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.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Fourth Interlude

Hi, all,

Daniel-of-2013 here.

It's been surprisingly difficult to not write about our daughter. She's really occupying a huge part of my available attention. It reminds me a little of when, in graduate school, Rick used to call me up and ask how I was doing and I'd tell him all about my homework assignments. I had no inner life to talk about. My life was in my books and my laptop and my notes, so that's all I had to talk about.  Now people ask me how I'm doing and I tell them how my daughter's doing. I'm one of those Dads. And then I sit down to write this blog every week and I have to change gears, cast my mind back, and become again, as much as I can, that boy who had no child, who loved no wife, who was hardly more than a child himself.

It feels like a very long time ago, and yet...I can still smell the rain through the open balcony door in my mind. Part of me has never left, and probably never will.

Of course, had I never been at the school there would probably be nothing funny or remotely telling about my inability to answer a question like "how are you." I have friends, mostly other men, who can't ever answer the question, and I probably would have become one of them. I'm just not an introspective person. I don't think I'm any more self-deluded than the next person, and it's not that I have no inner life, it's just that I don't pay much attention to my inner life because, basically, I think I'm pretty boring.

I've been told that not trying to understand myself is a bit like trying to use a map without first locating oneself on it, and that makes some sense. My wife keeps telling me that if I don't tell her what I think and feel then she won't know what makes me happy, and she really gets a kick out of trying to make me happy. That makes sense, too, because I'm the same way about her. But making sense is not enough. I wouldn't be able to say how I'm doing if I didn't know how, and Allen is the one who taught me. Allen and Greg.

Allen taught me to name my feelings. He taught all of us, to one degree or another. I remember someone (I no longer remember who--it may have been Oak) insisting that he was not angry about something and Allen asking him to describe his current physical sensations and mental imagery. When he had, Allen explained that this was anger. The other man had thought anger meant shouting or trying to hurt someone. He hadn't known there was a difference between feeling and expressing.

Greg taught me to find that difference. After months of zazen it was like...sometimes I became aware that I was watching myself. Not analyzing myself or thinking about myself, just watching. It only happened occasionally, and it was very faint...since then my observer-self has gotten much stronger. I'm not wiser or smarter than I used to be, but it's like I am less caught up in my foolishness and stupidity. It's hard to explain.

I remember how I thought when I started at school--and I think I was fairly normal at that point. I was maybe a little young for my age, but basically my reactions to the school were about the same as I think anyone's would have been--wonder and confusion mixed. But by the time I had been there for five or six months I was no longer normal. I had become more self-aware, more curious, and slightly more intellectual. My basic assumptions and reactions were changing. I mentioned, in my last post, the day I biked into town to buy a Coke and ended up regretting it. Part of the reason I regretted it was that I had the bottle to deal with afterwards. Well, I can imagine the reader asking, how difficult is it to recycle a Coke bottle? But this is a case in point of how I had changed. I didn't see that bottle as a piece of trash anymore, I saw it as an object in its own right, a piece of plastic that could and should be used for something--and I couldn't come up with any need for it. It felt like such a waste. How do I describe this?

How do I describe the man I was becoming, when he had so little in common with many of my readers? Of course, some of you probably avoid excess packaging, too. I wasn't the only person in the world concerned about packaging, meditation, or even the child-rearing practices of cultures in southeast Asia, or whatever I was reading about in Anthropology class that week. But now, when I buy a bottle of soda and feel bad about wasting the bottle--and I still do this two or three times a year--I do it in the context of a society where single-use bottles are considered normal. I have it in the back of my head that I'm a little unusual. When I was at school, though, I was entirely inside a society where nothing is ever used just once and where, when people ask "how are you?" they really want an answer. I changed largely without knowing I was changing, or without knowing the depth of the changes. I did not realize I was strange. And it is that innocence I do not know how to describe.

While I'm setting the record straight on things, I should say something about the logistics of course registration and grading at the school. It's not deeply important, and I haven't found any place in the narrative to put it, but you may be wondering how we did it.

Mostly course registration was already computerized when I got there. Hardly anything else was. The school was slow to enter the electronic age--even by the time I graduated, in 2004, there was still no expectation that students own computers. There was no school email system and no way to get online except by the six desktops in the computer lab, which was basically a hallway on the first floor of the Mansion. At least the lab was always open, so you could work at night, if you needed to. But we did have the most amazing program to manage our courses. I've never seen anything like it since. You'd type in your name and get a spreadsheet of sorts that already knew your various prior commitments and course requirements and it would fill in most of your schedule automatically. You'd just have to pick an elective or two or sort out a conflict. The whole system ran smooth as silk and never crashed. The faculty must have had something similar because they didn't seem to have any trouble getting us our evals on time. And I have no idea who managed all of this. At the time I was a novice, there was no IT person on staff. It was just one of the mysteries of the place. I didn't appreciate it at the time, because I had so little to compare it too, but now, in retrospect, it seems as miraculous as Hogwarts' house-elves.

Anyway, I'm about out of things to say, for now. I hope you have a wonderful Lammas.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Part 4: Post 12: The Storm

At home I used to sleep with the air conditioner on in the summer, or a fan, most of the time. When I did have the window open I mostly heard traffic, or the neighbor's TV. I don't come from a big city or anything, but the area's not exactly rural.

Green Frog
 Here, though....we have no air conditioning. We have no fans. Sometimes it's hot at night, but mostly it's alright, because of the way the air flows through the building at night, in through our open balcony doors and up and out through the skylight at the top, in the master's courtyard. I worried some about mosquitoes, and I thought about getting some mosquito netting--some people have it--but not very many of them fly up here to the second-floor window.

And through that opening....

I hear rain on the leaves of the bean-vines, soft, because most of the drops are blocked by the balcony above. Just some drift in, land on the leaves--I still have to water them in the morning. When the rain starts I wake to the sound and the cool, green rain-smell washes in from the window and over me. Sometimes I can hear frogs breeding in the little pool in the Bird's Garden behind the Mansion or the water-feature in the corner of the Formal Garden inside the white cedar square. Once I heard coyotes calling, a rising, multi-voiced sing-song out in the woods, and the sheep and goats and horses called back nervously and the dogs all started barking. The coyotes ignored them all and sang on.

Could I have hears any of these sounds at home? Well, not the horses, obviously, but the others? Maybe. But I wasn't listening. I tuned out sound when I slept, the hum of the fan or the air-conditioner, the sounds of traffic and my neighbors. I learned not to listen.

I biked into town today during lunch. I don't know why, but I was really craving a Coke. I hadn't had one in months, and I just really wanted one all of a sudden, so I biked in and got one, plus one of those stupid little muffin-thingies you get in convenience stores and a Snickers bar. That was all my lunch, since when I got back to campus it was time for class. And the wasn't as good as I remembered. Come to think of it, I'm not even sure I really used to think Coke was all that good to begin with, though I drank a lot of it. I don't know why I was craving it. And then I had the stupid bottle to deal with. I'm not sure I'll bother getting any again.

Bean Flowers
Anyway, so the reason I'm bringing up my misadventure with Coca-Cola is that on the way there I smelled new-cut grass and also lighter-fluid. It was a nice day, and people were out mowing their lawns and someone was having a cook-out. And that smell--it totally took me back.

My Dad's a serious grill-freak, and almost every weekend in the summer we used to have cook-outs, the whole time I was growing up. I learned how to grill a steak properly before I learned to boil an egg. It's like my whole childhood--being outside in the summer just smelled like cut grass and lighter-fluid. And this is the first time all summer this year I've smelled it. It's not that we don't have cook-outs--there's Philosopher's Stone Soup, of course, and there's usually somebody cooking dinner outdoors. It's that we don't use lighter-fluid because we don't use store-bought charcoal.

We don't use lawnmowers, either, though our neighbors do, so we do get that smell. But here the summer mostly smells like...animal dung. It's not gross--it doesn't smell like sewage or anything. It's just a sort of musty scent, not very strong, just sort of there. They use mobile electric fences--they're solar-powered--to move the grazing area around whenever they need to. When they run out of campus to graze I guess they leave the sheep and goats and horses in their paddocks and give them hay until the next time the grounds need to be mowed. They've been right around the Mansion the last few weeks, and before that they were between Chapel Hall and the Dinning Hall, so there's this faint smell sometimes. The chickens wander everywhere--there are two flocks, and each one gets to be completely free-range every other day, so if something does eat them we won't lose all our eggs at once. So add that to the list of sounds and smells--the crowing. It's not loud--I can sleep through it--but, again, it's there.

The summer has been pretty quiet, so far, not a lot of storms, but no serious drought, either. I've heard last summer and the summer before that were terrible for drought, and some of the crops failed. Sometimes I see flashes, or hear a rumble or two at night.

But today--I'd just gotten home from class and I was about to shower for dinner when one of the Ravens knocked on my door.

"Storm's coming," she said, and went on to the next door. We don't watch the weather reports here, but some people are really aware of the sky and can give a pretty good prediction a few hours in advance. I went out on my balcony and peered through the beans and I could see that the sky to the west was all dark. The bean leaves moved beside me, fluttering in the sudden, cooling breeze.

Obviously, I could not shower, but it wasn't my turn to prepare dinner, so I moved my chair to the balcony and watched and worked a bit on my homework.

And the sky just got darker and darker. After a few minutes it was like the sky exploded--pouring rain, lightening, wind. It was really something. And it just went on and on like that. I probably should have gone inside, but instead I looked out through the beans again and I could see the wind whipping the tops of the oaks and hickories and the locust grove we call the Enchanted Forest. My face was wet in a minute.

"That's one way to take a shower," said Raven behind me. I hadn't heard her knock. She had come back to my room. She'd come back to tell me that no one could get out to the Dining Hall to pick up the meal, and did I want to eat leftovers now, or wait until the storm was over so we could pick up fresh food?

Bean Vine
"Well, when is the storm going to be over?" I asked.


"Oh, get out."

"I'd say an hour or three. It's a long storm."

"Leftovers sounds good to me. You know half of us will snack on leftovers anyway, if we decide to wait."

So, that's what we did. An advantage of being off the grid is that we never lose power in storms, but we decided to eat by candle-light anyway. It was nice.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Part 4: Post 11: The Failure of Reason

 Well, I missed it. Just the day after I posted the last entry, I was sitting there, watching the phoebe nest, doing my homework...and I looked down at the book I was reading and when I looked up again the nest was empty.


I didn't entirely miss the show, though. Otter, one of the senior students in my dorm, happened to be walking by while I was sitting there dumbfounded, and he saw my face and asked what was wrong. I laughed, because I felt kind of silly, being upset about having missed the birds flying away, and then I told him. He just looked around for a minute.

"No, you didn't," he said.

"Didn't what?"

"Didn't miss all the birds flying away. There's one--see?" And I looked. There was a little bird perching on the edge of the large lantern that hangs over the steps that go up to the front door. The best way to explain it is to say that if you look at a picture of the front of the White House there is a similar lantern, but bigger, hanging there. Only, I've never seen ours on. I don't even know if it works. Anyway, there was a little bird clinging there.

"But it doesn't look anything like a phoebe," I protested. "The tail's shorter and it's all...weird-looking." Otter laughed. As the name implies, he's interested in and knowledgeable about animals.

"Of course not," he told me. "You're used to looking at the adults. This thing was a chick an hour ago. Songbird fledgelings all have really short tails. And it's all weird-looking because it has no idea what's going on. If you were only sixteen days old and had just discovered you can fly, you'd be weird-looking, too."

As we watched, the little phoebe fledgeling whistled for its parents, who didn't come. It flew around the inside of the carport for a bit, seemingly lost, and I could see it breathing heavily at one point, when it landed near me. It did, indeed, seem confused. But just when I was starting to worry that it might need some kind of help it suddenly got up and flew unerringly away. So now they really are all gone. I don't suppose I'll ever see any of them again, and I don't think I'd know them if I did. I'll have to keep an eye out for short-tailed songbirds.

I'm going to miss watching those birds, though I suppose it's just as well--I was starting to fall behind on my homework. I'd like to know more about birds, the way Otter and some of the others do. I'm starting to want to know about everything. At least I am learning about trees. I thought I knew all the trees on campus weeks ago, but I would have forgotten them. Now, I don't think I'm going to forget. I've filled out those stupid labels so many times, over and over, the same species sometimes many times a day (Charlie tends to unlable whole species at once,so I'll wake up one morning and find hemlocks, red maples, and white oaks unlabeled. A few days later it will be black cherry, white pine, and alternate-leafed dogwoods). It's like a chant for each species, a discipline.

Hemlock Twig
 Eastern hemlock, Tsuga canadensis; Eastern hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, Eastern hemlock, Tsuga canadensis. Greetings, Eastern hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, thou conifer with short, uneven needles and reddish, wrinkled bark! Hail thee! Of course, I don't actually say that. I greet them without words. But that's what it's like. I expect I'll be dreaming about them, soon. Maybe when I do, Charlie will know somehow, and he'll let me stop.

I'm not worried about it, though.

I was worried about Ollie,earlier this week. Something had been going on with him. He seemed distracted, grumpy, just...stressed. It wasn't like him. I usually let people do their own thing, unless I'm feeling nosy, but Ollie's a good guy and he's helped me out a lot. So I asked him about it the other evening. At first he wouldn't tell me, but he didn't actually say he didn't want to talk about it. Instead he was trying to brush me off without admitting that he was doing it, and it kind of pissed me off. I mean, if you want me to go away, be a man about it and say so. So I kept following him around the dorm, pestering him, until finally he threw himself down in one of the chairs in our lobby.

"Ok, then, sit," he told me. He sounded tired. With a gesture I indicated the other people in the room, all reading or writing busily--maybe two or three of them. He waved off my concern. "They're reading.They're dead to the world. And I don't feel like getting up." He's probably right not to care--people mostly mind their own business here. There's hardly any rumor mill at all.

So I sat down to listen.

"Daniel," he began in a low, stressed-out voice, "there's a girl who wants to have sex with me."

"What?" I was confused--first, I was distracted by his wording--no one here says "girl" for grown women anymore, and Ollie's really careful about that sort of thing. So the way he said it just sounded weird. But it was obvious what he meant. But still....huh? The people reading in their chairs had not moved. The word "sex" doesn't attract much attention here, because most people talk about it openly, not like people talk about it in other places--it's like it's no big deal for a lot of people. But Ollie's an exception. He doesn't talk about it, usually.

"There's a girl who wants to have sex with me," he repeated. "Quite a lot, actually." He blushed and looked away.

"And this is a problem why?"I asked him. He took a few seconds to answer.

"You've got to understand how I was raised," he told me. "My church takes no sex before marriage very seriously. You're not even supposed to think about sex. I got so used to never even looking at a girl from the neck down I think they actually could have been naked--I wouldn't have noticed. Jesus said that to look at a woman with lust is to commit adultery in your heart. So, obviously you can't have lust...except, how can you not?" he blushed again. "It's just a particular cross to bear for adolescent boys."

"So, what did you do? As an adolescent?" If he had some kind of cure for inconvenient lust I'd like to know, after all.

"I took a lot of cold showers," he answered. He smiled a little and then continued. "I'm not the only person here who was raised Baptist, but I think I'm the only one here who still is Baptist. I see things differently than I did when I was a kid--I'm not as reactionary, I'm not as literalist. I don't think a passing thought or feeling will condemn me to Hell, anymore. God gave me this body and these feelings for a reason. But I have to be a man about it and not a beast. I can't just do things because I feel like doing them. I...believe in celibacy before marriage. I believe in doing what I know, in my heart, is right."

As he talked, I saw Ollie's body language change. When he talked about how he was raised, he looked like a boy. He looked shame-filled, like somebody was doing something to him. A victim. But as he talked on he grew older. By the time he got to that last line he was an adult again, confident, with this quiet, unshakeable integrity. It was strange and touching to see. Then he sighed.

"But loving Willa is also right. And I don't know what to do."

"Willa? You're in love with Willa?" I asked. I hadn't thought of them as together, though I knew they were good friends. I could see what he meant--Willa is studying sex magic. She's one of the people on campus who goes to bed like she's asking somebody to pass the toast. I wouldn't call her 'easy,' first because I don't want to get slapped ('sexist' is right next to 'homophobic' on the list of things you do not want to be here), and second because it's not like she's indiscriminate. I doubt she's easy to talk into anything, let alone sex. But it is hard to imagine her really being compatible with a card-carrying Baptist. I was trying to figure out some sympathetic way to respond when I heard a voice beyond me.


I turned, and saw Willa poking her head up over the top of one of the other chairs. Neither of us had realized she was there. I could almost hear Ollie's mortification behind me. I did him the favor of not turning back to see him turning red. "Ollie, we don't have to have sex," Willa continued in a loud, cheerful voice.

"We don't?" said Ollie.

"No! I'm a tantrika, not a sex-friend!" Willa giggled. By now, everyone in the room was clearly listening in. Sex may not be a big deal, but celibacy is apparently quite titillating. Willa seemed to have no awareness of their reaction. She was absolutely unselfconscious, and unconscious, too, apparently, of how Ollie must be feeling. She climbed out of her chair and went over to Ollie. "Did you mean that, about loving me?"

"Of course! You're...yes."

"Ollie, I explore physical love in order to grow in spiritual love. I can explore celibacy the same way, for the same reason."

"You'd do that for me?"

"Yeah. Of course. You're more than my friend. You know that, right?"

"I am?"

 I have no idea how long a relationship can last between two people who are so different. Willa, standing there, completely oblivious to the fact that we could all hear her, and private, proper Ollie. Although, they do both like to explore the inside of things, the not-obvious things--the way Ollie is learning to be a Baptist preacher by studying reason and psychotherapy with an agnostic magician being case in point. So maybe it can work.

But the thing that really has me shaking my head is how completely unreasonable Ollie let himself get over this. He wouldn't even let me let go of who was unlabeling my trees, and here it somehow slipped his mind that he could just ask Willa what she wanted, what she was willing to do. It seems like a no-brainer to me, especially with Willa, who likes to talk about everything.

But I guess even philosophers sometimes take leave of their senses, when something they want desperately enough is at issue.

[Next Post: Friday, July 26th: Thunderstorm]

Friday, July 19, 2013

Part 4: Post 10: The Art of Magic

The phoebes under the car port roof are about to fledge. They’re kind of hard to see, because the nest is up on a ledge and a little back. The angle isn’t good. But I can see the adults flying in with food,
and I can hear the chicks, their dry, raspy begging. And just lately I can see their heads over the top of the ledge. They must be standing up higher in the nest, moving around.

So I’ve decided I want to be there when it happens. I want to see the phoebes fledge. Of course, most of the time I have somewhere else I need to be—working, eating breakfast, going to class, labeling trees—but I’m trying to maximize my chances. About the only time I have where I can really be any place I like is when I do my homework, so I’m doing my homework on the corner  of the porch, by the wheelchair ramp, where I can see the nest.

So I was sitting there today and this man drives up, gets out, and walks into the office. The phoebe sat in the lilac bush and cheeped at him irritably, but I don’t think he noticed. When he came out again, a few minutes later, he was carrying a pamphlet. He’s a prospective student, I guess. He’ll be starting next February—and I won’t be a yearling anymore. That’s strange to think about, that of course I won’t always be a yearling, I won’t always be the new kid here. For that man who ignored the phoebe, I’m the mysterious one in the Harry Potter robe.

And honestly I think I may have a claim to a certain kind of magic, because that man didn’t notice the phoebe even though she was talking to him, and I did. I’m not a birder or anything—I didn’t even know they were phoebes until Rick told me, I didn’t even know there was any such thing as a phoebe. But I can see things now that other people can’t see. I’m sitting here in my wizard’s robes watching something that is invisible to ordinary men.

But at the same time, I hardly know anything. I’ve been watching the other newbies gradually choose up masters, get started on various courses of study…and there’s a difference between us and the senior students. It’s like they take knowing certain things for granted that we don’t even know at all yet. Dan has finally persuaded Kit to start teaching him on viola—he took lessons as a kid, apparently, and remembers how to play some songs. He sounds ok. But he’s going to have to work for a while just to get good enough at producing sound where he really sounds like a professional.  Maryanne is in her second year and studying guitar. I don’t know how good she was when she started here, maybe she always sounded great, but that’s not really my point. My point is that she’s busy figuring out how the guitar fits into her work as a therapist. She doesn’t talk about it much, but when she does she says things like “at first you need a teacher to learn about the guitar. Then, the guitar becomes the teacher.” There’s a qualitative difference, maybe as big as the difference between that man who didn’t notice the phoebe and me.

I’m thinking again about how all these different subjects relate to each other, how they are “ways in,” as Allen said. I know how athletics is a way in. I’ve found that way in myself while I’m running. And obviously spirit and magic both are—though I still don’t know how Allen’s magic of perception manipulation and Kit’s magic of causing practical change in accordance with the will are actually the same thing. And healing has been linked to magic going way back in history. But how, exactly, does healing relate to spirit? And where do art and craft fit in?

Art I think I can get. Maybe. I’m thinking about how I feel when I draw or paint. Not all the time, but sometimes, I feel different. Calmer, more focused. I find things, sometimes when I paint. This come out of my hands that I didn’t know were in there. I think, maybe, if I spent a lot of time in that calm, focused place, and really paid attention, it could teach me something.

[Next Post: Monday, July 22: The Loss of Reason]

Monday, July 15, 2013

Part 4: Post 9: Summer and the Craft of the Land

It’s hard to believe that just a couple of months ago I was worried about being too cold. I used to wake up in the dark for zazen and I didn’t want to get out of bed because my room was something like fifty degrees because the stove would go out overnight half the time. I wore all these layers all the time, and I was safe, but I was never really warm, not for long anyway.  Sometimes the cold was delicious--the winter was beautiful, I love snow, and cold weather makes hot chocolate taste better--but I still thought about it all the time.

Now, it’s all about hot weather. It’s not that I’m really uncomfortable most of the time, but I have all these strategies to stay comfortable, and they are all about avoiding the heat. I wake up around dawn to go running and I have time to shower before zazen and when I go out to breakfast I close my balcony door and draw the curtain to keep out the heat of the day. All the windows in the Mansion are open all night long so the building can cool down as much as possible and then during the day everything is closed up, dark, and quiet.

In the winter, the big southwest and southeast-facing glass balcony doors and windows helped keep the Mansion warm. The only reason the windows don’t do the same now is that they are mostly covered with plants. The big elm tree on the southern corner is tall enough to shade all four stories near the corner; I look out of the Masters’ breakfast room when I go up there to clean, and where I used to see through the branches to the mountain ridges now I only see leaves, green leaves. The window boxes they put on the edges of all the balconies have long since sprouted scarlet runner bean vines. They twined up webs of hemp twine Charlie wove in the spring, and some of them are so long now that when I visit one of the dorms on the third floor, where the ceiling is shorter, I can see the vines of the third floor boxes growing up over and across the boxes of the Master’s balconies above. I look out my balcony door and I see the leaves fluttering across my view. I can’t get a clear view of the pastures and orchards anymore, unless I peer through them.

But the vines are flowering, these little magenta flowers in bunches, and some of them are also fruiting, making these long, green bean pods. I’m supposed to pick them when they reach full size but are still green, so the plants will keep flowering. I can eat as many as I like myself, but I take the extra to the dining hall and they turn up on the salad bar. The thing is, though, that it’s not just me interested in the plants; hummingbirds love the flowers. They won’t come when I’m on the balcony, but if I sit in my room in the evening doing homework with the door open I can hear them, this low, soft buzzing. Sometimes I see them. Sometimes I’m so close I can see the bulge of muscle across the wishbone of the females, the vee at the base of their throats where the muscles come together. The males’ throats are too bright, too shiny, for me to see how strong they are. Mostly I don’t see the birds at all. I hear them, I look up, and they’re already gone.

The other Daniel—Dan—actually has a nest of swallows under the roof of his balcony, which is the floor of the balcony above. He’s stopped using his balcony for the duration. The nest is a cup glued to the underside of the roof and the adults have orange throats. They won’t come to the nest if anyone is watching, but they don’t know about mirrors; if we borrow hand mirrors we can sit and look as much as we like. There’s a nest of phoebes on one of the supports for the car port downstairs and they are bolder—we can go ahead and use the front door—but the birds keep an eye on us. When the black and white cat who loves Greg tries to sneak into the building they spot him and dive at his head, making a strange, sharp , clicking sound. He ignores them or looks up at him with his ears pointed in different, irritable directions.

When I'm not running with Ollie or doing homework or labeling trees (at least he doesn't unlabel the same ones on consecutive days and he keeps the drawer stocked with label blanks for me) I'm mostly helping Rick gather food. Most of it is for Paleolithic Dinner, but of course he's practicing, too. Next year he's going to eat foraged food exclusively, as I think I mentioned.

It's strange, in some ways he and I are doing such similar work. It's not just that we have the same master, it's that our projects are clearly related. Both of us are off the beaten path--we're not studying horticulture like most of Charlie's students, although I think maybe I will next year, and we're not paying much attention to the symbolic forms of spiritual practice most of the rest of campus follows. We're both knee deep in something that is almost, but not quite, science. But at the same time, our work is very different.

Rick is farther along that I am, of course. He's a year ahead of me and already has the basics down--he knows the names of the plants (I haven't found one yet that he doesn't know), for example. But he is focusing on learning to live on the land--learning to eat from it, how to make clothes and shelter, how to judge the weather, how to cook over an open fire--and I don't think I'm going to do that. He never had to label trees or listen to birds, and he doesn't have to know the scientific name of anything, while I do. And there are subtler differences I can't quite put my finger on. 

Wherever I go, here, I always seem to be the younger brother, whether I'm tagging along with Ollie's intellectual Christianity or Rick's quiet competence--or even putting up with Joanna's teasing. We do what they want to do, and I just go along with it.

But none of them know the scientific names of every tree on campus.

 [Next Post: Friday, July 19th: Other Masteries]

Friday, July 12, 2013

Part 4: Post 8: Reason

American Beech
 So I finally finished the tree labeling project, and I went to Charlie all proud of myself that I was finished….

“No, you’re not,” he said. He hardly even looked up.
“What do you mean? You said I was to label every single tree on campus, and that’s what I did.”
“I mean I just checked your trees, and about a third of them aren’t labeled.”
“But I labeled them!” I protested. “I remember doing it!”
“But they aren’t all done,” he responded, “so go label them.”

So I went off and looked. It took me two days to check all the trees, and indeed, about a third of them were not labeled. I spent basically my whole weekend fixing them, wondering the whole time if I were going crazy. I mean, I remember doing them the first time. Had they just fallen off? I couldn’t find any loose labels in the leaves and undergrowth, and I did look.

Now, usually when I have that thought, “am I going crazy,” like when I used to have a car and couldn’t remember where I put the keys or something, I just went ahead and looked for the keys and after I found them I didn’t think about my sanity anymore. I mean, I wasn’t really worried about going crazy; it was just something I said to myself when I was confused. But I’ve been in group therapy with Allen long enough that I’m starting to hear his interminable questions in my head, and this morning I could imagine Allen asking “why are you so sure you aren’t crazy?” And I had no answer. I figured Ollie is training to be a therapist, and he was right there, stretching with me before we went running, so I asked him about it.

“Ollie, am I crazy, do you think?”
“No, I don’t think so. Why do you ask?” So I explained and he thought about it for a bit. “Well, something happened, so let’s think about this. You could be misremembering. Do you honestly think that’s likely?”
“No. I sometimes forget doing something, but as far as I know, I’ve never remembered something I didn’t do.”
“Would you know?”
“Yes, I think so. I mean, someone would have noticed before this, wouldn’t they? Have you known me to act like I’d done something I didn’t do?” I was feeling better, reassured I wasn’t crazy.
“Well, then, if I’m not crazy, I guess it’s just one of those things. They fell off, or something.”
“Is that likely?” Ollie asked me, finishing his stretches and standing up.
“No, I don’t think so.” I frowned and set off jogging. We normally do a loop around campus, then go up into the trails back in the wood lot. Ollie caught up with me and we fell into step.
“So what did happen?” he asked.
“I don’t know!” I told him. “It’s just one of those things. Does it matter? I’ve fixed them, they’re done now, it’s fine.”
“I bet you haven’t fixed them.”
“What do you mean? I just did it!”
“Well, you just did it before, didn’t you? And that didn’t work.”
“No, it didn’t. You’re right,” I acknowledged.

“Look, things don’t ‘just happen,’” Ollie told me, after a minute or so. “Maybe what happened with the labels doesn’t matter by itself, but the truth matters. Something happened to those labels. Do you really want to be the sort of person who just lets things happen without thinking about them?”
“I suppose not. Ok, then, what do we do? How do we figure this out?”
“Process of elimination; ’Eliminate the impossible, and whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth,’” he quoted to me. “You know you labeled the trees, and you know they were not all labeled on Friday. Therefore some of the labels came off. But you know they didn’t fall off, because if they had, most of them would still be in the area and they aren’t. So what else is left? What else is possible?”
“If they came off but did not fall off, then something took them off. But who would unlabel a hundred trees? An animal wouldn’t do that. It makes no sense. It’s crazy.”
“But someone must have. Can you think of no one who would do it?”
And unfortunately, I could think of someone.
White Oak
“Charlie! That bastard unlabeled my trees!”
“Bingo. You better hope he stops unlabeling them sometime before you turn thirty.”
“He’d better. But why do you care? Let me ask the philosophical questions; why shouldn’t I just let things happen without thinking about them? Greg says we all think too much as it is.”
“We think too much uselessly,” Ollie corrected. “If we don’t think about things carefully—it’s a bad habit. You know how many people do things that don’t make sense just because some emotional trigger got flipped? It’s a bad habit to be in, not to care about the truth. If we don’t think about things, how will we encounter the truth? How will we know we’re doing God’s work, not just making something up?”

At that point we entered the woods and I had to concentrate so I didn’t trip over a root or anything. We didn’t talk again for a while. When we were back on even ground again, I kind of wanted to ask him more questions, but I get tired of always asking questions with Ollie. It’s not like he’s one of the masters. Maybe I want to be on even ground in more than one way.

“You’ve been spending too much time with Allen,” I told him.
“He’s my spirit master, didn’t you know?”
“But you’re a preacher. Why do you need a spirit master?”
“Same reason you need an athletics master,” he told me. I laughed.

We finished our run, and I showered, put on my uniform, and went down to zazen. When I walked to breakfast the day was already getting hot. I could hear cicadas, but at least there are raspberries as well as blueberries now for breakfast. I tried to talk to Charlie, but he was on the other side of the room, busily talking to some of his horticulture students, and after the meal he got up and left before I could catch him.

I finally found him right before lunch, after I was done cleaning, when he was picking Japanese beetles off the roses in one of the shrub beds. Each beetle went into a coffee can of soapy water. Charlie doesn’t drink coffee, and certainly wouldn’t buy a can of it if he did, since we get it in bulk here on campus, but I can imagine him using the same coffee cans for beetle-collecting year after year. The can did look kind of old.

“I had a student once—younger than you,” he began, by way of greeting, and without stopping what he was doing, “who decided she didn’t want to carry her can of beetles back to the table by the greenhouse. So instead she dumped the whole mess in the fountain. The fountain went all over bubbles.”
“Charlie, I finished labeling the trees. Again,” I told him.
“No, you haven’t.”
“Yes, I did. I just did them.”
“Well, they’re not all labeled.”
“That’s because you un-labeled them.” At this assertion Charlie got very angry, or seemed to, anyway.
“I don’t care why they aren’t labeled,” he half shouted at me, “when I check the campus in the evening I want all the labels done!”

Now, Charlie had never shouted at me before, and as far as I know he didn’t usually shout at anyone. I might have felt hurt, or even frightened, but something about it…I just didn’t buy his anger. I think he was probably trying not to laugh. And so I had to try not to laugh, either. The whole thing was ridiculous, like we were playing a game with each other. But at the same time, I had to take his authority seriously; he would have really been angry with me if I hadn’t, or at least disappointed, which would be worse. I crossed my arms and frowned. How was I supposed to have any control at all on the success of the project when I was being judged by someone who was undoing my work at the same time that he reviewed it?

Grey Birch
 But then I remembered something. Charlie doesn’t usually explore campus in the evenings; he does it in the mornings, before breakfast. I’d seen him doing it. That must be when he was undoing my work. If he was checking my work in the evening, that means I have all day to fix it. It’s a speed test, then. I’ve got to learn to label trees faster than Charlie feels like unlabeling them. And I’ve got to visit every single tree on campus every day, because I have no way of knowing which trees he’ll unlabel. It’s no good trying to follow him; he’d notice me and enlist spies to do his unlabeling for him. 

Ok, tall order, but doable.

“Ok, got it,” I told him, and turned to go.
“Daniel,” he called to me, and I turn back around. “When you go to label a tree, I want you to greet it.”
“Greet it? You mean like, ‘hi, tree,’ or an individual name, like George?”
“If a tree gives you an individual name to use, like George, that is between you and the tree. I mean go over in your mind how you recognize it, look for those characteristics, and remember its names, both scientific and common. Don’t just stick a white oak label on a tree because you stuck a white oak label on it last time you were there. Look for the reasons you know it’s white oak. You got that?”

I got it.

You know, I would have thought that Charlie and Allen would be similar as spirit masters. They are similar in some respects—chiefly in that hardly anyone knows they are available as spirit masters. I’m the only spirit student Charlie has, except maybe Rick, and Allen has only Jim, in my year, besides Ollie. But they’re also both really into science. Allen teaches statistical literacy, besides all his psychology-related classes, and of course there’s Charlie’s love of ecology. But Allen teaches reason as a spiritual discipline, whereas I sometimes think Charlie has abandoned reason—or wants me to abandon it. Here I am, doomed to greet trees, by name, for goodness knows how long, under the pretext that trees mysteriously unlabel themselves, as if I’m somehow remiss for Charlie unlabeling my trees.
Grey Birch Catkin

I could get really angry about this. I could quit. I could go and work with somebody easier, more sensible, like Allen or Greg. I could even go transfer to a different school and get a nice and simple bachelor’s degree at a real liberal arts school. But dammit, I like Charlie, and, maybe more to the point, I’m curious now. He may be crazy, but I’ve got to see where he’s going with all of this.

Next Post: Monday, July 15: Rick and the spirit of the land]

Monday, July 8, 2013

Part 4: Post 7: Trees, Revisted

Black Birch
 I’ve really liked these last few weeks of labeling trees.  I get the blank labels from the herbarium, take along one or two field guides and a pen, and spend an hour or two labeling all the trees in a particular part of campus. It’s an excuse to be outside, and I get to see parts of campus where I don’t normally go. If I don’t know a tree I can always look it up, and I do know a lot of them. There are also areas on campus where a lot of trees of the same kind cluster, and that makes it easier. I did all the Norway spruce in one session, for example, because they are all in a line.

As I mentioned a while back, these lines and clumps are relics of the way the property was landscaped  before Charlie got here. He's already altered a lot of the original pattern--like the Norway spruce line is missing a lot of its trees, and there are white pines, eastern hemlocks, and both black and yellow birches planted in the gaps and on either side. So you can tell that there was once a regular line of spruces, single-file, all the same size, defining a large grassy rectangle near the Mansion, but what is actually there now is an irregular forested strip curving around the berry orchards. As I mentioned, he took out more of the spruces this past May, so there's only a few of them left. They are the short-needled trees whose twigs droop down on either side of the branches, like the leaves of a magazine held with its spine upward. People plant them in their front yards a lot. I really liked seeing them this winter, when the wind, snow, laden, lifted the dark branches and sang. A whole line of them must have been something. But I think I like the variety better, the brighter and darker greens of the different trees, the yellow birch bark peeking out among the darker trunks, birds and squirrels chattering from cover up in the branches....

Northern White Cedar
 Some things Charlie does not seem in a hurry to change. The fourth wall of the spruce rectangle was a line of arbor vitae, or, as Charlie wants me to call it now, northern white cedar. The white cedar made another, smaller rectangle, enclosing a formal garden--and it still does. Charlie has added a few younger ceders, but he hasn't removed anything. The cedars are native, and the deer like them. So does Charlie; he brings cedar tea to Paleolithic Dinner, sometimes. The formal garden is still there, only now all the flowers and shrubs are native, and most of the grass has been replaced by moss and ferns. The spruce rectangle must have seemed pointless to Charlie, because he has utterly changed its character, but something about the cedar rectangle and the garden appealed to him.

I wouldn't have noticed any of this detail if it were not for this project. I mean, I knew, in a general way, that Charlie was working to re-wild the campus, but I would not have seen the details of the older scheme, nor seen exactly how the old and new plans interweave. The old, gnarled trees along the main driveway were once an avenue of sugar maples, for example. While the property lay abandoned, before the school got here, a lot of younger sugar maples seeded in, and Charlie kept them and protected them from the deer and the goats, so now we have an avenue of venerable old trees maybe two or three feet across surrounded by a lot of younger, small trees maybe six inches across and thirty feet tall, plus younger trees, saplings of various species, here and there. I think they tap the larger trees, and I've found some stumps, as though Charlie is thinning the young trees here and there, to give them room to grow, but
Red Maple
the ground looks wild, with leaf litter and seedling trees and wild flowers here and there. So what was once purely decorative is now partly productive and partly wild and still beautiful. You can see the Mansion through the screen of summer-green trees, but only intermittently, when the wind lifts the branches and you get a glimpse of cultured white, the building where you are going. The long tunnel of leaves over the dirt and gravel road smells cool and living and genteel and secret, all at once.

This is all a deliberate creation, the product of a human vision, just like a flower garden. It is not natural...but I'm starting to think it may be wild, or at least getting there.

And it is learning to see the details of the artwork, labeling every single tree, that has shown me the single exception to Charlie's plan, the single place where he planted a non-native tree. It's in the formal garden, off towards one corner. It's a Chinese dogwood, too small for me to have to label it, but it got my attention so I looked it up anyway. From it's size, Charlie had to have planted it, or known about its planting--it doesn't predate him, I mean. At the base of the tree is a wooden plaque, with the name "Abia" and the years 1902-1990 engraved in it.

I asked Charlie about this the other day. I was doing my homework in the Great Hall, and he came in and sat before the cold fireplace for a while, staring at it, nursing a drink. Of course he was drinking water. Charlie is the only person I know who can sit drinking a cocktail of plain water while staring entranced at a fire that isn't there. I did not greet him, nor did he speak to me. I've learned to leave him be, when he's in a quiet mood, and so we spend a lot of time together, not talking, and I do not know whether he is enjoying my company in a quiet way or actually ignoring the fact that he isn't alone. Anyway, after a while, I asked "why a Chinese dogwood?" and he raised his eyes a fraction, without quite coming out of his...trance, for lack of a better word, and answered without looking at me.

"My mother liked them."

I nodded, and let him be again.

[Next Post: Monday, July 12: the Spirit of Reason]