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August 2017

The shimmer of morning

Nattadon Hill 1

"Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature."  - Vladamir Nabakov

Nattadon Hill 2

"My job as a human being as well as a writer is to feel as thoroughly as possible the experience that I am part of, and then press it a little further. To find out what happens if I ask, 'What else, what next, what more, what deeper, what hidden?' And to keep pressing into that endless realm, in many different ways.''  - Jane Hirshfield

Nattadon Hill 3The Nabokov quote is from Lectures on Literature (Mariner Books, 2002). The Jane Hirshfield quotes above and in the picture captions are from an interview in The Atlantic magazine (September 1997).  The Mary Oliver quote in the picture captions is from "Morning Poem," published in Dreamwork (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


The art's heart's purpose

Conversation by Sophie Ryder

From an interview with David Foster Wallace (1962-2008):

"I've gotten convinced that there's something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn't have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent....Talent's just an instrument. It's like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn't. I'm not saying I'm able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art's heart's purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It's got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.

Sitting by Sophie Ryder

Kneeling Hare by Sophie Ryder

Hugging by Sophie Ryder

"I know this doesn't sound hip at all...But it seems like one of the things really great fiction writers do -- from Carver to Chekhov to Flannery O'Connor, or like the Tolstoy of 'The Death of Ivan Ilych' or the Pynchon of Gravity's Rainbow -- is 'give' the reader something. The reader walks away from the real art heavier than she came into it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can't be for your benefit; it's got to be for hers. What's poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out."

Which is precisely why this kind of work is necessary. Especially here in the mythic arts field.

Bending, Crouching, Kneeling, Standing Figures by Sophie Ryder

The Minotaur and the Hare by Sophie Ryder

Girl Hugging Dog by Sophie Ryder

The marvelous sculptures and drawings today are by English artist Sophie Ryder. Born in London in 1963, she was raised in England and the south of France, studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, and now lives and works in an enchanted hand-crafted farmhouse in the Cotswolds. Ryder's world "is one of mystical creatures, animals and hybrid beings made from sawdust, wet plaster, old machine parts and toys, weld joins and angle grinders, wire 'pancakes,' torn scraps of paper, charcoal sticks and acid baths."

Her hare figures, she says, "started off as upright versions of the hare in full animal form, and now they have developed into half human and half hare. I needed a figure to go with the minotaur -- a human female figure with an animal head. The hare head seemed to work perfectly, the ears simulating a mane of hair. She feels right to me, as if she had always existed in myth and legend, like the minotaur."

Luigi by Sophie Ryder

Wire Dog by Sophie Ryder

Ryder's dogs (whippets crossed with Italian greyhounds) also appear frequently in her work. "I have been breeding these dogs since 1999," she explains, "and since then have achieved the most perfect companions and models -- Elsie, Pedro, Luigi and Storm. Now we are a pack and they are with me twenty-four hours a day. We run, work and sleep together -- although they do have their own beds now! Living cheek-by-jowl with these dogs means that their form is somehow sitting just under my own skin. I can draw or sculpt them entirely from memory. They are my full-time companions so I am never lonely. The relationship between the Lady Hare and the dog is very close, just as is my bond with my own family of dogs."

To see more of Ryder's art, please visit her website; or pick up Jonathan Benington's book Sophie Ryder, published by Lund Humphries (2001). There's an interview with the artist here, and delightful pictures of her farmhouse here.

If you'd like to know more about the folklore of hares and rabbits, go here and here.

Drawings by Sophie Ryder

Sophie Ryder working on Curled Up Number 2

All rights to the art, video, and text above reserved by the artist, filmmaker, and the author's estate. An interesting related article is "David Foster Wallace Was Right: Irony is Ruining Our Culture" by Matt Ashby & Brendon Carroll.


The words that matter

Charles Robinson

“For adults, the world of fantasy books returns to us the great words of power which, in order to be tamed, we have excised from our adult vocabularies. These words are the pornography of innocence, words which adults no longer use with other adults, and so we laugh at them and consign them to the nursery, fear masking as cynicism. These are the words that were forged in the earth, air, fire, and water of human existence, and the words are: Love. Hate. Good. Evil. Courage. Honor. Truth."

 - Jane Yolen (Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood)

Aesops illustrations by Charles Robinson

"Storytelling, like rhetoric, pulls us in through the cognitive mind as much as through the emotions. It answers both our curiosity and our longing for shapely forms: our profound desire to know what happens, and our persistent hope that what happens will somehow make sense. Narrative instructs us in both these hungers and their satisfaction, teaching us to perceive and to relish the arc of moments and the arc of lives. If shapeliness is an illusion, it is one we require -- it shields against arbitrariness and against chaos’s companion, despair. And story, like all the forms of concentration, connects. It brings us to a deepened coherence with the world of others and also within the many levels of the self.''

- Jane Hirshfield (Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry)

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by William Heath Robinson

"Words are intrinsically powerful. And there is magic in that. Words come from nothing into being. They are created in the imagination and given life on the human voice. You know, we used to believe -- and I am talking about all of us, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds -- in the magic of words. The Anglo-Saxon who uttered spells over his field so that the seeds would come out of the ground on the sheer strength of his voice, knew a good deal about language, and he believed absolutely in the efficacy of language. That man's faith -- and may I say, wisdom -- has been lost upon modern man, by and large. It survives in the poets of the world, I suppose, the singers. We do not now know what we can do with words. But as long as there are those among us who try to find out, literature will be secure; literature will be a thing worthy of our highest level of human being."

N. Scott Momaday (Survival This Way: Interviews with American-Indian Poets)

William Heath Robinson

The art today is by brothers Charles Robinson (1870-1937) and William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), who were raised in a family of artists in Finbury Park, north London. 

The Little Mermaid by William Heath Robinson


Handle with care

The Teignbrook


Words
by Anne Sexton

Be careful of words,
even the miraculous ones.
For the miraculous we do our best,
sometimes they swarm like insects
and leave not a sting but a kiss.
They can be as good as fingers.
Julianna SwaneyThey can be as trusty as the rock
you stick your bottom on.
But they can be both daisies and bruises.
Yet I am in love with words.
They are doves falling out of the ceiling.
They are six holy oranges sitting in my lap.
They are the trees, the legs of summer,
and the sun, its passionate face.
Yet often they fail me.
I have so much I want to say,
so many stories, images, proverbs, etc.
But the words aren't good enough,
the wrong ones kiss me.
Sometimes I fly like an eagle
but with the wings of a wren.
But I try to take care
and be gentle to them.
Words and eggs must be handled with care.
Once broken they are impossible
things to repair.

Boat2Sheep at Chagford Show
Pictures: The illustrations are by Julianna Swaney, who finds inspiration in nature, children's stories, fairy tales, and history. Poem: "Words" is from The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). Further thoughts on the power of words are tucked into the picture captions (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artist and the authors. Photographs: By the Wallabrook on Dartmoor.


Letters, words, stories

Drawing by Chris Riddell

''Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds' eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas -- abstract, invisible, gone once they've been spoken -- and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.''

- Neil Gaiman (Fragile Things)

"A story is not like a road to follow...it's more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you."

- Alice Munro (Selected Stories)

"I spent my life folded between the pages of books. In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction."

- Tahereh Mafi (Shatter Me)

Drawing by Chris Riddell

The drawings today are by the great Chris Riddell: illustrator, author, former UK Children's Laureate, and a tireless advocate for the importance of stories and art.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Achill Goat

After last week's discussion of Gaelic place-names, we must surely start the week with some Gaelic songs....

In the documentary series Port, Scottish singer Julie Fowlis teamed up with Irish singer Muireann NicAmhlaoibh to investigate Gaelic music and culture in its variations across the two countries. We listened to songs from the northern islands of Scotland in a previous post. Today, we start with two Port performances filmed in Ireland.

Above: "Dé Domhnaigh/Eleanór na Rún."

Below: "Fill-iù Oro Hù Ò/O Cò Bheir Mi Leam."

The singers are Niamh Farrell (from Ireland) and Linda Macleod (from Scotland), backed up Stephen Markham, Seamie O'Dowd, Fowlis and NicAmhlaoibh.

Pooka

Above: The Gloaming's recording session for "The Pilgrim's Song," based on the Irish-language poems of Seán Ó Riordáin. Iarla Ó Lionáird sings in the sean-nós style (traditionally performed a capella), accompanied by Martin Hayes, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Dennis Cahill, and Thomas Bartlett.

Below: "Aurora," an instrumental piece by the Irish band Beoga. The group is: Damian McKee, Seán Óg Graham, Liam Bradley, Eamon Murray, and Niamh Dunne.

Chimera

The art today is by Ronan Halpin, who studied at the National College of Art & Design in Dublin and the Yale School of Art in America. He now lives and works on Achill Island, off of Ireland's west coast.

The pieces here are: Achill Goat, Pooka, Chimera, and The Old King.

The Old King


The secret luminous place

Dog by Adrian Arleo

I've only time for a short post today, so I'd like to pass on these words by George Saunders (author of Lincoln in the Bardo, etc.):

"There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. Be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf -- seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life. 

"Do all the other things, the ambitious things -- travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) -- but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality -- your soul, if you will -- is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly."  

Amen.

Hand-dog Pull Toy & Blue Dog by Adrian Arleo

Dog With Hands by Adrian Areleo

The art above is by American sculptor Adrian Arleo.


True names

Tilly on Nattadon

Continuing our discussion of the "language of place" with another passage from Robert Macfarlane's fine book Landmarks:

"The extraordinary language of the Outer Hebrides is currently being lost. Gaelic itself is in danger of withering on the tongue: the total number of those speaking or learning to speak Gaelic in Scotland is now around 58,000. Of those, many are understandably less interested in the intricacies of toponymy, or the exactitudes of what the language is capable of regarding landscape. Tim Robinson -- the great writer, mathematician and deep-mapper of the Irish Atlantic seaboard -- notes how with each generation in the west of Ireland 'some of the place-names are forgotten or becoming incomprehensible.' Often in the Outer Hebrides I have been told that younger generations are losing the literacy of the land....

Tilly and the pony

Dartmoor pony

"What is occurring in Gaelic is, broadly, occuring in English too -- and in scores of other languages and dialects. The nuances observed by specialized vocabularies are evaporating from common usage, burnt off by capital, apathay and urbanization. The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units ('field,' 'hill,' valley,' 'wood'). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé about place, in the sense that Georg Simmel used the word in his 1903 essay 'The Metropolis and the Mental Life' -- meaning indifferent to the distinction between things.

"It is not, on the whole, that natural phenomena and entities themselves are disappearing; rather that there are fewer people to name them, and that once they go unnamed they go to some degree unseen. Language deficit leads to attention deficit. As we further deplete our ability to name, describe and figure particular aspects of our places, our competence for understanding and imagining possible relationships with non-human nature is correspondingly depleted. The enthno-linguist K. David Harrison bleakly declares that language death means the loss of 'long-cultivated knowledge that has guided human-environment interaction for millennia...accumulated wisdom and observations of generations of people about the natural world, plants, animals, weather, soil. The loss [is] incalculable, the knowledge almost unrecoverable.' Or as Tim Dee neatly puts it, 'Without a name in our mouths, an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts."

Dartmoor ponies

One question I've been pondering lately is: How can fantasy writers use the metaphorical language of our form to strengthen our relationship to place, and to ameliorate the "language deficit that leads to attention deficit"? How do we re-enchant the land, in art and actuality?

I'm working on some answers to those questions; and when I'm ready, I'll post them here.

 

Dartmoor ponies

Dartmoor ponies

Dartmoor dog

Words: The passage by Robert Macfarlane is quoted f rom Landmarks  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from The Cloud Collector: Poems & Tale in Scots & English by Sheena Blackhall (Lochlands, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly encounters Dartmoor ponies on the hill behind our house.


The mnemonics of words

Scorhill

Following on from last week's discussion of the language of place, this week is devoted to Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane's extraordinary book on the subject:

"Ultra-fine description operates in Hebridean Gaelic place-names," writes Macfarlane, "as well as in descriptive nouns. In the 1990s an English linguist called Richard Cox moved to northern Lewis, taught himself Gaelic, and spent several years retrieving and recording place-names in the Carloway district of Lewis's west coast. Carloway contains thirteen townships and around five hundred people; it is fewer than sixty square miles in area. But Cox's magnificent resulting work, The Gaelic Place-Names of Carloway, Isle of Lewis: Their Structures and Significance (2002), runs to almost five hundred pages and details more than three thousand place-names. Its eleventh section, titled "The Onimasticon,' lists the hundreds of toponyms identifying 'natural features' of the landscape. Unsurprisingly for such a martime culture, there is a proliferation of names for coastal features -- narrows, currents, indentations, projections, ledges, reefs -- often of exceeptional specificity. Beirgh, for instance, a loanword from the Old Norse, refers to ' a promontory or point with a bare, usually vertical rock face and sometimes with a narrow neck to land,' while corran has the sense of 'rounded point,' derived from its common meaning of 'sickle.'

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

"There are more than twenty different terms for eminences and precipices," Macfarlane continues, "depending on the sharpness of the summit and the aspects of the slope. Sìthean, for example, deriving from sìth, 'a fairy hill or mound,' is a knoll or hillock possessing the qualities which were thought to Looking into the Faery Hill by Alan Leeconstitute desirable real estate for fairies -- being well-drained, for instance, with a distinctive rise, and crowned by green grass. Such qualities also fulfilled the requirements for a good sheiling site, and so almost all toponyms including the word sìthean indicates sheiling locations. Characterful personifications of place also abound: A' Ghùig, for instance, means 'the steep slope of a scowling expression.'

"Reading 'The Onomasticon,' you realize that Gaelic speakers of this landscape inhabit a terrain which is, in Proust's phrase, 'magnificently surcharged with names.' For centuries these place-names have spilled their poetry into everyday Hebridean life. They have anthologized local history, anecdote and myth, binding story to place. They have been functional -- operating as territory markers and ownership designators -- and they have also served as navigational aids. Until well into the 20th century, most inhabitants of the Western Isles did not use conventional paper maps, but relied instead on memory maps, learnt on the island and carried in the skull.

A tributary of the Teign

"These memory maps were facilitated by first-hand experience and were also -- as Finlay [MacLeod] put it -- 'lit by the mnemonics of words.' For their users, these place-names were necessary for getting from location to location, and for the purpose of guiding others to where they needed to go. It is for this reason that so many toponyms incorporate what is known in psychology and design as 'affordance' -- the quality of an environment or object that allows an individual to perform an action on, to or with it. So a bealach is a gap in a ridge or cliff which may be walked through, but the element beàrn or beul in a place-name suggests an opening that is unlikely to admit human passage, as in Am Beul Uisg, 'the gap from which the water gushes.'  Blàr a' Chalchain means 'the plain of stepping stones,' while Clach an Line means 'rock of the link,' indicating a place where boats can be safely tied up. To speak out a run of these names is therefore to create a story of travel-- an act of naming that is also an act of wayfinding.

Scorhill

"Angus MacMillan, a Lewisian, remembers being sent by his father seven miles across Brindled Moor to fetch a missing sheep spotted by someone the night before: 'Cùl Leac Ghlas ri taobh Sloc an Fhithich fos cionn Loch na Muilne.' 'Think of it,' writes MacMillan drily, 'as an early form of GPS: the Gaelic Positioning System.' "

Dartmoor sheep

Dartmoor cows

The history and significance of place-names in land-based societies is something that those of us writing mythic fiction would do well to bear in mind -- whether we're working with myth or folktales born from a specific landscape, or creating an imaginary one.

"Invented names are a quite good index of writers' interest in their instrument, language, and ability to place it," says Ursula Le Guin. "To make up a name of a person or place is to open the way to the world of the language the name belongs to. It's a gate to Elsewhere. How do they talk in Elsewhere? How do we find out how they talk?"

Perhaps by knowing the land they walk. Which begins with knowing our own.

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

Words: The passage by Robert Macfarlane is quoted f rom Landmarks  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016). The passage by Ursula K. Le Guin is quoted from her essay "Inventing Languages," in Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie (Picador, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures:. There is a mismatch of words and photographs in this post, I'm afraid, for my own recent journey north took me only to the Isle of Skye and not to the Lewis moor. The photographs above are of our moor, Dartmoor, near Scorhill, a bronze age stone circle. The illustration is "Looking Into the Fairy Hill" by my friend & neighbor Alan Lee. It's from his now-classic book Faeries, with Brian Froud (Abrams, 1978); all rights reserved by the artist