Prowling Plymbridge Woods

Plympbridge Woods 1

"To be in touch with wilderness," writes storyteller & mythographer Martin Shaw, "is to have stepped past the proud cattle of the field and wandered far from the Inn's fire. To have sensed something sublime in the life/death/life movement of the seasons, to know that contained in you is the knowledge to pull the sword from the stone and to live well in fierce woods in deep winter.

Plymbridge Woods 2

"Wilderness is a form of sophistication, because it carries within it true knowledge of our place in the world. It doesn't exclude civilization but prowls through it, knowing when to attend to the needs of the committee and when to drink from a moonlit lake. It will wear a suit and tie when it has to, but refuses to trim its talons or whiskers. Its sensing nature is not afraid of emotion: the old stories are are full of grief forests and triumphant returns, banquets and bridges of thorns. Myth tells us that the full gamut of feeling is to be experienced.

Plymbridge Woods 3

Plymbridge Woods 4

"Wilderness is the capacity to go into joy, sorrow, and anger fully and stay there for as long as needed, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Sometimes, as Lorca says, it means 'get down on all fours for twenty centuries and eat the grasses of the cemetaries.' Wilderness carries sobriety as well as exuberance, and has allowed loss to mark its face."

Plymbridge Woods 5

I'm reminded of these words from the American writer, naturalist, and activist Terry Tempest Williams:

"So much more than ever before, I feel both the joy of wilderness and the absolute pain in terms of what we are losing. And I think we're afraid of inhabiting, of staying in, this landscape of grief. Yet if we don't acknowledge the losses, then I feel we won't be able to step forward with compassionate intelligence to make the changes necessary to maintain wildness on the planet."

And the wild within ourselves.

Plymbridge Woods 6

Plymbridge Woods 7

Plymbridge Woods 8

Words: The long passage above is from A Branch from the Lightening Tree:  Ecstatic Myth & the Grace in Wilderness by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2011). The quote first appeared on Myth & Moor in a post from 2012, with different photographs. The gorgeous poem in the picture captions first appeared in the Comments below the same post, and is copyright © 2012 by the author, Jane Yolen. The Terry Tempest Williams quote is from a radio interview reprinted in A Voice in the Wilderness, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Plymbridge Woods, on the other side of Dartmoor, between winter and spring.


Wild Sanctuary and The Handless Maiden

...with art by Jeanie Tomanek

The Handless Maiden by Jeanie Tomanek

For those of you who follow Folklore Thursday on Facebook or Twitter, today is "Favorite Fairy Tale" day, so I'm reprinting this post about wild sanctuary & healing in relation to the Handless Maiden story. It's not my absolute fairy fairy tale, which is Donkeyskin -- but the only piece I've written about that one is a rather dark essay-cum-memoir addressing the subject of child abuse. (If you're curious, and up for it, the essay is here. And Helen Pilinovsky has a good piece on Donkeyskin here. ) But I love The Handless Maiden too, for its complexity, its psychological depth, and for all that it tells us about trauma, strength, and the true nature of healing....

Jungian scholar Marie-Louise von Franz saw the fairy tale forest not only as a place of trials for the hero, but also an archetypal setting for retreat, reflection, and healing. In a lecture presented to the C.G. Jung Institute in Switzerland in the winter of 1958-59 (subsequently published as The Feminine in Fairytales), she looked at the role of the forest in the story of "The Handless Maiden" (also known as "The Armless Maiden," "The Girl Without Hands," and "Silver Hands"). In this tale, a miller's daughter loses her hands as the result of a foolish bargain her father has made with the devil. (In darker variants, it is because she will not give in to incestuous demands.) She then leaves home, makes her way through the forest, and ends up foraging for pears (a fruit symbolic of female strength) in the garden of a tender-hearted king — who falls in love, marries her, and gives her two new hands made of silver. The young woman gives birth to a son — but this is not the usual happy ending to the story. The king is away at war and the devil interferes once again (or, in some versions, a malicious mother-in-law), tricking the court into casting both mother and child back into the forest. "She is driven into nature," von Franz points out. "She has to go into deep introversion.... The forest [is] the place of unconventional inner life, in the deepest sense of the word.

The Handless Maiden then encounters an angel who leads her to a hut deep in the woods. Her human hands are magically restored during this time of forest retreat. When her husband returns from the war, learns that she's gone, and comes to fetch his wife and child home, she insists that he court her all over again, as the new woman she is now. Her husband complies -- and then, only then, does the tale conclude happily. The Handless Maiden's transformation is now complete: from wounded child to whole, healed woman; from miller's daughter to queen.

Von Franz compares the Handless Maiden's time of solitude in the woods to that of religious mystics seeking communion with god through nature. "In the Middle Ages, there were many hermits," she notes, "and in Switzerland there were the so-called Wood Brothers and Sisters. People who did not want to live a monastic life but who wanted to live alone in the forest had both a closeness to nature and also a great experience of spiritual inner life. Such Wood Brothers and Sisters could be personalities on a high level who had a spiritual fate and had to renounce active life for a time and isolate themselves to find their own inner relationship to God. It is not very different from what the shaman does in the Polar tribes, or what the medicine men do all over the world, in order to seek immediate personal religious experience in isolation."

Forget-me-not by Jeanie Tomanek

In other versions of the Handless Maiden narrative, the young queen's time in the woods is not solitary. The angel (or "white spirit") leads her to an inn at the very heart of the forest, where she's taken in by gentle "folk of the woods." (It's not always made clear whether they are human or magical beings.) The queen stays with them for a full seven years (a traditional period of time for magical/shamanic initiation in ancient Greece and other cultures world-wide), during which time her hands slowly re-grow.

In an article titled "Healing the Wounded Wild," Kim Antieau uses this variant of the story to reflect on illness, the healing process, and the ways our relationship with the natural world impacts both physical and psychic health. "In many cultures," she writes, "the prescription for chronic illness was a stay in the country (not necessarily the wild country). In ancient Greece, the chronically ill went to Asklepian Temples for relief. The priests created tenemos — sacred space — for the patient to help facilitate healing. The ill went to the temples and prepared with purification and ritual for a healing dream. Then the patient went to the abaton — the sleeping chamber — and dreamed. Often the dreams either healed the patients or told them of a remedy which would heal them.

"Today, practitioners of integrated medicine believe the body wants to heal, and the patient needs the time, encouragement, support and space to be able to get well. In many instances the time, encouragement, and support can be found, but wild spaces are lacking. Silvia [the Handless Maiden] was able to travel deep into a wild place. Where do we go? Where do the wild things go (including human beings) when no wild remains?"

Gamekeeper by Jeanie Tomanek

Midori Snyder comes at the story from a different angle in her luminous article "The Armless Maiden and the Hero's Journey," examining the tale, in its various forms, as a classic rite-of-passage narrative.

When such stories are devised for young men, she notes, the hero typically sets off from home seeking adventure or fortune in the unknown world, where the fantastic waits to challenge him. "Along the journey, his worth as a man and as a hero is tested. But when the trials are done, he returns home again in triumph, bringing to his society new-found knowledge, maturity and often a magical bride....

"While no less heroic, how different are the journeys of young women. In folktales, the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood is confirmed by marriage and the assumption of adult roles. In traditional exogamous societies, young women were required to leave forever the familiar home of their birth and become brides in foreign and sometimes faraway households. In the folktales, a young girl ventures or is turned out into the ambiguous world of the fantastic, knowing that she will never return home. Instead at the end of a perilous and solitary journey, she arrives at a new village or kingdom. There, disguised as a dirty–faced servant, a scullery maid, or a goose girl, she completes her initiation as an adult and, like her male counterpart, brings to her new community the gifts of knowledge, maturity, and fertility."

Although fairy tales have been known as children's stories from roughly the 19th century onward, older versions of these same narratives (aimed at older audiences) looked unflinchingly at the darkest parts of life: at poverty, hunger, abuse of power, domestic violence, incest, rape, the sale of young daughters to the highest bidder under the guise of arranged marriages, the effects of remarriage on family dynamics, the loss of inheritance or identity, the survival of treachery or calamity. In rite-of-passage tales devised for young women, the heroes don't tend to ride merrily off into the forest in search of fame and fortune, they are usually driven there by desperation; the forest, despite its perils, is a place of refuge from worse dangers left behind.

Communion by Jeanie Tomanek

The Handless/Armless Maiden is not a passive princess in the old Disney mold, waiting for romance to rescue her. She finds her own way to the orchard of a king in her search of food, and although she agrees to marry him, a royal wedding is not the conclusion of her story, it's the half-way point. "It is a narrative with a strange hiccup in the middle," Midori points out. "The brutality of the opening scene seems resolved as the Armless Maiden is rescued in a garden and then married to a compassionate young man. But she has not completed her journey of transformation from adolescence to adulthood. She is not whole, not the girl she was nor the woman she was meant to be. The narratives make it clear that without her arms, she is unable to fulfill her role as an adult. She can do nothing for herself, not even care for her own child.

"Conflict is reintroduced into the narrative to send the girl back on her journey of initiation in the woods. There the fantastic heals her, and she returns reborn as a woman. Every narrative version concludes with what is in effect a second marriage. The woman, now whole, her arms restored by an act of magic, has become herself the magic bride, aligned with the creative power of nature. She does not return immediately to her husband but waits with her child in the forest or a neighboring homestead for him to find her. When he comes to propose marriage this second time, it is a marriage of equals, based on respect and not pity.

Silver Hands and the Numbered Pears

"I have come to believe," Midori continues, "that robust narratives such as the Armless Maiden speak to women not only when they are young and setting out on that first rite of passage, but throughout their lives. In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estés presents a fascinating analysis of this tale, demonstrating the guiding role the armless maiden plays in a woman's psychic life:

" 'The Handless Maiden is about a woman's initiation into the underground forest through the rite of endurance. The word endurance sounds as though it means "to continue without cessation," and while this is an occasional part of the tasks underlying the tale, the word endurance also means "to harden, to make robust, to strengthen," and this is the principal thrust of the tale, and the generative feature of a woman's long psychic life. We don't just go on to go on. Endurance means we are making something.'

"To follow the example of the armless maiden," Midori concludes, "is an invitation to sever old identities and crippling habits by journeying again and again into the forest. There we may once more encounter emergent selves waiting for us. In the narrative, the Armless Maiden sits on the bank of a rejuvenating lake and learns to caress and care for her child, the physical manifestation of her creative power. Each time we follow the Armless Maiden she brings us face to face with our own creative selves."

Silver Hands by Jeanie Tomanek

Poet Vicki Feaver has also reflected on the story in relationship to creativity. In an interview in Poetry Magazine, Feaver discusses her poem "The Handless Maiden," inspired by the fairy tale :

"The story is that the girl’s hands are cut off by her father and she is given silver hands by the king who falls in love with her. Eventually, she goes off into the forest with her child and her own hands grow back. In the Grimms' version it is because she’s good for seven years. But there’s a Russian version which I like better where she drops her child into a spring as she bends down to drink. She plunges her handless arms into the water to save the child and it’s at that moment that her hands grow. I read a psychoanalytic interpretation by Marie Louise von France in her book, The Feminine in Fairytales in which she argues that the story reflects the way women cut off their own hands to live through powerful and creative men. They need to go into the forest, into nature, to live by themselves, as a way of regaining their own power. The child in the story represents the woman’s creativity that only the woman herself can save. This was such a powerful idea that I had to write about it. It took me three years to find a way of doing it. In the end I chose the voice of the Handless Maiden herself -- as if I was writing the poem with the hands that grew at the moment that she rescued her work, her child. 

"I suppose I go through the process of endlessly cutting off my hands and having to grow them again. You ask if I’ve found any strategies for writing. Only to go away on my own, to be myself, and just to write."

Silver Hands by Jeanie Tomanek

"Fairy tales are journey stories," says Ellen Steiber (in a beautiful essay on the fairy tale "Brother and Sister"). "They deal with initiation and transformation, with going into the forest where one's deepest fears and most powerful dreams are realized. Many of them offer a map for getting through to the other side."

In the universe of fairy tales, the Just often find a way to prevail, the Wicked generally receive their comeuppance — but there's more to such tales than a formula of abuse and retribution. The trials these wounded young heroes encounter illustrate the process of transformation: from youth to adulthood, from victim to hero, from a maimed state to wholeness, from passivity to action. Fairy tales are, as Ellen says, maps through the woods, trails of stones to mark the path, marks carved into trees to let us know that other women and men have been this way before.

Diary by Jeanie Tomanek

Though they warn us to steer clear of gingerbread houses and huts that stalk the woods on chicken's feet, they also show the way to true shelter, sanctuary, and places of healing deep in the forest. (The real lesson here, it seems to me, is to learn to tell the difference.) Think of the hut in "Brother and Sister," for example, where the siblings set up housekeeping in the woods, far from the everyday world (and their stepmother's malice), adapting to the rhythms of the forest, of self-sufficiency, and of the brother's enchantment.  Or the woodland cabin in "The White Deer," where the deer-princess sleeps safely each night.  Or the cottage (or cave) where Snow White finds shelter with a band of rough forest-dwelling men (the metal-working dwarves of Teutonic folklore in some versions, outlaws and brigands in others). Even the Beast's lonely castle deep in the woods is more sanctuary than prison...a place where captor and prisoner both transform, in true fairy tale fashion.

Envoy by Jeanie TomanekThese places are linked not only by their woodland settings, but by the temporary nature of the sanctuary provided. The curse is broken or the secret revealed, or the magical task finished, or the trial survived; transformation is complete, and the hero must now return to the human world. Traditionally, rite-of-passage ceremonies are designed to propel initiates into a sacred place and sacred state (the realm of the spirits, gods, or ancestors; the place of vision, instruction, and metamorphosis)...but then to bring them back again, back to the tribe or community and to ordinary life. We're meant to come out of sweatlodge, down from the Vision Quest hill, home from the Moon Hut, back from the sacred hunt, bringing with us new knowledge, new dreams, a new status, a new name or role to play....intended not just for the sake of personal growth but in service to the whole tribe or community. Likewise, we're not meant to remain in the circle of enchantment deep in the fairy tale forest -- we're meant to come back out again, bringing our hard-won knowledge and fortune with us...in service to the family (old or new), the realm, the community; to children and the future.

Unless, that is, we stay in the woods and take on a different role in the story...not a hero this time, but one of the forest dwellers who aids (or hinders) another's journey: the woodwose, the hermit, the sage, the mad prophet...the men and woman who run with the wolves...the femme sauvage with her herbs and charms... the conjure man with his beehives and songs....

But those are stories for another day, and another journey into the woods.

Sometimes in the Forest by Jeanie Tomanek

Pictures: The paintings above are by Jeanie Tomanek, who lives and works in Georgia, near Atlanta."My all-time favorite folktale is 'The Handless Maiden," she says. "It is about a woman’s journey toward wisdom and self-realization and the obstacles and helpers she encounters. This tale encompasses many of the archetypical representations of women. My 'Everywomen' portray the mothers, daughters, lovers, and crones. Strong, wise women who will survive.  These are filtered through my own experiences many times." All rights to imagery here are reserved by the artist.

Words: I am grateful to Midori Snyder for allowing me to quote such a long passage from her Armless Maiden essay.  I urge anyone interested in the tale to please read this insightful essay in full. All right to text above, included quoted passages, are reserved by the authors. Further reading: The Handless Maiden: an art project by Nomi McLeod.


Wild prayer

Rainbow 1

After weeks of rain storms, yesterday there was blue sky and a rainbow over our village. In a long, dark season of water-soaked fields and foot trails ankle-deep in mud, it felt a blessing.

Today, it is clear over Meldon Hill,  though a bank of dark clouds hovers over the moor. Sun or rain, I am ready for both. Rainbow-blessed and vision restored, I'm reminded to love the earth's full palette: the delicacy of winter blue, the wet vibrancy of green and gold, but also the spectrum of color that gives us grey days, comfortless as they sometimes seem. Grey is the color of mist, mystery, mythic entrances to the Otherworld. Grey is the hidden and the unseen -- which we sometimes need to be ourselves.

Meldon Hill

In her essay collection Wild Comfort, Kathleen Dean Moore takes sorrow and the hardships of life into nature, seeking clarity, solace, and a form of prayer unattached to the religion she was raised in and no longer practices. Alone in her kayak on a small mountain lake, she is enclosed in the grey world of falling snow, cut off from sight of the land by the storm. In the thick of the snow squall, she writes:

"a frog began to sing. It must have been a tree frog, Hyla regilla. Of course I couldn't see it; I couldn't see anything but snow beyond my vanished bow. But I knew that song, and I could imagine the tiny frog up to its eyes in water, snowflaked falling on its head fiery green enough to melt the snow.

 "As long as the frog sings, I will not be lost in the squall. The song tells me where the cattails are, and the cattails mark the shore. I am sure of this much, that Earth lights these small signal fires -- not for us, but among us -- and we can find them if we look. If we are not afraid, if we keep our balance, if we let our anxious selves dissolve into the beauties and mysteries of the night, we will find a way to peace and assurance. Signal fires burn all over the land."

Rainbow 2

Here is the prayer Moore finds in the middle of the storm, and that she offers to us:

"May the light that reflects on this water be a wild prayer. May water lift us with its unexpected strength. May we find comfort in the 'repeated strains of nature,' the softly sheeting snow, the changing seasons, the return of blackbirds to the marsh. May we find strength in light that pours under the snow and laughter that breaks through the tears. May we go out into the light-filled snow, among meadows in bloom, with a gratitude for life that is deep and alive. May Earth's fires burn in our hearts, and may we know ourselves to be part of this flame -- one thing, never alone, never weary of life."

May it be so. Mitakuye Oyasin.

Rainbow 3

Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore

The two passages quoted above are from Kathleen Dean Moore's essay "Never Alone or Weary" in Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature (Trumpeter Books, 2010); the poem in the picture captions is from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions, 2013); all rights reserved by the authors. I wrote about rainbows in my own personal symbology here, back in 2010.


Breaking open

Waterfall 1

From Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore:

" 'There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature,' Rachel Carson wrote. 'The assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.'

"I have never felt this so strongly as I do now, waiting for the sun to warm my back. The bottom may drop out of my life, what I trusted may fall away completely, leaving me astonished and shaken. But still, sticky leaves emerge from bud scales that curl off the tree as the sun crosses the sky. Darkness pools and drains away, and the curve of the new moon points to the place where the sun will rise again. There is wild comfort in the cycles and the intersecting circles, the rotations and revolutions, the growing and ebbing of this beautiful and strangely trustworthy world.

Waterfall 2

Waterall 3

Waterfall 4

 "I settle back on the rock and drag my sleeping bag over my knees. Diffuse light silvers the water; I can just make out a dragonfly nymph that crawls toward the surface with no expectation of flight beyond maybe a tightness in the carapace across its back. No matter how hard it tries or doesn't, there will come a time when the dragonfly pumps the crinkles out of its wings, and there they will be, luminous as mica, threaded with lapis and gold.

Waterfall 5

Waterfall 6

Waterfall 7

Waterfall 8

 "No measure of human grief can stop Earth in its tracks. Earth rolls into sunlight and rolls away again, continents glowing green and gold under the clouds. Trust this, and there will come a time when dogged, desperate trust in the world will break open into wonder. Wonder leads to gratitude. Gratitude into peace." 

Waterfall 9

Waterfall 10

Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore

Waterfall 11

Waterfall 13

Where, or how, do you find wild comfort?

Leap

 The passage above is from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, essays by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter Books, 2010); all rights reserved by the author. The text is the picture captions is adapted from a  post after winter storms in 2012.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

I don't know about you, but the world is seeming particularly crazy to me right now, and I need a dose of hope, courage, and inspiration this morning....

"To hope is to gamble. It's to bet on your futures, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk."  - Rebecca Solnit (Hope in the Dark)

Above: "Rise Up" by Andra Day (based in San Diego, California), from her album Cheers to the Fall (2015). The gorgeous video was directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

Below: "Glory" by John Legend and Common, who wrote the song for the the civil rights film Selma (2014), directed by Ava DuVernay.

"But hope is not about what we expect. It is an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world, of the breaks with the present, the surprises. Or perhaps studying the record more carefully leads us to expect miracles -- not when and where we expect them, but to expect to be astonished, to expect that we don't know. And this is grounds to act."   - Rebecca Solnit (Hope in the Dark)

Above: "Love Letters to God" by Nahko Bear (of Apache/Mowhawk/Filipino/Puerto Rican heritage), from his album Hoka (2016). The video was filmed in support of the water protectors at Standing Rock in the Dakotas.

Below: "Almost Like Praying" by composer & playright Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of Hamilton), with Marc Anthony, Ruben Blades, Gloria Estefan, Fat Joe, Luis Fonsi, Jenifer Lopez, Rita Moreno and many others -- a track created as a fundraiser for recovery efforts in storm-shattered Puerto Rico.

Miranda's lyrics begin with a line from "Maria" (his favorite song from West Side Story), then weave in the names of the towns on the island -- evoking the spirit of place, the strength of community, and a sense of hope in the darkest of times. "For Puerto Ricans who live all over the world who have a connection and family on the island," he explains, "there was a terrible silence for several days where we were just waiting for word. And my Twitter feed, my Facebook feed, were just filled with family members listing the names of towns where their families were living. 'And from my grandmothers in Lares, my uncle is in Vega Alta -- has anyone seen them? Has anyone heard from them?' And I thought, well the only lyric that really unites us and that makes the most sense for a fundraising song is if I can somehow write a song that includes all 78 towns in Puerto Rico so that no one feels left out and no one's town feels forgotten."

You can buy the song here, or donate directly to the Hispanic Federation here.

"Joy doesn't betray but sustains activism. And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated and isolated, joy is a fine act of insurrection."  - Rebecca Solnit (Hope in the Dark)

Below: "Level Up" by pianist & songwriter Vienna Teng (who is based in Detroit). The video was directed Lawrence Chen, choreographed by Jaclyn Walsh, and features the dancer Tommy Guns Ly, among others. "If you're afraid, give more; if you're alive, give more," Teng tells us in this moving and joyful song...which circles us back to Andra Day's words above: "All we need is hope; and for that we have each other."

"Inside the word 'emergency' is 'emerge'; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast, but danger and possibility are sisters."  - Rebecca Solnit (Hope in the Dark)

newborn muntjac deer


The practice of kindness

Dartmoor pony

To continue our conversation on kindness:

One problem we have today is that many think of the word "kind" as a synonym for "nice," a quality with soft, even bland, connotations -- whereas true kindness is so much more than this. The practice of kindness requires empathy, compassion, and generosity aligned with keen perception, self knowledge, and clarity of purpose. It's not enough to be nice to live by a code of kindness, it requires fierce courage as well: The courage to be open-hearted. To be vulnerable. To rely on others, and be relied on in turn. To go against the grain of a culture devoted to self-aggrandizement and competitive individualism. To be misunderstood by that culture, or dismissed, and to remain kind nonetheless -- steadfast in purpose, focused on the practice of kindness, not its outcome. Kindess in this wider aspect is not limited to human relationships but extends to the way that we walk through life, and engage with the nonhuman world around us. The code of kindness includes our relationship with the planet, and all who share it.

Tilly and the ponies

Scientist Barbara McClintock, for example, clearly lived by a code of kindness (even if she never defined it that way) -- and her open-hearted approach to research led to a revolution in our understanding of genetics. As Pricilla Stuckey explains:

"Looking at nature with compassion was a method of Barbara McClintock, the 1983 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. McClintock was a geneticist working to decipher the maize genome at the same time in the 1950s that her peers Watson and Crick were discovering the double helix structure of DNA. Unlike most geneticists, however, who thought of genes as fixed units, like pearls on a string, McClintock watched, puzzled, as maize genes jumped from their supposedly fixed postitions to take up other spots on the strand. McClintock's discovery of 'transposable' genetic elements inaugurated what Stephen Jay Gould called a second revolution in genetics....

"McClintock often said that in order to understand any organism, you have to 'get a feel for it.' In her small maize field she walked meditatively every morning during the growing season, memorizing the smallest changes in each plant from the day before. 'I start with the seedling,' she said, 'and I don't want to leave it. I don't feel I really know the story if I don't watch the plant all the way along. So I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately, and I find it a great pleasure to know them.'

Tilly and the pony

"She regarded her stalks of maize, she said, with 'real affection,' watching each as if from the inside -- as if, a colleague remarked, she could write its autobiography. Gould observes that hers was the method of naturalists, who typically spend time watching and listening to -- and developing appreciation for -- the plants or animals or landscape they study, rather than, as most molecular biologists do, trying to isolate chemical chains of cause and effect. McClintock's genius lay in applying the method of naturalism to her work in the lab.

Tilly and the pony

"Both a naturalist and a contemplative -- don't the two often go together? -- McClintock in her deep gazing may seem very familiar to those who have practiced meditation or gone on a retreat in a monestary or ashram. I think of one of her breakthrough moments in the laboratory, when, after some days of feeling stymied, unable to make sense of the tangled chromosomes under her microscope, McClintock took a walk to sit under a eucalyptus tree. She returned to the lab feeling energized. When she looked again through the microscope at the chromesomes, she reported,

'I found that the more I worked with them, the bigger and bigger [they] got, and when I was really working with them I wasn't outside, I was down there. I was part of the system...and everything got big. I was even able to see the internal part of the chromosomes....It surprised me because I actually felt as if I were right down there and these were my friends.'

Dartmoor ponies

Bog 3

"The process of looking closely at the chromosomes led her into a feeling of unity with them," notes Stuckey, "which led in turn to a more accurate understanding of how they operated, seeing them as clearly as if she were moving among them.

"What is remarkable about her form of contemplation, and what makes it accessible to nonscientists, is that, as one biographer wrote, her 'most mystical sounding ideas stemmed from observation and scepticism, not occult visitations.' She merely looked in, and in looking, loved. ' "

Gate

She merely looked, and in looking loved. That's what I aim for every day.

GateThe passage above by Priscilla Stuckey is from Kissed by a Fox & Other Stories of Friendship in Nature (Counterpoint, 2012), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.


The Longest Night

The title of this magical animation by paper cut artist Angie Pickman refers to the winter solstice, but it's also symbolic of other "long nights" we face in life: a mental or physical health crisis...a period of grief, hardship, or trauma...or the week leading to a troubling transition of power in Washington DC.

"We are always on a journey from darkness into light," the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue reminds us. "At first, we are children of the darkness. Your body and your face were formed first in the kind darkness of your mother's womb. You lived the first nine months in there. Your birth was the first journey from darkness into light. All your life, your mind lives within the darkness of your body. Every thought you have is a flint moment, a spark of light from your inner darkness. The miracle of thought is its presence in the night side of your soul; the brilliance of thought is born of darkness. Each day is a journey. We come out of the night into the day. All creativity awakens at this primal threshold where light and darkness test and bless each other. You only discover the balance in your life when you learn to trust the flow of this ancient rhythm."

Copyright by Karen Davis

In the mythic sense, we practice moving from darkness into light every morning of our lives. The task now is make that movement larger, to join together to carry the entire world through the long night to the dawn.

Stray by Jeanie Tomanek

Capturing the Moon by Jeanie Tomanek

The art above is"The Spirit Within" by Karen Davis (UK); "Stray" and "Capturing the Moon" by Jeanie Tomanek (US). The video is by Angie Pickman (US); go here to see more of her work. The quote is from Anam Cara (Bantam Books, 1997) by John O'Donhue (1956-2008, Ireland). All right to the video and art above are reserved by the artists; all rights to O'Donohue's text are reserved by his estate.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Treble Viol/Viola de Gamba

This is going to be a very tough week for many people, particularly in America (due to the impending presidential inauguration), so let's start the day with music that is soul-lifting, timeless, and crosses over all walls and borders.

Above: "Folia: Op.Vn.12 - Rome, 1 Gennaio" by Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli (17th century). It's performed here by Hiro Kurosaki on violin, Alberto Martínez Molina on cembalo, and Ruth Verona (of The Purcells) on cello, filmed at the National Library of Spain and GBS Studio by Noah Shaye & Jose Aguilarat.

Below: A short but gorgeous extract from "La Rêveuse: Les folies d'Espagne" by French composer Marin Marias (late 17th century), performed on viola de gamba by the great Catalan violist, composer, conductor, and music scholar Jordi Savall.

Above: "Folias of Spain: Music of the Sephardic Diasopora," a concert by Jordi Savall, performing with Rolf Lislevand (baroque guitar, theorbo), Arianna Savall (harp), Pedro Estevan (percussion) and Adela González-Campa (percussion) at a music festival in Lanvellec, France.

Below: "L'Amor" by singer, composer, and harpist Arianna Savall, who is the Swiss-born daughter of Catalan composer Jordi Savall and soprano Montserrat Figueras. She's released three albums and this piece is on the first of them: Bella Terra.

Please be good to yourselves and each other this week, for the conflicts and tensions of world events can so easily filter down to the personal level. My continuing mantra: be gentle, be gentle, be gentle. Stand your ground, know your truth, but be kind.


On the difference between hope and faith...and the need for both

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From Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Haymarket, 2004):

"A friend of mine, Jaime Cortez, tells me I should consider the difference between hope and faith. Hope, he says, can be based on the evidence, on the track record of what might be...but faith endures even when there's no way to imagine winning in the foreseeable future. Faith is more mystical. Jaime sees the American Left as pretty devoid of faith, and connects faith to what it takes to change things in the long term, beyond what you might live to see or benefit from. I argue that what was once the Left is now so full of anomalies -- of indigenous intellectuals and Catholic pacifists and the like -- that maybe we do have faith -- some of us.

"Activism isn't reliable. It isn't fast. It isn't direct either, most of the time, even though the term direct action is used for that confrontation in the streets, those encounters involving law breaking and civil disobedience. It may be because activists move like armies through the streets that people imagine effects as direct as armies. An army assaults the physical world and takes physical possession of it; activists reclaim the streets and occasionally seize a Bastille or swarm a Berlin Wall, but the terrain of their action is usually immaterial, the realm of the symbolic, political discourse, collective imagination. They enter the conversation forcefully, but it remains a conversation. Every act is an act of faith, because you don't know what will happen. You just hope and employ whatever wisdom and experience seems most likely to get you there.

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"I believe all this," Solnit continues, "because I've lived it, and I've lived it because I am a writer. For twenty years I have sat alone at a desk tinkering with sentences and then sending them out, and for most of my literary life, the difference between throwing something in the trash and publishing it was imperceptible, but in the past several years the work has started coming back to me, or the readers have. Musicians and dancers face their audience and visual artists can spy on them, but reading is mostly as private as writing. Writing is lonely. It's an intimate talk with the dead, with the unborn, with the absent, with strangers, with readers who may never come to be and who, even if they do read you, will do so weeks, years, decades later. An essay, a book, is one statement in a long conversation you could call culture or history; you are answering something or questioning something that may have fallen silent long ago, and the response to your words may come long after you're gone and never reach your ears -- if anyone hears you in the first place....

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"You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them, or they might rot. In California, some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire, and sometimes the burned landscape blooms most lavishly. In her book Faith, Sharon Salzberg recounts how she put together a collection of teachings by the Buddhist monk U Pandita and consigned the project to the 'minor good-deed category.' Long afterward, she found out that while Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy movement's leader, was isolated under house arrest by that country's dictators, the book and its instructions in meditation 'became her main source of spiritual support during those intensely difficult years.' Thought becomes action becomes the order of things, but no straight road takes you there.

"Nobody can know the full consequences of their actions, and history is full of small acts that changed the world in surprising ways."

Autumn color 7The passage above is from Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket, 2004). The book is available here at 50% off until January, and I recommend it (and all of Solnit's work) highly. The poem in the picture captions is from The Crooked Inheritance by Marge Piercy (Knopf, 2006). All rights reserved by the authors.


The importance of hope

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Earlier this month, in response to the American election, Rebecca Solnit gave away free copies of her book Hope in the Dark (Haymarket, 2004) -- which prompted me to pull my own copy of the book down from the shelves for a second read. If, like me, you're feeling daunted by the rise of hard-right politics on both sides of the Atlantic, Solnit's incisive book is a tonic indeed: optimistic, yes, but clear-eyed, sharp, and insightful.

"To hope is to gamble," Solnit writes. "It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope."

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On the difference between true and false hope:

"In The Principle of Hope, [Ernst] Bloch declares, 'Fraudulent hope is one of the greatest malefactors, even enervators, of the human race, concretely genuine hope is its most dedicated benefactor' and speaks of 'informed discontent which belongs to hope, because both arise out of the No of deprivation.' The hope that the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes will come to you, that the American dream will come true, that electoral politics will reform itself, is hope that paralyzes people's ability to rebel, to reject, to critique, to demand, and to make change. False hope can be a Yes to deprivation, an acquiescence to a lie. Official hope can be the bullying that tells the marginalized to shut up because everything is fine or will be. In its dilute forms, false hope is not far from despair, for both can be paralyzing. But despair can also be liberating.

"Blind hope faces a blank wall waiting for a door in it to open. Doors might be nearby, but blind hope keeps you from locating them; in this geography, despair can be fruitful, can turn you away from the wall, saying No to deprivation. And this despair in one institution or one site can lead to the location of alternatives, to the quest for doors, or to their creation. The great liberation movements hacked doorways into walls, or the walls came tumbling down. In this way, hope and despair are linked."

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But how do we maintain hope when the challenge in front of us appears so overwhelming? Solnit reminds us of this:

"After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork -- or underground work -- often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

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"Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope and often our power."

Hope in the Dark is available here at 50% off until January. I recommend it highly.

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Commons 8The passage above is from Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket, 2004). The poem in the picture captions is from The Crooked Inheritance by Marge Piercy (Knopf, 2006). All rights reserved by the authors.