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.

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]

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