Today's selection is the end of Leon Eiseley's The Brown Wasps an essay about nostalgia and how our senses of place and self can be rooted in fantasy and false rememberances. Eisley dreamed of a non-existant tree. I dream of a shul and a congregation which no longer exist - and perhaps never did.
I have said my life has been passed in the shade of a nonexistent tree... It was planted sixty years ago by a boy with a bucket and a toy spade in a little Nebraska town. That boy was myself. It was a cottonwood sapling and the boy remembered it because of some words spoken by his father and because everyone died or moved away who was supposed to wait and grow old under its shade. The was passed from hand to hand, but the tree for some intangible reason had taken root in his mind. It was under its branches that he sheltered; it was from this tree that his memories, which are my memories, let away into the world.
After sixty years the mood of the brown wasps grows heavier upon one. During a long inward struggle I thought it would do me good to go and look upon that actual tree. I found a rational excuse in which to clothe this madness. I purchased a ticket and at the end of the two thousand miles I walked another mile to an address that was still the same. The house had not been altered.
I came close to the white picket fence and reluctantly, with great effort, looked down the long vista of the yard. There was nothing there to see. For sixty years that cottonwood had been growing in my mind. Season by season its seeds had been floating farther on the hot prairie winds. We had planted it lovingly there, my father and I, because he had a great hunger for soil and live things growing, and because none of these things had long been ours to protect. We had planted the little sapling and watered it faithfully, and I remembered that I had run out with my small bucket to drench its roots the day we moved away. And all the years since it had been growing in my mind, a huge tree that somehow stood for my father and the love bore him. I took a gasp on the picket fence and force myself to look again.
A boy with the hard bird eye of youth pedaled a tricycle slowly up beside me.
"What'cha lookin' at?" he asked curiously.
"A tree," I said.
"What for?" he said.
"It isn't there," I said, to myself mostly, and began to walk away at a pace just slow enough not to seem to be running.
"What isn't there?" the boy asked. I didn't answer. It was obvious I was attached by a thread to a thing that had never been there, or certainly not for long. Something that had to be held in the air, or sustained in the mind, because it was part of my orientation in the universe and I could not survive without it. There was more than an animal's attachment to a place. There was something else, the attachment of the spirit of a grouping of events in time; it was part of our mortality.
So I had come home at last, driven by a memory in the brain as surely as the field mouse who had delved long ago in my flower pot or the pigeons flying forever in the midst the rattle of nut-vending machines. These, the burrow under the greenery in my living room and the red- bellied bowls of peanuts now hovering in midair in the minds of pigeons, were all part of an elusive world that existed nowhere and yet everywhere. I looked once at the real world about me while the persistent boy pedaled at my heels.
It was without meaning, through my feet took a remembered path. In sixty years the house and street had rotted out of my mind. But the tree, the tree that longer was, that had perished in its first season, bloomed on in my individual mind, unblemished as my father's words. "We'll plant a tree here, son, and we're not going to move any more, And when you're an old, old man you can sit under it and think how we planted it here, you and me, together."
I began to outpace the boy on the tricycle.
"Do you live here, Mister?" he shouted after me suspiciously. I took a firm grasp on airy nothing--to be precise, on the bole of the great tree. "I do," I said. I spoke for myself, one field mouse, and several pigeons. We were all out of touch but somehow permanent. It was the world that had changed.