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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Paean to The Long Grass Books, no. 4: In the Morning

Update, 13 June: Now this must be what contitutes the thing known as "perfect timing." An interview with Philip Lee Williams, done several years ago, has just come on line at The Istanbul Literary Review. It's an enlightening encounter between Phil and William Walsh. Phil talks frankly about worldly success, his books, the assaults on his heart, introspection, publishers, and much more.

Here's a clip: "To me, the great part of being a writer is the writing. All the rest of it is business stuff. When something great happens with the business stuff, you have two hours of happiness. When something really hideous happens, you say 'crap,' and you have two hours of being disgusted. It really isn't much more than that after you have been around for a long time. You don't sit around and get ecstatic except when you write. And of course I treasure it when someone says they love my work."

* * *

In a world where poetry professors gift their own students with major prizes and one little monkey scratches another's back, I'm reluctant to review this nature book, because the author is a penpal of mine. I've never met him, but we've exchanged many emails since 2001, when we were supposed to be on a panel together. Thanks to a bad back, we didn't meet at the Southern Festival of the Book, but now when I read In the Morning: Reflections from First Light, I know a lot about the author and the people and places he mentions.

So this will not be a review.

It will be, however, an attempt to shed light.

Feel free to leave a comment, as always, but if you have any questions for the author, ask away, and I'll pester Phil for an answer.

In the Morning is a classic Long Grass Book. I imagine that many people won't recognize the publisher: Mercer University Press. The copy I ordered is a trim, well-made hardcover, and the fact that Mercer chose to publish Philip Lee Williams is a credit to the press.

In the Morning is Phil's twelfth book, a kind of love song to his home state, its flora and fauna and people; in the past few years, the state of Georgia has been regularly laureling him with awards for his body of work (novels, poetry, and nonfiction), so the feeling must be mutual. Phil's a creative man, and he's a notably kind and tender-hearted man, so all the attention he has gotten lately seems especially pleasing.

To show the spirit of the book, I'm going to offer a variety of passages from it. And I'll append a few comments from other people who have admired its qualities.


Now, though, the mud has been washed away, and once more the creek is shining, sparkling. Murphy and I have come down to look for stones and artifacts, and already I have found an enormous amethyst crystal, pale purple and perfect, and a rim-sherd from a clay pot made on this land more than a thousand years ago. p. 28

At first, they appear almost black, like charcoal outlines in a book of nature identification, but soon their raw sienna paints itself on their flanks. The ivory spots that speckle the fawns come out like constellations. And their eyes are brown, what I see in the mirror each day, but much more alert, purposeful, and unknowing. The doe's right ear flops toward something I cannot hear. p. 34

Crickets that produce these sounds also have "ears"--on their front legs. (Stridulating grasshoppers have "ears" on their first abdominal segment.) Some species can make sounds at a mind-boggling 100 kilohertz, though humans wouldn't know it, since the higher range of our hearing ability is about 20kHz.

Which means that what we hear of this morning cricket chorus is a fraction of what's actually out there. (Lest we feel superior, one species, the snowy tree cricket, actually recites the temperature. Add forty to the number of chirps it makes in fifteen seconds, and you'll have the temperature in Fahrenheit. Science is full of fascinating and moderately useless bits of such information.) p. 64

It's early on a foggy spring morning, and we have already uncovered the clear outlines of the fort, bastions and all. We have found the skeleton of a man who we believe is Lt. Coytmore. We know his body was buried inside the fort, and it's the only such burial here. Looking on his skeleton, laid out neatly, I feel a shudder of sorrow for the man and his stupidities. p. 101

The mangrove-lined shore was probably half a mile away. Our houseboat bobbed several yards behind me in the Gulf of Mexico. I remembered well enough what you do not do around a shark: thrash and make a lot of noise. So here I was, in the middle of a spreading pool of blood, wearing sneakers. The shark came up then, and I could see his blood-drenched mouth and the 3-inch-long teeth and his wild, dead eyes. p. 120


Georgia writer Philip Lee Williams communicates both the wisdom we gain from the wilds and the wisdom we gain from science in language we want to read aloud for its sheer beauty.
--Betty Jean Craige, author of Eugene Odum: Ecosystem Ecologist and Environmentalist

Wise, engaging, and unfailingly profound, In the Morning awakens our weary senses to a whole cascade of mornings...
--Amy Blackmarr, author of Above the Fall Line and Going to Ground

Like morning itself, this book is quiet, gentle, and enlightening.
--Janisse Ray, author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Wild Card Quilt, and Pinhook

...Williams has found nature where millions of us live--just as Thoreau once found it on the edge of bustling, antebellum Concord.
--Edward Larson, Pulitzer Prize winner for Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial


  1. I love the way you point towards delicious works that I might otherwise have missed. Looks like something to seek out, in the line of many of my own favorites (like Dillard..and sure, Thoreau).

  2. hmmmmmm
    sounds wonderful
    i will go get myself a copy
    but i need to ask:
    What is a long grass book? A "nature book"?

  3. zephyr,

    This is the book I mentioned to you earlier... I'll just quote myself to explain Long Grass Books: "In 2007, I'm going to write more about books that ought to be more visible than they are--books by writers who work in the shade of the mid-list. It can be hard for readers to find those books when they are left scattered in the long grass, seldom seen."


    There's a reprint of another of his "nature books"--Crossing Wildcat Ridge--from University of Georgia Press. Kirkus described it as "twined, elemental stories on the havoc of a heart operation and the random, filigreed thoughts of an amateur naturalist exploring his home patch."

  4. oik!
    Please forgive my sieve for a brain...yes, your quote puts me back on track.
    Thank you

  5. No worries. Mine is a rusted-out colander, I fear.


    This sounds like a beautiful book. Given my love of poetry, I'll check it out.

    Meanwhile thanks for visiting my site. Come back and see the pics of recent partying, and also visit flying pig for a pic of my friends and another post.

  7. Oops I was trying to get a pic of me in my fav. hat to post with this comment. Sorry.

  8. I also find the excerpts you've posted beautiful. I'm going to buy a copy for my new son-in-law. That's still a concept that shocks me---son-in-law, not buying a book, of course. If the latter were true, I'd be permanently catatonic by now.

  9. blog queen,

    Really liked the bridge pics--you ought to get together a pack of friends and save the thing as a pedestrian bridge.

    I saw Vanessa's name on your blog again. Perhaps we should have a seminar reunion online at our site, get everybody to post pictures and news.


    "Buy a copy": I think people underestimate how important that is in a time that values numbers over substance and beauty. We're no longer in an age when a writer is "safe" after the first or second book. Every mid-list writer wonders whether the next manuscript will find a home...

    Congratulations on having found the sort of son-in-law who will like a reflective nature book!

  10. Mmmm is exactly what came to my mind too! Gorgeous stuff. Shall check it out. I like the sound of Georgia although I have to confess I have no idea where it is. So much to learn!

  11. One long grass writer saluting another: very apt!

    Well, if you look at the U. S. map, it's to the left of Florida. I say that because everybody on the other side of the water seems to know Florida... But north Georgia meshes with other states, and parts of it look just like North Carolina to me. I spent part of every childhood summer in hot, hot Georgia.

  12. my list of must reads is getting out of control!

    I left you a little response, that quote was great!

  13. OK
    my ears have finally connected to this dialogue in the Palace and i am wanting to ask a silly question after seeing your comment about spending part of every summer in hot, hot Georgia:

    Do you still have your Southern speaking voice...i.e. "an accent"?

  14. i forgot to say the i love the language:
    "long grass books"
    "rusted-out colander"

    i think i will build a long grass "button" and list to post on my blog

  15. susanna,

    Out of control lists are the only kind to have, no?

    Oh yes, any quote with a "powdered wife" in it has to be curious. Who knows, John Smith's may be the only quote in the world with a "powdered" wife, though I suppose Lot's wife might qualify as a salted-down wife. I like the part where he speculated about boiled versus "carbonadoe'd" wife.


    After being shamed and humiliated for my accent when I was in sixth-seventh-eighth grade, I worked hard to get rid of it. Then I went back to the Carolinas and presto! it sprang up once more. But I have lived in so many places that mine has eroded a good deal. Some people say that they hear it on the phone, or when I am excited about something. Others hear a slight accent all the time.

    If I talk to a Southerner, I tend to become a mimic and reflect that person's accent. It's very annoying, but I seem to be a sponge in that way. Or a mirror. An accent-light moon.


    And I think it would be very nice if we had a Long Grass movement, where every reading blogger had a Long Grass button and list. After all, there are so many writers worth reading out there in the deep grass.

  16. Fabulous stuff in this, Marly.
    You introduce such new exciting stuff...
    I wish I had more time/energy to tackle all these wonderful things!

  17. This is my idea of summer reading. Never mind the dithering romances or the pretzel-plot mysteries. Give me a reflective book about nature that teaches me how better to receive beauty.

  18. Jan,

    Siphon it off a small, hyperactive child.


    Welcome! Hope you can root up a copy of Phil's book wherever you are.

    An increase in one's perception of beauty and radiance is something few books have on offer. I think it is not confined to nature books, but there are certainly plenty of them that aim for that sunny, lovely flower.

  19. in the spirit of Pot Boys pulling up boot straps
    i borrowed a ton of your words to pair with some long grass to post on my blog...hope that's ok (please edit as you please)
    maybe someone will pass along something hiding

  20. oops
    i don't know how anonymous grabbed hold
    but you probably could figure it out:
    it was me, zephyr
    who borrowed your words, etc etc

  21. zephyr--

    Took me a minute to find it; I should've been looking for the grass!

    Sure, that's fine.

    And I couldn't figure out how to say so, there--no comments?

    Now I must think about how to live up to that adjective!

  22. Ah yes...the nearly rusted out colander syndrome attacked me. Typepad introduced a new posting method...and i messed up.
    i'm off to fix it so comments can be posted...learning new things can be so frustrating.

    By the way, you've already lived up to it dear Marly.

  23. zephyr,

    How very zephyr-like of you to waft back with a compliment! Just for that, I shall have to put up something about trees soon. Zephyrs like trees.

  24. Incredibly long/tiring week, but wanted to send happy smiles to Miz M. for finding more for me to read...

    And to Jarvenpa et al: If you haven't read Gretel Ehrlich's The Solace of Open Spaces, go find it and buy it and prepare to sigh.

    I've re-read it so often, pages started falling out.

  25. Even more perfect timing. Philip recently won the 43rd Annual Georgia Author of the Year Award in the Essay Division for In the Morning.

  26. lori,

    Get out the epsom salts and soak those Texas feet! You deserve it, after a week battling giant spiders and wrangling steers.


    Thanks for adding that one--it was delinquent of me not to pin that medal on the post. Hope the novel is moving along.

  27. Marly, you're a marvel!
    I noted Zephyr's long grass page earlier and have been thinking what to add.
    BTW, I hope Philip survived that shark intact, as he's living to tell the tale he must have kept his writing hand...

  28. I wish!

    Yes, maybe Long Grass pages will spread on little underground rootlets.

    He looks like a midget on those little peg legs, but he's a really sweet guy. (Probably just roused the p.c. police and the ire of Phil simultaneously!)

  29. A belated note of thanks for the book recommendation and the interview list.

    Especially that bit you copied into the post. It's something I need to etch into my brain, make copies of, and break down the copies for fuel. (I've lost my way as an artist, and, unfortunately, not in the long grass.)

    Nature writing about Georgia is something that just might inspire affection for my current home during this, indeed, hot, hot summer.

  30. Hi Annie,

    I'll have to go and see what that was. Head = sieve. Sieves are useful things, nevertheless.

    Hope you find a path, out there in the Georgia pines--or in there, inside the windings of your brain.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.