Stevereads: Gone for the Day!

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Our book today is Gone for the Day, a collection of the columns Ned Smith did for the Pennsylvania Game News magazine from 1966 to 1969. As near as I can tell, the magazine included the book as a subscription gift one year and it became so popular they reprinted it several times – but still only for their subscribers. If this is true, those were lucky subscribers, and the original readers of these columns must have been luckier still, since there’s nothing quite like the low-simmer enjoyable sense of possession that comes from finding a really good regular column and following it religiously (I guess the closest equivalent these days would be finding a really good blog and subscribing to it, but as with all things on the Internet, it just doesn’t feel the same).

The vagaries of magazine budget and space being what they are – and passion being, as always, unpredictable – you never know where you’re likely to find such a column, and the ones that manage to stay very good for years at a stretch are rare. One thinks of Stephen Jay Gould’s “This View of Life” column in Natural History, or Katherine Powers’ A Reading Life that was lately and shamefully cut from the Boston Globe (and picked up, in a move so thick with ironies you can barely count them, by the Barnes & Noble Review). How I would have loved to be one of those readers catching Ned Smiths’ “Gone for the Day” columns as they were originally appearing, always under their neat little banner (enviably double-talented, he did all his own illustrations):

Smith was a lifelong walker in woods and fields (and, thankfully for the rest of us, a “lifelong writer-downer”), tracking through wooded hills and mountains of Pennsylvania for most of his life, in all seasons and weathers, carrying a battered notebook and a camera and noting the comings and goings, the tracks and passages of the multitude of living creatures he encounters – or just misses encountering:

February 7: A rabbit that hangs out on the edge of a neighborhood woods left an easily read account of last night’s activities inscribed in the snow. Near the fencerow he had bitten off a number of greenbriar vines and eaten large portions of each. The mark of where he had been sitting, and the vines bobbing as he nibbled, left an arc of gashes in the snow. The tendrils and formidable thorns had been neatly nipped off, and lay scattered about on the snow.

That quiet gift for detailed observation runs through this entire book – Gone for the Day easily accomplishes what all the best books of nature-writing do: it puts the reader right there in the woods (or swamps, or arctic wastes, or what have you) with our guide, seeing what he sees:

February 6 [the following year]: Red squirrels are natural-born clowns, and when they don’t know they are being observed they are absolutely hilarious. This afternoon I watched the antics of three of them from a blind at the feeder. Where they came from, I don’t know, but they exploded onto the scene like a troupe of vaudeville acrobats. It was impossible to be sure who was chasing whom as they streaked over fallen logs, up and down trees, and over the snow in blurry, intertwining circles. Occasionally they tangled, squealing and churring in real or simulated anger, then they broke apart, only to resume the dizzy chase.

(There’s even a winning quality of innocence, as that last quote makes abundantly clear: as should be obvious to any less cheery observer, those squirrels weren’t happily clowning around with each other right there on the doorstep of the breeding season – they were ruthlessly trying to bite each other’s balls of and then rip each other’s throats out)

Smith has that wonderful facility for disappearing, melting into the scenery so thoroughly that time and again he catches animals just being themselves, totally unaware that they’re being watched. The animals almost always sense him eventually and then do their own disappearing acts, but before they do, we get many marvellous glimpses from the Pennsylvania woods and meadows and stream banks:

March 14 – A muskrat feeding on the roots of some unidentified weeds from the breast of our dam proved to be a surprisingly fastidious diner. Each time he dug up a root he carried it to the water three feet beneath him, where he carefully washed and ate it. Climbing back up the steep earthen breast he then dug up another and repeated the entire process. Not before he had laboriously washed and eaten half a dozen roots did he notice me sitting on the far bank observing his table manners. Without an upward glance he plunged off the bank and into the water like an overgrown frog.

And the book tries for more than such camera-glimpses – and it very often succeeds. Like most people who consciously make roaming around in nature a part of their days, Smith quickly came to appreciate and gently preach the restorative powers of spending time with animals in their world. Even after fifty years, Gone for the Day still breathes that restorative power – it’s the next best thing to going out wandering yourself. It might prove a bit tough to find a copy, but I urge you to try: this is a nature book to keep and re-read for the rest of your life.


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Peer Review: Arms and the Pan

Peer Review: Arms and the Pan

One critic writes:

[he] seems to treat his readers as horses at a certain stage of their decline are treated by experienced drivers, who keep them going from fear that if they let them stop or slacken they will be unable to get up their pace again. He never unbends his bow. But a table-land may be as flat, and even wearisome, as a plain; and the ornaments in [his] Aeneid frequently are not, and indeed cannot be, more ornamental than the passages which they purport to embellish.

This would seem to bode poorly for Robert Fagles, the latest person to undertake a full-scale translation of the Aeneid. 

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As Charles Homer Haskins pointed out in his humbly durable masterpiece The Renaissance of the 12th Century, the Dark Ages weren’t dark at all. Fiercely cold most of the time (due to a bout of climate change), but not dark in the sense of shuttered. Beknighted, but not benighted.

The great scholar John Addington Symonds (whose absence from bookstore shelves bloody well qualifies him for honoring here in Absent Friends, somewhere down the line) put it very prettily when he observed that any age without Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael must necessarily seem dark. The ostentatious showboating of the Italian Renaissance is the problem in a nutshell when it comes to thinking about the innocent ages that come before.

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‘But hush, for I have lost the theme’…

A party of young people takes advantage of a beautiful blue-sky spring afternoon to have a picnic. The men are all trim and waistcoated, the women wear their hair in shapely turrets, with long white gloves on their hands. Baskets of fruit, an ice-bucket filled with bottles of sweet wine, and platters of coldcuts weight the picnic blanket. The air is clear and the nearby trees are gently swaying. The talk is quicksilver, invigorating.

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Naslund has a pretty good track record with me. Not only did she write Ahab’s Wife, which has its moments, very distinctly has its moments (although its version of Ahab is woefully anemic), but she wrote Sherlock in Love, which is a very good Sherlock Holmes pastiche novel (trust me, I’ve read ’em all, and good ones are hard to come by).

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On May 20th, 1593, incendiary playwright Christopher Marlowe came before Queen Elizabeth I’s Privy Council to answer pointed questions about certain rumored opinions of his regarding the Protestant church and the Christian faith. The meeting’s conclusion was ambiguous: Marlowe walked out a free man (instead of being handed over to torturers, as happened to his flat mate and friend, Thomas Kyd, under identical circumstances), but he was ordered to keep himself instantly available to the Council—almost certainly a warning that further charges were pending. Ten days later, Marlowe was killed in a tavern in Deptford. The man who killed him received a royal pardon, and Marlowe was buried in an unmarked grave.

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Once upon a time, there was only one way to write a novel. You thought up your setting, then you peopled it with characters, and you decided what you wanted to happen to all of them. The endeavor was usually completely solitary, and when it was all over, you had a novel.

Only comparatively recently in the novel’s long history did an alternative to this process present itself. Sometime in the mid 20th century a few writers began abandoning the old method; they began disdaining plot, not caring if their characters were consistent or what happened to them, and complaining about the strictures of tradition.

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A. David Moody recently completed his magisterial three-volume biography of Ezra Pound, and after roughly 2000 pages, it’s perhaps understandable that Stockholm syndrome might be playing a part in his judgments. It’s the most charitable explanation for the sheer persistent drumbeat of exculpatory lies he tells about his subject all throughout the 600 pages of Ezra Pound: Poet — Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972.

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When Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz became Nazi Germany’s Head of State on April 30, 1945, named by Hitler in his will as his successor, many of his fellow Germans and most of his Allied enemies would have asked the same simple question Barry Turner asks in his even-handed and understated new book, Karl Doenitz and the Last Days of the Third Reich.

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