Books Without Pictures

Years ago I sold an old manual typewriter at a garage sale. It was a reaction to a familiar need—the need for more space. That is by no means a modern dilemma, but it is what filled the space that makes it modern, and, now that I look back, suspect.

Who could have dreamed what was to fill that space? For where once sat that manual typewriter, came a ‘word processor’. Then the internet. Then social media. And the white space of Instagram posts. (white space, white background, natural light—de rigueur)

The typewriter I sold was an early sixties era manual Smith Corona. It had belonged to my father, and when he passed away I took it with me. Along with it came the memories of sounds, the sensations of a vibrating table as he typed, and smells, strangely pleasing, of fresh inked cartridges. Images in my mind of my father sitting at his desk, all muttering concentration and stubby, work roughened fingers tapping out words, words, words….

Today, with the aforementioned lighting and spatial requirements, perhaps a rose sitting atop the typewriter for textural contrast, or a cup of steaming coffee (where steam is captured actually moving) that typewriter would have made a fetching Instagram post, harvesting a stream of reactive emojis and comments like ‘amazing’. But that is not the missed opportunity I am thinking of.

A ‘word processor’ sounds like a funny term now, but that is what we called it then. Processed words make one think of Spam—‘is it really meat?’ but in the end what we had was a fascinating new machine that now goes by the name of device. By this device we could process words and ideas with dizzying speeds. No more little jars of whiteout to clutter up your desk. That slow painting action with the brush, the absolute concentration, the dexterity needed to not get a drop on your keys—all a thing of the past. Now, those sub par chapters that represent the work of an evening? You can wake up with a fresh perspective and delete it all in a second! Done, with the click of a button. Destructive power begins to swamp creative power.

I dreamed of the ease with which a word processor was going to help me create miles and miles, as it were, of stranded sentences, ideas, and stories. What comes to mind are factory workers, perhaps in a garment district, sitting at hundreds of machines, all humming with industry, while regular, even stitches flow on into infinity; becoming garments, sheets, towels, bed linens and prom dresses. While we may now think this is a negative comparison, at the time industries like this were springing up, it was considered progress. It took years to assess the human toll.

In the symbolism of space that was once occupied by my unassuming little typewriter, what exists there now is like a hole in space. Enormous space, vacuous space, as it turned out. A black hole of inimitable power that eats stars and burps radiation. (descriptive terms borrowed from actual science websites, google ‘black hole burps’ if you don’t believe me, but then again, don’t, pour yourself a cup of coffee and write that haiku on cherry blossoms you keep thinking about.)

I want my old stodgy typewriter back. It doesn’t need to stream, burp, or teach me how to felt a woolen toque. It doesn’t need to produce pictures for me. It doesn’t need to take me to the Himalayas for stunning views of Gurla Mandhata.

It will be okay if I don’t have access to a Polish university, and the digitalized diagrams of Copernicus. I’m ashamed to say I still get the accomplishments of Copernicus and Galileo confused, even after all this time. (sorry, Nicolai, I had such hopes)

And speaking of regions near the Gulf of Gdansk, I can willingly cut back on my virtual streaming of shipwrecks as they find them. Fascinating, of course, if you like old shipwrecks. As the website says, ‘there is no need to dive to the depths of the Baltic Sea…’ (Oh, really? That’s too bad. I would have enjoyed that.) You see, adventure is as close as your device. Adventure IS your device.

As to google…I wring my hands in despair… how can something that changed my life be called GOOGLE?? Ah, but can I live without it?? I might. Just. Maybe.

I can’t remember the last time I needed to know the difference in pronunciation between the Hebrew word ra’a for sheep and the Hebrew word ra’a’ for evil, although at one time I found it interesting and remembered it, and there was a story idea involved where the girl needed to know how to say ‘sheep’ and not say ‘evil’. (story not finished to date)

I will be okay with not being able to watch real time footage of a dog being rescued from a flooded ravine in Belgorad. Such a feel-good story at the time, the sort you later find out was staged. Or that Facebook story that circulated ‘a mother cow’s desperate wish comes true’… (you want to know, don’t you?)

If it turns out I cannot access a tutorial on 1,000 ways to crochet a granny square, that will be okay, too. I just might have to get creative on my own and figure it out.

I do love my family history research—was that ever an eye opener that perhaps I could have done without—but the truth is I often find myself reading about other people’s families, usually so much more interesting than my own. Consider Thomas Brown of Old Dominion, Virginia, born 1770…. his mother was Elizabeth Black, and he married Martha Green, and they named their first son Green Brown. At some point a gentleman named Pinkney enters the picture. This is heady stuff for me. I have a thing for interesting names, and remember odd bits like girls named Kissy Simpleton or Keziah Snively, and I want to write their story, because I love a good story. Sometimes I just hear a name, and a character pops into my mind, almost fully formed. Or I start to imagine a character, with a story line, and the name suggests itself almost immediately.

Writers are a funny lot. Does any branch of the creative world agonize as much over blank white space and block?? So while I reminisce fondly of the old manual typewriter days, the reality is that I thought I would write more when I had ‘the word processor’. And, it happened—for a time. Now, it seems like the modern gadgets are sucking away the creativity. Is that it?

Counterbalance time out. There is also a new burst of creativity—of a different sort—based on the fast-paced stream of content now available to us. It’s exhilarating, thrilling, and exhausting. I’ve learned so much. But sometimes I just need to stop the flow of learning and DO. This is just my own journey. Controlled portions might be the key, if I can say that without sounding like a nutritional coach wanting to take away my Scotch, which would make me not like her.

I still read, but differently. I still write, but a fraction of what I used to. Pictures have taken up the space words used to occupy. My books (those real, tangible things with pages, and most without pictures) are still here, and taking up a great deal of space. On my bookshelves, white space does not exist. There is no spatial harmony. There is not even trinket space. Emojis are not welcome. No shelves are given over to objets d’art. Just books—double stacked, triple stacked, vertical stacks and horizontal towers. A paradise of tactility. They will have that space, will continue to have it, and I will freely give them that space, as long as I am living in something slightly larger than six feet under.

Books without pictures, and old typewriters that don’t stream live media share a charming trait—they encourage use of the imagination.

Postscript: If you’ve been following this blog, glad to have you! If you are new, then welcome.
This blog is a quiet space for readers. In it I like to explore forgotten authors, and hidden gems of writing. If that is your thing, I’m happy you’re here. There may be fewer pictures in the future… we’ll see. I like books with pictures (and certainly blogs with pictures are more popular) but I just want to get back to what started this all for me—the words.

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.