Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk

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An unusual and fascinating novel, Tokarczuk’s book explores the border between poetry and prose, story and fairy tale. The quirky voice of the narrator is firmly established with the first sentence and sustained throughout the book.

Living alone in an isolated community in western Poland, Janina is an older woman who manages the griefs that accumulate over the years, her vocation of astrology, and the translations of William Blake’s poetry that she and a friend are doing. Despite her various physical ailments, she looks after the other homes during the winter, making sure the martens don’t get in and the pipes don’t freeze. Only two other people live there during the winter, Oddball and Big Foot. These are her names for them, as she names almost all the characters.

Then Big Foot turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. He was a loathsome creature in her eyes, a poacher who didn’t care how cruelly he hurt the animals he snared, someone who showed no respect for the non-animal natural world either, cutting down trees for no reason. Yet his death moves her. Oddball insists that the two of them wash and dress the body before the police come. She says:

There we stood in the cold, damp room, in the frosty vacuum prevailing at this dull, gray time of night, and it crossed my mind that the thing that leaves the body sucks a piece of the world after it, and no matter how good or bad it was, how guilty or blameless, it leaves behind a great big void.

Such a powerful way to describe a death. Their call to the police is delayed because not only is the signal spotty, but they often get a signal from the other side of the nearby Czech border instead of their own signal.

Borders are a recurring image, not just between countries, but between a remote community and town, fields and forests, humans and animals, grief and love, one person’s truth and another’s, language and reality. In fields near her house the hunters from town have erected huts they call “pulpits” where they hide in order to shoot the animals that come near, lured by the food the hunters have spread. I’m jarred by the idea of doing murder, preaching murder from a pulpit. Yet it’s so true.

More deaths follow, stranger and stranger. But there are greater mysteries here. What life is worth more than another? What actions are justified by law or ethics, and which one dominates the other? Are we as helpless as we think we are? How do our homes, so meticulously described in this book, reflect us and nurture us and protect us—or not? What is our relationship with the wild, meaning the portion of the natural world that we do not manage?

The title is from Blake, as are epigraphs for each chapter, adding to the fantastical atmosphere. The story sometimes feels like a fable, sometimes a prose poem, sometimes a wrenching view of age and isolation, sometimes a paean to friendship. For Janina does have friends: Oddball, her neighbor; Dizzy, her compatriot in translating Blake; Good News, who runs a second-hand store in town; Boros, an entomologist she meets in the woods.

I found this book so rich, so thought-provoking that I not only listened to the audio book, repeating many chapters two or three times, but also bought the paperback book and am reading it. I loved the narrator’s performance in the audio book, but with the physical book I am seeing different things, appreciating different things—mostly to do with language. Thus, I’m continuing the story’s exploration of borders between one sense and another, between the physical and the metaphysical.

Have you read a novel so fascinating that you immediately reread it?

Walking, by Henry David Thoreau

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Thoreau first gave this talk in 1851 at the Concord Lyceum and continued to work on it afterwards. It was published in the Atlantic Monthly after he died in 1862.

My second book of poetry Terrarium is about the influence of place on our lives and personality—the place we grew up, our place in the family, perhaps the place we’ve always wanted to visit. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the categories of physical places in my life, a three-legged stool: home, society and the wild. With the pandemic, society is reduced almost completely to faces on the computer, leaving me pondering home and the wild and how we do or do not move among them.

First, let me be clear: wild is a relative term. There is no virgin wilderness here in North America, and never was except perhaps when the first people tramped across the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia. There is untended land, here in New England some of it was once farmland, laboriously carved out of the forest, abandoned when the economy collapsed leaving remnants of stone walls in the woods. There are lightly managed forests, with walking trails and sometimes efforts to remove invasive species. These suffice for my experience of the wild.

Now we have learned through new research that there is more going on in the woods than we realised, that trees communicate with each other and form their own society. Richard Powers’s bestseller The Overstory explores these ideas further through several sets of characters.

The fairy tales we hear as children are often about venturing into the wild—Into the Woods, as Stephen Sondheim put it—and discovering our own talents and values as we encounter its dangers. The journey becomes a metaphorical basis for nearly all of our stories, the hero’s journey described by Joseph Campbell.

And then there’s coming home. For many people, the immediate shock of the pandemic’s stay-home orders was to actually be at home all the time, not spending most daylight hours at work or school or the myriad activities that fill some children’s schedules, not going out in the evenings to a restaurant or concert or pub.

For all the decades I was working a day job, the thought of being at home all day seemed like nirvana. I had worked hard to make my home a place where I wanted to be, that fostered my favorite activities and soothed my soul, yet spent most of my days in offices and laboratories. When I retired a few years ago from that job to write, I feared that being home all the time would not be the paradise I’d expected. Reader, it was. And is. Though I recognise that my personality is particularly well-suited to this life.

I also walk. A lot. Aside from the obvious health benefits of exercise, recent studies have shown the positive effects—mental, physical and emotional—of spending time in nature.

So, belatedly, we come to Thoreau. Most famous for his two years in the woods by Walden Pond, he was fascinated by natural history, anticipating what we now call ecology and environmentalism.

He begins this essay:

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

Where he wins my heart comes a little later when he says:

I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together . . . I wonder that about this time, or say between four and five o’clock in the afternoon, too late for the morning papers and too early for the evening ones, there is not a general explosion heard up and down the street . . .

He’s not just extolling the opportunity for exercise, but having the time to “walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.” Also, as a Transcendentalist, he considers what we can learn from nature, extolling even swamps and bogs as jewels.

I will leave you to enjoy the rest of this delightful and thought-provoking essay for yourselves. It’s readily available online. It’s time for me to take a walk.

Where are your favorite places to walk?

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

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I read this popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel a few months ago but wanted to let it sit for a while before blogging about it. I needed to sort out the emotions it left me with: a combination of enchantment and disappointment.

It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees.

Writers are told to avoid polemics, to get down off our soapboxes, or we risk annoying or alienating readers. I don’t think anyone could question the wondrous greatness of trees or their life going on independently of us, yet Powers avoids the trap of dogma by giving us their side of the story through those of his characters, their resistance, their devotion, their sacrifice.

I didn’t need convincing. I’ve had a deep emotional attachment to trees since earliest childhood, counting some among my best friends. Nor did the rest of my book club, all of us already in love with trees, living as we do in the Green Mountains. Yet we all struggled with the beginning of the book, unable to remember the characters after each was introduced in the first section, having to flip back to remind ourselves.

We were also disappointed—while profoundly moved—by the ending. I try not to give away endings, so I’ll just echo the assertion of writing master Donald Maass that we want stories that reflect reality; he says, “the truth is that while we may live in a bleak world we are not empty inside.” Here, the enigmatic ending left us debating this idea.

The baffling prologue was enough to make me put the book down several times before reluctantly reading on for the sake of my book club. As it turns out, it doesn’t reflect the book as a whole. You can safely skip it.

Otherwise, the writing is often enchanting. Eventually the characters became distinct and memorable but always the events and descriptions kept me reading.

Now the linden, it turns out, is a radical tree, as different from an oak as a woman is from a man. It’s the bee tree, the tree of peace, whose tonics and teas can cure every kind of tension and anxiety.

Powers also brings devastating psychological insight to his characters. One, a man who has lived a life considered normal for a middle-class American man, says: “I’ve been a man who happily confuses the agreed-upon for the actual.” A brilliant description that could fit quite a few people I know.

But what I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story, surely another meaning of the title, which the author uses as a synonym for trees’ canopy. By telling the world’s story through those of nine characters, Powers has chosen the most effective way to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. As writing master Lisa Cron has memorably described, stories have been our means of survival since the earliest days. Stories are how we learn and the best way for us to remember.

My book club discussed the concept of forest bathing, the idea of de-stressing and even healing by walking through the woods, agreeing that we all had been doing this long before the term was coined. We hoped that this novel would increase awareness of and activism to protect the natural world, especially our beloved trees.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs, and Human Imagination, by Barbara Hurd

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I loved this book so much that the person from whom I borrowed it actually gave it to me (thanks, Anne!). Reading it, I was reminded of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book about encountering the natural world and the human condition, a book that stunned me. So much so, now that I think of it, that the person from whom I borrowed it gave it to me (thanks, Jill!).

Stirring the Mud is a slight book, only nine essays, but I’ve been reading and rereading it for weeks, pondering the images and leaps of thought.

To love a swamp . . . is to love what is muted and marginal, what exists in the shadows, what shoulders its way out of mud and scurries along the damp edges of what is most commonly praised.

My love for the natural world tends to lean toward trees and streams, long walks on ocean beaches, and the rosemary and warm tomatoes in my garden. I’ve had an inchoate fear of swamps since childhood, when one third of our property by the Chesapeake Bay was a swamp. Or at least, that’s what my mother called it, warning us to stay out of it because it was full of snakes.

What unnerves me now about swamps and bogs, having stumbled into more than a few, is the uncertainty, the way what seems solid suddenly gives way under you. Hurd persuades me to treasure this experience. She reminds me that this feeling is both the fear and the joy of creativity: each time I start to write, I plunge into uncertainty.

Reading these essays, I came to love standing with Hurd as she lets her shoes sink into the mud, water seeping in to wet her socks, thinking about what grows there, what is lost there, what is preserved there. She examines the liminality of these places, how mysteriously hidden their edges are.

When by some act of grace, the lines we think are there dissolve, something else appears, something timeless and rich, an intermediate zone, languid and latent, the lushness of something about to be and in no particular hurry to make it happen.

I appreciate the information she includes to provide context, telling us for example that Finzel Swamp is a palustrine wetland and explaining what that means. Most of all, I love her close observation of the swamps she visits and the way she includes us in the experience.

One time, not far from the alders at Finzel, I found a small congregation of Indian pipes sprouting out of the leaf mold. Two inches high, these albino plants resemble a sculpture of dripped wax turned upside down in the dirt. The color of breast milk, bluish, almost translucent, they are saprophytic plants, meaning they need decay in order to live. I don’t know what it is about such ghostly whiteness that suggests silence, as if color were also sound and the absence of one means the absence of the other. Lovers of the damp, they don’t look like pipes to me but like nuns, their heads bowed, lips open, mouthing a constant and silent syllable.

Look at the lovely consistency of imagery in that description: congregation, dripping wax, ghosts and nuns. Even their name suggests the pipes of the organ with their open mouths, singing. And other images set against them, muddling them: breast milk, decay, absence.

I know I will keep coming back to this book. For the last few years I’ve been pondering margins and thresholds, but Hurd’s essays have caused a fundamental shift in my thoughts. I realised I’d been thinking of margins and thresholds as horizontal, stepping through a door for instance. Hurd makes me consider the vertical, what is below me, invisible if my eyes are trained on what may be in front of me. Similarly, based on reading poet David Hinton’s work, I’ve been letting go of the idea of time as linear and instead thinking of it as a constantly changing present, a present that I am sinking into ever more deeply.

What do you associate with swamps or bogs?

Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England, by Tom Wessels

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Tom Wessels’ book helps me understand what I’m looking at when I examine the woods that come almost up to my porch. Although I live in the mid-Atlantic, we share the same type of forest as southern New England, one of seven types in the U.S. Ours is called the Central Forest. There are differences, but the trees I see from my porch are those I saw in Massachusetts: oak, maple, white pine, honey locust, maple, ash. We also have sweet gum and black walnut, which are not found up north, or at least not yet.

This is not a tree identification book, however. It’s more like a magic decoder ring. It gives the information you need to look at a patch of woods and make a pretty good guess at what it looked like 100 years ago and what has occurred to disturb it in the meantime.

Wessels sets up each chapter as a mystery, starting with an etching of a forest by Brian D. Cohen and then pulls out the clues that tell us what has happened there. Was it once a pasture or farm that was left to reforest itself? Has it been logged, and if so, how many times? Has there been a hurricane or a forest fire? Have they been affected by blight? What do the trees tell us about the soil and topography?

At the end of most chapters, he takes a look back at the historical context of the disturbance. For example, in precolonial New England, Native Americans used fire as a forest management tool. They burned the litter on the ground and low-growing vegetation to control insects and make it easier to move silently. “These precolonial, fire-managed woodlands looked dramatically different from New England’s present forests. They were parklike, with massive hardwoods creating a canopy over forest floors carpeted with grasses and berry bushes.”

However, the diseases brought by settlers decimated the Native American population, whose knowledge was then lost. “Within fifty years of the landing at Plymouth Rock, the Native American, fire-managed ecosystems of southern New England became a memory,” replaced by the dense, almost impenetrable forest that I see from my porch.

There are also fascinating nuggets buried in this irresistibly engaging book. For example, in the last major gypsy moth outbreak in central New England in the summer of 1981, scientists found that “the oak trees not yet attacked by the gypsy moth larvae changed their leaf chemistry, apparently in anticipation of the approaching insects.” The trees were communicating with each other using an airborne chemical message (jasmonic acid).

This discovery reminds me of another book I’ve heard of but not yet read: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben. A German forest ranger, Wohlleben explains that trees are social beings, working together in networks and sharing resources. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

Now when I stand on the porch, I can read the history of the trees in front of me. More than that, I’m aware that what I see are not the separate individual trees I’ve always thought them, but rather a community. These trees are talking to each other in ways that I cannot decipher.

What book has changed your view of the natural world?