In his book about historically significant trees, Richard Horan has answered one of the great questions of this modern age: How do people get information without the Internet?
If you are Richard Horan, you hop in your car and drive around looking for it. He visits the California coast and the Louisiana Gulf; lawns in Mississippi and New York; parks in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Virginia; wilderness in New Hampshire and Vermont. At each stop Horan gets out of his car and chats with the residents. He learns about their lives and their neighborhoods. He finds out what they know. Most importantly for his quest, he scrapes together details about the famous personages who lived there. For this is his self-assigned mission: to experience America’s history by visiting the homes of significant figures – mostly writers – and collecting seeds from the trees that inhabit the grounds.
In an opening scene of Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton, Horan considers the basswood tree that has stood outside Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Ill., at least since 1860. “The tree had known one of the greatest and most complex figures in American history,” Horan writes. “Had Lincoln ever learned 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.”
Not all the witness trees are as fruitful as Lincoln’s basswood. As often as not, Horan finds that the original trees that grew on the property are long gone, or that it’s the wrong season to collect seeds, or access to the site is closed. No matter. Horan’s journey is mostly emotional and psychological anyway. For instance, in the section on Jiddu Krishnamurti, Horan fails to collect seeds from the California pepper tree under which the Indian mystic had his awakening; yet, he effectively describes how Krishnamurti’s teaching showed him a path toward wisdom and compassion.
Later, Horan poetically describes his reaction to the geography of the Gettysburg battlefield: “America’s heart is there beating steadily on the rocky promontory of Little Round Top, on the steep grassy slopes of the East Cemetery Hill; within the boulders of the Devil’s Den, in the skeletal remains of the Copse of Woods, and in the tulip trees, sycamores, maples, and oaks. Because Gettysburg was where America’s heart once stopped beating.”
Passages such as these, in which the author’s thoughts turn philosophical, provide a welcome counterpoint to the often-mundane details of Horan’s travelogue. Much of the rest of “Seeds” falls somewhere between a guidebook, a survey course of American literature, and a set of serialized e-mails of the kind that an earnest, ponytailed uncle might distribute on the family listserv. In addition to providing a general context for the personages he writes about, Horan includes several of his own poems, descriptions of friends and family, and musings on industrialization and the environment.
The result can be somewhat haphazard – or, as Horan would have it, serendipitous. As such, readers seeking a page-turner or rigorous investigation may find the ideas in “Seeds” more scattered than scrupulously planted. But Horan’s wide-and-far approach does allow the reader to pick up and put down the book as the mood strikes. Indeed, with its loose theme, shoe leather reporting, and personal reflection, “Seeds” comes to feel like the most modern of media: not so much a book as a blog.
Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.