HOW TO CATCH A MOLE

 

The moles, like us, are deeply mysterious creatures, and we will only ever catch a glimpse of their truth.

 How to Catch a Mole would be more accurately titled How to Kill a Mole, but I guess the publishers thought that would be bad for sales.

What’s so bad about moles? Apparently moles are not the innocent, eager to please and slightly befuddled creatures we know from The Wind in the Willows. They are solitary and tireless tunnellers, destroyers of lawns and gardens and golf courses, underminers of walls, fences and trees. In fields, they bring stones and other debris to the surface, interfering with crops and the machinery that harvest them. In pastureland, their diggings make it easy for weeds to spread and account for broken legs and other injuries to cattle, sheep and horses. Oh, and horse-riders too. Apparently in 1702 William III of England died of his injuries when his horse stumbled on a molehill.

Mole catching in Britain is a very specialised trade, with a long history; it nearly died out in the 20th century as the mole-afflicted hired mole-killers – basically poisoners, who used strychnine until the use of poison was banned. Marc’s work consisted of patiently observing and tracking the moles’ activity, and then inserting traps into their tunnels. The traps are meant to kill the animals instantly, but one day, a trap didn’t work properly. Marc had never had to deliberately kill an animal with his bare hands before, and it shocked him profoundly. Changed him. And he walked away from mole-catching – and wrote this book, a mixture of memoir, philosophy, poetry and natural history, with detailed instructions on how to kill moles.

So – you may ask yourself – why would a gentle soul like me, (mostly) vegetarian, lover of wild animals and lifelong devotee of Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad want to read about death and destruction?

‘Cos moles are really, really interesting.  For instance, did you know – and I’ll bet you didn’t – that female moles have the same levels of testosterone as the males, which makes them perpetually cranky and defensive about their personal space? They will fight to the death when they meet another mole in the tunnels. Excepting when it’s time to mate and bear young, when the levels go down. They mother for five or six weeks, when the hormones kick back in and they kick the babies – ‘kits’ –  out of their tunnel system.
Most of the young will be eaten by birds at this time. The homeless of all species are predated.

Marc Hamer is really, really interesting too. I was on a garden-writing bender at the beginning of the year, and one website mentioned his last book, Spring Rain. So I knew already that Hamer lives in a valley in Wales, and that he is a gardener, poet, writer, artist, father and husband. Homeless in his youth, wandering by choice and necessity, he became finely tuned to his environment, to the weather, the seasons, to growing things and to creatures.

Walking through the seasons from daffodils to bluebells, then massed dandelions turning from bright yellow heads into white clouds of seed drifting across the path so thickly it was hard to breathe. Then as the days grew longer and warmer, and walking was harder, I saw ox-eye daisies sparring alongside last year’s teasels, which where still standing and dry. I watched the cow parsley and wild carrot appear from clenched green fists and grow to great frothy white heads with bees and hoverflies and other flying insects buzzing around in the heat…

Though he doesn’t identify with any religion or philosophy, he became almost Buddhist in his practice of mindfulness, acceptance and non-attachment. He holds death close. When he dies, he’ll be eaten by worms, and the worms will be eaten by moles, and perhaps someone will then trap and kill the moles. It’s just the nature of things.

I have made my children; nature does not need me any more. These are my unavoidable personal ecologies. You have your own, but they will be similar. Healing is just adapting to change, acceptance. It is all normal, we come in and grow, then fade back out again.

He writes movingly of love and marriage and ageing. And as an ageing person myself, with a growing list of conditions and injuries and limitations, I appreciate this in a way I couldn’t have even five years ago. Is it simply another season?

Damage is part of the flow of things. I am growing older and my body continues to  dissolve.

He also writes about memory, about thinking and writing. Or not.

Often I do not disturb myself with language and I just look and enjoy. At other times words come silently creeping in on insect legs. Some start to build a nest, develop a theme –  a twig here, a bud there – so I let them. I like to write bits, tiny bits of stuff that fly by like leaves, insubstantial, scattering, and could be gone if I didn’t grab them out of the air. Bits of ordinary stuff that I see and that I can hold in my head in their entirety. Like individual memories or the fragments of pottery that I find in the molehills. Here – alongside and flowing sometimes in and around the simple yet often bizarre facts about how to catch a mole – are these fragments, sometimes sharp, sometimes smooth, written for the most part while wandering across a field with a bag of traps.

This is a ravishing book, beautifully written, eccentric in the best way (not show-off weird, but strange and unusual in its voice and outlook) and wise. It’s one that I am going to read again as one of my own ‘personal classics’.

 

 

 

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EMBOLDENED

To be emboldened we need to have a vision and a purpose. Boldness is a forward-moving energy. It involves charging ahead bravely.


I’ve been enjoying non-fiction and memoirs lately, and I’d seen Emboldened by Belinda Alexandra – an internationally bestselling author of historical fiction – in a couple of different bookshops. Each time I was drawn to the dramatic, glowing cover – like a design for Russian folkloric embroidery –  and the equally dramatic blurb. Yes, you do choose a book by its cover.

The book begins in the middle of an intense and terrifying chapter in the author’s life.

…I can’t tell you exactly what happened to me: only that one cold winter’s night I fled my home in fear for my life, after having gotten my pets and a few sentimental items out the day before. I had only my wallet, my phone and my latest manuscript on a USB stick. I left an entire life behind.

Alexandra was, in her own words, shattered and traumatised. But as a storyteller herself, she was convinced that the power of stories would help her recover. She drew courage from a quartet of women who had formed the inspiration for her own fiction. Virginia Hall was an American who, despite a disability – she had an artificial leg – became an Allied agent behind enemy lines in WWII France. Carmen Amaya, born in poverty, became a renowned flamenco dancer. Edna Walling defied convention and became one of the first landscape designers to celebrate the unique beauty of the Australian bush.
Alexandra also called on her own family history – in particular the Russian strand – and the stories of her grandmother, Alexandra and her mother, Tania, who lived through wars and revolutions and displacement in Europe and Asia in the first half of the 20th century.

Emboldened combines memoir and history and although she says explicitly that she’s not writing a self-help manual, Alexandra does hope that her book will inspire, encourage and embolden. I guess that’s what left me feeling a little unsatisfied. Even uneasy.
I applaud Belinda Alexandra for sharing her experience of Complex Post Traumatic Disorder, her struggles, her recovery. She sounds like a brave, gutsy, creative and determined woman. And anyone who shares their mental health struggles is a hero to me because there’s too much shame around what is simply a part of being human.
But I guess I take issue with the message that no matter how dire the circumstances, how extreme the challenge, a person can rise phoenix-like from the ashes and go on to live what she calls an emboldened life. This seems to imply that it’s basically up to the individual (which is, incidentally, an idea much beloved by conservatives and neo-liberals everywhere so they can avoid thinking about structural inequality) when there are many, many people who face enormous challenges which are not of their making or within their control. People don’t always manage to prevail. You can indeed be a victim of circumstance. Instead of becoming emboldened, you can be knocked flat. All you can do is struggle on. Or sometimes, sadly, give up.

Perhaps I’ve taken Emboldened too seriously. Or perhaps my reaction to the uplifting message was influenced by an encounter at the airport before my flight to Alice Springs. Eating breakfast at Brunetti’s, I started chatting with another traveller. This woman and I talked for about forty minutes, hesitantly at first and then in an eager flood, often laughing and at times nearly crying. Why or how we got onto such intimate concerns as anxiety, depression, menopause, bullying, chronic pain and misogyny and ageism in the health system and the work force, I don’t know. Carol (and that’s not her real name) doesn’t live a glamorous or exciting life. She’s a wife and mother, worker and home-maker from an ordinary suburb who’s slogging away with multiple family problems while recovering from cancer. She struggles and stumbles and falls down and gets up and goes on. There’s no heroic, uplifting narrative here; she’s in the middle of it and she can’t see the ending. She goes on because she has to. And she doesn’t know how much longer she can.

After we farewelled each other, I went back to my Kindle. In the gate lounge and the plane, I kept thinking about Carol while I read about exotic women in exotic places; White Russians in Shanghai, American spies in Vichy France and flamenco dancers in Spain and South America. Much as I enjoyed Emboldened, in the end, it was Carol’s story that stuck with me.

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WELCOME TO COUNTRY

I’m only just back from nearly a month away from home. Alice Springs, King’s Canyon, Uluru in NT, and SA’s Coober Pedy and Wilpena Pound.
I’d never been to Central Australia before, and it was amazing. Beautiful, and so profoundly different to where I live that as soon as I arrived in Alice I felt like I was in another country. Not just the landforms and rocks, the sky, the colour of the earth – the people. I was on Arrernte and Anangu country.

Though I have heard many Welcome to Country ceremonies, this was the first time I have ever heard Aboriginal people speaking in their own language in the shops, in the street, on a bench alongside the tourist track around Uluru. I suppose in truth wherever I am in Australia I am always standing on other people’s country – but I have never felt it with such force.

It was like a seismic shift, and though my understanding of the issues facing Indigenous people is probably as just as superficial as before, my support for the Voice referendum is more heartfelt. I can’t believe it’s so political.
Anyway, enough of that. It just makes me feel sad.

The trip was a trip. An indescribable wow.
Being at Uluru was like looking at a hundred cathedrals all at the same time. The dramatic red rock domes of Kata Tjuta against the blue of the sky were mind-blowingly sublime. The ‘supermoon’ over the Rock was awesome in the real sense of the word.
Sunsets lit up the red rocks and earth with a fire-like glow; I woke in the night to the sound of dingos howling in the distance under a sky full of stars. A steep gorge with rock holes full of water, trees and ancient cycads in the middle of Watarrka/King’s Canyon was hidden away like a secret or a surprise in the middle of a rocky and strenuous climb.
I was filled to overflowing with awe and wonder. I had been told that being at Uluru, the ranges, the desert could be a spiritual experience, and it was.

From the sublime to the slightly ridiculous.
I rode a camel, and I liked it!
We stopped at the Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby viewing area in Brachina Gorge in the Flinders Ranges and, right on cue, they popped up, in ones and twos, long striped tails becomingly arrayed, and posed for the camera.
I ate a quandong pie in Blinman and stayed in a dugout B&B in Coober Pedy and looked at Crocodile Harry’s underground lair full of 1980s porn mag pinups and trophy underwear and sculptured breasts.
I toured the Nocturnal House at the Desert Park with my sunglasses on, effectively seeing almost nothing. (“What’s the point of this?” I thought as vague animal shapes scuttled about behind the glass. “It’s dark!”)

 

 

Back at home, I am already dreaming up my next trip. In one of those serendipitous coincidences, I found Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country in an Op Shop, so I’ll be better informed.

 

 

 

 

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ENGLEBY

This is our Book Club choice for this month, and I think I can guarantee it’s going to create a lot of discussion. It might even be “love it or hate it”. We shall see.

Mike Engleby narrates his own story with what seems like total candour.
When the novel starts, he’s in second year at Cambridge University. It’s the ’70’s; he won a prize to go to university, after winning a scholarship to a minor public (read: private) school. He’s not posh; his family are working-class and poor. He drinks a lot. He takes prescription and recreational drugs. Crime? He does a bit of dealing, a bit of stealing, but nothing violent or sexual.
He’s highly intelligent, with a phenomenal memory. Observant. He’s got a wide general knowledge – politics, history, literature, music – and seems to soak up information like a sponge.
But quite quickly, the reader realises he’s an unreliable narrator. He’s also seriously creepy.

Engleby’s a stalker.
He’s become obsessed with another student, a girl called Jennifer. He watches her, attends the same clubs, starts going to one of her classes. She’s been cast in a film, and he manages to inveigle his way into the shoot in rural Ireland. He thinks he has some kind of relationship with her, but it’s mostly imaginary. When she vanishes, he’s the prime suspect.

Repellent, yes? Well, yes and no. Mike’s account of his dead father’s violent abuse, and the sustained bullying he experienced at his school are truly horrifying. There’s a sadness in his attempts to connect with Jennifer and in his solitary pub crawls and time spent hanging about on the fringes of student life. He knows there’s something not quite right with him, and at times, he’s perceptive enough to describe his mental state.
As in this scene. He has travelled alone to Istanbul:

It was one a.m. in the grey sodium light with the wailing music and the black ground with its spattered chewing gum and cigarette ends. I had started to pay too much attention to things. It was almost as though I could see right through them into the molecules that made them. And that awful music. I suppose my wind was trying too hard to get a grip on this place, to anchor it for me, because I had the strong impression that I was really outside time or place, that the hostile otherness of my surroundings was such that my own personality was starting to disintegrate. I was vanishing. My character, my identity, had unravelled. I was a particle of fear.
I guess I was a little lonely then.
In general, in less extreme circumstances, lonely looks after itself. It helps you develop strategies that reinforce it. The comfort of the dark cinema and the company of the screen actors prevent you from meeting anyone. Lonely’s like any other organism: competitive and resourceful in the struggle to perpetuate itself.

Engleby is not charged with any crime relating to Jennifer. He goes on to become a successful journalist. He forms a relationship with a woman, and they even move in together. She has a young daughter, and he enjoys her company. Life’s going well. Warning, there’s a spoiler here – but most readers will guess this is going to happen.
A body is discovered in a drainage ditch. And it all unravels.

Close to the end of the book, when Enderby is in his 17th year of imprisonment/confinement in an institution for the criminally insane, he reflects on his life and the reader gets a sense of what made him.

Once I saw a mother in a supermarket in Paddington – an obese, poor woman with bare legs and a small child who was making a noise. She swore at him and slapped him in the face, which only made him howl more. It wasn’t her fault really; she was clearly exhausted, broke and stretched to snapping point. But I knew that when she got the child home she’d beat him more, and if there was a father (a bit unlikely) he would hit him too.
And that child would slowly ascend towards full awareness in a world whose sky was violence and horizons were fear. And however resourceful he was, however patient and fortunate in the events of his life that followed, he was like a creature in a nest of imprisoning boxes who could never really break free. That was his world and any attempt to persuade him that it was merely a ‘subjective’ or ‘individual’ experience could never convince him.
And all of us, I think, are like him.

Dense with multiple themes, the  book is disturbing, tragic and at times weirdly funny (Engleby’s experiences with the legal and mental health systems are beyond absurd). When towards the end of the novel, Faulks takes us outside the closed world of Engleby’s deluded mind, his disconnect from reality becomes even clearer. Weirdly, I found the section where his Cambridge friend, Stellings, describes him as others saw him was almost heartbreaking.
Poor Jennifer. Poor Engleby.

 

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HOW TO DO NOTHING

Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured , optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily. We submit our free time to numerical evaluation, interact with algorithmic versions of each other, and build and maintain personal brands. For some, there may be a kind of engineer’s satisfaction in the streamlining and networking of our entire lived experience. And yet a certain nervous feeling, of being overstimulated and unable to sustain a train of thought, lingers. Though it can be hard to grasp before it disappears behind the screen of distraction, this feeling is in fact urgent. We still recognise that much of what gives one’s life meaning stems from accidents, interruptions, and serendipitous encounters: the “off time” that a mechanistic view of experience seeks to eliminate.

From the introduction to How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell.

My phone is on silent most of the time. I leave it in the house when I’m gardening. It’s off when I’m writing. I use only a few apps. I’m not on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. I know I annoy my friends by not being connected – and I have compromised by using Facebook Messenger – but after a brief flirtation I realised social media is addictive. And it’s not what I want to do with my time.

So in a way, Jenny Odell in How To Do Nothing is preaching to a convert. However I enjoyed having my distaste for social media and 24/7 “connectedness” clarified and explained. And it’s as simple as this: I hate knowing that my attention is being manipulated, gamed, algorithmed, stolen, bought and sold by big tech companies for money. And I try, wherever practical, to refuse to let them do it.

But this isn’t a rant, and though it’s dense, it isn’t dry reading. Odell is great company as she explores the ways individuals and communities have tried to refuse to participate in their own exploitation. She talks about the “dropping out” hippie culture of the 1960s and ’70s, sit-ins and protests and strikes, individual and collective action, parks and libraries and other kinds of non-productive public spaces. She explores hiking and bird-watching and learning about and simply being in your local environment. And above all, she talks about paying attention.

Odell’s antidote is looking and really seeing the place where you are. Being there with your mind, body and all your senses. Learning about your local environment – the geography and geology, the history, the flora and fauna. The birds – she’s big on birds. She talks about paying attention, and then deepening that attention.
Which I think equates to love, doesn’t it?

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VESPER FLIGHTS

The natural world is not, to me, a fabric of stuff that gleams with revelation of a singular creator god. Those moments in nature that provoke in me a sense of the divine are those in which my attention is unaccountably snagged on something small and transitory…things whose fugitive instances give me an overwhelming sense of how unlikely it is that in the days of my brief life I should be in the right place at the right time and possess sufficient quality of attention to see them at all…

I have just finished Vesper Flights, and as with the best writing, how I see the world has changed, just a little. Helen McDonald writes with such beautiful clarity, and it feels as if she’s made sense of and put into words some of my own half-realised thoughts and feelings about my encounters with the natural world. Even though she is a British writer and so the creatures she describes are not ours, it seems the intensity and fascination of our human encounters with nature are the same the world over. Though obviously I would rather encounter a kangaroo than a grizzly bear…

I suppose you could say that birds are McDonald’s major subject (though here she does touch on pigs, deer, hares, squirrels and university students) –  but that’s putting her into too small a box. Spirituality; grief and loss; science and research and the climate emergency; philosophy, history and literature – all these and more are interwoven with her own complex personal history in this series of essays. Above all, she illuminates what she calls ‘the numinous ordinary’, those moments that ‘open up a giddying glimpse into the inhuman systems of the world that operate on scales too small and too large and too complex for us to apprehend’.

Part of the numinousness in these encounters with nature is how unpredictable they are. There is no point in searching for them. In my experience if you go out hoping for revelation you will merely get rained upon.

And oddly enough, the day after I finished Vesper Flights, we had a bird encounter of our own. I don’t know that I would call it numinous, but it was intense. A bronzewing flew straight at our window. It’s happened before. The last time, the bird died and the replacement glass cost nearly $700. This time, there was a mighty bang, but no smash. When we ran into the room, we saw a smear of oily brown on the glass and a motionless bird lying on the path below. We watched anxiously. Was it dead? Was it terribly injured? Did it have a broken wing, and would one of us have to go down and wring its neck so the neighbourhood cats didn’t get at it? Little by little it began to move. Eventually it stood up. It was just stunned. I felt like cheering.
We tried to imagine what the bird must be thinking, or feeling. Do bronzewings think? Why do they keep doing this? Why can’t they see it’s a living room, not a flight path? What does it think happened to it? Will it remember, and stay away?
But not being inside a bird brain, we can never know.

The title, Vesper Flights, refers to swifts:

On warm summer evenings swifts that aren’t sitting on eggs or tending their chicks fly low and fast, screaming in speeding packs around rooftops and spires. Later, they gather higher in the sky, their calls now so attenuated by air and distance that to the ear they corrode into something that seems less than sound, to suspicions of dust and glass. And then, all at once, as if summoned by a call or a bell, they rise higher and higher until they disappear from view. These ascents are called vespers flights, or vesper flights, after the Latin vesper for evening. Vespers are evening devotional prayers, the last and most solemn of the day, and I have always thought ‘vesper flights’ the most beautiful phrase, an ever-falling blue.

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THE GREAT FIRE

Leaving Brian Talbot to his lunch in the common room, Leith loped across the spongy upward ground into which the weightless house seemed, that day, to be scarcely set. When he came in shrugging the storm from his shoulders like any Westerner and slapping his cap against his leg, his coat was at once removed by light hands: a gesture seeming to relieve coat as much as owner. But the house itself would not enclose him or identify. Translucent structures are not welcoming in cold rain.
The day had been unfortunate, all omens adverse; and the man himself at odds with the eagerness that quickened his step.
It was now, however, that his luck – if that’s what is was – turned.

 

Last week, my new book group had its first proper meeting. Our book was The Great Fire (2003) by Shirley Hazzard.
Very briefly: 32-year-old Aldred Leith, a decorated English war hero, is in Japan to report on the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. Staying with a repellent Australian couple, he befriends their two children. Benedict is dying of a rare disease and his younger sister Helen has become his comforter and carer. Aldred falls in love with Helen – they are separated by her parents and his work – they reunite in the end. There are many other minor characters, backstory showing Aldred’s troubled relationship with his father, his love affair with the mother of a dead friend and his failed marriage. A sub-plot features Peter Exley, Aldred’s Australian friend, trying to investigate war crimes and negotiate post-war life in Hong Kong.

I’d read Hazzard’s 1980 The Transit of Venus when I was a young woman and remembered enjoying it, so I thought this novel would be a safe bet.

Well, no, not really. I didn’t like it. I finished it because I felt I had to. And it turned out that some members felt the same. A couple gave up on it. Only two felt they’d read it with genuine pleasure, and interestingly they were ex-English teachers who were armed with all sorts of analytical skills that I lack. Both of these members actually read it twice. That’s dedication!

So, do I mark it down as a book group fail?

Not at all. I’d come prepared with all sorts of generic book group discussion questions, but the session just ran itself. The book elicited so much discussion, so many differing opinions and from some of the readers, such strong feelings that I’d have to count it as a success. One reader loved all the detail and description; another felt it dragged the story down. One person found the writing style brilliant; another kept having to find words in the dictionary. Two readers just hated it! As for me, I could admire much of the writing and the skill with which Hazzard manipulated the intertwined strands, but the effect was detached, even cold. And a bit too Henry James at times. One of the group described Hazzard as ‘a writer’s writer’, and I did think that if perhaps I read more carefully, my appreciation would grow. And at some future date, I will give The Transit of Venus a whirl.

We all agreed, however, that the central love story between 32-year-old English officer Aldred Leith and the 17-year-old innocent Helen Driscoll was problematic. Poor Helen, sensitive, intelligent and so totally innocent. She talked like a book and seemed like someone for Aldred to project his dreams onto rather than a real person. Aldred himself was a wooden hero; the flawed Peter Exley was much more interesting.

And times have changed. Aldred was an experienced man in his 30s; Helen had only just turned 17. The scenes where they skulked around in the gardens of her parents house, lying on his coat fondling and caressing gave me the creeps. Ugh.

I’m looking forward to our next book group meeting. It will be much less interesting if we all agree!

 

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DID I NEED MORE BOOKS?

A rhetorical question. No, of course not. I have plenty, including quite a few I haven’t started yet. But I went to the legendary (in Castlemaine they are!) Friends of Castlemaine Library book sale. Not only went to it – I am on the committee so I was there the afternoon before to set up and to assist with sales on the big day.
So I got to inspect thousands of books before the hordes of frenzied bibliophile locals even set eyes on them.
And almost against my will ended up taking a few home with me. Even after I’d done a big cull and donated around 50 unwanted books to the sale…

Did I need more books? Emphatically, no. But I am weak-willed. And they were cheap! Only $1 for fiction, $2 for non-fiction and a few special volumes a bit dearer.
Plus, I got to choose some for free as a gift for volunteering. Surely this makes it OK.

I had proper reasons for my choices, too.

I’d watched the SBS documentary on the Cambridge spies only a few days earlier, so A Spy Among Friends leapt out at me. I have had (past tense, hopefully) some long and intense bouts of insomnia, and the topic interests me. English writer Diana Athill (1917-2019) had a long and distinguished career in publishing – she worked with Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul among others – before she became an award-winning writer herself, with a series of memoirs. This is the last, so perhaps not the best place to start, but I never mind  knowing the end of a story. It will be a good introduction. And I remember meaning to read The Life of I when it first came out, and never did.


I’ve already skimmed through the book on novel writing. It is, as Lynne Truss says on the cover, extremely funny. Laugh-out-loud and tears-running-down-my-face funny. The authors parody bad prose with excruciating accuracy. I’ve read most of Penelope Lively’s novels for adults and children; I admire her writing and look forward to this memoir. Storr’s Solitude is something I re-read every few years, yet I’ve never read anything else by him. And now I can. And Out of the Woods is nature, walking and thinking. Right up my alley.

Oh, and so are the 35 copies of a beautifully produced English magazine called Hortus, which should keep me in armchair gardening all winter. Aren’t the covers lovely? Worth the 20c per copy they cost me.
This catalogue of utter gorgeousness was $4! How could I resist?


This is why I have book culls. Because I really do need more books.

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THE WELL GARDENED MIND

I discovered the pleasure of wandering through the garden with a free-floating attention, registering how the plants were changing, growing, ailing, fruiting. Gradually I thought about mundane tasks such as weeding, hoeing, and watering changed; I came to see that it is important not so much to get them done, but to let oneself be fully involved in the doing of them.

What a gem this book is.  A wise and gentle guide, psychiatrist and psychotherapist Sue Stuart-Smith walks the reader through the ways in which a garden – being in it, working in it, looking at it, even just thinking about it – can bring healing and solace. Whether people are struggling with trauma, addiction, incarceration, ill health and hospitalisation,  stress, mental illness or grief, there are multiple reasons why a garden can be therapy, medicine and a life-enhancing and life-affirming joy.

Stuart-Smith combines research in neuroscience and psychology, personal anecdotes and stories, literature, history and anthropology with lyrical description to prove her point. Garden schemes in prisons, institutions, hospitals and with veterans, refugees, the aged and at-risk young people came as no surprise, but I had no idea that soldiers, chaplains, doctors and nurses on both sides on the Western Front in WWI created ‘dugout gardens’.

They grew vegetables – enough to make some areas self-sufficient in fresh produce. But they also grew flowers. Families sent seeds; one British officer sowed nasturtiums, marigolds, poppies and stocks under cover of darkness.

What feels homely, what gives hope, what strikes the eye as beautiful, are all dependent on the surroundings in which we find ourselves. Cultivating the earth in the context of a battlefield throws the power of the garden into sharp relief and when so much is beyond repair, to be able to change something for the better is extremely important.

I don’t need convincing. The garden is my ‘happy place’. We don’t live in a battlefield, but at times it feels like it. The constant barrage of bad news and the low-level sadness and anxiety it engenders needs some kind of balance. For me it’s found in planting, pottering, weeding; in planning and dreaming; in standing still to look at new growth or emerging blooms or the birds enticed to the shrubs and trees by berries, fruit or nectar. The seasonal cycles – even the pesky weed oxalis that blankets everything in winter – remind me that ‘this too shall pass’. If I could live in the garden, I wouldn’t have to take medication for high blood pressure! And if I feel that my garden helps me to escape from reality, it also brings me back.

In this era of virtual worlds and fake facts, the garden brings us back to reality. Not the kind of reality that is known and predictable, for the garden always surprises us and in it we can experience a different kind of knowing – one that is sensory and  physical, and stimulates the emotional, spiritual and cognitive  aspects of our being. Gardening is, in this sense, simultaneously ancient and modern. Ancient because of the evolutionary fit between brain and nature, and also ancient as a way of life between foraging and farming, that expresses our deeply inscribed need to attach to place. Modern, because the garden is intrinsically forward looking and the gardener is always aiming for a better future.

 

 

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MOVE!

I like a bit of popular science, and find recent books dealing with the emerging and amazing research on the brain are especially fascinating. This one, by science journalist Caroline Williams, has a practical element too, which makes it fascinating and useful.

Her basic point it that the relationship between brain and body is not best likened to a super-computer running a machine. It’s deeper, more complex and more intertwined. In fact, she says that a better analogy is the brain as chat room, where all sorts of different messages from all over our bodies – internal organs, skin, muscles, joints and the rest –  are humming and buzzing and pinging all the time. And that’s the way it’s meant to be, because as human animals, hunting and gathering in forest or savannah, we evolved from creatures for whom movement was survival.

The brain evolved not for us to think, but to allow us to move – away from danger and towards rewards. Everything else, from our senses to our memories, emotions and ability to plan ahead, was bolted on later to make these movements better informed. Moving is at the heart of the way we think and feel. If we stay still, our cognitive and emotional abilities become seriously compromised.

What happens if we stop moving? I guess we all know – we can put on weight, lose fitness, damage our cardiac and respiratory health, possibly become anxious or depressed or even lower our IQ.
Williams has talked with scientists and researchers all over the world to come up with a lucid and illuminating explanation of why we need not just to move, but to incorporate different kinds of movement into our lives for our mental, emotional and physical well-being.
Walking, developing muscular strength, dancing, strengthening our cores, stretching, paying attention to breathing and finally, resting are all covered in short and readable chapters with a little action plan at the end. She stresses that you don’t need to go to the gym. All of these movement types are possible within our daily lives without special equipment or the ‘weekend warrior’ mindset.

And Williams solved a little puzzle of mine. I am (or used to be) extremely flexible; as a kid I was what we called ‘double jointed’, and could do all sorts of contortions and body tricks. I used to think that being flexible is good, but I now know that it’s actually a case of lax ligaments.
And lax ligaments don’t ‘talk’ as well or as quickly to the joints, bones, muscles and tendons. Which seems to explain why I am a tad clumsy – the toll on our glassware will attest to that – and why I am wearing out my hands and wrists. I exert more pressure than I need to when I use my hands or when I walk. That’s why I have deformed the nib of my fountain pen and wear out my shoes so fast. And why I need to go to a hand surgeon to see if anything can be done about my wear and tear and damage.

Most of us know we need to move, or move more and I found Move! a motivating and encouraging ‘movement manifesto’.

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