Pandemic reflection on a pin oak tree

The requirement to work and teach from home this spring afforded me close observations of goings-on in my small back yard. The daily experiences of watching nature in the yard during this time of pandemic disruption provided quiet means to think about what we can and cannot control in our lives of vocation. Another spring of harsh weather caused me to ponder whether the life of a little pin oak tree might serve as an image of vocation.

Spring 2020 has not been kind to the young pin oak tree I planted more than three years ago. One morning in March, about the time I started working from home, several birds nipped off almost all of the branch tips. I watched them do this, in a matter of minutes, and refrained from intervening because I wasn’t certain whether or not the incident was naturally beneficial to the tree. Almost two months later, in early May, a hard, overnight frost killed all of the tree’s emerging leaves. This particular tree has survived much in its short life.

I have planted two pin oaks, at two southeastern Wisconsin residences. Both trees were sap­lings from the same nursery outside of Cedarburg. Both times I was cautioned about having the right soil and drainage for the native species (Quercus palustris). In the first residence I was confi­dent the site was perfect for a pin oak, and it was not long before the tree shot up to become a spectacular specimen. In the second residence, my attitude was hopeful and curious because I knew the soil to be heavy clay, and I’ve seen some beautiful pin oaks drown in wet, clay soil.

So the second tree—the one I viewed this spring as I made coffee every morning—was gently folded into our vehicle, driven home, and planted in October 2016. When I dug the hole for its root ball, I found a dense tangle of barbed wire buried more than one foot below ground level. I cut the wire at edges of the hole and imagined the tree’s roots would grow through an inverted crown of thorns, thanks to the waste disposal practices of a past farmer. The tree grew slowly during the first year, and I tried not to let it get too dry or wet. Its second summer in southeastern Wisconsin was exceedingly wet, and the tree dropped most of its leaves by end of July. But it bounced back the next year, survived a wet spring, grew a little bit, and started to assume the conical shape I prize so much. In autumn its leaves became a saturated copper-to-raw-umber range of color shades—especially stunning in subdued daylight.

Then the unusually cold and blustery spring of 2020 beat at it, bending it against my stakes in sustained strong winds, exposing it to hungry bird behaviors, and finally freezing it several times in early May. While I continue to be concerned for its long-term prospects, I admire the tree’s grit thus far and will enjoy its character no matter its future condition.

As is my reflective impulse, I have been thinking about the tree and its history as an image of vocation. Maybe as you read the preceding account you began to speculate on possible applica­tions to a framework for vocation. The slender and struggling pin oak reminds me that no matter how a person frames their concepts of vocation, every image of vocation is shaped by personal references and biases. You might consider the image of my tree and use it to reinforce the idea that a person’s life of vocation is about resilience and desire and triumph. Or you might consider the image of my tree and use it support the idea that a person’s experience of vocation is as much about suffering and acceptance and humility. Or you might consider the image of my tree as demonstration for the idea that vocation is a matter of fate and fortune and that a person ought to be sincere and grateful. Or you might consider any combination of these and other ideas.

My own framework for vocation is grounded in Christian creed and Lutheran theology, and so the tree provides a useful image of how one’s life in vocation is a lot like being planted by a loving caretaker in a situation rich with uncertainty and no guarantee for what the world calls “success.” Lutheran theology confesses that the sanctified life of vocation follows from a person being objectively justified before God and is situated in the earthly kingdom, in proximity to the needs of other people. Being situated in the earthly kingdom means that the cross of Christ is in clear view, as proof that vocation usually involves personal sacrifice and suffering. Therefore, my little pin oak tree recalls specifically for me the perilous and fragile nature of vocation, as I—and many of my mentors, peers, and students in the fine arts—have experienced it.

What I have experienced as an artist and professor is probably not all that exceptional in the domain of the arts. Upon receiving an M.F.A. from a prestigious program in the late 1980s, I worked a myriad of unrelated and related jobs for more than 15 years before I was called to a permanent position in higher education. (I often tell fine arts students that they probably won’t settle into a stable, domain-related calling until they’re in their 30s, which is a daunting prospect given their obligation to make returns on an expensive investment.) In 2004, being gainfully employed at a small, Christian, liberal arts college, I told friends I was finally “living the dream” . . . until the Great Recession of 2008 forever changed higher education, especially for those of us whose callings are tied directly to teaching and learning in the liberal arts. When talking with troubled and much younger colleagues, I began to share an opinion that I am certain I won’t see things turn around in the remainder of my calling and that I think their callings bind them to hope for a necessary correction to the deviation in higher education toward a kind of single-purpose “certification.” And the Covid-19 pandemic disruption of 2020 forced all of us to retool in the short-term and is raising numerous uncertainties for the long-term. Our core expectations for vocation are being radically challenged.

I am writing this near the end of May, and southeastern Wisconsin has finally enjoyed a seasonal warm-up. I am hopeful the pin oak will rebound, leaf out a little later than normal, and provide me with desired pleasures. By the time it does all that, I could have a clearer picture of how I need to adjust my vocational practices (teaching, advising, peer-related, and administration) for fall 2020. Whatever the fall looks like, my intention will be to adjust preparations and practices, to eventu­ally find a sweet-enough spot in resumption, and to provide students, advisees, and peers with undiminished attention to their needs.


Paul Burmeister is Professor of Art at Wisconsin Lutheran College, where he is also Assistant Dean of Advising. He was a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar.

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