Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Tag: Non-fiction

NOLA book serendipity

Three books from my AAG trip to New Orleans

Three books from my AAG trip to New Orleans

Bookshelf serendipity strikes again! I can’t resist telling this story, though it was awhile ago. Appropriate to the geography conference I was in town to attend, I bought a compelling atlas of New Orleans by Rebeccas Solnit and Snedeker, Unfathomable City, part of a series at UC Press, at a small bookstore behind the Cabildo. Each map and essay tells an idiosyncratic story about the place, including human and river channel migrations, social and landscape erosions, including social clubs, seafood and sex. While excellent, it wasn’t an easy one to tote in my bag for idle moments.

The ‘take a book, leave a book’ shelf at my hotel filled the gap with But What if We’re Wrong, by pop seer Chuck Klosterman (sorry Columns Hotel, I’ll leave one next time). Klosterman is talking about the same thing that I was at AAG to talk about: climax thinking. He asks how we can learn to make decisions anticipating the many ways that we might be wrong, so we don’t box ourselves in. Instead we denigrate the people who made decisions or assessments we reflect upon today as folly, but assume against evidence that we’re going to be right. There is something to be said about doubt.

Having finished both of the above, I needed another book for the flight home. During a layover in Toronto airport I bought Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowicz. He is a computer scientist who thinks data mining has replaced social science, so a few sections (particularly the conclusion) grated, but this was a fun (and surprisingly dirty) introduction to how secondary online datasets like our Google queries help us learn what people are really thinking and feeling. I have since brought up his examples in a few social science contexts, like the energy incubator at Cornell. I’m loathe to hand it to students, given some of the icky content (people are, it turns out, gross), but as survey response rates drop, offensiphobia rules, and questions around sustainability cross the sociology/psychology boundary, such datasets may well be the only way we can really understand what kind of society we are really working with.

Sightlines (2012)

My softcover edition of Sightlines (2012) looks like this.

While my first Kathleen Jamie experience, Findings (2005), came serendipitously while browsing the Halifax Central Library, my second was bought for me for Christmas by someone who knows me well. Dedicated “for the Island-goers” this spoke directly to me, fresh from the Falklands. Jamie is also a poet, and it is with such carefully chosen yet spare and modest language that she tackles these essays that work the vein between human and nature. Several concern remote islands and outcrops like St. Kilda and Rona, with historic human occupation that speaks of human ingenuity and fortitude, and where novel landscapes persist as a result. A favourite one conveys the zen experience of the Hvalsalen, the ‘whale hall’ in the Bergen Museum, its history and its renovation, which is recalled later in a meditation on the use of whalebone as memorial and in craft. One called ‘pathologies’ explores the human body as a habitat, for bacteria among other challenging organisms, inspired by our tendency to be selective about what we consider nature worth saving, or worthy of our awe. Yet another talks about Jamie’s experiences as a young archaeologist, excavating to ‘save’ history from development while erasing it. These are some of my favourites essays in this collection, which also have others focusing on natural phenomena like orca, aurora and seabirds. My preferences are not surprising given my interest in things social: after all, when presented with colonies of rockhopper penguins and black-browed albatrosses on West Falkland, I asked, “Can we go back and watch the shearing?”.  Jamie needs to go next to the Falklands, given her fascination for remote islands, wind, and the  history of human industry including whaling and agriculture. I think I’ll write and tell her.

Black-browed albatrosses patrol the rockhopper penguins, guarding their eggs, on a cliff at Dunbar, West Falkland.

A black-browed albatross patrols the rockhopper penguins, who are guarding their eggs, on a cliff at Dunbar, West Falkland.

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.

The modern shepherd

I was in the middle of Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), by Thomas Hardy, when I received word from the Halifax Central Library that the hold I placed on James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life (2015) was ready for pickup. This was a nice bit of symmetry, as the hero of Hardy’s novel is Gabriel Oak, stout-hearted and reliable shepherd of Hardy’s ‘Wessex’ (south-west England). Rebanks (@herdyshepherd1) is a modern shepherd who runs a family ‘fell farm’ of Herdwick sheep in the Lake District, as well as an Oxford graduate who advises UNESCO on ensuring tourism benefits local communities in cultural landscapes. The ‘fell’ is an area of marginal commons pasture shared by local farmers for extensive grazing.

James Rebanks worked up to this book on shepherding in the UK Lake District from twitter, and a column in Cumbria Life magazine.

James Rebanks worked up to this book on shepherding in the UK Lake District from Twitter, and a column in Cumbria Life magazine.

It was fascinating reading these books in parallel, seeing the same farming practices described, despite differences in vocabulary. They were also both deeply landscape-driven and embedded in place. Rebanks is eloquent and pithy, and mounts a passionate defense for this way of life, in part rejecting calls by folks like George Monbiot to destock grazed landscapes to rewild and revegetate them. Many analogies suggest the sense that the land is itself part of the family in shepherd life. About his grandfather’s connection to the land, Rebanks shared (p. 72):

My grandfather had an eye for things that were ‘beautiful’ like a sunset, but he would explain it in mostly functional terms, not abstract aesthetic ones. He seemed to love the landscape around him like a passion, but his relationship with it was more like a long tough marriage than a fleeting holiday love affair. His work bound him to the land, regardless of weather or the seasons. When he observed something like a spring sunset, it carried hte full meaning of someone who had earned the right to comment, having suffered six months of wind, snow and rain to get to that point. He clearly thought such things beautiful, but that beauty was full of real functional implications – namely the end of winter or better weather to come.

Above the love of the land, perhaps, is his love of the sheep themselves. The book also presents a new vocabulary for scholars of place: hefted, from Old Norse for ‘tradition’. Hefted sheep have “become accustomed and attached to an area of upland pasture”. It seems clear from this book that humans can be hefted, too.

The Old Ways

theoldwaysI live in the ‘new world’ of North America, and so often have to settle for short forays in Europe and watching Time Team on YouTube to sate my craving for a sense of history in my landscape. Occasionally it happens here: an old stone staircase overgrown in the woods near York Redoubt, a pitted road sinking under the Mactaquac headpond, or the remnants of a farm rock wall in the greenbelt behind my house. My heart leaps to see signs of human use, and the overwriting of landscape as needs change. We generally do this poorly in Canada, having so much space to use. I have just finished Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. He is drawn to old pathways in the UK and elsewhere, and meditates as he walks them on the feedbacks between humans and places, through the experience of travelling where others have trod. His writing is poetry, an immersive portal through time, about how culture changes but ‘desire lines’ persist and what we acquire from following them. A tantalizing sample from page 26-27, which relates to so much of my own research:

For paths run through people as surely as they run through places. … I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. … As I envisage it, landscape projects into us not like a jetty or peninsula, finite and bounded in its volume and reach, but instead as a kind of sunlight, flickeringly unmappable in its plays yet often quickening and illuminating. We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places – but we are far less good at saying what places make of us. For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know somewhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?

A page earlier Macfarlane notes of Edward Thomas, UK poet and somewhat patron saint of The Old Ways, that “he was …. interestingly alert to how we are scattered, as well as affirmed, by the places through which we move” (p. 25). I keep coming back to this as I reflect on place-protective behaviour in cherished landscapes – how important it is to carefully negotiate landscape change such as required for climate adaptation and mitigation, to avoid an irreversible loss of ‘coherence’, a social jarring and dislocation from place.

© 2018 Kate Sherren

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑