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.

 

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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.”

 

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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. 

 

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

 

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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….

 

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“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….

 

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

 

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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.”

 

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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

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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?

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

the-oregon-trail “I turned left after the bridge over the Snake and headed east along the trail country. The basalt cliffs along the river gleamed in the sunlight, and the austerity of landscape reminded me of the austerity of mission.

Journey is all, and we did it, we made it, we got there. We had followed the Platte to the Sweetwater, the Sweetwater to South Pass, and then we slid the wagon down Dempsey Ridge to the indescribable beauty along the Bear. Broken wheels and a thousand miles of fences couldn’t stop us.

The impossible is doable as long as you have a great brother and good trail friends. Uncertainty is all. Crazyass passion is the staple of life and persistence its nourishing force. Without them, you cannot cross the trail.”    The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck

Things have been mighty serious here on the blog the past few months, so it’s time for a book that is guaranteed to make you feel good, satisfy your armchair travel cravings, and restore your faith in humanity. The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck is a perfect delight, especially if you love American history, travel, nature, a dash of memoir, and immersive, challenging expeditions.

Rinker Buck, a former reporter for the Hartford Courant, and his brother, Nick, crossed the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail in a covered wagon a couple of years ago, along with Nick’s dog, Olive Oyl, and a team of three mules: Jake, Beck and Bute.

They probably wouldn’t have made it if they hadn’t been experienced drivers of mule and horse teams. Even given their expertise, wagon transport presented scary and nearly insurmountable challenges along sometimes very hostile terrain. I don’t have a technical bent, so I wouldn’t have thought I’d be fascinated by the interpersonal dynamics between three mules and their drivers or the intricacies of harnesses and wagon paraphernalia. But Rinker Buck is an excellent writer, and he conveys beautifully how you have to get these important details right for such an undertaking, and the disasters that can happen if they go wrong.

Rinker Buck is funny and self-effacing, too. He gives just enough personal and family history to explain why two guys well past middle age might be inspired to take on the Oregon Trail. There are at least three levels of story braided together: Rinker and Nick’s personal, psychic journeys; the challenges and unexpected blessings of the landscape and people they met along the way; and vivid historical portraits of the colorful trailblazers who pioneered the trail in the mid 1800s.

 

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The Oregon Trail spans Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Up to 45,000 pioneers died along the trail.

 

I was especially taken with the story of Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, an upstate New York couple who were among the first pioneers to successfully maneuver the trail. Narcissa was a missionary and Marcus a doctor. Both wanted to head west, and they married essentially for convenience and companionship so they could travel together.

Along the way, Narcissa fell in love with Marcus, and she wrote eloquent letters to family describing their adventures. Narcissa gave permission for the letters to be published in the local newspaper, and soon her latest installments were being read by people across the country. Readers were mesmerized, and the Whitman success inspired the great wave of pioneers who came after.

The Oregon Trail is a great read if you like a blend of travel, history, nature and adventure, and Rinker Buck is a wise, funny, unsentimental writer who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

If you have similar “epic journey” books to recommend I’d love to hear about them in the comments. 

Tribe

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Big Man’s Stool from the middle Sepic River region of Papua New Guinea. This was a wedding gift to us many years ago from my husband’s uncle, an expert on Melanesian art.

 

Tribe“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.

It’s time for that to end.”

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger

I was fascinated by David Brooks’ recent column in The New York Times, “The Great Affluence Fallacy,” in which he says that, back in the day, many Americans joined Native American tribes, either voluntarily or because they were captured. Often, whites who were allowed to return to their original culture chose to stay with Native Americans.

This rarely happened the other way around: Native Americans never willingly chose white society.

David Brooks read about this phenomenon in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger, (Junger is the author of The Perfect Storm and War) which inspired me to read this short, well written extended essay on the plight of the lonely, autonomous individual in modern American culture.

I highly recommend Tribe if you feel that we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way in our relentless pursuit of autonomy and self-actualization, and if you feel we’re in need of a course correction. At about 130 pages, it is a quick but memorable read.

Here are a couple more quotes that spoke to me:

“A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day–or an entire life–mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”

“We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” – Sharon Abramowitz

Family Reunion

Speaking of tribes, connection, and meaning, this summer I went to a family reunion held every three years or so by my husband’s large extended family of Irish descent. It’s always a great time, and through the years I’ve enjoyed watching four generations gather from the east and west coasts and many places in between. At the reunion we had a memorial tribute to my husband’s uncle, Peter, who recently passed away.

As a young man, Peter emigrated to Australia, started out in advertising and, beginning in the 1960s, spent three decades traveling deep into the interior of New Guinea and collecting tribal art. Eventually, Peter became one of the world’s foremost experts on Melanesian art.

Reading through Peter’s autobiographical material on display at the reunion, I found this:

“…he would spend months at a time traveling in remote areas, living amongst the people and studying their culture and traditional art….he would spend weeks traveling to small, obscure villages…No place was too far. There were trips to the most remote regions of Milne Bay, the Dampier and Vitiaz straits, off the beaten track in the Highlands, even an eleven month trip which delivered a major Kula canoe from Kitava Island to the South Australian Museum.”

Peter’s catalog descriptions make for fascinating reading. I love the vivid, succinct descriptions and the precise words. It’s almost like poetry. Here is one:

IMG_3634A Wood Mask, Kandrian Sub-District, Wosom Village, the oval white face with an hollowed mouth showing teeth and tongue, hollowed eyes, pierced ears, and the high forehead with three cylindrical shafts issuing feathers, strands of shells and pig teeth hanging from the ear lobes, painted with white, black and red pigments. Height 63 cm. (24 3/4 in.) 

This type of dance mask, called ‘Waku,’ was used in circumcision festivities.”

It strikes me that Peter’s fascination with Aboriginal art and life may have been inspired, in part, because he admired their community values and human bonds that ran deep…which is what Sebastian Junger writes about in Tribe. Peter must have resonated with their deep connection to nature, too.

So much knowledge and wisdom can be lost with the passing of intrepid individuals such as Peter. Fortunately, much of his knowledge and many of his experiences have been preserved in books and photographs, which we were able to see at the family reunion. As time goes on, the grandchildren and great grandchildren will be left with some sense of Peter’s remarkable life.

For him, no place was too far.

 

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One of the old photos Peter left behind. I have no way of knowing what tribe this is or which village. Can you imagine pulling up in your canoe at some remote river location and receiving such a warm welcome? Or, maybe it was posed…either way, everyone looks happy.

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Art by Sammy Clarmon of the Lockhard River Art Gang, in Gatherings II: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art from Queensland, Australia. This is one of the Keeaira Press books designed by Great Uncle Peter. These esoteric, small press books about tribal culture are invaluable; they preserve glimpses of a past way of life and a unique body of wisdom for future generations.

Are there fascinating figures in your family history? Do you agree with Sebastian Junger that modern society makes people feel unnecessary?

 

 

 

To the Bright Edge of the World

To the Bright Edge

Lieut. Col. Allen Forrester, June 25, 1885:

“Pruitt keeps shouting above the storm–Do you feel that? Can’t you feel that?

What he says makes no sense. He says there are hands on him. Something pulls at him. He says he has to run. I have warned him to stay put.

(undated entry)

My dearest Sophie. I pray you will read this. You are first and last to me.

I do not know if we will survive the night. They are all around us. They scream and cry so that it is hard to think to put these words on the page.

You must know that I love you.

I am not afraid of death but instead of the passage from here to oblivion, of being aware of its coming. I would rather have been run through with a spear than face this long dread.”

Eowyn Ivey’s novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, is truly a standout for me, a cut above the rest.

Many of you know that I’m partial to nature and wilderness stories, especially historical ones. To the Bright Edge of the World reminds me of one of my all-time favorite novels, Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett. The novel and short stories of Anthony Doerr come to mind as well when I read Eowyn Ivey’s writing, which is lyrical and replete with exquisite detail. A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter is another fine book, a memoir, in the same vein.

“I fell in love with this book; it captured both my head and my heart, completely and utterly.” – Jane, Beyond Eden Rock.  — I was browsing on Goodreads and found Jane’s endorsement of To the Bright Edge of the World. Her words spoke to me because they are my sentiments about the novel, too, and I couldn’t have said it better.

I loved Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, which was selected for If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book in 2014. Like The Snow Child, To the Bright Edge of the World takes place in Ivey’s native Alaska. It’s a great love story, a  wilderness tale of a hero and heroine’s quests infused with magical realism, and a flawlessly researched portrayal of 19th century Alaska.

Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester must lead a dangerous, seemingly impossible expedition through the fictitious Wolverine River Valley deep in the Alaskan wilds of 1885, a journey no one has ever survived. His pregnant wife, Sophie Forrester, stays behind in Vancouver Barracks, destined to have adventures and heartbreaks of her own.

Ivey has cleverly constructed the narrative entirely from letters, journals, diaries, newspaper articles, military reports, photographs, and other documents.

We, the readers, are privy to the contemporary correspondence between Walter Forrester, Allen Forrester’s great nephew, and Joshua Sloan, who is part Native American and curator of the Alpine Historical Museum in Alaska. Walter sends his great uncle’s papers to Joshua in the hopes that he’ll display and archive them for safekeeping. As Joshua makes his way through the journals, diaries, and letters, he and Walter piece together Allen and Sophie’s stories, fill in the gaps, and reflect on their own lives.

As always, Ivey’s descriptions of geography and landscape take us vividly to long-ago Alaska:

“The canyon bound the Wolverine so that when, over the course of the winter, the ice moved, it crumpled violently. Great blocks three feet thick & as much as twenty feet high had been torn asunder & turned sideways. It seemed an impassable range of buckles & ridges & upended slabs of ice pressed up against the canyon walls, which are vertical rock the color of lead.”

Here are Sophie’s words as she undergoes her own dark night of the soul:

Sophie Forrester, Vancouver Barracks, April 26, 1885:

“…it continued its steady and hard rapping, and the sound became more and more horrible…The raven stopped its knocking and cocked an eye toward me.

I then noticed something most peculiar….A bird’s eye ought to be flattened in shape, with a dark iris surrounded by a dark-gray sclera, and entirely unmoving in its socket. Yet this eye was round, with white sclera, and it rotated about in the socket. It looked nothing like a bird’s eye, but rather that of a mammal. More to the point, a human.” 

 

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A raven shape shifts into a trickster who brings Allen and Sophie good fortune and sorrow.

The New York Public Library. (1849). Raven.

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Sophie Forrester teaches herself the art of photographing birds. Her descriptions of the technical and creative challenges are beautifully rendered, and inspiring.

The New York Public Library. (1901 – 1914).Horned And Tufted Puffins.

 

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Allen Forrester’s darker mission is to assess tribal threats to US expansion in Alaska, even as native tribes give life-saving aid to Forrester and his men. The author weaves Native American myths into the plot. These fierce stories blur the line between humans, animals and nature. In the end, the hard wisdom of the stories so valued by indigenous people seems far truer than the scientific knowledge possessed by “civilized” people.

The New York Public Library. (1869-04). Indian summer encampment.

 

Have you read To the Bright Edge of the World or The Snow Child? What did you think? Can you recommend similar historical books about nature, travel, and adventure, fiction or nonfiction? Click on the comments link in the left sidebar and let us know.

What does Tribe (the book and the noun) have to do with family reunions? I’ll be writing about that in my next post…

Off the Beaten Path: De Potter’s Grand Tour

 

De Potter's Grand Tour

“She is fascinated but not dismayed to discover that she has forgotten so much.

Is she really the same woman who celebrated Easter 1889 in Athens and walked up to the Acropolis with her husband?

Who spent a ‘most interesting day viewing the cisterns of Carthage’ with Victor and Armand in 1896?

Who once wrote on her anniversary in 1900, in an apartment on 97 rue de la Pompe in Paris, ‘In afternoon we went to Exp. and up the Trocadéro tower, then to Élysée Palace Hotel, saw King Leopold come in. In evening at dinner we ordered St. Honoré and champagne. M. Guerrier got up and improvised a poem and there was much gaiety and good humor. Armand gave me a gold watch charm’?”  De Potter’s Grand Tour,  Joanna Scott

This much, we know: In 1905, Joanna Scott’s great grandfather disappeared while on board a ship off the coast of Greece. A collector of ancient Egyptian art (some of it is at the Brooklyn Museum) and a world tour guide, he was at his wit’s end, hounded by creditors and litigators.

The question is: Did he commit suicide? Was he pushed overboard? Or, did he fake his own death and assume a new identity, leaving behind his beloved wife, Aimée, and his son?

How would you like to inherit that family mystery?

Joanna Scott did, in the form of Armand’s letters, postcards, photos, and documents, and the multi-volume journal of his wife, Aimée. This treasure trove had been sitting in a steamer trunk in Scott’s mother’s storage unit for years, until one day they unearthed it while searching for a diploma.

Intrigued, Scott threw herself into research and began writing a nonfiction account of Armand de Potter’s life. Ultimately, that proved too confining: Scott discovered that the mysterious and elusive Armand wasn’t who he said he was, and no one knew, not even his wife. So Scott switched to fiction, which gave her more freedom to suppose and imagine.

I read this novel ages ago and never got around to posting about it, but the book has stayed with me all this time. It’s not for everyone–Joanna Scott is a celebrated writer, but this particular novel didn’t garner the best of reviews.

 

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A photo of Armand de Potter, the author’s great grandfather, walking away from the camera. He was, indeed, a mysterious figure.

 

I, on the other hand, loved it. I loved the larger-than-life way Armand and Aimée lived traveling all over the world leading their educational tours. Armand was an autodidact who pretended to be descended from Belgian royalty and more educated than he was. Nonetheless, as Scott portrays him, he was a scholar and a lover of the world with a passion for sharing that love with the people who signed up for his tours.

“To travel is to live,” Armand de Potter wrote in one of the documents Scott found in the steamer trunk.

His tour company went to these places: Algeria, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Egypt, England, France, Germany, Gibralter, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Monaco, Netherlands, Romania, Scotland, Singapore, Spain, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, various locations in the US, and Yemen.

Some time in the late 1800s, Armand also wrote this prescient and hopeful passage: “The incalculable benefits of foreign travel can only be half told by our children….They will be appreciated by their sons and daughters, at a time when travel will have made the world very small and the human race what it is destined to be–one great fraternity.”

If you’re an armchair traveler, if you love history, and if you want an unusual story, I think you might like De Potter’s Grand Tour.

I enjoy Joanna Scott’s novels a great deal. One of my all-time favorites is Liberation, which takes place in Sicily, one of my favorite places in the world, during World War II. Scott is a much loved Professor of English here at the University of Rochester.

Speaking of family history, I’m off to a family reunion next week, where we’ll be reading a book loosely connected with a couple of the more colorful family members. I’ll tell you about it when I return.

I’ll leave you with what Armand de Potter had to say about good books (I would also add “women” of course):

“In the most beautiful books, great men speak with us, they give their most precious thoughts, and pour their soul into ours. Let us thank God for the creation of books. They are the voices of those that are far and of those that are dead; they make us heirs of the intellectual life of the past ages. Books furnish to all those who will use them with sincerity the society, the spiritual presences of the best and the greatest men.”

 

 

 

Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube

WelcomeToTheIceCube

“For all its occasional monotony, driving a dogsled never let my mind wander. It was an overwhelmingly physical experience: the cold, the shifting runners, the wandering trail. It made my mind shallower. There was the brushing sound of snow under the sled. There were the dogs, the beautiful dogs, running, and I could spend hours watching the changing, hypnotic rhythms of their back legs punching up and down. Occasionally I talked to them, and then I’d drift off in midsentence and recall the rest of my thoughts minutes later. Or else I’d run up a hill, or fix a tangle, or scooter my feet to keep warm. It didn’t matter. I was still just driving dogs.”

Blair Braverman sent me an advance copy of her just-published memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North.

I’m so glad she did, and not just because it was great reading in the middle of a hot July. This is an exquisitely written coming of age story about Blair’s love affair with the North, focusing especially on her stays in Norway, where she set up a small museum, learned to drive sled dogs, and befriended a town; and her stint as a tour guide on a glacier in Alaska.

I loved reading about Blair’s adventures, and her depictions of nature and the wild are so well done. But for me the heart of the story was her relationship with the folks in a northern Norwegian town, Mortenhals, especially a sixties-something shopkeeper, Arild, who becomes a beloved friend and Blair’s Norwegian “father.”

There is a dark theme that motivates Blair to make her way in the North that is just as strong as her love of the harsh and beautiful land, but this is not really a memoir about trauma: there is so much more light than shadow.

Raised in California, Blair had a clear calling for the North, but one of her first stays in Norway had an unfortunate twist. As a 16-year-old exchange student, she didn’t feel safe around the strange, sexually threatening father of the family she was placed with. Her subsequent journeys North become, in part, a way for Blair to prove to herself she could be tough and strong in a world where women are often vulnerable to physically threatening men.

If you are a fan of autobiographical writing, you’ll appreciate the quiet, intimate scenes of small town life just as much, if not more, as Blair’s adventures out in the elements. I marveled at the skill with which Blair rendered scene after scene, and found myself deconstructing long passages so I could capture some of her magic in my writing.

Blair is now a dogsledder in northern Wisconsin and training to race the Iditerod in 2019. She’ll have lots more to write about, which is great for us readers who love top-notch memoirs and nature writing.

Here’s a 9-minute look at what it’s like to run a 100-mile dogsled race.

 

A Woman in the Polar Night

Polar Night“Meanwhile the world out of doors falls into deepest night. The mountains are no more than white shadows, the sea no more than a black shadow – until that too dissolves away. And then everything is dead.

In this pitch darkness we cannot move far from the hut. I make the smallest possible turns around the hut – all that is left of my walks. When it is not snowing we spend hours outside the hut chopping and sawing wood by the light of the hurricane lamp….

The wind that, rising and falling, lasts for days, is in fact our last link with the reality of the world…”  Christiane Ritter, A Woman in the Polar Night

A Woman in the Polar Night is an astounding memoir by Austrian artist Christiane Ritter who, in 1933, joined her scientist and hunter-trapper husband, Hermann, on the remote island of Spitsbergen 400 miles off the coast of Norway.

If you love memoirs of travel, adventure and, especially, nature, I highly recommend A Woman in the Polar Night. This is an extraordinary book written in poetic, painterly prose by a woman with a fearless spirit who was profoundly moved and changed by her year in the Arctic.

Christiane writes brilliantly about the beauty of Spitsbergen and also its terror. She thrived on Spitsbergen, but during both the darkest and the brightest stretches of her polar immersion she approached the edges of madness. As anyone might.

She writes of a terrifying two weeks spent alone in a fierce snowstorm. The hut was buried completely except for the stovepipe attached to the roof. Christiane’s husband and their companion, Karl, had gone on a hunting trip, and she was left alone with the darkness, snow, and raging wind.

She survived the storm and isolation. But when a full moon finally broke the long darkness, Christiane became moonstruck:

“It is full moon. No European can have any idea of what this means on the smooth frozen surface of the earth. It is as though we were dissolving in moonlight…. One’s entire consciousness is penetrated by the brightness; it is as though we were being drawn into the moon itself…..

Neither the walls of the hut nor the roof of snow can dispel my fancy that I am moonlight myself.”

Fearing Christiane had rar, a strangeness that befalls some who winter in polar regions, Hermann and Karl kept Christiane in the hut, so she wouldn’t succumb to ishavet kaller – meaning “the Arctic calls” – which can drive a person to throw herself into the sea.

“Surrounded by this boundless deadness and rigidity of everything physical, one’s living senses begin slowly to go their own way. More frequently and more brightly as the winter is prolonged, a strange light spreads before the inner eye, a remote and yet familiar vision. It is as though here, in this apartness, we develop a particularly sharp awareness of the mighty laws of the spirit, of the unfathomable gulf between human magnitudes and eternal truth. Outside of time, everything is annihilated. The imprisoned senses circle in the past, in a scene without spatial dimensions, a play in which time stands still.

Often I see the flowers and trees of the distant sun world, but I do not see them as I used to see them. They are glowing with color and piercingly beautiful. Their most secret meaning lives in their growth and their color.”

Dutch Whalers Spitzbergen.jpg

Dutch Whalers near Spitsbergen. By Abraham Storck – Stichting Rijksmuseum het Zuiderzeemuseum. 022296, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5040261

Christiane writes of bear-hunting with Hermann and Karl in a “gigantic wilderness of ice”:

“We are in the middle of the bear kingdom. All my fear of bears has vanished. As in a dream I go on through the splendid strange world.

How quiet it is here. The sun shines on a soundless scene. The magical hues of the soft shadows glow deeply. Everything belongs together here, even the bear tracks in the deep snow, which show with what peace of mind the animals have gone on their way. Everything breathes the same serenity. It is as though a current of the most holy and perfect peace were streaming through all the landscape.

I feel that I am close to the essence of all nature. I can see its paths interlacing and still running alongside each other in accordance with eternal laws. I divine the ultimate salvation before which all human reasoning dissolves into nothing.”

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Ptarmigan was part of Christiane’s Spitsbergen diet. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The memoir’s conclusion is triumphant and sad. Christiane must finally leave the island, forever changed and knowing she will never return. She doesn’t reveal she has an infant daughter at home in Austria until nearly the end of her memoir, a startling bit of information that for me highlighted what an unusual couple the Ritters were.

I was curious about what it was like for Christiane to return to civilization and wished for an epilogue (there is none), but on the other hand I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. On top of having to re-integrate into society, Christiane returned to Austria as Europe neared the onset of World War II.

I found a 1954 edition of Christiane’s memoir at the local library, illustrated with line drawings by the author. You may want to look for the University of Alaska Press edition, published in 2010, which includes a preface with biographical information about the Ritters. It may satisfy some of the inevitable curiosity you’ll have about how the lives of this remarkable couple played out.

Christiane wrote, “You must have gazed on the deadness of all things to grasp their livingness.”

It seems to me her memoir is a remarkable example of someone whose extreme adventure pushed her into completely letting go of her ego and recognizing that we don’t have dominion over nature; we are instead part of nature itself. I think the world would be a much better place if we could all come to know this.

What We're Fighting for NowSo it was especially sad to read the excellent book I picked up next, What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice by Wen Stephenson, which makes clear that humanity hasn’t learned what Christiane Ritter learned. This book is depressing but empowering at the same time.

Stephenson reports that many climate scientists now believe climate catastrophe is inevitable.

He explains the term “climate justice” and how it is different from climate activism and environmentalism. Many have come to realize that climate change is the moral and spiritual issue of our time, inseparable from social justice and equality. The poor and disadvantaged will suffer the most from climate disruptions, as we’ve already seen in places like New Orleans and in countries around the world.

Stephenson lives near Walden Pond in Massachusetts, and he looks at climate justice through the lens of Henry David Thoreau‘s principles of civil disobedience. He likens climate justice to the social justice struggles of abolitionism and civil rights.

Stephenson writes about how he came to leave his career in mainstream journalism to immerse in climate justice, and it’s fascinating to read his interviews with others devoted to the cause as they explain the spiritual and other motives that drive them.

Most are young, some got their start in the Occupy movement, others are evangelicals, Quakers, atheists, community organizers, and grandparents. Many of them have come to believe that the way to survive climate change is to build strong, local communities where people trust and look after each other.

I couldn’t get out of my mind a young woman Stephenson interviewed, Grace Ann Cagle, who said she’d much rather be on a farm having babies than on the front lines of climate justice. Grace took part in the Texas Tar Sands blockade. 

“She’d been up in the trees for about a week, in late September, 2012….Sure enough, TransCanada’s machines came up from the south.

‘They came over the creek….They had a feller buncher – it grabs the trees, cuts them, and throws them. And as they cross the creek, they’re coming like ten feet, twenty feet away from me, practically at the base of my tree – and I thought they were going to kill me….Why would they care about me? And so I jumped onto this traverse rope, and I’m dangling there, wearing all black with a mask on my face, screaming, Go away! Get out of here! They stopped their machines…..I spent like six hours dangling there, in a harness, because I could protect two trees at once….'” 

How sad that, since Christiane Ritter’s time, we’ve come to this.

Read A Woman in the Polar Night to be transported and to understand what we’re losing. Then, if you want to consider what your role might be in the greatest battle of our time, you could follow the memoir with What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice.

 

 

Closing 2015 with The Story of the Lost Child

Little girl statue edited

Little girl at Casa Guidi

 

Opening 2016 with a poem

I ended 2015 reading Elena Ferrante’s fourth and final Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child, and this first week of 2016, a poem of mine, “At Casa Guidi,” was published in Loveliest Magazine.

Italy. Children. Creativity. I hadn’t planned this, but the poem and Ferrante’s novel have these in common. (The similarities end there – Elena Ferrante is a world-renowned author; I’m a novice poet.)

First, the poem. Some years ago I traveled to Florence with my sister-in-law, and we visited Casa Guidi, the home of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning in the Oltrarno quarter, where many artists and writers lived. Later, recalling our visit, I was inspired to write “At Casa Guidi.”

Loveliest Magazine, a new venue “for storytelling and togetherness,” caught my eye when I read the words “slow-lifestyle” and “literary” to describe its cross-genre purpose. That’s me, for sure, so I thought my poetry might be a good fit. Beautifully written and produced independent literary and lifestyle publications such as Loveliest often look for good fiction, poetry, and essays; if you’d like to see your work published consider submitting to these in addition to traditional literary journals.

 

Little boy statue edited

Little boy at Casa Guidi

 

If you are ever in Florence, be sure to visit this quieter part of the city, the Oltrarno, which literally means “beyond the Arno River.” In addition to the must-see attractions and many great works of art, Oltrarno streets are lined with stationery stores featuring the things writers love: Italian-made note papers and leather journals, ornate fountain pens, inks in every shade and color. When I was there, I bought a small, leather-bound copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese, and my sister-in-law bought a print of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Closing 2015 with Elena Ferrante

I’ve written about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in a previous post.  The Story of the Lost Child is Ferrante’s fourth and final novel in her Neapolitan series. The books are a probing look at the inner life of a writer; a family saga; a soap opera; a history of Italian feminism, culture and politics; and more.

So much has been said about these singular, internationally bestselling novels and their mysterious author, who publishes under a pseudonym, that I’ll simply add my thoughts here. (That we don’t know the identity of the author adds to the power of her work, in my opinion.)

If you look at the book covers you’ll see dreamy, idealized illustrations that are misleading: the story of the lifelong friendship between Lila and Elena, born in Naples just after World War II, can often be raw, brutally honest, and bleak. The book covers belie the content, but perhaps that was intentional, as if to say: think again if you expect a story filled with roses and happy endings….

I wouldn’t say I was always entertained by the books, because they can be relentless in their depiction of Napoli poverty and the battle between the sexes in an era when feminism blossomed. But, as many readers do, I became obsessed with Lila and Elena and had to keep on reading to see what became of them.

  • Ferrante’s work is especially meaningful to me because my father was Sicilian. Now I better understand the values, traditions, and struggles of my Italian ancestors and how these may have had an impact on my own childhood. The cultural history of Italy and its focus on family reminded me of one of my favorite Italian movies, The Best of Youth. Although I have not yet read My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgard, it sounds as though Ferrante’s penetrating look at the psychology of growing up and growing older may have similarities with Knausgard’s autobiographical series.
  • As a writer, I was especially taken with Elena’s love/jealousy/hatred of her friend, Lila. Though Elena was the outwardly successful one, with several novels published and lauded as a scholar of literature and culture, she always believed Lila was the more talented of the two, the one with wildness, fire, and true originality.  It’s often a struggle when I write to break out of my safe, everyday self and give creativity free reign. The genius of the Neapolitan novels is that Elena and Lila’s story can be read as the author’s own creative struggle with a psyche split in two.

 

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Elena and her friend, Lila, are strong women, survivors. Here is Elena during the earthquake in Naples, 1980:

“I felt that fear in me could not put down roots, and even the lava, the fiery stream of melting matter settled in my mind in orderly sentences, a pavement of black stones like the streets of Naples, where I was always and no matter what at the center. Everything that struck me–my studies, books, Franco, Pietro, the children, Nino, the earthquake–would pass, and I, whatever I among those I was accumulating, I would remain firm.”  – The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

 

My Brilliant Friend book coverThe Story of a New Name book coverThose Who Leave and Those Who Stay book cover

Wild Arts!

Five books

Books purchased at the Wild Arts Festival in Portland, signed in person by the authors.

 

Litmosphere: 1. the vast domain of the world’s readers and writers 2. a lively literary mood permeating the air ~ sign in Powell’s Books, Portland

Wild Arts FestivalI love the literary scene in Portland. Our Thanksgiving visit there coincided with the annual Wild Arts Festival, a celebration of nature in art and books hosted by the Audubon Society of Portland in the old Montgomery Ward building, now known as Montgomery Park.

Walking into the festival, where hundreds of artists and authors were on hand, was like getting a gigantic embrace from the creative community.

I couldn’t decide among Ursula Le Guin’s many, many science fiction and fantasy books. In the end I chose her translation of Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, and she graciously signed a copy for me.

Next, we met Robert Michael Pyle, a jolly teddy bear of a man who spent no less than 15 minutes entertaining us with stories about how, in his Honda Civic with 345,000 miles on the odometer, he spent a year searching for as many of the 800 species of American butterflies as he could find. I could have spent hours listening to this man; instead I bought his memoir and travelogue, Mariposa Road, which he signed with, “May these far rambles on bright wings incite your own wild road trips!”

A dedicated ecologist and naturalist, Robert Michael Pyle has written nearly 20 books and is the co-editor of Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings. (The literary genius Vladimir Nabokov was a butterfly expert and had an extensive collection.)

I purchased another of Robert’s memoirs, Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land, about Washington’s Willapa Hills, whose forests have been plundered by lumber companies. Robert lives on a farm in Grays River once owned by a Swedish immigrant. I’m descended from Swedes, who were attracted to the deep forests of the Pacific Northwest because it reminded them of home; I’d love to see Willapa country one day. Of course, Robert signed Wintergreen, too, with these words, together with a sketch of a snail: “May these moss murmurs and fern-words honor your own hills of home – and maybe urge you Northwesterly!”

I can’t say enough about Floyd Skloot and Kim Stafford. They are both poets, and they’ve both written memoirs. (Actually, they’ve both written more than one, and I look forward to reading all of them.)

Since I’m writing a memoir myself, I decided to go for the memoirs: In the Shadow of MemoryFloyd Skloot’s first memoir (part neuroscience and part autobiography about a virus that left Skloot disabled and bereft of memories) and 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: My Brother’s Disappearance by Kim Stafford (his brother committed suicide.)

Both of these generous writers spoke with me about their work and asked at great length about mine. Kim wanted to know the working title of my memoir and, when I told him, he gave me a writing assignment to try. As I did the exercise Kim recommended, I discovered that one particular word in the title is especially important to my memoir’s theme. It got me thinking about how I could bring out the theme more vividly as I revise.

The authors I spoke with at the Wild Arts Festival were incredibly kind and gracious. I had instant connections with these generous writers, who are among the best in America today. Don’t be shy at these kinds of events. Writers and artists are the most giving and engaged people you’ll ever meet.

Portland is a book-loving town, and as I walked around the neighborhoods with family, I noticed several Little Free Libraries. It’s also a poetry-loving town, and a couple of the homes I passed by had poems on display – including one by Kim Stafford’s father, the great poet William Stafford.

Slipped inside the Kim Stafford memoir I bought was the gift of a poem that begins, “The only heroic thing is to not be a hero.” I believe Kim borrowed this phrase from a poem by his father, William: “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border.”

Kim’s poem is called “A Few Words, Each Day,” and it includes this line: “The only heroic thing is to be a child of four…of fifteen…of forty…of eighty – trying with the heart and mind to listen to the self, each other, and the earth….”

Litmosphere definition sign in Powell's Books

We stopped by Powell’s Books for good measure, where I learned a new word.

 

Books: Braiding Sweetgrass; Notes from No Man's Land

At Powell’s I bought Eula Biss’s collection of essays and the latest book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatoni Nation.

 

Northern spotted owl at the Wild Arts Festival

Northern spotted owl at the Wild Arts Festival

 

Kim Stafford: “That is my story.”

 

 

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