But besides the toll the natural disconnect took on my mental health, I also worried my writing process was being affected. I read Isaac Babel’s “The Awakening,” a memoir-ish short story where the young Babel spends a summer skipping violin lessons to try to learn how to swim. His efforts are mostly unsuccessful, and he’s told by the gentile “water god,” Nikitich, that his ignorance of nature is going to hamper his dreams of being a writer. Nikitich asks him,
“What’s that tree?”
I didn’t know.
“What’s growing on that bush?”
“What bird is that singing?”
I knew none of the answers. The names of trees and birds, their division into species, where birds fly away to, on which side the sun rises, when the dew falls thickest—all these things were unknown to me.
“And you dare to write! A man who doesn’t live in nature, as a stone does or an animal, will never in all his life write two worthwhile lines. Your landscapes are like descriptions of stage props…”
It wasn’t the comparison to stage props that worried me so much—I’m into the intersection of the natural and artificial. I just felt like there was this essential element, this green-glowing life force I was neglecting. Still there was one fairly large tree on my block, and as luck would have it, it stood just outside the ventilation system’s intake. My desk was right up next to the vent, and at the height of the tree’s blossoming, I could smell it. There was something weirdly liberating about this, the constraint of every sense except one, and I felt like I was experiencing the tree in this way few others had access to.
Anyway, events have conspired since then to offer me a sort of impromptu writing residency. I moved into an apartment with windows—and an office. I also lost my job, resulting in my getting unemployment benefits, which feels like I’ve received some sort of art grant. I also have more time to go out into nature and walk around; yesterday I spent a couple hours on the eerie paths of San Francisco’s Glen Canyon Park. There were informational signs there, and I came away learning a new word, chert, which I can’t define much beyond the fact that it’s a type of rock. Still, though, maybe Nikitich would be proud.
I’ve been reading Jules Renard’s Journal, and he writes, “It is in the heart of the city that one writes the most inspired pages about the country.” Maybe what he means is that precision isn’t so much necessary in describing nature, but rather surrender, a concession to its (decreasingly) sprawling mysteries. Is this something that’s better understood from the enclosure of the city?
Babel’s great ending to “The Awakening” seems to suggest so:
The moonlight congealed on bushes unknown to me, on trees that had no name. Some anonymous bird emitted a whistle and was extinguished, perhaps by sleep. What bird was it? What was it called? Does dew fall in the evening? Where is the constellation of the Great Bear? On what side does the sun rise?