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Archive for the ‘Nature Writing’ Category

I went to the beach today, after more than six months. I had to buy something from the store, and I thought why not make it fun by going to the beach 😊 I got some popcorn at the beach and settled down on the sand to watch the waves. The sky was grey and the sea was grey too, but there were a lot of people there, and the energy and excitement was infectious. Young people were playing cricket and other sports, young lovers were taking pictures of each other, moms were taking pictures and videos of their babies, and there was happiness all around. It made me think of the old times, when I used to go to the beach often. It is after all just five minutes walk from my home. I remember the first time I saw the sea at the beach near my home. It was a profound experience. Romain Gary wrote about it beautifully in his memoir ‘Promise at Dawn‘ –

“My first contact with the sea was unforgettable. I had never met anything or anybody, except my mother, who had a more profound effect on me. I am unable to think of the sea as a mere “it” – for me she is the most living, animated, expressive, meaningful, living thing under the sun. I know that she carries the answer to all our questions, if only we could break her coded message, understand what she tries persistently to tell us. Nothing can really happen to me as long as I can let myself fall on some ocean shore. Its salt is like a taste of eternity to my lips. I love it deeply and completely, and it is the only love which gives me peace.”

I felt exactly like that, though I wish I could write as well as Gary.

Today’s visit also made me think of all the beach visits during old times. When my mom was still around and my mom, my dad, my sister and her husband and me used to visit the beach and sit there till late. I remember once sitting there after the sun had set and the moon had risen and the waves started coming closer and closer and at one point, it started getting us wet. We saw with our own eyes that the waves rose high and came closer and closer when the moon rose. Sometimes friends and relatives used to visit and we all used to go to the beach. We were the only people in our circle who lived near the sea, and so we used to get a lot of guests. One of my friends used to visit regularly, but the visits went down across the years and now he has moved to the north east to live near the beautiful Himalayas. Before leaving, he visited one day late in the night. We talked for a while and then he left. I didn’t know it then, but now I realize that he had come to say farewell. Our paths have diverged so much since our younger days and now we live on opposite sides of the country. I don’t think we’ll ever see each other again.

We always think that when we part with friends and loved ones and kind strangers we’ll always meet them again and relive old times and renew our acquaintance. But most of the time, the parting is final. Our paths drift apart never to converge again. These days, thanks to social media, we can keep in touch and share our experiences, though we may never meet again in real life.

Today, my mom is gone, my dad has stopped going to the beach, my sister and me aren’t talking, my friend has moved on and we’ll probably never meet again. The sea though, is still there. It has been there for millions of years, since the time of the dinosaurs, and it will continue to be there, long after I am gone and long after the human race had become extinct. The waves will still be lapping at the shore, the sand will sparkle like gold, and the sunrise and sunset will be incredibly beautiful. There will be no one to see it. If Mother Nature is kind, there will be lions and lionesses and tigers roaming around the beach, frolicking with their adorable cubs.

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I was inspired by Kaggsy (from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) to get Robert Gibbings’Sweet Thames Run Softly‘. The title was very beautiful and I couldn’t resist it.

Robert Gibbings decides one day to travel down the Thames by boat and observe his surroundings, enjoy the view, and look at how other denizens who are not humans are living their lives. He wants a flat bottomed boat which is not readily available and so he takes the help of a friend who builds him that boat. Then he takes the boat out to the river, and avoids humans, and lives a calm, serene life for a while. At the end of his journey, he puts down his experiences which results in this book.

Robert Gibbings was a very interesting person. He went to university to study medicine and ended up studying art. He become an engraver and founded the Society of Wood Engravers. He bought a publishing company and published beautiful books which he illustrated with his own exquisite engravings. He also travelled and explored nature and wrote books like this and became one of the first natural history presenters on the BBC.

Sweet Thames Run Softly‘ is a beautiful book. The title is borrowed from this line from the Edmund Spenser poem ‘Prothalamion‘ – “Sweet Themmes! runne softly, till I end my Song.” In the book, in his gentle soft prose, Robert Gibbings describes nature, the trees, the plants, the river, the grass, the insects, the birds, the animals, the frogs, the lizards and all kinds of fascinating beings whom he encounters during his trip down the Thames. In between he takes detours into classics and talks about what Greek and Roman writers thought about a particular topic. There were so many beautiful passages in the book that I couldn’t stop highlighting. The book has a beautiful introduction by Luke Jennings in which he describes the book as – “This is science filtered through an artist’s eye, and the result is wonderfully strange.” Yes, it is wonderfully strange, in a beautiful way 😊 Robert Gibbings undertook this journey down the river just before the Second World War. This book was published in 1940, in the first years of the war, when things were bleak for England and much of the world. The readers of that time loved the book, because they probably thought that the gentle life and beautiful scenes that the book described were probably over and never to be seen and experienced again.

The book is illustrated by Robert Gibbings own engravings and they are exquisite. I’ve shared a few below – please have a look and take pleasure in their beauty.

The edition I read is published by Little Toller Books and they seem to know one or two things about how to make a beautiful book, because this edition is exquisite. I checked their catalogue and it is filled with wonderful books on nature writing – I found W.H.Hudson’sA Shepherd’s Life‘, H.E.Bates‘ ‘Through the Woods‘, a few books by Oliver Rackham, and a biography of J.A.Baker, who wrote the famous, ‘The Peregrine‘. I want to read all the books in their catalogue.

I loved ‘Sweet Thames Run Softly‘. It is one of my favourite books of the year. I’m so happy I discovered it.

I’m sharing some of my favourite passages from the book below.

“During my travels on the river I did not bother much about the time of day. When it was light I woke up, and when it was dark I went to sleep, and when I was hungry I prepared myself some food. And thus I lived as peacefully as any old badger in his earth. I could, of course, have consulted the flowers – the dandelion which opens at five o’clock a.m. and closes at eight o’clock p.m., the white water lily which spreads its petals at seven in the morning and folds them together again at five in the evening, or the marigold whose short day lasts but from nine till three, but I soon learned to ‘feel’ the hour, and when occasionally, out of idle curiosity, I did inquire the time I rarely found that I was more than half an hour out in my surmise. Fog, of course, makes the calculation more difficult, but even mainline trains do not run to schedule in a fog.”

“One of the saddest sights I ever saw in my orchard was at a place where a mown path divides two patches of longer grass. Across this track a field mouse was wont to lead her young, but, one morning, as she did so, a hawk swooped down. It lurched through the trees, fanning out its tail and wings for an instant as it dropped over one of the little ones, and, without interrupting its flight, seized it in its claws and carried it away. I watched to see if the mother would return, but she never appeared again. If I seem to sentimentalise over what must be inevitable it is only because I am so conscious of the wealth of beauty destroyed by every stroke of fate. A fly, exquisite, and in every detail formed beyond the imagination of man, is but a mouthful for a frog. A frog, whose system is so complicated that it can be considered as a prototype of our own construction, is swallowed whole by a duck. A duck is but one meal for a fox, or a human being.”

“I am more and more surprised at man’s presumption in allocating to his own body the prize for beauty. Regarded dispassionately, this ungainly frame of ours must be far down in the aesthetic scale. Why, even our zenith of feminine beauty, the Venus de Milo, is the better for having no arms. And the artist was compelled to drape her legs so that the torso might have a semblance of architectural design. We are, of course, interested in our own construction, and more particularly in that of the opposite sex, but only because our strongest instinct colours every aspect of our existence. If, however, we can for a moment forget that urge and compare ourselves with other forms of life which we see about us we may get a true perspective on the subject. When, for instance, we compare our naked skins with the feathers of the chaffinch or the yellowhammer, ours must seem a poor covering. When we think of the graceful movements of any of the cat tribe, of the speed of even a rabbit or a hare, or of the muscles of the horse or ox, we must realise how inferior we are in agility and strength. Only in brain power are we superior. And to what miserable ends has that superiority been directed!”

“..my friend’s chief obection to my remarks was that without a garden one couldn’t have cut flowers. As he rightly observed, few wild flowers survive for long after they are picked. To this I replied that cut flowers at any time are a barbarism, and that if any one really appreciates a growing flower he cannot get any but the crudest form of satisfaction from seeing a bunch of drooping heads in a vase. No flowers, however carefully or even lovingly they may be arranged, can look as well when cut as they do when growing. If we have a garden there is less need than ever to decapitate the plants in order to enjoy them. The memory of a bed of lupins in full sunlight is far better than the sight of a dozen of them sagging from a glass jug in the glare of an electric lamp. Tulips, which started this discussion, are some of the worst sufferers. God knows, in spite of what I have said, they are my favourite garden flower, but it gives me little pleasure to see them drooping over the edge of a piece of oriental pottery planted on a grand piano, or hanging from a vase on a photo-laden mantelshelf.”

Have you read ‘Sweet Thames Run Softly‘? What do you think about it?

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