Birds Art Life

“They were constantly chirping, and what they were saying, or what I heard them say, was: Stand up. Look around. Be in the world.”


BirdsArtLife

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“For me, birding and writing did not feel interchangeable. Birding was the opposite of writing, a welcome and necessary flight from the awkward daily consciousness of making art. It allowed me to exist in a simple continuity, amid a river of birds and people and hours. The stubborn anxiety that filled the rest of my life was calmed for as long as I was standing in the river.”

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“As long as I can remember I have been drawn to people who have side loves. Maybe because no single job or category has ever worked for me, I am particularly interested in artists who find inspiration alongside their creative practice. It could be a zest for car mechanics or iron welding (Bob Dylan) or for beekeeping (Sylvia Plath). I love the idea that something completely unexpected can be a person’s wellspring or dark inner cavern, that our artistic lives can be so powerfully shaped and lavishly cross-pollinated by what we do in our so-called spare time.”    Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear

I just love this little memoir. Writer Kyo Maclear, a novelist, essayist, and children’s book author, was feeling overwhelmed by the illness of her father, caring for her two young boys, keeping up her writing, and all of life’s other demands. She decided to begin a side practice, something to relax her and refresh her writing and creative spirit.

For a year, she accompanied an avid birder who is also a musician and performer in birding adventures around Toronto and wrote about it, along the way finding truths about life and art.

Many artists and writers are dabblers or become accomplished in a side practice that cross pollinates their art and their life. Vladimir Nabokov was a world renowned butterfly expert. Virginia Woolf gardened.

I’m not sure I have a side practice. Certainly nature feeds my writing and inspires me, and I’m experimenting with learning how to paint watercolors because painting is nonverbal, a relief from hours of being in my own head when I write.

For Kyo, birding was a delightful hobby and new passion because it was relatively easy to do. Despite living in an urban environment, Kyo and her birding companion were intrigued and entertained by the wide range of birds they found along the lake front and in streams, parks, vacant lots, parking lots, backyards, and right outside their picture windows.

Each chapter in Birds Art Life is devoted to a month and a theme: Love, Cages, Smallness, Waiting, Knowledge, Faltering, Lulls, Roaming, Regrets, Questions, and Endings.

A few chapter subtitles will give you an idea of Kyo’s thematic reflections:

Smallness: On the satisfactions of small birds and small art and the audacity of aiming tiny in an age of big ambitions

Lulls: On peaceful lulls and terrifying lulls and the general difficulty of being alone and unbusy

In one chapter, Kyo broadens her scope to reflect on climate change and how, day to day, urbanites and suburbanites don’t notice the human-caused environmental disruption and species depletion happening just outside their view.

Many birders have a spark bird, a particular species of bird that ignites their interest and launches them into birding. Likewise, many devoted readers have a spark book, a book they read in childhood that became a portal to a life of passionate reading.

Do you have a spark book? What comes to mind for me is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. 

This is a hugely satisfying memoir and meditation on life and art that will replenish your spirit. I highly recommend it.

“This is what birds do when they join a swirl of other birds, I thought. They don’t proclaim their individuality or try to make a splash. They dissolve into the group. I wondered if this merging felt so relaxing because it was an antidote to the artist ego, built on an endless need to individuate, to be your own you. In place of exhausting self-assertion, the relief of disappearing into the crowd.”

Do you have a side practice that complements your primary work? Do you have a spark book, or a spark bird, or something specific that sparked your passion in another hobby or practice?

 

My Absolute Darling

MyAbsoluteDarling“Martin holds his burning cigarette upright. The cherry is just barely visible in the dark; above it, the tower of ash. He turns it slowly, inspecting it from all angles. He says, ‘You want me to eat that scorpion?’

‘Try it!’ Cayenne says.

Turtle can see that the girl wants to share this with him. She wants this to be something they’ve all done together. But Turtle doesn’t want him to do it. She wants to show Cayenne something important here, about her own substance and about Martin’s because Martin, Turtle thinks, is afraid.

Martin says, ‘You didn’t eat a scorpion.’

‘Why would we make this shit up?’ Turtle says.

Martin chews his lip. At last, he says, ‘You really want to see me eat this scorpion, huh?'” – My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent

This novel and its author have been getting so much attention, I had to find out what all the fuss was about. Stephen King declared My Absolute Darling a masterpiece, and there are endorsement quotes on the book jacket from Phil Klay, who won the National Book Award for the short story collection Redeployment, and Celeste Ng, author of the novel Everything I Never Told You. All are writers I’ve enjoyed whose opinions I respect.

On the other hand, another writer I like, Roxane Gay, the author of Bad Feminist, is not a fan of My Absolute Darling.

So readers are divided about this first novel by Gabriel Tallent, whose mother, by the way, is the writer Elizabeth Tallent. I decided to read other reviews before I wrote this post because I was conflicted about the novel, and I wanted to see if these could help clarify my thinking. If you are up for reading a disturbing story of incest and obsessive love, I do recommend My Absolute Darling. I think the book has flaws but, in the end, they didn’t fatally undermine the story for me, which is a true page-turner – I stayed up late reading it on two consecutive nights. And despite its dark theme, the protagonist, 14-year-old Turtle, is a brave, noble spirit I won’t soon forget.

Turtle lives with her father, Martin, on the northern California coast near Mendocino. Martin is an autodidact partial to reading David Hume and other inscrutable texts of the great philosophers, a survivalist waiting for the end of the world, and a sociopath who is sexually abusing his daughter. Guns are everywhere in their decrepit house, as well as stocks of food and medical supplies. Martin began teaching Turtle how to shoot when she was six, and now she is an excellent markswoman with superb survival skills.

Martin worships Turtle as a goddess he can’t live without, but his mood can turn on a dime and Turtle suddenly turns to filth in his eyes. Having endured this abuse for years, Turtle has a fragile sense of herself. When two boys from the local high school come into her life and Turtle develops a crush on one of them, Turtle realizes that forming bonds with others endangers them. Turtle must go to great lengths, both inside herself and out in the world, to break free from the dark power her father holds over her.

Tallent’s prose can be flashy and mesmerizing. There is a strong sense of place, with lush descriptions of coastal California. Sometimes the language is technical and the paragraphs are long, peppered with words I wasn’t familiar with but, generally, this didn’t bother me; other readers may feel this interferes with the story. I love good nature writing and, for the most part, I felt that Tallent nailed the dramatic beauty and wildness of the California coast.

The writing was sometimes over the top in other ways. For example, Martin, Turtle’s father, could be so senselessly sadistic, he sometimes wasn’t believable. I think the author wanted to write a keep-the-pages-turning story, and he may have been influenced by the current highly sensational nature of movies and television drama. I’m revealing my age as far as literary taste goes, and younger readers might not find aspects of the story so extreme. That said, there are also echoes of fine literary works evident, among them The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Lolita. These deepen and enrich the story of Turtle and Martin.

More problematic than Tallent’s occasionally self-conscious prose are issues that Roxane Gay points out in a Goodreads review. Gay, who has written about sexual abuse, feels that there are elements of Turtle and Martin’s incestuous relationship that Tallent simply got wrong. I can’t speak to this, but I did feel, occasionally, that Turtle would not have acted in certain ways or that she would have made different decisions. Destructive relationships are complicated, and it’s incredibly difficult to capture the psychological dynamics involved.

I’m listing so many caveats you might think I didn’t like the novel, but that’s not the case. Turtle is an unusual heroine, a real survivor, though not the kind her father envisioned. Gabriel Tallent is young – about thirty – and he chose to tell an extremely challenging story.  His writing will mature. He’s now working on a second novel.

Here are a few more excerpts from My Absolute Darling:

“‘You are the most beautiful thing,’ he says, ‘that’s what I think. Everything about you, kibble, is perfect. Every detail. You are the platonic ideal of yourself. Your every blemish, every scratch, is inimitable elaboration on your beauty and your wildness. You look like a naiad. You look like a girl raised by wolves. You know that?'”

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“Walk away, Turtle. Just walk away from him, and if he follows after and if he will not let you go, you kill him. He’s given you everything and all you need to do is walk away. Do you remember when blood ran in your veins like cool, clear water? You could find that place again and it would be hard but it would be good. Nothing and no one can keep you away from it; only you can take yourself back into the dark, only you can do that. He can’t do it to you, and don’t lie about that. So walk away, Turtle. Think about your soul, and walk away.”

Who else has read this novel by a brand new American novelist, and what did you think? I’d love to hear from other readers.

Salvage the Bones

SalvagetheBones“I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”    Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

Last week, as Hurricane Harvey had its way with Houston, I wrote about an excellent work of investigative journalism that came out of Hurricane Katrina: Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital,

This week, as Hurricane Irma gathered strength, I finally got around to reading Jesmyn Ward’s fine novel about Hurricane Katrina, Salvage the Bones.

Jesmyn grew up with her family in rural Mississippi trailer parks. Her father had been a gang member; he eventually abandoned the family, but not before the pit bull he was raising attacked Jesmyn, sending her to the hospital.

In 2005, Jesmyn’s family survived Hurricane Katrina. They had to evacuate her grandmother’s house, wade through chest deep water, and wait out the storm in their cars as flood waters swirled around them. Jesmyn was moved to write a novel about the hurricane, in part, because people seemed to forget about Katrina’s devastation long before the land and the people were healed. As a writer, she also must have been compelled to translate this life-threatening and life-changing episode into art.

Salvage the Bones is about an African American family and their rural community of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, where most of the residents are poor, much like the place where Jesmyn grew up. It’s written from the viewpoint of 15-year-old Esch, who has just discovered she is pregnant. She has three brothers and a hard-drinking father; one of her brothers is raising pit bulls for fighting. China, the pit bull mama, is just as much a character as the people in this novel, as well as a symbol of strength, power, and vengeance.

In the opening pages, I felt a stranger to this family, whose experiences and culture are so foreign to mine even though we live in the same country. By the end, I’d fallen in love with Esch and her family. I even had a grudging respect for China the pit bull, which says something about the power of Ward’s writing – I’ve always disliked and feared pit bulls. I couldn’t help but be awed by Jesmyn West’s fiction. Her writing is outstanding – fierce, evocative, and gritty.  Jesmyn has said that she strives for a “narrative ruthlessness.” Salvage won the National Book Award in 2011.

I plan to read Jesmyn’s memoir next. Men We Reaped is about the deaths of Jesmyn’s brother and four other young black men she knew due to car accidents, drugs, and suicide. And she’s just published another novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing.

You can listen to an interview with Jesmyn Ward on NPR at this link.

Have you read any books by Jesmyn Ward? What about the literature of natural disasters – any books to recommend?

Gone fishin’ (for books)

Summer

From Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear

 

This time around, my post is mostly pictures from bookstore stops on our summer vacation in the Pacific Northwest.

The past few years, we’ve been more consciously immersing in nature in our travels, and I’ve been reading and writing about nature, too. Along the way, I’ve become fascinated by watercolor painting and nature journaling, though I can’t say I actually do much painting or journaling.

Very early on, I let a teacher convince me I had no talent for art, and so I’ve avoided these artistic pleasures and pursuits. I’ve since seen the light, and now I have all sorts of intentions and anticipations when it comes to making art. We’ll see.

In the meantime, my desires and my love for beautiful things are reflected in my bookstore adventures.

 

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Browsers Bookshop in Olympia has become a good friend, a favorite stop in my travels since I happened upon it last year. A warm, welcoming staff and an exceptional selection of books.

 

BrowsersZoology

Browsers Bookshop has many book categories and collections, sprinkled with staff picks. All in all, an outstanding selection of books, with many hidden gems, like the one I found below….

 

ATrailThroughLeaves

A Trail Through Leaves is extraordinary. Part memoir and part instruction in the daily act of keeping a nature journal, Hannah Hinchman’s writing and illustrations are outstanding. “The journal is a place to decant the stuff of life; reassuringly, none of it is wasted. It remains fresh, still tasting of its source. Transferring experience from the vat of life into the vessel of the journal is a distillation: it sieves, concentrates, and ferments. If after many seasons we develop some mastery of the process, the stuff can become as clear and fiery as brandy.”

 

Frogs

A page from Hannah Hinchman’s A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place. “Everyone should learn to draw competently, with a sense of play and invention, if only to honor the fact that it’s one of the first instinctive gestures we make to appease the appetite for beauty. If everyone acknowledged that hunger, and gained a whole selection of ways to satisfy it, a different culture would emerge.”

 

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Personally recommended by Browsers Bookshop owner Andrea Griffith. What a meaningful gesture, to press a book into someone’s hands. “I never put up a barber pole or a sign or even gave my shop a name.” – Jayber Crow    My journey with Wendell Berry continues. Recently, I finished Hannah Coulter.

 

BookNBrush

In addition to an impressive book collection, Book ‘N’ Brush in Chehalis, Washington sells art supplies and art instruction books. It has a loft, too, where the public can attend art classes. Book ‘N’ Brush was recently named a must-visit, unique independent bookstore by The Culture Trip. 

 

BookNBrushWatercolor

I couldn’t decide…and I could have spent another hour or two in Book ‘N’ Brush.

 

BookNBrushChinese

Chinese brush painting display at Book ‘N’ Brush. These intriguing and beautifully made tools were so enticing I was tempted to try this specialty, and I was led to another hidden gem….

 

ChineseBrush.jpg

“Absorbing and calming, spiritual and steeped in history, the tradition offers something for everyone….Most satisfyingly, the pictures you paint will be in your own ‘handwriting,’ unique to you. ‘Writing a picture’ is the usual way of describing the painting process in China.”

 

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Each page contains simple instructions for making a flower, a fruit, a vegetable, an animal, an insect, a fish….Who knew with just a few strokes I could make a snail, a fuchsia, a chili pepper, a peacock, a relaxing woman, a couple in conversation….

 

BookNBrushStaffPicks

Plenty of staff recommendations at Book ‘N’ Brush too, the mark of a good bookstore. I spy a few familiar faces…

 

KyoMaclear

On my to-read shelf, an urban writer observes birds outside her window for a year: “The artist peered at me thoughtfully for a moment. Her blue eyes were clear and perfectly lined with kohl. Finally she spoke, with a hint of bemusement. She said the students who came to her were always full of hunger. They were seventeen-year-old aspiring artists and eighty-five-year-old retired businessmen. People of mourned, mislaid, or unmined creativity. Their yearning was like the white puff of a dandelion. All she had to do was blow gently and watch their creative spores lift, scatter, and take seed.”

 

KimStafford

We were in Portland, too. At the Woodstock Public Library I found a life-sized etching of a poem written by Kim Stafford. (Earlier this year, I took one of Kim’s online classes, Daily Writing in the Spirit of William Stafford.You have the power to open centuries that trees hold/silent in their rings. This palace of the possible needs you,/your hand on the door. Enchant this place awake.

 

Many thanks to Browers Bookshop and Book ‘N’ Brush for much browsing pleasure, for great books I wouldn’t have discovered anywhere else, and for giving so much to their communities. What would we do without independent bookstores?

Here’s one more quote by Hannah Hinchman, from A Trail Through Leaves; it occurs to me that I must have been not that far away from this scene as it happened – I was in college in Appalachian Ohio in 1976:

“The girls wore plain long dresses with a sort of blazer coat, equally plain. They led me to the barn with no concern for the mud. They showed me the milk vat, half full of milk. Startling to see a whole lake of milk like that, with cat tracks on the lid of the vessel. Such an austere cold and windy gray day, spitting pellets of snow. Arriving at this farm in the deepest of Ohio agricultural land, far from the mainstream of the world, and meeting these youngsters, plain as the winter landscape, but with faces like young peaches, smooth as fresh-shelled beans, like sprouts in winter.”  Hannah Hinchman’s journal, Volume 19, Ohio, 1976.

More about Hannah Hinchman here.

(Since I wrote this post, I found out Hannah Hinchman has another classic book, A Life in Hand: Creating the Illuminated Journal. It’s available as an e-book, but the print versions are now quite expensive. It would be great if a publisher would re-issue a print edition. Print books such as this one disappearing from the world are a loss.)

What are you reading this summer? If you’ve been traveling, where to, and have you found any bookstores to recommend?

To inspire your creative practice, soak up another’s

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“Those who have taken up homesteading – whether in the late nineteenth century, in midcentury, or in more recent periods – have all been acting out particular versions of larger experiments in American cultural dissent and spiritual creativity.”

 

I wake up early, not so usual for me, and when I raise the blinds it’s always sunny here on the dry side of the Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

I put on a thick woolen sweater with a Native American design in sepia and acorn hues, owned by the artist who lives and works here. I grab my cereal and juice, head outside, and eat my shredded wheat looking at Mt. Hood.

We just sold our home of 23 years, where we raised two sons. Wanting to get our minds off of what we left behind, we flew across the country to an artist’s studio and retreat in the Pacific Northwest. New terrain and evidence of an artist hard at work teaching, learning, sharing, and making are reviving my creative spirit.

These things inspire:

  • a weaver’s loom
  • artwork on all the walls, mostly nature based
  • marigolds drying in a basket
  • a display of cloth swatches dyed from goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, turmeric, eucalyptus, horsetail, walnut, and blackberries
  • a fragrant garden with mint, basil, tomatoes, squash and other goodies
  • a handmade bread oven
  • poppies everywhere in gold and fiery red
  • jars filled with mysterious things, such as dried flower petals and I don’t know what
  • thick, blush-pink pear slices put by in glass jars
  • a catalog of enticing classes like Wooden Spoon Carving, Flower Farm Dyes, Ikat Weaving, and Columbia Plateau Beadwork

 

ArtistRetreat.jpg

It’s chilly in the morning, often windy, always sunny.

 

Other people’s book collections take us down unforeseen paths, and sometimes the more off the beaten path, the better. There are many books to sample here. At the moment, I’m delving into At Home in Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America, by Rebecca Kneale Gould, learning about John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, Helen and Scott Nearing, and lesser known American homesteaders – an intriguing slice of American history. It’s perhaps more scholarly than I’d prefer, but I’m enjoying it.

Some other books that live here:

which “aesthetics” do you mean? ten definitions, by Leonard Koren

Coming to Stay: A Columbia River Journey, by Mary Dodds Schlick

A Dyer’s Garden: From Plant to Pot, Growing Dyes for Natural Fibers, by Rita Buchanan

Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine, by Jennifer Hahn

Art of the Northern Tlingit, by Aldona Jonaitis

The Textiles of Guatemala, by Regis Bertrand and Danielle Magne

Native Arts of the Columbia River Plateau: The Doris Swayze Bounds Collection, edited by Susan E. Harless

In Zanesville, a novel by Jo Ann Beard (I loved her memoir, The Boys of My Youth.)

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family & Survival, by Christopher Benfey

Recommended by my son, which I packed in my suitcase:

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, by Dan Barber

Other books I brought with me:

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker (book club reading)

The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom, by Christine Valters Paintner

No Experience Required! Watercolor, by Carol Cooper

I’ll likely read just a couple of these but it’s nice to be able to choose.

 

MtHood

View from the backyard. (I zoomed in on Mt. Hood.)

 

 

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A homemade bread oven. At the moment, a burn ban prohibits its use.

 

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I think these sunflowers would be a relatively easy watercolor project for a beginner like me.

 

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Marigold blossoms drying

 

Climbing a small mountain is another way to get your mind off things. I have more stores of endurance than I thought and limbs that are plenty sore, but the climb gave me a sense of accomplishment.

 

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View of Mt. Hood from Little Huckleberry Mountain in Gifford Pinchot National Forest

 

We saw three of the Cascade mountains once we made it to the top…

 

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Mt. Adams

 

….which I could not have done without the encouragement of my husband.

 

MtStHelens

Mt. Rainier 

 

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Atop Little Huckleberry Mountain, on the ruins of an old fire lookout. Elevation: 4,781 feet.

 

An artist’s tools and artifacts. Books that belong to another. Climbing a small mountain. How do you feed your creative spirit? Can you recommend any books? Are you traveling this summer or working on a creative project?

This Life Is in Your Hands

ThisLifeIsInYourHands

“Food for Mama was equal to love, and, though she might withhold it when fasting, she usually meted it out to Papa and me straight from her heart. The preparing, cooking, and storing of food made up the pulse of her days. I’d wake in the mornings to the sound of Mama grinding grain. Clamped to the kitchen counter, that steel mill from Hatch’s was her magic tool, transforming inedible whole grains into vital ingredients as she stood beside it, hair pulled back, working the crank. The groats went in a funnel in the top, to be ground by opposing metal wheels attached to the crank, and depending on the setting, meal or flour streamed or puffed from the spout into a bowl.” This Life Is in Your Hands, by Melissa Coleman

Melissa Coleman’s parents were key figures in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s, disciples and neighbors of Helen and Scott Nearing, who were activists and advocates of simple living. Scott Nearing wrote the classic Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World in 1954.

Coleman’s memoir, This Life Is in Your Hands, is about her childhood years with her two younger sisters on the Maine farmland her parents, Sue and Eliot Coleman, bought from the Nearings. It’s an ode to people in love with the land and a certain way of life; it’s also an elegy for a family and a time forever lost: when Melissa was seven, tragedy struck and her family splintered.

As I read the memoir, it dawned on me that I recognized the name Eliot Coleman, and that, in fact, I have one of his books, Four-Season Harvest, which I bought when I became interested in year-round gardening. From the standpoint of American history, This Life Is in Your Hands is a fascinating look at the back-to-the-land movement. Regarded suspiciously as radical hippies by many in mainstream America, the Colemans and others like them pioneered an important movement flourishing on new fronts today.

Eliot Coleman criticized the ravages wrought by industrialized farming. He advocated small-scale, biological farming, which emphasizes high quality soil that eliminates the need for pesticides, and a return to ancient farming practices. When Melissa Coleman was a young child, Eliot went on research forays to Europe, where he observed French farmers cultivating gardens all year round. He began to import their age-old farming wisdom to America and has been influential in the organic farming movement ever since.

There is much to admire in This Life Is in Your Hands as a memoir, and there are limitations, too. Melissa Coleman’s writing is uneven, and her storytelling skills fall short in some readers eyes. But at her best she is exquisitely poetic about daily life on their plot of land.

“The cookstove was our most important possession, without which we would either starve or freeze to death. To my young imagination it looked like a black animal with four stout legs under a square body, a flat top with lids that opened to the fire, and one long tail of a chimney that curved through the wall to puff smoke outside. It had three mouths, a small one to make little fires for cooking, a bigger one for overnight fires, and the biggest of all for the oven, with white enamel around a temperature dial ranging from “cool” to “very hot” and the brand name, “Kalamazoo.” When the bread was done, Mama opened the oven door and the loaves came out golden brown and steaming, to be placed on the counter to cool.”

Of course, Melissa must also tell how this edenic existence fell apart. The lifestyle entailed constant, backbreaking work, and the Colemans did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. The children were allowed to run free on the farm, and the constant work meant they weren’t attended to closely, which contributed to a tragedy: the accidental death of Melissa’s sister.

Coleman’s portrayal of her parents, Sue and Eliot, is mostly compassionate, but confusing, to me. From the beginning it’s drummed into us that Sue didn’t have the inner confidence and drive of her husband, Eliot. We’re told he was extraordinary, while Sue is depicted as lacking, and some of this judgement seems unfair to Sue. Understandably, Melissa suffered greatly when Sue fell apart and abandoned her role as a mother after the tragedy. But for a long time their farm and family flourished thanks to Sue’s efforts, not just Eliot’s. She gardened, cooked, cleaned, preserved food, hauled water, and gave birth to two of her children at home–one of those times she was home alone.

Sue suffered from bouts of depression and postpartum depression, but she was caring for three young children while adhering to superhuman lifestyle standards and married to an impossibly driven man. At one point, before the tragedy, Eliot procured a rental car and told Sue to leave with the children, that the marriage was over. It’s not clear to me why this was warranted–Sue’s worst sin seems to be what some might call neediness–unless Melissa left information out to protect her mother. I found Eliot’s actions harsh. The situation hints at sexism and unrecognized mental illness. Despite the sexual revolution and women’s lib, there were plenty of sexist marriages in the 1960s and 1970s. Like any young mother in her situation, Sue needed more support, although as readers, we may not know the whole story.

The Nearings apparently remained somewhat aloof after the tragedy. Helen Nearing, in fact, had not been pleased when Sue became pregnant the first time, telling her she should have waited because it was unrealistic to take on both motherhood and the farm.

The author’s conclusions about the meaning and fallout from her family’s grand experiment and tragedy struck me as pat. But telling the whole, accurate truth in these fraught family stories, from the point of view of the child and then as an adult with hindsight, is difficult. Memoir has pitfalls, but I think this one is an important and intriguing story on many levels.

Eliot and his third wife, Barbara Damrosch, currently own and operate Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, on the site of the original farm Melissa wrote about in her memoir. Today, many small organic farmers are flourishing in central Maine, some owned by apprentices who worked for the Nearings and the Colemans.

“Our staple was a yeast-free flatbread called a chapati, which Mama learned to make from David Hatch, who learned in India. Mama let me help mix the flour from the grain mill with water and salt to make a pliable dough, then kneaded it to bring out the gluten and let it set for an hour before making round gold balls of dough that she flattened with a rolling pin into thin, but not too thin, pancakes. She prepared the cookstove ahead so there was a bed of red hot coals in the firebox, and heated a greaseless twelve-by-sixteen-inch cast-iron skillet to sear both sides of the chapati and trap the steam inside. The chapati was then placed on a bent clothes hanger over hot coals inside the firebox, where it would blow up into a steamy balloon. Once it was removed from the flame, the air in the middle was released and the balloon flattened to form a perfect tortilla-like vehicle, warm or cold, for whatever you chose to put on or inside it.”

Here is a short video about Helen and Scott Nearing; Eliot Coleman appears in the opening:

http://external.bangordailynews.com/projects/2014/04/goodlife/?chapter=root&utm_source=bangordailynews&utm_campaign=refer

Have you read This Life Is in Your Hands or other books about sustainable living?

 

The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly

The Monarch

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”   Margaret Mead

 

“The tag on that little butterfly sent me off on a journey of my own – one that would over and over again astound me at the miracle of it, the wonder of nature, the tenacity of living things. Over the next ten years I would continue to add to my knowledge and experience about something that had been going on for centuries, with a part of it still taking place right in my own backyard.”  The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, by Kylee Baumle

 

I had no idea monarch butterflies were so fascinating. I didn’t know there are such things as Certified Monarch Waystations and that I could easily create one myself, or that I could monitor monarch butterflies as a citizen scientist. I didn’t know there was a Beautiful Monarch Facebook group with 11,000 members. (As of this writing, I’m one of their newest.)

My favorite nature and gardening publisher, St. Lynn’s Press, kindly sent me a review copy of their new book, The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, by Kylee Baumle. I thought this would be the perfect time to feature it on Books Can Save a Life in honor of the People’s Climate March this weekend in cities around the world.

Kylee Baumle – a citizen scientist, lifelong gardener, blogger (Our Little Acre), and columnist for Ohio Gardener magazine – has written a beautiful book about the monarch butterfly, its perils, and what we can do to help make sure this magnificent creature is still here generations from now.

The author begins by telling a personal story about a monarch encounter that involves miraculous detective work and speaks volumes about her passion for this threatened creature. She follows up with fascinating chapters about monarch biology that focus on the miracles of its five-stages of development and nearly unbelievable cross-country migration.

“The monarch’s migration is extraordinary; there is none like it in the butterfly world. Think of it: A butterfly born in Canada or the U.S. begins an epic journey of up to 2900 miles south to a place they’ve never been before – a very specific place, where their great-great-grandparents went the year before, but never the other generations between them.”

(Baumle tells us that the winter location of the migrating monarchs was unknown until 1975. Now we know they overwinter in the oyamel fir forests of the Transvolcanic Belt mountains in central Mexico. This location was first shared with the world in the August 1976 issue of National Geographic. Read more about the discovery here.)

 

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“The final generation of monarchs in late summer and early fall are called the Methuselah generation. Why Methuselah? The name is borrowed from the Bible, in which Methuselah was said to have lived for 969 years, much longer than his contemporaries. Migrating monarchs live five to eight times as long as their parents and grandparents.”

 

You don’t have to be an expert gardener – or a gardener at all – to enjoy The Monarch and find inspiration to become involved in its preservation. Baumle has carefully and thoroughly presented the most up-to-date research about the monarch, and she’s included a range of easy, fun activities that will appeal to all ages. This is an excellent book for the lay person as well as for teachers and students, young and not-so-young.

 

 

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Here are some things you can do to honor and help save the monarch butterfly: 1. Become a Citizen Scientist (8 programs are listed in this book.) 2. Create a Monarch Waystation with milkweed and other plants to attract and nourish monarchs. 3. Make a butterfly watering station. 4. Raise a monarch in your home. 5. Tag a migrating monarch. 6. Get a grant to plant a school garden. Several grant sponsors are listed in this book.

 

I admire St. Lynn’s Press for publishing books that encourage us to savor and preserve the natural world. They have an impressive backlist of gardening and nature titles, and they’ve done it again with The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. Kylee Baumle’s love for the monarch and enthusiasm for spreading the word is contagious.

 

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” A group of butterflies goes by several names. ‘Kaleidoscope’ is my favorite, but others have used the terms ‘swarm’ and ‘rabble.’ Take your pick.”

 

 

 

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“Where have all the butterflies gone? It’s a question I hear being asked quite a bit these days.”

 

For more about Danaus Plexippus (the monarch butterfly) and how you can get involved, here are excellent websites listed in The Monarch:

Make Way for Monarchs

Journey North: A Global Study of Wildlife Migration and Seasonal Change

Monarch Joint Venture

Monarch Watch

Monarch Butterfly Garden

Monarch Lab

Xerces Society

 

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“There aren’t many such widespread issues whose directions can be changed by ordinary people like you and me, or in which people truly believe that anything they do will have any measurable effect. But reversing the decline in the number of monarchs is one where we really can make a difference.”

 

Flight BehaviorIf you would like to read a great work of eco-fiction about the migration of butterflies, follow up your reading of The Monarch with Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. I wrote about it on my blog a few years ago.

“No one is an environmentalist by birth. It is only your path, your life, your travels that awaken you.”  Yann Arthur Bertrand, photographer and creator of the book Earth from Above and the film Home.

If you plan to participate in one of the climate marches this weekend, happy marching!

 

Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter Book Cover

“She was a good cook, but she also did the main work that kept us eating. She made the garden, and all we didn’t eat fresh she preserved and stored for the winter. She took care of the hens and the turkeys. She milked two cows. My father was in charge of the meat hogs, but Grandmam was the authority and head worker at the butchering and sausage making and lard rendering and the curing of the meat. In the summers she, and I with her, roamed the fencerows and woods edges and hollows to pick wild berries for pies and jam. She was always busy. She never backed off from anything because it was hard. She washed and ironed, made soap, sewed and patched and darned. Every Saturday she carried a basket of eggs and a bucket of cream to the store at Shagbark.”   Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry

 

Hannah Coulter is a great book club choice. I think that reading Wendell Berry’s novels, essays, and poetry over several months could spark conversations so relevant to our times.

I read somewhere of a woman who began inviting liberals and conservatives to occasional dinners after the election. Maybe forming a book club of this nature, and reading the work of Wendell Berry and others (J.D. Vance‘s  Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein come to mind) could be one way to help us better understand one another and heal our cultural divide.

As I wrote in my previous post, Berry doesn’t subscribe to strictly liberal or conservative thinking. Influenced by this Baptist faith and deep bonds with the Kentucky farming community of his birth, he has over a lifetime and in a large body of work mapped out a moral code for living ethically on this earth, with compassion toward each other and a deep understanding of what the land we live on requires of us.

At eighty years of age, Hannah Coulter looks back on her life. When she was a girl, her mother died and was soon replaced with an uncaring stepmother. When Hannah was a young wife and mother-to-be, her husband, Virgil, was killed in World War II. A few years later, Hannah married Nathan, a war veteran who fought at Okinawa. Together they raised three children. Hannah’s is a story of farming and family in a close-knit Kentucky community, a way of life that she recognizes is vanishing.

Or is it? The ending of this short but powerful novel offers signs of hope that maybe it is not. Even though I haven’t lived the farming life, I care about its preservation and resurgence, so I loved the ending of this novel.

Hannah Coulter spoke to me on many fronts, and left me unsettled, too.

After 20+ years in our home raising two children, we’ve been getting ready for a garage sale and deciding what to part with. These words resonated:

“And then we got married and moved in.

Those were fine days. Everything we did seemed to start something that was going to go on and on. I’ll never forget the feeling it gave me just to make this house clean, to fill it with fresh air and the good smell of soapy water, to wash the dingy windows and see the rooms fill with light, to get here one morning and find that Nathan had mowed the yard, sparing the day lilies and the rambler rose. I cut a few blossoms and stuck them in a jar of water in the living room.”

By far, though, one of the most powerful sections of Hannah Coulter for me was when, after Nathan’s death, Hannah goes to the library so she can find out what the Battle of Okinawa was all about. Nathan had never spoken of the war or that terrible battle.

I understand Hannah’s impulse to want to know this about her husband. Writing my memoir, I’ve found it challenging to write intelligently and fairly about my parents in a full-bodied, compassionate way. Parents keep stories from their children and remain enigmas long after they are gone.

A few years after my father died, we went to Metz, France, a town he helped liberate in World War II when he was about my son’s age. We saw the countryside where he was wounded and visited the American cemetery with thousands of white crosses as far as the eye could see. My father always told war stories that fascinated me, but I’d never really known much about the Battle of Metz–what a suicidal mission it was. That day in France, when we found the grave of a young man in my father’s battalion who was killed the same cold November day Dad was wounded, I realized in a way I never had before how much my father must have been censoring when he told his stories.

When Hannah goes to the library, she wants to know what Nathan experienced during the Battle of Okinawa. She wants details: what he saw, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted. Wendell Berry gives these to her, in spades. He reminds her, too, of the Japanese farmers and their families who were there when the bombs rained down.

Wendell Berry isn’t keen on runaway capitalism and the industrialization of farming, and I think this powerful chapter about Hannah researching the Battle of Okinawa is, in part, an indictment of the military-industrial complex.

“Want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed. By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion. People of power kill children, the old send the young to die, because they have no imagination. They have power. Can you have power and imagination at the same time? Can you kill people you don’t know and have compassion for them at the same time?

Over Easter weekend, I heard someone report, with great satisfaction, of the rising ISIS death toll from our “mother of all bombs,” as troops cleaned up and found more bodies.

Some final, true, and thankfully uplifting words, from Hannah Coulter: 

“The world is so full and abundant it is like a pregnant woman carrying a child in one arm and leading another by the hand. Every puddle in the lane is ringed with sipping butterflies that fly up and flutter when you walk past in the late morning on your way to get the mail.”

I’m better off for having read Hannah Coulter. I draw inspiration from these words about Grandmam, and have written them in the notebook where I record and track my creative work:

“She never backed off from anything because it was hard.”

One of the Wendell Berry novels recommended by readers of this blog is Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, As Written by Himself, so that is the Berry novel I plan to read next.  (Jayber has a few cameo mentions in Hannah Coulter.)

Here is an in-depth discussion of Hannah Coulter on The Diane Rehm Show:

https://dianerehm.org/shows/2010-11-24/readers-review-hannah-coulter-wendell-berry

 

HemlockTrees

Hemlocks at dusk in our neighborhood. Wendell Berry’s fiction is infused with vivid imagery of nature and the land.

Wendell Berry’s Our Only World

Our Only World
“I can tell you confidently that the many owners of small farms, shops, and stores, and the self-employed craftspeople who were thriving in my county in 1945, did not think of their work as ‘a job.’ Most of these people, along with most skilled employees who worked in their home county or home town, have now been replaced by a few people working in large chain stores and by a few people using large machines and other human-replacing industrial technologies. Local economies, local communities, even local families, in which people lived and worked as members, have been broken.”     
Wendell Berry, Our Only World

Ten Essays by The Mad Farmer, an American prophet

A few days before I wrote this post, people in our government were planning to vote on a cruel, senseless health care bill that would have meant insurance companies would no longer be required to cover outpatient care, emergency services, hospitalization, pregnancy, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance abuse treatment (mental health is a cause especially close to my heart), prescription drugs, rehabilitation, laboratory and diagnostic tests, preventive and wellness services and pediatric care.

I thought about all the working poor and those without jobs in Ohio, where I grew up. This health care bill would have wrought only further misery and suffering, and yet many of those who would have been adversely affected had voted in the current administration.

I was afraid to look at the news on Friday, and relieved and thankful when I finally did. There had been no vote on the bill. The fate of health care in the United States would be determined another day.

For some reason, it seems we are forcing ourselves to sort everything into the categories of liberal or conservative, and pro-government or anti-government, when of course the world is far more complex, and far more beautiful.

To keep myself sane and as a balm when I’m tired of all the vitriol, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry. I’ve wanted to dive into his writing for a long time. Needless to say, Berry doesn’t give much credence to strictly liberal or conservative world views.

He is a long-time Kentucky farmer and a devout Christian who writes poetry, short stories, novels, and essays, brilliantly. Affectionately known as “the mad farmer,” Wendell Berry is an American prophet, a voice of reason, humility, and humanity who has been compared to Emerson and Thoreau. If every person in America, young and old, read a few of his poems or stories, maybe we’d be in a better place.

Our Only World, a collection of ten essays, is a good choice if you want a concise introduction to Wendell Berry. (The book pictured above refers to eleven essays, but my copy had only ten, so I assume an essay was removed before publication.)

There were so many passages I wanted to quote, it was hard to choose. When I read the passages below, I thought of the economic devastation I’ve seen in my home town and in my home state of Ohio:

“….the disposability of people….is one of the versions of ‘creative destruction,’ which is to say the theme of heartlessness, heartbreak, and permanent damage to people and their communities….We now use ‘Luddite’ as a term of contempt, and this usage, often by people who consider themselves compassionate and humane, implies a sort of progressivist etiquette by which, in the interest of the future (and the more fortunate), we are to submit passively to our obsolescence, disemployment, displacement, and (likely enough) impoverishment. We smear this over with talk of social mobility, upward mobility, and retraining, but this is as false and cynical as the association of ‘safe’ with the extraction, transportation, and use of fossil and nuclear fuels.”

“The ruling ideas of our present national or international economy are competition, consumption, globalism, corporate profitability, mechanical efficiency, technological change, upward mobility – and in all of them there is the implication of acceptable violence against the land and the people. We, on the contrary, must think again of reverence, humility, affection, familiarity, neighborliness, cooperation, thrift, appropriateness, local loyalty. These terms return us to the best of our heritage. They bring us home.”

“If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction clearly are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare and its unavoidable massacre of innocents as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion. Jesus taught that hating your neighbor is tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors as a matter of policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses, not all of them together, has made as much political-religious noise as homosexual marriage.”

Even more than mental health and health care, I care about our earth and climate change. Here are some things Wendell Berry has to say about our relationship to the natural world:

“…. the limited competence of the human mind… will never fully comprehend the forms and functions of the natural world. With the development of industrialism, this misfitting has become increasingly a contradiction or opposition between industrial technologies and the creatures of nature, tending always toward the destruction of creatures, creaturely habitat, and creaturely life. We can respond rationally to this predicament only by honest worry, unrelenting caution, and propriety of scale. We must not put too much, let alone everything, at risk….

….all our uses of the natural world must be governed by our willingness to learn the nature of every place, and to submit to nature’s limits and requirements for the use of every place.”

A poet and writer I know writes of “the daily bread of language,” and lately I’ve enjoyed partaking of the daily bread of Wendell Berry. One of my blog readers suggested that I look at Berry’s fiction, too, so next week I’ll write about Hannah Coulter and a few other novels that take place in Port William, a fictitious Kentucky town.

The Bill Moyers interview below is a wonderful introduction to Wendell Berry. Listening to him measuring out wisdom in his musical Kentucky cadence calms the mind and soothes the soul.

*****

By the way, the march for climate, jobs and justice, sponsored by the People’s Climate Movement, will take place in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2017, together with thousands of Sister Marches around the world. My husband and I are planning to march in Washington or New York City. Will there be a march near you?

Have you read Wendell Berry? Which of his books would you recommend? Are you a fan of other writers of a similar nature?

The Shepherd’s Life

The Shepherd's Life.jpg

 

Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape

“…modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them. How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they can’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend. How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.”   The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks

I was so taken with James Rebanks’ recent column in The New York Times, “An English Sheep Farmer’s View of Rural America,” that I requested his memoir, “The Shepherd’s Life,” from the library.

On a recent trip to the United States to promote his book, Rebanks toured Kentucky and saw the economic devastation and dying towns in rural America, caused in part by industrial scale agriculture that has put small farms out of business. In fact, Rebanks was here the week that Trump won the election.

He and his family are sheep farmers in England’s Lake District; they lead a centuries-old way of life. Rebanks is blunt in rejecting the American model of industrialized agriculture. He believes it has wreaked havoc on families, our health, and the environment.

His memoir is a fascinating, day-by-day account of what it means to be a shepherd and adhere mostly to the old ways in a modern world. He takes us through a full year of tending to 900 sheep with his close-knit family and community.

Woven into this shepherding story is a history of Lake District shepherds and a recounting of Rebanks’ coming of age and adult life path. Determined to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps and become a shepherd, Rebanks ended up taking a brief detour to attend Oxford. Then, he recommitted to sheep farming. He went from being an uneducated local boy to a college-educated adult, relatively at ease moving back and forth between these two worlds, but still firmly committed to the old ways.

His views on the tensions between these two worlds makes for provocative reading. As a young boy, his teachers preached that staying on the farm was a dead end, and urged local kids to leave and make something of themselves. As I skimmed through reviews on Goodreads, I saw that some readers didn’t care for Rebanks’ tone, which can be highly critical of the world of so-called progress and intellectuals. But he does have important points to make about the value of his nearly forgotten lifestyle and the happiness and fulfillment it can garner.

He points out that shepherds possess knowledge that has been passed down for thousands of years, though they may never crack open a book.

“The great flocks of sheep are the accumulation of countless achievements at these shows and sales over many years, each year’s successes or failures layering up like chapters in an epic ancient poem. The story of these flocks is known and made in the retelling by everyone else. Men, who will tell you they are stupid and not very bright, can recall encyclopaedic amounts of information about the pedigrees of these sheep. Sheep are not just bought: they are judged, and stored away in memories, pieces of jigsaw of breeding that will come good or go bad over time. Our standing, our status, and our worth as men and women is decided to a large extent by our ability to turn out our sheep in their prime, and as great examples of the breed.”

And….

“They are sheep that show the effort several generations of shepherds have put into them. Each autumn for centuries someone has added to their quality with the addition of new tups from other noted flocks. There is a depth of good blood in them. They are big strong ewes, with lots of bone, good thick bodies, and bold white heads and legs. They return from that fell each autumn with a fine crop of lambs that are a match for most other flocks in the Lake District.”

I especially enjoyed reading The Shepherd’s Life on the heels of finishing Wendell Berry’s Our Only World, which I’ll write about next week. The two books go hand in hand, with similar themes and messages. Wendell Berry (who has been called a modern-day Emerson or Thoreau) has been a life-long farmer in rural Kentucky. On his visit, Rebanks saw the economic devastation there that Berry has written much about.

Here is another excerpt from The Shepherd’s Life that I like:

“I have met and talked with hundreds of farmers, stood in their fields and their homes, talked to them about how they see the world and why they do what they do. I have seen the tourism market shift over the last ten years with greater value attached to the culture of places. I see people growing sick of plastic phoniness and wanting to experience places and people that do different things, believe in different things, and eat different things. I see how bored we have grown of ourselves in the modern western world and how people can fight back and shape their futures using their history as an advantage, not an obligation. All of this has made me believe more strongly, not less, in our farming way of life and why it matters in the Lake District.”

My favorite section of The Shepherd’s Life is about the spring, when the lambs are born– hundreds of them in the space of a few weeks. The shepherds and their families must work nearly 24/7 scouting their acreage for ewes and lambs that might be in trouble due to difficult births or inclement weather. Families must be ready to respond to emergencies at a moment’s notice. It’s a matter of economic survival and an act of devotion. I was entirely caught up in the dramatic tension of these chaotic and miraculous spring days, as told by James Rebanks.

Some new “nature” words I learned:

Fell: An old English word for hill or mountain. A high, wild mountain slope or stretch of pasture.

Heft: to become accustomed and attached to an area of upland pasture. In The Shepherd’s Life, it refers to both the sheep and the shepherd.

If you like unusual memoirs and lyrical nature writing (although the editing of this book could have been improved), The Shepherd’s Life is a wonderful read.

Here is James Rebanks on the shepherd’s life:

 

Have you read Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life or any of Wendell Berry’s work? Or do you have a favorite memoir with a similar theme to recommend?

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