It was an owl that brought them into view. A screech, maybe, or a great horned that I had not seen before in the Fuller Arboretum. He glided, weaving through the trees, making effortless turns as if he were on some well-known aerial pathway. He settled on one of the tree limbs, surveying, I assume, the earth below for a meal. I watched him from my office window while he remained balanced, perched high for some time, patient, unhurried. He was an unusual visitor on campus, and I wanted his picture, a photograph of the moment. I left my building and walked slowly toward the tree. He must have sensed my human awkwardness, my curiosity, and eyed the camera in my hands. Before I had a chance to point and shoot, he flew away. I was left staring at the tree.
I remember this bird watching, this episode, now from my office. I am here to get rid of things — papers, files and folders, jam-packed into two gray metal cabinets. I am here to make room for the next person who will occupy this office. My first challenge is to purge the contents in the vertical files. Books and posters and memorabilia will follow. I am not sure what I will do with the chunk of rock sitting on my desk, a rock from Alcatraz, that infamous prison, now national park, a rock given to me by a student who had visited there. It seems likely that the gift was not a purchased souvenir, but rather something he took while touring the grounds. Maybe, at some point in my approaching retirement, I will offer restitution and return the rock to "The Rock." But, now, I am looking at the vertical files — and all that is confined within.
I admit that I am one of those who is nostalgic, you might say, distrustful, or both, who keeps hard copies of exams and handouts, academic plans and proposals, who supposes that his paper record is more reliable than a computer’s "memory." If I only had more faith in RAMs (random access memory), SIMMs (single in-line memory modules) and DIMMs (dual in-line memory modules), clusters and clouds, if I had just relied exclusively on my computer’s filing system, today I would not have to face these cabinets, and all of their contents. I could simply download or delete and go. But here I am, and just look at them.
I took a picture of the tree instead.
Then, I noticed that this tree was one of two, a pair that had been planted there by someone many years before I arrived at the college. Maybe 30 feet apart, both had reached their peak, and now stood tall and thick, and remarkable, if not surreal, fantastic in form, shape, and character! Why had I not seen them before? How is that possible? They had been in the same spot, the tip of the arboretum near my building, and clearly in my view for over 30 years. How many times had I walked past them and never stopped to notice? Is it possible to feel ashamed at not noticing a pair of trees?
I unlock the file cabinets and open the first drawer. The first file I encounter is labeled "Assessment." I close the drawer and walk away.
The trees are black locust, so tagged by an arborist. From what I gather, these two locusts must be unusually big for their species. And while they seem old and brittle, their tops sheared and limbs disfigured, I hope I will never count their rings and record their age. Instead, I wish to admire the rough bark, the deep furrows, and the dramatic burls — those large bowl-like knots that signify that these majestic trees have lived with great stress and survived.
And they have. They stood tall when a storm ripped off the roof of nearby Kingery Hall 10 years ago, all but destroying a building where classical Greek and Latin were taught. Their roots have gripped the soil beneath them while backhoes and bulldozers moved the earth to make room for the new wings of the Fine Arts Center, and, more recently, Martindale Hall. And while I know this is not true, they seem almost indestructible — as if they are marble sculptures intended to remain in this place for a long time. At the very least, they remind me of the importance of resiliency and of grit and that there is beauty in age.
It is not like they hold great secrets — the file cabinets. It is not like they are classic Mayan stelae on which the mysteries of a lost civilization are inscribed. How important to me now is the deciphering of my "assessment" documents? Must I return to those departmental self-studies, budget proposals, and accounts? Must I be reminded of those many salary letters and personnel reviews? There. I shred thee.
And I am okay with that.
What about all the paperwork for college travel, conferences, planning documents, and final reports? Some good things there, but, no, I shred thee. What about these many folders of advisees, with their names appearing on individual file tabs, like errant shoots on a tree? What about these records of their academic plans, their career goals, declarations of a major and then instructions to change it, of adding a course and dropping another, transcripts and citations both good and bad? These advisee files record the shifts and turns of college days, of dreams and disappointments, of GPA, and I shred them, I shred them, all, reluctantly. While exams and quizzes and grade books, I shred, joyously.
But what about the rest? Can I let go of the rest? How do I let go of the courses that I have taught — drawer after drawer of syllabi and lesson plans, the first day, material aids, and lessons learned. Can I let them go? What about the many production folders of plays I have directed, the dramaturgy, my annotated scripts of blocking and notations, rehearsal schedules, cast lists, programs and reviews? Isn’t it possible that I may need these things again? Pause here. Don’t be too quick with this. Give it at least a moment. And exhale. I don’t think so, but I don’t know. I guess I will just have to start over, if I must, and, so, I shred thee.
Alice Walker published The Color Purple the same year I finished my first year of college teaching — it was 1982. Sometime between then and now I wrote this Walker quote in my notebook: "Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?"
In the academic year 1981 to 1982, it was all new to me — a new job, new courses, a new baby, a new place, and so, it has taken me a few years to notice, but I do. And, now, I don’t know who you are, and how long you have been gone, but thank you for planting those two trees outside of my window.
I have two empty, perfectly good file cabinets, looking for a home.
Dwight E. Watson is a professor emeritus of theater at Wabash College.