A Taster

I haven’t had time to review Katherine Swift’s formidably gorgous book, The Morville Hours, but it is the kind of work that is worth quoting in chunks. The book follows the monastic ‘hours’, the services of the divine office from Vigils to Compline, whilst simultaneously moving through the calendar year and the seasons. This is an excerpt from the chapter ‘Terce’, which explores – wrong word; inhabits, celebrates, bathes us in – the natural delights of the months of May and June.

When we came out of the church we found a dead swift lying on the path, its long back-swept wings – shaped like a discus, made for speed – pale with dust. The swifts arrive last of all our summer visitors, flying north over the Sahara from central Africa to arrive at Morville in late May. But they don’t stay at Morville, unlike the swallows and house martins who return year after year to the same nests under the eaves or on the rafters of the outbuildings. The swifts are urbanites, boy-racers, party people; they cruise the sky above the Church Meadow, sieving the air for gnats with their wide-open mouths, but really they prefer the town, wheeling round the attics and the chimney pots of Bridgnorth in great shrieking mobs. Swifts are the natural acrobats of the aerial world. But once grounded they find it almost impossible to take off again. Their Latin name, Apus, comes from the Greek, meaning ‘without feet’. In fact they have strong claws with which they cling to the vertical rocky surfaces of their preferred nesting sites, but it is true that their legs are small and weak, ill-adapted for perching or walking. They eat, drink, sleep and mate in the air, returning to earth only to nest. Young birds may remain aloft for two or even three years at a time.

What must it be like to sleep on the wing, so trusting in the cushion of air to hold you up; so perfectly in your element that you are everywhere at home, with no fear of getting lost, no dread of arrival or pang of departure? […]

One of the group tenderly stooped to life the dead bird out of the way. ‘Oh! I think it’s still alive,’ she said. In the hope that it would still have enough strength left to fly, if it could get aloft, we tossed it into the air. Silhouetted against the deep blue of the sky, the bird faltered, fluttered, fell and finally took wing.

I don’t think of myself as a person with an inclination towards nature writing, but my goodness me, I admire this book. Actually, it’s not fair to suggest this is just about nature – history, mythology, literature, religion, and autobiography all have their place here, in glorious convergence. I won’t say any more now; I really do want to review it properly.

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13 thoughts on “A Taster

  1. After you mentioned it before I went off and ordered it! Now I can’t wait to see it arrive in the mail. I’m not really religious or all that into nature (peripherally maybe), but this sounds marvellous.

  2. This may be “a taster” but I am salivating already. Cannot wait to read your full review, although the quote itself has probably sold me.

  3. Danielle – that’s exactly how I feel! I would not put myself down as someone who reads gardening books or nature books and I’m sorry to admit that the thought of a religious element in a book (unless its crime fiction) often puts me off! But this transcends all its individual categories to be something truly lovely. It’s such a comforting book in its way – best read in little segments before going to sleep or to block out the world for a bit.

    ds – I would love to know what you think of this if you get hold of it. It is so very beautiful. And I’m so relieved you’ve dropped by. I’ve made an error in the blogroll link to your site and now I can click over and see what it is!

    Lilian – you are very welcome. Anybody would enjoy this, but I do think it’s a good writer’s book. You just marvel at the way she guides you through so many different topics and brings each alive.

  4. I’m intrigued! I’m not necessarily interested in nature writing either, but if a book combines nature with other ideas and does something new and interesting, then I’m willing to give it a try.

  5. A wonderful taste, indeed. I don’t think of myself as someone who reads nature writing, but when done well, it can really sing. I am thinking particularly of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is often categorized as nature writing, but which the author calls a theological treatise. This sounds similar, and similarly good!

  6. Thank you for this lovely tidbit. The writing reminds me a little of Anne Morrow Lindburgh’s Gift From The Sea…the sort of book one needs to pick up when life is looking a little askew…the kind that can put one back on course. And, actually, probably just the kind of thing I need to be reading right now. Many thanks.

  7. Goodness me, I admire it, too. What marvelous, marvelous writing. Thanks for sharing! (Let’s hope it fills me with inspiration instead of despair as far as my own writing goes.)

  8. Just saying “hi” and wondering when the heck I am going to get to read so many of these fine books. This one HAS to go on the list. Can my family live on TV dinners for a week, anyway, if I come home and hunker down with a book? sigh.

  9. Doctordi – it’s a wonderful book, packed with that kind of description. I do think you’d appreciate her wit.

    Dorothy – I think there’s something for you here, and I also think the Hobgoblin would love it.

    Gentle Reader- now that’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. I’m intrigued by Annie Dillard and I must make the effort to get hold of a copy. Thank you for reminding me!

    Stefanie – oh now, I don’t think I would hesitate to recommend this to you. That might not be what you want to hear though – lol!

    Grad – there’s a new name to me – I shall be looking her up. There are not enough truly comforting books in the world, but this one makes up for their meagreness!

    verbivore – I kid you not, it’s like that all the way through. I admire Swift so much for the way she sustains her voice.

    Emily – it’s a loving book by an author who is very upfront about her own weaknesses. Oh, and it took her 14 years to write – so that should tip the scales, I think! :)

    Oh – hello to you, too! I do love to have you visit. Yes, I can see you appreciating this one. Isn’t it time the family cooked dinner for you? ;)

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