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Posts Tagged ‘nature’

Reading Through the Leaves

November 5, 2013 | by

Loyd.leaves&books

I was recently asked by a Canadian online magazine to visit with the books on my shelves, to find what I’ve hidden in them over the years—old boarding passes, postcards, grocery lists, a love letter never sent. Yes, I found all these things, but mostly I found tree leaves in my books. The editor wanted a picture, fifty or so words, but I kept writing because it bears explaining why I do this—how I take leaves back to my apartment to identify them, compare them to pictures in other books; and once I’ve named them, or sometimes because I’ve failed to, how I feel compelled to keep the specimens—from ash trees, lindens, London planes, honey locusts, and as-yet unknown (to me) trees all over Brooklyn. They are slipped between pages of novels, story and essay collections, a biography, books I have read and often reread, and when I open them later, forgetting myself and the last day I read that book and where, and under what tree, the leaves reenact the fall, not just one leaf but several, all different sorts, falling, or it’s the fragile end of a branch of a pinnate leaves that’s waiting for me, as here in this photo.

I do this in part because Brooklyn, and Brooklyn Heights in particular, where I’ve lived for over twenty years now, has always felt a refuge from a New York City urbanity that is unabashed and demanding, denuded of softness. The streets in Brooklyn Heights in spring, summer, and every year longer into fall are canopied by the copses of trees, reaching for and finally catching each other. These streets feel like invitations to secrets—the right to secrets—to full breaths and quiet even in this city. The other reason I do this, will always do this, owes to my grandfather, who was an arborist, or tree surgeon, in Vermont. Truth be told, he taught me nothing about trees. I was too young to ask, and in my teens, approaching my twenties, when I did think to inquire, he didn’t seem to care to talk about all the trees he’d pruned, saved, and declared beyond saving, especially during the height of the Dutch elm disease in Vermont, when he and his crew carved up hundreds of elms and carted them away for burning.

He wanted to talk about his life before he was married and settled with children and responsibility in Bennington. He’d been a salesman, an itinerant in the 1920s, and lived in rooming houses up and down the East Coast, from New York to Florida, with other young men similarly and mostly happily unmoored. He saw in my youth his own and described men he’d protected from bigger men, men he’d hit, drank with, women who’d been kind, whose faces now were simply the faces of angels, that out of reach. He died when I was nineteen before my sisters and I had all the right questions to ask, so now I can’t stop asking when I look up from my reading on a city bench or stoop: Is that a Chinese scholar tree? Is that one a Norway maple? I asked recently while reading Grace Paley’s collected stories, reading I first did in the nineties and still do fairly often now, for the immediacy and singularity of Paley’s voice, her frankness and energy (partly a gift of city living and loving), and her humor even when confronting human sorrows and disappointments. The book is full of dust from leaves, like the ones pictured here, that want to disintegrate. I won’t let them. I close the book and reseal them—keep the conversation going.

Amy Grace Loyd’s debut novel, The Affairs of Others, was published by Picador on August 27. Loyd is an executive editor at Byliner Inc. and was the fiction and literary editor at Playboy magazine. She worked in The New Yorker’s fiction department and was associate editor for the New York Review Books Classics series. She has been a MacDowell and Yaddo fellow and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

 

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A Lively, Unfinished Manuscript

September 25, 2013 | by

 Illustration from “Reading the Headlines Only” Reading the Landscape of America (Nature Study Guild Publishers) by May Theilgaard Watts.  Many of the illustrations to this essay feature a variation on this blunted trapezoid, representing  the boundaries of her passenger-side window.

Illustration from Reading the Landscape of America (Nature Study Guild Publishers) by May Theilgaard Watts. Many of the illustrations to this essay feature a variation on this blunted trapezoid, representing the boundaries of her passenger-side window.

A number of years ago, on a plane returning to the United States from Mexico, I sat next to a garrulous doctor who was also the head of New York’s cactus and succulent society. He told me about plant sales, about the traditional Bajan candy that was a great threat to one-hundred-year-old cacti, and about an earlier plane trip on which he smuggled an uprooted barrel cactus back to America wrapped in a ball of dirty T-shirts. But cacti were not the reason for this trip, he explained as he showed me a medal he had just won in a long-distance race up a Guatemalan volcano, running alongside other men in his age group, forty and older. He had been busy conquering a different harsh element of the Central American landscape. After landing, as we parted ways on the elevator up to ground transportation, to myself I thought, This is a character for a short story. But even though the stories that Ivan told me revolved around botany, geology, man’s will to bend nature, it never once occurred to me until reading May Theilgaard Watts’s essay “Looking Down on Improved Property (or an Airplane View of Man and Land)” that Ivan and his chatter might be just as suited to a short ecology study as to fiction.

May Theilgaard Watts. Courtesy of Bridget Watts.

May Theilgaard Watts. Courtesy of Bridget Watts.

In this essay from Reading the Landscape of America, Watts begins her narrative with a conversation overheard between businessmen about the evergreen plantings they had been collecting for their yards; she then reflects on the great landing strip on an orchid pinned on a fellow passenger’s lapel. Once she has sensed the small presences of nature, even in the vacuum of the airport, we find her looking out the plane window at the passing city grids and farm grids and reporting that “under this net, Nature is squirming and resisting.” At every margin, every mark on the human neatness of borders, she reels off the names “dandelion, cottonwood, ailanthus,” like a refrain announcing the little victories of hardy wilderness. In another essay from the same collection, “Prairie Plowing Match,” the concern with finding pockets of “native” flora among the “foreign” plantings imported by humans is the same, but this study finds a different refrain. She refers back to seventy-five years of local literature for text suggesting the original Illinois landscape she seeks, and she uses fragments of these historical tractor-pull programs to punctuate her description of a walk around the prairie. When she finds her “natives,” she finds them along a fence rail, on the grounds of a churchyard, and inside an abandoned school house. Read More »

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Maji Moto

June 27, 2012 | by

 

May 2011, Durham, North Carolina. It is late spring and the rain comes heavy in this old tobacco town. Rivulets carve tiny tributaries into the Durham Triassic Basin. Soaking up the water, the red clay swells, and then offers up an overture of honeysuckle blossoms and sugar snap peas for the upcoming symphony of tomatoes and sweet corn.

In October of 2008, I traveled to another basin, a former Pleistocene lake in Kenya. In Amboseli, my intention was to study the evolution of mate choice and fertility signals in a population of wild baboons for my dissertation research. I was working with the Amboseli Baboon Research Project, an ongoing project that began more than four decades ago. Since the time that Kenya became free of British colonial rule, when the Amboseli basin was thick with rhinoceros, researchers from the United States have been following the daily lives of the baboons in Amboseli. The births of infant male Suede, born in November of 2008, and his younger brother Saa, born in August of 2010, were like bookends on my time in Amboseli. Sorghum, their lean and lanky mother, has a coat that seems dusted with ochre undertones like the deep red soil of Amboseli, and the clay from the Triassic basin. She is high-ranking and she certainly knows it. Born into a lineage of great fortune, she is the daughter of Sera, who was the daughter of Sana, who was the daughter of Safi, who was the daughter of Spot, who was the daughter of Alto, who was one of the first adult females to be identified in Amboseli by Jeanne and Stuart Altmann in 1969.

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Western Reading; Should I Write a Memoir?

April 29, 2011 | by

Dear Mr. Stein,
This summer my husband and I will be taking a train from Portland, Oregon, to Whitefish, Montana. Can you recommend any novels set in that region? I’ve read Jim Harrison, Michael Dorris’s
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Stegner’s Angle of Repose and am hoping there are many good novels I’m not yet familiar with set along our route.
Best,
Nora Brzyski

Ms. Brzyski, you’ve landed on a blind spot the size of, well, Idaho. So I’ve asked an expert, Philip Connors. Apart from working as a fire lookout (and many other things), Phil is the editor of New West Reader: Essays on An Ever-Evolving Frontier. He writes:

Happily, the natural beauty along that train trip is matched by the beauty of more books set on or near your journey than I can name. If I were at home, staring at my bookshelves, I’d probably give you a slightly different list, but since I’m on a grand tour of my own, currently in Santa Fe, this will have to be off the top of my head. A list of the great Oregon novels would include David James Duncan’s The Brothers K and Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. The indispensable book on eastern Oregon is a memoir with the sweep and grandeur of a great novel—William Kittredge’s Hole in the Sky, a story of paradise found and paradise lost on his family’s Warner Valley ranch. Washington is Sherman Alexie country: check out his novels Reservation Blues and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Crossing over into Idaho, you absolutely must read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which plays out in the town of Fingerbone, a fictional analogue to Robinson’s hometown of Sandpoint; it’s a masterpiece of twentieth-century American fiction. Finally, perhaps the best book set in western Montana is Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It—two novellas and one story, the title novella being among the most beautiful and haunting tragedies written by anyone, anywhere, in any time.

Finally, if you find your attention for long prose works flagging, make sure to have handy the collected poems of Richard Hugo, Making Certain It Goes On, which contains some of the finest poems of place—from western Washington to western Montana—that I have ever read.

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Philip Connors on ‘Fire Season’

April 15, 2011 | by

Photograph by Martha Connors.

To be a fire lookout, Norman Maclean once wrote, isn’t a matter of body or mind, but of soul. Philip Connors should know. He’s spent a third of each year for nearly a decade watching for smoke in the Gila National Forest. His new book, Fire Season, which started as a diary in The Paris Review, is at once a fascinating personal narrative, a history of "a vocation in its twilight,” and a poetic tribute to solitude and the natural world. Connors examines the wilderness and his experience of it by turns from a remove, dispassionately, and up close, with great feeling, and evokes a whole world in charming but disciplined prose. He’s funny but not self-indulgent. He’s plainspoken but not condescending or tinnily folksy. Without being didactic or blinkered, or even obvious about what he’s doing, he offers an impassioned defense of a life and place he loves.

Your lookout tower stands on a mountain that rises more than ten thousand feet. From it you can see the first wisps of smoke below, but you can alsowhen things are calm—write. How much of the book came into being up there in your seven-by-seven-foot glass box in the sky?

Once I signed the contract, I had romantic visions of feeding a giant roll of paper into my typewriter and cranking out a record of events as they happened that season in the lookout, writing it all down the way Kerouac wrote On the Road. Foolishness! As I sat there that summer, the thought of immortalizing my experience between hard covers paralyzed me. I couldn’t get started. So I developed strategies to generate raw material I could draw on later. The most successful of these involved typing long letters to my editor, Matt Weiland, about everything I was seeing, everything that was happening, and just trying to stay unself-conscious about the writing. On my days off I’d hike down with the letters, make a quick photocopy for my files, and drop them in the mail to New York. Anything that moved him or intrigued him eventually led me down a fruitful path. Anything that left him cold I abandoned. This meant that I didn’t start writing the book until fire season was over and I was back in town. I needed time to sift through what of the experience was worth recounting and what was not. The goal became to write a book about watching mountains that left out the boring parts—easier said than done.

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First Rejection; Call of The Wild

December 17, 2010 | by

He’s back, by popular demand! Tim Wu’s culture diary was such a hit with our readers that we asked him to answer our advice column this week. —Lorin Stein

A quiet kid in my introductory English class approached me the other day with a batch of his poetry. He wants to be a writer and asked for “an honest appraisal” of his work and chances. Of course, the poems are awful, but I would hate to discourage him. How should I handle this?

Easy question. You cannot lose. Tell him, honestly, that his poems are awful. That scarring pain of first rejection is the greatest gift you could give to an aspiring writer. It being Christmas, consider the agony your very own myrrh and frankincense.

“I read your poems. They are awful.” With these simple words, you have the rare chance to create a lifetime’s worth of writing fuel, a resentment that can be relied on for years. Or, in the words of Notorious B.I.G.: “This is dedicated to all the teachers who said I’d never amount to nothin.’”

My husband wants to go camping. I, to put it mildly, do not. It is cold, it requires physical exertion, and neither of us are so young anymore. Can you recommend a book that will satisfy his Boy Scout fantasies without destroying our marriage?

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