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April 2020

Living at a walker's pace

Walking 10

It's our fifth week of lock-down in the UK, and the circumference of our daily lives has shrunk to places we can reach on foot, "walking for exercise" being one of the few acceptable reasons to leave the house. I live in the country and work from home, so this isn't an enormous change for me -- but for many, accustomed to fast-paced lives mediated by cars or public transit, re-discovering the physical, mental, and creative benefits of experiencing the world solely on foot has been one of the rare gifts of this hard and worrisome time.

Illustration by E.M. TaylorIn her beautiful book WanderlustRebecca Solnit looks at the history of walking through the lens of philosophy, sociology, environmental science, politics, literature and other arts. Reflecting on her own practice of walking in the hills near San Francisco, she writes:

"These linked paths and roads form a circuit of about six miles that I began hiking ten years ago to ward off my angst during a difficult year. I kept coming back to this route for respite from my work and for my work too, because thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It is best done as disguising it as something, and the something closest to nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals."

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"The rhythm of walking," she notes, "generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or simulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as thought thinking were traveling rather than making. And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete -- for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.

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"Walking can also be imagined as a visual activity, every walk a tour leisurely enough both to see and think over the sights, to assimilate the new into the known. Perhaps this is where walking's peculiar utility for thinkers comes from. The surprises, liberations, and clarifications of travel can sometimes be garnered by going around the block as well as going around the world, and walking travels both near and far.

"Or perhaps walking should be called movement, not travel, for one can walk in circles or travel around the world immobilized in a seat, and a certain kind of wanderlust can only be assuaged by the acts of the body itself in motion, not the motion of the car, boat, or plane. It is the movement as well as the sights going by that seems to make things happen in the mind, and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile: it is both means and end, travel and destination."

Walking b

Walking 18

Walking 16

For all her love of the natural world, Solnit, a long-time city dweller, recognizes that a city traversed on foot can be just as creatively inspiring as a woodland path or wilderness trail, at least for those open to its rhythms; for those who are paying attention.

"There is a subtle state most urban walkers know," she writes, "a sort of basking in solitude -- a dark solitude punctuated with encounters as the night sky is punctuated with stars -- one is altogether outside society, so solitude has a sensible geographical explanation, and there is a kind of communion with the nonhuman. In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers, and to be a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one's secrets and imagining those of the people one passes, is among the starkest of luxuries. This uncharted identity with its illimitable possibilities is one of the distinctive qualities of urban living, a liberatory state for those who come to emancipate themselves from family and community expectation, to experiment with subculture and identity. It is an observer's state, cool, withdrawn, with senses sharpened, a good state for anybody who needs to reflect or create. In small doses, melancholy, alienation, and introspection are among life's most refined pleasures.

"Speaking as a Londoner, Virginia Woolf described anonymity as a fine and desirable thing, in her 1930 essay 'Street Haunting.' Daughter of the great alpinist Leslie Stephen, she had once declared to a friend, 'How could I think mountains and climbing romantic? Wasn't I brought up with alpenstocks in my nursery and a raised map of the Alps, showing every peak my father had climbed? Of course, London and the marshes are the places I like best.' Woolf wrote of the confining oppression of one's own identity, of the way the objects in one's home 'enforce the memories of our experience.' And so she set out to buy a pencil in a city where safety and propriety were no longer considerations for a no-longer-young woman on a winter evening, and in recounting -- or inventing -- her journey, wrote one of the great essays on urban walking."

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Whatever landscape we inhabit (urban, suburban, rural, or other), walking and re-walking the land or neighborhood each day confirms our place in it, deepening our connection to the more-than-human world and expanding our concept of home.

"Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors," Solnit observes, "disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it."

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Walking

When I look at the way that Tilly takes in the world, "inside" and "outside" are alike to her, with only the annoyance of human doors between them. Nattadon Hill is home to Tilly . . . and I mean all of the hill, from top to bottom: its Commons, its woods, its tumbling streams, the brown bracken slopes, the green farmers' fields, and our warm little house on the woodland's edge. It's all home to her, both the land that is "ours" and the larger landscape that is not.

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Walking 8

And perhaps I'm not so different from Tilly. I have walked this hill day after day, season after season, year after year, and it has become my home ground too. The concept of "home" is complex for me (being the woman that I am, with the history that I have), but the weather that sweeps across the hill has pared that concept down to essentials:

Home is a house that I share with my loved ones. It's a landscape walked with a good black dog. It's a hill that knows my particular footsteps, and a wood where the trees all know my name. It's as simple and as solid as the earth below . . . but also fragile, ephemeral, therefore all the more precious. Like life itself.

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Daybreak 7

The passages quoted above are from Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit (Penguin, 2001); all rights reserved by the author. The drawing is by New Zealand illustrator E.M. Taylor (1906-1964).


Happy World Book Day!

World Book Day 2020

Tilly would like to share a few of her favourites:

1. Dog by Susan McHugh, from the wonderful Animal Series published by Reaktion Books. (We're slowly, slowly collecting them all.)

2. God's Dog by Hope Ryden. (We won't tell Tilly that the title refers to North American coyotes, not to Springadors like her.)

3. The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change," an absolutely brilliant story by Kij Johnson. The book is The Coyote Road, an anthology of new fiction inspired by traditional Trickster stories, edited by me and Ellen Datlow.

4. Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones, a delightful book which was meant to be here too (if only I could find my copy).

What other dog-related books should be on Tilly's reading list?

World Book Day 2020

"Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself."

- Rebecca Mead (My Life in Middlemarch)

Tilly and Kij Johnson

And here's one that Tilly doesn't recommend. (But I do. Shhh! Don't tell her.)

Tilly and Charles de Lint


Giving voice to the voiceless

Stone wall, bluebells, & hound

Bluebells

For those of us who care about what's going on in the world politically, medically, and ecologically, it can be a struggle to understand how this relates to making art, particularly if we work in mythic, nonrealist forms far removed from the global pandemic and other worrisome headlines of the day.

In her lovely little book Writing the Sacred Into the Real, American poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming discusses the tension between art and activism in her work; and although she's speaking in terms of poetry here, her insights can be applied to the writing of fantasy as well...at least to the kind of poetic, deeply mythic fantasy that rarely appears on the bestsellers list, by writers like Alan Garner, Robert Holdstock, Patricia McKillip, Elizabeth Knox, and so many others (including some of you reading this now).

Writing poetry, says Deming, "is an act of dissent in at least three ways: economically, because the poet labors to make a thing that will never be worth money; temporally, because the poem is an argument with the erosive passage of time; and politically, because in an age that values aggregate data, poetry -- all true art -- insists on the passionate importance of the individual.

"The turning inwards to explore the world through the lens of subject does not necessarily mean a turning away from the world. Denise Levertov turned Wordsworth's lament inside out by writing 'the world is / not with us enough.' Her poetics insisted upon both the lyric impulse -- the song of the soul singing in the present moment -- and the political impulse -- the cry for social justice and peace."

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Though Levertov's poetic spirit infuses Deming's, trying to honor these two opposing impulses, she says, "can cause a chronic psychic whiplash. Just when attention is focused on the inner excitement of consciousness, the world calls you a solipsist and demands your attention. Try to tell the world what you think of it, and consciousness will insist that it -- consciousness itself -- is the only thing you can know in its passing, so you had better take heed, right now. But Levertov found balance in the meditative mode, which asks for both introspection and realism -- or as Muriel Rukeyser suggested, the meeting of consciousness and the world -- and she wove a tenuous unity out of contradictions. I take that lesson to heart.

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Stone wall 4

"For me," she explains, "the natural world in all its evolutionary splendor is a revelation of the divine -- the inviolable matrix of cause and effect that reveals itself to us in what we cannot control or manipulate no matter how pervasive our meddling. This is the reason that our technological mastery of nature will always remain flawed. The matrix is more complex than our intelligence. We may control a part, but the whole body of nature must incorporate the change, and we are not capable of anticipating how it will do so.

"We will always be humble before nature, even as we destroy it. And to diminish nature beyond its capacity to restore itself, as our culture seems perversely bent to do, is to desecrate the sacred force of Earth to which we owe a gentler hand. That the diminishment has been caused by abuses of human power makes this issue political. Why should one species have the right to deprive so many others of their biological heritage and future? To write about nature, to record the magnificence, cruelty, and mysteriousness of it, is then an act both spiritual and political.

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Bluebells and stitchwort

"Italo Calvino describes how literature's interior explorations can be put to political use: 

'Literature is necessary to politics above all when it gives voice to whatever is without a voice, when it gives a name to what as yet has no name, especially to what the politics of language excludes or attempts to exclude. I mean aspects, situations, and languages both of the outer and of the inner world, the tendencies repressed both in individuals and in society. Literature is like an ear that can hear things beyond the understanding of the language of politics; it is like an eye that can see beyond the color spectrum perceived by politics. Simply because of the solitary individualism of his work, the writer may happen to explore areas that no one has explored before, within himself or outside, and to make discoveries that sooner or later turn out to be vital areas of collective awareness.'

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Pink cranesbill

"My early interests as a poet," Deming continues, "were to understand the modernist and postmodernist traditions, and to locate myself within their trajectory. And these conditions set aesthetic concerns in opposition to social ones -- the artist as rebel, dissident, and iconoclast. But the wellspring for that inconoclastic energy was for me the belief that art can be a voice of moral and spiritual empathy, an antidote to the cold-hearted self-interest that drives so much of American culture. I have a hunger / for harmony that I feel with dissent.

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"Realizing the importance of nature as a subject was a slow process of conversion for me. Way stations along the route: hearing Richard Nelson speak about writing his beautiful meditative book The Island Within after decades of working as a cultural anthropologist and his explaining that he had decided to write about what he loved; hearing Stanley Kunitz say to Fellows at the Work Center that originality in art could come only from what was unique in one's character and experience, not from manipulating the surface of one's technique; remembering that all my life I have hungered for wild places and all of my life wild places have fed me and that this is central to who I am and would have to inform my aesthetic decisions; sitting up in bed as a child, darkness surrounding me, and staring at the mystery of how I came to exist in the world in this body, and how it is an impossible fact that I will one day stop being here; assessing what I most love about being here and what I would like to understand and contribute before leaving."

Signpost and stile

Tilly at the gate

"I write to make peace with the things I cannot control, " says fellow writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams. "I write to create red in a world that often appears black and white. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts. I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change. I write to honor beauty. I write to correspond with my friends. I write as a daily act of improvisation. I write because it creates my composure. I write against power and for democracy. I write myself out of my nightmares and into my dreams. I write in a solitude born out of community. I write to the questions that shatter my sleep. I write to the answers that keep me complacent. I write to remember. I write to forget....I write as ritual. I write because I am not employable. I write out of my inconsistencies. I write because then I do not have to speak. I write with the colors of memory. I write as a witness to what I have seen. I write as a witness to what I imagine....
I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words, to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient we are. I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love."

Illustration by Honore Appleton

Can we write fantasy and mythic fiction in this manner as well? Fantasy as ritual, fantasy as witness, fantasy that gives "voice to the voiceless" -- including the whispering more-than-human voices of the land we live on? I believe we can. Or at least I intend to try, and to see where it might take me....

Terry Tempest Williams & Alison Hawthorne Deming

Tilly on the rocks

Words: The passage by Alison Hawthorne Deming above is from Writing the Sacred Into the Real (The Credo Series, Milkweed Editions, 2010); the passage by Terry Tempest Williams is from Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert (Pantheon, 2001); and the poem by Denise Levetov in the picture captions is from O Taste and See (New Directions, 1964); all rights reserved by the authors. I highly recommend all three of these books.

Pictures: Spring wildflowers on our hill. The drawing is by English illustrator Honore Appleton (1879-1951).


Light and shadow

The Oak elder in spring

Springtime in Devon is beautiful: the greening of the hills, the budding of the oaks, the bluebells emerging in the woods, the wild ponies giving birth to their leggy foals. Yesterday a neighbour stopped by our gate to ask, "How are you coping with it all?" 

"Locked-down in paradise?" I answered. "How could I possibly complain?" 

But of course it's not really paradise, and we're not immune from the world's travails. The UK's death rate rises and rises, with no clear government strategy in sight. Friends working for the NHS and other essential services are looking increasingly haggard and discouraged. Much of Howard's theatre work has been cancelled. The bills keep coming while income keeps disappearing. Community life in the village has halted. Family life has closed down too: we see our daughter and other loved ones only on phone and computer screens, with no idea when we'll next be together. My youngest brother's ashes are sitting in a box; no one can gather for a memorial now. We're surrounded by beauty, and it sustains me, but the shadow side of life is equally vivid, equally present. 

Bluebells and brambles

Dartmoor pony and foal, Chagford

Most days I focus on all that's good: the gentle rhythms of the countryside, the daily miracle of spring unfolding, the quiet hours in my studio coaxing a Eleanor Vere Boylenovel into shape, and the small domestic pleasures that I share with Howard and Tilly. But there are days when the shadows press too close, and refuse to be ignored or reasoned with. All I can do then is breathe deeply, accept their presence, and carry on.

What I didn't say to my neighbour is that I am coping, even on the hard days, because this is all strangely familiar -- and I suspect that those of you who have also experienced personal (rather than global) medical crisis know what I mean. This is not the first springtime in our lives when beauty and fear have co-existed; when simply being alive each day is a wonder to be grateful for; and when love for family, friends, and community assumes its rightful place at the center of our existence, holding the shadows at bay.

Tilly and the Oak elder

How do we balance light and shadow when crisis puts us on the narrow path between them? How do we avoid despair's passivity, or optimism's blindness to the challenges ahead? The ecological writer Joanna Macy suggests that despair and hope are not oppositional, but two sides of the same coin:

"By honoring our despair, and not trying to suppress it or pave over it as some personal pathology, we open a gateway into our full vitality and to our connection with all of life. Beneath what I call our 'pain for the world,' which includes sorrow and outrage and dread, is the instinct for the preservation of life. When we are unafraid of the suffering of our world, and brave enough to sustain the gaze and speak out, there is a redemptive sanity at work.

"The other side of that pain for our world is a love for our world. That love is bigger than you would ever guess from what our consumer society conditions us to want. It's a love so raw, so ancient, so deep that if you get in touch with it, you can just ride it; you can just be there and it doesn't matter. Then nothing can stop you. But to get to that, you have to stop being afraid of hurting. The price of reaching that is tears and outrage, because the tears and the power to keep on going, they come from the same source."

Misty hillside 1

Misty hillside 2

The transformation of despair into hope is alchemical work, creative work. And what all transformations have in common, writes Rebecca Solnit, is that they begin in the imagination:

"To hope is to gamble. It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope."

Misty hillside 3

Misty hillside 4

As I rise and follow Tilly back home, she dances ahead of me on the trail, a four-footed embodiment of exuberance, joy, and living fully in the present. I have known despair, we have all known despair, but on this misty morning I am choosing hope. I am choosing movement, action, transformation. Art is the "ax" I choose to carry: sharp and not too heavy, fit to the limited strength I have. Stories are the light I choose to guide me. They won't banish the shadows completely; nothing and no one can do that. But they keep the light and dark in balance, and help me find meaning in it all .

The pathway home

"It is Story that heals us, that shapeshifts us, that saves us," writes author and artist Sylvia Linsteadt.

Tilly waits on the path ahead.  I take a deep breath. And carry on.

Gorse blossoms

Are you coming?

Words: The Joanna Macy quote above is from "Women Reimagining the World" (in Moonrise, edited by Nina Simons, 2010). The Rebecca Solnit quote is from her book Hope in the Dark (2004). The quotes in the picture captions are from a variety of sources. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Our hill on a misty day, and a drawing by Scottish illustrator Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916).


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Oak Elder in early morning light

I woke today with the strong desire to hear the simple beauty of women's voices. As the UK begins its second month of Coronavirus lock-down, I send these songs our from our little "house on a hill" in Devon to yours....

Above: " House on a Hill" by English singer/songwriter Olivia Chaney. Born in Italy and raised in Oxford, this song was written and filmed in her family cottage in the North York Moors. It appears on her most recent album, Shelter (2018), which I love.

Below: "Waxwing," written by Alasdair Roberts and sung by Olivia Chaney, from The Longest River (2015).

Above: "Burlap String" by American singer/songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews, from Phoenix, Arizona. This song was filmed in Bisbee, an old mining town close to the Arizona/Mexico border. It's from her lovely new album Burlap String (2020).

Below: "Downtown Train" written by Tom Waits and sung by Courtney Marie Adams. It's from Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits (2019), which is a terrific album.

Above: "My Silver Net" by Scottish singer/songwriter Amy Duncan, based in Edinburgh. The song is from her album Undercurrents (2016), a favourite from that year.

Below: "Labyrinth" by Amy Duncan, from her fine new album of the same name (2019). The animated video is by Tracy Foster.

Hound in the mist