Monthly Archives: June 2021

“The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot” and “Underland: A Deep Time Journey” by Robert MacFarlane

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (Landscapes)
Underland: A Deep Time Journey

These books came to my attention when I read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain (see review dated March 25, 2021). 

The Old Ways is about walking, and about paths. MacFarlane sees walking as a relationship. You walk the path, and THE PATH WALKS YOU! You make the path deeper, clearer. In turn, the path stimulates your imagination, teaches you, connects you to landscape and history. The locations described in this book are in England, Scotland and “abroad”. My personal walks (especially during Covid) seem so very tame compared to those described by MacFarlane! My part of South Jersey is rectilinearly grided with roads laid down when farms were sold. See my poem “Pandemic Winter” (February 7, 2021). Why do I walk on roads, rather than paths? Ownership is one reason. Additionally, there are ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes. 

My rambles are more interesting on my bike. There are winding roads (not all paved), and more features to look at. Crop fields, tree farms, a corn maze, houses from modest to MacMansion, people and their pets. And birds!

Underland is similar, but about geographic features under the earth. It’s organized into three parts, titled Seeing (Britain), Hiding (Europe) and Haunting (The North). 

This book needs a trigger warning. “Don’t read if you suffer from claustrophobia.” Regrettably, I’m in that category, having unexpectedly freaked out during a medical procedure. I stopped reading “Underland” in the second Chapter, upset by a detailed description of the death of Neil Moss in 1958. Exploring Peak Cavern (Derbyshire) with friends, Moss stumbled and became wedged in a narrow passage. Every available type of rescue expertise was deployed, but he died. His father decided against efforts to recover his body, because of risk. It remains, entombed. I DON’T NEED THIS IN MY HEAD. A glance at other chapters of “Underland” convinced me to set the book aside. Too much confined space.

MacFarlane wrote other books and I look forward to sampling them. He’s a thoughtful writer. I’m curious about The Gifts of Reading and The Lost Spells. 


Eighty degrees – the temperature of my childhood

Eighty degrees Fahrenheit was the most important temperature in my childhood. My mother decreed that if it was 80 degrees outside, we could go SWIMMING. I loved swimming beyond any other pastime, but it required both parental consent and (usually) transportation. My sister and I would gaze intently at the red column in the thermometer on the back porch, willing it to rise beyond the 80 degree mark. We may have tried to breathe on it or use our hands to warm it, but I don’t think my mother was ever fooled.

Going swimming involved one of several possible destinations. 

One was a small lake a few miles from our summer cabin in the woods. The water was shallow and warm, the lake surrounded by trees. Unable to actually swim, we wore bright red life jackets and were forbidden to go deeper than armpit depth. No matter! We loved it, splashing for hours. 

Another destination was Fernridge, a public park less than two miles from home. Initially, we used the wading pool, a shallow concrete cavity with a fountain spraying in the middle. This unfenced feature was “guarded” by an employee (who interfered with any roughhousing) and was drained at the end of each day. Mothers sat on benches around it, chatting. 

There was another pool at Fernridge, a real pool left over from a WPA project. I called it “the blue watered pool”. How I longed to go into the big pool! Alas, it was restricted to those age 8 and up. We moved away at just the wrong time, to my intense disappointment.

But our new home 100 miles away had a public beach on Long Island Sound! The “80 degree” rule still applied. I think we made it to the beach about once a week, sometimes taking along a friend or two. The ocean was exciting, and cold. I was a skinny kid, and delayed coming out of the water until I was blue and shivering. I’d lie down on the blanket and my mother would layer on dry towels and another blanket. The whole pile would shake. I loved it! I still wasn’t really able to swim, so the beach was a little risky, but nothing bad happened.

Two years later, we moved back to our house near Fernridge, and I finally got swimming lessons. I was two years older than most of the other kids in my class, always the tallest, and I learned quickly and easily. At age 12, I passed Junior Life Saving and decided to swim competitively. I loved racing! There followed several years during which I “lived” at Fernridge all summer. I would arrive in the morning at 8:30 for team practice and come home after dinnertime at 6:30, with 3.5 hours of swimming and diving practice (and even some synchronized swimming) under my belt. When we weren’t training, we taught little kids to swim, fooled around during public swimming hours and worked on our tans. A great life for teenagers! I was an average team swimmer and an incompetent diver (but I managed to avoid injury). One of my proudest moments was when I won the “Most Improved Swimmer” award. 

When I joined the swim team at age 13, the 80 degree rule vanished. The team practiced and competed in almost any weather, limited only by the unwillingness of our coaches to work in pouring rain. August could be chilly in Connecticut. My parents were baffled by the emergence of an athlete in the family, but they supported me in my summer aquatic activities.  It paid off later, when I earned college money as a locker room attendant and then a lifeguard.

Once in a while, a report that the temperature is 80 degrees triggers in me a thrill of excitement, and I remember all that swimming – the play, the practices, the meets…

“The Blood Card – A Magic Man Mystery” by Elly Griffiths

The Blood Card (Brighton Mysteries Book 3)

I read Elly Griffiths’ other mystery series (about forensic anthropologist Ruth Galloway) in it’s entirety, but had dropped the Magic Man series because I didn’t like the first book that much. 

I picked up The Blood Card (aka Brighton Mysteries Book 3) by mistake, but totally enjoyed it. 

It takes place in 1952, during the days leading up to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Griffiths makes much of the emerging role of TV in this event. Post war England was embroiled in controversy. Should a woman ascend to the throne? Who needed monarchy, anyway? Why were the rich SO rich, while the commoners who had fought and won World War II struggled with rationing? Who was a communist? WHAT was an anarchist? And how was the entertainment world going to cope with “home entertainment”, aka television?

Having constructed a pleasingly eccentric cast of characters (including a gypsy fortune teller) and drawn them all to a big, old London theatre, Griffiths lets us know that the threat of an anarchist bombing is serious and immediate. Ultimately, the bomb itself is on stage in front of the audience. 

At this point, I had absolutely NO IDEA how the plot would be resolved and the book would end! Who was the bad guy? I was engaged and delighted. Reading The Blood Card was so much fun!

Rather than stay up and rush through it (very tempting), I went to bed and saved the end for the following day. It was highly satisfying.