Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

A few thoughts about H is for Hawk

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

H is for HawkI recently finished the audiobook of H is for Hawk, written and read by Helen Macdonald, and immediately wanted to write about it on my blog, to share this extraordinary book with the world. Then I discovered that it was an international bestseller, winner of numerous awards, and apparently everyone already did know about it, deservedly so.

I was actually surprised to learn it was a bestseller, not because it isn’t good, but because it’s so unique, so personal, so specific. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, it is a memoir about the author’s efforts to train a goshawk after her own father’s death, weaving in a biographical account of T.H. White and his less-successful attempts to train a goshawk while dealing with his own life issues.

What inspired me most about the book was that it combined such obscure and personal narratives into something universal. Most of us know very little about hawk training, much less about T.H. White. Yet these things were meaningful to the author, and brought out larger narrative themes that everyone can relate to, like love and loss, and primal instincts that have no name.

Some have argued that it isn’t really a nature book, because nature is something wild and untamed, while the main focus of this book is a tame and captive hawk, which does most of its hunting in suburbs and college campuses. But I think there is still a wildness to this hawk, and this book, which explores powerful themes of nature and what it means to be animal or human. Nature may be at its most elemental far from civilization, but sometimes a thing has to be pulled out of context in order to study it and see it in a new light. So while the book straddles the worlds of humans and animals, the themes of wildness and nature are still very much present.

So, what exactly constitutes “nature writing”? It depends on who you ask, and the topic has received much debate lately, but I will save that for another post. For now, you can read an interview with Helen Macdonald here, and also here.

And here’s a video interview from the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

 

Happy Earth Day – poetry and plants

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

Spring Crocuses

Earth Day is a time when we celebrate and honor nature, in all its wild untamed beauty. We also search for ways to understand and appreciate nature, and one such way is poetry.

I have featured nature poetry on this website before, by the likes of Keats, Herrick, and of course Emily Dickinson. Recently I came across a wonderful article about the uses of Plants in Poetry, by Kelly Brenner of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. She demonstrates plants as symbolism in Shakespeare, plants as lessons and morals in Shel Silverstein, and plants as an appreciation of nature in the work of Dickinson.

It appears the poetic power of plants is timeless, as these works are just as potent today as when they were written. Perhaps they are even more powerful, as we seem to have grown distant as a species from the friendly flora around us. Plants are potted and mulched into neat corners of society, making our unconscious yearning for the natural world all the more powerful.

Luckily we have the poets to help bring us back, and remind us of our deep bond with the natural world. Nature poems are not always happy ones, which just goes to show how well nature reflects our inner selves.

One of the poems featured in the article above is The Withering Of The Boughs by William Butler Yeats. I’ll leave you with an excerpt, you can read the entire poem at the original post.

I cried when the moon was murmuring to the birds:
‘Let peewit call and curlew cry where they will,
I long for your merry and tender and pitiful words,
For the roads are unending, and there is no place to my mind.’
The honey-pale moon lay low on the sleepy hill,
And I fell asleep upon lonely Echtge of streams.

No boughs have withered because of the wintry wind;
The boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams.

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Autumn, in painting and poetry

Friday, September 23rd, 2011
Autumn Landscape With Four Trees - Vincent van Gogh

Autumn Landscape With Four Trees - Vincent van Gogh

Autumn is here once again! The changing of the seasons is a favorite topic here at The Untended Garden, perhaps because so many artists have been inspired by the seasons.

Today I present a famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh, appropriately entitled Autumn Landscape With Four Trees (click the image for a larger view.) What’s most interesting to me about this painting is the ordinariness of the scene. He did not choose a majestic vista or mountaintop, as so many landscape artists do, he chose a clump of very ordinary, almost misshapen trees – one of them has even lost its leaves. And yet the artist saw something beautiful in them, and chose to immortalize this view forever, so that we could all experience this moment the way he did.

Likewise, Emily Dickinson captured her own particular notion of autumn in the poem below. Even though autumn is beautiful, she seems to say, it also portends a passing of time that is not so easily accepted.

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As Summer into Autumn slips
And yet we sooner say
“The Summer” than “the Autumn,” lest
We turn the sun away,

And almost count it an Affront
The presence to concede
Of one however lovely, not
The one that we have loved —

So we evade the charge of Years
On one attempting shy
The Circumvention of the Shaft
Of Life’s Declivity.

– Emily Dickinson

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North by East: the woodcuts of Rockwell Kent

Monday, July 18th, 2011

N by E coverLast summer I did a whole series of posts about the ocean, and how it was depicted in books, paintings and films. My post about Moby Dick featured artwork by Rockwell Kent, known for his dramatic woodcut illustrations for that story. A few months ago I came across another nautical book by Kent, this time written by him as well, called N by E.

Rockwell Kent was a traveler and adventurer who spent his life painting and drawing epic scenes of nature. N by E is, in the words of the preface, “the story of an actual voyage to Greenland in a small boat: of a shipwreck there and of what, if anything, happened afterwards.”

These illustrations are little gems of composition and line. They are all the more remarkable when you realize they are woodcuts, where the white is literally carved away and the black areas left alone. There is no “undo” in this process. There’s something stark and powerful about these images, which evoke more drama with two colors than many artists do with a full palette.

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

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Katy and the Big Snow – a children’s classic

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Katy and the Big Snow

All this recent snow has reminded me of one of my favorite picture books from childhood, Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton. Though not as famous as some of her other books, I think it’s one of the best books about snow, and one of the best picture books ever made.

The story is deceptively simple – a city is buried in a blizzard of snow, and a tractor named Katy saves the day by plowing everyone out. But there are many remarkable things about this book, starting with the design. Burton was a designer and printmaker as well as an author and illustrator, and she uses pattern, shape and simplification to turn every page into a visual marvel. Take the city itself, designed as a map so intricate yet so understandable because of its simple design.

Katy and the Big Snow sample

This map becomes even more amazing when you realize that it is a template for all the scenes later in the book. When Katy plows out the railroad station, you can go back to the map and see how it matches up. Burton even adds a compass to many of the pages to help readers see where they are.

There is also a wonderful use of white space to emphasize the blanket of snow that envelopes the city. As the intrepid tractor plows through the snow, we see the city emerge from the whiteness. She plows each section of the city, eventually uncovering the entire map that we saw at the beginning of the book.

Katy and the Big Snow

There are many other layers to this book, for instance how it shows all the different parts of a city (fire department, water department, telephone company, etc) and how they work together. And it has great little details like the milk truck and bakery truck resuming their deliveries after Katy clears the way.

The repeating swirls and curves of the city establish a visual theme that is carried throughout the book. Even more so than The Little House or Mike Mulligan, this book uses the kind of decorative borders and patterns that Burton excelled at in her printmaking and fabric design. The simple palette of white and blue, set off with highlights of red, yellow and green for the buildings, makes for a vivid and memorable design.

Katy and the Big Snow

There are almost no close-ups in this book, something which goes against all the “rules” of book illustration that say you must vary your perspective. And yet it works here because it lets you follow Katy’s progress as she plows out each section of the city, and you can see not only where she is at that moment, but also the places she previously plowed out as they resume their business. Burton had an instinctive eye for how to tell a story visually, and how to show only what was necessary.

The story itself contains themes of patience and hard work. Katy is too big to plow during light storms, but when the big blizzard hits, she comes to the rescue and saves the entire city. The fact that Katy is a female tractor is never mentioned, which in itself is a quiet but powerful message about equality. Almost sixty years after its publication, children’s books about trucks and machines are still overwhelmingly aimed at boys, which is too bad. Katy was a pioneer, just like her creator, carving out new paths in storytelling and bookmaking. This is a true classic, far ahead of its time; and in some ways, ahead of ours.

Arthur Rackham’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

Friday, November 12th, 2010

TreeNovember always puts me in the mind for Arthur Rackham, one of my favorite illustrators. I especially love how he draws trees, which are like living, breathing creatures with personalities all their own.

With a limited palette and spare lines, his paintings are full of raw emotion, and he finds beauty in the most gnarled and thorny landscapes. His palette was mostly due to the limited color printing process at the time, though you can tell he’s right at home with it, and can channel a thousand subtleties in its limited range.

These illustrations are all from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. For a tale so entwined with nature and magical creatures, Rackham is the perfect fit. Notice how the characters and backgrounds are seamlessly blended together, so that the landscape becomes a character in itself. When not illustrating, Rackham did a lot of sketching landscapes outdoors, and it shows in his work. I encourage you to find books with his illustrations, to see all the amazing detail.

Also see my post from last year about Arthur Rackham’s amazing trees.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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A Midsummer Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham

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Moby Dick, a whale of a book

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010
Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Continuing my summer ocean theme, I’d like to discuss one of the great novels of the sea, Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I was never forced to read the book in school, and probably wouldn’t have liked it if I did. This is not a book that one can step into lightly or reluctantly, you have to dive in head first and grapple with it, like the great sea creatures it describes. It was only later that I discovered the quirky qualities of this epic tome.

The book is more famous today for its reputation and symbolism than for the actual text, which is too bad. The writing is unlike any other book I’ve read, rambling and unfocused, yet sharp and perceptive. Everyone knows the storyline, of the manic Captain Ahab who hunts the world over for Moby Dick, the white whale who took off his leg; it’s a gripping allegory with enough symbolism for a dozen dissertations.

But the tragedy of Captain Ahab is, to use another nautical metaphor, just the tip of the iceberg. The book goes far beyond its characters and events to delve into matters of philosophy, culture, science, religion, human nature — in short, it’s a book about everything. I’m sure the kitchen sink is in there too.

book coverI think this is why movie versions can never do the book justice, for the actual scenes in the book are merely hooks for the author to hang his litany of metaphors and observations about life, the real subject of Moby Dick.

As far as the nautical theme of the book, the author spends a great number of pages contemplating whales in excruciating detail, right down to their anatomy and bone structure. There is also detailed description of how the crew hunts, kills, and dismantles a whale on board the ship, scenes that have nothing to do with Ahab or the storyline at all. So then we might ask, why are they in the book? Would this have been a better novel if all of that had been trimmed down, leaving a compact 400-page adventure story?

If this were simply a tale about revenge or a sailor’s journey, something along the lines of Stevenson, then certainly it could have used a good editor. But this is a book where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and all the minute details and melodramatic ponderings contribute mysteriously to its power. Even as it expresses some 19th Century notions that we might find outdated, the scope of its insight far outweighs its datedness.

One of the ironies of the book is that even as the author describes the capture and slaughter of whales, often portraying them as monsters, he also expresses admiration and respect for them, as he does for everything he writes about. Here is a brief excerpt, concluding one of the many chapters describing the power and majesty of whales:

“Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam in the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.”

One of Melville’s famous quotes is, “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” This weighty book might fail a modern writing class, but it certainly is original and amazing.

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Whale Rider revisited

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

The film Whale Rider won acclaim in 2002 for its moving story of a young Maori girl and her struggles to find her place in a changing society. It brilliantly weaves together themes of tradition, family, gender roles, and indigenous culture.  Based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera, this is one of those rare cases where a film veers away from the book and yet remains true to the book’s spirit.

At the heart of both is an ancient legend of a man who came out of the sea riding on a whale, and who founded the village where the story takes place. The heroine of Whale Rider is his descendant, and must come to terms with her identity against all the pressures of family and society.

The sea is an omnipresent backdrop to the story, and a powerful symbol of the struggles the characters endure. The book and film evoke the magic of the sea in different ways. The film incorporates stunning images of the ocean and landscape, as well as the music and poetry of the ancient culture. The book delves more deeply into the Maori mythology, and incorporates some beautiful writing about the sea. Here is a brief excerpt, telling the ancient legend:

The sun rose and set, rose and set. Then one day, at its noon apex, the first sighting was made. A spume on the horizon. A dark shape rising from the greenstone depths of the ocean, awesome, leviathan, breaching through the surface and hurling itself skyward before falling seaward again. Underwater the muted thunder boomed like a great door opening far away, and both sea and land trembled from the impact of that downward plunging.

The book skillfully intertwines the modern and the mythical stories, provoking questions about how our ancient stories define who we are. And the film is brilliantly directed by Niki Caro. I recommend the book and the film, which both contain universal themes that will inspire teens and adults alike.


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A bit of earth

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

garden1

There are few things that hold more promise than a fresh patch of garden, all ready to be planted. An empty garden in springtime is a lot like an empty page on which to write a story, or draw a picture, or pour out your soul. It is full of expectations, hopes and dreams, and can be intimidating too. It is a place where miracles happen, where something emerges that didn’t exist before, something brand new.

In the classic book The Secret Garden, orphaned Mary Lennox asks of her uncle, “Might I have a bit of earth?” She wants a patch of ground to “plant seeds in — to make things grow — to see them come alive.” Gardens have been used in art and literature for thousands of years because they are such powerful symbols, of life and death and creation and the human spirit. Gardens can be beautiful, or wild, or peaceful, or thorny. They can be secret, or showy, or scary, or poetic – just like the creations that come out of a blank piece of paper.

My own garden, seen above, will have zinnias, dahlias, marigolds and aster, and perhaps I will share some pictures when it is in full bloom. (That is, if the fellow below doesn’t eat them all!)


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An Ode to Autumn, by Keats

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

keats_sketch2

The seasons have inspired poetry in every century, and for good reason. Today I thought I’d share one of the more famous seasonal poems by John Keats (who is also the subject of a new feature film by Jane Campion.)

Keats was an English poet who was born in 1795 and died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. His poetry was not well received by critics during his short life, and he died before winning the praise he deserved. Keats requested that the following words be put on his tombstone, in lieu of his name: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Keats may have felt that his own life was not worth remembering, but he needn’t have worried — his work will live on forever. You can read more about Keats and his works here.

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To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
    Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
    With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
    And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
        To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
    And still more, later flowers for the bees,
    Until they think warm days will never cease,
        For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
    Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
    Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
    Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
        Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
    Steady thy laden head across a brook;
    Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
        Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring?  Ay, where are they?
    Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
    And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
    Among the river sallows, borne aloft
        Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
    Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
    The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
        And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

— John Keats, 1819

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