The Peace of Wild Things

Tilly by the stream

Fridays are my day for re-visiting posts from the Myth & Moor archives. Since yesterday's offering included a passage from Priscilla Stuckey's Kissed by a Fox, here's another snippet from the same fine book. This post first appeared in October, 2014.

During my coffee break beside the stream yesterday, I was struck by the following words in Priscilla Stuckey's Kissed by a Fox (and Other Stories of Friendship in Nature):

"If mind belongs to humans alone," she writes, "then stones, trees, and streams become mere objects of human tinkering. We can plunder the earth's resources with impunity, treating creeks and mountaintops in Kentucky or rivers in India or forests in northwest America as if they existed only for economic development. Systems of land and river become inert chunks of lifeless mud or mechanical runs of H2O rather than the living, breathing bodies upon which we and all other creatures depend for our very lives.

Water and stone

"Not to mention what 'nature as machine' has done to our emotional and spiritual well-being. When we regard nature as churning its way forward mindlessly through time, we turn our backs on mystery, shunning the complexity as well as the delights of relationship. We isolate ourselves from the rest of the creatures with whom we share this world. We imagine ourselves the apex of creation -- a lonely spot indeed. Human minds become the measure of creation and human thoughts become the only ones that count. The result is a concept of mind shorn of its wild connections, in which feelings become irrelevant, daydreams are mere distractions, and nighttime dreams -- if we attend to them at all -- are but the cast-offs of yesterday's overactive brain. Mind is cut off from matter, untouched by exingencies of mud or leaf, shaped by whispers or gales of wind, as if we were not, like rocks, made of soil.

"And then we wonder at our sadness and depression, not realizing that our own view of reality has sunk us into an unbearable solipsism, an agony of separateness -- from loved ones, from other creatures, from rich but unruly emotions, in short, from our ability to connect, through senses and feeling and imagination, with the world that is our home."

Coffee break

Introspection

A little later in the same essay she writes:

"And here lies the crux of the matter: to say that nature is personal may mean not so much seeing the world differently as acting differently -- or, to state it another way, it may mean interacting with more-than-human others in nature as if those others had a life of their own and then coming to see, through experience, that these others are living, interactive beings.

"When nature is personal, the world is peopled by rocks, trees, rivers, and mountains, all of whom are actors and agents, protagonists of their own stories rather than just props in a human story. When Earth is truly alive, the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human."

Mushroom people

Acorn people

Oak elder

In an essay on animal consciousness published in Lapham's Quaterly, John Jeremiah Sullivan notes:

"If we put aside the self-awareness standard -- and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy,  Drawing by Terri Windlingproclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to) -- it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed. This was made boldly clear when the 'Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness' pointed out that those 'neurological substrates' necessary for consciousness (whatever 'consciousness' is) belong to 'all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.' The animal kingdom is symphonic with mental activity, and of its millions of wavelengths, we’re born able to understand the minutest sliver. The least we can do is have a proper respect for our ignorance.

"The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an essay in 1974 titled, 'What Is It Like To Be a Bat?,' in which he put forward perhaps the least overweening, most useful definition of 'animal consciousness' ever written, one that channels Spinoza’s phrase about 'that nature belonging to him wherein he has his being.' Animal consciousness occurs, Nagel wrote, when 'there is something that it is to be that organism -- something it is like for the organism.' The strangeness of his syntax carries the genuine texture of the problem. We’ll probably never be able to step far enough outside of our species-reality to say much about what is going on with them, beyond saying how like or unlike us they are. Many things are conscious on the earth, and we are one, and our consciousness feels like this; one of the things it causes us to do is doubt the existence of the consciousness of the other millions of species. But it also allows us to imagine a time when we might stop doing that."

Amen.

In addition to Stuckey's book and Sullivan's essay, I recommend Brandon Kein's "Being a Sandpiper" (Aeon); Stephen M. Wise's "Nonhuman Rights to Personhood" (pdf); and Karen Joy Fowler's brilliant and devastating new novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. (Avoid reviews of the latter if you possibly can. The less you know about the story before you read it, the more wonderful it is.)

Drawing by Terri Windling

Tilly and the oak elderThe passage by Priscilla Stuckey above is from Kissed by a Fox & Other Stories of Friendship in Nature (Counterpoint, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 1999). You can hear the author read it here. All rights to the text above reserved by the authors.


An ode to slowness

Between the Fox and the Owl by Donna Howell-Sickles

Fridays are my day for re-visiting posts from the Myth & Moor archves, often ones that touch on themes we've been discussing during the week. This post first appeared in the autumn of 2012, presented today with new art. 

From "Ode to Slowness" by Terry Tempest Williams:

"I want my life to be a celebration of slowness.

"Walking through the sage from our front door, I am gradually drawn into the well-worn paths of deer. They lead me to Round Mountain and the bloodred side canyons below Castle Rock. Sometimes I see them, but often I don't. Deer are quiet creatures, who, when left to their own nature, move slowly. Their large black eyes absorb all shadows, especially the flash of predators. And their ears catch each word spoken. But today they walk ahead with their halting prance, one leg raised, then another, and allow me to follow them. I am learning how to not provoke fear and flight among deer. We move into a pink, sandy wash, their black-tipped tails like eagle feathers. I lose sight of them as they disappear around the bend.

Three Does and a Kid by Donna Howell-Sickles

"On the top of the ridge I can see for miles... Inside this erosional landscape where all colors eventually bleed into the river, it is hard to desire anything but time and space.

"Time and space. In the desert there is space. Space is the twin sister of time. If we have open space then we have open time to breath, to dream, to dare, to play, to pray to move freely, so freely, in a world our minds have forgotten but our bodies remember. Time and space. This partnership is holy. In these redrock canyons, time creates space--an arch, an eye, this blue eye of sky. We remember why we love the desert; it is our tactile response to light, to silence, and to stillness.

"Hand on stone -- patience.

"Hand on water -- music.

"Hand raised to the wind --  Is this the birthplace of inspiration?"

Desert Mule-eared Deer

Yes, I believe it is.

I firmly believe that inspiration is born in the land, born of the land, and borne to us on the sacred winds: in the Utah desert where Williams lives, here on my beloved Dartmoor, in the green spaces of London and Manhattan, and wherever you are too. We all need the land and we all need the wild, in all of its various manifestations -- for creative work, and for the art we make everyday of the lives we live.

That's not to say there aren't other forms of inspiration, or artists who make good use of them. But right now, for me, on this beautiful and ailing planet, this is one of the forms of inspiration we need the most, and that matters the most. I think about this constantly as I work with the tools of myth and fantasy. How can I use them in service to the land? How do I let the land speak through me?

I start by living a little more slowly, a little more attentively -- for my art cannot speak for wild lands or wild neighbors if I'm not listening to what they have to say.

In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit extolls the value of moving through the world more slowly:

"Musing takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination," she writes, "a part of the imagination that has not yet been plowed, developed, or put to any immediately practical use...time spent there is not work time, yet without that time the mind becomes sterile, dull, domesticated. The fight for free space -- for wilderness and public space -- must be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend wandering in that space."

Indeed.

And Then There Were Three by Donna Howell-Sickles

The art today is by Donna Howell-Sickles, who was born and raised on a 900-acre farm in Texas.Watching the Big Bear by Donna Howell-Sickles

While studying for a BFA at Texas Tech University, she came across a postcard of a cowgirl from the 1930s and became fascinated with the history, iconography, and mythology of cowgirls throughout the American West. Her distinctive art is now shown in galleries and museums across the United States and Europe.

Although she's best known for vibrant pictures of cowgirls and their horses, I'm especially drawn to her imagery of additional animals and birds: dogs, deer, bear, crows, owls, and the like. The artist is conscious of their mythological connotations, and often employs such imagery to tell symbolic stories about the inner journeys of the women in her work.

Please visit her website if you'd like to see more; or look for her book: Cowgirl Rising: The Art of Donna Howell-Sickles (from Greenwich Workshop Press, 1997).

It is Written in the Stars by Donna Howell-Sickles

Deer by Donna Howell-SicklesThe passage by Terry Tempest Williams is from an essay in Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert (Pantheon, 2001). The passage by Rebecca Solnit is from Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Viking, 1997). Both books are highly recommended. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and artist.


The stories that take root

Hillside 1

Fridays are my day for re-visiting posts from the Myth & Moor archives. This one comes from a quiet morning at the cusp of spring two years ago.

Today, a misty moorland hillside and a passage taken from "Testimony Against Gertrude Stein" by Jeanette Winterson:

"We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others. The so-called facts of our individual words  are highly colored and arbitrary, facts that fit whatever fiction we have chosen to believe in. It is necessary to have a story, an alibi that gets us through the day, but what happens when the story becomes scripture? When we can no longer recognize anything outside our own reality?

Hillside 2

Hillside 2

"We have to be careful not to live in a state of constant self-censorship, where whatever conflicts with our world view is dismissed or diluted until it ceases to be a bother. Struggling against the limitations we place on our minds is our own imaginative capacity, a recognition of an inner life often at odds with the internal figurings we spend so much energy supporting.

Hillside 4

"When we let ourselves respond to poetry, to music, to pictures, we are clearing out a space where new stories can root, in effect we are clearing a space for new stories about ourselves."

Hillside 5

Hillside 6

The passage just quoted nails, for me, precisely why we need art in our lives and not just the familiar, repetitive stories of mass entertainment, enjoyable as they may be. Entertainment amuses, distracts, and consoles us, and that has its use and it has its value, but it's not the same use or value of art. Art enlarges us. Transforms us. Heals what is broken inside us. Deepens our understanding of ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

Hillisde 7

"Art is central to all our lives, not just the better-off and educated, " Winterson once said in an interview. "I know that from my own story, and from the evidence of every child ever born -- they all want to hear and to tell stories, to sing, to make music, to act out little dramas, to paint pictures, to make sculptures. This is born in and we breed it out. And then, when we have bred it out, we say that art is elitist, and at the same time we either fetishize art -- the high prices, the jargon, the inaccessibility -- or we ignore it. The truth is, artist or not, we are all born on the creative continuum, and that is a heritage and a birthright of all of our lives."

Hillside 8

Hillside 9

Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson


Daily Myth

Ponies 1

Fridays are my day for re-visiting posts from the Myth & Moor archves. This one comes from March, 2014....

Animal encounters often come in clusters -- one month there are deer bounding constantly through the woods, another month brings several badger sightings in a row or the frog population exploding in the pond or hedgehogs appearing under every hedge and bush. In naturalist terms, this is easily explained by the seasonal cycles of animal life -- but in folkloric terms, the meeting of animals has deep mythic significance, for in traditional stories and sacred texts the world over animals are both themselves and more-than-themselves: creatures who negotiate the Mysteries, the elders and the teachers of humankind, messengers from the gods, the fates, the faeries, the nonhuman realms and the lands of the dead, speaking in the language of symbolism, metaphor, riddle, taradiddle, and dream.

Ponies 2

For Tilly and me (and indeed for many in Chagford), the month of March has been marked by encounters with wild ponies...for this is the season they come down to graze and give birth on the village Commons. We often see them sunning on the Commons, or climbing the slope of Nattadon Hill, walking the path in a single file as they come and go from the open moor.

Ponies 3

Tilly is fascinated by them, though knows she musn't bark or get underfoot. They're gentle with her and allow her to pass close...though this will change when the foals are born.

Ponies 4

Looking down on the valley from my studio windows, I can watch the herd as it drifts across the land -- stopping now in this field and now in that one, disappearing for days and then back again. As they roam across the moor and the lanes and fields nearby, Dartmoor's famous, much-loved ponies are iconic creatures of flux and flow, of duality and liminality -- not entirely wild, not entirely tamed.  They are spirits of edges, borders, interstices, and the faery paths betwixt and between. They are modern and archaic, common and uncanny, gentle and fierce. They are only ponies. They are so much more.

Ponies 5

In mythic symbolism world-wide, both horses and ponies represent the following things:

Physical strength, inner strength, vitality, appetite for life, the driving force that carries you forward, the driving force that overcomes obstacles, passion, movement, flow, self-expression, and that which makes you thrive. They are also symbols of vital life forces held in perfect, exquisite balance: love and devotion paired with freedom and mobility; the wild and instinctive supported by the disciplined and domestic; strength balanced with vulnerability, mastery with modesty, power with compassion.

Tilly

Movement. Flow. Vitality. That's just what I need -- what many of us need -- as winter slowly turns to spring. If winter was the time for staying still and dreaming deep, spring is when the sap rises and pushes us back up to the sun again; a time to open to new ideas, new possibilities, new creative directions. "May what I do flow from me like a river," said Rilke, "no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children." The way it is with wild ponies too, as they flow across the Devon landscape.

Tilly and the ponies

And here's the other gift the ponies bring, and it's one I value equally:

In an age when Beauty is so often defined by the tall, the slim, and the ethereal, the ponies show me that there is also Beauty to be found in what is small, shaggy, sturdy, and built for endurance. Like me. And like so many of us. We are ourselves and more-than-ourselves; ordinary and extraordinary. It's good to be reminded.

Ponies 6

Ponies 7

Photographs above: Dartmoor ponies grazing on the Commons. The pony in the 4th & 5th picture was carrying a foal in her belly at the time; it was born on the Commons just a few days later. You can see a picture of the wee newborn here. Another lovely foal is here.

If you'd like a few more ponies today, try John O'Donohue's beautiful "Philosophy of Compassion," or "Entering the Realm of Myth."

The poem in the picture captions is from Above the River by James Wright  (Wesleyan University Press, 1990); all rights reserved by the author.


Wild Neighbors

Some of the

Fridays are now my day for reprinting posts from the Myth & Moor archives. This one first appeared here back in June, 2013....

"What would Robin Hood have made of Country Life's recent excavation into the fantasies of British 7-to-14-year-olds concerning the wild life and wild places of their native land?" asks poet and scholar Ruth Padel. "Two thirds had no idea where acorns come from, most had never heard of gamekeepers (do they From Wind in the Willows illustrated by Stephen Dooleymug people or protect the Pokemons?), and most believed there were elephants and lions running round the English countryside. A third did not know why you had to keep gates shut — was it to keep the elephants in (or was some joker taking the piss just then?), or stop cows 'sitting on cars,' upsetting the countryside's most vital beast — the traffic?

"In a closed, traditional society there is something special about animals born in the land where you, too, were born. The British used to look lazily at gardens, thickets, and moors, and know — without bothering to think about it — that foxes, hedgehogs, badgers, squirrels, and deer were out there flecking the undergrowth....

"Dangerous or vulnerable, shy or cunning, a pest or welcome visitor, our native animals are part of our romance with the secret wildness of the place we live, even if we never see much of them. We grew up with them in imagination. They were inside us, furry heroes of nursery rhymes, pictures and stories through which we learned the world. Little Grey Rabbit. The Stoats and Weasels of the Wild Wood. The Fox who Looked Out on a Moonlight Night. The Frog who would A Wooing Go. They are deep in British folk song, poetry, and popular art. 'Three Ravens Sat in an Old Oak Tree.' The holly and the ivy, the running of the deer. Landseer's 'Monarch of the Glen.'

"But that's the way it used to be," Padel concludes. "We are not a mono-traditional society any more -- most kids' traditions center on the TV and the city street. To most children, a weasel is as unknowable as daffodils to a young Indian struggling with Wordsworth during the Raj."

Weasel

How did we become so disconnected to the land we live on, and the wild neighbors we share it with? I think it's partly because we're losing the stories specific to the local landscape: the stories about this plant that grows on the hill nearby and that bird that migrates here each spring and not just the pan-cultural stories we share with everyone on computer and television screens. We no longer know the tales of the animals, and, increasingly, we no longer know animals themselves.

What a different attitude is conveyed by these words from a member of the Carrier Indian nation in British Columbia (quoted in Becoming Animal by David Abram):

"We know what the animals do, what are the needs of the beaver, the bear, the salmon, and other creatures, because long ago men married them and acquired this knowledge from their animal wives. Today the priests say we lie, but we know better. The white man has only been a short time in this country and knows very little about the animals; we have lived here thousands of years and were taught long ago by the animals themselves. The white man writes everything down in a book so it will not be forgotten; but our ancestors married animals, learned their ways, and passed on this knowledge from one generation to another."

Badger

The old story of a woman who marries a bear, for example, is one that used to roam widely, like the bears themselves, throughout North America. In a Nishga version recounted by Agnes Haldane of the Wolf clan of Gitkateen (in Wisdom of the Myth Tellers by Sean Kane), a tribal princess picking berries in the forest steps on a bit of bear scat and mutters angry remarks about the bears. As the women head for home, her basket breaks; repairing it, she is left behind. Two handsome men appear and tell her they've come to fetch her and lead her from the forest. Instead of leading her home, they take her to the village of the Bear People. The princess tricks the People into believing she is a woman of great power, and as a result she ends up marrying the son of the Bear Chief. She lives with him rather happily, and gives birth to two fine bear sons. But during a period of hibernation, her own brothers find her husband's cave and kill the bear in a rescue attempt. Her husband has foreseen this event. "When they skin me," he'd instructed her, "tell them to burn my bones so that I may go on to help my children. At my death they shall take human form and become skillful hunters. Now listen as I sing my dirge song. This you must remember and take to your father. My cloak he shall don as his dancing garment. His crest shall be the Prince of Bears."

Merlin

The bear's sacrifice of his life for the benefit of human beings might seem suprising, but it's not an unusual theme in the indiginous tales of North America, where many story traditions say the animals were the First People, here before humans came. Sacred tales from many different Indian nations recount how Bear, or Coyote, or Eagle, or Deer first gave humans the precious, vital gift of fire; while in other tales language, hunting skills, dancing, even love-making, were first taught by animals. Though we've come to expect such respectfulness towards and from other species in American Indian lore, it can also be found in many other storytelling traditions around world -- such as in the sacred stories of the Ainu of Japan. As Gary Snyder notes (in The Practice of the Wild):

"In the Ainu world, a few human houses are in a valley by a little river. Food is often foraged in the local area, but some of the creatures come down from the inner mountains and up from the deeps of the sea. The animal or fish (or plant) that allows itself to be killed or gathered, and then enters the house to be consumed, is called a 'visitor,' marapto. Bear sends his friends the deer down to visit humans. Orca [the Killer Whale] sends his friends the salmon up the streams. When they arrive their 'armor is broken' -- they are killed -- enabling them to shake off their fur or scale coats and step out as invisible spirit beings. They are then delighted by witnessing the human entertainments -- sake and music. (They love music.) Having enjoyed their visit, they return to the deep sea or the inner mountains and report, 'We had a wonderful time with the human beings.' The others are then prompted themselves to go on visits. Thus if the humans do not neglect proper hospitality, the beings will be reborn and return over and over."

Salmon

In another essay in the same volume, Snyder writes: "A young white woman asked me: 'If we have made such good use of animals, eating them, singing about them, drawing them, riding them, and dreaming about them, what do they get back from us?' An excellent question, directly on the point of etiquette and propriety, and putting it from the animals' side. The Ainu  say that the deer, salmon, and bear like our music and are fascinated by our languages. So we sing to the fish or the game, speak words to them, say grace. Periodically we dance for them. A song for your supper: performance is currency in the deep world's gift economy. The other creatures probably do find us a bit frivolous: we keep changing our outfits and we eat too many different things. Nonhuman nature, I can't help feeling, is well inclined towards humanity and only wishes that modern people were more reciprocal, not so bloody."

Otter

The idea that animals love human song reminds me of this passage from Linda Hogan's gorgeous novel Power:

'[T]he panther remembers when humans were so beautiful and whole that her own people envied them and wanted to be like them. They admired the humans and the way the two-legged people stood beneath trees with leaves leaning down over them as they picked ripe fruits, how their beautiful eyes were fully open. How straight they walked! How beautiful the beads about their necks, the dresses women made in fabric that was the dark green of the trees and the light colors of flowers. How intelligent the little shell and wooden bowls they ate from, how good they were at devising ways to catch fish with simple bone and metal, at making trails through the thickets. They stood so gracefully and full of themselves, they sang so beautifully; it remembers all this, how they sang. The whole world rejoiced with their voices....

"[The panther] remembers when its own people surrounded the humans and gave them life and power, medicine to heal, to hunt, even to direct lightning and stormclouds away from their beautiful dark-eyed children....But now they have turned against her. Now that they have no need for her, Sisa and her people,  the panther, are leaving. They leave in sadness and grief. Now so few of the humans have songs or presence, so many have such heaviness that they can barely walk or move, raise themselves from their beds in the morning. And Sisa believes, sees, that the world could end with their human misery."

Grey Heron

And in Wild: An Elemental Journey (another book that I highly recommended), Jay Griffiths shares this:

"Creatures are gente, I'm told, everywhere I go in the Amazon: they are 'people like us' with customs and homes and they are accorded gentleness for being gente. You must address the world gently, I was told, even to the wind you should speak con cariño -- with tenderness. The Harakmbut say that all animals were people más allá -- long ago -- and there is therefore a profound equality between us and them; they are like distant family, and one has duties and expectations as one would with family members. People are 'familiar' with the habits and ways of animals, and this familarity is cherished. (By contrast in the West, close familiarity with animals was considered devilish: the witch and her 'familiar.')

"Animals should be treated kindly, even in hunting, for they are kin to humans. 'We owe...kindliness to other creatures: there is an intercourse and mutual obligation between them and us,' wrote Michael de Montaigne, sounding uncannily like an Amazonian Indian."

Fox

"Homo sapiens," wrote the late naturalist Ellen Meloy (in Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild) "have left themselves few scant places and scant ways to witness other species in their own world, an estangement that leaves us hungry and lonely. In this famished state, it is no wonder that when we do finally encounter wild animals, we are quite surprised by the sheer truth of them."

Barn owl

Louise Erdrich portrays this sense of surprise in a passage from her novel The Painted Drum:

“Coming down off the trail, I am lost in my own thoughts and unprepared when a bear chugs across the path just before it gives out on the gravel road. I am so distracted that I keep walking towards the bear. I only stop when it rears, stands on hind legs, and stares at me, sensitive nose pressed into the air, weak eyes searching. I have never been this close to a wild bear before, but I am not frightened. There is no menace in its stance; it is not even curious. The bear seems to know who or what I am. The bear is not impressed. ”

Princess & bearNo, I don't expert that the bear would be impressed with many of us these days, nor the bees and badgers, the hares and hedgehogs and other wild folk here in the hills of Devon. We don't know their stories any longer. We've forgotten their songs. We don't "stand with presence."

In From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner discusses the role of "beasts" in fairy tales, and how our perceptions of these stories have changed as attitudes towards animals have changed. "Just as the rise of the teddy bear matches the decline of real bears in the wild," she notes, "so soft toys today have taken the shape of rare animal species. Some of these are not very furry in their natural state: stuffed killer whales, cheetahs, gorillas, snails, spiders and snakes -- and of course dinosaurs -- are made in the most inviting deep-pile plush. They act as a kind of totem, associating the human being with the animal's capacities and value. Anthropomorphism traduces the creatures themselves; their loveableness sentimentally exaggerated, just as formerly, belief in their viciousness crowded out empircal observation."

Brown Hare

Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

This is clearly true, and a world in which children interact only with animal-shape-objects while remaining ignorant about the creatures outside their own back door (be it country badger or urban fox) is clearly a world out of balance.  And yet, for me, those soft animal toys awakened my interest in and life-long love of the wild, as did the anthropomorphised animals of tales like Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, and Wind and Willows. I'm thinking quite a lot about this these days, as I work on a book project involving bunny girls and other animal children. I want these magical beings to lead children back to nature, not to be nature's safe, cuddly substitute. Is this possible? At this point in the process, I have more questions than I have answers....

When I think back to my own childhood, what I wish is that someone had noted my passion for animals and placed a wildlife guide in my hands alongside those tales of Mole and Rat and Benjamin Bunny...or better still, led me out of doors and into the wild, and told tales of the land we then lived on. Not in place of those books, which had done their work in opening the door into wonder for me, but as the next necessary step of attaching wonder to the living world around us.

Bunny Sisters by Terri Windling

"How, then to renew our viceral experience of a world that exceeds us -- of a world that is wider than ourselves and our own creations?" asks David Abram (in Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology). "Does a revitalizing of oral [storytelling] culture mean that we must renounce reading and writing? Must we empty our bookcases? Must we unplug our computers and drag them down to the dump?

"Hardly. The renewal of oral culture entails no renunciation of books, and no rejection of technology. It entails only that we leave abundant space in our days for interchange with one another and with our surroundings that is not mediated by technology: neither by television nor the cell phone, neither by the handheld computer or the GPS satellite...nor even the printed page.

"Among writers, for example, it entails a recognition (even an anticipation) that there are certain stories we may stumble against that ought not to be written down -- stories that we might instead begin to tell with our tongue in the particular topography where those stories live. Among parents, it requires that we set aside, now and then, the books that we read to our children in order to recount a vital story with the whole of our gesturing body -- or better yet, that we draw our kids out of doors in order to improvise a tale about how the nearby river feels when the fish return to its waters, or about the wild wind that's even now blustering its way through the city streets, plucking the hats off people's heads.... Among educators, it requires that we begin to rejuvenate the arts of telling, and of listening, in relation to the geographical place where our lessons actually happen."

Noctule Bat

"Can we renew in ourselves an implicit sense of the land's meaning, of its own many-voice eloquence?" David wonders. "Not without renewing the sensory craft of listening, and the sensuous art of storytelling. Can we help our students to carefully translate the quantified abstractions of science into the qualitative language of direct experience, so that those necessary insights begin to come alive in their felt encounters with cumulus clouds and bleaching corals, with owls and deformed dragonflies and the intricate tangle of mycelial mats? ...Most important, can we begin to restore the health and integrity of the local earth? Not without restorying the local earth."

Water shrew

"We are of the animal world," Linda Hogan reminds us (in her beautiful collection of essays, Dwelling: A Spiritual History of the Living World). "We are part of the cycles of growth and decay. Even having tried so hard to see ourselves apart, and so often without a love for even our own biology, we are in relationship with the rest of the planet, and that connectedness tells us we must reconsider the way we see ourselves and the rest of nature.

"A change is required of us, a healing of the betrayed trust between humans and earth. Caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time, and perhaps that stewardship is finally our place in the web of life, our work, our solution to the mystery of what we are."

Indeed. Part of that stewardship, surely, is caretaking our local, traditional stories as well as the land that gave birth to them. And listening for the land's new stories. Telling them. And singing, so the animals can hear us.

Hedgehog

The photographs above, of our four-footed and winged neighbors here in Devon, come from the Devon Wildlife Trust website. The art above: "Ratty" by my two-footed neighbor Steve Dooley (from the enchanting new Wind and the Willows for iPad); "Woman & Bear," a Victorian illustration (artist unknown); Peter Rabbit by the great Beatrix Potter; and my wee Rabbit Sisters.


In the Forest of Stories

Child Reading

Leshy Forest illustrations by Rima Staines

Fridays are now my day for reprinting posts from Myth & Moor's archives. This one, from summer 2013, relates to our discussions this week on fairy forests and the power of stories....

"At the beginning of my life was a forest," says Francis Spufford (in his charming memoir, The Child That Books Built). He means an actual forest (an 18th century park, turned wild, close to his parents' house), but also the metaphorical forest at the beginning of fiction, a forest made of stories:

"This one spread forever. Its canopy of branches covered the land, covered every form of the land, whether the ground beneath jagged or rolled. The forest went on. Up in its living roof birds flitted through greeness and bright air, but down between the trunks of the many trees there were shadows, there was dark. When you walked this forest, your feet made rustling sounds, but the noises you made yourself were not the only noises, oh no. Twigs snapped; breezes brought snatches of what might be voices. Lumpings and crashings in the undergrowth marked the passages of heavy things far off, or suddenly nearby.

The Castle in the Forest by Su Blackwell

"This was a populated wood. All wild creature lived here, dangerous or benign, according to their natures. And all the other travelers you had heard of were in the wood too, at this very moment: kings and knights, youngest sons and third daughters, simpletons and outlaws, a small girl whose bright hood flickered between the pine trees like a scarlet beacon...

Little Red Riding Hood by Su Blackwell

"...and a wolf moving on a different vector to intercept her at the cottage, purposefully arrowing through thickets, leaving a track of disturbance behind him as an alpha particle does when it streaks across a cloud chamber....

Grandmother's House in the Forest by Su Blackwell

The Secret Garden by Su Blackwell

"These people, these dangers, were not far away, but you would never meet them. The adventures could never intersect, although they shared the forest; although they would be joined in time by more, and still more, wayfarers, the more elaborated beings who came from the more elaborate worlds of privately read story, rather than the primitives of fairy tale. Mole from Wind in the Willows would pelt in hunted panic through a nighttime tract of the forest, whose bare boughs jutted 'like a black reef in some still Mole, Ratty, and Otter by E.H. Shepardsouthern sea.' Through twisted foliage would creep Wart, in The Sword and the Stone, past pale-eyed predators and baby dragons hissing under the stones, to his first sight of Merlyn swearing at a bucket. But each traveled separately, because it was the nature of the forest that you were alone in it. It was the place in which by definition you had no companions, and no resources except your uncertain self. It was the Wild, were relationship ceases, where connection is suspended."

There would be encounters in the forest, Spufford adds, for the solitary nature of a young hero's journey is spiritual and emotional, not literal. "Eventually the state that the whole wood represented [for you, the reader/traveler] would be embodied. One of those rustlings would become a footfall, would become a meeting, and you stepped forward to it as best you could. You could no more avoid the encounters of the wood -- all significant, all in their way tests -- than you could cross it on a neat dependable path. It existed to cause changes, and it had no pattern you could take hold of in the hope of evading change. You never went out the same as you went in."

Fairy Tales by Mary L. Gow

In the pages of Enchantment Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood, the brilliant fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar notes:

"The journey as a master trope for the reading experience becomes evident in our use of the term armchair traveler, as well as in a wide range of velvety reports about the reading experience. 'Most of the time I simply enjoyed the luxurious sensation of being carried away by the words, and felt, in a very physical sense, that I was actually traveling somewhere wonderfully remote, to a place that I hardly dared glimpse on the secret last page of the book,' Alberto Manguel reports in his history of reading. The novelist Katie Roiphe describes a similar sense of kinetic exhileration while reading during recovery from a childhood bout of pneumonia: 'I broke open the books the chased the words. It was a breathless activity like running.'"

A Child's Garden of Verses illustrated by Jessica Wilcox Smith

But it is deeply paradoxical, Tatar points out, "that a practice involving nothing but sitting still and staring at black marks on a white page is pitched as travel with the added benefit of powerful sensory stimulation. Reading is often said to open up alternate world superior to the one inhabited by the reader, producing an improbable rush of life.

"'From that first moment in the schoolroom at Chatres,' C.S. Lewis recalls in contemplating the role of books in his life, 'my secret imaginative life began to be so important and so distinct from my outer life that I almost have to tell two separate stories.' It was in that imaginative world  that the author of The Chronicles of Narnia felt 'stabs of joy' so keen that they rivaled any feelings attending real-life experience."

Five Little Pigs by Elizabeth Shippen Green

Jungle Tales by James Jebusa Shannon

There is a point for most bookish children when the choice of reading material becomes private and deeply personal; when adult attempts to guide or share the reading journey are no longer always welcome. From the bedside tales of our youngest years we progress to reading with a parent or teacher's help, and then on to reading all by ourselves. Books become our private treasures, solitary journeys into wondrous places that adults (except that magical creature called an Author) would surely not understand...or so we think, as each succesive generation discovers the vast Forest of Stories anew.

And indeed, some adults don't understand. Many children tagged as "bookworms" endure a tedious amount of teasing (or worse) from non-readers, as if a passion for print is odd, effete, perhaps even slightly unsavory. "When I was a boy,"the novelist/playwright/critic Robertson Davies once wrote, "many patronizing adults assured me that there was nothing I liked better than to 'curl up with a book.' I despised them. I have never curled." 

Carl Larrson's painting of his son reading

"Each time a child opens a book," writes Lois Lowry, "he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. It gives him freedom. Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things."

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller

Boy Reading by Normal Rocwell and The Book by Gina Litherland

"Books may be the only true magic," says  Alice Hoffman.

And indeed they are true magic.

Little Red by Jackie Morris

Tilly dreaming of fairy talesPictures above: A photograph from Transition Voice magazine; Leshy Forest illustrations by Rima Staines; four book sculptures by  Su Blackwell (working with discarded texts); "Mole, Ratty, and Otter" by E.H. Shepard (1879-1976); "Fairy Tales" by Mary L. Gow (1851-1929);  "The Fairy Book" by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935); "Five Little Pigs" by Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871-1954); "Jungle Tales" by James J. Shannon (1862-1923); "My Son Reading" by Carl Larrson (1853-1991) ; a book sculpture by Kerry Miller (working with discarded texts); "Boy Reading" by Norman Rockwell (1884-1978); "The Book" by Gina Litherland; "Little Red" by Jackie Morris; and Tilly dreaming of fairy tales.


By the Light of the Moon and Stars

John Bauer

Fridays are now my day for reprinting posts from Myth & Moor's extensive archives. This one, from summer 2013, is a compilation of paintings and drawings on the theme of Night (re-posted today with additional art). There is beauty, mystery, and magic to be found in darkness...and during dark times.

"The world rests in the night," writes John O'Donohue. "Trees, mountains, fields, and faces are released from the prison of shape and the burden of exposure. Each thing creeps back into its own nature within the shelter of the dark. Darkness is the ancient womb. Night-time is womb-time. Our souls come out to play...." 

Remedios Varo

"Sometimes, when you're deep in the countryside, you meet three girls, walking along the hill tracks in the dusk, spinning. They each have a spindle, and on to these they are spinning their wool, milk-white, like the moonlight. In fact, it is the moonlight, the moon itself, which is why they don't carry a distaff. They're not Fates, or anything terrible; they don't affect the lives of men; all they have to do is to see that the world gets its hours of darkness, and they do this by spinning the moon down out of the sky. Night after night, you can see the moon getting less and less, the ball of light waning, while it grown on the spindles of the maidens. Then, at length, the moon is gone, and the world has darkness, and rest."  - Mary Stewart (The Moonspinners)

Presently by Jeanie Tomanek

Catherine Hyde

"Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover. Like smoke from an unseen fire, a line of fire just below the horizon, brushfire or a burning city. Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. A wool blanket."  - Margaret Atwood (A Handmaid's Tale)

Edmund Dulac

Virginia Lee

Titania Sleeping by Arthur Rackham

Adrienne Segur

"Night does not show things, it suggests them. It disturbes and surprises us with its strangeness. It liberates forces within us which are dominated by our reason during the daytime."  - Brassaï

The Fisherman Stops to Listen (from ''The Nightingale'') by Edmund Dulac.jpg

Murmur of Pearls by Gina Litherland

"The message of the lullaby is that it’s okay to dim the eyes for a time, to lose sight of yourself as you sleep and as you grow: if you drift, it says, you’ll drift ashore: if you fall, you will fall into place."  - Kevin Brockmeier ("These Hands")

Vladislav Erko

Kelly Louise Judd

"Anything seems possible at night when the rest of the world has gone to sleep."  - David Almond (My Name is Mina)

Charles Vess

Arthur Rackham

"Night is a time of rigor, but also of mercy. There are truths which one can see only when it’s dark."  - Isaac Bashevis Singer (Teibele And Her Demon)

Marianna And the Whippets by David Wyatt

"Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than with night. Primitive folk, gathered at a cave mouth round a fire, do not fear night; they fear, rather, the energies and creatures to whom night gives power; we of the age of the machines, having delivered ourselves of nocturnal enemies, now have a dislike of night itself. With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it.

"Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars? Having made themselves at home in a civilization obsessed with power, which explains its whole world in terms of energy, do they fear at night for their dull acquiescence and the pattern of their beliefs? Be the answer what it will, today's civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never even seen night. Yet to live thus, to know only artificial night, is as absurd and evil as to know only artificial day."   -  Henry Beston (The Outermost House)

The Hidden Pool by Flora McLachlan

Look, as the day slows towards the space
that draws it into dusk: rising became
upstanding, standing a laying down, and then
that which accepts its lying blurs to darkness.

Mountains rest, outgloried be the stars -
but even there, time’s transition glimmers.
Ah, nightly refuged in my wild heart,
roofless, the imperishable lingers.

- Rainer Maria Rilke (Uncollected Poems: 1912-1922, translation by Susan Ranson & Marielle Sutherland)

Eclipse by Jeanie Tomanek

Catherine Hyde

"This is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away."  - J.R.R. Tolkien (The Return of the King)

Flora McLachlan

Inga Moore

Julia Gukova

The illustrations above are : "Trolls" by John Bauer (1882-1918), "Celestial Pablum" by Remedios Varo (1908-1963), "Presently" by Jeanie Tomanek, "The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep" by Catherine Hyde, "The Arabian Nights: Descent" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), a drawing from the "Inner Seasons" series by Virginia Lee, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by Arthur Rackham (1887-1969), "Kip the Enchanted Cat" by Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981),  "The Nightingale: The Fisherman Stops to Listsen" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), "Murmur of Pearls" by Gina Litherland, "The Tin Soldier: The Dog Carries the Princess on His Back" by Vladislav Erko, "Companions to the Moon" by Charles Vess, "A Midsummer Night's Dream: Oberon and Titania" by Arthur Rackham (1887-1969), "Forest Sleep" by Kelly Louise Judd, "Marianna and the Whippets" by David Wyatt, "The Hidden Pool" by Flora McLachlan, "Eclipse" by Jeanie Tomanek, "Crossing the River" by Catherine Hyde, "Starfall" by Flora McLachlan, "The Wind and the Willows" by Inga Moore, and "The Legendary Unicorn" by Julia Gukova. All rights to the imagery and text above are reserved by the artists and authors.


From the archives: Stories that matter

The Wild Swans by Nadezhda Illarionova

Fridays are now my day for reprinting posts from Myth & Moor's archives. This one, from winter 2015, relates to themes we've been discussing here: fairy tales, the writing craft, and creating work of value in a fractured world.

Writing advice from Louise Erdrich:

"Begin with something in your range. Then write it as a secret. I’d be paralyzed if I thought I had to write a great novel, and no matter how good I think a book is on one day, I know now that a time will come when I will look upon it as a failure. The gratification has to come from the effort itself. I try not to look back. I approach the work as though, in truth, I’m nothing and the words are everything. Then I write to save my life. If you are a writer, that will be true. Writing has saved my life."

The Wild Swans by by Nadezhda Illarionova

Writing advice from Grace Paley:

"The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write."

The Little Mermaid by Nadezhda Illarionova

Writing advice from Ursula K. Le Guin:

"Socrates said, 'The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.' He wasn't talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth.

"A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper."

Thumbelina by by Nadezhda Illarionova

The art above and below is by the Russian painter and designer Nadezhda Illarionova, based in Moscow. She has illustrated tales from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Perrault, and Mother Goose...but these books, alas, are not yet available in English-language editions.

Thumbelina by Nadezhda Illarionova

Looking at Illarionova's wondrous work, I'm reminded of these words by Lynda Barry:

"There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairy tale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it. I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood. They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.”

Donkeyskin by Nadezhda IllarionovaThe illustrations by Nadezhda Illarionova are: A Meeting in the Woods (The Wild Swans), Picking Nettles (The Wild Swans), The Fickle Prince (The Little Mermaid), Mole and Mouse (Thumbelina), The Child Was Shivering (Thumbelina), and Donkeyskin. All rights to the art and text above are reserved by the artist and writers.


Telling the story

Toshiyuki Enoki

Beginning this week, Fridays are my day for reprinting posts from Myth & Moor's archives. I have nine-years-worth of them after all, having started this blog in 2008 -- so some of them may be unfamiliar to you, depending on when you joined us here. New posts will published Monday to Thursday (with Mondays, as always, dedicated to music); then Friday's archival post will relate to themes that have emerged during the week. This week: an excerpt from a long poem on the subject of women writers and storytellers. The post first appeared in 2014, and is reprinted today with additional art.

Toshiyuki Enoki

Toshiyuki Enoki

Toshiyuki Enoki
I see her walking
on a path through a pathless forest
or a maze, a labyrinth.
As she walks, she spins
and the fine threads fall behind her
following her way,
telling
where she is going,
telling
where she has gone.
Telling the story.
The line, the thread of voice,
the sentences saying the way.


- Ursula K. Le Guin

(from "The Writer On, and At, Her Work)

Toshiyuki Enoki

The magical art in this post is by painter and illustrator Toshiyuki Enoki. Born in Tokyo in 1961, he was trained in traditional Japanese painting, lacquer painting, and western painting techniques. Please go here to see more of his work.

Toshiyuki Enoki

Toshiyuki EnokiThe poem excerpted above, and in the picture captions, is from The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternberg (Virago Press, 1992); it also appears in Le Guin's collection  The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Shambhala, 2004). I recommend seeking it out to read in full. All rights to the text and art above are reserved by the author and artist.


From the archives: The Folklore of Winter

Santa Claus by Arthur Rackham

I'm too ill to write new posts this week, so I am re-publishing seasonal pieces from the archives. This one was originally posted in December 2014, with additional art this time around:

A cold wind howls, stripping leaves off of the trees, and the pathways through the hills are laced with frost. It's time to admit that winter is truly here, and it's here to stay. But Howard keeps the old Rayburn stove in the kitchen well fed, so our wind-battered little house at the edge of the village is cozy and warm. Our Solstice decorations are up, and tonight I'll make a second batch of kiffles: the Christmas cookies passed on through generations of women in my mother's Pennsylvania Dutch family...carried now to England and passed on to our daughter, who may one day pass it to children of her own.

Mexican Santos on kitchen mantle,
and the Rayburn stove pumping out its warmth.

My personal tradition is to talk to those women of the past generations as I roll out the kiffle dough and cut, fill, roll, and shape each cookie: to my mother, grandmother, and old great-aunts (all of whom have passed on now)...and further back, to the women in the family line that I never knew.

Shaping the kiffles

Finished kiffles

Kiffles are a labor-intensive process (as so many of those fine old recipes were), so I have plenty of time to tell the Grandmothers news and stories of the year gone by. This annual ritual centers me in time, place, lineage, and history; it keeps my world turning through the seasons, as all storytelling is said to do. Indeed, in some traditions there are stories that can only be told in the wintertime.

Breakfast table during the dark days of winter

Here in Devon, there are certain "piskie" tales told only in the winter months -- after the harvest is safely gathered in and the faery rites of Samhain have passed. In previous centuries, throughout the countryside families and neighbors gathered around the hearthfire during the long, dark hours of the winter season, Jack Frost by Arthur Rackhamgossiping and telling stories as they labored by candle, lamp, and firelight. The "women's work" of carding, spinning, and sewing was once so entwined with storytelling that Old Mother Goose was commonly pictured by the hearth, distaff in hand.

In the Celtic region of Brittany, the season for storytelling begins in November (the Black Month of Toussaint), goes on through December (the Very Black Month), and ends at Christmas. (A.S. Byatt, you may recall, drew on this tradition in her wonderful novel Possession.) In early America, some of the Puritan groups which forbade the "idle gossip" of storytelling relaxed these restraints at the dark of the year, from which comes a tradition of religious and miracle tales of a uniquely American stamp: Old World folktales transplanted to the New and given a thin Christian gloss. Among a number of the different Native American nations across the continent, winter is also considered the appropriate time for certain modes of storytelling: a time when long myth cycles are told and learned and passed through the generations. Trickster stories are among the tales believed to hasten the coming of spring. Among many tribes, Coyote stories must only be told in the dark winter months; at any other time, such tales risk offending this trickster, or drawing his capricious attention.

Winter Wood by Arthur Rackham

In myth cycles to be found around the globe, the death of the year in winter was echoed by the death and rebirth of the Winter King (also called the Sun King, or Year King), a consort of the Great Goddess Fairy Linkmen Carrying Winter Cherries by Arthur Rackham(representing the earth's fertility) in her local guise. The rebirth or resurrection of her consort (representing the sun, sky, or quickening winds) not only brought light back to the world, turning the seasons from winter to spring, but also marked a time of new beginnings, cleansing the soul of sins and sicknesses accumulated in the twelve months passed. Solstice celebrations of the ancient world included the carnival revels of Roman Saturnalia (December 17-24), the Anglo-Saxon vigil of The Night of the Mother to renew the earth's fertility (December 24th), the Yule feasts of the Norse honoring the One-Eyed God and the spirits of the dead (December 25), the Persian Mithric festival called The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (December 25th), and the more recent Christian holiday of Christmas, marking the birth of the Lord of Light (December 25th).

Stockings Were Hung by the Chimney With Care by Arthur Rackham

Many symbols we associate with Christmas today actually come from older ceremonies of the Solstice season. Mistletoe, holly, and ivy, for instance, were gathered in their magical potency by moonlight on Winter Solstice Eve, then used throughout the year in Celtic, Baltic and Germanic rites. The decoration of evergreen trees can be found in a number of older traditions: in rituals staged in decorated pine groves (the pinea silvea) of the Great Goddess; in the Roman custom of dedicating a pine tree to Attis on Winter Solstice Day; and in the candlelit trees of Norse Yule celebrations, honoring Frey and Freyja in their aspects of Hunter, Huntress, and Protectors of Forests. The Yule Log is a direct descendant from Norse and Anglo-Saxon rites; and caroling, pageantry, mummers plays, eating plum puddings, and exchanging gifts are all elements of Solstice celebrations handed down from the pre-Christian world.

Even the story of the virgin birth of a Divine, Heroic or Sacrificial Son is not a uniquely Christian legend, but one found in cultures all around the globe -- from the myths of Asia, Africa and old Europe to Native American tales. In ancient Syria, for example, a feast on the 25th of December celebrated the Nativity of the Sun; at midnight the sun was born in the form of a child to the Virgin Queen of Heaven, an aspect of the the goddess Astarte.

The Night Before Christmas by Arthur Rackham

Likewise, it is interesting to note that the date chosen for New Year's Day in the Western world is a relatively modern invention. When Julius Caesar revised the Roman calendar in 46 BC, he chose January 1 -- following the riotous celebrations of Saturnalia -- as the official beginning of the year. Early Christians condemned the date as pagan, tied to licentious practices, and much of Europe resisted the Julian calendar until the Strawberries in the Snow by Arthur RackhamGregorian reforms in the 16th century; instead, they celebrated New Year's Day on the 25th of December, the 21st of March, or various other dates. (England first adopted January 1 as New Year's Day in 1752).

The Chinese, Jewish, Wiccan and other calendars use different dates as the start of the year, and do not, of course, count their years from the date of Christ's birth. Yet such is the power of ritual and myth that January 1st is now a potent date to us, a demarcation line drawn between the familiar past and the unknowable future. Whatever calendar you use, the transition from one year into the next is the traditional time to take stock of one's life -- to say goodbye to all that has passed and prepare for a new life ahead.  The Year King is symbolically slain, the sun departs, and the natural world goes dark. Rituals, dances, pageants, and spiritual vigils are enacted in lands around the world to propitiate the sun's return and keep the great wheel of the seasons rolling.

The Dance of Winter and Gnomes by Arthur Rackham

The Snow Queen by Charles Robinson

Special foods are eaten on New Year's Day to ensure fertility, luck, wealth, and joy in the year to come: pancakes in France, rice cakes in Ceylon, new grains in India, and cake shaped as boar in Estonia and Sweden, among many others. In my family, we ate the last of those scrumptious kiffles...if they'd managed to last that long. They could not, by tradition, be made again before December of the following year, and so the last bite was always a little sad (and especially delicious). The Christmas tree and decorations were taken down on New Year's Day, and the house was thoroughly cleaned and swept: this was another Pennsylvania Dutch custom, brushing out any bad luck lingering from the year behind, making way for good luck to come.

May you have a lovely winter holiday, in whatever tradition you celebrate, full of all the magic of home and hearth, oven and table, and the wild wood beyond.

Gerda and the Reindeer by Edmund Dulac

Winter in Kensington Garden by Arthur Rackham

The Night Before Christmas by Arthur RackhamThe paintings above are by three great artists of the Golden Age of Book illustration: Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), and Charles Robinson (1870-1937). You'll find titles in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) I recommend a related article by Derek Johnstone, published in The Conversation: "Why Ghosts Haunt England at Christmas But Steer Clear of America." Also, don't miss "Father Christmas: A New Tale of the North," a perfectly magical story by Charles Vess.