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Original Essays

The Pull of Nature

by Sadie Jones
  1. The Outcast: A Novel

    The Outcast: A Novel

    Sadie Jones
    "[A] superb debut novel....Jones's prose is fluid, and Lewis's suffering comes across as achingly real." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "Jones describes the unfolding events in beautifully delicate prose..." Booklist (starred review)

    "A confident, suspenseful and affecting first novel, delivered in cool, precise, distinctive prose." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

A significant portion of The Outcast happens over a few weeks of summer. The summer is a character in the story. There is the hero, who is holding himself very tightly in control, trying to please and not knowing how to do it. There is the stepmother, who is brittle and either scared or incapable of looking too deeply into anything; and the father, whose anger is crushing; and then there is the summer. The summer is an unusually hot one for England, whose nature is inclined to be temperate.

English pursuits — tennis and outdoor lunches amongst them — depend on warm, dry weather, but the odds are set against them. This means that when there is a lunch outside, or a picnic, and the weather is good for it, there is a heightened, trembling perfection to the occasion. And people say the English have cool natures and are not passionate.

People remember significant happenings in their lives, and refer to them as life-changing. They remember where they were for world events, the Kennedy assassination, Live Aid... and for great personal events, the death of a parent, the loss of their virginity; but also, wonderfully, they remember significant weather and natural happenings, too. I find this reassuring. To remember the first time we saw snow, or were caught in a particularly heavy rain, seems to me the harmonious meeting of our animal selves, which experience things through the senses, and our emotional and intellectual selves, which make the things significant to us.

My father is from Jamaica, and as a child I spent many holidays there. I remember the weight and drenching wetness of that hot rain, as I experienced it in my childhood, not only for itself, but for what it represented for me. In England, rain was thin and cold, and made you hunch up inside your coat, walking home from the bus stop. In Jamaica it was wide and thick and invited you to step into it, and see how wet you could get, and be thrilled that it was warmer than the sea and warmer than your skin; it was abandon.

I like the look that you can see on people's faces when they remember the summer that went on longer than other summers, the one that everybody remarked upon. Everybody has one. Perhaps they're tying together more than one summer in their minds, turning all summers into that summer. It doesn't matter. It's what summer means to them, this translation of nature into human experience.

There is the wonder at snow, too, and certain birds singing.

Our minds and memories are crowded with the common experience of nature. There is the picture we have of a river that got too big and went where it shouldn't, the shock of seeing things float where normally they don't, up onto a pavement, through the front door. There are stories of excitement, danger, or awakening.

I have a friend who spent a brief time in prison in Africa. The prison was cold and almost entirely dark. When she was released — when she remembers her release — it isn't her emotion she describes first, it is the sky. She remembers — so clearly — the sudden strength of the sun. She talks about the glare. She talks about the brightness and the beautiful warmth. The sunny day and blue sky were indivisible from her liberation, with no need to add, "I was free."

The weather and the natural world around us describe our humanity and tell our stories, in life as in fiction. I don't think there is an important reading experience any of us have had where they are absent. Think of the storm in King Lear. Think of the heat in A Streetcar Named Desire. Think of the winters in Dr. Zhivago, or the drought in The Grapes of Wrath. These things may be plot, or metaphor, or whatever other function we attribute to them or use them for, but in the end they are indivisible from the whole, and from humanity.

Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," in which he describes pulling up his horse for a little while, during a journey, is a poem that lives in the mind as being about wonder, and peace — mysterious and full of promise. It has almost nothing in it except the landscape and is childlike in the describing of that. Frost tells us that there is a frozen lake, and quietness, except for the harness bells of his little horse and the "easy wind and downy flake." He places us there with deceptive simplicity, assuming the common experience and trusting the purity of describing it. After that still scene, he finishes with its transience, opening the road up for us again: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep." We don't need to be told the significance of his stopping in the snow, or of his having to move on; we know it in our deep selves.

T. S. Eliot, at the beginning of The Waste Land, opens, famously, with "April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land." It seemed to me, the first time I read it, to jump from the page. April is springtime; it was actually shocking to me. The idea that it is not the death, but the awakening, that hurts the most is a very powerful one. When I was writing The Outcast, some of which deals with the central character's unhappiness and disassociation, that first line from The Waste Land would come into my mind often, because it was not the lack of feeling that Lewis found so painful; it was feeling itself. During a dark time, in winter, he has a moment of closeness with a woman — his first: "He couldn't remember ever having been touched, not touched and held like this, or in any way at all, and it made him hurt inside it felt so sweet to him."

We feel the pull of nature very strongly, relating — even unknowingly — feeling in ourselves to bulbs being stirred in frozen ground, or to the branches of dead trees. Perhaps this indivisibility from nature is an important thing to recognize as we go about our business in the world.

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Sadie Jones was born and brought up in London, where she now lives with her husband and two children. spacer

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