GOD'S GREEN HERBS
by Charles Schwenk
His hands trembled slightly as he stood at the podium and methodically rearranged his notes. He was dressed in a dark grey suit that matched his old gray hair and he wore a black tie set against a white shirt.
As he watched the class slowly drain out of the lecture hall, he felt the fatigue and depression that signaled the beginning of the hallucinations. With controlled calm steps, he returned to his office, laid his notes and text on the desk, opened his journal, and began to write in his neat, even hand:
Sweet Bleeding Jesus, I know the answer! It came to me during the lecture. It lies in the cells. Consider the following:
FACT: We are made of billions of cells which periodically die and replace themselves. Our damned, deceiving eyes and our furrowed, incomprehensibly complex brains are nothing more than differentiated, highly organized groups of cells. It's obvious! Even a child knows this!
FACT: The new cells that replace the old dead ones are made up of the food, water, and air we take into our bodies. Thus, the things we take into ourselves determine character of our cells; which in turn determines our very nature. The implication of this fact is as inescapable as it is terrible. The environment in which we live determines our nature. Changes in our environment produce changes in our nature!
Now the two most horrible facts.
FACT: The cells in the human body replace themselves completely with new cells every seven years.
FACT: I have been living in the Midwest for just over six years. At the present time I am 6/7 Midwestern and only 1/7 Oregonian. After I have spent one more year in this environment, the transformation will be complete and the last trace of Oregon will be eradicated from my body. This is not fantasy; this is not paranoia; this is simple scientific fact.
Simple though this conclusion is, it explains much. For instance, I have noticed the winters getting milder every year. Seven years ago when I first came here, I knew only the Oregon winters. The clouds would get a bit more leaden, the landscape would darken a bit earlier, the light, frequent rains would become a little colder. Occasionally there would be a thin, crumbly sheet of ice that would coat the streets and silver the tree branches, only to drop off and be reduced to slush in a few days. I was nearly chilled to death by my first winter in the Midwest. Now the arctic cold seems normal to me.
My hypothesis also accounts for my changing views on the rain. I used to love a rainy day in Oregon. On my last vacation there, I observed with a kind of terror that the rain now seems damp and dismal to me. The rain has not changed. I have.
The moment he placed the period after the word "have," there was a knock on his door. He shuddered with the knowledge that this could not be the result of mere chance.
"Come in!" he said. His own voice sounded too loud to him. It had an edge of hysteria. The person who came into the office was unquestionably a complete stranger, probably a new book salesman or a student wanting to add his class.
"Professor," this person said,
"I just wanted to come by and thank you for your recommendation. I really like my new job.
What was this? He scrutinized the face. No, he had never seen this person.
"May I ask what you are talking about young man?"
The stranger looked puzzled and smiled, slowly and weakly.
" I'm uh . . . well, the Walden Company job. I wanted to thank you for talking me out of taking the job at Centrex and giving me the recommendation to Walden."
Was this person insane? Why was he talking this way to a total stranger?
"You said that I would be slowly killed by the work at Centrex and that I should take the job at Walden even though the pay was less. You were right," the person said with a ludicrous smile. It was obvious that there was only one way to rid himself of this obnoxious individual quickly.
"Yes, of course. I remember now," he lied. "Yes, indeed. Well, I'm glad to hear it. Yes, that's just fine. Really fine. Sounds like excellent work. Really excellent. Well, I mustn't keep you standing here all day. It's been a real pleasure talking to you," he said as he rose from the
desk, shook the bewildered stranger's hand warmly, and ushered him out the door.
He resumed his seat at the desk, closed the journal, and stared at the sleeve of his suit jacket, speckled with flecks of chalk dust from the last damned lecture. To his unreliable eyes the particles seemed to glow like tiny futile stars against a dismal, empty, background of gray. Without brushing them off he stood up and moved like a sleepwalker out of his office; toward Campus town and safety.
In the years since Sinclair Lewis wrote about it, the University of Winnemac had grown into a Leviathan surrounded by a tiny fringe of student-oriented shops and restaurants that are, in turn, surrounded by the larger fringe of a town. The Monster had swallowed him seven years earlier and had been slowly digesting him like an anaconda since then. He had only one place to go when the horror of this thought oppressed him.
The only route to his salvation lay through the heart of Campus town. As he entered this alien zone he felt choking sooty vapors rising up around him and blackening the sun. With a determination born of desperation, he ignored the hallucination and continued walking toward the calm center of this surreal landscape. Against his will, his eyes were drawn toward the plastic facades of the fast-food franchises he passed; products of the tortured dreams of greed-maddened market researchers. His face assumed a grimness that terrified passing undergraduates as he recalled the marvelous imaginative restaurants and shops which had been razed in order to make room for these synthetic horrors.
He marched past the stamped plastic sign hanging above "Taco Bandito," a Mexican franchise which had replaced "Dietrich Bonhoeffer," a student-run restaurant where one could always go for bratwurst sandwiches and discussions of Protestant Theology.
Half-a-block down the street he passed "Captain Salts' Microwave Fishsticks," that had once been "Cherchez La Vache," a restaurant managed by three doctoral students in French from Leviathan that specialized in French beef dishes. Finally, he paused and stared vacantly at the former site of "The Pipe and Poncho," at which he had purchased all his tobacco products and rain wear. His money had not been enough to save it though, and when it died it was replaced by "The Pizza Trough." Through the windows he could see the undergraduates feeding. One of
them turned its face toward him and bared its teeth, covered with cheese-food and synthetic tomato sauce. He turned away and covered his face with his hands, unable to bear the sight.
Stumbling forward for half-a-block he came to rest beside a telephone pole in front of a noxious new "book distribution outlet" featuring a prominent window display of the worst non-fiction book in existence; Professor Bob's Big Fat Manual for Writers of Theses and Dissertations. Written by a colleague at Winnemac, it was an exhaustive reference work in the "irreverent" style students attempted to copy. The book consisted entirely of material pirated from such sources as The Chicago Manual of Style and The MLA Style Sheet. It was designed to make the task of writing clear prose and developing comprehensible arguments seem silly and irrelevant, so as to reduce students' fear of writing.
Next to it was the novel written by a friend he knew in the drugged days of his youth. Fifteen years earlier he had been with his friend in the living room of the huge house they rented in Southeast Portland on the surreal night when the novel's title had been given to them by the Muses. The two of them had been staring open-mouthed at a crack in the wall for about a half-hour. It had the exact shape of the Phirana River in Brazil; a fact confirmed through detailed comparisons with a World Almanac map of South America. This similarity, and its implications regarding the role of chance in the ordering of the material world, had caused them to sink into silent reverie. Then his friend's voice shattered the silence like a rifle shot:
"Listen to this! The perfect title for a novel: The Technical Ascent of Howdy Doody Rock!"
They were both crippled with laughter. Yet here was the book with the picture of Howdy Doody Rock in Yosemite Park on the cover. Gazing through the glass at the book he had the familiar feeling that he had changed into a different being in the last decade; that he could not possibly be the same person who laughed through a haze of marijuana smoke at those words.
His feet felt like lead as he turned away from the window and forced himself onward. The air around his head filled with blood-red insects who's tiny wings emitted a whining hum like a hundred distant chain saws. The hallucinations were totally beyond control now.
He saw a swarm of his own students ahead of him on the sidewalk. There was no way to avoid them. As they approached, their laughter and conversation ceased, their faces assumed the masks of respect, and they said with hilarious seriousness, "Hello, Professor." He gave them a friendly smile as he walked across the street toward the former site of a restaurant named "Serve the People," run by a group of radical Maoist students. The spot was now occupied by a Haystee-Mart with the sun gleaming on its orange-and-white checkered plastic facade.
As he stepped into the store, congratulating himself on escaping a conversation with his students, he stopped dead. It required all his considerable will-power to stifle a scream. Sitting behind the black digital cash register was a creature with an enormous opossum's head and the body of a man. It was wearing an orange-and-white checkered jacket with the name "Jim" sewn onto the pocket. Mastering all hysteria, he walked calmly to the candy counter and picked up a pack of chewing gum. As he cautiously approached the cash register he glanced out the window only to see a large creature in the parking lot with the same sort of multi-colored jacket and a large snarling badger-face approaching the store. The opossum behind the counter opened its mouth to show its teeth and hissed at him:
"That's my area supervisor. Good! Now I can express my monstrous apathy and boredom."
Smith looked straight into its black shining eyes and curled his lips into a polite smile while nodding up and down. Then he walked (a bit too quickly) out of the hellish little store toward the only haven he knew in this poisonous landscape of death.
Tortured by the buzzing of imaginary insects, choked by the imaginary clouds of soot, he staggered on for what seemed like hours (though it was only 4 ½ minutes of the world's time) until he saw a light glowing through the blackness ahead of him. The unearthly radiance came from a wooden sign which hung above the only surviving business from the era of hip capitalism. The lettering on the sign had been painted by Elven hands and glowed with Gandalf's secret fire, the Flame of Anor. It read:
God's Green Herbs
Once through the weathered, never-painted wooden door he gazed at the rows of squat round glass jars on shelves lining the rough-hewn plank walls; jars which contained spices of all descriptions, teas, herbs, and dried fruits. The store was also filled with dozens of live potted plants which thrived among the benign and peaceful thoughts of the owners and customers. He noticed the nearest one, an enormous jade tree, pull away from him slightly as he entered. lie had been thinking that some of these plants would one day fill the jars on the walls.
Legend had it that in 1967, when the establishment first opened, a large jar of oregano had been labeled "marijuana" by the staff. This label was changed shortly after two storm troopers from campus security goose-stepped into the store emitting huge amounts of negative energy and purchased half-an-ounce of the oregano to take to a lab on campus. The event was front page news in the campus newspaper at the time.
"COPS BUY GRASS"
Now the entire center of the shop was taken up with organic beauty products to appeal to the present student population and ensure financial survival. However, the spices; and teas still filled the walls and somehow the smells of Ceylon Black Tea and basil and caraway seed and sage combined to produce an exact equivalent to the smell of Douglas Fir on a wet day in the Oregon forests around Mt. Hood.
Once he heard the door close behind him he knew he was safe. Almost immediately his heart rate began to slow. The tiny buzzing figments of his imagination which had followed him into the shop began to disburse. Yes, this was better. Much better.
He happened to glance up at a new display of kaleidoscopes. They were made of 6 inch segments of varnished bamboo about 1 ½ inches in diameter and they stood at attention on a shelf beneath a sign which read: "Windows on Another World." The one he selected was filled entirely with fragments of green glass and as he turned the shaft in his hand dozens of different shades seemed to recombine and fan out from the center of his field of vision; olive, chartreuse, aqua, hazel, emerald, jade.
In that eternal moment, the shifting patterns of green awakened his sleeping mind from its nightmares and showed him once again the One Reality which he had glimpsed first among the hundred shades of green in the misty Oregon forests along the Pacific Crest Trail. The memory came to him with a dreamlike vividness, evoking all seven of his senses. Like most of his memories of Oregon, it involved clouds; soft friendly gray clouds which prevented the sun from exposing the full beauty of the landscape and driving visitors from the Midwest mad with wonder. He had been just 20 and ½ years old on that fateful day when he had hiked south on the Pacific Crest Trail from Wahtum Lake toward Mt. Hood. A light, barely perceptible rain was falling and he was wearing a bright orange poncho so as not to be mistaken for an elk and shot by poachers. Just before starting out he had taken a sky-blue pill half the size of an aspirin containing 400 micrograms of LSD.
The few people he met on the trail reflected the beauty of the landscape as did the dozens of small, still lakes in the area. At one point he saw two forms emerge from the mist ahead and move slowly toward him. At first he thought they were two female hikers but as they came closer he saw they were wood sprites granted beauty beyond that of mortal women, who nearly blinded him with their smiles and left no footprints on the soft earth of the trail as they passed him.
At Indian Springs he made camp as best he could and then sat down on a stump to watch the mist slowly creep through the trees which blanketed the valley below him. The unbelievable sight and the bubbling of the crystal water from the spring helped to quiet the running monologue in his mind. He sat still, solid, and immovable like the jagged profile of Mt. Hood for several hours while the afternoon turned to evening. He finally became so absorbed in the beauty around him that he lost all awareness of the distinction between himself and the objects of his view. At this point, the landscape began to emit a light which seemed to grow brighter around him and he realized that this was probably the best acid he had ever taken. The light became so bright it seemed to shine through everything and he suddenly realized nothing had any real substance; just color, infinite shades of color. Then he watched as the myriad of forms merged into the One Light. Yes, this was definitely the finest and purest acid he had ever taken.
With his consciousness of himself as separate entity gone, he felt his body vanish and he knew that he was also void of substance and inseparable from the Light. He had no separate self at all! Therefore, he needed nothing, he hoped for nothing, and he feared nothing. The possibility of poison in the LSD ceased to trouble him entirely. He felt a savage joy well up inside him and tears poured down his face. Yes, he would have to try to get some more of this LSD. He would make a note once he could remember how to write again.
As he sat staring at the luminous forest with absolute freedom and calm, a question rose from the last remaining hiding place of his ego; his separate self. The question was, "What then must I do?"
The One Reality provided the answer which his discriminating mind could understand. "'.Now that you know that you are one with the universe, express the truth you have learned in every action. Seek out those who are blind to this truth. Use wise and subtle means of helping them see it. But you must work slowly and carefully. At first they will fight to retain their blindness."
"Where will I find those who need my help?"
"Wherever men live and labor to serve the deluded passions born of ignorance. Seek them out and help them."
"Where then shall I find these people?"
"Do I have to spell everything out for you? God, you're stupid. Open your eyes, ignorance is all around you. Try to learn something of value and pass it along to others. Just do what you can. Is that asking too much?" In that moment, the meaning of his life and its goal became crystal clear to him.
This recollection, which he had experienced countless times, brought such a flood of joy and freedom that he felt temporarily weightless. The thunder of the words from his memory left his ears ringing. When he had recovered sufficiently to look around,, he noticed that everyone in the shop was glowing in a slightly different hue. The beauty, the glory of it maddened him and he felt he might shriek with delight like a small child.
With a self-control developed through thousands of hours of Zen meditation, he calmed himself, reduced his elation through controlled breathing, and took the Kaleidoscope up to the cash register, walking with carefully measured steps. Behind the counter stood a being who seemed to emit light from every pore. He handed it the kaleidoscope, and saw that his hand was carved of sunlight.
With a voice like the roar of Multanomah Falls the being said, "Ten dollars please."
He handed over the bill and received his prize and a sales receipt in return. Then he stepped out the door and began a leisurely stroll through the Garden of Eden, back to his office, and to his work of salvation..