Standing on a sidewalk in the center of campus, I have no commitments or responsibilities for the next 60 minutes. There are no more forms to fill out, no more boxes to pack or unpack, no more loan forms to sign. The sunlight dances off the dewy grass, and the trees extend an invitation: “Come closer.”
I’m a scientist, and I don’t usually talk with trees. I’ve learned a lot about trees over the years. I know about the xylem and phloem — those plant interstates that carry nutrients and products up and down the tree trunk. I know that dendrochronologists use tree rings to study climate change and other events. I know that photosynthesis — where plants convert sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen — is one of the most important biochemical processes on earth and cannot yet be completely imitated by modern science and technology. My brother, the plant ecologist, has taught me how to rub conifer needles between my fingers to tell the difference between a fir (flat needles) and spruce (square needles). I even know the Latin name for White Oak — Quercus alba. I know all these facts, and I know that trees don’t speak.
Yet these trees somehow speak to my soul. And they tell me to enter the field. I have nothing better to do right now, so I obey. After several steps, I realize that my shoes, socks, and pant cuffs are very wet. If I wander around in this wet grass for an hour, I’ll be uncomfortable and unsightly the rest of the morning. So I take off my shoes and socks, stuff them into my laptop computer case (the computer is back at the hotel), roll up my khakis to mid-calf and continue out into the field. The dew is cool.
I imagine that I’m stepping back in time and spirit to another place — one where flower children, Wiccans, American Indians, and Druids mingle, worshipping earth spirits. Like Moses approaching the burning bush, I’ve taken off my shoes to enter this hallowed ground. My mind swirls with tree scenes from self-help, new-age, and fantasy books I’ve read over the years — novels like The Celestine Prophecy, The Wizard of Oz, and the Harry Potter series, and books by Deepak Chopra, the Dalai Lama, and Ken Wilber. If I felt any closer to nature, I’d turn into a dragonfly and zoom away.
Sheepish at my strange and non-rational actions, I convince myself that I can get away with this sort of behavior on this particular campus. After all, this is Reed College, where vegans, eco-feminists, and Green Party activists abound — where the t-shirts in the bookstore sport a campus logo with the words “Atheism, Communism, and Free Love.”