Previous month:
April 2019
Next month:
June 2019

May 2019

Stories are medicine: the folklore of healing

Bedtime Story by Jeanie Tomanek

"Stories are medicine. I have been taken with stories since I heard my first. They have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act, anything -- we need only listen."  - Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Eclipse by Jeanie TomanekThere has long been a mythic link between storytelling and the healing arts -- so much so that in some ancient societies storytellers and healers were one and the same. Stories are valued in many indigenous cultures not only for their entertainment value but also as a means to pass on cultural teachings -- including practices intended to prevent imbalance and illness (both physical and mental), and to help overcome ordeals of disease, calamity, or trauma. In some shamanic traditions, magical tales are told in a ritual manner to facilitate specific acts of healing. In Korea, for example, a well-known fairy tale called "Shimchong, the Blind Man's Daughter," a variant of Beauty and the Beast, plays a role in traditional healing rites related to eyesight. "The 'patient' is supposed to be healed precisely at the climax of the story," explains Korean-American folklorist Heinz Insu Fenkl, "when Old Man Shim opens his eyes and sees his long-lost daughter."

Self Rising by Jeanie Tomanek

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist and folklorist Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes of the healing powers of Hispanic "trance-tellers" who enter into a trance state "between worlds" in order to "attract" a story to them. Such stories are said to contain the mythic information the listeners most need to hear. "The trance-teller calls on El Duende," says Estés, "the wind that blows soul into the faces of listeners. A trance-teller learns to be psychically double-jointed through the meditative practice of story, that is, training oneself to undo certain psychic gates and ego apertures in order to let the voice speak, the voice that is older than the stones. When this is done, the story may take any trail....The teller never knows how it will all come out, and that is at least half of the moist magic of the story."

Storytelling also plays an important role in the shamanic practices of Siberia -- where, as in Korea, it is often women who perform the traditional healing rites. "Oral storytelling is the way shamans themselves convey spiritual truths," writes Kira Van Duesen in The Flying Tiger: Women Shamans and Storytellers of the Amur. "Through the power of words and sounds, stories and songs act directly on the listener to bring about healing The Return by Jeanie Tomanekand spiritual growth. More important than the content of the tales is the process of telling them -- the way a storyteller chooses the tale, the details added or removed, the tone -- all these make storytelling a spiritual act. Stories and songs are not objects or artifacts but living beings."

In many Native American cultures illness indicates that the patient's life, spirit, or relationships have gone out of balance and harmony; a restoration of spiritual balance is required before a physical illness can be cured. Among the Diné (Navajo), in the high desert of northern Arizona and New Mexico, health and longevity are attained by "walking in beauty," living in harmony within oneself and with the natural world. If this harmony is lost, it can be restored through elaborate, days-long ceremonies during which some of the most ancient, sacred stories of the tribe are chanted and painted in sand. In the traditional lore of the Tohono O'Odham, whose low desert homeland stretches across the Arizona/Mexico border, disease is caused by improper relationships with the bird and animal worlds. The repetition of certain stories and songs brings these relationships back into harmony and the sufferer back to health.

"A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves," says Nigerian novelist and essayist Ben Okri. "Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose it’s moorings or orientation. Even in silence we are living our stories."

Caretaker by Jeanie Tomanek

Stories are central to the healing practices of the traditional Gaelic culture of Scotland -- of which the leading characteristics, writes Noragh Jones (in Power of Raven, Wisdom of Serpent), "are an instinctive ability to gather healing plants from their own locality when they are sick; a heritage of herbal remedies handed on from mother to daughter which have been tried and tested in everyday situations -- part of the informal education of the household; a sense that illness is some kind of imbalance in the individual, and so mind and body and spirit must be treated as a whole; and a conviction that healing is a spiritual resource as well as a physical process." 

Six Seeds by Jeanie TomanekHerbalists and hedgewitches of the British Isles once used stories not only as a means to preserve information about the medicinal properties of plants, but also as a method of communication with the spirits of the plants themselves. In trance states induced by ritual fasting, prayer, or the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, they communed with the plants in order to learn the best ways to gather, preserve, and use them. Likewise, the stories told by Siberian shamans weren't always meant for human ears but for the various plant, animal, and supernatural spirits who aided in their rites of healing. The medicine men and women of the various indigenous tribes living in the Amazon have long been renown for their deep knowledge of the healing properties of plants, sometimes gained during trances induced by hallucinogenics such as ayahuaska. A relationship must be established between the healer and the plant in question, however. In Plant Spirit Medicine, Eliot Cowan tells the tale of an American  Green Corn Moon by Jeanie Tomanekfriend in the Amazon. The man meets a hunter-shaman who takes him on a long walk through the jungle, pointing out plants and listing the various ways he has used them to heal. The American wants to write this all down, which makes the shaman howl with laughter. No, no, he explains, "that was just to introduce you to some of the plants. If you actually want to use a plant yourself, the spirit of the plant must come to you in dreams. If the spirit tells you how to prepare it and what it will cure, you can use it. Otherwise it won’t work for you."

"There is a plant for everything in the world; all you have to do is find it," an old herb-woman in the Louisiana Bayou told folklorist Ruth Bass in 1920s. And there's a folk story attached to nearly every plant -- as volumes of folklore and herb lore from all around the world can attest. The history of modern medicine is rooted in the history of folk medicine, entwined with myths, folk tales, fairy tales, and the homespun magics of countryside healers.

Seed by Jeanie TomanekTwo excellent novels exploring the connections between folk medicine, myth, spirituality, and the mysteries of the natural world are The Limits of Enchantment by the late Graham Joyce, and The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea. The first of these, The Limits of Enchantment, set in the deep green hills of the English countryside in 1966, is a story about a hedgerow healer and midwife, the apprenticeship of her adopted daughter, and their struggle to maintain an ancient way of life in the modern world. The Hummingbird's Daughter, by contrast, is set in the dusty brown hills of northern México in the years before the Mexican Revolution. The novel is based on the real-life story of the author's great-Aunt Teresita, the illegitimate child of a prosperous rancher and a Yaqui Indian girl. Apprenticed to an Indian medicine woman, Teresita demonstrated such miraculous healing powers that her fame spread through northern México, leading to denunciation by the Catholic church and accusations of fomenting an Indian uprising. Both of these novels are coming-of-age stories about young women with remarkable gifts, looking at the ways that indigenous healing traditions are passed through the generations -- and how such gifts are both feared and revered in a world uncomfortable with Mystery.

In a number of Native American traditions, the word "medicine" does not refer to the pills or tonics we take to cure an illness but to anything that has spiritual power, and that helps to keep us "walking in beauty." Words can be strong medicine. Stories can touch our hearts and souls; they can point the way to healing and transformation. Our own lives are stories that we write from day to day; they are journeys through the dark of the fairy tale woods. The tales of previous travellers through the woods are passed down to us in the poetic, symbolic language of folklore and myth; where we step, someone has stepped before, and their stories can help light the way.

Old Dog's Dream

The beautiful art today is by Jeanie Tomanek, who is based in Marietta, Georgia.

"I paint," she says, "to explore the significance of ideas, memories, events, feelings, dreams and images that seem to demand my closer attention. Some of the themes I investigate emerge first in the poems I write. Literature, folktales, and myths often inspire my exploration of the feminine archetype. My figures often bear the scars and imperfections, that, to me, characterize the struggle to become."

To learn more about the artist, go here. To view a photo-essay of her workspace, go here. To see more of  Jeannie's work, please visit her website, or seek out her book, Everywoman Art.

Blessing by Jeanie Tomanek

The articles and books cited in this post are: "Simchong, The Blindman's Daughter" and "Storytelling and Healing" by Heinz Insu Fenkl  (The Journal of Mythic Arts), Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths & Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Ballentine, 1992), The Flying Tiger: Women Shamans and Storytellers of the Amur by Kira Van Deusen (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001), Birds of Heaven: Two Essays by Ben Okri (Phoenix, 1996), Power of Raven, Wisdom of Serpent: Celtic Women's Spirituality by Noragh Jones (Floris Books, 1994), Plant Spirit Medicine: A Journey Into the Wisdom of Plants by Eliot Cowan (Granite Publishing, 1996), "Fern Seed - For Peace" by Ruth Bass (Folk-Say: A Regional Miscellany, edited by BA Botkin, U of Oklahoma Press, 1931), The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce (Gollancz, 2005), and The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea (Little Brown, 2005). All rights to the text and the art above reserved by the authors and artist.

Related posts: The sequence of four posts beginning with On Illness I: In a Dark Wood. Also, The Wild Time of the Sickbed and Every Illness is Narrative.


Wild healing

Lords & Ladies

Another fine book I'd like to recommend is Emma Kennedy's The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us. In this beautiful diary enriched by nature drawings, paintings, and photographs, Emma recounts the ways that immersion in nature helps her to live with chronic depression, records her encounters with the flora and fauna of the Cambridge fens, and discusses the science underpinning her thesis: that being in nature produces physical and neurological change in the human body.

Bank Vole by Emma MitchellIn the book's Introduction she writes:

"Of course, I am not the first to have noticed the consolation of walking outdoors. Literature is peppered with references to striding in the countryside as a means of easing melancholy, inspiring creative thought and hastening recovering. The 19th-century Danish philosopher, poet and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, exalted a daily stroll: 'Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.' Elizabeth von Arnim wrote one of my favourite novels, The Enchanted April, in the 1920s, and her feelings on walking through the countryside echo my own: 'If you go to a place on anything but your own two feet you are taken there too fast, and miss a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside.' "

Lords & Ladies

Woodland triptych

A few pages later she notes:

"Joint research from the University of Madrid and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences published in 2007 showed that simply seeing natural landscapes can speed up recovery from stress or mental fatigue, and hasten recovery from illness. Studies published in 2017 from the University of Exeter have demonstrated that the presence of vegetation in an urban landscape diminishes levels of depression, anxiety, and perceived stress levels in city dwellers, and the same raft of work showed that time spent outdoors alleviates low mood....

Bluebells in a Devon wood

"Research aimed at understanding the Shrinrin-yoku phenomenon [the practice of 'forest bathing' in Japan] has show that walking in green space has a direct positive effect on several systems in our bodies. Blood pressure decreases, levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop, anxiety is alleviated and pulse rates diminish in subjects who have spent time in nature and particularly among trees. Levels of activity in the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for our fight or flight response to stress, drop away and the activity of a particular kind of white blood cell called natural killer (NK) cells, which can destroy virally infected and certain cancerous cells, increases when humans spend time in a woodland environment."

Lords & Ladies

The science is still progressing, Emma writes, "but I'm fascinated by the idea that the balance of the chemistry of my brain, and my hormonal and nervous systems, are changing as I linger among trees and plants, and that this can impact the tone of my thoughts and my mental health. I have felt the curative effects of my surroundings as I walk in a wild place numerous times, and it is reassuring to know that there is something I can do to help myself on dark days."

Hound in a Devon woodland

Wildflowers around a badger sett

Wild Remedy

"At no point would I suggest standard treatments for this condition can be replaced by dawdling near a dog rose," she adds; "I rely on antidepressants and talking cures to prevent my illness from becoming overwhelming, but depression varies in its grip on my mind, depending on the season and on daily stress levels. I have found that the basal level of respite provided by antidepressants and therapy is sometimes insufficient to prevent my thoughts falling down a well. It is at these times that I find walking among hazels and hawthornes can help to dial down cortisol levels and cause the shift in neurotransmitters that I need to fend off the black dog."

(Sorry, Tilly. She doesn't mean you, dear.)

Woodland creature

Lords & Ladies among the Bluebells

Although my own health problems are physical rather than neurological, the two are inextricably linked, of course, and much of this gentle, artful, informative book spoke to me on a personal level. I, too, find healing among the trees. Thus I recommend Wild Remedy to all who travel through illness of one kind or another...and since, sooner or later, that is all of us, this book is for every reader who loves, or might come to love, the natural world.

Wild Remedy

Woodland wanderer

Words: The passages above are from Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us by Emma Mitchell (Michael O'Mara Books, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Jay Griffith's unusual and brilliant book on her journey with bipolar disorder, Tristimania (Penguin, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Emma Mitchell's artwork from Wild Remedy, and photographs from my own rambles through the Devon woods. Every year I wait for the Lords & Ladies to appear in a certain place, and they never fail to warm my heart -- it's like catching up with old friends. (Americans may known the plant best under the name Jack-in-the-Pulpit.)


More folklore of the wild flowers

Wildflower path

Following on from Friday's wildflower post...

As the woods and fields, green hills and hedgerows continue to burst with color and bloom, here's a little more of the wildflower lore that's rooted in the land below our feet. I love knowing and passing on such things. "Re-storying" the land is, I believe, an important part of re-wilding the land, re-wilding our culture, and re-wilding ourselves.

In the springtime, writes herbalist Judith Berger,

"the earth herself seems overtaken with desire to create for the sake of beauty and joy, unveiling at an astounding rate those creations which were conceived and protected in winter's ground-dark womb. Young, delectable leaves shoot up out of the soil, becoming clorophyll-rich as they soak up the food of the sun's fire. Food and medicine plants carpet the ground abundantly, delighting the eyes and tastebuds with a palette of green hues and an array of distinctive earthy flavors. Daily, as light seeps into the unfurling leaves, the plants grow greener and greener with the blood of the sun. As we ingest these plants, we increase our inner fires and pulse with the blood of life, thus inspired to move through our days with the same abandon as the maiden goddess of spring."

Stichwort, buttercups, hound, and sun.

Stitchwort (below), appears in Devon in two distinctive colors: white and pink. Greater stitchwort, with its white star-like blooms, also goes by the name star flower, thunder flower (because picking it will cause a storm), Mother Shimbles, snick needles, and snapjacks (due to the popping sound made by its seed pods as they ripen). Lesser stitchwort, with its small pink flowers, is known as piskie, or piskie flower, here in Devon -- though in fact both kinds of stitchwort are under the special protection of the piskies (our local faery folk). They zealously guard the flowers against hedgewitches, who use them for making medicines and charms of protection against piskie mischief -- including a salve that heals the "side stitches" caused when mortals are hit by elf-shot.

White stitchwort

Pink stitchwort, nettles, ivy, and ferns.

Stickwort often grows among stands of nettles -- which is certainly one way to protect it from being picked. Nettles themselves are a wonderful plant (despite their sting), prized by witches, cunning men, herbalists, and wild food foragers. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are faery dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against faery enchantment, black magic, and other forms of sorcery. Historically, nettles have had a wide variety of uses, from making medicines to making cloth. "Nettle oil preceded paraffin," notes folklorist Margaret Baker; "the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness." Today, many of us still harvest the tender top leaves of nettles in the spring. Rich in iron and vitamins, they are an excellent tonic for the immune system when cooked in soups and stews, or brewed for tea.

(For a lengthier discussion of the folklore and use of nettles, go here.)

Following her nose

Speedwell

Germander speedwell ( above), also known as birds-eye or angels-eye, is a flower associated with vision, with magical oinments allowing mortals to see faeries, and with healing afflictions of the eyes -- whether medical or caused by witchcraft. Although largely unmentioned by modern herbalists, it was once considered a valuable plant in hedge-lore here in the West Country. A tea made from its leaves and flower petals is said to be good for coughs (when brewed at strength), or settling the nerves (when brewed more delicately),  while also fostering clarity of vision, focus, and purpose.

Wildflower path

Welsh poppies

According to Welsh folklore, wild Welsh poppies (above) don't flourish outside Wales itself, but in fact they can be found throughout the West Country, and in parts of Ireland too. Although the Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica) is somewhat different than the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), it too is associated with sleep, dreams, the spirit world, and various forms of divination. Yellow poppies must never be brought into the house -- they will cause headaches, storms, or lightning strikes -- but wild poppy seeds placed under a pillow will show a young man or maid their future lover's face, or give the dreamer the answer to any question posed while falling asleep. The seeds can also be carried in one's pocket, or strewn in a circle around one's home, to provide protection from faery enchantments, especially those that cause confusion or memory loss.

Through the meadow gate.

Cuckoo flowers and buttercups

The cuckoo flower (above) is said to herald the first cuckoo of spring. It grows in damp, grassy meadows and bogs, its petals tinted pink or lavendar, and is also known by the names lady's-smock, milkmaid, May flower, and fairy flower. Associated with the revels of May, hedgewitches used various parts of the plant for love potions and fertility spells -- as well as for the opposite: charms intended to keep love and fertility at bay. Cuckoo flower teas and tonics restored appetites diminished by poor health, while also aiding digestion, treating survy, and easing bowel complaints. The leaves, when young, are edible, tasting peppery, like cress.

Buttercups

In the folk tradition of the West Country, buttercups (above) are a benificent plant -- associated with the sun, yellow butter and the dairy, and ease in domestic labor. On May Day, farmers rubbed the udders of their cows with buttercup flowers to increase the yield and richness of their milk; this also protected them from theft by faeries -- who were always eager to improve their herds of fairy cattle by interbreeding with cows from mortal fields. Buttercups are toxic to ingest so medicinal use of the plant is limited, although some old herbals suggest that a poulstice made of the crushed flowers and leaves is helpful in relieving colds, coughs, and bronchial complaints. "Buttercup water," made by infusing the flower petals in water heated by the sun, was used to bathe sore eyes, and "sweeten" the complexion. Buttercups are part of Rananculus family, related to spearwort, crowfoot and lesser celandine. It was once believed that swallows fed their young on a diet of these flowers, giving them prophetic abilities and clear sight.

White stitchwort and hound on Nattadon Hill

Red campion in the bracken and briars.

Red campion (above and below) -- also known as ragged-robin or robin flower -- is associated with Robin Goodfellow (or Puck), a faery Trickster who is charming, sly, amoral, and rather dangerous to encounter. In some parts of country, the picking of campion is discouraged, for this invites the faeries' attention -- but here in the West Country, it's a lucky flower. Campion in the house represents the faeries' blessing, provided it's been picked with care and respect. Red campion is not edible, and its herbal use is limited -- but the roots have been used to make a soap substitute, and the flowers for charms and spells to ward against loneliness. 

Hedgerow flowers

In Norse myth, wild columbine (below) is the flower of Freya, goddess of love, sensuality, and women's independence; in Celtic lore, too, it's a flower associated with women and their Mysteries. Columbine's primary use in hedgerow medicine was as an abortificant: its seeds were ground and mixed wine and other herbs to produce this effect; and then used with wine and a different set of herbs to restore the woman's strength. Also known as Granny's bonnet, lady's shoes, sow wort, and lion's herb, the flower is linked with both the dove and the eagle, with peace and war, and the balancing of opposites: strength in fragility and fragility in strength. Columbine was used for spells invoking courage, wisdom, and clarity in making choices. 

Wild columbine

Herb Robert (below) is a modest little flower, but it's become one of my favorite sights in the hedgerows...and in our garden too, where it kept appearing in spaces that I'd intended for other things. At first, I confess, I pulled it out as a troublesome weed, until its gentle persistence caused me to look a little closer at this tiny wildflower. I learned that the plant was once much prized by herbalists (and magicians!) in medieval times; and that herbalist today hail its ability to boost the immune system (precisely the thing I most needed). In folklore, according to Margaret Barker, herb Robert is known as "the plant of equality, all its parts being equal and harmonious." It's also another faery plant: its appearance in the garden betokes the blessing of the particular spirits who "quicken" all green living things. The great mystic and herbalist Hildegard of Bingen extolled the virtues of this humble flower, recommending its use (in a powdered form, eaten on bread) to strengthen the blood, balance the mind, and ease all heartbreak.

Herb Robert

Valerian (below) is another that has moved itself from the hillside to our garden, rooting firmly in a sunny front slope. "Valerian's botanical name (Valerianna officinalis) comes from the Latin word valere, 'to be strong,' " writes Margaret Baker. "It is said to be a witch-deterrent, to provoke love, and to be a telling aphrodisiac. In the West of England a girl who wore a sprig would never lack lovers." Well. You can't beat that.

Pink valerian

In her lovely book Herbal Rituals, Judith Berger envisions the springtime as the Goddess in her maiden aspect:

"In Hebrew the word for life, chai, is also the root of the word meaning wild she-animal, (chaiya), and this is how I see the spring: as a wild, untamed maiden bounding over the dark earth, her footfall touching all life with more life. Hair flying behind her, she leaves in her wake a trail of color, scent, and nourishment, her mood of wicked delight spreading across the ground like green fire. Roused by her passion, the green nations leap toward the sun, brimming with sheer joy, until everywhere we turn our heads we find life unfolding, changing shape, and blossoming, each form in nature dripping with beauty and transformed by the nurture of sun, rain, earth, and air."

Welsh poppies

Above, the Lady of Bumblehill (a statue made by my friend Wendy Froud) stands in our back courtyard with flowers at her feet. The flowers change a little every year, as Welsh poppies, foxgloves, columbine and other plants self-seed and move about the land.  I love these untameable flowers...and so does Tilly. Here she is at just ten weeks old, mesmorized by a hawkweed's bloom. Entranced by its colour. Scenting its magic. And listening closely to its stories.

Tilly and her flower

The passages quoted above are from Herbals Rituals by Judith Berger (St. Martin's Press, 1998) and Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker (Shire Classics, 2008).  All rights reserved by the authors.


Hard by a great forest

Bluebells and old ivy

From Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin (1943-2006):

"To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed. It is no accident that in the comedies of Shakespeare, people go into the greenwood to grow, learn and change. It is where you travel to find yourself, often, paradoxically, by getting lost. Merlin sends the future King Arthur as a boy into the greenwood to fend for himself in The Sword and the Stone. There, he falls asleep and dreams himself, like a chameleon, into the lives of the animals and trees. In As You Like It, the banished Duke Senior goes to live in the Forest of Arden like Robin Hood, and in A Midsummer Night's Dream the magical metamorphosis of the lovers takes place in a wood 'outside Athens' that is quite obviously an English wood, full of the faeries and Robin Goodfellows of our folklore.

Following the call

Bluebells in the woods

"Pinned on my study wall is a still from Truffaut's L'Enfant Sauvage. It shows Victor, the feral boy, clambering through the tangle of branches of the dense deciduous woods of the Aveyron. The film remains one of my touchstones for thinking about our relations with the natural world: a reminder that we are not so far away as we would like to think from our cousins the gibbons, who swing like angels through the forest canopy, at such headlong speed that they almost fly like the tropical birds they envy and emulate in the music of their marriage-songs at dawn in the tree-tops....

Oak leaves

"Most of the world still cooks on wood fires, and the vast majority of the world's wood is used as firewood. In so far as 'Western' people have forgotten how to lay a wood fire, or its fossil equivalent in coal, they have lost touch with nature. Aldous Huxley wrote of D.H. Lawrence that 'He could cook, he could sew, he could darn a stocking and milk a cow, he was an efficient woodcutter and a good hand at embroidery, fires always burned when he had laid them and a floor after he had scrubbed it was thoroughly clean.' As it burns, wood releases the energies of the earth, water and sunshine that grew it. Each species expresses its character in its distinctive habits of combustion. Willow burns as it grows, very fast, spitting like a firecracker. Oak glows reliably, hard and long. A wood fire in the hearth is a little household sun.

Animal guide

Bugle

"When Auden wrote, 'A culture is no better than its woods,' he knew that, having carelessly lost more of their woods than any other country in Europe, the British take a correspondingly greater interest in what trees and woods they still have left. Woods, like water, have been suppressed by motorways and the modern world, and have come to look like the subconscious of the landscape. They have become the guardians of our dreams of greenwood liberty, of our wildwood, feral, childhood selves, of Richmal Crompton's Just William and his outlaws. They hold the merriness of Merry England, of yew longbows, of Robin Hood and his outlaw band. But they are also repositories of the ancient stories, of Icelandic myths of Ygdrasil the Tree of Life, Robert Graves's 'The Battle of the Trees' and the myths of Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough. The enemies of the woods are always enemies of culture and humanity."

Oak Elder 1

Stickwort and brambles

Sara Maitland notes that the ancient forests that used to stretch across Britain and northern Europe, "with their constant seasonal changes, their restricted views, their astonish biological diversity, their secret gifts and perils and the knowledge that you have to go through them to get anywhere else, created the themes and ethics of the fairy tales we know best. There are secrets, hidden identities, cunning disguises; there are rhythms of change like the changes of the seasons; there are characters, both human and animal, whose assistance can be earned or spurned; and there is -- over and over again -- the journey or quest, which leads first to knowledge and then to happiness."

Oak Elder 2

But until we understand what the land is, writes Wendell Berry, "we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest -- the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways -- and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world's longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in -- to learn from it what it is."

Hillside

"Step across the boundary and the trespass of story will begin," says Jay Griffths enticingly. "The forest takes a deep breath and through its whispering leaves an incipient adventure unfurls. The quest. In the lull -- not the drowsy lull of a lullaby but the sotto voce of a woodland clearing, scented with story as it is with with wild garlic -- this is the moment of beginning, the pause on the threshold before the journey. So many tales begin here, hard by a great forest...."

What, do you suppose, is yours?

A tale begins

The passages above are from Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin (Penguin, 2007), Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests & Fairytales by Sara Maitland (Granta, 2013),  The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2002), and Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape by Jay Griffiths (Hamish Hamilton, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 1999). All rights reserved by the authors.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Underwater sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

Today, five composers creating music in response to the natural world.

Above: "Music in the Antropocene," an inspiring talk (with music) by Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014. "Today a growing number of geologists believe we have left the Holocene and entered a new geologic period, the Anthropocene, in which the dominant geologic force is humanity itself," he says. "What does this mean for music? What does it mean for my work as a composer, or for any artist working in any medium today?" He goes on to discuss his move from full-time environmental activism to art-making, and why he believes that the latter is as necessary as the former. This relates, I believe, to all art forms at their best, including fantasy and mythic arts.

Below: "In a Treeless Place, Only Snow" by John Luther Adams, performed by the faculty and fellows at the Bang on a Can Summer Marathon at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2016. (I've chosen an indoor piece as it's hard to experience Luther's outdoor pieces fully through a short video.)

Above: Italian composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi discusses his beautiful new album series Seven Days Walking -- seven albums, released over seven months, inspired by his walks through the Italian Alps. The series began in March, and three of the albums are available so far.

Below: "Fox Tracks" from Seven Days Walking: Day I, with Einaudi on piano, Federico Mecozzi on violin, and Redi Hasa on cello.

Above: "Usal Road" by Breton composer and multi-instrumentalist Yann Tiersen,  from his new album All (2019), a meditation on place and the natural world, blending music with field recordings made in Brittany, Devon, and elsewhere. It's the first of Tiersen's albums to be recorded in his studio on Ushant, the small island in the Celtic Sea between Brittany and Cornwall where he makes his home.

Below: "First of the Tide" by Scottish composer and multi-instrumentalist Erland Cooper -- from his new album Sule Skerry (2019), the second in a triptych inspired his Orkney homeland and the works of Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown

Orkney seal

To end with: "Waloyo Yamoni (We Overcome the Wind)" by American composer Christopher Tin, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Angel City Chorale, Prima Vocal Ensemble and Lucis choirs conducted by Tin in London, 2016. It's the final piece on his album The Drop That Contains the Sea -- a gorgeous song cycle on the theme of water, each song sung in a different language. This one is in Lango, a Southern Luo dialect spoken by the Lango people of Uganda.

"In the coming century water, and water management, is going to be the most important global issue to all people and across all countries,” he says. “Between melting Antarctic ice sheets and rising ocean levels and droughts and increased devastation from hurricanes and so forth, water is literally going to shape the way we draw our maps.”

When I despair at all the destruction we humans are responsible for, I remember we are also capable of this, and my heart lifts a little:

Underwater sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

Today's music is dedicated to the brave young people who created the Extinction Rebellion, and to the older folks who stand alongside them-- which I hope is all of us here. The photographs at the top and bottom of the post are of underwater sculptures by environmental artist Jason deCaires Taylor. The middle photograph is of a harbour seal in Orkney archipelago. It is their home, too, we are fighting for.