In this holy place, surrounded by portraits of the bearded and long deceased, I go about the familiar rituals. I hand the card with my request to the research librarian, and she walks over and sends a message to those below, in the building’s bowels. There the subterranean workers—it is hard not to imagine them as hunched, blind, mole-like—search the caverns and find the thing from the past I requested, retrieving it from the clutch of time. They secure the relic in a small airtight elevator and it rises up. Then the librarian brings it over to where I sit waiting at the long table, and places it delicately on a gray foam wedge.

And so I find myself communing, as we used to say, with the great. Specifically, with Ralph Waldo Emerson. I stare down at Emerson’s journal, 153 years old, written in his own perfect hand and self-indexed, as if he had prepared it just for me. I am here, in Houghton library, because I am writing a book about birds, but today my subject is “vision.” Sure enough I find entries for that, and for “eyes” and “eyesight.” It is a good morning.

I emerge disoriented, muffle-headed. I am in the library’s foyer, having just called my wife to tell her of my good luck, when I see an older man struggling with the door. The man wears a yellow rain slicker, as if back from lobstering, and he carries two large boxes. I push open the door for him, and then, without thinking, grab the top box. As he offers a courtly nod of thanks, I recognize him. The vulpine features. The blade of a nose. The well-known face of the famous novelist, perhaps the country’s most famous. As I set the box down on a table in the foyer, it occurs to me what must be inside. His is an errand of immortality.

How many books of John Updike’s have I read? Seven? Eight? After I help him settle the boxes and he thanks me, I embark on an errand of my own. I rush over to my locker, where worldly things are stashed before entering the sanctum, and pull out a copy of my own book, my first, and soon I am back and thrusting it in his hand. He is all grace and courtesy. I am crass enthusiasm and ambition.

Many years later, near the end of his life, he is a guest at our university, and my wife and I, along with three other faculty members, take him out to dinner. With the same grace and good manners that I remember, he answers all our questions and asks to trade one of his scallops for a bite of my wife’s sushi. He even replies with equanimity when I, emboldened by pre-dinner drinks, ask him who among the writers of his generation he considers the most overrated, and what he really thinks of the one living novelist considered his closest rival.

And he also says this:

“I doubt my work means anything any longer to young people.”

I think of that sentence today a decade or more after the dinner, two decades after the library encounter. He was a realist, a keen observer of life and of the ways we fool ourselves, and wouldn’t have wasted much thought on something as foolish as whether or not his books would stick around “forever.” But it had to cross his mind. A gentle Ozymandias, but an Ozymandias still. Sixty books or so. In a weak moment, didn’t he imagine his own work being one day transported in a small airtight elevator rising up and then placed on a gray foam wedge where a young man, a century or two in the future, bends over his pages? What was all that scribbling for, if not the hope, in Frost’s words, of lodging a couple up there where they could not be dislodged? But the great dislodging has begun.

Back at the library it was as if I were holding open the door for Emerson himself. But I am now closer to the age the writer was then, and the moment’s meaning has changed. In memory he is, while still courtly and refined, older and more fragile, and while I imagine he took well-earned pride in the day’s task, I wonder if he didn’t also feel a prick or two of desperation as he lugged his boxes, intent on his impossible errand.

David Gessner is the author of thirteen books including the forthcoming A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World, which this essay is based on. Gessner is the founder of the literary magazine, Ecotone. His own magazine publications include pieces in the New York Times Magazine, OutsideSierra, and the Washington Post, and his prizes include a Pushcart Prize and the John Burroughs Award for Best Nature Essay for his essay “Learning to Surf,” which appeared in Orion. He has also won the Association for Study of Literature and the Environment’s award for best book of creative writing, and the Reed Award for Best Book on the Southern Environment. In 2017 he hosted the National Geographic Explorer show, “The Call of the Wild.”

Photo by Dinty W. Moore