(Drawing of Judith Lowry by Vanessa Waring)
A monthly interview with Bolinas Library readers.
Judith Lowry is a long time resident of Bolinas and the owner of Larner Seeds, specializing in California native plants. She is the author most recently of California Foraging, as well as of Gardening with a Wild Heart, and of The Landscaping Ideas of Jays: A Natural history of the Backyard Restoration Garden, as well as numerous articles and essays.
Questions: Do you have a favorite genre? Any genres that you never read? I rarely read self-help books, not that I don’t need help. In fiction, I treasure regional writers with the environment as a character. I love non-fiction books on western anthropology, history of the West, particularly on land use history and on Native American culture, including memoirs, with a focus on California. I like mysteries with environmental themes, such as Keith McCafferty’s mystery series.
Are you a browser in the library or do you know in advance what you are looking for? How do you find out about them? From book reviews, friends recommend books, authors give talks. Not infrequently, I will find a gem at the Bolinas Book Exchange, then request the rest of that author’s books from the library. A perfect blending of systems.
What’s in your pile of books? Do you read one book at a time or several? I usually read six or seven books at a time, so I need a lot of bookmarks. In my current book pile: Andrew Schelling’s Tracks Along the Left Coast, about the influence of Jaime De Angulo on west coast “poetry culture, ”which got me rereading De Angulo’s books, Indian Tales, Indians in Overalls, Shabegok, and also the biography his daughter, Gui De Angulo, wrote about him, The Old Coyote in Big Sur. Schelling’s book includes letters written to various anthropologists and to poet Ezra Pound, which are hilarious. The Anthropology Dept. at UC Berkeley blackballed Jaime for eccentricity and free love. Reading him brings up memories of Lynn Murray, a passionate fan of De Angulo, and our brilliant Bolinas librarian, before our current brilliant Bolinas librarian. (We are blessed). Also, Joanne Kyger’s wonderful collection: There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera is on the top of the pile .Next is Coyote America, by Dan Flores. I thought I knew a lot about coyotes until I read this book. Also, Watch for Me on the Mountain, by Forrest Carter, who wrote The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Autobiography of Little Tree. This book about Geronimo’s ingenious, maddened guerilla exploits, outrunning horses, climbing impassable mountains, racing across deserts, escaping with his band until he didn’t, made me feel very out of shape. Also sad.
What was your reading experience as a child? A favorite book? I was a fan of the Oz Books, by both authors, Frank L. Baum and his successor, Ruth Plumly Thompson, (she had a much sprightlier tone). I loved all the weird creatures that the travelers, often unusual in their own right, encountered on their journeys. Also, Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. She lived nearby in Manchester, Vermont. Theme: farm life (the kind then practiced in New England) is good for kids. Her adult novels, like Seasoned Timber, are unknown. I was obsessed with horses and books about horses. – King of the Wind, The Black Stallion, Black Beauty, Justin Morgan had a Horse (Later in life I owned a Morgan, he was just as described), and an endless string of unmemorable books about girls winning horse shows against great odds. My mother gave me Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Thomas Hardy, Dickens, George Eliot, Grapes of Wrath.
Were there any books that made a big impression on you in your 20s? The Golden Bowl by Henry James, and some of his short stories, especially The Aspern Papers, a tale of literary greed with a moral that has stayed with me. The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki, the world’s first novel, written in the eleventh century. It is a slow, dreamlike, elegant read focusing on Prince Genji’s unbelievably complicated romantic life. I just read a summary of the plot in Wikipedia, which made my head spin. I thought I could never read it again, but I just found a copy in the Bolinas Book Exchange, so…. John Muir when I moved to California. Also, Edward Abbey’s various essay collections and Lester Rowntree’s Hardy Californians, which made me think there was one other person out there as crazy as myself (she wrote about wildland seed collecting). During my “back to the land” days (still ongoing?) I discovered Wendell Berry, Eliot Coleman, the Nearings, and other authors of those times, including What the Trees Said, by Stephen Diamond and Famous Long Ago, by Ray Mungo, about a Massachusetts communal endeavor called Total Loss Farm. Also Gurney Norman’s short stories in Kinfolk, and Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna/Acoma writer), discovered in a class on Native American literature.
Is there a famous author that you ever wanted to meet? back in time? Aldo Leopold. In his collections, you can follow the development of his brilliant ecological thought. His son, A. Starker Leopold, lived in Inverness and wrote (a Bolinas Must Read) The California Quail.
What’s the last book that you recommended to a friend? The Color of Lightning, by Paulette Jiles, a novel based on oral histories. The friend didn’t like it, too sad. Jiles’ most recent book, News of the World, is in the genre of fictional “captivity narratives” which raise many interesting questions. In the West, there were captives in the thousands, with a wide variety of experiences. Also, California’s most famous captivity narrative, The Blue Tattoo; The Life of Olive Oatman, by Margot Mifflin. The Ford/Wayne movie The Searchers is in that genre, based loosely on Cynthia Parker’s story (the mother of Quanah Parker, last Comanche chief). Also Empire of the Summer Moon, about Quanah.
What books do you return to? Are there any books you like to re-read? I reread Thoreau, especially Faith in a Seed, and Wild Fruits, full of natural history detail and his own drawings. When I used to return to New England every year, I would reread Donald Culross Peattie’s Natural History of East Coast Trees to re- immerse myself in that landscape. I’d reread his Natural History of West Coast Trees when I returned to California. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, the bible on this topic, requires frequent rereading. Theme: we really need controlled burns. Barbara Pym is an English author who wrote deceptively simple novels, often delicately mocking British anthropologists, for whom she worked. Quartet in Autumn, No Fond Return of Love, Jane and Prudence, and more.
When and where do you like to read? In our backyard underneath a Ceanothus in full bloom. Also, while taking a bath in an old cast-iron bathtub with an on- demand hot water heater. (Never read library books in the bathtub, of course).
Why read? Why think? Why feel? Why relax? Why escape? Why learn? Why yearn? A balanced selection of books keeps me balanced. I’m always afraid I’ll run out, but so far, I haven’t.