Our home is filled with books—9,000 of them—very few of which we have bought straight from the publisher or from a retail store. Call it one of the advantages of a culture in collapse. I have complete hardcover sets of the works of Washington Irving, George Eliot, and Somerset Maugham, about 50 books in all, which I saved for nothing from our town “transfer station”—that is, our town dump. Whenever someone in town who could read some language other than English passes away, his or her books end up at the dump, too, or for quick sale at the local library, and thus have I gotten a good haul of works from the German and Russian.
I find many an excellent novel in English, too, one of which I have in mind today. But before I mention it, I wish to make what should be an obvious point. It is that you have no practical freedom unless you know how to do things. We are trammeled up in ignorance and incapacity. I include myself in this diagnosis, because I too am a son of the age, though not entirely. Let me illustrate.
We live on an island in Nova Scotia, in the summer. Our house is an old cottage built by the hands of the people who first lived in it. The barn in the back was built by my neighbor, who passed away some years ago; he also put in the first bathroom, around 1960, and the 45-foot well in the front yard. The family to whom he sold the house caught fish and kept them in a freezer in that barn, for use by themselves or for sale to the neighbors. But the old fellow could do everything, as long as his body held out. The floor-level of his home was a veritable shelter against any disaster the bordering ocean could dish up, complete with a large gasoline-powered generator, separate wiring buried underground, storage and freezer space for food, separate plumbing, and a large array of tools ready for all eventualities.
It was he who first showed me the “foxberries” that grow on flat windswept places where very little else will grow. They are what the Swedish call “lingon,” that is, lingonberries, a smaller, richer-flavored variety of the cranberry. My father had taught me how to comb the woods where we lived in Pennsylvania, for blueberries. This island has wild food everywhere, and all you have to do is learn where it grows and when, and take the trouble to gather it: wild blueberries of three varieties, strawberries, two varieties of raspberry, blackberries, bilberries, lingonberries, cranberries, chanterelle mushrooms, beefsteak mushrooms, beach peas, spinach. An elderly priest who grew up on a farm taught me about the pome-fruit called the Saskatoon, for which the city in Saskatchewan is named. These are deep red to purple-black, about the size of a large blueberry, juicy and intensely sweet, with a flavor like cherry touched with almond. They grow on bushes and trees, so the best way to pick them is to cut off the top of a gallon milk-jug and hook your belt through the handle, so that you can bend down a high branch with one hand and gather the fruit with the other.
Of course the flavor is far more concentrated than in mass-cultivated fruit, with a greater concentration of vitamins too, since the berries are smaller and so give more surface-flesh area to volume. But in sixteen years I’ve never run into anyone in the woods or on the seacoast, finding such food, when a tiny package of such can be had for a very high price at the store, if it is to be had at all. Nor is plant life the only food waiting. The shores are rich in clams; the tidal stream washes in great schools of mackerel; the woods are full of deer; and the spruce grouse, the stupidest bird God ever made, will perch in the open on an evergreen, dead still and waiting for you to plug him. I don’t hunt or fish, though I cheer for those who do.
And this brings me to a fine novel I found at the dump, The Pond, by Robert Murphy, published in 1964. The headline for its initial review in the New York Times reads, “Simpler Life Recalled.” Far from it. The life it recalls was more intricate than ours, simply because people had to know how to do many more things. The story is of a 14-year-old boy, Joey, whose father lets him drive with his friend to a cabin on some rare spot of dry land in the Great Dismal Swamp, in tidewater Virginia. There, with the help of an old man who lives in the cabin all year round, the boys hunt and fish, and learn the arts of getting along by their wits: how to tend the boat, to keep their guns, to wait for the game, to clean the catch and cook it, and other things that people whose food comes processed from the factory are not aware of.
The novel has been reprinted. Here is its introduction from Goodreads:
This inspiring tale about respecting and preserving animal and plant life, perhaps even more relevant in today’s climate than when it was first published, is finally back in print. Fourteen-year-old Joey spends his childhood visiting a beautiful back-country pond in Virginia. His humorous and heart-warming adventures in and around the pond, with the faithful dog Charley at his side, broaden his understanding of his place in the world and awaken in him a protective instinct towards all nature. In an era of climate-change debate and animal rights movements, The Pond delivers an important message to readers of all ages, at the same time never failing to delight.
Quite horrible, that. The novel is not about “childhood,” or about “preserving animal and plant life,” but about a boy growing up to be a man, learning to give up his boyish willfulness, selfishness, and pride, to be a true and generous friend. The Great Dismal Swamp is a wild place that no mere tourist would want to visit. The beauty of the pond that Joey visits is far from picturesque. Joey does not learn about “his place in the world,” because “the world” as such has nothing to do with it.
The final sentence is evidence of the prison-house where the reviewer’s mind dwells, unaware that there are greater concerns to man than whether or not the earth is warming and whether animals have “rights.” If the book is about a “message,” served up with sugar, best to toss it out and use ordinary toilet paper instead.
The spirit of a meditative and self-reliant liberty breathes in the pages of The Pond, as also when we take up good work for the beauty of it, bending mind and hand and instrument to the task, not hurried, nor harried by the need to turn it to monetary profit. So also when we read a good book, not because it is au courant and we want to say something smart about it in the set of all right-thinking people, but simply because it is good and we enjoy it. My old friend, the plumber, had nary a book in his house. My old friend, the priest, had more than 1,000—many of them in French and Latin; I have some of them, with his marginal notes. But the two of them were more like each other than like most of us now. Often I stood like a perfect simpleton before them.
If you would be free, look to your hands.