Retirement can be a fraught time as many retirees find out; unstructured free time can be both a blessing and a curse. Having spent much of my working life in the US in a family business that could not fulfill most of my interests, retirement had great attraction. I have been quite lucky to have fallen into an unexpected niche. The real issue was simply what to choose from my myriad of unfulfilled options.
We have a lovely house that we bought many years ago. However, far more entrancing than the physical structure is the surrounding land. The property came with many large trees, a lawn and an untended area that was severely overgrown with saplings and weeds. What it didn’t have was enough sunlight necessary for the growth of colorful and flamboyant flowerbeds. My first job ultimately included clearing out the overgrowth, laying out flowerbeds and experimenting with shade plants. All of this trial and error finally yielded an interesting garden.
I also discovered that I enjoyed the playfulness of plant propagation and regular experimentation with plant materials. There is so much useful horticultural information online; and the New York Botanical Garden, which offers a large number of courses, is only 15 minutes away. Plants are simply amazing, and they are the basis of life on planet Earth.
As all impassioned people know, learning entrains learning. As my botanical knowledge grew, my enthusiasm for additional aspects of nature grew. And then I had a lucky break!
Our neighborhood of Riverdale has its own local paper, The Riverdale Press. I pitched the idea of a weekly nature column to the then-editor, Shant Shahrigian. Presto, my column “Green Scene” was born. Initially, the articles were relatively short and limited in scope, touching primarily on local botany. However, Shant gave me freedom regarding topics, and I branched out considerably. Topics grew to include geology, evolution, time, wildlife. . .
Although I am an American, an English speaker and live in New York City, Israel occupies an important part of my personal universe. Before COVID, we would travel to Israel regularly both to visit family and for R&R. We have always rented a car and drive around the country, dividing our time between family visits, tourist sites and wonderful landscapes.
Writing about Israeli natural history
Since there was so much to see and do in Israel, I began writing about Israeli natural history as well. Topics I chose included Brechat HaMeshushim, the herbarium at the Hebrew University Campus in Jerusalem, M’arat HaNitifim, and the Mountains of Sodom.
As time went on, I accumulated a large number of articles from my column. Then the question arose what, if anything, should I do with them? Out of the blue, Gerald Lebowitz, a former lecturer in the English Department at Bronx Community College, put that same question to me. I responded that I thought a book would probably be in my future, although I expected it would require a large amount of reworking the articles. His response clarified my thinking immediately when he said, “You are already writing a book.” That was all it took to get me to rethink the organization of the proto-book.
Teaching, as a profession, never appealed to me. However, I have always delighted in “turning someone on” to those things that intrigue me. One of my great successes occurred when I taught a friend in Jerusalem how to quilt. The medium so excited her that she went on to take multiple classes and progressed to having one-woman shows of her work. I continue to quilt, but she has far outstripped me. It is thrilling for me to attend her shows and enjoy her vision and wonderful creativity.
Quilting, though, is just a hobby for me. The complexity of nature is a deeper and more enduring passion. There are wonderful blogs out there, and just browsing through them and/or reading eclectically on nature invariably led me to consider topics in greater depth. Two of my favorites are EarthSky (www.earthsky.org) and Nature Briefing (www.nature.org).
With Gerald Lebowitz’s prodding, I was quickly able to mentally reorganize my ideas for a book. Simply organizing articles into chapters by general categories was an obvious layout choice. Writing and rewriting, as tedious as these can get to be, are simply part of the process. Finding a publisher is much more agonizing. As Barry Sheinkopf, who helps authors self-publish through his Full Court Press business put it to me, “Publishers are always looking for the fourth book of a new genre.” Meaning that publishers are not willing to take chances.
There are wonderful books out there about the many aspects of nature. Generally, they are written about single subjects such as the history of amber, the wonderful gingko tree. They discuss the evolution of life on Earth and the role geology plays in the formation of the world we live in. I read widely and enjoy so many of them.
My book A Habit of Seeing strives to do two things. It entices the reader to look more deeply into the world visible at our doorstep (and beyond). I will share two such occurrences. The first happened when something literally fell into my lap. I was gardening under a huge oak tree in our backyard when something zipped past my face and fell into my lap. It turned out to be a grapevine beetle which I had never heard of before. It was fun tracking down an identification. And sometimes, it just takes attention to a mundane occurrence. I finally realized that while there was always a puddle on the floor when I watered my elephant ears, it was not because I was being clumsy. (I’ll leave you guessing about that one.)
Also, through the sheer diversity of topics, the author is trying to stimulate the reader to see the interconnectedness of the world we live in. The complexity of nature is overwhelming. But the more we look, the more we see, and the more we understand.
For American readers, the book brings Israeli nature into their hands. For English speakers in Israel, this material – Israeli nature – becomes more accessible. Please accompany me on this journey of wonder and discovery! ■
Sura Jeselsohn’s book can be purchased through all online distributors including Amazon and is available in hard cover and digital format.