Light and shadow, part two

Path 1

"When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening." - Madeleine L'Engle (Walking on Water)

Path 2

Path 3

PATH 4

I'd been looking forward to a solitary, calm, work-focused week while my husband was up in London...but it turned into one of crisis-management instead, the quiet of my creative voice drowned out by a louder chorus of life's demands. The stress level rose in my studio, and by Friday Tilly had clearly had enough. Normally if I'm too busy or tired for our morning walk she accepts it with good grace, but this time she would simply not give up. She stared and stared. She tapped my knee with her paw, eyes wide, her intention clear. She walked to the door and back, over and over, and then tapped me on the knee once more. And so, at last, I gave in, closed down the computer and laced up my boots.

Path 5

I followed her out the garden gate, through the woods and onto Nattadon Hill, carpeted now with bluebells and swaths of stitchwort like little white stars.

Path 6

Path 7

Work fell away. Words fell away. Heart-ache and worry slowly fell away too. We climbed, and climbed, the air tasting of flowers, and I grew a little lighter with every step. Re-discovering, as Madeleine L'Engle would say, time for being. And for listening.

Path 8

Path 9

Path 10

Path 11

Path 12

An hour later we came back down, following the path through wildflowers and bracken back to the studio. The problems pressing on me hadn't solved themselves, the work on my desk hadn't disappeared, and I wasn't magically flooded with new insight and energy for tackling both those things...but it was better. A subtle, almost imperceptible change, but it was enough.

Path 13

Path 14

As long there are moments of beauty on the hard, dark days, I know that I can keep on going.

Path 15

Path 16

And that you can too.

Path 18

Path 19

Path 20The Madeleine L'Engle quote is from Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art (Wheaton Literary Series, 2001). The poem in the picture captions is from Where Many Rivers Meet by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 2004). All rights reserved by the authors.


The law of the living Earth

Kissed by a Fox by Priscilla Stuckey

Lasts week's posts on the "nature mysticism" to be found in the works of Elizabeth Goudge reminded me of the following passage from Priscilla Stuckey's fine book, Kissed by a Fox -- for although Goudge wrote from a distinctly Anglican perspective, while Stuckey draws on a very wide range of world religions and philosophies, both share a love of the earth, a delight in the numinous, and an unsentimental belief in the good in human nature.

The passage begins with a quote from the 13th century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi:

Fox drawing by Inga Moore   The speech of water, the speech of earth, and the speech of mud
   Are heard by those who listen with the heart.*

"Rumi," notes Stuckey, " is often taken to mean that only mystics can hear the earth speak -- and that mystics are a strange kind of bird. But to read him that way goes against what Rumi yearned for above all -- for every heart to be struck open by divine longing, for love to pierce every breast.

   What is needed, Rumi said, is to polish the heart like a mirror.
   Do you know why the mirror does not reflect?

   Because the rust is not removed from its surface.*

Ramble 1

"Sufis often call this surface tarnish the 'rust of otherness.' Clean your mirror of all that is not love, Rumi was saying. Remember the radiance that suffuses each heart, and polish your own mirror until you can reflect it clearly. Hearing the speech of Earth may be easy when one is overcome with awe in [pristine wilderness], but it is much harder in the hubbub of the mundane.

Ramble 2

"My friend Annette recently heard the poet Gary Snyder speak. At the end of his reading, she says, a member of the audience asked Snyder how people can be inspired to save the planet. Snyder thought for a moment and said, 'The planet doesn't need us to save it. The planet needs us to save ourselves. If we learned how to be better people, we would be doing good work.' The room full of activist sat in stunned silence, trying to absorb his words. Snyder went on to say, 'The planet, if we notice, takes care of itself. Watch a place for a while. Look at the seasons, the weather, the animals, our own inner rhythms. Walk trails and notice things. We don't have to do a thing.'

Ramble 3

"Becoming better people. It will involve remembering how to listen -- to the land as well as to one another. Relearning the rhythms of give-and-take, in our own bodies as well as our relationships with others. Remembering the radically communitarian nature of life on Earth, which means remembering how to share. 

Ramble 4

"For however great is the divide between the very rich and the rest of this country, the gap between the industrialized nations and the rest of the world is far, far greater. The statistic is well known: less than 20% of the world's people are now consuming more than 80% of the world's resources. Anishinaabe leader Winona LaDuke says we cannot continue to use more than our share and expect to be sustainable. 'You can't do that and live in accordance with natural law. That is simple logic. Most of our teachings say that.'

"We don't need to save the planet, but we are in desperate need of saving ourselves.

Ramble 5

"Will we learn to build an Earth-friendly culture before it is too late? Plenty of other people have done so, and their varied experiences offer some guidelines to what works. They value reciprocity and fairness, and they build interdependence into their systems of exchange. They teach their children to respect others, both human and other than human. They minimize inequality among themselves, for the alternative is costly in terms of damaged health and human relationships. They observe nature closely, seeking to pattern their relationships on those of the more-than-human world. They listen to the voices of the animals and plants, clouds, fish, soil, and wind, for these are relatives whose choices, along with those of humans, are in every moment creating the world.

Ramble 7

"They remind themselves continually that the only way to survive and live well is to fit into the processes of the place called home -- to dwell in symbiotic relationship with the land, using the gifts of Earth sparingly and taking only what is needed to live. They honor individuality among humans as part of the ongoing creative work of nature. They treasure the individuality of their place and work to preserve its unique personality, eating native foods and building homes with nearby materials. They use local resources, yes, but first of all they love those resources as relatives.

Ramble 6

"They consider themselves guests on the planet rather than owners, and so they value a mind-set of gratitude and wonder. They accept death as well as life. They shower children with love and support. They practice caring for one another and the wider land-community because love is the surest route to flourishing -- and the more enjoyable way to live. They reward giving as well as taking.

"For what is gathered in must be given out. What is at one time collected, another time must be dispersed. Breathed in, breathed out. This is the law of the ground, the law of the living Earth. "

Ramble 8

Ramble

* The first Rumi couplet was translated by Richard Holtz & Frederick Denny (quoted in Kissed by a Fox); the second Rumi translation is from Mohammed Ruston's "The Metaphysics of the Heart in the Sufi Doctrine of Rumi" (Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses, no. 3, 2008: 4). The  passage by Priscilla Stuckey above is from Kissed by a Fox & Other Stories of Friendship in Nature (Counterpoint, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from No Nature: New & Collected Poems by Gary Snyder (Pantheon, 1992). The little fox drawing is by Inga Moore. All rights reserved by the authors & artist.

 Pictures: The first photo is mine: "Coffeebreak by a stream, with wild daffodils."  The rest of the photographs were taken by husband Howard on one of his long "medicine walks" through the hills with Tilly.


Back in the woods again, at last

Woods 1

Woods 2

"I feel safe in the woods, safer when I’m alone. Some people find that solace in church, others by listening to music, or reading quietly by a fireplace. For me it’s always been nature. Yesterday I took a long walk in the woods behind my house. I’ve been there dozens of times, but each time I see something new. Nature is brutal and relentless, but it is also gorgeous and balanced. I came home dirty, wet and happy. I’ve learned more from being alone in the woods than anything else."

Chris Offutt  (author of Out of the Wood, The Good Brother, No Heroes, etc.)

I couldn't agree more.

Woods 3

Woods 4

Woods 5

"The World is not something to look at, it is something to be in."  - poet Mark Rudman

And I'm so very glad to be back in the World.

Woods 6

Woods 7The quote by Chris Offutt is from an interview in Salon (March, 2016). I recommend his books, for he's among the still-too-few American authors skillfully depicting rural and working class lives. His latest, My Father the Pornographer, is a memoir about his father, fantasy (and porn) writer Andrew Offutt -- who, oddly enough, I worked with years ago, having been given the assignment of editing his "Conan" and "Red Sonja" novels when I was a very young editor at Ace Books in New York. It was a strange experience, to say the least.

The poem in the picture captions is from Poems: 1960 - 1967 by Denise Levertov (New Directions, 1983), and was inspired by the Mark Rudman quote. All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


Wandering the labyrinth: arrival and return

Deer Park 1

From The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit:

"A labyrinth is an ancient device that compresses a journey into a small space, winds up a path like thread on spool. It contains beginning, confusion, perserverance, arrival, and return. There at last the metaphysical journey of your life and your actual movements are one and the same. You may wander, may learn that in order to get to your destination you must turn away from it, become lost, spin about, and then only after the way has become overwhelming and absorbing, arrive, having gone the great journey without having gone far on the ground.

"In this it is the opposite of a maze, which has not one convoluted way but many and offers no center, so that the wandering has no cease or at least no definitive conclusion. A maze is a conversation; a labyrinth is an incantation or perhaps a prayer. In a labyrinth you're lost in that you don't know the twists and turns, but if you follow them you get there; and then you reverse your course.

Deer Park 2

Deer Park 3

"The end journey of a labyrinth is not the center, as is commonly supposed, but back at the threshold again: the beginning is also the real end. That is the home to which you return after the pilgrimage, the adventure. The unpraised edged and margins matter too, because its not ultimately a journey of immersion but emergence. Ariadne gives Theseus a spool of thread to help him escape the labyrinth in Crete (which must have been a maze by our modern definitions). You unspool the thread on the journey to the center. Then you rewind to escape.

"In this folding up of great distance into small space, the labyrinth resembles two other manmade things: a spool of thread and the lines and pages of a book. Imagine all the sentences in a book as a single thread around a spool...imagine they could be unwound, that you could walk the line they make, or are walking it. Reading is also traveling, the eyes running along the length of an idea, which can be folded up into the compressed space of a book and unfolded within your imagination and your understanding.

Deer Park 4

"All stories have this form, but fairy tales are often particularly labyrinthlike. Something happens, and as to get from the periphery to the center of a labyrinth you twist and turn, turn away from the center, journey to the farthest reaches before you can reach your destination, so in a fairy tale you are interrupted, cursed, cast out, bereft, and in order to get back to the place you're in, have to go back of the north wind or the top of a glass mountain. The route is rarely direct, and it often ends in a return to the beginning point."

Deer Park 5

"Anatomists long ago named the windings of the inner ear, whose channels provide both hearing and balance, the labyrinth," Solnit notes. "The name suggests that if the labyrinth is the passage through which sound enters the mind, then we ourselves bodily enter labyrinths as though we were sounds on the way to being heard by some great unknown presence. To walk this path is to be heard, and to be heard is a great desire of a majority of us, but to be heard by whom, by what? To be a sound traveling toward the mind -- is that another way to imagine this path, this journey, the unwinding of this thread?"

Deer Park 6

Deer Park 7

"To be heard literally is to have the vibrations of the air travel through the labyrinth of the listener's ear to the mind, but more must unfold in that darkness. You choose to hear what corresponds to your desire, needs, and interests, and there are dangers in a world that corresponds too well, with curating your life into a mirror that reflects only the comfortable and familiar, and dangers in the opposite direction. Listen carefully.

Deer Park 8

"To hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear; to listen is to travel the other way to meet it. It's not passive but active, this listening. It's as though you retell each story, translate it into the language particular to you, fit it into your cosmology so you can understand and respond, and thereby it becomes part of you. To empathize is to reach out to meet the data that comes through the labyrinths of the senses, to embrace it and incorporate it. To enter into, we say, as though another person's life was also a place you could travel to.

"Kindness, compassion, generosity are often talked about as though they're purely emotional virtues, but they are also and maybe first of all imaginative ones."

Deer Park 9

Photographs: A walk in our local Deer Park last month with Tilly and my mother-in-law. The sculpture at the end of the beech avenue is by Peter Randall-Page, who lives nearby. The patterns in the stones are neither labyrinths nor mazes but evocative of both, and so seem appropriate today. Follow the link to see more of Peter's beautiful work.

Deer Park 10The passage above is from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry Magazine (April, 1959). All rights reserved by the authors.


The storyteller's art

Nattadon 1

From "The Joys of Storytelling 1" by Ben Okri (A Way of Being Free):

"The earliest storytellers were magi, seers, bards, griots, shamans. They were, it would seem, as old as time, and as terrifying to gaze upon as the mysteries with which they wrestled. They wrestled with mysteries and transformed them into myths which coded the world and helped the community to live through one more darkness, with eyes wide open and hearts set alight.

Nattadon 2

"I can see them now, the old masters. I can see them standing on the other side of the flames, speaking in the voices of lions, or thunder, or monsters, or heroes, heroines, or the earth, or fire itself -- for they had to contain all voices within them, had to be all things and nothing. They had to have the ability to become lightning, to become a future homeland, to be the dreaded guide to the fabled land where the community will settle and fructify. They had to be able to fight in advance all the demons they would encounter, and summon up all the courage needed on the way, to prophesy about all the requisite qualities that would ensure their arrival at the dreamt-of land.

"The old masters had to be able to tell stories that would make sleep possible on those inhuman nights, stories that would counter terror with enchantment, or with a greater terror. I can see them, beyond the flames, telling of a hero's battle with a fabulous beast -- the beast that is in the hero."

Nattadon 3

"The storyteller's art changed through the ages. From battling dread in word and incantations before their people did in reality, they became the repositories of the people's wisdom and follies. Often, conscripted by kings, they became the memory of a people's origins, and carried with them the long line of ancestries and lineages. Most important of all, they were the living libraries, the keepers of legends and lore. They knew the causes and mutations of things, the herbs, trees, plants, cures for diseases, causes for wars, causes of victory, the ways in which victory often precipitates defeat, or defeat victory, the lineages of gods, the rites humans have to perform to the gods. They knew of follies and restitutions, were advocates of new and old ways of being, were custodians of culture, recorders of change."

Nattadon 4

"These old storytellers were the true magicians. They were humanity's truest friends and most reliable guides. Their role was both simple and demanding. They had to go down deep into the seeds of time, into the dreams of their people, into the unconscious, into the uncharted fears, and bring shapes and moods back up into the light. They had to battle with monsters before they told us about them. They had to see clearly."

Nattadon 5

"They risked their sanity and their consciousness in the service of dreaming better futures. They risked madness, or being unmoored in the wild realms of the interspaces, or being devoured by the unexpected demons of the communal imagination."

Nattadon 6

"And I think that now, in our age, in the mid-ocean of our days, with certainties collapsing around us, and with no beliefs by which to steer our way through the dark descending nights ahead -- I think that now we need those fictional old bards and fearless storytellers, those seers. We need their magic, their courage, their love, and their fire more than ever before. It is precisely in a fractured, broken age that we need mystery and a reawoken sense of wonder. We need them to be whole again."

We do indeed.

A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri

The photographs above are from the quiet Sunday morning when I sprained my ankle at the top of Nattadon Hill, in the beautiful hour before that fateful step. No matter how much we plan our lives, we never truly know just what's ahead...and that's good to remember, because creative work is like that too. We plan, we plan, we plan, but we never really know what the end result will be.

As Neil Gaiman 0nce wrote (in The Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections): ''It is sometimes a mistake to climb; it is always a mistake never even to make the attempt. If you do not climb, you will not fall. This is true. But is it that bad to fail, that hard to fall?'' 

It feels hard, of course. To fail or to fall. But we heal, and life goes on.

Meldon Hill, viewed from Nattadon Hill


The Library of the Forest

The hill at dawn, 1

The Library of the Forest

From The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane:

"The library of Miquel Angel Blanco [in Madrid, Spain] is no ordinary library. It is not arranged according to topic and subject, nor is it navigated by means of the Dewey Decimal system. It's full name is the Library of the Forest, La Biblioteca del Bosque. It has so far been a quarter of a century in the making, and at last count it consisted of more than 1,100 books -- though its books are not only books, but also reliquaries. Each book records a journey made by walking, and each contains natural objects and substances gathered along that particular path: seaweed, snakeskin, mica flakes, crystals of quartz, sea beans, lightning-scorched pine timber, the wing of a grey partridge, pillows of moss, worked flint, cubes of pyrite, pollen, resin, acorn cups, the leaves of holm oak, beech, elm. Over the many years of its making, the library has increased in volume and spread in space. It now occupies the entire ground floor and basement of an apartment building in the north of Madrid. Entering the rooms in which it exists feels like stepping into the pages of Jorge Luis Borges story: 'The Library of Babel' crossed with 'The Garden of the Forking Paths,' perhaps....

A book-box in the Biblioteca del Bosque

"The Library of the Forest owes its existence to storm and snow. Between 30 December 1984 and New Year's Day 1985 a severe winter gale struck the Guadarrama Mountains, the sierra of granite and gneiss that slashes north-east to south-west across the high plains of Castille, separating Madrid (to the south) from Segovia (to the north). Thousands of Scots pines that forest the Guadarrama were toppled. For those tempetuous days, Miguel was trapped in his small house in Fuenfría, a southern Guadarraman valley. When at last the storm stopped and the thaw came, he walked up into the valley, following a familiar path but encountering a new world: fifteen-foot-deep drifts of snow, craters and root boles where trees had been felled, sudden clearings in the forest. As he walked, he gathered objects he found along the way: pine branches, resin, cones, curls of bark, a black draughts piece and a white draughts piece. When he returned home to his house he placed the gathered items in a small pine box, lidded the box with glass, sealed the glazing with tar, bound pages to the box with tape and gave the whole a cover of card-backed linen.

The hill at dawn, 2

"In this way the first book of the library was made. Miguel called that original book-box Deshielo, 'Thaw,' and it became the source from which a stream of works began to flow.

Dawn on the hill, 3

"His manufacturing method is unchanged in its fundamentals. All his book-boxes contain objects he has collected while walking; the results of chance encounters or conscious quests. The found objects are held in place within each box by wire and thread, or pressed into fixed beds of soil, resin, paraffin or wax. Thus mutely arranged, each book-box symbolically records a walk made, a path followed, a foot-journey and its encounters. And the library exists as a multidimensional atlas -- an ever-growing root-map, and a peculiar chronicle of a journey without respite."

Book-box by Miguel Angel Blanco

"Each of my books records an actual journey but also a camino interior, an interior path."
- Miguel Angel Blanco

The Old Ways & The Wild Place by Robert MacfarlanePhotographs: Early morning coffee break in the Devon hills; and Blanco's Library of the Forest.


Hope and despair

Nattadon Hill 1

Late autumn in Devon. Tilly and I travel the winding pathways of the dying year: through yellow leaves and rust red hills and green grass fields turned white with frost, through trees that seem to flame and wither between one heartbeat and the next.

I am wrapped in a warm and threadbare coat, skirt snagged by brambles, boots caked in mud, my steps unsteady, moving slowly through the quiet landscape of fragile health and recovery. It is not a straight trail. The pathway dips and rises, loops back, moves forward, then turns back again. My destination lies somewhere ahead: I can smell the wood smoke of  its welcoming fire, see the golden glow of the back porch light, guiding me toward stability, certainty, strength of body, mind, and spirit. I'll get there. I am getting there. But the journey is my life right now: the taste of wind and sound of water and the damp grass slippery underfoot. The journey has its necessities, its lessons...its pleasures too, if I am open to them. If I am present on the trail and not putting life and art on hold until that moment of arrival.

Nattadon Hill 2

There's nothing like the slow and tedious progression through an illness to bring to mind the words "hope" and "despair,"  although one's own tiny drop of discomfort seems so damn small, so insignificant when measured against the wounded world around us. I'm reminded daily of that old alchemical principal: As above, then so below. We harm the natural world; our bodies are nature; and we are not immune from ecological disruption, echoed in our blood and bones.

Nattadon Hill 3

How do we balance hope and despair when daily life, or health, or work, or engagement with the world puts us on the narrow path between them? How do we avoid despair's passivity, or false hope's blindness to the challenges ahead? The ecological writer Joanna Macy suggests that despair and hope are not oppositional, but two sides of the same coin:

"By honoring our despair," she says, "and not trying to suppress it or pave over it as some personal pathology, we open a gateway into our full vitality and to our connection with all of life. Beneath what I call our 'pain for the world,' which includes sorrow and outrage and dread, is the instinct for the preservation of life. When we are unafraid of the suffering of our world, and brave enough to sustain the gaze and speak out, there is a redemptive sanity at work.

"The other side of that pain for our world is a love for our world. That love is bigger than you would ever guess from what our consumer society conditions us to want. It's a love so raw, so ancient, so deep that if you get in touch with it, you can just ride it; you can just be there and it doesn't matter. Then nothing can stop you. But to get to that, you have to stop being afraid of hurting. The price of reaching that is tears and outrage, because the tears and the power to keep on going, they come from the same source."

Nattadon Hill 4

Nattadon Hill 6

The transformation of despair into hope is alchemical work, creative work. And what all transformations have in common, writes Rebecca Solnit, is that they begin in the imagination.

"To hope is to gamble," she says. "It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope."

Nattadon Hill 5

Gorse blossoms

The trail dips down, rises again. Tilly dances ahead, a four-footed embodiment of exuberance and joy; and I follow after, taking courage from the stalwart gorse blossoms, bright among the thorns.  I have known despair, we have all known despair, but on this beautiful morning I am chosing hope. I am chosing movement, action, transformation. Art is the "ax" I carry: sharp and not too heavy, fit to the strength I have. And stories are the lights that guide me, the golden porch light that will lead me home.

Nattadon Hill 7The Joanna Macy quote above is from "Women Reimagining the World" (in Moonrise, edited by Nina Simons, 2010); the Rebecca Solnit quote is from her book Hope in the Dark (2004).


On the magic of cities

The Crystler Building

In response to a post last week, Raquel Somatra wrote:

"I lived on a mountain in North Carolina for six months with no car. The nearest grocery store was 1.5 miles away. Down the mountain, over several hills, through a dark tunnel, passed the old hotel that still has a sign that says 'now with color TV!'... People always think it must have been such a horrific time, to walk to the store once or twice a week and carry home groceries. But I loved it.....There is something about motion and pilgrimage that magically and deeply connects us to ourselves, to our insides, and to the earth. I think I got to know that landscape more in six months than locals who had lived their whole lives there. I knew where you could find pairs of bunnies in the spring, where the robins liked to feast along the ends of the roads, where wild roses grew, that tiny, wild pansies grew everywhere, fairy flowers hidden in the grasses. What else is there than connection to the land, ourselves, and each other? We must do this slowly -- I agree with Rebecca [Solnit]. Our minds move as slow as our feet, there can be no other way.

"P.S. I was thrilled to find that here in Brooklyn, I make a similar journey with groceries. There aren't mountains and pansies, but there are wondrous sights and people, a train, and much, much walking."

The post below comes out of thoughts prompted by Raquel's comment, and I want to begin by acknowledging that debt.

 Trees of New York

Despite the bucolic nature of this blog, written as it is from the English countryside, I think the words of the various writers quoted in these pages -- attesting to the importance of "land" and "place" -- are useful reminders to all of us, no matter where we live, that our aim should be to fully live wherever it is we find ourselves. As Mary Oliver tell us in beautiful poems that repeatedly enjoin us to pay attention, living a creative life is not just about the novels or paintings we produce (let alone manage to publish or sell), it's about living in a state of openness and attention -- beginning  with the ground on which we stand: its flora, folklore, mythology, history, its weather patterns and daily rhythms, and the lives of those with whom we share it, human and nonhuman alike.  This is as true, I believe, for city, town, and suburb dwellers as it is for me here, in rural Devon.

The High Line in winter

The "Urban Fantasy" field, back when it began in the 1980s and '90s -- when the term referred to works by writers like Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Francesca Lia Block and Neil Gaiman, not paranormal romance and detective stories --  had at its heart a metaphorical search for wonder and natural (rather than supernatural) magic in city settings. These writers were asserting that one needn't travel to imaginary lands, the medieval past, or even to the countryside to find a magical (dare I say "spiritual"?) connection to place: it was available to all...yes, even at the heart of the beast: the big, noisy, crowded, diverse, dangerous, exciting modern city. (And remember that these writers began working in the '80s, when urban decline rendered many cities far less appealing than they are today.) Charles' Newford, Emma's Minneapolis, Francesca's Los Angeles, and Neil's London are cities in which the mythopoeic history of the land has re-asserted itself. The human protagonists of their books are those who hunger, in one way or another, to find that connection...and then to use it in concert with the unique gifts that cities alone can offer.

The High Line, NYC, 2012

As Raquel says in her post script above, a city traversed on foot can be just as creatively inspiring as a woodland path or shoreline trail, at least for those open to its rhythms; for those who are paying attention. The following passage on urban walking comes from Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which devotes several chapters to the subject. To me, as a former New Yorker, this description of "city magic" rings absolutely true:

"There is a subtle state most urban walkers know, a sort of basking in solitude -- a dark solitude punctuated with encounters as the night sky is punctuated with stars -- one is altogether outside society, so solitude has a sensible geographical explanation, and there is a kind of communion with the nonhuman. In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers, and to be a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one's secrets and imagining those of the people one passes, is among the starkest of luxuries. This uncharted identity with its illimitable possibilities is one of the distinctive qualities of urban living, a liberatory state for those who come to emancipate themselves from family and community expectation, to experiment with subculture and identity. It is an observer's state, cool, withdrawn, with senses sharpened, a good state for anybody who needs to reflect or create. In small doses, melancholy, alienation, and introspection are among life's most refined pleasures.

The newspaper carrier

"Not long ago I heard the singer and poet Patti Smith answer a radio interviewer's questions about what she did to prepare for her performances onstage with, 'I would roam the streets for a few hours.' With that brief comment, she summoned up her own outlaw romanticism and the way such walking might toughen and sharpen the sensibility, wrap one in an isolation out of which might come songs fierce enough, words sharp enough, to break that musing silence. Probably roaming the streets didn't work so well in a lot of American cities, where the hotel was moated by a parking lot surrounded by six-lane roads without sidewalks, but she spoke as a New Yorker.

The Flat Iron Building NYC

"Speaking as a Londoner, Virginia Woolf described anonymity as a fine and desirable thing, in her 1930 essay 'Street Haunting.' Daughter of the great alpinist Leslie Stephen, she had once declared to a friend, 'How could I think mountains and climbing romantic? Wasn't I brought up with alpenstocks in my nursery and a raised map of the Alps, showing every peak my father had climbed? Of course, London and the marshes are the places I like best.' Woolf wrote of the confining oppression of one's own identity, of the way the objects in one's home 'enforce the memories of our experience.' And so she set out to buy a pencil in a city where safety and propriety were no longer considerations for a no-longer-young woman on a winter evening [as they had been previously], and in recounting -- or inventing -- her journey, wrote one of the great essays on urban walking."

You can read Woolf's brilliant essay here.

The trees of Riverside

The photographs above were taken in New York, the city where I came of age as young writer/editor, and that I still think of as my urban home. (I highly recommend Patti Smith's book Just Kids, a wonderful memoir of her own youth in New York.) Related posts: Encountering Ghosts and Threshold Time


Stepping into the Wild

Beneath the Oak Elder

"Always in big woods," said Wendell Berry, "when you leave familiar ground and step off alone to a new place, there will be, along with feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your bond with the wilderness you are going into. What you are doing is exploring. You are understanding the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is the experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes common ground, and a common bond, and we cease to be alone."

Oak Gardian at the Woodland's Edge.

The small woodland behind my studio is only a "prettyish kind of a little wilderness," as Jane Austen might describe it, and not a proper wilderness. And yet the wild can be found here. It's in the ancient language of oak and owl, and the air-ballet of spore and seed. It's in the midnight revels of the badgers, and the morning light on leaf, moss, and rock.

Badger Sett and Pathway

Woodland Still Life in Green, Red, and Gold

Light & Shadow: A Woodland Meditation

“Of course," said Henry David Thoreau, "it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither.  I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit."

Moss & Rock: A Woodland Prayer

Ivy, Oak, and the Secrets of the Forest

Sometimes Tilly and I roam old, familiar trails grown unfamiliar with each turning of the seasons, and sometimes I just pick a spot and sit. Until my spirit is truly present. Listening. Watching. Learning. Healing. Practicing the art of being still.

Woodland Companion

Where It All BeginsThe Berry quote is from An Unforseen Wilderness, and the Kingsolver quote from Small Wonder. The woodland photographs were taken yesterday afternoon. Today is stormy, and Tilly (who hates thunder) is hiding under the bedclothes.