A Reason to Try

José Saramago,  Portuguese novelist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, once remarked, In effect I am not a novelist, but rather a failed essayist who started to write novels because I didn’t know how to write essays.”  I’ve always found his words both amusing and intriguing, a clever refutation of the assumption that people write essays because they are less difficult than novels. They are shorter, to be sure, and differently structured. But ease of writing is not necessarily one of their virtues, particularly when the so-called personal essay is involved.

I enjoy reading novels, but when it comes to writing I’d much rather explore the world around me than invent a fictional world from whole cloth. I’m intrigued by the challenges posed by attempting to communicate rich, densely-textured realities through the apparently simple essay form, and delight in the freedom to move from one topic to another as my curiosity is piqued and my attention engaged.

Alain de Botton, another prolific essayist whose The Art of Travel is one of my favorites, says, I am conscious of trying to stretch the boundaries of non-fiction writing. It’s always surprised me how little attention many non-fiction writers pay to the formal aspects of their work.”

He goes on to add, “I passionately believe it’s not just what you say that counts, it’s also how you say it – the success of your argument critically depends on your manner of presenting it.” (more…)

Published in: on October 23, 2012 at 11:06 am  Comments (127)  
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An Almost Silent Spring

Every gardener in Houston knows the significance of February 14th.   Never mind Valentine’s Day,  it’s the traditional time to trim back rose bushes.  The actual pruning may take place on the 18th, or the 26th, or even March 1st for the lazy or preoccupied, but the ritual pruning of the roses means only one thing.  Spring is on the way.

I don’t have roses, but I have three large pots filled with  Cape Honeysuckle.  A beautiful shrub native to South Africa, its  red-orange blossoms resemble tiny versions of the trumpet vine flower and attract butterflies and hummingbirds galore.  Shortly after the 14th, I gave all three a serious pruning, and settled back to watch them fill out.  As February gave way to March and March  began to draw ever more closely toward April,  the plants sprouted new growth with a vengeance while I vacillated between restlessness and a strange lethargy.  Even as the honeysuckle climbed toward the sun,  I declined into a sense of anxiety and unease.   The days grew longer and the temperatures  warmed,  but the world seemed monochromatic and dull.  Looking around, I experienced no seasonal anticipation, no delight in the world’s renewal.  It hardly felt like Spring.

In the midst of my decline, friends in Dallas and Oklahoma began to post photos of their own harbingers of Spring. I grew curious and more than a little confused. Why were pear and plum trees blooming  in Dallas, two hundred miles to the north, when my neighborhood redbuds hadn’t begun to flower?  When folks in Kansas and the Carolinas began to brag on their  narcissus, crocus and daffodils, I still hadn’t seen a dandelion. 

Eventually, I realized anew that more than homes, businesses and boats had fallen victim to Hurricane Ike.  The suffering and loss endured by the natural world had been hidden by the dormancy of Winter.  With the  passage of the Spring equinox and the turning of the season, the full extent of the damage was becoming clear.  Massive live oaks stripped of their leaves by wind and innundated by salt water showed no sign of new growth.  Cypress, always bare through the winter, were refusing to leaf out.   Stopping at a pretty, anonymous tree I pass every day, I bent the end of a twig. It snapped off cleanly with the sharp, easy crack that says “dead”.  Reaching farther up the limb, I bent a larger twig, and found more dead wood.  I stopped and turned away, unwilling to explore further.

In the neighborhoods, confusion clearly reigned in the plant world.  Many redbuds never bloomed, and pears were putting on leaves before blossoms appeared.  The Indian hawthorne was late, the azaleas hardly noticeable. Crepe myrtles and palms seemed fine, but many shrubs were brittle and yellow.

Even worse than the damage and confusion was the complete absence of so much we’d taken for granted.  Ditches always filled with bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush were clogged with salted debris.  Once-rich beds of iris and amaryllis were reduced to a few sad blooms. Across whole neighborhoods, the little grace notes of life had fallen silent.  Gone were the brick walkways bordered with marigolds, the trellises, the tumbles of begonias and baskets of bougainvillea that could drench a day with showers of salmon and magenta reflections.   Where lantana and petunias once grew, chunks of concrete foundation piled higher as hibiscus, loquat and lilies struggled to survive.  Orange and lemon trees were bulldozed while planters once filled with geraniums and daisies were turned into ashtrays and trash bins.

In some neighborhoods,  garden after garden has been replaced by patches of empty, sand-covered dirt as homeowners wait for construction to begin.  The houses can be rebuilt in a year, but it will take more than a few years to replace the beauty and complexity of the gardens.  Whatever its style, a real garden requires time, commitment and care, and many of these gardeners never will live to see their dreams flower in quite the same way.  A garden is far more than a carload of plants from Home Depot or Lowes, and certainly more than the new flowers now planted at our intersections and in front of apartment complexes.  Those flower beds are neat and tidy, but they’re absolutely identical from one location to the next.  For all practical purposes they’re “rent-a-flowers”, and in three months they’ll be replaced by something else.  They add a bit of color to the landscape, but have nothing to do with gardens, or with all of the love, curiosity, surprise and delight that gardens bring.   

As one of my gardening friends put it after watching  a front-loader drive through her salvia and dusty miller beds, “This year we’re going to have to take what Mother Nature offers.”  Her off-handed remark was my salvation.  Instead of exhausting myself watching for signs of a normal spring, I began looking around to see what was happening despite the extraordinary circumstances.

This past, utterly gloomy and damp Tuesday, I was driving down a main street through town when I happened to glance across the esplanade and noticed a flash of gold in a vacant lot.  An impulsive u-turn later, I pulled into the lot and discovered a stand of gallardia-like flowers shining as though lit from within.  Looking around, I was astonished.  There were sunflowers  scattered here and there, and a bit of scraggly wisteria climbing the telephone pole. There was a mysterious white berry with flowers along a collapsed fence, and the tiniest but most vibrant little coral-colored  flowers I’d ever seen.  There were tall purple things and creeping purple things.  There was a remnant of a white geranium on what appeared to have been a trash heap, and yellow-green blossoms the size of a pinhead scattered throughout it all.  In that single vacant lot, I found at least a dozen varieties of wild flowers, all  passed by hundreds – if not thousands – of motorists a day, none of whom saw more than a glimpse of the taller flowers.

I was so astonished I made two more stops at vacant lots, one next to a boat chandlery and one in a neighborhood which itself had gone to seed since the storm.  There were fields of white and pink primroses, lantana of all sorts, more wisteria, and great sweeps of tall, graceful yellow and purple flowers I couldn’t identify.  It was truly astonishing.  In the midst of a world where human gardens had been swept away like so much scattered seed , Mother Nature had moved in and strewn her gifts with a generous hand.  It was not that the beauty of flowers was missing from the world.  They only had moved, taken on new forms, and were waiting to be discovered. They were, in fact, hiding in plain sight.

After finding the third flower-strewn lot, I called my friend and said, “Get your camera.  There’s something you need to see.”  For the next two hours, we stalked the urban wildflower, amazed at the variety and profusion we found.  Later, as I enjoyed and processed the photos, it was clear the temporary trowel-for-camera trade had been worthwhile. 

As with so many things in this post-hurricane world, things rarely are as they were.  But it surely is Spring, and  the grace notes are starting to sound ~ one  exquisite blossom at a time. 

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Published in: on March 27, 2009 at 6:06 pm  Comments (19)  
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