A New Header And An Old Friend

Finally “Her spirits rose…” has a new header – the banner at the top – one of several variations I made thanks to my friend who paints in the woods, Andie Thrams.

Last summer Andie, (www.andiethrams.com), came to stay in the Buffalo for a lovely long time. We have known each other since the night 20 years ago we met as strangers in the Anchorage airport for a midnight flight back East. We’d been linked by a mutual friend, who thought we would get along (being flower painters), and an invitation to attend a retreat for people “who keep field journals in their work.”

We share a love of watercolor – and the making of handmade books. Andie introduced me to Vamp and Tramp, those traveling purveyors of artists’ books who represent her ongoing series, “In Forests,” beautiful accordion-fold hand bound books, illuminated by paintings and words. Most of these now reside in collections of libraries and universities around the country.

Andie paints the pages of her books while seated on a little pad on the forest floor. She hikes or kayaks into wild places, carrying her art supplies in a backpack – brushes, watercolors, long sheets of paper, and easel – and immerses herself to paint. The press of development, the wildfires and bark beetle of climate change threaten her studio spaces, making observing and recording these woodland parts of the natural world ever more urgent.

Giant firs, cedars, sequoias, coastal redwoods (she has a long list of beloved trees) and their understory of berries, ferns, and fungi can be overwhelming to paint. But Andie captures the changing greens of season, the glowing light through forest canopy, and enough individual form to make species recognizable. Most days here, she headed into our nearby woods – or ranged further and longer to the old growth of the Hoh Rainforest.

Toward the end of her stay, before she went to kayak with her husband on the fjords of Vancouver Island for two weeks, we sat at my computer, and she attempted to bring my meager Photoshop skills up a level. She tried not to lecture me about my faulty filing system – I can be slapdash about organizing; she is orderly and patient.

But I’ve kept it up, “lassoing” images and making future headers (including the one below in Andie’s honor – wildflowers I drew in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains).

Thanks, Andie, for computer tutorial, visit, and long friendship!

Save

Save

Save

Save

Armchair Series – Gryffindor Common Room

I remembered these chairs from our visit to the Warner Brothers Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter with our young friend and her mom in 2012. In the Gryffindor Common Room, the chairs sit ajar and crookedly adjacent, waiting for students to drape their legs over the arms. Next fall our young friend is on her way to St. Andrews University in Scotland. She’ll study French, Arabic, and Italian, wear an academic gown, and lounge in a Common Room with new friends – in, I hope, comfy armchairs!    

Save

Plants and People – “Lab Girl”

I read “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren, a geochemist and geobiologist, because I was curious what she would say about plants. In her book’s three sections, titled in a way that applies to both plants and people, “Roots and Leaves, “Woods and Knots,” and “Flowers and Fruit,” Jahren alternates descriptions of plant biology with tales of her life.

She writes about her relationship with her parents, her education and career (using stable isotope measurements to analyze fossil forests), Bill (her singular lab partner), a professional life with male scientists, and eventually, a happy love story with her husband Clint.

As I read, absorbed mostly in Jahren’s personal chronicle, I remembered my mother who always declared people more interesting than plants. But the next day I awoke and looking at the trees out my window, thought about how long trees have been here (400 million years), and how we endanger them (50 billion cut down in the last 10 years), and about recent scientific inquiry exploring how trees communicate and recognize their relatives (!).

Jahren wrote this book before our government took a bad turn, but even so she says, “My job is about making sure there will be some evidence that someone cared about the great tragedy that unfolded during our age.” Now that we live in a mess, “guided” by the anti-science “leadership” of our country with non-defense-related research funding flatlined and “curiosity-driven research” (what a wonderful concept) threatened, it’s both grand and sad to read this so accessible book about science.

An engaging writer and a driven scientist, Jahren writes, “Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.”

In the epilogue, she encourages us to plant a tree this year if we own property or even if a renter with a yard. “Every day, you can look at your tree, watch what it does, and try to see the world from its perspective.”

“Lab Girl” makes one better at that worthy attempt.

 

 

Save

Save

Save

“The Past”

A friend who reads for her day job as an editor, but reads much for pleasure as well, spent a spring-hinting-at-summer afternoon lying on her couch in sunshine reading Tessa Hadley’s new book, “The Past.” That would be a delicious way to read this book, but any way would be good to read this or another of Hadley’s fine books.

“The Past” is about four grown up siblings returning to a family home for one last summer holiday. Hadley’s plots and characters are convincing in their complexities and motivations, but I love Hadley for the precise descriptions of ordinary things she uses to build her novels.

Hadley’s word choices sometimes remain just out of reach in my internal dictionary, so I’m glad I read her latest book on my Kindle. Touching the screen enabled me to instantly define: “hieratic,” (of or concerning priests), “propitiate,” (to win or regain the favor of a god, spirit or person by doing something that pleases them), “louche,” (disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way), and “anodyne,” (not likely to provoke dissent or offense). In a paper book I might have guessed at meanings and kept going – and missed out.

Hadley describes a character reading a book: “She kicked off her shoes and after a while she would slip for warmth into that consoling space between the eiderdown and the top blanket.” “Consoling space” seems just right, not in bed or on the bed, but in a space slightly illicit – and so pleasurable.

And this, when a character tries to get a nasty image out of her mind: “The real evening was brimming and steady around her like a counter-argument to horror, its midges swarming and multiplying in the last nooks of yellow sunshine.”

Just as “nooks of yellow sunshine” comfort, ordinary beauty often provides solace. Here in the old garden: “At least it was an afternoon of balmy warmth, its sunlight diffused because the air was dense with seed floss, transparent-winged midges, pollen; light flickered on the grass, and under the silver birch leaf-shadows shifted, blotting their penny-shapes upon one another.

And the old house itself is a strong presence: “…something plaintive in the thin light of the hall with its grey and white tiled floor and thin old rugs faded to red-mud colour. There was always a moment of adjustment as the shabby, needy actuality of the place settled over their too-hopeful idea of it.”

Hadley gets the three sisters and their brother as they reunite, “All the siblings felt sometimes, as the days of their holiday passed, the sheer irritation and perplexity of family coexistence: how it fretted away at the love and attachment which were nonetheless intense and enduring when they were apart. They knew one another so well, all too well, and yet they were all continually surprised by the forgotten difficult twists and turns of one another’s personalities, so familiar as soon as they appeared.”

Hadley’s words fill this post about her book – and that’s as it should be – they’re terrific.

telephone 1

Gertrude Bell

Lately I’ve been longing for another Ferrante or Knausgaard experience, that long abandonment of present to the narrative world. A hefty and engrossing biography, Georgina Howell’s “Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations,” satisfied.

Born in 1868 into a wealthy family from the north of England and one of the first women educated at Oxford, Bell – mountain climber, explorer, historian, archaeologist, writer, linguist – became one of those redoubtable English women of the 19th Century who broke with convention. The Victorian era began to crumble in her lifetime, spurred in part by women who, in spite of still wearing long, tiny-waisted dresses and big hats, began to agitate for education and freedom from male supervision.

Bell’s greatest renown comes from her journeys in Arabia, adventurous by any measure as she crossed empty deserts, explored ancient historical sites, and got to know chieftains of nomadic tribes. Her travels ring with names now sadly familiar in a modern context.

Because of her deep knowledge of the Middle East, Bell took part in the historic negotiations after World War I and the end of the Ottoman Empire, which imposed borders on ancient peoples and lands (a contribution not without controversy). Part of the fascination of the book is to read now about a time before these nation states.

To people back in England Bell probably seemed just a spinster, but Howell uses Bell’s rich letters to weave into her story the two, ultimately sad, but passionate romances of Bell’s life.

We travel so lightly nowadays with our easy outfits, roller bags, and airplanes – the two-page listing of what Bell took on one of her expeditions boggles the mind. Howell writes of a 1913 expedition: “She would take plenty of luggage this time and be ready for anything. First, there were her two English-made tents, one for bathing and sleeping in, one for eating and writing, both with a loose flap that could be tied back, laced shut, or used as a shady canopy. She ordered more of the skirts that she had designed with her tailor for riding horses in the Middle East: neither side-saddle habit nor breeches, but an ankle-length divided skirt with an apron panel. In the saddle, she would sweep this backward and gather the surplus material behind her and to one side, where it looked in profile like a bustle. When she dismounted, the panel fell around her like an apron and concealed the division. She bought lace and tucked-lawn evening gowns for dinners with consuls and sheikhs, for sitting at a dining-table at an embassy or cross-legged on a carpet in a tent.”

There’s more, lots more on her list, from a caseful of shoes and boots, candlesticks and linen sheets to a crate of revolvers.

What a life she lived – and what a great pleasure to read Howell’s book about it.

g. bell color 2

 

 

“Serious Noticing”

Now my birds hang in the gallery, along with the other birds, some of which are big but none bad, and in this time without travel I’ve been casting around for what’s next.

I’m reading “The Nearest Thing to Life,” a book that collects a series of lectures by the literary critic James Wood, and in it he devotes an entire section to describing how writers go about “seriously noticing the world.”

A phrase in Wood’s piece concerns what he calls a kind of death that novelists save us from, ”…the slow death that we deal to the world by the sleep of our attention. By congested habit, or through laziness, lack of curiosity, thin haste, we stop looking at things.”

Being a fan, Wood describes Karl Ove Knausgaard’s world as, “one in which the adventure of the ordinary – the inexhaustibility of the ordinary as a child once experienced it (‘the taste of salt that could fill your summer days to saturation’) is steadily retreating, in which things and objects and sensations are pacing toward meaninglessness.” And Wood says: “In such a world, the writer’s task is to rescue the adventure from this slow retreat: to bring meaning, color, and life back to the most ordinary things – to soccer boots and grass, to cranes and trees and airports, and even to Gibson guitars and Roland amplifiers and Old Spice and Ajax.”

Reading this helped me identify what Knausgaard’s books do for me. He reminds us to look for the meaning in the everyday, as novels often do. But his, with their piling up of the detail of ordinary life, operate like some magic elixir delivering the engaged liveliness I want to feel.

The concept of some inevitable “pacing toward meaningless” horrifies me. I want to retain the excitement that comes from paying attention, from engagement – the way I used to always feel about observing flowers, trying to capture their variety, their shapes and colors, an adventure that seemed endless. And in the interstices without an object or a flower to attend to, I always knew the way back was to begin with drawing – or writing – to try and bring “meaning, color, and life back to the most ordinary things.”

Every once in a while I need serious reminding about serious noticing, a reminder that paying attention is the secret. I used to thank Virginia Woolf most of all for this thought. I still do. And I’m grateful to the bottom of my heart to a thinker like James Wood, to novelists like Knausgaard and Woolf, Austen and Ferrante – for the great writing that, as Wood says, not only asks us to look more closely, but “asks us to participate in the transformation of the subject through metaphor and imagery.”

As time goes on, and life is ever more cluttered with possible distractions, and the spectre rises of the “sleep of our attention,” I want to stay awake, engaged with the ordinary!

Sweater beginning

May, and Maybe

Mrs. Hughes recently sent a video of Lady Baby (wearing boots), standing on a short footstool in her kitchen, pointing to a refrigerator magnet picture of a polar bear. Under the bear, the word Alaska is spelled out. Lady Baby points to the word and tells her mother: “It says: polar bear you have to wait for your baby.” She can’t read, but she knows the power of letters and understands she can assign language to the picture – she’s making up a story.

She likes to look for pictures in my journal. When she discovered drawings of cats – she studied each one, looking for familiar features. But she liked best a pretty awful drawing of This Baby with an inky face (a rough for the postcard I sent her). She returned to it repeatedly, recognizing somebody she knew in a drawing delighted her.

I’d love to make her a storybook. I have always wanted, like lots of readers who draw, to make a children’s book. If I don’t try, I will be truly disappointed in myself. (Writing that sentence makes me feel like one of my Workroom people, and I’d be the first to encourage – dragoon the timid, badger the reluctant – into giving something long desired a try.)

Ideas for a story have come – a picture in my mind to begin, and a critical addition by our younger son over dinner one night (he handed me the very simple overall theme: Cromwell and Wolsey teach Frances about friendship). Amongst the enjoyable house thinking of April, I strayed frequently to this story.

Writing “Her spirits rose…” is a routine and a pleasure. I can always let it get in the way of doing anything else, so I’d like to use the power of that routine to work on this project. I was recently told illustration is hard, and I know that, but for love you’ll try anything. Lady Baby is tolerant and accepting – she won’t be “judgy.”

It might seem I’m taking a break (and that’s a good thing – summer is nearly upon us!). Maybe I’ll post bits and pieces, studies, the outline of the story as I make myself tackle what seems a difficult task, confronting the myriad decisions and self-doubt in such an undertaking.

And maybe, maybe, I’ll figure out why the polar bear needed to be instructed to wait for its baby!

cats - c commons II