Delia Owens, Where the crawdads sing (#BookReview)

Delia Owens’ bestselling debut novel, Where the crawdads sing, is a problematical novel, as my reading group discovered – and yet, I couldn’t help being emotionally engaged. It reminded me a little of a childhood favourite, Gene Stratton Porter’s A girl of the Limberlost. My heart went out to Owen’s protagonist, Kya, the maligned, ignored, Marsh Girl, and I loved the writing about the North Carolina marshland. But, intellectually, I had to work to defend my enjoyment, which I’ll aim to share here.

“in the end, that is all you have, the connections”

I’ll start with the obvious, a summary of the plot. The main narrative runs from 1952 to 1970, and is told in two chronologies that eventually meet. The novel tells the story of Kya, who, in 1952, is six when her Mum and, soon after, her siblings leave home. Four years later, when she’s ten, her father also departs, leaving her alone, in their North Carolina marsh shack. She can’t read, has no money, and few skills. But, she’s an intelligent, resourceful little girl, and, with the help of a few kind people, she makes a life – albeit a lonely one – for herself. The novel commences, however, in 1969 with the discovery of the body of a young man, Chase Andrews, who is a local football hero. Was it an accident or was he murdered? The second chronology, then, is a crime story, following the investigation of this death through to the court case. You can probably guess where the two chronologies meet.

Owens manages this structure skilfully, drawing us into Kya’s life, and how and why she develops into the person she is in 1970, while, simultaneously, slowly building suspense by recounting the details of the investigation. The writing is lush and evocative, ensuring that we engage with Kya and her struggle to survive, her increasing loneliness and her desperation to connect with others. We see her turn to nature and wildlife to learn about life, as well as to provide herself with sustenance and give her a minimal income (by selling fish and mussels, for example).

This is nature writing at its best, with stunning descriptions of the marsh, and the birds, fish and insects that inhabit it, but it is also eco-fiction, with occasional allusions to development. Tate, a young man who befriends Kya (and provides her with a much-needed connection) tells her:

They think it’s wasteland that should be drained and developed. People don’t understand that most sea creatures—including the very ones they eat—need the marsh.”

The marsh is Kya’s family; it is what, in the absence of family, forms her:

She knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.

It is hard, as a reader, not to care about Kya. Will she find the connections she so badly wants – “Being completely alone was a feeling so vast it echoed” – and will they stick?

“it’s usually the trap that gets foxed”

However, it’s easy to pick holes in the book. Kya’s survival (given her youth) and her development into an educated young woman (given she only spent one day at school) can stretch credulity. Many of the characters feel stereotyped, from the good “colored” people, who put themselves out to help Kya, to the prejudiced townspeople, who reject and exclude her (as they do all marsh people). “Barkley Cove”, writes Owens, “served its religion hard-boiled and deep-fried”. And, if you don’t like your heartstrings being obviously pulled, you may not engage with Kya at all.

All this makes it problematical, because it’s one of those books that whether you love or hate depends largely on what sort of reader you are, what you like to read, and/or how you read this particular book. There are many ways to read Where the crawdads sing – a crime story, a romance, a coming-of-age story, historical fiction, a modern fairy-story or allegory, even, to name a few. Some of these ways demand more realism than others, and expose holes which are irrelevant to other ways. It is one of these other ways that appeals to me.

This way is to read it more like a fairy story or allegory, as a story about the triumph of the maligned, a comeuppance for the underdog. If you read it this way, the stereotyping of the minor characters, and the improbability of Kya’s survival and achievements, serve to emphasise the challenges faced by the underdog. It is hard to explain what I mean without giving away the ending, but I’ll try.

Throughout the novel, we are not only reminded of the prejudice and mistreatment of Kya (as representative of the marsh people) but are also aware of the ostracism of “colored people” as they were called then. Kya turns to nature to learn about life. Early in the novel, when the “colored” Jumpin’ warns her about Social Services looking for her, friend Tate tells her to “hide way out where the crawdads sing”:

Kya remembered Ma always encouraging her to explore the marsh: “Go as far as you can—way out yonder where the crawdads sing.”

“Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.”

One of Kya’s main challenges is to work out the differences between what she observes in nature and in human behaviour:

“In nature—out yonder where the crawdads sing—these ruthless-seeming behaviors actually increase the mother’s number of young over her lifetime, and thus her genes for abandoning offspring in times of stress are passed on to the next generation. And on and on. It happens in humans, too. Some behaviors that seem harsh to us now ensured the survival of early man in whatever swamp he was in at the time. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive—way back yonder.”

These two quotes – among others – hint at the novel’s underlying idea, which is that it’s not only “critters” who are “wild”, that human beings will be ruthless too. Exploring this ruthlessness in its natural and human manifestations, and how Kya navigates it, is a major theme of this book – and explains why Owens has written it the way she has. The resolution is deeply satisfying (albeit I didn’t love the device used to achieve it).

Where the crawdads sing is a thoughtful read for those who feel passionate about the maligned of this world. It is also a glorious lovesong to the marshland. I’m glad my reading group scheduled it.

Delia Owens
Where the crawdads sing
London: Corsair, 2018
379pp.
ISBN: 9781472154637 (Kindle ed.)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Eco-literature

Book cover

Over the weekend, I reviewed local Canberra author Irma Gold’s debut novel, The breaking, and described it as belonging to the eco-literature “genre”. I thought it might be interesting to explore this field a little more.

Definitions

I’ll start with definitions, because, does it really exist? Wikipedia doesn’t have an article for eco-literature, but it does for ecofiction, which it describes as

the branch of literature that encompasses nature-oriented (non-human) or environment-oriented (human impacts on nature) works of fiction. While this super genre’s roots are seen in classic, pastoral, magical realism, animal metamorphoses, science fiction, and other genres, the term ecofiction did not become popular until the 1970s when various movements created the platform for an explosion of environmental and nature literature …

This definition is broad, and encompasses what I call “nature writing”. However, eco-literature, as I’m using it, accords more with definitions/discussions I found at a wide range of sites. They all say it differently, but the essence is that eco-literature, today, is largely used for works which the Carnegie Library describes as offering “a literary lens through which to explore the natural world and the many threats it faces in our modern world”. In other words, these books focus on “environmental issues” (my emph.), as The Conversation‘s Ti-han Chang says in “Five must read novels on the environment and climate crisis”.

The other point I’d like to make is that some, though not all, see this “genre” as encompassing all forms of literature. EcoLit Books keeps to fiction, calling it

a super-genre of writing that straddles all genres (mysteries, thrillers, literary, children’s). We often refer to it as “fiction with a conscience.” (their emph.)

However, The Wire’s Rajesh Subramanian, who wrote “Could Eco-Literature Be the Next Major Literary Wave?” in 2017, sees it as encompassing

the whole gamut of literary works, including fiction, poetry and criticism, which lay stress on ecological issues. Cli-fi (climate fiction), which deals with climate change and global warming, is logically a sub-set of eco-literature. 

I like this, but now, having made this point, I’m focusing on fiction.

Eco-literature in Australia

While The Conversation is an Australian site, Ti-han Chang is based in England, and her five books are non-Australian. However, in 2016 Overland published an article by Rachel Fetherston on Australian eco-fiction. She starts from the point of view that the Australian population is indifferent to nature. Is this true? Anyhow, she asks:

can fiction play a role in enhancing our connection to local species and habitats? The expansion and appreciation of less anthropocentric and more ecocentric literary works may well be a silver bullet.

She argues that while Australia has a good tradition of ecocentric writing and ecophilosophical thought, it “pales” compared to that of the US where there’s been a dramatic rise in the humanities’ engagement in the issues. Australia, she says,

needs to provoke a more public and accessible discussion of the modern environmental crisis, and eco-fiction presents a powerful means of doing so. It is not too late for Australians to embrace ecophilosophy, especially in regard to our own specific environmental concerns. But how can such concerns be translated into fiction?

Charlotte Wood, The natural way of things

Fetherston just names a few books, including two dystopian novels, James Bradley’s Clade and Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (my review). Clade, she says, is “a world-shaking, cross-generational work of climate fiction that” presents “a truly Australian approach to climate change”, while Wood’s novel “is based strongly in ecophilosophical thought. Her characters become increasingly less human, more animalistic, and more connected to the landscape”.

Fetherston goes on to say that “depiction of the human as animal is … a theme that appears to be emerging more and more within our nation’s literary circles”. Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals, she says, explores similar themes, though it’s “not focused specifically on Australian landscapes and animals”. Different, but related, I’d say, is Laura Jean Mackay’s The animals in that country, which won this year’s Victorian Prize for Literature and which looks at animals and their language from, say the critics, a new and non-anthropomorphic way.

Fetherston is clearly interested in this field because a year ago, she wrote an article for The Guardian. She quotes “renowned nature writer Robert Macfarlane” who “lamented” the deficient “creative response” to the climate crisis and who argued for the arts to be involved in debating, sensing and communicating the crisis. She names more books in this article, including two which look at the bushfire issue, Mireille Juchau’s The world without us and Alice Bishop’s collection of short stories, A constant hum (Kim’s review). Further, she writes, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (Lisa’s review) “addresses the strong ties between colonisation and climate catastrophe”.

Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Here where we live

I named a few books in my introduction to my review of The breaking, but I’d like to add a couple more here. Cassie Flanagan Willanski’s collection of short stories Here where we live (my review) draws strongly on the environment, with stories looking at it from various angles, including climate change, the impact of tourism on the environment, and caring for the environment. Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light (my review), comprises three sections, of which the middle one, “Water”, is a long dystopian short-story which posits a future world populated with mutant plantpeople alongside humans.

Eco-literature might be more politically-focused than some environment literature, but it is still a rather broad church, and is, I believe, increasingly preoccupying our writers, for good and obvious reasons.

Fetherston ends the first article I quote, with

It is time for our writing and art to focus on the non-human: the increasingly vulnerable, apparently insignificant lives and habitats that make Australia’s natural heritage so special and sublime. 

And, not just that, but critical to our physical and mental survival and well-being. I’m glad to see more and more writers embracing it, from multiple perspectives.

Now, over to you. Do you read “eco-literature”? And it so, tell us your favourites?

Irma Gold, The breaking (#BookReview)

Book cover

I have broken a golden rule! That is, I am reviewing Irma Gold’s debut novel, The breaking, out of the order in which I received it for review, which is something I (almost) never do! But, I am attending an author event on this book this weekend, and I really wanted to have read it before that conversation.

The breaking is an example of a growing “genre” of literature, eco-literature. This literature encompasses cli-fi, and focuses on human activities that endanger the environment in some way. It’s a broad church, covering climate, water and the land, deforestation, animal rights, and more. Books in this genre are often inspired by their writer’s passions. They tend to have a strong plot because the author wants to engage the reader in an issue: how better to do this than with an engaging plot. However, the plot is, largely, subservient to the issue, because at heart these are political novels, often in the “personal-is-the-political” sense.

So, some examples? Heather Rose’s Bruny (my review), which is deeply concerned about the future of Tasmania, Angela Savage’s crime novel The dying beach (my review), which explores the impact of shrimp-farming on the environment, and Karen Viggers’ novels, like The orchardist’s daughter (my review) which addresses deforestation, are three. These could be called “passion project” books. Critics often find this sort of writing difficult to asses. If it sells well, if it’s popular, is it good?

I’m going to sidestep the implication of that concern, and simply say that of course something popular can be good. If it’s well-plotted, well-written, has engaging characters – and deals intelligently with something relevant or important – then it’s good.

All of this is a very long introduction to Irma Gold’s book, but relevant, I hope. So, The breaking? The title doesn’t give away its passion, though if you look carefully at the gorgeous cover you might see it. It’s the plight or exploitation of elephants in Thailand. Gold, as she explains in the Afterword – I love an Afterword – has been to Thailand, and worked with elephant rescue projects, so she knows whereof she speaks. (I hope to have more to share after the weekend!)

It’s a grim situation, as I’m sure you know, and, like many grim situations in developing nations, it’s complicated by the fight for survival. For many Thais, elephants are their bread-and-butter, both as beasts of burden and, more, for their tourist potential. Gold addresses this dilemma in her novel without being overtly didactic, by having her characters see the situation with their own eyes, discussing it with each other, and weighing up the options.

“Be brave” (Deven)

The breaking is about two young Australian women, Hannah Bird, who has just arrived in Thailand as a tourist, unsettled and insecure because she’s lost her job, and Deven, who has been living there for some time and is involved in elephant rescue projects. They meet in a hostel lobby, as tourists do, and the experienced Deven invites Hannah to go to the night markets with her. From there, a friendship – and eventually something more – develops as the somewhat naive Hannah is drawn into the more experienced and confident Deven’s passions and views of the world. It’s not long before we discover the layers in the title as Hannah is introduced to the cruel practice of phajaan.

We follow their trajectory – told in Hannah’s first person voice – as they tread an activist’s path. It starts with involvement in organised, legal rescue projects that aren’t going to change the world quickly. However, as often happens to those who stay the course, they find themselves confronted with the ultimate activist’s dilemma of “how far will you go” for the cause you believe in? Always, it is Hannah following Deven, deeper and deeper into both political and personal engagement. Deven is driven to save those elephants, while Hannah, who believes in the cause, is more cautious, but, she’s falling for Deven, so, where Deven goes … the ending is powerful, confronting us head on with what can happen if you let passion rule your brain.

“We have to change the culture” (Deven)

Throughout all this Gold takes us on a journey through Thailand, showing it through the eyes of wide-eyed oblivious tourists, like Hannah, and those of the more experienced, aware Deven, who rejects the tourist path, the ladyboy shows, the elephant rides, and so on. Gold shares the food and culture of Thailand, using local words with little attempt to translate. She addresses this in her Afterword, explaining that although it is traditional to italicise foreign words, she “made a deliberate decision not to” do so here. Italics, she says, makes it easy for readers to “skim over foreign words” but she “wanted to encourage readers to engage with Thai language in the way that the Australian characters attempt to”. Gold’s solution is deft, because we readers puzzle and feel our way along with narrator Hannah, who is guided but not spoon-fed by Deven. Deven can be tender and caring, but she doesn’t mollycoddle!

However, if I have given you the impression that Hannah is all follower and Deven all leader, then you’ll have the wrong impression. Deven, alienated from her parents, has her own demons, and Hannah is not a push-over. As the novel progresses she takes in what Deven says but processes it in her own way. She sees “it’s not that simple; it’s not that black and white”, while for Deven it is simple. The denouement suggests where Gold lies, but the question remains for each reader, where do you lie? And, beyond that, whose rights should prevail?

Irma Gold’s The breaking reminded me somewhat of Madeleine Dickie’s Troppo (my review), which also explores the experience of young Australians caught up in unfamiliar lives and cultures, and who must forge their own way, morally and ethically, in places where the usual signposts are missing. Like Troppo, The breaking is an engaging debut novel that encourages us to consider some of the critical questions of our time.

Challenge logo

Irma Gold
The breaking
Rundle Mall, MidnightSun, 2021
271pp.
ISBN: 9781925227819

(Review copy courtesy MidnightSun Publishing via Brendan Fredericks)

Gene Stratton-Porter, The last Passsenger Pigeon (#Review)

I have passed up reading and/or posting on so many Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offerings over the last months – sadly, because there have been some excellent selections chosen for their political relevance. However, when I saw a sentimental favourite, Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924), pop up, I knew I had to break the drought.

Gene Stratton-Porter (Uploaded to Wikipedia, by gspmemorial; used under CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Some of you may not be familiar with this American Midwest author who wrote, says LOA, “sugary (and extremely popular) fiction to underwrite her work in natural history”. It was one of these works, The girl of the Limberlost, that I loved, and later introduced to Daughter Gums who also loved it. Yes, it was sentimental, though it has its tough side, but it did also leave an everlasting impression on me of its setting, Indiana’s Limberlost Swamp. According to LOA again, it was the immense success of this book, and Freckles which I also read, that resulted in her publisher agreeing to also publish her less saleable nature books. She was, writes LOA, “a fighter for the world she saw disappearing around her, as Standard Oil of Indiana drilled new wells and farmers drained more land”.

Interestingly, LOA’s as usual excellent introductory notes focus not on Stratton-Porter but on her subject, the Passenger Pigeon. LOA discusses others who have written about this bird – novelist James Fenimore Cooper, a chief of the Potawatomi Indians Simon Pokogon, and naturalists John James Audubon and John Muir – before eventually getting to Stratton-Porter herself. LOA’s point is to document the extinction of these birds from the early 1800s, when they were still seen in immense flocks, to a century later in 1914 when the last one died in captivity. Stratton-Porter wrote her piece just 10 years after that.

So Stratton-Porter’s piece. She commences by describing the beauty of her childhood farm, including its woods and forests where birds, such as the Passenger Pigeon, loved “to home”. She writes, introducing her environmental theme, that:

It is a fact that in the days of my childhood Nature was still so rampant that men waged destruction in every direction without thought. Nature seemed endlessly lavish …

When people started to clear land they “chopped down every tree on it” without, she says, having any “vision to see that the forests would eventually come to an end”. She writes – and remember, this was 1924:

… as the forests fell, the creeks and springs dried up, devastating winds swept from western prairies, and os the work of changing the climatic conditions of the world was well under way.

She talks of animals and game birds “being driven farther and farther from the haunts of civilisation”, but she also talks of people who did not believe in living so rapaciously, preferring instead to live in log cabins in small clearings. She describes her family’s own hunting practices, including of quail. As their numbers decreased, her minister father forbade the family’s trapping and egg-gathering. He’d noticed that when bird numbers were low, grain-damaging insect pests were high.

He had never allowed, however, the hunting of Passenger Pigeons, despite their being significantly more numerous in those days than quail. Stratton-Porter thinks this stemmed from his having “a sort of religious reverence” for pigeons and doves. Others, though, had no such qualms, and she describes some brutal hunting practices involving wild pigeons, which apparently made good eating. Gradually, it became noticeable, writes Stratton-Porter, that their numbers were decreasing. Not only did her family miss the sound and beauty of these birds, but

The work that they had done in gathering up untold quantities of weed seeds and chinquapins was missed and the seeds were left to germinate and become a pest, instead of pigeon food.

Once again, she notes the wider ecological or environmental implications of species reduction or loss. She then writes of the death of the final two birds in captivity before sharing her own searching for any remaining wild birds. It was while she was watching and photographing, over a period of time, a brooding goldfinch, that she heard the unmistakable “wing music of a bird that should reasonably have been a dove, but was not”. She describes this beautiful bird, but says “it had not the surety of a bird at home; it seemed restless and alarmed”. This was, she argues, “one of the very last of our wild pigeons”, a male bird “flying alone, searching for a mate and its species”.

Stratton-Porter closes her essay with a cry from the pigeon, whose song she says sounds like “See? See?”:

Where are your great stretches of forest? Where are the fish-thronged rivers your fathers en- joyed? Where are the bubbling springs and the sparkling brooks? Why is this land parching with thirst even in the springtime? Why have you not saved the woods and the water and the wildflowers and the rustle of bird wings and the notes of their song? See what you have done to me! Where a few years ago I homed over your land in uncounted thousands, to-day I am alone. See me searching for a mate! See me hunting for a flock of my kind! See what you have done to me! See! See! See!”

And that was written in 1924! Nearly 100 years ago, and yet we still destroy habitat including, here in Australia, that of one of our most popular native animals and national symbols, the koala. Will we never learn?

Gene Stratton-Porter
“The last Passenger Pigeon”
First published: Good Housekeeping, 1924 (Collected in Tales you won’t believe, 1925)
Available: Online at the Library of America

John Kinsella, Displaced: A rural life (#BookReview)

John Kinsella, Displaced

I haven’t talked about reading synchronicities for some time, but when I started reading John Kinsella’s memoir, Displaced, I couldn’t help but think of the book I had just finished, Gay Lynch’s historical novel Unsettled (my review). Both have one word titles which play with opposites; in both cases, those opposites refer to physical meanings and more abstract, intellectual, social and/or emotional ones; and, in both, these meanings draw significantly from the colonial act of settling Australia and displacing its original inhabitants. I enjoy such wordplay that forces us to consider multiple, and sometimes conflicting meanings because it encourages a deeper engagement with the ideas being explored.

Notwithstanding this, reading Displaced was a labour of love, because it is a demanding, and often confronting read. However, I wanted to know about this man who is one of Australia’s leading contemporary poets, so I persevered. My assessment? If you are interested in how one might live life as ethically as possible with regard to justice and the exploitation – of First Nations people and the environment – that is encompassed in the long tail of colonialism, Kinsella’s book is a good place to start.

This leads me, as I’m wont to do, to a consideration of form or genre. Displaced is characterised in promotions as a memoir, but I see it more as a manifesto with memoir elements. Events in Kinsella’s life underpin the book, including his stints in Ohio, Schull and Cambridge, but they are not the focus. Instead, they are used to explicate and exemplify his ethical beliefs and, more, to explore the paradoxes we all live with. These paradoxes provide the book’s main thread. They are expressed in such terms as “belonging and unbelonging”, finding a meaning for “home” that recognises Indigenous “dispossession” and doesn’t encompass the exploitative ideas of “ownership”, and feeling “displaced” while very definitely being in a place. He characterises this as “the ethics of presence”. It’s difficult to get your head around while also being very simple really. In other words, the idea is simple, but the living of it, not so!

Two-thirds through the book, Kinsella talks about conducting peace readings, and says that:

A poet has a job to do – art in itself is meaningless if it does not jolt us into self and collective action.

He then describes a sculpture in the British Museum comprising bits of AK-47s welded together. “The artwork,” he says, “jolts one out of apathy, if not out of complicity”.

For Kinsella then, art is not just for art’s sake. And so, here, this work of art, his “memoir”, has a very specific goal, to raise our consciousness regarding the lives we are living and how colonialism, and the accompanying capitalism, continue to damage both colonisers and colonised. He calls himself an “anarchist”, but not one who subscribes to chaos and disorder. His anarchism, he says, has

the social angle, it has the respect for individual difference. I do not attempt to tell people what to believe, but I do attempt to draw attention to the damage being done.

So now, let me return to my opening comment regarding the title and its multiple meanings. Early in the book, Kinsella talks about growing up in the Western Australian wheatbelt, and about the paradoxical, hypocritical love of nature and place he espoused. “Something didn’t add up”, he says, between the way he “felt about the world” and the way he “acted in it”, his actions drawing from “outdoorsmen activities and the attendant crisis of masculinity.” The things he did – farming, hunting, and so on – were counter to the things he loved. The book chronicles his realisation that

I was part of a colonial invasion force, and I belonged nowhere. What could I do about it? I wandered, displaced as an addict [literally as well as spiritually], and as someone trying to undo my own identity.

Learning a new way of being (“unbecoming what I was, becoming what I might be”) became his lifelong project, one he shares with his wife, the poet Tracy Ryan, and their son Tim. Kinsella puts this thinking into his work – in his writing (as mentioned above) and in his role as Professor of Literature and Environment at Curtin University. He speaks in the book of trying to create a new way of writing about place, “a system for working through the contradictions of presence, of time and space and catastrophe and catastrophising, of the failure of modernity and the consequences of colonial modes and modalities of presence”. That’s a mouthful, but it explains his wish to find a way of expressing how colonialism has negatively infiltrated our lives physically, spiritually and linguistically.

To explain his beliefs, he wanders between childhood, youth and adulthood, amongst relationships with other writers and thinkers, and between his current home, Jam Tree Gully back in the Wheatbelt, and those places he’s lived in overseas. Because – I think – of this to-and-fro structure, there is a lot of repetition of ideas and experiences, and these repetitions did become a little tedious at times. I get it John, I get it, I felt like saying a few times as I read. The other challenge for Kinsella was to not preach or virtue signal. He does come close, at times, but he makes clear that he understands the nuances – how does someone like him, for example, deal with feral cats or weed pests? “There’s plenty of mea culpa in my life”, he says.

In the end, this earnest, frank book is full of heart and commitment. One of the things I’ve taken away from it is a heightened awareness of how “colonialism” has infiltrated our language. Take, for example, an interpretive sign we recently saw on a bushwalk that described a tree trunk as providing “high rise living”. Or, a Wiradjuri country rural town’s proud sign promoting its “170 years of heritage”. Just 170 years? On its website, the Blayney Shire speaks more on this (colonial) heritage, and then mentions its natural environment and Aboriginal heritage. “Aboriginal relics and artefacts”, it explains, “are primarily protected under the provisions of the National Parks and Wildlife Act, 1974. Listed heritage in the Shire is mainly European in nature”. This sort of demarcation in thinking about heritage needs to change.

We can’t turn back the clock, which Indigenous Australians accept, I believe. However, they want and warrant the respect due any human being, recognition of their sovereignty and of their dispossession, and for us to listen to their wisdom and knowledge.

Kinsella, who believes that “poems can stop bulldozers”, includes many in this book. They make good reading. But I’ll end here on a positive note from halfway through the book:

The land is constantly being rewritten. We don’t have to be stuck with the damage. It can be undone.

John Kinsella
Displaced: A rural life
Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2020
329pp.
ISBN: 9781925760477

Review copy courtesy Transit Lounge, via Scott Eathorne of Quikmark Media

Karen Viggers, The orchardist’s daughter (#BookReview)

Karen Viggers, The orchardist's daughterThe orchardist’s daughter is local author Karen Viggers’ fourth novel, but the first that I’ve read. She has, however, appeared on my blog before, being the person who conversed with Sofie Laguna about her novel, The choke. It was one of the most entertaining conversations I’ve ever attended.

Now, if you haven’t read or heard of Karen Viggers before, there are some facts worth knowing about her. Firstly, she’s a vet with special training in native wildlife health – and this background informs most if not all of her novels, I believe. It certainly informs The orchardist’s daughter. Another significant fact is that she’s a best-selling author in France! How wonderful that a novelist who writes strongly Australia-centric books does so well in France! Her previous novel, The lightkeeper’s wife, was, in fact, awarded the Les Petits Mots de Libraires literary prize.

So, an interesting author, and The orchardist’s daughter is an interesting, enjoyable book. It is set in a small logging town in Tasmania, and has quite a formal structure, starting with a Prologue, followed by four parts – Seeds, Germination, Growth, Understorey – and ending with an Epilogue. It is told third person through the perspective of three characters – Miki, the titular orchardist’s daughter who is 17 years old for most of the novel; Leon, a Park Ranger, who is 25 years old at the novel’s start; and Max, a 10-year-old boy who is Leon’s neighbour. Miki and Leon are relative newcomers to the town, Miki arriving with her older brother Kurt to run the town’s takeaway shop after they lose their home, farm and parents in a fire, and Leon moving from his Ranger job on Bruny Island to the mainland. All three are outsiders and serve to illuminate the tensions existing in the town.

Around these characters is a community comprising mainly logging families, Max’s being one of them. However, there are others who round out the town a little, including policeman Fergus and his sons, Geraldine who runs the information centre, and vet Kate. The narrative develops around a couple of situations. One is a mystery surrounding Miki’s brother Kurt. What does he do by himself in the forest when he insists that Miki wait in the ute, and what does he do during his weekly solo trips to Hobart (during which he locks Miki inside their shop/home)? The other concerns logging, and the dangerous unrest that develops when a temporary ban is placed on logging around a certain ancient tree. Jobs are at risk, the loggers believe, and the butt of their anger is of course Parkie Leon. From these two situations, Viggers builds tension slowly but inexorably, with the Kurt-and-Miki story becoming the prime focus, of course, given the book’s title.

So, there is a strong plot to the novel, but this plot, while driving us on to read, is there to serve some issues that Viggers wants to explore. These concern logging and the environment, bullying and domestic violence, not to mention more personal ones like freedom. These are big issues, and not only is Viggers clearly passionate about them, but her writing about them feels authentic. The characters may be a little less complex than, say, those in Lucashenko’s Too much lip, but they are believable. Logger and vicious bully Mooney is offset against Robbo, who is equally single-minded about logging but seeks more peaceful, law-abiding means of protest. Similarly, Max’s father Shane, another logger who is violent, is offset against colleague Tobey who has a tender, caring relationship with his wife. All of this is observed by Miki from her shop-counter – and she makes her own little attempts to lighten the lives of the bullied and the ostracised, by sneaking treats into their take-away bags. Through this little subversive action, we sense Miki’s inner strength and resourcefulness, something she takes to another level when she works out ways of escaping her “prison” while Kurt is away.

Freedom is one of the novel’s underlying drivers. Miki’s imprisonment is literal, but imprisonment takes many forms – the wives who are abused but feel incapable of escaping, and young Max who is bullied to behave in ways antithetical to his nature. Some of these are resolved, but Viggers recognises that there’s no magic wand for domestic abuse. The first step is moving from passive awareness (or acceptance, even) to taking action, and this starts to happen in the novel.

In the Tarkine, NW Tasmania

The book really stands out, however, in its writing about nature. A Booktopia interview with Viggers tells us that she grew up in the Dandenongs and has been to Antarctica. She has also spent time in Tasmania (and immersed herself in Tasmanian-set books, including two I’ve read, Anna Krien’s Into the woods, and Louis Nowra’s Into that forest). All of this has given her a sure feel for the wilderness, so much so that it’s difficult to choose an excerpt to share, but here’s one:

Miki loved the trees and the birds, but what she loved most couldn’t be seen. The way she felt in the forest. The scent of the bush after the rain. The sound of bark crackling. Branches squeaking. The feeling of patience and agelessness, growth and renewal. The aura of trees. The sense of connectedness. Of everything having its place. She could stay here all day, breathing with the tree, drawing its life into her lungs.

These forest descriptions move into Tasmanian Gothic realms during the climactic chase. The experience is both “terrifying and surreal” for our character who crawls and runs through, burrows and squats in the forest, “slipping from the thicket and weaving though the trees, ducking under tree ferns, past the tipped-up end of a fallen tree whose buttressed roots made a wall he could hide behind.” It’s muddy and dangerous with sword grass that scratches you and bark mounds that can trip you up. Viggers knows this landscape – and how to make it terrifying.

In the end, The orchardist’s daughter is about community and compromise, and about the courage to break free. It straddles the boundary between commercial and literary fiction. It is accessible, it has a strong plot and easy-to-engage-with characters, and it is hopeful (not that literary fiction can’t be!!) But, it is also gritty in subject matter and doesn’t offer neat solutions to the important environmental and social issues it raises. I like that in my reading!

Theresa (Theresa Smith writes) also loved the novel.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeKaren Viggers
The orchardist’s daughter
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2019
389pp.
ISBN: 9781760630584

Review copy courtesy the author, Karen Viggers.

World Bee Day 2018 – and literature

Apparently today, May 20, is World Bee Day! Who knew? Not me, until this morning. I understand it was designated last December by the United Nations, on the recommendation of Slovenia. Given the rise of cli-fi literature and the importance of bees to our planet, I’ve decided to give a little shout out to our fabulous bees today.

Actually, I’m not a huge fan of honey. I love the idea of it – of all those exciting flavours you see – but if I can choose between honey and maple syrup, it’s maple syrup I take, I’m afraid. Nonetheless, bees aren’t just about the honey, as I’m sure you know. They are critical to our planet for their busy little pollination activity. The World Bee Day website says that bees and other pollinators pollinate “nearly three quarters of the plants that produce 90% of the world’s food” and that “a third of the world’s food production depends on bees.” In addition, their pollination activity is critical for ecological balance and diversity, so much so that their presence, absence or quantity is a significant indicator of the health of our environment. In other words, we need bees … but they are  are in decline, due to a combination of factors including pesticides, climate change and disease. Hence World Bee Day.

Bill McKibben, Oil and HoneyBack in 2013 I read and reviewed American climate activist Bill McKibben’s book, Oil and honey: the education of an unlikely activist. It’s about the two important things in his life: bees, honey and good farming practice, and oil, or the fossil fuel industry, and its impact on the climate. Oil and honey, climate and farming. They’re all related.

However, that’s a work of non-fiction, but increasingly fiction is dealing with climate-change, resulting in the genre called cli-fi (ie climate change fiction.) I’ve reviewed some cli-fi here, but none focussing on bees, so this post is as much for my benefit as yours. (This is why I love blogging – I get to research something I’m interested in and then share it with anyone who is interested.)

So, here is a small selection, in alphabetical order by author.

James Bradley, Clade (2015)

James Bradley, CladeAustralian author James Bradley’s book Clade is more broadly about climate change than the other books in my selection here, but it does have bees on its cover. Sydney Morning Herald reviewer, Caroline Baum describes it as follows: “A global deadly virus, the collapse of bee colonies, extreme weather events causing social unrest, eco-refugees, infertility, autism and new advances in technology – these are just some of the themes of James Bradley’s new novel, Clade.” The bees, I understand, mainly feature in a sub-story about a refugee beekeeper who is concerned about Colony Collapse Disorder. However, this sub-story and the presence of bees on the cover suggest their importance to Bradley’s overall theme.

Moya Lunde, The history of bees (English ed. 2017)

Maja Lunde, The history of beesThe Saturday Paper’s reviewer, KN, describing Norwegian author Lunde’s The history of bees as presenting “an original angle” in the cli-fi realm, says that “the dystopian future she depicts hinges on the disappearance of bees from their hives. This is a real-world phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, diagnosed as a problem in 2006.” As The Atlantic’s reviewer writes, its premise is simple: what would happen if bees disappeared? The book apparently has three strands – one contemporary, one set in the 19th century, and one in 2098 after “The Collapse”.

I learnt a new term researching this – First Impact FictionLA Times reviewer Ellie Robins says it was coined by novelist Ashley Shelby to describe “fiction set in more or less the present day, which depicts ‘our shared world as the impacts of runaway climate change begin to make themselves known’.”

Bren MacDibble, How to bee (2017)

Bren MacDibble, How to beeBren MacDibble is an Australian-based New Zealand born writer. How to bee is a children’s book, which has been shortlisted for multiple literary awards, including the 2108 CBCA Book of the Year for Younger Readers, the 2018 Adelaide Festival Awards for Children’s Literature, the 2017 Aurealis Awards for Best Children’s Novel, and the 2017 Queensland Literary Awards, Griffith University Children’s Book Award. Decent cred, eh?

Publisher Allen & Unwin describes the plot:

Peony lives with her sister and grandfather on a fruit farm outside the city. In a world where real bees are extinct, the quickest, bravest kids climb the fruit trees and pollinate the flowers by hand.

Laline Paull, The bees (2014)

Laline Paula, BeesThe Guardian’s Gwyneth Jones describes British novelist Laline Paull’s The bees as “a debut dystopia set in a beehive, where one bee rebels against the totalitarian state.” It’s apparently a complex story, and Jones concludes her review by saying that “the crisis The Bees invokes is genuine, frightening and getting worse. Hive collapse disease remains a deadly real-life mystery …”

The Bees was Shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015.

Now, the question is: can cli-fi help the cause of climate change? Well, coincidentally, a climate change research fellow, Sarah Perkins-Kilpatrick wrote about just that in The Conversation last year. She believes it can. “Through compelling storylines, dramatic visuals, and characters”, she says, cli-fi can make people “care about and individually connect to climate change” and thus “motivate them to seek out the scientific evidence for themselves.” She also argues – but of course this depends on the writer and the work – that cli-fi can deliver a message

of hope. That it is not, or will it be ever, too late to combat human-caused climate change.

Is all cli-fi hopeful?

Do you like cli-fi? And, do you agree that cli-fi can help the cause (assuming, of course, that you agree it is a cause)?

William T Hornaday, The bird tragedy of Laysan Island (Review)

William Temple Hornaday (1854-1937), whose article “The bird tragedy of Laysan Island” was a recent Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering, is a tricky man to write about. Originally a taxidermist, he became one of the pioneers of the wildlife conservation movement in America after he realised, around the 1880s, the dire situation regarding the country’s bison population. In this LOA article,  published in 1913, he chronicles the bird massacre on Laysan Island and the role played by President Theodore Roosevelt in helping to end the plumage trade. But he wasn’t without controversy, of which I’ll write more a little further on.

Laysan Island

Laysan Island. By Robert J. Shallenberger, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (http://www.doi.gov/photos/06152006_photos.html) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

“The bird tragedy” is a powerful piece which starts by describing the island as “sandy, poorly planted by nature, and barren of all things likely to enlist the attention of predatory man” but as the home of many varieties of birds, including the “Laysan albatross, black-footed albatross, sooty tern, gray-backed tern, noddy tern, Hawaiian tern, white tern, Bonin petrel, two shearwaters, the red-tailed tropic bird, two boobies and the man-of-war bird.” It was a “secure haven” for them, and, since 1891, had been viewed as “one of the wonders of the bird world”.

But, along came “man, the ever-greedy” looking for ways to make money, first via guano and egg collecting, then feathers for the plumage trade. The culprit was Max Schlemmer, who also introduced rabbits and guinea-pigs which multiplied and started to destroy the vegetation. Hornaday describes the horrendous massacre in 1909 of 300,000 birds for their wings. According to LOA, Hornaday is somewhat wrong in ascribing the massacre to Schlemmer. The say a biography of Schlemmer argues that he was ‘”cash-strapped” and sold the rights to the island to a Japanese entrepreneur. Whatever the situation, the destruction of the birdlife was massive in number and horrific in cruelty. Fortunately, it was stopped before complete destruction by a Zoology Professor who called the Government who in turn sent in the Navy – as you do!

Hornaday’s language makes clear his disapprobation of what happened and of the people who carried it out. His description of the massacre is horrifying, some of it quoted from a report by a 1911 scientific expedition to the island. This report notes that their “first impression” was that the island had been stripped of its birdlife:

Only the shearwaters moaning in their burrows, the little wingless rail skulking from one grass tussock to another, and the saucy finch remained. It is an excellent example of what Prof. Nutting calls the survival of the inconspicuous.

Hornaday says that if the Government had not intervened

it is reasonably certain that every bird on Laysan would have been killed to satisfy the wolfish rapacity of one money-grubbing white man.

Fortunately – albeit a little after the horse had bolted – Roosevelt, in 1909, created “the Hawaiian Islands Reservation for Birds” which includes Laysan and which, Hornaday writes, will ensure that

for the future the birds of Laysan and neighboring islets are secure from further attacks by the bloody-handed agents of the vain women who still insist upon wearing the wings and feathers of wild birds.

However, as Bill McKibben, the environmentalist whose memoir Oil and honey I’ve reviewed, writes in the headnote to the article, Hornaday had his own controversy. He became, in the late 1890s, the head of the New York Zoological Park (the Bronx Zoo), but, as McKibben writes,

a rough sense of the reasons why the social justice and environmental movements have often parted ways may be garnered from the fact that he saw nothing wrong with exhibiting a live African pygmy, named Ota Benga, in the zoo’s monkey house, later remarking that it was the “most amusing passage” in the institution’s history. His 1913 book Our Vanishing Wild Life … has a strongly nativist edge: immigrants and negroes are singled out as villains for their hunting of indigenous fauna.

According to Wikipedia, he was criticised, including by African-American clergymen James Gordon, who said that “Our race … is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes … We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.” With the controversy, Benga was released to roam the zoo, even though Hornaday did not see anything wrong with what he’d done. Benga was later released to Gordon’s custody, but eventually committed suicide at the age of 33 when the start of World War 1 prevented his return to Africa.

Another wonderful LOA offering in a genre I always enjoy reading – nature or environmental writing.

William T Hornaday
“The bird tragedy of Laysan Island”
First published: Our vanishing wild life, 1913
Available: Online at the Library of America

Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Here where we live (Review)

Cassie Flanagan Willanski, Here where we live“Write what you know” is the advice commonly given to new authors – and it’s something Cassie Flanagan Willanski, author of Here where we live, seems to accept. Set in South Australia, where Willanski lives, this debut collection of short stories reflects her two main interests, creative writing and the environment. The book won Wakefield Press’s Unpublished Manuscript Award a couple of years ago, and I can see why.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened the book. Adelaide author and creative writing teacher Brian Castro is quoted on the front cover as saying “I was moved and I was haunted” and on the back “Her stories are as spare and understated as the harsh landscape she describes…” I’d concur. Her stories are not your typical short story. That is, they don’t have tight little plots, nor do they have shock (or even just surprising) endings. They are more like slices-of-life, or like chapters of a novel, in the way they tease out moments in people’s lives that you can imagine continuing into a larger story. And yet, they are complete in themselves and absolutely satisfying.

However, there is more to these stories than “just” slices of life. Willanski writes in her author’s note that they were written as part of her Master of Arts degree, in which she explored “the ways white Australians have written about (and for) Indigenous people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries”. She introduces the notion of “Indigenous invisibility” which she describes as “ignoring Indigenous Australian people’s current existence, and mourning them as extinct”. She then talks about the issue we’ve discussed here before noting that as white writers became aware of this “Indigenous invisibility” they started to “write about them as characters in their books”. She says she has tried to reflect in her stories the various attitudes she found in her research. I found them authentic and sensitive, but the real judges of whether she’s been successful are indigenous people, aren’t they? There’s a reference to indigenous elder and activist Sue Haseldine in her acknowledgements, which may suggest some acceptance?

There are nine stories in the collection, three told first person, and the rest third person, except for the last and longest story which has two alternating voices, one third, the other second. Her protagonists include a young girl, a young male teacher, a 70-something woman, and a woman grieving for her late female partner. A few stories are connected, but this is not critical to appreciating the collection. Several of the stories, Willanski says in her author’s note, were inspired by real events but in each her imagination has created something new and fictional. Some of these real events are matters of history, such as the Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy and the Maria shipwreck, while others draw from personal experiences.

Despite the historical inspiration behind some stories, they are all set in contemporary South Australia. The first two are told first person: “This is my daughter’s country” opens the first (“My good thing”) and “The night my husband told me he was going to leave me we were in the middle of a heatwave” starts the second (“Drought core”). Straightaway we are introduced to Willanski’s nicely controlled, pensive tone, and her ongoing themes: family relationships, indigenous issues, the environment and climate change.

The first story is told in the voice of a white woman who has an indigenous husband and a daughter. They are going back to country to clean rockholes. No-one is named – “this is my daughter”, “this is my husband”, “my daughter’s grandmother” – which gives the story a universal, almost mythical sense. There are hints of challenges – subtle references to the Stolen Generations and to environmentally destructive tourism – but it’s a short, warmhearted story about the drive to connect with land and people, and sets up the collection nicely.

I can’t describe every story so I’ll jump to the fourth one, “Stuff white people like”. It is lightly, self-mockingly satirical. It tells the story of a young couple, Oliver and Clay, visiting Ceduna where Oliver is considering a job as a “Nature School Teacher”. They are both earnest, Oliver particularly so, in wanting to understand and relate to indigenous people, so they decide to attend a “healing ceremony” for “‘Maralinga, climate change, feral animals, you name it,’ said the principal vaguely.” It’s an uncomfortable experience, and Oliver doesn’t know how to react to the event which isn’t what he expected. He doesn’t want to be “like the other white people” but how should he be? Clay is able to go with the flow a bit, but not Oliver. Later, on their trip home, she is able to laugh, and take the jokes in the book Stuff white people like, while Oliver is “crippled with self-awareness”. He can’t quite match Clay’s insight. She reads from the book about white people “knowing what’s best” for others:

“Do you think I’m like that?”
“‘Cos you’re excited to get to work with Aboriginal  kids? No!” She stopped for a minute, trying to piece together her thoughts. “Well, I mean–” she said and stopped again.
“What?” said Oliver.
“Well it’s just that Aboriginal people already know about having school outside.”
“I know,” said Oliver. “What’s your point?”
Clay looked at him again, then said, almost irritably, “Well, you’re taking something they’ve been doing for thousands of years and putting the white seal of approval on it.”
“But the missionaries took it away,” said Oliver.
He didn’t say it, but it was implied, and they didn’t know what to do with the implication. Oliver would be giving it back.

I love this on so many grounds – the personal and the political, the desire and the discomfort, the sincerity and uncertainty. These underpin the collection.

Desert oaks

Desert Oaks, Centralia

There’s only one story in which Willanski speaks “for” or “in the voice of” indigenous people, “Oak trees in the desert”. It’s about the First International Woman Against Radioactive Racism Conference, held in Monument Valley, Utah. This is a fictional conference, but “radioactive racism” is “real” and the aforementioned Sue Haseldine is active in this area.

Willanski opens the story with an indigenous Australian woman introducing herself at the conference. It’s a strong story, with the first-person voices of various First Nation conference attendees interspersed with the third-person story of white Australian woman, 76-year-old Bev, whose late husband had worked at Maralinga and had contracted cancer. There’s also a young white woman activist-organiser providing, again, a light satirical touch. Like many of the stories, it’s very personal but also has a big political message. (I also enjoyed it because I love Australia’s desert oaks, and I’ve driven in the stunning Monument Valley.)

This is getting long so I’ll end with the last story, “Some yellow flowers”, which contrasts a mature love, through the grieving Jean whose partner Nancy has died, with the young love of two teenagers, Loretta and Jackson. This story brings together several of the collection’s themes, including developing and maintaining loving relationships, climate change and caring for the environment, and indigenous-settler relationships. There is a big storm – one of those one-hundred-years storms that are occurring more frequently these days:

The roof shrieks and the sea spray pelts against the front verandah. The separation between land and water, sea and sky, past and present and living and dead becomes more obviously a figment of daytime imagination.

Dreams are had, stories are told, relationships are resolved – not simplistically, but with a sense of continuum.

This is the sort of writing I like: undramatic, understated, reflective stories about ordinary people coping with breakups, death, new relationships, but overlaid with a strong set of values and contemporary concerns, in this case encompassing the intertwined issue of respecting indigenous people and caring for our country. While not always comfortable reading, it’s a hopeful book – and I like that too.

awwchallenge2016Cassie Flanagan Willanski
Here where we live
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2016
146pp.
ISBN: 9781743054031

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Frederick Law Olmsted, Trees in streets and in parks (Review)

I last came across the American landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, a few years ago when I was doing some freelance research for a Canberra 2013 centenary project. This was because Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park with Calvert Vaux, inspired Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin, the original designers of Canberra. Now, it just so happens, that my current read is a book by Jane Jose, Places women make, about the contributions women make to the development of cities. In it she talks of Marion Mahoney Griffin, and her role in the design and planning of Canberra, a garden city. So, when a piece by Frederick Law Olmsted titled “Trees in streets and in parks” popped up as last week’s Library of America’s Story of the Week, I decided it was for me.

Frederick Law Olmsted

By James Notman, Boston, 1893, engraving of image later published in Century Magazine (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a fascinating piece for its insight into nineteenth century thinking about trees, parks and cities. The article was published in a journal called The Sanitarian. He commences by disagreeing with an idea promulgated by French art critic, Charles Blanc, that nature is not beautiful, only design can be so described! Olmsted admits that some trees can be poorly or inappropriately planted or maintained but even those can be – well let him say it

But looking up at the continuous green canopy which these maltreated trunks support, swaying in the light summer breeze against the serene blue beyond—swaying not only with the utmost grace of motion, but with the utmost stately majesty—I say that cheaply, inconsiderately as the planting work was done, if the result is not to be called beautiful, it is only because it has more of sublimity than beauty.

Take that Monsieur Blanc! However, sanitation being his apparent main interest, he moves on to talk about parks and their importance to the “sanitary apparatus of a large town”. Parks are important for providing clean air to city residents. Travellers to London, he writes, had until recently described its myriad parks as ‘“airing grounds,” “breathing places,” “the lungs of London”’. Although times are changing, “the atmospheric theory”of the value of parks still holds strong, he says. For people to benefit from this air, the parks have to be attractive, so trees are planted for their decorative value.

However, it is not for their air-purifying value, nor for a decorative motive, that he plants trees in his parks. His reason doesn’t “interfere with or lessen the value of a park as an airing ground”, but not pursuing decoration as a goal results, he suggests, in a more attractive and less costly park. So, what is his purpose? Well, it has to do with defining “sanitation” more holistically: it’s not just about supporting the body but also encompasses the mind. Yet, he realises,

It is plainly not enough to answer that it is to move the mind recreatively, because that is equally the motive of Punch and Judy, of a flower-garden, of a cabinet of curiosities, of jewelry.

Frederick Olmsted

Portrait of Olmsted, at (the beautiful) Biltmore Estate, 1895, by John Singer Sargent (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Admitting he’s not a scientific expert, he argues that “the recreative and sanative value of large parks” comes from what he describes as an unconscious process. He distinguishes, in other words, between “conscious, or direct recreation, and unconscious, or indirect recreation”. Designing the placement of trees (and other garden objects) to call people “to a halt, and to utter mental exclamations of surprise or admiration” runs counter to this idea of “unconscious recreation”. A park’s highest value lies, rather, in “elements and qualities of scenery” to which the minds of those experiencing them give “little conscious cogitation” at the time. These elements or qualities “are of too complex, subtle and spiritual a nature to be readily checked off, item by item, like a jeweler’s or a florist’s wares”.

He provides an analogy. It’s the difference he says

between the beauty of a common wildflower seen at home, nearby others of its class, peeping through dead leaves or a bank of mossy turf, and that of a hybrid of the same genus, double, of a rare color, just brought from Japan, now first blooming in America, taken from under glass, and shown us in a bunch of twenty, set in an enameled vase against an artfully-managed back-ground.

In other words, coming across a scene, flower, tree unexpectedly and perhaps without even consciously stopping to comment on it, may have “a more soothing and refreshing sanitary influence”. These are the natural, simple pleasures that “cottagers in peasant villagers” have always been able to enjoy. And here he moves to a more political point. With the growth of cities and the development of the rich, with “the prominence given by the press to the latest matters of interest to the rich and the fashion-setting classes”, the problem is that

the population of our country is being rapidly educated to look for the gratification of taste, to find beauty, and to respect art, in forms not of the simple and natural class; in forms not to be used by the mass domestically, but only as a holiday and costly luxury, and with deference to men standing as a class apart from the mass.

This impoverishes us, dissipates tastes that once brought happiness. It’s a very appealing attitude to parks and park-making, though I must say his language is not the most straightforward to read.

The National Association for Olmsted Parks summarises the legacy of Frederick, his sons and their successors as:

The Olmsteds believed in the restorative value of landscape and that parks can bring social improvement by promoting a greater sense of community and providing recreational opportunities, especially in urban environments.

I think this is what you’ll be hearing about again soon, when I review Places women make!

Frederick Law Olmsted
“Trees in streets and in parks”
First published: In The Sanitarian (September 1882).
Available: Online at the Library of America