By Wing-Chi Poon [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
On a Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the thing happened. And it’s not the thing itself I really want to talk about in great detail because it serves no purpose, it advances no greatness, and it gives us no relief. And what happened in the years afterward leading up to now is about more than just two towers that fell.
That same year only a few months earlier, my step-father died at the age of 39. I don’t want to talk about that thing either, too much. But all told, it was a banner freakin’ year.
I watched the thing happening live on television in the common area outside my graphics class in college. My dunder-headed teacher didn’t quite understand the gravity of the situation and was intending to continue class. If we were in a town in New Mexico, or California, or Ohio, maybe that would have been possible; but this is Jersey, dig? So you got people with cousins and friends and close loved ones in the city, and they’re frantically making phone calls to make sure they’re okay. Most answer. Some don’t.
Classes get canceled.
Stick with me. This isn’t the important part of the story; but you need the context.
We resume classes next week and one of my first classes on the following Tuesday is the Trees course. Trees, man. The only class I could enroll in because the college had a bad habit of taking in more students than it could reliably squeeze into relevant classes. (This is how colleges get a reputation for having students stay for 7 years and not graduate with a medical degree. It’s a clever racket.)
Well, the guy who taught this class looked as though he stepped flush out of a primordial forest from a medieval tapestry, complete with dragons and knights. He looked like the sort of figure who modeled for ancient priests transcribing the Book of Kells. He needed a broadsword strapped onto his back. And when I say this, I’m not talking the Hollywood version of what we think medieval appearances, fashion, and every day life was like. I’m talking real. I’m talking gritty, dirt in your knuckles, hours spent in solitary in the woods medieval. A square, pasty-white face and messy hair and the smell of DEET clinging to him in a musty cloud. He could name more than 80 species of native trees by their Latin name and to be fair, he was more than a “trees” teacher — he was a dendrologist who made much of his waking hours the study and stewardship of trees.
I sucked ass big time with his tests. I failed miserably and managed to pass the class by the skin of my teeth. But in the field I was good and I can still name every species I come across — in winter. With no leaves. By the bark. And that’s to his credit that I acquired this bit of bushcraft.
The week after the thing that happened, he came in and slapped his books down on the lab table and waited until everybody shut the fuck up and the few fancy kids with their expensive cell phones put them away and turned them off. And when there was complete silence, he proceeded to give the most meaningful speech I’ve heard anyone give about the event, before and since. And it’s easy to forget that during these weeks, and the years that followed, to say anything that was not 100% pro-America was to fear for your life. It was not unreasonable to expect someone to do you bodily harm, using Nine Eleven as an excuse to do so for having an opinion that digressed from the perceived mainstream.
He began, as well as I can remember it: “Whatever happens, I want you to understand that we all begin as babes. We come into this world with nothing. We’re born innocent. And things happen that between then and now that changes this; but in the end, we’re back to where we begin. Babes. Innocent. And every choice we make changes this, between then and now. It’s up to us to make better choices.”
Probably the most profound statement on the human condition I can remember having heard voiced. And it’s possible I’ve mis-remembered portions, and he talked longer, and I forgot more; but I remember it being short and to the point and those words were exact: “babes,” “innocent” because it was probably the first time I’d ever heard someone say these sorts of things and it didn’t sound like pretentious bullshit. And then he herded us out into the unforgiving weather to make us identify dead stumps.
Quercus Alba. Sycamore. Black gums, honeylocust, pin oaks and black jack oaks, red maples, walnut, willows, cherries. In the trees, nothing much changes. For them, the world entire moves slow and each year a drawn out breath; for them, their movements are charted over the course of centuries as they walk from one wood to the next. They must look upon us as strange and cumbersome insects. If we’d only slow down, we might begin to see how similar we are, how alike our frantic movements, how predictable our emotional reactions, how easily identifiable we are without our leaves. Like any species in a forest, fighting to survive, starving the others of light, and taking another’s water, despite our variations.
There’s something about them, you know, those trees. They make one’s world seem very insignificant indeed.