The teaching tree.

Cross-posted from Luther’s “Ideas and Creations” community blog.

Main 218 is my favorite classroom for several reasons: like my campus office and my dining room at home, it has red walls. I’ve added some National Poetry Month posters to the walls over time, so the décor feels a little personalized. But most of all, it’s the closest indoor space to my great, nonhuman teaching partner: the giant cottonwood tree in front of Main Building, which is more than 100 years old. With its bank of windows facing east – straight into the branches of the cottonwood and the smaller maple next to it – Main 218 is a pedagogical treehouse, and when the weather allows, my first action on walking in is to open the windows and release the voices of leaf, branch and wind into the room.

Luther’s mission statement speaks of the college’s placement at the intersection where river, woodland and prairie meet, and its founders and its great landscape architect, Jens Jensen, sited and landscaped it carefully to provide a place – in multiple senses of that word – for learning, for thought and for consideration of how the emotions within our minds may be met, shaped and led forward, gently, on further journeys by the natural world. I am grateful to have, right outside my classroom window, a living thing whose presence invites me to consideration of all of this and more. The German forester Peter Wohlleben, in his recent book “The Hidden Life of Trees,” relates that clusters of birches in old-growth forests may be able to communicate with and support one another, passing information and nutrients back and forth through roots and ground in voices and through processes only trees understand. Here is yet another reason to restrain, as humans, our hubris and arrogance and consider: what other voices, realities, consciousnesses, lives are always speaking and moving around us, ignored or drowned out by our internal and external noise?

One of my three classes in Main 218 this semester is British Romanticism, where students and I have been engaging with the great poet of the reciprocal relationship between mind, spirit and nature – William Wordsworth (1770-1850.) If you only know Wordsworth’s greatest hits – like “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” in which the speaker encounters “a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils” – you might be forgiven for dismissing him as a twee old man in a twee old dream of Nature with a capital N, interested only in what’s pretty. But Wordsworth’s real subject is the complex and often unpretty relationship between the mind and the world. Is what we think we see really there, or is our own mind only telling us (in the positive and negative senses of this word) stories? Does the natural world contain some meaning that can sustain our imaginations and spirits, if we look for it closely enough? Or is that only wishful thinking? What happens when we find ways, spiritual or intellectual or emotional, to fall silent before the presence of all that is around us but is not us? “Come forth into the light of things,” he suggests elsewhere, “and let nature be your teacher.” In “Expostulation and Reply,” Wordsworth asks, pointedly, “Think you, mid all this mighty sum / Of things for ever speaking, / That nothing of itself will come / But we must still be seeking?” Quit straining, he suggests, and stop trying to fill the silence. Listen and see what mysteries you touch. I will never forget the moment, in Main 218, when we did just that – and a billowing rush of wind through the cottonwood and maple leaves rose and filled the room and we all turned our heads to the music at once. No one spoke. No one needed to. Listen. Listen.

Gathered at the foot of that tree, Paideia students also test our texts with their own hands, eyes and ears. In Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Janie Crawford lies back under a blossoming pear tree and feels her own soul expand to meet it: “[The tree] had called her to come and gaze on a mystery…It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again…This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears.” Lying back in the grass under the cottonwood and staring up into its thousands of leaves, twirling back and forth in the wind against a bright blue fall sky, we feel just what Janie felt, and we can see why Hurston chose this concrete creature – a tree – to illustrate this sort of emotion. Later, we read Charles Darwin’s description of the “tree of life” in Chapter Four of “On the Origin of Species:”

The affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree. I believe this simile largely speaks the truth. The green and budding twigs may represent existing species; and those produced during each former year may represent the long succession of extinct species. At each period of growth all the growing twigs have tried to branch out on all sides, and to overtop and kill the surrounding twigs and branches, in the same manner as species and groups of species have tried to overmaster other species in the great battle for life. The limbs divided into great branches, and these into lesser and lesser branches, were themselves once, when the tree was small, budding twigs; and this connexion of the former and present buds by ramifying branches may well represent the classification of all extinct and living species in groups subordinate to groups. Of the many twigs which flourished when the tree was a mere bush, only two or three, now grown into great branches, yet survive and bear all the other branches; so with the species which lived during long-past geological periods, very few now have living and modified descendants. From the first growth of the tree, many a limb and branch has decayed and dropped off; and these lost branches of various sizes may represent those whole orders, families, and genera which have now no living representatives, and which are known to us only from having been found in a fossil state. As we here and there see a thin straggling branch springing from a fork low down in a tree, and which by some chance has been favoured and is still alive on its summit, so we occasionally see an animal like the Ornithorhynchus or Lepidosiren, which in some small degree connects by its affinities two large branches of life, and which has apparently been saved by fatal competition by having inhabited a protected station. As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.

Wonder and humility shimmer around Darwin’s descriptions of the living world he so closely observed and so well loved that he calls it “beautiful,” and they shape his diligent investigations toward the form “into which life was first breathed.” As a mature thinker, Darwin learned to live with uncertainty – “the origin of species,” he wrote in his introduction to the book, “that mystery of mysteries” – and even to thrive on it, since it propelled him forward into all he had yet to discover and into the living world that brought him such joy. This spoke powerfully to my students and to me. How can this openness shape our own educations and personal quests? How can we discern meaning, even beauty, amid the confusion of our changing ideas and changing lives, and how we can remain open to, accepting of and curious about that change? Perhaps this is a great place to start: lie down in the grass and listen to the voice of the wind in the leaves of a tree whose life touches but is nevertheless carried on independent of yours, whose leaves express a wind that otherwise would not have a voice – the force of something moving in the world, greater than your own mind or your speech can immediately know.

One thought on “The teaching tree.

  1. I remember having class under that tree! I think we must have gone outside while we were reading 1984, because when I envision Winston and Julia meeting in the country, I think of that tree.

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