The Joys of Limitation

Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoznobcenus L.). B.

Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin Bodd.).

Blackcap (Sylvia a. atricapilla L.).

Whitethroat (Sylvia c. communis Latham). B.

Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia c. curruca L.).

— from  R.M. Lockley, List of Birds Recorded at Skokholm 1927-1940

 

On one of my many aborted attempts to produce art rather than just look at it, I misguidedly signed up for a clay modelling workshop. It was one of those open format affairs where you are supposed to “explore your creativity” with minimal guidance which means that one thing leads to another and then, you know, suddenly you find yourself a million intellectual miles away. Or, in my case, pondering about gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Anyhow, one of the first exploratory assignments was about realising the importance of texture and so I ventured out to the back garden of the place – a beautiful Victorian purpose-built art school with large bay windows – and went on to visit my favourite tree there thinking that an impression of oak’s bark would be just the thing. When I was about to apply my lump of clay to the side of the tree, I stopped just in time to avoid squashing a beautiful spider. I tried to find another spot but there was yet another spider. Tried again, found a earwig. Yet another sort of earwig. A moth. Yet another moth. A beetle. A number of unremarkable bugs bereft of a household name. I decided there and then that my art wasn’t worth an insect’s life. I stayed there a few moments more gazing at the tree trunk and getting sidetracked once again by imagining how interesting it would be to catalogue all the insects found in one oak tree at more or less eye level. Ah, the possibilities which close, patient observation holds, I thought, while doubting the wisdom of free range artistic activities. I could even print the list of insects on an A3 poster and call it art – or so I gather from what little contemporary art theory I have read.

This episode came back to me as I was reading Fredrik Sjöberg’s The Fly Trap and learned about Richard Deakin, a doctor who in 1855 wrote a sizeable book on the flora found exclusively growing in between the stones of the Colosseum in Rome. I apologize in advance for the narcissistic statement but there is great joy in finding somewhat kindred souls in past centuries. In this century even. Sjoberg is an entomologist who lives in an island off the coast of Stockholm and he collects and studies hoverflies. The meandering reflections on life and nature in The Fly Trap are loosely connected to the parallel narrative of Sjöberg’s research into the life of a minor Swedish entomologist, René Malaise, who lead a wondrous life and ended up publishing discredited theories at his own expense and being duped by art dealers who helped amass his collection of mostly fake Old Masters –  he also invented the said Fly Trap of the title. Sjöberg blames his interest in this person to his “attraction to losers” but, since I suffer from a similar condition, I think my description of “secondary characters that make the story more interesting even if they don’t further the plot” more illustrative as well as more charitable. As Sjöberg ended up buying a fake painting which had belonged to this adventurous scientist gone astray so I am the keeper of the tomb of a semi-famous book publisher no one cares about anymore. Sjöberg couldn’t bear to see the painting go to some foreign anonymous entity and I couldn’t bear to see the man’s grave destroyed for lack of payment. I’m sure there are more of us in the world – those possessed of an instinct for the preservation of the seemingly irrelevant.

The Fly Trap is an apology for limitation of both subject and geographical coverage as the only way to devote an undivided and profound attention to one’s surroundings and find some meaning in the process. I suspect it is also a means to ward off existential anxiety. I didn’t expect a natural history memoir to be full of graceful, melancholy wisdom (interspersed with a few belly laughs) but since finding the wonderful Letters from Skokholm – the subject of islands keeps popping up – I had been pondering on the joys of limitation already. In fact, on the very morning of the day I started reading The Fly Trap I had spent an unreasonable amount of time by the side of a road looking at a mullein bush which was crawling with copulating weevils and thinking how soothing would be to study the habits of this maligned species and wondering who the world authority on them is. You see, I can write this without flinching having read Sjöberg and knowing that risking being taken for a lunatic comes with the expression of a narrow interest. There is a memorable passage where he lists his dilatory manoeuvres to avoid answering the question “What are you doing there with a net?” without having to explain what a hoverfly is and why is he interested in them enough to wait patiently next to a drainage pipe. Thankfully I am living in England where natural history related eccentricities are par for the course.

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Autumnal Gubbinal

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We went for a walk in Ruskin Mill’s valley, a sort of Zen garden transplanted into the English countryside – certainly landscaped by a meditation enthusiast. There is a touch of intentional beauty in the most prosaic functional objects, from the stone spiral fountains which unnecessarily swirl the water feeding the fish ponds to the wooden cottages topped with biodiversity roofs where classes are held. I am almost sure the one lonely crane that is always gazing wistfully at the safety net protecting the fish ponds is illustrating some haiku I haven’t read yet. Most leaves have now turned the colour of rust and many more are now a brown mush on the ground as Autumn drizzles. A few bright, fiery red maple-ish leaves survived and I obviously had to rescue them. And then I felt vaguely guilty for not being that sort of character the occasion and location demanded: someone who can recite by heart some rhyming Wordsworth or Keats that would elegantly describe the strangely comforting pleasure these colours give me. Instead, I thought of wheelbarrows in the rain but mostly of gubbinals, savages of fire, tufts of jungle feathers and sides of peaches and dusky pears and, yet, I also had learned that these colours are too much as they are to be changed by metaphor, “so far beyond the rhetorician’s touch”. All this doesn’t make any sense but Wallace Stevens (among a few other Americans) has practically the monopoly of the Poetry region of my brain and no dead English poet will ever be able to reclaim it.

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Thanks to a good friend who brought a gift of Library of America poetry, now I am looking forward to finding more about the Paiute.

The Earthquake

In that land, in that land,
In that glittering land;
Far away, far away,
The mountain was shaken with pain.

A Paradox

The crest of the mountain
Forever remains,
Forever remains,
Though the rocks continually fall.

(American Poetry – The 19th century, Native American, Southern Paiute )

Preoccupations du Jour, Back from Travels

It’s a sad affair to arrive home, look out of the window and suddenly have the terrible presentiment that when the caretaker said he was going to have someone come and trim the trees he was understating it. A whole half of an ash tree gone. I could cry. It also reminded me that, since we moved to this new place and despite being surrounded by a sea of green and a few meters away from a National Trust wood, I still haven’t found a huggable tree. I, a certified tree hugger, left my beloved soft and warm redwood just a few miles away – no longer on a convenient path for a cuddle.

(the joy of living in a town of hippies and new agey people is that no one ever doubts that you have good reasons to hug a tree)

Had a brief Romeo and Juliet moment just weeks ago with the most wondrous copper beech which is unfortunately inside private property. I am in the market for an ancient oak but it’s all saplings these days.

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I’d love to understand what is it about Dublin – a city which I should objectively dislike – that makes me feel at home. Possibly the wonderful food which I always manage to find despite the low expectations. The cab drivers who point out locations mentioned in Ulysses. A certain grim sense of humour that pervades the place. Still wondering what they sell at the gift shop of the Famine Museum.

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(at Dublin airport))

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R. never laughs as hard nor ever to the point of crying other than when he is with his brother. So there, a wonderful memory of two silly spanglish speaking Californians crying on a sidewalk cafe on Boulevard Poissoniere while conjuring a sitcom situation involving their unsuspecting father, thousands of miles away.

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Another Arsene Lupin volume from the quay bouquinistes. That was me, right there, being overcharged for a paperback just like a proper tourist should be.

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R. running down in Pigalle to catch À l’Étoile d’Or open and running up again to climb Rue Lepic with us after being wooed by Denise Acabo into buying unreasonable quantities of Bernachon chocolates.

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I don’t know what is it about London that makes me lose my patience. Too many people? Streets and streets that look like clones of each other; a marvellous city turned into an open air shopping mall; no spontaneous behaviour accepted as everything must be booked months ahead; brick buildings destroyed for some megalomaniac glass building as if Shanghai was supposed to be a model for anything.

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Juicy, tender octopus steaks for my birthday lunch because there is no octopus like the Portuguese octopus. At Rosinha de Sao Paulo.

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Reading a novel in Portuguese – something I hadn’t done in years – has been incredibly pleasant. I think I am distracted by the language novelty rather than the plot but hooray for M&P for my birthday gift. And hooray for Northern Italian friends who send Barolo.

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Quince! There were quinces at the grocer’s. I grinned at them and almost did a little dance and the very proper people of this town thought I was mad. But they don’t know that when there is quince, there is quince paste. And when there is a big blob of quince paste bubbling like lava in the pot and I am jousting with it – for it has a burning will of its own – my grandmother is standing right next to me no matter how long she’s been dead, cheering me on.