Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Friday, October 26, 2007

Chain Reaction

There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm.
One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery,
and the other that heat comes from the furnace.
-Aldo Leopold, from "A Sand County Almanac."

I happened upon that passage in an old book tucked away on a shelf in my college library a couple of years ago. I immediately checked out the book on reading those marvellous words, supposing the writer to be special in some way. Of course, I was right.
When my two weeks were up, I prepared to sadly take the book back to the library. It had not been checked out for ten years. I ascertained this from the dates stamped inside the front cover. Ten years and nobody at all had read this book!
As it came about, I did find another edition in a chain bookstore but it was a soulless and unopened version that didn't lift my spirits in the same way. I don't mean the content, of course. That was superb. But there are some books whose pages beg to be smelled and cherished, especially if they are well read, well marked and have some history; even if one does not know what that past might entail.
And oh, I relished the smell of a book that had not been pried open in a decade but had lain in a library surrounded by other volumes and gathering dust and must.
A little plan formed in my head. I could, perhaps, ask the librarian to sell me the book. Either that, or I could offer to buy the library a new one. I would do it willingly. Nobody, clearly nobody had wanted this book for ten years and it was taking up valuable space on the shelf.
I decided to do it. It was very hard for me to gather enough courage to do this as I would ordinarily never dream of asking for such an outrageous thing. I ached about it for two days.
At the last moment, I thought of just returning the book and running away quickly.
I found myself, however, at the desk, asking if I could speak to somebody.
A cold pair of eyes looked me up and down. Perhaps she suspected I wanted her job.
Well, if I did have her job, my first task would be to sell me the book when I came enquiring.
"What is it about?"
"Well," I trembled, "I came to return this book." I paused.
She held out her hand.
"I think I'd like to buy it, if I may."
"As you can see, it hasn't been checked out for a decade. I love this particular edition and I would be willing to buy the library another copy, if you preferred. Or I could give money."
There was an awfully long silence.
"We don't normally do that."
Ah: 'normally' was a fine word, indicating negotiation was a possibility.
"I see. I'd really like it, though. Isn't there anything we can do?"
She shook her head as if trying to wake from this bizarre dream.
"Let me get somebody who could talk to you."
She brought out another lady who was very kind but assured me they just couldn't do it.
"But, you can buy it from amazon or a chain bookstore," she advised helpfully.
"No, I know that, thank you. I wanted this one, see. I love this copy. A completely personal thing, you understand. It's old and used and I love books like this. And look at this, it hasn't been checked out for so long." I showed her.
"We can't just sell our books. I'd like to help you but if everybody wanted to do that..."
"I would be willing to buy a new copy if that suited you better. It could be an easy swap, without anybody losing out."
"Well, the problem is, it would cost us too much money to restock it."
"We would have to restock the shelf and adjust the computer file and it causes all kinds of complications. It isn't just a matter of swapping them, you know."
I didn't think that I could or should proceed after hearing that. I did not want to hear what she would come up with if I countered that argument.
I quietly returned the book and left. I was sad, not because I didn't get what I wanted, but because I was willing to bet that due to my drawing attention to the book, within a year it would be hauled to a big dump and burned.
We can't always have what we desire but we all know that she could have helped me. I foolishly imagined it might aid them to be rid of a book nobody had checked out in years. Assuming they followed a logical pattern of thinking, that is. Perhaps the librarian did not have the power to let me have the book but she did not even try. Her unwillingness to help was the trouble.

Books are precious. Any commodity is, for that matter. It may not seem like such a crucial element, but with a little bit of effort that book would have gone to a good home and been treated as a treasure. It all makes a difference. We take so much for granted, and can at times be astonishingly wasteful.
In England last year, my Spouse and I were ambling along by the side of a river, taking in the exquisiteness of the area. We noticed a young woman crouching down beside the water. She had, on the ground by her side, an enormous sack of bread. She was feeding the bread to the ducks on the water. As we passed by, she turned to us and offered to let us help feed the birds. And so, for about twenty minutes on a gorgeous Spring afternoon, we stood flinging torn-up pieces of bread into the water. She told us, in broken English, that she worked in a restaurant. At day's end, the restaurant would discard all the leftover bread. She sought it out every day and came to the river to feed the creatures with it.
She did a little thing, just a fleeting, insignificant thing. The bread might have been burned and the ducks would have found something else to eat. Ostensibly, nothing changed. But she did what she had to do, regardless. That mattered. Conscience would not let her leave that bread behind. One thing absent in us for the most part, is conscience. We do not much consider that a little act can make a world of difference. We are caught up too much, perhaps, in needing to see an effect, needing to be a witness to the reaction.
We all have to learn to proverbially leave an anonymous gift on a stranger's doorstep- neither taking credit nor seeing the outcome. Someday, hopefully, we will find out that it was part of a vital chain reaction more important than we could have imagined.

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