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Continuing with recommendations of books on the theme of water:

Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water was the debut essay collection by the American naturalist and eco-philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore, based in Oregon and Alaska, whose other fine books include Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World, Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, and Earth's Wild Music: Celebrating & Defending the Songs of the Natural World.

At the start of Riverwalking, she notes: 

Riverwalking by Kathleen Dean Moore"The essays in this collection are river essays because I began to write each one alongside a stream or floating down a river, and so they may still carry the smells of willow and rainbow trout. Drifting on rivers, you know where you will start and you know where you will end up, but on each day's float, the river determines the rate of flow, falling fast through riffles, pooling up behind ledges, and sometimes, in the eddies at the heads of sloughs, curling back upstream in drifts marked by slowly revolving flecks of foam. So, drifting on rivers, I have had time to reflect -- to listen and to watch, to speculate, to be grateful, to be astonished.

"I have come to believe that all essays walk in rivers. Essays ask the philosophical question that flows through time -- How shall I live my life? The answers drift together through countless converging streams, where the move softly below the reflexive surface of the natural world and mix in the deep and quiet places of the mind. This is where the essayist must walk, stirring up the mud."

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The twenty essays here invoke a range of different waters and terrains-- most of them in the Pacific Northwest, from the region's high desert to the Oregon coast. Moore reflects on the nature of home by the Willamette River, of grief among the ponderosa pines of the Metolis, of change in the shifting dunes of Bear Creek, of death by the Salish River, of clarity and mystery by the Smohalla.

On the latter subject she writes:

What the Moon Saw by Helen Stratton"The word clarity has two meaning, one ancient and the other modern. The Latin word clarus meant clear sounding, ringing out, 'clear as a bell'; so in the ancient world, 'clear' came to mean lustrous, splendid, radiating light. The moon has this kind of clarity when it's full, and so do signal fires and snow and trumpets. But that usage is obsolete. Now 'clear' means transparent, free of dimness or blurring that can obscure vision, free of confusion or doubt that can cloud thought.

"For twenty years, I thought that the modern kind of clarity was all there was, that what I should be looking for was sharp-edged, single-bladed truth, that anything I couldn't understand precisely was not worth understanding -- in fact, may not exist to a rational mind. I am beginning to see that this was a failure in courage. I am beginning to understand that the world is much more interesting than this, that I don't always need to know where I am, that ambiquity swells with possibilities, that possibility is ambiguous, that I miss out on the real chance when I pile rocks at the edge of the river to trap an eddy where the water will stop and come clear while the rest of the river pushes by, boiling, spitting spray, eddying upstream.

"I want to be able to see clearly in both senses of the word. To see clearly in the modern sense: to stop a moment, stock still, and to see through the moment to the landscape as it is, unobstructed, undimmed, each edge sharp, each surface brightly colored, each detail defined, separate, certain, fixed in place and time. These are visions to cherish, like gemstones. But also, every once in a while, to see landscape with ancient clarity: to see a river fluttering, gleaming with light that moves through time and space, filtered through my own mind, connected to my life and what came before and to what will come next, infused with meaning living, luminous, dangerous, lighted from with in."

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I love that passage, and was startled by it. For me, clarity in the ancient sense comes easily; it is the modern form that I must consciously cultivate to keep my vision of the world in balance. And that, I suppose, is what makes Moore a scientist by nature; me, a folklorist and fantasist.

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We need both ways of seeing, of course. Moore's "stirring of the mud" in these beautiful essays gets the balance between them just right.

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River 9

Words: The passages quoted above are from Riverwalking by Kathleen Dean Moore (Lyons Press, 1995). The poem in the picture captions is from The Second Four Books of Poems by W. S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press, 1993).  All rights reserved by Moore and the Merwin estate.

Pictures: The photographs are of the River Teign where it winds through our Dartmoor village. The water here is slow and shallow -- perfect for gentle paddling by a recuperating hound. The drawing is "What the Moon Saw" by British book illustrator Helen Stratton (1867-1961).

To the River

Cuckmere Haven by Eric Ravilious

Chalk Paths by by Eric Ravilious

Continuing with recommendations of books on the theme of water:

In To the River, Olivia Laing walks the River Ouse in Sussex from its source to the sea, mediating on its flora, fauna, mythology, history and literary associations along the way. Chief among the latter is Virginia Woolf, who lived near the river, walked by the river, wrote about the river, and died in the river. Laing's text meanders like the Ouse itself, but keeps bending back to Woolf and her work, and while every part of the book is engrossing her writing on Woolf is particularly captivating and insightful. (There is also very good chapter on Kenneth Grahame and The Wind in the Willows...but I digress.)

In the book's introductory chapter Laing notes:

"That spring I was reading Woolf obsessively, for she shared my preoccupation with water and its metaphors.Virginia Woolf has gained a reputation as a doleful writer, a bloodless neurasthenic, or again as a spiteful, rarefied creature, the doyenne of airless Bloomsbury chat. I suspect the people who hold this view of not having read her diaries, for they are filled with humour and an infectious love for the natural world.

"Virginia first came to the Ouse in 1912, renting a house set high above the marshes. She spent the first night of her marriage to Leonard Woolf there and later stayed at the house to recover from her third in a succession of serious breakdowns. In 1919, sane again, she switched to the other side of the river, buying a cold bluish cottage beneath Rodmell's church tower. It was very primitive when they first arrived, with no hot water and a dank earth closet furnished with a cane chair above a bucket. But Leonard and Virginia both loved Monks House, and its peace and isolation proved conducive to work. Much of Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves and Between the Acts was written there, along with hundreds of reviews, short stories and essays.

Shepher's Cottage Firle by Eric Ravilious

"She was acutely sensitive to landscape, and her impressions of this chalky, watery valley pervade her work. Her solitary, often daily, excursions seemed to have formed an essential part of the writing process. During the Asham breakdown, when she was banned from the over-stimulations of either walking or writing, she confided longingly to her diary:

"'What I wouldn't give to be coming through Firle woods, the brain laid up in sweet lavendar, so sane & cool, & ripe for the morrow's task. How I should notice everything, the phrase for it coming the moment after & fitting like a glove; & then on the dusty road, as I ground my pedals, so my story would begin telling itself; & then the sun would be done, & home, & some bout of poetry after dinner, half read, half lived, as if the flesh were dissolved & through it the flowers burst red & white.'

" 'As if the flesh where dissolved' is a characteristic phrase. Woolf's metaphors for the process of writing, for entering the dream world in which she thrived, are fluid: she writes of plunging, flooding, going under, being submerged. This desire to enter the depths is what drew me to her, for though she eventually foundered, for a time it seemed she possessed, like some freedivers, a gift for descending beneath the surface of the world."

Windmill by by Eric Ravilious

Laing begins her long walk at the source of the Ouse, near the village of Slaugham. 

"I'd looked at this square of the High Weald on maps for months, tracing the blue lines as they tangled through the hedges, plaiting eastward into a wavering stream. I thought I knew exactly where the water started, but I had not bargained for the summer's swift uprush of growth. At the edge of the field there was a hawthorn hedge and beside it, where I thought the stream would be, was a waist-high wall of nettles and hemlock water dropwort, its poisonous white umbels tilted to the sky. It was impossible to tell whether the water was flowing or whether the ditch was dry, its moisture sucked into the drunken green. I hovered for a minute, havering. It was a Sunday, hardly a car passing. Unless they were watching with binoculars from East End Farm there was no one to see me slip illegally across the field to where the river was marked to start. To hell with it, I thought, and ducked the fence.

Wilmington Giant by Eric Ravilious

"The choked ditch led to a copse of hazel and stunted oak. Here the trees had shaded out the nettles and the stream could be seen, a brown whisper, hoof-stippled, that petered out at the wood's far edge. There was no spring. The water didn't bubble from the ground, rust-tinted, as I have seen it do at Balcombe, ten miles east of here. The source sounded a grand name for this clammy runnel, carrying the runoff from the last field before the catchment shifted toward the Adur. It was nothing more than the furthest tributary from the river's end, its longest arm, a half-arbitrary way of mapping what is a constant movement of water through air and earth and sea.

"It's not always possible to plot where something starts. If I went down on my knees amid the fallen leaves, I would not find the exact spot where the Ouse began, where a trickle of rain gathered sufficient momentum to make it to the coast. This muddy, muddled birth seemed pleasingly appropriate considering the origins of the river's name. There are many Ouses in England, and consequently much debate about the word. The source is generally supposed to be usa, the Celtic word for water, but I favoured the argument, this being a region of Anglo-Saxon settlement, that it was drawn from the Saxon word wāse, from which derives also our word ooze, meaning soft mud or slime; earth so wet as to flow gently. Listen: oooze. It trickles along almost silently, sucking at your shoes. An ooze is a marsh or swampy ground, and to ooze is to dribble or slither. I liked the slippery way it caught at both earth's facility for holding water and water's knack for working through soil: a flexive, doubling word. You could hear the river in it, ooozing up through the Weald and snaking its way down valleys to where it once formed a lethal marsh."

Floods at Lewes by Eric Ravilious

As Laing follows the thickening stream, then the river proper, from the High Weald to the Low, through the South Downs to the coast at Newhaven, she reflects on the land's long history, on writers from Shakespeare to Iris Murdoch, and on the crisis in her own life that propelled her onto her journey. She weaves many stories together, but it is Woolf's, most of all, that pulls her on. 

It pulled me on too. I loved To the River, and didn't want it to end.

Lighthouse at Beachy Head by Eric Ravilious

The art today is by the great English painter, designer, illustrator, and wood-engraver Eric Ravilious (1903-1942). He grew up in Sussex, and is now best known for his luminous paintings of the South Downs, but he also found inspiration in urban London, rural Essex, and other corners of England, Wales, and Scotland. Ravilious studied at the Eastbourne School of Art and the Royal Collage of Art, and went on to teach at both of these schools. He married fellow-artist Tirzah Garwood, and the couple raised three children (one of whom was the Devon-based photographer James Ravilious).

Ravilious served as an official War Artist during World War II, chronicling the war at home and abroad. He died while doing this work on an RAF mission in Iceland. His body was never recovered. 

Please visit the Eric Ravilious site to learn more about the artist, and to see more of his work.

Westbury Horse by Eric Ravilious

To the River

Alberto Manguel on The Wind in the Willows

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From "Return to Arcadia" by Alberto Manguel:

Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore"Several times, during a long life of reading, I’ve been tempted to write an autobiography based solely on the books that have counted for me. Someone once told me that it was customary for a Spanish nobleman to have his coat of arms engraved on his bedhead so that visitors might know who it was who lay in a sleep that might always be his last. Why then not be identified by my bedside favourites, which define and represent me better than any symbolic shield? If I ever indulged in such a vainglorious undertaking, a chapter, an early chapter, would be given over to The Wind in the Willows. I can’t remember when I first read The Wind in the Willows, since it is one of those books that seem to have been with me always, but it must have been very early on, when my room was in a cool, dark basement and the garden I played in boasted four tall palm trees and an old tortoise as their tutelary spirit. The geography of our books blends with the geography of our lives, and so, from the very beginning, Mole’s meadows and Rat’s river bank and Badger’s woods seeped into my private landscapes, imbuing the cities I lived in and the places I visited with the same feelings of delight and comfort and adventure that sprang from those much-turned pages. In this sense, the books we love become our cartography.

Mole by Ernest Shepard"In 1888, John Ruskin gave a name to the casual conjunction between physical nature and strong human emotions. ‘All violent feelings’, he wrote, ‘produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the “Pathetic Fallacy”.’ Kenneth Grahame magnificently ignored the warning. The landscape of Cookham Dene on the Thames (where he lived and which he translated into the world of Mole and Rat, Badger and Toad) is, emotionally, the source and not the result of a view of the world that cannot be distinguished from the world itself. There may have been a time when the bucolic English landscape lay ignored and untouched by words, but since the earliest English poets the reality of it lies to a far greater extent in the ways in which it has been described than in its mere material existence. No reader of The Wind in the Willows can ever see Cookham Dene for the first time. After the last page, we are all old inhabitants for whom every nook and cranny is as familiar as the stains and cracks on our bedroom ceiling. There is nothing false in these impressions.

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Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

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"...The Wind in the Willows begins with a departure, and with a search and a discovery, but it soon achieves an overwhelming sense of peace and happy satisfaction, of untroubled familiarity. We are at home in Grahame’s book. But Grahame’s universe is not one of retirement or seclusion, of withdrawal from the world. On the contrary, it is one of time and space shared, of mirrored experience.

Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore"From the very first pages, the reader discovers that The Wind in the Willows is a book about friendship, one of those English friendships that Borges once described by saying that they ‘begin by precluding confidences and end by forgoing dialogue’. The theme of friendship runs through all our literatures. Like Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Ishmael and Queequeg, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Rat and Mole reflect for each other discovered identities and contrasting views of the world. Each one asserts for the other the better, livelier part of his character; each encourages the other to be his finer, brighter self. Mole may be lost without Rat’s guidance but, without Mole’s adventurous spirit, Rat would remain withdrawn and far too removed from the world. Together they build Arcadia out of their common surroundings; pace Ruskin, their friendship defines the place that has defined them. 

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Riverbank Picnic by Arthur Rackham

If The Wind in the Willows was a sounding-board for the places I lived in, it became, during my adolescence, also one for my relationships, and I remember wanting to live in a world with absolute friends like Rat and Mole. Not all friendships, I discovered, are of the same kind. While Rat and Mole’s bonds are unimpeachably solid, their relationship equally balanced and unquestioned (and I was fortunate enough to have a couple of friendships of that particular kind), their relationship with Badger is more formal, more distanced – since we are in England, land of castes and classes, and Badger holds a social position that requires a respectful deference from others. (Of the Badger sort, too, I found friends whom I loved dearly but with whom I always had to tread carefully, not wanting to be considered overbearing or unworthy.)

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The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Chris Dunn"With Toad, the relationship is more troubling. Rat and Mole love Toad and care for him, and assist him almost beyond the obligations of affection, in spite of the justified exasperation he provokes in them. He, on the other hand, is far less generous and obliging, calling on them only when in need or merely to show off. (Friends like Toad I also had, and these were the most difficult to please, the hardest to keep on loving, the ones that, over and over again, made me want to break up the relationship; but then they’d ask for help once more and once more I’d forgive them.)

"Toad is the reckless adventurer, the loner, the eternal adolescent. Mole and Rat begin the book in an adolescent spirit but grow in wisdom as they grow in experience; for Toad every outing is a never-ending return to the same whimsical deeds and the same irresponsible exploits. If we, the readers, love Toad (though I don’t) we love him as spectators; we love his clownish performance on a stage of his own devising and follow his misadventures as we follow those of a charming rogue.

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Chris Dunn

"But Mole and Rat, and even Badger, we love as our fellow creatures, equal to us in joy and in suffering. Badger is everyone’s older brother; Rat and Mole, the friends who walk together and mature together in their friendship. They are our contemporaries, reborn with every new generation. We feel for their misfortunes and rejoice in their triumphs as we feel and rejoice for our nearest and dearest. During my late childhood and adolescence, their companionship was for me the model relationship, and I longed to share their déjeuners sur l’herbe, and to be part of their easy complicité as other readers long for the love of Mathilde or the adventurous travels of Sinbad.

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"The Wind in the Willows cannot be classed as a work of pure fantasy. Grahame succeeds in making his creatures utterly believable to us. The menageries of Aesop or La Fontaine, Günter Grass or Colette, Orwell or Kipling, have at least one paw in a symbolic (or worse, allegorical) world; Grahame’s beasts are of flesh, fur and blood, and their human qualities mysteriously do not diminish, but enhance, their animal natures. As I’ve already said, with every rereading The Wind in the Willows lends texture and meaning to my experience of life; with each familiar unfolding of its story, I experience a new happiness. This is because The Wind in the Willows is a magical book. Something in its pages re-enchants the world, makes it once again wonderfully mysterious."

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

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Words: The passage quoted above is from "Return to Arcadia" by Alberto Manguel, published in Slightly Foxed (Issue 34, Summer 2012), a quarterly journal I love and highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry (July/August 2009). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The art above (from top to bottom) is "Ratty and Mole" by Inga Moore, "Mole" by Ernest Shepard, "Ratty and Mole on the River" and "The Picnic Basket" by Inga Moore, "The Riverside Picnic" by Arthur Rackham, "Toad and Mole" by Chris Dunn, "Mole's House" and "Lounging About" by Chris Dunn, and "The Riverbank" by Inga Moore. All rights reserved by the artists. The photograph are of the River Teign where it runs through Chagford on its way from Dartmoor to the sea. 

Ursula Le Guin on imagination


In my reading life, I've been bouncing back and forth between fiction and memoir-tinged nonfiction lately, thinking about the difference between them (in terms of the writing craft), and about the tricksy place where the line between them falls. I was reminded of this passage from Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin, and so I'll share them with you:

"In workshops on story writing, I've met many writers who want to work only with memoir, tell only their own story, their experience. Often they say. 'I can't make up stuff, that's too hard, but I can tell what happened.' It seems easier to them to take material directly from their experience than to use their experience as material for making up a story. They assume they can just write what happened.

Belstone 2

Belstone 3

"That appears reasonable, but actually, reproducing experience is a very tricky business requiring both artfulness and practice. You may find you don't know certain important facts or elements of the story you want to tell. Or the private experience so important to you may not be very interesting to others, requires skill to make it meaningful, moving, to the reader. Or, being about yourself, it gets all tangled up with ego, or begins to be falsified by wishful thinking. If you're honestly trying to tell what happened, you find facts are very obstinate things to deal with. But if you begin to fake them, to pretend things happened in a way that makes a nice neat story, you're misusing imagination. You're passing invention off as fact: which is, among children at least, called lying.

"Fiction is invention, but it is not lies. It moves on a different level of reality from either fact-finding or lying.

Belstone 4

"I want to talk here about the difference between imagination and wishful thinking, because it's important both in writing and in living. Wishful thinking is thinking cut loose from reality, a self-indulgence that is often merely childish, but may be dangerous. Imagination, even in its wildest flights, is not detached from reality: imagination acknowledges reality, starts from it, and returns to enrich it. Don Quixote indulges his longing to be a knight till he loses touch with reality and makes an awful mess of his life. That's wishful thinking. Miguel Cervantes, by working out and telling the invented story of a man who wishes he were a knight, vastly increased our store of laughter and human understanding. That's imagination. Wishful thinking is Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich. Imagination is the Constitution of the United States.

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"A failure to see the difference is in itself dangerous. If we assume that imagination has no connection with reality but is mere escapism, and therefore distrust it and repress it, it will be crippled, perverted, it will fall silent or speak untruth. The imagination, like any basic human capacity, needs exercise, discipline, training, in childhood and lifelong.

Belstone 6

"One of the best exercises for the imagination, maybe the very best, is hearing, reading, and telling or writing made-up stories. Good inventions, however fanciful, have both congruity with reality and inner coherence. A story that's mere wish-fulfilling babble, or coercive preaching concealed in a narrative, lacks intellectual coherence and integrity: it isn't a whole thing, it can't stand up, it isn't true to itself.

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"Learning to tell or read a story that is true to itself is about the best education a mind can have."

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Words: The passage above is from "Making Up Stories," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions, wading through "the river of words" via the Gaelic alphabit, is from High Country (Sandstone Press, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: A walk by the river near Belstone on Dartmoor, with Howard and the hound.

A blessing for a Tuesday afternoon

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A Blessing 
by Denise Levertov (1923-1997)

'Your river is in full flood,' she said,
'Work on - use these weeks well!'

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She was leaving, with a springy step, a woman
herself renewed, her life risen

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up from the root of despair she'd
bent low to touch,

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risen empowered. Her work now
could embrace more: she imagined anew

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the man's totem tree and its taproot,
the woman's chosen lichen, patiently

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composting rock, another's
needful swamp, the tribal migrations - 

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swaying skeins rotating their leaders,
pace unflagging, and the need

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of each threatened thing
to be. She had met

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with the council
of all beings.

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                                    'You give me my life,'
she said to the just-written poems,

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long-legged foals surprised to be standing.

Dartmoor pony and foal

The poet waving farewell
is not so sure of the river.

Pony in the mist

Is it indeed
strong-flowing, generous? Was there largesse
for alluvial, black, seed-hungry fields?

Dartmoor pony and foal

Or had a flash-flood
swept down these tokens
to be plucked ashore, rescued

Tilly and the pony 1

only to watch the waters recede
from stones of an arid valley?

Tilly and the pony 2

But the traveler's words
are leaven. They work in the poet.

Crossing the field

The river swiftly
goes on braiding its heavy tresses,

brown and flashing
as far as the eye can see.

Home through the lanes

The poem above is from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1  (Beacon Press,2004). All rights reserved by the Levertov and Oliver estates.