Does proximity to nature enhance creativity?

My Journaling Desk

My Journaling Desk

Does proximity to nature enhance creativity? In September on The Studio with Cheryl on KRUU I interviewed three authors whose preferred writing spaces connect them with the outdoors. Cartoonist Francesco Marciuliano’s pet poetry books (like I Knead My Mommy and Other Poems by Kittens) appear on many best-seller lists. His first-floor New York City apartment boasts a small, private backyard. Weather permitting, Francesco writes there. Outside, under the shade of an umbrella, he sits at a small table in an Adirondack chair.

Standup comic and internationally known performance poet, June Melby recently penned a memoir: My Family and Other Hazards details her family’s years running a hand-crafted but unprofitable miniature golf course near Waupaca, Wisconsin. From her writing desk, June sees the woods surrounding her Decorah, Iowa log cabin.

Oral historian Esther Ehrlich’s Richmond, California home borders a large park filled with deer, foxes, and hawks. Tucked into a corner of her bedroom, her writing space consists of a shelf-like slab of wood positioned below two huge windows. Esther’s view includes a ravine, trees, a creek, birds, and wildlife. “It’s a very peaceful place for me to write,” Esther told me, adding that she wrote her whole book (Nest, her first historical novel) sitting right there.

In his nonfiction book Thrive, author Dan Buettner praised flow rooms, spaces in Danish homes designed to encourage families to cultivate the arts. I may never have a flow room. I may never succeed in making all my home’s rooms the tidy, nurturing spaces I want them to be. Thanks to the inspiration of people I’ve interviewed, though, I have created a flow niche.

During my teens, my parents bought a solid-maple vanity for my bedroom. After they died, I took it home to Iowa. At my request, my husband recently detached the heavy mirror from its back, and now the vanity fits perfectly under our bedroom’s north window. With a vintage chair of my mother’s beside it, the vanity feels desk-like. The north light draws me to it, maybe because it deepens the patina of use emanating from the vanity, the chair, and two old suitcases my husband kept to remind him of his father.  Sitting at the vanity, I see a stretch of sky, a gravel road, and trees, now mature, that my husband planted.

Tiny as it is, this space comforts me in ways I can’t explain. Journal writing is effortless here. Breezes from the window, the chirpings of crickets and birds, the daily deer sightings—these simple sensory impressions quiet my jumbled thoughts. In this small space, I feel connected not just to nature, but to the inner me, my creative self, and also to loved ones now gone.

NEST by Esther Ehrlich: “I just wrote the book I needed to write.”

Esther Ehrlich, Author of Nest

Esther Ehrlich, Author of Nest

Some things that I read make me long to meet the author. Anyone who can write like this, I think, must be a wise person. B. K. Loren’s novel Theft elicited that reaction. So did Elizabeth McCracken’s story, “Some Have Entertained Angels, Unaware” and “Welding with Children” by Tim Gautreaux.  And now there’s this new book, Esther Ehrlich’s historical novel Nest, which I found myself magically pre-approved to download to my Kindle and read free-of-charge thanks to NetGalley (which provides complimentary e-books to reviewers and media people).

Set in the 1970s, Nest is a children’s book, purportedly for ages 10 and up, but it didn’t surprise me to learn that Esther didn’t plan it that way.

“I did not write the book with any audience in mind,” she told me recently while taping a radio interview for The Studio on KRUU-LP 100.1FM. “I really feel like I just wrote the book I really needed to write,” she explained.

Reading Nest, I wondered, Who could do this? Who could tell a story with so much sadness yet still infuse it with so much hope and joy? Nest’s protagonist, eleven-year-old Naomi (nicknamed Chirp due to her fascination with birds) faces serious problems. Her mom’s longstanding struggle to overcome crippling depression crumbles after troubling symptoms lead to a multiple sclerosis diagnosis and end her dancing career. The insistence of Chirp’s dad (a psychiatrist) on addressing family crises with emotionally insensitive discussions intensifies family members’ isolation. The family’s religion—they’re Jewish in an area where most people aren’t—renders evangelical Christian spiritual advice, offered awkwardly from secondary adults in Chirp’s life, irrelevant. Finally, Chirp’s friend Joey, whose home life includes physical and emotional abuse, develops obsessive compulsions.

Esther tempers all this malaise with graceful strategies that Chirp grasps for psychic survival: dancing indoors and out, tromping to her favorite birding-watching spots, throwing rocks with Joey in his secret, glass-walled hangout. Chirp’s life is filled with hit 1970s records and with the sounds of crickets and songbirds. She exploits all the freedom enjoyed by 1970s-era children, children untethered to technology, children who explore the landscape around them in a very visceral way. Esther plumbs all the richness of children’s lives during this less technological era.

Naomi reads books, and from one, Harriet the Spy, she learns the value of being observant. Nothing escapes this girl, not scents (sweat, lavender, lemon) or tastes (Oreos, Ring Dings, Yodels) or traditions (making menorahs by sticking candles into holes poked in raw potatoes, riding swan boats in the Boston Public Garden).
Enlivened by Chirp’s innocent engagement with the sensory world, readers eventually suspect that, aided by Joey’s friendship, this strong, thoughtful girl—though mightily challenged—will emerge from the blanket nest she’s built on her bedroom floor and navigate her way to a successful and happy adulthood.

Nest by Esther Ehrlich

Nest by Esther Ehrlich