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April 2016

Wildflower season

Wildflowers on my desk

Although it's still too cold to feel like spring, the wildflower season has begun. The bluebells are unfurling, and soon our woods will be a Faerieland carpeted in flowers.

Bluebells are especially loved by the faeries, and as such they are dangerous. A child alone in a bluebell wood might be whisked Under the Hill and never seen again, while adults can find themselves lost for days, or years, until the faery spell is broken. Other names the plant is known by: Faery Thimbles, Wood Hyacinths, Harebells (in Scotland, for they grow in fields frequented by hares), and Dead Man's Bells (because the faeries are not kind to those who trample willfully upon them).

Bluebells in the house can be lucky or unlucky, depending on where in British Isles you live. Here in Devon, it's the former: a bouquet of bluebells, picked with gratitude and tended with care, confers the faeries' blessings on the household and "sweetens" spirits sagging after a long winter. Love potions are made of bluebell blossoms, and a bluebell wreath compels the wearer to tell the truth about his or her affections. Despite this association with love, bluebells in Romantic poetry are symbols of loneliness and regret; while in the Victorian's Language of Flowers they represent kindness, humility, and a sense of wonder.

Devon Bluebells

Bluebell Faery by Brian Froud

In Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce captured the uncanny magic of a bluebell wood:

"The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and the bushes seem to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down to the earth floor; and I didn't know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky."

(Graham's faery novel for adult readers is both magical and sinister, and highly recommended.)

Devon bluebell wood

Harebell Faery

Wild violets are often associated with the Greek myth of Persephone, for she was out in the fields gathering the flowers when Hades abducted her into the Underworld; they are flowers of change, transition, transformation, and the cycle of death-and-rebirth. In the Middle Ages, the violet represented love that was new, uncertain, changeable or transitory; yet by Victorian times, in the Language of Flowers the violet was a symbol of constancy. 

Here in Devon, old country folk are wary of bringing violets (and snowdrops) into the house, for this will curse the farmwife's hens and make them unable to lay. Dreaming of violets is lucky, however, as is wearing the flowers pinned to your clothes...but only if the violets are worn outdoors. Take them off at your doorstep and leave them for the faeries, alongside a bowl of fresh milk.

Wild violets 2

Wild violets

Milk for the faeries

Primroses guard against dark witchcraft if you gather their blossoms properly: always thirteen or more in a bunch, and never a single flower. On May Day, small primrose bouquets were hung over farmhouse windows and doors to keep black magic and misfortune out, while allowing white magic to enter freely. Primroses were braided into horses' manes and plaited into balls hung from the necks of cows and sheep as protection from piskie mischief on May Day and Beltane. Hedgewitches made primrose oinment and infusions for "women's troubles" (menstrual cramps) and "melancholy" (depression), while oil of primrose, rubbed on the eyelids, strengthened the ability to see faeries. Primrose wine was a courting gift, proclaiming the giver's constancy -- though by Victorian times, in the Language of Flowers, primroses symbolized the opposite, so a gift of them demonstrated how little you trusted a fickle lover's fine words.

Primrose Faery by Brian Froud

Primroses

"Flowers lure us into the present moment by the miracle of their beauty," writes Judith Berger (in Herbal Rituals, a lovely book about medicine plants through the four seasons).  "Watching and waiting for a particular plant to bloom gives birth to patience within us. We slow our rhythm down in order to fully experience the process of flowering; expectancy and excitement deepen hand in hand with our patience. As we observe, we come to see that the full unfolding of the flower petals is the culmination of an unhurried dance in which the flower senses and responds, moment by moment, to the environmental conditions which surround and penetrate it. These conditions include termperature, moisture, light, and shadow, as well as the more subtle influences of sound vibrations, heartful care, and respect.

"In Buddhist poetry, there is a verse which reads: 'I entrust myself to the earth, the earth entrusts herself to me.' To entrust is to place something in another's hands with the confidence that what has been given will be cared for."

VioletOn this cold wet day, after a long hard winter, I entrust myself to the woodland's flowers. Bluebell, primrose, stitchwort, pink campion: they're all emerging now despite the weather, bursts of color and joy in the rain-soaked hills. They are not waiting for a "perfect" day to bloom, and neither must I await the "perfect" time to write, or paint, or to pick up the reins of daily life once more. Recovery from a long illness is not like stepping through the door into bright sun; there is no clear line between "sick" and "well," only the deep, invisible processes of healing, slowly unfolding day by day. To wait for strength, ease and "perfect" pain-free hours is to wait for life to begin instead of living.

This is life. This is spring. Cold, wet, and grey...but full of wildflowers.

Woodland daffodils & other wildflowers

Dog & wildflowers 2

Dog & wildflowers 2Words: The passages quoted above are from Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce (Doubleday, 2012; winner of the 2013 Robert Holdstock Award), and Herbals Rituals by Judith Berger (St. Martin's Press, 1998).  Pictures: "Bluebell Faery," "Harebell Faery," and "Primrose Faery" by Brian Froud, from Faeries by Brian Froud & Alan Lee (Abrams, 1978). All rights reserved by the authors & artist.


"Into the Woods" series, 55: Troll Maidens and the magic of bridges

Troll Maiden by Brian Froud

"Troll women are the wise and wonderful beings of this world," writes Wendy Froud, a neighbor and good friend of mine who is something of an authority on trolls, for she and her husband Brian (whose paintings & drawings you see here) have spent many years exploring the folk- and faery-lore of Dartmoor.

"Troll women are the wise and wonderful beings of this world," Wendy continues. "They are strong and intelligent, steadfast and canny. They can be extremely kind or terribly cruel -- and sometimes they can be both. Troll women are born knowing the pathways over and beneath the hills, the ways in and out of the Otherworld. They can be guides and wise women, witches and warrior women. They are the holders of dreams and keepers of hearth and home. Usually.

"Every once in a while, every once in a great while, a troll woman is born in the shape of a human or almost a human with only a small tail or small branches growing from her back to mark her The Troll Bride by Brian Froudtrollness. When humans see these lovely human-shaped troll women, they wonder at their beauty, delight in their strangeness, and sometimes fall in love with them. When trolls look at these human-shaped troll maidens, they see sorrow and a passing and a life lived flitting on the borders between the worlds. These lovely human troll women do not live long troll lives. They live to what humans may think to be an extremely old age, but for a troll it is but the blink of an eye.

"The trolls rejoice and grieve for these fleeting creatures, who are neither one thing or the other. As they delight in watching a butterfly flutter in the air or a bee dance above a flower, the trolls delight in caring for and watching over these delicate, humanlike creatures. Trolls guard them and guide them and nurture them as much as possible, knowing as they do that troll maidens will soon fade away, perhaps taken to live as human wives in the border regions of the world or perhaps to spend short lives dancing on the hills or haunting the bridges and stepping-stones of streams and rivers that flow between the two worlds.

Clapper Bridge near Stiniel

Photograph of Terri Windling by Ellen Kushner"The humanlike troll maidens are drawn to bridges and spend much time sitting or standing on a bridge if there is one close to where they dwell. Bridges are places of transition. They span a stream or a river but also the air itself. When a troll maiden sits on a bridge, she is in a place particularly suited to her own state of being -- a link between the worlds. Water rushes under a bridge, flowing away to unknown places, speeding by even faster than a troll maiden's time in the world, and when she sits still with her feet above the flowing water, she can feel still and safe, serene and eternal.

"Bridges have always been associated with trolls," Wendy adds, "such as the story of the three billy goats and the troll under the bridge -- a very bad troll indeed. But not all trolls associated with bridges are bad. Trolls, with their empathy toward stone, are naturally drawn to stone bridges, where they, for the most part, become a part of the bridge itself, supporting the structure and making it safe for those who cross it. A bridge will often have a resident troll tucked away under its arch, lending strength to the structure. Of course there are exceptions, and those are the ones who have given trolls such a bad name.

Old stone bridge near Chagford

Bridge Troll by Brian Froud"Lurkers -- there is no other word for them -- trolls who lurk, like lurking under bridges more than anywhere else. A lurking troll is usually a dimwitted troll, a greedy troll, a troll with nothing better to do. Some trolls are so enthusiastic about bridges that they make a hat in the shape of their favorite bridge and wear it to troll gatherings. These are quite warm and snug and a very popular in winter.

"Other trolls will carry large, flat stones that can be used as 'clapper bridges' -- placed across a stream or river -- wherever they are needed. The trolls tend to leave them behind when they move on, and that is why there are so many examples of clapper bridges on the moor today.

"Sometimes those trolls who are perceived as bad are merely guarding troll maidens while they linger on a bridge," Wendy concludes, "for protecting these delicate creatures is the duty of all trolls."

Troll Maiden with protectors by Brian Froud

The Truth About Bridges by Brian & Wendy Froud

There are three basic types of historic bridges on Dartmoor: stone bridges, wooden bridges (called clams) and clapper bridges (made of large granite slabs). The word "clapper" is believed to have dervived from an old Anglo Saxon word cleac, mean a stepping stone.

There are roughly two-hundred clapper bridges on the moor, of which Postbridge Clapper is one of the largest and best known. "Postbridge Clapper, in one form or another, has stood here for centuries," writes Tim Sandles. "The term ‘clapper bridge’ is a term used on Dartmoor for a bridge which has one or more flat slabs of stones which rest on stone piers and thus spans a river or stream. The Dartmoor term for the slabs are ‘posts’ which is how [the hamlet of] Postbridge acquired its name. It is possible that the bridge dates back as early as the 1300s, as by this time many of the nearby moorland farms had been established. The earliest documented record of the bridge is from a newtake lease of 1655 where it states: 'scituate lyinge and beinge between postbridge and a nutake of on Richard Leeres.'"

Clapper bridge at Postbridge

Clapper bridge at Postbridge

Postbridge, Dartmoor

A little farther up the road is the hamlet of Two Bridges, where a medieval bridge sits just a stone's throw from the Prince Edward Bridge, built in 1931. It is commonly believed that the hamlet takes its name from these two bridges sitting so close together, but as Tim Sandles explains: "The first documented record of the place-name Two Bridges was in 1573 when it appeared in a court roll as Tobrygge. This has been taken to mean ‘at the bridge,’ as the word ‘to’ is a Devonshire term for 'at,' as in 'Where’s ee to?'"

Two Bridges, Dartmoor

Legends surround most of the bridges on the moor, which are focal points not only for the local trolls but also witch hares, whist hounds, will-o-the-wisps and piskies up to their usual mischief. At Two Bridges (above), two disembodied Hairy Hands are said to force travellers off the road: grabbing at the reins of horses in centuries past, and at car steering wheels today. Fingle Bridge near Drewsteignton (below) is also an uncanny spot, for on certain nights when the moon is full it is the site of wild Faerie revels. Humans who stumble unwittingly on these rites vanish forever.

Fingle Bridge, Drewsteignton

The bridge over the River Dart at Holne is also best avoided by night, for undines dwell in the water underneath. These creatures steal mortal men who take their fancy, and drown those who earn their displeasure. South Down Bridge near Tavistock, by contrast, is a place of good fortune, white magic, and luck. This bridge belongs to the Queen of Faerie, who fashioned it out of waterdrops from a rainbow arched over a stream. The clapper bridge at the Wallabrook (below) is haunted by the ghost of a Dartmoor tin miner -- a sad rather than frightening apparition who merely wants to go home to Chagford. He's been haunting the spot since medieval times, for he cannot cross running water.

Clapper Bridge near Scorhill

With or without a supernatural attendent, bridges themselves carry a magic of their own.

"When we stand on a bridge," says Brian Froud, "we stand neither on land nor water; we stand in a symbolic space. Faerieland is always approached in places or moments where opposites are in balance. Edges, borders, boundaries of all kinds are where we encounter the faery realm, where land and water meet, where forests begin, and in twlight when the dark meets the light."

Earth and Water by Brian Froud

The clapper bridge near Scorhill

Trolls by Brian & Wendy FroudThe text by Wendy Froud, and the art by Brian Froud, is from their delightful book Trolls (Abrams, 2012), which I highly recommend. The two quotes by Tim Staples are from the Legendary Dartmoor site. The photographs of Dartmoor bridges are mine -- except for the one of me sitting on a clapper bridge near Stiniel, taken by Ellen Kushner. That's Howard & Tilly in the last two photos, on the Wallabrook Clapper near Scorhill Stone Circle last spring.


The law of the living Earth

Kissed by a Fox by Priscilla Stuckey

Lasts week's posts on the "nature mysticism" to be found in the works of Elizabeth Goudge reminded me of the following passage from Priscilla Stuckey's fine book, Kissed by a Fox -- for although Goudge wrote from a distinctly Anglican perspective, while Stuckey draws on a very wide range of world religions and philosophies, both share a love of the earth, a delight in the numinous, and an unsentimental belief in the good in human nature.

The passage begins with a quote from the 13th century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi:

Fox drawing by Inga Moore   The speech of water, the speech of earth, and the speech of mud
   Are heard by those who listen with the heart.*

"Rumi," notes Stuckey, " is often taken to mean that only mystics can hear the earth speak -- and that mystics are a strange kind of bird. But to read him that way goes against what Rumi yearned for above all -- for every heart to be struck open by divine longing, for love to pierce every breast.

   What is needed, Rumi said, is to polish the heart like a mirror.
   Do you know why the mirror does not reflect?

   Because the rust is not removed from its surface.*

Ramble 1

"Sufis often call this surface tarnish the 'rust of otherness.' Clean your mirror of all that is not love, Rumi was saying. Remember the radiance that suffuses each heart, and polish your own mirror until you can reflect it clearly. Hearing the speech of Earth may be easy when one is overcome with awe in [pristine wilderness], but it is much harder in the hubbub of the mundane.

Ramble 2

"My friend Annette recently heard the poet Gary Snyder speak. At the end of his reading, she says, a member of the audience asked Snyder how people can be inspired to save the planet. Snyder thought for a moment and said, 'The planet doesn't need us to save it. The planet needs us to save ourselves. If we learned how to be better people, we would be doing good work.' The room full of activist sat in stunned silence, trying to absorb his words. Snyder went on to say, 'The planet, if we notice, takes care of itself. Watch a place for a while. Look at the seasons, the weather, the animals, our own inner rhythms. Walk trails and notice things. We don't have to do a thing.'

Ramble 3

"Becoming better people. It will involve remembering how to listen -- to the land as well as to one another. Relearning the rhythms of give-and-take, in our own bodies as well as our relationships with others. Remembering the radically communitarian nature of life on Earth, which means remembering how to share. 

Ramble 4

"For however great is the divide between the very rich and the rest of this country, the gap between the industrialized nations and the rest of the world is far, far greater. The statistic is well known: less than 20% of the world's people are now consuming more than 80% of the world's resources. Anishinaabe leader Winona LaDuke says we cannot continue to use more than our share and expect to be sustainable. 'You can't do that and live in accordance with natural law. That is simple logic. Most of our teachings say that.'

"We don't need to save the planet, but we are in desperate need of saving ourselves.

Ramble 5

"Will we learn to build an Earth-friendly culture before it is too late? Plenty of other people have done so, and their varied experiences offer some guidelines to what works. They value reciprocity and fairness, and they build interdependence into their systems of exchange. They teach their children to respect others, both human and other than human. They minimize inequality among themselves, for the alternative is costly in terms of damaged health and human relationships. They observe nature closely, seeking to pattern their relationships on those of the more-than-human world. They listen to the voices of the animals and plants, clouds, fish, soil, and wind, for these are relatives whose choices, along with those of humans, are in every moment creating the world.

Ramble 7

"They remind themselves continually that the only way to survive and live well is to fit into the processes of the place called home -- to dwell in symbiotic relationship with the land, using the gifts of Earth sparingly and taking only what is needed to live. They honor individuality among humans as part of the ongoing creative work of nature. They treasure the individuality of their place and work to preserve its unique personality, eating native foods and building homes with nearby materials. They use local resources, yes, but first of all they love those resources as relatives.

Ramble 6

"They consider themselves guests on the planet rather than owners, and so they value a mind-set of gratitude and wonder. They accept death as well as life. They shower children with love and support. They practice caring for one another and the wider land-community because love is the surest route to flourishing -- and the more enjoyable way to live. They reward giving as well as taking.

"For what is gathered in must be given out. What is at one time collected, another time must be dispersed. Breathed in, breathed out. This is the law of the ground, the law of the living Earth. "

Ramble 8

Ramble

* The first Rumi couplet was translated by Richard Holtz & Frederick Denny (quoted in Kissed by a Fox); the second Rumi translation is from Mohammed Ruston's "The Metaphysics of the Heart in the Sufi Doctrine of Rumi" (Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses, no. 3, 2008: 4). The  passage by Priscilla Stuckey above is from Kissed by a Fox & Other Stories of Friendship in Nature (Counterpoint, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from No Nature: New & Collected Poems by Gary Snyder (Pantheon, 1992). The little fox drawing is by Inga Moore. All rights reserved by the authors & artist.

 Pictures: The first photo is mine: "Coffeebreak by a stream, with wild daffodils."  The rest of the photographs were taken by husband Howard on one of his long "medicine walks" through the hills with Tilly.


Writing for Charity

Writing for Charity

Disgusted that the UK government has voted against helping refugee children? Turn your anger into aid by supporting the Writing For Charity auction, where you can bid on signed books, rare books, manuscript critiques & editorial services, dates with famous authors and all kinds of other bookish, writerly, & illustrative things...

Such as naming a character in a Bordertown story by me & Ellen Kushner. Or giving the wee Devon Bunny Girls below a good home.

Please bid if you can. Or, if the size of your wallet doesn't equal the size of your heart, you can still pitch in by helping us to spread the news.

Go here for the auction. Go here for the bunnies' page. And go here for the Bordertown page. 

Bunny Troupe by Terri Windling


From the archives: Mud and the Muse

6a00e54fcf738588340176155c3993970c

When you follow your dog...

Mud 2

...into a wildflower bog...

Mud 3

...there's no help for it, you're going to get wet, muddy, and stinky.

Mud 4

But you learn to be agile in the mud and muck...

Mud 5

...and to find new ways to get where you want to go...

Mud 6

...and you discover things that you would have otherwise missed...

Mud 7

...like this lovely water garden at the end of the leat.

Mud 8

Following the Muse is like that too. Sometimes, in the middle of a story or a painting, you find yourself wallowing through the sticky, boggy bits...

Mud 9

...and you just have to keep on going, no matter where it leads.

But I'm ready for the journey. I'm wearing sturdy boots, and I'm prepared to get muddy. So let's go.

Mud 10

Mud 11Words: The poem in the picture captions is from Territories: Writing from Innu Assi, Québec and Scotland (Edinburgh International Book Festival/Scottish Poetry Library); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: A leat, a bog, and a wet, stinky dog.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

West Highlands

We're back to Scotland for this week's music, starting with two traditional Anglo-Scots ballads from the Glasgow band Top Floor Taivers: Claire Hastings (voice & ukulele), Tina Jordan Rees (piano), Gráinne Brady (fiddle), and Heather Downie (voice & clarsach). The band has one lovely EP out so far, The Top Floor Taivers; and Claire Hastings' first album out, From the River to the Railroad, will be released later this week.

Above, a performance of "Captain Ward," filmed in  Glasgow in January.

Below, a performance of "The Rocks o' Gibralter," from the same filming session.

The West Highlands of Scotland

Next, two traditional Gaelic ballads from Dàimh (pronounced dive), based in the West Highlands. The band, whose name means "kinship" in Gaelic, consists of Angus MacKenzie (pipes and whistle), Ellen MacDonald (voice), Gabe McVarish (fiddle), Murdo Cameron (mandola, mandolin, and accordion), and Ross Martin (guitar). Dàimh has five terrific albums out so far, the latest of which is The Hebridean Sessions (2015).

Above, "Cuir A-nall," performed at Celtic Connections in Glasgow in January.

Below, "Dhannsamaid le Ailean," another performance from Celtic connections.

These two are for Stuart Hill, who loves a good piper...and Angus MacKenzie is very good indeed.

Glencoe Mountains, West Highlands


In a Devon Wood

In a Devon Wood

Faeries of the Wood by Alan Lee

Woodland Sentinel

Stitchwort on the Woodland Floor

Faery Queen by Alan Lee
  The Elves

    by Denise Levertov

    Elves are no smaller
    than men, and walk
    as men do, in this world,
    but with more grace than most,
    and are not immortal.

    Their beauty sets them aside
    from other men and from women
    unless a woman has that cold fire in her
    called poet: with that

    she may see them and by its light
    they know her and are not afraid
    and silver tongues of love
    flicker between them.

Faery Knight by Alan Lee

Woodland Dreaming

The First Blueblls

Faerie Court by Alan Lee

Woodland Writer & Hound

Roverandom by Alan LeeThe poem above is from Poems of Denise Levertov: 1960-1967 (New Directions, 1983); the poem in the picture captions is from The Journal of Mythic Arts (2006); the exquisite pencil drawings are by my friend & neighbor Alan Lee, who first introduced me to the Devon woods. All rights reserved by the authors & artist.


The magic of moor and hill

Nattadon Hill 1

"I think that in my heart I have always believed in fairies," writes Elizabeth Goudge in her autobiography, The Joy of Snow; "not fairies as seen in the picture books but nature spirits whose life is part of the wind and the flowers and the trees. Born in the West Country, and returning to it in middle life, how could I do anything else? But alas, I have never seen them.

"William Blake saw fairies, but he was a unique person, and so was a Dartmoor friend of mine who used to see them, and how I envied her! But if I did not see them I could feel how magic ran in the earth and branched in one's veins when one sat down. The stories that some of my Dartmoor friends told me would be laughed at by most people, but they were sensible persons and they did not laugh. I think that probably the one among my friends who experienced most was the one who said the least about it, Adelaide Phillpotts, Eden Phillpotts' daughter. She lived for years upon the moor and she loved it so deeply that she was not afraid to spend whole nights alone on the tors; but she is a mystic and mystics seem always unafraid. Her book The Lodestar is full of the wild spirit of the moor.

Faery King & Queen by Alan Lee

Nattadon Hill 2

Cowslip faery by Brian Froud"The friend who saw fairies, when she first went to live in her cottage on the moor, was visited early in the morning by a little old woman, wearing a bonnet, who walked quietly into the kitchen where she was preparing breakfast. Friendly and smiling the old woman refused breakfast but sat down to chat. She wanted to know exactly what my friend intended to do in the garden. What flowers would she have? What vegetables? She had very bright eyes and nodded her head in approval as they talked. She seemed a happy old woman, very much at home in the kitchen, but when my friend turned away for a moment she found on looking around again that her visitor had left her. She was never seen again and when the neighbors were questioned they denied ever having seen such an old woman in the village.

Nattadon Hill 3

"Another friend was driving back to her home on the moor one summer evening when she found herself in the most beautiful wood. She had no sense of strangeness but drove through it entranced by the loveliness of the evening light shining through the trees. Coming out of the wood she found herself at home, put the car away and went about the normal business of the evening, and only gradually did she remember that her road home lay through an open stretch of moorland. There was no wood there; not now. The next day she went to see an old man who had lived all his life on the moor and told him what had happened. He nodded his head. 'I know the wood, ma'am,' he told her. 'I've been there myself. But only once. You'll not see it again. It's only once in a lifetime.' "

Fairy Folk by Arthur Rackham

Nattadon Hill 4

Although Goudge never saw fairies herself, she did have a mystical experience in Devon:

"My mother and I had a cottage in an apple orchard at the edge of a village," she explains, "and behind the cottage, between the orchard and the village, there was  a steep hill. To the right, Dartmoor was visible, but otherwise the place was a little valley in the hills that had a magic of its own. There were a few other small dwellings besides our own, an old house behind a high wall, a farm and some cottages, and so strictly speaking the place was not a lonely one, and yet, because of its particular magic, it was. Especially in the early morning and especially after a snow-fall. There is something very lonely about a deep snow-fall and Devon snow, because the average rainfall is high, is almost always deep. One is walled in and cut off. The world seems very far away and the heart rejoices.

Nattadon Hill 5

"In spring, in Devon, there is often a sudden late snow-fall taking one entirely by surprise. I remember once seeing irises and tulips with their bright heads lifted above a deep counterpane of snow, and boughs of apple blossoms sprinkled with sparkling silver. But the snowfall [on this occasion] was earlier in the year. There were only the low-growing flowers in bloom in the garden and they were all buried out of sight. There had been no wind in the night, no suggestion that the last snow of the year was falling, and when I drew the curtains early in the morning I was astonished to see the white world. And what a world! I had never seen a snow-fall so beautiful and I was out in the garden at the first possible moment. The snowclouds had dropped their whole treasure in the night and were gone. The huge empty sky was deep blue, the air sparkling and clear. The sun was rising and the tree shadows lay blue across the sparkling whiteness. The whole world was pure blue and white and it seemed that the sun had lit every crystal to a point of fire. There was a silence so absolute it seemed a living presence. And then came the singing.

Nattadon Hill 6

And a Fairy Song by Arthur Rackham

Nattadon Hill 7

"It was a solo voice, ringing out joy and praise. One would have said it was a woman's voice, only could any woman sing like that, with such simplicity and beauty? It lasted for some minutes, and then ceased, and the deep silence came back once more.

"I stayed where I was, as rooted in the snow as the trees, but there was no return of the singing and so I went back to the cottage and mechanically began the first task of the day, raking out the ashes of the dead fire and lighting a new one. The light of the flames helped me to think. None of us, in the little group of dwellings in the valley had a voice much above a sparrow's chirp. No one in the village that I knew had a voice like that. It was war-time and visitors from the outside world seldom came. Even if by some extraordinary chance some great singer had descended upon us, what would she be doing struggling down the steep lane from the village in deep snow at this hour of a cold morning? And wouldn't I have seen her? I could see both lanes from the little terrace outside the cottage and had seen no one. There were only two explanations. Either I was mad or I had heard a seraph singing. Later when I took my mother her breakfast I told her of the singing. She looked at me and, as usual, made no comment whatsoever.

Nattadon Hill 8

"And so, for some years, I inclined to the former view and told no one else about the singing. And then, one day after the war had ended, a very sensitive and sympathetic cousin came to visit us and told me about a holiday he had had in the wilds of Argyll. He had always wanted, he said, to talk to someone who had heard the singing and at last he come upon an old crofter who could tell him about it. The old man had been alone in the hills when he heard a clear voice, unearthly and very beautiful, singing in the silence. He could see no one, he could distinguish no words in the singing and the song was one he did not know. He tried to hum the air and my cousin tried to write it down, but they neither of them made much of a job of it. 'You never heard it again?' my cousin asked and the old man said, like the old countryman who was in the wood only once, 'No, never again.'

Nattadon Hill 9

The Fairies' Tiff with the Birds by Arthur Rackham

"My cousin told this tale so beautifully that I was too awed and shy to tell him, then, about my own experience. Besides, the great paean of praise I had heard in the snow seemed at that moment a little theatrical in comparison with the soft unearthly singing in the hills of Argyll. But, some years later, I did tell him. He was very kind, and he did not doubt my sincerity, but somehow I seemed to see at the back of his mind the figure of a stout opera singer from Covent Garden who had somehow, even in war-time and deep snow, got herself hidden behind the fir trees at the corner of our Devon garden.

'It does not matter. I remember that singing every morning of my life and I greet every sunrise with the memory. The birds, who had been singing so riotously, had been chilled to silence by that snowstorm. I have decided now that she, whoever she was, sang their dawn-song for them."

Nattadon Hill 10

Chagford viewed from Nattadon Hill

Three books by Elizabeth GoudgeWords: The passage by Elizabeth Goudge is from The Joy of Snow: An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974); the poem in the picture captions is from Marrow of Flame by Dorothy Walters (Poetry Chaikhana, 2015); all rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: "King & Queen of the Faery Hill" by Alan Lee, "Cowslip Faery" by Brian Froud, and three fairy pictures by Arthur Rackham. The books in the last photograph are Linnets and Valerians, The Little White Horse, and Island Magic by Elizabeth Goudge; the quilt was made by Karen Meisner. Related posts on Devon folklore: Tales of a Half-Tamed Land, The Wild Hunt, and Following the Hare.


Elizabeth Goudge: A Sense of Otherness

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I'm embarrassed to confess that it's only this year that I've finally read the English author Elizabeth Goudge (1900-1984), whose Little White Horse and Linnets and Valerians are now two of my favorite children's books of all time. (Oh, how I wish I'd read them as a child!)

I'm still making my way through her long list of books for adults, having paused between The White Witch and The Rosemary Tree to read her charming autobiography, The Joy of Snow. A number of her novels are set in Devon, so I shouldn't have been surprised to discover that she'd lived not far from here for a time -- in Marldon, on the other side of the moor. Close by Compton Castle, the inspiration for Moonacre Manor in The Little White Horse.

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In her autobiography, Goudge describes Devon in the 1940s as "an unearthly place. The round green hills where the sheep grazed, the wooded valleys and the lanes full of wildflowers, the farms and apple orchards were all full of magic, and the birds sang in that long-ago Devon as I have never heard them singing anywhere else in the world; in the spring we used to say it sounded as though the earth itself was singing.

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"The villages folded in the hills still had their white witches with their ancient wisdom," she recalls, "and even black witches were not unknown. I have never had dealings with a witch either black or white, though Francis, our village chimney-sweep, a most gentle and courteous man, was I think half-way to being a white warlock. He was skillful at protecting his pigs from being overlooked. He placed pails of water on the kitchen floor to drown the Evil Eye and nothing ever went wrong with his pigs before their inevitable and intended end.

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"Black magic is a thing to vile to speak of, but many of the white witches and warlocks were wonderful people, dedicated to their work of healing. I knew the daughter of a Dartmoor white witch and she told how her mother never failed to answer a call for help. Fortified by prayer and a dram of whiskey she would go out on the coldest winter night, carrying her lantern, and tramp for miles across the moor to bring help to someone ill at a lonely farm. And she brought real help. She must have had the true charismatic gift, and perhaps too knowledge of the healing herbs.

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"The father of one of my friends had a white witch in his parish in the valley of the Dart. She was growing old and she came to him one evening and asked if she might teach him her spells before she died. They must always, she said, be handed on secretly from woman to man, or from man to woman, never to a member of the witch's or warlock's own sex. 'And you, sir,' she told him, 'are the best man I know. It is to you I want to give my knowledge.' 

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"Patiently he tried to explain why it is best that an Anglican priest should not also be a warlock, but it was hard for her to understand. 'But they are good spells,' she kept telling him. 'I know they are,' he said, 'but I cannot use them.' She was convinced at last but she went away weeping."

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In her lovely essay "Elizabeth Goudge: Glimpsing the Liminal," Kari Sperring notes:

"The most overtly magical of Goudge’s adult books is probably The White Witch, which is set against the early years of the English Civil War. The protagonist Froniga is, as the title suggests, a working witch, the daughter of a settled father and a Romani mother, and she possesses both the power to heal and the power to see the future. Yet while both are important to the plot, the book is not about her powers, but about her selfhood and character and her effect on those around her. A lesser writer would probably have taken this theme in the direction of witch trials and melodrama. Goudge uses it to examine the effects of divided politics on families and communities and the ways in which our beliefs affect others outside ourselves.

"Her characters do bad things, sometimes, and those have consequences, but she rarely writes bad people -- I can think of only one, the greedy and self-obsessed school-owner Mrs. Belling in The Rosemary Tree. Goudge was concerned not with judging others but with understanding them with compassion. In her case, that compassion is linked to her sense of otherness -- the most profound experiences of liminality her characters experience are often when they are most concerned with others than themselves."

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The Joys of Snow by Elizabeth GoudgeThe passage by Elizabeth Goudge is from The Joy of Snow: An Autobiography (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974). The passage by Kari Sperring is from "Elizabeth Goudge: Glimpsing the Liminal" (Strange Horizons, February 22, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from Poems of Denise Levertov: 1960-1967 (New Directions, 1983). All rights reserved by the authors or their estate. A related post (discussing white or healing magic): In the Story Made of Dawn: on magic and magicians.


From the archives: What Makes a Good Writing Day?

Dylan Thomas' Boathouse in Laughame, Wales

Inside Dylan Thomas' BoathouseDylan Thomas' writing hut, The Boathouse, in Laugharne, Wales

As I dig into my writing schedule again, this post (from April 2014) seems worth re-visit. My own answer to the question above is simple: Any day that I am strong enough to make it up the hill to my studio is a good writing day. My creative needs have been pared to the bone after a month of infirmity. Give me health, time, and my sweet dog beside me, and I'm ready to go.

Tracy Chevalier:

"A good day? I get up, I wake my teenage son up, we have breakfast, and he leaves at 8. That’s the cue for me to go to my office. My writing life has shifted slightly over the years, but what works best for me now is if I start writing immediately. I’ll check my email to make sure there’s nothing I need to deal with right away, then I read what I’ve written the day before. That jolts me into continuing. Ideally, the day before I’ve left a little bit left in the tank, so to speak. Not like Graham Greene — he used to write 500 words a day, and if the 500th word was in the middle of a sentence, he’d stop. I’m not that bad, but what’s really useful is to have a little left that you haven’t quite gotten down on paper. Then I can use that in the morning to get started. A lot of times, if the writing goes well, I’ll be done by 10. Sometimes I’m still working at 6. It depends on what I come up against."

Robert Stephen Hawker's hut, Morwenstow< Cornwall

The view from Hawker's hutHawker's Hut, built by poet Rpbert Stephen Hawker (1803-1875) near Morwenstow, Cornwall.

James MacBride:

"I get up around 4:30 or 5 at the latest. I usually go until I get tired, until about 9 or 10. Then I quit and monkey around. That monkeying around could be anything: research, working out, paying bills, flossing my teeth…I have a whole array of delaying behaviors that usually don’t kick in until 9 or 10. At 5 in the morning I’m too sleepy to do anything but try to think about what I was last working on. My mind is clearer. Through the day sometimes I’ll practice music. I push through the day, get my son to school. Then after dinner, 7 or 8, I’ll have a go at writing again, if I’m really deep into it.

"I can write anywhere. I was on the train this morning writing. I usually write the first few pages longhand. I used to write a lot longhand. I still write my first 20-30 pages longhand. Then I move to the computer, or I’ll type it — I still use a typewriter, too. I used to use a typewriter a lot more. I needed it early in my career. The computer makes you rewrite and just hit the 'insert' key. The insert key is deadly for a writer. You really have to push forward, know you’re going to discard and rewrite everything. Man, I rewrite everything. Even emails I rewrite."

Robert Duncan's writing hut

Inside Robert Duncan's writing hutA writer's hut built by poet Robert Duncan (1919-1988), also near Morwenstow. I seriously covet this one.

Emma Donohue:

"A day like today started around 4 in the morning, because often my kids wake me by yowling in their sleep. Then I’m bolt upright, wide awake, so I figure I might as well use that time in the middle of the night, so I hop up and do a bit of work. More typically I would get the kids off to school around 8:30, then I rush to my computer. I wish that what followed was actual writing. That would be bliss. But I admit that I first make my way through a fast-growing undergrowth of business....

"I know you’re supposed to do the writing first and leave the administrative stuff for later in the day, but I can’t see my way clear to do the writing until I’ve answered those wretched new emails. When I think back to when I had infinite time to write, before we had kids, I don’t think I did my best writing first thing in the morning. I need to warm up. Maybe in fact, by devoting the first hour of the day to silly business, I’m saving the better creative time for later. But sometimes the 'business' takes all day; I look up and it’s already 4, and I have to rush off to the bus stop to pick up the children."

Louise Erdrich:

"I don’t like getting up early, but I do because of school — driving my daughter to school is a good thing about my day. When I get back, either I walk/run our dog or go straight upstairs and sit down in the same chair I’ve had since 1981 — just the right arm height for a board to lay across and then I can sit there and write. A friend upholsters this chair every fifth year, and it is currently covered in red mohair velvet. My cousin’s quilt drapes the back of the chair. I am sort of obsessive about having things around me from my family — these objects pop up in the books."

George Bernard Shaw's rotating writing hut in Hertfordshire

Inside George Bernard Shaw's writing hutGeorge Bernard Shaw's writing shed in Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire. It rotated to catch the best sunlight.

Jane Goodall:

"The only time I have for writing is when I’m back home in England, in the house I grew up in, where all my things are, my books. Many times, I’ve got to try to get a lot of writing done in just, maybe, five days. That means setting the alarm for five o’clock. Desperately writing until breakfast, going back to write again. Always taking an hour off to spend with the dog. And in the evening I spend time with my sister — we own the house together and she lives in it with her family. Then I sometimes have to go back and write late into the night. It’s a very stressful way to write, high and edgy."

Mia Jian:

"Flora and I have four young children, so I write late into the night — the only time our home is silent. At three in the morning, I usually collapse on the narrow bed in my study, but am often woken a couple of hours later by one or both of our 3-year-old twins, who like to waddle down from their room and climb on top of me. At 8, I make pancakes for the children, then sleep again until 11. This is when the day really begins. I make myself a cup of tea, sit at my desk, phone my friends in Beijing, read for a while, then start thinking about what I am going to write."

Virginia Woolf's writing shed at Monks House in Sussex

Inside Virginia Woolf's writing shedVirgina Woolf's writing shed at Monk's House in Rodmell (near Lewes), Sussex

Margaret Atwood:

"I’d be lucky to have a morning routine! But let’s pretend…. I’d get up in the morning, have breakfast, have coffee, then go upstairs to the room where I write. I’d sit down and probably start transcribing from what I’d [hand]written the day before.... I don’t think there’s anything too unusual about [my study], except that it’s full of books and has two desks. On one desk there’s a computer that is not connected to the internet. On the other desk is a computer that is connected to the internet. You can see the point of that!"

Lev Grossman:

"I can’t write every day. I’m a binger. I like to go six or seven hours at a time, without a break, then go off somewhere and drink something."

Vita Sackville-West's writing tower at Sissinghurst Castle

Inside Vita Sackville-West's writing towerVita Sackville-West's writing tower at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent

Nicholson Baker:

"When I’m rewriting, and it’s progressing, I begin breathing audibly through my nose. I like to proofread in noisy restaurants, with my glasses off, staring close at the type. I love the feeling of sealing up a FedEx envelope — that soft, cool fibrous Tyvek bending around the corner of a block of page proofs — and sending it off. Lately, working on Traveling Sprinkler, I’ve been writing in the car, so what I see is whatever is out the windshield — usually leaves, other cars, fireflies. The dashboard is the desk, complete with coffee stains."

Roald Dahl's writing hut

Inside Roald Dahl's writing hutRoald Dahl's writing hut at Gipsy House in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire

Khaled Hosseini:

"I find that writing a first draft is very difficult and laborious. It is also often quite disappointing. It hardly ever turns out to be what I thought it was, and it usually falls quite short of the ideal I held in my mind when I began writing it. I love to rewrite, however. A first draft is really just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance and color. Writing for me is largely about rewriting. It is during this process that I discover hidden meanings, connections, and possibilities that I missed the first time around. In rewriting, I hope to see the story getting closer to what my original hopes for it were.

"I write while my kids are at school and the house is quiet. I sequester myself in my office with mug of coffee and computer. I can't listen to music when I write, though I have tried. I pace a lot. Keep the shades drawn. I take brief breaks from writing, 2-3 minutes, by strumming badly on a guitar. I try to get 2–3 pages in per day. I write until about 2 p.m. when I go to get my kids, then I switch to Dad mode."

Henry William Williamson's writing hut

Inside Henry William Williamson's writing hutThe writing hut in North Devon where naturalist Henry William Williamson wrote Tarka the Otter.

Karen Russell:

"I try to write 1000 words on a good day, about three pages. The reason for that amount, it feels right to me because most of the scenes I write are 3000-4000 words long. Not always, but on average. That means that I get 3-4 days per scene, which is good, because sometimes I’ll read it and feel — I feel different on different days, so it means I won’t have just one tone per scene. I have several different cracks at it.

"I’ll often be in the middle of writing and realize I don’t know what I’m writing about. For instance, today I’ve been writing a scene about a man who’s grafting apple trees. So I have to stop and look at my notes about grafting. Just now I was thinking, I still don’t really understand this. I need to order a book at the British Library and go and read it tomorrow. That’s what happens as I go. So what I’ll do is write a basic part of the scene, but for the grafting bit…I’ll put down three stars. Three stars in a manuscript for me means there’s something missing, I have to go back and fill it out. I don’t want it to stop my writing flow, but I’ll leave it aside and do the rest of the scene without it, come back and fill it in later. That’s a good interruption. A bad interruption is when I can’t focus and I wind up fiddling around online, having lunch with a friend, or something like that. What I’m aiming for is that concentrated time of focusing."

Michael Pollan's writing cabim in Vermont

Michael Pollan's writing cabin

Inside Michael Pollan's cabinMichael Pollan wrote a book about building this writing hut: A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams.

"I know many writers who try to hit a set word count every day," Russell continues, "but for me, time spent inside a fictional world tends to be a better measure of a productive writing day. I think I’m fairly generative as a writer, I can produce a lot of words, but volume is not the best metric for me. It’s more a question of, did I write for four or five hours of focused time, when I did not leave my desk, didn’t find some distraction to take me out of the world of the story? Was I able to stay put and commit to putting words down on the page, without deciding mid-sentence that it’s more important to check my email, or 'research' some question online, or clean out the science fair projects in the back for my freezer?

"For me, a good writing day is when I can move forward inside a story, because I take so much pleasure in tinkering with sentences that I often have to fight my own impulse to dither and revise in order to keep the momentum of the narrative going. So if I can move in a linear way through the story, and stay zipped inside the story, not jinx myself with despair or frustration or over-confidence or self-consciousness, and be basically okay with not-knowing what is going to happen from one sentence to the next, that’s a great writing day. Writers are such excellent self-saboteurs, though. I swear, I can hijack my own writing day in a hundred ways — I can eject myself from a story because I’ve decided it’s 'going good.' There’s this excruciating aspect of joy, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, where you almost want to interrupt it. For me, the experience of losing myself in a character can feel intolerably wonderful. So I’ve decided that the trick is just to keep after it for several hours, regardless of your own vacillating assessment of how the writing is going....

"Showing up and staying present is a good writing day."

Neil Gaiman's writing Gazebo, spring

Neil Gaiman's writing gazebo. Minnesota

Inside Neil Gaiman's writing gazeboNeil Gaiman's old writing gazebo in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Jodi Picault:

"On a shelf above my computer are five letters that spell out W-R-I-T-E. Just in case I forget why I’m there."

What makes a good writing day for you?

The Bumblehill Studio

The writing side of the Bumblehill StudioThe hillside cabin that is my writing/painting studio. The interior photo shows the writing half of the space.