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June 2015

Kissing the lion's nose

Elena Shumilova

Elena Shumilova

I'm going to stay with Jay Griffith's juicy book Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape for two more posts, the first on the subject of children and animals:

"That children love animals is a manifest truth," writes Griffiths, "and they also seek love from them. So crucial are animals to children's happiness that in a significant UNICEF study of childhood well-being children specified that pets were one of the top four most important things for their happiness. 'I want a kitten...a puppy...a horse,' children clamor for years, and this is perhaps only the most audible part of their love. Children talk wordlessly to their pets, taking a dog in their arms or, upset, burying their faces in a cat's fur and crying. They whisper secrets to their pets and feel understood by them. Children want to talk with the animals, eat with them, curl up with them and think with them, for children intuitively understand that animals are guides for the mind in metaphor-making."

Elena Shumilova

"Children's authors, peopling their books with animals, know that children are fascinated by tales of crossing the species-fences, and the stories work carnally, suggesting a nuzzling sensuality, fostering a child's animal nature and answering a longing deep within children to be suckled by earthmilk, pressing their faces into the warm flank of horse, lion or wolf, breathing in the spicy messageful air of animals, falling asleep in their paws.

Elena Shumilova

"Aslan. To run your fingers through his golden mane, to see 'the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes,' to feel that humming, purring warmth and its ferocious power; 'whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten,' the children cannot say. The writer Francis Spufford recalls a tender trespass of his childhood when he was suddenly seized with the desire for Aslan and reached his face up to a poster of the lion on his bedroom wall. Stealthily, heartfeltedly, he kissed the lion's nose. From early childhood, I remember that feeling, wanting to nudge myself into the musk and silage, the mushroom, rust and grass of an animal's den, wanting to know with my whole body the felt world of fur and pawpads and to feel the animal world in its fullness, its yawls, hackles and green-scent, to be batted by the paws of the furred earth, my senses drunk with it, living in the whiskey of animality. And to kiss the lion's nose.

Elena Shumilova

"There's a fox in the garden. Those words would thrill us to the core. My brothers and I would crowd to the window in pressed silence, breathless, excited and honored that something so wild might bestow on us for a Elena Shumilovaflickering moment its feral presence. Birds and animals come into our lives as 'guests,' say Mohawk tales, and people must treat them well....Animal-helpers snuffle in the hedges of fairy tales and they feather the tree-tops with bird-advice. In the nick of time, the winged lion or armored bear swerve into stories. If the fairy tale hero treats an animal kindly, it offers its skills, pecking out grain or tracking a scent beyond human guesswork.

"Creatures are friends to the psyche of a child. When Henry Old Coyote, from the Crow nation, was a boy, his grandfather would wake him early to listen to the birds and encouraged the child to know the exuberant joy of this bird medicine and to keep it inside him all day. I'm told that in Tamil Nadu, India, a child suffering nightmares may be cured by walking under an elephant's belly, being blessed by Ganesh. The nightmares, knowing better than to contend with an elephant, beat a retreat."

Elena Shumilova

Elena Shumilova

"'In the old days the animals and the people were very much the same...They thought the same way and felt the same way. They understood each other,' says Simon Tookoome, an Inuit elder, recalling a belief common to many indigenous cultures. As a child, he adopted animals, including a caribou which followed him everywhere like a dog, and, at different times, five wolves."

Elena Shumilova

Elena Shumilova

"One strange peculiarity of modern childhood in the West is its estrangement from the animal world and the consequent silence of that world, its unmessaged, listless, speechless vacancy. Poet Gary Snyder speaks of the necessity to 'Bring up our children as part of the wildlife,' but the dominant culture treats wildlife as insignificant to children's happiness, which, as children themselves know, is a terrible oversight. Children's classics such as Anna Sewell's Black Beauty and Michael Morpurgo's mesmerizing War Horse touch the hearts of millions of children as they willingly listen to the experience of creatures other than human."

Elena Shumilova

"Shape-shifting is an epistemology, a way for people to increase their sensitivities, to perceive the world with an imaginative leap, to feel through the body of another, metaphorically. Pueblo Indian children, from three years old, transform themselves into antelope and deer, they don fox skins, deer hooves or parrot feathers. In rituals and dances, through lyrics, choreography and costume, the child embodies earth-knowledge -- of corn and cloud, of sun and lightning, of buffalo and skunk -- and steps through the looking glass. Animal nature is another side of human nature, a mirror, by twilight, by twolight, where the twinnedness of those myths is reflected....Through a relationship with animals, we human add to the repertoire of our senses the beady alertness of a bird, the scent-subtlety of a mole, the smooth-swum escape of the fish. This is the apprenticeship which children gleefully follow, given half a chance."

I certainly would have followed it as a child, being one of those kids with no interest in dolls but who carried stuffed animals everywhere. I've been making up for lost time ever since, inviting animals into my writing, art, and life. Embracing "the whiskey of animality," to use Jay Griffith's wonderful phrase, and kissing the lion's nose. Or at least my dog's, which is just as good.

Elena Shumilova

The images in this post are by Elena Shumilova, who has become known around the world for her photographs of her sons and other children and animals on a farm in rural Russia. To see more of her charming work, go here.

Elena Shumilova

Elena ShumilovaRelated posts: Wild Neighbors, The Speech of Animals, "Word Magic, and The Animals That We Are."

And some lovely recent news:

The Doodler by Chris RiddellAuthor and artist Chris Riddell has
been named as the UK's new Children's Laureate. He is the country's ninth laureate, following Malorie Blackman. Blackman, during her term, was a staunch supporter of our country's libraries -- at a time when a disgraceful number of them have been closed or are under threat -- and Riddell has vowed to be the same, bless him.

"I am humbled to take on this role," he says," after the giants that have come before me. I want to put the joy of creativity, of drawing every day, of having a go and being surprised at what one can achieve with just a pencil and an idea at the heart of my term as Laureate. I want to make sure people have fun whilst addressing fundamental issues I care about passionately."

Cartoon by Chris Riddell

Tunes for a Monday Morning


It is so quiet on this misty June morning that I can hear the distant church bells ring, while the village in the green valley below our hill is slowly waking. Tilly, too, is sleepy this morning, gently snoring on the studio couch beside me....

Sleepy Hound

In this hushed early morning atmosphere, only the right music will do; so I've chosen four sublime songs by Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, the classically-trained folk duo from London. Walker plays guitar like an angel, and Clarke has been described as this generation's Sandy Denny -- although as much as I loved Denny's music I'd argue that Clarke's range is larger, stretching from Early Music to folk and beyond. (Go here for Clarke's cover of Denny's "Fotheringay," a song about Fotheringhay Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned.) Clarke & Walker's most recent album is Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour, and I highly recommend it.

First, a simple and simply beautiful rendition of "Green Grow the Laurels," peformed backstage at The Cambridge Folk Festival. You can find the song on their 2013 album, Fire & Fortune.

Next, a traditional folk song: "The Banks of the Sweet Primroses." The video was filmed at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Music Awards earlier this year.

Third, a performance of "Tangled Tree," an original song by Clarke. The video was filmed for the Blue Room Sessions in the Netherlands. The song is from their 2014 album, Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour.

Last, above, "Anyone But Me," performed at The Blue Room, from the album Fire & Fortune.

Have a good morning, and an inspired week.

Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker's latest albumFor tunes about childhood, in honor of the discussions we've been having here in the last week, go here and here.

The enclosure of childhood

Illustration by Crista Unzner

This week, we've been talking about the ways that childhood is becoming more and more detached from the natural world, and what that might mean for those of us creating fiction and art born out of myth and the mythic landscape. To further the discussion, here's another salient passage from Jay Griffith's fine study of childhood, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape:

"If there is one word that sums up the treatment of children today, it is enclosure," she writes (alluding to the Enclosure Acts which privatized huge swaths of British common land from the 17th century onward). "Today's Rapunzel by Crista Unznerchildren are enclosed in school and home, enclosed in cars to shuttle between them, enclosed by fear, by surveillance and poverty and enclosed in rigid schedules of time. These enclosures compound each other and make children bitterly unhappy. In 2011, UNICEF asked children what they needed to be happy and the top things were time (particularly with families), friendships and, yearningly, 'outdoors.' Studies show that when children are allowed unstructured play in nature, their sense of freedom, independence, and inner strength all thrive, and children surrounded by nature are not only less stressed but also bounce back from stressful events more readily.

"But there has been a steady reduction in available open spaces for children to play. In the USA, the home turf of children shrank by ninety per cent beween 1970 and 1990. Similarly, in Britain, children have one ninth of the roaming room they had in earlier generations. Childhood is losing its commons. There has also been a reduction in available time, with less than ten per cent of children now spending time playing in woodlands, countryside or heaths, compared to forty per cent who did so a generation ago.

The Frog Prince by Crista Unzner

"Although they are themselves part of nature, children are removed from the world of moss and trees, of fur and paw. Children don't need to live in the countryside to have access to nature, and most city children, left to their own devices, can find a bare minimum of what they need in urban parks and gardens, even on the streets. But play is enclosed indoors while outside signs bark at children like Alsatian guard dogs: NO CYCLING. NO SKATEBOARDS. NO BALL GAMES. NO SWIMMING. NO TRESPASSING.

Frau Holle and Hansel & Gretel by Crista Unzner

Christa Unzner

"My later childhood was hollowed by cold and poverty," Griffiths continues, "and that depression which sets up snares in the young psyche, trapping it for life. My early childhood, though, was far happier, in large part because my brothers and I were part of the last generation which was not under house arrest. It was not a rural childhood, but we had a garden, and a few streets away a river ran by the side of the 'wreck,' as we called the recreation ground. It was a wreck. Scruffy. Ignored. Ours. Five minutes' walk away was a park. Two hours away were grandparents who lived by the sea. All the games we had fitted into a bench trunk about six foot by two. We were rich in library books, bicycles and outdoors.

"Outdoors, we could do what we liked. Throwing sticky seeds at each other, gurgling water or chucking it all over someone. Indoors, obviously not, for indoors was where complexity began: 'mine' and 'yours' and the different rules of time. Outdoors was a commons of space and a commons of time, the undivided hours until dark. Outdoors could comprehend all our moods: thoughtful, playful, withdrawn or rampaging. Outdoors was the place for voices other than human."

 Ein Haus für alle

 Ich bin der kleine König by"Along with everyone else I knew, from the first day of school we walked there. I went with my brothers and friends, a little ragged string of us, taking short cuts that weren't, chatting nonsense, swapping things, eating sweets, making dares, sticking chewing gum on the walls, doing deals, showing off, doing silly walks, shuffling, holding hands, telling secrets, getting the giggles. It was a crucial part of the whole business of childhood. We learned our home territory....There was, of course, safety in numbers. When today so few children are out alone, the venturesome child feels vulnerable indeed. In Britain, in 1971, eighty per cent of all seven- and eight-year-olds went to school on their own. By 1990, this had dropped to nine per cent. In 2010, two children, aged eight and five, cycled to school alone and their headmaster threatened to report their parents to social services. They should have been awarded a medal for allowing their children the freedom which we took for granted and which gave us so much."

 Was macht der Kater in der Nacht by Crista Unzner

Steffi Start

"See, this is my opinion: we all start out knowing magic," says Robert McCammon in his novel Boy's Life. "We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves."

"Because children grow up," writes Tom Stoppard in his play The Coast of Utopia, "we think a child's purpose is to grow up. But a child's purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn't disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into the each moment. We don't value the lily less for not being made of flint and built to last. Life's bounty is in its flow, later is too late. Where is the song when it's been sung? The dance when it's been danced? It's only we humans who want to own the future, too."

The Blue Monster by Crista Unzner

The lovely art today is by the German book illustrator and graphic designer Crista Unzner. Born and educated in Berlin, she has lived in Italy, Mexico, Nicaragua, The Netherlands, and now divides her time between Berlin and the south of France, sharing homes in both places with her husband and their dog. Please visit Crista Unzner's website to see more of her work.

The Blue Monster by Crista UnznerThe Jay Griffiths quotes in this post and in the picture captions (run your cursor over the images to see them) are all from Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape (Hamish Hamilton, 2013). I highly recommend reading it in full, along with her previous books Wild: An Elemental Journey and Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time.

In the forest, the child. In the child, the forest.

Woods 1

"Zurrumurru -- whisper, in the Basque language -- hush!" writes Jay Griffiths in Kith, her excellent investigation of childhood past and present. "Step from the ordinary noise of the tilled fields or the busy streets into the quiet of the woods. Step across the boundary and the trespass of story will begin. The forest takes a deep breath and through its whispering leaves an incipient adventure unfurls. The quest. In the lull -- not the drowsy lull of a lullaby but the sotto voce of a woodland clearing, scented with story as it is with with wild garlic -- this is the moment of beginning, the pause on the threshold before the journey. So many tales begin here, hard by a great forest....

Woods 2

"Children go to the woods when they need to think about their own stories in their own lives. Tom Sawyer, upset after a quarrel, 'entered a dense wood, picked his pathless way to the center of it, and sat down on a mossy spot under a spreading oak,' with that instinct children have about thinking under -- or in -- oak trees.

Woods 3

"American author Howard Thurman describes a 'unique relationship' he had with an oak tree as a child: 'I could reach down in the quiet places of my spirit, take out my bruises and my joys, unfold them and talk about them. I could talk aloud to the oak tree and knew I was understood.'

"In his often unhappy childhood, the poet John Burnside would spend hours in the woods looking for angels. There, 'another life began...when the perfect moment came, it would take hold of your spirit.' "As a child, Jean Liedloff found a glade and walked 'as though into a magical or holy place, to the center.' There she lay with her cheek on moss. 'It is here,' she thought. 'I felt I had discovered the missing center of things, the key to rightness itself.'

Woods 4

"Children need the woods for their spirits to thrive. A woodland gives children a trustworthy tranquility; it 'calms' the mind, in John Clare's term. Like many children, Clare had an emotional attachment to certain trees. 'We felt thy kind protection like a friend,' he wrote to an elm which was later felled for the Enclosures, in which act, he writes, 'our friendship was betrayed.' A friend of mine was asked, together with his classmates, to plant a tree each in the schoolyard, and although he did not love the school, the tree was like a friend and he tended it for two years. Suddenly, without warning, the school ripped out the trees and tarmacked over the ground for a car park. He was upset, bitterly betrayed.

Woods 5

"Tagore, as a child, befriended a banyan tree, his eyes drawn to the shadow-play in its aerial roots coiling and stretching in green leaf-light which played on the child's imagination: 'It seemed as if into this mysterious region...some old-world dreamland had escaped the divine vigilance and lingered on.' Tagore's friendship with the tree endured. He kept a tryst with the tree all his life, writing to it when he was an adult. Children trust the trees which they befriend and find in trees something as solid, as enduring, as rooted as truth. Trees stand for the deep truths of the psyche which language knows. The words 'tree,' 'endure,' 'tryst,' 'trust,' and 'truth' are all related, sharing a common root in Indo-European languages.

Woods 6

"Many spiritual traditions have long known that trees are good to thing with. The Buddha meditated under a tree and there are many cultural versions of the 'tree of knowledge.' Children have instinctively gone to the woods to reflect, to mull things over, yet so many children today are denied that solid witness of trees which children attest helps them psychologically.

Woods 7

"So common is a child's love for trees, so common a memory in later life, so common the friendship, the consolation and the calm, that its absence is shocking. In the nineties, at a woodland project for children in London, forty children aged seven and eight arrived one morning for a visit. Only two out of the forty had ever been to a woodland before. There should be a word for this lack -- a woodless child, as one speaks of a fatherless child, a homeless or a friendless child. They may live too far from a woodland to get there easily, they may be literally fenced out in woodland privatization, they may be scared off by bogus bogeyman tales, they may worry they wouldn't know what to do without artificial toys and, so often, they don't have the time, those long aerial afternoons of coiling hours and stretching days which, like Tagore's banyan tree, escape the benign vigilance of parents and linger on.

"Whatever the reason, an unwooded childhood is bleak. This, to me, is another part of an answer to the riddle of the childhood today. Children are being given medication for the sorrows of the psyche in greatly increasing numbers and yet at the same time they are denied the soul medicine which has always cared for children's spirits: the woods.

Woods 8

"When utilitarian capitalism looks at the forests, it sees the raw material of timber. But there are raw materials of the child's soul, including reverie, magic, time, transformation, destiny and identity, and the greenwood is a dreamwood for the mind at play. In T.H. White's novel The Sword in the Stone the child King Arthur is educated by Athene (wisdom) into the time of the forest and he dreams the thoughts and conversations of trees. The raw material of time grows here as the Wild Wood of the British imagination grew at the end of the Ice Age. It is ancient and long gone yet it is evergreen in memory. In the forests there is an abeyance of clock-time, a freedom outside time. Elsewhere in the lucky literature of childhood, wood is the raw material of magic, so the wardrobe through which the children reach Narnia is made from wood from an apple tree which itself grew out of an apple pip from Narnia."

Woods 9

Woods 10

"T.H. White's Arthur is sent to the forest to seek his identity; many children find woodlands the right place to go to talk to themselves, to dream themselves into a different being, to effect their changeling masquerades away from the eyes of adults. For under the gaze of others, a child can be forced to hold one form, to keep a single identity, but in woodshade and tree-shadow, a child's spirit can stretch, alter and change; it is always easier to change yourself in the dark."

Woods 11

"In the forest, the child. In the child, the forest. Dwelling well within themselves, children can right wrong turns, can find the clarity of a clearing in the woods. Breath deeply enough the scents of pine, mushroom, moss and beech mast and they will stay with you: listen to the forest attentively enough in childhood and the blackbird will still be singing seventy years on.

Woods 12

"To be 'grounded' and 'well rooted,' to be able to 'stand firm' or 'stand one's ground' and also to 'branch out' and to be as resilient as the willow's lovely sprung strength: terms of psychological health can seem like descriptions of trees. (The word 'resilient' is related to the Latin word for willow, salix.) The woods are the place for the unfolding of mind in a child, like a fiddlehead fern unfolding in the spring, a green mind sprung with resilience, curiosity and story."

Woods 12

Tilly's nest

Tilly's nest 1

Kith The Riddle of the Childscape by Jay GriffithsThe poem in the picture captions comes from A Timbered Choir by Wendell Berry. Related posts: "Wild Children," "Tales of the Forest," "The Dark Forest," "In the Forest of Stories, " and "The Gift of Wonder."