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.

Paper Skies

“I … wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion.” Barbara Pym, Excellent Women

Leave it to the insightful wit of Barbara Pym to describe, in a quirky way, how it feels to live, at times, in this chaotic world. For the following poem, I put down the teapot, as it were, and went for a long walk in a favorite place.

Thinking of a friend today, beginning chemo, mastectomy, and a long, long road.

unquiet leaves
fall from paper skies
infinite confetti , shredded
she seeks to match
the restless day
breathe’d mist
her sole outcry

parchment paths
through forest gloom
softly walking, with no trace
of where one has been
some dry whisper
rends the air, to lie
amongst the lovely dead
unquiet leaves

Crossriggs

‘Her thoughts were very far away, for she had the happy power of forgetting the outer world altogether when she read anything that interested her.’ —Crossriggs, 1908


A good novelist knows how to begin an absorbing chain of events, and signal to the reader, in effect ‘settle in, I’m going to tell you a story‘. In a Victorian era novel, a beloved formula might commence with a sleepy village. The villagers and their dwellings are sketched out–they are ‘much of a piece’, as they say–but you just know the wonderful fodder for a good narrative is beginning to build.

Next might be mentioned—a brief mention, lest the reader make too much of it—the sad affair of a good-for-nothing relation who is connected to the Big House; a relation who has had the sensibleness to take himself off to parts unknown before the story begins where he can then die offstage without troubling the reader. The good news is, he leaves behind a handsome young heir, who then moves back to the sleepy village and intrigues everyone with his slightly foreign manners. And then… well, let the authors tell us:

‘Then and there happenings began.’

Crossriggs, written in 1908, is a novel I knew I would enjoy after reading just the opening lines. A story doesn’t have to be great literature for us to get lost in it, or care about the characters and what happens to them.

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I like to break up my reading periods with a walk outdoors, if weather permits. In the fresh outdoor air the scenes and conversations continue to play in my mind, though with a feeling of being slightly offstage. My walk the other day (and accompaniment to this book) took me along mossy, overgrown paths and the recent scars of a fierce windstorm that toppled quite a few beloved old trees around town. It was a storm that—for our typically mild Pacific NW weather—seemed very ill-suited to an April day.

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Freshly fallen tree, giving me a chance for close-ups of lichen and blooms

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But for all that, it did make the rugged Scottish landscape of Crossriggs seem not too far from my own, and I came home to become easily immersed in the world cleverly crafted by the Findlater sisters. (Thanks to the excellent reviews of a few book bloggers, previously Liz and Ali, and most recently, Jane, I was moved to finally get down to reading a book I’ve had in my library and on my TBR pile for quite some time.)

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If you’re in the mood for a good period piece, with well-drawn characters, and one that is not too mawkish, sentimental or wordy (like some Victorian literature can be) you should give this one a try.

The Findlater sisters had a vigorous intellect, a lively curiosity, and a shrewd sense of humor. They also had an aunt who, as a biography informs us, was ‘well remembered in Edinburgh society as “a fascinating creature who sang Gaelic songs and wrote verses.”

The aunt sounds delightful. I would be curious to know if her presence made its way into any of the Findlater characters.

For the story of Crossriggs, this sisterly writing duo pairs two fictional sisters, Alex and Mary. The two sisters are of very different dispositions, which provides some interest (with the winning gold star of personality going to Alex, of course, because it is mainly her story), and they live with an eccentric, kindly old father. He provides some entertainment, being a Victorian age vegan, a pacifist with dreams of living off the land, and never far from his well-thumbed copy of the Iliad. Homer, while glorifying war and bloody deeds of valor, made it all so poetic.

‘Old Hopeful was reading aloud to them all. The arrival of a family of five was nothing to him , and an hour or two had sufficed to restore him to his full flow of benevolent optimism.

“Delighted to see you, Robert!” he exclaimed. “We were just having an hour of Homer before the boys went to bed. Tales of windy Troy! Brave days—brave days! These youngsters are to be envied, hearing them for the first time.”

The Hope household is poor, but they are genteel. The fires, in this cottage, die out early on frigid evenings for want of fuel, but a candle stays lit while tired eyes and restless minds read eagerly into the wee hours.

I became utterly immersed in my visit to the village of Crossriggs, and enjoyed being transported back in time; even as the porridge was inevitably scorched, the pudding became watery, the long evening walks across the green became bitter cold, the candles sputtered out, and Old Hopeful fell asleep once again with his worn copy of Homer.

The Findlaters had an eye for detail, and of course, a woman’s knack for conveying the homely bits of information that make a story come to life.

How well I remember it all!” they wrote… and, with that, introduce us to the main characters and tone of the village that was Crossriggs.

We meet the crusty Admiral Cassilis, his handsome nephew Van, and an unusual creature of animal vitality named Dolly Orranmore who wears the wrong shade of green but still manages to look fiercely attractive while she strides about with a whip and a pack of dogs. We also meet the inscrutable Robert Maitland, and Maitland’s aunt, the venerable Miss Elizabeth Verity Maitland with her ramrod back. It is she of whom the authors wrote nostalgically…’we shall never look upon her like again.

‘It was a sight to see her walk down the street of Crossriggs, with head erect, her unflinching green eye looking here and there, observant of the life around. The village trembled before her…’

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The quaint village of Crossriggs might take a page from an Austen novel or even bring in a whiff from the Cranford tea tables. Although there are far too many men in Crossriggs to be Gaskell’s Cranford, Alexandra Hope would have fit in very well with a female dominated society. She runs their small, impoverished household with efficiency and spirit, has high ideals, a restless intellect, and never lacks for opinion. She can be ruthlessly critical of people she doesn’t like, but generous to those she does. I can’t say I always liked Alex; her criticisms of other people were often harsh and repetitive, her high-mindedness could be a bit much at times, but she also came crashing down into periods of self-doubt and outright depression. In short, she is painted in real life tones, and just like any of us, she had her strengths and weaknesses. Alex surprised me—she was a refreshingly honest character for this era of novel.

There is a love interest throughout the book, with more than one face. The truth from her own heart Alex can barely think of, and there is no internal dialogue on that subject until later in the book.  The reader is not fooled, but is never quite sure how things are going to work out. (Those clever authors had me jumping through a couple of hoops, bless their hearts…)

The dusk was falling, and the air was very still…. How many times, Alex thought, she had walked down that avenue in all weathers! She knew it now under every possible aspect, from the frosts of winter to the green delight of spring and the sleepy warmth of summer—here she was round again to another winter! How quickly the last year had gone; would every year of life glide past at this astonishing pace now! She remembered when the years were long, when a child’s joy in April was un-shadowed by the thought that spring would be over in a few weeks, when a childs’s wonder at winter was untouched by any hope of spring…. ‘Perhaps the child’s is the true way of living—it makes a sort of eternity while it lasts.’

Through it all, the disappointments, the grieving, and the small triumphs, Alex kept a firm hand on her integrity, and an immovable stance on her high moral ground.

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‘O cold north wind from the sea, did you ever then blow through the tree-tops without the twang of a musical note in your sound…Was the winter sunshine not suffused with some magic even on the fallow fields, or when it fell across the broad, irregular street? Did ot the first snowdrops that struggled up to the light from under that iron sod sigh out indescribable promise in their faint suggestive breath? Even the enveloping veils of mist, the grey distance, the low hills that stood beyond the village seemed a fitting background for the lively scene of human life that was enacted there.’

As a side note, I noticed with interest the dedication of the book to Kate Douglas Wiggin and her sister, Nora Archibald Smith.

Kate Douglas Wiggin,  is the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. If you were born anytime between 1910 and oh, say… the 1960’s… and you were named Rebecca, you might remember this book with impatience, or perhaps affection. Either way, I have no doubt this book was often invoked in your life and conversations. All of my growing up years I could never be introduced to an older person without ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’ coming immediately into the dialogue, along with a cheeky, albeit kindly, smile. (I have since forgiven, and even own a copy plus the sequel now.)

Sisters who write...

I would like to read more Findlater stories, in due time. What I am particularly interested in are the collaboration stories they did with Kate Douglas Wiggin and Allan McAulay (aka Charlotte Stewart). The Affair At the Inn, one of these, is available as a free e-book. Apparently each author would take turns writing a chapter and advancing the story line. Sounds like a fun exercise–perhaps not good for the novel as an art form, but as a time capsule of the past? Intriguing.

 


Notes: Crossriggs was reprinted by Virago in paperback; I believe all the rest of the Findlater output is out of print, but that is changing as of this year. The copyright protection on Jane’s works (not Mary’s) is ending this year. So any works written solely by Jane Findlater are now in the public domain. The exciting news is that the National Library of Scotland will be making digitalized versions available online. Read here for more.

Here is a list of their other works:

Book Titles:
1895. Sons & Sonnets – Mary Findlater
1896. The Green Graves of Balgowrie – Jane Findlater
1897. Over the Hills – Mary Findlater
1897. A Daughter of Strife -Jane Findlater
1899. Betty Musgrave – Mary Findlater
1899. Rachel – Jane Findlater
1901. A Narrow Way – Mary Findlater
1901. Tales that are Told – Mary and Jane Findlater
1902. The Story of a Mother – Jane Findlater
1903. The Rose of Joy – Mary Findlater
1904. Stones from a Glass House – Jane Findlater
1904. The Affair at the Inn – Findlater Sisters with Kate Douglas Wiggins and Allan McAulay (Charlotte Stewart) [note: available as a free e-book]
1905. All that Happened in a Week – Jane Findlater
1906. The Ladder to the Stars – Jane Findlater
1907. A Blind Bird’s Nest – Mary Findlater
1908. Crossriggs – Mary and Jane Findlater
1911. Penny Moneypenny- Mary and Jane Findlater
1911. Robinetta – Findlater Sisters with Kate Douglas Wiggins and Allan McAulay (Charlotte Stewart)
1916. Seen and Heard Before and After
1914 -Mary and Jane Findlater
1916. Content With Flies – Mary and Jane Findlater
1912. Seven Scots Stories – Jane Findlater
1914. Tents of a Night – Mary Findlater
1921. A Green Grass Widow and other Stories – Jane Findlater
1923. Beneath the Visiting Moon – Mary and Jane Findlater


 

In Search of Wild Chrysanthemums

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Ever since reading Wang Chien’s hauntingly lovely poem to the wild chrysanthemum, I determined I must see this elusive treasure  for myself.

The wild chrysanthemum
Late, its enchanting color springs out from the wild hedge,
Its cool fragrance clings to the autumn water.  

Wang Chien, T’ang Dynasty

November is a time of unusual color changes, increasingly cool nights, and the complete disappearance of something so elusive as a wild chrysanthemum.

This color change, these yellowing-to-brown tones, is a condition as much as a color, and one that used to be referred to as  ‘sear‘, or archaic, ‘sere‘. I write more about this November color palette—one that I particularly love, but it is a bittersweet love—in The Seasonal Mr. Rochester. (note: it is also a color that makes a lovely wool scarf; also note that there could be a fascinating etymological link between sincere and sere but I have not had enough coffee, yet…)

This picture of one of our local wetlands is from a recent walk, in which I set out with a sincere desire of finding, and photographing, wild chrysanthemums.

Sadly, however earnest my efforts, there are no wild chrysanthemums to be found on my various treks. I did find a few straggling fall asters. Related in species, not in poetic aspect.

Autumn asters, H.E. Bates

Still, the haunting images of enchanting color, the earnest pursuit of a glimpse of wild hedge, with a cool fragrance wafting up from autumn water, was sweet in itself.

For that, I can thank the elusive wild chrysanthemum.

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Poetry reference taken from Flower Cookery–The Art of Cooking With Flowers, by Mary MacNichol; worth finding if you can…copies of this book are about as elusive as wild chrysanthemums.

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The Hairy Stairs

These days my walks around town are less bustling boulevard and more field and hedgerow.

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We love rambling around our new neighborhood, which we have dubbed ‘the Shire’, because it has so many winding, narrow lanes, charming old cottage style homes, and not a sidewalk to be seen. And, as all the neighbors resolutely attest, there will likely be no sidewalks. It might involve tree removal, or nesting sites disrupted, or a wet land deflected.

The Discover challenge appealed to me, not only because it introduced a new word into my vocabulary–flaneur–but because exploring our environs is something we enjoy. Of course, there are different shades of flaneur, no doubt…most having to do with actual people. People-watching at the airport, for example (oh the stories one can weave) or power-eavesdropping at a coffee shop, are both different in tone than listening for elusive bird calls coming from a nearby thicket.

All, however, exercise the power of curiosity and have an enlivening effect on the mind.

Oregonians love their scenic wonderland, and Portlanders get their dose of all that plus the fascination of a beautiful city. We’re less than five minutes from downtown Portland by car, but our ‘hairy staircase’ gets us to the Village in about the same time, on foot.

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What is the hairy staircase? It’s what a little neighbor girl calls the mossy and wooded path, tucked between some obliging neighbors, that gives the other neighbors a shortcut down the hill into the village. It’s somewhat secret but not, because everyone knows about it. It makes a trip into ‘the village’ only about five minutes on foot, even with a stroller.

If you’re a bit arthritic and slow, not to worry, we have a solution for you, so come along. Strollers can navigate the path, too.

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There’s even a book depot on the way. In case you run out of provisions on your journey and desperately need a book to read. (it happens) Take one, leave one. Loosely maintained by a kind neighbor who adds a sprinkling of cyclamen and daffodil bulbs on occasion.

Once in the village, oh my. There’s good coffee, a local brewpub, outdoor cafes, my favorite wool shop, a funky bead emporium, a historic tavern that has an interesting rooftop way of sending off its loyal patrons that kick the bucket…and the list of attractions goes on.

architecture, old buildings PDX, street photography, bar, dining out, tableside

Oregon is known for its friendly watering holes, and our feisty brewers.

(we take our refreshment very seriously here)

We also have the natural variety of watering hole, in this case my birdfeeder, patronized by very feisty patrons that are assuredly not birds. For now the squirrels have worked out an arrangement, but I sense the tension building.

There will be wars, and fur flying in a moment.

There’s the downtown boulevard at dusk, in beautiful colors….

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and here is one of my favorite ‘boulevards’ in the neighborhood. It cuts through a park and leads to the Hairy Stairs.

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Here we are;  be prepared to book shop on the way, in case you didn’t get to Powell’s bookstore for your fix… the ground is so springy underfoot, from years of moss drippings and wood shavings.

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Be careful; it gets a bit steep in places and you’re probably going to want to gaze at all the beautiful fall color on your way. Not that I have ever slipped, or anything, while eagerly ogling a flash of red twig against a spray of yellow…that would be so flaneur, right?

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The other distraction are these lovely blooms; quite fragrant and sweet. They would seem to herald spring, but the chill in the air tells me otherwise, and that our footsteps must hasten on to that coffee shop in the village.

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Thanks to the neighborhood app, we’ve just been alerted to the fact that One Particular Hen who shall remain nameless has escaped again. Known as ‘not actually lost but trying to find herself’ this little Russian Orloff has ambitions.

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But she’s not here, at this field. Only tiny finches in the underbrush, and the rustlings of field mice. The finches stop twittering as soon as I stray too close–which makes me feel quite left out. I wish I could get them used to my presence so they would continue to chatter on as freely as the college girls hanging out at the Powell’s coffee shop at midnight. But perhaps that sounds a little too…flaneur?

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The rain outwitted us and hit with a mighty splash before we’re home, but we’re used to it.

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One eventually dries out. And we have a warm welcome awaiting us.

Discover

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“This Weather Cramps My Genius”

The portrait of this dignified lady may not immediately bring to mind the thought of a hike.

Oh, this woman was a champion hiker. And thinker. Some time back I wrote a post on writers who were enthusiastic walkers. If you read it, you may remember the amazing Elizabeth Carter. (1717 – 1806)

She was known as ‘a very good walker’. That’s putting it mildly. I had every intention of bringing her back for an encore, as she is such a fascinating lady.

NPG 28; Elizabeth Carter by Sir Thomas Lawrence

by Sir Thomas Lawrence, pastel on vellum, 1788-1789, courtesy National Portrait gallery

Well, this isn’t her encore post, not yet, anyway…but whenever I want to take a walk but demur because it’s raining (as has been the case the last few days), I am reminded of this indefatigable walker and eighteenth-century bluestocking.

‘I walked three miles yesterday in a wind that I thought would have blown me out of this planet, and afterwards danced nine hours, and then walked back again. Did you ever see or hear of anything half so wonderful? And what is still more so, I am not dead, which I thought prior to tell you, for fear you should think this letter no sufficient proof of my being alive.’

Walking in this manner is quite different than hiking, to the modern mind. Hiking today is a sport. As a sport it comes with attendant gear that involves expensive shoes, a backpack, and little packets of odd foods that have been dehydrated down to the weight of dryer lint. (My own walks I like to call Perambulations; they might start out as a hike, but end up as a meander, and usually involve short breaks for chocolate.)

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Elizabeth Carter, had she lived today, might have been a keen hiker of ‘trackless paths’, as this excerpt from one of her letters reveals:

‘In proportion as my sister has mended, I have recovered my spirits, I am now nearly as gay and wild as ever, and want to be flying all over the face of the earth, though this weather something cramps my genius, for I cannot meet with any body here romantic enough to take moonlight walks in the snow, and travel as people do in Lapland. If I was happy enough to be a Canterbury, what excursions should you and I make through trackless paths, and enjoy a season that less whimsical folks shudder at. Certainly we odd mortals, that take delight in such things as make the rest of the world very sententiously pronounce us mad, enjoy infinitely more pleasure than the sober prudent part of mankind who sit close to a fire because they are cold. To us every season has its charms; and even the gloomy prospects of winter have a kind of dark, sullen beauty, that strikes the mind with no disagreeable sensation. Having read you this curious dissertation upon winter, I should next proceed to descant upon the spring….’

When she wrote about her genius being cramped, this was not just being witty. She actually was a genius, part of the now-famous Blue Stocking Circle; a group of eighteenth century women intellectuals. By the time of her early twenties, Carter had taught herself to be fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Portugese, Arabic, French and Italian. What she is best known for, however, is her seminal translation of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus from the Greek. (you can read this here and find reasons for wonderment that could possibly linger for days….)

As well, by the time she was twenty-one she had translated Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy Explained for the use of Ladies, in Six Dialogues on Light and Colours.

You’ll love her spirited style. And possibly be encouraged to walk more, in any weather.

For more about Elizabeth and famous walkers, read here.