Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Category: reading list (page 2 of 4)

Miller’s Valley and more

A particularly beautiful book cover eased the hesitation at buying hardcover.

A particularly beautiful dust jacket eased my hesitation at buying hardcover.

A Saturday Globe review for Miller’s Valley caught my eye, and when I discovered I was 46th in line to borrow the book at the Central Library, I headed to the marvellous independent bookstore Westminster Books during a weekend trip to Fredericton to buy my own copy. The book tracks the coming of age of a girl in Pennsylvania as she watches government pressure inexorably lead to the inundation of her family’s farm for the ‘public good’. The flooding plays the same role in this book as in many others I’ve discussed here and in recent papersshorthand for obliteration, loss, injustice, and forgetting – but what distinguishes it is in demonstrating the capacity to adapt over time, nonetheless. A few excerpts from the last page resonate particularly:

I don’t really miss the Miller’s Valley I used to know, the one in which I grew up, my very own drowned town. It’s been gone a long time now… They’re talking about having a big celebration for the fiftieth anniversary… and that’ll clinch it. If something’s been around fifty years, it’s been around forever. Most people think it’s always been there. They run fishing boats and go ice skating and sit in folding chairs and look out over the place where we all lived and it’s just water to them, as far as the eye can see. I guess it’s just water to me, too. … When I talked to Cissy about Andover, when I was a kid, I thought her life, her past, her childhood, all of it was buried down there under the water. I didn’t understand that it was above the surface, in her, the way mine is in me. … Lots of people leave here, that’s for sure, but people stay, too. And some are like me. They circle back. (p. 256-7)

Hand-drawn map by Joe George of a transect from the Woolastook campground in NB over old homesteads flooded by the Mactaquac Dam.

Hand-drawn map by Joe George of a transect from the Woolastook campground in NB over old homesteads flooded by the Mactaquac Dam.

In this same weekend I visited Joe George at COJO Exploration, who had spent the day scuba diving in his quest for the old townsite of Kingsclear, now under the Mactaquac headpond. His hand-drawn map from the dive shows the foundations, wells and other infrastructure he swam over, trying to avoid stirring up sediment in the low-visibility (2 ft) conditions. Looking at old maps, he reckons the well (“still water in it!”, he joked) belonged to the Long family. Joe is hoping to set up a recreational scuba track – as he showed me, basically a high-viz yellow cable – to allow visitors to explore the drowned town. He also hopes, however, to find some relics of life there, to share with either prior residents or local museums.

Dams are in the news, either in terms of removal (see a discussion here about opening the gates of the Glen Canyon Dam), or protests about construction. For instance, a public letter signed by Canadian scholars protests about Site C’s approval as a violation of process and treaty rights. An early-stage proposal for a dam on the Eldred River near Powell River BC is being protested by rock climbers (on the basis of a long-standing base camp) and foresters (the transmission infrastructure associated with independent power installations affects forestry and thus jobs), possibly the first time that those two bodies were on the same side of any issue.

Uncharted

Aiden and Michel's (2013) book reveals how big data can help us understand how culture has changed.

Aiden and Michel’s (2013) book reveals how big data can help us understand how culture has changed.

I pulled this book, Uncharted (2013), by Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, out of a bargain bin at Chapters a few weeks ago, and it is another example of serendipity. These Harvard PhDs collaborated with Google’s book digitization project to develop the Google Ngram tool. They liken their project to a tool to a microscope or telescope, which were tools that brought new dimensions to view for scientists. Their culture-scope is able to track uses of terms or phrases over time within Google Books’ enormous and growing database of digitized literature. They coined the term ‘culturomics‘, which is too awkward to stick, but the value is clear. Watch the holistic idea of ‘landscape’ overtake the aesthetically driven ‘scenery’ around the turn of the last century (below). Lots of food for thought in a world of Big Data.

Google Ngram View of landscape versus scenery in English text corpus, 1800 to 2000.

Google Ngram View of landscape versus scenery in English text corpus, 1800 to 2000.

On browsing

Serendipity is a frequent companion when I browse in bookstores and libraries. Two of my favourite books of this year were found that way. Unlike my two favourite books of last year, by Monbiot and MacFarlane, which were gifted and recommended, respectively, these were completely accidental discoveries. They are in a similar vein of natural history, both books slim but speaking volumes, penned by women whose names should be as common as those listed above.

Kathleen Jamie, Findings (2005)

Kathleen Jamie, Findings (2005)

The first was Kathleen Jamie‘s 2005 book Findings, encountered when seeking Annie Dillard in the Halifax Central Library. This book is subtitled Essays on the Natural and Unnatural World, which is – as they say – right up my alley. She writes gentle observations from a domestic place that are anything but mundane. While she may be doing it in stolen moments between dropping off and picking up kids, or on weekends carved out of the usual routine, her anchoring in these familiar places makes her discoveries all the more poignant: a nesting peregrine, coastal flotsam and jetsam, archaeological evidence of our long thriving. Unlike most books, where I have started to turn down pages to mark good quotables, Jamie’s text was too rich to choose. One blurb on the back, I cannot remember whose, wrote of her gift for “finding without taking”, and I can’t think of any better way to put her magic.

Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss (2003)

The second book was Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2003 Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, handed to me as a random pick from a Chapters shelf by someone who knows me well. I’ve always loved mosses. I was aghast to find a big bag of moss killer in the house we bought when we came to Halifax. But I liked them in that head-height kind of way, where the colours and textures mix into a sort of landscape fabric. Kimmerer made me lie down, and showed me how much I had been missing. This is where Macfarlane himself ended up in his otherwise macho quest, The Wild Places, when he finally recognized that wildness is a matter of scale. This book was a revelation. Her writing is so lucid, full of scientific detail without the obfuscation, and grounded in strong narrative. I felt tuned into a new dimension, though I also appreciated her observations on larger landscape pattern. She memorably describes the loss of old growth forest in the Willamette Valley of Oregon’s Coast Range:

The landscape spread out before me looks more like ragged scraps than a patterned quilt. It looks like indecision as to what we want our forests to be. (p. 141)

This is exactly what I thought when I spent some time looking at Canadian forests on Google’s new Timelapse tool.

Postscript: My attempt at a trifecta failed. Annie Proulx’s, Bird Cloud (2011; misleadingly subtitled, A Memoir of Place) is a flawed undertaking, smacking of contractual obligation as she tries to marry well-told stories of her family history and Wyoming landscapes with a whiny tale of high-end home construction in an impractical yet beautiful setting that should probably have just been left alone.

Akenfield

My 1978 Penguin edition of Akenfield.

My 1978 Penguin edition of Akenfield.

Another second-hand bookstore treasure from someone who knows me well, Akenfield (1969) is a remarkably engrossing (and surprisingly undated) study of an anonymized rural Suffolk village, in the voice of fifty or so local residents. It tells the story of post-war England, agricultural modernization, social liberalization but also lingering fealty and class boundaries. The author, Ronald Blythe, interviewed and synthesized each voice, sometimes adding a sympathetic preamble of description and context. Surprises abound, such the description of WWII as a boon: conditions were so mean pre-war, that young men worked to the bone on farms found war service easy (with more food), and even bad farmers grew rich to supply that food. Some of the most compelling parts for me related to the farm landscape and how it was perceived and used. For instance, in the Introduction:

“…its hedges – now being slaughtered – were planted in the eighteenth century and, where they remain, shelter all the wild life of the particular fields they surround. Earlier field boundaries can be easily traced by ridges and ditches, and here and there a great tree spreads itself out in Time, making no sense at all. The clay acres themselves are the only tablets on which generations of village men have written … I am, but nothing remains of these sharp straight signatures.” (p. 14)

About the taciturn field workers, the last holdout of peasantry, working over generations for the same farmer, for compensations that keep him bound – a farm cottage, etc – Blythe writes: “Science is a footnote to what he really believes. And what he knows is often incommunicable “ (p. 15) . That younger generations continue to look to farming is described such: “perhaps, they have inherited the small residual static quality in all village life, that thing which is either condemned as apathy or praised and envied as contentment, but yet which is really neither of these. The attitude contains something determined and enduring, and also incorporates some kind of duty or loyalty to the village fields” (p. 91). For instance, a young ploughman bemoans the loss of the hedges, being undertaken to expand farms and enable increased mechanization, which make it difficult for a ploughman to keep his bearings:

“A well-kept hedge is a good sight and tells you where you are. The hedges belong to the village. You get used to seeing them standing there – they are like buildings and you miss them when they are knocked down. Some hedges are important and when they go you feel as bad as if a wood had been taken away. I think that there are certain hedges which the farmer’s shouldn’t touch without asking the people – although I can’t see this happening.” (p. 279).

An older farmer, an emigrant from Scotland, gives an outsider’s perspective on the impact of landscape on long-time residents, reminiscent of Swift’s observations in Waterland of what flat fenlands make of fenlanders: “The big skies leave the East Anglians empty. The skies are nothing. The horizons are too wide. There is nothing for a man to measure himself by here. In Scotland you have the hills, the mountains. They diminish a man. They make him think. … they last and he doesn’t.” (p. 320)

Blythe’s anthropology is thorough and generous, but does not shrink from difficulty. I do not know how he negotiated access and approval within such a small village given the blunt assessments many interviewees make of one another, individually and collectively, but it is a true gift that he made this record. It was made into an eponymous film in 1974 and is still in print – I just saw a new edition in Bookmark last week. This book is of a piece with early and modern tales of shepherding by Hardy and Rebanks discussed last year, as well as Robert Macfarlane’s Old Ways. A recording of Blythe and Macfarlane on the dais together at the Charleston Festival in 2013 for a celebration of rural life and sense of place is worth a listen.

Waterland

The cover of my copy of Waterland, picked up by someone who knows me well at a secondhand book sale.

The cover of my copy of Waterland, picked up by someone who knows me well at a secondhand book sale.

I recently re-read Waterland, by Graham Swift, which won the Booker Prize in 1983. It’s a remarkable combination of fenland geography, biographical mythology, environmental/industrial history, and thriller. I think you may need to be into wetlands to get through some of his passages, and certainly be comfortable with a fragmented temporal axis, but it is my kind of storytelling. It is funny – there’s this wonderful bit where he discusses how flat landscapes like the fenlands encourage lustiness – and the main characters are solid. As with much of what I record here, I also see parallels between my recreational reading and my research. This is a book about place, cultural landscapes, and adaptation. In the wake of my more recent research on dykelands, for instance, a late passage seemed particularly interesting upon this second read:

There’s this thing called progress. But it doesn’t progress. It doesn’t go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. It’s progress if you can stop the world slipping away. My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost. A dogged and vigilant business. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business. But you shouldn’t go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires. (p. 291)

 

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