Into the woods once again

Woodland gate

From The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays by Wendell Berry:

Drawing by Helen Stratton"We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world -- to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity -- our own capacity for life -- that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.

"We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it."

Woodland work

Every morning I leave my desk and my books to cross the stream into the woods, stepping into the mystery at the heart of this rain-soaked and myth-steeped landscape. When the wider world feels harsh and cacophonous, out here I find solace in simple things: the bite of the wind, the damp velvet of moss, the crackle of leaves beneath my boots and the steaming of Tilly's breath in the cold. Inside, news scrolls across digital screens...but the news that I really need is written in light and lichen and thistle and thorn. I am learning the old, slow language of trees, and the quicksilver poetry of water.

Woodland wall

''Let us keep courage," said Vincent van Gogh, "and try to be patient and gentle. And let us not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil.''  

To which I would add: Let us treat the land with respect. And ourselves. And each other. And go on from there.

Woodland roots

Woodland hound

The passage quoted above is from The Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2002). The poem in the picture captions is from his Collected Poems, 1957-1982 (North Point Press, 1985). All rights reserved by the author.


Walking. Dreaming. Breathing.

Tilly in the autumn woods

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

Light on the hill

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

Autumn in the woods

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

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

Autumnal hound

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


Nurturing hope

Tilly and her friend Old Oak

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

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

"To hope is to gamble. It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope."

Mushrooms in the field 1

Mushrooms in the field 2

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

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

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

Mushrooms in the field 3

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

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

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

Indeed they are.

Hound and Oak

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


Thoughts on the morning after

Woodland hound

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

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

Stay safe. Stay strong.

Woodland hound 2


In the eye of the storm

Fernworthy 1

If I had to chose a single quote to encapsulate my view of life and art, this line from Jeanette Winterson's essay "Art Objects" would be a strong contender: "I had better come clean now and say that I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society."

Yes. That's it exactly.

Fernworthy 2

"Art is central to all our lives," Winterson insists, "not just the better-off and educated. I know that from my own story, and from the evidence of every child ever born -- they all want to hear and to tell stories, to sing, to make music, to act out little dramas, to paint pictures, to make sculptures. This is born in and we breed it out. And then, when we have bred it out, we say that art is elitist, and at the same time we either fetishize art -- the high prices, the jargon, the inaccessibility -- or we ignore it. The truth is, artist or not, we are all born on the creative continuum, and that is a heritage and a birthright of all of our lives."

Fernworthy 3

Reflecting on the nature and value of art, Nobel-Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow once said: "I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."

Fernworthy 4

But there is just so much to distract us right now. Politics. Climate crisis. A world-wide pandemic. Keeping our loved ones safe and the wolf from the door. How do we find that "stillness in chaos" when the din of chaos is everywhere, and so many good people are tense, and angry, and frightened, and flailing?

Fernworthy 5

I turn again and again to these words by Italo Calvino, who knew a thing or two about surviving hard times: "Seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

Fernworthy 6

The books I read are not inferno. The stories I write are not inferno. The people and animals and places I love are not inferno. I am giving them space. I am finding the quiet eye of the storm.

Fernworthy 7

It is here. With you.

Fernworthy 8

Fernworthy 9

The first quote by Jeanette Winterson is from Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy & Effrontery (Jonathan Cape, 1996); the second quote is from "Up Front: Talking With Jeanette Winterson" (The New York Times, Dec. 19, 2008). The Saul Bellow quote is from Conversations With Saul Bellow, edited by Gloria Cronin (University of Mississippi Press, 1994). The Italo Calvino quote is from Invisible Cities (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974). The poem in the picture captions is from The Complete Poems of James Wright (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.