In 1989, Ted Turner created the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award for a “fiction work offering creative and positive solutions to global problems.” The winner was to be offered a $500,000 advance and publishing contract. I immediately began work on my entry, entitled The Ginkgo, with the full intent of winning that competition. To make a long story short, I didn’t win, or even finish my book, before Daniel Quinn claimed the prize with Ishmael, a novel he’d been working on for at least ten years. But I eventually finished, then rewrote several times, The Ginkgo, a story about a college student from a ranch in western Nebraska who comes to the university and ends up writing four essays about a single ginkgo tree.
This student had to be a female, in fact a very intelligent and rather secular one, for a whole variety of purely narrative reasons. In my mind, this book is a visionary coming-of-age story about the burden of traditions, the powerful lifetime influence of a liberal education, and the human condition. I envisioned it being the next Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, at least commercially and in terms of becoming a cult piece. My literary agent, however, called it “an evocative book about ideas, exactly the kind of thing the American book-buying public is becoming increasingly impatient with” and promptly declined to handle it. Similar opinions were evidently held by the next forty-two publishers who rejected it. All that backstory aside, The Ginkgo, subtitled An Intellectual and Visionary Coming-of-Age, remains my best work, ever, and in my highly biased opinion, the most important; it’s also now available on Amazon.com and Kindle.com.
In The Ginkgo, this coed comes to the university, is asked to write four papers about a single plant, a typical activity for my large freshman classes, indeed an exercise that we have done for years, although the specific assignments differ from year to year. As a result of her performance, she is selected by her prof as penance for all his past sins, namely, all those cases in which he’s allowed, or even helped, a truly brilliant young person become a physician or other health care professional with a real job, instead of becoming a poet or philosopher who could, and would, be the intellectual leader our nation so severely needs. You can see immediately where the “creative and positive solutions to global problems” part comes in; if there is anything this nation needs in the Third Millennium, it is ideas, especially good ones.
To quote from the prologue to The Ginkgo, which I re-wrote after my agent declined it: “What happens to nations that get increasingly impatient with evocative books about ideas? Why can’t I get that phrase out of my mind? I walk down town. The sidewalks are filled with normal, everyday, people—lawyers, housewives, businessmen and businesswomen, panhandlers, college kids, and nondescripts. Are they all impatient with evocative books about ideas? What are they not impatient with? Murder, narcotics, war? Or are they not impatient with money, politics, agriculture, health, the military, sex, sports, or religion, the very subjects she was not allowed to write about throughout the year she went exploring a tree, a museum, a sculpture garden, an art gallery? Is it indeed possible that this society has degenerated into one so impatient with ideas that it will neither read nor buy an evocative book about them? I don’t believe this is the case. I believe my fellow citizens are vitally interested in ideas. Why else would they flock, in droves, to churches? Why else would they gravitate to certain politicians? Why else would they be so quick to categorize then dehumanize their fellow humans? Believe me, we are very interested in ideas; they are the hands that guide our acts, all of them, both good and evil.”
In many ways, The Ginkgo is symbolic of my teaching experience at UNL, and especially the emotional impact of spending all those years at the Cedar Point Biological Station in Keith County. Karen and I watched our children grow up out there; we came to be in awe of the subtle beauty, especially the early morning and late afternoon landscape colors, the sounds and smells, and the generous landowners whose property my students used regularly; and, we eventually developed an idyllic view of the Sandhills. This view developed, of course, because we were intellectual visitors, not residents who had to make a living from the arid high plains. The romance of western Nebraska is thus a luxury; all of our friends out there work extremely hard, and most of the time this work is outright physical labor, always with the chance of injury or devastating weather, and rarely with any escape except for that hour in church on Sunday mornings.
Much of The Ginkgo takes place in the Sandhills, on a couple of ranches, but the book really is about teaching, mentoring in its most challenging, yet rewarding, way. Naturally, because the Cedar Point instructional program has offered a lifetime’s challenge and reward, the western Nebraska landscape and culture had to be essential elements of this story. Just as naturally, by hanging around writers and artists, often because of Karen’s job, it never seemed unusual for a scientist to try his hand at fiction. Artists express themselves, in the process making their statements about the world whether they intend to do so or not, using whatever media seems appropriate. When a scientist believes he has something to say, something important, about the business of education, then he or she should also feel free to use any media to make such a statement. With a little luck, the product is an evocative book about ideas.
In the excerpt that follows, the prof has gone to western Nebraska in search of ideas, but in this case, the ideas are ones specifically designed to frame the assignments this student will be asked to pursue. Thus a teacher goes exploring into a student’s cultural background in order to come up with the perfect teaching devices. We profs do, or at least should do, this kind of exploration every day. What we don’t do regularly is drive a thousand miles for the sole purpose of spending time in the landscape and society where our students grow up simply so we can come up with the right test questions; such thousand-mile trips happen only in fiction.
Other characters mentioned in “The Horse” are members of the Johannes and Spindler clans. Carl Johannes owns a massive amount of land; he and his wife have produced a number of beautiful and intelligent daughters, but no sons. Dalton Spindler owns a much smaller ranch, but he and his wife have four sons, ranging from the hard-working and responsible Terry to the neer-do-well Gerry. Carl Johannes has his eyes not only on Spindler property, but also on the ranch where The Ginkgo coed grew up before she came to the university. You can see immediately where this story is heading. The Johannes girls are all barrel racers with magnificent horses from their father’s ranch; at least two of them have already captured their Spindler boys.
It will help in understanding one sentence in “The Horse” if you know that in the previous chapter the student—the main character in this book—has intercepted the prof on his way into a large lecture section of General Biology and demanded that he lecture about reproduction instead of the scheduled topic because another student in her dorm has tried to commit suicide by cutting her wrists as a result of an unwanted pregnancy. The Ginkgo deals, obviously, at least in part, with some of our nation’s truly divisive hot-button issues. Now join me in a Sandhills pasture for a conversation with a horse.