There’s a story, told by Alfred Appel, about a student who went to see Vladimir Nabokov when he was teaching at Cornell. Nabokov told the student to look out of the window, and then asked him, “Do you know the name of that tree?” The student said no, and Nabokov said, “Then you’ll never be a writer.”
What an asshole.
I heard another version where Nabokov is addressing a whole room full of students and asks them to name trees they passed as they were walking to class, but it’s the same story with the same conclusion that they’ll never be writers.
As a matter of fact, these days, when I look out my window I do know the names of most of the trees I can see, but when I was a student I couldn’t tell the difference between one tree and another, couldn’t tell most trees from a hole in the ground. It’s just not a young person skill. Nabokov should have known that. Perhaps he did and was just trying to be provocative.
Of course in Los Angeles these days it’s impossible to walk down the street without worrying about all the trees you see. We’re in the middle of a drought and trees are dying on us left and right, while at the same time we’re being told to use less water, especially to water our gardens, and it’s all a big quandary.
So it was a slight relief to be in Berkeley a week or so back where all the greenery looked incredibly lush and healthy. Gardens were overgrown, big old plants were growing on every street corner. This picture was taken in Berkeley, though admittedly not on my my most recent trip.
And there was an empty corner lot on Telegraph Avenue, which I’d vaguely seen before without really looking at, but as I walked past it this time it seemed to me that they must be keeping as some kind of urban wildlife reserve, leaving it for nature to take its wayward course. There were not, to be sure, any trees growing there that needed naming, but there was a lot of grass that looked tall and healthy and I could certainly recognize that there were some exuberant fennel plants growing there. It seemed a good thing. I took a couple of photographs.
And then I happened to be walking past it again 2 days later and it was all different. A crew had been in there and hacked everything back, no more long grass, no sign of fennel, every green thing had been cut down to ground level. I guess it looked neater. I am, as you probably know, not a great fan of neatness.
I’m not sure that Nabokov was either. He wrote, in Lectures on Literature, “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.” So, not really such an asshole after all.