Sometimes you read a book that redirects your mind. An interest that hovered at the periphery is suddenly at dead center. A previously unknown artist captivates. People and places take up residence in your head, demanding attention which you grant willingly, happily.
All this and more came to me courtesy of Paul Theroux’s deeply felt, wonderfully realized travelogue.
The subtitle”Four Seasons on the Back Roads” is meaningful. Theroux had no interest in visiting places like Charleston and Savannah; rather, he wanted to see what life is like for people in the small towns that dot the landscape of Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
This happened in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, at the beginning of the author’s southern travels:
He was sitting in his car trying to determine the location of the Cornerstone Full Gospel Baptist Church. A woman in the car beside him asked if he was lost. He explained that he was a stranger, to which she replied “Ain’t no strangers here, baby.” Introducing herself as Lucille, she offered to lead him to the church. When she had done so, he thanked her. She responded with two words: “Be blessed.”
That seemed to be the theme in the Deep South: kindness, generosity, a welcome. I had found it often in my traveling life in the wider world, but I found so much more of it here that I kept going, because the good will was like an embrace. Yes, there is a haunted substratum of darkness in Southern life, and though it pulses through many interactions, it takes a long while to perceive it, and even longer to understand.
I sometimes had long days, but encounters like the one with Lucille always lifted my spirits and sent me deeper into the South, to out-of-the-way churches like the Cornerstone Full Gospel, and to places so obscure, such flyspecks on the map, they were described in the rural way as “you gotta be going there to get there.”
On the subject of traveling in America, Theroux quotes this comment by Henry James: “One’s supreme relation…was one’s relation to one’s country.” Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? And did he actually do much traveling in his native land?
At any rate, Theroux continues:
With this in mind, after having seen the rest of the world, I had planned to take one long trip through the South in the autumn, before the presidential election of 2012, and write about it. But when that trip was over I wanted to go back, and I did so, leisurely in the winter, renewing acquaintances. That was not enough. I returned in the spring, and again in the summer, and by then I knew that the South had me, sometimes in a comforting embrace, occasionally in its frenzied and unrelenting grip.
I received two gifts from Deep South for which I’m especially grateful. One is an introduction to the writer Mary Ward Brown. Like me, Theroux had never heard of this author before being introduced to her by an enthusiast. After reading her short stories and her memoir, this was his assessment:
Her writing was direct, unaffected, unsentimental, and powerful for its simplicity and for its revealing the inner life of rural Alabama, the day-to-day, the provincial manners and pretensions, the conflicts racial and economic. No gothic, no dwarfs, no twelve-year-old wives, no idiots, no picturesque monstrosities, nothing that could be described as phantasmagoric.
The story “New Dresses” takes place some years ago and is told from the point of view of Lisa, a Midwesterner. She has married into the Worthy family, a clan with deep roots in the South, and she’s having trouble adjusting. In this scene, Lisa has conveyed her extremely frail but insistent mother-in-law to a department store in town, where everyone seems to know and revere her:
Mrs. Worthy had to be supported to the elevator, where the black woman averted her eyes and worked the controls in silence. Mrs. Worthy leaned on Miss Carrie, who kept one arm around her waist. Lisa stared blindly at advertisements taped to the wall, wondering what vanity or pride could prompt anyone so sick to subject herself, subject them all, to such an ordeal.
From the story “The Barbecue:”
Jeff was named for the southern hero Jefferson Davis. The first time someone told Tom his weekend neighbor was a collateral descendant of the president of the Confederacy, of the same blood and could trace it, Tom had laughed. “You mean they got the papers on him, like a bull?” Laura said there was an original portrait of President Davis’s mother in one of the Arrington parlors. They prized it above everything else in the house, she said.
The J in Tom’s name stood for Jefferson too. He was named for a hero even greater, the architect of American democracy, but he was no kin whatsoever. It was just a name his father had picked out, hoping it would help him amount to something, his mother said. His father had been a two-mule farmer in the poorest county of the state.
This is the kind of fiction writing I have come to cherish: straightforward, unadorned, not striving for effect.
While visiting the home of Mary Ward Brown, a painting by Crawford Gillis was pointed out to Theroux. He had never heard of this artist. Neither had I. While searching for his work online, I came across the site of the Johnson Collection in Spartanburg, South Carolina. What a gem of an art museum!
Two paintings by Crawford Gillis:
Have a look at the site; the place is a veritable treasure trove. I just want to include one other work here. It’s an untitled painting by Carl Christian Brenner. It is so evocative, I get lost in it. (To get the full effect, click to enlarge):
I have many marked pages in my e-book version of Deep South, and the book deserves a great deal more attention that I have time to give it at present. Let me just say that I loved it. Despite the desperate straits of some of the small towns he visited, Paul Theroux made me want to go to the Deep South- to see what he saw and to meet and talk to the people he met.
If you’ve spent any time at this site in the past year, you’ll know that Stranger Than Fiction, the course in the literature of true crime that I had the privilege of teaching last year, pretty much hijacked my nonfiction reading for a while. If you read in the subgenre of historical true crime, the experience is slightly less scary. So here are some recommendations, made on that basis.
Let me get Murder by Candlelight out of the way first. This survey of crime in early nineteenth century England can admittedly be rather unsettling. But Michael Knox Beran’s is such a bracing and refreshing intellect, I can’t help but sing the praises of this book (though approach with caution, please!)
And here are some others: The Destiny of the Republic, in which Candice Millard returns James A. Garfield to his rightful place in the pantheon of great Americans;
Blood Royal by Eric Jager, in which medieval France comes vividly, if frighteningly, to life (The Last Duel by this author is also very enjoyable);
The Mad Sculptor by Harold Schechter. Schechter is also the editor of True Crime: An American Anthology. This is the book I used as my text for the true crime course.
Some of the most marvelous nonfiction I’ve come across recently is in the form of exhibition catalogs. I saw “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World” just before it closed at the National Gallery in Washington DC:
I saw Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC several months ago.
(I stood in front of this painting for quite some time, along with a young couple. Finally I said, “Why is this painting so wonderful?” The woman murmured that she did not know, and then they both turned to me with radiant smiles.)
“Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” never came any closer than Boston, and while I love the Boston area, I wasn’t able to make to to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibits. However, the paintings are so fabulous that I purchased the catalog anyway.
A quick reminder concerning Josh Ruxin’s inspiring chronicle of the work that he, his wife, and many others have been doing in Rwanda before I go on to more current items.
I am now reading two nonfiction titles: The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore and The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. I’ve written recently about The Romanovs, and I hereby reiterate my intention to read the entire book. Eventually.
The Invention of Nature is a biography of Alexander Von Humboldt. I’m about half way through it, and it’s wonderful. Here was a man gifted with a profound intellect and a restless curiosity about the world around him. The story of his explorations of South America, begun in 1799 and lasting for five years, is alone worth the price of admission. He cheerfully endured almost inconceivable hardships in his quest for ever deeper knowledge and understanding of the natural world.
Over thousands of years crops, grains, vegetables and fruits had followed the footpaths of humankind. As humans crossed continents and oceans, they had brought plants with them and thereby had changed the face of the earth. Agriculture linked plants to politics and economy. Wars had been fought over plants, and empires were shaped by tea, sugar and tobacco. Some plants told him as much about humankind as about nature itself, while other plants gave Humboldt an insight into geology as they revealed how continents had shifted. The similarities of their coastal plants, Humboldt wrote, showed an ‘ancient’ connection between Africa and South America as well as illustrating how islands that were previously linked were now separated – an incredible conclusion more than a century before scientists had even begun to discuss continental movements and the theory of shifting tectonic plates. Humboldt ‘read’ plants as others did books – and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movements of civilizations as well as of landmass. No one had ever approached botany in this way.
As you can see, Andrea Wulf’s writing is clear and lucid. Von Humboldt freely mixed his scientific observations with an esthetic response; hence, his writing is often lyrical:
At the foot of the high granite spine that, in the early days of our planet, defied the incursion of the waters during the formation of the Antillean Gulf, there begins a broad, immeasurable plain. Upon leaving behind the valleys of Caracas and the island-rich Lake Tacarigua, 1 which reflects in its surface the trunks of the pisang trees, leaving behind fields resplendent with the delicate light green of Tahitian sugarcane or the solemn shade of cacao plants, one’s gaze toward the South comes to rest upon steppes that, seeming to climb, dwindle into the distant horizon.
Admittedly it was a mistake to tackle both of these books at the same time. But I confess I’m in a fever over the cornucopia of new offerings in nonfiction – I have trouble restraining myself!
Here are two more that I’m going to tackle next:
My reading in nonfiction this year was heavily influenced – indeed, largely determined, at least initially – by the course in the literature of true crime which I taught back in February and March. This proved to be an exhilarating experience on all levels: the interaction with genuine, enthusiastic, and unapologetic intellectuals, the chance to master new classroom technology with the indispensable help of my (ever-patient) husband Ron, and above all, the research, which took me into new and previously unknown (to me) areas of American history that proved utterly fascinating.
I chose for the course’s primary text Harold Schechter’s impressive anthology. I figured if it was good enough to receive the imprimatur of the Library of America, then it would serve the course well. I took the historical/chronological approach to the material, as Schechter does.
Thanks are due once again to my friend Pauline for making this happen (and giving me plenty of help along the way).
In a post I wrote in August entitled “Six nonfiction titles I’ve read and esteemed so far this year,” four were true crime:
The Stranger Beside Me (1980) and Blood and Money (1976) are classics of the genre. I had long wanted to read the Ann Rule title and was glad to finally do so. Her story of the terrifying rampage of serial killer Ted Bundy, a man she actually knew, retains its power to shock and bewilder. For me, these effects were even more immediate in Tommy Thompson’s strange and gripping tale of Texas high rollers and their fateful (and fatal) entanglement.. Blood and Money is one of the greatest exemplars of true crime reportage. I read it when it first came out, and I wondered if it would pack the same punch on rereading. It did – and then some.
This House of Grief by Australian writer Helen Garner is the story of an appalling family tragedy and the accusations that eventually followed, culminating in a trial that was completely riveting. I couldn’t put this book down. In the Wall Street Journal’s Books of the Year feature (Review section, Saturday/Sunday December 12-13, 2015), Kate Atkinson describes This House of Grief as “both scrupulously objective and profoundly personal.” She cites it as one of the best books read by her this year (as does Gillian Anderson, in the same article).
As for Ghettoside, I lack sufficient superlatives in my vocabulary with which to praise journalist Jill Leovy’s achievement in this book. Crime and punishment as played out in South Los Angeles are vividly and disturbingly rendered. What really makes Ghettoside work is the intense focus on individuals caught up in the maelstrom. I was glad to see that this title made onto several lists of best nonfiction of 2015.
The two other titles in the “Six nonfiction” post linked to above are biographies:
Re the Strauss title: I really enjoyed getting the back story to the Shakespeare play, one of my long time favorites. And as for Joan of Arc, what can one say? As a girl, I was fascinated by her story. These days, I find it even more compelling. And Harrison relates the particulars with clarity and grace.
I very much enjoyed David Gessner’s dual biography of Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, two towering greats of twentieth century environmentalism. I hope that description doesn’t make them sound stodgy. They were anything but – especially the cheerfully irreverent Abbey, who lived more or less wild and free, marrying multiple times and hurling rhetorical thunderbolts whenever the mood moved him. He’s best remembered for Desert Solitaire (1968), a memoir of his stint as a park ranger in Arches National Monument, now Arches National Park. In addition, he coined the expression “monkey wrench gang” in his 1975 novel of the same name.
All the Wild That Remains also functions as a travelogue, as Gessner retraces the steps of his subjects and when possible, talks to folks who knew them.
Writing about this book is serving to remind me how much I enjoyed it. I might read it again. I was also delighted to be able to give it as a gift to my dear friend Bonnie, who now resides in nature-friendly Oregon. Bonnie’s the librarian who first introduced me to the literary stars of the environmental movement. Together we presented a program on this subject at the library.(Bonnie, don’t you love this shot of Abbey? The man’s unquenchable vitality shines right through.)
This is a delightful romp through the world of used and antique books, with a past master of the art. Michael Dirda is a passionate, compulsive collector and an amazingly knowledgeable person. The only problem with Browsings is that you learn of numerous titles that you’d like to read. And so that list – that fateful (I almost write “fatal”) list – grows by leaps and bounds, while you, poor you, are stuck with your one pair of eyes (which you desperately hope will hold out a bit longer) and one brain (same hope, even more fervent). You can’t read any faster! And nor, really, do you wish to.
Here’s just a small sampling of the titles Dirda mentions in Browsings:
Classics, crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, memoir, swashbuckling adventure – he’s open to all of them. Dirda possesses the most receptive and exuberant mind I’ve ever encountered.
Speaking of recommendations, I’ve gotten plenty of them from Martin Edwards’s delightful history of the Detection Club, which I’ve been absorbing in measured and delicious dollops. Among its other virtues, The Golden Age of Murder is an excellent companion volume to the classic reissues now coming in gratifying numbers from the British Library.
I recently found Witches: Salem, 1692 to be a sobering reminder of where institutionalized rigidity and narrow mindedness can lead. Read it and weep – but also be fascinated by this recounting of one of the darkest chapters in our history.
This book was a revelation! Here is history with a truly local perspective – we’re talking about landmarks a mere ten minutes from my front door. Ron and I went scouting locations in Howard County alone and had excellent luck. Then I found another landmark that’s been relocated to the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Alas, still no access to Doughreagan Manor, not even to gaze upon from a distance.)
Wake also describes in scintillating detail life among Britain’s aristocrats and their newly arrived American counterparts in the early eighteen hundreds. (This was well before the invasion of the so-called “dollar princesses.” later in the same century.)
This is not a book for reading straight through, but one to contemplate with delight. I am in awe of the inventiveness of children’s book illustrators. They are among our greatest artists, and 100 Great Children’s Picture Books is full to bursting with their wondrous works.
I’ve written several posts on this book; or rather, I’ve quoted large chunks from it. Sir John Lister-Kaye’s beautiful descriptions speak for themselves; I could not hope to emulate his eloquence. Here he describes a phenomenon that is nothing short of astonishing:
Sitting at my desk one morning I looked up to see a thin veil of smoke passing the window. Puzzled, I rose and walked across the room to the bay window that looks out over the river fields. Normally I can see right across the glacial valley to the forested hills on the other side, the river glinting in between. That morning I could barely see the far side at all. It couldn’t be smoke, I reasoned, there was too much of it. It must be drifts of low cloud. Then it cleared and handed back the view.
I returned to my desk. A few moments later I noticed it again; another pale shroud passing on a gentle south-westerly breeze, funnelling along the valley. But something wasn’t right. Late summer mists don’t do that, they hang, and anyway, the cloud base was high. Perhaps it was smoke, after all. I got up again and stood in the window just as another cloud closed off my view. I always keep my precious Swarovski binoculars on my windowsill so I took a closer look.
What I saw was a breath-taking spectacle of such overwhelming natural abundance that I was lost for words. I picked up the phone to Ian Sargent, our field officer, who was off duty with his girlfriend Morag Smart, who ran our schools programmes. ‘Come quickly. You must see this.’ As always, when I stumble across some extraordinary natural phenomenon, my first instinct is to share it. But I also wanted witnesses. The world is full of cynics. I knew people wouldn’t believe me if I kept it to myself.
It was neither mist nor smoke. It was silk. Spiders’ web silk. The massed gossamer threads of millions of tiny spiders dispersing by a process known as ‘ballooning’. Every long grass stem, every dried dock head, every tall thistle, every fence post held, at its apex, a tiny spiderling – what we commonly know as a money spider – poised, bottom upturned to the wind in what has been described as the ‘tiptoe position’ and from which single or multiple threads of silk were being spun. Other spiders were queuing beneath, awaiting their turn. As each slowly lengthening thread caught the wind we could watch the spider hanging on, tightening its grip on the stem or the seed head, while the gently rugging threads extended ever longer into the breeze.
For the tiniest spiders lift-off happened when the threads were ten or fifteen feet long, but slightly larger spiders spun for much more – perhaps twice that length. Then they let go. The spiders were airborne, sailing gently up, up and away across the fields, gaining height all the time, quite literally ballooning down the valley with the wind.
Many are the books about nature and natural phenomena that I’ve started with the best of intentions only to leave unfinished. Not only did I finish Gods of the Morning, but I was genuinely sorry to see it end.
And so I come to Murder by Candlelight. Subtitled The Gruesome Slayings Behind Our Romance with the Macabre, this would at first glance seem to be a catalog of the grotesque, best read in broad daylight if at all. It is true that author Michael Knox Beran recounts some terrible crimes; they date from the early nineteenth century and took place in Britain. But this book is about so much more.
Let me quote myself, from an earlier post:
Murder by Candlelight is not only a true crime narrative – or rather, a narrative of multiple true crimes – it is a work of philosophy, psychology, and history. True, some of it is hard to read – repugnant, even gruesome – but other parts are rich with a profound insight into the human condition. The erudition displayed by Michael Knox Beran is nothing short of amazing. For instance, it is not every day that a book sends me scurrying to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer:
Yes, I know, he doesn’t look as though he’d be very scintillating at a dinner party, but he’s actually a deeply fascinating thinker. I have in mind specifically a work entitled The World as Will and Representation. Sound dry as dust? Not the portions quoted in Murder by Candlelight – they’re anything but.
I had not previously heard of Michael Knox Beran, but he will most definitely be getting a fan letter from Yours Truly.
Forthwith, an excerpt:
The killings described in this book took place in the high noon of Romanticism, when the most vital spirits were in revolt against the eighteenth-century lucidity of their fathers and grandfathers, those powdered, periwigged gentlemen who had been bred up in the sunshine of the Enlightenment, and who were as loath to descend to the Gothic crypt as they were to contemplate the Gothic skull beneath the skin. The Romantic Age, by contrast, was more than a little in love with blood and deviltry. It was an age that delighted in the clotted gore of the seventeenth-century dramatists, the bloody poetry of Webster and Tourneur and Middleton. “To move a horror skillfully,” Charles Lamb wrote in his 1808 book Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare, “to touch a soul to the quick, to lay upon fear as much as it can bear, to wean and weary a life till it is ready to drop, and then step in with mortal instruments to take its last forfeit: this only a Webster can do.” Inferior geniuses, Lamb said, may “terrify babes with painted devils,” but they “know not how a soul is to be moved.”
And one more:
The keenest spirits of this epoch in murder history— Sir Walter Scott, Thomas De Quincey, and Thomas Carlyle among them— knew a good deal about the horror that moves the soul. In their contemplations of the most notorious murders of their time, they saw “strange images of death” and discovered dreadfulnesses in the act of homicide that we, in an age in which murder has been antiseptically reduced to a problem of social science on the one hand and skillful detective work on the other, are only too likely to have overlooked.
For the student of history, the murders of a vanished time have this other value. An eminent historian has said that were he limited, in the study of a particular historical period, to one sort of document only, he would choose the records of its murder trials as being the most comprehensively illuminating. A history of the murders of an age will in its own way reveal as much of human nature, caught in the Minotaur-maze of evil circumstance, as your French Revolutions, Vienna Congresses, and German Unifications. What a vision of the past rises up before us in these dark scenes, illumined by wax-lights and tallow-dips: and what an uncanny light do they throw upon our own no less mysterious, no less sinful present.
In the course of my reading of Murder By Candlelight, it began to exercise a greater and greater hold on my imagination. I, who have lately been reading multiple books simultaneously (as well as magazines and newspapers), could only read this one book. And yet I slowed down purposely as the end neared, not wanting to finish. I finally did so in October. I am now rereading it, to try and better understand and recapture the effect it had on me the first time. I’m about one third of the way in, and yes, it’s happening again.
Throughout my reading of Gods of the Morning, I’ve been astonished over and over again by Lister-Kaye’s gorgeous descriptions:
Like molten gold from a crucible, the first touch of sun spilled in from the east, from the glistening horizon of the Moray Firth, so bright that I couldn’t look at it, flooding its winter fire up the river, right past me and on up the valley. The river trailed below me, like a silk pashmina thrown down by an untidy teenager. Strands of mist over the water were fired with yellow flame, as though part of some mysterious ritual immolation. The new-born light raked the steep glen sides, floodlighting every rocky prominence and daubing deep craters of black shadow so that the familiar shape of the land vanished before my eyes. I was in a wonderland, strange to me and a little unnerving. The dogs sat uncharacteristically silent at my feet, noses lifting to test the air, but stilled as though they, too, could sense the moment.
And yet, even in the midst of all this beauty, there appear certain disturbing vignettes. One concerns an almost sacrilegious act committed by Lister-Kaye when he was eleven years old.
His grandfather had shown him the customary roosting place of a tawny owl in a yew tree on the family property. Earlier that year, young John had been gifted with an air rifle:
It was the most exciting birthday gift I had ever received. In the short space of a birthday afternoon I became Davy Crockett, Kit Carson and the Lone Ranger all rolled into one ill-disciplined puberulous youth bursting to tangle with danger and adventure.
You can probably guess what happened next:
The head-hanging truth that still torments my soul is that when no one was looking I crept out and shot that owl. For a moment it seemed not to move; then it tipped forward and fell like a rag at my feet. I picked it up, hot and floppy in my hands. Its cinnamon and cream mottled plumage was as soft and silky as Angora fleece. One owl, one boy, one gun. Two burst hearts, one with lead, the other with guilt. I had never held a tawny owl before and its lifeless beauty hit me in a withering avalanche of instantaneous remorse and shame. I have never forgotten it and never forgiven myself. To this day I ask myself why I did it.
The very definition of remorse.
Several works came to mind when I read this passage. Foremost among them, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bowI shot the ALBATROSS.……………………………………And I had done a hellish thing,And it would work ’em woe:For all averred, I had killed the birdThat made the breeze to blow.Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,That made the breeze to blow!
Surely there is no more dramatic and meaningful moment in life than when you realize that an action you’ve taken – whatever the reason – is profoundly, morally wrong. Almost always that action is an irreparable transgression, against God, nature, or one’s fellow human beings. Sometimes that action involves the taking of a life. In a chapter in A Sand County Almanac entitled “Thinking Like a Mountain,” the great conservationist Aldo Leopold recounts such a moment in his own life:
We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.
In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
John Lister-Kaye’s sense of wonder at the nesting and migratory habits of birds – indeed, at their very existence – shines throughout in Gods of the Morning.
A willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus – the cascading leaf-watcher) is an unexceptional little bird, often our first summer migrant, an arrival announced by the male birds rendering a rippling, descending peal of pure notes tinged with mild complaint, but as pretty as a summer waterfall. It’s a refrain that rings through the spring woods, repeating over and over again, lifting to a brief, pleading crescendo, then slowing as it falls and, diminuendo, fades away at the end. It seems to be calling out, ‘Now that I’ve arrived, what am I going to do?’
Like the blackcap, it resides in that large family of typical warblers that come and go every summer without any fuss, unnoticed except by ornithologs like me and a few thousand binocular-toting others to whom these tiny creatures assume an importance far greater than their size. If they’ve heard of a willow warbler at all, the vast generality of people don’t know that it has just completed a global marathon, back from wintering in southern Africa, a migration of three thousand miles of skimming arid plains, dodging desert sandstorms and leap-frogging seas and mountains, and they probably wouldn’t care much either. ‘All little brown birds are the same to me,’ I’m told, over and over again. But not to me: for me they all carry meaning and I thirst to know more. Sylviidae, the family.
I’m here to tell you, it takes a rapturous devotion like Lister-Kaye’s to keep all this warbler lore straight! But if anyone can do it, he can.
Reading this skilled and eloquent observer’s descriptions of his almost mystical encounters with avian species put me in mind of a piece I read some years ago: Loren Eiseley‘s “The Judgment of Birds.” There’s a bit in this essay about a close encounter with a crow that has remained vivid in my imagination:
This crow lives near my house, and though I have never injured him, he takes good care to stay up in the very highest trees and, in general, to avoid humanity.
His world begins at about the limit of my eyesight.
On the particular morning when this episode occurred, the whole countryside was buried in one of the thickest fogs in years. The ceiling was absolutely zero. All planes were grounded, and even a pedestrian could hardly see his outstretched hand before him.
I was groping across a field in the general direction of the railroad station, following a dimly outlined path. Suddenly out of the fog, at about the level of my eyes, and so closely that I flinched, there flashed a pair of immense black wings and a huge beak. The whole bird rushed over my head with a frantic cawing outcry of such hideous terror as I have never heard in a crow’s voice before and never expect to hear again.
He was lost and startled, I thought, as I recovered my poise. He ought not to have flown out in this fog. He’d knock his silly brains out.
All afternoon that great awkward cry rang in my head. Merely being lost in a fog seemed scarcely to account for it—especially in a tough, intelligent old bandit such as I knew that particular crow to be. I even looked once in the mirror to see what it might be about me that had so revolted him that he had cried out in protest to the very stones.
Finally, as I worked my way homeward along the path, the solution came to me.
It should have been clear before. The borders of our worlds had shifted. It was the fog that had done it. That crow, and I knew him well, never under normal circumstances flew low near men. He had been lost all right, but it was more than that.
He had thought he was high up, and when he encountered me looming gigantically through the fog, he had perceived a ghastly and, to the crow mind, unnatural sight.
He had seen a man walking on air, desecrating the very heart of the crow kingdom, a harbinger of the most profound evil a crow mind could conceive of—air- walking men. The encounter, he must have thought, had taken place a hundred feet over the roofs.
At the conclusion of Coleridge’s poem, the mariner offers this moral:
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.He prayeth best, who loveth bestAll things both great and small;For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
“Did ever raven sing so like a lark, / That gives sweet tidings of the sun’s uprise?” Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus
Lister-Kaye – i.e. Sir John Philip Lister Lister-Kaye, 8th Baronet OBE – is inordinately fond of crows, rooks, ravens – those avian species subsumed under the genus Corvus. He studies them at Aigas, the Field Study Center in the Scottish Highlands which he founded in 1977. He lives and works there; it is his calling and his life’s work. What a lucky man! (You can read in the Wikipedia entry how he made this “luck” happen.)
There is nothing dull about a raven. As glossy as a midnight puddle, bigger than a buzzard, with a bill like a poleaxe and the eyes of an eagle, its brain is as sharp and quick as a whiplash. Surfing the high mountain winds, ravens tumble with the ease and grace of trapeze artists, and their basso profondo calls are sonorous, rich and resonant, gifting portent to the solemn gods of high places. Ravens surround us at Aigas, and they nest early.
Most of us consider crows a sort of nuisance bird, and anyway too common to be of any great interest. Lister-Kaye gently seeks to disabuse us of that notion.
The advent of wildlife tourism as an economic force, legal protection and a wider conservation understanding has permitted raven numbers to increase and the birds to nest at least in some areas, unmolested. They are now part of our daily lives. I listen out for the guttural ‘cronk, cronk’ as they pass overhead every day. If a solitary black bird rows into view (rooks are almost never solitary), I stop what I’m doing to look for the wedge-shaped tail or to get the measure of its bulk to distinguish it from carrion or hooded crows. As the years have flicked by, their daily appearance here, their criss-crossing of the glen from high moor to hill, has become predictable, a reassuring norm, something we note with pleasure, and a characterful addition to our resident avifauna.
Confident of that interest, as a chunky silhouette crosses or that unmistakable plunking call reverberates from the woods, I don’t hesitate to point and call to my friends and field centre colleagues, ‘Ha! Raven!’, yet I find myself still wary of my audience. Those farmers and crofters aplenty who charge ravens with killing lambs and many, not just old-school, gamekeepers are quick to condemn all crows, but especially hoodies and ravens, and will still do their utmost to kill them. ‘The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.’ (Hamlet, Act III, scene ii.)
As you’ve already no doubt noted, Shakespeare makes frequent mention of the raven. My favorite instance of this occurs in MacBeth, when Lady MacBeth gives vent to her ghoulish pleasure at Duncan’s arrival:
The raven himself is hoarseThat croaks the fatal entrance of DuncanUnder my battlements.
I’ll close with a photo taken by my son Ben Davis at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a nature lover’s paradise that probably has some aspects in common with the Aigas Field Centre.
[Click to enlarge]
…of a beautiful place. Here’s how it begins:
In 1976 I set up a field studies centre here at Aigas, an ancient site in a glen in the northern central Highlands – it was Scotland’s first. It is a place cradled by the hills above Strathglass, an eyrie looking out over the narrow floodplain of the Beauly River. Aigas is also my home. We are blessed with an exceptionally diverse landscape of rivers, marshes and wet meadows, hill grazings, forests and birch woods, high moors and lochs, all set against the often snow-capped four-thousand-foot Affric Mountains to the west. Golden eagles drift high overhead, the petulant shrieks of peregrines echo from the rock walls of the Aigas gorge, ospreys hover and crash into the loch, levering themselves out again with a trout squirming in their talons’ fearsome grip. Red squirrels peek round the scaly, rufous trunks of Scots pines, and, given a sliver of a chance, pine martens would cause mayhem in the hen run. At night roe deer tiptoe through the gardens, and in autumn red deer stags surround us, belling their guttural challenges to the hills. Yes, we count our blessings to be able to live and work in such an elating and inspiring corner of Britain’s crowded isle.
(All I could think when I read this was that I wanted to pack my bags at once and go there.)
The above passage is from Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s-Eye View of a Changing World, by John Lister-Kaye (that’s Sir John Lister-Kaye, 8th Baronet OBE. I admit it: I’m a sucker for British titles, though the gentleman himself declines to make mention of it in this context.)
Admittedly, I have a poor track record when it comes to finishing books about the natural world (although I have a great track record for starting them). Nevertheless, this one bids fair to being an exception. I’m off to a good start. The writing is maintaining a high standard of gorgeousness.
I’ve got my fingers crossed…
Here are some views of Aigas:
How one envies John Lister-Kaye, secure in his glorious Scottish fastness!
And that has to be one of my all time favorite book covers.
Plenty of gloom and doom but also gratitude, reasons to believe, and occasions to ponder the strange and wondrous vagaries of human nature
In the Review section of this past Sunday’s New York Times, there was a goodly helping of admonition and dire prediction, chiefly prompted by the destruction recently visited on the New York metropolitan area by Hurricane Sandy.
First, James Atlas warns of the coming submersion of New York City in Is This the End? An appropriately scary title, especially for those of us who know and love the place. (Venerating the city’s cultural riches, my mother could never understand why a person would want to live anywhere else.)
In Rising Seas, Vanishing Coastlines, Benjamin Strauss and Robert Kopp paint a disturbing picture of the effect that rising sea levels will have on this country’s coastal regions. To begin with, the authors offer up this astonishing statistic: “More than six million Americans live on land less than five feet above the local high tide.” Even granted that Strauss and Kopp are describing eventualities that may be several centuries down the road, their projections are extremely disturbing. Click on What Could Disappear for maps. I did, and it just about broke my heart. Among the places slated to become a latter day Atlantis is Miami Beach, Florida, where I attended junior high and high school. Alas, farewell to the land of bougainvillea, hibiscus, cocoanut palms, and rampant overdevelopment…. (For additional searchable maps, go to Surgingeas.org.)
Finally, Erwann Michel-Kerjan and and Howard Kunreuther tackle the subject of Paying for Future Catastrophes. They begin with this statement: “Hurricane Sandy could cost the nation a staggering $50 billion, about a third of the cost of Hurricane Katrina — to date the most costly disaster in United States history.”
In the November 26/ December 3 issue of Newsweek, David Cay Johnston tallies the dangers inherent in our aging and inadequate infrastructure. Johnston goes on to suggest “12 ways to Stop the Next Sandy;” however, his ambitious manifesto will require a colossal act of will on the part of the citizens of this country, not to mention an equally colossal outlay of funds. Can it be done? Will it be done? (As Newsweek prepares to go digital, I’d like to express a personal sense of loss. I’ve been a subscriber since my college days in the 1960s.)
All of this would seem to portray a nation in a heap of trouble. In his book Too Much Magic, published in June of this year, James Howard Kunstler writes the following:
The British Petroleum company’s 2010 Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico tempered the public’s zest for risky deepwater drilling projects. Oil is back in the $100 range. The Fukushima nuclear meltdown in the following year sobered up many nations about the prospects for the only well-developed alternative energy method capable of powering whole cities. Whether you believe in climate change or not, or contest that it’s man-made or is not, the weather is looking a little strange. In 2011 tornados of colossal scale tore through the American South, hurricane-induced five-hundred-year floods shredded Vermont, and Texas was so drought-stricken that Texans wondered if ranching there would even be possible in the years ahead. People have begun to notice a number of signals that reality is beaming out.
All this is enough to send a person running for the nearest bunker. But wait – there is hope, and it has been proffered by people with vigorous minds and open hearts. I’ve already written about the solace and encouragement to be derived from the works of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rev. Timothy Keller. And now I’m cheered by the prospect of reading Anne Lamott’s new book: In a recent interview in the Washington Post, she explains its rather piquant title:
I think sometimes we don’t know that what we’re doing is a form of prayer. “Help” is the main prayer. “Help” is the prayer of surrender and having a real shot at things beginning to change because you’ve finally run out of good ideas. “Help” is the hardest prayer, and it’s the most poignant. It’s a person being humbled. People say “Thanks” all the time in so many ways. Even people who don’t believe in God or in any kind of higher power notice when their family catches a break: The diagnosis was much better than it could have been; it really isn’t a transmission, it’s a timing belt; it’s something manageable instead of huge and awful. “Wow” is the praise prayer. I think every time you see a night sky full of stars, you say, “Wow.” It was so cold here today, I had to get up really early, and I stepped outside, and I was like, “Whooooa!” which is a cousin of “Wow.” It was so crisp, so beautiful. It’s like getting spritzed with a plant mister. It kind of wakes you back up.
I love The Once Born and the Twice Born, an essay by Gertrude Himmelfarb that appeared in the September 28 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Reading her cogent and graceful explication of William James The Will To Believe, I felt as though I’d been given a very special gift. (This sense was amplified by the fact of my recent immersion in the life William’s brother Henry, courtesy of Michael Gorra’s magisterial work of criticism and biography, Portrait of a Novel.)
His 1896 lecture “The Will to Believe” was prompted, James said, by the “freethinking and indifference” he encountered at Harvard. He warned his audience that he would not offer either logical or theological arguments supporting the existence of God or any particular religion, ritual or dogma. His “justification of faith” derived instead entirely from the “will” or the “right” to believe, to “adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, despite the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” James knew this would not go down well with the students and philosophers in the eminent universities. To the obvious objection that the denial of the “logical intellect” is to give up any claim to truth, he replied that it is in defense of truth that faith is justified—the truth provided not by logic or science but by experience and reflection. Moral questions, he pointed out, cannot be resolved with the certitude that comes from objective logic or science. And so with religious faith….
Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, an intellectual among intellectuals, turned ninety in August.
I never ceased to be moved by the trouble to which people will go to render aid to animals in distress. A particularly impressive instance of this compassionate response is recounted in a recent Washington Post article entitled Injured Owl Is Rescued in Mount Vernon.
I deeply appreciate the sentiments voiced with wit and warmth on the occasion of Thanksgiving by Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. In Family, Friends, Health and Freedom, she asked a number of friends and family members what they were thankful for. At one point, she pressed a friend to be more specific; she received this response:
“Buddy the cat. He literally came out of nowhere one night, and has never left since. He sleeps in the window most of the time, and looks in as if to say: ‘I’m home.’ He always lets the others in the pack eat first. ‘Slow down,’ I say to myself. The world on my screen may be spinning and sizzling, but Buddy’s ends up being the preferred reality.”
Speaking of matters of a feline nature, there was recent post-election news in the Metro section of the Post concerning an illustrious member of that community:
Finally, from the November 26 issue of the New Yorker, the recent travails of General David Petraus and others elicited this wry observation from Adam Gopnik:
Petraeus, and his defenders and attackers alike, referred to his “poor judgment,” but if the affair had had anything to do with judgment it never would have happened. Desire is not subject to the language of judicious choice, or it would not be desire, with a language all its own. The point of lust, not to put too fine a point on it, is that it lures us to do dumb stuff, and the fact that the dumb stuff gets done is continuing proof of its power. As [Philip] Roth’s Alexander Portnoy tells us, “Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in drerd”—a Yiddish saying that means, more or less, that when desire comes in the door judgment jumps out the window and cracks its skull on the pavement.
“What seems clear is that his Sierra summer awakened the deepest and most intense passion of his life, a long moment of ecstasy that he would try to remember and relive to the end of his days. His whole body, not his eyes alone, felt the beauty around him. Every sense became intensely alive. He bounded over rocks and up mountains sides, hung over the edge of terrifying precipices, his face drenched in the spray of waterfalls, waded through meadows deep in lilies, laughed at the exuberant antics of grasshoppers and chipmunks, stroked the bark of towering incense cedars and sugar pines, and slept each night on an aromatic mattress of spruce boughs. Each thing he saw or felt seemed joined to the rest in exquisite harmony. ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself,’ he wrote, ‘we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’ Nature was all one body, beating with a heart like his own, and more intensely than ever before in his life he felt his own heart b eating in unison. He experienced, in the fullest sense yet, a profound conversion to the religion of nature.
John Muir was a marvelous writer; his biographer, equally so.
In Greene on Capri, Shirley Hazzard describes Villa Fersen, a deserted estate on the island:
“Inexpressibly romantic in its solitude and decline, it was cared for by a custodial Caprese family who for years intrepidly occupied the kitchen quarters at the landward rear of the building, while the haunted drawing rooms, shedding stucco and gold leaf, teetered ever closer to the limestone brink. The damp garden tended by the housekeeper was ravishing: suitably overgrown, encroached on by a cloud of ferns, creepers, acanthus, agapanthus, amaryllis; shadowed by umbrella pine, and by cypress and ilex; lit from within by massed colours of fuchsia, hortensia, azalea, and all manner of trailing mauves, blues, and purples–wisteria and iris in spring, solanum and ‘stella d’Italia’ in high summer; in autumn, plumabago and belladonna lilies. Geraniums were the size of shrubs, and of every red and coral gradation. The different jasmines flowered there, on walls and trellises, in relays throughout the year.
In September and October, crowds of wild cyclamen, small fragrant flowers of Italian woods, sprang from the crevices of the rock face in which the house is virtually framed….Fersen’s in those years was a garden of mossy textures and dark dense greens, with impasto of luminous flowers: a place of birdsong and long silence; of green lizards and shadowy cats, and decadent Swinburnean beauty.
I read Greene on Capri because I am headed for Naples and the Amalfi Coast next month. As part of the tour, a day trip to Capri is planned. Shirley Hazzard is a writer whose style has posed difficulties for me in the past – I barely got through The Great Fire. But I was enchanted by this slender little memoir detailing the friendship that Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller, shared with Graham Greene on that magical island during the postwar years.
Villa Fersen, near and distant:
By the time I finished A Passion for Nature, I had encountered so many fascinating stories and so much superb writing – by both Muir and his biographer, Donald Worster – that the book was positively festooned with myriad of the multicolored post-it flags with which I am currently enamored.
Oh, dear, I can’t very well quote the entire book! What I can do, though, is to present various highlights from this epochal tome. I propose to do this in serial form, interspersing these posts with those on other subjects. Actually, I’ve already begun this little project. (See “Literary Musings” from February 7.) What follows is the second installment.
In 1867, John Muir undertook to walk from Indianapolis, Indiana, to South Florida. From there, he planned to take ship to Cuba. At the time, he was 29 years old.
“After scaling the Cumberland Plateau, [Muir] began his ascent of the Appalachian Mountains south of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In all directions he could gaze on spectacular forests crowning ridge after ridge, with mountain mists drifting through the valleys, the most sublime picture his eyes had ever beheld.”
Muir poured out his rapture in his journals:
“‘Such an ocean of wooded, waving, swelling mountain beauty and grandeur…Oh, these forest gardens of our Father! What perfection, what divinity, in their architecture! What simplicity and mysterious complexity of detail!’
Adds Worster: “Autumn was approaching in the mountains, summer green was beginning to fade to fall browns and yellows, the air was cold at night, and Muir was in heaven.”
At the same time that he was glorying in nature, Muir was encountering humans who were both destitute and desperate:
“The higher he climbed, the more backward and benighted the people became, and the more dangerous. It was in the delightsome mountains that Muir met a roving band of outlaw whites who lived by marauding and plundering. They let him pass because he looked like a poor, hapless collector of herbal remedies. Never before in the Midwest or Canada had he known real danger in his travels, but the South was a land where men regularly carried guns and where officers of the law were often far away, a condition that seemed to increase with the grandeur of the surroundings.
Despite contracting malaria in Florida and nearly dying, Muir eventually made it all the way to Cuba.
Several days ago, I awoke to this delightful sight out our back windows:
The above three photos were taken with a Panasonic FZ-20 digital camera with a 12x zoom lens. The two below were taken with the same camera in the optional wide screen mode. Be sure and click to enlarge; these look beautiful in full resolution.
All pictures were taken by my husband Ron.
So: What is happening in Your Faithful Blogger’s reading world? Well may you ask; this is, after all, called BOOKS to the Ceiling, n’est-ce pas? Here’s the deal: Until quite recently, I was reading these three very meaty tomes simultaneously:
I’ve already reviewed Philip Hensher’s exceptionally fine novel. I finally finished Home several days ago. Although shorter than either of the above titles, it seemed longer – much longer. I read it for a book club discussion which was set for last evening. When earlier this week the meeting was nearly canceled due to scheduling conflicts, I’m afraid I reacted rather strongly, to wit: “Hey, I fought my way through this book, and now I wanna talk about it – no excuses!” So we were back on for last night. The outcome surprised me. More later on this subject.
Finally, it is hard to know what to say about Donald Worster’s magisterial biography of naturalist and conservationist John Muir. (And isn’t that a great cover, with the “Old Man of the Mountains” pausing at the Merced River to take in the wonders of Yosemite.) I’ve gone on record as believing that many biographies are too long and that at most, we often just want a general sense of the subject’s life and work – not every minute detail of his or her existence. Well, I have to say, A Passion for Nature is filled with just such detail – and I drank in every word and wasn’t bored or impatient ever.
I am deeply grateful to Donald Worster for this book. Reading it has made me fully appreciate the greatness of John Muir, a tireless advocate for the preservation of this country’s natural beauty and the humane treatment of its animals, both wild and domestic. Alas, these battles have by no means been definitively won. John Muir, thou shouldst be living at this hour; America hath need of thee! (Although the very concept of, say, a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation – the nefarious, notorious CAFO’s – would probably give him a heart attack.)
In the course of Muir’s long. productive, and edifying life, he hiked, rambled, and climbed mountains, often with the most minimal of provisions. Here’s a description of his 1877 excursion into the San Gabriel Mountains. At this time, he would have been just shy of forty:
“Leaving his immigrant friend behind on Eaton Creek, he sauntered on for several days, sometimes walking in open sunshine, sometimes forced to crawl through dense underbrush, always keeping an eye open for snakes, wolves, bears, and cougars, until at last he stood on the peak of Mount San Antonio. That night he bedded down between two fires for safety from dangerous predators.
After getting back safely to Pasadena, he exclaimed, ‘I had a glorious view of the valley out to the ocean, which would require a whole book for description. My bread gave out a day before reaching the settlements, but I felt all the fresher and clearer for the fast.’ That too was vintage Muir–seeing more than he could describe, neglecting his food supply, but returning with a clarified mind and a fresh heart. His moment of regeneration he wanted to share with everyone on earth, and characteristically generous of spirit he became a trusting child of nature and a prophet of hope for humanity.
There are many photographs of John Muir, but this one may be my favorite. He looks like a cross between an Old Testament prophet and Leo Tolstoy – though judging from Worster’s book, he was far more companionable and easygoing than either of those worthies!