The Magic Apple Tree by mystery writer Susan Hill falls into the latter category. In it she recounts a year of living in the English countryside. It was a perfect follow-up to the two Thrush Green books I had just read.
She begins with winter, introducing the tree (The trunk is knobbly and each branch and twig twists and turns back upon itself, like old, arthritic hands), Moon cottage, and her daily routines.
In winter, I often spend all day in the kitchen, it is in winter that I love it best, and it is then that I most enjoy my own particular sort of cooking best, too, for one of the richest pleasures of domestic life is, and has always been, filling the house with the smells of food, of baking breads and cakes, bubbling casseroles and simmering soups, of vegetables fresh from the garden and quickly steamed, of the roasting of meat, of new-ground coffee and pounded spices and chopped herbs, of hot marmalade and jam and jelly.
I am not a gardener, but I enjoyed her anthropomorphic descriptions of plants:
I always grow a lot of leeks, those entirely easy-going creatures, pleasing to behold as soldiers in the ground, resistant to all diseases and pests, tolerant of any soil, long-lasting, reliable.
Most French beans are low-growing. But I find them horribly neurotic; they hate the cold, in the air or in the soil, refuse to germinate for the slightest of reasons, then refuse to flower, or crop sparsely, or wilt suddenly, when six inches high, for no discernible reason, or collapse on to the ground after heavy rain.
In the spring section she writes more about her gardening techniques, eschewing all the gardening books by “experts” because of her non-typical garden (high winds, clay soil, etc.) I enjoyed reading how she adapted her expectations to fit her reality. Plenty of good life lessons there.
The cadence of the writing and of the seasons is gentle and soothing. As Hill finds sanctuary, so do we.
Spring so often promises what in the end it never pays, spring can cheat and lie and disappoint. You can sit in the window and wait for spring many a weary day. But I have never been let down by autumn. To me it is always beautiful, always rich, it always gives in heaping measure, and sometimes it can stretch on into November, fading, but so gently, so slowly, like a very old person whose dying is protracted but peacefully, in calmness.
At the end of this day [of berry picking and canning], I am stung, scratched, sore and stained, and the kitchen smells marvelous. There are rows of glowing jars on the dresser shelves, like so many jewels, deep red, orange, burgundy, pale pink, pale green, purple-black. I label them, before carrying them upstairs to the store cupboard.... When I have lined them up, I gaze in deep satisfaction. I feel as if we shall indeed be ‘preserved’ against the ravages of the coming winter, and go off to a long, hot, soothing bath.
A delightful book!