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October 2015

Happy Halloween from all of us at Bumblehill

Troll Witch by Brian Froud

Woodling by Brian FroudHere's some Halloween reading, in case you missed any of it the first time around:

"At the Death of the Year," the folklore of Halloween, Samhain, and the Days of the Dead

On Tucson's "Day of the Dead," by Stu Jenks

"The Mouse in the House," on elusive mice and Halloweens past

"Witches in Children's Literature" by Katherine Langrish (on her Seven Miles of Steel Thistles blog): Part I, Part II, Witch Queens & Crones, and Good Witches.

And some Halloween listening:

"Phantasmagoria: Folk songs of ghosts, spirits, and hauntings" by Tamsin Rosewell.

The Green Woman by Brian FroudThe art above is by my friend & neighbor Brian Froud; the titles are in the picture captions. His most recent books, co-created with writer & sculptor Wendy Froud, are Trolls and Faeries' Tales.


"Into the Woods" series, 54: Following the Hare

Woodland gate in autumn

Today I have another folklore post for you in the run-up to Halloween. This time it's on the subject of "Witch Hares," a creature more common that you might think....

Moongazing by Jackie MorrisAs Carolyne Larrington observes in her new book, The Land of the Green Men: A Journey Through the Supernatural Landscape of the British Isles: "We tend to associate witches with black cats that operate as their familiar spirits, but more traditionally the witch transforms herself into a hare in order to steal milk from the neighbours' cows. The witch-hare has other moneymaking sidelines, however: in one rather jolly tale from Tavistock in Devon, she gives the hare hunters a run for their money. In a letter written in 1833, a certain Mrs. Bray relates how a young boy would would earn money by starting hares for the local hare hunters -- he was always able to find one when they seemed scarce. Somehow, the hare always managed to get away. This made the huntsman suspicious, so on one occasion the hounds were teed up to to get on to their prey's trail more quickly. The hare zigged and zagged to cries from the boy of 'Granny! Quick! Run for your life!' Aha! The hare just made it into the boy's grandmother's cottage through a little hole. When the huntsmen broke in, no animal was to be seen. But the old woman was quite out of breath, and she had scratches as if she had been running through brambles."

Three hares by Jackie Morris

The woodland's edge in autumn

Why, asks Larrington, are there so many stories of witches in the shape of hares all across the British Isles?

"They were familiar animals before the industrialisation of the countryside," she notes, "and their habit of rearing up on their hind legs and their distinctive zigzag run made them easy to pick out. They are swift and clever -- which explains how they always manage to get back to the witches' houses before they Song of the Golden Hare by Jackie Morrisare caught -- and the have long been indigenous to the British landscape. Hares thus appear in a good deal of folklore across the country....I've seen hares myself near where I live in North Oxfordshire, up by the Roman road that runs along the southern side of Madmarston Hill near Swalcliffe: two big beasts on their hind legs, boxing away at one another like a couple of prizefighters, until they spotted me and the dog. Then they swerved away over the stubbly March fields, only to take up their bout again at a more distant corner. These hares were probably a male/female pair, rather than rival males duking it out: the female was trying the repel the male's advances, with limited success."

A detail from the Hare and the Moon by Jackie Morris

The woodland in autumn

Two hares by Jackie Morris

Hares are sometimes seen to gather together in what looks like a convocation, says Larrington, "eight or ten of them sitting in a circle and gazing at one another as if in silent communication. The writer Justine Picardi mentions seeing just such a phenomenon in June 2012 in the Scottish highlands:

" 'On the way here last night, a magical scene: glimpsed in a field beside the lane, a circle of hares, all gazing inward, motionless in the moment that we passed. I've heard occasional stories of these rarely witnessed gatherings -- but never seen one for myself. No camera to hand -- although if we'd stopped, I'm sure the hares would have vanished -- yet a sight impossible to forget.'

"But we know of course that these were no ordinary hares, but surely a gathering of witches in hare form."

We Are All Moongazing by Jackie Morris

If you'd like to know more about about Witch Hares and other hare legends, then in addition to Larrington's book (which devotes part of a chapter to the subject), I recommend The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans & David Thomson, a volume completely devoted to hare history and legendry. Another one to seek out is The Hare Book, edited by Jane Russ for The Hare Preservation Trust (UK), which is a delightful and informative compilation of stories and facts about hares accompanied by photographs and art -- including contributions from Jackie Morris, Virginia Lee, and Hannah Willow. (I particularly recommend Jackie's story in the book, "The Old Hare in Spring: 1502," inspired by the art of Albrecht Dürer, and the charming true-life tale of the three hares beloved by the 18th century poet William Cowper.)

You'll find more magical hares in my previous post "The Folklore of Rabbits and Hares" -- as well as some Witch Hares leaping through a post on Devon folklore: "Tales of a Half-Tamed Land." Devon is a veritable hotbed of shape-shifting hares, so be wary if you're out after dark here....

Hare drawing by Jackie Morris

The gorgeous hare art in this post is by Jackie Morris, one of the finest painters of hares (and other animals) working today. After admiring her art and stories for years, I finally had the opportunity to meet her earlier this month when her travels brought her through Devon -- and to see her gorgeous new book: The Wild Swans (which I highly recommend), and to hear about her current project: a collaboration with Robert Macfarlane. (What a combination of talents that will be!) To view more of Jackie's work, please visit her website and seek out her beautiful books...especially, in light of today's subject, Song of the Golden Hare.

Hare watcher at the woodland's edge

from Song of the Golden Hare by Jackie MorrisThe quote by Carolyne Larrington is from The Land of the Green Men (I.B.Taurus & Co., 2015). The quotes in the picture captions are from The Hare Book edited by Jane Russ (The Hare Preservation Trust/ Graffeg Books, 2014). All rights to the text and art above reserved by their respective creators. A previous post on Jackie Morris' marvelous books: "The wild sky."


"Into the Woods" series, 53: The Wild Hunt

Week Down Cross, Dartmoor, photograph by Nilfanion

The approach to Halloween is a time for telling stories of ghosts, ghouls, and the Unseelie Court (the underside of the Faerie Realm), and for paying wary respect to the Dark Gods of the land as we move into the dark months of the year.

Beardown Man, a prehistoric menhir on Dartmoor, photograph by Jon ConstantOne of the more frightening tales of Dartmoor is the legend of the Wild Hunt, which thunders across the moors by night in pursuit of any man or beast foolish enough to cross its path. 

"Stay indoors, attend your hearths," warn Ari Berk & William Spytma in an excellent article on the Hunt. "Try to keep the night at bay by the telling of your tongue. Remember your kin, honor your ancestors. For at this time the dead begin to stir, riding upon hallowed and familiar roads, galloping through villages and wastes, flying through the forests of the mind. Such raids are reminders that the past is not a dead thing, but may return, like a hunter, to follow us for a time."

The Wild Hunt, they explain, "is ancient in origin, an embodiment of the memories of war, agricultural myth, ancestral worship, and royal pastime. Its most complete and well-documented traditions lie with the peoples of Northern Europe; however, there are reflections of the Hunt anywhere in literature or folk tradition where the dead travel together over the land, or heroes rise up to rout a foreign foe, or where representatives of the sovereignty of the land are pursued and hunted. We even find versions of the Hunt in Ovid and the classical tradition. Indeed, wherever there are tales of invasions, we will likely find stories of a ghostly hunt following close on the heels of myth or history....

'Regardless of their regional names, all Hunts seem to share several common features wherever they appear: a spectral leader, a following train, announcement by a great baying of hounds, crashes of lightning, and loud hoof beats along with the Huntsman's shouts of  'Halloo!' Death and war often follow in their wake."

Tilly on Dartmoor near Belstone

The Hunt is led by a variety of figures, depending on where the tale is told: Odin, Woden, Herla, Herne the Hunter, Dewer, the Devil, Gwynn Ap Nudd (the king of the Welsh Otherworld), and even King Arthur under a curse. Whatever his guise, the Huntsman rides with hunting hounds that are just as fearsome as he: usually black as night, with eyes like glowing coals and breath of flame.

In The Folklore of Dartmoor, Ralph Whitlock reports on the Hunt that runs on the open moor near Chagford: "Sabine Baring-Gould says that in old times the Wild Hunt was known locally as the Wist Hounds. J.R.W. Coxhead has heard them called Yeth Hounds or Heath Hounds. He writes: 'The sound of the Dark Huntsman's horn and the fierce cries of the Yeth Hounds are supposed to have been heard many times in the lonely parts of the moor by belated travelers, and by resident inhabitants of the Dartmoor area. It is said that two of the favorite haunts of the spectral huntsman and his pack of demon hounds are Wistman's Wood and the Dewerstone Rock.' He adds that when, on a stormy night in 1677, Sir Richard Cabell, lord of the manor of Brook in Buckfastleigh parish, died, the Demon Hunt raged around the house all night, waiting for the soul of the wicked knight."

Stone row and circle near Down Tor, Dartmoor"These black, spectral hounds bear almost as many names as the Hunt," note Berk & Spytma. "In the North they are called Gabriel's Hounds. In Lancashire they are described as monstrous dogs with human heads who foretell of coming death or misfortune. In Devon they are known as Yeth, Heath, or Wisht hounds. These hounds issue from inside Wistman's Wood on the eve of St. John (Midsummer), a night when by tradition the careful eye can see the spirits of the dead fly from their graves. Here, among the ancient dwarf oaks and greening stones, Dewer (the Devil), kennels his hounds, and it is still said that no real dog will enter these woods at any time of the year. The Yeth hounds are also associated with the souls of unbaptized children, which they chase across the moor as their prey. But related traditions hold that the dogs are themselves the souls of the unbaptized babes, and they instead chase the Devil across the moor in repayment for his hand in their fate.

Stall moor row, southern Dartmoor, photograph by Herby Thyme

Hut circle at Grimspound, a Bronze Age settlement, Dartmoor, photograph by Herby Thyme

"In Wales the dogs are the Cwn Annwn (Hounds of the Otherworld) often white with red ears and bellies. The corrupt priest Dando had his own beasts, called the Devil's Dandy Dogs. Great black hounds were known as the Norfolk Shuck and Suffolk Shuck. The Hounds of the Hunt all bear a striking resemblance to the 'Black Shuck,' a solitary creature that has stalked East Anglia for centuries with fiery eyes as big as saucers. In England such solitary dogs are often the ghosts of deceased people, changed as punishment, and will sometimes help people if treated kindly.

"In several Norse versions of the Hunt, the Huntsman would leave a small black dog behind. The dog had to be kept and carefully tended for a year unless it could be driven away. The only known way to get frighten it away was to boil beer in eggshells, a curious ritual act seemingly related to the traditional method of getting rid of a Faerie changeling."

The Unseelie Host snatching up mortals, a drawing by Alan Lee (from ''Faeries'')

Faeries, too, have their form of Hunt: the Host, a group from the Unseelie Court, swarms through the skies on cold, moonless nights, snatching up mortals who cross their path and whisking them into the dark. If their victims live to limp back home, they report being forced to making mischief on other mortals and to raid faery cattle from the Seelie Realm. Shaken and battered, those hunted by the Host are said to age years in a single night.

Saddle Tor, Dartmoor, photograph by Herby Thme

If you'd like to learn more about the Wild Hunt -- and it would be wise to do so at this chancy time of year -- I recommend reading Berk & Spytma's fascinating article in full. You'll find it here.

"The Wild Hunt Rides Over Paris," a post by Katherine Langrish (on Seven Miles of Steel Thistles), is also a treat, as is Carolyne Larrington's new book: In the Land of the Green Men, Penelope Lively's YA novel based on the theme, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, and Jane Yolen's middle-grade novel, The Wild Hunt, illustrated by Mora Francisco.

Wistman's Wood, Dartmoor

Dewerstone RocksPictures: The drawing above is by my friend & Dartmoor neighbor Alan Lee, who knows a thing or two about Wild Hunt legends. It's from his book Faeries, a collaboration with Brian Froud. Descriptions and photographer credits for the Dartmoor photographs can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Words: The passages quoted above are from "Power, Penance, & Pursuite: On the Train of the Wild Hunt by Ari Berk & William Spytma (The Journal of Mythic Arts & Realms of Fantasy magazine, 2002) and Devon Folklore by Ralph Whitlock (BT Batsford, 1977). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


An autumn morning in the studio with Borges

Morning light on my desktop

My work day starts with golden Devon light, strong coffee in a Jane Austen cup, a furry black head resting on my knee, and these words from Jorge Luis Borges, who begins with a quote from Homer:

'''The gods weave misfortunes for men, so that the generations to come will have something to sing about.' Mallarmé repeats, less beautifully, what Homer said, 'tout aboutit en un livre,' everything ends up in a book. The Greeks speak of generations that will sing; Mallarmé speaks of an object, of a thing among things, a book. But the idea is the same; the idea that we are made for art, we are made for memory, we are made for poetry, or perhaps we are made for oblivion. But something remains, and that something is history or poetry, which are not essentially different.''
  - from Seven Nights

Morning light on the hound

"Any life, however long and complicated it may be, actually consists of a single moment — the moment when we know forever more who we are."   - from the Aleph & Other Stories

Morning light on everythingMorning light, on my desk and on the hound.


Christopher LeithSuch Stuff As Dreams
Are Made On: A Tribute to Christopher Leith

by Howard Gayton
with Terri Windling

Last week, I heard the sad news that Christopher Leith, a master of puppet theatre in Britain, had died from the complications of motor neurone disease, which he developed in 2013. In addition to his many other accomplishments, Christopher was the Artistic Director at the Little Angel theatre in London, where I worked regularly in the 1990s and developed many of my own ideas about the art of puppetry due to his mentorship, and so I want to share some thoughts on the life and art of this puppet master. I'm primarily a dramatist, however, not an essayist, so in order to give readers a proper idea of Chris' remarkable work, I asked my wife, who is an essayist, to help me put this piece together.

Christopher's deep obsession with puppets went right back to his childhood. "The family didn't approve," he told Chandra Masoliver in a recent interview; "my stepfather said I was 'playing with dolls.' Retrospectively, I think I was creating a world I could control, but as I reached my teens, puppeteering changed from being a need to being a vocation." He studied theatre design at Wimbledon School of Arts in London, acting at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, and apprenticed in puppet design and manipulation under John & Lyndie Wright of London's Little Angel Theatre.

Nzua puppet by Christopher LeithIn addition to his long association with the Little Angel, Chris' work with puppets was so extensive that I can only touch on a few highlights here. He played many different roles in his work: he designed and carved puppets; he wrote, directed, and performed in numerous puppet productions; he taught and mentored younger puppeteers; and he worked in film (with Jim Henson, Lotte Reiniger, Disney Studios, and others), although theatre remained his first love. He was Resident Puppeteer for the National Theatre, and worked with many other companies, large and small, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, the London Palladium and Polka Theatre. His puppets, sculptures and drawings have been exhibited at the National Theatre, the British Museum, the V&A Museum and other venues. Chris also loved music: he trained in Gregorian chant with Dr. Mary Berry, and performed regularly with the Schola Gregoriana. To learn more, go here (and scroll down the page) for a time-line of his career.

Chris Leith

Chris came into my life when I was a young puppeteer & director -- discouraged by the difficult dynamics of one of my earliest jobs in the field and considering giving up puppetry altogether. He brought me into the Little Angel team and re-ignited my love for the form. "There is a spirit in every object that has magic in it," Christopher Howard Gayton at the Little Angel Theatreliked to say. "A puppet is like a little nest where the spirits can come down, enjoy being and dance there. Puppets have no free will, a puppet comes to life when it is picked up and it dies when it is put down again...like an empty shell. Puppets exist in a state which is both alive and dead at the same moment…that’s why puppetry is the most beguiling of all the theatre arts; and the best puppeteers are the ones who let the audience dream in the strongest way."

In paying my tribute to this kind and gentle man, I'd like to describe the very first exercise he taught me, for it has stuck with me over all these years and proven to be instrumental in my personal approach to puppetry. The exercise is ridiculously simple on the surface, but has great depths of meaning and philosophy beneath:

We begin by sitting in stillness. I ask you, the student, to simply sit and look at your puppet. (Chris often used an old doll-like puppet; when I teach, I use an old bit of cloth.)

Puppets for 3 Stages of LazarusDon't touch the puppet, not yet. Centre yourself by concentrating on your breath, and then make a connection with the puppet through your eyes alone. Now use your imagination to make an energetic connection to the puppet through your lower energy centre, just below your navel -- what the Taoists call the Dan Tien. And then, when you're ready, when the moment feels right, move your hand gently to rest on the puppet. “The first moment of connection is special,” I remember Chris saying. “It is when you are giving the puppet life.”

After touching the puppet, allow the rise and fall of your breathing to transfer into it. This is what moves the puppet into motion, the sacred connection between puppet and puppeteer. “Each time you make that contact with the puppet,” Chris would remind us, “you are giving life.”

And there it is, at the heart of this simple, powerful exercise: the Creation Myth.

In the beginning, the Gods took a handful of moist clay and crafted a human form. They breathed life into it through its nostrils and gave it consciousness....

Art doesn't get much more profound than this: the creation of life. The creation of the world.

3 Stages for Lazarus, Christopher Leith

"Now," Chris would say at the end of the exercise, "center yourselves once again, and when it feels right, slowly withdraw your hand from the puppet...." For of course, the puppets we infuse with our breath and consciousness become inert again when the story is done. You’ve brought the puppet to life, allowed it to explore its world, but now that life has to be taken back. If the giving of life is a powerfully mythic moment, the ending of it is perhaps even more so. The circle has completed itself.

The power of Chris' exercise was brought home to me a couple of years ago when I used it to teach a small group of puppeteers I was working with for the first time. One of the puppeteers had suffered a miscarriage not long before, and the symbolic gesture of giving life to her puppet...and then withdrawing it...moved her deeply. I was reminded, once again, that working with puppets is not a frivolous thing, for puppets (like masks) touch our consciousness on a deep archetypal level.

Puppets by Christopher Leith (2nd photograph by Manuel Vasquez)

A willing "suspension of disbelief" is an integral part of all forms of theatre, but this is multiplied ten-fold with puppetry. Whether you are using a beautifully crafted puppet, a rough knock-about one, or simply a piece of cloth or lump of wood, the audience will see it as a real-life character if it's manipulated by a skilled puppeteer: a character conveying all the triumphs and tragedies inherent in the human condition. The Christopher Leith, 3 Stages for Lazarus rehearsal, 2015audience laughs at a puppet's foolishness, and is brought to tears by its struggles. Through the carefully crafted illusion that brings puppets to life, children are transported to a magical, mythical realm...and adults are turned into children again, submersed in the Otherworld of make believe.

Although Chris began showing symptoms of motor neurone diesease in 2013, he continued to work with puppets in whatever ways his failing strength allowed: he could no longer carve, or manipulate the puppets, but he still directed, taught, championed the art form wherever and whenever he could, and served as Patron of The Curious School of Puppetry. Guy Dartnell has been organising the effort to archive and document Chris' work. (There's a Facebook page for updates on this.) And Chris' final production, 3 Stages for Lazarus, is scheduled to debut at the Suspense Festival at the Little Angel next week.

Go here to read about the production in an article by Chandra Masoliver. And go here to see a fascinating interview filmed earlier this year by Guy Dartnell. Chris discusses puppetry, carving, his final projects, and living with motor neurone disease, interspersed with clips  from his 'Beowulf' (1971), and a glimpse of his puppetry workshop.

In the short video below (filmed four months ago), Christopher's last puppet is brought to life:

"The back of Lazarus was the last piece of carving I ever did," Chris said. "To see it coming to life in this way is magical; it’s beautiful. I started working on Lazarus in 2010, well before any signs of motor neurone disease. I heard the words ‘fixed and cannot move’ in a song; that’s how puppets are -- and are not. Lazarus is about the fragility of life."

Star Maiden puppet by Christopher Leith
Prospero:


Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And like the baseless fabric of this vision, 

The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158

Chris, wherever you are now, in the circle of life and death, thank you. You'll never be forgotten.

Christopher Leith

About the author of this Guest Post: Howard Gayton is a puppeteer, a dramatist (specializing in mask theatre), and a tutor at the Curious School of Puppetry.

Picture credits: Identification of the photographs can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) The third photo is of Howard at the Little Angel in the 1990s; all the rest are of Christopher and his puppets, and come primarily from the 3 Stages for Lazarus Facebook page, set up by Guy Dartnell to honor Chris' work, and the V&A Museum Collections site.  All rights to the quotes, photographs & videos above reserved by their creators , the V&A, and the Christopher Leith estate.


Autumn color

Autumn1

Autumn color 1

''When we are writing, or painting, or composing, we are, during the time of creativity, freed from normal restrictions, and are opened to a wider world, where colors are brighter, sounds clearer, and people more wondrously complex than we normally realize.''

- Madeleine L'Engle (Madeleine L'Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life)

Autumn color 2

Autumn color 3

"I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost. But it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature.

"A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me."

- E.B. White  ("The Art of the Essay No. 1,"  The Paris Review, Fall 1969)

Autumn color 4

Autumn color 5

''I don’t pretend to understand this great mystery in which we participate.  Whether we call it life, cosmos, creation, Allah, God, or some other grand name, no label is large enough. I merely try to learn as much about it as I can, during my brief time under the sun. So I study what the most perceptive of our ancestors have discovered -- artists and scientists as well as spiritual seekers.  I turn outward to nature and to human artifacts, and inward to the images and voices that arise in silence.  The louder the world becomes, with its relentless demands and messages, the more precious silence becomes. I can’t prove that what emerges within me arises from a source beyond the boundaries of my own skin, but I believe this is so. Simone Weil wrote that 'Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.' What I pay attention to might be my breath, a sentence in a book, a butterfly on a zinnia blossom, my granddaughter’s face, a skein of music or a skein of geese. I may do my seeking outdoors or indoors, alone or in company, but always the goal is the same: to deepen my awareness of this encompassing mystery."

- Scott Russell Sanders ("The Spirituality of Nature," Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Spring 2013)

Autumn color 6

Autumn color 7

''Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred. What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all. We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified, and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.''

- Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic: Creative Living)

Autumn color 9

Autumn color 9

Autumn color 10


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Twa Corbies by Arthur Rackham

This week, the Celtic year comes to a close, the clocks are turned back (at least here in England), and the nights are drawing in. Halloween is approaching: the time of the year when the borders between the worlds grown thin, when the dead return, the old gods stir, and the faeries ride in procession through mortal lands. In honor of the dark, dangerous aspects of British folklore, our music this week is drawn from the bloodier side of the ballad tradition: songs of murder and mayhem, seduction and sorrow, treachery and tragedy. Such ballads are our ancestors' version of the horror stories and films that so many people shiver to today.

Above, "The Outlandish Knight" (also known as "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight"), Child Ballad No. 4, recently performed by singer/songwriter Kate Rusby, from Yorkshire. If you are unfamiliar with the Child Ballads, go here for a previous post on the subject.

Below, "Johnny o' Bredislee" (also known as "Johnny the Brine"), Child Ballad No. 114. This version comes from Aleyn, the eleventh solo album by the great June Tabor, from Warwickshire. No one does dark balladry better than June.

Above,  a fine rendition of "Twa Corbies" ("Two Ravens"), Child Ballad No. 26, by Old Blind Dogs, from north-east Scotland. It's from their second album, Close to the Bone.

 Below, "The Bold Knight" performed by Seth Lakeman, from Devon, backed up by the BBC Concert Orchestra. It's an original song in ballad form, reminiscent of "Twa Corbies" but based on a local Dartmoor folk tale.

Above, "Reynardine," a broadside ballad dating back at least to the 18th century. This version comes from Country Life, the ninth studio album by Show of Hands, who are also from Devon. It's a song about a murderous, shape-shifting were-fox, related to the Mr. Fox folk.

Below, "Clyde Waters" (also known as "The Drowned Lovers"), Child Ballad No. 216, a bittersweet song that crossed the ocean centuries ago with Scottish immigrants to the New World, and then turned into a bluegrass ballad in the Appalachian mountains of eastern America. It's performed here by Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer , from Vermont and Colorado respectively, and can be found on their album Child Ballads (2013), which I highly recommend.

If you'd like more malicious music this morning, try June Tabor's "Hughie Graeme," Alela Diane & Alina Hardin's "Matty Groves," Martin's Carthy's "The Famous Flower of Serving Men," Lucy Ward's Patti-Smith-like rendition of "Lord Randall" and his eels; Emily Smith's performance of a perversely upbeat version of "Twa Sisters," and Jim Moray's performance of the extremely creepy "Long Lankin." The painting above is an illustration of "Twa Corbies" by Arthur Rackham.

For fairy ballads in the run-up to Hallowe'en, I recommend this episode of Tamsin Rosewell's folk radio show: "My Folk and Their Friends, on the subject of Fairies and Folklore."


Re-kindling the fire within

The Two Fridas by Frida Kahlo

Frida Khalo painting in bed(Information on the pictures here can be found in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them.)

In her beautiful Guest Post two Fridays ago, Nomi McLeod discussed the ways "The Handless Maiden" fairy tale spoke to her at a difficult time of life, and how the art she created based on the tale Tree of Hope, Remain Strong by Frida Khaloboth documented her journey through the dark of the woods and helped her to comprehend it. This is a subject that particularly interests me: the means by which writers, painters, and other artists respond to trauma, crisis, and grief, alchemizing hard experience into story, image, and other creative works.

There are so many different ways this occurs. Sometimes the transformation from life experience to art is immediate and direct: an outpouring of creative energy in the middle of the crisis as it unfolds. Frida Khalo's self-portraits are one example of this, sometimes painted from the confines of her sickbed; another is the "savage creative storm" that caused Rilke to write Sonnets to Orpheus upon hearing the news of a family friend's death. I had a similar experience once myself, after learning that my stepfather had died: working night and day for almost two weeks, I produced, unplanned and almost without conscious thought, my "Surviving Childhood" series of drawings. (These are very large charcoal drawings made on rolls of butcher's paper, and unsuitable for reproducing here.) The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde is another example of work produced in the eye of the storm; as is the art created by Henri Matisse after an operation left him bed- and chair-bound; Angelo Merendino's "The Battle We Didn't Choose," a photographic response to his wife's diagnosis with breast cancer; Hannah Laycock's "Perceiving Identity" series about living with multiple sclerosis; the final essays of Oliver Sacks, written in the last months of his terminal illness; and the work of Mohammed Al-Amari and other Syrian artists documenting the ongoing refugee crisis....to name just a few.

Henri Matisse working from bed

The Sorrows of the King by Henri Matisse

It is rare, however, that a serious illness or other crisis allows the time, space, and temper of mind required for art-making, and so the second category is a larger one: art in response to a crisis that has ended, but that still feels somehow unresolved. Through this kind of work, we return to the dark parts of our lives and transform our muddles of emotion and reaction into something more ordered, more comprehensible, more universal...perhaps even beautiful, if painfully so. Nomi's "Handless Maiden" falls in this category, as does the unflinching work of German artist Käthe Kollwitz in response to World War I, or the devastating "Hiroshima Panels" of Japanese artists Iri & Toshi Maruki. More recent example include Beckie Kravetz's powerful "Witness" sculpture installation; Meg Zivahl-Fox's "Nettles and Deliverance" collages (using fairy tale imagery in response to childhood trauma); Richard Johnson's heart-breaking "Weapon of Choice," a photographic series on verbal abuse and bullying (in response to his own childhood experiences); and CELL, a puppetry project exploring Motor Neurone Disease. (Two of the puppeteers behind the project lost family members to MND.)

Kathe Kollwitz

Kathe Kollwitz

Rescue, from the Hiroshima panels of Iri & Toshi Maruki

There are many fine examples in literature too, especially in the genre of personal essay and memoir, including If This is a Man by Primo Levi, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Dideon, One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro, Paula by Isabel Allende, Hillbilly Gothic by Adrienne Martini, Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Early Spring by Tove DitlevsenWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Wintersen, I Want to Be Left Behind by Brenda Peterson, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, The Woman Who Watches Over the World by Linda Hogan, The Color of Water by James M. McBride, This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff, Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, and numerous others. When we turn to the field of poetry, there are almost too many examples to list, but I'll mention two that have touched me deeply: Jane Kenyon's poems on her battle with depression (found in Constance and Otherwise), and Jane Yolen's The Radiation Sonnets, written during her husband's treatment for cancer, and after his death. I also recommend "Finding Poetry in Illness," a moving article by Jennifer Nix.

Memoirs

Personal experience is often used in the creation of fiction too, of course, although here the alchemical magic is so strong that we're not always aware (nor should we be aware) of the ways in which strands of the author's own life may be woven with other material to create the tapestry of a novel or story. One interesting example is Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, in which the main character shares the author's name and some of the details of her life -- and yet this is a work of fiction, not memoir, with autobiographical elements skillfully juggled and altered in the service of art. Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina is another excellent book of this type, as is Heinz Insu Fenkl's gorgeous Memories of my Ghost Brother: published as a novel in one edition and as a "magical realist memoir" in another, but actually falling into the interstices between those two literary forms. A fourth example is Jo Walton's wonderful fantasy novel Among Others -- which, she is clear to note, is not straight autobiography with magical trimmings but a "mythologization" of her Welsh childhood and family dynamics, written (to use Rilke's phrase) in a "savage create storm" of 36 writing days.

From Witness by Beckie Kravetz

Although powerful work can be born of hard life experience, there are also times when calamity silences us: when shock, or grief, or sheer emotional exhaustion serves to snuff out one's creativity altogether. For those of us used to moving through life by breathing in the world and breathing out art, this silence is an unsettling, even terrifying thing. It is not quite the same thing as depression; it's more like finding the inner room where we go to create is now shuttered and bolted against us. It's like trying to speak without language. It's like living without breathing. It's not living at all.

From ''The Battle We Didn't Choose'' by Angelo & Jennifer Merendino

Perhaps the alchemical process of creativity has not stopped altogether at such times; perhaps it's still moving, but moving so slowly it does not appear to be moving at all. Our creative daemon has gone underground: not hibernating but germinating, like a seed buried deep in the frozen earth, gathering strength and preparing to break through the soil when the proper time comes. Meanwhile, the winter drags on and we move through our days unaware of things stirring below. Winter is bleak, and endless, and we worry: What if this time the spring doesn't come?

Stray by Jeanie Tomanek

I think of trauma as cold, and sharp, with edges that hurt when you bump up against it. It's the sliver of glass from the Snow Queen tale and the kiss that turns Kay's heart to ice, making him numb to love, to passion, to everything that he once held dear. And yet, even numbness has its use. In a crisis, sometimes we just have to keep moving, putting one foot in front of another, weighted with burdens too heavy to carry but which we must not put down. At such times, it can feel like a mercy to leave the weight and heat of emotion behind us. There are decisions to make and things to be done and miles to cross before we can sleep; there's no time for emotion, no room for it in the basket of boulders we carry.

The Angel of Moving Safely Through the Darkness by Terri WindlingThe problem here is that inspiration arises from an inner fire that feeds on all the stuff our lives: both the dark and the bright, our emotions included. Take emotion away and the fire diminishes. It sputters. It goes out altogether. Numb, like Kay, we may think we are fine, we may think we are coping magnificently... but we sit down to work and the fire just isn't there. And that's hardly surprising.

What is a surprise (or so it was to me) is that the end of a crisis and the thawing of the heart are two things that don't always happen in tandem. A long illness has ended, or a painful problem resolved, or grief has finally loosened its grip and we've emerged from the deep dark forest at last, ready to live Happily Every After...or at least to enjoy a hard-won period of calm and creative renewal. Instead, we just sit there, frozen and numb, not even moving forward now, creativity gone (and our sense of self with it), smiling tightly when dear friends say: At last it's all over! We're glad that you're back!

But in fact, we're not back, at least not fully. Spring is here, but our souls are still clenched underground. We must call them back up to the light.

Life Vs Death by Nomi McLeod

In an earlier series of posts, we looked at illness as a mythic/metaphoric journey to the Underworld and back -- and I'd like to propose that the journey through crisis or grief might be viewed in a similar manner. The process unfolds Cradle by Nomi McLeodin mythic time, or wild time, not on clock time, on schedule, on human demand. It's a journey as perilous as it is profound and it needs to be acknowledged. It needs to be honored. We cannot return from the mythic Underworld as precisely the person we were when we started, and we do not return as the same artist either. Coaxing the soul back up to the sun involves learning just who it is we've become, and what fairy tale gifts we have brought from below. This post-crisis process cannot be rushed; it needs quiet reflection, solitude, time. And yet time, in our pressured and fast-paced world, is precisely what we rarely have.

For those of us working professionally in the arts, the strictures of the marketplace require that work be produced in a regular manner. We spend years mastering the discipline required to create works of art Bunny Maiden with Scars by Terri Windlingto schedule and deadline -- and when that discipline fails us, when the fire's been dampened and the work just will not come, what on earth does one do?

I wish I had an easy answer to that question...or even a difficult one. But every artist is different, every journey is different, and each of us must discover our personal way of re-kindling the fire (though in a perfect world, a charitable foundation aimed at giving working artists the time and resources to do so would not go amiss). What does help, I think, is to recognize the process occurring; to be patient (both with yourself and with others' reactions); and to accept, without shame, the problems that arise when deep healing processes conflict with careers run on clock-time, not soul-time. It also helps to know that other creative artists have gone into the dark before us, and returned, and then burned brighter than ever -- often using the Underworld's painful gifts to enable their very best work.

The Tree of Doors by Meg Zivahl-Fox

One book I keep returning to lately is "An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms" by Elizabeth Knox: a slim volume containing an essay composed for the 2014 Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture. (You can listen to it online here, or obtain the print edition from Victoria University Press.) In this powerful piece, Elizabeth weaves the story of her mother's final illness and several other hard life experiences into reflections on writing, on the nature of genre, and on the work of her friend Margaret Mahy. The essay has been a touchstone for me not because it gives me concrete answers or instructions to follow in times of hardship, but because it shows how another writer, and one I respect, has grappled with such issues too.  I've re-read my copy so many times now -- usually on coffee breaks in the woods -- that it's worn, leaf-strewn, coffee-stained, and dog-eared at favorite passages...such as this one, in which Elizabeth relates a conversation with her husband, Fergus:

"A few weeks back I was trying to explain to Fergus how I see things differently now. How my world view has changed. It had been heroic, by which I mean that everything, obligingly, had a shapeliness -- everything fell into story -- and revealed itself that way, becoming beautiful, and habitable for heroes. Then I got sad; sad for such a sustainable period of time that my world view became an abject one.

"The context of the conversation was this: what the hell could I say in my Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture, with the tectonic plates of my world view still in motion? What could I say when, as I saw it, it was my job to be inspiring? How was I ever to find inspiration in my discouraged soul?

"In trying to communicate this to Fergus, I began thinking about what I learned from my mother -- and not from her death. What she tried, from my infancy, to consciously impart: the vital goodness of kindness and civility in life."

Kindness and civility, yes. Potent magic for the thawing of hearts.

The Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture by Elizabeth Knox, published by Victoria University Press

Crumbs by Jeanie Tomanek

Everyone goes through the deep dark woods at some point in life; artists are not unique in this. But the impact of the journey on the work we do, and even on our ability to do it, makes the questions we ask in trauma's wake somewhat different than in other professions. After a searing experience, how do we re-open ourselves to inspiration? How can we bear such vulnerability? And yet, if we stay protectively closed, how will we bear the alternative: living our lives with our fires banked and the door to art locked against us?

With these thoughts in mind, I came across the following passage by M.C. Richards, from her book Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. She's talking about love, but her words seem to me to apply to creativity as well. (For some of us -- and Richards is one, I think -- they are two sides of the same coin.)

Crossing an Iced-Over Stream by Gina LitherlandShe asks: "How are we to love [and how are we to create] when we are stiff and numb and distinterested? How are we to transform ourselves into limber and soft organisms lying open the world at the quick? By what process and what agency do we perform the Great Work, transforming lowly materials into gold? Love, like its counterpoint, Death, is a yielding at the center...figured forth in intelligent cooperation, sensitive congeniality, physical warmth. At the center the love must live.

"One gives up all one has for this. This is the love that resides in the self, the self-love, out of which all love pours. The fountain, the source. At the center. One gives up all the treasured sorrow and self-mistrust, all the precious loathing and suspicion, all the secret triumphs of withdrawal. One bends in the wind. There are many disciplines that strengthen one's athleticism for love [and creativity]. It takes all one's strength. And yet it takes all one's weakness too. Sometimes it is only by having one's so-called strengths pulverized that one is weak enough, strong enough, to yield. It takes the power of nature in one which is neither strength nor weakness but closer perhaps to virtu, person, personalized energy. Do not speak about strength and weakness, manliness and womanliness, aggressiveness and submissiveness. Look at this flower. Look at this child. Look at this rock with lichen growing on it. Listen to this gull scream as he drops through the air to gobble the bread I throw and clumsily rights himself in the wind. Bear ye another's burdens, the Lord said, and he was talking law.

"Love is not a doctrine, Peace is not an international agreement. Love and Peace are beings who live as possibilities in us."

After the Deluge by Gina Litherland

During periods when I've been unable to cross through the doorway into the room of creation, I've taken courage in knowing that others have also stood at that threshold and found a way in. Their entrance might not be one I can use, but I've learned I am capable of finding my own.

If you've been on that journey, if you are on it now, then this is the thing that I want most to tell you: You have my compassion, and you have my respect. The winter does end. Hearts thaw. Seeds grow. A spark hits dry tinder, and the fire roars.

Coyote Woman by Terri WindlingArt credits: (from top to bottom) "The Two Fridas" & "Tree of Hope, Remain Strong" by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), and a photograph of Kahlo painting while recovering from one of her many operations. "The Sorrow of the King" by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) , and a photograph of Matisse at work even though confined to bed."Hunger: Mother & Sleeping Children" and "Survivors: Widows & Orphans" by Käthe Kollwitz' (1867-1945). "Rescue," one of the Hiroshima panels of Iri & Toshi Maruki. Recommended works of memoir, poetry, & fiction. Figures from "Witness," a sculptural installation by Beckie Kravetz. A photograph  by Angelo Merendino from The Battle We Didn't Choose project. "Stray" by Jeanie Tomanek. "The Angel of Moving Safely Through the Darkness" from my Angel series of paintings. "Life Vs. Death" and "Cradle" by Nomi McLeod. "Bunny maiden with scars," from one of my hospital sketchbooks. "The Tree of Doors" from Nettles and Deliverance by Meg Zivahl-Fox. The Victoria University Press edition of the Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture by Elizabeth Knox. "Crumbs" by Jeanie Tomanek. "Crossing an Iced-Over Stream" and "After the Deluge" by Gina Litherland. "Coyote Woman" from my Desert Spirits series. Text credits: The passage by Elizabeth Knox is from An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms (Victoria University Press, 2014). The passage by M.C. Richards (1916-1999) is from Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (Wesleyan, 1989). All rights by Elizabeth Knox and the estate of M.C. Richards. All rights to the words and pictures above reserved by the authors and artists or their estates.


Giving back

Rowan tree in autumn

I'm working on a long post for tomorrow, so for today just this:

"The effort to know and care for and speak from your home ground is a choice about living as well as about writing. In that effort you are collaborating with everyone else who keeps track, everyone who works for the good of the community and the land. None of us is likely to fulfill the grand ambition of Joyce's young artist, Stephen Dedalus, to forge in the smithy of our souls the conscience of our race; but we might help to forge the conscience of a place, and that seems to me to be ambition enough for a lifetime's labor. Trees tap into the soil, drawing nourishment and returning fertility. Capturing sunlight, breaking down stone, dropping a mulch of leaves, replenishing the air, trees improve the conditions for other species and for the saplings that will replace them. So might writers, through works of imagination, give back to the places that feed them a more abundant life. "

- Scott Russell Sanders ("Writing from the Center")

Oak elder in autumn

The pictures today: Tilly under rowan and oak on an early morning walk on Nattadon Hill, brushing past rosehips and under the oak boughs. Bracken turns orange and gold all around us. Blown like a seed from New York to Boston to the Arizona desert and rooted at last on a green hill in Devon, this is the place that I strive to give back to, in stories and paintings alike.

Rosehips by Nattadon leat

Black dog under the oak boughsWords: The passage above is from "Writing from the Center," an essay in Scott Russell Sander's collection of the same name (Indiana University Press, 1995). The poem in the picture captions is by Denise Levertov (1923-1997)  from This Great Unknowing: Last Poems (New Directions, 1999).  All rights reserved by Scott Sanders and the Levertov estate.


Wild language

Autumn on the Commons

I've discovered the work of Scott Russell Sanders this year, and I've been slowly making my way through his many fine books. Like Wendell Berry, he's rooted in the soil and culture of the American midwest, and his writing dwells on the importance of knowing the language of our local landscape, wherever that may be, town and country alike: its weather and waterways, its flora and fauna, it's more-than-human history, its stories and folklore.

"The challenge for any writer," he says, "is to be faithful at once to your vision and your place, to the truth you have laboriously found and the people this truth might serve. In order to work, I must withdraw into solitude, must close my door against the world, close my mind against the day's news. But unless the writing returns me to the life of family, friends, and neighbors with renewed energy and insight, then it has failed. My writing is an invitation to community, an exploration of what connects to one another and to the earth.

Autumn on the Commons 2

Autumn on the Commons 3

"I love words," Saunders continues, "yet I love the world more. I do not think of language as thread for a private game of cat's cradle, but as a web flung out, attaching me to the creation. Of course the medium is constantly debased. Television, advertising, government, and schools have so cheapened or inflated language that many writers doubt whether it can still be used in the search for understanding. But knowledge has never been handed to us like pebbles or potatoes; we have always had to dig it up for ourselves. All of culture, writing included, is a struggle over how we should imagine our lives. 

Autumn on the Commons 4

"Stories are containers in which we carry some of those imaginings. They are the pots and bowls and baskets we use for preserving and sharing our discoveries. Whether in fiction, film, poetry, drama, or essays, stories tell about human character and action, and the consequences of character and action; by making stories and reading them, we are testing ways of being human. It seems idle to protest, as many critics do, that stories are artificial, since everything we make is shot through with artifice. To protest that experience is scattered, not gathered neatly as in stories, is no more than to say that seeds and berries are scattered, not gathered as in the bowl we have filled for supper.

Autumn on the Commons 5

"Without venturing into metaphysics, where I would soon get lost, I need to declare that I believe literature is more than self-regarding play. It gestures beyond itself to the universal, of which you and I are vanishingly small parts. The moves in writing are not abstract, like those in algebra or chess, for words cannot be unhooked from the world. They come freighted with memory and feeling. Linguists describe our ordinary speech as 'natural' language, to distinguish it from the formal codes of mathematics or computers or logic. The label is appropriate, a reminder that everyday language is wild; no one defines or controls it. You can never force words to mean only and exactly what you wish them to mean, for they escape every trap you lay for them.

Autumn on the Commons 6

"Insofar as my writing is important, it gains that importance from what I am witness to. I have written from the outset with a pressing awareness of the world's barbarities -- the bombing of cities, the oppression of the poor, extinction of species, exhaustion of soil, pollution of water and air, murder, genocide, racism, war. If I stubbornly believe that nature is resilient, love is potent, that humankind may be truly kind, I do so in the face of this cruelty and waste. Without denying evil, literature ought to reduce the amount of suffering, in however small a degree, and not only human suffering but that of all creatures. Although we cannot live without causing harm, we could cause much less harm than we presently do.

Autumn on the Commons 7

Autumn on the Commons 8

"The desire to articulate a shared world is the root impulse of literature as it is of science. Individual scientists, like writers, may be cutthroat competitors, out for their own glory; but science itself, the great cathedral of ideas slowly rising, is a common enterprise. Perhaps the symbol for literature should be a rambling library, to which each of us adds a line, a page, a few books. Whether one is a scientist or a writer, the universe outshines those of us who glimpse a bit of it and report on what we see....

"My steady desire has been to wake up, not to sleepwalk through this brief miraculous life."

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The pictures today: an autumn walk on the village Commons on a golden and misty morning

Writing from the Center by Russell Scott SandersWords: The passage above is from "Letter to a Reader," an essay in Writing from the Center by Scott Russell Sanders (University of Indiana Press, 1995), which is probably my favorite of his books (if I had to choose). The poem tucked into the picture captions is by Denise Levertov (1923-1997), from O Taste and See (New Directions, 1964). All rights reserved by Scott Sanders and the Levertov estate. Previous Scott Sanders posts: "Down by the Riverside," "The Blessing of Otters,"  The Common Life," and "Opening to the Other."