Grannies in the Wainscot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laurie Lee, poet

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

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

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

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

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

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

One day Granny Trill stumbled and broke her hip.

illustration by John Ward

“She went to bed then forever.”

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

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

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

October Farewell

It seems I have forgotten, again, what this form of poetry is called, but it is simple, thus appealing: one syllable building up to ten and back to one. It works for me when the small framework of a haiku feels too restrictive.

A personal note. This blog, since its beginning, has been about reading, writing, nature walks, and small moments of beauty. In all these little travels, via imagination and footstep, there has been a wet nose, an inquisitive, drippy beard, and a patient, loving gaze. My constant companion, our dog, Fitz. I just want to mark his passing. He was the sweetest dog ever, and a beloved family member. This last year we have been nursing him through some difficult challenges as he grew old, as his mobility decreased, and as any pet owner knows, the time to ease them out of their life, when it comes, looms as an impossibility. Yet it must happen, and happen… it did.

of drifty skies
and wayward breezes
Are these days of dying?
Yet celebrate it they will
Merriment grim, laced with despair
Said charms of rotting pumpkins, sightless
fail to capture the all-seeing purpose
this balance between changeless Time and
our frail life that is ever changed
And of what of love? she cried out
Beyond the reach of both
as sure as harvest
nestles to earth

Photographs taken by me: Glow

Rare Bird of a Different Feather

“I see wonderful things.” — Howard Carter


The concept of rare applies to so many things in a book lover’s world.

These days it is less about finding a rare edition (the internet makes it so easy), a rare illustrator, a rare signed copy, than it is finding that other vanishing gem—the shop that sells the used books.

The crusty old proprietor who hides behind the antique cash register is another vanishing gem. A rare bird, if there ever was one. A rather hobbit-esque gentleman who looks, in demeanor and hygiene, as though he hasn’t stirred from behind the counter in days.

Why would he? He has what he wants right there. An old coffee pot begrimed with blackened arabica patina has pride of place at his elbow, transforming what was once a hearty brew into something that smells like charred wood, next to it sits a jar of coffee mate—it doubles as a fly trap; stacks of books encircle the counter like a Roman army’s palisade, and you find yourself being examined from behind this fortification of ancient knowledge by a suspicious glare. (There is strange music coming from a dusty radio. It might be classical but it’s not like any classical music you’ve ever heard. It sounds like Wagner on a spinet having a light-hearted go at Hayashi’s national anthem)


I like the faint suggestion of exercise here

The crumbs of lunch still cling to his stubble as he reluctantly puts aside his tattered copy of Ginsburg—hard to believe he has the fire of poetry in his soul—and sums you up.

You’re not quite sure what your shoes have to do with it, but, after wrenching his gaze away from the offending footwear, it is apparent this Ben Jonson of retail has found you wanting. He waits, in resignation, for the lady apparition wearing Nikes made in China to ask if he has any cookbooks ‘in stock’? Or, innocently inquiring, “Do you have any copies of Diary of an Edwardian Lady? It’s written by a lady who lived and wrote in the Victorian era…?”

I love that book, but I already possess a copy and know better than to ask the question. So after discreetly disappearing for a time into the dark tunneled bowels of the shop — tip: make very little noise to distract him from his reading and remember to cough occasionally so he can keep track of you without having to put down his book — finally, gather up your newfound treasures in a stack as high as you can carry, and approach the counter again.

Beyond the tower of books in your arms, your shoes are all he can see. So far they have not served you well.

Tired, hungry, euphoric at finding a British first edition Thirkell with dust jacket design by Anna Zinkeisen, unquestionably you have breathed far too much mildew effluvium, and now you’re afraid to ask ‘is there a restroom?’

Because there might be, and you won’t want to use it. (Trust me on this one.)

You could venture to ask, “do you take Visa?” and be met with another snarl of disdain. What follows is a lecture on the evils of the modern age and how all that’s wrong with the world can be traced back to the invention of Molded Plastic.

But it’s all very interesting  and actually…incredibly…the two of you begin to bond. Pretty soon we’re all Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, eager politeness on one side and surly enthusiasm and opinion on the other.

‘I require a book of love poems with spring coming on. No Keats or Shelley, send me poets who can make love without slobbering—Wyatt or Johnson or somebody, use your own judgement. Just a nice book preferably small enough to stick in a slacks pocket and take to Central Park. 

Well, don’t just sit there! Go find it! I swear I don’t know how that shop keeps going.’                  — 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

This marvelous guy who speaks with medieval-laced diction and rolling vowels has begun to recognize you as a book enthusiast. You recognize him as A Man Who Knows Everything About Books. For all his misanthropic air, he loves to talk with a fellow librophile and ‘wax expansive’ on all he knows. The conversation begins, coalesces with light speed and he is soon regaling you with tidbits regarding everything from Hemingway’s favorite typewriter to the real story behind Gertrude Bell’s death. Why the Arkwright translation of Memoirs of the Duke de Saint-Simon is particularly good. Milton’s Paradise Lost was a riff right off ol’ cowherd Caedmon’s Paraphrase. What makes the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica so collectible. Who the first far-seeing publisher was to print John Donne’s works as a collection and change the history of poetry. Why you should study seventeenth century French literature and where you should start. (…confession…I never did follow his advice) Why Anthony Trollope fell so hard from public opinion.

Irascible, opinionated, and unapologetic.

If you ask the right questions or are looking for a serious edition he approves of and happens to have—which, sometimes, serendipitously, happens—then this man becomes your new ally.

The books arrived safely, the Stevenson is so fine it embarrasses my orange-crate bookshelves; I’m almost afraid to handle such soft vellum and heavy cream-colored pages. Being used to the dead-white paper and stiff cardboard covers of American books, I never knew a book could be such a joy to the touch.’ — Helene Hanff  — [84 Charing Cross Road]

I remember one such bookseller, in particular…the wine would come out, the dusty armchairs would beckon, and oh I learned ‘wonderful things’ about books, printing, publishing, lore of lost authors and so much that I wish I could remember now…none of it, of course, being relevant to modern life…but isn’t that, in essence, the secret to its fascination? When something can be memorable, without needing to be remembered? We may not recall everything that was said, but we’ll remember how the experience made us feel. Such memories stay with us, not as lifeless data, but as emotional seed sown, or like powerful, insistent tides that continue to reshape our settled paths.

That bookstore, and the living, breathing story-telling human encyclopedia behind the counter? Long gone. The influences remain.

One day I walked in on the death-in-progress of one of my favorite book haunts. This time the old proprietor gave me a sheepish, sorrowful look, and the suspicious gaze came from two strange men who were boxing up precious—and by that time familiar to me—contents. Everything from seventeenth century parchment documents, leather bound collections of Carlyle, Essays of Elia, to maps, first editions of Faulkner, eccentric but fabulous 1960’s art and art magazines…it was all coming down from dusty wooden shelves and being hurriedly stuffed into boxes.

Proprietor looked at me, and I asked the obvious question.

“They bought me out,” he said simply. “It’s all going on the internet. I can finally travel to Asia like I always wanted.”

Rare birds still fly.

Still At Allways

‘To John Borie, still at Allways’

Is John Borie still at Allways? I have always wondered…

In his curious dedication to A Thatched Roof, Beverley Nichols infuses a sense of timelessness. At Allways, a rambling old Tudor cottage in Huntingdonshire, nothing will ever change. The fifteenth century low lintels will still bang heads, bees are still gathering nectar, the roses drug the air with perfume, the grapevine is still scratching at the window—wanting in, the graceless Undine is dancing on her lawn, and John Borie is still there.

Speaking of timelessness, in my side bar, it has had showing, for some time, the book ‘Currently Reading’ as A Thatched Roof. This was true then, when I posted it, and it continues to be true, as I am still reading it.

I am still at Allways.

‘Therefore this book is not a sequel to an early love, it is rather the other half of the same love. The first book was about a garden; this one is about the cottage which stands in that garden.’  —Beverley Nichols, A Thatched Roof

How could one want to leave? A delightful reminiscence, as with Nichols’ other books of gardening and house-keeping, A Thatched Roof is of the sort that can be picked up and put down, re-read, mulled over, glossed over, chuckled over, and generally be quite useful when the mind needs to be somewhere else, but the body and brain need a safe place to rest.

This is not to trivialize Nichols’ writing. I have quite enjoyed his books related to home and garden, and some of his asides, commentary, and psuedo-factual characters are extremely funny. Who can forget shy and anxious Miss Mint, whom Nichols obviously adored, or gimlet-eyed Mrs. M, whom Nichols obviously detested…?

‘Then loathsomely refreshed, she sat up, and fixed her gimlet eyes upon me.’

As charming as it is, A Thatched Roof sat neglected on my bookshelf for years. I kept beginning it, then putting it down. Why? It was simply too powerful. Surely an odd thing to feel from a writer whose output has been described as ‘rather twee’? Yet Nichols writes with such sprightly reminiscence, with such warm gushes of affection and affectation about his experience with home and garden, that in my situation for five years in a city condo, without either, it was too difficult for me to read.

‘It is always next year when you have a garden.’

It is a book that provided the perfect accompaniment to our recent move, dovetailing here and there in a surprising twist. In it, we experience Nichols’ pure joy in home ownership, his adventures with a dour Scottish housekeeper and the hilarious shenanigans he goes through in an effort to keep her from having to work, we thatch a roof, dig a well, stock the pantry, move in the piano with great ceremony (‘I always feel the piano is a living thing and I hate to see it with its legs wrenched off’), agonize over proper window placement, decorate The Garden Room, discuss with catty delight ‘how white has been done to death’, fall quite terribly in love with Bristol blue glass, and enjoy a host of other waftings into the winsome world of Beverley Nichols, 1920’s Bright Young Thing and fey man about town.

This is the first of what may be a series of posts featuring A Thatched Roof. It is appropriately named for, with all its lightness, few things are more important in a frail human’s life than the acquisition of a roof. Even the determinedly anti-materialist Thoreau began his transcendental, life-changing Walden experience by an old fashioned roof raising.

My new roof from under which I write is not so thatched as Beverley Nichols’ quaint cottage existence, living on a different continent, in a different time and generation as we are. (And I’m quite convinced, with a touch of Nichols’ own querulousness, I would not want anyone but the Duke of Wellington to thatch my roof. Mr. Penrose, that is.)

But that’s getting ahead. It’s easy to do when reading daffy darling Nichols, who has a tendency to rush giddily into everything from philosophical grape tending to the perfect ethereal blue to poetic bee keeping. It is one of the secrets of his charm. His humility is another.

‘I wanted music. I had music….but it would not flow through my pen. It is a terrible thing to be filled with an emotion that one cannot express. People are always telling you, in these days, of the danger of suppressed sex. The dangers of suppressed poetry are surely greater. For the room was charged, drunken, electric–any word you care for–with poetry. The white walls were thick with images….

Yet with all this tolling, this fainting, this sadness among the blossoms, with all this shadowy drift of beauty to the grave, I could make no poem….that is the ultimate bitterness…to put a pen in a man’s hand, and then to freeze his hand, so that he cannot write.

Well, at least you will admit that I have been honest about it.’

Nichols has a way of saying more when he is not trying, and those moments come flitting throughout his prose. I have already mentioned the roses in my new (old) yard—two neglected bushes, giving me flowers of delightful beauty and sweetness. No better ‘welcome to your new home’ could there be. Yet, if you could see the sorry looking bushes they came from, you would wonder how on earth these blooms came about.


After Nichols has saved an ivy with gentle watering and ‘kind words’ he writes the following:

‘I feel at liberty to ask you a question.

Have you this same odd affection for things, like my ivy, which show tremendous courage in the face of adversity? For plants, and animals and people, even if they are common plants…It may be a purely personal weakness, but I feel that somewhere there must be someone who shares it with me.

Often, in the garden, I have found some plant that has seeded itself in a spot where you would think its frail roots could not possibly gain a hold. Perhaps it is only a common rock-plant that has pitched its gay camp on some wind-swept, barren wall, and is flying its yellow flag in the teeth of every wind. But though it is ‘common’, the miraculous courage of such a plant defeats me. I I could no more destroy it, even if it is an intruder, than I could tear up a rose tree that was decked in all the crimson regalia of July.’

RosesOutsideI do feel an odd affection for these roses. rosesMarigoldIt’s impossible to know who planted them or how long they’ve been neglected, but I do know they are survivors.

Who doesn’t respect a survivor?

It’s unlikely we’ll name them Hoover and Al Smith, as Nichols’ named his ivy plants, but they will certainly get the benefit of every ‘kind word’ I can give them. And Nichols’ hoped for ‘somewhere there must be someone who shares it’ has struck a chord with likely more than just me.

A Thatched Roof begins, in the Foreword, with the lovely lines of Cowper:

‘Time as he passes us has a dove’s wing,
Unsoiled and swift and of a silken sound.’

Like the rustle of a dove’s wing, or the fragrant floating path of rose petals, let us continue enjoying these silken sounds floating to us through time.

In an upcoming post–more about my odd pairing of Thoreau and Nichols.

Additional notes:

Beverley Nichols: 1898-1983

Books by Beverley Nichols related to gardening and household lore (via wiki):

Gardening, homes and restoration
• Down the Garden Path (1932) ISBN 978-0-88192-710-8
• A Thatched Roof (1933) ISBN 978-0-88192-728-3
• A Village in a Valley (1934) ISBN 978-0-88192-729-0
• How Does Your Garden Grow? (1935)
• Green Grows the City (1939) ISBN 978-0-88192-779-5
• Merry Hall (1951) ISBN 978-0-88192-804-4
• Laughter on the Stairs (1953) ISBN 978-0-88192-460-2
• Sunlight on the Lawn (1956) ISBN 978-0-88192-467-1
• Garden Open Today (1963) ISBN 978-0-88192-533-3
• Forty Favourite Flowers (1964)
• The Art of Flower Arrangement (1967)
• Garden Open Tomorrow (1968) ISBN 978-0-88192-552-4

My Sixpenny Book


‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.’

quote from I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

This belated genusrosa post finds us in the kitchen. Yes—I know. We are usually sharing a walk in the garden together, talking about a good book. And I have a lot of garden walks for us to catch up on!

But today I’m in the kitchen, thinking about pumpkin bread.

Even so, something from a book is at the ready. Shall I leaf through Elizabeth David, or the sublime M.F.K.? Sad to say, I google the perfect recipe for pumpkin bread and fall down the pinterest rabbit hole for two catatonic hours; (cream cheese swirl or chocolate chunk?? baked in a jar for that homespun look or the perfect giveaway gingham loaf pan?)—

Then Cassandra Mortmain [I Capture the Castle] and her delicious six penny writing book comes to mind. Those creative, brilliant Mortmains had simple bread and margarine and eggs for tea.

‘How odd it is to remember that “tea” once meant afternoon tea to us—little cakes and thin bread-and-butter in the drawing-room. Now it is as solid a meal as we can scrape together, as it has to last us until breakfast…Stephen is lighting the lamp. In a second now, the rosy glow will have gone from the kitchen. But lamplight is beautiful, too.’

Suddenly it is dusk and E.B. White and his Dusk in Fierce Pajamas looms into view… Owen Johnson ‘with his chafing dish’ is never far from my thoughts as I’m scrolling through page after page of awesome wonderfulness and gorgeous autumn inspiration…

‘They are perfect little crystals of being–static, precious.’ [E.B. White]

For now, to celebrate the lovely fall season, one doesn’t just make pumpkin bread; one is expected to make pumpkin bread from specially molded bakeware that mimics the shape of pumpkins, then drizzle them with a delicately spiced sugar glaze that has been colored orange (to suggest the color of pumpkins, I suspect) and then they are to be served on pretty little plates that have been hand-painted with autumn leaves in all the appropriate colors that one associates with fall. Because it is in the fall, you see, that we have pumpkins.

‘for it is dusk…’


I’m not sure if pinterest is enlivening to the imagination, or enervating to it. Has it replaced, not only imagination, but the actual doing? There are just a few doing, forty five million are watching, scrolling, and dreaming. Have we pin-terested ourselves into a state of catatonic ineptitude? (some day I will yes I will create that super cute jewelry organizer created with a vintage ironing board and two wooden candleholders—how could I not?)

I don’t want to lose my imagination. I think I know what season I’m in. I can still find my jewelry. I can even make jewelry.

‘All I know of her is that she appeared one night at dinner, her beauty set off by the lustre of artificial satin and the watery fire of aquamarine…’

Somehow, with the riches, variety, and opportunities of blogdom; I am just not writing. It’s not ‘the age thing’. I protest that notion. I write in my head constantly. And I still read constantly. But I am not writing. Pen to paper; fluid, articulate shapes appearing. Ideas forming, rushing upon one…


This lack of writing may not be bad for the world, per se, but it is not a situation I like for myself.

‘All I know of her is she appeared one night at dinner…’

Cassandra Mortmain’s story is told through a series of notebooks; journals, if you will. First, there is the sixpenny book that symbolized the humble reality of her circumstances; yet she made the most of every glint of light on shabby taffeta. Her improving fortunes, as the novel builds, are suggested by the upgrades in her notebooks: the sixpenny book is followed by the ‘schilling book’, followed by the ‘two-guinea book’. She painstakingly teaches herself to write—like her father did, once—by faithfully recording ordinary life as it was. Of course there was nothing ordinary about the Mortmains. (That being said, if this were today, Rose and Topaz would have been the pinterest addicts, and Cassandra the free spirited boho who ran an animal shelter.)

My new resolve, to be celebrated over a glass of white wine and—as it turns out, no pumpkin bread at all but some yummy butternut squash hummus that I intend to eat right out of the container—is to simplify. No more separate blogs for separate interests. This blog will suffice.

I actually kinda love it here.

It’s been quirky and unexpected, and I never know what is going to get the writing juices flowing. It could be a chance encounter with a new book, an odd word, a storied photograph, a curious shimmer of light on my fruit bowl (think Somerset Maugham), a comparison of Homer and Barbara Cartland…(can it be done?? let’s find out!) …you get the idea. Or, as in this post, I return to mine some favorite material.

It always comes back to words for me, whatever the subject. Other words from capable pens that still ring with perfect pitch, and still thrill me, or perhaps my own stumbling toward something elusive I can’t define. We can’t allow ourselves be stifled by the sheer amount of brilliance or choices out there, or feelings of having to fit into a certain ‘category’.

‘Father says the desire for self-expression is pathetic.’ [Cassandra Mortmain]

Ignoring Mr. Mortmain for the moment–but we’ll come back to him later in another post–some of the poetry and favorite quotes, photography, will be moved over from my Pollyanna Press to here. In time. I might write a post about my jewelry making enterprises. On occasion. The only blog to keep her Queen Bee status is my Margery Sharp blog. She–and her writing–has been a happy preoccupation of mine for many years now. Margery deserves her own blog and shall have it.

The genusrosa theme will be switched to a minimalist magazine layout. Well…not too minimalist…that’s just not me. But the idea is to organize the subjects for my readers a bit more efficiently (without the aid of a vintage ironing board and candleholders), so you can pick and choose your way.

However, if you’re looking for the perfect pumpkin bread recipe, I suggest pinterest. If you’re not back in five hours, we’ll come looking for you with our flickering lanterns and beeswax candles. The curiously gentle, ethereally beautiful Topaz might even be there, wearing her black rubber rain boots.

‘Topaz came downstairs just then, in her black oilskins, sou’wester hat and rubber boots, looking as if she were going to man the lifeboat.’

I love the world of I Capture the Castle. It was beautiful, inconsistent, tender, contradictory, achingly sad, heartbreakingly funny. Like life. It was also a reminder that worlds can be created beyond our own. Worlds that are real, nourishing, inspiring, and lovely. But only if we write.

We must keep writing…pen to paper…fluid, articulate shapes appearing. Ideas forming, rushing, rustling, breathing; ‘tamed and shabby tigers‘ spring to life once again.

‘It was…autumn, very gentle and golden. I loved the quiet-coloured fields of stubble and the hazy water meadows. Rose doesn’t like the flat country but I always did—flat country seems to give the sky such a chance. One evening, when there was a lovely sunset, we got lost…’



Additional notes:

Poetry reference also from I Capture the Castle:

‘Twould ring the bells of Heaven
The wildest peal for years,
If Parson lost his senses
And people came to theirs,
And he and they together
Knelt down with angry prayers
For tamed and shabby tigers
And dancing dogs and bears,
And wretched, blind pit ponies,
And little hunted hares.
[Ralph Hodgson]

My books:

A Garden for Allegra

Composing Molly

Someday…a sequel for those girls!

Strange Music in the Blue Shadow’d Hills




‘There was an audible stir breaking upon the silence of the solemn woods, the leaves were rustling together, and drops of moisture began to patter down…the clouds were falling apart, the mist had broken into thousands of fleecy white wreaths, clinging to the fantastically tinted foliage, and the sunlight was striking deep into the valley.’  Charles Egbert Craddock

The rains abated, so out the door we went. Our destination? The Columbia River Gorge, for color gawking, wine tasting, cider sipping, apple sampling, geese-spotting, and even to walk a bit in the moccasin-ed tracks of Lewis and Clark, laid down around 1805. A tall order for one day….


Literary destination for this trip? Charles Egbert Craddock. It’s not a name that rings with magic, certainly, but for the owner of this vigorously masculine nom de plume, it was deliberate; chosen to mask the fact that the author was actually a frail, crippled young woman.

There was nothing frail about the incisive mind of Mary Noailles Murfree. I’ve written about her before, in Virile Strokes of Ink. She is a subject I will return to now and again, as I do with other favorite authors. But for now…the poetic richness of a fine autumn day and clear vistas down the gorge had me longing for just a bit of what I call impassioned ‘Murfree-prose’.


‘High up, the mountain, shielded by the shadow of its own crags from this reflection of the west, showed a dark green shade of an indescribable depth and richness of tone, never merging into dusky indefiniteness. Through a gap in the range to the east were visible the infinite blue distances of the Great Smoky peaks, their color here and there idealized by the far-away glamours of sunset to an exquisite roseate hue, or a crystalline and perfect amethyst against the amber horizon. Down the clifty gorge—its walls of solid sandstone, cloven to the bare heart of the range by the fierce momentum of the waters—the bounding river came. One mad leap presented the glittering splendors of a glassy-green cataract, and in its elastic spray an elusive rainbow lurked.’ Charles Egbert Craddock [Murfree]: In the Stranger People’s Country.

Since my recent post focused on John Muir, and his tireless treks through wilderness regions, I have been thinking about the contrast offered by Mary Noailles Murfree.

Like Muir, she wrote passionately of the mountains she loved—though ‘her’ mountains were the Cumberlands of Tennessee and the distant blue ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains. She was a novelist, not a nature writer or activist. But in an ironic contrast to John Muir, Murfree’s delicate health and partial paralysis kept her from being able to ramble about freely in her beloved mountains. She rarely left the small sphere of her family life, and the close confines of four protective walls.

The second home of Mary N. Murfree was in Beersheba Springs of east/central Tennessee. Here was a source of natural hot springs that likely offered Murfree much needed relief from her muscular pain, and perhaps a pathetic hope of a cure for her paralysis. It is in Beersheba Springs, in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, where Murfree ‘observed’ the life of the Tennessee mountaineers, and then wrote of it with an air of authentic experience.

Her clever ear picked up the nuances of their curious speech, and she attempted to render it faithfully. It is this generous helping of ‘local color’ dialogue that can make her novels, at times, slow going. But it is also part of what makes the stories linger, as though a strange, insistent music keeps playing in the mind, long after the book has been put down.

Fitz doesn't like it if I get too far ahead...then again, he may have just spotted a squirrel.

Fitz doesn’t like it if I get too far ahead…then again, he may have just spotted a squirrel.

Readers of the time—no doubt slightly beguiled by the vigorous moniker of Charles Egbert Craddock— thought this new author strode in the same paths as the sturdy mountaineers they thrilled to discover; or that the fearless author had scrambled down the steep ravines of Lost Creek Valley as did wispy-haired, heroic Clarsie Giles in her thin homespun gown, on a night when ‘Pine Mountain stood solemn, majestic, mysterious, masked by its impenetrable growth.’


It is rather amusing, that, based on a reading of Murfree’s first published work In The Tennessee Mountains, (published 1884) she is praised by one starstruck reviewer as:

‘an active, fearless man accustomed to every phase of a wild, out-of-door life.’

Obviously this reviewer had a sort of John Muir character pictured in his mind. Or perhaps a Bret Harte. This well illustrates how none of Murfree’s physical frailties were hinted at in the vigor of her writing. For many years no one even suspected she was a woman. The reading public was enthralled by the word pictures she drew of a rugged, mystical landscape, and the world she now brought into popular view of an enigmatic society—that of the Tennessee mountaineers.

We’ll return to Murfree’s story—and stories she created—in the winter. Then I’ll be less distracted by pure pine essence wafting up from ‘the clifty gorge‘, or left with no opportunities to explore the abandoned orchards by the water’s edge, where the air is perfumed with the fragrance of apples and mint.

‘Overhead she heard the faint, weird cry of wild geese winging southward.’ Craddock