Why Dad? From High in Our Mulberry Tree

When I was just big enough to climb trees, my dad built my sister and me a tree house: flat-bottomed, 4’/4’ square, with 1’ high sides. He built it in our sturdy fruitless mulberry tree, where the bark was rough, the leaves ample, and the environment suitable for a small girl who needed to escape her house, with its many tensions, and who would always need to explore the outside world.

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The fruitless mulberry. Wikimedia.

The tree house had a rope attached with a bucket, where my mom could place sandwiches and supplies. This made it perfect.

I often ventured into the upper regions, stepping near the trunk where the branches were strong. From my perch high in the mulberry, I had my first glimpses of a wider world.

Of course, I’d traveled in every direction I could see—from the Alpha Beta grocery store in the Northwest, to my elementary school in the Northeast; from Stater Brothers in the Southeast, past track homes like my own in the Southwest. But from high in the tree my mind wandered, and I wondered what lay further, what was beyond all that I could see.

From this tree I could stretch my eyes—I had a need to see distant places.

We humans need to stretch our eyes and see beyond our tiny worlds—physically and psychologically. We imagine something more, and we pursue it. We see an unknown object, and we examine it. We wonder how something works, and we attempt to repeat it. We see another way of doing something, and we consider its value for ourselves. We meet an unanswered question, and we ask “how?” and “why?”

This is the way we discover new views, ideas, perspectives, understanding, or facts.

I tell my first-year college students that one difference between high school and college is that in high school, you were frequently told who, what, when, and where, and the answers seemed settled. In college, you are expected to ask how and why, and to examine both the process and the results.

With a father like mine, asking how and why was inbred. Sometimes, such a querying spirit has felt troublesome (or it has appeared troubling to others). To me, being curious about the how and why has sent me on a path of never-ending exploration and growth.

When I was very young, my dad and I built a go cart together. I remember hammering and painting it, and I recall practicing with it on the pavement, but I do not remember ever using it in a go cart race—although that was our voiced intention.

“What makes it go, Dad? How will it stop?”

“You’ll make it go. You have to kick!” he explained. “We’ll put a brake on. I’m not going to let you race down the street without a damn way to stop.”

Or our homemade rock grinder. My dad built it from scratch—it looked like a cylindrical washing machine tube extracted from the machine, on legs.

“What is it dad; how does it work?” I asked, walking around it on all sides, my stumpy pigtails swinging.

“It’s a rock polisher! It spins, and uses rocks and sand to rub the rough edges off stones, like beach waves use sand to polish beach pebbles. I’m polishing obsidian nodules.” I looked at the machine dubiously. It spun slowly, rocks clanging, clunking.

How long will it take?” I queried.

“Days. You can’t be impatient.”

Why did you make a rock polisher dad? What are you going to do with the rocks?”

CO OBS Stone 3“I’m conducting tests. I want to know how long it takes to polish these raw stones.”

My dad kept records of his experiments. Periodically, he would remove a partially polished obsidian nodule, record the hours it had been in the polisher, and label it with tape. Today, I have some of these nodules, still marked. The longest recorded time says “72 hours.”

I learned to ask how and why because my dad was insatiably curious and interested in testing known and unknown processes for himself—and of course, I wanted to know what he was doing, how, and why.

When my dad learned that the soil in the Inland Empire was too cool to hatch tortoise eggs, he tried alternatives.

Why are you digging up the tortoise eggs, dad?!” I queried.

“They won’t hatch. We’re too far from the desert—it’s too cold here,” he explained. “So I’m putting them someplace warmer.”

He began by putting them in a box, covered by cloths, beneath the water heater. Later, he moved them to a home-made incubator with a temperature controlled light. His experiments worked—we hatched dozens of tortoises using these methods.

When some didn’t hatch, despite his efforts, he wanted to examine them. He placed unhatched eggs in a box and stored them—where else—in our refrigerator, for later study.

Give my mom credit for patience.

We all need to learn to go beyond what we already know or believe; to discover what we do not yet understand; to learn from God, nature, and others—those like ourselves and those quite different—to grow into truly empathetic human beings.

It takes humility to do that. Self-awareness, without pride. The space to stretch our eyes to new horizons and different ideas.

We may all want to begin by spending some time in a good tall tree.

It’s a brutal world. We don’t have to add to its brutality.

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https://goo.gl/images/yihtnZ

When I was seven or eight I raised white rats. They often crawled under my shirt; I loved feeling their tickling toes as they scuttled across my shoulders, along the nape of my neck, and onto my head. They weren’t rats to me. They were like downy pet mice, overgrown.

 

Then one terrible night a mother in my white rat family went insane and killed all the babies. It was my fault, although it had been an accident. My two mother rats gave birth almost simultaneously to 13 offspring. One day, closing the cage door too quickly, I caught the neck of one mother in the door and she died. I felt terrible, for my pet’s death and for my culpability.

The next morning I hurried down the cement steps to our back patio, where the rat cage sat under the living room window, to check on my pets. What I saw has never left me. Half eaten baby rat bodies bloodied the cage floor, some sawn in two like gruesome casualties of a plane crash, chewed bits dangling from tiny body parts. Other babies, their noses protruding, shrunken but elongated from near suffocation, staggered hideously around the cage.

The surviving mother, driven mad, was running from side to side. Unable to cope alone, she was killing the brood. Did I scream? I don’t remember. I cried.

This was my first encounter with the horror that is part of nature, and with the knowledge that even animals can feel overwhelmed to the point of despair and insanity.

Nature is frequently brutal. At my home in Indiana I planted crocus to brighten early spring. Rabbits, ever prolific, gnawed my crocus to stubs before they ever bloomed. Then, a large hawk descended on the neighborhood and two mother foxes dug dark holes in a gulch behind our house, made burrows, and bore kits. Within a year, they killed every rabbit. That spring, my crocus survived. Bunnies are resilient, though. When the hawk and foxes went elsewhere looking for new food sources, the rabbits returned. Soon enough, so did the hawks.

Predators come, take, and leave when the takings are diminished. Like bunnies, the resilient may bounce back. It is a hard world though, and we sometimes wonder if we are among the resilient.

The younger of two sisters, I remember my anxiety as a child at the dinner table. When would I get my share? Would there be enough? Seeking my share first; seeking the bigger share. Anxiety driven dinner manners. The fear that we won’t get “enough” infects us all.

We learn to manipulate to get more. We rape the earth, despite its consequences. We become the predators.

Reinhold Niebuhr, a philosopher, theologian, and social activist who wrote from the 1930s-1960s, shed light on our capacity to be predators. A liberal who wanted to see greater justice in society, he also challenged the overly optimistic views of other liberals who argued that society was getting so much better it could be perfected.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr says that we oppress others most egregiously when we congregate, in our family, tribe, religion, nation, gender, society, profession, or international entity. “Serious sins are mostly communal sins,” he says, adding, “As individuals, men believe that they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic, and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.”

The group becomes both rationale and means—locus of power—to ensure that we, at least, and those in our group, have enough, even if others have very little or unquestionably not enough, a “not enough” often caused because someone has taken more than they truly need.

This planet has horror enough without our contribution. It can be pitiless, independent of our actions. But tragically people, exploiting the world, are among its most ruthless occupants. Humankind, the great predators. We “plunder, rape, poison, and kill this living system,” as Ian L. McHarg argues in “Man, A Planetary Disease,” “threatening our own extinction.”

We have added immeasurably to the pain, suffering, and despair of the creatures with whom we share this world. We have decimated nesting places, put barriers across migration paths, drawn birds to their death with our indiscriminate use of urban lights, poisoned and polluted their dwelling places, and contributed to the extinction of countless species.

By removing environmental regulations that protect arctic waters, national parks, coastal lands, and air and water sources, we endanger our children’s world.my beacg16298579_10208367341446005_6683342185421786910_n We have done great harm, but we can reverse our course. We do not need to add more to the suffering of the world.

Life abounds with sorrow, but it also swells with goodness and beauty.

It is a broken, damaged world, yet the glory of God still glows within. We can chose whether we add to the brutality of the world or not.

We are not insane. Not yet.