Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Libraries and Wild Carrots

I’ve been meaning to write a few posts about my own personal history with books. I post a bit about the book trade, libraries, and the impact of e-books on physical books, but I haven’t much discussed my own involvement in books. I’m going to start first in a field.

When I was little, I was lucky enough to live in a home with three generations. My father’s mother and father, Mary and Sam, lived with us in the Chicago suburb of Streamwood. The farmhouse for the farm that used to exist where the subdivision we lived in sprouted was right behind our house, and we could walk to it from our backyard. They still had chickens, and a cow. At the end of our block sat an empty meadow. I remember going to that field often, usually in the morning, with Mary, my grandmother. One day she said to me, “Tony, you’re very smart, a really clever boy. But you have to know more than you can only know from books, you know this, right?”

I nodded.

“Come here. Do you see this plant? What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“This is called Queen Anne’s Lace or Bishop’s Lace. Now come over here.” She pulled the plant from the ground and held the roots under my nose. “ Smell this.” I inhaled the smell of the damp earth, and what smelled like carrot. “Looks and smells like carrots, no?”

I nodded my head.

“Okay, now follow me.” She walked a little and found another big, white, papery, flat flower head. “Is this the same?” She held the two flowers next to each other. They looked the same. The flowers more than the leaves, but they looked like they were probably related.

“Maybe?” I tentatively offered.

She sighed. “To really answer the question you must look at the roots. But if you’re only looking for carrots, look here.” And she pointed to the center of the flowerhead of the Queen Anne’s Lace. “Do you see that tiny spec of blood” She was referring to a minuscule cluster of black-red petals in the center, easy to miss, like a spec of dirt. “That tells you it is wild carrot. If you are starving, you must know the difference. Because the other one, the one without the tiny drop of blood, that one is hemlock. This too, you must learn. Not only from books. My father taught me how to identify a wild carrot, and more importantly, how it’s different from poison. Someday, finding a carrot, and knowing it’s a carrot, could save your life. It once saved mine back in the old country.”

The small field at the end of our block where this lesson took place didn’t stay empty for long. The street we lived on was Library Lane. The field on the end of it was supposed to eventually hold a library. But the promises of the developer never really materialized so in the mid-Seventies, my mom and several other members of the community organized a referendum to create a taxing body and a library district. The referendum passed, and a beautiful, though almost Brutalist, library building was built. I spent a good part of my childhood there. I learned about current events from Doonesbury and human dynamics from Jules Feiffer. Vonnegut taught me to laugh through tragedy, and those old Bob and Ray albums taught me about timing. I spent a good deal of time in the children’s area, though mostly volunteering, but I really preferred the adult sections. I suppose it’s like Mitch Headberg used to say: Any book is a children’s book if the kid can read. I loved that library, and I think spending so much time there had an impact on what I would eventually do with my life, but I also miss that field. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if they hadn’t built a library on Grandma’s classroom. What might I have been instead?

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