“Yes, Virginia, There Really Is A Bruce Buttfield Pouf”

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Even while taking a break from blogging, I am always reading (or listening) to something of the written word. As the picture might hint at the current state of my desktop, both wooden and digital, I am often occupied with either writing, reading, or attempting to craft the perfect sentence. Failing the latter drives me to chocolate. Often I indulge in kitchen remodels in the middle of winter, which is now.

The connections of thought or sympathy I find with writers throughout all generations never ceases to amaze. Don’t you find that is true? This recently occurred with E.B. White, and Jane Austen, and suddenly it felt very familiar. Oh, yes, dear absent-minded blogger…you wrote about this before…get your nose out from underneath that stack of books…

So it seemed a very good opportunity to indulge in that luxury called ‘reblog’. I will no doubt be returning to this subject, but for now here is: ‘Yes, Virginia, There Really Is A Bruce Buttfield Pouf’.

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 ‘It has never been my desire to diminish by so much as a crumb of information the charming wonderment of a lady.’
[E. B. White; from a sketch published in The New Yorker]

(Thank you, E.B. White; that’s a relief. And thanks for calling my wonderment ‘charming’. Not that I am the lady who wrote in with a query about pigeons; nor am I even of your generation. Yet I have wondered for years about Bruce Buttfield and the pouf.)

Perhaps, if you have enjoyed White’s little masterpiece of writing Dusk In Fierce Pajamas, you’ve wondered about Bruce Buttfield and the pouf, as well.

E.B. White wrote the short sketch from his bed of illness, from his fierce pajamas, and straight away from his contemplation of the four perfect evenings of Mrs. Allen Ryan, Jr., busy socialite.

[‘They are perfect little crystals of being–static, precious.’]

Thanks to the perceptive irony of E.B. White, Mrs. Allen Ryan, Jr. and her preoccupations live on for us. As do Rose Hobart, the Harold Talbots, Monsieur Charles de Beistegui, and the knowledge that Mrs. Chester Burden uses only white in her table settings.

Dusk In Fierce Pajamas [published in the New Yorker, 1934] is a perfect gem in miniature. It is not just the humor of a bored convalescent, idly flipping through fashion magazines. It is irony, pathos, insight and satire of the best kind. It well illustrates how humor is a type of genius that not only Knows, but more importantly, Understands. It chronicles, even through the self-deprecating moments, the fierce desire to keep one’s mind alive and active through illness and isolation. A log is not a raft, a raft is not a boat, a boat is not a cruise liner, but they all float. They are all life preservers. The adornment of Rose Hobart while dining at the Waldorf might not have been the normal stuff of E.B. White’s cerebral preoccupations in his job as contributor at The New Yorker, but ‘the haunting dusk is shattered by the clean glint of jewels by Cartier’.

Even the attempt to describe what it is about a piece like Dusk In Fierce Pajamas that is affecting, feels as though I were serving it up as Mrs. Cecil Baker did her perfectly overwrought hard-boiled eggs, olives, celery and radishes all preciously compartmentalized on blue and white Spode china.

(‘No, that’s wrong. I am in chiffon, for it is the magic hour after bridge.’)

What White himself said about “durable humor”, though, is revealing:

“I find difficulty with the word “humor” and with the word “humorist” to peg a writer…. the durable humor in literature, I suspect, is not the contrived humor of a funnyman commenting on the news but the sly and almost imperceptible ingredient that sometimes gets into writing. I think of Jane Austen, a deeply humorous woman. I think of Thoreau, a man of some humor along with his bile.”  [E.B. White, interviewed in 1969, printed in ‘The Paris Review’]

That ‘sly and almost imperceptible ingredient’ —Humor— will never be completely understood. It has been described as one of the muses, a spark of genius, an art— and as such remains elusive. As Clifton Fadiman expressed it, humor

“[makes] quietly despairing men suddenly catch a vision of the surprisingness of life, the breakability of rules, the spirit-cleansing power of the irrelevant.”

It is significant that White gives Jane Austen the honor of a mention in his definition of humor. Jane Austen wrote one of her comic masterpieces, Sanditon, when she was at her most ill. She died before she could finish it. In creating her characters, and the hilarity of their various occupations, did she feel, as E.B. White expressed,

in them I found surcease from the world’s ugliness, from disarray, from all unattractive things.’?

Given E.B. White’s statement I included at the beginning of this post, he might forgive me for having put aside the enriching read of his Poems and Sketches and wasting an hour or so on the internet while I indulged in what he called a ‘charming wonderment’. The exact look of the ‘pouf’, by the way, is still in question.

As to Bruce Buttfield’s existence, my curiosity was readily satisfied. He was an interior designer to the rich and famous, and became rich and famous for his interiors.

What I really wanted was a picture of the Bruce Buttfield pouf, but it was not to be had. I suspect the use of pouf was a deliberate choice by White–a term richly suggestive of lack of substance rather than an actual description of a firm, upholstered stool for seating.

[‘It is dusk…I am with the Countess de Forceville over her bridge tables. She and I have just pushed the tables against the wall and taken a big bite of gazpacho.’]art-deco-circular-interior-design

Another curiosity, and one that kept me from getting back to ‘Owen Johnson over his chafing dish’, is that Wikipedia has a separate heading and comprehensive definition for both pouf and tuffet, with side trips over to ‘ottoman’ and ‘hassock’. There is also a helpful redirect in case you accidentally type in pouffe; this being a more accurate term to describe what Bruce Buttfield might have devised. But pouf is where E.B. White immortalized himself, and there we shall leave him. Sitting at dusk.

[‘For it is dusk.’}

There is an anthology of humor writing from The New Yorker entitled ‘Fierce Pajamas‘.

Golden Orbs, Sallow Lemons, Stunted Yellow Cherries

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In 1932, Stella Gibbons published her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm. Well-educated, a trained journalist and professional writer for magazines, Gibbons wrote the novel on a lark. “Little did she know” it was to become a classic of satire. The book even took the prestigious Prix Etranger award, winning over the likes of writers Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamund Lehmann.

In 1995 the movie, starring Kate Beckinsale as Flora Poste,(aka ‘Robert Poste’s child’) was released, thus introducing the phrase ‘the golden orb’ into our jargon. It became instant code-speak for purple, self-conscious, overwrought prose.

“It was winter, the grimmest day of the darkest hour of the year…The golden orb had almost disappeared behind the interlacing fingers of the hawthorne…”

As we pause reflectively, or not, on this the shortest of the year, the day when we cast the longest shadows, and look ahead to incrementally tiny increases of light slivers to cheer us along our path through winter, Stella Gibbons’ purposefully satirical prose comes to my mind.

Actually, this book has provided has provided a delightful sub-text for many of life’s passing moments. A winter solstice is no different.

But what about ‘the golden orb‘? Gibbons, though including a great deal of egregiously deranged passages in her comic masterpiece, as well as coining such choice new words as scranlet and mollocking, apparently did not make use of the expression ‘the golden orb’. If it exists it would be in an early British edition of her work, or perhaps an original manuscript. There is no such phrase in my Penguin paperback edition of Cold Comfort Farm.

A winter sun that ‘throbbed like a sallow lemon’, yes, but not ‘the golden orb’.

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Thus we have to conclude that it came from the pen of a screenwriter. This, however, does come from the book:

‘….his huge body, rude as a wind-tortured thorn, was printed darkly against the thin mild flame of the declining winter sun that throbbed like a sallow lemon on the westering lip of Mockuncle Hill, and sent its pale, sharp rays into the kitchen through the open door. The brittle air, on which the fans of the trees were etched like ageing skeletons, seemed thronged by the bright, invisible ghosts of a million dead summers….’

Oh, Stella Gibbons did have some fun. It is also great fun for the reader. But in actual fact, the Flora Poste of the book and not the movie, was decidedly un-poetical. Definitely more down to earth, no nonsense, indomitably cheerful, and matter of fact. She has aspirations to be a novelist, yes, but only after she had lived a few years and ‘collected experience’.

Flora Poste liked things neat and tidy. Long-winded bursts of stream-of-consciousness experimentally verbose ‘flapdoodle’ was not to her taste. More particularly, not to the taste of Stella Gibbons. She liked Jane Austen, who, as she described her, was also neat and tidy. When it came to the archetypal ‘mad woman in the attic’ character, Flora Poste drew inspiration from reading the doings of serious-minded Fanny Price in Mansfield Park—considered Austen’s most difficult novel. As well, less archetypically, and definitely less Fanny Price, she drew heavily on the persuasive power of fashion and travel magazines in fixing the problem of what to do with Aunt Ada Doom–that mad woman in the attic of ‘I saw something nasty in the woodshed‘ fame.

‘The woodshed incident had twisted something in your child-brain seventy years ago. And seeing that it was because of that incident that you sat here ruling the roost and having five meals a day brought up to you as regularly as clockwork, it hadn’t been such a bad break for you, that day you saw something nasty in the woodshed.’

But as the writer prosaically remarks: ‘you can’t have a farm without sheds.

Stella Gibbons’ bouts of deliberately overwrought prose, styled for effect, is marked in the text with a preliminary row of asterisks. As she mentions in a helpful tip in the forward to the novel—the asterisks serve as a sort of Baedeker guide that might mark the laudatory places in a landscape; works of genius, as it were. Just so one knows where they are, and how to respond, in case they don’t recognize them immediately.

‘It is only because I have in mind all those thousands of persons, not unlike myself, who work in the vulgar and meaningless bustle of offices, shops and homes, and who are not always sure whether a sentence is Literature or whether it is just sheer flapdoodle, that I have adopted the method perfected by the late Herr Baedeker, and firmly marked what I consider the finer passages with one, two or three stars. In such a manner did the good man deal with cathedrals, hotels and paintings by men of genius. There seems no reason why it should not be applied to passages in novels. It ought to help the reviewers, too.’ Stella Gibbons

So clever of her to give us clues to when the really good parts are coming, so that we don’t miss them.

And then there was the delightful character, Mr. Mybug. (played brilliantly by Stephen Fry in the movie)

‘The farmhouse itself no longer looked like a beast about to spring. (Not that it ever had, to her, for she was not in the habit of thinking that things looked exactly like other things which were as different from them in appearance as it was possible to be.) But it had looked dirty and miserable and depressing, and when Mr. Mybug had once remarked that it looked like a beast about to spring, Flora had simply not had the heart to contradict him.’

Gibbons had a bit of fun skewering the Bloomsbury set; ‘you…who are so adept at the lovely polishing of every grave and lucent phrase…’

‘For it is a peculiarity of persons who lead rich emotional lives and who (as the saying is) live intensely and with a wild poetry, that they read all kinds of meaning into comparatively simple actions, especially the actions of other people, who do not live intensely and with a wild poetry.’

Mr. Mybug, temporarily in love with Flora, is a classic Bloomsbury intellectual who lives intensely, as Stella Gibbons sees him.

“There’s a quality in you…” said Mr. Mybug, staring at her and waving his fingers. “Remote, somehow, and nymph-like…oddly unawakened. I should like to write a novel about you and call it Virginal.”

“Do, if it passes the time for you,” said Flora, “and now I must really go and write some letters, I am afraid. Good-bye.”

Ah, yes, Letters. I have to go write some, too. I have considerably less time to do so, because of that whole golden orb thing, disappearing so rapidly behind the interlacing fingers of the wind tortured hawthorn. Soon the impalpable emanations and tortured ferment of spring will be upon us, and then what? ‘Nature’s fecund blessing‘?… By the way, that’s not in the book, either. I think Stephen Fry made it up.

We’ll let Virginia Woolf give us spring, and her watercolor impressions of ‘stunted yellow cherries‘….

‘Every time he lunches out on Sunday—at dinner parties and tea parties—there will be this same shock—horror—discomfort—then pleasure, for he draws into him at every step as he walks by the river such steady certainty, such reassurance from all sides, the trees bowing, the grey spires soft in the blue, voices blowing and seeming suspended in the air, the springy air of May, the elastic air with its particles—chestnut bloom, pollen, whatever it is that gives the May air its potency, blurring the trees, gumming the buds, daubing the green. And the river too runs past, not at flood, nor swiftly, but cloying the oar that dips in it and drops white drops from the blade, swimming green and deep over the bowed rushes, as if lavishly caressing them.  Where they moored their boat the trees showered down, so that their topmost leaves trailed in the ripples and the green wedge that lay in the water being made of leaves shifted in leaf-breadths as the real leaves shifted. Now there was a shiver of wind—instantly an edge of sky; and as Durrant ate cherries he dropped the stunted yellow cherries through the green wedge of leaves, their stalks twinkling as they wriggled in and out, and sometimes one half-bitten cherry would go down red into the green….’ Jacob’s Room

The good news is that tomorrow—lived intensely— will be even longer than today. Or perhaps it will only seem so.

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(in response to the weekly photo challenge ‘yellow’…which got me thinking about purple prose, and golden orbs. Oh, and glass artist ***Dale Chihuly, the genius who created this awesome yellow glass sculpture.)

Pause: Fade In Train Noises

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‘Having timed her by her only possible train, he locked the door about mid-day, and crossed the hollow field to the verge of the upland by the Brown House, where he stood and looked over the vast prospect northwards, and over the nearer landscape in which Alfredston stood. Two miles behind it a jet of white steam was travelling from the left to the right of the picture.’ 
Jude the Obscure

My brave ‘little iPhone that could’ was poised and ready. The scene that unfolded below me was like something out of a dream and I wanted to capture it. In the valley, a steam locomotive chuffs and puffs into view; churning streamers of billowing white. The still waterway beneath the land bridge, darkened by dusk, silvered by frost, reflects the curling steam and plays it back as airy clouds. A flock of geese, startled by the roar of the approaching train, erupt in a scatter of pepper-like patterns against the horizon, then subside again on the water.

Where are we? When are we? Are we really in a Thomas Hardy novel?

Is this 1869 London, in a scene that would become part of Henrietta Creswell’s Victorian memoir Winchmore Hill, Memories of a Lost Village…?

Or perhaps, chugging up the steep hill in NightMail, we have found ourselves in the year of 1936; watching the plucky 6115 Scots Guardsman steam locomotive make its way to Glasgow…

Have we lost ourselves in a radio play of 1945, dreaming on a train like young William did…and waking up to find Anthony Trollope staring at him?

Are we on the Orient Express with Hercule Poirot, heading into a large snowdrift with murder afoot…?

None of the above. We are in the present; the delightful present. This is Portland, and we are watching the old Southern Pacific 4449 steam across the Oaks Bottom wetland.

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In this city, we are privileged to have a working society devoted to bringing back the thrill of steam engine trains. Portland boasts a premium selection of ‘rolling stock’ as it is called (differing from static display, which is a fully retired locomotive).

The Oregon Rail Heritage Facility oversees the preservation of three city-owned steam locomotives:

Southern Pacific 4449 (SP 4449),

Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700 (SP&S 700), and

Oregon Railroad & Navigation 197 (OR&N 197).

These three beauties also give Portland ‘the distinction of being the only city in the United States to own operating mainline steam locomotives.’

Vintage steam locomotives instantly transport you to another time. Their appeal continues to affect a broad range of enthusiasts, from toddlers to hipsters to grizzled old softies. The sound of a steam whistle gives a thrill in my heart that is somewhat akin to listening to a Rachmaninov piano concerto performed live. It’s what we like to call A Moment.

As a little girl, I was generally supposed to like dolls. I certainly received enough. My interest in dolls was extremely limited, however. For one thing, they were made of plastic and never altered their stare.

I had four brothers and, as fate would have it, none of them were interested in trains. But oh how I wanted a train set. The substantial metal kind. I loved the black engines and I loved the red cabooses. And pretty much everything that fit between. I wanted it to run into every room of the house on a track that was built over our heads. This dream was never realized for a number of reasons—likely expense was one, but the fact that it would be difficult to dust was a deal breaker.

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The whistle of a steam engine is unlike anything else. It is terrifying at close range, evocative and moody when heard from a distance. At night the sound carries farther, and you no longer listen as though from a distance, you hear an echo that seems to resound from within your own DNA. Somehow, like my sweet tooth, my petite frame, my nerdy wordsmithing tendencies, I also inherited this crazy love for trains.

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these wheels are taller than me

Since the steam engine came to birth in Britain, and it is so intimately connected with some of our favorite English literature, we tend to pair it with other aspects of English culture that are iconic. (Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, besides taking place in Europe, and starring a Belgian detective, still manages to be very British in tone!).

The allure of Angela Thirkell’s villages of Barsetshire, for example, are chiefly powered by the chuffing, perky trains which regularly decanted new romantic prospects at the station and into each book—enough to guarantee a bit of a romantic kerfuffle and at least two weddings by the end of the story.

In August Folly, written in 1936, Thirkell describes your approach by train into the sleepy village of Worsted:

‘When your train comes backwards into the station, often assisted for the last few yards by a large grey horse and its friends and hangers-on, you may take your seat in a carriage which has never known the hand of change since it left the railway shops in 1887….As your train pulls out on the single line which joins Winter Overcotes to Shearings, a small junction fifteen miles away, you are back in the late Victorian era. Engines and carriages are a striking relic of our earlier railways, and under their skimpy coats of paint may be read the names of long defunct systems…The line meanders, in the way that makes an old railway so much more romantic than a new motor highway, among meadows, between hills, over level crossings.’ 

(More about August Folly)

Thus we see that the idea of steam trains being romantic and nostalgic is certainly not new. Barsetshire, this fictional county lovingly endowed with warm and woolly names like Winter Overcotes, Shearings, Woolram, Lambton, Worsted, Fleece and Skeynes, was not invented by Angela Thirkell. She just made it her own, and famous in its own right.

The honor of Barsetshire’s creation goes to Anthony Trollope, who, as it is known, did much of his novel writing while riding, in what? A train, of course.

Writer Elizabeth Bowen not only loved trains; admitting ‘an enthusiastic naiveté’—she also championed the work of Anthony Trollope in a time when his novels had fallen out of popularity as too stuffy, too Victorian.

Elizabeth Bowen via wiki

She chose to use an old steam train as the setting for her 1945 radio play Anthony Trollope: A New Judgement. The directions for styling the opening scene to the play are as follows:

‘Pause: fade in train noises…rather accentuated, as of train taking up-gradient. Gradually fade in, on top of these noises and in their rhythm, voice saying ‘A picture book, a picture book, a picture book’….the words should gain slowly, more with each time of speaking, over train noises.’

The idea of putting singsong words to the rhythm of the train is as old as the trains, themselves. In a memoir published in 1912, Winchmore Hill: Memories of a Lost Village, Henrietta Creswell writes of fifty years earlier when the railroad first came to her sleepy village that is now a London suburb. She describes the first steam engines that began to arrive on the newly laid track, and how each one the villagers came to know as ‘a personality’, a separate voice…

Fox informed the world there was ‘such a hurry, such a hurry.” Hunslet, a tank engine, was particularly clear in her enunciation, informing all the world of her huffy temper, though I never heard she was ill to deal with as a worker—“I’m in a huff, I’m in a huff!” she puffed on her way along the line. Progress, who laboured at the Wood Green end, proclaimed continually the name of the chief engineer—‘Mr. Claringbull, Mr. Claringbull,’ she shouted with a strong accent on the last syllable. Ferret seldom left the Enfield portion of roadmaking, perhaps because everything was ‘such a heavy load, such a heavy load’.”…

Obviously, the personification of steam locomotives can be traced back to the early days of the railways–in this case, 1870, when the newly minted tracks, and the newly birthed engines were just beginning to become a familiar feature of the countryside. Just a few years before Elizabeth Bowen wrote her radio play in 1945, the temptation to personalize a locomotive was still well in place.

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Down the mahogany corridors of a sleeper car

In 1936 a film documentary, entitled Nightmail, was commissioned that paired poetry and music to the sounds of a train. The busy London, Midland and Scottish Railway was powered by the beloved engine Royal Scot 6115 Scots Guardsman. The poem begins slowly, imitating the clickety-clack of wheels on the rail, then picks up speed until at the end the narrator is reciting at a breathless pace.

Does this sound like a fun, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’-esque sort of venture? Not at all. It was a serious endeavor, and is now considered a classic. The poetry for the piece was written by none other than W.H. Auden, the music was scored by Benjamin Britten, and the film was directed by the brilliant Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti. An amazing trifecta of talent commissioned to honor a steam engine…You can see the video here.

‘This is the Night Mail crossing the border
Bringing the cheque and the postal order

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor
The shop at the corner and the girl next door

Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb –

The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shoveling white steam over her shoulder

Snorting noisily as she passes

Silent miles of wind-bent grasses

Birds turn their heads as she approaches

Stare from the bushes at her black-faced coaches

Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;

They slumber on with paws across

In the farm she passes no one wakes
But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes…’ W.H. Auden

Before I leave the subject of Britain and trains I just have to mention my new dream, slightly more ambitious than my little girl dream of room to room (undusted) train travel. I would love to go to Hampshire, England and ride the Watercress Line….Who wouldn’t want to ride a train called the Watercress Line?? It’s an old steam train that now regularly runs a twenty or so mile route in the beautiful Hampshire countryside. One of the stops is near Chawton, Jane Austen’s home territory. The Watercress Line––though officially named Mid-Hants Railway––is named for the fact that in former days the train was used to take watercress from local farms into London markets, presumably for all those English teas with neatly trimmed cucumber and watercress sandwiches. How Oscar Wilde. (How I suddenly feel like Algernon and want to ‘scoff the lot’ before Lady Bracknell arrives.) Says the website enthusiastically:

‘There is nothing quite like the sound, smell and power of a steam locomotive in full cry!’

I quite agree. But this gets us to the other side—the historical aspect of trains. The charms of a vintage train have not always been so. It has not always been considered charming, it has not always been vintage. At its inception, it was ‘new technology’. It was everything that was new, disruptive, dirty, destructive, and scary loud. Not to mention immorally fast.

‘Quaint’ and ‘adorable’ are adjectives that would not have been employed in any discussion of railroads in Cranford, the fictional village created by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1851. These venerable ladies of Cranford—themselves quaint and adorable—were decidedly against the encroaching railways.

The Cranford ladies; not too happy with the railway…

In part two of ‘Pause: Fade In Train Noises’, we’ll visit Cranford, see how the ladies are getting on, make a few other literary stops, and go chuffing our way through a bit of English fictional countryside.

I hope you’ll join me!

The Seasonal Mr. Rochester

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 “I like this day; I like that sky of steel; I like the sternness and stillness of the world under this frost.…” Mr. Rochester, Jane Eyre

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We begin by agreeing with Mr. Rochester’s comments on the weather. We don’t always agree with this turbulent fellow, it is true, but he redeems himself by being sensible enough to fall in love with Jane Eyre.

I remember my first read of Jane Eyre, years ago, and being startled by this unguarded moment in the narrative. It is now one of my favorite scenes. Mr. Rochester, the brooding cynic who liked to talk in cryptic, mocking terms, suddenly reveals a bit of his heart.

I like this day.” For once he speaks as a simple man, with simple tastes.

I also like the color of sky on frosty days. It pairs well with the faded yellow leaves that are still much in evidence in my region. Late November into December has a changing color palette; a definite personality of somber but rich hues in the landscape. Here in the Pacific Northwest our skies do not remain steely for long; there are always new clouds to come billowing in and bring fresh rounds of that wetness we like to call ‘precipitation’.

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No one discusses weather better than the Brontes, so here you have Emily Bronte’s description of precipitation:

‘On an afternoon in October, or the beginning of November—a fresh watery afternoon, when the turf and paths were rustling with moist, withered leaves, and the cold blue sky was half hidden by clouds—dark grey streamers, rapidly mounting from the west, and boding abundant rain…’

Wuthering Heights

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The few leaves left to us you could describe as a ‘heathered’ yellow; flecks of brown and gray embedded in the yellow creates a tone reminiscent of the lovely Scottish heathered wools. It is more than a color; it is a transition. What word best describes this?

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From the poets—actually, from archaic English kept alive by the poets— we have an unusual word that well befits this late fall color palette.

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The word ‘sear’ denotes much more than just a color—it conveys the physicality of it. There is a withering, a decay, in progress that could never be expressed by just saying ‘yellow’, or ‘brown’.

Only sear will do.

“November’s sky is chill and drear,
November’s leaf is red and sear.”
–   Sir Walter Scott

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“The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,

Of wailing winds, and naked woods, and meadows brown and sear.”

-   William Cullen Bryant

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Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more

Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy never-sear,

I com to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,

And with forc’d fingers rude,

Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.’

- John Milton, Lycidas 

This term ‘sear’ usually brings to mind what we do to a steak. It is the browning of it, and the browning, crisping stage of a leaf that provides the common denominator. Sear (archaic ‘sere’, from where we also get ‘sorrel‘) can also mean withered.

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From my trusty ‘Dictionary of Word Origins’ by Eric Partridge

(At the introduction of the word withered is where we abruptly stop thinking of steak…)

Although sear or sere as a term for color is now considered archaic, it beautifully describes this aging yellow of late November against slate gray skies and frosty rooftops.

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I wanted to capture this color harmony in wool or stone. November was rapidly slipping away and I hadn’t yet chronicled November as a tangible ‘thing’. I have this goal–not always realized–to capture a day, moment, event by creating a tactile object that somehow grounds me to that moment in time. I wanted November to be much more than a passing blur on a calendar.

“You think all existence lapses in as quiet a flow as that in which your youth has hitherto slid away….” 

So said Mr. Rochester.

This particularly pleasing combination of shadow and light in the landscape dominated my color imagination. For one thing, my fourth floor windows stare out onto a neighborhood of slate gray rooftops punctuated by yellow leafed trees, so it has been part of my daily vision for some time.

Clearly, not just any yellow would do when one is attempting a Bronte mood for a warm and fuzzy object; when the desire is to capture…

‘steely sky and slow shatter’d leaves.’

Nothing too sulfurous…nor mustardy…not buttery…no golden glow of gingko hues…maybe palest raw cornsilk…?

Then I saw it. A lovely heathered old gold wool, courtesy of Rowan. A contrasting ‘sky’ was found in rich charcoal (alpaca blend for softness) and before long I was happily creating the soft and steely grandeur of my November day.

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‘We will now turn to a certain still, cold, cloudy afternoon about the commencement of December, when the first fall of snow lay thinly scattered over the blighted fields and frozen roads, or stored more thickly in the hollows of the deep cart-ruts and footsteps of men and horses impressed in the now petrified mire of last month’s drenching rains.’

‘I remember it well.’ Anne Bronte; Tenant of Wildfell Hall

As landscape and tempestuous weather fueled the imagination for the Bronte sisters, resulting in memorable characters placed in memorable scenes, I respond to my environment in different ways. As mentioned, I can be slightly obsessed with colors and textures–in beading, tapestry, and crochet. Thus my current landscape might not produce a novel, or a Mr. Rochester, a Heathcliff, or even an Arthur Huntingdon (thank goodness–no more Arthurs, please) ; but there is a good chance I will produce some handwarmers and a scarf. And if Mr. Rochester would let me, I would knit him a cardigan in shades of steely gray. Perhaps the incomparable Jane did so, and he loved her even more. If that is possible.

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As for this November that has just passed? ‘I will remember it well.’

Blue Stockings and Muddy Petticoats

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“The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Henry David Thoreau was a great walker. His walking was directly linked to his ability to think. Directly linked to his philosophy. If Thoreau did not walk, Thoreau could not write.

Thinking about this made me realize why I have been unable to finish up this post from my series that has been given the quizzical name ‘Perambulations.’ A post that was beginning to drag on as long as Ben Jonson’s epic walk to Edinburgh in 1618.

I have not been walking. The ground has been as frozen and inhospitable as a Bronte moor, and the wind has been bitter cold. There are, in this house, enough knitted and crocheted hats and scarves to clothe an army, but I am a fair weather walker.

“Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “my thoughts begin to flow.”

Yesterday the sun returned with brilliant apologies and warm entreaties. The earth was still frozen, our porch and stairs still a solid pool of ice, yet something of an ambient flow was beginning to stir.

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Encouraged by the dazzling rays of light we immediately ventured out to experience the truth of writer Rebecca Solnit’s observation

‘…walking articulates both physical and mental freedom.”

What she said. And what Thoreau said. I began to think about perambulations, pedestrianism, peregrinations; all those lovely, fascinating words relating to the philosophy and exercise of walking. Like sweetmeats to the wordsmith, they animate the curiosity, savor of possibility, and my eager thoughts begin to rise like puffs of steam in warm sunlight.

“The distance is nothing when one has a motive.” Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)

This is the magic of walking; though our steps may be regular, our chosen path familiar, linear or even slightly curved, our thoughts are left free to wander far away from our feet. The same tree on our customary path looks different in all types of light, and radiates new possibilities. In elliptical, soaring patterns, our imagination makes great loops of thought in the sky, connecting philosophical dots, shooting across eons of space to create galaxies of fantastic dimensions and people it with drama, conflict, resolution. Perhaps our thoughts take us back to the past or weave us ever more tightly to the dizzying matrix of the present.

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Our eye catches sight of a beautiful bird, spiraling upward, or a flock of birds forming V patterns etched in thin silhouette, and our thoughts travel with them in after image, chasing similar shapes and spirals, or arcs in fractal waves like starlings.

Wherever we go in our mind, the beauty of it is that our feet are still on solid ground. There is comfort in that; we drop to earth with a soft thud to match our pedestrian gait and soon enough we are back to the warmth of the fireside and the well-rooted chair. Time enough to think about blue stockings and muddy petticoats, and wonder if anyone else would find such a subject interesting? And as to that, have you ever thought about the inherent contradiction in a word like pedestrianism?

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Writer Margaret Lane alluded to this dichotomy of preference. In the foreword to her lovely collection of essays Purely for Pleasure *, she writes:

‘There is no unifying theme to be found in this handful of essays. They are personal excursions indulged in purely for pleasure—perambulations, so to speak, in chosen company.’

A happy life often consists of many small moments like this—curious bursts of pleasure that no one else might understand, let alone anticipate. I was thrilled to see that she thought of ‘perambulations’ in the same way I did. [for more on the wordsmith aspect of this, I refer you to The Curious Word]

In recent months, via this blog we have strolled through several gardens with several writers, taken brisk walks with poets, pondered John Muir’s epic mountain ramblings, and explored why Mary N. Murphree didn’t walk the heights and depths of the Blue Mountains but cleverly wrote as if she did.

Most of the famous walkers from history that come to mind are usually men. But have you met The Bluestockings? As a group, they fascinate. One particular Bluestocking, however, relates more specifically to my recent perambulations. Continue reading

“Walk With Me” Said A Thousand Poets

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 “Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn–that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness–that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”

― Jane Austen, Persuasion

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The first tempestuous storm of autumn is over. We ventured out last night to talk a walk in our immediate neighborhood to survey the damage and get a breath of that freshly scoured air. It was more of an early evening, really, when the air had grown calm and a bit of sun began to peek out to give us a spot of cheer before dusk.

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‘Listen! the wind is rising,
and the air is wild with leaves.
We have had our summer evenings,
now for October eves.’

~Humbert Wolfe, 1936

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I was afraid of what we would see—of what we know is inevitable. Part of the ambiguity we feel during this time of year comes from the startling changes to the landscape, when the winds strip the trees of color, and our lovely, leafy neighborhoods become a wasteland of soggy leaves and twisted limbs. The view that greets our eyes might resemble the ‘Aged warriors’ of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s tone poem, ‘thinned of half their tribe’:

‘When reeds are dead and straw to thatch the marshes,
And feathered pampas-grass rides into the wind 
Like Agèd warriors westward, tragic, thinned 
Of half their tribe; an over the flattened rushes, 
Stripped of its secret, open, stark and bleak…’

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used a warrior imagery, as well, in the awesome beauty of a piece simply titled ‘Autumn’:

‘Magnificent Autumn! He comes not like a pilgrim, clad in russet weeds. He comes not like a hermit, clad in gray. But he comes like a warrior, with the stain of blood upon his brazen mail. His crimson scarf is rent…. 
The wind…. wafts to us the odor of forest leaves, that hang wilted on the dripping branches, or drop into the stream. Their gorgeous tints are gone, as if the autumnal rains had washed them out. Orange, yellow, and scarlet, all are changed to one melancholy russet hue…. 
There is a melancholy and continual roar in the tops of the tall pines…. 
It is the funeral anthem of the dying year.’  

Then again, our altered landscape might be more George Meredith in poetic scope with all his grim, Victorian melodrama, of which the following is just the merest snippet:

‘Behold, in yon stripped Autumn, shivering grey,
Earth knows no desolation.
She smells regeneration
In the moist breath of decay.’

Thus we ventured out after the storm, expecting all of the above. How pleasantly surprised we were to find, no gothic drama, no melancholy Millay, no stain of blood, no shivering gray, but vistas of a curious, tousled charm at every turn.

There was color around every corner.

Tiny vignettes of moist, sparkling abundance.

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The squirrels were busier than ever in their new windfall of riches; they scarce had time for even a disapproving glance in our direction, and I missed their usual scold.

Perhaps the poet of our current landscape was a bit more William Blake in tone?

‘Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.’

~William Blake (1757-1827), “To Autumn”

I could even see the ‘delicate textures’ of John Burroughs, who was apparently more of an early riser for his autumn walks…:

‘Once more in our morning walk we tread upon carpets of gold and crimson, of brown and bronze, woven by the winds or the rains out of these delicate textures while we slept….’ ~John Burroughs, “The Falling Leaves,” Under the Maples

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Since Austen wrote the above quote in the header, in her novel Persuasion, over 200 years ago, there have been many anthologies of poetry—spun from the ‘minds of taste and tenderness’— that showcase the poet’s love for autumn days. We need not rely on memory alone, though the whispered cadence of poets past murmuring along our steps is not unpleasant.

Some of these gems are sprinkled in and around the scenes from our walk after the storm.

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‘Songs of continued years I sing.’ ––Walt Whitman, Autumn Rivulets (note the river view through the iron circle; courtesy of a thoughtful neighbor whose garden borders our narrow path)

‘Wild is the music of autumnal winds;
Amongst the faded woods.’ ~William Wordsworth
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“That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay…That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.” ― Ray Bradbury

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“At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds.” Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Cézanne

I hope you enjoyed your walk with the poets!