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February 2019

Standing our ground

Waterfall 1

From Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World by Scott Russell Sanders:

"My friend Richard, who wears a white collar to his job, recently bought forty acres of land that had been worn out by the standard local regimen of chemicals and corn. Evenings and weekends, he has set about restoring the soil by spreading manure, planting clover and rye, and filling the eroded gullies with brush. His pond has gathered geese, his young orchard has tempted deer, and his nesting boxes have attracted swallows and bluebirds. Now he is preparing a field for the wildflowers and prairie grasses that once flourished here. Having contemplated this work since he was a boy, Richard will not be chased away by fashions or dollars or tornadoes. On a recent trip he was distracted from the book he was reading by thoughts of renewing the land. So he sketched on the flyleaf a plan of labor for the next ten years....

Waterfall 2

"I think about Richard's ten-year vision when I read a report chronicling the habits of computer users who, apparently, grow impatient if they have to wait more than a second for their machine to respond. I use a computer, but I am wary of the haste it encourages. Few answers that matter will come to us in a second; some of the most vital answers will not come in a decade, or a century.

Waterfall 3

"When the chiefs of the Iroquois nation sit in council, they are sworn to consider how their decisions will affect their descendants seven generations into the future. Seven generations! Imagine our politicians thinking beyond the next opinion poll, beyond the next election, beyond their own lifetimes, two centuries ahead. Imagine our bankers, our corporate executives, our advertising moguls weighing their judgements on that scale. Looking seven generations into the future, could a developer pave another farm? Could a farmer spray another pound of poison? Could the captain of an oil tanker flush his tanks at sea? Could you or I write checks and throw switches without a much greater concern for what is bought and sold, what is burned?

Waterfall 4

"As I write this, I hear the snarl of earthmovers and chain saws a mile away destroying a farm to make way for another shopping strip. I would rather hear a tornado, whose damage can be undone. The elderly woman who owned the farm had it listed in the National Register, then willed it to her daughters on condition they preserve it. After her death, the daughters, who live out of state, had the will broken, so the land could be turned over to the chain saws and earthmovers. The machines work around the clock. Their noise wakes me at midnight, at three in the morning, at dawn. The roaring abrades my dreams. The sound is a reminder that we are living in the midst of a holocaust. I do not use the word lightly. The earth is being pillaged, and every one of us, willingly or grudgingly, is taking part. We ask how sensible, educated, supposedly moral people could have tolerated slavery or the slaughter of Jews. Similar questions will be asked about us by our descendants, to whom we bequeath an impoverished planet. They will demand to know how we could have been party to such waste and ruin. They will have good reason to curse our memory.

Waterfall 5

"What does it mean to be alive in an era when the earth is being devoured, and in a country that has set the pattern for that devouring? What are we called to do?

Waterfall 6

"I think we are called to the work of healing, both inner and outer: healing of the mind through a change in consciousness, healing of the earth through a change in our lives. We can begin the work by learning how to abide in a place. I am talking about an active commitment, not passive lingering. If you stay with a husband or wife out of laziness rather than love, that is inertia, not marriage. If you stay put through cowardice rather than conviction, you will have no strength to act. Strength comes, healing comes, from aligning yourself with the grain of your place and answering its needs....

Waterfall 7

"In belonging to a landscape, one feels a rightness, at-homeness, a knitting of self and the world. This condition of clarity and focus, this being fully present, is akin to what the Buddhists call mindfulness, what Christian contemplatives refer to as recollection, what Quakers call centering down. I am suspicious of any philosophy that would separate this-worldly from other-worldly commitment. There is only one world, and we participate in it here and now, in our flesh and our place."

Waterfall 8

Staying Put by Scott Russell Sanders

Rock hound

Words: The passage above is from "Settling Down," published in Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World by Scott Russell Sanders (Beacon Press, 1993). The poem in the picture captions is from The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Native America poet Joy Harjo  (WW Norton & Co., 1994). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The waterfall on our hill, swollen with winter rain.

A few related posts: Down by the Riverside, The Dance of Joy and Grief, The Landscape of Story, and, from a slightly different slant, On Loss and Transfiguration.


Chasing mystery

Watcher on the hillside

From "Ground Notes" by Scott Russell Sanders:

"Once when my father was studying a handful of dirt, I asked him if he had ever been lost. 'No,' he answered, 'but there's been a few times when I didn't know where anything else was.' By that definition, I am lost for days and weeks at a stretch, aware of myself but of little else. The only ground I notice is the grit under my shoes. The world is grey cardboard. I trudge through dullness, as though in a deep trench, wholly absorbed in taking the next step. Chores, chores, chores. Places to go, things to do.

"Then occasionally I wake up from my drowse and for a few minutes every toad becomes a dragon, every lilac is a fiery fountain, and I am walking on pure light.

Hound and light

"These luminous moments are the standards by which I measure my ordinary hours. It may be the oldest human standard, older than the desire for comfort, older than duty. As the maverick monk Thomas Berry put it in his stiff but dignified way: 'Awareness of an all-pervading mysterious energy articulated in the infinite variety of natural phenomena seems to be the primordial experience of human consciousness.' Energy is a word that scientists willingly use, but mystery is not. Let mystery into the discussion, they fear, and pretty soon you'll have astral travel and bloodletting and witch hunts; you'll be reading the future in the bones of birds. You'll lock up Galileo for saying the earth spins around the sun. You'll hoot at Darwin for tracing our descent from the apes.

"Cosmologists have tried every which way they can to avoid having to posit what they call 'initial conditions' -- those conditions that determine the features of our universe. Why, for example, does the electron have that charge? Why does energy convert to matter and matter to energy? Why do fundemental forces interact just so? Why does nature obey these rules, or any rules? Why are the parameters such that life could evolve, and, within life, conciousness? And how does it happen that conciousness has figured out so many of the rules?

Woodland and hills

"If you admit that you cannot answe those questions and simply appeal to initial conditions in order to explain the founding features of the universe, then you raise the question of how those conditions were set. You bump into the old conundrum: How can there be a design without a designer? You can't do physics on God. So cosmologists have proposed a steady-state universe, an oscillating universe, or a universe with zero net energy sprung from quantum fluctuations, anything to avoid having to concede that reality extends beyond the reach of science.

Kestor on the the horizon

"With our twin hands, our paired eyes, our sense of split between body and mind, we favor dualism: design and designer, creation and creator, universe and God. But I suspect the doubleness is an illusion. 'How can we know the dancer from the dance?' Yeats asked in his poem "Among School Children." We hear treble and bass because we have two ears; the music itself is whole and undivided. The wind and the leaves shaking on the tree are two things; but the wave and the sea are one. When I sit on the pink granite of the Maine coast, stone and soul rubbed smooth by the strike of water, I see the ocean ripple and surge into whitecaps. Just so, the earth is a wave lifted up from the surf of space, and you and I are waves lifted up from earth.

A bright March day

"According to Hopi myth, long ago, at the beginning of our age, people emerged from a hole in the ground. They looked over the earth and liked what they saw, so they stayed. But at the end of time the people will go back again into the ground. When buried in graves or scattered as ashes, we also return to the ground. The throwing of the first shoveful of dirt on the coffin or the flinging of ash into the wind is a ritual moment when the earth reclaims us. Writing about the ground is in part my attempt to come to terms with death, with my own return to the source. But it is at least as much attempt to come to terms with life, with the issuing-forth.

In the hollow of a tree

"This is the light in which I have come to see Thoreau's best known sentence: 'The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world.' Wildness here is usually understood to mean wilderness. But I think it has a larger meaning. I think it refers to the creative energy that continually throws new forms into existence and gives them shape. Thus Wildness is literally the 'preservation of the world,' because without it there would be no world. Gary Snyder may have had some such notion in mind when he insisted in The Practice of the Wild that nature is simply what is, the way of things: 'This, thusness, is the nature of the nature of nature. The wild in the wild.' By keeping in touch with wilderness, we preserve our sanity and world's health.

"Beneath or behind or within everything there is an unfathomable ground -- a suchness, as the Buddhists say -- that one can point to, bow to, contemplate, but cannot grasp. To speak of this ground as a mystery is not to say we know nothing, only that we cannot know everything. The larger the context we envision, the more tentative and partial our knowledge appears, the more humble we are forced to be. Merely think of the earth as a living organism, taking the health of this great body as the gauge of everything we do, and you recognize our ignorance is profound.

Promise of spring

"The thawing of the eath brings me a whiff of the world's renewal. The green shoots of crocuses breaking through are the perennial thrusting-forth shapeliness out of the void. Breathing in the breath of soil, I feel the force of Thomas Berry's claim that 'Our deepest convictions arise in this contact of the human soul with some ultimate mystery whence the universe itself is derived.' The smell brings to my lips the words my Mississippi grandfather used to say about anything that delighted him: 'That suits me down to the ground.' "

Terri & Tilly Windling by Jim Fortey

Working in the woods

Words: The passage above is from "Ground Notes," published in Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World by Scott Russell Sanders (Beacon Press, 1993); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: On the hillside behind my studio, in the pause between winter and spring. The photograph of me and Tilly was taken by our friend and village neighbor Jim Fortey, whom we happened to meet during woodland wanderings.


Chasing beauty

Ponies 1

From "Beauty" by Scott Russell Sanders:

vintage dragonfly drawing"As far back as I can remember, things seen or heard or smelled, things tasted or touched, have provoked in me an answering vibration. The stimulus might be the sheen of moonlight on the needles of a white pine, or the iridescent glimmer on a dragonfly's tail, or the lean silhouette of a ladder-back chair, or the glaze on a hand-thrown pot. It might be bird-song or a Bach sonata or the purl of water over stone. It might be a line of poetry, the outline of a cheek, the savor of bread, the sway of a bough or a bow. The provocation might be as grand as a mountain sunrise or as humble as an icicle's jeweled tip, yet in each case a familiar surge of gratitude and wonder swells up in me.

Ponies 2

"Now and again some voice raised on the stairs leading to my study, some passage of music, some noise from the street, will stir a sympathetic hum from the strings of the guitar that tilts against the wall behind my door. Just so, over and over again, impulses from the world stir a responsive chord in me -- not just any chord, but a particular one, combining notes of elegance, exhileration, simplicity, and awe. The feeling is as recognizable to me, as unmistakable, as the sound of my wife's voice or the beating of my own heart. A screech owl calls, a comet streaks the night sky, a story moves unerringly to a close, a child lays an arrowhead in the palm of my hand, my daughter smiles at me through her bridal veil, and I feel for a moment at peace, in place, content. I sense in those momentary encounters a harmony between myself and whatever I behold. The word that seems to fit most exactly this feeling of resonance, this sympathetic vibration between inside and outside, is beauty.

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

"What am I to make of this resonant feeling? Do my sensory thrills tell me anything about the world? Does beauty reveal a kinship between my small self and the great cosmos, or does my desire for meaning only fool me into thinking so? Perhaps, as biologists maintain, in my response to patterns I am merely obeying the old habits of evolution. Perhaps, like my guitar, I am only a sounding box played on by random forces.

Ponies 5

"I must admit that two cautionary sayings keep echoing in my head. Beauty is only skin deep, I've heard repeatedly, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Appealing surfaces may hide ugliness, true enough, as many a handsome villain or femme fatale should remind us. The prettiest of butterflies and mushrooms and frogs include some of the most poisonous ones. It's equally true that our taste may be influenced by our upbringing, by training, by cultural fashion. One of my neighbors plants in his yard a pink flamingo made of translucent plastic and a concrete goose dressed in overalls, while I plant my yard in oxeye daisies and jack-in-the-pulpits and maidenhair ferns, and both of us, by our own lights, are chasing beauty.

Ponies 6

Ponies 7

"Must beauty be shallow if it can be painted on? Musn't beauty be a delusion if it can blink on and off like a flickering bulb? I'll grant that we may be fooled by facades, led astray by our fickle eyes. But I've been married now for thirty years. I've watched my daughter grow for twenty-four years, my son for twenty, and these loved ones have taught me a more hopeful possibility. Season after season I've knealt over fiddleheads breaking ground, studied the wings of swallowtails nectaring on blooms, spied skeins of geese high in the sky. There are books I've read, pieces of music I've listened to, ideas I've revisited time and again with fresh delight. Having lived among people and places and works of imagination whose beauty runs all the way through, I feel certain that genuine beauty is more than skin deep, that real beauty dwells not in my eye alone but in the world.

Ponies 8

"While I can speak with confidence of what I feel in the presence of beauty, I must go out on a speculative limb if I'm to speak about the qualities of the world that call it forth. Far out on that limb, therefore, let me suggest that a creature, an action, a landscape, a line of poetry or music, a scientific formula, or anything else that might seem beautiful, seems so because it gives us a glimpse of the underlying order of things. The swirl of a galaxy and the swirl of a [human-made object of beauty] resemble each other not merely by accident, but because they follow the grain of the universe. The grain runs through our own depths. What we find beautiful accords with our most profound sense of how things ought to be.

"Ordinarily we live in a tension between our perceptions and our desires. When we encounter beauty, that tension vanishes, and outward and inward images agree....

Ponies 9

"As far back as we can trace our ancestors, we find evidence of a passion for design -- decorations on pots, beads on clothing, pigments on the ceilings of caves. Bone flutes have been found at human sites dating back more than 30,000 years. So we answer the breathing of the land with our own measured breath; we answer the beauty we find with the beauty we make. Our ears may be finely tuned for detecting the movements of predators or prey, but that does not explain why we should be so moved by listening to Gregorian chants or Delta blues. Our eyes may be those of a slightly reformed ape, trained for noticing whatever will keep skin and bones intact, but that scarely explains why we should be so enthralled by the lines of a Shaker chair or a Durer engraving, or by the photographs of Jupiter."

Ponies 10

Ponies 11

"I am convined there's more to beauty than biology, more than cultural convention. It flows around and through us in such abundance, and in such myriad forms, as to exceed by a wide margin any mere evolutionary need. Which is not to say that beauty has nothing to do with survival; I think it has everything to do with survival. Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us. It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature. By giving us a taste of the kindship between our small minds and the great mind of the Cosmos, beauty assures us that we are exactly and wonderfully made for life on this glorious planet, in this magnificent universe. I find in that affinity a profound source of meaning and hope. A universe so prodigal of beauty may actually need us to notice and respond, may need our sharp eyes and brimming hearts and teaming minds, in order to close the circuits of Creation."

Ponies 12

Words: The three passages above are from "Beauty," an essay by Scott Russell Sanders (Orion Magazine, 1998). The poem in the picture captions is from Thirst by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2007). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The beauty of wild ponies. encountered this morning on our hill.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Gannets at Rathlin Island by Angela Harding

I'm finally starting to write again after three hard weeks of flu. It's only for a little while each day, as I'm still in the last stage of recovery -- but its good to be out of bed at last, and I'm very glad to be back to Myth & Moor.

Let's start the week with songs of the sea: of sailors and selkies and all those who wait on the shore....

Above: "Forfarashire" by London-based singer Kirsty Merryn, with Steve Knightley (from Show of Hands). The song -- which appeared on Merryn's first album, She & I (2017) -- tells the story of Grace Darling, the daughter of a lighthouse-keeper, who rescued survivors from the wreck of a paddlesteamer

Below: "Shipping Song" by Lisa Knapp, also based on London. This piece, woven from the language of the Shipping Forecast (the daily radio broadcast of weather reports for the seas off the British coast), appeared on Knapp's second album, Hidden Seam (2013).

Above: "The Call/Daughters of Watchet/Caturn's Night" by Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater, based in Somerset and Devon. Watchet is a harbour town on the Somerset coast, its history bound up with fishing, farming, and mining. The song can be found on their joint album Findings (2017).

Below: "The Golden Vanity" (Child Ballad #286) performed by Iona Fyfe, from Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The song appears on her latest album, Dark Turn of Mind (2018).

Above: a gorgeous version of "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (Child Ballad #113) sung by Julie Fowlis, from the Scottish Hebrides, with the The Unthanks from Northumbria.

Below: another fine version of the same ballad performed by English folksinger Maz O'Connor, who grew up in the Lake District. The song appears on her second album, This Willowed Light (2014). The video was filmed by a member of The Icicle Divers Sub Aqua Club, based in Crewe. 

Detail from Seal Song by Angela Harding

The art today is by printmaker and painter Angela Harding, from Rutland, in the East Midlands of England. "For the past 10 years," she says, "I have worked solely at my art practice in the village of Wing -- which is very apt for a women inspired by birds. My studio is at the bottom of the garden and houses all I need to make my work, including a recently acquired Rochat Albion press. The studio overlooks sheep fields surrounded by gentle sloping hills. It’s not a dramatic landscape but somehow a comforting one and to me feels very much like home. The Rutland countryside does have a wealth of animal and bird life that is a constant inspiration for my work. Rutland Water is just over the ridge which attracts a great diversity of bird life that is world renowned."

To see more of her beautiful work, please visit her website and online shop.

Detail from Black Throated Diver by Angela Harding

Art above: "Gannets at Rathlin Island," and details from "Seal Song" and "Black Throated Diver." All rights reserved by Angela Harding.


Happy Chinese New Year!

Greek terracotta pig votive circa 5th century BCE

On the first day of the Year of the Pig, let's look at a bit of porcine myth and folklore:

Pigs in their various forms, from wild boar to domesticated swine, are extremely ambivalent figures in myth, sacred in some contexts, demonic in others, or (in the paradoxical manner so common to magical tales) both revered and shunned at the same time. The pig as a sacred animal seems to belong to the early goddess religions, about which our knowledge is far from complete -- but carvings and other artifacts found all across what is now western Europe indicate that the pig was an aspect of the Great Goddess, associated with fertility, the moon, and the season cycles of life and death.

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As Alison Hawthorne Deming explains in her excellent book Zoologies:

"The process of pig domestication began in the Tigris Basin thirteen thousand years ago; in Cyprus and China, eleven thousand years ago. Sculptures of pigs have been unearthed in Greece, Russian, Yugoslavia, and Macedonia. Marija Gimbutas, in her keystone work The Godddess and Gods of Old Europe, writes that 'the fast-growing body of the pig will have been compared to corn growing and ripening, so that its soft fats apparently came to symbolize the earth itself, causing the pig to become a sacred animal probably no later than 6000 BC.'  The goddess of vegetation sometimes wears a pig mask. Sometimes the pig figurine, fleshy and round, is scored with traces of grain pressed into the clay or is graced with earrings. The prehistoric goddess of vegetation dates back to Neolithic times and is predicessor to Demeter, the Greek goddess of fertility and harvest, whose temple at Eleusis was built in the second century BCE.

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"The Eleusinian Mysteries," Deming continues, "became the principal religious ritual of ancient Greece, begun circa 1600 BCE. Originally a secret cult devoted to Demeter, the rites honored the annual cycle of death and rebirth of grain in the fields. The resurrection of seeds buried in the ground inspired the faith that similar resurrection might A figure of Demeter with a pig, circa 400 BCE, found near Athensawait the human body laid to rest in the earth. The religious rituals of the Eleusinian Mysteries lasted two thousand years, became the official state religion, and spread to Rome. They laid the groundwork for Christianity's belief in resurrection and were ultimately overthrown by the Roman emperor in the fourth century CE.

"The canonical source of Demeter's story, the 'Homeric Hymn to Demeter,' dates from about a thousand years into the practice of these rituals. It is called Homeric because it employs the same meter as The Iliad and The Odyssey -- dactylic hexameter, the rhythm of 'Picture yourself in a boat on the river / With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.'

"The foundation of the Mysteries is Demeter's power over the fertility of the land. When her daughter Persephone is stolen by Hades to be his lover in the underworld, the mother's grief is so acute that she refuses to let the fields produce grain. People are in danger of starving, but Demeter resists, saying there will be no crops until she sees her daughter return. When Persephone does come back, after many trials among mortals and much dealing making among the gods, Demeter's sudden transformation of bare ground into a 'vast sheet of ruddy grain' marks the miracle of fruition returning after a fallow time and sparks the fertility cult of the mysteries. This metamorphosis occurs in mythic time, so it is safe to say that it continues in the present moment for the mind embracing its truth.

Marble piglet votive

"Suckling pigs played a key role in the festival of Thesmophoria, a three-day rite that took place in October, the time for autumn sowing of barley and winter wheat. As I write this, the word sow catches my eye, as both noun for the female pig and verb for planting seeds. The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the two words come from different Old English roots, but nonetheless history delivers the homograph to modernity still carrying freight from the ancients. Pig = grain. And the corollary, embedded in prehistoric art: pig = Earth = survival."

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In stories from later periods of classical myth, the pig appears in a number of hero tales: not as a sacred animal now but as a monster to be slain. Thesues, for example, kills the Crommyonian Sow who is ravaging the countryside near Crommyon. This was no ordinary pig, but the daughter of Echidna (a snake-woman) and Typhone (the monstrous son of Gaia), named after the woman who raised her. The Crommoyonian Sow was, in turn, the mother of the Calydonian Boar sent by Artemis to punish the region of Calydon, where the king had neglected the rites of the gods. The creature is killed in the famous Hunt of the Calydonian Boar by the king's son Meleager, aided (for complicated reasons) by the goddess Atlanta.

The Calydonian Hunt shown on a Roman frieze at the Amsmolean Museum in Oxford

Pigs appear all throughout The Odyssey, though largely in the background of the story: Odysseus is the king of Ithaca, an island reknown for its farmland and herds of fat swine. He is the son of Laërtes, an Argonaut who participated in the Hunt of the Calydonian Boar. During his long journey home from the Trojan War, Odysseus encounters Circe the sorceress, who turns his men into swine (and other animals)...and then falls in love with Odysseus and releases the crew from enchantment. When our hero reaches Ithaca at last, he hides himself in his swineherd's house while taking measure of all that's gone on in his absence, and it's there, among dogs and pigs, that he is reunited with his son Telemachus. He finally makes his way to his own house, disguised, where his elderly nurse recognizes him: while washing his feet, she spies an old scar he received from a boar hunt many years before.

Aneas, another hero of the Trojan War, is also associated with pigs. In Book VIII of Virgil's Aeneid, the river god Tiberinus appears to Aeneas in a dream to tell him his son is destined to found the great city of Alba. He will know place when he sees this omen: a spotless white sow with thirty white piglets. This comes to pass and the city, which will be Rome, is duly founded.

Circe by Alan Lee

Aneas and his son with the White Sow of Alba

The poor pig does not fare well in the myths the Middle and Near East, including those of the Abrahamic religions, where the animal is viewed as an unclean and defiled creature in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian stories alike. It is tempting to attribute the pig’s fall from grace to its association with women's mysteries -- but while this may have played a role, there are also practical reasons why the animal was shunned. As Mark Essig writes in his fascinating book Lesser Beasts:

Greek terracotta askos in the form of a boar, circa 4th c. BCE"By the start of the Iron Age, about 1200 bc, elites in the Near East had begun to see pigs as polluting, a view that arose in part from the habits of urban pigs. Though cities had grown large, sanitation systems had not kept pace. Residents threw garbage into the streets or piled it in heaps outside their doors....Dogs and pigs had first domesticated themselves by scavenging human waste, but now that role made them pariahs. Filthy animals offended the gods and therefore were excluded from holy places. The people of the Near East practiced many different religions, but all agreed that the key sacrificial animals were sheep, goats, and cattle and that pigs were unclean. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, pigs never appear in religious art. The Harris Papyrus, which describes religious offerings made by King Ramses III, includes a detailed list of every desirable item to be found in Egypt and the lands it had conquered, including plants, fruits, spices, minerals, and meat. Pork does not appear on the list. 'The pig is not fit for a temple,' a Babylonian text reads, because it is 'an offense to all the gods.' A Hittite text declares, 'Neither pig nor dog is ever to cross the threshold' of a temple. If anyone served the gods from a dish contaminated by pigs or dogs, 'to that one will the gods give excrement and urine to eat and drink.' "

(You can read an engrossing except from Lessig's book here.)

From the tomb of Ramses II

The pig fared better among the Norse and the Celts, for whom -- as with the Demeter cults -- it was valued not only as a source of food but also as a divine animal, associated with the cycle of birth and death, the moon, the underworld, and intuitive wisdom.

In Norse myth, both Freyr (god of virility and prosperity) and his sister Freyja (goddess of love, sex, and fertility) held the wild boar under special protection, and are sometimes depicted together in a chariot drawn by a heavenly boar with golden bristles. In Hyndluljóð, an Old Norse poem that forms part of the Poetic Eddas, Freyja has a companion boar named Hildisvíni, whose name means "Battle Swine."

Bronze boar statue from the Celtic sanctuary at Neuvy-en-Sullias (1st c. BCE)

In Celtic Ireland, not only were wild boars and sows held in high esteem, but so were domestic pigs; and the swineherds who tended them were credited with magical powers. Their herds of swine would have been semi-wild, foraging for food in the forests of kings; the herders were thus semi-wild themselves and imbued with the woodland's magic. The Táin Bó Cúailnge and other ancient texts tell stories of swineherds who battle each other in contests of magic, or who utter prophesies at key moments in the lives of heroes and kings.

From the Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

In Welsh legend, the enchantress Ceridwen (possessor of the Cauldron of Inspiration which turns Gwion Bach into Taliesin) is referred to as The White Sow; and in some Welsh folklore traditions she had the power to assume that shape. The following passage from The Mabinogion describes the introduction of pigs to that land:

"Lord," said Gwydion [to Math son of Mathonwy],I have heard tell there have come to the South such creatures as never came to this Island." "What is there name?" said he. "Hobeu, lord." "What kind of animals are those?" "Small animals, their flesh better than the flesh of oxen. But they are small and they change names: moch are they called nowadays." "To whom do they belong?" "To Pryderi son of Pwyll, to whom they were sent from Annwn [the Underworld], by Arawn king of Annwn."

Whereupon Gwydion concocts a plan to steal these animals for his own land, setting off all manner of troubles....

Warwick Goble

In fairy tales, lowly pig keepers usually turn out to be princes or princesses in disguise. Likewise, the "Pig-Sty Prince" of Arthurian lore, a child found abandoned among the swine, turns out to be cousin to Arthur himself and grows up to win the hand of a princess.

Harry G. Theatre

Today, science has confirmed that pigs are highly social and intelligent animals....which only makes their abuse by the modern system of factory farming all the more horrific. Perhaps if we recognized them (and all creatures) as sacred beings this could finally change.

The pig photographs in this post are from my friend Elizabeth-Jane Baldry (pictured below), a harpist, composer, and filmmaker here in Chagford who kept pigs for a time to forage in her beautiful woodland, Pigwiggen Wood. The sow is Blossom, and the piglets are ones she gave birth to back in 2010. They have since been re-homed...but not eaten, I assure you!

Ej & friend

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The art above (top to bottom): a Greek terracotta pig votive, circa 5th c. BCE; a figure of Demeter with pig found near Athens, circa 5th c. BCE; a marble pig votive; The Calydonian Hunt shown on a Roman frieze at the Amsmolean Museum, Oxford; Circe and her pigs in The Wanderings of Odysseus, illustrated by Alan Lee; a marble relief showing Aneas and his son with the White Sow of Alba; a Greek terracotta boar askos, circa 4th c. BCE; imagery from the Egyptian tomb of Ramses II depicting how Horus would judge souls in the afterlife, reincarnating the bad ones as pigs; a bronze boar statue from the Celtic sanctuary at Neuvy-en-Sullias, circa 1st c. BCE; "Gwydion steals the pigs of Pryderi" from The Mabinogion, illustrated by Alan Lee; The Pig Keeper by Warwick Goble (1862-1943); and The Pig-Style Prince by Harry G. Theaker (published in 1925).

The quotations above come from Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Milkweed Editions, 2014), and Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig by Mark Essig (Basic Books, 2015). The poem in the picture captions, "Circe's Power" by Louise Gluck, is from The New Yorker (April 10, 1995), with thanks to Christine Norstrand for introducing me to it. The passage from The Mabinogion comes from the Gwyn Jones & Thomas Jones translation (Dragon's Dream edition, 1982). All rights to the quoted text is reserved by the authors.


Then came the snow

From the Inner Season series by Virginia Lee

A dusting of snow at Bumblehill on Thursday

Howard took the photo above yesterday, from the rise of the garden behind our small house. Winter has been so mild this year that we thought a light dusting of snow might be all that we'd see  -- but this morning we woke to a proper storm.  The picture below was taken an hour ago. The snow is still coming, thick and fast, and the hills have vanished into white.

Snow at Bumblehill on Friday

Beauty and the Beast by Angela Barrett

Tilly racing down our lane

Tilly loves the snow, barreling down our lane in an ecstasy of pure canine delight. She follows Howard and me to the village -- where the roads, free of cars, have been taken over by families and dogs, by sledges and skates....

Hiking down the lanes to the village

Russian Winter by Gennady Spirin

The joy of snow

Tilly and me

For the length of the storm, the world is measured by children's laughter, not the roar of machines, and neighbours stand in their doorways to gossip, watching the snow fall instead of the clock.

Kids on their way to sledge on O'er Hill

Russian Winter by Gennady Spirin

The winding road back home again

Back home again to Nattadon Hill --where my studio cabin is sheathed in ice, nestled against the white winter wood. I climb up the hillside through drifts of snow to check that all is well up there, and then carefully climb down again. There will no studio work today while the snow keeps coming, the cabin creaking and rattling in the storm.

The Bumblehill Studio in snow

I make my way slowly down to the house, drawn by the kitchen window's glow.

The rayburn stove in our kitchen hearth

I stamp my feet by the door, peel off my wet coat, put my boots by Rayburn stove to dry. Tilly is curled in her bed nearby. There's coffee brewing. The snow keeps on coming. The world through the windows is muffled in white. Time has stopped and the clocks have gone silent.

The snow-covered hills, viewed from the warmth of the house

But all too soon, they shall start up again.

The white Devon hills

The Snow Queen by Angela Barrett

The art above is by Virginia Lee, Angela Barrett, and Gennady Spirin. Each image is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see them.) All right reserved by the artists.