Tag Archives: Patrick Leigh Fermor

Like a stag at eve [revised]

Yesterday I inadvertently hit the “Publish” button before I was ready to publish the post, “Like a stag at eve.” Please, if so inclined, look at the complete and revised post that emphasizes Patrick Leigh Fermor, a “happy, reckless and cultivated” writer of travel and nature.

The revised, updated and technologically-pure piece of prose is found at:  Like a stag at eve.

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Like a stag at eve

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 in World War II

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.

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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.

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Well springs Frio loam

Southeast corner of Pecan Tree Pasture, Johnsongrass and big bluestem (September 4, 2011).

Drought has come to the Southwest, particularly Texas. Wildfires erupt and I view every cloud in the sky as either friend or foe, rain-cumulus or pyrocumulus. Man lives in oscillating cycles: birth, maturity, degeneration and death; spring, summer, winter and fall; day and night. Nature’s theater, the grandest show — in fact the only show on the road — brings hot, dry days to us, an uneasy audience that sits without a program in hand.

Raising my hands and putting on a broad-brimmed hat to shield myself from the sun, I think, Is there is no way out of this parched country of west Texas, this incessant drought?  As a matter of habit, I drove to the far field two days ago, then again yesterday, and what I saw brought me out of the funk and into the reality of primary, nascent things that fosters renewal, not despair.  What I saw was the green field of my far pasture, Pecan Tree Pasture, a 35 acre field of buffalo grass, side-oats gramma, little bluestem, big bluestem and Johnsongrass that stood higher than my head!  The rain of about 2.5 inches two weeks ago provided enough moisture for a re-eruption of growth.

Trying to understand the dissonance of yellow-brown drought in Texas and this field of green grass, I gazed deeper and deeper into the field, trying to resolve these issues of color.  Then, it penetrated:  I was not looking deep enough, for beneath the grass lay soil, the wellspring for grass, the fountain of energy that we all thrive upon.  Well springs the soil.

Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.  Food chains are living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, p. 216, New York: Oxford Press, 1949.

In primary school, we all saw the pyramid chart of soil, plants, animals, man, sun and the flowing of energy back and forth.  The tooth and claw of the pyramid remained omnipresent, but never voiced.  We knew one thing lived by absorbing another living thing, whether cougar on deer, fox on rabbit or kids on hamburgers, but our teachers for reasons of refinement side-stepped the tooth, the claw.  The revealing of one thing eating another lay with fathers and uncles in the field on cloudy, windy and cold days.  Perhaps that is how it should be.

To know my soil, early this morning I unfolded the Soil Survey Map of Erath County, Texas, in order to type the soil of the far field I saw yesterday.  The map is ninety-one years old (1920); it is still accurate, still a good map.  My land, temporary occupant that I am, encompasses three soil types.  First, I have rough stony land (R) upon which sits the house, barn, stables and arena.  Second, the tree grove of American elm, willow, live oak, red oak, juniper and pecan rests upon Frio silty clay loam, Colluvial phase (F).  Through the tree grove runs Salt Creek, an intermittent flowing stream.

In the far field, where big bluestem is stretching upwards of seven-feet in height, a pasture that has not been grazed by Angus cattle in four years, is Frio loam (Fm), deposits of earth that have rushed down from High Salt Cove and between two creeks, Barton Creek and Salt Creek.  From Frio loam springs the grass in the far field.  The doe and fawn I disturbed yesterday lie between the high stands of big bluestem, and I lapse back to Oklahoma’s plains and the waving blue-red waves of autumnal bluestem that rustle with wind, the stems making sounds as they brush against one another.  The pasture holds the moisture of the last rain and though I am not a person of edgy competition, I would put my far field of green grass up against any non-fertilized field in Erath County for height, vigor, nutrients and wildlife.

After tending the far field for eight years and seeing the soil’s fountain of energy this late summer, How is it that man fouls such richness, such gifts?  The answer is complex, but knowable.  The resolution to stop the pollution begins with a respect for knowledge, deep knowledge that is revealed early and, unfortunately, forgotten early on with so many other things in our youth, a bulletin board that displayed the food chain in first grade.  The ethic of conservation and sustainability rests upon simple principles that need the status of a Commandment, an article of the Constitution, a catechism of the church.  Better yet, we should recover that which was lost when we began to make pottery, metal and textiles thousands of years ago, or left on that bulletin board at Coggin Elementary School in Brownwood, Texas.

Land is a fountain of energy.  In my far field, Frio loam is a wellspring.

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Click to enlarge. Soil survey map, Salt Creek and Barton Creek merger, from Soil Survey of Erath County, Texas (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1922). The far field is located at about center-left along Salt Fork and is associated with the symbol, Fm, for Frio loam.

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Notes, corrections and additions:

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac And Sketches Here and There, New York: Oxford Press, 1949.  I am quoting from the paperback, special commemorative edition that has an introduction by Robert Finch.

Soil Survey of Erath County, Texas, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1922.  The map was drawn in 1920, hence, it is ninety-one years old.  I found it in the workshop of the house I once owned in Mingus, Texas.  The house was know as the Old Bertino Place, named for the Italian family that had come to the area to work in the coal mines of Thurber in the nineteenth century.

I have been reading a considerable amount of literature this summer:  Aldo Leopold, Thoreau, Tolkien, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Edward Hoagland, Black Elk, Frank Waters, Wordsworth, Catulus.  I have something to write.  Whether it sells or not is a by-product.  I have to write, I really do.

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The aire be stirred with wild things

Barn swallow in flight, north Erath County, Texas (2010).

They were storks!  When they circled lower, the long beaks and the legs that trailed in the slipstream showed red as sealing wax.  An old shepherd was leaning on the ramp close by and gazing up at them too.  When some of the great birds floated lower, the draught of their feathers brushed our upturned faces, and he said something in Magyar — “Net, gobyuk!” and smiled.

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Hungary, 1934, in A Time of Gifts, p. 309.

Around me, the air has been stirred with wild things, but not storks.  During winters in central Texas I walked to the pond on my step-father’s farm and sat on the lee side of the water, standing still about a natural juniper blind, not moving, and ducks would fly so fast you heard them before you saw them, and they stirred the air about my face and landed swiftly upon pond water, sending ripples to the ice-crusted edge.  The aire be stirred with wild things.  In all the years around the pond, I took but one duck out of the sky, regretting it to this day because there was roast beef and bacon back at home beneath the thin, protective dish towel mother used to cover the food she prepared.

Three fall seasons ago I sat on the back porch, wearing an old, broad-brimmed felt hat as I looked out in the pasture at the horses.  Not moving much in the chair, a familiar wren — I had seen it countless times — flew down from the support post and landed upon my hat.  The wren stayed there for thirty seconds, maybe a minute, darting about the top of the hat, checking out the intricate perforations of the hat band for food, its tiny feet moving staccato-like about like a ballerina.  I felt its motion, the draught of wings I felt upon my face.  The aire be stirred with wild things.

Barn swallows fly through the porch today and stir the air.  They hover, literally hover in the air, fanning the porch like tiny, childish whirl-a-gigs, seeking a perch or possible nook for a new nest.  There are six swallows and they perform their aerobatics twice a day, morning and evening.  Coming close, within three feet, they chirp at me as an intruder in their world.  The aire, I tell you, is stirred with wild things.  And, ’tis good wild things.

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Notes:

See also The New York Times obituary of Sir Patrick:  NYT obituary of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Somewhere in my reading, I remember an Englishman that was on an African safari and in the evening ventured beyond the compound’s fire pit and was attacked by a lion.  In the attack, the lion grabbed him about the shoulder from behind and started dragging him away into the bush.  The Englishman — how I wish I could find this story again — thought he was done with and remembered the smell of the lion and that the lion purred as he took him away.  Interesting the purr.  The man reached for his bush knife and stabbed the lion who released him and ran off into the dark.  Not all wild things that stir the air are so gentle.

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