Almost every dAy during the fall that I turned forty, I walked
to a park in Buenos Aires where a C-shaped pond cradled a
large flower garden. A white, trellised Grecian bridge, looking like something that might be replicated in miniature on a
wedding cake, spanned the water, leading pedestrians into the
blooms. Paths of crushed brick meandered through the bushes
and traced the pond’s inner shoreline. More than a thousand
varieties of roses and carnations colored the garden. All was
trimmed, labeled, composed.
On weekdays I visited the park alone, but on Saturday mornings I brought my three-year-old daughter, Sofia. She liked my
company because I carried stale bread to feed the coscoroba
swans and white-winged coots. I liked her company because
she didn’t mock me when I stared at birds and trees and tried
to match them with pictures in field guides. I probably should
have sagged with shame: I was fast becoming a cliché, the Lover
of Nature, one of those guys with the boots and the new field
glasses who’d lost the ability to mask his low-grade OCD. But
Sofia didn’t judge. Maybe watching someone struggle to attach
the correct names to common objects seemed perfectly natural
to her, since she spent a lot of her time doing pretty much the
same thing. She demanded no explanations, which was convenient, because I wouldn’t have been able to come up with any.
One Saturday morning while we walked that waterside path,
my mind straying, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Something random, or so it seemed, had trespassed into this highly ordered landscape. It was a falling leaf, riding a gentle, spiraling current to the
ground, scuttling to a stop. It was yellow and freckled with brown.
The edges curled upward. It looked sort of like an elfin canoe.
A linden leaf. Tilia americana. I know this only because I
looked it up.
The linden is not an exotic tree. Maybe I’d be embarrassed to
admit I hadn’t recognized it if Henry David Thoreau, that diligent rhapsodist of falling leaves, hadn’t been mystified by the
same species while paddling the Concord River with his brother
in the late summer of 1839. At the time, he hadn’t yet become
the sage of Walden; he was still a relative dilettante in nature
who couldn’t tell the di=erence between poison sumac and poison oak. The unknown tree sent Thoreau to his reference library,
where he grounded himself in its history.
He found poetry there. The ancient Greeks believed that a linden tree had once transformed itself into Philyra, the mythological nymph who had taught humanity how to make paper. Philyra
was the goddess of writing and a goddess of beauty.
“As we sailed under this canopy of leaves,” Thoreau wrote of
his first linden, “we saw the sky through its chinks, and, as it
were, the meaning and idea of the tree stamped in a thousand
hieroglyphics on the heavens.”
What he read in that tree, I think, was a desperate plea for
attention on the part of Nature itself: See me, Henry! Listen to me!
If you learn my vocabulary, you can decode meaning on the surface
of almost anything!
My linden leaf wasn’t nearly so articulate or exclamatory.
After authenticating the species, I tossed the leaf in the water. It
landed just right, boat-wise, and drifted away from the bank for a
couple seconds. Then it caught a shifting wind and headed back
to the shore, close to Sofia. She was squatting stone still, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. She stared at a stripe of sunlight
that sparkled atop the wind-stirred ripples in the middle of the
“What is that called?” she asked. She must have watched me
pin down the name of the leaf. Maybe she wanted to play the
I tracked her squinting gaze. “You mean that stripe on the
water?” I asked. “The sparkles?”
“What is that called?”
“Not sure,” I said, too casually. “I think it’s just called sparkles.”
She sighed, theatrically. “No it’s not.” She’d recognized the
lazy disregard in my answer, and I recognized her frustration: it
was the maddening sense that the world is speaking a language
we haven’t fully learned, and no one else seems to realize that
this is a serious problem.
I wAs the formulA-fed bAby of an era of technological triumph, raised on sitcoms, videogames, aspartame, and Yellow
#5. Mine was an age of specialization that actively discouraged
the kind of intellectual leapfrogging that drove naturalists like
Thoreau to try to unite science and spirit, to reconcile the romantic and the empirical. I always feared overstepping my bounds. I
absorbed the message that “nature” (the very word quivered with
vulnerability if left unprotected by scare quotes) should be left to
the experts— the mycologists, the lichenologists, the ichthyologists, the myrmecologists, the trichopterologists, the cetologists,
the cnidariologists (it’s real, I swear). Attempting a generalized
grasp of natural phenomena, without dedicating oneself to a
tightly focused area of study, betrayed a pitiful naïveté. Nature
was like my television set, or my car, or my laptop: I relied on
it, had no idea how it really worked, and didn’t need to know. I
could spend every minute of my life trying to learn the names
of all of the organisms within walking distance of my front
door, and I’d manage only a superficial fraction. So what was
the point? Why stress a mind already bombarded with too
This logic had formed an alliance with a fear that hid somewhere in my hindbrain: knowing too much might kill whatever
magic remained in the world. Beauty in nature, I believed, was