Harvesting stories

Flowers and hills  Corrary Farm

From Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"Gary Snyder gave us the image of experience as compost. Compost is stuff, junk, garbage, anything, that's turned to dirt by sitting around a while. It involves silence, darkness, time, and patience. From compost, whole gardens grow.

"It can be useful to think of writing as gardening. You plant the seeds, but each plant will take its own way and shape. The gardener's in control, yes; but plants are living, willful things. Every story has to find its own way to the light. Your great tool as a gardener is your imagination.

Corrary Farm

"Young writers often think -- are taught to think -- that a story starts with a message. That is not my experience. What's important when you start is simply this: you have a story you want to tell. A seedling that wants to grow. Something in your inner experience is forcing itself towards the light. Attentively and carefully and patiently, you can encourage that, let it happen. Don't force it; trust it. Watch it, water it, let it grow.

Polytunnels  Corrary Farm

Organic vegetables

"As you write a story, if you can let it become itself, tell itself fully and truly, you may discover what its really about, what it says, why you wanted to tell it. It may be a surprise to you. You may have thought you planted a dahlia, and look what came up, an eggplant! Fiction is not information transmission; it is not message-sending. The writing of fiction is endlessly surprising to the writer.

Corrary Farm  turf-roofed office

"Like a poem, a story says what it has to say it the only way it can be said, and that is the exact words of the story itself. Why is why the words are so important, why it takes so long to learn how to get the words right. Why you need silence, darkness, time, patience, and a real solid knowledge of English vocabulary and grammar.

"Truthful imagining from experience is recognizable, shared by its readers."

Howard in the yurt cafe  Corrary Farm

Welcoming committee

Words: The passage above is from "Making Up Stories," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from Circles on the Water by Marge Piercy (Knopf, 1988). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Corray Farm on Scotland's west coast, near Glenelg, photographed on our trip north in June: polytunnels, turf-roofed office, Howard reading in the yurt cafe, and the four-footed welcoming committee.


Foxglove season

Devon foxgloves

Howard is back from a month of teaching in London, and the hound is over the moon to have him home. Little does she know, poor duck, that both of us are about to leave her, heading far north to the Isle of Skye to celebrate the birthdays of two dear friends, in the company of friends old and new. Tilly adores her dog-sitter (Howard's mum), so it won't be such a terrible ordeal; she'll have good company, and plenty of walks and adventures. But I'm going to miss my little black shadow...probably even more than she'll miss me.

I'll be entirely off-line while we're traveling -- and then back to Devon, back to the studio, and back to Myth & Moor during the first week of July. I wish you all a good, peaceful, and wildly creative time as we move into the summer months.

Devon foxgloves

Devon foxgloves

The pictures today are for Pamela Dean and Stuart Hill, who are, as I recall, particular fans of foxgloves (as well as being wonderful novelists whose books I highly recommend).

For the folklore of foxgloves, see this previous post: "Little gloves for the foxes and the fey." Plus, there's a little summer magic for you hidden in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the foxgloves to find it.)

Devon foxgloves

Fox Girl & Friend

P1410846

Devon foxgloves

Hound and foxgloves


The writer as wizard

Bluebells 1

Today, another passage from Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" to discuss; and this time it is one that you might find a bit more provocative (especially for readers who love the Harry Potter books):

Fiction writers, says Le Guin, "are slow beginners. Very few are worth much until they are thirty or so. Not because they lack life experience, but because their imagination hasn't had time to compost it, to meditate on what they've done and seen and felt, and to realize its value may lie less in its uniqueness than in its giving access to an understanding of the shared human condition. This requires imaginative work; and [realist] autobiographical first novels, self-centered and self-pitying, often suffer from lack of imagination.

Bluebells 2

"But many fantasies, works of so-called imaginative fiction, suffer from the same thing: imaginative poverty. The writers haven't actually used their imaginations, they don't make up anything -- they just move archetypes around in a game of wish fulfillment.

3

"In fantasy, since the fictionality of the fiction -- the inventions, the dragons -- are right out in front, it's easy to assume that the story has no relation at all to experience, that everything in a fantasy can be just the way a writer wants. No rules, all cards wild. All the ideas in fantasy are just wishful thinking -- right? Well, no. Wrong. It may be that the further a story gets from common experience and accepted reality, the less wishful thinking it can do, and the more firmly its essential ideas must be grounded in common experiences and accepted reality.

Bluebells 4

"Serious fantasy goes into regions of the psyche that may be very strange territory to the reader, dangerous ground; and for that reason, serious fantasy is usually both conservative and realistic about human nature. Its mode is usually comic, not tragic; that is, it has a more-or-less happy ending but, just as the tragic hero brings his tragedy on himself, the happy outcome in a fantasy novel is earned by the behavior of the protagonist. Serious fantasy invites the reader on a wild journey of invention, through wonders and marvels, through mortal risks and dangers -- all the time hanging on to a common, everyday, realistic morality. Generosity, reliability, compassion, and courage: in fantasy these moral qualities are seldom questioned. They are accepted, and they are tested -- often to the limit, and beyond.

Bluebells 5

"The people who write the stuff on book covers obsessively describe fantasy as 'a battle between good and evil,' but in commercial fantasy the battle is all; the white wizards and the black magicians are both mindlessly violent. It's not a moral struggle, just a power struggle. This is about as far from Tolkien as you can get.

Bluebells 6

"But why should moral seriousness matter, why do probability and consistency matter, when it's 'all just made up'? Well, moral seriousness is exactly what makes fantasy matter. The made-up story is inevitably trivial if nothing real is at stake. That's my problem with Harry Potter; all the powerful people are divided into good ones and bad ones, all of whom use their power for mere infighting and have nothing to do with people without power. Such easy wish fulfillment has a great appeal to children, who are genuinely powerless, but it worries me when adults fall for it. In the same way, the purer the invention, the more important its credibility, consistency, and coherence. The rules of the invented realm must be followed to the letter. All wizards, including writers, are extremely careful about their spells. Every word must be the right word. A sloppy wizard is a dead wizard. Serious fantasists delight in invention, in the freedom to invent, but they know that careless invention kills magic. Fantasy happily flouts fact, but it is just as concerned with truth as the direst realism."

Bluebells 7

Bluebells 8

Words: The passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014).  Pictures: Walking the bluebell path.


Cycles, seasons, and daffodils

Wild daffodils

Spring is truly here, at long last. The earliest flowers in our garden have done their work to wake the land from sleep: the primroses and grape hyacinths, the purple aubretia climbing up the stone walls, the columbines that have seeded themselves and run riot on the hillside. The cherry trees have burst into bloom, with the apple and plum trees soon to follow. The woods behind the studio are golden with wild daffodils, which in turn will give way to the smaller pleasures of cranesbill, sicklewort, and bluebells.

Coffee break with hound and daffodils

The movement of the landscape through its seasons reminds me of the energy and vitality to be found in cycles and circles...and as someone who works in the narrative arts, I find that I need that reminder.

Narrative, in its most standard form, tends to run in linear fashion from beginning to middle to end. A story opens "Once upon a time," then moves -- prompted by a crisis or plot twist -- into the narrative journey: questing, testing, trials and tribulations -- and then onward to climax and resolution, ending "happily ever after" (or not, if the tale is a sad or ambiguous one). In the West, our concepts of "time" and "progress" are largely linear too. We circle through days by the hours of the clock, years by the months of the calendar, yet our lives are pushed on a linear track: infant to child to adult to elder, with death as the final chapter. Progress is measured by linear steps, education by grades that ascend year by year, careers by narratives that run along the same railway line: beginning, middle, and end.

But in fact, narratives are cyclical too if we stand back and look through a broader lens. Clever Hans will marry his princess and they will produce three dark sons or three pale daughters or no child at all until a fairy intervenes, and then those children will have their own stories: marrying frogs and turning into swans and climbing glass hills in iron shoes. No ending is truly an ending, merely a pause before the tale goes on.

Coffee and daffodils in the woods

As a folklorist and a student of nature, I know the importance of cycles, seasons, and circular motion -- but I've grown up in a culture that loves straight lines, beginnings and ends, befores and afters, and I keep expecting life to act accordingly, even though it so rarely does. Take health, for example. We envision the healing process as a linear one, steadily building from illness to strength and full function; yet for those of us managing long-term conditions, our various trials don't often lead to the linear "ending-as-resolution" but to the cyclical "ending-as-pause": a time to catch one's breath before the next crisis or plot twist sets the tale back in motion.

Relationships, too, are cyclical. Spousal relationships, family relationships, friendships, work partnerships: they aren't tales of linear progression, they are tales full of cycles, circles, and seasons. The path isn't straight, it loops and bends; the narrative side-tracks and sometimes dead ends. We don't progress in relationships so much as learn, change, and adapt with each season, each twist of the road.

Hound and notebooks

As a writer and a reader, I'm partial to stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends (not necessarily in that order in the case of fractured narratives) -- but when I'm away from the desk or the printed page (or the cinema or the television screen), I am trying to let go of the habit of measuring my life in a strictly linear way. Healing, learning, and art-making don't follow straight roads but queer twisty paths on which half the time I feel utterly lost...until, like magic, I've arrived somewhere new, some place I could never have imagined.

I want especially to be rid of the tyranny of Before and After. "After such-and-such is accomplished," we say, "then the choirs will sing and life will be good." When my novel is published. When I get that job. When I find that partner. When I lose ten pounds. No, no, no, no. Because even if we reach our goal, the heavenly choirs don't sing -- or if they do sing, you quickly discover it's all that they do. They don't do your laundry, they don't solve all your problems. You are still you, and life is still life: a complex mixture of the bad and the good. And now, of course, the goal posts have moved. The Land of After is no longer a published book, it's five books, a best-seller, a major motion picture. You don't ever get to the Land of After; it's always changing, always shimmering on the far horizon.

I don't want to live after. I want to live now, moving with, not against, life's cycles and seasons, the twists and the turns, the ups and the downs, appreciating it all.

The Hound in spring

Today, I walked among spring's first flowers, chose a few to bring back to the studio -- where they sit on my desk in a pickle jar, glowing as bright as the sun and the moon. At my desk, I work in a linear artform, writing words in a line across a ruled page -- and the flowers remind me that cycles and seasons should be part of the narrative too. Circular patterns. Loops and digressions. Tales that turn and meander down paths that, surprise!, are the paths that were meant all along. Stories that reach resolutions and endings, but ends that turn into another beginning. Again. Again. Tell it again.

Once upon a time...

Wild daffodils on my deskThe poem in the picture captions is from Bitter Angel by Amy Gerstler (North Point Press, 1990); all rights reserved by the author.


On a cold, cold day, the first signs of spring

Tilly and the Oak Elder

Wild daffodils emerging in the woods

As the final stretch of my Secret Project goes on and on, I'm worried that I've been neglecting readers of Myth & Moor. So here's my plan: While I'm finishing up the work at hand (which I truly hope won't be much longer now), I'll also post some photographs each day, taken on my usual rambles with the hound...but leave it to you to supply the words to go with them in your comments, discussions, and poems. (I know full well you are up to the challenge!)

White feather on the forest floor

For those of you who like to start the day with a good read, I'll include a recommendation with each post. Today, I recommend Kate Harloe's interview with George Saunders in The Rumpus. The piece is so terrific that I can't pull a single quote out for you -- it really ought to be read in full, for Saunders has wonderful things to say about writing, revision, respect for readers, and the value of "bold compassion" in the age of Social Media and alarming politics.

Wild snowdrops

Wild hound

Snowdrops

Also, a book recommendation: Selected Poems by Welsh poet Gillian Clarke (Picador, 2016), which is simply gorgeous. Go here for a taste.

Selected Poems by Gillian Clarke

Dog poems


Foxgloves at Bumblehill

The Lady of Bumblehill

Briar RoseFoxgloves in our courtyard.

Like many, I am feeling battered by the daily headlines, and so I'm taking a few days off the internet to ground myself, and to meet some rather importants deadlines that sailed right passed me while other parts of my life required attention. I'll be back on Monday or Tuesday, once the last of these overdue commitments have been honorably  discharged.

Be kind to yourself in the meantime. Between the shootings in Florida, and the shooting of MP and social justice activist Jo Cox over here, it's been a very, very rough week for everyone, and for the LGBT and feminist community in particular.

"I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos,"  Saul Bellow once wrote. "A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."

I wish you stillness.

Foxglove by Howard's studioFoxgove beside The Little Cabin by the Woods (Howard's studio).


Light and shadow, part two

Path 1

"When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening." - Madeleine L'Engle (Walking on Water)

Path 2

Path 3

PATH 4

I'd been looking forward to a solitary, calm, work-focused week while my husband was up in London...but it turned into one of crisis-management instead, the quiet of my creative voice drowned out by a louder chorus of life's demands. The stress level rose in my studio, and by Friday Tilly had clearly had enough. Normally if I'm too busy or tired for our morning walk she accepts it with good grace, but this time she would simply not give up. She stared and stared. She tapped my knee with her paw, eyes wide, her intention clear. She walked to the door and back, over and over, and then tapped me on the knee once more. And so, at last, I gave in, closed down the computer and laced up my boots.

Path 5

I followed her out the garden gate, through the woods and onto Nattadon Hill, carpeted now with bluebells and swaths of stitchwort like little white stars.

Path 6

Path 7

Work fell away. Words fell away. Heart-ache and worry slowly fell away too. We climbed, and climbed, the air tasting of flowers, and I grew a little lighter with every step. Re-discovering, as Madeleine L'Engle would say, time for being. And for listening.

Path 8

Path 9

Path 10

Path 11

Path 12

An hour later we came back down, following the path through wildflowers and bracken back to the studio. The problems pressing on me hadn't solved themselves, the work on my desk hadn't disappeared, and I wasn't magically flooded with new insight and energy for tackling both those things...but it was better. A subtle, almost imperceptible change, but it was enough.

Path 13

Path 14

As long there are moments of beauty on the hard, dark days, I know that I can keep on going.

Path 15

Path 16

And that you can too.

Path 18

Path 19

Path 20The Madeleine L'Engle quote is from Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art (Wheaton Literary Series, 2001). The poem in the picture captions is from Where Many Rivers Meet by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 2004). All rights reserved by the authors.


From the archives: Picking Nettles

Spring is the time to harvest nettles...

Nettle path at the bottom of Nattadon Hill.

In the fairy tale of "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Andersen, the heroine's brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. A kindly fairy instructs her to gather nettles in a ''The Wild Swans: Picking Nettles by Moonlight'' by Nadezhda Illarionovagraveyard by night, spin their fibers into a prickly green yarn, and then knit the yarn into a coat for each swan brother in order to break the spell -- all of which she must do without speaking a word or her brothers will die. The nettles sting and blister her hands, but she plucks and cards, spins and knits, until the nettle coats are almost done -- running out of time before she can finish the sleeve on the very last coat. She flings the coats onto her swan-brothers and they transform back into young men -- except for the youngest, with the incomplete coat, who is left with a wing in the place of one arm. (And there begins a whole other tale.)

This was one of my favorite stories as a child, for I too had brothers in harm's way, and I too was a silent sister who worked as best I could to keep them safe, and sometimes succeded, and sometimes failed, as the plot of our lives unfolded. The story confirmed that courage can be as painful as knitting coats from nettles, but that goodness can still win out in the end. Spells can broken, and gentle, loving persistence can be the strongest magic of them all.

 

Wild Swans by Susan Jeffers

The Wild Swans

I grew up with the story, but not with Urtica dioica: "common nettles" or "stinging nettles." I imagined them as dark, thorny, and witchy-looking -- and although they're actually green and ordinary, growing thickly in fields and hedges here in Devon, nettles emerge nonetheless from the loam of old stories and glow with a fairy glamour. It is a plant that heralds the return of spring, a tonic of vitamins and minerals; and also a plant redolent of swans and spells, of love and loss and loyalty, of ancient powers skillfully knotted into the most traditional of women's arts: carding, spinning, knitting, and sewing.

Urtica dioica: the common nettle or stinging nettle, native to  Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and North America

Nettle Coat by Alice Maher

According to the Anglo-Saxon "Nine Herbs Charm," recorded in the 10th century, stiðe (nettles) were used as a protection against "elf-shot" (mysterious pains in humans or livestock caused by the arrows of the elvin folk) and"flying venom" (believed at the time to be one of the four primary causes of illness). In Norse myth, nettles are associated with Thor, the god of Thunder; and with Loki, the trickster god, whose magical fishing net is made from them. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are fairy dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against fairy mischief, black magic, and other forms of sorcery.

Nettles with ferns, flowers, and dog.

Harvesting nettles.

Nettles once rivaled flax and hemp (and later, cotton) as a staple fiber for thread and yarn, used to make everything from heavy sailcloth to fine table linen up to the 17th/18th centuries. Other fibers proved more economical as the making of cloth became more mechanized, but in some areas (such as the highlands of Scotland) nettle cloth is still made to this day. "In Scotland, I have eaten nettles," said the 18th century poet Thomas Campbell, "I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen."

Nettles among the wildflowers.

Nettles, stitchwort, and campion.

Nettle path by an old stone wall.

"Nettles have numerous virtues," writes Margaret Baker in Discovering the Folklore of Plants. "Nettle oil preceded paraffin; the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness.

"Mixing medicine and magic, a healer could cure fever by pulling up a nettle by its roots while speaking the patient's name and those of his parents. Roman soldiers in damp Britain found that rheumatic joints responded to a beating with nettles. Tyroleans threw nettles on the fire to avert thunderstorms, and gathered nettle before sunrise to protect their cattle from evil spirits."

Nettles and bluebells

Nettle tips for soup, tonic, and tea.

The medicinal value of nettles is confirmed by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal in their useful book Hedgerow Medicine:

"Nettle was the Anglo-Saxon sacred herb wergula, and in medieval times nettle beer was drunk for rheumatism. Nettle's high vitamin C content made it a valuable spring tonic for our ancestors after a winter of living on grain and salted meat, with hardly any green vegetables. Nettle soup and porridge were popular spring tonic purifiers, but a pasta or pesto from the leaves is a worthily nutritious modern alternative. Nettle soup is described by one modern writer as 'Springtime herbalism at one of its finest moments.' This soup is the Scottish kail. Tibetans believe that their sage and poet Milarepa (AD 1052-1135) lived solely on nettle soup for many years until he himself turned green: a literal green man.

"Nettles enhance natural immunity, helping protect us from infections. Nettle tea drunk often at the start of a feverish illness is beneficial. Nettles have long been considered a blood tonic and are a wonderful treatment for anaemia, as they are high in both iron and chlorophyll. The iron in nettles is very easily absorbed and assimilated. What cooks will tell you is that two minutes of boiling nettle leaves will neutralize both the silica 'syringes' of the stinging cells and the histamine or formic acid-like solution that is so painful."

Nettle basket.

Evening sunlight through the kitchen window.

Bumblehill Nettle Soup

Melt some butter in the bottom of the soup pot, add a chopped onion or two, and cook slowly until softened.

Add a litre or so of vegetable or chicken stock, with salt, pepper, and any herbs you fancy.

Add 2 large potatoes (chopped), a large carrot (chopped), and simmer until almost soft. If you like your soup thick, use more potatoes.

Preparing nettle soup.

Throw in several large handfuls of fresh nettle tops, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes.

Add some cream (to taste), and a pinch of nutmeg. Purée with a blender, and serve. (If you happen to have some truffle oil in your pantry, a light sprinkling on the soup tastes terrific.)

Use the left-over nettles for tea, sweetened with honey. Or try these two other good recipes: nettle pancakes and wild nettle bread.

Nettle soup.

''The Wild Swans'' by Susan Jeffers and Yvonne Gilbert

Nettles

Nettles, folk tales around the world agree, have long been associated with women's domestic magic: with inner strength and fortitude, with healing and also self-healing, with protection and also self-protection, with the ability to "enrich the soil" wherever we have been planted. Nettle magic is steeped in dualities: both fierce and soft, painful and restorative, common as weeds and priceless as jewels. Potent. Tenacious. Humble and often overlooked. Resilient. 

Courtyard

Soup is served.

And pretty tasty too.

Tilly guards the nettle crop.

''The Wild Swans The Princess and her Swan Brothers'' by Donn P Crane
The illustrations for "The Wild Swans" above are by Nadezhda Illarionova, Susan Jeffers, Mercer Mayer, Eleanor V. Abbott, Yvonne Gilbert, & Donn P. Crane. The Nettle Coat is by Alice Maher. Related posts: "Swan's Wing" and "The Folklore of Food."