Must Writers Know the Names of Trees?

Here's a scene from Isaac Babel's story “Awakening,” featuring a childhood encounter with an “Odessa News” proofreader --

“He pointed with his stick, at a tree with a reddish trunk and a low crown.
'What's that tree?'
I didn't know.
'What's growing on that bush?'
I didn't know this either. We walked together across the little square on the Alexandrovsky Prospect. The old man kept pointing his stick at trees; he would seize me by the shoulder when a bird flew past, and he made me listen to the various kinds of singing.
'What bird is that singing?'
I knew none of the answers. The names of trees and birds, their division into species, where birds fly away to, on which side the sun rises, when the dew falls thickest – all these things were unknown to me.
'And you dare to write! A man who doesn't live in nature, as a stone does or an animal, will never in all his life write two worthwhile lines. Your landscapes are like descriptions of stage props...'”

There's a story that Nabokov put a student at Cornell through a similar hazing ritual, telling him “You'll never be a writer,” because he couldn't identify a nearby tree. Sam Pickering says, “If you’re standing in front of a classroom trying to explain the meaning of life, and you don’t know the names of the trees in your backyard, you’re a fraud.”

Gene Wolfe put me on the spot in similar fashion at a kaffeeklatch at the 1997 San Antonio WorldCon. I'd already mentioned that I was born near Portsmouth, England, and that I lived near San Francisco, California. Wolfe asked me in a rather sly tone, “Are there more seagulls in Portsmouth or in San Francisco?” He went on to make the generalization that someone who couldn't sail a boat, couldn't ride a horse, and had never been shot at, couldn't possibly be a writer.

Nature and warfare – things a Cossack knows about that a Jew traditionally doesn't. Which is part of why Babel felt compelled to ride with Cossacks.

For the record, I still haven't a clue what the answer to the seagull question is.

2 thoughts on “Must Writers Know the Names of Trees?”

  1. when I used the word "the roach" that wikipedia suggests for a common european fish in a story i read a couple of months ago at the San Francisco Writer's Workshop, no matter how many times I qualified "the roach" as a fish in my story, everyone still thought my characters were using roaches as bait :))

  2. “Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces.” — from Virginia Woolf's Orlando.

    This is a pervasive theme in Orlando. Here's what Woolf writes about the character Nick Greene —

    “That he did not know a geranium from a carnation, an oak from a birch tree, a mastiff from a greyhound, a teg from a ewe, wheat from barley, ploughland from fallow; was ignorant of the rotation of the crops; thought oranges grew under ground and turnips on trees; preferred any townscape to any landscape – all this and much more amazed Orlando, who had never met anybody of his kind before.”

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top