The beauty of bogs

Bog 1

"As doors to the next world go, a bog ain't a bad choice. It's not quite water and it's not quite land -- it's an in-between place."   - Ransom Riggs (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children)

Bog 2

Bog 3

Bog 4

Bog 5

Today's recommended reading: "Love Letter to a Bog" by  Sharon Blackie (Caught by the River).

"A bog doesn’t give up its secrets easily," Sharon writes, "but it calls you to uncover them nevertheless. The lure of a bog-pool, which beckons you over to look down on its bright mirrored surface, the perfect blue of the sky an antidote to the relentless black of the peat. But when you stand over it (if you make it that far) all reflections disappear; there is only you, and the dark. Reach down with your fingers if you dare. Who knows what you might touch? Who knows what mysteries you might uncover? To love a bog is to love all that lies buried beneath the surface, buried in its rich, ripe flesh."

Bog 6

Bog 7

Bog 8

Further reading: The spring issue of EarthLines magazine is out, filled with wonderful writing, art, and photography once again. Edited by David Knowles & Sharon Blackie, who are based in Ireland, EarthLines is "an active and passionate project to transform the relationship between humans and the rest of the world."

Also, if you haven't yet found your way to If Women Rose Rooted (a study of the relationship between women, myth, and landscape), you have a treat in store.

If Women Rose Rooted & EarthLinesThe poem in the picture captions is from North by Seamus Heaney (Faber & Faber, 1975); all rights reserved by the author's estate.


Water and flow

Waterfall 1

Waterfall 2

"Be wild; that is how to clear the river. The river does not flow in polluted, we manage that. The river does not dry up, we block it. If we want to allow it its freedom, we have to allow our ideational lives to be let loose, to stream, letting anything come, initially censoring nothing. That is creative life. It is made up of divine paradox. To create one must be willing to be stone stupid, to sit upon a throne on top of a jackass and spill rubies from one’s mouth. Then the river will flow, then we can stand in the stream of it raining down."  - Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Waterfall 3

Waterfall 4

Waterfall 5

Waterfall 6

Today's reading recommendation: "If Your House in On Fire," an interview with Kathleen Dean Moore by Mary DeMocker (Sun Magazine). The subject here is climate change, but it's not as despressing a read as you'd think -- and though the piece is from 2012, Moore's contemplation of political and environmental activism couldn't be more relevant now.

Waterfall 7

"I don’t pretend to know what a writer’s duty is in these times," says Moore. "And nobody wants to write something that breaks people’s hearts. But I did want to help others see one possible future, a world without owl calls and frog song. If we can’t imagine what probably lies ahead, how will we gather the courage to turn in a different direction? Maybe more writers should tell stories about possible futures, the beautiful ones and the ones that will break our hearts. It’s cowardly to shy away from sad stories. As songwriter Leonard Cohen says, even when our hearts are broken, we have to sing the 'broken hallelujah.' "

Waterfall 8

Today's book recommendation: Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America  by Jon Mooallem (Penguin, 2013).

Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem

Waterfall 9


Guest Post: Tenderness, the Breaker of Curses

6a00e54fcf738588340192ab0e71be970d

My apologies for missing this week's "Monday Tunes" post. I had computer problems yesterday, and spent the day sorting it out -- but all is well now and I'm back online again.

Today's Guest Post is by my friend Briana Saussy, based in San Antonio, Texas. Bri is a writer, teacher, counselor and community-maker deeply rooted in the myth & fairy tale tradition. One of the many ways she spreads magic in the world is through her wonderful Lunar Letters, sent out on the full moon each month. I love Bri's writing, and these missives are invariably wise, insightful, and enchanting.

Like many around the world, I am still in a state of shock from the American election result -- a horror compounded by the fall-out from the EU Referendum result here in the UK. Speaking to my husband after the election, he reminded me that fearfulness of the future can make us draw in and close ourselves off when what we need to do is the opposite: open our hearts, step out into the world, carry the light forward when the world is dark around us. Briana's latest Lunar Letter is helpful in this regard, so I asked her permission to share it here. Her subject this month is "Tenderness, the Breaker of Curses."

Circe Invidiosa by John William Waterhouse"To be cursed," writes Briana, "is to be dried up, devoid of moisture and suppleness, brittle and lacking the essential ingredient of life: fresh, circulating water. The most harmful afflictions of body, mind, spirit, and soul are those that seek to take away, ignore, and otherwise exploit our ability to be tender towards ourselves and towards one another. The remedy for this affliction may take many different forms, but always includes blessing what is tender within you.

"In many different cultures, the evil eye is understood primarily as a 'drying' condition, one in which your money dries up, your health dries up, your fertility and verve for life also dry up. In opposition, to be blessed is to be moist, supple, full of flowing water, clean, bathed, and tender like new shoots of grass, tender like fresh green wood sprouting forth from a tree, tender like the water filled skin of a newborn baby nestled up safely in your arms.  Losing one’s tenderness, therefore, is tantamount to losing one’s life.

"The loss of tenderness and thus of life is not difficult to achieve. Let yourself be taken over by anger, envy, jealousy, hatred, and fear, and you will know how easy it is to do. You can observe for yourself the negative consequences of being taken over by these emotions, how they cause a withering and a contraction in your life and relationships. But even so, we may come to doubt the need for tenderness. Why be tender in a world and in a time that seems so often to only reward the tougher-than-nails? How does one cultivate tenderness in the face of violence, bloodshed, and injustice? What is tenderness other than one more vulnerability, easily overcome by those who are 'stronger'? How do we stay tender in times such as these and how do we bless our tender places?

Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse

"We bless our tender places by calling in the waters. We call in the waters so that we might cry good and salty tears, make nourishing soup, wash the dust off our clothes, and irrigate the seeds we have planted. So that we may drink of the waters and bathe in them, washing ourselves clean, literally renewing ourselves. We call in the waters from within, reaching deep and accessing the sacred well that may be blocked or polluted, but is simply waiting to be set free, waiting to be cleansed so that it can run, rush, and spring forth from the solid ground of your very life.  

Mermaid by John William Waterhouse"Tenderness -- and the circulating life waters corresponding to it -- points to the deepest parts of our resilient nature. Resilience is a power, and it is what makes for much needed hardiness of life and soul. 

"Sometimes it seems that there is no water to call in, no source of nourishment, of life-celebrating and life-protecting magic. But finding the water, finding the sources of life and nourishment, is not an easy task. Especially not when you look around and all you see is hard, sun-baked rock, packed gravel, and too much asphalt.

"I have lived most of my life in desert regions, and so I know from firsthand experience the water that is there, hundreds of feet under the ground and flowing in madly rushing rivers or collected in fathomless lakes. You don’t see it, but it is there. When the territory around looks most inhospitable to tenderness, then you know that you are in exactly the right spot to fill yourself up with all that gives life, all that keeps you supple, all that keeps you tender. You may have to dig for it, you might have to learn to collect it drop by drop from precious rainfalls, you may end up going on a pilgrimage to find it; but it is there, waiting to be called upon.

The Charmer by John William Waterhouse"To bless tenderness is also to protect it. In desert areas that are hot, arid, and dry, the culture is one of toughness, and even the plants with their prickles and thorns seem to just be waiting for their chance to chew you up and spit you out. If you neglected to look closely, you would be forgiven for thinking that toughness and hardness is all that matters. But soulful seekers do look closer, and what we find are that the plants with the best boundaries are the same that have the most tender, water-filled skins. They give us the blessing way. Find the water, find the sources of life, and when you do, keep them safe; build a good boundary around them. Don’t just let anyone access your tenderness, choose actively and with discernment who and when and where receives the privilege of your softness.

"To bless our tender places is to ask for and gladly accept help. In many cultures there are Gods and Holy Helpers who bring the waters of life, bring the rains, bring the thunderclouds that roll in with their big noise, making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and reminding you that you are very much alive, creating with every breath you take, holding an infinite cosmos within your very body. We are not islands meant to do it all on our own. We have two-legged and four-legged, winged, clawed, fanged, and finned relatives who are here and ready and willing to help point us in all the right directions; so we look to them and we listen.

Ariadne by John William Waterhouse

"Finally, tenderness is meant to be shared. Like water, it requires a solid vessel, the boundary of the cacti, to keep it stored up safely; but once we are filled up with it we cannot help but overflow. The overflow happens in many ways -- through tears and laughter and deep kisses and long touches, through creative work and vibrant dance, and the sweet sound of the saxophone or drums under the stars. These are all medicines, results from the blessing and safe keeping of your tenderness, that literally spill forth and out into the world much like water, nourishing much like water, and restoring so many that are on the brink of death back into life.

"Tenderness is no small thing. It is, in truth, a source of the greatest strength. It is not the weak spot or the pain point to be covered up, but rather a sign post, the tracks in the snow, that carry you forward to your own headwaters, no matter where it leads. So remember that anytime the flow feels blocked, anytime your skin feels shrunken and life feels too dry, relationships too brittle, and your broken places too yawning and jagged; remember when you feel raw and exposed, vulnerable, or too tender, remember what lessons tenderness has to teach you about your own hardiness, your own deeply resilient nature. It may be time to bless your most tender places and call forth the waters once more."

Miranda by John William Waterhouse

If you'd like to sign up for Briana's Lunar Letters, you can do so here. I also recommend her Daily Blessings, charmingly illustrated by Cassandra Oswald.

For more about the myths and folklore of water, see my previous post "Water, wild and sacred." And for a beautiful piece on creating art during troubled times, see "Time and Silence, Color and Light" by Edith Hope Bishop.

The paintings today are by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), an English artist in the "Second Wave" of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Destiny by John William Waterhouse


The Otter Woman

Suspension by Kate O'Hara

For National Poetry Day,* I'd like to spotlight a thoroughly magical piece by the Irish poet Mary O'Malley, which draws on old Celtic legends of the otter woman (or otter wife). This is a classic "animal bride" figure, similar to seal maidens, swan maidens, crane wives and other half-animal/half-human creatures, trapped into marriage by mortal men who steal their animal skin sor cloak of feathers. Such stories usually end when the skin is found again, releasing her back into wild....

[* Edited to add: It's National Poetry Day next Thursday. Doh. My apologies!]

Otter Sculpture by Ian EdwardsThe Otter Woman
by Mary O'Malley

He never asked why she always walked
By the shore, what she craved
Why she never cried when every wave
Crescendoed like an orchestra of bones.
She stood again on the low bridge
The night of the full moon.

One sweet, deep breath and she slipped in
Where the river fills the sea.
She saw him clearly in the street light -- his puzzlement.
Rid of him she let out one low, strange cry. . .

Otter photograph by Mark Hamblin

The lovely painting above is by Kate O'Hara, an illustrator based in Reno, Nevada. The otter sculpture is by Ian Edwards, based here in the West Country. (He's best known for his figurative work, but you can see more of his animal sculptures here.) The otter photograph above is by Mark Hamblin, a fine nature photographer based in Scotland. The photograph below comes from a news article on otters, and was, alas, uncredited.

If you'd like to know more about "animal bride" legends go here. For more about shape-shifting otters go here. And for more about Mary O'Malley's beautiful work, you can listen to a good interview with the poet on American public radio here.

Newborn otter pup"The Otter Woman" by Mary O'Malley first appeared in The Southern Review (Autumn 1995). O'Malley's poetry collections include A Consideration of Silk, Where the Rocks Float, The Knife in the Wave, Asylum Road, The Boning Hall, A Perfect V, and Valparaiso; highly recommended. All rights to the text & imagery above reserved by the author and artists.


Writing as a spiritual practice

The oak

From an Interview with Terry Tempest Williams by Jana Bouck Remy (Irreanteum, 2002):

"I do not write every day," says Williams. "I write to the questions and issues before me. I write to deadlines. I write out of my passion. And I write to make peace with my own contradictory nature. For me, writing is a spiritual practice.

The hound

Rowan, oak, and birch

The stream

"A small bowl of water sits on my desk," she continues, "a reminder that even if nothing is happening on the page, something is happening in the room -- evaporation. And I always light a candle when I begin to write, a reminder that I have now entered another realm, call it the realm of the Spirit. I am mindful that when one writes, one leaves this world and enters another.

The entry

The words

"My books are collages made from journals, research, and personal experience. I love the images rendered in journal entries, the immediacy that is captured on the page, handwritten notes. I love the depth of ideas and perspective the research brings to a story, be it biological or anthropological studies or the insights brought to the page through the scholarly work of art historians. When I go into a library, I feel like I am a sleuth looking to solve a mystery."

The stream

The flow

The writer

A little later in the interview, Remy asks: "How did you become a writer? In what ways do you think you've developed as a writer during the course of your career? Are there things you can do now that you don't think you could have pulled off successfully when you were first starting to write? What do you do to keep developing as a writer?"

"These are tough questions," Williams answers. "How does anyone 'become' a writer? You just write. I have always written, I have always kept a journal, always loved to read. Perhaps as writers we are really storytellers, finding that golden thread that connects us to the past, present, and future at once. I love language and landscape. For me writing is correspondence between these two passions.

The pen

The paper

"It is difficult to ever see yourself. I don't know how I've developed or grown as a writer. I hope I am continuing to take risks on the page. I hope I am continuing to ask the hard questions of myself. If we are attentive to the world and to those around us, I believe we will be attentive on the page. Writing is about presence. I want to be fully present wherever I am, alive to the pulse just beneath the skin."

The muse

The waters of the imaginationWords: The quotes above are from "An Interview with Terry Tempest Williams" by Jana Bouck Remy (Irranteum, Summer 2002), reprinted in A Voice in the Wilderness, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The poem in the picture captions is from Sixty Odd: New Poems by Ursula K. Le Guin (Shambhala, 1999). All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: Writing by the little stream on our hill, with the hound at my side. The water is low and green grass has turned gold aftter weeks of unusually dry weather. I'm loving the heat and sun, but the hills need rain.


The wild path

On the path

In a 2011 interview on the late, lamented Bookslut site, Luís Alberto Urrea (an old friend of mine from our respective Tuscson days) was asked if he ever got stuck as a writer:

"I do get stuck! I think everyone gets stuck!" he answered. "Here's the thing: this is a part of my belief system that continues to grow over the years: I have to thank the ancient Chinese poets and writers, and especially the Japanese haiku poets. Writing is not a product, but a process. Writing is a life style, a life choice, a path. Writing is part of my process of sacredness and prayer even. What I do is writing; that's how I've chosen to understand and process the world, as a writer.

River 1

River 2

"When I feel stuck," Luis continued, "then that season has taken a bit of a pause. The garden has already grown many different blossoms, and my task is to know when not to force something more. It would be a mistake to do battle with the writing spirit. Writer's block is like a stop sign; it's a warning. So sometimes I just think for a while, sometimes I drive cross-country, sometimes I read something. That's the time to do something fascinating that's outside of myself, and there's always something fascinating going on. If I get all wrapped up in myself, I'll grind to a halt eventually. If nothing else, I'm just not that interesting.

"The world is full of hilarious, upsetting, entertaining, disturbing stuff out there – that well just never runs dry. That's a great gift for all of us. We just have to go out and look."

River 3

River 4

River 5

River 6

I often remember this useful advice from historical novelist Hillary Mantel

"If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient."

River 7

River 8

"Be wild," says storyteller and curandera Clarissa Pinkola Estés; "that is how to clear the river. The river does not flow in polluted, we manage that. The river does not dry up, we block it. If we want to allow it its freedom, we have to allow our ideational lives to be let loose, to stream, letting anything come, initially censoring nothing. That is creative life. It is made up of divine paradox. To create one must be willing to be stone stupid, to sit upon a throne on top of a jackass and spill rubies from one’s mouth. Then the river will flow, then we can stand in the stream of it raining down."

River 9

River 10

Tilly is good at reminding Howard and me to "be wild," no matter how busy our days can get. Then we're out the door and down the path to the river, the woods, the hills, the moor...and soon whatever is stuck becomes unstuck. The blood is moving. Ideas are flowing.

Then it's back home and back to work once more, bringing the whole wild world with us.

River 11

Blackberry blossomWords: The  Luis Urrea quote is from an interview by Terry Hong (Bookslut, December 2011). I highly recommend his fiction, nonfiction and poetry, which I've talked about previously here and here. The Hillary Mantel advice is from "Hillary Mantel's rules for writers" (The Guardian, February 2010).  The passage by Clarissa Pinkola Estés is from Women Who Run With the Wolves (Ballantine Books, 1992). The poem in the picture captions is from Candles in Babylon by Denise Levertov (New Directions, 1982). All rights reserved by the authors.
Related posts: Ben Okri on "The magic of the writer's craft," Susan Cooper on "When the magic is working," and reflections on art as "Gift exchange."
Pictures: Husband and hound on our walk by the river yesterday afternoon.


One last post on the magic of water

Morning coffee

This morning, in a pause between rain showers, I took my coffee break out on the hill with The Last Selchie Child by Jane Yolen in my bag and the hound at my side. This lovely little edition from A Midsummer Night's Press contains poetry rooted in fairy tales, folklore, and myth -- including five gorgeous selchie poems, and one based on The Little Mermaid. I recommend it highly.

P1260998


Turning our attention to water

Water 1

From The Woman Who Watches Over the World: A Native Memoir by Chickasaw poet, novelist, and essayist Linda Hogan:

"It must have been a desert person who said from dust we come to dust we return, because, for most of us, water is the true element of our origin. Broken birthwaters signal our emergence into the air world, and through our lifetimes it is water that sustains us, water that is the human substance, the matter of cells.

"Some years ago I turned my attention to water. Perhaps, as people have done since the beginning of time, I went to the water to seek a cure, and became enamored of the deep. I was drawn to it in all its forms, ocean, river, lake, swamp.

Water 2

"In the dry country where I live, water comes to us as rain and snow and trickling creek, so I paid frequent visits to this mother element in her other shapes. I swam in the ocean, overcoming -- but only cautiously -- my fear of the depths my human feet could not touch.

Water 3

"I sat in mangrove swamps watching as the trees changed salt water into fresh. I waded around the 'eye of water,' the entrance where spring water rises from beneath the surface world, and floated underground rivers inside white limestone caverns. I paddled kayaks in the unsought but welcome presence of dolphins and wales, including a female humpback who gave birth where my friends and I sat. I submerged myself in hot springs and visited glaciers, and looked into the tragically endangered world of the paling, breathing coral reefs. I looked into a kelp bed, down into the dark, cold water, at thumb-nail sized jellyfish, white and pulsing. With my sister I walked from the edge of the sea to the black caves that, at low tide, are full and open with life as the tide goes out in its endless back and forth. There, in the tidepools at the edge of the sea, were worlds of beauty, starfish, orange and alive, anemones, seaweed, and patient waiting, a sort of creature faith that water would return.

Water 4

"I myself am a failure at faith. And also impatient at waiting. But I do know this, that thoughts and visions of water are always the same. They are beneath and inside, like the watershed which travels underground and the water that falls into it. And so, despite all my outward journeys, mostly I frequented water in an inner way, looking at the depths of my own life, my body of brine moisture and blood rivers. But there, too, in keeping with the nature of water, I realized my feet would not ever touch bottom.

Water 5

"The inside of a person is more mysterious than the inside of the world. It's just that we seem to inhabit it more plainly. Still, who knows it? Our human theories do not stretch large enough to pass easily through the inner territory. We are too fluid to pin down, and passing through our lives like water, we cannot easily be called back as we fall into self, time, and what seems like destiny. Like water that, in its oceanic destiny, follows a fierce journey of its own desires through rivers, sea waves, and even beneath ground, we each have our own journey too.

Water 6

 "It is only now, from within my own body, and from the other half of a century, that I can begin to see myself. I am just now becoming a human being, as many tribes say. And I am becoming a person old and joyous and vulnerable in new ways. Half a century is a great beginning and still the mystery of the self is there. Like water, I rush toward a destiny, a balance, a harmony. I call it sea level."

The Woman Who Watches Over the World by Linda Hogan

Our hill this winter is green, gold, and soggy, the streams white and wild with winter rain. My studio, though a dry, warm haven, rattles in the wind like a ship at sea. Rain drums on the roof, knocks on windows and enters in muddy paw prints criss-crossing the floor....

Water 7

Water 8

"Water does not resist," writes Margaret Atwood . "Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does."

Water and welliesThe passage by above is from The Women Who Watches Over the World by Linda Hogan (W.W. Norton & Co., 2001), a painful, brave, and beautiful memoir that I recommend reading in full. The quote by Margaret Atwood is from The Penelopiad (The Canongate Myth Series, 2005). The poem in the picture captions is from Jane Hirshfield's collection  Gravity & Angels (Weslyan University Press, 1988). All rights reserved by the authors.


On the care and feeding of daemons and muses

River 1

"If we go all the way back to the ancient world," writes Lewis Hyde in Common Air (2012), "to the old bardic and prophetic traditions, what we find is that men and women are not thought to be authors so much as vessels through which other forces act and speak. Norse legends tell of a spring at the root of the World Tree whose water bubbles up from the underworld, carrying the dissolved memories of the dead. Odin drank from it once; that cost him an eye, but nonetheless empowered him to bestow on worthy poets the mead of inspiration. Homer is not the 'author' of the Odyssey; he disappears after the first line: 'Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story....' Hesiod's voice is not his own; in The Theogony he has it from the muses of Mount Helicon and in Works and Days from the muses of Pieria. Plato presents no ideas that he himself made up, only the recovered memory of things known before the great forgetting we call birth.

"Creativity in ancient China was not self-expression but an act of reverence toward earlier generations and the gods. In the Analects, Confucius says, 'I have transmitted what was taught to me without making up anything of my own. I have been faithful to and loved the Ancients.' "

River 2

As Hyde explained in an earlier book, The Gift (1983):

"The task of setting free one's gifts was a recognized labor in the ancient world. The Romans called a person's tuletary spirit his genius. In Greece it was called a daemon. Ancient authors tell us that Socrates, for example, had a daemon who would speak up when he was about to do something that did not accord with his true nature. It was believed that each man had his idios daemon, his personal spirit which could be cultivated and developed. Apuleius, the Roman author of The Golden Ass, wrote a treatsie on the daemon/genius, and one of the things he says is that in Rome it was the custom on one's birthday to offer a sacrifice to one's own genius. A man didn't just receive gifts on his birthday, he would also give something to his guiding spirit. Respected in this way the genius made one 'genial' -- sexually potent, artistically creative, and spiritually fertile.

Riverside 3

"According to Apuleius," he continues, "if a man cultivated his genius through such a sacrifice, it would become a lar, a protective household god, when he died. But if a man ignored his genius, it became a larva or a lemur when he died, a troublesome, restless spook that preys on the living.  The genius or daemon comes to us at birth. It carries with us the fullness of our undeveloped powers. These it offers to us as we grow, and we choose whether or not to accept, which means we choose whether or not to labor in its service. For the genius has need of us. As with the elves, the spirit that brings us our gifts finds its eventual freedom only through our sacrifice, and those who do not reciprocate the gifts of their genius will leave it in bondage when they die.

River 4

"An abiding sense of gratitude moves a person to labor in the service of his daemon," Hyde concludes. "The opposite is properly called narcissism. The narcissist feels his gifts come from himself. He works to display himself, not to suffer change. An age in which no one sacrifices to his genius or daemon is an age of narcissism. The 'cult of the genius' which we have seen in this century has nothing to do with the ancient cult. The public adoration of genius turns men and women into celebrities and cuts off all commerce with the guardian spirits. We should not speak of another's genius; this is a private affair. The celebrity trades on his gifts; he does not sacrifice to them. And without that sacrifice, without the return gift, the spirit cannot be set free. In an age of narcissism the centers of culture are populated with larvae and lemurs, the spooks of unfulfilled genii."

River 5

6a00e54fcf73858834017c32b0df03970b

Stephen King takes a more irreverent approach to daemons and muses in "The Writing Life" (2006):

"There is indeed a half-wild beast that lives in the thickets of each writer's imagination. It gorges on a half-cooked stew of suppositions, superstitions and half-finished stories. It's drawn by the stink of the image-making stills writers paint in their heads. The place one calls one's study or writing room is really no more than a clearing in the woods where one trains the beast (insofar as it can be trained) to come. One doesn't call it; that doesn't work. One just goes there and picks up the handiest writing implement (or turns it John D Battenon) and then waits. It usually comes, drawn by the entrancing odor of hopeful ideas. Some days it only comes as far as the edge of the clearing, relieves itself and disappears again. Other days it darts across to the waiting writer, bites him and then turns tail.

"There may be a stretch of weeks or months when it doesn't come at all; this is called writer's block. Some writers in the throes of writer's block think their muses have died, but I don't think that happens often; I think what happens is that the writers themselves sow the edges of their clearing with poison bait to keep their muses away, often without knowing they are doing it. This may explain the extraordinarily long pause between Joseph Heller's classic novel Catch-22 and the follow-up, years later. That was called Something Happened. I always thought that what happened was Mr. Heller finally cleared away the muse repellant around his particular clearing in the woods.

"On good days, that creature comes out of the thickets and sits for a while, there in one's writing place. If one is in another place, it usually comes there (often under duress; most writers find their muses do not travel particularly well, although Truman Capote said his enjoyed motel rooms). And it gives. Some days it gives a little. Some days it gives a lot. Most days it gives just enough. During the year it took to compose my latest novel, mine was extraordinarily generous, and I am grateful.

River 6

"Okay," King admits, "that's the lyric version, so sue me. You'd lose. It's not untrue, just lyrical. It's told as if the writing were separate from the writer. It's probably not, but it often feels that way; it feels as if the process is happening on two separate levels at the same time. On one, at this very moment, I'm just sitting in a room I call my writing room. It's filled with books I love. There's a Western-motif rug on the floor. Outside is the garden. I can see my wife's daylilies. The air conditioner is soft, soft -- white noise, almost. Downstairs, my oldest grandson is coloring, and cupboards are opening and closing. I can smell gingerbread. Laura Cantrell is on the iTunes, singing 'Wasted.'

River 7

"This is the room, but it's also the clearing," writes King. "My muse is here. It's a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all. She gives me the words. She is not used to being regarded so directly, but she still gives me the words. She is doing it now. That's the other level, and that's the mystery. Everything in your head kicks up a notch, and the words rise naturally to fill their places. If it's a story, you find the scene and the texture in the scene. That first level -- the world of my room, my books, my rug, the smell of the gingerbread -- fades even more. This is a real thing I'm talking about, not a romanticization. As someone who has written with chronic pain, I can tell you that when it's good, it's better than the best pill.

"But there's no shortcut to getting there. You can build yourself the world's most wonderful writer's studio, load it up with state-of-the-art computer equipment, and nothing will happen unless you've put in your time in that clearing, waiting for Scruffy to come and sit by your leg. Or bite it and run away."

River 8

River 9Words: The passages by Lewis Hyde are from Common As Air: Revolution, Art, & Ownership (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) and The Gift: Imagination & The Erotic Life of Property (Vintage, 1983). The passage by Stephen King is from "The Writing Life" (The Washington Post, October 1, 2006). The poem excerpt in the picture captions is from "October" by Audre Lorde, Chosen Poems, Old & New (W.W. Norton, 1982). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The drawing is by John D. Batten (1860-1932). The photographs were taken a couple of weeks back on a walk with Howard & Tilly by the River Teign, near Fingle Bridge. 

Related posts: "Mud and the Muse," "On Artistic Inspiration," and "One of Those Days."


The Blessing of Otters

Kickapoo by Rebecca Tobey

One of the mythic borderlands I'm especially drawn to (as evidenced by my writing and art over the decades) is the place where humans and animals meet: as neighbors, as cousins who speak each other's language, as shape-shifters in each other's skins.

"Long ago the trees thought they were people," says Tulalip storyteller Johnny Moses, recounting a traditional Native America tale. "Long ago the mountains thought they were people. Long ago the animals thought they were people. Someday they will say, 'long ago the humans thought they were people.' "

River Shaman by Rebecca TobeyIn "Voyageur," a gorgeous essay by Scott Russell Sanders, the writer and his daughter watch otters during a camping trip in the geographic borderlands between Minnesota and Ontario. What was it that kept him riveted to the spot, watching the animals with such intense fascination? What did the otters mean to him, and what did he want from them?

Not their hides, not their meat, not even a photograph, says Saunders, "although I found them surpassingly beautiful. I wanted their company. I desired their instruction -- as if, by watching them, I might learn to belong somewhere as they so thoroughly belonged here. I yearned to slip out of my skin and into theirs, to feel the world for a spell through their senses, to think otter thoughts, and then to slide back into myself, a bit wiser for the journey.

"In tales of shamans the world over, men and women make just such leaps, into hawks or snakes or bears, and then back into human shape, their vision enlarged, their sympathy deepened. I am a poor sort of shaman. My shape never changes, except, year by year, to wrinkle and sag. I did not become an otter, Messenger of the Gods by Gene & Rebecca Tobeyeven for an instant. But the yearning to leap across the distance, the reaching out in imagination to a fellow creature, seems to me a worthy impulse, perhaps the most encouraging and distinctive one we have. It is the same impulse that moves us to reach out to one another across differences of race or gender, age or class. What I desired from the otters was also what I most wanted from my daughter and from the friends with whom we were canoeing, and it is what I have always desired from neighbors and strangers. I wanted their blessing. I wanted to dwell alongside them with understanding and grace. I wanted them to go about their lives in my presence as though I were kin to them, no matter how much I might differ from them outwardly."

Hawkeye by Rebecca Tobey

Later in essay, Sanders writes about two loons who wake him in the middle of the night, "wailing back and forth like two blues singers demented by love," and the bald eagle who watches their progress down the river from its perch on a dead tree's branch. What did the eagle see, he wonders?

"Not food, surely, and not much of a threat, or it would have flown. Did it see us as fellow creatures? Or merely as drifting shapes, no more consequential than clouds? Exchanging Dancing With the Wind by Gene & Rebecca Tobeystares with this great bird, I dimly recalled a passage from Walden that I would look up after my return to the company of books: 'What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?'

"Neuroscience may one day pull off that miracle," Sanders continues, "giving us access to other eyes, other minds. For the present, however, we must rely on our native sight, on patient observation, on hunches and empathy. By empathy, I do not mean the projecting of human films onto nature's screens, turning grizzly bears into teddy bears, crickets into choristers, grass into lawns; I mean the shaman's leap, a going out of oneself into the inwardness of other beings.

"The longing I heard in the cries of the loons was not just a feathered version of mine, but neither was it wholly alien. It is risky to speak of courting birds as blues singers, of diving otters as children taking turns on a slide. But it is even riskier to pretend we have nothing in common with the rest of Big Horn Sheep Shaman by Gene & Rebecca Tobeynature, as though we alone, the chosen species, were centers of feeling and thought. We cannot speak of that common ground without casting threads of metaphor outward from what we know and what we do not know.

"An eagle is other, but it is also alive, bright with sensation, attuned to the world, and we respond to that vitality wherever we find it, in bird or beetle, in moose or lowly moss. Edward O. Wilson has given this impulse a lovely name, biophilia, which he defines as the urge 'to explore and affiliate with life.' Of course, like the coupled dragonflies that skimmed past our canoes or like osprey hunting fish, we seek other creatures for survival. Yet even if biophilia is an evolutionary gift, like the kangaroo's leap or the peacock's tail, our fascination with living things carries us beyond the requirements of eating and mating. In that excess, that free curiosity, there may be a healing power. The urge to explore has scattered humans across the whole earth -- to the peril of many species, including our own; perhaps the other dimension of biophilia, the desire to affiliate with life, could lead us to honor the entire fabric and repair what has been torn."

Hawk Bear & Deer Dancers by Gene & Rebecca Tobey

In the conclusion of his essay, Sanders points out that the fellowship of all creatures "is more than a handsome metaphor. The appetite for discovering such connections is also entwined in our DNA. Science articulates in formal terms affinities that humans have sensed for ages in direct encounters with wildness. Even while we slight or slaughter members of our own species, and while we push other species toward extinction, we slowly, Keeper of the Trust by Gene & Rebecca Tobeypainstakingly acquire knowledge that could enable us and inspire us to change our ways. Only if that knowledge begins to exert a pressure in us, and we come to feel the fellowship of all beings as potently as we feel hunger and fear, will we have any hope of creating a truly just and tolerant society, one that cherishes the land and our wild companions along with our brothers and sisters.

"In America lately, we have been carrying on two parallel conversations: one about respecting human diversity, the other about preserving natural diversity. Unless we merge those conversations, both will be futile. Our efforts to honor human differences cannot succeed apart from our effort to honor the buzzing, blooming, bewildering variety of life of earth. All life rises from the same source, and so does all fellow feeling, whether the fellow moves on two legs or four, on scaly bellies or feathered wings. If we care only for human needs, we betray the land; if we care only for the earth and its wild offspring, we betray our own kind. The profusion of creatures and cultures is the most remarkable fact about our planet, and the study and stewardship of that profusion seems to me our fundamental task."

Bear sculptures by Gene & Rebecca Tobey

The sculptures pictured here are by the New Mexican artists Gene & Rebecca Tobey, who worked for years in a fertile partnership creating scuptures, paintings, and drawings inspired by nature and the mythic symbolism of the North American continent. (The titles of the pieces can be found in the picture captions.) Gene died of leukemia in 2006, but Rebecca carries on their beautiful work. Please visit the Tobey Studios website to see more of their collaborative art, and the Rebecca Tobey website for her current pieces.

The Gift by Gene & Rebecca TobeyThe text quoted today comes from "Voyageurs," an essay in Writing from the Center by Scott Russell Sanders (Indiana University Press, 1997), highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author.