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.
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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."
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 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."
The 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.
"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.' "
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.
"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.
"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."
"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 on) 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.
"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.'
"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."
Words: 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.
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.' "
In "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, even 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."
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 stares 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 nature, 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."
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, painstakingly 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."
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 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.
"You are still curled in the future, like seeds biding your time. Even though you are not yet born, I think of you often. I feel the promise of your coming the way I feel the surge of spring before it rises out of the frozen ground. What marvels await you on this wild Earth! When you do rise into the light of this world, you’ll be glad of your fresh eyes and ears, your noses and tongues, your sensitive fingers, for they will bring you news of a planet more wonderful and mysterious than anything I can tell you about in mere words.
"Mere words are all I have, though, to speak of what I’ve treasured during my days, and to say what I hope you’ll find when you take your turn under the sun. So I write this letter. As I write, I’m leaning against the trunk of a fat old maple in the backyard of our house here in the southern Indiana hills. It’s early one April morning, and the birds are loudly courting. I’m surrounded by the pink blossoms of wild geraniums, the yellow of celandine poppies, the blue of phlox. A thunderstorm is building in the western sky, and a brisk wind is rocking the just-opened leaves. My pleasure from wind and rain, from cloud drift and bird song, from the sound of creeks tossing in their stony beds, from the company of animals and the steady presence of trees — all of that immense delight is doubled when I think of you taking pleasure one day from these same glories."
"I hope you will find companion trees of your own, where you can hear the birds hurling their lusty cries and watch the flowers toss their bright blooms. May you climb into the branches to feel the huge body swaying beneath you and the wind brushing your face like the wings of angels.
"I hope you’ll be able to live in one place while you’re growing up, so you’ll know where home is, so you’ll have a standard to measure other places by. If you live in a city or suburb, as chances are you will, I hope you’ll visit parks, poke around in overgrown lots, keep an eye on the sky, and watch for the tough creatures that survive amidst the pavement and fumes. If you live where it never snows, I hope you’ll be able to visit places where the snow lies deep in winter. I want you to see the world clarified by that coating of white, hear the stillness, bear the weight and cold of it, and then relish warmth all the more when you go indoors. Wherever you live, I hope you’ll travel into country where the land obeys laws that people didn’t make. May you visit deep forests, where you can walk all day and never hear a sound except the scurry and calls of animals and the rustle of leaves and the silken stroke of your own heart."
"Thoughts of you make me reflect soberly on how I lead my life. When I spend money, when I turn the key in my car, when I vote or refrain from voting, when I fill my head or belly with whatever’s for sale, when I teach students or write books, ripples from my actions spread into the future, and sooner or later they will reach you. So I bear you in mind. I try to imagine what sort of world you will inherit. And when I forget, when I serve only my own appetite, more often than not I do something wasteful. By using up more than I need -- of gas, food, wood, electricity, space -- I add to the flames that are burning up the blessings I wish to preserve for you."
"If we take good care in our lifetime, you’ll be able to sit by the sea and watch the waves roll in, knowing that a seal or an otter may poke a sleek brown head out of the water and gaze back at you. The skies will be clear and dark enough for you to see the moon waxing and waning, the constellations gliding overhead, the Milky Way arching from horizon to horizon. The breeze will be sweet in your lungs and the rain will be innocent."
"Thinking about you draws my heart into the future. I want you to look back on those of us who lived at the beginning of the 21st century and know that we bore you in mind, we cared for you, and we cared for our fellow tribes -- those cloaked in feathers or scales or chitin or fur, those covered in leaves and bark. One day it will be your turn to bear in mind the coming children, your turn to care for all the living tribes. The list of wild marvels I would save for you is endless. I want you to feel wonder and gratitude for the glories of Earth. I hope you’ll come to feel, as I do, that we’re already in paradise, right here and now."
And indeed we are.
These photographs of Tilly and Howard were taken on Tilly's last walk before her operation. She's been through a lot since then, with a quiet courage and a steadfast trust in us that melts my heart. Every day now she's a little bit better, her joie de vivre returning with her strength; and soon we'll be rambling the woods and fields and riverside together once again.
Patience, patience, Little Sausage, I tell her. We're almost there.
"We Bear You in Mind" was first published in Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, and reprinted in Orion Magazine. You can read it in full here. The poem in the picture captions is from The River at Wolf by Jean Valentine (Alice James Books, 1992). All right reserved by the authors.
I'm reading a book now that several of you here have recommended, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants by Native American author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, which is especially interesting in light of our current conversation on art and the marketplace.
Kimmerer references Lewis Hyde's important work on the distinction between market and gift economies (The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World) -- but she comes to his ideas from an unusual direction, discussing the difference between these two ways of thinking from a botanical and ecological perspective rather than an artistic one. Strawberries are one example she gives of the gift economy operating in botanical form: the small, sweet wild strawberries she gathered freely from the fields when she was a child, a wild gift from the bounty of Mother Earth, as opposed to larger, less tasty strawberries farmed as monocrops, packaged in plastic, and shipped around the globe to be sold at supermarkets in every season.
"It's funny," she notes, "how the nature of an object -- let's say a strawberry or a pair of socks -- is changed by the way it has come into your hands, as a gift or as a commodity. The pair of wool socks that I buy at the store, red and gray striped, are warm and cozy. I might feel grateful for the sheep that made the wool and the worker who ran the knitting machine. I hope so. But I have no inherent obligation to those socks as a commodity, as private property. There is no bond beyond the lightly exchanged 'thank yous' with the clerk. I have paid money for them and our reciprocity ended the minute I handed her the money. The exchange ends once parity has been established, an equal exchange. They become my property. I don't write a thank-you note to JCPenny.
"But what if those very same socks, red and gray striped, were knitted by my grandmother and given to me as a gift? That changes everything. A gift creates ongoing relationship. I will write a thank-you note. I will take good care of them and if I am a very gracious granddaughter I'll wear them when she visits even if I don't like them. When it's her birthday, I will surely make her a gift in return. As Lewis Hyde notes, 'It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.' Wild strawberries fit the definition of a gift, but grocery store berries do not. It's the relationship between producer and consumer that changes everything."
"I'm a plant scientist and I want to be clear," Kimmerer continues, "but I'm also a poet and the world speaks to me in metaphor. When I speak of the gift of berries, I do not mean that Fragaria virginiana has been up all night making a present just for me, strategizing to find out exactly what I'd like on a summer morning. So far as we know, that does not happen, but as a scientist I am well aware of how little we do know. The plant has in fact been up all night assembling little packets of sugar and seeds and fragrance and color, because when it does so its evolutionary fitness is increased. When it is successful in enticing an animal such as me to disperse its fruit, its genes for making yumminess are passed on to the ensuing generations with a higher frequency than those of the plant whose berries were inferior. The berries made by the plant shape the behaviors of the dispersers and have adaptive consequences.
"What I mean of course is that our human relationship with strawberries is transformed by our choice of perspective. It is human perception that makes the world a gift. When we view the world this way, strawberries and humans alike are transformed. The relationship of gratitude and reciprocity thus developed can increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal. A species and a culture that treat the natural world with respect and reciprocity will surely pass on genes to ensuing generations with a higher frequency than the people who destroy it. The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences.
"In the old times, when people's lives were so directly tied to the land, it was easy to know the world as a gift. When fall came, the skies would darken with flocks of geese, honking 'Here we are.' It reminds the people of the [Potowatomi] Creation story, when the geese came to save Skywoman [the first human]. The people are hungry, winter is coming, and the geese fill the marshes with food. It is a gift and the people receive it with thanksgiving, love and respect.
"But when food does not come from a flock in the sky, when you don't feel the warm feathers cool in your hand and know that a life has been given for yours, when there is no gratitude in return -- that food may not satisfy. It may leave the spirit hungry while the belly is full. Something is broken when the food comes on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in slippery plastic, a carcass of a being whose only chance at life was a cramped cage. That is not a gift of life; that is a theft.
"How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? I know we cannot all become hunter-gatherers -- the living world could not bear our weight -- but even in a market economy, can we behave 'as if' the living world were a gift?
"There are those who will try to sell the gifts...but refusal to participate is a moral choice. Water is a gift for all, not meant to be bought and sold. Don't buy it. When food has been wrenched from the earth, depleting the soil and poisoning our relatives in the name of higher yields, don't buy it.
"In material fact, wild strawberries belong only to themselves. The exchange relationships we choose determine whether we share them as a common gift or sell them as a private commodity. A great deal rests on that choice. For the greater part of human history, and in places in the world today, common resources were the rule. But some invented a different story, a social construct in which everything is a commodity to be bought and sold. The market economy story has spread like wildfire, with uneven results for human well-being and devastation for the natural world. But it is just one story we have told ourselves and we are free to tell another, to reclaim the old one.
"One of these stories sustains the living systems on which we depend. One of these stories opens the way to living in gratitude and amazement at the richness and generosity of the world. One of these stories asks us to bestow our gifts in kind, to celebrate our kinship with the world. We can choose. If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become."
In the Mythic Arts field, we are all storytellers -- whether we work with words or paint or clay or sound or the movement of our bodies and the breath in our throats. And as storytellers, it behooves us think about the kinds of stories we're telling -- as well as about the ways we tell them, the ways we receive them, and the ways we pass them on to keep the gift in motion. There is no simple means of exempting our art from the strictures of the market economy while we live in a market-centered world, not if we depend on our work to pay the rent and put food on the table. But, as Kimmerer notes, our relationship to things, whether strawberries or stories, is transformed by our choice of perspective. When we come to "know the world as a gift," then we also come to know art as a gift, moving from hand to hand to hand, creating relationships "of gratitude and reciprocity."
And that, as Kimmerer says so sweetly and succinctly, changes everything.
The photographs here were taken at the Wallabrook, close to Scorhill stone circle. The large river stone with the hole in it, known as the Tolmen Stone, was believed to cure various ailments (arthritis and infertility in particular) in any who passed through it; it was also prescribed as a purification ritual for unfaithful wives. The single-slab clapper bridge nearby dates at least to the Elizabethan era (when we have the first record of it) and probably much earlier. The photograph of me, Howard, & Tilly is by Helen Mason; the rest are mine.
Ever since reading Sara Maitland's lovely book Gossip From the Forest, I've been haunted by a passage in which she reflects on the ways that fairy tales have been diminished not only by the loss of the ancient wild-wood which was their natural habitat, but also by the loss of the oral storytelling tradition within our families, our communities, and our media-saturated culture.
"The whole tradition of storytelling is endangered by modern technology," she laments. "Although telling stories is a very fundamental human attribute, to the extent that psychiatry now often treats 'narrative loss' -- the inability to construct a story of one's own life -- as a loss of identity or 'personhood,' it is not natural but an art form -- you have to learn to tell stories. The well-meaning mother is constantly frustrated by the inability of her child to answer questions like 'What did you do today?' (to which the answer is usually a muttered 'nothing' -- but the 'nothing' is cover for 'I don't know how to tell a good story about it, how to impose a story shape on the events'). To tell stories, you have to hear stories and you have to have an audience to hear the stories you tell.
"Oral story telling is economically unproductive -- there is no marketable product; it is out with the laws of patents and copyright; it cannot easily be commodified; it is a skill without monetary value. And above all, it is an activity requiring leisure -- the oral tradition stands squarely against a modern work ethic....Traditional fairy stories, like all oral traditions, need the sort of time that isn't money."
Jeanette Winterson comes at the subject of "narrative loss" from another direction in her essay "Writer, Reader, Words," discussing the ways that stories shaped by the rapid rhythms of the entertainment media impact stories created for the printed page, to the diminishment of literary arts. Her stance is not an elitist one for it is abundantly clear in Winterson's work that she believes that art belongs to everybody -- but she does resist the push to view literature as simply another form of entertainment and for writers to measure their worth in sales figures, clicks, and mass popularity.
"Readers who don't like books that are not printed television, fast on thrills and feeling, soft on the brain, are not criticizing literature," she writes, "they are missing it altogether. A work of fiction, a poem, that is literature, that is art, can only be itself, can never be anything else. Nor can anything else substitute for it. The serious writer cannot be in competition for sales and attention with the bewildering range of products from the ever expanding leisure industry. She can only offer what she has ever offered: an exceptional sensibility combined with an exceptional control over words.
"How many people want that? Proportionally as few as ever but art is not for the few but for the many, and I include those who would never pick up a serious fiction or poem and who are uninterested in writing. I believe that art puts down its roots into the deepest hiding places of our nature and that its action is akin to the action of certain delving plants, comfrey for instance, whose roots can penetrate far into the subsoil and unlock nutrients that would otherwise lie out of reach of shallower bedding plants. In the haste of life and the press of action it is difficult for us to examine our feelings, to express them coherently, to express them poetically, and yet the impulse to poetry which is an impulse parallel to civilization, is a force toward that range and depth of expression. We do not want a language as a list of basic commands and exchanges, we want to handle matter far more subtle.
"When we say, 'I haven't got the words,' the lack is not in the language nor in our emotional state, it is in the breakdown between the two. The poet heals that breakdown and not only for those who read poetry. If we want a living language, a language capable of expressing all that is called upon to express in a vastly changing world, then we need men and women whose whole self is bound up in that work with words."
In our own field of mythic fiction and fantasy, I cherish the fact that the honorable craft of storytelling has been kept alive during times when realist literature too often consisted of stylistic exercises in navel gazing by and for the privileged classes (if you'll forgive that blunt assessment, and thank heavens it's changing) -- but in valuing the skill it takes to tell a good story we mustn't then run off in the opposite direction and forget the "art" in our art form altogether. Our field is wide enough to accommodate both, entertainment and literature; and wise enough, at its best, to value the strengths and forgive the weaknesses of each. But it must be noted that the economic and technological climate re-shaping the publishing industry is geared to one sort of fiction and not the other; it is not a friend of poeticism, experimentation, and the slower rhythms that art-making and art-appreciating (in fantasy or any other genre, realism included) tend to require.
Many fantasy books that cross my desk these days (sent by publishers seeking quotes or reviews) are entertainment products, not literature; and I hasten to add that it was ever thus. Literature is rare, true art is rare, and entertainment serves a human need too. The fine craft of making artful entertainment is one that is worthy of our respect; and the line between art and entertainment has never been so firmly drawn as some critics insist. But what I find different in my reading now is a greater preponderance of novels written with the episodic structure, "beats," and dialogue of lowbrow film and television writing -- works, in other words, disconnected from the long, rich history of the literary form. Maybe I'm simply showing my age here, but I find this trend distinctly dismaying. If I want television, I'll go to television; I turn to books for what language alone does best; and even when I seek them for entertainment, then I'd like that entertainment to have at least a nodding acquaintance with the literary arts.
These days, it seems to me, not only are the "artful" novels harder to find, but also those sly, clever, wonderful books that borrow from both camps, entertainment and art; and the writers I used to count on to create them are looking increasingly hungry and harried, so busy now keeping the wolf from the door that "art" seems to be a luxury left only to those already well fed. Now, I acknowledge that it has always been difficult to make one's living writing artful "mid-list" books (i.e., books with reliable but modest sales) -- but with the mid-list shrinking everywhere, "hard" is becoming "impossible" for too many of our most interesting writers.
Should we care about this small group of writers, producing work for a small group of readers? If I, personally, don't read so-and-so, and if the market has denied so-and-so the crown of mass popularity, is it any concern of mine whether he or she can still write and still publish? My answer to both questions is a resounding yes -- because we're not just individual readers, we're members of a community; and art, and questions of art, are important to our community as a whole.
There are books that will never become best-sellers that are nonetheless vital to the health of our field: novels that expand the language of the fantastic, novels published far ahead of their time (blazing the trails that others will follow, often with a commercial success denied the early pioneers), challenging novels that demand as much from the reader as they did from the writers who made them. I propose that we should care about such writers, the Living National Treasures of our genre, if we care about fantasy literature at all. And if we do, then we must also care about the budding young artists of the next generation: the ones who aren't going to write the next Twilight and flourish on the best-sellers lists, but who just might, with right encouragement and support, create the next Alphabet of Thorn or Little, Big.
At a time when art is increasingly referred to as "content," and content is a thing we now expect to be quick, disposable, and cheap (or free), I find myself distinctly worried about those young artists...and the not-so-young artists, too. I'm worried about how they will pay for groceries, for tools, for healthcare (if they live in the U.S.), and for the precious hours and hours needed to create innovative work...and my worry here is entirely selfish, because I want to read all those books that won't exist if there's no infrastructure to support them.
I like well-crafted entertainment as much as anyone, but I need the other kind of books -- the ones that shake up my ideas, stretch my heart, and heal my wounded soul -- and if they're not being made because the makers are working at Starbucks, then my life has been diminished. All our lives have been diminished.
There are, of course, no simple answers to this, but the topic is one worth pondering, for if we depend on the marketplace for solutions, we know all too well how art will fare. My own small attempt to give art a helping hand is to seek out unfamiliar books and authors, to stretch myself beyond my usual reading comfort zone. And to stop being shy about talking about our art as an art, and doing so with passion and conviction, in a marketplace culture more comfortable with books as products and authors as brands, with ironic detachment as protective armor against the selling out of our very souls. Every time I buy a challenging book instead of sticking to familiar "comfort reading," that's another penny in an artist's pocket....and while the value of what those books give me cannot be measured in dollars and pounds, those pennies add up and put groceries on the table. It's all I can do, but it's something, and I do it.
Had I a fairy wand to wave, I would give the artists in our field equal access to MacArthur Genius Grants and all the other grants, fellowships, residencies, and working retreats that largely bypass English-language writers working in nonrealist traditions -- or else, if segregation by genre must persist, the establishment of a similar, well-funded network of resources for artists working in nonrealist forms. Mind you, if I had a fairy wand I would first bless every child born with a love of reading.
And now I've rambled on long enough. (But hey, at least I've rambled with passion!) What are your thoughts on art-making and the marketplace, and how can might we improve the relationship between the two? Some suggested reading as part of this conversation: The Gift by Lewis Hyde (on art in a market economy) and The People's Platform by Astra Taylor (on how the arts, and other fields, have been impacted by digital technology).
"I was getting into one of those trances that come from walking far, when the feet and the blood seem to collide and harmonise. Funnily enough, Kenneth Grahame and Virginia Woolf both wrote in praise of these uncanny states, which they thought closely allied to the inspiration writing required. 'Nature's particular gift to the walker,' Grahame explained in a late essay, 'through the semi-mechanical act of walking -- a gift no other form of exercise seems to transmit in the same high degree -- is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe -- certainly creative and supra-sensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside you and as it were talking to you, while you are talking back to it.'
"As for Woolf, she wrote dreamily of chattering her books on the crest of the Downs, the words pouring from her as she strode, half-delirious, in the noon-day sun. She compared it to swimming or 'flying through the air; the current of sensations & ideas; & the slow, but fresh change of down, of road, of colour: all this is churned up into a fine sheet of perfect calm happiness. It's true I often painted the brightest of pictures on this sheet: & often talked out loud.' "
Chattering her prose. I do that too. Thank heavens there's only Tilly to hear me as we roam the hills on these bright summer days.
The beautiful painting above is by my good friend and Chagford neighbor Marja Lee Kruyt.
"If we are not willing to fail, we will never accomplish anything. All creative acts involve the risk of failure. Marriage is a terrible risk. So is having children. So is giving a performance in the theatre, or the writing of a book. Whenever something is completed successfully, we must move on, and that is again to risk failure." - Madeleine L'Engle (Two-Part Invention)
"It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might has well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default." - J. K. Rowling (from her TED talk on failure)
"Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself." - Charlie Chaplin
"I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it." - Pablo Picasso
Some days feel like failures. Other days I inch forward. But whether toad day or gold day, I keep showing up; I give what I have, sometimes much, sometimes little. The rocks lend their strength, and the water, its quiet persistence.
"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” - Samuel Beckett
"Just as we are taught that our universe is constantly expanding out into space at enormous speeds," she wrote, "so too our imagination must expand as we search for the knowledge that will in its turn expand into wisdom, and from wisdom into truth.
"Children are less easily frightened than we are. They have no problem in understanding how Alice could walk through the mirror into the country on the other side; some of them have done it themselves. And they all understand princesses, of course. Haven't they all been badly bruised by peas? And then there's the princess who spat forth toads and snakes whenever she opened her mouth to speak, and her sister whose lips issued pieces of pure gold.
"I still have many days when everything I say seems to turn into toads. The days of gold, alas, don't come nearly as often. Children understand this immediately; why is it a toad day? There isn't any logical, provable reason. The gold days are just as irrational; they are pure grace; a gift."
Now me, I've always liked frogs and toads, and I want to tell you my own little story about them. There's a tiny pond outside my studio door, but it was mud-choked and rank when I first moved in, housing nothing remotely so interesting. I cleared out the trash, the dead vegetation, stocked it with plants to re-balance the water, and then asked a friend, knowledgeable in these matters, how I might get frogs or toads.
"You don't need to 'get' them," he told me, "just create the environment for them, and they will come."
Weeks passed. Months passed. The frogs didn't come. What was I doing wrong? I asked.
"Just be patient," my friend told me gently. "These things take time."
And yet time, I'm afraid, was not on my friend's side. He died the next winter (too soon, too young), my little pond remained stubbornly empty, and I wondered if his advice had been right. He'd been a folklorist, after all, and perhaps this was just an old wives' tale.
Another summer passed. No frogs. No toads. In deference to my friend, I did nothing more than tend the pond, keep the pondweed in check. I could say I was patient, but really I was busy and distracted and I stopped thinking about it.
Then one day I looked through the studio window and saw my husband crouched by the pond. I put down my pen and notebook and went outside to see what he'd found.
A frog? Oh yes. Not one, but dozens. Frogs and more frogs, everywhere we looked -- hiding in the weeds, sunning on the rocks, bobbing together in the golden pond water. How had we'd never seen them before? And how could one tiny pond hold so many? Big frogs and small frogs, brown, red, and green, all looking like they'd lived there forever.
Now the frogs re-emerge in the pond every spring, grinning up at me from the water and weeds, watching the studio's comings and goings from their sun-dappled kingdom nearby.
I wish I could tell my friend he'd been right. Create the environment and they will come. He'd also been right when he answered every inquiry with, "Terri, just be patient."
I believe it's the same with creativity. Feel dry, uncertain, empty of ideas? Then create the proper environment: a space you can work in, the right tools at hand, and good work habits, regular and steady. Inspiration will come. Be patient, and it will come.
It's pure grace; it's a gift.
Art above: "The Frog Princess" by Gennady Spirin, a detail from Virginia Lee's "The Frog Bride," "Darwin's Frog" by Gennady Spirin, "Alice and the Frog Footman" by Arthur Rackham, "The Frog Prince" by Warwick Goble, "Thumbelina" by Lizbeth Zwerger, and "The Frog Prince" by Arthur Rackham.