In the space between the imaginary
and the concrete

Ponies 1

From "305 Marguerite Cartright Avenue" by Chimamanda Adiche:

"As a child, books were the center of my world; stories entranced me, both reading them and writing them. I've been writing since I was old enough to spell. My writing, when it is going well, gives me what I like to describe as 'extravagant joy.' It is my life's one true passion. It is, in addition to the people I love, what makes me truly happy. And like all real passions, my writing has enormous power over me. There is the extravagant joy when it is going well, and when it is not going well -- when I sit in front of my computer and the words simply refuse to come -- I feel a soul-crushing anxiety, and I sink into varying levels of depression.

Ponies 2

Ponies 3

"Most times, in response to this, I read. I read the authors I love -- the poems of Derek Walcott, the prose of John Gregory Brown, the poems of Tanure Ojaide, the prose of Ama Ata Aidoo -- and I hope that their words will water my mind, as it were, and get my own words growing again. But if that doesn't work, I take to my bed and eat a lot of ice cream....

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

"I write because I have to. I write because I cannot imagine my life without the ability to write, or to imagine, or to dream. I write because I love the solitude of writing, because I love the near-mystical sense of creating characters who sometimes speak to me.

Ponies 6

Ponies 7

 "I write because I love the possibility of touching another human being with my work, and because I spend a large amount of time between the imaginary and the concrete.

Ponies 8

"My writing comes from hope, from melancholy, from rage, and from curiosity."

Ponies 9

Words: The passage above is from an essay by Adichie published in The World Split Open (Tin House Books, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is by British novelist and poet Helen Dunmore, from her collection Glad of These Times (Bloodaxe Books, 2007). Dunmore recently died of cancer at much too young an age, which is a great loss. All rights to the text above reserved by Ms. Adichie and the Dunmore estate.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies who have strayed down from the moor to shelter their foals on our village Commons.


The stories in the air around us

Field 1

Last week (in Thursday's post), Susan Cooper talked about inspiration, and where the ideas and themes in her books come from. Today, Ursula K. Le Guin approaches the same subject from a different direction:

"It's a big question -- where do writers get their ideas, where do artists get their visions, where do musicians get their music? It's bound to have a big answer," says Le Guin. "Or a whole lot of them. One of my favorite answers is this: Somebody asked Willie Nelson how he thought up his tunes, and he said, 'The air is full of tunes, I just reach up and pick one.'

"For a fiction writer -- a storyteller -- the world is full of stories, and when story is there, it's there; you just reach up and pick it.

Field 2

Field 3

"Then you have to be able to tell it to yourself.

"First you have to be able to wait. To wait in silence. Listen for the tune, the vision, the story. Not grabbing, not pushing, just waiting, listening, being ready for it when it comes. This is an act of trust. Trust in yourself, trust in the world. The artist says, 'The world will give me what I need and I will be able to use it rightly.'

Field 4

Horse pen

White horse 1

"Readiness -- not grabbiness, not greed -- readiness: willingness to hear, to listen carefully, to see clearly and accurately -- to let the words be right. Not almost right. Right. To know how to make something out of the vision; that's what practice is for. Because being ready doesn't mean just sitting around, even if it looks like that's what most writers do; artists practice their art continually, and writing happens to involve a lot of sitting. Scales and finger exercises, pencil sketches, endless unfinished and rejected stories. The artist who practices knows the difference between practice and performance, and the essential connection between them. The gift of those seemingly wasted hours and years is patience andf readiness; a good ear, a keen eye, a skilled hand, a rich vocabulary and grammar. The gift of practice to the artist is mastery, or a word I like better, 'craft.'

"With those tools, those instruments, with that hard-earned mastery, that craftiness, you do your best to let the 'idea' -- the tune, the vision, the story -- come through clear and undistorted. Clear of ineptitude, awkwardness, amateurishness; undistorted by convention, fashion, opinion.

White horse 2

Hound

"This is a very radical job, dealing with the ideas you get if you are an artist and take your job seriously, this shaping a vision into the medium of words. It's what I like to do best in the world, and what I like to talk about when I talk about writing. I could happily go on and on about it. But I'm trying to talk about where the vision, the stuff you work on, the 'idea,' comes from, so:

"The air is full of tunes. A piece of rock is full of statues. The earth is full of visions. The world is full of stories.

"As an artist, you trust that."

White horse 3

Words: The passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014). The Catheryn Essinger poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine, June 1999. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: A buttercup field on Nattadon Hill, looking over the valley to Meldon Hill; and the friendly white horse that lives in an enclosure at the base of Meldon.


Look, learn, remember

Ponies 1

As artists, although we can list a variety of things that serve to inspire us (places, experiences, interests and obsessions, other works of art, etc.), the act of inspiration itself remains mysterious and magical. Why and how does it strike when it does? Why this idea and not that one; why at this moment and not another?

"The whole process is a mystery, in all the arts," writes Susan Cooper; "creativity, in literature, painting, music. Or in performance, those rare lovely moments in a theater when an actor has the whole audience in his hand suddenly, like that. You may have all the technique in the world, but you can't strike that spark without some mysterious exra blessing -- and none of us knows what that blessing really is. Not even writers, who talk the most, can explain it at all.

Ponies 2

"Who knows where the ideas come from? Who knows what happens in the shadowy part of the mind, something between Plato's cave and Maeterlinck's Hall of Night, where the creative imagination hides? Who knows even where the words come from, the right rhythm and meaning and music all at once? Those of us who make books out of the words and ideas have less of an answer than anyone. All we know is that marvelous feeling that comes, sometimes, like a break of sunshine in a cloud-grey sky, when through all the research and concentration and slog -- suddenly you are writing, fluently and fast, with every sense at high pitch and yet in a state almost like a trance. Suddenly for a time the door is open, the magic is working; a channel exists between the page and the shadowy cave in the mind.

"But none of us will ever know why, or how.

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

"Just one thing can, perhaps, be charted," Cooper adds, "and that's the kind of stories that are told. If only looking back over your own work after you've done it, you can find some thread that runs through, binding it all together.

Ponies 5

Ponies 6

Reflecting on her own work, Cooper writes:

"The underlying theme of my Dark is Rising sequence, and particularly its fourth volume, The Grey King, is, I suppose, the ancient problem of the duality of human nature. The endless coexistence of kindness and cruelty, love and hate, forgiveness and revenge -- as inescapable as the cycle of life and death, day and night, the Light and the Dark.

Ponies 7

"And to some extent, I can see its roots. My generation, especially in Britain and Europe, was given a strong image of good and bad at an impressionable age. We were the children of World War II. Our insecurities may not have been different in kind from those of the modern child, but they were more concrete. That something might be lurking in the shadows behind the bedroom door at night wasn't, for us, a terrible formless bogeyman; it was specific -- a Nazi paratrooper, with a bayonet. And the nightmares that broke into our six-year-old sleep weren't always vague and forgettable; quite often they were not only precise, but real.

Ponies 8

"We knew that there would indeed be the up-and-down wail of the air raid siren, to send us scurrying through a night crisscrossed with searchlights, down into the shelter, that little corrugated iron room buried in the back lawn, and barricaded with sandbags and turf. And then their would be the drone of the bombers, the thudding of anti-aircraft fire from the guns at the end of the road, and the crash of bombs coming closer, closer each time...

Ponies 9

Ponies 10

Ponies 11

"The experience of war, like certain other accidents of circumstance, can teach a child more than he or she realizes about the dreadful ubiquity of man's inhumanity to man. And if the child grows up to be a writer, in a world that seems to learn remarkably little from its history, that writing will be haunted.

Ponies 12

"Haunted, and trying to communicate the haunting. Whether explicitly, or through the buried metaphor of fantasy. It will always be trying to say to the reader: Look, this is the way things are. The conflict that's in this story is everywhere in life, even in your own nature. It's frightening, but try not to be afraid. Ever. Look, learn, remember; this is the kind of thing you'll have to deal with yourself, one day, out there."

Ponies 13

"Perhaps," she concludes, "a book can help with the long, hard matter of growing up, just a little. Maybe, sometimes."

I believe books can, and that they've done this for many of us.

Ponies 14

The pictures today are of our local herd of Dartmoor ponies, who often come down from the moor to the village Commons to graze and shelter their foals. Tilly loves them, but knows not to get too close, especially during foaling season.

Pony watcher

Words: The passage above is from "Seeing Around Corners" (Cooper's acceptance speech for the 1976 Newbury Medal for The Grey King), published in Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1996). The poem in the picture captions is from Love and Strange Horses by Nathalie Handal (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors.


The practice of kindness

Dartmoor pony

To continue our conversation on kindness:

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

Tilly and the ponies

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

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

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

Tilly and the pony

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

Tilly and the pony

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

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

Dartmoor ponies

Bog 3

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

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

Gate

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

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


And the horses rush in

Stu Jenks


Before the birth, she moved and pushed inside her mother.
Her heart pounded quickly and we recognized the sound of horses running:

                                                                                     the thundering of hooves on the desert floor.

Her mother clenched her fists and gasped.
She moans ageless pain and pushes: This is it!

Chamisa slips out, glistening wet and takes her first breath.
                                                                                     The wind outside swirls small leaves
                                                                                     and branches in the dark.

Her father's eyes are wet with gratitude.
He prays and watches both mother and baby -- stunned.

This baby arrived amid a herd of horses,
                                                                                      horses of different colors.

- Luci Tapahonso (from "Blue Horses Rush In")


Stu Jenks

Stu Jenks

I'm mixing the two lands that I love today: photographs of the ancient, mythic expanse of Dartmoor; and words from the ancient, mythic expanse of the Arizona desert.

The photographs are by Stu Jenks, who lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. He's best known for his gorgeous desert imagery -- but these pictures were taken when he visited us here on Dartmoor a few years ago. (To my eye, he has captured the spiritual connection of these two vastly different landcapes.)

The poem excerpt above is from Sáanii Dahataal/The Women Are Singing by Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso, who is also from Arizona.

Stu Jenks

''A Brown Pony Rubbing His Ass Against An Ancient Stone  A White Pony Scratching Her Neck Against Another  Scorhill Stone Circle  Dartmoor'' by Stu jenks

"The combination of song, prayer, and poetry," writes Tapahonso, "is a natural form of expression for many Navajo people. A person who is able to 'talk beautifully' is well thought of and considered wealthy. To know stories, remember stories, and retell them well is to have been 'raised right'; the family of such an individually is also held in high esteem. The value of the spoken word is not diminished, even with the influences of television, radio, and video. Indeed, it seems to have enriched the verbal dexterity of colloquial language, as for instance, in names given to objects for which a Navajo word does not exist, such as béésh nitsékees or 'thinking metal' for computers and chidí bijéí or 'the car's heart' for a car battery. I feel fortunate to have access to two, sometimes three languages, to have been taught the 'correct' way to use these languages, and to have the support of my family and relatives. Like many Navajos, I was taught that the way one speaks and conducts oneself is a direct reflection of the people who raised him or her. People are known by their use of language."

In this contentious political and social media age, "talking beautifully" is a concept worth thinking about, practicing, and spreading.

Stu Jenks copy

Stu Jenks

My online reading recommendation today also comes from the Arizona desert: "One Morning, a Stranger at Home" by Aleah Sato. It's one of my many book-marked pages from her beautifully ruminative blog, The Wild Muse -- but do have a look at some of the more recent posts too, if you're not already following Aleah's work.

And while I'm recommending treasures from the desert, Greta Ward's artwork is simply stunning, rich in the ineffable numinous spirit that the Sonoran Desert and Dartmoor share.

To end with, here are three Dartmoor pictures by Stu that I love for more personal reasons:

The first, called "Chagford Hoop Dance," brings spiral magic to our village Commons. The second is a portrait of Howard, performing with his band The Nosey Crows. The third is a portrait of our Tilly, in the woods behind my studio.

Chagford Hoop Dance

Howard Gayton performing with the band Nosey Crows  by Stu Jenks

Tilly by Stu JenksThe photographs above are by Stu Jenks (the titles can be found in the picture captions); all rights reserved by the artist. The poem except above is from "Blue Horses Rush In" by Luci Tapahonso, which can be found in the collection of the same name, and in Sáanii Dahataal/The Women Are Singing. Both books are published by The University of Arizona Press. All rights reserved by the author.


Mist, wild ponies, and the animate earth

Commons

"To our indigenous ancestors, and to the many aboriginal peoples who still hold fast to their oral traditions, language is less a human possession than it is a property of the animate earth itself, an expressive, telluric power in which we, along with the coyotes and the crickets, all participate. Each creature enacts this expressive magic in its own manner, the honeybee with its waggle dance no less than a bellicose, harrumphing sea lion.

"Nor is this power restricted solely to animals. The whispered hush of the uncut grasses at dawn, the plaintive moan of trunks rubbing against one another in the deep woods, or the laughter of birch leaves as the wind gusts through their branches all bear a thicket of many-layered meanings for those who listen carefully."  - David Abram (Becoming Animal)

Commons 2

Commons 3

Commons 4

Today's recommended reading comes from The Center for Humans & Nature:

"To Be Human" by David Abram, answering the question of what makes our species unique

"Recovery," a myth-infused, heart-rending tale about a rescued crow by Michael Engelhard

"The Artist Who Would Be Crow," an interview with Eleanor Spiess-Ferris

Commons 5

 

Commons 5

Commons 6

Today's book recommendations, for those who haven't read them already: Spell of the Sensuous: Perception & Language in a More-Than-Human World and Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram. Both have been strongly influential texts for me, and I recommend them highly.

Commons 7

Books by David Abram & Terry Tempest Williams


Big Magic

Nattadon morning 1

Nattadon morning 2

Even illness has its gifts -- and the most precious of them (as I've noted in a previous post) is the time to read, which brings me treasures I might have missed in the busy-ness of ordinary life. Of the books I've devoured during this recent round of illness, there's one I now find myself recommending to just about everyone I know: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, a guide to creative writing and creative living.

Big Magic is written in a breezy, conversational style, but there is true wisdom underlying Gilbert's deliberately populist approach to the subject of creativity, presented in a generous and open-hearted manner, but also with no punches pulled. Her ideas about inspiration are colored by myth and mysticism, drawing on the Greco-Roman concept of creative genius as a force outside ourselves with whom we collaborate (as we've explored here in posts on the work of Lewis Hyde, among others), so it's not a book I'd recommend to hardcore cynics. I'm assuming, however, that Myth & Moor readers are likely to be open to a bit of myth, magic, and enchantment. If you struggle with your creative work at all (and perhaps even if you don't), please consider giving Gilbert's delightful and insightful book at try. (I should warn you that the book's cover is garishly off-putting, but that's the publisher's doing, not the author's.)

Nattadon morning 2

Nattadon morning 4

Here's a taste of Big Magic, from a chapter on the concept of "creative permission" (another subject we've talked about here before):

"You do not need anybody's permission to live a creative life," Gilbert states emphatically. "Maybe you didn't receive this kind of message growing up. Maybe your parents were terrified of risk in any form. Maybe your parents were obsessive-compulsive rule-followers, or maybe they were too busy being melancholic depressives, or addicts, or abusers to ever use their imaginations towards creativity. Maybe they were afraid of what the neighbors would say. Maybe your parents weren't makers in the least. Maybe you grew up in an environment where people just sat around watching TV and waiting for stuff to happen to them. Forget about it. It doesn't matter.

"Look a little further back in your family's history. Look at your grandparents: Odds are pretty good they were makers. No? Not yet? Keep looking back, then. Go back further still. Look at your great-grandparents. Look at your ancestors. Look at the ones who were immigrants, or slaves, or soldiers, or farmers, or sailors, or the original people who watched the ships arrive with strangers on board. Go back far enough and you will find people who were not consumers, people who were not sitting around passively waiting for stuff to happen to them. You will find people who spent their lives making things. This is where you come from. This is where we all come from.

Nattadon 5 morning

Nattadon morning 6

Nattaton morning 8

Nattadon morning 7

Nattadon morning 9 (ponies and bull)

"Human beings have been creative beings for a really long time -- long enough and consistently enough that it appears to be a totally natural impulse...[and] the diversity in our creative expression is fantastic. Some of the most enduring and beloved artwork on earth is unmistakably majestic. Some of it makes you want to drop to your knees and weep. Some of it doesn't, though. Some acts of artistic expression might stir and excite you, but bore me to death. Some of the art that people have created across the centuries is absolutely sublime, and probably did emerge from a grand sense of seriousness and sacredness, but a lot of it didn't. A lot of it is just folks messing around for their own diversion -- making their pottery a little prettier, or building a nicer chair, or drawing penises on the walls to pass the time. And that's fine too.

"You want to write a book? Make a song? Direct a movie? Decorate pottery? Learn to dance? Explore a new land? You want to draw a penise on your wall? Do it. Who cares? It's your birthright as a human being, so do it with a cheerful heart. (I mean, take it seriously, sure -- but don't take it seriously.) Let inspiration lead you wherever it wants to lead you. Keep in mind that for most of history people just made things, and they didn't make such a freaking deal out of it.

"We make things because we like making things."

Nattadon morning 10

Nattadon morning 11

"If you're alive, you're a creative person," Gilbert continues. "You and I and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem-solvers, and embellishers -- these are our common ancestors.

"The guardians of high culture will try to convince you that the arts belong only to a chosen few, but they are wrong and they are also annoying. We are all the chosen few.  We are all makers by design. Even if you grew up watching cartoons in a sugar stupor from dawn to dusk, creativity still lurks within you. Your creativity is older than you are, older than any of us. Your very body and your very being are perfectly designed to live in collaboration with inspiration, and inspiration is still trying to find you -- the same way it hunted down your ancestors.

"All of which is to say: You do not need permission from the principal's office to live a creative life."

Indeed.

Nattadon morning 12

Tilly snoozing


Life in rural Devon: The Chagford Show

A prize-winning cabbage at the Chagford Show

Prize-winning onions

On Thursday, Howard, Jenny (my lovely mother-in-law), Tilly and I went to the 115th Chagford Agricultural and Horticultural Show, one of our favorite events in the local calendar, where we watched dog, pony, and horse trials, admired tractors and vegetables, listened to local music, ate locally-grown food, caught up with village neighbors and friends...and where I was able to thoroughly indulge my inexplicable passion for sheep.

Here are some of my pictures from the day. You can find many more by other folks in the Gallery of the Chagford Show website.

Prize-winning vegetables

Prize-winning peas

“Imagine if we had a food system that actually produced wholesome food. Imagine if it produced that food in a way that restored the land. Imagine if we could eat every meal knowing these few simple things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what it really cost. If that was the reality, then every meal would have the potential to be a perfect meal. We would not need to go hunting for our connection to our food and the web of life that produces it. We would no longer need any reminding that we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and that what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world. I don’t want to have to forage every meal. Most people don’t want to learn to garden or hunt. But we can change the way we make and get our food so that it becomes food again -- something that feeds our bodies and our souls. Imagine it: Every meal would connect us to the joy of living and the wonder of nature. Every meal would be like saying grace.” 

- Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals)

Prize-winning herbs

Home-made local wine

Prize-winning children's drawings

Prize-winning flowers in the children's section

“Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don't need a lot of money to be happy -- in fact, the opposite.”

- Jean Vanier (Community And Growth)

Friends serving tea at Chagford Show

Husband, hound, and a vintage tractor

Steam-driven tractor

Dog competition at Chagford Show

Carriage-driving competition

The passing traffic at Chagford Show

“If we are looking for insurance against want and oppression, we will find it only in our neighbors' prosperity and goodwill and, beyond that, in the good health of our worldly places, our homelands. If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities -- and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared."

- Wendell Berry (The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays)

Prize-winning young cow

Prize-winning calf

I'll be out of the studio over the next week due to family commitments, and back to Myth & Moor again on Tuesday, September 1st. Wherever you may be, I hope the end of your summer (or winter, for those of you Down Under) is a good one.

A lamb at Chagford Show

Sheep at Chagford Show

Sheep at Chagford Show

Sheep at Chagford Show

Sheep at Chagford Show

Sheep at Chagford Show

Ram and sheep at Chagford Show

Sheep at Chagford ShowPicture descriptions are in the captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


The philosophy of compassion

Chagford Commons

The mystical Celtic Christian tradition which has come down to us through the writings of the peregrini, among others, informs the work of Irish poet, philosopher, and theological scholar John O'Donohue (1956-2008), often quoted here on Myth & Moor. In his writings, the Celtic Chrisitian and pre-Christian traditions are closely aligned, both rooted in the natural world.

"Celtic thought contributes magnificently to a philosophy of compassion," he once explained in an interview, "deriving from its sense that everything belongs in one diverse, living unity. On an ontological level, the exercise of compassion is the transfiguration of dualism: the separation of matter and spirit, masculine and feminine, body and soul, human and divine, person and animal, and person and element. The beauty of the Celtic tradition was that it managed to think and articulate all of these presences together in a profound, intimate unity. So, if compassion is a praxis which tries to bring that unity into explicit activity and presentation, then Celtic philosophy of unity contributes strongly to compassion. The Celtic sense of no separating border between nature and humans allows us to have compassion with animals and with places in nature. For the Celts, nature wasn't a huge expanse of endless matter. Nature was an incredibly elemental and passionately individual presence, and that is why many gods and spirits are actually tied into very explicit places, and to the memory and history and narrative of the places.

Nattadon Hill view from Chagford Commons

Dartmoor Ponies 1

"The predominant silence in which the animal world lives is very touching," O'Donohue continued. "As children on a farm, we were taught to respect animals. We were told that the dumb animals are blessed. They cannot say what they are feeling and we should have great compassion for them. They were tended to and looked after and people became upset if something happened to them. There was a great sense of solidarity between us and our older brothers and sisters, the animals.

"One of the tragedies in Western religion is the way that we have been so elitist in reserving the spiritual exclusively for the human. That is an awful, barbaric crime. When you subtract the notion of self from a presence, you objectify it and then that presence can be used and abused. It is a sin and blasphemy to say that animals have no spirits and souls. One of the cornerstones of contemplative life is going below the surface of the external and the negativity. The contemplative attends to the roots of wrong and violence. Because the animals live essentially what I call the contemplative life, maybe the most sacred prayer of the world actually happens within animal consciousness. Secondly, sometimes when you look into an animal's eyes, you see incredible pain. I think there are levels of suffering for which humans are not refined enough, and maybe our older, ancient brothers and sisters, the animals, carry some of that for us.

Dartmoor Ponies 2

"We recognize compassion in the willingness of someone to imagine himself into the life of another person. We recognize its presence in the withholding of huge negative moralistic judgment. We see compassion in the expression of mercy, in the refusal to label someone with a short-circuiting terminology that condemns her, even though her actions may be awkward. We see compassion in an openness to the greater mystery of the other person. The present situation, deed or misdeed is not the full story of the individual, there is a greater presence behind the deed or the person than society usually acknowledges. Above all, we see the presence of compassion as the vulnerability to be disturbed about awful things that are going on.

Dartmoor Ponies 3

Dartmoor Ponies 4

"One of the most vulnerable living forms in creation is human. Around the human body, where we live, there is emptiness. There is no big protective frame, so anything can come at you from outside at any time. At this moment, there are people in a doctor's office getting news that will change their lives forever. They will remember this day as the day their life broke in two. There are people having accidents that they never foresaw. There are safe, complacent people whose lives are managed under the dead manacle of control falling off a cliff into love and into the excitement and danger of a new relationship. In life, anything can come along the pathway to the house of your soul, the house of your body, to transfigure you. We're vulnerable externally to destiny, but we're also vulnerable internally, within ourselves. Things can come awake within your mind and heart that cause you immense days and nights of pain, a sense of being lost, of having no meaning, no worth; a kind of acidic negativity can knock down everything that you achieve in yourself, giving your world a sense of being damaged.

Dartmoor Ponies 5

Dartmoor Ponies 6

"Another way to approach this is to look at the huge difference between sincerity and authenticity. Sincerity, while it's lovely, is necessary but insufficient, because you can be sincere with just one zone of your heart awakened. When many zones of the heart are awakened and harmonized we can speak of authenticity, which is a broader and more complex notion. It takes great courage and grace to feel the call to awaken, and it takes greater courage and more grace still to actually submit to the call, to risk yourself into these interior spaces where there is very often little protection. It takes a great person to creatively inhabit her own mind and not turn her mind into a destructive force that can ransack her life. You need compassion for yourself, particularly in American society, because many people in America identify themselves through the models and modules of psychology that inevitably categorize them as a syndrome. Lovely people feel that their real identity is working on themselves, and some work on themselves with such harshness. Like a demented gardener who won't let the soil settle for anything to grow, they keep raking, tearing away the nurturing clay from their own heart, then they're surprised that they feel so empty and vacant.

"Self-compassion is paramount. When you are compassionate with yourself, you trust in your soul, which you let guide your life. Your soul knows the geography of your destiny better than you do."

Dartmoor Ponies 7

Dartmoor Ponies 8

Dartmoor Ponies 9

Dartmoor Ponies 10

Dartmoor Ponies 11Pictures above: Dartmoor ponies on Chagford Commons. The passage quoted above comes from an interview with John O'Donohue by Mary NurrieStearns; you can read it in full here. The poem in the picture captions comes from Poems 1960-1967 by Denise Levertov (1923-1997). All rights reserved by the authors.


From the archives: Going outward and beyond

By the stream

Cold water on a hot summer day

I sit by the banks of a cold, clear stream, my toes in the water, my nose in a book, my thoughts far away. Tilly barks, just once, to let me know we have visitors....

Visitors approach

Friendly Dartmoor ponies

I am reading Rebecca Solnit's memoir, The Faraway Nearby, and this passage has arrested my attention:

"I was asked to talk to a roomful of undergraduates in a university in a beautiful coastal valley," she writes. "I talked about place, about the way we often talk about love of place, but seldom how places love us back, of what they give us. They give us continuity, something to return to, and offer familiarity that allows some portion of our lives to remain collected and coherent. They give us an expansive scale in which our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble, and ugliness. And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren't so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.

A pony encounter

"The bigness of the world is redemption. Despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground. To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest.

Tilly takes the pony's measure

Farewell, farewell

"Being able to travel in both ways matters, and sometimes the way back into the heart of the question begins by going outward and beyond. This is the expansiveness that comes literally in a landscape or that tugs you out of yourself in a story."

Tilly pads down the streamside path

"I told the students," Solnit continues, "that they were at an age when they might begin to choose the places that would sustain them the rest of their lives, that places were much more reliable than human beings, and often much longer-lasting, and I asked each of them where they felt at home. They answered, each of them, down the rows, for an hour, the immigrants who had never stayed anywhere long or left a familiar world behind, the teenagers who'd left the home they'd spent their whole lives in for the first time, the ones who loved or missed familiar landscapes and the ones who had not yet noticed them.

"I found books and places before I found friends and mentors, and they gave me a lot, if not quite what a human being would. As a child, I spun outward in trouble, for in that inside-out world [of my family], everywhere but home was safe. Happily, the oaks were there, the hills, the creeks, the groves, the birds, the old dairy and horse ranches, the rock outcroppings, the open space inviting me to leap out of the personal into the embrace of the nonhuman world."

Pausing at the wood's edge

In The Faraway Nearby, Solnit talks about writing, art, fairy tales, the natural world, surviving cancer, her difficult relationship with her mother, and many other things that are deeply personal to me too, and perhaps to some of you as well. I highly recommend it....alongside her other fine books: Wanderlust, Hope in the Dark, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, etc..

"We think we tell stories," she writes shrewdly, "but stories often tell us, tell us to love or hate, to see or be seen. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then become a storyteller."

Which is exactly what Solnit has accomplished here, in this deeply moving and beautifully crafted memoir.

Dreaming among the trees, 2013

As for me, I've become a storyteller too, re-telling my life, re-making my world, and rooting here on the far side of the Atlantic in this place of green grass, gold water, and wild ponies. Stories are powerful things, my dears. So tell yours wisely. Make it beautiful. Make it good.

Dreaming among the trees, 2015

Three books by Rebecca Solnit, all highly recommendedWords: The quote by Rebecca Solnit above is from The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures:  All the photographs above were taken by me when the post was first published, July 2013 -- except the last one of Tilly, taken yesterday in the exact same spot as the next-to-last picture.