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March 2019

On home, land, and the view out the window

Zandvoort Fisher Girl by Elizabeth Forbes

In her essay "Home," Mary Oliver writes about the value of those homely, undramatic landscapes that we come to know in an intimate way by living in them day after day, year after year, season after season. Reading her words, I was reminded of my own patch of ground: the small woodland behind my studio and the rise of Nattadon Hill beyond, whose modest beauties are deepened by my steady relationship with them. I walk their paths nearly every day: I know the trees and the stones in all kinds of weather; I know where the sicklewort grows, and the Jack-in-Pulpits; I know where the badger setts are, where the owls come to roost. I grieve when storms damage the stalwart old oaks and celebrate when the bluebells return. All this makes the hillside dear to me, but one needn't live in the countryside to value the physical world we live in -- including the good green lungs of our cities, the raffish edgelands between country and town, and those blessed pockets of wilderness that break through in even the tamest of suburbs. We are all affected by the land that we live on (for good or for ill), if not always properly attentive to that soul-deep connection.

In the following passage from Oliver's essay, she speaks of the way her own familiar landscape, on the north-east coast of America, shaped her psyche and creative work:

A Girl With Hands Behind Her Back (charcoal drawing) by Elizabeth Forbes"A certain lucent correspondence has served me, all my life, in the ongoing search for my deepest thoughts and feelings. It's the relationship of my own mind to landscape, to the physical world -- especially to the part of which, over the years, I have (and not casually) become intimate. It's no great piece of furniture in the universe -- no Niagara, or rainforest, or Sahara. Yet it is beautiful, and ripples in the weathers as lively as any outpouring from the Great Lakes.

"In its minor turns, and tinsels, and daily changes, this landscape seems actually intent on providing pleasures, as indeed it does; in its constancy, its inexorable obedience to laws I cannot begin to imagine much less understand, it is still a richer companion -- steady commentary against my own lesser moods -- my flightiness, my indifferences, my mind and heart absences.

"I mean, by such flightiness, something that feels unsatisfied at the center of my life -- that makes me shaky, fickle, inquisitive, and hungry. I could call it a longing for home and not be far wrong. Or I could call it a longing for whatever supercedes, if cannot pass through, understanding. Other words that come to mind: faith, grace, rest. In my outer appearance and life habits I hardly change -- there's never been a day that friends haven't been able to say, at a distance, 'There's Oliver, still standing around in the weeds. There she is, still scribbling in her notebook.' But at the center I am shaking, I am flashing like tinsel....

"Daily I walk out across my landscape, the same fields, the same woods, and the same pale beaches; I stand by the same blue and festive sea where the invisible winds, on late summer afternoons, are wound into huge, tense coils, and the waves put on their feathers and begin to leap shoreward, to their last screaming and throbbing landfall. Times beyond remembering I have seen such moments: summer falling to fall, to be followed by what will follow: winter again: count on it. Opulant and ornate world, because at its root, and its axis and its ocean bed, it swings through the universe quietly and certainly."

Landscape near Paul  Cornwall by Elizabeth Forbes

Here We Are Gathering Nuts in May by Elizabeth Forbes

And on that land, she continues,

"I build a platform, and live upon it, and think my thoughts, and aim high. To rise, I must have a field to rise from. To deepen, I must have bedrock from which to descend. The constancy of the physical world, under its green and blue dyes, draws me toward a better, richer self, call it elevation (there is hardly an adequate word), where I might ascend a little -- where a gloss of spirit would mirror itself in worldly action. I don't mean just mild goodness. I mean feistiness too, the fires of human energy stoked; I mean a gladness vivacious enough to disarrange the sorrows of the world into something better....

"It is one of the great perils of our so-called civilized age that we do not acknowledge enough, or cherish enough, this connection between soul and landscape -- between our own best possibilities, and the view from our own windows. We need the world as much as it needs us, and we need it in privacy, intimacy, and surety."

As I walk the paths of the hill and woods, over and over and over again, following after my bouncy black dog, I'm aware that I do need this place, this connection with something both older and larger than I am. My dreams are steeped in its soft morning mists and cold winter rains; my art is shaped by its moss-covered rocks, its hoary old oaks, its rowan trees bright with red berries. It's not the first or the only landscape I've loved. It will probably not be the last. But every day I walk on the hill...and look...and listen, paying attention.  I "stand around in the weeds" and scribble in a notebook. On good days, on bad days, I'm here. On the hill.

Rooted.

Fearing storms, but still standing.

Soft Music & The Leaf by Elizabeth Forbes

The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Elizabeth Forbes

The Road to the Farm & A Dream Princess by Elizabeth Forbes

The Black Knight by Elizabeth Forbes

The art today is by Elizabeth Forbes (1859-1912), a leading member of the Newlyn School of art. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, Forbes studied in London, New York, and Munich, and spent time in the Pont-Aven art colony in Brittany, before settling in Cornwall: first in St. Ives, then in the fishing village of Newlyn (where she married fellow painter Stanhope Forbes). She was only 52 when she died of cancer, yet she created an extraordinary body of work -- ranging from rural scenes influenced by the plein air movement to illustrative works reflecting her love of folklore and fairy stories.

Shepherdess of the Pyrenees by Elizabeth Forbes

To learn more about this remarkable women, I recommend Singing from the Walls: The Life & Art of Elizabeth Forbes by Judith Cook, Melissa Hardie, and Christiana Payne.

Jean, Jeanne at Jeanette by Elizabeth Forbes

The Life & Art of Elizabeth Forbes

The text quoted above is from Long Life: Essays and Other Writings by Mary Oliver (Da Capo Press, 2004). All rights reserved by the author's estate.


Going to ground

Ponies 1

Here in Chagford, surrounded by woodland and moorland, by rain-soaked hills and fields full of ponies and sheep, we tend to live half-a-step removed from the pace and preoccupations of modern life.

Ponies 2

Time itself moves different. The lanes to the village are winding and narrow, slowing cars down as they make the approach, or stopping them altogether when sheep, cows or ponies drift onto the road. Village shops are small, service leisurely as neighbors chitchat over the counters (while city folk check their watches impatiently). Internet and mobile phone services don't always work here, and the rest of the world can seem very far away....

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

But it's not, of course. The relentless stress of political turmoil reaches us here in Brigadoon too. And it has been relentless -- in Britian, in America, on the streets of France and Italy and Hungary and around the world. So many people shouting. So few people listening. The polar ice caps quietly melting away all the while.

Ponies 6

In response, I find myself "going to ground," and I mean that literally: going out to the hills to find solace and strength, to find calm and clarity. At such times, I believe, we need art more than ever. So I turn to nature, and I turn to stories, for guidance. For insight. For healing.

Ponies 7

"A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves," says Ben Okri. "Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings or orientation....Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger."

Ponies 8

"Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines," Jeanette Winterson concurs. "What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination."

Ponies 9

The late, great Lloyd Alexander also spoke about truths best conveyed through magical modes of storytelling. " 'True to life' may not always be true enough," he said. "The difficulty is perhaps in confusing truth with objectivity. By its very nature, art can never be objective. Try as we might, we can't 'tell it like it is.' We can only tell it the way it seems to us. And this, of course, is what we must do -- in realism or in fantasy -- if we hope to create anything of durable value. We have always needed good art to sustain us, to strengthen us, even to console us for being born human. Where better can we learn to see through the eyes of others, to gain compassion, to try to make sense of the world outside ourselves and the world within ourselves?"

Ponies 10

"To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us," says Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan. "Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen."

Ponies 11

Ponies 12

If you, too, are struggling with your creative work during this unsettled time, this is what I advise:

First, do whatever you need to right now to find hózhó (balance), stillness, center ground. Once you've found it, or even a whisper of it, then take a deep breath. Let it out. And begin. No matter what medium you are using to weave new stories, remember that this is good work to be doing. The world needs more light, more beauty, more wonder. More compassion for the Other. More understanding of the darkness.

Together, we'll light a path for those coming after. Breathe deep. And again.

And begin.

Ponies 14

Ponies 15

The text above is adapted from a piece posted in 2016, with new photographs and poetry. The poem in the picture captions is from Long Life: Essays & Other Writings by Mary Oliver (Da Capo Press, 2004); all rights reserved by the author.


Tunes for a Tuesday morning

Margaret Lockwood in the film The Wicked Lady

Let's start the week (albeit a day late) with some fabulous folk songs that up-end traditional, heteronormative ideas about gender....

Above: "The Handsome Cabin Boy," which is one of a number of traditional songs (The Female Drummer, When I Was a Fair Maid, Bold William Taylor, etc.) about young women who dress in male clothing in order to live the life of a sailor or soldier. This lovely version is performed by Bill Jones, a folk musician based in Sunderland. It appeared on her first album, Turn to Me (2000). 

Below: "Sylvie" (a.k.a. "Sovay"), a traditional ballad about a female highwayman* performed by Rachael McShane (from the north-east of England) and The Cartographers. The song appears on their new album When All is Still (2018).

Above: "Gentleman Jack," written and performed by O’Hooley & Tidow, a folk duo from Yorkshire. The song, as music critic Alex Gallacher explains, is about "the 19th Century diarist, writer, traveller, mountaineer, rural gentlewoman, and industrialist Anne Lister. Anne kept much of her life written in 4 million words worth of diaries, which were hidden away for many years, and then thankfully later uncovered. It was discovered that around a sixth of them were written in secret code, which when deciphered, revealed a lot more than just her business activities at Shibden Hall, Halifax. Behind her back, the disapproving local residents would refer to Anne as ‘Gentleman Jack’." The song appeared on O'Hooley & Tidow's second album, The Fragile (2012).

There aren't as many songs about men dressing as women, but here's a particularly lovely one: "Gloria," written and performed by the Anglo-Welsh trio Trials of Cato. This moving song about cross-dressing and gender fluidity is from their debut album Hide and Hair (2018), which I am thoroughly addicted to.

Simply switching the gender of the singer of a love song can help us to hear it in a whole new way. Here are two fine examples:

Above, "Beeswing," the Richard Thompson classic, performed by Leicester-based folk musician Grace Petrie. It's from her terrific new album Queer as Folk (2018).

Below, "My Love's in Germany," a traditional Scottish ballad (adapted from a poem by Hector Macneil), beautifully performed by Trials of Cato.

And one more song to end with:

"Gonna Write Me a Letter" by the Irish "Celtgrass" band We Banjos 3, from Galway. The song appeared on their exuberant debut album, Roots of the Bajo Tree (2012).

Gonna write me a letter

*For more songs about kick-ass women, see Dianne Dugaw’s Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850 (University of Chicago Press). The photograph above is Margaret Lockwood as a female highwayman in the 1945 film The Wicked Lady. Many thanks to Ben Perkins, Jessica Wick, and Amal El-Mohtar for their suggestions for this post.


Myth & Moor update

Nattadon Hill

I can't cope with the news from either of my countries (US & UK) this morning -- so I'm heading out for a walk with the hound to clear my head and get good earth under my feet. My apologies for the delay in getting the Myth & Moor "Monday Tunes" post up...look for it this afternoon, if my workload permits, or tomorrow.

"Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle. And let us not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil."

- Vincent van Gogh (The Letters of Vincent can Gogh)

Hill 2


Wild daffodils in the woods

Wild daffodils

Hound and daffodils

Spring is truly here, at long last. The earliest flowers in our garden have done their work to wake the land from sleep: the primroses and grape hyacinths, the purple aubretia climbing up the stone walls, the columbines that have seeded themselves and will soon run riot on the hillside. The cherry trees are preparing to bloom, with the apple and plum trees to follow. The woods behind the studio are golden with wild daffodils, which in turn will give way to the smaller pleasures of cranesbill, sicklewort, and bluebells.

Picking wild daffodils

The movement of the landscape through its seasons reminds me of the energy and vitality to be found in cycles and circles...and as someone who works in the narrative arts, I find that I need that reminder.

Drawing by Helen StrattonNarrative, in its most standard form, tends to run in linear fashion from beginning to middle to end. A story opens "Once upon a time," then moves -- prompted by a crisis or plot twist -- into the narrative journey: questing, testing, trials and tribulations -- and then onward to climax and resolution, ending "happily ever after" (or not, if the tale is a sad or ambiguous one). In the West, our concepts of "time" and "progress" are largely linear too. We circle through days by the hours of the clock, years by the months of the calendar, yet our lives are pushed on a linear track: infant to child to adult to elder, with death as the final chapter. Progress is measured by linear steps, education by grades that ascend year by year, careers by narratives that run along the same railway line: beginning, middle, and end.

But in fact, narratives are cyclical too if we stand back and look through a broader lens. Clever Hans will marry his princess and they will produce three dark sons or three pale daughters or no child at all until a fairy intervenes, and then those children will have their own stories: marrying frogs and turning into swans and climbing glass hills in iron shoes. No ending is truly an ending, merely a pause before the tale goes on.

Daffodils

As a folklorist and a student of nature, I know the importance of cycles, seasons, and circular motion -- but I've grown up in a culture that loves straight lines, beginnings and ends, befores and afters, and I keep expecting life to act accordingly, even though it so rarely does. Take health, for example. We envision the healing process as a linear one, steadily building from illness to strength and full function; yet for those of us managing Drawing by Helen Strattonlong-term conditions, our various trials don't often lead to the linear "ending-as-resolution" but to the cyclical "ending-as-pause": a time to catch one's breath before the next crisis or plot twist sets the tale back in motion.

Relationships, too, are cyclical. Spousal relationships, family relationships, friendships, work partnerships: they aren't tales of linear progression, they are tales full of cycles, circles, and seasons. The path isn't straight, it loops and bends; the narrative side-tracks and sometimes dead ends. We don't progress in relationships so much as learn, change, and adapt with each season, each twist of the road.

As a writer and a reader, I'm partial to stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends (not necessarily in that order in the case of fractured narratives) -- but when I'm away from the desk or the printed page (or the cinema or the television screen), I am trying to let go of the habit of measuring my life in a strictly linear way. Healing, learning, and art-making don't follow straight roads but queer twisty paths on which half the time I feel utterly lost...until, like magic, I've arrived somewhere new, some place I could never have imagined.

Guardian hound

I want especially to be rid of the tyranny of Before and After. "After such-and-such is accomplished," we say, "then the choirs will sing and life will be good." When my novel is published. When I get that job. When I find that partner. When I lose ten pounds. No, no, no, no. Because even if we reach our goal, the heavenly choirs don't sing -- or if they do sing, you quickly discover it's all that they do. They don't do your laundry, they don't solve all your problems. You are still you, and life is still life: a complex mixture of the bad and the good. And now, of course, the goal posts have moved. The Land of After is no longer a published book, it's five books, a best-seller, a major motion picture. You don't ever get to the Land of After; it's always changing, always shimmering on the far horizon.

I don't want to live after. I want to live now, moving with, not against, life's cycles and seasons, the twists and the turns, the ups and the downs, appreciating it all.

Hound at the woodland's edge

Today, I walked among spring's first flowers, chose a few to bring back to the studio -- where they sit on my desk in a pickle jar, glowing as bright as the sun and the moon. At my desk, I work in a linear artform, writing words in a line across a ruled page -- and the flowers remind me that cycles and seasons should be part of the narrative too. Circular patterns. Loops and digressions. Tales that turn and meander down paths that, surprise!, are the paths that were meant all along. Stories that reach resolutions and endings, but ends that turn into another beginning. Again. Again. Tell it again.

Once upon a time...

Wild daffodils on my desk

Words: The wondeful poem in the picture captions is from Bitter Angel by Amy Gerstler (North Point Press, 1990); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The fairy tale drawings are by Helen Stratton, a British illustrator born in India (1867-1961). Photographs: A coffee break in the woods behind the studio, with hound and daffodils.

Related posts: Storytelling and Wild Time, The Wild Time of the Sickbed, and On Time, Technology, and a Celebration of Slowness.