Martians, trees and Isaac babel

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When I encounter certain astonishing events in our natural world, I ask myself “What would a Martian make of this?”  At the top of my list is the way trees drop their leaves in the fall and suddenly stand bare against the sky. Equally magical is the spring releafing. That latter process has been complete for some weeks now but I can still remember my surprise driving down our street one day and realizing that the canopy produced by our row of mature trees is once again lush enough to provide welcome shade against the increasingly intense not-yet-summer sun.  Yesterday, following the usual route between our house and our community garden plot, I was stunned and delighted to see that the Woodlawn street lined with houses which were fairly new when I first drove past them are suddenly blessed with the same shade now that the saplings planted by the developer have matured into a role that, barring insect invasions and tornadoes, they will continue to play for many years.

I’ve written before about an unexpected gift that the pandemic has presented to us. On our daily walks and longer excursions we have become fascinated by trees – the majesty of the venerable first growth trees, the varied bark textures, the artistry of their silhouettes against the backdrop of a cloudless sky, the way they sit in relation to their neighbors, particularly since we’ve come to understand how they communicate with each other.

But I have a confession to make. With a very few exceptions, I can’t tell one variety of tree from another. It’s not for lack of trying. Over the years we’ve owned a succession of guidebooks; one resides in my backpack as we speak. When we consult them and find a match between the book and what stands in front of us, we are excited, but the knowledge never gets a firm foothold.  Early in my teaching career I worked at the campus of Antioch New England which houses a marvelous environmental studies program. We joined many nature walks in the New England woods led by the faculty and students of that program who were adept at identifying trees, mushrooms, ferns, etc. Precious little of those identifying skills rubbed off on us. What we saw was an aesthetic and sensory delight, but it never translated to mastery of formally identifying and naming the objects that gave us so much pleasure

How to account for that failure and should we be concerned by our inability to overcome this shortcoming which some might say is like expressing your liking for people in general but not being able to remember their names. I want to take you on a little side trip to demonstrate that we are not alone with this disability while introducing you to one of my favorite writers with whom many of you may not be familiar.

Isaac Babel was a Russian Jewish writer who was born toward the end of the nineteenth century and died in 1940. He was a journalist and short story writer many of whose stories were set in his native Odessa, known for its warm water port and a cast of colorful Jewish gangsters. One of my all- time favorite short stories, Awakening, is a highly autobiographical account of his attempt to break away from his parents’ desire to immerse him in the study of Jewish texts and in the mastery of the violin. Odessa was known as the cradle of a long line of Jewish violin prodigies, but Babel was devoid of musical talent. Soon, unbeknownst to his parents, he began to skip his lessons in favor of visits to the port which was teeming with characters eager to introduce him to aspects of life that were new and exciting for a boy who had until then inhabited a largely cerebral world. “In my childhood,” he says, “chained to the Gemara (the Talmud), I had led the life of a sage. When I grew up, I started climbing trees.”

One of the adults who took him under his wing was a man named Yefim Nikitich Smolich. “We went out into the street. The old man halted, struck the pavement with his stick and fastened his gaze upon me. ‘Now what is it you lack? … What you lack is a feeling for nature.’ He pointed with his stick to a tree with a reddish trunk and a low crown.

‘What’s that tree?’

I didn’t know.

‘What’s growing on that bush?’

I didn’t know that either…. The old man kept poking his stick at trees; he would seize me by the shoulder when a bird flew past, and he made me listen to the various kinds of singing.

‘What bird is that singing?’

I knew none of the answers. The names of birds and trees, their division into species, where the birds fly away to … all these things were unknown to me.

‘And you dare to write! (Note: Babel had confessed to Smolich that this was his aspiration.) A man who doesn’t live in nature, as a stone does or an animal, will never in all his life write two worthwhile lines.’”

So much for the wonderful Isaac Babel who, tragically, was executed by an insanely paranoid Stalin regime for some imagined act of disloyalty. I bring his words here as evidence I am not alone with my shortcomings in the natural world, and I suspect that mine are rooted in the same soil as Babel’s. A Jewish boy deeply indoctrinated in the belief that all one needs to know and experience is inscribed in books, I now believe people like me and Mr. Babel are missing a lot of what the world has to offer as we view it through our proverbial Coke bottle-thick lenses. 

There are too many piles of books, holy and otherwise, and too many paved -over city streets standing between me and an ability to appreciate fully the nature that is buried beneath that concrete. Nonetheless, I already have a place selected for our afternoon walk, a wooded trail that runs uncomfortably close to a major roadway; at least, now that the trees are fully clothed we and the passing cars will be hidden from each other’s sight. On our last visit everything was still bare, so we’ll be doing a lot of oohing and aahing about how beautiful it all is without a clue about what we’re looking at. Wouldn’t it be nice to have Mr. Smolich walking alongside us poking his walking stick at all that he commands us to attend to, and which would otherwise go unattended and unnamed.

PS. As I was thinking about composing this piece, the following serendipitous obituary headline appeared in the New Your Times: “Christopher D. Stone, Backer of Legal Rights for Trees, Is Dead at 83.” How wonderful to think that trees are finally getting the recognition they deserve, even in our courts of law.

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Marv Hoffman

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