, Thursday was the Paleolithic Dinner, which I will also tell you about later, and Friday I hung out with my dorm-mates. Over the weekend there were parties, little concerts and poetry readings, and homework. I'm not sure when I slept. Maybe I didn't sleep. I was only nineteen and had energy to burn.

I remember one day, over lunch out on the Edge of the World, I asked Charlie why I had to listen to birds and label trees and so forth. I wasn't complaining, but he was primarily my spiritual master, and while I must have had an intuitive sense of the answer, or I would never have pushed Charlie into teaching me, I wasn't sure what this natural science stuff had to do with finding God. Charlie looked at me a moment before answering, and then asked if I knew him. I didn't know what he meant.

"You know, do you know me? Do you know who I am? Are we friends?"

"Yeah, sure, I guess so," I told him. Were we friends? The word started me, and I was distracted for a moment, wondering. Charlie went on, answering my question with more questions.

"What's my name? My full name," he asked. I told him, middle name included. His eyebrows raised--I don't think he knew I knew his middle name. "How do I make my living?"

"You're a professor at an odd liberal arts college, and you write and publish poetry and essays."

"What do I live on? What do I like to eat?"

"Sheep's milk mozzarella on whole wheat oat bread with honey mustard," I told him. He made an odd sound, a cross between a grunt and a chuckle, and looked at his half-eaten mozzarella sandwich. I never saw him eat anything else for lunch, ever.

"Who are my associates, who do I like to be around?"

"Uh, Alan and Sara and some of your students," I ventured. That one was harder, since I never saw him when he wasn't working and I didn't know who he saw on his free time.

"Who don't I like to be around?" He asked this one with a sly twinkle, wondering, maybe, if I'd be able to answer, but I answered without hesitation. I knew he didn't like Kit, was more or less allergic to her. He made his chuckle-grunt again. "Is it that obvious?" he asked ruefully. "I'm going to have to do something about that." He took a few more bites of his sandwich and a pull from his water bottle.

"If you didn't know all those things about me, would you be able to say you know me?" he asked. I told him I would not. "Well, God is the same way."

I think I paled, realizing what this statement implied about how much Charlie would ask me to learn about trees, but something still didn't add up.

"But particular tree species aren't God," I objected. Charlie shrugged and held up his hand. It was big, meaty, and calloused.

"What is the name of my first finger, then?" he asked me, shrugged again, and then finished his sandwich and began to pack up. I let him go. I'd long since noticed that whenever Charlie said more than he'd expected to, he seemed to feel a need to get grumpy, or to leave afterward. Often, he didn't even say good-by. He wasn't being inconsiderate, he was being deliberately rude, showing his prickles like a porcupine would. But a porcupine is a vulnerable animal with a soft belly and a slow, impractical walk. You can kill one with a good fastball, so I've read, throw a stone that a rabbit or a cat could easily dodge. I've never actually met a porcupine up close, though I've seen them in trees once or twice. But if I did see a porcupine on the ground and it showed me its quills I would let it walk away in peace.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Elven King

I want to tell you about summer at the school. In some ways it was simply a third semester (we never called them trimesters) in that we had classes and the same rhythm of campus life went on. There was meditation, then breakfast, when the whole campus got together over miso soup, oatmeal, sweetrolls, and eggs, then blocks of time for classes, campus work (I was still on the cleaning crew), or whatever independent projects the Masters had us working on. Lunch was informal; you could just go in to the dinning hall and get a sandwich, some soup, or a salad any time between noon and four. The bread was homemade and just amazing. We ate dinner with our dorm-mates or in various other small groups, like the Wednesday therapy groups. You could pick up food for dinner at the dining hall kitchen or prepare your own. In the evenings there was always homework, but there were also talks, workshops, parties, and sitting up with a bottle of mead late into the night, talking about everything in the world. Yes, mead; even when we did what I guess are pretty normal college-kid things, like procrastinating our homework over alcohol, we did it our own way, with mead made from the honey of our own bees. By July the previous year's hard cider was pretty much gone.

All of this was pretty much like the rest of the year. There were two big differences. First, very few semester-long courses were offered during the summer. Some years none were. Instead there were workshops, intensives, seminars, and the expectation that we would have chosen most if not all of our Masters and would be working on assignments from them. The other major difference was that the campus was full of children.

I've said how the school was run on a shoe-string, how tuition was kept incredibly low by a habit of using money as rarely as possible. But we did need some cash, and tuition didn't quite cover it. So there were a couple of cash-cow programs on campus, like occasionally renting out space for conventions and meetings and weddings and so fourth. The biggest of these projects, though, was the summer camp. We charged a thousand dollars per kid per week, which really isn't that bad--it's about normal for that sort of thing--except when you consider that the Masters themselves got only ten thousand a year (plus room, board, health insurance, and membership in a community money can't buy). The kids lived in tents out near the orchards, and students who wanted experience working with kids looked after them; they were paid in academic credit, not money.

In the mornings, the kids worked on the farm with Sara, which might possibly have violated child labor laws, but they did have fun and they learned a lot, and they got to eat some of the produce. In the afternoons they could pick among any of several activities, from archery to hiking to fishing or canoeing down at the lake two miles away. It was a fairly ordinary summer camp, and for the most part the school itself didn't mix much with them. The exception was the Dead Poet's Society.

I'm sure you've seen, or at least heard of the movie, so you probably have a basic idea of what Dead Poet's Society meetings were; groups of people meeting outdoors at night for the magic of words. In our case, the secret was no deeper than the fact that the group was by invitation only, and like everything else on campus, if you were not already involved no one would tell you anything. But it was not against the rules--it was organized by one of the Masters; my teacher, Charlie, who was a writer as well as a naturalist and a gardener.

The arrival of the campers gave Charlie the opportunity to engage in the kind of fun the real secrecy  of breaking rules provides, for while the group still wasn't against any rules, the campers did not know that. His grandnieces  and -nephews functioned as his operatives in this, for they attended the camp every year for the entire six weeks and were in on the joke. They would lead other children in sneaking out after bed-time and making their way out to to the meeting, wherever it was, lit usually by citronella torches or candles, to share poetry with mysterious grown-ups dressed in hooded cloaks. You weren't allowed to attend in the summer if you worked with the kids during the day--the illusion of transgression had to be perfect. Sometimes a camper would object to the sneaking out and tell on the young poets, so there would have to be a big show of them getting in trouble. The miscreants would be called out, lectured to, and then sentenced to spend their free time helping Charlie in the garden, a punishment calculated to be no punishment at all.

I was a member of the Society, so I got to be one of the mysterious hooded men in the torchlight. It was an absolute blast--but the kids didn't always think so. It wasn't really a children's event--the poetry was often long, difficult, or even frightening, and we didn't do much interpretation of it for them. We were not camp counselors, we were grown-ups, doing grown-up things, to which the children were invited as a special privilege. Some of them were as young as six. Most of them never came back, but maybe one in ten did. Some kids came to Society meetings every year for all eight years and Charlie got to watch them grow up. He said, of them, that they would bear watching. They were like the children in Irish folk-tales who spend time in fairy hills, or who fall asleep with their ears to the ground, listening to fairy music. The question with such children was always whether they became different because of fairy magic, or were they different to begin with, and fairy magic gave them what they needed to have a full life? Charlie wouldn't speculate, but he was, to the campers, the Elven King.

Most of them never even knew his name.