comparative literature and lives, from Pops

The Living Mountain
Nan Shepherd (1945 / 1977)

Under the Sea Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life
Rachel Carson (1941 / 1952)


I want to celebrate early – and timeless – work from two remarkable women naturalists of the 20th century. This is not really book reviewing; it is tribute to these two writers’ noteworthy similarities and differences, and appreciation of their early, largely disregarded success. The books came to me unintentionally, separately, and coincidentally; that’s always a fun thing.

As shown in these books, both authors were naturalists in the purist sense: keen observers of the more-than-human milieu around them, with a literary voice enabling them to describe what they saw, which appeared so differently to them than most people. Humans rarely feature; they appear only occasionally as natural background to the author’s higher interest in place, or other inhabitants.

While both show an informed ecological understanding of what they observe, such insight is rarely explicit; they ‘teach’ by example. Both prefer to rely on literal and figurative senses as a narrative lens, and the result on these pages, while different in style, is surprisingly similar in tone, feeling and impact. There is a sophistication to their form that impresses, especially for its time. Carson embraced the term ‘poetic prose’, which certainly applies to both.

They lived during the same era, against a backdrop of both constraint and change for women. They wrote the two works cited here within the same decade (1935-45); publication of each book was at least partially affected by the war. There is no suggestion they knew of each other.

While both traveled internationally, they lived on different continents. The focus of their attention in the natural world rarely overlapped, even while the results of their inspiration bore similar fruit on the page. Carson was a committed author and trained biologist; Shepherd, always ‘only’ a writer, and more introspective. Early writing success met Carson, followed later by greater success and international impact; Shepherd’s writing was only fully appreciated late in life, and even then mostly limited to her region.


Nan Shepherd was born (1893) and lived always within walking distance of the Cairngorm massif in Scotland’s central highlands – and walk she did, across every ridge and through every valley of her cherished place. Always a poet, sometimes an essayist, she had a brief burst of minor publication before she finished writing The Living Mountain in 1945 at age 52.

For various reasons – post-war disruption, intervention by a mentor, some factors perhaps inexplicable – the book was not published. Only in 1977 was the original manuscript revived by the author and publisher (4 years before her death); it immediately gained attention regionally. Largely due to ‘discovery’ and ardent promotion by Robert Macfarlane, it has belatedly become a classic. The Scottish five-pound note now displays her image, with a quotation.

Shepherd’s subject here is explicitly The Living Mountain, which she embraced passionately her entire life. Her brief Foreword in 1977 testifies to her continued attention to that place. While the narrative draws from her experience over decades, it is organized into 12 chapter categories of her choosing, from Water, to Plants, to Being.

Her focus never strays beyond its boundary of geography, shaped by water. But her meaning for ‘the living mountain’ encompasses everything about it: rocks and water; clouds and winds; plants and insects; large and small; above ground and below; its impact on the psyche. Implicitly, this is an ecological view. Her language is intimate, lyrical and dense – all, matching her perception of the subject. Yet her voice is calming & humble, conveying her affinity for Buddhism. There is likely nothing else in print resembling her work here.

Macfarlane’s introduction in the 2011 edition runs to 28 pages including three pages of footnotes. This is a superlative essay in itself (of course, one might say), partially because Macfarlane himself roamed these hills as a youth, and even today. But mostly this is his own tribute to Shepherd, as we hear her on these pages. As he says, this is “a formidably difficult book to describe.” I would agree, and say that about both books.


Rachel Carson was born more than a decade after Shepherd, in rural Pennsylvania. Even though she grew up land-locked her reading inspired an interest in the ocean. So it is unsurprising that the sea informed both her early interest in writing, and eventual degree in aquatic biology. Significantly, her early work in articles led to mentoring by a Dutch children’s author, who encouraged her simple, direct, descriptive writing style, which is so effective later.

Under the Sea Wind was her first book, published in 1941 at age 34. (Two subsequent books now comprise her ‘Sea Trilogy’: The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea.) While initial publication met with critical success, sales and popularity were dampened by the war. When The Sea Around Us became a bestseller in 1951, the earlier book was rediscovered and the next year also became a bestseller.

Under the Sea Wind is organized into 15 chapters, divided 5-7-3 into three sections, or ‘Books.’ Each Book is a theme that ties together its chapters in loose narrative; yet all three also naturally connect in a general sense, and comprise a generic year’s cycle.

Carson’s sightline in this book covers the broad western hemisphere, especially the western Atlantic, encompassing ocean and sea; shoreline and river; marine and freshwater; birds and fish; whales and sand fleas. Yet, on a given page, her attention is particular species, and even individuals of a species, which she sometimes assigns a proper noun. One can imagine children of a certain maturity devouring some passages; and adults of a certain proclivity cherishing its entirety.

The magic of her ecological view is how her ‘narrative’ seamlessly and endlessly follows one organism to the next, taking as a thread a trophic food chain, or an expansive migration path, or intricate inter-species symbiosis. But she rarely resorts to such jargon, any global perspective, or stated scientific facts. She simply knits together, piece by piece, story by story, an appreciation of this connected web of life.


The relaxed pace; the embracing language; the sense of peacefulness amidst natural turbulence; the reassurance in understanding how things work – both books display these things, and commend themselves to sympathetic readers.

guest review: The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chesnutt, from Pops

Here’s how I ‘found’ this book. Your July 2019 post about various short-reads included Charles Chesnutt’s essay “The Banquet,” which I appreciated. You also linked to Wiley Cash’s fine essay recommending Chesnutt’s novel, and interpreting it in light of current events – which convinced me to eventually find a used copy. Along with the novel’s 1993 introduction, Cash’s explication of the book, its era and its implications is an excellent addition to a full understanding.


The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chesnutt was published in 1901; I read the 1993 edition with introduction by professor Eric Sundquist. The novel was reportedly well-researched by the established black author, using the Wilmington, NC Massacre of only 3 years earlier as foundation for its story about a fictional ‘Wellington.’ Chesnutt had relatives who survived the event, and interviewed their neighbors as well; further, his personal history tied him emotionally to the wider narrative. In the book, the event itself is limited to the last ~100 pages (of 340), although that finish is given force by the involvement of fictional characters developed throughout the book. This is a fascinating, accessible look at an important historical event, through the unusual lens of informed and incisive literature of the same time.

Chesnutt’s main interest is in describing how much the post-Reconstruction period is reverting to the form of its racist legacy: white control and oppression are still functional; social relations serve to keep the town’s minority-white (~1/3) elites well-ensconced; mixed-race generations are in the shadows but ever-present (reflecting Chesnutt’s own family history). Indeed, this is a heritage of social complexity that Ta-Nehisi Coates is addressing even today in his new fiction. Chesnutt’s purpose is to give readers of the time a sense of “the complex psychology of white supremacy and black resistance” [Sundquist], for a close look at the social tensions stewing in this small town where a few white conspirators use the specter of rape to intentionally create conditions for a coup, for mobs to overthrow the elected Republican (white and black) leaders, and murder many citizens in the process. Chesnutt himself sent copies of the book to politicians of the time.

The narrative form is dated yet engaging, suggesting a period gothic novel of the antebellum south, often preoccupied with big-house romances, rivalries and closeted skeletons. Black characters too often appear mere background for that narrative. The melodramatic ending involves several fictional characters, apparently unrelated to real events. In effect, for a modern reader, Chesnutt generously ‘humanizes’ the white villains to a surprising extent, depicting their anxieties and self-justifying motives. It is curious that an involved black author, especially with historical purpose, chose this form and delivers so well; but it was an established form and likely effective – I am in no place to judge. To be fair, his description of the social mechanics of oppression are in spells direct and unvarnished. Still, I felt the limited narrative about black characters was glaring, and often served to trivialize them.

The essential 1993 Introduction (a detailed 37 pages) by white academic Sundquist addresses the author’s life and work, the country-wide factual context of reaction to Reconstruction, the factual basis of the event itself, the book’s references to real people; and convincingly analyzes the literary result. He tags the book as “One of the most significant historical novels in American literature.”

Prominent for Sundquist is this thesis: “The gender politics of the Wilmington revolution were of utmost importance to a national ethos of segregation.” This is not ‘gender politics’ in our contemporary sense. Rather, for me he refers to the broad historical morass of racism, gender and sexuality: the southern white male ego threatened by both black men and encroaching potent black culture; confusion arising from both sexual attraction and sexual assault amongst all manner of racial pairings; rape as both a weapon to dominate a people, and contrived as excuse to torture, mutilate and murder its men; biracial children as legacy complicating both the perpetuation and the extinction of white supremacy, for all parties; maybe more. His sweeping analysis defeats my capacity to summarize. Some threads of all this arguably appear in Chesnutt’s novel (e.g. the character of Chesnutt’s fictional Olivia Carteret); Sundquist provides further evidence in historical fact. His explication is compelling.

I am so thankful for this thorough review of a complicated book!

Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox

This memoir of a talented young woman’s CIA career is that rare combination: enthralling and gorgeously written.

Amaryllis Fox served in the Central Intelligence Agency for eight years when she was in her 20s, and that experience is the impetus for her memoir, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA. But its contents are both broader and deeper, beginning with uncertainties encountered in childhood: when a grade school friend is killed by a terrorist’s bomb, Fox’s father offers her an education in current events, to understand what took her friend away. An insightful, curious child, the young Fox makes early observations about her parents’ hidden or inner lives.

These trends persist from high school to college: before starting at Oxford, Fox poses as an acquaintance’s wife, slipping into Burma to record and sneak out a historic interview with an imprisoned democratic leader. Early in her Georgetown master’s program in conflict and terrorism, this high-achieving, daring young woman with international interests attracts the interest of the CIA (not the first intelligence agency to approach her, but the first to appeal). Fox continues to impress in her training within the agency, often winning coveted, extra-dangerous spots ahead of standard career trajectories. She recounts the challenges, from her analyst work through her field work in 16 countries, with absorbing anecdotes.

Although she’s always had an interest in people, motivations and relationships–it’s what makes her so good, a “velvet hammer,” as one senior case officer calls her–Fox shows an increasing concern for the acts she puts on, the roles she must play. A CIA agent pretending to be an arms dealer pretending to be an art dealer, she wonders “which part of me is she and which part of me is me. Would I be able to make the same impact if I lived life in my true skin?” It is in part this worry about identity that finally leads her out of the agency–that, and the birth of her daughter, in her second marriage since entering her dangerous line of work.

One expects a CIA memoir to be thrilling; this one is positively riveting. But in addition, Fox’s writing is surprisingly lovely, lines often ringing like poetry. “It’s a strange place to find a man who aspires to deal in death, what with the music drifting from the park as the day goes to gloaming and the laughter issuing from pretty, wine-stained mouths along the riverbank.” “My waking self passes me one more note that night…. One of those memories so deeply packed away that I have to unfold its sepia edges gently, in case they turn to dust in my hands.”

Life Undercover is an astonishing book. Readers interested in the high adventure of tradecraft will certainly be satisfied, but Fox offers as well nuanced and sensitive perspectives on international politics, and humanizing views of nuclear arms dealers and terrorists. Her subtle, lyric prose elevates this memoir beyond its action-packed subject matter, highlighting instead its true focus: the breadth and beauty of humanity.


This review originally ran in the September 6, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 carbombs.

movie: The North Star (1943)

By Source, Fair use, Link

Another quick movie review: I’ve had this one in a queue for a long time. Lillian Hellman wrote the screenplay for this drama about a Nazi attack on a Ukrainian collective farm, where the locals rather romantically undertake to defend their land and resist the greater power at whatever cost. Wikipedia says “the film was an unabashedly pro-Soviet propaganda film at the height of the war,” and they are not wrong. Romantic, yes; propaganda, yes; and yet it’s neatly done and who doesn’t sympathize with romantic guerrilla resistance to Nazis?? I certainly do, and I enjoyed this movie, found it heartwrenching even as I saw its machinery working to just that effect.

[In the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee took exception, and the film was re-cut to remove the idealized portrayal of Soviet collective farms, and to include references to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.]

Teenage romance, children and pets, a principled stand taken by an aging doctor, homegrown guerrilla tactics, hometown pride, fraternal bickerings set aside in the face of larger enemies – I say The North Star has it all. I was impressed that this one from all the way back in 1943 was available for free on Amazon Prime (Amazon is evil but here we are). Go check it out.


Rating: 7 guns.

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll

I read this socio-historical study of Appalachia in part to investigate my new homeplace (however temporary) in central West Virginia.

It is quite good. Steven Stoll takes a wide-angle view of “the ordeal of Appalachia” (centering on West Virginia), which he sees as a social, political, economic, ideological problem that fits into global patterns. He compares the experiences of Appalachians with those of other groups across time and place: in particular, English peasants in the 1600s, American Indians in the early 1800s, and Malian smallholders in the 2000s. As he draws these comparisons, he is careful to note that “no two dispossessions are the same.” On the other hand, “historians emphasize the distinctness of the stories they tell. They tend to make few observations across places and times,” and Stoll I think does us a service by making those observations. For one thing, I find it makes each story clearer to have analogies to draw from. For another, as he shows in these pages, the story of Appalachia has been told in a way that oversimplifies, and blames the poorest people with the fewest options for their own situation. To contextualize those experiences within world history and within patterns makes it clear that this is a story about humans and their systems and about capitalism, not about a specific race of holler dwellers.

At the risk of simplifying, again, what has been well communicated in nearly 300 pages here… Stoll argues that what has gone wrong in Appalachia, what has resulted in devastating extractive industries, wealth flowing only outward, the impoverishment and degradation of local residents, environmental destruction, and damage to a culture, is about the forced movement from makeshift agrarian economies to capitalism and industrial scales. (The term ‘makeshift’ for household economies is not intended to be disparaging. Stoll spends time with this. What he refers to we might call subsistence living: a combination of small-scale agriculture and husbandry, hunting and gathering, and local and regional trade that yields a sufficient or comfortable living with no stockpiled profit. It does not indicate an absence of currency.)

The enclosure of the commons is a central element in this shift. The ecological base that used to be used in common by all for timber, hunting and gathering, fodder for livestock, and rotation of small garden plots was enclosed and divvied up as private property following the American Revolution, largely to absentee landowners. Later lumber and coal mining industries robbed that land of the richness that had once provided, so that now if we were to return to the commons model (something Stoll cautiously recommends, with a drafted piece of legislation late in the book) that base will not yield what it used to. Part of that shift as well involves a shift from makeshift or subsistence economies – I make what I need, plus enough surplus to feel secure – to growth-at-all-costs capitalism – make as much as you can and then make more by any means possible; seek efficiencies; clearcut. And part of that is a move from largely self-sufficient households to currency-based wage-earning ones. (Again, Stoll is careful to point out that there never was a makeshift household that provided all its needs – trade was always a component of any system – and that currency is not in fact absent from, for example, barter economies.) Well, these 300 pages do a better job of it than this paragraph does. But it’s a gist.

I appreciated the breadth of history, sociology, politics, economic theory, and more that Stoll employs to teach these lessons. It’s a broad and rich book. And I appreciate as well that he consults so many outside sources, and not just academic ones. While the tone and style of this book is still rather dry and textbook-y, its reference points include fiction and the visual arts as well as primary sources, journalism, and fellow academics. I dig the interdisciplinary result: that one can see policy unfold alongside environmental change, social history and the arts. The writing style is no-nonsense informational, lacking the personal perspective that I prefer, and with no especial sense of fun. It’s better than the classic history text in style. But it still took me longer to read, in smaller pieces, than my usual fare.

I regret that Stoll doesn’t appear to have invited local opinion or sought specifically Appalachian experts. His back-of-book blurbs are all from professors at either Columbia or Yale. And one characteristic of this region, one of its challenges, is the tendency of outsiders to judge; Appalachia, in my observation, is sensitive about that. I wish Stoll had sought a blurber from within the region! It’s not like there aren’t academics from Appalachia, and I know it would have earned him credibility in these parts. I guess that wasn’t a priority; I don’t think he’s writing for a specifically Appalachian audience, and that’s fine, but this oversight I fear means he’s written for an audience from everywhere but Appalachia. [Please note that I make these observations as an outsider, myself; these opinions are my own and do not reflect those of etc. etc.]

On these lines, a very brief section of this book is likely (again, from what I’ve seen) to raise hackles here: he devotes about a page to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, mostly nodding in agreement, although he does acknowledge that “it might be construed as saying that the tragedy of Appalachia is the sum of its individual failings or the insularity of its families.” Here’s a tip: praising Vance within Appalachia will make you no friends.

I also note that Stoll doesn’t address the nonhuman community that Brian Doyle and Terry Tempest Williams and my father and I recognize: he worries for the fate of people, chiefly, and I appreciate that he wants better for a disadvantaged population which has been taken advantage of. He seems concerned as well for the rich and biologically diverse hills and mountains of a unique geographical area, but I think this concern is chiefly for what that land could offer people. I would personally rather he also cared for rivers and cougars and mushrooms for their own sake, but his is the majority perspective, that’s for sure.

While I wanted to note these issues I found with Ramp Hollow, I admire it and I learned a lot and I do recommend it as a way to put “the ordeal of Appalachia” into a larger context and understand some of what’s challenging here, and why it’s not the fault of the people here who are unfortunately characterized as lazy, backwards, or primitive. This book is well researched, with over 50 pages of notes and a thorough bibliography. I consider it a great introduction to a lengthy and complicated history, and I’m so glad I read it. Thank you, Doug, for my copy.


Rating: 7 morels.

movie: Matewan (1987)

Having recently visited the museum, I knew I had to track down this movie, which was not easy – thanks Barrett for your help!

Matewan is the retelling of the story of Bloody Mingo County and the Battle of Matewan, where the humble coal miners stood up to the bosses and lives were lost. It’s an iconic story in American labor rights history, and it’s movingly told here.

We begin with Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper, in his film debut) arriving in the town of Matewan, West Virginia as a union organizer sent to help the locals with their ongoing strike. (I was immediately reminded of the adage that there are only two stories in the world: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.) On the same train that brings Kenehan are a group of Black miners from Alabama who are being brought in as strike-breakers; the local miners attack these men before they even reach Matewan, presaging racism and violence that will plague organizing efforts. Kenehan exhorts the locals, however, telling them that it’s workers against bosses, not white against Black or anybody else (there is a recently arrived group of Italian miners in town, too).

It’s uphill work getting the white WV miners to let Blacks and Italians into the union, just as it’s uphill work getting the latter groups to strike, but Kenehan’s speeches, and the poor conditions and disrespect of the mine bosses, do achieve this. Everyone puts down their tools; the miners and their families construct a tent city on the edge of town (as their housing is all company-owned), and the workers bumpily navigate their union. Meanwhile, hired guns with the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency try repeatedly to do the work of intimidation: evictions, repossession of food and furnishings, and general pressure and violence. They are repeatedly thwarted by the town’s major and sheriff, and once by armed “hill people” from outside of town. For a time, it looks like the ragtag union bunch are well-positioned to win their fight, because of the tight local community. But hanging over this impression is knowledge that the company, and Baldwin-Felts, has only to bring in more and bigger guns, and eventually the town will be outnumbered.

The action of Matewan proceeds from Kenehan’s arrival through organizing and early conflicts and concludes just after the Battle of Matewan, the shootout where the mayor and Kenehan, and seven Baldwin-Felts guys, are killed. Voiceover by Danny from a later date (he is now a grown man, and still a coal miner) indicates that the union was eventually defeated in the West Virginia Mine Wars by the US military, and that conditions have more or less returned to their starting point.

Remarkable characters include the boarding-house proprietress who initially puts Kenehan up – a miner’s widow – and her teenage son Danny, a coal miner, budding Baptist preacher, and passionate union man; Few Clothes (delightfully played here by James Earl Jones), leader of the Black contingent; a flirtatious widow with a role to play; and two miners’ wives in the camp, one West Virginian and one Italian, who begin as antagonists but forge a friendship even without benefit of a common language. Several miners, union men and Baldwin-Felts thugs play individual roles, as well, but these are less developed personalities. While there is no question that this is a film with a message and that takes a side, these flawed human characters make it something more and better than propaganda.

While Few Clothes, the sheriff and mayor, and several union men and Baldwin-Felts guys were true historical characters, Kenehan and Danny are both inventions for the purpose of this film. On the one hand, I find they work very well as central characters to focus our sympathies and make the story come alive. On the other hand, I regret that it took fictional characters to do this work, and I wonder if the same emotional results could have been achieved using only true figures. I believe so; but I guess it would have been harder to focus it, with a larger cast and no one central hero like Kenehan. But isn’t that a beautiful fact of the union, that there is no one, single hero?

True events are also compressed, and sometimes conflated. I feel more forgiving of this move; this being not history, but a stylized version thereof, it’s okay with me that we made the storyline a little tighter and easier to follow, and more dramatic for its brevity. Inserting a fictional central hero feels less faithful to me that compressing a timeline. Maybe that’s just me? At any rate, if you’re learning the history of Matewan and West Virginia’s Mine Wars, do look further than this film, excellent though it is. (This should go without saying and applies to all historical fiction.)

Although a sad story and therefore hard to watch, I found this movie also beautiful and well done. I appreciated the cinematography, darkness and shadow moving, the feelings of tragedy and betrayal; it made me cry. I highly recommend it, if you can find it. Know your history, friends.


Rating: 7 rabbits.

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City by Anna Sherman

These lovely, understated ruminations on time and Tokyo will please those interested in Japanese culture, language or history–or lovers of any city, anywhere.

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City is Anna Sherman’s exploration of a city that is not originally her own, but her perspective is perhaps all the more closely attentive, thoughtful and serious. Through Tokyo’s Bells of Time, which rang out the hours for hundreds of years, Sherman examines many aspects of both city and time. Her prose is careful, contemplative, even solemn. The result is philosophy, travel writing, elegy and love letter.

“Tokyo is one vast timepiece,” begins Sherman. “Time is counted out in incense sticks; in LEDs; and in atomic lattice clocks,” and in so many other ways she will consider. Time is ignored, too, in this city where residents “have their eyes fixed on the future, and are impatient when a word is said of their past.” Sherman never states the reasons for her preoccupation with time, clocks and Tokyo’s past, but her book thrums with it. She views the first Bell of Time, at a former prison at Nihonbashi, and the smallest, in Akasaka; seeks the lost bell of Mejiro; meets the man who rings the bell at Ueno; and visits a widow surrounded by “an island of old clocks” in Nezu. She also consults with numerous sources, modern and ancient, and studies the Japanese language and its translations. This is a narrator deeply immersed and committed to her subject; Sherman’s bibliography and notes are extensive for such a slim book.

A point of stillness at the center is a special coffee shop where Sherman makes a friend. “Tokyo is a restless city, where everything changes and shifts, but not Daibo Coffee.” Daibo is the one character she returns to, and his influence is felt in her love for the city and in her questions.

“[Author and composer] Yoshimura believed that a temple bell’s sound was as much about silence as about its ringing.” Sherman’s writing similarly respects white space as much as it does words: her approach is lyric and minimalist, and respectful of the culture she studies. An American living in Japan, she is sensitive to her outsider status, as when writing about the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo: “Growing up, I was part of the old soldiers’ we. I had never thought about what we had done to them.” She is present for the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima reactor explosions that followed, and her writing about these events is spare: “I bought tickets… I wanted to see Daibo… I said nothing.” At times, Sherman slides into prose poetry. “Mirrors and clocks in love hotels and the time they tell, the translucent sheeting over building sites, the streetlamps, the slopes, the signs I can read and the ones I can’t.”

The Bells of Old Tokyo is an elegant series of musings, a beautifully written evocation of a place and a philosophical inquiry into the nature of time itself. Sherman has given the world, and one city in particular, an astonishing gift.


This review originally ran in the July 9, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 bowls of green tea.
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