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!

guest review: The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland by Nan Shepherd (introduction by Robert Macfarlane), from Pops

Months ago, back in August, my father came to visit me in my new home in West Virginia. One of our evenings was spent with my friends Doug and Melissa, down at the little brewery in their town, sharing stories and pints and a pizza. Among many other things, various author names were thrown about. Robert Macfarlane forms a meeting point for Pops and Doug. We finished up at their home, with a little casual live music from our host, and a book recommendation. My father returned home to Washington state and acted quickly. I received this email from him just a week or two later.

On Doug’s recommendation, I received this WWII-era book, lost and only first published in 1977: The Living Mountain, by a UK publisher, from Pacific Northwest provider ThriftBooks. This used copy is the 2011 edition with a 26-page introduction by Robert Macfarlane. Shepherd’s subject-homeland is the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland, one of my favorite places from our visit, where we stayed a few days so I could take several mountain hikes, view Scots Pine recovery efforts and drink Cairngorm Brewery’s Black Gold Ale at the local pub with a view.

In 1977, The Guardian called it “the finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain.” Their 2011 review says “This is sublime, in the 18th-century sense, when landscapes like these were terrifying. And she achieves it in language that is almost incantatory, like a spell…” I can’t wait.

Scots pines. photo credit: Pops.

Black Gold. photo credit: Pops.

Some three months later, I received this review.

The introduction here is by Robert Macfarlane, who nearly singlehandedly has led a revival of her works of poetry, fiction and this book. And today the Scottish 5-pound note displays her image, with a quotation.

As Macfarlane says, this is “a formidably difficult book to describe.” Shepherd’s subject here is the Cairngorms: a massif, a group of peaks, a plateau – all those things, which she habitually refers to as the Mountain: an organism, an ecosystem, full of life, all its pieces intricately and inextricably linked. This place comprised her true life-long home, even as she traveled widely. She was obviously a committed and ambitious walker, in all weather; hers were no casual visits to the Mountain, and she often stayed overnight.

The Scottish author quietly lectured in English for Aberdeen College for most of her career. Eight years after writing four books in a burst, she wrote (and shelved) this one in 1945 at age 52. It was only published in 1977, inexplicably (although: Macfarlane notes the same year saw four other similar classics; again, a mystery). She died four years later.

Her language is simple, florid, passionate, and so unending it leaves one nearly breathless even if reading in silence, creating a sense of stream-of-consciousness in spite of typical narrative form. I was immediately deterred from any highlighting or marginalia; the prose is simply too dense with compelling description and notions. It is no surprise to learn she was a close reader of Buddhism; her sense of being one with the Mountain is complete: spiritually, physically, emotionally. Her ability to convey a deep and personal devotion to place challenges many others who embrace the same sense, and work hard at molding language to the task of saying so: Berry, Doyle, Sanders, Kingsnorth come to mind. Yet, reportedly, she never felt that task complete.

I was reassured all along knowing we have Macfarlane’s introduction to rely on; it’s an artful and meaningful essay in itself, and does justice to her work. He reports reading the book “perhaps a dozen times,” and his always capable language is informed by his own early-life passion for the same place, which I briefly visited as well. I only wish I had carried her slim, small volume with me when I was there, as both guide and inspiration.

What a lovely review, and strong endorsement! Thanks, Pops.

And for a postscript: Macfarlane’s 2013 Guardian article (with slideshow) about his recent visit to the Mountain, Shepherd always in mind, provides ample evidence of the magic.

guest review: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, from Pops

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first novel is The Water Dancer, a victim of my high expectations I’m afraid; so this is an ambivalent, and very subjective, review. First, the challenges: an indirect narrative style that often confounds and obscures, with overworked symbolism and metaphor that just didn’t work for me. I appreciated the general sweep of the story and many key characters, and ultimately, the ‘message’ or ‘meaning’ I think it all carries. But ultimately the journey was not as satisfying as it may have been with a more comfortable form. Nevertheless, I match this with Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and films 12 Years a Slave and Harriet*, all providing healthy realistic images of slavery, and the human stories embedded in that history.

We follow first-person narrator Hiram Walker from a failing Virginia tobacco plantation (owned by his white father, who owns his slave mother), to a vibrant, diverse and urban Philadelphia before the Fugitive Slave Act, front-line base for the ‘Underground’; and then his return to the plantation. The story’s sweep is like the contrast of those places: from stifling oppression and decay, to liberating promise, and back again. That middle is also a high point in this work; it encompasses Coates’ version of important real characters and events at a time of social ferment wider than just abolition. Notably: William Still (a monumental historical figure whose book The Underground Railroad Records Coates credits in a brief Author Note); wonderful characterization of the vibrant city at a social moment in time that was creative and liberating; and Harriet Tubman, by that name a character in this story, including a slave-liberating foray into her native Maryland, based on fact. (It was uncanny and tremendously satisfying to see the wonderful film Harriet on opening weekend, just as her story was unfolding in my reading.) Sophie (focus of Hiram’s affection); episodic ally Corrine and her loyal aide Hawkins; the tragic Dr. Fields; and the whole White family in Philadephia – are all important and endearing supporting characters.

In his telling, Coates shows a sophisticated sense of history as he describes the workings of plantation economics, terribly destructive to human lives, rich naturally abundant soil and the values of a nation in the process of forming itself. The central idea that anchors Coates’ tale is one to embrace: nothing in this world is ‘pure’ – not simple, and not just one thing (except perhaps the evil institution of slavery, a touchstone never questioned by our protagonist and his cohort). It’s a lesson in dialectics, in nuance; life is messy and non-linear, throwing us unexpected curves, confusion and tragic irony. Individuals thought to be one thing, can surprise in their complexity. Bloodlines are all mixed up, connecting people in surprising ways, and not always predictive of their soul. Freedom is not a place one can entirely escape to; it is much more complicated than that. In all this, Coates offers useful space for observing both our history, and our human-centric world.

Given that I know Coates to be a thoughtful and helpful social observer, and a skilled writer, I suspect he wrote exactly the book he wanted to write. I also expect it will age well with me, and perhaps more perspective will emerge as Coates’ career matures.

Sounds like a careful and considered response, Pops, and thank you. This is why an unusual narrative structure is a risk. Metaphor can be overdone; and we all have different thresholds, of course. I appreciate you wondering how it will age with you, too, though.


*I want to acknowledge that the movie Harriet has seen some very mixed reactions. There have been some concerns (like about casting). There have also been some counterpoints; this source claims the white savior allegation is not factual. I thought Buzzfeed and Business Insider (of all places) did a decent job of trying to parse the controversies. (I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m just sampling a few other thinkers here.)

guest review: A Song for the River by Philip Connors, from Pops

Just a few lines, but good ones I think, from Pops about Philip Connors’s latest, which I originally reviewed here.

This week I finished reading this one. All the things you said, and probably more, as you also said. Really difficult reading sometimes (no, I have not read All the Wrong Places).

For me, it was very much an offering of lessons in seeking to fully embrace, process and find peace with loss – of so many different kinds. It’s a careful balance, between complete denial (mainstream versions of distraction) and over-thinking things into dark chasms of the soul. We both know people at the extremes and the wide expanse in between. Connors is indeed courageous to seek this balance ‘publicly’ – and well-equipped to give voice to the messy, insecure & fraught process. I am in awe.

Me, too, and always. I’m glad to hear you found the same. Phil, keep writing.

guest review: the Orpheum Theatre presents Hamilton (2019), from Pops

Some months ago now, my parents went to see Hamilton in San Francisco (lucky them!), and I am now sharing with you Pops’s remarks – because the next post you see here will be my own response to another Hamilton production, 2300 miles away. Briefly, then, here’s Pops.

The audience was surprisingly white; guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the price and the world-class tourist destination of San Francisco.

I was impressed there were so many teens with families, young people, and couples; there is a cross-generational attraction.

It was like a rock concert: excitement building just waiting; with the first chord of music, they cheered and hooted like these were rock idols; the conductor was obviously pacing the opening song to allow for applause and cheering, so we didn’t miss too many opening lyrics.

The stage set was huge, simple, stationary and visually rich to my eye, smacking of heavy-timbered construction, shades of dark brown; it was open, no curtains, enticing the awaiting crowd; the show began with Aaron Burr simply striding out on stage and letting loose!

The talent on stage was overpowering; wonderful, top to bottom; the audio system was good, and the powerful music will move you; but the rapid fire lyrics were still sometimes lost to individual diction or presentation; good to be familiar!

It strikes me that the ‘politics’ of this production are largely in the ‘meta’ of presentation, not so much the content of lyrics: i.e. diversity of skin color, musical style, physical character portrayal, etc.

The cast presented a broad palette of skin color; very few racial or ethnic stereotypes appropriate here; it was wonderful how that quickly faded to background as each character established their identity with other features.

The acting adds so much to the songs! Characters were sometimes surprising as fleshed out by actors, with body language and expression adding so much; good seats up front paid off; so many of these ‘familiar’ historical ‘founding fathers’ were so different as portrayed, Jefferson especially (as a buffoon!); George Washington retained the most tradition I thought, with great gravitas; I thought our Aaron Burr was by far the powerful character, as portrayed by a handsome man who I thought to be a doppelganger for Van Jones, if you know him.

There is great dancing too! Again, totally missed listening to only audio; it’s fun how the ensemble women also play male or ambiguous gender roles in other scenes.

We saw the relatively inexperienced #2 Hamilton actor, and he was great; I suppose the #1 is saved for weekends – he has a much longer and showier background including a Broadway tour. One wonders about different interpretations…

Act 1 is all upbeat, high energy, uplifting; the shorter Act 2 brings the steady decline to denouement, like a Shakespearean tragedy; it’s a sad ending – no attempt to sugar-coat history.

I’ll be responding to these thoughts in my own review. It was so fun to get this email and whet my own considerable appetite for the same show…

“A Native Hill” by Wendell Berry

In preparation for an upcoming visit to Kentucky, and because he appears everywhere around me and I have not devoted the time yet: Wendell Berry.

More than a year ago, my father bought me a copy of the new collection, The World-Ending Fire, selected and with an introduction by Paul Kingsnorth (who I do appreciate). I regret that I have not made time for it yet; and it’s currently boxed up in a storage unit (along with so many other excellent books) and unavailable to me. But Pops still set me up with some reading, beginning with an email explaining his selections, and outlining some of Berry’s major themes: sense of place; tragedies of American history; the urban-rural divide; humility; soil; honest work; naturalism; spirituality. Then he had me read Kingsnorth’s introduction to the new collection, and one noteworthy Berry essay: “A Native Hill.”

As an overall, obviously I appreciate Wendell Berry. All the right ingredients are there: strong attachment to place, defense of the land, argument against larger society, thoughtful, lovely prose. I had always assumed I would appreciate Berry. Also, I’ve heard that he can be difficult, and dated. Kingsnorth notes in his introduction that Berry’s writing technology of choice is, firmly, the pencil: I have no problem with tried and true technologies (recall Boyle). But I am a bit pricklier about gender and race, for example. Berry (like so many) uses “man” to stand for all humanity. And he is still using “Negro” in this essay, which admittedly was published in 1968. But one notices these things, in 2019.

This reading didn’t surprise me much, then. I found a few things to quibble with, which I will lay out below. But overall, I’m going to keep reading and appreciating this man, while reserving the right to quibble.

Here are a series of quotations I marked as I read, which I’m going to let stand as my review.

Why should I love one place so much more than any other? What could be the meaning or the use of such love?

Way to jump right in and steal my heart. Why, indeed? You, faithful blog reader (thank goodness for you), know how much place matters to me as a reader and as a writer. It consumes my thoughts and dreams.

About the truism that “you can’t go home again”:

But I knew also that as the sentence was spoken to me it bore a self-dramatizing sentimentality that was absurd. Home–the place, the countryside–was still there, still pretty much as I left it, and there was not a reason in the world I could not go back to it if I wanted to.

Well lucky you, Berry, but you do realize not everyone has the luxury of this experience? The places that are left untouched from our childhoods are fewer and fewer. Mine is not still there pretty much as I left it, at all. Dog help us, they tore down Fitzgerald’s.

What… made the greatest difference was the knowledge of the few square miles in Kentucky that were mine by inheritance and by birth and by the intimacy the mind makes with the place it awakens in.

Again, lucky you. And hey, I am lucky that my parents will almost certainly leave me some piece of land, but it’s not square miles, and it’s not something I was born to; it’s something they bought later in their lives and that I admire but do not feel especially close to; it’s not where I grew up. (Not for lack of effort, on my part or theirs, to make this place feel like home.) Some of these ideals are easy to live when you’re born with the right set of circumstances, hmm? And what would you say to someone whose inheritance, birth, and intimacy lay with the heart of New York City?

I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice.

and

In this awakening there has been a good deal of pain. When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong. It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history.

These I feel, too, with regards to Texas.

And so here, in the place I love more than any other and where I have chosen among all other places to live my life, I am more painfully divided within myself than I could be in any other place.

Because of the quotation directly above: no place we love will ever be perfect. Kentucky and Texas have their share of sins, but if one of you lives in a place that never did harm, throw your stones now.

A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity.

By contrast, a road:

Its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge.

I appreciated his medium-deep dive here into paths, trails, roads, bridges, what they mean physically and metaphorically. Trails matter to me; and they make an excellent metaphor.

The pristine America that the first white men saw is a lost continent, sunk like Atlantis in the sea.

I worry about this, as another form of deifying the past, or in this case the Native Americans. Were they really doing this world no harm? I admit to the same prejudice Berry shows here, thinking that no, they did no harm. But now I wonder if that’s true? It reeks of romanticizing what we don’t understand.

It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence.

A lovely line; I think we all know what it is to walk knee-deep in an absence of some kind; also, I’m almost certain this line was referenced by Matt Ferrence, which endears it to me again.

Near its end, this essay reminds me of Scott Russell Sanders, specifically the hawk that closes “Buckeye.” The final section of Berry’s essay offers a series of short, nearly prose-poetry segments. Third from last of these is an event that proves, for Berry, that nature knows not only peace by joy. It stars a great blue heron (parallel to Sanders’s red-tailed hawk), a bird that is important to me personally: it’s probably the first bird I learned to identify on my own, an easy one, since it’s both large and distinctive; and they have been present in many of the places I’ve traveled in this country, remote and far-flung, as well as in the urban setting of my hometown of Houston, where I used to see them fishing in the early mornings along the bayou in the Texas Medical Center as I walked from car or train station to work. This bird Berry describes as measured, deliberate, stately, “like a dignitary,” stately again – I agree on all counts – and then he sees it turn a loop-the-loop in the air, exultant, “a benediction on the evening and on the river and on me.” This transcendent moment – and Berry’s powerful prose – affected me deeply.

And then, one evening a year later, I saw it again.

Wow.

I do recommend this essay by Berry, and I will be reading more of him – though I may have to dig through that storage unit to do so.

I could not close without referring you, as Pops referred me, to “The Peace of Wild Things”. I had encountered this poem before, but Pops points out that it’s published the same year as “A Native Hill,” and condenses and distills much of the essay’s feeling. It’s worth another look, no matter how familiar you are.


Rating: 8 threads of light and sound.
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