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February 2016

Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Isle of Eigg

Today, music from the Songs of Separation project: the brainchild of folk musician Jenny Hill, conceived during the contentious run-up to the referendum for Scottish independence. Hill's idea was to bring ten English and Scottish women folk musicians to a fairy tale island off Scotland's west coast to create an album reflecting on "separation" in its many forms.

"Celebrating the similarities and differences in our musical, linguistic and cultural heritage," she writes, "and set in the context of a post-referendum world, the work aims to evoke emotional responses and prompt new thinking about the issue of separation as it occurs in all our lives. The collected songs aim to get to the heart of what we feel when we are faced with a separation, both good and bad."

The musicians (along with Jen Hill) are: Hazel AskewJenn Butterworth, Eliza CarthyHannah James, Mary Macmaster, Karine PolwartHannah Read, Rowan Rheingans, and Kate Young. They spent an intensive week planning, rehearsing, and recording the album on Isle of Eigg in June 2015 -- including recordings made at the two sites central to the ‘Big Women of Eigg’ legend.

Above: A short video on the making of Songs of Separation, which includes fascinating discussion on the project's theme, on the creative process, and on the role of folk arts in society -- a perfect combination for Myth & Moor.

Below: An even shorter video from project's video diary, documenting a group sing, in Gaelic, with the Isle of Eigg community, along with a glimpse of that beautiful landscape. (You can view the other "Daily Reflection" videos on the project's YouTube channel.)

Next, two songs from the album itself.

Above: "Echo Mocks the Corncrake," featuring Karine Polwart. As Helen Gregory notes in her insightful review of the album, this traditional song "contains subtle political content and references to at least two forms of separation, even though it’s often thought of as a simple love song. The lyric tells of a young man whose partner leaves him for the bright lights of Ayr (located on 'the banks o’ Doune'), an act of separation which is one manifestation of the rural depopulation occurring as a result of the impact of the spread of industrialisation during the 18th and 19th centuries, further exacerbated in Scotland by the greed-fuelled brutality of the Highland Clearances. And the corncrake? The subject of the separation of humankind from the natural environment is key: habitat loss has meant that the numbers of this migratory bird have declined across the British Isles since the mid-19th century. Consequently, corncrakes are now restricted to Ireland and the northern and western islands of Scotland including, of course, the Isle of Eigg. So it’s fitting that 'Echo Mocks The Corncrake’ opens with a field recording of the bird’s distinctive krek krek call which sets the rhythm of the piece, picked up by percussive beats on a variety of instruments ahead of Karine’s vocals."

Below: "It was A' for our Rightfu' King," written by Robert Burns in the 18th century, arranged here by Hannah Read. "The song is inspired by the failed Jacobite uprising of 1745, lead by Prince Charles Edward Stuart (1720 - 1788)," explains Pauline MacKay. "The Jacobites sought to restore the deposed Stuart dynasty to the Scottish and English throne. The Jacobites were defeated at the battle of Culloden in 1746, forcing Bonnie Prince Charlie to flee to the highlands. He eventually reached Europe where he died in exile (in Rome). In this song a young woman laments the failure of the uprising and her Jacobite lover's absence from Scotland."

For those of us who have been following the project since it was first announced, the good news is that the album has now been released, and has proven well worth the wait. For those new to the project, you'll find more information on the Songs of Separation website, and updates on their Facebook page.

There's also a concert tour in the works -- but if you can't make it to any of the tour locations, perhaps you'd like to help someone else attend through a random act of musical kindness. (I'm assuming they'll continue to run the "Save Our Seats" program for other venues on the tour, though it's not listed on the website yet.)

The musicians of the Songs of Separation project


Recommended Reading

Studio Muse at work

I'm away until Monday morning. In the meantime, here's a round-up of recommended reading:

"Fantasy North" by E.R. Truitt (Aeon)

"Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising" by Rob Maslen (The City of Lost Books)

"Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop" by Rob Maslen (The City of Lost Books)

"Stella Benson, Living Alone" by Rob Maslen (The City of Lost Books)

"Design for Living: Goethe" by Adam Kirsch (The New Yorker)

The history of the Twa Sisters ballad by Natalie Zarrelli (Atlas Obscura)

"Mushrooms in Wonderland" by Mike Jay (Mikejay.net)

"Real Witches See Possibilities" by Asia (Woolgathering & Wildcrafting)

"Dancing the Cailleach" by Carlotte Du Cann (The Dark Mountain Project)

"The Weathered Woman" by Sarah Elwell (Between the Woods & the Waters)

"Riding the Wind" by Karen Emslie (Aeon)

"Connecting with Nature Through Wildlife, Place, and Memory" by John Aitchison (The Ecologist)

"A magical sighting in rural Wales" by Richard Bowler, plus the article's missing last paragraph
 (BBC Blogs: Winterwatch)

"Trees Have Social Networks Too" by Sally McGrane (New York Times)

"Crows Understand Analogies" by Leyre Castro & Ed Wasserman (Scientific American)

 "Deep Intellect" by Sy Montgomery (Orion Magazine)

"Go Tell the Bees" by Karen Maitland (The History Girls)

"The Bee in Irish and Other Folk Traditions" by Eimear Chaomhánach (pdf, Department of Irish Folklore)

"Feel the Buzz: The Album Recorded by 40,000 Bees" by Tim Jonze (The Guardian)

From The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

"On Liberty, Reading, and Dissent" by Shami Chakrabarti (The Reading Agency)

"Dark Books" by Tara Isabella Burton (Aeon)

"Why the British Tell Better Children's Stories" by Colleen Gillard (The Atlantic)

"Books Writers Want to Dissect" by Shana DuBois (SF Signal)

"In the Mid-Midwinter" by Liz Lochhead (Scottish Poetry Library)

"Negotiations" by Rae Armantrout (Poets.org)

"Questions to Ask Yourself Before Giving Up" by Kaitlyn Boulding (Guts)

And recommended viewing:

"The Life of Death," a hand-drawn animated video by Marsha Onderstijn (Vimeo)

The illustration above is by Inga Moore.


On loss and transfiguration

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

"The classic makers of children's literature," writes Alison Lurie, "are not usually men and women who had consistently happy childhoods -- or even consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain -- or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one country to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and transfigured, their lost worlds. "

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

J.M Barrie falls into this catagory, the happiness of his early childhood vanishing into darkness and gloom when an elder brother, the family favorite, died in a skating accident, after which Barrie's mother retreated permanently to her bed. C.S. Lewis was ten when he lost his mother to cancer (and just four when his beloved dog, Jacksie, was killed by a car -- a loss that so effected him that he insisted upon being called Jack for the rest of his life). George MacDonald lost his mother to tuberculosis at the age of eight. Enid Blyton's happy childhood in Kent ended Inga Mooreabruptly when her beloved father left the family for another woman, leaving Enid behind with a mother who disapproved of her interest in nature, literature, and art.

The sudden loss of a happier childhood world doesn't turn everyone into a children's book writer, of course, but it's interesting to note how many fine writers' backgrounds are marked by such loss; and Lurie may be correct that the desire to re-create the lost world lies at the heart of a particular form of creative inspiration. Or perhaps I'm just struck by Lurie's idea because it maps onto my own childhood, which was, from a child's point of view, safe and stable for the first six years when I lived in my grandmother's household (with my teenage mother and her sisters), and then plunged into darkness upon my mother's marriage to a brutal man, a stranger to me until the day of the wedding. Loss of home at a tender age can indeed send an unhappy child inward, seeking lands in imagination uncorrupted by the treacherous adult world.

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

In Friday's post, and yesterday's, we've been talking about concepts of home, place, connection to the landscape, and the way these things impact creative work. Today I'd like to come at the subject from a slightly different direction, with the idea that loss of home can be as powerful a creative spur as the finding of the heart's home, or the love of a long-established one.

Loss can come about in so many different ways, and needn't be dramatic to cause lasting trauma. I'm thinking, for example, of a loss all too common today in our over-populated world: the loss of treasured chilhood landscapes to the unchecked sprawl of cities and suburbs, of beloved old houses and places we can never return to, buried under shopping malls and parking lots. 

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The Secret Garden by Inga Moore

In her essay collection Language and Longing, Carolyn Servid writes poignantly of her husband's childhood in an isolated valley in the mountains of Colorado. Lightly populated by old ranching families, artists, and hermits, the valley was a sanctuary for humans and animals alike...until the development of the nearby Iga Mooretown of Aspen into a ski resort and playground for the wealthy began to raise property prices on Aspen's periphery. When the dirt road into the valley was paved, change was not long behind: land speculation, housing developments, a golf course. The valley as generations had known and loved it was gone.

Servid writes that her husband "had witnessed this gradual transformation during summers home from college. He witnessed more changes every time he visited after marriage and various jobs took him out of the valley. He chronicled those changes to me before he ever drove me up the Crystal River Road to the Redstone house. The landscape stunned me the first time I saw it, and I watched it bring a deep smile of recognition to Dorik's eyes, but I knew his memories were of a wholeness that was no longer there. I realized he held a kind of perspective and knowledge that has been lost over and over again in the settlement of the continent, over and over again in the civilzation of the world."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

A little later, he learns that a neighbor's ranch has been sold off to a developer. "I watched his face tighten," Servid writes, "and knew that a deepening ache was filling him. Places and people he loved were both caught in the wake of rampant development that grew like a cancer. The impact was like a diagnosis of the disease itself, as though one of the most fundamental aspects of his life was being eaten away. I wondered then about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love. This grief doesn't have much standing among the range of emotions that our society values. We have yet to fully acknowledge and accept just how much our hearts are entwined with the places that shape us, tolerate us, hold us, provide for us. We have yet to openly testify and accede to the necessity of such places and love of them in our daily lives. We have yet to fully understand that our links as people living together in communties will never be more than transient and vulnerable without rootedness in the place itself."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

Just as Servid wonders "about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love," I wonder about the ways such a loss impacts us as writers and artists. Grief is a powerful thing, and especially so when it rumbles away, unexpressed, in the depth of our souls, the quiet but constant base note of our lives. Grief for landscapes paved over, ways of life that are gone, for whole species that are rapidly vanishing around us. Grief can indeed be a spur to art, leading us to "re-create or transfigure" our cherished lost worlds, or it can do the reverse: deaden and silence and paralyze us.

Your thoughts?

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The beautiful art today is by Inga Moore, who was born in Sussex, raised in Australia (from the age of eight), and returned to England when she reached adulthood. Joanna Carey, in her lovely portrait of the artist, writes:

Inga Moore"An imaginative, somewhat subversive child, she drew constantly, illustrating not just her own stories but also her schoolbooks, her homework, tests and exam papers. 'If you'd only stop all this silly drawing,' said the Latin teacher, 'you might one day amount to something.' She did stop -- 'for a long time' -- and is still resentful about that teacher's attitude. She regrets not going to art school, and endured 'one boring job after another' before eventually getting back to the drawing board. Supporting herself making maps for a groundwater company, she embarked on a series of landscapes and happily rediscovered her passion for drawing."

Moore worked as an illustrator in London until the economic downturn caused her to lose her home there -- a fortunate loss, as it turns out. She relocated to the Gloucester countryside, discovered this corner of England to be her heart's home, and produced the remarkable illustrations for The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden for which she is now justly famed. The pictures above are from those two volumes; the picture below is from The Reluctant Dragon.

Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon, illustrated by Inga MooreThe passage by Alison Lurie is from Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature (Little, Brown Publishers, 1990). The passage by Carolyn Servid is from Of Language and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge (Milkweed Editions, 2000). The quote by Joanna Carey is from "Inga Moore, illustrator of The Wind in the Willows" ( The Guardian, Feburary 6, 2010). All rights to the text and art above reserved by their creators.


Lines for winter

Snow 1

Snow 2

In quite a number of previous posts, I've quoted a range of writers on the value of rooting ourselves in the land on which we live -- of learning its flora, fauna, and folktales, and becoming part of a local community that encompasses human and animal neighbors alike. I mark these passages because they resonate with the life and art I am creating now, rooted on a quiet hillside in Devon. But there are, of course, other ways to experience a deep connection with magical world we live in, and so today I offer a passage presenting an alternative view.

Snow 3

In her beautiful little volume Writing the Sacred Into the Real, American poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming notes that while geography is a touchstone for her imagination, this is not confined to geography of the state where she makes her home. Travel, she writes, is also a spur to keener attention and intimacy with place:

"Touchstone is a word used almost exclusively these days for its metaphoric meaning -- a thing which serves to test the genuiness or value of anything. The origin of this definition is mineral -- a smooth dark stone used for testing the quality of gold or silver alloys by rubbing them against it and noting the color of the mark made on the stone. I know one of the pieties of nature writing says that one can only have intimacy with nature and form community by staying in one place, answering to it and for it against the culture's assaults. But when I have tested my own experience for its genuineness and value, I find that I have consistently deepened  my understanding of the intricate weave between nature and culture by learning about them in different places.

Snow 4

"I consider it implausible that human culture will settle back into an agrarian way of life in which geographic mobility is shunned in the interest of staying put. Human beings are thrilled by the technological prowess that keeps them moving all over the planet and beyond. We are not going to stop these movements, unless, of course, disaster demands it of us.

"For those who wish to celebrate an agrarian way of life, I hold no antagonism. Indeed, there is much to admire in the long study of one place. But what interests me, and what feels useful at this time in history, is to transpose what can be learned from more settled lifeways to the change and velocity of contemporary life. How, in a culture that is in love with its freedom and mobility, can individuals learn to conserve and preserve not only their own backyards but what is likely to become someone else's backyard in a year or two or twenty? The essay, or poem, or story can become a paradigm for reestablishing the spiritual intimacy with nature that we have lost from physical intimacy.

Snow 5

Snow 6

"I know that mobility can install an ethic of impermanence, of leaving one's mistakes and failures behind, rather than fixing them and fostering healing. But America is no longer an unsettled land, and as it grows more crowded, its membranes more permeable to the rest of the world, one finds that pulling up stakes and moving on leads one to face the same mistakes and failures played out in a new setting. We live in the same old story of fallibility and over-reaching goals that has been the bane and boon of human existence from the start. It does us good to face up to that -- our stunning potential for messing things up -- for without such awareness, we don't feel the need for restraint. And we do need mechanisms -- morality and law, plans and paradigms -- to restrain us, because it is our nature to dominate, control, and succeed against competition. For all our goodness, we are not benign animals."

Snow 6

Snow 7

Later in the volume Deming speaks of the role of "literature of place"  in fomenting cultural change:

Language, she says, "makes us the speed-learners among species, and this power can be used to ill or good. All good literature helps to renew language -- to restore its capacity to link the inner life with outer experience and to sing the song of the soul on the stage of history. And environment literature, at least since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, has had a remarkably tangible impact on both the ethics and the politics of conservation. This literature has created a common language with which to bear witness to, praise and lament our wounded relationship with nature. It has made more sensuous, and therefore more real, our increasingly abstracted relationship with flora and fauna. It has made invaluable discoveries of science accessible to readers untrained in scientific disciplines, discoveries essential both to understanding our predicament and finding remedies for it. It has served as a collective act of preservation for places lost, lifeways lost, species and cultures lost, forests and mountainsides and rivers lost, and faith in our own kind lost.

Snow 8

"I don't mean to say that when a forest is gone you can replace it with a poem.  When a forest is gone, you cannot replace it. But with written words, you can bear witness, you can hold a memory of the forest for others to experience and celebrate, you can grieve over the loss and rage against the forces that have leveled the forest -- and through grief you can fall in love with forests again, and through that falling you can believe again in the human capacity for love and in the faith that we might learn to protect what we love."

Yes, yes, yes.

Snow 9

Snow 10

The photographs here were taken early Sunday morning, when I woke to find the hills dusted with snow: the only snow we've had all this mild and soggy winter, and thus especially magical and welcome. I dressed hurriedly, whistled for Tilly, and slipped outdoors before it all disappeared, climbing our hill as the bells of the village church broke through the morning mist. We crested the hill on icy paths, came down again on ice turned to mud, then crossed a field leaving footprints that melted behind us as the morning warmed up.

By the time we passed beneath the old oak and turned onto our homeward trail, the snow had all but vanished. Back home, it was entirely gone. Howard was up now, making tea as Tilly burst through the door into the kitchen, paws muddy, eyes gleaming: It snowed! It snowed!

Snow 11

Snow 12

For one brief, enchanted moment we had tasted true winter. And now I am ready for spring.

Snow 13

Snow 14The passages above by Alison Hawthorne Deming are from Writing the Sacred Into the Real (Milkweed Editions, 2001). The poem in the picture captions is from Selected Poems by Mark Strand (Knopf, 1990). Both are highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Sea Eagle, Black Isle, Scotland

The connecting thread between all of the music today is Lauren MacColl, an award-winning fiddle player, music scholar, and songwriter from the Black Isle in the Scottish Highlands. MacColl performs in an all-women fiddle quartet, in a trio with singer/harpist Rachel Newton, and in a duo with flautist Calum Stewart, in addition to her solo work, her on-going research into the old music of the Highlands, and collaborations with other musicians. She's released three solo albums to date: When Leaves Fall, Strewn With Ribbons, and Tune Book.  "Creating new music is often a response to an encounter with the land, with people, and the emotions that experience evokes," MacColl says (in this short video). "And I'm lucky to live in a particularly beautiful place, with a landscape that never fails to inspire me, both in life and in music."

Above: "Miss Ferguson of Raith/Mary MacDonald," a traditional Scottish march and reel performed by the "chamber-folk" quartet Rant. The group consists of four Scottish fiddlers: Bethany and Jenna Reid from the Shetlands, Lauren MacColl and Sarah-Jane Summers from the Highlands. Their second album, Reverie, is coming out in May, and the trailer for it is lovely.

Below: "Da Haa," performed by Rant. These women are just wonderful.

Above: "Oigfhear A Chuil Duinn" (audio only), from MacColl's solo album Strewn With Ribbons.

And last, for something just a little bit different: MacColl withe The Rachel Newton Trio, performing a Scottish folk flavored rendition of "Jolene" by Dolly Parton. Rachel Newton is on harp, MacColl on fiddle, and Mattie Foulds on percussion.

Oh heck, here's one more:

Rachel Newton alone this time, with a lovely cover of  Hank Williams' "I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry,"  from her second album, The Shadow Side. Newton plays fiddle and viola in addition to harp, and is based in Glasgow.