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The Ginkgo: An Intellectual and Visionary Coming-of-Age

The Ginkgo: An Intellectual and Visionary Coming-of-Age

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The Ginkgo: An Intellectual and Visionary Coming-of-Age

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Lançado em:
Jul 26, 2011


The Ginkgo is a story about the conflict between tradition and creativity. Creativity is symbolized by a girl who comes to a major university from an isolated ranch on the high plains; tradition is symbolized by the classmates she left behind. The girl comes of intellectual age through study of a single ginkgo tree, and her detailed letters to her teacher, as she explores a museum, a sculpture garden, and an art gallery. In the end, she writes a visionary cult-piece about America, a thousand years from now when her tree dies. The vision is not comforting, but it leaves us with a startling impression of the power of images that define our culture.

Lançado em:
Jul 26, 2011

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The Ginkgo - Jr John Janovy

The Ginkgo

An Intellectual and Visionary Coming-of-Age

John Janovy, Jr.

Copyright © 2010 by John Janovy, Jr.

Smashwords Edition

for Norma

A monotypic genus . . . the single living species is sole survivor of one of the most interesting families . . . in early times the family was almost cosmopolitan and was even represented in the forests of . . . the Jurassic period.

Seward. The Times

March 5, 1936

The University of Berlin, Friedrich Wilhelm University, was originally a palace, a tomb of gray stone . . . Today, it stands proudly across from the Opera . . . It calls itself Humbolt University, and the statues of the two Humbolt brothers, Alexander and Wilhelm, the two scientists who converted the palace into a university a century and a half ago, guard the gates. In the courtyard, there is also a tree that was planted during the Humbolts’ lifetime, a ginkgo tree.

Otto Friedrich, from Before the Deluge.


Once upon a time a young woman walked into my office. Although young women walk into my office regularly, this time something seemed different. She carried with her a mental electricity and left some of it hanging in the air. Four years after that day, she sent me a thank you note. Thanks, it read, in handwriting I recognized instantly, although I’d seen very little of it, namely just a few words on post-it notes stuck to Times New Roman 12-point, 1-inch margin, manuscripts. Thanks. That’s all it said. Plus her initials.

Thanks for what? you might wonder, although you may not want to hear the answer. Thanks for disrupting her mother’s plans? Thanks for opening doors I knew could be opened, although I had no idea what might lie beyond them? Thanks for disconnecting her from the culture that spawned her? Yes, to all those questions. In other words, thanks for doing my job. What is my job? Let’s see, how best to describe this work. I am an entomologist at heart; I study dragonflies, animals that have been on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. I spend an inordinate amount of time with dragonflies. You must know there is a refuge for people like me, a tax-supported refuge, called a university. I exist in this refuge. I am also a teacher. My job is to screen the human resources that will eventually be turned into health care professionals; your pediatrician’s name is probably somewhere in my files, and the kid probably got an A in General Biology. And I am a student of humanity; I study your children, primarily, animals that have been on Earth for such a short time they merge Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Abraham Lincoln into a category called dead Presidents, Vietnam and the Civil War into a category called history. But my real job is that of idealist.

It is exceedingly difficult work, that of the idealist. Not everyone understands this work, certainly not in the same way they understand accounting, medicine, law. The attorney gets up every morning and reviews his cases, legal principles, conflicts and contracts. The physician gets up and reviews her surgical procedures, her prescriptions, her terminal cases that must be told the truth. But the idealist gets up every morning and asks: what must I do today in order to make this world a better place in which to live? On that day this young woman walked into my office, charging my stale, chemical-infested, office air with her curiosity, I must have answered the question correctly because four years afterwards I got a simple one-word note: Thanks. Plus the initials. The idealist’s consummate reward.

With thank-you note in hand, I sat in this office, surrounded by the tools of my trade, staring at the chair where she’d spent so much time, and thought: her story must be told. So I wrote this book about our relationship. My literary agent called the manuscript an evocative book about ideas, exactly the kind of thing the American book-buying public is getting increasingly impatient with. Then she declined to handle it. I understood her feelings, although at the time I thought: what happens to nations that get increasingly impatient with evocative books about ideas? Is this a healthy evolutionary trend for America? Probably not. So I persist in my own sense of what must be said in print, regardless of what others believe. Yes, indeed; the story of this relationship needs to be told, and especially to a nation becoming increasingly impatient with evocative books about ideas.

What kind of a relationship did we have? A deep, serious, life-changing, mutually respectful, unique, fulfilling, rich, fun, relationship, one that went on for the better part of a year, then faded into an occasional hour at the local coffee house, then came to some kind of closure with a one-word thank-you note. In other words, a relationship quite unlike that imagined by a public increasingly impatient with evocative books about ideas. Why can’t I get that phrase out of my mind? I walk downtown. The sidewalks are filled with normal, everyday, people—lawyers, housewives, businessmen and businesswomen, panhandlers, college kids, and non-descripts. Are they all impatient with evocative books about ideas? What are they not impatient with? Murder, narcotics, war? Or are they not impatient with money, politics, agriculture, health, the military, sex, sports, or religion, i.e. the very subjects she was denied all throughout the year she went exploring a tree, a museum, a sculpture garden, a gallery? Is it indeed possible that this society has degenerated into one so impatient with ideas that it will neither read nor buy an evocative book about them? I don’t believe this is the case. I believe my fellow citizens are vitally interested in ideas. Why else would they flock, in droves, to churches? Why else would they gravitate to certain politicians? Why else would they be so quick to categorize, then dehumanize, their fellow humans? Believe me, we are very interested in ideas; they are the hands that guide our acts, all of them, both good and evil.

So I set about to tell this one young woman’s story, her wonderful encounter with the world of ideas, thoughts, visions, perceptions, and the creative instinct. Most of the action is vicarious, but that does not make it less real, only that you must use your imagination in order to participate in it. Were her tales of the Johannes girls, and their interactions with the Spindler boys, important to her, a sort of catharsis? Perhaps. I only know that when it was all over, when the year had passed and I finally met her parents in the late spring, walked down Sand Creek, saw the red-winged damselflies that had captured her fancy as a child, caught one and held it for her to study then released it to rejoin its mate, stood by the well tank and run my hand over her horse’s face, by then she was separated from her traditions except for one crucial link. Now, four years later, she still does not realize that one link remains. But some time in the not too distant future she will sit alone and remember the special Sandhills light, the sounds of meadowlarks, that coyote standing on the hill outside her bedroom window. Then she will take those memories and turn them into something the American book-buying public is not impatient with.

Perhaps this ‘something’ will be a shootout between Dalton Spindler and Carl Johannes, maybe a violent and steamy morality tale involving their respective children—beautiful people caught in unfortunate circumstances of their own making—or even a haunting love story, in which Maria Johannes finally, against all odds, makes a lasting connection with Terry Spindler. I wish I could write those kinds of stories, but I can’t. I’ve spent way too much time being an idealist, way too much time hunched over a microscope looking at dragonflies, breathing in the chemical fumes of my trade. So what you get instead is the true story of one young woman studying a tree, visiting a museum, pondering the mysteries of a sculpture garden, and finally, her courage bolstered by her own mental efforts, entering the gallery itself. Along this tour you will read her letters to me, although they were really letters to herself. We both knew that at the time, that she was writing these letters for, and to, herself, instead of to me, although the latter was her official excuse. She used them to fill in the gaps, where she kept things to herself during our conversations, those spaces in the Spindler and Johannes clans’ losing struggle to keep intact tradition’s wall, beyond which was an outside world.

So long as that world was only television, then everything was okay. But tradition can never completely hold at bay the social forces that drive great nations. Thus she told me what was happening back home, to Mindy Johannes, Maria, Terry Spindler, Dalton, Carl, and the rest. I listened, made notes, and then, eventually, converted those notes into my chapters of this book. She also wrote those long letters, which I copied, and have included in the following pages. My contribution to this story is mainly filler, context for her letters. So be patient, dear reader; in your hands you have words only a privileged few, people such as me, get to read. Besides, the letters could easily have been written by your own child, and it could just as easily be your traditions cracking instead of Carl Johannes’.

John Janovy, Jr.

Part 1

The Girl from Carson County


I started out to be a physical therapist, she says, but now I don’t know exactly what I want to do. Her voice trails off, into, finally, a shrug. So, I reply, why don’t you consider just staying here for advanced work? She wonders whether she’ll be able to find employment but phrases the question politely, asking what kind of a job a person can get with a masters. It opens many doors, I answer; you could become one of the nation’s intellectual elite—get a doctorate, do research, teach at a university, work for industry, or even go into medicine, eventually. If all else fails, you can always go back to your original plans. After all, what’s two years to a person your age? Two years to make up my mind what I want to be when I grow up? She smiles. This is a conversation I’ve had before, maybe a thousand times over the past quarter century.

I don’t tell her I’ve just spent nearly five decades trying to decide what to be when I grow up. She might think I’m crazy; the idea of spending fifty years at anything is too far outside her realm of experience. She says thanks and gathers up her things. I let her go. In the past twenty five years, the thousand conversations have taught me not to push too hard on these people. When you do that you never see them again.

I have no idea what she does in the forty eight hours until she’s once more in class, halfway back on the south side of the auditorium. I have her wardrobe memorized, and, I’m sure that in the weeks to come, she, along with three hundred others, will learn to predict with uncanny accuracy which of my few combinations of shirt and tie they’ll see on any given day: shades of brown on Monday, blues and grays on Wednesdays and Fridays. Periodically I’ll look as if I’ve just come from an important meeting. It’s all a show.

We used to study teachers’ clothing, back in college, in the fifties. I remember my calculus instructor; he was Chinese and wore the same tie every day of the semester. I’d wonder if there was any part of the universe that could be predicted with the accuracy of that man’s tie. But I always had the lingering feeling that as soon as I said yes, Dr. Chen will have on his red tie on Wednesday, then he’d have a birthday and someone would give him a blue tie, and he’d wear it out of courtesy to the giver. Then my prediction would be wrong. I’d have decided the world would be a certain way, and Dr. Chen, by deciding what his world was going to be like on Wednesday, would have falsified my perception. Slowly, by studying his tie, I came to realize that you don’t predict futures; you make them.

Dr. Chen and I parted company many years ago. Now I am in his place, and she in mine. I spend no small amount of time wondering what she, and hundreds of others like her, think of me. Do they view me as an obstacle, one more flickering image, a figure with a microphone in their video clip world, an ephemeral experience on their way to . . . to where? Did Dr. Chen know how I used him, what he eventually taught me? Perhaps. Today, certainly, I remember the lesson of the tie far better than I remember his integral calculus.

Does she think I’m a normal person? I exhibit no interest in money; she might, many of her classmates most certainly do. I read books; they do not. I subscribe to a dozen esoteric magazines. Only a few of them know these publications are available by mail. I ask how many read the newspaper this morning; a smattering raise their hands. Good; newspapers are usually more informative than eighty dollar texts. I give them an unexpected question: Define the word iconography. Then I ask how many actually wrote an answer in their notebooks. Three, out of three hundred, only half of whom are here.

She is not one of the three. Evidently iconography is not in her working vocabulary. I have much work to do. She hasn’t learned to respect the power possessed by the symbols of her time and place: tiny fetus feet between two fingers, a combine alone in a half harvested field of grain, a candidate with arms raised, the fast red car on a sinuous open highway, the revolver held police style with two hands from a crouch, camouflage fatigues, tanks on the desert, men with turbans and rifles. But other pictures also compete for her attention: skeletal African children covered with flies, a young officer lying bleeding from the mouth, shot while answering a domestic violence call. A crying man touching a black stone wall. An oiled cormorant. Smoke still rising from the rubble in lower Manhattan. A crack baby held up by a nurse. Yellow tape sealing off an area behind the housing project. And so forth. These images also describe her time and place. Eventually, I think, she and the others like her must come to understand the power that pictures exert over our lives.

Some of these children are not going to like the tricks I’ve devised to accomplish this nearly impossible task. I begin by telling them a story: Four hundred and fifty million years ago, there was a shallow basin beside a deep trench. The land above the basin was probably steep, unstable. In the basin lived a wondrous array of tiny animals. Then the land collapsed. Great mudslides poured into the shallow fertile sea, burying the animals, washing them into the offshore depths where they lay, compressed in anoxic fine grained shale, until the ocean floor was lifted up to the tops of the Canadian Rockies. There, millions of years later, they were found by a man who didn’t know what they were, so tried to make them into something he did recognize. He had a picture in his mind, a picture that functioned to organize his world, and the stone animals did not fit that image. So he lied to himself, and, years later, his lie was discovered. Fortunately, it was only fossils that he was studying; no one lived or died, no minds were wasted, because the icons led this man astray.

I study the faces spread before me as I tell this true story which is also a parable. The young woman in the middle of the third row graduated from a parochial high school. She doesn’t believe my story for one minute. She’s majoring in elementary education because she likes children. I wonder what pictures are in her mind, and what she’ll tell her students, especially the girls, about the history of Earth as revealed by modern science. The young man on the last row to my right, far back near the double doors, is black; he doesn’t care who or what lived four hundred and fifty million years ago. His guiding icon is a towering dark giant with a ball, suspended in air above a painted floor. His parents’ image of their world, however, includes police dogs, and men standing on a motel balcony pointing across the street from where the shots came. Three rows in front of the one minority student sits a farm kid; he never removes his mesh cap with the seed corn company emblem on it and he has no idea why a story about Cambrian fossils should have anything at all to do with hybrid corn. His brain is a flat field, stretching to the horizon, with a man in coveralls standing beside a tractor.

But the indecisive one, who’d smiled at my suggestion that two years might be but a blink of history, even of her personal history, sits alert, and exceedingly awake. After a quarter century spent staring into the faces of young people, then talking to them later, I can read the way their minds work by watching their reactions to the pictures I put on the screen. Her mind operates differently than the rest, and her amusement at the two years was born partly of her understanding of this difference. She quickly reviewed not only her own internal logic, but also that of her culture, when she smiled. She knew what people back home would think about her two year decision. She could hear the subtle tones of her mother’s voice, see the lines on her father’s face change direction ever so slightly, recognize the blank look in her little brother’s eyes. The latter was an increasingly familiar sight. She’d said to her little brother the last time they’d talked on the phone: work hard in school, Johnny; study your arithmetic, learn to spell. And watch the sunset; you’re lucky to live in the country.

When her father heard that advice from the far off city, his face had softened, and the lines in his face changed their meaning. Lucky to be a rancher? That was the kind of thing she was supposed to say, the childlike, sensitive, observations of an unmarried daughter a long way from home. But her father hadn’t known she’d meant country. She’d said country and he’d heard late spring blizzards and dead calves. He was like the man who saw one species and called it another, because the other was one of the familiar pictures of his world. She’d said once more, before they’d hung up: Learn your numbers, Johnny, learn your numbers and learn them well. Then she’d thought to herself: Learn them goddamned well! And take off that cap inside the house. Even though she couldn’t see him, she knew he was wearing his cap.

She was the first of her family to go to college. Nobody knew what to expect. Their image of the world of women included wives and cooks and schoolmarms and nurses, not doctors, attorneys, and professors. The red eye of her digital recorder stares at me. Once in a while she writes something in her notebook, makes a sketch of a figure on the screen. This picture she copies so faithfully, so conscientiously, is my contribution to her new world view. I took it from a textbook that borrowed it from another textbook that had adopted it from a third whose artist had modified it from a previously simplified drawing used in a monograph whose author had plagiarized it from a rather ordinary paper in an obscure journal. The picture was first drawn about the time her great great grandfather walked away from his beloved Bohemia, leaving behind the centuries of futile Protestant revolt. That is, before the rediscovery of genetics. She thinks she’s learning something. Maybe she is, namely, that certain images—and the myths they teach—have an enormous amount of staying power.

She chews on her pencil. What does she have, aside from the look on her face, that makes me pick her out of three hundred others, makes me decide upon her fate, and not theirs? That is not a difficult question to answer. She isn’t afraid of me; she came to my office, of her own initiative, and actually carried on a fairly intelligent, semi-personal, conversation. The rest of her generation, as exemplified by this dark room full of young citizens, does not stimulate my desire to participate in their futures, beyond what I already do by standing in front of them, assigning their scores to letters, writing short, courteous, but pointed, notes on their papers. They are intimidated by my presence, by their circumstances, and until they grow out of their fear, they cannot be taught much.

But I single her out for special attention, simply on the basis of what I see, what I think I recognize in a pattern of eyes, mouth, hair, and expressions that seem to reveal thoughts. Is this an ethical act on my part? What’s ethical when it comes to performing your job? Soldiers rarely question their traditions; should scientists? I could encourage her to be a physical therapist regardless of her doubts, telling her PTs can always get jobs wherever their husbands move. Most of the students in this room would think that was great advice. Or, I could try to talk her into becoming a doctor. She would be a wonderful family practitioner, a God-send to some rural community. Her financial success would change her own parents’ view of the years ahead. The vast sums we spend on our bodies could easily give her, and her parents, the power to live and die with dignity, and respect. So her life story could become a romance novel—happiness, children, comfort, joy and sadness, but in the end, peace, satisfaction. Thousands her age consider medical school the ultimate goal, attainable only by the select and lucky few. They have this picture in their mind and that picture shapes their plans as surely as one view of history subverted a man’s interpretation of the fossil record.

As you may have sensed, I have a somewhat jaundiced view of the world of medicine; I know she could easily be the doctor instead of the therapist. Sitting there, listening to me, flipping the cassette in her recorder, she becomes the symbol of a paradox that permeates my life: If I help her become the therapist, then I’ll have let her fail; she won’t have adequately tested herself during the time she’s been allotted on earth. And if I talk her into being the doctor after all, seeking a goal that appears lofty, guarantees her success in the eyes of others, then her talents will be spent making vast sums of money from our miseries, yet never speaking out against our foremost public health problem: the rate at which we reproduce and consume energy. I’ve made too many of these kinds of mistakes in the past. She must build another image of herself. As sure as an artist paints a picture, a sculptor crafts an abstraction, she must be taught to mold herself into an unexpectedly insightful, influential, human being. Maybe if she could tell us what our world will be like a thousand years from now, she’ll be more valuable to society than just one more physician. A time machine. Yes, maybe I could turn her into a time machine to carry us a millennium hence, just to see what our actions today will have wrought. Is such a feat possible? Of course. So how do I accomplish this task? Piece of cake; you’ll see. The young are vulnerable to ideas.

Is it necessary to put a name on this girl from Carson County who doesn’t know what’s about to happen to her? Eventually. And a Social Security number, too, of course. But I prefer to look at her in other ways. So for the time being she is nameless and faceless. All you’ll get to see of her are her ideas, her thoughts, her perceptions, applied to some elements of her environment. If you find that vision shocking, then think of her as a work of modern art, one that troubles you, confuses you, but sometimes without your knowing or understanding why, directs the behavior of those around it. Thus she begins her new life with no obligation to her culture, or to her traditions. She can change the latter at will, if she wishes, and is able. And so for the moment, I do not ask whether she has a duty to reconstruct our vision of destiny, only whether she might have the capacity.


I recognize her a block away. She stands beside a tree, gently feeling the texture of a leaf, squinting up through the branches into the morning sun, doing an assignment I have given the class. I study her, pretending to be her mother, and suddenly she changes into a physical therapist. But what I have done in the past twenty four hours may erase, completely and unrecoverably, her mother’s vision. And what did I do to this young woman? Stare at her on the elevator, get too close to her in the privacy of my office, touch her—apparently accidentally—while making my way to the front of a large auditorium? Call her a gal? No. Write three pages, I said, of double spaced typing. About what? she, along with the three hundred others, wondered. Choose a plant, a perennial, one that might live longer than you, then tell me why you chose it, I answered. Choose it for what purpose?—I read their minds. For the purpose of writing three pages, of course. Just three pages, in the next three weeks. One page a week. Write one page a week. Like the others, she’d smiled. This task cannot be too difficult, they’d thought. How hard can it be to write three pages? The libraries are filled with information on perennial plants. Then I said: You may not once mention money, politics, agriculture, health, the military, sex, sports, or religion. Most of the smiles vanished; a few others remained. One of the latter was on her face.

At the beginning of the semester, I study faces. But even before I walk into this room on the first day, before we begin our four month journey into the mysteries of life—biology, it’s called in the printed schedule—I sit, with a glass of wine, late at night, and memorize names. These words that symbolize people are printed on flimsy, green and white striped, paper. Over the years, you can spot changing trends in American culture. Once there were a great many Melodys and Kimberlys; I don’t remember what was happening in world politics when the Scotts and Trevors passed my way, in droves. Then I enter that room, on a hot, late August afternoon, and memorize faces—of beautiful woman, the physically challenged, blacks,

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