Room With a View

By Franklin Burroughs

Room With a ViewThe first significant room with a view was a childhood bedroom. That was more than threescore years ago, on the eastern seaboard about a thousand miles south of Bowdoinham, where I now live. I was 10, going on 11. Because of some indeterminate symptoms, a fancy specialist up in Wilmington, North Carolina, condemned me to six months of bed rest, the opiate of the puny. For the first couple of weeks, I felt sick enough not to mind. Thereafter, I read, slept, looked out of the window, and wondered why he hadn’t simply prescribed euthanasia.

Lying on my back, as I was supposed to do, I could only look out at the crowns of the hardwoods that had grown in along the ditch bank behind the house. A couple were dogwoods, the prettiest tree of all, but the one I remember was a wild cherry. I’d been put to bed in February, and so when March came, I could watch its slow, magical leafing out.

Like every other boy in town, I’d done my share of tree climbing and knew that its silky-green crown was unreachable for anything heavier than a squirrel. Still, I fantasized about constructing myself some kind of nest and living up there, weightless, surrounded by the sun-dappled dancing of the leaves and looking down on life.

Mama brought home from the library what were deemed appropriate books for fifth graders; I read them at a clip of two or three per day. Friends of my parents dropped off books they thought I might enjoy. It says something about my boyhood tastes that one of these was a deluxe, illustrated edition of Teddy Roosevelt’s African Game Trails, his account of a safari taken in his post-presidential years. I read it and re-read it, staring at the illustrations for so long that, for years afterwards, the sight of them gave me a feeling of convalescent lassitude.

All of this — the confinement, the view, the cherry tree, and the books — was the beginning of a lifelong love-hate relationship with claustral spaces and literature. Part of me flourishes and part of me frets in it. Reading requires enclosure and a total immersion, as sentence after sentence and page after page unfurl from their beginnings, more like music to me than music is. I can’t read outdoors; I’d sooner try to watch a movie at a basketball game.

Other rooms, other views. Always, it seems, I have looked out on and into a particular tree: from different offices or classrooms, from the houses I have lived in, and from the one I live in now. There is a kind of latent animation in a tree, or perhaps, in May, a hyperkinetic one: a pair of black-throated green warblers, flitting and fluttering, the male pausing now and then to squeak out his wispy, lisping song — busy,busy,bus-SEE! Once, in an early morning class, I glanced over the heads of my drowsy but dutifully attentive students and into the upper branches of a big red oak. Not 10 feet beyond the window at the back of the classroom, sprawled over a limb as though sleeping off a night of debauchery, was a massively, flagrantly inattentive raccoon.

Certain experts say our species feels happiest and most at home in situations that provide us what they call “prospect and refuge.” Landscape paintings typically balance these elements — a view opening out to the horizon but containing within it places of concealment for ambush, shelter, or security. Their appeal is perhaps atavistic, a nod to our hunter-gatherer past, when such landscapes improved the odds of survival; or perhaps psychological, our minds alternately looking out at the world, then inward upon themselves. I hope these Room with a View essays can have something of the same effect.

The editors have me on a strict word-count diet, which means more fresh air and exercise. Alas! Whoopee! And see you later.

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Franklin Burroughs

Franklin Burroughs is a retired professor of English at Bowdoin College.