Wander: Natascha McElhone Reads Hermann Hesse’s 100-Year-Old Love Letter to Trees in a Virtual Mental Health Walk Through Kew Gardens
In the final years of his life, the great neurologist Oliver Sacks reflected on the physiological and psychological healing power of nature, observing that in forty years of medical practice, he had found only two types of non-pharmaceutical therapy helpful to his patients: music and gardens. It was in a garden, too, that Virginia Woolf, bedeviled by lifelong mental illness, found the consciousness-electrifying epiphany that enabled her to make some of humanity’s most transcendent art despite her private suffering.
When my dear friend Natascha McElhone (who narrated Figuring) was asked to choose a piece of literature with which to narrate a tour of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for an episode of Wander — a lovely series by filmmaker Beau Kerouac, benefiting Britain’s Mental Health Foundation and helping quarantined people virtually visit some of the world’s most beloved parks and cultural institutions, accompanied by some of the world’s most beloved literary and artistic voices — Natascha chose a wondrous 100-year-old love letter to trees by Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962), which she had saved from Brain Pickings nearly a decade ago. Originally published in Hesse’s 1920 collection of fragments, Wandering: Notes and Sketches (public library), it comes newly alive in this transportive, transcendent journey through the screen and past it, into a lush wonderland of nature’s aliveness, with two uncommonly beautiful voices as the sherpas.
For a lyrical kindred-spirited counterpart, visit one of Earth’s greatest forests with Pablo Neruda and astronaut Leland Melvin, then savor Amanda Palmer’s reading of Mary Oliver’s spare and splendid poem “When I Am Among the Trees” and this cinematic love letter to the wilderness, inspired by the great naturalist John Muir, who saw the universe as “an infinite storm of beauty.”
Love Beyond Label: Lisel Mueller’s Tender Poem About the Lush, Unclassifiable Bond Between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann
Among the handful of things I have learned about life with the calm, quiet clarity of elemental knowing is one that bears repeating: The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos — but it is also a limiting one: In naming things, we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the richness of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them. Emily Dickinson knew this intimately — the extraordinary lifelong love she shared with Susan prompted her, after decades, to exult in verse: “Title divine — is mine! The Wife — without the Sign!”
Such loves — oceanic loves, vast and deep and wholly unfathomable to any shoreline observer — are luminous private miracles undimmed by the tattling irrelevance of the public. Among those loves was that between the composer Johannes Brahms (May 7, 1833–April 3, 1897) and the virtuosic pianist Clara Schumann (September 13, 1819–May 20, 1896).
Clara and Johannes first crossed orbits in 1853, when her beloved husband — the celebrated composer Robert Schumann — encountered in the twenty-year-old Brahms a talent so uncommon and promising that he immediately set about bringing the music world’s awed attention to it, writing impassioned letters to all the leading journals and auguring the young musician’s future fame.
Brahms was intensely grateful for the famed composer’s faith. But before the mentorship could fully blossom, Schumann’s already precarious mental health plummeted. Only four months after meeting Brahms, he attempted suicide by leaping into the Rhine from a bridge. He was rescued, but never recovered — he spent the remaining two years of his life in a private psychiatric institution, savaged by hallucinations and psychoses. Clara was left to raise their seven children alone. In an era when only the rarest women had artistic careers, or any careers at all, she leaned on her musical talent, performing and touring tirelessly to feed her children and secure them an education.
It was in that period of disorientation and bereavement that Clara came to correspond with Johannes directly — at first perhaps as an extension of her husband, who had seen much of himself in his young protégé, then as something… else, something sweeping and unclassifiable, beyond the reach of our bystander imaginations — a something that, over the lifetime of tender letters that followed, became an everything. “I would gladly write to you only by means of music,” Johannes would soon be telling Clara, “but I have things to say to you to-day which music could not express.” Even music — their common language, the language capable of expressing breadths and vicissitudes of emotion no words can express — was too small to hold the universe between them.
That private vastness is what Lisel Mueller (February 8, 1924–February 21, 2020) captures with stunning elegance and generosity in her poem “Romantics,” found in her altogether indispensable collected poems, Alive Together (public library).
Overhear a little — ever so little, but ever so beautiful — in these tender excerpts from Clara and Johannes’s surviving letters, then pair them with a lovely picture-book about love beyond label. For more of Mueller’s penetrating insight into the lives of the heart and the mind, savor her poems about how our frames of reference limit us and what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives.
“What is it then between us? What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?” asked Walt Whitman in his iconic ode to the unstoppable succession of being as he contemplated the generations who, long after he has returned his borrowed atoms to the universe, would walk the same streets and traverse the same waters and burn with the same human passions. Half a century down this generational river, Rilke insisted that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.” But even if, long after Whitman and Rilke have gone, the physicists have come to agree with the poets that our mortality is the wellspring of our existential vitality, it remains — and perhaps it shall always remain — a towering triumph for the human animal to view its own existence from this placid cosmic vantage point. To grow up is to learn to manufacture “antidotes to fear of death” — in marriages and mortgages, in products and possessions, in the various illusions of stability and permanence that allow us to go on averting our gaze from our finitude, from the fact that we too will one day be washed into the impartial waters of time.
This, perhaps, is why the not-yet-grown are the rare few in possession of an imagination spacious and porous enough to see the cycle of existence and non-existence as the basic mechanism of life, to see its beauty as that Rilkean portal to presence and love.
That is what Chilean illustrator Paloma Valdivia celebrates with great soulfulness and sensitivity in And So It Goes (public library), translated into English by Susan Ouriou — a lovely addition to these uncommonly wonderful children’s books about making sense of death.
Reading more like a poem than a story, and feeling very much like one, this lyrical meditation paints life as a wonderland of possibility, to be visited and relished, all the more intensely for the knowledge that we are only temporary visitors.
Reminiscent of Jane Hirshfield’s spare and sublime poem “Jasmine,” the opening line is a subtle, tender reminder that we are but links in the chain of being, preceded by other links and, by inference, to be succeeded by others still: “Some have already left,” Valdivia writes, gently listing “the neighbor’s cat, Aunt Margarita,” and “the fish in yesterday’s soup” among the departed. “Others will arrive,” she adds. “Some were longed for, others come out of the blue.”
As vignettes of loss and life unfold across the pages, grief and delight take turns — a see-saw, a syncopation — and from that clam rhythm emerges the naturalness, even the loveliness of the cycle.
We are reminded, too, of how little we know, and how even littler we control — but even the passengers on Valdivia’s existential boat of uncertainty have curious, contented smiles as they bob on the ocean of life.
What arises from these illustrated verses, more than the sense that we are born of a mystery and die into a mystery, is the wondrous awareness that we live a mystery — that the true wonder is the interlude between the two, the visitation, the mirthful miraculousness of existing at all.
Complement And So It Goes with Carson Ellis’s lyrical illustrated meditation on the eternal equilibrium of growth and decay and a subtle Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life, then pair it with a grownup counterpart in Carl Sagan’s wisdom on how to live with mystery.