Charlie continues to give me impossible assignments. And I continue to complete them. Virtually all of my assignments, now and over the past several months, relate to my ongoing assignment to spend a night or two outside in the woods every week. I keep a journal, as I’ve said, and I turn it in to Charlie every week. He sends it back with notes and comments (“nice” or “More world, less Daniel,” or, conversely, “where are you in all of this?”). And sometimes, maybe every few weeks, is a new assignment.
Earlier this month, the assignment, written in blue pen at the bottom of my last written-on page, was a simple question: “what is normal”?
I guessed, based on context, that he was asking about typical conditions in the woods at my site. I could answer the question promptly, and wrote up a long journal entry describing the typical sights, sounds, even smells of my place in the woods. I described the bird and insect sounds I’m used to, even though I do not know the names of the sound-makers, the weather, and the way all of it interacts with my feelings and thoughts—like, how it feels first thing in the morning to wake up here.
Charlie taught me to “grow” eyes and ears, to notice things and notice that I am noticing them, and that ability has borne fruit. If you ask me what a normal day in July is like here, I can tell you.
But then, when I turned in my answer, he asked another question; “why does abnormal happen?”
And that stumped me.
I am pretty sure I know what he meant—if the birdsong stops, why did it stop? If a new insect gets going, why didn’t I hear it before? If I wake up and find an unfamiliar footprint in my camp, what caused an unfamiliar being to come through here?
What makes me think this is what Charlie meant is that he can answer these types of questions. I remember, early in my knowing him, when he looked up from our gardening, appeared to listen intently for a few seconds, and then said “there’s a barred owl in the Formal Garden, if you want to go take a look.” And there was. He knew, not because he’d heard the owl, but because he’d heard the other birds mobbing it. And he knew, by knowing which animals could upset those birds in that way, and which of those were likely to be in the Formal Garden at that time of day and year, that a barred owl must be at the center of the mobbing.
At that point in my development, I hadn’t even heard the mobbing until he drew my attention to it
For most people, “a little bird told me” is just a turn of phrase, but for Charlie it is often a literal fact. Chew marks, insect damage, a scent on the breeze—each thing tells him not only the “obvious,” the identity of the thing that left the sign, but also the entire context of its leaving. It’s a little like what you’d see in a Sherlock Holmes story, except this is real, not fiction, and crime doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s just a kind of rootedness he has in the world—because he not only notices the unusual, asks what causes it, and figures it out.
And now he wants me to be able to do it, too.
I thought about it for a week. Then I thought about it for another week. I kept hoping I’d come up with something, some brilliant and impressive feat of intuition, the activation of some knowledge I hadn’t known I had (sometimes I actually can answer questions like that) so I could impress him, but of course nothing materialized.
This morning I gave up. I sent him a note in my book:
“I don’t know what causes an atypical thing to happen, except that it must be another atypical thing. How do I find out?”
I have just received his response:
“Notice atypical things and ask the question.”
He wants me to keep a running log of these questions and any answers I’m able to track down.