Saturday, August 28, 2010

Old Dog, New Trees

Summers, for academics, are empty vessels waiting to be filled; not like the academic year, whose content is largely determined by others. During summer, to a certain extent, free will returns; and therefore each summer takes on a character of its own.

This summer for me was the summer of trees, in two senses. The first is the literal sense of our vegetable friends and neighbors. It was inevitable that trees should attract my attention, since the DC area has one of the largest tree canopies in the nation. Sooner or later I had to take some account of them. Probably it was on walks with the dachshund, whose interest in trees is of long standing, that I first said to myself "What about these trees?" I don't remember the moment, but there must have been one in which trees presented themselves to me as objects of worthy curiosity, and I found myself getting some books about trees, and how to identify them, and what was the nature of their leaves, bark, flowers, overall shape, and usefulness. I started taking note, and the diversity amazed me. In our neighborhood are many lindens (or basswoods) planted for shade, as well as many varieties of that handsome genus Acer, the maple. Silver, red, striped, goosefoot, the delicate little Japanese maple. Very common is the Eastern white pine, and kinds of spruce and fir that I have not yet gotten to. The great elms. The mighty oak — best of all. Near us the common type is the pin oak, but near the Capitol you can find the awesomely large Northern Red Oak. The cherry trees — of course! Lots of those. Two dogwoods in our back yard. The gorgeous and immense yellow poplar, with its tulip-shaped leaves. From the Metro you can see the catalpa, or indian bean, with huge leaves and long seed pods. On the CUA campus are many other varieties, including a cedar of Lebanon. Sycamores, ash, willow — where have you been all my life?

I don't have any desire to be an arborologist and my interest in the industrial use of trees is nil. I am only a watcher of trees, and this summer I have learned to take in my surroundings with more discernment. That's one feature of the summer of 2010.

The other kind of trees is the figurative, linguistic type. Originally I planned to do a not very intensive review of Greek, and duly began working through some grammars. It was not long, though, before I began to be distracted by the unsatisfactory way in which the grammars (which shall remain nameless) approached syntax — even in some cases, using the old grammar-school sentence diagrams. I gradually found myself searching for a better approach and abandoned Greek for technical linguistics, in fact, the severe formalities of the Chomskyan generative school. I devoured a good many textbooks of this approach, even reading Chomsky himself, and had the sensation of a keen intellectual pleasure as I delved into the system, which is powerful and elegant (although not perfect, which is the topic for another post). I filled many sheets of paper with trees, i.e., tree diagrams — and not your dull flat structures either, but the beautiful binary structures of the X-bar theory and its various epicycles. If I can, I will keep up this exploration into the fall, as time permits. But even with just a few short weeks of study, I feel braced by the austere rigor of the system. That's the second benefit of Summer 2010.

On Monday classes begin, and free will has to be put on a leash again. I don't really mind. The trees, all of them, will continue to be there, summer's gift, as duty returns.