This week Christopher at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad & Tobago emailed asking about my first book, On the Road to Tetlama, published in 1991 by Walker and Company of New York. He was writing about "nature writers" and basically wanted to know what was on my mind when I did that book. The book described several months I spent in and around the wooded, steep, muddy, slummy slopes of Tamazunchale, San Luis Potosí, Mexico, befriended by a poor family of indigenous Nahuatl origin. He said that reading between the lines he could figure out that I was running away from something, but that there seemed to be more going on that he couldn't put his finger on.
I had to think awhile for an answer because those days seem like a life that happened to another person, back before my Germany and Belgium years, before my hermit years in Mississippi, back when I still felt like an exiled Kentucky farmboy. But, finally I remembered.
"Think jazz," I told Christopher. In the spirit of John Coltrane I wanted to put myself in a whole new world and improvise day by day, the theme being me interacting with Nature and the good people around me. Not really any point to it, just things happening and me feeling poetic about it, and sharing my feelings.
What did this have to do with "nature writing"? I think Christopher understood, for I could tell he was a smart, perceptive man and at the end of his last letter he appended this line, without further comment:
"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."
That's both the name of a 1931 jazz composition by Duke Ellington with lyrics by Irving Mills, and a profound statement. It explains why a naturalist might approach Nature with a jazzy head.
For, when you look at how Nature has been composed, with Giraffes and Gingkoes and viruses all interrelating as they coevolve, and all the kinky quantum-mechanics stuff going on at the subatomic level, and the Universe's expansion actually speeding up, and all those other possible dimensions with parallel realities, and even 96% of our own Universe being undetectable "dark matter"... anyone with a feeling for jazz recognizes that that's jazz. The Creator jazzing, with a touch -- if you think about it -- of the blues.
If the Creator jazzes, and I'm into harmonizing with the general flow of the Universal theme, am I not supposed to jazz, too, in everything I do?
For years I kept that thought in mind all the time, but then maybe I got distracted here and there, making birdlists and web pages and so, until now I'd almost forgotten it. But now Christopher has reminded me, reminded me to keep jazzing day by day, for:
"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." .