Tunes for a Monday Morning
Nature and joy

Nature, gnomes, and the power of story

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Michael McCarthy begins his beautiful book The Moth Snowstorm with these arresting two sentences: "In the summer of 1954, when Winston Churchill was dwindling into his dotage as British prime minister, the beaten French were withdrawing from Indochina, and Elvis Presley was beginning to sing, my mother's mind fell apart. I was seven and my brother John was eight."

Blending nature writing, ecological history, and memoir, The Moth Snowstorm is narrated in a lucid prose that makes my heart sing even though the story it tells is filled with loss: of family, of innocence, of the natural world McCarthy once in knew in the Wirral near Liverpool. His mother, Norah, had trained as a teacher; his father, Jack, was largely away at sea. When Nora's mind "began to fray" under the weight of her troubles, the stern Canon at their Catholic church recommended her removal to a mental institution, from which (as was usual in those days) no one expected her to return. In fact, she came home just a few months later -- but by then McCarthy's bossy aunt Mary had sold off her sister's home, and taken her two young nephews in charge. John, the eldest, responded to the dramatic break-up of their family with rage and tears, while Michael retreated into indifference. He writes:

"At seven years old, I was not in the least bit concerned that I had lost my mother. How bizarre that seems, written down. Many years on, when I began to talk about it, to try to sort it all out, I learned that this was a Coping Strategy. Golly, I thought. Did I have a Coping Strategy? All I remember having is nothing. Being not bothered, not in the slightest, that she had gone away with no promise of return; and this attitude slumbered inside me through childhood, adolescence and long into manhood, until my mother died, my mother with whom I had by now built bridges and come to adore before all others...and the life I had blithely put together on top of the gaping cracks, pretending they were not there, began to unravel and I set out on the long road to somewhere else."

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Aunt Mary and her husband lived in the suburbs. In a nearby garden was a buddleia, and on a late summer morning young Michael found it entirely covered with butterflies: red admirals, peacocks, small tortoiseshells, and painted ladies.

"I was mesmerised. My eyes caressed their colours like a hand stroking a kitten. How could there be such living gems? And every morning in that hot but fading summer, as my mother suffered silently and my brother cried out, I ran to check on them, never tiring of watching these free-flying spirits with wings as bright as flags which the buddleia seemed miraculously to tame, to keep from visiting other flowers, to enslave on its own blooms by its nectar's unfathomable power. I could smell it myself, honey-sweet, but with the faintest hint of a sour edge. Drawing them in, the wondrous visitants. Wondrous? Electrifying, they were. Filling the space where my feelings should have been. And so through this singular window, when I was a skinny kid in short pants, butterflies entered my soul."

Mary obligingly bought him a guidebook to butterflies, and his interest grew from enthusiasm to obsession. Reflecting on this many years later, McCarthy accepts the strangeness of the circumstance, "that it was in a time of great turmoil, involving great unhappiness, that I first became attached to nature; that while my boyhood bond with my mother was being rent asunder, I was preoccupied with insects.

Two illustrations by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I might have become a lifelong butterfly obsessive," McCarthy adds, "narrowly and compulsively  preoccupied to the exclusion of all else, like Frederick Clegg in John Fowles' The Collector, had not my mother show me a way to a wider world."

Two illustrations by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Norah was released from the mental hospital that autumn, but it was more than a year before the family had a home of their own again. To mark this new beginning, McCarthy's mother, a devotee of literature, gave him a book. 

"It was a Christmas present that year, prompted I imagine by my butterfly enthusiasm; but whereas Mary might have found me another book on Lepidoptera, Norah chose something else, and I wonder now what sure instinct led her to this, the first real story I encountered, with fully formed characters and a narrative; for I engaged with it at once.

The Little Grey Men"It was an epic, in the old-fashioned, precise sense of the term: a long account of heroic adventures. But it was not large-scale, in the way that The Iliad and The Odyssey are large-scale epics, mainly because its heroes were gnomes. It was called The Little Grey Men, and its author signed himself merely by initials, BB; his real name was Denys Watkins-Pitchford, although it was years before I found this out.

"I was from the first page lost in the world of its principal characters, Dodder, Baldmoney, and Sneezewort (all named after rather uncommon English wild flowers). They were very small people, between a foot and eighteen inches tall, with long flowing beards; Dodder, the oldest, had a wooden leg. But they were different from the sort of gnomes you might expect to come across in the genre of High Fantasy which has so obsessed us in recent years, in Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and their imitators. They had no magical powers. They were grounded not in fantasy but in realism. Although they were able to converse with the wild creatures around them -- the author's one concession to the idea of gnomic difference -- they lived, and struggled to live, in the world just as we do, concerned about finding enough food and keeping warm. But there was more: they were a dying race. They were last gnomes left in England.

Two illustrations for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I remember the shiver I experienced when I first read those words. I think it was an inchoate sense, even in a boy of eight, of the transfixing nature of the end of things. It was clear that they could not survive the creeping urbanisation and modernisation of agriculture which even then was starting to spread across the countryside. They were anachronisms. The world had moved on from them: like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their time was done. So much the braver, then, their decision to undertake a great adventure, to make an expedition to find their long-lost brother Cloudberry -- ah, Cloudberry! So sad! -- who had never returned after setting out one day to discover the source of the small Warwickshire river, the Folly Brook, on the banks of which they lived, in the capacious roots of an old oak tree.

An illustration for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I was wholly captivated by their quest, and by its unexpected denouement; I was likewise captivated by Down the Bright Stream, the sequel, which I asked for and was given for Christmas the following year. (In the second book, the gnomes' existential crisis reaches its climax; they address it in a most original way, ultimately successful.) But I took in more than the story. I internalised, at first reading, the milieu in which the adventure took place. It was the very opposite of the milieu of The Lord of the Rings, with its dark lords and wizards, its fortresses and mountains, its vast clashing armies; it was merely Warwickshire, leafy Warwickshire, Shakespeare's country, and the Folly Brook, with its kingfishers and otters and minnows,  and its kestrels hovering above,  a small and intimate and charming countryside with its small and intimate and charming creatures, vivid in their lives and their interactions; and I fell in love with them, and I fell in love with the natural world.

"I went beyond butterflies to the fullness of nature."

An illustration for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

I have long believed that stories, particularly fantasy stories, are a powerful way to engage children with nature. Through the wonder at the heart of the tale, we find the wonder at the heart of the world. I didn't know The Little Grey Men when I was a child, but other books had the same effect on me -- from Beatrix Potter's Lake District farms and Johanna Spyri's Swiss mountaintops to the enchanted vistas of Lewis and Tolkien, and, later, of Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia McKillip and Ursula Le Guin, among others. While McCarthy was drawn to the "realism" and intimacy of The Little Grey Men, reflective of the countryside he knew in the England of the 1950s, I grew up in the rapacious urban and suburban development of east coast America in the '60s and '70s, and preferred stories that took me to other worlds -- where landscapes were vast, majestic, unfenced, unpolluted, with nary a car or strip mall in sight. In real life I hustled through time-fractured days mediated by cars and buses, subways and trains; but in fiction, I moved at a walker's pace through Middle Earth, Eldwold, Prydain, Dalemark, Tredana, Islandia and the Earthsea Archipelago; and those long journeys immersed in the natural world were just as vital as the adventures themselves. Can the forests and fields of imaginary lands nurture a connection to, and even a love for, the flora and fauna and the waterways and the ground underfoot that we see everyday? I believe they can. And more than that, in this time of ecological crisis, I believe that they must.

What are stories that made that connection for you, fantasy or otherwise? And were the landscapes as important to you as the characters and the unrolling plot? I'm curious to know your thoughts.

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Words: The passages above are from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The art above is by Denys James Watkins-Pitchford (1905 -1990), a naturalist, teacher, book illustrator, and author of children's fiction under the pseudonym BB. He won the Carnegie Medal for Children's Literature in 1942.

Comments

It was Watership Down that hooked me in. Though more specifically the cover illustration by Pauline Baynes that sealed it.
Like the author I travelled Folly Brook with the little grey men too. And I've always felt that it is Folly Brook that flows into Robert Holdstock's Kentish Woods.
The landscapes of children's books filled my head and I spent a lot of time mapping it onto places I went to with my parents. I think I still do.

The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I loved the woods and the prairie, how both beautiful and dangerous everything was. Anne of Green Gables was another favourite, especially since I'm Canadian. It felt more real to me than all the other stories taking place in the US that I read. And, while not a story book, I adored Cicely Mary Barker's Flower Fairies. I used to open up a book of her illustrations in bed and make up stories for them, going back and forth through the pages depending on what "characters" were "speaking".

William Horwood's series of Duncton Wood books made the landscape of England with its beech copses and magestic sets of standing stones seen through the viewpoint of an intrepid group of moles alive and thoroughly real. I have re-read them many times and always I recapture that same feeling.

Oh wow, I remember reading many of the Fairy Books (Blue, Red, etc) found in my elementary school library. I loved it when the yearly book fair came around, and I would get new books! Later on, as a tomboy, I would read my Dad's copy of Bomba the Jungle Boy and the Tarzan series, running around in the woods by myself with my wild animal companions. I've never lost my love of the woods and nature to this day.

I've always been a reader, but the first series (aside from Harry Potter, of course) that took me in was the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. The books focus so much on journey and relationships (not truly romantic ones, but ones of family and community) that appealed to my inner sense of wanderlust. I read the story of Eragon leaving his village and entering the larger world just as I was becoming a teen, leaving my small country home to attend school in "town" almost 25 miles away.

I wrote an essay recently (in Swedish) about how important the landscape in Anne of Green Gables was, both to Anne but also to me as a young reader, and the connection I see to myself and the landscapes that surrounded me as a child. The roads and forests and meadows of PEI receives Anne unconditionally in a way the people she meets don't necessarily do at first. When my world was upheaved through my parents divorce and people entered and left my life, what remained a constant was the island of my grandparent's summer cottage and the summer house my mother rented. I can still recall the paths and cliffs and violet patches, where the wild strawberries grew, the sound of the sea, the scent of my grandfather's smoking oven. I recall them better than I can remember the faces of the people that surrounded me then, because I knew and understood them with the certainty of the child. Relationships with places are much easier and less complicated than relationships with people, because they are in a sense more one-sided. But you can grieve the loss of them just as much.

My favourites as a child - and a adult! - were the Brambly Hedge books by Jill Barklem. Every time I read them again with adult eyes, I am struck anew at how much I gained my belief of the preciousness of small things, beauty, nature, community, thrift and caring-ness from the hours I spent poring over the pages as a child.

I was also inspired by landscape as much as character in books growing up. I loved Anne of Green Gables and her love of PEI, and even more L. M.Montgomery's The Blue Castle which is as much about the beauty of the Muskoka region of Ontario as the characters. I also adored Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse and longed to live in a secluded valley, her work imbued place with love and beauty and life. Wind of the Willows also made place come alive. I think we can be in relationship with a place as with a person.

For me it was Alfred Noyse The Secret of Pooduck Island. Solo, squirrels and ghostly figures of the Natives.

It's an interesting position I find myself, considering the questions you pose. Growing up in Post WWII Hawaii, when the roots of place and identity for Island people were under lock-down. Ours was not a home of books, and I had not yet found the library to be a sanctuary. Instead I can say my love of letters, and the magic of learning their sounds and writing them to form words created a world I could escape to, and did. They were their own landscape the shape of "j" and "Z" and the amazing change that happened when singular letters flowed into cursive.

What held my attention and served my storyteller's love during the years was the radio, where the voice of a grand dame Hawaiian teller told of the myths and adventures of the Old Gods. Her voice more magical and informing than cursive. Both those early loves: letter making and storyteller continue to enfold me as make my way with keenly observant senses of an old woman.

What utterly glorious artwork! I've illustrated books with scratchboard, which I assume these are, but I can't TOUCH this level of magic.

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