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Thursday, March 25, 2021

Excuse Me, I Have Been Distracted – and Focused


There is always time for reading, it seems. I’ve heard people who don’t find it so, but they have demanding fulltime jobs or immaculate homes with nothing out of place. Their concern for career or housekeeping translates, in my case, to a jealous guarding of my reading time. Much else, though, has fallen by the wayside in my life in recent months. Writing, drawing, new recipes, exercise (other than walking)....


Writing, primarily: sadly neglected! I manage to get a blog post together now and then and to write letters to friends, but my Silas project, part of each morning, has been on the back burner now for – how long? Here is the last time I wrote anything related to Silas, this chapter of mine the first with not a word transcribed from Silas’s diary:



Chapter Seventeen

A Week Without Silas



2/5/2021, 10:20 a.m.


Reading now The Great Hunger, Cecil Woodham-Smith’s history of the Irish famine, a book that did not come into my hands purely by accident. When we learned that the Friends of the Library bookstore over in Sunsites (Pearce) was open to the public on Monday, though the library itself was offering only curbside service, we made that our destination and spent $25 between us on books, worth much more to us than the bargain prices we paid. 


It was a couple of Silas’s throwaway lines in January and the first of February that sent me looking for material on mid-century Ireland. His remark about being “tickled” when the Irishman was disappointed to find American equality more myth than reality was the first nudge. The second was his choice of the Know-Nothings as a topic in his newly formed debate society. 


The 19th-century movement called the Know-Nothings began as a secret organization (any member asked about it was instructed to say, “I know nothing”), their anti-immigration and virulently anti-Catholic position a response of fear and resentment to the flood of 1840s immigrants from Ireland and Italy. Is it any surprise that the foremost leader and first martyr of this cause also found women’s suffrage an abhorrent and unnatural idea? The Know-Nothings’ nativism found plenty of support among elected officials as well as among a white working class, and what began in secret as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner (OSSB, formed in 1849) soon morphed into the very public – and briefly very successful -- American Party, the first serious third-party challenge in American politics. Between 1852 and 1854 they won elections at every level. The party split soon afterward, however, over the issue of slavery, a matter even more incendiary than immigration.


The situation in 1840s Ireland had been unlike anything every known in the United States, starving Irish sheltering as best they could in muddy ditches after being evicted from cottages they themselves had often built, improving the land they rented to the profit of their landlords. Many in England believed reports of the potato famine to be a “false alarm,” the “invention of agitators” – in other words, what our recent former president would have called “a hoax” and “fake news.” 


It was no hoax. Since deaths went unrecorded, with uncounted numbers literally dying of starvation in the open, there is no way to arrive at a precise figure for the tragedy, but population numbers between 1841 and 1851 show a drop of two and a half million. Allowing for the roughly one million Irish who emigrated during the years 1846-51, this puts the death toll from starvation at approximately a million and a half. At first there were attempts at public relief, as well as a long effort made by the Society of Friends (Quakers) to save lives, but in the third and fourth year of the famine soup kitchens were closed, government work projects stopped, and the government in London held to a strictly laissez-faire policy, saying the Irish must help themselves. They were told to collect taxes -- in a land of bankruptcy and financial ruin, where no one any longer had the ability to pay taxes – and to provide locally for the relief of the destitute. 


Nor was starvation the only plague on Ireland during those years. Typhus and cholera contributed to the tragedy, spread all the more rapidly in workhouses, soup kitchens -- and on ships. As there looked to be no future for the Irish in their own land, those who were able sought to leave by any means possible. Passage to Canada was cheaper (some sold all they had; others had fares paid by landlords eager to be rid of them) than passage to the United States and entry into Canada easier, but most Irish had no wish to remain any longer under the flag of England, and so the vast majority who landed in Canada and survived crossed the border to the United States as soon as possible.


Such was the background in Ireland that led to the most massive emigration ever from any European country – and the entry into the young United States of vast numbers of desperate, unskilled immigrants, eager and willing to work for almost any wage offered. Such was the wave of a population movement that created fears triggering the rise of nativism and unsurprising political opportunism, much like what we have seen again in recent years a century and a half later. 


So now, as you see, it has been over a month for me without Silas, a month that has flown by. The nineteenth century, recently so immediate in my thoughts, has receded to a far and misty horizon. 


Last Saturday a group I call “ghost town ladies,” a group the Artist refers to as “your coven” and the ladies self-reference as “the riff-raff” met for lunch for the first time in well over a year. A red-letter day, long awaited! The following Monday the Artist and I drove to Benson to rendez-vous with Leelanau friends currently spending a couple of months in Tucson. Another lunch date! In both cases, all had had their double doses of vaccine. But I cannot blame those welcome distractions for my neglect of Silas.

No, it’s all the darn little dog, little Peasy, that stray from the pound, whose training and domestication has so absorbed my daily attention and focus. He has come such a long way! Given a full year…. But I don’t have a full year, only another couple of months, at most, and little Pea, while madly in love with me and tentatively fond of the Artist, is still afraid of almost everyone else. A bookstore future for this dog is the most unlikely scenario. 


What is his likeliest future? I’m still working on figuring that out, but while he is in my care I work daily on lessons to civilize the little love-bug.

Silas is long dead, and Peasy is very much alive. No one other than me cares if Silas’s diary is every transcribed, and hordes of more qualified writers than I have written of 19th century America. But Peasy was ignored and passed over for three months in the pound in Safford. And – he loves me. He cares!


While Peasy distracts me from writing and much else, though, he also focuses my immediate attention and gives purpose to my days. The progress we have made together gives me a sense of accomplishment and deep satisfaction. Besides that, he is my daily companion in rambles over the range, out in the sun and the wind and the dust. 

“How was it?” the Artist asks when the dog and I return to the cabin, tired and thirsty and happy. 


“It was great!” 


We’re here now. That has been my mantra for years, wherever I am: we’re here now. And I don’t want to miss being here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Books in the Car

On the trail, looking up --

Over the weekend, although we traveled no farther from the than Willcox (14 miles north-northwest), the Artist and I had, as always, books in the car. I set out Saturday morning with The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild, by Craig Childs, only a few pages left unread. The Artist had two or three books with him, but having begun Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (not for the first time but for the first time in many years), he stuck to it faithfully from beginning to end, knowing that his other car reading selections, books that could be picked up at any time and opened anywhere, would wait patiently as long as necessary.

Already, however, I have so far glossed over the “books in the car” story as it unfolded on Saturday. 


You see, I was picked up by a neighbor and carried my book with me in a bag, while the Artist drove to town separately to be about his own business while I was meeting with a group of “ghost town ladies” (my name for the group; they refer to themselves as “the riff-raff”) for lunch, our first gathering in over a year. What fun! It didn’t matter that our orders took a while to arrive, because we had plenty to ask of and say to one another, and when a call came on my phone from the Artist as we were lingering over our checks, there was still no hurry, but it was agreed that Edna would eventually drop me off at the Friendly Bookstore, where David and I would rendez-vous and ride home together.


Full disclosureThere was a big book sale going on at the Friendly!Although prices were dirt cheap, we exercised massive self-restraint -- and only filled a single box to load into the back of the car! One slim paperback I kept out of the box, a book to follow that of Craig Childs (so soon to be finished), was Wendell Berry’s Life Is a Miracle

Berry’s subtitle to this small volume, published in the year 2000 and still pertinent and not widely enough read today, is An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Perhaps (and I say this in full recognition of the fact that making a big splash is not Wendell Berry’s way of being in the world) the book would have made a bigger splash, garnered more media attention, had the subtitle read: An Essay Against E. O. Wilson’s ‘Consilience’ – because while Wilson is not the only target of Berry’s criticism, Wilson’s notion of what he calls ‘consilience’ and his advocacy for it give a sharp focus to Berry’s larger criticisms of a materialist culture that values market efficiency over all else. And that’s fine with me, both the general and the more specific “against” targets, as I find arguments for materialism self-defeating and have always found Wilson’s know-it-all posturing annoying in the extreme.


Wilson’s book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, makes an argument. In roughly 150 pages, Berry carefully analyzes the argument to lay bare its contradictions and basic incoherence. Wilson knows a lot about ants, but he falls dismally short as a philosopher (shoemaker should have stuck to his last), and I confess to a devilish delight at Berry’s skewering of Wilson’s straw man argument: 


In his chapter on “Ethics and Religion,” he has “constructed a debate” between “the transcendentalist” (a straw man) and “the empiricist” (a stuffed shirt).

- Wendell Berry on E.O. Wilson in Life Is a Miracle 


Touche! Berry’s well-aimed arrow here is only an opening salvo in his lengthy and detailed critique, which I will not review in its entirety but urge you to read for yourself in Life Is a Miracle, particularly if you consider yourself an admirer of or apostle for E.O. Wilson’s “unity of knowledge.” 


My delight in other pages was more generous, delight not only in Berry's ideas and statements, but recognizing that he and I share admiration for other writers. Encountering a quotation from Stephanie Mills, a writer from back home in Leelanau County, Michigan, someone we know personally, made me happy, as did a paragraph on the work of Jean-Henri Fabre, “the Homer of the insects” -- and one of my favorite nature writers.


Maybe you would have preferred a photograph or two of the new stacks of books that made their way from sale tables to back of car to shelves and stacks in our ghost town cabin? I’m sure one or two of them will find their way into this blog in future posts. One, I’ll just hint, was about horses….


For now, as the Artist has read the last page of his Steinbeck, closing the book with a great sigh of satisfaction, I’m wondering -- will one of his next car books be Cannery Row? I’ll leave that one on top of the stack on the little table between our reading chairs and see if it gets picked up and carried along in the next day or two.

Friday, March 19, 2021

We Never Have “Too Many Books”

Artist reading Hemingway's A MOVEABLE FEAST


Some people (I’ve heard them say these words) have a concept they call “too many books.” In my birth family, and in the household the Artist and I share, that concept has never been recognized, even here in our rented winter cabin that is basically one large single room. Yes, we sometimes run out of shelf space. And we don’t always want to keep every book we read forever. In the latter case, we pass books along to friends and family (I just shipped off a box this morning), donate (or re-donate) to thrift shops, or take to bookstores for trade credit, if we can get to such a place easily. (In the past year of COVID, getting to those Tucson bookstores has not been easy.) But there are many books we want to hold onto. “I need another bookcase,” the Artist says to me. Oh, how quickly they fill up!

The dog and I share a library and R&R corner, where my Western, Spanish, and French books are in one case, miscellaneous books in another, nature field guides now moved to the desk.

My books

My books

My books


The Artist also has two bookcases, but, as you see, books are also piling up on the tops.

His, his, his, his

Then there is the little table between our respective reading chairs: each with a different book, we often interrupt the other’s reading to share aloud something from our own.

Neutral territory

And my shelf of cookbooks, of course. Can’t forget those.


And the books on my bedside table, some for reading aloud and some for reading myself to sleep. Will I ever get around to those other Jack Kerouac novels? There are a few waiting for me here:

Bedtime reading

We always have between two and half a dozen books in the car with us, also, and I’m not showing you the big, heavy box of books in the closet or the stacks of books on top of that box (enough to fill another carton). I make no excuses. We are not wealthy people, but we have what feels to us like a very rich life, and books are a big part of our satisfaction.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Book Review: TIN CAMP ROAD


If someone recommended a novel about a young single mother living in poverty, making a precarious living by cleaning motel rooms, dressing herself and her daughter in used clothing bought in thrift stores, their lives suddenly threatened by eviction and homelessness, what else would you expect of the story? Would you anticipate a “gritty” urban setting? Characters living on fast food burgers and fries? A mother ground down by the hopelessness of her situation? I’m betting you wouldn’t anticipate a rabbit hunt or a beach fire with marshmallows under the Perseid meteor showers on a Lake Superior beach. Author Ellen Airgood’s novels, however, are full of the quietly unusual and unanticipated.


Airgood's first novel, South of Superior, was published by Riverhead Books in 2011, followed by two middle-grade novels, Prairie Evers and The Education of Ivy Blake. Like many of Airgood’s fans, I have read all three more than once, and while I enjoyed the fiction for young people (the stories about Prairie and her friend Ivy), at the same time I longed for another novel set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan featuring adult characters. Now we have that second U.P. novel at last. Tin Camp Road is scheduled for release in August of this year, and those who loved South of Superior will not be disappointed by Tin Camp Road.


All of Airgood’s fiction, whether for adults or young people, shares a committed attention to the "messy" (her word) lives of ordinary people. That human beings must deal with the unexpected is not Airgood’s exclusive discovery, of course, but her particular presentation of “the plans of mice and men gang aft a-gley” is all her own. 


Whether you realize it or not, you probably know someone with experiences similar to those of the character Laurel Hill. Maybe you’ve been there yourself. So much of our lives' confusion and its complications is hidden from public view, if hiding is possible. In this novel, we see secrets not revealed in shocking cinematic flashbacks or tidy Freudian explanations, just as simple facts of life.


Publishers, however, are no doubt reluctant to describe any book as “quiet,” afraid that potential buyers will interpret that to mean boring. Thus the publisher’s blurb on the back cover of the advance reader’s copy of Tin Camp Road describes Laurel’s relation with her daughter by saying they are “each other’s everything,” with subsequent phrases such as include “dangerous incident,” “hardscrabble life,” and “embrace the wild.” In my opinion, the publisher’s description makes the story sound more melodramatic and less satisfyingly real than it is. I am grateful to Riverhead Books for publishing Airgood’s novels, and I understand the motivation behind the hyped-up description: fiction is fiction, and advertising is advertising, and the latter can never deliver what only reading a novel can offer. Still….


Can any parent and child be “everything” to one another? Before the unplanned pregnancy that brought Skye into her life, Laurel’s chief passion was running. When we meet her at the beginning of the novel, she has not indulged that passion for years. In the hands of most fiction writers, a passion long given up and eventually reclaimed by a main character would be showcased as the story's heart. Similarly, certain troubling behavior her teacher sees in Skye when her life is disrupted would usually be presented in more heightened emotional terms as another seemingly unconquerable crisis. But melodrama is not Airgood’s way. Quietly and simply, she surprises us again and again.


As a friend of mine who grew up in a northern Michigan small town put it admiringly after reading South of Superior, “She knows the life!” 


Yes, this author knows the intimate familiarity of small towns, the unremitting struggle for survival, the deep love for these rural “flyover” places, and she gives it to us in its equally stark beauty and challenges, in the ordinary hues and tones of passing days and seasons. At several points in the novel, we think we know where Laurel will jump next, but we are usually wrong. Nothing feels inevitable in Tin Camp Road. Laurel Hill’s life does not get tied up in a neat bow on the last page, laid out once and for all. If you want a fast-paced, tightly plotted story with lots of action involving glamorous characters, look elsewhere. Airgood gives us something much richer. She gives us real life, characters we see and feel as real people, people we care about, with possibilities and choices that might have been, as Jane Kenyon’s wonderful poem tells us, otherwise. But in this case, they were not otherwise. They are as they are.


At a certain point in my own life, I remember realizing that I was not traveling some clear path to a distant goal but making things up as I went along. “It’s the ‘revisable life,’” I wrote to a friend. That, I think, is the life most of us live. It is Laurel Hill’s life in Tin Camp Road, and I am eager to turn back to the first page and read her story over again, beginning today.

Tin Camp Road

by Ellen Airgood

NY: Riverhead Books

Release date: August 3, 2021

ISBN 978-0-399-16336-4

Hardcover, 304pp, $27

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Winter and Spring Collide on Saturday Morning in March

Stormy skies threaten --

Morning begins with Peasy. Although he and I are early risers, one of my daily objectives is to have a couple cups of coffee without an exuberant young dog tearing around the cabin with a noisy squeaky toy, and to this end I line up little treats at the edge of the table where I’m sitting and give Pease the command to lie down and stay. Sometimes he cooperates right away, and other times he doesn’t feel like it and tests me, popping up again and again. He was a popper-up this morning. So I took him outdoors on the leash and we ran through a series of commands in the cold wind. Back inside after the lesson, he was ready to settle down quietly at my feet, bribed by a treat every ten minutes or so. Good enough.

You've come a long way, baby!


This little dog has learned a lot in a few weeks. He knew nothing when we brought him home, other than to charge his meal dish the minute it touched the floor. Now he will sit, lie down, stay, and wait – whatever I tell him to do – and as I walk around the room to give him extra time for reflection, his eyes are on me, not on his food, as he looks to me for permission to go to the dish. 


After my coffee and Peasy’s breakfast, all of this stretched out over an hour or more, I walked down to the mailboxes on the highway with Peasy on a leash. He was a good boy and didn’t pull. Back in our yard, I wanted him to run through a few more commands while on-leash, but he didn’t feel like it, and I had to insist. When I didn’t give in to his naughtiness, he bowed to the inevitable, doing a very nice lie-down-and-stay (leash attached to collar but lying loose on the ground) until I called him to me from a distance, whereupon he came directly to sit in front of me and wait for whatever was going to come next. Good dog! After I told him how good he was and showered him with affection, I took off the leash and had him sit politely one last time – then gave him permission to run!


It was a good dog morning. I wish Peasy were as comfortable in public as he is with me in private, but that may not be within his power or mine.

Return of winter or spring snow?

Before we were back in the cabin, the first snowflakes were in the air, and the snow came thicker and heavier for quite some time. I am concerned for flowering fruit trees in my neighbors’ yards. Moisture for the land is good, though. In fact, as long as we were going to have cold winds and snow, I wouldn’t have minded a lot more snow. My own little garden is portable, and I’ve been bringing it in every night. Today it will probably be spending the whole day indoors.

The Artist has his coffee now and is listening to NPR. The dog has settled down to think about what he did right this morning and where he has room for improvement. (Yeah, right!) My lettuce and cilantro seedlings are safe from killing cold, and I have leisure to clear away clutter and reorganize the books in my private Arizona library (ARCs on desk).

Impossible for a book person to rearrange books on shelves and not open one to dip into its pages! 


…This is the other side of the coin from the rest of my life, from doors and walls and movie screens. This is the place that does not belong to humans. Animals have scuffed the ground, shat upon it, cleared twigs out of the way, folded down grass in their sleeping. They are talking, leaving messages written in scents on leaves and tree bark, whistling to one another, hearing voices in the distance. 


-      Craig Childs, The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild


Books are essential to my life, but so is the freedom to ramble outdoors on a daily basis. A book like The Animal Dialogues pleases me because it takes me, in memory and imagination, back outdoors where I was so recently and will be again.