- But We Loved It All the Same
A few thousand years before any of this, Horace said to Numicus: “To stand in awe of nothing...is perhaps the one and only thing that can make a man happy and keep him so.”
There was a maple tree in the front yard of the house my wife and I bought after we were married. It was old and sick and very tall. It was the first time I had ever owned a tree, and there, without socks in the snow, on the return trip from the curb, was it awe I felt standing before the thing, the garbage quickly cooling just over my shoulder? Or on Sunday morning from bed, the robins and squirrels doing as they’ve always done and us under cover, watching them move up and down and through that same tree, noisily. Was that it? Although it is surely a prodigal report—in this version of life, the sweetest things are also, invariably, the briefest—the reality of the cliché is made no less confounding by its overuse.
Once I had a tree, now I don’t, and somehow this has made things more complicated.
There are perhaps two kinds of people: the ones who hold on to things and the ones who are happy. There are shells and bones and odd rocks cluttering every corner of my life. Even the inside of my car has taken on the character of a weird back porch encumbered with items that would most generally fall under the category of trash: feathers, strange leaves, pine branches, a rusted fish stringer hung from the mirror like a grisly wind chime. At home: the curling photos on the walls, grandpa’s bandless watch face in the drawer, and on the bookshelf, the stone-carved elk that Adam Gartner gave me when his [End Page 79] family visited South Dakota in second grade—all evidence that holding on is one of my more broken-in preoccupations. At some point I became obsessed with gathering these souvenirs around me and keeping them there. It’s as if in deciding to save a champagne cork or pick up an interesting bit of lichen, I am foolishly hoping to believe in something permanent.
Yes, there are a thousand pebbles in the world but this one, here on my desk, is from the night we forgot to close the door of the tent and woke up with thirty (we counted) daddy longlegs crawling over us and she screamed every time she found another one and then it rained and we had to stay in the tent all morning and we were glad for it. That life may be forever and utterly gone, but the fact that I can still hold, here in my hand, this small and impotent lifeline to the rapidly retreating past feels like a kind of magic I would hate to misplace.
Last autumn I hunted fallen leaves and pressed them in a book. When they dried I dipped them in a noxious, synthetic glaze and then hung them by a string from a shelf, stiff and changeless. I can imagine some callused ancestor of mine observing this behavior as a rather peculiar way to acknowledge the passing of time, like saving your cat’s baby teeth or starting a blog. There is a certain talismanic power these things take on, however, that can become addicting. When something has been rescued from the nearly endless ocean of expendable material populating the planet, its very existence suddenly becomes something lovely and— by virtue of its fixedness— extraordinary.
Nearly once a week, as I try to stand up and walk out the door of my office and on with the rest of my life, I find myself trapped—frozen by the skull of a deer that sits next to Adam’s elk on my shelf. The way the cavity, which once held a brain, slowly opens to the point where there once was attached a spinal column that had carried the codes for all the feeling and wanting that constituted an animal’s entire living life is, if nothing else, curious. I’m...