Citizens of the land

Path to the Commons

"As a descendant of slaves and freeman, native inhabitants, and colonizers from Europe," writes Lauret Savoy, "I struggle to understand what it means for me -- or anyone -- to be an American and a human being. Frames of bondage, segregation, forced removal, and an ancient connection to homeland shaped how my ancestors experienced the world and who they knew themselves to be in that world. The legacies of those frames shape us still, their presence malignant to the degree they have been ignored, forgotten, or silenced and then repeated in institutions, and in people's attitudes and lives.

Hound on the path

Ponies on the Commons

"There may be many things about ourselves that my countrymen and -women do not wish to know, but ignorance of human diversity and human contradition only nourishes social injustice and ecological denial. Ideals of freedom, democracy, and independence ring hollow -- and false -- if they remain accessible to a privileged few, the rest of us meant to be kept silent, invisible....We fail ourselves and our children to live with less than the largest possible sense of community, and we fool ourselves to live as if the past is no longer part of us.

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"Musn't citizens of this or any nation go beyond myth, face hypocrisy and contradiction, terror as well as beauty, to understand the complex dynamics that have shaped the land and ourselves as people? Only then, I believe, can a larger sense of who we are and where we are as interconnected ecological, cultural, and historical beings begin to develop. If, as Aldo Leopold wrote, the health of a land is its capacity for self-renewal, then perhaps the health of the human family may be an intergenerational capacity for locating ourselves within many inheritances as citizens of the land, of nations, and of Earth, and thus within ever-widening communities."

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

I couldn't agree more.

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For a deeper dive into natural and cultural history by writers of diverse backgrounds, I recommend The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural Word, edited by Lauret Savoy and Alison Deming, along with Savoy's book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape.

And perhaps you'll join me in supporting The Willowherb Review, a new journal dedicated to diversity in nature writing, publishing emerging and established writers of colour with a focus on place, environment, and nature.

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Pathway home

Trace by Lauret Savoy

Words: The passages above are from "Possibility Begins Here" by Lauret Savoy, published in A Voice for the Earth: American Writers Respond to the Earth Charter (University of Georgia Press, 2008), and "Voyageurs" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in Writing from the Center (Indiana University Press, 1997). The poem in the picture captions is from The River of History by Gloria Bird, of the Spokane Tribe of Washington State (Trask House Press, 1998). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Dartmoor ponies on the village Commons in the pause between winter and spring.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Vanessa Bell rose

Today, art for hard times. We can be the healing.

Above: "The Flower" by American musician and activist Michael Franti, with his band Spearhead and Victoria Canal. The song is from Franti's film project Stay Human, and appears on the album Stay Human, Volume 2 (2019).

Below: Michael Franti performing "Nobody Cries Alone" at Paste Studio in New York City earlier this year. He's accompanied by Victoria Canal on keyboard and Carl Young on bass.

Above: "Tus Pies" by Nahko Bear, a musician and activist of Apache/Mowhawk/Puerto Rican/Filipino heritage, performed at Paste Studio in New York City. The song is from Hoka, Nahko's third album with the "Medicine for the People" collective (2016).

Below: "You Build a Wall" by English folk musician and activist Grace Petrie. It's from her first album, Heart First Aid Kit (2017). Her latest, Queer as Folk, is very good too.

Above: "Manara" by Alsarah and the Nubatones. Alsarah was born in Sudan, raised in Yemen, and is now based in Brooklyn, New York. This song was performed in New York as part of the Amnesty International concert series in support of refugees, Give a Home (2017).

Below: "Seven Notes" by English folk musician Nancy Kerr, a song about colonialism, migration, and race relations written for the Sweet Liberties project. It appeared on the Sweet Liberties album, and on Kerr's solo album Instar (2016).

The William Morris roseAbove: "Everlasting Arms," an American gospel song performed by musicians around the world. The video is part of the Playing for Change project, whose mission is "to connect the world through music, born from the shared belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people."

Below: "Love Train" by Turnaround Arts, a program that brings professional artists into struggling schools across America. The video features Turnaround students performing alongside the artists who have taught and mentored them. It was filmed with support from the Kennedy Center in DC, and the Playing for Change foundation.

The Beatrix Potter rose

Photographs: rose varieties named after artists Vanessa Bell, William Morris, and Beatrix Potter.


Waking up to sorrow

Hound and daffodils

On another day of terrible news, I send deep love to Muslim friends, neighbours, publishing colleagues, and the worldwide Muslim community. "Thoughts and prayers" are not enough, of course. I stand beside you, working for change.

"I am so tired of waiting, aren’t you, for the world to become good and beautiful and kind?" - Langston Hughes

Wild daffodils and hound

Picking wild daffs

The poem in the picture captions, from The Essential Rumi , was translated by Coleman Banks (Harpers, 2004); all rights reserved.


There is no time for despair

Bumblehill Studio 1 This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2016. Alas, it's still relevant today....

When the news is grim, and the clamour of the Internet is harsh and cacophonous, I find it grounding, healing, and necessary to turn away from keyboard and screens, and be fully present in the tactile world: in the morning light sifting through the studio, in the rising of the wind through the trees behind, in the words slowly forming in ink on fresh white paper spread out on my wooden desktop.

Drawing by Arthur RackhamInstead of flicking through Web pages, imbibing the Internet's manic energy and then coming offline feeling fractured and spent, I pull books from down the shelves and turn their rustling pages at a measured, more human pace...and my soul unclenches. My attention deepens. Something vital in me is quickened back to life. And yes, I am using a keyboard now to share these thoughts with you online, but it's not a full rejection of the Web I am after in my life. It's proportion and balance.

The Internet is a useful communication platform, and an increasingly important one...but books, oh, books are more than paper and ink. They are powerful medicine. Real books, I mean. Physical books, sitting on the dusty shelves of my studio and surrounding me like old friends, dog-earred and battered with love and use, their pages thick with margin notes and underlines. How could I ever doubt that art matters? Words have saved me over and over. Words are saving me right now. Books are what I turn to when the world grows dark, and they never fail to give me strength.

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This morning, for instance, Ben Okri asks me:

"What hope is there for individual reality or authenticity, when the forces of violence and orthodoxy, the earthly powers of guns and bombs and manipulated public opinion make it impossible for us to be authentic and fulfilled human beings?"

I've been asking myself the same question all week.

"The only hope," he answers, "is in the creation of alternative values, alternative realities. The only hope is in daring to redream one's place in the world -- a beautiful act of imagination, and a sustained act of self becoming. Which is to say that in some way or another we breach and confound the accepted frontiers of things."

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Then Rebecca Solnit joins the conversation:

"Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward," she notes, "but history is not an army. It's a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later, sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope."

"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic," adds Howard Zinn. "It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many -- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction."

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Barry Lopez pulls me out of a Western-centric point of view, reminding me of the things I share in common with people the world over:

"I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved," he says, "to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one's life. Wherever I've traveled -- Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan -- I've found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us."

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Terry Tempest Williams concurs, and affirms the role that artists play in the transmission of such stories:

"Bearing witness to both the beauty and pain of our world is a task that I want to be part of. As writers, this is our work. By bearing witness, the story that is told can provide a healing ground. Through the art of language, the art of story, alchemy can occur. And if we choose to turn our backs, we've walked away from what it means to be human."

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Then Toni Morrison takes me firmly by the shoulders and sends me back to my desk again:

Troubled times, she says, are "precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

"I know the world is bruised and bleeding," she adds, "and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge -- even wisdom. Like art."

Like art indeed.

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Studio Muse with Bone

Decoration by Arthur Rackham

Words: The first five quotes above are from the following books, all recommended: A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix, 1998); Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (Nation Books, 2005); You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn (Beacon Press 2002), About This Life by Barry Lopez (Vintage, 1999), and A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The Toni Morrison quote is from her essay "No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear" (The Nation, March 2013). The quotes in the picture captions come from a variety of sources, each identified with the text. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The drawing and painting above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The photographs are from my studio cabin, perched on a Devon hillside at the edge of a small wood. They were taken in the spring and autumn of 2016, but little has changed in the workspace since then.