Author sees poetry and prose through the trees

Planting Seeds
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 10, 2011

The plan was simple, if nerdy: New York novelist and English teacher Richard Horan would visit the historic sites and childhood homes of famous authors (along with some notable historical and cultural figures). He'd snag seeds from the local trees, bring 'em home, grow saplings, and distribute those — along with "an artsy-fartsy card describing each species' name, its history, and how it was connected to the person or place" — as presents to other nerdy folks. But when a "publishing friend" heard about Horan's self-described "cockamamie scheme," that friend told Horan that the idea had the potential to grow much bigger. "You're going to write a book," the friend declared.

And so Horan set out to find the trees that Herman Melville gazed upon while conjuring whales, that inspired gothic horror writer Shirley Jackson, that shaded Ken Kesey's psychedelic musings, that towered next to the Southern homes of Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, and William S. Burroughs. The result is Seeds: One Man's Serendipitous Journey to find the Trees that Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton (Harper Perennial), a literary travelogue exploring the environs that inspired hundreds of works of American fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

At Arrowhead Farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where Melville wrote Moby Dick, Horan sees "three giant white pines, all in a row and equidistant, [standing] to leeward of the house like the towering masts of a great schooner sunk in an earthly grave."

In Montgomery, Alabama, he "envisioned [F. Scott] Fitzgerald taking a break from writing Tender is the Night, walking over to the back window, and because of the tree's propinquity, following the soaring bole up, up, up with his eyes, from base to canopy, and lingering there in the spangled green cloud of foliage, with the silken azure vault peeking through from the beyond, until eventually . . . the swell of divine afflatus flooded his senses, compelling him back to his desk to write . . . the story of his tragic downward spiral."

At Rachel Carson's childhood home in Springdale, Pennsylvania, Horan is disappointed to find that just one acre of old-growth trees is "all that was left of Carson's childhood woods. It made me sad to think that this was all that our exalted nation could preserve of such a meritorious life's work. The trees themselves were surprisingly misshapen and in ill health."

In New England, he visits the homes of Willa Cather (Jaffrey, New Hampshire), Robert Frost (Derry and Franconia Notch, New Hampshire), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (Concord, Massachusetts), among others. He collects seeds and pinecones from white spruce, sugar maple, apple, red oak, and Eastern red cedar trees. (Curiously, while in Concord, Horan didn't stop down the road at the Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote and set Little Women.) In many cases, Horan himself isn't even sure whether or not a certain tree was around during the writer's days. But the brief, atmospheric histories that he provides of each author and location, combined with his own nature writing, are enough to pique the reader's interest in both person and place.

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