A FEW YEARS ago I saw a TV movie about the life of Gustav Mahler. It was a stinker, more or less, except for the beginning. The beginning was great. I really enjoyed it. I also recognized it as a short story by Isaac Babel called "The Awakening." The film maker had lifted the story intact and almost verbatim. Scrutinizing the credits, I saw no mention of Isaac Babel. It could have been an oversight. Babel has no one to protect him -- Stalin caused him to disappear in the late '30s. The story is no doubt public domain and not that widely known, and nobody cares what the movie maker does with it anyway.
The reason I mention it now is that a curious insight arises from the only change in the text the film maker made (aside from naming the central character Gustav Mahler).
The story goes like this: In old Odessa a kid's family sends him for fiddle lessons, hoping he will turn out to be a prodigy and get them all clear of poverty and disaster, both of which are snapping at their heels. The kid has no aptitude and commences to play hooky, hanging around the harbor with some other boys.
An old man, a sort of ad hoc youth worker and swim coach teaches the boys and inculcates moral values. He takes pity on Babel's character, who has no aptitude for swimming either, and engages him in conversation. The old man asks the kid what he wants to be when he grows up. The kid tells him he wants to be a writer. Okay, the old guy says, so what kind of tree is that? The kid doesn't know. You want to be a writer, and you don't even know the names of trees? How can you be a writer when you don't know the names of trees?
This impresses the kid. Later his family finds out he's been skipping his fiddle lessons, and there is a poignant scene in which the father pounds on the door of the bathroom into which the kid has locked himself, and the kid experiences terror, despair, and a sense of dedication to -- learning the names of trees. It's very good in the film.
The change I referred to comes in the scene with the old swim coach. The old man asks the kid what he wants to be when he grows up. The kid tells him he wants to be a composer of music. Okay, the old guy says, so what kind of tree is that? The kid doesn't know. You want to be a composer of music, and you don't even know the names of trees? How can you be a composer when you don't know the names of trees? THE THING that finally struck me, years after seeing the movie, and decades after reading the story was that the premise is ridiculous in both cases. And yet, for years I suffered from a sort of phobia arising from ignorance of the names of woody plants. Understand, I am a mature writer -- (why be encumbered with false modesty?) -- a distinguished writer, a graduate of extensive psychotherapy, and a terribly bright guy to begin with. Even so, for long years I was utterly paralyzed and did not begin my career as a writer of fiction entirely because of deficiencies in forest lore. It may well be that when I did get started writing I chose to inhabit the ignominious swamp of children's literature because I knew I was just not good enough to write real books about human relations and sex -- not good enough because I don't know my ash from an elm.
And I am not the only one to be afflicted with this superstitious belief about the names of trees. Isaac Babel appears to have at least flirted with the notion; so did Vladimir Nabokov (he reportedly feigned shock when one of his students at Cornell couldn't name the trees in the quad). Where does it come from? Could it have its origins in some druidic tradition? Why should I know about trees? I've lived most of my life, until recently, where there hardly were any -- and now that I live surrounded by them, it seems perfectly correct to admire them without getting intimate. Live and let live I say. I don't bother them, and they don't bother me. Same as with snakes.
I want to point out that in the story, Babel only mentions two kinds of trees, acacias and lilacs (which I looked up, and they are more properly a shrub). It doesn't hurt the story a bit. He gets by just fine with acacias. I submit that an author could write a lot of short stories, or a lot of novels, and mention no other trees than acacias with excellent effect. I myself, in nearly 50 books, recall only specifying once -- a baobab. I have had no complaints. Oh, I get complaints -- I hear from fundamentalists who want to know if I am a devil worshipper or a communist -- but I am never upbraided for being inexplicit about flora of any kind.
I wonder how many other writers, and aspiring writers are intimidated by their own lack of familiarity with leaf shapes and textures of bark, and characteristic outlines. Down with this pointless and probably antique preoccupation with tree names! It should be extirpated, root and branch!
Daniel Pinkwater is the author of numerous books for children and others, most recently "The Muffin Fiend."