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July 2013

Into the Woods, 27: The Deepwood (Part ll)

Under the trees

From The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane:

"Before coming to the Black Wood, I had read as widely in tree lore as possible. As well as the many accounts I encountered of damage to trees and woodland -- of what in German is called Waldsterben, or 'forest-death' -- I also met with and noted down stories of astonishment at woods and trees. Stories of how Chinese woodsmen in the T'ang and S'ung dynasties -- in obedience to the Taoist philosophy of a continuity of nature between humans and other species -- would bow to the trees which they felled, and offer a promise that the tree would be used well, in buildings that would dignify the wood once it had become timber.  The story of Xerxes, the Persian king who so loved sycamores that, when marching to war with the Greeks, he halted his army of many thousands of men in order that they might contemplate and admire one outstanding specimen. Thoreau's story of how he felt so attached to the trees in the woods around his home-town of Concord, Massachusetts, that he would call regularly on them, glady tramping 'eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or yellow-birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.'

The border wall


A mysterious spot in the border wall

"When Willa Cather moved to the prairies of Nebraska, she missed the wooded hills of her native Virginia. Pining for trees, she would sometimes travel south 'to our German neighbors, to admire their catalpa grove, or to see the big elm tree that grew out of a crack in the earth. Trees were so rare in that country that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons'....

Tilly and the old, old beech

"Single trees are extraordinary; trees in number more extraordinary still. To walk in a wood is to find fault with Socrates's declaration that 'Trees and open country cannot teach me anything, whereas men in town do.' Time is kept and curated and in different ways by trees, and so it is experienced in different ways when one is among them. This discretion of trees, and their patience, are both affecting. It is beyond our capacity to comprehend that the American hardwood forest waited seventy million years for people to come and live in it, though the effort of comprehension is itself worthwhile. It is valuable and disturbing to know that grand oak trees can take three hundred years to grow, three hundred years to live and three hundred years to die. Such knowledge, seriously considered, changes the grain of the mind.

"Thought, like memory, inhabits external things as much as the inner regions of the human brain. When the physical correspondents of thought disappear, then thought, or its possibility, is also lost. When woods and trees are destroyed -- incidentally, deliberately -- imagination and memory go with them. W.H. Auden knew this. 'A culture,' he wrote warningly in 1953, 'is no better than its woods.' "

Foxgloves on an old stone wall

From Ross Anderson's interview of Robert Pogue Harrison (in The LA Review of Books):

Robert Anderson: Your book [Forests], particularly the end of it, criticizes some of the basic ideas that motivate environmentalism and ecology. In particular you argue that when we conceive of deforestation as "loss of wildlife habitat," or "loss of nature," or "loss of biodiversity," we're not capturing the full loss that we face. First of all, what is the extent of that loss, and in your view has ecology changed much in the past twenty years?

Robert Pogue Harrison: That's a good question. When I'm critical of modern approaches to ecology, I'm really trying to remind my reader of the long relationship that Western civilization has had to these forests that define the fringe of its place of habitation, and that this relationship is one that has a rich history of symbolism and imagination and myth and literature. So much of the Western imagination has projected itself into this space that when you lose a forest, you're losing more than just the natural phenomenon or biodiversity; you're also losing the great strongholds of cultural memory.


The path between wildflowers and stone

Wild things

Is there a sound? There is a forest.
What is the word? The word is wilderness.
What is the answer? The answer is the world.
What is the beginning? A beginning is happiness.
What is the end? No one lives there now.
What is a beginning? The beginning is light.

- Bin Ramke
(from his beautiful, painful poem "Trouble Deaf Heaven: Sonnet 29")

Happiness and light

Into the Woods, 26: The Deepwood (Part 1)


From The Wild Places by English naturalist Robert Macfarlane:

"To understand the wild you must understand the wood. For civilization, as the historian Robert Pogue Harrison writes, 'literally cleared its space in the midst of forests.' For millennia, 'a sylvan fringe of darkness defined the limits of cultivation, the margins of its cities, the boundaries of its domains, but also the extravagance of its imagination.'

The Foxglove path.

"Although the disappearance of the true wildwood [in the British Isles] occurred in the Neolithic period, before humanity began to record its own history, creation myths in almost all cultures look fabulously back to a forested earth. In the ancient Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, the quest-story which begins world literature, Gilgamesh sets out on his journey from Uruk to the Cedar Mountains, where he has been charged to slay the Huwawa, the guardian of the forest. The Roman empire also defined itself against the forests in which its capital city was first established, and out of which its founders, the wolf-suckled twins, emerged. It was the Roman Empire which would proceed to destroy the dense forests of the ancient world.

Wild woodland orchid

Wild poppies

"The association of the wild and the wood also run deep in etymology. The two words are thought to have grown out of the root word wald and the old Teutonic word walthus, meaning 'forest.' Walthus entered Old English in its variant forms of 'weald,' 'wald,' and 'wold,' which were used to designate both 'a wild place' and 'a wooded place,' in which wild creatures -- wolves, foxes, bears -- survived. The wild and wood also graft together in the Latin word silva, which means 'forest,' and from which emerged the idea of 'savage,' with its connotations of fertility....

Blue Sicklewort

Woodland cranesbill

"The deepwood is vanished in these islands -- much, indeed, had vanished before history began -- but we are still haunted by the idea of it. The deepwood flourishes in our architecture, art and above all in our literature. Unnumbered quests and voyages have taken place through and over the deepwood, and fairy tales and dream-plays have been staged in its glades and copses. Woods have been a place of inbetweenness, somewhere one might slip from one world to another, or one time to a former: in Kipling's story 'Puck of Pook's Hill,' it is by right of 'Oak and Ash and Thorn' that the children are granted their ability to voyage back into English history.

The magic of dogs

"There is no mystery in this association of woods and otherworlds, for as anyone who has walked the woods knows, they are places of correspondence, of call and answer. Visual affinities of color, relief and texture abound. A fallen branch echoes the deltoid form of a streambed into which it has come to rest. Chrome yellow autumn elm leaves find their color rhyme in the eye-ring of the blackbird. Different aspects of the forest link unexpectedly with each other, and so it is that within the stories, different times and worlds can be joined.

Oak elder

"Woods and forests have been essentialt to the imagination of these islands, and of countries throughout the world, for centuries. It is for this reason that when woods are felled, when they are suppressed by tarmac and concrete and asphalt, it is not only unique species and habitats that disappear, but also unique memories, unique forms of thought."

Tilly in the woods

What Tilly and I saw on our morning walk...

A rainbow bridge into Faerie bursts of summer showers: a rainbow stretching from the open moor to the rolling green fields of Chagford. In myth, rainbows often lead to the land of the gods, to the spirit world, or else into the Good Folks' realm . . . which seems appropriate here. The wild hills of Devon are Faerieland enough for me.

Rainbow over the fields

Rainbows never fail to fill me with awe. I love their fragility, ephemerality, and the way they appear so suddenly, like a magical visitation. Tilly and I stopped to watch this one until fresh rain showers drove us home again, shrieking (me, not Tilly) as we ran through the woods, getting very wet indeed.

Wet dog

Now Tilly lounges by the studio window, damp but content, while the rain drums patterns on the cabin's tin roof. Outside, the parched hills drink it down; and inside, all is snug and dry. With Celtic fiddles on the stereo and a fresh mug of coffee to hand, the work week begins ....

The work week begins

Tunes for a Monday Morning

After posting photographs of the Morris troupe dancing near Fingle Bridge last week,  I was reminded of my favorite local troupe: Beltane, performers of the wild, almost shamanic form of the dance called Border Morris.

A Beltane Border Morris dancerAmericans tend to view Morris dancing as a quaintly charming slice of "olde England," and don't often realize how many of the English themselves find it hopelessly twee.* (This is the kind of dance they're generally thinking of.) As an oft-repeated quote (variously attributed to Thomas Beecham, Wilde, Shaw, and others) says snidely: "Try everything at least once once, my dear, except incest and Morris dancing." Personally, I like Morris dancing of all sorts (thereby "outing" myself as deeply uncool); and I especially love modern Border Morris as practiced by younger troupes like Beltane, with goth, punk, and neo-pagan leanings.

Border Morris originated in the west of Britain -- probably sometime in the late Middle Ages, arising from dance traditions that were older still -- developed primarily by dancers and musicians along the border of England and Wales. The distinguishing characteristics of Border Morris (as opposed to other forms) are shorter sticks, higher steps, ragged costumes, A Fire Dance on Dartmoorblackened faces, and larger bands of musicians. The history of the blackened face is much disputed: it may have had ceremonial significance in the dance's deeply pagan origins; or it might have been a form of disguise adopted in years when Border Morris was frowned upon as rowdy, subversive, and un-Christian.

It certain is rowdier than most other forms of Morris; it's also more overtly pagan, and thus (to me) more powerful. Often performed at sacred times in the Celtic lunar calendar, the dances invoke a palpable magic tied to the land, the seasons, and the mythic wheel of life, death, and rebirth. Like other forms of sacred dance the world over, the drum beat and the dancers' steps weave patterns intended to keep the seasons turning and maintain the balance of the human/nonhuman worlds. Yet in contrast to other, more mannered forms of Morris, Border dancers unleash an energy that is earthier, lustier, more anarchic...both joyous and unsettling to watch, especially by dusk or firelight. 

Beltane Border Morris, Devon, UK

Howard and I  once came across Beltane dancing in our village square, just as dark began to fall. At one moment in the dance, the music went quiet. The troupe dropped to their knees in unison, sticks pounding the ground in a slow, steady rhythm. Then, just as slowly, the dancers rose...the music started faintly...quickened and loudened...and the dance romped on again. It was breathtaking to watch: both beautiful and chilling. If a portal into Faerie had opened at that moment, I would not have been at all surprised.

In the video at the top of this post, Beltane performs a Fire Dance at the dawn of May Day (Beltane), 2012. The dance took place on Dartmoor, on a foggy crossroad near Hay Tor.

Below, a dance for Winter Solstice at Stonehenge, filmed last December.

A Beltane Border Morris dancer at Winter Solstice

And last, just for fun:

Dancing in the sea. This video (complete with wind and barking dog) was filmed at Teignmouth on the south Devon coast.

Beltane Border Morris: dancers and musicians

* The American equivalent of the English word "twee" would be "hokey" or "corny."

On Singing & Music

a Fairy Song by Arthur Rackham

“It may be laid down as a general rule that if a man begins to sing, no one will take any notice of his song except his fellow human beings. This is true even if his song is surpassingly beautiful. Other men may be in Beauty & the Beast: After She Had Done Her Work She Would Sing and Play  by Edmund Dulac
raptures at his skill, but the rest of creation is, by and large, unmoved. Perhaps a cat or a dog may look at him; his horse, if it is an exceptionally intelligent beast, may pause in cropping the grass, but that is the extent of it. But when the fairy sang, the whole world listened to him. Stephen felt clouds pause in their passing; he felt sleeping hills shift and murmur; he felt cold mists dance. He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands. In the fairy's song the earth recognized the names by which it called itself.”  - Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell)

"Why does exquisite song stir us deeply? Perhaps, more than any instrument, song can capture us because the human voice is our very own sound; the voice is the most intimate signature of human individuality and, of all the sounds in creation, comes from an utterly different place. Though there is earth in the voice, the voice is not of the earth. It is the voice of the in-between creature, the one in whom both earth and heaven become partially vocal."  - John O'Donohue (Beauty)

The Green Singing Book by Elizabeth Shippen Green

"There is a profound sense in which music opens a secret door in time and reaches in to the eternal. This is the authority and grace of music: it evokes or creates an atmosphere where presence awakens to its eternal depth. In our everyday experience the quality of presence is generally limited and broken. Much of the time we are distracted; we might manage to be externally present, but often our minds are secretly elsewhere. Music can transform this fragmentation, for when you enter into a piece of music your feeling deepens and your presence clarifies. It brings you back to the mystery of who you are....Listening to music stirs the heavy heart; it alters the gravity."   - John O'Donohue (Beauty)

The Piano Lesson by Carl Larsson

         I want to thank
my mother for working and always paying for   
my piano lessons
before she paid the Bank of America loan   
or bought the groceries
or had our old rattling Ford repaired.

I was a quiet child,
afraid of walking into a store alone,
afraid of the water,
the sun,
the dirty weeds in back yards,
afraid of my mother’s bad breath,
and afraid of my father’s occasional visits home,   
knowing he would leave again;
afraid of not having any money,
afraid of my clumsy body,
that I knew
         no one would ever love

But I played my way
on the old upright piano
obtained for $10,
played my way through fear,
through ugliness,
through growing up in a world of dime-store purchases,   
and a desire to love
a loveless world.

Choir Rehearsal by Otto Piltz

“Our songs travel the earth. We sing to one another. Not a single note is ever lost and no song is original. They all come from the same place and go back to a time when only the stones howled.”
- Louise Erdrich (The Master Butcher's Singing Club)

The Choir Lesson by Auguste Trupheme

"Singing has always seemed to me the most perfect means of expression. It is so spontaneous. And after singing, I think the violin. Since I cannot sing, I paint."   - Georgia O'Keeffe

A Woman Singing by Godfried Schalcken

“Then the musical instruments appeared. Dad’s snare drum from the house, Henry’s guitar from his car, Adam’s spare guitar from my room. Everyone was jamming together, singing songs: Dad’s songs, Adam’s songs, old Clash songs, old Wipers songs. Teddy was dancing around, the blond of his hair reflecting the golden flames. I remember watching it all and getting that tickling in my chest and thinking to myself: This is what happiness feels like.”   - Gayle Forman (If I Stay)

(That's how I feel when the instruments come out too.)

The Singing Lesson by Frederico Zandomeneghi

“I believe in kindness. Also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when singing is not necessarily prescribed.”   - Mary Oliver

Singing Praise by Dick Sargent

The art above is: "A Fairy Song" by Arthur Rackham (English, 1867-1939); "Beauty & the Beast: After She Had Done Her Work She Would Sing and Play" by Edmund Dulac (French, 1882-1953); "The Green Singing Book" by Elizabeth Shippen Green (American, 1871-1954 ); "The Piano Lesson" by Carl Larsson (Swedish, 1853-1919); "Choir Rehearsal" by Otto Piltz (German, 1846-1910); "The Choir Lesson" by Auguste Joseph Trupheme (French, 1836-1898); "A Woman Singing" by Godfried Schalcken (Dutch, 1643-1706); "The Singing Lesson"  by Frederico Zandomeneghi (Italian,  1841-1917); and "Singing Praise" by Richard Sargent (American, 1911-1979 ), for the Saturday Evening Post.

More "reading art" (for Ellen Kushner):

The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg

Girl Reading in Bed by James McNeil Whistler

My Life in Bed by Joseph Hubbard

“Literature duplicates the experience of living in a way that nothing else can, drawing you so fully into another life that you temporarily forget you have one of your own. That is why you read it, and might even sit up in bed ’till early dawn, throwing your whole tomorrow out of whack, simply to find out what happens to some people who, you know perfectly well, are made up.”  – Barbara Kingsolver

Reading in Bed by Peter Brannon

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."  - James Baldwin

Boys Reading by André Kertész

The Dramatist by Brigit Ganley

Girl Reading by Vanessa Bell

Interior with Duncan Grant Reading by Vanessa Bell

Portrait of Chattie Salaman by Duncan Grant

“We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves."  – David L. Ulin

Woman Reading by Alexander Deinka

A Lady Reading by Felix Vallotton

Reader with Yellow Necklace by Félix Vallotton

Sally by Mia Wolff

"Live for a while in the books you love. Learn from them what is worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be returned to you a thousand times over. Whatever your life may become, these books -of this I am certain- will weave through the web of your unfolding. They will be among the strongest of all threads of your experiences, disappointments, and joys." - Rainer Maria Rilke 

The Blue Pool by Augustus John

The Precious Book by Gwen John

Brown Tea Pot with Yellow by Gwen John

“So often, a visit to a bookshop has cheered me, and reminded me that there are good things in the world.” – Vincent van Gogh

Novels by Vincent Van Gogh

The Novel Reader by Vincent Van Gogh

Hall's Bookshop by John Wheatley

A Song Worth Volumes by Camille Engle

"The Poor Poet" by Carl Spitzweg  (German, 1808-1834); "My Life in Bed" by  Joseph Hubbard (American), "Girl Reading," an etching by James Abbott MacNeill Whistler (American, 1934-1903); "Reading in Bed" by Peter Brannan (English, 1926-1994);  "Boys Reading," a  photograph by André Kertész (Hungarian-American, 1894-1985 ), "The Dramatist: A Portrait of the Artist's Husband" by Brigit Ganley (Irish, 1909-2002); "Girl Reading" and "Interior with Duncan Grant Reading" by Vanessa Bell  (English, 1879-1961); "Portrait of Chattie Salaman" by Duncan Grant (English, 1885-1978);  "Woman Reading" by Alexander Deineka (Russian, 1899-1969); "A Lady Reading" and "Reader With Yellow Necklace" by Félix Vallotton (Swiss, 1865-1925); "Sally" by Mia Wolff (American);  "The Blue Pool: Dorelia with Book" by Augustus John (Welsh, 1878-1961); "The Precious Book" and "Brown Tea Pot with Yellow Book" by his sister, Gwen John (Welsh, 1876-1939); "Novels" and "Novel Reader" by Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890)'  "Hall's Bookshop in Royal Tunbridge Wells, west Kent" by John Wheatley (English, 1892-1955); and a "A Song Worth Volumes by Camille Engle (American), from her lovely Literary Roost series.

Down by the riverside


Oh Earth, Wait for Me
by Pablo Neruda

Return me, oh sun,
to my wild destiny,
rain of the ancient wood,
bring me back the aroma and the swords
that fall from the sky,
the solitary peace of pasture and rock,
the damp at the river-margins,
the smell of the larch tree,
the wind alive like a heart
beating in the crowded restlessness
of the towering araucaria.

Earth, give me back your pure gifts,
the towers of silence which rose
from the solemnity of their roots.
I want to go back to being what I have not been,
and learn to go back from such deeps
that among all natural things
I could live or not live; it does not matter
to be one stone more, the dark stone,
the pure stone which the river bears away.

Riverside 2

Riverside 3

"Is beauty a reminder of something we once knew, with poetry one of its vehicles? Does it give us a brief vision of that 'rarely glimpsed bright face behind/ the apparency of things'? Here, I suppose, we ought to try the impossible task of defining poetry. No one definition will do. But I must admit to a liking for the words of Thomas Fuller, who said: 'Poetry is a dangerous honey. I advise thee only to taste it with the Tip of thy finger and not to live upon it. If thou do'st, it will disorder thy Head and give thee dangerous Vertigos.' "

P.K. Page (The Filled Pen)

Riverside 4

"What I love is one foot in front of another. South-south-west and down the contours. I go slipping between Black Ridge and White Horse Hill into a bowl of the moor where echoes can't get out












and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bark, a foal of a river"

--Alice Oswald (from "Dart," her gorgeous long poem about the River Dart in Devon)

Riverside 5

"My poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests."  - Pablo Neruda (in an interview, 1985)

Riverside 7

How Poetry Comes to Me
by Gary Snyder

It comes blundering over the
Boulders at night, it stays
Frightened outside the
Range of my campfire
I go to meet it at the
Edge of the light

Fingle Bridge

Howard & Tilly on Fingle Bridge

"Quoting Greek philosopher Plotinus, Tarnas writes, 'The stars are like letters that inscribe themselves at every moment in the sky. Everything in the world is full of signs. All events are coordinated. All things depend on each other. Everything breathes together.' For me, poetry is the music of being human. And also a time machine by which we can travel to who we are and to who we will become." - Carol Ann Duffy

The Fingle Bridge Pub


Ars Poetica
by Jorge Luis Borges

To gaze at the river made of time and water
And recall that time itself is another river,
To know we cease to be, just like the river,
And that our faces pass away, just like the water.

To feel that waking is another sleep
That dreams it does not sleep and that death,
Which our flesh dreads, is that very death
Of every night, which we call sleep. 

To see in the day or in the year a symbol
Of mankind's days and of his years,
To transform the outrage of the years
Into a music, a rumor and a symbol,

To see in death a sleep, and in the sunset
A sad gold, of such is Poetry
Immortal and a pauper. For Poetry
Returns like the dawn and the sunset.

At times in the afternoons a face
Looks at us from the depths of a mirror;
Art must be like that mirror
That reveals to us this face of ours.

Morris dancers 1

Morris dancers 2

Morris dancers 3

"This wounded Earth we walk upon
She will endure when we are gone
But still I pray that you may know
How rivers run and rivers flow..."

- Karine Polwart (from her song "Rivers Run")

"There is poetry as soon as we realize that we possess nothing." - John Cage

Publication credits: "Oh Earth, Wait for Me" by Pablo Neruda is from Pablo Neruda: Selected Poems, translated from the Spanish by Anthony Kerrigan; "How Poetry Comes to Me" by Gary Snyder is from his collection No Nature: New and Selected Poems; "Ars Poetica" by Jorge Luis Borges is from his collection Dreamtigers, translated from the Spanish by Mildred Vincent Boyers and Harold Morland. The short passage by Alice Oswald come from her book-length poem Dart (Faber, 2010), which I cannot recommend highly enough. It's simply gorgeous. All rights to the quoted text in this post reserved by their creators.

Into the Woods, 25: The Forest of Stories (Part III)

Library Lions by Graeme Base

In his memoir The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford quotes this wonderful description of a library from Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes:

The Library by Jessie Willcox SmithThe library deeps lay waiting for them. Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast, marched on forever. Invisible, silent, yes, but Jim and Will had the gift of ears and noses as well as tongues. This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo....

But Bradbury, notes Spufford, "writes as if stories burst out of their library bindings on their own. I never found that. For me, they had to be stalked, sampled, weighed, measured, sniffed, tasted, often rejected. There were so many possibilities that the different invitations each book made would have blended together, if they had been audible, into a constant muttering hum. To hear the separate call of a book, you had to take it up and detach it from all the other possibilities by concentrating on it, and giving it a little silence in which to work. Then you learned what it was offering. Be a Roman soldier, said a book by Rosemary Sutcliffe. Be an urchin in Georgian London, said Leon Garfield. Be Little Boy Reading a Book by William Henry HuntMilo, 'who was bored, not just some of the time but all of the time,' and drives past the purple tollbooth to the Lands Beyond. Be where you can hear cats talking by tasting the red liquid in the big bottle in the chemist shop's window. Be where magic works easily. Be where magic works frighteningly. Be where you can work magic, but have to conceal being invisible or being able to fly from the eyes of the grown-ups. Be an Egyptian child beside the Nile, be a rabbit on Watership Down, be a foundling so lonely in a medieval castle that the physical ache of it reaches to you out of the book; be one of a gang of London kids playing on a bombsite among the willowherb and loosestrife, only fifteen years or so before 1972, but already far, far in the past. Be a king. Be a slave. Be Biggles. All this was there in the library basement, if you picked up the books and coaxed them into activity, and uncountably more besides....When I made my choice, and walked back up to the Ironmarket from the library to the bus stop, I knew I might have melancholy tucked under my arm; or laughter; or fear; or enchantment.

Sunday Afternoon, Interior With Girl Reading by Michael Peter Ancher"Or longing. My favorite books were the ones that took books' explicit status as other worlds, and acted on it literally, making the window of writing a window into imaginary countries. I didn't just want to see in books what I saw anyway in the world around me, even if it was perceived and understood  and articulated from angles I could never have achieved; I wanted to see things I never saw in life. More than I wanted books to do anything else, I wanted them to take me away."

Spufford was eight when he read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time, paging quickly through Pippin and Merry's adventures in order to "get back to Sam and Frodo and the ring. I identified their journey as the story." Later, he says, "I discovered and cherished Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels. They were utterly different in feeling, with their archipelago of bright islands like ideal Hebrides, and their guardian wizards balancing light and dark like yin and yang. All they shared with Tolkien was the deep consistency that allows an imagined world to unfold from its premises solidly, step by certain step, like something that might really exist. Consistency is to an imaginary world as the laws of physics are to ours. The spell-less magic of Earthsea gave power to those who knew the true names of things: a beautifully simple idea. Once I had seen from the first few pages of the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, that Le Guin was always going to obey her own rules, I could trust the entire fabric of her world."

The Reading Boy by Joshua ReynoldsYet the books that Spufford loved best were those "that started in this world and took you to another. Earthsea and Middle Earth were separate. You traveled in them in imagination as you read Le Guin and Tolkien, but they had no location in relation to this world. Their richness did not call to you at home in any way. It did not lie just beyond a threshold in this world that you might find if you were particularly lucky, or particularly blessed.

"I wanted there to be a chance to pass through a portal, and by doing so to pass through rusty reality with its scaffolding of facts and events into the freedom of story. I wanted there to be doors. If, in a story, you found the one panel in the fabric of the workaday world that was hinged, and it opened, and it turned out that behind the walls of the world flashed the gold and peacock blue of something else, and you were able to pass through, that would be a moment in which all the decisions that have been taken in this world, and all the choices that had been made, and all the facts that had been settled, would be up for grabs again: all possibilities would be renewed, for who knew what lay on the other side?

"And once open, the door would never entirely shut behind you either. A kind of mixture would begin. A tincture of this world's reality would enter the other world, as the ordinary children in the story -- my representatives, my ambassadors -- wore their shorts and sweaters amid cloth of gold, and said Crumbs! and Come off it! among people speaking the high language of fantasy; while this world would be subtly altered too, changed in status by the knowledge that it had an outside."

The Books of Magic, Volume 1 by Charles Vess

A detail from Tom Sawyer by Jeffrey T. LarsonBin Ramke reminisces in his poem"Chivalric":

Here is the past: One was once a boy
and read books and could not pronounce
the most engaging words and read
in silence under blankets. Here   
one was not like oneself or was
quiet and wrong and did not know
the words nor how to ask, who
to ask. Nor why. Boy’s books with flags.
Everyone’s born to the language; anyone
can say something. For instance,   
knight banneret, that’s what she called him,   
having no use for him after history,   

she thrust him into the operatic night:

                                         A woman's hand rose
above the surface of the lake and caught   
the glistering sword, and slowly   
descended into the boy’s refuge,   
his astonishment, so foreign, so little like home...

"Storytelling draws on the magic of language to created Elsewheres," says Maria Tatar (in Enchantment Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood). "Writers use a linguistic sleight-of-hand to take an attribute, attach them to new objects, and create enchantment."

Captivated by Adolphe Alexandre LesrelTatar quotes this passage from J.R.R. Tolkien's famous essay "On Fairy-Stories":

The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make things light and able to fly, turn grey into yellow gold, and the still rock into swifter water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood we already have an enchanter's power -- upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our mind awakes.

"Magic happens," says Tatar, "when the wand of language strikes a stone and makes it melt, touches a spindle and turns it into gold, or taps a trunk and makes it fly. By drawing on a syntax of enchantment that conjures fluidity, ethereality, flimsiness, and transparency, writers turn solidity into resplendent airy lightness to produce miracles of linguistic transubstantiation. 

"What is the effect of that beauty? How do readers repond to words that create that beauty? In a world that has discredited that particular attribute and banished it from high art, beauty has nonetheless held on to its enlivening power in children's books. It draws readers in, then draws them to understand the fictional worlds it lights up."

Study at a Reading Desk by Lord Frederick Leighton

This is one of the many reasons, I believe, that the best of the books published for children and young adults have devoted adult readers too (despite the baffled surprise this seems to incur in certain literary quarters).  Beauty is to our age, Shirley Hazzard once said dryly, as sex was to the Victorians: a subject we don't talk about, except in the most superficial of terms. And yet we need beauty, and wonder, in our lives -- especially now, as a balancing corrective to a culture addicted to novelty and awash in irony and detachment. As the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue wrote in his insightful book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, "When our eyes are graced with wonder, the world reveals its wonders to us. There are people who see only dullness in the world and that is because their eyes have already been dulled. So much depends on how we look at things. The quality of our looking determines what we come to see."

With beauty and wonder scorned in so many of stories now told to adults (in books, in films, on television), no wonder it's to fantasy and to children's fiction that so many of us turn.

Evening Reading by George Pauli

Reading Aloud by Julius LeBlanc Stewart

C.S. Lewis once wrote: "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret, and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up."

Farmer Sitting at the Fireside and Reading by Vincent van Gogh

“When we are young," muses Louise Erdrich (in The Plague of Doves), "the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape.”

We build ourselves through the stories we imbibe, both consciously and unconsciously...and it's in the latter realm that danger arises if we're not wary. 

A Lady Reading by Gwen John

A Young Girl Reading by Michael Peter Ancher

We in the West, says Rebecca Solnit , "have been muddled by Plato's assertion that art is imitation and illusion; we believe it is a realm apart, one whose impact on our world is limited, one in which we do not live. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, my mother liked to recite, though words hurt her all the time, and behind the words the stories about how things should be and where she fell short, as told by my father, by society, by the church, by the happy flawless women of advertisements. We all live in that world of images and stories, and most of us are damaged by some version of it, and if we're lucky, find others or make better ones that embrace and bless us." (The Faraway Nearby)

Solnit expresses so beautifully the very thing that I have long been trying to do as a writer, editor, and painter: I want find better stories, make better stories, stories that will "embrace and bless" the readers who find them.

I think that's what we're all doing here in the mythic arts field, writers and readers alike, in our many different ways.

Man Reading (Portrait of Gustaf Dalstrom) by Frances Foy

Whilst Reading, a Portrait of Sofia Kramskoya, the Artist's Wife by Ivan Kramskoi

The "books and reading" art above is: "The Library Lions" by Graeme Base (Austrlian), from his book Animalia; "The Library" by Jessie Willcox Smith (American, 1853-1935 ); "Little Boy Reading a Book" by William Henry Hunt (English, 1790-1864);  Sunday Afternoon, Interior with Girl Reading" by Michael Peter Ancher ( (Danish, 1849-1927); "The Reading Boy" by Joshua Reynolds (English, 1723-1792); "The Books of Magic, Vol. 1" by Charles Vess (American); a detail from "Tom Sawyer" by Jeffrey T. Larson (American); "Captivated" by Adolphe Alexandre Lesrel (France, 1839-1929); "Study at a Reading Desk" by Lord Frederick Leighton (English, 1830-1896); "Evening Reading" by Georg Pauli (Finnish, 1855-1935); "Reading Aloud" by Julius LeBlanc Steward (American, 1855-1919); "Farmer Sitting at the Fireside and Reading" by Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890); "A Lady Reading" by Gwen John (Welsh, 1876-1939);  "A Young Girl Reading" by Michael Peter Ancher ( (Danish, 1849-1927);"Man Reading," a portrait of Gustaf Dalstrom, the artist's hysband, by Frances Foy (American, 1890-1963);  and "Whilst Reading," a portrait of Sofia Kramskoya, the artist's wife, by Ivan Kramskoi (Russian, 1837-1887).

All the works quoted from above are highly recommended: The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading, a charming and poignant memoir by Francis Spufford;  Something Wicked This Way Comes, the classic novel by Ray Bradbury; Bin  Ramke's 1999 poetry collection, WakeThe Enchantment Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by the great fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar;  J.R.R. Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-stories," published in his collection Leaf by Niggle (it can also be read online here, and my memoir-ish essay about the essay is here);  John O'Donohue's insightful examination of beauty in life and art, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace; Louise Erdich's fine novel The Plague of Doves; and Rebecca Solnit's gorgeous new memoir, The Faraway Nearby.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

This week, a quartet of lovely songs from the British Isles:

Above, Irish singer Mary Black joins Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and the Donegal band Altan for a stirring performance of  the Irish Gelic song "Siúil A Rúin," filmed in concert in Glasgow. (The English translation of the chorus is: Go, go, go my love/Go quietly and peacefully/Go to the door and fly with me.)

Below, Scots Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes performs "Oran a Cloiche (The Song of the Stone)" by Donald MacIntyre at a TransAtlantic Session in 2011, accompanied by Sarah Jarosz, Mike McGoldrick, Russ Barenberg, Donald Shaw, and Nollaig Casey. The song recounts the dramatic (but temporary) return of the Stone of Scone to Scotland in 1950, boldly retrieved from Westminister Abbey by four students on Christmas Day. (You can read the song's lyrics in translation here, and the full story of the stone here.) MacInnes comes from the Outer Hebrides and is now based in Glasgow.


"Ye Banks and Braes," performed by Scottish singer/songwriter Holly Tomás, from Edinburgh. The lyrics, based on a Robert Burns poem, are written from the point of view of a love-lorn woman as she walks by the banks of the River Doon in Ayrshire.

And last:

The Poozies, a wonderful Anglo-Scots all-women trad band, with their gorgeous song, "We Build Fires." The song refers both to the ancient system of building beacon fires on high hills as communication and defense signals, and also to the pagan ceremonial fires lit at various sacred times during the lunar calendar.

The Poozies have had several line-ups over the twenty years that they've been performing, but in this video it's: Sally Barker (lead vocals and guitar), Jenny Gardner (fiddle), Mary Macmaster (harp), Pasty Seddon (harp), and Karen Tweed (accordion). If you'd like to hear more music from The Poozies this morning, go here and here, or try any of their seven CDs.