Previous month:
March 2016
Next month:
May 2016

April 2016

Wildflower season

Wildflowers on my desk

Although it's still too cold to feel like spring, the wildflower season has begun. The bluebells are unfurling, and soon our woods will be a Faerieland carpeted in flowers.

Bluebells are especially loved by the faeries, and as such they are dangerous. A child alone in a bluebell wood might be whisked Under the Hill and never seen again, while adults can find themselves lost for days, or years, until the faery spell is broken. Other names the plant is known by: Faery Thimbles, Wood Hyacinths, Harebells (in Scotland, for they grow in fields frequented by hares), and Dead Man's Bells (because the faeries are not kind to those who trample willfully upon them).

Bluebells in the house can be lucky or unlucky, depending on where in British Isles you live. Here in Devon, it's the former: a bouquet of bluebells, picked with gratitude and tended with care, confers the faeries' blessings on the household and "sweetens" spirits sagging after a long winter. Love potions are made of bluebell blossoms, and a bluebell wreath compels the wearer to tell the truth about his or her affections. Despite this association with love, bluebells in Romantic poetry are symbols of loneliness and regret; while in the Victorian's Language of Flowers they represent kindness, humility, and a sense of wonder.

Devon Bluebells

Bluebell Faery by Brian Froud

In Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce captured the uncanny magic of a bluebell wood:

"The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and the bushes seem to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down to the earth floor; and I didn't know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky."

(Graham's faery novel for adult readers is both magical and sinister, and highly recommended.)

Devon bluebell wood

Harebell Faery

Wild violets are often associated with the Greek myth of Persephone, for she was out in the fields gathering the flowers when Hades abducted her into the Underworld; they are flowers of change, transition, transformation, and the cycle of death-and-rebirth. In the Middle Ages, the violet represented love that was new, uncertain, changeable or transitory; yet by Victorian times, in the Language of Flowers the violet was a symbol of constancy. 

Here in Devon, old country folk are wary of bringing violets (and snowdrops) into the house, for this will curse the farmwife's hens and make them unable to lay. Dreaming of violets is lucky, however, as is wearing the flowers pinned to your clothes...but only if the violets are worn outdoors. Take them off at your doorstep and leave them for the faeries, alongside a bowl of fresh milk.

Wild violets 2

Wild violets

Milk for the faeries

Primroses guard against dark witchcraft if you gather their blossoms properly: always thirteen or more in a bunch, and never a single flower. On May Day, small primrose bouquets were hung over farmhouse windows and doors to keep black magic and misfortune out, while allowing white magic to enter freely. Primroses were braided into horses' manes and plaited into balls hung from the necks of cows and sheep as protection from piskie mischief on May Day and Beltane. Hedgewitches made primrose oinment and infusions for "women's troubles" (menstrual cramps) and "melancholy" (depression), while oil of primrose, rubbed on the eyelids, strengthened the ability to see faeries. Primrose wine was a courting gift, proclaiming the giver's constancy -- though by Victorian times, in the Language of Flowers, primroses symbolized the opposite, so a gift of them demonstrated how little you trusted a fickle lover's fine words.

Primrose Faery by Brian Froud

Primroses

"Flowers lure us into the present moment by the miracle of their beauty," writes Judith Berger (in Herbal Rituals, a lovely book about medicine plants through the four seasons).  "Watching and waiting for a particular plant to bloom gives birth to patience within us. We slow our rhythm down in order to fully experience the process of flowering; expectancy and excitement deepen hand in hand with our patience. As we observe, we come to see that the full unfolding of the flower petals is the culmination of an unhurried dance in which the flower senses and responds, moment by moment, to the environmental conditions which surround and penetrate it. These conditions include termperature, moisture, light, and shadow, as well as the more subtle influences of sound vibrations, heartful care, and respect.

"In Buddhist poetry, there is a verse which reads: 'I entrust myself to the earth, the earth entrusts herself to me.' To entrust is to place something in another's hands with the confidence that what has been given will be cared for."

VioletOn this cold wet day, after a long hard winter, I entrust myself to the woodland's flowers. Bluebell, primrose, stitchwort, pink campion: they're all emerging now despite the weather, bursts of color and joy in the rain-soaked hills. They are not waiting for a "perfect" day to bloom, and neither must I await the "perfect" time to write, or paint, or to pick up the reins of daily life once more. Recovery from a long illness is not like stepping through the door into bright sun; there is no clear line between "sick" and "well," only the deep, invisible processes of healing, slowly unfolding day by day. To wait for strength, ease and "perfect" pain-free hours is to wait for life to begin instead of living.

This is life. This is spring. Cold, wet, and grey...but full of wildflowers.

Woodland daffodils & other wildflowers

Dog & wildflowers 2

Dog & wildflowers 2Words: The passages quoted above are from Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce (Doubleday, 2012; winner of the 2013 Robert Holdstock Award), and Herbals Rituals by Judith Berger (St. Martin's Press, 1998).  Pictures: "Bluebell Faery," "Harebell Faery," and "Primrose Faery" by Brian Froud, from Faeries by Brian Froud & Alan Lee (Abrams, 1978). All rights reserved by the authors & artist.


"Into the Woods" series, 55: Troll Maidens and the magic of bridges

Troll Maiden by Brian Froud

"Troll women are the wise and wonderful beings of this world," says Wendy Froud, a neighbor and good friend of mine who is something of an authority on trolls, for she and her husband Brian (whose paintings & drawings you see here) have spent many years exploring the folk- and faery-lore of Dartmoor. In their most recent book on the subject she writes:

"Troll women are the wise and wonderful beings of this world. They are strong and intelligent, steadfast and canny. They can be extremely kind or terribly cruel -- and sometimes they can be both. Troll women are born knowing the pathways over and beneath the hills, the ways in and out of the Otherworld. They can be guides and wise women, witches and warrior women. They are the holders of dreams and keepers of hearth and home. Usually.

The Troll Bride by Brian Froud"Every once in a while, every once in a great while, a troll woman is born in the shape of a human or almost a human with only a small tail or small branches growing from her back to mark her trollness. When humans see these lovely human-shaped troll women, they wonder at their beauty, delight in their strangeness, and sometimes fall in love with them. When trolls look at these human-shaped troll maidens, they see sorrow and a passing and a life lived flitting on the borders between the worlds. These lovely human troll women do not live long troll lives. They live to what humans may think to be an extremely old age, but for a troll it is but the blink of an eye.

"The trolls rejoice and grieve for these fleeting creatures, who are neither one thing or the other. As they delight in watching a butterfly flutter in the air or a bee dance above a flower, the trolls delight in caring for and watching over these delicate, humanlike creatures. Trolls guard them and guide them and nurture them as much as possible, knowing as they do that troll maidens will soon fade away, perhaps taken to live as human wives in the border regions of the world or perhaps to spend short lives dancing on the hills or haunting the bridges and stepping-stones of streams and rivers that flow between the two worlds.

Clapper Bridge near Stiniel

Photograph of Terri Windling by Ellen Kushner"The humanlike troll maidens are drawn to bridges and spend much time sitting or standing on a bridge if there is one close to where they dwell. Bridges are places of transition. They span a stream or a river but also the air itself. When a troll maiden sits on a bridge, she is in a place particularly suited to her own state of being -- a link between the worlds. Water rushes under a bridge, flowing away to unknown places, speeding by even faster than a troll maiden's time in the world, and when she sits still with her feet above the flowing water, she can feel still and safe, serene and eternal.

"Bridges have always been associated with trolls," Wendy adds, "such as the story of the three billy goats and the troll under the bridge -- a very bad troll indeed. But not all trolls associated with bridges are bad. Trolls, with their empathy toward stone, are naturally drawn to stone bridges, where they, for the most part, become a part of the bridge itself, supporting the structure and making it safe for those who cross it. A bridge will often have a resident troll tucked away under its arch, lending strength to the structure. Of course there are exceptions, and those are the ones who have given trolls such a bad name.

Old stone bridge near Chagford

Bridge Troll by Brian Froud"Lurkers -- there is no other word for them -- trolls who lurk, like lurking under bridges more than anywhere else. A lurking troll is usually a dimwitted troll, a greedy troll, a troll with nothing better to do. Some trolls are so enthusiastic about bridges that they make a hat in the shape of their favorite bridge and wear it to troll gatherings. These are quite warm and snug and a very popular in winter.

"Other trolls will carry large, flat stones that can be used as 'clapper bridges' -- placed across a stream or river -- wherever they are needed. The trolls tend to leave them behind when they move on, and that is why there are so many examples of clapper bridges on the moor today.

"Sometimes those trolls who are perceived as bad are merely guarding troll maidens while they linger on a bridge, for protecting these delicate creatures is the duty of all trolls."

Troll Maiden with protectors by Brian Froud

The Truth About Bridges by Brian & Wendy Froud

There are three basic types of historic bridges on Dartmoor: stone bridges, wooden bridges (called clams) and clapper bridges (made of large granite slabs). The word "clapper" is believed to have dervived from an old Anglo Saxon word cleac, mean a stepping stone.

Of the roughly two-hundred clapper bridges on the moor, Postbridge Clapper is one of the largest and best known. "Postbridge Clapper, in one form or another, has stood here for centuries," writes Tim Sandles. "The term ‘clapper bridge’ is a term used on Dartmoor for a bridge which has one or more flat slabs of stones which rest on stone piers and thus spans a river or stream. The Dartmoor term for the slabs are ‘posts’ which is how [the hamlet of] Postbridge acquired its name. It is possible that the bridge dates back as early as the 1300s, as by this time many of the nearby moorland farms had been established. The earliest documented record of the bridge is from a newtake lease of 1655 where it states: 'scituate lyinge and beinge between postbridge and a nutake of on Richard Leeres.'"

Clapper bridge at Postbridge

Clapper bridge at Postbridge

Postbridge, Dartmoor

A little farther up the road is the hamlet of Two Bridges, where a medieval bridge sits just a stone's throw from the Prince Edward Bridge, built in 1931. It is commonly believed that the hamlet takes its name from these two bridges sitting so close together, but as Tim Sandles explains: "The first documented record of the place-name Two Bridges was in 1573 when it appeared in a court roll as Tobrygge. This has been taken to mean ‘at the bridge,’ as the word ‘to’ is a Devonshire term for 'at,' as in 'Where’s ee to?'"

Two Bridges, Dartmoor

Legends surround most of the bridges on the moor, which are focal points not only for the local trolls but also witch hares, whist hounds, will-o-the-wisps and piskies up to their usual mischief. At Two Bridges (above), two disembodied Hairy Hands are said to force travellers off the road: grabbing at the reins of horses in centuries past, and at car steering wheels today. Fingle Bridge near Drewsteignton (below) is also an uncanny spot, for on certain nights when the moon is full it is the site of wild Faerie revels. Humans who stumble unwittingly on these rites vanish forever.

Fingle Bridge, Drewsteignton

The bridge over the River Dart at Holne is also best avoided by night, for undines dwell in the water underneath. These creatures steal mortal men who take their fancy, and drown those who earn their displeasure. South Down Bridge near Tavistock, by contrast, is a place of good fortune, white magic, and luck. This bridge belongs to the Queen of Faerie, who fashioned it out of waterdrops from a rainbow arched over a stream. The clapper bridge at the Wallabrook (below) is haunted by the ghost of a Dartmoor tin miner -- a sad rather than frightening apparition who merely wants to go home to Chagford. He's been haunting the spot since medieval times, for he cannot cross running water.

Clapper Bridge near Scorhill

With or without a supernatural attendent, bridges themselves carry a magic of their own.

"When we stand on a bridge," says Brian Froud, "we stand neither on land nor water; we stand in a symbolic space. Faerieland is always approached in places or moments where opposites are in balance. Edges, borders, boundaries of all kinds are where we encounter the faery realm, where land and water meet, where forests begin, and in twlight when the dark meets the light."

Earth and Water by Brian Froud

The clapper bridge near Scorhill

Trolls by Brian & Wendy FroudThe text by Wendy Froud, and the art by Brian Froud, is from their delightful book Trolls (Abrams, 2012), which I highly recommend. The two quotes by Tim Staples are from the Legendary Dartmoor site. The photographs of Dartmoor bridges are mine -- except for the one of me sitting on a clapper bridge near Stiniel, taken by Ellen Kushner. That's Howard & Tilly in the last two photos, on the Wallabrook Clapper near Scorhill Stone Circle last spring.


The law of the living Earth

Kissed by a Fox by Priscilla Stuckey

Lasts week's posts on the "nature mysticism" to be found in the works of Elizabeth Goudge reminded me of the following passage from Priscilla Stuckey's fine book, Kissed by a Fox -- for although Goudge wrote from a distinctly Anglican perspective, while Stuckey draws on a very wide range of world religions and philosophies, both share a love of the earth, a delight in the numinous, and an unsentimental belief in the good in human nature.

The passage begins with a quote from the 13th century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi:

Fox drawing by Inga Moore   The speech of water, the speech of earth, and the speech of mud
   Are heard by those who listen with the heart.*

"Rumi," notes Stuckey, " is often taken to mean that only mystics can hear the earth speak -- and that mystics are a strange kind of bird. But to read him that way goes against what Rumi yearned for above all -- for every heart to be struck open by divine longing, for love to pierce every breast.

   What is needed, Rumi said, is to polish the heart like a mirror.
   Do you know why the mirror does not reflect?

   Because the rust is not removed from its surface.*

Ramble 1

"Sufis often call this surface tarnish the 'rust of otherness.' Clean your mirror of all that is not love, Rumi was saying. Remember the radiance that suffuses each heart, and polish your own mirror until you can reflect it clearly. Hearing the speech of Earth may be easy when one is overcome with awe in [pristine wilderness], but it is much harder in the hubbub of the mundane.

Ramble 2

"My friend Annette recently heard the poet Gary Snyder speak. At the end of his reading, she says, a member of the audience asked Snyder how people can be inspired to save the planet. Snyder thought for a moment and said, 'The planet doesn't need us to save it. The planet needs us to save ourselves. If we learned how to be better people, we would be doing good work.' The room full of activist sat in stunned silence, trying to absorb his words. Snyder went on to say, 'The planet, if we notice, takes care of itself. Watch a place for a while. Look at the seasons, the weather, the animals, our own inner rhythms. Walk trails and notice things. We don't have to do a thing.'

Ramble 3

"Becoming better people. It will involve remembering how to listen -- to the land as well as to one another. Relearning the rhythms of give-and-take, in our own bodies as well as our relationships with others. Remembering the radically communitarian nature of life on Earth, which means remembering how to share. 

Ramble 4

"For however great is the divide between the very rich and the rest of this country, the gap between the industrialized nations and the rest of the world is far, far greater. The statistic is well known: less than 20% of the world's people are now consuming more than 80% of the world's resources. Anishinaabe leader Winona LaDuke says we cannot continue to use more than our share and expect to be sustainable. 'You can't do that and live in accordance with natural law. That is simple logic. Most of our teachings say that.'

"We don't need to save the planet, but we are in desperate need of saving ourselves.

Ramble 5

"Will we learn to build an Earth-friendly culture before it is too late? Plenty of other people have done so, and their varied experiences offer some guidelines to what works. They value reciprocity and fairness, and they build interdependence into their systems of exchange. They teach their children to respect others, both human and other than human. They minimize inequality among themselves, for the alternative is costly in terms of damaged health and human relationships. They observe nature closely, seeking to pattern their relationships on those of the more-than-human world. They listen to the voices of the animals and plants, clouds, fish, soil, and wind, for these are relatives whose choices, along with those of humans, are in every moment creating the world.

Ramble 7

"They remind themselves continually that the only way to survive and live well is to fit into the processes of the place called home -- to dwell in symbiotic relationship with the land, using the gifts of Earth sparingly and taking only what is needed to live. They honor individuality among humans as part of the ongoing creative work of nature. They treasure the individuality of their place and work to preserve its unique personality, eating native foods and building homes with nearby materials. They use local resources, yes, but first of all they love those resources as relatives.

Ramble 6

"They consider themselves guests on the planet rather than owners, and so they value a mind-set of gratitude and wonder. They accept death as well as life. They shower children with love and support. They practice caring for one another and the wider land-community because love is the surest route to flourishing -- and the more enjoyable way to live. They reward giving as well as taking.

"For what is gathered in must be given out. What is at one time collected, another time must be dispersed. Breathed in, breathed out. This is the law of the ground, the law of the living Earth. "

Ramble 8

Ramble

* The first Rumi couplet was translated by Richard Holtz & Frederick Denny (quoted in Kissed by a Fox); the second Rumi translation is from Mohammed Ruston's "The Metaphysics of the Heart in the Sufi Doctrine of Rumi" (Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses, no. 3, 2008: 4). The  passage by Priscilla Stuckey above is from Kissed by a Fox & Other Stories of Friendship in Nature (Counterpoint, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from No Nature: New & Collected Poems by Gary Snyder (Pantheon, 1992). The little fox drawing is by Inga Moore. All rights reserved by the authors & artist.

 Pictures: The first photo is mine: "Coffeebreak by a stream, with wild daffodils."  The rest of the photographs were taken by husband Howard on one of his long "medicine walks" through the hills with Tilly.


Writing for Charity

Writing for Charity

Disgusted that the UK government has voted against helping refugee children? Turn your anger into aid by supporting the Writing For Charity auction, where you can bid on signed books, rare books, manuscript critiques & editorial services, dates with famous authors and all kinds of other bookish, writerly, & illustrative things...

Such as naming a character in a Bordertown story by me & Ellen Kushner. Or giving the wee Devon Bunny Girls below a good home.

Please bid if you can. Or, if the size of your wallet doesn't equal the size of your heart, you can still pitch in by helping us to spread the news.

Go here for the auction. Go here for the bunnies' page. And go here for the Bordertown page. 

Bunny Troupe by Terri Windling


From the archives: Mud and the Muse

6a00e54fcf738588340176155c3993970c

When you follow your dog...

Mud 2

...into a wildflower bog...

Mud 3

...there's no help for it, you're going to get wet, muddy, and stinky.

Mud 4

But you learn to be agile in the mud and muck...

Mud 5

...and to find new ways to get where you want to go...

Mud 6

...and you discover things that you would have otherwise missed...

Mud 7

...like this lovely water garden at the end of the leat.

Mud 8

Following the Muse is like that too. Sometimes, in the middle of a story or a painting, you find yourself wallowing through the sticky, boggy bits...

Mud 9

...and you just have to keep on going, no matter where it leads.

But I'm ready for the journey. I'm wearing sturdy boots, and I'm prepared to get muddy. So let's go.

Mud 10

Mud 11Words: The poem in the picture captions is from Territories: Writing from Innu Assi, Québec and Scotland (Edinburgh International Book Festival/Scottish Poetry Library); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: A leat, a bog, and a wet, stinky dog.