20 Books of Summer, 14–16: Barba, Bersweden and Solnit

I’m all about flowers today: American wildflowers in poetry and prose, a year of hunting down the flora of the British Isles, and a discursive account of a famous English author’s life and times through the prism of his rose garden.

 

American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide, ed. Susan Barba; illus. Leanne Shapton (2022)

This comes out from Abrams Press in the USA on 8 November and I’ll be reviewing it for Shelf Awareness, so I’ll just give a few brief thoughts for now. Barba is a poet and senior editor for New York Review Books. She has collected pieces from a wide range of American literature, including essays, letters and early travel writings as well as poetry, which dominates.

Apart from a closing section on various/anonymous wildflowers, where particular species are named they are grouped into families, which are arranged alphabetically. The Asteraceae section is particularly strong, with poems on dandelions and sunflowers, a typically prophetic Aldo Leopold fragment about the decline of native flora, and “Asters and Goldenrod,” an extract from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (itself one of my 20 Books of Summer – review to come in the week) that I think was also excerpted in This Book Is a Plant.

Sample two-page spread with a Leanne Shapton watercolor and part of an Allen Ginsberg poem.

In general, I engaged more with the poetry than with the prose. Barba has ensured a real variety of styles, with good representation for BIPOC. What draws it all together into a beautiful whole I wish I could see as a physical object is Leanne Shapton’s watercolor illustrations, painted from pressed flowers. “What a gift to stare at flowers—these ephemeral miracles of color and synthesis and botany,” she writes in an opening note. This would be a perfect coffee table book for any gardener or nature lover. (E-review copy)

 

Where the Wildflowers Grow: My Botanical Journey through Britain and Ireland by Leif Bersweden (2022)

A good case of nominative determinism – the author’s name is pronounced “leaf” – and fun connections abound: during the course of his year-long odyssey, he spends time plant-hunting with Jon Dunn and Sophie Pavelle, whose books featured earlier in my flora-themed summer reading: Orchid Summer and Forget Me Not. With Dunn on Unst, Shetland, he sees not only rare flowers but close-up orcas. Like Pavelle, who he meets up with in Cornwall, he has an eye to how species will be affected by climate change and commits to doing his hunting by train and bike; there’s only so much you can see when zooming by in a car. Bersweden makes a case for spending time with plants – after all, they don’t move, so once you’ve found them you can commune in a way you can’t during, say, a fleeting mammal encounter.

He starts 2021 with a New Year Plant Hunt in central London with his mother – more is in bloom in January than ever before, at least in part due to climate warming. Even when the weather is foul on his travels, there is plenty to be seen. Everywhere he goes, he meets up with fellow experts and plant enthusiasts to marvel at bluebell woodlands or ancient pine forests, alpine or bog species. The floral circuit (documented in full on the book’s website through chapter-by-chapter photographs; there are two small sections of colour plates in the hardback) is also a chance to tour the British Isles, from Kent to Cork, coast to mountaintop.

Bersweden has been in love with plants ever since childhood; he believes they have nostalgia value for many people, and can be an easy way into appreciation of nature. “A wildflower growing from a crack in the wall is an everyday miracle.” His casual writing style and clear zeal for his subject – his author photo is of him hugging a tree, and another has such a cute caption: “Being given the opportunity to hold a Greater Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris) was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me!” – make this a pleasure even though it’s a bit overlong at points. (Public library)

 

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit (2021)

I was fascinated by the concept behind this one. “In the spring of 1936 a writer planted roses” is Solnit’s refrain; from there sprawls a book that’s somehow about everything: botany, geology, history, politics and war – as well as, of course, George Orwell’s life and works (with significant overlap with the graphic novel biography of him that I read last year). On a trip to England with a friend who is a documentary filmmaker, Solnit had the impulse to go find what might be left of Orwell’s garden. When she arrived in the Hertfordshire village of Wallington, the current owners of his home kindly showed her round. His fruit trees had long since been cut down, but the rosebushes were still going strong some 80 years later.

This goes down as a skim for me: though I read the first 30%, after that I just browsed to the end. Some side tracks lost me, e.g. Tina Modotti’s presentation of roses in her photographs; Orwell’s interest in mining, which leads Solnit to investigate how coal is formed; much history; and a week spent observing the rose-growing industry in Colombia. I most enjoyed the book when it stayed close to Orwell’s biography and writings, positing gardening as his way of grounding his ideas in the domestic and practical. “Pursuits like that can bring you back to earth from the ether and the abstractions.” I also liked – briefly, at least – thinking about the metaphorical associations of roses, and flowers in general.

If you’ve read Solnit before, you’ll know that her prose is exquisite, but I think this was the stuff of a long article rather than a full book. As it is, it’s a pretty indulgent project. (Kaggsy reviewed this recently and came to somewhat similar conclusions.) (NetGalley)

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11 responses

  1. The Bersweden sounds very appealing. I love wildflowers – particularly enjoying spotting chicory at the moment – and agree with the staying still point. Birds seem to instantly flit off before I get a good look at them although I was lucky enough to see a kingfisher last week.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I love seeing a kingfisher by the canal. For a while early this summer I could count on seeing one daily. This is why my husband prefers to go to a nice place, and see what we can see (insects and plants, mostly, and whatever birds are about) rather than going on a ‘twitch’ that might be fruitless.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for linking to my post on the Solnit – I did find it meandered much too much for my liking, and wished she had kept on topic. The book was much better when it did!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I might also have gotten a bit more out of it had I known more of Orwell’s work.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll leave the American wildflowers to you, but the other two sound like ones to borrow, and luckily our library service (though not my home branch) has copies of both.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d enjoy the Bersweden in particular.

      Like

      1. Thanks! I’ve taken note.

        Like

  4. As a fan of nature writing, these all sound interesting to me, at least for a perusal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If your library acquires American Wildflowers, you should at least have a skim through. I love the illustrations! And Rebecca Solnit is an excellent writer, so I do recommend trying something of hers, if perhaps not this book.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I really want to read the Bersweden and it’s interesting you and Kaggsy came to the same conclusion on the Orwell one as it’s one I might have picked up for myself or a friend!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe it depends how into your Orwell you are. But I found I didn’t need, e.g. the geological background and history about revolutionary activity in Mexico and so on.

      Liked by 1 person

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