My 10 Favourite Books: #9 Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellThe year is 1806 in Yorkshire, England.  True magic is believed to be long vanished from the country, relegated to the merely academic study of gentleman-scholars, when one man – the unlikely, unfriendly, and reclusive Mr. Norrell – claims to be a practicing magician.  Soon, he has a pupil, Jonathan Strange, who seems to be everything Mr. Norrell is not – young, married, and charismatic.  And then there is the prophecy, about the two magicians that will appear in England…

So begins Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a book I love for so many reasons.  First of all, I love the characters.  Susanna Clarke reminds me of Charles Dickens with her skill of creating colourful, memorable characters, from the curmudgeonly Mr. Norrell, who reminds me a bit of myself, as he dislikes parties and likes books more than people, to Jonathan Strange himself, one of my favourite characters ever, who does madness so well.  There are also the unpleasant Drawlight and Lascelles, the enigmatic Childermass, the street-magician Vinculus, the unfortunate Lady Pole, and of course the “gentleman with thistle-down hair”, who must be one of the most brilliant and chilling portrayals of faerie with his casual, inhuman cruelty.

I also love this book for the world it creates.  I cannot read it without wishing that Susanna Clarke’s alternate history is our history, and that there really once was a Raven King of Northern England (who might one day return) and that all the books on English magic that Clarke cites in her copious footnotes (I love the footnotes) really did exist.  And then there is (of course) the magic.  Although it appears at the beginning to be a magic that is learned only by studying dusty old books (that is, if Mr. Norrell will let you see them), eventually we come to realize that it is much more than that.  Clarke’s magic is a magic that is written in the very stones, hills, trees, and rain of England itself, a magic that can be discovered by anyone, if only they can understand it:

“Magic shall be written upon the sky by the rain but they shall not be able to read it;
Magic shall be written on the faces of the stony hills but their minds shall not be able to contain it;
In winter the barren trees shall be a black writing but they shall not understand it…”

And finally, I love the ending.  Without giving away any spoilers, I shall say that the ending of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the kind of ending I like best.  It does not wrap everything up neatly.  It is not perfectly happy.  It leaves you wondering what will happen next, and what will your favourite characters do now?  It is the kind of ending that leaves you longing to know more and constantly replaying your favourite scenes over and over in your head, because even after reading 1000 or so pages, you still haven’t had enough.

I do not expect that everyone will love this book as much as I do.  It is long, but I like long novels, because I don’t finish them so quickly that way.  Some have complained that the first part of the book, before Jonathan Strange appears, is rather slow, but I don’t find it that way.  But if you like books about magic, books, magicians, prophecies, nineteenth-century England, abductions by fairies, friendship, love, betrayal, and madness, complete with footnotes and an appearance by Lord Byron, then you might at least like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.  And regardless of whether you do or not, it is still one of my favourite novels.

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P is for Pine

Whenever I write about a tree, I feel like I always introduce it as “one of my favourite trees.”  The western redcedar, the “tree of life” to many west coast peoples, is one of my favourite trees.  So is the Douglas-fir, the tree of the forests I grew up in, and the trembling aspen, and of course also the maple, mountain-ash, larch, apple, and many more.  I love all trees.  But if I had to name just one favourite tree, I think that tree would be the ponderosa pine.

The ponderosa pine is a beautiful and majestic tree that dominates the landscape.  Its very name suggests its size and majesty: ponderosa is Latin for “of great weight”.  Also known as the yellow pine, bull pine, and rock pine, this is a tree of western North America, growing from southern British Columbia to southern California in dry, sunny, open woodlands.  It has long needles that grow in bundles of three; the needles are long enough that some people use them to make pine needle baskets.  I own one of these baskets, and even today, years after it was made, it still carries within it the unmistakable scent of pine needles.  The bark is unmistakable; it is a beautiful orange- to reddish-brown colour and flakes off in pieces that most people liken to the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  The cones are just the right size to fit in your hand, but the prickles on the cone scales are sharp.

Ponderosa pine growing at cliff's edge

The ponderosa pine is a tree that can survive wildfires – an important adaptation for a tree that grows in a hot, dry climate.  Wildfires occur naturally and regularly in ponderosa pine forests (perhaps every 5 to 20 years).  The dry grasses that grow in the understorey and the fallen pine needles provide an ideal fuel for ground fires.  The thick bark of a mature ponderosa pine protects it from these fires, and the tree can survive even if the crown is partially burned.  I have seen many old pines with bark blackened by past fires, yet the trees themselves still thrive.  However, seedlings, shrubs, and competing trees growing in the understorey will not survive the fire.  Fire then is beneficial for the mature ponderosa pines, as it reduces competition for the limited water supply in the dry forest.

Ponderosa pine forests are among my favourite places to walk.  The forests are open (usually described as “park-like”) and dominated by widely-spaced large trees.  Grasses and wildflowers (such as balsamroot) cover the ground.  This kind of landscape is perhaps more like a savanna (a grassland that contains some trees) than it is a true forest.  Unlike the dense, dark, moist coastal forests that can feel closed-in, ponderosa pine woodlands are open and bright.  The sunlight shines down through the trees onto the gently waving grasses, and the lack of dense underbrush encourages you to wander.  The trees themselves seem to have a very solid, calm presence.  Their bark is fragrant, and fills the forest with a characteristic aroma.  (Some have said that the bark smells like vanilla, and – having tested this for myself – I can say that it really does!)

Ponderosa pine bark

Of course, I’m not the only one who loves the ponderosa pine.  Deer, elk, and bighorn sheep may use the pine forests for their winter range, and the pine seeds are eaten by many birds and small mammals.  The thick, flaking bark provides habitat for many insects, which in turn feed insectivorous birds.  Woodpeckers both forage in the bark and excavate their nesting cavities in the decaying wood.  These cavities can then be re-used by many other animals, such as small mammals, owls, and tree-nesting ducks, while bats may roost in spaces under the bark.

If I were to craft a mythology of the land I live on, the ponderosa pine would be an important part of that mythology.  It is a tree I feel familiar and comfortable with.  It occurs in many of my best memories and favourite places.  The ponderosa pine’s ability to withstand destructive forests fires awes me, and a walk through a pine forest always leaves me feeling uplifted.  And perhaps all of that is at least part of why it is my favourite tree.

Do you have a favourite tree?

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Previous post: O is for Owl.  Next post: Q is for Quail.

 

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Welcoming the Drearier Days

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

— Emily Brontë

snowberry

Where I live, November is typically a dark, dull, and colourless month.  The leaves have mostly fallen, days are short, mornings are foggy, and the clouds are low over the hills.

I wrote earlier of my happiness at the early arrival of fall after a hot, dry summer.  I love fall.  It’s probably my favourite season, and usually I feel sad when the colourful fall leaves are gone and we settle in for a month or more of dull, grey weather before the snows arrive.  But this year, I find myself enjoying November, savouring the early evenings, the cool air, the shapes of the bare branches against the grey sky.  There is something satisfying about seeing things dying off and starting to rot back into soil, something exhilarating about watching the first snowflakes tumbling from the sky and walking in the first snow, something refreshing about breathing the crisp air.

Winter Leaf

Somehow, more things seem possible these days.  I feel more like creating, and writing.  Neither fall nor winter, November is a liminal time of year, a time of change and transformation.  Although it may seem odd or even wrong to speak of singing “when night’s decay / ushers in a drearier day,” somehow that is exactly what I feel like doing.

What is your November like?

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My 10 Favourite Books: #10 Nature and the Human Soul

A couple of bloggers I read (Millie and Surendran) have recently posted lists of their ten favourite books, so I’ve decided to do the same thing – even though it was very difficult to narrow my list down to only 10 titles.  I’ve divided my list equally between fiction and non-fiction, and I’m going to start with the last book on the list (#10).

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Nature and the Human Soul

In Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World, Bill Plotkin discusses how our psychological development is connected to nature.  Plotkin identifies eight main life stages, and shows how in each stage, we need healthy relationships with the non-human world to move on to the next stage.  He argues that because Western civilization is so human-centered, many people are still in a stage of psychological adolescence.  While there is nothing wrong with an individual who is in that stage (for as Plotkin describes, each stage of life offers its own gifts to society), society as a whole must include individuals in all life stages to be healthy.

I think that Nature and the Human Soul is an important book to read for anyone who is interested in psychology, human development, and the relationship of humans with the natural world.  (Which was why I included it in my post on five books to shift your relationship with the more-than-human world.)  For me, I found that reading this book helped me to see many of the issues with our society as symptoms of the same problem – our poor relationship with nature.

Yet Nature and the Human Soul is not a depressing book to read; it is a practical and hopeful one.  Throughout the book, Plotkin suggests changes you can make in your life, no matter what life stage you happen to be in, and (if you are a parent or teacher) ways you can help children with their development.  He emphasizes that it is never too late; even if your life up until now has been similar to the worst-case scenarios that he describes, you can still work on unfinished tasks from previous life stages.  And most importantly (to me), this is not a book that’s just about your personal development; it’s also about how that development is related to society as a whole.  By becoming better people, we make our communities better; by developing more wholly as humans, we help our communities to live in better balance with the non-human world.

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I’d love to hear about your favourite books!  Feel free to share in the comments, or write a blog post of your own (and share the link).

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Link Share: Trees, Books, Words

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

— William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene I

It’s been a while since I last shared any interesting links with you, so I thought it was time to do it again:

Dana has been writing profiles of trees in her region (Eastern/Midwestern United States), and the most recent tree she has profiled is the hawthorn (which was the first tree she included that I’m also familiar with in western Canada – although our hawthorns are usually shrubs rather than trees).  She includes information on the trees’ ecology, folklore, and uses in herbalism.  I’ve been enjoying her tree profiles, and would love to complete something similar one day for my own local tree species.

I enjoyed this article on how many of our historical documents may be lost because they are stored only digitally, in file types that our computers will one day be unable to access.  As a lover of books and writing by hand, this was not a surprise to me.  I own a few 100-year-old books that I can still read as easily as the day they were printed.  In another 100 years, the books will still be readable – but I highly doubt that any of the files currently on my computer will be.  We tend to think of digitizing material as a way of preserving it, but in fact digital files are relatively ephemeral.  And if we’re going to consider preserving material for thousands of years (as the end of the article suggests), I think that we should also consider the possibility of an apocalyptic event or some collapse of our civilization (I read lots of science fiction novels, so I can’t help but consider these possibilities!).  If our far-future descendants no longer have the technological capabilities to use computers, they may still be able to read our books (just as we have been able to translate inscriptions and documents from long-vanished civilizations).

On a lighter note, check out this list of 25 words you should have in your vocabulary.  All are lovely words with intriguing meanings, but I think my favourites are nemophilist (I am one of these), fernweh (I experience this sometimes), ostranenie (this is something I try to do a bit of through this blog), acatalepsy (I believe this), and tsundoku (I try not to do this too much).  If you want to know what I’m talking about, you’ll have to read the post!

I’m always fascinated by macro-photographs, and I love this set from Mary Ann Moss.  Her photos are from this spring, and what better thing to look at on a dull November day than photos of bright and colourful flowers?

Finally, Joanna Paterson ponders being alone in photography.  I also find it easiest to take photos when alone, and I agree very much with her realization that to be alone is “to be reminded, over and over, that you are not.”

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