Susan Hand Shetterly is well known as a keen observer of nature. For two years, she wrote a regular column for Down East Magazine. Some of these columns she has now expanded and incorporated into her latest book, “Notes on the Landscape of Home.” Also included are a number of other essays written while sequestering herself in her house in Surry during the pandemic.

For the epigraph of her book, Shetterly has taken lines from T.S. Eliot. “At the still point of the turning world…. there the dance is.” The “still point” in this book is her home and the living community (wild as well as human) about her. Their “dance,” through her eyes, is the material out of which this collection derives. Without being anthropomorphic, Shetterly’s interactions with nature are always infused with personal insight and emotion.

Shetterly moved to Down East Maine when she was 29 years old, as part of the back-to-the land generation. Shucking off the years of her life to that point, in New York City and Connecticut, she says she feels she “grew up in a cabin on a 65-acre woodlot half a mile from a working harbor.” The first several essays describe her “apprenticeship” to this new life, the people, the places and the critters in it. In one, she describes, with delightful self-deprecation, how she inadvertently let loose a slither of garter snakes in the local laundromat, and then to the amusement of the women waiting for their wash to finish, collected them all up to save them.

The essays are arranged in sections, some of which have more cohesion than others. In “The Strangest Fishpond” (which is how John Smith described the Gulf of Maine in 1616) she dreams of Cashes Ledge, admires the skeleton of a majestic bluefin tuna painstakingly reassembled by students at the University of Maine at Machias, considers the Earth-sustaining virtues of a whale’s fecal plume, and explores the future of kelp farming. In each case, Shetterly allows her imagination, curiosity and associations full reign.

Another section, “Time Alone,” finds her hunkered down during the pandemic. “We wake up to reports of illness and death,” she writes; but “a whispered warm-up from a purple finch” tells her spring is returning. She instigates an email Social Distancing Bird Club, “a lively celebration not only of what it is to be neighbors in this scouring time, but a celebration of wild birds.” Inspired by 19th-century Maine botanist Kate Furbish, she takes Sharpie in hand and tries to draw a flower, achieving something that “looked like Oscar the Grouch from behind.” She muses on books (“The Country of the Pointed Firs“) and paintings (Homer’s fog-bound studio). A particularly touching memoir of her mother twines around Thoreau’s trips to Cape Cod in a contemplation of loss.

Not all these essays are solely contemplative. She gives Audubon an admirably balanced glance. Her friend, Passamaquoddy elder and educator Wayne Newell (to whom the book is dedicated) receives a beautiful tribute. Fish & Wildlife biologist Mark McCullough shares some of the blood and guts stories of bringing the bald eagle back from the cusp of extirpation in Maine. She broaches the inevitable result of the success of that program, and the threat eagles now pose to other species at risk, in the final section, “The Lives of Birds.”


Birds find Shetterly at her quirky best. Quirky, because of some of the ones she chooses to focus on, such as the turkey vulture. Inside a cage with one at a bird rehabilitation center, she describes him as “a man out of the 16th century with a jet black collared ruff around his neck, a serious fellow and well educated, perhaps in the process of translating the Bible from Greek into English with a sharp quill pen.” Such a flight of fancy does not stop her from discussing the inadequacy of vultures’ beaks, “as white as pearls,” for cutting through tough skin. Vultures must wait for a more adept predator, or for the “bacterial volcano inside the corpse” to explode.

One of the delights of this genre of writing is the occasional recognition or deep resonance of something — a place, an object, a sudden insight — to the reader’s own life. To make that jump from the pen to the reader’s consciousness is a measure of the writer’s skill. Her evocation of Little Moose Island and her feelings on the loss of a beloved apple tree in a storm had that effect on me.

If I have one criticism, it is that Shetterly is too prone to a sort of reflexive wail — a general nostra culpa — about the state of the world. Not that she is wrong, but the effect, at least on me, is to sap the vitality from the beauty she is still finding. And then I think of that Elizabethan turkey vulture and a greater yellowlegs “tipping — forward and back — as if it were a pitcher of cream at a busy tea party.” There is much to enjoy in Susan Shetterly’s view of the world.

Thomas Urquhart is the author of “For the Beauty of the Earth: Birding, Opera and Other Journeys.” He lives in Portland.

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