I turned off my radio because I noticed the tips of the trees were already bare in many places. All across their tops the sunlight was catching them in a way that softened them like the bristles of a baby’s hairbrush, except wavier and stretched wide as the land–an earthwide undulation of soft, orange-pink bristles. And I turned the radio off because I wanted to listen to the trees, which is another way of saying I wanted to listen to nothing, because nature doesn’t talk to us: a leaf falls, and we call it an omen. We pick it up; turn it in our hands; roll our mind over its veins and across its papery flesh behind a dry fingertip, searching and searching for meaning, and when the meaning doesn’t come we create it: this is the sacred work of the artist. And aren’t those bristles lovely.
As an idealistic undergraduate student, some twenty years ago, I held capital-r Romantic ideas about nature. I identified with William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson and their spiritual, transcendental writings; I took walks in the woods, believing humankind to have some kind of symbiotic relationship with the earth. Stopping short of worshiping nature, it nevertheless seemed that there was something spiritual at the back of it. There was something that my soul needed, embodied in the dusk: orange light sifted through bare branches; mystery descending in the cool air; the way that near-darkness teases the eyes. Dusk was (and is) the most magical time.
I still feel those sensations, but now something else has settled into my bones, a feeling unshakable: nature does not need us. Nature accommodates us, but she doesn’t need us. If a plague rubbed us all out of existence, she would go on. In other words, nature is indifferent to us. Sure, certain plants benefit from our care; certain animal populations thrive because of conservation efforts. But on the whole, nature was fine before we got here and she’ll be fine when we’re gone.* And haven’t I always suspected this? Haven’t I always known that this affection only traveled one way?
Yet I won’t end on that dreary note. A greater realization has replaced that earlier longing. Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Architecture is the triumph of human imagination over materials, methods, and men to put man into possession of his own earth.” If you substitute the word ‘art’ for ‘architecture,’ then you’ll begin to get what I’m driving at. Taking ownership, i.e., creating order, i.e., creating meaning, or what Wright calls “the triumph of the imagination,” is a way that we humans excel. (We also excel at creating chaos, but that is not what this post is about.)
The way that this ties to nature lies in the way we look at nature. It’s the very thing that I didn’t realize I was doing as an undergrad: I was seeing in nature what I needed to see. In a world that can be hostile to the imagination, and that values efficiency,productivity, and economy over art, I needed mystery and beauty. And I still do. Nature, with all her forms and textures and colors–her caprices, excesses, and austerity–is the perfect canvas on which to project these needs.
The sun sets on the Belcourt. Three arched awnings slant-shade the ticket window. I sit inside what has always been my ideal coffee shop, Fido, and watch interesting people walk up and down the bricked path alongside 21st Avenue. In this neighborhood, Hillsboro Village, dusk embodies one of the best things about Nashville: an independent, artistic spirit that flies beyond the city’s rhinestoned and cornponed stereotypes. It’s never been about country music for me. Even when I gave it what I felt was a fair shot, it never quite fit. Too much of rock’s rebel fire flows in these veins. As a teenager, I was told that, one day, I would like country music. Perhaps that’s a foregone conclusion for some in my hometown in rural west Tennessee. But here I am, pushing thirty-nine, and I would take a fuzzed out, power-chord burst of disjointed indie rock any day.
This piece is not about music, however. Rock writing is excessive enough without my stubborn opinions. No, it’s about saying goodbye to the city I’ve called home since my mid-twenties. Goodbye to my coming-of-age, where I learned about the onstage rush that follows a good crowd response at a gig, only to feel the emptiness of realizing that most people have never heard of me or our band. It’s where I learned how to endure personal hardship, and about the value of friends and family. (Wow, this is beginning to sound a little too much like a country song.) Nashville is where I learned that the world is big in a way that statistics and demographics cannot teach. It’s where I learned that people are generally good, or at least good-hearted, barring the selfishness that afflicts us all. And here comes the cliche: it’s where I figured out who I am. I know it sounds sentimental, but there’s no better way to put it. When you find yourself alone in a city that is sixty times larger than the town in which you grew up, you tend to learn some hard lessons. You really learn them. Internalize them, move forward from them, grow with them. Nashville symbolizes all of this.
It’s true that we’re not moving very far–the opposite end of an adjacent county–but we are, in fact, moving. For the first time in a really long time, I will not have Davidson County tags on my license plate. A trip downtown will require a bit more planning. I will miss the easy access to places like Fido and the Red Door, or to the rock clubs on Elliston Place, or Centennial Park in the fall, when the TACA craft fair sets up its rows of tents. It’s not that I’ve been going to these places of late, but I’ve grown accustomed to knowing that they are there. That they are part of the city I’ve proudly called home for so many tumultuous and glorious years.
Anyway, a new chapter begins, and I’m actually warming to the notion of a quieter existence in a smaller setting, my growing family around me. Chances are, however, that when someone from another part of the country asks where I’m from, I’ll say Nashville. It’s close enough, right?
Rewind. Earlier I said that dusk embodies this so-called independent, artistic spirit, but I did not explain how. It’s not complicated. Dusk is magic, wherever you are–city, ocean, mountains, woods. Dusk is when, thirteen years ago, I recognized the genie-soul* of Hillsboro Village, and that essence extended to include all of Nashville in some way or other. I felt it then as I feel it now, watching the sun disappear behind Sam’s Sports Bar and Grill.
*”Genie-soul” is a Walker Percy-ism. He uses the term to indicate the general feeling of a place: “every place has [it] or else is not a place.” You really should read The Moviegoer.