by David Gessner
First, the headlines:
- On November 2, a pileated woodpecker lets loose its rattling cry in my backyard and a clapper rail, as if engaged in call and response, reacts with an equally loud cry out in the marsh.
- On November 3, we have a presidential election, and for the second time in my memory a victor is not declared that night.
- On November 4, I buy two hundred-foot orange extension cords so that I can use a space heater in my writing shack this coming winter. This will be the introduction of electricity to the shack.
- On November 6, Joe Biden overtakes Donald Trump in the key state of Pennsylvania, a state that, if he wins, will also gain him the electoral college. I learn this while walking on the beach.
- Minutes later I see my first loon of the year in the waters off Wrightsville and record it in my journal. I also write my graduate class with the loon news and send along a picture.
- On Saturday, November 7, all of the major television networks declare Joe Biden the president of the United States. That evening, when I head out to take a celebratory walk on the beach, I find a six-pack of Hoppyum IPA on my doorstep. With it is a note from my neighbor Tony, who voted for Trump and with whom I had, a few days before, engaged in a spirited—to put it gently—debate across the fence that separates our yards. The note reads:
To the Victor go the spoils—
We on the other side of the Great Divide salute you for a battle well fought.
- Later on the seventh I awake anxious in the middle of the night with the word grebe in my head. I am thinking about that loon and wondering if I have seen a horned grebe instead. It is a split decision, but after some fretting I land back on loon. When I awake the next morning and walk outside, I note an enormous aureole around the half-moon.
- On November 9, it is announced that there is a COVID vaccine that is ninety percent effective.
- Later on the ninth, while I drink the beer Tony gave me, a kingfisher spends the evening on a branch jutting off the osprey platform I built. Three times it flies a lap of the yard while letting loose its ratchety cry.
- The next day, November 10, marks the 122nd anniversary of another contested election week, the beginning of the coup d’état in my adopted hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, a day when anywhere from sixty to two hundred African American citizens were murdered and thousands exiled, and the formerly majority Black town became majority white.
- On November 11, a red fox runs across the road on my way out to the beach. Once there I see the year’s first northern gannet. Likely having just migrated down from Newfoundland, it is dark, an immature, and does not seem to have the whole diving thing figured out. An amazing fact about young gannets is that they begin their migration by diving off the steep rocks where they were born and swimming south, having not fully fledged.
- On November 12, nine days after the election, all the state results are in and it is clear that Joe Biden is the president-elect, having won the electoral college as well as the popular vote by almost seven million votes.
- That same day, I see my first two mature northern gannets, blazing white with wingtips that seem to have been dipped in India ink. These two thin and angular birds plunge down into the surf and tunnel after fish.
- On November 13, ten days after the election, I bring a few members of my class out to a pier where we see more gannets, ospreys, and a dolphin or two. The sitting president refuses to concede.
- Later that morning, I walk the boggy fringe of Carolina State Beach Park with a ranger who points out a Venus flytrap, which is, unlike me, endemic to Wilmington.
Speaking of grebes, here is what Thoreau wrote in his own reporter’s notebook on November 17, 1859, a month after John Brown led the slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry:
have been so absorbed of late in Captain Brown’s fate as to be surprised whenever I detected the old routine running still—met persons going about their affairs indifferent. It appeared strange to me that the grebe should still be diving in the river as of yore; and this suggested that this bird might be diving here when Concord shall be no more. Any affecting human event may blind our eyes to natural objects.
This just in:
- On November 18, fifteen days after the election, the president, based on nothing, tweets “I win Pennsylvania!”
- On November 19, I invite my grad students over to my home to sit in a large socially distanced circle around the fire. While I am giving a few of them a tour of the shack, the others discover a gift left on the shack’s front deck. A headless water rat that apparently has been dropped from above by a scared-off raptor. They examine it without too much trepidation. I am a proud teacher.
“Yet, for my part, I was never usually squeamish,” Thoreau wrote. “I could sometimes eat a fried rat with a good relish, if it were necessary.”
We, however, decide it is not necessary, and choose not to roast the rat over the blazing fire.
I’ve noticed that during the pandemic Thoreau’s hair style has come back into vogue—men looking vaguely Amish and wearing beards.
We live more like novelists now: focused more on our internal imaginative worlds, our homebound obsessions. We are lucky if those obsessions merit being obsessed over.
It was odd that I spent January and February 2020 working obsessively on rebuilding my writing shack, as if readying for sheltering in place. The shack had been fatally wounded during Hurricane Florence two years before and then collapsed in a great heap six months later. Mine was the work of resurrection. In the evening I would read in the half-built shack, and one thing I read was Laura Dassow Walls’s biography of Thoreau. Looking back, it was as if I were cheating, as if I had been given the answers to a test everyone was soon going to have to take.
In the nine months since I have, in the spirit of Thoreau, focused most of my writing attention on a journal of this year, writing directly on the heels of experience. The only break I took was in early summer, to work on a novel. The novel has a past-tense thread that involves the massacre in Wilmington in 1898 and a present-tense thread that takes place at a college that is a parody of the place where I teach. Since the novel is a strange mix of historic drama and contemporary academic satire, so was my reading for it.
Reading for a novel is akin to shoveling coal into a train engine, and I devour every book about the Wilmington coup. I also read the brilliant This is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill, which makes a complicated, human story out of our need to cancel people and brought nuance to an issue I felt was now beyond nuance. Then there was Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, a searing and very funny parody of academia that exactly echoed the language I heard in the meetings I was forced to attend as our department chair. Once those meetings started going online in March, they became, if possible, even more dreary. At one point I copied down something a dean had said that would have fit well in Schumacher’s book: “Yes, and we have to embed metrics and criteria that we can enact and make visible to external stakeholders and community.”
Anyone who has written novel-length fiction knows you sometimes end up playing the prophet. Back in my twenties, I wrote about my father’s early death and my brother’s mental breakdown long before those things happened. The present-tense thread of my novel involved the pulling down of our town’s Confederate monuments, scandal at the school where I taught, protest marches through the downtown streets, racist cops and bloggers. I am not foolish enough to think I wrote any of these events into existence. But it sure was strange when, one by one, each of these things started to happen over the next two months.
Particularly when the man one of my main characters was based on, a blogger and professor, became the focus of the national spotlight for his racist tweets and was forced into retirement. In my book the man had gotten his just deserts and ended up in jail. In real life, just days after I finished my first draft, he would commit suicide.
So when my seventeen-year-old daughter, Hadley, and I attended our first Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Wilmington back in June, I was extremely anxious for her safety. This was not just due to a man lurking nearby shouting obscenities at the high school protesters. It was also because in the novel I was working on a young girl is shot during a protest march, and since so much else I had written about in the novel had come true, I worried, irrationally, that this made her less safe.
I ended up putting the novel aside. The world and its daily news were just too interesting. This journal is my book of the year. It is strange, but also strangely natural, to write events as they are happening.
I have been thinking about how to end such a book. Of course the book won’t end, not really. Even if I publish the journal, I will keep recording as November becomes December and December January. And who knows where this strange year is heading? Who knows, despite the new vaccines, when or if COVID will end?
At one point it occurred to me that a good ending would be running away from this hard world and spending a month out here in the shack. I have my new orange extension cord after all. Then I could write: “I went to the shack to live deliberately. I learned this much from my experiment, that … ”
But the truth is I have plagiarized Thoreau enough in my life, if not my words. It’s too late for me to spend a year in isolation, and I accept my middling existence caught somewhere between the woods and the world.
Let me tell you a story about how the world can intrude on the woods. I mentioned that before the pandemic struck I rebuilt the shack and read a Thoreau biography, as if I’d been snuck the answers for a test to come. What I didn’t mention is that there was another way in which I was mildly prescient: in late February I gave myself an early birthday present of a new mountain bike. It had been over twenty years since I’d bought my last one, and at first I was disappointed. On the roads it seemed somewhat clunky, unwieldy. But in the woods! In the woods it found its aluminum soul. In the woods it was a dream and suddenly I was rolling over logs like never before and riding daily from my office across the post-apocalyptic campus (where suddenly wild turkeys and coyotes were appearing) into the 150 acres of trees and paths behind our school. I kept it up all summer and fall, and this routine, along with my writing and nature excursions, helped keep me sane.
Until three weeks ago. Three weeks ago I was getting ready to go for a ride when my phone rang. It was my wife, Nina, and she was about to embark on her own daily ritual, which was a walk with our dogs through the same woods I rode through. She invited me to join her, and while I was reluctant to give up on the day’s ride, I, feeling perhaps less ornery and Thoreauvian than usual, agreed. I still got a little bike ride in by pedaling over to the spot behind the school warehouses where the road ends and the woods begin. While I waited for my wife, I locked my bike up on a post that was off to the side of the dirt road entrance.
We had a nice walk, but I had promises to keep and had to head back to the office early while she completed her daily loop. As I reached my bike, I found it odd that my helmet was on the ground and the bike was at a strange angle. I soon learned why. The water bottle cage had been destroyed and the wheel bent. And then I saw that the entire back frame was crushed and pushed against the wheel. Right away I could see it was irreparable. It was just occurring to me that it had to have been run over by a car or truck, even though it was far off to the side of the dirt road, when I heard the roar of a motor and saw a white truck tearing out of the parking lot a hundred yards away. We did it, they were saying. Fuck you.
I couldn’t make out the license plate. The campus police would end up having no luck tracking them down. Why did they do it? Unlike my old car, my bike had no remnant Hillary stickers on it. No reason, probably. Malicious fun. A way to fill the day.
I really loved that bike. Look, I know it is only a bike, and at the moment people are dying. I know it was not a big deal. But something about it happening on the edge of the woods added to my sense of feeling violated. They had destroyed not just my bike, that is, my means of escape, but the sense of freedom and being apart that I felt in that place. They did the same for Nina, who was nervous about going back the next day for her walk. And what if we are left with no places to escape to? Imagine a life like that. It wasn’t a line by Thoreau but one by Springsteen that popped into my head: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
But back to grebes.
Does it help to know that our local grebes don’t care about the election results? Is it healthy to turn away from the current equivalent of the telegraph? Or is it just avoidance? I am of two minds. As usual.
Doesn’t Thoreau’s pondering in his journal during that long-ago November (exactly 161 years to the day I started this chapter) get exactly at something we have all been experiencing? That is, the strange separation and yet constant intertwining of our private worlds and the public world? It is an almost sociopathic but on the other hand absolutely necessary ability to carry on despite everything, as if everything wasn’t threatening us. It was probably true during the plague, too. As long as people are dying in far-off India, or Nebraska, we are okay. Maybe it is something encoded in us, creatures who know that their lives will end. The art of ignoring the darkest fact.
For me it has been both the most public and private of years. A year in which I have turned to nature as never before, but with the shrill soundtrack of the TV news never far off. It is something we are all experiencing now. The intermingling of our private worlds with the public one. The intrusion into our nervous systems of the crises in our nation and our planet. Some are feeling this much more directly than others. But as the contagion creeps closer, as our bubbles are burst, the larger world colors our smaller one. We begin to feel a vulnerability. We lose the protective skin that keeps the world at bay.
Tuberculosis was the scourge of Thoreau’s time, a time when a fleck of blood in your cough could be, in Keats’s words, “a death warrant.”
For one who loved the world so much, there must have been tears, and a sense of horror, about losing it. I find it hard to believe all the stories about Thoreau’s stoicism in the face of early death, but then I am so constitutionally different that I find a lot of how Thoreau behaved hard to believe. Maybe his belief that we are part of nature and it part of us, that we are all connected, animals who are part of the larger whole, carried him through as was reported. But, oh, to be that single lonely animal aware that your end is coming. Oh, to face the forever darkness. Yesterday we passed a new landmark: that has now been the fate of a quarter of a million of our compatriots and of more than a million people worldwide.
And yet, how Thoreau loved the world. As this strange Thanksgiving approaches, I think of a passage, a love poem of sorts, that he wrote in a letter to a friend:
I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite—only a sense of existence. Well, anything for variety. I am ready to try this for the next ten thousand years, and exhaust it. How sweet to think of! my extremities well charred, and my intellectual part too, so that there is no danger of worm or rot for a long while. My breath is sweet to me. O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.
For this country it has been, to borrow the title of a book by Bernard DeVoto, a year of decision. If anyone in the future tries to describe the emotions swirling around the election of November 2020, it will be a challenge. I will not make any partisan statements here, but I will say that my Trump-supporting neighbor’s congratulatory offering of beer changed my week. Tony’s gift pulled me out of the national screen. It was the sort of civil gesture much less likely to happen in a virtual world than in a neighborhood. If we do not share politics, we share many things, including a fence. “You are a good man,” I wrote Tony back. We live in a fractured nation, that is true. I am not denying it. And yet by taking the world down to the local we can sometimes see glimmers.
It is easy to forget that Thoreau was, among other things, a good neighbor. One whom Emerson’s children adored and the other children of Concord knew as the leader of huckleberry parties, the one who taught them the names of things, the trees and plants and animals. Walden evolved from being a part of the neighborhood. Those first few pages were as clearly a call and response as the duet of my backyard woodpecker and clapper rail. They grew out of Thoreau responding to his neighbors calling down to him from the road: “What the hell are you doing out here?” His answer to that question led to a book. And that book, though the other voices have died, still answers the questions asked long ago. If you are of the mind, you can go find those answers. If you are not, you can ignore them. Try them on, but only wear them if they fit.
But for those whom the clothes, or some of the clothes, do fit, they can be a revelation. For some of us Walden is a book of secrets. For some it is a map to help navigate this ever-chaotic world.
“The News” is an excerpt from David Gessner’s book, Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight (June 2021, Torrey House Press).
Published on June 3, 2021