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.
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’.)
Sitting this morning with tea in a purple mug and looking at a painting on the wall opposite, yellow flowers in a stone jug, not quite sunflowers, the jug on a small turquoise table beside a bowl of oranges, a couple comfy chairs and much greenery to suggest a patio, and despite its note of contented solitude it welcomes friendship, intimate chat, laughter on a fine afternoon.
It’s the oranges that do it.
Blog challenge: shadows
Laundry year round and so grateful now that the sheets no longer come in as planks.
Bought this obelisk for 50 cents or two dollars or whatever from a guy at a rather make-shift garage sale outside an apartment building who said he was leaving town to go live with his mother in Florida. He was in his fifties at least and there was something sad not jubilant about his plans and he seemed to put a great deal of weight on the sale of these bits and pieces as if it was going to help his cause and every time I walk past this thing (which I love) in the garden I think of him and hope he is well. Whoever he is.
My parents gave us the gift of a wheelbarrow when we moved into this house. After a couple decades of hard use it finally rusted out and has since been put out to pasture near the blackberry bushes. I would like to grow cucumbers in it this year.
Chairs for tea and sunrise watching. Fairies live in this vicinity.
Unfortunately the picture doesn’t show my beloved cat socks.
This candle, never used, smells exactly like everybody’s dad’s aftershave. It’s lived on our patio table for at least two years and sometimes when I’m sitting outside and want to conjure up a certain memory, I lift the lid, close my eyes and inhale… and it’s nineteen seventy something again.
& a poem.
Taking a page from something started who knows when by who knows who and apparently a ‘thing’ but only recently appearing on my radar, I grab an armful of books from the shelf nearest to me and make the first of a series of book title poems and the making delights me, this new favourite thing in this time of finding new favourite things.
a manual for cleaning women
how to be both
lives of girls and women
moving targets, culverts
beneath the narrow road
the alpine path
across the bridge
a room of one’s own
our lady of the lost and found
to the lighthouse
—in this house are many women
This is a picture of *a room lit yellow, which may appear orange, which forces me to tell both an orange story and a yellow one.
I love everything about orange, the vibrancy of the colour, the spelling and sound of the word — it sounds awake — and the smell of orange blossoms and how that orange tasted right off the tree that time a thousand years ago in Florida and how avocados grew nearby and the way Florida grass feels on bare feet, different than our grass, and the rain that day, coming down so hard I wanted to cancel our flight but the Florida people said don’t worry, it never lasts, and it didn’t, and the tangerine tree near the avocado one and the dear Peruvian woman who picked a bagful of tangerines and ate them as she walked home while the Florida people clucked their tongues and said they were too full of seeds.
I am nine or maybe seven. I am in my room when the door slams open and my dad stands there in his Hawaiian shirt, a Sweet Caporal between his lips, the smoke making him squint as he yells What’s your favourite colour???? and the volume and intensity of the question, the shirt, the smoke, the squinting, it unsettles me, terrifies me a little if one can be only slightly terrified, and I’m not ready with an answer and I can see that he’s expecting one quickly. He is not a man who likes to wait around for things when he’s wearing his Hawaiian shirt because that means he’s working at something in the house or the yard and is in no mood for dawdling. I can barely think of ANY colour much less my favourite. Do I have a favourite? Yellow, I say, and then he leaves (goes to Canadian Tire as it turns out) and returns with a gallon of paint and before you know it the walls of my room (and the ceiling) are canary yellow and before long so is my toothbrush and a new pair of slippers and jeans and pyjamas and it feels like every gift I’m ever given from that moment on is yellow. It’s only when I move into my own place that I can avoid yellow and I avoid it for decades, including being the yellow piece in board games. And then one day it stops. And, along with orange (and turquoise and green), it becomes my actual favourite colour.
* The yellow room is an installation (by Kosisochukwu Nnebe) at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, currently part of an exhibition called ‘Made of Honey, Gold and Marigold’.
I’m often racing out the door in the earliest a.m., sometimes still partially clad in pjs, heading to the ravine where the sun rises behind an embankment of spruce cedar pine larch maple and birch that look down on a creek running through town.
I’m a sucker for that still-darkness when horizons hint at crimson bursts of red sky madness to come, though the red flash is always momentary, easy to miss, but followed (thankfully) with the burnt caramel of a slowly evolving main act, which (thankfully) lasts longer, has the consideration to build intensity before fading, gives you enough time to take off your mittens and point your camera.
Thing is, in all that sky focus it’s easy to miss the sound of a cardinal unseen but unmistakably singing an unmistakable greeting to that rising sun.
Easy to miss the bare branched ancient tree you’d never guess grew wild apples unless you’d seen it in spring covered in blossoms and bees and later in fruit that makes an excellent crumble.
Easy to miss a small gathering of chilled Queen Anne’s Lace or the footprints of someone not you, and their dog. Easy to walk right over frosted grass without noticing the crackle and crunch.
Or the tiny rhino…
… the seal playing with a ball.
And this guy. (Tell me you see it too.)