Smith, Bob. “Treehab :Tales from My Natural, Wild Life”, University of Wisconsin Press, 2016.
A Meditation on the World
A book by Bob Smith is a cause for celebration—there is not a dull sentence anywhere and he shares his love for the world with us. In “Treehab” he meditates on “the vitality of the natural world” and as he does he gives us an intimate look into himself and into his life-changing illness. ”Treehab” is named after a retreat cabin in rural Ontario, a place where he can be with his thoughts and with himself and he tells us that he has always walked on the path less taken. He is the first openly gay comedian to perform on the “Tonight Show” and has been a successful comedian and writer of fiction and nonfiction. This time he gives us a collection of essays that explore his life and career.
Since 2007, Smith has lived with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and even though he now communicates through his iPad, his wit is still as sharp as ever. In “Treehab”, he writes about being a father, his past romantic encounters, his love of animals, his group of close friends he calls the Nature Boys, and his career as a comedian. His love of nature began when, as a boy, he received a subscription to the children’s version of “National Geographic”. He loves engaging with the environment and all of “its delights and discomforts” and it is this that is the heart of his book. He presents his observations on a variety of natural environments along details about his trips to Santa Fe, the Malibu hills, Alaska, and Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. We soon realize that each essay is a look at his thought processes on diverse subjects and he shares how he dealt with homophobic hecklers while on stage, the joys of parenthood, and his love of “all things Native American.”
He shares that his disease has been a trial but also that it has given him the opportunity to speak openly about any topic he wishes. Because he knows that “his relation to the universe might expire”, he can say what he wants. We immediately see that he has strong opinions yet his essays are funny and intimate but never self-indulgent. His one-liners are wonderful and they can be that way because nothing is off-limits.
I found the book to be centered around three major themes— facing life with ALS, dealing with fatherhood with ALS and Smith’s relationship to nature. Each of these could have been a book in itself but we are lucky to get all three in one volume. We see right away that Bob Smith is a fighter, both for himself and for his children. He is also one of the most inspirational people I have ever met and I always look forward to seeing him. He can amazingly laugh at life and at his illness.
As I mentioned earlier, Smith’s relationship to nature began when he was a boy and explored the woods of upstate New York. What he found there kept him interested and as an adult he has explored remote places in the Alaskan wilderness. He tells us that “snakes and turtles, rocks and minerals; open sky and forest canopy; God and friendship” are integral parts of his life and as he inspires us, he is inspired by them to continue to live and to be a father to his children.
Smith’s wit is quite potent and equally disses global warming, equal rights, sex, dogs, Thoreau, and more but even more important than that is the fact that it is through his humor and wit that we see what makes him the lovable man that he is. Reading Bob Smith allows us to continue to see that life is perplexing, beautiful, strange, and totally worth celebrating.
I learned some interesting facts about ALS; one of which is that two of Smith’s (and my) favorite writers, Henry Thoreau and Anton Chekhov, also had life threatening illnesses. They suffered with tuberculosis and while Smith does not compare himself to either (who could?), we sense his great admiration for them both as people and as writers.
Thoreau, he tells us, was ardently against slavery and Chekhov traveled to Sakhalin to write against Russia’s prison system. Both of these writers knew thatvdeath was coming for them, but they kept writing and fought for other suffering people. Smith’s cause is climate change. It is just amazing that a man who has so much to worry about in his life also cares enough to make sure that our environment in safe for others. I have been slow to deal with climate change— it had never been one of my priorities. One of the rabbis at my temple is really big into and honestly, I could not understand why this is such an important part of her life. I was always more concerned about who would be the next Jonathan Swift, Tennessee Williams or W.H. Auden to worry about the weather, etc (and I had been through Katrina) but after reading Bob Smith’s observations and thoughts I understand so much more. The world we live in has been lent to us during the time we live and it is important that it is the kind of world that those who follow us can live in.
Reading Smith’s observations on LGBT literature also gave me a wake up call. I became part of the LGBT community at a time when it was problematic to be openly and since we could not be a part of the larger culture, we developed one of our own. Our literature reflected who we are and how we live and if was often angry and depressing. That began to change with Stonewall and it did not take long before we had our own sections in bookstores and libraries. Like I said, it was ours and it was written by us and for us. As time moved forward and acceptance was easier to achieve, out literature stayed on the same LGBT shelves. Smith tells us that the stories he writes are not “gay stories” but stories about everyone. Reading novels lets understand other people (and ourselves). Smith says that segregating our literature and keeping it separate in a bookstore is “like putting Philip Roth in a straight Jewish section”.
Sometimes it is just too easy to remember that just because we are gay, we are people as well and to have sexuality define who we are is discrediting. What I love about this book is Smith meditates on the fragility of life and the importance of acceptance, love and the new family. However, he does not do so alone—we are pulled into his meditation circle and hang on to his every word.
I went back to thoughts of when I was young and found so much value in common items. We did not have the Internet or the smart phone to provide instant gratification. We found joy in going to the library and finding a “Dr. Doolittle” or “The Hardy Boys” novel and we would treasure them as if there were no others. Taking the bus or riding the trolley was a big deal and playing outside in the evening as our parents sat with neighbors on front porches was paradise. How quickly we forget— but let Bob Smith remind you of what being young and innocent is all about.
Here is Bob Smith, a many faceted gem who has done so much for us and never expected thanks. He just wants us to know who we are and remember who we were and he does so with his eloquent command of language that had me holding back tears of joy as I went over every sentence. This is the true beauty of being alive and we all owe Bob Smith a big thank you and a hug.