I’m really back with fervor this week, I guess. So, hello again, here’s a post about this great book I just read called Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler.
It is Fowler’s story of exploring the extensive Birmingham, England, canal system via inflatable raft. I enjoyed it so much, mostly because of Fowler’s talent for describing the composition of a manmade landscape overrun by nature. Canals, a unique part of Birmingham’s built history, seem to exist at a crossroads of the developed and the natural.
I found Fowler adept at describing the convergence:
I lay back in the boat and allowed the grey sky to descend like a blanket. Then I noticed fireweed, or rosebay willowherb. It gained the first name because it likes to colonise burnt-out spaces, and famously turned post-war Britain into a blaze of pink. Its common name refers to the soft grey leaves that look like those of the willow. In late summer it is crowned with bright pink flowers, but in autumn it does something marvellous: it burnishes its fire-loving nature so that it looks like an autumn bonfire as those grey leaves turn red from the outer edge in, like burning embers, a brilliant orange-red, the seed heads wisping up like smoke. Here was a whole uninterrupted bank of colour, burning away. It was beautiful and fiery, unapologetic about its final call. It singed my retinas against all the grey gloom. Like a touch-paper, it lit up the bit of me that lives outside, and I remembered who I was and why I was there.
I mean, that’s why I go outside at all, if we’re going to get deep here—to remind me of who I am.
There are many more descriptions like this. Fowler also gives us some canal history, goes on adventures with a couple of friends, and makes some good entertainment of her foibles as a first-time rafter. The first time she uses the raft, the weather is stormy and it all but blows away. She ends up looking a bit ridiculous as she endeavors to clamber in. How can you not see yourself in that? If you can’t, you’re much more capable than I am and should be congratulated.
The part of the book I didn’t care for was an important theme in the book, I’m afraid. Fowler is working out her feelings for another woman. She is married to a man with a progressively debilitating illness and they end up separated after she comes out to him. There are a wealth of feelings to feel and things to work out between them and, to be honest, I found myself skimming these parts.
I don’t quite know why. Is it because I’m a boring straight person who can’t relate? I kind of think it’s because I felt Fowler is better at writing about the nature stuff than the life/feelings stuff. For example, she refers to her husband by an initial “H” and conversations with her new lover, Charlotte, are often described in vague terms rather than actual dialogue given. Because of her nebulous exposition, I don’t really feel I had the chance to familiarize myself with the people in her life, so I can’t really empathize with the issues that develop between them. Does that make sense?
She was actually wonderful at talking about the adventures with her friends, conversations with her mother, and even exchanges with other boaters/paddlers. So I wonder if maybe she was too close to the husband/girlfriend issues to offer much perspective? Or perhaps she was purposefully not revealing much to protect them.
At any rate, I wanted more canal and less “I’m sad about my divorce and don’t know how to navigate my new self.” That sounds harsh and I’m probably being too critical and unfair. Perhaps someone who’s struggled with the same issues would appreciate those sections.
What I personally took from this book was quite valuable, however, as Fowler confirmed for me an idea I have had but couldn’t put words to: It is possible, not to mention totally wonderful, to look for the nature available to you in your city’s landscape (if you live in a city). You can find solace there. You don’t always need a mountain or a forest or an ocean if you don’t have them at hand. It is both possible and OK to find peace in an environment where ivy climbs a bridge wall or where a river runs next to a road. In other words, if you, too, kind of dig the weeds growing between the cracks in the driveway, this book may be for you.
If you’ve read this one, I’d love to know what you think!
And, finally, to prove a point, here are two garden pics I took on a walk around my neighborhood in August showcasing two totally different styles.