Placid Surface

‘The best of a country’s history is written on its rivers.’ H.E. Bates

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After the brutal fire season here in the Pacific Northwest, we have been trying to spend more time than usual in our beloved Columbia River Gorge. Not all of the trails and viewpoints are open yet–many will takes years to recover from the fires–but there is a reassuring amount of untouched beauty still to be had.

As is often the case, when I think of rivers, and their strangely mesmerizing power, I call to mind the words of H.E. Bates, in his work Down the River.  Bates is primarily beloved as a novelist, and perhaps even more praiseworthy in the short story category, but I do treasure his nature essays. He has that same wonderful sense of recall as poet Laurie Lee, and the simple pleasures of the natural world–the streams, rivers, fields and trees around them–nurtured the artist in both men.

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woodcut illustrations in my edition of Down the River by Agnes Miller Parker

Bates makes this interesting observation about the lure of water, and one I thought paired well with the idea of ‘serene‘:

‘Water shares with woods some power of tranquilizing the spirit, of quietening it almost to a point of dissolving it away; so that nearly all the best enjoyment of a piece of water comes from the mere act of sitting near it and doing nothing at all. It must surely be this power which attracts human beings in thousands to narrow strips of sand and shingle all over the world, which lures them to sit there… and gaze for hours at the expanses of sea and sky….’

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For more on H.E. Bates:IMG_9452

The Drowsy Heart of Autumn

Winter Intermezzo

 

 

 

 

 

Book and publishing notes: this cover is borrowed from the web, as it shows the British publisher page (Victor Gollancz, ltd, 1937) and my 1937 edition is identical except it is the American edition by Henry Holt and Co.

The Cinderella of Flowers

“Like fairy sausages.” — Through The Woods

At long last, I bring thee catkins.

I’ve been waiting for the catkin season to begin. My woodland walk the other day yielded, at last, a few sightings, glimmering from a hazel tree. I have been longing to see them in the wild since reading H.E. Bates’ nature book Through the Woods, and his lovely, evocative descriptions.

Well, perhaps his likening them to ‘fairy sausages‘ is not so lovely, but it is captivating. And strangely evocative. I’m not sure why, given the fact that fairies don’t exist. And if they did, as we imagine them in their wee, weightless, frolicsome days of dancing hidden in tall grasses, does it not seem even more fanciful that we would come across them devouring greasy, heavy sausages with a side of mustard?

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Unlikely…yet ‘like fairy sausages‘ seems so right a description of these lovely pendulous flowers.

‘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 just love the splendid geometry of the design in their tightly budded state. I hope to go back and photograph them in their opening stages through the winter.

(And thank you and your nature books, H.E. Bates, for opening my eyes to this seasonal wonder.)


A side note, given my Curious Word tendencies…Catkins and pussywillows have more in common than inflorescence. A pussywillow is a catkin; a catkin not necessarily a pussywillow; it depends upon which tree or shrub it blooms from. But both names reflect the fact that children loved these manifestations of nature, and gave them names that reflected their endearing quality. Catkins means ‘kitten tails’, from a Dutch word, and pussywillows because they resemble the soft, strokable fur of a kitty.

Or a sausage, if you’re hungry.

As mentioned, my earlier post on H.E. Bates also featured the gorgeous woodcut illustrations by Agnes Miller Parker; one of which I show here.

 

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

 

 

 

 

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