Review published on September 4, 2017.
For millennia mankind has been shaping the landscapes that we have lived in, we have torn down trees to make fields, changed watercourses to better suit our needs and expends vast amounts of energy hauling rocks from the ground. The very land that we live on has provides all that we need. What people lose by living in a city is that contact with the soil and rocks that rural living affords, the way that the landscape changes as the seasons roll by and more importantly the roots that we put down as we settle in a particular area.
Fiona Sampson has lived in a variety of places, but the places that have made a deep and lasting impression on her have all had limestone as the bedrock. In this book she explores just what has made these places so unique and important to her and the people that she lives near. Beginning in Autumn, we are in Chambon in southern France where people still farm the land and produce the most wonderful foods. More challenging is the soupy French dialect as she struggles to translate as the strong aperitif clouds her mind. It is a place that she feels at home in.
Stepping back a season to summer we arrive in Slovenia in Škocjan in the Karst region. Sampson recalls time spent with a Macedonian lover, the slivovitz plum brandy, the walks through the woods that are full of boars and deer and the caves that permeate the area containing finds from humans who lived there 3000 years ago. We find ourselves in the village of Coleshill in spring, a place that they have lived in for seventeen years and are just about to leave. It is a place with a long history and parts that you’d immediately recognise as quintessential rural scenes. The limestone there has been shaped by the rivers that flow through it and water still plays a huge part today in the landscape particularly in the spring.
Winter takes us to a place that needs no introduction really, Jerusalem. Getting to this ancient city that sits on the sedimentary rocks that were once even older sea beds, is demanding enough with all the required security checks. When you arrive under the stark sunlight and blue skies the limestone feels like it has been bleached to a pure white. The colour of the limestone changes with the light and the area you are in, ranging from softer pinks to purples. In some ways it reflects the city, with its triparty of religions and the hotchpotch of streets adding to the atmosphere.
There is a lot to like about this book. It has a certain intimacy as Sampson talks about the places that have meant so much to her where she has lived and the people that inhabit them. The final chapter was the one I liked the least, can’t quite put my finger on why, but I think that it might have been because it was a city, which tend to larger and more impersonal and it didn’t have the warmth of the other chapters. Even though it is disconcerting heading backwards through the seasons, it suits the character of the book perfectly. As I have come to expect from poets who write non-fiction, the prose is quite special. It is a fine addition to the contemporary works that Little Toller have in their Monograph range that I seem to be inadvertently collecting now.
Paul Cheney 4/3
Limestone Country by Fiona Sampson
Little Toller Books 9781908213518 hbk May 2017
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