Time. It is in everything. It holds onto everything and sometimes it folds in on itself allowing a much-needed pause in life. This was my first thought as I closed the book Notes on the Landscape of Home by Susan Hand Shetterly. It is an exceptional collection of essays from a writer undoubtedly grounded in both time and place.
Shetterly lives in Surry and is the author of Settled in the Wild and Seaweed Chronicles: A World at the Water’s Edge, as well as a number of children’s books including Shelterwood, named an Outstanding Trade Book for Children by the Children’s Book Council.
For the reader, Shetterly offers clarity of place, both the place she calls home or any situation for that matter that affords her a quiet moment. When that happens — when both time and place come together — a pure reflective experience is captured, becoming a pure memory for her. Reading this book is like taking a journey to where everything touches the senses, making it both real and personal.
But it does not happen all the time. Time has a way of sometimes adding or distracting from a place. Yet Shetterly with her prose shares the essence of place no matter the circumstance. Whether good or bad, her experience is simply “to be” and to observe it all.
The 32 “notes” in this book cover a myriad of experiences. Shetterly is a keen observer. She sees all, or so it seems, and her writing guides us into her world. A world fraught by climate change, altered habitats, human cultures both worldly and here in Maine.
She shows us that if proper time is given, goodness will bubble to the surface, assuaging the uncertainties and often the dread that can easily overcome us at any time.
In “Time Alone,” Shetterly reflects on time as friend and foe — as a neighbor during the pandemic. She walks us through that time by reflecting on a Winslow Homer painting, ”The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog.” The oil painting, heavy in brown tones, dense black and silvery whites, lodged its place in her memory a long time ago. And when needed — like during a time of pandemic isolation — it creeps back in and meets the moment with its muted colors laid down by hands from “someone else’s” isolation.
“There is a difference between being told to stay home to stay safe and doing what Homer did in those years at the shore, which was to choose to turn away from the human world to see if he could make something that told the truth and would last. Living in a different sort of alone time now, it seems to me he did just that.”
In another essay the night sky is revealed as a shared constant in a forever-changing world. And like that hunter Orion who wanted to rid the world of the wild, Shetterly reminds in “Children of Orion,” that it is the wildness that must remain the one true constant — to be protected by all cost.
“We’re nourished by what’s left of wildness, by the knowledge that we belong among other species — both animal and plant — and to lose them would be to lose something we honor in ourselves. When the stars wake me upon especially clear cold winter nights — it’s their silence, I think, and their needle-sharp points of light that disturb my sleep — he’s there, the hunter who thought we’d be better off all by ourselves on this Earth.”
And in the whimsical essay, “A Sneeze,” Shetterly reflects on the importance of story —both the good and the bad — by way of E.B. White’s classic, Charlottes Web. For her, White’s book is “very close to a perfect book.” And even though death becomes real at the end of the story, it is significant in that it brings out the beauty of what real friendship can be and to be alive to share it.
“Death is steeped into its pages, as is life, immediate, brightly colorful and witty, playing itself out against the darker background. The counterpoint between the two gives White a chance to write some of his most moving prose about the beauty and joy of being alive.”
In the opening preface to her book, Shetterly shares a line from a T.S. Eliot poem that provides a clue as to how the magic happens if one pays close attention to all things on land, in water, community and the wildlife that wraps itself around it all.
“At the still point of the turning world …
there the dance is …”
The still point for Shetterly is this place called Maine —the small neighborhood in a small town where she lives — and the dance, she says, “is between the individual lives of the many species that live here, the community we make together, and time.”
This was a joyous read for me personally and professionally as a columnist living and working in Down East Maine. The personal observations amidst our mutual “friends” Shetterly invokes by way of Thoreau, White, Leopold, Homer and many others provided me a “still point” accompanied by a smile in this turning world.
Down East Books, 2022, hardbound, $22.95
© 2022 RJ Heller
First Published: The Quoddy Tides, November 25, 2022 : Machias Valley News Observer, December 14, 2022: Calais Advertiser, December 15, 2022: Bangor Daily News, December 16, 2022