this is not a review: ‘if sylvie had nine lives’, by leona theis

As soon as I finished reading this I thought: I want to read it again. Not an altogether unusual thing for me to come to the end of a book then immediately re-read the first chapter to enter it slightly differently, with slightly more knowing so that I can experience deeper layers. Of course there are MANY occasions when that thought doesn’t come up, books I simply close and say, okay, that was that story, and move on to the next. But good literature should never be read just once.

Although I would love to move on to the next book, the next story… I have a stack tottering in more than one room… but Sylvie is one of those books that niggles, come back, she/it says, there’s another layer, and another.

And so I do.

Why? Well, because If Sylvie had Nine Lives is written in a way that makes it impossible to not want to hold up at various angles and see how things fit, what’s the same, what’s different. There is such pleasure in this literary puzzle and the writing is a joy. Here’s a sample. It comes from the chapter/story called ‘How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person Through Yoga” and rather beautifully punctuates an uncomfortable moment that has just passed:

“Sylvie came out of her bedroom and tinkled Cheerios into a bowl, a sound to rinse the air.”

See what I mean?

In a nutshell, the book is the stories of Sylvie, a woman we meet at 19 and see a different possibility of every five years until age 49. The same person but from nine different life choices. The ultimate unreliable narrator except that every story actually happened, or it would have if she’d chosen an alternate route in the story before.

It opens with Sylvie about to be married to Jack. It’s 1974 when bridal cars are decorated with homemade plastic flowers in the colour of bridesmaids dresses and bridal showers include pie plate hats for the bride-to-be while grooms-to-be get wasted at bars and have to be carried home. Which (in my opinion) works out dandily for Sylvie. I’ll say no more.

The next story/chapter, she’s five years older having made entirely different choices five years earlier that lead to a different present life… and so on as we move through the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s to 2014. The attention to details in each decade so beautifully done, “… the unfurnished living room, evening sunlight filtering through the philodendrons and spider plants on the widow sill.” (do people even still have philodendrons?)… all of it tightly woven through the story, not an ounce of what feels forced; everything ‘belongs’. Each new story is another version of “let’s pretend”… let’s pretend there was no Jack or they didn’t get married or they did but he died or he didn’t (and she has guilt about that or doesn’t) or there’s a different cast of characters entirely or different jobs and maybe there were children or how about there are no children, all of it, whole futures, her futures and others, turning on a moment’s decision. Because that’s exactly how life works, turning and changing based on this choice and the next. We are where we are not necessarily because of what happened but because of what we chose to do about what happened.

So yes. I am re-reading this novel in stories; I’ll begin at the beginning but then read out of order. There are so many ways to do this. So many ways to consider the future, so many ways to get there.

In the case of this book, all of them a trip worth taking.

this is not a review: ‘a woman’s walks’, by lady colin campbell

The first thing I don’t like about this book is that she (Gertrude Elizabeth Blood), calls herself Lady Colin Campbell, which reminds me of the personalized stationery, little note cards on excellent stock, my mother-in-law (an otherwise intelligent and lovely woman) gave me, designed, I suppose, to obliterate any thought of whoever I used to be pre-marriage, being embossed as they were with “Mrs. (Son’s First Name)(Son’s Last Name)”. She explained that should I happen to send a card to a friend (who else would I send them to??) I was meant to strike a single line through “Mrs. (Son’s First Name)(Son’s Last Name)” and write in “Carin”. As if to say that “you (because we are friends) may call me Carin”. I still have the little copper plate that came with the box of stationery in case I ever need to replenish my supply. (hahaha) The fact that I don’t use anyone else’s name, neither first nor last (having been blessed with my own), is apparently beside the point. She, dear woman, came from an era of The Mrs.

The ‘Lady Colin Campbell’ syndrome is ridiculous. (And very different from adopting a family name, which makes a certain kind of sense in certain cases and to certain people. I do get why people do that.) But what sense can be made from using your husband’s FIRST name to identify you?

Especially, in Lady CC’s case, whose husband turns out to be an ass and they split up. Which is when she begins her worldwide wandering and writing.

But why keep the ‘Colin’???

So that was my first problem with A Woman’s Walks, by Lady Colin Campbell. Despite the rather promising cover.

The other problems relate to the privilege Lady Colin Campbell enjoys throughout her privileged life and incessantly complains about. It is a problem when a writer bores me as Lady CC does and I find it hard to plough through but I continue because I’m looking for a good walk. Unfortunately her idea of walking and mine are quite different. Hers involving much first class train travel and staff helping her get from one luxury hotel to another.

Two exceptions.

One was a stroll she took through a Venetian marketplace where she bought a captive bird, not to eat but to release. She felt very chuffed with herself about that. Her good deed for the day, which again says a lot about her and the era of that kind of privilege. Not to mention attitude towards ‘the little people’ who shop and work at markets for reasons other than amusement and who rudely eat the captive birds because they need protein and aren’t able to take a train to the next luxury hotel dining room to order their pheasant under glass.

I enjoyed seeing her hypocrisy on such magnificent display.

And of course markets always please me.

The other was a walk around Milan that ended, to her surprise, at a crematorium where she lingered, feeling comfort and solace in a way, she says, she never does in cemeteries.

Not a terrible read but not something that personally appealed overall.

The book is one of several from a London Library series: ‘Found on the Shelves’… collected essays on various subjects from “the modern cycling craze” with the invention of the bike, to dieting in the 1800’s, to trout fishing instructions for women. Etc. All of them from a time long gone and full of quirks by modern standards.

Though, really, who are we to talk of quirks…

Fun Trivia:

Turns out there’s another Lady Colin Campbell whose Colin also turned out to be a schmuck and who is not a Victorian essayist, but a contemporary writer of contemporary Royal doings.

Not only that but the modern Lady CC was originally named George William Ziadie (she had unclear genitalia at birth and her parents were advised to err on the side of male, which turned out to be wrong so at age 21 she had corrective surgery and became Georgia Arianna Ziadie). So then she marries Lord Colin Campbell who decides to sell her out to the tabloids who run untrue stories on how Lady CC was born a boy and had a sex change. So they divorce right quick. And yet… she keeps not only the whole Lady Campbell schtick, but the Colin part.

I just don’t get it.

this is not a review: ‘the sound of a wild snail eating’, by elisabeth tova bailey

 

In her thirties, Elisabeth Tova Bailey suddenly finds herself bedridden for a year as she recovers from a neurological disorder. Early in her convalescence, a friend brings her a potted violet dug up from a nearby forest. Under one of the leaves the author notices a snail. She watches it, expecting not much. What she discovers becomes not only an appreciation of this tiny creature but a kind of epiphany about her own slow process toward healing. All of which becomes the delightful memoir: The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating.

(spoiler alert: you can actually HEAR a snail eating)

Easy as it would have been, Bailey does not clutter the book with slow healing/snail metaphors, doesn’t even really mention her condition except to set it up at the beginning and how she notices the discomfort of those who visit, how her stillness makes them uncomfortable, how their own natural state is one of constant movement, agitation almost. At the end of the book she revisits her condition and takes what feels like a deep breath as she realizes what she’s been through and how impossible the year would have been without the snail.

Because the book is mostly about the snail…. as seen through the lens of someone who has few choices of focus and has chosen… the snail.

And so with her we learn with her, that snails do not, for instance, sit in their shells attached to leaves all day. They wander. They find places to drink (Bailey’s snail made its way regularly to the little tray under the pot where it searched out tiny drops of water) and they have preferences in food. Initially taking what it could find (bits of paper on the bedside table where the pot stood) Bailey’s snail (she never named it) much preferred the wilted blooms the author set down for it once she realized that fresh blooms were not its cup of tea. And remember, she’s bedridden. So she has nothing but time to study this tiny creature, the way it waves its antennae, and under what conditions. The snail becomes almost her entire focus and she searches out info online as well as through reading material she has brought in to her (a long list of ‘Selected Sources’ is included at the back of the book).

Each chapter opens with a short excerpt or quote from a piece of text or a poem and it’s a little mind-blowing as you realize how MUCH has been written about snails, how they’ve influenced art and literature, even architecture (at one point Bailey considers the design of spiral staircases and how it would feel to have one’s head at the top while our feet were at the bottom, our bodies twisted in the middle).

She learns about the gastropod’s history on earth, having existed for a half billion years and appearing on almost every part of the planet and how they move from one geographic area to another. The book weirdly charming in the best way, compelling with so much of interest in the way of snail trivia that it’s nearly impossible to imagine seeing them in the same way again, or ever taking them for granted.

Because (we discover) snails, like anything you focus on, are interesting.

It should be noted that none of this gastropod info is heavy going and all of it, fascinating. At only 175 or so pages, the book reads like a journal of notes and details the author found personally interesting, added her own moments of mulling and wonder, then arranged it into text.

“The mountain of things I felt I needed to do reached the moon, yet there was little I could do about anything, and time continued to drag me along its path. We are all hostages of time. We each have the same number of minutes and hours to live within a day, yet to me it didn’t feel equally doled out. My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had. My friends had so little time that I often wished I could give them what time I could not use. It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose.”

This appears early in the book. By the end she has come to realize that the very act of being forced to slow down, of living with an abundance of time, and a snail, has allowed for much and continual forward movement.

 

Many thanks to Theresa Kishkan, who suspected I’d like this
given how much I enjoyed ‘the mole book’.

this is not a review: ‘to measure the world’, by karen shenfeld

 

Karen Shenfeld’s newest collection of poems, To Measure the World, feels like a love letter to life and its inevitable yin and yang, some of which comes with shock,

such as the end of a marriage,

“Be aware of those days when you might neglect the signs – / the gasp of plants, the lake’s too brilliant colour”

which, only on a backward glance reveals the signs of its unravelling.

In ‘Milestones’, a paean to the author’s mother, she compares moments from both their lives,

“This is not a mirage. In time-lapsed frames , / your lines crease my face.
I lean on your cane.”
 

I love the use of the word ‘lines’ in this line and how ‘cane’ is not a negative but part of the song.

‘Beach Poem’ is a powerful illustration of subtle differences between siblings that maybe only siblings know.

“I’ll leave for you the fine / white sand maternal as talcum / that dusts your bared soles, / eludes your tightfisted grasp.”

And what a joy to see ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’, which first appeared online at The Litter I See Project. In the context of this collection it takes on a deeper meaning, juxtaposed among the debris of so many and various relationships. The final lines, a gorgeous image:

“Tomorrow, I’ll wrap a potato in / a rocket’s fallen scraps.”

The book reads like an homage to both the welcome and the difficult in life’s journey, a reminder that both are necessary and neither are to be feared,

or taken for granted.

 

this is not a review: ‘how to catch a mole’, by marc hamer

 

Sometime back I read a review of How to Catch a Mole  that struck a chord and so I ordered a copy, which then sat on my TBR pile for ages because I’d forgotten what chord the review struck and, well… who wants to read a book about moles???

Answer (it turns out): me.

In what feels like chatting with the gardener after bringing him out a cup of tea and then staying, entranced, all afternoon, Hamer imparts his own personal story,  told through his life as a mole catcher. (Please know there is nothing about this premise that appeals to me. And yet, it is one of the most charming books I’ve read in ages.) Promising, at the outset, that if nothing else, the reader will learn a lot about moles (again, this is a promise I have no interest in) he delivers in ways that make you see so many things differently and more broadly and where you want to cringe at the idea of catching moles, he convinces you that it is NOT the most dreadful thing at all. Mostly because he himself comes off as a most gentle, nature-loving soul.

Having begun his working life as an itinerant gardener he was soon asked by clients to please do something about the moles tearing up lawns. He had no idea what to do about moles. And he might have left it there and simply continued the gardening side of things. But he chose to learn. And so it begins, this education, not only of trapping, but about mole mentality and behaviour, and mole mentors and the whole world of mole catchers and the various approaches (vastly different) and how through all this learning of gardens and moles, he comes to a whole new philosophy of life and a deeper appreciation of nature.

“The mole disrupts the artificial serenity of a lawn in a way that is unacceptable for some. Gardening is not nature: it is using the laws of nature and science to impose our will on a place, and for some people this need for control goes to extremes. I once had a customer with a neat town garden who was obsessed with the branches on his gorgeous magnolia tree being uneven — there were more on one side than the other. No living thing is ever perfectly symmetrical, and imperfection is where beauty is found. But this man counted the branches and cut some of them off to try to make the tree balance. He had no vision of what he wanted, he could only see what he didn’t want. “

By the time the man had finished cutting the branches, he’d ruined the tree.

In another story, Hamer tells how William of Orange’s horse tripped over a mole hill causing William to break his collarbone in the fall then suffering consequences that lead to his death from pneumonia, which led to the toast… “To the little gentleman in black velvet” by those of a different political stripe. (In London’s St. James Square there’s a statue of William on his horse and just near the rear left hoof, there is a wee molehill.)

Each chapter is equal parts mole lesson and life lesson.

“To catch your mole, buy three half-barrel traps. You will need at least three. Buy the best and most expensive ones that you can find. Killing a living thing should not be cheap or slow.”

“My mind is losing its need to control the world around me… I forget easily and willingly, and because of this Peggy and I rarely argue, each day begins with a forgiveness for things that may or may not have happened… Healing is just adapting to change, acceptance.”

The book, really, is a meditation on life.

“Healing is not about re-making things as they once were, healing is about acceptance and forgiveness and love and growth and beginning again. Scar tissue is an inevitable part of life.”

The chapter ‘The History of Molecatching’ might be my favourite except that all the others are my favourite too.

“The British Isles saw the first mole catchers around 54 BC: they were Romans who didn’t want their grapevines and other crops uprooted by moles: they wanted to grow unspoiled flower gardens… I catch moles in the same way that the Romans caught them, by learning their behaviour, probing for tunnels, kneeling down and setting a trap.”

“In the Middle Ages mole catchers were vagrants who travelled from town to town looking for molehills on people’s land, knocking on door and catching moles for money.”

And that all the history comes at the end of the book is interesting… and clever, because at that point Hamer has successfully charmed the reader into wanting to know more about the business of, and nature of, moles.

Which may be the book’s biggest surprise. (Seriously, if you read it and are not even slightly charmed by the offering of mole tidbits, please let me know.)

He has since retired and while still regularly asked to catch moles he now happily declines. After all this, he wonders why people don’t just a) learn to catch moles themselves or, even better, b) grow a flower meadow instead of a formal garden so molehills won’t matter.

“The moles don’t need to be killed. The European mole is protected species in Germany and Austria: gardeners there put up with them.”

Above all, the book is an homage to living life, to working, to making a life in whatever way you can or choose to, that ultimately has you respecting life more in the process.

“The small things are the things which in their millions make the world work. The craftsmen, the traders, the men in white vans who bring stuff and fix stuff; the people in the factories who knit my jumpers and weave the wool to make the tweed for my trousers; the farmers — the individual men and women who care for and grow the things we eat and wear, who look after the landscape for the love of it. The steps that we take that lead us to where we are. The small things, the tiny, tiny interactions, are the journey.”

 

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: ‘to speak for the trees’, by diana beresford-kroeger

 

Second time I’ve read this. Probably won’t be the last. So much earth info tucked into the story of how a Canadian orphan became an internationally reknown conservationist. And a few other ‘ists’.

Sent to live with family in Lisheens, Ireland, (Lisheens is the anglicized version of an Irish word for ‘stone circle’), Beresford-Kroeger had the luck of growing up in a world of ancient Celtic knowledge and Brehon Laws (which were ahead of their time insofar as considering equality of people and respect for nature). Living through the depression and the years of WWII in relative poverty, she remembers her childhood as a world rich with appreciation, wisdom, and lessons in how to quietly contribute in ways that were/are of benefit to all life forms. That was the Brehon way.

“From my childhood… I’d been taught to… always look for ways to improve the world around me. I’d never had any money… instead I gave back via other means.”

It was also the beginning of her lifelong interest in healing the earth, understanding at an early age that trees are more than places to picnic under but function as the lungs of the planet. Eventually it began to occur to her that people didn’t need to travel so much, shop so much, drive so much, have so much, and destroy so much.. She became an advocate of simple living, but it was trees, especially, that remained her passion and to speak for them in a variety of quietly powerful ways has been her mission ever since.

Divided into two sections, the book initially follows the author’s life from that childhood deep in Druid lore to her eventual contributions as not only a conservationist, but a biologist, botanist, research scientist (during which time she discovered cathodoluminescence), scientific advisor on genetic modification, writer of bioplans, international speaker, environmental activist (saving, among other slices of the planet, a section of boreal forest the size of Denmark, now a UNESCO site).

In the early ‘90’s she propagated hellebores from Bosnia to raise money for women affected by the war in the former Yugoslavia, which paid for 15,000 surgeries and electrocardiogram machines for Doctors Without Borders and a safe house in the city of Tuzla. Later, she launched The Millenium Project, sending out 750,000 seeds and saplings to 4,500 recipients over a period of years, all native species, all propagated on her farm. She is also a fierce advocate for pollinators, sitting on boards and fighting to legislate chemical-free areas around farmers’ fields.

But the book isn’t actually ABOUT any of this.

It’s about her life as it relates to the natural world, her path to knowledge and discovery… with chapters such as ‘Comfort in a Stone’, ‘The Yellow Box of Paints’, ‘No Burden for a Woman to be Educated’, ‘The Science of Ancient Knowledge’, ‘The Sumac Flower’, etc. It’s mostly about paying attention.

The second half contains ‘The Celtic Alphabet of Trees’ in which are listed 26 trees and shrubs, each with their own short chapter of fascinating tidbits such as medicinal properties and information on weather watching… (a halo around the moon means a change in weather and if there are one to three stars within the halo, they represent the number of days until that change).

Aspens, for instance, are harbingers of weather patterns if you know how to read them. And who knew there are 25 species of wild apple trees, all of which now rare or endangered and that it’s these wild trees not the cultivars that are most important to pollinators and that bees were once revered, and protected by Brehon Laws.

“[The Druids]… honoured the tapestry of life around the honeybee. These workers were considered to be an extended part of the family. Births, marriages, deaths and anniversaries were announced to the bees. Grief was always shared with the bees in a form of non-verbal communication.”

She says things like this:

“We are all woodland people. Like trees, we hold a genetic memory of the past because trees are parents to the child deep within us. We feel that shared history come alive every time we step into the forest, where the majesty of nature calls to us in a voice beyond our imaginations. But even in those of us who haven’t encountered trees in months or even years, the connection to the natural world is there, waiting to be remembered.”

And reminds us that the fight for climate change is a long game and that it CAN be fixed with faith, determination and buy in. The DOING of something positvie, even something small, by millions of people would have an effect. Which is different than shouting the odds and blaming The Other and grandstanding. She’s talking about quietly doing something together.

She has an idea: that if every person on the planet planted just one tree per year for the next six years, we’d stop climate change in its tracks.

“Three hundred million years ago, trees took an environment with a toxic load of carbon and turned it into something that could sustain human life. They can do it again.”

Of course she recognizes that not every person is able to plant even one tree but says even a simple pot on a balcony is helpful… keeping in mind there are those who can plant more than one tree per year. Her point is that however small we feel, we have the power to be part of a huge collective if only we stop waiting for a BIG CHANGE,  or a big opportunity or a BIG player to make the first move… all of which would be splendid, but while rattling cages might vent some frustration, it’s the power of ONE small action,  times millions of people, that could actually effect real change.

An example of this is evidenced by what’s happening as a result of the current shutting down of so many polluters. Smog has lifted, water is cleaner. That’s how quickly it happens. So she’s right, it CAN be done by many people doing small things. The key is to understand there will be no social media ‘likes’,  no recognition, no applause, awards, or even signs of change for a very long time… The key is to do the right thing anyway. With conviction.

“… we can fight climate change… we can band together to take on government and industry; we can keep informed of plans to destroy forests and fight them at every turn”

And to keep on doing it long after the media no longer pays attention to you.

On a smaller scale, she says, “we can take on the role of guardian and steward within our own neighbourhoods and towns, as has been done to great effect in Winnipeg… The people of that city have come together to protect their elm tree… These efforts have inspired others to do even more… If you have a large tree on your street, make sure your local council knows that you value it. Every opportunity to vote is an opportunity to put someone who cares about forests in a position of greater power and authority.”

She talks science in easily understood ways. 

“There is a deity in nature that we all understand. When you walk into a forest—great or small—you enter it in one state and emerge from it calmer. You have that cathedral feeling and you’re never the same again. You come out of there and you know something big has happened to you… We now know that the alpha- and beta-pinenes produced by the forest actually do uplift your mood and affect your brain through your immune system…. The beneficial effects of a twenty minute pine forest walk will remain in the immune system’s memory for about thirty days.”

And admits how much we don’t know.

“We still can’t explain how water gets to the top of a tree—how the plant defies physics and causes water to run uphill. With such fundamentals still eluding our understanding, how can we cut down a forest? Just imagine the arrogance and greed of that—and the short-sightedness.”

Because, yes, we have SO MUCH TO LEARN from nature. Cutting down trees without considering the effects is madness. Polluting for the sake of making and buying things we don’t need and getting to places we don’t need to get to is a habit not a necessity.

The reason I re-read this book, is the same reason I re-read a lot of books on trees and nature generally… because of learning how to be on this planet.

One suggestion the author makes along those lines… she suggests we take a moment to become a tree…

“…palms up, arms outstretched… tilt your head up, too, and let the sunshine land on your face, your hands, the rest of you. Feel the sun on the surface of your skin. With this act, you are becoming like a tree… The feeling you have on your skin is a dance with the short-wavelength energy of the sun. This dance has a name in the ancient world of the Celts…. song of the universe.”

The purpose of which is connection… which applies to everything. To us and trees, us and each other, everything and everything. Because the more we understand The Other, whatever and whoever that is, the better off we all become as a result.

So go on, don’t be shy… palms up, arms outstretched…

We have so much to learn.

Prevent the next pandemic; protect nature.

 

 

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’.)