A few summers ago, I took a walk one evening to find a California redwood 5,600 miles from home. Sequoia sempervirens, the sign said, Latin for ever green or everlasting, which is to say such trees are both non-deciduous and among the oldest living things on Earth. Located in the Jardin des Prébendes, a few blocks from the French city center of Tours, this particular sequoia was a mere 150 years old, but had I seen it towering somewhere north along my own Pacific coast, it couldn't have been more wondrous.
When I was a girl, my father used to set me atop the postal service mailbox located around the corner from our house. Blue and red, with a cavernous mouth that swallowed envelopes into what I imagined to be an enormous steel belly, its steadfast presence signified a mysterious process of reception and delivery — the transport of words to somewhere else.
Of a related process — the carrying over of one word to another — poet and translator Forrest Gander observes a corresponding mystery:
It was a place I might have dreamed if it hadn’t been real, this building slated for demolition located in a country far from home. The former site of an art college, the structure itself no longer stands, but one June evening in the early years of the twenty-first century, it hosted a party for the ages.
Each classroom transformed into an all-night gallery, filled with art by generations of students who had learned there how to see, how to listen, how to make. Studio after studio of imagination translated into reality. Outside, on the lawn: wine, feasting, revelry. The sharing of decades of memory. If you look closely, you can see gargoyles keeping watch over the festivities.
One winter I found myself living in a strange land, in the middle of my own country, somewhere I had never been. No peaks or valleys, miles of flat covered with snow. For a brief time, I earned an income answering calls from all states, tending to a vexed populace, untangling corporate glitches through a headset device.
Inside that monolith of cubicles, patterns of speech shared a certain uniformity, an elongated o, a quickened pace. Where I was from, at least 185 languages are reported spoken, each with an attendant inflection, pitch, timbre. Homesick in my own nation, it wasn't English I missed but the multiplicity of language, even within a single one.
Some books come to us by way of friends, some by strangers, tucked into an anonymous mailer by someone we will never meet. Not so very long ago (and maybe in some places still), you might have opened a book on a library desk and seen, listed inside the back cover, the signatures of all those who opened it before. Not so very long before that (and in some places still), to open a book under any circumstances signified a remarkable convergence of birth, opportunity, and chance. In some cases, it meant you were a king. In others, it meant being on very good terms with one. In the early years of the fifteenth century, an Italian-born poet named Christine de Pizan not only opened a king's books, she made them. While the exact details remain a source of study, it's certain Christine conceived the ideas, scribed many of the letters, and engaged a brilliant illuminator named Anastasie to produce elegant manuscripts for the French royal family.
Some books come to us by way of friends, some by strangers, tucked into an anonymous mailer by someone we will never meet. Not so very long ago (and maybe in some places still), you might have opened a book on a library desk and seen, listed inside the back cover, the signatures of all those who opened it before.