Love 101: Carson McCullers’s “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud”

A 12-year-old newspaper boy of a bygone era nears the end of his route and walks into a small cafe in the dark cold and rain of early morning to snag a cup of coffee. A few soldiers and factory workers are hunched at the counter while a man sits in a corner with his nose hovering over a beer. As the boy heads for the door, the man calls out to him, “Hey Son!”

The boy approaches tentatively, then recoils in confusion as the man lays one hand on his shoulder and uses the other to place it under the boy’s chin, the better to get a full look at him.

The boy snarls, “Say! What’s the big idea?”

Whereupon the man responds, “I love you.” 

Ah yes, the engineer, all acute observation and precision, gone all to mush in romantic love—probably human existence’s most inherently destabilizing, irrational experience, psychedelia X 10.

The scene sounds improbable in this age, in which the cafe proprietor and customers would no doubt launch upon the man, hold him down, and call the police. But Carson McCullers, most famous for her debut novel “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” (1940), wrote “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud” later that decade, a more innocent time than our own, and she had something very different in mind than depicting the depravity of a lecherous old man.

She was instead exploring the anatomy of love: its genesis, its precursors, its blooming, the conditions whereby it might endure.

And the backdrop for this was two characters whom we know only as “the boy” and “the man,” along with the wary, jaded proprietor, Leo, the only character with a name, who keeps a close eye on the pair’s interaction but allows it to unfold as McCullers develops her theme through the sad but ultimately self-reconciled tale of “the man.”

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No, it’s not a promising sign that the man has his nose in a beer before breakfast, but there is little doubt of his earnestness and even urgency as he seeks to impart something important to this boy who has wandered unknowingly into his life. The boy is not totally reassured but is at least not alarmed, given the fact that Leo, who has served him before, is not intervening to chase the man off.

So the boy listens, interested but wary, as the man unspools his tale of love gone awry, and then found again on a vastly different terrain.

The man had fallen hard for a woman once, 12 years before. They married three days after they met, and it had lasted, the man tells the boy, “one year, nine months, three days, and two nights.”

Until on that fourth day of the second year and ninth month he came home from his work as an engineer to an empty house, from which she had fled, never to be found again, despite the man’s subsequent and desperate two-year search.

His love for the woman had been all-enveloping, the man tells the boy:

“All I had ever felt was gathered together around this woman. Nothing lay around loose in me any more but was finished up by her. I’m not explaining this right. What happened was this. There were these beautiful feelings and loose little pleasures inside me. And this woman was something like an assembly line for my soul. I run these little pieces of myself through her and I come out complete.”

Ah yes, the engineer, all acute observation and precision, gone all to mush in romantic love—probably human existence’s most inherently destabilizing, irrational experience, psychedelia X 10.

And then the fall to earth.

Sometimes the falls happens slowly, like a lazy fluttering leaf, in day-to-day doldrums under which love is leavened by a deeper but less dramatic appreciation for the beloved. Or else it descends violently, in gnawing resentment rather than appreciation, when even the characteristics that were once beloved now elicit at best a quiet, seething rage.

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But this is when the man’s story turns. Yes, he had gone through his period of “mania,” of haunting the streets of various towns, drinking, “fornicating,” the typical  flailings of a man done wrong.

Five years after the violence done to his psyche and soul, he begins to regain his scientific mindset, helped along by time, hard sustained thinking, and the things of this world.

“They fall in love with a woman,” he tells the boy, about his fellow tumblers into the throes of romantic love.

“’They start at the wrong end of love. They begin at the climax. Can you wonder it is so miserable? Do you know how men should love?’ The old man reached over and grasped the boy by the collar of his leather jacket. He gave him a gentle little shake and his green eyes gazed down unblinking and grave. ‘Son, do you know how love should be begun?’ The boy sat small and listening and still. Slowly he shook his head. The old man leaned closer and whispered: ‘A tree. A rock. A cloud.'”

He started small and cautiously, as befitting a scientific experiment, in loving the things around him, the man tells the boy. A goldfish he takes home to tend, a bird in the sky, passersby on the street, when a “beautiful light” comes upon him.

“No longer do I have to think about it even…Everything, Son. And anybody. All stranger and all loved! Do you realize what a science like mine can mean?”

Carson McCullers

The proprietor Leo does not fade into the background as he fries bacon and refills coffee cups while keeping an attentive ear on the man’s soliloquys. He is agitated, but for reasons about which he is no doubt himself unclear, is loathe to intercede. Until the man utters the lines above and Leo just can’t help himself anymore, screaming, “Aw shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”

The outburst brings to mind Shakespeare’s line in “Hamlet,” “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Meaning that Leo stands in for every person afraid of getting too close to the truth of things, too baldly stated, and thus too challenging for him to defend himself in not following that truth as he might.

Put plainly here, McCullers is challenging the notion that we can actually love another person, truly and really love them, until we love the world they are a part of: the trees and rocks and skies surrounding them, the ocean they have emerged from and swim in, metaphorically at least, every day of their lives.

Sure, cocooning in a sealed-off world of romantic bliss can be lovely—on occasion, at least—but to throw oneself pell mell into a lover and hope he or she can bring us the peace, contentment and identity that we otherwise lack is to ascribe God-like qualities to the beloved, which, as the man suggests, is to “start at the wrong end.”

Better to love the world in all its particularity, its many-faceted “kingdoms of the small,” to borrow poet Theodore Roethke’s lush phrase, in order to set the table and provide the nourishment for all else that would make us whole.

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“A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud” is from the 1951 volume, “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories.” It is available in its entirety, a quick 10-minute read at most, in pdf form here. Interestingly, actress Sarah Allen made her directorial debut in a short half-hour feature treatment of it in 2016, but after playing a few film festivals, it seems to have disappeared from public availability at the moment. Meanwhile, there’s a trailer for it on You Tube, playing just below this song from Suzanne Vega’s, “We of Me,” a phrase taken from McCullers’s short story, “The Member of the Wedding,” and which reflected the sexual ambiguity McCullers experienced in her own life as a bisexual. McCullers died at age 50 in 1967, her biography fascinating and sad, as so many artists’ lives turn out to be.

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Rock, tree and sky photos by Andrew Hidas  https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/

McCullers photo from the public domain

4 comments to Love 101: Carson McCullers’s “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I read “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud” to Claire yesterday. It’s an interesting take on the love. She describes it like a magnet. All these little filings (feelings) of iron lie randomly around in a space (existence) until this force (the love between two persons) suddenly brings them all together into a clump, a completeness. However, various elements (time, extreme heat, electricity, hammering) act as demagnetizers. The poles weaken and things just fall apart. After this disintegration, rebuilding is a long process. Appreciating tiny natural things (rocks, trees and clouds) re-establishes order and meaning to life. The final line (“He sure has done a lot of traveling.”) summarizes the long, difficult journey one must experience to sustain love. There’s a batch of truth to “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud”.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Interesting you should mention that, Robert—when I ran across a reference to the story a few weeks ago while reading something else, I immediately looked for it and then read it aloud to Mary, at the end of which I said, “Oooh, I think I’m gonna write about this.” Happily, it’s the perfect length for reading aloud, and of course the whole impact of the words is different when they are enunciated.

      Meanwhile, I never in a thousand years would have thought of the magnet analogy; many thanks for that!

  • Loren Webster  says:

    I loved that story once upon a time, in another lifetime, when I was an English major in college.

    Is that trailer for a movie that’s about to be released or for a movie that’s on Netflix, Prime, etc? I’d love to see it if I don’t have to go to a theater.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Hey Loren, we searched for quite some time for the movie—a 30-minute or so short—but couldn’t find any platform or listing for it. Have an email in to the production company, but no word yet. Meanwhile, we got “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” beamed in yesterday, quite a nice piece of work, and one of Alan Arkin’s early films. Not sure how closely it cleaved to the book cuz it’s been forever since I read it, but it’s still hard to believe McCullers wrote it when she was 23 years old. There is an awful lot going on in that story!

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