this is not a review: ‘life in the garden’, by penelope lively

 

If, during these sheltering at home times, you’re lucky enough to have a garden, I’ll bet you’re embracing it. I know I am, with infinite pleasure. Not only in love with my own green space but ever more in love with gardens generally, including those of friends through shared pics and conversations and all the beautiful green energy that gardens generate.

Also books about gardens.

Most recently ‘Life in the Garden’ which is so perfectly titled how could I not be drawn to it given that these past three months it’s been my theme song and even now when the world is slowly opening up and I don’t think that’s maybe the best idea I continue to live, for the most part, in my garden.

A slim thing, 186 pp with not a wasted word, reflections on gardens and how they connect to art, to literature,  history, as well as the fashion of gardens (white garden in, wax begonias out, that kind of thing) and the inanity of the Chelsea Flower Show. This last observation especially endears me to the author. The point of it all being that gardens are as individual in appearance and purpose as those who create them and the natural environment in which they exist, and should never be influenced by trends, fashions or other dictates.

Not a new philosophy but what IS new? The writer’s job is not to invent the wheel, but to show it from a perspective that feels fresh, that makes us think differently about something familiar just when we thought we’d thought it all.

“I do not look at [photos[ with the same intensity that I look at a painted garden… The photograph reports; the painting examines, interprets, expands.”

I like how Lively distinguishes between gardening and creating, or allowing a garden to simply be. The former being weeding, etc., the latter everything else. While able to admire aspects of the fancy schmancy spaces with boxwood edges trimmed to mad levels of perfection, she prefers a sort of contrived disarray, enough hands-off so that plants can truly find their own space with only occasional intervention and nudging so that there is fairness to all and a limit on anarchy. This works against the principle of insisting the blue things go here and the yellow there.

“Gardening is not outdoor housework.”

She writes about gardens in various urban and rural settings and how, surprisingly, it’s the suburban gardens (those between city and country) that, despite a devotion to lawns, also tend to have the larger number of green spaces/gardens and the greatest diversity of plants.

There are bits about Virginia Woolf’s house near Lewes, purchased in 1919 when she was thirty-seven and her years of gardening there with Leonard and thoughts on the Garden of Eden and while… “God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the earth...” she would have been that much happier had there been some second thoughts when it came to creating vine weevil and greenfly.

She writes about The Eden Project, vast biomes housing a rainforest in Cornwall and how Gertrude Jeckyll was THE gardening guru of her time, her books the forerunner to Home and Garden magazine.

She writes about gardens as inspiration for art—German Impressionist, Max Liebermann’s garden at Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, Gustav Klimt’s, fin-de-siecle golden ladies, his ‘cottage garden’ flowers of 1905, Munch’s Jealousy in the Garden, (one of eleven Jealousies… including Jealousy in the Bath, etc.)

“Van Gogh said that he discovered the laws of simultaneous colour contrast while studying flowers.”

And she writes about the rhododendrons of Daphne du Marier’s Rebecca. (which Lively personally doesn’t like for their aggressiveness and show-offy ways and which make them perfect for what they symbolize in the book)

Nor does Lively hold back her opinion of A Secret Garden, which she doesn’t love for its sentimentalism and heavy handed approach about the healing aspects of positive thinking which Frances Hodgson Burnett arrived at through Christian Science. (Here I might disagree with Lively. Not on Christian Science, of which I know zip, but that the power of positive thinking itself surely can NOT be a bad message. Though she has other issues with the book and I would need to re-read A Secret Garden to comment further.)

However, Lively (don’t you love her name) IS a huge fan of Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, and references a scene where Tom meets an old woman, Mrs. Bartholomew (once the young girl of the story) who she tells him that “nothing stands still, except in our memory” . The scene goes on a bit longer and Lively shares it all, then adds her thoughts: “For the boy Tom, this is a moment of maturity, a glimpse of the continuity and of growing up, and a reason why [the book] is one of the greatest children’s books of all time. But above all, it is a narrative of great elegance, simply told, and leaving you with insights into the nature of time, and memory.”

The Stone Diaries comes up (when Daisy Goodwill becomes a garden columnist). And Elizabeth and Her German Gardenabout living in Prussia and gardening not being allowed for ladies. Which Lively mentions must have been a Prussian thing because it’s long been okay for the upper class to get their hands dirty (but only in the garden, and with help of course).

My TBR list increased a fair bit thanks to Lively. I now need to add Anna Pavord for gardening advice and compost making. Also her book The Tulip.

Also Margery Fish, a pioneer of informal gardening.

And Karel Capek’s The Gardener’s Year (who employs tongue in cheek humour about the ‘joys’.)

I discovered what a landscaping ‘ha-ha’ is (an architectural term for an optical illusion) and that there was a tulipmania period from 1634-37. “…at its height one of the most prized bulbs changed hands for a price equivalent to one of the then finest houses on an Amsterdam canal.”  One of the special charms of the book is that every single thing she writes about is interesting and well presented but short. No eternal chapters devoted to just one thing. Tulipmania, for instance, is beautifully explained in a page with a perfectly acceptable sense of if you want to know more about it, look it up.

Where Lively and I disagree to some extent is on the use of the Latin to describe plants. I understand its helpfulness in terms of genesis, but it does take a lot of remembering of syllables and comes off a bit snotty.

“My beloved signature plant, Erigeron karvinskianus,comes from Mexico and is sometimes called Mexican fleabane, tough I wouldn’t dream of doing so.”

But fleabane is SUCH a much lovelier name! Come on now, Penelope.

 And then she’ll say something like this:

“The gardener ends up with a head crammed full of names…. but I have not yet stared at a rose wondering what kind of flower this is, and in fact plant names seem to surface more readily than those of politicians or celebrities, which is as it should be, as far as I’m concerned.”

And once again, we agree.

 

this is not a review: reading my shelves

 

My reading usually goes something like this:

See/hear about some new title and check library to see if they have it. If yes, then I put it on hold. If I fall in love with it after reading library copy I will order from bookshop. If not available at library but looks REALLY good, I will order from bookshop directly and hope to fall in love.

A good system but one can only read so many books so what happens is that the books who live on my shelves (or stacks on my floor) (including those from bookshop) get read last because all those books on hold come swooping in continually from the library.

Except during a pandemic when the library is closed.

One of the joys during this time of isolation has been the luxury (i.e. no other choice) of reading my own shelves. Some of which has included time with old favourites but the most fun has been had in reading books whose spines I’ve stared at for years but for whatever reason haven’t taken off the shelf.

A sampling mixture follows:

The Road Past Altamont is possibly my favourite recent long-on-the-shelves discovery. What absolute joy to be embraced for a few days by Gabrielle Roy’s gorgeous sentences evoking landscape in and around Manitoba, including Lake Winnipeg and the eponymous Altamont, which reminds one of the characters of her childhood home in Quebec and which serves as a metaphor for how everything is connected and how knowing that changes our perspective on, if not everything, then much.

In the preface to City Poems, by Joe Fiorito, A.F. Moritz describes the poems as “very short, shooting stars”. I like how the image ties these ultra urban scenes to something from the natural world, a subtle reminder that even in the darkest corners of street life, life IS nature. Human or otherwise. Fiorito is a pro at noticing the life that goes on in an environment where so much and so many are ignored. ‘Blink’ and the moment, the star, is gone.

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington is a mad romp in the company of a perfectly (enviably) eccentric ninety-two year old woman in a nursing home who eavesdrops and offers straight-up thoughts about the world and the people in it, which sounds simplistic and it’s possible to read it that way, but it also veers heavily into a tongue in cheek surrealism of commentary on age, gender, family, animal rights, as well as offering a loose blueprint for changes to the current sad state of earthly affairs via starting over on another planet “… peopled with cats, werewolves, bees, and goats. We all fervently hope that this will be an improvement on humanity …” 

Sheila Burnford is best known for writing The Incredible Journey in 1961, which was later Disneyfied in a movie. I haven’t read that book but will put it on my list because this is now An Author I Like based on The Fields at Noon which I’ve had on my shelves for who knows how long. An absolute joy for its themes of outdoorsy pursuits such as mushroom hunting and walking and toads and general love of nature. I also like that Burnford, who (from her author pic) looks every bit a housefrau of the 1960’s but comes off as someone who would absolutely rather have a beer on the porch than vacuum.

The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon, is one I like to re-read for the pleasure of the characters. Don’t you just love a book where you enjoy being the in the company of fictitious folk, where when you put the book down you hope they don’t get up to anything until you come back even though you already know what happens. In a nutshell, and without giving too much away, the story is about a small community where two women have disappeared. But it’s not what you think. It’s not about the mystery, it’s about relationships and family, how they are forged, what they are based on and how (and why) they develop and how they evolve or de-evolve. Told in two alternating voices: Lulu, who grows up in the community, leaves and then returns. And Doris, who never leaves. There are roosters, beehives, greenhouses and gardens, barns and ponds, donkeys, a goat, an Airstream trailer, home preserves and foraging and among all this honest (never sentimental) beauty, there’s sadness too, and the contrast of life on the road as a musician and singer… and the sense of something that feels like a slow unravelling of darkness, but you’re never quite sure.

A few years ago Saskatchewan poet and naturalist Brenda Schmidt put out a call for culvert memories and experiences, explaining that she was working on a new series of poems that would incorporate selected comments within the collection. Published in 2018, Culverts Beneath the Narrow Road is now that collection, poetry and prose that feels like a collaborative Paean to the large round silver objects that transport the lifeblood of water across the country and which are mostly never thought about. Each piece is prefaced by an italicized line, a contribution from an anonymous someone (contributors are listed in the introduction but are not linked to their specific memories, which creates fabulous and mysterious connections in itself) and which has Schmidt tapping into her own memories and experiences from various and surprising portals. I love work that inspires story through unexpected means. Schmidt has done that beautifully.

How to Catch a Mole, by Marc Hamer, warns the reader that by the end of the book they will know more than they ever thought possible about moles. And he’s right. And it almost put me off reading the book because why would I want to know about moles? Well. Turns out that mole catching is a pretty interesting metaphor for life. But isn’t it cruel? Yes. And no. Like life. The book is a sort of casual memoir about this mole-catching-career slice of Hamer’s life, which had unhappy beginnings and which saw him homeless for many years. He made some money initially as an itinerant gardener, which turned to professional mole-catching, which in the UK is/was apparently A Big Thing. Also, there is a WAY of doing it that’s ethical, which I found hard to believe but by the time I’d finished this very slim volume of a book I saw the other side of what appears to be cruel and unnecessary work. Surprisingly, it’s not a book that makes you squirm. On the contrary, it’s filled with honesty and sensitivity. Not just about moles, but life. It’s really about life. Excellent.

All Roads Lead to Wells. I read a review about this a few years ago and it appealed to me because it’s the true account of a hippie community that moved into the teensy tiny town of Wells, BC in the late 60’s and 70’s and stayed off and on throughout the 90’s. One of the original members stayed forever and is now a member of the town council. Another, Susan Safyan, is the author of the book. Safyan’s own memories as well as those of many former hippies tell a great story about A Time. A time which really isn’t that different from This Time, when youth believes it alone can change the world. Then it was through returning to the land and forming a counter-culture by living simply, eschewing the establishment, and ‘not trusting anyone over 30’. Much of how they lived was admirable, much was questionable in terms of hypocrisy… some accepted pogey for instance. And they didn’t change the world exactly as they’d hoped, in fact many/most grew up to realize the difficulty of washing diapers by hand in cold water fetched from a stream beside your tumbling down shack and eventually sold out and accepted the gift of Pampers. But the hippies did make changes to the world, if not in diapers, they were instrumental in starting the organic and ethical food movement. Among a few other things. Lots of pictures and conversational material in the pages. A slice of history worth having.

Beth Powning’s Seeds of Another Summer about her move to the countryside many years ago. Full of gorgeous photos and a shoulder-dropping, deep breath inducing narrative of someone who misses nothing.

On a similar note, but entirely different, Catherine Owen’s Seeing Lessons about Mattie Gunterman, an 18th century “photographer and mining camp cookhouse worker”, written in poems and poetic prose about not only the times she lived but also the power of seeing and being able to retain something of what is seen.

 

 

The next batch stacked and ready:

Land to Light On, by Dionne Brand (because I love how she writes about the/her Canadian experience)

The Cat, by Marie-Louise von Franz (because it’s a tale of feminine redemption and because she was great pals with Carl Jung, so should be interesting)

Structures of Indifference, by Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Adelle Perry (because it examines one life, and death, which begins with the 34 hours an Indigenous man spent in a Winnipeg emergency room before dying, unseen and untreated)

A 1987 copy of the journal Fireweed, the ‘Class’ issue, because I think it will be interesting and because Kate Braid is one of the contributors and her bio reads that she is a “carpenter living in Vancouver who writes her poems on lunch breaks and at STOP signs”.

Autobiography of an Elderly Woman, published in 1911 under no author’s name but research shows that it was written by Mary Heaton Vorse, a 37 year old Greenwich Village bohemian, journalist, and editor, who wrote it in the voice of her mother, and which (in 1911) has lines like this: “Each generation permits a different type of young girl, but the older woman must not change; her outline is fixed and immovable. She must be like [anyone’s] grandmother, ‘always there’.”

Portraits of Earth, by Freeman Patterson, a book of extraordinary photographs and contemplation on things like icebergs, leaves, wet sand, sky, air, forests, fish, water, driftwood… and how we mere mortals fit in. Or might if we tried.

Birds, Art, Life, by Kyo Maclear (a re-read because more beauty).

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, because I never have.

 

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘personal geography’, by elizabeth coatsworth

 

Personal Geography was published in 1976 when Elizabeth Coatsworth, an American woman of privilege, was eighty-three and reads as promised… ‘almost an autobiography’, written from journal entries spanning a lifetime, and including poetry, opinions, snippets and random thoughts as well as travelogues of requisite once-upon-a-time tours and junkets to places like Egypt, Jerusalem, the ‘Far East’, a cruise on the Great Lakes, Palm Springs, Toulouse. She writes about marriage to naturalist Henry Beston and their eventual move to Chimney Farm in Maine where they lived quite simply and how, after all the palaver of the ‘what one was expected to do’ years, it was the ordinariness of walking through meadows that turned out to be the highlight.

It can be tiresome to hear the privileged complain of their privilege, how their tiaras give them a headache, etc.,  and happily Coatsworth doesn’t do anything of the kind… she neither apologizes for her privilege nor regrets it, but simply says this was my life… I’ve come to prefer meadows.

“But after seventeen years of study in school and college I never noticed from what direction the wind was blowing. I didn’t know what to do for a burn, or the names of any but the commonest flowers. I could not have recognized a bird song, or gone to market and made a wise selection. I could not hem, judge a person’s character; and I didn’t know the names of the streets which I had passed by daily for years.”

She writes also about class systems, gender inequality, and various other subjects that resonate in the way of everything old being new again with bits of wisdom throughout that note, as a species, we are not quick learners.

“… I find I have a vast respect for close observation and an independently arrived-at conclusion. A world in which newspaper headlines and editorial opinions, or television news, or articles compressed from magazines for monthly digests form the basis of the intellectual pabulum is not very interesting. Most conversations are little better than quotations without quotation marks.”

 The kind of book that feels like letters from a favourite aunt.

“A personality, to be a work of art, must first have quality and second be ruthlessly simplified. You must be able to say of such a one: “The Eighteenth century is his hobby”, or “I never see squills without thinking of her.” A personality must have recognizably distinct likes and dislikes on almost every side. If a few of these are unexpected, so much the better…. In all this I am a lamentable failure. I can’t dislike even gladioli whole-heartedly. I do not know who is my favourite author… [but] a few things emerge… My favourite fruit is raspberries. I love the lonely ruins of civilizations. And if I could paint I should paint nothing but pools of water and their reflections… not lakes, nor rivers, nor waves, but wet New York pavements mirroring street lamps and the bright inhuman reds and greens of taxicab lights; and the dark grave reflections of grass in the long puddles of country ruts; and rainwater glazed with clouds in the granite hollows of a rock pasture; and the faces of people reflected back, small and intense, from the deep girandole of a well.”

Written of a specific time and place but, as the title indicates, the geography is more about the interior journey and the writing contains that unique something that feels timeless and borderless and taps a collective nerve and is easily relatable… if one is the mood for relating.

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘pilgrim at tinker creek’, by annie dillard

 

The pleasure of this book for me is that I can dip into it whenever I want to travel the Blue Ridge Mountain countryside, which has been a fascination for me ever since hearing as a kid the song ‘Country Roads’, which I sang alone in the backseat of my parent’s Oldsmobile as we drove north for summer holidays… me staring out the window at endless forest and imagining living a solitary life in those woods, making my own orange crate furniture… take me home, country roads…

Until my mother would inevitably say can you please put a sock in it. Or words to that effect.

Tinker Creek is in West Virginia. The narrator is unnamed but feels like Annie Dillard. Also Thoreau. Non-fiction pieces cobbled into chapters from reams of journal entries. The attention to details in nature thrills me. There’s no point in giving examples… the thing has to be read to be appreciated, otherwise I could as easily say frogs, bulrushes, English sparrow, landscape, polar ice, sunlight, rain, thunder, a gravel path, the egg cases of a praying mantis, the thin membrane of an onion, that sort of thing. The kind of person it would be a joy to walk with through the woods or along the shores of Tinker Creek but I suspect she is one who prefers to walk through nature alone.

I get that. So do I. For which reason the writing and the reading is the perfect vehicle for us both.

“Every year a given tree creates absolutely from scratch ninety-nine percent of its living parts. Water lifting up tree trunks can climb one hundred and fifty feet an hour; in full summer a tree can, and does, heave a ton of water every day. A big elm in a single season might make as many as six million leaves, wholly intricate, without budging an inch; I couldn’t make one.”

**

Here is the Country Roads (John Denver) version I remember. Still gets to me and now, in these strange times, also reminds me that as a kid singing this, it didn’t occur to me I was singing about somewhere in another country… I was simply singing about nature, affected by the effect it has, which is everywhere and belongs to no one. Borders are human-made and humans aren’t bright.

Sending the world a little love. Without borders.

 

~

(Also, as a Briny Books Bingo marker… it goes on ‘A book that’s been sitting too long on your TBR pile’.)

 

the story of rebecca of sunnybrook farm begins with bingo

 

Actually, it begins with a precocious eleven year old girl arriving in a small country town via horse and buggy, driven by a soft spoken older uncle type who is charmed by her precociousness. (Yes, she is poor and has lively big bright eyes and braids. No they are not red, but black. More about that later.)

But the story of how Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm came to be in my house in the first place begins with bingo.

The Briny Books Book Bingo Challenge, to be precise. A new thing created by the wonderfully bookish mind behind the blog Pickle Me This (and in partnership with the simply wonderful Blue Heron Books).

I love stuff like this.

So I started with the first square (you don’t have to go in order though… it’s bingo for god’s sake!), which happens to be “A Book From a Little Free Library” and wouldn’t you know it but that very day I happen to pass a little free library I’d never noticed before.

This is how the universe works.

Unfortunately it was crammed with stuff that held zip interest for me but I was committed to THIS Little Free Library and from THIS ONE I decided I must take a book and read it. Because if I was going to get all choosy then I’m controlling things and that is NOT how I want to play my bingo. But Robert Ludlum? Um, no. And tekky books, macrobiotic diets… egad, what was the universe trying to tell me? And then… squished to one side, there was Rebecca. She was the best of what was on offer but I was still not very happy about things and I seriously considered leaving her there and trying another little library. But it was too late. I WILL NOT CONTROL MY BINGO had already become my mantra and so I took Rebecca, who I knew nothing about except wasn’t she supposed to be some overly cheerful chick like Polyanna?, home. (note to self: read Polyanna)

Well.

Turns out that not only is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm delightful and the story perfectly fine and not intolerably sweet and, in fact, very funny even, but it led me to a whole THING insofar as its connection to Anne of Green Gables. The parallels and samenesses cannot be missed. I mean it’s REALLY very similar, not only in storyline but snippets of dialogue are word for word the same, characters (including Anne being a red-haired version of black-haired Rebecca), also voice, tone, descriptions, settings, relationships. I had no idea of the Rebecca story before this and as I read my jaw kept dropping further and further.

Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca came first (1905), and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne in 1908, which is heart-breaking and makes you wonder: what was Montgomery doing, essentially copying Wiggin’s story??

I researched various reviews and discussions on the subject and while there is no doubt the books are bizarrely similar, there seems to be no broadly accepted WHY. At least no one’s daring to come right out and use the P word.

To make matters worse, Anne, of course, went on to become an international superstar and icon and entire industry. Whereas Becky was pretty much a non-starter outside the U.S. and over time even fizzled away there.

Hardly seems fair, right?

One theory has it that the Rebecca story is more overtly patriotic and American, while the Anne story focuses mostly on the oh-so-quaint village of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island, and while Canada is named and there’s no doubt where the story is set, the overall emphasis is more on landscape than ‘nation’… thus making the argument that the Anne story was more widely and internationally relatable at the time of publication.

All of which doesn’t explain what Lucy Maud was thinking. My personal theory is that she made her book so BLATANTLY the same as Wiggin’s as an homage, as her Canadian version of a story she loved. Because surely she could not have supposed it would be taken as a completely original tale.

Pure conjecture. I haven’t read anything to this effect so it remains a mystery. But if my theory is correct, it would have been a classy move to acknowledge Wiggin’s book right up front, even putting it in the dedication. Or at least have gone on record afterward and explained her reasons for ‘using’ so much of it.

That said, I’m thrilled with my first bingo pick. Who could have guessed it would lead to the discovery of what amounts to a possible literary scandal brushed under the literary rug.

Next up… hmmm.

Not sure.

Because I don’t have to go in order…

… it’s BINGO.

Might just see what comes my way.

Will keep you posted.

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘the outport people’, by claire mowat

 

I have no idea where I got this book nor how it came to be included in my winter reading. I haven’t been talking to anyone about Newfoundland or outports and the only aquatic thing I’ve had on my mind recently is the Georgian Bay trout we get via a local fisherman. But there it was on my To Be Read pile so I casually opened it and wondered if (assumed that) Claire Mowat was related to Farley. She is. His wife. And it was with Farley that she lived in an outport on the southwest coast of Newfoundland from 1962 to 1970.

That pretty much right there is the story. Except for the details. Because life in an outport, apparently, is/was not heavy on drama, intrigue, or big-time action, but details… oh yes. Oodles.

An outport, by the way, is a small, isolated fishing community almost always without roads. Access to ‘anywhere’ is by boat only, which means during the LOOOONG winters… there is no access to ‘anywhere’. Due to their isolation these communities became a lifestyle unto themselves and in their own way thrived up until the 1970’s when outside influences entered into things and changed that lifestyle (not for the better), after which residents were given incentives to move inland. Many moved entire houses, floated them along the coast, because they had no money to buy new. And a way of life vanished.

Mowat was there, unknowingly, for what would be the last decade of that old-world outport life. She shares those remnants by being an excellent observer of nuance and keeping herself in or out of the story in all the right ways.

The Outport People is billed as a fictionalized memoir but it’s generally acknowledged that the only fictionalized bits are names and the occasional need for artistic license in order to make whole cloth of the ‘details’ and shape the story. Capturing the essence of this now lost way of life was, after all, the point of writing the book, something that’s clear from the reading. You can tell Mowat was truly in love with outport life and deeply respectful, in awe even, of the people who lived it.

What comes off as most extraordinary is that they, the residents, seemed oblivious to the increasingly modern world going on around them. More importantly, that’s pretty much the way they liked it. Most people never once in their life set foot outside their remote community and when then did, didn’t much like what they saw.

“In 1939, when war broke out, Ezra was one of the first men in Baleena to volunteer for service in the British Merchant Marine. He was then close to being fifty years old. He made many stormy crossings of the North Atlantic in submarine-hunted convoys, oiling machinery in the throbbing engine room of an ancient freighter. In the port cities of England he first encountered a way of life that was not the way of Baleena. He had never seen so many buildings so close to one another and he marvelled that human beings could bear to live like that. No one ever invited him into a house there, and the pubs and teashops he visited were damp, chilling places that numbed your feet and soul. He was never warm in England. Even the poorest house in Newfoundland, he reckoned, had a kitchen that was warmer than an English castle.”

Once that ‘modern world’ began creeping in via telephones and televisions in the mid to late 1960’s (but remained a rarity in most homes); when the post office was rebuilt and the postmaster of 35 years, who knew everyone by name, retired and was replaced with a key to your own P.O. box so that there was no one to speak with at what used to be a communal hub; when the occasional car began to appear and the fish began to disappear along with the fish plants along with the young people who could no longer hope to make a living, changing the cycle of families so that elderly parents who were once cared for by their kids were now left to grow old alone…  nothing was ever the same or as good in its maybe-it’s-crazy-but-it’s-worked-for-generations way.

But all this comes at the end of the book and the end of the decade. By which time Mowat has painted a picture of a strangely beautiful world… beautiful despite the fact that no one has more than a few dollars at any given moment,  no reliable medical services, no actual shops (back to no one has any money to buy anything), limited food sources, and despite the howling cold weather and brutal life of families who fish for a living or work for the fishing industry (and receive ridiculously little $$ for it)… despite all that and more, there’s a warmth, from the people themselves, from the way they share what little they have, looking in on neighbours to make sure they’re okay, the way children have ten thousand chores but are also free to run and play and discover their enormous yet tiny world because there is nothing else, not a single other thing, to distract them. There’s a complete absence of fear (other than what weather and sea and fishing companies pose).

And the colours! in this grey landscape where no deciduous trees exist… the bright shiny orange of kitchen walls, a red painted floor, yellow table, lime green chairs, a turquoise exterior. (The fishing boats, however, are all proudly dory buff. A kind of beige. Which makes no sense to me… I’d have thought it would be an advantage to have brightly painted boats.)

Mowat also notes cultural peculiarities, what is considered polite conversation, the way it’s absolutely normal for anyone to walk into anyone else’s house and sit down, almost always in the kitchen, and talk or not talk. The tradition of mummers, the difficulty of unions in environments made up almost entirely of closely linked families, what’s important to people, most of whom, have never been or even seen pictures of… anywhere else.

“The economic history of Newfoundland was a subject as taboo in their house as a discussion about religion in Belfast.”

The reason houses and roofs are specifically shaped and why windows rarely face the sea…

“The Roses’ children had long since left home and their house, which once had had two storeys, had been decapitated. Removing the second floor of a house was a common alteration made by elder couples since it reduced both the amount of fuel need to heat it and the housework needed to keep it clean.”

Oh, yes, and the sea.

The book feels like listening to a friend tell the story of living eight years in a place she was initially only curious about but came to deeply love… including, and maybe especially because of, the tough moments. And what’s more brilliantly beautifully Maritime than that?

(All of which aside, I’ve read that in some cases, residents of Newfoundland outports have not found the book as charming as mainlanders have, but that may be a case of being in the forest, unable to see the beauty of the trees. There were occasions Mowat outlines, where residents wondered why she was taking pictures of the water or the boats, things they found so ordinary. There is also the possibility that residents interpreted Mowat’s ‘details’ of outport life as being meant to be demeaning, when in fact it’s all about respect, admiration and awe, with more than a dollop of envy.)

“I wondered if anyone [on the mainland] ever stopped to think, as they laid the fillets in the pan, about the men who had caught them, or the people who had cut them and packed them, or of the risky voyage[s] made to bring all this fish to them. Only rarely do we think about the complexities of the production and distribution of food. It is so mindlessly easy to ignore the human involvement when we simply reach into a freezer.”

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘savage fields’, by dennis lee

 

I’ve been doing some bookshelf cleaning — clearing out the excess to make room for new stuff. Only so much room and I really hate it when I can’t see what I have. Am donating or giving the prunings to various places and friends but before some of them go they will spend time in a new stack called “Stuff to Read Before It’s Definitely Given Away”.

Most recently plucked from the STRBIDGA pile was Dennis Lee’s Savage Fields, published in 1977 by Anansi. Its subtitle: An Essay in Literature and Cosmology  did NOT help it win my attention over the years and more than once I thought to just ‘donate’… but something made me keep it and I’m so glad I did.

Less essay than discussion of Lee’s theory that everything is either of (or about) the earth or the world,  including stories. (Earth being anything natural… World being anything man made.) The savage fields of the title refers to the friction caused when earth and world collide, which of course they constantly do.

His interest is in how that happens in literature, and so he dissects two books as examples:

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Michael Ondaatje (a combination of prose and poetry in which Lee theorizes that Billy is trying, constantly, to kill the earth and so is, in fact, killing himself)

and

Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Cohen (one of two novels by Cohen, which Lee suggests is about freeing a repressed Canadian history through liberation of thought)

I will forgive that both books are by men. Dennis Lee is himself a man. This is often how things go. I will forgive it also because Savage Fields is a fascinating piece of work nonetheless.

I’ll admit that I’ve read neither Beautiful Losers nor Billy the Kid.  The former strikes me as incomprehensible and the latter not up my street but, oddly, I really liked reading about them through Lee’s lens. I enjoyed his analysis and the way he takes the story of each book apart, illustrating his theory of how we continue to screw up the earth because, essentially, we can’t accept beauty when it comes our way, that we have this need to alter it, put our own stamp on it and make it ‘better’. (Better than what? It was trundling along just fine until we got involved.) Lee says that we turn earth to world because we can’t help it and even while knowing on some deep level that we are screwing ourselves.

We’ve been more or less doing this by various means since we invented agriculture, which is when we stopped living in harmony with ‘earth’.

Another of Lee’s theories is what he calls the Isis Continuum, which, essentially, is happiness (Isis being a goddess of Egyptian mythology, wise and unconditionally loving). Again, we, for some reason, often refuse the simplicity of happiness, creating chaos instead as if not believing happiness is truly possible.

Lee posits his way through both books, offering excerpts and outlines of the stories, analyzing characters and actions.

Savage Fields isn’t a difficult read, but it’s an unusual one. One that takes a pot of tea and a Sunday morning to find your rhythm with (best read whole or in two parts, but definitely not fragments). It’s the kind of book you want someone else to read so you can talk about it with them and apply Lee’s theories, to find the savage fields in literature or at least to keep the notion of it in mind.

“World and earth are shown as being at war, yet they keep turning out to be the same thing. How can we resolve the contradiction?… To conceptualize this unusual state of affairs takes a certain amount of effort — indeed, a willingness to bend one’s mind in unaccustomed directions.”

“I started this book in 1972. I knew the title before I knew what the title meant. There are months of drafts between the sentences. The voice kept sounding false, excluding too much of who I was. Now I look at it, and find I have scarcely made a beginning.”

“Clear thought is an achievement of difficult beauty.”

The kind of book where most excerpts are pointless out of context. The kind of book that isn’t easy to quote from and details are soon forgotten, yet you feel inexplicably changed for the better for having spent time with it because suddenly ‘something’ feels clearer. Surely one of the best reasons for reading.

Dennis Lee was a founder of House of Anansi, which prided itself in the late 60’s and 70’s on its difference, its experimental style, and its interest in the Canadian story.

 

 

 

catching up and cleaning up (and thinning out books the NOT KONDO way and still feeling joy)

 

Feels like forever since I was here. Had some work done in the house and so my office was incommunicado and then after the work was done I needed to recuperate from the work. Not that I did much of it. Although I pride myself on a bit of painting, which, I swear I don’t understand how anyone can actually enjoy doing. As if colour selection isn’t crazy-making enough, the taping and spilling and wiping that goes on, the tedium of painting edges and around windows and baseboards. I know, I know, some people find it meditative and I love meditation so believe me I tried to find the zen, but I prefer my trances to include comfy cushions and closed eyes.

All this work required things taken off shelves, filing cabinets emptied so they could be moved, closets, drawers, all kinds of removal and boxing up and then putting back. The best part of which is that you never put back exactly what you take out… if all goes well, there is quite an enormous difference in fact, with a load of bags and boxes to give away or shred.

So now I’m not even sure what’s making me happier, the new floors, the new wall colour, or the new ‘space’ everywhere. Not that I went all KonMari or anything, I did NOT, but I did discard the stuff that was (literally) blocking me from seeing the actual stuff I like or need to see or from reading the books I have that were so deeply stacked everywhere that I could hardly be bothered to approach any one stack, preferring, instead, the easier (and so very sweet) route of just buying new books. (To then read and/or stack, because they had nowhere else to live….)

The biggest difference (apart from having a functional office) is that my bookshelves are now welcoming spaces (to me and to new books) rather than overstocked storage areas and the best unexpected gift of all this is how the organization of it makes me feel like I suddenly live in my very own bookshop, a place that welcomes browsing, with titles you can read and books that you can easily find and take from the shelf.

I’ll admit that I do have a ‘new’ stack of books… (let’s not be coy, I’ll always have a stack of books)… but these are titles from my own shelves, happy surprises that emerged from the cleansing to say hello! you’ve always meant to read me, remember????

And I’m getting through this stack with such pleasure! The weight, the literal weight of so much unorganized and unread accumulation having been lifted is liberating. (And please understand, I still have shelves and shelves of hundreds of books… books that I actually want.)

The first of the ‘new’ stack that I read was a cloth bound 1937 edition of Letters to a Friend, by Winnifred Holtby, which I bought very many moons ago at Hannelore’s (an absolute brilliant fixture of a second hand book shop in St. Catharines). (The copy is marked with a stamp indicating it was once property of the Naval Vessels Reading Service in Halifax… one of the best things about second hand books is what you find in them.)

Winnifred Holtby was a feminist, a socialist, a pacifist, and pals with Vita Sackville West, Vera Brittain and Leonard Woolf, though these letters are written to Jean McWilliam, whom she met during her time with the WAACs. McWilliam is referred to as ‘Rosalind’ and Holtby signs off as ‘Celia’, a reference to the cousins in Shakespeare’s  As You Like It.

Here is a good outline of the book.

For my part I’ll leave you with a snippet, from the opening page where, in the very first letter to ‘Dearest Rosalind’, there is this… (which, if I should ever receive the like in a letter from anyone, I will insist that person never ever stop writing me letters.)

“The roads were fine and hard, made for walking, spreading themselves across the hills, and opening out at the crossways to tempt us on. We talked about burlesques an school discipline and Dostoevsky and porridge, and whether bread and cheese and beer are really better than stuffed olives and champagne, and neckties and dons and all the thousand and one silly things that one talks about on a long morning when the air is frosty and the roads are dry.”

And, for the record, based on the above, (I mean, Dostoevsky and porridge??? ) this is someone I would dearly love to have walked with.

More excavations to follow.

 

 

 

other people’s bookshelves

 

It’s Wednesday, which means I ought to be posting a mysterious photo or story prompt… more or less a self-imposed rule, which makes it easy to break.

Instead, I want to talk about bookshelves, other people’s, and how a recent snoop is connected to last Wednesday’s mysterious photo.

Snoop is a harsh word. I was more ‘browsing’ at the cottage where we stayed recently, a remote place in 300 acres of forest, on a lake, surrounded by trails and perfect snowshoeing conditions. We go to this place every year for the seclusion and disconnection from everything other than books, food, wine and fireplace (tea and starlight and thick blankets on the deck also allowed).

As always, my travel bag is mainly filled with books, even for just a few days. But if there’s a bookshelf where I’m staying, chances are I’ll be seduced. (There is something so satisfying in perusing other people’s bookshelves.)

It should be noted that my interest is not to see what they’re reading, as in current titles… bore bore bore… but rather what they’ve collected, the quirky books that might have been culled over time but were kept instead. Those are the ones I’m drawn to. Cloth covers and dust, that kind of thing. Also how the books are filed is interesting… alphabetically, by subject, theme, mood…

This place does it ‘by subject’, which subjects include theology, Shakespeare, political memoir, climate, history, nature, art, Ireland, novels about Ireland, and classic novels, the Brontes, etc., as well as obscure (to me) volumes of poetry such as ‘I Take it Back’, by Margaret Fishback, who strikes me as a sort of poetic Dorothy Parker for all of her delicious rhyming sarcasm as she comments on the state of society. (The rhyming, of course, is essential to the sarcasm.)

To a Baby One Day Old

It seems a sweet absurdity
to call so small a morsel ‘he’.

I mean, to think she was writing about gender identity in the 1930’s…

And this, a little tongue in cheek for, well, you know who you are.

On My Toes

I’m the pronunciation snob who knows
how to cope with the Ballet Joose…
nor does the Monte Carlo Ballet Russe
stagger me as it may do youse.

**

I also read about Lewis and Clarke and how Lewis was a bit of a jackass who thought very highly of his white self and neglected to give credit to the Shoshone wife of a member of the their crew. Her name was Sacagawea and without her they’d have been sunk as she was the only one who knew the terrain, the language and how to navigate the territory, including interactions with indigenous ‘residents’. Fortunately the transcribing of Lewis and Clarke’s journals fell to Clarke after Lewis’s death and he, being a much more decent bloke, gave her the credit she deserved (and which Lewis had conveniently left out of his own notes).

**

And I read about Emily Carr, who I’ve read, and read about, many times. But this was different in that the book I found was a rather obscure volume, written by one of her art students and life long friend, Carol Pearson. And not only was Pearson a friend of Carr, she grew up to be Aunt Carol to the people who own the cottage we were staying in. And not only that but Aunt Carol had a small cabin of her own in these very woods, which is now ramshackle (but the dish rack remains) and every time we’ve been up here I’ve passed it and wondered who it belonged to. And now I know.

This is what happens when you snoop in people’s bookshelves.

I mean browse.

Other (not always) wordless friends:

Cheryl Andrews
Allison Howard
Barbara Lambert
Allyson Latta
Elizabeth Yeoman

 

this is not a review: ‘braiding sweetgrass’, by robin wall kimmerer

Oh nuts. Time has whipped by and my inter-library (thank you, *Trent Hills!) copy of Braiding Sweetgrass  is due back before I’ve had the chance to read more than a few of its essays.

This is down to a couple of things. The stacks of books and papers in my house being the only one worth mentioning. (Tho’ if you must know, the other is an obsession with watching taped episodes of Escape to the Country, which occasionally cuts into my extracurricular reading time.)

In any case.

I did read enough to know that I’m not troubled by having to give it back because I’ve decided I need my own copy of the book. In the same way and for many of the same but also different reasons that I needed my own copy of Theresa Kishkan’s beautiful Mnemonic…  a memoir through the memory of trees and, often, the houses and lives surrounded by them, not all of them her own — “All my life, I have wondered at the feeling I have in particular houses, usually ones in which no one lives any longer.”

And Peter Wohlleben’s The  Hidden Life of Trees , which I read in a Kawartha forest cabin and then wandered among the birch and spruce in a whole new way, alert and hopeful for a sense of the conversations I now realized were going on all around me.

And The Sweetness of a Simple Life, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger, one of those tiny eye/mind openers that change your world in the very best way. Every bit of clover in my yard is because of her.

So, yes, I’m looking forward to adding Braiding Sweetgrass  to that particular shelf and to continue reading Kimmerer’s gorgeous essays on nature. Here’s just a wee slice from ‘Asters and Goldenrod’ where she writes about the reason she chose to study botany in the first place… a moment from her intake interview at college:

“How could I answer, how could I tell him that I was a born botanist, that I had shoe boxes of seeds and piles of pressed leaves under my  bed, that I’d stop my bike along the road to identify a new species, that plants colored  my dreams, that the plants had chosen me? So I told him the truth. I was proud of my well-planned answer, its freshman sophistication apparent to anyone, the way it showed that I already knew some plants and their habitats, that I had thought deeply about their nature and was clearly well prepared for college work. I told him that I chose botany because I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.”

Kimmerer is my kind of guide through the natural world because she doesn’t see a difference between it and us. (Spoiler alert: she gets into botany school and learns the science, but never, thankfully, unlearns her innate connection and unique eye/heart/spirit for what is real.)

_______________

* That Trent Hills Library happens to be in Campbellford, a place I only discovered and fell into great affection with last year (they have a Stedmans!), is the kind of scrumptious serendipity that makes my heart sing. Also, I love the inter-library system.