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August 2019

Old stones, old gods, and silence

Tintern Abbey, eastern columns

 From Keeping the Faith Without a Religion by Roger Housden:

"It seems to me that a materialist view of the universe is reductionist. It makes every kind of experience subservient to the laws of matter. It applies the tenets of the known to the mystery of why we are here at all.  It chases away not only the old gods and spirits and half heard whispers in the night; it chases away the mystery of life and being itself. For a materialist, there can be no mystery that will not eventually be made clear in the light of reason and critical intelligence.

"Ultimately, what is in danger of being excluded from the cultural conversation is not the old gods, but the quality of imagination that gave birth to them; an imagination that sees and feels humanity to be part of a living, breathing world with an intelligence that we will never fathom; full of Tintern Abbey by Chriss Gunnspresences and qualities that our ancestors gave names to, but that live on as always even as their names have fallen away. William Wordsworth gives voice to this imaginative faculty in this excerpt from his poem, 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey':

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things."

 

Tintern Abbey by Marion Haworth

Tintern Abbey by Wici Rhuthun

The beautiful bones of Tintern Abbey (pictured here) rise from the banks of the River Wye on Welsh side of the English-Welsh border. The abbey was founded in 1131 for the White Monks of the Cistercian Order, followers of the Rule of St. Benedict, whose silent and austere way of life was devoted to prayer, scholarship, agricultural labor and self-sufficiency.

"Why does the soul love silence?" asks Parker J. Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness. Palmer is a Quaker, a group for whom silence is also an important part of communal prayer. "The deepest answer I know invokes the mystery of where we came from and where we are headed. At birth, we emerged from the Great Silence into a world that constrains the soul; at death we return to the Great Silence where the soul is once again free.

Inside Tintern Abbey by Pam Brophy

"Our culture is so fearful of the silence of death," writes Parker, "that it worships noise nonstop. In the midst of all that noise, small silences can help us become more comfortable with the Great Silence toward which we are all headed. Small silences bring us 'little deaths,' which, to our surprise, turn out to be deeply fulfilling. For example, as we settle into silence, where our posturing and pushing must cease, we may experience a temporary death of the ego, of that separate sense of self we spend so much time cultivating. But this 'little death,' instead of frightening us, makes us feel more at peace and more at home.

Tintern Abbey by Saffron Blaze2

"The Rule of St. Benedict, that ancient guide to the monastic life, includes the admonition to 'keep death before one's eyes daily.' As a young man I found this advice a bit morbid. But the older I get, the more I understand how life-giving this practice can be. As I settle into silence, I draw closer to my own soul, touching a place within me that knows no fear of dying. And the little deaths I experience in silence deepen my appreciation for life -- for the light suffusing the room as I write, for the breeze coming in through the window.

"So silence brings not only little deaths but also little births -- small awakenings to beauty, to vitality, to hope, to life. In silence we may start to intuit that birth and death have much in common. We came from the Great Silence without fear into this world of noise. Perhaps we can return without fear as well, crossing back over knowing that the Great Silence is our first and final home."

Tintern Abbey by Pam Brophy

Words: The passages quoted above are from Keeping the Faith Without a Religion by Roger Housden (Sounds True Publishing, 2014) and A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life by Parker Palmer (Josey-Bass Publishing, 2009). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The photographs are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


On art and silence

River 1

River 2

"Why is silence important to writers?" Lorraine Berry asked Utah-based writer Terry Tempest Williams in an interview in 2013. "Is silence something that we all, regardless of whether we’re writers or not, need access to? And how do we find that in our increasingly tuned-in, turned-on world?"

River 3

"Silence is where we locate our voice," Williams answered, "both as writers and as human beings. In silence, the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin. Silence takes us to an unknown place. It’s not necessarily a place of comfort. For me, the desert holds this space of quiet reflection; it’s erosional, like the landscape itself.

River 4

River 5

River 6

"You also ask why is it important that writers write and not embrace a life of silence. In many ways, we do embrace a lifestyle of silence, inward silence, a howling silence that brings us to our knees and desk each day. All a writer really has is time. Time to think. Time to read. Time to write.

River 7

"Time for a writer translates into solitude. In solitude, we create. In solitude, we are read. If we’re lucky, our books create community having been written out of solitude.

River 8

"It’s a lovely paradox. It’s the creative tension that I live with: I write to create community, but in order to do so, I am pulled out of community. Solitude is a writer’s communion."

River 9

River

Words: The passage above is from "Terry Tempest Williams: Silence is Where We Locate Our Voice" by Lorraine Berry (Talking Writing, June 17, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from The Continuous Life: Poems by Mark Strand (Knopf, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Down by the River Teign on a hot summer day.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Wingspan

This week, I am feeling the need for quiet, focus, and to find my creative centre again --  so I'm turning to the music of the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, for whom a love of simplicity and silence inspired the musical style he calls tintinabulli.

"On the one hand, silence is like fertile soil, which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed," the composer explains. "On the other hand, silence must be approached with a feeling of awe. And when we speak about silence, we must keep in mind that it has two different wings, so to speak. Silence can be both that which is outside of us and that which is inside a person. The silence of our soul, which isn't even affected by external distractions, is actually more crucial but more difficult to achieve."

Above, Pärt's exquisite "Spiegel im spiegel," performed by Sally Maer (cello) and Sally Whitwell (piano), accompanied by the very beautiful art of American painter Jeanie Tomanek.

Below, Pärt's "Summa," performed by The Carducci Quartet: Matthew Denton (violin), Michelle Fleming (violin),  Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola), and Emma Denton (cello).

Below, an English-language piece by Pärt: "My Heart's in the Highlands," performed by Danish soprano Elsa Torp and English organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, recorded for Pärt’s Triodion CD (2003). The lyrics come a Robert Burns poem written in 1789.

Allt a' Mhuilinn in the Scottish Highlands

"Is it possible to make a living by simply watching light?" asks American writer Terry Tempest Williams. "Monet did. Vermeer did. I believe Vincent did too. They painted light in order to witness the dance between revelation and concealment, exposure and darkness. Perhaps this is what I desire most, to sit and watch the shifting shadows cross the cliff face of sandstone or simply to walk parallel with a path of liquid light called the Colorado River....This living would include becoming a caretaker of silence, a connoisseur of stillness, a listener of wind where each dialect is not only heard but understood."

In the Wild Country by Jeanie Tomanek

For more Arvo Pärt this morning, I recommend Even if I Lose Everything, a short film on the composer by Dorian Supine. The art above is: "Wingspan" and "Wild Country" by Jeanie Tomanek. The Terry Tempest Williams quote is from her excellent essay collection Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert (Pantheon, 2001).


Wild stories

Wild companion

Winged deer tapestry

The Bumblehill studio

While the world of human affairs goes on its noisy, alarming way, I return again and again to the woods and hills behind my studio. To moss. To mud. To the dark, damp mulch of leaves carpeting the forest floor. To the strength of granite and the swift ways of water. To the prickly beauty of holly and gorse, and the slow, silent patience of seed and bulb. To the resurrection of bracken, grown so tall that the trails are half-hidden beneath it.

I keep leaving my desk, Tilly close at my heels, crossing from the imaginary landscapes of writing or reading to a world I can touch, and smell, and taste: to the old stone wall at the edge of the treeline, and pathways trodden by wild ponies and sheep. To streams filled with rain, bogs thick with mud, brambles that snag my skirts and scratch my shins. To discomfort. To pain. To surprise. To joy. To the things that are real.

An occupational hazard for the solitary writer is to live in the realm of the mind alone (or the shadowlands of the Internet), and not in the body, the senses, the wild rhythms of the local groundscape we each inhabit, whether rural or urban. For many of us in the fantasy field, the wild world is the very place that we seek to conjure and enter through stories and paintings -- and so we must not neglect our relationship with the elemental wild around us. In our kind of work, "magic" is not a metaphor for gaining power, control, or authority, but for our numinous connection with natural world, and our nonhuman neighhbors. It is wild work. It is soul work. And we need wild stories right now, more than ever.

Wild words

"I have a sense," writes Kate Bernheimer "that a proliferation of magical stories, especially fairy tales, is correlated to a growing human awareness of separation from the wild and natural world. In fairy tales, the human and animal worlds are equal and mutually dependent. The violence, suffering, and beauty are shared. Those drawn to fairy tales, perhaps, wish for a world that 'might live forever.' My work as a preservationist of fairy tales is entwined with all kinds of extinction."

Edmund Dulac illustration

P1370113

"Writing," says Sylvia Linsteadt, "is my way into the heart of the world -- its wildness, its strange magic, its beauty, its terrors, its sadness, its joy. Metaphor (a favorite of mine) is an act of shape-shifting, of remembering that each thing is hitched to the next in the great cyclical transformation of energy, from sun to seed to doe to cougar and back to worm; the line between ourselves and the wild world is thin indeed. Writing (thick with metaphor) is the means through which I can praise the wild mystery of this world, and also explore its unseen realms -- the realms inside the hearts of bears and granite stones and buckeye trees; the lands just the other side of the moon and the fog, the lives of men and women long ago or just around the corner. If I were buckeye tree, then writing would be the buckeyes that fruit at the ends of my limbs come late August. In other words, writing is the thing made in me from all the waters and winds and soils and stories that come through my five senses (or six), and it feels very inevitable, like the buckeyes at the end of summer.

Kay Nielsen illustration

HJ Owen illustration

"Also, I have always been an avid reader," Sylvia continues; "especially as a child I devoured books that told of magical worlds and lands, lady-knights and healers, the everyday peasant life of Old Europe (especially Scotland & Ireland), talking animals, caravans of camel nomads, druids, long adventures on horseback. Such books literally shaped and changed my life. They informed the way I see the world today -- as a place much more mysterious and full of wild magics than we tend to believe, where everything is alive and everything speaks. So I write because writing is even better than reading in the sense that you really get to go to those places in your imagination, and give them to other people. The stories we tell ourselves and each other form the world in which we live."

Edmund Dulac illustration

Our task, as David Abram sees is, "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."

 "Storytellers ought not to be too tame," Ben Okri agrees. "They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society.  They are best in disguise.  If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys."

Edmund Dulac illustration

Jay Griffiths adds: "What is wild cannot be bought or sold, borrowed or copied. It is. Unmistakeable, unforgettable, unshamable, elemental as earth and ice, water, fire and air, a quitessence, pure spirit, resolving into no contituents. Don't waste your wildness: it is precious and necessary."

Adrienne Segur illustration

Illustration by Adrienne Segur

Wild stories

Words: The passage by Sylvia Linsteadt is from an interview by Asia Sular (Woolgathering & Wildcrafting, Sept. 2014), which I recommend reading in full. Kate Bernheimer's quote is from the Introduction to her anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin, 2010); Ben Okri's quote is from his essay collection A Way of Being Free (W&N, 1997);  Jay Griffith's quote is from Wild: An Elemental Journey (Penguin, 2007). All three books are recommded. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: My quiet hillside studio on a rainy day -- with the hound, works-in-progress, old fairy tale books, and bits of the wild slipping in from the woods.


Feline Folklore

Cat and Mouse in Partnership by Arthur Rackham

For International Cat Day....

According to one old legend, cats were the only creatures on earth who were not made by God at the time of Creation. When God covered the world with water, and Noah set his ark afloat, the ark became infested with rats eating up the stores of food. Noah prayed for a miracle, and a pair of cats sprang to life from the mouths of the lion and lioness. They set to work, and quickly dispatched all the rats -- but for the original two. As their reward, when the boat reached dry land the cats walked at the head of the great procession of Noah's animals. Which is why, the legend concludes, all cats are proud, to this very day.

In the earliest The Key Marco Cat carvingfeline images found on cave walls and carved out of stone, wildcats are companions and guardians to the Great Goddess -- often flanking a mother goddess figure in the act of giving birth. Such imagery has been found in ancient sites across Europe, Africa, India and the Middle East. In China the lion, Shih, is one of the four principal animal protectors -- associated with rain, guardian of the dead and their living descendants. In the New World, evidence of wildcat cults is found across Central and South America, where the jaguar was the familiar of shamans and a powerful totemic animal. Ai apaec of the Mochica people of Peru was a much-revered feline god, pictured in the shape of a wrinkle-faced old man with long fangs and cat whiskers. A hauntingly beautiful wood carving of a kneeling figure with the head of a cat (pictured on the right) was found just off the Florida coast -- remarkably well preserved, the image dates back over three thousand years.

Seeking the Eye of Ra by Virginia Lee

We find the first evidence of the wildcat's small cousin, Felis catus, in ancient Egypt -- where the beasts were so sacred that any man who killed one was condemned to death. When a house cat died, the entire family shaved its eyebrows as a sign of grief; and mummified cats (along with tiny mummified mice) have been found in Egyptian tombs. In the 1st century BC, the Greek historian Diodorus reported the fate of a hapless Roman who'd caused the death of a cat:

Bastet"The populace crowded to the house of the Roman who had committed the 'murder'; and neither the efforts of the magistrates sent by the King to protect him nor the universal fear inspired by the might of Rome could avail to save the man's life, though what he had done was admitted to be accidental. This is not an incident which I report from hearsay, but something I saw myself during my sojourn in Egypt."

Mau was the Egyptian word for cat -- both an imitation of its speech, and a mother-syllable. Bast, the Cat-mother, was a goddess whose cult began in the delta city of Bubastis and eventually covered all of Egypt with the rise of the XXII Dynasty. Unlike the fierce lion-headed Sekmet from earlier Egyptian myth, Bast embodied the benevolent aspects of cats: fertility, sexuality, love and life-giving heat. Bronzes from the period show the goddess in her feline form (seated and wearing earrings), as well as in human form with the head of a cat, Young Woman Holding a Black Cat by Gwen Johnkittens at her feet. The twice-annual Festivals of Bast, as described by Herodotus, were carnivals of music, dancing, wine-drinking, love-making and religious ecstasy -- dedicated to Bast in her aspect as Mistress of love and the sensual pleasures.

Numerous legends tell of human beings who transform into the shape of a cat. Although some male wizards, magicians and shamans were gifted with this power, more commonly the shapeshifter was a woman, and a witch. Cats (along with bats, owls and toads) were believed to be witches' companions who aided in spells and carried messages to the Devil. During the tragically widespread witch trials of 16th and 17th century Europe, feline "familiars" were burned, hung, and drowned alongside their mistresses. A witch, it was said, could shape-shift into cat form whenever the moon was full. Good men were advised to lay consecrated salt on their doorstep, lest witches compel them to join in their revels.

Arthur Rackham

When we turn from folklore to fairy tales, shape-shifting cats are viewed as less sinister creatures. In "The White Cat," a popular French fairy tale by Madame d'Aulnoy, the three sons of a king are sent upon a series of quests. The youngest son meets a lovely white cat, the queen of an enchanted castle filled with cat-servants and courtiers. She helps the prince with his tasks, and over time he falls in love with her. In the end, she asks him to cut off her head; sadly, the young prince obeys her command. This breaks the spell, and the cat assumes her true shape as a human princess. (For a thoroughly modern rendition of the tale, I recommend Holly Black's YA novel The White Cat.)

The White Cat by Gennady Spirin

In "Kip the Enchanted Cat," from Russia, a mother cat and her kitten are actually human beings under a fairy's curse. The kitten is raised with a human princess and eventually aids her with several magical tasks, leading to the spell's undoing and a double wedding with two suitable princes. (This tale, about women's friendships, was a particular favorite of mine as a child.)

Kip the Enchanted Cat by Adrienne Ségur

"The Cat Bride" is a story of animal-transformation in reverse: a house cat becomes the human bride of a good and gentle man who allows the gossip of neighbors to undermine his marital contentment. (I recommend Jane Yolen's lovely retelling in her story collection Dream Weaver.)

The Russian fairy tale "Silvershod"  is the story of a poor man, a child, her beloved cat Moura, and a mysterious stag who sheds jewels in the snow. The fairy tale ends oddly, for the jewels bring prosperity but the dear little cat vanishes with the stag. In a bittersweet poem inspired by the fairy tale, Ellen Steiber writes: Drawing by Arthur Rackham

        In the north country
        a child wakes in a soft feather bed
        and remembers
        a red-brown cat
        whose nose was cold against her neck.

        In the north country
        a child sits in a tall, gabled house
        and remembers a pale gray stag
        with a silver hoof
        who gave and took
        what was most precious.


Silvershod, Puss-in-Boots, and The Three Who Spun by Adrienne Ségur

Papa Gatton by Ruth Sanderson

The best known fairy tale cat of them all, of course, is that clever, bold rascal called "Puss-in-Boots." The story as we know it now comes from the French version penned by Charles Perrault in the 17th century; in earlier versions -- such as those of Straparola and Basile in Italy -- Puss is just as wily, but hasn't yet taken to wearing his famous boots. In a Scandinavian version, "Lord Peter," our plotting Puss is female, and is really a princess under a troll's evil curse -- but in most tales, Puss is a cat, nothing more, albeit a very magical cat. (The bawdiest and best retelling, in my opinion, is Angela Carter's, in The Bloody Chamber.)

Puss-in-Boots by Omar Rayyan

In additional to Puss-in-Boots and other memorable rogues from folklore and fairy tales, cats stalk through the pages of books beloved by children and adults alike. Who could forget the grinning Cheshire Cat met by Alice in Wonderland, or poor hungry Simpkin in Beatrix Potter's The Tailer of Gloucester?

The Cheshire Cat by Sir John Tenniel

Simpkin by Beatrix Potter

Or Rudyard Kipling's The Cat Who Walks by Himself, padding his way through the Just So Stories? Or Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussy Cat, setting to sea in their pea-green boat?

The Owl and the Pussy-cat by Chris Dunn

Or T.S. Eliot's dashing Growltiger in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats? Or Mehitabel, friend to Archy the cockroach, in the poems of Don Marquis? Or the wily cats in Nicholas Stuart Gray's classic children's stories: Grimbold's Other World, The Stone Cage and Mainly in Moonlight? Or, more recently, the fabulous felines in A Circle of Cats and The Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint, illustrated by Charles Vess?

A Circle of Cats by Charles Vess

In 1817, the American author Washington Irving paid a visit to Scottish author and folklorist Sir Walter Scott. The following comes from Irving's account of that meeting, published in 1835:

Grey cat by Lisbeth Zwerger"The evening passed delightfully in a quaint-looking apartment, half-study, half-drawing room. Scott read several passages from the old romance of Arthur, with a fine deep sonorous voice, and a gravity of tone that seemed to me to suit the antiquated, black-letter volume. It was a treat to hear such a work, read by such a person, and in such place; and his appearance as he sat reading, in a large armed chair, with his favorite hound Maida at his feet, and surrounded by books and relics, and border trophies, would have formed an admirable and most characteristic picture. While Scott was reading, the sage grimalkin [Scott's cat] had taken his seat in a chair by the fire, and remained with fixed eye and grave demeanor, as if listening to the reader. I observed to Scott that his cat seemed to have a black-letter taste in literature.

"'Ah,' said he, 'these cats are very mysterious kind of folk. There is always more passing in their minds than we are aware of. It comes no doubt from their being so familiar with witches and warlocks.' He went on to tell a little story about a gude man who was returning to his cottage one night, when, in a lonely out-of-the-way place, he met with a funeral coffin covered with a black velvet pall. The worthy man, astonished and half frightened at so strange a pageant, hastened home and told what he had seen to his wife and children. Scarce had he finished, when a great black cat that sat by the fire raised himself up, exclaimed, 'Then I am king of the cats!' and vanished up the chimney. The funeral seen by the gude man was one of the cat dynasty. "'Our grimalkin here,' added Scott, 'sometimes reminds me of the story, by the airs of sovereignty which he assumes; and I am apt to treat him with respect from the idea he may be a great prince incognito, and may some time or other come to the throne."

Magic cats by David Wyatt and Omar Rayyan

Captain Cat by Inga Moore

Any one of the cats padding through our lives each day may be a future King or Queen of the Cats, just waiting for the call to claim their crown. They certainly seem to think so themselves. They know they are creatures of magic.

Cat Princess by Ruth Sanderson

The paintings and drawings above are by Arthur Rackham, Virginia Lee, Gwen John, Adrienne Ségur, Ruth Sanderson, Omar Rayyan, Sir John Tenniel, Beatrix Potter, Chris Dunn, Charles Vess, Lisbeth Zwerger, David Wyatt, and Iga Moore. The art is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artists and authors.