What’s Missing From Education Reform in America?

The Day I Got My Seat at the Table

Doubt, if you must. But I swear that the story I’m about to tell you is true.

Last week, I was readying myself for a day in my garden but suddenly felt drawn to hike in the old spruce forest not far from my home. It was one of those afternoons among the towering trees when the air is radiant with an emerald  light and the lichen drips for joy.

 Fifteen minutes or so down the trail, I paused to appreciate a large spruce, nearly as wide as I was tall. Leaning over, I peeked into a narrow dark place inside its artful tangle of roots. A home for fairies, if ever there was, I thought, then called inside with the jaunty lilt of Shakespeare’s Puck. “ ‘How now, spirit!’ ”

No fairy replied. But I felt a stir in the air behind.

I turned. And materializing out of the thimbleberries was a twiggy old woman dressed in a faded green plaid shirt, her face brown with age spots, her hair wispy as fog. “Stillness,” she said, savoring the word. “It’s is such an elegant language,
don’t you think? And so rarely spoken or heard these days.”

A silvery fear flooded my body.

“Forgive my nostalgia,” the old woman said. “I was born in a sweet green time before saws and the arrival of the machines of big tires and rolling treads. I’ve tried to stay relevant and become chatty, but…” She dismissed relevant and chatty with a wave of her hands—which were not hands at all but big and velvety-green leaves. And her feet! were not feet at all…

I gasped, and the old woman laughed. “Yes, I know,” she said, “I’ve lived so long in the forest that my feet have become loam.”

I froze, not in fear so much of the old woman as I was terrified at the fantastical strangeness of the moment which even my most rational mind told me was quite real. I stepped back with a mind to flee, but was held as if by a spell. And there appeared between the old woman and me a small round wooden table with two small wooden chairs. On the table were two wooden cups filled with lovely red tea. The wood shone warmly—alive, it seemed, with something inside looking impishly out through the knotholes.

“Welcome,” said the table.

“Please sit,” chorused the chairs.

“Drink,” invited the cups.

With a leafy hand, the old woman gestured toward my chair.

We sat and sipped. The knotholes smiled.

“Recite!” cried the table.

“You must!” chorused the cups.

“Oh, do, Oh do,” urged the chairs, nearly toppling us over.

“Well, if you insist,” the old woman said with a flutter of her leafy hands. She stood, then cleared her throat and began, each word like a berry breaking forth from its flower:

“A forest is a seed with the history of all trees inside.

Together trees sing of their histories, high and in timeless green,

Every twig, every branch, every limb, every needle or leaf moving to its own interpretation of wind,

Each tree growing up and around its one firmly rooted quest for the light.

The spirit of a tree sweetly used lives on forever.

The spirit of a tree that’s mindlessly cut and abused will suffer and wither.

Close a door and you slam a tree.

Open a door and you know how trees love.”

With a slight bow of her head, the old woman crossed her leafy hands over her heart and drifted down slowly into her seat.

“Bravo, Brava,” cheered the table, the cups and the chairs. And I clapped

“Oh,” the old woman shrugged off the praise, “It’s just a little verse I learned from the Great PoetTree.” She paused, then added. “I must get you two writers together one day.”

“A Great PoetTree!” I exclaimed, “That sounds like fun.” What was I saying? Something in the warm red tea had made me oddly at home in the strangeness.

“I see my tea agrees with you,” the old woman said. “Every spring clusters of starry white petals blossom around my heart. All winter I am sustained by their simple red fruits. But as you can see,” she said managing the teacup awkwardly with her leafy hands, “typing is quite impossible. And there is much work to be done. Which brings me to my point—the reason I have brought you here today.”

“I was brought?” How preposterous. Although, I had planned to work in the garden. This was beyond strange. “I really must go,” I insisted.

My chair, however, held on to my shirt and jeans for dear life.

At which, the knotholes in the table crinkled with delight.

“More tea,” offered my cup filling itself.

“Yes,” the old woman confirmed. “You were brought.”

“Who are you?” I demanded. “And what’s going on here?”

“My name is Thimbleberry Freshwater,” the old woman said. “Having studied at the School of Natural Law, I’ve been asked by the Sentient Forest Beings to plead their case in the Court of Public Opinion. As you yourself have been heard to lament, the Corporation for Perpetual Products and Sustainable Profit is cutting away their homeland. Their livelihoods once abundant with food and clean water are at risk beyond the age-old challenges of weather.

“Just as a forest shows signs of recovering itself, The Corporation sends in its company copters to poison every green thing with chemicals, claiming unfair competition with the company trees. Just last week, I had three elk come to me with deformed horns. So many of my little birds can no longer outfly the pox. And I am in constant grief over the countless small beings crushed by the machines or dispossessed of their habitations. Those who survive often suffer a quivering death from the poison. Oh the wisdom  that grows muddy with the streams as more and more of those company trees grow up and die without ever knowing their true understory.”

The knotholes stared up at me with a piteous grief.

“We have lived in hope,” Thimbleberry continued, “that the laws of this Land of the Free would somehow grow in stature and love of the Earth. But we can’t even get what the Powerful People call a seat at the table where the laws are made. The only way we even get into the room is that our trees are felled, then manufactured into the seats and the table.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’d really like to help, but I’m no expert on forest issues and…”

Suddenly, the unmistakable choke and rumble of a chain saw drowned me out—as down the trail floated an orange-handled saw with the dazzling almost-human agility of a marionette, its shiny metal blade pointing the way, teeth oiled and hungry for nothing but trees.

The saw circled the fairy tree, sizing it up.

“No,” I pleaded

But the saw, too loud for hearing, or just too metallic for caring, leaned into the old spruce, its blade tipping this way then that, notching the trunk to make the tree smile in the direction of its fall.

Then the saw floated around the tree and whirring its metal teeth prepared to cut    I grabbed for the saw but the quick blade sliced into the tree, slipped a wedge out of thin air and into the slice to keep the tree from clamping down on it. And within seconds, that metal blade had the sapwood spurting dust   the heart of the tree resisted but the blade remained straight and true to its teeth   then a moment of silence as the saw pulled out    The tree, at least two centuries older than I would ever be, wavered and for a few graceful moments danced light as a fairy on air   until with a crack     and a wail of a creak   the great tree fell with a thud, a rustle, and a terrible shudder of ground.

The one saw became many, the deafening sound made a music meant to crumple the heavens and punish hell. Trees everywhere began began to fall. The earth trembled at the thunder. In a mad escapade of whining and whirring, the saws removed limbs from the fallen. The trees reduced now to logs were caught up in hooks and pulleys and skidded away to be milled.

When the last tree was gone, the saws yawned to stop and vanished. I was left
standing alone with nothing but stumps and the occasional snag of a tree amidst twiggy and thorny piles of commercially useless slash. From the holocaust, I felt the phantom limbs rise up in a chorus grief over the unspeakable   irrevocable   unredeemable   unresourceful skill of the mindlessly whirring blades of profit and loss.  

Where the fairy tree had been, I eased myself past the spikes of the jagged hinge where the spruce had fallen away from itself. The wood was freshly damp from the cut. And sweet. I ran my hands across the years. If fairy tales were real, I thought, this is where Princess Rosamund would have slept, inaccessible amidst the brambles, under the curse of the old woman not invited to the infant princess’ baptismal feast.

Such a crime for such a trifle.

Weary from it all, I lay down on the fairy stump, fitting perfectly, but for the soles of my feet. Suddenly, like war, a red helicopter appeared  out of slit in the sky and came at me straight and low. A rain of chemicals burned my skin, coated my
eyeballs and lungs. Climbing down from the fairy stump to flee, I ran a spike from the hinge through my thumb. Blood gushed. Pain radiated through me. Everything went slow. I sank up to my waist in twiggy and thorny slash. Unable to escape the poison rain, I was twitching and quivering to my death when I
awoke as if from a nightmare, back in the forest at Thimbleberry’s little table.

“I’m so glad you’ve agreed to help,” she was saying.

“The fairy tree,” I mumbled, dazed and stunned to find it and the forest still standing and my thumb quite intact.

“My clients will continue to tell you their stories,” Thimbleberry said, “And I will teach you all I learned in the School of Natural Law. These laws are older and wiser than seats at the table and will show you the way.”

“But I didn’t agree,” I insisted and was getting up to leave when my attention was drawn to a black bear pushing a shopping cart down the trail.

“Now there’s a story that will break your heart,” said Thimbleberry.

And reluctant though I was, I sat back down. For who could refuse the heartbreaking tale of a bear pushing a shopping cart.