In theory, Charlie and I now no longer need to talk about my schooling, meaning that when we hang out, it's purely social. But of course when we actually got together for lunch today, we talked about school.
We took our food and walked out to the field below the Edge of the World, and on the way he asked me what I plan to do after I graduate.
"Grad school," I told him. "I want to extend my skill as a naturalist. Ecology, botany, something like that. I haven't decided yet. I don't even know what kind of job I want to aim for when I get done."
"You don't need to worry about that, now."
"No, because what you do now doesn't have anything to do with what kind of job you get."
"It doesn't? Don't I need to know what kind of education the job I want requires?"
"No, you don't. First, it's the opposite of that joke. Mostly, you can get there from here. Get to anywhere from here, no matter where 'here' is. There are exceptions, but there's usually a way. Second, you don't know what's going to happen between now and then. You pick a goal, you decide halfway through you don't like it, something blows up, something else you'd rather do comes up.... Do what you want to do now, out of the options you have. Tomorrow, make the next decision. You'll have a good chance of being happy and useful that way."
"Ok," I told him, "well, I want study ecology."
"Good. You need a hard-science background. You've gotten into too much woo-woo stuff around here*. Fly the nest."
"I thought ecology wasn't a hard science?"
"You go study it, and tell me how hard it is! I mean rigorous, scholarly. Hard, soft, inexact...giant professional-level pissing contest."
"You in a bad mood?"
"Not today. Any day I wake up is a good one."
"Do you have any suggestions?" I asked. "About what school to apply to, I mean."
He spoke the name of a school immediately, then turned and looked at me. We weren't far from where we'd had the ritual, of which there was now no visible sign. The day was clear and gorgeous and cool, the sky blue, the trees rapidly changing color, living flames of red and yellow bursting out in the forest around us. He explained that the school he'd mentioned had a good conservation biology program and was rumored to be fairly progressive, with a small student body and a liberal and rather artsy campus culture. It sounded as close as possible to the school I already belonged to.
"I thought you wanted me to fly the nest?" I asked.
"I said fly the nest, not migrate to a different biome."
We sat down and ate together without speaking for a while.
"Charlie, how do I apply for the masters' program here? I'd like to become a master." He chuckled and I looked over at him. "What?" I asked. "Did I just pass the entrance exam, or something?"
He laughed again.
"Just about," he told me. "The process is that when you want to come back, just call Sharon and ask. She will say yes if you have completed your absence and have the sponsorship of someone willing to serve as your primary master."
"Do I have such a person, Charlie?"
"Oh, be direct!"
"Will you be my master then, too?"
"Yes, of course."
"Out of curiosity...if I decided to work with someone else instead, could I do that? Or am I committed."
"You can switch masters. You on;y need someone to vouch for you that you can be a candidate. You pass your entrance exam with me by letting me get to know you. I vouch for you. You want to work with someone else, that's your business."
"You know I really was just curious, right?"
"Please, my ego is not that fragile, Daniel."
"I was just making sure."
He grunted. We were quiet again, for a while. Late-season crickets sang around us. A crow cawed in the distance.
"I was just thinking, in some ways I don't know anything about you."
"I mean, the sort of...like, for example, I know when Joy or Karen have a boyfriend. People see things and students talk, you know? But I don't know that kind of thing about you. I've never heard of you having a girlfriend. Or a boyfriend."
Charlie grunted again, a little "huh" of laughter, and took a bite of his sandwich.
"When I used to date," he said, "I dated women."
But that wasn't what I was really asking. I mean, first, I don't really care. Second, I was pretty sure Charlie was straight. I just added that about boyfriends so that, on the off-chance I was wrong about his orientation, he couldn't skewer me for making an assumption. I was just kind of surprised to think about how well I knew Charlie on one level, without knowing the things about him that knowing a person usually told me. We were quiet again for a few minutes. He started in on the second half of his sandwich. I finished my second apple.
"You know, it was a girlfriend of mine that brought me here," he said, after a bit.
"She was friends with the early master's group and introduced me. She fancied herself a shaman or something because she did a lot of esoteric drugs. You know the type? Or maybe you don't. Anyway, when I lost my place, I went to them for help. The master's group took me in. I was in rough shape."
"My apartment. I lost my apartment."
"What happened to her? That woman, your girlfriend?"
"We drifted apart. We never formally broke up, I just stopped making much of an effort to see her, after I got sober. I heard through the grape-vine she was dating someone else. I didn't mind." He shrugged. "I really haven't dated anyone since," he added, as though he had just now realized it. As though dating had just skipped his mind for twenty years.
"Do you think you'll date again," I asked. "Do you think you'll ever marry?" I felt weird talking to Charlie about any of this. I wasn't used to him opening up to me about his biography.
"I am married," he said.
"You are?" Although even as I said it, I realized what he meant, what he was about to say.
"To the land, here. I am married to the land."
"Huh." I could think of no other response. I remembered his tin-whistled love songs he plays to the evening, what I heard in that first secret serenade I accidentally heard years ago, and I thought about that. "What's it like?" I asked, after a while.
"What do you mean, what is it like?" His voice had gone sharp.
"I don't know, what's it like?" I reiterated. "I don't know, how do people usually talk about their relationships? ...'So, you getting any?'"
Charlie had just taken a big bite of his sandwich and he choked with surprised laughter. It look him a few minutes of coughing and sputtering to get hold of himself. I don't normally talk that way with him. Or, really, with anyone. It's not really how we talk, here. In control of himself again, Charlie looked at me for a while, chewing his sandwich, an odd, thoughtful expression on his face. Finally, he spoke.
"Fuck yeah I am," he said quietly, with emotion. Then, half shouting, "look at this!" And he suddenly flung his arms wide, indicating the whole world of blue and green and leafy fire with his gesture. The cheese flew out of the remnants of his sandwich and he he fell or rocked backwards in the grass, lying, limbs out-stretched on the ground, beaming a sudden, suddenly admitted to joy.
I copied him and flung myself out on the grass. Above me the blue sky stretched slightly wispy with faint cloud, my visual field framed by towering grass stem and, on one side, a fringe of tree foliage. I opened my senses, quite deliberately, and heard the crickets sing louder, heard roosters crowing in the distance, a truck going by on the main road, then a car, and, a few minutes later, another. There were few other sounds. The scent of the grass and the nearby leaves filled my nostrils. More faintly, I could smell a hint of animal dung and, perhaps, wood smoke. We haven't lit our wood stoves yet, but one of our neighbors apparently had. I could feel grass blades and the movement of ants, tiny field spiders, little gnats, all tickling me, just slightly.
I wouldn't have called it sexual (though, really, what do I know?), but it was lovely and it was sensual, this great and participatory beauty. I lay there or a while, thinking about my various bodily relationships with the land and how we shaped each other, communicated with each other...I could not see myself ever equating any of it with sex, but given everything else I'd learned over my four years of study, I could see how Charlie might.
Suddenly, horribly, I realized that when I sat up, whatever I said would leave me open for some kind of teasing or awkwardness. How do you talk to your teacher after he says I experience this as erotic and you copy him?
Steeling myself, I sat up and looked around.
Charlie was gone.
*Reading this line, I'm not sure it makes sense to readers, but it is roughly what Charlie said. He was a man of few words when he spoke (although he was a prolific writer), and he was referring to ideas he knew I already knew about. So, here is a translation, of sorts. The "hard sciences" are those, like physics, that can make precise, accurate predictions. NASA can spend millions of dollars building and launching a spacecraft to go study Jupiter because physicists can predict exactly where Jupiter will be when the space craft gets there. You just can't do that with a bird. The life sciences and social sciences focus mostly on what are called "complex systems," which, by their nature, can't be precisely predicted no matter how rigorous you are--and yet there is always the implication that "soft sciences" are inexact because they are less rigorous, less sciency. Biologists and ecologists have made attempts to develop more mathematical and predictive approaches, in part to make their fields seem more like physics. Charlie says they have physics envy and are compensating for something.
If all this sounds vaguely sexual, there's probably a reason. While scientists don't have a very virile reputation among the general public, among themselves they are heroes and rock stars. The sciences are a world dominated by driven, ambitious men, just like business or professional sports, so you get all the permutations of male pride embedded in the culture. Charlie, who was always very aware of language, was always of the opinion that "hard," as in science, should be read as "manly," and that "soft" means, literally, "limp-dicked." As though the life sciences and so forth are fields for wimps or for women.
That is why Charlie referred to the whole distinction between hard and soft science, dismissively, as a "pissing contest."
When he told me I need a hard science background, he didn't mean hard as in difficult, he meant hard as in rigorous and "sciency," the opposite of mentally lazy "woo-woo." But he rejected the traditional division of fields into hard and soft and particularly rejected the idea that "hard" necessarily means "predictive." He sometimes asserted that "ecology is not rocket-science; ecology is much more difficult." Ecology is harder.
When Charlie entered a pissing contest, he entered to win.