I’m busy these days. I have projects. And enthusiasms. All of them have to do with words, not things. I am not building a model of HMS Bounty in my garage. Not fixing the upstairs toilet. Not planning the garden for the coming (will it ever?) spring. But this Sunday I go upstairs to the bathroom with the broken toilet to look at it. I jiggle the handle. As I suspect, that isn’t the solution.
Behind me, the bathroom window gives out onto the hill that rises above the house, up seven acres or so to the top of the ridge line. I stand at the poured concrete sink and look up the hill at the woods. In winter they are stark against this year’s unusual snow and I can see where the logger has come once again to take what he can. We split the profit.
For twenty four years I have been able to look up toward the top of the ridge, impossible to see in summers, always there in winters. And this morning I forget the toilet and I think about the trees. That works for me, like jiggling the handle; but it works.
Just this morning, before coming upstairs, I have been reading The New York Times Book Review. Looking out of the bathroom window in the second floor up the ridge through winter’s trees, I think that reading a book review is like walking in these familiar woods in winter and anticipating these same woods when it will be spring—I know the rise and fall of the land, the seasonal directions of animal trails, what blooms and what does not, where the stream flows and from where. Suddenly I see a new path and I intuit where it leads; it is not necessary to follow it all the way, if at all, but I imagine the coming experience of it, having its trace before me. There is the same familiarity reading a book review—there is a lay of the reviewer’s land, a sense of where this is going, a revelation of slope this way or that, a hint of what is to come, a promise or, sometimes, a warning.
Then again, reading a book is like logging those same woods. I am in them until I finish, until I have chosen the trees to fall and cut each one, until at the end of the day the woods remain but that I have been there is undeniable; nothing is the same. When I come the next day it is to woods I have encountered, engaged, altered. Reading is a necessary, imaginary winnowing. Possibilities are considered, rejected, embraced. The author’s intent, like Nature’s, is less than secondary as I cut my way carefully through to a sudden configuration. When I have finished reading the book, it is still a book but it will never look the same to me again.
Writing a book is, perhaps, like being a, what is it, arborist? Intent on planting one good tree, I begin with all trees around me and where I plant is so dependent on how I understand how and why the others are there. Then, when I am done, the forest remains but is altered by the addition I have insisted upon. The new tree is singular but still the product of the presence of the other trees, seeded by some of them, protected by others, shaded too much and maybe stunted on one side by others. My book, the same, written in the protected swale here, shaded by some, shadowed by others, competing for room, desirous of continuity, hoping to leaf out, to cast its own shade or shadow.
Here in the country for twenty four years I have walked, cut, planted. But someone must fix the toilet.