Keep Up with Essay and Memoir One Paragraph at a Time
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October 23, 2020
from “Tekels Park”
in Vesper Flights
by Helen Macdonald
“I knew that meadow intimately. It was richer, more interesting, had more stories to tell than any other environment in my life.”—Helen Macdonald
If H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is one of the finest recent memoirs, Vesper Flights, which has just come out, is its equal in prose and one of the finest collections of essays in our time. We are so enamored of it here at The Humble Essayist that we plan to devote a month to our four favorite paragraphs from the collection. We begin with this gem from her essay “Tekels Park” in which she describes a favorite meadow near where she lived as a child that has since been destroyed.
The Paragraph of the Week
The nine-acre meadow was the best place of all. So much of what was there must have arrived in hay brought for long-dead horses, as seeds from lowland meadows: scabious, knapweed, trefoil, harebell, lady's bedstraw, quaking grass, vetches, diverse other grasses and herbage. And butterflies, too, marooned in this small patch of the nineteenth century: common blues, small skippers, grizzled skippers; marbled whites, small coppers, and grasshoppers that sang all summer and pinged away from my feet. The other side of the meadow was different, and more what you'd expect on acidic soil: a low sea of sheep's sorrel, stars of heath bedstraw, white moths, small heaths, anthills and wavy hair grass brushed with fog by the sun. I knew that meadow intimately. It was richer, more interesting, had more stories to tell than any other environment in my life. I'd press my face in the grass to watch insects the size of the dot over an 'i' moving in the earthy tangle where the difference between stems and roots grew obscure. Or turn over and prospect for birds in the thick cumulus rubble of the sky.
In “Tekel’s Park” Helen Macdonald makes a distinction between losing precious childhood toys and treats and the destruction of a meadow that she loved as a girl. “When habitats are destroyed what is lost are exquisite ecological complexities,” she writes “and all the lives that make them what they are.” This kind of loss is not just about her, and she cannot reduce it to nostalgia. All she can do is “write about what it was.” Aware of the magic of names, she lists a cacophony of weeds brought in as seeds with the hay to feed horses beginning with “scabious,” “knapweed,” and “trefoil” and ending with “vetches.” She uses the verb “marooned” to describe the butterflies’ confinement to this patch of paradise and fresh adjectives like “grizzled” and “marbled” to characterize their colors, and I love the verb “pinged” to indicate the zippy flight of grasshoppers leaping from a little girl’s footsteps. Always with Macdonald there is ease with scientific terminology such as “acidic soil” from her naturalist’s training, but isn’t the metaphor of “wavy hair grass brushed with fog by the sun” lovely? She is intimate with this environment. The shift in scale between her close inspection of creatures “the size of a dot over an ‘i’” in the nap of the soil and her hunt for “birds in the thick, cumulous rubble of the sky” is accomplished by merely turning over, capturing the magnificence of the spot, and the word “rubble”—so unexpected and so right—offers a precise visual image for a gathering storm while serving as a an emblem of all we are destroying.
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Thanks to Assay for publishing my essay called called “Lyric Memory: The Mnemonics of Nonfiction.” It discusses ways to recover writable memories from events you barely remember or can't remember at all. It includes prompts for writers as well. Check it out here.—Steve
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Folly Beach, Steven Harvey's newest book, is a personal essay about easing fears of mortality and loss through creativity, certainly a message for our frightening times. It never loses sight of the inevitable losses that life brings, but doesn't let loss have the last word. In the face of the grim, Folly Beach holds up the human capacity to create as our sufficient joy.
“In a world of loss, creativity is the best revenge.”
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You can learn more about the recent work of Steven Harvey at his author's page here.
We at The Humble Essayist are in love with the paragraph, that lowliest of literary techniques. A sentence stands out as a noble thing: a complete thought. But what is a paragraph? And what, in particular, is a good one? You know it when you read it--that is our article of faith. So on Friday of each week, beginning on Independence Day 2014, the very day 169 years earlier that Henry Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, we will select a single paragraph from an essay or a reflective memoir and print it here along with a paragraph of commentary. We will choose paragraphs that are surprising, beautifully written, and, above all, thematic--illuminating the author's comment on life. Each paragraph of the week is, in short, a concise review of the writer's work. We hope that this page will introduce you to many exciting authors and their ideas.
The Humble Essayist thanks Clipartpal for the public domain artwork that is the logo for the site.