Expressing Sorrow

We just returned from the funeral of my 17-year-old nephew. As I cannot express it all adequately, I turn to greater writers, two of the most honest and raw:

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not

–Emily Dickenson

King David knew the pain of losing a child:

Psalm 102

3 For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food.
In my distress I groan aloud and am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof.

(Psalm 102, Bible NIV)

Yet, in the midst of it, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law have hope.

Psalm 102 ends with this:  “The children of your servants will live in Your Presence…” (Psalm 102:28 NIV).

To this, we all cling.

Birds, Naturalists, and Writers

While working outside the other evening, I heard the unmistakable sound of a Bob White. Bob-Bob-White he called over and over. The sound transported me to my childhood in Iowa, where I would answer the bird-call and exult in his calling back to me again and again.

Americans have had an obsession with birds since Audubon first determined to find, in person, all North American birds and draw or paint them. The copper-plated engraving process, both expensive and time-consuming, created a soft, rich, nostalgic effect, as did lithography, which took the place of the copper technique.

Here, we see not only the beauty of Audubon’s hand-painted work, but also of the engraving, identifying the birds, done by his printer Havell. Note the plate number at the top, right-hand corner.

 

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Painted Finch:  1,2, Old Males, 3 M of 1st. Year, 4,  2nd. Year, 5, Female.

[An up-close, high-resolution download and more information can be found at Audubon.org.]

My first introduction to naturalists (as in those who study animals and plants in their natural habitats) came subconsciously through writers such as Louisa May Alcott. After years of teaching and reading about Alcott, I now better understand that Alcott was influenced by her father’s background and involvement in the transcendentalist movement.

Jo’s parenting methods in her home for boys (Little Men) allows for each boy to explore and grow in his own unique gifts and talents as an “individual”.  As a teacher at a home for boys, I relate to all the types of “treasures” boys might bring home, including the following from my own experiences:  sticks, strings, weeds, seeds, feathers, stones, fossils, lizards, snakes, and even a freshly-shot turkey (he had a license and it was in-season, but still!). In Little Men, several of the boys create a naturalist museum brimming with all sorts of specimens, including:

“A snake’s skin, a big wasp’s nest, a birch-bark canoe, a string of birds’ eggs, wreaths of gray moss from the South, and a bunch of cotton-pods” (Louisa May Alcott, Little Men).

Birds Nest
Nests and Eggs of Birds of the United States:  Illustrated by Thomas G. Gentry, c 1906

Audubon stuffed his home at Mill Grove, Kentucky, with similar collections, according to his own journals published by his daughter in 1897. As a way to become better known, he visited naturalist museums all over the country and tried to contribute his work to them if they allowed him to. In the process, he learned from others how to improve his methods and market himself.

He painstakingly drew and re-drew birds and found a way to color them by hand:

“February [1822] was spent in drawing birds strenuously, and I thought I had improved much by applying coats of water-color under the pastels” (Maria R. Audubon, Audubon and his Journals,Volume I).

Here is a drawing/painting which he completed that same year:

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Black Bellied Darter or Snake Bird. Painting by John James Audubon, New Orleans, 1822.

Like Audubon, Gene Stratton-Porter shared a passion for birds, as well as other creatures of the forest, but described them, rather than drew them, in her fictional works such as Girl of the Limberlost and non-fiction articles for magazines such as McCall’s. Rich with imagery, her writing shows us her beloved home in The Song of the Cardinal:

“Every hollow tree homes its colony of bats. Snakes sun on the bushes. The water folk leave trails of shining ripples in their wake as they cross the lagoons. Turtles waddle clumsily from the logs. Frogs take graceful leaps from pool to pool.”

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Illustration Pond and Stream:  Nature Books for Children, c 1906

Books, magazines, journals, calendars, and illustrations from this period of literature were ripe with nature and depicted it in its most realistic forms, perhaps due most to the efforts of naturalists of the 19th and 20th centuries. It seemed to be a calling for Audubon, Gene Stratton-Porter, and others such as Chester A. Reed.

BobWhite

I quite love this illustration of bob whites from The Bird Book, by Reed and published in 1915 by Doubleday. Unfortunately, this talented artist and naturalist passed away of pneumonia in 1912.

He claims that the bob whites “frequent open fields” and build their nests “along roadsides.” That explains why I heard their call so often growing up. Open fields surrounded our house, and grass-covered ditches provided the habitat these plump birds need to propagate.

Reed also had a passion for photography, filling the pages of this beautiful book with photos of eggs, as well as appealing graphics and sketches on every page.

It is apparent that this was meant to be a resource for those who came across eggs, nests, or the birds themselves and wanted to identify them. But, had he lived in the 21st century, he might have been a graphic artist!

I try to remind myself when I watch old movies or read books with black-and-white photos that people viewed the world in color, just as we do now. They noticed the varying shades of green of the soft grasses, the yellow reeds, and the deep-emerald swallows. They, too, knew the white-blue of a summer sky and the cold-purple blue of a lake in the fall.

Perhaps this is the very reason Audubon’s works were so popular. For the bird world is a world of color. He knew this and wanted others to see what he noticed and not just in the grays of a sketch, however well done it might have been.

Thanks to the naturalists who left us records in photos, sketches, paintings, writings, and journals, we have a picture of the world as it was and in their eyes.

 

Popular Baby Names in Classic Literature

According to the most recent data from the Social Security Administration, new parents are choosing names once prominent from the 18th through the early 20th centuries. Here are some well-known female characters and writers from literature and their name rankings from the current decade (2010-2019 so far):

Emma (ranked #2) -This name is popular in the fictional world, as well as the real one. Think Emma Swan (Once Upon a Time) and Emma Frost (X-Men).  Now over 200 years old, matchmaker Emma Woodhouse shows us that it’s attractive to be confident. In a time when it was unusual to do so, Jane Austen’s famous protagonist insists she will never marry, and, though she does in fact accept a proposal, she stays true to herself by holding out for true love.

 

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Emma, 1896 edition, ill. Hugh Thomson

Isabella (ranked #3) – Jane Austen assigned this name more than once (including to Emma’s older married sister). Yet, it is Isabella Thorpe from Northanger Abbey who leaves the stronger impression. Flirtatious and beautiful, Isabella is the friend no other girl wants too close to her man. If alive today, she might go by Isabel or Bella.

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Northanger Abbey, 1907 edition, ill. C. E. Brock

 

Emily (ranked #5) – Fiercely independent Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights, gave us one of the most haunting, but strangest, love affairs in history. Baffling to researchers and readers alike, this talented writer never married and in all probability never even had a love affair. She could have fooled us!

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Emily Bronte
https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-cf0a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Lily (ranked #22) – Trapped between a high social standing and financial destitution, Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart (The House of Mirth) seems to always be one step behind the security she seeks. Still, she lives up to the class and dignity of her name by choosing honor over reputation. Edith Wharton well understood the world of high-society New York as shown here around 1880:

Edith_Wharton_c._1880
Edith Wharton

 

Grace (ranked #20) – Even a secondary character, especially when she is mentally-disturbed Grace Poole from Jane Eyre, intrigues me enough to place her on this list. However, author Grace Livingston Hill deserves first place for creating an entirely new genre of writing known as the Christian romance and for writing well over 100 novels in the early- to mid-1900’s. She understood well the meaning of grace.

Barbour Publishing, 2000

Elizabeth (ranked #10) – “Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy, and Bess…” This children’s rhyme displays the versatility of this classic name. Memorable Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice lives on as a model of the strong, sassy female protagonist. In contrast, Elizabeth (Beth) March (Little Women) lives on as the girl whose sweet nature influences all those around her. [Note the illustration drawn by the real Amy (May Alcott).]

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Little Women, 1896 edition, ill. May Alcott

I like to think that at least some of the many names that remain popular decades and even centuries later can be attributed to the writers and characters of our favorite books. Perhaps Anne Shirley said it best:  “I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage” (L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables).

 

 

Kate Greenaway and Vintage Illustrations

One of my favorite things about gutenberg.org and archive.org (both sites that offer books in the free domain) are the original illustrations found in copies of works from the 19th century and early 20th century.

Under_the_Window

Kate Greenaway first caught my attention with her illustrations of Elizabeth von Arnim’s April baby, May baby, and June baby.

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Kate’s vintage illustrations of Victorian children are both nostalgic and idealistic, of fancy teas and apple pickings, birthday parties, dolls, teeter-totters,  balancing on stone walls, and learning lessons of all kinds.

Kate_Greenaway_-_May_day

In this millennial era where all innocence seems lost at times, I can be transported to a time when moral values were our most important priority in this country. Morality does not mean accepting everything. It means being sorry when you are wrong and maturing to a place that you do the right thing, even when no one is looking.

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How beautiful to see a girl embrace her femininity and aspire to be a wife, a mother, or woman who lives her life for others:

Zeichnung_Kate_Greenaway_26th_March_1891

Not limited to children, Ms. Greenaway’s illustrations also give us a picture of a time when we valued the elderly and respected their wisdom and experience.

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In the end, I most appreciate the imagination of the artist.

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My best friend from childhood is now an artist, and I can only admire from afar the talent of painters, illustrators, and all other types of craftsmen.

Laura, Catherine, Louisa, and Me

Recently, a poll on Twitter asked which book first inspired in you a love for reading. I thought immediately of Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

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This and other childhood books were my friends, their words my teachers, and their settings my travels. Even today, I see the connections between these books and my own life.

Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, I have come to live in the Missouri Ozarks. We often vacationed here, and though I was born and raised in Iowa, I longed to live here. Now I realize the pull I had to the cool, green hills, the fingered lakes, and the giving spirit of the residents was a pull to home. Driving away after vacation with my family, I never wanted to leave here. Now, it is my home, and I have taken my husband (actually dragged him) to the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Mansfield more than once where I am in my element.

When I was thirteen, a friend’s mom placed the book Christy in my hands (long before the movie or the TV show came along). This book so influenced me that I purposely majored in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in college, hoping to become a missionary.

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Instead, God had a unique plan for me that comes much closer to Catherine Marshall’s book. I work as a teacher, like Christy, at a residential treatment facility, where at times I have taught many grades in one room, dealt with literacy issues, and have experienced the stench of boys who have been doing chores in the pig barn (and haven’t cleaned up afterward). Even though I never had to make the trek up that mountain in Tennessee, I have experienced the isolation of only seeing my family one or two times per year for the past twelve years due to the distance between us and the intensity of the job.

Although I wished for more fiction by Catherine Marshall (as you probably know, she only completed two fictional novels), I am still trying to finish all of Louisa May Alcott’s stories. Jo’s Boys remains one of my favorites from childhood. I was intrigued by the unique life Jo led, marrying an intellectual, having a home for boys, and writing in her spare time.

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This past year, my eighth grade class read Little Men. Each one in the class identified with a different character, and all identified with life in a group home. I am amazed at Alcott’s ability to describe in detail our lives here and now, many generations later and many states away (and yes, I married a very intelligent guy, live at a home for boys, and write in my spare time!).

I leave off with these words from Little Men:

“‘It is the best joke of the family, this school of yours and its success. So unlike the future we planned for you, and yet so suited to you, after all…’ said Laurie.” (Louisa May Alcott)

Writers and the Month of July

This week, I heard several different people moaning about the end of summer, even though it is just now July 21. I wanted to proclaim, “There are nearly two months left of summer! Don’t wish them away!”  Then, today, because our patio umbrella was ruined in a storm, we were trying to find a replacement. The manager of the outdoor department at our local Wal-Mart told me they didn’t have any and wouldn’t be getting anymore in stock because it is “nearing the end of the season.”

I got my chance, and I vented in frustration because we had already been to seven different stores by then. Perhaps first-days-of-school being pushed further back (our public school begins on August 12 this year) drives stores to think about school shopping and fall schedules, which in turn affects everyone’s belief that summer is over when it really isn’t.

I began to wonder about the month of July in years past. Did our grandparents think of July as the end of summer? Here are some quotes written in and about the month of July, dating as far back as 1827.

Louisa_May_Alcott_headshot

“July 15th –Have finished “Little Women,” and sent it off, —402 pages. May is designing some pictures for it. Hope it will go, for I shall probably get nothing for “Morning Glories.” Very tired, head full of pain from overwork, and heart heavy about Marmee, who is growing feeble.” –Louisa May Alcott (from The Portable Louisa May Alcott, edited by Elizabeth Lennox Keyser).

792px-Thomas_Gainsborough_(follower_of)_-_Wide_English_landscape

“Summer! Glowing summer! This is the month of heat and sunshine, of clear, fervid skies, dusty roads, and shrinking streams; when doors and windows are thrown open, a cool gale is the most welcome of all visitors, and every drop of rain is ‘worth its weight in gold.'” [written concerning England in July 1825] –William Howitt

inthemountains

“July 27th. If only I don’t think—if only I don’t think and remember—how can I not get well again here in the beauty and the gentleness? There’s all next month, and September, and perhaps October too may be warm and golden. After that I must go back, because the weather in this high place while it is changing from the calms of autumn to the calms of the exquisite alpine winter is a disagreeable, daunting thing. But I have two whole months; perhaps three.” –Elizabeth von Arnim (from In the Mountains)

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“There is a hotel on Broadway that has escaped discovery by the summer-resort promoters. A few have found out this oasis in the July desert of Manhattan. During that month you will see the hotel’s reduced array of guests scattered luxuriously about in the cool twilight of its lofty dining-room, gazing at one another across the snowy waste of unoccupied tables, silently congratulatory.” –O. Henry (from “Transients in Arcadia”)

I concur with Elizabeth von Arnim (whose Elizabeth and her German Garden is one of my very favorite works) when she states that the whole month of August and September and possibly even October are still warm months to be enjoyed.

My great-grandparents (my paternal grandmother’s parents) were hard-working, honest farmers. I inherited the letters my great-grandmother wrote to her daughter and found that July was an important month on the small farms of America in the 1900s.  Grandma Lottie canned everything from tomatoes to pickles, Grand-Dad overexerted himself with haying, and both of them struggled with the heat and few modern conveniences, but I found this excerpt most interesting.

It was July, 1968, and their oldest grandson David had just received his letter from the draft board. They dreaded that letter, probably envisioning the worst. Grandma Lottie expressed her worry by cooking:   “…David got to Fort Leonard Wood midnight the 25th. He told Stevie [his brother] Tuesday night to tell the family he didn’t want anyone but his daddy to go to the bus with him. So I had them for dinner Wednesday. I knew pork chops was his favorite meal.”

Well, that will put a lousy old (or new) umbrella into perspective for you. I found examples of wars, battles, deaths (Jane Austin and Percy Shelley), and births (Emily Bronte and Beatrix Potter) in my search. July was signing of the Declaration of Independence. July was the French revolution. It was July when Neil Armstrong took those first steps on the moon.

July may be a lot of things, but I refuse to admit it is the end of summer!

Gene Tierney and Summer Reading

This summer, I’ve been reading biographies of Hollywood stars from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. I began with the autobiography of Gene Tierney entitled Self Portrait.

She was considered by some to be the most beautiful woman of her time:

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Navigating the early years of studios and productions in Hollywood, Tierney seemed to truly enjoy acting, but struggled with depression after her first child was born special needs (when Tierney caught the German measles from a fan). It seems that the pressures and procedures of the time in which the movie star lived constrained her to place four-year-old Daria in an institution. The book claims that Daria never progressed mentally beyond a ten-month-old, and although she could walk, she never spoke a word.

Tierney expresses the crushing strain she felt, prompting her to continue working to earn the money to keep Daria safe and cared for. Gene was also placed in and voluntarily committed herself to several institutions for treatment of depression, at times receiving shock treatment therapy, cold pack therapy, and eventually psychotherapy.

Perhaps she subconsciously forced herself into institutions, since her older daughter lived an institutionalized existence. Could it have been her way of punishing herself (although there was little she could have done differently in the time she lived)?

Reading her story, I am struck by not only by her difficulties, but truly get the sense of an approachable, warm, girl-next-door type, someone I or you would have been friends with, given the chance. Tierney briefly dated JFK, Howard Hughes, and a prince, among others, yet freely reveals her own insecurities, worries, and pain.