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December 2015

Threads and stories

The Stag by Helen Stratton

In her beautiful memoir The Farawy Nearby, Rebecca Solnit examines a crisis-filled period of her life during which she was sent a hundred pounds of apricots from a tree at her childhood home:

A drawing by Helen Stratton"The mountain of apricots that briefly occupied my bedroom floor was so many things besides food," she remembers. "... A gift from my mother, or her tree, they were a catalyst that made the chaos of that era come together as a story of sorts and an invitation to examine the business of making and changing stories and locate the silence in between. 'It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole,' Virginia Woolfe once wrote.

"She contined, 'This wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what....From this I reach what might be called a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine, that behind the cotton wool is a hidden pattern; that we -- I mean all human beings -- are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.' "

The Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

"The sudden appearance of the patterns of the world brings a sense of coherence and above all connection. In the old way of saying it, tales were spun; they were threads that tied threads together and from them the fabric of the world was woven. In the strongest stories we see ourselves, connected to each other, woven into the pattern, see that we ourselves are stories, telling and being told. Stories like yours and worse than yours are all around, and your suffering won't mark you out as special, though your response to it might."

Illustrations by Helen Stratton

She Led the Prince Into her Palace by Helen Stratton

"The protagonists of fairy tales and fables embody questions about who we are, what we desire, how to live," Solnit notes a few pages later in the book, "and Drawing by Helen Strattonthe endings are not the real answers. During the quest and crises of a fairy tale the protagonist is nobody, possessed only of the powers of determination, resourcefulness, and alliance, an unconventional estimation of what matters. Then at the end, the story breaks with its own principles and unleashes an avalanche of conventional stuff: palaces, riches, and revenge.

"Part of the charm of Andersen's 'Snow Queen' is that Gerda rescues Kai from a queen and brings him back to friendship in attics, and that's enough. Many Native American stories don't quite end, because the people who go on into the animal world don't come back; they become the ancestors, progenitors, benefactors, forces still at work. Siddhartha is rich, thriving, loved, privileged, and protected, and walks out on all of it, as though the story were running backwards. He's born an answer and abandons that safe port to go out into a sea of questions and tasks that are neverending."

Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

"What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea? What if we liked the brothers to be swans and the nettles not yet woven into shirts, the straw better than the gold, the quest more than the holy grail? The quest is the holy grail, the ocean itself is the mysterious elixir, and if you're lucky you realize it before you dock at the cup in the chapel."

The Beautiful Couple by Helen Stratton

Wild Swans by Helen Stratton

From The Children's King Arthur illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Fairy Tales of HC Andersen illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald illustrated by Helen StrattonThe paintings and drawings today are by Helen Stratton, a prolific artist who published many popular books during England's "Golden Age of Illustration" at the dawn of the 20th century. Stratton was born in India in 1867 (where her father was a surgeon with the Indian medical service), spent her childhood in Bath, studied art in London in the 1890s (where she fell under the spell of Pre-Raphaelitism and Art Nouveau), and then settled in Kensington with her mother and siblings after her father's death. She received her first illustration commission (for Songs for Little People) in 1896 and then worked steadily for the next three decades, producing illustrated editions of Hans Christian Andersen and Grimms fairy tales, The Book of Myths, The Children's King Arthur, Charles Lamb's Shakespeare for Young People, two classic children's novels by George MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie, and numerous other works, as well as collaborating with William Heath Robinson on a lavish edition of The Arabian Nights. Stratton returned to Bath in the 1930s, where she lived until she died, at 94, in 1961.

The Sick Prince by Helen Stratton

The Tombs by Helen Stratton

The Woodcutters by Helen Stratton

The Wild Swans cover art by Helen StrattonThe passage above is from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2013), which is highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author.

Sacred Ground: Part II

The Fairy Spring in autumn

Following on from yesterday's post, here one's more passage from "Telling the Holy," by Scott Russell Sanders' fine essay on myth, story, and sacred ground, accompanied by pictures of the "Fairy Spring" near our village Commons through the four seasons, beginning with autumn:

"If all creation is holy," Sanders asks, "if one power flows everywhere -- through psyche and cyclotron, through grass and granite -- then why do we identify certain groves mountains, or springs as sacred? Because they concentrate our experience of the land. We cannot hold the entire earth or even a forest or river in our minds at once; we need smaller places to apprehend and visit. We go to such places in thought or dream, to renew our strength, to remind ourselves of the source of all things....

Tilly at the Fairy Spring

The Fairy Spring in winter

"Pilgrims often journey to the ends of the earth in search of holy ground, only to find that they've never walked on anything else. Here, for an eloquent example, is what Peter Matthiessen discovered in Tibet, where he went in search of the snow leopard and enlightenment:

" 'The search may begin with a restless feeling, as if one were being watched. One turns in all directions and sees nothing. Yet one senses that there is a source for this deep restlessness; and the path that leads there is not a path to a strange place but the path home....The journey is hard, for the secret place where we have always been is overgrown with thorns and thickets of 'ideas,' of fears and defenses, prejudices and repressions.'

The Fairy Spring, early spring

The Fairy Spring in spring

"I have spied that secret place from time to time," Sanders continues, "usually through a glass darkly, but now and again with blazing clarity. One time it glowed from a red carnation, incandescent in a florist's window. Once it shimmered in drifting pollen, once in a sky needled with ice. I have seen it wound in a scarf of dust around a whirling pony. I have seen it glinting from a pebble on the slate bed of a creek. I have slipped into that secret place while watching hawks, while staring down the throat of a lily, while brushing my wife's hair. Metaphors are inexact. The experience is not a glimpsing of realms beyond, nor of becoming someone new, but of acknowledging, briefly and utterly, who I am.

The Fairy Spring, summer

"Barry Lopez, another pilgrim, has traveled from the Artic to the Antarctic in his search for an understanding of how to live wisely within the natural order. In all his travels, he has found that wisdom embodied in stories:

" 'The aspiration of aboriginal people throughout the world has been to achieve a congruent relationship with the land, to fit well in it. To achieve occasionally a state of high harmony or reverberation. The dream of this transcendent congruency included the evolution of a hunting and gathering relationship with the earth, in which a mutual regard was understood to prevail; but it also meant a conservation of the stories that bind the people to the land.'

The Fairy Spring in autumn

"Against those who warn us, as Forster and Eliade do, that a respect for myth and a hankering for the sacred are throwbacks to our dim origins, I appeal to the testimony of such witnesses as Lopez and Matthiessen, and to my own grounding experiences. If to be modern is to give up inquiring about my true home, then let me remain archaic. The root of primitive, as Gary Snyder points out, is primus, 'or "first," like "original mind," original human society, original way of being.'

"Sacred places, and the stories we tell about them, put us back in touch with what is original in ourselves and in creation."

Leaping from the Fairy Spring, autumn againThe text above and in the picture captions is from "Telling the Holy" by Scott Russell Sanders, from Wonder & Other Survival Skills: An Orion Reader (The Orion Society, 2012). All rights reserved by the author. 

Sacred Ground

Nattadon 1

From "Telling the Holy" by Scott Russell Sanders (in Wonder and Other Survival Skills):

autumn leaf"Traditional peoples distinguish between tales of the everyday world and tales of the spirit world, between history and myth, between profane and sacred. The distinction rests, of course, on a belief that there is a spirit world, an order that transfuses and informs the changing surfaces we see. Visions of that sustaining realm may be sought through spiritual discipline, but they may not be summoned. If they come, they come as gifts, unforeseen. By telling stories, we conserve the memory of their passing, and we prepare for the next illumination.

"I'm aware of some grave objections to stories in general and to sacred stories in particular. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster offers and opinion that is widespread among literary sophisticates when he refers to story as 'this low atavistic form.' According to Forster, stories preserve 'the voice of the tribal narrator, squatting in the middle of the cave, and saying one thing after another until the audience falls asleep among their offal and bones. The story is primitive, it reaches back to the origins of literature, before reading was discovered, and it appeals to what is primitive in us.'

Nattadon 2

"Over the past century, our craving for story has provoked sighs from the likes of Henry James, Gustav Flaubert, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett. Their sighing proclaims them to be civilized, modern, free from illusion; they have left the cave to dwell outside, where stories shrivel in the harsh light of reason.

Nattadon 3

Nattadon 4

"As for a belief in the sacred, that, too, according to many scholars, is a holdover from our benighted past. In Cosmos and History, Mercea Eliade argues that myth, ritual, taboo, every grasping for a transcendent reality, merely expresses our desire to abolish time, to resist change, to escape mortality. Nowhere is the desire to escape from 'the terror of history' more nakedly revealed, according to Eliade, than in 'primitive' societies. His examination of the uses of myth in ancient culture leads him to a rhetorical question: 'May we conclude from all this that, during this period, humanity was still within nature; had not yet detached itself from nature?' The moral is clear: so long as we seek an order outside of time, we remain primitive, childish, perilously close to the beasts; only by detaching ourselves from nature, weaning ourselves from sacred stories, and accepting the terror of history as the sole reality, can we become fully human.

Nattadon 5

"Having read Eliade, not to mention Freud and Jung, one would be hard pressed to deny the psychological component of myth. But to go to the opposite extreme and claim that myth is nothing but a projection of psychic drama is equally simplistic, and perhaps more dangerous. That danger is that in our narcissism we will be content to think and speak and care only about ourselves.

Nattadon 6

Nattadon 7

"Joseph Campbell avoids both extremes by arguing that myth enacts two dramas at once, that of our psyche and that of nature. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell surveys the sacred stories from many ages and cultures to suggest that mythology speaks not only about the unconscious but also about the cosmos:

" 'Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world -- all beings and things -- are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during their period of manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve. This is the power known to science as energy, to the Melanesians as mana, to the Sioux Indians as wakonda, the Hindus as shakti, and the Christians as the power of God. Its manifestation in the psyche is termed, by the psychoanalysts, libido. And its manifestation in the cosmos is the structure and flux of the universe itself.'

Nattadon 8

"This is the belief that Barry Lopez found among hunting peoples, that Bruce Chatwin found among the Aborigines of Australia. You can hear it voiced by the Lakota shaman Black Elk, by the Kiowa novelist N. Scott Momaday, by the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, or the Christian mystic Thomas Merton. You can find it in the essays of the biologist Rene Dubos, of the anthropologist Loren Eisley, and of the physicist Freeman Dyson. You can trace it everywhere in Emerson's work, as in 'The American Scholar,' where he asks, 'What is nature?' and answers, 'There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself.' In their various accents, these voices declare that a spiritual landscape does indeed flicker and flame within the physical one.

Nattadon 9

"I believe that this doctrine is widespread because it is true, or at least it is as close to the truth as we have been able to come. Sacred stories arise from our intuition that beneath the flow of creation there is an order, within change there is permanence, within time there is eternity. Everything moves; yet everything is shapely. The Apache word for myth means literally 'to tell the holiness.' By telling the holy, sacred stories ground a people or an individual, not merely in a landscape, but in the power that create and preserves the land."

Nattadon 9"Telling the Holy" by Scott Russell Sanders can be found in Wonder & Other Survival Skills, a slim volume of essays from Orion Magazine by Sanders, Diane Ackerman, Rick Bass, Anthoney Doerr and others (The Orion Society, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women's Spirituality, edited by Marilyn Sewell (Beacon Press, 1991). All rights reserved by the authors.

Watching the deer

The Watcher in the Wood

The Book of Fairy Poetry illustrated by Warwick Goble
This Morning I Watched the Deer

by Mary Oliver

This morning I watched the deer
   with beautiful lips touching the tips
of the cranberries, setting their hooves down
   in the dampness carelessly, isn't it after all
the carpet of their house, their home, whose roof
   is the sky?

Why, then, was I suddenly miserable?

Well, this is nothing much.
This is the heaviness of the body watching the swallows
   gliding just under that roof.

This is the wish that the deer would not lift their heads
   and leap away, leaving me there alone.
This is the wish to touch their faces, their brown wrists -
   to sing some sparking poem into
the folds of their ears.

then walk with them,
over the hills
and over the hills

and into the impossible trees.

The White Hind by Arthur Hughes

This is the wish

Deer in DevonWords: The poem above is from Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2004); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: An illustration from The Book of Fairy Poetry by Warwick Goble (1920), "The White Hind" by Arthur Hughes (1870), and deer in Devon.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Blue Rose Code (Ross Wilson)

Here's music to get us going this morning from Scottish singer/songwriter Ross Wilson and his band Blue Rose Code. I think he's one of the most interesting songwriters working today, creating musical poetry in the interstices between folk, jazz, and rhythm & blues.

Above: "In The Morning - Parts 1, 2 & 3," a beautiful trio of inter-linked songs recorded at Gran's House Studio last month. (Make sure you let the video run long enough that you hear all three parts.) The back-up vocalist is Wrenne, a singer/songwriter from Utah.

Below: "Edina," performed with fellow Scottish songwriter Karine Polwart in Glasgow earlier this year, filmed for The Quay Sessions, BBC Scotland. This lovely song about growing up in Edinburgh is from Blue Rose Code's second album, The Ballads of Peckham Rye (2014).

Above: "Julie," an old favorite of mine from Blue Rose Code's first album, North Ten (2013).

Below: Wilson's latest song, with backing vocals from the McCrary Sisters from Nashville. Wilson asked fans to send in video clips of what the word "grateful" meant to them, and this is the result....

The last video was just what I needed this morning to bring a little light into the mass media's darkness. This is what people are grateful for: not money, not possessions, not celebrity, but family, friends (human and animal), music, health, and the everyday places where we make our lives.