From the archives: Crossing Over

Mermaid in Flight by Fay Ku

In the following passage from Brenda Peterson's Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals, the author is swimming with a dolphin pod on the Florida coast:

" 'Crossover' is a word scientists use to describe dolphins' soaring over seas, their traveling so free and fast, so high-spirited and almost effervescent that their sleek bodies barely skim the waves. The suggestion of splashes from tail and pectoral leaves a luminous wake across the water. For these crossover miles, the dolphins, like their human terrestrial mammal kin, belong more to the element of air than the sea....

"Held in [the dolphins'] fluid embrace, I pulled my arms close against my sides and our communal speed increased... Racing around the lagoon, I opened my eyes again to see nothing but an emerald underwater blur. And then I remembered what I had either forgotten long ago or never quite fully realized. This feeling of being carried along by other animals was familiar.

Art copyright by Juliana Swaney

"Animals had carried me all my life," Peterson continues. "I was a crossover -- carried along in the generous and instructive slipstream of other species. And I had always navigated my life with them in mind, going between the human and animal worlds -- a crossover myself. By including animals in my life I was always engaging with the Other, imagining the animal mind and life. For almost half a century, my bond with animals had shaped my character and revealed the world to me. At every turning point in my life an animal had mirrored or influenced my fate. Mine was not simply a life with other animals, but a life because of animals.

"It had been this way since my beginning, born on a forest lookout station in the High Sierras, surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness and many more animals than humans. Since infancy, the first faces I imprinted, the first faces I ever really loved, were animal."

Fox Confessor by Julie Morstad

If you haven't yet read Brenda's luminous work (which includes fiction, essays, memoirs, and anthologies), please do seek it out. Her website is here, and her blog (on books, nature, seal watching and more) is here.

Hank by Carson Ellis
Words: The post above originally appeared in August, 2012. I'm re-visiting it today in the context of our recent discussions on borders and border-crossing, and also in case newcomers to Myth & Moor are unfamiliar with Brenda's wonderful work. Today's passage comes from her essay collection Build Me an Ark  (W.W. Norton, 2001); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The drawings & paintings above are "Mermaid in Flight" by Fay Ku, "Sky Pack" by Julianna Swaney, "Fox Confessor" by Julie Morstad, and "Hank" by Carson Ellis. Please visit their websites to see more of their art. All rights to the imagery here reserved by the artists.

"Into the Woods" series, 49: Wanderers & Wilderness

Soay, St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, Scotland


Like Robert Macfarlane (in Monday's post), Sara Maitland is fascinated by the peregrini: the early Celtic Christian monks and mystics who set out alone in small, flimsy boats, seeking solitude, nature, and God on the most remote islands of Britain.

"On island after island," she writes in A Book of Silence, "the more isolated and far-flung the better -- on St. Kilda, on the Farnes, on the Shiants, throughout the Hebrides and the northern islands, off the coast of Ireland, around Iceland and possibly even North America -- the traces of hermits can be found. This history is confused and uncertain, but originating in Ireland in the fifth century, there was a well-developed form of Christian spirituality which valued the silent eremitical vocation extremely highly.

A ''cleit'' (stone hut) on St Kilda

"In Britain, the most famous such voluntary exile was Columba, who left Ireland in the mid sixth century and crossed the Irish Sea to become first a hermit and later a missionary and founding father based on the tiny island of Iona, which is just to the west of Mull. His community later spread across Scotland and converted north-east England as well, but he was by no means unique: over the next several centuries hermits settled alone or in tiny communities all over western Scotland and further afield too....These adventures were known in Ireland as 'green martydoms' -- to distinguish them from the 'red martyrdom' of being slain, shedding blood for the faith. To leave home and travel out beyond civilization was a martyrdom (the word means 'witness'), death of the ego, a self-giving that seems absolute."

Iona by Torsten Henning

Shetland ponies on the Isle of Foula

"We do not know very much about the spiritual theology of these early hermits," Maitland continues. "Their lives are lost in legend and story, their physical markers faded or wiped out by the wildness of the places where they dwelt."

One of these hermits was St. Cuthbert, bishop of the monastery on Lindisfarne, a center of Celtic Christianity in the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast. A great lover of nature, he issued regulations to his monks for the special protection of Eider Ducks, which are called Cuddy Ducks ("Cuthbert's Ducks") to this day. He retired to live an austere and solitary life on Inner Farne Island in 676, and died there in 687.

Lindisfarne Abbey and St Marys by Russ Hamer

Cuddy Ducks

Sara Maitland explains that we know more about St. Cuthbert than most other Christian hermits because he was personally known and loved by Bede, author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. "But what interested Bede is somewhat different than what interests me," writes Maitland. "So, for example, Bede records that Cuthbert would pray all night standing up to his neck in the frigid waters of the North Sea and, indeed, when he emerged otters would come and warm him with their tongues and fur. This combination of the ferociously ascetic and the miraculous engages Bede, for what he is writing about is the ultimate form of something so obvious to him that he never says anything about what Cuthbert thought he was trying to achieve, nor about the content of those prayers.

Otter, Farne Islands

Grey seal & newborn calf, The Farne Islands, Northumberland

"It is not until rather later, from the tenth to twelfth centuries, that we begin to get accounts that attempt to explain what the island hermits were seeking, in the beguiling poetry of the Irish monks:

"Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle, on the peak of a rock, that I might often see there the calm of the sea. That I might see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean, as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course. That I might see its smooth strand of clear headlands, no gloomy thing; that I might hear the voice of its wondrous birds, a joyful tune. That I might hear the sound of the shallow waves against the rocks; that I might hear the cry by the graveyard, the noise of the sea. That I might see its splendid flocks of birds over the full-watered ocean; that I might see its mighty wales, greatest of wonders. That I might see its ebb and its flood-tide in their flow; that this might be my name, a secret I tell, "He who turned his back on Ireland." That contrition of heart should come upon me as I watch it; that I might bewail my many sins, difficult to declare. That I might bless the Lord who has power over all, heaven with its pure host of angels, earth, ebb, flood-tide."

Birds on the Farne Islands by Bob Jones

Puffins on The Farne Islands by Joe Cornish

Unlike Maitland and the hermit monks she admires, I am not a Christian, and I certainly don't live an isolated life, yet my morning prayers on Nattadon Hill aren't so different from those of the nature-loving peregrini:

Delightful I think it to be in the green hills of Devon, climbing through bracken and blackberries to the granite peaks above, that I might often see the sheep-dotted fields, and the grey tors of Dartmoor beyond. That I might hear the wind singing in the trees, a choir of oak, ash, rowan, and beech; and the bells of the village church; and the bleating lambs; and the hooting of owls in the woods. That I might see this hillside covered in bluebells, stitchwort, and foxgloves, no gloomy thing; and that I might hear the voice of its rooks and its robins, a joyful tune. That I might see the badgers live undisturbed; and the small red deer, shyest of wonders; and watch wild ponies graze in the tall grass as they flow between valley and moor. That I come nameless to this hill, no more, no less than others creatures here, living quietly, gently upon its slopes. That I walk these paths with respect, attentiveness, open eyes, open ears, open heart. That I might bless Mystery within all of us; and my good neighbors, human and nonhuman alike; and the air, the water, the fire, the earth, ebb and flood-tide. Mitakuye oyasin.

Meldon Hill viewed from Nattdon Hill

Wildflowers in spring, Nattadon Hill

Young Dartmoor ponyWords: The quotes by Sara Maitland are from A Book of Silence (Granta, 2009), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The last three photographs above are mine, taken here in Chagford: Meldon Hill viewed from Nattadon Hill, a pathway on lower Nattadon, and a very young Dartmoor pony on the village Commons. The photographs of islands in Scottland and north-east England (and their birds and animals) are Creative Commons images. They are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

Tunes for a Monday Morning: Songs for the Peregrini

Ynys Enlli, viewed from Mynydd Mawr - photograph by Alan Fryer (Creative Commons)

In his book The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane writes about his journey to Yns Enlli (Bardsey Island), off the coast of the Llŷn Peninsula in Wales:

"Yns Enlli was among the many remote places of the west and north-west coasts of Britain and Ireland to be settled between around AD 500 and 1000," he tells us. "During those centuries, an extraordinary migration occurred. Monks, anchorites, solitaries and other devoted itinerants began to travel in their thousands to the bays, forests, promontories, mountain-tops and islands of the Atlantic littoral. In frail craft and with little experience of seamanship, they sailed out across dangerous seas, in search of something we might now call wilderness. Where they stopped, they build monasteries, cells and oratories, dug cemetaries for their dead and raised stone crosses to their God. These travelers were known as peregrini: the name derives from the Latin peregrinus and carries the idea of wandering over a distance, giving us our word 'pilgrim.' "

Enlii, The Blessed Isle - photograph by Eric Jones (Creative Commons)

"We can know very little for certain about the peregrini. We know few of their names. Yet, reading the accounts of their journeys and of their experiences on places like Enlli, I had encountered a dignity of motive and attitude that I found salutary. These men were in search not of material gain, but of a hallowed landscape: one that would sharpen their faith to its utmost point. They were, in the phrasing of their own theology, exiles looking for the Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum -- the Promised Land of Saints.

"A long Christian tradition exists that considers all individuals as peregrini, in that all human life is seen as exile. This idea was perpetuated in the Salve Regina, the chant often recited as a last night prayer. Post hoc exilium, the prayer declares: all will be resolved after this exile. The chant, when sung, sounds ancient and disquieting. It is unmistakably music about wilderness, an ancient vision of wildness, and it still has the capacity to move us.

"Antiphona: Salve Regina," medieval chant

"Much of what we know of the life of the monks of Enlli, and places like it, is inferred from the rich literature they left behind. Their poems speak eloquently of a passionate and precise relationship with nature, and the blend of receptivity and detachment which characterized their interactions with it. Some of the poems read like jotted lists, or field notes: 'Swarms of bees, beetles, soft music of the world, a gentle humming; brent geese, barnacle geese, shortly before All Hallows, music of the wild dark torrent.' Others record single charmed instants: a blackbird calling from a gorse branch near Belfast Loch, foxes at play in a glade. Marban, a ninth-century hermit who lived in a hut in a fir-grove near Druim Rolach, wrote of the 'wind's voice against a branchy wood on a day of grey cloud.' A nameless monk, responsible for drywalling on the island of North Rona in the ninth century, stopped his work to write a poem that spoke of the delight he felt  at standing on a 'clear headland,' looking over the 'smooth strand' to the 'calm sea,' and hearing the calls of 'the wondrous birds.' A tenth-century copyist, working in an island monastery, paused long enough to scribble a note in Gaelic beside his Latin text. 'Pleasant to me is the glittering of the sun today upon these margins.'

"Gleanings such as these give us glimpses of the nature of faith of the peregrini. They are recorded instants which carry purely over the long distances of history, as certain sounds carry with unusual clarity within water or across frozen land. For these writers, attention was a form of devotion and noticing continuous with worship. The art they left behind is among the earliest testimonies to human love of the wild."

"Salve Regina in C Minor" by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

The music:

In the first video above, "Antiphona: Salve Regina" is performed by the Ensemble Organum at the Abbey of Fontevraud in Anjou, France in 2006. (The video was filmed by David Wilkes at Canterbury Cathedral, Holy Trinity Church in Coventry, Winchester Castle, and Windsor Castle.)

In the second video, "Salve Regina in C Minor," by the 18th century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, is performed by L'Arco Magico Chamber Orchestra at the Cathedral of Orvieto in Umbria, Italy in 2013. The director is Antonio Puccio, and the soprano is Silvia Frigato.

Below, an exquisitely beautiful "Salve Regina," by the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, is performed by the Coral Reyes Bartlet, the Coro de Cámara Mateo Guerra, the Coro Juvenil David Goldsmith, and the Orquesta del Encuentro de Música Religiosa de Canarias in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife in 2014.

"Salve Regina" by Arvo Pärt

Credits: The quote by Robert Macfarlane above is from The Wild Places (Granta, 2008), which I highly recommend reading in full. All rights reserved by the author. The photographs above are Creative Commons images, identified in the picture captions.

The gift of stillness

Dunes, north Devon

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

Dog, waves, sand, north Devon

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

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

Dog at play, north Devon

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

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

Light, north Devon

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

Beast on the prowl, north Devon

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

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

Stillness, north Devon

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

Gazing out to sea, north Devon

Dune grass, north Devon

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

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

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

The journey to Ithaka, the pathway to the sea

The journey begins

From "A Writer's Journey" by Eleanor Cameron (Innocence & Experience):

What makes the artist's journey exhilarating, she says, is that "one never knows what will emerge from the unconcious, memories that, suprisingly enough, begin coalescing into a pattern, only dimly perceived at first. But before long, for some mysterious reason, this pattern begins taking on the substance and detail that tell the writer that another novel, not necessarily of the past, is coming into being.

The pathway to the Sea

"It is something to be grateful for because it can be devastating to see nothing in the offing. I remember Lloyd Alexander saying, when I congratulated him on his latest book, 'Oh, but I haven't an idea what to do next. It's terrible -- I'm utterly barren and it frightens me!' He had not the faintest notion that  The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha would appear within the next two years, not to speak of the Westmark trilogy during the four after that. There are seven lines near the end of Cavafy's poem 'Ithaka' that particularly move me:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich."

The secret cove

At high tide

"As we sit at our desks, struggling to bring a conception into existence, we are always trying -- if we are serious and not simply working for money and attention -- to make ourselves worthy of the vision, no matter how modest the accomplishment. There, for me at least, lies the mingled hardship and true joy of writing, the journey taken."

Into the unknown

And then there were two


From "The Life Journey" by John Rowe Townsend (Innocence & Experience):

''The life journey is a hero's journey. Although we may not feel very heroic, we are all embarked on the heroic quest, to live lives that have meaning for ourselves and others. We are on our individual Odysseys, our personal roads of trials. We have had our adventures, and we shall have more, but we shall come to Ithaka at last.''

True joyPhotos above: Howard, Victoria, and Tilly on the South West Coast Path and Watcombe Beach, south Devon, on a misty day.

Creativity and play

Tor Bay 1

"Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play." - Henri Matisse (Matisse on Art)

"The capacity to relax and play renews the spirit and makes it possible for us to come to the work of writing clearer, ready for the journey."  - Bell Hooks (Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work)

Tor Bay 3

Tor Bay 2

"To enter into play is to enter into uncertainty. It involves letting go, and it involves the risk that in your looseness, in your un-self-conscious spontaneity, you may say or do something strange, something that someone could shame you for. Therein lies the risk, and therein lies our poetry."

- Matthew Burgess ("Serious Play: Odes to the Everyday," Poetry Foundation)

Tor Bay 5

"A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both."
- L.P. Jacks (Education Through Recreation)

Tor Bay 4

"A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived within him and who he will miss terribly."  - Pablo Neruda (I Confess I Have Lived)

Tor Bay 6

Tor Bay 8

"So, like a forgotten fire, a childhood can always flare up again within us."   - Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Reverie)

Tor Bay 10

"I believe that half the trouble in the world comes from people asking 'What have I achieved?' rather than 'What have I enjoyed?' I've been writing about a subject I love as long as I can remember -- horses and the people associated with them, anyplace, anywhere, anytime. I couldn't be happier knowing that young people are reading my books. But even more important to me is that I've enjoyed so much the writing of them."   - Walter Farley (author of The Black Stallion)

Tor Bay 9

"We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” -  Karl Groos (The Play of Animals)

Tor Bay 11

Photographs above: Howard, Victoria, Tilly and I on a dog-friendly beach near Paignton, south Devon, last week.
The L.P. Jacks quote above is often misattributed to François Auguste René Chateaubriand, and the Karl Goos quote to George Bernard Shaw.

Tempering the spirit

Neptune's Horses by Walter Crane

From Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard:

Goddess of the Sea by Arthur Rachkam"Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, a dawn fast over the mountains split....

"I open my eyes. The god lifts from the water. His head fills the bay. He is Puget Sound, the Pacific; his breast rises from pastures ; his fingers are firs; islands slide wet down his shoulders. Islands slip blue from his shoulders and glide over the water, the empty, lighted water like a stage.

"Today's god rises, his long eyes flecked in clouds. He flings his arms, spreading colors; he arches, cupping sky in his belly; he vaults, vaulting and spread, holding all and spread on me like skin."

Dreamland by Florence Harrison

Sea Fairies by Florence Harrison

Water Nymphs by Arthur Rackham

"I came here to study hard things -- rock mountains and sea salt -- and to temper my spirit on their edges...[And what I face is] sea, and unimaginable solid islands, and sea, and a hundred rolling skies. You spill your breath. Nothing holds; the whole show rolls....Land is a poured thing and a time a surface film lapping and fringing at fastness, at a hundred hollow and receeding blues."

"Here is the fringey edge; where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam.

Mermaid by Arthur Rackham


Devon coast

"The salt sea and the islands, molding and molding, row upon row, do not quit, nor do winds end nor skies cease from spreading in curves. The actual percentage of land mass to sea in the Sound equals that of the rest of the planet: we have less time than we knew. Time is eternity's pale interlinear, as islands are the sea's. We have less time than we knew and that time is bouyant, and cloven, luscent, and missile, and wild."

Mermaids by Arthur Rackham

Devon coastThe illustrations above are by Walter Crane, Arthur Rackham, and Florence Harrison. (See the picture captions for individual credits.) The photographs are not of Puget Sound, but of sea-loving Tilly on the north Devon coast.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

We're heading to the sea for our music today....

Above: "Ready for the Storm" by Dougie MacLean (from Perthshire, Scotland), performed with Bluegrass singer Kathy Mattea (from Nashville, Tennessee). They're backed up by Jerry Douglas on dobro, Russ Barenberg on mandolin, and Danny Thompson on bass, with Molly Mason providing background vocals. The song comes from MacLean's early solo album Craigie Dhu. The video was filmed in Scotland.

Below: "The Storm," written by Seth Lakeman, who performs it with his band at the atmospheric Minack Theatre in Cornwall. Lakeman grew up here on Dartmoor, and his music is inspired by the legends and history of the West Country. This song (from his 2004 album, Kitty Jay) is based on a true story about a captain and his crew who sailed out of Plymouth Sound while a storm was brewing.


Irish singer/songwriter Susan McKeown sings "Albatross" (audio only), from her 1995 album, Bones. McKcKeown was born and raised in Dublin, and now lives in New York City.

And last:

"Highland Drifting" by Ben Howard and his band, filmed up in the Highlands of Scotland. Howard has one album, Every Kingdom, and several EPs, the most recent of which is Burgh Island. He grew up across the moor in Totnes, Devon, and his music is truly enchanting.

Tilly on the south Devon coastTilly dancing in the waves on the south Devon coast, near Burgh Island.

Undine by Arthur Rackham

by Mary BarnardDrawing by Alan Lee

At supper time an ondine’s narrow feet
made dark tracks on the hearth.
Like the heart of a yellow fruit was the fire’s heat,
but they rubbed together quite blue with the cold.
The sandy hem of her skirt dripped on the floor.
She sat there with a silvered cedar knot
for a low stool; and I sat opposite,
my lips and eyelids hot
in the heat of the fire. Piling on dry bark,
seeing that no steam went up from her dark dress,
I felt uneasiness
as though firm sand had shifted under my feet
in the wash of a wave.

I brought her soup from the stove and she would not eat,
but sat there crying her cold tears,
her blue lips quivering with cold and grief.
She blamed me for a thief,
saying that I had burned a piece of wood
the tide washed up. And I said, No,
the tide had washed it out again; and even so,
a piece of sodden wood was not so rare
as polished agate stones or ambergris.

She stood and wrung her hair
so that the water made a sudden splash
on the round rug by the door. I saw her go
across the little footbridge to the beach.
After, I threw the knot on the hot coals.
It fell apart and burned with a white flash,
a crackling roar in the chimney and dark smoke.
I beat it out with a poker
in the soft ash.

Now I am frightened on the shore at night,
Drawing by Alan Leeand all the phosphorescent swells that rise
come towards me with the threat of her dark eyes
with a cold firelight in them;
and crooked driftwood writhes
in dry sand when I pass.

Should she return and bring her sisters with her,
the withdrawing tide
would leave a long pool in my bed.
There would be nothing more of me this side
the melting foamline of the latest wave.

Undine by Arthur Rackham

The images above: two paintings for "Undine" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), and two drawings by Alan Lee. Barnard's poem, based on ondine/undine folklore, comes from the 1935 issue of Poetry magazine; all rights reserved by the Barnard estate.

The companionship of water

Demoiselles du Rhin par Arthur Rackham.


From Brenda Peterson's Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals, & Spirit:

"When I describe for my far-away friends the Northwest's subtle shades of weather -- from gloaming skies of 'high-gray' to 'low-gray' with violet streaks like the water's delicate aura -- they wonder if my brain and body have, indeed, become water-logged. Yet still, I find myself praising the solace and privacy of fine, silver drizzle, the comforting cloaks of salt, mold, moss, and fog, the secretive shelter of cedar and clouds.

"Whether it's in the Florida Keys, along the rocky Maine coast, within the Gulf of Mexico's warm curves, on the brave Outer Banks; or, for those who nestle near inland seas, such as the brine-steeped Great Salk Lake or the Midwest's Great Lakes -- water is alive and in relationship with those of us who are blessed with such a world-shaping, yet abiding, intimate ally.


Tilly on the coast of Cornwall

"Every day I am moved by the double life of water -- her power and her humility. But most of all, I am grateful for the partnership of this great body of inland sea. Living by water, I am never alone. Just as water has sculpted soil and canyon, it also molds my own living space, and every story I tell.

"...Living by water restores my sense of balance and natural rhythm -- the ebb and flow of high tides and low tides, so like the rise and fall of everyday life. Wind, water, waves are not simply a backdrop to my life, they are steady companions. And that is the grace, the gift of inviting nature to live inside my home. Like a Chambered Nautilus I spin out my days, drifting and dreaming, nurtured by marine mists, like another bright shell on the beach, balancing on the back of a greater body."

Tilly on the north Devon coast

Tilly on the Devon coast

copyright Virginia LeeArt above: "Rhine Maidens" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), Tilly & Victoria on a misty beach, "Horses of Neptune" by Walter Crane (1845-1915), and Tilly (our ocean loving seal-girl) on the Cornish and Devon coasts. The final piece is a detail from Virginia Lee's pastel drawing "Underwater Beauty." For further reading, there's an article on water myths in the JoMA archives.