Neurotic Naturalists

I’ve been meaning to write about the following quote– or about anything, really– for a while. Behold: “You cannot walk among palm trees with impunity.”*

Source: Ahmed Rabea

That little gem comes from Goethe’s Elective Affinities, a classic I’d been searching for in used bookstores for at least a year until it finally popped up a couple of months ago in a bargain bin in Jerusalem. It was perfect timing, perfectly packaged; after wandering through municipal mazes that seemed constructed with the purposeful intent to confuse, I landed unexpectedly at a friendly purveyor of literature. And with a couple of hours to kill before friends were to arrive in town, I didn’t want to lug around the fat tome that had made a lot of sense on the epic plane ride(s) over– but still needed some reading for a long bout of café lingering ahead of me. What luck! There was good old Goethe in an almost-pocked-sized version, so I happily shelled out a few shekels and went on my way to wait things out with tea and early-19th-century domestic foibles.

The palm tree thing didn’t hit me because of my current location– but the location– or rather, its refusal to pander to trends of municipal grids or helpful signage– had me in a sour mood that felt vaguely familiar to the state of mind from which I had suffered at least 90% of the time in another palm-tree-laden spot. Three years in Southern California were not at all my style– and somehow representative of the ill-fated outpost I’d landed in were the two huge palm trees right outside my balcony, which was level with and chummily close to the tops of this Seuss-like pair. When the maddening Santa Ana winds would blow, those things would flap their frondy hearts out, casting weird shadows on my walls and making slapping noises that sounded more like the throes of tortured plastic than the rustling of organic material. If I happened to walk into the room at night, there they were, staring evilly in my window. It was a bad scene.

Admittedly, those recollections had nothing to do with young Ottilie’s diary thoughts, save for a differently-directed bout of pondering on travel to exotic locales. But the impunity-free sojourn among the beautiful people and their trees is evident in the fact that I still feel an aversion to those creepy genre of flora. It’s unjust, I know– but I take comfort in what I’d like to believe would have been some old-school German support for my plant-based animosity.

*Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities, transl. R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin, 1971), 255.


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