Little shape-shifters

In the video above, Cornelia Funke (author of The Thief Lord, Inkheart, etc.) speaks about the need for wilderness in children's lives. "Kids are so very good at still being shape-shifters, and shifting into feathers and fur. They still understand that we are connected to everything in this world, and that we are part of an incredibly intricate woven web of life and creatures."

Born in Dorsten, West Germany, Funke began her career as a social worker focused on children from deprived backgrounds; she then became a book illustrator before turning her hand to writing fantasy for young readers. Funke and her family moved from Hamburg, Germany to California in 2005. 

Detail from The Dreaming - T Windling"I'm fascinated by stories that stem from a particular place," she says. "That started with The Thief Lord, which wouldn't have come into being if it weren't for Venice. In the stories I choose to tell, places always play the role of a hero. I have also always been interested in the non-human and our relationship to that – whether plants or animals or imaginary creatures. I'm interested in everything that scratches at and questions the so-called reality that we perceive.

"When I'm standing on the street in Hamburg and there is one of those stepping stones under my feet, which is there to remind me of the Jews that were deported from the house I'm standing in front of, then that hugely scratches at the reality I find myself in at that moment. I might just have come back from a peaceful walk across the Isemarkt market square, for example. It scratches at my reality when a bird flies by me and I imagine how it views reality. It scratches at my reality when someone passes me by who has a different color of skin. How does that change the experience with world? We all know it does.

"It constantly scratches at my reality that we can perceive this world so differently. I find it absurd I'm asked so often why I write fantasy, because I think that reality is fantastic. And the only way to get closer to it is to write fantasy."

Little Shape-shifters - T Windling

"I write stories I love to read myself. And I am profoundly enchanted by children and young readers, by their openness and curiosity, by their will to still ask the big questions about the world: where do we come from? What is this all about? Why is the world so beautiful and terrible at the same time? Children also still understand that we are just part of a huge web and connected to every plant and creature on this planet. They are still shape shifters and go easily into a story, whereas adults often hesitate to allow their imagination to give them feathers and wings."

The Lost Child - T Windling

The paintings and drawings are by me today. They are: A detail from "The Dreaming," three little shape-shifters, and "The Lost Child." The last one was painted for our daughter when she was young and going through a hard time. Every child needs a Guardian Spirit. I know that I certainly did.

The Cornelia Funke quotes are from interviews in Scroll.in (Dec. 2, 2018) and DW (Oct. 12, 2018). The video is from The Wilderness Society (Feb. 17, 2012). All rights to text and imagery reserved by the author, filmmaker, and artist.


A figment of fog

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Gange

Following on from yesterday's post...

Here's one more selection from David Gange's excellent book The Frayed Atlantic Edge , weaving history, literary reflections, and vivid descriptions of the natural world into the story of a year-long journey down the coast of Britain and Ireland by kayak. In the following passage, the author is heading to the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Hebrides:

''A folk history of the wests coasts of Great Britain and Ireland like no other.''"The long, dark night I spent between knuckles of knock and lochan on the edge of the Inner Sound was intensely atmospheric. I hunkered down against a thin smurr of rain, sometimes caught in moonlight, with the thick smell of sodden peat eclipsing the salt of sea just feet away. And I read about the most celebrated boats to have plied this water. The book I read, Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair's The Birlinn of Clanranald, is one of the great Gaelic seafaring epics: an Iliad in which the Troy to be stormed is this Hebridean sea itself. Written in the 1750s, it's set at a time before Culloden, when islanders still wore kilts and chain shirts: its symbols often seem to belong to the 15th and 18th centuries simultaneously. The author was a Jacobite who commanded fifty men and tutored Prince Charlie. When Hanover triumphed at Culloden he left the mainland for the Hebrides to escape recrimination for the scathing verse he'd aimed at the new royals. His world remained that of the seafaring clans MacDonald and Clanranald: the north of Ireland, Argyll, Islay, Uist, Canna and Skye.

Birlinn"The birlinn was bigger than the sixareens of Shetland, comprising twelve to eighteen oars and a square sail. Although clinker-built in the Norse tradition, it was a further step removed from Norway, not double-ended but with a flat sterm to permit a steering oar or a rudder. Sailing seas north from Ireland, birlinns became a currency of leige and lordship: the number of galleys a clan could muster defined its prestige. The birlinn is therefore immortalised on clan crests and the walls of coastal chapels such as Rodel (Harris) and Rob Donn's Balnakeil. The birlinn is therefore immortalised on clan crests and the walls of coastal chapels such as Rodel (Harris) and Rob Donn's Balnakeil. Just as the culture of Sutton Hoo dragged boats up hills for symbolic burials, the societies of these islands brought the sea ashore, placing symbolic ships at the centre of their towns, castles and churches. In this way, the birlinn became an icon of the Atlantic ties that bound Ireland, Man, Argyll and the Hebrides. It recalls cultural formations, such as the Lordship of the Isles, that show Scotland -- like England, Wales, Ireland and Britain -- to be an idea moving through these islamds only a little slower than a ship at sea. Before these nations, each only really united by modern legal codes, there were, for millenia, loose confederations of multilingual, multi-ethnic interest groups.

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Grange

"Tradition holds that, seeking inspiration for The Birlinn of Clanranald while he was baillie of the isle of Canna, Alasdair lay beneath an unturned vessel on a Hebridean shore. Entombing himself in darkness, with only the smell of the boat for company, was a strategy to spark imagination. The principle became an idée fixe among Atlantic aficionados. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for instance, channelled Alasdair when he claimed to 'only think clearly in the dark' and, in 1948, fled the street lamps of south-east England for waters the birlinns had travelled: he noted, with approval, that the Irish Atlantic he found was 'one of the last pools of darkness in Europe'. Seamus Heaney, at his most elemental and earthy, wrote himself into this proud tradition. Flight  photograph by David GrangeThe final lines of 'North' are set on a long strand with only the 'secular powers of the Atlantic thundering'. The sea inspires reverie that sends the poet spiralling back centuries to see the water as the road of Norsemen. The 'swimming tongue' of a historic longship speaks to Heaney and invokes the poetic darkside:

   ‘Lie down
   in the word-hoard, burrow   
   the coil and glea
   of your furrowed brain.
 
   Compose in darkness.   
   Expect aurora borealis   
   in the long foray
   but no cascade of light.
 
   Keep your eye clear
   as the bleb of the icicle,
   trust the feel of what nubbed treasure   
   your hands have known.’


"It is perhaps surprising that the poetic fiction born of Alasdair's self-imposed enclosure contains such detailed description of the birlinn's structure and the actions of its crew. It is the best evidence we have for the facts of what this vessel was. No examples of the boat -- even wrecked -- survive: in 1493, When James IV absorbed the Lordship of the Isles under the Scottish Crown he demanded that all birlinns be burned to end the power of the sea lords.

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Grange

"Alasdair's birlinn moves through a Hebridean sea that's as cunning and wise as human or animal. It's an old manwith streaming grey hair and a creature with gaping jaws and matted pelt. As a respected foe, the sea's will is pitched against the desires of the boatmen. It responds to being struck with oars until, eventually, it submits to human strength. The boat is also alive, crying out like a person and whinnying like a mare, treading waves not with planks and thwarts but shoulders and thighs. Boat and boatmen are one: the sweat on the sailors' brows is the brine foaming around the bow. And the boat becomes their homeland as they climb creaking mast and ropes 'as quickly as May squirrels on the trees of a dense forest'. At sea all distinctions between animate and inanimate, sentient and insensible, human and animal, flounder. In these verses, as in much writing on its waters, the Minch is layered with metaphor; the inter-island seas are known like friends and rivals; waves and tides are feared or loved like animals of hill and forest. Here is humanity engaged in the quest for mastery over nature: for separation from the seething conflicts of the bestial, elemental world. But to Alasdair's protagonists, before the age of steam and steel, that quest still seemed impossible; dividing lines, distinctions and disentanglements can rarely survive a single line of verse.

Western-isles-385

Western-isles-383

"Next morning, I prepared my own encounter with the grey-haired sea in mist that made me alert to animal encounters. Before I even hit the water, a brute of a dog otter surfaced on its back, scarred snout and crab catch raised above the waves. It didn't bother to acknowledge my presence but rolled like a thing uncoiling, then lolloped noiselessly into brown remains of bracken. It took seconds from its departure for its passing to feel mythic, and moments later I was moving through cold smoke-like rain towards a lunchtime landing beneath the Rona lighthouse.

"This night in the fog had established the tone for the month. As I crossed the Inner Sound and kayaked each long finger of Skye's western edge I breathed mist, drifted through sweeping rain, and saw the island only as shape-shifting cliffs that loomed, suddenly, from saturated skies. Headlands were bands of thick dark haze, and I found I could judge my distance from them not by their size but by the degree to which they blackened the otherwise featureless pall of grey.

photograph by David Grange

"The otter felt like an appropriate sigil of this place because it has long been treated as hybrid and unknowable. Like the barnacle goose, otters were a conumndrum for the monkish administration of Lent: both seemed more fish than bird or mammal. Some Carthusian monks were forbidden meat all year round. Instead, they ate otter. In Norse and Celtic story otters, particularly otter kings, change form and grant wishes, but only in the unlikely event of their capture: the animal's fluidity gives it the character in water of intangible smoke in air. The otter is its element: 'ninety per cent water', to the poet Kenneth Steven, and 'ten per cent god'. But they are also friendly 'water dogs'. They brought St Brendan fish and firewood; they warmed and dried the feet of St Cuthbert when he finished his nightly vigils waist-deep in sea. In the work of the great poet-naturalist Colin Simm the otter is a boat that's 'all rudder'; it is Mesolithic, belonging in an ice melt 'a few thousand years back' when elver-silvered rivers still thronged the landscape. Simms has written hundreds of closely observed otter poems, and in many, floods are the creature's medium. Water sweeps land when, in acts of drainage and deforestation, 'a balance of centuries to the balance-sheet yields'. When otters twist and tumble through redrowned vales a historic ordering of water, earth and animal is reprised in a beautiful unplanned catastrophe of rewilding.

photograph by David Grange

photograph by David Grange

"As poets make otters into ribbons of water, so they make Skye a figment of fog, a realm subject not to divine or human law but to 'amorphous rules of light.' When Richard Hugo, poet of the Pacific Northwest, came to live on Skye he wrote that the shifting mists alter the colour of the island a hundred times a day and 'never stop changing the distance to the pier from your front door'. Skye's epithets -- to the Norse, Island of Cloud; Misty Isle to the Gaels -- are aerial and never earthy. The prevalent sou'westerlies are 'the grey wind' that scoops the otherworld of the sea ashore. This island is the grand centrepiece of the Hebridian world, straddling the Minch both north-south and east-west. Smaller than the land mass of Lewis and Harris, its coastline is far longer: its gangly peninsulas intercept fog-bound vessels on a hundred different inter-island routes.

"Skye's geography has long been mystified: it is '60 miles long', according to the mountaineer W.H. Murray, 'but what might be its breadth is beyond the ingenuity of man to state'. This is perhaps why Skye is the most the most zoomorphic of landscapes: an animal island. When factual delineation falters on its ragged edges, diverse living things scuttle in."

photograph by David Grange

Skye-55 (1)

Seal...or selkie? Photograph by David Gange

The passage quoted is from The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian's Journey from Shetland to the Channel by David Gange (William Collins, 2019).  The photographs are also by Gange; visit the Frayed Edge of the Atlantic website to see more. All rights to the text and photographs above reserved by the author/photographer.


The animals returning

A Deer by Jessica Roux

"Animals Are Entering Our Lives" by Liesel Mueller

“I will take care of you,” the girl said to her brother, who had been turned into a deer. She put her golden garter around his neck and
made him a bed of leaves and moss."  -  from an old tale

Deer by Jessica RouxEnchanted is what they were
in the old stories, or if not that,
they were guides and rescuers of the lost,
the lonely, the needy young men and women
in the forest we call the world.
That was back in a time
when we all had a common language.

Then something happened. Then the earth
became a place to trample and plunder.
Betrayed, they fled to the tallest trees,
the deepest burrows. The common language
became extinct. All we heard from them
were shrieks and growls and wails and whistles,
Taproot illustration by Jessica Rouxnothing we could understand.

Now they are coming back to us,
the latest homeless, driven by hunger.
I read that in the parks of Hong Kong
the squatter monkeys have learned to open
soft drink bottles and pop-top cans.
One monkey climbed an apartment building
and entered a third-floor bedroom.
He hovered over the baby’s crib
like a curious older brother.
Here in Illinois
Zaftig illustration by Jessica Rouxthe gulls swarm over the parking lots
miles from the inland sea,
and the Canada geese grow fat
on greasy leftover lunches
in the fastidious, landscaped ponds
of suburban corporations.

Their seasonal clocks have stopped.
They summer, they winter. Rarer now
is the long, black elegant V
in the emptying sky. It still touches us,
though we do not remember why.

But it’s the silent deer who come
and eat each night from our garden,
as if they had been invited.
The Deer and the Oats by Jessica RouxThey pick the tomatoes and the tender beans,
the succulent day-lily blossoms
and dewy geranium heads.
When you labored all spring,
planting our food and flowers,
you did not expect to feed
an advancing population
of the displaced. They come,
like refugees everywhere,
defying guns and fences
and risking death on the road
to reach us, their dispossessors,
who have become their last chance.
Shall we accept them again?
Shall we fit them with precious collars?
They scatter their tracks around the house,
closer and closer to the door,
like stray dogs circling their chosen home.

(from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, 1996) 

Red Squirrel by Jessica Roux

German-American poet and translator Lisel Mueller left us in February, at the age of 96.  Learning of her death, I pulled her books down off the shelves and have been taking them with me on my walks with Tilly, stopping beneath a favourite tree, or by the stream, or at the crest of the hill to re-read her life's work...marvelling again at how fine it is, and how much of it has steeped into my dreams and language over the years.

The piece above is Mueller's folkloric response to Phillip Levine's "Animals Are Passing from Our Lives" (named for a line in an Isak Dinesen interview). The Levine poem was published in 1968, but still resonates in our own age of factory farming and ecological crisis; while Mueller's response, published in 1996, seems remarkably pertinent now, in the "great pause" of the global pandemic, as wildlife resurges and reclaims space usually dominated by humankind. 

(For a previously posted Mueller poem, "Why I Need the Birds," go here.)

Tricksters and Wild African Dog by Jessca Roux

The art today is by Jessica Roux, whose work (animal lover that I am) I just adore. Raised in the woodlands of North Carolina, Roux studied at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia, and now works as a freelance illustrator and stationary designer based in Nashville.

"I can’t get enough of history," she says. "Old lithographs and studies by early naturalists are some of my favorite things. I love medieval bestiaries and the early Northern Renaissance. I’m also really inspired by nature. There are just so many strange plants and animals out there that I want to know more about."

You can see more of Roux's art in a previous post, Skunk Dreams, as well as on the artist's beautiful website

Sleeping Fox by Jessica Roux

"Animals Are Entering Our Lives" is from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press, 1996). All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artist and the author's estate. 


Wild empathy

Walking with Tilly

In yesterday's post, Scott Russell Sanders discussed the act of empathy with animals, and others unlike ourselves, in relation to shamanic shape-shifting: as a means of "reaching out in imagination to a fellow creatures."  Reflecting on this has led me back to Jay Griffith's essay "Forests of the Mind" (2012), on the power of metaphor in shamanism and art. She writes:

"[Shape-shifting] is part of the repertoire of the human mind, cousin to mimesis, empathy and Keats’s 'negative capability,' known to poets and healers since the beginning of time. It did not hold literal truth, quite obviously, but had a 'slanted, metaphoric truth' ....

"Shape-shifting is a transgressive experience, a crossing over: something flickers inside the psyche, a restless flame in a gust of wind, endlessly transformative. The mind moves from its literal pathways to its metaphoric flights. Art is made like this, from a volatile bewitchment, of a self-forgetting and an identification with something beyond.

Walking 2

Walking 3

"Ted Hughes once said that the secret of writing poetry is to 'imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it ... Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn your self into it.' One writing exercise Hughes suggested for students was titled: 'I am the Amazon.' We are what we think, and we humans have a way to become other, in a necessary, wild and radical empathy.

Walking 4

Walking 5

"Shape-shifting involves a willingness to make mimes in the mind, copying something else. Art, meanwhile, depends on mimesis furthering our desire to know and to understand. In a recent, Ovidian, dance piece, 'Swan,' French dancers performed and swam with live swans, imitating the birds in a mime which alluded to the metamorphosis of all art, and to the artists’ ability to lose themselves in order to mirror something beyond.

Walking 6

Walking 7

Walking 8

"'But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we/breathe ourselves out and away,' wrote Rilke in 'The Second Elegy.'

"In making art, the artist expires, breathing herself out to allow the inspiring to happen, the breathing in of glinting universal air, intelligent with many minds, electric and on the loose. Artist, shape-shifter, shaman or poet, all are lovers of metamorphosis, all are minded to vision, insight and dream."

Walking 9

Meadow flowers

Walking 10

I recommend reading Griffith's essay in full, as well as her splendid book Wild: An Elemental Journey -- an exploration of "wildness" and "wilderness" in nature, culture, myth, and art.

Walking 11

Words: The quoted passage by Jay Griffiths above is from "Forests of the Mind" (Aeon Magazine, 12 October, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from Dark Sweet: New & Selected Poems by Linda Hogan (Coffeehouse Press, 2014). All rights reserved by the authors. 

Pictures: An afternoon walk and a visit with some of our neighbours in the Devon hills.


For World Otter Day: the blessing of otters

Kickapoo by Rebecca Tobey

One of the mythic borderlands I'm especially drawn to (as evidenced by my writing and art over the decades) is the place where humans and animals meet: as neighbors, as cousins who speak each other's language, as shape-shifters in each other's skins.

"Long ago the trees thought they were people," says Tulalip storyteller Johnny Moses, recounting a traditional tale. "Long ago the mountains thought they were people. Long ago the animals thought they were people. Someday they will say, 'long ago the humans thought they were people.' "

River Shaman by Rebecca TobeyIn "Voyageur," a gorgeous essay by Scott Russell Sanders, the writer and his daughter watch otters during a camping trip in the borderlands between Minnesota and Ontario. What was it that kept him riveted to the spot, watching the animals with such intense fascination? What did the otters mean to him, and what did he want from them?

"Not their hides, as the native people of this territory, the Ojibwa, or the old French voyageurs might have wanted; not their souls or meat," he writes. "I did not even want their photograph, although I found them surpassingly beautiful. I wanted their company. I desired their instruction -- as if, by watching them, I might learn to belong somewhere as they so thoroughly belonged here. I yearned to slip out of my skin and into theirs, to feel the world for a spell through their senses, to think otter thoughts, and then to slide back into myself, a bit wiser for the journey.

"In tales of shamans the world over, men and women make just such leaps, into hawks or snakes or bears, and then back into human shape, their vision enlarged, their sympathy deepened. I am a poor sort of shaman. My shape never changes, except, year by year, to wrinkle and sag. I did not become an otter, Messenger of the Gods by Gene & Rebecca Tobeyeven for an instant. But the yearning to leap across the distance, the reaching out in imagination to a fellow creature, seems to me a worthy impulse, perhaps the most encouraging and distinctive one we have. It is the same impulse that moves us to reach out to one another across differences of race or gender, age or class. What I desired from the otters was also what I most wanted from my daughter and from the friends with whom we were canoeing, and it is what I have always desired from neighbors and strangers. I wanted their blessing. I wanted to dwell alongside them with understanding and grace. I wanted them to go about their lives in my presence as though I were kin to them, no matter how much I might differ from them outwardly."

Hawkeye by Rebecca Tobey

Later in essay, Sanders writes about two loons who wake him in the middle of the night, "wailing back and forth like two blues singers demented by love," and the bald eagle who watches their progress down the river from its perch on a dead tree's branch. What did the eagle see, he wonders?

Dancing With the Wind by Gene & Rebecca Tobey"Not food, surely, and not much of a threat, or it would have flown. Did it see us as fellow creatures? Or merely as drifting shapes, no more consequential than clouds? Exchanging
stares with this great bird, I dimly recalled a passage from Walden that I would look up after my return to the company of books:

"'What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?'

"Neuroscience may one day pull off that miracle, giving us access to other eyes, other minds. For the present, however, we must rely on our native sight, on patient observation, on hunches and empathy. By empathy, I do not mean the projecting of human films onto nature's screens, turning grizzly bears into teddy bears, crickets into choristers, grass into lawns; I mean the shaman's leap, a going out of oneself into the inwardness of other beings.

Big Horn Sheep Shaman by Gene & Rebecca Tobey"The longing I heard in the cries of the loons was not just a feathered version of mine, but neither was it wholly alien. It is risky to speak of courting birds as blues singers, of diving otters as children taking turns on a slide. But it is even riskier to pretend we have nothing in common with the rest of nature, as though we alone, the chosen species, were centers of feeling and thought. We cannot speak of that common ground without casting threads of metaphor outward from what we know and what we do not know.

"An eagle is other, but it is also alive, bright with sensation, attuned to the world, and we respond to that vitality wherever we find it, in bird or beetle, in moose or lowly moss. Edward O. Wilson has given this impulse a lovely name, biophilia, which he defines as the urge 'to explore and affiliate with life.' Of course, like the coupled dragonflies that skimmed past our canoes or like osprey hunting fish, we seek other creatures for survival. Yet even if biophilia is an evolutionary gift, like the kangaroo's leap or the peacock's tail, our fascination with living things carries us beyond the requirements of eating and mating. In that excess, that free curiosity, there may be a healing power. The urge to explore has scattered humans across the whole earth -- to the peril of many species, including our own; perhaps the other dimension of biophilia, the desire to affiliate with life, could lead us to honor the entire fabric and repair what has been torn."

Hawk Bear & Deer Dancers by Gene & Rebecca Tobey

In the conclusion of his essay, Sanders points out that the fellowship of all creatures "is more than a handsome metaphor. The appetite for discovering such connections is also entwined in our DNA. Science articulates in formal terms affinities that humans have sensed for ages in direct encounters with wildness. Even while we slight or slaughter members of our own species, and while we push other species toward extinction, we slowly, Keeper of the Trust by Gene & Rebecca Tobeypainstakingly acquire knowledge that could enable us and inspire us to change our ways. Only if that knowledge begins to exert a pressure in us, and we come to feel the fellowship of all beings as potently as we feel hunger and fear, will we have any hope of creating a truly just and tolerant society, one that cherishes the land and our wild companions along with our brothers and sisters.

"In America lately, we have been carrying on two parallel conversations: one about respecting human diversity, the other about preserving natural diversity. Unless we merge those conversations, both will be futile. Our efforts to honor human differences cannot succeed apart from our effort to honor the buzzing, blooming, bewildering variety of life of earth. All life rises from the same source, and so does all fellow feeling, whether the fellow moves on two legs or four, on scaly bellies or feathered wings. If we care only for human needs, we betray the land; if we care only for the earth and its wild offspring, we betray our own kind. The profusion of creatures and cultures is the most remarkable fact about our planet, and the study and stewardship of that profusion seems to me our fundamental task."

A shelf of small bear shaman sculptures by Gene & Rebecca Tobey

The sculptures pictured here are by the New Mexican artists Gene and Rebecca Tobey, who worked for years in a fertile partnership creating scuptures, paintings, and drawings inspired by nature and the mythic symbolism of the North American continent. (The titles of the pieces can be found in the picture captions.) Gene died of leukemia in 2006, but Rebecca carries on their beautiful work. Please visit her website to learn more.

The Gift by Gene & Rebecca Tobey

The essay quoted above is from Scott Russell Sander's Writing From the Center, which I highly recommend. My well-thumbed copy of the book is pictured below, alongside our own furry shape-shifter....

There are days when she's a wolf prowling through the woods, days when she's a grass owl nesting in the green, and days when she answers only to Little Bear. But at her core she remains her dear unique self. Just as we do, shape-shifters every one of us.

Writing From the Center by Scott Russell Sanders

Writing from the Center by Scott Russell Sanders was published by Indiana University Press, 1997. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artists.


Nature and joy

Migrant Megamoths (convolvulas hawkmoths in the Apuan Alps) by Lorenzo Shoubridge

The Moth Snowstorm

Here's another absolutely beautiful passage from The Moth Snow Storm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy:

"The way we might love the natural world, as opposed to being wary of it, or instinctively conscious of its utility, may be thought of as commonplace; but over the years it has increasingly seemed to me a remarkable phenomenon. For after all, it is only our background, our context, the milieu from which, like all other creatures, we have emerged. Why should it evoke in us any emotion beyond those, such as fear and hunger, that are needed for survival? Can an otter love its river? And yet it is the case that the natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy.

"Although I feel strongly that this is one of the greatest things in our lives -- never more important than now -- it seems quite mysterious in its origins, and certainly in the force it can exercise. To be able to be swept up, to be swept away by an aspect of nature such as butterflies; tell me, is that something in nature itself, or is it something in us? Once, Christianity offered a ready explanation: our joy in the beauty and life of the earth was our joy in the divine work of its creator. But as Christianity fades, the undeniable fact that the natural world can spark love in us becomes more of an enigma.

Portrait of a Mother (wild pumas) by Ingo Arndt

Frozen Moment (two male Dall sheep in the Yukon, Canada) by Jérémie Villet

"You can see far more easily why it engenders some other powerful emotions, with, for example, the big beasts. The first big beast I ever saw in the wild was a black rhino, in Nambia. It was about a hundred yards away, a ton of double-horned power glaring straight at me with nothing but low scrub between us; and although I knew it had poor eyesight, it was twitching its ultra-sensitive ears like revolving radar antennae, trying to pick me up and draw a bead on me, and I was transfixed: my heart pounded, my mouth dried, I looked around for shelter. But if I was afraid, there was a stronger and stranger feeling coursing through me. I felt in every way more alive. I felt as alive as I had ever been.

"The next day I saw an African buffalo for the first time, a great black mass of menace which made me even more nervous than the rhino had, yet I experienced precisely the same sensation: mixed in with the anxiety, with the fear of being killed, and buffalos will kill you, was the feeling in the animal's proximity of living more intensely, of somehow living almost at another level. And when later that day in a dry riverbed I saw, close to, my first wild elephant, the most dangerous of them all, I felt again, intermingled with the wariness, something akin to passion.

A Taste of Peace (elephant in Mozambique) by Charlie Hamilton James

Canopy Hang-out (brown-throated three-toed sloth) by Carlos Pérez Naval

"They are surely very old, these feelings. They are lodged deep in our tissues and emerge to surprise us. For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constant reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.

The Aquabatic Antelope (red lechwe, south central Africa) by Branson Meaker

"It is to those fifty thousand generations that our fascination with the big beasts harks back; their magnificence triggers an awe in us, the still surviving awe of our ancestors who pursued them, full of fear and hope, piously painting their images on the walls of caves. On the rock faces of Lascaux and Chauvet, where the fear and hope coalesce into worship, we have astonishing insights into a world of long-gone people whose lives revolved around dangerous animals and their slaughter, and who must therefore have lived, with mortality ever present, at that elevated and passionate level we still sense when we come up against the great beasts ourselves, in their natural surroundings.

"Yet a stray thought plays about my mind, haunts its corners, refuses to leave: it must also be the case that the hunter-gatherers saw butterflies. Were they indifferent? All of them? Even to swallowtails? Somehow I doubt it. I think the point must have arrived where such unlikely, brilliant beings could not but register with observers, even those obsessed with survival and violence and death -- for a moment must have come in prehistory when someone, for the first time, waited for a swallowtail to settle, to better look on it, and marvelled at what was there in front of them."

Meadow Beauty (pearl-bordered fritillary, Sweden) by Alfons Lilja

War Dance (desert toad-headed agamas) by Victor Tyakh

McCarthy argues that the joy and wonder that the natural world evokes in us should take a role in our defence of it, especially for those of us working in the arts in various forms:

"In a famous preface to one of his short novels, Joseph Conrad pointed out that the enterprise of the scientist or the intellectual may have a more immediate impact, but that of the artist is more enduring because it goes far deeper; the statement of fact, however powerful, does not take hold like the image does. I believe that in defending the natural world, the time has come to offer up the images.

"What I mean is, it is time for a different, formal defence of nature. We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.

Dinner Duty (great grey owls, Sweden) by Tommy Pedersen

"This has been celebrated, of course, for centuries. But it has never been put forward as a formalised defence of the natural world, for two reasons. Firstly, because the mortal threat itself is not centuries old, but has arisen merely in the space of my own lifetime; and secondly, because the joy that nature gives us cannot be quantified in a generalised way. We can generalise, or, indeed, monetise the value of nature's services in satisfying our corporal needs, since we have all broadly the same continuous requirement for food and shelter; but we have infinitely different longings for solace and understanding and delight. Their value is modulated, not through economic assessment, but through the personal experiences of individuals. So we cannot say -- alas that we cannot -- that birdsong, like coral reefs, is worth 375 billion dollars a year in economic terms, but we can say, each of us, that at this moment and at this place it was worth everything to me.

"Shelley did so with his skylark, and Keats with his nightingale, and Thomas Hardy with the skylark of Shelley, and Edward Thomas with his unknown bird, and Philip Larkin with his song thrush in a chilly spring garden, but we need to remake, remake, remake, not just rely on the poems of the past, we need to to it ourselves -- proclaim these worths through our own experiences in the coming century of destruction, and proclaim them loudly, as the reason why nature must not go down. 

"It is only through specific personal experience that the case can be made, which is why I will offer mine...and I will do so not just as a celebration of [nature], but as a conscious, engaged act of defence. Defence through joy, if you like. For nature, as human society takes a wrecking ball to the planet, has never needed more defending."

I couldn't agree more.

The Albatross Cave (Te Tara Koi Koia, New Zealand) by Thomas P Peschak

I urge you to read McCarthy's passionate, poignant, and beautifully written book. It is heart-rending, but also heart-mending, and as deeply moving as a book can be.

The Plumage Parade (penguins on Marion Island) by Thomas P Peschak

The gorgeous imagery today is from 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, which runs until May 2020. The titles and photographer credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

Early Riser (female gelada, Ethiopian highlands) by Riccardo Marchegiani

The Charm of Ruthy (female striped hyena) by Ariel Fields

The passages quoted above are from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015); all rights reserved by the author. Right to the photographs above are reserved by the photographers, and The Natural History Museum.

Two related posts: The Blessings of Otters and The Dance of Joy and Grief. I also recommend the recent interview with folk singer Sam Lee published in The Evening Standard (8 January, 2020).


Attention animal lovers

Arthur Rackham

My smart, talented, adventurous and big-hearted goddaughter Ely Todd-Jones is raising funds in order to go volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, which is one of the most respected animal rescue & rehabilitation centers in Southeast Asia. Would you consider lending your support -- either through a contribution (no matter how small), or by spreading the word of the campaign?

There's more information here on Ely's fund-raising page.

Elephants are magnificent creatures, and their numbers are diminishing due the stress of sharing the planet with us. Ely, who grew up here in Chagford, is pretty magnificent too. Next year she will head to university to study biology and animal communication -- but until then she is devoting her time to wildlife and re-wilding projects.

I am in awe of the work that young people are doing to save our world from environmental catastrophe, but they need our support...and so do the elephants.

Young elephant sleeping at the Elephant Nature Park  Thailand

Images: An illustration from Aesops Fables by Arthur Rackham, and a young elephant sleeping at the Elephant Nature Park.


A day out at Chagford Show

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Yesterday I went to our village's agricultural show, now in its 119th year, celebrating the skills, crafts, and lore of the local farming community, and its central place in life on the moor. Reflecting on the nature of community, I was reminded of this passage from "The Common Life" by essayist Scott Russell Sanders:

"The words community, communion, and communicate all derive from common, and the two syllables of common grow from separate roots, the first meaning 'together' or 'next to,' the second having to do with barter or exchange. Embodied in that word is a sense of our shared life as one of giving and receiving -- music, touch, ideas, recipes, stories, medicine, tools, the whole range of artifacts and talents.

"After twenty-five years with [my wife] Ruth, that is how I have come to understand marriage, as a constant exchange of labor and love. We do not calculate who gives how much; if we had to, the marriage would be in trouble. Looking outward from this community of two, I see my life embedded in ever-larger exchanges -- those of family and friendship, neighborhood and city, countryside and county -- and on every scale there is giving and receiving, calling and answering.

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"Many people shy away from community out of a fear that it may become suffocating, confining, even vicious; and of course it may, if it grows rigid or exclusive. A healthy community is dynamic, stirred up the energies of those who already belong, open to new members and fresh influences, kept in motion by the constant battering of gifts. It is fashionable just now to speak of this open quality as 'tolerance,' but that word sounds too grudging to me -- as though, to avoid strife, we must grit our teeth and ignore whatever is strange to us.

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"The community I desire is not grudging; it is exuberant, joyful, grounded in affection, pleasure, and mutual aid. Such a community arises not from duty or money but from the free interchange of people who share a place, share work and food, sorrows and hopes. Taking part in the common life means dwelling in a web of relationships, the many threads tugging at you while also holding you upright."

Chagford Show 9

Prize-winning sheep

In an interview in 2004, writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams also spoke of the value of putting down roots in an increasingly peripatetic world:

"It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home. What does that mean to finally commit to a place, to a people, to a community? It doesn't mean it's easy, but it does mean you can live with patience, because you're not going to go away.

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"It also means commitment to bear witness, and engaging in 'casserole diplomacy' by sharing food among neighbors, by playing with the children and mending feuds and caring for the sick. These kinds of commitment are real. They are tangible. They are not esoteric or idealistic, but rooted in the bedrock existence of where we choose to maintain our lives.

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"That way we begin to know the predictability of a place. We anticipate a species long before we see them. We can chart the changes, because we have a memory of cycles and seasons; we gain a capacity for both pleasure and pain, and we find the stregnth within ourselves and each other to hold these lines. That's my definition of family. And that's my definition of love."

Chagford Show 21

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Chagford Show 22

Words: The passage above is from "The Common Life" by Scott Russell Sanders,  published in his essay collection Writing from the Center (Indiana University Press, 1995). The passage by Terry Tempest Williams comes from an interview by Derrick Jensen in Listening to the Land: Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Ethos (Chelsea Green, 2004). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Chagford Show, 2019. I've blurred the faces of the children displaying their sheep for privacy's sake.


The language of the animate earth

Ponies 1

From The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception & Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram:

"The sense of being immersed in a sentient world is preserved in the oral stories of indigenous peoples --in the belief that sensible phenomena are all alive and aware, in the assumption that all things have the capacity for speech. Language, for oral peoples, is not a human invention but a gift of the land itself.

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"I do not deny that human language has its uniqueness, that from a certain perspective human discourse has little in common with the sounds and signals of other animals, or with the rippling speech of the river. I wish simply to remember that this was not the perspective held by those who first acquired, for us, the gift of speech.

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"Human language evolved in a thoroughly animistic context; it necessarily functioned, for many millenia, not only as a means of communication between humans, but as a way of propitiating, praising, and appeasing the expressive powers of the surrounding terrain. Human language, that is, arose not only as a means of attunement between persons, but also between ourselves and the animate landscape.

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"The belief that meaningful speech is a purely human property was entirely alien to those oral communities that first evolves our various ways of speaking, and by holding to such a belief today we may well be inhibiting the spontaneous activity of language. By denying that birds and other animals have their own styles of speech, by insisting that the river has no real voice and that the ground itself is mute, we stifle our direct experience. We cut ourselves off from the deep meanings of many of our words, severing our language from that which supports and sustains it.

"We wonder then why we are so often unable to communicate even among ourselves."

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The pictures today are of our local Dartmoor pony herd and their newborn foals. (The last time I posted pony photos here, the mares were still pregnant.) These semi-wild ponies travel between the hills of Chagford (full of tender green grass for grazing) and the open moor; the sheltered slope of our village Commons is where they come to give birth each year. It's been a good season for the ponies: we've counted ten new foals in all. I watch the movement of the herd across the valley from the windows of my hillside studio, and the hound and I make daily visits to the Commons to check on the foals' progress. They are exquisite.

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Ponies 15

Words: The passage above is from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996). The poem in the picture captions, "A Blessing" by James Wright, is from Above the River: The Complete Poems & Selected Prose (Wesleyan University Press, 1990). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Photographs of the new crop of foals on the village Commons, taken shortly after they were born, earlier this spring. More recent photos to follow. 

Related posts: Living in a storied world, Animalness, Relationship & reciprocity, and The speech of animals.


Falling in love with a place

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In yesterday's post, Sharon Blackie suggests that one way to feel at home wherever it is you find yourself planted is to "learn the ecology, history, language, culture, mythology of your place." Philip Marsden did exactly than when he moved into a tumbledown farmhouse in Cornwall. In his beautiful book Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place, he recounts the experience of renovating the house, puzzles out the history of the land that it sits on, then widens his scope to the mythic and social history of Cornwall , tramping the land to better understand the rugged, wild county he loves.

"We weren't looking to move house," he writes. "We were perfectly happy living in a Cornish seaside village. Our children had just started at the primary school. We had a little boat, and I thought that after the chaotic years of early parenthood, a degree of control was once again settling over our lives. But that May, Charlotte spotted in the local newspaper an old farmhouse for sale. We arranged to view it -- curiosity, nothing more. Yet as we drove down the grass-centered track, and saw the arena of rounded hills and the network of oak-fringed creeks and the first glimpse of the house, its chimneys and slate roof rising from beyond a field of barley, I had the sense that our cozy domestic world was about to be shattered....

Shaun the Sheep

"Built at a time before railways made their full impact on Cornwall, the farmhouse was designed for work. The garden was a narrow strip of grass before the proper business of pasture. Mains power only reached the house in the 1980s; its water was still pumped up from a hand-dug well. A field was attached, and it rose slightly -- sheltering the house from the worst of the wind -- before dropping on three sides to the creek. Standing in the field on our first visit, seeing the house with only the roof and top-floor windows visible, I convinced myself that it represented an ageless integrity with the land around it, and felt sure it would pour beneficence over anyone lucky enough to live there. Such delusions are only possible for the besotted. In the days and weeks that followed, I learned that 'falling in love with a place' meant exactly that -- with all its downsides, its yearnings and mood swings."

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But the progress of love was not smooth. Marsden and his wife put their seaside house on the market, but could find no buyer. A year passed, and the farmouse was withdrawn from sale. Then, just as suddenly, it was back on the market again.

"Now like a stalker, I began to take real walks down through the woods towards it," he relates. "I learnt to anticipate the exact point, just under a mile away, where the roof would appear through the trees (beside the pheasant pens, on the edge of the maize field). The path led down toward a side creek and the house was then lost from view -- but I could see the field across the corridor of mud flats and the sessile oaks that bordered it. Every tree and shrub I scrutinized. I knew it was unwise to dwell on something that might never happen -- but, well, I couldn't help myself.

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"Another year passed. Our house did not sell. Viewers came and went. Buyers turned out not to be buyers. The banks froze up. And then, suddenly, it was all resolved. A date was fixed. I scrambled to finish the manuscript of a book and sent it off to my publisher just days before the removal lorries arrived. Clearing out years of accumulated junk, burning papers, scooping up yards and yards of books, watching the dismantling of rooms I had known all my life, the stripping of a house I had once yearned for in the same way, I felt only reckless excitment about what was ahead. I kept expecting the leg-buckling coup of nostalgia, even the tiniest stab of sadness or regret -- but it never came."

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They move into the farmhouse at last, and begin the long, slow work of reclaiming a place neglected for many years -- recovering the farm's original features, its kitchen garden, its history. Marsden writes:

"Long before the farmhouse was built in the mid-nineteenth century, a substantial manor had stood on the site -- not exactly here, but eighty meters or so towards the creek. In the diocesan records, there remain a few scant references to the house, to its lands stretching many miles to the south, and to a Norman family, the Petits, who owned it all. A strategic position on the river -- as well as the ancient Cornish name [Ardevora] -- suggests long use of the site, and I imagined it as one of those hubs in the nation-of-sorts that once connected estuaries in Wales and Ireland and Brittany, Iberia and Scotland.

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"In 1420, an application was made by the Petits to build a chapel. But within a century, the estate was breaking up. A generation of daughters married away -- the eldest into the Killigrew family, whose lands at the mouth of the Fal were better suited to the new age. The upper reaches of the river, a conduit for Cornish tin since antiquity, were suffering a slow paralysis. Silt was clogging the riverbed, pushing the navigatable waters far back to the open sea.

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"One evening, working on a length of overgrown wall, I sliced through the stem of a cotoneaster, yanked it out and exposed what looked like part of a large stone basin. I cleared the roots and found it was a piece of black granite, dry-laid on the slate wall. I heaved it free. Upended on the grass, it was clear what it was: a piece of medieval tracery, the top half of a cinquefoil window. The chapel! I ran my fingers along the crescent edges of the rebate. I thought of sunlight falling through the glass, patterning the wood benches below and morning prayers, and the yards around the building busy with animals and work, and ships at anchor in the deep-water creek, and the mingle of Breton and Cornish, Welsh and Irish.

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"Knowing a little of the past brought with it the first sense of belonging. In 1954, Martin Heidegger wrote in an influential essay called 'Building Dwelling Thinking,' in which he explores the close connection of the three '-ings' of his title -- a connection emphasized by his mannered omission of commas. He takes as his example a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse in the Black Forest. Such a place -- with echoes of Ardevora -- combined religious belief, domestic life and local topography: 'Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals, enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house. It placed the farm on the wind-sheltered mountain slope looking south, among the meadows close to the spring.'

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" 'Dwelling' for Heidegger meant much more than just living in a house. It described a way of being in the world. In Old English and High German, he shows how the word buan -- meaning both 'building' and 'to dwell' -- is linked to the verb 'to be.' (The same is true of Cornish and Brittonic languages: bos in Cornish is a verbal noun meaning both 'to be' and a 'building' or 'dwelling.') So to be is 'to be in a place.' Only by knowing our surroundings, being aware of topography and the past, can we live what Heidegger deems an 'authentic' existence. Heidegger is pretty severe about what constitutes authenticity, but his 'dwelling' does highlight something we've lost in our hyper-connected world, something I found myself rediscovering that spring down the end of a long track: the ability to immerse ourselves in one place. Heidegger also wrote: 'Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build' (his italics). I felt he was pointing his magisterial finger directly at me."

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If you'd like to know more about Marsden's Rising Ground, I wrote about it here, in 2015, after my first read of it. (I'm half-way through my second read now, and finding it even more interesting this time around.) You'll also find a good interview with the author on the Granta website.

The photographs today were taken on a sheep farm here in Devon. I'm afraid they don't relate to the text very well, but these sweet and gentle creatures are simply too lovely not to share. Perhaps the connection is that my love for the sheep-dotted hills of Devon is every bit as strong as Marsden's for coastal Cornwall.

Rising Ground by Philip Marsden

Words: The passage quoted above is from Rising Ground by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is about abstract painter Bryan Wynter (1915-1975), who lived in Zennor on the Cornish coast. It's from Selected Poems by W.S. Graham (Ecco Press, 1980). All rights reserved by the authors.