Friday, July 27, 2012

On the Dock of the Bay

I’ve just returned home after a long weekend at a house on the Chesapeake Bay. This is the fourth or fifth time that my friend Jan and I have had the opportunity to borrow this house for a writing retreat, and every time we amaze ourselves with how much work we get done. 

The house sits on a bluff overlooking the place where the Susquehanna River enters the head of the Chesapeake Bay. It has been in the same family for over 70 years. Two generations were raised here – a son and daughter who each in turn had a daughter and a son ‒ and pictures of them are in every room. I am a fortunate friend of this generous family and have met many of its members, including the patriarch and matriarch, both now sadly gone to their maker. Two years ago, Mike and I were privileged to be present when their granddaughter got married under the holly trees overlooking the water. 

There’s a plaque embedded on the lawn that is engraved with this quote from the Rudyard Kipling poem, Sussex:

“God gave all men all earth to love, But since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove, Beloved over all.”

The views across the tidal Chesapeake are both grand and profoundly restful. At low tide kayakers negotiate the shallow channels, and long lines of seagulls stand along sand bars far out in the bay. Closer to shore, great egrets stalk the barely submerged mudflats on their long black legs, looking like they’re walking on water. High tide brings out the jet skiers from the nearby marina who zip and roar across the water, which is fun to watch.

When I look up from the sunroom where I work, I can see geese stalking the steep hill that dips down to the water, grazing on grass and fallen apples. And just beyond the water’s edge, an osprey nest sits on a platform. On our various visits over the last few years, Jan and I have seen the ospreys in mating season, as they tended their eggs, and as they nurtured their chicks. This time we watched as they squabbled over a fish with their adolescent offspring who seemed to be on the verge of leaving home to create his own family next spring. Ah, the cycle of life. A telescope in the sunroom is trained on the nest, so we were able to watch every move the ospreys made. Sometimes one of the powerful-looking birds would turn its head and look straight at the telescope with its yellow-hazel eyes as if to say, “I know you’re there.”

There is no Internet access at the house on the water. So my days at the computer were disturbed only by the clink of ropes against fiberglass masts in the marina and the occasional mysterious boom from the Aberdeen Proving Grounds to the south. When I looked up from my laptop, the weather had often changed so completely that I could no longer see the far shore of the bay. 

The peace and lack of distractions meant that my mind was free to bury itself in the siege of the town of Kimberley in South Africa during the Boer War or in the rhythms of the English city of Nottingham in 1923, the settings of the two chapters of Albion’s Millennium I was writing. Daily life being what it is, I rarely get the chance to immerse myself so completely in the world I’m creating, but the house on the bay gives me that opportunity every time and I relish it.

In the evenings Jan and I relaxed, had dinner and some wine, and talked about what we'd each worked on that day. This time we were only able to get away for 3½ days, but it was balm to our souls, particularly for me as I’d had no time to write anything other than blog posts for a very long time. So those days in the house on the bay were a gift beyond price, and my gratitude to the givers is profound. All writers should be lucky enough to have such friends.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Place of Extremes

Sun and rain clouds over Moorea on the ferry to Tahiti, December 2007

Here in the Washington D.C. area we have just emerged from the grip of a brutal heat wave with temperatures above 100 degrees F and sky-high humidity. Meanwhile, my other country across the Atlantic has had the wettest June since records began with no end to the deluge in sight.

Both kinds of extreme weather are hard to handle while you’re living through them, but both can be a powerful atmospheric force in fiction. For sheer tropical heat, you can’t beat the last section of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust when Tony Last goes on an expedition to the Brazilian jungle to try to forget his cheating wife. And for a good British drenching rain, there is the passage from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations describing the wretched weather on the night that Magwitch comes back into Pip’s life “...stormy and wet, stormy and wet; and mud, mud, mud, deep in all the streets. Day after day, a vast heavy veil had been driving over London from the East, and it drove still, as if in the East there were an Eternity of cloud and wind.”

My own fiction has ranged from the cold incessant rain of Belfast in The Province of the Imagination:

As she had expected, the cemetery seemed to be deserted. She paused after locking the car to turn up her collar, savoring the chance to be away from inquisitive eyes. There was a light in the window of the lodge by the car park, and Sandie imagined a pair of gravediggers straight out of Shakespeare brewing up a pot of tea. Who would want to be out digging graves in this eternal, bone-crushing damp, she thought as she walked through the wrought-iron gates. It was drizzling, but she had deliberately left the umbrella in the car. She felt wet both inside and out, drenched to the core. The fine drizzle clung to the ends of her hair like a bridal veil. the furnace-like temperatures of the India plains in the first book of Albion’s Millennium: 

The horizon was already blurry with heat and each step of his horse's hooves kicked up a puff of terracotta-coloured earth. He rode past scrubby bushes with leaves caked in red dust, springing out of the bare rock of the ridges that broke the surface of the plain. Ahead of him, swirls of dusts would arise and sink, stirred up by nothing that was visible to the naked eye. In the distance, he could just see the hazy outlines of the great swathes of rock of the Amarapuna Hills like a row of sleeping elephants, their hides ranging from grey to dun to ochre and then to almost amber as the sun slowly encroached across them. Vultures circled around high above on some bare wisp of breeze that could not be felt at ground level. Makepeace felt sweat pool inside his hat and roll down his back and soak into the waistband of his jodhpurs. There were dark patches on his horse's hide. The cicadas were so loud it seemed like the earth itself was making noise, a hissing and rattling that crescendoed to the pitch of a scream before subsiding only to begin all over again.

But only in Tahiti in the rainy season have I ever experienced both kinds of weather in the exact same place and time – scorching heat, soup-like humidity, and then torrential, monsoon-like rain that felt both hot and cold on the skin. Thus did the extremes of my two Midatlantic climates come together with a vengeance in the far reaches of the South Pacific.