Myth & Moor update
The Blessing of Otters

On the border

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Over these last months, I've been thinking a lot about edge-lands, borders, and liminal spaces, about myths of thresholds, transitions, and transformations. It's a reverie inspired by a number of different things: reading Kith by Jay Griffiths, Common Ground by Rob Cowen, Common as Air by Lewis Hyde, Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel, and John Hupton's novel The Ballad of John Clare; re-visiting essays by Barry Lopez, Scott Sanders, Sergio Troncoso, Alan Garner and others; and working on a new story for the "Borderland" series -- all while moving through the amiguous edge-world of illness and disability.

This week's posts will focus on edge-lands and borders: physical, spiritual, and metaphorical. I'm not entirely sure where this journey is going to take us; we won't known until we've arrived. But first we must find our way through the borderlands: passing from highways to holloways and street lamps to starlight...wading through "rivers as red as blood" into Faerie...stepping through wardrobes to Narnia and crossing the hilltops to Shangri-La...although we might find the twilight lands on the borders themselves are the most interesting of all.

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In his book Common Ground (which I highly recommend), Rob Cowen turns a naturalist's eye to a small patch of woodlands and fields usually dismissed as unremarkable: the neglected scrublands on the border of his Yorkshire town, where the regimented streets of housing peter out and the countryside begins.

"For many years," he tells us, "I had sought out and written about the wilderness encountered in more expected places: the rarefied national park, the desolate moor, the distant mountaintop, the sweeping coast, but I'd forgotten there is something deeper about the blurry space surrounding us where humans and nature meet. One word stayed with me: layers. Even before I'd started the process of investigating it in any depth I was aware that this edge-land was a crossing point where countless histories lay buried. There were its human narratives, the records of our long tangling with the land -- colonisation, hunting, farming, war, industry and urbanisation -- but these were only part of the story. Emeshed in every urban edge is also the continuous narrative of the subsistence of nature, pragmatic and prosaic, the million things that survive and even thrive in the fringes. This little patch of common ground was precisely that: common. And all the richer for it."

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In his provocative essay "The Trouble With Wilderness," William Cronan argues against wilderness preservation, focusing instead on landscape that is not remote and dramatic, nor pristine and untouched by the human hand. While I disagree with Cronan's essay as a whole, I was struck by the following passage:

"When we visit a wilderness area, " he writes, "we find ourselves surrounded by plants and animals and physical landscapes whose otherness compels our attention. In forcing us to acknowledge that they are not of our making, that they have little need or no need of our continued existence, they recall for us a creation far greater than our own. In the wilderness, we need no reminder that a tree has its own reasons for being, quite apart from us. The same is less true in the gardens we plant and tend ourselves: there it is far easier to forget the otherness of the tree. Indeed, one could almost measure wilderness by the extent to which our recognition of its otherness requires a conscious, willed act on our part. The romantic legacy means that wilderness is more a state of mind than a fact of nature, and the state of mind that today most defines wilderness is wonder. The striking power of the wild is that wonder in the face of it requires no act of will, but forces itself upon us -- as an expression of the nonhuman world experienced through the lens of our cultural history -- as proof that ours is not the only presence in the universe.

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"Wilderness gets us into trouble," Cronan continues, "only if we imagine that this experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit. Nothing could be more misleading. The tree in the garden is in reality no less other, no less worthy of our wonder and respect, than the tree in an ancient forest that has never known an ax or saw -- even though the tree in the forest reflects a more intricate web of ecological relationships....Our challenge is to stop thinking of such things according to a set of bipolar moral scales in which the human and nonhuman, the unnatural and the natural, the fallen and unfallen, serve as our conceptual map for understanding and valuing the world. Instead, we need to embrace the full continuum of a natural landscape that is also cultural, in which the city, the suburb, the pastoral and the wild each has its proper place, which we permit ourselves to celebrate without needlessly denigrating the others. We need to honor the Other within and the Other next door as much as we do the exotic Other that lives far away -- a lesson that applies as much to people as it does to (other) natural things."

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To return to Rob Cowen's insightful and beautiful book:

"Once upon a time the edges were the place we knew best," he writes. "Times were hard and spare but the margins around homesteads, villages and towns sustained us. People grazed livestock and collected deadfall for fuel. Access and usage became enshrined as rights and recognised in law. Pigs trotted through trees during 'pannage' -- the acorn season from Michaelmas to Martinmas -- certain types of game were hunted for the table and heather and fern were cut for bedding. Mushrooms, fruits, and berries. Mushrooms, fruits and berries would be foraged and gathered for winter; honey taken from wild beehives; chestnuts hoarded, ground and stored as flour. The fringes provided playgrounds for kids and illicit bedrooms for lovers. Whether consciously or not, these spaces kept us in time and rooted to the rhythms of land and nature. Feet cloyed with clay, we oriented ourselves by rain and sun, day and night, seasons, the slow spinning of stars.

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"Humans are creatures of habit," Cowen continues; "we all still go to the edges to get perspective, to be sustained and reborn. Recreation is still re-creation after a fashion, only now it occurs in largely virtual worlds. Clouds, hyper-real TV shows, 3D films, multiplayer games, online stores and social media networks -- these are today's areas of common ground, the terrains where people meet, work, hunt, play, learn, fall in love even. Ours is a world growing yet shrinking, connected yet isolated, all-knowing but without knowledge. It is one of breadth, shallowness and endless swimming through cyberspace. All is speed and surface. Digging down deeper into an overlooked patch of ground, one that (in a global sense at least) few people will ever know about and even fewer visit, felt like the antithesis to all of this. And it felt vitally important. You see, I still believe in the importance of edges. Lying just beyond our doors and fences, the emeshed borders where human and nature collide are microcosms of our world at large, an extraordinary, exquisite world that is growing closer to nature every day. These spaces reassert a vital truth: nature isn't just some remote mountain or protected park. It is all around us. It is us."

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Common Ground by Rob CowenWords: The passage by Rob Cowen is from the introduction to Common Ground (Hutchinson/Random House, 2015).  The passage by William Cronan is from "The Trouble With Wilderness" (Environmental History, 1995). The passage in the picture captions is from Common as Air: Revolution, Art & Ownership by Lewis Hyde (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2010) -- run your cursor over the photographs to read it. All rights to these texts are reserved by their authors. Pictures: Our own village, Chagford, still has its public commons, which is widely used and cherished. Meldon Hill, pictured here, and the land just below it are on common ground, with the village beyond nestled in a mix of private and public fields.

Comments

This new series of border places fits so well. After a stay in the territory of illness, I love reading about the the Common. Hyde's words tucked behind the pictures layers meaningfulness. I relate to it all, and reaffirm the wanderings of the border witch who flourishes on the edges.

More common magic, remedy for what ails me. Thank you.

thank you for this honouring of the the forgotten weedy spaces between the fencelines that make my heart sing

You have given me an Al Stewart earworm. "I thought I saw down in the street the spirit of the century, telling us that we're all standing on the border."

P.

Fascinating. I didn't know much of the history you embedded in these beautiful pictures. I also love the sentiment expressed here: "Digging down deeper into an overlooked patch of ground, one that (in a global sense at least) few people will ever know about and even fewer visit...". I feel this way about our tiny urban backyard. Many wonders there, though they be small.

Wonderful post, I am really looking forward to this series.

Lots of riches to digest here! Along these lines, I'm also reading Martin Shaw's new book, "Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet, Black Branch of Language." He writes of Devon, England: "To be Devonian means to be a'person of the deep valley.' The Devonian age itself is an age of streams, rivers, archaic seas of nautical miracles...Devon's wetlands, marshes, coral reefs, old growth copses, muddied estuaries, and high moor are amok with tribal gatherings of white-clawed crayfish, curlew, nightjar, ciri bunting, and the greater horseshoe bat. All hum, burble, shriek, mutter hymns to leisurely foxes that make secretive palaces in the flaking cliff sides of the South Coast."
A wondrous place that you call home!

Wonderful information. I particularly like learning about the evolution [devolution?] of commons to private property.

Pamela Dean, how lovely to see your name here! I'm a big fan of "The Secret Country." An intimate story with such real characters, it resonates with me years after my initial reading. Highly recommended.

I know I've said it repeatedly, but you live in such an ancient and enchanted place. The photos are so inviting. Thank you for yet another book for my ever-growing list...Common Ground sounds like one I must have, and soon! And did I understand that there will be more Borderlands books? Please, yes!

And I have gone somewhere else with this. Of course. (You might be interested in knowing that Susan Stamberg nee Levitt, was one of those junior high school friends.)

Otherness

I found myself on a border surrounded by Otherness
in a junior high school across the city
where girls--all new to me--had different names,
numbers, the landscapes of their minds
both broader and deeper than my own.

Little plants I thought weeds were full of sweetness.
I did not understand nettles till they stung me;
made friends slowly who knew the value of dock.
We cross-pollinated, learned algebra, Latin,
the genus of ginko, the names of things.

We sang polynomials. Who could not love such friends.
It took me ages to understand the mathematics
of such landscapes, how they be-spelled my soul,
that Otherness had a power to linger in aortic climes,

till at last it even infiltrated its green under my skin.


©2015 Jane Yolen all right reserved

I'm curious to see where this week's journey will take us... it starts promissing.

I live in a country where by far the majority of all the people live in one city and a few other smaller towns, thus transforming everything else to marginal places, where you live to provide services for the city or for tourists. After the major economic crisis a few years ago, when greed and megalomania brought everything crashing down, there are increasing efforts to make the country attractive for tourists, starting the greed cycle again and wrecking a lot of beautiful places in the process. It is all so paradoxical: There is a strong and genuine desire in many people for being outside connecting to and contemplating nature - and they do so by busloads, hurried along by some travel guide. Or they drive hundreds and thousands of kilometer seeking that one perfect spot, polluting and damaging the places inbetween.

But living on the margins has its benefits. You get to know the small places, sometimes hidden in plain sight. And you have room for thought, for your own rhythm, for quiet contemplation and loud music. You can listen to the land and sometimes, when you are in tune with it, you can here it whisper and sing. You might even want to sing back.

I love Martin's books and storytelling. He carries myth deep in his bones.

May it be healing, Mokihana.

Jay Griffiths writes about the Enclosures too -- in her books Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, and Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time -- and the ways they continue to impact us today. In this regard, I also recommend Paul Kingsnorth's book The Blanding of Britain, if you haven't come across it already.

There aren't, at this moment, concrete plans for more Borderland books...but with more and more places to publish online, more Borderland stories and novellas are indeed likely. The one I'm working on is in collaboration with Ellen Kushner, once again.

And yes, Common Ground is a delight!

A wonderful poem, Jane, and it fits perfectly with the theme -- because I'm thinking about borders in all kinds of ways, not only physical borders, and mythic borders, but cultural borders as well. Which includes the ways we cross borders to make new friends, as in this poem, and acquire new knowledge. New landscapes of the mind, heart, and soul.

I think the theme will have to go on past this week, as it's a rather large topic...

I love remote, wild places and value them deeply, but there is a danger in romanticizing them to the extent that the less dramatic landscapes, the margins and lived-in landscapes, are viewed as "less than" and neglected, trashed, or abused. It seems to me that a concern for the environment has to include how we live with, and in, the natural world each and every day -- not only in the countryside, but also in towns, suburbs, and cities. I despair at how we turn everything important in life into a money-making opportunity...and I imagine you do too.

As someone who loves to garden, who likes the countryside, I appreciate this essay. I might add that most days, I feel like the Other. Smiling.

Terri, these pictures are stunning and make me yearn for another visit to Dartmoor. Common Ground is now on my list of books to order. Thank you for keeping my reading list full and diverse, as always.

Jane, your beautiful poem brought me back to the time when young when I had to switch schools, moving from the north of England to the south. It was terrifying and horrible and eventually wonderful as I slowly made new friends and discovered a new me in a new environment.

Just caught up with your news! Please do let us know about new Borderland/Bordertown stories...I look forward to what you and Ellen are working on. :)
And my copy of Common Ground should be on its way!

Thank you so much; I'm very glad. And of course Terri edited those books and made them much better than my initial efforts, for they were, all together, my first novel.

P.

Even in this dark, demanding city grasses growing out of the cracked cement catch my eye (after successful second eye cataract procedure and lens replacement I now have TWO good eyes to see with) and the odd nut tree planted but unharvested. I travel in the slip-stream world of in-between. That's me slipping unnoticed in the crowded places, and me at the edges of the parks where horticulture ran out of time, and me between the politicians and pundits, between the virtual and ever illusory real.

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