I’m not a fiction kind of gal, and never have been. These days when I troll bookstores, I head for the gardening section first, then maybe auto/biography. I picked up Hill Song: A Country Journal (1985, Countryman Press) when I discovered Blue Awning Books about a month ago. (How could I have missed this used bookstore — for two whole years?) Hill Song proffered a simple cover: black-and-green on cream, italic title, and a large woodcut of homestead-and-field. On the back, a blurb by May Sarton. How could I resist?
I’m a sucker for the “I bought a dilapidated house in the country and restored it to beauty and life” memoir. Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun established this winning formula in 1996, but before that was May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude (1973) — a writer’s life in rural New Hampshire. More literary, less commercial. Now, I’m no purist. I enjoy the Mayes-spawned house-in-the-country-porn. But what a treat to stumble upon a kindred spirit to Sarton.
Author Lee Pennock Huntington is described in her bio as “the author of several books for children and young people” as well as an active Quaker. She wrote Hill Song as a series of brief vignettes about her life on 200 acres in Vermont, organized into four seasonal sections, beginning with winter. It truly is, as the subtitle says, a journal. It’s not even a diary, since it provides no dates and implies no chronology beyond the seasonal. There is no overarching narrative, whether of renovation hell, or international dislocation, or new love. She writes mostly about what she sees and something of what she feels and thinks. I revelled in the intimacy of it all. I think that’s why I’m attracted to epistolary books, too — they are saturated with the authors’ voices, un-remarkable and un-self-conscious.
Huntington treads lightly on the page, as she does the land.
If anything, this is a love story about stewardship. As a writer, Huntington describes extreme weather and endangered trees and beloved animals. As a Quaker, she worries about pollution and nuclear holocaust. I found the book charming, without descending into the sentimental or expanding into melodrama. As befits a Vermonter, stalwart and plain-spoken.
I don’t know that I loved this book, but I loved reading this book. It’s grounded, modest, and quiet. Huntington treads lightly on the page, as she does the land.
I took it up comfortably in bits and pieces, as I traveled. In the midst of constant navigation, it offered me a way to sink back into myself. I could dip in and out of Huntington’s over-the-fence anecdotes, without having to worry about losing track or momentum. Reading Hill Song became something of a meditation. And a reminder that there is no substitute for deep attention:
“Why are we always driven to comparisons? Snow glittering like diamonds; ice delicate as lace; gnarled stumps like goblins; clouds like sails. If we truly look at anything, it is not like something else, it is itself. Many before and many after John Donne have declared that comparisons are odious. Mostly they are not odious so much as lazy products of lazy minds. We simply don’t take the time to view anything in depth – studying, absorbing, learning about its distinctive individuality; whether it be chrysanthemum, fish, or dragonfly. It’s much easier to make a glib comparison, to feel rather clever at discovering a similarity; rather than getting at the essence of the thing itself. I do it all the time. A metaphor, intuitive or informed, can illuminate, but all too often it is an excuse for not taking a closer look.” (p. 149)