Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘nature writing’

I started reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s The Grasmere Journal the day after Christmas and have been dipping in each day. It’s a lovely, quiet book and it’s beautifully presented with illustrations and an elegant overwrap cover, all done by The Folio Society.

Wordsworth began the journal in May 1800, and it follows just over two years of time while she and her brother William (and others) were staying at Dove Cottage in the village of Grasmere.

I’m only about a quarter of the way into the journal, but already its entries revolve regularly around four different things: the natural world, the comings and goings of her brothers, short listings of cottage tasks, and descriptions of visitors or the people she passes while out on her many walks. For the first category, she has a wonderfully sensitive eye for nature. There is not a journal entry without some mention of the weather, of the look of a lake, the condition of the winds or any animals she might see – birds especially.

May 16th. The woods extremely beautiful with all autumnal variety and softness. I carried a basket for mosses, and gathered some wild plants. Oh! That we had a book of botany. […] I was much amused with the business of a pair of stone-chats; their restless voices as they skimmed along the water following each other, their shadows under them, and their returning back to the stones on the shore, chirping with the same unwearied voices.

I quite enjoy her listing of cottage tasks, even if this is as simple as mentions of baking a pie or putting out the laundry. They do so much work in their little garden over the summer, and eat in season and happily with what they harvest. The simplicity of it is appealing. And the walks each day to retrieve and send letters. The days as Wordsworth presents them are busy, but somehow that busyness includes what seems like leisure: walking, discussing poetry, garden work, etc. I’m trying not to overly romanticize what their life might have been like (Wordsworth mentions illnesses and I can only imagine how frightening these would actually be) but parts of it viewed from 200 years in the future seems quite idyllic. I’m sure it is the quiet I find mostly so appealing.

She writes often of the many beggars who come to their door or pass them on their many walks. I am often struck by these entries, in which she describes the situation of the women, children, or old men who come knocking at their door with such detail. Quite matter-of-fact, but in listing the details of their lives, it’s easy to read her interest and empathy.

Will finish with one of the small instances of humor I’ve come across so far, written after a friend walks her home one evening when the lake is particularly beautiful.

This was very kind, but God be thanked, I want not society by a moonlight lake.

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I had thought about ice during the cold months too. How it is movement betrayed, water seized in the moment of falling.

Gretel Ehrlich’s essay “Spring”—published in 1986 in the now defunct literary quarterly, Antaeus—is one of those gloriously meandering pieces of writing. On a micro level, the prose is precise and detailed, a collage of descriptions of the author’s physical world, her landscape as she writes: snow, rocks, wind, water, sky, the animals that cross the topography. Fitting, of course, for an essay on a season. It’s a fine example of nature writing. At the same time, in a more general and overlapping way, there’s a deeply metaphysical line of questioning. The essayist is circling human nature, an emotional spring.

She threads the movement from early spring to mid-spring with science, especially with physics. Conversations she’s had with scientist friends. Geological observations. Early in the essay she describes spring as a restless time, and the essay reflects a psychological restlessness, a movement from one state (winter) to another (spring). But the state could also be illness to health, raw grief to healing, closed to open. When I’ve written it this way it sounds nearly new-agey, and it isn’t at all. It’s inquisitive, intelligent, scientific, emotional.

Ehrlich is also dealing with the landscape of my childhood—the American West with its unreal vistas and deep wilderness. A wilderness in which “wild” should be written in bold. I returned to the US a few years ago and drove in one day across the Sawtooth Mountains and the Cascade Mountains. I’d been living in Europe nearly eight years at this point and I’d forgotten the size of those spaces. The incredible breadth, the vastness of it. Ehrlich brought me right back into that and I experienced an aching nostalgia.

Space is an arena in which the rowdy particles that are the building blocks of life perform their antics. All spring, things fall: the general law of increasing disorder is on the take.

And there’s a surprise in her narrative. Where she begins and where she ends aren’t signaled in the usual ways (although the quote just above could be taken as such signaling), and thank goodness. This is what I mean by gloriously meandering. She takes us from one personal space to another that is quite different, and I could not have predicted that movement but when she finishes it is like that is the only way we could have gone. It’s delightful.