Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Brian Doyle: It is a Shaggy World, Studded with Gardens

No man ever yearned more for a “hard & active life out-of-doors” than the great Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), and few men ever faced such an endless litany of ills keeping him, generally, from the wild world he loved so. (“My body which my dungeon is…,” as he wrote.) Yet the frail Stevenson, the most popular writer of his time, was able to catch and celebrate the vigorous natural world in work that ranged freely in genre (novels, essays, letters, stories, poems, fables, tracts, and prayers) and in setting—capturing the flavor variously of Scottish highlands, French countryside and mountains, Swiss alpine valleys, dense North American wilderness and plains, and the lush islands of the South Seas, where he spent the last six years of his brief and exuberant life.

Despite his spotty health, he spent much time in his adolescent years among the Scottish mountains and islands—hiking, sailing boats with friends, and working outdoors, one memorably strenuous summer, with his engineer father Thomas, the most talented in a family of engineers still famous for building lighthouses along the Scottish coast. After college he began to write, and his first books were Thoreauvian accounts of his travels through wild country – a canoe trip through rural France, which became An Inland Voyage, and then a long hike in the French mountains, which became Travels with a Donkey. The wild Scottish Highlands and coat he loved starred in his novels Kidnapped and The Merry Men, and the deep forests of New York’s Adirondack Mountains, where he spent one bitterly cold winter, are the setting for much of The Master of Ballantrae.

Everywhere he went he clapped his sharp eye on the land, and wrote of its temper and creatures with respect and affection. “The earthy savour of the bog-plants, the rude disorder of the boulders, the inimitable seaside brightness of the air, the brine and the iodine, the lap of the billows among the weedy reefs, the sudden springing up of a great run of dashing surf along the sea-front of the isle, all that I saw and felt my predecessors must have seen and felt with scarce a difference,” he wrote of the Scottish coast; and “it is a shaggy world, and yet studded with gardens; where the salt and tumbling sea receives clear rivers running from among reeds and lilies; fruitful and austere; a rustic world; sunshiny, lewd, and cruel,” of his native land as a whole.

Of the great plains of Nebraska, which he crossed by train, he wrote with amazement, “We were at sea—there is no other adequate expression. It was a world almost without a feature; an empty sky, an empty earth; front and back, the line of railway stretched from horizon to horizon, like a cue across a billiard-board; on either hand, the green plain ran till it touched the skirts of heaven. Along the track innumerable wild sunflowers, no bigger than a crown-piece, bloomed in a continuous flower-bed; grazing beasts were seen upon the prairie at all degrees of distance and diminution…Day and night, above the roar of the train, our ears were kept busy with the incessant chirp of grasshoppers—a noise like the winding up of countless clocks and watches, which began after a while to seem proper to that land. To one hurrying through by steam there was a certain exhilaration in this spacious vacancy, this greatness of the air, this discovery of the whole arch of heaven, this straight, unbroken, prison-line of the horizon…”

Of the Marquesas: “The land heaved up in peaks and rising vales; it fell in cliffs and buttresses; its colour ran through fifty modulations in a scale of pearl and rose and olive; and it was crowned above by opalescent clouds. The suffusion of vague hues deceived the eye; the shadows of clouds were confounded with the articulations of the mountains; and the isle and its unsubstantial canopy rose and shimmered before us like a single mass…The cocoa-palm, that giraffe of vegetables, so graceful, so ungainly, to the European eye so foreign, was to be seen crowding on the beach, and climbing and fringing the steep sides of mountains. In every crevice of that barrier the forest harboured, roosting and nestling there like birds about a ruin; and far above, it greened and roughened the razor edges of the summit.”

He was a student of the linguistics of the natural world: “The Scotch dialect is singularly rich in terms of reproach against the winter wind. Snell, blae, nirly, and scowthering are four of these significant vocables; they are all words that carry a shiver with them…the inclemency of heaven has thus endowed the language of Scotland with words…”

And he was eerily prescient of the future of the wild, too: “California has been a land of promise in its time, like Palestine; but if the woods continue so swiftly to perish, it may become, like Palestine, a land of desolation,” he wrote while living in Monterey. “We may look forward to a time when there will not be [a tree] left standing in that land… man in his short-sighted greed robs the country of the noble redwood. Yet a little while and perhaps all the hills of seaboard California may be as bald as Tamalpais...”

For nearly three years Stevenson wandered the Pacific, visiting the Marquesas, the Paumotus, the Hawaiian islands, the Gilberts, the Marshalls, the Society islands, New Zealand, Australia, and the Navigator islands, better known collectively as Samoa. At each landfall he would wander briskly and joyfully into the forest and along the beaches, and spend many hours with residents; he was by all accounts an indefatigable walker and talker, no respecter of position or privilege, and so a man who explored nature and natives to a degree unusual among writers of his time. He and his wife finally settled in Samoa, on the main island of Upolu, where the Stevensons bought 300 acres of land, built a house in the hills three miles from the harbor, and settled in.

Their land was so veined with creeks and rivers, or “burns,” as Stevenson called them, that he named the property Vailima, Samoan for Five Waters. It was the first wild land he’d ever owned, and he reveled in it, partly for the stunning variety of its flora and fauna, but partly too because finally he had enough health and strength to work his land. “It is like a fairy story that I should have recovered health and strength, and should go round again among my fellow-men, boating, riding, bathing, toiling hard with a wood-knife in the forest,” he wrote. And in a letter to a friend: “Went crazy over outdoor work, and had at last to confine myself to the house, or literature must have gone by the board. Nothing is so interesting as weeding, clearing, and path-making…it does make you feel so well. To come down covered with mud and drenched with sweat and rain after some hours in the bush, change, rub down, and take a chair in the verandah, is to taste a quiet conscience. And the strange thing that I mark is this: If  I go out and make sixpence, plying the cutlass or the spade, idiot conscience applauds me; if I sit in the house and make twenty pounds, idiot conscience wails over my neglect and the day wasted.”

For three years he worked his woods and farmed the soil, hosted an endless stream of visitors (among them Henry Adams, who was peeved that Stevenson didn’t know who he was), became deeply involved in the chaotic political life of Samoa, and wrote furiously—most notably half of a Highlands novel called Weir of Hermiston that, had it been finished, might have been among his very best books.

On December 3, 1894, he “wrote hard all morning” on Weir, spent the afternoon writing letters to friends, and came down from his study at sunset. He opened an old bottle of burgundy, set to making a salad for dinner, and was cheerfully chaffing his wife when he suddenly clapped his hands to his head, cried out in pain, and fell to his knees. Within minutes the massive stroke sent him into a coma; and at ten minutes past eight o’clock he died.

At dawn, forty local men cut a path through the woods to the flat summit of Mount Vaea, “no bigger than a room,” where they dug a grave for the man they called Tusitala, the teller of tales. In the afternoon his hand-carved coffin was carried to the summit and laid to rest. Among the prayers said over his body was one he had written himself: “Lord, Thou sendest down rain upon the uncounted millions of the forest, and givest the trees to drink exceedingly. Teach us the lesson of the trees. The sea around us, which this rain recruits, teems with the race of fish; teach us, Lord, the meaning of the fishes. Let us see ourselves for what we are, one out of the countless number of the clans of thy handiwork. When we would despair, let us remember that these also please and serve Thee.”

Next day the chiefs of Samoa forbade the use of firearms on Mount Vaea, so that the birds and animals “might live undisturbed, and raise about his grave the songs he knew so well.” Some years later a large tomb was raised over his grave. On the tomb there are bronze plates with bas reliefs of a thistle and a hibiscus flower, the characteristic plants of Scotland and Samoa, and Stevenson’s poem, “Requiem”:

                                    Under the wide and starry sky
                                    Dig the grave and let me lie.
                                    Glad did I live and gladly die
                                    And I laid me down with a will.
                                    This be the verse you grave for me:
                                    Here he lies where he longed to be;
                                    Home is the sailor, home from sea,
                                    And the hunter home from the hill.


Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon. His most recent books are the spiritual essay collections The Thorny Grace of It and Leaping (in a new and expanded edition), both from Loyola Press.

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