by Dave Lucas
I am not a natural naturalist. Despite great dreams of wilderness, despite many DVRed episodes of Survivorman, I remain a taxpaying citizen of the indoors. Other people, I suppose, meet along the trail and trade rumors of the most challenging hikes. I Google “scenic route.” I do not bicycle, but I take byways. I compost; I do not camp.
I am, as Woody Allen said, at two with nature. There is me, and there is it, as infinite and careless as I am small and troubled about it. So the landscapes and wildlife I cultivate appear to me through my car window. I am a curator of beautiful drives: I hoard the slopes and turns of Chagrin River Road and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park like a birdwatcher collects goshawks or crossbills.
The interior of a Honda Accord, I realize, isn’t exactly Walden Pond or Tinker Creek. And though I too would like to live deliberately, to suck the marrow out of life, I prefer to get mine at Lolita, garnished with salsa verde and served with toast. The true naturalist knows her patch of ground far better than I will ever know mine. She can tell you, as Annie Dillard does, about the sweet reek of swamps or how good soil crumbles between the fingers.
I see a different world from my front seat. I get to see the macrocosm, a bit of both the forest and the trees. A wise teacher of mine once remarked that no one before the twentieth century had seen the world from the wheel of a car. So I try to focus my attention on what I can see, given my fortunate place in history: the slant light of spring and autumn, summer’s torrid blear or our grim winters. The perennial, seasonal changes of life and death that illuminate that from which we came and to which we must return.
I stop sometimes and listen, if I can, for the chorus frogs my father called “spring peepers” or for the rare, soft question of a barred owl. I remember the small miracle, once, of a coyote nosing forward from underbrush into a clearing. I remember meeting its unknowable eyes. And I swerve to avoid squirrels, of course. I root for them, especially the pups testing a safe path across an existential abyss. I want them to have a chance.
At what? I ask myself, and before I can think of a better answer, I blurt: happiness. But that’s not right. Happiness is my own idea, the elusive feeling I seek as a drive through our post-glacial geography. What I call happiness is in them, in all the rest of nature, simply being. (As if such a thing were simple.) That old sense of happiness related to haphazard: a chance. The lucky break of being born.
My father, too, was a connoisseur of scenic routes. As a child, I’d ride along with him on his errands, through the rises and falls of rural Kirtland and Chardon; I loved the thrill when he’d ease the brake pedal and let us coast down those hills. I came to know the names of those roads—Sperry, Wisner, Booth, Thwing—like coming into a new language.
I suppose when I drive these forests and fields I am also going after his ghost, a would-be naturalist playing at the supernatural, as Hamlet follows his father’s ghost into the midnight woods outside Elsinore.
I think about all this whether I see the squirrel sneak across my rearview or feel its grotesque weight beneath my wheels. My pound mongrel—my fellow domestic and my frequent companion on such drives, long since offered his own chance at a life—snaps and whines at the prospect of a kill. I notice the oak felled in this past summer’s storms, all its annual rings finally broken. And I wonder about the coyote. In the wild they live ten years, maybe more. How long ago did I see it?
To be or not to be is a question answered for all of us, eventually.
Whatever you are, you and I are headed back whence we came. Whether you believe in God, or nature, or nothing, it will have us back. What but the world around us could seem at once so indifferent to us and, somehow, to offer us its welcome. What can I do meanwhile but take the wheel, and take my chances.
Dave Lucas is the author of Weather and a recipient of the 2005 “Discovery”/The Nation Joan Leiman Jacobson Poetry Prize. He contributes book reviews to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and his poems have appeared in the Paris Review, Poetry, Slate, and the Threepenny Review. He is a doctoral student in English at the University of Michigan.