My apologies for my absence; I've been down with a Long Covid relapse again. But I'm on the mend, and I'll be back in the studio on Tuesday...moving slowly, but grateful to be up and moving at all. I hope you are staying safe during these strange times, and finding joy wherever you can.
The art today is by Chris Dunn, who lives in Wiltshire. You can see more of his work here.
Tues. a.m.: Sorry, everyone. I thought I was getting better, but today Long Covid has slammed me again. I'll be back soon...I hope!
From The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays by Wendell Berry:
"We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world -- to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity -- our own capacity for life -- that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.
"We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it."
Every morning I leave my desk and my books to cross the stream into the woods, stepping into the mystery at the heart of this rain-soaked and myth-steeped landscape. When the wider world feels harsh and cacophonous, out here I find solace in simple things: the bite of the wind, the damp velvet of moss, the crackle of leaves beneath my boots and the steaming of Tilly's breath in the cold. Inside, news scrolls across digital screens...but the news that I really need is written in light and lichen and thistle and thorn. I am learning the old, slow language of trees, and the quicksilver poetry of water.
''Let us keep courage," said Vincent van Gogh, "and try to be patient and gentle. And let us not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil.''
To which I would add: Let us treat the land with respect. And ourselves. And each other. And go on from there.
The passage quoted above is from The Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2002). The poem in the picture captions is from his Collected Poems, 1957-1982 (North Point Press, 1985). All rights reserved by the author.
On a blustery morning in January, here's a parcel of winter songs for you to drive away the wind and cold....
Above: a spoken word introduction to A Winter Miscellany by Ashley Hutchings, with Becky Mills and Blair Dunlop: a wonderful album of winter songs, both old and new (2020). "This album was recorded in Ashley's Derbyshire home, deep in the countryside," explains Mills, "each song recorded between tractors clattering up and down the lane and Ashley looking out of the door shouting 'do it quickly, there’s nothing coming!' "
Below: "Animals Carol" from A Winter Miscellany. "The words," says Mills, "are from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In the Willows, newly set to music which I composed specially for this album. It is a song to remind us to be kinder to our animal friends in the winter months because after all, it was them who were the first to bid Noel all those years ago in the stable."
Above: a short clip from Here We Come a-Wassailing, a programme on winter folk rituals broadcast on the BBC 1977, with music by Ashley Hutchins and The Albion Band.
Below: a wassailing song sung by The Watersons, the great folk music family from Yorkshire. This song was traditionally sung in apple orchards to ensure a good harvest in the new year.
Above: "The Wren, The Wren" performed by Irish singer/songwriter Lisa O’Neill. The Hunting of the Wren is folk tradition "celebrated on St. Stephen's Day (26 December) in a number of countries across Europe. The tradition consists of 'hunting' a fake wren and putting it on top of a decorated pole. Then the crowds of mummers, or strawboys, or wren boys, celebrate the wren by dressing up in masks, straw suits, and colourful motley clothing. They form music bands and parade through towns and villages."
Below: "The King," a traditional wren boy blessing song performed by Lady Maisery (Hazel Askew, Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans), Jimmy Aldridge, and Sid Goldsmith. It's from their absolutely gorgeous winter album, Awake Arise (2019), which I just can't get enough of.
Above: "Hope Is Before Us" from Awake Arise. The song, composed by Hazel Askew, is based on the words of William Morris (from his 1885 collection Chants for Socialists).
Below: "A Winter Charm of Lasting Life" performed by the Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningam (1957-2003) and Irish singer Susan McKeown, accompanied by guitarist Aiden Brennan, on their collaborative album A Winter Talisman (2009).
Above: Steve Ashley's "Fire and Wine," performed by Yorkshire folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow. The song appeared on their fine winter album WinterFolk, Vol. 1 (2019).
Below: Richard Thompson's "We Sing Hallelujah," performed by O'Hooley & Tidow.
Vintage photographs above: a mummer's group, and Irish wren boys. See the International Mummer's Festival page for more on mumming, historic and contemporary.
I wrote this post in November 2016 in response to the shocking news that a malignant reality-tv star would become America's 45th president. As his single term ends in sedition, insurrection, violence and death, I think it's time to post this piece again....
Anaïs Nin was born to Cuban parents in France, raised in Europe, Cuba and the U.S., and then settled in Paris after her marriage, establishing herself in its lively arts community of the 1920s and '30s. By the summer of '39, however, facism was rising, war was approaching, and the French government was urging foreign nationals to get out of the country while they still could. Nin followed her American husband to New York, heart-broken at losing the city she loved, worried sick about friends and family she was leaving behind. Fourteen years later, having emerged from the world-wide trauma of the war years, she wrote the following words in her diary:
"Why one writes is a question I can answer easily, having so often asked it of myself. I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me -- the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art.
"The artist knows the world is a subjective creation, that there is a choice to be made, a selection of elements. It is a materialization, an incarnation of his inner world. Then he hopes to attract others into it, he hopes to impose this particular vision and share it with others. When the second stage is not reached, the brave artist continues nevertheless. The few moments of communion with the world are worth the pain, for it is a world for others, a gift for others, in the end. When you make a world tolerable for yourself, you make the world tolerable for others."
This week, America took another fearsome turn for those of us who value civility, decency, diversity, and the norms of democracy. I keep hearing the same question from friends and colleagues in the Mythic Arts field: How can I simply return to my work? Making art can seem like a frivolous pursuit compared to the urgent news of the day; to the need for action and activism, as opposed to the quiet withdrawal from the world upon which creative work often depends.
I have two thoughts about this. First, that art is not frivolous. As Jeannette Winterson states so eloquently:
"Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and my staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed. If, in the comfortable West, we have chosen to treat such energies with scepticism and contempt, then so much the worse for us."
Or as Ursula Le Guin said in her National Book Award acceptance speech in 2014:
"Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom -- poets, visionaries -- realists of a larger reality."
And how right she was.
My second thought is that, yes, we are in a period of cultural and ecological crisis -- and in such times, each of us must decide where our energy and resources can best be employed. For some, this may mean postponing personal projects in order to throw oneself fully into activism as a matter of urgency. The brilliant young writer Laurie Penny, for example, tweeted in the  election's wake:
"I'd planned to scale back the full-time political writing to do more fiction. That nice life plan is now in the bin. That's okay. Game on."
For others, full-time activism is not a practical option, nor is it the best deployment of our time and our gifts. I'll use myself as an example here. I was widely politically active in my younger years, but in late middle-age I'm contrained by health issues, by family responsibilities, and by the paucity of "spoons" I have to distribute among competing priorities each day. Within these constraints, the best use of my time is to focus on the things I'm designed by my nature to do: to write, to paint, to create "beauty in a broken world" (to use Terry Tempest Williams's evocative phrase), and perhaps lift the spirits of those who are on the Front Lines, doing the hard physical work I can no longer do.
I do not think this task is a lesser one. My job is to tell stories, in words and in paint -- and stories, well-told, are not trivial things. Stories teach. Challenge. Console. Refresh. They examine the world and re-imagine the world. They remind us of what courage looks like, and hope. They explain us to each other. They explain us to ourselves. They feed us. Heal us. Confound us, and shake us out of despair or complacency. They light the way through the dark of the forest, bring us home on a path of breadcrumbs and stones. Telling stories is meaningful work, even now. Especially now.
I don't mean to say it's a binary choice: going out into the world in the form of activism or turning inward to create works of art. We can do both, of course, and many of the artists I admire most throughout history have blended the two. How do we do this? With "sacred rage," Terry Tempest Williams advises, and an open and active heart:
"I don’t think there is anything as powerful as an active heart. And the activists I know possess this powerful beating heart of change. They do not fear the wisdom of emotion, but embody it. They know how to listen. They are polite when they need to be and unyielding when necessary. They remain open, even as they push boundaries and inhabit the margins, understanding eventually, the margins will move toward the center. They are tenacious, informed, patient, and impatient, at once. They do not shy away from what is difficult. They refuse to accept the unacceptable. The most effective activists I know are in love with the world. A good activist builds community.
"I used to ask the question, 'Am I an activist or a writer?' I don’t ask that anymore. I am simply a human being engaged."
May we all be "human beings engaged" with the world around us, in one way or another. Loudly or softly, on the streets or at the desk...whichever way suits each of us best. We need it all right now. We need the urgent political conversations...but also the quiet discussions of books and art, folklore and myth, for they serve to keep our hearts open, receptive and responsive. To remind us of what we're fighting for. And to honor what's soft, and deep, and nuanced at a time when the dominant discourse is too often hard, and shallow, and simplistic.
"All kinds of activism will be needed in the coming months and years," says Laurie Penny. "Including the quiet, gentle activism of quiet, gentle people."
Myth & Moor is a safe haven for the quiet and gentle....
But if you're loud and compassionate, you are welcome here too.
The passage by Anaïs Nin is from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 5, 1947-1955 (Harcourt, 1975). The passage by Jeanette Winterson is from Art Objects (Vintage, 1966). The two quotes by Laurie Penny are from her Twitter page. The quote by Terry Tempest Williams is from an interview by Devon Fredericksen (Guenerica, August 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from What to Remember When Waking by David Whyte (Sounds True, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors. The drawing is by Charles Robinson (1870-1937).
I've long used the term "embracing the bear" for those moments when I'm moving forward into something I fear, but don't want fear to stop me; thus I was intrigued to encounter the same phrase in Terry Tempest William's Unspoken Hunger (discussed yesterday), where it has a slightly different but related meaning. In a gorgeous essay on women and bears, Williams includes a description of Marian Engle's Bear, a highly unusual, memorable novel which portrays a woman and a bear "in an erotics of place," evocative of mythic stories worldwide about animal brides and bridegrooms.
"The woman says, 'Bear, take me to the bottom of the ocean with you, Bear, swim with me, Bear, put your arms around me, enclose me, swim, down, down, down, with me.'
" 'Bear,' she says suddenly, 'come dance with me.'
"They make love. Afterwards, 'She felt pain, but it was a dear sweet pain that belonged not to mental suffering, but to the earth.'
William writes that she, too,
"has felt the pain that arises from a recognition of beauty, pain we hold when we remember what we are connected to and the delicacy of our relations. It is this tenderness born out of connection to place that fuels my writing. Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free. This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories.
"By undressing, exposing, and embracing the bear, we undress, expose, and embrace our authentic selves. Stripped free from society's oughts and shoulds, we emerge as emancipated beings. The bear is free to roam....
"We are creatures of paradox, women and bears, two animals that are enormously unpredictable, hence our mystery. Perhaps the fear of bears and the fear of women lies in our refusal to be tamed, the impulses we arouse and the forces we represent....As women connected to the earth, we are nurturing and we are fierce, we are wicked and we are sublime. The full range is ours. We hold the moon in our bellies and fire in our hearts. We bleed. We give milk. We are the mothers of first words. These words grow. They are our children. They are our stories and our poems."
Words: The text above is fromAn Unspoken Spoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Willians (Pantheon, 1994); all rights reserved by the author.
Pictures: The images above are by the Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova, based in Moscow; all rights reserved by the artist. The pen-and-ink drawings are Victorian illustrations, artists unknown.
As the old year ends, and a new one begins, and the grey winter months roll on and on, I find myself think of bears -- and of something Terry Tempest Williams once said about bears as symbols of life held in balance.
For Williams, the bear embodies "opposing views, that we can be both fierce and compassionate at once. The bear is above ground in spring and summer and below ground, hibernating, in fall and winter -- and she emerges with young by her side. I think that's a wonderful model for us, particularly as women. And it's one I've tried to adopt."
She goes on to explain that she divides her years into halves. From April Fool's Day to The Day of the Dead (November 1st), she lives a public life as a writer and activist, doing any traveling or public speaking or teaching during these months. From The Day of the Dead until April Fool's Day, however, she stays at home -- to spend time with her family; to write; to live within the rhythms of her creativity. The bear, she suggests, "offers us a model of how one lives with that paradox, of public and private life, of a creative life as well as a life of obligation."
Williams also addresses this theme in her essay "Undressing the Bear," pointing out that the she-bear has two sides her nature: both fierce and maternal, wild and nurturing. In mythic terms, this oppositional duality held in instinctive balance is the point.
"If we choose to follow the bear," she writes, "we will be saved from a distracted and domesticated life. The bear becomes our mentor. We must journey out, so that we might journey in. The bear mother enters the earth before snowfall and dreams herself through winter, emerging with young by her side. She not only survives the barren months, she gives birth. She is the caretaker of the unseen world. As a writer and a woman with obligations to both family and community, I have tried to adopt this ritual of balancing public and private life. We are at home in the deserts and mountains, as well as in our dens. Above ground in the abundance of spring and summer, I am available. Below ground in the deepening of autumn and winter, I am not. I need hibernation in order to create."
In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist and storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés notes the age-old connection of women and bears in the mythic traditions of many different lands. "To the ancients," she writes, "bears symbolized resurrection. The creature goes to for a long time, its heartbeat decreases to almost nothing. The male often impregnates the female right before hibernation, but miraculously, egg and sperm do not unite right away. They float separately in her uterine broth until much later. Near the end of hibernation, the egg and sperm unite and cell division begins, so that the cubs will be born in the spring when the mother is awakening, just in time to care for and teach her new offspring. Not only by reason of awakening from hibernation as though from death, but much more so because the she-bear awakens with new young, this creature is a profound metaphor for our lives, for return and increase coming from something that seemed deadened.
"The bear is associated with many huntress Goddesses: Artemis and Diana in Greece and Rome, and Muerte and Hecoteptl, mud women deities in the Latina cultures. These Goddesses bestowed upon women the power of tracking, knowing, 'digging out' the psychic aspects of all things. To the Japanese the bear is the symbol of loyalty, wisdom, and strength. In northern Japan where the Ainu tribe lives, the bear is one who can talk to God directly and bring messages back for humans. The cresent moon bear is considered a sacred being, one who was given the white mark on his throat by the Buddhist Goddess Kwan-Yin, whose emblem is the crescent moon. Kwan-Yin is the Goddess of Deep Compassion and the bear is her emissary.
"In the psyche, the bear can be understood as the ability to regulate one's life, especially one's feeling life. Bearish power is the ability to move in cycles, be fully alert, or quiet down into a hibernative sleep that renews one's energy for the next cycle. The bear image teaches that it is possible to maintain a kind of pressure gauge for one's emotional life, and most especially that one can be fierce and generous at the same time. One can be reticent and valuable. One can protect one's territory, make one's boundaries clear, shake the sky if need be, yet be available, accessible, engendering all the same."
Though Williams and Estés are focused on women and women's issues in the passages above, the oppositional nature of bear symbology is useful to all artists, men and women alike, who struggle to balance their public and private selves, and the often-conflicting demands of family life, community engagement, and creative work. To be available to others, while protecting time to be available only to ourselves and our muse...is this not the dilemma that all creative artists (if we're not complete monsters of self-importance or self-effacement) face again and again?
And even when we are alone in the studio, the symbol of the mythic bear and cyclical hibernation is a useful one. As a culture, we tend to prize action, accomplishment, and public expression over stillness, retreat, and quiet reflection -- but creativity needs all parts of the cycle: the taking in, the pause, the putting back out. Art is born in the movement between them, the mythic rhythm at the heartbeat of our lives.
The winter months have always been a challenge for me. I love sunshine, dry weather and warmth (the hotter the better), and for many years I avoided the cold by wintering in the Arizona desert -- where bears roamed above us on the mountain peaks, but did not venture down to the heat of the valley.
By living full-time on Dartmoor now, however, I am learning to appreciate winter's stark gifts: it slows me down, turns my thoughts inward, keeps me closer to hearth and home, strengthening the introverted side of my nature, without which I couldn't write or paint. I am learning at last to follow the bear; to trust in the process of hibernation and gestation. I am learning patience. Slowness. Stillness.
All things have their season. And spring always comes.
It's a good time of year to be reading about bears -- in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and myth. The bearish tales above are three of my favourites, along with Tender Morsals by Margo Lanagan, Bear Daughter by Judith Berman, The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, East by Edith Pattou, Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Once Upon a Winter's Night by Dennis L. McKiernan, Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede, The Ice Bear by Jackie Morris, Bearkskin by Howard Pyle (illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman), "Bear's Bride" by Johanna Sinisalo (published in The Beastly Bride, Datlow-Winding eds.), and Marion Engle's strange but compelling Bear. What are some of yours...?
Pictures: The bear art above is by Theodore Kittelsen, Jackie Morris, Angela Barrett, Lucy Campbell, Virginia Lee, Susan Seddon Boulet, me, Edmund Dulac, Alexandra Dvornikova, Maurice Sendak, Gene Tobey, Līga Kļaviņa, Trina Schart Hyman, John Bauer and Marc Simont. Titles and artist credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists.
Words: The passages quoted above are from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006); "Undressing the Bear," published in An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams (Vintage, 1994); and Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Ballentine, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors.