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, September 1, 2013

Part 5: Post 10: Class Interactions

Labeling trees has become such a routine for me, I really shouldn’t be too surprised that Charlie would start making it harder.  The other day, when I joined him for lunch, he casually mentioned that the white oak where the woodpecker nest had been had lost its label (as though he had nothing to do with the label being lost) and had I relabeled it yet? Of course, I had re-labeled a number of white oaks, so I probably had gotten the one he meant, but that obviously wasn’t what he was asking. He wanted to know if I’d noticed the woodpecker nest.

Female Downy Woodpecker
“I don’t know,” I told him. “What does a woodpecker nest look like?”

“You wouldn’t have seen it,” he corrected me, “but you might have heard it.”

I have learned that trying to answer these kinds of questions with my conscious mind is useless, they’re designed that way. But sometimes the answer comes to me if I let it. What I could not do was simply tell Charlie I didn’t know, as if the question didn’t matter. Even though I had not thought the question was remotely important before Charlie said anything. I closed my eyes and wandered around in my memory, listening for the rasping cheep of baby birds.

“You mean the big one with the limb fallen off of it?” I asked, opening my eyes. “Yes, I got that one.”
He smiled slightly and briefly and went back to reading a newspaper. After a few minutes he put his newspaper down and we chatted about other things for a few minutes—he asked me if I’d ever been hunting before, and when I said I hadn’t he asked if I knew how to shoot. He meant with a bow. I told him I’d been pretty good at archery in camp when I was a kid and he said we should go shooting together and see how good I actually am. I figured he was just making conversation, trying to distract me from whatever he was up to with the tree labeling.

And since then almost every day he asks me a question like that—did I get the black cherry with the three tent-caterpillar nests in it? Did I get the white pine with the lightning strike scar? I could say I don’t know and leave it at that, but I can’t bring myself to do that. It would disappoint him. And anyway, making me do insane things I wouldn’t do on my own is exactly what I asked him to do from the beginning. So I’ve just got to pay a lot more attention.

In any case, the semester continues. Each class has met six times now, and the strange thing is it’s like they’re talking to each other. I don’t mean the teachers talk to each other, though obviously they do sometimes, I mean that the subjects of the four classes I’m taking interact with each other and form an odd sort of whole.

I wouldn’t be surprised that Charlie’s classes relate to each other, except that a lot of people taking one class aren’t taking the other one—and a lot of the overlaps are surprises. Like, the other week in Environmentalism for Dummies we covered exotic organisms and one of the two case studies we used was the story of the chestnut blight. It’s a very sad story, and something I’d never really thought of before—that the woods I know are not the same woods as grew a hundred years ago, that they’re reduced in some fundamental way. American chestnuts used to be really common and really important trees, and they’re just gone now, not that they’re extinct—they aren’t—but there are so few of them now that they forests they helped create are gone. It’s a new and poorer forest now. There’s this shadow of loss across the entire eastern part of the country and I just never noticed it before. Then, the next Friday we went off campus in Messing Around Outdoors and went for a walk up a small hill Charlie knows about. Some of the leaves, mostly green but with yellowish edges, are starting to fall. I can’t tell if they’re the first fallen leaves of autumn or just the sort of leaves that come off randomly in summer, or even if the question makes sense at all. Anyway so we were walking along, and suddenly Charlie stopped talking, reached down, and picked something up. It was an American chestnut leaf.

American Chestnut Leaf

The other classes interact, too. Charlie talks about scientific method and uncertainty—how when scientists say they can’t prove this or that it doesn’t mean people shouldn’t take their warnings seriously—and I think about something Allen was saying about statistics in relation to something completely different, and the lights go on. I just suddenly realized that scientific uncertainty is different from regular uncertainty, because the degree of uncertainty can be known. Regular uncertainty is just the absence of emotional certainty, which is wrong half the time anyway. So when scientists say they are sure enough that global warming is real, that means a lot more than an ordinary “kinda sure.”

And then Charlie shows us a paper wasp nest hanging from a tree and I think about self-organizing
Paper Wasp Nest
systems from Complex Systems class. Or we cover entropy in Complex Systems and then the next week in Environmentalism for Dummies Charlie mentions the same concept in relation to the extinction of species and what he says makes so much more sense.

They couldn’t possibly be planning this. I mean, if there were only four classes that all of us were taking they could plan it, and maybe they did for Spring semester when most of us were taking the same classes, but now it would be too complex. We have too many options, there are too many patterns for them to keep track of and orchestrate.

But I don’t think it’s random, either. Or, it’s not random in the ordinary way. It’s the sort of thing that happens all the time around here. Things just work out. The right conversation happens at the right time, enough money shows up just when it’s needed, the coincidences all work the right way. Kit would say it’s no coincidence. Allen would say it probably is coincidence—if you studied it properly all these things would probably be entirely consistent with what’s expected by chance. But Allen would also ask why something that is random can’t also be meaningful.

And so I go to my classes and I label my trees. I’ve started bowing to them to show respect, a tendency I picked up in martial arts class over the summer. It seems like the right thing to do.

 [Next Post: Friday, September 6th: My Birthday]

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