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November 2019

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

Devon autumn 1

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.

Devon autumn 2

Devon autumn 3

"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....

Devon autumn 4

"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.

Devon autumn 5

"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

Autumn magic border=

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.