I’ve been writing (June 15 & 18) about my reactions to “Landscape and Narrative,” an essay by Barry Lopez in the collection called Vintage Lopez. In this essay, Lopez speaks of outer and inner landscapes, and of storytelling. It’s as if the satisfaction Lopez describes as stemming from hearing a good story has to do with a feeling of rightness or fit with the listener’s inner landscape.
This reminds me of the bits and snatches of his childhood that my father used to reveal. Lopez stresses that satisfying stories must be authentic, and this also reminds me of my father’s stories, some of which were authentic, some of which carried an agenda. After a while I could tell the difference.
For instance, my father was an enthusiastic gardener. All through World War II he maintained a victory garden, and we ate freshly harvested peas, beets, scallions, sweet corn, beans, peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes all summer long. Also, from early spring through late fall, my father surrounded our house with flowers: crocuses, daffodils, tulips, irises, marigolds, pansies, petunias, hollyhocks, cosmos, chrysanthemums.
The hollyhocks blossomed all summer, and their blue, red, and purple, cup-shaped blossoms were always full of bees. When I was six or seven, my father told me—with great laughter—how he and his brothers played a terrifying game. They would grab a hollyhock blossom, closing the petals over a bee, trapping it inside. As the angry buzzing increased, they would twist the petals like the top of a bag, temporarily sealing the bee trap. Then they would fling these horrifyingly dangerous bee/flower packets at each other, ensuring that at least some of the bees would escape and some of the boys would be stung. This awful boy-story felt absolutely authentic. Chills went up my spine as if I were right there, in danger, helpless. Ever after, in the landscape of my mind, the boys and their bee grenades accompanied hot sun and hollyhocks and the cicada-buzz of summer.
But later, I grew old enough to compute the ages of my father and uncles in this story my father told to horrify me. My father was the youngest of nine children. My uncles were 17, 14, 7, and 5 years older than he was. This meant that either my father only watched while the two brothers nearest in age to him played this awful game with each other. Or worse, that a 14-year-old and 12-year-old threw bee-loaded hollyhocks at a helpless little 7-year-old boy. Which definitely changed my inner landscape with respect to my father and who, exactly, was supposed to be horrified.