‘I found quite quickly that nothing bored people so immediately and completely as botany.’ — Nan Fairbrother, An English Year




At the risk of being boring… botany and macro-photography of the plant world is something I enjoy. I am just a keen amateur, of course, but when the photography suggestion for the week was ‘Order‘… I immediately thought of seed pods. These are some recent pictures I took of my faded peony. The flowers were stunning–and I did get many pictures of those–but, to me, the seed pods are even more fascinating. (They suggest to me fuzzy slippers, strewn with the limp confetti of spent petals and popped balloon detritus, and a warm and cozy morning after a really good party the night before, which can now be endlessly discussed at leisure and over several cups of coffee while we ponder Who Came and What Was Said.)

But what, I wondered, was inside? So I sliced one in half to peek into the busy command central of future flower production.

Within these tiny packets is an irony. There are few things more DIS-orderly than an untended garden. Yet seed production in the world of plants is an example of order in the most breathtaking sense of the word.

Where the seeds go, and how they are tended is where the hand of man comes in.

‘Each family of flowers—rose, daisy, buttercup—is like a theme of music, and the different species are variations on it.’ — Nan Fairbrother

FairbrotherEnglishYearI am currently re-reading excerpts from Nan Fairbrother’s An English Year.  I return to this book often, actually, as it’s the sort of book not easily absorbed in just one sitting.

When it comes to plants, we connect quite sympathetically:

‘It was on these days that I came to know and love the country. I travelled for miles around, for an active child can go a long way on a bicycle in eight hours. I became so familiar with the trees and flowers that they were nearer and far dearer than any people. I saved up and bought Johns’s Flowers of the Field… I learnt to run down in a flora the flowers I did not know. I struggled with botany books on osmotic pressure and the history of flowering plants and the difference in structure between monocotyledons and dicotyledons.’

And perhaps, if she were alive today, she might also be slicing seed pods, arranging them in the best light, (perhaps while balancing them on her knees) and holding a little phone camera as steadily as possible to best capture an interior world and glimpses of a colorful future.


Nan Fairbrother

The Quality of Light


“My studio! I have never had a studio, and can’t understand how one can shut oneself up in a room. To draw, yes; to paint, no…” And with a sweeping gesture toward the Seine, the hills and Vetheuil…. “This is my studio!”‘  –– written of Claude Monet

This milky blue light of winter is strangely alluring. It makes me wish I were a painter, or at least a more capable photographer. At times the mist hugs the window—as if something that ethereal could have smothering arms— we barely glimpse the world beyond its embrace. All we see are ghostly spires of tall evergreens in the distance, shape shifting as though handpainted with tinted mist and not quite dry.


Winter has its challenges, but I do love this view. As a Pacific Northwest native, I enjoy the rain, (when not wind-driven and torrential—those moments are best spent on the rocky Oregon coast!) and I particularly enjoy the lucent wash of light that acts as a scene change between dramatic rainstorms. Winter in Portland means, among other things: umbrellas, symphony, coffee shop visits, museums, old house tours, and, when the rain stops for a bit, long walks along the river.

Books, of course, can enhance our winter view. One always needs to lay up, like wood for the fireplace, plenty of books for the long, dark days.


Reading is not as sedentary as it sounds. There is an addictive quality to TV—think binge watching—or that greatest consumer of living brain tissue, video games. Perhaps we find ourselves Pinterest surfing endless recipes that highlight mesmerizing ways to use refrigerator dough resulting in a flaccid product that we would never actually eat; all of which keeps us rooted to our chairs and stills our minds to a slow motion acquiescence, as water droplets might slowly freeze. Our will has been taken over and we begin to resemble life size soft sculpture with beady glass eyes and unnatural hair.

Reading a book, however, can spur us on to try something interesting, or to at least attempt to experience some small part of what it is we are reading.

My reading reflects my domestic interests, and the writing of British authors that I love. They are now long dead but their wisdom and wit, their sometimes high-toned voice of authority, has been bequeathed through their books. They continue to speak, in essence. This is the great comfort in articulate, well chosen words, and the fluid continuity of ideas. But while that is the allure, the magic, it is also the caveat—a book is the product of a mind. Do I want to visit that mind? Do I want to invite that mind into my own, to arrange the furniture, so to speak? Do I want to flood my rooms with their view of light? Choose wisely, for what we read, we become. In winter I find this is even more important, for anything in these short dark days can be brushed, so to speak, with an altering, chiarascuro effect.

Any number of authors inspire us to get out and walk—I have mentioned more than a few on this blog. Smell the pine air, discover a fascinating tree bark, deliver some scones to a sick friend.

Before you deliver the goodies they must be baked, of course—that inspiration came from reading Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery. Her stentorian voice of authority on crumpets alone is a rousing call to action; her recipes, treatise and anecdotes will have you leaping from your chair to go on a mission for ten pounds of fresh flour just to start experimenting with seventeenth century Scottish bannocks. And then you have something to give away to your Scottish friends, who will love you. Elizabeth David is a positive, invigorating, dynamic woman.

I love to visit her cultured world of absolutes. Don’t even think about making an omelette with eggs that aren’t ‘spanking fresh and buttercup yellow‘. Her recipe for homemade mayonnaise–and she would tolerate nothing less–involves two insanely pristine ingredients, over five pages and fourteen steps of detailed instructions. Reading David gets me into the kitchen, excited to cook, even if I do lack the biceps needed to make the best mayonnaise the world has ever tasted.

Reading Bertha Damon’s Grandma Called It Carnal makes me want to build a time machine from old crockpot parts and ancient kitchen whirly gizmos, travel back with all due haste to Puritan New England, slap some common sense into her fanatical grandmother and save little Bertha’s pet dog. So…decidedly an activity less likely than making refrigerator dough pumpkin strudel product, but somehow still linked to fringe science. (note: although a fine book, I highly recommend you do not read this ‘humorous memoir’ in winter.)

Reading stirs the reader.

Today, via books, we enter the winter worlds of Nan Fairbrother and Elizabeth von Armin. Two writers, two struggling, ‘domesticated’ intellectuals, two ancient country homes, two winters separated by a generation and two world wars, two women with completely different perspectives on how to cope with the feelings of winter isolation.

Nan Fairbrother’s energy is all cerebral and intense, moody and indoors.


Elizabeth von Armin—in Elizabeth and Her German Garden— invigorates us with her cold weather exuberance, bursting joyously out of doors at any given moment to enjoy sledding, skating, or sleighing in sub zero temperatures.

Both women amaze me, both women are prodigious readers.

Just now I’m re-reading, as I often do, Fairbrother’s book of philosophical musings “An English Year”. FairbrotherEnglishYearThis book is a gem; described, justly so, as ‘a work of provocative insight, and quiet charm.’ I have enjoyed this book for so long, I was just recently amazed to realize I had missed the fact that Fairbrother really hates Winter. Really, really hates it. The darkness she exudes through her prose is powerful. (note to self: read the chapter on ‘Winter’ in the Summer…)

She is also encased in concerns of domesticity—the one area where our thoughts might overlap—but her domesticity is infused by musings on such things as Matisse, the light of Arles, architecture, the proper way to tour the Louvre—‘start at Pre-Columbian art’—Walter Pater, who enables the ‘poetic transmutation of ordinary life’; she ponders the seasons, and ‘the shifting play of their moods on her own sensibilities’…and so on.

Still, Nan Fairbrother hates Winter. She—who capitalizes all the seasons— even mentions this hatred of Winter in the Summer, the Spring, and again in the Autumn. The long arm of Winter, it seems, darkens the door of every season.

In Autumn, ‘Winter’ intrudes, all hope dies, and she cannot believe in a Spring:

‘The weather has changed to a cold and sullen stillness, and this has been the day which comes every Autumn, when all hope dies. The hills are lost in a cold half-mist, the fields flat and dead in the grey light, and the Winter streteches ahead endlessly to a Spring we cannot even try to believe in. After the long days of sunshine we realize again suddenly that the Winter is dark. Cold, too, and shut in and melancholy, but, above all, dark with the short hours grudging daylight only an interruption of the settled night….’

I feel obliged to point out, in all fairness, and feeling like my mother right now, who could find a kindly excuse for everyone’s deficiencies, that Fairbrother’s gloomy view of Winter and feeling trapped indoors surely had a lot to do with the time and circumstance of her writing these words. She lived out WWII in the country to care for her two small boys and keep them safe from bombs and a possible enemy invasion, while her husband served in the British Royal Air Force. The entire world at this time was shrouded in a grim winter. The future itself was uncertain. She had a right to complain about drafts.


Fairbrother had such a keen, active mind, that these days of being trapped inside a frigid sixteenth century farmhouse, were at times too stifling to bear.

It turns out, even Summer is not safe from Winter:

“We become a different person in the Summer: become an extrovert after Winter’s introspection—these awful words. In the fine weather we are free, not hampered by clothes, not confined in the house, so that even our movements are different, simpler and more gracious, not huddled against the cold. And living out of doors, we become more generous, more tolerant, less shut in and moody in the long daylight.’

Before this she mentioned the dark, strained outlines of Quattrocentro trees. She broods over the art of Hieronymus Bosch, Strindberg, ‘and the rest, who come from lands where the Winter is too long.’ And she reads too much Baudelaire, who wrote:

‘I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.’

‘Melancholy’—capitalized. First rule of capitalized ‘Winter’, Nan: don’t look at suffocatingly dark art, or a tortured artist’s conceptions of nightmarish hell. Don’t read plays that promote humanity as little else than rotting corpses with a sensitive conscience. Why would you do that to your lovely, quicksilver mind?

Nan Fairbrother

Nan Fairbrother

Then she decides, in her boredom, to read the case histories of Havelock Ellis. No…! I want to shout. Change the view! There are ways to get through Winter successfully, and there are ways to make Winter much darker than it actually is. (I want to bake her some Scottish bannocks and rush them over in my time machine)

Fortunately it was a short reading experience for her, perhaps slightly harrowing, but one with interesting results.

‘How very quickly we are bored, how soon they seem only stale and squalid, and above all, dull. We end by feeling, not that neurosis is a fascinating country, but that to explore at such length these small, self-centered and essentially un-original minds must be the most boring branch of all medicine…Not for a doctor perhaps, for he is studying the disease and not the people, but certainly for us.’

As her thinking is never far from art, the conclusions she draws are fascinating.

‘Which I think is one of the reasons why the arts so fail to satisfy when the artists––painters, writers, composers––are looking only inward at themselves. Not at the world reflected in their own unique mind (that is what the great artists do, and quite a different matter), but at themselves. For a great deal of modern art is really elaborated case-histories, and though it has a first quick interest, it does not last. For however brilliant a man’s mind may be, however fascinating an exploration for himself, it can never compare with the outside world in complexity and range and meaning. There is simply not enough in any single mind to be satisfying, we must see the world through it as well.’

Sufficiently intrigued, we waft readily along with her winter prose into the kitchen where there is, interestingly, a print of Renoir. Fairbrother loves this artist as she does many of the French artists, for their depiction of warm, sensual light.

‘I brought it home to pin on the kitchen wall, and now, whenever I feel too shut in this gloomy introspective Winter, I look at it and take myself to France. So there it lives, my Parapluies. A rainy day of black frocks and umbrellas, yet it glows with delight on the kitchen wall.

And this gift of Renoir’s, for making ordinary life delicious, is for me––quite un-English.’

Renoir's Parapluies:

Renoir’s Parapluies: via wiki

There it is, indeed. Lovely, luminous–Renoir engages his viewer with the slightly questioning look of the little girl with the hoop. ‘Why don’t you join us?’ she seems to be asking.

Later, Fairbrother, still musing upon the magic of the French painters, ponders: ‘people, like peaches, need sun to ripen them’…and then wonders if youth could ever truly appreciate the sensual beauty of a Renoir.

“For what does youth, living through the mind and the emotions, know of this direct and untroubled delight in warmth and color, the taste of peaches and the touch of silk and velvet?”

Hmmm…what would she have thought of this digital age? Digital images, sounds, words, digital friends we only know by their computer generated avatars. (interesting word origin: ‘avatar’)

Gradually, we are removing ourselves more and more from the regenerative power of tactile experience. While critical to the developing infant brain, is it any less potent for our elastic, questing, adult minds?

“For all kinds of doors open of themselves as one grows older and more various.” Nan Fairbrother

In Elizabeth von Arnim’s winter world, the weather is just fine. Delightful, in fact. Tactile experience in the crunchy snow abounds. She shares a few similarities of situation with Fairbrother: she is also ‘buried’ in an old country house; she is surrounded by the clatter and clamor of small children (possibly with more help staff, however). The difference is von Arnim thrives in her frozen landscape.

So—it is the winter of 1896, we have just sledded over to the Schloss of a fine lady, and we join Elizabeth as a guest at tea.

“You cannot possibly be happy in the winter entirely alone,” asserted another lady, the wife of a high military authority and not accustomed to be contradicted.
“But I am.”
“But how can you possibly be at your age? No, it is not possible.”
“But I am.”
“Your husband ought to bring you to town in the winter.”
“But I don’t want to be brought to town.”
“And not let you waste your best years buried.”
“But I like being buried.”
“Such solitude is not right.”
“But I’m not solitary.”
“And can come to no good.” She was getting quite angry.
There was a chorus of No Indeeds at her last remark, and renewed shaking of heads.

“I enjoyed the winter immensely,” I persisted when they were a little quieter; “I sleighed and skated, and then there were the children, and shelves and shelves full of —” I was going to say books, but stopped. Reading is an occupation for men; for women it is reprehensible waste of time.

‘And how could I talk to them of the happiness I felt when the sun shone on the snow, or of the deep delight of hoar-frost days?’

How unlike Fairbrother’s preoccupations in mood! Yet they both love books, and are in pursuit of the all-important Idea; streams of thought that carry one along, transporting yet grounding us.

‘I laughed on the way home, and I laughed again for sheer satisfaction when we reached the garden and drove between the quiet trees to the pretty old house; and when I went into the library, with its four windows open to the moonlight and the scent, and looked round at the familiar bookshelves, and could hear no sounds but sounds of peace, and knew that here I might read or dream or idle exactly as I chose with never a creature to disturb me, how grateful I felt to the kindly Fate that has brought me here and given me a heart to understand my own blessedness, and rescued me from a life like that I had just seen — a life spent with the odours of other people’s dinners in one’s nostrils, and the noise of their wrangling servants in one’s ears, and parties and tattle for all amusement.’

On a brilliant winter’s day Elizabeth and two of her friends set off in the sleigh for a three hour ride in the open air to admire the frozen Baltic Sea. Oh, and yes, to have a picnic. In sub zero temperatures.

“I have a weakness for picnics, especially in winter…yesterday morning we started off in the gayest of spirits, even Minora being disposed to laugh immoderately on the least provocation. Only our eyes were allowed to peep out from the fur and woollen wrappings necessary to our heads if we would come back with our ears and noses in the same places they were in when we started, and for the first two miles the mirth created by each other’s strange appearance was uproarious — a fact I mention merely to show what an effect dry, bright, intense cold produces on healthy bodies, and how much better it is to go out in it and enjoy it than to stay indoors and sulk. As we passed through the neighbouring village with cracking of whip and jingling of bells, heads popped up at the windows to stare, and the only living thing in the silent, sunny street was a melancholy fowl with ruffled feathers, which looked at us reproachfully, as we dashed with so much energy over the crackling snow.’

So much happy energy skimming over ice!

The lucent window of light has now passed, and here, in the present, we have moved on to the torrential rain sequence. In spite of this, Elizabeth von Arnim has inspired me to appreciate the aesthetic possibilities of having a picnic in winter. Unlike Nan Fairbrother, who bemoaned the lack of picnics in the winter—(it is not a picnic if there is no fizzy lemonade and warm, sleepy grass)—I am going to see the potential in a tartan wool rug and a thermos of hot soup. There are wetlands and wild geese aplenty, and this weekend a pudgy old steam engine will be chuffing through the valley, carrying its load of holiday adventurers in search of an Orient Express type experience. The creamy white curls of steam in the cold winter air is a delight to watch.

Nan Fairbrother, with her talk of glowing art, the French painters, and fine light on Renoir umbrellas, has reminded me that there is some very inspiring art just five minutes away at our Portland art museum. Not just any art, but the works of painters who looked out of themselves, and reflected the world through their own unique quality of light.

The exhibition is called, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family CollectionThe exhibit will be there through January.

The beginning quote by Claude Monet, is in connection with his En Paysage dans I’ile Saint-Martin, and is part of the collection. In all there are five landscapes by Monet. And, also part of the collection—the famous Birch Trees, by Gustav Klimt!

Seeing Nature offers an extraordinary opportunity to perceive the world through the gaze of some of the most important artists in history,” said Brian Ferriso, curator of the exhibit here in Portland.

I hope your reading this winter take you to new exciting worlds of discovery, floods light into your interior rooms, or makes even your ‘ordinary life more delicious.’

Additional notes:

Here, produced by Portland Art Museum, is a video on art and the brain:

For further reading on Nan Fairbrother, see here: (or type ‘Nan Fairbrother’ in the search box of this blog for more)

My post on Elizabeth von Arnim

More on Bertha Damon, coming soon