Magnificent Fluff

Gossamer is fragile. Fluff–it would appear–is everywhere, as tenacious as lint on black polyester.

I only say this because I’m currently re-thinking my obsession with photography.

This is just a hobby for me, of course. An easy one. So easy, in fact, that I’m wondering (at least in my case) if it has begun to replace the ability to describe things in words. Everyday, awesome, extraordinary things. A quivering water droplet on a leaf is my siren song, the sight of which is sure to have me reaching for my “phone” aka camera. For such it has become….a camera as opposed to a phone. Or, perhaps it is more correct to call it a device?

I rarely talk on said device, and use actual words or human speech to express myself. From what I hear, I am not alone in this. Instead, I take pictures, and share them. Pictures are worth a thousand words, right?

I’m beginning to think I want my thousand words back.

Texting is a ‘thing’, of course, but there one abbreviates excessively to the nazi will of spell check which wants us to make diminished vocabulary choices. And it is easier to click on the substitution suggested than to thumb-wrestle a pre-set for dominance. Or perhaps I shall switch out an emoji for my increasingly brief expressions–? (this also helpfully suggested). Emojis—which are not actually pictures. They are representations of words, emotions, and thoughts.

The other day I was looking out the kitchen window feeling the typical response of amused annoyance that ensues when watching the busy squirrel population in our yard. They are all cheek-stuffed complacency and vigilant bossiness, making extreme self-absorption look almost lovable. They are so very photogenic, and so elusive. I began to wonder… why is it important that I get this ultimate picture of their cuteness? Are there not enough squirrel pictures in the world? Are we not fully informed via digital images of the adorable obnoxiousness that squirrels possess? Or, as at that moment, when one was silhouetted in bright autumn sunlight, his tail a quivering mass of fluffy radiance—why should I be tantalized with a picture I wanted to capture, knowing full well that as soon as I moved the screen door a fraction of an inch he would be gone? Showing absolutely no appreciation for the tubs of sunflower seed I have shoveled in his behalf?

More ephemeral than a water droplet.

The need for words at that moment almost took my breath away. A haiku came to mind. (feebly…but a start). There is no accompanying picture of a squirrel silhouetted beautifully in sunlight, I’m sorry to say. You will just have to imagine how lovely it was.

Magnificent fluff
Radiating sass and sun
Bright arc of query


A friend of mine has been reading the book by Susan G. Wooldridge, pictured here; she highly recommended it to me, and it will be joining my library soon. I love the idea of getting back to ‘naming things’. Identify it new, for yourself. Explain it. Describe it richly or simply. But savor it.

Turn fluff into gossamer.

“Poems arrive. They hide in feelings and images, in weeds and delivery vans, daring us to notice and give them form with our words. They take us to an invisible world where light and dark, inside and outside meet.”
Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words

Note: Daily Post today has fluff today as a word prompt; normally when I think of fluff I think of gossamer, today I was thinking of squirrels. But if you’re interested in these subjects as related to gossamer and autumn photography, or the literary aspect of gossamer–i.e. Virginia Woof, Selborne and Gilbert White, I’ve provided you with links below:

A Quest for Gossamer

Gossamer Abundant

Summer Wine and Word Savor

‘Words have personality.’

Or words to that effect. So said a famous wordsmith named Willard R. Espy, who wrote a great deal of delightful stuff about words, and remains highly unquoted.

51b1dqao1gl._sx361_bo1,204,203,200_One word that definitely has personality is caper, which is today’s word suggestion from the good folks at WP.

I wouldn’t call myself a word expert, by any means, (terms like uvular fricative make my brain hurt) but I do love to savor a word curiosity now and then. And just like a good wine, there are certain pairings that are immediately suggested by the palate. Like a good pinot and soft goat cheese, or a full-flavored port with a dark chocolate truffle.

So therefore, with caper (though it is also a pungent little berry that goes well with seafood and a crisp, chilled chardonnay) we have a word that suggests, inevitably, frolic.

You could even pair the two as frolicsome caper, and further suggest the word antics, and at the risk of sounding octogenarian, cavort.  This brings me to my red squirrels, which, quite unfortunately, were drunk this morning on summer wine, and doing all of the above.

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Summer wine not only goes well with capers, it causes them (the cavorting sort). The wine referred to here is what we like to call the Morello cherries from our tree that have fallen to the ground, now sweetly fermenting. They grow too high for us to actually make them useful for human consumption, but the squirrels and birds are having entirely too much fun up there in the back corner of the yard.

Gambol and tumble are good side dishes, as it were. If fact, if you look up ‘gambol’, you will find the following synonyms:

‘frolic, frisk, cavort, caper, skip, dance, romp, prance, leap, hop, jump, spring, bound, bounce; play; (dated, sport)’

To which I might add “see: tippling“.

All of those definitions sound quite athletic, even for a squirrel drunk on Morello cherries, so occasionally one tumbles down the rockery and causes concern.

So far I have witnessed no injuries, and the merriment continues.

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As you can see from the picture below, the lawn is slightly elevated from the patio, giving a stage-like appearance, which the squirrels use to good effect.

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(this beautiful quilt made by a dear friend)

Other than that, the garden is (usually) a peaceful place for reading. Perhaps even sipping a bit of Morello summer wine, if the squirrels will share.

 

Cheerfulness Among the Ruins

On the scale of annoyances, a word like ‘irksome’ falls fairly low in intensity. For example, the shrill yapping of your neighbor’s Pomeranian is irksome. But if your Rottweiler goes after the Pomeranian and mauls it, the situation has just escalated to well beyond irksome. Sadly, we will not need our dictionaries to describe what next occurs.

In the world of fiction, if you want to get lost in a book where nothing really really bad happens, and fluffy lap dogs live forever in a fantasy village preserved in something like a snow dome, you couldn’t do better than the world of Barsetshire. (created by Anthony Trollope, but enchantingly enlarged upon by Angela Thirkell.)

image of Angela Thirkell via wiki

Yet, unfortunately for some readers, it might seem appropriate that Angela Thirkell conveniently has the ‘irk’ built right into her name.

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Angela Thirkell Cheerfulness Break In

It is true, she can be a self-indulgent writer, and take the reader on many lengthy pointless divigations of trivialities, she can take a tiresomely plaintive tone, (particularly in her later novels) and some of her sentences are fantastically long.

Though at times plowing through these exasperating moments, I still enjoy her novels on the whole, and even look forward to re-reading them. I also enjoy her long sentences, and view some of the more well-crafted ones as a work of art.

So what is the secret to her success? Why does she remain popular even to readers of today, with our short attention spans, ‘get to the point’ mentality, and our dismissal of happy endings? Why have even publishers like Virago have reprinted some of her cosy, domestic, feminine fiction in recent months?

Well, you won’t find a definitive answer here. (but here you will) I can only give you one reader’s opinion—that would be me—when I say that there is a certain ebullient charm in Thirkell’s writing style that is like a cork that keeps bobbing to the surface. Just when you think you are about to be weighed down by too many characters, too many side trips into past histories, too many lukewarm romances culminating in too many marriages….then you hit ‘a spot’, an aha moment in the narrative that delights beyond comprehension.

That’s when you realize that Angela Thirkell is writing from a depth and erudition that makes her completely unique. I prefer not to compare her with other writers, be it Jane Austen or Barbara Pym. Angela Thirkell is simply in a class by herself.  As a bonus, she can be hilariously funny.

my little stash of Thirkells

These Barsetshire stories are beloved for a reason; they are deeply layered, and there are gems studded throughout that truly speak to a culture, a time period, a set of values, that is worth dipping into for study, and/or escape entertainment.

(For brevity I am neatly side-stepping here decades of Thirkell Circle clubs, online discussion groups, reams of scholarly papers written on this subject, all related to everything from the simple enjoyment of her novels as fantasy to an unraveling of the scholarly sub-text embedded within; but a wonderful resource to learn more about the world of Barsetshire is angelathirkell.org)

Thirkell knew the audience she was writing for, and she knew it was a commercially successful ‘line’ of products she had introduced. She was a savvy woman, and understood what was expected of ‘a lady novelist’. True—tired and cranky at times, opinionated beyond all doubt, but it is well to remember she was a single parent who worked for a living. She felt a responsibility to provide for her sons, and she kept to deadlines through some pretty severe conditions. She lived through a period of British history that was anything but light and charming, yet she was able to rise above that and create, on the whole, light, charming stories that showed a positive view of a community that came together for good.

That is, I believe, one of the secrets to the charm of the Barsetshire series. Thirkell created an ensemble cast; returning characters that people were eager to read about, and see where their lives would take them. The secret to a successful ensemble cast—in movies, literature, musicals—is that the sum is greater than the parts. The snug community of Barsetshire, abuzz with tea parties and knitting circles, with snappy little red roadsters and lumbering donkey carts navigating the village lanes, came together when it really counted. Whatever class, snobbery, or educational levels that existed as a reality of the times, there is a collective spirit of warmth she created that invites one in.

If you love literary, cultural, poetic allusions–and love tracking them down–there are enough peppered throughout Thirkell’s output to keep you well fed for years. You could almost form the groundwork of a classics education if you just followed every thread of allusion stranded through her narratives.

And speaking of sparkling threads stranded through a work… Since I think in terms of analogy, my attempt to sum up the charm of Barsetshire makes me think of a scarf.

Some women buy a scarf because they like the color, because it is pretty, it feels good on, and it keeps their neck warm. Done.

Other women buy a scarf because it is interesting and comes with a ‘story’. It may be an odd color of puce that is in direct conflict with their skin tone, but that is of small consideration, and they wear it, regardless, because it is a unique and fabulous piece. The wool comes from adorable llamas that graze on a rare kind of grass in the Peruvian Andes, and then, after hard-working little women who sing folk songs while they work spin the wool, it is dyed with a concoction of tea leaves that can only grow at certain elevations. The tea leaves need proper fermentating for several months in order to achieve that odd puce color that makes you look slightly yellow when you wear it. (don’t ask me how I know this…)

That is sort of a Barsetshire magic. Thirkell’s own story is an interesting one, and explains the strangely dimensional aspect to her charming world, the sense that you are looking at something generations beyond what she might have effortlessly chronicled as inconsequential. No time for a biography here, (shall I invoke wiki?) but Thirkell’s childhood history is extensive in its atmosphere of poetry, classics, scholarship, and art. Knowing what sort of conversation must have flowed around her breakfast table, as she grew up, explains a great deal about how rich Angela Thirkell’s interior world must have been.

Just one example: her beloved grandfather was Edward Burne-Jones; a famous artist who created a shimmering, romantic world of his own.

burne-jones-love-among-the-ruins

Love Among the Ruins…. a beautiful poem by Robert Browning

Also a famous painting by Burne Jones, and later to be the title of one of Angela Thirkell’s novels.

Happily, Thirkell’s novels have had many reprints. I would direct you to Kate McDonald’s blog for more information, including some compelling reasons to add this author to your stash on the groaning TBR pile, and here to the Virago website, as well.

In Search of Wild Chrysanthemums

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

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

Wang Chien, T’ang Dynasty

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

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

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

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

Autumn asters, H.E. Bates

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

For that, I can thank the elusive wild chrysanthemum.

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

Sincere

Unfinished Business, Literarily

Whether they are readers or writers, the unfinished book can really haunt a person. In my case, I always feel this nagging need to go back and finish Grandma Called it Carnal.

At the time, I simply couldn’t go on reading it. It is highly unusual for me to leave a book unfinished. Especially one by an author that I think writes splendidly. And, for the record, Grandma called everything carnal. She even called the excessive consumption of beet greens carnal. Grandma Griswold is the reason I put this book down, unfinished.

Who is the author? Bertha Damon, and her book of memoir is described as:

‘Her experiences being raised in a Connecticut village by an eccentric grandmother who combined Victorian notions of propriety with a great admiration for Henry David Thoreau and an aversion to modern inventions.’

I should have loved this book. But, truth is, with all due respect to Bertha Damon and her obvious love for her grandmother, this lady was rather disturbing. All that Puritan rigidity, a self-denial that seemed in reality more of a focus on herself than a love for others, became a bit much.

‘The funeral drew to our house a flock of forbidding-looking paternal uncles and aunts from Connecticut, who seemed very big and tall and gloomy. The aunts wore black, hardhearted dresses, with beads and passementerie glittering all over to make it all worse. They looked around and said, ‘They seem pretty comfortably fixed; but she never was a good housekeeper.’ Finally they noticed me.’

When little Bertha’s mother dies a painful death, Bertha and her sister go to live with their Puritan Thoreauvian grandmother. They cannot show any signs of grief, nor are they ever hugged. Bertha soon adopts a sweet old dog and finds comfort, but her grandma ‘disposes of it’,  for breaking the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’. Then the old cow had to die, for ‘fornicating’, apparently.

So Grandma Griswold got jettisoned, and I laid aside an otherwise fascinating memoir. Now, with my winter reading plans being tucked away, this book is coming back out.

Bertha Pope Damon was quite a well-known personality in the Berkeley University social climate in the 1920’s and ’30’s, and, except for this memoir that goes as far as the end of her childhood, there is tantalizingly little to be found out about her.

In the book/transcript ‘Recollections and reminiscences of life in the Bay Area from 1920 onward’ (available online) Berkeley scholar and professor Benjamin Lehman mentions Bertha Damon several times. Often, it is an intriguing comment about how beautiful she was, how witty, how articulate, and how interesting people loved to gather around her because she, herself, was so interesting.

This, as a side note, provides an timely connection to my recent ‘Week of Reading Carlyle’, as Benjamin Lehman was a Carlyle scholar at Berkeley. He, as he puts it, ‘grew up reading Carlyle’. The evenings of entertainment and conversation he describes at Bertha Damon’s lovely hillside home in San Francisco—where writers, musicians, dancers and academics gathered—sound reminiscent of the legendary entertaining at the Carlyle table.

Ernst Bacon, the famous composer, dedicated two pieces of music to Bertha. Significantly, they were named, respectively, ‘Alone’, and ‘I’m Nobody’. (this would have merited Grandma Griswold’s approval, I’m sure, although she might have been suspicious of Ernst).

Composer Ernst Bacon dedicated two songs to Bertha Damon

Composer Ernst Bacon dedicated two songs to Bertha Damon

‘To hide your own crying was the Griswold way of feeling grief. To ignore another’s crying, the Griswold way of curing it.’ — Bertha Damon

Later, she would write that her grandmother felt very badly about those early days, and the truth is, Bertha Damon loved her grandmother very much. She also owed her a great deal. Bertha Damon was an extremely accomplished and talented woman, yet was not considered ‘educated’, in the classic sense. The kind of reading and memorization and mental calisthenics that Grandma Griswold demanded of her two granddaughters was astounding.

The Berkeley academic community welcomed Bertha into their midst, and as Professor Lehman wrote:

‘There was also in Berkeley in those days the divorced wife of a professor of aesthetics named Bertha Pope [later Damon]… [she] was a beautiful and vivid presence…and gathered around herself people who enjoyed a certain spaciousness of life….she was a great contribution to our community.’

Here’s the odd thing: For a woman who was this popular in what you might call an advanced social circle, which we can only imagine Lehman means by ‘a certain spaciousness of life’, a woman who even took road trips with a young, up and coming photographer named Ansel Adams, there are no pictures of her circulating out there. So to put a face to this ‘beautiful and vivid presence’ at this point is impossible.

‘She spoke so well herself of so many things and was so great a wit that we were all delighted periodically into uncontrolled laughter. The evidence was clear that she could write if she wanted to.’ — B.H. Lehman

She did write. Her book A Sense of Humus, (1943) focused on her adult life with gardening as a basis. It became very popular, and was even reprinted into other editions. (in Britain it was published as Green Corners, 1947.) The chapter about her dog, Ruffled Paws—quite serious and moving—also became part of various anthologies. It becomes particularly affecting when you think about the beloved dog that she lost in childhood. (but then I’m obviously a soppy hearted dog owner, so…you’ll understand the humus from which these sentiments spring)

A review of A Sense of Humus is to follow.

‘She valued everything, delighted in everything…she had a kind of gaiety of mind.’ — Benjamin Lehman


For more about Bertha Damon, read the excellent write up on wikipedia by Ann Harlow, and read more about the California art and culture scene of this period on her blog here.

And yes, literarily is a word. A Curious Word, actually.