Reading is — has always been — a deeply important part of my life. Books connect us to other people and places, real or imagined, to other minds; they introduce us to new (and old) ways of thinking; through them, we explore and learn and love and become more fully ourselves. They teach us that, however different our experiences and perspectives and values, we have much in common.
Last year I had the pleasure of reading Meera Lee Sethi’s Mountainfit: Fjällsommar, Fjällsjälv, a self-published, pocket-sized sliver of science and magic made with Kickstarter, birdsong and dreams. Don’t let that description give you the wrong impression — Meera’s book is earthy and insightful, personal and practical, providing readers with a fascinating glimpse into the world of fieldwork. I wrote an enthusiastic Goodreads review and later named Mountainfit one of my favorite books of 2012.
Happily, in June of this year the very savvy publishing wing of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography gave Mountainfit the chance to reach a wider audience by publishing a new edition. You can read the free ebook or purchase a beautiful handmade physical copy. Call it a simple memoir of a summer in Sweden, or a collection of essays on home and identity and nature; call it whatever you like, so long as you read this remarkable book, and fall for Meera’s way with words and way of being in the world.
Curious? By way of introduction, Meera has kindly answered a few questions I posed on nature, storytelling, bird-skinning, inspiration and how the donkey got its bray. Read on…
You’ve mentioned that nature wasn’t a significant part of your experience growing up. When did that change? How would you describe your relationship with nature now?
When did it change? My first week in Sweden. I know it sounds weird, but every extraordinary experience that fed into Mountainfit came from nothing but a hunch. I’d always loved things of the city. When I traveled I wanted museums, libraries, cafes, concert halls, architecture tours. I’d never even learned to enjoy taking walks without a specific destination or a practical purpose. But I had been quite unhappy for a long time, and had felt like I was searching for something I just couldn’t name. By this time I’d begun birding, and for whatever reason I just had this feeling that the thing that was missing was being outside in the world. Of course I didn’t have to travel to a Swedish village of fewer than 40 residents just to be outside in the world, but at the time I think I wanted to replace my life as I knew it, at least temporarily.
And then I got there, and my mouth stayed open for the next nine weeks. The area around the observatory was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen, and because I was working off-trail, at least partly during the off-season for mountain tourists, I was very often completely alone in the landscape. That was a huge part of it; I felt free to stumble, to make mistakes, to get lost and fail and be graceless, and no one ever saw but mountains, lakes, tundra, and the occasional reindeer. And they didn’t give a damn. Cities are full of eyes watching you; or they fool you into thinking they are; or maybe it’s that you’re always watching everybody else. It’s much easier to really let yourself be an idiot on the side of a mountain than walking down on Michigan Avenue. And being an idiot is a really important first step in becoming less of an idiot.
I would describe my relationship with nature now as the kind of relationship you have with your sister’s cool best friend when you’re nine years old. You try to spend as much time hanging out with her as possible, and when you’re with her all you do is watch and try to keep quiet and hope to be as much like her as you can.
I love that you refer to yourself as a “part-time skinner of birds.” Why birds? How did you come to this type of work? Scientific language, technical details, exhilarating updrafts and clumsy landings all welcome.
Ha! I don’t include that line in my bio anymore, but being a volunteer study skin preparator is still a big part of my life; after four years and over 400 specimens at the Field Museum in Chicago, the prep lab honestly felt as much like home as my apartment. (When we moved last year I started prepping at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, which is a very different environment — it’s not a public museum, and most of the birds I work on here are collected specimens rather than window-kills.)
Anyway, how I came to it still feels sort of topsy-turvy to me, and at first it had nothing at all to do with birds and everything to do with bodies. I used to spent a lot of time thinking about death (which I think is a fairly instinctive human obsession), and out of that emerged a strong interest in bodies — how is it that they are the vehicle that conveys life, manifests life, makes life possible, and yet they continue to exist as separate entities after life ceases?
Then serendipity stepped in, and I happened to see two paintings of birds at a tiny art exhibit in Chicago. In the pictures, the birds were bodies preserved as scientific specimens, and the images exemplified that contradiction I’d been thinking about for so long — how inanimate remains can still manage to communicate something, even if not everything, about the life that once inhabited them.
Of course the paintings were by Diana Sudyka, who later did the wonderful cover of the first edition of Mountainfit. And thank goodness for me, she’d written a little statement that explained how she volunteered behind the scenes at the Field Museum preparing these specimens. So I emailed Dave Willard, then the collections manager in the bird division, and less than a month later I was sitting in the prep lab skinning my first bird—a starling. (I did a terrible job, though eventually I got better.)
Mountainfit began life as a Kickstarter project called “The Language of the Birds” that I am proud to have supported. The finished product changed to reflect your experiences in Sweden while remaining true to your original vision. What inspired you to put your adventure into words? Can you tell me a bit about the writing, editing and revision process?
I started the Kickstarter project because I knew I wanted to write about that summer and I also knew I might never do it. And as it turned out, the fact that I had made a promise to a hundred people — crazy, wonderful people who had sent me money and warmth and totally unsolicited emotional support — was probably the only reason the book got finished.
You asked about the writing, editing, and revision process: Editing and revision were relatively painless. I had the help of a friend who happens to be an incredibly skilled editor (seriously, email me if you need a book doctor), and she was the first and only person who saw any part of the book before it was finished. Among other things, she arranged the pieces in an order that made sense — something I couldn’t see clearly to do.
The writing process, on the other hand, was pure pain. Writing is excruciating anyway, but this was the most complicated and personal project I had ever embarked on, and because of Kickstarter I had made its timely completion a matter of public record. I think at one point I actually said to someone, “This is the worst thing I have ever done to myself.” (Spoiler: It wasn’t.) Here is a series of totally angsty tweets I posted while I was writing Mountainfit:
I have hated every word I’ve written for the past seven weeks. I feel like I have an inner ear problem. I’ve lost my rhythm. I can’t hear.
Instead of writing, you put a herring gull feather inside a hollowed-out hemisphere of kiwi.
Instead of writing, you think about what it would be like to track fish up a river, antenna in hand.
Instead of writing.
Sometimes the next thing to do is simple. If your eyes burn, step away from the words. You cannot help them. Save yourself.
I could write a thousand first paragraphs. #fuckingmiddles
The middle is the hardest part.
I take it back. What you leave out is the hardest part.
Fingernails bitten down to nubs.
I feel like finishing this book is like running with weights on. I’m achieving something for my legs, but the run itself suffers.
19,929 discrete units of what reads to me like dross. Maybe I should try putting this into a snow globe and shaking it.
Finally I went to Arizona, where my dear friend Sarah lived at the time, and forced myself upon her for a few weeks. She was finishing her library science degree, and so she would work on classes and I would sit with the desert sun streaming through her windows and force myself to write. It still felt like speaking with my jaw wired shut, but amazingly, it worked.
“The Language of the Birds” borrowed its name from a myth. What childhood stories, myths, folk or fairy tales resonate with you most today?
Maybe it’s predictable, but I love Just-So Stories. Not just Kipling’s; I love any myth that tells how a creature started out in one form and came to have the particular character we now think of as inevitable. It’s a self-centered thing; I feel, like everyone else, that I am a work in progress, that I’m in a process of constant change. But against my better judgement I also sort of believe that there is some version of me that will one day seem inevitable. When I studied Children’s Literature in grad school we had to write and illustrate a picture-book in one of our classes, and mine was called How the Donkey Got Its Bray.
I think I’m still waiting to see what my bray is.
Mountainfit is the tale in vignettes of a summer in Sweden, but it is also a beautiful expression of, well, you. How does it feel to offer up such a personal work of art to a wider audience, to the wider world? (I can’t help but picture a mama bird watching her chicks attempt flight for the first time.) Does it feel different than when you self-published?
It does feel different, and thank goodness. Putting the book out into the world the first time felt totally, completely raw. I took every response — and every lack of response — personally. This time I’m pretty relaxed. Don’t care to read my book? No problem. Downloaded the free copy and didn’t think it was good enough to come back and pay for? Well, that neither means you’re a terrible human being, nor that you’re judging my entire being to be worthless. Of course it still makes me incredibly happy for Mountainfit to be read and enjoyed. I just see it as its own entity now, and not as hundreds of copies of my heart floating around in the world for people to crumple up.
Whose writings would you recommend to someone who loves Mountainfit and wants to read more in a similar vein? What contemporary writers inspire you most of all?
This is a delightful question to answer, ignoring the fact that it would be ridiculous to compare my work to any of the following people’s. Please, read Bernd Heinrich on ravens. Read Rick Bass on wolves. Read Amy Leach on things. (Amy Leach is, sincerely, my heroine in terms of her almost alchemical synthesis of the literary and the scientific, which come together and are changed into something new entirely in her hands. This is the first piece of hers I ever read.)
Finally, I am quite sure that if you liked Mountainfit, you will be very, very happy to pick up Chris Clarke’s book Walking With Zeke — which I’ve written about here and which shares with Mountainfit the character of being both a naturalist’s notebook and a meditation on what it means to live well in the world.
What are your plans for 2014? Can we look forward to another book with your name on the spine?
When I got back from my second big field volunteer gig in Alaska last year, I had every intention of writing a book about the research we’d been doing there on these magnificent birds, bristle-thighed curlew, and about what it was like to be in the wilderness for nine weeks with your entire world shrunk down to four people and this extraordinary beauty all around. Then, to be perfectly honest, the melancholy that I’d been carrying around for years — something readers may or may not notice running underneath all of the joy and wonder in Mountainfit — caught up with me, and I fell deep into a hole. Lots of things helped, including my wonderful husband, my family, my friend Sarah, whom I mentioned above — she wrote me typewritten letters every week — and modern medicine.
But one of the biggest decisions that came out of that hole with me was that I wanted to make fieldwork my real life, not just a fantasy. Mountainfit begins with a passage about Anaïs Nin traveling back and forth between two completely separate existences, and for a very long time I labored under the mistaken belief that I couldn’t integrate my settled, urban, married life with the roaming, disconnected life of the field. I felt like I needed to sacrifice everything to the field, including my affections and my loyalties, in order to be rewarded with happiness.
I don’t believe that anymore; or, at least, I’m willing to test the notion that it’s not true. So I’ve been taking basic science prerequisites since the spring, and in 2014 my biggest goal is to get myself ready to apply to graduate programs in ecology. But I do want to write that second book, particularly since Kristine Sowl, the terrific FWS biologist who hired me to go to Alaska, is one of only a very few people advocating for bristle-thighed curlew in the crowded world of bird conservation, and I promised her I would help to get their story out. So things are delayed, but it’ll happen — it’ll just have to happen in between chemistry and statistics and all that. I’d also like to finish 366 Days in Science, another beloved project that got sidelined when I went to war with my brain. I’m not sure if anyone would sign it, but I’d love to see that become a book.
Finally, a bit of fun: imagine you’re a non-human, living part of nature. Tell me about yourself and the reasons behind your choice. What if you were a non-living part of nature?
Oh, dear. To tell you the truth, for much of my life I think I’ve been like a peak-year lemming: easily offended, but totally runty, with very few resources for backing myself up when I’m in high dudgeon. These days I’m working on becoming more sanguine. Living in northern California helps.
A non-living part of nature? Some kind of metamorphic gem. Garnet, or jade, maybe. Something worth having around, but by god it takes a lot of heat and pressure and a hell of a long time to get there.
Many thanks to Lori Hettler of CCLaP Publishing for asking me to participate in the Mountainfit blog tour, and to Meera for writing, sharing and inspiring.
All photos taken by me in October 2012. More viewable here.
The short version: It’s not easy to find. It’s not spectacularly written. It would benefit from more analysis. And it’s a treasure.
The long version: I’m always drawn to the mythology shelves at secondhand bookstores, and almost always disappointed by their contents. The hope that almost inspires keeps me coming back, because sometimes I stumble upon a previously unknown gem, like Kathleen Wiltshire’s Wiltshire Folklore, which I discovered last month upstairs at Wellington icon Arty Bees. Printed in 1975 by the Compton Press in Wiltshire, naturally, this slender volume preserves perspectives already on the wane when it was penned. Per the back cover blurb:
Much of our countryside today has retained its looks but lost its spirit: the country state of mind has been usurped and, with it, much that was of charm and interest. For years Mrs Wiltshire has made herself almost the local registrar of vanishing traditions.
Kathleen Wiltshire was first inspired to do so by Miss Edith Olivier talking at the Wilcot Women’s Institute in 1930, and, living most of the time since at All Cannings, she has never ceased to record and recount the Folklore of Wiltshire.
If that description hadn’t piqued my interest, the cover art certainly did. This casual, almost carelessly beautiful etching depicts standing stones on a hillside, a dead or sleeping hare beneath, and cross-hatched farmland stretching around the spine onto the back, where a small barn stands nestled in a thicket of trees: Devil’s Den, distinctly Wiltshire. Each section begins with another evocative illustration by Hilary Williams.
Like David Thomson’s The People of the Sea, Wiltshire’s book appeals to me in part because of the “vanishing traditions” it keeps alive, giving readers a glimpse into the increasingly irretrievable past. Wiltshire, too, has passed on, but in collecting these stories from friends and family members, acquaintances and strangers, over the course of decades, in recording them and speculating on the connections between the tales and her own experiences, she allows us to bear witness to the Wiltshire we otherwise couldn’t visit in six diverse, overlapping chapters on witches, herbalism, farm lore, household customs, garden wisdom and more general local legends, which seem to overlap with her other published work, Ghosts and Legends of the Wiltshire Countryside (1973).
Like any product of its own time — like this review — Wiltshire Folklore is not without flaws; in particular I struggled with the absence of analysis in the first chapter. Wiltshire begins by harking back to her grandmother’s childhood, when “witches were looked upon as quite usual members of society, and she used to tell us of one in her village who used to cure minor illnesses such as sore eyes using ‘fasting spittle’. This was, of course, a village ‘wise woman’.” This surprising, refreshing opening jars with subsequent accounts of witches as malevolent animal-bewitching, plague-bearing, harvest-destroying menaces to the community. I wish that she had examined the relationship between witches and wise men and women, between social relations and religious beliefs and, well, the weather. Drought, pestilence, fire. But to focus on this ignores the book’s value as an object of memory, so I’ll just shake my head at the missteps and focus on the stories:
I have heard that a coven called ‘Moonrakers’ a few years ago still gathered at Gorse Hill near Swindon; and at the Devil’s Den, not far from Avebury, very odd incidents were reported as recently as 1971. Someone visiting the huge dolmen at Clatford Bottom found feathers of wild birds scattered all around the cromlech, and a piece of cardboard, protected by polythene, was tied by string to a stone. On it someone had written an odd mixture of figures and letters — quite unintelligible to ordinary folk. And yet another visitor at another time found a dead hare — one of the sacred animals of both Druid and the witch — lying under the huge stones.
(More on “Moonrakers” later on.)
II. Wise Woman’s Herbal
In the next chapter Wiltshire focuses on wise women and country cures, armed by firsthand knowledge. She nods respectfully to the nine mystic herbs of the past and notes that forty-two plants were then used in homeopathic medicine, but her herbal numbers sixty, listed alphabetically and described briskly, a strange blend of science and magical thinking. For instance, the
Dandelion’s golden small sun-like flowers make the most favoured Wiltshire wine; these must be picked on a sunny day before 24th May. Dandelion roots were used as a substitute for coffee. Six or eight pounds of root, cleaned of earth, and the tops cut off, were hung up to dry. Then they were grated like ginger. A teaspoonful and a half was allowed to stand five minutes in a pot holding a pint and a half. Dried dandelion roots were ground and used for stomach and liver complaints; and dandelion tea was a remedy for colds and some rheumatic pains. The leaves were eaten as a salad.
Important note: Dandelion root coffee is caffeine-free.
Wiltshire follows these entries with a number of folk cures, spells and beauty aids. As someone who uses manuscript receipt books in my research on the transmission of chymical techniques and ingredients, I was delighted to read about one “taken from an old leather-bound handwritten book, the property of the Misses Stuart, Potterne, dated 1797.” Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down the book in question — it may be in private hands — but this recipe, for “plague vinegar,” is not specific to Wiltshire. It’s better known as Four Thieves Vinegar for the elaborate backstory, a version of which Wiltshire recounts:
Four malefactors who robbed and murdered people infected during the course of the plague owned at the gallows that they had preserved themselves from the contagion by this remedy alone, and that they went to all the houses without fear. They were pardoned for the discovery.
III. Farmer’s Lore
This is a rich, varied chapter — the highlight of the book for me, with sections on ploughing, farm animals, other beasts, weather predictions (weather predictions!), chalk horses, truffle-hunting and, best of all, unexpectedly, the bit about dewponds, man-made livestock watering holes. The process is strange, mysterious, magical.
Many years ago an old dewpond-maker of Wiltshire[, Mr. A. Smith of Market Lavington,] described pond-making to an aunt of mine; I was also there, and later noted down what he had said. This is how it went:
‘You shape your hollow according to the amount of water required; then you beat it down all over with your feet; now you take clay from the hills — not the stuff from the builders — and put six inches of it all over your hollow. Now comes the hard work — puddling — which means glazing the clay to make it impervious to water. This glazing is done by pushing heavy bitles (often made of apple wood) all over the clay until a smooth surface is obtained, and this demands knowledge of the proper moisture and consistency of the clay for puddling, and great strength, accuracy and rhythm in the ramming and beating with the bitle. Two inches of lime comes next, and calls for the adept uses of a specialised tool for pressing the new-slaked lime over the surface of the clay. Then comes four inches of straw, shaken on rough, and a trained eye for the right depth is required here; finally, you cover it all with rough local earth, which may be full of clay or chalk — it does not matter. You spread it all over, beat it down with your feet, and with beaters, and very soon there is your pond.’
Wiltshire even shares with us the secret of such dewponds: that warm layer of straw, which collects condensation. “As the water collects, it is retained, and no matter how small the rainfall, there is always two-thirds more water in the pond. And provided no one rams a hole in the clay it is good forever.” (If by forever you mean one or two centuries. The internet disagrees with folk wisdom on some points.) Dewpond-making ran in the family; I imagine fathers passing knowledge and technique on to their teenaged sons and beating down upon the clay together.
IV. Home and Homestead
In this chapter Wiltshire collects seasonal and event-based superstitions as well as practical knowledge, like which plants can be used to dye thread or yarn a particular color. She elegizes the dying art of spinning not knowing that fewer than four decades later it would reach a new audience eager to learn how to make, not merely consume. I love the way personal as much as regional history informs her folklore-gathering, sources like “Miss Ruth Tongue” politely footnoted alongside anecdotal evidence that’s at once vague and precise.
One of my treasures is the first baby-cap of my great-great-grandfather, Christopher Exelby (born 1760). It is of linen, edged with very fine knitted lace, and it is told the linen yarn was spun by his mother (née Christianna Hawkswell). I have no means of telling if the recipes for vegetable dyes, written on the fly-leaf of a George III prayer book, were also hers. This book belonged to my grandmother and she supposed it had been handy when the recipes were given, perhaps by a friend after church. There is a long list of plants and colours: yellow, from dyer’s rocket; warm-brown — gorse; purplish — elderberries; carmine — inner bark of birch tree; blue — buttercup root; green — very young heather shoots; magenta — dandelion; pale blue — privet; black — oak; grey — silver birch bark.
‘Cut the flowers, leaves, stalks, etc., very small, and put in a tin saucepan close covered with a sufficient quantity of Chamber Lee (urine) to stew for half an hour; strain out the herbs and add a fresh quantity of herbs to make the dye stronger. Then strain again after second boiling and add a lump of alum. In this, dye what you want.’
This is an example of a common chemical recipe. Alum (potassium aluminum sulphate) acts as a mordant or fixative that ensures the dye won’t bleed. It’s still widely used today.
A few other home-related superstitions I found particularly interesting, or startling, or unsettling:
“Beware of the oak; it draws the stroke.
Avoid the ash; it courts the flash.
Creep under a thorn; it can save you from harm.”
V. Around the Garden
This weekend I harvested crisply tart apples from the tree in our front yard and celebrated the start of autumn with a brown sugar crumble. Apples appear in so many legends and customs from Wiltshire and beyond. Peel them to divine your husband’s name; cut them in half and rub them on unwanted warts before binding them together again and burying them in soil. It was considered lucky to stand beneath a tree on Christmas or New Year’s Day and watch weak winter sunlight filter through the bare leaves. Like bee hives and bowls made from ivy, holly or hazel wood, apple trees could only be purchased with life — a young calf or pig, for instance.
In this chapter, Wiltshire takes us outside for a chat about elders and ashes and roses and thorns. She reminds us that Shakespeare called pansies “love-in-idleness,” and that both witches and Catholic clergymen preferred beeswax candles. Did you know that bees are busy in part being busybodies?
It is said bees like to be told of all their owner’s doings and troubles; if a bee-master dies the new owner must go round the hives and bow to each, and tap the hives with the house key and say, ‘Your master is dead; you must now work for —’ (naming himself). If this is not done the bees either swarm and fly away, or die of a mysterious illness. [...] Bees also like to be told if a relation dies, but no name must be spoken: ‘Your master’s brother from —’ took the place of the name. They were told, too, of rejoicing and a piece of wedding cake was left by the hive for them to share in the wedding breakfast.
Or that the marigold is more than a pretty face?
It was used to flavour soups and cakes, and to make butter and cheese a brighter yellow colour; it was said to cure wasp or bee stings; and it was even sometimes used to dye the hair. But the use I like the most I found written in an old notebook: ‘On St. Luke’s Day (18th October) take marigold flowers, a sprig of marjoram, and of thyme, and a little wormwood, dry them before a fire, then rub them to powder, and sift through a fine piece of lawn. Simmer this with a small quantity of virgin honey in white vinegar; with this anoint your stomach, breast and lips, lying down, and repeat these words thrice:
‘St. Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me,
In dreams let me my true love see.
This said, hasten to sleep, and in the soft slumber of your night’s repose, the very man whom you shall marry shall appear before you.’
Or that a halo around the moon hints at wet weather to come? Moonlight was believed to remove stains from soiled linen lain out overnight, but it had a much more damaging effect on the unwary who dared to fall asleep beneath the moon’s sober gaze. Their eyes would soon weaken, and they would grow “pasty-looking” and thin. We find menace in Wiltshire’s “Shepherdess of Stars,” but also beauty; if we remember to pay our respects, to set off on a journey only when she’s waxing, to admire her directly and not through the trees, she’ll bring us luck.
VI. Town and Village Tales
This final chapter is the shortest and least satisfying, as Wiltshire recounts local tales of heroes and villains that, sadly, she notes, “tend now to be forgotten.” One story, though, has not, and it explains why Wiltshire natives have been known as “moonrakers” since the latter part of the eighteenth century. I want to close with this account from Bishops and All Cannings (with a glimpse of the moon):
The tale runs that a party of smugglers had hidden some brandy kegs in a pond and a group of them were, at dead of night, fishing these out with the aid of wooden hayrakes, when they were seen by an exciseman who was riding by. In reply to his questions, he was told they were raking the water to obtain that fine cheese — pointing to the reflection of the full moon on the surface of the pond. The exciseman rode away laughing, convinced that Wiltshiremen were even stupider than he had thought.
Stupider, maybe. But also funnier, cleverer, stranger and more brilliant than you might have imagined. Kind of like Wiltshire’s book.
Late last year I learned that some clever people have linked the shortest month to the shortest of poetic forms. Here’s one of my contributions from the past few weeks: an ode to this buzzing, glaring, thrumming summer. Almost time to pluck apples from the tree and start baking.
The gawky sparrows
stalk a stocky sparrow with
cicada in tow.
Heather Wolfe’s paleography course last month gave us a feel not just for reading during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but the act of writing itself. Equipped with goose quills and ink prepared by the wizards at the Folger, we learned that writing secretary hand was at least as difficult as reading it, and that, as now, the tools used could make a world of difference. Queen Elizabeth preferred to write with swan feathers, each of which reputedly outlasted dozens of goose quills. Iron gall ink of the sort that we used was made using oak galls, gum arabic and either copper sulphate or ferrous sulphate — a chymical recipe in which tannic acid reacts with an iron ion source.
Here, no less an authority than the queen’s own calligrapher, Donald Jackson, demonstrates how to prepare both quill and ink for his work on the handwritten, illuminated Saint John’s Bible.
As an expert, Jackson makes it look easy. The ten-step process for the quill, he says, should take a total of 38 seconds “when reasonably skilled.” Let’s look a bit more closely at those stages.
(I think it would take quite a while to become reasonably skilled in this particular art.)
The afternoon filled with little revelations as we turned from keyboards to makeshift miniature drafting tables and tried to replicate stroke order. I hadn’t known that the feathers were removed from the quill before use and couldn’t bear to strip mine, instead watching a classmate tear the vane from his rachis, barbs linking each dirty white strand to the next so they fell onto the floor in clumps.
Some of the lessons were more opaque, as in this instructional etching from a 1611 handwriting manual in the Folger’s holdings:
New booke, containing all sortes of handes usually written at this daie (1611), fo. 3r, STC 6449.2 Bd.w. STC 3062, Digital Image File Name 3070, Folger Digital Image Collection. http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/2q7l71
That same text includes a handy rhyme for making one’s own ink:
To make common Inke of wine take a quart
Two ounces of Gumme let that be a part,
Fiue ounces of Gals, of Copres take three,
Long standing doth make it the better to be.
If wine ye do want, raine water is best,
And then as much stuffe as aboue at the least.
If Inke be too thicke, put vineger in:
For water doth make the colour more dim.
We also learned that it’s most effective to write at a thirty-degree angle — another challenge for the two lefties in the group already accustomed to graphite- and ink-stained fingers. This is why I prefer to type! My initial efforts produced a messy blob, and for a while I managed only three letters with each dip into the inkwell: the first with an excess of ink, the third drying up, and only the second in every batch just about right. It was all very Goldilocks.
Reporters from the local paper dropped by the next day asking to see the quills in action. Here’s my brief moment of background fame, just the way I like it.
Learning to write with a quill pen at the Rare Book Summer School at the University of Otago yesterday are Sienna Latham, of Wellington, and Yu Lee An, of Sydney. Photo by Linda Robertson. Source: Otago Daily Times, 31 January 2013
Links and references
All photos taken by me in October 2012. More viewable here.
This post is part of an ongoing project to explore, one by one, the folkloric spirits, mischief-makers and legends in Katharine Briggs’s A Dictionary of Fairies (1976). Her descriptions serve as the starting point for my independent research on each topic.
The next entry traces the name “Aiken Drum” from a song about the Jacobite uprising of 1715 to the tale of an unnaturally strong brownie to playful nursery rhymes documented in the 1950s. It first required me to brush up on (by which I mean learn) some eighteenth-century British political history.
When Queen Anne, a moderate Tory, died in 1714, George I took the throne. The Tories found themselves suddenly powerless, prosecuted and, in some cases, imprisoned by what seemed to them a ruthless Whig regime.
Actually, let’s take another step back: to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when William III of Orange led an invasion from the Netherlands in response to rising religious tensions. The Catholic monarch James II fled the country, in effect abdicating, and Protestant William became king, ruling with his wife, James’s daughter Mary. Alas, his lone attempt to reclaim the throne failed and James spent the rest of his life in France, supported by his cousin Louis XIV.
It should come as no surprise that his son, James Francis Edward Stuart, grew up believing he was James III, the rightful king of England, Scotland and Ireland. France, Spain, Modena and the Papal States all recognized his claim and viewed William and Mary as illegitimate. For their part, William and Mary and their supporters saw him as the “Old Pretender,” a name that has stuck.
But let’s return to the reign of George I and the “Fifteen” Jacobite uprising of disgruntled Tories in 1715. One of James’s supporters, John Erskine, the Earl of Mar, traveled from London to Braemar to hold a council of war and rally rebels. They had some success in Scotland north of the Firth of Forth and in October James (still in France) named Mar commander of his army. The next month they met George’s Hanoverian troops under the Duke of Argyll at Sheriffmuir, losing other battles to loyalists that same day.
When James finally made it to Scotland in December, he was disappointed by the support he found there. Those supporters weren’t much more impressed with their would-be leader, who seems to have lacked both charisma and gumption. Making matters worse, the cold, damp Scottish winter disagreed with him, and he soon fell ill. Instead of the planned coronation, he decided to head home to France. Unbeknownst to him, Louis XIV had died and he instead took refuge in Rome with the support of the pope.
And so on. I’ve grossly simplified this complex series of events, but hope it provides some context for “Aiken Drum” before it — he — fell in with the fairies. Here are a few verses from his first appearance, in a song about the 1715 uprising reproduced in James Hogg’s early nineteenth-century work The Jacobite Relics of Scotland (Vol. 2, Song VII, pp. 22-5):
We have heard of Whigs galore,
We have heard of Whigs galore,
But we’ve sought the country o’er,
With cannon and claymore,
And still they are before,
We may seek for evermore,
O pity Whiggam’s plight,
O pity Whiggam’s plight,
You may see, without your sight,
All mankind wrang outright,
And the Whig is only right,
Of the world he’s the light,
Ken you how to gain a Whig,
Ken you how to gain a Whig,
Look jolly, blythe, and big,
Take his ain blest side, and prig,
And the poor worm-eaten Whig,
For opposition’s sake
You will win.
Why “Aikendrum”? It’s not entirely clear. Aiken is Scots for oaken, and drum means hill or ridge. The name suggests strength and evokes the natural world.
But when do the fairies emerge? Briggs notes that Scotsman William Nicholson included an Aiken Drum ballad in the 1878 edition of his Poetical Works. In the capable hands of “Wandering Wull,” traveling packman and songwriter, the political audience transformed into the Brownie of Blednoch, a balding, bearded figure with the strength of many men. Here is a snippet of vibrant Scots-English from the late nineteenth-century version:
His matted head on his breast did rest,
A lang blue beard wan’ered down like a vest:
But the glare o’ his e’e nae bard hath exprest,
Nor the skimes o’ Aiken drum.
Roun’ his hairy form there was naething seen,
But a philabeg o’ the rashes green.
And his knotted knees played ay knoit between:
What a sight was Aiken drum!
On his wauchie arms three claws did meet,
As they trailed on the grun’ by his taeless feet:
E’en the auld gudeman himsel’ did sweat,
To look at Aiken drum.
If those lines haven’t conjured an unsettling image in your mind, this 1884 etching by William Strang ought to do the trick. Note the gravity-defying beard, crazy long neck and come hither gaze:
Nicholson’s clever combination of Scottish history and folklore seems to have shaped Aiken Drum’s trajectory. The next appearance cited by Briggs is in Iona and Peter Opie’s The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951). Though the Brownie of Blednoch “was naked except for a kilt of green rushes,” the child-friendly version is clad in food. Aiken Drum requires no gingerbread house with which to lure children; he wears it. And he’s lost his Scots roots in the nursery rhyme, taking up residence in the night sky:
There was a man lived in the moon, lived in the moon, lived in the moon,
There was a man lived in the moon,
And his name was Aiken Drum.
And he played upon a ladle, a ladle, a ladle,
And he played upon a ladle,
and his name was Aiken Drum.
And his hat was made of good cream cheese, of good cream cheese, of good cream cheese,
And his hat was made of good cream cheese,
And his name was Aiken Drum.
And his coat was made of good roast beef, of good roast beef, of good roast beef,
And his coat was made of good roast beef,
And his name was Aiken Drum.
And his buttons made of penny loaves, of penny loaves, of penny loaves,
And his buttons made of penny loaves,
And his name was Aiken Drum.
And his waistcoat was made of crust pies, of crust pies, of crust pies,
And his waistcoat was made of crust pies,
And his name was Aiken Drum.
And his breeches made of haggis bags, of haggis bags, of haggis bags,
And his breeches made of haggis bags,
And his name was Aiken Drum.
That repetition merges the mundane and the magical, as Aiken Drum turns from listener in a time of turmoil to watcher in a time of peace: the man in the moon who lulls children to sleep. Though they are subject to rot and decay, to the rumbling stomachs and eager mouths of the hungry, his clothes reveal a timeless story that resonates today; children are still hungry, parents still sing lullabies, and fairies still live, for a while, in the tales we tell one another.
Last week I had the pleasure of attending the third Otago Rare Book School in Dunedin. Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, taught a small, enthusiastic class of seven about the joys and challenges of early modern English paleography. She introduced us to the quirks of secretary hand, bestowing upon nearly every letter a memorable epithet: twin-stemmed R, right-angle C, butcher-hook H (my personal favorite). The E of the period took one of three forms: reverse, two-stroke and sigma, the latter of which looks like the Greek letter of the same name… and sometimes the secretary S. Paleography, it turns out, requires us to unlearn modern letters in addition to acquainting ourselves with the shapes of their predecessors.
Dr. Wolfe taught us to recognize comparatively easier to parse italic and Roman hands, and we tried our own hands at writing with goose quills and — filling this historian of chymistry with glee — iron gall ink made using a contemporary recipe. As a southpaw I wound up with streaks of ink on my hand, some messy-looking but recognizable letters on the paper and a huge smile on my face.
We transcribed a variety of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century documents: letters exchanged by would-be kissing cousins and their horrified families, inventories, diary entries recounting gruesome murders, carefully selected and sometimes oddly arranged quotes in commonplace books, snarky wills, petitions, depositions and, best of all, receipt books. For some reason the breadth of the Folger’s holdings came as a surprise to me; it’s not just Shakespeare, though we chuckled over a forged letter by the bard and delighted in the earliest known reference to the purchase of his first work. We looked up archaic and unfamiliar words regularly, discovering that “sowing [one's] wild oats” is a much older phrase than any of us had realized. On Friday, we learned that the letter one of our classmates chose to transcribe as his final project described “white lies” nearly two centuries prior to the OED’s first reference to the term. It was awe-inspiring and fun.
What did I choose to transcribe for that final day? A search for “alchemy” on Hamnet, the Folger’s online catalog, yielded a fully digitized, Creative Commons-licensed grimoire, v.b.26 (ca. 1577-83), in two volumes. The Folger acquired the first from a bookseller in 1958, but the latter only came to Dr. Wolfe’s attention a handful of years ago, when she serendipitously noticed it in a Sotheby’s auction. The earlier volume’s pagination begins at 15 and ends at 205; the second begins with 206 and features a prominent eye motif and diminishing ABRACADABRA spell. (The first fourteen pages remain missing.)
Book of magic, with instructions for invoking spirits, etc. (ca. 1577-1583), v.b.26 (2), p. 206 (blue ink), Digital Image File Name 42430, Folger Digital Image Collection. http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/suom68
A cursory examination suggests that the text is fairly typical of early modern magical volumes in its diversity, incorporating familiar elements from works attributed to, for instance, Roger Bacon and King Solomon. It combines angelic invocations and astrological knowledge, religious writings and and ritualistic cures like the above-mentioned charm “ffor the totheache” on page 206. The main hand is a neat, regular secretary in black ink augmented by a red italic hand that has faded to a soft, warm brown. There are some exquisite, occasionally jaw-dropping drawings by that original compiler, but, according to the catalog notes, the more colorful flourishes were added during the nineteenth century by R.C. Smith, sometime owner of the grimoire.
I rather arbitrarily selected page 55 because it’s written mostly in English. You can see Smith’s hand below in the initial earth-and-primrose-colored decorative snake M cheerfully obliterating the symbol for Mercury, as well as the blue note midway down the page.
Book of magic, with instructions for invoking spirits, etc. (ca. 1577-1583), v.b.26 (1), p. 55 (blue ink), Digital Image File Name 42258, Folger Digital Image Collection. http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/d38hv5
We employed a semi-diplomatic transcription style, copying the original text faithfully but expanding abbreviations for the sake of clarity and identifying those changes by italicizing, superscripting, etc., accordingly. My transcription of the opening section on Mercury is as follows. The word “comon” in the second line, for example, becomes “common” because the tilda above the word indicates that the missing second M should be added.
Mercurii in Hebrue Cocab./ & of them is called the Writer & fore speaker whose nature
in all Respectes is common & convertible, masculine with Masculine, & feminine with
feminine, hote with hote & cold with cold, moist with moist dry with drie, good fortune with fortune,
& best with a good aspecte or coniunction. He is of a swift motion perfourminge his course in .i.
whole yere, he governeth in mans bodye, the tonge memorie, cogitacion, handes, & thighes, he hath
the plurisye dominion over the plurisie, madnes melancholy fallinge sicknes, cough, Rewme, & the aboundance
of distillinge spittle, & generallie all thoughtes are subiect vnto him & he hath 2 Mansions [Gemini symbol]
.& [Scorpio symbol]./. if he be lorde of the Nativitie, he maketh the children stoute, wise & apte to learne, modest
seecrete & Eloquent, of persone smale Leane pale of visage smooth heared fayer eyed, hard & bonye
With this page our scribe exhibits familiarity with the Key of Solomon, principles of astrology, their relationship to humoral theory, and the mid-to-late-sixteenth-century penchant for apocalypticism that strikes me as not so different from the hubbub we experienced this past December. (If Saturn is destroyed, watch out.) At the bottom of the page he lists seven semi-precious stones associated with a particular angel, Zepheraziel, and then goes on to provide “The names of 24 stones” and “24 notable good herbes.” Some are recognizable, like Calcedonis and Cardamomus, but others — Celomites and Carmaferula fall into this category — require additional research to identify. As a Gemini, I found myself examining my hands to determine whether they could be described as hard and bony. Maybe? Not sure I’m stout and eloquent, though.
It was an intense, thrilling, exhausting whirlwind of a week, and I flew home on Saturday excited to begin reading the Wellcome Library manuscripts that have been waiting so patiently on my hard drive, and contemplating a trip to the Folger later this year to explore their large collection of receipt books. I can’t wait. If you’re interested in early modern handwriting, you might like to check out some of the helpful websites below…
Even the worst years have their moments. I’m thrilled to see the end of 2012 and relieved I survived; Anne Shirley’s “considerably rumpled in spirit” has taken on new meaning during the past twelve months. This post collects many of the ideas, influences, and inspiration that kept me going.
I used to listen to music passionately, obsessively, exhaustively. New albums slipped into the stereo or onto the turntable took on a ritualistic significance, each with the potential to change everything — and sometimes they did. I put a great deal of time and thought into year-end lists of songs and albums, crafting mix tapes and, later, CDs that somehow encapsulated both the year’s events and my headspace. I’d go to shows and stand perfectly still during my favorite songs, eyes closed, hearing, feeling, probably a bit too close to the throbbing, bass-heavy monitors for someone so frequently unearplugged, but full of some ineffable emotion, or thought, or something else entirely, that I wouldn’t trade for the keenest sense of sound a person has ever known.
Since hitting twenty-five and moving to a new country in 2006, I’ve pulled back, listened less. Few albums have grabbed me the way they used to, and I’ve worked mostly to the world’s soundtrack, which is remarkable and disappointing and exquisite and frustrating in its own way: birdsong, the rattling effects of wind, children playing, traffic. This year I got excited about listening to music again, and seeking out new artists and songs. In part I have Rdio to thank for this, because it lets me listen to almost anything I want to hear the moment the inclination pops into my mind. But my most-beloved, most-played albums of 2012 came from old favorites. And, in the case of Shearwater, old friends. Animal Joy is delicate and powerful, full of ache and beauty to match Jonathan Meiburg’s voice, his way with words, written and delivered (a tie between “your burning mouth / your blazing eyes” and “starry-eyed / and inveterate / and invincible”). The video for “Breaking the Yearlings” was filmed in the American Museum of Natural History: an imagined flash flood of taxidermy and morbid anatomy.
And then there’s Fiona Apple, who captures rage and hurt and frustration in song, transforming the ugliness we try to hide into a whirling circus act that’s equal parts bravado and confidence, and all perfect fragility. This album took me into town and back, day after day, night after night, as I stared at whitecaps and sang along at the top of my lungs without making a sound, wandering without aim and wondering what would happen. The video for “Every Single Night” is probably the best starting point, but I love “Daredevil” most of all: “oh, give me anything / and I’ll turn it into a gift.”
Another highlight: Diane Cluck and her song-of-the-week project, which, while not exactly weekly, delivers enchanting music to my inbox on a regular basis and fills me with joy. With her lilting voice, earthy mysticism and effortless experimentation, Cluck has been one of my favorite artists for a decade. She deserves all of the attention and accolades the world sends her way. “Sara” is one of her newer gems.
Music with lyrics can be distracting when you need to work. So, it turns out, can music without lyrics, if that music catches you by surprise over and over again, grabbing your heart and holding onto it so sweetly. It didn’t come out in 2012, but James Blackshaw’s The Glass Bead Game — five otherworldly songs named for a book that has stymied my efforts to read it for a decade and a half — deserves mention, and praise, and the heartiest of recommendations. I don’t know how to describe this kind of beauty except to share the closing track, “Arc.”
I carried a comforting piece of 2011 around all last year, because The Rip Tide by Beirut is just that good, and because I eagerly looked forward to Christmas in northern New Mexico, which somehow managed to exceed expectations. Sign me up, Santa Fe.
One for the books: According to Goodreads, I met my goal of reading 40 books in 2012 by making it through 82 that apparently contain nearly 20,000 pages. Below you will find links to my reviews of the best of these.
The first to startle and delight me was Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, which unexpectedly fit into my ongoing project to read works of fiction that incorporate alchemy. (I have a lot of ongoing projects, like recording train station buskers and ordering that least consistent, most unpredictable of drinks, chai, whenever I find myself in a cafe. It keeps life interesting.) Hoban’s language games stimulated and moved me; I loved the way he steeped his post-apocalyptic world in the past, and I loved his protagonist most of all.
More than anything else, 2012 was the year of nature-writing. I have Robert Macfarlane and The Old Ways to thank for expanding the boundaries of what this genre can mean; here is a book that echoes the identity of its author without coming across as self-indulgent or -obsessed, but, rather, taken with the world around it, around him, and our ability to communicate to, with, about that world. Macfarlane introduced me to so many writers whose works have made my to-read pile even more intimidating, and I couldn’t be more grateful — his other books are near the top of that word-mountain.
Meera Lee Sethi’s Mountainfit is another book that blurs the categories of nature and self, person and place, autobiography and plain old non-fiction. The product of a Kickstarter campaign, this slight work at once bypassed Meera’s initial promises and surpassed them. I doubt anyone was disappointed with the final product and hope that, like me, the other backers were delighted. The opportunity to get to know a stranger by reading a book, to close it at the end feeling I’ve made a friend, is one I hope to experience again and again, and one I intend never to take for granted.
In 2012 I finally stumbled upon a copy of Mount Analogue by René Daumal, and devoured it with the eagerness of years of waiting — and expectations fulfilled. It’s a book that bears re-reading. In fact, I feel hesitant to say much about it, for fear of misrepresenting a text that I think would prefer not to be represented at all, just pressed emphatically into the hands of a loved one. Let’s say you’re that beloved, and these are my hands, sharing, offering, curious to hear what you think when you’re done. It won’t take long, I promise, but the thoughts will spiral and grow until the book grows in your mind relative to its importance (that is, very).
I’ve long been a poetry reader, but for the first time in years I actively sought out new collections and filled in bibliographical holes for some of the writers already written in ink on my nice list. 2012 remedied my earlier ignorance of Louise Bogan and coaxed me back into the arms of surrealism. It brought me the spinning giddiness of the Poetry Foundation’s mobile app, which wants me to read humorous poems at least three times as often as I’m at all inclined. It taught me to listen to Stephen Dunn at Different Hours and introduced me to Sarah Jackson. Her Pelt was surely the best collection published last year.
Finally, an incredible collection of short stories: Jagannath, by Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck, who translated these fantastical pieces into English herself. They will look you in the eye, grab hold of your shoulders and shake you until you see straight. When that happens, you will realize the world is a very different place from the one you imagined. It has always been a very different place, filled with beauty and terror and terrible beauty, and you’ll be so glad you’re here.
After a long drought, it was such a treat to see movies in the theater again. As usual, my favorites came courtesy of the New Zealand Film Festival. First up, Die Wand, based on Marlen Haushofer’s novel of the same name. I think really good movies are best seen cold, with little to no background or information, so am reluctant to write much here. Actress Martina Gedeck skillfully carries the weight of this haunting film on her shoulders, but she’s not really alone in her alpine cage. The subtlety of her performance, the cinematographic beauty of the backdrop and, most of all, the relationship between human and animal portrayed in Die Wand make it one of the most moving films I’ve seen in years. I loved this. (Sorry, I could only find the German trailer.)
Are you familiar with transhumance? It’s the seasonal movement of livestock to more suitable pastures, and a dying art I had never heard of before seeing Hiver Nomade, a documentary that tracks two such shepherds, their flock and sheepdogs across snow-covered landscapes, crowded highways and peaceful farmland. Seeing people living passionately, generously, with good humor is like being wrapped in a woolen blanket and handed a cup of cider as you warm up beside a fire.
Bringing a bit of music back to the narrative, like the rest of the universe I thoroughly enjoyed Searching for Sugar Man. Watch the trailer if you want, but I recommend heading straight to the theater.
On the small screen, I mostly gave up on other people’s programming in favor of periodic DVD gluttony. Returning to the short-lived HBO series Carnivàle, with its tragic dust bowl beauty, has been my best call.
Finally, some images. For the first time in five years I visited the revamped Auckland Art Gallery and got to see William Sutton’s “Nor’wester in the Cemetery.” It made such an impression on me a few days after arriving in New Zealand, I half-expected to feel disappointed on my return. I wasn’t.
And, because I spent so much time exploring Digital New Zealand, a set containing the photographs and paintings and other works in which I found a bit of myself.
(If you made it through all this, thank you. I didn’t mean for it to get so long.)