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I Speak for the Trees

He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water (Psa 1:3)

Those who have been following this blog for it’s almost four years of existence know that I have an attraction to online personality tests that borders on the obsessive. I’ve learned many interesting things about myself from these tests, including that among the pantheon of Shakespeare’s immortal characters I am most like Lady Macbeth, my aura is yellow, and I would be Bach as a classical composer, Mr. Carson as a Downton Abbey character, and a Guinness if I were a beer.

If I Were a Beer, or What I have learned about myself from Facebook

I haven’t taken one of these in a while—fewer of them seem to come across my Facebook feed these days than in the past—so I was pleased when a Dr. Seuss quiz came along the other day. I was even more pleased with the result.

Which Dr. Seuss character are you?

the loraxYou are The Lorax. You are wise and intelligent. You have strong beliefs but are also able to see both sides of every issue and you understand that not everything is black and white. You are contemplative, kind, and reflective. You never rush into something but first consider it thoughtfully from every angle.

I know, these quizzes are intended to tell the quiz taker nothing but what she or he wants to hear (except my Lady Macbeth result), but I don’t care. I’m happy if any of this description fits me even ten percent of the time. But most importantly, I am happy to be the speak for the treesLorax because according to the text of Dr. Seuss’ classic tale, the Lorax “speaks for the trees.”

The Lorax was Dr. Seuss’ favorite of his multitude of books; he reportedly said that the book “came out of me being angry. In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.” The evil things Dr. Seuss was angry about included corporate greed and the threat of such greed to nature and the environment. The Lorax is full of the outrageous characters one expects from Dr. Seuss. thneedThe Once-Ler tells the story of how he made a fortune crafting an impossibly useful garment, the Thneed, out of the wooly foliage of the Truffula tree—a type of tree that no longer exists. The day the Once-Ler cuts down his first Truffula tree, a creature called the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees” because they have no tongues, emerges from the tree stump and criticizes the Once-Ler for having sacrificed a tree for such a mercenary purpose. truffulaBut the Once-Ler soon finds that there is great consumer demand for Thneeds, a large factory is built, and he becomes fabulously rich. But animals who live in the Truffula forest and eat its nourishing fruit have to leave, and eventually the last Truffula tree is cut down. The Lorax says nothing but with one sad backward glance lifts himself into the air and disappears behind the smoggy clouds. Where he last stood is a small monument engraved with a single word: “UNLESS.”

I like trees. Of the dozens of creatures in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Ents are my favorites. Trees adopt the general plant survival strategy of choosing a location that will provide sufficient food, water, and sunlight, then hunkering down in a permanent installation designed to stand up to all dangers for as long as possible—a very different plan from the animal strategy of being nimble, mobile, and capable of running away from danger. 100_0379A massive red oak outside the front door of my Minnesota sabbatical apartment several years ago became an iconic symbol of internal changes that I was experiencing; the introduction to my book that will be published early next year is focused on that oak, as was a blog post from a few years ago.

Oaks of Righteousness

So it is not surprising that I had a strongly negative reaction to the news earlier this summer from the administration that a beautiful old red oak on the lower part of my college’s campus—as large and spectacular as my Minnesota oak—had been marked as diseased during the annual evaluation of the hundreds of trees on campus and, sadly, would have to come down.

The oak in question is one of two massive oaks located directly in front of the building in which my philosophy department office was located for my first dozen or so years at the college. They stand at the top of a grassy and gradually sloping quad (that was a huge parking lot when I came to the college in the middle nineties)—our impressive performing arts building is at the other end of the quad. Shortly after I arrived on campus, several colleagues told me a story about these oaks. Howley OakThe story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates just how attached people on campus are to these two trees. Several decades ago one or both of the trees was scheduled for removal in order to make room for a parking lot. Faculty, staff, administrators, and students formed a human chain around the threatened trees and successfully forced the decision makers to change their minds about the future of the oaks and design the parking lot around them.human chain If true, I’ll bet it happened in the sixties—people did that sort of thing back then. The trees, which have been estimated to be 150-200 years old, would have been roughly the same size then as they are now.

Not surprisingly, the email announcing that one of the trees was coming down set off a collective WHAT THE FUCK??? reaction across campus. Facebook and Twitter lit up like Christmas trees. Why was this happening in the summer when the campus is relatively empty? What is the real reason this tree is coming down? What are the authorities trying to pull/? Shouldn’t the whole college community be involved in the decision? Push back from various persons (led by a colleague from political science who is our faculty Lorax) and a welcome willingness from the administration to delay the tree’s removal while second and third opinions were sought and discussion was opened up has preserved the tree to date—but what will eventually happen remains to be seen. die is castTwo arborist firms hired by the college recommend the tree’s removal, while the city forester thinks the tree can be saved but won’t insist on it, leaving the choice in the hands of the administrators responsible for making such decisions. An open forum was held earlier this week to allow various constituencies to chime in, but it is clear that, as Julius Caesar said, the die has been cast. Before long there will be a gaping hole where this glorious tree has stood for more than a century. And current efforts to save it will become campus lore.

I am very concerned about the preservation of our environment, but in truth my love of trees is more personal than general. We have two trees in our front yard—Blue and Chuck—who have been part of our family for most of the two decades we have lived in our house.

Blue and Chuck

Blue and Chuck

I love telling the story of how Blue started his life with us as a four-foot living Christmas tree in our living room during the 1996 holiday season. We were warned that there was only a 50% chance that Blue would survive the months he spent in our garage where he moved from the house after the New Year, biding his time until we planted him the next April; twenty years later, he is now a perfectly shaped 30-to-35-foot tree whose bottom branches I have to cut off every other year, lest he overwhelm the sidewalk. ChuckThank goodness I planted him far from any power lines—within a few years some of his upper branches will be touching the upper branches of the oak across the street.

Chuck joined us a year or so after Blue, a flowering miniature weeping cherry whose name comes from his similarity, as a one-branched twig when I planted him, to Charlie Brown’s iconic and sad-looking Christmas tree. I have to give Chuck, who sports lovely pink flowers in the spring, a significant haircut at least twice per summer—he rejects the “miniature” part of his description and would like to be as tall as Blue. I talk to these trees, as I do to all of my outdoor and indoor plants. As with the Ents, Chuck and Blue seldom say anything. But when they do, it is worth remembering.treebeard

Lost in the Amazon

imagesG5211NOUBookstores! For bibliophilic folks such as I, there is no more fascinating or attractive idea. The very notion of a place where I can spend the day surrounded by books, wandering here and there with no particular goal other than the hope that I might stumble across the book I’ve never seen by an author I’ve never heard of that will provide hours of entertainment, provoke new thoughts, and that might even, as Richard Rorty suggests, be the basis for “an encounter which rearranges my priorities and purposes” is exhilarating and stimulating. Such discoveries happen regularly enough to raise hopes to expectations, but even if no magical connections are made, there are few ways to spend a few hours more attractive than in an establishment specifically dedicated to the sale of my favorite thing: books. I have been told that everything I have just described is also available in a library, but I strangely have never been a big fan of libraries. The whole idea of borrowing a book and having to give it back is foreign to me. A book is something that imagesX2TI9OA9I want to own, to devour, to add to my collection of specimens—definitely not something to give back. Furthermore, libraries don’t usually have coffee shops.

So I should be in the front lines of those publicly bemoaning the demise of the bookstore. Borders is gone—I’m still pissed every time I pass the corner of Providence Place Mall where my favorite Borders used to be located, now occupied by a mega-shoe store, for God’s sake. Barnes and Noble is still around (although I always liked Borders more), but the two in our area are at least ten miles away, which in Rhode Island is an overnight trip. There are a number of independent booksellers and used book stores in our area; I suspect they are struggling to keep their noses above water. These should be my new hangouts, places where you might find me with Jeanne in tow on any given weekend afternoon. But no. IimagesEM6PUZGKnstead of doing what any true bibliophile should be doing as bookstores close down—finding another one—I’ve gone to the dark side. I’ve entered the Amazon.

In a recent “60 Minutes” interview, Jeff Bezos said that he wants Amazon to become the place where anyone in the world can buy absolutely anything. Its goal is “to sell everything to everyone.” I don’t know about that, although I have indeed purchased an advent wreath, a Betty Boop Christmas ornament and a plastic bag dispenser to hold the bags needed to pick up dog shit from the back yard from Amazon in the past few months. Amazon’s primary purpose in my life, though, is to be my several-million-titles-and-growing bookstore. And mean real books. high_resolution[1]I do not own a Kindle and don’t intend to. I have explained in previous posts that only when they make an e-reader that feels and smells like a real book will I consider taking that plunge.

My Best Friends

But with my Amazon Prime membership which includes two-day free shipping, I can order books on Monday and have them reliably sitting at my back door when I return from campus on Wednesday. Until recently, that is.

My Christmas shopping for the past several holiday seasons has been primarily an Amazon extravaganza. Books always are a significant portion of gifts for Jeanne, and I of course always add a title or two for me. Orders were made during the first week of December.

imagesSECKJ37CTuesday, December 3: Ordered two books for Jeanne, one for me, and all six seasons of “Breaking Bad” in DVD (my son’s Christmas present).

Wednesday, December 4: Ordered two more books for Jeanne that I forgot about on Tuesday (God bless free delivery) plus one more for me.

Thursday, December 5: Was crushed to return home after work to no Amazon box at my back door. Blamed it (grudgingly) on the Christmas rush.

Friday, December 6: The Amazon box at my back door contained Wednesday’s order delivered within the two-day free shipping parameters. Fine, but where the hell is my Tuesday order? As I have done many times over the past few years, I went online, signed in to my Amazon account, and clicked on “Track Package” for the appropriate order. Inside-Amazon-Warehouse-08[1]I was accordingly informed that the package was “in transit,” having left the seller facility (Amazon warehouse) in New Castle, Delaware on its way to the carrier (UPS) at 17:56 on Wednesday 12/4 with an estimated delivery of Thursday 12/5 by 8:00 PM. The package in question had not reported in since leaving the warehouse and it was now twenty-four hours late in arriving.  I sprang into action.

Clicking on “Contact us,” I sent an email to Amazon customer service. Impressively, within two hours I received an email from either a woman or a very smart computer named Natalie expressing abject regret at the inconvenience, asking for my patience during the holiday season, and requesting that I wait one more day before further steps were taken. Natalie contacted me around noon the next day (Saturday), wondering whether the package had shown up. In response to my one word reply—“no”—Natalie sent the following:153687910_640[1] “Since there is no further tracking information, we will treat this order as a lost package. A new order will be placed for these items and sent to you by overnight delivery at no charge to you. Because of the obvious inconvenience, I have extended your Amazon Prime membership [which was due to expire in January] for three months.” In other words, let’s pretend the first order never happened. We’ll just do a “do over” and throw you a three-month membership extension bone for the obvious, nerve-wracking and blood-pressure raising inconvenience of a package being two days late. The replacement package arrived on Monday. Customer satisfied, end of story.

But I got to thinking (always a dangerous thing) about that “lost package.” Where is it? What happened to it? Is it laying in the weeds by the side of the road? Is the person to whose house it was incorrectly delivered now enjoying season three of “Breaking Bad”?  There are deep existential issues here. Really—bear with me. If an Amazon order is made online, but the package never arrives, does the package really exist? Natalie essentially said “let’s pretend this never happened. Let’s pretend that the order was actually made on Saturday, not the previous Tuesday.” And really, the only evidence I have that the Tuesday-ordered package ever existed is a cryptic report that it left the Amazon facility in Delaware on Wednesday. Is that really sufficient evidence to support something’s existence?georgeberkeley[1] As the Irish philosopher and Anglican clergyman George Berkeley once wrote, “to exist is to be perceived.” Lacking the perception of holding the package in my hands, opening it up and examining its contents, for all intents and purposes said package never existed.

I know, I know. Leave it to a philosopher to turn a story about a lost Christmas package into a contemporary version of the lame old philosophical puzzle images22PKHBFQ“If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there, is there a sound?” But think about it. How do we, really, establish the existence of something? By sensory experience. To illustrate, I sometimes ask my students “How many of you believe that Japan exists?” Everyone does. Then I want to know “How many of you have ever been there?” Usually no one has. So the obvious question is “Then how do you know that Japan exists?” Answers range from “my uncle visited there and told me about it” to having seen pictures of it in a book or a movie about it. In other words, we are more than willing to accept indirect sensory evidence to establish the existence of things. But when there is no sensory evidence, direct or indirect, of something’s existence—such as in the case of my package—there is no relevant difference between saying that something is “lost” and saying that it does not exist.

This is worth considering when issues concerning God’s existence arise. How is a person to prove God’s existence? If Berkeley is right that “to exist is to be perceived,” then the existence of God is not something ultimately dependent upon logical arguments, no matter how sound and valid they might be. Belief in the existence of God is entirely rooted in experience, in a certainty that can only arise from direct contact. For those who have fallen into the hands of a living God, logical arguments add nothing but “of course.” For those who have not had such an encounter, logical arguments are never enough. This is why God chooses to enter the world in tangible, human form rather than theological and philosophical arguments. Rumors of a package on the way, divine or otherwise, are never enough—we need to hold the thing in our hands.images7EXCIDWY