One of my lifelong heroes, the great American writer Ray Bradbury, has died. He is generally pigeonholed as a science fiction writer, but any reader of his work will quickly understand that whether he was telling stories about the colonization of Mars, firefighters who burn books, or some strange, fleshy object floating in a jar somewhere in Arkansas, his subject was always human nature: our weirdness, our heroicism, our ability to be simultaneously many different, often contradictory beings in one shell. Over the decades he explored how we behave in groups (“The Crowd”) and how we behave when there is nothing but the stillness of the night. He wrote about utopias and dystopias, all of them worlds we create for ourselves.
Bradbury is the favorite son of Waukegan, Illinois. Being the place of his birth is perhaps the greatest claim to fame of this small, mid-Western town perched on the edge of Lake Michigan just a few miles from Wisconsin, and just a few too many miles from Chicago to qualify as suburb.
My lifelong love for Ray Bradbury began when I was a young boy growing up in that very same Waukegan. (My father had taken a job at a local engineering firm, and we were firmly settled into a classic two story brick home perfectly situated within walking distance of the school, an enormous park, railroad tracks and Lake Michigan; quite the ideal arrangement for childhood.) At some point, I gathered his books from the library at Greenwood Elementary and the book mobile and immersed myself in their worlds.
Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine takes place in Greentown, Illinois, his literary double for Waukegan. In this book and his many other novels and short stories, he creates a mythology of boyhood, of love and devotion for his hometown, describing summer days playing in the mysterious ravine (“And here the paths, made or yet unmade, that told of the need of boys traveling, always traveling, to be men.”), drinking an elixir of dandelion greens (“summer caught and stoppered…like a sudden patch of sunlight in the dark”), of fall days full of thrills and dangers, of traveling carnivals with electric men (“Live forever!”), the elderly who were never young, the wonders of new tennis shoes (“somehow the people who made tennis shoes knew what boys needed and wanted. They put marshmallows and could springs in the soles…”), the deaths of Fall and the resurrections of Spring, and so much more.
Looking back, I now realize that I was literally living in Bradbury’s childhood, walking in his footsteps. Time had, of course, moved on, but nothing much changes in a town like Waukegan. The ravine will always be filled with bugs and birds and Poplar trees, as beautiful in the sunshine as it was terrifying at night. You could tumble down the steep sides and never hit the bottom. You could take the little flowers off the Dutchman’s Breeches and laugh and pretend they were fake teeth.
You could stand with your bike and your friends at the top of a frighteningly steep hill and goad each other into going first (“man, I was booking!”), or smash pennies on the train tracks, perhaps fear the dark corners of the basement as the radiator belches and grinds. Or dig in the water and find salamanders with frilly gills, maybe sneak onto the driving range and snitch golf balls. One day after school, you get punched in the face and feel blood pour out of your nose; or, alternatively, smash a bully upside his head with your Evel Knievel lunch box and watch him crumple as you stand triumphant, heart pounding in your chest.
Or, you might have a lively, well-traveled woman of 85 who lives next door and teaches you how to read and do math before you are in kindergarten. She shows you a map of the world, covered with pushpins in Europe and Russia and China and South America — everywhere — and tells you all about the places she has been and seen. Endless possibilities!
Dandelion Wine lives in that dizzying point in your childhood where you realize that you are alive, and that life is incredibly beautiful, because the birds sings every morning, and yet also indescribably sad, because some day it will all be gone. I think that is why I am a photographer: to see, to feel, to witness, to try so very hard to hold on to the time.
Here is a particularly touching passage from Dandelion Wine about the extraordinary power of photography:
It was the face of spring, it was the face of summer, it was the warmness of clover breath. Pomegranate glowed in her lips, and the noon sky in her eyes. To touch her face was that always new experience of opening your window one December morning, early, and putting out your hand to the first white cool powdering of snow that had come, silently, with no announcement, in the night. And all of this, this breath-warmness and plum-tenderness was held forever in one miracle of photographic chemistry which no clock winds could blow upon to change one hour or one second; this fine first cool white snow would never melt, but live a thousand summers.
Ray Bradbury never stopped being a boy, wanting to touch things, and see things and take them apart and smell them and lick them and feel them. He never lost what it is that makes boys tick like clocks and vibrate like tuning forks, that magical sense that the world is a wonder, that to truly live is to bear witness to all the tiny miracles of life that surround us every day, that feeling so many of us lose as we grow. We’re taught to sit down, be quiet, don’t fidget, stop talking. We’re told by the media that there is a problem with the American boy. We hear this so often that we now believe it. And yet, the vast majority of the largest and most dynamic companies in the world are run by American men, who were once boys, so what’s the problem?
Like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn before them, Bradbury characters like Pip and Tom and Doug live in a space where imagination is everything, even to the point of absurd superstition. So, Tom and Huck want to wave a dead cat around the cemetery at midnight; Pip and his friends want to fly around the world with old Moonshround, and visit all the dark places of history (“The Halloween Tree“), the mummies, the gargoyles, Samhain and Mexican graveyards. Maybe we can all learn to be a little more superstitious again, to feel spooked, or maybe just to feel.
Ray Bradbury always had astonishing stories to tell us, the kind of stories that teach you how to live. I’ve been reading him to my boys for years, and I hope that maybe you’ll do the same.