Monthly Archives: September 2011

Bog Cotton and Other Book Encounters

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a real book review. I read, but never feel that I can do justice to any book. If it’s bad, just what makes it bad? If it’s at all good, how do I assess it thoroughly and convey the worth of it? I don’t, obviously, do any of that lately.

Still, it is no fun keeping all the books to myself. So I’m going to try brief mentions of a stack of them, and tell only a little bit of what got my attention. So as to Get Something Done.

Bog cotton by Loch Glenbrittle
A Shine of Rainbows is one of many enjoyable books by Lillian Beckwith. Everything I’ve read by her has been set in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, and most of her writing is light and humorous. This one was more serious, about an orphan who finds a good home, and the unwilling adoptive father who is eventually greatly helped by having a son. The thing I liked best about the story, which was fairly predictable and mostly an aid to falling asleep at night, was the mention of “bog cotton.”

When I read that name immediately a picture came to my mind of the plant that Pippin and I saw in Scotland years ago. I scribbled the name on a post-it note next to my bed and months later got around to looking it up; indeed, it is the very plant, a fairytale sort we encountered on the Isle of Skye as we began to hike up from Loch Glenbrittle into the Cuillin Mountains.

It’s also called Common Cottongrass: Eriophorum angustifolium. This plant is in the sedge family and is said to grow all over North America, but I’ve never encountered it before or since. These photos are by Pippin, from way back then.

Nothing to Do But Stay: My Pioneer Mother is by Carrie Young, the author of a book possibly more famous, The Wedding Dress. It’s a small book about growing up in a community of Norwegian immigrants in the Dakotas. The pioneer mother, Carrine Berg, grew up in the last decades of the 19th Century; the author graduated from college in 1944. Carrine was a plucky lady who homesteaded on the plains as a single woman, then when she was in her mid-30’s married another homesteader and managed to bear six children, of whom the author was the last.

All the stories of these hardworking people were well-told, but perhaps my favorite, that made me laugh out loud, was about when Carrine decided to raise turkeys as a moneymaking enterprise, in spite of the fact that her husband did not like the meat. The author and her sister were to “keep track of the turkeys” all summer long for four years, until their mother quit the business. “We soon learned that turkeys are congenitally indisposed to the principle of herding. Neither are they compatible with chasing, shooing, or rounding up.”

I also enjoyed reading about the way this extended family celebrated July 4th, as a children’s holiday focused on churning and eating as much ice cream as they could all day long. The vicarious experience of their family life makes me want to read The Wedding Dress, too.

Dust to Dust or Ashes to Ashes by Alvin Schmidt is a historical critique of the practice of cremation. This is likely the most poorly written book I’ve read in my life. The main points were well taken, but repeated over and over, with whole passages quoted almost verbatim from one chapter to another. The author has decent credentials, and I wonder why the publisher did not insist on some editing. Even the syntax is convoluted and confusing, and though Schmidt mentions the Orthodox view on cremation and the book is (I was ashamed to see) published by an Orthodox publishing company, he is not Orthodox himself and fails to convey the Orthodox understanding of burial.

Since I read that book, I bought another, newer book that promises to be a better treatment of the important subject: A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition, by J. Mark and Elizabeth J. Barna. I also attended a lecture and discussion of the subject at a nearby monastery, which included the reading of many Bible passages that lament the breaking and grinding of human bones. One of the unchristian things about modern cremation is that it includes the grinding up of the bones. I still hope that some day I will find the time to organize all my thoughts on this subject.

Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman I had read about 20 years ago, a public library copy. This time I ordered my own book online and got around to reading it when my brain was too tired for anything more strenuous. “Mr. Mike” is a Canadian mountie who takes his very young city-raised bride to the northern reaches of America, where they live through a lot of adventure and suffering along with the natives whom they often serve. It seems to be based on the life of a real woman, whose story is told honestly enough to be believable and to keep me turning the pages. I was glad to read it a second time but probably won’t again.

Echoes of a Native Land by Serge Schmemann: I picked up this book because it’s written by the son of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, one of my favorite authors. Serge was able to spend a decade living in the land of his forefathers and even in the very village where his mother’s people lived before the Russian Revolution, and this is the fascinating account of the genealogical history and the current residents, against the backdrop of 200 years of Russian politics and culture. Schmemann was a journalist for the New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the reunification of Germany. He’s always very readable and fair in this very personal history, which I liked very much.

I will let myself off the hook for a while, having mentioned a handful-sized stack of recent reads. Now turn aside from these brief and dull accounts to hear George Orwell on the subject of book reviews, even if it might be hard to connect what he says to my particular assemblage:

Prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feeling whatever.

Of Earth and Altar and Lake

Mr. and Mrs. Bread joined us at My Lake for a few days. We canoed and hiked and ate a lot and sat by the fire. On the Lord’s Day we sunned ourselves on the deck while singing hymns to The God of Earth and Altar, praising Him for his Wondrous Love that flows Like a River Glorious.

In the top photo you can see on the left margin the brown needles of a dead tree that was the subject of some discussion between Mrs. B. and me.

There’s a lot of philosophy and theology in a dead tree, did you know? But I spent so much time doing the nature study while barely tackling the philosophizing, that my time-bucket is empty. Maybe next summer I’ll look at it again and write, and figure out what I think.


Another dead tree (above), growing out of a hunk of granite that we christened Gumdrop Dome, was more strikingly beautiful. According to G.K. Chesterton, “Anything beautiful always means more than it says.” As I was saying….?

A baby manzanita bush was hugging a rock in a most endearing manner. It’s amazing how often I find a new and lovable manzanita bush in my view.

One night Mrs. B. was working out on paper what she thought about the meaning of things, as the dinner she crafted for us stewed in the oven, and we all enjoyed the fire her mister had built up to a controlled inferno. The thermometer got up past 60 in the daytime but at night dropped to freezing.
Wax Currant – Ribes cereum

Last year Mrs. Bread and I were roughing it alone up there, without our menfolk. I took more pictures then, though now I am finding that so few images in my Lake collection satisfactorily describe the lake itself. Next trip I’ll have to climb to the top of Gumdrop, as I haven’t done in years, and get the wide view with my camera. In the meantime, here’s a picture we took from there Once.

For me the most blessed part of our stay at the cabin was when Mr. Glad and I paddled our blue canoe for a long time, early in the morning when the surface of the water was smooth. The sky was deep blue, and most of the time the only sound was of our paddles dipping. Peace.

California Mountains – How Not to Enjoy a Hike

If it weren’t for our friend Myriah, this hike would have been a huge disappointment. As it turned out, it was a shared adventure that made me thankful for my friend and for my husband.

Just thinking about the hike to Feather Falls makes me very tired, and that makes me want to write only a short list of ways Not to Enjoy a Hike. Because I did not enjoy the hike itself — only the companions. Sad to say, the short list turned into a pretty extensive one.

How Not to Enjoy a Hike

1. Pick a trail that has its descent on the way in, so that even during the first few easy miles, when you are at your freshest, you can be thinking, “What trail goes down, must rise again,” making it possible to imagine the misery you will know later when you have to hike steeply uphill the last four or five miles back to your car. Even a vague dread of the near future can ruin the present pretty effectively.

Red Ribbons – Clarkia concinna

2. Do it in July and the weather will be as hot as possible. Don’t bring too much water; you want to get dehydrated.

3. Plan to take your baking-dry and long hike just a couple of days after spending time in high places where you got used to singing rivulets of snowmelt all around you. This will encourage you to compare your lower-elevation hike unfavorably with recent ones, to keep your attitude complainy.

4. Hike on a trail that claims to takes you to a tall waterfall (the 2nd highest in California), so that when you are dripping sweat and collecting dust you can look forward to the cool mist that will revive you.

This way, when you discover that the end of the trail is at an overlook so far from the water you think it’s a mirage, you will have the maximum letdown.

It helps, if while looking at the waterfall with your tongue hanging out, you have to sit down in the dirt to avoid sunburn and the jostling of other hikers.

Tincture Plant – Collinsia Tinctoria

5. If there is a choice of a routes, allow only enough time for a long-legged 20-year-old to hike the shorter of the two. This way, when you get to the trailhead and find that the short route is closed, your heart can sink right away.

6. Be sure to have a dinner engagement to be late for, or some other reason to hurry through your lunch and doggedly hike your legs off, with your heart doing double-time, on that last long ascent.

Now, the things that kept me from being a total ingrate:

1. The loss of two pounds in an afternoon (even if it was 80% water).

2. Flowers to take pictures of, many conveniently in the shade of the trees, and few enough so as not to be overwhelming.

3. My dear and faithful companions, who joked with me and gave me water and snacks, and carried the knapsack.

This outing was a sort of add-on to our Sierra Nevada summer vacation. We came home for a night and then drove north to pick up Myriah before going on to our trailhead in the foothills of the northern Sierras, in the Plumas National Forest.

While trudging up those last few miles back to the car we talked about how we’d like to hike more together in the future, say, in April or October. I know that any hike in the foothills would be more pleasant during those months, but I’ll vote for going anywhere but Feather Falls.

Monkeyflower – Mimulus

California Mountains – Tiny Finds and Large Views

My husband called to me as I was lagging behind on the loop trail, “Why do you keep looking at the ground?! Look up at the mountains, and the trees!”

We were in the Patriarch Grove of the Bristlecone Pines, at 11,000 feet, in the White Mountains, with dolomite rock as far as the eye could see, as in the photo above. One might well wonder why I would look down at it.

But if you click on that photo to enlarge it you will see that there are vague greenish splotches all over the place. Those are clumps of wildflowers, hugging the ground in mats barely taller than my living room carpet.

I was finding whole worlds of flower gardens tucked under rocks, where several species of the most diminutive blooms would pack themselves together in a jumble. I noticed them, but the sun was so bright, and they were so little, that I couldn’t actually see them very well, or know if my photo was decent.

And I didn’t want to make us too late for dinner in Lee Vining that night, a few hours’ drive down the mountain and up the highway. But now I wish I had taken more pictures.

Lewisia, I think…

I’m home, and the photos are uploaded to the computer where I can zoom in on them and reveal more details, but usually I find that they are overexposed and/or a bit blurry from the wind, and identification is hard. The plants seem to be stunted variations of more common forms, likely resulting from living where there is so much sun and wind, but little warmth and moisture. In this high place the temperature rarely gets above 70° even in midsummer, and frost can happen any night of the year.

milkvetch and an old cone

The purple milkvetch pictured (in the Astragalus family), for example, is a shy and minimalist version of other forms that grow above treeline; technically, we are not above treeline or alpine here, because the Bristlecones are of course trees, but all the wildflowers in this area are listed in the Alpine section of my guide, and the conditions are similar to those in the Sierras above 11, 500 feet.

Pippin sent me to a link from an area in Utah where more Bristlecones grow, and to the Table Cliff Milkvetch that looks pretty similar. But from my poor photo, I’m not confident to claim a perfect match.

Maybe it’s even a version of the Whitney’s Locoweed (Astragalus whitneyi) I saw in the lower grove. That one (below) was past flowering and was showing its crazily colorful pods, and this one 1,000 feet higher doesn’t have any pods yet.

Whitney’s Locoweed and Dwarf Alpine Daisy

Mr. Glad was trying to figure out which White Mountain peaks were which; on the way up to the Bristlecones we’d done a lot of that kind of thing when we stopped at Sierra View Point. Here is a movie I found online, showing what we saw across the Owens Valley: the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada. We had been over there somewhere as little hiker specks just the day before.

The starting image of the movie looks similar to the still shot Mr. G took, but not quite as nice, so I posted his version at the bottom of this post.

Another view that was a quiet and calming feast for the eyes was of these sagebrush-covered slopes, as we traveled that gravel road. The total effect was so much more green and lively-looking than what we saw going west up from Bishop. Maybe it’s a different species of sagebrush?

After this day with the Bristlecones and their tiny ground-hugging companions, we went back over the mountains and then north for the last hilly adventure of our July vacation.

View of Sierras from White Mountains