Listen to this: “Take Highway 202 and follow along the prettiest road. It’s just about the way it always was–worn deep down like a tunnel and thick with shade in summer. In spring, it’s so full of sweet heavy odors, they make you drunk, you can’t think of anything–you feel you will faint or go right out of yourself. In fall, there is the rustle of leaves under your tires and the smell of them, all sad and Indian-like. Then in the winter, there are only dust and bare limbs, and mud when it rains, and everything is like an old dirt-dauber’s nest up in the corner.”
Pick yourself off the floor and get to your library. Check out Elizabeth Spencer’s The Southern Woman, her collected short stories (or anything by her). The story I’ve quoted from is “A Southern Landscape.” I read it at lunch yesterday and felt faint and fell right of myself just reading her wonderful prose. I loved her description of the how leaves smelled–“sad and Indian-like.” It brought to mind images of Native American ghosts passing silently down an old hunting trail.
Place, I told my students this summer in our memoir class, is not just bricks and mortar. It’s the weather. A person growing up in Montana, where nature is very much a force in their lives, is different from a person growing up in New York City, where people are very much a force in their lives. Winter weather in Montana can be harsh, all that Great Plains drifting snow and wind. Winter in New York is mostly dreary, with enough snow to make everyone grouchy.
And place, as so beautifully demonstrated by Elizabeth Spencer, is also the seasons. I grew up in Northern Virginia, where the weather is “moderate” (boiling hot in summer, yucky in winter, with gorgeous springs and autumns to make you forget about the other two).
Because we had a big garden, our lives revolved around the weather. My stepfather didn’t just listen to the radio or watch the weather report on TV. He read the sky. And he taught me how to do that, too. Since we were outdoors a lot, he taught me the kinds of trees and how to identify some birds.
The minute I could read, I grabbed every book on birds I could find. I wanted to know what was around me, what lived in the world I lived in. I learned about wildflowers and weeds. I learned about the habits of the small animals in our woods. I tried to know about rocks, but their secrets seemed to be locked inside. When I go on my walks, I’m not plugged into an iPod. I still pay attention to the little goings-on around me.
And this brings me to my recent school visit. The students at this school were wonderful, bright and funny. I could have stayed for a week. During my K-1 assembly, I was acutely aware as I read The Big Green Pocketbook (almost 20 years old) that these kids were hearing about foreign things like typewriters, hand-cancelled checks, five-and-dime stores, drug stores (sometimes I have to explain it’s not where we bought our cocaine), Trailways buses . . . so many things not in their world.
Yet the question that brought me up short was from a fifth grader who wanted to know what a buzzard was. My breath caught in my throat just an instant. How could those older children not know about the birds that circled over their heads nearly every day? Just look up, you’ll see one. I described a vulture’s gliding flight pattern (truly the best flier ever), the once-twice flap of wings every twenty minutes or so.
The day I spoke, the school also hosted Young Scientists. I saw the team, dressed in white lab coats, bustling in with their equipment. The notion crossed my mind to hustle the kids out of the gym and into the fields. We would identify yellow tickseed and look for milkweed pods that had burst open. Made wishes on milkweed “fairies.” We would have watched anxious beetles scuttling through the grass. The season is changing–all creatures are anxious. We would have looked up to observe birds.
We would have gotten tipsy on late-September, grown dizzy watching the lazy circles of a turkey vulture, enjoyed the slant of the sun before autumn slips in, sad and Indian-like.
I’m not really down–it’s spring after all. But my allergies keep me from going outside and I am currently slammed with work–the third revision of the world’s thorniest book on top of a deliverable I haven’t started and is due April 15. My house is a wreck. Boxes from my soon-(but not soon enough)-to-be-renovated home office are in the dining room, library, and our bedroom. My desktop and small laptop computers are infected with viruses (thank you, Facebook!) and will be out of commission for two weeks. My washing machine is leaking during the rinse cycle and "throwing oil", which means a new appliance purchase looming in our future. I like control of my home, my work, and my life.
I want to be free from contract books and go out and plant flowers and wander around downtown Fredericksburg with my notebook. Fill up my creative fount.
Well, I can’t do that now. So rather than whine, I made myself a Happy Basket. I went to Michael’s yesterday and got this sweet eyelet-lined basket and the bunch of tulips, both 40% off. Plus some $1 fun things, like the journal inside the basket. I tied the bunch of tulips to the handle with a wide pink satin ribbon.
Then I filled the basket with treasures: a new issue of Romantic Homes magazine, the bird journal, a pretty pen, a packet of vintage-y Paris-artist notes, and two books: A Writer’s Paris: A Guided Journey for the Creative Soul by Eric Maisel, and Thoreau on Birds. The Paris book I’ve had a while. It has Paris-themed writing exercises that you can apply to your hometown. Though I will be pressed to find a charming footbridge over the Rappahannock River (crossed by throngs of traffic on Route 1), I still want to try the exercises. Not now, but the book is waiting in my Happy Basket.
The Thoreau book is a new treasure, shipped two days ago from Advanced Book Exchange. I admire Thoreau more than anyone else, even Thomas Jefferson. My favorite childhood book is The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton, a treasure-hunt-mystery laced with philosophy from the Alcotts, Emerson, and Thoreau. This was heady stuff for an eleven-year-old and prompted me to declare I was a Transcendentalist, renouncing my Lutheran upbringing (my parents took it in stride–I was famous for being dramatic).
As a kid I was also a birdwatcher and I still am. Not a serious birdwatcher–I’m happy watching the doings of our backyard birds. So to find a book that combined my love of birds and Thoreau . . . ! The bird passages are culled from his numerous journals and Walden. This is what I read before I go to sleep, my Happy Basket perched on my nightstand. Here, Thoreau recorded a walk in a storm:
"To see the larger and wilder birds, you must go forth in the great storms . . . A life of fair-weather walks might never show you the goose sailing on our waters, or the great heron feeding here. When the storm increases, then the great birds that carry the mail of the seasons lay to. To see wild life you must go forth at a wild season." Don’t you love that phrase, "the great birds that carry the mail of the seasons"?
Because it’s spring, I’m reading Thoreau’s spring entries. This is how he described the wood thrush’s song: "Some birds are poets and sing all summer. They are the true singers. Any man can write verses during the love season . . . We are most interested in those birds who sing for the love of music and not of their mates . . . He deepens the significance of all things seen in the light of his strain. He sings to make men take higher and truer views of things. He sings to amend their institutions; to relieve the slave on the plantation and the prisoner in his dungeon; the slave in the house of luxury and the prisoner of his own low thoughts."
I want to write fiction the way Thoreau (and I) watches birds: to touch ordinary events with the extraordinary. If I come within a pinky’s length of Thoreau’s magnificence, I’ll be happy.
I’ll close with his musings on my favorite bird, the Eastern bluebird:
"A mild spring day . . . The air is full of bluebirds."
"The bluebird carries the sky on his back."
"The plaintive spring-restoring peep of the bluebird is occasionally heard."
"The bluebird comes and with his warble drills the ice and sets free the rivers and ponds and frozen ground."
"Throughout the town you may hear them–the blue curls of their warblings–harbingers of serene and warm weather, little azure rills of melody trickling here and there from out of the air . . ."
Pack yourself a Happy Basket with books and notebooks and your camera and a cookie or two. Carry it with you. Go forth into nature and listen for the blue curl of the bluebird’s song, guaranteed to lift low thoughts.
It only took two warm sunny days. Spring was waiting, coiled, ready to . . . well, spring. At first I noticed a hazy redness in the woods–maples and redbud. Then I noticed that gorgeous new-green of willow trees along the streams. Then . . . bam! Forsythia, daffodils, crocuses, worms, birds and–pollen.
Yesterday morning I looked out my bedroom window to check the Pear Tree-o-meter. What a difference a week makes! Jealous of my neighbor’s daffodils–I am alway too weary of summer to plant bulbs in the fall–I rushed out and bought flats of yellow pansies. I planted sunny faces around our mailbox and put the leftovers in a new spring-green planter on the porch.
Then I hauled out the porch rabbits, my vintage porch stuff (yellow Pepsi crate, watering can, roller skates with yellow wheels, milk bottle rack with old soda bottles), painted the bucket bench apple green this year, perched a bird cage filled with fake ivy in it, and frowned at the chair cushions. Someone who shall remain nameless (Persnickety) slept her grubby self in the chairs all fall. Not even X-14 run through a fire hose could get these cushions clean. So, like I do about every two years, I ordered new ones from Lowe’s (I’m particular about my cushion fabric, none of that dark, Tuscany look for me).
In Home Depot, I was tempted to buy a huge flowering pot of beautiful purple aster-like flowers, but reigned myself in. It’s still mid-March. Cold weather will be back. I noticed my daylilies are up about 8 inches. I also noticed the weeds. See the chickweed in our flower bed? I couldn’t believe I had to pull weeds to plant those pansies! Didn’t matter if it was dark and wet and dreary outside for weeks and days on end. Spring was just waiting . . .
. . . to make me miserable! I have the worst allergies in the history of the world. I’m either dripping like a faucet or doped up on Benadryl. My Claritin is like an M&M–I’ve had to resort to the serious stuff to bring my histimines under control.
And yes, I’m on Facebook. I have resisted this with all my fiber, but more editors and agents "want" writers to be on Facebook. I am not a big fan. First, it’s ugly and is offensive to my finer sensibilities. FB reminds me of the old newsreels in movie theaters–"News of the World" blaring at you. Second, the more friends you have, which makes you feel good (you really like me!), the more twaddling information you have to scroll through. Do I care that someone went to Wal-Mart? Does anyone care that I went to Home Depot? And what is up with that stupid aged-brick-farm thing? And third–well, I don’t have a third so I’ll just say again the format is fiddly and makes me twitch.
I like my blogs. I won’t give up blogging for FB in a million years (okay, I said I wouldn’t go on FB in a million years, too). My blogs are chosen carefully. They are inspirational, friendly, informative, often with gorgeous photos. I can relax with my blogs. FB makes me feel like I’m sitting in a busted recliner.
Thank heavens for my blog buddies! I know you’re on FB, too. But I bet you secretly enjoy blogging better, just like me. Oh, and another thing, I will never, ever Twitter. Not in a million years. You heard it here first!