Mozart, starlings, and the inspiration-wind

A Luminosity of Birds

From Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt:

"People always ask how I get ideas for by books. I think all authors hear this question. And, at least for me, there is only one answer: You can't think up an idea. Instead, an idea flies into your brain -- unbidden, careening, and wild, like a bird out of the ether. And though Starlingthere is a measure of chance, luck, and grace involved, for the most part ideas don't arise from actual ether; instead they spring from the metaphoric opposite -- from the rich soil that has been prepared, with and without our knowledge, by the whole of our lives: what we do, what we know, what we see, what we dream, what we fear, what we love....

"And as a writer, of course, I live by inspiration. I watch it come and go; when it's missing, I pray for its reappearance. I light a candle and put it in my window hoping that this little ritual might help inspiration find its way back to me, like a lover lost in a snowstorm. The word itself is beautiful. Inspire is from the Latin, meaning 'to be breathed upon; to be breathed into.' Just as I ponder the migrations of birds, I ponder the migrations of inspiration's light breeze. If it's not with me, where has it been? Who has it breathed upon while it was away, and when, and how? Over and over again, I have come to terms with the sad truth that inspiration never visits at my convenience, nor in accordance with my sense of timing, nor at the behest of my will. Most of all, the inspiration-wind has no interest whatsoever in what I think I want to write about."

Haupt is an ecophilosopher and naturalist who has has studied birds for much of her life; she has also worked as a raptor rehabilitator, and once this history became known in her neighborhood, "it seemed that all the injured birds within a fifty-mile radius had a way of finding me." So it's no surprise that birds are the focus of several of her books, including Crow Planet, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent, and Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds. What did surprise her was when inspiration came in the form of a starling.

Bird Girls

In conservation circles, she explains, starlings are easily the most despised birds in all North America: a ubiquitous, nonnative species that has invaded sensitve habitats and outcompetes native birds for food and nest sites.  One day as she sat at her desk, she looked out the window and saw "a plague of starlings" on a strip of grass beyond the house. Other birds find starlings intimidating, so Haupt pounded on the window to make them leave. This had little effect. "So I rapped the window harder," she writes, "and again they lifted. But this time, they turned toward the light and I was dazzled by the glistening iridescence of their breasts. So shimmery, ink black and scattered with pearlescent spots, like snow in sun. Hated birds, lovely birds. In this moment of conflicted beauty, a story I'd heard many times came to mind.

"Mozart had kept a pet starling."

Bird Children from my sketchbooks 2

"Mozart discovered the starling in a Vienna pet shop," Haupt explains, "where the bird had somehow learned to sing the motif from his newest piano concerto. Enchanted, he bought the bird for a few kreuzer and kept it for three years before it died. Just how the starling learned Mozart's motif is a wonderful musico-ornithological mystery. But there is one thing we know for certain: Mozart loved his starling. Recent examinations of his work during and after the period he lived with the bird shows that the starling influenced his music and, I believe, at least one of the opera world's favorite characters. The starling in turn was his companion, distraction, consolation, and muse. When his father, Leopold, died, Wolfgang did not travel to Salzburg for the services. When his starling died, two months later, Mozart hosted a formal funeral in his garden and composed a whimsical elegy that proclaimed his affinity with the starling's mischievousness and his sorrow over the bird's loss."

Bird child and friendsWhile Haupt was was watching the starlings and thinking of Mozart, the Pandora station she was listening to began to play the composer's Prague Symphony -- and with this co-incidence she felt a new obsession take root. "I could not stop wondering over the tangled story of Mozart and his starling and felt I was being pulled through an unseen gateway as I began to follow the tale's trail, uncovering all I could from my 250-year remove.

"What did Mozart learn from his bird? The juxtaposition of the hated and sublime is fascinating enough. But how did they interact? What was the source of their affinity? And how did the starling come to know Mozart's tune? I dove into research, making detailed notes on the starlings in my neighborhood. But gaps in my understanding of starling behavior remained and niggled, and within a few weeks I reluctantly realized that to truly understand what it meant for Mozart to live with a starling, I would, like the maestro, have to live with a starling of my own."

And so she did.

The book and the starlingThe resulting book is Mozart's Starling, which I highly recommend: a skillful blend of musical history, natural science, and personal memoir, with meditations on creativity, migration, and so much more.

"Following Mozart's starling, and mine," Haupt relates in the Introduction, "I was led on a crooked, beautiful, and unexpected path  that would through Vienna and Salzburg, the symphony, the opera, ornithological labs, the depths of music theory, and the field of linguistics. It led me to outer space. It led me deep into the natural world and our constant wild animal companions. It led me to the understanding that there is more possibility in our relationships with animals -- with all the creatures of the earth, not just the traditionally beautiful, or endangered, or loved -- than I had ever imagined. And in this potential for relationship there lies our deepest source of creativity, of sustenance, of intelligence, and of inspiration."

Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Words: The passages above are from Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown & Co., 2017); all rights reserved by the author. Many thanks to William Todd Jones (via composer Hillary Tann) for passing the book on to me.

Pictures: My collage "The Luminosity of Birds" and a various "bird children" from my sketchbooks. All rights reserved.


In the gift-giving season

True Friends by Terri Windling

On Black Friday and in the holiday season ahead, please help make the world a better place by supporting independent bookstores, artists, musicians, craftspeople, local farms, & small businesses -- rather than big, non-ethical, tax-avoiding corporations (like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Walmart, Disney, Mattel, etc....and even, alas, the Waterstones book chain. Go here for the worst offenders.)

And please recommend some good online & offline shops, including your own (don't be shy), in the comments. I'll start us off here:

Tired bunnyFor Art, Craftwork, and Jewelry from the magical hills of Dartmoor: Virginia Lee, David Wyatt, Danielle Barlow, Angharad Barlow of Atelier Bee, Rima Staines & Tom Hirons of Hedgespoken, Miriam Boy Hackney of Silver & Moor (who made our wedding rings), Jason of England (who made our anniversary rings), Linda Limeux of Wood & Rush, Yuli Somme of Bellacouche, Suzi Crockford, Eleanor Ludgate, Lunar Hine, and Alexandra Dawe.

Plus visit the Artisan Gallery here in Chagford (which carries local arts, and is also the home of Leaf Leather), check out the online artisan shop Gifts from Dartmoor, and then head north to Exmoor to see exquisitely magical things at Number Seven Dulverton.

More mythical, magical jewelry: Parrish Relics, Hannah Willow, Alchemy From the Hedge, Bauble Yaga's Hut, and Lioness.

More artwork (paintings, cards, prints, etc.) with mythic or naturalist themes: Jeanie Tomanek's EveryWoman Art and EasyBeast Designs, Kathleen Jennings, Jackie Morris, Catherine Hyde, Hannah Willow, Greta Ward, Rick Berry, Angela Harding, Karen Davis, Flora McLachlan, David Hollington, Jessica Roux, Julianna Swaney, Julia Jeffrey, Rovina Cai, Hazel Ang, Amy Bogard, Susan Sorrel Hill, Xine Ann's Artsy Craftsy (classic fairy tale prints). Plus Lynn Hardaker when her Etsy shop fills again.

Sculpture and glass with mythic or naturalist themes: Beckie Kravetz, Rossi Studios, Sophie Ryder, Ellen Jewett, Tamsin Abbott, and (if you've got very deep pockets) Adrian Arleo and Tricia Cline.

Fabric arts, critters, dolls, and masks: Mister Finch, Celestine & the Hare, MossMea, The Pale Rook, Anna Brahms, Friedericy Dolls, Claire Smith, BK Mask Studio, and Mythical Designs. Plus The Fernie Brae gallery in Portland, Oregon carries work by Wendy Froud, Chandra Cerchione Peltier and others.

Ceramics and homeware of various kinds: Lush Designs, Guy Veryzer, William Morris Tiles, and Hannah Nunn.

Photography: Stu Jenks, Juliette Mills, Rachel Lauren, and Ashley Lebedev.

I could go on listing artists I love all day, but I must get back to work on my manuscript-in-progress...so if I haven't yet listed you here, or any other artist whose work you'd like to recommend, please do so in the comments below.

Some bunnies

For those who have kindly asked: No, I  don't have an online shop for my own art this year -- I haven't had the spare time and funds to cover the expense of running one (printing costs, office help, etc.). But if you'd like to support the creation of a Bumblehill Shop for 2018, perhaps you'd consider becoming a Bumblehill Patron? Funds raised through my Patreon page are precisely for these sorts of endeavors.


From the archives: The Folklore of Sheep

The Royal Ram by Adrienne Segur

Donkey Nanny, Lombardy, Italy, photographed by Elspeth Kinneir

This post first appeared in December, 2014. It's re-published today with additional art...

Sheep, like goats, are associated with Christmas in folk tales told across northern Europe and the British Isles. On Christmas eve, these tales report, all sheep face east, bow three times, and are gifted with the power of speech from the stroke of midnight until the rise of the sun. This holy ritual cannot take place under the gaze of human beings, but provided the sheep are unobserved and unaware, their conversations can be Head of a Ewe, Sumerian, Protoliterate period (c 3500–3000 BC)overheard. In some accounts, the sheep sing hymns; in others, they foretell events of the year to come; and in some they gossip, praising or bemoaning the conditions in which they live. A grumbling sheep, mind you, is a cause for worry, because sheep are especially beloved and protected by Mother Mary in the folklore tradition, and a black mark is lodged in the heavenly accounts against farmers or shepherds who treat them ill.

Going back to myths older than Christianity: Duttur was the Sumerian pastoral goddess associated with ewes, milk, and arts of the dairy; she was the mother of Tammuz: the shepherd god of rebirth, fertility, and new growth in spring. Likewise, the ram-headed Khnum in Egyptian myth was a god of rebirth and pastoral regeneration. As one of the oldest of Egyptian deities, he also the god of creation,  forming human bodies in clay on a potter's wheel and placing them inside their mother' wombs. In Greek myth, Aristaios (son of Apollo and Cyrene) was the god of shepherds and beekeepers. The island of Ceos was the center of his cult (though he is also associated with the founding of Thebes), where his followers practiced "weather magic" and were renown for their fine herds and dairy skills.

Drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger

Girl With Lamb by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

In Irish myth, Brigid (the goddess of poetry and husbandry, among other things) was the owner of Cirb, a castrated ram (or wether) who was king of all the rams and sheep of Ireland -- including the seven famous magical sheep owned by the sea god Manannán. These sheep, it was said, could produce enough wool to clothe every man, woman, and child the world over.

The "lamb of god" -- representing innocence, purity, and sacrifice for the greater good -- is a symbol found in all three of the major Abrahamic religions and especially in Christianity, where it's been widely represented all forms of Christian art and iconography.

Lambs on Dartmoor by Helen Mason

Little Miss Muffet and Her Sheep by Kate Greenaway

Hans Ole Braseh painting and an Edwardian postcard

By contrast, lambs play little part in either Buddhist or Hindu lore, though the old and virile ram appears in Asian myth in a variety of ways. A ram was present at the birth of Buddha, is a symbol of the passing year in Tibet, and is sacred (like the goat) to Agni, the Vedic god of fire, in the Hindu pantheon. Agni's ram is a symbol of sacrifice, but not a physical sacrifice of the animal itself; rather, of personal sacrifice in the form of spiritual practice and devotion.

Those born in the Chinese Year of the Sheep are said to be especially sensitive, creative, empathetic, and anxious; while those born under the sign of Aries the Ram in Western astrology are daring, lusty, quick-witted and honest, but also rather obstinate.

In Bulgaria, and other parts of eastern Europe, rams are said to be beyond the reach of evil; thus their image became a totem used to keep bad luck and illness at bay through carvings found on household utensils, domestic buildings, stables, and barns.

Chinese ram carving, 17th/18th century

Painting by Akitaka Ito

Baa Baa Black Sheep by Edmund Caldwell

 

"Sheep breeding," writers Dr. Vihra Baeva, "has always been the main source of livelihood in the Bulgarian lands. That is why, in traditional culture, shepherds are held in high esteem and a large flock of sheep is sung praise of as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The bells on the sheep’s necks, called chan or hlopka, which chime in harmony also give a sense of pride. Christmas carols express wishes that the flock may yagni (derived from the word for lamb) but also blizni (twin-lambs). They sing of fine-wool sheep, horn-twisting rams and white-faced lambs. The animal described as vaklo is especially prized -- i.e. animals that are white with dark rings around the eyes. That is why a pretty lass, who by and large would have black eyes is compared to a lamb that is vaklo, gentle and loved."

Baa Baa Black Sheep by Paula Rego

In the folklore of the British countryside, black sheep were largely considered lucky creatures -- in contrast to European lore where exactly the opposite was true, from which we get idioms like "the black sheep of the family" and the black sheep of children's rhymes and fairy tales.

The phrase "a wolf in sheep's clothing" is of Biblical origin (from The Gospel of Matthew), but can also be found in Aesop's Fables. "Two shakes of a lamb's tail," meaning to do something quickly, appears to have come from early settlers in either America or New Zealand (depending on which source you consult), popularized by Richard Barham’s book Ingoldsby Legends (1840). It's believed to have derived from way that high-spirited lambs wag their tails while feeding.

Sheep with lamb by Henry Moore

Sheep Studies by Henry Moore

''Archie Parkhouse Leading His Sheep by James Ravilious

There are many different theories on where the idea of counting sheep in order to fall asleep comes from, but one of the most interesting is that it's rooted in the old Celtic dialects, used by shepherds to count their sheep long after general use of these dialects had disappeared. This repetition of numbers, chanted in an ancient language in a sing-song manner, was said to send children into peaceful slumber as their elders watched over the herds.

Training Day by David Wyatt

The fairy folk of Brittinay, Wales, and here in the West Country keep flocks of fairy sheep (and cattle), and are said to steal the sheep of local farmers in order to replenish their stock.  Various charms, herbs, and rituals can be used to keep straying sheep safe from fairy hands. In some accounts, fairy sheep are diminutive in size, while in others they resemble ordinary animals except for the strange color of their eyes. Sheep who appear on Dartmoor roads at night and disappear in the blink of an eye are ones who belong to piskie folk, and woe betide any who harm them.

Tilly spying on sheep

Sheep being spied upon

Strayed Sheep by Pre-Raphaelite painter William Homan Hunt

Our own dramatic sheep encounter occurred early one morning several years ago, when Tilly began barking frantically and our daughter went outside to investigate. A few moments later Victoria was back again, dumbfounded. "There's a sheep in our back garden," she reported.

Our visitor turned out to be a young ram (a fact we discovered by a clear view of his tackle from below)  -- a handsome fellow who was not best pleased to find himself in this unfamiliar terrain, far from his herd. He had wandered over Nattadon Hill and through the woods, across a stream, past a garden gate, through a gap in the hedge and then up some stairs onto the porch of the Howard's studio cabin  -- where he snorted and snuffled, while Tilly barked in hysterics but didn't go close. (Good dog.)

The ram on the cabin porch

Howard was called, stumbled out half-awake, and the poor ram grew more and more agitated as we discussed how on earth to get him off the darn porch and back to his herd. This being the 21st century, Howard turned to the Internet for advice on "how move a ram," and we learned we should herd him slowly, slowly, with plenty of space between him and us. Otherwise the poor fellow might panic and bolt and end up heaven knew where.

We must have been a fine sight that morning, all of us in our pyjamas still, Tilly dancing at our feet, while we slowly guided our  visitor down the cabin's stairs...through the break in the hedge...past my studio...through the gate behind it...over the stream...and into the woods. The young ram, finding his bearings as last,  disappeared through trees with a flash of his hooves -- heading to the open hillside beyond, where the rest of his herd was waiting.

If I hadn't snapped the picture above, I'd be wondering now if we'd dreamt the whole thing.

Shep guarding the sheep by Beatrix Potter

Ewes Watching Shooting Stars by Mary Newcomb

Information on each of the paintings, drawings, and photographs above can be found in the picture captures. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists.


The Dog Child's Tale

The Dog Child by Terri Windling

Dear Readers,

Thank you for your patience while I've been recovering from a yet another round of illness. I'm finally getting back on my feet ... a little slowly, a little shakily, yes, but I'm determined to be well again, and I'm a very stubborn woman. As a new month commences, and a new year begins (for me, anyway, because today's my birthday), it's time to get back to the studio, back to writing, back to art, and back to Myth & Moor.  

I know some people cringe at the thought of getting another year older, but I'm not one of them. Having once been told by doctors that I'd be lucky to make it to the age of 20, reaching middle age and moving towards old age is a daily thing of wonder. I've written down my thoughts on mid-fifties birthdays before (they're here if you want to read them), so today I offer this instead:

In some indigenous cultures it's traditional to give gifts, not receive them, on the day of one's birth...as an act of gratitude to the spirits and the ancestors, as well as to family and community, for the miraculous gift of life and all that makes our lives worthwhile. So this "Dog Child" today is my gift to all of you. Please feel free to download the drawing and print it out if you wish. Her story begins Once Upon a Time....

I leave it to each of you to decide where the tale might go from here.

The other Dog Child


A quiet morning in the studio

Rainbow 1


Bird Girl by Terri WindlingSong of the Sky Loom

an ancient Tewa prayer/poem

Oh Mother Earth, oh Father Sky,
Your children are we all.
With tired backs we bring you song,
we bring you the gifts you love.

May the warp be the white light of the morning.
May the weft be the red light of evening.
May the fringes be the falling rain.
May the border be the standing rainbow.
Weave for us this bright garment
that we may walk where birds sing
and animals raise their young,
where water flows
and grass is green.

Oh Mother the Earth, oh Father the Sky,
your children are we all.


The Deer's Cry
an extract from an ancient Celtic prayer/poem

Robin, photographed by Derek Stackey for Devon BirdsI arise today
through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.


Birdboy by Terri Windling

Rainbow over Chagford Commons

Studio 4The Tewa prayer comes from Songs of the Tewa, edited by Herbert J. Spinden; the Celtic prayer and the passage in the picture captions comes from Anam Cara by John O'Donohue. The later prayer is translated by Kuno Meyer. The robin was photographed by Derek Stacey for Devon Birds. The other photographs are of an early morning rainbow arched over our house, viewed from my studio on the hill behind; and Tilly in her usual spot on the studio sofa as the day begins. The "Bird Girl" and "Bird Boy" drawings are from my sketchbooks.