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Holly tree

Spare a moment to consider this apropos holly tree. This is not a young tree, nor a low branch of a great tree; this is the crown of a fallen tree. Last year the weight of snow levered its roots out of the ground and dropped it onto its side branches and the bramble of ligustrum beneath. I had more urgent damage to clear and let it lie, thinking I would return to it when it was dead and soft. But not all its roots were broken. It still circulates; it still lives. Indeed by now all its roots have found their way back into the ground. It can never be as it was; a landscaper would have it removed as a blemish; but I feel sympathy for it. I am willing to give it time to make its adaptations, and to count its prostration as a point of its appeal. It is now more than a tree; it is a tree with a story, as I have told.

Fable of the Dog and the Wolf

Deep in the young, impatient woods an old woman lived in a small cabin, alone except for her dog. She had lived there for a long time. Once the cabin stood in a field. Then she had a husband and children there. But now the husband was buried, the children were far away, and the fields where wheat had grown bore bramble and pine. The last time someone had walked up the path, it was to bring her a puppy. Now the puppy was a dog, and the path only appeared when rain filled it and washed the pine needles away. But the old woman had her high fence, and her rich garden within it, and lived well though her eyes were failing her.

Into the pathless woods, wolves had come. They stalked beyond the fences, but the dog barked his deep bark and kept the posts carefully marked and the wolves left them alone – all the wolves but one. He watched through the fence and saw the woman feed the dog, pet it, sit beside it. He thought that the dog had an easy life. He wanted an easy life like that.

One day a tree fell and made a hole in the fence. The wolf saw his chance. He dragged his matted fur against the brambles until it was straight and smooth and swam in the river until his smell was gone. Then he leapt over the fence while the woman was petting the dog and, as he had seen the dog do, he put his face under his paws and whined. The dog attacked but the old woman – who still had strength – called him off and dragged him inside and shut him in a closet while she befriended the new dog.

Whenever the dog tried to warn her about the wolf she punished him. After a time he gave up warning, and set himself to watching, following the wolf everywhere. The wolf didn’t mind. He was fed and petted and careless. He even took punishment when he had to – he could always leave.

One day the old woman did not come out. The dog cried and the wolf howled at her locked door but she did not answer. After a few days the wolf jumped back through the hole in the fence. The dog stayed while the garden ran to weeds, while he wore thinner and thinner in waiting. He stayed until the brambles wrapped the fences. Then he too jumped through the hole in the fence, out into the woods.

The woods were thick and sharp and he knew nothing of hunting. He nearly starved before he caught something, and nearly starved again, and again, until his instincts were all awakened and he found he could hunt at last. His muscles grew strong and lean, his fur grew thick and matted. He smelled of pine needles and old blood.

Once he looked up from his catch and saw a wolf, then two wolves, then three. They were all around him. He backed off from the kill and the wolves leapt on it – all but one, who sniffed him, turned, drove the other wolves back, and let the dog eat. When the eating was done the dog left with the wolves, a dog walking as a wolf beside a wolf who had lived as a dog.

Moral: Nature forms strange Eddies at the Shore.

Attention Span

I wish my attention span were shorter. Something that wastes my attention robs me as surely as someone who steals my wallet. Cultivating a long attention span is foolish in the same way as carrying large bills. True, there is little that does not interest me (or that I cannot imagine myself being interested in so vividly as to make it so). But even interesting subjects can be made uninteresting when their performance or exposition is subverted by dishonesty, pretense, or false naivety. The ability to pay attention despite lack of interest is strength of character, not strength of mind, and is maintained by the will at the expense of the intellect.

The hardest thing that eyes can do is stare. Precisely because our eyes are such efficient channels of information, the one thing they cannot do is settle passively on a single object. In fact staring is impossible. If the eyes were to stop moving, they would stop seeing; the principle of vision is not focus, but contrast. The possibility of sight depends on the continued tiny, restless motions of the eye called saccades: what the mind sees through the eyes is not the light that falls on them, but the contrasts in light which the saccades gather. To see is to look away; this is physiological fact.

Attention has the same principle. The harder you focus your attention, the narrower a channel your attention becomes, toward the conclusion of sleep. The more freedom you give your attention, the broader it becomes, the better it works. When you are rapt your attention is really rapt, trapped – not still, but caged; not pinioned to a subject but centered on it, pacing before and around it. All your instincts are for motion. When you look on a strange object, you walk around it. When you look on a beautiful face, you survey it in passes from eye to eye. The first thing an artist learns is not to stare. The first thing a thinker must learn is how to be distracted.


I hate to quote. This is twice perverse. It perverse because I admire writing heavy in quotations; and it is perverse because quotations are basic to the essay as a form. The essayists of the age of gold (imperial gold, flowing and counted) were fluent in quotation. Montaigne quoted so widely from Plutarch and Seneca that they are regarded as the essay’s classical models as much for the force of Montaigne’s evident admiration as for the content of their works. Bacon, second essayist, in his first essay, of Death, quotes – no, misquotes – Montaigne. The essayists of the age of silver (mirror silver, clear and perspicuous) nucleated their untitled essays around classical quotations. The essayists of the age of iron (plate iron, driving and bearing) often simply titled their essays with quotations, reserving the climax of the essay to return to it in closing. The essayists of our age of lead (quiet lead, soldering microcosmic circuits) generally admit rhetorical effects into their essays only in the form of choice quotations. But when I quote, I feel like a parasite.

Sometimes quotation is necessary. Sometimes I owe a train of thought to a quotation, and the source must be acknowledged. Sometimes a quote embodies a thought so perfectly that any paraphrase would be a diminution. And sometimes borrowing a quote that has famously been used before, suggests a connection without having to dilute an essay with an explicit reference.

Nonfiction begins in quotation – quotation is not just a mechanism peculiar to nonfiction, but the very means by which nonfiction split from fiction, the means by which what can be written about has become more and more. The pre-Socratics, quoting Homer, show that they are doing something different than Homer. Socrates and Plato quote Homer and the pre-Socratics; Aristotle quotes Homer, the pre-Socratics, Socrates, and Plato; Zeno quotes Homer and the pre-Socratics and Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. Each new regress of quotation, turning background into foreground, expands what can be written about by an order of magnitude. And so we are arrived.

Still, for every good quotation can do, I perceive an equal bad. Literature can be concatenated from quotations – see Burton, Eliot – but if concatenating quotations were enough to make literature, theses would be worth reading. Quotations compress impossibly long arguments; quotations hide chasms with too convenient bridges. Quotations let a piece of writing claim a place in a tradition; quotations shroud child thoughts in adult costumes. Quotations prevent duplication of work, save the time lost in saying what has already been said; quotations lose integrity. Quotations index large thoughts and subtle experiences, name them when they have no names; quotations substitute naming for understanding. Quotations, for the author, let reading propel writing to the benefit of both; quotations, for the author, restrict reading to what can be quoted without embarrassment, or conceal the real sources of thoughts with quotable ones.

The worst literary offense of quotation is the same as its scholarly benefit: it corroborates and exemplifies. “See! Someone else thought as I do. Someone else has felt as I do.” Very good. You bring proofs with your argument. But let me ask: are you sure that all these proofs don’t make your argument weaker? An abstract argument, if it is precise and clear, can always be tested. Too many examples make an argument weaker, not stronger; every example suggests a line of refutation. Logically, refuting the examples should not affect the argument; rhetorically, it is fatal. If your quotation is not representative, if it does not mean exactly what you think it means, if the attribution is false, if it comes from a source that has fallen into disfavor, your argument will go unheard.

I write less to develop new thoughts than to clear out old ones. Most writers read to write; I write to read. Before I can start new trains of thought I need the old ones off the tracks. A few months ago I called writing “trephination”; I meant it. I write for the same reason people have holes drilled in their heads: to let off pressure, to drain superfluity. The image is extreme but then I find writing an extreme habit: intense, nerving-wracking, time-consuming, consuming – yet not only worthwhile but necessary, devoutly necessary. Somewhere in the labyrinth that perplexed me into becoming a writer I lost the connection between writing and quotation; or in my indirect approach I never made it. Either way, I do not regret the lack.