Sunday, June 29
Tuesday, June 27
In the southern corner of the garden, the shrubs and trees are making up a harmonious whole, I think. From left to right you see a weeping birch, a pillar spruce and a cherry plum tree, all about fifteen years old. In front of them, there's a ten-year-old hedgerow of sand roses or dog roses, if you like, because of the nearness of the sea. They are highly tolerant of seaside salt spray and storms and are often being the first shrubs in from the coast.
Besides cutting back the hedge in early spring (as much as you like) and removing a branch or two from the birch and the plum tree, this corner of the garden doesn't need much looking after. With age, it has also developed very high drought tolerance. Not even the size of the yield of hips and cherry plums seems to be much affected by a dry period although the birds would be better judges of that as they get the greater part of it.
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THE INIMITABLE LILAC TREE
The late bloom of the small lilac tree is fading. The propensity for self-realization of this little tree is quite astonishing. Having celebrated its finest hour for almost a month, it will soon pass the baton fleury of the box bread to the buttercup yellow of the cinquefoils. They will continue blooming until late autumn, well into the flowering period of the bluebeard.
Thursday, June 22
ST JOHN’S WORT
St John's wort doth charm all witches away
if gathered at midnight on the saint's holy day
any devils and witches have no power to harm
those that gather the plant for a charm
rub the lintels with that red juicy flower
no thunder nor tempest will then have the power
to hurt or hinder your house; and bind
round your neck a charm of similar kind.
The row of St John’s worts (hypericum perforatum) I planted in autumn made me able to gather the plant at the end of the saint’s day and rub the lintels of the house as the old proverb prescribes. Protection against evils including ‘thunder and tempest’ is most welcome at the beginning of the summer rains. It has been rumbling in the distance for a while already, and I’ve heard that the formula works even when you don’t believe in it.
Tuesday, June 20
We’ve had another hot week on Zealand. Fortunately, the temperatures have been easing out of the red zone down to just boiling. Not a leave stirs in the garden upon which the unwavering sun is shining from very early in the morning until well after supper. The air is so tempered you hardly sense it when you breathe. You’d have to suck in a bug to feel it move.
Along the edge of the cottage box bread the dusty-green clove pillows are blooming in bright cyclamen while the earlier flowers in the bed are either gone or on the wane. Instead, the small roses have begun blooming. They are all perpetuals and will continue blooming until late autumn.
Thursday, June 15
The heat wave continues full throttle with the sun beating down on Old Calvesgarden in complete calm. The garden is sparkling in the hard midday light and the Wolf Sound looks like a sea of glistening diamonds, as blinding as the sun itself.
The hedgerows of sand roses or dog roses, rosa rugosa, are in full bloom. Their sweet fragrance carries a long way, attracting scores of bumblebees. The name ‘rugosa’ refers to the wrinkly leaves that are attractive in their own right, I think. It’s also called shrub rose for its dense foliage or hedgehog rose for the density of its thorns.
In older times, rugosa hips or ‘sea tomatoes’ were a standard fruit on Zealand, being regarded as one of the finest sweet fruits for autumn. You can still get hip jam in good stores, but that's about it. To me, it's as indispensable as toast on the breakfast tray.
Sunday, June 11
In the cottage bread, the purple lilac tree and the yellow broom (cytisus ‘allgold’) are in full bloom. They’re like small fireworks in the midst of explosion. The rich scent from the lilac tree billows through the garden and in through the windows in the light breeze. I haven't pruned the small lilac tree since I planted it ten years ago, and I’ll leave it as it is for a couple of more years.
The broom on the other hand must be cut back every year right after its long bloom to some thirty cm (about ten inches) of the stem in order to keep its good looks. Despite its vigorous appearance, it is quite vulnerable, and pruning it at any other time may cause it to die down.
Saturday, June 10
The tulips have opened wide as if they were eager to embrace the bees and the butterflies in one last effort after a warm and sunny week. Some are beginning to curl outwards; others have crumbled already, withering into strange figures of departure. All the rain we’ve had in May is working its magic. There’s a soft denseness to the garden now. It has grown at a staggering pace in the last week and the vibrant greens of the fresh leaves make it look invitingly romantic. The bay leaves seem to be in a state of eternal succulence, obviously quite pleased with the half-shade supplied by the young pear tree.
Friday, June 9
Pursuing the matter, at least as far as the garden goes, I’ve noted with greater attention how writers go about describing nature. Many seem to hold the same view as Anton Chekhov that descriptions of nature should be brief and to the point.
“The sea laughs,” he wrote in a letter, “you are of course in raptures over it. But it’s crude and cheap. […] The sea doesn’t laugh or cry, it roars, flashes, glistens. Just look how Tolstoy does it: ‘The sun rises and sets, the birds sing.’ No one laughs or sobs. And that’s the chief thing—simplicity.”
I was glad to learn, though, that Chekhov did not always adhere to the rule. In his story The Duel, he tells us that “a star peeped out and timidly blinked its one eye.” Like Maugham, I’m happy with that. Happy as the grass, I'd even say, where a child runs barefoot for the first time. I once saw a small boy’s drawing of it. His feet were the biggest things in the drawing with each toe strutting in delight, and the sun was laughing just as the sea would do at the sight of such happy feet.
Thursday, June 8
This morning, just before six, there’s a leisurely feeling of quietude to the Wolf Sound. Hardly a ripple stirs the water in the dead calm, and the garden is so still it's as if time had been suspended. Only the birds are stirring things up, insisting that life goes on even though the wind died. Gone and good riddance, I'd say.
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TAKING NATURE UNAWARES
..Towards the end of the appleblossom
I came across an inspired description by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the prefaces part of Paul Auster's Collected Prose (2003) of the methodology of contemplating a landscape:
“The best way to get a vivid impression and feeling of a landscape, is to sit down before it and read, or become otherwise absorbed in thought; for then, when your eyes happen to be attracted to the landscape, you seem to catch Nature at unawares, and see her before she has time to change the aspect. The effect last but for a single instant, and passes away almost as soon as you are conscious of it; but it is real, for that moment. It is as if you could overhear and understand what the trees are whispering to one another; as if you caught a glimpse of a face unveiled, which veil itself from every wilful glance. The mystery is revealed, and after a breath or two, becomes just as much a mystery as before.”
From: American Note-books (1835)
As I sometimes read under the old pear tree without ever having noticed this phenomenon, I tried it out the other day to see if I could reproduce Hawthorne’s experience. I’m not sure if the highly suggestive quality of his prose led me to believe I caught a glimpse of the garden unveiled, but that doesn’t matter, I think. Beliefs have existence, too.
Wednesday, June 7
One of my favourite evergreens in the garden is the small Picea Glauca Conica or the sugar top fir as we call it around here because of its resemblance to an old-fashioned sugar loaf. I bought it a couple of years ago when it was hardly two feet (half a metre) tall. Already then it looked like a fully grown tree én miniature and seemed perfect for adding some light green colour to the cottage box bread in the cold season. As it is exceedingly slow growing, you hardly notice it among the other plants in the box bread yet, but in due time it will grow to about seven feet by three and become a prominent feature of the bed.
The sugar top fir prefers full to partial sun and a moist, well-drained soil. It should be sited a few feet away from other plants, so that airflow and sunshine will remove moisture from the very thin, densely packed needles radiating around the thin stems. You may prune it, if you like, but only gently as it will not break from bare branches.
Tuesday, June 6
Flowering is not a desirable trait when you grow rhubarb for harvesting, but except for the very first shoots in early spring (very good with pickled herrings), the rhubarb bed here serves only as a decorative and quite effective barricade against the highly enterprising goutweed settlement beside the box bread bed, so I may well claim that it is blooming very nicely.
In the background you can see the down pipe that leads the rain falling on one side of the roof to a small canal, which ends in the corner of the box bed. As the bed slopes slightly in several directions, the water is distributed evenly between its twelve solitary shrubs and the surrounding lilac and cinquefoil hedges.
It is only the second time the rhubarb bed has flowered in the last ten years. The first time it happened was a couple of years ago and it didn’t seem to affect next year’s growth as you often hear may be the case. The flowers are beautiful, I think, making it worth while tapping into the coveted carbohydrate storage as well as running the risk of awakening the uncultivated lineage by allowing the flowers to seed.
Monday, June 5
SIDING WITH THE LILACS
The weather has bounced back like a rubber ball, at long last hitting the basket. It’s such a springy cove at times, passing swiftly through the stages of good, bad and ugly before returning to sunny skies as clear as crystal and an air as warm as a croque-monsieur coming out of the oven. The smell of breakfast blends well with the all-pervading fragrance of blooming lilacs. On the bright blue sound, a couple of white swans drifts by, apparently not in a hurry to go anywhere. They seem to have found the perfect bend of the Wolf Sound, admiring the sights. Seeing it with their eyes is easy on a lovely morning as the imagination takes off like a flock of starlings swiping across the sky in waves of delight, easy as the wind.
I’ve trimmed the top of the spiraea hedgerow, which was beginning to look like the fuzzy fur of a green bear after a moose fight. It has become very big now. As I prevent it from growing upwards, it bulges to the sides, having become so much wider than its height that I can’t reach across it anymore. The whole area at one end is just dense, dark undergrowth catering to the hedgehogs. I had been warned that it would become very big, but the immensity of it surpasses my expectations. A picture forms of the garden growing out of the gardener’s rule as he looses his strength while the growth intensifies. Somewhat as in the old film The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) where the plants gobble down the customers including a very young Jack Nicholson. The wicker windbreak is beginning to look like something out of Tikal. It’s covered in dark-green ivy studded with purple clematis, which is moving across the tiled ground behind it with astonishing speed. It’ll cling to anything, it seems. I’ll be sharpening me’ shears and hoe, preparing for a good fight with the green monsters lurking at the doorstep.
THE NATURE OF THINGS
In his book The Nature of Things, Francis Ponge presents a much more tranquil picture of the vegetable kingdom. He proposes that plants “have their regular place in the world, just as they are decorated by seniority. As opposed to their itinerant brothers, they are not an addition to the world, a burden to the soil. […] With them, there are no worries about food or habitation, no mutual consumption: no horrors, mad races, cruelties, wailing, screams, words.”
Ponge cannot know much about gardening, I think. Apart from being on the quiet side, plants can be as ruthless in their pursuit of happiness as any predatory animal, I’d say. The enterprising mint bushes or the goutweed would make short work of their weaker cousins if given the opportunity. I've had my skin shredded by the razor-sharp thorns of wild roses, trying to remove an obstinate settlement of the vicious things. Branches of trees have hit me right between the eyes in moments of inattention.
French philosophers get carried away by their eloquence sometimes, I think. Siding with the plants indiscriminately may seem to be the obvious step forward on the left bank of the Seine where they are nursed in pots, but it doesn’t in a cottage garden. There are certainly some nasty specimens you wouldn’t want to run into empty-handed in a dark corner.
Sunday, May 28
It’s blowing half a pelican as we say around here when the wind is very hard. They don’t anywhere else, it seems. I couldn’t find the expression in any of the dictionaries, so I thought I should mention it, although I’m not too happy with a text referring to itself. People yes, texts no. It rather puts a damper on things, I think. The garden is looking like a mad dance floor right now. The immense white veil of the blossoming old apple tree is being tossed about mercilessly. The whole situation cries out for an apt rebuke. I can stand cold and rainy weather as well as anybody, I like to believe, but hard winds set me on edge somehow. Trying to find the mot juste feels like dragging for a lost lottery ticket in the wrong pond. Weblogs should be written au courant de la plume, it’s part of their charm, I think, but the ignorance of a gaijin as to the full meaning of the words tends to take the courant out of the plume. It’s like marrying in stormy weather. You try to remain cheerful and looking your best while mainly worrying about not loosing your hat or your flowers.
ONE MORE SPOKE IN THE WHEEL
“Having saturated India down to the most humble shelves, [...] it’s a safe bet that Wodehouse is the inspiration for many standard Hinglish-isms, viz. a ‘quantum’ (never a mere amount), ‘sans’ (as in, he went out ‘sans’ his coat), or, my favourite, ‘for the nonce’. An Indian acquaintance once playfully suggested that Wodehouse has a place in the elastic pantheon of Hindu gods. [...] “If I’m in any way ‘belling the cat’ here, as Hinglish practitioners incessantly do, that is because so much in India is—as I’m constantly reminded by my interlocutors—‘humungous’. The country is so vast in its expanse, so limitless in its people, so deep in its history, and so, well, humungous in its problems that even the biggest disasters are seen in perspective.”
Although my own tiny homeland would easily fit into the shirt pocket of India, I should do likewise, I think, and not worry too much about a pelican slipping by occasionally, but, at the same time, maybe go a bit easy on the Wodehouse collection in the library. It wouldn’t have been of much help today anyway. Spots of bad weather are few and far between in the great oeuvre. Quite appropriately, Everyman is in process of reprinting it in its entirety, around eighty-five volumes, in an excellent hardback edition. I don’t agree with the publishers, though, that it’s the best edition ever. The period charm of the early Methuen and Jenkins editions is impossible to match, I think, even by a fine Czech illustrator and the best German printer.
Tuesday, May 23
The birds have been singing in ripples and waves on this first sunny day in a while. You can also hear the bees and the flies being busy and sometimes a soft clap from the waters. The Wolf Sound lies flat and blue in the easy breeze. Long, meandering lines of birds move across the sky from time to time, while their smaller cousins are shooting across the garden like feathered pellets from all directions.
The yellow and red tulips are stretching their necks like hungry young birds. In the sudden warmth, the garden seems to grow by the hour. Every leave is strutting in the sunshine. The beautiful green walls of lilacs are in full bloom in either purple or white and the rowan tree is coming around, too. The dark-purple flowers of the small lilac tree are turning mauve as they open, spreading an intoxicating fragrance, while the wild strawberries, in the midst of blooming, stool the bottom of the bush bed with impressive swiftness. The ferns have unrolled, elegantly as always, and the roses are shooting fat new stems every day. Even the bluebeards are turning green now.
There seems to be an interesting conversation going on among the birds. Their voices have become so distinct that you can believe they’re discussing something beyond the come-here and go-away routines, the simple rows over worms. Something more philosophical, which causes them to mock and laugh or object persistently as they exchange views on the subject. The uncommonly rainy weather of late perhaps? Or the flight of an unlucky fledgling?
Sunday, May 21
An old friend of mine, a gifted nature photographer who is often roaming in the Swedish forests, asked if I would post sightings of white-tailed sea eagles (haliaetus albicilla) around Calvesgarden. Being somewhat nearsighted and in the habit of forgetting my glasses, I can’t claim with certainty to have seen one this year but some of my neighbours have observed them many times during the winter and spring. The closest known eagle’s nest sits in an old beech tree in a wood on a neighbouring island forty kilometres from here. A couple of sea eagles have stayed there all year round for the last three years.
Big in any company with a wingspread of up to two and a half metres, it looks like the proverbial flying barn door in flight. It’s easy to spot when it flies low over the narrow Wolf sound hunting for fish and water birds. Last month, four sea eagles were seen foraging on coots and water birds down the coast. They have been busy breeding since early March when it was very cold around here, close to minus 20 C some nights. The eaglets should be fledged soon, I think. One of our fine local wildlife photographers, Bo Tureby, has taken this photograph of an old sea eagle, catching the stroke of the wings most beautifully, I think.
Wednesday, May 17
The house was built in 1909 by a local mason on granite boulders in plastered and white-washed yellow bricks topped by a steeply slanting roof of concrete tiles. Except for the casement windows and the zinc drainpipes, which are replicas of the original ones, its exterior has not been tinkered with during the years.
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THE OLD APPLE TREE IN FULL BLOOM
As far back as anybody can remember around here, which is about sixty years, I'd say, the old apple tree has been standing in the middle of the garden, yielding masses of good cooking apples for a host of local dishes like deep-fried pork with fried apples and onions or plum and apple pepper pudding. A good part of the apples serves as much appreciated winter feed for the birds.
Without being an expressed tree-hugger, I do like trees, especially solitaries, and have planted quite a few of them in the garden over the years. In front of the spiraea hedge, you see the rowan tree that I planted fifteen years ago beside the twenty-year-old shoot from an old sweet cherry tree of which I have just removed the last traces, and the old wild cherry tree to the far right. Behind the hedge, there is a gnarled, age-old apple tree and a young weeping birch that I planted ten years ago.
Along the inside of its trimmed lavendar hedge, the closely pruned rose bed is edged with different kinds of bulbs, blooming in purple, yellow and red, one or all colours at a time, from early spring until the roses take over in the early summer.
Tuesday, May 16
EYES WIDE OPEN AND THE MIND RELAXED
I received a friendly advice from my dinner guest the other day that name-dropping is not a becoming feature of a calendar entry no matter how short it is. He thought I should at least attempt to explain why I waste my time reading pulp fiction instead of wasting other peoples’ time just admitting to the sad fact. My friend is right, of course, so I’ll try to make amends for it, being not as pressed for time as he obviously is.
Raymond Chandler’s letters can be extremely caustic and pugnacious or very sentimental, but they are always interesting and often very funny, I think. Having barely survived the trenches of the First World War, he seems to have been unable to make peace with the world after the experience. In many ways, Chandler’s outlook on life is much like that of Wittgenstein, an avid reader of his, who also had a most exacting war, fighting at the Austrian front with the manuscript of Tractatus in his back pocket. ‘The Hell with it’ seems to sum it up fairly well. Except books that is. They were both highly interested in the writer’s voice, it’s pitch, clarity, charm, motivation and what have you, sensing hollowness like bloodhounds and discarding it with as much grace as a yob with a bit of lead pipe. In a letter to Bernice Baumgarten (1948), Chandler comments on Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions.
“It looks phony as hell in spots. And how do you do something ‘with careful deliberation’? And, ‘But the girl’s expression hadn’t changed. She had broken off a twig from a bush and was absently running it along the stone fence, as though she were pondering what he had just said.’ The last clause and the ‘absently’ throw away the effect. You either describe an action and let the reader make the deduction of the inner reaction it expresses, or else you describe the inner reaction and view what she does from within. You don’t do it both ways at the same time. A small thing, but it places the stuff for me. I guess I’m just being a stickler. And enjoying it.”
Reading the novels, I sometimes thought that Chandler was too well educated for his choice of trade. I had some difficulty swallowing the omniscience of Marlowe, for example that a private dick like him should be able to spot a bogus rare book dealer by asking for a “Ben Hur, 1860, Third Edition, the one with the duplicated line on page 116” while knowing quite well that it doesn’t exist. Maybe I’m just being prejudiced against American dicks in not seeing them as the obvious connoisseurs of rare books. I do appreciate Marlowe’s unsophisticated impertinence in laying out the state of the world. Annoyance put well can be a great vehicle in humorous writing, I think, and Chandler was most annoyed with many things. In the course of time, though, I’ve come to prefer naïveté to nastiness in literature or at least a blend of the two. Large doses of unalloyed cynicism leave me as cold as the perforated corpses that crowd the genre.
In a letter to Alfred Knopf, Chandler discusses a review that expressed a similar objection to a book of his, strongly rejecting to being regarded as ‘a connoisseur of moral decay’.
“I was aware that this yarn had some fairly unpleasant citizens in it, but my fiction was learned in a rough school, and I probably didn’t notice them much. I was more intrigued by a situation where the mystery is solved by the exposition and understanding of a single character, always well in evidence, rather than the slow and sometimes long-winded concatenation of circumstances.”
That he was highly concerned with his writing style can perhaps be seen in an indignant note he wrote to his publisher about the sweetly rigid Miss Mutch’s correcting of his orthographic errors.
“Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell her that I write a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive.”
Monday, May 15
Last night, an old friend came over for dinner. We laid the table under the cherry trees, savouring the rare treat of having such fine weather when they are blooming. The cherry flowers looked beautiful in the evening sun and the pan-fried plaices with the new potatoes were delicious. Turn the plaices in wheat flour with only a little salt and pepper, not eggs, for the best result. Sprinkle with dill and fresh lemon juice. Bon appetit!
Just after sunset, as if seizing a golden opportunity, the full moon rose over the Wolf sound turning its calm waters into a shimmering slate of silver. The cherry blossom sifted the moonlight in a flicker of ruby shadows around the fire, making us spend a bucketful of maple wood before we turned in.
THE SIGN OF THE BOOK
I don’t know what it is with fireplaces that leads book talks in the direction of mysteries and crime stories, but having just read the latest Bookman sequel, The Sign of the Book (2005) by John Dunning, I was curious to know my friend’s opinion of the solution to the riddle.
Dunning’s murder victims often leave behind a large book collection, which holds the key to the exposure of the culprit. I was a little late in solving the mystery (don’t read on, please, if you’d like to read the book!) because I didn’t believe suffering from autism combined very well with forging book signatures. I couldn’t see him achieve the swiftness necessary for the task. Precision yes, but not the flow of the hand, which must be crucial, I think. Actually, most draftsmen can copy a modern signature, I’d say, and not be questioned about it if they stick to the less expensive, commonplace ones that still adds value to a book. Rarer ones have to be studied in detail, I’m sure, to get away with the sorry business. In any case, it’s an odd side to book collecting, I think, that a signature may increase the value of a book many times.
Towards the end of the story, our book detective notes that he has ceased paying extra for a signed copy of a book though he names Raymond Chandler as a personal favourite and one of the few authors exempt from the rule. Book folks often have a soft spot, I’ve noticed, which is not ruled by reason. For his letters alone, I can understand that Chandler could count as such though not necessarily in the original. A well-printed copy of the selected letters, unsigned (but in the jacket) does very well, I’d say, and nobody will club you for it.
Wednesday, May 10
It has been wonderfully sunny and warm with only a light southerly breeze for the last couple of days. Everything in the garden is coming into leaves except for the old plum trees. They’re always the last to come around. The back of the spiraea hedgerow is turning white and the wild cherry tree is blossoming. It looks like a happy child who has just said its first word – cherry. The rhubarbs and the tall grasses are well on their way and the sand roses are all in leaves. Here and there, bunches of narcissuses and daffodils brighten up the bottoms of the bush beds. It’s the time of breaking splendours.
Last night, I watched the waxing moon rising through the new leaves of the rowan tree, wishing that time would stand still. It seemed as if it did. The songs of the birds filled the fragrant air, still so nice and warm after a hot day that it felt like a summer evening.
Sunday, May 7
I've finished stacking the five steres of beech wood I bought this year, supplementing the ten steres of oak and maple, which is already under roof. To avoid last year’s creative setbacks, I only built one straight wall this time. It came out all right, I think, the Great Wall of Calvesgarden. I like to see it as a piece of land art to make the hard work more interesting.
This also works with many of the repetitious chores in the garden like digging the flowerbed or mowing the lawns. The beauty of big moist chunks of raw soil, to me, is as alluring as a finely cut lawn. I let myself go because it keeps me fit using only a spade or an ‘unplugged’ drum mower for the artwork.
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FAVOURITE GROUNDCOVERThe small rowan tree looks quite like a tree now. In a few days, it will be all out together with the chestnut tree and the lilacs. The red barrenworts or bishop's caps as I've seen them called (epimedium rubrum) are blooming in fine shades of crimson and their bronzed leaves are closing up the bottom of the box bread. A dense cover of white-pink buds on the spiraea hedgerow is announcing the coming of an all-out event. The dandelions and the daisies are also out in great numbers and the lawns are in for the second mowing. It’s a perfect day for gardening, all sunny and warm with only a light westerly breeze. Already, some kids are down by the waterside with their small nets on sticks, doing some fishing. I like their energy. It’s a fine time of the year.
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CENTENARY OF AN EDWARDIAN LADY
I’ve enjoyed rereading the colour facsimile of The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (1977) by Edith B. Holden. It was written by hand with great care and illustrated with beautiful water-colours of local plants and wildlife in her cottage in Olton, Warwickshire in 1906.
“May 9, 1906. The Common Avens, Bugle, and Plantain are in flower, and some of the Oaks are hanging out their long tassels of blossom. I saw a Moorhen’s nest today; it was placed on the stump of an old Alder tree, at the edge of a pond, just off reach of the bank. The nest was built of sticks and pieces of dead reed and contained one egg. I brought home a big bunch of Blue-bells, Red Campion, and Wild-beaked Parsley, the latter is showing its white umbels of blossom in every hedge now.”
The climate in Warwickshire is much like that in Calvesgarden, it seems, and many of the flowers and birds of the region are the same as ours. It was nice getting to know the English names of all the performing members of the great natural spectacle around Olton. Isn’t it curious, though, the pleasure you get from knowing the names of things, and, even more so, how a concept like 'land art' can lighten the dull chore of stacking firewood?
Wednesday, May 3
As it appears, I’ve just taken a course on clouds, T.H. White’s well-illustrated four-page crash course for the observer of nature who likes to know their names and bearing upon the weather in his journal England have my Bones (1936).
“The Cirrus cloud,” White writes, “who lives at very high altitudes, in the neighbourhood of thirty thousand feet, can perhaps best be represented like this: (dashing off a bend zigzag line, m. n.). He is a fibrous cloud, a wispy stationary sort of mare’s tail: a bending, diverging or exploding ghost—something like a very old lady’s thin hair blown about, and suddenly frozen into immobility, remote and vague; a photograph of the smoke of artillery fire, a long time afterwards, fading away. He means dry weather.”
Unlike White, I’m not much for seeking out troublesome weather. I can’t for the world understand why one would trudge many miles through slush ice in the north of Scotland in late winter, spending a fortnight freezing one’s behind off in a succession of rains and gales in order to kill a couple of fishes. A most peculiar interest, I’d say, but it makes up for cosy reading.
Sunday, April 30
April in Paris or in New York for that matter is a very nice time of the year, everybody knows, but even in Calvesgarden, it isn’t bad at all. After a chilly morning, the sun has been out in a clear blue sky all day, applauding the lovely bloom of the forsythias and the redcurrant (ribes sanguineum ‘koja’ dafo). The purple hyacinths are all out, too, and the finely cupped crown of the rowan tree, which I’ve nursed since it was a twig, is coming into leaves.
When I wrote about magic reads the other day, I would have liked to include a poem by Yeats, which I think is magical, but I could remember neither its title nor where to find it. It’s been a long time since I read Aldous Huxley’s Literature and Science (1963). In the book, he discusses the different views of the world of the two vocations. As opposed to the scientist, he observes, a man of letters has to accept the mystery of life, which is flung in his face. The randomness and shapelessness of his experience, all the ineffable elements in his perception of the world, he must speak of in a language not very well suited for the purpose. Among various means at the artist’s disposal, he mentions
“the magic of unfamiliarly beautiful syntax and sentence construction; the magic of names and words that, for some obscure reason, seem intrinsically significant; the magic of well-ordered rhythms, of harmonious combinations of consonants and vowels.”
Adding that some degree of recklessness may also be of help to the artist, he points to Yeats’ final stanza in Byzantium (1930) as an example of exceedingly reckless poetry.
FINAL STANZA OF BYZANTIUM
“Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.”
(see full text here)
As usual when rummaging in the library, one thing leads to another. I remember reading somewhere that some people are particularly sensitive to vowels. They see shapes and colours when they listen to a poem. The obvious place to begin looking for the quote would be in Edith Sitwell’s autobiography, I think, but time is getting on, so it must wait.
In the fading light, the transparent, luminescent blue of the sky appears to come from outer space. It lingers on long after dusk as if arguing with itself in the long-winded northern way if the night should fall at all. Eventually, it does, needless to say, but now, only for a short interval. You hardly notice it, if you don’t stay up too late, that is.
Wednesday, April 26
My bookseller in town has hired a new apprentice who eagerly struck up a conversation when he found me at the table with special offers (my usual place). He recommended a book that he assured me was even better than the Da Vinci Code. Somehow, I haven’t got around to reading Dan Brown’s huge bestseller, but in order not to discourage the young man (and admit to my ignorance), I chanced the eight euros he was asking for a first edition of Caldwell and Thomason’s The Rule of Four.
THE RULE OF FOUR
It’s a tale about a rare Renaissance text, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499), coded in seven languages, whose many riddles a group of students at Princeton University is trying to solve. Unlike its subject, The Rule of Four is an easy read but oddly paced. After a while, I began loosing interest in its characters and then it matters less ‘who done it’, I think. The references to Savonarola caught my attention, though. In 1497, according to the book, a sixty feet high pyramid of old pagan source books, unambiguous pictures, carnival masks, costumes and such was set ablaze in Florence on Savonarola’s direction.
“The bonfire of the vanities becomes an unforgettable moment in Renaissance history. Savonarola becomes famous. Before long he’s known throughout Italy and beyond. His sermons are printed and read in half a dozen countries. He’s admired and hated. Michelangelo was captivated by him. Machiavelli thought he was a fake.”
THE LIFE & TIMES OF GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA
In the library, I found a rather ragged green cloth edition of The Life & Times of Girolamo Savonarola (1888) by Professor Pasquale Villari. The Friar is a sinister looking character in his painting by Frà Bartolommeo opposite the title page. Professor Villari states the same measurements of the pile as Caldwell and Thomason and gives a detailed rendering of the day of the bonfire, its mass and holy procession. He then goes on discussing various sources on the content of the pile including Benivieni’s eyewitness account of the fire. He concludes that only a few valuable books were lost on the occasion as most of the pile consisted of carnival bric-a-brac.
To end the discussion Villari presents evidence that at the time no other than Savonarola helped saving the celebrated library of the Medici from the imminent danger of dispersion by selling off land of the convent of St. Mark. By the final payment of 3000 florins to Philippe de Commines in 1498, he “devoted the last remnant of his convent’s property […] in order to preserve the marvellous collection of Greek and Latin codices and the unrivalled treasure of miniatures still contained in the Laurentian Library.”
Poliphilo, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Venice, 1499
It seems that Caldwell and Thomason have added some colour to the historical background of The Rule of Four. In reality, Francesco Colonna, the author of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, had no cause for alarm. His library wasn’t in danger of being burned except perhaps for the raunchiest miniatures and woodcuts. Had he thrown himself on the bonfire to save the legacy of the old masters, it would probably have been in vain.
Vasari, a later source of Villari’s, takes the world as his witness “to the ardent affection Savonarola had inspired in Frà Bartolommeo della Porta, who for four years after his master’s death was unable to resume the brush.” Vasari also records that Frà Bartolommeo added several of his own sketches from the nude to the bonfire of the vanities. Villari, though, doubts the truth in this, pointing to Vasari’s general hostility to Savonarola. If indeed it is true, he adds, “the blame of the deed must fall on the painter.”
It’s comforting to know that 774 full pages of extreme nineteenth century Italian pedantry abound with extensive quotes in Latin is standing in the library awaiting the eyes of a patient connoisseur of fifteenth century Florence.
Monday, April 24
Everything is late in this reluctant spring, so I have an easy time keeping up with the garden chores. A couple of sunny afternoons made me decide it was time to restore the rose bed and its surrounding lavender hedge to their former excellence and to cut back the other purple bloomers. They’re all highly treasured. The bluebeards for their late flowering and the buddleias for their profuse bloom and heavy fragrance, which hold a magnetic attraction to butterflies. I also cleared the ground under the cottage box bread and the other shrub beds. The new plants all seem to be doing fine. A row of St. John's wort bushes (Hypericum H. ‘Hidcote’) will soon be coming around for the first time together with a queen bush (Kolkwitzia Amabilis ‘Syvdal’) a star top bush (Deutzia Mag.‘Magicien’) and a bell bush (Weigela Hyb. ‘Carnival’). The queen bush and the star top bush will begin blooming in June in pink and rose and the bell bush will add more tints of rose from July until October.
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CONFESSIONS OF A COMMON READER
I have been reading Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader (1998). It’s a funny collection of her writings on book folks and their various idiosyncrasies. I enjoyed the essay on sesquipedalia, long words. She had to look up the word ‘diapason’ as I did when I came across it in Peter Ustinov’s autobiography Dear Me (1977), so that brightened up my day. It’s nice to have company in your ignorance. I think Ustinov’s autobiography introduced me to twice as many new words as Carl Van Vechten’s Tiger in the House (1920) did to Fadiman. She ascribes her affection for long, mysterious words to their beauty and ability to create associations. Her children also have a lot of fun playing with them, she tells. It’s much in accordance with an observation in Ruined by Reading, A Life in Books (1996) by Lynne Sharon Schwartz that with reading there’s also a sense of magic, especially if you have begun reading at an early age:
“Because I read when I could still believe in magic, reading was magical, not merely breaking a code or translating one set of symbols into another. The idea of translatability was itself magical, and so it remains. Semiotics, before it became a formal branch of study, was the sleight-of-hand way of the world: signs and things, things and signs, layered, sometimes jumbled, partners in a dance of allusion.”
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