OSWEGO, NY – Call him a reverse Johnny Appleseed.
Oswegonian Richard Horan has traveled the country gathering tree seeds from homes of famous writers, “looking for the trees that were silent witnesses to their childhood or adult lives and may have influenced their work,” he explained.
His literary seed collection is being cultivated by an arborist in Upstate New York.
Julia O’Halloran, assistant publicist for Harper Collins Publishers of New York, said Horan’s book, Seeds, is one man’s serendipitous journey to find the trees that inspired famous American writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton.
Seeds has received some wonderful press coverage since it went on sale in early April, she added. It was featured on NPR On Point, PRI Live on Earth and WAMC The Roundtables.
“As a boy, I grew up in Connecticut where trees are like cathedrals. My first memory in life is of my father building me a tree house in the cherry trees behind our little home in Darien, Conn. I remember playing up in the trees all day long,” Horan told Oswego County Today recently.
He will host a party for Seeds on Saturday (May 21).
It will take place from 4 – 6 p.m. at Old City Hall, Water Street.
It was while on a family vacation to the Gulf of Mexico that Horan had the idea to go around the country and gather the seeds from the trees of his heroes’ homes.
In fact, it was at Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Ill., that it took off.
During a summer road trip in 2006, Horan and his family make a stop at the 16th President’s home.
While perusing the home’s archives, Horan said he found himself captivated by a photograph of Lincoln standing next to a young basswood tree.
“I was taking a tour and there was a photograph of Lincoln standing out in front of his house next to a spindly little tree. From my vantage point I could see through the window a very large tree in approximately the same spot as the tree in the photo,” he said.
He was amazed to discover that it was, in fact, the same tree.
Overtaken by a sense of urgency, he went outside to gather a few seeds and took them home to grow.
“I immediately went out to investigate and what I found was a large puddle of seeds under the ancient tree. I felt a tickle inside,” he recalls.
Later, at Graceland, between the Jumpsuit Shrine and Elvis’ grave, he discovered the mother lode of seeds (all maples) from the huge maple trees in Elvis’s yard.
“It was that event that put the idea of going around the country to gather seeds at the homes of all of heroes with the intention of planting them and growing them in a literary grove of my own,” Horan explained.
There is a sense of purpose to this simple act of seed collecting.
Horan’s literary pilgrimages have taken him to the homes of many celebrated American figures.
His compulsive seed-collecting has resulted in harvesting trips to the West Coast, New England and Deep South.
He said it has morphed from a hobby into a clearly defined mission – to uncover the stories behind the trees that served as silent observers to American history.
Seeds’ itinerary took Horan to the homes of Jack Kerouac, Willa Cather, John Muir, Shirley Jackson, Robert Frost, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Harper Lee and many others, as well as emotional visits to Gettysburg and Mount Vernon.
The book includes a drawing of a seed from each visit.
Horan, a composition instructor and writing center coordinator at SUNY Oswego, has previously written two novels of fiction; Seeds is his first nonfiction work.
He is an award-winning novelist. His two novels, Life in the Rainbow (1996) and Goose Music, both won awards in fiction.
“As for my first book, which I began writing only a few years out of boxing, it was actually a memoir of my experience working as a nurse’s aide in a mental institution. There was no such thing as creative non-fiction in 1996, and because some of the chronology and characters were shuffled around a bit in the book, my publisher didn’t even think about trying to sell it as a memoir,” he explained. “Life in the Rainbow is about 95% pure reality. I like to describe my first novel as similar to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, only told sympathetically from the nurses’ aide’s point of view. It is the funniest and craziest book I will ever write. I don’t believe a book like it could be published today or ever again for that matter. I am in awe of my first publishers, Steerforth Press, for choosing to publish it in the first place.”
However, he wasn’t always using his hands to write.
“Between 1979 and 1981, I was a professional middleweight boxer and fought throughout New York, New England and Canada,” he said. “What I like to brag about these days is that I used to train with Freddie Roach, the great former boxer and now trainer of the champion Manny Pacquiao.”
“Other than writing, I work as the coordinator of a new program for suspended students at the Oswego City School District. My wife (Mary) is jazz vocalist who sings in the area. My oldest daughter, Katherine, is a stand-up comedian in Buffalo and my youngest daughter, Evelyn, is a very talented musician who plays flute for the Syracuse Symphony Youth Orchestra and will be attending the Berklee School of Music in Boston in the fall.”
He received a Master’s of Arts in Teaching from University of Pittsburgh in 1988 and has taught and lived in Italy and Korea with his family.
His book reviews have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Washington Times, St. Petersburg Times and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
According to one critic: “Quick-paced and highly personal, Seeds delivers a poignant, thoughtful, and at times disarmingly funny account of one man’s search to find the source of inspiration of his American heroes while inadvertently discovering his own.”
Reflecting back on his days a pugilist, Horan said, “Yes, I am very lucky the way things turned out for me. I only had about a dozen fights amateur and professional all told before I was out of the sport. I played football and baseball in high school and a little in college, so I didn’t get fully into boxing until I was about 19.”
“I was all done by 22; before the male brain has even fully developed,” he quipped.
He loved the sport then and still does today.
“Recently, I visited the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota and discovered that the ring they have on display there is the same one I fought in when I boxed in the New York City Golden Gloves back in the mid 1970s,” he said. “Yes indeed, there is a great parallel between boxing in writers, especially the personalities and the creativity and joie de vivre needed to participate and excel in both. The largest personality I have ever known was my manager/trainer, now deceased, Al Nayer from Brockton, MA. What a character!”
Horan has plans for a logical progression from Seeds.
“I have signed a second book contract with Harper Collins to write a sequel to Seeds called Harvest. In it I will go around the country and participate in the harvest of America’s most beloved crops, from Hopi blue corn in Arizona, to cranberries in Cape Cod to potatoes in Maine. I will participate in about a dozen harvests,” he said. “It should be out in 2012 or 2013.”
SEEDS: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton
By Richard Horan On sale: April 19, 2011
Harper Perennial/$14.99/pp 384