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:
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:
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.
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.*
Monday, December 21, 2020
A brief note to wish us all well for the winter solstice today. The turn of the year, here it is again. One of my very favorite days in the entire calendar, as ancient and holy as it is. And here comes Christmas too, and the New Year. May 2020 fade into history and 2021 ring in with truth and justice.
Speaking of solstices. The book room here at home has one window, partially curtained, facing due north. In June, at the time of the summer solstice, I always see a ray of light that comes in, for only a few days, as the sun reaches around to that side of the house ever so briefly:
Every year I notice it - What's that light doing in there? - it's usually so dark! And then I remember, it's the solstice again. And now, at the winter solstice time, the sunlight slants so low that it finds its way across the south-facing dining room and into the north-facing kitchen (right under the book room). Our own personal Stonehenge, this wonderful old house we are lucky to inhabit.
Winter light: here's a bit more of it, on nearby Mount Desert Island. I took this photo on Saturday, when we packed up the picnic basket and went to Seawall for lunch, for my birthday:
I love the light this time of year (and any time of year, really, but winter especially). It feels like such a gift. In the bleakness of the short cold days, whatever does choose to shine is more welcome than ever. Safe and happy holidays, and may the light find you where you live, now and always.
Sunday, December 06, 2020
small green books and a large green tree
Good morning from the snowy wilds. Last night's storm lingers, and flakes chase each other around as the wintery sun attempts to break through the clouds. I have some shoveling to do, but not yet. It's a good indoor time to share some books and hopefully some good cheer. We are doing okay here, overall. Thanksgiving was quiet, just the three of us (Ryan, Hodgie, and yours truly). The day before, I made a batch of cranberry sauce and a casserole of stuffing, and went straight to leftovers, instead of a big celebratory meal, which didn't feel right. Although pie was had, rest assured. This is the beginning of our fourth year of being vegetarian/pescatarian, so my leftovers sandwich was mayo, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and smoked cheddar cheese. Let me say, it was splendid. I also made a vegetarian chili with the three sisters: corn, squash, and beans. And I'm feeling thankful for so many things, in this difficult time: our relative safety and prosperity, and that of our friends and family, and the fact that Ryan can work mostly from home, and me too. Also beyond grateful that Ryan was called for jury service this month, and right before the trial was due to begin, the accused person confessed. This is so not the time to be required to sit in a room for hours each day, with other people, even masked and apart. Now we are planning for the solstice and Christmas at home, by ourselves. The living room is full of greenery; we found a tree yesterday before the storm began. It always feels like bringing the wildness of the woods inside, for company:
Decorations soon, after we enjoy the tree as it is for a day or two. I think we'll leave it up for a long time this year, to lift our spirits in the days and months ahead. We are going to hunker in for the duration. I am doing my best to be positive. Books help. Here's my current stack:
I carried them downstairs and spread them out on the table and Ryan said, "That's a lot of little green books!" Yes, the Thoreau Journal set is green, but the spines have faded to earth-brown, and the spines are reinforced in burnt orange. He might approve. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I get into the Journal (and I am into it, as the bookmark in Volume 2 shows), I want to mention what I read before starting it. This set was edited by Bradford Torrey (Houghton Mifflin 1906), and while I was waiting for it to arrive in mail, after I bought it on eBay, I took a look at the two Bradford Torrey books I have on hand:
I read some of A Florida Sketch-Book (Houghton Mifflin 1894) and meant to start Spring Notes from Tennessee (Houghton Mifflin 1896), but still haven't. But aren't these covers lovely? Neither decoration is signed or initialed, but they sure look like the work of Sarah Wyman Whitman. I've kept these for twenty years, after offering them for sale once at an antiquarian book fair, and not selling them. Both are inscribed and signed by Torrey:
I'm hiding the price, in the upper right hand corner, because I'm more than a little embarrassed about spending that amount of money for these diminutive volumes. Ah well, I love them, and they are unique, as inscribed. Here's the second one:
A more interesting inscription than the first, wouldn't you say? "With tender memories... where many of these little papers were written." Hmmm. Who is this Clara Hutchins? The googles tell me - if she is this Clara Hutchins, and indeed she may or may not be, I don't know - that she was a widow and her sons were schoolteachers. Otherwise she has vanished into the ethers of the past. Except, this:
"One of my friends..." Chamberlin writes. There are no other pencil markings or markings of any kind in either of these volumes, and yet here in the Country, someone has carefully indicated in pencil this one passage. Clara? Is this you? Counting the repeating song of the whippoorwill? I hope so. Nomads and Listeners has a nice frontis portrait of Chamberlin, and he looks like a thoughtful soul, and a bookish friend:
A nice note from Anne McGrath, Thoreau scholar and curator of the Lyceum from 1968-1994. The initials in each volume in the set belong to Robert Graham (and possibly Robert F. Graham; they are cursive, pencil, and hard to decipher), but who he is I cannot tell, and thus my story of association copies ends. The stack of little green books is going back upstairs to the book room, and Volume II of the Journal back to the bedside table. I'll have lots to say at some point soon about the contents of the Journal itself, since I've been reading and taking copious notes for a few weeks now, but that will have to be on another day. Stay well, friends, and take good care.
Thursday, October 29, 2020
little book in the big woods
Home, I am, after nearly a month away in the woods of northwestern Maine. Truth be told I've been back from the residency for a few weeks now, but time is acting in strange ways, moving too fast and then too slow, as we approach the election, and winter, and the pandemic continues to spread. Ryan and I cast our ballots earlier this week and are now praying for positive change. Yesterday, against the lingering golds and russets of fall, the first snowflakes flew here in an hour-long flurry of white. They felt hopeful and clean, a fresh start. I'm looking forward to winter this year, despite all, I have to say. We are staying put, keeping our heads down, and living each day as if it is a gift, which it is. I'm casting around for a winter reading project to settle in with. Most of all, I'd love to read the Journals of Henry David Thoreau, but the in-print complete edition from Princeton University Press is so expensive, and old and secondhand sets likewise, so for now I hunt around for individual volumes and hope to assemble a set over time, as funds and availability allow. Yes, I know I could read them online, in the 1906 set edited by Bradford Torrey, but as ever, I want actual books in my hands.
I'm on something of a Thoreau journey at the moment, after reading The Maine Woods while I was at the residency. Which was in Monson, Maine, at Monson Arts, and Thoreau stayed in Monson too, before one of his excursions into the woods. I have a lovely little leatherbound copy (Houghton Mifflin 1893, Riverside Pocket Edition), which I bought at a book sale twenty years ago, for two bucks. There are two names written inside the front cover, one from a University of Maine professor I knew when she was in her old age, long-retired. There's a little bookseller's ticket too, from The Old Corner Book Store in Boston. It was a great pleasure to read a few pages or more of the book each night, after being outside painting in landscapes very similar to what Thoreau saw when he was here. In many of my paintings I ignore such things as power lines, telephone poles, buildings, or rather I look past them, to the forms of nature, and the horizon. Everything else seems of the moment, transitory. Nature always wins, is one of my life mottoes. Even though nature is ephemeral as well, but in a more cyclical way. Anyway, here's The Maine Woods, along with the rest of my current reading:
Forest Trees of Maine is the other book I paid close attention to in Monson. This spiral bound version is fantastic, it's the Centennial Edition, 1908-2008, published by the Maine Forest Service. We own two copies at the moment, and I use it to identify the varieties of the trees I've been painting. As far as the other books go, I'm still reading Tell Me Something Good: Artist Interviews from The Brooklyn Rail (David Zwirner Books 2017), one section at a time, and just finished Siri Husdvedt's Mysteries of the Rectangle: Essays on Painting (Princeton Architectural Press 2005). And yes, here is Longfellow's translation of The Divine Comedy (Houghton, Mifflin 1895, another lovely Riverside Press edition), which I almost conviced myself would in fact be my winter reading project this year - different translations of Dante - appropriately doomy - but once I began I found I couldn't stomach even the lead-ups to hell, which seem bad enough. Scourges, bloodshed, suffering, torment: is this what I want to read about right now? No, it is not, not even couched in the beauty of poetry.
I set Dante aside for now, cast around for something else, and came up with the Herbert R. Mayes set, which I've browsed around in before but never really sat and read cover to cover. Because it's massive. Two volumes, each over a thousand pages: An Editor's Treasury: A Continuing Anthology of Prose, Verse, and Literary Curiosa (Atheneum 1968). A closer view:
"I have read with pleasure almost anything that came along.... Because of the nature of my work, no small measure of reading, good and bad, was obligatory; yet from the mountains of manuscripts and books that have crossed my various desks, and from the many more I have otherwise known, there has come much contentment and very little ennui."
He continues (pp.vii-viii): "I have read, and continue to read, anything and everything, from books to billboards, from pamphlets and essays and histories and speeches and biographies and plays, to package labels and greeting cards.... If indulgence in literary fare so varied has made for a seeming and perhaps actual deficiency in discrimination, it also has made for a sufficiency of general information about people and places and ideas and things, and provided a nourishment that has gratified me; and this sampling of it may be a source of satisfaction to others."
About the catch-all nature of his anthology (p.viii): "In the arrangement of material, as with the selections, the policy of reasonable judgment - mine - has been used."
He meant these to be the first two volumes in an ongoing series of such anthologies, but though he lived nearly another twenty years, I see no evidence of any others being printed. Perhaps he decided that this set was enough, or perhaps the publishing business changed around him and no longer supported such endeavors. It seems to me that Mayes could have continued if he'd wanted to. Apparently he had an explosive personality. This interesting blog post from When editors were gods has one scoop. Also, a note about Mayes's life in the back of Volume II tells us that TIME magazine called him "brilliant, bellowing and belligerent." If this anthology is any indication, he had a mind hungry for every experience life has to offer.
Thankfully, my scattershot brain can handle this set at this time. Piecemeal works for me. I read for an hour or so, and visit with Bertolt Brecht, Herodotus, and Anita Loos, and feel a little bit better about life with every page. I'll continue on with it while I attempt to assemble a Thoreau set. More on that as the situation develops. Meanwhile, stay well, VOTE, and thanks for reading.
Monday, September 07, 2020
ars longa, vita brevis
A short post today, to say hello, and that yes, I finally finished reading The Diary of Virginia Woolf. The ending was just about as devastating as I thought it would be. I can't say I want to talk it over in any detail right now, so I'll share a few new acquistions instead. First:
What a gorgeous art book this is - John Nash: Artist & Countryman by Andrew Lambirth (Unicorn 2020). It's a reward for selling a lot of paintings over the summer, pandemic notwithstanding. I love Nash's work and it's a treat to have a real monograph about it. My only critcism is that I wish the copious and illuminating text had been a bit smaller (font-wise) and the color plates a bit larger (there are some great full-page plates but most are not). John and Christine Nash left their house to writer Ronald Blythe when they died, and he's lived there ever since. Another recent purchase, speaking of Ronald Blythe:
That's a John Nash painting from 1918 on the cover, The Cornfield, one of my favorites of his, made when he returned home after serving in combat and as a war artist during World War I. The book is a stream-of-consciousness narrative of a rural year in gardens, fields, orchards, and farmyards, just before World War II. It reminds me very much of some of Virginia Woolf's diary entries, and not just because they were both written in the late 1930s. This lovely reprint of the 1939 original Men and the Fields by Adrian Bell has an introduction by Ronald Blythe and illustrations by John Nash (Little Toller Books 2009). Bell and the Nashes were neighbors and friends. Bell's memoir isn't about him, it's about a way of life he lived and witnessed. As a reader, you know next to nothing about Bell himself, except what he values, because he notices and describes so well, with such quiet words. The wind the the trees is of great interest to him, and hence, to us. As Blythe writes in the introduction (p.8): "Adrian Bell is the least sensational and the least dramatic of twentieth century country writers..."
Yes, please. More of this. The dramatic and sensational are overrated. This beautiful edition makes me want to buy more from the publisher. As they say on their website, "Little Toller was started with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles." I started looking at their list of reprints and found myself wanting most of them. And if Men and the Fields is a good example, each of the others in the reprint series will also have a thick matte cardstock cover, great cover art, wonderful paper within, and all-around good quality, for a reasonable price. I'll have to order a few, when I get back.
Get back, you ask? Yes, because after being home for months and months, except for day trips here and there, I'm taking off for a while. A local arts residency has asked me to fill in, because someone just cancelled, and they want a replacement at short notice. I applied long ago, pre-pandemic, and was wait-listed. But the good folks there remembered me. At first I thought, I can't possibly go. But I realized I'd have my own house and studio, and take-out food prepared, and weeks of painting alone in the mountains of northwestern Maine, and I knew I had to say yes. So I did. I'm leaving soon and will be back in October, after the leaves turn. Ryan and Hodge are coping, but it's a dire situation. I've promised to stay in touch, and will even be back for a quick visit, halfway through. Wish me luck, and be well, friends. Ars longa!