Argyll with Àdhamh, Part 1 of 4

Ask anyone who knows me well. They might say I’m a magician at turning small units of time into much larger ones. Or, they might just say, as I have said, that I operate on a geologic time scale, at a glacial pace. I tend to drag out projects and procrastinate. Because of this and possibly an underlying difficulty letting go of the past, plus genuine interest, I have managed to explode a fortnight’s Scottish vacation from September 2016 into a series of blog posts spread across nearly two years since this trip.

To illustrate the span of time, here are a few examples:

Scottish Color: A Photo Essay – overview of sensory highlights (posted Oct 12, 2016)

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 1 – my take on Outlander tourism, presenting filming sites in Central Scotland (posted December 1, 2016)

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 4 – the story of my trip planning process, snapshots of planned vs. actual itinerary, summary of our experience, and reflections on improvements (posted March 11, 2017)

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 6, the final post in the OL tourism series, focused on Scottish and more general travel tips and resources, based on our Scotland trip experiences (posted June 15, 2017)

With several in between, but then nothing derived directly from the trip, until now.

This one has been a long time coming for several reasons, or excuses. I’ll spare you those. Suffice it to say I’ve been writing and thinking about this day ever since my husband and I experienced it, and I wanted its expression to do the moment justice in every way possible. And, I suppose I wanted to keep experiencing it for as long as possible, too, without having to labor over representing it.

All things end, but with those endings, other things begin. While it is in our power to effect that transition, to allow new things to happen, we can also prevent it. But the world and we are the poorer for that stagnation. As Mr. Willoughby says in Outlander STARZ ep309, “The Doldrums,” once I tell my story, I have to let it go. So, it is with bitter sweetness that I let go and share, and smile with hope and wonder to think where it might lead.

Road to Argyll

The Outlander Connection

On a mild Tuesday in mid-September 2016, my love for the Outlander book and TV series gave my husband and me our best day of a two-week Scotland vacation. We attended no conference with actors from the STARZ show. No Outlander filming or book sites came into play, as we had taken an Outlander tour on the first day. We did not meet Diana Gabaldon, author of the book series and consultant for the show.

Naturally, Outlander fans might wonder what would be the point of such a day, unless you’re also captivated by Scotland, whether just its romanticized image or its complex realities as well. Scotland fans just becoming familiar with the country, however, can anticipate from this post series new insights, revealed secrets, intimate portraits, and enticing destinations for future travel.

What we did was simply take a car ride through the inimitable region of Argyll & Bute with Àdhamh Ó Broin (AH ghuv o BROYN), a friendly Scot who just happens to be the Gaelic Language Consultant for Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book series and its TV adaptation. It felt like a new neighbor was showing us his backyard, but it was much more because the backyard was very, very large.

I’ve been a fan of Gabaldon’s Outlander series since I first read book one in 2011, after two friends from different circles of mine recommended it. Once I discovered the STARZ show’s existence and high quality, I fell in love with it, fascinated by spoken Scottish Gaelic and inspired to learn what the Highlander characters say, in both Scots and Gaelic, in the Season 1 episodes.

It was perhaps the simple genius of the STARZ production’s decision not to provide English subtitles for most of their scripts’ Gaelic lines—had Àdhamh suggested this?—that paved the way for our wonderful day with Mr. Ó Broin. In watching scenes involving Gaelic speech, the viewer feels the outsider narrator Claire’s confusion, alienation, and suspense.

The lack of subtitles also allowed me to focus on and enjoy the words for their sounds and the shapes made by characters’ mouths. Sharing time traveller Claire’s “Sassenach” (“outlander” or “Englishwoman”) perspective on the unknown Scottish Gaelic language fosters a sense of mystery and curiosity, and, for some like me, a real need to know more than could be gleaned from gestures, facial expressions, music, or interactions.

In a handful of fan blogs devoted to translating the Gaelic from the show into English, I’ve found translations of some of those early lines that inspired me to learn more words and phrases of this beautiful language, threatened, like so many, by obsolescence.

Evolution

As a result, I was one of many thousands of visitors in 2015 who began studying this unlikely tongue through free, self-guided lessons and the two-way Gaelic-English dictionary on the LearnGaelic.scot website (founded 2011). A project newly updated in 2015 with the support of series actors Gary Lewis, who plays Colum MacKenzie, and Gillebride MacMillan, who plays Gwyllyn the Bard, along with Àdhamh Ó Broin, its popularity has greatly increased since the show began.

Soon after I started watching the show, my obsessive re-watching gave rise to posts such as my top-viewed “Adapted Bawdy Lyrics,” a translation from Scots into standard English of the song Claire sings in ep114, “The Search.” Then, on Twitter I began following not just the actors but also the producers, crew and consultants, including my favorite contemporary novelist Diana Gabaldon and, of course, Mr. Àdhamh Ó Broin.

For his social media followers, Àdhamh shares Gaelic words, phrases, and sentences, often translating them. In August 2016, after having passed 20 or so lessons on LearnGaelic.scot, and reviewing some of them, I replied to his tweet of a translated caption about a picture he received of a sunny Scottish day.

In my first reply, I wrote:

Or, literally, “Sky blue ‘n’ leaves plenty for the stroll of the morning”? Showing syntax, word matchup.

Then, I thanked him for adding “sky” (speur), “leaves” (duilleagan), and “stroll” (sràid) to my Gaelic vocabulary. His liking my tweets assured me I had it right. At the time, I tried not to take my study too seriously, since I’m not a Scottish or Canadian resident–where most fluent Gaelic speakers live in certain community pockets–who can practice and become conversational. After that brief lesson, I had no illusions of greater significance in our exchange, or of further contact afterwards.

Although Àdhamh “liked” both replies, he had not remembered them when I later emailed him our Scotland trip itinerary as an informal request for recommendations. I expected neither that he would recall nor that he would reply to my email, but that reply came! And more swiftly and positively than I had dared to hope.

From Whim to Intention

It was a bona fide wonder that he should be available when we’d be in the region, and I was truly thrilled by the chance to meet him and share the day. At first, I assumed, albeit in amazement, that he must have remembered me from Twitter. Otherwise, why would a semi-renowned Scottish Gaelic language expert be so trusting and kind to a stranger as to offer his company and expertise for the Argyll-area portion of our trip? Surely, he wouldn’t just open himself up like that out of the blue to just anybody.

True enough. When I asked him about it later, he told me that it was the detail and earnestness in my planning (perhaps showing an underlying passion for seeing the country) that helped convince him to pitch his services. It’s amazing where a little encouragement and curiosity can lead when the opportunity arises.

We took our unexpected journey through Argyll & Bute with Àdhamh Ó Broin on 20 September 2016. I waited much longer than intended to finish writing about it because I wanted to make sure I did it justice. Sin mi a-nis agus seo agad ciamar.

Sin mi a-nis / agus seo agad ciamar Now is my chance / and this/here is how

Getting from Edinburgh to Argyll

That morning, I had dry eyes partly from growing fatigue and, I suspect, partly from dehydration. Besides, there was no sorrow or vexation to well up, no aspect of the first phase that had gone horribly wrong or had been even mildly disappointing. In fact, we had seen many marvelous sights, eaten well, heard great stories, and slept comfortably. Wide eyed and alert, we faced an exciting time as we began the second leg of our Scotland adventure earlier into its first day than we’d begun any day up to that point.

Having packed up from our Edinburgh base at the Residence Inn, newly ensconced in our rental car, and taking a 2-hour, week-day drive to Arrochar in the Trossachs National Park, I was the most nervous I had been so far during the trip. With my husband driving, we were carving our path to Argyll, waving toward Glasgow along the way, to meet and spend the day with the Gaelic language consultant for the Outlander STARZ TV series.

Àdhamh Ó Broin

Psst, a little advice: When an Outlander STARZ / Diana Gabaldon consultant and upbeat native of a country you’re about to visit for the first time offers to show you around for a day, you find a way to make it happen! Àdhamh Ó Broin, like Gabaldon (though herself a Sassenach), faithfully represents the ageless beauty of Scotland and Scottish culture.

When we first met Àdhamh at our B&B in Arrochar, bagpipes case in hand, he greeted my husband with a handshake and half man-hug, half pat on the back, and me with a kiss on the cheek. Of moderate height, his figure betrayed only trace evidence of a whisky belly beneath a baggy, dark grey T-shirt and black zip-up jacket.

Although Àdhamh sported his usual high-cut straight bangs thin and flat against his forehead, his hair suggested no baldness for pushing 40 years of wear. His robust but uniform beard ran a half-shade darker than the natural red with a touch of strawberry blond haze on his crown. Àdhamh wore well-loved brown hiking boots and saggy-hipped jeans in a medium blue that matched his eye color. He fit the part of the humble, fun-loving person who values substance over style. Our kind of people.

Originally from Argyll & Bute, Àdhamh voices a softened (as in, intelligible to Sassenachs) Glaswegian accent. At the time of our jaunt together, Glasgow was his city of residence. The location is convenient for meeting with the cast and crew of the Outlander TV show, which houses its studios just outside the city, on the way to Edinburgh from Glasgow.

Unplanned Plan

My husband and I hired Àdhamh as a guide to help us explore Argyll. After I devised a basic travel plan prior to communicating with Àdhamh, he then upended my original itinerary. I had thought maybe we’d go to Inveraray Castle, Auchindrain Museum, and perhaps the Crarae Gardens. All of these are probably lovely, but I didn’t feel their lack as Àdhamh steered us to more unusual treasures. The schedule may have been out of our hands, but Àdhamh skillfully shaped the journey around our interests. He had places in mind to show us, but he adapted that rough plan to our interests in scenic vistas, wilderness, and ancient sites.

For my husband’s first-ever UK driving experience, he drove from our hotel in Edinburgh past Glasgow through the Trossachs to Loch Long in Arrochar. Then, for the next 7 hours, over 200 miles of winding, hilly, and many single-track roads, in both daylight and darkness, Àdhamh navigated while my husband bravely pressed on. Despite describing the experience as “terrifying,” hubby remained our DD the whole way. There was never a dull moment, in or out of that little black rented Vauxhall Corsa.

From having perused Àdhamh’s website and the Twitterverse, I had only a vague notion of what to expect. But over the course of the day, we enjoyed 5 hours of visits to chapels, a parish church and graveyard, 19th-century croft ruins, farmland, canals, an ancient kingdom’s fort, standing stones, cairns, wild landscapes, seascapes, and loch-scapes, a canal-side coffee shop, and lunch at a little inn off a boat-filled cove. It was a personalized, story-driven portrait of life in Argyll & Bute, past and present.

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Loch a’ Bhealaich / inlet of Taigh a’ Bhealaich (village of Tayvallich) viewed from restaurant window during lunch. Images © C. L. Tangenberg unless otherwise indicated

Argyll & Bute

A conglomeration of land bridges, peninsulas, and islands, with diverse waterways among them, the modern council area of Argyll & Bute (A & B), sometimes alternatively styled as Argyll and the Isles, can appear fragmented and, thus, arbitrarily collected. It’s a part of Scotland where it’s hard to tell whether loch, sea, or land is more pinched off at its edges.

But imagine Scotland, and the outline of its map, as the figure of a bagpiper in full regalia from severed knee at the English border to feathered beret reaching through the Arctic Circle, much like the frame of the constellation Orion.

If the country’s shape resembles a kilted Scottish warrior—with the Borders and Southwest comprising the pleats below the waist, the Grampian Mountains bearing the shoulder-draped section of plaid, and Northwest Scotland the slanted beret atop a bushy beard—then Argyll & Bute is the fringed sporran swinging from the Highlander’s belt as he marches proudly across the face of the blue-and-white Saltire sky.

And the region is just as full of singular secret treasures as the sporran of Outlander’s Jamie Fraser is.

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Scotland map from booklet Top 10 Scotland, published by DK

The range of Argyll & Bute extends from roughly northeast—beyond where sea-sourced Loch Linnhe replaces the land spread of the Great Glen (at Fort William)—to south and southwest.

The Great Glen is the seam that divides the Northwest and West Highlands from the Grampian Mountains of the Highlands. Though scattered by the sea, Argyll comprises the southern-most wedge of the Grampian Mountains.

East of Argyll, the traveller encounters the Central Lowlands, with its famed cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, south of which the Southern Uplands border England.

Enfolding the isles of Mull, Jura, Islay, Oronsay, Colonsay, Iona, Tiree, Coll, and Gigha, among the Inner Hebrides within its borders, the A & B council area also claims the western shore of Loch Lomond, the Isle of Bute, and the Mull of Kintyre, headland area of the Kintyre Peninsula.

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Argyll section of Scotland map from booklet Top 10 Scotland, published by DK

Argyll & Bute also borders the Firth of Clyde, a bay connected to the river of the same name coursing through Glasgow.

The main peninsulas of A & B stretch south-southwest toward a foreign shore. The extension of the longer, the Kintyre, peninsula halts only 13 miles across the North Channel from Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland shares its island with Northern Ireland beginning at the same latitude but farther west from Scotland.

The Path

To help my family with context for our Argyll slide show, I traced our circuit on a map of the area from a page in Fodor’s Travel: Essential Great Britain. The path is shown below.

The Journey

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In dark black ink, the path we drove from Arrochar and Loch Long through Argyll and back. Label “Dunadd Fort” is obscured by criss-cross marks. Map: (2015) Fodor’s Travel Essential Great Britain guide book.

Morning in Argyll

September 20th, just after 10 am

In the southernmost of the Southern Highlands, close enough to Glasgow to encourage frequent visits by hill walkers and climbers, the Arrochar Alps punctuate the base of Argyll’s Cowal Peninsula like a primitive stone necklace. West of Loch Lomond, and north and west of Arrochar where we lodged, these mountains cut a majestic gateway to the west coast of Argyll. Here we spent a whole day with Àdhamh Ó Broin.

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View from Seabank B&B, 9/21/16. Morning fog over Loch Long, with the tip of Ben Arthur “The Cobbler” (upper left) just visible behind the ridge. Image © C. L. Tangenberg

First Foray

Draped in morning fog, ruddy tidal plains rim the northern arcs of long sea inlets, where up sprout the sharp mountain ridges of Argyll. Some of their bright green flanks shoulder darker tree lines. Whether seen as attractive patchwork or ugly open wounds (Àdhamh saw them as the latter), the swaths are signs of more recent conifer forestry. In a borderland between sea and loch, some waters are fresh and some brackish, and Argyll’s complex web nets incredibly diverse and abundant wildlife.

We launched our day in Argyll from accommodations in the town of Arrochar, near the heart of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. Along with the Cairngorms, it is one of only two national parks in Scotland. Here, freshwater and sea loch fingertips reach up from the heart of Argyll through the southern parts of the park. Our lodging, Seabank B&B, sits on the northeast edge of Loch Long, a sea loch, just a stone’s throw seaward from the large, freshwater, and famous Loch Lomond. The A83 motorway led us to the west coast.

Curling first around Loch Long’s northern tip, we passed Beinn Ime to the northeast, between fingertips, and then began our ride around Loch Fyne. From the north, we cleaved to Fyne’s western bank as we drove southwest toward the Atlantic. The shortest path by car between points in Argyll is never a straight line, and never on level ground.

“It’s in the folds and twists of the countryside, the interplay of land and water and the views out to the islands that the strengths and beauties of mainland Argyll lie” – Rough Guides – Scotland, Argyll

As we drove the glens, Àdhamh told us the eerie story of a woman named Mary whose neighbor’s premonition saved her from being washed away by a rainstorm’s flood in Gleann Cinn Ghlais (Glen Kinglas), meaning “valley of the greenish-grey (or grey-green) head,” describing the color of the hills.

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view of Inveraray Castle from inside the moving car on a bridge crossing the river

Past the town of Inveraray, stronghold of Clan Campbell, with a glimpse of its castle from a bridge, we continued south, where the A83 pulls to the southwest, leaving Loch Fyne’s shores. Eventually, we waved to the Auchindrain Township Museum on the left as we kept driving, drawn back again to Loch Fyne’s western bank on the same A83.

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from the car, near Glen Kinglas

At this point, my husband’s terror had not yet begun since first climbing into the driver’s seat of the rental car in Edinburgh; although hills, curves, turns, narrow single tracks, and stonewall bridges greeted us, it was still daylight, the sun shining. On our way to the coast, we made a pit stop at the Crinan Coffee Shop for a sip and a view of the Crinan Canal, along with some lively conversation where my husband could relax and fully participate.

In the next post, look for the wonder and intrigue of new and deeper mysteries surrounding key moments in Scottish history. We’ll start it off with a cup of joe and some details of our conversation.


Sources Consulted for Argyll & Bute and the Isles

Argyll and the Isles Tourism Co-operative Ltd (AITC) http://www.exploreargyll.co.uk/about.php since 2012

Walking and climbing in Argyll and the Isles: Come to Argyll and the Isles for unbeatable walking and climbing. Enjoy epic long-distance routes, magnificent munros, loch-side strolls and coastal treks – all amid stunning Scottish scenery.

The Rough Guides – Scotland, Argyll: https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/europe/scotland/argyll/

LearnGaelic.scot: a resource for free, self-guided lessons and a two-way Gaelic-English dictionary on the LearnGaelic.scot website (founded 2011). A project newly updated in 2015 with the support of actors Gary Lewis, who plays Colum MacKenzie, and Gillebride MacMillan, who plays Gwyllyn the Bard, along with Àdhamh Ó Broin

Walk Highlands – Argyll, Bute and Oban: https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/argyll/

Loch Fyne and the Coast

Inveraray Castle Visitor Information: An iconic Scottish castle in Argyll, Scotland.

Auchindrain Township, Inveraray. The last surviving example of a Highland farm…

Sources Consulted for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park

Elizabeth Forest Park: Trossachs – The Lodge Forest Visitor Centre – Forestry Commission Scotland

Loch Lomond – Day Trip Loch Lomond Waterfalls: Guided Walking and Sightseeing Highland Day Tours for independent travellers wanting to experience Scotand beyond the major tourist attractions and the confines of a bus.


Gáidhlig Dhail Riada. If you are interested in the rich Gaelic heritage of Dalriada and would like to find out more…

Àdhamh Ó Broin – Gáidhlig Dhail Riada

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Perhaps it is only when we are released from the stranglehold of the deep freeze that we can once again celebrate cold, snowy art. Today between Hogmanay (New Year’s) and Burns Night (Jan. 25), I bring you a Scottish, though autumnal, chill–the blizzard, the wind, the land, and their combined efforts to confound. Still, may your eyes and heart be open wide to the imagery, the sounds, and the impact that only poetry can deliver.

Recently, I rediscovered the work of a famous poet I was vaguely familiar with: Hugh MacDiarmid, celebrated Scottish poet of the 20th century (1892-1978). Again, I became so fascinated with the Scots language he used to effect his art that I started trying to translate the Scots of one of his poems into standard English. A bit more challenging than “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, the poem is also more somber and contemplative. A novice in translation for personal interest alone, I am unsure of how well it came out and some of it I couldn’t parse, but I thought the poem interesting enough to share with you.

The poem’s title “The Eemis Stane” translates roughly as “The Unsteady Stone.” If you’ve been following my series on nature poetry, you may have realized by now that sometimes there is a fine line between nature poetry and poetry that uses nature imagery but operates through a different primary theme or mode. Although MacDiarmid’s poem also uses nature imagery, as with many poems, its true subject is more abstract and societal. I believe, though, that all nature poetry need not just celebrate nature; it can also lament it. In that sense, “The Eemis Stane” could legitimately bear the tag “nature poetry.” It would simply need other tags as well.

Following is a bit about Hugh MacDiarmid with a link to more information about the poet, and then the poem in full with my translation and analysis.

According to the Poetry Foundation,

“C. M. Grieve, best known under his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, is credited with effecting a Scottish literary revolution which restored an indigenous Scots literature and has been acknowledged as the greatest poet that his country has produced since Robert Burns.”

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

Message of the poem

More about perhaps the nature of history and understanding than about nature itself, here is my interpretation: Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. Alternatively, though less likely, it could mean that only history’s obfuscation of events allows the observant man to see things clearly, as if transgression alone, however unintended, is what urges one’s keen attention to matters. Compounded by this confusion, or perhaps contributing to it, is the timing of the attempt: the darkest point of the night, a metaphor for the hardest moment in life, when you are shaken to your core and too discombobulated to make sense of it.

Means of the message

We can trust the reputable MacDiarmid to use the Scots language precisely, but ambiguity is the primary theme echoed by method across the poem. With compound images and multiple word meanings (fog/smoke/moss, fame/foam), unclear things masked in layers (darkness, fog, eerie memories, blizzard, lichen), and unexpected shifts in visual perspective (in total darkness, harvest night’s earth wobbling in the sky as seen from what vantage point?), the reader feels the speaker’s disorientation.

One example of a mysterious reference, the idea of the “words” cut out in the stone literally suggests either gravestone, monument, or ancient language, but figuratively calls to mind efforts to make one’s mark, the tantalizing nature of age-old mysteries, or a foundation marred or eroded by words and time. Then, stanza 2’s double negative (“couldna” plus “No’”) raises further questions of interpretation.

The speaker’s reaction to the confusion is a lament, with the consistent choice of words that collectively mourn: “how-dumb-deid” (darkest point), “cold,” “nicht” (night), “eemis” (unsteady, unstable, untethered, precarious, tenuous, unreliable), “wags” (wobbles, shakes, waggles, jars, dislocates, disorients), “eerie,” “fa'” (fall), “couldna” (could not), “cut oot” (cut out), “fug” (smoke, haze, fog, moss), and, most obviously, “yirdit” (buried). These account for our mood of sadness, solemnity, and empathetic bereavement.

Unlike the poem’s subject, with the help of such words, its overall impression proves firm, immutable by poem’s end. Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.


Read more Hugh MacDiarmid, aloud for the music or for the challenge of deciphering, but always for the artfulness of poetry:

For more from my collection of famous nature poetry, see:

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Lichen grows on a rock at the base of a Nether Largie standing stone in Kilmartin Glen, at the heart of Argyll & Bute on Scotland’s west coast. Image © 2016 C. L. Tangenberg


Two weeks later . . .

My eureka moment: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots


The entire Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

book-cover_The-Good-EarthA fictional portrayal of the full life of a Chinese man from his start as a farmer to his death as a townsman still clinging to his farmland and its place in his heart, The Good Earth rarely wavers from the perspective of Wang Lung. Written in third-person point of view, the narration makes Wang Lung the central character from beginning to end. In so doing, the author delivers an unwashed, complex depiction of a human being who is very much a product of his time, his country, and his land while still being unique in his blend of naiveté, instinctual wisdom, hot temper, and abiding affections.

There is no happy ending, no comeuppance for moral wrongs done, no neat destruction or spectacular triumph. Just the steady, everyday hopes, aspirations, worries, resentments, choices, goodness, mistakes, successes, failures, moral decay, and general imperfections of a man making a living and raising a family in late 19th- and early 20th-century China.

The plot is less a plot than a complete time line of a life, but the story shares the journey through that life as lived by the main character Wang Lung. Although that journey may seem to lag in places, I interpreted those parts to be necessary components of the full picture of this character study, and the vast majority of the text never strays into tangents and never dwells on anything that is not relevant to the development of the character and his story. There is always something happening, something brewing, or something being reflected upon, but none if it feels indulgent on the author’s part. Nothing felt particularly extraneous; much of it felt very essential to a full portrayal.

The issue I take with the lagging parts is that the writing is not strong enough to support them properly. Overall, Buck is a great writer. The diction, rhythm and flow of the text keep the preponderance of pages turning. In part, the meandering quality of the prose effectively reflects the stream-of-consciousness thinking of our protagonist Wang Lung, which associates the book with other modernist literature. Written in the 1930s, The Good Earth, too, is recognizably a product of its literary moment. Still, despite these considerations, the applied technique does not escape tedium in its repetitiveness, which drags the novel down a bit.

Characters, even minor ones, never felt over-simplified. Buck had a knack for revealing personality in the sparest of gestures and shortest of lines. Some readers may disagree with this appraisal in light of Wang Lung’s sexist viewpoint, but his attitude is a reasonable revelation of context-bound character—true to both history and fictional integrity—not any kind of misogyny in the author.

Even the best of men in Wang Lung’s midst held the same foolish and limiting judgments of girls, women, and their places in Chinese society. A very strong current of Chinese culture is the favoring of male over female offspring, which persisted well into the late 20th century, with echoes even today through, for instance, high numbers of unwanted Chinese girls adopted outside of China.

Foot binding, seen in Western cultures as a barbaric form of female bodily mutilation and crippling, was common practice in making women attractive to male Chinese sensibilities. As in too many other societies of centuries past, girls and women were seen and used primarily as socioeconomic commodities and objects of male control and pleasure. To follow some misguided moral instinct of shame-based concealment into the erasure of these cultural imprints on Chinese history would have been not only false rewriting of history but also dangerous hindrance to modern efforts toward equality. How can the past be improved upon if it is not fully represented?

Yes, this is a thread in the depicted culture that reveals Wang Lung’s and his fellow men’s flaws and failings, but even a main character need not be morally superior to be worth writing and reading. The fact that their fates do not reflect a karmic meting out of justice does not make their characters any less flawed, but such neat justice might have made their lives less fascinating. The flaws make them human, and the getting away with it makes life unfair, which is eminently realistic. If reader ennui is the necessary result, I say so be it.

Furthermore, this is the story of Wang Lung, not the story of O-lan, his first wife, which means that Wang Lung’s perspective is uppermost in telling his story. Readers are free to take on the fan-fiction project of telling the same or similar period of fictional existence from O-lan’s or Lotus’ or Cuckoo’s or one of the daughters-in-law’s perspectives.

The question of whether any of the characters was likable is irrelevant to the evaluation of the book as a whole. I never need to love a character absolutely to follow his or her journey with curiosity and absorption. The need for a moral hero to champion is, in my view, a sign of unreached intellectual and emotional maturity in a reader. Such a reader either has not read enough traditional heroic tales to have outgrown or assimilated their appeal, or the reader utterly resists all semblance of the sharp, rough edges of realism, or both. This reader seeks literature to enjoy in an escapist, fantasist quality only. The trouble is that classic literature, often categorized as such through a solid foundation of many readers of balanced wisdom, is rarely, if ever, fodder for escapism.

The more pertinent literary question for me is how does any character relate to his environment? How does he express himself as a product of his environment, how does he navigate that environment, and how if at all does he transcend his upbringing and environment? By environment I mean all those people, places, and things that make up a character’s immediate sphere of influence and being influenced. On the other hand, too, how does a character relate to himself, transcend himself, or not?

Wang Lung is no great hero, but he is no great villain either. Yet this does not make his story a bland one at all. I found moments of great sympathy for him and moments of gritting my teeth and shaking my head at him. Perhaps it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but when a reader spends this much time with a character, a rising affection is understandable, regardless of the character’s goodness score. I found myself rooting for Wang Lung even as I waited for his punishments for wrongdoing, for there are worse moral actors than he in Buck’s story, just as there are better ones.

Moreover, Buck’s drawing of Wang Lung is wonderfully consistent and unapologetic in its nuanced results for plot and character. Although not a completely static character, Wang Lung possesses a frank incorrigibility and pervading tenderness worth loving.

There is relativism, and there is “it is what it is” and “que sera sera,” but The Good Earth never descends into this pit of simplistic judgment. In the end, the reader is free to wonder at the great changes that have occurred in Wang Lung’s life, family, and society by the time he comes to his passing. Glimmers of the wider cultural changes, in the words and actions primarily of his sons, peek through the closed curtains of Wang Lung’s singular, personal focus. At the same time, the proliferation of his family and his accumulation of wealth greatly change the needs and aspirations of that family.

The earth has been good and it has been bad for their livelihoods, but Wang Lung’s connection to the land is what is dying most with him. Even to him, however, the ground lost some of its sacredness well before he decides to move to town. The cultural and economic tides are turning under his nose and far from his sight almost his entire life. Perhaps it is the gradual nature of this change that makes the letting go less bitter and its long embrace less sweet in the reader’s eyes.

Ultimately, like so many, Wang Lung is a creature of habit and tradition. He rides the plow of these principles until there are none left anymore to work such an implement. New conveyances for new habits and traditions plant new roots for these transplanted people. While the fates of his family do not appear to be all bad in the end, Wang Lung sees the ceasing of earth works, or at least earth ownership, as the great tragedy of his legacy. However, there are worse things a family can come to, and they were coming long before the land’s primacy was ending.

In The Good Earth, the land begins and remains a powerful symbol of a simpler time of simpler pleasures, but like all things, the purity of the land’s beauty and the centrality of its importance throughout the story are always both real and illusory.


Reader Rating for The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
4.2 stars overall: 5 stars for consistent, unflinching characterization; 4 stars for vivid description and atmospheric setting; 3.5 stars for story and plot; 4 stars for prose; 4.5 stars for cultural, including literary, resonance


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Book Review: War and Peace

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Camp NaNoWriMo: Song of Spring

For this month’s Camp NaNoWriMo, the first of two annual camps (also in July), I continue and hope to reinvigorate the process of writing my 2016 NaNo novel based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.

Currently, I have a detailed plot outline, my main characters are taking shape, and I’m zeroing in on the kind of story I want to tell. I’ve drafted almost the first half of the story, but many of those scenes and especially several pieces of exposition probably will require significant rewriting to match the second half’s focus and character arcs.

My Camp NaNo goal is to finish the first draft of the whole story by April 30–however disjointed, incoherent, or mediocre it might be. Forward momentum! The summary and excerpt below represent my latest clues to what the final draft may become.

To see hints of the slow, unsteady development of the project since last summer, see this seed, a snapshot on the cusp of its germination, and the small bud of a key scene‘s rough draft.


Happy writing and reading this month, which is also National Poetry Month. For ideas on how to celebrate poetry, visit my list of suggestions from last year. Poem in Your Pocket Day is April 27th this year. Whatever you’ve got going, I wish you the best. Enjoy!

Plus, nature lovers, don’t forget to watch The Zoo tonight at 10pm EDT on Animal Planet, and Wild Scotland starting tomorrow at 8pm EDT on NatGeoWild. My post from earlier this week about TV nature programs and Scotland nature tourism can be found here.


I’ll soon share some other projects seeking fertile soil.

Summary: Novel synopsis-in-progress (drafted 3/28/17, revised 4/1/17)

A fantasy tale based on Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll, Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land re-imagines the second of his two Alice books. Glimpses of original chapters and the use of characters provide a frame of reference for new adventures and insights about the true nature of heroics and villainy in Looking-Glass Land. The teenage girl Song Warber, a Jabberwock, or Wock, wields her singular music-making powers in the struggle of freedom and justice for all Looking-Glass Landers.

A little girl named Alice mysteriously arrives in Looking-Glass Land and stirs up trouble for Song’s family even as both her presence and Song’s threaten the monarchy. Yet, it is only by allying with this alien little girl that Song can fulfill a destiny she only begins to fathom when her family falls into the hands of those determined to tear them apart—the Royals, or chess pieces, of Looking-Glass Land. Alice’s destiny is also at stake as she awakens to the gritty realities of this ailing country. Her triumph will depend on new alliances, betrayals, comings of age, secret support, a bit of magic, open battle, overcoming tragedies, facing fears, and confronting the White King, the Red Queen, and a vengeful Humpty Dumpty.

Can two young girls of vastly different species, upbringings, and worlds ever hope to right the wrongs of the place they inhabit, however briefly, together? The good of parallel worlds may depend on it. And what will become of Song and Alice in the process? It’s a reversal across the chessboard of team loyalties and the realm’s purpose as a land of vivid dreams, uncommon reality, and infinite possibility. Will Looking-Glass Land survive the turmoil?

Hunted Song novel excerpt (3/28/17, rev 4/1/17):

A story was told. Another was told after that. A minimum of three short stories or two longer ones would always be spoken in any given sitting where storytellers and story hearers gathered together.

Every story told was a try on the part of a contestant. It was a storytelling contest. Each contestant was a member of the Looking-Glass Land community, a long-standing member of the fellowship of the realm. No one was new. No one was young. No one was particularly old. The Royals were an exception. The White Royals looked wizened. The Red Royals, middle aged.

Storytelling had once been merely a pastime as popular as baking and walking in Looking-Glass Land. As popular as tea time. In fact, stories were often told over hearths and tea tables and tea sets. Tea things were the natural scenery for a storytelling session. Like other pastimes, preoccupations, and cultural rituals, the tradition of storytelling in Looking-Glass Land came with many rules. There were particular steps to be taken in the telling of a story. Specific qualities each story must have. A certain size an audience must have in number, to represent a story telling properly. Like tea time in England, storytelling in Looking-Glass Land had a certain order of operations to it.

As times grew harder, the wizened, middle-aged and neither youthful nor old inhabitants of the land grew more serious, less playful, less tolerant of creativity, invention, new ideas, new characters, or, eventually, any new stories. The only stories permitted were stories that had been told many times before. Known stories. Stories people had heard over and over again. Stories that became in their telling like the reciting of a pledge each morning in school or the swearing of an oath for public office. Familiar, unoriginal, the same–always the same. Even the wording had become regimented so that each well-known story could only be told in exactly one way with exactly the same words from start to finish, every time.

The contest continued, however. It became a competition in style of delivery. The stories never changed, so contestants needed only to memorize the content, and the rest could take on a variety of bellowing, shrill screeching, whispering, and outrageous inflections, dramatic pauses, vibrations and other sound effects, as well as musical accompaniment of every kind. Even a technique such as ventriloquism had been a trend at one time, but eventually, the crowds began to crave more elaborate movements on the part of the storytellers and from any actors they chose to act out the events of the tale.

You may think, So what? Stories are popular because they are told over and over again. When a story is repeatedly shared, it means it is popular. This can be true. However, the people of Looking-Glass Land took repetition to a whole other level. There were never to be any new stories of any kind for any purpose. Even recounting the events of one’s day to one’s family came to carry with it very strict rules and restrictions. Such recollections could only be so long and would not be permitted to be repeated outside the family circle within hearing range of other families or anywhere in public.

This was at first very difficult for people to comply with, as you might imagine. But over time, with practice, and a few minor adjustments to the rules, as with many things grown easier with habit, recitative storytelling in Looking-Glass Land came into its own. Upon visiting the land at such a time, you would note that it was as if no one had ever heard an original story, so much so that it mattered little who had originated the stories in the general repertoire. The creators had been forgotten, and no one mourned the loss of their memory. Memory instead became less and less important, and forgetfulness became au courant and du jour, as the French might say of more benign customs.

As a result, even short-term memory became devalued and less tenable among the people. This had reached a level of such ridiculousness that an outsider would find it absolutely comical how poorly the people held facts, events, even names in their memory, how few things they remembered while traveling from point A to point B, even just down the road from their houses. A side effect of this was that the Looking-Glass Landers were constantly getting lost in their own neighborhoods and villages, and needed help from a kindly neighbor they’d sought help from a thousand times before but whom at the moment they could not recognize. They could only hold so much information in those dry, unused brain muscles, you see.

The lack of need for invention, creativity, new ideas, or any kind of refreshing of activity had an even more devastating impact. It created scores of demented community members, folks with early onset Alzheimer’s, as it were, though they wouldn’t be able to spell that word let alone hold their own attention long enough to grasp its meaning. To try to remember the term? Forget it! And so they would.

This chronic, permanent forgetfulness applied to all things. There were occasional anomalies among the villagers in the thoughts they managed to commit to memory in their own clandestine ways, even while original storytelling became illegal, in both spoken and written form. Mainly, though, among most of the population, to forget was to comply, and to recite was patriotic. It was a way to pay homage to the stories the kingdom had declared the best, most worthy tales to be passed down from generation to generation in Looking-Glass Land. It could therefore hardly be noticed when the variation in delivery of these rote storytelling activities gradually lessened as well.

Like the flappers on the floating island world discovered by Gulliver, the people of Looking-Glass Land devised a means of support for their forgetfulness, to steer them aright and keep them from wandering forever aimlessly amidst their brooks, woods, and meadows. One of these devices was a system of concrete roads on which were painted in permanent pigments instructions to every destination known in the land to every other destination, as well as labels several points in advance of reaching a destination to remind the traveller that the arrival was imminent.

This worked even in cases where the person was in fact closer to their point of origin than they were to their designated destination. With abysmal short-term memory, the misguided could be guided best only by counter-factual signs and directions exaggerating the distance, the nearness, the direction, and the size of the places people sought to reach.

In fact, in our land, with our far superior short-term remembering skills (trust me, even you with poor short-term memory have nothing on these characters), we would interpret these overdone instructions as patently false, utter lies, and deep absurdities.

And who made such systems, you ask? Why, the government of course! They were naturally exempt from the restrictions they decreed. They became the parents, nurses, and shepherds of their people, and they could do very much as they liked, always, without challenge or correction or fear.

Such was the state of Looking-Glass Land in the years around the time Alice made her historic visit.

Actually, that would have been her second visit, if memory serves. Alice had been to Looking-Glass Land before, and the results of the first visit differed greatly from what that old fart Charles Dodgson professed them to be in his famous novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. It’s really quite funny. For a man who treasured his memories of childhood and later friendships with children so dearly, he proved to have significant memory problems of his own when it came to the fictional worlds he himself had created.

As an outsider myself, from the next country of Wonderland, I saw what went on in Looking-Glass Land with my own eyes. I possess certain . . . powers that made these observations easier. Because of my unique circumstances and close investigation, I can tell you how it really happened, and I will very shortly. I only hope your memory is not so short. I hope that you will be able to learn and benefit from this history–for everyone’s sake. Perhaps having this written form to re-read and refer to will aid you in that endeavor. I bid you good luck and urge you to make an effort, if you can.

Hannah Heath: 9 Different Descriptive Settings to Use In Your Fantasy Novel (Without Using Forests)

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Source: Hannah Heath: 9 Different Descriptive Settings to Use In Your Fantasy Novel (Without Using Forests)

Response – the comment that wouldn’t post:

Great topics, Hannah! Thanks for the photo inspiration, too. I like the rice terrace idea Nathan mentioned.

Let’s see, other settings – canyons, badlands, active volcanoes, forests made of giant stalks of crops (wheat forest!), mine dwellings, something like the chocolate factory, castle as entire world, Africa-like savannahs or bush, underwater bubble worlds, some kind of constantly stormy place.

I’m writing a Through the Looking-Glass fanfic of sorts. I’m keeping all of the original features—chess squares, railway, reedy lake, Knights’ Forest, nearby meadow, Tulgey Wood adding a ravine, Garden of Live Flowers, magical brook crossings, feast hall for Alice’s coronation. I’ve added a river, sea coast, bog, mountains, alpine lake, farm, and Wonderland as the next-door neighbor, at least for now. This is my first foray into fantasy writing, so I’ll have to consider these other ideas! It helped to draw a map.

Does it automatically switch from fantasy to sci-fi if we go to space? Do we care?

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