Art in Nature, Tove Jansson #TOVE100

Coming out of any intense, dramatic period of living can make it hard to choose appropriate reading material.

Recently I found it difficult to sustain reading as it all seemed too far removed from life’s demands that I be very present and attentive to the needs of those around me.

It made me reflect on what and who can I read I turn to during these kinds of periods. Short stories and/or non-fiction. Tove Jansson and The Dalai Lama.

TOVE 100 © Moomin Characters™

TOVE 100
© Moomin Characters™

I chose Tove Jansson (translated by Thomas Teal), because even her stories feel like they haven’t strayed too far from the reality within which they were inspired. I find immeasurable comfort in reading the words of this talented artist, the short form allowing a brief respite without requiring an ongoing commitment of a novel, when concentration spans are short.

Art in NatureArt in Nature is an intriguing collection of character studies, characters who happen to be creative, eccentric, obsessive, all curiously flawed in some way and Tove Jansson observes them in a situation until the cracks appear. They are a slice of life short narrative and any one of them could easily have morphed into a longer story such as her novel The True Deceiver I recently reviewed here.

The first story Art in Nature is about a caretaker watching over an exhibition of work in open air.

“He slept in the sauna down below the great lawn where the sculptures were set out among the trees.”

The day has its rhythm and characteristics and the evenings belong to the caretaker, the quiet contemplative time when he is alone among the unmoving silent works, still, post creation. He observes everything, every inclination, every watcher, he categorizes them and becomes attached to how things are.

“Almost all the feet moved respectfully. If they were with a guide, they’d stand still for a while, all turned in the same direction, and then they’d change direction all at the same time to look at something else. The lonely feet were uncertain in the beginning, then they’d move slowly at an angle, stop, stand with legs crossed, turn around, and sometimes they’d lift one foot and scratch with it because there were lots of mosquitos.”

Until one evening when a couple overstays, middle-aged adults breaking the rules, having a domestic argument. He intervenes, listens to them argue, provokes them with his own thoughts on the mystery of what art is.

Tove Jansson's Atelier © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson’s Atelier
© Moomin Characters™

The Cartoonist is a mysterious, insightful look into the daily work of an illustrator, a job that Tove Jansson’s mother did and one she dabbled in herself, making me wonder how much of this was inspired by the environment and circumstance of her mother.

A famous newspaper cartoonist has quit suddenly after 10 years and a new artist is required to assume his role without a break in the cartoon strip, without his fans knowing. The new artist slips easily into the role but becomes plagued with needing to know why his predecessor quit.

The Doll’s House is brilliant and shocking and quite different from anything else of Jansson’s I have read. Like The True Deceiver, it shows her deftness at spotting signs and cracks in character that over time can grow from barely visible flaw into raging psychological dysfunction when neither checked or dissipated.

Two recently retired men who have lived together and shared the same respect for the beautiful objects that surround them, are adjusting to the new routine of no longer having demanding day jobs. Alexander is a craftsman and Eric a retired banker.

“Alexander was an upholsterer of the old school. He was exceptionally skilled, and he took a craftsman’s natural pride in his work. He discussed commissions only with those customers who had taste and a feel for the beauty of materials and workmanship. Not wishing to show his contempt, he referred all the others to his employees.”

In the beginning they have difficulty adjusting to this new way of life, discovering that in such close proximity their interests aren’t as fine-tuned or in harmony as they had appeared when their time was absorbed by outside demands. Eric begins to take on more of the domestic role and Alexander begins a project to build a miniature house. He seeks the help of an electrician called Boy, who becomes his trusted helper.

“Boy came back almost every evening. He often brought little table lamps, sconces, or a chandelier that he’d found in some hobby shop or toy store. He came straight from work in his jeans and trailed street dirt over the rugs, but Alexander didn’t seem to notice – he just admired what Boy had brought him and listened gravely to his suggestions about improvements to the house.”

Just rereading these two quotes, makes me realise what clever insights Tove Jansson’s places into the text, the clues into character are there from the beginning and the simple daily events that follow turn these insights into something raw and dangerous.

Another excellent collection of stories from the Finnish artist and writer who would have been 100 years old next month.

Absolutely gripping!

Check out her books and events at TOVE100.com

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov
© Moomin Characters™

 

Arctic Dreams – Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape

“Sometimes we need a story more than food to stay alive.”

Barry Lopez

Valorie Hallorin

This quote sits on the home page of one my favourite blogs, Books Can Save A Life and it is also where I came across the non-fiction writer Barry Lopez. Not just in this quote, but in her reviews of a number of his collections, reading about Barry Lopez makes me want to read every book he has written.

From the essays I review below, it may appear he is a nature writer, but he can not be categorised so easily, he  writes about humanity and could I am sure turn his pen towards any subject and make it an engaging read.

About This Life

Valories shares this quote from her review of About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory and the following conversation gives us a flavour of the diversity of his observations and subsequent learnings about life.

In the introduction to his essay collection About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez tells of meeting a man on a plane who asked what words of advice he could pass on to his teen-age daughter, who wanted to be a writer. This is what Lopez said:

She must read, and her choices should be whatever she is drawn to.

She should read the classics, too, but she’ll have to work harder to find stories of heroism, love, and our noblest values that are written by women.

Second, she must “become someone” and “speak to us from within those beliefs.”

Third, he advised that she “separate herself from the familiar.” After exploring other places and meeting a diversity of people, she’ll know why she loves the familiar and share this knowledge through her writing.

Arctic dreamsHowever, it was her review Arctic Dreams – gathering words that had me chasing up this book, because it was not only a powerful book of nature essays, but as she says, it is a source of “the most dazzling and poetic passages about the natural world you’ll ever encounter.”

Valorie is “into words” and does Lexicon Practice, inspired by the author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Pricilla Long. Lexicon Practice involves compiling new words encountered in books into a notebook, noting the original sentence and creating a new one. It inspires our vocabulary which may otherwise degenerate into those overused phrases we read every day in various media. And Barry Lopez exposes us to an abundance of wonderful new words!

Arctic Dreams was originally published in 1986 and won the US National Book Award for non-fiction. It is a compilation of around 10 essays, which can be read separately, each one focusing on a different subject, as Lopez focuses on the inhabitants, visitors and four-legged, two-winged migrants of a frozen territory in the North.

Reading his work is a little like being mesmerised by a compelling narrator in a nature documentary, for it is not just the images of the animals and the landscape that are interesting, but his recounting philosophical thoughts of our interaction with nature and  local populations, whether they are polar bears, seals or Arctic peoples.

Narwhal

The Narwhal

I don’t think I have ever highlighted so many passages in one book, as I have in Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, it is a privilege to walk in his footsteps, to figuratively look over his shoulder and see inside a compassionate mind as he whispers words onto the page of this incredible collection of observations of natural life.

I recognise that change that can come over us, when we spend long enough in an environment completely foreign to our norm, long enough that our behaviour starts to change, something primal occurs and so it is no surprise to me when Lopez mentions that on his evening walks, he starts bowing to the birds he encounters. This ritual will inspire his own questions into how humanity imagines the landscapes they are in and how in turn the land shapes the imaginations of the people who dwell within it. And so he journeys into the unknown to find out.

“I took to bowing on these evening walks. I would bow slightly with my hands in my pockets, towards the birds and the evidence of life in their nests – because of their fecundity, unexpected in this remote region, and because of the serene arctic light that came down over the land like breath, like breathing.”

muskox

Musk-oxen

And so I find myself immersed in chapters that expound on characteristics and behaviour of musk-oxen, polar bears, the narwhal, the influence and importance of ice and light, the great migrations and more.

“Watching the animals come and go, and feeling the land swell up to meet them and then feeling it grow still at their departure, I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing. In spring a great inhalation of light and animals. The long-bated breath of summer. And an exhalation that propelled them all south in the fall.”

Barry Lopez has a unique voice, on the page and in person. Even you never read his words in a book, listen to him here speaking for less than two minutes about the gift of story in our lives.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy(ARC) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Save The Rhinoceros #WorldRhinoDay

Today is World Rhino Day and to both learn more about the problem and to support the cause, we went to visit Wanza, Bela and Rimbo at Zoo Le Barben, our local zoo.

Wanza and Bela are the two females and Rimbo is the male and as well as visiting all the other animals in the zoo, we got to listen to the park biologist specialising in animal behaviour and learned about all the peculiarities of our local rhino friends. And my son asked what age he needed to be to get a job there. Only eight years to go! I am absolutely certain he will work with wildlife, he has been obsessed with animals since a very young age.

Population in Decline

Rhino_pop_map

The rhinoceros is said to have been around for 50 million years. Between the 19th and 20th centuries the population halved from a million to 500,000. Today there are only 29,000 left in the wild and a report on the news today mentions that 637 have already been killed for poaching purposes this year (compared to 668 for the whole of 2012).

What Are The Threats to the Rhino?

Data published by South African Department of Environmental Affairs (2013)

Data published by South African Department of Environmental Affairs (2013)

Poaching for Traditional Chinese Medicine – it is said to be an antidote for poison, to cure devil possession and keep away all evil spirits, sadly increasingly popular in Asia.

Habitat Loss – The clearance of land for human settlement and agricultural production has contributed to the loss of habitat as has deforestation. These countries have lost their rhino populations altogether: Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, Sudan in Africa; and Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sarawak in Asia.

Political Conflict – in war zones or where there is political instability, it has become easier for the poachers to kill rhinos and other endangered species e.g. Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Nepal.

Meet Wanza, Bela and Rimbo

Here are our local rhinos at Zoo Le Barben, near Solon de Provence.  Wanza and Bela are the two females who always stay in close proximity to each other and ape each others movements, while Rimbo stays a metre or two away and when the girls move, he walks around the perimeter marking his territory and checking that everything is as it should be, by sniffing and close inspection, as they can’t see very far.

We were fortunate to spend an hour listening to one of the park biologists, specialising in animal behaviour of large mammals, thanks to her, we now know a lot more about these magnificent creatures.

And Meet the New Baby Giraffe Djao

I couldn’t finish without celebrating the arrival of the new baby giraffe born on June 4th, one of the highlights of our visit, after the rhinos.

To support the rhino population from extinction, go and visit your nearest rhino, sign the petition to tell EU politicians to stop the rhino trade or click on Get Involved to find out how you can help.

Further Reading:

How To Get Involved

The Rhino Resource Centre

Save The Rhino

Sign The Petition – to suspend trade in rhino products!

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Two boys who now know a lot more about the threat of species extinction and are interested to help save them

Elizabeth and her German Garden

Elizabeth von ArminStaying overnight with friends in England just before Christmas, this book by Elizabeth von Arnim was placed on my bedside table and though there was no chance I would finish it, I was captivated and charmed by Elizabeth’s garden right from those first few pages.

May 7th – I love my garden. I am writing in it now in the late afternoon loveliness, much interrupted by the mosquitoes and the temptation to look at all the glories of the new green leaves washed half an hour ago in a cold shower. Two owls are perched near me, and are carrying on a long conversation that I enjoy as much as any warbling of nightingales. The gentleman owl says, and she answers from her tree a little way off,, beautifully assenting to and completing her lord’s remark, as becomes a properly constructed German she-owl. They say the same thing over and over again so emphatically that I think it must be something nasty about me; but I shall not let myself become frightened away by the sarcasm of owls.

I left without the book, only for it to land on my doorstep late January on my birthday, and in these cold harsh months when the comforts of a garden are not so easy to find, when I have been finding solace instead in the nature essays of Kathleen Jamie and the short stories of Tove Jansson (review to come), this novel was a welcome respite.

Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim

It is fiction, though reads very much like an autobiography and was initially published anonymously in 1898. The author (a cousin of Katherine Mansfield) is said to have been born in Sydney, in NZ and in England, I’m not sure about any of that, but her parents did leave Sydney and return to England where she was raised (while her father’s brother and family remained in New Zealand).

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

It seems likely that Katherine Mansfield spent time with these relations when she moved to England herself, I found one reference confirming this, a comment by the journalist (and relation of the two) Louise Ahearn, who is currently researching Elizabeth’s life and it is mentioned in the book that Katherine visited her cousin at the home she built Chateau Soleil, in Switzerland.

On a tour of Europe, while in Rome with her father when she was 23-years-old, her talented piano playing was overheard by Il Conte the German Graf Henning August von-Armin-Schlagenthin, who was travelling to help get over the death of his wife and child the previous year. After a persistent courtship they were married and soon settled into upper-class life in Berlin, where she gave birth to three girls in quick succession.

Nassenheide Schloss, the family estate by Alexander Duncker ex wikipedia

Nassenheide Schloss, the family estate by Alexander Duncker ex wikipedia

Not happy in Berlin and homesick for England, in 1896 she was introduced to the family estate Nassenheide, ninety miles north of Berlin in Pomerania. A seventeenth century-schloss, located at the time near the German border (now in Poland), it had been a convent and had not been lived in for more than 25 years, surrounded by an unkempt, rambling, derelict garden which Elizabeth immediately fell in love with. She insisted on living there and it seems she got her way (at least for the summer months), much to the chagrin of her husband, whom she affectionately refers to in the novel as the Man of Wrath.

The book captures many moments of appreciation of this unorthodox wilderness the character Elizabeth is so content within, and equal moments of candour at the annoyance of those who dare impose themselves to visit. She has difficulty keeping the gardener who often hands in his notice while she somehow convinces him to stay, until events dictate that drastic action is necessary to get rid of him.

The gardener has been here a year and has given me notice regularly on the first of every month, but up to now has been induced to stay on. On the first of this month he came as usual, and with determination written on every feature told me he intended to go in June, and that nothing should alter his decision. I don’t think he knows much about gardening, but he can at least dig and water, and some of the plants he plants grow, besides which he is the most unflaggingly industrious person I ever saw, and has the great merit of never appearing to take the faintest interest in what we do in the garden. So I have tried to keep him on, not knowing what the next one may be like, and when I asked him what he had to complain of and he replied “Nothing,” I could only conclude that he has a personal objection to me because of my eccentric preference for plants in groups rather than plants in lines. Perhaps, too, he does not like the extracts from gardening books I read to him sometimes when he is planting or sowing something new.

The author is at her best when describing her longing for the garden and the simple pleasure it brings her, though equally adept are her recounts of conversations with city ladies of her social standing, capturing their inability to comprehend that it is by her own choice that she spends so much time in this savage wilderness, they are convinced they must feel sorry for her and that she has been deposed there, belonging as they do to that breed of women who absolutely require the regular company of their peers and the invitations to social occasions, something Elizabeth does her best to avoid.

Content with the book, inspired by but lacking the garden, we instead take a drive and a stroll around a much closer abandoned ruin, appreciating its beauty among the weeds.

CIMG3742

Ruins of L’oppidum de la Quille, Puy Sainte Réparade

CIMG3751

The fading winter light of Provence, Puy Sainte Réparade

Kathleen Jamie’s Findings

FindingsHer latest poetry collection The Overhaul recently won the Costa Prize for poetry, another accolade for this award-winning writer who has found her niche, her publisher previously having had difficulty placing her work in a clear genre.

Findings was, by anyone’s standards, a fiendishly tricky sell. Jamie’s choice of the essay form was unfashionable; her subjects (Orkney in midwinter, a pair of nesting peregrines, 21st-century flotsam on a Hebridean shoreline) were queer and disparate. Her publisher wasn’t even sure how the book should be classified. Travel writing? Not quite: none of the essays took Jamie outside her native Scotland; many were written from her own back door. Autobiography? The book was bewitchingly first-person, but there was no sense of a coherent memoir.

An extract from the Guardian’s Kathleen Jamie – A Life in Writing

 

Nesting Peregrine Photo by Christophe Cage, Wikipedia

I see them as wonderful nature essays, a form of creative non-fiction, much more than notes of a nature walk, though they are  inspired by her time on the Hebridean and Orkney Islands and near her home in Fife; but with the purpose of observing and learning to capture in words what she sees, without the need to analyse.  She describes watching ospreys and peregrines and shares her concern over whether they are nesting or not, there having been evidence of only two pair of these birds attempting to nest in the entire country.

She moves away from identifying and labelling what she sees, towards painting a picture with words, a description so apt, it is as if you are there with her as that large unknown bird she describes so vividly traverses the sky overhead.

This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse. To still the part of the brain that’s yammering, ‘My God, what’s that? A stork, a crane, an ibis – don’t be silly, it’s just a wild heron.’ Sometimes we have to hush the frantic inner voice that says ‘Don’t be stupid,’ and learn again to look, to listen.

Visiting a few of the Scottish Hebridean Islands, Ceann Iar, Coll, meandering along the tide line of inlets, she and her companions find the washed up remains of a small whale, a bit of a plane and other flotsam including seal’s vertebrae, an orange traffic cone, driftwood and plastic garbage.

This is what we take away from Ceann Iar: a bleached whale’s scapula, not the door of a plane: an orb of quartz, not a doll’s head.

Visiting a Shieling – from Twenty Years of Hebridean Memories (1939) by Emily McDonald

Traces of contemporary life at the water’s edge and higher up in the hills, she walks among remnants of an earlier life, the shielings, now abandoned summer huts made of stone and turf, built in the mountain pastures where girls often spent their summers, grazing the animals, receiving visits once a week to take back the cheese and butter they’d produced and to replenish their food stocks, not to mention the young men who paid calls on them in the evening, the time passing sharing local news, story-telling, fun and laughter.

The top of the year, the time of ease and plenty. The people would come up from the farmsteads below around the beginning of July – ‘the girls went laughing up the glen’ as the poem says – and return at harvest time. Up here, they made milk, butter and cheese, and it was woman’s work. What a loss that seems now: a time when women were guaranteed a place in the wider landscape, our own place in the hills.

Not only does Kathleen Jamie evoke something of the present and the past in her observations of these remote islands, she leaves you reminding yourself to pay more attention, to be mindful, to stop, to listen, to stand and stare, to look up – promising as a reward, a renewed connection to our surroundings and an appreciation of all the species that live and have lived within it.

To read Kathleen Jamie is the next best thing to a slow walk in that great living outdoors, I believe she has found the perfect niche.  I’m already looking forward to her next collection of essays ‘Sightlines‘. Do you have a favourite nature writer?

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice

Firstly I have to thank my blog buddy Cassie for recommending this glorious oeuvre to me, her blog review is written with such passion and awe, she even inspired the author Terry Tempest Williams herself, to leave a wonderful appreciative comment.

When she wrote this book, Terry Tempest Williams was fifty four years old, the age her mother was when she finally succumbed to a cancer that first perched threateningly within her breast in her late 30’s, then a young mother of four children.

Raised in a Mormon family and heritage it perhaps should not have been such a great surprise when Terry’s mother informed her that like previous generations of women, she had left her daughter a collection of carefully preserved, beautiful cloth bound journals. A tradition yes, but a legacy, this daughter of words knew nothing of until that revelatory moment.

In Mormon culture, women are expected to do things: keep a journal and bear children. Both gestures are a participatory bow to the past and the future. In telling a story, personal knowledge and continuity are maintained. My mother kept her journals and bore four children: a daughter and three sons. I am her daughter, in love with words.

One month after her mother’s passing, Terry Tempest Williams felt ready to receive their wisdom and sat quietly opening one after the other absorbing their blessed pure message. She opened the journals to discover that the pages were blank. Every. Single. One.

Word by word, the language of women so often begins with a whisper.

I am leaving you all my journals…

Terry Tempest Williams creates an opportunity and uses those pages to reflect on the legacy her mother has left her and fills the pages with fifty four vignettes, fifty four variations on voice. She comes to understand many things about the blank page and the infinite possibilities this offers, the things her mother’s gesture may have meant. She indulges her imagination and shares a flock of realisations:

My Mother’s Journals are an expanding and collapsing universe every time they are opened and closed.

My Mother’s Journals are a gesture and a vow.

My Mother’s Journals are a collection of white handkerchiefs.

My Mother’s Journals are an obsession.

Part way through writing these short chapters, Williams attended a family event, which unhinged something inside. Restless, she came home and wrote a list, a list of the things she had been writing about in these pages and struggled to find a connection. Her list looked like this:

Great Salt Lake                      Mother

Bear River Bird Refuge             Family

Flood                                  Cancer

Division of Wildlife Resources    Mormon Church

Circling both lists, it seemed as if nothing connected them. Until she wrote the letters TTW underneath; then the exercise became apparent. It is she who connects these subjects, it is within her that they reside and it is through her voice on the page that we share an intimate and creative journey, like observing the beauty, the wonder and constantly evolving shape of a murmuration. A privilege to witness.

This is a book to slow read, to re-read and to ponder. This book is in every one of us. Whether we create our list first or mid way through as TTW did.

A Murmuration – click here to see two women and the most amazing flock of birds ever. Spectacular.

Wild

Let me start by saying, I really enjoyed ‘Wild’ and admire the way Cheryl Strayed shared her story. It’s not exactly exciting to spend months hiking a trail, but the author writes about her journey in a way that is as gripping as any novel without being overly melodramatic. I was a little wary before starting, with the shoe falling off the cliff, wondering if she was some ill-prepared novice on a suicide mission, but that is not the case at all, the thing about the shoe probably the only time she does use an anecdote for overly dramatic effect, and to sell a book, why not – it worked.

Cheryl Strayed considers herself a bit of a stray. She changed her name in the process of finalising her divorce, gaining an apt description for how she felt at the time and profiting from the otherwise sad demise of her marriage by being able to offload a hyphenated name she held no sentimentality for.

Born in 1968, clearly intelligent and showing she had potential from a young age, ironically – getting married at the age of 19 was something of a rebellious act. Nineteen, an age of youthful idealism, where if not wary, we risk being fooled into taking the intensity of our feelings seriously and wind up wed. Or am I being just a tad cynical?

It’s a classic coming of age theme, girl with an absent father finds a wonderful man – and Strayed’s first husband Paul is a remarkable individual, who accepts the amicable divorce which Strayed sought by instinct more than knowing, missing a part of herself that she was fast learning couldn’t be fulfilled by another.

Being near Tom and Doug at night kept me from having to say to myself I am not afraid whenever I heard a branch snap in the dark or the wind shook so fiercely it seemed something bad was going to happen. But I wasn’t out here to keep myself from having to say I am not afraid. I’d come, I realised, to stare that fear down, to stare everything down, really – all that I’d done to myself and all that had been done to me.

The death of her mother at 45, knocked her off her straight and wedded course setting her on a side road to self-destruction, though fortunately something inside, perhaps the ever-present loving spirit of her mother (and a few of her sensible genes) mapped out an escape route from her self-destructive self by planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

Despite the indulgent descent, she doesn’t come across as an addict, more a period of avoidance, indulging in destructive behaviour to avoid looking inward. This is a story of a woman heading towards a healing crisis, someone who needed to commit to a challenge in the extreme to provoke it.

The Pacific Crest Trail zigzags its way 2,650 kilometres from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington, crossing desert country, passing forestland, mountain terrain and volcanic lakes. Strayed started her hike in Mojave, California, bypassed a section of the Sierra Nevada mountain range due to exceptional snow condition (very sensible) and ended it at The Bridge of Gods in Oregon.

Crater Lake by MBessey, Wikipedia

Strayed articulates with honest clarity all that brought her to the wilderness and the experience of being there. Writing a journal as she travelled, makes the day by day account as fresh as if it were a recent trip, subsequent years clarify her view, now a 44-year-old woman and mother herself, she recounts her 26th year with the wisdom of hindsight.

As difficult and maddening as the trail could be, there was hardly a day that didn’t offer up some form of what was called trail magic in the PCT vernacular – the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail.

Bridge of the Gods by Cacophony, Wikipedia

As she walked, she was surprised at how the demands of the physical challenge and overcoming them become her sole focus, how she’d imagined dealing with her grief and loss, with days and days of free thinking time was nothing like the reality. On the trail, lapses in attention were on occasion broken by a rattle, warning her of a coiled predator on the path. It wasn’t necessary to think her way towards resolution, but to stride it out fully present allowing nature to knit together the broken bits inside.

Nature is a glorious healer and reading about it second only to getting out there in it. This book is a testament to that and the moments when the author fully embraces it and is filled with the wonder and energy of the natural environment are a pleasure to share. She epitomizes the reward of those who first conceived the idea of a nature trail in the wilderness for the public to provide “a lasting curative and civilising value” and I only hope this book, not only gets widely read, but inspires many others to get out on a nature trail themselves.

Panekiri Bluff, Lake Waikaremoana

Personally, I can recommend the hike around Lake Waikaremoana, in the North Island of New Zealand, I walked this with my family (there were 7 of us) when I was 14 years old, it is extreme wilderness and I’ll never forget the very fit Peruvian we met on the first night who asked us where the nearest shop was! He became the 8th member of our group and could shuffle a pack of cards like magic. We finished the trail in 5 days and took our new friend whom we all loved home to work as a willing farm hand, he stayed a couple of months until a letter arrived from a girl and off he went to follow her as free spirits do.

*

It was the thing that had compelled them to fight for the trail against all the odds and it was the thing that drove me and every other long-distance hiker onward on the most miserable days.

Prodigal Summer

Animal nature, human nature, bugs and insects, forest life, their dependence and interdependence, habits good and bad and how the balance is affected when death, destruction or any kind of change is introduced; how species adapt, how human beings cope – or don’t – all of this we find in the juxtaposition of creatures assembled from the thoughtful poetic pen of Barbara Kingsolver in Prodigal Summer as she weaves three stories variously referred to in three alternating chapter titles, Predators, Moth Love and Old Chestnuts.

It may be due to the sound of the cicadas screeching outside while I read, or the richness of Kingsolver’s prose, but this book exudes the heat of summer and its associated sensations. It places you deep in the forest on the mountainside, heightening all the senses and bringing attention to every sound and movement, witness to the presence of all manner of wildlife pulsing just beyond what the eye can see.

Predators – Essentially the story revolves around three female characters, Deanna, the wildlife biologist living in a forest cabin working as her kind of conservationist, destabilised by the presence of a young hunter in her territory and her preoccupation with guarding a young coyote family that have returned to the forest wilderness.

She shares her environment with a snake, another predator and a metaphor for man, the snake is natural to the habitat and will expose Deanna for what she really is – not just a qualified biologist tending nature, keeping man and his hunting instinct out – but a woman with a suppressed but natural maternal instinct, depicted by her attachment to a family of chickadees. When the fledglings fall prematurely out of the nest, she puts them back, justifying her intervention in nature’s way, trying to alter the otherwise harsh survival odds nature has given the little birds, more in their favour. She succeeds in keeping them all alive, only to discover on her return from a walk, four telling bulges in the coil of the sleeping black serpent.

When the snake finally leaves she feels something shift inside her body – relief, it felt like, enormous and settled, like a pile of stones on a steep slope suddenly shifting and tumbling slightly into the angle of repose.

Moth Love by Nusio21

Moth Love - Lusa is a bug scientist, now local farmer’s wife, though still perceived as an outsider with her mixed cultural background and continued use of her foreign sounding maiden name. She is trying to adapt to her new role and changed circumstances while staying true to her beliefs and recognising her not so traditional, but well-founded knowledge and approach to farming.

In the summer after … Lusa discovered lawn-mower therapy. The engine’s vibrations roaring through her body and its thunderous noise in her ears seemed to bully all human language from her head, chasing away the complexities of regret and recrimination. It was a blessing to ride over the grass for an hour or two as a speechless thing, floating through a universe of vibratory sensation. By accident, she had found her way to the mind-set of an insect.

Chestnuts

Old Chestnuts – The third character(s) are the elderly and persistent Nannie Rawley and her equally aged, cantankerous, fixed in his ideas neighbour, the widower Garnett. They trade insults and unappreciated advice across their boundaries, but can’t seem to keep away from each other despite their polar opposite views.

Halal Goat

Not that it detracted from the reading of the book, but I did ponder the similarity in conviction of the three female characters, it is not clear whether or not they know each other for much of the book, but with such similar attitudes in their various fields, in a real community I would have expected them to have discovered each other and had some kind of interaction or at least knowledge of each other from the beginning. Sometimes this is a deliberate tactic by the writer to keep the connections between people vague until the end, to shape some kind of revelation. It just seemed like a bit of a coincidence that three such characters living in a traditional farming community had such little awareness of each other.

As much a study of nature, as a story of that which passes between these characters during this one summer, Prodigal Summer is indulgence of the satisfying, learned kind; it is compelling reading and a lesson in the wonder, beauty and balance of nature and humanity.

Wild Horses and Flash Fiction

Its National Flash Fiction Day today in the United Kingdom, celebrating the short, short form of fiction, the art of telling a story in less than 1,000 words and more often only 150 words.

David Gaffney shares his experience of writing and being published in the form and offers these tips:

  1. Start in the middle
  2. Don’t use too many characters
  3. Make sure the ending isn’t at the end
  4. Sweat your title
  5. Make your last line ring like a bell
  6. Write long, then go short

He goes on to explain each tip, click here to reveal his words of wisdom.

And here is my attempt to tell a story in 150 words, word by word.

*

The Muster

*

I ride bareback with just a halter and lead into the midst of the herd, gently coaxing them out from under the trees. My mount quivers beneath me; fear pervades the damp atmosphere and I exhale deeply to expel it.

The sound of a gunshot spooks the stallion and the horses move. Bright sunlight extinguishes shadows as they bolt, branches cracking beneath the drum of hooves.

My father is in position. The herd veers to the right. At the river bank there is a two metre drop into the water and we do not hesitate. I grip hard with my knees and feel muscle ripple beneath me bracing itself for the jump. Something knocks my shoulder and I cry out as we plunge head first into the torrent.

“Wake up son, we’re mustering that herd of wild horses today” my father says as I open my eyes.

The Snow Child

I recognise in the first two paragraphs the allure of melodic sentences, the promise of picturesque phrases that almost make music as they fly off the page like dancing quavers to craft pictures in my mind of that breath-taking, wild and unforgiving Alaskan landscape.

“Mabel had known there would be silence.”

“She had imagined that in the Alaska wilderness silence would be peaceful, like snow falling at night, air filled with promise but no sound, but that was not what she found.”

Nature’s beauty and harshness leave me in a perpetual state of wonder with an undercurrent of fear and Eowyn Ivey doesn’t waste any time bringing both these sensations to the reader. A walk across the ice river bristles with tension and though I am sure Mabel will be safe, this is only the first chapter after all, I have to pause momentarily and put the book kindle down, my heart racing as I hear imagine that ominous crack.

Mabel and Jack have left the tame pastures of Pennsylvania and the close-knit support of their child filled families to try and make a success of ‘homesteading’ in the Alaska wilderness. The daughter of a literature professor, from a family of privilege, Mabel is finding her own self-imposed exile and the never-ending grief of a stillborn child that rendered them childless, almost too much to bear.

“We needed to do things for ourselves. Does that make any sense? To break your own ground and know it’s yours free and clear.”

    “Here at the world’s edge, far from everything familiar and safe, they would build a new home in the wilderness and do it as partners, out from the shadow of cultivated orchards and expectant generations.”

On a day when Mabel, a believer who often set fairy traps as a child, was near her lowest, she and her husband Jack build a beautiful snow girl from the first winter snow, lovingly sculpted with childlike features and dressed with a blue scarf and red mittens.

“Such delicate features, formed by his calloused hands, a glimpse at his longing.”

Wakened by the cold, Jack catches a glimpse of something passing through the trees on the edge of the forest, a glimpse of a blue scarf and long blond hair flying behind it, disappearing into the trees.

The next morning the snow child has been reduced to a pile of melting snow, the mittens and scarf are gone; footprints lead from the remnant of their powdery infant, across the yard into the trees.

This is no ghost story, but I couldn’t help but make comparisons with my recent read of Susan Hill’s ‘A Woman in Black’, another character who may or may not have been real, in this story there is a genuine intrigue that carries you through some of most beautiful passages of writing both in the depiction of characters and what they experience, as well as the incredible wilderness within which they live, as we try to grasp what she is, this child of the snow.

Red Fox by John Luke

“A red fox darted among the fallen trees. It disappeared for a minute but popped up again, closer to the forest, running with its fluffy red tail held low to the ground. It stopped and turned its head. For a moment its eyes locked with Jack’s, and there, in its narrowing golden irises, he saw the savagery of the place. Like he was staring wilderness itself straight in the eyes.”

For me this story is an exquisite depiction of humanity living alongside nature and the constant to-ing and fro-ing between the seasons, trying to make progress, the necessity of humanity respecting nature and understanding the nature of fellow human beings. When we cease paying attention to either, suffering will undoubtedly follow.

A magical story that unfolds like an extraordinary dream; a unique blend of the inescapable reality of life in the wilderness, beside the quiet affirming beauty of believing in the imagination and visualising life into being.

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.