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April 2021

The Tree Tribe

Borderlands by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know, child, is that trees do speak, they do tell tales, they sing when the've a mind to, they are gigglers, gossips, grumblers, cataloguing every ache and pain, and yet they hold no grudges, claim no debts, speak ill of no creature. They have their tempers, yes, tantrums of branches lashed in gusts and gales, but then they come to rest in stillness, spent, humming contentedly. You've heard them, just yesterday. You thought it was only the wind.

River Valley by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know is that each morning every tree stands tall and chants its name, its history, its kinship web and lineage. You've heard them, dear, but thought it was the dawn chorus of birds.

Summer Nights by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know is that the trees tell stories older than the oldest tales of humankind. By dusk, by night, by starlight, you have marked their midnight murmuring -- you told me so, but thought it was just water rushing through the stream.

Toward This Place Lightly by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know, child, is that trees do speak, in their own language. They mutter in the crackle autumn leaves; they sigh as snow settles at their feet; they utter exquisite arboreal poems as each tender young leaf unfurls; they laugh in shivers of green and gold when tickled by a summer's breeze.

Still There by Celia de Serra

The thing you need to know, child, is that trees do speak, in the tree language. And yes, you will understand their speech one day, root child, sweet sapling.

Still Here Too by Celia de Serra

West Borders by Celia de Serra

The beautiful drawings today are by British artist Celia de Serra, who was born in Canterbury in 1973, received a BA in Fine Art and English Literature from Exeter University in 1995, and now exhibits her work extensively throughout the UK. De Serra is a founding member of The Arborealists, a group of contemporary artists dedicated to the subject of trees. Her art has appeared in Under the Greenwood: Picturing the British Tree and other publications.

"I live in the Welsh borders in the hills near Offa’s Dyke," she writes. "I spend a lot of time out and about walking and cycling armed with a Ordinance Survey Map, sketchbook and camera. I look for inspiring places and images that have something about them and an emotional hook. Light is particularly important to me -- the way in which it can transform something small, or illuminate a place in a curious or dramatic way. Always a painter, I returned to drawing several years ago and this has become my primary medium at the moment; I love the directness of drawing, the marks, the tonal variations and the capacity to build up layers and depth without the confusion that colour can sometimes bring to form."

To see more of de Serra's work, visit her website, her Instagram page, and The Arborealists site.

Flux by Celia de Serra

Seven Little Tales from Hedgespoken Press

Words: "The Tree Tribe" is one of seven little pieces of mine published in Seven Little Tales (Hedgespoken Press, 2018). 

Pictures: The drawings above are: Borderlands,  River Valley, Summer Nights, Towards This Place Lightly, Still There,  Still Here Too, West Borders, and Flux by Celia de Serra. All rights reserved by the artist.


On language and mystery

Forest by Alexandra Dvornikova

From  "Learning the Grammar of Animacy"  by Potawatomi author, educator, and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer:

Fungi by Alexandra Dvornikova"I come here to listen, to nestle in the curve of roots, in a soft hollow of pine needles. To lean my bones against the column of white pine, to turn off the voice in my head until I can hear the voices outside of it. The shhh of wind in the needles. Water trickling over rock, nuthatch tapping, chipmunks digging, beechnut falling, mosquito in my ear and something more, something that is not me, for which we have no language, the wordless being of others in which we are never alone. After the drumbeat of my mother's heart, this was my first language.

"I could spend a whole day listening. And a whole night. And in the morning, without my hearing it, there might be a mushroom that was not there the night before, creamy white, pushed up from the pine needle duff, out of darkness to light, still glistening with the fluid of its passage. Puhpowee

Mushroom pattern by Alexandra Dvornikova

"Listening in wild places, we witness conversation in a language that is not our own. I think now, that it was a longing to comprehend this language I hear in the woods that led me to science, to learn over the years to speak fluent Botany. Which should not, by the way, be mistaken for the language of plants. In science I did learn another language, of careful observation, an intimate vocabulary that names each little part. To name and describe you must first see, and science polishes the gift of seeing. Science is a beautiful language, rich in particulars, revealing the intricate mechanisms of the world. I honor the strength of that language which has become a second tongue to me. But, beneath the richness of its vocabulary, its descriptive power, something feels missing, the same something that swells around you and in you, when you listen to the world. The pattern of its surface hides an empty center, like a gorgeous tapestry over a scarred wall. Science is a language of distance which reduces a being to its working parts, the language of objects. The language we speak, however precise, is based on a profound error in grammar, which seems to me now, a grave loss in translation from the native languages of these shores. 

Lost Land by Alexandra Dvornikova"My first taste of the missing language was the word puhpowee, on my tongue. I stumbled upon it in a book by Anishnaabe ethnobotanist Keewaydinoquay, a treatise on the traditional uses of fungi by our people. Puhpowee, she explained, translates as 'the forces that causes mushrooms to to push up from the earth overnight.' As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed. In all its technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term, no words to hold this mystery. You'd think that biologists, of all people, would have words for life. But, I think in scientific language, our terminology is used to define the boundaries of our knowing. That which lies beyond our grasp remains unnamed. In the three syllables I could see an entire process of close observation in the damp morning woods, of the mystery of their coming, the formulation of a theory for which English has no equivalent. The makers of this word understood a world of being, full of unseen energies which animate the world. I've cherished that word for many years, a talisman, and longed for the people who gave a name to the life force of mushrooms. The language that holds puhpowee is one that I wanted to speak. The word for rising, for emergence, became a signpost for me, when I learned that it belonged to the language of my ancestors."

Forest Treasures by Alexandra Dvornikova

I recommend reading Kimmerer's essay in full, first published in The Leopold Outlook magazine (Winter 2012) and available online here. These ideas were developed further in her remarkable book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (discussed on Myth & Moor here) -- and also in a number of talks and essays such as "Speaking of Nature" (discussed on Myth & Moor here.)

I believe Kimmerer's work has relevance to those of us working in fantasy and mythic arts, for we, too, must learn to speak a language suited to describing Mystery: a language woven from myth, folklore, symbolism, poetry and dream. The fantasist's world is an animate world, shimmering with unseen energies. The grammar and gramarye of its language is every mythic artist's birthright, for the world of Story welcomes us all. It's a tongue that any of us can learn. Enter the forest, or the tale, and listen....

Fire Fox by Alexandra Dvornikova

Mushroom Dress and Mushroom Hat by Alexandra Dvornikova

The imagery today is by Alexandra Dvornikova, a contemporary folk artist and illustrator from Saint Petersburg, Russia. She studied print-making, graphics, and art therapy at Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design, and now creates bookscards and printsfabric designs, animations, and more.  She finds inspiration in the Russian fairy tales she heard as a child, as well as masks, music, ritual, nature and ecology, the folklore of animals, mosses and mushrooms, venomous plants, and lonely cabins deep in the woods. To see more of her art, please visit Dvornikova's website and  Instagram page. 

Mushroom Bed by Alexandra Dvornikova

Magic by Alexandra Dvornikova

Words: The passage quoted above is from "The Grammar of Animacy" by Robin Wall Kimmerer (The Leopold Outlook magazine, Winter 2012). all rights reserved by the author.

Related posts: For another look at the language of science contrasted to the language of Story, go here. Other posts on the interesection of science and art are archived here.

Pictures: The paintings by Alexandra Dvornikova are Forest, Fungi, Mushroom Pattern, Lost Land, Forest Treasures, Fire Fox, Mushroom Dress, Mushroom Hat, Mushroom Bed, and Magic. All rights reserved by the artist. Dvornikova's work also appeared in a previous Myth & Moor post: Stepping into story.


The magic of words

Woodwords 1

In her essay "A Gift of Wings," Jeanette Winterson gets to the core of what makes Virginia Woolf's work so compelling, and in doing so she evokes the magic inherent in the arts of writing and reading themselves:

"Unlike many novelists, then and now, she loved words. That is she was devoted to words, faithful to words, romantically attached to words, desirous of words. She was territory and words occupied her. She was night-time and words were the dream.

"The dream quality, which is a poetic quality, is not vague. For the common man it is the dream, if at all, that binds together in a new rationale, disparate elements. The job of the poet is to let the binding happen in daylight, to happen to the conscious mind, to delight and disturb the reader when the habitual pieces are put together in a new way.

Woodwords 2

"Above all, credulity is not strained. We should not come out of a book as we do from a dream, shaking our heads and rubbing our eyes and saying, 'It didn't really happen.' In poetry, in drama, in opera, in painting, in the best fiction, it really does happen, and is happening all the time, this other place where, as strong and compelling as our own daily world, as believable, and yet with a very strangeness that prompts us to recall that there are more things in heaven and earth and that those things are solider than dreams.

"They may prove solider than real life, as we fondly call the jumble of accidents, characters and indecisions that collect around us without our noticing. The novelist notices, tries to make us clearer to ourselves, tries to set the liquid day, and because of this we read novels. We do hope to see ourselves, as much out of vanity as for instruction. Nothing wrong with that but there is further to go and it is this further than only poetry can take us. Like the novelist, the poet notices, focuses, sharpens, but for the poet that is the beginning. The poet will not be satisfied with recording, the poet will have to transform. It is language, magic wand, cast of spells, that makes transformation possible."

Woodwords 4

The poet does this, yes, and the poetic fiction writer, and especially, I believe, the poets and fiction writers working in fantasy and mythic arts. Casting spells with language and telling tales of transformation are, after all, the very point of this alchemical genre in which elements of poetry, prose, myth, fairy tale, and dream are carefully combined, turning lead, and straw, and language, and life itself into pure gold.

Woodwords 5

As Ursula Le Guin said in her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" (in a passage I quote often, because it's just so true):

"Fantasy is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not antirational, but pararational; not realistic but surrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud's terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes, which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe. And their guides, the writers of fantasy, should take their responsibilities seriously....

"A fantasy is a journey. It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like pyschoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you."

Powerful word magic indeed.

Woodwords 6

Returning to the essay "A Gift of Wings," Winterson describes Virginia Woolf as a writer who "is not afraid of beauty. She is as sensitive to the natural world as any poet and as physical in response as any lover. She is not afraid of pain. The dark places attract her as well as the light and she has the wisdom to know that not all dark places need light. She has the cardinal virtue of critical courage."

That, I believe, is what we, too, must strive for. The love of words shared by all good writers and all good readers is the magic that will show us how.

A Gift of Wings

Winterson's essay can be found in her collection Art Objects (Jonathan Cape, 1995), Le Guin's in her collection The Language of the Night (The Women's Press, 1979). All rights reserved by the authors. Photographs: Words in the wild.


Telling stories

Winter Beech by David Wyatt

In "Hallowed Ground," Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder discusses the importance of myth and story in countering the narratives that foster the ecological destruction of our world. Steinauer-Scudder's essay is focused on the work of theologian Martin Palmer, exploring how the sacred stories of world religion can change the world for the better (or worse) -- but secular stories are powerful too. As storytellers, myth-makers and artists of all stripes, what kind of narratives are we creating? And are we cognizant of their potency? Steinauer-Scudder writes: Gidleigh Goat by David Wyatt

"There are Theravada Buddhist monks in Thailand who follow the Buddha’s example of meditating in natural settings, particularly beneath trees; they have a practice of going into the forest during the rainy season of Phansa and building small huts, where they remain for several months to meditate. Traditionally, when the huts appeared, it was understood that human beings were not to disturb or damage the surrounding forest; it became an extension of the monks’ prayers and practice: sacred land.

"Thailand and Cambodia have seen some of the most devastating logging and clear-cutting in a world where 18.7 million acres of forest across the globe are lost to deforestation annually. Between 1961 and 1998, an estimated two-thirds of Thailand’s remaining forest was destroyed. In the 1980s, the logging effort increased and entire forests began to disappear, sometimes in the course of a single day.

"In 1988 the excessive deforestation of a mountainside led to a landslide, exacerbating floods and killing over three hundred people. The monks saw the land suffering and the people suffering as a result. A small number of monks began to reexamine Buddhist scriptures, seeking ways to protect the forests through traditional rituals and teachings. The Buddha taught that all things are interconnected, that the health of the whole is bound to the health of every sentient being. If you harm rivers, trees, animals, soil, you harm yourself. Some of the monks began to intentionally seek out threatened and illegally logged forests for their Phansa meditation, but it became increasingly dangerous for them. Some were assassinated.

"And then one monk began a practice of ordaining trees. After locating the oldest and largest trees in a forest, he -- in the presence of members of his surrounding lay community -- recited the appropriate scripture and then wrapped the trees in traditional orange robes, just as is done for a novice monk. The practice has spread across Thailand and into Cambodia. Most loggers will not commit the taboo of harming a monk, even if that monk is a tree.

Tilly and Old Oak

" 'We are a narrative species. The faiths are successful because they tell bloody good stories and they adapt them as they go along,' Martin is telling me over a coffee break in Bristol. 'So all across Southeast Asia, there are these trees that have been ordained as monks, and that means that within a sort of half-mile penumbra of that, it’s sacred. There’s no way a Cambodian or a Thai is going to cut down a monk tree.' ARC has worked with monks in Thailand and Cambodia to set up environmental-education centers, trainings, and awareness campaigns. It helped to found ABE, the Association of Buddhists for the Environment, a network of monks and nuns grounded in Buddhist teachings and traditions. 'It’s been very local, very specific [work]. And most of it is built on the fact that, whatever else is gone, a sense that a sacred place is something other still remains.'

Once upon a time"It’s this sense of place and the stories that go along with it, Martin says, that can become catalysts for change. When it comes to addressing ecological degradation and potential collapse, most of us have not been telling the right ones. A transformative story, when told at the right time in the right place, has the ability to alter the course of things. 'There’s only two things that have ever done that successfully in history: art and religion. And for most of history, they’ve been synonymous,' Martin says. ARC works with Jains in India, Shintōists in Japan, Taoists in China, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians—operating on the belief that religion has consistently told humanity’s most enduring stories, that parable can be more effective than science, that myths are more powerful than data.

"As we wend our way through the city, I’m beginning to picture Martin as a real-life, intellectual version of Roald Dahl’s BFG: a lanky, well-intentioned giant who roams the globe, but instead of collecting dreams and delivering them to sleeping children, he is collecting stories. Fables and myths, parables and songs. His life’s work has been to pull forward or uncover narratives from traditions and texts, and support local faith communities in doing the same."

Fetching Water by David Wyatt

Oak

Later in the piece, Steinauer-Scudder adds a note of caution:

Acorn by David Wyatt"To seek and reveal stories on behalf of others is, in many ways, a fraught strategy; it can carry the odor of imposition when it comes from outside a local culture. But in a time when perhaps the most imposing and pervasive story of all -- consumerism -- is driving species to extinction, deforesting lands, fueling wildfires in the American West, and depleting topsoil and the oceans, one wonders how we can help one another to turn our attention and efforts to different ends. How can we remember that stories, too, have agency? ARC, as an organization, is international, but its lifeblood is comprised of communities around the world, each facing their own version of environmental crisis, each working within the narratives and traditions that have shaped its landscapes and identities. Such stories cannot be arbitrarily deposited. In order to thrive, they need fertile soil, a caring hand, relationship, understanding, shared history. When the conditions are right, they can root themselves or unfurl a new leaf.

Devon oaks in the making

“'[Religion is] not the silver bullet,' Martin says. It certainly should not be left to faith communities alone to cultivate the stories that might begin to heal a world in crisis, environmentally and spiritually. But he does believe that religion holds our most enduring stories, told again and again throughout the ages, even when humanity sometimes uses them to destructive ends. Secular communities can look to the faiths as examples of what it means to embody powerful narratives. Religious or no, we can find new ways to tell ancient stories. New language to bring people back to an ancient understanding.

" 'Human beings are capable of extraordinary change if given the space to do it,' says Martin. 'Not by fear, and not by data. But by story.'”

Spinning Moonlight by David Wyatt

I highly recommend reading Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder's "Hallowed Ground" in full in Emergence Magazine. You'll find it here. The wondrous art today is by our good friend David Wyatt, a great lover of trees and stories. To learn more about his work, go here.

Tilly rests in the roots of Old Oak

A cluster of Devon leaves

Words: The two passages above are quoted from "Hallowed Ground" by Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, published in Emergence Magazine (January 15, 2019); all rights reserved by the author. Emergence, by the way, is terrific, if you're not reading it already.

Pictures: The paintings above are Winter Beech, Gidleigh Goat, Fetching Water, Acorn, and Spinning Moonlit by David Wyatt; all rights reserved by the artist.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Selkie by Danielle Barlow

I haven't been to the Devon coast since the pandemic began and I'm truly missing the sea these days. Let's start the week with some magical music of the sea and shore....

Above: Scottish singer Shiobhan Miller peforms "Selkie," a tradition Orcadian ballad about a human woman who loves a man of the seal people. Miller's beautiful rendition of the song appears on her equally beautiful new album, All is Not Forgotten (2020).

Below: Scottish singer Julie Fowlis performs "Òran an Ròin/The Song of the Seal," a traditional Gaelic ballad from the Hebrides. Selkies, she explains, are "creatures who moved between the parallel worlds of sea and land, but never truly belonging to either. " This haunting version of the song was recorded last May, with video footage by Mike Guest.

Above: "Swirling Eddies," a selkie song by musician and music scholar Fay Hield, based in Sheffield -- from her mythical, magical new album Wrackline (2020). While working on this piece, she says, 

"I imagined what it would be like to fall in love with the world above water. How it would feel to leave your selkie family, traditions and life in the sea, to be lured onto land. What would it take to make that irresistible leap, to turn your back and step into a new adventure? In a lot of the stories a human steals their skin so they are forced into marriage. In this instance, I wanted to selkie to be intrigued by the human world, to want to come and enter into this new way of being. Exploring the seduction and lure of the ‘other’. This includes the male suitor, but places him to one side, focusing more on the world that opens up. The words and tune for ‘Swirling Eddies’ came together...through singing over and over, round and round, like the waves going in and out. I wanted the tune to seem dizzying, as she would be in the dancing, and light-headedness of moving into a new environment, feeling airless, or rather, I suppose, waterless."

Below: "Stone's Throw: Lament of the Selkie" by Rachel Taylor-Beales, a musician and activist based in Wales. The song appeared on her poignant album of the same name (2015), which was subsequently turned into a theatre piece. She says:

"I’d been exploring the character and persona of Selkie, a shape-shifting seal woman re-imagined from Orkney folklore, struggling to live her life on land away from her natural habitat of the ocean. Selkie’s internal turbulence seemed to echo the real-life struggles of people in the news headlines, and that I'd met personally: stories of refugees and displaced people, far from home, with all the loneliness and chaos, grief and loss that comes with enforced migration. In the legends, in order to marry a Selkie woman, her sealskin has to be captured while she is in human form and kept hidden from her so she can't go back to sea. The woman of the legends -- taken out of her natural environment, longing for home, misunderstood by those around her who know nothing of her former life -- became synonymous in my mind with the stories of refugees. The video was filmed by my husband Bill Taylor-Beales, and features Isla Horton, who achingly portrays a displaced mother separated from home and family."

Above: "Black Seas" by the London-based iyatra Quartet (Alice Barron, Richard Phillips, Will Roberts, and George Sleightholme). The song is from their album Break the Dawn (2020).  The video was filmed by Andrew Spicer.

Below: "Avalon" by Rhiannon Giddens (from North Carolina), with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, from their new album They're Calling Me Home (2021). The video, directed by Laura Sheeran, was filmed in Co. Galway, Ireland. The dancers (and choreographers) are Stephanie Dufresne and Mintesinot Wolde.

On the south Devon coast with Tilly

Selkie painting above: "Messenger of the Water" by my friend and neighbour Danielle Barlow. You can see more of her beautiful work on her website or Instagram page. All rights reserved by the artist. Photograph: On the south Devon coast with Tilly during betters days.