Sunday, 25 January 2009

Burns Night

A Night Out with Robert Burns, arranged by Andrew O’Hagan (Canongate, 2009)

I was first surprised, and then delighted, when this book arrived out of the blue – I had forgotten that I had requested it on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers. Coming in to my room with a morning cup of tea, OH raised an eyebrow to see me sitting in bed reading Burns, and enquired what I had done to deserve it. I’m enjoying myself, I replied, without a trace of martyrdom.

Andrew O’Hagan’s short introduction to this collection of 41 of Burns’s most famous poems is
part history, part memoir, so that we learn the brief outline of Burns’s life while absorbing a certain amount about O’Hagan’s own Ayrshire background. This contextualising of one poet’s relationship to another is continued in the selection of poetry. Divided into The Lasses, The Drinks, The Immortals and The Politics (with a certain amount of overlap between), the poems are each prefaced by a short comment or, occasionally, a modern quote. These glosses have the effect of creating a link between the poet’s experience and our own, and of helping to make a pathway into some of the longer poems, especially those made less accessible, for some, by use of broader Scots (Burns wrote variously in Scots, Scottish English and English).

O’Hagan has chosen a varied selection, which give a good idea of the range of Burns’s interests, which ranged far beyond “the lasses” – his politics were fiery, and his rants against hypocrisy and injustice did nothing to endear him to the establishment of the day. Indeed, it did no harm to his reputation as Scotland’s national poet that he died so conveniently young! Although a relatively slim volume, it contains some of the longer poems, such as The Holy Fair and Tam O’Shanter (it would be hard to imagine a Burns collection without the latter). Burns wrote many of his poems to traditional Scottish melodies, and I found it impossible to read the first section, The Lasses, without music running through my head. Burns was a major contributor to collections of Scottish music, writing both original lyrics and
revising others, and wrote of the process:
I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom, humming every now and then the air with the verses I have framed. When I feel my Muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper…
Readers will find many old friends such as A Red, Red Rose and Green Grow the Rashes, as well as some which may be less familiar, such as Parcel of Rogues. There's a short glossary to help with the language, necessary in these days of linguistic homogenisation. If you think you’d like to add some Burns to your bookshelf, this well-chosen collection is the book to do it with. On this Burns Night, the 250th anniversary of his birth, there’s haggis and neeps to look forward to for dinner (bliss). The fruit salad which will follow it is hardly traditional in a country which thinks the apple is dangerously exotic but it will be followed by a wee dram of the bard’s favourite drink. Poor
Burns, it must have been hard for him, a man who loved to celebrate the joys of life, to end his life as an exciseman, and I’m not sure that his end wasn’t made sadder by the gross sentimentalisation that began after his death, and has persisted ever since. In recent years, however, his reputation has been emerging from the maudlin image of the “heaven-born ploughman”, and his lyricism, fire and wit are better appreciated.
Burns Statue, Dumfries

Chorus.-Ca'the yowes* to the knowes,
Ca' them where the heather grows,
Ca' them where the burnie rowes,
My bonie Dearie.

Hark the mavis' e'ening sang,
Sounding Clouden's woods amang;
Then a-faulding let us gang,
My bonie Dearie.

We'll gae down by Clouden side,
Thro' the hazels, spreading wide,
O'er the waves that sweetly glide,
To the moon sae clearly.

Yonder Clouden's silent towers,
Where, at moonshine's midnight hours,
O'er the dewy-bending flowers,
Fairies dance sae cheery.

Ghaist nor bogle shalt thou fear,
Thou'rt to Love and Heav'n sae dear,
Nocht of ill may come thee near;
My bonie Dearie.

Fair and lovely as thou art,
Thou hast stown my very heart;
I can die-but canna part,
My bonie Dearie.

* yowes = sheep

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Waiting for Coyote’s Call

Jerry Wilson, Waiting for Coyote’s Call: An Eco-Memoir from the Missouri River Bluff (South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2008)

Both a plea for conservation and the entertaining story of the creation of a family home, Jerry Wilson’s memoir lovingly describes both the physical environment and the people who inhabit the area where his family chose to build their new house. Characters current and historic come and go as the family site their home and design it to require as few extra natural resources as possible. Set into the hillside and heated by the sun and, when necessary, logs cut from their own woodland, the ‘geo-solar’ house quickly becomes a character in its own right as it takes shape in the early chapters.

Wilson describes the responsibilities concomitant with managing woodland, watching the annual cycles of budburst through to leafdrop, replanting saplings and thinning trees, a pattern that began with the arrival of Europeans in the US, who brought practices of land management – amongst them drainage, ploughing and encouraging monoculture – supplemented by legislation which controlled and designated land use. On the heels of the homesteaders came exotic species, non-native plants and insects which posed a threat to native species, and Wilson makes a strong case for maintaining a richly diverse range of native trees and shrubs, reminding us of the destruction (here in the UK, too) wrought by the spread of Dutch Elm Disease, rapid and uncontrollable, altering familiar landscapes it seemed overnight.

Along the way we learn much about the childhoods of Jerry and his wife Norma, and of their plans for the new home; how they selected the hillside and, before anything else, planted tree seeds collected from the streets of Vermillion, where they lived at the time. Early in 1982, they planted a shelter belt of mixed trees before starting to build. We learn too of local history: of the flood on the Missouri in 1881 in which 30 vessels foundered, of the “taming” of the river, with resulting environmental casualties, and of the dustbowls of the 1930s. Wilson draws telling parallels between decisions at national level – to encourage tree-planting, or damming creeks, for instance – with the smaller impact of the changes individuals make to the landscape, such as the damming of a watercourse for aesthetic reasons, showing how even the smallest change may have repercussions; he further describes how nature often resists our attempts at change, requiring ever greater resources to maintain what we try to impose on the landscape.

This book is a song of praise to balance – the risks of imposing too much on the land set against the joy of doing our best to live in harmony with the land and the creatures with which we share it. Wilson considers the wide range of human activity which affects the prairie, from goldmining to the enclosure of livestock to the production of ethanol as a replacement for oil. His writing is informative and measured, presenting his case for conservation clearly and articulately, while his joy and love for both his own small piece of prairie and for the wider environment shine clearly through every chapter. His closes his memoir with an overview of a year on the Bluff, drawn from the daily journal he has kept for 25 years. I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the environment, in land management, or just a curiosity about their fellow humans, for its combination of anecdote and argument. For the serious environmentalist there is a comprehensive index and a useful bibliography.