Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Art of Travel

If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest — in all its ardour and paradoxes — than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and the struggle for survival. Yet rarely are they considered to present philosophical problems — that is, issues requiring thought beyond the practical. We are inundated with advice on where to travel to; we hear little of why and how we should go — though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia or human flourishing.

This paragraph from the first chapter of Alain de Botton’s book The Art of Travel sums up what it is about. The author likes to think about things, and especially about how to have a good life, which naturally is a concern of my own as well. His conclusions and even many of his presuppositions are different from mine, however, which makes the reading of his books into a stimulating discussion with myself as I also haltingly debate with him.

He provokes me to clarify my thoughts on matters I am already familiar with and introduces me to quite a few people I haven’t known well, in a context that helps me engage with their ideas and principles, too. Flaubert, Baudelaire, Van Gogh, and some non-French and/or lesser known personages both real and fictional such as Edward Hopper, Duc des Esseintes and Alexander von Humboldt make appearances in the pages of this book. Wordsworth gushes over the beauties of the Lake District and John Ruskin gives drawing lessons.

These people are “guides” whom de Botton brings along on his philosophical rambles, and whose travels, writings, and works of art help us to think creatively and usefully about our goings-forth. Parts of the book are given to Anticipation, the Exotic, Curiosity, Possessing Beauty, and Habit.

The fact is, this book has got me pondering and arguing on so many topics that I’m going to need several sittings at the keyboard in order to sift through the potpourri and rearrange it to my liking. In my mind and notebook I’ve been taking parts from one chapter to stick in a different place altogether, and making some new categories of my own.

There are critics at all levels who don’t appreciate de Botton’s style and objectives. For a few, it is because he tells us the obvious. That is a problem some of us have: We speak of what we are thinking about and other people say (hopefully just to themselves), “Well, duh!”

I don’t blame you at all, if you are one of these people. But I count myself among those who enjoy staring back at all of those things that are staring us in the face; we notice how this thing is connected to that one and the other, and the light is bouncing from one facet off the face of another obvious something and caroming all over the place. And we can’t help writing about it.

I get a telegram. (poem)

Just found this sunlight poem on Last American Childhood. It’s reminding me to listen and remember.


Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between “green thread”
and “broccoli,” you find
that you have penciled “sunlight.”

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,

and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing

that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder

or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue,

but today you get a telegram
from the heart in exile,
proclaiming that the kingdom

still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time
to sit out in the sun and listen.

–Tony Hoagland

They shun zinnias.

They are on all sides, the deer. If I go on the front lawn to throw the frisbee with Scout, a doe named Splotchy is waiting under the crabapple tree wondering if I am a kind human like my son-in-law and might shake down a few fruits the way he does. Her fawn looks on from a greater distance.

If I exit the back door and head off near the woodpile to shake the dirt out of a rug, two deer are startled and bound away into the forest, showing not much more than their flying hooves behind them.

Standing at the kitchen sink after breakfast or before dinner, we are likely to see out the window one to several does and fawns grazing on the lawn or standing by the garden fence, nibbling…what?

Evidently they are not nibbling at the zinnias, and I think it truly amazing. Pippin with unbelievable optimism grew these tall and lovely flowers from seed and they are still growing and blooming and decorating the yard, outside the deer fence, and not taking up space that the vegetables need.

The Four Fawns

It’s the butternut squash and the cosmos that the creatures want, so they keep checking in case a leaf grew through the fence during the previous night. If it didn’t, they can always chew some more on the lantana that they have eaten nearly to a stub.

Since I’ve been here at Pippin’s, more than once we have been surprised to see a group of four fawns, without their mothers, come out of the forest and walk straight over to the fence to snoop and sniff and nibble around. This is very unusual and makes us speculate as to what is going on at home. Do the does say, “Run along, kids, you’ll be safe at that place where the people are nice.”

Or do the mothers not know where their children are? Has there been a breakdown in deer society, so that adolescents are now roaming around in gangs? Shortly after I arrived ten days ago, The Professor came in the house to announce that he had found a different doe with her fawn on three sides of the house. But a couple of days later, this change.

What can the mothers be doing when the fawns are away in their group? Having a coffee klatch? I don’t suppose we will ever know. And as long as the fawns keep up the tradition of not eating zinnias, I won’t fret about it.