The canyon of the Snake River, lying ten miles to the south, is a thousand feet lower in elevation than my house. The south-facing slopes above the Snake are the nearest reach where I expect to find the earliest spring. Yesterday, I went to look for flowers. The hillside where I walked has been reclaimed from the orchards and farms of a hundred years ago. There are native species on the slope where I walked, but the vegetation is more weedy-thicket than natural community. The slopes were covered by the dried ochre stalks of last year’s fruits. The ground, however, also had fresh green. New leaves, most tender and still slim, still lying against the moist soil, colored the ground. I could smell anise as I walked. It’s the fragrance of lomatiums—biscuit roots and desert parsleys—that are common in this region. There are several species of Lomatium in the dry, inland Northwest, and they are found in various communities. On these slopes, I knew that Lomatium gormanii—Gorman’s desert parsley—would be among the earliest plants to flower. Its stems are below ground; they are spherical tubers, nutrient stores for making leaves and new flowers the year ahead to expand early; its flowers are ready at the tail of winter before the thicket of grasses comes up and the season dries. I turned from the wind and its fragrances to kneel among the new green leaves. I found the flowers. Gorman’s desert parsley has clusters of flowers, now narrower than dimes, colored like little clumps of pepper. The flowers still had petals curled-in, not yet open, but some had a few stamens out. Dark anthers had split to show spots of white pollen as the stamens shimmied in the wind. They wait for pollinators. Spring of a sort has begun. As I drove home, it began to snow.
I first read Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1984. I had picked-up a paperback copy in Iowa during a Christmas break when I was in graduate school, and I read the novella while I hunkered over the heating vent in my bedroom. Reading the novella that first time made me think about writing as a way of understanding beauty. Of course, the book isn’t about beauty, it’s more about fear, especially of cages, and a will to live freely.
I reread the novella yesterday, which was our warmest day of the declining winter. I lay on my couch in the sun as I read. The paperback has narrow margins, requiring considerable movement of my big hands as I read each page.
One of my favorite parts of the novella occurs after Holly’s older husband Doc has come to New York to fetch her back to Texas. Holly, twice a runaway in Texas and a teenage bride to Doc, had escaped the cage of Doc’s love and domesticity for a more feral lifestyle. Here’s Holly’s soliloquy to Mr. Bell, who owns a bar down the block from her apartment:
“Never love a wild thing, Mr. Bell,” Holly advised him. “That was Doc’s mistake. He was always lugging home wild things. A hawk with a hurt wing. One time it was a full-grown bobcat with a broken leg. But you can’t give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do the stronger they get. Until they’re strong enough to run into the woods. Or fly into a tree. Then a taller tree. Then the sky. That’s how you’ll end up, Mr. Bell. If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky.”
Rereading Breakfast at Tiffany’s made me think of Nietzsche. Holly Golightly and Friedrich Nietzsche were much the same—both looking for a Dionysian world, both escapists at odds with social norms.
While I was wandering in the desert a year ago I was thinking about Nietzsche’s insanity and wondering how it was related to his isolation and self-transformation into a god. Holly Golightly was neither insane nor isolated, but she and Nietzsche were both self-transformers. As I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I thought about Holly Golightly and Friedrich Nietzsche walking hand-in-hand, stopping in front of Tiffany’s—you can imagine Nietzsche standing behind her, hunched to look over her shoulder, his hands clasped behind his back, as she looks through her dark glasses through the store’s window. Nietzsche would surely have been carrying his red umbrella.
Holly Golightly’s soliloquy reminded me of this haiku-like sentence from Lesley Chamberlain’s Nietzsche in Turin: “Rain or shine, Nietzsche never went out without a red umbrella to shield his afflicted eyes from the light.”
Nietzsche, with his sensitive eyes, and feral Holly refused the light of the sky. Both Holly and Nietzsche go lightly beyond the constraints of social cages, lightly through the effects of their poses, but neither accepts light—Holly wears always dark glasses and Nietzsche has his umbrella.
I wonder about Nietzsche and Holly’s apprehensions. I wonder whether escapable cages and tilting our umbrellas to shade our afflictions may be essential to achieve a kind of personal poetry. I wonder also whether those acts of personal poetry, rather than either isolation or insanity, are the keys to understanding Nietzsche’s transformation to a god.
* * * Notes:
The quotation from Lesley Chamberlain’s (1996, Picador) Nietzsche in Turin is from p. 130.
The quotation from Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) is from p. 59 of the Signet reprint.
The wind again. It tosses a birch in the dark, dusk really, just enough to gray the bark, just dark enough to give the wind ominous edges, snake-like drafts. The ultimate branches of the birch are lax, weighted lightly by new catkins, hanging like hair. The birch tosses it head in the wind, flinging branches. They sway back. Around. Whipped in the wind. Medusa, I think. But not the birch, Medusa is the wind.