An ode to slowness

Between the Fox and the Owl by Donna Howell-Sickles

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

From "Ode to Slowness" by Terry Tempest Williams:

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

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

Three Does and a Kid by Donna Howell-Sickles

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

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

"Hand on stone -- patience.

"Hand on water -- music.

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

Desert Mule-eared Deer

Yes, I believe it is.

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed.

And Then There Were Three by Donna Howell-Sickles

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

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

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

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

It is Written in the Stars by Donna Howell-Sickles

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


There is no time for despair

Bumblehill Studio 1

When the clamour of the world (and the Internet) grows harsh and cacophonous, I find it healing, grounding, and necessary to turn away from keyboards and screens, to ration the time I spend online, and to be fully present in the tactile world: in the morning light sifting through the studio, in the rising of the wind through the trees behind, in the words slowly forming in ink on fresh white paper spread out on my wooden desktop.

Drawing by Arthur RackhamInstead of flicking through Web pages, imbibing the Internet's manic energy and then coming offline feeling fractured and spent, I pull books from down the shelves and turn their rustling pages at a measured, more human pace...and my soul unclenches. My attention deepens. Something vital in me is quickened back to life. And yes, I am using a keyboard now to share these thoughts with you online, but it's not a full rejection of the Web I am after in my life. It's proportion and balance.

The Internet is a useful communication platform, and an increasingly important one...but books, oh, books more than paper and ink. They are powerful medicine. Real books, I mean. Physical books, sitting on the dusty shelves of my studio and surrounding me like old friends, dog-earred and battered with love and use, their pages thick with margin notes and underlines. How could I ever doubt that art matters? Words have saved me over and over. Words are saving me right now. Books are what I turn to when the world grows dark, and they never fail to give me strength.

Bumblehill Studio 2

This morning, for instance, Ben Okri asks me:

"What hope is there for individual reality or authenticity, when the forces of violence and orthodoxy, the earthly powers of guns and bombs and manipulated public opinion make it impossible for us to be authentic and fulfilled human beings?"

I've been asking myself the same question all week.

"The only hope," he answers, "is in the creation of alternative values, alternative realities. The only hope is in daring to redream one's place in the world -- a beautiful act of imagination, and a sustained act of self becoming. Which is to say that in some way or another we breach and confound the accepted frontiers of things."

Bumblehill Studio 3

Then Rebecca Solnit joins the conversation:

"Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward," she notes, "but history is not an army. It's a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later, sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope."

"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic," adds Howard Zinn. "It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many -- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction."

Bumblehill Studio 3

Bumblehill Studio 4

Barry Lopez pulls me out of a Western-centric point of view, reminding me of the things I share in common with people the world over:

"I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved," he says, "to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one's life. Wherever I've traveled -- Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan -- I've found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us."

Bumblehill Studio 5

Bumblehill Studio 6

Terry Tempest Williams concurs, and affirms the role that artists play in the transmission of such stories:

"Bearing witness to both the beauty and pain of our world is a task that I want to be part of. As writers, this is our work. By bearing witness, the story that is told can provide a healing ground. Through the art of language, the art of story, alchemy can occur. And if we choose to turn our backs, we've walked away from what it means to be human."

Bumblehill Studio 7

Then Toni Morrison takes me firmly by the shoulders and sends me back to my desk again:

Troubled times, she says, are "precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

"I know the world is bruised and bleeding," she adds, "and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge -- even wisdom. Like art."

Like art indeed.

Bumblehill Studio 8

Studio Muse with Bone

Decoration by Arthur Rackham

Words: The first five quotes above are from the following books, all recommended: A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix, 1998); Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (Nation Books, 2005); You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn (Beacon Press 2002), About This Life by Barry Lopez (Vintage, 1999), and A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The final quote is from "No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear" by Toni Morrison (The Nation, March 2013); I owe thanks to Maria Popova of Brain Pickings for introducing me to it.  Pictures: The drawing and painting above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The photographs are from my studio cabin, perched on a Devon hillside at the edge of a small wood.


Under the old oak

Tilly and the oak elder 1

It's one more week until the U.S. election. For this and too many other reasons the Internet feels like one giant howl of anxiety, anguish, and rage....

And what I've been thinking about lately is silence. There is not enough silence in modern life. I don't mean the complete absence of sound, but those quiet moments when the human world recedes: the haranguing voices of the daily news, the ads that follow us shouting Look at me!, the commercial and cultural sound and fury that makes it hard to hear our own inner voice, our own inner music, or our own heart beating, much less the beating heart of the natural world that we share with our nonhuman neighbors.

I have begun the practice of beginning my days in silence (no Internet, no music on the stereo, not even a book to read) while I drink my first morning cup of coffee...often outdoors, if the weather permits, underneath the old oak pictured here, or in the woods, or another favorite spot close to the studio. Or else indoors, by a window looking out at the birds, the weather, the land. Watching and listening. It slows me down; sets the tone for the day ahead; roots me in the actual world and not the fickle, transitory realm of cyberspace. It prepares me for the deep work of creating by honing the sharp instrument my attention.

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

Tilly and the oak elder 2

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

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

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

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

Tilly and the oak elder 3


In the quiet of the woods

Silence 1

Although I am not yet strong enough to manage long walks with Tilly, we're going out to the woods on rainless days nonetheless, where I choose a spot to sit while she rambles in the undergrowth nearby. Sometimes I read, sometimes I write, and sometimes I do nothing at all but absorb the quiet, attentive to the woods, as the woods absorbs me in turn.

Silence 2

Tilly explores the terrain and then comes and sits close, ears cocked and alert, her nose twitching with every scent...and I love to watch her, to try to see as she sees and to hear as she hears. To remember that I am an animal too, made of water and wind and the dust of stars.

Silence 3

The life of a freelance writer and editor is measured in hours of productivity, and it takes some effort to slough off guilt when time spent silent among the trees results in no tangible accomplishment: no pages written or manuscript read or email answered or paycheck earned. And yet I'm convinced that it's on such moments that every other part of my creative life rests. The land is muse, teacher, and mentor; it is doctor, pastor, and therapist. It is the place where I return to myself when the jangle of life, the demands of work, and the ceaseless clamour of the Internet lead me astray. In the quiet of the greenwood it all fades away. I can hear my own softer voice once again.

Silence 4

But now I am justifying time spent outdoors by emphasizing the manner in which it supports my productivity back in the studio -- and while this is true, it is not the only truth. Quiet moments are worth much more than this. I will not measure their value in output, in books and paintings made and sold. I will not hang a price tag on my love for the natural world. I am not a consumer of the forest, obtaining my money's worth from the trees and grasses, the fungi and moss; I am just a woman sitting in the green arms of the Mother who made me. Just sitting. Just absorbing. Just being, for these precious moments, alive and present.

Silence 5

I am not dismissing the importance of productivity for those of us working in the arts, or of enagagement with the media and marketplace which places our work in the hands of others, for I believe that art is important, even sacred, and is capable of no less than changing the world.

But then, so is this: these quiet hours in the dappled light of the greenwood, with my good dog beside me. It changes my world. It changes me. And that's all the value it needs.

Silence 6

Silence 7

"I pin my hopes," said the Quaker writer Rufus Jones, "to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place."

I pin my own hopes to the rustle of leaves, the murmur of water, the grace note of the birdsong overhead; to the ordinary, daily domestic act of rising in the morning and walking the dog. And to art, of course, but also to this. To the quiet of the woods.

Silence 8

Silence 9


The gift of stillness

Dunes, north Devon

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland explores the cultural history of silence and retreat while seeking to create more room for silence within her own life. It's a fascinating book, leading through myth, religion, philosophy, sociology, natural history and literature to a place of stillness at the center of them all. "In Silence there is eloquence," wrote the great Persian poet Jalāl ad-DīnRumi. "Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves."

Dog, waves, sand, north Devon

Early on in her quest for silence, Maitland arranged to spend forty days alone at Allt Dearg, a remote cottage on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, Scotland's Isle of Skye, noting the changes in her psyche and imagination as the weeks went by and her silence and solitude deepened.

Describing the last days of her time on the island, she says: "Part of me had already moved on from Allt Dearg, and another part of me never wanted to leave. The weather became appalling so that I could not go out for a final walk or round off the time with any satisfying sense of closure. I had to clean the house and then drive a long way. I had felt quite depressed for about forty-eight hours...

Dog at play, north Devon

"...and then, the very final evening, I suddenly was seized with an overwhelming moment of jouissance. I wrote:

" 'They say it is not over till the fat lady sings. Well, she is singing now. She is singing in a wild fierce wind -- and I am in here, just. Now I am full of joy and thankfulness and a sort of solemn and bubbling hilarity. And gratitude. Exultant -- that is what I feel -- and excited, and that now, here, right at the very edge of the end, I have been given back my joy.'

Light, north Devon

"For several hours I enjoyed an extraordinary rhythmical sequence of emotions -- great waves of delight, gratitude, and peace; a realization of how much I had done in the last six weeks, how far I had traveled; a powerful surge of hope and possibility for myself and my future; and above all a sense of privilege. But also a nakedness or openness that needed to be honored somehow.

Beast on the prowl, north Devon

"I experienced a fierce joyful ... joyful what? ... neither pride nor triumph felt like the right word. Near the end of Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore (the third part of The Earthsea Trilogy), Arren, the young prince-hero, who has with an intrepid courage born of love rescued the magician Sparrowhawk, and by implication the whole of society, from destruction, wakes along on the western shore of the island of Selidor. 'He smiled then, a smile both somber and joyous, knowing for the first time in his life, and alone, and unpraised and at the end of the world, victory.'

"That was what I felt like, alone on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, The Winged Isle. I felt an enormous  victorious YES to the world and to myself. For a short while I was absorbed in joy. I was dancing my joy, dancing, and flowing with energy. At one point I grabbed my jacket, plunged out into the wind and the storm. It was physically impossible to stay out for more than about a minute because the wind and rain were so strong and I came back in soaked even from that brief moment; but I came back in energized and laughing and exulting as well. I was both excited and contented. This is a rare and precious pairing. I knew, and wrote in my journal, that this would not last, but it did not matter. It was NOW. At the moment that now, and the enormous wind, felt like enough. Felt more than enough.

Stillness, north Devon

"And once again," she concludes, "I am not alone. Repeatedly, in every historical period, from every imaginable terrain, in innumerable different languages and forms, people who go freely into silence come out with slightly garbled messages of intense jouissance, of some kind of encounter with nature, their self, their God, or some indescribable source of power."

Gazing out to sea, north Devon

Dune grass, north Devon

It was interesting reading Maitland's fine book during the weeks that I was confined to bed. I was not alone -- I had Tilly snuggled at my side, and my gentle husband nearby -- but the quiet and stillness of recovering from an illness can be another form of retreat from the rapid rhythms of the noisy modern world. There were long hours when the only sounds were Tilly's snores, the rustle of a book's turning page, rain or bird song outside the window glass. Like a spiritual retreat or pilgrimage, illness takes us deep inside ourselves, shaking away all other concerns except those of the body, those of the soul. Afterwards, I always return to life changed. The world is restored to me piece by piece, with each step noted and celebrated: the first hour out of bed; the first morning outdoors, tucked up in a blanket on the garden bench; the first slow climb to my studio on the hill; the first shaky walk in the woods with Tilly. There's a joy in all this that we rarely speak about, as if to admit that there's any pleasure or value in illness might be to dismiss its overwhelming difficulties. We'd all prefer, of course, to plan our times of retreat, not to have them forced upon us by physical collapse, not to have them come at the most disruptive of times, not to have them overshadowed by pain and fear. But there is a gift in the journey of illness: the gift of long hours of quiet and stillness. A gift that's increasingly precious and rare in our fast-paced society.

And, if we are prepared to except them, there are these further gifts as well: jouissance, wonder, and fresh gratitude for our fragile bodies, our fleeting lives, and the exquisite beauty of the world we return to.

SilencePhotographs: Tilly on the Devon coast, and at the window. This post is dedicated to my friend Amanda Peters.


Call-it-what-you-will

Nattadon 1

The words in Wednesday's post on the nature of the soul from John O'Donohue and Mary Oliver reminded me of this passage from A Hidden Wholeness by the Quaker writer Parker J. Palmer:

"Philosophers haggle about what to call this core of our humanity, but I'm no stickler for precision. Thomas Merton called it true self. Buddhists call it original nature or big self. Hasidic Jews call it the spark of the divine. Humanists call it identity and integrity. In popular parlance, people often call it soul.

Nattadon 2

"...What we name it matters little to me," Palmer continues, "since the origins, nature, and destiny of call-it-what-you-will are forever hidden from us, and no one can credibly claim to know its true name. But that we name it matters a great deal. For 'it' is the objective, ontological reality of selfhood that keeps us from reducing ourselves, or each other, to biological mechanisms, psychological projections, sociological constructs, or raw material to be manufactured into whatever society needs -- diminishments of our humanity that constantly threaten the quality of our lives.

" 'Nobody knows what the soul is,' says poet Mary Oliver; 'it comes and goes / like the wind over the water.' But just as we can name the function of the wind, so we can name some of the functions of the soul without presuming to penetrate its mystery:

* The soul wants to keep us rooted in the ground of our own being, resisting the tendency of other faculties, like the intellect and ego, to uproot us from who we are.

* The soul wants to keep us connected to the community in which we find life, for it understands that relationships are necessary if we are to thrive.

* The soul wants to tell us the truth about ourselves, our world, and the relation between the two, whether that truth is easy or hard to hear.

* The soul wants to give us life and wants us to pass that gift along, to become life-givers in a world that deals too much in death."

Nattadon 3

Exchange the words "the soul" for "the Muse" and that's a perfect description of how I feel about  art-making. I want to paint pictures and write fiction and essays grounded in my deepest self, in the land, and in community. I want to tell stories that are authentic and true, even when that truth is hard to speak, and even harder to hear. I want my work to be life-giving in a world that does, indeed, deal too much with death; and to help to restore the ancient, mythic, necessary balance between the dark and the light.

I suppose what I mean is I want to make art that has soul, or luminosity, or call-it-what-you-will.

Nattadon 4

''You have the need and the right to spend part of your life caring for your soul," writes Jungian psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen. "It is not easy. You have to resist the demands of the work-oriented, often defensive, element in your psyche that measures life only in terms of output -- how much you produce -- not in terms of the quality of your life experiences. To be a soulful person means to go against all the pervasive, prove-yourself values of our culture and instead treasure what is unique and internal and valuable in yourself and your own personal evolution.''

Nattadon 5

Nattadon 6

The photographs here are of Nattadon Hill on an early morning in June, before I fell ill. I can now take short walks in the woods with Tilly, but don't yet have the strength for our ritual morning climb to the very top of the hill -- and every time I turn back from that path she looks puzzled, impatient to return to our usual routines. I am also often impatient these days, waiting for normal life to resume...and then I must remind myself that this, too, is normal life: resting, healing, rebuilding my strength, like I've done so many times before. The ritual of our morning climb is echoed by the ritual of returning to health, over and over: the hard climb up; the joy of arrival; the heady momentum of coming back down, Tilly bounding through tall green tunnels of bracken. Normal life is the climb and the descent, productivity and quiet moments of stillness, the light of the sun and the dark of the moon. As Crow in my novel The Wood Wife would say, "It is all dammas." All part of the great Mystery.

''It's important to be heroic, ambitious, productive, efficient, creative, and progressive," says Thomas Moore in The Care of the Soul, "but these qualities don't necessarily nurture soul. The soul has different concerns, of equal value: downtime for reflection, conversation, and reverie; beauty that is captivating and pleasuring; relatedness to the environs and to people; and any animal’s rhythm of rest and activity.''

The soul has different concerns, and so does the Muse. My job as an artist, gazing up at the hill that I can't yet climb, is to value it all.

Nattadon 7

Nattadon 8

Nattadon 9


Summer morning: hawks over Nattadon Hill

Blue sky above Nattadon Hill

Two hawks

"Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future, therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. If you do, it will take you where you need to go, but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey."  - John O'Donohue (Anam Cara)

A "kindness of rhythm." Yes. That's precisely what I strive for, in life and in art.

Paying attention

But what, exactly, do we mean by "the soul" in relation to creating one's art, or one's life? There are many definitions and opinions, of course, but I like Mary Oliver's best:

"This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness."

Illustration by Honore AppletonIllustration by Honor Appleton (1879-1951). The Mary Oliver quote above comes from "Low Tide," published in Amicus Journal, Winter 2001. The poem in the picture captions is from New & Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, 1992; all rights reserved by the author.


Mysteries and miracles

Rainbow through the studio window

Over the last couple of weeks here we've been talking about slowing down, paying attention, being fully present wherever we live, within the lives that we live and the work that we do. Yet sometimes ... too often ... life knocks us off-center and we struggle to regain our sense of hózhó (as the Navajo call it): of balance and "walking in beauty." How do we re-center ourselves in the art-making process (or, indeed, in the life-making process) when this happens?

Rainbow Fairy by Willy PogányWendell Berry proffers this insight in his essay collection Standing by Words: "What can turn us...back into the sphere of our being, the great dance that joins us to our home, to each other and to other creatures, to the dead and unborn? I think it is love. I am perforce aware how baldly and embarrassingly that word now lies on the page -- for we have learned at once to overuse it, abuse it,  and hold it in suspicion. But I do not mean any kind of abstract love (adolescent, romantic, or 'religious'), which is probably a contradiction in terms, but particular love for particular things, places, creatures, and people, requiring stands, acts, showing its successes and failures in practical or tangible effects. And it implies a responsibility just as particular, not grim or merely dutiful, but rising out of generosity. I think that this sort of love defines the effective range of human intelligence, the range within its works can be dependably beneficent. Only the action that is moved by love for the good at hand has the hope of being responsible and generous. Desire for the future produces words that cannot be stood by. But love makes language exact, because one loves only what one knows."

Rainbow over Meldon Hill

For Berry, it all comes back to place. "I stand for what I stand on," he says: the local landscape, the local community: human, animal, and vegetable alike. ''I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality," he writes, "that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving. We are alive within mystery, by miracle."

And that, for me, is precisely where art, inspiration, balance and beauty can be found: within mystery, by miracle: the everyday miracles of the place we call home. The leaves turning gold. A partner's sweet smile. The good scent of coffee on a cold autumn morning. A rainbow outside the studio window, there for one minute and gone in the next.

"The grace that is the health of teachers can only be held in common," says Berry (in his poem "Healing"):

    The love and the work of friends and lovers belongs to the task, and are its health.
    Rest and rejoicing belong to the task, and are its grace.
    Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.

Studio copy The second Berry quote comes from Life As Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, and the last lines come from "Healing" in What Are People For?. Photographs above: Last week's rainbow over Meldon Hill. Illustration: "Rainbow Fairy" by Willy Pogány (1882-1955).


Planting words like seeds

Fairy tree

Last week's discussion of time, technology, and living life at a more human pace inevitably leads back to a subject that many of us seem to be wrestling with these days: how to integrate communication technologies into our lives without letting them take over.

One practice that helps me to get the balance right is to take periodic Offline Retreats. These are weeks in which I'm in the studio as usual (not sick in bed or on holiday) but keep the Internet shut down: no email, no blogging, no radio, no news. (If I had a mobile phone, I'd turn that off too.) It's a form of mental detox that serves to reset my work rhythms, helping me to retain the slow and steady focus that I need for the writing, painting, and editing I do.

Acorns

I seem to have been wrestling with this issue for a long while. The following passage comes from a post I wrote over four years ago:

It's not surprising to me that so many of us in the Mythic Arts field have embraced the Internet so enthusiastically, for as a medium for the transmission of stories and ideas it's not only powerful and endlessly adaptable, but also remarkably accessible and democratic. I love the way that young artists can now find audiences for their work without being dependent (as we were in my generation) on the Gatekeepers of traditional media; I love the blogs that allow writers to communicate with their readers beyond the confines of a novel's pages; and I love watching Mythic Artists use modern mediums to keep ancient tales alive.

Overall, I value the Internet, and yet I also know that I have to put boundaries around my use of it. (Dani Shapiro is not wrong when she jokes that the Internet is crack cocaine for writers.) I spend enough time as it is behind these plastic computer keys...and although I do so in order to weave tales of earth and sky and wind and rain and animals and spirits on the printed page, I want my tales to reflect my experience of the natural world, not replace that experience. As much as I love wandering the woods of myth, as much as I love conjuring those woods in stories of my own, the real woods lie beyond the front door and that's where I must always go first. For my art's sake. For my soul's sake.

And so must many of us, I think; if not the woods, then the city streets, or the campus, or the road, or the porch where family and neighbors linger...whatever place you go, whatever air you breathe, to feed mind, heart, and imagination.

Among the trees

Fairy dwelling

In his luminous book The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram discusses the many ways that moving from an oral culture to a print culture has impacted, and even impoverished, our experience of the world around us. (His thesis is a nuanced and persuasive one; I won't try to encapsulate it here, but recommend reading it in full.) As a folklorist, I'm fascinated by David's argument; while as a writer, I find it more challenging, for I dearly love books and the printed page, and I'm fascinating by the still-evolving genre of blogging as an art form. Yet David isn't attempting to suggest that we turn our backs on literacy now, but rather that we understand its cultural, spiritual, and environmental implications. Addressing his fellow writers, he says:

"For those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines, a world of textures, tastes, and sounds other than those that we have engineered, there can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning away from all writing. Our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land.

Light & shadow

"Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves -- the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or with the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs -- letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf."

Twig still life

Likewise, Terry Tempest Williams tell us in her essay collection Red

"I want to write my way from the margins to the center. I want to speak the language of the grasses, rooted yet soft and supple in the presence of wind before a storm. I want to write in the form of migrating geese like an arrow pointing south toward a direction of safety. I want to keep my words wild so that even if the land and everything we hold dear is destroyed by shortsightedness and greed, there is a record of participation by those who saw what was coming. Listen. Below us. Above us. Inside us. Come. This is all there is."

Black dog in green grass

What does all this mean for me, personally? First, that I try to do as these writers suggest when I sit to write or paint myself: to bring the physical world into my work, whether moorland or desert or city street. And second, that I strive to live in such a way that writing and art springs out of my life; it doesn't become my life.

And that means turning off the computer every now and again, putting down my paint brushes and pens, lacing up my boots, whistling for the dog, and going out my front door. It means that I try to never forget that “community” begins at home: with my family, with my village, with the inter-species community of rooted and winged and four-legged beings among whom I live on this green hillside. And from this place, with my tap roots deep in the soil below, my “community” can then slowly spread: via books and paintings, via letters in the post, via pixels on the computer screen...to you, dear Reader.

Autumn trees & light

The Animal Guide

Books by David Abrams & Terry Tempest Williams


On time, technology, and a celebration of slowness

Bunny Girl Time (sculpture by Wendy Froud)

From Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001):

"[My friend] Sono's truck had been stolen from her West Oakland studio, and she told me that although everyone responded to it as a disaster, she wasn't all that sorry it was gone, or in a hurry to replace it. There was a joy, she said, to finding that her body was adequate to get her where she was going, and it was a gift to develop a more tangible, concrete relationship to her neighborhood and its residents. We talked about the more stately pace of time one has on foot and on public transportation, where things must be planned and scheduled beforehand, rather than rushed through at the last minute, and about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot. Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors -- home, car, gym, office, shops -- disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than interiors built up against it....

The Look

"I had told Sono about an ad I found in the Los Angeles Times a few months ago that I'd been thinking about ever since. It was for a CD-ROM encyclopedia, and the text that occupied a whole page read, 'You used to walk across town in the pouring rain to use our encyclopedias. We're pretty confident that we can get your kid to click and drag.' I think it was the kid's walk in the rain that constituted the real education, at least of the senses and the imagination. Perhaps the child with the CD-ROM encyclopedia will stray from the task at hand, but wandering in a book or a computer takes place within more constricted and less sensual parameters. It's the unpredictable incidents between official events that add up to a life, the incalculable that gives it value. Both rural and urban walking have for two centuries been prime ways of exploring the unpredictable and incalculable, but now they are under assault on many fronts.

My desk

Bear & woman image by Katrina Plotnikova

"The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time between. New time-saving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be accelerating around them. Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued -- that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, or faster paced....

"The indeterminacy of a ramble, on which much may be discovered, is being replaced by the determinate shortest distance to be transversed with all possible speed, as well as by electronic transmissions that make real travel less necessary. As a member of the self-employed whose time saved by technology can be lavished on daydreams and meanders, I know these things have their uses, and use them -- a truck, a computer, a modem -- myself, but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed, their insistence that travel is less important than arrival. I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness."

The Look, again

Bunny girl sculpture by Wendy Froud, collage by Lynn Hardaker, card by Jeanie Tomanek

Solnit returned to the subject of time in an essay for the London Review of Books last year:

"Nearly everyone I know feels that some quality of concentration they once possessed has been destroyed. Reading books has become hard; the mind keeps wanting to shift from whatever it is paying attention to to pay attention to something else. A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium. It’s an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind. (Maybe it was a landmark when Paris Hilton answered her mobile phone while having sex while being videotaped a decade ago.)

"The older people I know are less affected because they don’t partake so much of new media, or because their habits of mind and time are entrenched. The really young swim like fish through the new media and hardly seem to know that life was ever different. But those of us in the middle feel a sense of loss. I think it is for a quality of time we no longer have, and that is hard to name and harder to imagine reclaiming. My time does not come in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards. The fault is my own, arguably, but it’s yours too – it’s the fault of everyone I know who rarely finds herself or himself with uninterrupted hours. We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.

At the studio door

"It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces."

Studio

"I wonder," she muses later in the piece, "if there will be a revolt against the quality of time the new technologies have brought us, as well as the corporations in charge of those technologies. Or perhaps there already has been, in a small, quiet way. The real point about the slow food movement was often missed. It wasn’t food. It was about doing something from scratch, with pleasure, all the way through, in the old methodical way we used to do things. That didn’t merely produce better food; it produced a better relationship to materials, processes and labour, notably your own, before the spoon reached your mouth. It produced pleasure in production as well as consumption. It made whole what is broken."

(I highly recommend reading Solnit's essay, "In the Day of the Postman," in full.)

Spying on cats

In "7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living," Maria Popova notes:

"Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, 'how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.' "

(This is another article I highly recommend reading in full.)

Stairway to the stream

Behind the studio

A stairway of roots

Terry Tempest Williams, too, has questioned our culture's emphasis on speed, ease, productivity, and consumption. In her beautiful essay "Ode to Slowness" (Red, 2001), she reflects on her transition from the urban pace of Salt Lake City to the quiet rhythms of a village in the Utah desert, using language that echoes my own transition from Boston and New York City to the Arizona desert and rural England:

"My husband and I were comfortable in our urban routine," she writes," but one night over dinner her said, 'What if we are only living half-lives? What if there is something more?'

"We wanted more.

"We wanted less.

"We wanted more time, fewer distractions. We wanted more time together, time to write, to breathe, to be more conscious with our lives. We wanted to be closer to wild places where we could walk and witness the seasonal changes, even the changing constellations. And so we banked on the idea of a simpler life away from the city near the slickrock country we love. What we would lose in income, we would gain in sanity."

Dog and sun

Time, she discovered, (as I, too, discovered), moves differently outside of the city.

"I am not so easily seduced by speed as I once was," says Williams. "I find that I have lost the desire to move that quickly in the world. To see how much I can get done in a day does not impress me any more. I don't think it's about getting older. It feels more like honoring the gravity in my own body in relationship to place. Survival. A rattlesnake coils; its tail shakes; the emptiness of the desert is evoked.

"I want my life to be a celebration of  s l o w n e s s ."

Woodland gate

As do I. Oh, as do I.

Hill and sun

Works by Terry Tempest Williams, Maria Popova, & Rebecca Solnit

Tilly, being slow

Bunny Girl (by Wendy Froud)The Bunny Girl on my desk (and in the grass) is by Wendy Froud, the collage art by Lynn Hardaker, and the "woman with dog" card by Jeanie Tomanek. They were gifts, all of them, and much treasured.