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February 2016

A Hunger for Place

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From "The Right Place for Love," an essay by Carolyn Servid, who grew up in India but found her heart's home on the wild coast of Alaska:

Eleanor Vere Boyle"In his book The Land, theologion and historian Walter Brueggemann recognizes a human yearing for place -- and acknowledges that yearning as a primary human hunger. I think of it as an instinctual desire and need for my own habitat, a word primarily used to describe an ecological home range that allows a given species to thrive. We usually don't think of ourselves as the sample species, but I'd like to consider the notion of habitat in a human context for a moment. For those of us who use the English language, it is interesting to note that habitat is related to a cluster of other words -- habit, ability, rehabilitate, inhabit, and prohibit. They all come from a common Latin root, habere, and spin off a fundamental concept of relationship: 'to hold, hence to occupy or possess, hence to have.' They constitute a family of words that ground us by describing where we live, how we live, what we are able to do, how we heal ourselves, what our connections are to the landscape around us, what the boundaries are for our behavior. Together, they offer a set of parameters that might allow us to thrive in a place we think of as home.

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"Given the biological evidence that the earth is our home, it's not difficult or even particularly imaginative to assert that we in Western societies have been living for centuries in a perpetual state of homesickness. We have worked hard -- somewhat blindly and somewhat successfully -- to disconnect ourselves from the source of our being. Our efforts have only partially succeeded because we cannot, in fact, separate ourselves from the fundamental truth of the context of our lives....The human hunger for place that Brueggemann speaks of might be thought of as a longing to be reconnected to the very source of our being. That longing is also a hunger for love -- for the nurturing that a home place provides, for its familiarity, its comfort, its human community, is natural community, its light and landscape. I believe, too, that our hunger for place is a yearning for a sense of the holy, for home ground sacred enough to sustain our faith, sacred enough that we will not violate it, sacred enough that our commitment to its holiness will not falter."

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Servid returns to the theme in a second essay, "The Distance Home":

"Homesick, we say, when our hearts reach back to those places that have embraced us, our language allowing us the truth that when we're away from them we feel unhealthy, ill at ease. Sentimentality, another voice says, urging me to ignore the bonds that form between the human heart and peculiarities of the earth. But perhaps the sentiments we attach to place are more natural to us than we know. Perhaps what is at work is an instinctual desire, a need, for a set of specific details to help determine our bounds, our own habitat, a particular context in which we can come to know how to best live our individual lives, how best to survive not only within the human community, but in a distinct region of the larger natural community that is our only real home."

Chagford

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For me, "home" is powerful concept, attached to the land I live on as much as to the family and community I live within, and much of my creative work is nurtured by the specifics of place: flora, fauna, geology, weather, and the folklore attached to all these things. It is shaped by the person I am in this landscape and not another one.

But what of those whose "home place" is a transient one, whether by preference or circumstance? Or those who are homeless, exiled from home, or migrating from one "home place" to another? What of those (an increasing number of us) for whom home is an urban environment? Or those who have never found a place, outside of fiction and dreams, that feels like the place they truly belong? And how does this effect the creation of mythic art, when myth itself is so often rooted in the land?

We've touched on different aspects of this subject in previous posts (especially "Kith & Kin," but also "Writing Without Roots," "More Thoughts About Home," and "The Magic of Cities," if you'd like to refresh your memory), and I'm curious to know your thoughts. Is place important in your life? In your creative work? In your relationship to folklore and myth?

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Of Landscape & Longing by Carolyn ServidThe two passages above are from Carolyn Servid's Of Landscape and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge (Milkweed Editions, 2000); the passage in the picture captions is from the title essay in Scott Russell Sander's Writing from the Center (Indiana University Press, 1995); all rights reserved by the authors. Both books are highly recommended. The drawing above is by Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916).


On art, culture, and radical hope

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The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture by Alison Hawthorne Deming has been on my Wish List for a while now, and I'm pleased to have finally gotten hold of a copy. The book begins with "a constellation of questions" about our place in the natural world, and as this is an issue often discussed here on Myth & Moor, I'll quote the passage in full:

"What is civilization?" Deming asks. "Where and how is it being formed? On what assumptions is it founded? What should we hope for the future of humanity and our world? To what extent can our ideas, hopes and will shape the future? What has civilization blurred and rejected that we might clarify and call back into our shepherding intelligence? What lessons did our ancestors learn that we should not forget? And what of their practices would we be better off in leaving behind?

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At this point in modernity, Deming continues, "one can do nothing without doubts and questions. We see everything from multiple perspectives: most of civilzation's gains have been earned at the expense of others, and for all its marvelous advances civilization has led the natural world to the edge of collapse. We can count, like the numbers on a doomsday clock, the species being driven out of existence. We can measure the hole we have made in the sky and the dirty pall that threatens to smother the Earth. We can predict the outcome of continuing to consume the world, but we cannot seem to stop ourselves from consuming it. The result seems to be that one either revels in consumption and forgets the future, or one retreats into solipsistic rage, lament and self-hatred. 'If humanity's the enemy,' writes the poet Chase Twichell, 'the enemy is me.'

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"Knowing that civilization has been the royal standard under which conquest, genocide and enslavement have been committed throughout history, how can one justly consider civilization's spiritual aspect: the good progress of humanity as we struggle to transcend the qualities in ourselves that rob us of faith in our own nature and rob others of their future? What antidote can be found to counteract the poison of anticipating an apocalyptic future in which human power destroys not only its own best inventions, but the very conditions under which life is given? Can we restore faith in civilization as an expression of radical hope in the best of the collective human enterprise on Earth -- those acts and accomplishments that honor beauty, wisdom, understanding, inventiveness, love and moral connection with others?

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"Perhaps such questions are not the province of art, which thrives on being present in the moment, attending to what's local, peculiar, off-kilter and half-seen. Or perhaps such questions are the only province of art -- the attempt to understand, as John Haines once put it, the terms of one's existence. Art is a materialization of the inner life, so when a question persists, no matter its unwieldy or hazy nature, one knows one is stuck with it -- it is the needle through which one must pass the thread."

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Wild daffodil shoots

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In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke advised:

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

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"I think about Rilke," mused Terry Tempest Williams, "who said that it's the questions that move us, not the answers. As a writer I believe it is our task, our responsibility, to hold the mirror up to social injustices that we see and to create a prayer of beauty."

Winter sun

Notebook in the leavesPictures: Rain and sun in the winter woods, and the first shoots of the wild daffodils. Words: The passage by Alison Hawthorne Deming is from The Edges of the Civilized World (Picador, 1998). The passage by Rainer Maria Rilke comes from Letters to a Young Poet, a wonderful little volume published by the recipient of the letters in 1929, three years after Rilke's death from a long-undiagnosed illness that turned out to be leukemia. The quote by Terry Tempest Williams is from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The splendid poem in the picture captions is from Out There Somewhere by Native American poet Simon J. Ortiz (University of Arizona Press, 2002). All right reserved by the authors.


Fox Stories

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Following on from yesterday's post on the fox in myth, legend, and mythic arts, I'd like to take a second look at fox imagery in poetry.

There are so many fine poems about foxes that I could fill the page attempting to list them all, but some of the very best include: "The Fox" and "Straight Talk from Fox" by Mary Oliver, "Vixen" and "Fox Sleep" by W.S. Merwin, "The Thought Fox" by Ted Hughes, "February: The Boy Breughel" by Norman Dubie, "The Fox Bead in May" (based on Asian "9-tailed fox" folklore) by Hannah Sanghee Park, "The Fox Smiled, Famished" by Mike Allen, "Michio Ito's Fox & Hawk" by Yusef Komunyakaa, and "Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight" by Jane Hirshfield (in the picture captions)...in addition to the fox poems in yesterday's post, and A.A. Milne's charming children's poem about three foxes who don't wear sockses.

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My favorite fox poems of all, however, are by the great American poet Lucille Clifton (1936-2010), whose work "emphasizes endurance and strength through adversity, focusing particularly on African-American experience and family life." Fox Child, from one of my old sketchbooks
Here's the first of them:

telling our stories
by Lucille Clifton

the fox came every evening to my door
asking for nothing. my fear
trapped me inside, hoping to dismiss her
but she sat till morning, waiting.

at dawn we would, each of us,
rise from our haunches, look through the glass
then walk away.

did she gather her village around her
and sing of the hairless moon face,
the trembling snout, the ignorant eyes?

child, i tell you now it was not
the animal blood i was hiding from,
it was the poet in her, the poet and
the terrible stories she could tell.

* * *

The second poem is an absolute stunner: "A Dream
of Foxes," written in six parts. You'll it find here.

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The gorgeous fox photographs today are by British wildlife photographer Richard Bowler.

"I've been passionate about the natural world all my life," Richard says. "This interest led me into angling, to get closer to a world hidden beneath the surface of a river or lake. Angling took me all over the world, to places well off the beaten track, North, South and Central America, the Indian ocean and my particular favourite, Africa. It was on these trips that I felt the need to learn how to capture what I was seeing with the camera. Soon taking pictures became much more important than catching fish, and now I'm much more likely to be found holding a camera than a fishing rod. I hope through my photographs to show the character of the animal and, through that, to make people care."

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Lucille CliftonThe poem above is from The Terrible Stories by Lucille Clifton (BOA Editions,  1996). The poem in the picture captions is from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions by Jane Hirshfield (Bloodaxe Books, 2005). The drawing above, "Fox Child & Friend," is from one of my sketchbooks. All rights to the poems and imagery in this post are reserved by their creators.


A Skulk of Foxes

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

Zao Fox Village, Japan - photography by Rebecca Daum

The folkloric foxes found trotting through yesterday's post came to us in mischievous Trickster guise: both clever and foolish, creative and destructive, perfectly civilized and utterly wild. Trickster foxes appear in old stories gathered from countries and cultures all over the world -- including Aesop's Fables from ancient Greece, the "Reynard" stories of medieval Europe,  the "Giovannuzza" tales of Italy, the "Brer Fox" lore of the American South, and stories from diverse Native American traditions...

Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit by A.B. Frost

Foxes by Erica Il Cane

...but at the darker end of the fox-lore spectrum we find creatures of a distinctly more dangerous cast: Reynardine, Mr. Fox, kitsune (the Japanese fox wife), kumiho (the Korean nine-tailed fox), and other treacherous shape-shifters.

Yasune Watching His Wife Change into a Fox-spirit by Utagawa KuniyoshiFox women populate many story traditions but they're particularly prevalent across the Far East. Fox wives, writes Korean-American folklorist Heinz Insu Fenkl, are seductive creatures who "entice unwary scholars and travelers with the lure of their sexuality and the illusion of their beauty and riches. They drain the men of their yang -- their masculine force -- and leave them dissipated or dead (much in the same way La Belle Dame Sans Merci in Keats's poem leaves her parade of hapless male victims).

"Korean fox lore, which comes from China (from sources probably originating in India and overlapping with Sumerian lamia lore) is actually quite simple compared to the complex body of fox culture that evolved in Japan. The Japanese fox, or kitsune, probably due to its resonance with the indigenous Shinto religion, is remarkably sophisticated.  Whereas the arcane aspects of fox lore are only known to specialists in other East Asian Fox Mother and Child by Utagawa Kuniyoshicountries, the Japanese kitsune lore is more commonly accessible. Tabloid media in Tokyo recently identified the negative influence of kitsune possession among members of the Aum Shinregyo (the cult responsible for the sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway). Popular media often report stories of young women possessed by demonic kitsune, and once in a while, in the more rural areas, one will run across positive reports of the kitsune associated with the rice god, Inari."

(To read Heinz's full essay on "Fox Wives & Other Dangerous Women," go here.)

There are tales of fox wives in the West as well, but fewer of them; and they tend, by and large, to be gentler creatures. (To marry them is unlucky nonetheless, for they're skittish, shy, and not easily tamed.) An exception to this general rule can be found in the räven stories of Scandinavia. The fox-women who roam the forests of northern Europe are portrayed as heart-stoppingly beautiful, fiercely independent, and extremely dangerous.

Fox Woman by Susan Seddon Boulet

Gilded Fox by Jackie Morris

The Fox by Julie MorstadIn a musical composition inspired by these legends, the Swedish/Finnish band Hedningarna sings:

Fire and frost are in your eyes
are you a woman or a fox?

Wild and sly you hunt in time of darkness
long sleeves hide your claws
with your prey you play
your mouth is red with blood.

Silver Fox with Crows by Ellen Jewett

From Little Elvie in the Wild Wood by Catherine Hyde

Fox in the Reeds by Ohara Koson

The "nine-tailed fox" of China and Japan is often (but not always) a demonic spirit, malevolent in intent. It takes possession of human bodies, both male and female, moving for one victim to another over thousands of years, seducing other men and women in order to dine on their hearts and livers. Human organs are also a delicacy for the nine-tailed fox, or kumiho, of Korean lore -- although the earliest texts don't present the kumiho as evil so much as amoral and unpredictable...occasionally even benevolent...much like the faeries of English folklore.

In the West, it's the fox-men we need to beware of -- such as Reynardine in the old folk ballad, a handsome were-fox who lures young maidens to a bloody death. Below, the ballad is performed by Jon Boden and The Remnant Kings at the Cecil Sharp House in London:

Mr. Fox, in the English fairy tale of that name, is cousin to the kumiho and Reynardine, with a bit of Bluebeard mixed in for good measure, promising marriage to a gentlewoman while his lair is littered with her predecessors' bones. Neil Gaiman drew inspiration from the tale when he wrote his wry, wicked poem "The White Road":

Mr. Fox by John D. Batten

There was something sly about his smile,
his eyes so black and sharp, his rufous hair. Something
that sent her early to their trysting place,

beneath the oak, beside the thornbush,
something that made her
climb the tree and wait.
Climb a tree, and in her condition.

Her love arrived at dusk,
skulking by owl-light,

carrying a bag,
from which he took a mattock, shovel, knife.
He worked with a will, beside the thornbush,
beneath the oaken tree,

he whistled gently, and he sang,
as he dug her grave,
that old song...

shall I sing it for you, now, good folk?

(To read the full poem, go here.)


Jeannine Hall Gailey, by contrast, casts a sympathetic eye on fox shape-shifters, writing plaintively from a kitsune's point of view in "The Fox-Wife's Invitation":

Photography by Katerina PlotnikovaThese ears aren't to be trusted.
The keening in the night, didn't you hear?
Once I believed all the stories didn’t have endings,
but I realized the endings were invented, like zero,
had yet to be imagined.
The months come around again,
and we are in the same place;
full moons, cherries in bloom,
the same deer, the same frogs,
the same helpless scratching at the dirt.
You leave poems I can’t read
behind on the sheets,
I try to teach you songs made of twigs and frost.
you may be imprisoned in an underwater palace;
I'll come riding to the rescue in disguise.
Leave the magic tricks to me and to the teakettle.
I've inhaled the spells of willow trees,
The Little Prince by Vladislav Erkospat them out as blankets of white crane feathers.
Sleep easy, from behind the closet door
I'll invent our fortunes, spin them from my own skin.

Although chancy to encounter in myth, and too wild to domesticate easily (in stories and in life), some of us long for foxes nonetheless, for their musky scent, their hot breath, their sharp-toothed magic.  "I needed fox," wrote Adrienne Rich:

Badly I needed
a vixen for the long time none had come near me
I needed recognition from a
triangulated face     burnt-yellow eyes
Crossing an Iced-Over Stream by Gina Litherlandfronting the long body the fierce and sacrificial tail
I needed history of fox     briars of legend it was said she had run through
I was in want of fox

And the truth of briars she had to have run through
I craved to feel on her pelt     if my hands could even slide
past or her body slide between them     sharp truth distressing surfaces of fur
lacerated skin calling legend to account
a vixen's courage in vixen terms

(Full poem here.)

Ah, but Fox is right here, right beside us,
Jack Roberts answers, a little warily:

Not the five tiny black birds that flew
out from behind the mirror
over the washstand,

nor the raccoon that crept
out of the hamper,

nor even the opossum that hung
from the ceiling fan

troubled me half so much as
the fox in the bathtub.

There's a wildness in our lives.
We need not look for it.

(Full poem here.)

Fox Spirit

There are a number of good novels that draw upon fox legends -- foremost among them, Kij Johnson's exquisite The Fox Woman, which no fan of mythic fiction should miss. I also recommend Neil Gaiman's The Dream Hunters (with the Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano);  Larissa Lai's When Fox Is a Thousand; and Ellen Steiber's gorgeous A Rumor of Gems (as well as her heart-breaking novella "The Fox Wife," published in Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears). Alice Hoffman's disquieting Here on Earth is a contemporary take on the Reynardine/Mr. Fox theme, as is Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox, a complex work full of stories within stories within stories. For younger readers, try the "Legend of Little Fur" series by Isobelle Carmody. And for mythic poetry, I especially recommend She Returns to the Floating World by Jeannine Hall Gailey and Sister Fox’s Field Guide to the Writing Life by Jane Yolen. 

More fox tales are listed here.

Fox tails and tales

For the fox in myth, legend, and lore, try:

Fox by Martin Wallen; Reynard the Fox, edited by Kenneth Varty; Kitsune: Japan's Fox of Mystery, Romance, and Humour by Kiyoshi Nozaki; Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative by Raina Huntington; The Discourse on Foxes and Ghosts: Ji Yun and Eighteenth-Century Literati Storytelling by Leo Tak-hung Chan; and The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship, by Karen Smythers.

Reading Together by Julianna SwaneyPicture credits: Identification of the foxy art above can be found in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them. Words: The passage by Heinz Insu Fenkl is from "Fox Wives & Other Dangerous Women," published in The Journal of Mythic Arts (1998); "The White Road" by Neil Gaiman and "The Fox-Wife's Invitation" by Jeannine Hall Gailey are also from JoMA (1998 and 2008); "Fox" by Adrienne Rich  is from Fox: Poems 1998-2000 (Norton, 2003); and "Dream Fox" by Jack Roberts is from Tar River Poetry (2007). All rights to the art & text above are reserved by their respective creators.