Novel, But Not Original

 

We all know what ‘original recipe’ means. It means a recipe that has been passed down from someone’s momma to someone’s momma until it passed to someone’s son who figured out how to patent it and start a chain of fast food restaurants.bookshop

A recipe involves a formula, a pattern, which would appear to contradict the idea we have formed of ‘original’.

But is there an original pattern for a novel? Is there even an original novel, widely recognized as such, from which sprang the seminal pattern?

These are the sorts of things I wonder about before my life gets more orderly with a plate of scrambled eggs.

To unlock, in a scholarly way, the mysteries of a term such as ‘original novel’, that would appear to be both contradictory and redundant at the same time, is a question I would defer to James Harbeck of sesquiotica, a brilliant blog on word origins. A professional editor, the creator of ‘word tasting notes’ he even manages to make the subject entertaining.

And to unlock the the mystery of what actually qualifies as ‘the original novel’, as in the first novel ever written, you would soon find yourself in a morass of conflicting opinions and ideas that would take you everywhere from The Sumerian Shakespeare to eighteenth century political satire.

In the meantime, my eggs are getting cold, so…Curious Word devotees, here you go:

Original: Comes from the word we know as orient, oriental, meaning East. To the ancients, the east was the source—the origin—of both light and life.

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In an interesting connection to our word novel—novel in the modern sense of a structured story with written words—we have the ancient Hebrew word qdm, which also meant east, or ancient.

Who was Cadmus, according to the Greeks? The originator of their alphabet and writing. The original writer, as such.

From wiki:

 

‘Cadmus’ name is of uncertain etymology. It has been connected to Semitic qdm “the east” and Greek kekasmai (<*kekadmai) “to shine”.

Did our original writer write novels?

Novel: comes originally from ‘nova’ meaning new star. This provides an interesting link to the Greek word above, kekasmai, ‘to shine’.

Our current use of it, however, comes via Latin, from the word nouus, and nouellus, and finally to novella, a short or middle length story…which the English took and shortened novella into novel and increased the length of the story. Funny how they did that.

All of this still keeping the meaning of ‘something new’, something born.

Linked to the ancient origin of novel is ‘novelty’, and this is, as some argue, why the novel has never been given proper credence as an art form. The Greeks dismissed it as such, giving a Muse to Poetry, Music, Art, and the like. To the novel there has been given no star-like brilliance.

Novelists still are aching to shine.

Margaret Kennedy, in her fascinating little diatribe on the subject of novels, called The Outlaws on Parnassus, writes:img_6383

‘There is…very little demand for genuine criticism of the novel. Expert advice in this field is not felt to be necessary. It is a very easy kind of book to read. The other arts strike the average man as being much more mysterious, and as making more strenuous demands upon him. When delighted by poetry, music, or painting he is inclined to ask why he should be thus affected. He is aware of some complicated process of statement and response. Endeavouring to understand this experience he turns to critical comment for elucidation. He is less likely to feel all this when he enjoys a novel; that pleasure strikes him as simple, natural, and familiar. He cannot remember a time when he did not enjoy stories; his pleasure has blossomed from very early roots and from the days when his mother used to tell him about The Three Bears at bed-time. He has been so long and so well acquainted with this kind of satisfaction that, when he encounters it as an adult in an expanded form, he takes his response for granted, as he did as a child.’

Therefore the origin of story-telling, and eventual novel writing…is as old as the first baby being rocked at a cradle. Something new, something born…

In other words, the original novel came from someone’s momma. (Thanks, mom.)

Ready, Set, Mystified

Lately, I haven’t been blogging. I have been moving. Or, more precisely, thinking about moving. Thinking of packing up my hundreds of books, once again. Will there be room for my old typewriters? Will be there be a bit of green space for future flower hopefuls? Time will tell, as we do not know yet where we are going to land.

So my concentration is divided, and I do apologize. Coming up, I can tell you, in all bookish excitement, that Margaret Kennedy reading day is approaching, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, so there will be a review here of the most intriguing Kennedy book I’ve read thus far: The Feast. And I have been enjoying Beverley Nichols books again–oh he is funny, and rather ‘twee’!– and I’m preparing some notes for further posts.

But for now, let’s do a bit of a recycle. I have been working on the following subject/article for some time, published some of it a couple years ago on another blog, and, as they like to say in journalism: ‘research is ongoing‘.

How about a ten minute mystery that has taken almost 100 years to develop?

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photo credit Marie E. Bryan, used with her permission; it is unique in that it is one of the few pictures out there that actually shows a modern version of the statue in its headless state

This mystery involves a headless statue of Abraham Lincoln that used to reside in Ashland, Oregon. (Less to the point, we also ponder whether or not I will need facial recognition software to identify my great grandmother in a vintage photo.)

Questions about what drives senseless vandalism, why did Ashum Butler commit suicide in 1859, and did Great Uncle Cromwell ever smile anywhere at any time also factor in here, but—we only have ten minutes. And I have to box up my enormous collection of old hardback books…that I keep stopping to read before I carefully place them in their dark recesses for the coming suspension of normal life.

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Abraham Lincoln wasn’t headless to begin with. He was respectfully and beautifully carved by Italian artisans from local marble, shipped in 1915 to the United States for the San Francisco Panama Pacific Expo, purchased there for a tidy sum by Gwin S. Butler, and given by him as a gift to Lithia Park in Ashland, Oregon.

The bestowal of this unique gift to Lithia Park was to honor the memory of Butler’s stepfather, Jacob Thompson. Inscription upon the stone base reads:

IN MEMORY Of JACOB THOMPSON PIONEER OF 1847

In circa 1920 or 1921, my great Aunt Alma took this picture. Unwittingly, in a stroke of irony, she cut off Old Abe’s head by the magic of photography. Less brutal than vandalism but just as permanent in its own way.

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This picture was taken around 1920

For some mysterious reason, Abraham Lincoln has continued to lose his head. The actual marble head. (He has also lost a hand and two fingers, more easily replaced.)

When I first talked to the lady at the Ashland Historical Society (or of similar name) she was excited to think that I actually had a picture from the 1920’s of the original statue’s head.

“Uh, no,” I had to admit, “It was cut off in the photo.”

Oh, Aunt Alma, what were the chances??

Abe was first decapitated in 1958. Repaired and replaced, the second beheading occurred in 1967.

Following the 1967 vandalism, the statue was removed and languished in ignominy on the ground at a sewage treatment plant for years. Complaints were made, and the statue was ‘rescued’ by being wrapped in plastic and buried in a slope near the park playground.

The third beheading occurred in 1973. This time he was repaired with a head from China.

It’s unclear what happened with that head, but in 1988 a local sculptor volunteered to create a new head from Italian marble. He worked at a reduced rate, funding was secured, and Abraham Lincoln was saved once again.

By this time they were keeping ‘replacement heads’.

The last time the statue was vandalized, in 2005, the park authorities eventually removed the body entirely. They were tired of putting out money to restore it only to have to do it again. The money for restoration simply wasn’t there.

So; when I was there in 2014, the stone base still stands empty, yet still inscribed… ‘In memory of…’

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How very strange. How very sad.

There is a personal side to this story. Although I grew up in Oregon, had been to Ashland many times, I had not been aware of the statue or its sad history until I inherited an old family picture album around 2009. Most of my mom’s family comes from Texas, and the vast majority of the pictures were taken there during the years of 1900 through 1930. I didn’t know, or have stories attached to most of the people in the album. The truth is, my mom’s side of the family intrigues me. There are many stories and hints of stories that have trickled through the family that both fascinate and unsettle.

I kept returning to this odd picture. I couldn’t stop analyzing it. For one thing, it didn’t look like Texas. There were little baby Douglas fir trees in it. And moisture loving ferns. Do people plant Douglas fir or ferns in Texas? I didn’t think so. At least, not the part where my mom grew up.

The other oddity was the fact that I couldn’t tell who was in it—but had a sneaking suspicion they were related to me. I knew my great Aunt Alma had taken the picture. (that is her trademark hat, lying on the ground.) And from the jawline of the elderly woman, I wondered if it was my great grandmother, Talitha. I only had one confirmed picture of my great grandmother, under a mourning bonnet. But even there, her jawline looked formidable. And was that Uncle Cromwell? The same Uncle Cromwell who would be dead less than a year later?

My mother, by that time, had Alzheimer’s and completely lost in her own world. There was so much I wanted to ask her.

I zoomed in on the photograph, to read the inscription, then did a google search. I was amazed to find that the statue was in Oregon. I was even able to identify the people in the photograph—without resorting to facial recognition software—and confirm my suspicion that it was my great grandmother Duncan and her oldest son, my mom’s Uncle Cromwell. But in Oregon? That explained the baby Douglas fir trees and ferns, but I was baffled to think my somewhat reclusive great grandmother had ever traveled to Oregon.

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My Aunt Alma’s trademark hat, seen lying on the ground, was a clue that this picture was taken by her. She had moved to Oregon in 1919.

I was then even more amazed to discover the bizarre events surrounding Abe’s statue.

There is more to this story, for isn’t it interesting when you discover an ancestor or relation that you didn’t know existed, or at least anything about, and then, in small bursts of excitement, find out you were actually much alike? Or perhaps they inspired something you thought you had come up with on your own? Well…my Great Aunt Alma, her story, and her old traveling camera may return to these blog pages, but for now:


Notes, sources, and additional reading:

This link has some excellent pictures, and some updates on Abe’s location: http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMN90A_Statue_of_Abraham_Lincoln_Ashland_OR

https://archive.org/stream/statuesofabrahaflinc/statuesofabrahaflinc_djvu.txt

http://www.mailtribune.com/article/20070422/ourvalley/702120302

I apologize if any errors or incomprehensibilities in the text exist; I did not take my usual time at editing, so now you get a glimpse into how wacky I actually write in rough draft! 🙂 Thank you for keeping with me this far!

Inheritance

Greenville county, Reedy River

In 1806 my great great great great grandmother Mary Howland went to an estate sale and bought a ‘lot of books’. 

Copy of the court document from Abbeville, SC, 1806; estate of Frances Moore.

In the listing of goods from the estate, there were tables, chairs, shoes, bacon, crocks, whiskey, a heifer, and one ‘umbereller’….but my ancestor bought the books.

This is the oldest documentation of any member of my family history, and–it seems to me–quite an appropriate one!

It’s fascinating to think that, this many years later, her descendant–me– still goes to estate sales and buys books. (I also ignore the umberellers as they are awkward things.)

History is one of my favorite topics, and family history even more so. It is particularly interesting when long-lived generations overlap.

My own family history, on my mom’s side, is old. By that I mean I grew up and around really old people of old ways, from the old south. A large part of my family clustered in South Carolina for many years, before moving on to Tennessee just before the War of 1812. My grandfather was born in 1872, and he grew up in a countryside in Tennessee where the ravages of the Civil war (and the feuds) were still fresh.

Because Grandpa Duncan lived until he was 99 years old, our lives were able to overlap. I was just ten when he died, but he left indelible memories on my young life. He was our patriarch, and everything about him–even his tobacco chewing and spittoon–seemed grand.

His stories were not just told, they were intoned oratory, measured out in slow pontifications.

Elmer Duncan

Grandpa came from an utterly different world. I wish I could remember more of his stories, but I’m just glad our lives intersected for the brief time they did. Because of Grandpa Duncan, I was able to learn to dance faltering two-steps to tunes he played on his fiddle—folk songs that echoed from an ancient Scottish past, stepped out enthusiastically by a little girl in the 1960’s. No one knows those tunes now, unless they are a music historian.

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I still have that white milk glass cake plate; Grandma’s coconut was always served on it.

The other thing my grandpa bequeathed to me was a love of books and reading. Without his fiddle in hand, there was a book. My favorite memory of Grandpa Duncan was watching him sit by his favorite window, leaning in for better light, a large book in hand. He was very dismissive of reading glasses and maintained he could do just fine without them as long as he had ‘the light of a good window’.

And to think that this love of reading predates my old grandpa! The world did not begin with him, as it turns out. I can handle that startling realization now, but when I was small…oh I could never have believed that there was anything older than Grandpa.megrandma Yet it was his great great grandmother Mary Howland, the aforementioned ancestress from South Carolina, who went to an estate sale and bought books.

And on it goes. Reading is in the blood, more than we even might know.

Yes, I love family history. DNA is, in itself, a book of record. Bundled inside are stories, along with the shape of our nose. And this thread of inheritance, these stories, bind us to the past. And if that sounds overly sentimental, well, I guess that’s my mood for the moment.OriginalPhoto-478118653.559606

I wish I could travel back in time and go to that estate sale with Mary Howland. We might have fought a little over the books…but, all in all, I think we would have got on well together.

 

 

 

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

In Which I Look for Ethel, and Find Her Not

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The cross-pollination of ideas is always fascinating to me. This post has so many disparate ideas criss-crossed and be-sprinkled and tossed about on erratic breezes that I hardly know what it is about. Perhaps by the end I will have figured it out. Or you will have figured it out, and kindly tell me.

In the process we will have landed on such flowers of thought as Persephone (Books), the American Dionysius, the mysteriously disappearing Ethel, tiddlywinks—(new and improved); we will have buzzed lightly over the far-sighted Mrs. Peasgood, Johnny Appleseed’s hidden agenda, pippins without peer and love-struck carrier pigeons, then we round off the whole with some triumphantly brilliant comments from an author bearing the fortuitous name of Pollan. His book The Botany of Desire, is on my to-be-read list.

It all began with the news this morning that Persephone had just issued The Cookery Book, by Ambrose Heath. (I just love the fact it is called a ‘cookery book’) I am ordering it, thank you.

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Persephone showed a picture of the old edition on their Facebook page, which reminded me that the magazine Country Life didn’t just issue ‘cookery books’, but garden books, as well. I have a treasured copy of an old Country Life book in my library.

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This book, while valuable in its own right, is something of a curiosity. It is written by a clever, witty woman named Ethel Armitage. The publisher’s forward reads:

‘The publishers believe that in this volume they have found a gardening classic and moreover, a book which will appeal to generations of garden and country lovers as Gilbert White, Cobbett and other countryman’s books still do today.’

Well, you know what I think of Gilbert White!  You know what the entire country of Britain thinks of Gilbert White!

But wait, there’s more. There is the significant detail that this book by Ethel Armitage has been masterfully illustrated by none other than John Farleigh. His woodcuts are highly collectible. Any book that has been illustrated by John Farleigh is usually considered valuable. He illustrated for writers such as George Bernard Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, and Sacheverall Sitwell. As an antiquarian book collector, I am keenly interested in woodcut illustrative art in particular. The name of John Farleigh is associated with the best, and it is likely because of John Farleigh that this book by Ethel Armitage is in my collection.

What happened to Ethel?

Ethel is a conundrum—I can find nothing else about her. This twentieth-century echo of Gilbert White has faded into obscurity. No face, no bio. No pictures of the lovely garden she wrote about with such wit and tenderness. No reprints by Persephone. (yet…?) The internet is silent, except for  the fact that she wrote two other books that are also out of print. As far as I can discern, Ethel Armitage wrote a total of three books:

A Country Garden (1936)

Garden and Hedgerow (1939)

Flower and Leaf (1946)

Perhaps she wanted to remain obscure. Yet it is only natural to want to know more about the woman who wrote:

‘Early in April a carrier pigeon was found, in a very exhausted state, in the orchard, and after being given some food, recovered enough to be taken to the loft, where he remained for two days in a more or less invalid state. He then took a little flight round the garden, which seemed to completely restore him to health, for he became quite perky, following us down the grass path and gobbling up any wood lice found for him, though he resolutely refused to have anything to do with slugs.’

‘One morning he failed to appear for his breakfast, but three days later turned up very tired, and from then remained with us…we hoped he had forgotten all about his birth-place and had really adopted us. But an even stronger instinct than the homing one came over him, for the last week he collected a companion—a wife, we suppose. She was a strange-looking bird, and with a dingy white head and drab colouring, not the least sleek and beautiful like our pigeon. Perhaps she was the only spinster left over in the marriage market, for it was certainly rather late in the season. She showed, at once, that she did not care about us or about the place, for after remaining half a day, they both went off, never to be seen again, as if she had said to him: ‘This is not nearly good enough for me.’.

In the process of finding out nothing about Ethel Armitage, I did manage to find out something about Mrs. Peasgood.

Mrs. Peasgood of Grantham, Lincolnshire, sounds like a remarkable woman. In 1860, at the tender age of 16, she received five pippins and knew what to do with them. (It’s stories like hers that make me realize how dull my teen years were) She planted them. And waited. And waited.

She got married, and waited some more. Finally, one of those pippins, or the seeds therein, became a tree and bore fruit.

John Farleigh engraving

John Farleigh engraving

Somehow she knew this was no ordinary apple, and entered it into a competition. It won, and the rest is history. A single apple of Peasgood’s Nonsuch, as it became named, can weigh over one pound. The Peasgood name is all over the world now; the apple having been presented to the Royal Horticultural Society, who then presented one to the Queen. It has been described as ‘the most handsome apple in the world’. It is also very good in a pie, as well it should be. This apple has even been known to change otherwise indifferent apple eaters into madly keen pippin aficionados.

You may be wondering how this all relates to the notion of an American Dionysius. Or not. And let’s not forget Ethel, of whom we still know nothing. Except for the curious note, on page 145 of her book, that in October, sometime during the 1930’s, they planted in their orchard a ‘Peasgood Nonsuch’.

As it turns out, there are Peasgood family legends that hint at a curious story regarding America’s own emissary of the apple— Johnny Appleseed; that he was actually a Peasgood, and went about America sowing seeds of the Peasgood fortunes.

Well, guess what? That can’t be true, because everyone knows (well, okay, I didn’t know until just this morning) that apples can only stay true to type if you graft them. Every single seed in an apple, if planted and productive, will result in a different kind of apple. Random apple seed scattering just results in confused, mushy little apples of no distinction. Except in those rare cases of Mrs. Peasgood who hit a sort of apple lottery with her pippins while her husband was inventing tiddily winks. (He patented his new design in 1891…true story; you can’t make up this stuff)

But here is the good news. Those genetically confused, random apples grown from seed produce wonderful cider that sweetens with age. Suddenly we—meaning me—are now on familiar territory, being both geographically and chronologically fixed in apple cider land. (We—meaning me—love cider. We just toured cider country where the bottling and tasting is going on; in case you missed it, here is a picture or two.)

In this NPR interview with author Michael Pollan, (and in his book The Botany of Desire), he states that Johnny Appleseed had very strong views regarding the proper way to apple propagation, and it was not to be done by grafting. Only by seed sowing. This would make Johnny Appleseed, in effect, the American Dionysius. According to Pollan, he was bringing the gift of booze to the frontier with his little pocket of seeds, because the apples he planted would have only been fit for cider.

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All very interesting. Because I took this circuitous route to cider, and back home, by way of Ethel Armitage, (of whom I know nothing).

Even now, as I write this, I have the picture in my mind of Ethel planning for the next spring. It is laced throughout her book–this happy notion of spring. It’s a powerful notion, and no doubt one that carried her through to somewhere. I know not where, but I hope it all ended well for her.

Now it’s time to go curl up by a warm fire, listen to the rain pelt the windows outside, drink a cool cider fresh off the local orchards, think about the power of words and the fragility of flesh, and read what Ethel was writing about on October 24th, 1936:

‘Most of the fruits of the earth are now gathered in, and the loft is full of a delicious smell of apples. From the cross-beams hang strings of bean and pea pods, and alongside them range huge sunflower heads and parsley, all ripening their seed in preparation for next spring’s sowing.’

Beautiful Fragments: A Walk With John Muir

‘Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.’ 
John Muir

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Today I went on a wilderness walk and took John Muir –– in the form of his Wilderness Essays –– with me. As I couldn’t travel in his exact footsteps of a hundred (plus) years ago, scrambling up and down the lofty peaks of the Sierra Madre mountains like a nimble mountain goat, I hoped he wouldn’t mind traveling in mine. IMG_7776

One could dream of possessing the wild and ardent heart of an explorer like Muir, but not everyone has his sturdy limbs and vigorous constitution.

Or, for that matter, his taste for epic perambulations.

Remember, this is the man who walked from Indiana to Florida in 1867; a journey that he chronicled in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf:

‘My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction, by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.’

As I prefer an even simpler plan— to find the ‘leafiest’ route by slightly more trodden paths and shorter distances—this walk with John Muir is more of a meander through the curated specimens and well delineated paths of my favorite arboretum and botanical garden.

Still, those curated specimens are magnificent; the ground, though slightly more cultivated than Muir’s wild travels, is still dank and rich with the exquisite perfumes of decay.

Even as the old year passes on, the signs of renewal are everywhere.

‘Every leaf seems to speak.’

Because of the seeds, and only because of the seeds—such fascinating art forms—can we take pleasure in these broken, decaying, crumbling fragments of beauty in nature. No other season offers us this thrilling dichotomy of experience; the mix of keenest pleasure tinged with melancholy.

‘How little note is taken of the deeds of Nature! What paper publishes her reports? …. Who publishes the sheet-music of the winds, or the written music of water written in river-lines? Who reports the works and ways of the clouds, those wondrous creations coming into being every day like freshly upheaved mountains? And what record is kept of Nature’s colors – – the clothes she wears – of her birds, her beasts – her live-stock?’

[– John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938)]

Musically, I find this dichotomy is best expressed in the lush harmonies of the Russian composers. Rimsky-Korsakov is particularly exciting… His Scheherazade suite is music composed to story; it is completely, utterly dramatic in scope. The folk tales he drew from are likely well known by most, but at its heart the suite also tells the story of autumn: exotic color, drama, tireless but brilliantly cunning artistry, and finally, after the frenetic winds of sturm und drang, a long, peaceful night where beauty can at last sleep. Survival assured.

It is difficult—no, impossible—to imagine John Muir wandering his philosophical pathways attached to any sort of earbuds or mp3 players, as he would certainly want to be tuned in to the rhythms of the forest, the reverberant songs of birds in lofty branches, and the delicately nuanced rustles from the undergrowth. Therefore, I kept Rimsky at home on this trip.

“Not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress.” 

As a Pacific Northwest native, when I think of John Muir, I think of the west coast, and his efforts to conserve the natural beauty of our rugged wilderness areas. Names like the Sierra Club, John Muir Trail, Muir Woods National Monument, Muir Beach, John Muir College, Mount Muir, Camp Muir and Muir Glacier; all suggest the story of his many successes.

But John Muir’s youth had been spent on a farm in Wisconsin, now a historic landmark. Through the visionary camera lens of Charley Makray-Rice, on her blog The Road Less Paved, I was recently reminded of this earlier, and very important, legacy of John Muir in Wisconsin. I hope you can visit her lovely blog and enjoy her photos, as well as the Sierra Club link to more information that describes Muir’s boyhood home, and the early influences that helped to shape his passionate love of nature.

John Muir could linger in the mountains for days, weeks, even months, and often packed no more food than a few chunks of bread. He knew how to survive on little, and where that little was to be found. Therefore it is interesting to note what precious articles he did pack along with him, if it was not to be food. On his ‘thousand mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico’, Muir carried in his pack small volumes of the poems of Robert Burns, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the New Testament, and a blank journal for recording his own thoughts. (Oh, and a plant press.) This was certainly not traveling light in the literary sense. Muir would find that, in the resonant chambers of the deep woods, one is better able to listen for the deep soundings of thinkers through time. Later he would write of his discovery that

the poetry of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton was a source of inspiring, exhilarating, uplifting pleasure.’

John Muir

He was also an enthusiastic reader of Emerson and Thoreau, and was keenly in heart harmony with Thoreau when the latter wrote….“Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath.”

When John Muir wrote of ‘beautiful fragments’ that he encountered in his nature wanderings he waxed particularly enthusiastic about the majestic evergreens and conifers. It was something he wrote about Pinus lambertiana that got my full attention:

‘No lover of trees will ever forget his first meeting with a sugar pine.’

That, my friends, struck me as a call to action. I love trees. I have been raised in the deeply wooded Pacific Northwest, yet cannot remember if I have ever ‘met’ a sugar pine. Certainly not in the way Muir did. If I had, how could I have forgotten it? Not to mention that, when it comes to seed pods, sugar pines produce the longest cones of any pine. Their native habitat is also higher, quite a bit higher, than my usual route encompasses.

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Clearly, my seed pod journey must continue. I’ll just have to pack a few slices of bread, a plant press, and a little light reading.