Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘restoration ecology’ Category

‘How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?’ [Thoreau, Walden Pond] — And how many more a woman?


This is the edition I’ve read this book in so many times ….

To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive. — R. L. Stevenson

Friends and readers,

Day 9/10: of books that influenced me, had a discernible impact. For my second to last I have to go with Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands, unfailingly published with James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. They are sometimes (in a new excellent edition by Canongate edition) referred to as one book called the Journey to the Hebrides and an audio Recorded Books (only available in a download version) of them very well-read combines the two in alternative sections:

I spent three hours today reading half of Johnson’s part of the journal yet again and yet again it exercised its pull

I sat down on a bank, such as a writer of romance might have delighted to feign. I had indeed no trees to whisper over my head, but a clear rivulet streamed at my feet. The day was calm, the air soft, and all was rudeness, silence, and solitude. Before me, and on either side, were high hills, which by hindering the eye from ranging, forced the mind to find entertainment for itself. Whether I spent the hour well I know not; for here I first conceived the thought of this narration.

We were in this place at ease and by choice, and had no evils to suffer or to fear; yet the imaginations excited by the view of an unknown and untravelled wilderness are not such as arise in the artificial solitude of parks and gardens, a flattering notion of self-sufficiency, a placid indulgence of voluntary delusions, a secure expansion of the fancy, or a cool concentration of the mental powers. The phantoms which haunt a desert are want, and misery, and danger; the evils of dereliction rush upon the thoughts; man is made unwillingly acquainted with his own weakness, and meditation shews him only how little he can sustain, and how little he can perform. There were no traces of inhabitants, except perhaps a rude pile of clods called a summer hut, in which a herdsman had rested in the favourable seasons. Whoever had been in the place where I then sat, unprovided with provisions and ignorant of the country, might, at least before the roads were made, have wandered among the rocks, till he had perished with hardship, before he could have found either food or shelter. Yet what are these hillocks to the ridges of Taurus, or these spots of wildness to the desarts of America? — Anoch

In my first term in graduate school, in a course called “Intellectual Currents in the 18th century,” the professor, Frank Brady, nonetheless, spent half the term on the writings of Johnson and Boswell. I was 24, and deeply impressed by all that Johnson wrote; and when we got to the twin travel books by Johnson and Boswell, I conceived a desire to follow in their footsteps and go to the Hebrides too. The reason I’m reluctant is I dislike Boswell so (personally, as a gang-rapist, for many of his ultra-conservative attitudes, for having framed Johnson in his image of him) though the Life of Johnson ended up entrancing me (in an abridged Signet at the time). A few years later I read Johnson’s Ramblers, Idlers, Adventurers one a night before I went to bed– to steady myself. Jim and I had gone to Edinburgh for our first weekend together two or three years before this class, and I had been so disappointed we could not get further north since we had no money for a car (not much for a train either). In 2001 I led a group reading and discussion of the the twined tours here on the Net and my description was published in the Johnson Newsletter, and letters, poems, meant us to reach out. This fall one of my set texts for a course in the Enlightenment will be Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands (alone or with Boswell, depending on the student’s preference).


Iconic still from Outlander, one of whose sources is DuMaurier’s The House on the Strand (narrator moves from Cornwall 20th century to Cornwall 14th)

I don’t know why Scotland has exercised this fascination on me. Among the books of my teenagehood was a torrid historical romance called The Border Lord; the author attribution is a pseudonym; I couldn’t get enough of Stephan Zweig’s Mary Queen of Scots

Just as the historian pays little heed to slow and stagnant epochs, and his interest is focused upon a few and scattered but dramatic and decisive moments — so, for the biographer, who is concerned with the inmost story of a life, only the pulses of passion count. A human being is not fully alive except when his best energies are at work; and when feeling is active, time moves swiftly though the clock-hands circle at the customary pace … as in dreams, one under stress of powerful affects lives through measureless epochs between two ticks of the pendulum; and with each of us it is as with the enchanted man in the folk-tale who fancied that he had spent a thousand years in the interval between two heart-beats.” –Stephan Zweig, Mary Queen of Scots

and went on to read other biographies of her, her poetry, and the attributed casket letters to Bothwell. Much Scott (Walter). I always liked R. L. Stevenson. About 10 years ago I came to love Margaret Oliphant’s works after reading her Scots ghost stories and The Ladies of Lindores. I read and love Scottish women’s poetry and books. A dream came true last summer when with Road Scholar I went to Inverness, Aigas House. That year my favorite book was John Prebble’s Culloden and I spent much time watching Outlander, and listened to the first two of Gabaldon’s (pernicious) historical romances, partly riveted by its Scottish highlander setting, partly by the central love story and my bonding with Claire. This summer my Road Scholar trip to the Lake District includes two days at the border lowlands of Scotland.

The trails are for me many. I am drawn to the Poldark books because set in an analogously Celtic fringe area: Cornwall — which I finally visited two summers ago. Marginalized places, places on the edge … Such books include even include Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, nominally set in the Hebrides, actually in Cornwall:

And Jim enjoyed Johnson, wrote a paper as an undergraduate defending Johnson’s poetry from the standpoint of the (much maligned at one time) prosody. Jim could quote the line by Johnson about the superlatively gay time he and Boswell enjoyed at Skye:

In Raasay if I could have found an Ulysses, I had fancied a Phaeacia (where Odysseus is entertained perhaps Corfu)

The alert reader may notice that I have skipped Day 8/10: that is another I thought more appropriate for my Austen Reveries: Mlle Julie de Lespinasse’s letters (to M. Guibert most of the time) and Mme Marie-Anne Du Deffand’s letters (to Voltaire, Horace Walpole, Heinault among others).

Ellen

Read Full Post »


The first modern biographer, Lytton Strachey and his subject, Queen Victoria when young

Friends,

I’ve been thinking about biography all my life; that’s because I’ve been reading biography all my life. To prove to you how odd I am the first books meant for older readers (meaning post-childhood) I remember taking out of the adult library on Sutphin Boulevard (in the southeast Bronx), at the time (in my child’s memory) a huge irregular building with many back-stairways; I say my first introduction to adult reading (which I chose, not forced on me) were two fat tomes, bound in brown, of two Renaissance queens, Margaret de Navarre and her aunt, Jeanne d’Albret. Why I chose those or how I found them I’ve no clue. Since my teen years I’ve been aware that I have a favorite kind: literary biography. I’m convinced that as with ghost stories, certain kinds of gothics (female), and epistolary novels, women write the finest versions of this genre, though men who can write an equivalent of l’ecriture-femme can produce gems too. I even love biographies of biographers: like Caroline Moorehead on Iris Origo (of Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44).

The last few months I’ve been especially alert to the form as I have not given up my new life’s goal to write a literary biography of Winston Graham (of the Poldark matter and Cornwall) and turned an offer to include a paper by me on the subject of Johnson and Woolf as paired modernists into a study of their biographical art.

And two weeks ago I chanced upon the equivalent of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel: Andre Maurois’s Aspects of Biography. Maurois makes an attempt to understand his chosen genre’s prevalent characteristics in the modern kind too. Modern biography, he says, is a conscious work of partly imaginative (that is to say, fictional) art, a courageous search for truth in which the biographer realizes highly complex personalities; the most fruiful subjects are of people who have struggled, endured failure, but achieved something. I’m going to look at biography from the different aspects Maurois identified.

First, biography as a work of art: its concern for truth requires documents, but to express a personality requires art. How to do this?

You must choose an angle on the life: he calls this your true subject, and you find the hidden unity of that life through this angle of vision. Johnson may have said the most obscure seemingly reactive, passive life may teach us something important but the truth is you need something to present beyond daily non-events, and it’s best to have an individual who plays some part, no matter how seemingly varied, on some aspects of the world’s stage in a more or less unified performance. Doing the same kinds of things over and over for the same deeply held motives. At the same time all moral preoccupation in the work of art kills the work of art, so the angle should not be moralistic.

Surprisingly perhaps, he finds the chronological method avoids dryness. All of us are artifically made (not just women); that day a great novelist was not born, a baby was. We are not unchangeable. Yet as we change slowly, most of the time imperceptibly, a good biography traces the spiritual and emotional development of someone as history impinges on him or her. You must make us see and feel the person physically. Boswell’s strength is his ceaseless gusto for every particular and entertaining simple style, but while he (I think) presents a distorted emphasis, he has understood enough authentically of his enormous cache of detail, with person who was fecund, varied, interesting so reading the book, we feel the more of this the better. The diary of the brilliant mind, a sketch in words of the person by a close perceptive friend or family member, is invaluable here. Boswell has Johnson’s letters and he (in effect) kept a diary for Johnson every time he met him and was able to find others who had written down or remembered what Johnson said too. There is this obstacle: how much truth do people write in diaries? how representative is what you write down of your life? How much do they understand of themselves. In Johnson’s case he lacked a secular non-judgemental framework. In many other cases, is the product of a writer posing to himself or anticipated others.

Biography considered as a science.

The thoughtful among the public often regard the chief character of a novel as a mirror of the author (no matter how disordered) — especially in non-formulaic fiction. So there is evidence the biographer can use. Also lyric poetry and psychologically revealing plays. A group of characters surrounding and commenting on this center provide a considerable expository base. Of more demonstrable equal value are memoirs of contemporaries who knew the subject — even if the writer is dim (as Margaret Oliphant said of Jane Austen’s nephew in his invaluable Memoir of My Aunt Jane). Letters are the lifeblood of a biography from this standpoint but there people are performing too. No person is understandable apart from her historical time. You must study the era, the geography and way of life where the subject lived, its history. So biography becomes the story of an evolution of a soul against a background of history, with help from contemporaries who knew him or her. That’s as close to objectivity as you’re going to get (thinks Maurois)

Biography as a mean of expression. The biographer chooses a subject which gives her the opportunity to express what is in her very keenly. Beneath the objective surface there should lie that vivid emotion, which gives a book an intensity a burning passion.

Biography will not come alive if you write it coldly or distantly. The biographer is seeking an opportunity for displaying some aspect of him or herself. This is all indirect: by quite an indirect means and through the medium of characters very far removed in circumstances from the biographer, the biographer attains to self-expression. Yet in novels and fictionalized (skeptic, modern) biography, the writers’ characters do not have to have been real or lived as people, just very believable in context. We should ask, whatever the indirect means, what were the secret springs in the biographer which are at the bottom of this desire to write someone’s biography? For Maurois writing of Shelley it was a deliverance for himself to write the life of Shelley. (For me what compels me are an attitude of mind I identify with in the first half of Graham’s Memoir, find acted out in a core group of characters in Graham’s first seven Poldark books, and the escape from my contemporary world is an intense relief.) In sum, biography is an expression of character when the author has chosen his subject in order to respond to a secret need in his own nature. Then it’s autobiography disguised as biography.

The appealing tone (Maurois suggests) derives from how the biographer regards his or her hero or heroine as greater than him or herself — or more important for some reason. Johnson finds it of riveting importance to show that the supremely gifted person can end up having done nothing most people would admire or value and in tragic misery when dying. Woolf is looking at a man as an artist of great integrity, who will not compromise his art, and was (she thinks) crucially influential anyway. The modern biographer recognizes he or she can never uncover the whole of their character’s innermost springs confront the mysteries of real people; Maurois thinks the biographer finds his or her way through a one alive persov by dwelling on one aspect of that person and sometimes fleeting, a limited and yet suggestive expansive aspect. Guilt at running the risk of spoiling the reputation, the considered presence of how the person is remembered, worry at offending and attack doesn’t stop the biographer from writing the life up as accuately as allowed in print. I don’t know quite what Maurois meant when he wrote something to the effect the biographer thinks he can refashion a thought then in the image of our own today.


Anthony Trollope, artful albumen print photo by Julia Margaret Cameron (1864)

He turns to autobiography as a sub-species of life-writing. Do you know the truth about yourself; your invisible center? Several causes make autobiography to some extent false and inaccurate. In a nutshell, we forget.

It’s here he first quotes Anthony Trollope’s utterance as a key: Trollope doubts truthtful autobiography is possible. Who would tell the meannesses he or she had done or thought. Trollope tells us he remembers so much from his boyhood — what produced that violent impression has the power to continue to make us tremble, himself to burn with passionate humiliation. He controls that seismic power. It’s a truism if we live through war we remember more as children. We don’t forget the shock at what we have seen.

To make up for blank space before say ages 7 to 9, most autobiographies of childhood are to some extent fabrications because what we have to fill in is what we remember and that is partly from what our parents told us. The confused feelings and associations of such our first crucial years are lost in obscurity and the unremembered past — yet here is this complex individual (Trollope) emerging around this shock. Johnson (and others) urge people to preserve written testimony before what happened is lost –- a fairly detailed record alone can bring ourselves before us, and the diary is its basis. Trollope relies on these memories burning into his mind still.

What else do we forget? The subject forgets her dreams, yet much of our hours are spent in forms of dreams. The biographer and autobiographer omit or forget in order to make a work of art – so much of life has to left out. “The cult of the hero is as old as mankind,” but we must struggle against it (says Maurois). At any rate we (helplessly sometimes) censor the disagreeable too. People feel a deep sense of shame at petty and other humiliations they have endured (Trollope is able to tell of these), at their bodies, very few can tell truth about sexual life: immediately too one response from many readers may be unacknowledged voyeurism. How painful to think that what you are writing is fodder for someone’s silent ridicule or disdain.

We also rationalize after the fact and finds reasons for what often occurred by chance. Maurois feels (and like Mrs Proudie, I agree with him), that there is no system to life, no pattern for real, no meaning, and we act out of private personal needs and to other people nearest us. The order we experience is from our need to sleep, to eat, to defecate; the institutions society says we must go to; our need to earn a living or share one from someone somehow. We also want to protect those around us. The underlying design here too must be the development of mind, that is your pattern, and that Trollope succeeds in: a portrait of how this novelist came to be and the nature of his novelistic art, a book which is a diptych.

Maurois may have seem to have left out much but he is speaking of modern biography:


A modern biography …


EBB’s life from the point of view of her dog, of her maid, Elizabeth Wilson (said to be Margaret Forster’s finest book, except I’d say for her biographies of the females in her working class family.)

Maurois does not talk of early biography (the way Forster does not talk of the earliest pre-novels before the later 17th century in Europe), not before Johnson and Boswell by which time biography had become in individual instances a portrait of an individual life, and then through these two men’s books (and the fiction of the era) consciously texts aimed at developing the sympathetic imagination of the reader who then can enter in (Rambler 60 and Idler 84),

Maurois mentions but does not regard as “true biography,” commemorative, pious, family, the zealous many volume documentary, which at its best aimed only at a consciously semi-censored “truth to life,” and is found in Gaskell, Oliphant, Froude’s Carlyle where (according to Virginia Woolf in Flush) a dog is said to have jumped out of a window or off the roof in response to the killing nature of the Carlyles’ marriage.

Maurois is contemporary with Woolf’s essay on modern or “The New Biography,” where she says what the new biography does is convey personality deeply, and she includes the semi-fictional sketches of Some People by Harold Nicholson as modern biographies. Later she changed her mind in “The Art of the Biography,” and conceded the foundation of biography must be fact, evidence and its means verisimilitude. And her last biography is her Roger Fry:

Facts are the problem, she says. By the time she gets to the end of either essay she’s made a case that the central use of facts can limit the biography. The existence of documents (facts) for Queen Victoria can make writing her biography so much more satisfying and near to great art. But how powerful and intense Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex, that Strachey got in the “stranger bodies’ of the Elizabethans through strange (unconventional sexuality) imagining.

And at the close Maurois admits the genre has so many limitations and obstacles one might say it is impossible to pull off except you admit it’s fiction ,,,,

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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.

**************************************

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.

********************************************

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »