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

Sue Lovegrove and Adrienne Eberhard, The voice of water (#BookReview)

I had planned to post on this beautifully produced book, The voice of water, earlier in the year, but the events of the year threw me completely off track, and here I am at the end scrambling to finish off the posts I planned oh so many months ago.

Created by Tasmanians, visual artist Sue Lovegrove and poet Adrienne Eberhard (who has appeared here before), The voice of water was described by Hobart’s Fuller’s bookshop in their book launch announcement, as “a collection of 30 miniature paintings and poems which celebrate and pay homage to the beauty and ephemeral life of wetlands”. This is a good description of the content, but it doesn’t describe its exquisite production. You can tell that this book was a labour of love by two people who have both a passion for the Tasmanian landscape and an eye for beauty and design.

In their brief introduction, Lovegrove and Eberhard describe their aim as being “to reveal the fragility and fleeting nature of life in a lagoon”, to capture “the constantly shifting light”, “the soundtrack of place from frog call and scratching index legs to the tapping of grasses”, and “the calligraphy of reeds and sedges”. Not surprisingly, they also note the threat to wetlands posed by climate change. They name the wetlands that inspired them, and describe their process:

We spent days simply sitting together or apart, amongst the banksias and tea-trees at the edges, or lying in the sedges and reeds, letting these places seep into our imagination. We waded through ponds and swamps, working side-by-side, drawing and writing, and we had many conversations.

Interestingly, there was an exhibition of Sue Lovegrove’s miniatures at my favourite local gallery, Beaver Galleries, so you can see some (if not all) of the images on their website. The images are beautiful, some having an almost Monet-esque impression of light and water, others being a little more representational, particularly of reeds and sedge. (The original images are watercolour and gouache on paper.) One gorgeous miniature pair features a pond of deep blue with overhead clouds reflected in it. Eberhard’s miniature poem is (without her spacing though I tried):

enamelled sky
where clouds mop
and soak tumbrils
of luminous blue

The words “enamelled” and “luminous” capture the colours perfectly. Other poems convey different watery effects, such as “like textured silk like ruched folds of material”.

Another miniature pair features rows of reeds or grasses in a pond. The accompanying poem is presented on the facing landscape page in portrait mode so that it looks like spikes of grass too. So much attention has been paid to the design, and how design can help convey meaning as much as the works themselves – representing, for example, “the calligraphy of reeds and sedges”. Another poem is arranged in offset columns to encourage us, or so it seems to me, to read the lines in different orders – down one column and then the other, or leaping across the columns – producing slightly different meanings or effects depending on the order.

I’ll share just one more poem, which exemplifies the attention they also paid to the “soundtrack” of the landscape:

jostle of noise a cacophonous counterpoint to the artist’s mark-making scribble and scratch
castanet-clack the scratching of insect legs
ratcheting and tightening an orchestration that ricochets
and rasps phonetics of frog call an infiltration a metronome’s sustaining heartbeat.

The book chronicles the water cycle in the lagoons, the water coming and receding at different times – “lagoon shrinks to water lines washing through reeds” – but this is not a polemical book about climate change. Rather, it is a hymn to what we have now. At least, that’s how I read it.

However you read it though, The voice of water is a gorgeous book to get lost in and carried away by, and I’m sorry I didn’t write it up earlier in the year.

PS I have tagged this “Nature writing”, which reminded me that I have just received advice that submissions are now open for the 6th biennial Natural Conservancy Nature Writing Prize (about which I have written here before). It’s an essay prize, and is worth $7,500 for the winner. This year’s judges are literary critic, Geordie Williamson, and Miles Franklin Award winning novelist, Tara June Winch. Being selected by them would be quite a feather in the cap, I reckon. For more information check the website.

Challenge logo

Sue Lovegrove and Adrienne Eberhard
The voice of water
Published in 2019 with assistance from an Australia Council for the Arts grant
64pp. (unnumbered)
ISBN: 9780646802541

Louisa Atkinson, A voice from the country: January (Review)

Louisa Atkinson, as I wrote in a post a few years ago, was a pioneer Australian writer. She was a significant botanist, our first Australian-born woman novelist, and the first Australian woman to have a long-running column in a major newspaper. It was a natural history series titled A Voice from the Country which ran in The Sydney Morning Herald for 10 years from 1860. I’ve shared here a few natural history articles/essays written by Americans, such as John Muir, but never an Aussie one. That’s going to change here, now – for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because I can, given the articles are findable through Trove, and secondly because the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge plans to focus this year, among other things, on classic Australian women writers. You can’t be a more classic Aussie writer than our Louisa!

But, which of Louisa Atkinson’s many columns should I do? I read a few and decided on one from her first year. In fact, I think it might have been the very first in the series. It’s titled “January”, which makes it particularly appropriate this month. Atkinson was living in Kurrajong, on the lower slopes of the Blue Mountains, in “Fernhurst”, the house built by her mother.

Monaro region, in January

January in the Monaro, 2010s not 1860s

So, the piece is about what it says, January. She describes the birds and plants in particular that you see in January in her region. Here is the opening sentence:

A WARM drowsy month, without the opening promise of Spring or maturing riches of Autumn.

Beautiful don’t you think, and it perfectly catches the middle of the Australian summer, particularly when you read the next couple of sentences:

In dry seasons the grass is scorched and white, the dust flies along the road before the least puff of wind, much to the annoyance of the traveller. The observer of nature finds his field of observation limited, yet not altogether barren.

In other words, it is dry, more yellow I’d say than white, and there’s nothing much happening, nature-wise. “Much” though is the operative word, because it’s “not altogether barren”, as she goes on to show by describing, for example, the activity of various birds such as the “waterwagtail or dishwasher”, laughing jackasses, lowries. Now, here’s another reason I chose this piece – her language. There’s the obvious fact that Atkinson has an engaging way of writing about nature, but what I want to explore here is its unfamiliarity.

By this I mean unfamiliar expressions and names. Regarding the former, I often find in articles I locate through Trove, language that is more erudite than we see in today’s newspapers. It suggests a higher level of literacy in readers. Take, for example, Atkinson’s use of “ferruginous” to describe the colour of a fungus. We might find that word in a novel these days, but not, I expect, in a general interest newspaper column. Of course, it may also suggest that newspapers were geared more to the elite than to the general populace? I don’t know enough about newspaper history to say any more on this. Sometimes, it’s more that word usage has changed. For example, Atkinson writes that some young birds “essay flight”. We rarely see “essay” used in that sense these days. I love that reading these older articles can give us insight into other times beyond the subject matter of the writing.

The other unfamiliarity relates to her naming of things. I know what laughing jackasses and lowries are – kookaburras and crimson rosellas*, respectively – but these names aren’t commonly used now. However, I have no idea what a “waterwagtail or dishwasher” is. Is it the willie wagtail and nicknamed dishwasher because its tail swishing back and forth reminded people of a dish mop? So, I did a Google search, and found an article titled “21 Facts about Pied Wagtails” from UK’s Living with Birds website. Facts 6 and 7 are:

6. Few birds have as many country names as the pied wagtail. They range from Polly washdish and dishwasher to the more familiar Penny wagtail, Willy wagtail and water wagtail.

7. The origin of the washer names is a mystery, but it may be because women once washed clothes, as well as pot and pans, by a stream or village pump, the sort of place that pied wagtails also frequent.

So, not the action of their tail perhaps but the places they frequent? I’m not a bird expert, but my understanding is that this White or Pied Wagtail is a “vagrant” in Australia, and that what we call the willie wagtail is from a different family. Which one – if either of these – is Atkinson talking about? Regardless, my point is that reading past writing can trip us up when the writers described plants, animals or objects using terms or names we don’t use now. We have to be careful – particularly those of us not expert in subjects – about drawing wrong conclusions from our reading.

POSTSCRIPT, 31 Jan 2017: Pam (Travellin’ Penguin) checked out “dishwasher” through her bird contacts, and was pointed to the book Austral English, which says that it’s “an old English bird-name for the Water-wagtail; applied in Australia to the Seisura inquieta … the Restless Flycatcher”. It quotes from the 1827 Transactions of the Linnæan Society, that the bird “is very curious in its actions. In alighting on the stump of a tree, it makes several semi-circular motions, spreading out its tail …”.

Crimson Rosellas

Crimson Rosellas by Kevin Tostado, using CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Enough of that, though. Let’s get back to Atkinson and her description of the lowries (i.e. crimson rosellas).  They are common to my garden – and her writing captures them perfectly:

A flock of lowries, young and old, frequent the fields, whence the oaten hay was gathered, nor confine their depredations there, assisting themselves liberally to the ripening peas and beans, which the gardener intended for seed, and even pursuing these favourite morsels into a verandah where they are spread to dry. The flock presents a brilliant appearance ; the full plumaged birds are vivid crimson, blue, partially pied with black, whilst the nestlings are variegated with green.

And now to conclude I’m going to jump five years to a report in the The Sydney Morning Herald in January 1865 of a meeting of the Horticultural Society of Sydney. It reports on various attendees bringing all sorts of plant specimens to the meeting, most of them exotic, and then, towards the end, there’s this:

Miss Atkinson, of the Kurrajong, sent a jar of jam, of the Lisanthe sapida, with the following remarks –

“LISANTHE SAPIDA – A small shrub of the Epacris family, bearing a crimson fruit, enveloping a single stone; good bearer, crop lasts about two months or more, coming in in November. To make jelly—boil the drupes, adding a few spoonfuls of water; when soft strain the juice off, add one pound white sugar to a pint, and boil to jelly. The fruit makes a pleasant tart—the Lisanthe Sapida grows in poor sandstone ranges. If any member of the societv would like to cultivate the shrub, and cannot procure the fruits in their locality, it is to be met with in the Kurrajong.”

A vote of thanks was given to the exhibitors, and more especially to Miss Atkinson, who it was remarked had made herself most remarkable for her endeavours to bring colonial productions into notice.

The lisanthe (or lissanthe) sapida, aka native cranberry, is, as you might have guessed, a plant native to Australia. Lovely to see recognition, by her peers, of a woman, and one who clearly loved and promoted the natural environment in which she lived.

* Mountain lowry is an alternative name for the Crimson rosella but is not, I believe, the most common one, particularly in New South Wales, but readers can correct me if I’m wrong.

aww2017-badgeLouisa Atkinson
“A voice in the country: January”
in: The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 1860
Available: Online

John Muir, Save the redwoods (Review)

Giant Sequoia, Yosemite

Giant Sequoia, in the Sierras

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot defend themselves or run away. And few destroyers of trees ever plant any; nor can planting avail much toward restoring our grand aboriginal giants. It took more than three thousand years to make some of the oldest of the Sequoias, trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra.

“A wind-storm in the forests” by American naturalist/environmentalist John Muir (1838-1914) was the first Library of America (LOA) story of the week that I ever reviewed here. I was consequently keen to read his short essay “Save the redwoods” when it popped up as an LOA story-of-the-week three weeks ago. It’s an interesting piece, partly because it was found amongst his papers, posthumously, so was not published during his lifetime.

As LOA’s notes say, Muir spent four decades writing articles for the national press which argued for the “protection of such natural wonders as the Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, and—above all—Yosemite.” Yosemite was a particular love of his. LOA tells how it was his and Robert Underwood Johnson, associate editor of The Century Magazine, alarm about the “substantial damage caused by lumbering, sheepherding, and tourism” there that eventually resulted in the creation of Yosemite National Park.

It is this issue of lumbering that Muir takes up again in “Save the redwoods”. It was apparently written around 1900 when there were concerns that the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees or Giant Redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum) was at risk of being sold and cut down for timber because the owner, James Sperry who had protected them, was old and no longer able to maintain it. A lumberman, Job Whiteside, planned to buy it – but there was a public outcry. This is when Muir apparently wrote his piece, arguing that the various scattered groves of redwoods not included in Sequoia National Park should be protected..

In his piece Muir, as was his style, draws on religious imagery, analogy and personification, amongst other devices, to argue his case. He discusses the destruction of a couple of Big Trees in the grove back in the 1850s:

Forty-seven years ago one of these Calaveras King Sequoias was laboriously cut down, that the stump might be had for a dancing-floor. Another, one of the finest in the grove, more than three hundred feet high, was skinned alive to a height of one hundred and sixteen feet from the ground and the bark sent to London to show how fine and big that Calaveras tree was—as sensible a scheme as skinning our great men would be to prove their greatness. This grand tree is of course dead, a ghastly disfigured ruin, but it still stands erect and holds forth its majestic arms as if alive and saying, “Forgive them; they know not what they do.”

He then comments on the new plans to mill this grove, saying

No doubt these trees would make good lumber after passing through a sawmill, as George Washington after passing through the hands of a French cook would have made good food.

That’s an analogy to get our attention! He argues that if one of these

Sequoia kings [could] come to town in all its god-like majesty so as to be strikingly seen and allowed to plead its own cause, there would never again be any lack of defenders.

He describes the proliferation of sawmills and the ongoing destruction of these big trees, and sets this activity against Mr Sperry’s protection of the sequoias in his Calaveras Grove. Muir notes that when news starts to come through of this Grove being bonded to the lumberman, there is suddenly a “righteous and lively indignation on the part of Californians”. This, he says, seems strange given “the long period of deathlike apathy, in which they have witnessed the destruction of other groves unmoved”. However, he writes, public opinion had been rapidly changing in recent years and there had always been a special interest in the  “Calaveras giants [because] they were the first discovered and are best known”.  Moreover:

  • they have a worldwide reputation;
  • they are visited and admired by “travelers from every country”; and
  • the names of great men have long been associated with them (including Washington, Humboldt, Torrey and Gray, and Sir Joseph Hooker)

He argues that “these kings of the forest, the noblest of a noble race, rightly belong to the world” but, as they are in California, Californians “cannot escape responsibility as their guardians”. Then comes some patriotism and buttering up! He writes:

Fortunately the American people are equal to this trust, or any other that may arise, as soon as they see it and understand it.

It is here that we find the excerpt I opened my post with. It’s followed by his brief description of a bill being put before congress to protect the Calaveras Grove. He argues that not only will the bill protect this particular grove of trees but the resultant/concurrent “quickening interest in forest affairs in general” will result in improved chances for other groves and forests.

The piece feels a little rushed and unfinished, which is probably why he never submitted it for publication, but the work of Muir and others did eventually result in most of the west coast’s major sequoia and coastal redwood groves being “gathered under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service”. I saw many of these trees in the 1980s and again in the 1990s. They are unforgettable.

“Any fool”, Muir wrote, “can destroy trees”. Saving them is much harder. It takes passion, patience and persistence, something Muir exemplified in his life-time. Luckily, a long succession of environmentalists – around the world – continue this tree-saving work today.

John Muir
“Saving the redwoods”
First published (posthumously): In Sierra Club Bulletin, January 1920.
Available: Online at the Library of America

Helen Macdonald, The human flock (Commentary)

I know, I know, I sound like I’m obsessed with Helen Macdonald. I’m not, but I am interested in nature and landscape, and she has thought and researched at length about the topic. I’ve called this post a commentary, because it’s not a review. Rather, I’m going to draw on both an On Nature column she wrote for The New York Times Magazine and her book H is for hawk (my review) – and look at a political issue she raised in both writings.

I’ll start with a comment that occurs near the beginning of H is for hawk. Early in her hawk training sessions, she takes Mabel out walking in the streets of her town, but almost no-one speaks to her. They all saw her, she says, how could they not, but “they just pretended they hadn’t”. Except for those who did. A man from Kazakhstan saw her. They discuss Kazakh falconers, and he tells her “I miss my country”. A Mexican cyclist “skids to a halt” and admires Mabel, saying he’s never seen a hawk so close, only high in the sky where they are “free”. And then she realises

that in all my days of walking with Mabel the only people who have come up and spoken to us have been outsiders: children, teenage goths, homeless people, overseas students, travellers, drunks, people on holiday … I feel ashamed of my nation’s reticence. Its desire to keep walking, to move on, not to comment, not to interrogate, not to take any interest in something peculiar, unusual, in anything that isn’t entirely normal.

I thought, interesting, but moved on, with her, to the next part of her story.

Then, late in the book, she’s out walking with Mabel again, and runs into a retired couple she knows. They exchange pleasantries, including discussing the beauty of a herd of deer they’d all seen. Their conversation concludes with:

“Doesn’t it give you hope?” he says suddenly.
“Yes,” he says. “Isn’t it a relief that there’re things still like that, a real bit of Old England still left, despite all these immigrants coming in.”

Helen is horrified, but says nothing. However, as she walks home she thinks

… I should have said something. But embarrassment had stopped my tongue. Stomping along, I start pulling on the thread of darkness they’d handed me.

She thinks of why and how people and creatures move between countries, of Göring’s desire to move Jews from Germany, of Finnish goshawks in England, of a Lithuanian mushroom gatherer in England who couldn’t understand why English people didn’t know which mushrooms in their woods were and weren’t edible. She says:

I think of all the complicated histories that landscapes have, and how easy it is to wipe them away, put easier, safer histories in their place.

Today’s “Old England”, for example, is not, actually, the England of 100 years ago, let alone 400 hundred years ago, given the impact of settlement and agriculture on the land and its “natural” inhabitants. And those deer? Well, they and the hare are “legacies of trade and invasion”, albeit back to Roman times. Immigrants in their day, in fact. She suggests that instead of fighting “for landscapes that remind us of who we think we are”, we should “fight, instead, for landscapes buzzing and glowing with life in all its variousness”.

Starling murmuration

Starling murmuration, by Walter Baxter, using CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This brings me to the article, “Human flock”, she wrote for The New York Times Magazine. It’s about waiting and watching at a lake in Hungary for a flock of Eurasian cranes on their southward migration. Are you catching my (her) drift now? She talks of various migrating birds, sandhill cranes, snow geese, and starlings. She describes a murmuration, the collective noun for a flock of starlings. She discusses why these birds flock. The reasons include for protection (out of fear), to signpost where they are to other starlings, and for warmth. These flocks, though, are also made up of “thousands of beating hearts and eyes”, of individual birds in other words..

As she watches and thinks, her mind turns to “more human matters”, to the “razor-wire fence” built by the Hungarian government to keep Syrian refugees out. She writes:

Watching the flock has brought home to me how easy it is to react to the idea of masses of refugees with the same visceral apprehension with which we greet a cloud of moving starlings or tumbling geese, to view it as a singular entity, strange and uncontrol­lable and chaotic. But the crowds coming over the border are people just like us — perhaps too much like us.

The flock made her realise that “in the face of fear, we are all starlings, a group, a flock made of a million souls seeking safety”. But flocks can also be transformed into “individuals and small family groups wanting the simplest things: freedom from fear, food, a place to safely sleep”. It’s a powerful statement for humanity. And I like the way it picks up ideas she touched on but didn’t explore at depth in H is for hawk.

Nature, or, more accurately, exploring its meaning for us and our relationship to it, is clearly an ongoing project for her. I’ll be interested to see how her ideas develop – but for now, you may be pleased to know, I’m moving on to other books and ideas!

PS Helen Macdonald gave the closing address at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival on “On looking at nature”. She gets into nature, history, culture and diversity. It runs for around 38 minutes, and makes for great listening.

Helen Macdonald
“On Nature: The human flock” in The New York Times Magazine, December 6, 2015.
Available: Online

Delicious descriptions: Helen Macdonald on nature

Before I share the couple of quotes I saved for this post, from my review of Helen Macdonald’s H is for hawk, I want to mention one more idea that I considered including in my ever-lengthening review, and that’s the idea of a journey. I’m mentioning it now because Claire (of Word by Word) mentioned it in her comment on my post and because it was also mentioned in my reading group discussion. I sort of covered it when I said that the book could also be seen as a quest story, but I had planned to point to a specific reference Macdonald makes: “for years,” she says, “I’d scoffed at White’s notion of hawk training as a rite of passage”. She realises that there’s truth in his statement and that she too was trying to rebuild something. This, this “passage” from one mode of being to another is, in effect, a journey – and it is, in the end, the fundamental thing that the book chronicles.

(This is a good point to note the value of rereading! Macdonald, in the light of her current experience, reads White’s Goshawk very differently from the way she’d read it when she was a child with a child’s view of the world. I love it.)

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk (Photo: Norbert Kenntner, Berlin, via Wikipedia using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

But now, Macdonald’s nature writing. The book abounds with descriptions of the nature – of the landscape, of the creatures within it. It’s intensely evocative, and sometimes confrontingly visceral. The first chapter, as well as the title itself, tells us that nature will be a significant aspect of the book. “Forty-five minutes northeast of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed” is the opening sentence. The last line (the postscript), too, is a natural description, albeit a more symbolic one worthy of the last line of a grief memoir! Nature, in other words, plays a complicated role in the book. It has a literal role, that is, it exists for its own sake. She clearly loves the natural world around her, has her “magical places”. But it has other roles too: complex, psychological ones, political ones*, as well as the more expected symbolic ones (like, you know, “the world itself started to grieve. The skies broke and it rained and rained”).

I touched on the psychology in my review when I referred to her starting to think and see like a hawk, seeing this as a way to escape her grief. But that’s just one aspect of her exploration of the relationship between psychology and nature. There’s TH White and what she calls his “moral magic trick”. It relates to his determination not to give in to his cruel urges – he never beat his students at Stowe school, for example. She says that animals played a “curious role” in his keeping this goal:

For White it was a moral magic trick, a way out of his conundrum. By skilfully training a hunting animal, by closely associating with it, by identifying with it, you might be allowed to experience all your vital, sincere desires, even your most bloodthirsty ones, in total innocence. You could be true to yourself.

In other words, you could shed, perhaps, your “perpetual disguise”.

Often though, she describes nature for its own sake – how it looks, how it feels, her experience of it. It’s a lived and earthy beauty:

It’s turned cold: cold so that saucers of ice lie in the mud, blank and crazed as antique porcelain. Cold so the hedges are alive with Baltic blackbirds; so cold that each breath hangs like parcelled seafog in the air. The blue sky rings with it, and the bell on Mabel’s tail leg is dimmed with condensation. Cold, cold, cold. My feet cracks the ice in the mud as I trudge uphill. And because the squeaks and grinding harmonics of fracturing ice sound to Mabel like a wounded animal, every step I take is met with a convulsive clench of her toes. Where the world isn’t white with frost, it’s striped green and brown in strong sunlight, so the land is parti-coloured and snapping backwards to dawn and forwards to dusk. The days, now, are a bare six hours long.

And here is Mabel in this season:

… Mabel has eaten nothing but quail for a week, and it’s made her a hot-tempered, choleric, Hotspur-on-coke, revenge-tragedy-protagonist goshawk. She is full of giddy nowhere-to-go desire. She foots her perch. She gets cross. She jumps in the bath and out again, and then in again. She glares …

So evocative, so drawn from experience – and such an inspiring command of language.

Macdonald’s England is pretty wild – full of brambles and thorns, of predators and prey – something I didn’t quite expect given my image of green pastures and tamed hedgerows! Towards the end she shares the lesson of her experience, which stems from the idea that we should not imbue nature with meanings from our human experience of the world, and then use that to “shore up our own views of the world”:

And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.

Nature is to be valued, respected – and preserved – for itself.

You won’t be surprised to hear that Helen Macdonald is “a writer, poet, illustrator, historian and affiliate at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge”.

* I may address this one in another post – if I can maintain the energy!

Helen Macdonald, H is for hawk (Review)

Helen Macdonald, H is for hawkMy reading really has been rather odd lately. I’ve read a memoir about horse-racing (Gerald Murnane’s Something for the pain), a novel about hedge-funds and investment banking (Kate Jenning’s Moral hazard), and now a grief memoir focused on falconry (Helen Macdonald’s H is for hawk). None of these are topics I would naturally pick up, but in each case I’ve enjoyed being presented these very different worlds. H is for hawk, this post’s subject, is additionally interesting because it combines three different forms of writing – memoir, biography and nature writing.

T. H. White lecturing on his Arthurian fiction (Courtesy John J. Burns Library, Boston College, via Wikipedia CC BY 2.0).

TH White (Courtesy John J. Burns Library, Boston College, via Wikipedia CC BY 2.0).

As I don’t read reviews before I read books, I really didn’t know what I was getting in for, except that I understood it was about a woman managing her grief through raising a hawk. It is about this, but it is about so much more too, including being a sort of mini-biography of novelist TH White. You probably know White through his most famous works, The once and future king and The sword in the stone, but you may not know that he also wrote a book called Goshawk about the training of his goshawk called Gos. Imaginative name that! Macdonald was far more creative. She named hers Mabel! (She does explain this surprising tame-sounding name).

Many people have written about falconry over the years so why does Macdonald light on TH White? Well, it’s complicated. She had read Goshawk when she was a young girl, and hadn’t much liked it. However, she read it again and

saw more in it than bad falconry … White made it a metaphysical battle. Like Moby-Dick or The old man and the sea, The goshawk was a literary encounter between animal and man that reached back to Puritan traditions of spiritual contest …

White, you see, wrote it after he’d left his teaching post in 1936 to live in a workman’s cottage. He was fleeing a world in which he, a homosexual, didn’t fit, a world in which he had to live “in perpetual disguise”. Macdonald suddenly recognises a fellow-feeling, writing that

I felt, for the first time, that my urge to train a hawk was for reasons that weren’t entirely my own. Partly they were his.

Because MacDonald was training her hawk to escape her grief following the sudden death of her beloved father. She was, she writes, “running” like White. Both, we gradually learn, experience a sort of madness that they need to resolve and recover from.

And so the book progresses in fits and starts, but chronologically so, as Macdonald parallels the awful and sad story of White and Gos with hers and Mabel’s. It makes fascinating reading.

Now, this book has been out for well over a year. It won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction (which our very own Anna Funder won for Stasiland) among other awards and shortlistings. It’s been comprehensively reviewed, I believe, so I fear reiterating what others have said before. Consequently, I’m just going to give a broad brush overview of my response to it (and follow up with a Delicious Descriptions post of some of its truly gorgeous nature writing).

To start with, I enjoyed it immensely. It fits into what we call literary or creative non-fiction. That is, it uses some novelistic techniques such as dialogue, poetic imagery and a narrative arc, but it is very definitely non-fiction. It contains a lot of fact about her life, and much research about falconry and TH White. And there are several pages of end-notes identifying sources of quotes, though these notes are not flagged in the text.

I was fascinated by her stories of falconry – her own and from the past – and I am always interested in the lives of writers. Macdonald is an historian by profession, and weaves history through the telling of her own experiences. Although as a child she had agreed with the general censure of White’s training of Gos, as an adult she is more sympathetic, empathising with White’s loneliness and understanding his lack of knowledge and experience. I must say that while I was intellectually interested in the falconry, I would be among those of her friends who find the idea “morally suspect”. It seems a cruel activity to me – and, in fact, cruelty is one of the many threads running through the book. White, who had been physically and emotionally abused as a child, was, apparently, a “sadomasochist”, though Macdonald argues that he consciously worked to keep that part of himself at bay.

This brings me to another aspect of the book I enjoyed – the way she weaves multiple ideas or themes through it. Freedom is one. Macdonald seeks it through her hawk:

The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.

Hawks seek it too, sometimes. Macdonald describes “bating”, in which a bird tries to fly from a fist or perch while still attached, as a “wild bid for freedom”. And White definitely seeks freedom. Macdonald frequently refers to his desire for it. She quotes his own writing:

A longing came to my mind, then, that I should be able to do this also. The word ‘feral’ had a kind of magical potency which allied itself with two other words, ‘ferocious’ and ‘free’ … To revert to a feral state I took a farm-labourer’s cottage …

Feral. This word conjures another theme, that of wildness. Both White and Macdonald revert to wildness in their own way – by training wild birds, and by withdrawing from society. Macdonald describes how she becomes, essentially, one with her hawk. She starts to think and see like a hawk, and is taken, she writes, “to the very edge of being human”. Eventually though, sense returns. She comes to understand that falconry is “a balancing act between wild and tame” – and not just for the hawk! She rejects American naturalist John Muir’s “earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal”, arguing instead that “the wild is not a panacea for the human soul.” All this makes me think that there’s a fourth form of writing that this book could fit into – the quest story – because it is, fundamentally, a quest for sanity and peace, for both Macdonald and White.

There are other ideas and themes, but I fear that my broad brush is starting to become a fine pen. I will write a little about nature and the environment in my Delicious Descriptions post, so will end my main analysis here.

I read this with my reading group. Some found Macdonald a little too self-obsessed for their liking. Why did the death of her father create such a schism in her soul? Why was she not able to see that her mother’s need, as the bereaved spouse, was surely greater? I wondered a little about this too, though it didn’t affect my appreciation of the book. The answer is, I suppose, that we are all different. For whatever reason – timing, perhaps, the quality of the father-daughter relationship, definitely – Macdonald’s father’s death knocked her for a six. Having accepted that as a given, I found H is for hawk a thoughtful, complex book that engaged me from the start.

This is a long post, I know, but I want to share one more thing. It occurs two-thirds of the way through the book, and, to me at least, shares one of life’s important lessons:

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.

Helen Macdonald
H is for hawk
London: Vintage Books, 2014
300 pp.
ISBN: 9780099575450

Monday musings on Australian literature: Nature writing in Australia

Blogger Michelle (Adventures in Biography) posted last week on a presentation by literary agent, Mary Cunnane, at the HARDCOPY writers’ workshop she attended here in Canberra. Answering a question about narrative non-fiction, Cunnane apparently said “I do wonder, for example, why there isn’t more really good nature writing in Australia”. Quite coincidentally, last week another blogger, Stefanie (So Many Books), asked her readers for recommendations for “good nature books”. Both these posts got me thinking about nature writing in Australia. We have such varied landscapes not to mention interesting flora and fauna, that you would think examples of nature writing would roll off our tongues – but it doesn’t seem to.

What is “nature writing”?

Let’s start with Wikipedia which offers a definition, albeit an unsourced one. Nature writing, it says, “is nonfiction or fiction prose or poetry about the natural environment”. I must admit that when I think of “nature writing” my mind immediately leaps to the strong tradition from Stefanie’s home, the USA, with non-fiction authors like Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey, John Muir ( “A wind-storm in the forests”) and Mary Austin (“The scavengers” and “The land”). These writers focus very closely on landscape and the nature within it.

Cunnane, as far as I know, didn’t elaborate her understanding of “nature writing”, but Stefanie did, taking a broad view:

It might be a science-y book on moss or a sociology/psychology/philosophy kind of book on coping with climate change or a travel through the jungle/desert/forest/arctic sort of book or it could be about a cabin on a pond and planting beans and watching ants or about a garden or a farm … Something to take my mind outdoors while my body is stuck indoors.

Looking a little further … Last year, I wrote a Monday Musings about Australia’s relatively new Nature Writing Prize. This essay prize has been described as being about “relationship and interaction with some aspect of the Australian landscape” or for writing that “demonstrates a deep appreciation of Australia’s magnificent landscapes”. The sponsor, the Nature Conservancy, calls it the genre of “writing of place”. “Place” seems to me to be a little broader than nature, but presumably the entrants know what the prize is looking for.

Mark Tredinnick, A place on earth

Published by Bison Books

Briefly researching this topic, I came across an article Charlotte Wood wrote in 2004 on an anthology edited by Mark Tredinnick and titled A place on earth: An anthology of nature writing From North America and Australia. Tredinnick, Wood says, wanted to kickstart a new genre, “an Australian ‘literature of place'”! There’s that word “place” again. Wood discusses form and content, starting with the idea that the essay is a natural fit “with this subject matter”. But, not all writers in the anthology agree. Eric Rolls sees no reason why the “essay should be considered the most suitable form for writing about place”, and Patrice Newell, whose farm-memoir The olive grove I read before blogging, says “I’m simply a story-teller. I tell stories about our family, our farm, the flora and fauna, our river, our olive grove”. She refers to the issue of place saying:

There’s a lot of talk about ‘place’ but every place is a place. A tram is a place as crowded with memories as passengers. I’m troubled that ‘place’ is becoming a descriptive term for somewhere in the natural world. It can be too precious.

I’m with Newell. Conceptually, place can include nature, but I don’t think it’s useful as a synonym.

All of this confirms for me that “nature writing” is a rather broad church: it can be fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose, but its focus must be nature and the environment.

Nature writing in Australia

NewellRiverWood, in her article cited above, quotes essayist Peter Hay as agreeing that an Australian tradition of nature writing has been lacking, though he says that poetry is an exception. He’s right. Many of the early ballads focused closely on the interaction of humans with nature, and then there are those poets he names, like Henry Kendall and Judith Wright. He also says that “Australian fictionalists [a new word for me!] have always unselfconsciously written of the natural world”. In other words, he says, we haven’t “neglected the natural world in our writing”, we just don’t have a “literary genre specifically devoted to these themes as there is in North America”.

And so, while the names of Australian nature writers don’t jump immediately into my head, as they do when I think of the USA, it doesn’t take long for some to float to the surface. How about the two Tims – Flannery and Winton – for example? Tim Flannery’s books on palaeontology and climate – such as The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, and The weather makers: The history and future impact of climate change – are obvious. In much of Tim Winton’s fiction, the environment is almost a character itself. Breath, The turning and Dirt Music are three examples, but landscape is critical to most of his books. Winton has written non-fiction about the environment too, including Land’s edge and Down to earth. Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus is an obvious contender with its specific focus on gum trees.

What about those “farm books” which explore human interaction with the landscape? Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s rules for scientific living and Mateship with birds (my review), Andrew McGahan’s White earth, Gillian Mears’ Foals’ bread (my review), Jessica White’s Entitlement (my review) and Alice Robinson’s Anchor point (my revieware all good examples.

And then, of course, there’s the relationship of indigenous Australians with the land, or country. Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my review) and Kim Scott’s That deadman dance (my review) jump immediately to mind, but much indigenous literature encompasses relationship with and responsibility for country.

Anna Krien, Into the woods

Cover image (Courtesy: Black Inc)

Wood’s article raises another aspect of nature writing – “eco-activism”. She feared, she said, that this would be the main thrust of the anthology – but it wasn’t so. However, Tredinnick does admit there’s a connection between “creating a literature of place and creating a practical sympathy for the land”. Some writers are conscious of this connection, while others aren’t, but the contributors to the anthology agreed that such writing is not about “preaching”, but about “showing”, about creating the “sympathy” Tredinnick talks about. Anna Krein’s investigative, analytical Into the woods (my review) about the forestry conflict in Tasmania and her quarterly essay about our relationship with animals, Us and them: On the importance of animals (my review), are conscious exemplars of this aspect: they actively grapple with ecological/enviromental issues.

I’ve barely introduced the subject, but it has confirmed for me that while Australia may not have an easily definable tradition of “nature writing”, nature and landscape are integral to our literature, across forms and genres. So, let’s end with the opening of one of Judith Wright’s most famous poems:

South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter,
low trees, blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite-
clean, lean, hungry country. The creek’s leaf-silenced,
willow choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crabapple
branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.

(from Judith Wright’s “South of my days” at PoemHunter)

What does nature writing mean to you? And, does it interest you?


Mary Austin, The land (Review)

Regular readers here know that I choose my Library of America offerings for various reasons: for authors I haven’t read before but would like to (such as Edgar Allan Poe and Sherwood Anderson), for authors I love and am always happy to read more of (such as Willa Cather, Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton), or for topics that interest me (like slavery and civil rights). Mary Austin’s “The land” fits into this latter: it’s about the American southwest which is a region I love. I have in fact reviewed another Austin story about that region, “The scavengers”.

In “The scavengers”, Austin described the scavenging animals of the American deserts, the buzzards, vultures, ravens, coyotes and Clark’s crows, and promoted the idea of nature’s balance. In “The land” her focus is the landscape itself, and its hard, unforgiving nature. It’s the first story (essay) in her collection Lost borders, and works partly as an introduction to the collection, in which she sets down, she writes, “what the Borderers thought and felt”.

Tufa, Mono Lake

Tufa or “man-deep crystals of pure salt”, Mono Lake

Indeed, LOA’s notes quote scholar Esther F. Lanigan statement that the story introduces “the motley collection of drifters, prospectors, explorers, entrepreneurs, and sheepherders [about whom she will write], most of whom demonstrate an astonishing insensitivity in their dealings with the women closest to them”.

The “lost borders” region she explores in the collection is what I’d call the eastern part of central California*. We are talking country that stretches from the east of the Sierra Nevadas to Death Valley in Nevada. It is remote, hot and very dry. It is country, in other words, that Australians would understand. Driving through this region, as I did in 1983 and a few times in the 1990s, reminded me, in fact, of my road trips in outback Australia – particularly western Queensland and northern South Australia.

“The land” is about story and myth. She writes that “curiously … you can get anybody to believe any sort of a tale that had gold in it”. She’s “sore” that she’s not believed “in some elementary matters, such as that horned toads are not poisonous, and that Indians really have the bowels of compassion”. So, when she is brought a potsherd from Shoshone Land and told she could probably find “a story about it somewhere”, she responds that she’ll “do better than that”, she’ll “make a story”. And so she does, and is amused over time to see her story take on the mantle of truth. She has “a spasm of conscience” on at least one occasion, but doesn’t ‘fess up. Instead, she suggests that there only has to be another similar potsherd found for the tale to be fixed “in the body of desert myths”. Beware, methinks, you oral historians!

“The land” is also about men and women. Austin respects Indian (as she described them back then) knowledge, saying:

Out there, a week’s journey from everywhere, the land was not worth parcelling off, and the boundaries which should logically have been continued until they met the cañon of the Colorado ran out in foolish wastes of sand and inextricable disordered ranges. Here you have the significance of the Indian name for that country— Lost Borders. And you can always trust Indian names to express to you the largest truth about any district in the shortest phrases.

“Largest truth” in “the shortest phrases”. Love that. There’s a lovely, irregular, repetition of “out there” throughout the piece, reinforcing the sense of remoteness and desolation. The unforbidding nature of the land is conveyed in other ways too: by experience, “I have seen things happen that I do not believe myself”, and in description, “the senses are obsessed by the coil of a huge and senseless monotony; straight, white, blinding, alkali flats, forsaken mesas …”.

While Austin respects the Indian inhabitants, she is less impressed by men (and I mean here the male of the species, not mankind). Men are seen as “small”. She describes them as making “law for the comfortable feel of it”. They “pinch themselves with regulations to make sure of being sentient …”. Their “boast of knowledge is likely to prove as hollow as the little yellow gourds called apples of Death Valley”. It is the

men who mostly go into the desert, who love it past all reasonableness, slack their ambitions, cast off old usages, neglect their families because of the pulse and beat of a life laid bare to its thews and sinews. Their women hate with implicitness the life like the land.

Indeed, she concludes this essay with:

If the desert were a woman, I know well what like she would be: deep-breasted, broad in the hips, tawny, with tawny hair, great masses of it lying smooth along her perfect curves, full lipped like a sphinx, but not heavy-lidded like one, eyes sane and steady as the polished jewel of her skies, such a countenance as should make men serve without desiring her, such a largeness to her mind as should make their sins of no account, passionate, but not necessitous, patient—and you could not move her, no, not if you had all the earth to give, so much as one tawny hair’s-breadth beyond her own desires. If you cut very deeply into any soul that has the mark of the land upon it, you find such qualities as these—as I shall presently prove to you.

Austin belongs, I think, to the tradition of nature writers that includes Henry David Thoreau and John Muir (whom I’ve reviewed), but it seems to me that her gender adds quite a different perspective to what she sees.

Mary Austin
“The land”
First published: In Lost borders, 1909.
Available: Online at the Library of America

* This region is at the centre of the California Water Wars (dramatised in the film, China Town)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Nature Writing Prize

You know what they say, too much of a good thing is bad for you, so, to save you dear readers from bad things, I thought we’d take a break this week from my historical survey of Australian literature. And, since I received this morning an email containing a call for submissions for Nature Conservancy Australia’s Nature Writing Prize, I thought it would provide the perfect interlude.

Back in May I wrote a post about non-fiction literary awards and listed a few of them, mostly already well-known. Nature Conservancy Australia’s Nature Writing Prize is not well-known. It’s a biennial prize and the 2014/15 prize will be the third one awarded. The prize, which offers $5000 and publication in the Australian Book Review, is for an essay of 3,000-5,000 words “in the genre of ‘Writing of Place'”. According to the press release, the award will go to:

an Australian writer whose entry is judged to be of the highest literary merit and which best explores his or her relationship and interaction with some aspect of the Australian landscape.

The award was created, the press release also says

to promote and celebrate the art of nature writing in Australia as well as to encourage a greater appreciation of Australia’s magnificent landscapes.

I’m intrigued by the language: it’s called the “Nature Writing Prize” but it’s for the genre “Writing of Place”. The two do overlap but, in my head anyhow, they also differ. However, this statement just quoted above mentions nature and landscape, so it seems that by “place” they essentially mean “landscape”. But then, isn’t landscape part of nature? I suppose I’m being a pedant … I expect that it’s quite likely that writing about nature/landscape will often end up addressing notions of “place”.

The inaugural prize was won by Annamaria Weldon for “Threshold Country” and the second prize, for 2012/2013, was won by Stephen Wright for his essay “Bunyip“. In evocative language, drawing on the mythical bunyip, the native eucalypts and, pointedly, the introduced lantana “which replicates itself industriously, efficiently and will cover everything except shadow”, he explores the impact of the early European settlers on indigenous communities in South East Queensland and its legacy today. He makes the disconcerting point that:

We do not understand where we are, or what we have done. A landscape is not a sense of place for the non-Indigenous inhabitants of the continent. It is just somewhere we happen to be.

Note the distinction he makes between “landscape”, something physical, and “place”, which is something far more abstract. Anyhow, towards the end of the essay, he suggests that

It is as if, beneath the ordinary miseries of life, there is a current of displacement that allows us no rest. Our thought is always dislocated and perhaps this is the inevitable outcome of our attempts to consider ourselves at home in a landscape we have so spectacularly devastated.

While this is rather negative for optimist me, it does capture the uneasiness I, and I think many of us, feel about our relationship to the land of our birth that we know has an ugly history. We have a long way to go …

In a sad little postscript, the The Nature Conservancy commemorates Liam Davison and his wife Frankie who died in Malaysian Airline MH17 disaster in the Ukraine. Davison was one of the five writers shortlisted for the 2012/2013 Nature Writing Prize for an essay titled “Map for a Vanished Landscape”. Lisa at ANZLitLovers wrote a tribute to him soon after his death, and is now reading and reviewing his novels.