Aldo Leopold writes in his 1949 A Sand County Almanac a chapter entitled “February: Good Oak” of an old tree whose life was brought to an end by one fateful strike of lightning. Eloquently written, the narrative unfolds as his saw bites through year after year of life recorded by the tree’s growth rings. Leopold writes:
“Fragrant little chips of history spewed from the saw cut and accumulated on the snow before each kneeling sawyer. We sensed that these two piles of sawdust were something more than wood; that they were the integrated transect of a century; that our saw was biting its way, stroke by stroke, decade by decade, into the chronology of a lifetime, written in concentric annual rings of good oak.”
As he writes, he “cuts” through history and lets both his knowledge and the tree’s record craft the narrative. Again he writes:
“It took only a dozen pulls of the saw to transect the few years of our ownership, during which we had learned to love and cherish this farm. Abruptly we began to cut the years of our predecessor, the bootlegger…The reign of the bootlegger ended sometime during the dust-bowl droughts of 1936, 1934, 1933, and 1930. Oak smoke from his still and peat from burning marshlands must have clouded the sun in those years, and alphabetical conservation was abroad in the land, but the sawdust shows no change…Now our saw bites into the 1920’s the Babbittian decade when everything grew bigger and better in heedlessness and arrogance-until 1929, when stock markets crumpled. If the oak heard them fall, its wood gives no sigh…. We cut 1902-3, a winter of bitter cold; which brought the most intense drought of record (rainfall only 17 inches); 1900, a centennial year of hope, of prayer, and the usually annual ring of oak.”
Leopold traces history through the life of the tree until its birth. He writes:
“In 1866 the last native Wisconsin elk was killed. The saw now severs 1865, the pith-year of our oak. In that year John Muir offered to buy from his brother, who then owned the home farm thirty miles east of my oak, a sanctuary for the wildflowers that had gladdened his youth….”
This book, and especially this chapter, is one of my favorites of all time. It’s beautifully written and firmly grounded in both reality and imagination. I have thought regularly about Leopold’s reflections and wondered about the history of my development. What I have learned from this text (and many others of course) is that we are creatures of context. Life happens to us and we to it, but not all that happens affects us. So too with Leopold’s oak.
For the last five years or so, I have challenged faculty from across the disciplines and around the world to think about their intellectual growth rings. I’ve done this specifically to explore the questions:
- If you were to write the story of how you have come to command your intellect (used robustly here to include the whole person), would it be a valuable resource to guide your pedagogy?
- Would your narrative be a valuable resource for students to use to develop their own intellects?
I think of all the metaphorical fires, droughts, periods of plenty, those times of sickness and health as our minds grow and mature, and I have to ask: How much of our development can be attributed to schooling? If a lot, then can I mine those experiences for clues to help students have similar learning opportunities? If little, then what can I do differently? So…
I wrote an earlier post entitled: What adult learning theory can teach us about faculty development. In it I argued that it is important that our interactions with faculty come from a place of humility where their experiences that have lead to their expertise can organically emerge and, thus, inform action. Doing so helps us surface the implicit and make it explicit as a guide to crafting meaningful and enjoyable learning experiences for students.