Tree at My Window, Window Tree

Emerson tells us “Nature is a symbol of the Spirit.”  My students and I excavate the sections of his essay Nature; we are diligent in murdering to dissect.  They read lines that make me cringe, because my head is so full of technology and Blackboard and advising and grading and commuting, that I realize I hardly ever think about nature anymore.  I feel like a lapsed Catholic having to read about Mass.  When I have my epiphany that I never think about nature, I don’t mean the notion of nature as everything outside of the soul–I mean like leaves and trees. I have to pencil nature in like yoga class and getting my tires rotated.  I have to seek nature out, it is so far removed from me.  

So I do that–pencil it in.  Last week I force myself to go to a Nature Center in League City–it is a sanctuary for birds. At first it is like a chore, it is hot, I am counting this walk as some sort of work out.  My head is everywhere and nowhere….I am not seeing anything, because I have forgotten how to look.  I have read Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman–but what can I say?  I am really busy getting and spending and meeting someone else’s deadlines.   I wonder if my walking shoes were worth a hundred bucks.  I had bought them after reading some Mary Oliver poems, and so I was going to get up early every morning for the rest of my life, look at nature, and then write about it.  I have to say, they are gorgeous walking shoes, leather and German made, found on sale at Nordstrom Rack.  I know: Thoreau would want to throttle me.

Anyway, I try to reform, I park my car and say, “I will just be in nature.”  I have a lot of chatter in my head.  I wonder if the trail is at least a mile.  I want to measure it, make an account, make it count.  Where can I put this on my resume?  If I bring my students, can I count it as experiential learning?  Clearly, my whole life is Houston billboards and just reading about stuff.  I am staging my own intervention.

I get out, start to walk, trees high around me, signs warning me about “wildlife.”

Then something happens.  I see a bird blind.  I have never seen one before.  I climb it, and I mean fast. I can’t wait to see what is on the other side.  And there they are.  Dozens of snow white egrets on Clear Creek, or a swampy place near it.  They are as calm and serene as swans, although I don’t know how the bird blind hides me from them–I am at the top, the Texas sun on everything, hot on those winged creatures cooling themselves in October, the fall that never feels like fall. They knock me out.  I don’t faze them.  They are at home in the world.  I can’t help it–for a moment I think of John James Audubon drawings.  But then I don’t.  I just look.

I climb down, walk some more, see the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, Southern Gothic at its best.  I see tree roots lifting their knobby knees, letting us know who is boss, cracking the concrete sidewalk that was set for people like me who can’t handle a dirt trail.  I breathe.  I forget political debates, polls, faculty meetings.  I look at rocks, leaves, sky.  Then Monday comes and the week flies by.

Saturday, I have to go to the Menil Collection in Houston.  Now let me tell you, I love this museum.  I love that it has amazing ancient and modern and contemporary art and that a visit teaches you how these are connected.  I love the museum district, I love everything about it, I love the Rothko Chapel, I love the Menil building.  I bring my son and I want him to love it too. This is what happens:

I go straight to the surrealism section, because I am teaching twentieth century literature, and I want to say something about this to my students, and I know they need to see these paintings and works.  A little Magritte never hurt anyone.  But eleven year old Christopher, who was named for the patron saint of travelers, does not want a ticket on this train.  He takes one look at a surrealist Picasso work, and says:  “This is not art.”  He says he will go to the lobby and listen to the Cuban band that is playing.  I say, “Well, they were interested in the unconscious and the subconscious and stuff like that.”   He says, “We don’t know about those things.  We never will.  That’s why they are called ‘sub’ and ‘un’.”  He has a point, so I try to make my visit fast.

Then we go outside and walk around.  I had forgotten how the architects had incorporated the trees into the building.  I had forgotten that a lot of artists shamelessly copied Mark Rothko.  I had forgotten how green the grass was at the Menil, and how they had put geometric troughs into the grass to catch the water in fantastic shapes, art from the ground up, working with nature.

I had forgotten how fantastic the trees are at this museum.

Huge trees, with long tentacles of boughs stretching to surreal lengths outward, gnarled limbo bars daring to go so low as to almost touch the ground, but staying suspended anyway.  Unreal, unnaturally low to the ground.  Beautiful.  Trees so huge that they had to be hundreds of years old, some newer, but still old, juxtaposed with sculpture throughout the grounds.  Christopher and I cannot stop looking, it is overcast, the day is gray, we love it, we are happy, these trees are amazing.  We want to live in the tree covered bungalows that surround the museum, we agree those people are so lucky.  They have their own museum of trees in the big city–what a wonderful trick to pull off.  We walk to the Rothko Chapel, go inside, and it seems to me that the Rothkos on the wall are very plain black canvases with just a little hint of other colors so that people are not distracted from the trees.  I love this feeling: how indulgent of Rothko. ImageIt makes perfect sense.  Don’t upstage the trees, for heaven’s sake.

We walk to the Cy Twombly gallery–he gets his own building–and see the paintings of green and white in nine parts.  Christopher says, “These are all windows. And these are window trees.”  He is right.  All I can think of when I look at these pieces is the greenery of trees, whether I want to or not.  We go to the Menil, we look at trees.  We are in heaven:  we get both inner and outer weather.

11 responses

  1. Beautiful writing. You can feel the pace/pulse of the narrative slow down as the foliage calms your soul.I encourage you to return once a month to the nature preserve and note the changes…I do this on my daily walks through the farm

  2. This is a soothing read. It’s funny that you mention Thoreau because that’s how I have always longed to see nature. Yet, I can never fully appreciate it with my own eyes. I guess I need to try harder. In the meantime, I’m reminded how much I need to read “Walden” again. 🙂

  3. A beautiful essay on nature. It does soothe the soul in a way nothing else can…I will probably drive miles a day just to live in it still….

  4. This is really interesting, Youre a very skilled blogger. I have joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more of your great post. Also, Ive shared your web site in my social networks

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