June 23, 2018

Non appreciation day

A shoutout to Non Morris, London gardener par excellence, whose fine art/gardening/wandering blog, The Dahlia Papers, ran from 2013 to 2017.

Robert MacFarlane introduced me to Non, inadvertently.  I greatly enjoy reading MacFarlane, one small dose at a time.  He's a bit like Hopkins that way.  You read something like...

...and you say well that's splendid, what's the rest like.

Like that, is the answer.  Thousands of lines of it, and after 20 of them my eyes glaze over.  It's exhausting and the pure technical proficiency does not overcome the fact that Hopkins has one big thing to say, and having said it, is more or less repeating himself the rest of the way.

MacFarlane has a bit of the same problem.  He writes detailed and precise paragraphs that simultaneously dazzle and prompt multiple window-switches to look up the ancient words he employs.  Here is a magnificent, maddening example from Chapter 2:
Five thousand feet below us, the Minch was in an ugly mood. Grey Atlantic water, arrowed with white wave-tops. Our twin-prop plane reached the east coast of the Isle of Lewis and banked north towards Stornoway, bucking as it picked up the cross-buffets of a stiff westerly. The air was clear, though, and I could see the tawny expanse of Mòinteach riabhach, the Brindled Moor: several hundred square miles of bog, hag, crag, heather, loch and lochan that make up the interior of Lewis. 

This is all well and good.  Fair is fair, I bought the book after all.  And where hyperverbality and textwise self-indulgence are concerned, I reside in a quonset hut made of Waterford crystal, so my policy on stones must necessarily be somewhat restrained.


MacFarlane's topic is The Landscape is all its forms.  I had imagined that there were two ways to approach this.  You could take an immersive approach and write evocatively, ushering the reader into an imaginary world not unlike the moor at Culloden, but patently counterfeit and very nice, knowing full well that if some unfortunate should ever got to the moor at Culloden, they'd say "it was nicer in the book."

Not as nice as it looks

Or else you could write sparingly and tantalizingly, miming a report of the bare facts, but in reality functioning (as the zen master said) as a finger pointing at the moon.  Maybe McPhee's Coming Into the Country was like that.  Last January Alaska Public Media did a brief piece on the book, and quoted a fellow named Alan Weltzein as saying “I distinctly remember feeling like I was having a love affair when I was reading Coming into the Country in the late 1970s.  I had this kind of trust in his representation, so I could ride along with him when he defined what the country means if you live in Alaska.”

MacFarlane has found a third, possibly insane, way.  Think of it as a hand-carved ivory chess set pointing in the general direction of the moon.  In Chapter 1 of Landmarks  there appears a manifesto, which avers that writing about the land and its human signification are one and the same:
But we are and always have been name-callers, christeners. Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes grained into our words. ‘Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind,’ in Wade Davis’s memorable phrase. We see in words: in webs of words, wefts of words, woods of words. The roots of individual words reach out and intermesh, their stems lean and criss-cross, and their outgrowths branch and clasp.

Ok, so I will read this book, one dense, daft spondee at a time.

But after I have sipped my dram I will turn with relief to The Dahlia Papers.  Non Morris has taken a look at Landmarks and professes admiration.  But her beautiful illustrated post may also be read as a refutation.

Abutilon ‘Kentish Belle’, First Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Her photographs remind us that the landscape is not just about the words, it's also perhaps even more about...the landscape.  It's one thing to put on a waxed canvas jacket and say the words "craggish" and "heath" a lot.  Non Morris gets out into world - the real one - and takes pictures, and adds brief accompanying text.  She finds her way, and we go with her.  This is better, I think.

Hopkins knew it. "There is no royal road to poetry," he said. "The world should know by this time that one cannot reach Parnassus except by flying."


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