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January 2019

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.