Last Friday, July 20th, 2018 I read original stories to the talented youth at Friends Music Camp, at Earlham College. I’ve been doing this for 28 years (or maybe only 27; starting to get fuzzy). Many of the stories are about Quakers, with bits of history and witness; others are autobiographical, from my pre-Quaker youth; some are strictly fiction.
I read four stories this time, and as we’re on the brink of the Dog Days of late summer, I’m going to offer these stories here, in the same sequence as at Camp.
Each year I aim to bring a new story for our session. That’s what we’ll start with. This story, like many, is essentially true. The second story will be up tomorrow (Friday, July 27).
Talking with the Trees
It was the fall of 1966, I was a teacher at a new experimental Quaker school, called Friends World College. We were based on Long Island, east of New York City, in a cluster of converted houses on an abandoned Air Force base.
The College founder believed in studying problems, like poverty and the environment, rather than traditional subjects like math and biology. He also believed in study travel, going to places where problems and subjects of current importance were alive and vivid.
I was new and young in this educational world, not long out of college, coming to it after work in the southern civil rights movement, knowing basically nothing about teaching college. But I knew how to drive, and that was enough at that point.
One exception to our trek through a basic set of worldly “problems” like war, was a presentation on the much more conventional young adult “problem” of finding some sense of direction and meaning in life. It was by an elder Quaker writer named Milton Mayer.
The morning he came, our Dean, a retired English professor named Norman Whitney, after silence and a brief introduction, turned to him and said, “Milton, Mayer why don’t thee tell us what is on thy heart, and what is on thy mind.”
Mayer looked us over, and we looked at him. Unusually for our proto-hippie setting, he was in a suit: gray, with a starched white shirt and bow tie. I now think he must have stopped with us while headed somewhere else, perhaps to a meeting at a foundation or to make a formal speech before a group of well-heeled big city liberals.
But he was in no hurry. Surveying us from under his heavy black brows and receding hair, his expression grew somber and finally he said:
“Well, Norman, as I sit here with all of you, I find that what is on my heart is different from what is on my mind.”
He rubbed his chin. “So I believe I’m going to tell you what is on my heart.”
After another quiet moment, he began.
“As you are now,” he deadpanned, “so I once was; as I am now, so you will be.
“You will be tempted to smile when I tell you that I am old and corrupt.”
There was a scattering of snickers.
“You should resist the temptation,” he continued. “Twenty five years from now you will be ineluctably middle-aged and getting old, and unless you hear and heed what I say today, just as ineluctably corrupt.”
I was hearing him. Was it the quality of his voice? Or maybe that he was not speaking about the abounding evils outside our walls, as most of our speakers had, but with a calm melancholy about his own? Whichever, he had my attention.
He said, “You will not believe me, and you shouldn’t, because what I say at my age should be unbelievable at yours. But you should hear me out because I know more than you do in one respect: you know only what it is to be young, while I know what it is to be both young and old. In any case, I will not lie to you in order to make you feel good.
You will be old much longer than you are young, and I would rather that you believed me the longer time than the shorter.” He paused again.
I can’t exactly say his words transfixed me, unless the image evoked was that of a moth stuck and struggling hopelessly on the point of the collector’s pin. Yet his voice was relentless:
He went on: “A cynic once said that he would not give a hang for a man who wasn’t a socialist before he was twenty or who was one after that. I don’t know if socialism is a good ideal, but I know that it is an ideal and I know that the cynic was confident that you would lose your ideals. You may even have trifled, in your springtime, with such radical aberrations as pacifism. But you will soon stop trifling; and when, at thirty, you have already begun to molder, your friends will tell you that you have mellowed.”
Here he pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his lips, still watching us.
I should have felt defensive. The others in the room were mostly twenty or younger. At twenty-three, I was officially their elder. Moreover, I was well into two years of full-time status as a pacifist; I even had an official U. S. Government document certifying it, like the circular blue “Grade A” inspection marks they used to stamp on large cuts of meat. I was no mere trifler at it. No mold on me.
But like a ship breaking ice, Mayer cut through all that. He was speaking a truth I had not known I knew, but recognized as soon as he spoke it. Although it was a feeling more than a thought, I saw that turning thirty had long seemed to me somehow impossible. Before thirty – before December 1972 in my case, six-plus years away, before it arrived, if it ever did – I figured the world would
A. go up in the smoke of a nuclear war; or
B. I would die in the smoke of a (hopefully nonviolent) revolution; or
C. Its victory would save me & abolish aging along with capitalism; (or, as a last resort which was sought by more than a few),
D. I could take refuge in a state of arrested development.
In my head the echoes still reverberated of a slogan made famous in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement barely two years earlier. It was: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.”
And here, right before our eyes, sat an acknowledged inmate of that vast internment camp of the old, a soft-spoken, sharp-eyed double agent, who had somehow managed to slip past the guards just long enough to look us in the face and confirm that Berkeley motto. For me, at least, he was terrifying, and convicting.
And he was not done.
He said, “At twenty I was what you are. I had had all the middle-class care that a middle-class society and a middle-class home could provide. My parents wanted me to have what they took to be advantages, and I had them. But my advantages were of no use to me at all when life came down on me, as it will soon come down upon you, like a ton of bricks.
“I had studied morality, just as you have, but it was the easy morality designed to sustain my character in an easy world.
“I would not steal another person’s watch unless my children were starving, and my children would never be starving. Nor will yours if, with what your parents call your advantages, you do as you are told and get to the top, or near enough to it. The reason your children will not be starving is that you will have been corrupted. Your corruption will save you from having to decide whether to steal another person’s watch.”
Now he patted his forehead with the handkerchief. Behind him were shelves of donated books that few of us had yet opened. Around him, were the students, some listening, others fidgeting, doodling in notebooks. I didn’t understand why their minds seemed to be wandering: I couldn’t look away.
Mayer said, “My education prepared me to say no to my enemies. It did not prepare me to say no to my friends, still less No to myself, to my own limitless need for a little more status, a little more security, and a little more of the immediate pleasure that status and security provide. Corruption is accompanied by immediate pleasure. But . . . the practice of virtue is painful.”
Mayer stopped and stroked his chin again. His tone was still calm, but he was not letting up.
“I tell you,” he said, “that you are in mortal jeopardy today, and anyone who tells you differently is selling you to the Devil. . . . You may delude yourselves, as I did, by setting about to change the world. But for all that you do or do not do, you will leave the world, as I do, no better than you found it and yourselves considerably worse.
“For the world will change you faster, more easily, and more durably than you will change it. If you undertake only to keep the world from changing you . . . you will have your hands full.
“What you need is what the Psalmist in the Bible knew he needed – a heart, not a head, of wisdom. . . . But I don’t know where you will get it. If I did, I would get it myself. You were divinely endowed to know right and to do right, and you have before you, in the tradition of your country and of human history, the vision to help you if you will turn to it. But no one will make you to turn to it, and no one can.
“If Socrates did not know where virtue came from – and he didn’t – neither do I. He pursued it earlier and harder than anyone else and concluded that it was the gift of God.”
Mayer gave us a weary smile. “In despair of your parents and your society, of your teachers and your studies, of your neighbors and your friends, and above all of your fallen nature and the Old Adam in you, I bespeak for you, the gift of God.”
He was finished, and we sank back into a now uneasy Quaker silence.
So that was what Milton Mayer had on his heart, not on his mind, that long ago morning on Long Island. But his words went into my mind, and were still there a few days later, when we piled into the College Volkswagen buses and headed north for Vermont, to the farm of a friend of the founder named Bert.
I was behind the wheel of one of the microbuses. We were going to begin the study of the environment, from a farmer’s point of view.
Bert had left the city to become an early back-to-the-lander; but he was no laid back hippie. His farm was well-organized and productive. It was autumn, and we arrived well after dark.
In the morning, I went outside, looked around, and reeled back in astonishment. I had never seen New England autumn foliage before, and the hillsides and even trees nearby all seemed alight with a kind of psychedelic aura that was almost audible, mezzo-piano purples, operatic orange, fortissimo red and a crescendo of yellow, an ensemble so overwhelming it seemed like it must surely be illegal.
If I were rich, I would fly up to Montreal in late September each year, and follow this amazing natural light show south through Vermont and new England for weeks. I’m not yet rich.
But there was more to see in these trees on Bert’s farm than the fiery palette of the maples. Bert took us on a tour past his barn, down a path through a copse of these trees, beneath which the ground was crowded with seedlings and saplings, still green and fluttering in the morning breeze. The path led us to his large woodlot, in which tall pines stood in rows.
There we stopped, and Bert invited us to contemplate the two scenes we now confronted. On one side were the native trees, especially the maples, huddling together at random. But really, Bert explained, if we could only see the world from their perspective, we’d know the air of vivid autumn exuberance was an illusion; in fact, they were all caught up in a desperate struggle: each tree was stretching for the sky, competing with all the rest to take in enough sunlight to make its food to get through the coming long, cold winter.
This was not a friendly contest, but life or death, all against all. And below, the riot of green around our feet was even more deceptive: among the slim saplings and winsomely tiny seedlings, almost all, he told us, were certainly doomed. They would be crowded out by others, with the bigger trunks and branches blocking access to direct sun. At night, deer and other animals would chew up the tender shoots
Only one in hundreds or a thousand, Bert explained, would survive to become a tree.
As Fred talked, I looked around the scene again. It felt very different now. Where had my giddy psychedelic Eden suddenly gone?
“Now turn around,” Bert said. We did.
Here we faced the pines, each with a circular carpet of fallen brown needles beneath it. They were all standing straight & stiff, in carefully-aligned rows, with only a half-light showing through the thick, close branches, which made shifting geometric patterns as we moved along the edge.
Bert explained that these pines were carefully tended by him and his help, giving them the exact nutrition they needed, and keeping the many pests at bay. The rows were precisely spaced to ensure all had just enough sunlight, but in the minimum of space, so the maximum number of trees could burgeon there, until it was time for harvest.
Oh, yes – harvest. The rows seemed to grow even more silent and stolid as Bert told us that all these trees would, in due course, be cut down for lumber, or Christmas trees (I forget which), and replaced with a new crop.
I stood there, looking first in one direction, and then the other. And maybe I lingered for a few minutes after the others walked on. As I hesitated, the tableau became heavily freighted with symbolism:
Recalling Milton Mayer, on one side I thought I could see life untethered: magnificent but uncertain, with times of glorious green and other rich colors, but ruthlessly competitive, with long leafless winters, and likely short lifespans.
On the other side was security, a guarantee of enough space, food and light, protection from enemies, peace and quiet – but also strict regimentation. And then at the moment of peak vitality, would come the loud hungry buzz of the chainsaw. On one side was costly, risky freedom; on the other was security, which was also costly, the price that of being made a commodity; a crop. Here the end was perhaps a fireplace, or a trash heap, with their dried-out needles mixed with discarded wrapping paper and mangled gift boxes.
Was life like this, I wondered, for people too? And if so, which side was I on now, and which side did I want to be on? Was there any in between place, like this path? And how much choice did I really have?
I could imagine my future self smiling grimly at me like Milton Mayer, from sometime far in the future, tugging at a bow tie and shrugging: “You know which side you’d like to be on,” this Chuck or Milton of the Future might say.
“And you know which side you’re being groomed for.
“But don’t ask me what to do. I’m middle-aged and — ineluctably –corrupt.”
I lifted one hand and leaned on it against the trunk of a solid-seeming maple tree, one of the multicolored monarchs of the wild side of Bert’s farm. I felt my breathing as my gaze drifted back to the pines, which were softly whispering something in the fitful breeze, something I could hear but not quite make out. And then my vision moved again to the maples, and the many winsome seedlings fluttering hopelessly beneath them.
Where, I wondered, would I end up in this shimmering, fatal landscape? Like the others of our group, I had had many advantages in my few years. But at that moment, and for many since, my advantages were of no use at all when life came down on me, as it was already coming down on all the trees in that near-silent autumn morning, as Milton Mayer had said, like a ton, like a ton, of bricks.
Drafted July 17, 2018; Revised July 25, 2018
The message Milton Mayer gave us was called, “Commencement Address,” and is in his book, What Can a Man Do?
If you enjoyed this story, please share it with others. There’s more stories first shared at Friends Music Camp by Chuck here:
This collection of nineteen Quaker short stories, Posies for Peg, is available here at Amazon and Kindle. It makes a fine gift.
Copyright © Chuck Fager