Saturday, March 02, 2019
Ice and snow are still covering the crocuses around here, but I know the bulbs are under there and will awaken soon. They must be thinking things over, surely. The turning of the month is a big one - March always feels so close to spring. Spring! I can't wait. It's been so cold for so long. We bundled up and attended the same local library book sale this morning that we often attend, since the friends-of-the-library group holds it on the first Saturday of each month, all winter. If the roads are dry and we have cabin fever, we go. Today's haul consisted of two bags of books for $50. From that, I have a small stack here beside me to keep for a while. A Mary Wesley novel I haven't read yet, a softcover reprint of Golden Earth: Travels in Burma by Norman Lewis, a reprint of W.H. Auden's commonplace book A Certain World (Viking 1970), Annie Leibovitz's memoir At Work (Random House 2008), a fluffy contemporary novel about a bookseller (can't resist, will report back if any good), and an 800-page diary I'd never heard of, Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke's War Diaries 1939-1945 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2001), which looks like a fascinating slog, just what I like. For now, I'll keep it on the shelf near the war diaries of James Lees-Milne and Frances Partridge.
Because even though I am buying books to read, I'm barely reading a thing right now. (Writing, I am still writing!) But diaries are on my mind. Written in one of my own, somewhere, years ago, is a quote from Wendell Berry, which goes something like this: "From my various ancestors I inherited both great wealth and great poverty. It has taken me years to figure out which is which." But can I find this quote? No, I cannot. Not in an old diary, or in the Wendell Berry books on my shelves here at home. The google machine is also unhelpful in this regard, but I am quite sure Wendell Berry said it, and so I paraphrase him here, regarding an inheritance I recently received. I am a stepchild, and my step-grandfather died a few cold Januaries ago. I have good memories of him, and even more of my step-grandmother, who was the only real grandmother I ever knew when I was a child. But they were complicated people, as people are, and when I think of them now, the quote comes to mind.
All that is to say, my stepfather stopped by the other day with a gift for me, from his father's house. He and my aunts and uncle are cleaning out the house, to offer it for sale. Bittersweet doesn't cover it but will have to stand in as shorthand. The gift came in four heavy boxes. Here is the first box:
Huge glorious hardcovers in their jackets. All twenty volumes of the OED, Second Edition. With a gift inscription from nearly twenty years ago. It was an 80th birthday present to my step-grandfather, and I remember seeing it on his shelves, and yearning, more than just a little, to have my own set. And now here it is, come to stay. My grandparents gave me other gifts, throughout my life, but this last one feels so special.
As I struggle to find the right words to finish (or at least come to a good resting place with) the book I am attempting to write, the OED, this compenium of the best of our language, sits like an anchor to windward. An apt simile, since my grandparents were sailors. I am now pondering the booklover's eternal dilemma. I speak of course of shelf space. Ryan and I have been talking about building a new bookcase to house the set.
Book update - this week I finished editing the third draft of my island painting book. It comes into ever-clearer focus. I still have much to do but can see real progress and even glimpse an endpoint. It's twelve chapters now, and almost 100,000 words, many of which need to be cut, but are satisfying to contemplate in their mass. Words. WORDS. Our stories, our language. What a gift it is.
Tuesday, February 12, 2019
Goodness, I've been busy. A brief update. Work on two of my three book projects continues apace. I've set the third aside for now because the other two are more compelling to me at the moment. But I'm also in the midst of making another catalogue for my upcoming solo show in May and June of this year, so that counts too, right? If we're counting? I haven't been reading much because all the writing is keeping the paper-loving part of me very happy. But of course I have been reading, a bit. A few very pleasing books. And I still have some back issues of Slightly Foxed to go before I run out. But more about those another day, because this post will be text-light and image-heavy for a change.
Last year around this time I was transcribing certain experiences out of my old diaries, to liberate them from that too-specific timeline and kitchen-sink way of writing (as in: everything but). I had lots of help, as you can see. Hodge is an excellent assistant, and taskmaster. He keeps me company day after day and is a blessing and a holy terror both:
Last year I got everything I wanted to out of my diaries and into a rough first draft, then I set it aside for months, and let it cook, or collapse, whichever it wanted to do most. Then last month I took the draft out again, and riffled the pages and said to myself, Okay, self, this is it. Let's figure this out, this book-writing thing. I know I have good sentences and lots of them. I have a story to tell, about painting on an island, and about the island and me, our relationship. I can fashion the good sentences into paragraphs, and the paragraphs into chapters, and the chapters into a book. Sounds easy, right? Hodge says yes, this year:
He naps, while I transcribe all my handwritten pages from last winter into my computer, editing and arranging the text as I go. And when I can't see my way clear on how to do that, I get the words typed in anyway. SO, I just finished that stage, over the weekend, and now have about 90,000 words. Arranged into fifteen chapters. Some of which are short and sweet and others of which are too long and rambly with no form whatsoever. BUT. Lots of good sentences! I'm in a decent place with the whole project. I can almost see how it will resolve. I'll be printing off this second draft shortly and then will start to edit and move sections around again. And cut a lot of repetitive stuff out altogether. Diaries (mine, at least) are so repetitive, but to that I say: thanks for routines and ways of working. They add up. I just need to cut out a lot of got-up-got-dressed-had-breakfast type of stuff. And all the words that don't further my narrative or do my prose any favors.
When I get discouraged or frustrated with this whole thing - I mean I have to give myself a lot of pep talks and suspend much disbelief and quiet the many voices saying to me that I do not need to be doing this - I set it aside and work on my other book project, the small illustrated one. I've been learning to use gouache and making little paintings of natural subjects (leaves, trees, feathers, birds, animals, insects, small landscapes, and the like), and I've written a text to go along with the gouache paintings. I've been working on this for about four months, on and off, although I wrote almost all the text over a year ago. Hodge is MOST interested in the proceedings here as well:
Sometimes a little too interested, to be honest. Crinkly things! On the table! Raaaaarrrhhhh:
The dried oak leaves, lower left, with their acorns just forming, turned into this painting:
I've painted a lot of other leaves too, alongside bits of this and that. Which are so beautiful to me, both in the fullness of their lives and again in their late fall decay:
That's all my news, for now. I mean, a lot of other things are happening, here and all over the place, but oh these quiet winter days, sitting for hours in patches of sun, working steadily to get my books made - that has been more than enough for me. Hodge approves, I think. Dear friend. Shall we ask him?
Sunday, January 20, 2019
So many things I could write about today. January 2019, here we are. Snow and sleet lashing the windowpanes this afternoon. Temperature well below zero with the wind chill. Ryan just made muffins with wild blueberries and chopped cherries and they are as good as that sounds. Hodge is asleep under a quilt. And I am so restless. I have been working on three (!) book projects, apparently the struggle-struggle-struggle of just one each January in years past hasn't been enough of a challenge for me. Why not three. One is a painterly memoir about my past and how I got to this place in life of being a painter, one is a nature memoir about one of the islands I visit each summer, and one is a tiny manifesto about nature, wild creatures, and the seasons, with small gouache illustrations throughout. They sit here next to me like tree stumps, these three manuscripts. I will try my best to complete them, if not this year, then next. Time still feels as if it is bearing down on me.
The death of poet Mary Oliver a few days ago is not helping the situation. I heard the news as we hear most of the news these days - I was scrolling along online, minding my own business, and boooom like a terrible echo of a peal of dark thunder there it was, the first post about her, then another, and more, then an avalanche of feeling for this exceptional writer and her life of sustained attention. Her work has meant so much to me, over the years. I've got a few of her books next to me right now. I keep them close, as do so many others. Cold comfort though it is, I am glad to discover, in the wake of her death, that there will soon be not just a biography of her, but an authorized biography. Lindsay Whalen is writing it, and Penguin will publish it. I also have to wonder if Mary Oliver left us some final work, and if that will be published too. One can hope. So many of her poems are about death in some form or other, I can't help but want to read whatever she has to say about the imminence of her own, as she saw and felt it approach. These words of hers have stayed with me, since I first read them long ago - she was so clear, so particular and specific - from her book House of Light (Beacon 1990), the poem The Oak Tree at the Entrance to Blackwater Pond:
on my way to the pond
I pass the lightning-felled,
hundred-fingered, black oak
which, summers ago.
swam forward when the storm
laid one lean yellow wand against it, smoking it open
to its rosy heart.
It dropped down
in a veil of rain,
in a cloud of sap and fire,
and became what it has been ever since -
a black boat
in the tossing leaves of summer,
like the coffin of Osiris
upon the cloudy Nile.
But, listen, I'm tired of that brazen promise:
death and resurrection.
I'm tired of hearing how the nitrogens will return
to the earth again,
through the hinterland of patience -
how the mushrooms and the yeasts
will arrive in the wind -
how they'll anchor the pearls of their bodies and begin
to gnaw through the darkness,
like wolves at bones -
what I loved, I mean, was that tree -
tree of the moment - tree of my own sad, mortal heart -
and I don't want to sing anymore of the way
Osiris came home at last, on a clean
and powerful ship, over
the dangerous sea, as a tall
and beautiful stranger.
What to say, after that. Well, not going to lie, I shed tears soon after hearing about her death and this poem brings them perilously close to the surface once more. Let's speak of something else for a few minutes. I intended to write today about what I've been reading recently, as I usually do. And yes, I've been revisiting many of my favorite Mary Oliver books over the last three days, interspersed and leavened with these:
I know I've mentioned Slightly Foxed here before, after coming across a random issue at a local thrift shop. Well, I'm sorry to say I never did subscribe to it, I just couldn't make the commitment (financial and otherwise; TLS same, to my prolonged and ongoing dissatisfaction), but I have been following their trajectory nonetheless. Looking at their website again recently prompted me to turn to the secondhand market, as I so often do, and I found two lots of back issues for sale on eBay and bought them. Thus, recent evenings have found me with one of these in hand, smiling to myself, and taking an occasional note. From the kind of prose that keeps me enthralled, that of book people. For this little quarterly magazine is comprised of brief essays and reviews by real book people - authors, editors, booksellers used and rare, other denizens of the book trade - all about books that are usually out of print. The editors, Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood, are so very good at what they do. They have an uncanny knack for choosing the perfect selection for each issue - each essay rings a bell for me, with very few exceptions - a bell of instant interest and recognition. Because they almost all are written with a high level of talented bookish fanaticism, for a particular title or author the writer of the essay feels should see the light of day once more, often after years of neglect, benign or otherwise. That particular favorite, that one beloved book we turn to again and again, the author we search for in used book shops and rejoice when we find something we didn't already have. The book we turn to every two years, to re-read and meet the author and our own selves on the pages once more. I kid you not, every issue is like this. I've read about a third of the issues shown above and have yet to regret a moment of it.
As I mentioned the last time I spoke of Slightly Foxed, the first sentences to the reviews and essays draw you in immediately. If your tastes run to books as mine do, it is impossible to read these first sentences and not continue on, joyfully. To wit, P.D. James in issue No. 26, Summer 2010 (p.12):
"There are some books, not necessarily the longest, in which the author's intention is so perfectly realized, a seminal experience of life so beautifully recorded that the book becomes a small icon to be treasured not only on the shelf of a personal library, but in the mind."
And Josie Barnard in issue No.27, Autumn 2010 (p.28):
"Some books I set out to read, others I get involved with by accident."
One more - Charles Elliott in issue No.22, Summer 2009 (p.87):
"As obsessions go, book collecting ought to be one of the more innocent."
From his essay entitled Book Crooks. Oh, that word ought! The whole sentence turns on it.
Each issue contains gems such as these. Captivating. A treasure trove of the known and unknown both. Although I must say that so many of the books mentioned therein - after all this time of reading and selling books and generally trying to become aware of literature of all kinds - so many I have never heard of before now. From authors long-dead. Slightly Foxed shows me again how inexhaustible the book world is, how renewable and regenerative, and oh how much love we book people have for our books. And reminds me, though I hadn't forgotten, how fascinating and strange it is that someone else's words, put down and made into books, can come to mean so much to us. Mary Oliver. How I will miss you. How glad I am you wrote your books! I don't think I will ever tire of the reading experience. Such mysterious riches, readily available to us all.
Tuesday, December 18, 2018
time is a bandit
On our travels out and about the other day we noticed a book sale sign at a local library of note. They don't usually have their sale room open right now so we stopped in for a look-see. I received a heads-up from a dealer-friend that I missed a great sale there a few weeks ago - someone donated a lot of art books and people were stacking them up like pancakes, to buy buy buy. I thought at the time, Oh well, probably for the best, enough books in the sea, and moved on. But there we were, going by on Saturday afternoon, so we stopped in, and except for one other couple, we were the only people at the sale at that time of day. I didn't expect to find much but quickly released those lackluster expectations when I started to look at the books themselves. On the shelves in the sale room: wonderful poetry books, literature, art, essays, biographies, and more. We bought a carton and two bags full of books for $85, more than usual because one book was $20, but it was a good one! Most everything else was just a dollar a book. Many of these books were from the collection of this person who donated her books en masse to the friends of the library. Oh the books. They are wonderful. I am selling some, and will keep many. Here are a few of each:
Montaigne! Baudelaire! Elizabeth Bishop! Adrienne Rich! Alan Bennett! Lovely fat hardcovers in decent condition! Many first editions! I could buy books like this all day long. Except for the Rose Macaulay book I think all of these belonged to that same owner. She wrote her name, the date, and her town or city of residence inside the front covers of some of these and many others. I saw books with her name from seven decades, and from at least five of the places she lived, the last two of which were here in Maine. It looks like, throughout her life, she bought wonderful books when they were first published, and kept them well. I hope she lived a long and happy life. I know she lived a rich and interesting one, with these books for company. And now, here are the books again, released back into the wild as it were. I will add my bookplates to a few and attempt to sell the rest to new owners, to help keep the book world slowly turning.
Looking at everything, I found myself cogitating over the passage of time and the knowledge that everything in its turn will eventually be dispersed. Our very own books. (Our very own selves!) Sigh. What to do about that, I do not know. Time is a bandit, we've been saying around here a lot lately. Everything seems to give me pause while simultaneously sending me to work, hard, to make life matter. Weeks and years tick by too quickly. Another birthday, another new year. I remember the turning of the millenium so clearly, and just like that, nearly two decades have come and gone. And a book I just read brought my even earlier years into clear focus this week so I am feeling more melancholy than usual. Apologies! Let's be of good cheer. How about I speak of that book another time, and simply say the following, for now. Thank you to the giver of these books. Thank you for your long life in books. May we all be so fortunate. I will continue to count my blessings like books on the shelf, one after the next, each so full of life and so real, now and always.
Thursday, December 06, 2018
Taking stock, today. Winter is here. The woodstove is humming - it's toasty inside and well below freezing outside. And as the song says, it's beginning to look at lot like Christmas. We have our advent calendars out, but no tree or wreaths yet, probably this weekend we'll get to it. So that is on approach. Also, my fiftieth year on the planet is drawing to a close. Just a short time until that day, and then the solstice comes right afterwards, and we will begin turning toward the light once again. How I love this time of year. Despite many outward worries, anxieties, and fears, I still feel a distinct measure of inward peace. With the leaves gone from the trees I can see to the far horizon, and I love what I see. Literally and metaphorically. A few new projects are in the works for January and beyond. Book-making among them. I'm working on a new little illustrated book - a tiny manifesto about nature and wildness - and am also returning to two other manuscripts to attempt to breathe some life into them. That plus framing my upcoming painting show will keep me steadily working while snow flies.
Of course I'll be reading, too, as ever. Can't work all the time. Some of my books-of-the-moment:
I just read three of these, I'm in the middle of reading four more (see the bookmarks?), and this one I've only yet glanced through:
It's a beautiful children's book, Silent Night: The Story of a Song by Hertha Pauli, illustrated by Fritz Kredel, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1943 in their series Borzoi Books for Younger Readers. This copy is a first edition in very good condition, in a good dust jacket with some chipping and a few small closed tears. A lovely gift inscription inside the front cover is dated December 25, 1943. The back flap of the dust jacket reads:
Awakens the patriot in me, reading that (she is never far from the surface these days, to be honest). The story begins with this perfect sentence (p.6):
"Far beyond the ocean, in a valley in the Austrian Alps, there is an age-old village."
I'll have to read the rest later - suffice it to say that the tale continues from there, relating the friendship between Father Mohr, the priest, and Franz Gruber, the schoolteacher, their creation of a song during the winter of 1818, and what happened to that song over the years. This is a happy addition to my small collection of Christmas books - it was for sale in a local antiques shop for a few dollars and now it's home.
Another wintery book I recently bought - A.Y. Jackson's autobiography A Painter's Country (Clark, Irwin, reprinted in 1967 with an additional chapter):
One of the famous Group of Seven painters in Canada, Jackson became a master at painting snow-covered landscapes and frozen lakes and seas. After studying art in Paris, fighting in World War I, and working as a war artist for several years, he returned to Canada, and traveled to the Arctic and Northwest Territories on painting trips throughout the rest of his long life. His autobiography is pragmatic and plain, a real pleasure to read, and takes into account the problems artists faced in a country which had not yet come to appreciate or support art and artists in particularly tangible ways:
"Painting in Canada has always been a precarious way of making a living." (p.148)
"It is remarkable that with such little encouragement Canadian artists have accomplished so much." (p.168)
He is full of fascinating details about his painter-friends and what they endured. Of course now the Group of Seven is revered and rightly so. Add me to the long list of landscape painters who thinks they are among the very best. On my short list of dream vacations is this: to travel slowly across Canada visiting museums and art collections along the way, to see their work in person. Something for the list of someday.
The other books I've shown above will have to wait for now, dusk is fast approaching and I've got chores to do. But I'll write again before the end of the month - not least because I'm looking forward to rediscovering the rest of my December books, soon. I will take them down off the high shelf they live on during the rest of the year. The Oxford Book of Carols will return to the piano, and our tiny, shabby old copy of Robert P. Tristram Coffin's Christmas in Maine will sit once again under the tree. Until next time. All is calm, all is bright.
Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Life. It keeps right on happening. And somewhere along the way I lost the habit of writing here regularly. In my actual handwritten diary that is not the case, thank goodness. I continue to write, mostly about painting and reading. Books, what would we do without them! In this week of thankfulness I will say once more, thank god for books. And for the authors, editors, publishers, booksellers, and buyers, who keep the literary world turning. After putting bookplates into many of my books over the past six months, I realize yet again what an odd mishmash of them I have accumulated. Or not. Or both - like this one. For several years I owned a copy of Roger Deakin's book Wildwood (Free Press 2010), and there it sat on the shelf, unread. In one of my big sorts I decided I wasn't ever going to read it, so I priced it and put it out for sale. Then this summer I decided I did want to read it after all, and I combed my booth looking for it. It has a very distinctive cover, I know just what it looks like and even feels like in the hand. I couldn't find it, and thought I must have sold it. Then, last week when I was tending my book booth and picking up my check and list of sold books from last month, there it was, printed right at the top of the list! Arg! Sold, but where was it? I know my stock through and through. I mean, most of it I've been examining, handling, and moving from place to place for over two decades now. Wildwood, where were you? Now I have to buy another copy. If that is the least of my worries I am in good shape.
Book sales are steady, by the way. I am almost always pleasantly surprised by what sells - new books and the classics, both. Any time someone says to me that people don't buy real books anymore I want to brandish my sales lists in their faces. (Gently.)
I myself am certainly still buying books. I can't stay out of bookshops, new and secondhand. Online, too, though as usual that's nowhere near as much fun as the real thing. Some recent acquisitions:
Just finished the exemplary Ninth Street Women (Little, Brown 2018). A bit from painter Grace Hartigan, to help us carry on (p. 284):
"'In a painting, I try to make some logic out of the world that has been given to me in chaos.... The fact that I know I am doomed to failure - that doesn't deter me in the least.'"
I've been reading mostly art books lately, as the stack shows. Ninth Street Women is about five of the women of the abstract expressionist movement in New York during the 1940s and 50s - Hartigan, Mitchell, Krasner, Frankenthaler, and de Kooning. It ties together so many strands for me, about these women and their friends, lovers, and husbands, art-making during the war, and the artists and poets of the New York school, glimpsed here from a new direction. 900+ pages of social history and biography - does that sound dull? It isn't. It's a wild soap opera - the dramatic and often violent lives these artists led had me feeling especially thankful for my own quiet existence here in the country.
Speaking of the country. Snow is falling steadily here as we speak. And I'm looking at it in a new way, after reading the Andy Goldsworthy book about snow last night - Midsummer Snowballs (Abrams 2001). He constructs giant snowballs in winter in the mountains of Scotland - each weighing close to a ton - full of natural materials hidden in the snow, stores the snowballs in a deep-freeze, and sets them up as public sculpture in London, during the night of June 21, 2000. The snowballs proceed to melt and reveal their contents over several days. The public reacts in all kinds of ways. Goldsworthy describes the construction, placement, melting, and reactions in his diary entries, which illustrate the intensity of the artist's preoccupations as much as his sculpture does. A few examples:
"Snow provokes responses that reach right back to childhood. A snowball is simple, direct and familiar to most of us. I use this simplicity as a container for feelings and ideas that function on many levels." (p.31)
"My art is an attempt to reach beyond surface appearances. Nature does not stop or start at the boundary of a city. I want to see growth in wood, time in stone, nature in a city. I don't mean a city's parks, but the earth upon which it is built, the stone with which it is made, the rain that falls on both field and pavement, the people moving around its streets. I dislike the way that nature is perceived by some as peripheral to and separate from the city. I resent the way in which the countryside has been marginalised, considered as a pleasant and recreational backdrop to relaxing at the weekend or on holiday, while life in the city is somehow thought to be more real. In fact, life in the countryside is at times harsh, aggressive, powerful and destructive, as well as beautiful. Working there can be hard work, stressful and traumatic as well as deeply satisfying." (p.33)
Agreed. Nature is IT, not a side interest, or something to be paved over for good. Living and working out in it as I do, often outside for entire days of painting, not to mention growing up on a small farm in a very rural area of this very rural state, when my father and other relatives lived in New York City, well, all that was an education and continues to be. Another item for my gratitude list this Thanksgiving week.
And one more (too many to name here, am extremely grateful lately, so am limiting it to three today). The book room here at home is looking particularly good right now. Our primary repository for our books, it has become a place of great solace, what I'd always hoped for. Old friends are everywhere I look. I've cleaned up as I bookplated my way along each shelf and am feeling so happy about the state of my books. I walk into the room and feel welcome. Nothing admonishes me (well, okay, perhaps that set of Proust, but hey, I still have it on hand, just in case, so there's that). One end of the room is quite tidy, it pleases me to no end - some literature (fiction, belles lettres, diaries, letters), yes a mishmash as I said - all kinds of authors sitting there together, companionably and alphabetically:
There is even a bit of room on the shelves for new books. In the Cs and Ds. Which is good, since I'm thinking right now of books I don't have yet but want to read. Like this one - writer Tom Cox has a new book out of ghost stories set in the British countryside. His first book of fiction: Help the Witch (Unbound 2018). I haven't gotten a copy yet, but I am going to, soon, one way or another. Meanwhile I check in on his his twitter feed (it's so worth reading...) for gems like this:
"I know I buy far too many books but I like to think that lining my house with them wards off evil in some deeply important way."
He quotes other people once in a while, too:
"'People argue books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague & your kids & the Sistine Chapel.' - Joe Queenan."
So, with much to look forward to, and much gratitude, we head into the quiet season here. Winter: the snow, the reading, the painting, the diary writing. Life flows on. Thanks be.
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
long walks and those who love them
Summer blew through so quickly, it seems. I feel keyed up and have subsequently been trying to make the most of everything, during this intense time. It helps counterbalance my anxiety about... (fill in the blank). I took three island painting trips in three months, and also participated in a painting workshop far inland, to be with some un-island nature for a change. My studio is full of new paintings, destined for the future exhibits which I will be piecing together over the winter. Fall activities are in full swing, now. The chimney sweep is on approach. New caps for the chimneys, check. Furnace cleaning, check. Firewood delivery on its way for next year, check (this year's is already stacked and dry and ready to burn). Cat beds for Hodge are deployed strategically throughout the house, in sunny windows and near the woodstove, for maximum kitty comfort as the cold encroaches. I just put a layer of peat moss in the compost pile, to work its magic over the winter and spring. Will add a thick layer of dried leaves whenever they finish falling off the maples in the front yard, next month. I repotted the house plants and brought them indoors for the winter. The garden was a bust this year - we only had some flowers and herbs and lots of weeds, since I decided to let things go for a season. I'll clean everything up once the first hard frost does most of the work for me.
Indoors, I'm still putting bookplates into my books. And I haven't been reading much but what I have been reading has been splendid. Back in May I bought a copy of The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane (Viking 2012). I read it quickly, in thrall to the care he takes with his writing, and equally in thrall to the ideas he espouses, namely those relating to walking and pathways of all kinds. My intrepid stepfather walked 1200 miles on the Appalachian Trail this season (between April and August), and so around here we have been fairly obsessed with all things long-walk. I used to have a collection of books about very long walks and while some of that collection is no longer with me, I seem to have recently attracted more reading on the subject than I ever had in the first place. And Macfarlane's book is such a gem. Not least because he mentions many other authors and books I have loved for so long, and he then proceeds to take his place among them. A wonderful, rich, and wordy meander on tracks, paths, and traversable landscapes around Great Britain and elsewhere. This book is worthwhile for all that, and then too for its bibliography, which he begins by saying (p.395):
"Walking is among our most ancient of practices, and it has been undertaken for an irreducibly complex variety of causes and desires. The literature of walking and paths is extensive and wayward; this bibliography includes a selection of the books, essays and articles that I have read about these subjects, as well as those concerning the book's other broad preoccupations: archaeology, cartography, grief, joy, landscape, metaphor, navigation, orientation, pilgrimage, touch, tracking and toponymy, among others."
Thirteen pages of reading suggestions follow. He asterisks those he finds particularly interesting. I could read from this list for months. On it I find old friends and intriguing newcomers, both. One of the latter, well, I couldn't help but notice her, since throughout The Old Ways Macfarlane mentions her many times, in glowing terms. He even begins the book with an epigraph from one of her books. She is Nan Shepherd, and the book he goes on and on about is her quiet masterpiece The Living Mountain.
I can say masterpiece since I have now read it too. But I needed prompting to do so. And the universe obliged, as it often does. Here's what happened. I read Macfarlane's book, and paid attention, and took notes, as I always do when I read. I wrote down several of the instances when he gave Nan Shepherd's writing high praise. When he speaks of her, he places her in his paragraphs beside Gilbert White, and Lawrence Durrell, and Goethe. By the third or fourth time he mentions her, and quotes at length from her book, I am thinking, Okay, okay, OKAY. Get this book I have never heard of until now. I wrote the title down, to find a copy sometime soon. It's about her long walks in the Cairngorms in Scotland. Must find a copy. Then a month went by. And part of another. As they do. And I got busy, and I ignored my own note to self.
Now we come to the good part of this story. Remember I mentioned that this summer I took a painting workshop, inland? I didn't know the workshop teacher but he has a great reputation and I have loved his paintings for years, and I wanted to paint in the area where the workshop was being offered, so I signed up for his class. (Not having taken a class in 16? years or so, maybe more, eeek, nervous.) The class was the better part of five days. Early on the teacher and I were talking and I asked him what he was working on. He said that he'd been struggling with his painting over the previous winter but had made some small paintings based on a book he'd read. A book he'd in fact read five times in succession, it had made such an impression on him. Just a little thing, he said - pinching his fingers together - short, but so good. His wife would say to him, "Are you reading that book again...?" Yes, he was. Being a book person (he didn't know that about me, we'd never met), of course I asked him the big question. "What is that book?" And he said, "The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd." While looking at me, perhaps not expecting me to know or care about his answer. I looked at him. My mind became quite busy. I said, "...that book about the Cairngorms?" He looked at me. Perhaps suprised at what I had said. And said, "YES." I said, "I just read The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, and he goes on and on about Nan Shepherd." He told me he's read everything Robert Macfarlane has published. I suggested also reading Macfarlane's exemplary twitter feed, and resolved to get my hands on a copy of The Living Mountain as soon as I possibly could.
And I did. Right after the workshop I ordered a copy, read it, read it again, and I'm still thinking about it, nearly two months later. I wanted to write about it here, long before now, but today is finally the day. Robert Macfarlane wrote a 30+ page introduction to the reprint (Canongate 2011; the book was originally published by Aberdeen University Press in 1977, after sitting unpublished, in manuscript form, for decades). I suggest skipping the introduction, as good as it is, and going straight into the book itself. Then go back and read the introduction for Macfarlane's care-full parsing of her prose. He has read the book a dozen times, and places it on equal footing with other great books published in the 1970s, namely Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts, Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, John McPhee's Coming into the Country, and The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. The difference being of course that their books were written, published, and lauded, and her manuscript sat in a drawer, after one rejection from one publisher, for about thirty years, before she tried once more to get it into print. Macfarlane read it when a friend recommended it as "a lost classic" of nature writing. He says alongside J.A. Baker's The Peregrine, "... it is one of the two most remarkable twentieth-century British studies of a landscape that I know." (p.xiii) But here I am not taking my own advice, and reading from the introduction, not the text itself! And all this makes the book sound like some kind of best-thing-ever-written, when it is just over 100 pages, and isn't really even about anything, other than coming to know a place. There is no story - just description, and experience, and that slow knowing. About the whole place - the elements, plants, rocks, animals, birds, other people in the landscape. Weather, light. Colors. Water. The senses. The book does remind me of a series of paintings, made over a lifetime, about a place so beloved that descriptions of it never come close. The opening sentences give us a perfect taste of the whole (p.1):
"Summer on the high plateau can be delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge. To those who love the place, both are good, since both are part of its essential nature. And it is to know its essential nature that I am seeking here. To know, that is, with the knowledge that is a process of living. This is not done easily nor in an hour. It is a tale too slow for the impatience of our age, not of immediate enough import for its desperate problems. Yet it has its own rare value. It is, for one thing, a corrective of glib assessment: one never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it. However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them."
"The Cairngorm Mountains are a mass of granite thrust up through the schists and gneiss that form the lower surrounding hills, planed down by the ice cap, and split, shattered and scooped out by frost, glaciers and the strength of running water. Their physiognomy is in the geography books - so many square miles of area, so many lochs, so many summits of over 4000 feet - but this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind."
OH, so good. And these are just the first two paragraphs! They make me want to write. And walk. Which I have been doing a lot of, this summer. For one of the things that has kept me away from writing here has been walking, not just reading about walking. Ryan and I have walked many short sections of the Appalachian Trail here in Maine over the last five months, in solidarity with my stepfather, and the trail has taken me places and shown me things I would never have experienced otherwise. Sometimes I bring my paints along, sometimes not. Sometimes I just look and that is more than enough for that day. I'll read more about it (and paint about it, and maybe write about it too) when winter truly comes and I'm indoors for the coldest days. In fact, I think reading books about long walks might be a good winter reading project this year. I've already got some of the books listed in Macfarlane's bibliography, and I see many others I'd like to track down. More on all that soon, after the fall chores are finished and I'm in for the duration. Until then, the leaves have barely started turning here and the outdoors is still calling. October, here it comes! Maine's finest season? (Well, I love all the others too.)