The Department of Philosophy

"The river is a strong brown god - sullen, untamed, and intractable"

~T.S. Eliot

A Teacher of Wisdom

by Vincent Kavaloski

"Knowledge divides up the world. Wisdom makes it whole." Venancio, an old shaman of the Makuna people, said this, but it could just as well have been the motto of my friend, Charlie.

Charlie died some weeks ago. Though I've only come to realize it, he was my true philosophy teacher.

I miss him very much. On a cold, gloomy day like today, we'd be sitting around a crackling fire in his kitchen, smoking our pipes like crazy, smoking Prince Albert tobacco and talking about the way of nature, the Indian way, the way of the deer and the eagles and the coyote. Clouds of smoke swirled and rose, lifting our thoughts to imponderable questions. What is our purpose on this green Earth?

Charlie lived in an old stone cheese factory on the edge of a large park reserve. Some years back he had given up working at a job and retreated to the woods. His way was living close to the rhythm of nature, the mysterious scent of damp earth in springtime, the summer peepers all through the night, living in the rising of the sun, the falling autumn fevered leaves, and the thunk of the ax in a snowy winter's wood.

Charlie spoke often of the old days, when coyotes called up and down the valley and wolves could be heard sometimes, too. He talked, too, about the Indians he'd known, the "first environmentalists," he called them. "When I was growing up," he once chuckled, "people called them savages. Now that we've destroyed so much of Mother Earth with our 'progress,' I wonder who the real savages are?" He laughed often with irony, often with bittersweetness, but never with contempt or hate. There was always a merry twinkle in his blue eyes.

In the spring and summer, I'd always see Charlie outside, bare-chested and sun-bronzed, cutting wood or mowing weeds, his snow-white beard framing a big smile. He'd lean on his ax or shovel, and listen to our latest worries, news, and reflections, nodding and throwing in some laughter to leaven the mix.

Sometimes he was making his rough, beautiful wooden picnic tables. He always talked about selling them, but somehow, whenever one was admired by a neighbor, it always ended up being a gift.

After talking with Charlie, I'd always feel better—lifted up somehow, like those red-tailed hawks on the morning updraft. From the hawk's lofty perspective, the world looked lovely, alive, whole. Life would seem good again, simple, deep and good. My worries would seem to fade in smoke.

Charlie said the only church he went to anymore was the one without walls, because he didn't think the Great Spirit wanted to be hemmed in by walls. How could I disagree?

A few days after Charlie's death, his wife Grace pressed something into my hand as we hugged, saying, "Charlie wanted you to have this." It was a pouch of Prince Albert pipe tobacco.

So sometimes now, on a cool autumn eve, I sit out on the porch and smoke my pipe and watch the hawks soar over our valley. I think about what Charlie said about the folly of a civilization so blind it destroys the very Earth that gave it birth, that sustains it. "Can you picture that?" he'd laugh. I try to picture it, but it's too painful. We can see the part, but we can't see the whole. But mostly what I picture is a sun-bronzed, white-bearded man, laughing for joy at the colored miracle of a fall woods.

The Prince Albert pipe smoke swirls up and away, merging with the cool air, up into the mystery of night, into oneness, giving no answers.

Other Articles By Vincent Kavaloski

"Only The River is Real: The Mississippi and the Flow of Time"

"Living in the Land of Happiness"