“Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers”
By Richard Horan;
Harper Perennial, $14.99; 384 pages
Gina Webb / For the AJC
The inspiration for Richard Horan’s “Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers” took root in 2001 with a “cockamamie scheme” to travel across the country gathering seeds from the trees of well-known figures who had influenced his life or the course of American history.
His original plan was to start a tree farm with saplings he’d raise from the seeds. A publishing friend advised him, instead, to write a book.
The result is a delightfully rebellious and enlightening account of his pilgrimages to the former homes and estates of “great Americans, ” most of them writers and many of them Southern, as well his visits to Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg and Appomattox.
Beginning with the Wizard of Oz Memorial Oak Grove in New York, the journey loops from East Coast to west, New England to Mississippi, encompassing Herman Melville, Thomas Wolfe, Willa Cather, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Jefferson, John Muir, Rachel Carson and dozens more.
An English teacher originally from Darien, Conn., Horan is a wayward, inspired, and faintly belligerent travel companion whose personality takes over the stories he tells. The first thing we learn is that when it comes to guided tours, historical houses, and museums, he has zero patience.
It wears out in the book’s opening pages, during a visit to Abraham Lincoln’s “saltbox colonial” in Springfield, Ill. — just one of dozens of “creaking, drafty, sagging, smelly, and dingy” home-sweet-homes Horan will escape at the first opportunity.
Outside, he discovers an “ancient basswood tree” that strikes him as more historically alive than any musty, roped-off room. Lincoln “surely … must have dreamed under that tree, ” Horan decides, “dreamed of a better life for his family, for his fellow citizens, black and white.”
An hour later, he conveniently misses a tour of Mark Twain’s house in order to wander on his own through nearby Cardiff Park, “that illustrious playground of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.” By the time he blows off the Safari Room at Graceland in favor of collecting seeds that resemble “tiny Elvis capes, ” from the front lawn, it’s official: Horan’s not a joiner. He marches to the beat of a different drummer — mostly outdoors.
It’s a good thing, too, because while some might consult maps and schedules for viewing and visiting historic sites, Horan gives new meaning to the word “serendipitous.” Arriving on the wrong day or during the wrong season, he spends much of his journey peering through dusty windows and assessing the consequences of ignoring another padlocked gate.
Fortunately, “Closed Until Memorial Day” postings never intimidate Horan, who sneaks past “Keep Out” warnings, and ignores “Private Property” signs. “Trees, ” he reminds us, “are always open for business.”
Add in his talent for getting lost — a trip to Pearl Buck’s house, an “easy fifteen-minute ride from his hotel, ” turns into “a teeth-gnashing adventure of missed turns and misunderstood directions”— and it’s a wonder he finds the properties at all.
A natural raconteur, Horan couldn’t be less like the learned, “droning docents” he skewers in almost every chapter. After all, it’s hard to imagine a tour guide at Tennessee Williams’ childhood home admitting he’s “not a huge Tennessee Williams fan, ” or, at William Burroughs’ cottage in New Orleans, confessing he’s never read “Naked Lunch” (and plans to keep it that way).
But for all his anti-establishment behavior — who else could end up in a stand-off with local police at Helen Keller’s beloved “Ivy Green”? — Horan is endearingly nutty, a walking encyclopedia of literary trivia and history who wears his heart on his sleeve for all his heroes, from Muhammad Ali to Jack Kerouac, Esther Forbes to Carson McCullers.
With a few exceptions, Horan is only guessing at these writers’ relationships with the trees that “witnessed” their daily lives, yet his enthusiasm for the ancient sycamores, redwoods, oaks and maples is infectious, as are his fantasies about all they’ve witnessed in their long lives.
And if a childhood home or historic landmark has disappeared or none of its original trees has survived, Horan eagerly fills in the blanks. The “exotic little cultivar” in front of Henry Miller’s house in the Pacific Palisades is too young to have witnessed Miller’s greatness? No problem: The “gnarly old locust” a half block away is not.
“I felt a pang of certainty pulse through my veins, ” he writes, “that Henry Miller passed by this tree daily, breathed in its seasonal aromas, and admired it for all his charms.”
Same with the “soaring black oak”— not in Eudora Welty’s yard, but her neighbor’s. “This wondrous beast, ” Horan is sure, “had observed Miss Welty every day of her life, digging, pruning, and smelling her roses.”
The truth is, too much reality takes the wind out of this Don Quixote’s literary sails. Ride with Horan and you’re bound for adventure, maybe a brush or two with the law, and a whole lot of unexpected and fascinating detours.