This month we began with Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield, one of my favourite novels of the year so far. It fuses horror-tinged magic realism with an emotionally resonant story of disconnection and grief. My review is here. I met the lovely Julia Armfield at the 2019 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award ceremony at the London Library. (See also Kate’s opening post.)
#1 This morning I was reading in Slime, Susanne Wedlich’s wide-ranging popular science book about primordial slime and mucus and biofilms and everything in between, about the peculiar creatures that thrive in the high-pressure deep sea level known as the hadal zone – which is of great significance in Armfield’s book. One of these is the hadal snailfish.
#2 I wish I could remember how I first heard about The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (2010). Possibly the Bas Bleu catalogue? In any case, it was one of the books I requested on interlibrary loan during one of our stays with my parents in Maryland. Bailey, bedbound by chronic illness, saw in the snail that lived on her bedside table a microcosm of nature and animal behaviour. It’s a peaceful book about changing one’s pace and expectations, and thereby appreciating life.
#3 The book is still much admired in nature writing circles. In fact, it was mentioned by Anita Roy, one of the panellists at last year’s New Networks for Nature conference – except she couldn’t remember the author’s name so asked the audience if anyone knew. Yours truly called it out (twice, so I could be heard over my face mask). Anyway, Josie George is in a similar position to Bailey and A Still Life records how she has cultivated close observation skills of the nature around her. I believe she was even inspired to keep a snail at one point.
#4 Still Life is one of my favourite A.S. Byatt novels (this is not the first time I’ve used one of her novels that happens to have the same title as another book as a link in my chain; see also September 2020’s). Back in 2010, Erica Wagner, then literary editor of The Times and one of my idols (she’s American), happened to mention in her column the manner of death of a character in Still Life. Except she had it wrong. I e-mailed to say so, and got referred to in a follow-up column soon thereafter as a “perceptive reader” (i.e., know-it-all) who spotted the error; she used it as an opportunity to reflect on the tricksy nature of memory.
#5 When I wrote to Wagner, I remarked that the real means of death was similar to Thomas Merton’s, which is why it was fresh in mind though I hadn’t read the Byatt in years. (It would be ripe for rereading, in fact.) No spoilers here, so only look into Merton’s death if you’re morbidly curious and don’t mind having a novel’s ending ruined. I’ve not read an entire book by Merton yet, but have encountered his wisdom piecemeal via lots of references made by other authors and the daily excerpts in the one-year devotional book A Year with Thomas Merton, which I must have worked my way through in 2009.
#6 Merton was a Trappist monk based in Kentucky. In the process of introducing his girlfriend, Alma, a Bosnian American who grew up in northern Virginia, to the state where she’s come to live, Owen, the protagonist of Lee Cole’s debut novel, Groundskeeping, takes her to see Merton’s grave at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky. Literary grave hunting is one of my niche hobbies, and Groundskeeping, like Our Wives Under the Sea, is one of my top novels of 2022 so far.
So, I’ve gone from one reading year highlight to another, via two instances of me being a book nerd. Deep sea creatures, slime and snails, accidental deaths, and literary grave spotting: it’s been an odd chain! That’s just what I happened to come up with this morning, right after I wrote my review of Groundskeeping for BookBrowse; I’d started a chain yesterday afternoon and came up with something completely different before getting stuck on link #4. It goes to show you how arbitrary and off-the-cuff this meme can be, though I know others pick a strategy and stick with it, or first choose the books and then shoehorn them in.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. I can’t remember if I still have a copy – pretty much all of my books are now packed in advance of our mid-May move – but if I find it, I should be sure to actually read it!
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
As usual, I have a big backlog of 2021–22 releases I’m working my way through. I’ll get there eventually! Today I’m reporting on a poetry collection about English ancestry and wildlife, a vision of post-doubt Christian faith, and a set of essays on connection to nature, specifically flora. (I also take a brief look at some autofiction that didn’t work for me.)
Thorpeness by Alison Brackenbury (2022)
I’m familiar with Brackenbury from her appearance at New Networks for Nature in 2016 and her latest selected poems volume, Gallop. This, her tenth stand-alone collection, features abundant imagery of animals and the seasons, as in “Cucu” and “Postcard,” which marks the return of swifts. Alliteration is prominent, but there is also a handful of rhymes, like in “Fern.” Family history and the perhaps-idyllic rural underpin the verse set in Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire as Brackenbury searches for ancestral graves and delivers elegies.
I especially loved “Aunt Margaret’s Pudding,” a multipart poem about her grandmother’s life as a professional cook and then a mother of four, and “My Grandmother Waits for Christmas,” about a simple link between multiple generations’ Christmases: a sugar mouse. Caring for horses is another recurring theme; a 31-year-old blind pony receives a fond farewell.
There are also playful meetings between historical figures (“Purple Haze,” a dialogue between George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix, who saw the composer’s ghost in their shared London home) and between past and contemporary, like “Thomas Hardy sends an email” (it opens “I need slide no confessions under doors”). “Charles Dickens at Home” was another favourite of mine. The title is the never-to-be-reached destination in the final poem, “Shingle.” A number of these poems were first broadcast on BBC Radio.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
Faith after Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do about It by Brian McLaren (2021)
I’ve explained before how McLaren’s books were pivotal to my spiritual journey, even before I attended the church he founded in Maryland. (I’ve also reviewed his previous book, God Unbound). His progressive, environmentalist theology is perfect for continuing searchers like me. At one of last year’s online Church Times Festival events, I saw him introduce the schema that underpins this book. He proposes that the spiritual life (not just Christian) has four stages that may overlap or repeat: simplicity, complexity, perplexity and harmony. The first stage is for new zealots who draw us–them divisions and are most concerned with orthodoxy. In the second, practitioners are more concerned with practicalities: what works, what makes life better. Perplexity is provoked by cynicism about injustice and hypocrisy, while harmony moves beyond dualism and into connection with other people and with nature.
McLaren suggest that honest doubting, far from being a problem, might present an opportunity for changing in the right direction, getting us closer to the “revolutionary love” at the heart of the gospel. He shares stories from his own life, in and out of ministry, and from readers who have contacted him remotely or come up to him after events, caught in dilemmas about what they believe and whether they want to raise their children into religion. Though he’s fully aware of the environmental crisis and doesn’t offer false hope that we as a species will survive it, he isn’t ready to give up on religion; he believes that a faith seasoned by doubt and matured into an understanding of the harmony of all things can be part of a solution.
It’s possible some would find McLaren’s ideas formulaic and his prose repetitive. His point of view always draws me in and gives me much to think about. I’ve been stuck in perplexity for, ooh, 20 years? I frequently ask myself why I persist in going to church when it’s so boring and so often feels like a social club for stick-in-the-mud white people instead of a force for change. But books like this and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, my current soul food, encourage me to keep pursuing spiritual connection as a worthwhile path. I’ll be seeking out his forthcoming book (due out in May), Do I Stay Christian?, too.
Some favourite lines:
“only doubt can save the world. Only doubt will open a doorway out of hostile orthodoxies – whether religious, cultural, economic or political. Only through the difficult passage of doubt can we emerge into a new stage of faith and a new regenerative way of life. Everything depends on making this passage.”
“Among all the other things doubt is – loss, loneliness, crisis, doorway, descent, dissent [these are each the subject of individual chapters early on in the book] – it is also this: a crossroads. At the crossroads of doubt, we either become better or bitter. We either break down or break through. We become cynics or sages, hollow or holy. We choose love or despair.”
“Blessed are the wonderers, for they shall find what is wonderful. … Blessed are the doubters, for they shall see through false gods. Blessed are the lovers, for they shall see God everywhere.”
With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the free copy for review.
This Book Is a Plant: How to Grow, Learn and Radically Engage with the Natural World (2022)
This collection of new essays and excerpts from previously published volumes accompanies the upcoming Wellcome Collection exhibition Rooted Beings (a collaboration with La Casa Encendida, Madrid, it’s curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz and Emily Sargent and will run from 24 March to 29 August). The overarching theme is our connection with plants and fungi, and the ways in which they communicate. Some of the authors are known for their nature writing – there’s an excerpt from Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, Jessica J. Lee (author of Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest) contributes an essay on studying mosses, and a short section from Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass closes the book – while others are better known in other fields, like Susie Orbach and Abi Palmer (author of Sanatorium).
I especially enjoyed novelist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s “Wilder Flowers,” which is about landscape painting, balcony gardening in pots, and what’s pretty versus what’s actually good for nature. (Wildflowers aren’t the panacea we are sometimes sold.) I was also interested to learn about quinine, which comes from the fever tree, in Kim Walker and Nataly Allasi Canales’ “Bitter Barks.” Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s essay on the Western influence on Inuit communities in northern Canada, reprinted from Granta, is one of the best individual pieces – forceful and with a unique voice, it advocates reframing the climate change debate in terms of human rights as opposed to the economy – but has nothing to do with plants specifically. There are also a couple of pieces that go strangely mystical, such as one on plant metaphors in the Kama Sutra. So, a mixed bag that jumbles science, paganism and postcolonial thought, but if you haven’t already encountered the Kimmerer and Sheldrake (or, e.g., Rooted by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Losing Eden by Lucy Jones) you might find this a good primer.
With thanks to Profile Books / Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.
And one that really didn’t work for me; my apologies to the author and publisher.
I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins (2021)
What a letdown after Gold Fame Citrus, one of my favourite novels of 2015. I’d also read Watkins’s debut short story collection, Battleborn, which won the Dylan Thomas Prize. Despite the amazing title and promising setup – autofiction that reflects on postpartum depression and her Mojave Desert upbringing as a daughter of one of the Manson Family cult members – this is indulgent, misguided, and largely unreadable.
A writer named Claire Vaye Watkins flies to Nevada to give a lecture and leaves her husband and baby daughter behind – for good? To commemorate her mother Martha, who died of an opiate overdose, she reprints Martha’s 1970s letters, which are unspeakably boring. I feel like Watkins wanted to write a memoir but didn’t give herself permission to choose nonfiction, so tried to turn her character Claire’s bad behaviour into a feminist odyssey of sexual freedom and ended up writing such atrocious lines as the below:
“I mostly boinked millennial preparers of beverages and schlepped to book festivals to hook up with whatever adequate rando lurked at the end of my signing line. This was what our open marriage looked like”
“‘Psychedelics tend to find me when I need them,’ she said, sending a rush of my blood to my vulva.”
Her vagina dentata (a myth, or a real condition?!) becomes a bizarre symbol of female power and rage. I could only bear to skim this.
Some lines I liked:
Listen: I am a messenger from the future. I am you in ten years. Pay attention! Don’t fetishize marriage and babies. Don’t succumb to the axial tilt of monogamy! I don’t pretend to know the details of your…situation, but I guarantee you, you’re as free as you’ll ever be. Have sex with anyone you want. Enjoy the fact that it might happen any minute. You could have sex with a man, a woman, both—tonight!
I went from being raised by a pack of coyotes to a fellowship at Princeton where I sat next to John McPhee at a dinner and we talked about rocks and he wasn’t at all afraid of me.
With thanks to riverrun for the proof copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Hard to believe, but this past weekend was my seventh time attending the New Networks for Nature conference. It was held in Bath on this occasion, after a number of years in Stamford plus once each in Cambridge, York, and online (last year, of course). I happen to have written about it in most other years (2015, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020), and this year’s programme was so brilliant it would be a shame not to commemorate it. The weekend in Bath started off in a wonderful way: I was finally able to meet Susan of A life in books in person. We talked blogs and book prizes (and Covid and cats) over hot drinks by the Abbey square, and I even got her to sign my copy of her book, the Bloomsbury Essential Guide for Reading Groups.
As I’ve mentioned before, what makes New Networks for Nature special is the interdisciplinary approach: artists, poets, musicians, activists, academics and conservationists attend and speak. The audience, let alone the speakers’ roster, is a who’s who of familiar names and faces from the UK nature writing world. So although the event might seem geared more towards my ecologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. The conference planners make ongoing efforts to diversify the programme: this year there were several all-female panels and seven BIPOC appeared on stage. It was a hybrid event in two senses: people could live-stream from home if not comfortable attending in person, and a few speakers appeared on the screen from locations as far-flung as India and New Zealand.
I hadn’t had much time to peruse the programme before the conference began. Without exception, the sessions surpassed my expectations. The opening event on the Friday evening was, fittingly, about the question of inclusivity. Nicola Chester, author of On Gallows Down; Anita Roy, part of the Transition Town Wellington movement and co-editor of Gifts of Gravity and Light; and David Lindo, known as “The Urban Birder,” had a discussion with Seb Choudhury about access to ‘the countryside’, which they agreed is perhaps an unhelpful term that discourages people from going out and experiencing the wildlife on their doorstep.
Saturday opened with a panel on art and environmental awareness. Harriet Mead welds sculptures out of found objects, Rachel Taylor is a scientist who makes birds out of glass, and Sarah Gillespie is a landscape painter whose prints of moths are so lifelike you’d swear they’re photographs. Gillespie spoke for all of them when she said that attention breaks down the dualism between self and other, creating an exchange of energies, with the artist serving as the watchman. These observations appeared to hold true for nature writing as well.
Scientists and writers alike commented on plastics in the environment and species migration. Did you know that 500,000 tons of plastic food packaging is created in the UK per year? Or that dolphins form allyships and have a culture? In the afternoon we met three teenage climate activists who have been involved in school strikes, COP26 protests, and volunteering to cultivate green spaces. Their public speaking ability was phenomenal. A final session of the day was with Julian Hector, head of the BBC Natural History Unit. He showed clips from some of the most famous nature documentaries made during his tenure and polled the room about how they feel about the use of music for emotional manipulation.
Speaking of music, the highlight of the conference came about due to the unlikely friendship between Mary Colwell, writer and curlew conservation activist, and singer/songwriter David Gray, who met her after he donated to one of her campaigns and has since gone along on one of her fundraising walks, narrated and scored a short documentary on curlews (you can watch it here), and contributed a song to a forthcoming RSPB-funded album inspired by curlews. We had the absolute treat of attending his first public performance in over two years on the Saturday evening at St Swithin’s Church, a venue that holds perhaps 200 people – versus next year he’ll be filling 20,000-seat stadiums for his White Ladder 20th anniversary tour.
This was carefully billed as an evening in conversation with David Gray rather than a gig, but in the end we got seven songs performed live at the church piano, as opposed to the three originally planned, so I call that a win! Other song excerpts were played over the sound system: “Let the Truth Sting” from his ‘angry young man’ phase, “Accumulates” as an anti-consumerism screed, and “Gulls” (based on an obscure Belgian poem) and “The Sapling” to illustrate how nature imagery enters into his lyrics.
Raised in Pembrokeshire, Gray loved going out on a fishing boat with his neighbours and seeing the seabirds massing around Skomer Island. He said he doesn’t think he’s ever gotten over those childhood experiences, and now he welcomes every sighting of a barn owl near his home in Norfolk (and encouraged us all to start gluing ourselves to roads). One of the songs he performed was indeed “The White Owl,” from Skellig, released early this year. Subtler than some of his albums, it was mostly recorded in a live setup and is built around simple, almost chant-like repeats and harmonies. That incantatory beauty was evident on another song he played live, “No False Gods,” which I didn’t realize has at its core a line from a Nan Shepherd poem: “We are love’s body or we are undone.”
Gray finished the official programme with his unreleased curlew song, “The Arc,” but came back for an encore of “Birds of the High Arctic,” “All that We Asked For” and “Sail Away” – this last to great cheers of recognition. He couldn’t figure out how to finish it after the whistling so just gave a few last plinks and then a hearty laugh as he returned to the stage to answer questions. We were impressed with his eloquence, sense of humour and BIG voice, especially on “Ain’t No Love” (from what has been our favourite of his albums, 2005’s Life in Slow Motion) – I got the feeling he barely needed a microphone to fill the whole church.
Sunday morning opened, appropriately, with a panel on nature and spirituality, featuring Satish Kumar, an octogenarian peace pilgrim to nuclear sites; Jini Reddy, author of Wanderland; and Nick Mayhew-Smith, who’s travelled to places of Celtic spirituality around the British Isles, such as hermits’ caves. Kumar led us in a meditation on gratitude and belonging, and suggested that we are all connected, and all spiritual, because we all share the same breath. He described the world’s religions as many tributaries of the same river.
Perhaps my favourite session of all was on the role of nature in weird and Gothic literature. Authors Maggie Gee and Laura Jean McKay (both appearing via video link), and Ruth Padel, a New Networks stalwart, conversed with Bath Spa professor Richard Kerridge. Gee has been writing about climate change in her novels for nearly 40 years; she said the challenge is to make the language fresh again and connect with readers subliminally and emotionally, without preaching or lecturing. She called The Red Children, coming out in March, a future fairy tale, comic and hopeful, and read from the beginning, including a raven’s speech.
This connected with McKay’s The Animals in That Country, from which she read the passage where Jean realizes she can hear the lab mice talking to her. McKay said speculative fiction has been edging ever closer to reality in recent years; she recently realized she was reading Ling Ma’s zombie novel Severance as a guide to surviving the pandemic. In her opinion, novels are to open doors and ask questions – the opposite of what politicians do. Padel added that attention can be an antidote to eco-grief, with art a framework for creating resolution.
Longer sessions were punctuated with readings (from On Gallows Down and Samantha Walton’s Everybody Needs Beauty), performances (Merlyn Driver, who grew up without electricity and not going to school on Orkney, proposed the curlew album to the RSPB and played his song “Simmer Dim”) or short films – one on the plastic pollution encountered by a stand-up paddle boarder travelling the length of the Severn river and another on the regenerative farming a young couple are doing in Spain at Wild Finca.
The closest we came to a debate over the weekend was with the final session on ecotourism. Representing the pro side was Ian Redmond, who works with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. The $1500 fee that each group of tourists pays to be taken into the reserve goes directly to conserving their habitat. But to get there people burn carbon flying long distances, and Nick Acheson finds that unconscionable. After 20 years as a wildlife guide to the amazing animals of Madagascar and South America, he’s vowed never to fly again. He stays close to home in Norfolk and travels by bike. His statistics were arresting and his argumentation hard to counter. Think hard about your motivation, he challenged. If you truly want to help local people and wildlife, donate money instead. The white saviour mentality is a danger here, too.
Much food for thought, then, though always in the back of the mind is the knowledge that (as some speakers did say aloud) this event preaches to the choir. How to reach those who haven’t fallen in love with the natural world, or haven’t woken up to the climate crisis? Those questions remain, but each year we have NNN to recharge the batteries.
Next time the conference will be back to York for the first weekend of November, with a tagline of “Survive, Thrive, Revive.” I’m looking forward to it already!
Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?
Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet was the highlight of my 2019 animal-themed summer reading. I admired her determination to incorporate wildlife-watching into everyday life, and appreciated her words on the human connection to and responsibility towards the rest of nature. Rooted, one of my most anticipated books of this year, continues in that vein, yet surprised me with its mystical approach. No doubt some will be put off by the spiritual standpoint and dismiss the author as a barefoot, tree-hugging hippie. Well, sign me up to Haupt’s team, because nature needs all the help it can get, and we know that people won’t save what they don’t love. Start to think about trees and animals as brothers and sisters – or even as part of the self – and actions that passively doom them, not to mention wanton destruction of habitat, will hit closer to home.
I hadn’t realized that Haupt grew up Catholic, so the language of mysticism comes easily to her, but even as a child nature was where she truly sensed transcendence. Down by the creek, where she listened to birdsong and watched the frog lifecycle, was where she learned that everything is connected. She even confessed her other church, “Frog Church” (this book’s original title), to her priest one day. (He humored her by assigning an extra Our Father.) How to reclaim that childhood feeling of connectedness as a busy, tech-addicted adult?
The Seattle-based Haupt engages in, and encourages, solo camping, barefoot walking, purposeful wandering, spending time sitting under trees, mindfulness, and going out in the dark. This might look countercultural, or even eccentric. Some will also feel called to teach, to protest, and to support environmental causes financially. Others will contribute their talent for music, writing, or the visual arts. But there are subtler changes to be made too, in our attitudes and the way we speak. A simple one is to watch how we refer to other species. “It” has no place in a creature-directed vocabulary.
Haupt’s perspective chimes with the ethos of the New Networks for Nature conference I attend each year, as well as with the work of many UK nature writers like Robert Macfarlane (in particular, she mentions The Lost Words) and Jini Reddy (Wanderland). I also found a fair amount of overlap with Lucy Jones’s Losing Eden. There were points where Haupt got a little abstract and even woo-woo for me – and I say that as someone with a religious background. But her passion won me over, and her book helped me to understand why two things that happened earlier this year – a fox dying in our backyard and neighbors having a big willow tree taken down – wounded me so deeply. That I felt each death throe and chainsaw cut as if in my own body wasn’t just me being sentimental and oversensitive. It was a reminder that I’m a part of all of life, and I must do more to protect it.
“In this time of planetary crisis, overwhelm is common. What to do? There is so much. Too much. No single human can work to save the orcas and the Amazon and organize protests to stop fracking and write poetry that inspires others to act and pray in a hermit’s dwelling for transformation and get dinner on the table. How easy it is to feel paralyzed by obligations. How easy it is to feel lost and insignificant and unable to know what is best, to feel adrift while yearning for purpose. Rootedness is a way of being in concert with the wilderness—and wildness—that sustains humans and all of life.”
“No one can do all things. Yet we can hold all things as we trim and change our lives and choose our particular forms of rooted, creative action—those that call uniquely to us.”
With thanks to Little, Brown Spark for sending a proof copy all the way from Boston, USA.
First up was a rundown of my five favorite poetry releases of the year, starting with…
Dearly by Margaret Atwood
Dearly is a treasure trove, twice the length of the average poetry collection and rich with themes of memory, women’s rights, environmental crisis, and bereavement. It is reflective and playful, melancholy and hopeful. I can highly recommend it, even to non-poetry readers, because it is led by its themes; although there are layers to explore, these poems are generally about what they say they’re about, and more material than abstract. Alliteration, repetition, internal and slant rhymes, and neologisms will delight language lovers and make the book one to experience aloud as well as on paper. Atwood’s imagery ranges from the Dutch masters to The Wizard of Oz. Her frame of reference is as wide as the array of fields she’s written in over the course of over half a century.
I’ll let you read the whole article to discover my four runners-up. (They’ll also be appearing in my fiction & poetry best-of post next week.)
Lottie’s story is a case study of the feminist project to reconcile motherhood and career (in this case, scientific research). In the generic more than the scientific meaning of the word, the novel is indeed about artifacts – as in works by Doris Lessing, Penelope Lively and Carol Shields, the goal is to unearth the traces of a woman’s life. The long chapters are almost like discrete short stories. Heyman follows Lottie through years of schooling and menial jobs, through a broken marriage and a period of single parenthood, and into a new relationship. There were aspects of the writing that didn’t work for me and I found the book as a whole more intellectually noteworthy than engaging as a story. A piercing – if not notably subtle – story of women’s choices and limitations in the latter half of the twentieth century. I’d recommend it to fans of Forty Rooms and The Female Persuasion.
Finally, I contributed a dual review of two works of nature writing that would make perfect last-minute Christmas gifts for outdoorsy types and/or would be perfect bedside books for reading along with the English seasons into a new year.
The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison
This collects five and a half years’ worth of Harrison’s monthly Nature Notebook columns for The Times. The book falls into two rough halves, “City” and “Country”: initially based in South London, Harrison moved to the Suffolk countryside in late 2017. In the grand tradition of Gilbert White, she records when she sees her firsts of a year. Often, she need look no further than her own home and garden. I appreciated how hands-on and practical she is: She’s always picking up dead animals to clean up and display the skeletons, and she never misses an opportunity to tell readers about ways they can create habitat for wildlife (e.g. bat and bird nest boxes that can be incorporated into buildings) and get involved in citizen science projects like moth recording.
The book’s final two entries were set during the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020 – a notably fine season. This inspired me to review it alongside…
The Consolation of Nature by Michael McCarthy, Jeremy Mynott and Peter Marren
A tripartite diary of the coronavirus spring kept by three veteran nature writers based in southern England (all of them familiar to me through their involvement with New Networks for Nature and its annual Nature Matters conferences). The entries, of a similar length to Harrison’s, are grouped into chronological chapters from 21 March to 31 May. While the authors focus in these 10 weeks on their wildlife sightings – red kites, kestrels, bluebells, fungal fairy rings and much more – they also log government advice and death tolls. They achieve an ideal balance between current events and the timelessness of nature, enjoyed all the more in 2020’s unprecedented spring because of a dearth of traffic noise.
It’s not November without a New Networks for Nature conference. Originally 2020’s was scheduled to take place in Norwich in July; it was then postponed to the usual November in hopes of an in-person meeting, but ultimately had to be online this year, like so much else. This was my sixth time taking part in this interdisciplinary gathering of authors, academics, and activists (I’ve also written about the 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019 conferences). The UEA organizers, Jean McNeil and Jos Smith, with New Networks stalwart John Fanshawe, did an excellent job of creating three virtual events for people to engage with from home.
Two pre-recorded panels brought together writers from different fields to reflect on nature literature and the environmental crisis. First up was “New Perspectives on Nature Writing,” picking up on a perennial conference theme.
I was delighted to hear Jessica J. Lee speak – I’ve reviewed both of her nature-infused memoirs, Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest, and in last year’s feedback I suggested her as a future speaker (I’m sure I’m not solely responsible!). After a PhD in environmental history, she moved into more personal writing. Questions of home, place, language, and identity were natural for her as a third-generation migrant. She initially felt alone as a person of colour in nature writing, but when she founded the Willowherb Review she quickly learned that it wasn’t that POC weren’t out there; it was that they did not have opportunities to publish – she has had 300+ submissions per issue to the online literary magazine, which welcomes work from all genres by authors of colour.
Also on the panel were Mona Arshi, a Punjabi poet based in London, and McNeil, a creative writing professor. Arshi has been a human rights lawyer and is the current poet-in-residence at Cley Marshes, Norfolk, in association with the Wildlife Trusts and UEA. She has had to try to absorb the landscape via video and sound recordings since COVID-19 has limited her in-person visits. She read a sonnet she wrote about her last trip there in September. All three panellists spoke about land being in some ways beyond language, though.
Jean McNeil’s Ice Diaries is a memoir of a year in residence with the British Antarctic Survey, a very male, scientific world. Antarctica is “no one’s country,” she remarked, though it’s the fifth-largest continent; it’s as if the land has no memory of people. She observed that it’s impossible to write about Antarctica without giving a sense of the journey (so she includes travel writing) and mentioning death. Raised without technology by back-to-the-land parents in Canada, McNeil has been active in the environmental movement in Brazil, Central America, and Africa (as a safari guide). Ice Diaries was already on my TBR, but I’m impressed by her breadth of experience and want to explore her varied work.
The second panel, “States of Emergency,” included an academic, a playwright, the CEO of an environmental charity, and a philosopher and activist. I was intrigued by UEA’s Rebecca Tillett’s brief opening address about contemporary North American indigenous responses to climate change in fiction (her research speciality). Her primary example was the Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice, a postapocalyptic thriller in which the Wendigo, a figure from First Nations folklore, embodies capitalism as it consumes people with greed.
UEA-based playwright Steve Waters is planning outdoor theatre projects at nature reserves. James Thornton, the CEO of ClientEarth, spoke about starting with the science, the “grammar of the Earth.” His team has prevented new coal-fired stations in Europe and encouraged NGOs in China to sue polluting companies. Philosophy professor Rupert Reed was, until recently, an Extinction Rebellion spokesman. He noted that the climate emergency feels too slow and too long – a marathon, not a sprint; people don’t realize how profoundly our way of life and future are threatened. Alas, COVID-19 is not having the desired effect of turning people’s attention to the greater, ongoing emergency. He counselled acceptance and adaptation, stating that hope and action must go hand in hand. Thornton recalled the Dalai Lama telling him early in his career that he needed to get beyond anger because angry people don’t come up with viable solutions. The anger has to be turned into a positive vision.
There were live Q&A sessions for these two panels, but we weren’t able to watch. However, we did attend Saturday’s live keynote event featuring Tim Dee and Kathleen Jamie, two of the finest nature writers working today. Speaking from Cape Town, where he has been stranded since the start of the pandemic, Dee said that his current writing is about birds that are new to him but familiar to his neighbours. He explained that he admires and understands the world through birds, “who carry no bags or passports and are at home wherever they are.” In his work he explores how we are “made by places,” often returning to a place to reprocess his experiences there (e.g. Hungary in his latest book, Greenery). His notebooks, which are often just lists of birds seen, help him to “reinflate” a place when writing about it later.
Jamie agreed that her work also has this quality of “afterwardness” – finding the meaning of an experience long after the moment. She came across as down-to-earth, shrugging off McNeil’s question about transcendence and remarking that a sign above her desk reads “Nay narrative!” What is left for a lyric poet who loses faith in lyricism? For Jamie, the answer is prose poetry, as in “Tree on the Hill,” recently published in the LRB. Her poetry has always been local but her longform nonfiction has only ever come from other places, so while she’s been stuck in Fife she’s been unable to progress. But she never has any idea of what she’s writing, she said; she and her editor work out a theme once a whole book exists (for instance, the linking metaphor for Surfacing – unearthing archaeological evidence and memories).
Dee called himself a materialist – “no ideas but in things” – with language being what we clothe things in. He always double-checks his (sometimes elaborate) metaphors by putting them back onto a bird to ensure they fit. Jamie said she used to believe language was humans’ “fall” and would try to maintain a “pre-language state” for as long as possible every morning, but ultimately she changed her mind, accepting that language is what makes us human; it’s what we do. She acknowledges that nature writing like hers is not going to achieve things in the way that environmental activism can, but she hopes that bringing non-human creatures into the culture (as if it were an ark) can be a way of advocating for them all the same.
A brilliant programme, capped off with some visual and musical delights: “Where Song Began,” a one-hour cello and violin response/accompaniment to Australian birdsong created by Simone Slattery and Anthony Albrecht in January; and a brief virtual tour of the Nature Writing Collection in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at UEA, which includes the papers of the late Roger Deakin and of (alive and kicking!) Mark Cocker, a UEA graduate. The archive contains Deakin’s drafts and pitches (Waterlog’s working title was “The Waters of the Wondrous Isle,” and he imagined it as an aquatic Rural Rides), photos, and even his Speedo bathing suit; along with Cocker’s field notebooks and fan mail.
This past weekend was my fifth time attending Nature Matters, the annual New Networks for Nature conference. I’ve written about it on the blog a few times before: last year’s 10th anniversary meeting in Stamford, plus once when there was a particular focus on nature poetry and another time when it was held in Cambridge. This year the theme was “Time for Nature” and the conference was held at the very posh St Peter’s School in York, which dates back to 627 and resembles an Oxford college. We have close friends in York, but our timing was off in that they were in Italy this week. However, they sent us a key to their house and let us stay there while they were away, which saved us having to book an Airbnb or guest house.
What makes Nature Matters so special is its interdisciplinary nature: visual artists, poets, musicians, writers, activists, academics and conservationists alike attend and speak. So although the event might seem geared more towards my ecologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. In particular, I enjoyed the panel discussions on nature in children’s books and new directions for nature writing. This year the organizers were determined to make the speakers’ roster more diverse, so some panels were three-quarters or wholly female, and four people of color appeared on the stage. (That might not seem like a great record, but in a field so dominated by white males it’s at least a start.)
The Friday was a particularly brilliant day, the best day of sessions I can remember in any year. After a presentation by wildlife photographer and painter Robert Fuller, the first session was “Nature in Deep Time,” featuring three archaeologists from northern universities who talked about cave art, woodcraft, and evidence of rapid climate change. “Taking a long view, we get a very different perspective,” Professor Terry O’Connor of the University of York observed. The topic felt timely and tied in with a number of books that have come out this year, including Time Song by Julia Blackburn, Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie and Underland by Robert Macfarlane.
Next up was “Now or Never – Fighting for Nature,” featuring three female activists: Ruth Peacey, a filmmaker for BBC Wildlife whose subjects have included bird persecution in the Mediterranean; Sally Goldsmith, a campaigner who deployed poems and songs against the mass street tree-cutting campaign in Sheffield and helped save some 10,000 trees; and Hatti Owens, an environmental lawyer with ClientEarth who has partnered with Extinction Rebellion. The panel chair and one of this year’s organizers, writer Amy-Jane Beer, noted that activism is no longer radical, but an obligation.
Either side of lunch, Dr. Sara Goodacre of the University of Nottingham SpiderLab demonstrated how money spiders walk on water and “sail” using two raised legs to cope with wind; and Dr. Geoff Oxford of the University of York told the successful conservation story of the tansy beetle, which has recently been celebrated with a crowdfunded wall mural on the corner of York’s Queen Street and the Tansy Beetle Bar at the Rattle Owl restaurant on Micklegate. After the day’s proceedings, we joined a general movement over to see the mural and toast the bar’s grand opening.
The children’s books session featured Anneliese Emmans Dean, who gave very entertaining performances of her poems on insects and birds; Gill Lewis, who writes middle grade novels that introduce children to environmental issues; and Yuval Zommer, who writes and illustrates nonfiction guides with titles like The Big Book of Bugs and The Big Book of Blooms. Panel chair Ben Hoare, another of this year’s organizers and a former editor of BBC Wildlife magazine, concluded that children’s books should be joyous and not preachy.
There was still more to come on this jam-packed Friday! “The Funny Thing about Nature…” was essentially three stand-up comedy routines by Simon Watt, creator of the Ugly Animal Appreciation Society; Helen Pilcher, who has written a speculative book about the science of de-extinction; and Hugh Warwick, an author and hedgehog enthusiast. The language got a little crass in this session, but all three speakers were genuinely funny. As Watt put it, “Sincerity should not be our only weapon” in the fight for nature; he’s trying to reach the people who aren’t “already on our side.”
After free gin and tonics provided by local producers SloeMotion, we had the absolute treat of a performance by Kitty Macfarlane, whose folk songs are inspired by the natural world. The title track of her 2018 album Namer of Clouds is about Luke Howard, who created the naming system for clouds (cumulus, stratus, and so on) in 1802. Other songs are about eels, a starling murmuration and the Sardinian tradition of weaving sea silk. She often incorporates field recordings of birdsong, and writes about her native Somerset Levels. Her voice is gorgeously clear, reminding me of Emily Smith’s. We bought her album and EP at once.
Saturday was a slightly less memorable day, with sessions on insects and the uplands, an interview with clean rivers campaigner (and former pop star) Feargal Sharkey, and the short film Raising the Hare by Bevis Bowden. Most engaging for me was a four-person discussion on new directions for nature writing, chaired by author and academic Richard Kerridge. Katharine Norbury is editing the Women on Nature anthology, which I have supported via Unbound; it’s due out next year. She went all the way back to Julian of Norwich and has included novelists, poets, gardeners and farmers – lots of women who wouldn’t have called themselves ‘nature writers’.
Anita Sethi, a journalist from Manchester, speaks out about inequality of access to nature due to race, gender and class. She read part of her essay “On Class and the Countryside” from the Common People anthology edited by Kit de Waal. Zakiya McKenzie, a London-born Jamaican, was a Forest England writer in residence and founded the Green & Black project to give underprivileged children trips to the countryside. Richard Smyth, the author of A Sweet, Wild Note, spoke of the need for robust nature writing – and criticism. He stressed that it’s not good enough for nature writing to be “charming” or “lyrical”; it’s too important to be merely pleasant. I would have liked to hear him explore this more and for it to turn into more of a debate, but the discussion drifted into praise for experimental and speculative forms.
There’s something for everyone at this conference; some of the elements that I didn’t get on with or found pretentious were others’ highlights, so it’s all a matter of taste. Spending time in York, one of my favorite cities, was an added bonus. We managed to fit in a trip to the National Railway Museum and lunch at Bettys on the Sunday before our train back.
Next year’s conference will be at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, 10–12 July. I’ve never been to Norwich so look forward to visiting it and attending the full conference once again. It’s always a fascinating, inspiring weekend with a wide range of speakers and ideas.
Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?
Four February–March releases: A shape-shifting bereavement memoir; a poet’s selected works, infused with nature and history; a novel set among expatriates in Shanghai; and a graphic novel about a romance at the watershed of age 60 – you can’t say I don’t read a variety of books! I’m particularly pleased that two of these four are in translation. All:
When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt
[Translated from the Danish by Denise Newman]
In March 2015 Aidt got a call telling her that her second of four sons, Carl Emil, was dead. The 25-year-old experienced drug-induced psychosis after taking some mushrooms that he and his friend had grown in their flat and, naked, jumped out of his fifth-floor Copenhagen window. In italicized sections she cycles back to the moment she was notified, each time adding on a few more harrowing details about Carl’s accident and the condition she found him in. The rest of the text is a collage of fragments: memories, dreams, dictionary definitions, journal entries, and quotations from the patron saints of bereavement (C.S. Lewis and Joan Didion) and poets who lost children, such as Stéphane Mallarmé.
The playful disregard for chronology and the variety of fonts, typefaces and sizes are a way of circumventing the feeling that grief has made words lose their meaning forever. David Grossman, whose son died during his service in the Israeli army, does a similar thing in Falling Out of Time, which, although it is fiction, blends poetry and dialogue in an attempt to voice the unspeakable. Han Kang’s The White Book and Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End are two other comparable precursors.
A representative passage:
“no language possible language died with my child could not be artistic could not be art did not want to be fucking art I vomit over art over syntax write like a child main clauses searching everything I write is a declaration I hate writing don’t want to write any more”
With thanks to Quercus Books for the free copy for review.
Gallop: Selected Poems by Alison Brackenbury
I first encountered Alison Brackenbury’s poetry through her reading as part of the 2016 “Nature Matters” conference in Cambridge. From four generations of Lincolnshire shepherds, Brackenbury writes about history, nature, country life (especially horses, as you might guess from the title and cover) and everyday joys and regrets. A Collected/Selected Poems volume is often difficult to assess as a whole because there can be such a variety of style and content; while that is certainly true here in terms of the poems’ length and rhyme schemes, the tone and themes are broadly similar throughout. I connected most to her middle period. Her first and last lines are especially honed.
Highlights include “The Wood at Semmering” (“This is a dismal wood. We missed our train.”), “Half-day” (“Will she lift / Her face from cloth’s slow steam: will she find out / Ironing is duty; summer is a gift?”), “Hill Mist” (“I am too fond of mist, which is blind / without tenderness”), “On the Road” (the bravery of a roadkill squirrel), “Epigrams” (being in the sandwich generation), “The Card” (“Divorce comes close to death”), “Cycles” (“Would I go back?”), “The Jane Austen Reader” (“Welcome to the truth. Miss Bingley married Darcy”), “On the Aerial” (a starling’s many songs), and “Dickens: a daydream.”
Some favorite lines:
“we are love’s strange seabirds. We dive there, still.” (from “The Divers’ Death”)
“Ancestors are not in our blood, but our heads: / we make history.” (from “Robert Brackenbury”)
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
Besotted by Melissa Duclos
Sasha is soon to leave Shanghai, her departure hastened by the collapse of her relationship with Liz, whom she hired to work at her international school because she had no teaching experience or Chinese – and maybe because she signed her cover letter “Besottedly,” thinking it meant drunkenly. Even before Liz arrived, Sasha built romantic fantasies around her, thinking she’d show her the ropes and give her a spare room to live in. All went according to plan – the erstwhile straight Liz even ended up in Sasha’s bed – until it all fell apart.
The novel is set over one school year and shows the main characters exploring the expat community, which primarily involves going to happy hours. Liz starts language exchange sessions at Starbucks with a Chinese guy, Sam, and both women try to ignore the unwanted advances of their acquaintance Dorian, an architect. Little misunderstandings and betrayals go a long way towards rearranging these relationships, while delicate flashbacks fill in the women’s lives before China.
There were a couple of narrative decisions here that didn’t entirely work for me: Sasha narrates the whole book, even scenes she isn’t present for; and there is persistent personification of abstractions like Loneliness and Love. But the descriptions of the city and of expat life are terrific, and the wistful picture of a romance that starts off sweet but soon sours is convincing.
A favorite passage:
“Shanghai had found its own identity since then: a glittering capitalist heart, hardened into a diamond and barely hidden beneath its drab, brown communist cloak. … Constantly under construction, Shanghai was a place to reinvent yourself.”
Full disclosure: Melissa and I worked together on Bookkaholic web magazine, and are Facebook friends. She sent me a free proof copy for review.
Blossoms in Autumn by Zidrou and Aimée de Jongh
[Translated from the French by Matt Madden]
The French-language title, translated literally, is The Programmed Obsolescence of Our Feelings. (Talk about highfalutin!) Both that and the English title defy the notion that we become less capable of true love and growth the older we are – as will be dramatized through the story of a later-life romance between the two main characters. Ulysses Varennes, a 59-year-old widower who retired early from his career as a mover, hates books (gasp!) because moving boxes of them ruined his back (he even refuses to read them!). Mediterranea Solenza, coming up on 62, was a nude model in her prime and is now a cheesemaker. At the book’s opening she has just laid her mother to rest, and her affair with Ulysses serves as a chance at a new life that somehow counterbalances the loss.
We come to understand these characters through the sadness of their past but also through their hopeful future, both encompassed by the metaphor of a Homeric journey (Ulysses, get it?). Indeed, the book takes an unusual turn I never would have expected; if it beggars belief, it is at least touching. Zidrou is a Belgian comics writer and Aimée de Jongh is a Dutch-born illustrator. She portrays these ageing bodies sensitively but realistically, retreating into an appropriately impressionistic style for the spreads that show their actual lovemaking. In a nice touch, the first two words and last two words of the book are exactly the same.
With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
I love interspersing poetry with my other reading, and this year it seems like I’m getting to more of it than ever. Although I try to have a poetry collection on the go at all times, I still consider myself a novice and enjoy discovering new-to-me poets. However, I know many readers who totally avoid poetry because they assume they won’t understand it or it would feel too much like hard work.
Sinking into poems is certainly a very different experience from opening up a novel or a nonfiction narrative. Often I read parts of a poem two or three times – to make sure I’ve taken it in properly, or just to savor the language. I try to hear the lines aloud in my head so I can appreciate the sonic techniques at work, whether rhyming or alliteration. Reading or listening to poetry engages a different part of the brain, and it may be best to experience it in something of a dreamlike state.
I hope you’ll find a book or two that appeals from the selection below.
Thousandfold by Nina Bogin (2019)
This is a lovely collection whose poems devote equal time to interactions with nature and encounters with friends and family. Birds – along with their eggs and feathers – are a frequent presence. Often a particular object will serve as a totem as the poet remembers the most important people in her life: her father’s sheepskin coat, her grandmother’s pink bathrobe, and the slippers her late husband shuffled around in – a sign of how diminished he’d become due to dementia. Elsewhere Bogin greets a new granddaughter and gives thanks for the comforting presence of her cat. Gentle rhymes and half-rhymes lend a playful or incantatory nature. I’d recommend this to fans of Linda Pastan.
Thousandfold will be published by Carcanet Press on January 31st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Sweet Shop by Amit Chaudhuri (2019)
I was previously unfamiliar with Chaudhuri’s work, and unfortunately this insubstantial book about his beloved Indian places and foods hasn’t lured me into trying any more. The one poem I liked best was “Creek Row,” about a Calcutta lane used as a shortcut: “you are a thin, short-lived, / decaying corridor” and an “oesophageal aperture”. I also liked, as stand-alone lines go, “Refugees are periodic / like daffodils.” Nothing else stood out for me in terms of language, sound or theme. Poetry is so subjective; all I can say is that some poets will click with you and others don’t. In any case, the atmosphere is similar to what I found in Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms.
My thanks to Salt Publishing for the free copy for review.
Windfall by Miriam Darlington (2008)
Before I picked this up from the bookstall at the New Networks for Nature conference in November, I had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing (Otter Country and Owl Sense). These poems are rooted in the everyday: flipping pancakes, sitting down to coffee, tending a garden, smiling at a dog. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. I loved her descriptions of a heron (“a standing stone / perched in silt / a wrap of grey plumage”) and a blackbird (“the first bird / a glockenspiel in C / an improvisation on morning / a blue string of notes”), Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re missing Mary Oliver.
A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson (2018)
Elson, an astronomer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, died of breast cancer; this is a reprint of her posthumous 2001 publication. Along with a set of completed poems, the volume includes an autobiographical essay and extracts from her notebooks. Her impending mortality has a subtle presence in the book. I focused on the finished poems, which take their metaphors from physics (“Dark Matter”), mathematics (“Inventing Zero”) and evolution (indeed, “Evolution” was my favorite). In the essay that closes the book, Elson remembers long summers of fieldwork and road trips across Canada with her geologist father (I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye), and traces her academic career as she bounced between the United States and Great Britain.
My thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
These next two were on the Costa Prize for Poetry shortlist, along with Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems, which was one of my top poetry collections of 2018 and recently won the T. S. Eliot Prize. I first encountered the work of all three poets at last year’s Faber Spring Party.
Us by Zaffar Kunial (2018)
Many of these poems are about split loyalties and a composite identity – Kunial’s father was Kashmiri and his mother English – and what the languages we use say about us. He also writes about unexpectedly developing a love for literature, and devotes one poem to Jane Austen and another to Shakespeare. My favorites were “Self Portrait as Bottom,” about doing a DNA test (“O I am translated. / The speech of numbers. / Here’s me in them / and them in me. … What could be more prosaic? / I am split. 50% Europe. / 50% Asia.”), and the title poem, a plea for understanding and common ground.
Soho by Richard Scott (2018)
When I saw him live, Scott read two of the amazingly intimate poems from this upcoming collection. One, “cover-boys,” is about top-shelf gay porn and what became of the models; the other, “museum,” is, on the face of it, about mutilated sculptures of male bodies in the Athens archaeological museum, but also, more generally, about “the vulnerability of / queer bodies.” If you appreciate the erotic verse of Mark Doty and Andrew McMillan, you need to pick this one up immediately. Scott channels Verlaine in a central section of gritty love poems and Whitman in the final, multi-part “Oh My Soho!”
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (2017)
Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, this is a book whose aims I can admire even though I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. It’s about being black and queer in an America where both those identifiers are dangerous, where guns and HIV are omnipresent threats. “reader, what does it / feel like to be safe? white?” Smith asks. “when i was born, i was born a bull’s-eye.” The narrator and many of the other characters are bruised and bloody, with blood used literally but also metaphorically for kinship and sexual encounters. By turns tender and biting, exultant and uncomfortable, these poems are undeniably striking, and a necessary wake-up call for readers who may never have considered the author’s perspective.
Up next: This Pulitzer-winning collection from the late Mary Oliver, whose work I’ve had mixed success with before (Dream Work is by far her best that I’ve read so far). We lost two great authors within a week! RIP Diana Athill, too, who was 101.
Any recent poetry reads you can recommend to me?
It’s a tradition now in its third and last year: I spend one day at the New Networks for Nature conference with my husband, and then (to save money, and because I’ve usually had my fill of stimulating speakers by then) wander around Stamford and haunt the public library on the other day.
This past Saturday I browsed the charity shops and found a short story collection I’ve been interested in reading, but otherwise just spent hours in Stamford’s library looking through recent issues of the Times Literary Supplement and The Bookseller and reading from the stack of novellas I’d brought with me. I read four in one sitting because all were shorter than 50 pages long: two obscure classics and two nature books.
The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono (1953)
[Translated from the French by Barbara Bray; 46 pages]
Trees have been a surprise recurring theme in my 2018 reading. This spare allegory from a Provençal author is all about the difference one person can make. The narrator meets a shepherd and beekeeper named Elzéard Bouffier who plants as many acorns as he can; “it struck him that this part of the country was dying for lack of trees, and having nothing much else to do he decided to put things right.” Decades pass and two world wars do their worst, but very little changes in the countryside. Old Bouffier has led an unassuming but worthwhile life.
There’s not very much to this story, though I appreciated the message about doing good even if you won’t get any recognition or even live to see the fruits of your labor. What’s most interesting about it is the publication history: it was commissioned by Reader’s Digest for a series on “The Most Extraordinary Character I Ever Met,” and though the magazine accepted it with rapture, there was belated outrage when they realized it was fiction. It was later included in a German anthology of biography, too! No one recognized it as a fable; this became a sort of literary in-joke, as Giono’s daughter Aline reveals in a short afterword.
Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville (1853)
[40 pages from my Penguin Classics copy of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories]
You probably know the basic plot even if you’ve never read the story. Hired as the fourth scrivener in a Wall Street office of law-copyists, Bartleby seems quietly efficient until one day he mildly refuses to do the work requested of him. “I prefer not to” becomes his refrain. First he stops proofreading his copies, and then he declines to do any writing at all. (More and more these days, I find I have the same can’t-be-bothered attitude as Bartleby!) As the employer/narrator writes, “a certain unconscious air … of pallid haughtiness … positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities.” Farce ensues as he finds himself incapable of getting rid of Bartleby, even after he goes to the extreme of changing the premises of his office. Three times he even denies knowing Bartleby, but still the man is a thorn in his flesh, a nuisance turned inescapable responsibility. A glance at the introduction by Harold Beaver tells me I’m not the first to make such Christian parallels. (This was the first Melville I’ve read since an aborted attempt on Moby-Dick during college.)
The Company of Swans by Jim Crumley (1997)
[Illustrated by Harry Brockway, who also did the wood engravings for the Giono; 39 pages]
Crumley is an underappreciated Scottish nature writer. Here he tells the tale of a pair of mute swans on a loch in Highland Perthshire. He followed their relationship with great interest over a matter of years. First he noticed that their nest had been robbed, twice within a few weeks, and realized otters must be to blame. Then, although it’s a truism that swans mate for life, he observed the cob (male) leaving the pen (female) for another! Crumley was overtaken with sympathy for the abandoned swan and got to feed her by hand and watch her fall asleep. “To suggest there was true communication between us would be outrageous, but I believe she regarded me as benevolent, which was all I ever asked of her,” he writes. Two years later he learns the end of her story. A pleasant ode to fleeting moments of communion with nature.
“Swans this wild let you into only a certain portion of their lives. They give you intimate glimpses. But you can never have any part in the business of being a swan. You can offer them no more than the flung tribute of your admiring gaze.”
“I think there is nothing in all nature that outshines that lustrous lacing of curves [of swan necks], nothing in all theatre that outperforms its pivotal tension.”
Holloway by Robert Macfarlane (2013)
[Illustrated by Stanley Donwood; 39 pages]
In 2011 Macfarlane set out to recreate a journey through South Dorset that he’d first undertaken with the late Roger Deakin in 2005, targeting the sunken paths of former roadways. This is not your average nature or travel book, though; it’s much more fragmentary and poetic than you’d expect from a straightforward account of a journey through the natural world. I thought the stream-of-consciousness style overdone, and got more out of the song about the book by singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Sanderson. (Her Book Songs, Volume 1 EP, which has been one of my great discoveries of the year, is available to listen to and purchase on her Bandcamp page. It also includes songs inspired by Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Sarah Hall’s Haweswater, and Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann.) The black-and-white illustrations are nicely evocative, though.
Lines I liked:
“paths run through people as surely as they run through places.”
“The holloway is absence; a wood-way worn away by buried feet.”