On the Winter Reading List

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Though the weather in these parts hasn’t necessitated a ‘hunker down and read a good book’ mindset just yet, the dark by 5 o’clock evenings have. Every year around September I make plans to read Russian novels and Alaskan adventures through the winter months and usually end up obsessed with seed catalogues and the memoirs of gardeners. This year, I’ve gotten off on the right foot with Indian Creek Chronicles by Pete Fromm. Fromm spent seven, primarily winter, months in the 70s in the remote mountains of Idaho as caretaker of a stream containing salmon eggs. He lived in a tent with his dog Boone, his sole official job being to break ice out of the stream where the eggs were wintering. Fromm was young, inexperienced and ill-prepared, but as a lover of mountain man adventure stories, teaches himself what he needs to know along the way. Part of the mountain man ethos involves hunting, large and small game. So, fair warning if you’re squeamish; this one contains blood, intestines, brains, etc. I’m partway through the book and it’s a little testosterone-saturated for my liking, but the story is interesting and told in enough detail to put the reader in Fromm’s snowshoes, in minus 40 temps with wild animals crashing through the brush into clearings.

Now, here’s the list of what I haven’t read yet, may read before winter is through, may not, depending on what other books catch my eye. No poetry on this list, I’ll pick that up on a whim.

51PtYrpL1sL._AA160_.jpgThe End of Night by Paul Bogard

Bogard travels the globe to find the night, blending personal narrative, natural history, health, science, and folklore to shed light on darkness. Showing exactly what we’ve lost, what we have left, and what we might hope to regain, he attempts nothing less than a restoration of how we see the spectacularly primal, wildly dark night sky.

51EQ1HgDVFL._AA160_.jpgMrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

On a rainy Sunday in January, the recently widowed Mrs. Palfrey arrives at the Claremont Hotel where she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are magnificently eccentric and endlessly curious, living off crumbs of affection and snippets of gossip. Together, upper lips stiffened, they fight off their twin enemies—boredom and the Grim Reaper.

Elizabeth Taylor is a master at creating character. Detailed, idiosyncratic, completely human, Taylor’s characters drive her novels.

41Y1mqYJ58L._AA160_.jpgDoctor Glas by Hjalmar Soderberg

Stark, brooding, and enormously controversial when first published in 1905, this astonishing novel juxtaposes impressions of fin-de-siècle Stockholm against the psychological landscape of a man besieged by obsession. Lonely and introspective, Doctor Glas has long felt an instinctive hostility toward the odious local minister. So when the minister’s beautiful wife complains of her husband’s oppressive sexual attentions, Doctor Glas finds himself contemplating murder.

61g41F1sksL._AA160_.jpgThe Forest in Folklore and Mythology by Alexander Porteous

Fascinating compendium of facts, folklore, superstitions, myths, and anecdotes about trees and the forest. Describes forest customs, temples and sacred groves, mythical forest creatures, famous trees, unusual trees, tree worship, fossil trees, Yule logs, and much more. A perfect winter read!

51l8ys5mMtL._AA160_.jpgA God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler

Now, you know poets won’t be talking about faith lightly. I imagine this will be a fairly deep read, philosophical even. The book is comprised of conversations with nineteen of America’s leading poets, reflecting upon their diverse experiences with spirituality and the craft of writing. Bringing together poets who are Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, Native American, Wiccan, agnostic, and otherwise, this book offers frank and thoughtful consideration of themes too often polarized and politicized in our society. Participants include Li-Young Lee, Jane Hirshfield, Carolyn Forché, Gerald Stern, Christian Wiman, Joy Harjo, and Gregory Orr, and others, all wrestling with difficult questions of human existence and the sources of art.

 

412ddsr23ML._AA160_.jpgChristmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Perhaps best known for her first novel Cold Comfort Farm, Gibbons was seriously prolific. She wrote 22 novels in her lifetime. I’ve read about 5 and find them more complex and interesting than her first. Gibbons has a flair for the melodramatic and tends to overuse one clever image or description in each novel, but she’s still worth the read and her books are fun. Fans of Barbara Pym will appreciate Gibbons, that’s how I came to her work.

515SF60718L._AA160_.jpgClimbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland’s Holy Mountain by Chet Raymo

Mount Brandon is one of several holy mountains in Ireland that attract scores of believers and secular trekkers from around the world. For thirty-two years, Chet Raymo has lived part of each year on the Dingle Peninsula, near the foot of the mountain, and he has climbed it perhaps a hundred times, exploring paths that have been used for centuries by pilgrims in search of spiritual enlightenment. But the history and geography of Mount Brandon are what drew Raymo to it and offered him a lens through which to view the modern conflicts between science and religion. Mountains, spirituality, mysticism, Ireland! Sounds good to me.

 

51PPzWNDwDL._AA160_.jpgHidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard

As a quilter and crafter, I have an abiding interest in historical handcrafts, the meaning imbued in the pieces, as well as the way women used handcrafts as creative outlet and means of communication.

In Hidden in Plain View, historian Jacqueline Tobin and scholar Raymond Dobard offer the first proof that certain quilt patterns, including a prominent one called the Charleston Code, were, in fact, essential tools for escape along the Underground Railroad. In 1993, historian Jacqueline Tobin met African American quilter Ozella Williams amid piles of beautiful handmade quilts in the Old Market Building of Charleston, South Carolina. With the admonition to “write this down,” Williams began to describe how slaves made coded quilts and used them to navigate their escape on the Underground Railroad. But just as quickly as she started, Williams stopped, informing Tobin that she would learn the rest when she was “ready.” During the three years it took for Williams’s narrative to unfold–and as the friendship and trust between the two women grew–Tobin enlisted Raymond Dobard, Ph.D., an art history professor and well-known African American quilter, to help unravel the mystery.

51Bh6fROgrL._AA160_.jpgAnzac Girls by Peter Rees

I watched the BBC series of the same name about the experiences of WWI nurses from Australia and New Zealand. Loved it! Would highly recommend the series. Then I stumbled across the book the series was based on. Reviewers say the book is even better. Of Course. These nurses are stationed on hospital ships, in Egypt, the island of Lemnos and France.  The horrors that the young men serving in WWI endured for four years, hand to hand combat really, astounds me. These nurses, many stationed very near to the front lines, experienced the fighting first hand in some cases.

51Fax6LaD4L._AA160_.jpgThe Far Traveller: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown

Five hundred years before Columbus, a Viking woman named Gudrid sailed off the edge of the known world. She landed in the New World and lived there for three years, giving birth to a baby before sailing home. Or so the Icelandic sagas say. Even after archaeologists found a Viking longhouse in Newfoundland, no one believed that the details of Gudrid’s story were true. Then, in 2001, a team of scientists discovered what may have been this pioneering woman’s last house, buried under a hay field in Iceland, just where the sagas suggested it could be.

Joining scientists experimenting with cutting-edge technology and the latest archaeological techniques, and tracing Gudrid’s steps on land and in the sagas, Nancy Marie Brown reconstructs a life that spanned—and expanded—the bounds of the then-known world.

51BT3GyT5fL._AA160_.jpgThe Tao of Psychology: Synchronicity of Self by Jean Shinoda Bolen

Who hasn’t experienced that eerie coincidence, that sudden, baffling insight, that occasional flash of extrasensory perception that astonishes? Can these events be dismissed as mere chance, or do they have some deeper significance for us? The twenty-fifth anniversary edition of this classic explores the inter-relationship between these meaningful coincidences and our intuitive sense that we are part of some deep oneness with the universe — a oneness called Tao in Eastern philosophy and synchronicity in Jungian psychology. By relating the concepts of Tao and synchronicity, Dr. Bolen reveals important links between psychology and mysticism, right brain and left, the individual and the external world. The Tao of Psychology provides the key for each individual to interpret the synchronistic events in his or her life and gives fresh insight into the relationships, dreams, and flashes of perception that transform our existence.

I  may or may not get through this list. It’s a bit short on fiction. I’m currently reading Under the Net by Iris Murdoch. A former classmate from Ireland convinced me to give Murdoch another go. I had tried to begin the Murdoch cannon with The Sea, The Sea, which was a mistake. This time around I began with The Bell, the perfect entree into Murdoch. Now I’m thinking Under the Net might be a good first Murdoch read. It’s funny! Murdoch’s dry sense of humor comes through in all her novels, but this one is actually a comedy of circumstances and much lighter, thus far, than her others. So many books, so little time. I need to add some poetry, will undoubtedly foray into the gardening genre, can’t rule out sudden, unexpected obsessions, and may throw in a Russian novel. Not two.

Of Darkness

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The coals go out,
The last smoke wavers up
Losing itself in the stars.
This is my first night to lie
In the uncreating dark.

In the human heart
There sleeps a green worm
That has spun the heart about itself,
And that shall dream itself black wings
One day to break free into the black sky.

I leave my eyes open,
I lie here and forget our life,
All I see is that we float out
Into the emptiness, among the great stars,
On this little vessel without lights.

I know that I love the day,
The sun on the mountain, the Pacific
Shiny and accomplishing itself in breakers,
But I know I live half alive in the world,
Half my life belongs to the wild darkness.

From ‘Middle of the Way’ by Galway Kinnell

After reading Jeanette Winterson’s essay Why I Adore the Night recently and seeing the affirmative Facebook response to Winterson’s call to embrace winter darkness, I got to thinking about my own experiences with winter darkness. Literal, physical darkness played a major role in my life for about five years. I’m a native New Englander, born in November, so am (as Frost would say) one acquainted with the night. But for several years in my mid and late 20s, I became even more acquainted with the night, intimate with the night, the winter kind to be exact, the kind of night that begins with deepening dusk around 3:30 and doesn’t abate until 7 a.m. For five years my family and I lived in a two-room cabin in the Maine woods. Not a log cabin, it was more like one of those tiny houses you might see on websites dedicated to living modestly. The cabin had no electricity, running water or plumbing. We heated entirely with wood so returning from a Christmas visit to my family in Massachusetts meant returning to a house that was colder inside than out, a house that took all night to warm up. My boys were toddlers at the time; the youngest potty trained in an outhouse. We read The Long Winter from the Little House on the Prairie series frequently and wholeheartedly identified. Though the house was newly built and insulated, it could be drafty and winter winds funneled down the hill, smacking into the house like an open-handed slap, billowing the plastic on the walls. Yes, the walls were insulation covered in plastic for at least two years. We were a work in progress.

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Despite the hardships of drawing frigid water from a well in a nor’easter, using an outhouse in minus zero temps with the flu, dealing with an invasion of flying squirrels, not easy to catch and landing periodically on sleeping children, making dinner and cleaning up by candlelight (not as romantic as it sounds), reading books by candlelight and Coleman lantern, accumulating garbage bags of dirty laundry for that marathon trip to the laundromat, washing ourselves beside the wood stove in a galvanized washtub of another era; in short, living intimately with the cycle of winter darkness, winter cold, the literal death of growing things, despite all this, we had chosen the lifestyle. Would you rather be poor in an apartment in a depressed city, or poor on your own land, in your own little house? The question seems a particularly American one.

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We moved into our little house in autumn. The mornings and evenings were getting cold, Maine cold, but we only had an outdoor shower we’d rigged up, and continued to use even with frost on the ground. I was using that outdoor shower when my husband ran around the corner to tell me a plane had just smashed into the Twin Towers in New York. For weeks after we began payment on our 50 acres,  climbing every night to our loft bedroom on an apple picking ladder because the stairs hadn’t been built yet, I’d fall asleep looking at the tops of the trees outside the bedroom window. There are degrees of darkness one becomes familiar with. Treetops tossing in a wind against the deep blue to blackening sky create a distinct outline that can be seen well past that moment we call night. I was mesmerized by those treetops, our trees. I still remember it as one of the most surreal moments of my life, one of the most comforting, to know those trees belonged to us, a kind of kinship. That’s how we felt about our piece of land, winter or summer, though summers were halcyon days like living in Eden and winter the threat of expulsion. The land was a former sheep farm with the widest, most beautiful and impressive rock walls I’ve ever seen, several wells and the foundation of the former farmhouse, which had burned in the 1800s. Our last winter on the property was a tough one. The temperatures were in the minus double digits with wind chills making it worse. We slept in full body Carharrt snow suits. To make matters worse, our dog decided to have a litter of pups and turned out to be an awful mother, jumping out of the crate just when her pups had latched on, scattering little mutts everywhere. The job of feeding gruel to a seven-puppy-litter fell to me. Every morning the layer of newspaper was frozen to the bottom of the crate. I heated water on the stove and gave each pup a warm bath. They were only a matter of weeks old, their small bodies would go limp when I submerged them into the pan of warm water. I could identify. That tough winter caused temporary insanity as we like to think of it, no other way to explain our decision that spring to buy a house in a village on only one acre. The ensuing two years of village living nearly killed me spiritually, but that’s another story…..

small barn in winter

At this point, we’ve lived in a handful of different farmhouses with varying amounts of acreage and farm animals, but have never again experienced winter and darkness in quite the same way as we did on that first piece of land. And though we’ve owned forests of trees, none have felt so particularly dear. That former sheep farm with its half buried relics of another family from another time, and our modest house sitting in a rough clearing, is my emotional gauge of what kinship with place feels like. To truly embrace the darkness, and I suppose this refers to figurative as well as literal darkness, simply means living in it, just another one of night’s animals or objects: whippoorwill, coyote, moose, deer, flying squirrel, tree, stone, wood that makes a small square shelter and the people in it. All finding our way in the dark, acquainted with the night.

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Squam Spring Retreat 2016

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The Squam Arts Retreats 2016 calendar is up and The Found Poetry Project is in the mix for a second year!

Here’s what you need to know:

When: Wednesday, June 1- Sunday, June 5 2016

Where: Rockywold and Deephaven camps, a 1930s rustic retreat on the shores of Squam Lake in Holderness, NH

How it Works: Participants choose two workshops to attend during the retreat. Workshops are approximately 6 hours long. The first is held over two days, the second entirely on one day. This year’s offerings include book making, rug hooking, knitting, drawing, photographing your creations, poetry (that would be me) and more! Besides workshops, there are nightly presentations with professional creatives, yoga classes, one hour activities like Zentangle and making herbal concoctions, a Saturday night craft fair/party, great food, lake fun, etc.

Amenities: You will stay in a rustic cottage; cottages accommodate from two to a dozen people. Your fully furnished cottage will have at least one fireplace with plenty of wood, an ice chest stocked with blocks of ice harvested from Squam Lake (this is true), bathroom with shower, kitchenette, a porch…. Meals are in the historic dining hall which overlooks the lake and looks like it could be part of an alpine ski lodge. But, the best part is the people. Squam attracts creative, kind, fun folks. The combination of woodsy vintage camp charm, the lake’s magic, and the great people, create a happy energy sweet spot. Some photos of my Squam experience last year, and a post about my experience teaching at Squam.

I would love, love to see some of you there. Participants come from all over the world. One teacher comes from Great Britain every year and wouldn’t miss it. So…. if you’ve got the time and resources and want to splurge on yourself, you won’t regret it, and I can almost guarantee you’ll go back a second, third, fourth time.

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