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.
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.