Spring Reading 2020, Part II

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.) Two fiction and two nonfiction selections this time.

Stitchwort beside a nearby lane. Photo by Chris Foster.

 

The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Stephanie Barron (2009)

Barron is best known for her Jane Austen Mysteries series. Here she takes up the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West and crafts a conspiracy theory / alternative history in which Virginia did not commit suicide upon her disappearance in March 1941 but hid with Vita at Sissinghurst, her Kent home with the famous gardens. Investigating this in the autumn of 2008 are Jo Bellamy, an American garden designer who has been tasked with recreating Sackville-West’s famous White Garden at her wealthy client’s upstate New York estate, and Peter Llewelyn, a Sotheby’s employee who helps Jo authenticate a journal she finds hidden in a gardener’s shed at Sissinghurst.

Jo has a secret connection: her grandfather, Jock, who recently committed suicide, was a gardener here at the time of Woolf’s visit, and she believes the notebook may shed light on Virginia’s true fate and what led Jock to kill himself. Romantic complications ensue. This is fun escapism for Americans after an armchair trip to England (including Oxford and Cambridge for research), but so obviously written by an outsider. I had to correct what felt like dozens of errors (e.g. the indoor smoking ban came into effect in July 2007, so the hotel dining room wouldn’t have been filled with cigarette smoke; “pulling a few” is not slang for having a few drinks – rather, “pulling” has the connotation of making a romantic conquest).

I’ve visited Sissinghurst and Knole and had enough of an interest in the historical figures involved to keep me going through a slightly silly, frothy novel.

 

Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee (2020)

From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His harbingers are chiefly migrating birds – starting with swallows. Here’s how he states his aim:

Knowing those annually recurring gifts of nature, and registering them alongside our own one-way journey through life, why not try to travel with the season and be in springtime for as long as possible, why not try to start where the season starts, and then to keep up with it, in step, walking a moving green room, travelling under the sun, like swallows out of Africa?

Starting in February in the Sahara Desert, he sees an abundance of the songbirds and raptors he’s used to finding in Europe, as well as more exotic species endemic to Africa. Any fear that this will turn out to be some plodding ‘I went here and saw this, then there and saw that’ nature/travel narrative dissipates instantly; although the book has a strong geographical and chronological through line, it flits between times and places as effortlessly as any bird, with the poetic quality of Dee’s observations lifting mundane moments into sharp focus. For instance, at their Ethiopian hotel, a wedding photography mecca, “a waiting wedding dress collapsed on a black cane chair, like an ostrich suicide.” A nightjar startled in the New Forest is “a bandaged balsa-wood model: a great moth’s head with the wings of a dark dragonfly.”

Dee’s wanderings take him from Scandinavia to central Europe and back. Wherever he happens to be, he is fully present, alive to a place and to all its echoes in memory and literature. He recalls a lonely year spent in Budapest studying Hungarian poetry in the 1980s, and how the sight and sound of birds like black woodpeckers and eagle owls revived him. Visits to migration hotspots like Gibraltar and Heligoland alternate with everyday jaunts in Ireland or the Bristol and Cambridgeshire environs he knows best.

Each vignette is headed with a place name and latitude, but many are undated, recalling springs from decades past or from the work of admired writers. Some of his walking companions and mentioned friends are celebrated nature or travel writers in their own right (like Julia Blackburn, Mark Cocker, Patrick McGuinness and Adam Nicolson; there’s also his cousin, fiction writer Tessa Hadley), while Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Seamus Heaney, D. H. Lawrence and Gilbert White are some of the book’s presiding spirits.

A redstart on some church steps in Tuscany, April 2014. Not the best view, but this is Dee’s favourite bird. Photo by Chris Foster.

Greenery is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. It is so gorgeously literary, so far from nature and travel writing as usual, that it should attract readers who wouldn’t normally dip into those genres. While Dee’s writing reminds me somewhat of Barry Lopez’s, closer comparisons could be made with Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk and Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard: quest narratives that nestle their nature writing within a substrate of memoir and philosophy. The last few pages, in which Dee, now in his late fifties, loses a close friend (Greg Poole, who painted the book’s cover) and receives a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease but also learns he is to become a father again, are achingly beautiful.

I find I’ve written more about this book than I intended to in a reviews roundup, but it’s so extraordinary it deserves this much and more. It’s not just one of the few best nonfiction books of the year, but a fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.

 

In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill (1975)

This is my favorite of the six books I’ve now read by Hill. Early one spring, Ruth Bryce’s husband, Ben, dies in a forestry accident. They had been only married a year and now here she is, aged 20 and a widow. Ben’s little brother, 14-year-old Jo, is a faithful visitor, but after the funeral many simply leave Ruth alone. Ben’s death is a “stone cast into still water,” whose ripples spread out beyond his immediate family.

There is little plot as such, yet this is a lovely, quiet meditation on grief and solitude amid the rhythms of country life. Ruth vacillates between suicidal despair and epiphanies of exaltation at how all of life is connected. Religious imagery coinciding with Easter describes a cycle of death and renewal. Very late on in the book, as winter comes round again, she has the chance to be of help to another local family that has suffered a loss, and to a member of Ben’s remaining family.

It took me two whole springs to read this. For those who think of Hill as a writer of crime novels (the Simon Serrailler series) and compact thrillers (The Woman in Black et al.), this may seem very low on action in comparison, but there is something hypnotic about the oddly punctuated prose and the ebb and flow of emotions.

 

Plant Dreaming Deep by May Sarton (1968)

This serves as a prelude to the eight journals for which Sarton would become famous. It’s a low-key memoir about setting up home in the tiny town of Nelson, New Hampshire, making a garden and meeting the salt-of-the-earth locals who provided her support system and are immortalized in fictional form in the novel she published two years later, Kinds of Love. At the time of publication, she’d been in Nelson for 10 years; she would live there for 15 years in all, and (after seeing out her days in a rented house by the coast in Maine) be buried there.

Sarton was nearing 50 by the time she bought this, her first home, and for her it represented many things: a retreat from the world; a place for silence and solitude; and somewhere she could bring together the many aspects of herself, even if just by displaying her parents’ furniture, long in storage, and the souvenirs from her travels – “all the threads I hold in my hands have at last been woven together into a whole—the threads of the English and Belgian families from which I spring … the threads of my own wanderings”.

Nelson feels like a place outside of time. It holds annual Town Meetings, as it has for nearly two centuries. Her man-of-all-work, Perley Cole, still cuts the meadow with a scythe. After years of drought, she has to have water-drillers come and find her a new source. An ancient maple tree has to be cut down, reminding her of other deaths close to home. Through it all, her beloved garden is a reminder that new life floods back every year and the routines of hard work will be rewarded.

Some favorite lines:

“Experience is the fuel; I would live my life burning it up as I go along, so that at the end nothing is left unused, so that every piece of it has been consumed in the work.”

“gardening is one of the late joys, for youth is too impatient, too self-absorbed, and usually not rooted deeply enough to create a garden. Gardening is one of the rewards of middle age, when one is ready for an impersonal passion, a passion that demands patience, acute awareness of a world outside oneself, and the power to keep on growing through all the times of drought, through the cold snows, toward those moments of pure joy when all failures are forgotten and the plum tree flowers.”

Note: I discovered I’ve always misunderstood this title, thinking it whimsically imagined a plant having dreams; instead, “plant” is an imperative verb, as in Sarton’s adaptation of Joachim du Bellay: “Happy the man who can long roaming reap, / Like old Ulysses when he shaped his course / Homeward at last toward the native source, / Seasoned and stretched to plant his dreaming deep.” It’s about a place where one can root one’s work and intentions.

 

Have you been reading anything springlike this year?

33 responses

  1. You have more patience than me! I would have abandoned that Woolf novel early (if I’d even started it…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha! It was on the trashy side for something with a literary theme, but the pages really turned.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Greenery instantly appeals with its combination of travel and nature writing with literary allusions. Straight on the list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s sure to be one of my top nonfiction recommendations for the year. I hadn’t read Dee before, but my husband loves his first book, a birdwatching memoir we have on the shelf.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting selection, all unknown to me. Oddly enough I featured a pic of stitchwort in a recent post of my own, and some data on the significance of its name. Pretty little flowers, abundant everywhere at the moment. I’ve been enjoying spring in the country lanes rather than in my reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My husband is the real naturalist in the family, but I’ve been trying to learn wildflower names on our daily walks. Lynne’s blog is great for that sort of thing if you don’t already know her: https://dovegreyreader.typepad.com/dovegreyreader_scribbles/.

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      1. Thanks, I do know that blog; she lives slightly east of me in the south west of England. I attended a rural primary school; we were often taken on ‘nature walks’, on which the teacher used to teach us the names of plants, trees, etc. Much more useful than formal lessons! I’m now teaching my wife what little I know when we take our daily lockdown exercise walks – we’re lucky enough to live on the edge of some beautiful countryside.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The Dee book sounds absolutely charming!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m delighted you think so. I treated myself to a copy from my local independent bookshop and it was so well worth the purchase.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As soon as my local shop opens, I’ll go and order it. Sounds like a lovely read perfect for frazzled times!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I would agree with that — it’s ideal for quiet, meditative reading.

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  5. Wow–5 stars! Will save this post so I remember to get Greenery. As for naming the seasons, one of my favorite Cleveland poets said Ohio doesn’t get a Spring, just Winter and then Wet Winter before Summer sets in. Here in Maryland, we are enjoying a few dry days I hope; it’s been very wet, and our veggie garden just about drowned.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My mom and sister said it’s nearly 80 back in Maryland. We had a frost over here earlier in the week, so are hoping our little vegetables in pots on the patio survive.

      As far as I know, Greenery has not had a U.S. publication, but hopefully one will be forthcoming. I know at least one of the author’s previous books was published in the States, though under a different title.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is HOT here today–the thermometer on my husband’s car said 87 when he popped out to the store for a few things. But we were pretty cool earlier in the week–for a while they were saying we might even see a flurry, but we didn’t. Fingers crossed for your veggies; we’ve had bok choy and a little arugula so far.

        And, I’ll keep my ear to the ground for Greenery over here. Sounds lovely!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Having read Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude years ago I am reminded that I always meant to read more by her! Plant Dreaming Deep sounds right up my alley.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s still my favorite of Sarton’s books — one I’d like to reread. I think I prefer the diary format of her later autobiographical books, but I still really enjoyed this.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Greenery sounds lovely. Have you read any of his other books?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not yet, but we own one of his others, a more standard birdwatching memoir.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Well, I’m currently reading Matt Gaw’s The Pull of the River. Not especially about spring, but a celebration of river-related nature. That Tim See sounds a Must-Read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Both of Gaw’s books are good fun and well worth reading. Greenery is indeed a must!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pleased to have stumbled on your blog! I’ve had my eye on the Dee (hoping it will get a us release). Your description is enticing, but I was most struck by the tidbit that he and Tessa Hadley are cousins!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I loved that little piece of trivia! He and “cousin Tess” go for a walk a couple of times in this book. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Does he say what they talked about?!?

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    2. One time is in Northern Ireland, I think for a Seamus Heaney conference, so they talk about writing about place; another time is near her home in SW England and they talk about their ageing parents.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Would you let me have your review of Greenery for Shiny (PR had a copy of this, but didn’t get on with it). I rather like the sound of it too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, of course! I was going to offer it, in fact. Just cut my next-to-last line and it should be ready to go. ~600 words. (I’m shocked PR didn’t take to it!)

      Like

  11. Great to see Tim Dee included – he came to HomePlace and he is the loveliest man as well as being a great writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. HomePlace is mentioned twice in the book! I kept meaning to tell you that. I’m definitely going to read all the rest of his work.

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      1. Oh wonderful! That’s lovely!

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  12. buriedinprint | Reply

    Hah! I’ve always misunderstood that Sarton memoir title in exactly the same way as you. Like you, too, I really enjoyed that one. This feels like a good time for Sarton reading. I think she lived according to the principles that a lot of people are rediscovering under lockdown. Greenery, I’ve added to my TBR thanks to your recommendation, although, as you know, that could mean that I read it two months from now or two years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree Sarton is great for this time; Journal of a Solitude is another I’ve added to the rereading shelf.

      Alas, Greenery has no planned North American release. But we can hope! And eventually copies will filter through to the secondhand market anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. […] Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee: From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His main harbingers are migrating birds, starting with swallows. The book is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. A fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature. […]

    Like

  14. […] Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape by Jini Reddy: Reddy has often felt like a nomad and an outsider. Through a year of travelling to holy sites, she seeks to be rooted in the country she has come to call home. The quest takes her all over the British Isles, creating an accessible introduction to its sacred spots. Recovering a sense of reverence for nature can only help in the long-term mission to preserve it. Reddy is the first person of colour nominated for the Wainwright Prize in its seven-year history. (Reviewed for Shiny New Books) […]

    Like

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