Myth & Moor update

Strayway Child BY Terri Windling

I'll be out of the studio today due to family business (we're still helping an elderly relative resolve a difficult situation), and a vet visit with Tilly. Tilly's leg has been healing nicely: the scary lump has decreased in size and we're hopeful now that she won't need an operation. Thank you so much for all the good wishes, love, and prayers that have been sent her way, and ours. Oof, what a month its been! Even without the US election and the UK lockdown, although they've been looming large too.

The hound and I will be back tomorrow, focused on art and books and the natural world other good things.

The Fates by Gretchen Jacobsen

Drawinga: The Strayaway Child by me, and The Three Fates by Gretchen Jacobsen.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Bluegrass fiddle and banj0

With so many eyes on America as the aftermath of the election unfolds, let's start the week with a collection of American folk ballads, old and new. The North American ballad tradition grew from the music of immigrant, enslaved, and indigenous peoples, blended into a distinct new form, which still influences bluegrass, folk, gospel, and country music to this day. Like most things in America, the history of the continent's balladry is complex, diverse, and many-faceted -- and all the richer for being a "melting pot" of songs and tunes. 

Above: "When First Unto This Country" performed by singer/songwriter Aoife O'Donovan, with Crooked Still. The song appeared on their early album Crooked Still Live (2009), but this version was filmed at a bluegrass festival in 2017.

Below: "Black is the Color" performed by singer/songwriter, banjo player and music historian Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops).  It's from Giddens' solo album Tomorrow is My Turn (2015). 

Above: "Come All You Coal Miners / Take Me to Harlan" performed by husband-and-wife banjo masters Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, with clog-dancing by Washburn and movement work from Pilobolus. The first piece, written by Sarah Ogan Gunning, concerns mining life in the Appalachian region of Kentucky; the second, by Fleck and Washburn, was inspired by the stories of those who left the mountains for urban life.

Below: "Émigré"  by singer/songwriter Alela Diane, from her album Cusp (2017)

Above: "Clyde Water," performed by Anais MitchellJefferson Hamer. This song, from the Anglo-Scots tradition, is found in the American ballad songbook too, carried over the ocean by immigrants. It appears on the Mitchell & Hamer album Child Ballads (2013), featuring songs collected by the American ballad historian James Francis Child.

Below: "Thomas County Law" by Iron and Wine (singer/songwriter Sam Beam). The song appeared on his album Beast Epic (2017).

To end with, a couple of Dylan songs influenced by American balladry:

Above: "Boots of Spanish Leather," performed by Mandolin Orange (Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz) for Audiotree Live in 2014.

Below: "Wagon Wheel" performed by Darius Rucker (from Hootie and the Blowfish). It's from Rucker's solo album True Believers (2013).

For more North American ballads, and ballad-influenced songs, go here.


Walking. Dreaming. Breathing,

Tilly in the autumn woods

"What hope is there for individual reality or authenticity," asks novelist and essayist Ben Okri, "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?

Light on the hill

"The only hope is in the creation of alternative values, alternative realities. The only hope is 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."

Autumn in the woods

"In a world like ours," he adds, "where death is increasingly drained of meaning, individual authenticity lies in what we can find that is worth living for. And the only thing worth living for is love.

"Love for one another. Love for ourselves. Love of our work. Love of our destiny, whatever it may be. Love for our difficulties. Love of life. The love that could free us from the mysterious cycles of suffering. The love that releases us from our self-imprisonment, from our bitterness, our greed, our madness-engendering competitiveness. The love that can make us breathe again."

Autumnal hound

The passage by Ben Okri above (and the quotes tucked into the picture captions) are from A Way of Being Free (Phoenix House, 1997); all rights reserved by the author.


Nurturing hope

Tilly and her friend Old Oak

The week that has passed since the American election has been exhilarating and alarming in equal measure. The world hasn't suddenly been put to rights by the Biden/Harris win (no single act can do that), and the months between now and Inauguration Day are certainly going to be anxious ones -- but despite the challenges ahead, I feel more hopeful than I have in a long while.

Hope, as Rebecca Solnit pointed out (in Hope in the Dark) is not a passive thing:

"To hope is to gamble. It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope."

Mushrooms in the field 1

Mushrooms in the field 2

Later in the book, she reflects on the important differences between true and false hope:

"In The Principle of Hope, [Ernst] Bloch declares, 'Fraudulent hope is one of the greatest malefactors, even enervators, of the human race, concretely genuine hope is its most dedicated benefactor' and speaks of 'informed discontent which belongs to hope, because both arise out of the No of deprivation.' The hope that the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes will come to you, that the American dream will come true, that electoral politics will reform itself, is hope that paralyzes people's ability to rebel, to reject, to critique, to demand, and to make change. False hope can be a Yes to deprivation, an acquiescence to a lie. Official hope can be the bullying that tells the marginalized to shut up because everything is fine or will be. In its dilute forms, false hope is not far from despair, for both can be paralyzing. But despair can also be liberating.

"Blind hope faces a blank wall waiting for a door in it to open. Doors might be nearby, but blind hope keeps you from locating them; in this geography, despair can be fruitful, can turn you away from the wall, saying No to deprivation. And this despair in one institution or one site can lead to the location of alternatives, to the quest for doors, or to their creation. The great liberation movements hacked doorways into walls, or the walls came tumbling down. In this way, hope and despair are linked."

Mushrooms in the field 3

But how do we maintain hope when the challenges ahead are so numerous, so seemingly intractable, so overwhelming? Solnit reminds us of this:

"After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork -- or underground work -- often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

"Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope, and often our power."

Indeed they are.

Hound and Oak

Words: The passage above is from Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket, 2004). The poem in the picture captions is from Indigo by Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly with her friend Old Oak. Her leg is still healing but she's feeling better, and the rustle of oak leaves is good medicine.


Tunes for a Monday Evening

Loch Einich in the Caingorms

I've made no secret here of how much I love the music of Salt House, a Scottish folk trio whose last two album (Undersong and Huam) are often heard leaking through my studio door. Now two members of the band have released solo albums: The Living Mountain by Jenny Sturgeon and Landskein by Lauren MacColl. Both contain music rooted in the natural world, and both are exquisite.

Above: "Air & Light" by Jenny Sturgeon, from The Living Mountain. The album contains a cycle of songs inspired by Nan Shepherd's book of the same name: a pioneering work of nature writing set in the Cairngorms of north-east Scotland. Sturgeon explores "her own connection to this Highland area, as well as delving into Nan's philosophy of being in the mountains, and people's connection to the wild. The twelve songs take inspiration from the chapter titles of Nan's book; the lyrics tell of exploration, love, loss, and wonder at the natural world, from small scale mosses and moths to the wider landscape and ecosystem."

Below: "Water," another beautiful song from the same album.

Next, two songs by fiddle and viola player Lauren MacColl, from her haunting new album Landskein -- named for a word that Robert Macfarlane found in use in the Outer Hebrides, meaning: "The weaving and braiding of horizon lines often seen most clearly on hazy days in hill country."

Above: "Air Mullach Beinn Fhuathais (On Top of Ben Wyvis)."  The song is from The Airs and melodies peculiar to the Highlands of Scotland and the Isles, collected by Captain Simon Fraser in 1816. The film and artwork above is by Mairearad Green.

Below: "Pentland Hills," inspired by the Pentland range south-west of Edinburgh.

The third member of Salt House is my friend Ewan MacPherson, who has released two solo albums to date -- as well as albums with Shooglenifty, Fribo, RoughCoastAudio and other bands, and work for the Modern Fairies project.

Above: "All the Kings (Scotland's Winter)," an adaptation of a poem by Orcadian poet Edwin Muir. "Scotland's Winter could be perceived on different levels," Ewan says. "The one which stands out for me is a nostalgic lament for better days past in relation to his homeland." The song first appeared on his album Norther in 2008, but this lovely new version was recorded in August.

Below, all three musicians together performing "Union of Crows." It's from the most recent Salt House album, Huam, released earlier this year.

Rookery by Eleanor Huges

The etching above is "The Rookery" by Eleanor Hughes (1882-1959). Born in New Zealand, she trained in England and is associated with the Newlyn group of artists in Cornwall.