Chestnut Trees

From The Paris Review:

Everywhere we’ve lived takes on a certain shape in our memory only some time after we leave it. Then it becomes a picture that will remain unchanged. As long as we’re there, with the whole place before our eyes, we see the accidental and the essential emphasized almost equally; only later are secondary matters snuffed out, our memory preserving only what’s worth preserving. If that weren’t true, how could we look back over even a year of our life without vertigo and terror!

Many things make up the picture a place leaves behind for us—waters, rocks, roofs, squares—but for me, it is most of all trees. They are not only beautiful and lovable in their own right, representing the innocence of nature and a contrast to people, who express themselves in buildings and other structures—they are also revealing: we can learn much from them about the age and type of arable land there, the climate, the weather, and the minds of the people. I don’t know how the village where I now live will present itself to my mind’s eye later, but I cannot imagine that it will be without poplars, any more than I can picture Lake Garda without olive trees or Tuscany without cypresses. Other places are unthinkable to me without their lindens, or their nut trees, and two or three are recognizable and remarkable by virtue of having no trees there at all.

Yet a city or landscape with no predominating woods of any kind never entirely becomes a picture in my mind; it always remains somewhat without character, to my feeling. There is one such city I know well—I lived there as a boy for two years—and despite all my memories of the place, my image of it is of somewhere foreign and alien; it has turned into a place as arbitrary and meaningless to me as a train station.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a real chestnut-tree city—this thought occurs to me whenever I see a single beautiful horse-chestnut tree around here or sadly catch sight of the shabby little horticultural chestnut trees in certain villages. If they only knew how chestnut trees could look! How mightily they can stand there, how luxuriantly they blossom, how deeply they rustle, how luscious and complete the shadows they cast, how they swell with monstrous fullness in the summer and lay down their golden-brown leaves in such thick, soft piles in the fall!

Today I am once again thinking of the city with the beautiful chestnut trees: a town in southwest Germany. In the center is the old castle, a massive sprawling boxy structure, with the whole sprawling building ringed by an amazingly wide moat, long since turned into a dry ditch, and surrounding the ditch in a wider circle is a splendid avenue. On one side of the avenue is nothing but old low houses and little gardens, and on the other, open side, facing the castle, is a mighty garland of large chestnut trees.

On one side hang signs for shops and inns, the joiners hammer away, metalworkers smash menacingly at their sheet metal, cobblers lurk in the twilight of their cavelike workshops, tanneries give off their mysterious stink. On the other side of the wide avenue there is silence and shade, the smell of leaves and the green play of light, the song of honeybees and the flight of butterflies. So the poor devils beating carpets and doing handicrafts have their windows facing an eternal holiday, the never-ending peace of God, and they squint longingly at it all the time, and on warm summer evenings they cannot go out to visit it early enough, or with enough sighs.

I stayed in that little city once, for a week, and although I was actually there on business, I liked to look patronizingly in through the merchants, and craftsmen’s windows and put on a show of strolling—slowly, aristocratically, and often—on the shady, leisurely side of the street and of life. The best thing, though, was that I was staying by the moat, at the Blond Eagle, and had the many blossoming chestnut trees, red and white, outside my window in the evening and through the night. Now, enjoying this visual pleasure was not entirely without a cost, since the seemingly dry moat still had a damp enough moss-green bottom to send up a hundred thousand hungry mosquitoes a day. But a young person traveling doesn’t sleep much on such summer nights anyway, and when the mosquitoes got too rude I rubbed some vinegar on myself and sat by the window with a cigar lit and the light off.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

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