The language of moving

Goose Girl by Helen Allingham

The new issue of EarthLines (a magazine I highly recommend if you're not already a subscriber) is packed with treasures, including an insightful article on "The Language of Moving" by Alex Klaushofer. This captured my attention not only because I've moved many times myself over the course of my life (sometimes willingly, sometimes not, each move disruptive in its own way), but also because our daughter has recently moved back to Devon after several years of study and work in London -- and even such a relatively simple move, to a place already well-known and loved, has thrown up unexpected challenges, reminding me that there is a mythic quality to the act of pulling up roots and transplanting them. It's never truly simple, not on the practical level and especially not in the deeper, barely-conscious realm of dream, soul, and creative inspiration. 

In "The Language of Moving," Klaushofer's relocation from suburban London to the Cotswolds was one she'd chosen and long desired, yet the difficulty of the transition from one sort of life to another took her by surprise.  Moving, she says, "brought with it an uprooting, a displacing not acknowledged in the dominant discourse, especially not by those of my generation. Social talk about moving tends to focus relentlessly on the positive, with comments on the excitement that a new house and surroundings will bring. Perhaps not surpringly, since they come from a time when life was less atomized, it is older people who seem to understand the rupture involved in changing place.  My eighty-something godmother enquires solicitiously again and again as to how I am feeling: am I settling? Do I feel strange?"

Kentish Cottage by Helen Allingham

In the Spring by Helen Allingham

A little later in the article she comes back to the general absence of societal recognition of just how difficult moving can be:

"I'm coming to think that this absence is part of a broader lack in our language about our relation to place. Standard English has just one word for feelings of longing for a particular place: 'homesick.' The word implies a polarity: you are at home or away, and suggests the simple solution of going home; it carries no sense of the process of adapting to a new place or of mixed or complex feelings. Other languages of the British Isles do much better at capturing the range of feelings and experiences that make up the human attachment to place. Welsh has 'hiraeth,' a word that connotes a yearning for place that is lost or may not exist, a feeling of longing to be 'at home' in the sense of achieving a sense of belonging, of finding your paradise. Its cognate 'cynefin' denotes 'habitat' or 'customary abode'; the place which formed you, and with which you are most familiar. In a definition which encompasses cultural, social and geographical influences, Nicholas Sinclair describes it as 'the place of your birth and upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatized.' The Scottish Gaelic 'dùthchas' conveys the collective nature of a heritage that connects people to a particular place, historically also the tribal system of land rights accorded to the members of a clan. The fact that the Scottish Gaelic equivalent of homesickness, nostalgia or longing for home, cianalas, has given rise to a genre of Gaelic poetry written by emigrees called bàrdachd cianalais is perhaps testament to how a profound sense of rootedness finds linguistic expression."

East End Farm by Helen Allingham

We think of moving as a straightforward proposition: the bags are packed, the house is emptied, the old door is shut and locked one final time, and then we're to the next adventure. Hey ho, here we go! We arrive in our new location: the suitcase is unpacked, the books placed in their new setting, morning coffee is poured into familiar cups but the kitchen window has a brand new view...yet after the relief that the move is finally "over" often comes a sense of...flatness. Of nameless anxiety. Of self-doubt and three-in-the-morning fears Dog and Hens by Helen Allinghamthat the move was a terrible mistake. This is all perfectly normal, we assure our daughter...and I remember friends making similar assurances to me after various uprootings. We don't move from one phase of life to another as easily and clearly as stepping through a door; there is a time of transition, a liminal space between there and here to be moved through as we re-form into the person who is going to live in this new place. The length of time is different for each move, but the one thing I've learned after all these years is that the mythic journey through the threshold of change is shorter, gentler, and less overwhelming if we remain aware of the transitional process, and accept it. Better still, respect it.

The Saucer of Milk by Helen Allingham

Klaushofer notes that we have more words in English for the various aspects of "attachment to place" when it comes to animals, not human beings. Such as this one from sheep husbandry:

" 'Hefting' describes the process by which a ewe learns, traditionally through its mother, to stay in one particular area; once 'hefted,' the hill farmer has no need to confine the flock with fences because it will naturally incline to one pasture.

"The existence of a word for the ovine attachment to place is a reminder that, in its sparsity, our language of place forgets that we too are animals, with a pre-cognitive, non-economic attachment to the places we inhabit. Like the fox I used to see patrolling the streets of south London at the same time and in the same order every day, humans also have their runs and routines, whether built around exercise, dog walking or errands, that reflect their attachement to their habitat. Yet in a post-agricultural society which fosters a belief in our independence from the earth we almost never think in these terms."

Apple Orchard by Helen Allingham

Settled in the Cotswolds, but not yet truly settled, Klausofer writes, "I'm aware that I haven't quite hefted, that I'm in the midst of a transition, the in-between time that goes unacknowledged in the dominant discourse about moving."

Hefted. That's a wonderful word, and one I will remember and use.

For further insights into the art of moving place, I recommend reading Klaushofer's article in full.

Beside Old Church Gate by Helen Allingham

The art today is by Helen Allingham (1848-1926), a Victorian painter, illustrator, and the first woman artist granted full membership in the Royal Watercolour Society. Born in Derbyshire, raised in Birmingham, Allingham was encouraged in art from an early age -- for both her grandmother and her aunt were professional artists, which was still unusual at that time. She studied art at the Birmingham School of Design, at the National Art Training School in London (now the Royal School of Art), and in night classes at the Slade -- where she met fellow illustrator Kate Greenaway, a life-long friend. Over the course of her professional career she illustrated books for both children and adults, and created art for national newspapers and popular magazines.

In 1874 she married the Scottish poet William Allingham (author of The Fairies: "Up the airy mountain/Down the rushy glen,/We daren't go a-hunting/For fear of little men..."). The couple moved from London to Sussex to raise their family, where Allingham fell in love with the rural landscape and began the work for which she is best known: watercolors of women, children, animals, and the country cottages of Sussex, Surrey, and Kent.

Although her work has largely fallen out of favor, castigated for its Victorian sentimentality, her gentle renditions of domestic life are known to have influenced many younger artists, including the young Vincent van Gogh (who found them in English magazines). In preparing this post, and thinking of artists whose work demonstrates a deep love of "place" and "home," Helen Allingham came immediately to mind.

Gathering Flowers by Helen Allingham

Wood Gatherer and Polly by Helen Allingham

Harvest Moon by Helen AllinghamThe passage above by Alex Klaushofer is from "The Language of Moving" (EarthLines: The Culture of Nature, edited by David Knowles & Sharon Blackie, July 2016); all rights reserved by the author. I highly recommend the article, as well as the rest of this excellent issue of EarthLines. A related post: Kith & Kin. A related article: The Folklore of Hearth & Home.


Reading and place

The Tooth Fairy by Su Blackwell

"Reading for me is inextricably tied to place," writes Scottish author Emma Tennant about the books she favored in childhood. It's my favorite of the charming essays to be found in Antonia Fraser's The Pleasures of Reading, for Tennant grew up in a house that seems to have emerged from a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, built by her great-grandfather:

"The Victorian Gothic house -- a 'monstrosity' to some, a 'folly' to others -- to all a decidedly odd place for a person to spend their formative years, cast its long shadow over the books I read. For years no book I read came from anywhere but the bowels and lungs -- and in some cases the twisted attics -- of the Big House that crouched at the end of a valley still then clad with the last shreds of the Ettick Forest. I read up and down the house, and I knew fairly early on that I would never begin to get through it all -- even with the help of the terrifying Demonologie, property of James IV of Scotland, with its turning paper wheels to aid with the casting of spells.

Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

"To begin with that ragged line of Ettrick silver birches outside my window. This was the Fethan wood, where James Hogg set fairy tales and metamorphoses: it was dangerous to walk there, to go up to the ring of bright grass and look down at the house through silver-grey trees. People came out transformed into animals -- or didn't come out at all, to be discovered years later as three-legged stools. I read the Hogg stories -- or they were read to me -- and years before I was able to go on to his great masterpiece, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the account of a man driven insane by Calvinism, by the dictates of the devil who sends him out to kill as one of the Elect -- I could feel the power of Hogg's imagination in the hills and woods and streams that enclosed the house.

Detail from Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

Another detail from Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

"The house could be said to be like an archaeological dig, with the basement providing material contemporaneous with the discoveries of archeologists Arthur Evans or Heinrich Schliemann, and just as startling for a child to discover as it must have been for the archaeologists to unearth the foundations of Knossos or Clytemnestra's tomb. Here were Henty and Ballantyne -- and, most important of all, H. Rider Haggard's She -- all in low rooms hard to find in a labyrinth of tiled passages, cold with a strong smell of rot. Here the strong and brave of the Empire fought their battles and had their impossible adventures; and here I lingered, in disused dairies and stillrooms, reading in a world which was a dusty monument to that vanished and glorious past.

The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

Detail from The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

Another detail from The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

"From the crepuscular vaults of the house there were two ways up. The back stairs led to the schoolrooms, where tubercular daughters had coughed over books of such spectacular dullness that I remember none of them -- except for the fact that some more recent incumbents had left a stash of historical romances by Margaret Irwin and Violet Needham. Here, in the abandoned schoolroom, I was drawn into a past (there were a couple of Georgette Heyers too) of phaetons and darkly scowling artistocrats and games of faro and the like, and for a while I stopped there, until the discovery of Alexander Dumas' The Back Tulip drew me down the stairs again and out into the garden. For the magnetic quality of that extraordinary book led me to search the grassy paths and flower borders for the elusive tulip -- and once I thought I saw it between two yew trees, at the entrance to the garden: a rich, gleaming black flower that would guide me somehow down the paths my own imagination was just beginning to try....

Gormenghast by Su Blackwell

"The attic had books in trunks that had split open with age -- books no-one wanted when they went off to war, or went off to get married, or had no room for anyway. Bees had once swarmed in the attic, and it's to the smell of wax that I remember finding the early Penguins: the Aldous Huxleys, a book called A Month of Sundays, which I have never since been able to trace -- and the odd Agatha Christie, which kept me up there until dark, amongst children's wicker saddles, pictures of dead aunts that no-one would ever want to look at, and a floor covering of dead bees."

The Snow Queen by Su Blackwell

The Luminaries by Su Blackwell

As an American child growing up in a series of unromantic mid-20th century houses, I longed for a Gothic pile like Tennant's, with rooms to explore and books to discover and pathways leading to fairy tale woods. It wasn't until I was grown that I finally lived in house full of history and ghosts: a Matilda by Su Blackwelllittle stone cottage, 400 years old, that I owned for two decades before I was married. That's a story for another day, however, as that was a place that shaped my adult self, not the child I was and thus the writer I became.

What house did you love in childhood? Or long for? Or perhaps still inhabit today? We've been talking about place and home this last week, and the houses in which our earliest years unfolded surely shaped our creative psyches as much as the land or cityscape around them. For me, tossed back and forth between the houses of various relatives, with occasional stints in foster care, the transient aspect of those years led to a deep obsession with the theme of "finding home, place, and family" that runs (whether I consciously mean it to or not) through all of my work. I'd be a different writer if my childhood had been stable and rooted. Not better or worse, just different.

Despite having no single place that was my home, I also associate the books I loved in childhood with places where I first read them, as Emma Tennant does in the delightful passage above. Re-reading such books can whisk us right back, for good or ill....

A potent form of time-traveling indeed.

Detail from Matilda by Su Blackwell

Another detail from Matilda by Su Blackwell

The art today is, of course, by the great British papercut artist Su Blackwell, most of it created in the last year.

”I often work within the realm of fairy-tales and folk-lore," she says. "I began making a series of book-sculpture, cutting-out images from old books to create three-dimensional dioramas, and displaying them inside wooden boxes. For the cut-out illustrations, I tend to lean towards young-girl characters, placing them in haunting, fragile settings, expressing the vulnerability of childhood, while also conveying a sense of childhood anxiety and wonder. There is a quiet melancholy in the work, depicted in the material used, and choice of subtle colour."

Visit the Blackwell's website to see her utterly amazing book sculptures and installations, and go here to see a video in which the artist discusses her creative process. She also has three lovely books out: The Fairytale Princess (with Wendy Jones), Sleeping Beauty Theatre (with Corina Fletcher), and Su Blackwell Book Sculptures.

The Shell Seekers by Su Blackwell

Out of Narnia by Su BlackwellPictures: You'll find the titles of Su Blackwell's sculptures in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artist. Words: The passage by Emma Tennant above is from The Pleasures of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992). All rights reserved by the author.


Time-traveling on the Devon coast

Dead Man's Folly, at Greenway

Greenway House

I'd never read much of Agatha Christie's work until our daughter, a big Christie fan, sharpened my interest a few year ago. Then I finally sat down and read all the Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries one after another, marveling (as readers have done since the 1920s) at Christie's extraordinary skill in piecing plots together like intricate jigsaw puzzles. Christie grew up in Torquay, on the south coast of Devon, and later owned a country estate called Greenway in Glampton, on the River Dart. The estate is now owned by the National Trust, and we've long talked about visiting it one day. Last month, on the weekend before our daughter's birthday, we finally did.

Agatha Christie's Miss Marple (Geraldine McEwan)The countryside around Greenway is still quite rural, approached by Devon's famously narrow lanes, and in Agatha's day, when motorcars were few, it was a remote country haven indeed. The best way to get there would have been by the steam trains routes that once ran all across the West Country -- and in fact one of those trains remains, running down the coast from Paignton to Kingswear. Since these trains are such a feature of  Agatha's fiction, that's how we decided to go.

In addition to Victoria, we took along two of her friends: a trio of women now in their 20s who have known each other since childhood. I think of them as the Three Graces, for in intelligence, talent, and beauty (inner and outer) they could teach even those Greek goddesses a thing or two -- but they will appear today only in this acknowledgement of their lovely presence on our journey, as I don't want to infringe on their privacy by posting their pictures without permission.

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The Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway at Paignton Station

Terri Windling photographed by Carol AmosWhen we left the house, it was autumn on Dartmoor, but the season shifted back to late summer as we drove south to Paignton...and then time itself shifted as we boarded the train, taking us back to the 1930s. One of my dresses happens to be from that era (bought years ago at a vintage shop), so I wore it that day in Agatha's honor and imagined our party as characters in her books...preferably without the murderer or murder victim in our midst.

The train runs along the edges of the southern coastline, winding between the fields and beaches of Torbay. The views are rather spectacular, and the steam trailing past and the hooting of the whistle seem familiar from so many old films...

south Devon coast

Torbay

Torbay

Torbay

Howard on the train journey

The train makes a stop at Greenway Halt in the valley below the Greenway estate. Howard and the Graces exited there, then continued on foot through the Greenway woods -- but, alas, I was walking with a cane that day, so I caught the decidedly less romantic shuttle-bus instead. I'd read Janet Morgan's biography of Agatha just the week before, so I thought about her remarkable life as I made my own up to the house. I imagined her beside me, with her much-loved dogs, walking and talking with the formidable energy she sustained into old age...and since this was my daydream, I was hale and hearty, walking just as energetically too.

The view of the Dart from the entrance to Greenways

Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie, née Miller, came from a privileged background (her father had inherited a fortune) and was raised in a large house in Torquay, a seaside town more elegant and exclusive in her day than it is in ours. Although a large portion of the money was gone by the time her father died when Agatha was 12, she was nonetheless used to a world of large houses, servants, and friends with titles before their names...a world she would later portray (and dissect) so well in her various books. She was a shy, quiet girl who loved animals, music, and the Devon countryside; she loved to swim (and did so all her life) and to tramp across the wilds of Dartmoor. She never had a formal education (and barely any schooling at all), a fact that somewhat embarrassed her. Instead, she educated herself by reading her way through her father's library, and then trained as a pharmacist as part of the war effort during the years of World War I. (This gave her a useful understanding of toxic substances!)

Agatha Christie in childhood and youth

Agatha left her beloved Devon for London during her first marriage to Archie Christie, a pilot and war hero -- but the marriage ended abruptly and traumatically when their only child, Rosalind, was seven. Agatha's mother had contracted an illness and died, and while Agatha reeled from this sudden loss, Archie announced he was in love with someone else and wanted a divorce. Divorce was still uncommon then, so this involved public scandal as well as heart-break. In a state of shock from both of these blows, Agatha disappeared for ten dramatic days following a mental breakdown in which she'd lost all memory of who she was. Since she was already a popular novelist at this point, the newspapers went wild over her disappearance -- even going so far as to speculate that the whole thing was a publicity stunt, although this intrusively personal publicity was precisely the kind she loathed.

Agatha with her first husband, Archie Christie, and newspaper coverage of her disappearance

Agatha's second marriage, to archaeologist Max Mallowan, was a much happier one. She'd been very young when she married Archie Christie on the eve of World War I (a time of many over-hasty marriages), and in Max, she'd found a partner who was considerably more compatible: intellectual, adventurous, and interested in everything, just like Agatha. (Archie, by contrast, was a stockbroker whose only real passion was playing golf. He left Agatha for a fellow golfer.)

Agatha and Max met on an archaeological dig in southern Iraq: she was there by invitation (a friend was running the dig); he was a member of the working team. She was 39 years old and already famous; he was 26 and at the start of his career. This unlikely couple fell in love while sharing a harrowing train-and-boat journey back to England, married later that year, then forged a long and successful life together -- divided between periods in Oxford (where he taught), London (where she wrote for the theatre), summers with Rosalind and her family at Greenway, and winters at Max's archaeological digs in the deserts of Syria and Iraq. (Agatha could work anywhere, and simply took her typewriter along.) He went on to become as well regarded in his field as she was in hers, and received a knighthood for it.

Agatha and her lovely second husband, Max Mallowan

Agatha Christie, Max Mallowan, and their dogs

Greenway House (photograph by Derek Harper)

Max and Agatha bought Greenway in 1938. "‘One day we saw that a house was up for sale that I had known when I was young," Agatha wrote in her autobiography. "So we went over to Greenway, and very beautiful the house and grounds were. A white Georgian house of about 1780 or 90, with woods sweeping down to the Dart below, and a lot of fine shrubs and trees -- the ideal house, a dream house...."

In the gardens at Greenway

Greenway

Autumn flowers at Greenway

Although they didn't live there year-round, Greenway was always bustling with life: Rosalind and her family spent a great deal of time there, family friends were urged to go and stay (Agatha had always been generous this way), and the staff was encouraged to make use of the whole house whenever the family wasn't around. Agatha often said that Greenway was her true home.

The family room at Greenway

Agatha writing in the corner of her bedroom, and her bedroom today

Agatha died at the age of 86, world famous, much loved, and with her family around her. Max died two years later, and the Greenway estate was passed down to Rosalind and her son. They, in turn, passed the house and all its contents to the National Trust, under strict conditions: It was not to be turned into a commercial "Agatha Christie theme park," but left to look just as it did when Agatha lived and worked there -- the same books on the shelves, the same art on the walls, the same dishes in the cupboards of its large country kitchen, the same black typewriting poised on the desk, ready for her next story

Although grand from the outside, when you step through Greenway's door it doesn't feel like a show piece; it still feels like a warm, cluttered, book-filled family home...albeit the home of an unusually well-traveled family, stuffed with curios and artifacts gathered from all around the word.

A corner of Agatha Christie's library

Agatha's clothes, and family pictures on the piano

Agatha Christie's books

Despite Greenway's spaciousness, Agatha's office is squeezed into an endearingly small room...although in fact she wrote all over house: in the library, in the corner of the bedroom, in the living room amid the tumult of family life.

One of the things I admire about her is that she wasn't precious about her writing. She took it seriously (and expected others to do so too), yet she was always a consummate professional: she simply sat down and worked -- in trains, on boats, in hotel rooms, in tents under the Middle Eastern stars. Wherever she was, she observed life around her, took it all in, and then sat down and turned it into stories.

"There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional," she wrote in her autobiography. "I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you're writing, and aren't writing particularly well."

But she always wrote well, at least until the final years when her powers began to fail -- and even then, she concocted characters and plots so vivid that even her lesser works are engaging, suspenseful, and well worth reading.

Books above Agatha's desk

Agatha Christie's desk

Agatha's typewrite

Agatha Christie's typewriter

Agatha Christie's office window at Greenway

After wandering through the house, Howard and I found a bench outside and sat in the warmth of the lowering sun, while from the house we could hear the faint notes of someone playing Agatha's piano. We wondered aloud what it would be like to live and work in place so peaceful, so beautiful....

And then we remembered that we do. Okay, ours is a plain little house, a simple, sturdy workman's dwelling from the Edwardian era, so small that the entire thing could probably fit into Agatha's living room. But we, too, are surrounded by the green beauty of Devon; and we, too, step through the door into a warm, cluttered, book-filled family home...albeit a much more humble one.

And suddenly we were eager to head back there. We gathered the Graces, and made for the train.

Leaving Greenway

Terri Winding & Howard Gayton on the Paignton Dartmouth Steam RailwayPhotographs are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) The majority of the photographs are mine, but when they're not, credits are listed. A related previous post: "On Poirot and the Pup" (2012).


Notes from the desert, Thursday:

The view from the porch, looking out to the Rincons, where my novel ''The Wood Wife'' was set.

"The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still, and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one's feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!"
  -  Willa Cather

The sky, the sky.

Benjamine Aliere Sanez's poem ''To Desert'' written on the wall of the Main House kitchenTo the Desert
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

I came to you one rainless August night.
You taught me how to live without the rain.
You are thirst and thirst is all I know.
You are sand, wind, sun, and burning sky,
The hottest blue. You blow a breeze and brand
Your breath into my mouth. You reach—then bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
You wrap your name tight around my ribs
And keep me warm. I was born for you.
Above, below, by you, by you surrounded.
I wake to you at dawn. Never break your
Knot. Reach, rise, blow, Sálvame, mi dios,
Trágame, mi tierra. Salva, traga, Break me,
I am bread. I will be the water for your thirst.


I love Saenz's poem because I also moved to the desert on a hot August night, in 1990, and the land did indeed teach me how "to live without the rain," breaking me open and fashioning my life, work, art, and spirit anew. I love the poem so much that I wrote on the kitchen wall here at Endicott West, surrounded by my favorite desert trees, the ghostly white sycamores....

Desert sycamore tree murals in the Main House kitchenThe mural paintings in the Main House kitchen, and Saenz's poem hand-written in gold ink.

EWest kitchenEvening in the kitchen, looking out to horse corrals and mountains. So many fine conversations here....

Charles Vess & Charles de Lint at E-WestCharles Vess and Charles de Lint at the same table some years ago, signing pages for....was it "Medicine Road"?

Common Room

The Common Room in the Main HouseThe Common Room in the Main House, and color, color, everywhere. The clear desert light seems to demand it.

Oliver & Toby, E-West, 2005My beloved cat Oliver (the big tiger-striped boy) on the Common Room couch, with Emma Bull and Will Shetterly's cat Toby, 2005. Oliver lived to be an old man of 20, and is buried on the ranch.

The CasitaThe beehive fireplace in the Casita (one of the Retreat's guest spaces), on a cool desert evening.

The Casita porch, surrounded by a walled gardenEvening light on the Casita's back porch.

Desert sycamore tree mural in the Bunk House The desert sycamore tree in E-West's Bunk House (another guest space), where I live when I'm here.

Desert lightAbove, morning light beside my bed. Below, sunset is reflected on the Rincon Mountains to the east.

''I go into the desert not only to evade the clamor and confusion of this country's cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.''  - Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire)

P1080803Photo credits: Some of the interior pictures come from Long Realty (shot before packing began), and the rest are mine.


Dawn in the desert...

EWest

...is a glorious thing. Even though I'm here for a sad reason: to close down the Endicott West Arts Retreat, my beloved winter home for many years.

On the long front porch of the E-West ranch, the chairs face east towards the rising sun. The porch pillars are made of tree trunks, topped with Mexican corbels where mourning doves build nests. The mountain peak in the distance (to the north) is Mount Lemmon, in the Santa Catalina range.

EWest

The porch looks out onto cactus, creosote, brittlebush, sage, and mesquite trees, with acres of cholla forest behind, and the Rincon Mountains to the east. In spring, these cacti will bloom with large, waxy flowers in red, yellow, orange, purple, and pink.

EWest

The view from Endicott West's front porch never fails to take my breath away; it is too beautiful to ever take for granted. The land is a mixture of soft and sharp: the vegetation flamboyantly prickly, the soil dry and powdery underfoot. The ground rolls upward as it rises into the foothills of the Rincon range -- lifting us up, cupping us ever-so-gently in its ancient palm.

To the left (above) is a long dirt driveway, and to the right the path leads to a deep wash -- which is dry much of the year, but turns into a small, swift river during the rainy seasons. Animals use these washes as their highway system as they move across the desert.

EWest

The horse corrals (above) on the north side of the ranch stand empty. The horses who lived here (owned by friends) have been moved into new quarters nearby. I miss their cheerful presence, their antics and adventures. It seems strange here without them now.

EWest

Above is the doorway into the Casita -- the largest of the Retreat's guest spaces (with its own little kitchen, back porch, and secret walled garden). I love the pillars that hold up the tin porch roof here, which were made from the trunks of mesquite trees. Everywhere I look are signs of our love and labor -- a once-homely house (in a fine stretch of desert) utterly transformed by a collaborative aesthetic vision, a good strong working partnership, generosity, community, a bit of magic, and lots of plain hard work. The ranch looks aged and settled now -- vines draping the walls just as we'd imagined, saplings grown now into sturdy desert trees. It looks like it's always been this way. Which is just as we had wanted it to be.

The old door in the wall

A Mexican statue of St. Francis stands beneath the palm tree by the Main House door....

EWest

His little dish holds stones, fossils, and shells -- a constantly changing mix of things as Retreat guests take stones for luck, and leave new ones for future visitors. (He'll be going to live with my dear old friend and JoMA partner, Midori Snyder.)

St. Francis welcomes visitors to E-Westx

The campfire pit (below), behind the Bunk House, is a place where I've spent many a night...sitting by a crackling mesquite fire beneath the desert's vast canopy of stars. Of all the things I'll miss about E-West, I think I'll miss this most of all.

EWest

Bunk House porch, early evening

The Bunk House (in a corner of the horse barn) was my living space on the E-West grounds -- although we also used it as a guest space whenever I wasn't in residence. The Bunk House is more rustic than the Main House and Casita -- more solitary, more prone to visitations from the desert's abundant wildlife: rabbits, coyotes, snakes, Gilla monsters, mule deer, kit fox, the occasional bobcat, the white owl living in rafters of the barn, and midnight sorties by the local javelina herd. This is, of course, precisely why I loved it. (And why I painted so many ''animal spirit" paintings during the years I lived there.)

 

Kit Fox Spirit

This land has a distinctive, unsettling form of beauty: prickly and soft, harsh and lush, a place of contradictions ...revelations...holding twenty-odd years of my personal history. It's an emotional experience clearing out the ranch -- each drawer, each shelf, each box coated with memories as thick as dust.

On Tuesday I closed down the art studio....

EWest

...and we began to sort through the many things that must be packed, or sold, or given away, or given back to the various folks in the E-West community that they belong to.

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There's a tangible record of the many fine folk who've lived, stayed, or worked here over the years, made up of the items they've left behind.  The chairs here, for instance, belonged to writers Emma Bull & Will Shetterly, the clay heads to sculptor Beckie Kravetz. Each item on the ranch, no matter how humble, has its own story to tell.

EWest

Yesterday, we began to dismantle the Library...a Herculean and melancholy task. I haven't the space to house the books in the UK (nor do I have the small fortune it would take to ship them there), so I'm plucking out some sentimental favorites and sending the rest out into the world again. Let go, let go, let go, let go, has been my constant mantra this week, these wise words from Mary Oliver's poem "In Blackwater Woods" running through my head:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

I am letting them go. I am letting it all go. Life moves on and so will I.

EWest

In the picture of the E-West Library above, the shelves are (sadly) starting to be cleared, and the big old desk that sat under window, on the right, has already been given away. (It was painted dusky blue, and I'd etched the words ''Once upon a time'' into the paint.)

And that old velvet couch, which belonged to my grandmother, and then my mother, then me -- where will that go? Well, at the moment, I just don't know. It won't fit into a box or suitcase, and so it can't come back to Chagford with me. I am saying goodbye not only to E-West, but to all the years of my American life before I married Howard and moved to England full-time....

Doors close. Door open. Life changes. As Tomás in The Wood Wife would say: It's all dammas.

EWest

One last photo today: the old bench by the wash, in the shade of palo verde and mesquite trees...a   favorite spot for dreaming, writing, sketching, and watching wildlife go by.

Nicotiana ObtusifoliaThe little plants sprouting at the bench's feet are fresh green shoots of desert tobacco. They'll grow taller and fuller in the months ahead. For some years I'd been trying to grow desert tobacco (for ceremonial use) without success -- carefully planting seeds from Native Seed Search in my desert garden, where they never came up. Finally, a Tohono O'odham friend advised me: ''Tobacco is shy. Scatter your seeds in an out-of-the-way place, and then turn your back on them.'' I did so, throwing the seeds onto the quieter, wilder land on the south side of the house -- where they grew, flourished, self-seeded and spread, returning year after year.

The new owners of the ranch won't know this story. Tobacco will bloom (a pretty little yellow flower) and they won't know why it's growing here. But, I remind myself, it doesn't matter. The land will remember. The trees will remember. The long-lived saguaro will remember too -- for I am now part of this land's long story. We are all part of its story. A new chapter is beginning. Other voices will tell it now. But the story carries on.

Animal tracks disappearing up the wash


More thoughts about "home"...

Dear Milie by Maurice Sendak

The places we've live, and the places we grew up in often have an impact (whether acknowledged or not) on our lives, our relationships, our dreams. . . and the houses we yearn for, whether real or imagined, reveal much about our inner nature. As a folklorist, I'm interested in how the idea of "home'"is expressed in traditional stories; and as a fantasist, in how this translates into modern magical fiction.

Arthur RackhamFairy tales, for example often begin with a hero propelled from his or her home by poverty or calamity; and the search for the safe haven of a new home, or the task of restoring prosperity to an old one, is central to such stories. Such tales are rites–of–passage narratives, chronicling a transformational journey from one archetypal life stage to another. Most often, the tale follows a young hero's transition from childhood to adulthood, the completion of the journey symbolized by a wedding at the story's end.

In the modern, simplified versions of the tales popularized by Disney films and children's books, the emphasis is so often placed on the romantic (and wealth accumulating) aspects of the stories that finding 'true love' (with a well heeled spouse) can seem to be what fairy tales are all about. Older, adult versions of the tales, by contrast, are focused on the steps of the hero's passage through a period of upheaval and peril — a period required to test the hero's mettle and provoke growth and self–transformation. Such tales speak to the challenges we face at any time in life (not just in our youth) when circumstances force us to leave home, either literally or metaphorically, setting us on the road to an unknown future and a new identity. Catskin, Donkeyskin, The Girl With No Hands, The Wild Swans, Hans My Hedgehog: these are all rites–of–passage narratives. Each tale begins in a childhood home that has become constricting, even dangerous, and each hero must leave this home behind in order to forge a new life in the adult world. The completion of the hero's task is marked by the traditional rewards of the fairy tale genre: a marriage, a crown, a storehold full of treasure; but the true reward at journey's end is a new–found ability to survive life's trials, transcend its terrors, and determine one's own fate.

Lorenzo Mattotti

The heroes begin in one home and end in another (or else in the old home restored and renewed), but in between these two poles is a crucial period of homelessness. Homelessness is a liminal state rich in opportunities for character change and growth, which has made it a popular plot device among storytellers both old and new. Homelessness detaches the hero from the role he or she has played in the past, strips them of identity, blurs the markers of class or rank, removes usual sources of aid and comfort, and throws them on their own resources. . .a perfect recipe for suspense, adventure, and heroic metamorphosis.

Lisbeth Zwerger

Patricia Mignone

In classical myth, the home was sacred to Hestia, goddess of the hearth and perpetual flame. Sometimes called "the forgotten goddess," Hestia rarely appears in the tales of the gods, and seems to have had few temples or acolytes; and yet she was actually the first of the goddesses, sitting higher in the Olympian pantheon than even Hera (wife of Zeus, goddess of love and marriage) or Demeter (goddess of fertility and the harvest). Although avidly courted by both Poseidon and Apollo, Hestia vowed she would never marry, dedicating herself instead to the management of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. For this, she received the first portion of tribute in the temple rites of all the other gods, and was worshipped at the hearth in the center of all houses and buildings. Each morning began with Hestian prayers as the family fire was stoked for cooking and heating; each day ended with prayers to the goddess as the fire was banked for the night. Unlike the rest of the Greek pantheon, well known for their tempers, jealousies, and quarrels, Hestia was an unusually stable goddess, revered for her gentle, calm, and forgiving nature. But lest we think of her as the Olympian equivalent of a 1950s housewife, limited to home and the service of others, she was also the first builder, the inventor of architecture, and the patron of these arts.

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac

In fantasy literature, as in fairy tales, many stories begin with the loss of a home, and this is precisely what thrusts the protagonists into the world. Some stories, like L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz or J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, rest on the main protagonist's fierce desire to go home again; in others, they must find or create new homes for themselves in far distant lands. In Diana Wynne Jones' Charmed Life, for First edition cover art for Charmed Life (Greenwillow, 1977)example, young Janet chooses to remain in the magical world of Chrestomanci; in Pamela Dean's "Secret Country" books, some of the children never return home again; and Austin Tappan Wright's great utopian novel Islandia revolves around a hero pulled between loyalties to his old and new countries. In fiction, as in myth, it's that in–between period of wandering and homelessness that allows for adventure and metamorphosis, propelling characters out of their settled ways of life and into their new roles as heroes. In children's fantasy, many adventures begin when a child's usual home is disrupted — when they're sent off to live with relatives, or transplanted to a summer cottage, or sent off to boarding school, etc. It's interesting to note that a number of these tales — The Owl Service by Alan Garner, for example, or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken — were penned by writers who grew up in England during the Second World War, a time when children were regularly sent away from home to escape German bombers. Displacement, once again, creates a space that is rich in narrative possibilities, with the added bonus that once the parents are off the scene, the young protagonists are thrown onto their own resources.

Alan Lee

What I love best are those fantasy novels where the houses themselves are a source of enchantment, reminiscent of the fairy towers and haunted chateaux to be found in folk tales. The masterwork in this mini–genre is the "Gormenghast" trilogy by Mervyn Peake, in which an entire epic world is created beneath one rambling, crumbling roof, but there are plenty of other fantastical houses I'd also love to have a good wander in: such as Tamsin House from Charles de Lint's Moonheart; or Crackpot Hall from Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Segunda; or Edgewood from John Crowley's Little, Big. In such books, domestic spaces regain their aura of the numinous, connecting us, in our everyday lives, as we sleep and wake and cook and clean, to the realm of the gods, the fairies, the ancestors, and to worlds of magic.

Alan Lee

What are your favorite magical houses in fiction, fairy tales, or myth? And what houses haunt you, real or imagined? Here are two of the real houses that I love and often dream of:

First, Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, the country house of William Morris, his wife Jane, and Dante Grabriel Rossetti (Jane's lover) at the turn of the 19th century:

Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor, News From Nowhere

Second, Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, the country house of the painters Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf's sister) and Duncan Grant, in the early half of the 20th century. The house was shared, over the years, with assorted spouses, lovers, children, and Bloomsbury friends...and is now preserved by the Charleston Trust.

Charleston

Charleston

Charleston

Entrance to the walled garden, CharlestonThe art above is: "Dear Milie" by Maurice Sendak, "Catskin" by Arthur Rackham,  "Hansel & Gretel" by Lorenzo Mattotti, "Thumbelina" by Lisbeth Zwerger, "Hans My Hedgehog" by Patricia Mignone, "Cinderella" by Edmund Dulac, a hobbit house from The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook by Alan Lee,  and a "Gormenghast" painting by Alan Lee. Portions of the text here are drawn from my article "The Folklore of House and Home" (2008). For more on magical houses, visit Grace Nuth's Domythic Bliss blog. For more thoughts about "home," listen to the beautiful  "Homesickness" program on Ellen Kushner's Sound & Spirit radio series.


Rooms of Our Own

The Lew River valley

Lewtrenchard in the trees

 In Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasure of a Creative Life, novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro discusses the importance of having (as Virginia Woolf instructed so wisely) a "room of one's own" for nurturing our best creative work:

"It doesn't matter what or where it is, as long as it is yours," Shapiro advises. "I don't necessarily mean that it has to belong to you. Only that, for the time you're working, you have what you need. Learning what you need to do your best work is a big step forward in the life of any writer. We all have different requirements, different ways of working. I have a friend who likes to write on the subway. She will board the F-train just to get work done. The jostle and cacophany -- she finds it clears her mind. Me? You'd have to shoot me first. For one, I'm a wee bit claustrophobic. Also, I need solitude and silence. I have friends who work best in coffee shops, others who like to work in the same rooms as their partners. Friends who have written multiple books at their kitchen tables. Marcel Proust famously wrote in bed, and so did Wendy Wasserstein. Gay Talese, the son of an Italian tailor, dresses in custom-made suits each morning  and descends the stairs to his basement study. Hemingway wrote standing up. One writer I know works best late at night, a habit left over from the years when she had young children under her roof and those were the only hours that were hers alone."

Lewtrenchard

Our window

Front door

"We writers spend our days making something out of nothing," notes Shapiro. "There is the blank page (or screen) and then there is the fraught and magical process of putting words down on the page. There is no shape, no blueprint, until one emerges from the page, as if through a mist. Is it a mirage? Is it real? We can't know. And so we need a sense of structure around us. These four walls. This cup. The wheels of the train beneath us. This borrowed room. The weight of this particular pen. Whatever it is that makes us feel secure in our physical space allows us to make the leap, hoping that the page will catch us. Writing, after all, is an act of faith. We must believe, without the slightest evidence that believing will get us anywhere."

Window seat at Lewtrenchard

I agree with Shapiro that it's important to discover how, and where, we do our best work -- for with this knowledge we can align our habits with our creative temperament instead of handicapping ourselves by working against our natural rhythms. But these rhythms, I find, also change through time; what has worked during an earlier phase of life might be entirely unhelpful to us today. Over the course of my life, I have been all of the writers Shapiro describes above (except that unimaginable subway scribbler): I was a big-city cafe writer in my twenties; I shared an office with a fellow writer throughout my thirties; I've worked in communal Art Studio buildings in New York, Boston, Tucson and Devon over the years...and yet today I find myself wedded to the silence and solitude of a small cabin by the woods.

Stained glass window 1

Stained glass window 2

Stained glass window 3

And then, of course, when we think we've finally got it sussed -- our work place set, our habits established, our schedule steady, productive, and predictable -- life throws a curveball at us, things change, we change, and we start all over again. We have to hone our working methods not once but several times over, as our art and our lives unfold.

Hornsea, Lewtrenchard

What what about you? Where do you do your best work? Do you have a "room of your own"...are you searching for one...or are you one of those people who can plunk down and work from anywhere? What's your ideal space; has it changed over the years? What was the best space that you've worked in, or the worst, and how much does your physical environment matter?

Do you ever retreat from the world to write or paint? What would the retreat space of your dreams be like? The room pictured here, in a 16th century Devon manor house, is one of mine....

Lord of the Manor

Lewtrenchard ManorThe pictures above are from Lewtrenchard, a Jacobean manor house in Lewdown, Devon -- home to the Victorian author and folklorist Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, and the setting of Laurie R. King's novel The Moor, in her "Mary Russell" series.  You can read more about Lewtrenchard (and the story of how Howard and I came to be there) in the picture captions, which you'll find by running your cursor over each photograph. Dani Shapiro's Still Writing was published by Atlantic Monthly Press last month, and I highly recommend it -- as well as the author's lovely blog about her writing life, Moments of Being.


Moving Day, Chagford Style

Moving Day morning

Hallelujah! My mother-in-law's move is now over, and she's in her new home, Nonesuch Cottage, at last! It's just up the road from the old place, but it's all her own, and that makes a difference.

The picture above was taken on Moving Day morning, in the car park ("parking lot," for American readers) behind the Victorian building of flats that we've just moved her out of. That's our fabulous Moving Crew of friends, neighbors, and Chagford Filmmaking Group members above: Corrie, Rob, Deirdre, Jenny (my mother-in-law, in pink), Elizabeth-Jane, Ruth, Howard, and Jason.  A big thank you to them all -- and also to Brian and Finn, who aren't pictured here. (And to Rima, Damien, Magda, Elaine, Virginia, and Marica, who helped out in the run-up to the move.)

The picture below was taken in the middle of the day, when we found ourselves (due to slow-moving banks) with a two hour gap between the time the old flat had to be vacated and the time when the keys to the new place would arrive. The move ground to an abrupt halt...but instead of despairing, we simply stopped for a lovely al fresco lunch in the car park. Elizabeth-Jane provided the dishes, cutlery, and an outrageously delicious home-cooked meal (a casserole of local vegetables, bread hot from the oven, and a large wheel of Brie), served with good conversation, a great deal of laughter, and plenty of late summer sunshine.

Moving Day lunch time

Feeding the troops

Telling stories

Our chef

By supper time, thanks to everyone's hard work, Jenny was ensconsed in Nonesuch Cottage at last. Once again, Elizabeth-Jane provided the Moving Crew with a fabulous feast: an Italian meat pie with four kinds of cheeses, a salad of local produce, more fresh-baked bread, and a cake for dessert. Here she is carrying the Famous Pie through the back door of Jenny's barn, followed by Tilly and young Finn:

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Supper table

Once again we dined al fresco, but this time we sat in Jenny's peaceful new garden, surrounded by flowers instead of furniture, boxes, and trucks.

Below, a toast to Jenny's new house...and to friends and community who make life so sweet.

The end of Moving Day


The passage of time

Tilly 2009

Above, Tilly in our back courtyard, autumn 2009...when she still had her unfortunate penchant for munching on the flowers at the base of The Lady of Bumblehill, our statue by Wendy Froud.

Tilly 2013

Tilly and the Lady, summer 2013. Both have settled into Bumblehill nicely in the intervening years.

The Lady of Bumblehill

"I confess I do not believe in time," wrote Vladimir Nabokov. "I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness -- in a landscape selected at random -- is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern -- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.”

Below, the courtyard when we first moved in -- after we'd pulled down a moldy old shed, covered in black tar paper, that took up most of its space.

Patio, 2008

And next, the same view as it looks today, table spread for lunch with a William Morris cloth.

Patio

“Every instant of our lives," said André Gide, "is essentially irreplaceable: you must know this in order to concentrate on life.”

Early summer bloom

Every moment. Oh yes, and especially these...

Lunch on the patio, 2013

...the quiet, simple, forgettable moments of salad and sunshine and convivial conversation...of foxgloves blooming and pansies unmolested, and a lazy black dog on the garden path.

“Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious,” writes the food critic Ruth Reichl.

"Flowers are too," murmurs Tilly, falling fast asleep, tasting violets in her dreams.

Tilly sacked out, 2013


A taste of summer

3 year old springador

We've been deluged by rain this month in Devon, so when the sun comes out, we grab every single moment of it that we can. Here are some random pictures from a sunny Sunday afternoon here at Bumblehill...

Howard Gayton's puppets

When you live with a theatre director and puppeteer, you never know what's going to end up on the washing line.

Howard Gayton's puppets

In this case, it's a couple of Commedia dell'Arte puppets, and a complete set of costumes for Punch and Judy...

Howard Gayton's puppets

...being given a summer airing. My Pennsylvania Dutch great-aunts used to do that every summer with rugs and eiderdown quilts. Now it's puppets. My life has changed.

Foxglove, daisies and other flowers

The garden has been suffering under wind and rain, but it's an amazing year for the tall pink spires of the foxgloves, which are everywhere -- even the back patio, where they've seeded themselves right into the old stone wall.

Early summer on the patio

Patio June 2012 a

Joan Didion has said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live." I think we also create the lives we need for the stories we want to tell, and the environments we need for our lives and stories both.

"If we marvel at the artist who has written a great book," says Katherine Paterson (in Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children), "we must marvel more at those people whose lives are works of art and who don't even know it, who wouldn't believe it if they were told. However hard work good writing may be, it is easier than good living."

True words indeed...and so easy to forget as a writer, artist, or performer working under perpetual deadlines, often with little separation (physical or mental) between work life and home life. So on Sundays Howard and I try to turn the computers off, get out of the office, and concentrate on the art of good living. Some weeks we get it right, some weeks we don't...like any form of art-making, really.

Tilly, on the other hand, is a zen master in the art of good living, and in taking each day as it comes. So is Buju, the Costa-Rican-born dog who lives with poet/linguest Taiko Haessler (my good friend Midori Snyder's daughter) and her husband, artist Emilliano Lake-Herrera. I highly recommended Buju's hilarious new Tumblr blog, Adventures in Naplandia.

Now wait a minute, Tilly, that was my seat....

Tilly claims the seat

Tilly, a three year old springador