Placid Surface

‘The best of a country’s history is written on its rivers.’ H.E. Bates

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After the brutal fire season here in the Pacific Northwest, we have been trying to spend more time than usual in our beloved Columbia River Gorge. Not all of the trails and viewpoints are open yet–many will takes years to recover from the fires–but there is a reassuring amount of untouched beauty still to be had.

As is often the case, when I think of rivers, and their strangely mesmerizing power, I call to mind the words of H.E. Bates, in his work Down the River.  Bates is primarily beloved as a novelist, and perhaps even more praiseworthy in the short story category, but I do treasure his nature essays. He has that same wonderful sense of recall as poet Laurie Lee, and the simple pleasures of the natural world–the streams, rivers, fields and trees around them–nurtured the artist in both men.

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woodcut illustrations in my edition of Down the River by Agnes Miller Parker

Bates makes this interesting observation about the lure of water, and one I thought paired well with the idea of ‘serene‘:

‘Water shares with woods some power of tranquilizing the spirit, of quietening it almost to a point of dissolving it away; so that nearly all the best enjoyment of a piece of water comes from the mere act of sitting near it and doing nothing at all. It must surely be this power which attracts human beings in thousands to narrow strips of sand and shingle all over the world, which lures them to sit there… and gaze for hours at the expanses of sea and sky….’

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For more on H.E. Bates:IMG_9452

The Drowsy Heart of Autumn

Winter Intermezzo

 

 

 

 

 

Book and publishing notes: this cover is borrowed from the web, as it shows the British publisher page (Victor Gollancz, ltd, 1937) and my 1937 edition is identical except it is the American edition by Henry Holt and Co.

Grannies in the Wainscot

“In all their time as such close neighbors they never exchanged a word.”

Bring up the topic of neighbor, and one story comes to my mind.

Grannies in the Wainscot, as short story—an essay of remembrance—is included in the sublime collection Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee. If it seems strange to have written a memoir of one’s life at age 23, as did Lee, his tender recall of the story of two enemy grannies is even stranger.

The setting could not be more romantic, with or without Laurie Lee’s lush prose. An old seventeenth century Cotswold manor house, had, by the late nineteenth century become a sagging but picturesque relic, and subdivided into three living quarters for poorer, less exalted folk. In the pre-war years of his childhood, young Lee and his family inhabited one section, while the other two parts of the home were each dominated by an old crone.

‘Granny Trill and Granny Wallon were rival ancients and lived on each other’s nerves and their perpetual enmity was like mice in the walls and absorbed much of my early days. With their sickle bent bodies, pale pink eyes, and wild wisps of hedgerow hair, they looked to me the very images of witches and they were also much alike.’

There is nothing lovable in this description of the two old ladies, and yet, with Lee’s gift for nostalgic writing, you feel you recognize this pair, and a curious warble of affection begins to play.

Laurie Lee, poet

‘They communicated to each other by means of boots and brooms—jumping on floors and knocking on ceilings. They referred to each other as ‘Er-Down-Under’ and ‘Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint’.

Yes, a stranger pair of neighbors you never did ‘hear the like of’ as my grandmother would have said. And speaking of my grandma Josie, she knew how to wield a broom with a fair bit of precision. I can also remember her little ‘war’ going on for years with the old neighbor lady in the back of the property.

So perhaps such stories of neighbors resonates a bit with all our memories. Lee’s recounting of the old beech tree I found particularly beautiful.

‘“Me dad planted that tree,” [Granny Trill] said absently, pointing out through the old cracked window.

‘The great beech filled at least half the sky and shook shadows all over the house. Its roots clutched the slope like a giant hand, holding the hill in place. Its trunk writhed with power, threw off veils of green dust, rose towering into the air, branched into a thousand shaded alleys, became a city for owls and squirrels. I had thought such trees to be as old as the earth; I never dreamed that a man could make them. Yet it was Granny Trill’s dad who had planted this tree, who had thrust in the seed with his finger. How old must he have been to leave such a mark? Think of Granny’s age, and add his on top, and you were back at the beginning of the world.’

The poignant part of Lee’s recounting, comes, of course, at the end.

One day Granny Trill stumbled and broke her hip.

illustration by John Ward

“She went to bed then forever.”

Granny Wallon came a’crowing… “her’s going you mark my words.”

But Granny Trill’s death knell was Granny Wallon’s, too. In the oddest, most neighborly act between the two rival crones in the decades they had lived next to each other without speaking, Granny Wallon soon went, too.

‘Granny Wallon had triumphed, she had buried her rival, and now there was no more to do. From then on she faded and diminished daily, kept to her house and would not be seen. The wine fires sank and died in the kitchen, as did the sweet fires of obsession….there was nothing, in fact, to keep her alive. No cause, no bite, no fury. Er-Down-Under had joined Er-Up-Atop, having lived closer than anyone knew.’

Magnificent Fluff

Gossamer is fragile. Fluff–it would appear–is everywhere, as tenacious as lint on black polyester.

I only say this because I’m currently re-thinking my obsession with photography.

This is just a hobby for me, of course. An easy one. So easy, in fact, that I’m wondering (at least in my case) if it has begun to replace the ability to describe things in words. Everyday, awesome, extraordinary things. A quivering water droplet on a leaf is my siren song, the sight of which is sure to have me reaching for my “phone” aka camera. For such it has become….a camera as opposed to a phone. Or, perhaps it is more correct to call it a device?

I rarely talk on said device, and use actual words or human speech to express myself. From what I hear, I am not alone in this. Instead, I take pictures, and share them. Pictures are worth a thousand words, right?

I’m beginning to think I want my thousand words back.

Texting is a ‘thing’, of course, but there one abbreviates excessively to the nazi will of spell check which wants us to make diminished vocabulary choices. And it is easier to click on the substitution suggested than to thumb-wrestle a pre-set for dominance. Or perhaps I shall switch out an emoji for my increasingly brief expressions–? (this also helpfully suggested). Emojis—which are not actually pictures. They are representations of words, emotions, and thoughts.

The other day I was looking out the kitchen window feeling the typical response of amused annoyance that ensues when watching the busy squirrel population in our yard. They are all cheek-stuffed complacency and vigilant bossiness, making extreme self-absorption look almost lovable. They are so very photogenic, and so elusive. I began to wonder… why is it important that I get this ultimate picture of their cuteness? Are there not enough squirrel pictures in the world? Are we not fully informed via digital images of the adorable obnoxiousness that squirrels possess? Or, as at that moment, when one was silhouetted in bright autumn sunlight, his tail a quivering mass of fluffy radiance—why should I be tantalized with a picture I wanted to capture, knowing full well that as soon as I moved the screen door a fraction of an inch he would be gone? Showing absolutely no appreciation for the tubs of sunflower seed I have shoveled in his behalf?

More ephemeral than a water droplet.

The need for words at that moment almost took my breath away. A haiku came to mind. (feebly…but a start). There is no accompanying picture of a squirrel silhouetted beautifully in sunlight, I’m sorry to say. You will just have to imagine how lovely it was.

Magnificent fluff
Radiating sass and sun
Bright arc of query


A friend of mine has been reading the book by Susan G. Wooldridge, pictured here; she highly recommended it to me, and it will be joining my library soon. I love the idea of getting back to ‘naming things’. Identify it new, for yourself. Explain it. Describe it richly or simply. But savor it.

Turn fluff into gossamer.

“Poems arrive. They hide in feelings and images, in weeds and delivery vans, daring us to notice and give them form with our words. They take us to an invisible world where light and dark, inside and outside meet.”
Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words

Note: Daily Post today has fluff today as a word prompt; normally when I think of fluff I think of gossamer, today I was thinking of squirrels. But if you’re interested in these subjects as related to gossamer and autumn photography, or the literary aspect of gossamer–i.e. Virginia Woof, Selborne and Gilbert White, I’ve provided you with links below:

A Quest for Gossamer

Gossamer Abundant

Starting From Anywhere

‘If you came this way,
taking any route, starting from anywhere
at any time or any season
It would always be the same
you would have to put off
sense and notion’ — T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

 

Oh, to have traveled with Helen Bevington to Little Gidding.

Likely you have heard of T.S. Eliot. And perhaps, from there, you might have heard of Little Gidding and Nicholas Ferrar. It is less likely, though, that you have heard of Helen Bevington. If not, I hope (if that is, you enjoy witty, articulate literary essays) you will track down her book and discover this delightful author.

The book Beautiful, Lofty People is now a treasure in my personal library but I found it, quite by accident, while browsing through an old bookstore. I had no idea who the author was, if she could write or had any credentials that frankly don’t matter… but from the first few lines I read I was charmed. And, as it turned out, she did have credentials. A host of them. Professor Emeritus in English at Duke University. Respected poet and author. Published in journals such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly. That should be sufficient to establish credentials, but really can’t begin to explain the light-hearted subtlety, or her evident love for people ‘warts and all’ that I enjoy in her essays. That quality of style only comes from outlook and integrity, not education.

As a premise for this particular book, she takes her cue from Yeats in his poem “Beautiful Lofty Things”, and writes of her own search:

‘The idea of the men and women one loves for their own sake caught in a lofty moment, intense with life.’ — Helen Bevington

She became known, in the words of one critic, for taking “artful notices of life’s comedies.”

As mentioned, Bevington was a poet, as well, although she did not take her own poetry seriously. In this book, she often follows up her essay with a poem that wittily sums up the essence of her notions on the subject.

‘I had a perfect confidence, still unshaken, in books. If you read enough you would reach the point of no return. You would cross over and arrive on the safe side. There you would drink the strong waters and become addicted, perhaps demented – but a Reader.’ — Helen Bevington

With Jane Austen-like deftness and wit, Bevington can find a treasure of mirth in the subtlest of themes. From her affectionate irritation with Cassandra Austen—that unrepentant burner of letters— to the whimsical notion of comparing Fanny Burney’s shoes with those of Dorothy Wordsworth, to Lord Byron’s battle with pudginess, to Aunt Mary Emerson’s delightful life preparing for death, her honesty at being ‘caught out’ by E.E. Cummings at a party in New York; these essays are a fascinating compendium and represent a very different angle on literary life.

From the Little Gidding UK website

Reading her essay ‘The Way to Little Gidding’ transported me to another time. Who wouldn’t want to have joined her on this amusing quest to find a gem of geography immortalized in T.S. Eliot’s poem?

‘We rode on in the rain into Huntingdonshire, passing again through the little village of Godmanchester I had visited on this same bus only last week. I didn’t yet know how to pronounce Godmanchester whether the accent was on man or God. But I reflected I had now traveled in England to Chester, to Manchester, and to Godmanchester, which should bring me to the end of the prefixes unless there was a Goodgodmanchester somewhere as well.’

And on she goes, with her quietly humorous and humane commentary sprinkled throughout. On this journey to Little Gidding, she is amused to find that no one in this rural community seems to have heard of it, or has a notion of how to get her there. It is delightfully strung out, this journey, full of wrong turns and rutted roads, and when we finally arrive, we are ready for that pint she is longing for in a pub spotted a few miles back.

‘The man from Sawtry, relieved as I was to find the place and complete the quest, stepped inside and couldn’t believe his eyes. Dumbfounded he swore he would bring the wife next time to have a look. I returned to Cambridge that afternoon by Bus No. 151.’

The Way to Little Gidding’ is a metaphor for something much more profound and it is testimony to Bevington’s mastery of prose that this depth of tone is not lost in the witty travel journal style of the essay. Her desire is more than to pursue a trophy for her memory book. She ends the essay with a touching postscript that suggests the emotional journey–the underpinnings–of her need to visit this little spot is to feel for herself what might inspire a great poem, and to walk in the footsteps of worthy people. Clearly, she was there to kneel–for it is she who inserts this telling quote from Eliot’s poem:

‘You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.’



 

Additional notes:

For the full poem of T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, here.

Helen Bevington’s work was valued in her lifetime. As another sort of legacy she has left behind, her eldest son David Bevington is among the preeminent Shakespeare scholars in the world.

Helen Bevington: more bio here and yes, even wiki.

One Frond, Unfurling

One frond, unfurling
Bright fern, quiet uncurling
Winter undoing

The world outside is nudging us awake. The nearby woods, the wetlands, the ferns…the daffodils….those sweetly voiced robins…they are getting on with business, and what a delightful business it is!

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I have a particular interest in the unfurling of ferns. There is, perhaps, nothing else that better speaks to an awakening after winter than this welcome sight in the woods.  The first glimpse of that lovely, buoyant green appearing above the tops of decay is a burst of fresh happiness.

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My own winter sleep went a bit longer than I’d planned, and was, dare we say…unscheduled. A well-stocked library is always a good place for hibernating, especially when one is immersed in the 12th century. Or Jane Austen’s footwear. Or the 18th dynasty of Somewhere Grand. Or pondering the mystery of one’s own great grandmother. Or toying with the idea of becoming conversant in glottal stops and fricatives just for fun, only to realize it’s not that fun.

Remember Frances Theodora Parsons? I’m enjoying her book a great deal for its quaint tone as much for its vigorous encomiums of the lowly fern, and before I know it I’m thoroughly immersed in her world of silvery spleen-worts, adder’s tongues, bulblet bladders and fruiting fronds. She was a champion, you could say, of this often overlooked species.

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She quotes a great deal from Thoreau–being terribly fond of him–and I enjoyed these words, as I always enjoy a bit of ‘thither-ness’ with my morning coffee:

‘It is no use to direct our steps to the woods if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in  spirit.’ — Thoreau

 

Be not alarmed–these pictures of ferns and ‘moss-worts’ are from my own backyard, where I was quite present in the moment. We are a little behind in the unfurling stage, it is true, but I hope to bring you more pictures in a few days of the ‘big, woolly croziers‘, as Frances Theodora Parsons calls them with such affection.

Stay tuned, as we awaken and unfurl. The young lady responsible for many of the meticulous drawings in Parson’s books––as well as the riveting “descriptions of the Woodwardias“––Marion Satterlee; is a fascinating young lady in her own right. I’ll be sharing a bit more of her writing and art in coming posts.

Welcome back.

The Dandiacal Body

Since this has been my Week of the Carlyles—immersed in letters, books, and the valiant effort of trundling my tiny brain over the rugged crags and valleys of Carlyle’s monumental Sartor Resartus, (The Tailor Re-tailored) the word ‘stylish’ caught my attention.

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Everyone has style, whether they know it, embrace it, love it, or cultivate it. You may not like your style, and even wish to change it, but inevitably it returns like the prodigal, all sheepish, bedraggled, and larger than life. Style is not bought; it is not something that comes from a shop, or by following a fashionista. It has more to do with your DNA than the era you live in–although environment certainly influences it.

But not everyone is stylish. Stylish, as a concept, is fluid, it conveys an idea of the moment, a whim of makers, movers and shakers in the fashion world. (“Tomorrow, my dear,” say the style mavens, “that color will be so passe and only fit to adorn a garden hybrid….”) and let’s not even attempt to recall the ‘stylish’ Big Hair of the 80’s….

Around our house we have the expression ‘it’s so out it’s in’. So much of our style had to do, in our youthful days, with loving anything retro, and now it’s ‘in’. It’s just our bodies that aren’t as with it, so the dream of stylish still eludes one. But oddly enough, so my hair stylist tells me, silver hair is ‘in’. Leave it to the Baby Boomers to create a new reality.image

The attempt to be stylish can either make you shine as a natural talent, or make it evident that you are really out of touch with who you are.

In Sartor Resartus, Carlyle’s most famous work—in which he borrows from an eighteenth-century concept of linguistic style depicted as types of  clothing—he includes a chapter which amused me by his use of the word dandiacal. Carlyle was known for his creative and rough word coinage, and this choice specimen is now going into my Curious Word repository. Regarding the stylish pretensions of the dandy, he writes (in satire, of course; all of this is satire):

‘Your silver or your gold he solicits not; simply the glance of your eyes. Do look at him, and he is contented.’

Under the heading ‘The Dandiacal Body’, Carlyle lists, in mockery, seven Articles of Faith. They are all confusingly amusing, in a way, and no doubt reference certain elements unique to the early eighteenth century of which we are now ignorant, but I will repeat only number seven:

7. The trousers must be exceedingly tight across the hips.’

As Carlyle was known, both tongue in cheek and respectfully as the Sage of Chelsea, this bit of satire, written in 1836, does look to the future, does it not?

And—at the risk of making Carlyle turn in his grave, I include a bit of Ogden Nash whimsy, that expresses Article 7 on the style of trousers in a slightly different way:

‘Sure, deck your limbs in pants;
Yours are the limbs, my sweeting.
You look divine as you advance —
Have you seen yourself retreating?’

The desire to look good and be stylish at the same time is often a wish in excess of reality.

For more on The Carlyles At Home, read here.