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 8, 2013

Part 5: Post 12: Trees, Finally

He can read Latin for pleasure, but evidently Charlie can’t drive. Did I mention this? Or, he can drive, but he really shouldn’t. 

As I said, we’ve been going on a lot of field trips for Messing Around Outdoors—obviously, we’ve got to get outdoors in order to mess around—and most of them are either on campus or something we can bike to. I’ve never been to any school where we biked to field trip locations, even if they were fairly close by, but they do take avoiding using gas seriously here.  Not that I’m complaining at all—biking around the countryside in this gorgeous Fall weather so we can go take a walk in some unusual woods or muck about in some little creek or wetland for an hour or two is not at all a bad way to spend the day. I don’t know what they’d do if a student couldn’t ride a bike, though. Take different field trips, I suppose.

But a few times we have traveled by vehicle. I forget if I’ve explained this, but all the campus vans and cars run on veggie Diesel, which we make on campus using fry oil donated from local restaurants, so we didn’t actually have to use any gas at all. We piled into a fifteen passenger van and Charlie drove. And he drove very badly. I don’t mean he was swerving all over the road or did anything deliberately stupid, he just didn’t seem very good at it. He keeps well under the speed limit, misses turns and has to go back, and comes very close to running red lights, apparently because he didn’t notice they were red. He will not talk to anyone else while driving, apparently because he needs to concentrate, but he talks to himself, under his breath, like he’s trying to talk himself through something. It’s terrifying.

I think the issue is that Charlie drives so rarely that he’s forgotten how to do it.

He makes no attempt to hide the fact that he can’t drive well—he doesn’t bother with excuses—but he also does not seem embarrassed by it. He takes no apparent notice of the issue at all. And none of us are going to say anything.

Anyway, Fall is proceeding the same way Spring did, in little progressive fits and starts, so that every week or two I think yeah, Fall is really here now! And then a week or two later I think the same thing again. This past week, walking around campus, the sky has been this rich, crystal blue that seems to come all the way down to the ground. The trees haven’t seriously started to change yet, it’s not “foliage season,” but I’ve been paying a lot of attention to trees lately, and I think they’ve gone a sort of yellowish green now.

And speaking of paying attention to trees…I keep labeling them. I’ve started bowing to them when I greet them to label them, a habit of showing respect that I picked up in martial arts class this past summer. I don’t know, it just feels right. Since Charlie’s been asking about specific trees I’ve been paying even more attention, trying to remember everything I’ve noticed over the summer about each tree, noticed without noticing, and reading up on each tree and each thing I notice using the books from the library and the herbarium. I don’t try to memorize any of this; I just sort of soak it up, so it will be there, in the part of me that knows more than I do, when I need it. I had stopped thinking about when this labeling project would end a long time ago. 

So you can imagine my surprise when the tree-labeling project ended today.
White Oak twig and leaf

As I’ve explained, Charlie had been going around unlabeling trees in the morning, leaving me to re-label them during the day, so he could inspect my work in the evening. He maintained the fiction that I just hadn’t finished labeling the trees on campus, but was controlling the duration of the project by always unlabeling slightly more trees than I had time to re-label so I could never catch up. I’d get angry about this sometimes, but there was no point in that, because of course I was free to quit any time I want; Charlie can’t make me do anything I don’t want to do, but if I want his help I need to accept the help he decides to offer. So I just did it, labeling trees, over and over, each one with its common, English name and it’s scientific name, spelled correctly, in Latin.

Lately, I’d noticed that he was letting the margin shrink, unlabeling fewer trees, letting me catch up. I didn’t think he’d actually let me catch up, so I didn’t have any particular feelings about it. I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel because after weeks of trying like mad to solve this puzzle and failing I’d stopped looking for it. So the other day when I actually labeled all the unlabeled trees I’d found I was mildly surprised, but I figured Charlie would do something to take success out of my reach again. And, sure enough, when I saw him around eleven that morning, he changed the rules of the game again. He was reading his Latin Pooh book again, almost done with it, and he barely looked up when I greeted him.

“I’m checking the trees early today—before class,” he told me, in an offhand way, “so you might want to hurry up and make sure they’re done.”

“Charlie, I think they are done,” I told him, without much hope. That made him look up.

“You think? Daniel, you can be wrong, but do not be less than confident.”

“Alright, they are done. I labeled them all this morning.”

Pileated Woodpecker hole
“Nope. Six of them are not labeled. The black cherry with the missing limb from the storm this past spring, the pin cherry being shaded out by hickories, the white oak with the Armillaria root rot, the white pine with two old pileated woodpecker holes, the service tree next to the hawthorn that the shrikes use, and the willow that stump sprouted forty years ago. Go to it.”

I sighed and got to it.

And the thing is, it took me less than an hour to get all six because I knew which trees he meant. I didn’t have to search for them; I just needed the time to walk across campus several times. I didn’t have time to get lunch, I just grabbed an apple on the way to class, but I got them all done and headed to class—Charlie’s class. I assumed he’d unlabeled more trees and that he’d have more specific directions for me to follow to unlabeled trees later. After class, he called me over.

“Did you do it?” he asked me.

“Yes, I did.”

“Alright. Good job.”

“What?” I asked, confused.

“Good job! I asked you to do something and you did it. Thank you.”

I stood there stupidly. He was fussing with papers on his desk, but when I didn’t leave he looked up at me.

“You’re done! Now go on, go get dinner. I know you’re hungry.” Numbly, I went.

I know I should be happy. He must have been watching for me to learn something, and now he’s judged that I’ve finally learned it. So I did it. I’m pleased. I feel proud of myself. But that’s not all of it. I also feel…I don’t know. Strange.

What am I going to do now that I don’t have to label trees?

[Next Post: Friday, September 13: Hunting]

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