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January 2015

Dreaming awake

Udo Weigelt's The Legendary Unicorn illustrated by Julia Gukova

"I write fantasy because it's there. I have no other excuse for sitting down for several hours a day indulging my imagination. Daydreaming. Thinking up imaginary people, impossible places. Imagination is the golden-eyed monster that never sleeps. It must be fed; it cannot be ignored. Making it tell the same tale over Brigitte Schar's The Blind Fairy illustrated by Julia Gukovaagain makes it thin and whining; its scales begin to fall off; its fiery breath becomes a trickle of smoke. It is best fed by reality, an odd diet for something nonexistant; there are few details of daily life and its broad range of emotional context that can't transformed into food for the imagination. It must be visited constantly, or else it begins to become restless and emit strange bellows at embarrassing moments; ignoring it only makes it grown larger and noisier. Content, it dreams awake, and spins the fabric of tales. There is really nothing to be done with such imagery except to use it: in writing, in art. Those who fear the imagination condemn it: something childish, they say, something monsterish, misbegotten. Not all of us dream awake. But those who do have no choice."  - Patricia A. McKillip

Russian Symphony by Julia Gukova

Insectia: Symmetry by Julia Gukova

"I'm inspired by dreams and shadows, obsession and desire. By nature, I'm a dream collector and never stop working. I question people about their weirdest dreams and the strangest, most inexplicable experiences they've had. All this information whirls around in my mind, and new dreams emerge that form the seeds of stories and novels."  - Storm Constantine

Brigitte Schar's The Blind Fairy illustrated by Julia Gukova

"To be entranced, to be driven, to be obsessed, to be under the spell of an emerging, not quite fully 'comprehended' narrative -- this is the greatest happiness of the writer's life even as it burns us out and exhausts us, unfitting us for the placid contours of 'normality.' " - Joyce Carol Oates

Brigitte Schar's The Blind Fairy illustrated by Julia Gukova

The dream-like imagery today is by Julia Gukova, a Russian painter and illustrator based in Moscow. She studied at the Krasnopresnenskaya Visual Arts School and Moscow State University of Printing Arts, and has worked as a painter and graphic designer since the late 1980s. Gukova has illustrated over forty books for publishers in Russia and abroad, including Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Mole's Daughter, The Blind Fairy, Peter and the Wolf,  and The Legendary Unicorn.

Insectia: Asymmetry by Julia Gukova

Sweet dreams, everyone. See you Monday.

Udo Weigelt's The Legendary Unicorn illustrated by Julia Gukova


Waking the music

The Tales of Foggy Albion illustrated by Vladislav Erko

The fairy tales of George MacDonald have been read and loved for over one hundred years. In his influential essay "The Fantastic Imagination," first published in 1893, MacDonald posed and answered a series of questions exploring the nature of his chosen literary form. The questions are distinctly Victorian ones...and yet some critics of children's fantasy are still asking them to this day.

"You write as if a fairy tale were a thing of importance: must it have a meaning?

"It cannot help have some meaning; if it have propotion and harmony it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the fairy tale would give no delight. Everyone, however, who feels the story, will read its meaning after his own nature and development: one man will read one meaning in it, and another will read another.

"If so, how am I to assure myself that I am not reading my own meaning it to it, but yours out of it?

"Why should you be so assured? It may be better that you should read your meaning into it. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of it: your meaning may be superior to mine.

The Tales of Foggy Albion  illustrated by Vladislav Erko

"Suppose my child asks me what the fairy tale means, what am I to say?

"If you do not know what it means, what is easier than to say so? If you do see a meaning in it, there it is for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince illustrated by Vladislav Erkoyou to give him. A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean. If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it mean that neither you nor your child should know what it means? It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning. If it does not even wake an interest, throw it aside. A meaning may be there, but it is not for you. If, again, you do not know a horse when you see it, the name written under it will not serve you much. At all events, the business of the painter is not to teach zoology.

"But indeed your children are not likely to trouble you about the meaning. They find what they are capable of finding, and more would be too much. For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five."

Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen illustrated by Vladislav Erko

The Snow Queen by Vladislav Erko

"But surely you would explain your idea to one who asked you?

"I say again, if I cannot draw a horse, I will not write THIS IS A HORSE under what I foolishly meant for one. Any key to a work of imagination would be nearly, if not quite, as absurd. The tale is there, not to hide, but to The Snow Queen illustrated by Vladislav Erkoshow: if it show nothing at your window, do not open your door to it; leave it out in the cold. To ask me to explain is to say: 'Roses! Boil them or we won't have them!' My tales may not be roses, but I will not boil them. So long as I think my dog can bark, I will not sit up to bark for him.

"If a writer's aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood but to escape being misunderstood; but where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it."

Hans Christian Andersen's The Tinder Box illustrated by Vladislav Erko

Hans Christian Andersen's The Tinder Box illustrated by Vladislav Erko

I'm reminded of a tale recounted about indigenous storytellers from Siberia to North America:

A story is told to a child (or to a tribal outsider). The listener asks, perplexed, "But what does it mean?"

The story-teller merely smiles. "If you don't understand, then I will tell it to you again."

Alice in Wonderland illustrated by Vladislav Erko

The glorious pictures today are by the Ukrainian painter and illustrator Vladislav Erko. Though born in Kiev, he spent the first seven years of his life in the small village of Pirniv with his grandmother, where he acquired Alice in Wonderland illustrated vy Vladislav Erkothe love of nature which infuses all his work. He studied art at the Polygraphic Academy in Kiev, and began illustrating children's books in 1998. Since then, he has won the Grand Prize at the Ukranian Book Awards (2000), was named the best artist of 2002 by the Moscow Book Review, and received the Anderson House Foundation Award in 2006. He has illustrated many books including The Snow Queen, Alice in Wonderland, Russian Fairy Tales, The Tales of Foggy Albion, Young Roland, Gulliver's Travels, and The Little Prince, and has designed the cover art for the Ukrainian editions of the "Harry Potter" series. You can see more of his work on the Cizgili Masallar illustration blog and on Midori Snyder's In the Labyrinth.

Russian Fairy Tales illustrated by Vladislav Erko

Russian Fairy Tales illustrated by Vladislav ErkoMore from George MacDonald's essay: "Sonatas, storms, and stories."


The message in the bottle

Tales of the Firebird by Gennady Spirin

"Maybe every strange, alienated kid is presumed to write, because people had always said to me, Do you write? And up until I was about fifteen, reading was my great pleasure, and I read a lot. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I always carried a talismanic copy of Nightwood or Against Nature with me to ward off evil. I’m no longer sure exactly what those books represented to me, but they were very portable. When I was in high school, all my friends said they were going to be writers. And I thought, How come you get to be a writer, and I don’t? I thought WRITER was written on their foreheads and they saw it when they looked in the mirror, and I sure didn’t see it when I looked in the mirror.

"I always thought of writing as holy. I still do. It’s not something to be approached casually."

- Deborah Eisenberg (The Paris Review)

Philipok by Gennad Spirin

Russian Winter by Gennady Spirin

"A piece of fiction is a communication. You’re sending an urgent message in a bottle from your desert island. You hope that somebody’s going to find the bottle and open it and say, S ... O ... X? No. S ... O ...

"But the message that is found cannot be exactly the message you’ve sent. Whatever bunch of words the writer transmits requires a person, a consciousness on the other end, to reassemble it. You know how it feels when you read something that opens up a little sealed envelope in your brain. It’s a letter from yourself, but it’s been delivered by somebody else, a writer.

"Nothing is more fortifying than learning that you have a real reader, a reader who truly responds both accurately and actively. It gives you courage, and you feel, I can crawl out on the branch a little further. It’s going to hold."

- Deborah Eisenberg (The Paris Review)

The Sea King's Daughter by Gennady Spirin

"I think every work of art is an act of faith, or we wouldn't bother to do it. It is a message in a bottle, a shout in the dark. It's saying, 'I'm here and I believe that you are somewhere and that you will answer if necessary across time, not necessarily in my lifetime."   - Jeanette Winterson

The Children of Lir by Gennady Spirin

The sumptuous art in this post is by the great Russian painter and illustrator Gennady Spirin. He was born on Christmas Day in Orekhove-Zuyevo (a small town near Moscow), studied fine art and illustration in Moscow, and emigrated to the United States with his wife and children in 1992. His many books include The Children of Lir, The Frog Princess, The Sea King's Daughter, The Tale of the Firebird, and The White Cat.

Please visit the artist's website for a full bibliography, and to see more of his work.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Genady Spirin

The Frog Princess by Gennady Spirin


The mystery of stories

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

"I find it so difficult to talk about what I do. There are those who are unnervingly articulate about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it....I am not particularly articulate, unnervingly or otherwise. I do believe there is, in fact, a mystery to the whole enterprise that one dares to investigate at peril. The story knows itself better than the writer does at some point, knows what’s being said before the writer figures out how to say it. There’s a word in German, Sehnsucht. No English equivalent, which is often the case. It means the longing for something that cannot be expressed, or inconsolable longing. There’s a word in Welsh, hwyl, for which we also have no match. Again, it is longing, a longing of the spirit. I just think many of my figures seek something that cannot be found."

 - Joy Williams (author of The Changeling, etc.) in The Paris Review

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

"When I’m at work I’m highly superstitious. My own superstition has to do with the voice in which the story comes out. I believe that every story is attended by its own sprite, whose voice we embody when we tell the tale, and that we tell it more successfully if we approach the sprite with a certain degree of respect and courtesy. These sprites are both old and young, male and female, sentimental and cynical, sceptical and credulous, and so on, and what’s more, they’re completely amoral: like the air-spirits who helped Strong Hans escape from the cave, the story-sprites are willing to serve whoever has the ring, whoever is telling the tale. To the accusation that this is nonsense, that all you need to tell a story is a human imagination, I reply, ‘Of course, and this is the way my imagination works.' "

 - Philip Pullman, (author of The Golden Compass, etc.) in his introduction to Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev, page design, pages 14-15

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

The beautiful fairy tale paintings in this post are by the Belarusian artist Anton Lomaev. He was born in Vitebsk in 1971, studied at the Russian Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, and has been illustrating children's books and designing book cover art since the 1990s.

The paintings above come from Lomaev's edition of "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Andersen.  Below is his cover art for the Russian edition of East by Edith Pattou (a wonderful novel based on the Scandinavian fairy tale"East of the Sun, West of the Moon"), and a painting of his desk. Please visit Anton Lomaev's website to see more of his magical art.

Anton Lomaev's cover art for East by Edith Pattou

"And telling a story, I suppose, is like winding a skein of spun yarn -- you sometimes lose track of the beginning."  - Edith Pattou, from East.

Anton Lomaev's deskA few related posts: "Swan's Wing,"   "Swan Maiden & Crane Wives," and "When Stories Take Flight."


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Mary Lambert

This week's music is from the young singer-songwriter and spoken-word artist Mary Lambert, based in Seattle. My friend Ellen Kushner posted Lambert's terrific cover of Rick Springsteen's "Jessie's Girl" recently (packed with memories from our 1980s youth), and it reminded me of just how much I like her work. Music like this is one of the many reasons I am so impressed by the artists and activist of our daughter's generation...and boy does it make me feel old to say that, but nevermind. 

Above: a poetic, impassioned performance of "Body Love, Parts I & II" (2014).

Below: the video for Lambert's "She Keeps Me Warm" (2013),  featuring a very sweet gay romance...and books! (How often do you see people read in music videos, after all?)

Below:

"Same Love," a lovely song and video from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (2012) which incorporates Lambert's "She Keeps Me Warm."

And last, to end on a lighter note:

The adorable video for Lambert's "Secrets" (2014).


From the archives: Shaping stories, and being shaped by them in turn

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac

“The store of fairy tales, that blue chamber where stories lie waiting to be rediscovered, holds out the promise of just those creative enchantments, not only for its own characters caught in its own plotlines; it offers magical metamorphoses to the one who opens the door, who passes on what was found there, and to those who hear what the storyteller brings. The faculty of wonder, like curiosity can make things happen; it is time for wishful thinking to have its due.” - Marina Warner (from The Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers)

Snow White by Angela Barrett

“Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict. From the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that... there are many kinds of magic, after all.”  - Erin Morgenstern (from The Night Circus)

Round the Oak Tree by Kelly Louise Judd

“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.” - Neil Gaiman (from The Graveyard Book)

Two illustrations for Thumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerger.jpg

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it's the other way around.”  - Terry Pratchett (from Witches Abroad)

Little Red Cap by Gina LitherlandArt above: "Cinderella" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), "Snow White" by Angela Barrett, "Round the Oak Tree" by Kelly Louise Judd,  two illustrations for "Thumbelina" by Lisbeth Zwerger., and "Little Red Cap" by Gina Litherland. This post was originally published in January, 2013. I like to occasionally re-visit old posts when they chime with current discussions here.


Stories that matter

The Wild Swans by Nadezhda Illarionova

Writing advice from Louise Erdrich:

"Begin with something in your range. Then write it as a secret. I’d be paralyzed if I thought I had to write a great novel, and no matter how good I think a book is on one day, I know now that a time will come when I will look upon it as a failure. The gratification has to come from the effort itself. I try not to look back. I approach the work as though, in truth, I’m nothing and the words are everything. Then I write to save my life. If you are a writer, that will be true. Writing has saved my life."

The Wild Swans by by Nadezhda Illarionova

Writing advice from Grace Paley:

"The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write."

The Little Mermaid by Nadezhda Illarionova

Writing advice from Ursula K. Le Guin:

"Socrates said, 'The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.' He wasn't talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth.

"A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper."

Thumbelina by by Nadezhda Illarionova

The art in this post is by the Russian painter and designer Nadezhda Illarionova, based in Moscow. She has illustrated tales from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Perrault, and Mother Goose...but these books, alas, are not yet available in English-language editions.

Thumbelina by Nadezhda Illarionova

Looking at Illarionova's wondrous work, I'm reminded of these words by Lynda Barry:

"There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairy tale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it. I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood. They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.”

Donkeyskin by Nadezhda IllarionovaA related post (because it was the first time the Lynda Barry quote appear on this blog): "The Way Things Change."


Entering the realm of myth

Rainbow over Chagford

These photos are for Pia, who was disappointed that there were no Dartmoor ponies in Tuesday's post. The pictures were taken a few weeks back, before health issues tied me quite so closely the house. (And, oh, how I'm looking forward to resuming my wandering ways. May it be soon.)

The end of the rainbow

On a blustery day in late December, Tilly and I took a chance on a break in the rain and made our way down to the village Commons -- where a rainbow arched over the back edge of the town  (and yes, Chagford really is Brigadoon).

Canine alertness

A herd of ponies spotted

We walked a little further, and Tilly stopped still, sculpted in the clear black lines of her alertness. I wondered what had gotten her attention. Not cows or she'd be quivering, repressing the urge to bark. (Good girl.) Not dogs or she'd be bounding over to them, grinning, her body an arrow of delight. Ponies, then. It was probably ponies. She'd been trained not to disturb to our equine neighbors but she finds them fascinating. (I once watched as a curious foal approached her so close that they could practically touch noses.)

Ponies grazing on the Commons

I walked across the field and, yes, there they were: ten or so in the herd, come down from the moor to graze on the tender grass of the Common. Their coats were thick and shaggy for the winter, and the foals of last spring were now sturdy and well grown.

Dartmoor ponies

Dartmoor ponies

One pony trotted over as we passed among them, and posed quite nicely for the camera in my hands. I thanked her politely, wished her a good winter...and then watched as the scattered herd drew back together, summoned by a stallion's insistent cries. Two stragglers galloped from a nearby field to join the elegant line of ponies moving, single-file, up the slope of Meldon Hill.

I watched until they were specks on the horizon, and then Tilly and I carried on.

Dartmoor ponies

The title for today's post comes from a passage in the Paris Review interview with the Italian author and mythographer Roberto Calasso:

Interviewer: You write in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, “We enter the mythical when we enter the realm of risk, and myth is the enchantment we generate in ourselves at such moments.” What does this mean?

Calasso: This comes from Plato, from the Phaedo. Socrates says that precisely. Within the realm of myth, you wander into this danger zone, and that is the zone of the unknown. What you can do there is, first of all, utter or sing a carmen, a word that is usually translated as “poem” but primarily means “enchantment.” That is the best weapon at our disposal. 

Interviewer: But when do we enter the realm of myth?

Calasso: We are already there. As Sallustius the Neoplatonist wrote, the world itself is a myth. So no matter what we are doing, we are in the midst of a fable. And fables are by definition what enchant us. The only question is whether we perceive it or not.

Dartmoor ponies

Walking through the damp green Mystery of the world...or remembering walking through it, imagining it from the confines of my bed...I find wisdom and inspiration in Calasso's words.

When do we enter the realm of myth?

We are already there.

BrigadoonRelated posts: "Daily Myth" (ponies in early spring) and "The Capacity for Awe" (ponies in summer).


Stories are Medicine: "healing tales" in myth, folklore, and mythic arts

Bedtime Story by Jeanie Tomanek

"Stories are medicine. I have been taken with stories since I heard my first. They have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act, anything -- we need only listen."   - Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Eclipse by Jeanie TomanekThere has long been a mythic link between storytelling and the healing arts -- so much so that in some ancient societies storytellers and healers were one and the same. Stories are valued in many indigenous cultures not only for their entertainment value but also as a means to pass on cultural teachings -- including practices intended to prevent imbalance and illness (both physical and mental), and to help overcome ordeals of disease, calamity, or trauma. In some shamanic traditions, magical tales are told in a ritual manner to facilitate specific acts of healing. In Korea, for example, a well-known fairy tale called "Shimchong, the Blind Man's Daughter," a variant of Beauty and the Beast, plays a role in traditional healing rites related to eyesight. "The 'patient' is supposed to be healed precisely at the climax of the story," explains folklorist Heinz Insu Fenkl, "when Old Man Shim opens his eyes and sees his long-lost daughter."

Self Rising by Jeanie Tomanek

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist and folklorist Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes of the healing powers of Hispanic "trance-tellers" who enter into a trance state "between worlds" in order to "attract" a story to them. Such stories are said to contain the mythic information the listeners most need to hear. "The trance-teller calls on El Duende," says Estés, "the wind that blows soul into the faces of listeners. A trance-teller learns to be psychically double-jointed through the meditative practice of story, that is, training oneself to undo certain psychic gates and ego apertures in order to let the voice speak, the voice that is older than the stones. When this is done, the story may take any trail....The teller never knows how it will all come out, and that is at least half of the moist magic of the story."

Storytelling also plays an important role in the shamanic practices of Siberia -- where, as in Korea, it is often women who perform the traditional healing rites. "Oral storytelling is the way shamans themselves convey spiritual truths," writes Kira Van Duesen in The Flying Tiger: Women Shamans and Storytellers of the Amur. "[T]hrough the power of words and sounds, stories and songs act directly on the listener to bring about The Return by Jeanie Tomanekhealing and spiritual growth. More important than the content of the tales is the process of telling them -- the way a storyteller chooses the tale, the details added or removed, the tone -- all these make storytelling a spiritual act. Stories and songs are not objects or artifacts but living beings."

In many Native American cultures illness indicates that the patient's life, spirit, or relationships have gone out of balance and harmony; a restoration of spiritual balance is required before a physical illness can be cured. Among the Navajo, health and longevity are attained by "walking in beauty," living in harmony within oneself and with the natural world. If this harmony is lost, it can be restored through elaborate, days-long ceremonies during which some of the most ancient, sacred stories of the tribe are chanted and painted in sand. In the traditional lore of the Tohono O'Odham tribe, disease is caused by improper relationships with the bird and animal worlds. The repetition of certain stories and songs brings these relationships back into harmony and the sufferer back to health.

"A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves," writes the Nigerian novelist and poet Ben Okri (in Birds of Heaven: Essays). "Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose it’s moorings or orientation. Even in silence we are living our stories."

Caretaker by Jeanie Tomanek

Stories are central to the healing practices of the traditional Gaelic culture of Scotland -- of which the leading characteristics, writes Noragh Jones (in Power of Raven, Wisdom of Serpent: Celtic Women's Spirituality), "are an instinctive ability to gather healing plants from their own locality when they are sick; a heritage of herbal remedies handed on from mother to daughter which have been tried and tested in everyday situations -- part of the informal education of the household; a sense that illness is some kind of imbalance in the individual, and so mind and body and spirit must be treated as a whole; and a conviction that healing is a spiritual resource as well as a physical process." 

Six Seeds by Jeanie TomanekHerbalists and hedge-witches of the British Isles once used stories not only as a means to preserve information about the medicinal properties of plants, but also as a means of communicating with the spirits of the plants themselves. In trance states induced by ritual fasting, prayer, or the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, they communed with the plants in order to learn the best ways to gather, preserve, and use them. Likewise, the stories told by Siberian shamans weren't always meant for human ears but for the various plant, animal, and supernatural spirits who aided in their rites of healing. The medicine men and women of the various Indian tribes living in the Amazon have long been renown for their deep knowledge of the healing properties of plants, sometimes gained during trances induced by hallucinogenics such as ayahuaska. A relationship must be established between the healer and the plant in question, however. In Plant Spirit Medicine, Eliot Cowan tells the tale of an American  Green Corn Moon by Jeanie Tomanekfriend in the Amazon. The man meets a hunter-shaman who takes him on a long walk through the jungle, pointing out plants and listing the various ways he has used them to heal. The American wants to write this all down, which makes the shaman howl with laughter. No, no, he explains, "that was just to introduce you to some of the plants. If you actually want to use a plant yourself, the spirit of the plant must come to you in dreams. If the spirit tells you how to prepare it and what it will cure, you can use it. Otherwise it won’t work for you."

"There is a plant for everything in the world; all you have to do is find it," an old herb-woman in the Louisiana Bayou told folklorist Ruth Bass in 1920s. And there's a folk story attached to nearly every plant -- as volumes of folklore and herb lore from all around the world can attest. The history of modern medicine is rooted in the history of folk medicine, entwined with myths, folk tales, fairy tales, and the homespun magics of countryside healers.

I recommend two wonderful novels (which happen to be by two of my favorite writers) exploring the connections between folk medicine, myth, spirituality, and the mysteries of Mother Earth: The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce and The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. Seed by Jeanie TomanekThe first of these, The Limits of Enchantment, set in the deep green hills of the English countryside in 1966, is a story about a hedgerow healer and midwife, the apprenticeship of her adopted daughter, and their struggle to maintain an ancient way of life in the modern world. The Hummingbird's Daughter, by contrast, is set in the dusty brown hills of northern México in the years before the Mexican Revolution. The novel is based on the real-life story of the author's great-Aunt Teresita, the illegitimate child of a prosperous rancher and a Yaqui Indian girl. Apprenticed to an Indian medicine woman, Teresita demonstrated such miraculous healing powers that her fame spread through northern México, leading to denunciation by the Catholic church and accusations of fomenting an Indian uprising. Both of these novels are coming-of-age stories about young women with remarkable gifts, looking at the ways that indigenous healing traditions are passed through the generations -- and how such gifts are both feared and revered in a world uncomfortable with Mystery.

In a number of Native American traditions, the word "medicine" does not refer to the pills or tonics we take to cure an illness but to anything that has spiritual power, and that helps to keep us "walking in beauty." Words can be strong medicine. Stories can touch our hearts and souls; they can point the way to healing and transformation. Our own lives are stories that we write from day to day; they are journeys through the dark of the fairy tale woods. The tales of previous travellers through the woods are passed down to us in the poetic, symbolic language of folklore and myth; where we step, someone has stepped before, and their stories can help light the way.

Another Night Journey by Jeanie Tomanek

The gorgeous art above is by the American painter Jeanie Tomanek, appearing here with her kind permission. Please visit her website to see more of her work. You can purchase prints through these Etsy shops: Everywoman Art and Easy Beast Designs, and you'll find a lovely interview with the artist here.