Wednesday, March 31, 2010

David M. Carroll "Self-Portrait with Turtles" & Esther Woolfson "Corvus"

Odd as it may seem, I found much common ground between “Self-Portrait with Turtles” and “Corvus: A Life With Birds”. They are, of course, both memoirs and as such their narrative spans several decades. They both revolve around animals, even if crows and turtles share little common ground in our minds.

But what connected them in my mind was, first that both Esther Woolfson and David M. Carroll love animals as representatives of a wider, wilder natural world and secondly that they were both slightly difficult books for me.

I liked both, but they are the kind of stories that demand that readers pace themselves, read a few pages and then take a break to reflect on what was told, maybe even lay the book aside for a few days. It makes sense, for not only do they encompass a lifetime (though not all memoirs share this rhythm), they are also both written by authors that clearly like to take their time and make their way into the world in a calm, quiet and reflective manner.

Well, I have difficulty pacing myself in anything, reading included, and both these volumes presented a real challenge – I had to fight tooth and nail against finishing them in a day or two for I felt that they weren’t supposed to be read in a couple of sittings. But throughout, there lingered a sense of dissatisfaction, of restlessness.

With both books finished and some days elapsed, a cloud was lifted – then I could really enjoy them, as strange as it might sound. They really are amazing stories.

David M. Carroll fell in love with turtles in grammar school, but instead of evolving, as is more usual, into a pet hobbyist - keeping them in complex terrariums and aquariums - he allowed them to show the way on his life path and to inspire his nature: humble and persistent, observant and reliant, in a word, chthonic.

The childhood hours spent waiting, looking for turtles in the marshes and ponds near his home, inspired in Carroll a deep connection with nature – a bond that led him to shape his life according to surroundings, searching for art teaching positions in more rural, untouched locations of New England, where he could escape into the undisturbed outdoors every day. Even his craft was inspired by the marshes – his first drawings and first poems revolving around the ponds and brooks of his youth.

The notion of “real” nature or undisturbed nature – as opposed to nature parks where nature is “prepared” for human consumption - is a very important and interesting concept in Carroll’s narrative. Referring to a wildlife sanctuary where the majority of land has been set aside, “reserved for nature” and humans denied entrance, the author muses:

“Why, I wondered, was such a true setting-aside for nature so rare in the global landscape? This was no human theme park or playground in disguise – no trails, no ecotourism – just a place for wood turtles and accompanying ecology. It was not a natural resource but a natural landscape. As I looked at the little wood turtle I spoke aloud another of my favorite quotes from Frost: “For once then, something.”

Frost is often referenced, as well as Thoreau and this leads to a third similarity with “Corvus”: a strong sense of place and a deep bond with that locale, its history, its nature and its writers and artists.

Esther Woolfson’s stomping ground is that of Scotland where I presume, winters are as unforgiving as in New England, and summers must seem equally magical. Maybe it takes enduring punishing cold to really appreciate the rebirth of spring, but this author, like Carroll is also able to find nature and beauty in deep snow.

Woolfson’s long line of exotic house guests began, more traditionally, as pets for her two daughters. The feathered variety began with a cockatiel, the wilder variety with doves and their outside house. Then, one day the girl’s brought home a fledgling rook and Woolfson’s tale of corvid love began.

Though parrots, canaries, bunnies and rodents also made their way through the Woolfson residence it was with these native, long-lived birds that the author formed a deep connection. As with Carroll, they led her outside into her natural surroundings searching for clues of their behavior, their life-cycle, their language (the actual birds were all confined to the house, though, having been raised by the author and probably unable to fend for themselves). Chicken the rook, Spike the magpie and Ziki the crow seem to find their way, serendipitously, into the Woolfson’s hands, luckily able to endure a certain degree of mayhem inevitable when sharing quarters with powerful, extremely intelligent birds.

Woolfson also leads us through a history of human (not very friendly) relationship with corvids, both historical and artistic, as well as presenting some famous crow owners. It is however in the daily observation of her house-guests (pets really does not seem an appropriate term considering both the havoc they wreak and their level of independence), her obvious fascination with their habits as well as the continuous looking outside at wild birds during the seasons in order to gain a deeper understanding of her own birds that makes “Corvus” so interesting.

Both “Corvus” and “Turtles” impart on the reader richness, a depth that comes from patience, observation:

“I endeavored to shift into turtle time, the time within time that is neither past nor present but the ongoing now.”

For those of us still too anxious to stop for long, both authors prove that much more can be gained by standing still, and waiting.

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