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SeedsOne Man's Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton
By Richard Horan
Harper PerennialCopyright © 2011 Richard Horan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLincoln, Twain, Presley, and Faulkner
DURING THE SPRING BREAK OF 2001, my wife, our two daughters
and I went on a vacation to the Gulf of Mexico. Destination:
Dauphin Island, Alabama. We drove from our home in Wisconsin,
covering more than a thousand miles of interstates and back roads.
To break up the drive, we put together an itinerary of historical
places to visit along the way.
First stop: Springfield, Illinois, and Abraham Lincoln's home.
Originally just a cottage, the place was expanded by the Lincolns
into a two-story, twelve-room house soon after they moved in. When
we visited it, the saltbox colonial had an overabundance of creaking
stairways, paisley wallpaper, crimson carpets, and primitive-looking
furniture. And it smelled funny.
My youngest daughter, just seven at the time, was dazzled by
it. I felt it lacked all "freedom of interior and exterior occupation,"
to borrow a phrase from Frank Lloyd Wright, but then again, the
young Lincoln was not noted for his architectural contributions to
the house, just his legendary prowess there with an adz.
In the living room, a photograph caught my eye: a picture taken
in May of 1860 of Honest Abe standing out in front of the house
next to a young basswood tree. Coincidentally, there was a fully
mature basswood in that same spot just outside the window.
"Say, is that the same tree as the one in the photograph?" I
"I believe it is," the docent replied.
I felt a thrill run down my spine.
It was the perfect excuse to escape, so I left the family behind to
continue the malodorous tour while I went outside to take a closer
look at the ancient hardwood that had known Lincoln personally.
There was nothing special about the treeno patina-proud plaque
pointing out its pedigree, no initials carved into the bark, no
tattered rope swing. It looked like any other tree. On the ground and
underfoot were scads of golden pea-size seeds. I don't know what
possessed me, but I reached down and picked up a handful and
jammed them into my pockets.
This tree had known one of the greatest and most complex
figures in American history. Had Lincoln even leaned against it and
pondered his future? Surely he must've dreamed under that tree,
dreamed of a better life for his family, for his fellow citizens, black
and white. Suddenly those seeds in my pocket from that touchstone
felt like pennies from heaven.
NEXT STOP: HANNIBAL, MISSOURI, on the western banks of
the Mississippi River, just an hour and a half from Springfield. At
Mark Twain's childhood home, we were disappointed to learn that
we had missed the last guided tour of the day. I searched the yard
for old trees and seeds. Nothing. But Hannibal itself was old and
seedy, surprisingly untransformed by its one-time resident's fame.
Later that evening, while my brood swam in the indoor pool at the
hotel, I decided to have a look around town in the waning sunlight.
Because I have been a transient most of my life, I have a knack
for bonding quickly with any given locale. I need only wander
around a place for a little while to feel a keen sense of belonging. As
a teacher, I've learned that someone's environment has as much to
tell us about that person as does his or her friends and family. So,
within the hour, Ich bin ein Hannibaler.
I came to the base of Cardiff Hill, that illustrious playground of
Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. A rusty sign modestly boasted
of the site's place in literary history. As I made my way up the steep
incline along a narrow dirt path, I half expected two waifs to come
bouncing out of the bushes in rolled-up dungarees, wooden swords
in hand, battling make-believe pirates.
Standing there atop the hill, looking down at the broad,
muscular river below, I suddenly realized I was breathing in Twain. In
that sublime vista drenched in the heavy, ionized air of the river
valley, his worldview revealed itself to me in one wet respiration.
A crow called out behind me as if to clear its throat. I turned to
follow it and found myself gazing upon, for as far as the eye could
see, a proud stand of hardwoodslocusts, box elders, elms, maples,
oaksrunning north to south along the ridge behind me. These
were the offspring (there were no ancients among them) of trees
that had once watched little snot-nosed Sam Clemens at play. This
time I had a pouch strapped around my waist; rummaging around
the area, I gathered up what seeds I could find and deposited them
NEXT STOP: MEMPHIS. The magic of Graceland is not found in
the memorabilia sold at the gift shop, or in the heady opulence of
His private plane, or in the less-than-grand entrance to the ersatz
plantation, or in the cheesy sixties décor, or in the "chicken-fried"
trivia, or in the Safari Room, or in The Hall of Fame, or in the
jumpsuit shrine, or even in the divine bathroom where he expired.
No! The magic of Graceland is found in the people's reaction to it.
So while my wife and kids listened to the guide, I people-watched
behind dark sunglasses. In fact, I was so thoroughly entertained by
the kaleidoscope of rapture that I'd almost forgotten about my new
hobby: collecting seeds from the trees that once knew historically
significant people. That is, until I found myself outside, between
the Hall of Fame and the jumpsuit shrine. And there, on the lawn,
scattered like tiny Elvis capes, was a sea of maple seeds. At first I was
worried that the security folks might intervene, but no one paid me
any mind as I knelt down and excitedly scooped up the little key
shaped pods and placed them in my pouch.
Sated, I wandered over to the line of people waiting for their
turn to stand in front of the King's grave. It was while standing
in that line, fingering my waist pouch as if it were filled with gold
doubloons, that I had my epiphany: I would travel across America
to gather the seeds from the trees of great Americans who had
influenced my life or influenced the course of American history.
I would visit their hometowns in search of the trees that may
have played a part in their early development and helped form their
views. I'd look into their lives and works for references to trees. I
would also seek out trees that had witnessed great historical events.
The names came flooding in. First, the champions of nature:
Thoreau and Emerson, Carson and Muir. Then the novelists
whose words were succor to me, as a student and then a teacher:
Kerouac, Wharton, Shirley Jackson, Henry Miller, Vonnegut. The
great poets, too, and American places: Gettysburg, Mount Vernon,
Wounded Knee. The deluge of names and places cascaded through
my brain for some time before it ebbed to a trickle.
FINAL STOP: OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI. I don't think there is a
place on the surface of the planet that feels more uncomfortable to
a native New Yorker than the Deep South. The air, the architecture,
even the trees exude a sort of Yankee repellent. For some odd
reason, it doesn't work in reverse; that is, Southern boys such as
Truman Capote, Willie Morris, and even the late, great New York
City chronicler Joseph Mitchell, felt right at home in a Manhattan
clam bar or on an East Hampton beach. I wonder why that is.
The city of Oxford is the quintessence of Southern gentility. At
its center is a classic square around which sit antebellum structures
made of fiery red brick trimmed out with white columns, iron railed
porches, and ornate roof moldings. We arrived, all of us jam-packed
into a late model Olds 88, during a torrential downpour. If the sun
had been shining, I'm certain pedestrians would have halted in their
tracks and kids at play in the square would have missed catching the
ball as they all turned to watch the silver sedan with the Wisconsin
license plates entering the scene.
Faulkner's home, which he named Rowan Oak, wasn't easy to
find even with directions, but I spotted it at the end of a residential
street: well hidden behind a thick grove of pines. There was a hand
written sign on the gate: "Closed for Repairs." Hell, we'd driven
sixty miles out of our way to get here; no stupid sign was going to
keep me out. It was still raining, so my family happily stayed behind
in the car with the radio on while I hopped the fence and entered
It was spooky in there. The majestic plantation-style mansion,
with its giant white columns and large shuttered windows, eyed me
suspiciously as I diffidently approached. There was no one around.
Everything was still. The ample yard and the numerous living quarters
of the once un-free help were well maintained, but there was a
tragic, severe feeling to the place. The trees completely surrounding
the property had an immuring edge to them. Illness lingered.
I could imagine Faulkner's dark, rummy eyes watching my every
move, his lips pursed around the mouthpiece of a bulbous-headed
pipe, as I splashed around the outside of the house, peering in all
It had stopped raining and was misting; everything was steamy
and gray and damp. My umbrella was of little use, so I pulled it
closed and hung it from my belt. Completely drenched, my wet,
tangled hair covering my face, I felt squalid. In a sudden act of
exuberance, I sprinted across the lawn and did a feet-first slide up to
the base of an old maple tree at the far end of the yard. And as
I lay there, soaked head to toe and looking up into the matronly
branches of the tree, my epiphany back at Graceland began to play
through my head again: I would be sure to spend significant time
on a Southern writers' tourEudora Welty, Carson McCullers,
Richard Wright, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, Harper Lee,
and Tennessee Williamsand wouldn't miss a non-literary hero of
mine, Muhammad Ali.
I could feel the girls' impatience pulling me back through the
dampness, so I gathered what maple seeds I could find and sprinted
toward the car, vowing to revisit Faulkner.
I TOOK MY COLLECTION of famous tree seeds back to Wisconsin
and planted them in our yard. A few sprouted, but most didn't make
it, and the rabbits ate those that did. I managed to salvage a few
saplings, and gave them out as presents to friends and family. But
that's as far as it ever got.
A few more trips ensued: unplanned family events. A few years
later, I visited Ellis Island for the first time. There stood ancient
sycamores, still greeting all who stepped off the ferry. Imagine the
millions who saw those trees at the start of their new lives? I
collected pocketfuls of the seeds and stored them in my basement.
When my father passed away in the spring of 2005, I returned
to my childhood neighborhood to drive by the house where I had
grown up. I just wanted to make that connection before we put him
into the ground. It was early spring, and the buds were beginning to
bulge out on the trees. The blush of color to the scenery made
everything look like a Seurat painting. Behind my old house, the tall,
intertwining cherry trees from my youth were still there, but out in
front, my great playmate, the red maple, was gone.
I drove down the block to the site of my elementary school.
The building had been torn down decades before and turned into
a small park, but behind it stood the same grove of hardwood trees
I used to play among at recess. I parked the car and entered the
four-acre woods. Nothing had changed but me. Standing there
beholding the same wonderful trees of my childhood, I felt a glow of
belonging, of embrace. I remained in those woods for a long time.
When I returned to the car, my heart was full to overflowing with
the seeds idea once again.
THAT WAS FOUR YEARS AGO. Since then, we'd moved from
Wisconsin to upstate New York for my new teaching job. I compiled a
list of dozens of great American writers whose homes I wanted to
visit. Friends and colleagues, upon hearing of my idea, urged more
names upon me, and I happily, if also anxiously, added them to my
notebook. How would I possibly find the time to make these trips?
No matter. I had to take action, to take the first step.
On an unseasonably warm day in March, I set out from my new
home on the southern shores of Lake Ontario to collect seeds.
Unlike John Chapman, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed, I had no business
plan and no gospel; and I would be taking seeds, not giving them.
But like him, I was on a mission. I would start nearby and work my
way out: short trips, then long trips out West, down South, and over
to New England.
According to season and location, be it during summer vacations
or on long weekends, I would go with family and friends or on
my own. But bit by bit, I would gather the seeds, bring them home,
and grow them, and then tell my family and friends the stories of
the trees from which the seeds came and the lives and literature
Excerpted from Seeds by Richard Horan Copyright © 2011 by Richard Horan. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Licoln, Twain, Presley, and Faulkner 7
L. Frank Baum 15
Jack Kerouac 26
Edith Wharton and Esther Forbes 39
Back Home 58
Henry Miler 63
Ken Kesey 88
John Muir 97
Back Home 110
Pearl S. Buck 115
Shirley Jackson 128
Willa Gather 137
Back Home 146
Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, Ancient Creek Indians, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald 151
Harper Lee and Truman Capote 167
Muhammad Ali 173
Back Home 181
Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson 185
Robert Frost 200
Herman Melville 208
Rachel Carson 222
Back Home 230
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson 235
Gettysburg Redux 251
Appomattox Courthouse and the American Chestnut Foundation 258
Thomas Wolfe 267
Back Home 277
William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Sherwood Anderson, Louis Armstrong, and William S. Burroughs 281
Eudora Welty 300
Willie Morris and Tennessee Williams Redux 308
William Faulkner Redux 319
Helen Keller 329
Back Home …and Divine Intervention 337
My Original List 341
What People are Saying About This
“Seeds reads like a talk between John Muir and Bill Bryson. Horan takes an unlikely premise and takes a journey that’s poignant, insightful and unexpectedly humorous. More than a book about seeds—it’s about literary heroes, forensic forestry and self-discovery.”
“Seeds is more than a book: this sashay across literary America plants a literal sacred grove. Horan sees the cloud floating inside every work of literature. He helps redeem every tree that ever died for our solace and delight.”
“Horan goes to find the trees, and we have the good luck to accompany him. The pleasures of travel, literature, and history are all richly present in this rare and engaging book. Horan comes to us as a friend, not a teacher, and wins our hearts.”
“Once in a decade a book as good as Seeds appears to astonish and delight us. Some of his tales are full of interesting lore, others are touching, more than a few are funny as hell.”
“In Seeds, Horan pays homage to famous American writers and the trees of their youth. Horan is a terrific writer, and very funny at times!”
“What an invigorating way to be reminded of the depth of America’s literary and natural heritage!”