Portrait of a Field at the Library

by Bill Peak

This column is dedicated to Talbot County Free Library director Bob Horvath, who officially retired after 17 years of service on Saturday, October 31.

Between the years 1891 and 1893, Claude Monet painted thirty-some-odd pictures of a single door. Now you might think painting the same door over and over again would get boring, but Monet was trying to do something no one had ever done before. While his subject—the entrance to the cathedral at Rouen—never changed, and the angle and perspective from which he painted that entrance never changed, the light that fell upon his subject was—each time—entirely different, for one painting showed the door at morning, another in the bleached light of noon, another in the final glorious tints of sunset, and another still in the crepuscular light that follows sunset. And that was all it took. By painting the same scene over and over again, Monet showed how even the most inanimate of objects—a simple door—becomes surprisingly dynamic as daily, hourly, it changes beneath the light that falls upon it. That everything, finally—if we slow down enough to really see it—is miraculous, sublime.

When I first moved here and began to study the landscape of the Eastern Shore, I was surprised to find myself captivated by one of its most prosaic elements: the common field. Everywhere I looked, the world lay covered by vast agricultural quilts, each the product of a single farmer's mind and effort. And how they changed! In spring, rows of seedlings run out over the earth like contour lines on a topographic map, communicating to the eye minute changes in the field's shape and form. By late June the winter wheat has risen and browned beneath the sun like a loaf of fresh-baked bread. Come autumn, great seas of soybean stretch to the horizon and the corn is being brought in, threshers piping their harvest into waiting trucks in torrents of red-gold kernel. Finally, in winter, the contour lines of spring have been replaced by rows of broken corn stalk, each parchment-colored length canted to show the direction followed by the beast that ripped it asunder.

And I found myself thinking about Monet. Why hadn't anyone ever painted this? Why hadn't anyone ever set up her easel and painted four different pictures of a single field as—over time—it sprouted, grew, matured, declined? Surely such a profound transformation deserved the slow, loving study of art, deserved to become a work of art as masterful as the work of agriculture that produced it. But I have to tell you, over the ensuing years I have approached (and probably annoyed) more than my fair share of painters with this idea ... and, alas, not a single one of them has ever taken the bait.

Then, one day not too long ago, I was reading “Scientific American” and came across a review of a book called “Meadowland: the Private Life of an English Field.” Intrigued, I took advantage of a process available to all patrons at the Talbot County Free Library: I filled out a “Suggested Purchase” form at the Information Desk. And not long after that our acquisitions librarian (bless her hard-working soul!) decided to approve my request ... which meant that, within a matter of weeks, I had a free copy of the book in my hands! You can do this too. It's easy. Just stop by the Information Desk the next time you're in the library and we'll show you how.

Oh, and while you're there, you might want to check out “Meadowland.” Its first chapter is called “January,” its last “December”—which pretty much says it all. Just as I had hoped some painter might, its author, a farmer, describes his fields as they change over time. We meet the animals and plants, domestic and wild, that live upon his meadow and, in turn, in their own season, rejoin its earth. Using the complex, often unwieldy palette of the English language, John Lewis-Stempel paints a portrait of his “meadowland” that would have made Claude Monet proud. I think you'll like it too. You can find “Meadowland” on the Talbot County Free Library's New Books shelf under non-fiction, call number: 577.4609 LEWI. Please, if you get a chance to read it, let me know what you think.