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June 2019

The eye and ear are different listeners

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

In one of the essays published in her seminal book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood, Jane Yolen explores the metamorphosis of folk and fairy tales from the oral tradition to the printed page, noting that there are strengths in each but also indelible differences:

"The eye and the ear are different listeners. Each storyteller has the ability to select: to select those characters who are just right, to select those details that set the stage, to select the glass mountain that must be climbed, the thorny bush that must be passed or the ring or sword or crown to be won. The storyteller is an artist, and selection is essential to art. There are thousands upon thousands of characters, thousands upon thousands of details, thousands upon thousands of motifs. To know which one to chose requires a kind of magical touch, and that is what characterizes the great storytellers.

Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel by Trina Schart Hyman

"But the eye and ear are different listeners. The modern audience is not the same as the ancient one, and for a good reason. Ancient man took in the world by listening, and listening meant remembering. Thus humans both shaped and were shaped by the oral tradition. The passage of culture went from mouth to ear to mouth. The person who did not listen well, who was tone deaf to the universe, was soon dead. The finest rememberers and the most attuned listeners were valued: the poets, the storytellers, the shamans, the seers. In culture after culture, community after community, the carriers of the oral tradition were honored. For example, in ancient Ireland the ollahms, the poet-singers, were more highly thought of than the king. The king was only given importance in times of war.

"An anthropologist friend of mine once observed that people in preliterate cultures that are still more of the ear than the eye say, 'I hear you,' when they mean they understand something. But we say, 'I see.' We modern listeners see life more clearly through pictures. We trust the picture more than the spoken word. A picture, we are told, is worth a thousand words. In the last century we created the moving picture and credit it, more than anything else, with shaping our children's thoughts.

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

Three illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman

"But the eye and ear are different listeners, are different audiences. And the literary storyteller is one who must try to bring eye and ear into synchronization. But it is a subtle art. Just as the art of typography has been called 'the art invisible,' subliminal in the sense that it changes or manipulates a reader's perceptions without advertising its own presence, so, too, the art of storytelling in the printed book must persuade and captivate.

"It must hold the reader as the spoken tale holds the listener."

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

I've been focusing on oral storytelling in recent posts -- not because I think that those of us creating mythic fiction and poetry must immediately drop our pens and start performing our work, but because there is much we can learn from this ancient art -- particularly when it comes to stories born in the edgelands between the human and more-than-human worlds.

Little Red Riding Hood by Trina Schart Hyman

Little Red Riding Hood by Trina Schart Hyman


Even David Abram, that great champion of oral culture, doesn't suggest we give up the printed word:

"For those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines," he writes, "a world of textures, tastes, and sounds other than those that we have engineered, there can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning away from all writing. Our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land.

"Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves -- the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or with the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs -- letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf."

That's a task worth doing, and the Mythic Arts field is a perfectly good place to do it.

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

The imagery today is by American book artist Trina Schart Hyman (1939-2004), born in Philadelphia and raised in rural Pennsylvania. She often credited her mother will instilling her love of stories, especially myths and fairy tales. "I figured out at four years old that somebody had made the pictures in my books," she said, "and though I didn’t know what these people were called, I knew I wanted to be a book illustrator." 

Trina studied at the Philadelphia Museum Collage of Art, the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and then went on to illustrate over 150 books over 30 years in the field. She received the Caldecott Medal (for Saint George and the Dragon) and was awarded Caldecott Honors three times, among many other honors. Sadly, she died much too young (from the complications of breast cancer), but her work lives on to enchant and inspire new generations of readers.

Rapunzel by Trina Schart Hyman

Touch Magic by Jane Yolen

The passages above are from Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 1981; August House, 2000), and The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996), both highly recommended. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and the artist's estate.

Related posts: Tough magic, Stepping over the threshold, The Enclosure of Childhood and Words that matter.


An apprenticeship to story

Grey Wethers by Simon Blackbourn

I've been following a thread over the last two weeks leading into the magical heart of story: the stories we tell, the stories we write, and the stories in the land around us. David Abram spoke on the relationship between story and place, Martin Shaw on stories for our time and stories that carry the tang of wild, Robin Wall Kimmerer on listening to the stories the land tells about itself, and David Whyte on finding poetry in close attention to the world around us. Now I'd like to give you one last passage from Martin Shaw's book Scatterlings, describing the path he followed to become the extraordinary storyteller, mythographer and cultural historian of Dartmoor that he is today:

"It was a labour born and rooted entirely in my openings in the wilds," Martin writes. "There were no courses to attend, no elocution lessons, no lines of ink to memorise till I could scattergun the first row with my literary recital of the oral tradition. It just wasn't going to come from there. At least not at first. It had to come from the source: the living world....

Grey Wethers Stone Circle on Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"So, as a young man I took myself out to a little stretch of old-growth wood, mostly oak and elder, and dug in. If myth really was the power of a place speaking, the I had to bend my head daily to its murmurs.

Scorhill Clapper Bridge by Simon Blackbourn

"The vast majority of time I spent over those years outdoors was not in full voice but in listening. A kind of tenderising of the heart. A shaggy equilibrium painfully wrought, where I felt and could maintain the sensation of being flooded by a place. Not an emptying but a filling. And as the weeks would unfold, this roving ecosystem gradually settled in shape somewhat; out of the ravenous floods cascading through my frame, things calmned, and the few same animals, birds, and insects as well as, occasionally, certain regal energies that stand alongside them, started to show up.

On Sittaford Tor by Simon Blackbourn

"The time for this work was usually dusk. I would wait for a frittering of delicate lights to lace the air; they would denote whether it was time to settle back on my goatskins or to cross the rickety bridge and make my way back up the hill to my tent. This kind of vagabond sit took place hundreds of times over those years. I was in the presence of mighty things, and, in their way, they presented me with the big thoughts, over and over.

Zig Zag by Simon Blackbourn

"This is weft and the weave of story for me. The endless lyrical emerging of the earth's tremendous thinking and the humbling required to simply bear witness to it. And the extraordinary day, when for an hour or so you realise that you too are being witnessed. You are part of the big sound. You have pushed the coats aside and walked through the back of the wardrobe.

View from Hound Tor

"When my mouth had chewed on enough silence and my body had located its fragility in the face of winter, when darkness and sorrow had bruised up against solitude, I began to taste, fully, the price of my labour, and slowly I began to speak. And what came was praise.

Dartmoor Pony by Simon Blackbourn

"Inventive speech appears to be a kind of catnip to the living world. Especially prized has been the capacity to name, abundently and gracefully, dozens or even hundreds of secret names for beings you had spent your whole life strutting past, and muttering: willow, holly, bat, dog-rose. They are not their names. Not really.

Sentinels by Simon Blackbourn"So the first big move was not one of taking anything at all -- I'd done that quite successfully my whole life -- but of actually reorganising the detritus of my speech to formulate clear and subtle praise for the denizen I beheld in front of me. Not 'the Goddess of the River' but 'River Goddess.' The moment I squeezed 'of the' into the mix, thereby hovered an abstraction, and the fox-woman fled the hunter's hut.

  Green Curve
  Udder of the Silver Waters
  The Hundred Glittering Teeth
  Small Sister, Dawning Foam,
  On the Old Lime Bank.

This wasn't even particularly imaginative. It wasn't flattery.
And most of all, it wasn't for me. I wasn't comparing myself. It was simply describing, acutely, what I witnessed in front of me. Some things I realised I was never going to behold clearly. I wouldn't have language for butterfly, birch, ivy, and clay. There it is; they remain indistinct. Admired, but indistinct. But, grindingly slowly, some beings made themselves known to me, became a lintel overhead, a den in which I could claim a degree of kinship. Not what I would choose, but what chose me.

The Lone Tree bySimon Blackbourn

"So the first part of my apprenticeship to story began in a tiny stretch of woodland glade -- a corral of about twenty feet -- tenderising my own nature until the beings that wished stepped forward, and gave me the slow and halting opportunity to name just a few of the hundred secret ways they have of being themselves. Maybe four thousand years ago they weren't so secret...

Black-a-tor by Simon Blackbourn

"If I'd believed the propoganda of our times, I would have seen England as too farmed, too crushed-tight with humans and their history, soil too poisoned, forest too hurt and impoverished for such an education -- better to turn to the vastness of Siberia or some other pristine wilderness. Thank God I didn't. The eye of the needle is everywhere, abiding patiently for you to quilt your life to the Otherworld, which is really our deep natural function anyway. Small pockets of absolute aliveness, greenness, riven-deep mystery are all over our strange and bullishly magnificent isle.

Highland Cattle on Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"So my first move towards story was to give one up, beginning the slow move from a society of taking to a culture of giving. The living world was not there for my temporary edification or a transitory backdrop for my 'healing'; it was home. A home that scared me, rattled me, soothed me, shaped me. Without the investment of time and focus, the words I longed to speak would simply be phony on my tongue. The worst aspect of storytelling is when you hear the words spoken but know the teller never took the journey to get them. The teller just squatted by the well and stole the words when one who had made the journey crawled out of the Underworld. 

The Freedom of the Moor by Simon Blackbourn

The North Teign River Flowing Over Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"Well, I sure wasn't much of a teller at that point, but I knew I had river mud on my boots and green vines in the wine of my blood."

* * * * *

Scorhill Tree by Simon Blackbourn

Once again, I have paired Martin's words with Simon Blackbourn's evocative Dartmoor imagery. Simon is a photographer and moorland wanderer who lives down the road from me here in Chagford. You'll find more of his work in this previous post, as well as on his Instagram page. The title of each photograph can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) 

Both words and pictures have caused me refect on my own long apprenticeship to story...which was different to Martin's in many ways, but oddly similar in others. It was not an easy path by any means, but it's brought to place I am now, to hill and hound and husband and family. It gave me the tales I hold, and carry gently, and then pass on.

Sunset at Hound Tor by Simon Blackbourn

Delilah by Simon Blackbourn

The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.

Related posts: The mnemonics of words (Robert Macfarlane) and In the story made of dawn (David Abram).


On poetry and paying attention

Ponies 1

From an interview with David Whyte (author of In The House of Belonging):

"I’ve written poetry since I was very small. I had very powerful experiences with poetry where I felt literally abducted, taken away by poetry and just like a hawk had come down and taken me in its claws and carried me off. I remember reading Ted Hughes when I was young -- and he must’ve been young then too -- and having that feeling, and a very powerful feeling, that this was language that adults had written who had not forgotten the primary visions and insights of childhood.

Ponies 2

Ponies 3

"But when I was 14 years old, I saw Jacques Cousteau, the famous French marine zoologist and inventor of the aqualung, sail across our little television set in the north of England. I really couldn’t believe you could have work like this in the world. You could actually follow the life of the dolphin aboard the good ship Calypso. I was so astonished by it that I gave up all my art subjects and put myself into the salt mines of biology, chemistry, and physics. Then I emerged with a degree in marine zoology many years later. Through sheer luck and fortune, I found myself on the shores of the Galapagos Islands as a naturalist guide. That was really astonishing, and experiencing those islands led me back into poetry and philosophy, really.

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

"I went back into poetry because I felt like scientific language wasn’t precise enough to describe the experiences that I had in Galapagos. Science, rightly, is always trying to remove the 'I.' But I was really interested in the way that the 'I' deepened the more you paid attention. In Galapagos, I began to realize that because I was in deeply attentive states, hour after hour, watching animals and birds and landscapes -- and that’s all I did for almost two years -- I began to realize that my identity depended not upon any beliefs I had, inherited beliefs or manufactured beliefs, but my identity actually depended on how much attention I was paying to things that were other than myself and that as you deepen this intentionality and this attention, you started to broaden and deepen your own sense of presence.

Ponies 6

Ponies 7

Ponies 8

"I began to realize that the only places where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you, that whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it. But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass, and what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. It’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level. Half of what’s about to occur is unknown both inside you and outside you.

"John O’Donohue used to say that one of the necessary tasks is this radical letting alone of yourself in the world, letting the world speak in its own voice and letting this deeper sense of yourself speak out."

Ponies 9

Ponies 10

And likewise, Mary Oliver said: "To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work."

For writing poetry, telling stories, making mythic art, and creating artful, thoughtful lives, no matter where they unfold: city, town, suburb...or the green hills of Devon, where wild ponies roam.

Ponies 11

Ponies 12

Words: The passage above is from "David Whyte: The Conversational Nature of Reality" (On Being with Krista Trippett, American Public Radio, April 7, 2016). I recommend listening to the full interview, which you'll find here. The poem in the picture captions is from Everything is Waiting for You (Many Rivers Press, 2003). All rights reserved by David Whyte and Krista Trippett. Pictures: Dartmoor pony foals on our village Commons.


The names of mosses

Moss

Gathering Moss

Gathering Moss: A Natural & Cultural History of Mosses is Robin Wall Kimmerer's first book, for which she won the John Burroughs Medal for Natural History Writing in 2005. As in her second, better-known book, Braiding Sweetgrass, this text is written from the liminal place between two ways of understanding the natural world: through Kimmerer's training as a botanist, biologist, and environmental scientist, and through her relationship with plants as an indigenous woman of the Potawatomi Nation.

Black bear, artist unknownIn the introductory chapter of Gathering Moss, Kimmerer relates as uncanny experience at the Cranberry Lake Biological Station: a forested wilderness in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state. This remote region, accessible only by boat, was deeply familiar to her, for she had studied its mosses, lichens and other plants for many years -- first as a student, and then as a professor leading students there herself. On this particular day, however, she was stunned to discover something new: 

"I've walked this path more times than I can tell you," she writes, "and yet it was only today I was able to see them: five stones, each the size of a school bus, lying together in a pile, their curves fitting together like an old married couple secure in each other's arms. The glacier [which formed the landscape] must have pushed them into this loving conformation and then moved on.

Moss 2

"I circle all around the pile, in silence, brushing my fingertips over its mosses.

Moss 3

"On the eastern side, there is an opening, a cave-like darkness between the rocks. Somehow I knew it would be there. This door which I have never seen before looks strangely familiar. My family comes from the Bear Clan of the Potawatomi. Bear is the holder of medicine knowledge for the people and has a special relationship with plants. He is the one who calls them by name, who knows their stories. We seek him for a vision, to find the task we were meant for. I think I'm following a Bear."

Moss 4

Kimmerer crawls into the darkness between two boulders, following the sandy floor downward and around a corner, where a green light shines ahead.

"I think I must have crawled through a passage leading from beneath this pile of rock and out the other side. I wriggle from the tunnel and find myself not in the woods at all. Instead, I emerge into a tiny, grass-filled meadow, a circle enclosed by the walls of the stone. It is a room, a light-filled room like a round eye looking into the blueness of the sky. Indian paintbrush is in bloom and hay-scented fern borders the ring of the standing stones. I am inside the circle. There are no openings save the way that I have come and I sense that entrance closing behind me. I look all around the ring but I can no longer see the opening in the rock. At first I'm afraid, but the grass smells warm in the sunshine and the walls drip with mosses. How odd to hear the redstarts calling in the trees outside, in a parallel universe that dissipates like a mirage as the mossy walls enclose me.

Moss 5

"Within the circle of the stones, I find myself unaccountably beyond thinking, beyond feeling. The rocks are full of intention, a deep presence attracting life. This is a place of power, vibrating with energy exchanged at a very long wavelength. Held in the gaze of the rocks, my presence is acknowledged.

Moss 6

"The rocks are beyond slow, beyond strong, and yet yielding to a soft green breath as powerful as a glacier, the mosses wearing away their surfaces, grain by grain bringing them back slowly to sand. There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents. This is what has been called the 'dialectic of moss on stone -- an interface of immensity and minuteness, of past and present, softness and hardness, stillness and vibrancy, yin and yang.' The material and the spiritual live here together.

Moss 7

"Moss communities may be mysteries to scientists, but they are known to one another. Intimate partners, the mosses know the contours of the rocks. They remember the route of rainwater down a crevice, the way I remember the path to my cabin. Standing inside the circle, I know that mosses have their own names, which were theirs long before Linnaeus, the Latinezed namer of plants. Time passes.

Moss 8

"I don't know how long I was gone, minutes or hours. For that interval, I had no sensation of my own existence. There was only rock and moss. Moss and rock. Like a hand laid gently on my shoulder, I come back to myself and look around. The trance is broken. I can hear the redstarts again, calling overhead. The encircling walls are radiant with mosses of every kind, and I see them again, as if for the first time. The green and the gray, the old and the new in this place and in this time, they rest together for this moment between glaciers. My ancestors knew that rocks hold the Earth's stories, and for a moment I could hear them.

Moss 9

"My thoughts feel noisy here, an annoying buzz disrupting the slow conversation among the stones. The door in the wall has reappeared and time starts to move again. An opening into this circle of stones was made, and a gift given. I see things differently, from the inside of the circle as well as from the outside. A gift comes with responsibility. I had no will at all to name all the mosses in this place, to assign their Linnean epithets. I think the task given to me is to carry out the message that mosses have their own names. Their way of being in the world cannot be told by data alone. They remind me to remember that there are mysteries for which a measuring tape has no meaning, questions and answers that have no place in the truth about rocks and mosses.

Moss 10

"The tunnel seems easier on the way out. This time I know where I am going. I look back over my shoulder at the stones and the set my feet to the familiar path for home. I know I am following the Bear."

Moss 11

Moss 12

Gathering Moss

Words: The passage above is from Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Oregon State University Press, 20013). The quote within Kimmerer's text is from Moss Gardening by George Schenk (Timber Press, 1997). The poem in the picture captions is from Weaving the Boundary (Arizona Press, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Photographs of the mossy woods of Devon, and a vintage drawing of a black bear (artist unknown).

Related posts: Loving the wounded world and The magic of the world made visible.