What do gardens, libraries and exploring have in common?

Tree like a cathedral, with flying buttress sort of trunks. Huge canopy of leaves and the trunks more than twice the height of a person.
Fantastic tree in the botanical garden. Orto Botanico, Palermo, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Planting a tree in Palermo a few hundred years ago means a gigantic tree is still living today. A botanical garden is a living library and so is a zoo, an art museum, or a national park.

These storehouses of genetic variability are important because today’s shortcoming may be the key to success in another era. A library works the same way: the ideas and stories in books are passed on to the next generation and they make new stories of their own.

A book is a kind of seed that grows into someone’s life and becomes what they make and do in their lives. Each library leads to the next and reading in one library might mean writing a book for another. In the same way, planting one garden makes seeds for the next.

Malcolm Gladwell’s THE TIPPING POINT applies epidemiology to the transmission of ideas. A epidemiologic causal chain describes the path of an outbreak: a reservoir to a portal of exit to a mode of transmission to a portal of entry to a susceptible host.

You break the chain in as many places as possible to prevent disease. Or connect as many links as possible to spread ideas.

Libraries, gardens, art museums, and forests are all idea reservoirs. When we explore the world around us in these places, we are susceptible hosts.

What matters to me is the way both libraries and gardens illustrate God’s generosity and the abundance in our lives. Scarcity has no place in a garden or in a library. Tragedies may destroy them–drought, fire, water damage, flooding, war–but gardens and libraries are a kind of sharing that can always be started again. Once they begin, they multiply.

In an unfamiliar place, I orient myself by sticking to the main path. I gradually extend my boundaries so I see new things, but still know where I am.

I make forays. My husband tends to surround a new place by going all around the edge.

I explore books in a causal chain, finding the ones connected to the ones I’ve already enjoyed. I’m not sure it matters how we explore. Only that we do.

Why do reservoirs matter so much? We need them to grow. To become someone better than the old you? Maybe. I’ve always valued the ability to surprise people with unexpected skills because they didn’t see how long it took you to learn them. Rising out of obscurity can be so entertaining.

But for me, Patrick O’Brian’s famous line from his Aubrey–Maturin series: “There’s not a moment to be lost” expresses the value of our lives. Our explorations of the huge, amazing, varied world bring us more than self-improvement. Our discoveries, the seeds we plant, the books we read and write, as well as the people we love, make a difference for the future.

What will you explore today?

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7 Reasons Why “There’s not a moment to be lost”

Patrick O’Brian’s sea adventure novel, MASTER AND COMMANDER, is an action-packed story about the friendship between two very different men.

Jack Aubrey is an ambitious Captain in the Royal Navy and Stephen Maturin is the ship’s physician and a devoted naturalist.

Stephen’s nirvana is anteaters, platypuses, or a rare liana. He’s always longing for a few days to explore an exotic shore.

But, the tide turns, the wind comes up, and Jack tells him: “There is not a moment to be lost.” Stephen looks longingly at shore, but he’s swept away to the opposite side of the ocean. Another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity disappears over the horizon.

Sometimes the wind fails. The two friends retreat to Jack’s cabin and play duets on their violin and cello until the doldrums are over.

A few years ago, I crossed the ocean—by plane—to visit the British Library. The many floors of the open stacks are filled with books, white like Oreo filling, and just as delicious.

The Sir John Ritbalt Gallery houses the Treasures of the British Library.

I saw Jane Austen’s lap desk and her steady, even handwriting; Shakespeare’s scripts, written without any flourishes; Thomas Hardy’s revisions, and Handel’s closely-written music scores. You can scroll through some of them here.

What did all of these writers and composers have in common? Their handwriting was small, even, and consistent, as if they were sawing wood, driving across Nebraska, or crossing the ocean in a 19th century frigate.

  1. The creative journey is long. You can’t dawdle or rush. You have to pace yourself.

But all this industry, this dedicated effort, makes you wonder why anyone would work this hard to make something no one wanted, yet. Sheer stubbornness?

Back to the library for answers.

Jane Austen folded her manuscripts in quarters so she could tuck away her work if disturbed while working. I don’t think it was shyness or insecurity, because the Gallery’s folded manuscript is PERSUASION: Austen’s last novel, not her first. Outside help is dangerous until the story finds its shape.

2. Before an imagined story is fixed on the page, it is indescribably fragile.

But that still doesn’t answer why people do these things. What makes the pursuit worth it?

Jason Fried’s REWORK says inspiration is perishable. If we don’t capture what we see, embark on the adventure, plant the garden, or record the music, it will disappear behind the horizon.

Snowflake Bentley explains why he kept making photographs of snowflakes: “I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others.”

3. The payoff is when beauty takes us out of ourselves.

This is why using your imagination is so addictive. It’s restful and exhausting. It uses everything we have and immerses us completely in the other.

The common question: “Where do you get your ideas from?” is really asking

“How do you get beauty to visit you?”

There are two answers:

4. Inspiration is everywhere. Those things you recognize, that give you shocks or thrills or chills, that’s your beauty.

In CROSSING UNMARKED SNOW, William Stafford writes:
And things you know before you hear them those are you, those are
why you are in the world.

5. I have no idea–but be ready. Always carry a pen and paper.

Inspiration isn’t under our control. Ringo Starr must have been struck unexpectedly, because he wrote the lyrics to “It’s been a hard day’s night” on the back of his son’s 1st birthday card.

6. We bear witness by our continued efforts that there is something worth seeing.

Handel’s manuscript book is full from edge to edge. He worked steadily until he created THE MESSIAH. Snowflake Bentley went out in every snowstorm. Jane Austen’s quartos must have been convenient for whipping out work when she had unexpected moments to write.

If we want treasures collected in the Sir John Ritbalt Gallery, we have to DO THE WORK.

Persistence and steady labor work well. Until the day comes when the muse gives you something much better than you are capable of. Just because the muse visits you once, doesn’t mean she’s coming back.

As Elizabeth Gilbert points out, the muse isn’t under your control and you’re not to blame if it goes away again.

7. Sometimes the wind fails. Once you do your best work, you have a choice: stop working or start as a beginner all over again.

We make art and seek discoveries in the world around us out of a desire to be moved out of ourselves and a desire to share what we are with others. A story about a friendship between very different people, like Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey, can be the seed of many friendships. A story is a created experience, but it’s also a question: “Can you see it?”

Beauty is as ephemeral as life. We need our whole lives to find our way through or around the obstacles that separate us.

What we make is imperfect, but we have a chance at butterflies and lightning bolts. Keep your nets open. Keep your pen moving. Capture the snowflakes.

As Captain Aubrey says: “There is not a moment to be lost.”

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Half a Library: 6 Libraries That Changed My Life

Librarian with hand on bookcase full of books in a new library room with table.
A new library is born. Hard-working librarian who made a half a library into a whole.

In 1775, James Boswell wrote, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” I’ve turned over half a dozen libraries in the service of my current work-in-progress, but library fever started much earlier. After all, where does anyone get the idea to write a book in the first place?

It all starts when you get a library card. I got mine as soon as I could write my first and last name in shaky capital letters. My family name had 9 letters, so it required some study.

The first library I remember vividly was in my elementary school. If I close my eyes, I see the tables and chairs, the built-in bookcases, the expanse of carpet and the steel knob you had to touch, after crossing the carpet, to get out of the library. I learned that the price of reading was shocking, but I paid it willingly, again and again.

The second library was in my Junior High School. Alphabetical fiction covered three walls and branched out into freestanding bookcases. I started with Joan Aiken’s MIDNIGHT IS A PLACE, Lloyd Alexander’s THE BLACK CAULDRON, Susan Cooper’s THE DARK IS RISING. . . and worked my way around. The school was overcrowded, troubled with drugs, and plagued by mashed potato shortages. Some days, we ate gravy for lunch. I didn’t mind the gravy, but the other things made me search for, and find, refuge in the library.

The third important library in my life was at the University of Utah. A friend had gotten a job, that paid money, to shelve books.

This was for me.

I filled the job application with volunteer orchestra ‘experience,’ hoping to suggest reliability. The gentle interviewer hired me because I’d rescued cassettes from our family tape recorder on long car trips. In the Audio-Visual Department, I played records and videotapes for people ten hours a week. A side effect came in the form of a dozen roses from a mysterious admirer at carrel #6. The only thing I knew about him—judging from the orange hair on his records—he had a cat. Libraries are full of people to meet.

In my fourth library, the Charles Babbage Institute, I met the inventor of the first hand-held calculator. The Institute needed a graduate student to transcribe an oral history (basically a recorded interview with the questions taken out) for Curt Herzstark. His name describes him perfectly: Herz and stark mean heart + strong.

Imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, he somehow got permission to invent things “after hours.” In his Austrian accent, he described the invention of his calculator. He talked about a calculator in the shape of a glorified pepper mill, ten hours a week, for a trimester or more. His voice stopped when I took the headphones off, but I felt the Buchenwald atmosphere for hours afterwards.

The fifth library to capture my imagination is the one belonging to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. They have 900 illuminated manuscripts from 300 B.C. to the 19th century. That’s a library. I washed my hands, checked my book bag at the door and promised to use nothing but pencil while I was in the room.

In return, I touched five books that were 1000 years old or more. The corners were soft and wrinkled—like a piece of leather that has been bent back and forth too many times—where the thumbs of the monks must have fit. They probably dripped tallow on them.

In exchange for writing my whole name and enduring the shock of a library door, I found a refuge, got a dozen roses, visited a concentration camp and the 11th century. That library card really paid off.

The sixth library is where it gets interesting. My husband researches bats and other small mammals in West Africa. A few years ago, his work took him to an isolated village in Sierra Leone with no school or library.

Friends have been generous with books of all kinds. In my husband’s office, there was—literally–half a library. The other half has grown over the years. The local field-biologist-turned-librarian built shelves to hold the books and put up a roof to shelter the readers.

Now the village has a little library. How long before some reader turns half of it over and writes a brand-new book?

I can’t wait to check it out.

Young people reading books at a library table in a one-room library in Sierra Leone.
What will come out of this library?


Boswell, James. LIFE OF JOHNSON. New York:Oxford University Press, Inc. (Oxford World’s Classic Paperback). 1998, pg. 613.

This essay originally appeared in the January 2, 2009 issue of catapult magazine under the title “Half a Library.” The archives don’t seem to work.