Dr. Kenneth L. Gordon, who taught Natural History at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University) was my teacher, mentor, and friend during the latter half of my undergraduate work in 1960-1961. An exceedingly gentle man, Ken had tremendous artistic talent in writing, drawing, wood carving, and photography, in addition to which he exhibited boundless creativity in his pursuit of natural history. But it was his philosophy of minimal, ethical disturbance of Nature, his gentleness with all things living, and his deep regard for the living spirit he saw in all things that influences me still.
Ken always saw something to which others were blind. He saw the spiritual laws and the moral underpinnings of the Universe that lay behind all science and technology. And in his quiet way he planted in my mind, heart, and soul the seeds of his vision that I might one day see what he saw, a truly spiritual world.
In many unforeseen, unknown ways, I was to earn the vision Ken held out to me. And my lessons began in earnest with a small, red vole (mouse to most people) that lives high in the Douglas-fir trees of western Oregon.
I had become fascinated with the red tree vole, which is six or seven inches long from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail, and I want to study it for my Master's Thesis. Since these little mammals are active at night and could not be trapped, I would have to catch them by hand, often climbing fifty to a hundred feet up in the trees in which they lived. Ken, then in his early sixties, had long been fascinated by these wee creatures and was the only person who would let me attempt such a hazardous study.
On the day Ken agreed to be the professor in charge of my graduate work, he said, "If you need help, come see me; otherwise, you're on your own." I could not have had a better major professor for my needs. He had the wisdom to let me struggle, the patience to answer my questions with a question when I tired of struggling, and the good humor and the gentleness to allow me to bumble my way along the path of personal and professional growth.
The work on my thesis was intense, in part because I had to climb nearly three hundred trees in order to secure enough voles for study. On top of that, the Natural History Building is an old Quonset hut left over from World War II, and my "office" was upstairs in a small closet-like room immediately under the metal roof, where Summer temperatures frequently reach over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. It had neither windows nor ventilation, which caused me to feel like I was in a pressure cooker in which my brains were becoming overdone.
And if that was not enough, my desk was in the "herp collection," which means that I was mostly surrounded by jars of dead salamanders, toads, frogs, lizards, and snakes, all of which give me the perpetual, silent stare of the dead. Moreover, the jars were filled with isopropyl alcohol, which diffused into the room on hot days, giving me a splitting headache that made me wonder about my sanity. When I mentioned this to Ken, he just smiled and reminded me quietly: "You're paying your dues."
Ken also helped me to deal with the terrible destruction the tree voles' habitat through clear-cut logging to which I was constantly subjected. Just when I would find a population of tree voles with which to work, the whole population was wiped out by clear-cut logging. Throughout my graduate studies, I was barely one jump ahead of the loggers, and I grow to loath what I saw happening. Everywhere I went, the voles' habitat was being summarily and systematically decimated without regard for the life of any creature whose dwelling place proffered a penny to the coffers of private industry.
As my bitterness grew at this insidious, murderous blight on the land, a blight I could neither stay ahead of in my studies nor stop, I began to despair. What had began in my mind as the study a wonderful little creature that, to me, represented the integrity of the towering forests of millennia's artistic perfection, became increasingly a race against time in a war with the timber industry, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service, each of which seemed hell-bent on the liquidation of Nature's irreplaceable majesty.
Earlier in my life, when I had been in spiritual crisis at Spirit Lake, Washington, it had been because my habitat, the forest that I loved, was disappearing under the chain saw. Now I saw the habitat of this ancient and mystical little creature vanishing the same way. Only in the case of the vole, it was more than habitat destruction; it was the extinction of whole populations--a phenomenon that lasts forever. So my rage grew toward the callousness of a society that seemed to care so very, very little about anything that was not somehow attached to garnering monetary profit.
Ken, however, kept bringing me back to the study for the voles' sake, and he somehow kept me grounded in what I could do. He helped me to shift my focus from the animal to its habitat in relationship to the landscape and beyond. In his gentle wisdom, he helped me to recommence a journey of discovery--one I had begun at the age of six in a roadside ditch with my friend, Billy Savage. That help came the day I barged into his office in a blind rage over the total destruction of a whole population of red tree voles I had spent a couple of months studying.
Telling me to close his office door, he motioned me to sit while he tapped the spent tobacco out of his ever-present pipe, refilled, and lighted it. He then regarded me for a long, silent moment, as though making up his mind about something.
Ken and his proverbial pipe.
"Chris," he said, "you'll find in life that most people are so busy with their day-to-day affairs they scarcely notice anything else. I came here to Oregon in 1926. It was much more peaceful then with far fewer people. In fact, I think I drove every road in the state within a decade. I've seen a lot of destruction to the state within these past thirty-seven years [it was now early 1963]. That's why I started photographing what I call 'The Passing Scene.' It's my way of remembering the part of my life that's fading into history, never to return."
Ken was a master photographer.
"Doc," I interrupt his slow, methodical speech because--as impolite as it was--experience had taught me that Ken was easily sidetracked into examining hitherto unexplored, mental rabbit trails, "what are you getting at?"
"Well," he continued, "like me, you'll see much that you love disappear in your lifetime before this modern notion of 'progress.' And, like me in my youth, you'll feel powerless to stop it. In fact, I came west when I graduated from Cornell with my Ph.D. because I loved the open country. I wanted to get away from the destruction I saw on the East Coast. But I couldn't get away from it. It's here too!"
"How did you even know about the openness of the West if you were at Cornell?"
"Because I was raised in Fort Collins, Colorado. Anyway, I've found that anger and force net only despair. You've got to examine your feelings, and then go through them to reach the rational logic that will tell you what to do."
"How," I ask impatiently, "do I know when I've reached this 'rational logic' of which you speak?"
Ken went to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and drew the simple depiction of stairs. Pointing to the top step, he drew a horizontal line outward from it and said: "This is Oregon as I saw it in the late twenties and early thirties, and to me that was the optimum."
"Okay," I ventured, "but I was born in 1938 and gained my perception of Oregon at its optimum in my teens and early twenties as I wandered the trails of the Coast and Cascade Mountains, as well as the high-desert steppe east of the Cascades. But now I find many of the places I loved already falling to the roar of chain saws."
Ken regarded me for an instant. Then went down two steps to 1950 and drew another horizontal line: "This is when your perception of Oregon began to emerge." Drawing a third horizontal line outward from another step down (1960), he continued, "This is when you really began to notice the changes taking place. It is part of the human condition to notice change at intervals. If you love Nature and the natural world around you, then you have the sensation of descending the stairs from top to bottom, with each step a loss of something cherished. But, if your interest in life is tied to something like technology, then you ascend the stairs with each new invention, such as the chain saw. In the end, the desirability of a given change is based on one's perception of the circumstance that precipitated the change."
"Doc, this is clear," I said with some frustration in my voice, "but how will I know when I've reached this 'rational logic' you speak of?"
"You'll feel it; it's an intuitive sense of harmony with what's right, with what will work. For instance, did you ever consider that most people don't even know the consequences they cause in and to Nature simply because they're uninformed. They're not bad people; they're just ignorant. Not stupid--ignorant! Remember, scientists tend to write for and speak to one another; they've scant interest in informing the public. Perhaps that is something you could do--educate the public."
"When the time's right, you'll know what to do and how to do it. But first, you have to learn the basics. You have to pay your dues before you can speak. So, back to your studies!"
Ken always saw something to which others were blind. He saw the spiritual laws that lay behind all science and technology, the spiritual laws that underpinned the Universe. And in his quiet way, he planted in my mind, heart, and soul the seeds of his vision that I might one day see what he saw, a truly spiritual world.
I have, of late, come across a couple of quotations that recalled Ken's counsel from the shadowlands of my memory: "When the time's right, you'll know what to do and how to do it." The first quotation was penned by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to William Charles Jarvis on September 28, 1820: "I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."
"Enlighten the people generally," wrote Jefferson, "and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day." The second quotation came from British economist E.F. Schumacher who, while sharing Jefferson's notion about education, also saw its folly in contemporary industrial societies: "If Western civilization is in a state of permanent crisis, it is not far-fetched to suggest that there may be something wrong with its education. More education can help us only if it produces more wisdom."
As for me, it wasn't until I'd crossed the imaginary dateline of my 50th birthday that I began to see with some clarity the true gift of Ken's vision, the absolute justice meted to the world by the impartiality of Nature's Laws--the spiritual underpinnings governing the Universe. Thanks, Ken.
Ken and his dog, Jeannie,
in front of his old, old Chevy stationwagon.
© chris maser 2003. All rights reserved.