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September 2018

October 2018

The magic of the in-between

Reading the Tea Leaves by Mary Alayne Thomas

 From "Notes to a Modern Storyteller" by Ben Okri:

"Our age is lost in sensational tales. Without genuine mystery, the mystery of art, a story will not linger in the imagination."

Playing for Keeps by Mary Alayne Thomas

"A fragment is more fascinating than the whole."

The Search by Mary Alayne Thomas

"The mind likes completion. If you give the mind complete stories you give it nothing to do. The Trojan War lasted twenty years. But Homer tells only of one year, one quarrel, one rage. Yet has a war haunted us more? It is a war story to which others turn, as a source."

The Mystery of the Golden Locket by Mary Alayne Thomas

"Indirection fascinates. Straight roads make the mind fall asleep. But we all love to take hidden paths, roads that bend and curve. The Renaissance artists understood the appeal of paths that wander out of view. We want to travel the untravelled road.

"We should learn to tell untold stories, stories that wander off the high roads; stories like roads untaken. This is the only cure for the despair that all the stories have been told, that there are no stories under the sun. All the high road stories have been told, but not the hidden road stories that lead to the true center."

Even the Tiger Stopped to Listen to her Tale by Mary Alayne Thomas

The imagery today is by Mary Alyne Thomas, an American artist raised in the high desert of New Mexio and now based on the North-West coast.

"My paintings are a complex layering of encaustic and silkscreen over a watercolor painting," she explains. "There is a sense of mystery, a softness that emanates from the floating art forms within the transparent, waxy surface. It creates an atmospheric work, a dreamy ethereal expression.

"I am constantly inspired by the wildlife, forests and dark beauty of my home in Portland, Oregon, but childhood memories of wandering the mesas in Santa Fe continue to compel my work. I strive to capture those magical ephemeral moments we all experience, real or imagined."

All the Clues led them to this Place by by Mary Alayne Thomas

Thomas' enigmatic paintings are perfectly suited to Okri's words on the power of mystery, for the title of each reads like the fragment of a story -- conjuring an archetypal tale that the view must imagine and complete. (Run your cursor over the pictures to read the titles. They are also listed at the bottom of the post.)

A story dwells, says Okri, "in the ambiguous place between the teller and the hearer, between the writer and reader. The greatest storytellers understand this magical fact, and use the magic of the in-between in their stories and in their telling."

I couldn't agree more.

The Librarian by Mary Alayne Thomas

Pictures: The paintings above are Mary Alayne Thomas. The titles, from top to bottom, are: Reading the Tea Leaves, Playing for Keeps, The Search, The Mystery of the Golden Locket, Even the Tiger Stopped to Listen to her Tale, All Clues Led Them to this Place, and The Librarian. All rights reserved by the artist. Words: The quotes above are are from The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling by Ben Okri (Clairview Books, 2015). All rights reserved by the author.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Forest watchers

As the hills of Devon turn gold and rust, and the leaves start to fall from the oaks of the wood, here are folk songs of harts and foxes, hounds and hares, the hunters and the hunted.

Above: "The Death of the Hart Royal," performed by the English folk trio Faustus (Paul Sartin, Benji Kirkpatrick, and Saul Rose). This unusual ballad of Robin Hood, Lord of the Greenwood, was found in the archives of Somerset folk song collector Ruth Tongue. The band recorded it for their third album, Death and Other Animals (2017), when they were Artists in Residence at Halsway Manor, the National Folk Arts Centre in Somerset's Quantock Hills.

Below, "While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping," a traditional poaching song performed by the great English folk singer June Tabor (in a rare video from 1990), followed by another hunting song from the animal's point of view: "The Hare's Lament" sung by Susan McKeown, an Irish musician based in New York City.

Above: "I am the Fox," written and performed by Nancy Kerr (from London) and James Fagan (from Sydney, Australia). This is my favourite hunting song. You'll soon see why.

Below: "The Fox," a traditional song exuberantly performed by the Celtgrass band We Banjo 3 (Enda Scahill, Fergal Scahill, Martin Howley, David Howley) from Galway, Ireland. The song appears on the band's second album, Gather the Good (2014), and features Sharon Shannon on accordion. I just love these guys.

Above: "Hares on the Mountain," performed by Radie Peat and Daragh Lynch from Lankum, the anarchic folk-punk band based in Dublin, Ireland.

Below: "Stags Bellow" by Martha Tilston, from her album Machines of Love and Grace (2012). Tilston, who lives on the Cornish coast, captures the beauty of our Devon and Cornwall peninsula in the gold autumn light.

Black hound on an autumn pathway, Devon

White Stag by Ruth Sanderson

For a sequence of five posts about deer in myth, folklore, and poetry, start here. For the folklore of hares and rabbits, go here and here. For the folklore of foxes, go here and here.

The white stag painting above is by American book artist Ruth Sanderson.


The poet and the scientist, part III:
standing in the edgelands

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To end the week, here's one last passage from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide" by Alison Hawthorne Deming, discussing the ways we can bridge the gap between the two disciplines.

Deming writes:

"For both science and poetry the challenges lie in taking on the complexity of the most interesting questions (formal, technical, theoretical and moral) within our fields without losing connection with people outside our fields. The idea of poetry with which I grew up was, I suppose, a particularly American one -- that is, as an escape from the burdens of community into extreme individuality, a last bastion of rugged individualism from which one could fire salvos at an ever more remote, corrupt and inane culture.

"Historically, however, the voice of poetry has not always been construed to be the heightened voice of individualism. Among the original forms of humanity, art was unified with prayer and healing science. Poems and songs were manifestations of a collective voice, of spells and visions, of spirits returning from the dead. Such poetry transcended individualism, rather than celebrating it. We may have gained much in terms of technical and artistic refinement through our specialized disciplines, but we have lost the belief that we can speak a common language or sing a common healing song.

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"If poetry today needs anything, it needs to move away from its insular subjectivity, its disdain for politics and culture and an audience beyond its own aesthetic clique. A poem reaches completion in finding an audience. The challenge today is to reach an audience not composed solely of members of one's tribe. We must write across the boundaries of difference. A poet finds a voice by holding some sense of audience in mind during the process of composition. It is one of the questions most frequently asked of poets: for whom do you write? And the answers range from writing for posterity to writing for (or against) one's literary predecessors, from writing to an intimate other to, as Charles Wright once said, writing for the better part of oneself.

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"I write with an inclusive sense of audience in mind, hoping to cross the boundaries that separate people from one another. I would like to write a poem that other poets would appreciate for its formal ingenuity, that scientists would appreciate for its accuracy in attending to the phenomenal world, that the woman at the checkout counter at Safeway would appreciate for its down-to-earth soul, and that I would appreciate for its honesty in examining what troubles and moves me.

"The great biology-watcher Lewis Thomas once raised the challenge: 'I wish poets were able to give straight answers to straight questions, but that is like asking astrophysicists to make their calculations on their fingers, where we can watch the process. What I would like to know is: how should I feel about the earth, these days? Where has all the old nature gone? What became of the wild, writhing, unapproachable mass of the life of the world, and what happened to our panicky excitement about it?'

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"And if science today needs anything, it needs to move out of its insular objectivity, its pretense that it deals only with facts, noth with ethical implications or free-market motives. What science creates is not only facts but metaphysics -- it tells us what we believe about the nature of our existence, and it fosters ever new relationships with the unknown, thereby stirring the deepest waters of our subjectivity."

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In the concluding pages of her essay, Deming returns to the place where art and science meet, the wild borderland between the two.

"In ecology the term 'edge effect' refers to a place where habitat is changing -- where a marsh turns into a pond or a forest turns into a field. These places tend to be rich in life forms and survival strategies. We are animals that create mental habitats, such as poetry and science, national and ethnic identities. Each of us lives in several places other than our geographic locale, several life communities, at once. Each of us feels both the abrasion and the enticement of the edges where we meet other habitats and see ourselves in counterpoint to what we have failed to see. What I am calling for is an ecology of culture in which we look for and foster our relatedness across disciplinary lines without forgetting our differences. Maybe if more of us could find ways to practice this kind of ecology we would feel a little less fragmented, a little less harried and uncertain about the efficacy of our respective trades, and a little more whole. And poets are, or at least wish they could be, as Robert Kelly has written, 'the last scientists of the Whole.' "

If poets are indeed "the last scientists of the Whole," I contend there are writers of fantasy and mythic artists standing right beside them.

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Nattadon 7

The Edges of the Civilized World by Alison Hawthorne Deming

Words: The passage above, is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," published in The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Picador, 1998), and highly recommended. The poem in the picture captions is from Deming's  Science & Other Poems (Louisiana State Universit Press, 1994). All rights reserved by the author. Photographs: The pictures in the last two posts were taken at the top of Meldon Hill. Today's pictures were taken on the second of Chagford's iconic two hills, Nattadon Hill, looking out over Meldon (rust red in autumn) and the rising moor beyond. Nattadon is close to my studio, so the hound and I ramble up its bracken-clad slope nearly every day.


The poet and the scientist, part II:
wild territory

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Meldon 2

Meldon 3

Following on from yesterday's post, here's another passage from Alison Hawthorne Deming's award-winning essay, "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide." Once again, her words can also apply to the writing of fantasy literature, that most poetic of literary forms; specifically, to the kind of fantasy that is rooted in a strong sense of place and deeply engaged with the wild world (including imaginary wild worlds).

Deming writes:

"I think of poetry as a means to study nature, as is science. Not only do many poets find their subject matter and inspiration in the natural world, but the poem's enactment is itself a study of wildness, since art is the materialization of the inner life, the truly wild territory that evolution has given us to explore. Poetry is a means to create order and form in a field unified only by chaos; it is an act of resistance against the second law of thermodynamics that says, essentially, that everything in the universe is running out of steam. And if language is central to human evolution, as many theorists hold, what better  medium could be found for studying our own interior jungle? Because the medium of poetry is language, no art (or science) can get closer to embodying the uniqueness of human consciousness. While neuroscientists studying human consciousness may feel hampered by their methodology because they can never separate the subject and object of their study, the poet works at representing both subject and object in a seamless whole and, therefore, writes a science of the mind.

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"I find such speculation convincing, which is probably why I became a poet and not a scientist. I could never stop violating the most basic epistemological assumption of science: that we can understand the natural world better if we become objective.
Jim Armstrong, writing in a recent issue of Orion, put his disagreement with this assumption and its moral implications more aggressively:

" 'Crudely put, a phenomenon that does not register on some instrument is not a scientific phenomenon. So if the modern corporation acts without reference to "soul," it does so guided by scientific principles -- maximizing the tangibles (profit, product, output) that it can measure, at the expense of the intangibles (beauty, spiritual connectedness, sense of place) that it cannot....'

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"Clearly a divide separates the disciplines of science and poetry. In many respects we cannot enter one another's territory. The divide is as real as a rift separating tectonic plates or a border separating nations. But a border is both a zone of exclusion and a zone of contact where we can exchange some aspects of our difference, and, like neighboring tribes who exchange seashells and obsidian, obtain something that is lacking in our own locality."

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The subject of "borders" is especially relevant to creators of fantasy, for ours is a field that borders on others, and one that is often most fertile in those places where the edges meet. Border-crossing is thus part of a mythic artist's vocation, but it's not always a simple or comfortable one. As Sergio Trancoso writes poignantly: "I am in between. Trying to write to be understood by those who matter to me, yet also trying to push my mind with ideas beyond the everyday. It is another borderland I inhabit. Not quite here nor there. On good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone."

Some previous posts on borders and edgelands: On the Border, Crossing Borders, The Borders of Language, Twilight Tales, Crossing Over, and We are Storied Folk.

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Words: The passage above is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," published in The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Picador, 1998), which I highly recommend. The quote by Sergio Troncoso is from Crossing Borders: Personal Essays (Arte Publico Press, 2011). The Jim Carruth poem in the picture captions is from Envoi, #138, June 2004. All right reserved by the authors. Photographs: A walk with husband, hound, and a herd of cows on the top of Meldon Hill.


The poet and the scientist

P1500507

If, like me, you are a working artist striving to combine a love of nature with the creation of fantasy literature (or other forms of mythic art), it is sometimes a challenge to overcome the cultural divide between science and the arts -- in which knowledge of the flora, fauna, and biological processes that make up our world is deemed the domain of scientists, while artists working with the tropes of myth and fantasy are relegated to more ethereal realms.

When I need help crossing the barriers that convention (and my humanties-focused education) placed between the two, I turn to the increasingly-poetic field of contemporary nature writing for inspiration. The following passage, for example, is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," an excellent contemplation of the subject by American poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming:

"Historically, cultures have been informed by places, by the natural features and resources available to people living in a specific geographic habitat. The 'globalization of culture' is the term in fashion for the phenomenon of everyone becoming more contiguous, contingent, more like us. We lament the dilution of local cultures in the floodwaters of global capitalism, feel a justifiable panic about the pace of this change, and wonder how we will know ourselves and others in the future if our nationalistic and ethnic identities melt away. It is not a contradiction that people by the droves are looking for their own cultural roots, castigating others for past cultural injustices, and documenting difference wherever they can find it, at a time when place-based culture is fading fast. We know something archetypal and precious is leaking from the world.

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"But culture is not only place-based. Culture is also based on discipline, profession, affinity and taste, and in these forms has been around since the beginning of civilization. The problem with the future is that it is difficult to know what will happen there. But it seems likely that these non-place-based forms of culture will become increasingly important. Culture will become more and more our habitat, as cultural learning continues to supplant the poky genetic code. I'm not suggesting we relax our vigilance in protecting actual places and preserving the knowledge acquired by deeply place-based cultures, only that our motivation and ability to do these things may change -- may even improve -- as new cross-cultural affinities emerge. My affinities for literary writers and natural scientists probably say as much about who I am as the geographic fact that I am a tenth-generation New Englander, and nourish me in ways that make my best work possible. Cultural exchanges across disciplinary boundaries can be as fruitful as those across geographic ones. Unlike C.P. Snow, I do not see 'the intellectual life of the whole of western society being split into two polar groups,' literary intellectuals at one pole and scientists at another. I have always been struck, perhaps naively, by the fundamental similarity between the poet and the scientist: both are seeking a language for the unknown....

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 "The view from either side of the disciplinary divide seems to be that poetry and science are fundamentally opposed, if not hostile to one another. Scientists are seekers of facts; poets revelers in sensation. Scientists seek a clear, verifiable and elegant theory; contemporary poets, as critic Helen Vendler recently put it, create objects that are less and less like well-wrought urns, and more and more like misty collisions and diffusions that take place in a cloud chamber. The popular view demonizes us both, perhaps because we serve neither the god of profit-making nor the god of usefulness. Scientists are the cold-hearted dissectors of all that is beautiful; poets the lunatic heirs to pagan forces. We are made to embody the mythic split in Western civilization between the head and the heart. But none of this divided thinking rings true to my experience as a poet."

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A little later in the essay, Deming notes:

"Today fewer Americans than ever believe scientists' warnings about global warming and diversity loss. Their scepticism stems, in part, from the fact that to a misleading extent the process of science does not get communicated in the media. What gets communicated is uncertainty, a necessary stage in solving complex problems, not synonymous with ignorance. But the discipline itself is called into question when a scientist tells the truth and says, in response to a journalist's prodding, 'Well, we just don't know the answer to that question.' ... What science-bashers fail to appreciate is that scientists, in their unflagging attraction to the unknown, love what they don't know. It guides and motivates their work; it keeps them up late at night; and it makes that work poetic. As Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz has written, 'The incessant striving of the mind to embrace the world in the infinite variety of its forms with the help of art or science is, like the pursuit of any object of desire, erotic. Eros moves through both physicists and poets.' Both the evolutionary biologist and the poet participate in the inherent tendency of nature to give rise to pattern and form.

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As a poet, Deming finds herself drawn to the precise language of science:

"...the beautiful particularity and musicality of the vocabulary, as well as the star-factory energy with which the discipline gives birth to neologisms. I am wooed by words such as 'hemolymph,' 'zeolite,' 'crytogram,' 'sclera,' 'xenotransplant' and 'endolithic,' and I long to save them from the tedious syntax in which most scientific writing imprisons them."

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 Likewise, science writers like Rachel Carson, Oliver Sacks, and Stephen Jay Gould demonstrate how researchers can use literary tools to describe scientific processes:

"...in particular, those aspects of the experience that will not fit within rigorous professional constraints -- for example, the personal story of what calls one to a particular kind of research, the boredom and false starts, the search for meaningful patterns within randomness and complexity, professional friendships and rivalries, the unrivaled joy of making a discovery, the necessity for metaphor and narrative in communicating a theory, and the applications and ethical ramifications of one's findings. Ethnobiologist and writer Gary Paul Nabhan, one of the most gifted of these disciplinary cross-thinkers, asserts that 'narrative and metaphor are more honest, precise and comprehensive ways of explaining an animal's life history than the standard technical format of hypothesis, materials, methods, results and discussion.'

"Much is to be gained when scientists raid the evocative techniques of literature, and when poets raid the language and mythology of scientists. "

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The challenge for a poet, says Deming, is "not merely to pepper the lines with spicy words and facts, but to know enough science that the concepts and vocabulary become part of the fabric of one's mind, so that in the process of composition a metaphor or a paradigm from the domain of science is as likely to crop up as is one from literature or her own back yard."

And that, I believe, is the challenge for fantasists and mythic artists whose work is rooted in the natural world. The divide between art and science doesn't help us here. We, too, must breach the wall.

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Words: The passage above, and the poem in the picture captions, is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," published in The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Picador, 1998), which I highly recommend. Photographs: Our village nestles against two hills -- one behind my studio, where the hound and I walk most mornings, and the other, pictured here, rising high above the village Commons.


Magic in hand

Falconer's Joy by Tom Hirons

Over at Hedgespoken Press, my Dartmoor neighbours Tom Hirons & Rima Staines are making magic again. The press has just published Falconer's Joy,  a hand-size chapbook of new poetry by Tom (following The Nettle-Eater and Sometimes a Wild God)...and there's another project coming out very soon which I've had a bit of a hand in, along with Sylvia Lindsteadt and several other good folks. All will be revealed later this month.

You can keep up with the mythic rumblings via the Hedgespoken Press newsletter.

Lapwing Stars

Magic in hand

Rima Staines and Sylvia V. Linsteadt in my studio

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Magic afootRima and Sylvia in my studio last month, and Tilly with a copy of their book, Tatterdemalion.


Art and angels

Madonna del Parto by Pierro della Francesca

Since we were discussing angels last week (at least in metaphorical terms), I was reminded of this post from 2013 on Madonnas, angels, and inspiration:

One of my favorite paintings in the world is Piero della Francesca's "Madonna del Parto," so I smiled to read this in "Heaven on Earth," Peter Schjeldahl's review of the Piero della Francesca show at the Frick in New York (Feb-May 2013):

"One hot August, when I was twenty-three, I traversed Tuscany on the back of a Vespa driven by a painter friend, George Schneeman. We had seen Piero’s magnum opus, the 'Legend of the True Cross' frescoes, in Arezzo, which I found bewildering, and were headed northeast, to the artist’s home town of Sansepolcro, the site of his famous 'Resurrection of Christ' ('the best picture in the world,' according to Aldous Huxley), which I also failed to make much of. Then we stopped at a tiny cemetery chapel, in the hill town of Monterchi, to see Piero’s highly unusual 'Madonna del Parto.' An immensely pregnant but delicately elegant young Mary stands pensively in a bell-shaped tent, as two mirror-image angels sweep aside the flaps to reveal her. One angel wears green, the other purple. Here was the circumstantial drama of a ripeness with life in a place of death. George told me a sentimental, almost certainly untrue story that the work memorialized a secret mistress of Piero’s who had died in childbirth. This befitted the picture’s held-breath tenderness and its air of sharing a deeply felt, urgent mystery. In another age, the experience might have made me consider entering a monastery. Instead, I became an art critic."

Monterchi, Italy

A detail from Piero della Francesca's unfinished Nativity

A detail from Piero della Francesca's Legend of the True CrossSome years ago I made the same pilgrimage to Arrezo, Sansepolcro, and the Tuscan hilltown of Monterchi -- but unlike Schjeldahl, I was already under Piero's spell when I did so. Although what I really wanted was to see the Madonna del Parto freshly painted on the wall of the Chapel of Santa Maria di Momentana (which would have required travelling back in time to the 15th century), it was a deeply moving experience nonetheless to stand before the Lady at last, even in her rather sterile new home in the small Museo della Madonna. 

A print that I purchased that day in Monterchi hangs framed beside my drawing board still, where I draw and paint underneath the Lady's calm, enigmatic gaze. I am not Christian, so for me Piero's luminous figure represents the feminine and maternal mysteries, and the fecund spirit of creativity. This is not, of course, what the painter intended...but works of art, if they have any power, take on lives of their own once they leave our hands.

The Lady of the Studio

As Samuel R. Delany once wrote (in his ground-breaking novel Dahlgren): 

"The artist has some internal experience that produces a poem, a painting, a piece of music. Spectators submit themselves to the work, which generates an inner experience for them. But historically it's a very new, not to mention vulgar, idea that the spectator's experience should be identical to, or even have anything to do with, the artist's. That idea comes from an over-industrialized society which has learned to distrust magic."

Indeed. But I do trust magic. Especially the magic of art.

The other lady of the studio

The sketch on the drawing board

Paintings above: Piero della Francesca's "Madonna del Parto" in Monterchi, a detail from "The Legend of the True Cross" fresco cycle in Arezzo, and a detail from his unfinished "Nativity" -- which is now in the National Gallery in London.

Drawing: A close-up of the "bunny sisters" sketch which is on the drawing board in the photos. The completed drawing eventually ended up in a collage, "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep."

Photographs: Monterchi, The Lady of the Studio, and the other lady of the studio. The latter photos were taken five years ago -- so the furniture has moved around since then; Tilly and I have both grown older; but the Madonna still hangs by the drawing board, gazing down on bunny girls, bird boys, and other beasties.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Irish migrants to North America

Folk music has long been used to tell raw, honest stories about what it is to be human. Today, our theme is migration, exile, and displacement -- for the old stories remind us to have compassion for those facing such journeys today.

Above: "The Maid of Culmore," a traditional ballad performed by Cara Dillion, from County Derry in Northern Ireland. "“Having lived outside of Ireland for most of my adult life, I identify with songs of departure and longing for home on a very personal level," she says. The ballad appeared on her first solo album, Cara Dillon (2001).

Below: "Leaving Saint Kilda" by Scottish musician Alasdair Roberts and poet Robin Robertson, from the album Hirta Songs (2014). The islands of St. Kilda, in the Outer Hebrides, had been continuously inhabited for over two millenia, until its last residents were officially removed in 1930.

Above: "Adrift, Adrift" by English folk singer Rosie Hood. "I started writing this song," she says, "when I read about the Ezadeen and Blue Sky M in the news -- two large ships that had been abandoned in the Mediterranean Sea carrying hundreds of Syrians fleeing the civil war. Each person on board had paid around £4,000 to reach Europe on ships that the crews set to auto-pilot (risking them running aground) and abandoned." The song appears on Hood's first solo album, The Beautiful & the Actual (2017).

Below is a festival performance of songs drawn from a revival of The Transports, the great folk opera by Peter Bellamy: a harrowing story about a man and woman unjustly exiled to Australia in the 1780s. The performers are Matthew Crampton, The Younguns, Rachael McShane, Nancy Kerr, Greg Russell, and Faustus. To learn more about this updated version of the opera, watch the introductory video, visit the Transports website, or listen to the show's CD.

Above: "Ballads of Child Migration," from a project based on Britain's shameful history of forced child migration. The performers here are John McCusker, Michael McGoldrick, Boo Hewerdine, O’Hooley & Tidow, Chris While, Julie Matthews, John Doyle, Jez Lowe, Andy Seward, and Andy Cutting. The narrator is Barbara Dickson. To learn more, read Helen Gregory's review of the project, or listen to the show's CD.

Below: "Ghost" by the Anglo-Scots duo Winter Wilson (Kip Winter and David Wilson) -- a song about a different kind of exile that happens to countless young people every day. It's from their new album Far off on the Horizon: twelve songs about "love, emigration, and everyday people."

Above, in a shift of mood: "Traveler's Curse" by the irrepressible Ben Caplan, from Halifax, Nova Scotia. The song is from Old Stock: an album, music show, and stage play about two Jewish Romanian refugees fleeing to Canada in 1908. For more information, visit the Old Stock website, watch the introductory video, or listen to the show's CD.

Below, let's end as we started with music from Cara Dillon: "Lakeside Swans," from her new album, Wanderers -- a song about the decisions we make throughout our lives to go or to stay.

Drawing by Helen Stratton

Pictures: The drawings above are by Helen Stratton (1867-1961). Related music posts: "Stone's Throw" from Rachel Taylor-Beales' poignant album, Lament of the Selkie; "Here" by Sengalese singer Awa Ly; and The Lost Songs of St. Kilda. Also recommended: "The Stranger's Case" (from Shakespeare's last known play script, Sir Thomas More). In a short video produced by London's Globe Theatre and the International Rescue Committee, refugees from Syria, Sierra Leone, and South Sudan recite Shakespeare's text alongside renowned actors. It's a powerful piece. 


Unfolding our wings

The Angel of Childhood by Terri Windling

I recently re-read My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, and was struck by the following passage about young Mary Ann Evans, an editor and critic for The Westminster Review in the years before she transformed herself into the writer George Eliot.

" [H]er critical judgement could be instringent, even snarky, and she enjoyed the professional attention she got through exercising it. If one is accustomed to think of George Eliot as she ended up -- the novelist famous for the generosity of her comprehension -- it's shocking, George Eliotand not a little thrilling, to read her early essays and discover how slashing she could be. I wouldn't exchange the large, sympathetic capacities she later uncovered for these lesser dagger blows, but there's something very satisfying about knowing she once had it in her to land them. It's oddly reassuring to know that before she grew good, George Eliot could be bad -- to realize that she, also, had a frustrated ferocity that it gratified her to unleash, at least until she found her way to a different kind of writing, one that allowed her to lay down her arms, and to flourish without combativeness or cruelty.

"Beyond the pages of the periodicals, too, she could be acid and spiky, defensive in anticipation of attack. 'Treating people ill is an infallible sigh of special love with me,' she wrote to a friend. New acquaintances were not sure what to make of her. 'I don't know whether you will like Miss Evans," Bessie Raynor Parkes, who became Eliot's good friend, wrote to Barbara Bodichon, who became an even better one. 'At least I know you will like her for her large unprejudiced mind, her complete superiority to most women. But whether you or I should ever love her, as a friend, I don't know at all. There is yet no high moral purpose in the impression she makes, and it is that alone which commands love. I think she will alter. Large angels take a long time unfolding their wings, but when they do, they soar out of sight. Miss Evans either has no wings, or, which I think is the case, they are coming, budding."

Boy, did Bessie get that right.

I love the passage not only for the glimpse we get of women's friendships (always a subject close to my heart), but also for the insight into how Eliot changed and deepened over the years...not unlike writers I know today. It takes time to grow into into the person, and thus the artist, you are going to be. It takes time to find your true voice.

The Angel of Language by Terri Windling

My Life in Middlemarch

I highly recommend My Life in Middlemarch, which is a skillful blend of literary history and memoir. As Mead explained in an interview:

"The book began with a piece that I wrote for The New Yorker, an essay about George Eliot, specifically investigating the source of a quotation which is often attributed to her: 'It's never too late to be what you might have been.' I believed, and I still do believe, that she didn't say that. It doesn't appear to be in any of her books, and I haven't been able to find an original source for it anywhere.

"When I was 42 or so, thinking about doing this, I felt very strongly that it was too late for certain things to happen. I mean, one does, at that age. You know, it's too late to have kids, or it's too late to marry the person that you didn't marry earlier in your life… you realize that there are things that you haven't done that are going to remain undone. So it was in that mood, that mood of reflection, that I wanted to go back to Middlemarch and to think about the ways it had influenced me and shaped my understanding of myself and my own life....

"I don't think Middlemarch tells you how to live your life; thank god it doesn't! It's not a set of instructions, it's not a self-help book, and it would be bizarre to try to read it and follow its 'rules' or something. But I do think that our own life experience obviously informs how we read, and it means that our readings of different novels through different times become richer and change, and that's the measure of a great work of literature -- that you can go back to it time and again, time and again, and it will tell you something new, not just about what's in it but what's in you."

Middlemarch book art by Stephen Doyle

Words: The passage by Rebecca Meade is from My Life in Middlemarch (Crown Publishers, 2014). The quote is from an interview with Ron Hogan (BuzzFeed, November, 2014). All rights reserved by the author and artists. Pictures: The etching of George Eliot is from a chalk drawing by Frederic William Burton, 1864  (National Portrait Gallery, London). The Middlemarch book art is by Stephen Doyle. The angel paintings are old ones of mine (oil paint on paper). All rights reserved by the author and artists. Related post: The Art of Creating a Life: Barbara Bodichon.


Embracing Uncertainty

The edge of the woods

From Carl Jung's "Memories," an autobiographical work written in his eighties, published posthumously in Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

"I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself. I am depressed, distressed, rapturous. I am all these things at once and cannot add up the sum. I am incapable of determining ultimate worth or worthlessness; I have no judgement about my life. There is nothing I am quite sure about.

Merlin during his time of solitude in the woods  by Alan Lee"The world into which we are born is brutal and cruel, and at the same time of divine beauty. Which element we think outweighs the other, whether meaninglessness or meaning, is a matter of temperament. Probably, as in all meta-physical questions, both are true: Life is, or has, meaning and meaninglessness. I cherish the anxious hope that meaning will preponderate and win the battle.

"When Lao-tzu says: 'All are clear, I alone am clouded,' he is expressing what I now feel in advanced old age. Lao-tzu is an example of a man with superior insight who has seen and experienced worth and worthlessness, and who at the end of his life desires to return into his own being, into the eternal unknowable meaning. At every level of intelligence this type appears, and its lineaments are always the same, whether it be an old peasant or a great philosopher like Lao-tzu.

"This, too, is my experience of old age, a letting go of life-long certainties. Yet as they go there is much that fills me: plants, animals, clouds, day and night, and the eternal in ourselves. The more uncertain I have felt about myself, the more there has grown up in me a feeling of kinship with all things."

Border patrol

''The range of the human mind, the scale and depth of the metaphors the mind is capable of manufacturing as it grapples with the universe, stand in stunning contrast to the belief that there is only one reality, which is man's, or worse, that only one culture among the many on earth possesses the truth. To allow mystery, which is to say to yourself, 'There could be more, there could be things we don't understand,' is not to damn knowledge. It is to take a wider view. It is to permit yourself an extraordinary freedom: someone else does not have to be wrong in order that you may be right.''

- Barry Lopez (Of Wolves and Men)

''When Don Quixote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novel teaches us to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.''

- Milan Kundera (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting)

Beech leaves in autumn

"There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say 'It is yet more difficult than you thought.'  This is the muse of form.

"It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us Woodland spirit by Alan Leeand deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey."

 - Wendell Berry (Standing by Words)

"I try to remember that the job -- as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy -- of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it." 

- Dani Shapiro (Still Writing: The Perils & Pleasures of a Creative Life)

Woodland spirit

So let us embrace baffflement and uncertainty for the role it plays in all our lives -- a role that can be alarming, but also filled with creative potential. We don't ever really know where we're going; and for artists that's a very good thing. In the tension between certainty and doubt (or, to use yesterday's language, between hope and despair), we often find, strangely, that our best work is born....sometimes out of the very situations that seemed to threaten our ability to work the most.

Bird fairies by Alan LeeAs Mary Oliver says in her poem "Yes, Mysteries":

      Let me keep my distance, always, from those
     who think they have the answers.
     Let me keep company always with those who say
     'Look!' and laugh in astonishment,
     and bow their heads.

Fallen beech leaves

The art above is "Merlin in the Woods," "Woodland Maiden," and "Bird Fairies" by my Devon neighbor Alan Lee. According to ancient Celtic texts, Merlin (the wise and wily magician of King Arthur's court) autumn leafwent mad after the disastrous Battle of Arderydd and fled into the forest, where he lived like the wild boars and the wolves, eating roots and berries, sleeping in the rain. In the Welsh Black Book of Carmarthen, Merlin says: "Ten years and two score have I been moving along through twenty bouts of madness with wild ones in the wild...only lack keeps me company now." Through his period of shamanic madness, Merlin learned the speech of animals and the secrets of wood and stone. By the time he emerged from the forest, he'd come fully into his magical powers.