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January 2019

What winter is

Snow

''Winter, then in its early and clear stages, was a purifying engine that ran unhindered over city and country, alerting the stars to sparkle violently and shower their silver light into the arms of bare upreaching trees. It was a mad and beautiful thing that scoured raw the souls of animals and man, driving them before it until they loved to run.''

- Mark Halprin (A Winter's Tale)

Snow 2

"That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again.”

- Ali Smith (Winter)

Snow 4

"May we find comfort in the 'repeated refrains of nature,' the softly sheltering snow, the changing seasons, the return of blackbirds to the marsh....

Snow 3

"May we find strength in light that pours in under snow and laughter that breaks through tears....

Snow 5

"May we go out into the light-filled snow, among meadows in bloom, with gratitude for life that is deep and alive. May Earth's fire burn in our hearts, and may we know ourselves part of this flame -- one thing, never alone, never weary of life."

- Kathleen Dean Moore (Wild Comfort)

Snow 6

"Love life first, then march through the gates of each season; go inside nature and develop the discipline to stop destructive behavior; learn tenderness toward experience, then make decisions based on creating biological wealth that includes all people, animals, cultures, currencies, languages, and the living things as yet undiscovered; listen to the truth the land will tell you; act accordingly."

- Gretel Ehrlich (The Future of Ice)

Tilly in the snow

Snow 7


First snow of the season

First snow

It's snowing here on Dartmoor today...only lightly, but Tilly is thrilled nonetheless, and insists on going into the woods. Crossing over the stream, climbing up the hill, I follow my stalwart Animal Guide through tangles of holly, ash, and oak...

Following the hound

...leaving footsprints and pawprint to mark our passage into the green and white heart of winter.

Hound print

The poem in the picture captions is from Emergences and Spinner Falls by Robert Haight (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2002); all rights reserved by the author.


Working with words

Pony 1

Pony 2

I'm preparing a post on our last Modern Fairies session in Newcastle, planning to post it later this week. In the meantime I'd to revisit this piece on the magic inherent in words, as this was a subject that came up in discussions with the songwriters on the Modern Fairies project....

"Where words and place come together, there is the sacred,"  writes Kiowa poet and novelist N. Scott Momaday. "The question 'Where are you going?' is so commonplace in so many languages that it has the status of a universal greeting; it is formulaic. There is an American folksong that begins:

Well, where do you come from, and where do you go?
Well, where do you come from my cotton-eye Joe?

"The questions are so familiar that they are taken for granted. But their implications, their consequent meanings, are profound. In the deepest matter of these words are the riddles of origin and destiny, and by extension the stuff of story and ritual. I belong in the place of my departure, says Odysseus, and I belong in the place that is my destination. Only in this spectrum is the quest truly possible. The sense of place and the sense of belonging are bonded fast by the imagination. And words, in all their formal and informal manifestations, are the best expression of the imagination.

Pony 3

Pony 4

Pony 5

"Linguists have long suggested that we are determined by our native language, that language defines and confines us, " he notes. "It may be so. The definition and confinement do not concern me beyond a certain point, for I believe that language in general is practically without limits.

"We are not in danger of exceeding the boundaries of language, nor are we prisoners of language in any dire way. I am much more concerned with my place within the context of my language. This, I think, must be a principle of storytelling. And the storyteller's place within the context of his language must include both a geographical and mythic frame of reference. Within that frame of reference is the freedom of infinite possibility. The place of infinite possibility is where the storyteller belongs."

Pony 6

Pony 7

Pony 8

Pony 9

In an earlier interview, Momaday stated:

"Words are intrinsically powerful. And there is magic in that. Words come from nothing into being. They are created in the imagination and given life on the human voice. You know, we used to believe -- and I am talking about all of us, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds -- in the magic of words. The Anglo-Saxon who uttered spells over his field so that the seeds would come out of the ground on the sheer strength of his voice, knew a good deal about language, and he believed absolutely in the efficacy of language.

"That man's faith -- and may I say, wisdom -- has been lost upon modern man, by and large. It survives in the poets of the world, I suppose, the singers. We do not now know what we can do with words. But as long as there are those among us who try to find out, literature will be secure; literature will be a thing worthy of our highest level of human being."

Pony 10

Pony 11

Pony 12

Pony 13

Like Momaday, I believe that words have a magic and a power of their own, which those of us working in mythic arts and the fantasy field would be wise to remember. A good fantasy novel is literally spell-binding, using language to conjure up whole new worlds, or to invest our own with magic. The particular power of fantasy comes from its link with the world's most ancient stories, and from the author's careful manipulation of mythic archetypes, story patterns, and symbols.

A skillful writer knows that he or she must tell two stories at once: the surface tale, and a deeper story encoded within the tale's symbolic language. The magical tropes of fantasy, rooted as they are in world mythology, come freighted with meaning on a metaphoric level. A responsible writer works with these symbols consciously and pays attention to both aspects of the story.

Pony 14

The second pony

Hillside with ponies

In her fine book Touch Magic, Jane Yolen writes: "Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."

I believe that those of us who use the magic of words professionally should remember how powerful stories can be -- for children especially, but also for adults -- and take responsibility for the tenor of whatever dreams or nightmares we're letting loose into the world. This is particularly true in fantasy, where the tools of our trade include the language, symbolism and archetypal energies of myth. These are ancient, subtle, potent things, and they work in mysterious ways.

Tilly 1

Tilly 2Words: The first passage by N. Scott Momaday is from The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (St. Martin's Press, 1997); the second passage is from Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets by Joseph Bruchac (Sun Tracks/U of Arizona Press, 1987). The poem in the picture captions is Momaday's "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee" (Tsoai-Talee being one of Momady's own names), from In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 (St. Martin's Press, 1991). All rights reserved by Momaday and Bruchac. Pictures: A magical encounter on our hill. Tilly is very good with these free-roaming Dartmoor ponies; she knows not to hassle or startle them...though sometimes they startle her.

The power of language: Go here for previous posts on the subject, featuring Ben Okri, Jeanette Winterson, Jane Yolen and others; here  for a short article by John Kelly on the rat-slaying poetry of the Irish bards; and here  for an exploration of another form of language: the howling of wolves.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Rift Within by Arthur Hughes

I'm back home after two weeks on the road, and back in my hillside studio. My desk is piled high with work, my email Inbox is overflowing, and the pages of my neglected work-in-progress are glaring at me balefully...but the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the hound lounges happily beside me, glad to return to normal routines. So let's start the week with some traditional ballads to put us all in a storytelling mood....

Above: "Lover's Ghost" (Child Ballad #272), performed by The Rosie Hood Trio. Rosie Hood is a singer/songwriter from Wiltshire, joined here by Nicola Beazley and Lucy Huzzard for a new video released last week.

Below: "The Bonnie Earl O' Moray" (Child Ballad #181) performed by Said the Maiden (Jess Distill, Hannah Elizabeth, Kathy Pilkinton), a vocal harmony trio from Hertfordshire. The song can be found on their debut album, Here's a Health (2017).

Above: Said the Maiden again, performing "The Soldier and the Maid" (Child Ballad # 299).

Above: "False Lady" (Child Ballad #68) peformed by Teyr (James Gavin, Dominic Henderson, Tommie Black-Roff), from London. The song can be found on the trio's debut album, Far From The Tree (2016).

Above: "Banks of the Newfoundland," performed by Teyr. This one is a "capstan shanty" collected by Cecil Sharp in 1915, and may be related to the transportation ballad "Van Diemen's Land."

And last, an old performance from one of the primary bands of 20th century folk revival: "The Lady of Carlisle" (also known as "The Lion's Den") performed by Pentangle in 1972. Variants of this broadside ballad have been collected in Scotland, Ireland, Somerset, and the mountains of Kentucky.

Happy hound

For more information on Child Ballads go here, and on Broadside Ballads go here. The painting above is by Arthur Hughes (1832-1915).


Away with the fairies, once again

Frolicking fairies by Arthur Rackham

I'm currently on a train that's rolling from Dartmoor in south-west England to Newcastle in the far north-east, heading to the next Modern Fairies gathering at the Sage Theatre in Gateshead. I've been off-line due to health issues, but once again I am back on feet, a little shakey but up and moving, and I will do my best report on our journey into the Faerie Realm in the days ahead.

Fairies by Edmund DulacI love taking day-long train journeys, which hold a magic of their own, for time itself seems suspended in the liminal space between "here" and "there." As myth, folklore, and fairy tales remind us, the space between any two things is a traditional place of enchantment: a bridge between two banks of a river, the silvery light between night and day, the elusive moment between dreaming and waking, the instant of change in shape-shifting transformation ... and all those interstitial realms where cultures, myths, landscapes, languages, art forms, and genres meet. Modern Fairies was designed from the start as a cross-discipline, cross-genre project, so the cultural edgelands where we gather to work is the perfect place for summoning the Fair Folk.

In some old tales, you must cross running water at least three times to enter into Faerieland. I crossed the River Exe early this morning, the River Aire moments ago, and will end the journey across the River Tyne. "We are often like rivers," writes Gretel Ehrlich, "careless and forceful, timid and dangerous, lucid and muddied, eddying, gleaming, still. Lovers, farmers, and artists have one thing in common, at least: a fear of 'dry spells,' dormant periods in which we do no blooming, internal droughts only the waters of imagination and psychic release can civilize."

The "waters of imagination" that run through Faerie are notoriously strange and dangerous, and one never quite knows just where they'll lead. We must carry salt and acorns in our pocket, wear hawthorne or rowan leaves in our hair, and we must not eat or drink the fairies' food. If we have our wits about us, answer all riddles, mark our trail with feathers and stones, we'll come safely home again. Probably.

So now let's go. The gateway stands open. The moon is rising. I'll meet you there.

 

Faerie Court by Alan Lee

Fairy Procession by Charles Vess

The art above is by Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Alan Lee, and Charles Vess. To read previous posts on the Modern Fairies project, go here. You can follow the project through the Modern Faires website and blog, or on Twitter and Facebook.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Dawn from the boat house window

In a time of political discord, strife, and disconnection from the wider world, let's start the week grounded in harmony, community, and the wonders of the earth we share.

Above: "Rivermouth" by Rising Appalachia (Leah and Chloe Smith), based in the southern Appalachian region and New Orleans. The sisters are activists as well as musicians, working with Mississippi River, Gulf, and Klamath water protectors and other Waterkeepers around the world to preserve drinkable, fishable, swimmable water for everyone, everywhere. The song is from their sixth album, Wider Circles (2015).

Below: "Rang Tang Ring Toon" and "AGT" by Moutain Man, an American vocal harmony trio (Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, and Amelia Randall Meath) from the mountains of Vermont. Both songs are from their new album, Magic Ship (2018).

Morning coffee

Sunrise on the River Dart

Below: "The Birds' Courting Song," a traditional song performed by the English vocal harmony trio Said the Maiden (Jess Distill, Hannah Elizabeth and Kathy Pilkinton), from Hertfordshire. The song can be found on their debut album, Here's a Health (2017).

River mist

Above:  "Order and Chaos" by the English vocal harmony trio Lady Maisery (Hannah James, Hazel Askew, and Rowan Rheingans). It's from their third album, Cycle (2016), with animation by Minha Kim.

Below: "Rivers Run" by the great Scottish songwriter Karine Polwart, from her fourth solo album, This Earthly Spell (2008). She's accompanied here by her brother Steven, and my Modern Fairies colleague Inge Thomson.

Writing on the the river

"Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does."

- Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad)

Photographs: a favourite place of mine to hide away and write, on the River Dart.


The turn of the calendar

Meldon Hill, Chagford

Chagford, New Year's Day 2018

Here in Chagford, the new year begins on a quiet, misty morning with sheep on the hills...

A neighbour's sheep

...ponies the fields...

Dartmoor pony

...and Tilly at my side, as always.

Hound on hill

On New Year's Day I'm always reminded of my favourite quote from L.D. Montgomery's Ann of Green Gables: Ann's practical and cheerful assertation that "every day is a new day without any mistakes in it yet."

My love of waking early is grounded in a similar attitude: each day begins as a bright clean slate and is thus an opportunity to work a little better, live a little better, perhaps make fewer mistake this time. (Or, as Samuel Beckett advised: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better.") Stepping into a new year is just the same, but a larger scale. It's a brand new year, with no mistakes in it yet.

I look forward to sharing it with you.

Kestor Valley

New Year's Prayer

Sheep with leaf jewelry

I've had some very kind requests to re-visit last year's New Year post: a reflection on the Pennsylvania Dutch folk customs my mother practiced on New Year's Day...and why she clung to them so tightly. You'll find the the piece here: "On the New Year and fresh starts."

The poem in picture captions above is from Words Under the Words by Naomi Shihab Nye (Far Corner Books, 1995). All rights reserved by the author.