Spring Reading 2020, Part I

What a beautiful spring we’ve been having here. And, as usual, I’ve been reading with the seasons: some nature books about birdsong, flowers, etc., as well as a few books with “Spring” in the title. I have several more on the go that I’ll write up next month.


A Cold Spring by Elizabeth Bishop (1955)

The second of Bishop’s four published collections, this mostly dwells on contrasts between city (e.g. “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress,” “Varick Street” and “Letter to N.Y.”) and coastal locations (e.g. “The Bight,” “At the Fishhouses” and “Cape Breton”). The three most memorable poems for me were the title one, which opens the book; “The Prodigal,” a retelling of the Prodigal Son parable; and “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore” (“From Brooklyn, over the Brooklyn Bridge, on this fine morning, please come flying,” with those last three words recurring at the end of each successive stanza; also note the sandpipers – one of her most famous poems was “Sandpiper,” from 1965’s Questions of Travel). I find that I love particular lines or images from Bishop’s poetry but not her overall style.

Favorite lines:

A cold spring:

the violet was flawed on the lawn.

For two weeks or more the trees hesitated;

the little leaves waited

(from “A Cold Spring”)


Spring: A Folio Anthology, edited by Sue Bradbury (2017)

As a seasonal anthology, this falls short by comparison to the Wildlife Trust’s Spring. There are too many letters or journal entries that only happen to be set in March to May and don’t in any way evoke the season. The selection of poems and passages is fairly predictable, and closing with an ominous extract from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (see below) makes for rather a downbeat conclusion. Highlights: the preface by Paul Evans, Parson Woodforde’s pigs getting drunk on the dregs of some beer (1778), Elizabeth David rhapsodizing about a wild asparagus risotto she had in Italy, and Angus Buchanan coming upon an idyllic setting in Wildlife in Canada. The gorgeous cover, the slightly ornate font that liaises s or c with t, and the three two-page green-dominated illustrations somewhat make up for the lackluster contents.


Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)

When I saw Lucy Jones speak at an event in Hungerford in support of her new book, Losing Eden, early last month, I was intrigued to hear her say that her work was consciously patterned on Silent Spring – right down to the same number of chapters. This prompted me to finally pick up the copy of Carson’s classic that I got free during a cull at the library where I used to work and have a skim through.

Both books are forthright explications of the environmental problems we face, backed up by volumes of irrefutable evidence, and suggest some potential solutions. Both open, though, with a dystopian scene: Carson’s first chapter imagines an American town where things die because nature stops working as it should. Her main target was insecticides that were known to kill birds and had presumed negative effects on human health through the food chain and environmental exposure. Although the details may feel dated, the literary style and the general cautions against submitting nature to a “chemical barrage” remain potent.


A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell (1986)

A seasonal diary that runs from one spring to the next, this is a peaceful book about living alone yet finding community with wildlife and fellow country folk. I took nine months over reading it, keeping it as a bedside book.

At her farm in southern Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, Hubbell had a small beekeeping and honey production business, “a shaky, marginal sort of affair that never quite leaves me free of money worries but which allows me to live in these hills that I love.” After her 30-year marriage ended, she found herself alone in “the afternoon of my life,” facing “the work of building a new kind of order, a structure on which a fifty-year-old woman can live”. In few-page essays she reflects on the weather, her interactions with wildlife (from bats and black rat snakes to a fawn caught in a fence), and country events like a hog roast.

I love introspective books like this one that balance solitude with nature and company and that showcase older women’s wisdom (Joan Anderson, May Sarton and Barbara J. Scot also write/wrote in this vein). Hubbell, who died at age 83 in late 2018, wrote broader scientific narratives about evolution and genetic engineering, as well as detailed books about bees and other insects. I’ll look out for more of her work.


A Sweet, Wild Note: What We Hear when the Birds Sing by Richard Smyth (2017)

Despite being a birdwatcher since childhood, Smyth had always been ambivalent about birdsong. He certainly wasn’t one of those whizzes who can identify any bird by its call; in fact, he needed convincing that bird vocalizations are inherently beautiful. So he set off to answer a few questions: Why do birds sing? How can we recognize them by their songs? And how have these songs played into the human‒bird relationship throughout history? Ranging from bird anatomy to poetry, his historical survey is lighthearted reading that was perfect for the early days of spring. There are also chapters on captive birds, the use of birdsong in classical music, and the contribution birds make to the British soundscape. A final section, more subdued and premonitory in the vein of Silent Spring, imagines a world without birdsong and “the diminution that we all suffer. … Our lives become less rich.” (The title phrase is how Gilbert White described the blackcap’s song, Smyth’s favorite.)

Favorite lines:

when everything around you seems to be moving at a gallop, a bird’s song reminds you that some things stay the same … that you really can go home again.

in many ways the whole point of birdsong is that it’s beyond our grasp. It’s fleeting, evanescent; you might as well try to take a fistful of morning mist. But that hasn’t stopped us trying.


Have you been reading anything particularly appropriate for spring this year?

30 responses

  1. A Sweet Wild Note sounds very appealing. Not many silver linings to the pandemic but one of them is being able to hear birdsong with so little traffic noise to block it out.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. And beautifully clear blue skies with no contrails.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I absolutely loved the Richard Smyth book – and yes, even here in the country, birdsong is even more omnipresent at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A perfect soundtrack to April. We like sitting in the summerhouse with the door open (when there aren’t lawnmowers and strimmers going!) to listen.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, it’s autumn in Australia but I’ll add to your spring list with Richard Yates’s Cold Spring Harbour (significant in name only because like most of his work, it’s bleak!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve not read any Yates but have a copy of Revolutionary Road in a box in America! I saw the film and admired it. Books relevant only for their titles definitely count towards my seasonal reading 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If you haven’t read any Yates, Revolutionary Road is a good place to start (either that or The Easter Parade).

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been re-reading a couple of books during spring time. My favourite is At the Pond – a gorgeous collection of stories from women who swim in Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond in London. I wrote a review on my blog if you fancy a read:) https://onelliesbookshelf.wordpress.com/2019/12/14/review-at-the-pond/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds sweet. I think I heard about it when it first came out because I’ve read whole books by a few of the essay contributors.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You remind me I have a massive Elizabeth Bishop collection which needs some attention – thank you!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I got the Collected Poems free at a swap shop a few years ago. This was the second volume from it that I’ve read in full. I’ve still not found anything else that matches “One Art” or “Sandpiper.”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Your description of the Hubbell book makes me think of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (which I’m sure you’ve read, and which is gorgeous).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s a great book I should probably reread. I’d say Dillard’s style is a lot more consciously literary than Hubbell’s, though.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Reading Dillard does feel like singing an aria, or intoning a spell…

        Liked by 1 person

  7. These pretty well all look lovely. I don’t think I’m spending any time in spring at the moment; in fact I’ve read two Christmas books in the past month!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha! Christmas sounds cosy.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. You’re so timely with your seasonal reading! I can’t get myself organised that way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like thinking about seasons and holidays in advance. Half of the pleasure (of the reading and the events) is in the anticipation?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Interesting observation that you like some of a poet’s lines but not their overall style; I think I’ve had that feeling with some poets’work too (not necessarily anyone I’ve read in a dedicated collection but touched on in anthologies or journals where there are only a handful of poems to read). There are some striking editions of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, whether they pull certain passages or fully illustrate: I think it would be lovely to collect them. Recently I watched an old PBS biography of her and was struck all over again by how wonderfully passionate and dedicated she was, in her work and her being. I’ve got a Hubbell volume sitting here, maybe I”ll take a peek. As for my own “spring” reading, not really. But I did find a copy of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring in a LFL nearby on the weekend: it’s rather battered and currently in the “quarantine zone” of our apartment *winks*, but now that the forsythia is blooming, maybe I’ll give it a read. Are you a Fitzgerald reader?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think our copy of Silent Spring (ex-uni library) is actually a first, or at least early, UK edition, but it’s in terrible shape with stains, a taped binding and underlining — it wouldn’t be worth anything! It was interesting to read the introduction by Lord Shackleton and preface by Julian Huxley and see that people in the UK thought this was revolutionary stuff applicable beyond the USA. I really admire Carson’s achievements.

      Which Hubbell book do you have? I’d be interested in reading her general insects book.

      I’ve read three Fitzgerald novels and I can’t say I’m a fan. She’s a little *too* subtle for me, in the Bainbridge/Brookner vein. HOWEVER, I do love Hermione Lee’s biography of her.

      I’ve scored a few appealing novels from our unofficial neighbourhood LFL, but I’m leaving them on the shelf for now. I think the latest I heard is that paper/card can hold the virus for 24 hours? I know some people are disinfecting book covers, but I can’t bring myself to do anything that might damage them.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I like first editions like that, where you know that you’re handling a book that has passed through the hands of every generation of readers since publication. Of course now that “transmission” is on everyone’s mind, that’s not solely a comfortable thought, but also disconcerting from that other perspective! (I can’t remember which is the working time-frame for paper/card and which is for harder substances like plastic and metal, so they all get put into the hall for 3 days, or longer if it’s not something edible!) Oh, I think the Hubbell book I have is the one you’re interested in, Broadsides from the Other Orders?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. If you think of it, let me know when you decide to read it. It’s currently in my “this year” stacks, but you know how that goes.


    1. Well, I don’t own a copy and so far haven’t allowed myself any secondhand book binges … but if lockdown continues I may succumb, if only for birthday time (October)!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. […] According to the Sámi reindeer herders, there are actually eight seasons; we’d now be in “Spring-summer” (gidágiesse), which runs from May to June. In recent weeks I’ve read some more books that engage with the spring and/or its metaphors of planting and resurrection. (The first installment was here.) […]


  12. I haven’t been reading anything particularly springy, but I just read a book about a walking trip that began in the spring…
    I like the sound of the Richard Smyth.
    For someone who lives so close to Elizabeth Bishop’s NS home, I (embarrassingly) have read very little of her work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think I knew Bishop had a Canadian connection. I knew about Florida and Brazil. I guess she moved around a lot! Her few best poems are amazing (e.g. “One Art” and “Sandpiper”), but I don’t think the individual collections she published are very strong.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Ah, too bad it’s a private home now. But I guess you can still go and look at the outside? I love this line from her mini-bio there: “Home was a complex reality for Bishop, filled with nostalgia and ambivalence.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I remember when it was for sale, just a few years ago – I wanted it to buy it to keep it safe. But I think whoever bought it is taking good care of it. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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