At an Academy event held in Seattle, Washington, author Annie Proulx described some surprising places her research has led: from accusations of plagiarism against Alfred, Lord Tennyson to obsessive lepidopterists and images of long-lost swamplands. Following her opening remarks, she joined Shawn Wong, professor of English, in conversation. An edited version of her presentation and discussion with Professor Wong follows.
2086th Stated Meeting | November 19, 2019 | University of Washington | Morton L. Mandel Public Lecture
Annie Proulx is the author of eight books, including the novel The Shipping News and the three-volume Wyoming Stories collection. Her most recent novel Barkskins is in production for a television series. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2014.
After years in Wyoming I have tried to adjust to the Pacific Northwest by getting involved in citizen science projects in Port Townsend. One day, I walked on the beach with a geologist friend who pointed out a dark layer of peat near the bottom of Fort Worden Feeder Bluff. The peat was compressed, she said, by the successive weight of several glaciers a hundred thousand years ago. I was interested in that flattened layer, but peatlands are complex and range across a continuum of identities from tidal marsh to fen, from fen to bog, from bog to swamp, and from swamp to parking lot or soybean field. The deeper I waded into the subject, the more I encountered side paths away from the main topic. A few of those are my subject tonight.
The Fens. I began with historian Eric Ash’s book, The Draining of the Fens. These were the famous uninterrupted Fenlands along England’s east coast. Ash’s study showed how vested interests, political clout, and tailored legislation of the English drainage projects obliterated a vast wetland and shaped a modern nation-state at the cost of its ancient ecology. Historians David Hall and John Cole in the English Heritage Fenland survey wrote that the Fens were a source of wealth that could hardly be surpassed by any other natural environment. But the important upland people who ran England in the sixteenth century would not have agreed. To them, wealth was measured not in eels and reeds but in income from dryland grain crops, cattle, sheep, and large-scale farming. Today, East Anglia, once prime Fenland, has monofarms of cereal grains and looks like the giant fields of the American Midwest and the Canadian Midwest.
A sound we will never hear is described in Charles Kingsley’s 1873 Prose Idylls–bird gunners at Whittlesea Fen, where over the years hundreds of thousands of these birds were shot by market gunners. “Down the wind came the boom of the great stanchion gun and after that sound another sound, louder as it neared and overhead rushed and whirled the skeins of terrified wildfowl screaming, piping, clacking, croaking, filling the air with the hoarse rattle of their wings while clear above all sounded the wild whistle of the curlew and the trumpet note of the great wild swan. They are all gone now.”
Eric Ash often referred to the book The Fenland, Past and Present. I ordered a print-on-demand facsimile copy of the original, published in 1878 and written by meteorologist Samuel H. Miller and geologist Sydney B.J. Skertchly. This was the first descriptive history of the Fens. When the book arrived, I glanced through the subscribers’ list hoping to find luminaries of the day. Darwin was still alive; he might have subscribed. Far down the list I saw the name of Alfred, Lord Tennyson followed by a black blotch. An inky pen had obliterated “poet laureate” and above the scratched-out words had written “plagiarist and ass” [laughter] in spiky anonymous strokes of his pen. Who wrote this? The author of the insult must have been the original owner, who never dreamed an entity called Google Books would lay it bare to future readers.
Since I knew nothing of the defacer but his strong masculine handwriting, I thought of him as the Acerbic Hand. I gave up the idea that he might be a jealous fellow poet. The Acerbic Hand objected to Tennyson’s use of slant rhyme pairs such as “flats” and “cataracts.” He wanted balance both in sound and spelling and scrawled, “There never was a more effeminate, rotten-minded, milquetoast than plagiarist Tennyson.” The Acerbic Hand would have had a bad time with today’s hip-hop and rap, where masters of slant rhyme reign. He put check marks beside the names of more than 250 butterflies and I wondered if he were a butterfly collector. That of course led me to nineteenth-century English lepidopterists. Christine Cheater, in her essay on collectors, wrote, “By the mid-nineteenth century the pursuit of nature had become a craze.” The feverish avidity of these collectors has been variously linked to the expansion of the British Empire, romanticism, nationalism, the birth of the natural history museum, and interior decorating. A powerful example of the collector’s passion is Alfred Russel Wallace’s account of the first sight of ornithoptera croesus, aka the golden birdwing, a denizen of damp Indonesian forests. He wrote, “My heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head. I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache for the rest of the day.”
Among the collectors I found the ill-starred Genevieve Estelle Jones of Circleville, Ohio, who was born in 1847. The Jones family collected bird nests and eggs. The daughter, Genny, was gifted, extremely intelligent, and five foot ten-and-a-half inches tall at a time when the average man was five foot eight. The Jones family had often remarked on the absence of nests and eggs in Audubon’s famous Birds of America. A still unidentified character enters this story. Genny had a beau, a man ten years older than she. They wanted to marry, but the beau was a binge drinker. Genny’s father said that the beau had to stay sober for one year before he would allow a marriage. The beau failed the test miserably and parental permission for the marriage was not given. Genny was despondent until her father suggested that she should make the illustrated book of nests and eggs they had so often imagined, and that it should be rigorously and scientifically accurate. The first part of the book appeared in 1879 and it was a great success, but a month later Genny came down with typhoid fever and died at age thirty-two. The beau, blaming himself, committed suicide. Genny’s beau, the never-identified drinker, diverted my interest to James Swan, the binge drinker from Boston who, to spare his family shame, went to the remote Olympic peninsula where he lived the rest of his life collecting tribal artifacts for the Smithsonian museum and drinking with his close friend, S’Klallam chief Chetzemoka. Of course, once on this track I wanted to find more nineteenth-century alcoholics who between bouts of staggering drunkenness practiced various occupations with brilliance, but I returned to the peatlands.
Long before the glaciers melted and made the Fens, the area was low-lying forest. There was no English Channel and England was not an island, but the western edge of the huge land mass later known as Europe and Asia. The two-hundred-thousand-square-mile area between today’s England and Eurasia existed as forests and wide plains. This was Doggerland, the lost country under the North Sea where people lived for millennia. But ten thousand years ago the glacial ice began to melt and by 6500 BC the North Sea crept slowly across the low ground until an underwater landslide known as the Storegga Slide of 6100 BC caused a mega tsunami that catastrophically flooded Doggerland. For centuries afterward Dutch fishermen hauled in pieces of trees, bones, flint, shells, and solid pieces of old peat they called moor log. Archaeologists became very alert when they identified bones from extinct hippos, mammoths, and mastodons. Then in 1931, the English trawler Colinda, fishing on Brown Bank, brought up the usual bottom debris of moor log, tree branches, bones, and something else. In a large block of peat there was a prehistoric antler object then believed to be a harpoon point but later identified as an agricultural tool. The antler point caught by the Colinda had a radiocarbon date of 11,740 BC plus or minus a few hundred years. Was Doggerland the elusive Mesolithic heartland long conjectured but never discovered? This was exciting but frustrating news. There were almost certainly submerged settlement sites under the North Sea that could not be explored.
Then in 2001, at the University of Birmingham, someone suggested that the seismic data piled up by oil and gas companies in their searches for fossil fuel deposits deep below the North Sea might help pierce the waters that covered Doggerland. During the weary months of trying various algorithms and data structures to tease out shallow water information, marine geophysics melded with archaeology. After a year they had a rough map of Doggerland’s undersea features, including old coastlines, sand bars, low hills, and ancient rivers. In May 2019, the British and Belgian scientists on their research vessel located a drowned forest and possible traces of a settlement in the vicinity of Brown Bank. I am waiting to hear more.
Bogs. Back in 1965, The Bog People, a book by Danish archaeologist Peter Vilhelm Glob, told the story of Iron Age corpses preserved in northern bogs for centuries. Many historians, archaeologists, psychologists, writers, and artists, including artist Joseph Beuys and poet Seamus Heaney, experienced a thread of connection to these ancient men and women exhumed from tannic peat, and ever since there has been a river of imaginative creative work on bog bodies. The speculation about the meanings and reasons humans were put in bogs started with Tacitus, who had no firsthand knowledge of the Germanic tribespeople. He wrote that these bodies were human sacrifices. “Cowards, shirkers, and sodomites are pressed down under a wicker hurdle into the slimy mud of a bog.” It is of course more complex than this bald statement. Over the centuries we have learned that the spiritual beliefs of bog people were linked to sacred wetlands and forests. Anyone entering a bog for the first time immediately senses its strangeness. It is half water, half squelching ground where the unfamiliar combines with the unseen to intimidate. It is not difficult to believe that insatiable gods and demiurges still crouch beneath the black waters.
Augustine Rome believed its legions were invincible. They had conquered many lands. In 7 AD, Germania, east of the Rhine, seemed ready for takeover, but the Romans did not really understand the bogs nor the people of northern Europe. During the rise of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, who worked hard at convincing Roman citizens that the revered republic still existed, the Roman army suffered a humiliating and catastrophic defeat in northern Germany between a forested hill and the edge of the great bog. The complicated story defies a brief explanation but in 7 AD Augustus appointed General Publius Quinctilius Varus as governor of the homeland of several indigenous German tribes. It was Varus’s job to set up the standard Roman administration in the new territory. Many German tribes had military experience with the Roman army as auxiliary fighters. One such man was Arminius of the Cherusci tribe. He may have been a child hostage raised in Rome and probably served in a Roman auxiliary force before returning to his tribal home on the Vaser River. Back home and full of malice, he recruited men to lay a trap. The battleground Arminius chose was a path through a narrow gap that lay between forested Kalkriese Hill and the sullen great bog. Arminius and his people modified it at the crucial place where the narrow footpath veered off to the left by digging away the main track and filling it in with brush and saplings. The cutaway sod became a disguised barricade above the skinny path at the base of Kalkriese Hill.
On the fatal day the Romans marched along the shrinking track. They were increasingly crowded together, treading on one another’s heels, churning up the mud. To step off the pathway was to step into the foot-sucking bog. Arminius’s men, hidden behind the turf wall, let many of the soldiers pass. Suddenly spears flashed into the bunched-up troops. Horses, mules, and men stumbled and slipped on the path or fell into the reddening bog. In only a few minutes, thousands of Romans fell. Roughly sixteen thousand Romans and about five hundred Germans died. In the next few days more than one thousand Roman soldiers were ritually killed on sacrificial altars or sacrificed to the bog. Weapons, coins, amulets, bells, and a silver-plated parade mask all went to the gods of the great bog. The old belief in humoring demons by tossing offerings into water lingers on today whenever we throw a coin into a wishing well.
Swamps. Ecologist/historian Oliver Rackham says the history of wetlands is written in their destruction. The fate of American swamps was to be drained. This has been our capitalist way. Even American novels such as Gene Stratton-Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost, a favorite nature book in the early twentieth century, is the usual American story of taking something from nature for personal gain. The thirteen-thousand-acre Limberlost near Stratton-Porter’s Indiana home was small but still supported an encyclopedia of insects, including, as in the English Fens, rare moths and butterflies. Stratton-Porter’s story championed Elnora who collected and mounted moths. After her first miserable day in high school, where she is scorned as an out-of-fashion backwoods hick, in the local bank window she sees a placard offering cash for moths and cocoons. Elnora needs money to buy nice clothes and cosmetics. She describes her moths to the birdwoman, author of the placard, who tells her, “Young woman, that’s the rarest moth in America. If you have 100 of them that’s worth $100.” And with that, Elnora is on her way to wealth, a career, a rich husband, and all the rest of it thanks to the corpses of the yellow emperor moth.
In real life, against Stratton-Porter’s personal protests, the Limberlost was ruinously drained for farmland by steam-powered dredges from 1888 to 1910, but in the 1990s Indiana readers who valued Stratton-Porter’s book bought up some of the original swamp acreage and with help from Ducks Unlimited and conservation groups restored part of the swamp. The yellow emperor moths are still around. They are not on endangered lists, though they are declining in number in part because they are said to be highly annoyed by streetlamps.
Statistics say that more than half of the original American wetlands have been drained for farmland. The Singer Tract of 120 square miles of virgin gum, oak, pine, pecan, and hackberry–the habitat of ivory-billed woodpeckers in northeast Louisiana–was one of the last virgin bottomland American forests. It held out until the 1940s when the forest was cut. A tragedy for the ivory-bill was the disappearance of the woodpecker’s main sustenance, beetle larvae under the tree bark. Louisiana writer Tim Gautreaux’s novel, The Clearing, details the cutting of a virgin cypress forest. This is probably the Okefenokee Swamp and not the Singer Tract, but one of the characters writes home to his father saying, “After the Gulf cypress is all cut out no one will ever know such lumber again.”
As I learned more about peatland diversity, I began to change my ideas about many things. I used to think that stasis in the natural world was possible and desirable, especially with forests, but I have learned that such situations, like the balance of nature, are fantasies. Self-sustaining forests like the Białowieża straddling Poland and Belarus let us comfortably believe that nature left alone will self-regulate, but humans can no longer be left out of the workings of the natural world. A reason the so-called primeval Białowieża Forest with its giant oaks, hornbeams, and lindens, the last old forest in Europe, seems timeless is because for centuries it was part of the hunting grounds of princes, kings, emperors, and tsars. Commoners were forbidden to cut trees, break branches, gather firewood or plants. The forest was allowed to grow, die, fall, and rot naturally ensuring a good supply of mixed species seedlings. For hundreds of years it was a place where senescent fallen giants served as nurse logs returning their energies to the soil, a place where the relative lack of disturbance ensured a broad range of animals and birds for the hunting parties.
In recent years the geologically diverse forest became a World Heritage Site under the protection of UNESCO. In 2016, when the Polish government allowed logging operations in the preserve, there was a terrific public outcry. It was a shock to many to realize that the ancient forest was not invincibly self-sustaining, but like everything else on Earth–wetlands, rivers, grassy plains, polar ice in the ocean, the sky–all are transitional and all are at the mercy of human interference.
SHAWN WONG: Tonight’s presentation, “Writing into the Sunset,” is not about retirement but about what happens to writers when we’re writing a book and doing research and how we often find ourselves going into these obscure corners of research: following one tangent, then another tangent, and then another tangent. As we heard from Annie this evening, it can be a real luxurious time chasing information and facts and getting lost in some of those tangents.
ANNIE PROULX: Too true. The way I learn something is by reading and writing, so when I decided I wanted to learn how things were in the Pacific Northwest and I chose peatlands as my base study I certainly relished dashing off on some of these tangents. I wasn’t writing for publication. I wasn’t writing for anybody but myself so indeed I did have the time and inclination to follow strange leads. I think anybody who’s done any research will have had exactly the same experience: you come across something that’s unexpected, out of the blue, and you follow that for a while. I’m an omnivorous reader and have been all my life, and this is just more of the same: galloping off first in one direction and then another.
WONG: Many years ago I wrote a funny essay proposing the idea that American taxpayers have to write an essay to go along with their income tax return that justifies the things that they were writing off. If we were to go by that premise, Annie will be able to write off everything because of the sheer number of subjects that she brought up tonight. I have to admit that she sent me a list of subjects that she was going to address tonight in order to help me prepare, and I remember looking at the list and thinking oh my God, I know nothing about anything on this list! But I had time to prepare. And the interesting thing is that I followed her down those paths. Luckily there’s a thing called Google where you can try to find your path. But I found myself doing the same thing: looking up bog, for example, and then getting fascinated by peat bogs and then of course whiskey and the influence of peat bogs on whiskey and things like that. And so I went on a slightly different path.
When you moved to the Northwest, you researched the area. What fascinated you or what drew you to the Northwest? You could pick anywhere in the country to live. A lot of your reasons for coming here had to do with the Elwha Dam and salmon and other natural resources that this area has.
PROULX: Yes. I was proud that the Elwha Dam came down and I thought that’s got to be a great place with great people to make this happen. So that was a primary thought. And I was drifting westward. I lived for a while in Newfoundland, in New England, in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and for many years in Wyoming, and so it seemed natural just to come up to the Pacific Northwest. I have a son who went to university here and who is still here, so it was nice. At least there was somebody I knew in the area. And I ended up in Port Townsend to escape western red cedar trees to which I am very allergic. So that’s a difficulty with this place for me because they really are everywhere and about the only place you can be to get away from them is on a boat quite far out to sea.
WONG: As an English professor I was fascinated by your mentioning of the Acerbic Hand, the marginalia, and the attack on Tennyson as the “plagiarist and ass.” What drew you to that line of research?
PROULX: It was so unexpected and so stark, and I really began to wonder who this person was. I formed a mental image of the proverbial gruff, insular, well-off English recluse who had some importance locally and maybe nationally. I kept hoping that as I read through the list of lepidopterists I would see a paragraph or a footnote somewhere that said, “Parson so and so near Wickham Fen was an ardent butterfly collector and disliked Tennyson.” But that never happened. There were plenty of parsons after the butterflies and many of them dismayed me by writing how very unhappy they were that there were almost none of the such and such left anymore, except they did see one and of course they captured it. They couldn’t stop, even knowing if it might be the very last one in the area. And so England lost many rare moths that way.
WONG: There’s a comment in some of your notes to me in which you talk about the early nature book genre in American literature. I found this fascinating. The early books apparently were packed with invented animal behavior that was basically faking animal nature. Could you talk a little bit more about those kinds of narratives in that genre?
PROULX: This is really a fascinating thing. There was a great swell of interest in the natural world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Suddenly a lot of people were writing about wolves and rabbits and chipmunks and squirrels and birds and their songs and so forth. And everybody read these writings assiduously. My grandmother, who was born in the 1880s, as a schoolgirl planted trees in the schoolyard, which are now immense oaks. But everybody did something. My mother’s family was very involved with this interest. But it (nature faking) became kind of a national scandal with cartoons and articles in the newspapers of the time. The chief players in the drama were John Burroughs, the naturalist who was born in the 1830s or so and was the grand old man of nature by the early part of the twentieth century. His bailiwick was a farm in Connecticut and what he really knew was a little piece of Connecticut. He wrote an article denouncing the nature fakers. Ernest Thompson Seton and William Long were the other players. In the middle of all of this, President Roosevelt became involved. He was considered a great authority on animals. Things came to a head when Burroughs accused Long of being utterly ignorant of animal behavior. Long had said that he had seen a woodcock with packed clay around its broken leg. The woodcock has a lovely long bill, so this was physically possible, but Burroughs said it was absolutely impossible. Burroughs’ view was that animals cannot think; they only act instinctively. Roosevelt also said it was absolutely impossible, and so it went. Poor old Long went down in disgrace. It more or less ruined his life to the point where he was becoming blind. Poor guy. In the end, Long was denounced and Ernest Thompson Seton escaped and made friends with Burroughs again. In recent months I have come across very interesting articles on a bird, not a woodcock but another bird, a seabird I think, that had a broken leg and somehow bound the leg with thin strips of grass and then packed clay around it. It was photographed and it has been verified by scientists. So Long was correct and Burroughs and Roosevelt were not. I rather like that. Somebody should write a lovely book about this. It was quite a war. It went on for years, the fight between the so-called nature fakers who are now finding that what they saw is being verified.
WONG: One of the other fascinating things that you mentioned are the bog bodies or the bog corpses. You noted that artists and poets have taken up the bog people as subject matter. Could you expand on that? In what manner do they write about the bog people?
PROULX: Seamus Heaney is the most famous writer of bog people. His collection, North, which played a large part in the prize from the Swedish Academy, is about the bog people. One can take particular pleasure in the poem where he celebrates the beauty of this young woman who was laid into the bog. Unfortunately, it turned out that more recently the young woman has been declared to have been a young man. So that kind of takes the gloss off the poem, but Heaney didn’t know that, and the work is lovely. I’m sure many of you know the North collection. I can’t say a lot about it, but rereading those poems and looking at the art that has been done about the bog finds is quite something. People invest themselves in these bodies. There is something about them that’s absolutely compelling, but at the same time they’ve been rather badly treated, for example, in museum displays that try hard to be tasteful and are not always. You can go into the gift shop and buy a mug with Tollund Man’s squashed face on the side or a shopping bag or something. So it’s quite disrespectful, but that’s the world.
WONG: Since you have moved to the Pacific Northwest, besides the subject matter that you’re obviously researching concerning this area, does being here influence your writing in the same way that living in Wyoming influenced your writing there?
PROULX: No. Not yet. I don’t know the place yet. I don’t have a feel for it and maybe it’s the red cedar, I don’t know. I’m trying, but I have a lot to learn and there is a huge amount of information here. If you just start to look at kelp, you can quite quickly get lost. The needs of kelp, the importance of kelp, migrants coming from Asia and following along the coastland, following the kelp trail, the importance of estuaries for kelp. It’s fascinating. And clams, I mean the oysters of yesteryear that are slowly being recovered and put back here. Invasive species. Everything is connected and you can’t do it all, so I end up feeling smothered and that’s why I decided I would just look at peatlands, keep it narrow.
WONG: Obviously you have been researching kelp too.
PROULX: Yes. And clams.
WONG: And clams, right. Have you been clam digging?
PROULX: No, I haven’t.
WONG: Do you see increasing numbers of women writing as naturalists compared to classical naturalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? If so, how may that reshape our view of the natural world?
PROULX: That’s a lovely question. Yes, I do see more women writing. There’s a marvelous writer and I cannot think of her name, Braiding Sweetgrass? Does anyone know that writer? [Robin Wall Kimmerer] There are more women doing scientific work, writing, examining, looking at things. I have a friend who is on his way to Antarctica right now, and I was watching a French series on Antarctica recently and they’re all guys. It’s pretty interesting. It’s hard. Women have a long way to go in some of these sciences, but the writers are there, the sensibilities are there. Ellen Meloy was a particular favorite of mine. She had an easy, slangy, edgy way of writing about the Southwest. I think she lived in Utah. She died quite young a few years ago. She’s worth finding out about. A marvelous writer. Quite acid and feisty and she don’t take no shit. [laughter]
WONG: Let me ask you a question from the audience. “As you venture down these paths of research, do the online resources cause you to go further on these tangents because of the ease of doing that research online or are you still mostly a reader?”
PROULX: I’m a book person. I have been since I was four. That means for eighty years I’ve been a book person. I’ve been reading a long time.
WONG: Our next question. Some of your penmanship, folks, needs to be better. [laughter]
PROULX: I deciphered the Acerbic Hand, so let me see that. Hmm. “In Jeanne Achterberg’s book titled Woman as Healer, bog bodies were found that suggested male sacrifice possibly from a pre-patriarchal era. Any thoughts about this?” I have not had any thoughts about it until this moment, but I will from now on. [laughter]
WONG: Do you know about Washington’s law that allows human composting?
PROULX: I have heard of it, but I have no personal experience with it yet. [laughter]
WONG: Now that’s a good answer. In fact, that’s a better punchline than the rest of the question. You say that in nature, stasis is a fantasy, but isn’t that what modern-day polluting robber barons want to hear? Isn’t it complicated politically?
PROULX: Well, they don’t see it quite the way I do. I see it as never-ending change. For millennia things have been constantly shifting and changing and shifting and changing. We tend to think that things in our own lifetime are the way things are and always were and always should be, but no. Getting yourself to think of being on a conveyer belt of time is more what I’m getting at rather than just tossing up my hands and saying oh, everything changes, so what? It’s not quite what the robber barons have in mind.
WONG: Have you done a lot of research on Charles Darwin during this particular line of research? I know you mentioned Darwin a little bit in your remarks.
PROULX: No, but he keeps popping up because he was such an interesting person. I always liked the story about when he was a young kid, he was a collector and his thing was beetles. There are more beetles on Earth than you would imagine, and Darwin was bound to have every single one. And one day he was in a good beetle spot and he spied a beetle that was his heart’s desire, grabbed it in one hand and then his eye fell on another one that was a different species but equally desirable. He grabbed it in the other hand. And then a third beetle appeared, and it was rare and splendid and he had to have it. So he took the first beetle and popped it in his mouth . . .
WONG: Oh my God.
PROULX: . . . and reached for the third one at the same moment that the beetle in his mouth let go with a squirt of acid that turned him inside out. So he dropped all of the beetles and had none. That’s my Darwin story for the night. [laughter]
WONG: I also have a Darwin story. I remember when I was a grad student, I was doing research on Thomas Hardy. When Thomas Hardy was at the height of his popularity Darwin asked the Royal Academy to pass a law outlawing sad endings.
WONG: True story. Thomas Hardy’s books had these tragic endings.
PROULX: He was thinking of beetles.
WONG: So he tried to apply a Darwinian evolutionary theory to the romantic Victorian and outlaw the sad ending. Let’s keep Darwin out of our fiction. Here’s another question. “How does writing connect us to a place in a different way than reading about or drawing or photographing a place?”
PROULX: Because you’re dealing with words, which are slippery and shifty themselves, getting it right is a lot harder than you might think unless you’ve tried it. Describing a place in words is fiendishly difficult because you have to pick your time because things change. If I wanted to describe a pocosin in the South fifty years ago it would be quite different from describing it today, where it’s probably part of a highway. So yes, it’s difficult. It’s hard, but it’s not the same as a photograph. Speaking of the South, there was a biologist with the Bureau of the Interior named Brooke Meanley. Bird people may know his name. He was an authority on Swainson’s warbler back in the day, and he worked in the South in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and right up until almost the 1970s. He was a very good writer. He wrote about the birds of the South and their disappearance. He had a camera, and the photographs that Brooke Meanley took fifty or sixty years ago are of places and things we can never see because they are now gone. But his books are still out there, and you can buy them on AbeBooks quite inexpensively. For people who are interested in how it was in this country Brooke Meanley is someone to be reckoned with. I’m hoping somebody someday writes a good biography of him.
WONG: During your talk you described a frenzy for collecting specimens and artifacts from the natural world as an era-defining trend. Do you see similar trends today–travel and tourism, for example? What do you think drives our desire to collect, to see, to travel comprehensively?
PROULX: Ideas for interior decoration, of course. [laughter] Ecotourism is huge but the continued trashing of habitats with electric bicycles so you can go up steep trails more effortlessly and encroaching without knowing it on ungulate migration routes is ruining it for the animals that live there. Migration routes are endangered. Wyoming has a big problem with its elk migrations now. Highways. Being able to cross Route 80 if you’re an elk is bad. So the state has built one or two overpasses. Elk do not like underpasses. They don’t like to go into dark tunnels, but overpasses work. They’re expensive but if Wyoming wants to keep its elk and other ungulates it has to have those overpasses. But it’s the same all over. Our roads are intruding on migration routes. Every part of the natural world that we look at has a problem and the solutions are so hard to find. I’m sure everybody here has a story of something that they’ve noticed that isn’t like it used to be and that needs fixing, but how do we fix it?
WONG: When we talked earlier, you asked me if I knew a Tennyson scholar.
WONG: Because you had some questions?
PROULX: I have the question about who that fellow was.
WONG: We happen to have a Tennyson scholar in the audience, so you can ask your question. Would Charles LaPorte please stand?
CHARLES LAPORTE: I’m so sorry. I don’t have the answer to your question. It’s almost impossible with marginalia to track down who the Acerbic Hand was that was responsible for that writing. Because you give the date of The Fenland, Past and Present as 1878, we can say pretty clearly that the person with their claims of plagiarism is probably referring to the poet Alfred Austin’s attacks on Tennyson in the Temple Bar in 1875. He calls Tennyson a plagiarist, says he’s never going to be any good as a poet, that he is totally overrated. Austin had a professional interest. I’m probably the only person in this room who’s read any Alfred Austin. He became laureate immediately after Tennyson, in part because the government wanted to reward him for some jingoistic poetry that he had written on behalf of the English side in the Boer War.
The other thing that I would say is that the whole effeminate milquetoast thing, then as now, was leveled at any male poet whom you can name unless they were super conspicuously masculine like Browning. If they were over-the-top masculine, then you didn’t call them a milquetoast. You mentioned the curate somewhere in the north who collected butterflies and hated Tennyson in the Fenlands. He wrote a poem called “The Northern Farmer” that attacks his neighbors as crass and interested only in money and accumulating property. The refrain is “Property, property, property.” It’s about a farmer who’s telling his son that he shouldn’t marry the woman that he loves because he can marry this other person whom he doesn’t like but whose parents are loaded. There are arguably a number of well-off people who might not like Tennyson for that reason.
PROULX: Thank you. Of course everyone here is free to search for that Acerbic Hand.
I think it’s pretty clear that he was a local because of the comments throughout the book about places. He would say, “There never was a path behind the college.” I think Wickham Fen was his favorite and he often checked off references to it in the book. It does drag you away from the text to see that marginal hand scrawling its way along. It’s pretty interesting.
WONG: Let me ask one more question. How does your writing voice change when it is private versus public-facing?
PROULX: Do you mean writing for oneself or writing for publication?
WONG: For presentation.
PROULX: Writing privately, it’s not so brief. Brevity has to be forced by the whip, but if I’m just writing for myself, I can be discursive and go anywhere I want. Does that dodge the question?
WONG: I think it does. Do you have anything you want to say to wrap up?
WONG: What would that be?
PROULX: I think it’s good for people who came to listen to someone babble to leave with at least a word that’s new and interesting to them. So I have a word for you. It’s a fen word from the old days when the fens were fens: it’s fizmer, and it’s the sound that reeds and grasses make in a light wind. That might be useful to you. [laughter]
WONG: And one more thing that you’ve mentioned to me is that birds sleep as they fly.
PROULX: Yes, but we all know that, right? Tim Dee, an English writer of parts, wrote a very lovely book called Four Fields. He lives in the drained land of the Fens, so he’s lower than sea level and he’s been fascinated by the Fens all of his life. He’s a very good writer. His book was published, I think, in 2015. He first mentioned that birds sleep while they fly, and in fact the Max Planck ornithology department fastened devices to seabirds to measure their brain waves as they migrated. The data were collected after they had landed and it was found that, yes, birds can shut off half of their brains as they fly and keep flying for short periods of time. So it’s like taking little naps as you fly along. And then a friend that I was telling this said, “Well, whales can do the same thing.” So it’s something to strive for, I guess. [laughter]
© 2020 by Annie Proulx and Shawn Wong, respectively
To view or listen to the presentation, visit www.amacad.org/events/writing-sunset-evening-annie-proulx.