The cover of "Notes on the Landscape of Home" by Susan Hand Shetterly. Credit: Courtesy Down East Books

Time. It is in everything. 

It holds onto everything and sometimes it folds in on itself, allowing a much-needed pause in life. This was my first thought as I finished reading “Notes on the Landscape of Home” by Susan Hand Shetterly. It is an exceptional collection of essays from a writer undoubtedly grounded in both time and place.  

Shetterly lives in Surry and is the author of “Settled in the Wild” and “Seaweed Chronicles: A World at the Water’s Edge.” She also has written a number of children’s books, including “Shelterwood,” named an Outstanding Trade Book for Children by the Children’s Book Council.

For the reader, Shetterly offers clarity of place, both the place she calls home or any situation that affords her a quiet moment. When that happens — when time and place come together — she captures a pure reflective experience, becoming a pure memory for her. Reading this book is like taking a journey to where everything touches the senses, making it both real and personal.

But it doesn’t happen all the time. Time has a way of sometimes adding or distracting from a place. Yet with her prose Shetterly shares the essence of place no matter the circumstance. Whether good or bad, her experience is simply “to be” and to observe it all. 

The 32 essays in this book cover a myriad of experiences. Shetterly is a keen observer, and her writing guides us into her world — one fraught by climate change, altered habitats, human cultures both worldly and here in Maine. 

She shows us that if proper time is given, something good will bubble to the surface, assuaging the uncertainties and often the dread that can easily overcome us at any time.

In “Time Alone,” Shetterly reflects on time as friend and foe — as a neighbor during the pandemic. She walks us through that time by reflecting on a Winslow Homer painting, “The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog.” The oil painting, heavy in brown tones, dense black and silvery whites, lodged its place in her memory a long time ago. And when needed — during a pandemic isolation — it creeps back in and meets the moment with its muted colors laid down by the painter’s isolation.

“There is a difference between being told to stay home to stay safe and doing what Homer did in those years at the shore, which was to choose to turn away from the human world to see if he could make something that told the truth and would last. Living in a different sort of alone time now, it seems to me he did just that.” 

In another essay the night sky is revealed as a shared constant in a forever-changing world. And like that hunter Orion who wanted to rid the world of the wild, Shetterly reminds in “Children of Orion,” that it is wildness that must remain the one true constant — to be protected by all costs.

“We’re nourished by what’s left of wildness, by the knowledge that we belong among other species — both animal and plant — and to lose them would be to lose something we honor in ourselves. When the stars wake me upon especially clear cold winter nights — it’s their silence, I think, and their needle-sharp points of light that disturb my sleep — he’s there, the hunter who thought we’d be better off all by ourselves on this Earth.”

And in the whimsical essay, “A Sneeze,” Shetterly reflects on the importance of story —both the good and the bad — by way of E.B. White’s classic, “Charlotte’s Web.” For her, White’s book is “very close to a perfect book.” Even though death becomes real at the end of the story, it is significant in that it brings out the beauty of what real friendship can be and to be alive to share it. 

“Death is steeped into its pages, as is life, immediate, brightly colorful and witty, playing itself out against the darker background. The counterpoint between the two gives White a chance to write some of his most moving prose about the beauty and joy of being alive.” 

In the opening preface to her book, Shetterly shares a line from a T.S. Eliot poem that provides a clue as to how the magic happens if one pays close attention to all things on land, in water, community and the wildlife that wraps itself around it all.

“At the still point of the turning world …

there the dance is …”

The still point for Shetterly is this place called Maine — the small neighborhood in a small town where she lives — and the dance, she says, “is between the individual lives of the many species that live here, the community we make together, and time.” 

This was a joyous read for me personally and professionally as a columnist living and working in Down East Maine. The personal observations amidst our mutual “friends” Shetterly invokes by way of Thoreau, White, Leopold, Homer and many others provided me a “still point” accompanied by a smile in this turning world.

“Notes on the Landscape of Home” by Susan Hand Shetterly

Down East Books, 2022, hardbound, $22.95

RJ Heller, Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.