20 Books of Summer, #11–13: Harrison, Pym, Russell
It’s cats and butterflies in the spotlight this time, adding in a gazelle as a metaphor for Freddie Mercury’s somebody to love.
Travelling Cat: A Journey round Britain with Pugwash by Frederick Harrison (1988)
If Tom Cox had been born 20 years earlier, this is the sort of book he might have written. In 1987, saddened more by his cat Podey being run over than by the end of his marriage, Harrison set out from South London in his Ford Transit van for a seven-month drive around the country. He decided to take Pugwash, one of his local (presumably ownerless) cats, along as a companion.
They encountered Morris dancers, gypsies, hippies at Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice, sisters having a double wedding, and magic mushroom collectors. They went to a county fair and beaches in Suffolk and East Yorkshire, and briefly to Hay-on-Wye. And on the way back they collected Podey, whom he’d had stuffed. Harrison muses on the English “vice” of nostalgia for a past that probably never existed; Pugwash does what cats do, and very well.
It’s all a bit silly and dated and lightweight, but enjoyable nonetheless. Plus there are tons of black-and-white photos of “Pugs” and other feline friends. This was a secondhand purchase from The Bookshop, Wigtown.
“Cats hate to make prats of themselves. But then, don’t we all?”
(last lines) “Warm, fed, contented, unemployable, and entirely at peace with the world. Yes indeed. Cats certainly know something we don’t.”
Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (1950)
(An example of a book that just happens to have an animal in the title.) I’d only read one other Pym novel, Quartet in Autumn, a late and fairly melancholy story of four lonely older people. With her first novel I’m in more typical territory, I take it. The middle-aged Bede sisters are pillars of the church in their English village. Harriet takes each new curate under her wing, making of them a sort of collection, and fends off frequent marriage proposals from the likes of a celebrity librarian and an Italian count.
Belinda, on the other hand, only has eyes for one man: Archdeacon Hochleve, whom she’s known and loved for 30 years. They share a fondness for quoting poetry, the more obscure the better (like the title phrase, taken from “Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove: / Something to love, oh, something to love!” by Thomas Haynes Bayly). The only problem is that the archdeacon is happily married. So single-minded is Belinda that she barely notices her own marriage proposal when it comes: a scene that reminded me of Mr. Collins’s proposal to Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice. Indeed, Pym is widely recognized as an heir to Jane Austen, what with her arch studies of relationships in a closed community.
There were a handful of moments that made me laugh, like when the seamstress finds a caterpillar in her cauliflower cheese and has to wipe with a Church Times newspaper when the Bedes run out of toilet paper (such mild sacrilege!). This is enjoyable, if fluffy; it was probably a mistake to have read one of Pym’s more serious books first: I expected too much of this one. If you’re looking for a quick, gentle and escapist read in which nothing awful will happen, though, it would make a good choice. Knowing most of her books are of a piece, I wouldn’t read more than one of the remainder – it’ll most likely be Excellent Women.
An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect by Sharman Apt Russell (2003)
This compact and fairly rollicking book is a natural history of butterflies and of the scientists and collectors who have made them their life’s work. There are some 18,000 species and, unlike, say, beetles, they are generally pretty easy to tell apart because of their bold, colorful markings. Moth and butterfly diversity may well be a synecdoche for overall diversity, making them invaluable indicator species. Although the history of butterfly collecting was fairly familiar to me from Peter Marren’s Rainbow Dust, I still learned or was reminded of a lot, such as the ways you can tell moths and butterflies apart (and it’s not just about whether they fly in the night or the day). And who knew that butterfly rape is a thing?
The final third of the book was strongest for me, including a trip to London’s Natural History Museum; another to Costa Rica’s butterfly ranches, an example of successful ecotourism; and a nicely done case study of the El Segundo Blue butterfly, which was brought back from the brink of extinction by restoration of its southern California dunes habitat. Russell, a New Mexico-based author of novels and nonfiction, also writes about butterflies’ cultural importance: “No matter our religious beliefs, we accept the miracle of metamorphosis. One thing becomes another. … Butterflies wake us up.”
I also recently read the excellent title story from John Murray’s 2003 collection A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Married surgeons reflect on their losses, including the narrator’s sister in a childhood accident and his wife Maya’s father to brain cancer. In the late 1800s, the narrator’s grandfather, an amateur naturalist in the same vein as Darwin, travelled to Papua New Guinea to collect butterflies. The legends from his time, and from family trips to Cape May to count monarchs on migration in the 1930s, still resonate in the present day for these characters. The treatment of themes like science, grief and family inheritance, and the interweaving of past and present, reminded me of work by Andrea Barrett and A.S. Byatt.
(I’ve put the book aside for now but will go back to it in September as I focus on short stories.)
Other butterfly-themed books I have reviewed:
- Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly by Sue Halpern (one of last year’s 20 Books of Summer)
- Ruins by Peter Kuper (a graphic novel set in Mexico, this also picks up on monarch migration)
- Magdalena Mountain by Robert Michael Pyle (a novel about butterfly researchers in Colorado)
Magdalena Mountain by Robert Michael Pyle
“Wasn’t it Nabokov who said ‘It is astounding how little the ordinary person notices butterflies?’”
Butterflies, monks, students and teachers, prophets and saints: such is the cast of naturalist Robert Michael Pyle’s unusual and rewarding debut novel, Magdalena Mountain. It’s a golden autumn in the early 1970s as James Mead leaves Albuquerque on a Greyhound bus to travel to New Haven, Connecticut, where he will undertake a PhD in biology at Yale. He squats in a lab on campus to save money and, after some tension with his thesis advisor, decides to keep his head down, feeding the department’s giant cave roaches and becoming engrossed in the field journals written by one October Carson in 1969 during his travels out West.
Pyle presents nature as both beatific and harsh, a continuity of life that human events – like a car going over a cliff in the first chapter – barely disrupt. Occasional chapters check in on the woman who was in the car crash, Mary Glanville. Now suffering from amnesia, she believes she’s a famous figure from history. One day she escapes from her nursing home and hitchhikes into the Colorado mountains. In her weakened state she’s taken in by Attalus and Oberon, monks at a deconsecrated monastery devoted to the god Pan and the creeds of nature writers like John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold and John Muir. Attalus, a compassionless misogynist, vehemently protests Mary’s presence in their community, but Oberon soon falls in love with her.
When James, disobeying his supervisor, lights out for Colorado for a summer of research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, the stage is set for these major characters to collide on Magdalena Mountain, home to the distinctive, all-black Magdalena Alpine butterfly (Erebia magdalena). “Flight may appear weak, but adults are able to sail up and over huge boulders with the greatest of ease, eluding humans who desire a closer look. Flies in summer,” reads the description in my (Kaufman) field guide to North American butterflies. Intermittent segments of pure nature writing about Erebia’s life cycle – seven short chapters in total – establish the seasons and encourage a long view of local history, but somewhat slow down the novel’s tempo.
Pyle successfully pulls in so many different themes: academic infighting and the impulses of scientific researchers versus amateur collectors; environmentalism, especially through the threats that infestations, pesticides and off-road vehicles pose to the mountain landscape; activism, by way of the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons protests; and even sacred femininity and the myths surrounding Mary Magdalene. Mary Glanville’s name is a nice nod to history – Elinor Glanville was a seventeenth-century English collector who gave her name to the Glanville Fritillary – while Vladimir Nabokov, who was a keen lepidopterist as well as an academic and author, is mentioned several times for his real-life connections to the area.
The quirky set of hangers-on at the monastery reminded me of an Iris Murdoch setup (thinking mostly of The Bell), while the passion for science and activism brought to mind two other excellent environmentally minded novels published this year, The Overstory and Unsheltered. Indeed, Mary preaches at one point, “Seek your shelter in nature … In love lies the only real shelter there is.” If you’re interested in the Powers and/or Kingsolver, I would commend Pyle’s book to you as well: it’s offbeat, dreamy yet fervent, with intriguing characters and elegant nature-infused language. One of my favorite descriptive scraps, so simple but so apt, was “a peeled peach of a moon.” I’m grateful to have had a chance to read this, and I will be seeking out Pyle’s nature writing, too.
Magdalena Mountain was published in August 2018. My thanks to the good folk of Counterpoint Press (based in Berkeley, California) for sending a free copy for review.