A different kind of reading: The Book of Nature

Like some other lovers of literature, I’m a bit too prone to have my nose in a book all the time and forget about the world around me. So when I bought a notebook with blank pages by mistake, instead of my usual ruled journal, I thought it might be a good chance to do some nature observation. I’ve dabbled in drawing at various times in my life, but as with so many other artistic pursuits have let it fall away. Some workshops I participated in recently reminded me that drawing from nature can be a part of inner work and spiritual practice, and motivated me to try it again.

Though my efforts don’t hold a candle to the real thing, I’m pleased with them anyway. The activity of looking closely and letting my mind go into the mode of line and color rather than into words is soothing, and good for me when I tend to be anxious and over-reactive. I hope I can make this a regular part of my life.

As I was looking around for subjects, I saw this amazing plant that I had never noticed in flower before — with green balls of smaller pentagonal buds, gradually unfurling into complex star-shaped flowers dangling on long pink stems. What was it??

From my drawing, my son said it looked like milkweed, and he was right. I had noticed the pods with their silky contents spilling out later in the year, but not these astonishing flowers! See what I mean about not looking at the world around me?

I’m going to try to be better about that, and actually see what is in front of my nose. Do you have any activity that helps you to read the book of Nature?

New Release Review: Unearthed

Alexandra Risen, Unearthed (2016)

unearthedSubtitled “Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden,” Unearthed is a gardening memoir that will appeal even to non-gardeners (like me). To start with, there’s the chance to vicariously experience taking an unloved, abandoned place and turning it into a magical place of refuge and healing — without having to actually get our hands dirty. When Alexandra and her family buy a house that backs up onto a ravine with traces of earlier gardening efforts, she can’t resist the project. Years later, after countless hours of toil and not a few misadventures, her dream comes to completion, and as readers we can experience her satisfaction.

Intertwined with that of the plants and animals is also a human story, of Alexandra’s growing up with her mysteriously distant Ukrainian refugee parents. Though her silent father is now dead and her mother sliding into dementia, as Alexandra works on her garden refuge she starts to find some measure of acceptance and understanding of her difficult memories. Her oasis in the middle of Toronto becomes a place to honor and remember them, with nature’s gift of peace.

Then there’s the way each chapter, named for a plant or element in the garden, ends with a recipe or project that can be taken up even if you have no land of your own. Often made from foraged or overlooked materials, they represent another way to create something of beauty and pleasure out of what might otherwise be considered worthless.

I enjoyed Alexandra’s voice in this book, as in spite of her painful early experiences she shared her story with honesty and also a quirky sense of humor. I felt that I was really working alongside her in a way, getting to know her personality along with the garden and its inhabitants. I loved her sense of wonder at the natural world, even at things to which we non-urban dwellers have become jaded — a single deer is no longer such a breathtaking sight when your garden is overrun with them, but Alexandra’s joy in the deer’s presence is infectious nevertheless.

So thanks to Alexandra Risen, her family, and all the trees, flowers, leaves, roots, raccoons, ducks, deer, and other creatures for sharing their garden with us. I’ll definitely be dreaming of my own “secret garden” now.


Escape into Summer: My Family and Other Animals

Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals (1956)

SFE-durrell-3If cold and darkness are getting you down, I have a prescription for you: Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, an excellent antidote for the winter doldrums. The third of the delightful Slightly Foxed Editions that I’ve been pleased to review recently, it’s an artfully crafted, lightly fictionalized memoir of the author’s childhood years spent on the magical Greek island of Corfu. As he tells it, his family (which consists of Gerry, his three quite-a-bit-older siblings, and their much-enduring, widowed mother) simply couldn’t endure the bleak British weather for one more moment, and decamped forthwith to a sunnier clime.

There, for a few short years their dreams came true, whether those were to potter in the garden, sunbathe and swim, or be left in peace to write novels. (You might recognize eldest brother Larry’s name — he’s best known for the Alexandria Quartet.) Young Gerry was able to indulge his fascination with the natural world, getting up close and personal with a number of exotic pets as well as roaming freely through the countryside. This self-education had unfortunately to be interrupted by a number of tutors — whose idiosyncrasies he affectionately but ruthlessly lampoons — but nothing could dampen the passion for nature and its wonders that made him, in adulthood, a prominent conservationist. Fortunately, he found one genuine naturalist and educator who became his friend and guide, and through him ours as well.

Angelokastro in Corfu. Source: Wikimedia
Angelokastro in Corfu. Source: Wikimedia

As I read it was sometimes difficult for me to reconcile Gerry’s obvious love for nature and its creatures with his unthinking, casual cruelty. For example, he tore two baby magpies from their mother, then put them in a cage when their thieving habits became inconvenient; he transferred an enormous tortoise from its proper habitat to a tiny tub in the backyard. He also was not at all bothered by his brother’s bloodthirsty hunting for sport. Perhaps in adulthood his attitude changed, or perhaps at the time sensitivity to animal rights was very different from today’s. I had to accept that he was attempting to give his experiences as they were at the time, without interrupting them with political or ideological commentary.

Gerry’s family, though occasionally objecting to finding snakes in the bath and having their ankles nipped by seagulls under the dining table, are on the whole a wonderfully tolerant bunch, and amusing in their own right. Scenes detailing their “natural behavior” are placed alongside those describing the flora and fauna of the island, a sly and subtle reminder of our kinship with all creatures.

This is in fact a remarkably many-faceted book, in equal measure comic and serious, firmly anchored in a child’s perspective yet mature in the artistry of its language. It’s buoyant and sometimes flippant in tone, but underlying all the absurdity is a sharply observant naturalist’s eye. Durrell brings the island and its inhabitants before us with grace and precision, making them as unforgettable as they clearly were for him. And so from the depths of our dull, colorless lives, we are transported to an island of vivid, vital sensations, one that may help awaken us to the wonders that surround us all every day.

Cheerfully bound in cobalt cloth with lemon endpapers, the limited-edition volume from Slightly Foxed is, as usual, a treat to hold and to read. I hope it might take its place on your shelf, and provide for you, as it does for me, a window into a sunnier world.


New Release Review: H Is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk (2015)


H Is for Hawk does what many of my favorite non-fiction books do: it makes connections between things and ideas that are surprising and genuine and painful, enriching us by raising our experience of life to a new level of consciousness. It reminds us what it means to be human, and stretches the limits of that definition.

The primary connection here is between Macdonald’s grief following the death of her father, and her decision to take on the training of a goshawk, a notoriously difficult task. Many other threads come into play, too, notably a reconsideration of T.H. White’s book The Goshawk, and of its brilliant, wounded author. There’s a unique angle on history, too; the practice of falconry goes back to the dawn of civilization, and speaks to many of our most primal impulses and fears, casting light both on our hunger to survive, and on our impulse toward warfare and destruction.

Part of the fascination of falconry is that it evokes the age-old ritual magic of the hunter, who would put on skins or draw an animal over and over to try to become one with its essence. In her intense, grief-spurred communion with Mabel, her goshawk, Macdonald experiences the pull of this totemic magic. In vivid, striking prose she makes us feel what it is like to dissolve some of one’s humanity into the vastness of nature. But that is not, and cannot be the whole story, as she concludes: “In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.” Her words enable us to go on that journey as well, and to emerge with a new perspective on grass, stones, trees, the complex web of all living and breathing things.

And as in her sorrow Helen lives and identifies with this alien creature, she finds her way back to who she is and how she can re-enter a life that seemed altogether broken. It’s an intimate, tender, fierce story, as beautiful and dangerous as the hawk that glows at its center.

Release date: March 3, 2015; originally published in Britain by Jonathan Cape in 2014