Surfacing I by Kathleen Jamie

Kathleen Jamie writes creative nonfiction. Some people call it nature writing, some travel writing, others describe it as lyrical prose.

In her first book of essays Findings, she talks about her attempts to observe better, to stop naming things, to really see. She wants to move away from labelling and identifying, towards painting a picture with words.

Surfacing is her third collection and it’s brilliant, practiced in the art of observation she takes us with her on a voyage, helps us see with the eye of a naturalist, sharing her experience with respect for the environment, acknowledging the privilege.

A poet and bird watcher from Scotland, her essays are compelling and engaging, they draw you in as if you were there.

I’m writing about Surfacing in two parts, because the third essay, the longest, is 86 pages and deserves it’s own post, the majority are short vignettes of 3-6 pages. There are three essays of significant length and I’ll write about the reminder in Surfacing II.

The Reindeer Cave

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In the first essay, written in the second person ‘You‘, the author has hiked up a glen to the cave, thinking about the Ice Age and the preciousness of life, as she observes six red deer on the hillside opposite, equally startled no doubt.

Not half an hour ago you were walking beside the burn in a narrow ravine further up the glen. You heard something, glanced up to see a large rock bounce then plummet into the burn twenty five yards in front of you. The echo faded but your heart was still hammering as you backed away.

Deep within the hillside, in the passage of an underground stream, the bones of a bear were found by cave-divers. Carbon dated, they were found to be forty-five thousand years old.

A long sleep, even for a bear: sixteen million days and nights had passed in the upper world. Long enough for the ice to return, then yield again, then return in one last snap, then leave for good – or at least for now.

At the cave mouth she wonders whether the ice will ever return, a natural cycle, or if we’re too far gone with our Anthropocene.

Next to the last page is a black and white photograph of a valley, mist in the distance; as I look closely I see something  appear out of the mist. This is a book you must read the printed version, or you will miss the apparition.

A Reflection

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The second essay begins as Jamie is taking a train north (in Scotland), sitting on the landward side she watches wintry fields pass by, passengers on the opposite side have a sea view. Drifting in and out of daydreaming she notices the sea superimposed over fields of brown earth. Then disappear.

A moment later it flashed back again, a stretch of sea, silvery over the land, but only for a few seconds. By now I was sitting up, interested in this phenomenon. The fields on the left gave way to pinewoods, the train tilted a little and, yes, the sea’s reflection flashed on again, this time above the trees. If I narrowed my eyes I could see both sea and trees at once. And now there was a ship! A ghostly tanker was sailing over the pine trees.

She continues to Aberdeen and visits a museum. Interested in Arctic artefacts, it is at the Aberdeen University museum she first hears about archaeologist Rick Knecht and his work in Alaska, the subject of the next essay.

In Quinhagak

Jamie takes a six-seater plane from a small airport in Alaska, where pilots enter the waiting area, call out the name of their village then lead passengers across the tarmac. Nervous because the name is so unfamiliar, she hears the call for Quinhagak and follows two other passengers behind the pilot to the plane.

The pilot had long red hair tied in a loose bun with a biro stuck through it. In the plane she readied herself, then half turned in her seat.

‘You guys definitely going to Quinhagak? Just checking! Okay. There’s emergency supplies in the back.’

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The village is the home of the Yup’ik, indigenous people of the circumpolar north; an archaeological site Nunallaq (meaning old village) sits at the edge of the tundra, a couple of miles away near the beach. As the sea erodes the land, it is slowly revealing the 500 year old village and its cultural heritage, its resilience.

The dig is in it’s fifth season, at the end of every season all the finds are air freighted to Aberdeen to be cleaned, preserved and catalogued.

At the end of the excavation, however, there would be a great return. All the thousands of artefacts would go home to the Yup’ik land where they belonged, legally and morally.

The dig is revitalising traditional skills that had been lost, local people interested in the items found are beginning to make replicas, relearning old techniques.

They are people who have learned to adapt. Their houses stand on stilts due to thawing of permafrost. Nothing can be buried. Any warm structure on the ground would cause the ground to melt and heave, collapsing the structure.

Between walks with her binoculars and helping out at the dig, sometimes facing seaward, other times landward, she observes life. At the end of each day people gather at the shed to view the days finds; on the last day of the season there will be a grand ‘show and tell’.

I noticed that people notice. George had noticed me looking.  They notice the bog cotton and its passing, an influx of owls, that there are bears around. The whole place must be in constant conversation with itself, holding knowledge collectively.

Near the end of her stay, she is invited to a birthday party with a couple of others. They arrive, there are introductions, they gave their names.

As we did so, Sarah looked at us from head to toe appraisingly, and then bestowed on each of us a Yup’ik name several syllables long. It seemed to delight her, matching us to these names by I don’t know what qualities.

I understood that these names, which we now bore as well as our own, were the names of family members who had died. So it was as revenants, rather than strangers that we were welcomed into Sarah’s home.

Later when they are introduced to one particular elder with their new Yup’ik names, the mention of those lost people affects the old lady deeply, she hugs them each warmly.

I so enjoy and value how Jamie’s essays draw you in to her experience, she achieves just the right balance of nature and humanity, of observation and interaction, of imagination and reality.

This could well be her best collection yet.

Further Reading

My Review Of: her 1st collection Findings, her 2nd collection Sightlines

Article: Why Thawing Permafrost Matters

Sunday Morning Haiku

 

Spring Morning I

Sun rays pass through boughs

Petals wave back with longing

The lantern waiting.

Spring Morning II

Small branches in leaf

Bow to and fro in union

A family of trees.

Haiku of Life

A haiku is a form of poetry that generally consists of three lines, where the first and last contain five syllables and the middle line is made up of seven.

The subject is usually the natural world, a topic that tends to awaken people to their sense of oneness with nature and the divine.

Every morning at the moment I am reading a chapter of Courageous Dreaming by Alberto Villoldo and this morning I read Chapter Six, Courage As Action, which ends with this exercise to create your own haiku.

He suggests to:

Observe the trees, the grass, the birds and the insects, then write a few poems.  Let go of any judgments such as I can’t do this or I have no talent for writing. Just do it.

At the beginning of each chapter, he shares a thought-provoking quote, I shall end with that. I hope you feel inspired to write a Haiku for yourself too.

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes

courage is the quiet voice at the end of

the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”

– MARY ANNE RADMACHER

Top Five Nature Inspired Reads #StayAtHome

Welcome back to my Reading Lists for Total Confinement. Today I’m sharing my Top Five Nature Inspired reads.

It’s not winter, however we are in period of hibernation and just as bees pollinate flowers, somehow we humans are spreading a virus around the world.

Without pollination, plants cannot create seeds. For now, it’s difficult to see what good will bloom from Covid-19 but lets hope something positive will come from what we learn in solitude and while locked in lets hope the bees can get on and do their job out there.

When it’s too cold to be out in nature or when I feel like a break from the books I’ve been reading, I love to read compelling nature essays or stories inspired by nature. A form of quiet escapism, they are a unique appreciation of nature.

The choices below are a mix of essays, fiction, memoir and poetry. If you like the sound of a book, click on the title to read my review.

Top Five Nature Inspired Reads

1. The Bees by Lalline Paul

I’m starting with a novel, because this was an incredible feat of the imagination as well as being a compelling read. It’s the story of The Hive narrated by Flora 717, a worker bee. Flora is a lowly sanitation bee and we meet her as she is becoming aware of her surroundings and the hierarchy within which she lives.

Not only was the author inspired by bees, but she models the fictional landscape of The Hive on a Bronze Age Minoan Palace. Stunning, I was completely bowled over by this story. A thrilling read!

2. Under The Sea Wind by Rachel Carson
Many know Rachel Carson for her groundbreaking work Silent Spring that launched the environmental movement and brought about revolutionary changes in laws governing air, land and water use.

But Carson’s own personal favourite and a book I absolutely loved was her debut Under the Sea-Wind. I’d read a few excellent creative non-fiction nature titles and was wondering whether anyone had written in a similar lyrical way about the sea. And here it is, the masterpiece, what a unique and incredible insight she gives of it.

Divided into three parts,  it’s written from the perspective of three creatures she knew well (she was a zoologist), Part One is the life of the seashore, seen through the eyes of a sanderling she names Silverbar; in Part Two we experience the ocean with Scomber the mackerel, and Part Three takes us into the deep dark, fathoms, following Anguilla the eel out of a river into the Sargasso Sea. Absolutely inspired, informative, stunning.

3. The Turquoise Ledge Leslie Marmon Silko

I had to include this here even though I’m doing a separate list about Memoirs, because it was such a fascinating read and introduction to the Arizona desert and its wildlife. The way Silko talks about the rattlesnakes that inhabit her property will almost convince you that under similar circumstances we too might live harmoniously with these creatures!

Alongside the critters, she recalls ancestral Laguna stories of her childhood, talks of Star Beings, collects turquoise rocks in the arroyo (dry creek bed) and shares her fascination with the Nahua people, their language and Tlaloc, the Nahua God of Rain to whom she occasionally chants her own rain prayer.

I discovered it the same way I found Under the Sea-Wind, this time I was looking for a creative non-fiction title set in the desert near Tuscon; I found this stunning memoir and snapped it up straight away.

Silko too is an author many know for her bestselling novel Ceremony, I enjoyed Gardens in the Dunes and the slim collections of letters with poet James Wright The Delicacy & Strength of Lace. Yes, I was hooked and read whatever I could get my hands on after reading her inspired memoir. Fortunately I still have Storyteller and Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit on my shelf.

4. When Women Were Birds, Fifty Four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams wrote Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place in 1991 about a personal loss and the dangers confronting Great Salt Lake. Twenty years later, now 54 years old, she was the age her mother attained when she departed this world and thus reflects anew on life, as a woman, a conservationist and activist in another arresting memoir.

Referring to ancient crow etchings of women in China that were read by women she thinks of her own bird marking, a scar above the eye made by a falcon on a river trip. She speaks of the Mormon tradition of keeping journals, of a gift her mother left her, the collection of carefully preserved, beautiful cloth bound journals and the shock of what she finds within their pages. This is one you’ll want to slow read, to ponder, cherish, and even re-read.

5. A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

And to finish a short collection of poetry from Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver who passed away in January 2019. Her poetry oscillates between the natural world and worldly experiences and in this collection she goes down to the shore, dances for joy, falls downs the stairs of the Golden Temple on a trip to India and in my favourite of the collection lets us know, as if she too has been told to self-isolate, that she has accepted her fate.

I HAVE DECIDED

I have decided to find myself a home
in the mountains, somewhere high up
where one learns to live peacefully in
the cold and the silence. It’s said that
in such a place certain revelations may
be discovered. That what the spirit
reaches for may be eventually felt, if not
exactly understood. Slowly, no doubt. I’m
not talking about a vacation.

Of course, at the same time I mean to
stay exactly where I am.

Are you following me?

Do you have a favourite nature-inspired read to share?

Further Reading Lists Featured

My Top 5 TBR

My Top 5 Spiritual Well-Being

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I absolutely loved this, a surprise read, it was a gift from a friend who spends more time living in the wilderness than with humanity. When I read the bio of the author and saw she was a nature writer and wildlife scientist, with a degree in Zoology and a PhD in Animal Behaviour, I was even more attracted to the potential this might infuse, what looked like a murder mystery novel.

Delia’s research on the importance of female grouping in social mammals influenced her fictional writing. Where the Crawdads Sing explores the behavioral impact on a young woman who is forced to live much of her young life without a group.

It’s a slow burning, pleasurable observation of Kya, a girl as a fledgling, one pushed from the nest of family and abandoned before fully formed. And so she develops in a way not like others, highly observant, ultra sensitive to her surroundings, the marsh. They call her the marsh girl.

The marsh did not confine them but defined them and, like any sacred ground, kept their secrets deep. No one cared that they held the land because no one else wanted it.

Like any weak female species, she knows she is prey to the predator, and so acts in ways that might seem strange to other humans, who live within the security of a home and a community (although this is the 1960’s in North Carolina, so not all humans are treated equally).

When cornered, desperate, or isolated, man reverts to those instincts that aim straight at survival. Quick and just. They will always be the trump cards because they are passed on more frequently from one generation to the next than the gentler genes. It is not a morality but simple math. Among themselves, doves fight as often as hawks.

The story is told via twin narratives; the present day when a young man Chase Andrews is found dead at the base of a tower, and the question being asked is whether he fell or was pushed, and if pushed by who; and the past, the story of Kya, her abandonment, her survival, her friendship with Tate, with Chase, with Jumpin’ and Mabel, and how her feelings of rejection affect her relationships.

Her father stays long enough to teach her how to fish and navigate the channels with a boat, but when he leaves she has to learn to feed herself and make money to keep the boat in fuel.

The way the author makes the reader see Kya through the lens of biology and the behaviour of different species is stunning. When she described certain species behaviour, they were like clues to what was coming, I loved that she used nature as a guide.

Observing fireflies, she notices that each species has its own language of flashes to attract a mate. The males recognise the signals and fly only to the females of their species. But the female is capable of changing codes.

First she flashed the proper sequence of dashes and dots, attracting a male of her species, and they mated. Then she flickered a different signal, and a male of a different species flew to her. Reading her message, the second male was convinced he’d found a willing female of his own kind and hovered above her to mate. But suddenly the female firefly reached up, grabbed him with her mouth, and ate him, chewing all six legs and both wings.

Kya watched others. The females got what they wanted – first a mate, then a meal – just by changing their signals.
Kya knew judgement had no place here. Evil was not in play, just life pulsing on, even at the expense of some of the players. Biology sees right and wrong as the same colour in different light.

Loneliness leads her towards trouble and lessons. The marsh and its inhabitants always reward her. Humans disappoint her and she withdraws more than ever. Fortunately her one friend Tate, teaches her to read and her knowledge of the marsh becomes more academic and her appetite for learning about and within her natural environment are insatiable.

Sitting outside the old cabin, she picked up a scientific digest. One article on reproductive strategies, was entitled “Sneaky Fuckers.”

:

Kya dropped the journal in her lap, her mind drifting with the clouds. Some female insects eat their mates, overstressed mammal mothers abandon their young, many males design risky or shifty ways to outsperm their competitors. Nothing seemed too indecorous as long as the tick and tock of life carried on. She knew this was not a dark side to Nature , just inventive ways to endure against the odds. Surely for humans there was more.

She tries to understand life through the biology she reads about and observes, but the community don’t tolerate difference and will create a narrative of their own in order to seek justice for one of theirs.

Ultimately Nature will decide.

A brilliant way of exploring human nature and our ecosystem, the culmination of a long career of observing wildlife and nature, now in that stage of life where she can share it perhaps more widely in the fictional form.

Delia Owens was born in southern Georgia and grew up with a close relationship to nature. After her studies, she and her husband drove over the central Kalahari in Botswana and set up camp there for 7 years studying lions and hyenas, co-authoring the book Cry of the Kalahari. From there they moved to Zambia, where they studied elephants and established a program offering jobs, loans, and other assistance to local villagers so they would not have to poach wildlife for a living. They lived 22 years in Africa before returning to to the US.

She wants to continue writing fiction, especially mysteries that explore how our evolutionary past on the savannas influenced our current behavior in a world less wild.

She has won the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing and has been published in NatureThe African Journal of Ecology, and many others. Where the Crawdads Sing is her first novel.

The Turquoise Ledge (2010) by Leslie Marmon Silko

I loved this book. I chose it because I wanted to visit the natural landscape of Tucson through the eyes and insights of a lyrical nature writer.  I was also looking for the perfect birthday present for someone who knows that landscape well, to transport them back there, reignite something without having to travel.

And of course, being curious I had to read it first, it was far too big a temptation and we are the kind of friends you can do that with, indulge the gift before giving it – and I know I give something of myself by doing this, the pages ear-marked where I was stopped, moved, given pause for thought. I know how those traces of the previous reader intrigue, they add mystery where usually there is none.

Leslie Marmon Silko was born in Albuquerque in 1948 into a family of Laguna, Cherokee, Mexican and Anglo ancestry.

She wanted to be a visual artist, but rebelled against perspective and realism, so pursued an English major initially,  published a bestselling novel Ceremony, and after a misdiagnosed ectopic pregnancy, experienced a life-changing moment, leaving her old life, marriage, teaching behind and moved to Tucson in 1978 just two months after surgery.

In The Turquoise Ledge, she pieces together this colourful, magical yet natural, narrative of thirty years living in the Tucson Mountains, on the edge of Saguaro National Park, in a ramshackle house, equally inhabited by creatures of the desert, a pandemonium of parrots and her pack of mastiffs, who like her, develop immunity to certain venomous dangers and survive the extreme climate. The desert terrain and all its wonderful beings, including the weather won her heart and it shows on every page.

The book is divided into five parts entitled Ancestors, Rattlesnakes, Star Beings, Turquoise and Lord Chapulin although there are elements of all those things throughout the text, as they are all integrated and woven into the life she lives, the habitat she dwells within and the landscape she walks over, studies and is a part of.

Though it is memoir, the author recognises that some aspects of memory are remembered vividly and others, even recent memories involve and invoke imagination. She has learned to tap into her subconscious, searching for truths not facts; she is a writer, a poet and an artist. Though she uses words, she is creating a self-portrait.

“We learn to ignore the discrepancies between our memory of an event and a sister’s memory. We can’t be certain of anything.

Fortunately my subconscious remembers everything I need. Whatever I can’t recall, later comes back to me as I write fiction. I make myself a fictional character so I can write about myself.”

She recalls interactions with family members and elders from her childhood, those often defining moments when a child observes more than just an event but is absorbing a cultural influence, hearing a people’s myths and songs, observing family superstitions.

Though she never spoke the Laguna language after the age of five that her great-grandmother A’mooh had spoken and wonders why that was, her great Aunts would ensure she knew of the hummah-hah stories, traditional Laguna stories that reveal the Laguna spiritual outlook toward animals, plants and spirit beings, a viewpoint that had become at odds with her great grandmother’s staunch conversion to the Presbyterian church.

I never felt alone or afraid up there in the hills. The hummah-hah stories described the conversations coyotes, crows and buzzards used to have with human beings. I was fascinated with the notion that long ago humans and animals used to freely converse. As I got older I realised the clouds and winds and rivers also have their ways of communication; I became interested in what these entities had to say. My imagination became engaged in discovering what can be known without words.

In these now forty years that have passed since she came to live here, the effect of bulldozers and the urban sprawl of Tucson have destroyed acres and acres of pristine desert habitat and left some species in danger of extinction and others to seek refuge elsewhere.

The old ranch house and the sheds and outbuildings are home to pack rats and deer mice accompanied by gopher snakes, racer snakes and rattlesnakes that eat them. So in the beginning, I got to know the snakes and pack rats because we were neighbours. I began to keep notes on my encounters.

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So many encounters, that by the time you finish reading this section, you too may be converted to considering if not accepting that we should all live in closer proximity to our reptilian brethren. Silko and the snakes become familiar, she learns how to be around them and they learn that she is not a danger. In one of the most symbiotic relationships I have ever read about, this woman and these creatures live in this space together, her in the house, them under it and many anecdotes of those fascinating encounters that she handles with such poise and reverence.

Over time the rattlesnakes will get to know you and your pets. They learn human and dog behaviour and seem to understand the timing of our daily routines; they try to avoid encounters with us at all cost. A few times I’ve been very early or very late with my outdoor chores and I’ve surprised snakes that didn’t expect me at that time of day.

And then there is the heat, I learn that as the heat expands the air molecules they are thinner and less buoyant, no longer able to carry the particles of dust. The seasons are rain and no rain. When the temperature exceeds 112°F/44°C, the air smells of wood and bark just before they burst into flame.

The heat boils the sky to a deep blue. No traces of clouds, only the deepening blue as the air becomes crystal clear. The angle of the Sun causes the light to have the luminescence of a blue flame. The Sun is seated in the north corner of Time.

Photo by Yigithan Bal on Pexels.com

We learn about the unique geology of the Tucson Mountains that explains the formations, rocks and stones that appear on her walks in the arroyo (dry creek bed) her fascination with turquoise, with the Nahua people, the Nahuatl language and Tlaloc, the Nahua God of Rain, to whom she occasionally chants her own original rain prayer. And Lord Chapulin, who you’ll meet if you decide to read this, a living creature and the subject of one of her portrait paintings.

This book took me on a voyage to a place I’ve never been that seemed like another planet, Earth and yet not like the corners of Earth I’ve known. I wonder how someone can live in the heat of the desert like this (without air conditioning) and keep animals, or live alongside wildlife and observe them the way she does, in tune with the ancestors, the star beings, the rattlesnakes, rain chants and an ancient language she predicts is going to make a comeback.

I was enchanted by her endearing tales, her lyrical observations, nuggets of natural and peoples’ history, her love of the local environment and I hope the man with the machine desecrating the arroyo reads her book and stops being such an idiot.

Highly Recommended.

Buy a Copy of The Turquoise Ledge by Leslie Silko

Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams is a writer with a deep and active interest in environmental education and conservation, Refuge is both a memoir of a period in her life when she accompanied her mother through the illness that would claim her life, and shortly after her grandmother, leaving her the matriarch of the family at the age of thirty-four.

Although this is the book she is most well-known for, I first read and reviewed her writing and encountered her mother in a more recent, and equally extraordinary book, When Women Were Birds, Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, which was written twenty years later (when the author was 54) in 2012. It was also the age her mother was, when she succumbed to the illness written about in Refuge.  I recommend it equally, they are a unique pair, in their insights, their confusion, their ultimate compassion and understanding.

Throughout the memoir, she spends time with her mother, and equally has concerns for the Great Salt Lake, which sits on their doorstep, it is the place she grew up in, a landscape and wildlife she is obsessed with, one I knew nothing about, but became increasingly intrigued by, this enormous, terminal lake with no outlet to the sea.

Great Salt Lake: wilderness adjacent to a city; a shifting shoreline that plays havoc with highways; islands too stark, too remote to inhabit; water in the desert that no one can drink. It is the liquid lie of the West.

Natives of the area speak of the lake in the shorthand of lake levels, it’s not deep, but it is vast, so it doesn’t take much precipitation for significant rises to occur. In the mid 80’s when she was writing this book (it was first published in 1991) talk on the streets of Salt Lake City was of the lake’s rapid rising, everyone had concerns, the airport, the farms, the railroad, survival.

My interest lay at 4206′, the level which, according to my topographical map, meant the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.

She writes about her family history, her genealogy with its deep roots in the American West her Mormon culture has preserved and their connection to the natural world, infused with spiritual values.

The birds and I share a natural history. It is a matter of rootedness, of living inside a place for so long that the mind and imagination fuse.

As the author shares the drama unfolding within her family of which she is the eldest child and only daughter, there is always the metaphor of the lake, the simultaneous restlessness of its birds, as if they too sense change coming; she wonders if they are better adapted to it than humans.

The thirty-six short chapters each carry the name of one of the bird species that inhabits the lake environment, they may only be mentioned in one sentence, but they are all listed, noted, observed over time, throughout the pages, they represent the life cycle of species, moving on, migrating, adapting to change, dying, making way for the young.

William’s both observes beauty and dissects suffering as she observes her mother’s and her own and tries to make sense of it, through nature and her current philosophical understanding.

Tonight I watched the sun sink behind the lake; The clouds looked like rainbow trout swimming in a lapis sky. I can honour its beauty or resent the smog in this valley which makes it possible. Either way, I am deceiving myself.

Birds are entwined with local folklore, the Californian gull rescuing the Mormons in 1848 from losing their crops to crickets. They still gather to tell this story.

How the white angels ate as many crickets as their bellies would hold, flew to the shore of Great Salt Lake and regurgitated them, then returned to the field for more. We honour them as Utah’s state bird.

It’s a book where you could highlight a passage on each page, one you can open on a random page and find some meaningful, reflective passage on life, an interesting bird fact or a brief history lesson.

The writing is at times poetic, sometimes scientific, passionate and honest. There’s a perfect balance between the personal and the environment that makes it a compelling read, but also one that you’ll want to savour.

The mother and daughter get their astrology charts done and read each other’s.

“I liked the part about Terry being neat and meticulous,” teased Mother. “I remember standing in the middle of your bedroom when you were about thirteen years old. Everything in your closet was on the floor, art and school papers were piled high on your desk. I remember thinking, I have two choices here – I can harp on her every day of her life, making certain her room is straight – or I can close the door and preserve our relationship.”

As the Great Salt Lake continues to rise, a deep sadness washes over her that all has been lost.

I am not adjusting. I keep dreaming the Refuge back to what I have known: rich, green bulrushes that border the wetlands, herons hiding behind cattails, concentric circles of ducks on ponds. I blow on these images like the last burning embers on a winter’s night.

There is no one to blame, nothing to fight…Only a simple natural phenomenon: the rise of the great Salt Lake.

There is also refuge in poetry, in other writers and the book is interspersed with memorable quotes from those whose words soothe her during this period of grief, as her mother goes into decline. And so I leave this sharing of thoughts on the book here with her reading her Mother a poem one afternoon by Wendell Berry:

T H E   P E A C E  O F   W  I L D   T H I N G S

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron

feeds.

I come into the peace of the wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Highly Recommended.

A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

I loved this slim collection of poems, many of which reminded me of something, or awakened something in me, it’s as if they don’t just exist on their own merit, but are pathways of invitation.

Just the title A Thousand Mornings suggests how many, many mornings Mary Oliver has passed in taking walks in nature observing creatures large and small, her shortest poem two lines about an ant; of watching the tides, there are at least three poems about the sea, the one mentioned on the back cover of the book, reminds me of a lesson whose symbol is “chop wood”, that sometimes we need to stop over thinking and tend to the ordinary and mundane.

Her title also reminds me of the benefit of writing morning pages, three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, ideally practiced first thing in the morning, advocated by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, as a way of awakening one’s creativity, overcoming fear or blocks.

I GO DOWN TO THE SHORE

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall-
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

***

There is a poem called If I Were on ways to dance and the joy in life it brings, which can be read superficially, but which could be and most certainly is also about writing poetry, as I am reading another book of Mary Oliver’s called Rules for the Dance, A Handbook for Reading and Writing Metrical Verse, the title of which is clearly inspired by a stanza from Alexander Pope’s brilliant, poetic essay An Essay on Criticism a controversial work that discussed and compared styles of poetry and criticism, alluding to poets and critics past and present.

‘True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.’ Alexander Pope

IF I WERE

There are lots of ways to dance and
to spin, sometimes it just starts my
feet first then my entire body, I am
spinning no one can see it but it is
happening. I am so glad to be alive,
I am so glad to be loving and loved.
Even if I were close to the finish,
even if I were at my final breath, I
would be here to take a stand, bereft
of such astonishments, but for them.

If I were a Sufi for sure I would be
one of the spinning kind.

***

THREE THINGS TO REMEMBER

As long as you’re dancing, you can
break the rules.
Sometimes breaking the rules is just
extending the rules.

Sometimes there are no rules.

***

There are mornings in India hinted at in After I Fall Down the Stairs at the Golden Temple and the closing poem of the collection Varanasi, which is in itself something of a response, a balm to the cry nestled within her poem A Thousand Mornings.

And finally one of my favourites:

I HAVE DECIDED

I have decided to find myself a home
in the mountains, somewhere high up
where one learns to live peacefully in
the cold and the silence. It’s said that
in such a place certain revelations may
be discovered. That what the spirit
reaches for may be eventually felt, if not
exactly understood. Slowly, no doubt. I’m
not talking about a vacation.

Of course, at the same time I mean to
stay exactly where I am.

Are you following me?

***

Click Here to Buy a Copy of Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings via Book Depository