This past summer I read books as never before, tearing through familiar and unfamiliar authors such as Patrick Leigh Fermor, Henry David Thoreau (again), Aldo Leopold, Willa Cather, Tolkien, Ptolemy Tompkins, Stanley Crawford, Bertrand Russell, Frank Waters and works about communal acequias in New Mexico that urge me to decamp to the streams of the Sangre de Cristo and grow beans. Not since I was a boy with a summer to burn have I ravaged pages.
The words were all good, beyond good, and took me into a sublimity of things hoped for, places to visit on a pilgrimage. Each author found precise words to describe, to explain, the nature of things above, below and in middle earth (seems fit to describe it this way, although “universe” is apropos, too).
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel and nature writing is so fine, so lush, that it reminds me of how Faulkner wrote of the South in prose so eloquent and deep. Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and Water traces his travel from the Spit of Holland to Rumania in 1934, at the age of nineteen. Recomposed fifty years later with memory and field notes, he describes Europe and its nature with eloquence that entrances his readers and urges a reclamation of by-gone periods of wildness and sociability among people.
But, Fermor’s solitude in the woods evokes his best writing. In the Carpathian Uplands, he writes,
I saw nobody all day; there were numbers of red squirrels, a few black ones, and innumerable birds; but the only larger creatures were hawks and, usually in pairs, languidly and loftily afloat around the jutting bastions of rock, golden eagles. Sometimes I was looking across wide bowls of tree-tops before plunging into them; at others, striding over grassy saddles or scrambling on those expanses that, from below, looked like bald patches; but most of the time I followed whatever dim woodland tracks I could unravel; breaking off, every so often, to side-step across unstable and irksome cascades of shale; then back along the branches. As usual, on lonely stretches, poetry and songs came to the rescue, sometimes starting echoes. I still had plenty of food; there were dozens of streams to drink from, many of them thick with watercress, and as I flung myself face down beside one like a stag at eve, I thought how glad I was, at that particular moment, not to be standing properly at ease on the parade ground at Sandhurst. Oxford would have been better; but this was best.
Patrick Leigh Fermor, Between The Woods and The Water, p. 205, NYRB edition, 1986.
How often have we hiked through the high country, desert even, and seen the change of terrain? Frequently, of course, and if our commitment is strong to write the log or field notes, we have captured the trek with descriptions of wet rock, noisy streams, smells of conifers and clouds that stream fast-by, racing clouds that yield no rain. Fermor brings eloquence and deep associations in his life together.
“Like a stag at eve” is lifted from Sir Walter Scott’s, Lady of the Lake, Canto I. As I reread Thoreau this summer I was struck by his classic references to Greek and Roman mythology. Such associations in nature writing enliven the prose and send me to the encyclopedia.
There’s just not enough time to read all I want to read. Life is short, so let us enjoy as profoundly as we can. And, enjoyment comes from reading Fermor and his trip across Europe in 1934. Europe in ten years would not be the same.
Notes, corrections and additions:
Note to readers and subscribers: as the case often is with technology, I inadvertently hit the “Publish” button before I was finished composing. I have added additional paragraphs after the quote and corrected the spelling. I withdrew the post for a few hours to recompose.
As a boy, the canon included the Hardy Boy’s mysteries and back issues of Boys Life magazine. I looked for bush pilot stories and camping out under the mesquites and oaks of the Southwest. Then, as well as this summer, I stacked books and magazines that fell off the nightstand.
The stag at eve had drunk his fill,
Where danced the moon on Monan’s rill,
And deep his midnight lair had made
In lone Glenartney’s hazel shade;
But when the sun his beacon red
Had kindled on Benvoirlich’s head,
The deep-mouthed bloodhound’s heavy bay
Resounded up the rocky way,
And faint, from farther distance borne,
Were heard the clanging hoof and horn.
Sir Walter Scott, Lady of the Lake, Canto I.
“Life is short, so let us enjoy it as profoundly as we can,” is taken from a Renaissance saying about living life to its fullest.