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November 2020

Walking. Dreaming. Breathing.

Tilly in the autumn woods

"What hope is there for individual reality or authenticity," asks novelist and essayist Ben Okri, "when the forces of violence and orthodoxy, the earthly powers of guns and bombs and manipulated public opinion make it impossible for us to be authentic and fulfilled human beings?

Light on the hill

"The only hope is in the creation of alternative values, alternative realities. The only hope is daring to redream one's place in the world -- a beautiful act of imagination, and a sustained act of self-becoming. Which is to say that in some way or another we breach and confound the accepted frontiers of things."

Autumn in the woods

"In a world like ours," he adds, "where death is increasingly drained of meaning, individual authenticity lies in what we can find that is worth living for. And the only thing worth living for is love.

"Love for one another. Love for ourselves. Love of our work. Love of our destiny, whatever it may be. Love for our difficulties. Love of life. The love that could free us from the mysterious cycles of suffering. The love that releases us from our self-imprisonment, from our bitterness, our greed, our madness-engendering competitiveness. The love that can make us breathe again."

Autumnal hound

The passage by Ben Okri above (and the quotes tucked into the picture captions) are from A Way of Being Free (Phoenix House, 1997); all rights reserved by the author.


Nurturing hope

Tilly and her friend Old Oak

The week that has passed since the American election has been exhilarating and alarming in equal measure. The world hasn't suddenly been put to rights by the Biden/Harris win (no single act can do that), and the months between now and Inauguration Day are certainly going to be anxious ones -- but despite the challenges ahead, I feel more hopeful than I have in a long while.

Hope, as Rebecca Solnit pointed out (in Hope in the Dark) is not a passive thing:

"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."

Mushrooms in the field 1

Mushrooms in the field 2

Later in the book, she reflects on the important differences between true and false hope:

"In The Principle of Hope, [Ernst] Bloch declares, 'Fraudulent hope is one of the greatest malefactors, even enervators, of the human race, concretely genuine hope is its most dedicated benefactor' and speaks of 'informed discontent which belongs to hope, because both arise out of the No of deprivation.' The hope that the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes will come to you, that the American dream will come true, that electoral politics will reform itself, is hope that paralyzes people's ability to rebel, to reject, to critique, to demand, and to make change. False hope can be a Yes to deprivation, an acquiescence to a lie. Official hope can be the bullying that tells the marginalized to shut up because everything is fine or will be. In its dilute forms, false hope is not far from despair, for both can be paralyzing. But despair can also be liberating.

"Blind hope faces a blank wall waiting for a door in it to open. Doors might be nearby, but blind hope keeps you from locating them; in this geography, despair can be fruitful, can turn you away from the wall, saying No to deprivation. And this despair in one institution or one site can lead to the location of alternatives, to the quest for doors, or to their creation. The great liberation movements hacked doorways into walls, or the walls came tumbling down. In this way, hope and despair are linked."

Mushrooms in the field 3

But how do we maintain hope when the challenges ahead are so numerous, so seemingly intractable, so overwhelming? Solnit reminds us of this:

"After a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork -- or underground work -- often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists, and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.

"Ideas at first considered outrageous or ridiculous or extreme gradually become what people think they’ve always believed. How the transformation happened is rarely remembered, in part because it’s compromising: it recalls the mainstream when the mainstream was, say, rabidly homophobic or racist in a way it no longer is; and it recalls that power comes from the shadows and the margins, that our hope is in the dark around the edges, not the limelight of center stage. Our hope, and often our power."

Indeed they are.

Hound and Oak

Words: The passage above is from Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket, 2004). The poem in the picture captions is from Indigo by Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly with her friend Old Oak. Her leg is still healing but she's feeling better, and the rustle of oak leaves is good medicine.


Tunes for a Monday Evening

Loch Einich in the Caingorms

I've made no secret here of how much I love the music of Salt House, a Scottish folk trio whose last two album (Undersong and Huam) are often heard leaking through my studio door. Now two members of the band have released solo albums: The Living Mountain by Jenny Sturgeon and Landskein by Lauren MacColl. Both contain music rooted in the natural world, and both are exquisite.

Above: "Air & Light" by Jenny Sturgeon, from The Living Mountain. The album contains a cycle of songs inspired by Nan Shepherd's book of the same name: a pioneering work of nature writing set in the Cairngorms of north-east Scotland. Sturgeon explores "her own connection to this Highland area, as well as delving into Nan's philosophy of being in the mountains, and people's connection to the wild. The twelve songs take inspiration from the chapter titles of Nan's book; the lyrics tell of exploration, love, loss, and wonder at the natural world, from small scale mosses and moths to the wider landscape and ecosystem."

Below: "Water," another beautiful song from the same album.

Next, two songs by fiddle and viola player Lauren MacColl, from her haunting new album Landskein -- named for a word that Robert Macfarlane found in use in the Outer Hebrides, meaning: "The weaving and braiding of horizon lines often seen most clearly on hazy days in hill country."

Above: "Air Mullach Beinn Fhuathais (On Top of Ben Wyvis)."  The song is from The Airs and melodies peculiar to the Highlands of Scotland and the Isles, collected by Captain Simon Fraser in 1816. The film and artwork above is by Mairearad Green.

Below: "Pentland Hills," inspired by the Pentland range south-west of Edinburgh.

The third member of Salt House is my friend Ewan MacPherson, who has released two solo albums to date -- as well as albums with Shooglenifty, Fribo, RoughCoastAudio and other bands, and work for the Modern Fairies project.

Above: "All the Kings (Scotland's Winter)," an adaptation of a poem by Orcadian poet Edwin Muir. "Scotland's Winter could be perceived on different levels," Ewan says. "The one which stands out for me is a nostalgic lament for better days past in relation to his homeland." The song first appeared on his album Norther in 2008, but this lovely new version was recorded in August.

Below, all three musicians together performing "Union of Crows." It's from the most recent Salt House album, Huam, released earlier this year.

Rookery by Eleanor Huges

The etching above is "The Rookery" by Eleanor Hughes (1882-1959). Born in New Zealand, she trained in England and is associated with the Newlyn group of artists in Cornwall.


Thoughts on the morning after

Woodland hound

Stay centred. Stay calm. It's going to be a long week. As the US thrashes out the election, and the UK prepares for another long lockdown, the wild world is still around us...and art...and beauty...and mystery. Kindness matters more than ever.

"To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us," says Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan. "Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen."

Stay safe. Stay strong.

Woodland hound 2


Election Day

The hound and me

"What I want is so simple I almost can't say it: elementary kindness." - Barbara Kingsolver (Animal Dreams)

No matter what happens in the US election, it's going to be stressful in the days ahead. Please be kind to each other. Tilly and I send our love to American friends, family members, and colleagues in the Mythic Arts community.

Vote - smaller

The ohotograph of me and Tilly was taken by Ellen Kushner. The little election day sketch, "Bunnies for Biden," is by me.