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August 2014

The starting point

Three Hares Tor

Here's a provactive question from Eleanor Cameron, excerpted from her fine essay, "A Writer's Journey":

"I have told more than once how much place means to me in the books I have lived with year after year and read again and again, place not as backdrop or as a background to be worked up in order to get on with the action. Place, for me, must be loved and known; it gives rise to the book and its characters so that the sense of it could never come if its place meant nothing, or I had not experienced it aesthetically and emotionally.

"I was sixteen when I experienced my uprooting from [my childhood home in] Berkeley, the wrenching from my own place when I was just beginning to be aware of how much that place meant to me. Is such an uprooting, which many a writer has been subjected to in a far more traumatic way than I, good for one's art or bad?

Moor Maiden by Virginia Lee

Nature's Cycle by Virginia Lee

"Possibly good," Cameron continues, "because then one writes out of loneliness and unhappiness and longing for that place and the people one has left behind in ways not possible if one lives in it. For me, at least, memory of what has been lost is a better creator of vivid place than happy satisfaction in being in it, if there is to be a cutting edge to whatever emotions are aroused in one's protagonists and to whatever influence place has over them, coloring their moods and, therefore, very often directing their actions.

"I know, of course, that there are innumerable instances disproving a notion of what seems to work for me. Think of Proust and Emily Dickinson; no need for journeyings there....Virginia Woolf, living in London, wrote Mrs. Dalloway, a superb evocation of that city. Both Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, living in their own towns in the [American] South all their lives, have written classic short stories about the South. E.B. White wrote Charlotte's Web while living right on his farm in North Brooklin, Maine, where he'd ached to be all those years in New York. Lucy Boston has lived in her cherished Norman manor house -- Green Knowe -- and gone on writing about it ever since she first bought it and had all the later excrescences torn away to reveal the ancient, original structure.

Musical Land by Virginia Lee

Summer Lands by Virginia Lee

"But Virginia Woolf wrote a better novel than Mrs. Dalloway in To the Lighthouse, about a much-loved childhood summer place in Cornwall, opposite the Godrevey Lighthouse, when she was many miles and years away from the scene. Katherine Mansfield wrote her finest and most artistically truthful stories about her childhood home in New Zealand...when she was living in France, ill much of the time and unhappy.

"The whole matter is, certainly, a very personal one. Natalie Babbitt told me once that she does not write from the inside out at all, as those do to whom place means so much, but from the outside in, getting an idea and then creating place and characters to flesh it out. For her, apparently, the journey either to or away from some special, loved place does not signify in her writing as far as intensity of feeling is concerned. Louise Bogan, the poet, in a biography by Elizabeth Frank, is quoted as saying: 'The initial mystery that attends any journey is: how did the traveler reach his starting point in the first place?' "

Merfolk by Virginia Lee

Earthbound by Virginia Lee

I am defintitely a writer, like Cameron, whose work is rooted in place...though I have written in both modes: in response to the land below my feet, and out of longing for places where I am not. In this regard, I write from the inside out. And you? Where is your starting point?

The exquisite paintings and drawings here are by my friend and Chagford neighbor Virginia Lee, another artist deeply inspired by place. Please visit her beautiful website , delightful blog, and Etsy shop to see more of her work.

The liberation of lady sprout by Virginia LeeEleanor Cameron's "A Writer's Journey" appears in The Seed and the Vision: On the Writing and Appreciation of Children's Books (1993).


A walk on the hill

Nattadon Hill

"Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry -- determined to make a day of it."

- Henry David Thoreau (Walden)

Nattadon Hill

Nattadon Hill

Nattadon Hill

"Our lives are fittered away by detail....Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!"

- Henry David Thoreau (Walden)

Nattadon Hill


Lingering at the threshold

A threshold of light

From Beauty by the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue (1956-2008):

"The beauty of the earth is the first beauty. Millions of years before us the earth lived in wild elegance. Landscape is the first-born of creation. Sculpted with huge patience over millenia, landscape has enormous diversity of shape, presence and memory. There is a poignancy in beholding the beauty of landscape: it often feels as though it has been waiting for centuries for the recognition and witness of the human eye.

"In the ninth Duino Elegy, Rilke says:

Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window...
To say them more intensely than the Things themselves
Ever dreamed of existing.

Field gate

Bly Gate

"We were once enwombed in the earth and the silence of the body remembers that dark, inner longing. Fashioned from clay, we carry the memory of the earth. Ancient, forgotten things stir within our hearts, memories of the time before the mind was born. Within us are depths that keep watch. These are depths that no words can trawl or light unriddle. Our neon times have neglected and evaded the depth-kingdom in favor of the ghost realms of cyberspace. Our world becomes reduced to intense but transient foreground. We have unlearned the patience and attention of lingering at thresholds where the unknown awaits us.

Sheep field gate

"The earth is not outside us; it is within: the clay from where the tree of the body grows. When we emerge from our offices, rooms and houses, we enter our natural element....There is something in our clay nature that needs to continually experience this ancient, outer ease of the world. It helps us remember who we are and why we are here."

Sheep field wall

Our love was born
outside the walls,
in the wind,
in the night,
in the earth,
and that's why the clay and the flower,
the mud and the roots
know your name.

Pablo Neruda (from "Ode and Burgeonings")

"We do not want merely to see beauty...We want something else which can hardly be put into words -- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses, and nymphs and elves.''  -  C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves)

Arthur Rackham

Up the pathIllustration by Arthur Rackahm (1867-1939)


Openings, entrances, reminders

Ancient moorland gate, summer

One of the most gorgeous essays I've ever read is "(En)trance" by Chris Arthur (The Litery Review, 2008). It's a mediation on the entrance to the grounds of Shandon, his family's estate in Northern Ireland, consisting of two brick pillars (minus an iron gate that was melted down in World War II), a curved stretch of boundary wall, and the laurel thickets close by. Despite this tight focus, we are gifted with vivid flashes of Shandon's long history while also reflecting on the nature of time and myths of borders and edges...all so beautifully written that I felt breathless and a little light-headed when the essay was done.

Arthur, whose chosen form is the essay, compares himself to the kind of writer he'd assumed he would be when he was younger: a novelist; and thus "(En)trance" is also an exploration of the differences between these literary genres, and the ways that different writers might make use of the Shandon setting.

"Since writers of the sort I'm not aren't constrained by the boundaries of what happened, " he tells us, "it would be easy to invent all manner of stories about love and lust, about class and religion, about Englishness and Irishness, war and poverty....It's tempting to succumb to such diversions, to sweep through the pillars dramatically, making an entrance that draws the eye toward the unfolding of some vivid story, baited perhaps with rape or murder or the compelling simplicity of some other violently eye-catching beginning. But, for whatever reason, my interest is set in a key that eshews the racy harmonics of such narratives, even though I'm partial to them and often like to hum along.

Cottage gate, summer

O'er Hill gate, summer

"The entrances that intrigue me lead to less obvious destinations than the Big House with its cast of characters. For me, the pillars don't just suggest the domestic scale of a habitation and its dwellers. They also bring to mind pillars as ancient religious markers erected on the earth to make some claim to the numinous, to post a reminder of entrances beyond the obvious. These upright markers can be found scattered through the landscapes of many countries. Their style and date may vary; they may have been raised on the occasion of covenant, sacrifice, or worship. But for all their seeming variety, and despite their dense solidity, such pillars serve a similar fuction -- to act as apertures, bore holes, openings, entrances, reminders that mystery lies just beneath the crust of the quotidian.

Gate with poppies, summer

Bumblehill Gate, summer

Commons Gate, late summer

"In Japan, the gates of shrines are guarded by pairs of stone dogs called koma-inu. These sit facing each other at either side of the entrance, creating an invisable barrier that visitors must cross. One dog has its mouth open; the other has its mouth shut. The one with its mouth open is breathing in and is called A. The one with its mouth closed is breathing out and is called Un. The phrase A-Un-no-kokyu ("A-Un breathing") has come to describe a relationship between people that's so close they can communicate without words.

Woodland gate, autumn

Nattadon Gate, autumn

Crossroads stile, winter

"For me, invisable dogs stand at Shandon's pillars, their shared respiration symbolizing the intimate and mysterious connection that exists between the known and the unknown, between the telegraphic attenuations of the names we give things, the descriptions we offer -- superficial, partial -- and the significance that's coiled intricately within them. Passing between the pillars, I trip on this invisible unbilical of breathy connection and, as I fall, sometimes catch a glimpse of the endless sands of being upon which the mirages of common diction sparkle out their little images.

Blue gate, winter

Woodland gate, winter

Lower O'er Hill Gate, late winter/early spring

Sheep field gate, late winter/early spring

"We exist in a world of multiple registers that allow us to move through it in a variety of modes, but we sometimes forget the links between them. The no-nonsense world of facts and figures, at once useful and obscuring (perhaps useful because obscuring) skitters its way across the surface created by its own computations. Yet for every Un there is an A. Even if we are oblivious to it, in the breath of every sentence we inhale dormant complexities, their unnerving plenitude is only temporarily suspended by  the icy hold of words; the promise of a thaw of complication-into-wonder remains whenever we pause for reflection."

Crossroad stile, spring

Beverly gate with apple blossoms and bluebells, spring

You can read Arthur's essay in full in The Best American Essays 2009, edited by Mary Oliver and Robert Atwan (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin). All of the essays in this volume are excellent, but "(En)trance" is the stand-out. It's completely, well, entrancing.

Gate behind the studio, spring

Woodland gate, spring

At the entrance, my bare feet on the dirt floor,
Here, gusts of heat; at my back, white clouds.
I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are.

- Czeslaw Milosz  (from "The Blacksmith's Shop," translated from the Polish by the author and Robert Hass)

Woodland gate, yesterday


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Howard and I discovered the beautiful music of the Crow Puppets last month, when they shared a stage with Howard's band, the Nosey Crows, at aSummer crow by Rima music festival in north Devon.  (There seems to have been a bit of a crow theme that day.) Crow Puppets consists of singer/songwriters Cara Roxanne and Em Marshall, who "first met when they moved into a haunted house by a crumbling castle fringing Dartmoor." Their "homespun folk music" has a mythic and magical bent, and I recommend their new album, Whispering Hills, Tangled Hair. The Crow Puppets are based in Ashburton, Devon, which is just across the moor from Chagford.

Above, Cara Roxanne's animation for their song "Red Ribbons" - a rather cold and wintry song for a mild summer day, but nevermind.  Below, The Crow Puppets perform "Whispering Hills" at last year's Accoustica Festival in Exeter.  The artwork on the left is "Summer Crow" by Rima Staines.

The Crow Puppets' music reminds me a little of another wonderful West Country musician, Martha Tilston, who is based in Cornwall. Her most recent CDs are Lucy and the Wolves and Machines of Love and Grace, but all of her albums are lovely.

Above: Martha and her band perform "More" (a song whose sentiments I agree with wholeheartedly) for Folk Radio UK last autumn.

Below: Martha performs "The Golden Surfer" back in 2006. It's not particularly well filmed, but the song is terrific: an updating of an old English folk ballad to reflect surfer culture on the Cornish coast. (Previous Monday Tunes from Martha are here and here.)

And one last piece today:

The charming video by Martha's brother, Joe Tilston, for his song "Liza and Henry." It comes from Embers (2013) -- another recommended album, influenced both by Joe's punk rock past and his family roots in the English folk scene. (There's an interesting post on the album's art and design by Tim Rickaby here.)