• click for details

guest review: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, from Pops

More from Pops:

In The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane speaks to us as he walks countryside in a dozen British and international locales. That is simply said, but the depth and richness of this literary journey easily fills 360 pages. This is not a guidebook, although we get a close look at a variety of places. In parts, it is an adventure in words, history, literature, nature, personal inquiry, human behavior, and sense of place. Macfarlane describes his thoughts and observations as he walks, and that is a treasure. Also in parts: this is a collection of chapters, which could also each stand alone as an essay; even so, chapters proceed in a rough chronology over an indeterminate time period; more broadly, he shares segments of his life’s journey of the mind, enriching literary impressions as he wanders.

Macfarlane’s book shares its title with a Gary Snyder essay collection of the 1970s published by Ferlinghetti’s historic bookstore, City Lights; but the title senses are different, while still related. Snyder’s book could as easily been titled Staying Put (more recently adopted by Scott Russell Sanders) as his “Old Ways” took the typical American word-sense and put deeper meaning to it, as in: “the good old days”; a way of life, which encompasses cultural thoughts & values closely embedded in a place, spiritually and organically vital to the people living there.

Macfarlane’s sense of “Old Ways” considers the old and often veiled path-ways of England & Scotland, which in meaning embraces much: the physical path, historic connection, the chosen route and the legal rights thereof. Way is the root of so many common words (e.g. freeway, doorway, causeway, wayward, wayfinding, right of way) that Americans have lost track of that root in usage. Not so Macfarlane, who explores the etymology at length, both in literal & figurative senses. This includes Snyder’s “way of life”, as Macfarlane describes the essence of walking, for himself, his culture and people in general: in losing the stimulating practice of walking the old ways, we have lost important connections to places along that way. In his pedestrian passion Macfarlane welcomes numerous author allies, including Thoreau in his familiar “Walking.”

Above all else, the magic in these pages is Macfarlane’s way with words; I can hardly explain the eloquence. Description flows beautifully and wraps the reader in feeling, in myriad ways, a place described. His British English – and a commitment to precision, lost words, etymology and meaning – can mystify and charm. At one point he explores the word saunter in four languages, arriving at its best precise use. He refrains from analysis or proclaiming held-values or tragic history; his words translate observations so subtly and powerfully, we feel the implications ourselves.

Humility permeates his writing voice, and the characters he admires. He rarely includes himself in observation; as he is often walking and sleeping in harsh conditions, we do not learn how he does it, how he is equipped or how he feels about it. Rather he is ever looking outward to the pathway’s course, or to inward thoughts; his own circumstances are mere distraction.

Characters in his way-stories are sometimes friends walking alongside; sometimes other walkers, watchers or wanderers; but often they are writers, embodied in their words. He is absorbed by the words of others, and quotes freely from sources obscure to American or casual readers, yet revealing of his own thoughts. In one of many examples, by reference to several other authors, he is also describing what readers may perceive to be our humble narrator’s own path:

All of these people had been animated at first by the delusion of a comprehensive totality, the belief that they might come to know their chosen place utterly because of its boundedness. And all had, after long acquaintance, at last understood that familiarity with a place will lead not to absolute knowledge but only ever to further enquiry.

One of his favorite writers is Edward Thomas; though he died in 1917, Thomas’ physical & life’s journey is Macfarlane’s personal obsession, and a common thread throughout the book. Yet there are many others, and Macfarlane is widely read while not effete; variously, he also invokes Hansel & Gretel, Tolkien, Hiawatha and the Iliad. For this reader, for all that Macfarlane appreciates others, his own prose is unsurpassed and suffers companions only for amusement.

Macfarlane’s observations do not comprise a purist homage to nature or wilderness; these are walks through long-inhabited places, featured with relics and scars left by ancient ancestors of those who still walk today. Quoting the walking Thomas, while again seeming to reflect on himself: “He liked the evidence of human mark-making and tampering over the millennia… testifying to a landscape that was commemorative, tending to the consecrated.” Macfarlane places importance on staying connected to that past, with clear observation, nuance and consideration.

One is drawn to the impression, lulled by our guide’s example, that seeking too much grand meaning can obscure rather than reveal what these already faint tracks offer inquiring minds. Nonetheless, we may seek: for example, how different would perception of our past ways be, if the ancient marks and messages on American landscapes belonged to our own ancestors, rather than to native voices prematurely silenced?

Nearing the end of his walking tales, considering all he had seen, the literary characters he encountered and his obsession with one, Macfarlane reflects:

This, I thought, had been the real discovery: not a ghostly retrieval of Thomas, but an understanding of how for him, as for so many other people, the mind was a landscape of a kind and walking a means of crossing it.

I hope I get to read this someday…

guest musings: Pops on Brooke Williams at Village Books

Pops again, on Brooke Williams’ recent visit to Village Books. Background: I think Pops and I both know Brooke exclusively from The Story of My Heart.

Brooke Williams is the kind of old guy you would enjoy having visit at your house: wryly humorous, self-deprecating, a creative thinker; an academic to a fault, but in an earnest, generous, unassertive way.

He is touring now in support of his new book, Open Midnight: Where Wilderness & Ancestors Meet. He & Terry Tempest Williams are recently back from touring China, a trip he describes as changing his perspective significantly by resetting his sense of time: their millennial scale of the past contrasts so much with an American sense of history, problems, solutions. Yet, he also describes meeting a group of Chinese nature activists who freely quoted from Abbey, Snyder, Thoreau, TTW & more – drawing lessons from these “recent” thinkers and finding analogues in their own centuries-old philosophers.

Yes, climate change & Trump were an explicit context for many of his comments. He described wondering “how do we find new answers, new ways to be in the world?”

In discussing his book he talked mostly about the writing process, how thoughts & information came to him, how the book came together, with only brief illustrative readings. It was a casual, entertaining, cogent & developed presentation, without being “canned” in any sense. His book includes imaginings – “things I made up” – so he expressed relief that the editor accepted his insistence it be listed as non-fiction. This was an impressive element of his talk, returned to often. I admit some initial skepticism with the idea of made-up non-fiction; but with his book-story, I am more than persuaded. More likely, this is a fine example of creative non-fiction at its most creative. He had wonderful examples of finding facts in his research, which aligned so closely in a pattern that filling in the gaps with reasoned imagining made perfect sense.

By making his book a journey of discovery, the process is part of his story; so the imaginings become part of the “true” narrative, even when that includes feeling the hand of an ancestor on his shoulder. Another way: it is an organic part of the reading process that we embellish or interpret with our own experience & knowledge. Williams is simply – and transparently – offering his own view as a first-cut in this effort. What memoir does not include some of the subject’s imaginings?! That said, there are certainly spiritual & meditative elements to his story; i.e. he explores the literal possibility of “genetic connection to a place.” A full reading of the book would no doubt hold further challenges.

Before ending, he crossed over a line for me, where the arts purport to offer solutions to real-world problems based on such imaginings & speculation. For Williams, and many others, this means changing consciousness of how we view the world, in order to change the course of history. There is plenty of skilled non-fiction available describing the breadth of human knowledge on such questions, without having to resort to extremes of imagination; Harari’s Sapiens is a foremost recent example, albeit imperfect. I am thankful the arts provide comforting form to our feelings & fears, especially in hard times. I cannot go further than that; for more, I take heart in the sciences.

The role of the arts is also posed by comparative essays I found recently from Scott Russell Sanders & Bob Pyle, writing separately about the very same forest in Oregon. Sanders described an obligation for the arts, based on unique human intellect, to contemplate & interpret the natural world; in contrast, Pyle’s chipper humility on the very subject, and deference to his counterparts in the sciences, is refreshing. As usual, Pyle’s eye on our world is such good tonic for over-seriousness by & about our species.

I think you’re continuing to make progress, Pops, toward understanding what this “creative nonfiction” nonsense is that your daughter is studying. (Note: I use ‘nonfiction,’ but I don’t know that your ‘non-fiction’ is wrong.) I came into this field with a fairly righteous feeling for what should be called true, or nonfiction. But it has become more clear to me that what the author imagines is part of her truth. Her memories, even if others deny them, are truly her memories–although I think she owes it to her reader to acknowledge others’ denials. Full disclosure, I say, for what is remembered and what is known and what is imagined; but all of that can be CNF. As for the roll of art in solving real-world problems, I think there’s room for any number of strategies and solutions, but none is for everyone. And I’d certainly hope/expect that Brooke would agree with you on the value of science. I guess without reading his book neither of us can know how far that concept goes or how offended we’d be, and I didn’t hear the talk. I do think that art can not only offer comfort, but real changes of heart, in how we relate to the world and each other. A Google search will give you various articles, for example, on the value of fiction in teaching empathy and improving real relationships–in other words, how taking in art makes people better at living as people. So I think there’s more there than simple comfort (or symptom relief). But art does not replace science.

Thanks for another thoughtful discussion.

guest review: Staying Put by Scott Russell Sanders, from Pops

Here’s Pops (with a few of my comments throughout).

I recently finished this one, convinced by the title itself as well as your suggestion. In a voice familiar from your description in reviewing Writing From the Center (published just after this book), this is a collection of eight essays evoking the title’s theme, but linked by very personal stories grounded in Midwest roots in two linked places: his Northeast Ohio childhood & southern Indiana adulthood. Narrative lines here intertwine with those in essays published elsewhere, including “Buckeye.”

Generally your observations from Writing, tinged with ambivalence, apply here: variation in pacing & appeal; often intimate & reflective, sometimes tryingly so; repetitive, yet often just overlapping in thought; little here is profound, yet much resonates; and yes, a few essays stand out among the others. Why such disquiet in reading Sanders? Here’s one idea: he writes, with virtually no filters, of deeply personal thoughts & feelings; every detail cannot be as primary to me as it is to him. To glean from what he offers, one need be patient, appreciate such candor & courage, and have an affinity for his life’s odyssey. In the end, he won me over.

His book’s theme of committing heart & soul to a deeply-known place is familiar: Gary Snyder often used the title’s very words (though not mentioned as such by Sanders.) Wendell Berry has invoked Snyder’s words while advising, “stop somewhere, just stop.” Both writers’ sentiments are mentioned in these essays by other references. Stegner’s framing of “boomers & stickers” lurks in the background as I read here. Similarly, surely, for many other writers; Sanders savors recruiting a good number to his cause.

I want to comment briefly on four of these eight essays by reference first to a recent Sanders book. Earth Works (2012) is another gathering of selected essays; in that, it is more like Writing than the theme-based Staying Put, but with many more essays than Writing, of course spanning more of his life’s work. I will be seeking out this latest collection next. I find the essay form fits Sanders well; and a reader can take one at a time, at whatever pace necessary – a good way to digest Sanders.

I had noted two essays in Staying Put that I particularly liked; if I were to stretch that to four, it would match the same four selected in Earth Works (credit to me? or the editor? or both?).

You’re saying, I think, that four were selected from Staying for inclusion in Earth? And that they’re your favorite four from this collection?

In my list, “After the Flood” first stands out for its poignant child’s-eye witnessing of environmental tragedy, one of many life events that recur in his writings due to their persistent impact.

“Settling Down” (which is curiously – and appropriately – re-titled “Staying Put” in the collection) is where he explicitly expounds on the book’s theme, with consideration from multiple perspectives and assistance from those other noted writers.

“Wayland” is a wonderful survey of seven important boyhood lessons, each elicited by a specific physical childhood place as he visits each in adulthood, on a single walk and all within a quarter mile radius. (Teaser, but not spoiler, the seven lessons are: death, life, beasts, food, mind, sex & God.)

“House and Home” is a literal interpretation of the formulation place=home=house, as he describes connections to his house: physical, organic, spiritual, familial. For many, this would seem superficial, overly materialistic; he makes it quite something otherwise.

In contrast, my sentiments lean more towards a fifth essay, “The Force of Moving Water.” On a grand scale, he considers the physical place defined by the Ohio River watershed, which encompasses and connects his heritage in both Ohio & Indiana. (It also includes WV Wesleyan College, on the Buckhannon River, tributary of the Monongahela River, which feeds the Ohio.)

I am delighted to know that WVWC makes an appearance in this collection!

This essay suggests (confirmed so far in my reading of Sanders here & elsewhere) his persistence in using water as metaphor as well as essential element in knowing any place. Whether implicit or oblique, water, streams, watersheds arise for him in many contexts.

This doesn’t surprise me, Pops, given what I think is your special interest in watersheds generally.

I particularly appreciate his thorough study of the Ohio watershed, this recognition of understanding watershed as a vital dimension of “wide & deep” consideration of place. And it is a splendid demonstration of Sanders’ seriousness meditating on place, from myriad vantage points.

The other three Staying Put essays are: “Earth’s Body,” wherein he cogitates on his tortured obsession with both God and relentless bouts of depression. “Ground Notes,” which borders too closely on old-school “what is reality” rumination. “Telling the Holy” is a useful consideration of the power of stories, myth, religion; spiritual, primordial & necessary. (I should probably read that one again.)

Is he a “nature writer”? In the preface to Earth Works he provides a helpful answer:

I am sometimes asked if I am a “nature” writer, as if paying attention to our membership in the web of life were a specialized interest, like following sports or fashion or cuisine. What I am is an Earth writer: I’m interested in life on this planet—all life. Since I know most about my own species, I think mostly about human affairs, but I do so while seeking to understand how our kind arises from and affects the living world.

Sanders has numerous essays in Orion magazine; several are available online here; I read three of them:

“Stillness” – absorbed in self again: a wide-ranging tussle with privilege, conscience, God, spirituality, human scourge, family; emerging with optimism.

“Mind in the Forest” (also in Earth Works) – a writing retreat meditating in an Oregon old-growth research forest.

“Breaking the Spell of Money” – a largely predictable, thoroughly moral argument against capitalism from a well-meaning artist, self-declared “not an economist.” Enough said?

These last two essays convince me I like the younger, self-absorbed Sanders; the elder, in presuming to analyze the world for causes & solutions (especially economics!), disappoints too much.

Thanks, Pops, for as always a thoughtful and very thorough critique. I would like to read this one someday, although I don’t know if this is the semester. Your comments about the essay form are well taken–that some of us are suited to one format over another. He is maybe best suited to the essay, and best taken this way, too!

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray

Early in my reading, I was ambivalent about this book, although I cannot now remember why. Did her writing get stronger as the book progressed? Did her vision & thesis take shape and grow on me? Was I just in a mood? By the end, I felt friendly towards the narrator and the book.

Janisse Ray grew up on a junkyard in south Georgia, one of four children. Her family was strictly religious, rural, somewhat isolated, and their lives were simply furnished for both religious and financial reasons, although they were not painfully poor: “We never ever lacked food, but we had few treats.” This book is an essay collection that is two things at once: a memoir; and a naturalist’s description of a nearly-vanished landscape–an elegy. The chapter/essays alternate between Ray’s personal and family story, and the ecological side. In reading this was a little less obvious to me, because I would argue that the ecology bits include some personal, and vice versa; but the table of contents makes this structure clear and intentional: the naturalist chapter titles are italicized, like Latin names of species would be. This is what the title is telling us, that it is both ecology and cracker childhood, and also the ecology of that childhood, and of the cracker people (one of the ecology essays is titled “Crackers,” as they are themselves one of the species at work in the system).

Ray’s homeland was once a longleaf pine forest, and that diverse ecosystem (and the pine savanna that wanders through it) is endangered and precious to her, now, but her upbringing did not emphasize it. The discovery of her homeland as a natural ecosystem, and its loss almost before she knew it, came later. As interesting as her childhood is, and the ecological part too, that young-adult awakening was perhaps the most compelling part of this story for me; maybe that’s part of why it became most appealing to me late in the book, when the awakening is told.

I learned a lot about a place and an ecosystem, and I enjoyed the personal memoir. I was especially fascinated by the strict religion that did not allow girls to wear pants, jewelry or makeup; had them cover their hair to pray; forbade holidays, ball games, parties, television, newspapers, dating, sports, on and on. This stuff is so far from my personal experience as to feel exotic, or weird, so I read it with that added curiosity we feel when we encounter the foreign. And it made Ray’s experience at college so compelling: alcohol, rappelling, skydiving, and simply swimming (something her family’s dress code never allowed), oh my! The parallel discovery, as I’ve said, is of nature as a subject for study, admiration or even just notice. She observes that she had a grandfather who loved the woods, but that her father couldn’t take the time; and a culture of people working to just get by didn’t have the energy to hug trees. It’s a sad story.

Ray does some lovely writing. I love the parallel of restoring a junkyard to a natural ecosystem, and restoring a ’58 Studebaker (with parts, presumably, to be found in the junkyard). I love this grandmother: “Her skin was soft and loose, and her face wrinkled in a beautiful way that showed she had always liked to smile. Her eyes, behind silver glasses that matched the soft halo of her hair, had life in them.” There are several noteworthy characteristics to this book. Its subjects were new to me, at least: that is, the place, the ecosystem, and the upbringing or culture. Its structure is interesting. I’m not sure why it grew on me so slowly, but grow on me it did.


Rating: 7 gopher tortoises.

The Pine Island Paradox: Making Connections in a Disconnected World by Kathleen Dean Moore

pine-island-paradoxThis is a complexly put together collection. These are essays, both personal/memoir and nature writing, based on islands, organized by disconnections (see the subtitle): human/nature, near/far, sacred/mundane. Back-of-book blurbs variously characterize these essays as being about nature; ecology; family; and philosophy. But I think they are about connections/disconnections and most of all about boundaries. Where does island end and sea begin, for example, if the tides change? Moore uses lovely, musical language; precise, apt images; and communicates emotion and intellectual difficulties nicely. From a craft perspective, this is a dense book; but it is easy to read for the simple experience.

It is Moore’s thesis, stated in her prologue, that our Western understanding of the world is based on divisions, on separating things and experiences out into categories. (She is a philosophy professor.) She sets out to take apart three of those separations: human/nature, near/far, and sacred/mundane. These are the three sections of the book; but also, each is set or at least organized around a specific island. After beginning and ending her prologue with the concept of geography, or mapmaking, she begins each main section with a page-and-a-half titled “Geography,” in which she describes these islands: Pine Island well off the Pacific coast of Alaska; a gravel island in the Willamette River in Oregon (near Moore’s home); and a volcanic sea stack off the Oregon coast. All of these organizational tools, taken in with her title, subtitle and explicit plans laid out in the prologue, combine to form complex but clear structure, focus and themes. Connections and disconnections; islands; boundaries; and the paradoxes implied. An important sub-theme involves Moore’s close relationship with her family: husband, two children, and eventually a daughter-in-law, who is called her third child in her acknowledgements. This is just another form of connection, so a sub-theme rather than an additional or secondary one.

Some of you will recall that less than a year ago I lived in the Pacific Northwest, too. I recognized much of what Moore described: the wet drippingness of the world for so many months, relief at seeing the sun, the importance of salmon. Some of this was hard for me to read: that pervasive wet really got under my skin (maybe even a little literally). I had some strong reactions to some of what I read here, which is a good thing: Robin Hemley wrote, “You should always be prepared to argue with a good book.”

This is not my new favorite piece of writing: there are a few places where I’d have enjoyed seeing things done a little differently. But it was very moving many times over; many individual essays were fantastic; I think (as a personal preference) I’d rather there had been a little more subtlety to the overall message. This was a bit too much explicit “I am writing this to make you care more about the natural world,” especially in the prologue. But again, that’s a personal reaction, and there’s no arguing Moore’s skill with words (musical language), images, her expertise and her use of emotion (nor do I doubt her sincerity). And if she inspired me to some argument, that’s useful, too.


Rating: 8 wet words.

The Pine Barrens by John McPhee

the-pine-barrensThe Pine Barrens came to my MFA reading list from my advisor Katie Fallon, and I can’t recall her justification, I just took it. It was a good tip. I’m a fan of McPhee now. I knew his name but don’t believe I’d read any of his work before.

I would call this a collection of related essays about the region of New Jersey called the Pine Barrens. I don’t known a ton about New Jersey, and had not heard of this place before. It’s a vast region in the southern part of the state that is thickly forested and very thinly populated; it is distinctive in climate, flora and fauna, and human culture, not very well known and subject to unfair stereotypes.* In these ways, it reminded me a little of the Driftless region I read about in this book, which is a less artful piece of literature than McPhee’s, but a similarly fascinating profile, I think. I am trying to say that peculiar places, especially when they come with peculiar peoples, are very interesting to me. (As much as I love nature, and nature writing, I admit to a weakness for people.) So, I enjoyed the subject of this book very much.

And also the writing. McPhee has certain qualities in common with Joseph Mitchell (see Up in the Old Hotel): neutral, journalistic, mostly absent from his own story. His descriptions are matter-of-fact and seemingly unadorned, although they are also often lovely images: they only seem straightforward. As a classmate of mine once said, easy-to-read writing that flows effortlessly is deceptively hard to write. He has an eye for just the right characterizing line of dialog:

“Horace’s mother and mine used to make their own yeast, too–out of potato water and hops. Modern women aren’t up to that.”

“They give you cold beans,” Horace Adams said.

Something about those cold beans really tickled me. Or this line:

He is about fifty, and he has a manner that suggests that he is not afraid to work and not afraid not to work.

The backwoods, simpler-times feel of the Pine Barrens and the pineys struck me somehow as… not bucolic, but pleasantly green and calm and quiet. McPhee felt for me like Mitchell but a little more foreign, because my personal experiences are a little closer to Mitchell’s urban setting than to this one. Both writers use language and sentences that feel simple rather than poetic or flowery, although both their language and their sentences are more complicated than they first appear. McPhee ties in research and outside sources with the immediate scenes he describes (visiting a piney cabin to ask for water, talking with its inhabitants) neatly; one flows into the other without much transition needed. It’s a smoothly flowing piece of narrative even though it covers a lot of ground.

I fear it is the work of some close reading indeed to figure out how to make such lovely work seem so effortless, but I’ll try.

In related news, thanks, Tassava, for sending me the link to this inteview with McPhee by The Paris Review. He sent it (unknowing) mere hours after I finished reading this, my first McPhee. It’s a great read – long, but juicy with gems, both funny lines and helpful thoughts for writers. What a joy.


Rating: 8 jugs.

*This book was first published in 1967, and my impression of the Pine Barrens is mostly based on this dated account. How remote and untouched is the region still today? I am not the one to say. Wikipedia calls it “largely undisturbed.” But there is also a website, www.njpinebarrens.com, which begs the question…

Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon

Full disclosure: Katie Fallon is my faculty advisor this semester, meaning we’ll be working closely together. I read this book just before meeting her.


Mid-April in our southern mountains is a gentle time; blooming forsythia lights up yards like bursts of yellow fireworks, magnolia trees sport gaudy white and pink blossoms, and median strips swell with lilacs and tulips.

cerulean-bluesCerulean Blues is a book about the cerulean warbler, a migratory songbird in danger but not listed as endangered (yet); it is also a book about the author’s becoming a fan and ally of the little bird, a year in her life.

It is organized by seasons: spring, summer and fall. In spring, Fallon discovers the bird and its possibilities for her, and the danger it’s in. This just happens to be as well the spring of 2007, and she is teaching at Virginia Tech when a school shooting takes place there that kills 33. The trauma of these events will shadow everything that follows for her. But she continues on through summer, when she travels to visit the cerulean in its northern habitats near her own Appalachian home, and fall, when she goes further afield to its migratory home in Colombia.

While Fallon is reflective and personal throughout, and the reader gets to know her husband and their rescue dog Mr. Bones as well as the narrator’s own insecurities and grief, this is very much a book about a bird species and its plight. While also showcasing some lovely language (see quotation above), she teaches us a great deal about cerulean warblers and the research (and personalities) that have taught her about them. It’s ultimately a work of science reporting by a non-scientist, as well as a memoir. I found her emotions and minor human flaws easily accessible, and the bird facts equally so. I felt that I got to know her by reading this–which turns out to be particularly applicable to my own studies, but will be rewarding for any reader. The Katie Fallon of these pages is an easy-to-like, easy-to-read instructor, and I think the cerulean warbler will gain more than a few more allies in its readers. (Quick hint: be sure to buy shade-grown and/or bird-friendly coffee!) Nice to meet you, Katie.


Rating: 7 colored bands.

Keep your eyes out for Katie’s next work of nonfiction, available in March of this year. I am especially looking forward to this one, titled Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. Vultures are among my favorite birds, as they were Ed Abbey’s.

%d bloggers like this: