Sometimes a Tree is Just a Tree, But Not Always

Over the holidays, my older son (read his blog┬áhere) introduced my wife and I to Sherlock, the British tv crime drama. Benedict Cumberlatch (is there a more British name on the planet?) offers viewers a contemporary adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Each episode is 90 minutes long and, quite frankly, they offer some of the best entertainment on tv (or on Netflix as the case may be). It’s always nice to know that your kids have decent taste in tv and movies.

What’s unique about the series, especially to someone used to American television broken into 22 or 40 minute episodes, is that each episode is a mini-movie. At 90 minutes, without commercials, each show offers us a relatively complete look at both Sherlock and the supporting characters. There is, simply put, heft to this show that trusts its audiences’ intelligence while willingly challenging their intellect.

My wife and I are only about four episodes into the series (each season has only 3 episodes so cut us some slack), but I found myself discussing “Sherlock” this morning in class during a conversation about Sarah Orne Jewett’s excellent short story “The White Heron.”

If you don’t know Jewett’s story, you can read the story here. (Go ahead. I’ll stop writing while you read.) Jewett’s story is a great one to teach. On the one hand, she crafts this artistic piece that flows quite nicely, but like most great art, Jewett’s story transcends art to speak to something elemental about human nature. At the time she wrote, Jewett was considered a regionalist much like Twain, Stowe, and others. Of course, as the “anthology” of American literature began to solidify in the post-WW II era and scholars began to define great American writers, Jewett got trapped by her regionalist label while Twain somehow managed to transcend his. That’s a shame, too, but we’ll save the politics of defining a country’s literature for another day.

“A White Heron,” though, is a story that moves well beyond the concerns of the New England woods. Little Sylvia moves to the woods to help her grandmother manage her house and cow. In this story, a John Audubon-type character shows up carrying a gun and a bag full of birds he will stuff and study at a later date. His singular goal on this trip is to find the white heron, a bird Sylvia has seen. One morning, she gets up early, climbs a ridiculously tall pine tree and locates the nest. FYI–if you are afraid of heights, Jewett’s narrative of Sylvia climbing the tree will cause your palms to sweat and your stomach to flutter.

Climbing the tree causes issues for Sylvia, as well. As we all know, sometimes a gun is just a gun and sometimes a tree is just a tree.

Not in this story. You don’t have to be a Freudian devotee to read Jewett’s description and realize that Sylvia’s decision to find the heron and tell the young man carrying his gun around for the whole world to see is about a lot more than just getting sap on her clothes and scratches on her hand.

In fact, Jewett offers us a pretty clear sense that Sylvia is right at that age where she must choose to follow the young man or remain a sylvan creature of the woods. Certainly, there’s nothing real complex about reading the story. Sylvia (sylvan) is at home in the woods. The woods allow her to remain innocent and childlike. The guy shows up with a gun, she climbs a tree, and she’s got sap all over her after her climb.

But, and here is where I think Jewett is so good, Sylvia has a choice. She can see that following the young man, giving in to that slight flutter in her stomach (and other areas), will take her from that sylvan world and force her into the violent, industrial experience of adulthood. In doing so, we also know that Sylvia will lose not just that innocent purity. We know she will also lose that innate, natural intelligence that comes from not being an adult.

Or at least an adult like the ornithologist. He has to kill the birds to study them. He literally murders innocent creatures in the pursuit of knowledge.

In Jewett’s story, we discussed in class today, sexual awakenings and sexuality is one step away from “knowing” and experiencing, but those responsibilities and that information doesn’t necessarily make us smarter. Just more experienced. After all, the young man (even with his fully loaded gun–wink, wink, insert your own joke here) has no idea where the heron might rest but Sylvia does.

Which led me to a brief discussion of Sherlock today. The last episode my wife and I watched, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” is incredibly sexually charged. Irene Adler, a dominatrix, has taken some comprising photos of a client and Holmes is tasked with finding the photos. Throughout the episode, there is the implication that Holmes is at best a virgin and at worst an asexual character who doesn’t have time for human relationships.

We have, in some ways, Jewett’s concept in reverse. Throughout the episode, the more Holmes engages with the hyper-sexualized Adler, the more addled he becomes.

In essence, sex and sexual tension works to decrease his intellectual ability. Much like Sylvia, Holmes must decide, at one point in the show, to reject Adler’s advances so that he can hold on to his intellect.

Which, one of my students pointed out, makes sense. Adam and Eve, we noted, get punished when they eat fruit from the tree of knowledge and the first thing they notice is their nudity. They will labor in the fields and in child birth. The human curse, I tell my students, isn’t just getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden so that they have to sit in my class at 8:00 am twice a week. The human curse is forcing us to become slaves to our physical desires. We are eternally cursed to experience both the pleasure and pain of the body’s desire and those desires distract us from our innocence and the intellectual purity implied. Meditation, prayer, breathing deeply–these are all designed to help us reject, ignore, and reduce those passions.

I am, of course, oversimplifying a little but we certainly, I told my class, want to pay some attention to the relationship between sex, experience, and intellectual insight as we read through the stories in our class. Physical desire is, simply put, distracting and intellectual debilitating.


Which is why, I told them as we finished class, you should never sit next to someone attractive when you are taking a test.


Despite is all, the world hasn’t ended

I’m on the road again this week, headed to Indianapolis to talk about sports and higher education. Sitting here in San Angelo’s airport, I’m reminded again how nice it is traveling through small town airports. I’ll change my tune when we get on the small plane.

My mood is, partially bouyed by the new head phones doing their best to block out the noise around me. I have high hopes that I can remain cocconed in the safety of my own music until 5:00 when I land in Indy. Yes, those of you in a city–it’s a full day’s work just getting to most major cities outside Texas when you live with a regional airport. We make it easy to get on the plane but difficult to get back out of the airport.

I’m also a happier traveler today because the election is finally, mercifully, over. From a personal standpoint, I was pleased last night because 1) I predicted a relatively early decision (10:15 by Fox. I knew if Fox called it for Obama it would be true); 2) I like Obama; 3) America rejected a candidate who cynically refused to articulate a plan for America but was willing to offer outright lies about his opponent; and 4) we managed another successful election without bloodshed. I think we sometimes forget just how damn lucky we are. Last night, people cried, cussed, yelled, and yet today I sit in an airport ready to travel as if nothing happened last night. Wow. There aren’t many countries that can transfer power (or not) in such a peaceful manner.

Admittedly, I was also happy because Karl Rove, Dick Morris, and the other outliers who predicted a Romney blowout, sans all logic and polling data, looked like a bunch of doofuses last night. Nate Silver, beast that he is, called the election. He used something we like to call science. Call me crazy but it’s one approach the Republicans might consider in four years.

In fact, I wish they would. I tend to lean libertarian in many areas and I would like to see the Republicans stop nominating crazy people. Four years ago, John McCain sold his soul for the nomination. He doubled down on crazy by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. I would compare her to Dan Quayle, but I don’t want to insult him.

Romney had to sacrifice his ideals to the right-wing voices that have taken over the Republican party. The Romney that served as governor was probably a good guy, but his total abdication of principles in the name of the nomination ruled him out as a president. He choose a somewhat better VP but when Paul Ryan is the intellectual pillar of your party, something is wrong. Just because Ryan had a plan doesn’t make him the smart one. It just means he works hard. Hell, my teenage son has a budget plan. It’s totally disconnected from any reality but, hey, I guess effort is what matters.

Worse yet, and I apologize for offending, but could the Republicans have nominated to guys who were more white? Romney the north eastern, old money, and a VP who works out for the sake of working out? Ryan strikes me as the guy who builds muscle because someone told him he should. Sure, he looks good without a shirt on, but if you were working on your car and needed help, would you call Ryan or Biden? In other words, Ryan earned his muscles for show and I think that epitomizes these two guys. Any difficulties they have you kind of imagine they sought them out because their campaign managers said we need some angst on the resume.

Notice, I haven’t even discussed Obama because I don’t think the election was about Obama as much as it was a rejection of the Republican party. They had a sitting president with an awful economy and Romeny got his ass handed to him. (Don’t be fooled, like Fox news will try, to look at the map with all that red. The upper midwest and west might be red but there’s barely any one there. We don’t elect presidents based on acres.)

So I’m happy today not just because Obama won but because I have hope the Republicans will start turning their back on the crazy people and focus on nominating men and women of principle and intelligence. Someone show Karl Rove the door. Kick Dick Morris out of the house or stick him in the basement. Reject the intellectually weak and believe in science and education.

Let’s have a 2016 election where we have to make a difficult choice between two incredibly good candidates. I’m sure the campaigning will begin by the time I land.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > U.S. > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)