I am standing on the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. An object of beauty and strength, she sails into the distance diminishing in size, until she hangs like a speck of white cloud where the sea and sky mingle.
Then someone says, “There! She’s gone.” Gone where? Gone from my sight—that’s all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of her destination.
But her diminished size is in me, not in her; and just at the moment when that someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone,” there are other eyes watching her coming and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”
In literature, we have a chance for closure. We can put the punctuation mark wherever we like, whether it marks the end of grief, the beginning of a relationship, the birth of a child, the end of a life, or the decision to live again. . . . Writers are not seers. Armed with the “knowledge of what has gone before,” we mold events, truths, into narrative, and hope and know that the last punctuation mark is not the end, but the invitation to begin again.
“I love trying to spin the world into a web of words. And I love those times when it feels like those words turn into a world of their own.” — Rose Auslander
I am seventeen and practicing the piano. I go at it two hours a day, and no longer need the nagging of my parents, when I used to prefer playing softball after school. The work itself is its own reward, playing a passage over and over at different rhythms, until it comes out smooth as silk.
I rarely practice after dark, since I don’t want to disturb my father, who may have brought work home. But now that I’m on the yearbook committee, there are days when I simply have to. It’s winter and the room is dark except for the light over the piano, and I feel my father’s entrance and his quiet sigh as he sits down well away from the piano and me.
It is near the end of my practice session, when I play something for pure pleasure, and tonight it’s a Schubert impromptu, a piece I love to play, complex and romantic. I am aware that my father is in the room; I am aware of all the ambiguities of our relationship; I know, however, that my ability to play so well has pleased him, and that falls into the complexity of Schubert, me, my father, the abuse, all the pain of never knowing if he has loved me or not.
Somehow, I throw myself into the music, I become the music, the music — Schubert — is playing me. It’s transformative. I am no longer in this darkened living room. My father is still here, because there is a musical line connecting us, and I thrill as the phrases and chords and notes become a world of their own — a world described by incredible beauty and freedom. And at the end, I bow my head over the keys and feel full of the act of love I have just performed.
I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society. I believe that whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth.
I believe this affinity of the human spirit for the earth and its beauties is deeply and logically rooted. As human beings, we are part of the whole stream of life. We have been human beings for perhaps a million years. But life itself — passes on something of itself to other life — that mysterious entity that moves and is aware of itself and its surroundings . . . . Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.
I read Evelio’s Garden slowly so as to enjoy every moment to the full. I enjoyed the prose, as well as the combination of the author’s personal moments with the beautiful descriptions of places, landscapes, nature and people, all of which make the reading very agreeable. The strength and positive attitude with which she confronts the vicissitudes and difficulties, without losing her calm and sense of humor, are admirable. The descriptions of some of the situations are really comical: for example, the bonsais, Ruth and the bats, the rice and beans on her bus trip to San José. The relationship with Evelio is truly special; her patience, tolerance and empathy are admirable. The way she describes moments of frustration, pain and anger, along with happiness and humor is marvelous. All of these elements mixed with the descriptions of people, customs, the culture, birds, plants and the countryside, made for me, one of those “trips” that will never be forgotten. My gratitude for the gift of these memoirs and the hours of pleasure I spent reading them. — Enrique Venegas
For a long time, I have looked for a way to describe my connection to the natural world. I tried in Evelio’s Garden, but no writer that I have encountered since has come as close as I have the privilege to quote here. Of course there have been many before me, but none that I have discovered as right on as these two: Robinson Jeffers and Oliver Sacks. (And I’ll keep looking!)
The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation.
— Robinson Jeffers
The sense of deep time brings a deep peace with it, a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies of daily life. Seeing these volcanic islands and coral atolls, and wandering, above all, through this cycad forest on Rota, has given me an intimate feeling of the antiquity of the earth, and the slow, continuous processes by which different forms of life evolve and come into being. Standing here in the jungle, I feel part of a larger, calmer identity; I feel a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.
There’s a big difference between writing stories and telling them out loud. This is something I’ve discovered as, over the years, I have recorded bits and pieces of various things I have written. Somehow, the spoken word is infinitely more powerful. Recently I was invited by an interviewer to record a story from Evelio’s Garden, and since her website focused on finding joy in our lives, I picked robins and sea lions. Well, listen and you’ll see how they’re related.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Red Canna, 1924 (Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)
In a passage originally published in the exhibition catalog An American Place, she writes, “A flower is relatively small. Everyone has many associations with a flower — the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower — lean forward to smell it — maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking — or give it to someone to please them. Still — in a way — nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small — we haven’t time — and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small.
“So I said to myself — I’ll paint what I see — what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it — I will make even busy New-Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.
“Well — I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t.”
When you’re writing, sometimes surprising things spill out. This little prose poem was completely spontaneous; it didn’t follow any plot line nor was it the product of any forethought. It came from a moment of pure presence with what I was doing. I looked at it on the screen, slightly amazed, and decided to leave it in.
Evelio’s Garden: Memoir of a Naturalist in Costa Rica is coming in September (as soon as I have a few reviews to put on the back cover). Published by Atmosphere Press, a small collaborative publishing house, it looks almost too good to be true.
I had let it slide for a while (ten years???) after contacting a zillion agents who were not thrilled — although some said it was beautifully written — because in the hurly-burly world of major publishing, a small, even beautiful, book needs a lot of extra work to become its own little profit center.
Even after all the work editor Allyson Latta had put into it, I still lacked confidence after so many rejections, but something stirred me when I saw a call for submissions by Atmosphere Press in a publishing newsletter. After I had jumped through so many hoops with the agents (send first and third chapters; send first five pages and a marketing summary; send synopsis of no more than 300 words, etc.) all this press wanted to see was the manuscript!
Well, that was just too easy, so I sent it — what the hell? — and a few days later I had a note from the publisher, Nick Courtright, a well-known poet in his own right, saying they would like to take it. I was flabbergasted: this was really too easy. So I hemmed and hawed for a few days (was that weeks, Nick?) until agreeing to go forward.
Nick put me in touch with one of their editors, with whom I had an excellent few weeks of working together — he liked it! — and I was beginning to feel a little jazzed. So, here it comes:
Once again, I have run across a fragment that long ago I stashed in a dark corner of my computer for future use, and I failed to attribute it. I like this piece because it fits so well with my focus on the natural world, both in Evelio’s Garden, and in my daily life. If anyone recognizes this piece or its writer, please let me know so I can attribute it properly. Thanks. SSH
Hello chatter, my old friend.
The sounds of silence are a dim recollection now, like mystery, privacy and paying attention to one thing — or one person — at a time.
As far back as half-a-century ago, the Swiss philosopher Max Picard warned: “Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence,” once as natural as the sky and air.
As fiendish little gadgets conspire to track our movements and record our activities wherever we go, producing a barrage of pictures of everything we’re doing and saying, our lives will unroll as one long instant replay.
There will be fewer and fewer of what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being,” intense sensations that stand apart from the “cotton wool of daily life.”
“In the future, not getting any imagery or story line or content is going to be the equivalent of silence because people are so filled up now with streaming video,” said Ed Schlossberg, the artist, author and designer who runs ESI Design. “Paying attention to anything will be the missing commodity in future life. You think you’ll miss nothing, but you’ll probably miss everything.”
Schlossberg said that, for a long time, art provided the boundary for silence, “but now art, in some cases, is so distracting and intense and faceted, it’s hard to step into a moment. Especially when you’re always carrying a microcamera and a screen all the time, both recording and playing back constantly rather than allowing moments of composition and stillness when your brain can go into a reverie.”