As you may know from last week’s communication I have been having a very enjoyable time reading Jane Powers’ new book ‘An Irish Nature Year’. The book is a compilation of 366 entries (one for every day of the year, including February 29th, in case you are reading it in a leap year) and catalogues seasonal happenings in the natural World. As you would expect for a wildlife book, ‘An Irish Nature Year’ is literally full of life but it is Jane Powers’ considerable skill as a storyteller which makes the daily entries shine. The book is a lovingly compiled collection of mini essays which manage the rare feat of being interesting, informative and amusing all at the same time.
I am clearly not the only one to enjoy Jane’s new book as ‘An Irish Nature Year’ has been shortlisted for the An Post Irish Book Awards which will be Judged later this month. As luck would have it, I find myself on friendly terms with the author so I figured I’d get a scoop for the Quickcrop newsletter by calling her up for an interview. I know Jane is from literary stock with, as far as I know, three other authors in the family so I was interested to hear about the writer behind the book before we talked about the book itself.
Jane kindly gave me permission to use the above photo of the Powers family (with the exception of Jane’s oldest sister Katherine A. Powers) which originally appeared in ‘Life’ magazine. That’s Jane sitting on her mothers’ knee sporting a natty pair of miniature bowling shoes. I didn’t ask what was written on the piece of paper everyone is so interested in, I presume there is a literary connection but they might be just going through the phone bill.
I began by asking about Jane’s family, I had known her Father J. F. Powers was an author of some note (having won the 1963 U.S. National Book Award) but hadn’t realised her mother, Betty Wahl (no relation to the hair clipper brand with which I cut my own diminishing bonce) was also a writer.
Shortly after Betty Wahl obtained her BA in English she made her debut in the ‘New Yorker’ magazine with ‘Martinmas’, a gently satiric story that Evelyn Waugh described as ‘a brilliant sketch of convent school life which I read with relish’. It was also writing that brought Betty and her husband together; one of Wahl’s college tutors sent some work in progress to the young J. F. Powers who arrived on campus to offer his critique. He proposed the following day.
J. F. Powers went on to publish ‘Morte D’Urban’ (for which he won the national Book Award), a number of collections of short stories and a second novel ‘Wheat that Springeth Green’. Unfortunately Betty Wahl had little time for writing while she raised the Powers family but did publish ‘Rafferty & Co.’ in 1969, a novel based on the family’s experiences in Ireland. When Betty died in 1988 she left behind three unpublished novels, a collection of stories and numerous letters.
Jane’s sister, Katherine A. Powers (they are a terrible family for the initials), the award winning literary critic also published ‘Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963′. She pretty much nailed the description in the title so I don’t think further explanation is necessary.
I didn’t think to record the interview (rookie mistake) so had to rely on my frantically scribbled notes. For this reason the intended Q&A format is not terribly accurate as I couldn’t remember, word for word, exactly what was said. I must apologise in advance to Jane as I had to patch her answers together from notes and memory, she speaks and writes with far more style than the following clumsy depiction.
I know books are in your blood with both your parents and your sister being published authors, can you tell me a little about this background, did you always want to be a writer?
Yes, both my parents were writers. My father, J. F. Powers, wrote novels and short stories, my mother Betty Wahl was also an author although she had very little time to write. In fact my mother was published before my father with a story in The New Yorker in 1947. I grew up with writing and never imagined being anything else.
When you say you grew up with writing, did you parents talk about the craft of writing at home?
We didn’t have a television at home, we were always reading books and talking about writing. When I was a child of four I used to sit while my father typed and produce pages of mock handwriting which I would present to him to read. He would pretend to see words in the scrawl and read them back to me as finished stories. As I got older we would talk about the craft of writing and why some things worked and others didn’t.
It might sound odd to say this about a factual book on wildlife but there is a playful, conspiratorial tone to it which reminds me of American authors like Garrison Keillor or David Sedaris, do you think your American roots have affected your writing?
My parents are both from the mid west, my father was born in Illinois and my mother in Minnesota. As it happens they lived for a time in Avon, Minnesota, a town on which Keillor’s fictional ‘Lake Wobegon’ is partially based and where Keillor himself lived.
I don’t know if you could put your finger on a particular American influence. My parents both had sparse and accurate writing styles with my father being a very amusing writer, not slapstick but master of the subtle joke. He was also master of the tiny canvas, his focus on the details gave intimacy, he would bring you into his confidence. I also get a real kick out of the details, I love sneaking in the little things, they add so much to the story.
I know you moved back and forth between the States and Ireland as a child, did your family have a connection with Ireland?
My father had some Irish connection but the move was more about Ireland seeming a place conducive to artists and writers. My father was mad about Joyce. He had corresponded with with Sean O’Faolain before we moved there. Writers used to spend considerable time writing to other writers in those days. Nonetheless, apparently O’Faolain used to write 2000 words a day no matter how he felt, and joked that my father spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon wondering if he should replace it with a semi colon. That may have been a joke, but it is not far off the truth. I am a bit that way myself, but fortunately decades of journalism deadlines have forced me to be a little more speedy.
I personally feel more Irish than American but definitely feel both. I still feel a strong connection with the American midwest and retain my love for sauerkraut!
Writing seems almost inevitable but can you tell where your love of gardening and the natural world comes from?
I was always fascinated by the nature. I spent much of my childhood in a world of my own inspecting things I might come across, when you’re a child you are much closer to the ground, there always seemed to be something interesting to look at. As regards gardening, I grew things from when I was single digits, sowing spring onion, nasturtium or sunflower seeds in the corner of the garden of whatever house we were renting at the time. We moved a lot.
Nature and the garden are a refuge for me, they are an antidote to a busy world. I like how plants are logical, you have successes and failures but in general there is a comforting order and predictability about them. I was always interested in the balance of nature in a garden, it all needs to work together. There is no point in fighting against it, the better suited your garden is to your environment the more successful it will be for you and for all the creatures that live in it and depend on it.
My mother, when we moved back to Minnesota, did have a large organic vegetable garden, before organic was fashionable. She was an expert grower and preserver of fruit and vegetables. I think there was an occasional mad organic gardening character based on her on Garrison Keillor’s morning radio show. My father survived on her basement stores of canned and bottled produce for years after she died. I guess some of that old North American/German tradition of growing and storing must have rubbed off as it is something I continue to do.
How did ‘An Irish Nature Year’ come about?
‘An Irish Nature Year’ is based on ‘Nature Notes’ a column I wrote for the Irish edition of the London Times. I had been writing about gardens for 25 years and always found myself wanting to look at more than the just the plants, I am fascinated by the bigger picture, in how it all fits together.
‘Nature Notes’ was a wonderful project which I absolutely loved writing so it was a blow when the Irish edition of the London Times closed last year. As it was winding up Richie Oakley, the editor (now editor of The Business Post) suggested I do a book based on the column. I’d been thinking along those lines myself, but I hadn’t approached a publisher. Richie mentioned it to the people at HarperCollins Ireland, who shared the same office space as the newspaper. And they asked me to send in a proposal, which I did very willingly. Now, a year later the book has been published by William Collins, the nature imprint of HarperCollins. (I turned that around fast for a Powers!) I’m thrilled to be with William Collins, as it has a long tradition of publishing beautiful nature books.
Obviously there are a lot of Irish references in the book but how different is the Irish nature year from the UK?
I felt is was very important to have a specifically Irish book as we have a very different climate with a unique set of plants. We may have a smaller overall biota than our neighbour (due to the size of the country) but we also have a number of plants and animals that don’t exist in the UK. We have species that exist in northern Spain and Portugal known, collectively, as the Lusitanian biota, that are well established here but strangely absent across the water. The now famous Kerry slug belongs to this group. Or, the native Irish hare, which doesn’t occur anywhere else in the World, it’s actually a subspecies of the Arctic rather than the European hare.
You manage to get a surprising amount of factual information into a single paragraph yet it feels more like a story, is this intentional?
I’m so pleased you said that. That is exactly what I was aiming for. It was very important that the entries weren’t just fact sheets, this isn’t an encyclopaedia, it should be fun to read. One of the reasons I loved writing ‘Nature Notes’ was the process of discovery, I just find the subject utterly fascinating. I wanted the reader of ‘An Irish Nature year’ to feel like we are in this together, that we are discovering together. I don’t want to be all schoolmarmish, I want to tell a good story.
I thought it was funny in the introduction that you talk about being respectful to your environment and ‘gentle with your footsteps’, yet you seem absolutely delighted when something in the book kills something else. I’m thinking of the 10th of June when an aphid imitates an ant larvae so it gets carried into the nest and placed beside the real thing. You seem rather pleased to end the piece with the matter of fact: “Once there, the aphids pierce the larval skin and suck out their vital fluids”.
Yes, I love that! I love the deviousness of it. People think nature is boring but there’s stuff that happens out there that is worse than anything you’ll see in a horror movie. There’s another great one where the female midge (Serromyia femorata, a species of Irish midge), while in the throes of passion pierces the male’s head, liquefies his innards and then sucks them out. In a final act of defiance the male’s drained corpse snaps off at his genitalia leaving a plug to prevent her mating with another male. You couldn’t make that up.
I know you do a huge amount of research and are fanatical about using the correct botanical terms and classifications, do you enjoy the science behind the story?
The interest in botany and classification comes from being a control freak! I love to understand exactly where things fit in the puzzle, I enjoy putting them in order. One of the wonderful things about studying the natural world is it actually all makes sense, it all fits perfectly together like an elaborate jigsaw. If you look at bees, different species have very different mouth parts that have evolved to collect nectar from a particular plant (or did the plant evolve to suit the bee?). I get a lot of comfort from understanding that order, I like things doing what they are supposed to do!
I remember visiting South Africa with my husband Jonathan, we were in the Cape area, which has some of the most diverse flora on the planet. It was fantastic but I found myself feeling uneasy all the time because I’d look at a plant and have no idea what it was. I couldn’t see where it fitted in. Our lives can sometimes feel chaotic but with nature, there is order and predictability all around us. The Brent geese and whooper swans will arrive like clockwork in autumn, as they do every year.
You mention your late brother Hugh (to whom the book is dedicated) in the book’s acknowledgements and that he introduced you to ‘the unexpected joys of botanical latin’, was he a big part of your early interest in nature?
I had a difficult relationship with Hugh in latter years, but we were very close for a time when we were younger. We moved back to Ireland together from the United States. In my late teens and early twenties, we shared a house with my sister Mary Farl Powers, who had been a brilliant artist, but who died in her forties. Hugh was a keen bird watcher and botaniser. We would go on walks and cycles all over Dublin, and he would deliver instruction. He was good at pointing out the differences between different plant families. He also unravelled the intricacies of Latin nomenclature for me. A lot of that still sticks in my head.
He died suddenly a couple of years ago. We had become estranged, so it was complicated. After we had had the news and been to identify the body, which was a grim event, my husband Jonathan and I took off down to Newcastle in Co Wicklow for a walk. Something a little magical happened that day: there was a skylark singing, a tiny speck high up in the sky and then dipping down to the ground. It sang for ages — as they do. My brother Hugh had first showed me skylarks, decades ago, so I always think of him when I see or hear one. They’re not as common as they used to be. It was so right that there was one on that day. I’ve written about the skylark for the entry in the book on April 7th, his anniversary. That was my secret little tribute — but I guess I’ve told you now.
We can’t discuss the book without mentioning the beautiful illustrations, can you tell me about the artist?
I couldn’t be happier with the illustrations, they are lovely, they have the timeless quality I was looking for. They were made by the artist and illustrator Robert Vaughan who is a lifelong bird watcher and keen observer of nature. It was an immense relief when I came across him; I had been struggling to find someone who was able to capture (not literally!) birds, animals and plants equally well. Finding Robert was a happy coincidence too, I bumped into Eric Dempsey while out birdwatching (Eric is the author of ‘Birdwatching in Ireland’ and several other books) and he recommended Robert having known him since he was a child. I am delighted, his illustrations are perfect.
My twopence worth
‘An Irish Nature Year’ is a deceptive little book. It is a compact, old fashioned hardback that sits comfortably in the hand. The design and illustrations are subtle, quiet and unassuming, the content is artfully written with a featherlight touch and a storytellers style. You could easily be fooled into thinking this is not a weighty volume.
It is almost as if Jane Powers sets out to hoodwink us. She says the book is intended as an interesting companion you can dip in and out of yet it is difficult to put down. One can rattle through a couple of months of entries without noticing time passing or realising just how much you have learned. Jane says she doesn’t want to be a ‘schoolmarm’ yet she is a gifted teacher who delivers her knowledge with such infectious enthusiasm that we are effortlessly and accurately schooled, one story at a time.
Like her father J. F. Powers, Jane is a master of the tiny canvas. Her mini essays offer a glimpse into a world of characters more numerous and fascinating than any work of fiction. Life and death scenarios play out every day, territories are won and lost, epic journeys are undertaken and close relationships are formed. As Betty Wahl bottled and canned her garden produce, Jane discovers, prepares and stores her nature notes. ‘An Irish Nature Year’ is a larder of beautifully written morsels; they can be enjoyed one day at a time or, if you’re feeling ravenous, devoured by the month.
I would like to thank Jane for her time in doing the interview. I found it fascinating learning about the creative Powers family (I have even started reading Morte D’Urban) and to hear about the process behind ‘An Irish Nature Year’. If you would like to read more by Jane Powers she is also author of ‘The Living Garden: A Place that Works with Nature’ and ‘The Irish Garden’.
‘An Irish Nature Year’ is, of course, available from your truly and can be ordered by clicking the blue button below.