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.
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.
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?
Approaching the home straight with these two: another novel that happens to have an animal in the title, and a pleasant work of modern nature writing set in an English village. My rating for both:
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson (2002)
I’ve meant to read more by Lawson ever since I reviewed her latest book, Road Ends, for Nudge in May 2015. All three of her novels draw on the same fictional setting: Struan, Ontario. Lawson grew up in a similar Canadian farming community before moving to England in the late 1960s. After an invitation arrives for her nephew’s birthday party, narrator Kate Morrison looks 20 years into the past to remember the climactic events of the year that she was seven. When she and her siblings were suddenly orphaned, her teenage brothers, Luke and Matt, had to cobble together local employment that allowed them to look after their little sisters at home. With the help of relatives and neighbors, they kept their family of four together. All along, though, their lives were becoming increasingly entwined with those of the Pyes, a troubled local farming family.
Matt inspired Kate’s love of pond life – she’s now an assistant professor of invertebrate ecology – but never got to go to college himself. Theirs was a family that prized schooling above all else (legend has it that Great-Grandmother installed a book rest on her spinning wheel so she could read while her hands were busy*) and eschewed emotion. “It was the Eleventh Commandment,” Kate recalls: “Thou Shalt Not Emote.”
This is a slow burner for sure, but it’s a winning picture of a family that stuck together despite the odds, as well as an appeal to recognize that emotional intelligence is just as important as book learning. The novel reminded me a lot of Surfacing by Margaret Atwood and The Girls by Lori Lansens, and I’d also recommend it to readers of Elizabeth Hay and Jane Urquhart.
*Delightfully, this detail was autobiographical for Lawson.
Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village by Stephen Moss (2011)
England doesn’t have any hummingbirds, but it does have hummingbird hawkmoths, which explains the title. In the tradition of Gilbert White, Moss writes a month-by-month tribute to what he regularly sees on his home turf of Mark, Somerset. As I did with Mark Cocker’s Claxton, I picked up the book partway – at the month in which I started reading it – and when I reached the end, returned to the beginning and read up to my starting point. Controversial, I know, but that July to June timeline worked fine: it gave me familiar glimpses of what’s going on with English nature now, followed by an accelerated preview of what I have to look forward to in the coming months.
Moss is primarily a birder, so he focuses on bird life, but also notes what’s happening with weather, trees, fungi, and so on. In the central and probably best chapter, on June, he maximizes wildlife-watching opportunities: going eel fishing, running a moth trap, listening for bats, and looking out for unfamiliar plants. My minor annoyances with the book were the too-frequent references to “the parish,” which makes the book’s concerns seem parochial rather than microcosmic, and the common use of semicolons where commas and dashes would be preferable. But if you’re fond of modern nature writing, and have some familiarity with (or at least interest in) the English countryside, I highly recommend this as a peaceful, observant read. Plus, Harry Brockway’s black-and-white engravings heading each chapter are exquisite.
“Being in one place is also the best way to understand the passing of the seasons: not the great shifts between winter and spring, summer and autumn, which we all notice; but the tiny, subtle changes that occur almost imperceptibly, from week to week, and day to day, throughout the year.”
“For me, one of the greatest pleasures of living in the English countryside is the way we ourselves become part of the natural cycle of the seasons.”
In 1999 Ruth Pavey bought four acres of Somerset scrubland at a land auction. It wasn’t exactly what she’d set out to acquire: it wasn’t a “pretty” field, and traffic was audible from it. But she was pleased to return to her family’s roots in the Somerset Levels area – this “silted place of slow waters, eels, reeds, drainage engineers, buttercups, church towers, quiet” that her father came from, and where she was born – and she fancied planting some trees.
There never was a master plan […] I wanted to open up enough room for trees that might live for centuries […] I also wanted to keep areas of wilderness for the creatures […] And I wanted it to be beautiful. Not immaculate, that was too much to hope for, but, in its own ragged, benign way, beautiful.
This pleasantly meandering memoir, Pavey’s first book, is an account of nearly two decades spent working alongside nature to restore some of her land to orchard and maintain the rest in good health. The first steps were clear: she had to deal with some fallen willows, find a water source and plan a temporary shelter. Rather than a shed, which would be taken as evidence of permanent residency, she resorted to a “Rollalong,” a mobile metal cabin she could heat just enough to survive nights spent on site. Before long, though, she bought a nearby cottage to serve as her base when she left her London teaching job behind on weekends.
Then came the hard work: after buying trees from nurseries and ordering apple varieties that would fruit quickly, Pavey had to plant it all and pick up enough knowledge about pruning, grafting, squirrel management, canker and so on to keep everything alive. There was always something new to learn, and plenty of surprises – such as the stray llama that visited her neighbor’s orchard. Local history weaves through this story, too: everything from the English Civil War to Cecil Sharp’s collecting of folk songs.
Britain has seen a recent flourishing of hybrid memoirs–nature books by the likes of Helen Macdonald, Mallachy Tallack and Clover Stroud. By comparison, Pavey is not as confiding about her personal life as you might expect. She reveals precious little about herself: she tells us that her mother died when she was young and she was mostly raised by an aunt; she hints at some failed love affairs; in the acknowledgments she mentions a son; from the jacket copy I know she’s the gardening correspondent for the Hampstead & Highgate Express. But that’s it. This really is all about the wood, and apart from serving as an apt Woolf reference the use of “one” in the title is in deliberate opposition to the confessional connotations of “my”.
Still, I think this book will appeal to readers of modern nature writers like Paul Evans and Mark Cocker – these two are Guardian Country Diarists, and Pavey develops the same healthy habit of sticking to one patch and lovingly monitoring its every development. I was also reminded of Peri McQuay’s memoir of building a home in the woods of Canada.
What struck me most was how this undertaking encourages the long view: “being finished, in the sense of being brought to a satisfactory conclusion, is not something that happens in a garden, an orchard or a wood, however well planned or cultivated,” she writes. It’s an ongoing project, and she avoids nostalgia and melodrama in planning for its future after she’s gone; “I am only there for a while, a twinkling. But [the trees and creatures] … will remain.” This would make a good Christmas present for the dedicated gardener in your life, not least because of the inclusion of Pavey’s lovely black-and-white line drawings.
A Wood of One’s Own was published on September 21st by Duckworth Overlook. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
In partnership with the UK’s Wildlife Trusts, London-based publisher Elliott & Thompson is celebrating the seasons with a series of anthologies edited by novelist and nature writer Melissa Harrison. My husband had a short piece published in the first volume (Spring), so I was eager to get my hands on a copy of Summer.
The format in all the books is roughly the same: they’re composed of short pieces that range from one to a few pages and run the gamut from recurring phenological records (Gilbert White and Thomas Furly Forster) and extracts from classic literature (Adam Bede and Far from the Madding Crowd) to recent nature books (Mark Cocker’s Claxton and Paul Evans’s Field Notes from the Edge). In addition, there are new contributions from established writers or talented amateurs, one as young as twelve – heartening proof that young people are still enthused about nature.
With the exception of the poems, none of these entries have titles, and the attribution and date of composition are not given until the very end. The idea behind this pseudo-anonymity, I think, is that if – as I sometimes was – you are patient enough to not skip ahead to discover who wrote it when, you will judge all of the pieces by the same standards. You approach each without expectations, and in many cases may be stumped as to whether the writing is historical or modern. I found W.H. Hudson’s and Mary Webb’s extracts particularly readable, for instance; you wouldn’t guess they’re from the early decades of the twentieth century.
There are 70-some pieces here on a wide variety of subjects, but a few of the ones that struck me were on badger-watching (Caroline Greville, who is writing a memoir on the topic), looking for orchids (environmental journalist Michael McCarthy), moth trapping, and night-time wildlife like glow-worms and bats. I especially appreciated Alexandra Pearce’s essay on the brief life of mayflies and Nicola Chester’s on searching for owls. Of the previously published pieces, Paul Evans’s on ant swarms is a stand-out. My two favorites, though, are from celebrated nature columnist Simon Barnes, who writes about paddling a canoe in Norfolk with his son in search of adventure, and Esther Woolfson, who, as she does in her book Field Notes from a Hidden City, illuminates the unnoticed wildlife of Aberdeen.
Again and again this message comes through: take the time to look closely and you will find great wonders. “Perhaps as adults our lives are so filled with bills, chores, jobs and other things that we often forget to stop and look at the world around us,” Jan Freedman, curator of natural history at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, astutely notes. Whether it’s lichens or weevils, all you generally have to pay to experience nature’s delights is attention. I loved Alexi Francis’s description of a hare: “Haunches down, nose cross-stitched, it closes its eyes to the sun in a moment of blissful slumber.” Having that moment of communion with nature and then choosing just the right words to capture it is what this book is all about.
Taken together, these pieces truly give the feeling of an English summer. The older writing is remarkably undated, which contributes to a sense of continuity across the centuries. However, the book also evokes more universal notions of summer: those drowsy, leisurely days we gild with nostalgia. As Harrison puts it in her introduction, the longing for summer is really a wish to return to childhood: “Those elysian summers, polished to dazzling brightness by the flow of years, can never be recaptured; but we have this summer, however imperfect we as adults might deem it, and we can go out and seek it at every opportunity we find.”
As the relatively frequent typos – three in the Barnes piece alone, for example – suggest, the series has been somewhat hastily put together. Nonetheless, these are really rather lovely books. Summer is a perfect bedside companion to dip into as the days warm up. Impossible not to covet the whole four-season set.
With thanks to Marianne Thorndahl at Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
I’ve been pondering this question thanks to an excellent conference my husband and I attended in Stamford in the middle of November: New Networks for Nature. This is the third year my husband (a teaching associate in the biology department at the University of Reading) has participated, and the second year in a row I’ve chosen one day to go. Last year I had the privilege of seeing some truly phenomenal nature writers. Dave Goulson spoke about his efforts to protect bumblebees; Helen Macdonald gave a reading from H is for Hawk; and Paul Evans and Mark Cocker were on a panel about being Guardian country diarists.
This year one of the conference highlights was a debate between Guardian journalist and rewilding proponent George Monbiot (Feral) and Tony Juniper (What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?), former head of Friends of the Earth. The topic: Is nature an economic resource or a thing of intrinsic value? Both gentlemen came out swinging and were at their most convincing.
Unless we make an economic case for preserving nature (pollinators, hydroelectric power, ecotourism), Juniper believes, we will lose it. If we reframe our approach to play on bastard politicians’ turf, Monbiot counters, we’ve already lost our integrity. Nature is worth saving for its own sake; the problem is not our arguments but our lack of power.
I tended to agree with Juniper: we aren’t winning the conservation debate in any other way, so why not introduce financial incentives? This doesn’t stop us from appreciating nature for aesthetic and spiritual reasons; it’s just another strategy.
I amused myself by imagining the opponents as a solitary noble knight waving the flag of idealism (Monbiot) and a new Noah packing nature into a money-papered Trojan horse to trick the pesky government (Juniper).
If these two, in a roundabout way, pondered what nature is for, the previous session had asked more specifically what nature poetry is for. Led by Ruth Padel, one of my favorite poets, the roster also included Jo Shapcott and Pascale Petit. Each read from her work for 15 minutes and then together they answered audience questions as a panel.
I’d never heard of Petit but ended up loving her poems – they were the highlight of my day. One was about the piece of land her mother left her in France; she asked herself in what sense she could possess the place, and soon realized that it was really a pair of resident kingfishers who owned it. She writes around her difficult childhood, imagining a father who could never be cruel to birds – but then picturing him polishing off an ortolan bunting as his last meal, as Mitterrand was said to do. Along with birds, big cats provide many of the metaphors in her work, including Aramis, a black jaguar in the Paris Zoo, and the jaguar corridor in Belize.
Padel read “The Alligator’s Great Need and Great Desire,” followed by several poems from The Mara Crossing that she had written for members of the conference steering committee, such as one about storm petrels off the Skelligs and a snippet of biographical verse about Audubon. The lovely “Nocturne” commemorates nightly jellyfish migration, a “ghostly flotilla.”
She also read one that she said was the closest she gets to an angry poem: “The Forest, the Corrupt Official and a Bowl of Penis Soup” (from 2004’s The Soho Leopard), on the absurdity of killing rare animals – in this case the tiger – so their parts can be used in medicine or cuisine. Her final reading, from memory, was “Tiger Drinking at Forest Pool”; I nearly teared up when she spoke of “Sadness healed. Haven, in the mind, // To anyone hurt by littleness.”
Shapcott read two series of wildlife-themed poems. The first set, commissioned by Padel for the Zoological Society of London, was about the slender loris, which is also suffering from its use in traditional medicine as well as habitat loss. The second was a sequence about beekeeping, from the perspective of a woman who has just been left by a beekeeper. “Telling the Bees” reflects the folk belief that you have to inform bees of major events or they will leave; it ends “he’s gone, honeys; now you’re mine.” As the poem cycle continues, the hive becomes incorporated into her body until she can’t be separated from the bees.
Padel prefaced the discussion by asking how poetry should be in the face of extinctions and the destruction of the planet. She believes a sophistication of voice and expression is required; it’s not a matter of grabbing people by the lapels and saying “LOOK AT THIS,” but of putting the details together and being a witness.
Shapcott echoed her with Heidegger’s query – what is the poet for in a desperate time? She reiterated that the poet should hold up key questions and let them resonate in people’s imaginations, not force-feed answers. Petit added that in her poetry birds are metaphors for the exploitation for the weak. All three agreed poetry is about embodiment, sensory response to the world – essential since we live least in our bodies of any species, Shapcott observed.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Place and Belonging,” and it struck me that all three poets were responding to the idea that nature belongs to us and can be used like any other possession. Instead, they reply, we should think about the places we belong to, and how we can serve rather than exploit nature. But the key is not to spell that out in polemic verse, but rather to speak of life’s particulars and hope that we manage to point to the universal.
I’ll end with part of a stanza from Padel’s “The Watcher” that seems to reinforce the personal, spiritual value of nature that so much of the conference suggested:
Quest for the sacred. And if I
could track that one stork down
on its winter ground, maybe I’d know
what has become of life and me
and where to go. I’d pour libations, follow
the omen, set up sacrifice
to the god of wayfarers, even pay a call
on the seer who decodes
the flight of birds. I’d prophesy.