Where a goddess might trail her garments

 

 

Non Fiction November

Week 2: (Nov 7 – 11) Sarah’s Book Shelves  is hosting Week 2 of Choosing Nonfiction:

What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

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Right: Extract of cover from Richard Powers The Overstory

 

Thoreau wrote in Walden

“This was an airy and unflustered cabin, fit to entertain a travelling god, and where a goddess might trail her garments.  The winds which passed over my dwelling were such as weep over the ridges of mountains, bearing the broken strains, or celestial parts only, of terrestrial music.”

Writers like Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald combine deep knowledge of natural history with literature and spirit with geology. I want a writer that I know has put in the ten thousand hours of research about their subject and will offer up insights into the way that knowledge works in the world.  Or the way it doesn’t.

In The Old Ways Macfarlane writes:

“By an old stone bridge he dropped down to the riverside to show me where two yews had grown into one another.  Their joint foliage was covered with translucent red berries, life half-sucked cherry drops. ‘These are the oldest living beings of the Guadarrama….”

Trees are often the oldest living beings of anywhere but we choose to forget that.  We think nothing of burning and cutting trees for our furniture, for palm oil and other products.   But the writers are fighting back, along with the activists.  Richard Powers Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Overstory examines how trees affect the lives of a group of people who pass by them everyday – sometimes unknowingly.  A disparate group of characters – an artist, an under-graduate from an actuarial course, a scientist, an air force veteran come together for differing reasons of their own but all with the same aim – a desperate attempt to save a few remaining forests in the US from annihilation.

These places where a goddess might trail her garments I am looking for in non-fiction work.  But such places are tragically few and perhaps soon will exist only between the covers of books.

Thank you also to the hosts for 2019 – Katie of Doing Dewey, Julz of Julz Reads, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves, and Leann of Shelf Aware.This event runs for five weeks, with five weekly discussion topics, giving us a chance to highlight and talk about our non-fiction reads.

Nature has not given up, nor should we

This is the third book of my 10 books of Summer

A Review of Ghost Trees: Nature and People in a London Parish. Bob Gilbert (Saraband)

I am as ambivalent as many Londoners about my city, loving it but longing, much of the time, to be out of it; living somewhere overhung with trees or with a sight of the sea or with the shape of hills to look at.  And this is my compromise; this untidy patch of garden with its chickens and its struggling vegetables, this defiant gash in the city’s concrete skin.  It is a wound that I tend with broccoli and potatoes…

Not exactly on a mission to re-wild London, but certainly to examine more closely what is beside, behind, beneath and above us as we all rush about, what has survived and adapted, the author has traced ghost outlines of the wild that once covered the area of East London known as Poplar.

 Ralph Waldo Emerson said:  “The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hints.”

Gilbert’s book seeks out those memoranda and signatures.  But to focus purely on history, on the lonely open landscape that once existed – a landscape of ‘wide and windswept estuarine marshes’ where now there are tower blocks and urbanisation. That would be a book only about loss.

‘It was possible, on a day of shifting, watery grey cloud to still feel the imprint of the reed beds and the osiers, of lonely cattle grazing on the open marshes, of the cry of a passing curlew…’

I doubt if many curlews cry over East London now.  But this book is not a eulogy. Far from it.   There is much wildlife here to celebrate.    Gilbert charts  new habitats in surprising places, gives us new causes for appreciation of the here and now.  He seeks at the edges of shopping centres, at the side of rail tracks,  the base of lamposts in the  cracks between paving stones, in Churchyards and parks and in allotments for the new urban ecology  As well as a biographer of the ghost outlines of estuarine marshes which once covered Poplar,   Gilbert is a chronicler of our contemporary urban adaptees of the natural world.

Thus in an imaginary conversation the writer has with Richard Adams, (he of Watership Down fame) who apparently was rather grumpy about London and claimed to see nothing inspiring other than a few crocuses in a hotel garden, the author writes:

“I wanted to tell him of the black redstart I had seen feeding in front of the building’s bulldozer, of the pheasant I had found foraging on an urban allotment and of the skylarks I heard singing in a landscape of chemical works and pylons.”

Ghost Trees is the result of what must have been thousands of hours of painstaking research not to say hundreds of miles of walking and hours of looking and note taking.  It traces the outlines of the rural places that have been.   It also charts the history of the mulberry tree, plane tree and other arborial inhabitants cultivated by humans in this our great city of London for one reason or another.  It is a book of plant histories but especially of plant stories

I found the account of the Mulberry’s arrival in the UK  particularly fascinating.  In order to facilitate a supply of raw silk without having to buy the stuff from abroad somewhere because that is (a) too expensive and (b) vulnerable to political interference,  England in the l6th century  needed its own Mulberry trees.   Mulberry leaves are bread and meat and wine to silkworms; they require many of them to sustain their arduous workload.  Under the patronage of King James,  10,000 mulberry plants were ordered, Gilbert tells us, including a plantation at Westminster.  All this is now subsumed beneath concrete, with the poetically termed Mulberry Gardens the sole surviving relic of the project, along with  Mulberry Street; Mulberry House; Mulberry Tree pubs etc etc. Sadly and for various reasons this is a project which failed and England never was able to support its own silk industry.  But next time you go for a pint at the Mulberry Tree pub spare a thought for the little silkworms.

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Gilbert also gives us an image of the post-human forest, and perhaps given current events that is not such a fantastical idea.  These are the trees and plants that will colonise the land when humans no longer do. The goat willow, buddleia, plants that are happy to colonise neglected areas, abandoned  urban corners, thickets of broom, cherry, aspen and birch, taking their place in the empty streets, decaying buildings, fractured windows and disused doorways of a post apocalyptic world.  I rather like the idea that nature will go on, rather like Celine Dion’s heart, regardless of the worst man can do.

“But there was wildness too, in those individual trees that sprang up outside the confines of cultivation; the seedlings and the saplings that appeared without permission on lawns, in flowerbeds, along pavement edges and in pots in my back garden…. This would be the wilderness returning, and these would be the post human trees.”

Where there are trees can the shades and the Forest of Arden and the magic be far behind?   I found this book awe inspiring in its wisdom and abundant historical and horticultural knowledge,  although perhaps a little impersonal at times.  No doubt the author, like the rest of us, has been inspired by the work of Robert Macfarlane and although not quite in the same poetic bracket, this book is an inspiration and a wake up call.  Nature has not given up, nor should we.

Ring of Bright Water, An epitaph

It has taken me a long time to read Gavin Maxwell’s  Ring of Bright Water.  I remember the book coming out.  I even remember the film with Virginia McKenna and the infernal song! Now that I’ve read it the thing that fascinates me most – more than the story about otters more even than its Walden-esque attempt to hold back the tide of modernity –  is the poetry of the writing.  I have read a lot of poetry and a lot of the new nature writing but Maxwell’s writing feels different.   As if he writes from the inside out, rather than from outside looking in as most do.

I didn’t even know that the title of the work is from one of Kathleen Raine’s poems.  Ignorant? Probably.  I thought I could dispel my ignorance by reading a biography.    There is only one that I could find -that by Douglas Botting – read that I told myself and all will be revealed.    Well, no.  What is revealed is that Maxwell was an aristocrat – a scion of the House of Northumberland; a wartime instructor in the  Special Operations Executive, Guards Officer, adventurer, traveller and fully paid up member of the hero club (albeit of confused sexual identity so perhaps not the model for Bond) there is no shortage of material here. The  authorised biography  is by Douglas Botting who explains that other would-be biographers of Maxwell came up against the twin obstacles of family and literary estate,  but that his own application was granted because he had known Maxwell personally during the last years of the author’s life. 20060630-Hampton Court -DSC_0337

It is clear both from Maxwell’s own work and from Botting’s biography,  that this fully paid up member of the hero club was essentially lonely and could be a difficult person to be around, often suffering from ill health and never happier than when alone and freezing on some moorland somewhere with his beloved plants and animals.  These aspects of his life being more acutely realised in the work than human relationships at which he generally appears to have been unsuccessful.  At least that is what the biography leads us to believe. And yet Maxwell seems never short of a friend to stay with when a bed in a castle is required or a companion for a trip or adventure – there usually seems to be the odd old Stoic, pal from Oxford, or Guards Officer around.

What is not revealed because of course no-one knows is where the writing comes from.    Ironic also that the overwhelming success of Maxwell’s book and its two sequels, The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother contributed to the mass tourism which has placed so much stress on the once lonely Scottish landscapes he so loved.

It is almost as if the difficulties of the life he chose in remote Camusfeàrna – with no made up road no electricity one mile from the nearest house and five from the nearest shop – were a metaphor for his own life struggles.  These books were an elegy for a way of life which was vanishing even mid-20th century during the author’s lifetime; but in view of the disastrous habitat destruction which has taken place,  they now feel like an epitaph for a failed conservation movement.