One day a couple of weeks after the election, the temperature here was unseasonably warm, increasing, thereby, the slack-jawed fear the election had generated. The snow that began the next day and continued for something over forty-eight hours was even more welcome than the first snow usually is. It suggested mildly that something approaching “normal” might be possible again after all.
After a soothing supper of autumn vegetable soup and hearty bread, I made a fire in the cast-iron stove in my study, and settled down for an evening of reading.
To her immense pleasure, BK the cat, prioress stand-in of the erstwhile monastery, discovered the fire and my lap before I was well started. She and I went through bits of this book and that – whatever I could reach without standing up and disturbing her. Anyway, all I wanted was something to help me read my way back from the dismay of the election.
At some point, I found a copy of the Times Literary Supplement. The articles in it often don’t interest me or they are too learned or otherwise inaccessible. But I read one or two now and then. That was the case in that first-snow evening by the fire. Nick Groom, someone I’d never heard of, reviewed three books on the British experience of nature. http://www.the-tls.co.uk/?s=where+the+wild+things+are, and I was off into one of those altered states that happen sometimes (certainly not always) when you read.
For a while, nothing existed in my world except the words, the fire, the falling snow (illuminated by floodlights mounted high up under the eaves), and BK. The common expression for this experience is to “get lost in a book.” Not to be quarrelsome, but that’s not what happens; in moments of intense reading, you get found, or at least you make progress in finding your way or you are reassured that you are already on course. That’s what makes it a transcendent experience. Getting lost is frightening; getting found is restorative. The latter is what I experienced that evening.
After a bit, Ann joined us. She and I rarely sit together in my study, but that evening, she knew it was the best place to be of the many choices available. (“Just the two of you live in that big place?”) Actually, it was not so much a choice as a compulsion, the same as it was with me. The house has a way of ordering us around like that.
I don’t recall what she was reading, but she was absorbed in it. Now and again, she would read something aloud to me, or offer a response to some idea she’d come across. It was a little annoying; I was rambling among the hedgerows of England, reflecting on British ways of land use and property rights. But then I’d encounter a phrase or an idea that I just had to read to her, no doubt eliciting the same response. The interruptions were of small import, though. I mention them here just for the purpose of realistic fullness.
For the most part, we spent the evening in companionable silence, a state that comes occasionally to couples who have earned it by years of putting up with each other, celebrating the good parts, overlooking the bad, and muddling through the quotidian. It cannot be called into being by effort of will; it just happens. It helps, of course, to sit by a crackling fire with the wind making a racket and the first snow of the year whirling about and a good cat offering a model of calmness.
One of the reviews by Nick Groom was especially forceful, irresistible even, in its invitation to another place; The Running Hare. The Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel. The review is not so much critique as story, chockful of British usage and vocabulary. It does, however, focus careful attention on the book’s argument for farming without chemicals. Grooms charmingly calls it “a statement in weeds and wheat.” In that same mode, he points out about conventional farming that “every time one buys the lie of cheap food, a flower or a bird dies.”
I judge whether what I’m reading is worthwhile partly by the number of notes I take and words I look up. No notes, no unfamiliar or interesting words – little reason to continue. Groom’s review resulted in a desktop covered with notes on scratch paper, suggesting (slightly) the accumulating snow down below.
Note: “Rootling.” Rooting? Etymology?
Lewis-Stempel buys fifteen acres for his ideal wheat farm. Note: Fifteen acres? Is that enough land to be commercially viable – is England that strange – or is it just an experimental plot?
Note: the place is named “Flinders.” Is it customary in England to give a name to fifteen-acre patches? Does “Flinders” have special significance?
Note: Lewis-Stempel plants by hand using a “seed fiddle.” What’s that?
And when someone writes so gracefully as reviewer Nick Groom does, it begs for information about who he is and how he became such an artful writer. It turns out he’s an English professor at the University of Exeter, information that sent me off on one of those side trips that makes reading fuller than what’s before your eyes on the page.
Exeter is Willcott breeding ground. I drove out there once in about 1993, when I lived in London. I wanted to see some family graves in a churchyard, but they had been bombed-out in the war. I let my thoughts run along that path for a few minutes, then went on to something else.
Page after page, snow kept falling, the cat kept sleeping, companionable silence kept offering its benison. Then the fire died down, and it was time for bed.