Telling our stories
Storytelling and wild time

Where the wild things are

Charles Vess

From Sylvia Lindsteadt's fine essay "Turning Our Fairy Tales Feral Again" (written for The Dark Mountain Project and reprinted in Resilience):

"Humans are storytelling creatures. We need story, we need deep mythic happenings, as much as we need food and sun: to set us in our place in the family of things, in a world that lives and breathes and throws us wild tests, to show us the wildernesses and the lakes, the transforming swans, of our own minds. These minds of ours, after all, are themselves wild, shaped directly by our long legacy as hunters, as readers of wind, fir-tip, animal trail, paw-mark in mud. We are made for narrative, because narrative is what once led us to food, be it elk, salmonberry or hare; to that sacred communion of one body being eaten by another, literally transformed, and afterward sung to.

The Winter King by Charles Vess

"The narratives we read, and watch, and tell ourselves about the relationship between humans and nature have cut out the voices of all wild things. They’ve cut out the breathing world and made us think we are alone and above. If these narratives don’t change -- if the elk and the fogs don’t again take their places and speak -- all manner of policies, conservation efforts and recycling bins won’t be worth a damn. We live in a world where, despite our best intentions, the stories we read -- literary, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, poetry -- are almost wholly human-centric. Wild places and animals and weather patterns are stage sets, the backdrop, like something carved from plywood and painted in. They have no voice, no subjective truth. In our dominant narratives, we are not one of many peoples -- grass people, frog people, fox people -- as the Hupa Indians of the Klamath River region say. We are the only people.

Charles Vess

"This makes sense on one level, as we live in a world in which we believe the only things that are truly and wholly animate are ourselves. Mostly all of what we have been taught is predicated on this assumption. On another level, this is complete lunacy, complete insanity. At what point did we loose the sense of stories and myths actually arising from the world around us, its heartbeats, its bloodflows, its bat-eared songs?"

(Read the full piece here.)

''Charles Vess

 "At some point, one asks, 'Toward what end is my life lived?' " writes Diane Ackerman in The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds. "A great freedom comes from being able to answer that question. A sleeper can be decoyed out of bed by the sheer beauty of dawn on the open seas. Part of my job, as I see it, is to allow that to happen. Sleepers like me need at some point to rise and take their turn on morning watch for the sake of the planet, but also for their own sake, for the enrichment of their lives. From the deserts of Namibia to the razor-backed Himalayas, there are wonderful creatures that have roamed the Earth much longer than we, creatures that not only are worthy of our respect but could teach us about ourselves.”

Charles Vess

"Storytellers ought not to be too tame,"  Ben Okri advises in his inspiring essay collection A Way of Being Free. "They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society. They are best in disguise.  If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys."

Charles Vess

"When we walk, holding stories in us, do they touch the ground through our footprints?" asks Sylvia Linsteadt. "What is this power of metaphor, by which we liken a thing we see to a thing we imagine or have seen before -- the granite crag to an old crystalline heart -- changing its form, allowing animation to suffuse the world via inference? Metaphor, perhaps, is the tame, the civilised, version of shamanic shapeshifting, word-magic, the recognition of stories as toothed messengers from the wilds. What if we turned the old nursery rhymes and fairytales we all know into feral creatures once again, set them loose in new lands to root through the acorn fall of oak trees? What else is there to do, if we want to keep any of the wildness of the world, and of ourselves?"

Charles Vess

"The word 'feral' has a kind of magical potency," said T. H. White (in a letter to a friend, 1937).

And it does indeed.

Charles Vess

The gloriously wild art here is by Charles Vess, of course -- one of the great storytellers and mythic artists of our age. Charles and I grew up together in the fantasy field in New York City in the 1980s; he now lives and works in wild hills of rural Virginia. I highly recommend Dark Horse Books' beautiful publication Drawing Down the Moon: The Art of Charles Vess, along with his many illustrated books and comics. Please visit Charles' Green Man Press website to see more his art.

Charles VessThe art by Charles Vess above is: ''She Came Out of the Forest Like a Ghost," two works in progress: ''The Winter King'' & ''The King of the Summer Country and His Bride of Flowers," and illustrations for "Medicine Road"  and "The Cats of Tanglewood Forest" by Charles de Lint.

In the last photograph, the Hound contemplates some of the magical books illustrated by Charles: Drawing Down the Moon; Instructions (with Neil Gaiman); A Circle of Cats & The Cats of Tanglewood Forest (with Charles de Lint). She would like it to be known that she prefers the ones without cats.


Sooooo, Devil Dog, you prefer the books without pictures of cats do you!?!!!!! What a shame it is that this machine will not allow us to send you great works by some of our genius cat artists!! We could show you great treasures by PICATSSO, watery scenes of elegant splendour by that magician of paint CATALETTO and sombre works of superlative chiaroscuro by the Renaissance master CATTAVAGIO! But be assured that should we ever find means of sending you such works by our feline geniuses of art we shall do so and demand that you hang them in your fetid kennel!!!


("I am still a cat if I see a mouse")

This post zeroed in on what I've been missing in literature, and on the reason that I've been finding myself more enthusiastic about science books recently and going back to some of the old natural history favorites.I keep picking up fantasies hoping to find that breakthrough into the natural world, and being disappointed.

There is some fantasy that isn't human-centered. I'd especially recommend The Bees by Laline Paull.

Something odd, though, is that many books I most strongly associate with the 'nature' feeling are ones in which the animals act like people. The Wind in the Willows, for instance. Is this because, even though they are Edwardian gentlemen, they are living in a natural world and it shapes their interests and concerns? Or is it because to me, Edwardian conventions and tropes are transparent through long familiarity? If the latter, some of the works that I find absurdly human-centered may be transparent to people familiar with their tropes.

Try my new children's novel Trash Mountain, Pat, about the war between the red squirrels and the gray.

Feral: A Prayer

That is my footstep in the mud,
My make, my mark,
My line drawn between me
And the infinite Dark.

This is my fir tip in the palm,
My flower in the hand,
A signal of my oneness
With Earth, Dust, Land.

Here is my water in the cup,
My barley in the bowl,
My fire in the hearth
My lightning in the Soul.

I give it thee and thee and thee.
I give it Heart and Heartily.

©2015 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Thank you. As always the words and stories you share here and your writing as well help push me further into the green.

As I work on a fantasy novel, I am very grateful to you, Teri, for mentioning David Abram in your February 10th post, The Speech of Animals. Becoming an Animal: An Earthly Cosmology is giving me many ideas for how my characters should envision, taste, hear, feel, and respond to their natural environment. Hearing with our whole bodies all the communication among the various species that make up a world—ours and our imaginary realms—is surely the great task of our time.

Really lovely words, Jane.

I do so love Ben Okri's thoughts put here, "... wild things who function adequately in society... best in disguise."

Oh my. This is one of my favorites, Jane. Particularly that first stanza. Absolutely lovely.

Winter King! No wonder I love that piece! (born 21 Dec)

What a great and sweet surprise to come looking for wonder and solace here, as I always do, and finding, to my shock, myself! I am really honored to be here in such company-- Charles Vess is a great favorite since I was 16, and Ben Okri and Diane Ackerman too. Bless you and thank you Terri, I am blushing from across an ocean and a continent. Thank you as ever for the space you provide here, the community you have spun and woven with your magic. :) XO

Sylvia I have just left your wonderful world(your website and blog) of stories and bundles of wild magic. BEAUTIFUL!

A gift, doubly kissed here at Myth & Moor. Thank you Terri for the introduction. Thank you Sylvia for the artistry and wending.

I too love the first stanza. Like a world in a grain of sand, except it is a mark in mud, and the infinite Dark. which I ponder on, quite often.

Hi Terri,

Loved just loved today's passages and art illustrations on "where the wild things are" and how feral becomes a concept of returning to the naturally tenacious spirit of both species and landscape. It is a word, and essence, with "magical or tribal potency". What struck me today was also the quote by Diane Ackerman

"From the deserts of Namibia to the razor-backed Himalayas, there are wonderful creatures that have roamed the Earth much longer than we, creatures that not only are worthy of our respect but could teach us about ourselves.”

It really hit home in the oddest way, an inspiring way. Today The LA
Times reported that California's governor, Jerry Brown, would be going up into the mountains to test the levels of the snow pack. Our state receives 30% of its water from the run-off of snow capping these mountains in late fall through early Spring. Unfortunately, the snow levels this year were at a record low only severely aggravating our drought conditions. But metaphorically, it also allowed me to think of those mountains, our desert and what legendary creature now roams through there, as spectre of both drought and change, desperation and hope. Though unusually warm temps prevail with too much sun and little rain, sometimes the sky looming through the haze is so fiercely blue, one thinks of those distant days, when Spring was still capable of bringing greenery after a cool shower, a sky that promised in its feral blueness the loyalty of keeping things balanced.


We're standing on brown grass where there should be a snow pack
of at least five feet....
Governor Jerry Brown, Echo Lake, California

Our Himalayas have not
birthed snow -- only a litter of wind
and sun. The dust leopard comes instead.
Sleek and silent her silhouette
moves through the landscape shimmered
in heat. Her spots are quite perceptible, hollows
of pond and lake, the mouth of rivers
thirsting for water. But her eyes still bear the hue
of her cousin cat, slits of turquoise
widening through the haze. A sky of tribal blue,
loyal blue. Feral enough to hope
for greener days and rain.
Thank you for these wonderful quotes and pictures.
I so much enjoyed them!

My Best

I Have Been In That Forest

I have been in that forest,
Where I am small, and blessed,
With animal, and scent of much
I wish to find and touch.

In that forest, I sat on a stone,
Still and soon, not alone.
The jackrabbits came out to play
To dance, play tag, while away...

I have had that forest around me
Like a fast green cloak, to be
Child of long lost sounds, lives,
What has gone, and what survives.

My life was crazy quilt, amazing
With things to dodge and raising
Anger I could not understand.
The forest welcomed me, my land,

My trees, my creatures, birds
Feral and musical, lost words.
A procession of shadows came,
As music, a time with no name,

I thank the artist who brought
The forest who brightly caught
And let go. The forest survives
To give us magic and our lives.

Thus thanks to Charles Vess,
And all his forest, bless
Tree folk, horned men, bright
And dark. Dancing in the light.

PS. A charmed moment. When I finished this, I saw a tiny bird fly by my fourth floor studio. I NEVER
have seen small birds out there over the alley. Only pigeons and also, large birds who caw or cry out.
Swallow up that high? Hummingbird? Fairy?

I definitely prefer my fairy tales to be feral, for my stories to have teeth. I can't be fed on things without substance, only distracted... Charles Vess' 'illustories' sing with the wild things and I agree: the best storytellers are not the ones who are tame. J'adore.
( A quiet wish from another artist I love, Chiara Bautista, who seems to yearn for this too: )

Just back from a long walk in the woods:

Lining the stream at dusk, like a troop of spectral dancers, the sycamores wait…

Sweet dreams.

This is exactly what I needed to see today. Thank you all.

Hi Phyllis

Loved the idea of how the forest welcomed you and gave you the shelter you needed to learn, reflect, and find both a spiritual and magical kinship.

My life was crazy quilt, amazing
With things to dodge and raising
Anger I could not understand.
The forest welcomed me, my land,

My trees, my creatures, birds
Feral and musical, lost words.
A procession of shadows came,
As music, a time with no name,

Your lovely poem reminds me of a poem by Mary Oliver called
"Sleeping In the Forest". Have you ever read it? It's one of my favorite and echoes sentiments and theme very similar to yours. Here's a link to it --

My Best

Hi Jane

I , too, love this poem with its beautiful imagery and language! My favorite lines are these --

This is my fir tip in the palm,
My flower in the hand,
A signal of my oneness
With Earth, Dust, Land.

Here is my water in the cup,
My barley in the bowl,
My fire in the hearth
My lightning in the Soul.

I like the feeling of sacred absorption and unity with wild nature in this poem, the idea of "Feral" being more than a concept or word but an actual essence, spirit of being.



J. R. R. Tolkien says in his essay 'On Fairy-Stories' that one reason drama is different from novels or other stories is that they are mostly about people rather than anything else.
'Very little about trees as trees can be got into a play'.

Indeed he also says somewhere (In one of his letters?) that it was his disappointment at seeing the 'wood' coming to Dunsinane in 'Macbeth' that sparked his creation of the ents - he wanted to see the trees really have a chance to avenge their destruction.

The same is true of most films now. Very few films show anything except people, and even if other living beings are supposedly part of the story they're often unbelievable. I've yet to see a film version of 'The Secret Garden', for example, where the garden itself, or the plants and animals within it, are anything other than fakes, and we never get to see Dickon on the Yorkshire moors with this animals. Presumably film-makers find it too much bother to film the real world. Nature programmes on television usually show nature as separate from people.

So we still need stories in books to inspire us.

Many writers consigned to a genre ghetto of 'fantasy' are actually more in touch with the reality of other living beings than many in the literary realist genre. Ursula Le Guin, or Terry Pratchett, for example, clearly love the natural world.

I love these books and illustrations. They are imaginative and full of nature - imagined, yet familiar.

I was wondering if I missed this barren sight, and the magical dust leopard, so timely
and with hope. It was almost twin time; yours at 11:30 PM (Moor time) and mine, 11:31 PM.

Once again, thank you for commenting on this poem. I lived in the woods from being 10 to almost 12 and it gave me enough strength and mystery to last a lifetime. I did not feel
like a child. I had found my ambition, to learn how the magic of poetry works and I had
my Bronte, Walt Whitman, Tennyson, Dickens and McDonald's "Princess with...Goblins
and Curdie. help me want to be a writer. Friends like you came later.

Oh and thank you for recommending the Mary Oliver poem. Gosh. More synchronicity.

A very astute comment. I think you have to have some change, some experience in nature,
Wordless and yet sounds, smells, sights, and the deepness of....a thing not well easy to
turn into words. When I was around 12 to 15, living in Central Oregon I thought the Cascade mountains, I renamed them. Mt. Jefferson became Mt. Ethereal and so on. The
Three Sisters, though were just fine. They had a story. I feel so fortunate to have lived so
close to the wilderness. I return in dreams.

From: The Honorable Hound
To: The Fiendish Felines of Nattadon Hill

I do not deny that you cats have a certain devilish beauty (indeed, my heart pounds whenever I see you, my blood rises with the longing to give chase), but only the tales of True Noble Hounds do I read, do I learn from, do I emulate.

I recommend such reading to you. Were you more dog-like, how the world would benefit....

So many of my favorite works of classic fantasy literature take me on journeys deep into the natural world, yet that's something I'm finding less and less in recent works -- and it's even harder to find in realist fiction (except for historical fiction in "frontier" settings). As a result, I too have been reading more and more nonfiction (various forms of nature writing, primarily) -- though I'm about to start Sarah Hall's The Wolf Border, which looks promising.

Thank you for the Laline Paull recommendation; I'll check it out.

Oh heavens, this is really lovely. That's next month's door poem set!

You're already deeply there, dear Charles!

His first book, Spell of the Sensuous, had a huge effect on me and my writing when it first came out in the 1990s. I deeply admire the work he's doing, and do think it has a great deal of relevance to the fantasy field.

You know how much I love your work, Sylvia. May it continue to flourish!

I am heartbroken watching the "human people" (as indigenous myths define us) ravage the world around us, imperiling not only ourselves but also the "animal people," our neighbors and brethren. With all our intelligence and creativity as a species, surely, surely we can devise a better way to live on this planet together, and can begin to repair the harm that's already been done.

As the stories fed to us by the media grow more and more dire, leaving us feeling numb, hopeless, and helpless, storytellers and other artists have the vital job of creating alternative visions and keeping hope alive. Action comes from hope, not despair.

A beautiful poem, Wendy. Thank you.

Wendy: "Sleeping in the Forest" by Mary Oliver is one of my very favorite poems! I keep a copy pinned to my drawing board.

Phyllis: I love these lines,

"I have been in that forest,
Where I am small, and blessed,
With animal,"

That describes the place that I long for in my dreams, the old and vast and unspoiled forest...and find in certain works of fiction...and in Charles' beautiful art.

"I definitely prefer my fairy tales to be feral, for my stories to have teeth."

What a great line! And I completely agree.

I've only recently discovered Chiara Bautista's work, but have fallen for it hard. Particularly the way she brings animals into a modern urban context; something about those mysterious images just makes me swoon.

And to you, Charles. Much love to Karen, too.

Rowan, I couldn't agree more. I'm working on an essay at this very moment about nature in fantasy literature....


TO: The Hell Hound.

We will ignore the oxymoron of the term 'Honourable Hound' and instead refer you, Hell Hound, to a quote of that honourary cat, Jane Austen:

"....I was as civil to [it] as [its] bad breath would allow..."

Hi Phyllis

Love that word, "synchronicity", has a crisp almost magical sound to it. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on this poem. I deeply appreciate your thoughtfulness!!


Hi Terri

Thank you so much for reading my poem and sharing your keen and wonderful thoughts - which I totally agree with. I sincerely appreciate your time and thoughtfulness. And yes, hope comes from action. We need more of it to repair the damage that has been done by humanity to our planet. The environment is fragile and because of decades of neglect, the landscape and the weather is reacting. Stories and art can help save the world, they can still inspire and rally us to a higher and clearer recognition of what must be done.

Again, thank you so much
My Best

Hi Phyllis

I grew up with a pond and woods in back of my house in upper State New York. It was glorious and the forest had the stone wall fences separating fields, deer, squirrels and both mallards and herons that made the pond their nesting place during the Spring- Summer season. I was drawn to nature and the magic of it at a very early age. My mom read fairytales to me; and I was blessed to have a natural story teller in the family. My Slavic grandmother who did come from the old country not only with her babushka and steamer trunk but also a mind full of folk tales. So I understand exactly where you are coming from. And Some of those writers you mentioned like Dickens, Bronte, Whitman and Tennyson were also my heroes and heroines as writer.


Hi Terri

I adore Mary Oliver and that poem just stands out for me. It speaks to me in so many ways and I think many people feel as we do about it. It almost has a spiritual essence about it. Anyway, thank you for sharing that!

Take care,

The comments to this entry are closed.