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December 2021

Tunes for the Winter Holidays

The Snow Maiden by Edmund Dulac

There are a lot of good folk albums for the winter holidays (Kate Rusby's Sweet Bells, Emily Smith's Songs for Christmas, Steeleye Span's Winter and Loreena McKennitt's To Drive the Cold Winter Away are all favourites in our house) but for me one CD tops them all: Awake Arise: A Winter Album by Lady Maisery with Jimmy Aldridge & Sid Goldsmith -- a wonderful blend of music and spoken word, and of Christian and pagan folklore. 

"Winter is our quietest season," they write. "The winds, the frosts and the raw cold carry echoes of the year that has passed and encourage us to withdraw: to accept the dark and reflect. Our journeys through this time of year are accompanied by a shared imagining of winters past: an ancestral memory of snowy lanes and blazing hearths: of bright winter berries and festive celebrations. These dreams of winter, whether experienced or imagined, anchor us in the season and draw us close together, but they also offer a sense of renewal, encouraging us to look anew towards the rising of spring.

"Awake Arise contains songs, readings and poems that sometimes delve into the dark and sometimes evoke the awakening of a coming year. They tell of the stages of winter, of ancient traditions and customs, of finding hope within the gloom, of love and betrayal, of religion and ceremony, and of seeing our own lives mirrored in the rhythms of the season."

Here is a small sampling from this thoroughly magical album....

Above: "Sing We All Merrily," a song originally collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1918 and reworked here by Hannah James.

Below: "Up in the Morning Early,"  traditional song collected by Robert Burns, followed by "The Christmas Road" from Laurie Lee's Village Christmas and Other Notes on the English Year.

The Wind's Tale by Edmund Dulac

Above: "Carol Reading/Shortly Before 8:30 PM," followed by "Hail Smiling Morn," a Yorkshire pub carol to banish darkness.

Below: "Da Day Dawn," a Shetland fiddle tune, traditionally played at first light on Christmas morning, followed by "Like as the Thrus in Winter" by Edmond Holmes (1902).

Above: "The Bear Song" by Rowan Rheingans, who says: "This is a song for the turning of the year; some things will return and some things are lost forever."

Below: "Snow Falls," written by John Tams, "a hopeful song of the turning of the seaons and the certainty that from the darkest times the spring will rise again." As we head into our second Covid winter, songs of hope and certainty are welcome indeed.

Gerda and the Reindeer by Edmund Dulac

The wintery fairy tale art above is "The Snow Maiden," "The Wind's Tale" and "Gerda and the Reindeer (from The Snow Queen)" by Edmund Dulac, 1882-1953. Born in France, he emigrated to England early in the 20th century, becoming one of the finest artists in the Golden Age of Book Illustration.

The things we lose

Among the stones

So many people I know are struggling with the ache of loss right now -- if not mourning a loved one's death as I am, then the grief that comes from coping with a world pandemic that goes on and on, with climate changes that are escalating, with the unfathomable loss of people, places, and entire species we witness daily. For me, even the small ordinary losses (objects mislaid, papers misplaced, plans cancelled and opportunites missed) seem to bite a little sharper than they used to do, because loss is cumulative. A lost necklace is only a lost necklace, of course, but when such a small thing can bring me to the edge of tears I know it's not an object I am grieving but every damn loss of the last two years.

In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes:

"It is the nature of things to be lost and not otherwise. Think of how little has been salvaged from the compost of time of the hundreds of billions of dreams dreamt since the language to describe them emerged, how few names, how few wishes, how few languages even, how we don't know what tongues the people who erected the standing stones of Britain and Ireland spoke or what the stones meant, don't know much of the language of the Gabrielanos of Los Angeles or the Miwoks of Marin, don't know how or why they drew the giant pictures on the desert floor in Nazca, Peru, don't know much even about Shakespeare or Li Po.

Still life in green, violet, and rust

"It is as though we make the exception the rule, believe that we should have rather than that we will generally lose. We should be able to find our way back again by the objects we dropped, like Hansel and Gretel in the forest, the objects reeling us back in time, undoing each loss, a road back from lost eyeglasses to lost toys and baby teeth.  Instead, most of the objects form the secret constellations of our irrecoverable past, returning only in dreams where nothing but the dreamer is lost. They must all still exist somewhere: pocket knives and plastic horses don't exactly compost, but who knows where they go in the great drifts of objects sifting through our world?

Breadcrumbs in the forest

Red Clay

Old in autumn

"Once I found a locket with a crescent moon and a star spelled out in rhinestones on one face, unreadably intricate initials on another, and two ancient photographs inside, and someone must have missed it terribly but no one claimed it, and I have it still. Another time, traveling down a river in one of the last great wildernesses, a roadless place the size of Portugal, I lost a sock early in the trip and a pair of sunglasses later, and I think of them littering the wilderness so clear of such clutter, there still or found by someone who must have wondered about them as I did the woman with the locket.

"On that trip I leaned over the side of the raft and stared straight down for hours at the floor of the river whose name almost no one knows that flows into another little-known river, stared at thousands of stones sliding by, gray, pink, black, gold, under the clearest water in the whole world, floating for miles and days on water I drank straight out of the river. Material objects witness everything and say nothing. Animals say more. And they are disappearing.

"That things should be lost to our knowledge is one thing, in which we don't know where we are or they are; that things should be lost from the earth is another."

Field guides to the terrain of the heart

The Animal Guide

The secret constellations of loss

In her wise book Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams writes:

"The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. They are kneeling with hands clasped that we might act with restraint, that we might leave room for the life that is destined to come. To protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle. Perhaps the wilderness we fear is the pause between our own heartbeats, the silent space that says we live only by grace. Wilderness lives by this same grace. Wild mercy is in our hands."

Wild mercy for the planet. Wild mercy for ourselves. The dark of the year approaches, dear friends. Let's be kind to each other right now.

An offering for Wild Mercy

The passages above are quote from A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2005) and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family & Place by Terry Tempest Williams (Pantheon, 2000). All rights reserved by the authors.

A related posts: On the language of loss and love, The writer's god is Mercury, and The dance of joy and grief.

On seasons, transitions, and moving forward

From Equus © by Tim Flach

Carrying on from Tuesday's post, the second book I've been re-reading this week as a means of coping with grief is The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich -- a collection of interlinked essays on life in the mountains of Wyoming, where the author settled after the death of the man she'd intended to marry. Ehrlich writes beautifully about land and solitude, about the turn of the seasons and the changes of life. In one essay she describes the waning months of the year in the high mountain country like this:

The Solace of Open Spaces"The French call the autumn leaf feuille morte. When the leaves are finally corrupted by the frost they rain down into themselves until the tree, disowning itself, goes bald. All through the autumn we hear a double voice: one says everything is ripe, the other says everything is dying. The paradox is exquisite.

"We feel what the Japanese call 'aware' -- an almost untranslatable word that means something like 'beauty tinged with sadness.' Some days we have to shoulder against a marauding melancholy. Dreams have a hallucinatory effect: in one, a man who is dying watches from inside a huge cocoon while stud colts run through deep mud, their balls bursting open, their seed spilling onto the black ground. My reading brings me this thought from the mad Zen priest Ikkyu: 'Remember that under the skin you fondle lie the bones, waiting to reveal themselves." But another day, I ride into the mountains. Against rimrock, tall aspens have the graceful bearing of giraffes, and another small grove, not yet turned, gives off a virginal limelight that transpierces everything heavy....

"Autumn teaches us that fruition is also death; that ripeness is a form of decay. The willows, having stood for so long near the water, begin to rust. Leaves are verbs that conjugate the seasons.

"Today the sky is a wafer. Place on my tongue, it is a wholeness that has already disintegrated; placed under the tongue, it makes my heart beat strongly enough to stretch myself over the winter brilliances to. Now I feel the tenderness to which this season rots. Its defenselessness can no longer be corrupted. Death is its purity, its sweet mud. The string of storms that came to Wyoming like elephants tied trunk to tail falters now and bleeds into stillness."

From Equus © by Tim Flach

From Equus © by Tim Flach

From Equus © by Tim Flach

In another essay, Ehrlich writes of Wyoming's winter months:

"Winter looks like a fictional place, an elaborate simplicity, a Nabokovian invention of rarefied detail. Winds howl all night and day, pushing litters of storm fronts from the Beartooth to the Big Horn Mountains. When it lets up, the mountains disappear. The hayfield that runs east from my house ends up in a curl of clouds that have fallen like sails luffing from sky to ground. Snow returns across the field to me, and the cows, dusted with white, look like snowcapped continents drifting. 

"The poet Seamus Heaney said that landscape is sacremental, to be read as text. Earth is instinct: perfect, irrational, semiotic. If I reading winter right, it is a scroll -- the white growing wider and wider like the sweep of an arm -- and from it we gain a peripheral vision, a capacity for what Nabokov calls 'those asides of spirit, those footnotes in the volume of life by which we know life and find it to be good.'

"Not unlike emotional transitions -- the loss of a friend of the beginning of new work -- the passage of seasons is often so belabored and quixotic as to deserve separate names so the year might be divided eight ways instead of four. This fall ducks flew across the sky in great 'V's as if that one letter were defecting from the alphabet, and when the songbirds climbed to the memorized pathways that route them to winter quarters, they lifted off in confusion, like paper scraps blown from my writing room."

From Equus © by Tim Flach

Ehrlich relates but does not linger on the death that drove her from New York to Wyoming -- and yet loss and grief are the subtext of every essay in the collection. It's a book about ranching and sheep-herding, yes, but also about the challenge of creating a new life from the ashes of an old one. The narrative voice is clear-eyed and unsentimental; it is also reflective and poetic; and the skillful juxtaposition of both modes of writing is one of the reasons I love Ehrlich's work. As she writes in the book's Introduction:

"The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities of earth: weather would land on it harshly; light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding. Finally, the lessons of impermanence have taught me this: loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life."

From Equus © by Tim Flach

Today's featured artist:

The imagery here is by the great animal photographer Tim Flach, who has "an interest in the way humans shape animals and shape their meaning while exploring the role of imagery in fostering an emotional connection." He is based in London.

The photographs come from Equus (2008), Flach's exquisitely beautiful book on the subject of the horse. His subsequent books are wonderful too: Dog Gods (2010), More Than Human (2012), Evolution (2013), Endangered (2017), Who Am I? (for children, 2019), and Birds (2021).

I urge you to have a look at his website, which not only shows you the breadth of his work but also has one of the best opening pages I've ever seeen....

From Equus © by Tim Flach

 The photographs above are from Equus by Tim Flach (Abrams, 2008); all rights reserved by the artist. The passages quoted above are from "A Storm, the Cornfield, and Elk," and "The Smooth Skull of Winter," essays published in The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich (Viking Pengun, 1985); all rights reserved by the author. I also recommend her related books, A Match to the Heart (1994) and Unsolaced (2021).

Breaking open

Waterfall 1

Winter storms are swelling the streams on our hill, and the winter holidays are approaching. It is can be hard to engage with holiday cheer after the death of a loved one, and yet the seasonal rituals are comforting too. To any of you who are also dealing with loss right now -- grieving a relative or friend or animal companion -- I send sympathy and solidarity. A member of my American family died six weeks ago (Sally, who was technically my aunt, but we were just two years apart in age and grew up together in my grandmother's house as sisters); and although the worst of the shock has passed, waves of sorrow still hit with the slightest memory trigger. During such times I am finding sustenance in two favourite books by two remarkable women: Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore and The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich. This passage is from Moore's Wild Comfort:

"'There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature,' Rachel Carson wrote. 'The assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.'

"I have never felt this so strongly as I do now, waiting for the sun to warm my back. The bottom may drop out of my life, what I trusted may fall away completely, leaving me astonished and shaken. But still, sticky leaves emerge from bud scales that curl off the tree as the sun crosses the sky. Darkness pools and drains away, and the curve of the new moon points to the place where the sun will rise again. There is wild comfort in the cycles and the intersecting circles, the rotations and revolutions, the growing and ebbing of this beautiful and strangely trustworthy world.

Waterfall 2

Waterall 3

Waterfall 4

 "I settle back on the rock and drag my sleeping bag over my knees. Diffuse light silvers the water; I can just make out a dragonfly nymph that crawls toward the surface with no expectation of flight beyond maybe a tightness in the carapace across its back. No matter how hard it tries or doesn't, there will come a time when the dragonfly pumps the crinkles out of its wings, and there they will be, luminous as mica, threaded with lapis and gold.

Waterfall 5

Waterfall 6

Waterfall 7

Waterfall 8

 "No measure of human grief can stop Earth in its tracks. Earth rolls into sunlight and rolls away again, continents glowing green and gold under the clouds. Trust this, and there will come a time when dogged, desperate trust in the world will break open into wonder. Wonder leads to gratitude. Gratitude into peace." 

Waterfall 9

Waterfall 10

Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore

Waterfall 11

Waterfall 13

Where, or how, do you find wild comfort?


 The passage quoted above is from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, essays by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter Books, 2010); all rights reserved by the author.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

''Winter Sunrise'' by Stanley Roy Badmin

Storms have stripped leaves off the trees and the air grows colder by the day; it is safe to say winter is here. There has been no snow in Chagford yet, but on these dark, chill mornings I can almost taste it in the air. Let's start the week with music for the season, full of snow, hail and gusting winds....

Above: "And the Snow Did Lie" by Welsh composer Hilary Tann, performed the international Sirius Quartet (Fung Chern Hwei, Gregor Huebner, Ron Lawrence, Jeremy Harman). Tann's gorgeous multimedia piece is based on André Bergeron’s lithographs for Germaine Guèvremont’s French-Canadian classic, Le Survenant. 

Below: "The Snows They Melt the Soonest," performed by Irish folksinger Cara Dillon (from County Derry). The song was collected in Newcastle by Thomas Doubleday, published in 1821, and popularised in the 20th century folk revival by Anne Briggs, Archie Fisher and Dick Gaughin. Dillon's rendition is from her third album, After the Morning (2006).

Above: "Bird of the Blizzard" by Scottish singer/songwriter Julie Fowlis (from the Hebrides), created for Spell Songs II: Let The Light In (2021). This is the second collaborative album based on The Lost Words and The Lost Spells, two beautiful books on language and nature by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. Both of the albums and both of the books are highly, highly recommended. I love this new spell song...not least because I was born in the middle of a blizzard.

Below: "The Wild Geese," performed by folksinger and Scottish language advocate Iona Fyfe (from Aberdeenshire). The song is based on an old Scots poem by Violet Jacob, with music by Jim Reid.

Above: "One Star Awake" by English musicians & composers Laura Cannell (from Sussex) and Kate Ellis (from Essex). Based on the traditional Irish song "She Moved Through the Fair," this piece for violin, cello and church organ is from their Winter Rituals EP (2020). The sculpture in the video was created by Rachael Long, Sarah Cannell and Andy Jarrett, experimenting with steel and firewick to create a full-size flaming marsh pony, filmed in Norfolk last December.

Below: "Goodbye England, Covered in Snow" by English singer/songwriter Laura Marling (based in London), performing with the 12 Ensemble at the Royal Albert Hall in  2020. The song can be found on Marling's early album I Speak Because I Can (2010).

The imagery above: "Winter Sunrise" by Stanley Roy Badmin, for Ladybird Books. To see more Ladybird art, visit Helen Day's excellent Ladybird flyaway home website.