The Wild Time of the Sickbed

Come Away oh Human Child

As those who also have medical issues can concur, it's not just the large, dramatic things (surgery, chemo, and the like) that disrupt our schedules and overturn our plans, it's often the small things too: the side-effects of a medication, for example; or the body's shock after an invasive test; or a simple virus making the rounds, knocking others out for a couple of days while knocking us out for a couple of months. Illness takes time, and time for artists is a crucial resource. Writing, editing, or illustrating a book, for example, takes hours and hours of focused attention; and whenever we are knocked from the ladder of health, it feels like our time has been stolen.

Yet the loss is not really of time itself, but of one particular form of it: the "productive" time prized in our commerical culture, which priviliges results and finished products over process. "Time is money," as the old saying goes, and a sick person's time is not worth a bad penny. Yet paradoxically, when we're in poor health we are often rich in time, but in the wrong kind of time: the "unproductive" time of the sickbed. After a lifetime lived in the liminal space between disability and good health, I have come to believe "unproductive" time has its place and its value as well.

The Perfumier's Clock

The business world operates on a linear concept time, structured in regular working hours, measured by schedules, spreadsheets, targets; products made, marketed, and sold. Art-making is not a linear process, but those of us who work in the arts professions do our damn best to pretend that it is: writing books to deadline, making film or theatre to schedule, etc., while walking a precarious tightrope stretched between the muse and the marketplace. It's not an easy balance, but we do it. We live in a market culture, after all, and daily life jogs along by its rules. But illness cares nothing for markets; we do not heal in a linear fashion; and the common symptoms of failing health (the brain-fog, fatigue, and fevers of a body engaged with repairing itself) are at odds with the fast and furious pace of an industrialized, digitalized world.

Time, during an illness, slows and meanders: we sleep and wake, sink and rise, drift through the days absorbed in the mysteries of the body -- its fluids and fevers, its terrors and comforts, its cycles of pain and merciful release -- while our colleagues rush past in a bright busy world that seems far removed and unreal.

The Old Mother Time Clock and The Wedding Clock

The Acocado Tree Clock

In her poetic memoir of illness, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elizabeth Tova Bailey reflects on the time she spent bedridden with a semi-paralysing auto-immune disease:

"The mountain of things I felt I needed to do reached the moon, yet there was little I could do about anything and time continued to drag me along its path. We are all hostages of time. We each have the same number of minutes and hours to live within a day, yet to me it didn't feel equally doled out. My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had. My friends had so little time that I often wished I could give them what I could not use. It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose."

The Rootpond Clock

The Hedge-Brother Clock and The Word-Owl Clock

I sympathize with Bailey's despair about the "mountain of things" she suddenly could not do, (I've often felt the same), but I resist defining the slowed-down time of the sickbed as time that has no use. There are many modes of experiencing the world, and linear time is just one of them. During illness, I enter a different mode: slower, stranger, cyclical, tidal. Attuned to the immediate environment. I see it as a form of Wild Time, a term coin by cultural historian Jay Griffiths (in her excellent book on time, Pip Pip) -- defined as time that's not been dictated by modern industrial cultural norms; time rooted in the body, the land, the ebb and flow of sea and psyche.

It is always hard to remember the exact qualities of time experienced in the sickbed when we're back in the flow of the linear world; it blurs around the edges, bright and elusive as a fever dream. What I recall best about the strange Otherworld I enter whenever my body fails is how the world shrinks to the size of my bedroom, to the dimensions of a bed littered with books, and to a window view of the garden, the hill, and the oaks at the woodland's edge. Unable to summon the focused attention required to write, paint, or simply communicate, I surrender to those things that illness allows and facilitates: Reading, deeply and widely. Watching the natural world through window glass. Thinking the kind of thoughts that rise, for me, only in stillness and isolation.

Illness prevents me from being active. From climbing the hill up to my studio and re-engaging with the work I've left undone. But the art that I make in "productive" time is informed by the things I feel (and watch, hear, read, reflect on) during the slow, strange hours of fever and pain. Both aspects of life -- the busy studio, the quiet sickbed -- combine to make me the artist that I am.

The November Clock

Writing in EarthLines magazine in 2013, Deppe Dyrendom Graugaard described a conversation with musician and philosopher Morten Svenstrup about time in relation to nature and art -- reflecting on the way that time slows down when we are fully engaged in listening to music, looking at a painting, reading a book ... or, I'd add, communing with the body during the slow sensory days of an illness.

"Around the time this conversation took off, Morten was writing his thesis Time, Art, and Society, in which he explores the insight that when we engage with an artwork, we pay attention in a way we don't always do with other objects. The composition of an art piece, its inherent timing, cannot be forced to fit whatever our personal sense of time may be. Being a cellist, he was very aware that if we want to really engage with music, we have to surrender our immediate sense of time and listen. The question arose: what happens if we take the kind of attention we bring to bear on a painting, a symphony, or a poem into our everyday surroundings and listen to the inherent time of our neighbourhood, a nearby woodland, or our own bodies?

The White Rabbit checks his pocket watch  an illustration from Alice in Wonderland by John Tenniel"Doing this, we encounter an astonishing diversity of timescales which make a mockery of the idea that there is such a thing as a singular, universal, abstract Time. The present is made up of a multiplicity of lifetimes, and getting past our personal view and tuning into what can best be described as a symphonic view of time, we immediately acquire the sense of the richness of life. By sidestepping our notion of time as something outside ourselves and independent of us, we see that everything has its own time, an Eigenzeit. This can work as an antidote to the speed that marks a society driven by principles of efficiency and growth. It is a practice which begins with noticing the world around us, paying attention and becoming present -- but which leads to a deeper understanding and connection with the places we inhabit."

Graugaard notes that an unrushed relationship with time is valuable in a digital age which constantly fractures our powers of concentration, and explains why cultivating Wild Time is a radical act.

"Wresting our attention from the flurry of information that is hurtled at us through fibre-optic communication and turning it toward the depth of time is not just about engaging new ways of seeing and honing the lifeskills we need to live fully in the context of a digitalized world. It is also a way of finding joy in the places we live in, whether they are urban or rural. Surrendering and accepting what is, and figuring out what we want to hold onto and what we can let go of. Without attention we are lost. Whatever distracts attention kills our potential to be free.

"This is why resisting the progressive notion of time as linear, singular, and above all placeless is profoundly political. It is about power. Tuning into the timescapes of the other allows us to dissolve the separation that modern life requires from us. That is what is meant by the beautiful metaphor of 'thinking like a mountain.' By thinking like a mountain, we open the possibility of becoming other." 

The Hare Mycomusicologist Clock

There are many ways we can "think like a mountain" and pull ourselves from the frantic pace of the mechanized world into periods of soul-enriching (perhaps even soul-saving) Wild Time. We can take breaks from the Internet, for example; or immerse ourselves in nature; or cultivate "deep attention" by making art and engaging with art. And although it's not a method most of us would choose, illness, too, allows us to surrender to time in a slower, wilder way, thereby fostering a deeper, richer connection to the physical world we live in.

Don't get me wrong, I prefer good health. I prefer to be energetic and active. But during those times when I'm back in bed again, too weak, too tired, too pain-raddled to keep up with the friends and colleagues racing ahead on time's straight track, I am learning to accept that mine's a slower, more meandering trail. But it has its value. It has its use. It will get me where I want to go.

Wild time

The Hummingbird Clock (full clock & detail)

About the art:

The wonderful painted clocks in this post are by my friend and Dartmoor neighbour Rima Staines, a multi-disciplinary artist who uses paint, wood, word, music, animation, puppetry, and story to "build a gate through the hedge that grows along the boundary between this world and that." Born in London to a family of artists, and raised on the roads of Bavaria in her early years, Rima has always been stubborn about living the things that make her heart sing.

With her partner Tom Hirons, Rima also runs the Hedgespoken folk arts project. For part of the year, they travel the lanes and byways of Britain in a glorious old truck converted into an off-grid venue for storytelling, folk theatre, and puppetry. In the winter months, they return to us on Dartmoor and focus on writing, painting, and running Hedgespoken Press.

Rima’s inspirations include the world and language of folk tales, folk music, folk art of Old Europe and beyond, peasant and nomadic living, wilderness, plant-lore, magics of every feather, and the beauty to be found in otherness. To see more of her extraordinary work, visit her website: Paintings in a Minor Key, her blog: The Hermitage, and seek out her book, Tatterdemalion, co-created with Sylvia V. Linsteadt

We Three & the Moon Balloon Clock and The Nisse Mother Clock

The Mad Hatter Clock

Words: The passages quoted above above are from The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin Books, 2010), and Deppe Dyrendom Graugaard's introduction to an interview with Jay Griffiths (EarthLines magazine, 2013). I highly recommend Jay Griffith's book Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time (Flamingo, 1999). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The drawing above of Alice's White Rabbit checking his pocket watch ("Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!") is by John Tenniel (1820-1940). The clock paintings are by Rima Staines (the charming titles are in the picture captions - run your cursor over the pictures to read them); and all rights are reserved by artist.

Related posts, on illness & health: Every Illness is Narrative, In a Dark Wood, Stories are Medicine, and The Gift of Stillness. On time: The Subtle Element of Time, Wild Time & Storytelling, and In Praise of Slowness. 


On a misty morning in the Devon hills

Nattadon Hill

Bluebells and bracken

"There exists a glamorized view of hardship and artistic achievement," notes the American writer Chris Offutt. "Young people who believe this can easily become self-destructive in their desire to 'suffer for their art.' They think they need hardship. But we all have hardship in our own way. Genuine suffering can lead to wisdom. It can also lead to despair and cruelty, drug addiction and violence. Artists are people who manage to take all this and turn it into something new. They make something. All artists excel for the same reasons: they are disciplined, diligent, and possess endurance.

"In order to develop artistic skill, you must have time to do so. Due to circumstances, some people simply don’t have the time and energy. Others who do, squander it."

Path to the stream

Oak beside the stream

Time and energy. The raw ingredients of art, for without them, inspiration and intention are ephemeral things. We all know people who squander their energy, time, and talent. And we all struggle not to be those people.

I am deeply grateful to have time to work, and for the circumstances, support, self-discipline and sheer luck that makes it possible. Energy, however, remains in short supply...or rather, my body is using its energy to heal and thus has only a little to spare for things it considers less vital. There is no arguing with the body. My work may be vastly important to me, but healing has its own priorities...and its requisition of the body's energy stores must not only be accepted, but respected.

So here is my prayer as I walk the hills, winding through the bluebells and bracken, led by a black-furred bundle of joy:

Let me not waste time and life on self-pity, kicking against physical disability. Let me use what energy I have wisely and well, working within the haiku of limitation -- crafting new work out of these materials. Working with the life I have, and not against it.

Oak elder

Gold water

Wild violets

Into the trees

"I write every day," says my wise friend Jane Yolen. "Every single day....Even if I am ill, traveling, caring for a sick husband, running around a convention, walking the Royal Mile -- even then I will manage to write something. Because being a writer means that kind of commitment. It doesn't have to be something for publication (though what does get published is almost always a surprise). It is something to get the brain, the heart, the imagination, and the fingers coordinated, working together. Not strangers but a good team.

"After my big back operation, part of my recovery was to walk a mile (or more) a day. As the amazing nurse Donna explained it to me: if you walk a mile at a good steady pace (mine is fast) outside, taking in the fresh oxygen, your spinal fluid moves up and down oiling the spine. Well, that's what writing every day does. It keeps the fluid moving about our brain, oiling its parts. Writing needs such fluidity.

Wildflower path

Wildflowers

Wanderer's path

"Yes, life happens," Jane continues. "It interrupts all our careful plans. A person from Porlock, an auto accident, a shooter in the movie theater, or more happily twins born, a friend stopping in for tea, your book winning the Caldecott, your editor calling to say you won the Nebula, your agent messaging that you sold a book, falling in love. But the bottomest of lines is this: if you are a writer, you write. And you turn all of life's hiccups into poetry or prose.

"How lucky are we -- accidents, incidents, handicaps, heartbreaks all become research, become prompts. So don't ignore them, but use them. Every day.

"Every single glorious, bloody day."

Pathside dwelling

Curiosity

Tilly by the wayside

Wildflowers

P1300484cThe quote by Chris Offut is from an interview in Salon magazine (March, 2016). The quote by Jane Yolen is from a post on her Facebook page (August, 2015). The poem in the picture captions is from Twelve Moons by Mary Oliver (Little, Brown, & Co., 1978).  All rights reserved by the authors.


The enclosure of wild time

May Day in Chagford

May Day in ChagfordPictures above & below from Chagford's Jack in the Green procession on May Day, 2015

Just as Commons land creates a physical border between private property and wilderness (discussed here yesterday), traditional carnivals, festivals, and folk pageants create a metaphorical border between the measured clock-time of ordinary life and the "wild time" of the mythic realm. But this cultural Commons has also been effected by Britain's history of Enclosures, as Jay Griffiths explains in the following passage from her book Pip, Pip, a cultural study of time:

"In Britain there were once hundreds of carnivals: blessing-of-the-mead days; hare-pie-scrambling days and cake-and-ale ceremonies; there were Hobby Horse Days and Horn Dance Days, with their pagan hunting associations and symbolic suggestions of fertility rites; there were Well-Dressing days, Cock-Squoiling days (or 'throwing-at-cocks'); there were Doling days and days for 'beating the bounds' of the parish; wassailing the apple trees and playing duck-apple at Halloween; burning the clavie (tar barrel) at new year or 'Hallooing Largesse' (where, in East Anglia, the Lord of the Harvest traditionally led a troup of people to serenade householders, seeking money), all colored the course of the year. Some of these are pre-Christian; some are medieval or later. Many of them have survived in some form -- often as 'just' a children's game.

May Day in Chagford

"At Somerset's Punkie Night, at the end of October, children made punkies (lanterns) out of mangel-wurzels (a large kind of beet) and went knocking on people's doors for money or candles. This was one of the many ancient mischief nights of the year, when children played up gleefully, changing shop signs or taking gates May Day in Chagfordoff hinges:

Give us a light, give us a light.
If you don't you'll get a fright
...

is the children's refrain; an ancient threat this, playing a trick if you're not treated. Guisers (children disguising themselves at Halloween) in Scotland sang:

If ye dinnae let us in,
We will bash yer windies in.

"Whuppity Scooorie in Lanark is a festival, believed to have survived from pagan times, during which as much noise as possible was made to scare off evil spirits and protect crops; latterly it is acted out by children who, started by a peal of bells, swing paper balls at each other and scramble for pennies. Up-Helly-Aa is a Shetland Isles festival, dating back to Viking times, when a thirty-foot model Viking ship, complete with banners, shields and a bow of a dragon's head, is taken down to the sea by torchlight, then the torches are flung in and it blazes across the water, representing the dead heroes sent to Valhalla in a burning ship. Garland Day at Abbotsbury in Dorset is a ceremony to bless the fishing boats at the opening of the mackerel fishing season which had strong hints of pagan sacrifice in its thousand-year history, though now it is, like so many other festivals, just a children's game."

May Day in Chagford

Processing past the church yard copy

May Day in Chagford

"Many festivals chime with the seasons of the agricultural year and of the natural world," notes Griffiths, "the life and death cycle of vegetation as, for example, the Obby Oss on May Day at Padstow in Cornwall, where the Oss dances, dies, resurrects, and dances again. There are festivals marking the death of winter, or bringing in the summer, there are cyclic (and sacrificial) nature-festivals for the corn spirit wherever corn is grown."

11200625_444485409042929_2236829034371391089_n

"Festival time, traditionally, binds communities together, knitting them to their land, each area tootling its own festive tune, accented with dialect voices specific to certain places and describing a 'vernacular time.' Thus one area's festival calendar could have been different from the calendar of a neighboring locale. Festival-time could further delineate not only the physical geography but also the economic geography of an area, protecting rights of access or land-use, particularly -- in the past -- in such customs as the 'beating of the bounds' of a parish or village."

11150667_10152855665976608_2608280739532592853_n

"The beating of the bounds, or processioning, as Bob Bushaway says in By Rite: Custom, Ceremony and Community in England 1700-1880, 'provided the community with a mental map of the parish...which was the collective memory of the community.' These festivals tied a society to its past, its land and its rights to that land. But, as Bushaway shows, these customs disappeared, up and down the country, as a result of one thing: enclosures."

May Day in Chagford

"Pre-enclosure," Griffiths continues, "other customs concerned with common land, with the rights of gleaning, wood-gathering or access, were vigorously upheld. Cheese-rolling ceremonies, for instance, used festival-time to mark such rights; when the access was denied, so was the festival At Shapwick Marsh at Sturminster Marshall, a 'feast of Sillabub' was held. It was joint-stock merry-making,' so one person might bring the milk of one cow, another the milk of three, while yet another might bring the wine. With the 1845 enclosure, this custom disappeared and many other festivals of commons were outlawed.

May Day in Chagfod

May Day i Chagford"Before enclosures, festivals were vigorously convivial, as numerous chronicles show; they were off-license times, drunken, licentious and rude, ranging from mid-summer ales to apple-tree wassailing, from autumn mead-mowing to May Day liaisons. And the Victorian middle-classes hated it. Just as land was literally fenced off and enclosed, so the spirit of carnival-time was metaphorically enclosed, repressed and fenced in by Victorian morality: no drinking, no bawdiness, no sex. The common -- very vulgar -- character of festival was increasingly outlawed and fenced off from the commoners and turned over to the land-owning middle classes in the form of the queasy, fluttery remains of Victorian festival...The lewd and the loud were disallowed. The acts and the spirit of enclosure tried to suppress the broad, unenclosed, unfettered, unbounded exuberance of the vulgar at large."

The Jack, the Piper, and the Obby Oss

The photograph in the first half of this post come from last spring's May Day procession here in Chagford -- where a group of us, led by folk musician & scholar Andy Letcher, are working to revive this old folkloric tradition. That's Andy on the bagpipes, Jason of England as the Jack-in-the-Green, Suzi Crockford as the Queen of May, and my husband Howard as the Obby Oss. The photographs are by Ashley Wengraf, Ian Atherton, Ruth Olley, and Simon Blackbourn. (Run your cursor over the images for picture descriptions and credits.)

May Day in Chagford

"Few festivals are more flamboyantly vulgar than May Day or Beltane," says Griffiths. "One pagan festival which the disapproving church did not -- could not -- colonize, it kept its raw smell of sexual license and its populist grass roots appeal....Beltane was celebrated with huge bonfires, the Lord and the Queen of May (who, in the Middle Ages, was often a man dressed as a woman) and Spring was personified by the Green Man -- the May Day in ChagfordWild Man or Jack-in- the-Green. Dressed in leaves, he carried a huge horn. (Enough said.) The Maypole, the phallic pole planted in mother earth, was the key symbol of the day.

"Then came the Puritans, sniffing the rank sexuality, decrying the Maypole as 'this stinking idol'; and in 1644 the Long Parliament banned all Maypoles. They also objected to the social reversal of carnival [men dressed as women, fools as kings, etc.]; to the Puritans, an attack on the status quo was almost as disgusting as sex. After the Restoration, England's most famous Maypole was erected in London's Strand in 1661; a stonking hundred and thirty feet high, all streamers and garlands, making people wild with delight, it stood for over fifty merry years. But Isaac Newton put a stop to it. In 1717, he bought the Maypole to use as a post for a telescope to penetrate the darkness of the night. In the 19th century, the Victorians infantalized May Day, making it a children's festival to emphasize innocence, of all things.

"But the festival of Beltane and the whole spirit of carnival is robust. Coming from the earth itself, it erupts, whether puritans and politicians like it or not. In rural areas, you can still find Beltane celebrated, complete with Green Men, Maypoles, and Fools."

More information on the history of May Day can be found in this previous post.

May Day in Chagford

May Day in Chagford

May Day in Chagford

May Day in Chagford

Our village is a place where festivals tend to erupt at the drop of a hat, and everyone seems to have well-stocked box of dress-up clothes in their closet. Despite a tiny population (roughly 2500 people, and a whole lot of sheep), Chagford hosts an annual film festival, a music festival, a bi-annual literary festival, a summer carnival, and plenty of other events besides, and kids grow up here thinking it's perfectly ordinary to dance in the streets on a regular basis. Perhaps it's no coincidence that we've also held on to our village Commons, and many here still gather to "beat the bounds," affirming the boundaries of the parish and the timeless ties of community life.

The photographs below are by Simon Blackbourn, taken just last weekend on the final night of the Chagford Film Festival, celebrating Indian film and dance this year. Please visit Simon's website to see more of his beautiful work.

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

Chagford Film Festival

12032634_10153726394365774_396044174349548810_oPictures: Many thanks to the photographers who allowed their work to appear here. The black-and-white photos and the Film Festival photos are all by Simon Blackbourn; the May Day photos were taken by various folks. You'll find credits in the picture captions (run your cursor over the images to see them). The photos without credits were snapped on the fly by me, on Suzi Crockford's camera. Words: The passage by Jay Griffiths comes from Pip, Pip: A Sideways Look at Time (Flamingo, 1999), highly recommended. All rights to the text & imagery above are reserved by their respective creators.


Storytelling and wild time

Yvonne Gilbert

"The trajectory of life, the concept of universal death, conditions our thinking," writes Penelope Lively in her most recent memoir, Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time. "We require things to end, to mirror our own situation. I have had much to do with endings, as a writer of fiction. The novel moves from start to finish, as does the short story; at the outset, the conclusion lurks -- where is this thing going? how will I wrap it up? how will I give it a satisfactory shape? You are looking to supply the deficiencies of reality, to provide order where life is a matter of contingent chaos, to suggest theme and meaning, to make a story that is shapely where life is linear.

Yvonne Gilbert

" 'Tick-tock': Frank Kermode's famous model of what we call a plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it form.'The need to give significance to simple chronology.' All such plotting presupposes and requires that an end will bestow upon the whole duration and meaning.'This is the satisfaction of a successful work of fiction -- the internal coherence that reality does not have. Live as lived is disordered, undirected and at the mercy of contingent events.

"We have a need for narrative, it seems. A life is indeed a tick-tock: birth and death with nothing but time in between. We go to fiction because we like a story, and we want our lives to have the largesse of story, the capacity, the onward thrust -- we not only want, but need, which is why memory is so crucial, and without it we are lost, adrift in a hideous eternal present....

Yvonne Gilbert

"We cannot but see the trajectory from youth to old age as a kind of story -- my story, your story -- and the backward gaze of old age is much affected by the habits of fiction. We look for the sequential comforts of narrative -- this happened, then that; we don't care for the arbitrary. My story -- your story -- is a matter of choice battling with contingency: 'The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men...' We are well aware of that, but the retrospective view would still like a bit of fictional elegance. For some, psychoanalysis perhaps provides this -- explanations, understandings. Most of us settle for the disconcerting muddle of what we intended and what came along, and try to see it as some kind of whole.

Yvonne Gilbert

"That said, it remains difficult to break free of the models supplied by fiction. ' The preference for progress is a basic assumption of the Bildungsroman and the upward mobility story, and an important component of much comedy, romance, fairy tale,' writes Helen Small in her magisterial investigation of old age as viewed in philosophy and literature, The Long Life. ' It is also an element in the logic of tragedy: one of the reasons tragedy (certain kinds, at least) is painful is that it affronts the human desire for progress.' We are conditioned by reading, by film, by drama, with, it occurs to me, long-running television soaps being the only salutary reminder of what real life actually does -- it goes on and on as a succession of events until the plug is pulled; we should note the significance of Coronation Street and EastEnders. We want some kind of identifiable progress, a structure, and the only one is the passage of time, the notching up of decades until the exit line is signalled."

Yvonne Gilbert

Yvonne Gilbert

In contrast to linear clock-time, through which we in the industrialized West have learned to view our lives and construct our stories, Jay Griffiths describes "mythic time" and "wild time" in her wide-ranging book Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time:

"Mythic stories talk time out of mind, charm and trick time, clogging or stretching it: fables make time fabulously paradoxical, a stubborn blot on the face of clock-time but true to the time of the psyche, where past, present and future are kaleidoscoped. Time can run anti-clockwise so the youngest child succeeds where the oldest fails, the dawn can be wiser than the dusk and birds can tell the future. Certain periods of time -- three days, a year and a day, seven years and a hundred years -- are enchanted. In these archetypal tales all over the world, 'sensible' time disappears into a wrinkle; a person dips into a fairy hill or disappears for a night with dwarves, but on their return finds that, Rip Van Winklish, a hundred ordinary years have passed.

Yvonne Gilbert

"The Inuit tell tales which begin 'long ago, in the future,' which is a beautiful expression of mythic time playing trickster to linear, logical conceptions. But all fairy tales play with time, from 'Once upon a time' to 'lived happily ever after.' Once tells of a past eternal, but the eternity it refers to is also a charmed present, just at one remove from now. French folk tales can begin 'Il y a une fois,' meaning some time ago, while il y a actually means 'there is.' This is the eternal-present tense , an enchanted present-continuous, a time in the past that still exists. The present, 'now and ever after,' is the present continuing, life everlasting, and even though the individual action is narrated and complete -- 'that's all folks' -- yet life goes on, ever after, back in the now.

"Mythic stories face death, time's most ferociously fearful aspect, and charm the sting out of it for this reason: the individual tale ends, myths imply, so the individual life story must end in death, but the life of the species lives from ever-before to ever-after. The consolation of life's continuing is most explicit in this Aboriginal Dreamtime myth: 'And so death comes, but life always returns.' Their transcendence of death is achieved in part by the archetypal nature of the characters of myths and folk tales; the totemic Dreamtime figures, the Jack and Jill of folk tales, even the Everyman of Morality Plays. Further, the tales themselves become 'immortal,' living stories retold from generation to generation in an oral culture, from ceilidh to corroboree."

Yvonne Gilbert

Jeanette Winterson notes that as Western clock-time and lives speed up, urged ever faster by the restless, relentless gods of productivity, profit, and technology, this speed seeps into our narrative arts; and she makes a plea for letting fiction, and life, unfold at a more natural pace.

"Nobody would would expect to play a piece of music at twice the speed of the score and be able to enjoy it," she writes. "Yet, in literature this is happening all the time. The reader chooses the pace without taking the trouble to first pick up the rhythm. To get used to a writer's rhythm, to move with a writer's own beat, needs a little more time. It means looking at the opening pages carefully. It can be helpful to read them out loud. Much of the delight everyone gets from radio adaptations of the classics is a straightforward delight in pace. The actors read much more slowly than the eye passes, especially the eye habituated to scanning the daily papers and skipping through the magazines. It is just not possible to read literature quickly. Neither poetry nor poetic fiction will respond to being rushed....It seems so obvious, this question of pace, and yet it is not. Reviewers, who can never waste more than an hour with a book, are the most to blame. Journalism encourages haste; haste in the writer, haste in the reader, and haste is the enemy of art. Art, in its making and in its enjoying, demands long tracts of time. Books, like cats, do not wear watches.

"Over and above all the individual rhythms of music, pictures and words, is the rhythm of art itself."

Yvonne Gilbert

The art here today, with its gentle and timeless rhythm, is by the award-winning Britist artist and illustrator Anne Yvonne Gilbert. Raised in Northumberland (in north-east England), Gilbert studied at Newcastle College and the Liverpool College of Art, and has worked as an illustrator and graphic artist since the late 1970s. She has published many beautiful children's books; provided cover art for fantasy classics by Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Peter Dickinson, and John Crowley, among others; and designed everything from album covers to postage stamps -- working primarily with colored pencils and inks. (She considers herself more of a "drawer" than a painter.) I recommend her lovely illustration blog if you'd like to know more about her creative process.

Flower borderYvonne Gilbert

Yvonne GilbertFlower border

Text sources: Ammonites & Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively (Pengiun Books, 2014); Pip Pip by Jay Griffiths (HarperCollins, 1999), and Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson (Random House, 1995).


The spirit of place

Cross over the boundary of the woods,

A misty day in the hills

In his excellent new book Rising Ground, Philip Marsden tramps across the moor and through the woods of Cornwall in search of the "spirit of place," discussing the history and mythology of this ancient land along the way. From Bodmin Moor to Tintangel and Land's End, he explores the many faces of the county: the natural landscape, the sacred landscape, the working landscape of miners and farmers, the Cornwall of antiquarians and artists, and the "spirit of place" as experienced by the author himself, who has lived there for many years.

At the core of the book is Marsden's renovation of a remote farmhouse at the edge of Ruan Creek (a "creek" being a tidal channel or estuary and not a small stream, as Americans use the term). The surrounding woods have reclaimed the crumbled stones of an older settlement, and now Marsden and his family settle in to write a new chapter in the land's long story.

"Our children had been been given a picture book called A Street Through Time: A 12,000-year Journey Along the Same Street," he tells us. "On the first page is a Mesolithic settlement, on the next a Neolithic one, and so on. Every time you turn the page there is the same topography, the same river and the same hill -- but everything else changes. The forest is cut back, huts appear and disappear, defences come and go; early on, a barrow and a stone circle pop up on the hill, fall out of use, and are swallowed up again by the forest; an Iron Age fort becomes a Roman fort among whose ruins a medieval castle is built which is burned down during the Civil War and whose broken walls, on the final page, serve as a visitor attraction.  The foreground of the last page is a frenetic scene with cars on the road, planes in the air, wine bars in basements, pedestrians on mobile phones and on the river, a small dredger and a couple in a rowing boat.

We'll follow an overgrown stone wall

through a land turned green and gold with rain.

"I imagined a version of that narrative here, on the tidal section of the Upper Fal. The first pages would be similar: the shoreside attracting early settlers, the tumulus in our field, the Roman garrison up-river at Golden Mill, the castles at Ruan Lanihorne and Tregony, the church at Lamorran. On the late medieval page, in our little creek, a couple of punts are pulled up on the shingle. A lugger is bringing in maunds of mussels. A small settlement stands on the shore, a scatter of barns and cottages and stock-pens ringed by the enclosure of the demesne lands. The stream drives a small mill. At the center of the scene is a medieval manor -- mullioned windows and high chimneys, and beside it a chapel. The next page is the late eighteenth century: the manor house in poor repair, only partly inhabited, but a new quay on the creek, with a lane running down to it and several people disembarking from a small coaster. Bales of goods lie on the shingle. In the woods across from the river they are felling oak, stripping the bark for the newly expanded tannery.

"It is at this point that our version diverges from the steady modernising in the picture book. The next page here, the mid-nineteenth century, would show the buildings in ruin, and only a much smaller house, our house, among the old walls. Otherwise, the scene is emptying of people, emptying of river traffic. The silting process is beginning to accelerate. On the following pages there are fewer and smaller coasters, then none at all. The quays fall into disrepair, the lime-kilns disappear. The track is less used. There is some activity in the woods, where timber is still taken for the tannery in Grampound, but that comes to an end in the later twentieth century. On the last page are just trees and mud flats, and a cluster of roofs in the wooded emptiness of the valley."

The spirit of this place is soft as the moss,

as hard as the granite, as tenacious as the gorse.

In Marsden's vision, all of Cornwall is a palimpsest, a page over-written by history: readable here, indecipherable there, but beautiful in its layering. Even the section of the county ravaged by clayworks has its stories and its poetry, and the final chapters of the book -- on Lyonesse and the Isles of Scilly -- are pure poetry themselves. It's an unusual book, falling somewhere in the interstices between nature writing, travel writing, history and memoir. By the end, you feel as if you've walked across Cornwall too, and that's a trip worth taking.

The spirit of this place sings softly, just below the wind.

If you happen to be within striking distance of Dartmoor, Philip Marsden will be speaking at Chagword, our village's literary festival, on Saturday, March 14 -- and I believe there are still some tickets left. Perhaps I'll see some of you there.

Shhhh! Can you hear it?

Rising Ground by Philip MarsdenPhotographs above: Tilly and I explore the spirit of place in our own Devon hills.


The subtle element of time

The Sun, The Moon by Germaine Arnatauyck

Here's another lovely passage from Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, this one on the nature of time:

"Long, unpunctuated hours pass for all creatures in the Arctic. No wild frenzy of feeding distinguishes the short summer. But for the sudden movement of chasing wolves and bolting caribou, the gambols of muskox calves, the scamper of an arctic fox, the swoop of a jaeger, the Arctic is a long, unbroken bow of time. Twilight Inuit Art Quarterly cover by Germaine Arnatauycklingers. There are no summer thunderstorms with bolts of lightning. The ice floes, the caribou, the muskoxen, all drift. To lie on your back somewhere on the light-drowned tundra of an Ellesmere Island valley is to feel that the ice ages might have ended but a few days ago. Without the holler of contemporary life, that constant disturbance, it is possible to feel the slope of time, how very far from Mesopotamia we have come.

"We move at such a fast clip now. We draw up geological charts in a snap, showing the possibilities for oil in Tertiary rocks in the Sverdrup Basin beneath Ellesmere's tundra. We delineate the life history of the ground squirrel. We list the butterflies: the sulphers, the arctics, a copper, a blue, the lesser fritillaries. At a snap. We enumerate the plants. We name everything. Then we fold the charts and the catalogs, as if, except for a stray fact or two, we were done with a competent description. But the land is not a painting; the image cannot be completed this way.

"Lying on your back on Ellesmere Island on rolling tundra without human trace, you can feel the silence stretching all the way to Asia. The winter face of a muskox, its unperturbed eye glistening in a halo of snow-crusted hair, looks at you over a cataract of time, an image that has endured through all the pulsations of ice.

"You can sit for a long time with the history of man like a stone in your hand. The stillness, the pure light, encourage it."

The Shaman's Apprentice & You Will Have My Father's Name by Germaine Arnatauyck

Jay Griffiths has this to say on the subject of time in her engrossing book on the subject, Pip Pip:

"Amongst many peoples, 'Time' is a matter of timing. It involves spontaneity rather than scheduling, sensitivity to a quality of time. Unclockable. The San Bushmen of the Kalahari do not plan when to hunt, but rather ‘wait for the moment to be lucky', reading and assessing animal patterns, looking for the 'right' time. Timing for many indigenous peoples, for example, the Ilongot of the Philippines, is variable and The Cycle of Life by Germaine Arnatauyckindeterminate and unpredictable. Time is a subtle element where creativity and improvisation, flexibility, fluidity and responsiveness can flourish. People's responses to timing issues are subtle and graceful. But the dominant culture, far from respecting these socially graceful ideas of time, chooses to refer disparagingly to being 'on Mexican time,' 'on Maori time', 'on Indian time.'

"What subverts the dead hand of the dominant clock? Life itself. The elastic, chancy, sensitive times chosen for hunting depend on living things: how the living moment smells. There is a 'biodiversity of time' imaged in cultures around the world, time as a lived process of nature. There is a scent-calendar in the Andaman forests, star-diaries for the Kiwi peoples of New Guinea and Aboriginal Australians who begin the cultivation season when the Pleiades appear. In Rajasthan a moment of evening is called 'cattle-dust time,' the Native American Lakota people have the 'Moon of the Snowblind.' One indigenous tribe in Madagascar refers to a moment as 'in the frying of a locust.' The English language still remembers time intrinsically connected to nature, doing something 'in two shakes of a lamb's tail' or the (arbitrary and sadly obsolete) phrase 'pissing-while.'

"For nature shimmers with time; and interestingly, many areas rich in myth and indigenous history are shown to be places of high biodiversity; living history, life at its liveliest. Both past and present equally vivacious, in a vital land."

The Power of Tunniq & When Their Was No Light by Germaine Arnatauyck

Sedna, the Sea Goddess by Germaine Arnatauyck

The art today is by the contemporary Inuit painter and printmaker Germaine Arnatauyck. Born near Igloolik, Nunavut in 1946, Arnatauyck was raised in a traditional hunting camp, educated at a Catholic mission school, then studied fine art at the University of Manitoba, graphic art at Algonquin College in Ottawa, and printmaking at Arctic College in Nunavut. Her work is inspired by Inuit myth, particularly women's stories. "I never questioned being an artist," she says. "I guess I was lucky. It seemed I knew exactly what I wanted to be."

Mother Earth & Always My Baby by Germaine Arnatauyck

Motherhood by Germaine Arnatauyck The titles of Arnatauyck's prints can be found in the picture captions. A related post: "On Time, Technology, and a Celebration of Slowness."


On time, technology, and a celebration of slowness

Bunny Girl Time (sculpture by Wendy Froud)

From Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001):

"[My friend] Sono's truck had been stolen from her West Oakland studio, and she told me that although everyone responded to it as a disaster, she wasn't all that sorry it was gone, or in a hurry to replace it. There was a joy, she said, to finding that her body was adequate to get her where she was going, and it was a gift to develop a more tangible, concrete relationship to her neighborhood and its residents. We talked about the more stately pace of time one has on foot and on public transportation, where things must be planned and scheduled beforehand, rather than rushed through at the last minute, and about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot. Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors -- home, car, gym, office, shops -- disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than interiors built up against it....

The Look

"I had told Sono about an ad I found in the Los Angeles Times a few months ago that I'd been thinking about ever since. It was for a CD-ROM encyclopedia, and the text that occupied a whole page read, 'You used to walk across town in the pouring rain to use our encyclopedias. We're pretty confident that we can get your kid to click and drag.' I think it was the kid's walk in the rain that constituted the real education, at least of the senses and the imagination. Perhaps the child with the CD-ROM encyclopedia will stray from the task at hand, but wandering in a book or a computer takes place within more constricted and less sensual parameters. It's the unpredictable incidents between official events that add up to a life, the incalculable that gives it value. Both rural and urban walking have for two centuries been prime ways of exploring the unpredictable and incalculable, but now they are under assault on many fronts.

My desk

Bear & woman image by Katrina Plotnikova

"The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time between. New time-saving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be accelerating around them. Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued -- that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, or faster paced....

"The indeterminacy of a ramble, on which much may be discovered, is being replaced by the determinate shortest distance to be transversed with all possible speed, as well as by electronic transmissions that make real travel less necessary. As a member of the self-employed whose time saved by technology can be lavished on daydreams and meanders, I know these things have their uses, and use them -- a truck, a computer, a modem -- myself, but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed, their insistence that travel is less important than arrival. I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness."

The Look, again

Bunny girl sculpture by Wendy Froud, collage by Lynn Hardaker, card by Jeanie Tomanek

Solnit returned to the subject of time in an essay for the London Review of Books last year:

"Nearly everyone I know feels that some quality of concentration they once possessed has been destroyed. Reading books has become hard; the mind keeps wanting to shift from whatever it is paying attention to to pay attention to something else. A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium. It’s an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind. (Maybe it was a landmark when Paris Hilton answered her mobile phone while having sex while being videotaped a decade ago.)

"The older people I know are less affected because they don’t partake so much of new media, or because their habits of mind and time are entrenched. The really young swim like fish through the new media and hardly seem to know that life was ever different. But those of us in the middle feel a sense of loss. I think it is for a quality of time we no longer have, and that is hard to name and harder to imagine reclaiming. My time does not come in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards. The fault is my own, arguably, but it’s yours too – it’s the fault of everyone I know who rarely finds herself or himself with uninterrupted hours. We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.

At the studio door

"It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces."

Studio

"I wonder," she muses later in the piece, "if there will be a revolt against the quality of time the new technologies have brought us, as well as the corporations in charge of those technologies. Or perhaps there already has been, in a small, quiet way. The real point about the slow food movement was often missed. It wasn’t food. It was about doing something from scratch, with pleasure, all the way through, in the old methodical way we used to do things. That didn’t merely produce better food; it produced a better relationship to materials, processes and labour, notably your own, before the spoon reached your mouth. It produced pleasure in production as well as consumption. It made whole what is broken."

(I highly recommend reading Solnit's essay, "In the Day of the Postman," in full.)

Spying on cats

In "7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living," Maria Popova notes:

"Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, 'how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.' "

(This is another article I highly recommend reading in full.)

Stairway to the stream

Behind the studio

A stairway of roots

Terry Tempest Williams, too, has questioned our culture's emphasis on speed, ease, productivity, and consumption. In her beautiful essay "Ode to Slowness" (Red, 2001), she reflects on her transition from the urban pace of Salt Lake City to the quiet rhythms of a village in the Utah desert, using language that echoes my own transition from Boston and New York City to the Arizona desert and rural England:

"My husband and I were comfortable in our urban routine," she writes," but one night over dinner her said, 'What if we are only living half-lives? What if there is something more?'

"We wanted more.

"We wanted less.

"We wanted more time, fewer distractions. We wanted more time together, time to write, to breathe, to be more conscious with our lives. We wanted to be closer to wild places where we could walk and witness the seasonal changes, even the changing constellations. And so we banked on the idea of a simpler life away from the city near the slickrock country we love. What we would lose in income, we would gain in sanity."

Dog and sun

Time, she discovered, (as I, too, discovered), moves differently outside of the city.

"I am not so easily seduced by speed as I once was," says Williams. "I find that I have lost the desire to move that quickly in the world. To see how much I can get done in a day does not impress me any more. I don't think it's about getting older. It feels more like honoring the gravity in my own body in relationship to place. Survival. A rattlesnake coils; its tail shakes; the emptiness of the desert is evoked.

"I want my life to be a celebration of  s l o w n e s s ."

Woodland gate

As do I. Oh, as do I.

Hill and sun

Works by Terry Tempest Williams, Maria Popova, & Rebecca Solnit

Tilly, being slow

Bunny Girl (by Wendy Froud)The Bunny Girl on my desk (and in the grass) is by Wendy Froud, the collage art by Lynn Hardaker, and the "woman with dog" card by Jeanie Tomanek. They were gifts, all of them, and much treasured.


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

19

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.


Reflections on time

The Hill Garden, Hampstead Heath

“I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory.”  - Julian Barnes (from The Sense of an Ending)

The pergola, Hampstead Heath

"In the distance of my years I cover myself with time
Like a blanket which enfolds me with the layers of my life.
What can I tell you except that I have gone
nowhere and everywhere?
What can I tell you except that I have not begun
my journey now that it is through?
All that I ever was and am yet to be
lies within me now this way."

Nancy Wood (from Many Winters: Prose and Poetry of the Pueblos)

The pergola, Hampstead Heath

Photographs: A winter walk through the secret Hill Garden & Pergola, an Arts-&-Crafts gem tucked into the western end of London's Hampstead Heath. The city receeds, mist cloaks the surrounding woodland, and time stands still. 


Circles and cycles

Eric's old shed in summer

From A Branch from the Lightening Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wilderness
by Martin Shaw:

"A Culture of Wilderness...encourages longing, handling paradox, experiencing community in rowan trees and dark pools of water, carrying images of power back to the village, and flourishing in the process. A Culture of Wilderness is what initiation and myth offer.

"Our life is a house, with a roof of night-birds and muscled pillars of experience, its eaves containing a musky web of unique passions, its base holding a great fire that comes up from the very heart of the earth itself; around the house are hives of bees and orchards of apples. It is good to give some of the honey away and let in a few good-natured apple poachers. There is no short-cut to the building of such a house, but the garden is the legacy that instinctively arises through time and feeds others.

Eric's shed in autumn

Eric's old shed and beehives in autumn

"All storytellers know that two types of time exist: one is the twenty-four hours, the school run, the bill-paying, forever catching-up time of our everyday world; but behind that looms the energy of mythic time, the great cycles that pulse from generation to generation. These great wheels infuse the everyday with nourishment, 'eternity in a grain of sand.' The philosopher Plotinus suggested that while the body favors a straight line, the soul hankers for the circle.

The shed in winter

The beehives in winter

"This mythic, circular time (which is really no kind of time at all) laughs at the straight line and the alarm clock. Without it -- even with all the riches of the world -- we can enter the arena of the meaningless. As markets collapse and the world heats up, we would do well to see Coyote's claws opening holes between the two. We live in an era of tremendous possibility."

The beehives in spring

The shed in spring

Tilly behind the shed in the spring

Photos above: "The Turning of the Seasons" -- our friend Eric's old shed and beehives on the village Allotments (viewed from the edge of the woods) during summer, autumn, winter, and spring.