This Saturday was the rare weekend morning — without urgent destination or errand — in which I stayed in bed to read a novel that I could barely put down the night before. I finished Sourdough, by Robin Sloan, before lunch. It’s a fun story, about sourdough starter and robotic arms and Bay Area food emporia. Later, I baked a boule.
In the afternoon, I headed for the trees.
The four acres of land we purchased this summer, up a gravel road, is filled with trees. But what kind of trees? In the summer rush of travel and reunions and renovations, I hadn’t had the chance to look up and notice, and the recent essay in the NYTimes, Cure Yourself of Tree Blindness, had me feeling guilty. So, I drove to the house in the truck (a white 2006 Ford Ranger 4×4 we purchased this week), parked, and walked into the woods.
A few years ago, wanting to center my writing and breathing to the paces of a rural and natural life, I’d read books by Verlyn Klinkenborg, including his writing manual, “Several short sentences about writing.” In that, Klinkenborg encourages writers to learn to notice what you are noticing, and to be specific in describing what you observe. He writes, “It’s your business to know the names of things, to recover them if necessary and use them.” (pp.42-43)
It’s hard to grasp at first the density, the specificity
With which the world has been named.
This is a planet of overlapping lexicons,
Generation after generation, trade after trade,
Expedition after expedition sent out to bring home
Name upon name, terms of identity in endless degrees
And all at hand, if you look for them.
Let me start by looking up to see the leaves.
I walked to the back of the four acres, where the land slopes down to a ravine. I’d brought along a folding chair, and when I noticed a ring of stones forming a fire pit, I sat down. One night earlier in the week, I’d wasted an hour surfing the web for tips on building a DIY tent platform. (See previous post.) This old fire pit, surrounded by a carpet of decaying leaves, dissolved any need to build a platform. A single fly buzzed by, then a single mosquito. Cicadas thrummed all around. A hawk cried out above the canopy, and another bird — must learn to identify calls, too — cawed briefly among the leaves. Otherwise, the forest was still, silent, sunlit in narrow beams. Various noises from the houses beyond filtered through. It felt really good to be sitting there.
Back home and online again, I found Common Forest Trees of North Carolina: How to Know Them, a pocket manual from the NC Forest Service, which helped me match the leaves I’d seen as white oak and northern red oak, and probably hickory and maple and a variety or two of pine.
In addition to a tent platform, I’d been dreaming of adding a tiny outbuilding for writing and reading and sitting still. It’s a common desire, from Henry David Thoreau on down. Writes Klinkenborg: “Think of all the requirements writers imagine for themselves,” he begins, following with a list of 23 items. The very first: “A cabin in the woods.” (Several short…, p. 79).
One writer who wanted that cabin in the woods, and then built it, and then wrote about it, is Michael Pollan. I’ve ordered a copy of A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams from my local independent bookstore. (Klinkenborg reviewed the book here.) Whether Pollan’s experience and his insight further inspire or dissuade me to build my own writing nook, I hope to know more of the names of the trees and birds and insects in these four acres.
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