Into the Woods, 13: Once Upon a Time, Re-imagining Fairy Tales
Into the Woods, 14: Art From the Fairy Tale Forest

Deep in the Forest, a guest post by Valerianna Claff

What would it be like to live and work at the heart of a forest? I put this question to artist and educator Valerianna Claff, whose RavenWood Forest Studio nestles among the hemlocks of western Massachusetts....

Early morning sun in the forest

"Early morning sun finds its way through the trees in long, angled rays," writes Valerianna, describing a typical day at RavenWood. "Dew rises from the glistening mosses becoming a gentle mist, a hermit thrush sings far off in the forest. I sit in a chair outside the back door, watching the majesty of the morning, taking note of the inch or two of unfurling the ferns have managed since yesterday. Sipping coffee, I mostly look and listen – a kind of morning meditation – letting my mind wander and feeling the shape of twinleaf and foamflower in my body. I feel the gentle movement of the long, lacelike hemlock boughs, blown by a slight movement of air. The towering trunks bring me to the awareness of my spine and I watch as a red eft meanders through the woodland garden. I rise and pinch a bit of new spring hemlock needles, put it in my mouth, tasting yellow-greenness and a slight hint of citrus. Under the Grandmother tree, I bend and pick a partridge berry – not very tasty – but offering some red to my morning nutrition. Kicking off my clogs, I find a place on the mosses, and go through my Qigong routine. Swatting at mosquitoes, I wish I might become evolved enough to let them be. Pasha brushes past my leg, damp from his morning wander, full of purrs and stories, a wild glint in his green-gold eyes.

Red Eft

Green Man

PashaPasha

"It has been ten years since I came to this forest, and I think I am beginning to know something of the nature here. I am not so far from civilization, only a mile from the center of town, but such a tiny town with nothing more than a library (about the size of my downstairs), a general store, church, fire station, post office and a few bed-and-breakfasts. Not one stoplight or gas station or pub. Livestock and wildlife outnumber people, and the lack of human-made sounds is noticeable. Unlike my years in the city, when I hear a lawnmower here, it seems to bring me some comfort, as if to say, no, you are not completely alone in the wilderness. A twenty-minute drive brings me to Northampton, a small city with a big heart. From there, the road leads to small towns and cities, famous educational institutions, museums and the house of Emily Dickenson, which seems always to be waving at me from across the valley.

"When I arrived here, I had a plan of a small retreat center with drum circles and large seasonal gatherings and guest teachers and performances. Wandering the land in that first autumn, my plans fell off me, floating to the earth to mingle with oak leaves. As I began to feel the spirit of this forest, I understood that this was not a place of grand views and loud, expansive expression, but a quiet, inward land, asking for listening and rooting and reflecting beside still pools and moss covered ledges. On the first misty walk my mother took with me here, she said she was expecting King Arthur to ride over the hill, as the land seemed to be whispering stories as we walked.

Forest stories

"As the steward of a deep and inward forest, I am called to sit and listen and trust in stillness. Again and again, as the twenty-first century woman that I am becomes uncomfortable with stillness, I am asked to wait, to listen longer, remain still, root deeper.

"The seasonal gatherings to celebrate Equinoxes and Solstices do happen, but they are small, intimate gatherings around a small fire where songs and stories are shared and owls and coyotes offer their calls to the circle. Small groups of seekers come to do their inner work, learning from the stillness and remembering something about dreaming and how to let their bodies be held by the earth and to find ways of communicating and knowing beyond words and intellect.

Forest dreaming

"The forest has taught me – as any wild place would – to embrace the long, dark days of winter as a time to nourish the soul with fire and stories and deep, deep dreaming. I understand something of a dark underworld journey, and the enormous gifts of seeing it through to the end. A few years ago, after the loss of a loved one, I found myself on such a journey… it seemed to never end. I had to ignore impulses to go out and manifest and DO as a stronger voice continued to tell me to wait. One cold February morning, I awoke with a clear knowing of how to move outward again. I understood that I needed to bring my teaching more fully to the forest, to integrate all the parts of me, to share my relationship with the wild and to invite others to know stillness. I needed a grant to build a studio. I looked up a grant I had heard about that offers assistance to forest-based businesses encouraging forest owners to keep their land forested. The grant had not given out money in several years, but that year they were offering grants and the application was due in a month. I applied, got the grant, and RavenWood Forest, Studio of Mythic & Environmental Arts was built.

The studio

"A precious gift I have received from this forest is the gift of remembering. Finding a place just far enough away from the bustle, where the wild feels bigger than the human world, I remember myself as a soul being, quite removed from the definitions, boxes and labels that culture puts on me. When the owl comes to spend the day on her sunny perch outside my window, or a bear lumbers by, or I find a luna moth resting in a shady spot under a leaf, or I walk out to a garden filled with hundreds of dragon flies, darting this way and that, I am entranced and fully present with what is left of the wild within me.

Owl on her perchOwl on her perch

A bear comes out of trees, seeking ants to eatA bear comes out of the trees, seeking ants to eat

"But there are shadows here, too. One cannot spend years peering into the dark, still pools without being brought to one’s knees. Living alone here, I sometimes need to seek refuge in a town to walk around and look in shops and NOT be down under the towering trees. I need to go to the ridge top and be loud and expansive. My job as an adjunct art professor helps with getting me out, and, as teaching does, keeps my world full of young folk and forces me out of dreaming and into intellectual conversation. This is good for me. The long commute and the less than fair pay isn’t so good, but I stay connected.

"So it might seem that I have become a bit like the witch in the woods, like the character from my favorite childhood film, “The Three Lives of Thomasina”. She lives in an idyllic cottage in the forest, knows the language of birds and foxes, grows her own food and is the wise woman healer that the children bring their injured animals to. This is the romantic version, in truth, I can’t quite get enough light for a vegetable garden to grow well, there is a big mortgage to pay, I live very close to the financial edge, and my sensitivities to chemicals and mold have me flattened more than active these days.

"Being flattened however, isn’t always a negative thing, I am called to stillness again, and there is good medicine in that. As a storyteller in image, words and song, whose inspiration is the mystery of the forest, quiet dreaming is essential to my creative work. This past year, as I grieve the loss of my mother, and am healing the roots of my illness, I find myself painting images that tell the stories of the deep forest. I’m beginning to get at the essence of this place - a dark and mysterious woodland – with gentle wildflowers growing from the leaf mold, and root-tangled caverns under fallen trees that might well lead to the underworld. The stories that find me here are fierce as well as gentle. I live amongst large predators who might eat my beloved cat friend or even me, where the tiny Woolly Adelgid threatens to kill all my trees, and the well has run dry once or twice, leaving the herbs in the garden to wilt. I sometimes fantasize about life in a gypsy caravan, traveling from town to town, telling stories and singing with my drum, but I am more like a tree than a songbird, and its good to know who I am, lest I follow someone else’s dream and find myself utterly lost without my tribe of trees.

Late Winter Forest"Late Winter Forest,” watercolor, 11” x 15”, V. Claff, 2013

Strange Light"Strange Light,” watercolor, 22" x 30", V. Claff, 2013

Forest Mystery"Forest Mystery,” watercolor, 22" x 30”, V. Claff, 2013

"I spread my mother’s ashes in the moss garden on the last day of May, as she asked me to do. I think about the blessing of this – of how humans of old stayed where their ancestor’s bones decayed and became part of the soil, and how their very DNA became a part of that land. I wonder how living on land where one’s ancestors have been buried for centuries might be – would it be easier to speak with stones? Will the mosses begin to whisper their secrets to me, now that my mother’s spirit mingles with the ground here?

Winter Mists "Winter Mists,” watercolor, 11” x 15”, V. Claff, 2013

"The path beneath my feet is soft and spongy. I think about the generations of trees that have fallen to earth and become this ground, the tree-ancestors of the forest. Bones of the Eastern Woodland Indians and the first European settlers, long gone to dust, mingle here. The bear who didn’t put on enough fat before an unusually long winter is curled beneath the roots of an enormous pine tree, her body nourishing its roots as she dreams her forever dream. As I walk, I hear the call of a raven, shattering the quiet and filling the vast space between us. I sit on a boulder I call the whispering stone, my quiet cat beside me, listening as the raven’s call fades and the sound of black wings thrums past overhead."

Forest drum

Valerianna Claff

Three Seed Stones"Three Seed Stones," ink on paper, V. Claff

To see more of Valerianna's beautiful work and learn more about the RavenWood Forest Studio of Mythic & Environmental Arts, please visit the RavenWood website and blog.

Comments

Hi Terri, what a fascinating woman! And what a life-style. Her artwork too is beautiful; somehow breathless, as though waiting for something to arrive centre stage. I must admit I was thrown for a while at the mention of Northampton, and thought perhaps a new Wild Wood had grown up in England without my knowing. But the American spellings soon put me right, not to mention the reference to bears and other species either unknown or lost to these small islands.

Actually the return to the 'Into the Woods' series has prompted me to say something about my own work, even though I'm not sure about the etiquette of doing so on somebody else's site. It's nothing profound, or of any depth, really, it's just that the Wild Wood in the form of the 'Great Forest' appears in all of my published novels so far, and it's taken your Myth and Moor blog to open my eyes to the processes of imagination. On a conscious level I included the nurturing and at the same time threatening nature of the forest into my descriptions, and also the creatures of mythology including the Holly and Oak Kings, the Green man and woman, and also white witches. But on an unconscious level I've been made to see that even someone like me, city born and bred, still has a deep need to draw on the deeply rich heritage of Fairy Tales and the symbolism of woodlands to give a depth and true meaning to our own meagre contributions to the story-telling tradition.

Anyway, sorry if I seem to have hijacked your site, Terri, but I felt it was important to acknowledge my debt to a very deep and venerable cache of inspiration!

You haven't hijacked the site at all, this is exactly the kind of conversation I love, as all of us look deeply at the sources of our work and inspiration. Thank you, Stuart.

Thanks, Terri. I'm relieved I haven't overstepped any marks.

Thank you, Terri and Valerianna, for this gorgeous post.
Valerianna's blog is one of my favourites. She's always so generous, sharing glimpses into her forest world and her wonderful art that grows from it.

Valerianna, Terri, that is very wonderful and very beautiful.

In the Christian mystical tradition, the hermit's function is, in part, to provide a sort of spiritual rooting or earthing point amidst the noise and chaos of human life. Even though the larger body of the faithful may never see or approach the hermit, the knowledge that the hermit is there, silent and unseen, rests quietly in the soul; a silent, invisible presence recalling each one to recollect the heart of things and know the stillness hidden there - even in the chaos of daily life.

It seems to me that Valerianna (although not, obviously, a hermit)is deeply responsible, in every profound sense of that word, as a custodian of the forest in which she lives. The knowledge of her being there daily - making contact, listening - serves some similar function to that of the hermit for many of us now, I imagine.

And more besides, because as an artist, she also performs the shamanic function of communicating between the worlds - venturing into the forest's silent heart and returning. Then, with craft and wit, making the unseen, seen; the intangible, tangible; the mystery, known.

So then we have art as sacrament. The traditional definition of sacrament being 'the outward and visible expression of an inward and invisible reality.'

I have been a fan of Valerianna's art - especially those simple and yet eloquent woods and trees that really, to me at least, communicate and manifest the aliveness of the forest - since I first saw the winter trees series.

Now, reading this, I have some insight into how and why that magic is there and I am both moved and impressed.

I am happy you are there, Valerianna - and grateful, also.

Thank you. :)

I love that, Austin, "art as sacrament" - thanks for this. And, I seem to be more and more the hermit these days in my illness and living alone, and am surrendering to it more and more, at least for now.

Oh yes, Stuart, Massachusetts, being one of the first settled areas, is absolutely FULL of place names from England.

I, too, love the rich conversations that happen here in the comments.

Yes I love the idea of all of the 'same-name settlements' that are dotted throughout America. I wonder if there's a Leicester, my home city.

Yes there is, Stuart! In a beautiful area east of here, not far from where I teach. Its a town of 10,000 or so ( I didn't know this, I looked it up) in the woods and not far from a huge resevoir/lake where bald eagles breed.

Wonderful! As my partner, Clare, just said, if only we could say the same of our Leicester! Sadly we're a middle sized industrial city, and though there are woods in the surrounding countryside, I suspect Leicester USA is far more beautiful. We don't have bald eagles, of course, though there are ospreys in Rutland, a tiny county surrounded by Leicestershire. However we do have history second to none. Richard III the last Plataganet King has just been found under one of our car parks!

Wow, that IS some impressive history! But what a depressing burial ground... was it a sarcophagus they found?

No, Richard III was defeated by Henry Tudor at the battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire in 1485. He died fighting for his crown and was carried back to Leicester tied naked over the back of a horse and buried near the high altar of a priory. Archaeological evidence suggest his hands were bound and he was thrown into a hastily dug hole that wasn't quite big enough to allow his corpse to lie flat.

There are now plans to give him a fittingly Royal burial in Leicester Cathedral, but the city of York claim he should be buried there, and it looks like there could be a legal 'battle of the Bones'.

That's quite a story!

Thank you both for this treasure of a post.

Valerianna your words as always, weave their gentle spell. I love the tales you tell of your life amid the forest.

I have grown to love the woods & hills & quiet days around our home here and have discovered that delicious connection with what is left of the wild in me also. Thank you for reminding me to make time for my own “quiet dreaming” amongst the forest paths.

lovely valerie and terri.

I love the peace and serenity that flow from Valerianna's work & wood, thank you Terri!

Lovely post. Thank you Terri and Valerianna.

Wonderful work, wonderful woods, thankyou.

I have tried several times to post and say hi to my neighbor Valerianna (I live in Hatfield MA just down the road a bit) and my posts seem to take flight into the ether. So if this last try doesn't make it, will send it via the Terri carrier pigeon.

V--perhaps when I get back to Hatfield, some time after mid September--perhaps I could cone visit your woods in my favorite time of year, Fall, and bring an offering of a poem broadside in thanks for the wonderful post.

Jane

Stuart: The 'same-name' settlements might not seem so lovely if you consider the people and cultures that have been vanquished to make place for them.

Hello, ET. Yes, there are similar issues with the making of England too. As you may already know, when the Saxons, Jutes and other Germanic peoples settled parts of the areas we call the British Isles today, there's evidence that the resident Celts were dispossessed. Not all historians believe there was actual warfare, but certainly the older Celtic place names mainly disappeared and a Germanic culture was established. Also the Arthurian legend of the battle of Mount Badon tells of a crushing defeat for the invaders which brought years of peace. In fact, fairly recent archaeological research seems to back this, showing evidence of the halting of the spread of Anglo Saxon culture for a couple of generations. So yes, ET, I understand what you're saying, my own country seems to have been made by similar movements and forces.

So lovely to see Valerianna's beautiful work, and her forest too, here among the magical forests of 'Myth and Moor'. I like Austin's comment; though Valerianna and I may never meet (in the 'flesh' anyway), it comforts me to know she is there, a guardian of the forest, creating beautiful artwork, and bringing the forest to those of us who live far from it, reminding us how vital the forest and the woods (and the deserts and oceans and rivers and mountains) are to our very wellbeing, physically, mentally and spiritually.

Oh my, Jane, I would be honored to have you come for a visit to RavenWood! Fall is my favorite time of year as well. If you visit my blog, you will find my email. Look forward to meeting you!

Thank you everyone for words and reflections. Living alone and teetering on the edge of being a hermit, Myth & Moor - and the conversations that happen here - help me to feel a part of something larger, other than my tribe of trees. And thank you, Terri, for the opportunity to bring a bit of RavenWood to the Moor.

Though how we have not met before is a puzzlement. I thought I knew every artist/illustrator in the Valley and the Hilltowns. (Used to live in Conway back in the mid-60's.)

Jane

Valerianna, that was such a lovely post with so many interesting threads running through it!! Also, I have been loving your newest paintings. I hope everyone will go and have a look at what you've been up to lately!

Very beautiful and moving post which I really enjoyed very much. I think all enchanted places are mystically linked wherever they are in the world. It reminds me of when I lived alone in Devon in a teeny village and spent much time with just cats for company. I was lonely sometimes but now that I have moved back towards London I miss the peace and spirit of the wild places. The woods around you are so magical and your photographs and words pay them due homage. I think they are as lucky to have found you as you them. Your work is also very special. What is the red lizard? Magical! Minerva ~

Thank you, Jodi - strangely, the new work is so close to me, integrating all the parts of me, that I can't really SEE it. Maybe it will just take time.

Thank you, Minerva - I think about how I would miss it here if I moved away. I really can't imagine it, so I just need strategies for loneliness.

The lizard is a kind of salamander called a red eft. They live several years in the water, then come out to land for 4 or 5 years, I think, then go back into the water. I think about how that must be sort of like us coming from source, living here, then going back to source. I wonder, however, if the red efts have a memory of their land years...

You never know, Christina, I dreampt I was in Australia the other night... maybe we will meet there!

Well Jane, I do teeter on the edge of a hermitage here.

O goodness, those words went swirling throughout me this morning.
I especially resonated with the bit about having to just get into town sometimes and out from beneath the towering trees. It is good to go inward & it is good to go out and get swept up in the collective motion from time to time, as well I guess.
Flattened by allergies here, too, Valerianna. I'm trying to learn from it, since it mostly means I'm lying down breathing steadily through my mouth with no help from my nose! Ah!

I so enjoy this blog. It has a depth but a lightness to it...

x

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