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.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


So, what seems to be evolving is that while I make plans for the second iteration of this story, this first one is sort of sputtering. Again it has been a month between posts. I can tell you that the next version will almost certainly be hosted by Wordpress, will update twice a week, and will include pictures. I have no photographs of my time at the school, and though I could probably find some photos, I'd rather illustrate with my own drawings and paintings. I did several watercolors at the time, and I can do other illustrations from memory. A picture is worth a thousand words, as anyone who has ever tried to describe a picture knows.

Anyway, in the meantime, I will tell you a little more of the school and try to post more often. I'll also be busy preparing for next year, since with the baby coming I might really appreciate having some of the work done ahead. I've got my fingers crossed for a baby who likes the sound of typing, though. I'll get so much done, up typing with a crying baby at three AM.

I think I've told you that Charlie was a landscaper--he had a landscaping company before he started working for the school, and he was also the head groundskeeper on campus. When I think of the word "landscaping" I normally think of a sort of ornamental horticulture; shrub boarders along foundations, flower beds, that sort of thing. And of course, Charlie did that and he taught me to do it. I work summers with a landscaper now, to supplement my writing and teaching income, and we do foundation shrubs and flower beds. But Charlie as a landscaper also had an opportunity that people working on small suburban lots really don't have; campus was about two hundred acres, including the farm fields and the woodlot, and on those acres Charlie could quite literally create a landscape. I have not described campus much, and that suddenly seems like a serious oversight, given that land's relationship to my teacher and, by extension, to me.

He did not start from nothing, of course; a landscape existed before he got there. It was, as I understand it, the overgrown remnants of a well-manicured boy's boarding school, St. Something Or Other. The campus had been abandoned five or ten years, and part of what Charlie did was simply selective acceptance of overgrowth. The lawns mostly became miniature grasslands, maintained by the grazing of sheep and goats, but the young seeding maples that had begun invading the edges he protected, doubling the width of the stately sugar maple line that marched its way along the main entrance road. In some cases he deliberately planted, like the dogwoods he added down by the pond. In some cases he cut and in some cases he cut, added, and allowed, all at once.

Lines of trees must have been a big thing for whoever landscaped St. Something Or Other. There were the sugar maple lines flanking the main entrance, white oaks flanking the secondary entrance, red maples in a line near the dining hall, and Norway spruces forming a kind of three sided box maybe three hundred feet on a side, between the Mansion and the second entrance way on the far side. The fourth wall of that box was formed by a smaller, narrow box, the formal gardens, a rectangle defined by venerable arbor vitae. Charlie kept the formal gardens, gradually trading out the grass for mosses and the exotics for natives, except for one Chinese dogwood that Charlie had planted himself, in honor of his mother when she died. He got rid of the Norway spruce lines.

Norway spruces are strange and graceful trees. You've probably seen them, dark green spires with rows of thin twigs hanging straight down from the swooping branches like dark green dredlocks. That first winter I saw the remaining Norway spruces lifting in the dark, snowy wind, a lonely, wolfish sight, and I bet those lines must have been something when they were intact. But Charlie did not like exotics, nor did he like lines. As he put it, a single line of trees does not do much except get in the way. So he felled a third of the spruces, blowing out irregular holes in the line, and then planted a second line, this time of white pine, behind the surviving spruces. He used live Christmas trees, eight or ten years old, and filled in around them with eastern hemlock, both black and yellow birch, and more arbor vitae. The pines had a head start and the ones near the gaps grew fast. By the time I came to campus, the lines were gone; in their place were irregular wooded strips, maybe thirty to fifty feet wide, the dark conifer greens lit up by the yellow of the birches in the fall. The pines had grown old enough so they looked like trees to my eyes, ten inches in diameter, some of them.

That first summer I was there, Charlie and a few of his buddies took down half of the remaining spruces, the latest iteration of a plan begun twenty years before. The man sculpted in trees and thought in decades.

I remember that was the first year I took Charlie's chainsaw safety course. He taught it on campus with a buddy of his from the Forest Service, and a lot of senior students interested in forestry or trail maintenance took the course for certification. I'd learned to use a chainsaw from my Dad, but I had a hunch I'd learned it wrong and I wanted to learn it right. Anyway, Charlie was teaching it, and since I never knew when he was going to say something remarkable, I tried to take as many of his workshops and classes as I could. Part of the practice work we did in that class was to cut up the spruce branches for fire wood for the outdoor fire pit, so that class and those spruces are united in my mind. The trunk sections Charlie sold to a buddy of his who makes custom furniture.

I remember the class mostly consisted of watching videos, some required by the Forest Service, others that Charlie simply liked. One was a kind of good logger/bad logger comparison featuring one guy who did everything right and another who did everything wrong, and ends up felling a tree on himself. The bad logger was called Charlie, so the last words of the video were "remember, don't be a Charlie." The coincidence of the name struck us all as funny, especially since Charlie, our Charlie, was so unimpeacheably competent at so much. If he ever made mistakes he did it in private, and he did not encourage questioning of his skill. So we had a lot of laughs, not quite at his expense, over that video and its unbelievably incompetent antihero.

When the video was done, Charlie walked to the front of the room to eject the tape. He was dressed kind of oddly. There were outsiders in the class as well, so we weren't wearing school uniforms, and Charlie always did look strange dressed in normal clothing. But we'd all dressed like sawyers in long sleeves and work pants, on his insistence, whereas he was wearing loose shorts and a tank top. He took out the tape and did a strange thing. Turning to us, he pulled up one of the legs of his shorts as high as he could and there, on his thigh up near his groin, on skin so pale I doubt it had sunlight in decades, was a series of long, ropey scars. The muscle on either side of the scars puckered oddly in a way I have since seen only on some war veterans. It means the muscle had once been severed. I'd already taken the wilderness first aid course that summer, and I knew where the femoral artery passes and how quickly life can flow out of that artery when it is cut. Charlie had, some time in his past, almost cut his own leg off. He'd come within an inch or so of dying. He offered no explanation. With Charlie, you could expect a clear and thorough explanation of anything in the world except Charlie and we had learned not to ask.

"You're never too smart to be dumb," he told us. "Don't be a Charlie."