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A beautiful testament to that emancipating, transformative power of public libraries comes from one such troubled little girl named Storm Reyes, who grew up in an impoverished Native American community, had her life profoundly changed, perhaps even saved, by a library bookmobile, and went on to become a librarian herself. She tells her story in this wonderful oral history animation by StoryCorps:
Working and living in migrant farmworkers’ fields, the conditions were pretty terrible. My parents were alcoholics, and I was beaten and abused and neglected. I learned to fight with a knife long before I learned how to ride a bicycle.
When you are grinding day after day after day, there’s nothing to aspire to except filling your hungry belly. You may walk down the street and see a row of nice, clean houses, but you never, ever dream you can live in one. You don’t dream. You don’t hope.
When I was twelve, a bookmobile came to the fields. I thought it was the Baptists, because they used to come in a van and give us blankets and food. So I went over and peeked in, and it was filled with books. I immediately — and I do mean immediately — stepped back. I wasn’t allowed to have books, because books are heavy, and when you’re moving a lot you have to keep things minimal. Of course, I had read in the short periods I was allowed to go to school, but I’d not ever owned a book.
Fortunately, the staff member saw me and waved me in. I was nervous. The bookmobile person said, “These are books, and you can take one home. Just bring it back in two weeks.” I’m like, “What’s the catch?” He explained there was no catch. Then he asked me what I was interested in.
The night before, an elder had told us a story about the day that Mount Rainier blew up and the devastation from the volcano. So I told the bookmobile person that I was nervous about the mountain blowing up, and he said, “You know, the more you know about something, the less you will fear it.” And he gave me a book about volcanoes. Then I saw a book about dinosaurs, and I said, “Oh, that looks neat,” so he gave me that. Then he gave me a book about a little boy whose family were farmers. I took them all home and devoured them.
I came back in two weeks, and he gave me more books, and that started it. By the time I was fifteen, I knew there was a world outside the camps, and I believed I could find a place in it. I had read about people like me and not like me. I had seen how huge the world was, and it gave me the courage to leave. And I did. It taught me that hope was not just a word.
When I left, I went to vocational school, and I graduated with a stenographer’s degree. Then, when Pierce County Library had an opening, I applied and was hired. I got to spend thirty-two years helping other people make a connection with the library. I have a deep, abiding commitment to them. Libraries save lives.
Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990) remains one of the most irrepressible creative minds and largest spirits of the past century. He was awarded twenty-three Grammy Awards, ten Emmy Awards, and twenty-two honorary degrees. For Bernstein, his life and his work, his art and his political convictions, coexisted inseparably within the vast container of his unrelenting idealism. During the Hoover administration, the FBI had a file on him almost seven hundred pages long. When JFK was assassinated, Bernstein delivered a remarkable speech about the only true antidote to violence, which has only grown in poignancy and timeliness in recent years. He met tragedy and turmoil with tireless resolve for betterment. “We must believe, without fear, in people,” he wrote in his largehearted personal credo, and he enacted that belief in every realm of his life — but nowhere more so than in his work with children, whom he educated and nurtured into a creative life for more than four decades through his Young People’s Concerts, television specials, books, and lectures.
Leonard Bernstein making notes at the piano, 1955 (Photograph: Al Ravenna / Library of Congress)
On November 20, 1989 — less than a year before his death — Bernstein, who was otherwise averse to interviews, invited into his home longtime Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott for a long dinner conversation. A decade after conducting Susan Sontag’s most dimensional interview, Cott took Bernstein by the hand and walked the maestro across the landscape of his own life as Bernstein reflected on everything from music to education to love.
Leonard Bernstein adamantly, and sometimes controversially, refused to compartmentalize and separate his emotional, intellectual, political, erotic, and spiritual longings from the musical experience.
Above all, in every aspect of his life and work, Bernstein was a boundless enthusiast. In the course of my dinner conversation with him, he informed me that the word “enthusiasm” was derived from the Greek adjective entheos, meaning “having the god within,” with its attendant sense of “living without aging,” as did the gods on Mount Olympus.
Bernstein’s greatest point of enthusiasm was his lifelong devotion to enamoring young people with music. He understood that love and learning are inextricably linked, that learning is a kind of love and love a kind of learning, and used his robust and radiant enthusiasm as a force of illumination. He tells Cott:
Though I can’t prove it, deep in my heart I know that every person is born with the love of learning. Without exception. Every infant studies its toes and fingers, and a child’s discovery of his or her voice must be one of the most extraordinary of life’s moments… Imagine an infant lying in its cradle, discovering its voice, purring and murmuring MMM to itself.
As we grow up and learn to be cynical, Bernstein argues, we gradually stifle this inherent love of learning, turn off our curiosity, and become calcified. Out of that cynicism springs the impulse for instant gratification — the very opposite of the pleasurably protracted challenge of learning. A generation before the incessant input feed of the Internet gave us continuous quick fixes of on-demand approval and outrage, Bernstein considers the cultural and civilizational conditions that have contributed to this epidemic of instant gratification:
Everyone who was born after 1945 when that bomb went off is a completely different kind of person from those who were born before then. Because they grew up in a world where the possibility of global destruction was an everyday possibility, to the point where they didn’t even think about it that much. But it conditions the way they live… Anybody who grows up — as those of my generation did not — taking the possibility of the immediate destruction of the planet for granted is going to gravitate all the more toward instant gratification — you push the TV button, you drop the acid, you snort the coke, you do the needle… and then you pass out in the bed … and you wake up so cynical… And guilt breeds fear and anxiety, and anxiety breeds fear, and it goes around — it’s that old vicious circle where one thing reinforces the other, which drives you day and night to instant gratification. Anything of a serious nature isn’t “instant” — you can’t “do” the Sistine Chapel in one hour. And who has time to listen to a Mahler symphony, for God’s sake?
You can’t “do” the Sistine Chapel instantly — you have to lie on your back and look up at that ceiling and contemplate. And we’ve already lost a whole generation of kids who are blind to anything constructive or beautiful, who are blind to love, love, LOVE — that battered, old, dirty four-letter word that few people understand anymore.
Leonard Bernstein in his final years
But rather than despairing over this nascent orientation of spirit, which would itself be an act of cynicism, Bernstein turns to the reasons for hope — hope he devoted his life to seeding and seeing bloom. (Active hope, lest we forget, is the antidote to cynicism.) He tells Cott:
We must get back to faith and hope and belief — things we’re all born with. But unfortunately we’re also born thinking we’re the center of the universe. And of all traumas, that one is the biggest and most difficult to get rid of. And the hardest principle to absorb is the Copernican one: that you’re just another speck on this planet, which is a speck in the solar system, which is a speck in the galaxy, which is a speck in the universe … which is a speck in something even bigger that we don’t have the minds to contemplate.
No subject is too difficult to talk to the kids about. You just have to know where the pain is.
When Cott brings up the Hasidic Rabbi Dov Baer’s assertion that “each person consists of a certain song of existence, the one by which our innermost being was created and is defined,” Bernstein responds:
We destroy our children’s songs of existence by giving them inhibitions, teaching them to be cynical, manipulative, and all the rest of it… You become hardened, but you can find that playfulness again. We’ve got to find a way to get music and kids together, as well as to teach teachers how to discover their own love of learning. Then the infectious process begins.
Being with young people has kept me alive, I tell you, and I would do anything for them. Think of what we can do with all that energy and all that spirit instead of eroding and degrading our planet on which we live, and disgracing ourselves as a race. I will spend my dying breath and my last blood and erg of energy to try to correct this impossible situation.
There is so much inherent goodness in people that if they aren’t inhibited by traumas and are given half a chance, it shines through.
Bernstein died eleven months later, having handed this great chance-giving gift to generations through the power of music and the infectiousness of his enthusiasm.
Wohlleben chronicles what his own experience of managing a forest in the Eifel mountains in Germany has taught him about the astonishing language of trees and how trailblazing arboreal research from scientists around the world reveals “the role forests play in making our world the kind of place where we want to live.” As we’re only just beginning to understand nonhuman consciousnesses, what emerges from Wohlleben’s revelatory reframing of our oldest companions is an invitation to see anew what we have spent eons taking for granted and, in this act of seeing, to care more deeply about these remarkable beings that make life on this planet we call home not only infinitely more pleasurable, but possible at all.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales
But Wohlleben’s own career began at the opposite end of the caring spectrum. As a forester tasked with optimizing the forest’s output for the lumber industry, he self-admittedly “knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” He experienced the consequence of what happens whenever we turn something alive, be it a creature or a work of art, into a commodity — the commercial focus of his job warped how he looked at trees.
Then, about twenty years ago, everything changed when he began organizing survival training and log-cabin tours for tourists in his forest. As they marveled at the majestic trees, the enchanted curiosity of their gaze reawakened his own and his childhood love of nature was rekindled. Around the same time, scientists began conducting research in his forest. Soon, every day became colored with wonderment and the thrill of discovery — no longer able to see trees as a currency, he instead saw them as the priceless living wonders that they are. He recounts:
Life as a forester became exciting once again. Every day in the forest was a day of discovery. This led me to unusual ways of managing the forest. When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.
The revelation came to him in flashes, the most eye-opening of which happened on one of his regular walks through a reserve of old beech tree in his forest. Passing by a patch of odd mossy stones he had seen many times before, he was suddenly seized with a new awareness of their strangeness. When he bent down to examine them, he made an astonishing discovery:
The stones were an unusual shape: they were gently curved with hollowed-out areas. Carefully, I lifted the moss on one of the stones. What I found underneath was tree bark. So, these were not stones, after all, but old wood. I was surprised at how hard the “stone” was, because it usually takes only a few years for beechwood lying on damp ground to decompose. But what surprised me most was that I couldn’t lift the wood. It was obviously attached to the ground in some way. I took out my pocketknife and carefully scraped away some of the bark until I got down to a greenish layer. Green? This color is found only in chlorophyll, which makes new leaves green; reserves of chlorophyll are also stored in the trunks of living trees. That could mean only one thing: this piece of wood was still alive! I suddenly noticed that the remaining “stones” formed a distinct pattern: they were arranged in a circle with a diameter of about 5 feet. What I had stumbled upon were the gnarled remains of an enormous ancient tree stump. All that was left were vestiges of the outermost edge. The interior had completely rotted into humus long ago — a clear indication that the tree must have been felled at least four or five hundred years earlier.
How can a tree cut down centuries ago could still be alive? Without leaves, a tree is unable to perform photosynthesis, which is how it converts sunlight into sugar for sustenance. The ancient tree was clearly receiving nutrients in some other way — for hundreds of years.
Beneath the mystery lay a fascinating frontier of scientific research, which would eventually reveal that this tree was not unique in its assisted l
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