In 1982, I started keeping track of the time the leaves turned on the maple tree next door, and I continued for over two decades to note when its leaves turned and fell. The caretaker of the tree died some time late in the last century, and the maple declined quickly as the millennium approached. My notations from 2004 were the last I made of its leafturn and shedding trajectory.
It may seem trivial enough to keep track of when Lil’s tree across the street turns color, and when the Danielsons’ maple comes down. Lil is dead now, as are the Danielsons, but their trees remain, and I watch them because it seems important in some way or other to me. And the history of the absent maple remains as vivid in my mind as the other histories in my daybook.
In defense of such frivolity, I appeal to the theories of R.G. Collingwood in The Idea of History (1946). Collingwood posits that historical events have both an outside – a visible or observable side - and an inside – an interior dimension related to the forces that might have caused the events. And he considers that since the outside can no longer be observed, it must be imagined and reconstructed in order to be studied and understood. From such a perspective, it is clearly not important whether a tree is dead or alive. It is the recreation of the tree in the imagination that matters – and that gives it a more lasting existence.
Only when the past is born again does it provide context and connection for the present, while shaping and directing the one who reinvents it.
This is Bill Felker with Poor Will’s Almanack. I’ll be back again next week with notes for the second week of deep winter. In the meantime, turn Collingwood’s theory upside down. Create the interior of the year to come. Maybe it will grow up to be your vision.