Homesick Return, Or My Nature Freakout

I’d never been stopped for reckless driv-ing before. I’m really not the reckless type (not behind the wheel, anyway); I think I’ve gotten only one speeding ticket in my life. I tend to be a go-with-the-flow-type driver who likes to drift along in the traffic pattern while transporting myself to the sublime heights and sleazy depths of emotion attained by cranking country-music tapes.

In fact, when the state trooper pulled me over on I-81, I’d been playing an 80’s country-hits compilation that included “Love in the First Degree,” the classic Alabama ballad that features an extended criminal-justice-system metaphor for love:

Baby, you left me defenseless. I’ve only got one plea . Lock me away inside your love, And throw away the key. I’m guilty. Of love in the first degree.

But I guess I wasn’t just drifting along. The trooper who pulled me over told me the radar had clocked me going over 80, and “in this state, going over 80 is a reckless-driving offense.”

I mention my reckless-driving bust because, looking back on it, it seems like part of a pattern. I got the summons the Monday after the first Anthrax Weekend-not for fleeing the city, but for speeding recklessly back to New York.

Combined with a couple of other clues-like waking up at 2 a.m. the day I was scheduled to drive back from Virginia, unable to go back to sleep because I wanted to get back on the road to what seemed like an anthrax-stricken city-my reckless-driving bust suggested that I was suffering from something a number of other New Yorkers I know have felt when they found themselves trapped outside the city during the attack and the successive waves of terror alerts that followed: homesickness for a sick home.

It had been my first trip out of Manhattan since Sept. 11, a 400-mile drive southwest to a Shakespeare scholars’ conference in rural Staunton, Va. I left on Wednesday, Oct. 10, one month after the Trade Center attack, two days before the first anthrax case was reported at NBC. People I spoke to on that Anthrax Friday told me I should consider myself lucky to find myself out of town, but instead I found myself experiencing something I hadn’t quite understood before. Something friends who had been trapped outside the city during the airport lockdown that began on Sept. 11 felt: that sense of homesickness, a desperate, even reckless desire to share in whatever it was our city was going through. Maybe it’s that we’re all relearning just how much we love the city: Love in the First Degree.

Don’t get me wrong: I was glad I’d made the trip. The scholars’ conference was built around a remarkable Field of Dreams–like achievement: the dream of Ralph Alan Cohen, the scholar, director and founder of a much-admired acting troupe, the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express; a dream of building in rural Virginia a replica of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars theater.

Blackfriars, you may recall, was Shakespeare’s second theater, one he began writing for several years after the Globe opened. And unlike the outdoor, daylight-performances-only Globe, Blackfriars was an intimate, enclosed venue that could accommodate candlelit nighttime performances.

There has been much chicken-and-egg debate about Blackfriars and Shakespeare: Did the acquisition of Blackfriars mark (or perhaps even cause) a shift in Shakespeare’s dramatic style and language to a more complex and sophisticated mode that the more intimate acoustics of enclosure encouraged? Or did Shakespeare press for the acquisition of Blackfriars to better accommodate a shift that had already been underway?

Dozens of luminaries among scholars and theater historians had come to Staunton’s peaceful Shenandoah Valley setting to pay tribute to the fulfillment of Ralph Alan Cohen’s dream. Among them were Andrew Gurr, the theater historian closely associated with the building of the New Globe in London; Stephen Booth, the scholar whose dazzling edition Shakespeare’s Sonnets is an eye-opening, life-changing work of scholarship (it was Booth’s early and enthusiastic review of a Shenandoah Shakespeare Express performance that gave the company and its unconventionally fast-paced performances in “universal lighting”-daylight and room-light only-an important early imprimatur of scholarly legitimacy). There were gifted exegetes of Shakespeare’s language, such as Russ McDonald (his Oxford University Press book Shakespeare and the Arts of Language is one of the most impressive recent works on the subject I’ve seen); influential textual scholars such as George Walton Williams, Thomas Berger and A.R. Braunmuller; rising stars among directors and actors such as Jan Powell, a director from the Tygres Heart Company, and Kate Norris, an actress who’d made a name for herself in a tour de force turn as a male icon of evil (Richard III), and wowed a workshop crowd at the Staunton Blackfriars with a version of Cleopatra’s death scene played as a marriage ceremony.

So I was glad to be there, and I’d even planned to stay an extra day after the conference concluded, just to chill in peaceful Staunton and eat the pumpkin hotcakes at a local Southern-cooking place called Mrs. Rowe’s.

But that extra day, a Sunday, turned out to be torture: watching the unfolding anthrax bulletins on TV, somehow feeling left out of the experience everyone else was going through-and regretting it. I went to bed early and woke up at 2 a.m., all revved up to get on the road (although I must admit I did wait till Mrs. Rowe’s opened for breakfast to secure myself another round of those fantastic pumpkin hotcakes).

But the true dimension of my urgency didn’t disclose itself until my Nature Freakout that morning, just before the reckless-driving bust.

My Nature Freakout: I’m not proud of it. But I think it says something, expresses something about Sept. 11’s subtle but powerful effect on me. At the close of my previous column (“Learning to Lament From Lear,” which you can find in the Observer Web site archive), I wrote about the penultimate couplet in King Lear, the lines that go:

The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

So O.K., I’m going to come out and speak what I feel, what I really feel about Nature: Even at its best, it’s Way overrated. I’m not anti-nature. I grew up by the ocean and take immense spiritual comfort from the sound of pounding surf. But really, the preference for the shallow prettiness of scenic nature over the complexities of human nature and culture needs to be questioned.

Let me explain this in the context of my Nature Freakout: I’d taken the interstates down to Staunton to make sure I arrived in time, but I’d planned to drive back in a more leisurely fashion, taking the famous Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park, a two-lane road that winds sinuously around the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains that overlook the Shenandoah Valley.

I’d driven the route once long ago, but never in leaf season, which was approaching its spectacular peak along the Skyline Drive the very weekend that anthrax was blooming in New York City’s skyline suites.

So there I was, winding around the Skyline Drive, which was enclosed by a wall of neon-yellow and blood-red autumn foliage broken occasionally by scenic overlooks that allowed one to park and gaze out at endless, vibrant vistas of spectacularly showy slopes and rolling upland meadows carpeted with wildflowers.

It was pleasant at first, but it didn’t take long for me to turn against it. I mean, if you’ve seen one beautiful leaf (I said to myself), you’ve seen them all. It’s the same principle as “All happy families are alike,” from the opening of Anna Karenina.

“O.K., I get it,” I found myself addressing the meadows with the wildflowers. “You’re beautiful and all, but you’re not mysterious. You’re like the supermodels of the natural world-there’s not a lot of depth. Your beauty is like the beauty of happy families: There’s no story, no novel of tormented love à la Anna Karenina coming from you. Not even a great country-and-western song.”

The beauty and mystery of the human face, the depths and shadows of the human heart, so far surpass the vegetal splendors you offer. (I was still berating the foliage.) Your vegetal splendors are soothing, anodyne, tranquilizing. But there’s no dark side; they’re scenic Prozac. The leaves fall, but they are not Fallen. My place is with my fellow Fallen in the city of fallen towers. There’s where you’ll find beauty and mystery to last beyond a leafy fall. In every single little gesture of kindness that binds us together.

Yes, one can find “infinity in a grain of sand” or in a latticework tapestry of leaves. But how much more intense and multifaceted is the reckless beauty of the human face and heart that you find in tormented splendor in our stricken city-even more splendid now, in the aftermath of the fall.

Not all my thoughts took such a high-minded tone. My (anti-)Nature Freakout sent me into a petty fit about a certain tree-hugging writer famous for his lofty, leafy thoughts about the fate of every fern and flower. And how much he learned by avoiding tainted human culture, the better to be One With Nature.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, he felt compelled to leap into print (or, anyway, into cyberspace) and-with the usual perfunctory expressions of regret about the lives lost in the mass-murder attack-immediately proceeded to scold the wounded nation from his lofty, leafy pulpit far from ground zero.

It took the form of a kind of Nyah-nyah-nyah! Told you so! lecture about the way the U.S. could have had many more allies in its coalition against the mass murderers if we’d only been nicer to other nations about the Kyoto global-warming treaty. Hey, the incineration of thousands by airborne fuel bombs is bad and all that, but let’s not take our eye off the global-warming ball.

This is someone who devoted a whole book to demonstrating that it was a badge of honor, proof of pure (actually, puritanical) nobility not to watch television, the better to gaze at leaves on the forest floor and the little critters that crawl among them, averting his tender gaze from the terrible specter of actual human behavior and-horror of horrors-TV culture. Somehow I suspect he also disapproves of country music, looks down his nose at all those vulgar booze- (and gas-) guzzlin’ guys and gals like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson driving their fossil-fuel-burning tour vehicles, not “living lightly on the land”-and yet probing depths of the heart and soul that our little critter-watcher will never know.

I know, I know, Kyoto isn’t just about leaves and ferns and little crawly critters; it’s about the future of humanity. But where exactly was the humanity in the tree-hugger’s scolding? There’s no future for humanity if it doesn’t know how to be human.

That’s why I wanted desperately, recklessly, to get back to New York: Love in the First Degree for NYC. I’m now even prepared to abandon the habit-no, the mission-of a lifetime of Yankee-hating and root for the pinstripes in the post-season. Who are they playing, anyway? Is that annoying fat guy still the owner?

Homesick Return, Or My Nature Freakout