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January 2013
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February 2013

Preparing for the muse

Oak and earth.

"I start all my books on January 8th," says Isabel Allende. "Can you imagine January 7th? It's hell.

"Every year on January 7th, I prepare my physical space. I clean up everything from my other books. I just leave my dictionaries, and my first editions, and my research materials for the new one. And then on January 8th I walk seventeen steps from the kitchen to the little pool house that is my office. It's like a journey to another world. It's winter, it's raining usually. I go with my umbrella and the dog following me. From those seventeen steps on, I am in another world and I am another person.

"I go there scared. And excited. And disappointed -- because I have a sort of idea that isn't really an idea. The first two, three, four weeks are wasted. I just show up in front of the computer. Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up too. If she doesn't show up invited, eventually she just shows up." *

Isabel Allende, with her husband William Gordon, and their dog Olive

"I write eight to ten hours a day," Allende says, "until I have a first draft, then I can relax a little. I am very disciplined. I write in silence and solitude. I light a candle to call inspiration and the muses, and I surround myself with pictures of the people I love, dead and alive.”

Water and wind.

"One of the hardest things to do with a novel," says Philip Pullman, "is to stop writing it for a while, do something else, fulfill this engagement or that commitment or whatever, and pick it up exactly where you left it and carry on as if nothing had happened. You will have changed; the story will have drifted off course, like a ship when the engines stop and there’s no anchor to keep it in place; when you get back on board, you have to warm the engines up, start the great bulk of the ship moving through the water again, work out your position, check the compass bearing, steer carefully to bring it back on track … all that energy wasted on doing something that wouldn’t have been necessary at all if you’d just kept going."

Philip Pullman

"I don't know where my ideas come from," Pullman says, "but I know where they come to. They come to my desk, and if I'm not there, they go away again."

...and a little black dog following her muse. The art she creates is joy.

* The first quote is taken from Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran (Plume/Penguin, 2013), published in aid of the 826 National youth literacy program. Please consider ordering a copy to support this worthy cause.

Sanskrit read to a pony

Portrait of a Fairy Horse

Two last pony pictures for you: the cheeky spotted pony, who was as interested in me as I was interested in her (and just as good as Tilly at posing for the camera), and the sweet, shaggy pair who were really only interested in each other.

In the West Country lore of Devon and Cornwall, the land is home to a variety of fairies called piskies, running the gamut from benevolent house piskies to shy, isolated moor-and-bogland-dwelling creatures, to dangerous beings who plagued the region's tin miners of old and still delight in leading travellers astray. Some piskies are said to be shape-shifters -- most commonly turning into hares and hedgehogs, but I've also run across tales of "colt piskies" who take the shape of young wild ponies.

Colt piskies are trickster figures, fond of playing practical jokes on their domesticated equine cousins, but not so deeply dangerous as other Celtic horse fairies (Scottish kelpies, for example, or Irish phookas). They are mischievous creatures, of whom it's best to be wary, but capable of kindness towards humans too -- and they seem to have it made it their special mission to protect apple orchards from thieves and harm.

Pony Love

"Life is like Sanskrit read to a pony," the musician Lou Reed once said. Here on Dartmoor, I wouldn't put it past our local fairy horses to understand Sanskrit perfectly, to love being read to, sung to, and told stories -- for they are, in myth and folklore, a magical part of the Great Story themselves.

As if by magic

Tilly's morning surprise:

As dawn breaks over the village, Tilly and I follow the path to a neighbor's field, where we find a herd of wild ponies who have strayed down from the moor.

Dartmoor ponies grazing in a neighbors field... the sun rises over the moor and the village church bells ring the hour.

We know this particular herd, which often grazes on the village Commons (where I can see them from my studio windows as I work), but Tilly and I are both surprised to find them here, shaggy little phantoms in the misty morning light. 

Tilly prowls among them, but knows to keep her distance...

As we cross the field, Tilly is curious but well trained. She keeps her distance, and they pay her no mind. As for me, they are gentle, affable, and patient as I walk among, camera in hand.

...and the ponies ignore her, grazing placidly.

Their long-lashed eyes are dark and deep...

...their noses soft and their pelts winter thick.

These two nuzzled, cuddled, and groomed each other...

When I first lived in the village, on Lower Street, I would sometimes hear the unshod hooves of wild ponies clattering down the street below my bedroom window late at night...

...then followed the herd further up the hill... fairy horses riding through the dark. And that's how I think of them still: fairy horses. Appearing and disappearing as if by magic.

...while we headed in the opposite direction: back to the studio and back to work, filled with our morning quota of enchantment. Goodbye, lovely creatures, goodbye!

We are storied folk

Nattadon Dawn

"I write to tell stories," says Finnish author Eppu Nuotio. "I believe that there are some professions in the world that will last forever: doctor or nurse, teacher, builder, and storyteller. I write also to become myself, more so day by day. Writing is a way to shape the visible and invisible, in myself as well as in the world." 

Here on Nattadon Hill, dawn shapes the visible and invisible...

Nattadon Dawn 2

telling stories of light and shadow...

Nattadon Dawn 3

while at the edge of a field, a small black dog listens intently. (Look close, and you will see her.)

Nattadon Dawn 4

Tilly translates the land's stories for me. She is a trickster, a boundary crosser, moving between the human world and the numinous landscape, its language formed of light, rain, scent, and time.

Nattadon Dawn 5

"Love and translation look alike in their grammar," says Argentinian writer Andrés Neuman. "To love someone implies transforming their words into ours. Making an effort to understand the other person and, inevitably, to misinterpret them. To construct a precarious language together."

Each morning, Tilly and I walk the land and construct a language, a story, all our own.

Nattadon Dawn 6

"We are storied folk. Stories are what we are; telling and listening to stories is what we do." - Arthur Kleinman

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Since we've been talking about work and labor of the hands, I've chosen a trio of Gaelic waulking songs this week, all recorded in Scotland for the Highland Sessions. Waulking songs were sung as part of the traditional process of "waulking" homespun cloth (particularly tweeds): beating it against a board or trampling it underfoot to soften it. This task was often done by groups of women together, and the songs drove the work with their beat.

In the video above, Margaret Stewart sings "He Will Go, He Will Go With Me." Below, Kathleen MacInnes sings "Gaol Ise Gaol (She's My Love)." The second song starts about 30 seconds into the video.

And last, my favorite:

Karen Matheson (of Capercaille) sings a very beautiful waulking song from Skye: "Chuir m'Athair Mise Dha'n Taigh Charraideach (My Father Sent Me to the House of Sorrow)."