A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Growing up, in New York City, I never learned the names of things — living things, anyway. Street names I knew; and the names of all the newspapers; from a block away I could tell a ’56 from a ’57 Olds. But trees were trees. Clouds were clouds. Flowers were yellow or purple or white. Earth — well, earth was dirt, something in which food was reputed to grow, something you washed off when you came in.
Each summer, we vacationed for several weeks at a small resort hotel in “the country.” The setting was hardly wild, nothing the Sierra Club would put on a calendar, but out beyond the lawns there were open fields, where I picked berries and watched the weather change; and there were woods, where I discovered hidden groves; and there were smells I totally lost myself in, for which I had no name — but back in the city, back in rooms that smelled of chalk and restless bodies, those same smells, fragrant and haunting, drifted in from my mind’s open window.
This, to me, was nature — someplace to go on vacation; something to know lightly, briefly, like the tenderest kiss on the softest lips; heat rising; a summer dream. As to the details — the names of flowers, the alchemies of leaf and water and sun, the round of seasons, the violence, the death — who looks at dreams too closely? Besides, if I had questions, there was no one to answer them. Of snakes, squirrels, rivers, storms my parents knew little. Nature was a rhapsodic interlude for them, too, a breath between breaths, a moment away from the thousand details of job and home — a city life with its own ecologies, demanding a different kind of attention.
I, too, learned to see with city eyes: sizing up a restaurant, making a subway connection, knowing where not to walk at night — these decisions became natural, effortless, like water running off a high ledge. To cross a busy street, alert to the menace of swift steel; to cross Times Square, sensitive to the varying shades of human misery and hustle; to cross the line from stranger to friend, in a city where looking someone straight in the eye is suspect, most likely seen as a come-on or a challenge — yes, to live from day to day in New York engaged the senses, too. Here, I studied people — what nourished them and how they grew, what killed them, what might save them. As a journalist, I was even paid for it, and scattered my words like seeds. A hard ground, public opinion. But sometimes, something took root.
But as I bent to the task of saving the world, I didn’t notice that another world — the natural world of living things and living connections — was slipping away from me; like progress and justice, it had become just another abstraction. The trips to the country had ended when I was twelve and my father lost all his money in business; through high school and college, I hardly ever left the city — indeed, I hardly spent time outdoors. Rooms, with their chairs and books and lamps; the mind, with its hothouse ideas blooming at all hours — this is where I lived. Food was a product, a purchase. Water came through a tap. Fresh air was let in the window, unless it blew around the papers on the desk. Later, after college, my wife and I took vacations in New England, Canada — stopping at picturesque inns; eating country-style; seeing, through the car window, nature as pin-up; as view; a blur of earth colors to photograph, adore. Thus, we returned to the city refreshed — yet, though we’d been away from the city, we’d hardly been in the country at all.
In 1969, we quit our jobs, sold nearly everything we owned, and went to Europe, where we had a van waiting, rigged out with refrigerator, stove, and sink. Our toilet we carried with us — something called a Porta-Potti, which we bought at a New York specialty store, along with 20 rolls of toilet paper, chemically treated, the salesman said, to break down in the holding tank. The customs agent in England nodded when we showed him the toilet; perhaps he’d seen this before. When I opened the trunk full of toilet paper, he just looked at me.
Thus provided for, we set out on our great outdoor adventure — a year of travelling through western Europe and north Africa. For the first six months, regardless of where we wound up at night — alone, in the middle of the woods, or in some huge campground, sandwiched between big trailers — I locked all the doors. To me, the whole world was Central Park; to be out in the dark was dangerous. True, encapsulated in our van we were more in than out, but, on the other hand, what was out there pressed in more vividly than it ever had: the sounds of animals, the drumming of rain, wind through branches, the power of night — nature, neither as lulling nor as quiet as I’d remembered it.
Eventually, though, I began to relax; nothing bad had happened, after all — no muggers and no monsters either, just a richer darkness and a deeper sleep. Doing nothing each day helped, too; not rushing, less filled with myself and my self-important errands, I began to see things. I started to realize the natural world was neither friend nor foe — that to view it that way missed the point. It occurred to me that the very rocks and trees might have their own language; that every hill and meadow perhaps had significance whether or not I had words for it; that the land was in fact alive and not merely landscape, not merely a source of timber or shade. The red dots and black lines on the map went not through nature but through the human mind, dividing not just the indivisible land but dividing human and non-human, civilization and the wild, the power of the named and the power of the nameless, dividing and diminishing.
Go back, something told me. Back to a sense of the sacred, rooted in leaf and branch and sky, not in abstractions or impressive ideals. Go back to what was never taught me and teach myself: to grow food, to know the life of plants and the movements of the planets and stars. Go back to the center of the world, back to the body, back to beginnings, back to the land.
Nearly two years had passed since we’d left America. It had changed, and so had we — though, in both cases, not as much as we wanted to believe. The headlines suggested great ferment — half a million people at Woodstock for a rock festival; huge protests against the Vietnam War; four students killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State — but there was another story, hardly mentioned, that spoke to me of deeper change: of people giving up one way of life for another, leaving the cities with simple tools and a simple faith in themselves, and starting over, building their own homes, growing their own food, reclaiming their lives from the ground up.
We returned to America in the Spring of 1971 — without the Porta-Potti, or the van. Instead of a trunk full of toilet paper, we carried the first few issues of a new magazine called Mother Earth News, which we’d discovered in a London bookstore, and The Whole Earth Catalog, which was on its way to becoming the Sears-Roebuck catalog of the counter-culture.
In search of the ideal commune, we hitchhiked thousands of miles, across Canada and down the West Coast. Our money was gone; so was much of our timidity: we slept where we could; we waited hours on deserted roads for rides; and in the sudden intimacy of an automobile we shared secrets and dreams with strangers, often in greater depth and with more honesty than in the communes we visited. There, we found the same old human story, slightly rewritten. After all, to regain knowledge of the earth, its rhythms, habits, needs; to live bound together with others in a true community — this takes more than good intentions; yet, along with innocence and idealism, was pride, suspicion, self-deception. To live simply requires, first of all, some humility about our amazing tendency to clutter our lives, with lies, with grandiosity. To grow organic vegetables was laudable; to laud oneself for doing so wasn’t — particularly if it was at the expense of the shmucks left behind in the city.
Eventually, we ended up in North Carolina — lured by an ad which seemed to describe exactly what we were looking for: a community which balanced love of the land with genuine compassion for our human frailties. More accurately, it described a vision; there was no community yet, just a plan, a down payment on some land, the bold and generous heart of an unusual man. Wonderfully contradictory, like all the great souls I’ve known, as revolutionary as he was conservative, Dave Bratten loved the old ways and hated authority; he ran a bar and quoted Scripture; in his gentle, stubborn way he wanted to create a “New Eden” ten miles from Chapel Hill — a truly democratic, self-sufficient community, rooted in the love of God. Of course it spoke to our deepest yearnings; what more American fever, what greater reverence, or foolishness, could we hope for? Dave stretched out his arms and everyone flocked to him: drunks, beautiful women, rednecks, liberal intellectuals. To bring them together out on the land — this disparate hodge-podge of humanity that disagreed about virtually everything — was his single goal, yet New Eden was to be a singular failure. All that held us together was Dave’s love for us, and ours for him. When it came down to specifics — outhouses or septic tanks; livestock or vegetarianism; organic gardening or chemicals — we split like a log.
I stayed in Chapel Hill anyway, supported myself with odd jobs, then started THE SUN. I moved often — from town to the country and back; it really didn’t matter. I was moving around inside my head; all those trees outside were pretty, certainly; so was my talk about living naturally, but it was mostly talk. I ate with chopsticks; I wore sandals; my hair was down around my shoulders. But nature was still a grand abstraction. I knew some wild places — my relationships with women; my long nights at the typewriter — but they weren’t in the woods. No longer intent on saving the world, but merely myself, it was my own nature that interested me; again, I made the mistake of seeing it as separate from “external” nature. Determined to discover my own purpose, I rarely had patience for the extraordinary purposelessness of nature — its existence for the sake of existence, life as life, with no words or concepts to mediate between. The silence of woods, the loneliness, the non-human mysteriousness was too much for me, so I turned it into a symbol or I ignored it — which is perhaps the same.
After living in town for the past six years, I’m about to get the chance, again, to discover the hidden life around me. With the help of friends, my new wife and I are buying a place in the country. It’s a small, modest house; there’s running water, a shower, too, but no toilet yet, not even a Porta-Potti — just an outhouse with a view of the garden.
I’m happy about the move, and apprehensive, too. There are no neighbors in view, which means more stars and, on overcast nights, utter darkness. It’s embarrassing at my age, but I’m afraid of the dark. The weather rolls in from the west, uncompromised, raw; the owner says it’s a high-lightning area. Thunderstorms scare me, too. The woods are lovely, with many varieties of trees and flowers, and of insects that fly and crawl. I know, I know — they’re more afraid of me than I am of them.
I just read the last paragraph to my wife. She said, “You forgot the snakes.” No, I didn’t.
Nor am I forgetting the calm place in me that knows this is the right move — that wants to experience nature not as an enemy, not as an Idea, but as a living, daily reality: on sunny days, but in the dark and the rain, too; hauling in wood for the stove; slapping mosquitos; pulling weeds; wondering, during a drought, if the spring will run dry; fixing what needs to be fixed because there isn’t a landlord to call; entering into a partnership with the land no less sacred than marriage.
As in a marriage, good intentions count for little. What does count is watching the seasons pass, waiting out the storms, acquiring a knowledge that isn’t abstract but particular, of a place, of a time, rooted, and thus offering the possibility of real love.
Always, I’ve reached high, my spirituality lofty, heavenly, a soaring dream of perfection having little to do with my earthly life. Moving to the country doesn’t necessarily mean this will change, but it will be harder to ignore certain things around me, and in me, and harder to overlook where heaven and earth meet.