Three writers on aging

High Tor Guardian by David Wyatt

From A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle:

"I am part of every place I have ever been: the path to the brook; the New York streets and my 'short cut' through the Metropolitan Museum. All the places I have ever walked, talked, slept, have changed and formed me. I am part of all the people I have known.  There was a black morning when [a friend] and I, both walking through separate hells, acknowledged that we would not survive were it not for our friends who, simply by being our friends, harrowed hell for us. I am still every age I have ever been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be. Because I was once a rebellious student, there is and always will be in me the student crying out for reform.

"Far too many people misunderstand what putting away childish things means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I'm with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grownup, then I don't ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child's awareness and joy, and be in my fifties, then I will really learn what it means to be a grownup. I still have a long way to go."

Fetching Water by David Wyatt

From an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin:

"The whole process of getting old -- it could have been better arranged. But you do learn some things just by doing them over and over and by getting old doing them. And one of them is, you really need less. And I’m not talking minimalism, which is a highly self-conscious mannerist style I can’t write and don’t want to. I’m perfectly ready to describe a lot and be flowery and emotive, but you can do that briefly and it works better. My model for this is late Beethoven. He moves so strangely and quite suddenly sometimes from place to place in his music, in the late quartets. He knows where he’s going and he just doesn’t want to waste all that time getting there. But if you listen, if you’re with it, he takes you with him. I think sometimes about old painters -- they get so simple in their means. Just so plain and simple. Because they know they haven’t got time. One is aware of this as one gets older. You can’t waste time."

Old Goat's Home by David Wyatt

From an interview with Barry Lopez:

The Last Puppeteer by David Wyatt"Up until recently, the phrase 'my work' meant solely what I was writing. Now I'm not sure what it means. I feel a sense of urgency, a sense of national threat. Because of that I've become more involved in the past few years with higher education, with public presentations and collaborative work, with trying to advance the work of younger writers. I have to be honest with you and say I have doubts about doing these things. I feel the weight of an enormous amount of experience, travel experience in particular, which I've not written about. Sometimes I worry that without my knowing it a half-formed story will leave my imagination, as if it'd become impatient. For someone who's not a social activist, I seem suddenly to be up to my neck in such things....Maybe what I'm really working on, by writing autobiography and pursuing what I suppose is an effort at public service, is grappling with my own reputation as a writer and what to do with it. A curious thing can happen to you as a writer. You go along in your twenties and thirties and forties, writing books and articles. Then people really want to talk to you, they want to know what kind of book is coming next. They have expectations. If their perception -- your reputation -- makes you self-conscious, or anxious, it can ruin your work.

"I've seen an ambivalence emerge in some writers as they enter their fifties. You ask yourself, what am I really up to here? In a very small way I've become something of a public figure in my fifties. If you find yourself in this position, what are you supposed to do? The answer -- for me -- is to take it for what it's worth. Lend your name to worthy causes and help younger writers. Read other people's manuscripts. Try to open doors for young writers who are devoted to story and language, and who have serious questions about the fate of humanity. You say to yourself, once older writers gave to me (or didn't); now, regardless, I have to see who's coming along and how I can help them."

I couldn't agree more, especially as Lopez wisely added: "But you must draw a line in all this, too, to protect your own writing time."

Gidleigh Goat and Fancy a Biscuit? by David Wyatt

The art today is by our friend David Wyatt, one of Britain's premier book illustrators (as well as the great love of Tilly's life). David lived here in Chagford for many years before the mountains of Wales claimed him last spring, and he is sorely missed. The paintings above are from his deeply magical Mythic Village and Old Goat series.

To see more of his work work, please visit his beautiful website

Spinning Moonlight by David Wyatt

The passages above come from: "Ursula K. Le Guin: The Art of Fiction No. 221" by John Wray (Paris Review, Fall 2013),A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle (Harper San Francisco, 1972 ), and "The Big River: A Conversation with Barry Lopez on the McKenzie River" by Michael Shapiro (Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2005). All rights reserved by the authors' estates.


A Spell for Opening

Back to the Stone by Simon Blackbourn

A Spell for Opening 1

Autumn leaves

A Spell for Opening 2

Autumn leaves

A Spell for Opening

Autumn leaves

We've been speaking about the giving and receiving of gifts in previous posts, and of shifting our perception of art and life away from our culture's fixation on the the market economy as the primary arbitrator of value, to one of gift exchange, reciprocity, generosity and community.

LeafToday is my birthday, and I grew up in the tradition of receiving birthday presents each year  (I expect that you did too) -- but as a folklorist I'm aware that this old folk custom is not universal. In some cultures, children present gifts to their mothers, or to both parents, in gratitude for the gift of life. In others, a birthday marks the opportunity for a giveaway: food, flowers, or gifts ceremoniously distributed to everyone in the family or tribe. 

In the spirit of the latter, I want to gift you all with the poem/chant/prayer pictured above: "A Spell for Opening." It's from my little book Seven Little Tales, which is part of the Seven Doors in an Unyielding Stone series from Hedgespoken Press, curated by Tom Hirons and Rima Staines. The poem was inspired by the series' name; I loved the mystery of doors in stone. I pictured this particular door in one of my favourite places on the moor: Scorhill, a circle of standing stones. What would it take, I wondered, to find that door and open it up...?

Please accept this gift of words...and then pass on a gift of your own to someone, somewhere, some day.

Seven Little Tales by Terri Windling Hedgepoken Press

Dartmoor Hawthorn by Simon Blackbourn

The beautiful imagery in this post is by my village neighbour Simon Blackbourn, photographer and co-founder of the excellent Dartmoor Collective. Simon has spent the last ten years immersed in the wilds of the moor, photographing its colours, shapes, textures and moods, its trees, rocks, bogs, rivers, wildlife, and weather. To see more of his work, please visit his Instagram page and the Dartmoor Collective Gallery

For more on the subject of gift exchange, I recommend Lewis Hyde's seminal book The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Informs the World, and Robin Wall Kimmerer's remarkable Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants.

Dartmoor Pony by Simon Blackbourn

The North Teign River by Simon Blackbourn

The photographs by Simon Blackbourn are: Back to the Stone (Scorhill), Dartmoor Hawthorn, Dartmoor Pony, and The North Teign River. All rights to the text and imagery above reserved by the author and artist. 


Magic from the hedgerows

Strength by Danielle Barlow

A while back my friend and Chagford neighbour Danielle Barlow began a massive artistic undertaking: to create a new tarot deck, The Witches' Wisdom Tarot, in collaboration with Phyllis Curott. Danielle is an artist and practicing hedgewitch here on Dartmoor; Phyllis is an acclaimed American writer on all things Wiccan. Their project was an immersive one, growing slowly over many, many months: imbued with all the myth, symbolism, tarot lore and deep love of the natural world these two women carry between them.

Danielle Barlow's art for The Witches' Wisdom Tarot

Danielle often uses family and friends as her painting models, so when she called for models for this project I nervously agreed to help. It's not that I haven't been painted before (in this faerie picture by Brian Froud, for example, painted back in the 1990s; or this one in David Wyatt's "Mythic Village" series, 2011), but I've crossed into my elder years now -- a stage of life when the image in the mirror rarely matches the ageless self we still inhabit in the mind's eye. I'd be no faerie sylph this time, but an archetypal older woman. 

Furthermore, my health disability was at an especially low point then: I was physically frail, anaemic, shaky on my feet, not feeling particularly "magical" at all. The day Danielle came over with her camera was the day I learned the card I would be posing for: Strength. I laughed when she told me, it seemed so unlikely. "There are many different kinds of strength," she told me firmly. "Trust me, this is the right card."

Some time later I saw the finished painting (pictured at the top of this post) . . . and Reader, I admit, I cried.

Danielle Barlow's art for The Witches' Wisdom Tarot

Today, as the dark of winter approaches, as a new variant of Covid looms and our cultural/political discourse seems to grow more divisive by the hour, we're all in need of strength, and of the reminder that it comes in many forms. Danielle's words, imagery and hedgewitchery helped me to remember and re-imagine mine. I hope this story will do the same for you. Sometimes the quietest, deepest, most individual and paradoxical forms of strength are the ones we should value most of all.

Danielle Barlow's art for The Witches' Wisdom Tarot

To learn more about the wonderful Witches' Wisdom Tarot, go here. To see more of Danielle's art, including her equally lovely Green Wheel Oracle deck, go here.

"I trained in textiles, and then in horticulture," she says, "before returning to painting, my first love. These days I work primarily in ink and watercolour. I still juggle all three elements -- painting, stitching and herbalism. Deeply rooted in this ancient landscape of ours, my work draws heavily on folklore and mythology, and explores the deep connection, both physical and spiritual, between people and the land they inhabit. The spirit of this land has sunk deep into my heart, and as I wander its ancient tracks, I find myself endlessly fascinated by the shifting relationships between human, animal, plants and land. My paintings above all attempt to capture the elusive Genius Loci - Spirit of Place."

Danielle Barlow's art for The Witches' Wisdom Tarot

Craftsman of Air by Danielle Barlow

The Witches' Wisdom Tarot was published by Hay House last autumn. The artwork is copyright by Danielle Barlow, all rights reserved.


Still climbing

Elder-tree Mother by Arthur Rackham

I've been thinking a lot about ageing lately. Perhaps it's the winter coming on, or the fact that climbing up our hill takes more effort than it used to (for me and Tilly both). Or else it's just because I turn another year older on Friday.

Other woman have walked this way before; their art and their lives inspire me and pull me on. Patti Smith is one of those women. In her second memoir, M Train, she writes:

"I believe in movement. I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. I believe in midnight and the hour of noon. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond. I believe in life, which one day each of us shall lose. When we are young we think we won’t, that we are different. As a child I thought I would never grow up, that I could will it so. And then I realized, quite recently, that I had crossed some line, unconsciously cloaked in the truth of my chronology. How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints, my iron-colored hair. Now I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket. But I would also keep on living, refusing to surrender my pen."

Blessings on Virginia, but I, too, prefer to keep on going, my pen firmly in hand. Life can be hard, but it's also sweet, enriched by art, friendship, community. Onward, Tilly, onward. Let's go see what's over the next rise....

Tilly at the top of our hill

The quote above is from M Train by Patti Smith (Knopf, 2015), all rights reserved by the author. The art above is "Elder-tree Mother" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).