My backyard, a flat area, treed and fenced in (we have two dogs), is a lovely, tranquil garden in the spring and summer, a quiet place in winter when the snows fall. But, although my room faces it squarely, I don’t look out on it while I write. For one thing, nature is too distracting. How could I possibly work, head down, scribbling or typing, when breezes are twisting the treetops, flakes are whirling around in crisscrossing hatchwork, cardinals and blue jays and finches are looping from hedge to hedge? It’s a contrary activity to the internal sparking of the mind making connections among characters, sketching out settings that are halfway across the world from where I live, riding the downward wave of a boy in distress.
Even worse is my love of books. Sunlight is an enemy to artifacts made of paper. There is a degradation known in the book trade as “sunning” or “tanning” which occurs when paper comes into contact with sunlight directly or even indirectly. I find it difficult to read a book that has been sunned. It’s a neurosis, certainly, but our neuroses define us. Nature and books don’t mix.
Yet, it distresses me to recall that my entire youth was spent outdoors. My brother and I, along with our neighborhood friends, would exhaust ourselves from morning until suppertime in the nearby woods, on the streets, riding our bicycles, walking, inventing, exploring, battling, imagining, and racing until our bodies gave out. Growing up the in the 1950s and 60s was done outside. This is no longer the case for children, and it wasn’t ten years ago when my daughters were young. The out of doors, nature, was something my children didn’t experience in the way that my brother and I did.
When did childhood become an indoor life?
I’m reading the biography of Beatrix Potter now, and I realize how intrinsic nature and nature study was, not only to Beatrix — to the extent that we wouldn’t have Peter Rabbit or any of her bold and hilarious characters had she not been out in the natural world when she was young — but to so many of the great writers that I — that we — admire.
And this is an admonition, a scold, on our lives, particularly on my life, but, I’d suppose on the lives of so many people today. One’s work, one’s daily task keep us long-occupied indoors in stale air, under artificial light, with the exhaust of illness all around us. Indeed, our world couldn’t function without such work, whether it takes place in a factory, a classroom, a mall, or a writing studio. I’d also like to think, however, that there is an essential link between the book and nature. We’ve understood what we know about nature from the printed word. From pictures and videos, certainly, but most intelligently and in-depth from the careful analysis and rumination and study that goes into writing about our world.
I confess I lift my shades in the summertime when the sun’s arc is higher over the trees and the pages of the books I love are not in danger. In fact, long for those times. I won’t get as much work done, certainly, but the warm summer air refreshes as nothing else does. One day, for me, there won’t be an outdoors to look on, to walk in, to race through or explore or imagine in. Strangely, perhaps — or perhaps not — if anyone asks what my favorite thing in the world is, I know what my answer will be: a warm summer breeze on my face. I’d give it all up for that. And where did that answer come from? From a childhood spent out of doors.
Tony Abbott has written over 75 books for young readers, including the acclaimed novel Fire Girl and the popular fantasy saga The Secrets of Droon. Over 10 million copies of his books have sold worldwide. Visit Tony’s world of writing at http://tonyabbottbooks.blogspot.com/.