What Can the Wisdom of Nature Teach Us
About We Can Do to Fix Our Schools?
That is the subject of walden@oregoncoast
How and Why I Came to Write walden@oregoncoast
walden@oregoncoast began as emails I sent to family and friends during the second of three trips I made to the Oregon coast from September 1998 through May 1999. The first trip lasted five days; the second, five weeks; the third, nearly eighteen years and counting.
I mention those emails because that’s how I think of this book—a collection of stories and reflections sent out to friends about my adventures in and around a small unincorporated town on a narrow strip of sand between forest and sea. And what an adventure it’s been!
I mean, there I was in 1998—a small, clinically-depressed middle-aged woman living alone in America’s fastest sprawling city with no prospects and smog allergies.
And the next thing I knew I was living in a drafty old beach house in a quiet little town where the air was pure, the president was an eighteen-pound cat, and I found myself on a magical quest through the coastal wilderness for…
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here because at the time I didn’t realize I was on a quest. “Quest” was what my therapist back home in Las Vegas had called it. I thought of the whole thing as just one last-ditch effort to save myself.
You see, four years before, school-district officials in Las Vegas had driven me from the teaching profession for my crimes of imagination against the system. Despite having a file full of nothing but exemplary evaluations, I’d lost not only my award-winning career but also my home and much of my retirement security.
I then spent the next four years trying to write a book to show that what happened to my students and me was an example of all the reasons we can’t solve the problems in our schools—and why the failure to solve these problems was largely responsible for our growing ability as a people to solve the problems affecting the well being of our planet and all living things.
But everything I wrote fizzled into one more sad story of yet another dedicated teacher and her disadvantaged students who got screwed by the system. School officials had turned me into a cliché.
By the summer of 1998, I was in such despair over my failed life that the only thing that got me out of bed in the morning was the unyielding devotion of my two cats—a chronically disheveled tortoise shell named cd, short for civil disobedience, and her sidekick, an anxious little tuxedo named MITTS, short for MITTStical.
I went to the sea with the hope that being in the presence of that great primordial body would help me find my way back to the person I was before I lost everything. That person would know how to write the book that needed to be written about education reform.
The sea did not disappoint—but apparently agreed with Albert Einstein that “It is impossible to solve a problem with the same mind set that created it.”
And I’m here to tell you that after fifty years in school, I was more entrenched in the system than I realized and unable to extricate myself from old patterns of thinking. Seeking diversion, I went dashing down a primrose path past every red flag in the book and fell head over sneakers in love with an irascible, demanding, and utterly charming wild man made of feathers and impertinence.
As you might imagine, my romance with an eighteen-inch bird with control issues met with stern resistance from the cats. But as any middle-aged woman with a shelf full of self-help books would do—I took control of the situation. Using my award-winning teaching skills, I would teach the primal enemies how to get along.
Within days, my life devolved into chaos, after which it became apparent that I’d created a situation that was hurting the ones I loved. And nothing I’d learned from books, school, or therapy could make things right.
Luckily, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. In fact, my teacher was already there—that wild man made of feathers and impertinence who, with the assistance of my cats, would become the teacher I’d been waiting for all my life.
“Forgive my nostalgia,” the old woman said. “I was born in a sweet green time before saws and the arrival of the machines of the big tires and rolling treads. I’ve tried to stay relevant and become chatty…” She dismissed relevant and chatty with a wave of her hands—which were not hands at all but large green leaves. And her feet! They were no feet at all…
I gasped, and the old woman laughed. “Yes, I know,” she said, “I have lived so long in the forest that my feet have become loam.”
For a moment I stood frozen, not in fear of the old woman who seemed harmless but terrified by the strangeness of the moment which even my most rational mind told me was quite real. I stepped back to leave, 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 of lovely red tea. The wood shone warmly—alive even, as something seemed to be looking out at me impishly through the knotholes.
“Welcome,” said the table.
“Please sit,” chorused the chairs.
“Drink,” invited the cup.
With her leafy hands, the old woman gestured toward my chair.
We sat and sipped. The knotholes smiled.
“Recite, recite,” cried the table.
The old woman set down her cup. “Well, if you insist,” she said with a fluster of her leafy hands, then cleared her throat, closed her eyes, and began, each word like a berry breaking forth from its flower:
“The spirit of a tree sweetly used lives on forever.
The spirit of a tree that’s abused will suffer and wither.”
Opening her eyes, the old woman savored the moment, then smiled. “It’s just a little something I learned from the Great PoetTree,” she said then added, “I must get you two writers together one day.”
“Yes,” I said, realizing that something in the warm red tea had made me oddly happy and 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 for me. And there is much work to be done. Which brings me to my point—the reason I have brought you here today.”
What? I was brought?
In fact, I had planned to work in the garden. This was too strange. I tried to flee.
“Oh stay,” pleaded my bench.
“Yes, please,” said my cup.
“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 have been asked by the Sentient Forest Beings to plead their case in the Court of Public Opinion. My clients, you see are running out of options. Their homeland is being cut away and sprayed with dangerous chemicals that poison our food, our air, and our water. Why just the other day, I had three elk come to me with deformed horns. So many of my little birds are suffering immune problems. And I am in constant grief thinking of the untold number of small beings crushed by the machines that come for the trees. Those who do survive often come to a quivering death brought on by the rain of chemicals from the sky.”
The old woman’s voice wavered and her leafy hands grew dewy.
The knotholes in the table 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 Planet to protect us. But we can’t even get what the Powerful People call a seat at the table. The only way we even get into the room is that our trees are felled and turned into the seats and the table—planed, shellacked, and reshaped into the instruments of negotiation. In seeking support for our cause, I will be presenting a series of briefs for public consideration. But we need someone to prepare and type up the briefs,” she paused. “This is where you come in.”
“Oh but wait just a minute,” I snapped, “you can’t just assume I…”
“You see,” Thimbleberry went on, oblivious to my growing irritation, “it has come to my attention that We of the Forest share grief with the Sentient Human Beings who have also been denied their seat at the table. They too are being cut off from the negotiations then poisoned by the chemicals of progress. It is time to unite. Time to present our case as One. You have the skills of communication to tell our story and and gather support in the Court of Public Opinion.”
“But,” I protested, “I’m no expert on forest issues.”
My protest was cut short by the whining whirr of metal teeth hungry for nothing but cutting. All around me the great trees fell. The ground shook as if the entire earth had turned to thunder. And then we were sitting in the middle of a gray and wasted land, a forest stripped of its trees. Where the emerald light of the Great Mysteries once shone—nothing but stumps amidst brittle piles of the young and useless brush. Remembrances of the ravage by saws rose from the phantom limbs. Stillness had turned to the quiet of a house the morning after death. Then from a distance, the sound of a helicopter, louder and louder as we sat there at our little table helpless under a rain of chemicals falling out of the sky.…
I woke as if from a nightmare, back in the forest, a guest at Thimbleberry’s little table.
“What you have seen,” she said, “is what the Powerful People plan at their seats around the table…what the experts they hire have done with their studies and the laws.”
“I would like to help,” I said, now determined to get up and leave. “But I have no idea where to begin.”
“Please,” implored Thimbleberry, “sit back down at our little table. My clients will tell you their stories. And I will teach you all I learned in the School of Natural Law. These laws are older than money and grief. They will show you the way.”
“Well, maybe not tomorrow,” I said. But 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. “Tea, then, tomorrow at noon?”
And reluctant though I was, I sat back down. For who could refuse the heartbreaking story of a bear pushing a shopping cart.