As part of a work assignment, I’ve been reading “At the Center of All Beauty,” Fenton Johnson’s new book about the virtues of spending time alone — even, or perhaps especially, for those of us who share a household with spouses and children.
Solitude seems a pretty remote ideal for many of us right now. With the closure of schools and offices in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the cancellation of public events, families are spending a lot more time under one roof.
But Johnson’s book is about many other things, including the benefits of cultivating curiosity as a habit.
“My mother,” Johnson tells readers, “carried a walking stick on every hike, even in the days when her balance was fine and before her knees gave out. ‘To turn over things to see what lies underneath,’ she said, and demonstrated by turning over a rock.”
It was a kind of curiosity that proved contagious.
“From her,” Johnson adds, “I learned to turn over other, less tangible things — assumptions we make about who we are and how we relate to one another.”
With cabin fever sure to grow in south Louisiana and across America in coming weeks, might there be some relief in getting outside and turning over a few rocks for ourselves?
Johnson’s story reminded me of a poem by David Kirby in “More Than This,” a collection published by LSU Press. The poem, “Poking Stuff With Sticks,” is about the way that Kirby passed some of the most memorable hours of his childhood in the woods, probing to see what he could see. “I don’t remember the stuff or the sticks," Kirby recalls, “but I do remember the poking, and the poker, which was me.”
Kirby seems to say that what he found in the woods wasn’t important. It was the looking that mattered most. Johnson and Kirby are describing what essayist Kathleen Dean Moore calls “the art of poking around.”
“Although the art can be practiced in libraries and antique stores and people’s psyches,” she writes, “the kind of poking around I am interested in advocating must be done outdoors. It is a matter of going into the land to pay close attention, to pry at things with the toe of a boot, to turn over the rocks at the edge of a stream and lift boards to look for snakes or the nests of silky deer mice . . . ”
All of this has come to mind with the arrival of this troubled spring, which has brought extra problems along with the usual list of things to do. In spite of that — the jumbled routines, the family tax return, the urgent headlines — I’ll try to take some time to go outside and poke around.
In this season of worry, it would be a gift to do that for a while — and nothing else.