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July 2015

From the archives: Going outward and beyond

By the stream

Cold water on a hot summer day

I sit by the banks of a cold, clear stream, my toes in the water, my nose in a book, my thoughts far away. Tilly barks, just once, to let me know we have visitors....

Visitors approach

Friendly Dartmoor ponies

I am reading Rebecca Solnit's memoir, The Faraway Nearby, and this passage has arrested my attention:

"I was asked to talk to a roomful of undergraduates in a university in a beautiful coastal valley," she writes. "I talked about place, about the way we often talk about love of place, but seldom how places love us back, of what they give us. They give us continuity, something to return to, and offer familiarity that allows some portion of our lives to remain collected and coherent. They give us an expansive scale in which our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble, and ugliness. And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren't so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.

A pony encounter

"The bigness of the world is redemption. Despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground. To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest.

Tilly takes the pony's measure

Farewell, farewell

"Being able to travel in both ways matters, and sometimes the way back into the heart of the question begins by going outward and beyond. This is the expansiveness that comes literally in a landscape or that tugs you out of yourself in a story."

Tilly pads down the streamside path

"I told the students," Solnit continues, "that they were at an age when they might begin to choose the places that would sustain them the rest of their lives, that places were much more reliable than human beings, and often much longer-lasting, and I asked each of them where they felt at home. They answered, each of them, down the rows, for an hour, the immigrants who had never stayed anywhere long or left a familiar world behind, the teenagers who'd left the home they'd spent their whole lives in for the first time, the ones who loved or missed familiar landscapes and the ones who had not yet noticed them.

"I found books and places before I found friends and mentors, and they gave me a lot, if not quite what a human being would. As a child, I spun outward in trouble, for in that inside-out world [of my family], everywhere but home was safe. Happily, the oaks were there, the hills, the creeks, the groves, the birds, the old dairy and horse ranches, the rock outcroppings, the open space inviting me to leap out of the personal into the embrace of the nonhuman world."

Pausing at the wood's edge

In The Faraway Nearby, Solnit talks about writing, art, fairy tales, the natural world, surviving cancer, her difficult relationship with her mother, and many other things that are deeply personal to me too, and perhaps to some of you as well. I highly recommend it....alongside her other fine books: Wanderlust, Hope in the Dark, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, etc..

"We think we tell stories," she writes shrewdly, "but stories often tell us, tell us to love or hate, to see or be seen. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then become a storyteller."

Which is exactly what Solnit has accomplished here, in this deeply moving and beautifully crafted memoir.

Dreaming among the trees, 2013

As for me, I've become a storyteller too, re-telling my life, re-making my world, and rooting here on the far side of the Atlantic in this place of green grass, gold water, and wild ponies. Stories are powerful things, my dears. So tell yours wisely. Make it beautiful. Make it good.

Dreaming among the trees, 2015

Three books by Rebecca Solnit, all highly recommendedWords: The quote by Rebecca Solnit above is from The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures:  All the photographs above were taken by me when the post was first published, July 2013 -- except the last one of Tilly, taken yesterday in the exact same spot as the next-to-last picture.


In the quiet of the woods

Silence 1

Although I am not yet strong enough to manage long walks with Tilly, we're going out to the woods on rainless days nonetheless, where I choose a spot to sit while she rambles in the undergrowth nearby. Sometimes I read, sometimes I write, and sometimes I do nothing at all but absorb the quiet, attentive to the woods, as the woods absorbs me in turn.

Silence 2

Tilly explores the terrain and then comes and sits close, ears cocked and alert, her nose twitching with every scent...and I love to watch her, to try to see as she sees and to hear as she hears. To remember that I am an animal too, made of water and wind and the dust of stars.

Silence 3

The life of a freelance writer and editor is measured in hours of productivity, and it takes some effort to slough off guilt when time spent silent among the trees results in no tangible accomplishment: no pages written or manuscript read or email answered or paycheck earned. And yet I'm convinced that it's on such moments that every other part of my creative life rests. The land is muse, teacher, and mentor; it is doctor, pastor, and therapist. It is the place where I return to myself when the jangle of life, the demands of work, and the ceaseless clamour of the Internet lead me astray. In the quiet of the greenwood it all fades away. I can hear my own softer voice once again.

Silence 4

But now I am justifying time spent outdoors by emphasizing the manner in which it supports my productivity back in the studio -- and while this is true, it is not the only truth. Quiet moments are worth much more than this. I will not measure their value in output, in books and paintings made and sold. I will not hang a price tag on my love for the natural world. I am not a consumer of the forest, obtaining my money's worth from the trees and grasses, the fungi and moss; I am just a woman sitting in the green arms of the Mother who made me. Just sitting. Just absorbing. Just being, for these precious moments, alive and present.

Silence 5

I am not dismissing the importance of productivity for those of us working in the arts, or of enagagement with the media and marketplace which places our work in the hands of others, for I believe that art is important, even sacred, and is capable of no less than changing the world.

But then, so is this: these quiet hours in the dappled light of the greenwood, with my good dog beside me. It changes my world. It changes me. And that's all the value it needs.

Silence 6

Silence 7

"I pin my hopes," said the Quaker writer Rufus Jones, "to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place."

I pin my own hopes to the rustle of leaves, the murmur of water, the grace note of the birdsong overhead; to the ordinary, daily domestic act of rising in the morning and walking the dog. And to art, of course, but also to this. To the quiet of the woods.

Silence 8

Silence 9


Little gloves for the foxes and the fey

Summer pathway

Foxgloves on the path

This has been a good year for the foxgloves, which started their bloom early in June and are still brightening the woods and hills....

Foxglove spires

Folklorists are divided on where the common name for Digitalis purpurea comes from. In some areas of the British Isles the name seems be a corruption of "folksglove," associating the flowers with the fairy folk, while in others the plant is also known as "fox fingers," its blossoms used as gloves by the foxes to keep dew off their paws. Another theory suggests that the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, a "gleow" being a ring of bells. This is connected to Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove blossoms around their necks; the ringing of bells was a spell of protection against hunters and hounds.

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden

Foxgloves give us digitalin, a glysoside used to treat heart disease, and this powerful plant has been used for heart tonics since Celtic and Roman times. Botanist Bobby J. Ward gives us this account of early foxglove use in his excellent book A Contemplation Upon Flowers:

"An old Welsh legend claims to be the first to proscribe it, because the knowledge of its properties came to the Foxglove Fairy by Cicely Mary Barkermeddygon, the Welsh physicians, in a magical way. The legend is loosely based on the early 13th century historical figure Rhiwallon, the physician to Prince Rhys the Hoarse, of South Wales. Young Rhiwallon was walking beside a lake one evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could speak to her. Rhiwallon returned every evening looking for the maiden; when he did not find her, he asked advice from a wise man. He told Rhiwallon to offer her cheese. Rhiwallon did as he was told, the maiden appeared and took his offering. She came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.

"After the sons grew and the youngest became a man, Rhiwallon's wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused to hit her, but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejeweled magic box. When the three sons opened it, they found a list of all the medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians."

Foxgloves in summer

Girl With Foxglove by Samuel McLoy (1831-1904)

Among the fairies

Foxglove by Christie Newman

Foxgloves shedding blossoms

Foxglove is a plant beloved by the fairies, and its appearance in the wild indicates their presence. Likewise, fairies can be attracted to a dometic garden by planting foxgloves. Dew collected from the blossoms is used in spells for communicating with fairies, though gloves must be worn when handling the plant as digitalis can be toxic. In the Scottish borders, foxgloves leaves were strewn about babies' cradles for protection from  Foxglovebewitchement, while in Shropshire they were put in children's shoes for the same reason (and also as a cure for Scarlet Fever). Picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky. Here in Devon and Cornwall, this is because it robs the fairies, elves, and piskies of a plant they particularly delight in; in the north of England, foxglove flowers in the house are said to allow the Devil entrance.

In Roman times, foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora, who touched Hera on her breasts and belly with foxglove in order to impregnate her with the god Mars. The plant has been associated with midwifery and women's magic ever since -- as well as with "white witches" (practitioners of benign and healing magic) who live in the wild with vixen familiars, the latter pictured with enchanted foxglove bells around their necks.  In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the earliest recordings of the Language of Flowers, foxgloves symbolized riddles, conundrums, and secrets, but by the Victorian era they had devolved into the more negative symbol of insincerity.

A lovely old legend told here in the West Country explains why foxgloves bob and sway even when there is no wind: this is the plant bowing to the fairy folk as they pass by. The spires of foxgloves growing on our hill mark it out a place beloved by fairies, a land filled with riddles, secrets, and stories. I walk its paths, listen to the tales, and then do my best to bring them back to you.

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Foxgloves by Kelly Louise Judd

Rosie the Fox by Richard Bowler

(For the folklore of foxes, go here.)

Tilly and the foxglovesArt above: Pages from The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden (1871-1920), "Foxglove Fairy" by Cicely Mary Barker (1875-1973), "Girl With Foxgloves" by Samuel McLoy (1831-1904), "Foxglove" by botanical artist Christie Newman,  a page from Flora Londinensis by English apothocary & botanist William Curtis (1746-1799), "Foxgloves" by Kelly Louise Judd, and "Rosie" by wildlife photographer Richard Bowler; all rights to the contemporary pieces are reserved by the artists.


The gift of stillness

Dunes, north Devon

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland explores the cultural history of silence and retreat while seeking to create more room for silence within her own life. It's a fascinating book, leading through myth, religion, philosophy, sociology, natural history and literature to a place of stillness at the center of them all. "In Silence there is eloquence," wrote the great Persian poet Jalāl ad-DīnRumi. "Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves."

Dog, waves, sand, north Devon

Early on in her quest for silence, Maitland arranged to spend forty days alone at Allt Dearg, a remote cottage on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, Scotland's Isle of Skye, noting the changes in her psyche and imagination as the weeks went by and her silence and solitude deepened.

Describing the last days of her time on the island, she says: "Part of me had already moved on from Allt Dearg, and another part of me never wanted to leave. The weather became appalling so that I could not go out for a final walk or round off the time with any satisfying sense of closure. I had to clean the house and then drive a long way. I had felt quite depressed for about forty-eight hours...

Dog at play, north Devon

"...and then, the very final evening, I suddenly was seized with an overwhelming moment of jouissance. I wrote:

" 'They say it is not over till the fat lady sings. Well, she is singing now. She is singing in a wild fierce wind -- and I am in here, just. Now I am full of joy and thankfulness and a sort of solemn and bubbling hilarity. And gratitude. Exultant -- that is what I feel -- and excited, and that now, here, right at the very edge of the end, I have been given back my joy.'

Light, north Devon

"For several hours I enjoyed an extraordinary rhythmical sequence of emotions -- great waves of delight, gratitude, and peace; a realization of how much I had done in the last six weeks, how far I had traveled; a powerful surge of hope and possibility for myself and my future; and above all a sense of privilege. But also a nakedness or openness that needed to be honored somehow.

Beast on the prowl, north Devon

"I experienced a fierce joyful ... joyful what? ... neither pride nor triumph felt like the right word. Near the end of Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore (the third part of The Earthsea Trilogy), Arren, the young prince-hero, who has with an intrepid courage born of love rescued the magician Sparrowhawk, and by implication the whole of society, from destruction, wakes along on the western shore of the island of Selidor. 'He smiled then, a smile both somber and joyous, knowing for the first time in his life, and alone, and unpraised and at the end of the world, victory.'

"That was what I felt like, alone on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, The Winged Isle. I felt an enormous  victorious YES to the world and to myself. For a short while I was absorbed in joy. I was dancing my joy, dancing, and flowing with energy. At one point I grabbed my jacket, plunged out into the wind and the storm. It was physically impossible to stay out for more than about a minute because the wind and rain were so strong and I came back in soaked even from that brief moment; but I came back in energized and laughing and exulting as well. I was both excited and contented. This is a rare and precious pairing. I knew, and wrote in my journal, that this would not last, but it did not matter. It was NOW. At the moment that now, and the enormous wind, felt like enough. Felt more than enough.

Stillness, north Devon

"And once again," she concludes, "I am not alone. Repeatedly, in every historical period, from every imaginable terrain, in innumerable different languages and forms, people who go freely into silence come out with slightly garbled messages of intense jouissance, of some kind of encounter with nature, their self, their God, or some indescribable source of power."

Gazing out to sea, north Devon

Dune grass, north Devon

It was interesting reading Maitland's fine book during the weeks that I was confined to bed. I was not alone -- I had Tilly snuggled at my side, and my gentle husband nearby -- but the quiet and stillness of recovering from an illness can be another form of retreat from the rapid rhythms of the noisy modern world. There were long hours when the only sounds were Tilly's snores, the rustle of a book's turning page, rain or bird song outside the window glass. Like a spiritual retreat or pilgrimage, illness takes us deep inside ourselves, shaking away all other concerns except those of the body, those of the soul. Afterwards, I always return to life changed. The world is restored to me piece by piece, with each step noted and celebrated: the first hour out of bed; the first morning outdoors, tucked up in a blanket on the garden bench; the first slow climb to my studio on the hill; the first shaky walk in the woods with Tilly. There's a joy in all this that we rarely speak about, as if to admit that there's any pleasure or value in illness might be to dismiss its overwhelming difficulties. We'd all prefer, of course, to plan our times of retreat, not to have them forced upon us by physical collapse, not to have them come at the most disruptive of times, not to have them overshadowed by pain and fear. But there is a gift in the journey of illness: the gift of long hours of quiet and stillness. A gift that's increasingly precious and rare in our fast-paced society.

And, if we are prepared to except them, there are these further gifts as well: jouissance, wonder, and fresh gratitude for our fragile bodies, our fleeting lives, and the exquisite beauty of the world we return to.

SilencePhotographs: Tilly on the Devon coast, and at the window. This post is dedicated to my friend Amanda Peters.


Tunes for a Monday Morning: Ballad Lands

In 2012, music critic Ed Vulliamy wrote:

"Sam Lee is one of Britain's finest singers and the most cogent force of his generation in British folk music,"  "an heir to the great revival during the 1950s and 60s led by Martin Carthy and the Watersons, and Fairport Convention in their wake. Lee brings contemporary folk music back to whence much of it came: Roma, Gypsies and Scottish and Irish Travellers, who have passed these songs from generation to generation, over centuries. He scours Britain for those whom many avoid or despise -- travellers in camps or housed -- to learn their lore and songs. And a first collection makes up his debut album: Ground of Its Own, nominated for a Mercury award."

A second album, The Fade in Time, has just been released, and I highly recommend it.

In the video below, Lee discusses the album's genesis and examines the roots of the Traveller song "Jonny O' the Brine."

Below, he records another Traveller favorite, "Lovely Molly," with the help of the Roundhouse Choir. This old Scottish folk song is believed to date back to the early Jacobite rebellions.

Via Ed Vulliamy, here is Sam Lee's description of how he first came upon Traveller music while embarked upon a self-directed study of folk music at Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Song and Dance Society:

" 'I discovered Jeannie Robertson, the great Scottish Traveller ballad singer, Harry Cox and the Copper Family -- and I wondered, who are these people? I bought their CDs and was blown away. I thought, I have to learn all these songs. There was this difference between songs the Gypsies sang and songs you learned at Cecil Sharp House,' he says. 'I love the songbooks, Irish Tinkerbut I decided I'd rather throw flames on what tradition is left out there. The Gypsies are our Native Americans: they practice a kind of shamanism mixed with Christianity and the old beliefs.

"The glory of folk music is 'this latency -- the power within to express these things, like the power within everything, trees, plants, the inanimate.' Lee's love of song was inseparable from his love of nature and he felt this in the travellers' songs: 'I'm a tree-climber,' he says, 'and this music is for me like being up in the branches, knowing you are connected by its roots, deep into the earth.' "

"Lee's muse appears to be a kind of paganism: 'It's about respect, really, for these gods, whatever and wherever they are, and the land. When you're close to the land, respect it. Know that whatever you do, every plant you pick, will have consequences. I know that even walking through a wood has an impact, which makes me lightfooted.' Pantheism? Paganism? I ask. 'I'm hesitant to put names to it,' he replies. 'Just look for this sense of sanctity in the land and find it in song.' "

Scottish Travellers & Traveller Piper

Lee often collaborates with contemporary artists drawn from multiple disciplines (dance, performance art, film, etc.), creating unusual pieces like the new video for "Blackbird," above (and his wonderfully wacky video for "The Ballad of John Collins," 2012).

"The Gainsborough Packet," below, is another collaboration: a short film by the Newcastle artist Matt Stokes, with music written by Jon Boden (of Bellowhead and the Folk Song a Day site). The film is based on an early 19th century letter (preserved in the Tyne & Wear Museums archives) by Newcastle working class hero John Bodikin, relating his colorful life story to his friend Pybus. Sam Lee plays Burdikin in the film, investing the role with sweet mischievousness.

The vintage photographs above, of an Irish Tinker, Scottish Travellers, and a Traveller piper, are from George Crawford's Paleotools blog.