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!

Winter Intermezzo

“There is always in February some one day, at least, when one smells the yet distant, but surely coming, summer.” — Gertrude Jekyll

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Today we begin the month of February, and take a winter walk with the prose of H.E. Bates. One of my reading goals for 2016 is to acquaint myself with his fiction. But for now, I am still held in thrall by his nature writing, and this book Through the Woods is a favorite. (The quotations are from this book, pictured here, and most taken from the chapter ‘Primroses and Catkins’. For more on HE and the lovely wood engravings of this book read my autumn post here.)

Bates writes of this seasonal transition we are now in, poised between the dark and light of change, as a time of ‘extraordinary stillness and suspense.’

With such words, February is well described.IMG_9452

In the word-lover’s palette of colors, ‘quixotic’ is useful—it has shades of meaning, but ‘capricious and unpredictable’ would be useful for our purposes today. February is supremely quixotic. Unlike the other months, February has that most feminine of wild cards—the mysterious ’29’—that she likes to throw in now and again, just to keep things interesting. But will it be a 29th day of frozen, heartless glamour, or a 29th day of sunny smiles? We just have to wait and see.

If the months were likened to animals, as they often are, I think of February as a cat. Her purring, fetching ways allure us with warm days of emerging pussywillows, crocuses and tempting primroses in the market…”here, kitty, kitty” plays the siren song….followed by a sudden vicious scratching, as it were; a drastic drop in temperatures, a killing blizzard, and heart-breaking wreckage of all the tender greens and lucent pastels the garden has been encouraged to put forth.

But so speaketh the wounded and wary gardener…we feel this bipolar aspect of February most keenly. It is February that can lure even the most sane minded gardener into, well, quixotic, giddy behavior that has led to the wanton ruin of many an innocent plant.

“There is a sultriness as soft as milk over everything.”

I’ve paired the vigorous nature prose of H.E. Bates with some pictures of my recent winter walks in local gardens and wetlands. While HE writes of the climate and fauna of his English countryside, much of what he describes is not that far off from the Pacific Northwest climate of my home. Chiefly lacking in my picture accompaniment, though…are catkins. Oh, these lovely catkins he speaks of!

‘No poet that I can call to mind has put himself into ecstasies over the ruby blossoms of the elm or into half the state of singing over the purple catkins of the alder that he keeps for the cherry and the rose. The catkin is a sort of Cinderella among flowers, not so much unwanted as unnoticed. The poet who lifts his eyes to the stars or lowers them for the flowers, the stars on earth, often misses as he does so the flowers that hang between earth and heaven, the delicate and unflashing constellations that light up the dark branches of wintery trees.’

I can thank H.E. Bates for giving me a new and exciting pursuit for this mercurial month of February—to go in search of the captivating flowers that hang ‘between heaven and earth‘.

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‘And now, after the storm, the sight of the first clearing of the sky from beneath the trees is very fine. Rain-washed, cleared of cloud, it is pale blue, infinitely clear, with a kind of pure morning clarity. The first wintry beauty of trees is enhanced by it. Trees stand out, at last, with their own characters, oak knotty, birch thready, ash spindly and looping. There is suddenly a remarkable grace about them, a laciness, a pattern. Yet together, from afar off, they have the permanence of iron. Frost and rain along changes them, frost to silver, rain to bronze and steel. They give the land a sense of rich solidity even in the deadness of winter; they are living veins of tree-ore running about the cropless fields and the vacant pastures. More than anything they save the land from barrenness.’

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In the following, his use of terms such as envy, prodigality, and lavish is revealing; here is a man passionate about trees:

If there is one thing I envy above all others in the mansions and parks of the rich it is the glory of their yews and cypresses, soft green and black and yellow and blue and emerald, impassive and quiet trees, planted with thought and prodigality by someone in another and more lavish age. They stand out with singular life and loveliness against the cloudy sky and the naked deciduous trees and, above all, against the expanses of fox-coloured bracken drenched with rain. And in the still winter air they seem to be stiller than all other trees: dark static columns, funereal but lovely, inseparable and unchangeable parts of the wintry land and the suspended winter silence that seems also as if it can never change or break.

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‘On wet rain-dark winter days, when the sheep-pens on the late root-land are still dreary with sludder and the grassland is sodden and lifeless, the birches in the wood down the land come most suddenly and wonderfully to life. The rain, clinging to their delicate twigs and catkins, seems to undergo a transformation. It is as though the buds perform the miracle of turning the rain to wine, for with the red buds and redder catkins shining through tits drops the rain gleams like dim burgundy….’

(I just need to interrupt these lovely nature notes with the side point that a word like ‘sludder‘ is quite distracting to the wordsmith and needs a comment of its own; for more see the Curious Word.)

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‘There is a time, just before February, when they hang half-stiff, half-loose, undancing and unbrilliant, no longer green and not yet golden. It is not their loveliest time but it is their most triumphant. They have broken through the winter and the darkness. It is an unpassionate blossoming, not to be compared with the bursting of the wild crab bloom or the rose, but it is pristine, the catkins are one with light, responsive to it and governed by it, the tassels richening and lengthening as the light itself richens and lengthens to fullest spring.’

Engraving by Agnes Miller Parker

Engraving by Agnes Miller Parker, from H.E. Bates ‘Through the Woods’

Yes, he has fired within me a desire to go in search of these catkins beauties, these unsung Cinderellas in the wild. If not today, then tomorrow.

If February will let me.IMG_0470

 

 

 

 

In Search of Leafless Trees

“A few days ago I walked along the edge of the lake and was treated to the crunch and rustle of leaves with each step I made.
The acoustics of this season are different and all sounds, no matter how hushed, 
are as crisp as autumn air.”  –   Eric Sloane

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“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”
-  Henry David Thoreau,  1817 – 1862  


After having recently fulfilled an appointment of my own with a horse chestnut, a sycamore that turned out to be a Stewartiana, (but was nonetheless beautiful) yesterday I went in search of leafless trees. It was time for another of my ‘perambulations’ that sometimes pop up on this blog.

A fascinating bark like a sycamore, but is actually a Stewartiana

A fascinating bark like a sycamore, but is actually a Stewartiana

I knew exactly where I wanted to go, and did not have to tramp ‘eight or ten miles through the deepest snow’ to find them. Though I am a tree enthusiast, I’m no match for Thoreau and his tireless treks.

Along the way, though, I was accompanied, in thought, by Thoreau and the words of other writers who love trees.

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‘There is a slumbering subterranean fire in nature which never goes out, and which no cold can chill.’  – Thoreau


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“Being thus prepared for us in all ways, and made beautiful, and good for food, and for building, 
and for instruments of our hands, this race of plants, deserving boundless affection and 
admiration from us, becomes, in proportion to their obtaining it, a nearly perfect test of our 
being in right temper of mind and way of life; so that no one can be far wrong in either who 
loves trees enough, and everyone is assuredly wrong in both who does not love them, 
if his life has brought them in his way.” 
-  John Ruskin


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“The leafless trees become spires of flame in the sunset, with the blue east for their background; and the stars of the dead calices of flowers and every withered stem and stubble rimed with frost contribute something to the mute music.” –  Ralph Waldo Emerson


Oh, I love Emerson’s idea of ‘mute music’, though in this walk I was more reminded of the above quoted thought from Sloane, regarding, ‘the acoustics of the season’. It was a fine and windy day, so the music I heard was not so mute; the gusts rushed powerfully through the tops of the barren trees, creating deep bass sighs and alto groans. Emerson’s words about ‘stubble rimed with frost‘ provides sweetmeats to the wordsmith so let me digress a moment. Emerson employs a wonderful word—rime—that comes from a poet’s bag of tricks and describes that fine, crystalline hoarfrost that is not quite snow but gives everything it touches a luminous white coating. (If you would like to read more about this sparkling, fairy-like phenomenon, and some fascinating scientific details as to the different types, read this lovely post by Cathy Bell.)

Icy blasts off the river scoured out my lungs—or should I say rimed my lungs, for that is what it felt like—and caused my eyes to stream with what might have looked like the ‘tears of a solitary walker’. Even so, the brisk gait of the indomitable Thoreau looms into view:


‘It is invigorating to breathe the cleansed air. Its greater fineness and purity are visible to the eye, and we would fain stay out long and late, that the gales may sigh through us, too, as through the leafless trees, and fit us for the winter,—as if we hoped so to borrow some pure and steadfast virtue, which will stead us in all seasons.’ – Thoreau


Ogden Nash said something similar, only quite different.

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“I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.” – Ogden Nash


It’s appropriate we end with Ogden Nash, because he was parodying what is possibly the most famous tree poem of all.

I hope you enjoyed this November walk, and feel ‘fitted out’ for the winter.

 

 

We’ll Always Have Pomerania

‘November 11th.—When the gray November weather came, and hung its soft dark clouds low and unbroken over the brown of the ploughed fields and the vivid emerald of the stretches of winter corn, the heavy stillness weighed my heart down to a forlorn yearning after the pleasant things of childhood, the petting, the comforting, the warming faith in the unfailing wisdom of elders. A great need of something to lean on, and a great weariness of independence and responsibility took possession of my soul; and looking round for support and comfort in that transitory mood, the emptiness of the present and the blankness of the future sent me back to the past with all its ghosts…… [Elizabeth von Armin]

The library at Elizabeth von Arnim’s home

One does not need to live in the past to benefit from the past. A garden represents the best parts of our collective selves. In this well-designed tapestry of living things, past, present, and future are all equally represented. There is a comforting continuity in the slow drift of seasons, in the growing softness of the springy turf underneath, and the ebb and flow of the leafy canopy above. One season nourishes the next; death is but renewal. Even as one season ends, there are sure signs of the next to begin.

Leaves come and go, birds scatter their seeds, structure remains. There is a purpose here that is being worked out. This purpose speaks to us in comforting whispers as we walk. Outside, in a garden, is always looking in.

Some say ‘time began in a garden’, but it is really eternity we sense. Something beyond our mere framework of time. Purpose. Paradise lost; Integrity restored. Our DNA–each of us unique–does not exist to be a mere leaf that gets crushed underfoot. We do not drift through life just to provide compost for the next generation. There is more to us than that. A garden renews this conviction.

My stroll through a favorite local public garden, my reset button, for a stormy November day was surprisingly more colorful than I had anticipated. Though the stroll was in the somber present, I felt very much a part of a meaningful past.

The weather was just as ‘Elizabeth’ described above; gray, heavy, with soft dark clouds hung low. Who was Elizabeth? Ah, thereby hangs a tale.

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The book for my dark November day stroll is Elizabeth and Her German Garden.  (I will be lavishly quoting from this book. If you have read it, you know why. If you haven’t read it, these aren’t spoilers, and I hope you will be intrigued enough to discover it for yourself.)

Elizabeth’s garden, begun sometime before 1898, was anything but public at the time. Nor was she really Elizabeth. Nor was she German. And the ‘German’ garden was actually in Pomerania, which is now Poland.

The charming author of this jumbled flowerbed of contradictions is famous as Elizabeth von Armin. Born Mary Annette Beauchamp, though sometimes known as Alice, most often went by the nickname May, and briefly was called Countess von Arnim-Schlagenthin and Countess Russell…making her more appellative rich than even George Eliot.

Given this melange of potential misinformation, what sort of book awaits us? Picture a neglected, ancient schloss buried in the deep mists and outer reaches of countryside near the Baltic Sea, surrounded by ‘a vast, rambling, derelict garden’…the author a vibrant young independent countess who longs to break away from Berlin social life and create her own peaceful, flower-filled haven…

Of course I would love this book! Abandoned gardens? Old, stately homes? Independent heroines of quirky disposition? Yes!

Her narrative is at times pertly irreverant and hints of ‘spoiled rich girl’, yet at other times she is endearingly honest and searching. Viewed within the stilted context of her times, her writing style is quite refreshing.

‘To most German Hausfraus the dinners and the puddings are of paramount importance, and they pride themselves on keeping those parts of their houses that are seen in a state of perpetual and spotless perfection, and this is exceedingly praiseworthy; but, I would humbly inquire, are there not other things even more important? And is not plain living and high thinking better than the other way about? And all too careful making of dinners and dusting of furniture takes a terrible amount of precious time, and — and with shame I confess that my sympathies are all with the pudding and the grammar. It cannot be right to be the slave of one’s household gods, and I protest that if my furniture ever annoyed me by wanting to be dusted when I wanted to be doing something else, and there was no one to do the dusting for me, I would cast it all into the nearest bonfire and sit and warm my toes at the flames with great contentment, triumphantly selling my dusters to the very next pedlar who was weak enough to buy them.’

This made me laugh. I was raised with similar feelings about dusting—my mother certainly wasn’t a Countess but she would have admired ‘Elizabeth’s’ sentiments very much. Mom infinitely preferred dancing over dusting.

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I found many simpatico moments with this book that brought an amateur, dreamy-eyed hopeful to a garden that had been abandoned and overgrown for decades.

‘If you have to have neighbours at all, it is at least a mercy that there should be only one; for with people dropping in at all hours and wanting to talk to you, how are you to get on with your life, I should like to know, and read your books, and dream your dreams to your satisfaction?’

Oh, that is so like ‘Allegra’. When I wrote my first short novel, A Garden for Allegra, my heart and mind was infused with the gardens and quaint prose of Louise Beebe Wilder. (1878-1938) Wilder wrote non-fiction with endearing titles as Adventures in My Rock Garden. She is known for her famous garden at Balderbrae in Pomona, New York. This garden, the scene of some of her most exquisite prose and flowery efforts, was planted circa 1914.

I have written more than once of ‘Louise’ in these pages. I have all of her books, and they are treasures in my library. How often, in my mind, I have been in her garden, or—after working a long day in my own garden—sat down with a pot of tea and opened one of Louise’s books to find out how I should manage my wayward sweet peas, or how to curb the ‘tender tufts’ of campanula that are in danger of becoming ‘too riotous’. Like a trustworthy grandmother, she could always deliver a homely bit of wisdom, albeit backed by the stiff spine of cultural refinement, as one might expect from one who could claim descendancy from the Stuart line of kings. I sat at her fireside, so to speak, and listened intently as she explained:

“Adventure is of the mind—a mental attitude toward everyday events wherever experienced. One does not have to sit through the long night of an antarctic winter with an Admiral Byrd to know this, or to explore uncharted airways. Adventure may be met with any day, any hour, on one’s own doorstep, just around the corner; it may lurk in the subway, on a bus stop, in the garden.”

Oh, dear Louise–what would you write today? Perhaps she would feel, more than ever, that we should find noble adventures in the working of a garden, and that our minds and motivations would be the richer for it.

“Ever a season ahead of us floats the vision of perfection and herein lies its perennial charm.” – Louise Beebe Wilder

Even as I was immersed in the adventures of Louise’s garden, her gardening and writing contemporary Elizabeth von Armin was also working steadily on the other side of the Atlantic.

People often recommended von Armin’s books to me, and they couldn’t quite believe—after reading A Garden for Allegra—that I hadn’t read any Elizabeth von Arnim. Truth is, while I was writing Allegra, I hadn’t even heard of Elizabeth who is not really Elizabeth. I had not heard of her lovely German garden that is actually in Pomerania. I had only heard of Louise from Pomona.

How glad I am that I finally made the acquaintance! I thoroughly enjoyed the enthusiastic honesty of ‘Elizabeth’ as she eagerly plotted her garden;

‘May 10th.—I knew nothing whatever last year about gardening and this year know very little more, but I have dawnings of what may be done, and have at least made one great stride—from ipomaea to tea-roses….

Luckily I had sown two great patches of sweetpeas which made me very happy all the summer, and then there were some sunflowers and a few hollyhocks under the south windows, with Madonna lilies in between. But the lilies, after being transplanted, disappeared to my great dismay, for how was I to know it was the way of lilies? And the hollyhocks turned out to be rather ugly colours, so that my first summer was decorated and beautified solely by sweet-peas…

How I long for the day when the tea-roses open their buds! Never did I look forward so intensely to anything; and every day I go the rounds, admiring what the dear little things have achieved in the twenty-four hours in the way of new leaf or increase of lovely red shoot.’

What the dear little things have achieved’….that is pure Louise-speak, in the quaint, post-Victorian cant. It would have been wonderful had these two women ever met. Perhaps they did.

In the interior of ‘Elizabeth’s’ book, however, we come to quite another kind of garden. This was when I became most intrigued; as though a voice, in the midst of happy chatter, suddenly drops to an intense whisper. We strain our ear to hear every nuance.

When the narrative comes to the month of November, ‘Elizabeth’ longs to revisit the garden of her past. The mystery of where it is and how she gets there she leaves to the reader to solve. We only know that:

‘It was a complicated journey, and lasted several hours.’

She must have been traveling, not only by train, with her soon-to-be-soggy simple lunch of sandwich and pear, but by time machine, as well. For clearly she was going back in time. We know from the scraps of her actual history that she was born in Australia and raised in England. So where was this childhood garden, this intensely personal place, this now slug-infested arbor where once her Grandfather sat in kingly isolation, drank his coffee, intimidated the mosquitos, ‘and could have been a great man’?

‘The arbour had fallen into great decay, and was in the last stage of mouldiness. My grandfather had had it made, and, like other buildings, it enjoyed a period of prosperity before being left to the ravages of slugs and children, when he came down every afternoon in summer and drank his coffee there and read his Kreuzzeitung and dozed, while the rest of us went about on tiptoe, and only the birds dared sing. Even the mosquitoes that infested the place were too much in awe of him to sting him; they certainly never did sting him, and I naturally concluded it must be because he had forbidden such familiarities.’

‘Although I had played there for so many years since his death, my memory skipped them all, and went back to the days when it was exclusively his. Standing on the spot where his armchair used to be, I felt how well I knew him now from the impressions he made then on my child’s mind, though I was not conscious of them for more than twenty years. Nobody told me about him, and he died when I was six, and yet within the last year or two, that strange Indian summer of remembrance that comes to us in the leisured times when the children have been born and we have time to think, has made me know him perfectly well.’

‘It is rather an uncomfortable thought for the grown-up, and especially for the parent, but of a salutary and restraining nature, that though children may not understand what is said and done before them, and have no interest in it at the time, and though they may forget it at once and for years, yet these things that they have seen and heard and not noticed have after all impressed themselves for ever on their minds, and when they are men and women come crowding back with surprising and often painful distinctness, and away frisk all the cherished little illusions in flocks.’

What beautifully written, insightful, and personal words. The impulsive November garden visit in the cold mist gives the feeling that it was transplanted from another place, and certainly from real memories. There is an authenticity to the narrative as it becomes quickly more agitated and bitterly nostalgic. Suddenly the mood of light-hearted fanciful gloss is gone and we are living scenes unedited, straight from the author’s memory.

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‘Then the place was unchanged. I was standing in the same mysterious tangle of damp little paths that had always been just there; they curled away on either side among the shrubs, with the brown tracks of recent footsteps in the centre of their green stains, just as they did in my day. The overgrown lilac bushes still met above my head. The moisture dripped from the same ledge in the wall on to the sodden leaves beneath, as it had done all through the afternoons of all those past Novembers.’

‘This was the place, this damp and gloomy tangle, that had specially belonged to me. Nobody ever came to it, for in winter it was too dreary, and in summer so full of mosquitoes that only a Backfisch indifferent to spots could have borne it. But it was a place where I could play unobserved, and where I could walk up and down uninterrupted for hours, building castles in the air. There was an unwholesome little arbour in one dark corner, much frequented by the larger black slug, where I used to pass glorious afternoons making plans. I was for ever making plans, and if nothing came of them, what did it matter? The mere making had been a joy. To me this out-of-the-way corner was always a wonderful and a mysterious place, where my castles in the air stood close together in radiant rows, and where the strangest and most splendid adventures befell me; for the hours I passed in it and the people I met in it were all enchanted.’IMG_7689

‘Standing there and looking round with happy eyes, I forgot the existence of the cousins. I could have cried for joy at being there again. It was the home of my fathers, the home that would have been mine if I had been a boy, the home that was mine now by a thousand tender and happy and miserable associations, of which the people in possession could not dream. They were tenants, but it was my home. I threw my arms round the trunk of a very wet fir tree, every branch of which I remembered, for had I not climbed it, and fallen from it, and torn and bruised myself on it uncountable numbers of times? and I gave it such a hearty kiss that my nose and chin were smudged into one green stain, and still I did not care.’

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There is even a little twelve year old girl that surprises ‘Elizabeth’ in her November garden. Pert, saucy, curious—and with the same disregard toward handkerchiefs that ‘Elizabeth’ herself had claimed as she stepped into the garden and felt like a child again..

‘As a Backfisch I had never used handkerchiefs—the child of nature scorns to blow its nose—though for decency’s sake my governess insisted on giving me a clean one of vast size and stubborn texture on Sundays. It was stowed away unfolded in the remotest corner of my pocket…’

Is she seeing a shadow of her young self in her garden?

“Why don’t you rub it off?” [asked the little girl.]

Then I remembered the throwing away of the handkerchief, and blushed again.

“Please lend me your handkerchief,” I said humbly, “I—I have lost mine.”

There was a great fumbling in six different pockets, and then a handkerchief that made me young again merely to look at it was produced. I took it thankfully and rubbed with energy, the little girl, intensely interested, watching the operation and giving me advice.’

‘Elizabeth’ even hears the call of the girl’s governess, and runs, just as she had when a child…

“So strong was the force of old habits in that place that at the words not allowed my hand dropped of itself from the latch; and at that instant a voice calling quite close to us through the mist struck me rigid.
“Elizabeth! Elizabeth!” called the voice, “Come in at once to your lessons—Elizabeth! Elizabeth!”
“It’s Miss Robinson,” whispered the little girl, twinkling with excitement; then, catching sight of my face, she said once more with eager insistence, “Who are you?”
“Oh, I’m a ghost!” I cried with conviction, pressing my hands to my forehead and looking round fearfully.
“Pooh,” said the little girl.
It was the last remark I heard her make, for there was a creaking of approaching boots in the bushes, and seized by a frightful panic I pulled the gate open with one desperate pull, flung it to behind me, and fled out and away down the wide, misty fields….’

She ends this scene with a brief aside that informs us she later finds out this little girl’s name is…what? You guessed it. Elizabeth.

Yes, this was the most interesting garden of the book. The real garden. The real Elizabeth.

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I enjoyed this book very much. She is an author worth revisiting—likely the next book to discover will be her semi-autobiographical work entitled ‘My Life With Dogs’. Yet another reason to feel a kinship.

And for you, friend, may the ‘strange Indian summers of our remembrance‘, always contain thoughts of spring.

The Schloss at Nassenheide, Pomerania


Additional notes:

If you would like to read more about Louise Beebe Wilder, see these posts:

The Twilight of Our Year

Shadow and Substance

In June She Reads Louise

Pomona: Bibliography for Louise Beebe Wilder here

Pomerania: Bibliography for Elizabeth von Arnim here

For more information regarding my works of fiction: here

 

 

The Drowsy Heart of Autumn

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‘On some day in late October, after a night of frost, the sweet-chestnuts come showering down like prickled apples, splitting against the boughs as they fall, opening to cream-coloured cups in which the chestnuts lie tight-sandwiched, like fat mahogany peardrops.’

Horse chestnuts have always been exciting to me. As a curious child, as a still curious adult, as a writer in search of tactile experience, as a nature lover who loves design curiosities, as a reader who thrilled to the Bronte motifs of dark foreboding…horse chestnuts deliver on all counts except edibility. (poisonous, my friends—not for cheerful fireside roasting!)

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Having grown up on the west coast of the United States, horse chestnuts are the only variety of chestnut I am familiar with. The sweet chestnut of the Eastern seaboard—dear in our memories of early American lore along with hickory nuts and acorns, and poems of Longfellow—this chestnut, sad to say, was almost wiped out from our landscape. For more on this tragedy, and how you can help click here, where the American Chestnut Foundation is working on a solution.…or see below.

So join me as we go gather some horse chestnuts. We’re not taking Charlotte Bronte and her ill-fated horse chestnut tree along—no, there is no room in our skies for dark foreboding today. This crazy woman wants OUT of the attic….craving that Shakespearean irony of  ‘one touch of nature makes the whole world kin’.

We have the fine author H.E. Bates to join us. I couldn’t ask for better company on a bracing autumn walk than H.E. Bates and Agnes Miller Parker.

H. E. Bates (HE) wrote many popular novels in his day, but it is his nature books that I love. Through the Woods, and Down the River have a special place in my library. (This is no small achievement in a library that is stocked with ‘special’ books!) But the appeal of HE’s nature writing is that they have been enhanced by the incomparable illustrations of Agnes Miller Parker. If you love woodcut illustrations, and names like Claire Leighton, Joan Hassall give you a little thrill or make you want to start carving something—anything—on a raw potato and dipping it in ink, then you likely have heard of ‘Agnes’.

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Published in 1936, Through the Woods is a delight for the nature lover. Bates writes lyrically of his beloved English countryside, but at times, through the vitality of his prose, his words themselves are a force of nature. Agnes Miller Parker was a perfect collaborator with Bates, as both of them shared an intense love of the natural world, and a unique gift for rendering its beauty with, as called for, either delicacy or power.

Today it is Bates’ essay The Heart of Autumn that propelled me out the door under unquiet skies to go in search of horse chestnuts. I happened to know of a little grove of ancient trees, still untouched, on a busy city street. They are messy, awesome and even slightly menacing–once those prickly ‘conkers’ start falling, beware! But, oh, lovely trees…I am just grateful there is no city ordinance that has been enacted to thwack them down.

 

‘There is a great smell of autumn everywhere: great in the literal sense, an all-pervading, powerful odour, universal and bountiful, that changeless autumn formula of warmth and wet, of drip and decay. In the heart of the wood it is thick and drowsy, almost a fermentation. It drowses and drunkens everything.’

How true these words proved to be! That’s exactly what it smelled like…and felt like…as I passed a group of cheerful ladies wielding gas blowers, a sort of chatty High Noon version of yard maintenance whereby untidy leaves are corraled and horse-whipped into orderly piles…and dared to cross a squirrel turf war in full vehemence, acorns flying like mini-bombs…skirted the coffee shop where the unwished for latte called my name…finally to enter the cool grove of trees, carpeted with a thick detritus where birds, barely visible above the dark, mouldering matted leaves, scratched happily for worms.IMG_9448

‘With fungus and nuts and the spinning seeds of sycamore, the autumn reaches its heart. We talk of the height of summer, the dead of winter, the fullness of spring. But autumn reaches a heart, a core of fruitfulness and decline, that has in it the sweet dregs of the year.’

I found this comment on our accepted phraseology to label the seasons to be so interesting. It is true—no other season is so connected with the emotions as Autumn. Nostalgia…that crazy yearning in the heart to want to go back and redo, or reset some sort of chronometer; the sight of a pile of leaves is both a tug at the heart and emblematic of child-like innocence–the sweet unknowing–this is true no matter where we are in the world, or what nation we inhabit.

Where there are trees, leaves will fall, and children will play in them. Or collect them to be pressed in old school books—a crisp, faded oak leaf from the school playground—to be found years later in a quiet moment of discovery. (‘whatever happened to that boy with the crooked teeth and the frayed suspenders who used to collect acorns from the old oak grove and gave me my first present wrapped in pretty paper…?’)

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‘Under the quiet skies the woods stand now with a kind of contradictory magnificence; gaudy and smouldering, flaring and almost arrogant, the stain of yellow and bronze spreading and deepening among the green, the copper flames of beeches firing whole sections of the woods with stationary heatless fires that look perpetual. Even the green now is burning. It has the yellow of flame in it.’

Oh, those ‘stationary heatless fires’! We love them so, and photograph them excessively. I also enjoyed his reference to the ‘stain of yellow and bronze’ coloration that marks the later autumn. It has already begun here in my region, but marks a welcome segue of color as we moved into winter. I wrote more about it in my post The Seasonal Mr. Rochester.

‘There is no flush of bloom. Wherever it is it is accidental, modest, an aftermath. It is symbolic in every way of autumn, which is not so much a season of itself as a remembrance and a foretaste of seasons. The year distils itself into October…….’

Just by reading HE’s words on the ‘flush of bloom’ lacking in this season, made me take closer note of the straggling, modest bits of color I saw along my path.

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What colors did blaze were those of berries and leaves. The few roses, though looked weary. They are ready for their winter sleep; time to pass the baton to the cheerful berries of hawthorn, cotoneaster, and holly.

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‘Not so much a season as a remembrance…’

‘Rain and sun and frost and wind and death act like balm, so that there is a miraculous clarifying and softening of everything, until the limpid days are like wine.’

Drink deeply of these limpid days, friends. Beautiful things like good books, beautiful art, and sweet chestnut trees should not be forgotten. Neither shall I forget the boy in frayed suspenders.


Notes for further reading:

It was tempting to quote in entirety this article on the vanished Eastern Chestnut;

‘Once upon a time’, the article begins, ‘the American chestnut was king…’

Fascinating reading, and the best news is —while not a fairy tale ending to this once upon a time story, there is a ray of hope: a breeding program underway to restore this beautiful hardwood tree to native soil.

Also, for more on how you can help, the American Chestnut Foundation is eager to give you some ideas. Even us West Coasties can have a share.  Here you can donate, buy a beautiful poster, or purchase a refrigerator magnet carved from recycled chestnut wood..I kid thee not.

For more on HE:

http://hebatescompanion.com

and

http://www.thevanishedworld.co.uk

Nothing So Natural

“…and what with this and that we are frolicsome as the article on Natural History in the Daily.”
George Meredith

Attachment-1This is likely the only time you will see the skeleton of a monkey on my blog. He’s a cheerful looking fellow, to be sure, with that certain je ne sais quoi, and it remains to be seen if he belongs here–here in a post about natural history that is actually supposed to be about Victorian poet George Meredith. I liked him a great deal, though, and named him Dudley. (the monkey, not George).

Rather warm and fuzzy for a skeleton, I thought…

‘Teach me to feel myself the tree,
And not the withered leaf.’ [George Meredith]

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We might love nature, we might love history, but Natural History is another thing, altogether. I was reminded of this over the weekend.

Saturday was a brisk autumn day in downtown Portland, gorgeously clear and sunny. My husband and I were strolling through the university blocks of Portland State, my thoughts alight with all sorts of yummy dreamy snippets of literature, being surrounded, as we were, by old architecture, halls of learning, glistening trees, and the slow…slow…poetic float of falling leaves.

We soon found ourselves at the Natural History exhibit in the Science Building.

It was fascinating, but….a startling contrast to my previous perambulations. We went from glowing leaves and warm old brick in October sunlight to skeletons, dead carcasses, and dried feces of some sort at every display. Grim evidence of the food chain and our own mortality was suddenly everywhere. I do know what Natural History means, but I hadn’t quite prepared myself for the change in mood. Actually, it was great fun!

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We saw, not just a skeleton of a zebra, but the skeleton of a zebra being pounced on by the skeleton of a lion. A strangely electric moment of both life and demise,  sketched in one lyrical arc of calciferous white.
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Rounding the corner we came across a reticulated python, which at first I confused with ‘articulated’ as he was quite dried out but still flexible enough in the joints to be woven back on himself several times over. I was trying to calculate his reticulations, just to see if I could figure out how long of a vermin-consuming monster he might have been in his younger days. However, my brain is not what it once was in my younger days–in this I shared a brief moment of sympathy with the python–and therefore calculating any sort of reticulation is not as easy as it sounds.

Oh, and those little tiny mouse paws under glass, severed from the body they once knew, still clutching a precious morsel of food… Possibly an al fresco lunch, gone horribly awry.

‘She realized she could skip lunch; suddenly even a light salad seemed excessively cruel.’

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The grizzly skeleton was awesome to see, and I greeted him almost like an old friend. Ever since 1966, when I watched Night of the Grizzly and fell in love with Clint Walker I have been fascinated with tall, menacing grizzlies. And have declined the tent, while camping.

‘No thanks, I’ll take the cabin.’

Perhaps that movie scarred me–I don’t know. I just know I was happy to see a grizzly skeleton, and think of Clint Walker once again. Youthful crushes are never forgotten.

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My brain can turn around just about anything to a ‘this is fascinating and I’ll tell you why’ level of interest, so naturally, in our little pop-up version of a Museum of Natural History, I began to think of Victorian writers. So many of our beloved poets and authors were naturalists, as well. Often they might spend a lifetime collecting dried out dead things and then, upon their own death, donating the lot to a museum (after having themselves properly buried, of course, because—who wants to look at THEIR skeleton?).

One of the most popular naturalists—pre-Victorian—is Gilbert White. His book The Natural History of Selborne, has outsold even the works of Jane Austen. However, as I have written enthusiastically of dear Gilbert more than once in these pages, I will content myself with just one tiny little quote, (okay two), that highlights his curious preoccupations and therefore mine:

‘A certain swallow built for two years together on the handles of a pair of garden-shears, that were stuck up against the boards in an out-house, and therefore must have her nest spoiled whenever that implement was wanted: and, what is stranger still, another bird of the same species built its nest on the wings and body of an owl that happened by accident to hang dead and dry from the rafter of a barn.

This owl, with the nest on its wings, and with eggs in the nest, was brought as a curiosity worthy the most elegant private museum in Great Britain. The owner, struck with the oddity of the sight, furnished the bringer with a large shell, or conch, desiring him to fix it just where the owl hung: the person did as he was ordered, and the following year a pair, probably the same pair, built their nest in the conch, and laid their eggs.

The owl and the conch make a strange grotesque appearance, and are not the least curious specimens in that wonderful collection of art and nature.’

Did I mention that Gilbert White has outsold Jane Austen? Oh, yes, I did…but I’m not sure how recent those calculations are, and if they were done before or after Jeremy Northam was cast as Mr. Knightley. This might have shifted the balance, being Natural History of a different sort.

On our tour, I was able to pet an owl’s wings, marvel at the downy undercoat, and closely examine a regurgitated pellet for exoskeletons. I felt very Gilbert White at that moment.

‘Selborne, May 7, 1779.
It is now more than forty years that I have paid some attention to the ornithology of this district, without being able to exhaust the subject: new occurrences still arise as long as any inquiries are kept alive.’

I truly believe that a lively curiosity keeps us young. By all means, let us ‘keep inquiries alive’! I should also mention the delightful and warm enthusiasm shown us by the science students who were hosting our tour. From antarctic mosses and their effect on global warming, to those aforementioned charming exoskeletons in owl pellets to ‘feeling’ how elephants communicate through the ground, at every display was a smiling face and a knowledgeable student eager to impart a love of the natural world.

I’ll leave you with another snippet of poetry from George Meredith. This is my year of reading George, so to speak. Perhaps he might enter these pages a bit more, and nudge out Gilbert in popularity. (ah, the silence which chirping crickets rush to fill!) As it turns out, he was a natural history enthusiast par excellence, and a tireless walker. I am enjoying, very much, his finely tuned ear for poetry, and his expressive love of the beauties of nature.

This poem, Autumn Evensong, is simply lovely. Enjoy…oh, and don’t give Dudley another thought. He’s quite happy, and has many admirers.

The long cloud edged with streaming grey
Soars from the West;
The red leaf mounts with it away,
Showing the nest
A blot among the branches bare:
There is a cry of outcasts in the air.
Swift little breezes, darting chill,
Pant down the lake;
A crow flies from the yellow hill,
And in its wake
A baffled line of labouring rooks:
Steel-surfaced to the light the river looks.
Pale on the panes of the old hall
Gleams the lone space
Between the sunset and the squall;
And on its face
Mournfully glimmers to the last:
Great oaks grow mighty minstrels in the blast.
Pale the rain-rutted roadways shine
In the green light
Behind the cedar and the pine:
Come, thundering night!
Blacken broad earth with hoards of storm:
For me yon valley-cottage beckons warm.

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