December 6, 2012
Carl Nicola: Arboretum Library Remembrances
Carl Nicola: Remembrances
By Susan C. Eubank, Arboretum Librarian
Carl Nicola came to the Arboretum Library in 2007. Generally when I interview perspective volunteers we wander around the room and talk about possible tasks and projects and eventually scheduling. That’s all a blur about Carl, but I have a vague remembrance of his saying something about graphic design and me saying something about how I didn’t have anyone to repair my books. I arranged a “free” demonstration about book repair from a library supply company. I invited fellow librarians from the surrounding local public libraries and we had an expectant class ready to learn. The instructor forgot to bring her “DVD.” The class devolved into anecdotal chaos. I was embarrassed for the instructor and disappointed for the attendees. Carl, however, persevered. He read the materials the “class” distributed and slowly he started repairing the Arboretum Library books. Every Thursday afternoon for five years (with a few vacation and holiday exceptions) Carl came to the Arboretum Library and made it a better place. He sat at the library table with his canvas bag of tools (including his grandmother’s sewing shears) and supplies and gently made the books look better. The tattered spines were carefully removed and strengthened with book tape and the spines were carefully reinstalled with glue. The ripped pages were pieced together with acid-free tape. The dust jackets that were in pieces were fit together as a jigsaw puzzle and encased in plastic jackets. My other volunteers were often eager to handle some of these jobs while they were adding the library spine labels to the books. I always said, “No, let’s leave this one for Carl.” I said that because Carl had the hands and eyes of an artist and I watched as the books turned from something that looked very sad to a book lover to something that was again made whole. I knew the ones he repaired would last for the long term. In the Arboretum Library the books are here “forever” when they fit appropriately into the scope of the collection. We are collecting, maintaining and preserving for the future, the cumulative body of knowledge that it takes to know about plants in Southern California. It was an honor to watch him work and take part in his gentle humor as he carefully brought the books back to life.
Somewhere along the line, we cajoled Carl into participating in the Library’s Reading the Western Landscape Book Club. Thursdays are my busiest volunteer day and we are a pretty lively bunch and so we probably bantered about the books we were reading and eventually one drew him in. I can’t remember him participating in Louise Erdrich’s Tales of Burning Love (New York: HarperCollins, 1996) in February of 2011, but I do remember his sly comments in March of that year about how entomologist John Alcock’s In a Desert Garden (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997) was about “sex, sex, sex,” so he must have participated in the previous one, because it was sort of about that too. We all so enjoyed his participation. He created lists. They would vary from book to book and whim to whim of what he thought would be fun to concentrate on: birds for David Guterson’s East of the Mountains, (New York: Viking, 1985) plants in the Mary Austins’s Land of Little Rain (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903). It focused our thinking. And he always would read aloud his favorite passage. I often liked to close the meeting with that, so we could all go home with the sounds of his voice reading the wonderful words and the thought of the passage in our heads. We read several books about southern California from earlier times; James Cain’s Mildred Pierce (New York : Knopf, 1941), M.F.K Fisher’s Among Friends, (New York: Knopf, 1971) the Mary Austin book, and even farther south with John Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez (New York : Viking Press. 1951.) Carl went to Whittier and regaled us with his adventures in Ms. Fisher’s old neighborhood. He would send me topic related e-mails in his RSVP’s for the meeting such as he was “driving in from Laguna” to come to the Mildred Pierce meeting.
After we read, Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996) which is an anthropological study of how the Western Apache use landscape and place to tell their cultural histories and as stories to help with daily life, Carl said, “Susan, now I get it. I know why you are choosing the books you do and why you created this book club.” That was praise enough for me to persevere even though sometimes I feel it’s folly, because I don’t appear to be finding an audience for my endeavors. It all made sense for me when we started to learn about Cambria. Each week or at the monthly book meeting, I/we would learn a little more about that magical place and where it was in Carl’s heart: the view of the main street into town when he was young and the cemetery on the hill. His stories of Cambria have now made the town my own personal Shangri-La that I haven’t visited yet, because of his descriptions; a far off, lost time with the hills and the sea.
The last time I saw Carl in the hospital, a Sunday, I told him I had brought contraband. I was hoping most people were sneaking in chocolates or milk shakes or something he really liked to eat, because I’m sure we all wanted to make sure he was eating things he enjoyed or things that would help him recover more quickly. He had said when I talked to him, earlier, over the telephone that he didn’t want any reading material, that he didn’t want any distractions, no IPad…. The contraband I had brought was Wendell Berry’s A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997. He is one of my favorite “landscape” authors, a poet, novelist and essayist who lives and farms in Kentucky. A Timbered Choir was Berry’s Sunday work. I can’t throw him into a book club selection, because Kentucky isn’t in the West, but his work is a wonderful voice for the land and how people relate to it. Carl brightened and smiled when I gave it to him. I said the poems weren’t too long and he could easily skip the ones that weren’t to his taste. Thank you, Carl, for your continued graciousness in letting me believe that Wendell Berry’s work could be something that would help you in the hospital. Thank you, Carl, for all your gifts to my work at the Arboretum Library. We shall carry on and our lives are so much richer for having you a part of them.
The sky bright after summer-ending rain,
I sat against an oak half up the climb,
The sun was low; the woods was hushed in shadow;
Now the long shimmer of the crickets’ song
Had stopped. I looked up to the westward ridge
And saw the ripe October light again,
Shining through leaves still green yet turning gold.
Those glowing leaves made of the light a place
That time and leaf would leave. The wind came cool,
And then I knew that I was present in
The long age of the passing world, in which
I once was not, now am, and will not be,
And in that time, beneath the changing tree,
I rested in a keeping not my own.
From A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 by Wendell Berry. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1998
And by Pamela Wolken, Arboretum Library volunteer chairperson
Carl and I shared our Arboretum Library assignment interview in the early Spring of 2007. He was quiet, underassertive, and had a devilish gleam in his eye. We started on Thursdays together and while he worked his magic on injured books at the table, I was listing seemingly endless cartons of magazines for inventory. In short order, we were talking about everything from movies, Netflix subscriptions, the critters in his kitchen to his overgrown yard and his attack of weeds. Carl kept up a demographic study of sorts in his self-appointed role of Arboretum cigarette butt cop: he would take long walks every week picking up cigarette butts specifically, and could tell the sorts of activities that had gone on from his findings. I came to look forward to his reports.
Carl had a talent for finding common ground with everyone. He would talk birding with the interested volunteers, symphony with others. While he saw the world from a unique perspective I enjoyed from some of his vacation pictures, it was never imposed; we always discovered it in new ways with Carl.
Some days, he would sit as if watching paint dry. He would be planning his attack of the next repair problem, occasionally sharing the details. Not very long ago he admitted some embarrassment at his earliest efforts; his book repair skills had matured in his own eye and he was always looking for new ways to improve his skills. Occasionally I would ask for his expertise on a magazine and was never disappointed.
While his work was focused on Thursday afternoon, I came to look forward to his visits on Friday to check on something he left in the book press. The attention to detail and meticulous care he took clearly was key to his success. Anyone who had deigned to try storing other stuff among his book repair supplies on “his” shelf was in for a severe (albeit silent) rebuke. After each of his sessions, certainly in the early years, Carl would be entering in his notebook the volumes he had fixed and what he had done.
Along came Reading the Western Landscape Book Club and Carl's humor had a chance to shine. He always brought out a viewpoint and opinion that struck me as totally unrevealed until Carl voiced it; part of reading was looking forward to what Carl thought. He would list how often an author used a particular word, and on occasion take himself to experience the landscape the author described. Carl seemed to know more about the work than the author. I will miss that. He taught me how to read all over again.
The last time I saw Carl was November 12, 2012, in hospital where he was being treated for pneumonia. The room was inordinately bleak and daunting since it was specially set up for clean air flow and extra infection protections. From behind a mask, I saw the figure in the bed: oxygen mask like on an airplane (two masked volunteers!), scruffy beard, tubes everywhere, and Carl's gleaming eyes that came to life as we visited and talked about him getting on his feet. He did remark that getting home would mean he'd rely on “the kindness of strangers” in a Blanche DuBois reference, and he asserted being “energized” by a visit.
The Carl I remember is the man who returned from Europe a few months ago: it was his first trip and he'd booked a classical music tour of Germany, Austria and Czech Republic. He was ready to go again and spend more time in some areas, less in others, and study German before he went to better enjoy the experience. That animated face of pure pleasure and contentment is how I remember Carl.
When Netflix delivers Jeeves and Wooster, Carl's favorite, I will miss him even more.