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January 2021

Following the bear

The White Bear King by Theodor Kittelsen

As the old year ends, and a new one begins, and the grey winter months roll on and on, I find myself think of bears -- and of something Terry Tempest Williams once said about bears as symbols of life held in balance.

For Williams, the bear embodies "opposing views, that we can be both fierce and compassionate at once. The bear is above ground in spring and summer and below ground, hibernating, in fall and winter -- and she emerges with young by her side. I think that's a wonderful model for us, particularly as women. And it's one I've tried to adopt." 

Ice Bear by Jackie Morris

She goes on to explain that she divides her years into halves. From April Fool's Day to The Day of the Dead (November 1st), she lives a public life as a writer and activist, doing any traveling or public speaking or teaching during these months. From The Day of the Dead until April Fool's Day, however, she stays at home -- to spend time with her family; to write; to live within the rhythms of her creativity. The bear, she suggests, "offers us a model of how one lives with that paradox, of public and private life, of a creative life as well as a life of obligation."

The Ice Palace by Angela Barrett

Williams also addresses this theme in her essay "Undressing the Bear," pointing out that the she-bear has two sides her nature: both fierce and maternal, wild and nurturing. In mythic terms, this oppositional duality held in instinctive balance is the point.

Art by Lucy Campbell and Virginia Lee

"If we choose to follow the bear," she writes, "we will be saved from a distracted and domesticated life. The bear becomes our mentor. We must journey out, so that we might journey in. The bear mother enters the earth before snowfall and dreams herself through winter, emerging with young by her side. She not only survives the barren months, she gives birth. She is the caretaker of the unseen world. As a writer and a woman with obligations to both family and community, I have tried to adopt this ritual of balancing public and private life. We are at home in the deserts and mountains, as well as in our dens. Above ground in the abundance of spring and summer, I am available. Below ground in the deepening of autumn and winter, I am not. I need hibernation in order to create."

Dream Basket by Susan Seddon Boulet

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist and storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés notes the age-old connection of women and bears in the mythic traditions of many different lands. "To the ancients," she writes, "bears symbolized resurrection. The creature goes to for a long time, its heartbeat decreases to almost nothing. The male often impregnates the female right before hibernation, but miraculously, egg and sperm do not unite right away. They float separately in her uterine broth until much later. Near the end of hibernation, the egg and sperm unite and cell division begins, so that the cubs will be born in the spring when the mother is awakening, just in time to care for and teach her new offspring. Not only by reason of awakening from hibernation as though from death, but much more so because the she-bear awakens with new young, this creature is a profound metaphor for our lives, for return and increase coming from something that seemed deadened.

Brown bear and cubs

Bear cubs copyright Terri Windling

"The bear is associated with many huntress Goddesses: Artemis and Diana in Greece and Rome, and Muerte and Hecoteptl, mud women deities in the Latina cultures. These Goddesses bestowed upon women the power of tracking, knowing, 'digging out' the psychic aspects of all things. To the Japanese the bear is the symbol of loyalty, wisdom, and strength. In northern Japan where the Ainu tribe lives, the bear is one who can talk to God directly and bring messages back for humans. The cresent moon bear is considered a sacred being, one who was given the white mark on his throat by the Buddhist Goddess Kwan-Yin, whose emblem is the crescent moon. Kwan-Yin is the Goddess of Deep Compassion and the bear is her emissary.

The Snow Maiden by Edmund Dulac

"In the psyche, the bear can be understood as the ability to regulate one's life, especially one's feeling life. Bearish power is the ability to move in cycles, be fully alert, or quiet down into a hibernative sleep that renews one's energy for the next cycle. The bear image teaches that it is possible to maintain a kind of pressure gauge for one's emotional life, and most especially that one can be fierce and generous at the same time. One can be reticent and valuable. One can protect one's territory, make one's boundaries clear, shake the sky if need be, yet be available, accessible, engendering all the same."

Bear Friend by Alexandra Dvornikova

Father Bear Comes Home by Maurice Sendak and Bear Dancer by Susan Seddon Boulet

Bear scuptures by Gene Tobey

Though Williams and Estés are focused on women and women's issues in the passages above, the oppositional nature of bear symbology is useful to all artists, men and women alike, who struggle to balance their public and private selves, and the often-conflicting demands of family life, community engagement, and creative work. To be available to others, while protecting time to be available only to ourselves and our muse...is this not the dilemma that all creative artists (if we're not complete monsters of self-importance or self-effacement) face again and again?

Bearskin by Trina Schart Hyman and East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Liga Klavina

And even when we are alone in the studio, the symbol of the mythic bear and cyclical hibernation is a useful one. As a culture, we tend to prize action, accomplishment, and public expression over stillness, retreat, and quiet reflection -- but creativity needs all parts of the cycle: the taking in, the pause, the putting back out. Art is born in the movement between them, the mythic rhythm at the heartbeat of our lives.

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

The winter months have always been a challenge for me. I love sunshine, dry weather and warmth (the hotter the better), and for many years I avoided the cold by wintering in the Arizona desert -- where bears roamed above us on the mountain peaks, but did not venture down to the heat of the valley.

By living full-time on Dartmoor now,  however, I am learning to appreciate winter's stark gifts: it slows me down, turns my thoughts inward, keeps me closer to hearth and home, strengthening the introverted side of my nature, without which I couldn't write or paint. I am learning at last to follow the bear; to trust in the process of hibernation and gestation. I am learning patience. Slowness. Stillness.

All things have their season. And spring always comes.

Sleeping bear by Marc Simont

Bear stories

It's a good time of year to be reading about bears -- in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and myth. The bearish tales above are three of my favourites, along with Tender Morsals by Margo Lanagan, Bear Daughter by Judith Berman, The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, East by Edith Pattou, Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Once Upon a Winter's Night by Dennis L. McKiernan, Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede, The Ice Bear by Jackie Morris, Bearkskin by Howard Pyle (illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman), "Bear's Bride" by Johanna Sinisalo (published in The Beastly Bride, Datlow-Winding eds.), and Marion Engle's strange but compelling Bear. What are some of yours...?

She Kissed the Bear on the Nose by John Bauer

Pictures: The bear art above is by Theodore Kittelsen, Jackie Morris, Angela Barrett, Lucy Campbell, Virginia Lee, Susan Seddon Boulet, me, Edmund Dulac, Alexandra Dvornikova, Maurice Sendak, Gene Tobey, Līga Kļaviņa, Trina Schart Hyman, John Bauer and Marc Simont. Titles and artist credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists.

Words: The passages quoted above are from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006); "Undressing the Bear," published in An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams (Vintage, 1994); and Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Ballentine, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors.


The power of stories

From Old Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett

I'd like to share a second passage from Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell which seems particularly germain today:

"In 2016, my understanding of the world I lived in was upturned: by Brexit, Trump, a sweep across Europe towards nationalism and insularity, terrorist attacks. In the immediate aftermath, adult literary fiction did not help: I couldn't make it work.

Blondine Sees the Castle by Virginia France Sterrett"It was reading through the prism of children's fiction that brought back my faith in what books can do: because what helped were the old narratives, told for the benefit of children and adults and anyone who would listen: Icelandic folk tales, Grimm. They said that this, though it felt like an ending, was not: there has always been vaunting ambition, bitter acrimony, misunderstanding, hunger for power, folly, kindness, passion. Fairytales have already recorded, in their sideways way, all of human vice and yet not fallen silent in despair.

"I still believe -- most days, most of the time -- that stories have power. I believe, like Aristotle, that fiction can put forward truths, via narration, which cannot be baldly stated by abstract theoretical language. There are ideas in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that I could no more summarise than I could sing you all the parts of a hundred-instrument symphony: fiction resists reduction. Fiction can't, by itself, right the world. But I believe, still, in the wild and immeasurable value of pouring everything you think good or important into a text, that another may draw it out again: what Elena Ferrante calls 'a fishing net that captures daily experiences, holds them together imaginatively, and connects them to fundamental questions about the human condition.' "

Old French Fairy Tails illustrated by Virginia Francis Sterrett

In his remarkable essay "The Power of Stories," Scott Russell Sanders speaks of the ways that stories create, sustain, and mediate our sense of community:

Leger Meets the Wicked Princess by Virginia Frances Sterrett"They link tellers to listeners, and listeners to one another. This is obviously so when speaker and audience share the same space, as humans have done for all but the last few centuries of our million-year history, gathered around fires or huddled in huts; it is equally if less obviously so when we encounter our stories in solitude, on the page or screen. When two people discover they have both read Don Quixote, they immediately share a piece of history....Strangers who discover their mutual devotion to fairy tales or gangster movies or soap operas or Shakespeare's plays become thereby less strange to one another.

Violette Takes Refuge from the Wild Boar by Virginia Frances Sterrett"Frank O'Connor went so far as to declare that 'the one subject a storyteller must write about' is 'human loneliness.' Whether or not stories speak to it directly, they offer us a relief from loneliness, by revealing that our most secret feelings and thoughts do not belong to us alone, by inviting us to join the circle of readers or listeners. The strongest bonds are formed by sacred stories, which unite entire peoples. Thus Jews rehearse the events of Passover; Christians tell of a miraculous birth and death and resurrection; Buddhists tell of Guatama meditating beneath a tree; the Hope recount the story of their emergence from the earth; the Aborigines repeat in song the primal deeds of their ancestors."

Tanglewood Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett (1921)

But the power of stories, Sanders reminds us, can also be used with malign intent:

"As we know only too well, sacred stories may also divide the world between those who are inside the circle and those outside, between us and them, a division that has inspired pogroms and inquisitions and wars.

The Broom Was on Fire at Once by Virginia Frances Sterrett"There is danger in story, as in any great force. If the tales that captivate us are silly or deceitful, like most of those offered by television or advertising, they waste our time and warp our desires. If they are cruel they make us callous. If they are false and bullying, instead of drawing us into a thoughtful community they may lure us into an unthinking herd or, worst of all, into a crowd screaming for blood -- in which case we need other, truer stories to renew our vision. So The Diary of Anne Frank and Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz are antidotes to Mein Kamp. So Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's Beloved are antidotes to the paranoid yarns of the Ku Klux Klan. So the patient exchange of stories between people searching for common ground is an antidote to the hasty sloganeering and slandering of talk shows....

Cadmus and the Dragon by Virginia Frances Sterrett

"We are creatures of instinct, but not solely of instinct. More than any other animal we must learn to behave. In this perennial effort, as Ursula Le Guin says, 'Story is our nearest and dearest way of understanding our lives and finding our way onward.'

From Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett"Skill is knowing how to do something; wisdom is knowing when and why to do it, or to refrain from doing it. While stories may display skill aplenty, in technique or character or plot, what the best of them offer is wisdom. They hold a living reservoir of human possibilities, telling us what has worked before, what has failed, where meaning and purpose and joy might be found.

"At the heart of many a tale is a test, a puzzle, a riddle, a problem to solve; and that, surely, is the condition of our lives, both in detail -- as we decide how to act in the present moment -- and in general, as we seek to understand what it all means. Like so many characters, we are lost in a dark wood, a labyrinth, a swamp, and we need a trail of stories to show us the way back to our true home."

From Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Francis Sterrett

The art today is by American illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931), who was born Chicago, but raised in Missouri after the early death of her father. She studied briefly Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Sterrettat the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving a full scholarship when she was just 15 -- but had to leave when her mother grew ill and she took on sole support of her family. She worked in Chicago's advertising industry, and obtained her first book commission at the age of 19: illustrating Comtesse de Ségur's Old French Fairy Tales for the Penn Publishing Company in 1920 and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales in 1921.

At the same time Virginia's own health was failing and the diagnosis was grim: tuberculosis. The family moved to the warm, dry climate of California, but her health grew worse and worse, and she entered a sanatorium in Pasedena at age 24. She continued to work, but her output slowed, and her third book, The Arabian Nights, was not published until 1928. She was working on her last commission, Myths & Legends, when she died in 1931.

Illustration by Virginia Frances Sterratt

Words: The passages quoted above are from Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019) and "The Power of Stories" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in his essay collection The Force of Spirit (Beacon Press, 2000). Both books are highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures:  The art above is from Old French Fairy Tales by Comtess de Ségur and Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne, illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett. The picture titles can be found in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the images to see them.)


The hope that is sharper than teeth

The White Stag by Helen Stratton

I have so many things I want to talk about on Myth & Moor as the new year begins, and so many books to share with you...but today let's start with a subject that is at the very heart of this blog: the enduring value of fairy tales.

The following passage comes from Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise -- a wonderful little volume by Katherine Rundell, who is one of the very best authors writing for children today. She says:

The Lily of Life by Helen Stratton"Fairytales were never just for children. They are determinedly, pugnaciously, for everyone -- old and young, men and women, of every nation. Marina Warner argues that fairytales are the closest thing we have to a cultural Esperanto: whether German, Persian, American, we tell the same fairytales, because the stories have migrated across borders as freely as birds.

"All fairytales, by and large, have the same core ingredients: there will be the archetypal characters -- stepmothers, powerful kings, talking animals. There will be injustice or conflict, often gory and extravagant, told in a matter-of-fact tone that does nothing to shield children or adults from its blunt bloodiness. But there will also usually be something -- a fairy godmother, a spell, a magic tree -- which brings the miracle of hope into the story. 'Fairytales,' Marina Warner writes, 'evoke every kind of violence, injustice and mischance, but in order to declare it need not continue.' Fairytales conjure fear in order to tell us that we not be so afraid. Angela Carter saw the godmother as shorthand for what she calls 'heroic optimism'. Hope, in fairy tales, is sharper than teeth.

The Wild Swans illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Wild Swans illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Wild Swans by Helen Stratton copy

"That spirit of heroic optimism -- optimism blood-covered and gasping, but still optimism -- is the life principle writ large. It speaks to all of us: because fairytales were always designed to be a way of talking to everyone at once. They provide us with a model for how certain kinds of stories -- by dealing archetypes and bass-note human desires, and in metaphors with bite -- can yoke together people of every age and background, luring us all, witch-like, into the same imaginative space.

The Little Mermaid illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Little Mermaid illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Little Mermaid illustrated by Helen Stratton

"Fairytales are also a way of tracing our cultural revolution. More than any other kind of story, they live and breathe and change."

The Princess and the Pea illustrated by Helen Stratton

Andersen's Fairy Tales illustrated by Helen StrattonThe paintings and drawings today are by Helen Stratton (1867- 1961), a prolific artist who published many popular books during England's "Golden Age of Illustration" at the dawn of the 20th century. Stratton was born in India, where her father was a surgeon with the Indian medical service, but she spent most of her childhood in Bath. She studied art in London in the 1890s, where she fell under the spell of Pre-Raphaelitism and Art Nouveau, and then settled in Kensington with her mother and siblings after her father's death. 

She received her first illustration commission (Songs for Little People) in 1896 and worked steadily over the next several decades, producing beautiful editions of Hans Christian Andersen and Grimms fairy tales, Charles Lamb's Shakespeare for Young People, The Book of MythsThe Children's King Arthur, two classic children's novels by George MacDonald (The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie), and numerous other works, as well as collaborating with William Heath Robinson on a lavish edition of The Arabian Nights.

Stratton returned to Bath in the 1930s, where she resided and worked until her death at age 94. She's a woman I long to know more about -- so if there are any biographical writers out there looking for a subject, please consider this remarkable artist.

Brother and Sister illustrated by Helen Stratton

Grimms Fairy Tales illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen by Helen Stratton

Katherine Rundell

Words: The passages quoted above are from Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019). All rights reserved by the author.


Music for a Monday afternoon

Ludovico Einaudi photographed by RayTarantino

It's become my tradition to start the new year with music for the piano. It's just what I need during these dark days of winter...and perhaps you do too.

Below: Between Us, a new film from Italian pianist & composer Ludovico Einaudi featuring four of his finest pieces -- "Elegy for the Arctic," "Nuvole Bianche," "Experience," and "Walk." Followed by "Divenire," an old favourite performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London (2010).

Below: "Halos" by the glorious Ana Silvera, performed with Bjarke Falgren on viola in Copenhagen (2019). Followed by her exquisite song "I Grew Up in a Room, Small as a Penny," performed at the Roundhouse in London (2018).

Also, have a listen to Silvera's beautiful new composition "Light, Console Me,"  inspired by The Mourner’s Kaddish during this time of global pandemic. You can read about the piece on Silvera's website, and hear all three movements on Bandcamp.

The final piece, below, is "The Oxford Girl" performed by Olivia Chaney, who grew up in Oxfordshire herself. The song was recorded for Shirley Inspired (2014), an album of Shirley Collins covers by a wide range of musician. Chaney's most recent solo album is Shelter (2018), which I highly recommend.


On the New Year and fresh starts

Signpost 1

Once again I've been asked to re-post this piece written back in 2018, with my heartfelt thanks to the kind readers who remembered and requested it. Of my two younger brothers mentioned in this piece, one of them died last February and the other has been missing for more than a decade. My mother, too, is long gone, and my great-aunt Clara (who raised her). I'm thinking of them all on this New Year's Day, and dedicate this post to them.

Over the last few days, I've been asking friends how they feel about New Year's celebrations, and from my small sampling (mostly of writers and artists) this is what I've learned:

The vast majority answered with the equivalent of a shrug: The New Year's holiday? They could take or leave it. A smaller (but emphatic) group detest it for a variety of reasons: the social pressure to be happy on New Year's eve, the guilt-tripping nature of New Year resolutions, the arbitrary designation of the year's end in the Gregorian calendar, or simply the bad timing of yet another celebration on the heels of Christmas. I found just a small minority who genuinely love New Year's Eve and Day, and I am one of them. In fact, it's my favorite holiday, and so I've been thinking about the reasons why -- especially since I generally mark the changing of the seasons by the pagan, not the Christian, calendar.

Signpost 2

I grew up with the Pennsylvania Dutch traditions of my mother's large extended family: nominally Christian, but rich in folklore, folk ways, and homely forms of folk magic. One of those traditions was my mother's practice of taking down the Christmas tree on New Year's day, cleaning the house from top to bottom, and then opening the kitchen door (with a great flourish) to sweep the old year out and welcome in the new: my mother, my great-aunt Clara, and I each taking turns with the broom. Christmas was a hard time for my mother and always ended in tears, but she would rally by New Year's day, relishing the act of making order out of chaos: a woman's ritual, shared only with me and not my half-brothers (my stepfather's sons). Boys doing housework? The very notion was unthinkable in that time and place.

Signpost 3

At some point in the midst of all that cleaning, my mother and I would sit down at the kitchen table, eat the last of the kiffles (a traditional cookie made only at Christmas; it is bad luck to eat them past New Year's Day), and talk about plans for the year ahead. These were not New Year's resolutions, exactly; no lists were made, nothing was written down. It was more like a verbal conjuring, a vision of what we'd do differently and better, spoken at the right folkloric time when words held the power of an incantation: the pause between the old year and the new when anything seemed possible.

Signpost 4

My mother was a great believer in new beginnings, in a way that was both painful and brave. We moved around a lot when I was young, in search of work for my stepfather, whose alcoholism and violent temper ensured that employment never lasted long. In each new place my mother would mentally sweep her troubles out the kitchen door and make a brand new start: each house, each job, each new school for my young brothers and me would be different and better, she insisted. We would finally settle down.

Since the new house was usually worse than the last, she would set herself to transforming it, ingeniously making small amounts of money go a long, long way: she'd paint our rooms in surprising colors (dictated by the paint choices in the bargain bins); make new curtains in cheap, cheery fabrics edged with bright Ric Rac and Pom Pom trim; scour yard sales for pretty new dishes and lamps (constantly broken in my stepfather's rages).  For a while she'd be happy and fiercely optimistic...until the usual troubles caught up with us. There would be fights, and tears, and everything would shatter. My mother would collapse, her husband disappear to the nearest bar. Then she'd pick herself up, we'd move again, and she'd start afresh with quiet courage.

Signpost 5

As a kid I moved even more often than my mother. Unwelcome in my stepfather's home, and a regular target of his fists, when things got too bad I was shunted off to my grandmother, or my great-aunt Clara, or some other relative, along with a couple of stints in foster care -- and so I needed my mother's lesson in embracing change rather more than most. Many people from peripatetic childhoods react with a deep dislike of change. My own reaction is a mix of opposites. My childhood has left me with a soul-deep need for home, place, and community -- yet I also love stepping into the unknown and using the act of relocation as a catalyst for transformation and renewal. In this I am my mother's daughter. I like transitions, beginnings, the changing of the seasons, the turning of the calendar's pages. As I wrote in a previous New Year post:

I have a great affection for those moments in time that allow us to push the "re-set" buttons in our minds and make a fresh start: the start of a new year, the start of a new week, the start of a new morning or fresh endeavor. As L. M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables) once wrote, "Isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?"

The American abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher advised: "Every man should be born again on the first day of January. Start with a fresh page." Some people, of course, find a blank page terrifying...but that's something I've never quite understood. I love the feeling of potential inherent in an untouched notebook, a fresh white canvas, even a new computer folder waiting to be filled. It's the same sense of freedom to be found at the start of a journey, when all lies ahead and limits haven't yet been reached.

Signpost 6

My mother died from cancer in 2001, at a younger age that I am now, and she never managed to turn those new beginnings into the calm, stable life she craved. The determined optimism she practiced wasn't always entirely admirable. Optimism can also be blind or foolish, and prevent the solving of problems through the refusal to accept reality. A fresh start can only transform a life if it is followed by the hard and clear-eyed work of making substantive change: leaving the violent husband, for example, rather than putting fresh paint on walls that will soon be bloodied once again.

But there were reasons my mother couldn't make those harder changes, so I'm not going to sit in judgement of her now. I'm just going to love her for who she was. Acknowledge her quiet bravery. And appreciate the gifts that she's passed on: kiffles and a broom on New Year's Day. And a love of new beginnings.

Signpost 7

Today I will sweep the house. Tomorrow I'll sweep the studio. I'm thinking about what I'll do differently, and better.

The world is full of possibilities.

Signpost 8

Pictures: The photographs today are from Queen's Wood, an ancient woodland in London's Muswell Hill: 52 acres of oak and hornbeam trees, abutting Highgate Wood. The pictures were taken during a  pre-pandemic Christmas spent with our daughter in London. I recommend "The History and Archaeology of Queen's Wood" by Michael Hacker if you'd like to know more about this beautiful place: a tranquil, magical piece of wild preserved within a bustling cityscape. (Tilly loved it.) The last photo was taken by Howard.

Words: The poem in the picture caption is from Tell Me by Kim Addonizio (BOA Editions, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.