A parliament of owls

Detail from The Falling Star by Catherine Hyde

Studio 1

At this time of year the mornings are dark, so I climb the hill to my studio on a pathway lit by moonlight and stars. I unlock the cabin, light the lamps, and Tilly settles sleepily on the couch. Behind us, the oak and ash of the woods are silhouettes cut out of black paper; below, the village lies in a bowl of darkness, the outline of the moor on its rim. I can hear water in the stream close by, and owls calling from the woodland beyond. The sun rises late, the days are short, and the owls are a regular presence.

In the myths and lore of the West Country, the owl is a messenger from the Underworld, and a symbol of death, initiation, dark wisdom. She is an uncanny bird, a companion to hedgewitches, sorcerers, and the Triple Goddess in her crone aspect. There are owls in the woods all year long, of course, but winter is when I know them best: as I climb through the dark guided by a small torch, and my dog, and the owls' parliament.

Studio 2

In her essay "Owls," Mary Oliver writes of her search for the birds in the woods near her home -- describing her quest, and the passage from winter to spring, in prose that takes my breath away:

The Wild Night Ascending by Catherine Hyde"Finally the earth grows softer, and the buds on the trees swell, and the afternoon becomes a wider room to roam in, as the earth moves back from the south and the light grows stronger. The bluebirds come back, and the robins, and the song sparrows, and great robust flocks of blackbirds, and in the fields blackberry hoops put on a soft plum color, a restitution; the ice on the ponds begins to thunder, and between the slices is seen the strokes of its breaking up, a stutter of dark lightning. And then the winter is over, and again I have not found the great horned owl's nest.

"But the owls themselves are not hard to find, silent and on the wing, with their ear tufts flat against their heads as they fly and their huge wings alternately gliding and flapping as they maneuver through the trees. Athena's owl of wisdom and Merlin's companion, Archimedes, were screech owls surely, not this bird with the glassy gaze, restless on the bough, nothing but blood on its mind.

"When the great horned is in the trees its razor-tipped toes rasp the limb, flakes of bark fall through the air and land on my shoulders while I look up at it and listen to the heavy, crisp, breathy snapping of its hooked beak. The screech owl I can imagine on my wrist, also the delicate saw-whet that flies like a big soft moth down by Great Pond. And I can imagine sitting quietly before that luminous wanderer the snowy owl, and learning, from the white gleam of its feathers, something about the Arctic. But the great horned I can't imagine in any such proximity -- if one of those should touch me, it would be the center of my life, and I must fall. They are the pure wild hunters of our world. They are swift and merciless upon the backs of rabbits, mice, voles, snakes, even skunks, even cats sitting in dusky yards, thinking peaceful thoughts. I have found the headless bodies of rabbits and bluejays, and known it was the great horned owl that did them in, taking the head only, for the owl has an insatiable craving for the taste of brains. I have walked with prudent caution down paths at twilight when the dogs were puppies. I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world.

Studio 3

"In the night," writes Oliver, "when the owl is less than exquisitely swift and perfect, the scream of the rabbit is terrible. But the scream of the owl, which is not of pain and hopelessness, and the fear of being plucked out of the world, but of the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer, is more terrible still. When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life -- as, for example, my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I too live. There is only one world."

Studio 4

Sleepy Tilly

Like Oliver, I strive to create and inhabit a "becalmed, intelligent, sunny" life -- fashioned from ink and paint, old storybooks, and rambles through the hills with the hound -- but darkness, mortality, and mystery are the flip side of that coin. I remember this during the winter months, on the dark path up to my studio. I remember it when my body fails and death glides by on a horned owl's wings; it does not come to my wrist, not yet, thank god, but some day it must, and it will. I remember it when the dark daily news intrudes on my studio solitude, demanding response, outrage, activism. I resist the dark. My life has known too much dark and I want no more of it. I'm a creature of dawn...but the nightworld is our world too. There is only one world.

"Most people are afraid of the dark," writes Rebecca Solnit (in a beautiful essay on Virginia Woof). "Literally, when it comes to children; while many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure. And yet the night in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed.

The Soft Hush of Night by Catherine Hyde

"As I began writing this essay," Solnit continues, "I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: 'The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.' His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble. Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness. Gonzalez adds, 'Researchers point out that people tend to take any information as confirmation of their mental models. We are by nature optimists, if optimism means that we believe we see the world as it is. And under the influence of a plan, it’s easy to see what we want to see. It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open.' "

That is indeed our job. So I climb through the dark, and open myself to its beauty, its terrors. And I sit down to write.

The Running of the Deer by Catherine Hyde

The art today is by Catherine Hyde, an extraordinary painter based in Cornwall. Catherine trained at Central School of Art in London, and has been exhibiting her work in galleries in London, Cornwall, and father afield for over thirty years. In 2008 she was asked to interpret Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s fairytale The Princess’ Blankets, which won the English Association’s Best Illustrated Book for Key Stage 2 in 2009. Her second book, Firebird written by Saviour Pirotta,  was awarded an Aesop Accolade by the American Folklore Society in 2010. Her third book, Little Evie in the Wild Wood written by Jackie Morris, is a twist on the Red Riding Hood fairy tale. She both wrote and illustrated The Star Tree, which has been nominated for the 2017 Kate Greenaway Award and shortlisted for the 2017 Cambridgeshire Children’s Picture Book Award. I recommend all four books highly.

Regarding her work process, she says: "I am constantly exploring the places between definable moments: the meeting points between land and water, earth and sky, dusk and dawn in order to capture the landscape in a state of suspension drawing the viewer to the liminal spaces that lie between dream and consciousness.”

Please visit Catherine's website, blog, and online shop to see more of her art.

The Golden Path by Catherine Hyde

The Sleeping Earth by Catherine HydeThe passage by Mary Oliver is from "Owls" (Orion Magazine, 1996). The passage by Rebecca Solnit is from "Virginia Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable"  (The New Yorker, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is from New & Selected Poems by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 1992). All right reserved by the authors. The paintings by Catherine Hyde are: a detail from The Falling Sar, The Wild Night Ascending, The Soft Hush of Night, The Running of the Deer, The Golden Path, and The Sleeping Earth. All rights reserved by the artist.


The tales we tell

Diplomat by Virginia Lee

As I mentioned yesterday, author and scholar Marina Warner has been exploring the importance of Story in the lives of refugees, migrants and other displaced peoples in her timely and valuable cross-border project Stories in Transit. The following passage comes from Dame Warner's "Stories in Transit: Telling the Tale in Times of Conflict":

Life in a Nutshell by Virginia Lee"‘In order to have a story’, comments Lorraine Daston, in order to become historical, ‘one must have listeners, with whom one shares a common language, fellow feeling, and an understanding of the home left behind. All these things are denied the modern exiles. At most, a journalist or a Red Cross official takes down a telegraphic version of the catalogue of horrors suffered: a sound byte, not a story.’ She goes on to ask, ‘What does it take to have a story, a life that makes sense in a senseless world of forced wandering that shatters all continuity? … Even the luckiest exiles, those who are able to settle and prosper in a new land, must face the bitter truth that their native tongue will no longer be spoken gladly by their own grandchildren, that their stories will be increasingly lost in translation’.

"Cultural and literary transmission of myth and story is a process of constant, deep and fruitful metamorphosis, acts of memory against forgetting, acts of bonding against forces of splitting. These metamorphoses take place in dialogue with written texts, but are not constrained by writing: indeed mobile narratives are a dynamic feature of contemporary culture because the internet and digital technologies have opened up a vast arena for varieties of performance, recitation, speech, combining sound, image, voice. The traffic in mobile myths is rising with the strong and omnipresent return of acoustics to communication -- we have entered a hybrid era, in which the oral is no longer placed in opposition to the literate. When Borges commented that he had always imagined Paradise 'will be a kind of library’, it is interesting to remember that the great writer was himself blind for a great part of his life, and he was read to -– books for him were sounded.

Minatour by Virginia Lee

"The United Nations has started to respond to the immaterial needs of displaced peoples -- that cultural heritage -- connectedness and belonging established through memory and imagination, might be a human right has become what is being called the new frontier. Such compass points are formed, often, not by material goods, but by immaterial artefacts: by words spoken, recited, performed, sung, and remembered. They may be preserved in books but they also travel by other ethereal conduits, especially in the age of the internet when they are at one and the same time vigorous and fragile. They may inhere in...things, containers of memories and history. In 2003, Unesco declared protection for intangible cultural heritage, but the dominant implication was that this applied principally to the culture of unlettered peoples -- to orature. This needs adjusting -- highly literate civilisations also flourish through oral -- performed, played -- channels of transmission."

Indeed they do, and this is an important point to be championing.

Three Hares Tor by Virginia Lee

The extraordinary artwork today is by my friend and neighbor Virginia Lee.

Virginia grew up in Chagford, studied Illustration at Kingston University, and worked for a time on The Lord of the Rings trilogy in New Zealand (sculpting architectural statues and merchandise for the films). She has since illustrated several children’s books, including The Frog Bride (a retelling the Russian fairy tale), Persephone: A Journey from Winter to Spring, The Secret History of Mermaids and Hobgoblins. She has also illustrated cards for The Storyworld, a toolkit for the imagination, and The Enchanted Lenormand Oracle. For her personal work, she says: "I use my own visual language to explore themes of transformation and connection to nature, creating realms where deep aspects of the psyche are embodied in folkloric characters and revealed in the mythic landscape."

To see more of her work, visit Virginia's website, blog, and Etsy shop.

Tides of Emotion by Virginia Lee

The passage above is from "Stories in Transit: Telling the Tale in Times of Conflict" (Museo Internazionale delle Marionette G. Pasqualino, Palermo, Italy, January 2016). You can read the full piece online here (pdf). Virginia Lee's images, from top to bottom, are: "The Diplomat," "Life in a Nutshell," "Minotaur," "Three Hares Tor," and "Tides of Emotion." All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Sheep with lamb by Henry Moore

This week, while there's so much talk of walls, borders, and other means of dividing us from each other, physically and metaphorically, I've chosen five songs from the border-crossing Gaelic music tradition here in the British Isles.

Above:  "Arrane Sooree," a Manx Gaelic song performed by Ruth Keggin, a young musician whose aim is to bring Manx music, language, and culture to a wider audience. The song is from her second album Turrys (2016). The video was shot on the Isle of Man.

Below: "Buachaillín Deas Óg Mé," an Irish Gaelic song performed Skipper's Alley, from Dublin. The band released their spirited debut album, Skipper's Alley, in 2014.

Above: "A Ghaoil, Leig Dhachaigh Gum Mhathair Mi," a Scots Gaelic song performed by the extraordinary Julie Fowlis, who grew up in a Gaelic-speaking community on a small island in the Outer Hebrides. She's released numerous solo and collaborative albums; her most recent of the former is Gach Sgeul (2014).

Below: "Gura Mise Tha Fo Mhulad," a Scots Gaelic song performed Rachel Newton, from Glasgow. Newton must be one of the hardest working musicians in the folk music genre, playing with The Furrow Collective, The Emily Portman Trio, The Shee and Boreas as well as with her own band, the Rachel Newton Trio. The song is from her lovely new solo album, Here's My Heart Come Take It.

Henry Moore

And last, below: "Samhradh Samhradh," an Irish Gaelic song beautifully performed by The Gloaming. The group consists of folk music stalwarts Iarla Ó Lionáird (vocals), Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett. Their gorgeous second album, 2, came out earlier this year.

For more border-crossing, try Mary Jane Lamond's "Seinn o," a song that crossed the Atlantic with Scottish immigrants during the Highland Clearances and is now part of the Gaelic music tradition of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.

Sheep by Henry Moore

Sheep drawings by Henry Moore (1898 - 1986)


The language of moving

Goose Girl by Helen Allingham

The new issue of EarthLines (a magazine I highly recommend if you're not already a subscriber) is packed with treasures, including an insightful article on "The Language of Moving" by Alex Klaushofer. This captured my attention not only because I've moved many times myself over the course of my life (sometimes willingly, sometimes not, each move disruptive in its own way), but also because our daughter has recently moved back to Devon after several years of study and work in London -- and even such a relatively simple move, to a place already well-known and loved, has thrown up unexpected challenges, reminding me that there is a mythic quality to the act of pulling up roots and transplanting them. It's never truly simple, not on the practical level and especially not in the deeper, barely-conscious realm of dream, soul, and creative inspiration. 

In "The Language of Moving," Klaushofer's relocation from suburban London to the Cotswolds was one she'd chosen and long desired, yet the difficulty of the transition from one sort of life to another took her by surprise.  Moving, she says, "brought with it an uprooting, a displacing not acknowledged in the dominant discourse, especially not by those of my generation. Social talk about moving tends to focus relentlessly on the positive, with comments on the excitement that a new house and surroundings will bring. Perhaps not surpringly, since they come from a time when life was less atomized, it is older people who seem to understand the rupture involved in changing place.  My eighty-something godmother enquires solicitiously again and again as to how I am feeling: am I settling? Do I feel strange?"

Kentish Cottage by Helen Allingham

In the Spring by Helen Allingham

A little later in the article she comes back to the general absence of societal recognition of just how difficult moving can be:

"I'm coming to think that this absence is part of a broader lack in our language about our relation to place. Standard English has just one word for feelings of longing for a particular place: 'homesick.' The word implies a polarity: you are at home or away, and suggests the simple solution of going home; it carries no sense of the process of adapting to a new place or of mixed or complex feelings. Other languages of the British Isles do much better at capturing the range of feelings and experiences that make up the human attachment to place. Welsh has 'hiraeth,' a word that connotes a yearning for place that is lost or may not exist, a feeling of longing to be 'at home' in the sense of achieving a sense of belonging, of finding your paradise. Its cognate 'cynefin' denotes 'habitat' or 'customary abode'; the place which formed you, and with which you are most familiar. In a definition which encompasses cultural, social and geographical influences, Nicholas Sinclair describes it as 'the place of your birth and upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatized.' The Scottish Gaelic 'dùthchas' conveys the collective nature of a heritage that connects people to a particular place, historically also the tribal system of land rights accorded to the members of a clan. The fact that the Scottish Gaelic equivalent of homesickness, nostalgia or longing for home, cianalas, has given rise to a genre of Gaelic poetry written by emigrees called bàrdachd cianalais is perhaps testament to how a profound sense of rootedness finds linguistic expression."

East End Farm by Helen Allingham

We think of moving as a straightforward proposition: the bags are packed, the house is emptied, the old door is shut and locked one final time, and then we're to the next adventure. Hey ho, here we go! We arrive in our new location: the suitcase is unpacked, the books placed in their new setting, morning coffee is poured into familiar cups but the kitchen window has a brand new view...yet after the relief that the move is finally "over" often comes a sense of...flatness. Of nameless anxiety. Of self-doubt and three-in-the-morning fears Dog and Hens by Helen Allinghamthat the move was a terrible mistake. This is all perfectly normal, we assure our daughter...and I remember friends making similar assurances to me after various uprootings. We don't move from one phase of life to another as easily and clearly as stepping through a door; there is a time of transition, a liminal space between there and here to be moved through as we re-form into the person who is going to live in this new place. The length of time is different for each move, but the one thing I've learned after all these years is that the mythic journey through the threshold of change is shorter, gentler, and less overwhelming if we remain aware of the transitional process, and accept it. Better still, respect it.

The Saucer of Milk by Helen Allingham

Klaushofer notes that we have more words in English for the various aspects of "attachment to place" when it comes to animals, not human beings. Such as this one from sheep husbandry:

" 'Hefting' describes the process by which a ewe learns, traditionally through its mother, to stay in one particular area; once 'hefted,' the hill farmer has no need to confine the flock with fences because it will naturally incline to one pasture.

"The existence of a word for the ovine attachment to place is a reminder that, in its sparsity, our language of place forgets that we too are animals, with a pre-cognitive, non-economic attachment to the places we inhabit. Like the fox I used to see patrolling the streets of south London at the same time and in the same order every day, humans also have their runs and routines, whether built around exercise, dog walking or errands, that reflect their attachement to their habitat. Yet in a post-agricultural society which fosters a belief in our independence from the earth we almost never think in these terms."

Apple Orchard by Helen Allingham

Settled in the Cotswolds, but not yet truly settled, Klausofer writes, "I'm aware that I haven't quite hefted, that I'm in the midst of a transition, the in-between time that goes unacknowledged in the dominant discourse about moving."

Hefted. That's a wonderful word, and one I will remember and use.

For further insights into the art of moving place, I recommend reading Klaushofer's article in full.

Beside Old Church Gate by Helen Allingham

The art today is by Helen Allingham (1848-1926), a Victorian painter, illustrator, and the first woman artist granted full membership in the Royal Watercolour Society. Born in Derbyshire, raised in Birmingham, Allingham was encouraged in art from an early age -- for both her grandmother and her aunt were professional artists, which was still unusual at that time. She studied art at the Birmingham School of Design, at the National Art Training School in London (now the Royal School of Art), and in night classes at the Slade -- where she met fellow illustrator Kate Greenaway, a life-long friend. Over the course of her professional career she illustrated books for both children and adults, and created art for national newspapers and popular magazines.

In 1874 she married the Scottish poet William Allingham (author of The Fairies: "Up the airy mountain/Down the rushy glen,/We daren't go a-hunting/For fear of little men..."). The couple moved from London to Sussex to raise their family, where Allingham fell in love with the rural landscape and began the work for which she is best known: watercolors of women, children, animals, and the country cottages of Sussex, Surrey, and Kent.

Although her work has largely fallen out of favor, castigated for its Victorian sentimentality, her gentle renditions of domestic life are known to have influenced many younger artists, including the young Vincent van Gogh (who found them in English magazines). In preparing this post, and thinking of artists whose work demonstrates a deep love of "place" and "home," Helen Allingham came immediately to mind.

Gathering Flowers by Helen Allingham

Wood Gatherer and Polly by Helen Allingham

Harvest Moon by Helen AllinghamThe passage above by Alex Klaushofer is from "The Language of Moving" (EarthLines: The Culture of Nature, edited by David Knowles & Sharon Blackie, July 2016); all rights reserved by the author. I highly recommend the article, as well as the rest of this excellent issue of EarthLines. A related post: Kith & Kin. A related article: The Folklore of Hearth & Home.


From the archives: Crossing Over

Mermaid in Flight by Fay Ku

In the following passage from Brenda Peterson's Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals, the author is swimming with a dolphin pod on the Florida coast:

" 'Crossover' is a word scientists use to describe dolphins' soaring over seas, their traveling so free and fast, so high-spirited and almost effervescent that their sleek bodies barely skim the waves. The suggestion of splashes from tail and pectoral leaves a luminous wake across the water. For these crossover miles, the dolphins, like their human terrestrial mammal kin, belong more to the element of air than the sea....

"Held in [the dolphins'] fluid embrace, I pulled my arms close against my sides and our communal speed increased... Racing around the lagoon, I opened my eyes again to see nothing but an emerald underwater blur. And then I remembered what I had either forgotten long ago or never quite fully realized. This feeling of being carried along by other animals was familiar.

Art copyright by Juliana Swaney

"Animals had carried me all my life," Peterson continues. "I was a crossover -- carried along in the generous and instructive slipstream of other species. And I had always navigated my life with them in mind, going between the human and animal worlds -- a crossover myself. By including animals in my life I was always engaging with the Other, imagining the animal mind and life. For almost half a century, my bond with animals had shaped my character and revealed the world to me. At every turning point in my life an animal had mirrored or influenced my fate. Mine was not simply a life with other animals, but a life because of animals.

"It had been this way since my beginning, born on a forest lookout station in the High Sierras, surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness and many more animals than humans. Since infancy, the first faces I imprinted, the first faces I ever really loved, were animal."

Fox Confessor by Julie Morstad

If you haven't yet read Brenda's luminous work (which includes fiction, essays, memoirs, and anthologies), please do seek it out. Her website is here, and her blog (on books, nature, seal watching and more) is here.

Hank by Carson Ellis
Words: The post above originally appeared in August, 2012. I'm re-visiting it today in the context of our recent discussions on borders and border-crossing, and also in case newcomers to Myth & Moor are unfamiliar with Brenda's wonderful work. Today's passage comes from her essay collection Build Me an Ark  (W.W. Norton, 2001); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The drawings & paintings above are "Mermaid in Flight" by Fay Ku, "Sky Pack" by Julianna Swaney, "Fox Confessor" by Julie Morstad, and "Hank" by Carson Ellis. Please visit their websites to see more of their art. All rights to the imagery here reserved by the artists.


"Into the Woods" series, 52: Twilight Tales

The Mystic Wood by John William Waterhouse

Between the setting of the sun and the black of night, dusk is a potent, magical time, for in its eerie half-light (according to folklore found around the globe) one can cross the borders dividing our mundane world from supernatural realms.

On the Border Betwixt Wood & Hill

When I was a child, I longed to discover a doorway into Faerieland or a wardrobe leading to Narnia...and I actually attempted to find one, in the twilight hour of a midsummer's eve. I remember it still: sitting huddled in the shadows, escaping the chaos of a troubled home, determined to conjure a portal to a magic realm by sheer force of will. I failed, of course. But like many children hungry for a deeper connection with the spirit-filled unknown, what I couldn't find in New Jersey that night I discovered in the pages of fantasy books...and, later, in the study of folklore and a life-time of wandering the landscape of myth.

The Enchanted Forest by John Anster Fitzgerald

My younger self may have been in the wrong place, but I'd instinctively managed to chose the right time, for twilight, according to British and other folk tales, contains powerful magic.

"Anytime that is 'betwixt and between' or transitional is the faeries' favorite time," says painter and mythographer Brian Froud. "They inhabit transitional spaces: the bottom of the garden, existing in the place The White Deer by Adrienne Segurbetween man-made cultivation and wilderness. Look for them in the space between nurture and nature, they are to be found at all boarders and boundaries, or on the edges of water where it is neither land nor lake, neither path nor pond. They come when we are half-asleep. They come at moments when we least expect them; when our rational mind balances with the fluid irrational."

In myth, it is rarely easy to cross from the human world to the Otherlands, whatever those Otherlands may be: Faerie, Tir-na-nog, the Spirit World, the Underworld and the Realm of the Dead. Gods and guardians of the threshold are the border guards who will either stamp your passport or block your way -- such as Janus, the god of doorways, gateways, passages, beginnings and endings in Roman mythology; or Cardea, with whom he is often paired, the goddess of door-hinges, domestic thresholds, passageways of the body, and liminal states. According to Robert Graves' mad and brilliant book, The White Goddess, Cardea was propitiated at weddings by lighting torches of hawthorne, her sacred tree, for she had the power "to open what is shut; and shut what is open." (She was thus associated with virginity, virginity's end, and, consequently, with childbirth.)

Drinking from the Fairy Springs

Communing with the Guardian of the Spring

A wide variety of guardian figures around the world (gods, faeries, supernatural spirits) regulate passage through mystic thresholds and access to sacred groves, glens, springs and wells.  Some of them guard whole forests and mountains, while others protect individual trees, Brother and Sister by John B. Gruellehills, stones, bridges, crossings, and crossroads. Myth and folklore tells us these guardians can be appeased, tricked, outwitted, even slain -- but usually at a price which is somewhat higher than one wants to pay.

Sometimes it is the land itself preventing casual passage across mythic boundaries. In the Scottish ballad "Thomas the Rhymer," a river of human blood stands between Faerieland and the mortal world, and Thomas must pay the price of seven years servitude to make that crossing. In the German fairy tale "Brother and Sister," an enchanted stream must be crossed three times in the siblings' flight through the deep, dark woods. They are sternly warned not to stop and drink -- but the brother breaks this magical taboo and is transformed into a deer. In other tales, one princess must climb seven iron mountains to reach the land where her love is imprisoned; another must trick the winds into carrying her where her feet cannot. A magical hedge of thorns is the boundary between Sleeping Beauty's castle and the everyday world, and it cannot be penetrated until time, blood, and prophesy all stand aligned.

In the Land of the Fairies by John Anster Fitzgerald

Lingering at the Crossroads

Trickster is a rare mythic figure who crosses borders and boundaries with ease. In his various guises around the globe (Hermes, Mercury, Loki, Legba, Maui, Monkey, Anansi, Coyote, Raven, Manabozho, Br'er Rabbit, Puck, etc.) he moves back and forth between the realms carrying messages, stealing fire and cattle, making mischief on both sides of the border, dancing in the borderlands between, and (in his role of Psychopomp) leading the dead in their journey to the Underworld or the Spirit Lands.

Tricksters, Lewis Hyde points out, "are the lords of in-between. A trickster does not live near the hearth; he does not live in the halls of justice, the soldier's tent, the shaman's hut, the monastery. He passes through each of these when there is a moment of silence, and he enlivens each with mischief, but he is not their guiding spirit. He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and of the crossroad at the edge of town (the one where a little market springs up). He is the spirit of the road at dusk, the one that runs from one town to another and belongs to neither. There are strangers on that road, and thieves, and in the underbrush a sly beast whose stomach has not heard about your letters of safe passage....

 Tumble of Stones

"Travellers used to mark such roads with cairns," Hyde continues, "each adding a stone to the pile in passing. The name Hermes once meant 'he of the stone heap,' which tells us that the cairn is more than a trail marker -- it is an altar to the forces that govern these spaces of heightened uncertainty, and to the intelligence needed to negotiate them. Hitchhikers who make it safely home have somewhere paid homage to Hermes."

The Twilight Path

The White Stag by Jane Baynes

Many fantasy novels grow from the desire to go beyond the fields we know or to find the hidden door in the hedge. Unlike Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or Le Guin's Earthsea books, set entirely in invented landscapes, the protagonists of these tales cross over a border, or through a magical portal, traveling from our world to a strange Otherland. This device was used most famously in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (and his other Narnia books), but also in Andre Norton's Witchworld series, Pamela Dean's Secret Country books, Joyce Ballou Gregorian's Tredana trilogy, Charles de Lint's Moonheart, Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials (although Lyra's Oxford, or Will's, aren't exactly our own), and numerous others. There are also tales in which movement across the border goes in the opposite direction, spilling magic from the Otherworld into our own, such as Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood series, Patricia McKillp's Solstice Wood, and William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderlands (1908). In his classic novel The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924), the great Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany focused on the borderland itself: the tricksy, shifting landscape squeezed between the mortal and magical realms...a device that was then irreverently updated by Bordertown, one of the earliest series in the "urban fantasy" genre, with its motorcycle-riding and rave-dancing elves, humans, and halflings in a crumbling city at the edge-lands of Faerie.

Border-crossing works of fantasy fiction

Magical Realist works on the mainstream shelves also make use of border-crossing themes. Rick Collignon's The Journal of Antonio Montoya, Pat Mora's House of Houses, Alfredo Vea Jr.'s La Maravilla, Kathleen Alcala's Spirits of the Ordinary, and Susan Power's The Grass Dancer are all extraordinary books where the membrane between the worlds of the living and the dead is thin and torn; as is Leslie Marmon Silko's wide-ranging refutation of borders, The Almanac of the Dead.  In Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water, Trickster crosses easily from the mythic to modern world; while in Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich these worlds are stitched together in the intricate patterns of Indian beadwork.

Young Woman with Deer by Katerina Plotnikova

As myth, folklore, and fairy tales remind us, the border between any two things is a traditional place of enchantment: a bridge between two banks of a river; the silvery light between night and day; the liminal moment between dreaming and waking; the motion of shape-shifting transformation; and all those interstitial realms where cultures, myths, landscapes, languages, art forms, and genres meet.

The Enchanted Stream

Betwixt and between

Stepping over the border

We cross the border every time we step from the mundane world to the lands of myth; from mainstream culture to the pages of a mythological study or a magical tale. As a folklorist and fantasist, I cannot resist an unknown road or an open gate. I'm still that child on a midsummer's eve, willing magic into existence.

Following the Animal Guide, for safe passage through the borderlandsWords: The quote by Brian Froud is from a conversation I noted down when I was editing his book Good Faeries, Bad Faeries (Simon & Schuster, 1998). The quote by Lewis Hyde is from his excellent book Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, & Art (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1998). Pictures: Art credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the text and imagery above is reserved by their respective creators. Related posts: At the Death of the Year and The Madness of Art.


The borderlands we inhabit

Tilly in the studio

''I am in between. Trying to write to be understood by those who matter to me, yet also trying to push my mind with ideas beyond the everyday. It is another borderland I inhabit. Not quite here nor there. On good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone.''

Beauty and the Beast by Virginia Lee- Sergio Troncoso (Crossing Borders)


There are always moments when one feels empty and estranged.

Such moments are most desirable,

for it means the soul has cast its moorings and is sailing for distant places.

This is detachment --
when the old is over and the new has not yet come. 

If you are afraid, the state may be distressing,

but there is really nothing to be afraid of. 

Remember the instruction:

Whatever you come across -—

go beyond."

- 

Nisargadatta Maharaj


Tilly in the studio 2The exquisite drawing above is "Beauty and the Beast" by Virginia Lee.


The borders of language

In the video above, "Between Two Worlds," the wonderful Bill Moyers (whom you may remember from his program on Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth) interviews a friend of mine from back in my Tucson days: Luis Alberto Urrea, who now lives with his wife and children up north, in Illinois. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, Luis writes about the U.S./Mexico border region better than just about anyone, forming that work into fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, all of it highly recommended. (You'll find a discussion of his luminous novel The Hummingbird's Daughter in this previous post.)

In featuring this interview, I don't want to veer our exploration of borders into the contentious realm of immigration politics -- an important topic in its own right, but one that falls beyond the purview of this blog. Rather, what I want to spotlight here are the ways that writers (and other artists) use their gifts in response to the world around them: whether it's Elif Shafak telling stories of  her Turkish childhood, or Miquel Angel Blanco preserving the old lore of Spain in his library of trees, or Rachel Taylor-Beales reinterpreting selkie myths to reflect on modern tales of exile and displacement, or Jackie Morris following a falcon's journey to the human world and back into the wild.

As writers and artists we use words and paint (among other materials) to witness and re-create the world -- whether we do this directly as journalists and creators of Realist works, or indirectly (but subtly and deeply) through the symbolism of Fantasy and Mythic Arts.

Grand Canyon Prayer Tower, Arizona by Stu Jenks

In his 1998 essay "Nobody's Son," Luis had this to say about the border-crossing nature of words themselves:

"Home isn't just a place, I have learned. It is also a language. My words not only shape and define my home. Words -- not only for writers -- are home. Still, where exactly is that?

"Jimmy Santiago Baca reminds us that 'Hispanics' are immigrants in our own land. By the time time Salem was founded on Massachusetts Bay, any number of Urreas had been prowling up and down the Pacific coast of our continent for several decades. Of course, the Indian mothers of these families had been here from the start.'

Miller's Spiral, Pima County, Arizona by Stu Jenks

"Forget about purifying the American landscape," Luis continues, "sending all those ethnic types back to their homelands. Those illegal humans. (A straw-hat fool in a pickup truck once told my Sioux brother Duane to go back where he came from. 'Where to?' Duane called. 'South Dakota?')

"The humanoids are pretty bad, but how will we get rid of all those pesky foreign words debilitating the United States?

"Those Turkish words (like coffee). Those French words (like maroon). Those Greek words (like cedar). Those Italian words (like marinate). Those African words (like marimba).

"English! It's made up of all these untidy words, man. Have you noticed?

"Native American (skunk), German (waltz), Danish (twerp), Latin (adolescent), Scottish (feckless), Dutch (waft), Caribbean (zombie), Nahuatl (ocelot), Norse (walrus), Eskimo (kayak), Tatar (horde) words! It's a glorious wreck (a good old Viking word, that).

The Folly Atop The Biscuit, the Mustang Mountains, Arizona by Stu Jenks

"Glorious, I say, in all its shambling mutable beauty. People daily speak a quilt of words, and continents and nations and tribes and even enemies dance all over your mouth when you speak. The tongue seems to know no race, no affiliation, no breed, no caste, no order, no genus, no lineage. The most dedicated Klansman spews the language of his adversaries while reviling them."

Without Bozette, Dripping Springs, Arizona by Stu Jenks

"I love words so much," Luis concludes. "Thank god so many people lent us theirs or we'd be forced to point and grunt. When I start to feel the pressure of the border on me, when I meet someone who won't shake my hand because she has suddenly discovered I am half Mexican (as happened with a landlady in Boulder), I comfort myself with these words. I know how much color and beauty we Others add to the American mix."

Wupatki Flame Spiral, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Over here in the old world of Europe, it's both easy and fashionable to look down one's nose at the crass racism of Little Sister America...and yet the immigration and refugee crisis unfolding on European borders is not so very different.

In Britain, as in America, there are those demanding that "they" be sent back where they came from (whoever "they" may be, Syrian children or Polish carpenters); and there are those reaching out a helping hand; and there are those going about their daily lives pretending none of it is happening...not necessarily due to hard-heartedness, but, sometimes, to sheer exhaustion from what their daily lives entail.

Gidleigh Church, Gidleigh, Devon by Stu Jenks

East of Merrivale, Dartmoor, Devon by Stu Jenks

A question that often arises in our various discussions on this blog is: What, as artists, can we do about _____ ? Whatever _____ may happen to be: displaced people fleeing war and poverty, hungry families in Foodbank queues here at home, vanishing animal habitats, oceans ailing...forests falling to the ax...and on and on and on. I have no simple answer, for it's a question I still ask myself, in one way or another, almost every damn day. But what I do know is this:

I believe that the ability to create (in any form, whether at the desk or easel -- or in the kitchen, the garden, the community hall) -- is a gift, and gifts are meant to be passed on. They are meant to be used, to be of use, and that's a geis, a wyrd, I do not take lightly.

Some of us use our gifts in the direct service of activism; others, in the indirect service of creating "beauty in a broken world" (to use Terry Tempest William's phrase), as a means of lifting hearts, mending spirits, and reminding us of what we're fighting for. Either way, it is important, I think, to be mindful of what we're putting out into the world. Art can envision, conjure, build, bind, heal, witness, dignify, and illuminate.  It can also destroy, distract, diminish, deflect, justify, obfuscate, and lie.

"I don't think writers are sacred," Tom Stoppard once said, "but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little..."

And so it bears thinking about just what direction we are nudging it in.

West Kennet Long Barrow by Stu Jenks

Scorhill Stone Circle, Dartmoor, Devon by Stu Jenks

Like Luis Urrea, Terry Tempest Williams is a writer skilled in placing "the right words in the right order," such as these, which are tacked above my desk:

"Bearing witness to both the beauty and pain of our world is a task that I want to be part of. As a writer, this is my work. By bearing witness, the story that is told can provide a healing ground. Through the art of language, the art of story, alchemy can occur. And if we choose to turn our backs, we've walked away from what it means to be human."

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall by Stu Jenks

The beautiful art here, as you may have recognized, is by the Tucson-based photographer Stu Jenks. The top five photographs were taken in northern and southern Arizona; the lower seven in Devon and Cornwall while he was visiting us in 2013. Please go to Stu's blog to learn more about his art, music, and books.

Moor Pony Foal, Dartmoor, Devon by Stu Jenks

Tilly Windling-Gayton with Daffodils, Nattadon Woods, Chagford, Devon by Stu JenksBetween Two Worlds appeared on American Public Television in 2012, and can be found online in the Moyers & Company archives. The passage by Luis Alberto Urrea comes from his essay collection Nobody's Son (The University of Arizona Press, 1998).  The quote by Tom Stoppard is from his play The Real Thing (1982). The quote from Terry Tempest Williams comes from an interview in Listening to the Land: Conversations About Nature Culture and Eros by Derrick Jensen (Chelsea Green, 2004); you can read a longer passage from the interview here.  All rights to the video, text, and imagery above are reserved by their creators.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The border between the US and Mexico

My years of living in Tucson gave me a deep love of the borderlands between southern Arizona and Mexico: the dramatic beauty of the desert landscape, the vibrancy of border culture, the complexity of its history, dark and bright. Tucson itself is a dusty modern city grown out of an old, old town, continuously settled for over 12,000 years, marked by its distinctive blend of Mexican, European, and Native American influences. Today's music comes from a much-loved Tucson band, Calexico, founded by Joey Burns and John Convertino, who have been crossing cultural borders for two decades now. Calexico Tucson postcardencapsulates everything I love best about Tucson: the fusion of laconic cowboy and dynamic Mexican styles; the exuberant mix of Sonoran cultural traditions, aesthetics, and languages; and the ever-present dusty heat of the desert, which is almost palpable in the music.

Calexico's work has a strong mariachi influence, and they often join with Tuscon's great mariachi bands for hometown gigs. The single best concert I've ever been to in my life was one of these combined performances, at the Rialto Theatre in the spring of 2008: Calexico, two full mariachi bands, and a host of other musicians...there must have been 30-odd musicians on stage by the end, and it's a wonder they didn't blow the roof off the place with their energy, their passion, and their big, bold sound. It was beyond good, it was absolutely sublime, and I was high from it for days. (And sore, too, from hours of dancing.)

Above, the video for "Crystal Frontier," a song about border-crossing containing references to the La Llorona folktale.

Below, Calexico joins Mariachi Luz de Luna onstage in Tucson to perform a classic son jarocho tune, "El Cascabel."

Above, crossing musical borders of another kind: Calexico performs their song "Fortune Teller," backed by the Radio Symphonieorchester Wien and the audience, at ORF Radio Kulturhaus in Vienna, Austria (2012).

Below, Calexico and the Greek band Takim combine musical traditions for the Lizard Sound Sessions in Athens, Greece (2014).

Calexico's latest album, Edge of the Sun, was inspired by the music and culture of Mexico City. The song below, "Cumbia de Donde," is from the new album, performed with Guatemalan singer/songwriter Gaby Moreno a few months ago.

Lordy, this is making me miss Tucson this morning....

The driveway to my old house in Tucson

If you'd like  little more music today, try the new video of Calexico and Neko Case performing "Tapping on the Line," which is also from Edge of the Sun; or "Alone Again," a classic Calexico song performed live in Germany in 2011.


Enclosure of the Commons: the borders that keep us out

Commons 1

Historically, the Commons straddles the border between private space and unmanaged wilderness. Last week, we looked at the history of  the English Commons via a passage from Lewis Hyde's fine book Common as Air. (If you missed it, go here. The text is quoted in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to read it.) Today, I'd like to dig a little deeper into the subject with the help of Gary Snyder, Jay Griffiths, and George Monbiot.

"There is a well-documented history of the commons in relation to the village economies of Europe and England," writers Synder in his influential book The Practice of the Wild. "In England from the time of the Norman Conquest the enfeoffed knights and overlords began to gain control over many local commons. Legislations (the Statute of Merton, 1235) came to their support. From the 15th century on the landlord class, working with urban mercantile guilds and government offices, increasingly fenced off village-held land and turned it over to private interests. The enclosure movement was backed by big wool corporations, who found profit from sheep to be much greater than that of farming. The wool business, with its exports to the Continent, was an early agribusiness that had a destructive effect on the soils and dislodged peasants. The arguments for enclosure in England -- efficiency, higher production -- ignored social and ecological effects and served to cripple the sustainable agriculture of some districts.

Commons 2

Commons 3

" The enclosure movement was stepped up again in the 18th century," Snyder continues; "between 1709 and 1869 almost five million acres were transferred to private ownership, one acre in every seven. After 1869 there was a sudden reversal of sentiment called the 'open space movement' which ultimately halted enclosures and managed to preserve, via a spectacular lawsuit against the lords of fourteen manors, the Epping Forest.

"Karl Polyani says that the enclosures of the 18th century created a population of rural homeless who were forced in their desperation to become the world's first industrial working class. The enclosures were tragic both for the human community and for natural ecosystems. The fact that England now has the least forest and wildlife of all the nations of Europe has much to do with the enclosures. The takeover of common lands on the European plain also began about 500 years ago, but one-third of Europe is still not privatized. A survival of commons practices in Swedish law allows anyone to enter private farmland to pick berries or mushrooms, to cross on foot, and to camp out of sight of the house....The environmental history of Europe and Asia seems to indicate that the best management of commons land was that which was locally based. The ancient severe and often irreversible deforestation of the Mediterranean Basin was an extreme case of the misuse of the commons by forces that had taken its management away from regional villages."

Commons 4

The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder

In Kith, her fine book on the cultural history of childhood, Jay Griffiths gives us a more personal view of the Enclosure of the Commons through the eyes of the great 18th century nature poet John Clare, whose heart (and mental health) were broken by the loss of lands he'd roamed as a child in Helpston, Northamptonshire:

"Born in 1793 to a sense of freedom as unenclosed as 'nature's wide and common sky,' John Clare knew that the open air was his to breathe, the open water his to drink and the open land, as far as his knowledge of it extended, his to wander, and he began to write poetry of such lucid openness that it can best be described as light: his poems are translucent to nature, which shines through his work like May sunlight through beech leaves. Clare writes of the land as if he were a belonging of the land, as if it owned him, which is an idea one hears often in indigenous communities. His childhood belonged to that land and to its creatures; he knew them all and felt known in turn. One day, Clare writes, he wandered and rambled 'til I got out of my knowledge when the very wildflowers and birds seemed to forget me.'

"And then, to his utter anguish, came the Enclosures, the acts of cruelty by which the common land was fenced off by the wealthy and privatized for the profit of the few. The Enclosures threw the peasantry into that acute poverty which would scar Clare's own life and mind so deeply."

Commons 5

Commons 6

Kith by Jay Griffiths

"Between 1809 and 1820," George Monbiot explains (in an essay on Clare published in 2012), "acts of enclosure granted the local landowners permission to fence the fields, the heaths and woods, excluding the people who had worked and played in them. Almost everything Clare loved was torn away. The ancient trees were felled, the scrub and furze were cleared, the rivers were canalized, the marshes drained, the natural curves of the land straightened and squared. Farming became more profitable, but many of the people of Helpston -- especially those who depended on the commons for their survival -- were deprived of their living. The places in which the people held their ceremonies and celebrated the passing of the seasons were fenced off. The community, like the land, was parcelled up, rationalized, atomized. I have watched the same process breaking up the Maasai of east Africa.

"Clare documents both the destruction of place and people and the gradual collapse of his own state of mind.

Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour's rights and left the poor a slave …
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
I sighed when lawless law's enclosure came.

Commons 7

"As Jonathan Bate records in his magnificent biography, there were several possible causes of the 'madness' that had Clare removed to an asylum in 1837: bipolar disorder, a blow to the head, malaria (then a common complaint on the edge of the fens). But it seems to me that a contributing factor must have been the loss of almost all he knew and loved. His work is a remarkable document of life before and after social and environmental collapse, and the anomie that resulted.

"What Clare suffered was the fate of indigenous peoples torn from their land and belonging everywhere. His identity crisis, descent into mental agony and alcohol abuse, are familiar blights in reservations and outback shanties the world over.

Commons 8

Commons 9

"His loss was surely enough to drive almost anyone mad; our loss surely enough to drive us all a little mad. For while economic rationalization and growth have helped to deliver us from a remarkable range of ills, they have also torn us from our moorings, atomized and alienated us, sent us out, each in his different way, to seek our own identities. We have gained unimagined freedoms, we have lost unimagined freedoms -- a paradox Clare explores in his wonderful poem The Fallen Elm."

Commons 10

Commons 11

Commons 12

"The Acts of Enclosure," Griffiths concurs, "signified the enclosure and destructive of [Clare's] spirit as well as the land. Winged for the simplest of raptures, he now limped at the fences erected by the 'little minds' of the wealthy.

Commons 13

"His own psyche had been as open as the footpaths of his childhood, paths which wend their way 'As sweet as morning leading night astray' but with sudden brutality. 'These paths are now stopt -- ' and

Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows, where man claims, earth glows no more divine.' "

Commons 14

Kith by Jay Griffiths

Commons 15

Artist unknown, circa 1840Words: The text today comes from Gary Snyder's seminal essay "The Place, the Region, and the Commons," published in his essay collection The Practice of the Wild (North Point Press, 1990); from "The Patron Saint of Childhood" in Jay Griffith's book Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape (Hamilton Hamish, 2013); and from George Monbiot's essay "John Clare, the poet of the environmental crisis -- 200 years ago," published in The Guardian (July 9, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The photographs are of Tilly roaming Padley and Nattadon Commons in the edge-lands of our village. The painting is a possible portrait of John Clare, artist unknown, circa 1840.