The capacity for awe

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

From Dani Shapiro's Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life:

"Too often, our capacity for awe is buried beneath layers of perfectly reasonable excuses. We feel we must protect ourselves -- from hurt, disappointment, insult, loss, grief -- like warriors girding for battle. A Sabbath prayer I have carried with me for more than half my life begins like this: 'Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles.'

"We cannot afford to walk sightless among miracles. Nor can we protect ourselves from suffering. [As writers] we do work that thrusts us into the pulsing heart of the world, whether or not we're in the mood, whether or not it's difficult or paintful or we'd prefer to avert our eyes. When I think of the wisest people I know, they share one defining trait: curiosity. They turn away from the minutiae of their lives -- and focus on the world around them. They are motivated by a desire to explore the unfamiliar. They enjoy surprise."

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

From Paul Bogard's The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light:

''Most days I live awed by the world we have still, rather than mourning the worlds we have lost. The bandit mask of a cedar waxwing on a bare branch a few feet away; the clear bright sun of a frozen winter noon; the rise of Orion in the eastern evening sky - every day, every night, I give thanks for another chance to notice. I see beauty everywhere; so much beauty I often speak it aloud. So much beauty I often laugh, and my day is made.

''Still if you wanted to, I think, you could feel sadness without end. I’m not even talking about hungry children or domestic violence or endless wars between supposedly grown men...but ‘you mustn’t be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you even seen,' said Rilke, 'you must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in it hand and will not let you fall.' ''

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

After five years on the flanks of Nattadon Hill, it is deeply familiar, and eternally surprising. Tilly and I never know what we might find: tall spires of foxglove flaming among the trees, badger prints pressed into the mud beside the leat, or a herd of wild ponies resting in the shade at the woodland's edge. Every day there are wonders, large and small. If I stayed inside intent on screen and keyboard, how would I see them? And if I numbed myself against sorrow and despair, how would I feel awe and joy?

Come, says Tilly, it's time to go out again, and she's always right. The world calls us, in all its dark and bright and sun-dappled shade. Full of hardship, yes, but also moments of magic: a quiet, daily, domestic kind of magic. A bright summer day, and a good dog at your side, and wild ponies in the woods.

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

Dartmoor ponies in Nattadon Woods

Tunes for a Monday Morning

We start today with one of my favorite young folk groups, The Staves, a trio made up of three sisters (Emily, Jessica, and Camilla Staveley-Taylor) from Watford in Hertfordshire, England. Their debut album is Dead & Born & Grown.

Above, a live performance of  "Eagle Song," filmed on the coast of Cornwall for the French music site La Blogothèque. Below, a live performance of "Motherlode," filmed at the Crypt Studio in Crouch Hill, London. More of their music can be found in this previous post.


"Horses," a gorgeous song by Dala (Sheila Carabine and Amanda Walther) from Ontario, Canada. The video is an excerpt from Dala's Girls From the North Country concert DVD. The song comes from their third album, Everyone is Someone.

Dartmoor pony & newborn foal.A wild Dartmoor pony and her two-day-old foal on the Chagford Commons. (We last saw this pony pregnant here.)

Let the wild rumpus begin.The foal has a romp, followed by Mama...and Tilly joining in, at a safe distance.

Nursing the foal.Nursing the foal.

Mother & childMother and child.

And one last song today:

"All The Wild Horses" (audio only) by the American singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne, who lives in western Maine. The song comes from his first album, Trouble (2004). His fifth album, Supernova, is due out in May.

Daily myth

Ponies 1

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.


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 7Photographs above: Dartmoor ponies on the village Commons

When the magic is working

Dartmoor ponies on the Commons

From "Seeing Around the Corners" by Susan Cooper (1976):

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

A gentle encounter

"Who knows where the ideas come from?" she continues. "Who knows what happens in that shadowy part of the mind, something between Plato's cave and Masterlinck's Hall of the Night, where the creative imagination lies? Who knows even where the words come from, the right rhythm and meaning and music all at once?

Tilly and the ponies

Brown pony

"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.

White pony

"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."

Light brown pony

Like Cooper, I'm fascinated by the various ways one finds this state of trance, or magic, or flow, or grace (call it what you will). Discovering our personal methods for reaching it best (with the least amount of struggle, the fewest obstacles put in our own way) is surely one of the most useful skills we learn over a lifetime in the arts.


Right now, my husband is in Portugal teaching theater students to work with masks -- which requires finding that same state of trance in order to let the "mysterious blessing" come through to bring the masks fully to life. In mythic terms, he is the psychopomp, leading them from one world into the next -- from time-bound daily reality into the timeless flow of performance art -- but the goal, when their classroom days are done, is to have the skill to cross over on their own, using their own best methods of travel.

Commedia masks

The students are at the start of their creative lives, and I remember well what those years felt like -- when you think you know what art requires, and then the realization comes that you must go deeper and deeper still (if you're serious at all) into the unknowable, uncomfortable, vulnerable place where the root of creativity lies...which is to say, you must go deeper and deeper into yourself, which can be daunting indeed. Even now, after all these years, I still have days of sharp (or anxious, or befuddled) resistance to this act of deep surrendering...but the joy of age is that I know my own process now, the daily habits, practices, and mindset that will carry me past each block and obstacle and back into the work.

Every day I breathe deep, open up the heart again, and let the Mystery in.

Pony mysteriesPhotographs above: Wild ponies grazing on the village Commons, and Commedia dell'Arte masks.

Coffee Break

The watering hole under the oak

Wet dog

This is the spot where Tilly and I often go for a mid-morning coffee break, for it's the perfect place to linger for a stolen moment in a busy work day. Sitting in the old oak's shade, bare feet cooled by gold water in a pebble-bottomed stream, I read or write while Tilly prowls, or splashes, or sits contentedly beside me.

It's also a spot favored by animals that live or graze on Nattadon Hill; we find deer and fox prints in the soil (and sometimes badger too), and once encountered a large hare, who blinked at us and then strolled leisurely away.

Reading the signs

Most often it's the wild ponies who join us, traveling down from the moor to drink and bathe and cool themselves among the leaves...

Ponies meandering down the stream

A pony has a bath, half-hidden by the leaves

...or cows from the lower field, much more standoffish since their calves were born.

The herd tells Tilly not to come too close to the young'uns...

...but the young'uns are inclined to be curious too.

Our foot and paw prints mix with theirs, just two more animals on the hill, drawn to cold water like all the rest....

Adding our prints to the message-board of soil around the stream

And just as food tastes best when eaten outdoors, and coffee transforms into the nectar of the gods, a good book read in an oak tree's shade becomes somehow even better -- as though the oak reads over my shoulder, murmuring its approval and pleasure. I lose myself, bees humming around me, the church bells ringing faintly in the distance and sheep calling from the distant hills...

The murmuring oak, a wise old thing

...but when my cup is empty, I close the book, slip on my shoes, and say, "Come, love. Let's go home."

Homeward bound

Tilly leads the way down the streamside path that winds back to studio, her nose twitching as she reads the latest scent-news carried by the wind.

And I bring it all back to my desk: the wind, the water, the woods, and the wild. Words like fox prints tracked across the page. Dark coffee, bright sun; the bitter and the sweet; the rustle of the ponies and the hare's bold gaze. The simple things that keep us going.

Crossing over the stream again to arrive at the studio gate.

That I'm grateful for.

That aren't simple at all.

Going outward and beyond

The Visitors

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 book, my thoughts far away. Tilly barks, just once, to let me know we have visitors....

Two ponies, one white with speckles, one brown

I am reading Rebecca Solnit's new 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. 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.

Tilly and the friendly pony

"They give us an expansive scale in whch our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble, and ugliness.

The pony ambles on.

"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.

Tilly takes the pony's measure

"The bigness of the world is redemption.

Farewell, farewell

"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 pads down the streamside path

"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.....

Pausing at the wood's edge

"I told the student 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."

Dreaming among the trees

In her luminous, collage-like memoir, 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 story-teller."

Which is exactly what Solnit has accomplished here, in her deeply moving and beautifully crafted new book.

As for me, I've become a story-teller 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.

Inhaling, Exhaling...

Standing Stone Near Merrivale by Stu Jenks

Scorhill Circle by Stu Jenks

How to be a Poet (to remind myself)
by Wendell Berry

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill -- more of each
than you have -- inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity…

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensional life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

(from Given: New Poems)

"The world is holy. We are holy. All life is holy. Daily prayers are delivered on the lips of breaking waves, the whisperings of grasses, the shimmering of leaves."   - Terry Tempest Williams (Leap)

Tallest Stone, Scorhill Circle by Stu Jenks

“I breathe in the soft, saturated exhalations of cedar trees and salmonberry bushes, fireweed and wood fern, marsh hawks and meadow voles, marten and harbor seal and blacktail deer. I breathe in the same particles of air that made songs in the throats of hermit thrushes and gave voices to humpback whales, the same particles of air that lifted the wings of bald eagles and buzzed in the flight of hummingbirds, the same particles of air that rushed over the sea in storms, whirled in high mountain snows, whistled across the poles, and whispered through lush equatorial gardens…air that has passed continually through life on earth. I breathe it in, pass it on, share it in equal measure with billions of other living things, endlessly, infinitely.”  - Richard Nelson (The Island Within)

“Breathing involves a continual oscillation between exhaling and inhaling, offering ourselves to the world at one moment and drawing the world into ourselves at the next.” - David Abram (Becoming Animal)

Three Stones, Scorhill Circle by Stu Jenks

Making art is like breathing. Creation is the exhalation, putting ideas, emotions, patterns, rhythms, and revelations of beauty out into the world through the materials of our chosen art forms. But first comes the inhalation. We can't produce and produce without stopping to breathe. We must take the world in: land and wind, books and song, love and passion, silence and conversation; all those things that inspire us, fill us, delight us, enrage us, alchemize into art inside of us; all those things that form and change and batter our lives and give us something to say; all those things that, mixed together in unique proportions, give us tales that are truly our own.

White Pony at Scorhill Circle by Stu Jenks

The Dartmoor photographs here are, once again, by Stu Jenks, from his visit here a couple of weeks ago. Above: "Standing Stone Near Merrivale," "Scorhill Circle," "Tallest Stone: Scorhill Circle," "Three Stones: Scorhill Circle," and "White Pony at Scorhill Circle." (Click on the images for larger versions.)

Below: "A Brown Pony Rubbing His Ass Against An Ancient Stone, A White Pony Scratching Her Neck Against Another." About this one, he says: "This, in visual metaphor, pretty much expresses my spiritual belief of finding the balance between the sacred and the profane."

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

The Dog's Tale

What's this behind the oak?

I am the luckiest dog in the world, with woods and hills and fields to roam in, rivers to jump in, Evil Cats to guard my territory from, and plenty of Dastardly Squirrels to chase. Every day brings new surprises. Sometimes a deer bounds through the trees, or I flush a pheasant out of the grass. Sometimes I discover fresh fox poo (my favorite!), or wildflowers growing in a perfect circle where fairy feet have danced (we dogs can see the fairies, of course).

This week I spied a strange dark shape behind the old oak at the bottom of the hill. I thought it might be hedge witch or a troll (I found a troll quite close by last year) ...

...but it was another wild pony, down from the moor.  And she wasn't alone.

And she has a baby! All wet and wobbly and cute as a pup.

Behind her was a foal, still wobbly on its legs. I kept my distance, as I've been trained, but I wagged my tale, and the foal came walking over...while Mama Pony did the funniest thing.

Good grief, what is that pony doing???

She knealt down on the grass, rolled over and over, and kicked her legs. What fun!

What larks! hat joy! Can I join in?

First she rolled left, and then she rolled right...

It looks like fun!

...and then she rolled some more.

Maybe me and the baby could be friends. I could take her home and show her all my toys.

The foal battted her big eyes at me while the Mama jumped up and shook her tail...

But maybe she's still just a little too young.

...then Baby wobbled over to Mama, had a little cuddle...

Come back when you're older! I'll be waiting!

and they trotted away.

The Pony Dance 1

At home, I demonstrated for my People.

The Pony Dance 2

"First she kicked her legs like this," I said,

The Pony Dance 3

"and then like this and this."

The Pony Dance 4

I often do interpretive dance, and now I've learned some excellent new moves.

The Dancer's Reward

My People liked my Pony Dance much better than the last one, my Rolling in Fox Poo Dance. This time I got a nice new bone. Last time it was a bath and a telling off....

Facing fear, 4: On risk and uncertainty

Dartmoor ponies 1

From Mastering Creative Anxiety by Eric Maisel:

"Consider the process. All day long you are supposed to get things right: drive on the correct side of the road, show up for appointments, balance your checkbook, appropriately respond to your email, and so on. Your whole day and your whole mind are aimed at not making mistakes, not making messes, not getting yourself into trouble, avoiding unnecessary risks, and looking right to the world. Then, somehow, [as an artist] you must shift from that way of being and thinking to a radically different state, one in which mistakes and messes are not only possible and  probable but downright guaranteed."

Dartmoor ponies 2

From Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

"Photographer Jerry Uelsmann once gave a slide lecture in which he showed every single image he had created in the span of one year: some hundred-odd pieces -- all of about ten of which he judged insufficient and destroyed without ever exhibiting. Tolstoy, in the Age Before Typewriters, re-wrote War & Peace eight times and was still revising galley proofs as it finally rolled onto the press. William Kennedy gamely admitted that he re-wrote his own novel Legs eight times and that 'seven times it came out no good. Six times it was especially no good. The seventh time out it was pretty good, though it was way too long. My son was six years old by then and so was my novel, and they were both about the same height.'

"It is, in short, the normal state of affairs. The truth is that the finished piece of art which seems so profoundly right in its finished state may earlier have been only inches or seconds away from collapse.

Ponies 10

"In making art you need to give yourself room to respond authentically, both to your subject matter and to your materials. Art happens between you and something -- a subject, an idea, a technique -- and both you and that subject need to be free to move....Lawrence Durrell likened the process to driving construction stakes in the ground: you plant a stake, run fifty yards ahead and plant another, and pretty soon you know which way to go. E.M. Forester recalled that when he began writing A Passage to India he knew that the Malabar Caves would play a centrol role in the novel, that something important would surely happen there -- but he wasn't sure what it would be.

Dartmoor ponies 3

"Control apparently is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous. What's really need is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way."

Dartmoor ponies 4

"The creative process is a process of surrender, not control."  - Julia Cameron

Dartmoor ponies 5

"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."  - E. L. Doctorow

Dartmoor ponies 6

"Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark."  - Agnes de Mille

"Dancing is just discovery, discovery, discovery. As is all art."   - Martha Graham

Dartmoor ponies 7Images: Two wild Dartmoor ponies who have separated from the herd and taken up residence on our rain-sodden hill. We meet them on our walks at down -- in the woods, on the hill, and grazing in the farmer's field below. We don't know how long they'll chose to stay...but right now, they seem quite content.

Post script: Once again I put this post up before hearing the news out of Boston, and once again I pray that all of you there are safe.