Monday, February 18, 2013

Seeds by Richard Horan

Seeds: One Man's Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers
by Richard Horan

Seeds sat on my headboard for over a year. Though I'm not an overly "one with nature" sort of person, and though I probably tend to take trees for granted, I'd picked the book because I like reading about what makes writers do what they do. The cover mentioned Kerouac and Wharton, who I've enjoyed, and so I thought, Trees? All right, let's see where this goes, even though it took me awhile to feel in the mood for it. My expectations were not high, yet I still wish that this book had been better. Richard Horan's passion for his subject matter is relatable and occasionally infectious, but the way he chose to present his information is at times lacking.

During a road trip with his family in which he visited several historical sites, Horan had the idea that many of the trees where notable people lived likely still stand. After visiting the homes of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Elvis Presley, and seeing the trees there, he had his "epiphany."

I would travel across America to gather the seeds from the trees of great Americans who had influenced my life or influenced the course of American history.

I would visit their hometowns in search of the trees that may have played a part of their early development and helped form their views. I'd look into their lives and works for references to trees. I would also seek out trees that had witnessed great historical events.

Though Horan's list focuses mainly on writers, there are a few people and sites (like Civil War battlefields) famous for other things, former Presidents included. The seeds he collects, he takes home and plants in small pots, where they begin their new lives on his back porch. Eventually, he will try to find more permanent homes for these trees.

The angle of environmentalism and historical preservation, I certainly agree with, but sometimes he goes to great lengths to talk about how uncomfortable he finds paid tours and other indoor activities related to these famous people, yet he keeps going on them. He has a similar contradictory attitude about "No Trespassing" signs. Sometimes, they are meant to be ignored for the purposes of his mission, and other times, he shrugs and has no problem following the rules. It's not that he is only sometimes okay with them, it's the way he explains it. He seems to take great pains to show us, I'm a rebel, Dottie, without any real examination of how that's not the case.

I say that he should examine himself more because he makes this book about himself, despite the Famous-People-Trees subject matter. This is not a history book — it's a memoir. And to me, if you're writing a memoir, you should make it about more than surface information. If you're going to talk about yourself, great, but I shouldn't always feel like you're holding back.

Horan's dialogue also feels inauthentic. He seems to create dialogue for the purposes of conveying information, but it doesn't read like anyone actually said it. It's not that the information is boring — I just want it presented differently.

Directly beside [Willa] Cather's headstone was a small square slab marking the resting place of her longtime companion, Edith Lewis.

"On a clear day I'll be there's a view of the mountain," Krakow said, motioning toward the north. "She definitely chose this very spot before she died."

"You know, I made a vow not to collect seeds at grave sites, but I have a feeling this place is different. I read that she and Edith Lewis, the summer before My Ántonia came out, would go into the woods near Shattuck Inn, sit on the rocks, and read the manuscript. Well, look at all the rocks there." I pointed to the stone wall. "I have a hunch that the two of them came right here, sat on the wall, and read."

Maybe I'm being harsh, but that doesn't strike me as something he said. Maybe he said something like that to his friend, but the way it is written feels very forced and false, and there are numerous conversations like this throughout the book.

I'm with him on the interesting nature of his project, and the potential it has for reforesting the descendants of old trees, as well as reminding us that some moments cannot be contained to a "sterile" museum. However, I wish Seeds were a better book. Horan needed to either go the straight history route, or — as I suspect straight history would be difficult for him to write — he needed to be more complete with the memoir side of his project. Though he says that these people were important to him, we don't know a lot about why. Bits and pieces, sure, but like I said, it's all very on the surface. I know what it's like to be engrossed in a fun, personal project, and so I want to know all that very personal stuff. So it's not that Seeds is a bad concept for a book; it's that I wished the approach and execution were different. As it stands, Seeds is a decent library check-out, but likely a disappointing purchase.

Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.


This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.

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