Author Archive

Wendell Berry on what it is to be parochial

The New Yorker has an interview with Wendell Berry, the writer, farmer and environmentalist, in which he talks about local knowledge, embracing limits, and the exploitation of rural America. This is what he has to say on the distinction between provincialism and parochialism:

You mention in ‘The Art of Loading Brush’ that the word ‘provincialism’ has become problematic.

I was talking about this with Seamus Heaney, who I met a time or two. We had this issue in common. And he directed me to Patrick Kavanagh, who made a distinction between the parochial and the provincial. The provincial person is always looking over his shoulder to see if anybody thinks he’s provincial. This worry is really the identifying mark of provincialism. Whereas, the parochial person is always assured of the imaginative sufficiency of the parish. The local place. It’s a very beautiful way of putting it and Seamus characteristically gave an example of the man from Cork who was sending his sons forth into the world. “My boys remember: never ask a man where he’s from. If he’s from Cork, you’ll know him. If he’s not, you’ll embarrass him.” So there’s the question: Am I going to be parochial or provincial?

A ‘gateway drug’ to the work of Ellen Meloy

Until yesterday I’d never heard of Ellen Meloy, a writer from southern Utah who died in 2004. Having seen Michael Engelhard’s review on the High Country News site of her posthumously issued essay collection Seasons (Torrey House Press), and then found Annie Proulx’s preface to the collection on Literary Hub, I’ll be following Engelhard’s advice and taking the book as “a gateway drug”. Engelhard writes:

Seasons’ opening salvo, the thoughtful but hilarious “I Stapled My Hair to the Roof,” encapsulates her approach. Outspoken and passionate, Meloy skewers grandstanding, mindless consumption, militarism, patriarchy: “In pioneer times, while the men mumbled about posses and punched each other’s lights out, the grandmothers of my Anglo neighbors simply got off their horses and took care of business.” She makes an absolute gas out of much that is ghastly. Meloy’s eloquent levity, however, was no mere parlor trick; the humor sugarcoats the pills we’ll have to swallow if our planet is to heal. It threads through all of her books, even The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest, her 1999 account of a nuclear road trip. Such light-handedness has been lacking in too-often dour and preachy “nature writing” ever since Edward Abbey rowed into the back-of-beyond, followed all too soon by this Bluff, Utah, philosopher-clown.

  And Proulx says:

Several of Meloy’s essays were instant classics. “Lawn” condenses everything into two fierce sentences: “Throw massive amounts of water and petrochemicals on your grassy plot, let it push up from the soil, then cut it down to nubs before it can grow up and have sex and go to seed. A lawn is an endless cycle of doomed ecology.”

Into the autumn with Iyer

Pico Iyer prefaces the third chapter of his latest book, Autumn Light (Bloomsbury), with a remark made in an interview in 1982 by what he calls “the very English poet” Philip Larkin: “I suppose everyone tries to ignore the passing of time. Some people by doing a lot, being in California one year and Japan the next; or there’s my way — making every day and every year exactly the same. Probably neither works.”

    Iyer (who spends part of the year in California, where his mother lives, and part in Japan) has done a lot. Born to Indian parents in England who took him to the United States and then sent him to boarding school in Oxford, he has since travelled the world as a writer for newspapers and magazines — a “global soul” as the title of one of his earlier books had it. In Autumn Light, he’s at home, observing  “the season of fire and farewells” in the sleepy old city of Nara. There he and his Japanese wife, Hiroko, have shared an apartment for more than 20 years, initially with her two children from her first marriage, who are now grown up.

   Far from ignoring the passing of time, Iyer is dwelling on it, prompted by the death of his father-in-law, the increasing frailty of his mother-in-law and the decline in joints and limbs of the energetic pensioners with whom he plays ping-pong. He himself (in his early sixties now, according to his website, but only fifty-six in the book) is feeling intimations of mortality. Hardly surprising, when his friend the Dalai Lama, as soon as they meet, remarks on added pounds and thinning hair.

  The book is a tender account of the literal autumn in Japan, with its glorious-but-nearly-gone foliage, its rites, rituals and signs offering “Maple Lattes”, and the metaphorical one as it affects the writer, family, friends and neighbours. Occasionally Iyer’s striving after the great truth yields only the small platitude (“Death can be hardest on the living”), but at his best he leaves the reader with what he felt on his first visit to Japan in the autumn of 1987: “the mingled pang of wistfulness and buoyancy”.

An outsider on Egypt, and insiders on Appalachia

Can an outsider, even one who has spent five years in the country, tell the story of post-revolutionary Egypt? That’s a question the Egyptian writer Yasmine El Rashidi considers in The New York Times while reviewing a new book from The New Yorker contributor Peter Hessler (author, incidentally, of an excellent trilogy of books from his last post, China: River Town, Oracle Bones and Country Driving). Her conclusion: that Hessler offers “something that no Egyptian could ever really write, and in that way, he adds alternate dimensions to a story, or the stories, of this place we call home, with all the good intentions of simply his own singular viewpoint and experience”.

  Can one writer who grew up in Appalachia define the whole region? Should the place be seen only through the eyes of JD Vance and his bestseller Hilbilly Elegy (subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis”)? The answer, in a new book, Appalachian Reckoning (West Virginia University Press), is a resounding “no”. Meredith McCarroll, co-editor of the book with Anthony Harkins, says their collection of dozens of voices from the mountains is designed “to create a snapshot of a place and a time that makes it impossible to believe the idea [that] Appalachia is dead and in need of an elegy”. The website The Bitter Southerner has a piece from McCarroll and an extract from the book.

‘The Fens’ on Radio 4

The Fens, a new portrait of the marshy, low-lying landscape of eastern England by the archaeologist Francis Pryor (Head of Zeus, £9.99), is to be Book of the Week on Radio 4, starting next Monday morning. The BBC site had few details when I checked, but the publisher’s blurb says: 

Inland from the Wash, on England’s eastern cost, crisscrossed by substantial rivers and punctuated by soaring church spires, are the low-lying, marshy and mysterious Fens. Formed by marine and freshwater flooding, and historically wealthy owing to the fertility of their soils, the Fens of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire are one of the most distinctive, neglected and extraordinary regions of England.

Francis Pryor has the most intimate of connections with this landscape. For some forty years he has dug its soils as a working archaeologist – making ground-breaking discoveries about the nature of prehistoric settlement in the area – and raising sheep in the flower-growing country between Spalding and Wisbech. In The Fens, he counterpoints the history of the Fenland landscape and its transformation – from Bronze age field systems to Iron Age hillforts; from the rise of prosperous towns such as King’s Lynn, Ely and Cambridge to the ambitious drainage projects that created the Old and New Bedford Rivers – with the story of his own discovery of it as an archaeologist.

Haunted by ‘The Overstory’

Norman Maclean’s A River Runs through It, a collection of stories he didn’t start writing until he was 70, is now generally acknowledged as a mini-masterpiece, with one of the most memorable opening lines in American literature: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” It took a while, though, before he found an appreciative publisher. As one said in returning the manuscript, “These stories have trees in them.”

  How much more is that true of Richard Powers’s The Overstory (Vintage)! In this branching, twining, 600-page redwood of a novel (winner of the Pulitzer Prize and short-listed for the Man Booker)*, nine disparate people — among them a Vietnam veteran, a scientist and a video-game designer — are brought together by trees and, in a world where the felling of forests is speeding global warming, do all they can to save them. 

  “To be human,” we’re told in one passage, “is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilised on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.” No novel? This one does.

  I’ve not read any of Powers’s other work, but I gather he’s been ticked off sometimes on the ground that his novels are brainy but impersonal; all head and no heart. That criticism can’t be levelled at The Overstory, which has thoroughly believable characters — even though the author has said that the central question he is addressing is this one: “What would it take to make you give the unquestioning sacredness that you give to humanity to other things?”

  It’s a book full of memorable phrase-making: the sound of wind-shaken aspens is “polite applause”; the wood-wide web, by which individual plants are linked to one another beneath the soil, is “their underground welfare state”; campaigners are moved to action by the realisation that “We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.”

  The Overstory as a whole is a reminder — and I’ve pinched this from the author — that there’s a dead metaphor at the heart of the word bewilderment. Since reading it, I’ve been seeing trees in an entirely different way. Hearing them differently, too. When I walk through the nearest park, there’s a new message in the wind-swished branches of an avenue of horse chestnuts. Back to Norman Maclean, who finished the title story in A River Runs through It with this line: “I am haunted by waters.” Me too. And now I’m also haunted by Powers.

*I’d read reviews, but didn’t get round to buying The Overstory until May, after Robert Macfarlane had urged me, during an interview, to read it 

The Tay from source to sea

For 90 absorbing minutes last night on BBC Four, Helen (H is for Hawk) Macdonald followed the River Tay over four seasons from its source in Ben Lui, in the Highlands, to the North Sea. It was a journey in which  salmon and cutting-edge science figured large.

Travel at the Edinburgh Book Festival

The poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie — joint winner in 2013 of the Dolman prize for travel writing with Sightlines — will offer a preview at next month’s Edinburgh International Book Festival of her new essay collection, Surfacing, due to be published by Sort Of Books in September. It’s a book in which Jamie “visits archaeological sites – a Yup’ik village at the edge of the Bering Sea, the shifting sand dunes of Westray – and mines her own memories and family history to explore what surfaces and what connects us to our past and future”.

  Also on the bill at Edinburgh will be:
Robert Macfarlane (joint winner of the Dolman prize in 2013 with The Old Ways), talking about his new book, Underland;
the Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, the first person to walk to both poles and climb Everest, discussing his latest book, Walking;
the broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, editor of the travel anthology Wild Women;
Julia Blackburn and Simon Winder, authors respectively of Time Song, which is about Doggerland, a region that once joined the east coast of England to Holland, and Lotharingia, which tells of a long-lost area between modern-day France and Germany;
Caroline Eden, author of the prize-winning culinary tour Black Sea;
and the poet André Naffis-Sahely, editor of The Heart of a Stranger, an anthology of poetry, fiction and non-fiction about exile (Pushkin Press, August 29), featuring more than a hundred contributors from six continents.

Harris among Kobo prize winners

I’m delighted to hear that Kate Harris has won yet another prize for her debut, Lands of Lost Borders, which was one of my travel books of the year for 2018. This week, she was among three women named winners of the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, run by the company that makes the Kobo e-reader.

Lines on the landscape with Dan Richards

Dan Richards’s latest book, Outpost (Canongate), is a sprightly tour of places on the edge — among them the bothy, the writer’s retreat, the fire lookout tour and the lighthouse — and the thresholds they mark, both on the ground and in the head. The author was invited by the excellent Five Books site to name his favourite works of landscape writing. His quirky selection, offered in an interview shortly before Alice Oswald was elected Oxford professor of poetry, includes her Dart, which she herself has described as “a river map of voices, like an aboriginal song line”.