Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Christopher Johnson

In 1909, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung had a dream that was destined to become famous. The dream came upon him while he was traveling with Sigmund Freud to deliver lectures at Clark College in Worcester, Massachusetts. In the dream, Jung visualized a house that replicated the course of human history. The top story was built in the 19th century, and the lower stories were built in the 11th century. The foundation of this dream-house had been constructed by the Romans.

And lying beneath that foundation was, in Jung’s imagistic words, a “choked-up cave with Neolithic tools in the upper layer and remnants of fauna from the same period in the lower layers.” That cave symbolized the earliest years of human existence, when “reindeer hunters fought for a bare and wretched existence against the elemental forces of wild nature.” Humanity lived with the “free sway of instinct” and in sync with the rhythms, challenges, and mysteries of the natural world. 

When I was 39 years old, I reconnected with this world of nature—the world that undergirds the building in Jung’s dream. Put another way, I was saved by nature. Explaining how and why requires me to examine a critical period of my life that has become, in my mind, a kind of explanatory myth.

During my career, I was a textbook editor—an endeavor at which I worked for 35 years. Developing a textbook series typically takes between two and three years. You have to have an idea, find authors and consultants, plan the content, outline chapters, hire writers, edit the chapters, work with the designers to develop the layouts, collaborate with the marketers to bring the book or series to the school market, and then launch the series. The whole process was challenging but fun. Mostly.

The most demanding project I worked on was an elementary reading series called World of Reading, published by the company I then worked for, Silver Burdett & Ginn, located in Needham, Massachusetts. This was in 1986 and 1987. The project was like something out of Kafka’s The Trial or The Castle–absurd, byzantine, elephantine, berserk, out of control, at times even malicious. We—the editors and designers—had not two or three years but nine months to develop the series. The work was intense to the point of absurdity. I was never at home. Our two children just about forgot who the heck I was. When we gathered for breakfast, they asked who the strange man was who had slept in their dear mother’s bed. Through the process, my brain was bent in half, and my fingers trembled with stress and nervous anxiety.

My boss, an Executive Editor named Ruth, and I rented a nearby motel room where we could carry on our labors without interruption. A young editor would bring page proof to the motel room, and he told me later that it was like entering the inner sanctum of the very heart and soul of publishing, somewhat akin to the ninth circle of hell. The motel room was crammed full of manuscript and page proof that reached like paper towers toward the ceiling and were perpetually on the verge of collapse.

For nine months, I did not see the sun. I was a whiter shade of pale. Ruth was a wreck with tension. Her gray hair was frizzled and frazzled, her skin pasty. She was constantly spilling coffee on her chest, until the front of her dress looked like it had measles. When we lifted our arms to drink our coffee, our hands trembled with nervousness, fatigue, fear. We were mortally afraid of getting fired if we didn’t complete the project on time. Our fear was absurd. Who were the bosses going to get to work on this ridiculous project except for us?

At meetings, only the Editor-in-Chief had any idea of the big picture. Only she knew what the right hand and the left hand were doing. At these meetings, sleep-deprived editors and designers mumbled reports on their tiny parts of the project. Only she had any idea how the parts all fit together.

Tempers grew short as time dragged on. Ruth and I were responsible for features that taught skills directly to kids. Direct instruction they call it, and it was a big educational trend in the Eighties. These features were very important but also very challenging to write. A team of editors was working with us. We mapped out the skills, such as following sequence and understanding cause and effect. When it came to the skills of making inferences and drawing conclusions, no one could agree on how the two skills were different. One day, the team argued vociferously all morning about it. Out of our fatigue, we raised our voices and got pissed off. You damn moron, making inferences and drawing conclusions are exactly the same thing! No, they aren’t, you total dummy! Yes, they are, you compete nincompoop! Tears flowed freely. Teeth gnashed. Contracts were taken out. The Editor-in-Chief got involved. Yeah, they’re the same, but just use different examples to explain each of them. For a week, no one on the team spoke to one another.

Eventually, though, everyone kissed and made up. Especially when World of Reading turned out to be a great success. In 1987, the series was launched with great fanfare. The sales staff was incredibly happy to have such a stunning reading series to sell. The marketing department was ecstatic with it. At that year’s sale meeting, we editors were cheered as conquering heroes. Yay us! Go team! The series was submitted for adoption in California and Texas, the two largest textbook markets. World of Reading did very well in both states. The series was the buzz of the textbook industry.

However, the story continues beyond this reading program. After we finished the project, I had tremendous trouble adjusting back to normal life. I found that I was immobilized. Completely. Totally. Absolutely. I couldn’t do a thing. I’d been living on a high for nine months, and the adrenaline had rushed through me in the same way that I imagine heroin courses through a user’s veins.

There was something about the intensity of that project that scraped up shit inside of me. Was this what my life was going to be like? Constant overachievement to the point of exhaustion and absurdity? Age-old questions fired up in my brain and worked their way to my gut. I had a feeling of a vast emptiness inside me. It was more than feeling drained. It was a psychic emptiness. I had a beautiful wife and two beautiful children and lived in a beautiful house in a beautiful suburb of Boston. But how had I gotten here? And where was I going? I felt dead. That’s the best way I can put it.

We lived in Framingham, which is an historic town west of Boston. The town has an ancient cemetery. One day I had an impulse, from nowhere really, to go walking by myself through the cemetery. I felt immediately at home in that venerable graveyard, rambling among the primordial headstones, some of which dated from the early 1700s. I walked by antediluvian graves and impressive monuments, all of which had been worn to a dark gray by centuries of New England snows and thunderstorms. The day was overcast, the clouds dripping with black moisture that were on the verge of exploding into thunderstorms. Yes, I’m aware of the pathetic fallacy. But despite that, the weather really did seem to echo my mood. I spent two hours wandering through the cemetery, sojourning among the headstones, reading the inscriptions aloud, marveling at the long-ago dates on the headstones, imagining the lives of the people buried long ago beneath those headstones. Somehow, some way, the experience was of solace to me.

I realized that I felt like a functionary and nothing more. I remembered the character of K in Franz Kafka’s The Castle, performing bureaucratic functions to no end and for no purpose. Where was the happiness that we were all promised in America? The glitzy shiny goofy happiness that we were promised we could wear on our fingers like a gauzy and oversized diamond that sparkles in the empty night? The happiness that glints like a mirage in the desert?

I continued tramping through the cemetery. I knew that I personally was missing . . . something . . . that something was lacking . . . not there . . . like a lacuna in my soul . . . like a novel in which the characters are bloodless and one-dimensional. I reflected further. In fact, I could not stop myself. As I walked, I gradually felt a little less self-critical. It wasn’t that something was missing inside me. Something wasn’t missing. It was sleeping. It was hibernating.

I decided to put myself into the hands of Chance, Fate, and Intuition. I would not think about my situation, my next step. I was done thinking. Be aware—I shared none of this with anyone. No one on this great green earth.

By now, the project from hell was completed. We editors and designers were waiting for bound books. We were reading page proof, identifying errors, and preparing for that first critical reprint. Work life returned to normal. I was back to a 40-hour work week. I had my weekends back. Weekends! I had almost forgotten what they were. Weekends!

Barbara and I had a Saturday in June free. The children were off somewhere, staying with friends. We had the Saturday to ourselves, just like kids. Like teenagers. One of us said let’s do something outdoors. I was starting to turn myself over to Chance, Fate, and Intuition. One of us said let’s explore The Great Outdoors with a capital G and a capital O. I grabbed my copy of Fifty Hikes in Massachusetts, by John Brady and Brian White, published by Backcountry Press in 1983. The bible for anyone wanting to explore the rough and rugged trails of Massachusetts.

We leafed through the book, not thinking, letting instinct guide us. Chance, Fate, and Intuition guided us to Hike 32, Wachusett Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary. A fateful page. The sanctuary was more than hour away, in central Massachusetts, north of Worcester and a little south of Wachusett Mountain, the tallest mountain in eastern and central Mass. A little hump of a thing compared to the Rocky Mountains, but nevertheless a nice little mountain. The sanctuary was and is a Massachusetts Audubon property with 12 miles of trails winding through 1200 acres of meadow, swamp, and woodland.

The map in our trusty guidebook showed two loop trails. That day in June, the sun gleamed like an enormous diamond in the sky, and the air was as pristine as a baby’s bottom. According to the map in the book, the southern loop led through a swamp comprised of red maples. We headed south on the trail, which had been mowed, and it led through a meadow glistening with buttercups, daisies, and clover. Grasses reaching up to our bellies stirred in the breeze like sentient beings.

We came to the boardwalk that led through the red maple swamp. The first part of the swam was actually open water, mostly populated with pond lilies that flaunted white and yellow flowers, resplendent in the blazing, blinding sun. Dragonflies swept and dive-bombed over the swamp. We gradually turned to the right and headed west and came to the red maples that populated the majority of the swamp. The maples towered above us. They were fully leaved, intensely green, and I noticed that the trunks of the trees were twisted and gnarly.

We approached the end of the boardwalk and dry land, and the tree population transitioned from maple to white pines and oaks. White pines—the most majestic of the trees that once populated New England but were clear-cut during the 18th and 19th centuries to build New England’s houses and offices and to make masts for the great ships that plied the ocean before the advent of the steam engine. We continued right, slowing turning north.

Chance, Fate, Intuition. They were alive and well in the swamp. As we walked on the boardwalk, I felt the sun burning its way into the skin of my back, and I found myself taken in and absorbed by the life of the swamp. Barbara and I had not exchanged a word. There was a kind of sacred hush between us. Great blue herons swept over us like pterodactyls with wing spans of five feet. A toad was sunning itself on the boardwalk and then leaped elegantly into the water of the swamp. Stumps of ancient trees dotted the surface of the swamp. The track of a water snake wound through the waters. The dark water of the swamp was itself a mystery. The scene was an arrow, and it hunted me. The beauty of the swamp was surreal, otherworldly. The beauty of the swamp hurt me. I did not know why.

We completed the loop near the old house that serves as the information center for the sanctuary. We entered the little house and examined some small nature exhibits. We left the house to continue our journey, to embark upon the adventure of the north loop. Once again, we followed a mown path past hundreds of wildflowers that danced purple, yellow, and white in the beguiling sunlight. The flowers were playing a game of tag with the billowing grasses. We walked west, following the mown path, and then started to turn north, still following the path, toward a small woodland and, ultimately, Brown Hill, the highest point in the sanctuary. We could see the contours of the hill more than half a mile ahead of us.

Once again, Chance, Fate, and Intuition intervened. Further to the west, off the mown trail, about a hundred yards away from us, stood an enormous tree. From this distant perspective, we could see that the innumerable limbs of the tree spread out like the arms of a surreal octopus. Chance had brought the tree to our attention, and now Intuition guided us. Barbara and I looked at each other and knew that we were going to wander off the beaten, mown path. We started to tramp through the prairie that separated us from this singular tree. The ground was uneven–the grasses reached up to our belts. We brushed the grasses aside with our boot-laden feet. The grasses resisted. They tickled my thighs. We kept checking our legs for ticks. We found none. The grasses fought us, but we slowly made progress.

As we walked west, the tree slowly grew in size. We reached it. It was a maple tree, and while it was not the tallest tree we had ever seen, it was the widest and the densest. The trunk was gnarly and deep with ridges. About ten feet up the trunk, the lowest of the limbs spread out like the wings of an enormous angel. Cables supported the limbs, connecting the limbs to the trunk to support their immense weight. We paced out the length of the limbs, and they spread out for 60 feet.

We had picked up an information pamphlet at the information center, and it informed us that this was the Crocker maple. Edward and Lois Goodnow had originally established a farm here in 1786, only 11 years after the start of the American Revolution. They built a house and then added on to it, and in 1830, they turned the rambling house into a tavern to service the bustling travel and commerce of the early Republic. In 1917, C. T. Crocker III, after whom the maple was named, bought the property, which was then about 600 acres, and there he raised cattle, horses, sheep, and oxen. In 1956, Mr. Crocker endowed the entire property to the Mass Audubon Society. Today, the home and the graceful barn still exist, housing the sanctuary’s nature center and educational activities and serving as a testament to the human past of the property.

According to the pamphlet we were reading, the Mass Audubon Society estimated that the tree was about 250 years old, meaning that it dated from before the Revolution. The tree had witnessed generations of human activities—wars, depressions, the turning of the centuries. It carried the burden of the decades. It laughed at our life span. It looked upon us with firm indifference.

The lowest limbs swooped downward and then upward, and the locals called them “pony branches” because children used to heave themselves on the limbs and “ride” them. The Davey Tree Company first started acting as stewards for the tree in 1935, taking action to keep it standing. The limbs and leaves were so heavy that one of the arborists embedded the cables in the thick center branches of the tree to support the weight of the limbs.

Joe Choiniere, who once served as the property manager of the sanctuary, wrote in the Sanctuary, the journal published by the Mass Audubon Society, “I am often affected by the notion that trees connect sky and earth, acting as a conduit between two worlds and serving as a living space for so many organisms.” As I walked around the tree, I saw what he meant. The limbs of the Crocker Maple looked like arms, and the twigs resembled tiny, delicate fingers.

As Barbara and I circumnavigated this magnificent tree, we soaked in its massive scale. It was a champion tree. Such trees are measured for their height and circumference and the spread of their branches. Arborists have a formula for declaring trees to be champions, and if a tree receives a score of 300 or better, it is considered to be one. The Crocker maple’s unofficial score was 311. I could see that over the years, the weather had nicked away at the tree, downing one branch and then another—the cycles of nature at work. When a branch fell, the remaining limbs grew more leaves, increasing the load that the tree had to bear.

As Joe Choiniere observed, the tree seemed to connect heaven and earth. It embodied the continuity of life. It was a sentient link to the past, a piece of living history. It had experienced the cycles of life—losing limbs, growing limbs, dropping leaves in the autumn, sprouting leaves in the spring. It was integrally connected to the surrounding biotic community: the soil, the grass, the birds, the squirrels, the worms, the snakes, the bushes, the surrounding trees, the atmosphere. I felt the power of this tree deep inside my nerves and muscles and bones. Carl Jung once wrote, “[I]t is these primordial images which influence us most directly, and therefore seem to be the most powerful.”

Barbara and I stood next to each other and stared up into the heart of the Crocker maple. Our eyes could not penetrate the massive thicket of leaves, branches, and limbs that soared above us and blocked out the sun and the crystal-blue sky. Leaves, branches, and limbs were converted into an impenetrable and mysterious mass that somehow seemed omniscient, like an ancient god. I felt lost in the tree, as if I had floated up into the dense jungle of its canopy and could find no way to escape. I felt myself almost disappearing into the sheer agglomeration that was the canopy of the tree.

I glanced at Barbara, and she was as transfixed as I was. The tree was seducing us into the depths and complexities of its age-old existence. There was an acute and disorienting mystery at the heart of this tree. Something was hidden in that complex collection of leaves, branches, and limbs.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something blue. A bird. A blue jay? No, it was smaller than a blue jay, and it was not squawking like those rude birds. An eastern bluebird! I could see its blue head and brownish red and white body. It flew above us, barely outside the thick canopy of the maple. The small bird was fearless. It flitted courageously into the dense menace of the leaves, branches, and limbs. The damn bird was playing with the tree. It darted into and out of the canopy and occasionally emitted its distinctive warble. The bird seemed able to find its way by instinct into and out of the monumental confusion of the Crocker maple. What an Intuition the bird had! The creature lifted my Intuition as I watched it cavort into and out of the dark canopy of the tree. The bird circled the tree, eyeing it, and then darted back into the mighty canopy. The bird disappeared, but then, after several seconds, it re-emerged, singing happily. Chance Fate. Intuition. Our Intuitions fluttered into the netherworld as we watched the bluebird.

We slowly retreated through the rough prairie to the mown trail and renewed our trek northward. On this trail, we climbed a slight slope. To our right lay a small pond, and in the pond, we heard the mysterious and anonymous chorus of bullfrogs. A trail sign directed us to the left, and we crossed a stone fence, leaving the meadow behind and entering a grove populated by shagbark hickories, with their bark peeling like dark scales.

We came to a fork in the trail. We chose the right fork. In about 40 yards, we arrived at an outcropping of enormous rocks that sat on the hillside like outposts from the Ice Age. We approached these enormous boulders and touched one of them. It was shaped like a gigantic egg. The boulder was of granite—hard, impervious, rough to the touch, even rude. According to the Brady and White guidebook, the boulders were likely carried here from an outcropping further north, when the glaciers spread into New England from what is now Canada. The ice deposited the boulders, probably between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago. Then, when the glaciers retreated, the boulders became a permanent feature of the Wachusett Meadows Sanctuary. 

There were seven or eight large boulders in all. We continued running our hands over them as if there were some psychic connection between them and us. Pure Chance, Pure Fate deposited these boulders here. I felt a kind of awe as I intimately touched these boulders. They were so solid, so permanently a part of the landscape. Above us, a red-tailed hawk soared through the crystal blue sky. Barbara was as taken with the boulders as I was. The inanimate rocks spoke to the animate humans. I bent over and put my ear to the egg-shaped boulder. At first I heard nothing but silence. Then I heard a faint rumbling in the rock. No, this is a fantasy I told myself. There was something soothing about these enormous boulders. They would be here until the end of time. The Crocker maple would one day fall and return to the earth, but these boulders would remain planted in the hillside, teaching their lessons of permanence and imperviousness to us vulnerable human beings. The boulders were things to depend on. They were landmarks and guideposts on the way to the summit of Brown Hill. If the boulders had not been here, we might have lost our way to the summit of the hill.

We continued our trek north. We climbed over another stone fence. I admired how these ancient stone walls wove their way through the New England countryside. They were remnants of the time when these lands were used primarily for farming. Many of the New England farmers left these lands in the 19th century for the rich soils of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, and when the farmers left, forests slowly reclaimed the land. But still the stone fences that the farmers had constructed remained, winding through the woods and symbolizing the cultivation of the land in the early days of the Republic.

Soon we intersected with the Bridle Path, and a sign directed us toward Brown Hill. We climbed over yet another stone fence. The trail became hard to follow, but we slowly picked our way forward. Thankfully, blue blazes on the trees marked our way ahead. Now the trail began to climb steeply. Blue arrows had been painted on rocks to guide us up, up, up. Both of us began to breathe more heavily, and we stopped to catch our breath. Below us, we could see the woodlands and meadow that we had passed through; these features stretched below us like patchworks of land.

As we climbed, the trees grew more sparse. It was noon, and the sun was high in the sky, and a slight breeze kissed our sweaty skin. The trail leveled off, and we stopped once again to catch our breath. Finally we were approaching the summit of the hill, which was populated by bushes and birch trees. After the climb through the dark forest, we were emerging into blinding sunlight. The sun burst upon us. It exploded. We continued walking, and the trail led us to the summit, which was marked by a cairn. A sign indicated that we were at an altitude of 1,312 feet. To the northeast, we saw the blunt Wachusett Mountain, and its ski slopes were visible. To the east lay Little Wachusett Mountain. We were surrounded by birch trees, which soaked in and gloried in the sunlight.

We found a friendly boulder and sat down and took out our canteens and drank deeply. The sweat was pouring out of me. My entire back and shoulders and neck and face were soaked. The poisons of the last few months were being released, were spilling from me. Barbara and I were wordless. The breeze was like the whisper of a god. The pain and frustration and anxiety of the past several months cascaded out of me with my sweat. I could taste the bitterness ooze from my lips. My eyes were sharp, and my ears were acute. The air on this modest summit of Brown Hill smelled virginal and pristine.

The nearby birch trees were our intuitive and creative selves. The leaves of the birch trees spun in the sun. The trees absorbed water that plummeted to the earth in New England storms. The birch trees provided food for the birds. The trees formed an integral part of the community that existed atop Brown Hill. The birch trees knew intuitively what was the right thing to do. The bark of the trees was white and pure and smooth to the touch. As Barbara and I sat on the boulder we shared and drank the cool, clear water from our canteens and felt the sweat stream from our skin, we were now part of this community on the summit of Brown Hill. We were now rooted in the community of the red maple swamp and the stone fences and the Crocker maple and the enormous Ice Age boulders. The separation between inner self and outer self had disappeared. The community was vital, fed by the sun, thriving on the summit of Brown Hill. We were part of this community. We had been absorbed by it.



 Carl Jung, The Earth Has a Soul, ed. Meredith Sabini (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2008, 68-69.

 John Brady and Brian White, Fifty Hikes in Massachusetts, Woodstock, VT: Backcountry Publications, 1983, 142-144.

 Joe Choiniere, “The Life and Death of the Crocker Maple,” Sanctuary: The Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, Fall/Winter 2013-2014: 9.

 Jung, 69.

 Brady and White, 144.

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