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.”
For 30 years Peri McQuay and her family lived in the idyllic 700-strong village of Westport in Eastern Ontario. Her husband, Barry, was the park supervisor at Foley Mountain Conservation Area, the subject of her first nature-themed memoir, The View from Foley Mountain (1995), and they lived on site amid its 800 acres. The constant push to engage in fundraising gradually made it a less pleasant place to live and work, so as Barry’s retirement neared they knew it was time to find a new home of their own. That quest is the subject of her third book, Singing Meadow: The Adventure of Creating a Country Home.
McQuay fantasized about a farmhouse surrounded by 50–100 acres of their own land, but was aware that their limited finances might not stretch to match their dreams. Long before they found their home they were buying little items for it, like an acorn door knocker that functioned as a reassuring totem object during the long, discouraging process of looking at houses. Over the course of two years, McQuay and her husband viewed more than 80 properties! Two pieces of advice they received turned out to be prescient: their loquacious real estate agent opined that “the house you end up in won’t be the one you set out to find,” and a woman in the doctor’s office waiting room counseled her, “don’t try too hard. It’ll happen when it’s time.”
In the end, they fell in love with a plot of land with a water meadow that was home to herons and beavers. With no handyman skills, they never thought they’d embark on building a home of their own. And as it turned out, finding the land was the easy bit, as opposed to the nitty-gritty details of designing what they wanted and meeting with builders who could make it a reality. But as they planted trees and looked ahead to their move in a year’s time, they were already forming a relationship with this place before the house was ever built, learning “the hard lessons of patience and possibility.”
Woven through the book are short flashbacks to other challenging times in McQuay’s life: having chronic fatigue syndrome in her 40s, her mother’s death a few years earlier, and a terrible ice storm at the park that left them without power for 17 days and caused damage to the forest that it might take 30 years to recover from. What all of these situations, as well as looking for a home, have in common is that they forced the author to take the long view, recognizing the healing effects of time rather than the tantalizing option of quick fixes.
I’ve never owned a home, but I’ve lived in 10 properties in the last 10 years. A lot of that nomadism has been foisted upon us rather than chosen, so I could relate to McQuay’s frustration throughout the property search, as well as her feelings of being uprooted – that “the very stuff of my life was being dismantled.” I can also see the wisdom of choosing the place that feeds your soul rather than the one that seems most convenient. She remembers one of the first properties she and Barry rented as a married couple: it was an old place with an outhouse and no running hot water, but they filled it with laughter and music and felt at peace there. It was infinitely better than any soulless town apartment they might have resorted to.
The book ends with a bit of a shocker, one of two moments that brought a lump to my throat. It’s a surprisingly bittersweet turn after what’s gone before, but it’s realistic and serves as a reminder that life is an ongoing story with sad moments we can’t prepare for.
Overall, this memoir reminds me most of Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own (which appears in McQuay’s bibliography) and May Sarton’s journals, in which the search for a long-term home in Maine is a major element. Although this will appeal to people who like reading about women’s lives and transitions, I would particularly recommend it to readers of nature writing as the book is full of lovely passages like these:
It was bliss visiting the trees and caring for them. Each one was precious. Across the meadow I could see the black, white and yellow nesting bobolink plus an unidentifiable bird with a square seed-eating beak perched on a cattail. A crow flew by, checking to see what I was doing, then a blue jay. In the distance the newly returned yellow warbler was calling “witchetty witchetty.” Over and over, I needed to keep saying that I felt deep down, richly happy in the meadow. In the glassy eye of the pond, water was burbling up in such a powerful spilling-over that it chuckled musically. Indeed, while there was such a flow only the boldest, largest minnows could swim strongly enough to approach the rushing source.
Now I was walking slowly down to the water meadow, hearing the strange, quarrelsome-sounding talk of herons beginning another season here. I was teaching myself how to be aware every moment of every step so I could keep walking longer on this rough land. With any luck, this beloved place would be my last home. And, after the unignorable message of recent fierce summers, I was here to bear witness, to stand with the great maples, beeches, and oaks through whatever might come, to accompany with whatever grace I could for as long as I could sustain it. Living here, this was who I wanted to be—an old woman vanishing into the light.
I’m keen to get hold of McQuay’s other two books as well. Her work makes for very pleasant, meditative reading.
Note: The front cover is an oil painting of Peri’s childhood home by her artist father, Ken Phillips.
Singing Meadow: The Adventure of Creating a Country Home was published by Wintergreen Studios Press in 2016. My thanks to the author for sending a PDF copy for review.