Brief from Bread Loaf
How I spent my summer vacation: Talking to the trees & reading the oddest bookever
All of life is timing. You can either accept that and use it to your advantage, or not.
It’s taken me a few years to finally come to terms with the importance of timing. The success of career moves, relationships, and all the other things that define our short, warbling journey across terra firma is at its cosmic mercy. Life choices are a series of moving targets, streaking across the horizon at various speeds and trajectories on the skeet range of life. Free will is the courage to pull the trigger once in a while and pray to God you hit the right pigeons.
This summer I picked one off I’d been tracking for years. After nearly a decade of watching it slowly arch in front of me, I took aim, squeezed off a round, and found myself blissfully inserted into the perfect place at the perfect moment with some truly remarkable people. I speak, of course, of graduate school. But not just any graduate school...
In a world where text messaging has reduced the English language to abbreviated gibberish, and blogs have demonstrated that – contrary to what we’re told as small children – the vast majority of Americans really shouldn’t use their words, a tiny cabal of the language’s dwindling brotherhood (although the majority are women) of acolytes collects on a densely wooded Vermont mountaintop each summer in a ritualistic effort to plug the holes in the rickety dingy keeping afloat what remains of our literary heritage. Since the faithful are by and large teachers, most of them are doing this holy work having taken a tacit vow of poverty.
I will not betray any of what took place during the six and a half too-short weeks I was lucky enough to spend on Bread Loaf Mountain. Like any good inside joke, those tales – of which there are many – are to be passed on as incrementally fictionalized talk stories from student to student in the summers to come. Out of respect to the health of too many promising teaching careers, they can never be written down let alone tossed into the voyeuristic mosh pit of the intertubes. Yes, we misbehaved, but it was for literary purposes.
However one thing I am comfortable sharing with the outside world is the existence of a text so odd and so confident despite the bizarreness of its prose that it would be near criminal to keep its ramblings confined to our small, high altitude community. For your own pedagogical purposes, the entire second volume (published in 1908) is available here via the miracle of Google Books. I don’t know who took the time to scan the 700+ pages, but God bless you.
The book, Ellen: or the Whisperings of an Old Pine, holds special meaning at Bread Loaf, because the land on which our beloved School of English sits was donated to Middlebury College by its author, The Honorable Joseph Battell. Thanks to eBay and an antique bookseller from Pittsfield, Vermont, I now own a handsome first edition copy published in 1901 by the American Publishing Co. (owned by the author). It cost me a small fortune, but believe me when I tell you that it was worth every penny.
I also landed an equally rare copy of Volume II that appears (according to a bookplate on the inside cover) to have at one time been among the collection of Redfield Proctor, the 37th Governor of Vermont (1878-1880) and former U.S. Secretary of War (1889-1891). He died in 1908 while serving in Washington DC as a United States Senator, the same year Volume II made its way into his library. Although I can’t prove it, I’m pretty sure Ellen killed the Governor.
While it would be unfair to posit that Ellen may be the worst piece of creative fiction ever produced in the English language (this writer hasn’t quite finished reading every book ever written), it certainly belongs in any conversation about the most peculiar. Battell spends the better part of a thousand pages constructing a didactic conversation between a young woman named Ellen and an old white pine tree. It’s not clever symbolism, mind you. The tree is talking. Covered topics range from philosophy, creation theory, and evolution to physics, mathematics, and the undulatory theories. In fact, in the foreword to Volume II, Mr. Battell claims that with the publication of Volume I, he disproved not only Darwinian evolution, but also Newtonian Physics. Modest he is not.
In addition to his adventures in fiction writing, Mr. Battell also served as a Middlebury College trustee and as a Member of the Vermont State Legislature. He is widely credited with the preservation of forested areas of Vermont and saving the Morgan horse breed. Mr. Battell is also less well known for (allegedly) having, shall we say, a Lewis Carroll-esque interest in girls who had not quite *ahem* blossomed. It’s delicate work suggesting that someone may have been a repressed pedophile without actually saying it. Of course by that previous sentence I just did, and you just read it, so here we are.
To be clear, pedophilia isn’t funny, ever. A book about a talking pine tree (the author) trying to pollinate a young woman (the titular Ellen) most definitely is, especially when the innuendo is so heavy-handed. Anyone who touches kids should suffer only cruel and unusual punishment. That’s a discussion for another day, though, and my draconian attitude toward penalizing criminals makes my bleeding heart colleagues squeamish (liberals have a soft spot for recidivists). (Very) long story short: Battell has strange thoughts. Battell’s cathexis for Ellen causes him to channel said strange thoughts into production of weird book. Old Piney has many, many awkward conversations with Ellen throughout weird book. Hilarity ensues.
To whit, they speak at length about the motion of a piston through a tube, the entering of motion into a body, and the preface of their seemingly benign discussion of mathematics involves metaphorical imagery that must be read to be believed. No, this isn’t merely a sophomoric attempt to hyper-sexualize snippets from an innocent conversation taken out of context for cheap yucks, although that’s always fun. This stuff can’t possibly mean anything else, and it buries the needle on the unintentional comedy meter. Both Ellen and Old Piney speak in the third person throughout the text while pages and pages of mathematical equations, diagrams, photos, and excerpts from Encyclopedia Britannica add to the confusion.
Battell doesn’t even get the book off the ground without immediately spiraling into the absurd. The dedication page at the very outset reads “To the People of America dedicated by its author” without a single thread of the irony in which such a statement aught be tightly wrapped. It’s then followed by a pretentious “Errata” that apologizes for the joining of a singular noun or pronoun to a plural verb; a construction he considers to be “undesirable, indefensible, and essentially erroneous.” The same might be said about Ellen.
At this point you should be asking yourself: why would English graduate students take ownership of and derive so much amusement form such an odd, impenetrable book? It’s pretty simple, actually. After hours and hours of Joyce, Woolf, Milton, Kafka and the like, a little Battell can really diffuse the dire seriousness of truly great literature.
Now a warning: if you follow the Google Books link above and attempt to read more than ten pages of Ellen: or the Whisperings of an Old Pine in one sitting, you may get a nosebleed and forget who you are for a couple of hours. This is normal, but not recommended. Proceed at your peril. It’s totally worth it.