Category Archives: books

As the opium smoker to his pipe.

“Some people read for instruction, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit, and I suppose that this is neither innocent nor praiseworthy. Of that lamentable company am I. Conversation after a time bores me, games tire me and my own thoughts, which we are told are the unfailing resource of a sensible man, have a tendency to run dry. Then I fly to my book as the opium-smoker to his pipe. I would sooner read the catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores or Bradshaw’s Guide than nothing at all, and indeed I have spent many delightful hours over both these works. At one time I never went out without a second-hand bookseller’s list in my pocket. I know no reading more fruity.

“Of course to read in this way is as reprehensible as doping, and I never cease to wonder at the impertinence of great readers who, because they are such, look down on the illiterate. From the standpoint of what eternity is it better to have read a thousand books than to have ploughed a million furrows? Let us admit that reading with us is just a drug that we cannot do without—who of this band does not know the restlessness that attacks him when he has been severed from reading too long, the apprehension and irritability, and the sigh of relief which the sight of a printed page extracts from him?—and so let us be no more vainglorious than the poor slaves of the hypodermic needle or the pint-pot.

“And like the dope-fiend who cannot move from place to place without taking with him a plentiful supply of his deadly balm I never venture far without a sufficiency of reading matter.”

-W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), “The Book-Bag,” Collected Short Stories, Vol. IV

Shame or no shame… Middlemarch.

I had a brilliant idea for my concluding blog post about Middlemarch, which I read as part of an online read-along that Arti initiated. We were pretty much finished by the end of June. Even I had read the last page before the last day of that month, but I’ve been ruminating and composing in my mind for weeks more now, with nothing substantial to show for it.

The title of my article would be “Shame-Bearers of Middlemarch,” and I had in mind Dorothea, Lydgate, Mrs. Bulstrode, and probably some others. But I have decided that I don’t know enough about shame or about the characters of Middlemarch, even if I have read the book twice, and read a few articles by Fr. Stephen Freeman on the subject of shame, and… well, nothing more, really.

The world of this novel is so vast and deep, it gives me the feeling of having only passed through briefly, and making the barest acquaintance with the rich characters. Eliot has been generous to let us listen in on conversations, even within the townspeople’s own hearts, but I find I still don’t have don’t have enough material to give me confidence in my thesis.

I don’t feel any shame in admitting my paucity of wisdom, though I do feel a little embarrassment at my feeble farewell. I am humbled in the face of this magnificent book. It really is worth reading many times, but I fear that I didn’t get started early enough in life. Thank you, Arti, for prompting this read, which has been so worthwhile, and thank you to Pippin for letting me revisit and use her lovely photos of England; now I think I will watch the TV series!

Caleb’s my man.

I came to the last page of Middlemarch, and it’s not even the last day of June! Ah, but now begins the work that is harder than the reading: sifting and organizing my thoughts about the story and stories of that novel so as to write some of them here in a way that might edify.

In the meantime, I have to say that I love the character of Caleb Garth more than anyone. His kind of “business” is not at all what people think of these days who are majoring in Business in college. They often think mostly of making a living somehow, but Caleb is intent on improving the land and doing good by people, the livestock and the earth. He often forgets to make provision for his own financial needs, and loves nothing better, as he says to his wife, than:

“…to have a chance of getting a bit of the country into good fettle, as they say, and putting men into the right way with their farming, and getting a bit of good contriving and solid building done — that those who are living and those who come after will be the better for. I’d sooner have it than a fortune. I hold it the most honourable work that is.” … “It’s a great gift of God, Susan.”

“That it is, Caleb,” said his wife, with answering fervor. “And it will be a blessing to your children to have had a father who did such work: a father whose good work remains though his name may be forgotten.”

A good man or woman adorns the earth by his presence alone, but if in addition he is able to oversee the wise management of farms and estates, with honesty and without greed, it is satisfying and holy work.

The last two weeks I’ve been working at less enduring tasks, but I’m still pleased with the results. Of course, there is always my garden which I tend. In the third year of being on my own I became acutely aware of the importance to my heart and psyche of my house as well, of the whole property that is mine alone now, and which I manage and am responsible for. The changes in my feelings are complicated and subtle; I see how God and His angels carried me through the time when I seemed to have little strength of will to apply. Now we will see how He guides me in this new phase when I am ready to participate more fully in my own affairs!

I’m working on the sourdough bread experiments again — yes, and they result in very short-lived products of my efforts, being highly desirable consumables. Today a Swedish seeded sourdough rye boule that is still rising will be cooked in the Dutch oven. Last week, these loaves:

But no time yet, to dwell on details of dough and ovens, or on great themes of Middlemarch, because Pippin (who took the photo in England above, by the way) is arriving with two grandchildren for a few days. I’ll be taking care of Ivy (almost 6) and Jamie (3) while she attends a conference for work nearby. Scout won’t be in the group because he is backpacking with his father.

I’ve joined a book group of women in my parish. I didn’t finish the recent read, but I’m confident that I’ll have time to read Fidelity by Wendell Berry before our next discussion this summer.

My computer is giving me fits as usual, and the Computer Guy is on his way, so I will get back to my real, tangible work now, and give him this space, and see you next week! May your summer reading and work be satisfying.

Growing a littler fruit tree.

Ann Ralph does make it seem easy. She is all about the backyard gardener being the one in control, managing the tree, and not letting it decide on its own how big to get.

If you didn’t have to climb a ladder to tend your fruit trees or pick the fruit, wouldn’t you find it simpler to keep up with the maintenance and to enjoy the harvest? Most of us don’t need bushels of fruit from one tree, so it’s good stewardship to reduce the quantity of fruit likely to go unused anyway.

I read her book in the fall, and wished I had known about it when we were choosing trees at the nursery two years ago, because you can make the most of this method if you start with a specimen that has a couple of lower-than-average limbs to begin with. Mine are not ideal that way, but I think I can still be the boss. I pruned my plum trees severely before Christmas; but at the summer solstice, according to her plan, they should get their second pruning. I did that a day late, this morning. It took me exactly 50 minutes – I know, because I had set my timer so I wouldn’t be late for an appointment.

I had reviewed the pertinent paragraphs right before I set to work, so as I walked around the tree and made some preliminary cuts, and circled around to the other side to look from that perspective, and on and on in that fashion, I had some  phrases lingering in my mind to guide me and give me confidence:

If you see something that cries to be corrected or pruned away, prune it. As always, prune out limbs that annoy you. Picture the height of the tree you have in mind. Don’t allow the tree to get taller. As Scenic Nursery’s Jim Rogers would remind us, “insist.”

Limbs that annoy me? Well, yes, I did find a few of those, that were angled down, or toward the center of the tree; maybe there were a couple that just seemed a little pushy in the wrong direction and not beautiful…. Must we analyze every annoyance?

I wish I had taken a Before picture. In this After picture you can see I hadn’t really finished, because the clippings are lying all over. But I have just hired someone to help me in the garden on a continuing basis — my heart is dancing for joy about it — and will let him do that part (as well as trim the wisteria vines which are coming into the picture from above, hoping to twist on down into the tree).

In the foreground below are yarrow, lavender, and hummingbird mint, favorites of the birds and bees. The picture is taken from a different angle on the same tree. Both of these pictures make me wonder if I shaped my trees enough… those gangly limbs… I trimmed them less because they had the nice curve and direction I am encouraging. They are small and not getting out of hand, so I thought they could wait until the main pruning in winter.

I’m feeling so relieved and restful about the garden now that I’ve engaged my Helper Gardener, cleaned the greenhouse, and pruned the plums. I can think about tackling a few other categories of projects and tasks on my to-do list. And also, sit down in the garden with a book, listening to the hum of contented pollinators.

a contributor to the hum, on the teucrium