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Archive for the ‘nature writing’ Category


John Prebble, Culloden

Friends,

I sometimes think that nothing I write anymore comes from an singular me, but it’s all somehow coming out of shared experiences, sometimes with one or two people, sometimes a larger group, maybe as much as 20, itself a group part of a larger group, sometimes here in cyberspace and sometimes in real physical space. That’s probably a pardonable exaggeration as even now or still the initial experience of the text or movie by me whether chosen as a result of relationship, or project, or lingering effects of an experience is the motivation or inspiration to carry on sincerely. And I don’t carry on without real engagement.

So a friend told a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies@yahoogroups.com, aka Trollope and his Contemporaries at Yahoo of a book of brief essays she read, Light into Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler, one of which by Mary Gaitskill is a meditation on the two selves of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (“I don’t know you any more”). Reading this made me realize that yes Tolstoy (and after him also) Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright (in their 2012 move) help make sense of Anna’s experience by attending to her idea she is now following a deeper truer self than the one who married Karenin and obeyed her society conventions. I bought the book (easy thing to do since the Internet), and discovered that what Fassler asked his contributors to do initially was write about a text that inspired him or her to write about something passionately, or to work on some project of writing for years.


St. Peter’s in Rome from a bridge across the Tiber River, copyright Vittorio F. DiMeglio

Well that was easy for me to answer. When I read a group of French translations by a mid-20th century scholar, Suzanne Therault of Vittoria Colonna’s mostly sonnets to her husband (mostly after his death, some 600 poems), I was so moved and agitated I couldn’t sit in my seat and had to get up and walk about to calm down; I determined to teach myself to read Italian so I could study and translate these sonnets. I spent at least 15 years of my life on this, and while a few have been published individually, and they have been used by graduate students doing theses on Colonna and read aloud at festivals, the way to read them is on my website. This led to my discovery of her contemporary Veronica Gambara, who I related personally to much better, whose letters I enjoyed, and whose 90 odd poems (she wrote far more than is usually attributed to her) I also translated and then wrote a short life of Gambara, Under the Sign of Dido, and a first chapter of a biography of Colonna, The Dark Voyage.

But my friend took the assignment (so to speak) differently, as asking the writers what passage or work meant a great deal to them as readers and people (and so writers, though more indirectly), or what kinds of texts he or she was deeply drawn to. As I read on into Light the Dark, I found many of the writers there took the task this way. for myself I agree with her that passages of compelling deeply-felt talk between two characters thoroughly realized pull me in, domestic interiors, indeed long chapters on ways of home life between daily intimately connected characters, I cannot do without realism, without being led to believe in what I am reading as occurring really in front of me or what I immersed in order to care; long reverie-like description that’s philosophical and aesthetic and personal, and to come down to more concrete, literary biographies, books by women which fall into the type called l’ecriture-femme, ghost stories (about loss and grief and attempts at restoration, presences in our lives).

All this to say I know that last year’s list of books and movies (read for the first time and re-read) conformed to this set of criteria and so did many of this (watched for the first time, or re-watched and re-watched). It was strongly biography, women’s memoirs and fictions, travel books. I didn’t do what my friend, Diane Reynolds, did this year and divide by genre or her experience of them (best letter and essay collections; best fiction and biography; and best rereads), but only set out a list. My excuse for mostly doing this again is it’s hard enough to remember what was most meaningful inside the year; but I will talk more of a few because this year I found my most meaningful books, which of course I must want to recommend, are histories, books often by men, literary criticism (and then after that) my usual diet of brilliant literary biography, memoirs, letters, novels by women. My movies also differed and I expect that was the result of joining Netflix streaming, Amazon prime streaming and taking a course in “classic films” (it turned out all by men, and about men centrally all the time). They are books that led to other books, and books that are ultimately political, post-colonial, anti-war. Some I am still moving through.

These are in the order I think of them

Chiefly, to my astonishment:

History and Science

John Prebble, Culloden; The Highland Clearances.
Alongside these John Lister-Kaye’s spiritual nature writing, Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: this one alone as it’s such crucial reading for today I’ll send along a summary:

Zinn is simply telling all the history left out of most history books, and what’s vital about it is it explains and is analogous to what happens today. As I read the chapter on how slavery was instituted and how a whole people were subdued (worked to death, exploited to the nth degree, cowed utterly) I felt I was reading a series of events parallel to those we see today. What’s striking is that Arpaio’s behavior is not some subtler version of what was done to keep slavery central to the system, but is closely that of what was done in a daily way to black people.

It’s far more explanatory of daily experience than the ideals we are taught motivated any of the founders. In “persons of a mean and vile condition” we see the wealthy of the era take over vast amounts of land and wealth; their fear of middling whites combining with poor whites, blacks, Indians not through his thesis, but through the actual deeds, acts, and rhetoric — which uncannily echoes that of today’s renewed attempt to make a small group of whites superwealthy with what might be called fringe people supporting them. I was struck by the way power was quickly monopolized; Zinn quotes a lot of people and describes many acts and wars and rebellion; he has a lot of statistics. Poor houses are forms of prison; mechanisms of control the way outright prisons are today. The stories of how middling whites rose to be prosperous turn out to be rare. Colonial society was not democratic at all, not egalitarian and in the next chapter when he goes on to discuss the formation of this new gov’t under a constitution the oligarchy that was set up makes sense.

I don’t know if I’m depressed so much as appalled — it seems there was a period in the 20th century where real progress was made for the 80% and now this is fiercely being destroyed. The election of Obama terrified these white rulers — they must stop the country going further into progressivism and becoming multiracial, cultural and tolerant. Probably, Tyler, I never believed the US gov’t had any different aims from any other. Especially as a woman I have thought (hoped) that we were “modern” contemporary with socially enlightened ideas because of our meritocracy but I see that if a huge number of people are on the side of genuine progress for all, liberty for women, it’s a weak reed and they can be turned readily to losing out as each family is so individual and each person thinks in utterly immediate terms when it comes to living their lives. I didn’t think we could go backwards inside the US and we are and have for a few decades now — oddly the Trump triumph makes this all so much more public.

Tyranny is tyranny

I carry on however slowly. This chapter gives the full — or real — background of the US revolution. Zinn tells us what I’ve read only in a few places, though he has a group of books to cite: that the actual numbers of people who fought against the British in the US army were small, that it was a time of rebellion, not against the British per se, but by the average person (often indentured servant) and lower people and artisans against unfair conditions of all sorts. Zinn describes and names the people who led the revolution: all upper middle, all seeking to free themselves of control from the British and to (successfully) set up power structures for themselves. Land hungry farmers, in Philadelphia a full-scale attack by artisans, tradesmen and laborers found themselves stymied by laws set up and rebelled, mechanics demanding real democracy, people angry at the destruction of individual lives from impressment, in North Caroline (once again, showing southerners not naturally reactionary), white farmers organized against wealthy and corrupt officials. The conflict was bitter with insurrections, “small” massacres; people organized to prevent the collection of taxes. The point of these founding fathers was to try to organize all this against a perceived enemy: blacks weren’t it then, but the British, and to invent a rhetoric appropriate for the discourse of the time. Indians were a perpetual easy target as they were fighting back themselves. Not as bad as our own time, tax rolls in one study show that 5% of Boston’s taxpayers owned 49% of the wealth. Paine’s pamphlet appealed to the a cross section of people; he himself came from the lower orders but as time went on he was not for action from these lower orders and himself became patronized by wealthy colonists — for a time. Locke one of the bases of the constitution spoke for property.

how it explains how it is and has been so easily possible for a small group of wealthy people to take the reins of US gov’t and military might and direct it to profit themselves ruthlessly and punish and oppress 90% of others so that they submit to small wages, debt no educational opportunity. I had thought, assumed, he would not be a feminist but no chapter 6 is one of the best feminist accounts of how women are still coopted today. His description of how women are manipulated into accepting the position of cherished object to be used as he wills is closely reminiscent to the idealized relationship of Claire and Jamie in Outlander. Uncannily like.

When I’ve finished the chapters on the 19th century (many), I’ll report back again.

Nicholas Dodman (Dr) Attitudes, Emotions, and the Psychology of Cats (the pathos and cruelty of how human beings misunderstand and abuse cats when they have them as pets!).
Saunaura Taylor, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation


Taylor’s Beasts of Burden (part of animal liberation course)

All five have altered my thinking and behavior and even eating habits.

More in my usual line:

Biography and Art

Claire Harman, Charlotte Bronte (magnificent)
Nick Holland, In Search of Anne Bronte (touching and persuasive)
Francis Spalding, Roger Fry, Art and Life (uplifting)
Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, A Biography (deep psychological portrait supporting philosophical aesthetics)
Whitney Chadwick, Women artists and the 20th century Surreal Movement (importantly dismaying)
Josephine Ross, The Winter Queen (on Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia)
Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald and Essays on Biography


Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights — you do not read it for the cover

Literary criticism and book history:

Martha Bowden, The Descendants of Waverley
Norma Clarke, Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship and Love: The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Welsh Carlyle
Richard Todd, Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today

Bowden altered my thinking on historical fiction and romance. Clarke made me understand and read more empathetically women writers of the 19th century; Todd taught me about the fiction industry in the last part of the 20th century. I realize why women artists went into a deep counter-productive era and produced so little of worth in the years from the 1930s from Chadwick


Susan Sontag (Photograph 199 Lynn Gilbert) — I took it as an occasion to read other of her essays

Novels and poetry for the first time:

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Patricia Fargnoli, Hallowed
Caryl Philips, Cambridge
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop
Daphne DuMaurier, The King’s General
Diana Gabaldon, Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber


Caitriona Balfe, opening over-voice for series (“people disappear all the time”) in the autumnal Inverness, gazing into a glass

I cannot speak too highly of Tolstoy, Fargnoli and Sontag. The Volcano Lover is the outstanding novel I read this year. I admired Cambridge for its deep insights into racism, slavery, empire. Diane’s citation of “spectral texts” help explain (not wholly) how irresistible I’m finding these Outlander texts thus far, despite their pernicious valuing of violence, essential frivolity (superficial on war): it’s the bringing back of the ghostly deeply loved presence, the past come to life, and 1950s style feminocentric dream over-voice over and over that rivets me.

Rereading non-fiction and fiction:

Richard Holmes, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage
Paul Scott, Staying On
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I seemed to be reading them for the first time. Holmes has yet to fail me.

As to movies, five of the Anna Karenina films (of which more and Tolstoy anon), The Handmaid’s Tale (very hard to watch and alas truer than people will admit) and (as a result of Culloden, going to Scottish highlands) the spectacularly well-made Outlander (into its third season); The Crown (I admit it), several films I saw as a result of my summer film club; Kedi (documentary on the cats of Istanbul); and now a few extraordinary films from a course in the history and aesthetics of film, so see I had better post separately on movies.


The second season started today and I look forward to what Emily Nussbaum has to say: Claire Foy has become another favorite actress for me

Ellen

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Culloden battlefield today

My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers — Jane Austen as Elizabeth, P&P, Chapter 17 or 2:4)

Dear friends and readers,

A second of probably three travel writing blogs on what I saw and experienced of the Scottish Highlands from the Aigas Field Center. The focus the first day we left the center was archaeology and history: the first in order to reach pre-written history of life in the Highlands dating back to the neolithic age when these rings of stones (the most famous Stonehenge and Avebury in England) were first built. The second day we explored the landscape of the area, some of it reflecting deep past, other parts showing conservative efforts after a couple of centuries of destruction. The third and over three afternoons we went local, towns there now, commercial enterprises (whiskey distilling); and three women showed us their “gardens:” Lady Lucy across the grounds of Aigas; a crofter named Anne Macdonald on land adjacent to Aigas, and J-P (I never got her last name) who has created and manages an organic farm, making a place for bees, kitchen gardens, beer refinery, sheep, cattle and deer. Each talked to us for a couple of hours about how she spends much time in her life this way.

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Probably one of the more crucial events/dates in Scottish history is 1745 when a continuing civil war not just between those groups of leaders and their (often conscripted, forced) armiese supporting the Hanoverian dynasty from Germany fought those groups of leaders and their (equally forced, but as tenants, as clan members threatened by fire and death) armies of Scots, but rival and enemy clans of Scots trying to take over one another, and stray groups of mixed bands of men all fought in England and Scotland in the context of a larger global imperial war at sea and across lands from Europe. This global war affected the attitudes of the local generals and trading and land owning classes: where say England won here, or the Dutch there, anxiety and/or triumph changed the mood of events. The people under Prince Charles (the young pretender) got as far as Derbyshire, but turned back (the explanations for this are various). This third campaign (the 1690s in Scotland under Claverhouse, 1715 for James III) came to a head in Inverness on April 16, 1745. The Scots were not just technologically at a severe disadvantage; the terrain was vulnerable and several of the leaders were against fighting that day. Prince Charles prevailed out of pride and (it’s thought) an inadequate understanding of battle. Within 45 minutes there was a slaughter of a couple of thousand Scottish leaders and key followers; this was followed by an aftermath of flight by the Scots and brutal annihilation (the aim) by the Hanoverian authorities of the Jacobites (all Scots said to be in any way involved in the fight), which changed Scottish history forever. The country was decimated, emptied of people, their houses and villages destroyed. The books to read are John Prebble’s Culloden and The Highland Clearances. What was left was enclosed by chieftains turned landowners to put sheep in the place of people; and on top of that following myths of “Balmorality” by the upper class of England and lowlanders brought the ravages of deer to the landscape.


The heather along the line where these people stood and killed others or were killed themselves — as they dared not do otherwise even if they didn’t want to

Well we began our touring by spending much of Monday morning (8/14) at the Culloden battlefield where there is now an effective museum taking visitors through the phases of these battles. One room is set up so the visitors in the center see on all four walls the men killing one another while the sounds of battle echo very loud. In other a lit board shows the disposition of the bands of men. Halls take you through global and local events. I was struck by how small the Scottish shields or targets were, and how crude and (from the perspective of today’s huge guns) feeble, and (from the perspective of the professional Hanoverian armies with canon, real guns) ineffective, their axes and broadswords. It was the battlefield itself which is so moving. You can go out and walk along the line that was “no-man’s land” between the two armies before Prince Charles and Lord Murray’s Scottish armies so foolishly attacked from an indefensible vulnerable position. All along the way are rough rocks carved with names of clans or individuals who were killed.


A cottage on the Culloden plain at the time and left standing

We then (early afternoon) traveled back in time far (but not in geographical space) to Clava Cairns, a site of four rings of stones (each one bigger than the next as you walk from a fence), with free standing stones all around, from the Bronze age, about 5000 years old. These stones are not the huge standing stones of Stonehenge (or the type of time capsule for them seen in Craig na Dune in Outlander) but mounds made up of hundreds and hundreds of small stones. These are exceptional mesolith tombs from the Bronze Age. At the time the climate might have been subtropical so an agrarian culture had emerged. There are also the free-standing stones (more like Avebury) all around, and many outside a fence placed around the central circles: into picnic areas (where we had lunch), and the nearby surrounding hills. They were probably places where the people buried their dead. Coffins are thought to have been removed long ago. Very little is known about these people as they left no writing; it’s thought they (called Picts, a mixture of Scots and Irish) decorated their bodies (tattooed) and performed rituals around these stones. There is something uncanny, creepy about supposing (as the Ranger suggested) bodies were left in the open at first to be “de-fleshed,” and then the skeletons put in coffins or underground. It poured rain as we stood there and the ranger unflinchingly lectured on about what is supposed about these people’s customs and agricultural.


One angle on the largest mounds of stones, and the smallest circle seen from a distance (Clava Cairns)

The last stop on that day, middle to late afternoon we spent at Cawdor Castle. a vast castle-house only recently opened to the public. It is the place where Macbeth was said to have met with witches in Shakespeare’s famous play. John Lister-Kaye had said this place was owned by a friend of his and we should be sure and read all the plaques and inscriptions because they are witty. He and this friend had discussed together the cost of maintaining Cawdor and just about rebuilding Aigas, and (after much less renovation) he had opened his ancient home estate to the public. Instead of the usual solemn drone-like recitation of how serious and interesting (great, wonderful) all we were seeing is, they described in a wry truthful way, satirically reductive, the furniture, pictures, objects. His aunts had been indefatigable in making tapestries; he called figures in painting The Unknown This or that (according to function); there was a rare truthfulness, plainness, and when an object was nicer, it was done justice to against this context. The house was lived in until very recently and one felt this in some of the rooms (plugs, modern comfortable chairs). There are said to be beautiful gardens created and maintained by the Countess; there’s a cafe, a shop … Since the bulk of the standing house is from the later 19th century, one could say the group had covered Scottish history over the course of the day.


Cawdor Castle/House from the outside (part of a wall) and an art object in the gardens I was drawn to

Tuesday (8/15) we spent in “Caledonian” glens and forests, hiking walks along rivers and streams, waterfalls. The scenery was beautiful and much of it in a now restored state after half a century and more conservation’s efforts to bring back native trees, bush, shrub, to reconstitute the land after the ravages of the 19th and early 20th century. Some of the rocks are like those found in the Bronx or Central Park: they are not brought there by ice but formed in the ground over the centuries. The Highlands of Scotland are said to be a break-away piece of plate from North America. The landscapes are immense when you climb high and look down over the hills and see lakes and here and there someone’s (expensive) summer home. Balmorality has morphed into 20th century holiday houses. The Royals were said to have a house “just out of sight” (Fussell in his book on the class system remarks the really high status house is ever out of sight). We had lunch on picnic tables again, and in the afternoon drove to another large piece of scenic glen, with spectacular water falls. This one included the ruins of house where (it’s said) “Winston Churchill learned to drive” (why he looms so large in the public imagination I don’t understand).


People clambering about, a stunning waterfall, slate rising out of the ground

So much for the big picture.

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Now locally temporally and nearby (place and space)


The town of Beauly, close to Aigas

Wednesday (8/16) we spent the morning first in the near-by town of Beauly, saw the shops where people living in the area come for tea, cake, cheese, to socialize, an antiques shop, a store where they sold excellent knitted and woolen garments of all sorts (sweaters, scarves, throws, hats, and leather boots too), the most obvious tourist place sold cards, pictures, souvenirs. There was a butcher’s shop — individual cuts of meat! bakery. All but the butcher’s shop were run by women.


Inside the Glenn Ord distillery — where there is much mechanization … (and few employees involved in the manufacturing of the whiskey itself)

Then a very educational (for me) couple of hours at a whiskey distillery which was first founded in the early 19th century. It made single malt whiskey, and we were taken from huge room to huge room to see how the slow process worked (five stages) until the mixture was in casks to wait for X number of years before being bottled. That evening after dinner there was a “whiskey tasting:” I had never been to such a ritual before. A young man in a kilt with the panache of a salesman brought forth four different bottles of whiskey, talked them up with much hype and then passed the bottle around the table where all 26 people were to have a dram or two. It seemed to me a very strange experience, this controlled ritual drinking where we were to decide which whiskey we liked best. A great deal was made over the subtle nuances of taste.


From one corner of Lady Lucy’s Flower garden

I suggested that the Scottish highlands are clearly a patriarchal society. Nowhere was this more apparent in the hard work three women showed us were either their lives or central to them. All three women’s working garden/farms were on or close to Aigas. I should not omit the Countess of Cawdor’s whose gardens and landscape I didn’t walk in; she is said to be a formidable woman. This too is a male-shaped concept, male language for a determined strong woman, which offputs them. In no case was a man held responsible for the beauty of the garden though I daresay many staff members are male.

Sunday afternoon for a couple of hours, Lucy Lady Lister-Kaye took us around the property to show the gardens, landscaping, bridges, small fowl and all sorts of contrivances for children and adults it has taken her forty years to bring to a kind of continuing flourishing and blooming. She has a full staff of course (like Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey), but she invented the schemes, manages, supervises — she also (doubtless with a cook and staff) prepares three meals a day for her household, visiting tour groups, children coming for school agendas; there is each day afternoon tea and cake, and most evenings some social event (lecture, whiskey tasting, folk song fest were among those I experienced). A domestic existence? With her domesticity is the foundational reality of all else. A pretty, soft-spoken woman who knows how to take and keep herself in charge, in control. I forget what clan she comes from, but she is said to be proud of her heritage. She showed us a wooden bridge, very picturesque, which she said was a present from Sir John. I shall probably remember her best though in front of her aga stove in a very modernized great square kitchen in the 20th century part of Aigas house, showing us her porridge pot.


One corner of Ann’s property — I could not take photos of her barns, the vast spread of machinery, the trees, what is seen visually is not much

Lucy’s gardening is mostly ornamental, not so Ann MacDonald’s, the generous-spirited crofter who met us off a road and took us round her property that Wednesday afternoon. (Lunch had been at Aigas house, some splendid soup and salad.) Ann is a remarkable woman who has made a success of what is now several crofts put together from non-arable land, where the profits are so meagre but can be lived upon because the land was given her very cheaply, she has complete security of tenure (laws can change of course but have not for a couple of centuries), she pays hardly any taxes. The work she showed us she did with her husband and now her son alone is very hard: the son has modern huge equipment (enormous machines) and now makes money making and selling fences. She seemed to me so in touch with the natural world, her body and face shows years of hard work, effort, weather-beaten and contentment too: she was clearly a smart woman, and had a constant flow of talk (she was glad to show her life’s effort to people and tell us all about it) and until her husband died a year ago a satisfied one. The last part of the tour was her garden in front of her house, which included areas for growing vegetables and a greenhouse. John Lister-Kaye presented crofters as privileged people; if so it’s a privilege she has spent her life working hard to sustain. He admitted the laws could be changed as there are groups of people (large landlords and those without land) who are resentful or want the land themselves. I was struck by the sheer energy and difficulty of some of the tasks that still take hand-labor (like sheering sheep); she talked animatedly of cows, of the timber on the hills, and showed a continual sense of humor.

I wish I had photographed Ann’s happy collie dog who stayed close to her the whole time … I spoke briefly with her, and unlike most of the people who were “official” (rangers, staff, the Lister-Kayes), she seemed to talk directly to me, to listen to what I said, something genuine in her ways


Allangrange — this is a promotional on-line picture; tour and lecture groups are invited and pay to come

The third woman we met on the Black Isle, a very fertile peninsula sticking out from the northeast of the Highlands (vis-a-vis Aigas). This was the last day of the tour, Friday afternoon (8/18), J-J (probably a “lady” but she did not use her title, perhaps her or her husband’s family name is Godwin): Allangrange, the name of the house and estate has at its center a house built in the 18th century (I’m sure all is renovated). She began by showing us a garden set up to attract and sustain bees (so she is a beekeeper); she uses and sells the honey. She then showed a vast garden of flowers and vegetables; near this was a brewery whose profits she said paid for her garden. I saw sheep from afar and cattle. Her garden and hay feed these animals; in the brewery was a room where she sold sweaters (from the sheep). Nothing wasted. She told us what she serves for lunch each day in a given season. Like Lucy, like Ann, her existence is wrapped up in immanence. She was in appearance, accent, clothes the most elegant of the three, I could see her in an evening dress showing not a iota of the work she did daily.

In my third and last we’ll turn back to geography and history.

Ellen

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Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. As shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon … finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on — Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping


A Promotional photo of the house from the website advertising programs


My photo of the Aigas common room where the group gathered periodically — that’s Lucy, Lady Lister-Kaye at the center in front of the woodfire stove

Friends and readers,

I’ve not blogged here for more than 3 weeks because I’ve been away: I journeyed by plane (8/10-11/17) and bus to what John Lister-Kaye calls “the Aigas Field Center,” a large mansion not far from Inverness (the closest big Scottish city) made up, on the one side, of a large 19th century-built wing (in the cake-like or phony 19th century style he names Balmorality), “baronial hall,” library, withdrawing room, a gallery with bedrooms, one of which nowadays is one Lister-Kaye’s writing rooms, a much smaller central wing from the later 18th into early 19th century Georgian style, and a later 20th century addition (warm comfortable rooms, including a modern style kitchen with Aga stove). It sits on a several hundred acre ground where there are other buildings, some for tourists and guests, others for the ranger and guide staff, some for staff of the kind seen in Downton Abbey (front gatehouse for lodgekeeper, gardening and house staff who sometimes live there, holiday guides, drivers), some for ecology restoration projects (the wildcat is one, native trees another, a large pond with beavers and “hides”), others for lectures and schoolchildren as well as adults to have learning experiences in, and lots of small animals (from chickens and roosters, to pine martens, beavers, many birds, and cattle and sheep, and the occasional deer too. Enormously old trees.


My photo of the terrace in front of part of the Aigas House (taken from window of common room)

From there starting on second day (Monday, 8/14/17), 26 or so people traveled several hours a day to public sites and buildings in and about the immediate area and to the western and northern coasts (Isle of Skye, Raasay across the way), to the Black Isle (a fertile peninsula stuck out into the North sea. We also explored the Aigas landscape: the whole of Sunday, the first full day there (8/13), was a tour of the house, the immediate grounds, of Lady Lucy’s gardens, which we were to wander in at any time of day or night after we arrived). We were privileged to be invited to go, meet and talk with a crofter’s house and acres not far from Aigas (a friend of Lister-Kaye or “Sir John” as he is familiarly called by everyone), as well as a local landowner and aristocratic lady’s (“J-j”) organic farm-garden, where she is developing bee centers, keeps sheep, grows native trees, has an extensive kitchen garden, all of which is supported by a beer distillery using hops from her land, by selling sweaters from the sheep. All of this arranged around a somewhat renovated 18th century mansion. We also had a 5 hour Saturday drive (8/12), up to Aigas where we visited Glenn Coe (where a massacre occurred and is now a site for arduous walking) and a week later (8/19), away from Aigas (where we visited the historically laden Blair Castle, there since the 12th century or so) and a couple of other sites.

Before launching into a eight day and evening travelogue, I want to imitate John Lister-Kaye (whose nature writing books are rightly much admired — at his best he can match Loren Eiseley for poetry and geology, and animal studies, Annie Dillard for weaving significant autobiography, and is often implicitly political in a mildly socialistic, occasionally paternalistic and green party mode) and provide a framework for what we saw. It seems to me gaping at places without giving them context is like presenting photos and expecting them to tell their story. They don’t. I won’t have many pictures, since I’m not a photo-taking type (I’ve never taken even one selfie) and when I do take photos they are often at odd angles I happen to be standing or sitting at. But I do have a couple of hand-outs to share as well as my photos and pictures found on the web. There were several excellent presentations, most of them at most 20 minutes long, but three stand out, Robin MacGregor’s explanation of the maps of the Scottish Highlands he gave us the first evening we met, the first Friday evening (8/11) we most of us arrived at Glasgow airport and a nearby Holiday inn on Friday afternoon.


A simplified map of geology, waterways of Scottish Highlands

Robin MacGregor was a lawyer and accountant when younger, now is a guide leader and is an expert on Scottish geology and World War One. He began by impressing us with the difference between lowland and highland Scotland: the north comes a plate previously attached to North America, is mountainous, rocky, a lot of sedimentation, while the south is green, meadow-y. The present small population results from a 2 century diaspora it’s fair to call ethnic cleansing, or sheer ejection by chieftains become landlords determined to make a large profit on the land by filling it first with sheep and later with deer (for rich people to come and slaughter. He talked of how romanticized the descriptions of its civil social society, which is now based on commercialism laid over family biology bonds and the original tribal laws and customs of clans, as well as results of warfare and sex. We might call them an edge people, a people descending in written history from Celtic culture which was pushed back by the more modern Roman culture, successful war machine from the Mediterranean, found along Northern Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, down to Basque country. Tribal people forced into the peripheries where it’s hard to make a living on much non-arable land. Little of Northern Scotland is more than 37 miles from the sea, it’s crossed by faults as are the lowlands. and rivers. Large cities include Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Sterling, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness. One of the maps had pictures of food and fish that are indigenous to each area.


I’ve made this one bigger in the hope the print can be read

The most peculiar of these maps was of the clans — which are still remembered by many Scottish people and are seen in their last names — Lady Lucy is a descendant of clan Mackenzie. Robin named all the clans including his own, MacGregor, and told us about their specific rivalries, whose side they were on at Culloden (a central historical moment, a watershed defeat in Scottish history taking 45 minutes). I was cheered to realize that the novels and mini-series of Outlander (the books are found in most decent bookstores and the TV programs have been big hits) are in large outlines historically accurate: so clan Fraser is where the stories say, its relationship with clan Mackenzie generally accurate. He did keep emphasizing that Scottish and English people while intertwined utterly are nonetheless part of different cultures, with distinct identifications and histories.


One wing of that fabulously wealthy woman, Elizabeth Windsor’s Balmoral Castle, first started in the 19th century by Victoria

I believe it was Saturday evening (8/13) that in one of the buildings on the estate, Magnus House, Sir John gave his extraordinary lecture (he’s been giving it since 1986) “Balmorality.” I feared it would include yet another rehash of the Jacobite disasters (hundreds of people killed each time, not counting the states’ savage reprisals) or be just about the myth of Balmoral beauty promulgated by Victoria’s vacation life. It was in effect a debunking of some silly clothing, and recent made-up customs (especially believed in it seems by US people) and a genuine history of the mid- to later 19th into the later 20th century. He contrasted the reality of the experience most Scots people knew against the imposed picturesque narratives of the wealthy who came north to exploit the people left and their land. He explained why northern Scottish landscape looks and often is so empty, how it came to have species of animals and plants not indigenous to it at all, the abject poverty of what we can call the 99% until the early 1980s. In 1972 one could easily find people living in huts with no central heat, not running water, poor windows and ventilation, no electricity, without shoes. He stressed that a lot of the emigration from early 19th century on became voluntary: when the Scottish reached North America, they realized a much better life was on offer for them all.


Victoria Hamilton as the Queen Mother Mary (Wife of George VI) photographed in the highlands as soothingly beautiful, with vast old houses whose cost no one minds, with hardly a servant about to keep everything up, was an embodiment of the most recent melancholy-sentimental myth-making

“Balmorality” stands for the way wealthy, naive and often non-Scottish people project images of Scotland (as seen in Downton Abbey‘s visits to Scotland for Christmas and again in Queen Mary’s visits to Scotland in the Netflix series, The Crown) the way Edward Said’s “orientalism” stands for the way prejudiced western people describe and pervert and misunderstand Islamic, middle eastern and South-Asian cultures. He showed Landseer paintings of animals who couldn’t exist (great stags with astonishing antlers), quoted the abysmal poetry of William McGonegal, which he averred was nonetheless often more accurate about the highlands than say Burns or Scott. He explained one of the uses of Aigas house was a site for restoration ecology: restoring Scottish land to be as productive, fruitful, and beautiful as it can. Rebuilding the place that capitalism, rentier-landlords, colonialism destroyed. Put the wolves back, the lynx, small and large animals almost gone extinct, make a habitable lifestyle cooperated in by all.


The story design of the chapters of this book is a history of Aigas House,and stories attached to it and its lands — beginning with an iron age fort, moving on to a Jacobean house, then the couple of hundred years the house now represents; how it was a run-down home for poor aging people until he took it over, renovated it at great cost

His second lecture, which I regret not taking better notes on, was originally going to be reading aloud in the drawing room from his books on Wednesday (8/16), while we had roarding fire and drank and ate. Instead he gave another hour and one-half lecture at Magnus House, this time on his recent life-writing cum-nature writing book, The Dun Cow Rib: A Very Natural Childhood. In a way he retold the same history of Scotland starting with his parents’ lives (though the family is England, and its estates in Yorkshire, with money coming from mines) in terms of his personal life, with an extended section on the man who he feels brought him to be what he is and does today: Gavin Maxwell


Sir John is hardly seen without one of three dogs very much attached to him


Gavin Maxwell when young

Sir John’s talk included Maxwell’s intimate relationship with the poet Kathleen Raine (whose poetry I had read but did not know she was all her life in love with Maxwell who was however homosexual (one of the reasons for his reclusiveness); I remembered Raine as a poet strongly influenced by Virginia Woolf in French.

As someone who taught Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences and Technology for over 17 years at George Mason (to junior level students) and in the first ten years read with students, concentrated on nature writers (I assigned Eiseley, Dillard), people who cared about non-human animals and conservative (I assigned Joan Goodall, Sy Montgomery) I recognized where his deep Thoreau-like impulses to retreat came from: a detestation of the ludicrous cruelties of so many human institutions. It was a litany of his miseries in public schools, of how he was forced into working as an engineer for a profit-driven inhumane company polluting vast lands and waterways, of the great poverty he first saw in gypsies and the state schools he also apparently attended, and the story of how he broke away to live differently. Gavin Maxwell’s retreat and stubborn return to nature, the book, Ring of Bright Water, was a great revelation, their relationship one of the most important in his life. It must be admitted Maxwell was a little mad: he broke with Raine because she was accidentally responsible for the death of an otter she bought for him.


This statue of an otter overlooking Front Bay honors Maxwell

I’ll end on a poem by Kathleen Raine, who I once intended to write a foremother poet blog on but never got to it. A chapter in Didier’s book on l’ecriture-femme is dedicated to Raines and she is one of those poets chosen by Catherine Kerrigan in her An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets:

Heirloom

She gave me childhood’s flowers,
Heather and wild thyme,
Eyebright and tormentil,
Lichen’s mealy cup
Dry on wind-scored stone,
The corbies on the rock,
The rowan by the bum.

Sea-marvels a child beheld
Out in the fisherman’s boad,
Fringed pulsing violet
Medusa, sea gooseberries,
Starfish on the sea-floor,
Cowries and rainbow-shells
From pools on a rocky shore,

Gave me her memories,
But kept her last treasure:
‘When I was a lass: she said,
‘Sitting among the heather,
‘Suddenly I saw
‘That all the moor was alive!
‘I have told no one before.’

That was my mother’s tale.
Seventy years had gone
Since she saw the living skein
Of which the world is woven,
And having seen, knew all;
Through long indifferent years
Treasuring the priceless pearl.

If I seem strangely to have begun and ended on women writers, what bothered me all week was the preponderance of people in the tour (2/3rds), the rangers (about the same), the staff were women. the relief was to find myself in a genuinely socially-rooted society, one where people identify and pull together: they believe they have a right to health care, a right to education up to and including university, a right to housing, a right to a decent life together. It was Lady Lucy who provided the very good food and ran the place. But all the people named as important historical figures, described, pictured were men. In other words, it is at the same time still a patriarchy. In my next I hope to tell of Lucy’s descriptive tour of her gardening on Sunday afternoon (8/13)– really a creation comparable to areas of Central Park in little — and what I saw of women’s lives through her, the Crofter Ann MacDonald and some other Scots women writers and artists too.


A wide and far shot of the property probably in winter — there are the tiny remains of an iron fort too

Ellen

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