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November 2019

In the gift-giving season

Gifts

Every year about this time I get requests to re-post this piece on gifts and creativity, so here it is....

I've been thinking a lot about gifts lately, in all the various meanings of the word -- prompted, of course, by the season of holiday gift-giving that is upon us. Here in "austerity Britain," where work and money are increasingly scarce for those in freelance and arts professions (which are   Bunny Giftsprecarious even at the best of times), a truly frightening number of people are struggling just to put food on the table and keep the lights on overhead. And then comes Christmas, with its lovely old traditions but overwhelming modern expectations; with its roots planted in the good soil of family, community, folklore, and sacred stories, but its leaves unfurled in the toxic air of commercialism and over-consumption.

Some of us cherish the holiday; some of us simply cope with it and then sigh with relief when it's all over; some of us re-shape it into something more nurturing and reflective of our own ideals; some of us turn our backs on it altogether; and some of us weren't raised with Christmas at all, but simply watch while the rest of the Western world goes crazy for a few weeks every year.

I love the spirit of Christmas gift-giving, but not the commercial pressure to shop and spend -- especially in these lean financial times when life is hard, even desperate, for so many. I also prefer to view gift-exchange as a daily part of life, not something confined to the holidays. We gift each other with meals prepared, with gardens tended, with the chores that keep a household running, with kindness, patience, care, attention...a constant giving-and-receiving that starts at home and extends into the world through friendship, community, and activism.

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Making art is a form of gift-giving, made wondrous by the way that some of our creations move outward far beyond our ken, gifting recipients we do not know, will never meet, and sometimes could never imagine. And I, in turn, have received great gifts from writers, painters, musicians, dramatists and others who will never know of my existence either, and yet their words, images, or ideas, coming to me at the right time, have literally saved me.

The paradox inherent in making art, of course, is that it's an act involving both giving and receiving. Like breathing, it requires both, the inhalation and the exhalation. We receive the gift of inspiration (inhale), give it shape and form and pass it on (exhale).

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 The word "gift" itself is commonly used to describe artistic talent: she's a gifted cellist, he's a gifted poet. But where does that "gift" of inspiration come from? In semi-secular modernity, we tend to be politely vague about such things -- but in her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert has an unusual answer to the question:

"I should explain," she says, "at this point that I've spent my entire life in devotion to creativity, and along the way I've developed a set of beliefs about how it works -- and how to work with it -- that is entirely and unapologetically based upon magical thinking. And when I refer to magic here, I mean it literally. Like, in the Hogwarts sense. I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly. Because the truth is, I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment -- not entirely human in its origins....

"I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a dis-embodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us -- albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human's efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the material world."

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Rationalists will scoff at Gilbert's words, but there's enough mysticism in my own beliefs that her concept of creativity doesn't seem so very far-fetched to me; indeed, my only quibble with the paragraph above is that I'm not entirely convinced that those ideas necessarily require a human partner. (Perhaps animals and others with whom we share the planet have art forms of their own that we don't yet perceive.)

A little later in the book, Gilbert writes about creative work in terms that even the rationalists among us might recognize: "Most of my writing life, to be perfectly honest, is not freaky, old-time, voodoo-style Big Magic. Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk, and I work like a farmer, and that's how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least.

"But sometimes it is fairy dust. Sometimes, when I'm in the midst of writing, I feel like I'm suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks you find in an airport terminal; I still have a long slog to my gate, and my baggage is still heavy, but I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along -- something powerful and generous -- and that something is decidedly not me....

"I only rarely experience this feeling, but it's the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don't think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love. In ancient Greek, the word for the highest degree of human happiness is eudaimonia, which basically means 'well-daemoned' -- that is, nicely taken care of by some external divine creative spirit guide."

(We've discussed the Greco-Roman idea of "creative daemons" in a previous post. Go here if you'd like to know more.)

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C.S. Lewis, writing from a Christian perspective, also noted the mystical quality of creative inspiration:

"In the Author’s mind there bubbles up every now and then the material for a story. For me it invariably begins with mental pictures. This ferment leads to nothing unless it is accompanied with the longing for a Form: verse or prose, short story, novel, play or what not.  When these two things click you have the Author’s impulse complete. It is now a thing inside him pawing to get out. He longs to see that bubbling stuff pouring  into that Form as  the housewife longs to see the new jam pouring into the clean jam jar. This nags him all day long and gets in the way of his work and his sleep and his meals. It’s like being in love."

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"The artist's gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed upon him," says Lewis Hyde in his masterful book on the subject, The Gift: Creativity & the Artist in the Modern World. "To put it another way, if the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work, is the third gift, the one offered to the world."

Madeleine L'Engle was of a similar mind. In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art she wrote: "'We, and I think I'm speaking for many writers, don't know what it is that sometimes comes to make our books alive. All we can do is write dutifully and day after day, every day, giving our work the very best of what we are capable. I don't think that we can consciously put the magic in; it doesn't work that way. When the magic comes, it's a gift.''

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“If," L'Engle added, "the work comes to the artist and says, 'Here I am, serve me,' then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, 'Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.' "

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"One of the things we continue to learn from Native Peoples," says Terry Tempest Williams, "is that stories are our medicine bundles. I feel that way about our essays, our poems, our fictions. That it is the artist who carries the burden of the storyteller. Terrence Des Pres speaks of a prose witness that relies on the imagination to respond to the world as we see it, feel it, and dare to ask the questions that will not let us sleep. Imagination. Attention to details. Making the connections. Art -- right words to station the mind and hold the heart ready."

The gift of paying attention, of witnessing others' lives and passing the "medicine" of their stories, our stories, from generation to generation is the particular gift required of us as artists. Not only of us, but especially of us; in whatever artform we chose to work in.

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Jane Yolen puts it most succinctly. "Touch magic," she says, "and pass it on."

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The quotes above are from Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead Books, 2015); "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's To Be Said" by C.S. Lewis (The New York Times, November 18, 1956); The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde (Vintage, 1983); Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle  (WaterBrook, 2001); a conversation between Terry Tempest Williams, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, and Mary Hussmann (The Iowa Review, Spring 1997); and Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 1981). All rights reserved by the authors. The painting above is my "Bunny Gifts."

Related posts: On the care and feeding of daemons and Knowing the world as a gift, and


Turning Black Friday into a rainbow...

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As "Black Friday" begins the gift-buying season, please consider giving your money to artists, artisans, indie shops and local small businesses instead of low-wage paying, tax-avoiding, book-industry-damaging Amazon (and similar companies). Artists and small local shops make the world a better place, and many depend on holiday sales to keep going the rest of the year.

There are many visual artists, artisans, writers, publishers, musicians, etc. who sell mythic, folkloric, magical, and nature-inspired work online. Please recommend some of your favourites in the Comments below so we can spread the word about their work. If you're an art-maker yourself, please do list your own work. Don't be shy; we want to know about it.

And if you're anywhere near Dartmoor, the annual Winter Artisan Fayre is tomorrow at Endecott House here in Chagford, featuring the work of Virginia Lee, Danielle Barlow, Silverandmoor, and other fine local artists....

Studio in the square

Art above: Embracing the Bear by Virginia Lee and The Wisdom Keeper by Danielle Barlow.


Happy Thanksgiving from Myth & Moor

Fairies feasting by Arthur Rackham

The hound and I wish all our American friends, family members, colleagues and readers a very, very Happy Thanksgiving!

Apple Harvest by Arthur RackhamHere in Devon, the house is quiet. Howard is still away teaching in London, and I'm still down with stomach flu ... but with plenty of books to read, and my sweet hound cuddled close by, there is much to be thankful for.

Little Prayer in November
by Lee Rudolph

That I am alive, I thank
no one in particular;
and yet am thankful, mostly,
although I frame no prayer

but this one: "Creator

Spirit, as you have come,
come again," even in November,
on these short days, fogbound.


Hound in the mist

Leaves in autumn

The poem above is from A Woman and a Man, Ice-Fishing by Lee Rudolph (Texas Review Press, 20015). The passage in the picture captions is from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter Books/Shambhala, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors. The illustrations above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).


The Onondaga Thanksgiving Address

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From Braiding Sweetgrass by author, ethnobotanist, and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation:

"Our old farm is within the ancestral homelands of the Onondaga Nation, and their reserve lies a few ridges to the west of my hilltop. There, just like on my side of the ridge, school buses discharge a herd of kids who run even after  the bus monitors bark 'Walk!' But at Onondaga, the flag flying outside the entrance [of the school] is purple and white, depicting the Hiawatha wampum belt, the symbol of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy....Here the school week begins and ends not with the Pledge of Allegiance, but with the Thanksgiving Address, a river of words as old as the people themselves, known more accurately in the Onondaga language as the Words That Come Before All Else. This ancient order of protocol sets gratitude as the highest priority. The gratitude is directed straight to the ones who share their gifts with the world.

"All classes stand together in the atrium, and one grade each week has responsibility for the oratory. Together, in a language older than English, they begin the recitation. It is said that the people were instructed to stand and offer these words whenever they gathered, no matter how many or how few, before anything else was done. In this ritual, their teachers remind them that every day, 'beginning with where our feet touch the earth, we send thanks and greetings to all members of the natural world.' "

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"The Address is, by its very nature of greeting to all who sustain us, long. But it can be done in abbreviated form or in long and loving detail. At the school, it is tailored to the language skills of the children speaking it.

"Part of its power surely rests in the length of time it takes to send greetings and thanks to so many. The listeners reciprocate the gift of the speaker's words with their attention, and by putting their minds into the place where gathered minds meet. You could be passive and just let the words flow by, but each call asks for the response: 'Now our minds are one.' You have to concentrate; you have to give yourself to the listening. It takes effort, especially in a time when we are accustomed to sound bites and immediate gratification.

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"Imagine raising children in a culture in which gratitude is the first priority. Freida Jacques works at the Onondaga Nation School. She is a clan-mother, the school-community liaison, and a generous teacher. She explains to me that the Thanksgiving Address embodies the Onondaga relationship to the world. Each part of Creation is thanked in turn for fulfilling its Creator-given duty to others. 'It reminds you every day that you have enough,' she says. 'More than enough. Everything needed to sustain life is already here. When we do this, every day, it leads us to an outlook of contentment and respect for all of Creation.'

"You can't listen to the Thanksgiving Address without feeling wealthy. And, while expressing gratitude seems innocent enough, it is a revolutionary idea. In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness. The Thanksgiving Address reminds you that you already have everything you need. Gratitude doesn't send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy. That's good medicine for land and people alike.

"As Frieda says, 'The Thanksgiving Address is a reminder we cannot hear too often, that we human beings are not in charge of the world, but are subject to the same forces as the rest of life.'

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"For me, the cumulative impact of the Pledge of Allegiance, from my time as a schoolgirl to my adulthood, was the cultivation of cynicism and a sense of the nation's hypocrisy -- not the pride it was mean to instill. As I grew to understand the gifts of the earth, I couldn't understand how 'love of country' could omit recognition of the actual country itself. The only promise it requires is to a flag. What of the promises to each other and to the land?

"What would it be like to be raised on gratitude, to speak to the natural world as a member of a democracy of species, to raise a pledge of interdependence? No declarations of political loyalty are required, just a response to a repeated question, 'Can we agree to be grateful for all that is given?' In the Thanksgiving Address, I hear respect toward all our nonhuman relatives, not one political entity, but all of life.

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"Cultures of gratitude must also be cultures of reciprocity. Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them. If an animal gives his life to feed me, I am in turn bound to support its life. If I receive a stream's gift of pure water, then I am responsible for returning the gift in kind. An integral part of a human's education is to know those duties and how to perform them.

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"The Thanksgiving Address reminds us that duties and gifts are two sides of the same coin. Eagles were given the gift of far sight, so it is their duty to watch over us. Rain fulfills its duty as it falls, because it was given the gift of sustaining life. What is the duty of humans? If gifts and responsibilities are one, then asking, 'What is our responsibility?' is the same as asking 'What is our gift?' It is said that only humans have the capacity of gratitude. That is one of our gifts."

The wording of the Thanksgiving Address varies with the speaker, but you can read well-known version by John Stokes and Kanawahientun here.

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Words: The passage above is from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from In Mad Love and War by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation (Wesleyan University Press, 1990). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Dartmoor ponies grazing on the village Commons after the rain.


Myth & Moor update

HJ Ford

I'm out sick today with a bug I picked up in London over the weekend, but hope to be back in the studio very soon. When I return, I'll tell you about my travels -- which were full of music, selkies, and the art and lives of Pre-Raphaelite women.

HS OwenIn the meantime, some recommend reading:

*  Chabon's moving tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin (Paris Review

* C.J. Hauser's sad and beautiful essay "The Crane Wife" (Paris Review)

* Sabrina Orah Mark's "I Am the Tooth Fairy" (Paris Review)

* Nick Holland's "Folklore, Faeries and the Brontë Novels" (on his Anne Brontë blog) 

The art today is "The Princess Carried Off by the Bees" by Henry Justice Ford (published in Andrew Lang's Green Fairy Book, 1892), and an illustration for the Grimms fairy tale The Robber Bridegroom by H.S. Owen (published by Blackie & Sons in 1922). The latter book is a wonderful thing, full of rats in traditional Japanese dress for no apparent reason....


The sea, the sea

Mermaids by Arthur Rackham

Undine illustrations by Arthur Rackham

I'm in Sheffield right now, preparing for The Secrets of the Selkies tonight, immersed in the lore of seals and sea ... and I'm reminded of these salty, mysterious words from Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard:

"Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, a dawn fast over the mountains split....

"I open my eyes. The god lifts from the water. His head fills the bay. He is Puget Sound, the Pacific; his breast rises from pastures; his fingers are firs; islands slide wet down his shoulders. Islands slip blue from his shoulders and glide over the water, the empty, lighted water like a stage.

Neptune's Horses by Walter Crane

Prospero and Miranda by Edmund Dulac

"Today's god rises, his long eyes flecked in clouds. He flings his arms, spreading colors; he arches, cupping sky in his belly; he vaults, vaulting and spread, holding all and spread on me like skin.

Dreamland and Sea Fairies by Florence Susan Harrison

The Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

"I came here to study hard things -- rock mountains and sea salt -- and to temper my spirit on their edges...[And what I face is] sea, and unimaginable solid islands, and sea, and a hundred rolling skies. You spill your breath. Nothing holds; the whole show rolls....Land is a poured thing and a time a surface film lapping and fringing at fastness, at a hundred hollow and receeding blues....

Illustrations for The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac

Tilly on the Devon coast

"Here is the fringy edge; where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam.

An illustration for The Tempest by Edmund Dulac

Tilly on the Devon coast

"The salt sea and the islands, molding and molding, row upon row, do not quit, nor do winds end nor skies cease from spreading in curves. The actual percentage of land mass to sea in the Sound equals that of the rest of the planet: we have less time than we knew. Time is eternity's pale interlinear, as islands are the sea's. We have less time than we knew and that time is bouyant, and cloven, luscent, and missile, and wild."

On the south Devon coast

Undine by Arthur Rackham

Words: The passage above is from Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard (Harper & Row, 1997). The poem in the picture captions is from The Last Selchie Child by Jane Yolen (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2012) -- run your cursor over the images to read it. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The illustrations above are: Mermaids by Arthur Rackham, Neptune's Horses by Walter Crane, Prospero and Miranda (from The Tempest) by Edmund Dulac, Dreamland and Sea Fairies by Florence Susan Harrison, The Little Mermaid (drawing) by Helen Stratton, The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac, another illustration from The Tempest by Edmund Dulac, and water spirits by Arthur Rackham. The photographs are not of Puget Sound, but of me and sea-loving Tilly on the north Devon coast a while back. (The one of me was snapped by Howard.)


Let's talk about magic

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My friend Briana Saussy has written a deeply enchanting book, Making Magic: Weaving Together the Everyday and the Extraordinary. It is, yes, about the art of making magic -- but if you're imagining something airy-fairy, this couldn't be more opposite. Bri (like me) believes that true magic is Illustration by Helen Strattonthreaded throughout our everyday lives and rooted in the ground below. It's a way of perceiving the world, not manipulating the world; of engaging with nature and the more-than-human realm, not of seeking power over it.

Making Magic is a guide to the earthy magic of hedgewitches and rootworkers; healers, mystics, and curanderas; medicine workers of differing traditions, all attuned to the natural world. Bri's writing, like her magical practice, is lucid, folkloric, and backed by years of scholarship; her suggestions for bringing the qualities of magic back into daily life are simple and down-to-earth.

This is a book that will easily be of interest to other readers of a pagan/animist bent -- but I also recommend Making Magic to writers of fantasy literature. Whether you're creating Imaginary World stories pulsing with enchantment, or Magical Realist tales with only the lightest of otherworldly shimmers, this guide to the lore, world view, and still-living practices of the natural magic tradition is a useful text. In my years as fantasy editor, I've read far too many manucripts in which magic is portrayed like a form of auto mechanics: entirely lacking in mystery or genuine connection to the living world. For a more numinous approach, we have only to look at the actual history of natural magic as it has evolved in cultures the world over...and is still quietly practiced in the West today, as this wise and lovely book makes clear.

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"Now is the time to remember ourselves," writes Bri, "not just a little bit or piece by piece, but wholly and completely. Magic of leaf and root, hearth and home, needle and thread, candle and prayer, feather and fang. Magic that weaves all that is extraordinary back into right relationship to our everyday lives, bridging the ways that we have grown divided -- against ourselves and each other. Magic that heals and restores....

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"Magic is a wild animal. It is hawk and eagle, raven and owl, coyote and fox, wolf and wildcat, badger and bear. It shifts into all the shapes and forms in between. Magic has been hunted and harried, tortured and trapped. It has witnessed its kin killed and its natural habits destroyed. And like all wild creatures that find ways against the odds to survive, magic has grown careful and cautious, wise and wily. It is seen only in its glimpses -- a flash of eye, a swish of tail, a blur of motion -- and then we are left with only trees and shadows and stars. It cannot be pursued in the usual ways. It's not something you can buy with money, earn through good behavior, or attain through the heat of drama and risk. The wilderness in which this particular animal resides is not found in some faraway and exotic place. It is here, and absurdly, wildly, free.

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"For magic, like the wild itself, is not found in a place we go to. Rather, it resides in the places where we always are. Magic moves through the wilderness of the soul and is found in the soul soil of everyday life and experience. It is found in the doing of the laundry, the making of beds and grocery lists, catching up with friends, having babies, taking lovers, going to school, making money, commuting to work, buying clothes, and cooking dinner. Every single one of these acts has been marked up and down and all around with the paw prints of magic. Each seemingly banal activity bears magic's scent trails and claw marks.

Robin in autumn

"It is hard to see this at first and almost impossible to believe. All mysteries, so we have been told, have been discovered, named, bagged, and tagged. There is nothing unknown, nothing of wonder to find here, nothing to see. This conventional wisdom has been the greatest teacher in the present age, and it has taught us incorrectly. A world without wild things is greatly diminished, this we know. The same is true for lives lived without the touch of magic. In all places we look, magic is a mark carrying depth and scope, an essential ingredient for a life well lived.

Tilly listening

"Magic is present in our earliest civilizations in the form of a dazzling array of rituals, ceremonies, and holy places both made and found. It has moved through all of our great religions, despite what the official teachings and proclamations might say. It has even traveled in surprising places like the roots of rational thought and philosophy fathered by Socrates, a man who heeded a wise oracle and listened to the voice emanating from his soul. When we begin to see all of the places that magic has walked and stalked, denned and fed, we see clearly that it has been with us, loping, running, flying by our side and throughout our daily lives since time beyond time. Where else would we expect to find it if not exactly here in our midst, hiding in plain sight?"

Making Magic by Briana Saussy

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The passage above is from Making Magic by Briana Saussy (Sounds True, 2019). The quotes in the picture captions are from a variety of sources. All rights reserved by the authors. The illustration above is by British book artist Helen Stratton (1867-1961).

Four related posts on magic: Tenderness, the Breaker of Curses; Working with words; In the Story Made of Dawn: on magic and magicians; and Reclaiming the fire and sorcery.


To the rebel soul in everyone

Horse of Armagh by Charles Fréger

Over the last few posts I've been quoting passages from Jay Griffith's Kith, her wide-ranging exploration of childhood -- but as much as I love that book (and all the rest of her work), the one I return to again and again is Wild: An Elemental Journey.

Wild  took Griffiths seven years to write, and lead her around the globe in a quest to understand concepts of wildness and wilderness. She explains:

"This book was the result of many years' yearning. A longing for something whose character I perceived only indistinctly at first but that gradually became clearer during my journeys. In looking for wilderness, I was not looking for miles of landscape to be nicely photographed and neatly framed, but for the quality of wildness, which -- like art, sex, love and all the other intoxicants -- has a rising swing ringing through it. A drinker of wildness, I was tipsy before I began and roaring drunk by the end.

"I was looking for the will of the wild. I was looking for how that will expressed itself in elemental vitality, in savage grace. Wildness is resolute for life: it cannot be otherwise, for it will die in captivity. It is elemental: pure freedom, pure passion, pure hunger. It is its own manifesto.

Onjishi by Charles Fréger

"I began this book with no knowing where it would lead, no idea of how hard some of it would be, the days of havoc and the nights of loneliness, because the only thing I had to hold on to was the knife-sharp necessity to trust to the elements of my elemental self.

"I wanted to live at the edge of the imperative, in the tender fury of the reckless moment, for in this brief and pointillist life, bright-dark and electric, I could do nothing else. By laying the line of my way along another, older path, I would lay my passions where they belonged, flush with wildness, letting their lines of long and lovely silk reel out in miles of fire and ice."

Nuuttipukki - Sastamala, Finland by Charles Fréger

She based her travel path, and the format of her book, on the four elements of ancient Greece: wild earth, wild air, wild fire, wild water --  and then added a fifth, wild ice.

"Part of the journey was a green riot and part a deathly bleakness. I got ill, I got well. I went to the freedom-fighters of West Papua and sang my head off in their highlands. I got to the point of collapse. I got the giggles. I met cannibals infinitely kinder and more trustworthy than the murderous missionaries who evangelize them. I went to places that are about the worst in the world to get your period. I wrote notes by the light of a firefly, anchored a boat to an iceberg where polar bears slept, ate witchetty grubs and visited sea gypsies. I found a paradox of wilderness in the glinting softeness of its charisma, for what is savage is in the deepest sense gentle and what is wild is kind. In the end -- a strangely sweet result -- I came back to a wild home."

Sagi by Charles Fréger

Griffiths didn't limit her travels to pristine landscapes or those devoid of human culture, indigenous or otherwise, writing:

"To me, humanity is not a stain on wilderness as some seem to think. Rather the human spirit is one of the most striking realizations of wildness. It is as eccentrically beautiful as an ice crystal, as liquidly life-generous as water, as inspired as air. Kerneled up within us all, an intimate wildness, sweet as a nut. To the rebel soul in everyone, then, the right to wear feathers, drink stars and ask for the moon. For us all, the growl of the primal salute. For us all, for Scaramouche and Feste, for the scamp, tramp and artist, for the furious adolescent, the traveling player and the pissed-off Gypsy, for the bleeding woman, and for the man in a suit, his eyes kind and tired, gazing with sad envy at the hippie chick with the rucksack. For all of us, every dawn, the lucky skies and the pipes.

"Anyone can hear them if they listen: our ears are sharp enough to it. Our strings are tuned to the same pitch as the earth, our rhythms are as graceful and ineluctable as the four quartets of the moon. We are -- every one of us -- a force of nature, though sometimes it is necessary to relearn consciously what we have never forgotten; the truant art, the nomad heart. Choose your instrument, asking only: can you play it while walking?"

Yokainoshima by Charles Fréger

My own instruments are pen and paintbrush, but there are so many others to choose from -- instruments of family-making, community-building, earth-preserving, children-teaching, elder-caring, animal-loving, and more. All can be tuned to the deep pitch of the earth, all can hold our wild hearts, all can played while walking, working, living.

What are yours?

Onjishi by Charles Fréger

The imagery today is by French photographer Charles Fréger, from his excellent, eerie, earthy books Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage and Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters. Both volumes document the still-living tradition of representing (and embodying) local folk spirits, monsters, guardians, and ghosts during festivals, feast days, and ceremonies: across Europe in the first book, and the Japanese countryside in the second.

To learn more about Fréger and his work, please vist his website.

Mamuthones, Mamoiada by Charles Fréger

Two visions of the wild

Words: The passages above are from Wild by Jay Griffiths (Hamish Hamilton, 2007), published in the U.S. as Savage Grace. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The photographs above are from Wilder Mann (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012) and Yokainoshima (Thmas & Hudson, 2017) by Charles Fréger. All rights reserved by the artist.

Some of the previous posts on Jay Griffith's work: Wilderness, Finding the way to the green, Storytelling and wild time.


Kissing the lion's nose

Painting by Lucy Campbell

Here are more reflections on children and the wild from Jay Griffiths' brilliant book Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape:

"That children love animals is a manifest truth, and they also seek love from them. So crucial are animals to children's happiness that in a significant UNICEF study of childhood well-being children specified that pets were one of the top four most important things for their happiness. 'I want a kitten...a puppy...a horse,' children clamor for years, and this is perhaps only the most audible part of their love. Children talk wordlessly to their pets, taking a dog in their arms or, upset, burying their faces in a cat's fur and crying. They whisper secrets to their pets and feel understood by them. Children want to talk with the animals, eat with them, curl up with them and think with them, for children intuitively understand that animals are guides for the mind in metaphor-making."

Paintings by Lucy Campbell

Upon the Glowing Gloom by Lucy Campbell

"Children's authors, peopling their books with animals, know that children are fascinated by tales of crossing the species-fences, and the stories work carnally, suggesting a nuzzling sensuality, fostering a child's animal nature and answering a longing deep within children to be suckled by earthmilk, pressing their faces into the warm flank of horse, lion or wolf, breathing in the spicy messageful air of animals, falling asleep in their paws.

"Aslan. To run your fingers through his golden mane, to see 'the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes,' to feel that humming, purring warmth and its ferocious power; 'whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten,' the children cannot say. The writer Francis Spufford recalls a tender trespass of his childhood when he was suddenly seized with the desire for Aslan and reached his face up to a poster of the lion on his bedroom wall. Stealthily, heartfeltedly, he kissed the lion's nose. From early childhood, I remember that feeling, wanting to nudge myself into the musk and silage, the mushroom, rust and grass of an animal's den, wanting to know with my whole body the felt world of fur and pawpads and to feel the animal world in its fullness, its yawls, hackles and green-scent, to be batted by the paws of the furred earth, my senses drunk with it, living in the whiskey of animality. And to kiss the lion's nose.

Paintings by Lucy Campbell

Belonging by Lucy Campell

"There's a fox in the garden. Those words would thrill us to the core. My brothers and I would crowd to the window in pressed silence, breathless, excited and honored that something so wild might bestow on us for a flickering moment its feral presence. Birds and animals come into our lives as 'guests,' say Mohawk tales, and people must treat them well....Animal-helpers snuffle in the hedges of fairy tales and they feather the tree-tops with bird-advice. In the nick of time, the winged lion or armored bear swerve into stories. If the fairy tale hero treats an animal kindly, it offers its skills, pecking out grain or tracking a scent beyond human guesswork.

"Creatures are friends to the psyche of a child. When Henry Old Coyote, from the Crow nation, was a boy, his grandfather would wake him early to listen to the birds and encouraged the child to know the exuberant joy of this bird medicine and to keep it inside him all day. I'm told that in Tamil Nadu, India, a child suffering nightmares may be cured by walking under an elephant's belly, being blessed by Ganesh. The nightmares, knowing better than to contend with an elephant, beat a retreat."

Bear With Boy by Lucy Cambell

" 'In the old days the animals and the people were very much the same...They thought the same way and felt the same way. They understood each other,' says Simon Tookoome, an Inuit elder, recalling a belief common to many indigenous cultures. As a child, he adopted animals, including a caribou which followed him everywhere like a dog, and, at different times, five wolves."

Painting by Lucy Campbell

"One strange peculiarity of modern childhood in the West is its estrangement from the animal world and the consequent silence of that world, its unmessaged, listless, speechless vacancy. Poet Gary Snyder speaks of the necessity to 'Bring up our children as part of the wildlife,' but the dominant culture treats wildlife as insignificant to children's happiness, which, as children themselves know, is a terrible oversight. Children's classics such as Anna Sewell's Black Beauty and Michael Morpurgo's mesmerizing War Horse touch the hearts of millions of children as they willingly listen to the experience of creatures other than human."

Sealskin, Soulskin by Lucy Campbell

"Shape-shifting is an epistemology, a way for people to increase their sensitivities, to perceive the world with an imaginative leap, to feel through the body of another, metaphorically. Pueblo Indian children, from three years old, transform themselves into antelope and deer, they don fox skins, deer hooves or parrot feathers. In rituals and dances, through lyrics, choreography and costume, the child embodies earth-knowledge -- of corn and cloud, of sun and lightning, of buffalo and skunk -- and steps through the looking glass. Animal nature is another side of human nature, a mirror, by twilight, by twolight, where the twinnedness of those myths is reflected....Through a relationship with animals, we human add to the repertoire of our senses the beady alertness of a bird, the scent-subtlety of a mole, the smooth-swum escape of the fish. This is the apprenticeship which children gleefully follow, given half a chance."

Painting by Lucy Campbell

I certainly would have followed it as a child, being one of those kids with no interest in dolls but who carried stuffed animals everywhere. I've been making up for lost time ever since, inviting animals into my writing, art, and life. Embracing "the whiskey of animality," to use Jay Griffith's wonderful phrase, and kissing the lion's nose. Or at least my dog's, which is just as good.

Painting by Lucy Campbell

The art today is by Scottish painter Lucy Campbell, whose figurative and magical realist work is inspired by nature, dreams, mythology, Jungian psychology, and "the human need for wildness, magic and mystery, and above all, trust and healing." Her art is exhibited from Aberdeen to Los Angeles, and collected around the world. 

"I paint to connect," she says; "I see the purpose of creating as providing a conduit for people to feel connected with their wild self, their child self; their furred, feathered, winged, untamed self.  The subjects I paint are either engaged in a deep, soulful hug, or in magical flight -- the flight of the unfettered imagination; always in connection with a spirit creature, to represent a connection with the wild within.  I see this as important because I see in the world so much disconnect with nature, with wildness, with our deepest instincts.  I understand it as a longing and hope for peace, reassurance, healing.  More often than not I paint children with their animals; in trusting, protective and protected embraces with their wild selves.  I see trust and love and wildness as crucial things that need to be expressed and shared."

Please visit Campbell's website to see more of her work.

Cards by Lucy Campell

Painting by Lucy Campbell

Words: The passages above are from Kith:The Riddle of the Childscape by Jay Griffiths (Hamish Hamilton Publishers, 2013). The quotes in the picture captions are from a variety of sources, including Wild by Jay Giffiths, Becoming Animal by David Abram, and Dwellings by Linda Hogan. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: All of the paintings above are by Lucy Campell. All rights reserved by the artist.


The Secret of the Selkies

Selkie by Natalie Reid

On Friday night the selkies will be climbing on land at the Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield....

If you are anywhere nearby, please join Fay Hield, Lucy Farrell, Duotone (Barney Morse-Brown), and me for an evening of music and spoken word about the seal people and the lore of the sea.

This event, sponsored by the University of Sheffield's Being Human Festival, continues one of the threads of work developed by Fay, Lucy, Inge Thomson and me for the Modern Fairies project. (Sadly, Inge can't be with us on Friday -- but Barney, who was also on the project, will bring his own considerable magic to the evening.) I'm so looking forward to seeing my MF colleagues again, and weaving spells of sea salt, music, and language.

All are welcome, and the tickets are free. For bookings and more information, go here.

The lovely selkie art by above is by Natalie Reid, created for the Modern Fairies project.