A parliament of owls

Detail from The Falling Star by Catherine Hyde

Studio 1

This post was first appeared here a year ago, and is reprinted today by request. It goes out to all who struggle with the short days and long nights of winter....

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.


Swan Maidens and Crane Wives

Swans by Gennady Spirin

I generally compose each morning's post in the quiet and solitude of the early hours before my work day begins...but this morning was not a quiet one at Bumblehill, for a variety of mundane household reasons. (Ah, the eternal tug-of-war as art and family/community life pull in separate directions.) My window of time for posting has now passed and I must get on to working on my manuscript-in-progress. So here's one from the archives today, first posted on Myth & Moor back in 2013:

From "The Swan Maiden's Feathered Robe" by novelist and folklorist Midori Snyder:

"It is hard to imagine a more visually beautiful image in folk tales than the one presented by the figures of the swan maiden and her sisters. With a flurry of wings, they swoop down from the sky to glide The Swan Maidens by Walter Crane
elegantly across a clear pond. Then, throwing off their feathered gowns, they bathe and frolic in the water as women. They are always lovely, sensual, a combination of exotic sexuality and innocent charm.

"In the traditional swan maiden narrative, a hunter or young prince is smitten with love at first sight for the youngest swan sister — smitten enough to commit several crimes against the very object of his desire for the sole purpose of keeping such a magical creature within his grasp. These crimes culminate in marriage and the attempted domestication of the wild, fantastical swan maiden, turned into a wife and mother. But this is less a tale about love than one about marital coercion and confusion. Neither husband nor wife is on the same page; their union is at best a tenuous détente, made possible only by the husband's theft of the swan maiden's feathered gown, forcing her to remain human and estranged from her own world. The husband has done nothing to earn such a Lohengrin by Walter Cranepowerful wife, and the swan maiden has no opportunity to choose her own fate. This is a marriage that cannot last in its fractured form. It must either go forward to find a level playing field for husband and wife, or it must end in miserable dissolution.

"Let us consider a European version of the tale reconstructed from a variety of sources by Victorian author Joseph Jacobs. A hunter is spending the night in a clump of bushes on the edge of a pond, hoping to capture wild ducks. At midnight, hearing the whirring of wings, he is astonished to see not ducks but seven maidens clad in robes of feathers alight on the bank, disrobe, and begin to bathe and sport in the water. The hunter seizes the opportunity to creep through the bushes and steal one of the robes. When dawn approaches, the sisters gather their garments and prepare to leave, but the youngest sister is distraught, unable to find her robe. Daylight is coming and the older sisters cannot wait for her. They leave her behind, telling her 'to meet your fate whatever it may be.'

"As soon as the sisters are out of sight, the hunter approaches her, holding the feathered robe. The young maiden weeps and begs for its return, but the hunter, already too much in love, refuses. Instead, he covers her with his cloak and The Child Finds the Feather Dress, from the Europa's Fairy Book, 1916; artist unknowntakes her home. Once there, he hides her robe, knowing that if she puts it on again, he will lose her. They are married, and she gifts him with two children, a boy and a girl. One day, while playing hide–and–seek, the little girl finds the hidden robe and brings it to her mother. Without a moment's hesitation, the wife slips on the robe. We can almost imagine the mother's sigh of relief to be herself again, her true fantastic self, and not the pale wife weighted down by domestic drudgery. And yet, she offers a spark of hope for the future of the marriage. 'Tell your father, if he wishes to see me again, he must find me in the land East o' the Sun and West' o' the Moon,' she says to her daughter just before flying out the window.

Wings by T Windling"No matter how compliant a swan maiden may appear as a wife, there remains an unspoken anxiety and tension beneath the surface of her marriage. Her husband can never be certain of her affection, for it has been held hostage by her stolen skin. He offers her his cloak, but it is an exchange of unequal goods. Her feathered robe is the sign of her wild nature, of her freedom, and of her power, while his cloak becomes the instrument of her domestication, of her submission in human society. He steals her identity, the very thing that attracted him, and then turns her into his most precious prize, a pale version of the original creature of magic.

"Conflict is never far beneath the veneer of the swan maiden's compliance. In a German version of the tale, a hunter captures a swan maiden's skin, and although she follows him home pleading for its return, he offers her only marriage. She accepts, not out of love but to remain close to the skin which is her identity. Fifteen years and several children later, the hunter leaves to go on a hunting trip, for once forgetting to lock the attic. Alone in the house, the wife searches the attic and finds her skin in a dusty chest. She immediately puts it on and flies out the window before the startled eyes of her children, with nary a word of farewell....

"The swan maiden stories suggest that there are marriages that will themselves to dissolution because of the inability of the pair to mature and to integrate into each other's world. In the human Illustration by John Bauerworld, the swan maiden loses her fantastic nobility and is subjected to the daily labors of a human wife – including childbearing, which is portrayed as so distasteful the swan wives often seem to have few qualms about leaving their children behind the moment they recover their skins. The husband either cannot find her world (and dies of melancholy), or, when he does succeed in arriving in her domain, he cannot accept the fantastical world on his wife's terms. These are, at best, temporary reunions....

"There was considerable renewed interest in the swan maiden tales in Europe throughout the late 19th century. For the English Victorians it was the era of the 'Married Woman's Property Acts' and of the 'New Woman.' Marriage roles, divorce, and the appropriate role of a wife were being re-examined and questioned.  The swan maiden, with her ability to effectively fly away from her marriage and her children, became a fascinating study for Victorian folklorists, who saw in the narrative the evolution of the institution of marriage. According to Carole Silver in her illuminating article 'East of the Sun and West of the Moon': Victorians and Fairy Brides, the interpretations of the tale varied widely, and depended on one's attitudes toward women's role in marriage, an imbalance of power between the sexes and women's sexuality.

"Joseph Jacobs felt that the reader's sympathy lay with the abandoned husband, not the swan maiden as representative of a matrilineal society with 'easy and primitive' marriage bonds that could be more easily broken. Silver reports that Jacobs believed 'that the "eerie wife," in separating from her mate, forfeited the audience's respect; her behavior reinforced the listener's sympathy with the husband. "Is he not," Jacobs asked, to be "regarded as the superior of the fickle, mysterious maid that leaves him for the break of a On the Shores of the Land of Death by Akseli Gallen-Kallelataboo?" ' Silver argues that folklorists like Jacobs were expressing anxiety over the emerging institution of divorce, believing that the looseness of the marriage bond was a trait among 'savages.' Silver continues: 'Clearly, free and easy separation was associated with primitive societies and savage eras. Complex and difficult divorce, on the other hand, was the hallmark of a highly evolved society. . . .By diminishing the claims to superiority of the fairy bride, neutralizing her sexuality, and limiting or denying her right to divorce, Victorian folklorists rendered her acceptable to themselves and their society.'

"Can we love the swan maiden? She seems to offer both an image of feminine power and feminine weakness: a girl who submits to the deceptions of a suitor and a woman who rejects the terms of an unfair marriage. She is at once a doting mother and one who will happily abandon her children in favor of her own needs. Her ambiguous tale can be read as the suppression of women's rights and women's creative power through enforced domestication, but it can also show such a woman's resolve to not only survive a questionable marriage but to remain true to her nature. When given the chance, no amount of suppression can keep the swan maiden down. I feel a terrible tenderness for the youngest swan–girl, abandoned by her sisters to her fate on the ground. I want to shelter her from the routine ordinariness of her human marriage, given over to the demands of others. And I want to cheer, relieved and inspired, when she finds her own true self again, and rises to soar."

(Read Midori's full article here.)

Swans by Jeanie Tomanek

The Six Swans by Warwick GobleWhen the change came
she was floating in the millpond,
foam like white lace tracing her wake.
First her neck shrinking,
candle to candleholder,
the color of old, used wax.
Wings collapsed like fans;
one feather left,
floating memory on the churning water.
Powerful legs devolving;
Powerful beak dissolving.
She would have cried for the pain of it
had not remembrance of sky sustained her....

- Jane Yolen (from "Swan/Princess")



The Crane Wife by Diana Torledano

"The Crane Wife," from Asia, is a closely related tale in the animal bride tradition. Details vary according to country, century, and teller, but the basic story is this: A poor weaver (or sailmaker) finds an injured crane on his doorstep (or in the fields, or by the side of a moonlit lake), dresses her wounds, and nurses her back to health. He kindly releases the crane back into the wild...after which a beautiful woman appears (the crane in human form), and the two of them promptly marry.

All goes well for a while, until the man's business falls on hard times. The crane wife tells her husband that she can lift them out of poverty by weaving a bolt of wondrous cloth (or an extraordinary sail) --  but he must solemnly promise not to watch her as she does it. She weaves the cloth, they sell it for a tremendous price, and soon the couple is rich. But now the man grows greedy, and he pressures her to make more and more. His wife grows tired and begins to waste away, but the man ignores this and continues to press for more cloth. Finally, at death's door, she tells her husband she can make only one more bolt. That night her husband decides it's time to learn what the secret of her weaving is. Spying on her as she works, he's horrified to see a crane at the loom, plucking feathers from her own breast and weaving them into the magical cloth. He cries aloud, and the crane wife knows he's broken his promise to her. She flies away, and he spends the rest of his life lamenting his lost love.

A Crane Wife illustration by Gennady Spirin

A Crane Wife illustration by Gennady SpirinJeannine Hall Gailey gives voice to the Crane Wife's sorrow and anger in her poignant poem based on the folktale:

I flew away, a crane who had given you
her white glory, and you knew the cloth

to be the sacrifice of my own skin, my feather coat.
A thousand cranes descended on your hut,
crying with betrayal. You searched all of Japan for me
until you found a lake of cranes, those white ciphers,

cried your goodbyes, useless, now, with age.
You had the gift of my wings, knew the lift
of flight and the gentle neck. Now, old man,
remember, when you watch a flash in the sky,

remember me, remember

The folk tale also inspired the title poem in Sharon Hashimoto's debut poetry collection The Crane Wife, winner of the Theodore Roerich Poetry Prize -- a haunting volume that explores the author's Japanese heritage and life in the Pacific Northwest.

Patrick Ness' new adult novel, The Crane Wife, explores the folk tale's theme of love and betrayal, transplanting its setting to modern-day London. In an interview in Polari Magazine, Ness explains why he find the old tale so compelling:

The Crane Wife by Cheryl Kirk Noll"[U]nlike most folk and fairy tales, it starts with an act of kindness.Most start with an act of cruelty, but this one starts with a kind act and then turns into [a tale about] that kind person making a mistake, and letting their worst instincts get the best of them, and that's why it appeals to me. It's a really different flavour than most tales. It ends tragically but you can understand it in human terms, that you're given a chance with the eternal, the beautiful, the magical, but you blow it. I think that's really human."

Ness was inspired not only by the story itself, but by the Crane Wife songs penned by Colin Meloy and recorded by his alt-folk band, The Decemberists.

Lyrics for Colin Meloy's The Crane Wife 3Meloy first came across the Crane Wife folk tale several years ago in the children’s section of a bookstore in Portland, Oregon. “I thought that it would be a great thing to try to put it to some sort of song form, be it a single tune or something longer,” Meloy says. “So I struggled with that for years until finally I realized that it just needed more parts and set about building those.” He ended up with a collection of songs, three of them based on the Japanese story and the rest using other old folk motifs: death, war, greed, and murder.  (The full lyrics to Crane Wife 1 & 2 are here, to Crane Wife 3 here, and Meloy discusses his songs on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" program here.)

Below, Meloy sings a stripped-down, solo version of the three Crane Wife songs at the Ace Hotel in New York City (recorded  in October, 2010).

"There were as many truths - overlapping, stewed together - as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story's life. A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew." - Patrick Ness (from The Crane Wife)

Swans by Walter Crane

The illustrations above are: "Swans" by Gennardy Spirin (Russian); "Swan Maidens" and Lohengrin" by Walter Crane (English, 1845-915); "The Child Finds the Feather Dress," artist unknown (from Europa's Fairy Book, NYC, 1916); a swan maiden drawing of mine called "Wings" (inspired by a Kim Antieau poem); "Wild Swans" by John Bauer (Swedish, 1882-1918);  "On the Shores of the Land of Death" by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (Finnish, 1865-1931) ); "Swans" by Jeanie Tomanek (American); "Six Swans" by Warwick Goble (English, 1862-1943); "The Crane Wife" by Diana Torledano (Spanish); three "Crane Wife" illustrations by Gennardy Spirin (Russian); a "Crane Wife" illustration by Cheryl Kirk Noll (American); lyrics for Colin Meloy's Crane Wife 3, art by Carson Ellis; and "Swans" by Walter Crane (English, 1845-915).


In the gift-giving season

Bunny Gifts by Terri Windling

From the Myth & Moor archives:

I've been thinking a lot about gifts lately, in all the various meanings of the word -- prompted, of course, by the season of holiday gift-giving that is upon us. Here in "austerity Britain," where work and money are increasingly scarce for those in freelance and arts professions (which are   Bunny sketch by Terri Windlingprecarious even at the best of times), a truly frightening number of people are struggling just to put food on the table and keep the lights on overhead. And then comes Christmas, with its lovely old traditions but overwhelming modern expectations; with its roots planted in the good soil of family, community, folklore, and sacred stories, but its leaves unfurled in the toxic air of commercialism and over-consumption.

Some of us cherish the holiday; some of us simply cope with it and then sigh with relief when it's all over; some of us re-shape it into something more nurturing and reflective of our own ideals; some of us turn our backs on it altogether; and some of us weren't raised with Christmas at all, but simply watch while the rest of the Western world goes crazy for a few weeks every year.

I love the spirit of Christmas gift-giving, but not the commercial pressure to shop and spend -- especially in these lean financial times when life is hard, even desperate, for so many. I also prefer to view gift-exchange as a daily part of life, not something confined to the holidays. We gift each other with meals prepared, with gardens tended, with the chores that keep a household running, with kindness, patience, care, attention...a constant giving-and-receiving that starts at home and extends into the world through friendship, community, and activism.

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Making art is a form of gift-giving, made wondrous by the way that some of our creations move outward far beyond our ken, gifting recipients we do not know, will never meet, and sometimes could never imagine. And I, in turn, have received great gifts from writers, painters, musicians, dramatists and others who will never know of my existence either, and yet their words, images, or ideas, coming to me at the right time, have literally saved me.

The paradox inherent in making art, of course, is that it's an act involving both giving and receiving. Like breathing, it requires both, the inhalation and the exhalation. We receive the gift of inspiration (inhale), give it shape and form and pass it on (exhale).

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 The word "gift" itself is commonly used to describe artistic talent: she's a gifted cellist, he's a gifted poet. But where does that "gift" of inspiration come from? In semi-secular modernity, we tend to be politely vague about such things -- but in her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert has an unusual answer to the question:

"I should explain," she says, "at this point that I've spent my entire life in devotion to creativity, and along the way I've developed a set of beliefs about how it works -- and how to work with it -- that is entirely and unapologetically based upon magical thinking. And when I refer to magic here, I mean it literally. Like, in the Hogwarts sense. I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly. Because the truth is, I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment -- not entirely human in its origins....

"I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a dis-embodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us -- albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human's efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the material world."

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Rationalists will scoff at Gilbert's words, but there's enough mysticism in my own beliefs that her concept of creativity doesn't seem so very far-fetched to me; indeed, my only quibble with the paragraph above is that I'm not entirely convinced that those ideas necessarily require a human partner. (Perhaps animals and others with whom we share the planet have art forms of their own that we don't yet perceive.)

A little later in the book, Gilbert writes about creative work in terms that even the rationalists among us might recognize: "Most of my writing life, to be perfectly honest, is not freaky, old-time, voodoo-style Big Magic. Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk, and I work like a farmer, and that's how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least.

"But sometimes it is fairy dust. Sometimes, when I'm in the midst of writing, I feel like I'm suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks you find in an airport terminal; I still have a long slog to my gate, and my baggage is still heavy, but I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along -- something powerful and generous -- and that something is decidedly not me....

"I only rarely experience this feeling, but it's the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don't think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love. In ancient Greek, the word for the highest degree of human happiness is eudaimonia, which basically means 'well-daemoned' -- that is, nicely taken care of by some external divine creative spirit guide."

(We've discussed the Greco-Roman idea of "creative daemons" in a previous post. Go here if you'd like to know more.)

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C.S. Lewis, writing from a Christian perspective, also noted the mystical quality of creative inspiration:

"In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not.  When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring  into that Form as  the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It’s like being in love."

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"The artist's gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed upon him," says Lewis Hyde in his masterful book on the subject, The Gift: Creativity & the Artist in the Modern World. "To put it another way, if the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work, is the third gift, the one offered to the world."

Madeleine L'Engle was of a similar mind. In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art she wrote: "'We, and I think I'm speaking for many writers, don't know what it is that sometimes comes to make our books alive. All we can do is write dutifully and day after day, every day, giving our work the very best of what we are capable. I don't think that we can consciously put the magic in; it doesn't work that way. When the magic comes, it's a gift.''

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“If," L'Engle added, "the work comes to the artist and says, 'Here I am, serve me,' then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, 'Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.' "

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"One of the things we continue to learn from Native Peoples," says Terry Tempest Williams, "is that stories are our medicine bundles. I feel that way about our essays, our poems, our fictions. That it is the artist who carries the burden of the storyteller. Terrence Des Pres speaks of a prose witness that relies on the imagination to respond to the world as we see it, feel it, and dare to ask the questions that will not let us sleep. Imagination. Attention to details. Making the connections. Art -- right words to station the mind and hold the heart ready."

The gift of paying attention, of witnessing others' lives and passing the "medicine" of their stories, our stories, from generation to generation is the particular gift required of us as artists. Not only of us, but especially of us; in whatever artform we chose to work in.

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Jane Yolen puts it most succinctly. "Touch magic," she says, "and pass it on."

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The passage by Elizabeth Gilbert above is from Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (Riverhead Books, 2015), which I recommend; all rights reserved by the author. Related posts: Knowing the World as a Gift, Gracious Acceptance, and On the Care & Feeding of Daemons & Muses.


Finding your voice

Inspiration Board

I've been asked to re-post this piece on creative influence, so here it is. I wrote it several years ago, but still stand by every word....

Reading a recent interview with French book illustrator Didier Graffet, I found myself pausing at this line: "When I was younger and learning to paint, I was inspired by other artists' work," he says, "but now I avoid looking too much at the websites of other illustrators, even though they are good, everything is good, but I want to develop my own imagination."

Today, I'd like to reflect on both ends of that sentence. First, on the ways we shape ourselves as writers and artists by discovering, loving, and pouring over the words and pictures of those who have come before us. And second, on that vital moment when we turn away from others' work in order to travel inward and to map the realm of our own imaginations.

A Devon blacksmith photographed by James Ravilious

Let's start with the first part of the equation: "the ecstasy of influence" (to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Lethem's brilliant essay of that name, which I highly recommend). By "influential art," what I mean is art that we not only admire but take passionately to heart: those life-changing books that we read and re-read, those paintings we look at over and over again -- prompted, I would hazzard to guess, by the feeling that there's a similar kind of magic within us, awakened or strengthened by our deep response to what another hand has created.

Sometimes this influence can be almost too strong and we find ourselves working in another artist's style, not our own -- think of all those imitation-Tolkien fantasy books, for example, or all those imitation-Brian-Froud faeries. And yet, I would argue, imitation is not necessarily wrong if it's part of a learning journey and not the journey's destination. Just as children imitate their elders, the training process for a budding writer or artist does sometimes involve a certain amount of mimicry -- not in order to steal another artist's style or ideas but as a means of developing technical skills that can later be applied to a more personal vision. As long as we don't take this student work as our real work, or attempt to put it before the public as such, then I think there is often no harm in this; on the contrary, it can be an important step toward finding our real work.

Our daughter, for example, trained as chef by apprenticing in Alyn Williams' Michelin-starred restaurant in London. Learning to cook as Williams' cooked, which she was expected to do without deviation, was the first step toward discovering her own personal style of cooking, while learning the technical skills she'll need in order to master her art.

Likewise, when I think back on how I learned to write, or to paint, it seems to me it was a form of apprenticeship too -- although some of the masters I learned from were long dead, and others were ones I met only in the pages of books, never in the flesh. I learned by loving their work, by imitating their work, by thinking and talking and dreaming about their work...until I grew a bit older and enough time had passed that their work had begun to settle inside me, to mingle with my own life experience, and then to alchemize into words and pictures that slowly, slowly turned into a vision and style of my own.

Photograph by James Ravilious

J.R.R. Tolkien once likened fairytales to a soup in which bits of story have been simmering for centuries. Each storyteller dips into that soup, he says, but also adds her own ingredients and spices to make it new for each new audience. I think of "influence" in a similar way: the soup of my creativity is made up of everything I've read, seen, listened to, felt, and experienced -- strongly flavored by all the art that I've loved but stirred together in a way that is inevitably, uniquely my own.

Some of the flavors in my soup are easy to identify: Arthur Rackham, Carl Larsson, and Beatrix Potter, for example, with a heaping teaspoon of Pre-Raphaelitism, a sprinkle of Angela Carter's fairy tales, a dash of Mary Oliver's poetry, a pinch of David Abram's ecological ideas. But other flavors that are just as crucial to the whole are perhaps only identifiable by me: my adolescent obsession with Romeo & Juliet, for instance (I can still recite the entire play by heart); or my teenage devotion to an obscure 1940s utopian novel called Islandia; or my late-20s Anais Nin fixation; or my life-long interest in the women war artists of WW1 and 2 (and would you have guessed that last one?). Scholars, of course, build whole careers on identifying the ingredients of famous artistic soups -- but for artists, our job is to keep adding and stirring, and getting that taste just right.

Hedger's Lunch Break by James Ravilious

The second part of Didier Graffet's comment is important too, however. There comes a time when an artist needs to stop looking at others' work.

This happens periodically throughout life, I think; there are periods of time when it's useful to read, look at, listen to, and otherwise submerge ourselves in the creations of others, and periods when we need to tune it all out in order to fully focus on our own. But what I want to examine in particular is that potent moment in the life of a budding writer or painter when we first deliberately turn our gaze away from the work of our mentors and heroes in order to follow the muse into the landscape of our own imagination.

For any serious creative artist, this act of "turning away" from influence and onto the path of ones own work is crucial -- it separates the men from the boys, as it were; the women from the girls; the student/apprentice from the artist. It is a vital moment in our creative journey -- but here's the rub: it's a moment that can't be forced; it can only happen when the time is right. Some people find their personal vision and artistic direction at a relatively young age; others search it for years; and others still, a lifetime. It comes when it comes, that magical moment when you finally start to understand what you have to say to the world through your art, and the ways that you alone can say it. When the voices of your creative heroes dim and you hear your own voice at last.

Jo Curzon and her Flock by James Ravilious

These days, deep into my middle age, I have been wandering the length and breadth of my inner landscape for so long now that it takes an effort to cast myself back to the early days of my career, when that landscape hadn't fully opened to me yet. I recall it as a fretful period of time, producing work that was earnest but derivative, and I felt myself lost in the forest of artistic influences all around me. I had a deep, urgent, passionate connection to the books and poems and paintings that I loved, and my deepest desire in all the world was to make art like that too. But that art had been crafted from lives, times, and experiences that were nothing like my own; my feeble attempts to walk in the footsteps of William Morris, say, or Vanessa Bell, or Sylvia Townsend Warner, or any of my other creative heroes had value as learning exercises, yes...but as art? Well, no; not so much. Yet it seemed that every new trail that I traveled on in my beloved forest of Mythic Arts had already been neatly sign-posted, and always by someone older, wiser, better, than me. I knew, theoretically, that what I needed to do was go out there and blaze my own damn trail...but I didn't yet know how to do such a thing, and I feared that I never would.

What I didn't quite understand was that I was still in the apprenticeship stage of my creative journey. I was honing my skills, stirring my soup -- which needed more time to simmer, despite my impatience to dish it out and serve it up. I was not only learning how to write and paint, I was accumulating life experience so that once I'd acquired those hard-won skills I'd have something to say with them. My soup was made from good, rich stock, but it needed spices still unknown to me, ingredients I had yet to gather.  And even when those flavors were finally added, it needed time to cook.

Gathering apples by James Ravilious

When I speak with young writers and artists who are eager to find their own direction, to move out of the long shadow of the artists who have gone before them, what they want is the magic word, the key, the secret handshake that will make this happen. And in fact, there is a magic word, but it's not one that anyone really wants to hear, not in this fast-paced, digital, mobile, media-saturated age we're living in, for the word is patience.

Poet Rainer M. Rilke had this to say about time, patience, and the making of art: “Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist's life, in understanding and in creating. There is no measuring in time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confidence in the storms of spring without fear that after them may come no summer.”

Wistmans Wood by James Ravilious

A friend of mine who has worked with some of the greatest opera singers in the world explained to me that in her profession there's a term for ripening as an artist: it's called "finding your voice." It's understood that this can happen fully only with age and experience, and as a result many singers are in their 30s or 4os before they develop into the world-class artists they are destined to be. As literary and visual artists, we too must find our voices, and this doesn't usually happen fast.

No young artist wants to hear this, of course. I certainly didn't when I was starting out. We want to find our vision, our style, our success, our bestseller, our Newbery winner, our American Dream, and we want to find it now. To be sure, there are young prodigies who produce good (or at least popular) work at a tender age, and in our youth-fixated culture they are often singled out for particular attention. But there are many, many more of us whose voices ripen with age as opera singers' do. And by the time we're producing truly good work, we're older and greyer in the book jacket photos; it's impossible to promote us as the latest hot young thing. But that doesn't matter.  It's the work that matters. If it's good, then it is worth the wait.

Archie Parkhouse and his dog Sally by James Ravilious

It is my belief that the muse can't be forced. She comes when we're ready; or when she deems us worthy; or perhaps she just comes when she damn well wants to come. She can't be forced but she can be coaxed, and there are things that make a visitation much more likely: Practicing our craft, mastering our materials, showing up at our desks each day and working. Reading, looking, listening,and experiencing the world around us. We have to breathe the world into ourselves before we can breathe it out in our art; it's a circular motion. Inhale. Exhale. Artists who don't practice the art of living alongside the practice of their craft rarely do their best work, it seems to me. They've forgotten how to breathe.

Part of what we breathe in, of course, is the influence of the work of other artists. There are times, as we've discussed earlier, when this can be a good and helpful thing -- and there are other times when it's not, and it's rather important, I think, to learn the difference. Now I'm not claiming that every artist experiences this distinct passage from imitative/apprentice work to originality -- there are, of course, those blessed souls who seem to step out of the very womb fully formed. But for the rest of us mere mortals, I'd like to speak about my own experience as a developing artist in order to see if I can shed more light on this difficult stretch of the creative journey.

Moving the Sheep by James Ravilious

For me, as a young writer and painter, there came a time when I realized that the voices and visions in my head, created by the books and art I loved, were drowning out the sound of my own voice: so tentative then, so quiet, so unsure of its right to be heard. I remember a long grey time of casting about for a way of making art that seemed truly my own -- not imitation Rackham, not warmed-over Angela Carter, not wannabe Edward Burne-Jones. I was trying each of their styles on like trying on clothes in a vintage shop (something I did a lot of in those days too), looking for a style, an era, a borrowed glamour that would suit me. But unlike a fashion style, one's personal artistic vision is not something you find or chose. You can't shop for it in the marketplace of ideas. It grows within you.

For some people it grows slowly. You can look at their early art or writing and see clearly each small, steady step that has led them out of the shadow of influence and onto the path of their own work. For others, the change happens suddenly, like a lightning bolt from the heavens, usually provoked by an outside circumstance: the discovery of a new medium, for example; the influence of a new teacher or a mentor; or a life event, whether large or small, that pushes the artist in a new direction. I am definitely in the latter camp. It wasn't a slow change for me; I can date the exact period of time when I turned abruptly away from imitating my heroes and started making art that felt like my own. It happened suddenly, with the force of an earthquake. And it happened because I moved to the desert.

3 Amigos by Stu Jenks

Until that time, I'd always faced firmly East, living in New York City and Boston and gazing across the ocean to Europe. Everything I loved -- from the fairy tales I'd adored as a child to the art I poured over, the books I read, the Victorian-era history I devoured, the fiddle-and-harp folk music I craved, the ivy-draped landscape that moved my heart --  was European, primarily rooted in France and the British Isles.

It was sheer happenstance that I traveled West to the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona -- an alien, inhospitable place that held no romance, no allure for me; and sheer happenstance that I stayed there long enough to lose myself to it, both heart and soul. I won't go into the details of how and why that happened here -- I've writtten a whole novel about it, after all. (Well, not a novel about me, exactly, for the protagonist of The Wood Wife is a woman very different from myself -- but a novel about my experience of being seduced by a strange and powerful landscape, and how this can impact ones life and art.)

Secret Place by Stu Jenks

The point that I want to make here is that my muse finally came to me in a place that was stripped of the many familiar influences with which I'd clothed my creative life: the colors and scents of Pre-Raphaelitism, the green moss palette of the English woods. And I think this was no accident. There's something about leaving ones comfort zone and traveling into the great unknown that sets the spark to the tinder of our inner fires, helping us to see the world, and ourselves, and thus also our art, from an entirely new perspective. It was a kind of shock to find myself in love with a whole new landscape, a whole new color palette, a whole new region of history and stories -- and in that shock, the door finally opened into the realm of my true work. It's a realm that has its mossy green corners, yes, and its Burne-Jones rose vines and twisty Rackham trees, but which turns out to hold so much more besides --  like the smell of cottonwood burning in a ceremonial fire on a cold desert night, and the taste of fry bread, and the prickle of cactus, and the tip-tapping of  tiny hooves as javelina whisper through a moonlit wash. And in the stirring together of all these things -- rose vines and cactus, English thyme and desert sage, my broth finally turned into a proper soup: the distinctive taste of the tales I tell and the books I write and the paintings I paint. Mind you, it happened about ten years later that I'd wanted it to happen as an anxious young artist, but it happened, that's the important thing. And it couldn't have done so a single day sooner. The flavors of mesquite, mole, and fire-roasted green chillis were all still missing.

Icon by Stu Jenks

To those of you reading these words who have already found the path of your personal vision, I'd be curious to know when and how that happened. And to those of you still waiting for the pathway to open: Take heart and have patience. It will happen. It may be that a vital ingredient of your soup is still missing, but it will come -- often in some unexpected way. And when it does, I feel honor-bound to warn you, it may surprise you. The work that you find yourself called to do may not be what you ever expected; it may not even be entirely what you wanted. (Hey, I wanted to paint like Burne-Jones or Waterhouse, yet it's bird and fox and bunny girls that are stubbornly determined to come through my hands.) Patrica Hampl expressed it best in this passage taken from The Writer on Her Work: "Maybe being oneself is an acquired taste. For a writer it's a big deal to bow--or kneel or get knocked down--to the fact that you are going to write your own books and not somebody else's. Not even those books of the somebody else you thought it was your express business to spruce yourself up to be."

So go ahead, breathe those influences in. There's nothing wrong with influence, and with finding inspiration in the work of others. But when it's time (and you'll know when it's time), don't be afraid to leave that forest, to face in a new and unfamiliar and maybe even uncomfortable direction, and to listen for the quiet sound of your own voice. You'll find the way, I promise. Just remember to keep breathing.

And then get back to work.

Down the Deep Lanes by James Ravilious

About the art at the top this post: In the field of Mythic Arts, we walk in the footsteps of countless storytellers, writers, painters, and other creative souls who have gone before us. To honor them, I keep a bulletin board in my studio full of works by the men and women who are my muses, much like the bulletin board above. These are just some of creative folk whose work provides daily inspiration (from top to bottom, right to left): Arthur Rackham, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Kay Nielsen. Sulamith Wulfing, Dorothea Tanning, Piero della Francesca, Leonardo's drawings, James McNeil Whistler. Adrienne Segur, Holbein's drawings, John William Waterhouse. Jessie M. King, photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe, Edmund Dulac. Gwen John, Remedios Varo, Susan Seddon Boulet, Lizbeth Zwerger & Beatrix Potter, Frances MacDonald. Vanessa Bell at her easel (by Duncan Grant); photographs of William Morris, Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, and Paula Rego at her easel. 

About the photographs: The Dartmoor photographs here are by the great rural photographer James Ravilious (1939-1999), who lived and worked in Devon, England. You can see more of his photographs on the James Ravilious website, and watch a lovely trailer for a film about him here. The Desert photographs here are by Stu Jenks, who lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. Visit the Fezziwig Press site to see more of his beautiful work. All rights reserved by Stu Jenks and the James Ravilious estate.

About the text: The essay above first appeared on Myth & Moor in January, 2011. All rights reserved by the author. 


Under the Oak Oak

Tilly and the oak elder 1

I wrote this post at the beginning of November, 2016: a few months after the Brexit vote, and just before the U.S. election. One year later, it seems to me that we need moments of healing, grounding, life-affirming silence and stillness more than ever....

It's one more week until the U.S. election. For this and too many other reasons the Internet feels like one giant howl of anxiety, anguish, and rage..And what I've been thinking about lately is silence. There is not enough silence in modern life. I don't mean the complete absence of sound, but those quiet moments when the human world recedes: the haranguing voices of the daily news, the ads that follow us shouting Look at me!, the commercial and cultural sound and fury that makes it hard to hear our own inner voice, our own inner music, or our own heart beating, much less the beating heart of the natural world that we share with our nonhuman neighbors.

I have begun the practice of beginning my days in silence (no Internet, no screens, no news, no music) while I drink my morning coffee...often outdoors, if the weather permits, underneath the old oak pictured here, or in the woods, or another favorite spot close to the studio. Or else indoors, by a window looking out at the birds, the weather, the land. First watching, listening, then some reading (from a printed book, tactile, heavy in my hands). This slows me down; sets the tone for the day ahead; roots me in the physical world and not the manic, noisy, crowded, transitory realm of cyberspace. It prepares me for the deep work of creating by honing the sharp instrument my attention.

If I could gift you with one thing in the anxious week ahead, it would be this. Silence. Blessed silence.

Tilly and the oak elder 2

"Why is silence important to writers?" Lorraine Berry asked Utah-based writer Terry Tempest Williams in an interview in 2013. "Is silence something that we all, regardless of whether we’re writers or not, need access to? And how do we find that in our increasingly tuned-in, turned-on world?"

"Silence is where we locate our voice," Williams answered, "both as writers and as human beings. In silence, the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin. Silence takes us to an unknown place. It’s not necessarily a place of comfort. For me, the desert holds this space of quiet reflection; it’s erosional, like the landscape itself.

"You also ask why is it important that writers write and not embrace a life of silence. In many ways, we do embrace a lifestyle of silence, inward silence, a howling silence that brings us to our knees and desk each day. All a writer really has is time. Time to think. Time to read. Time to write.

"Time for a writer translates into solitude. In solitude, we create. In solitude, we are read. If we’re lucky, our books create community having been written out of solitude. It’s a lovely paradox. It’s the creative tension that I live with: I write to create community, but in order to do so, I am pulled out of community. Solitude is a writer’s communion."

Tilly and the oak elder 3


From the archives: Tilly & the fairies

Woodland 1

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The Dogs Tales are a series of posts in which Tilly has her say....

When I take my Person out walking in the woods it is my job to scout the path ahead, to lead us through the dark of the forest and bring us safely home again. With my good, furry ears and my keen, clever nose, I pick up on all the news of the forest: of foxes and badgers who have passed this way...squirrels rattling high above us in the trees...fine spiders' silk spun from leaf to leaf...coarse sheeps' wool caught in the bramble thorns...and the distinctive scent of the hillside's fairies: sweet, pungent, mushroomy and sour, all at once.

Woodland 3

But what kind of fairies? Friends or foes? I sniff more closely, but I can't quite tell.  Shy moss fairies, kindly root fairies, giggly fungi fairies: all these I do not mind. But the winged ones, buzzing through the air like overgrown bees, are tricksy, and they bite.

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I follow their spoor through oak and ash, all the way to the forest boundary wall. The stink of fairies is overwhelming, and yet my Person walks on without concern. She's a gentle, absent-minded creature, unaware of danger. I must guard her closely.

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Now fairies, as you know, love boundaries and borders; they love places that lie betwixt and between; and so the wall is riddled with fairy burrows and the evidence of fairy hands and fairy feet. I climb the wall, push my sensitive snout into the ivy, and find moss fairies curled in beds of lichen, green and plump and fast asleep. A root fairy, brown and wrinkled as a walnut, peers up with eyes the pale green of new leaves.

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But this is not the danger I've been scenting. My hackles rise and I don't know why. My Person is drifting up the path behind me when I hear the buzz of fairy wings....

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Suddenly a fairy swarm surrounds me, visible only as sparks of light, and I bark in warning: Stay back! Stay back! These are not the slow, soft creature of root and soil but the quick, sharp spirits of the forest canopy:  shifty, capricious, and volatile. They bear no love for the Canine Tribe, and their fondness for mortals cannot be trusted.

Woodland 10

My tail is pulled, my ears are tweaked, and sharp little fairy teeth nip my flanks. I growl and snap. I crunch. I swallow. I've eaten a fairy! I've eaten a fairy!

Woodland 11

Uh oh. I've eaten a fairy. And my Person will not be pleased.

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The swarm, taking fright, vanishes into the forest. The moss fairies snore. The root fairy smiles. My Person is safe now. She whistles and we walk on.

Woodland 13

She never needs to know.

Woodland 14This post originally appeared in April, 2015. The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry Magazine (December 2007); all rights reserved by the author.


Wanderers and wilderness

Soay, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Seal

This piece was originally posted in August, 2015.

Like Robert Macfarlane (discussed in this previous post), Sara Maitland is fascinated by the peregrini: the early Celtic Christian monks and mystics who set out alone in small, flimsy boats, seeking solitude, nature, and God on the most remote islands of Britain.

"On island after island," she writes in A Book of Silence, "the more isolated and far-flung the better -- on St. Kilda, on the Farnes, on the Shiants, throughout the Hebrides and the northern islands, off the coast of Ireland, around Iceland and possibly even North America -- the traces of hermits can be found. This history is confused and uncertain, but originating in Ireland in the fifth century, there was a well-developed form of Christian spirituality which valued the silent eremitical vocation extremely highly.

A ''cleit'' (stone hut) on St Kilda

"In Britain, the most famous such voluntary exile was Columba, who left Ireland in the mid sixth century and crossed the Irish Sea to become first a hermit and later a missionary and founding father based on the tiny island of Iona, which is just to the west of Mull. His community later spread across Scotland and converted north-east England as well, but he was by no means unique: over the next several centuries hermits settled alone or in tiny communities all over western Scotland and further afield too....These adventures were known in Ireland as 'green martydoms' -- to distinguish them from the 'red martyrdom' of being slain, shedding blood for the faith. To leave home and travel out beyond civilization was a martyrdom (the word means 'witness'), death of the ego, a self-giving that seems absolute."

Iona by Torsten Henning

Shetland ponies on the Isle of Foula

"We do not know very much about the spiritual theology of these early hermits," Maitland continues. "Their lives are lost in legend and story, their physical markers faded or wiped out by the wildness of the places where they dwelt."

One of these hermits was St. Cuthbert, bishop of the monastery on Lindisfarne, a center of Celtic Christianity in the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast. A great lover of nature, he issued regulations to his monks for the special protection of Eider Ducks, which are called Cuddy Ducks ("Cuthbert's Ducks") to this day. He retired to live an austere and solitary life on Inner Farne Island in 676, and died there in 687.

Lindisfarne Abbey and St Marys by Russ Hamer

Cuddy Ducks

Sara Maitland explains that we know more about St. Cuthbert than most other Christian hermits because he was personally known and loved by Bede, author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. "But what interested Bede is somewhat different than what interests me," writes Maitland. "So, for example, Bede records that Cuthbert would pray all night standing up to his neck in the frigid waters of the North Sea and, indeed, when he emerged otters would come and warm him with their tongues and fur. This combination of the ferociously ascetic and the miraculous engages Bede, for what he is writing about is the ultimate form of something so obvious to him that he never says anything about what Cuthbert thought he was trying to achieve, nor about the content of those prayers.

Otter, Farne Islands

Grey seal & newborn calf, The Farne Islands, Northumberland

"It is not until rather later, from the tenth to twelfth centuries, that we begin to get accounts that attempt to explain what the island hermits were seeking, in the beguiling poetry of the Irish monks:

"Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle, on the peak of a rock, that I might often see there the calm of the sea. That I might see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean, as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course. That I might see its smooth strand of clear headlands, no gloomy thing; that I might hear the voice of its wondrous birds, a joyful tune. That I might hear the sound of the shallow waves against the rocks; that I might hear the cry by the graveyard, the noise of the sea. That I might see its splendid flocks of birds over the full-watered ocean; that I might see its mighty wales, greatest of wonders. That I might see its ebb and its flood-tide in their flow; that this might be my name, a secret I tell, "He who turned his back on Ireland." That contrition of heart should come upon me as I watch it; that I might bewail my many sins, difficult to declare. That I might bless the Lord who has power over all, heaven with its pure host of angels, earth, ebb, flood-tide."

Birds on the Farne Islands by Bob Jones

Puffins on The Farne Islands by Joe Cornish

Unlike Maitland and the hermit monks she admires, I am not a Christian, and I certainly don't live an isolated life, yet my morning prayers on Nattadon Hill aren't so different from those of the nature-loving peregrini:

Delightful I think it to be in the green hills of Devon, climbing through bracken and blackberries to the granite peaks above, that I might often see the sheep-dotted fields, and the grey tors of Dartmoor beyond. That I might hear the wind singing in the trees, a choir of oak, ash, rowan, and beech; and the bells of the village church; and the bleating lambs; and the hooting of owls in the woods. That I might see this hillside covered in bluebells, stitchwort, and foxgloves, no gloomy thing; and that I might hear the voice of its rooks and its robins, a joyful tune. That I might see the badgers live undisturbed; and the small red deer, shyest of wonders; and watch wild ponies graze in the tall grass as they flow between valley and moor. That I come nameless to this hill, no more, no less than others creatures here, living quietly, gently upon its slopes. That I walk these paths with respect, attentiveness, open eyes, open ears, open heart. That I might bless Mystery within all of us; and my good neighbors, human and nonhuman alike; and the air, the water, the fire, the earth, ebb and flood-tide. Mitakuye oyasin.

Meldon Hill viewed from Nattdon Hill

Wildflowers in spring, Nattadon Hill

Young Dartmoor ponyWords: The quotes by Sara Maitland are from A Book of Silence (Granta, 2009), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The last three photographs above are mine, taken here in Chagford: Meldon Hill viewed from Nattadon Hill, a pathway on lower Nattadon, and a very young Dartmoor pony on the village Commons. The photographs of islands in Scottland and north-east England (and their birds and animals) are Creative Commons images. They are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Homemade Ceremonies

Morning 1

In honor of Summer Solstice, a sacred day for country pagans like me and a special day for many others, I'd like to re-visit this post on the value of homemade ceremonies, and of living with gratitude, first published in the early spring, 2015.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, Native American author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (of the Potowatomi people) explains how her family was severed from their traditional culture when her grandfather, like so many children of his generation, was taken from home by the U.S. government and sent to the Carlisle Indian School to be "civilized" (a truly shameful chapter of my country's history). It was not until many years later that his descendants reclaimed their language and heritage. Against this painful background, Kimmerer writes movingly of her father's morning ritual when the family camped on the slopes of Tahawus each summer (the Algonquin name for Mount Marcy in the Adirondaks):

"When he lifts the coffee pot from the stove the morning bustle stops; we know without being told that it's time to pay attention. He stands at the edge of camp with the coffeepot in his hands, holding the top in place with a folded pot holder. He pours coffee on the ground in a thick brown stream. The sunlight catches the flow, striping it amber and brown and black as it falls to the earth and steams in the cool morning air. With his face to the morning sun, he pours and speaks into the stillness, 'Here's to the gods of Tahawus.'"

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Morning 3

"I was pretty sure no other family I knew began their day like this," she continues, "but I never questioned the source of those words and my father never explained. They were just part of our life among the lakes. But their rhythm made me feel at home and the ceremony drew a circle around our family. By those words we said, 'Here we are,' and I imagined that the land heard us -- murmured to itself, 'Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.' "

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"Sometimes my father would name the gods of Forked Lake or South Pond or Brandy Brook Flow, wherever our tents were settled for the night. I came to know each place was inspirited, was home to others before we arrived and long after we left. As he called out the names and offered a gift, the first coffee, he quietly taught us the respect we owed these other beings and how to show our thanks for summer mornings.

 Morning 6

Morning 7

"I knew that in the long-ago our people raised their thanks in morning songs, in prayer, in the offering of sacred tobacco. But at that time in our family history we didn't have sacred tobacco and we didn't know the songs -- they'd been taken away from my grandfather at the doors of the boarding school. But history moves in a circle and here we were, the next generation, back to the loon-filled lakes of our ancestors, back to the canoes....

"In the same way that the flow of coffee down the rock opened the leaves of the moss, ceremony brought the quiescent back to life, opened my mind and heart to what I knew, but had forgotten. The words and the coffee called us to remember that these woods and lakes were a gift. Ceremonies large and small have the power to focus attention to a way of living awake in the world. The visible became invisible, merging with the soil. It may have been a secondhand ceremony, but...I recognized that the earth drank it up as if it were right. The land knows you, even when you are lost.

Morning7

"A people's story moves along like a canoe caught in the current, being carried closer and closer to where we had begun. As I grew up, my family found again the tribal connections that had been frayed, but never broken, by history. We found the people who knew our true names. And when I first heard in Oklahoma the sending of thanks to the four directions at the sunrise lodge -- the offering in the old language of the sacred tobacco -- I heard it as if in my father's voice. The language was different but the heart was the same.

Morning 8

Morning 9

"Ours was a solitary ceremony, but fed from the same bond with the land, founded on respect and gratitude. Now the circle drawn around us is bigger, encompassing a whole people to which we again belong. But still the offering says, 'Here we are,' and still I hear at the end of the words the land murmuring to itself, 'Ohh, here are the ones who know how to say thank you.' Today my father can speak his prayers in our language. But it was 'Here's to the gods of Tahawus' that came first, in the voice I will always hear. It was in the presence of ancient ceremonies that I understood that our coffee offering was not secondhand, it was ours."

Morning 10

Wildflowers

The power of ceremony, writes Kimmerer, is that "it marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer. The material and the spiritual mingle like grounds mixed with humus, transformed like steam rising from a mug into the morning mist. What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, ceremony that makes a home."

Bluebells

I've written before about my own morning rituals, which are solitary ones except for Tilly's presence, and also about how much I prefer that solitude to be undisturbed in the enchanted liminal space between waking up and creative work. We can draw parallels between the rituals of beginning / rituals of approach we employ to facilitate creative work and the morning ritual Kimmerer describes. Ceremony, meditation, creative routines and practices designed to ease us into work, these are all means of acknowledging the transition from one state into another: from sleep into a brand new day, from morning chores and mundane concerns to the focused state of creativity and inspiration.

But there's also an important difference here -- which, I fear, often gets lost when First Nation ceremonies are too-casually adapted by non-native peoples. While the coffee ritual may indeed have helped Kimmerer's father to feel more meditative, centered, and ready to start his day, this therapeutic aspect of the ceremony is not its purpose or focus. Rather, it is an act of gratitude, an acknowledgement of the larger world of which we humans are just one part. There is no ego in the ritual, no self-aggrandizing, no  "look at me, look how spiritual I am" -- just the simple, humble act of a man offering a humble gift to creation.

Morning coffee

In my own morning rituals, gratitude to the land, to our animal neighbors, to the vast nonhuman world plays a crucial part. It is why I write and why I paint: sheer gratitude for being alive, even on -- perhaps especially on -- those mornings when, because of poor health or other difficulties, life feels most burdensome. I want to create not from a place of ego and self-aggrandizement but as a means of gifting stories to the beautiful land that feeds and clothes and houses and sustains me; and to give, as Pablo Neruda once said, "something resiny, earthlike and fragrant in exchange for the gift of human brotherhood."

Some days I succeed, and some days I don't. But each morning I wake up, climb the hill with Tilly, pour steaming coffee from a silver thermos as birdsong greets the sun, and I try again. And again. And again. On the hill, I remember that my place in the world is very small. And very precious. And I'm grateful for it all.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer


The magic of words

A Gift of Wings

In her essay "A Gift of Wings," Jeanette Winterson gets to the core of what makes Virginia Woolf's work so compelling, and in doing so she evokes the magic inherent in the arts of writing and reading themselves.

"Unlike many novelists, then and now, she loved words," notes Winterson. "That is she was devoted to words, faithful to words, romantically attached to words, desirous of words. She was territory and words occupied her. She was night-time and words were the dream.

"The dream quality, which is a poetic quality, is not vague. For the common man it is the dream, if at all, that binds together in a new rationale, disparate elements. The job of the poet is to let the binding happen in daylight, to happen to the conscious mind, to delight and disturb the reader when the habitual pieces are put together in a new way.

Woodwords 1

"Above all, credulity is not strained. We should not come out of a book as we do from a dream, shaking our heads and rubbing our eyes and saying, 'It didn't really happen.' In poetry, in drama, in opera, in painting, in the best fiction, it really does happen, and is happening all the time, this other place where, as strong and compelling as our own daily world, as believable, and yet with a very strangeness that prompts us to recall that there are more things in heaven and earth and that those things are solider than dreams.

Woodwords 3

"They may prove solider than real life, as we fondly call the jumble of accidents, characters and indecisions that collect around us without our noticing. The novelist notices, tries to make us clearer to ourselves, tries to set the liquid day, and because of this we read novels. We do hope to see ourselves, as much out of vanity as for instruction. Nothing wrong with that but there is further to go and it is this further than only poetry can take us. Like the novelist, the poet notices, focuses, sharpens, but for the poet that is the beginning. The poet will not be satisfied with recording, the poet will have to transform. It is language, magic wand, cast of spells, that makes transformation possible."

Woodwords 4

The poet does this, yes, and the poetic fiction writer, and especially, I believe, the poets and fiction writers working in the field of Mythic Arts. Casting spells with language and telling tales of transformation are, after all, the very point of this alchemical genre in which elements of poetry, prose, myth, fairy tale, and dream are carefully combined, turning lead, and straw, and language, and life itself into pure gold.

Woodwords 5

As Ursula Le Guin said in her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" (in a passage I quote often, because it's just so true):

"Fantasy is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not antirational, but pararational; not realistic but surrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud's terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes, which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe. And their guides, the writers of fantasy, should take their responsibilities seriously....A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like pyschoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you."

Powerful word magic indeed.

Woodwords 6

Woodwords 7

Returning to the essay "A Gift of Wings," Winterson describes Virginia Woolf as a writer who "is not afraid of beauty. She is as sensitive to the natural world as any poet and as physical in response as any lover. She is not afraid of pain. The dark places attract her as well as the light and she has the wisdom to know that not all dark places need light. She has the cardinal virtue of critical courage."

That, I believe, is what we, too, must strive for. The love of words shared by all good writers and all good readers is the magic that will show us how.

Woodwords 2

Friday is my day for reprinting posts from the Myth & Moor archives. This one first appeared in the spring of 2017.  In relation to the "magic of language," I highly recommend Lisa Stock's photography series "The Nourishment of Words." It's simply delightful.

Credits: The passage by Jeanette Winterson is from "A Gift of Wings," published in her essay  collection Art Objects (1995). The passage by Ursula K. Le Guin's is from "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," published in her essay collection The Language of the Night (1979). All rights reserved by the authors.


Frogs, toads, and days of gold

The Frog Princess by Gennady Spirin

Bumblehill frog

I've spotted the first frog of the season in the little pond in front of my studio. He's a bold, friendly fellow, pictured above blending perfectly with the color of the leaves. In honor of the start of frog season here at the Bumblehill Studio, this is a piece about the history of the pond, first posted in 2014:

In her beautiful memoir A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L'Engle explored the murky subject of creative struggle and failure by drawing on the fairy tale "Diamonds and Toads":

"Just as we are taught that our universe is constantly expanding out into space at enormous speeds, so too our imagination must expand as we search for the knowledge that will in its turn expand into wisdom, and from wisdom into truth.

A detail from The Frog Bride by Virginia Lee"But this is violent, and therefore frightening.

"Children are less easily frightened than we are. They have no problem in understanding how Alice could walk through the mirror into the country on the other side; some of them have done it themselves. And they all understand princesses, of course. Haven't they all been badly bruised by peas? And then there's the princess who spat forth toads and snakes whenever she opened her mouth to speak, and her sister whose lips issued pieces of pure gold.

"I still have many days when everything I say seems to turn into toads. The days of gold, alas, don't come nearly as often. Children understand this immediately; why is it a toad day? There isn't any logical, provable reason. The gold days are just as irrational; they are pure grace; a gift."

Gennady Spirin

Arthur Rackham

Warwick Goble

Thumbelina by Lizbeth Zwerger

Now me, I've always liked frogs and toads, and I want to tell you my own little story about them. There's a tiny pond outside my studio door, but it was mud-choked and rank when I first moved in, housing nothing remotely so interesting. I cleared out the trash, the dead vegetation, stocked it with plants to re-balance the water, and then asked a friend, knowledgeable in these matters, how I might get frogs or toads. 

"You don't need to 'get' them," he told me, "just create the environment for them, and they will come."

Weeks passed. Months passed. The frogs didn't come. What was I doing wrong? I asked.

"Just be patient," my friend told me gently. "These things take time."

Froglessness, 2011

And yet time, I'm afraid, was not on my friend's side. He died the next winter (too soon, too young), my little pond remained stubbornly empty, and I wondered if his advice had been right. He'd been a folklorist, after all, and perhaps this was just an old wives' tale.

Buddha and frogs, 2014

Another summer passed. No frogs. No toads. In deference to my friend, I did nothing more than tend the pond, keep the pondweed in check. I could say I was patient, but really I was busy and distracted and I stopped thinking about it.

Then one day I looked through the studio window and saw my husband crouched by the pond. I put down my pen and notebook and went outside to see what he'd found.

The Frog Prince in my pond

A frog? Oh yes. Not one, but dozens. Frogs and more frogs, everywhere we looked -- hiding in the weeds, sunning on the rocks, bobbing together in the golden pond water. How had we'd never seen them before? And how could one tiny pond hold so many? Big frogs and small frogs, brown, red, and green, all looking like they'd lived there forever.

The little faces that greet me each morning

Frog companions

Now the frogs re-emerge in the pond every spring, grinning up at me from the water and weeds, watching the studio's comings and goings from their sun-dappled kingdom nearby.

I wish I could tell my friend he'd been right. Create the environment and they will come. He'd also been right when he answered every inquiry with, "Terri, just be patient."

Frog King and Queen

I believe it's the same with creativity. Feel dry, uncertain, empty of ideas? Then create the proper environment: a space you can work in, the right tools at hand, and good work habits, regular and steady. Inspiration will come. Be patient, and it will come.

It's pure grace; it's a gift.

Why, hello.

The Frog Prince by Arthur RackhamWords: The Madelaine L'Engle quote is from the first volume in her Crosswick Journnals: A Circle of Quiet (HarperCollins, 1998).  Pictures: the art above is "The Frog Princess" by Gennady Spirin, a detail from Virginia Lee's "The Frog Bride," "Darwin's Frog" by Gennady Spirin, "Alice and the Frog Footman" by Arthur Rackham, "The Frog Prince" by Warwick Goble, "Thumbelina" by Lizbeth Zwerger, and "The Frog Prince" by Arthur Rackham.