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August 2014

The starting point

Three Hares Tor

Here's a provactive question from Eleanor Cameron, excerpted from her fine essay, "A Writer's Journey":

"I have told more than once how much place means to me in the books I have lived with year after year and read again and again, place not as backdrop or as a background to be worked up in order to get on with the action. Place, for me, must be loved and known; it gives rise to the book and its characters so that the sense of it could never come if its place meant nothing, or I had not experienced it aesthetically and emotionally.

"I was sixteen when I experienced my uprooting from [my childhood home in] Berkeley, the wrenching from my own place when I was just beginning to be aware of how much that place meant to me. Is such an uprooting, which many a writer has been subjected to in a far more traumatic way than I, good for one's art or bad?

Moor Maiden by Virginia Lee

Nature's Cycle by Virginia Lee

"Possibly good," Cameron continues, "because then one writes out of loneliness and unhappiness and longing for that place and the people one has left behind in ways not possible if one lives in it. For me, at least, memory of what has been lost is a better creator of vivid place than happy satisfaction in being in it, if there is to be a cutting edge to whatever emotions are aroused in one's protagonists and to whatever influence place has over them, coloring their moods and, therefore, very often directing their actions.

"I know, of course, that there are innumerable instances disproving a notion of what seems to work for me. Think of Proust and Emily Dickinson; no need for journeyings there....Virginia Woolf, living in London, wrote Mrs. Dalloway, a superb evocation of that city. Both Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, living in their own towns in the [American] South all their lives, have written classic short stories about the South. E.B. White wrote Charlotte's Web while living right on his farm in North Brooklin, Maine, where he'd ached to be all those years in New York. Lucy Boston has lived in her cherished Norman manor house -- Green Knowe -- and gone on writing about it ever since she first bought it and had all the later excrescences torn away to reveal the ancient, original structure.

Musical Land by Virginia Lee

Summer Lands by Virginia Lee

"But Virginia Woolf wrote a better novel than Mrs. Dalloway in To the Lighthouse, about a much-loved childhood summer place in Cornwall, opposite the Godrevey Lighthouse, when she was many miles and years away from the scene. Katherine Mansfield wrote her finest and most artistically truthful stories about her childhood home in New Zealand...when she was living in France, ill much of the time and unhappy.

"The whole matter is, certainly, a very personal one. Natalie Babbitt told me once that she does not write from the inside out at all, as those do to whom place means so much, but from the outside in, getting an idea and then creating place and characters to flesh it out. For her, apparently, the journey either to or away from some special, loved place does not signify in her writing as far as intensity of feeling is concerned. Louise Bogan, the poet, in a biography by Elizabeth Frank, is quoted as saying: 'The initial mystery that attends any journey is: how did the traveler reach his starting point in the first place?' "

Merfolk by Virginia Lee

Earthbound by Virginia Lee

I am defintitely a writer, like Cameron, whose work is rooted in place...though I have written in both modes: in response to the land below my feet, and out of longing for places where I am not. In this regard, I write from the inside out. And you? Where is your starting point?

The exquisite paintings and drawings here are by my friend and Chagford neighbor Virginia Lee, another artist deeply inspired by place. Please visit her beautiful website , delightful blog, and Etsy shop to see more of her work.

The liberation of lady sprout by Virginia LeeEleanor Cameron's "A Writer's Journey" appears in The Seed and the Vision: On the Writing and Appreciation of Children's Books (1993).


A walk on the hill

Nattadon Hill

"Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry -- determined to make a day of it."

- Henry David Thoreau (Walden)

Nattadon Hill

Nattadon Hill

Nattadon Hill

"Our lives are fittered away by detail....Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!"

- Henry David Thoreau (Walden)

Nattadon Hill


Lingering at the threshold

A threshold of light

From Beauty by the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue (1956-2008):

"The beauty of the earth is the first beauty. Millions of years before us the earth lived in wild elegance. Landscape is the first-born of creation. Sculpted with huge patience over millenia, landscape has enormous diversity of shape, presence and memory. There is a poignancy in beholding the beauty of landscape: it often feels as though it has been waiting for centuries for the recognition and witness of the human eye.

"In the ninth Duino Elegy, Rilke says:

Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window...
To say them more intensely than the Things themselves
Ever dreamed of existing.

Field gate

Bly Gate

"We were once enwombed in the earth and the silence of the body remembers that dark, inner longing. Fashioned from clay, we carry the memory of the earth. Ancient, forgotten things stir within our hearts, memories of the time before the mind was born. Within us are depths that keep watch. These are depths that no words can trawl or light unriddle. Our neon times have neglected and evaded the depth-kingdom in favor of the ghost realms of cyberspace. Our world becomes reduced to intense but transient foreground. We have unlearned the patience and attention of lingering at thresholds where the unknown awaits us.

Sheep field gate

"The earth is not outside us; it is within: the clay from where the tree of the body grows. When we emerge from our offices, rooms and houses, we enter our natural element....There is something in our clay nature that needs to continually experience this ancient, outer ease of the world. It helps us remember who we are and why we are here."

Sheep field wall

Our love was born
outside the walls,
in the wind,
in the night,
in the earth,
and that's why the clay and the flower,
the mud and the roots
know your name.

Pablo Neruda (from "Ode and Burgeonings")

"We do not want merely to see beauty...We want something else which can hardly be put into words -- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses, and nymphs and elves.''  -  C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves)

Arthur Rackham

Up the pathIllustration by Arthur Rackahm (1867-1939)


Openings, entrances, reminders

Ancient moorland gate, summer

One of the most gorgeous essays I've ever read is "(En)trance" by Chris Arthur (The Litery Review, 2008). It's a mediation on the entrance to the grounds of Shandon, his family's estate in Northern Ireland, consisting of two brick pillars (minus an iron gate that was melted down in World War II), a curved stretch of boundary wall, and the laurel thickets close by. Despite this tight focus, we are gifted with vivid flashes of Shandon's long history while also reflecting on the nature of time and myths of borders and edges...all so beautifully written that I felt breathless and a little light-headed when the essay was done.

Arthur, whose chosen form is the essay, compares himself to the kind of writer he'd assumed he would be when he was younger: a novelist; and thus "(En)trance" is also an exploration of the differences between these literary genres, and the ways that different writers might make use of the Shandon setting.

"Since writers of the sort I'm not aren't constrained by the boundaries of what happened, " he tells us, "it would be easy to invent all manner of stories about love and lust, about class and religion, about Englishness and Irishness, war and poverty....It's tempting to succumb to such diversions, to sweep through the pillars dramatically, making an entrance that draws the eye toward the unfolding of some vivid story, baited perhaps with rape or murder or the compelling simplicity of some other violently eye-catching beginning. But, for whatever reason, my interest is set in a key that eshews the racy harmonics of such narratives, even though I'm partial to them and often like to hum along.

Cottage gate, summer

O'er Hill gate, summer

"The entrances that intrigue me lead to less obvious destinations than the Big House with its cast of characters. For me, the pillars don't just suggest the domestic scale of a habitation and its dwellers. They also bring to mind pillars as ancient religious markers erected on the earth to make some claim to the numinous, to post a reminder of entrances beyond the obvious. These upright markers can be found scattered through the landscapes of many countries. Their style and date may vary; they may have been raised on the occasion of covenant, sacrifice, or worship. But for all their seeming variety, and despite their dense solidity, such pillars serve a similar fuction -- to act as apertures, bore holes, openings, entrances, reminders that mystery lies just beneath the crust of the quotidian.

Gate with poppies, summer

Bumblehill Gate, summer

Commons Gate, late summer

"In Japan, the gates of shrines are guarded by pairs of stone dogs called koma-inu. These sit facing each other at either side of the entrance, creating an invisable barrier that visitors must cross. One dog has its mouth open; the other has its mouth shut. The one with its mouth open is breathing in and is called A. The one with its mouth closed is breathing out and is called Un. The phrase A-Un-no-kokyu ("A-Un breathing") has come to describe a relationship between people that's so close they can communicate without words.

Woodland gate, autumn

Nattadon Gate, autumn

Crossroads stile, winter

"For me, invisable dogs stand at Shandon's pillars, their shared respiration symbolizing the intimate and mysterious connection that exists between the known and the unknown, between the telegraphic attenuations of the names we give things, the descriptions we offer -- superficial, partial -- and the significance that's coiled intricately within them. Passing between the pillars, I trip on this invisible unbilical of breathy connection and, as I fall, sometimes catch a glimpse of the endless sands of being upon which the mirages of common diction sparkle out their little images.

Blue gate, winter

Woodland gate, winter

Lower O'er Hill Gate, late winter/early spring

Sheep field gate, late winter/early spring

"We exist in a world of multiple registers that allow us to move through it in a variety of modes, but we sometimes forget the links between them. The no-nonsense world of facts and figures, at once useful and obscuring (perhaps useful because obscuring) skitters its way across the surface created by its own computations. Yet for every Un there is an A. Even if we are oblivious to it, in the breath of every sentence we inhale dormant complexities, their unnerving plenitude is only temporarily suspended by  the icy hold of words; the promise of a thaw of complication-into-wonder remains whenever we pause for reflection."

Crossroad stile, spring

Beverly gate with apple blossoms and bluebells, spring

You can read Arthur's essay in full in The Best American Essays 2009, edited by Mary Oliver and Robert Atwan (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin). All of the essays in this volume are excellent, but "(En)trance" is the stand-out. It's completely, well, entrancing.

Gate behind the studio, spring

Woodland gate, spring

At the entrance, my bare feet on the dirt floor,
Here, gusts of heat; at my back, white clouds.
I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are.

- Czeslaw Milosz  (from "The Blacksmith's Shop," translated from the Polish by the author and Robert Hass)

Woodland gate, yesterday


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Howard and I discovered the beautiful music of the Crow Puppets last month, when they shared a stage with Howard's band, the Nosey Crows, at aSummer crow by Rima music festival in north Devon.  (There seems to have been a bit of a crow theme that day.) Crow Puppets consists of singer/songwriters Cara Roxanne and Em Marshall, who "first met when they moved into a haunted house by a crumbling castle fringing Dartmoor." Their "homespun folk music" has a mythic and magical bent, and I recommend their new album, Whispering Hills, Tangled Hair. The Crow Puppets are based in Ashburton, Devon, which is just across the moor from Chagford.

Above, Cara Roxanne's animation for their song "Red Ribbons" - a rather cold and wintry song for a mild summer day, but nevermind.  Below, The Crow Puppets perform "Whispering Hills" at last year's Accoustica Festival in Exeter.  The artwork on the left is "Summer Crow" by Rima Staines.

The Crow Puppets' music reminds me a little of another wonderful West Country musician, Martha Tilston, who is based in Cornwall. Her most recent CDs are Lucy and the Wolves and Machines of Love and Grace, but all of her albums are lovely.

Above: Martha and her band perform "More" (a song whose sentiments I agree with wholeheartedly) for Folk Radio UK last autumn.

Below: Martha performs "The Golden Surfer" back in 2006. It's not particularly well filmed, but the song is terrific: an updating of an old English folk ballad to reflect surfer culture on the Cornish coast. (Previous Monday Tunes from Martha are here and here.)

And one last piece today:

The charming video by Martha's brother, Joe Tilston, for his song "Liza and Henry." It comes from Embers (2013) -- another recommended album, influenced both by Joe's punk rock past and his family roots in the English folk scene. (There's an interesting post on the album's art and design by Tim Rickaby here.)


Travelers' Tales

Circe the Enchantress by Edmund Dulac

From "Travel Notes" by Lloyd Alexander:

"Most of us, on our journeys, go no-frills economy. But we get postcards from other travelers who have ventured before us: views of country churchyards, daffodils, Grecian urns, nightingales, birch trees. A windmill from Don Quixote. A specimen of unusual insect life, sent by Gregor Samsa.  A raft on the Mississippi -- best wishes from Huck and Jim. Greetings from Paradise. From the Inferno. From the rabbit hole.

Treasure Island by Edmund Dulac"The messages vary. Don't eat the lotuses. Exact change required on the ferry across the Styx. The best of times, the worst of times. All the world's a stage. All happy families are alike. Beware the Jabberwock. I am
only escaped alone to tell thee.

"C.P. Cavafy writes to us:

     As you set out for Ithaka
     hope your road is a long one,
     full of adventure, full of discovery.
     Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
     angry Poseidon -- don’t be afraid of them

"To which adds Lemuel Gulliver: 'A traveler's chief aim should be to make men wise and better, and to improve their minds by the bad as well as the good example of what they deliver concerning foreign places.'

Alladin by Edmund Dulac

"A commendable purpose. Travelers' tales, though, are notorious for enchancing the facts. They rank with fish stories and autobiographies, a few notches above political speeches. Mark Twain, that most reliable of pilots, who spoke as much truth as any of us have courage to bear, claimed superiority over George Washington. 'He couldn't tell a lie,' says Mark Twain. 'I can.'

"We are entitled to ask if any of these tales have credibility. They are not laboratory reports of discoveries of science, awesome and enlightening as those may be. The are not official communiques, which seldom have more than a nodding acquaintance with veracity. They are not history, an altogether different order of fantasy.  The messages of literature come from flesh-and-blood creatures like ourselves. They have been there ahead of us. They know the territory.

The Abyss of Time by Edmund Dulac

"I believe their messages are the most accurate we will ever get. They are true. As a fairy tale is true. As mythology is true. 'Myths are among the subtlest and most direct languages of experience,' writes George Steiner. 'They re-enact moments of signal truth or crisis in the human condition.' And from Elizabeth Cook: 'The inherent greatness of myth and fairy tale is a poetic greatness...extended lyrical images of unchanging human predicaments and strong, unchanging hopes and fears, loves and hatreds.'

"My purpose, however, is not to explore the great cosmologies, but the small ones; and to suggest that art is a process whereby life becomes myth, and myth becomes life....For us, the journey is a central fact of our lives.  Having set out on it, like it or not we have to keep on -- to be heroic in spite of ourselves. Sometimes our most courageous act is to get up in the morning.

Dorelia Reading by Augustus John

"Cavafy tells us:

     Hope your road is a long one.
     May there be many summer mornings when,
     with what pleasure, what joy,
     you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
     may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
     to buy fine things,

     mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony

Marvelous souvenirs. But we can't keep them. They become valuable only when given away. This is not to say that we have gained nothing.

     Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
     Without her you wouldn't have set out.

"I hope the postcards we send back are of some use to those who have only started on their own journey; if not useful, at least pleasurable. Earlier, I asked if we should trust those messages. I should have asked, Can we trust art? We not only can, but I think we must."

Off Black Spruce Ledge by N.C. Wyeth

The Mermaid by Howard PyleArt above: "Circe the Enchantress," "Treasure Island," "Aladdin," and "The Abyss of Time" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953); "Dorelia Reading" by Augustus John (1878-1961); "Off Black Spruce Ledge" by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945); and "The Mermaid" by Howard Pyle (1853-1911).


There and back again

P1120760

I'm back in Devon again, but more tired out from my travels than I'd anticipated, so Myth & Moor will resume tomorrow. Tilly is pleased that Howard and I are home, and is celebrating with a new bone. She'd like to share her good fortune with all of you.

"Every traveler has a home of his own," said Charles Dickens, "and he learns to appreciate it the more from his wandering."  The first part of his quote isn't always true; but, for me, the second part most definitely is.

UPDATE: I seem to be fighting off some kind of bug, so I might be back tomorrow, or I might not be back online until Monday....


Recommended Reading

Children's Books I by Holly Farrell

I'm heading into London to visit with publishing colleagues and won't be back in the office again until Wednesday, August 20. Here are a few good articles I've found, here and there, to peruse in the meantime....

Especially recommened:

* "Ghosts in the Sunlight," a gorgeous commencement speech by Hilton Als (The New York Review of Books).

* "How Not to Write Your First Novel," a cautionary tale from the wonderful Lev Grossman (BuzzFeed Books).

* "Stories are Waves" by Michelle Nijhuis, discussing Bilbo Baggins as a girl and re-imagining classic texts (Aeon Magazine).

* An interview with novelist, critic, and mythographer Marina Warner, discussing fairy tales, feminisim, and other things (Prospect).

* "Diary: In the Day of the Postman,"  an excellent essay on letters, email, and time by Rebecca Solnit (London Review of Books).

Plus four good articles related to the subject of Solnit's essay:  Jacob Burak's "Escape from the Matrix" (Aeon Magazine), Mark Edmondson's Pay Attention! (The Hedgehog Review), Andrew Leonard's review of Dan Hoyle's one-man show,"Each and Every Thing" (Salon), and Maria Popova's lovely piece on "Staying Present and Grounded in the Age of Information Overland"  (99U).

Gardening Books by Holly Farrell

Cookbooks by Holly Farrell

Other good reads:

* Cécile Eluard, the daughter of poet Paul Eluard, discusses growing up among the Surrealists (The Guardian).

* Olivia Laing, author of To the River, discusses writers and alcohol (The Guardian).

* "Chasing Orwell's Ghost" by Matthew Bremner, text and photographs from the remote Scottish island where George Orwell finished writing 1984 (Roads & Kingdoms).

* "Virginia Woolf's Idea of Privacy"  by Joshua Rothman (The New Yorker).

* "Tove Jansson, Queen of the Moomins" by John Garth (The Daily Beast).

*  "Adriaen Coenen's Fish Book, 1580" (The Public Domain Review, via Rima Staines).

* "If a Cat Could Talk" by David Wood (Aeon Magazine).

* "Top Ten Literary Rodents" by Kate DiCamillo (The Guardian).

* "Secrets of the Stacks" by Phyllis Rose, on how libraries decide which books to keep, and which to weed out (Medium).

Children's Books II by Holly Farrell

The beautiful still life paintings here are by Toronto artist Holly Farell. Please visit her website to see more of her work.


Strandbeesten

Strandbeest

I am awed and inspired by the work of Dutch artist Theo Jansen, who creates "sand beasts," kinetic sculptures that roam on the coast near his house in the Netherlands.

Strandbeest

Strandbeesten

Strandbeest

Strandbeest

Jansen's sandbeesten remind me of this passage from Caspar Henderson's essay "Rereading The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges":

Such creatures, he writes, "remind us of what is beyond dream – the real forms of living creatures that exist without human agency....For we who live in the light of what paleontology, evolutionary biology and genetics are revealing about living forms, our response to the real may – will, if we are truly awake – be one of astonishment and wonder at life's inventiveness. Even ordinary-seeming animals are marvellous in the light of evolution: the chicken, for example, is the closest living relative of Tyrannosaurus rex. Extraordinary ones make those in the pages of a medieval bestiary seem poor indeed. Compared to the leafy sea dragon (a cousin of the seahorse that looks very much like seaweed and yet also like a dragon) and the sea slug Elysia chlorotica (which photosynthesises with genes stolen from the algae it eats, and is as green as a leaf), the mythical Barometz, or vegetable lamb of Tartary, is a dull affair.

"The contemplation of natural history allows us to marvel at our place in the universe. As Charles Darwin wrote early in his career, 'If, as the poets say, life is a dream, I am sure in a voyage these are the visions which serve best to pass away the long night.' "

(Casper Henderson is the author of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary.)

Strandbeest

Strandbeest

Dutch artist Theo Jansen

In the very short film below (by Georgi Banks-Davies & Lucy Campbell Jackson), Jansen discusses his "animals," and you can glimpse one of the smaller Standbeesten in motion.

(For a more in-depth look at the artist's creative process, listen to his 2007 TED talk here.)

The next film, "Strandbeest Evolution," from Jansen himself,  shows numerous examples of the beasts as they've evolved since 1990, with the music of Khachaturian's Spartacus.


Secret threads

Fabric Toadstools by Mr Finch

From a 1940 text* by C.S. Lewis:

"You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that.

"Again, you have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw -- but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realise that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported.

Textile Mothes in Courtship Dance by Mr Finch

Moth Pulling a Tiny Coach by Mr Finch

Soft Sculpture Snails by Mr Finch

"Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of -- something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat's side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for?

"You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it -- tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest -- if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself -- you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, 'Here at last is the thing I was made for.' "

Mice Dolls and Dark Grey Mushrooms by Mr Finch

This, to me, is what fantasy literature (and mythic arts) does best: it tugs on those secret threads, evokes bright worlds half-glimpsed at the corner of our eyes...where the heart's desire lies just ahead, but always just ahead, beyond the next turn of the page.

Dream Fox by Mr Finch

Hares in Embrace & Weeping Hare With Tiny Glass Tears by Mr Finch

The gorgeous soft sculpturers here are by a textile artist in Leeds, near the Yorkshire Dales, who goes by the fairy tale name of Mr. Finch. You'll find the name of each sculpture in the picture captions. (For those who don't already know: run your cursor over the pictures to find them.)

"My main inspirations come from nature," writes the artist. "Flowers, insects and birds really fascinate me with their amazing life cycles and extraordinary nests and behaviour. British folklore is also so beautifully rich in fabulous stories and warnings and never ceases to be at the heart of what I make. Shape shifting witches, moon gazing hares and a smartly dressed devil ready to invite you to stray from the path. Humanizing animals with shoes and clothes is something I’ve always done and I imagine them to come alive at night. Getting dressed and helping an elderly shoemaker or the tired housewife.

Textile Hares by Mr Finch

"Most of my pieces use recycled materials, not only as an ethical statement, but I believe they add more authenticity and charm. A story sewn in, woven in. Velvet curtains from an old hotel, a threadbare wedding dress and a vintage apron become birds and beasts, looking for new owners and adventures to have. Storytelling creatures for people who are also a little lost, found and forgotten…."

Visit Mr. Finch's website and blog to see more of his wondrous work. I love it deeply.

Halloween Hares by Mr Finch

Sprouting Textile Bulbs by Mr Finch

Textile Bird Collection by Mr Finch

Sleeping Fox by Mr Finch

* The Lewis quote comes from his book The Problem of Pain, published in The Centenary Press' "Christian Challenge" series in 1940. I first read it for a class on Lewis  way back in my university days (as a non-Christian, it's not a book I would have been likely to pick up myself), and though it is indeed quite theological, it contains interesting passages on a number of other subjects too. In class, we read it in conjunction with Lewis' Grief Observed, about the death of his wife, which was a fascinating pairing.