Frogs, toads, and days of gold

The Frog Princess by Gennady Spirin

Bumblehill frog

I've spotted the first frog of the season in the little pond in front of my studio. He's a bold, friendly fellow, pictured above blending perfectly with the color of the leaves. In honor of the start of frog season here at the Bumblehill Studio, this is a piece about the history of the pond, first posted in 2014:

In her beautiful memoir A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L'Engle explored the murky subject of creative struggle and failure by drawing on the fairy tale "Diamonds and Toads":

"Just as we are taught that our universe is constantly expanding out into space at enormous speeds, so too our imagination must expand as we search for the knowledge that will in its turn expand into wisdom, and from wisdom into truth.

A detail from The Frog Bride by Virginia Lee"But this is violent, and therefore frightening.

"Children are less easily frightened than we are. They have no problem in understanding how Alice could walk through the mirror into the country on the other side; some of them have done it themselves. And they all understand princesses, of course. Haven't they all been badly bruised by peas? And then there's the princess who spat forth toads and snakes whenever she opened her mouth to speak, and her sister whose lips issued pieces of pure gold.

"I still have many days when everything I say seems to turn into toads. The days of gold, alas, don't come nearly as often. Children understand this immediately; why is it a toad day? There isn't any logical, provable reason. The gold days are just as irrational; they are pure grace; a gift."

Gennady Spirin

Arthur Rackham

Warwick Goble

Thumbelina by Lizbeth Zwerger

Now me, I've always liked frogs and toads, and I want to tell you my own little story about them. There's a tiny pond outside my studio door, but it was mud-choked and rank when I first moved in, housing nothing remotely so interesting. I cleared out the trash, the dead vegetation, stocked it with plants to re-balance the water, and then asked a friend, knowledgeable in these matters, how I might get frogs or toads. 

"You don't need to 'get' them," he told me, "just create the environment for them, and they will come."

Weeks passed. Months passed. The frogs didn't come. What was I doing wrong? I asked.

"Just be patient," my friend told me gently. "These things take time."

Froglessness, 2011

And yet time, I'm afraid, was not on my friend's side. He died the next winter (too soon, too young), my little pond remained stubbornly empty, and I wondered if his advice had been right. He'd been a folklorist, after all, and perhaps this was just an old wives' tale.

Buddha and frogs, 2014

Another summer passed. No frogs. No toads. In deference to my friend, I did nothing more than tend the pond, keep the pondweed in check. I could say I was patient, but really I was busy and distracted and I stopped thinking about it.

Then one day I looked through the studio window and saw my husband crouched by the pond. I put down my pen and notebook and went outside to see what he'd found.

The Frog Prince in my pond

A frog? Oh yes. Not one, but dozens. Frogs and more frogs, everywhere we looked -- hiding in the weeds, sunning on the rocks, bobbing together in the golden pond water. How had we'd never seen them before? And how could one tiny pond hold so many? Big frogs and small frogs, brown, red, and green, all looking like they'd lived there forever.

The little faces that greet me each morning

Frog companions

Now the frogs re-emerge in the pond every spring, grinning up at me from the water and weeds, watching the studio's comings and goings from their sun-dappled kingdom nearby.

I wish I could tell my friend he'd been right. Create the environment and they will come. He'd also been right when he answered every inquiry with, "Terri, just be patient."

Frog King and Queen

I believe it's the same with creativity. Feel dry, uncertain, empty of ideas? Then create the proper environment: a space you can work in, the right tools at hand, and good work habits, regular and steady. Inspiration will come. Be patient, and it will come.

It's pure grace; it's a gift.

Why, hello.

The Frog Prince by Arthur RackhamWords: The Madelaine L'Engle quote is from the first volume in her Crosswick Journnals: A Circle of Quiet (HarperCollins, 1998).  Pictures: the art above is "The Frog Princess" by Gennady Spirin, a detail from Virginia Lee's "The Frog Bride," "Darwin's Frog" by Gennady Spirin, "Alice and the Frog Footman" by Arthur Rackham, "The Frog Prince" by Warwick Goble, "Thumbelina" by Lizbeth Zwerger, and "The Frog Prince" by Arthur Rackham.


Look, learn, remember

Ponies 1

As artists, although we can list a variety of things that serve to inspire us (places, experiences, interests and obsessions, other works of art, etc.), the act of inspiration itself remains mysterious and magical. Why and how does it strike when it does? Why this idea and not that one; why at this moment and not another?

"The whole process is a mystery, in all the arts," writes Susan Cooper; "creativity, in literature, painting, music. Or in performance, those rare lovely moments in a theater when an actor has the whole audience in his hand suddenly, like that. You may have all the technique in the world, but you can't strike that spark without some mysterious exra blessing -- and none of us knows what that blessing really is. Not even writers, who talk the most, can explain it at all.

Ponies 2

"Who knows where the ideas come from? Who knows what happens in the shadowy part of the mind, something between Plato's cave and Maeterlinck's Hall of Night, where the creative imagination hides? Who knows even where the words come from, the right rhythm and meaning and music all at once? Those of us who make books out of the words and ideas have less of an answer than anyone. All we know is that marvelous feeling that comes, sometimes, like a break of sunshine in a cloud-grey sky, when through all the research and concentration and slog -- suddenly you are writing, fluently and fast, with every sense at high pitch and yet in a state almost like a trance. Suddenly for a time the door is open, the magic is working; a channel exists between the page and the shadowy cave in the mind.

"But none of us will ever know why, or how.

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

"Just one thing can, perhaps, be charted," Cooper adds, "and that's the kind of stories that are told. If only looking back over your own work after you've done it, you can find some thread that runs through, binding it all together.

Ponies 5

Ponies 6

Reflecting on her own work, Cooper writes:

"The underlying theme of my Dark is Rising sequence, and particularly its fourth volume, The Grey King, is, I suppose, the ancient problem of the duality of human nature. The endless coexistence of kindness and cruelty, love and hate, forgiveness and revenge -- as inescapable as the cycle of life and death, day and night, the Light and the Dark.

Ponies 7

"And to some extent, I can see its roots. My generation, especially in Britain and Europe, was given a strong image of good and bad at an impressionable age. We were the children of World War II. Our insecurities may not have been different in kind from those of the modern child, but they were more concrete. That something might be lurking in the shadows behind the bedroom door at night wasn't, for us, a terrible formless bogeyman; it was specific -- a Nazi paratrooper, with a bayonet. And the nightmares that broke into our six-year-old sleep weren't always vague and forgettable; quite often they were not only precise, but real.

Ponies 8

"We knew that there would indeed be the up-and-down wail of the air raid siren, to send us scurrying through a night crisscrossed with searchlights, down into the shelter, that little corrugated iron room buried in the back lawn, and barricaded with sandbags and turf. And then their would be the drone of the bombers, the thudding of anti-aircraft fire from the guns at the end of the road, and the crash of bombs coming closer, closer each time...

Ponies 9

Ponies 10

Ponies 11

"The experience of war, like certain other accidents of circumstance, can teach a child more than he or she realizes about the dreadful ubiquity of man's inhumanity to man. And if the child grows up to be a writer, in a world that seems to learn remarkably little from its history, that writing will be haunted.

Ponies 12

"Haunted, and trying to communicate the haunting. Whether explicitly, or through the buried metaphor of fantasy. It will always be trying to say to the reader: Look, this is the way things are. The conflict that's in this story is everywhere in life, even in your own nature. It's frightening, but try not to be afraid. Ever. Look, learn, remember; this is the kind of thing you'll have to deal with yourself, one day, out there."

Ponies 13

"Perhaps," she concludes, "a book can help with the long, hard matter of growing up, just a little. Maybe, sometimes."

I believe books can, and that they've done this for many of us.

Ponies 14

The pictures today are of our local herd of Dartmoor ponies, who often come down from the moor to the village Commons to graze and shelter their foals. Tilly loves them, but knows not to get too close, especially during foaling season.

Pony watcher

Words: The passage above is from "Seeing Around Corners" (Cooper's acceptance speech for the 1976 Newbury Medal for The Grey King), published in Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1996). The poem in the picture captions is from Love and Strange Horses by Nathalie Handal (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors.


Hound foolery

Hat

Howard has gone off to London for a month, where he's teaching Commedia dell'Arte at the East 15 Acting School. We had the usual flurry of getting him packed and on the road, with one suitcase full of masks and another full of books. Afterwards, as I was tidying up, I found a pile of discarded costumes on a chair, including a couple of Jester caps. Then I had a wicked thought and whistled for Tilly....

It's a good thing she's such a good sport.

Hat 2

''You may make a great fool of yourself with a dog and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a great fool of himself too."  - Samuel Butler

Hat 3

For a fascinating piece on the mythic roots of comedy, clowning, and Commedia, I recommend "A Chorus of Clowns and Masked Comic Theater" by my friend Midori Snyder.

"Humor is an old response to fear of the unknown and contempt for the familiar," she writes. "For 3,000 years, somewhere a chorus of clowns has misbehaved, and in their audacity, called down gods, heroes, and legends for a face to face meeting with humanity, offering laughter as a form of reverence."

Hat 4

"You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm."  - Colette

Hat 3

Disclaimer: no hounds were harmed in this portrait session. She was paid Equity rates in dog treats for her work.


Hiraeth

Footpath signpost

Footpath gate

Here's another interesting passage for our on-going discussion of 'writers and place" -- from an essay by Susan Cooper, the British-born author of The Dark Is Rising series:

"When I was twenty-six years old," she writes, "I left every aspect of home: place, friends, occupation, nation -- the lot, and I married an American and came to live in the USA. If put back in the same situation, I should probably do the same again, but I wouldn't say it was a reasoned choice. When you are uprooted in this way, and leave home completely and suddenly, what you leave is not a place only, but the whole fabric of life. You leave the sights and sounds and smells of your native environment, familiar and reassuring; the particular patterns of day and night, climate and weather, roads and rivers, and above all, people, all the different layers of relationships. You lose things you had never realized you possessed: a way of thinking, an ingrained pattern of assumptions and prejudices, and of delights felt never so acutely as when they are no longer there. Of course, you gain things too, but they don't fill these particular holes, because they are a different shape."

Bluebells 1

A little later in the essay, Cooper adds:

"I can tell you a lot about homesickness; I am an expert on the matter of living and loving across a divide, on the kind of ache that is bearable only because its absence would signify emptiness, the loss of all feeling. The Welsh call this ache hiraeth, and by that word they mean something more than homesickness: they mean a kind of deep longing of the soul. They guard the value of the word, and are contemptuous of those who use it lightly....My Dark is Rising books were written out of hiraeth, the longing; it infuses every image and description in them.

Bluebells 4

"Like many authors published for children, I've often said I don't write for children, but for myself, and in the case of these books it's especially true. It's true, that is, of the last four of the five books in the sequence, which were written after I'd lived for more than ten years in the United States. These four are quite different from the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, which was written when I still lived in London. (For one thing, they're better books, and I should hope so after ten years of practice. The worst thing you can ever say to an author is, 'Oh, my favorite of all your books is the first' -- it's like telling him that his whole life has been a downhill slide.) Those last four Dark is Rising books are layered with Englishness and Welshness, the two sides of my mongrel British nature; they're full of the history and geography of the British Isles, their time and place, their people and weather and skies and spells, all echoing to and fro. I couldn't live there in reality, so I lived there in my books. Perhaps the sequence put hiraeth to rest, in its most painful and acute form, because I seem not to have written anything about Britain since, except for three small retellings of folktales.

Bluebells 2

"Everyone leaves the first home. Time passes, nothing stays the same. We all leave childhood behind, even though that process may take decades, and not really be completed until our parents die. It's not an easy process; perhaps there's no such thing as easy growth, unless you're a dandelion. It isn't easy because you have to fight all the way against the pull of home.

Bluebells 3

"Not all the aspects of that world are warm and cozy," Cooper cautions; "there are many that are sinister. There's home as octopus, home as snare; home as Venus Flytrap, home as black hole. Home can be the place you can't escape from, or haven't the courage to leave or replace; the womb you have never really left. This is the dark side of home, and we should never lose sight of it, in a romantic haze of nostalgia.

"If one is to grow, home has to be replaced, over and over again, in a progression through life."

Pathway

Woodland Gate

Credits: The passages above are from "Moving On," published in Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children by Susan Cooper (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1996). The exquisite poem in the picture captions is from Selected Poems by Gillian Clarke, who is currently the National Poet of Wales (Picador, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors. Related posts: Kith and Kin and On Loss & Transfiguration. (For more on the subject of stories, place, and home, click on the "home &  homelessness" link below.)