Tuesday, June 29, 2021

 

heat wave reading

It's too hot to think much, this morning.  The windows are shut since the temperature is currently just under 80 degrees in the house, but it's hotter outside and may be in the low 90s this afternoon.  A fan is pushing some air around, and Hodge is in the coolest place indoors, the north-facing living room.  He's flat, sacked out for the day.  I'm going to get a few things done and then join him, with a good book.  Current reading is as follows:

Yesterday was also revoltingly torrid, so after completing something momentous, in my little universe at least, of which more in just a moment, I sat for a few hours and read books.  I've been painting for days, and working on lots of other things, and had almost forgotten what relaxing felt like.  It was good to lose myself for a while and inhabit some other interesting places and times.  I re-read The Summer Book by Tove Jasson (nyrb edition 2008) from cover to cover:

I first read it when a dear friend found out I never had, and sent me this copy.  It's like nothing else I've ever read, except it holds a few shades of Gerald Durrell's memoir My Family and Other Animals, a book inextricably linked to my childhood, since my family and I read it aloud several times, on long car trips especially.  The Summer Book holds the same kind of hilarious/dreadful combination of events which aren't even truly events, just happenstance or life observed, in there alongside the over-arching theme of an oddly absent parent, which is barely explained, and yet the family carries on with life as it is.  I might re-read My Family and Other Animals soon, too, come to think of it.  It's perfect summer reading.

As is today's choice for a re-read: The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim (Macmillan 1900).  Certain books ask to be read again every few years, and this is one of them.  Gentle yet piercingly thoughtful, if memory serves.  She says (pp.1-2):  "I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life.  I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow.  Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls, they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick.  I shall spend months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests.... I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no one to worry me.  Out there on the plain there is silence, and where there is silence I have discovered there is peace."

Sounds like heaven, although after the enforced solitude of last summer, I have doubts.  Solitude may have come easier for von Arnim than for most, seeing as how she was married to a count, lived in a schloss, and had servants.  I do not fault her for that (and I recognize how those very circumstances trapped her in certain ways), instead I enjoy the fact that she had time to write, and did write, very well.  Her schloss-life did not last all that long anyway, since the count created trouble for himself and lost everything.  The Elizabeth von Arnim Society offers a fascinating look at the ruins of the manor house and surrounds, as it exists today.

The other books shown are either finished or in process.  I just read In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary (Flatiron 2016), and it was enlightening to discover the life story of the woman behind all those children's books we know and love.  I wish the book had more direct quotes from Brown's diaries, though, not just the one tantalizing quote at the very end of the book.  The Jed Perl anthology, Art in America 1945-1970 was a long long read, and utterly fantastic.  It took me two or three months to navigate all its 800+ pages, but it did what all great books should do - led me straight to more great books.  Since many of the selections he chooses are from other sources, and while I already own some of them, some I didn't.  But I do now!  At the moment I'm halfway through another recent arrival, retired pastor Rob McCall's collection of brief essays (and sermon-like commentaries) Some Glad Morning: Holding Hope In Apocalyptic Times (Pushcart Press 2020).  In the introduction he says (p.9):

"The world is gradually moving from dogmatic religion established by male hierarchies and based on supernatural revelation to open-sourced religion established by consenses and based on Nature.  We are moving with it."

Sign me up, although as always I have my doubts about the word religion.  There is something, though, something undeniable and sacred and I experience it when I'm outside, and I love it and feel at home there, and feel loved in return.  This is, in part, what my book is about, not just about painting, and the little island I stayed on for years.  Speaking of my book - this is the momentous event I would like to mark, and share.  Yesterday I finished working on the remaining details of my manuscript, and today I have turned over the whole messy thing - cover mock-ups included - to the lovely woman who will format it for me, so it looks like an actual trade book, and I can send it to the printer.  All this will take a while, but I hope to have copies in hand before the end of summer.  Another wonderful reason to get some lemonade from the fridge, put my feet up, and take the rest of the day off.  When evening arrives and the day truly cools down, Ryan will be home, Hodge will wake up, and we'll open the windows wide and watch the fireflies dance in the dusk.  They are out there, tiny lights in the dark, showing us the way.  Enjoy these hot summer days, they are so fleeting.  I eye next year's already-stacked woodpile with satisfaction, and think more than a little fondly of winters past and future.


Tuesday, May 18, 2021

 

bookselling in the time of covid

A quick note this morning to say hello, and mention that I returned to my book booth late last week, for the first time in over a year.  The antiques mall where I sell books closed for some of the pandemic, then opened again, then closed again, than reopened.  Here at home I had a ton of books for my booth, from one of the last public events I attended, pre-pandemic: a library book sale during the first weekend of March, 2020.  In a fit of spring cleaning, I also culled a lot of books from my own stacks, and ended up with around fourteen cartons and assorted bags of books and other items to bring in.  It took me a few hours to clean and tidy up my booth (which was a sad mess), and shelve all the new books.  I remember how immaculate my shop used to be - first thing every morning I'd straighten the books on their shelves, touch the spines, put a few new things on display, and give everyone a pep talk as I opened the shop - and seeing my booth in a relative shambles was disheartening.  But throughout the last year I just wasn't willing to be in public places, stores especially.  The wonderful folks at the antiques mall understood and kept my little business going for me, while I stayed home.  It was good to be back, and have my hands on a lot of books again:

Ryan helped me get all the books inside, then waited, took a few pictures, and was generally supportive while I did my thing.  Business throughout the last year was slow but surprisingly decent.  And the owner of the antiques mall didn't charge booth rent for the times they had to close.  I made some money here and there, and enjoyed seeing what sold, and what would therefore live to be read another day.  Oh world of books, I miss you.  But the corner has really been turned in my life, from being a professional full-time bookseller to being a professional full-time painter (it only took a decade or so, to make that transition), and I don't think there's any going back now.  I still love and want to continue with bookselling, but my art life is ascendant.  I just brought sixty paintings to my primary gallery for my solo show there in June, and the gallerist would like even more for the remainder of the summer.  The second gallery representing me also wants more work.  Maine is about to reopen for business, and is one of the safest states to visit right now.  We could have a very busy season.  However, I'm going to continue to stay away from highly-populated places, and out of stores and other enclosed spaces, whenever possible.  Ryan and I both are cautious people by nature, and see no reason to take chances when we've made it this far.  I'm glad that painting is solitary.  It suits me fine.

This week I'm working at home, looking at the empty spaces left by the removal of all those objects last week - so many books, so many paintings - and wondering what will arrive to fill the space.  My instinct is to leave it empty.  I only have one book on order right now, which is supposed to be published next week, but other than that I have no desire to buy, just to continue with my spring cleaning, and clear out even more.  This is probably the residual effect of being cooped up for so many months.  I'm looking forward to more space, greater clarity, and the open horizons of summer.


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

 

spring check-in

Almost the end of April, already!  As of now, I'm two weeks past my second vaccination shot, and just beginning to experience the first glimmerings of... I won't say normalcy, because who knows what that even is, but rather a quiet peaceful happiness.  One I usually inhabit, but which felt far away during the past year, and really throughout most of the last four years.  I won't write a lot today, but want to share the good feeling while it's visiting, along with this new little to-be-read stack of books:  

First and foremost, I just received the brand new Jonny Sun book in the mail, Goodbye, Again: Essays, Reflections, and Illustrations (Harper 2021).  I loved his illustrated book everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too (Harper 2017), not to mention the book of Lin-Manuel Miranda tweets he also illustrated, Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me & You (Random House 2018), which is utterly charming and heartfelt.  I read his twitter account regularly, and love his highly-anxious-yet-positive vibe.  Now I'm over halfway through this new book of his essays.  Favorites so far are On yearning, On nostalgia, Staying in, How to cook scrambled eggs (which he should win some kind of award for, it's so odd and so good! like a storyboard for a perfect film short!), I am trying to decide if I should buy two rolls of paper towel or three, and Anxiety tax.  Some of the essays are one paragraph, or even just a few sentences.  Others are longer, and have line drawings and symbols accompanying them.  All of them allow us, the readers, a glimpse at the truths of his life, a life in which he experiences depression and overwork, and examines the nature of happiness, with houseplants, friends, and family members making appearances along the way.  Open and endearing.

My other books are all over the place, as usual.  The Frugal Vegan cookbook by Katie Koteen and Kate Kasbee (Page Street 2017) was a gift from my mother-in-law a while back.  I'm not vegan but have been mostly vegetarian for the past three/four years now, and after cooking for myself and Ryan for more than a year I'm very interested in learning a few new foodways.  The book has some good ideas and illustrations.  I'll at least have fun imagining them, even if I don't implement them.

The rest of the books I'm just dipping into.  I've started and stopped Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer several times and am determined to read the entire thing, soon.  What I've read so far is fantastic, but other books keep nudging her aside.  Her long essay The Serviceberry, in December's Emergence magazine, is deeply beautiful, and gives a taste of her writing style.  I also got a new book of poetry by local author Stuart Kestenbaum, things seemed to be breaking: visual poems (Deerbrook 2021), and a collection by art critic Dave Hickey, Pirates and Farmers: Essays on Taste (Ridinghouse 2013).  Hickey says on the front flap of the book:

"I advocate site-specific optimism.  Hope for a better tomorrow is delusional, but we can still look forward to the next few hours with a high heart."

On that note, which sounds a lot like what I'm feeling today, I'll sign off and walk out into this gorgeous afternoon.  I might even paint the flowers in the back yard.  The forsythias are a generous froth of bright yellow, and the dandelions and daffodils near them radiate almost the same color, against the fresh green of the lawn.  We heard the first hermit thrush of the year, last night.  Spring.  SPRING...!


Thursday, March 18, 2021

 

seeking permission

Another month!  Like the last, except slightly warmer!  I've been out painting (in the car, yes, but with the window rolled down), and birds of spring are returning to our yard (saw the first song sparrow this morning, under the cedars), and the snow is nearly melted away (some blue ghosts remain at the edge of the field).  I've set Thoreau aside for now; I never did finish Volume Seven of his Journal.  I'll get back to it another time, I hope.  From what I read in the Thoreau biography about how it progresses, I'd rather leave him here now, before he gets much older, darker, and sickly.  Perhaps around 3000 pages of the Journal is enough for one winter.  All in all he's been a most excellent readerly companion, over these last few months.  I opened my own diary at random to see if I could find a quote or two to illustrate this, but instead saw some passages I'd copied from Emerson's tribute to him in the Riverside Thoreau collection Miscellanies (snippets from pp.18-23):

"It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him.  He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own.  He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had taken this path before him.  One must submit abjectly to such a guide, and the reward was great.  Under his arm he carried an old music-book to press plants; in his pocket, his diary and pencil, a spy-glass for birds, microscope, jack-knife, and twine.  He wore a straw hat, stout shoes, strong gray trousers to brave shrub-oaks and smilax, and to climb a tree for a hawk's or squirrel's nest.  He waded into the pool for the water-plants, and his strong legs were no insignificant part of his armor....  His power of observation seemed to indicate additional senses.  He saw as with a microscope, heard as with an ear-trumpet, and his memory was a photographic register of all he saw and heard.  And yet none knew better than he that it is not the fact that imparts, but the impression or effect of the fact on your mind.  Every fact lay in glory in his mind, a type of the order and beauty of the whole....  His eye was open to beauty, and his ear to music.  He found these, not in rare conditions, but wheresover he went."

The essay-slash-obituary is very moving, however Emerson also says that Thoreau lacked the kind of ambition that he, Emerson, wished that Thoreau had possessed, so he could be a leader on the world stage, "...engineering for all America," rather than merely "...the captain of a huckleberry party." (p.29)  I tend to think, after reading many places that indicated as much in Thoreau's letters and writings, that Thoreau did not seek that kind of power, ever, and mistrusted it, and disliked it.  He looked and looked, but didn't see anyone like himself in literature, or politics, or even society in general, and subsequently traveled his own path.  And wrote into existence a new way of being in the world.

In his Civil Disobedience (also printed in the Riverside Miscellanies p.146), he says "I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad."  Take that, Emerson!  Also (p.156): "I was not born to be forced.  I will breathe after my own fashion.  Let us see who is the strongest.... I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society."  And that!  Phew.  And yet, here he is, in his life and writing: pointing, forcing the issue, attempting to open eyes wide.  Bracing stuff.

I always feel like there is much more I could say, and want to say, but there's only so much time, and we have to go pick up our grocery order soon, and then I have paintings to finish, in my studio.  So I'll leave Thoreau for now, in a stack of unfinished reading, with many bookmarks throughout.  There's a new stack at my elbow, as we speak, with nary a Thoreau title among the many:

Mmmmm, new books.  Nothing like them.  I ordered up a storm in January, and this is some of the fruit, to mix metaphors.  Let's look at two more closely:


Brand new, these ones.  I just got the Anne Lamott book in the mail.  And I continue to love all things Tom Cox.  His Notebook (Unbound 2021) contains various selections from his own handwritten notebooks.  I've sampled a few pages here and there and am about to read the whole thing cover to cover.  I can't wait - reading other people's journals and diaries is turning out to be a life-long fascination of mine.  I will also say that his work reminds me of Thoreau in some ways - especially in his book of nature memoir essays in 21st-Century Yokel (Unbound 2017).  If Thoreau collected vinyl records and wore bell-bottoms, which he might well have done, had he lived at a later time.  And I was going to say if Thoreau was edgy, because Tom Cox is, but Thoreau certainly was.  And if they both love cats (check), and music (check), and rambling the countryside (check), and the minutae of nature (check).  Anyway, read Tom Cox...!  He is high on my list of exemplary authors for all kinds of reasons, but one of the most recent is this: he recently granted me permission to quote him, in my own book.

Since finishing the book, my memoir Autobiography of an Island, in January, I've been doing something I should have started a long time ago: seeking permission to quote from various authors and artists.  In writing in general, I've always copied long and short passages from other people into my diaries.  I started keeping a commonplace book for quotations when I was around ten years old, and I have it still.  Here on this blog I've always had the habit of quoting others for purposes of review, or general adoration, or every so often, dislike.  I think that (most of?) what I've written falls well within the bounds of fair use.  But when something is going to be printed, in a book, the situation changes.  I want to use other people's words as chapter headers, and I want to quote the people I admire, within my text.  So in late January I made a long list, and started writing to ask permission.  Most publishers have an online submission process, which is fairly easy, so I completed a lot of forms, wrote explanations about my book, and sat back and waited.  So far, 75% of the permissions I requested have come back affirmative - yes, I can quote, with an endnote citation.  In a few cases, I paid to use the words I want to use.  They are worth it, to me, and I thought I'd have to pay a lot more, to be honest.  But again, most of what I quote does fall within fair use guidelines.  Some of it's even within the public domain.

The best part about seeking permission to quote has been being in touch with BOOK PEOPLE from all over the place.  Book people are wonderful, and I've missed them, since I "retired" from my own open shop, and from the world at large during the pandemic.  I've corresponded with literary estate executors, publishers in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., archivists, and a librarian.  Even a record label, for a song lyric I hope to be able to sing, in print.  I'm only waiting now for a few final permissions to clear (or not - I did have one rejection, and had to rewrite two paragraphs), and the process will be complete.  Then I'll work on designing the book, or have someone else design it for me, and hopefully print it in July.  It would be earlier, but I already have a lot on my plate, work-wise.  No rest for the self-employed!  And gladly so.  When I rest, I don't rest.  I worry.

The only times right now I'm not worrying seem to be when I'm reading, or painting.  Thought - and anxiety - goes, and I'm in the moment, a place I dearly love to be.  So I work a lot, and read a lot.  When I set Thoreau aside, I re-read some of the novels of Ruth Moore.  She was originally published by Morrow, and now her work is being reprinted by Islandport Press, in wonderful softcover editions with cover images from the original first edition dust jackets.  Her novels about Maine are unsurpassed, in my opinion.  My favorites are Candlemas Bay and SpoonhandleThe Weir is a close third, tied with The Fire Balloon.  She has a gimlet eye when it comes to characterization, and so many of her people are unforgettable.  We know them.  She writes about families, and entire small towns.  The good people, and the bad seeds.  I ordered a few of the Islandport Press editions, even though I have most of her work in hardcover first editions already, just to support their endeavor, and to triple-check the quotations I'm going to use in my book, and the copyright citation.  The good folks at Islandport granted me permission, which I'm so grateful for.  I don't want to hide behind the words of others, when I quote from them.  I want to use what they say to illustrate what I myself believe and care about.  That's what I've tried to do - draw up a bucket from the great well of world literature and art and then offer a dipper to drink from.  Read the quote, then go buy the book!  Support the publisher, the author, and their heirs.  This is how books will continue to be written and published, by people who care about such things.  Us!

In closing, for today.  Requesting permission has another facet to it.  As I worked my way through my list of quotations for the book, I realized that the very act of asking for something has never come easily to me.  It's like asking permission to exist, in a way.  Calling attention to oneself.  Stating one's intent clearly, with no obfuscation: I want do do this; or tempered for politeness, I would like do do this.  Part of what my book has become, in writing and rewriting, is a statement of this kind: I exist, and do what I love to do, with no one's permission sought or needed.  It took me a long time to come to this place.  Decades, I'd say.  But here I am now, and it's a good place to stand.  The view is fine.  Almost Thoreauvian.  Until next time, be well, and... keep buying books.

Monday, February 15, 2021

 

alone, in a small house

Sending a little Valentine's Day love, a day late.  As if individual days matter much, right now.  The pandemic inches along.  Each day feels eerily the same.  Awaken, feed Hodge breakfast, see Ryan off to work, if he has to be in his office instead of here at home, brush my teeth, wash my face, roll out the yoga mat.  Experience a few moments of peace and spaciousness, if I'm lucky.  Shower, dress, make my own breakfast, determine the scope of work for the day.  Water the plants.  Fill the woodbox.  Take out the compost.  Keep up with minor housework.  Make sure our groceries are holding steady.  Putter in my studio.  Make an effort in the morning to make definite progress of some kind, any kind, with my projects, then have lunch, continue with work, and then set everything else aside and read in the late afternoon, or get outside again, if it's not too cold.  I'm doing my best to keep my spirits up, in any way possible, but whew it's difficult, in the depths of winter, in the times we are in.  To say I am looking forward to being eligible for vaccination is an understatement.  Around here, we are months away.

Let's not dwell on that unfortunate circumstance.  There's no point.  Here's a Thoreau update.  And my current stack of reading and just-finished books:


My winter reading project, as it stands today, is this:  I'm seventy-five pages in to Volume Seven of the Journal, which is not very far along, considering that last time I mentioned the Journal was a month ago, and I was in the middle of Volume Six.  However, I stopped reading the Journal, read my copy of Walden, then read the recent biography Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls (University of Chicago Press 2017), then read Thoreau's Letters to a Spiritual Seeker edited by Bradley P. Dean (Norton 2004), then read the New Riverside edition of Thoreau's Familiar Letters edited by F.B. Sanborn (Houghton Mifflin 1894).  I also read the chapter about Sophia Thoreau in Little-Known Sisters of Well-Known Men by Sarah G. Pomeroy (Dana Estes 1912), along with some of the other lives of women described therein, during which I had to grit my teeth and clench my jaw from time to time, over the so-called noble sacrifices made by and helpmeet status of nineteenth-century women.  I am now embarking upon the two late Thoreau manuscript fragments reassembled and edited by Bradley P. Dean, Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings (Island Press 1993), and Wild Fruits (Norton 2000).  There is a lot I could say about each of these books, and goodness knows I've taken my usual copious notes as I've been reading them.

Walden, to start with.  I'm glad I didn't read it when I was younger.  To come to a classic like this with fresh eyes, and no real preconceived notions about much of anything, other than a willingness to be pleased, because I've been enjoying his Journal so much, was a good way to experience the book as a whole.  The beginning is such a rant, it was unexpected.  In fact the entire book is kind of a rant, I mean a real diatribe!  The sections I love best are those in which he slows down, sets his judgments about society and his neighbors aside, and describes his life experience in loving ways, as a painter might.  Luckily these sections are plentiful.  His descriptions of communing with nature, and coming to know the divine in nature, are achingly beautiful.  The narrative as a whole is much less of a nuts-and-bolts kind of book than I thought it would be.  Yes, the details are there, about how he builds his house by Walden Pond, and what it cost him, and how he earns his living, and what he eats, and who comes to visit.  But the life philosophy he espouses is the overarching story.  And I love how he describes having lived in a certain way, then he sets that time aside as if to commemorate it, and writes from another place, years into his own future, while looking back toward his earlier courage and innocence.

There are gorgeous thoughtful passages all throughout Walden, and famous snippet after famous snippet, but these few pages about him remembering his own past in his house by the pond - his season of joy - have come to mean a great deal to me, and I even ended up reading this entire section aloud to Ryan one evening, as we were talking anyway about work, and leisure, and the happiness sought and found (or not) therein (pp.123-125):

"I love a broad margin to my life.  Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs.... I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.  They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over my usual allowance.... For the most part, I minded not how the hours went.  The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished.  Instead of singing like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.... my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel.  It was a drama of many scences and without an end.... Follow your genius closely enough, and it will not fail to show you a fresh prospect every hour."

Go outside!  Stay there!  Pay attention!  Live your daily life as if it is a series of revelations, because it is!  His messages feel as relevant today as they ever were.  They are certainly helping me get through this trying time.  I look out the window after seeing some quick movement from the corner of my eye.  A few days ago, it was a flock of robins, and today a pair of cardinals, in the wild rose bushes behind our house, by the edge of the woods.  Sometimes I walk into those woods, into the cedar swamp, and look around.  Chickadees, crows, places where deer have scraped the ground bare, tracks in the snow: signs of life, everywhere.  They keep me focused on the good, and the present.

I could say a lot more about Walden but it feels superfluous, and so much has already been said, by others, better than I could ever say it.  The Thoreau biography by Laura Dassow Walls is fantastic, I must say, and reads like an engrossing novel.  The ending, about his death, is so moving, and seems to describe some of the grief I've been feeling lately, about the unfinished nature of most of our lives, and the shortness of life in general.  After that, I did take a break from all things Thoreau, to read a few other books, but they ended up feeling like more Walden.  One was Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson (North Point Press 2001), about the author's inheritance and experience of the Shiants.  What a book.  About the deep love of place.  And about a man, alone, in a small house, writing.  I also read a new poetry book, Big Cabin by Ron Padgett (Coffee House Press 2019).  Again, about place and the observations one makes about it, and about a man, alone, in a small house, writing.  I love his poetry so, so much, and this book might be my favorite of his to date.  The cover of the book was designed by Alex Katz:


It really suits my mood right now: inside, looking out; inside, writing, painting, working, wishing, looking out again.  Favorite poems include "Truly," "The Ripple Effect," "A Rowboat of Happiness," "Infusion," and the very short "Haiku" on (p.54):

"First, calm down.
 Next, stay that way
 for the rest of your life."

Big Cabin, Sea Room, and Walden: I'm glad I read all three of these great books after I'd finished writing my own, which is about going to stay on an island, alone, in a small house, to write and paint.  As I mentioned before, for better or worse my book is done (!!!), and I 'm now working on some housekeeping chores associated with it, such as requesting permission for all the quotes I hope to use within it.  I may not hear back about certain requests for months, but am hoping to print copies of the book in July, after I get my painting shows for the summer squared away, and actually get back outside to paint for a few months too.  Spring, spring!  Where are you; I miss you.  More Thoreau updates to come, as I return to the Journal, and read on, toward the warm seasons.  Take care, friends.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

 

the news, of 1854

January progresses, hour by slow hour.  We are doing our best to make it through, unscathed or otherwise.  The news is harrowing and my spirits sink lower and lower.  However, books help, as they always do.  And the weather helps, since it is milder than in years past.  As Thoreau says of the winter of 1854 (Journal, Volume Six p.128):  "It does not take so much fuel to keep us warm of late.  I begin to think that my wood will last."  I'm counting the remaining rows in our woodpile here, am halfway into Volume Six of Thoreau's Journal, and think we'll make it to spring on both fronts.  Soon I'll take a break from the latter, to read Walden.  Here's the copy I recently purchased.  It arrived last week, and what a pleasure it is to contemplate:


I carry it around the house with me, just for the satisfaction of holding it.  Another little green book.  This photo makes it look a little brighter than it does in real life, but still.  When I saw an image of this copy I knew it was the version I want to read (Visitors' Edition, The Riverside Press, Houghton Mifflin, 1922).  That gorgeous cover!  Elements of it were borrowed by the unnamed designer from the title page of the first edition of Walden (Thoreau's sister Sophia Thoreau was the artist in that case).  I can almost make out some initials, in the clump of grass in the lower right corner, but I may be imagining them (H? A?).  Tempting to think that the designer might be hidden there.

But before I attempt Walden, a reasonable question could be:  How's it going with the Journal?  Dull as ditchwater?  That depends on how someone feels about ditches, I think.  Most pass them by.  Thoreau, however, loved them and found them a rich source of study, full of frogs and toads, plants aquatic and otherwise, lined by trees, home to ducks and muskrats and fish.  He speaks for pages and pages (and pages and pages and...) about the beauty of ditches, as well as streams, ponds, swamps, fields, and woods.  And weather; the Journal as a whole is a song of praise to weather.

Honestly, I love his writing, and find myself in sympathy with him much more often than not.  The close observation he engages in is similar to the kinds of looking I do as a painter.  Who sits and stares at, and communes with, a few trees for hours (and sometimes years) on end?  Uhh, I do (raises hand).  Who wonders about the life energy emanating from a field?  That's me.  Add to that my love of reading diaries, and this year's winter reading project is a resounding success.  I'm halfway in, and already I don't want the Journal to end.  Volume Five found me reading about varieties of fall asters, under a quilt, with Hodge wrapped up in one of my old sweaters (cashmere, nothing but the best for this cat, who just turned fifteen), wedged up against my leg:  


Notice that roughly cut deckle edge?  It means that the previous owner of this set wielded a paper knife with gusto.  Since the paper itself is thin and fairly fragile, after I read a while my lap contains a miniature snow flurry, or scatter of seeds, as if the books are emitting more than just thoughts.  They are weather themselves, and planting, and the harvest, all in one.  I'm so careful, as I go, but still find bits of the book about my person, whenever I get up.

Speaking of this particular set - sad to say it was originally part of a much larger set.  I wish the set wasn't broken, but am still grateful to have the eleven volumes I do have, to read.  In my convoluted internet wanderings in pursuit of other odd volumes, I came across an excellent article about collecting Thoreau on the ABAA website.  The author states that the green cloth sets with the paper spine labels, such as I have, included a handwritten page of random Thoreau manuscript, inside Volume One.  Not Volume One of the Journal, but Volume One of the twenty-volume set of Writings, from 1906, of which the Journal comprised the last fourteen volumes.  So the rest of my set, out there somewhere... SIGH.  I can't think about it for long.  Poor old books!  Let's move on!

Volume Six gets really good, as Thoreau writes several times about editing his own work.  What he's editing is Walden.  Little does he know that his book will long outlive him.  His first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (Munroe 1849), sold around two hundred copies.  He bought the remainders back from the publisher, and I have yet to see even a hint that Thoreau thinks he will ever be well-known as an author.  Of course Walden will go on to become one of the greatest-loved works of American literature.  The first time he mentions it by name is in this day's entry, at its very end, and when I read it, my skin prickled (p.176):

"March 28.  P.M.  - To White Pond.
     Coldest day for a month or more, - severe as almost any in the winter.  Saw this afternoon either a snipe or a woodcock; it appeared rather small for the last.  Pond opening on the northeast.  A flock of hyemalis drifting from a wood over a field incessantly for four or five minutes, - thousands of them, notwithstanding the cold.  The fox-colored sparrow sings sweetly also.  Saw a small slate-colored hawk, with wings transversely mottled beneath, - probably the sharp-shinned hawk.
     Got first proof of 'Walden.'"

(!!!)  Thrilling news, from 1854.  I'm going to finish Volume Six, then pause, read Walden, and perhaps another book I currently have on approach, of which more later.  I decided that I need some definite small things to look forward to, so I went on a minor book-buying spree last week and this weekend, and now have incoming packages, of all kinds:  poetry books, some literature, more Thoreau-related works, and other subjects besides.  I don't need much right now, just some sense of the future as a place it might be possible to inhabit, and the hint of a promise of bright days, whenever the current ones, with their fears and menace, fade.  I wish this coming week was already in the past; I dread what might happen, even as I hope for the best, as I always do.  Here in the welcome quiet of the Maine winter, I'll continue to do my work, lose myself in books, and find myself there too.  Take care, until next time.  

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

 

the most cheerful winter reading

This is a two-cup-of-tea morning.  It's January, a new year, and a new day.  Hope looms on many fronts.  We're still staying safe by staying close to home as much as possible, and will continue to do so for as long as it takes.  To help, Santa brought me a box of new jigsaw puzzles, with images from some of my favorite artists.  I'll start one soon, because I'm rewarding myself in satisfying small ways for finishing something big.  Except for a few very minor nuts-and-bolts issues, which a local editor is helping me resolve, my memoir about painting on Bear Island is done.  I feel like it finally says what I want to say, and I think I'll be moving ahead with self-publishing some copies in the spring.  Pursuing traditional publishing routes isn't for me, at this time.  What I'd really like is to be published by Houghton, Mifflin circa 1905, say, or even 1925.  But those days are done, and since I wrote my odd book to gain clarity within myself, I don't know if it would find any kind of wider readership, or if I would even want it to.  Besides, what I really want is to continue to devote myself to painting and reading, and move on to other things.  That doesn't mean I'm not celebrating, though!  Writing this book was the most difficult (creative or otherwise) project I've ever set my mind to, and I'm glad I completed it.

One of the new projects on my horizon is actually an old project:  returning to the manuscript I wrote when I still had my open shop.  I'm looking forward to revisiting it, and adding to it with the benefit of hindsight.  Meanwhile I'm preparing some work in my studio for painting shows for 2021, and reading a lot.  In Thoreau-news, Volume Four is nearly complete:  


Which means that thus far, I've read nearly two thousand pages of Thoreau's Journal.  The other two books pictured are invaluable companions:  The Plants of Acadia National Park by Glen H. Mittelhauser, Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber (University of Maine Press 2010), and A Field Guide to Coastal Wetland Plants of the Northeastern United States by Ralph W. Tiner, Jr. (University of Massachusetts Press 1987).  Because I feel as if I've enrolled in a literary version of a botany graduate program.  The amount of scientific attention Thoreau pays, and the level of detail he describes, are aspects of the Journal that I had no inkling of, when I first set out to read it.  It helps so much to be able to turn to the field guides and see images of the plants he mentions again and again.  They come to life and I recognize them from my own rambles.

Volume One was difficult to read.  Thoreau is in his twenties and the Journal isn't like a traditional diary (I did this, I do that), but more like a collection of intellectual and spiritual treatises, or the frameworks for such things.  Fragmented; high flights of spiritual or quasi-religious thought, with poetry alongside.  It seems as if he's attempting to come to terms with himself, but not yet succeeding.  I persevered, while hoping that the whole thing wouldn't be this way.  And it isn't.  When I fetched up on one of the first truly run-of-the-mill diary-like entries, in 1842, I just about shouted from joy (Volume One p.335):

"March 17. Thursday.  I have been making pencils all day..."

This plain statement of fact, after so many pages of otherwise, gave me good reason to continue.  Not that I'd planned to abandon ship, but.  In Volumes Two and Three he turns that corner for good.  In his early thirties, he seems to be solid in who he is, formed into the nature-lover and questioner of all things societal and political.  Some of my favorite moments in the Journal are his accounts of long walks at night (seriously, he gets up in the middle of the night, and walks out to the woods, or to a cliff overlook he often visits, and takes notes by starlight or moonlight), and his descriptions of nature close-up, when he's examining grass at eye-level, from flat on the ground, or similarly prone, bubbles of air trapped in the ice on a frozen pond, over several days.  The detail he engages in, regarding plants, trees, birds, mammals, waterways, and even sometimes his human neighbors, is more than a little stunning.  The text purls on and on like a freshet.

The set I have is fairly interruption-free.  Editor Bradford Torrey makes minimal comments in the footnotes.  I mean, there are hardly any, and what Torrey does add is for brief clarification, such as where a passage or paragraph turns up in one of Thoreau's published books.  I love seeing the raw footage, as it were, of what will become his great works.

The wealth of natural description is tempered by occasional inroads into other subjects.  One of his main recurring themes is the seeking of and being disappointed in human friendships.  His many entries regarding this are truly heartbreaking.  He looks around and sees himself alone as can be, while his compatriots and peers are, in his view, putting on an act, going along with the rules of society, to their own (and his, and humanity's) detriment.  Other more minor themes crop up from time to time:  his fascination with the hum of the local telegraph wires, to him a holy kind of music; his current reading, including Darwin and many other books of natural history; the signs of indigenous people in and around Concord; and a few others that make brief appearances, such as aiding an escaped enslaved man in his trip to Canada and freedom (Applause!), and the intellectual inferiority of women (Boo!).  The Journal is right up there, though, with the best of the great personal narratives I've ever read.

About Thoreau's writing style: it's romantic.  He is an adverb-proponent and a friend to the exclamation point.  But his effusion and tendency toward paeans are grounded by his minute careful observation, throughout.  And oh, Thoreau is so very quotable.  A selection, in the order I encounterd them and copied them into my own diary:

Volume One, the 1840s:

"Certain sounds more than others have found favor with the poets only as foils to silence." (p.66)

"We are constantly invited to be what we are; as to something worthy and noble." (p.191)

"Who hears the rippling of the rivers will not utterly despair of anything." (p.293)

"Books of natural history make the most cheerful winter reading." (p.305)

"I will sift the sunbeams for the public good." (p.350)

Volume Two, 1850-1851:

"It is as sweet a mystery to me as ever, what this world is." (p.9)

"If you know of any risk to run, run it.  If you don't know of any, enjoy confidence." (p.44)

"My greatest skill has been to want but little." (p.319)

"Cultivate reverence." (p.463)

Volume Three, 1851-1852:

"I feel blessed.  I love my life.  I warm toward all nature." (p.86)

"'Says I to myself' should be the motto of my journal." (p.107)

"Nothing stands up more free from blame in this world than a pine tree." (p.145)

"There is a low mist in the woods.  It is a good day to study lichens." (p.166)

"Fate will go all lengths to aid her protégés." (p.315)

"If anybody thinks a thought, how sure we are to hear of it!" (p.328)

Volume Four, 1852-1853:

"It is a good day to saunter." (p.62)

"It would be pleasant to write the history of one hillside for one year." (p.127)

"A journal, a book that shall contain a record of all your joy, your ecstasy." (p.223)

Whew.  And these are just the shortest passages!  I copied out many much longer ones too.  I had to order some new blank diaries, since I'm filling up my current one so fast.  I've also purchased a lovely copy of Walden, and when it comes in the mail, I'll take a break from the Journal to read that instead.  The book's arrival will roughly coincide with the date of publication of the first edition of Walden in the Journal, so that will be a perfect time to read a stand-alone book as Thoreau intended.  Is it hard to believe I've never read Walden?  Well, I haven't.  This seems like a fine time to remedy that situation.  Onward.  Happy New Year!

*An added caveat:  In a rare mood of hope and optimism for the future, I wrote the above and posted it before becoming aware of what was unfolding in Washington, D.C.  I won't go back and change anything, but want to acknowledge that I'm no longer feeling hopeful or optimistic.  Thoreau's words seem unbearable in their idealism and innocence, even while they embody the world in which I wish we lived.  Peace, friends.*    


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?