Saturday, August 27, 2016


Speaking of winter (see previous post) this 2016 novel by Peter Geye will make you feel it in your bones, even in August. Unlike Amy Lowell’s indoor winter world of human society, art, and civilization (see previous post), the winter of this novel takes place on what in Minnesota we call the North Shore (of Lake Superior), in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), and in the fictional town of Gunflint, which Minnesotans will quickly recognize as Grand Marais.

Its central episode involves a canoe/camping trip into the BWCA that starts in October and finally ends in January.  In between a father and son battle the winter elements, get lost, struggle to survive, barely do survive a confrontation with their human enemy, and eventually find their way close enough to home to be rescued by passing snowmobilers.

That central episode is like a story within a story in a story that is really about stories as much as it is about a winter wilderness adventure.

The narrator is Berit Lovig, whose late-life lover, Harry, having lost his memory to the ravages of age, disappears one day into the wilderness and is never found.  The year is 1996.  Harry’s son, Gus, brings Berit the bad tidings and begins reminiscing about the family history.  Berit recounts, not only her own memories from the time she came to Gunflint from Duluth in 1936, but also the ones that Gus shares with her, including that wilderness adventure with his father in 1963 when Gus was just eighteen. 

Between the two of them, Berit weaves a tapestry of alternating stories, flashbacks, and memories that follow similar patterns of journeying out, getting lost, experiencing a turning point or moment of truth, then finding one’s way, and eventually arriving home, though, of course, there are those that experience a moment of lies, never do find their way, and are never found, marked only by traces left behind, sometimes in physical form, like the cenotaph erected in honor of Harry, sometimes in someone’s fading memory, sometimes in a story that may or may not bear any resemblance to truth.  Disappearance, it seems, is as much a part of the story as being found.

History and memory, fact and fiction, truth and lies, knowledge and false belief are the themes that tie these stories together.  Harry has lost his memory; Gus is a high school history teacher.  Berit recounts her memories and the local folklore while at the same time turning the building where she had lived and worked with Harry’s estranged mother into a museum of local history.  She discovers some letters written by Gus’s great-grandmother to her parents in Norway but never mailed.  The letters are historical “records,” but they contain the lie that she had married and borne a son, though everyone “knows” that Harry’s father was a “misbegotten” child of rape in a logging camp.   Harry had witnessed a murder, but it is reported as a tragic accident.  Harry’s rival and enemy, Charlie, whose own life was based on lies and deceit, disappears in the wilderness and is never found, but Gus knows where Charlie’s “cenotaph,” a pile of bones, can be found. 

The word “wilderness” means “place of wild beasts,” and Harry and Gus encounter a few in their wilderness adventure, along with bitter cold, blizzards, huge snow drifts, rushing water, fog, and ice.  But men can also be beasts that prey on one another, and they can be found in town as well as in the wilds.  Similarly, the domesticated life in town can be a wilderness of stories, some of which pass as history and in which one can get lost in lies and may or may not ever find one’s way to the truth.  Such is the challenge of both ordinary people and professional historians.

Wintering is also a coming of age story for Gus, as he pits himself against the elements and ends up saving both himself and his father.  For Berit it’s the story of her adopted family, the Eides.  Rebecca, who had abandoned her husband and son early on and remained estranged, had hired Berit, at age 16, from Duluth, to live with her and work in the local “apothecary,” the original lighthouse keeper’s quarters, which Berit later turns into a museum.  Rebecca’s son, Harry, also age 16, witnesses his father, Odd, disappear, never to be found, when the ice floe he’s fishing from breaks loose and floats away..  He takes refuge in the apothecary, which also doubles as the town post office, and meets Berit for the first time.  It means little to him, but she falls in love, and waits, until after Harry’s divorce, when he shows up at Berit’s door with a bouquet of butterworts, her moment of truth, or, as she calls it, fate. Berit never has children, but, clearly, she is like a surrogate mother to Gus.  Thus the novel is a family saga and a story of late life, “winter” romance, as well as a coming of age and a journey into the “heart of darkness” to be found in the wilderness as well as in the human heart and mind.

What is the significance of these stories, some true, some false in the world of the novel, all fictional in the world of the reader?  Can “truth” be false?  Can recorded history include that which is false and leave out so much that it is hardly the “whole truth”?  Can fiction be true?  Can stories, which may be factually false, convey a symbolic or metaphorical truth?  I have argued so repeatedly in this blog.

The stories in Wintering embody age-old universal myths of trial and quest, initiation, the fall from innocence, death and rebirth (being lost and found), journeys outward, journeys to the self, homecoming, romance, good and evil, crime and punishment, love and hate, truth and falsehood, discovery, and disappearance.  We all experience these stories in our own ways and we can thus reenact our own stories as we read these “fictions.”

Historically, Berit’s memories, stories, and artifacts represent the immigrant experience in North America, the leaving of home and family, the journeying out, the encounter with an alien world that can be both sweet and sour, the struggle to survive, the building of a new life, the making of a family legacy, and the creation of a new identity.

Even when these stories are based on lies, they give meaning to our human experience, which is why we love to tell them, to hear them, to read and write them.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

"Summer": A Meditation

Summer is an active time of year when we spend more time outside, enjoying nature, attending outdoor events, vacationing and, despite ragweed and mosquitoes, mostly reveling in the sensory pleasures of long sunny days and a green, growing world.  In mythology summer represents the prime of nature, vitality, fertility, and the fullness of life, before the decline of nature in fall and its “death” in winter.

According to this pattern I’ve been spending my summer gardening and appreciating the backyard pleasures of birds, blooms, and nature’s bounty, as one might surmise from the neglect of this blog.  In search of an appropriate reading to end this neglect, I began looking for a “summer” poem.  One interesting observation is that there seem to be more poems about the end of summer than about its full glory, perhaps because poetry is more contemplative than active, and the end of summer reminds us of the decline and fall to come, inspiring us to poetic meditation.

Amy Lowell’s 1912 meditation on summer (see previous post), however, takes us in a different direction, making the case for the indoor life of winter, of city life over “fields and woods,” of intellectual effort over sensory delights, of human interaction, art, civilization and the life of the mind.

Lowell invokes the ancient debate over rural vs. urban, body vs. mind, nature vs. the human realm of intellect, art, and society.  Of course, it’s a false dichotomy since it is no doubt natural for humans to gather in society, to think, to create artifacts, to “improve” on nature, and seek to mitigate the dark side of “tooth and claw.”  Nature is as fraught with death and danger in summer as it is with life and growth.  And, as Lowell reminds us, the world of art and civilization in winter can be full of “the pulse and throb of life.”

Curiously, though, Lowell’s poem, while it ostensibly favors the “human world,” seems to spend as much or more effort on the pleasures of nature at full bloom in summer as it does on the “labor,” “inspiration,” and “vivid life of winter months.”  The strongest images in the poem summon “the voice of waters,” “great winds,” “sunshine and flowers,” “moonlight playing,” a “sleeping lake,” “nodding ferns,” “the blue crest of the distant mountain,” and “the green crest of the hill…”  The power of the nature imagery seems to undercut the stated preference of the poem for city life and human society.

Yet the structure and style of the poem support the value of art and civilization.  Written in traditional blank verse, the poem parallels the Greek choral structure of strophe, antistrophe, and epode.  Lines 1-12 focus on those who find “inspiration” in nature and consider the city to be “a prison house.”  Line 13 makes a turn, renouncing the preference for nature but, in the same line, announcing, “I love the earth…” Lines 14-29 develop the speaker’s love of nature in lavish detail, but in line 30, again there is a turn; and the final 12 lines develop her preference for “the human world,” which is “like a lantern shining in the night/To light me to a knowledge of myself.”

The poem could be read as contradictory, perhaps unconsciously revealing a preference for nature in an argument for human society, or it could be read as representing a fragile balance between the love of both.  Despite her love of the active, outdoor life of summer, she longs for the contemplative, indoor life of winter.

So what?  Is “Summer” merely an expression of the poet’s perhaps conflicting preferences?  Or is there more to it?

The style and structure, as well as the stated preference for art and civilization over nature suggest a classic, somewhat aristocratic, certainly upper class, perhaps elitist, perspective.  Some readers may even hear a quasi-imperialistic message of Western dominance.  Others will note how, if there is such a message, it is clearly undercut by the honorific tone in the nature imagery, with its implicit celebration of the romantic, the democratic, and all that is wild and uncultivated. 

Contemporary readers may well note that nature is gendered as “she,” a traditional way of associating women with the body, as opposed to the mind.  Some may even speculate on the possibility of a subliminal message of conflicted sexuality.

Mythologically, the poem invokes the universal contrast between youth and age, life and death, body and mind, nature and art.

However you choose to read it, Amy Lowell’s “Summer” is more than simple self-expression.  It is more like self-reflection or an extended meditation, in which the speaker develops a complex identity with a complex relationship to her world.

And with that, I return to the pleasures of my summer, with greater anticipation of and appreciation for the pleasures of winter to come.


Some men there are who find in nature all
Their inspiration, hers the sympathy
Which spurs them on to any great endeavor,
To them the fields and woods are closest friends,
And they hold dear communion with the hills;
The voice of waters soothes them with its fall,
And the great winds bring healing in their sound.
To them a city is a prison house
Where pent up human forces labour and strive,
Where beauty dwells not, driven forth by man;
But where in winter they must live until
Summer gives back the spaces of the hills.
To me it is not so. I love the earth
And all the gifts of her so lavish hand:
Sunshine and flowers, rivers and rushing winds,
Thick branches swaying in a winter storm,
And moonlight playing in a boat’s wide wake;
But more than these, and much, ah, how much more,
I love the very human heart of man.
Above me spreads the hot, blue mid-day sky,
Far down the hillside lies the sleeping lake
Lazily reflecting back the sun,
And scarcely ruffled by the little breeze
Which wanders idly through the nodding ferns.
The blue crest of the distant mountain, tops
The green crest of the hill on which I sit;
And it is summer, glorious, deep-toned summer,
The very crown of nature’s changing year
When all her surging life is at its full.
To me alone it is a time of pause,
A void and silent space between two worlds,
When inspiration lags, and feeling sleeps,
Gathering strength for efforts yet to come.
For life alone is creator of life,
And closest contact with the human world
Is like a lantern shining in the night
To light me to a knowledge of myself.
I love the vivid life of winter months
In constant intercourse with human minds,
When every new experience is gain
And on all sides we feel the great world’s heart;
The pulse and throb of life which makes us men!
Amy Lowell ( 1874-1925)