Weather and words

Cuckoo's Nest by Cecelia Levy

Paper art by Celia Levy

From Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane:

"Before you become a writer you must first become a reader. Every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write; this continues to be true throughout a writer's life. The Living Mountain, Waterlog, The Peregrine, Arctic Dreams, My First Summer in the Sierra: these are the books that taught me how to write, but also the books that have taught me how to see...."

Thistle interior by Cecelia Levy

"Books, like landscapes, leave their marks in us. Sometimes these traces are so faint as to be imperceptible -- tiny shifts in the weather of the spirit that do not register on the usual instruments. Mostly these marks are temporary: we close a book, and for the next hour or two the world seems oddly brighter at its edges; or we are moved to a certain kindness or meaness that would otherwise have gone unexpressed. Certain books though, like certain landscapes, stay with us even when we have left them, changing not just our weathers but our climates. The word landmark is from is from the old English landmearc, meaning 'an object in the landscape which, by its conspicuousness, serves as a guide in the direction of one's course.' John Smith, writing in his 1627 Sea Grammar, gives us this definition: 'a Land-marke is any Mountaine, Rocke, Church, Wind-mill or the like, that the Pilot can now by comparing one by another see how they beare by the compasse.' Strong books and strong words can be landmarks in Smith's sense -- offering us both a means of establishing our location and of knowing how we 'beare by the compasse.' "

Acorn by Cecelia Levy

Homeward Bound by Cecelia Levy

The art today is by Swedish paper artist Cecelia Levy. Please visit her website to learn more about her work.

Paper art by Cecelia Levy

Cup by Cecelia LevyThe text above is quoted from Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016), which I high recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


Reading and place

The Tooth Fairy by Su Blackwell

"Reading for me is inextricably tied to place," writes Scottish author Emma Tennant about the books she favored in childhood. It's my favorite of the charming essays to be found in Antonia Fraser's The Pleasures of Reading, for Tennant grew up in a house that seems to have emerged from a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, built by her great-grandfather:

"The Victorian Gothic house -- a 'monstrosity' to some, a 'folly' to others -- to all a decidedly odd place for a person to spend their formative years, cast its long shadow over the books I read. For years no book I read came from anywhere but the bowels and lungs -- and in some cases the twisted attics -- of the Big House that crouched at the end of a valley still then clad with the last shreds of the Ettick Forest. I read up and down the house, and I knew fairly early on that I would never begin to get through it all -- even with the help of the terrifying Demonologie, property of James IV of Scotland, with its turning paper wheels to aid with the casting of spells.

Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

"To begin with that ragged line of Ettrick silver birches outside my window. This was the Fethan wood, where James Hogg set fairy tales and metamorphoses: it was dangerous to walk there, to go up to the ring of bright grass and look down at the house through silver-grey trees. People came out transformed into animals -- or didn't come out at all, to be discovered years later as three-legged stools. I read the Hogg stories -- or they were read to me -- and years before I was able to go on to his great masterpiece, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the account of a man driven insane by Calvinism, by the dictates of the devil who sends him out to kill as one of the Elect -- I could feel the power of Hogg's imagination in the hills and woods and streams that enclosed the house.

Detail from Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

Another detail from Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

"The house could be said to be like an archaeological dig, with the basement providing material contemporaneous with the discoveries of archeologists Arthur Evans or Heinrich Schliemann, and just as startling for a child to discover as it must have been for the archaeologists to unearth the foundations of Knossos or Clytemnestra's tomb. Here were Henty and Ballantyne -- and, most important of all, H. Rider Haggard's She -- all in low rooms hard to find in a labyrinth of tiled passages, cold with a strong smell of rot. Here the strong and brave of the Empire fought their battles and had their impossible adventures; and here I lingered, in disused dairies and stillrooms, reading in a world which was a dusty monument to that vanished and glorious past.

The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

Detail from The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

Another detail from The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

"From the crepuscular vaults of the house there were two ways up. The back stairs led to the schoolrooms, where tubercular daughters had coughed over books of such spectacular dullness that I remember none of them -- except for the fact that some more recent incumbents had left a stash of historical romances by Margaret Irwin and Violet Needham. Here, in the abandoned schoolroom, I was drawn into a past (there were a couple of Georgette Heyers too) of phaetons and darkly scowling artistocrats and games of faro and the like, and for a while I stopped there, until the discovery of Alexander Dumas' The Back Tulip drew me down the stairs again and out into the garden. For the magnetic quality of that extraordinary book led me to search the grassy paths and flower borders for the elusive tulip -- and once I thought I saw it between two yew trees, at the entrance to the garden: a rich, gleaming black flower that would guide me somehow down the paths my own imagination was just beginning to try....

Gormenghast by Su Blackwell

"The attic had books in trunks that had split open with age -- books no-one wanted when they went off to war, or went off to get married, or had no room for anyway. Bees had once swarmed in the attic, and it's to the smell of wax that I remember finding the early Penguins: the Aldous Huxleys, a book called A Month of Sundays, which I have never since been able to trace -- and the odd Agatha Christie, which kept me up there until dark, amongst children's wicker saddles, pictures of dead aunts that no-one would ever want to look at, and a floor covering of dead bees."

The Snow Queen by Su Blackwell

The Luminaries by Su Blackwell

As an American child growing up in a series of unromantic mid-20th century houses, I longed for a Gothic pile like Tennant's, with rooms to explore and books to discover and pathways leading to fairy tale woods. It wasn't until I was grown that I finally lived in house full of history and ghosts: a Matilda by Su Blackwelllittle stone cottage, 400 years old, that I owned for two decades before I was married. That's a story for another day, however, as that was a place that shaped my adult self, not the child I was and thus the writer I became.

What house did you love in childhood? Or long for? Or perhaps still inhabit today? We've been talking about place and home this last week, and the houses in which our earliest years unfolded surely shaped our creative psyches as much as the land or cityscape around them. For me, tossed back and forth between the houses of various relatives, with occasional stints in foster care, the transient aspect of those years led to a deep obsession with the theme of "finding home, place, and family" that runs (whether I consciously mean it to or not) through all of my work. I'd be a different writer if my childhood had been stable and rooted. Not better or worse, just different.

Despite having no single place that was my home, I also associate the books I loved in childhood with places where I first read them, as Emma Tennant does in the delightful passage above. Re-reading such books can whisk us right back, for good or ill....

A potent form of time-traveling indeed.

Detail from Matilda by Su Blackwell

Another detail from Matilda by Su Blackwell

The art today is, of course, by the great British papercut artist Su Blackwell, most of it created in the last year.

”I often work within the realm of fairy-tales and folk-lore," she says. "I began making a series of book-sculpture, cutting-out images from old books to create three-dimensional dioramas, and displaying them inside wooden boxes. For the cut-out illustrations, I tend to lean towards young-girl characters, placing them in haunting, fragile settings, expressing the vulnerability of childhood, while also conveying a sense of childhood anxiety and wonder. There is a quiet melancholy in the work, depicted in the material used, and choice of subtle colour."

Visit the Blackwell's website to see her utterly amazing book sculptures and installations, and go here to see a video in which the artist discusses her creative process. She also has three lovely books out: The Fairytale Princess (with Wendy Jones), Sleeping Beauty Theatre (with Corina Fletcher), and Su Blackwell Book Sculptures.

The Shell Seekers by Su Blackwell

Out of Narnia by Su BlackwellPictures: You'll find the titles of Su Blackwell's sculptures in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artist. Words: The passage by Emma Tennant above is from The Pleasures of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992). All rights reserved by the author.


The books that shape us: 4

Flowering Plants of Great Britain by Kerry Miller

From an essay by Margaret Atwood in The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser:

"I learned to read before I started school. My mother claims I taught myself because she refused to read comics to me. Probably my older brother helped: he was writing comic books himself, and may have needed an audience.

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller"In any case, the first books I can remember are a scribbled-over copy of Mother Goose and several Beatrix Potters, from her Dark Period (the ones with knives, cannabilistic foxes, and stolen babies in them). Then came the complete, unexpurgated Grimms' Fairy Tales, which my parents ordered by mail, unaware that it would contain so many red-hot shoes, barrels full of nails, and mangled bodies. This was in the 1940s, just after the war. It was becoming the fashion, then, to rewrite fairy tales, removing anything too bloodthirsty and prettying up the endings, and my parents were worried that all the skeletons and gouged-out eyes in Grimms' would warp my mind. Perhaps they did, although Bruno Bettleheim has since claimed that this sort of thing was good for me. In any case I devoured these stories, and a number of them have been with me ever since.

"Shortly after this I began to read everything I could get my hands on. At that time my family was spending a lot of time in the northern Canadian bush, where there were no movie theaters, and Book sculpture by Kerry Millerwhere even radio was unreliable: reading was it. The school readers, the notorious milk-and-water Dick and Jane series, did not have much to offer me after Grimms'. See Jane Run, indeed. Instead I read comic books and the backs of cereal boxes. I tried 'girls' books' -- The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope, The Curleytops series by Howard Garis, Cherry Ames, Junior Nurse -- but they weren't much competition for Batman or the red-hot iron shoes. (Anne of Green Gables was an exception; that one I loved.) I made my way through the standard children's classics, some of which I'd already heard, read aloud by my mother -- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, the Alice books, Treasure Island. Gulliver's Travels is not really a children's book, but was considered one because of the giants, so I read that too. 

"I read Canadian animal stories -- those by Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton, for instance -- in which the animals always ended up dead. Such books appeared regularly at Christmas -- adults seemed to think that any book about animals was a children's book -- and I would snivel my way through the trapped, shot and gnawed corpses of the various rabbits, grouse, foxes and wolves that littered their pages, overdosing on chocolates. I read Orwell's Animal Farm, thinking that it too was a story about animals, and was seriously upset by the death of the horse."

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller


Later in the essay, Atwood discusses her reading as an adolescent, ranging from pulp science fiction to Austen and the Brontes. And then, during the years her family lived in Toronto, she discovered the cellar.

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller"My parents had two vices which I have inherited -- they bought a lot of books, and they found it difficult to throw any of them out. The cellar was lined with bookshelves, and I used to go down there and browse among the books, while eating snacks filched from the kitchen -- crackers thickly spread with peanut butter and honey, dates prized off the block of them used for baking, handfuls of raisins, and -- one of my favorites -- lime jelly powder. The whole experience felt like a delicious escape, and my eclectic eating habits complemented what I was reading, which ranged from scientific textbooks on ants and spiders -- my father was an entymologist -- to H.G. Wells' history of almost everything, to the romances of Walter Scott, to old copies of National Geographic, to the theatrical murders of Ngaio Marsh. This is where I came across Churchill's history of the second world war, Orwell's 1984, and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon -- books which did, much later, actually have an influence on something I wrote myself, as The Handmaid's Tale emerged from the same fascination with history and the structure of totalitarian regimes.

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller"All this took place quite apart from school. At school I was practical, and saw myself as someone who would eventually have a serious job of some kind. The drawback to this was that there were only five careers listed for women in the Guidance textbook: home economist, nurse, teacher, airline stewardess, and secretary. Home economists got paid the most, but I was not good at zippers. This was depressing. I read more.

"In English, we were studying a Shakespeare play a year, a good deal of Thomas Hardy and some George Eliot, and a lot of poetry, most of it by the romantics and the Victorians. Writing -- unlike reading -- appeared to be something that had been done some time ago, and very far away. In those days the Canadian high school had not yet discovered either modern poetry or Canada itself; 'Canadian writer' seemed to be a contradiction in terms; and when I realized at the age of sixteen that writing was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, nobody was more surprised than I was."

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller

The art today is by Kerry Miller,  a British "book sculptor" who turns discarded texts into whimsical wonders.

"After many years of working in collage and mixed media," she writes, "I began exploring ways of using old, discarded books, experimenting with deconstructing and rebuilding them to produce unique pieces of artwork. The books are variously sourced and are carefully selected for their illustrations and character, whilst taking into account my perception of how the finished piece will look.

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller

"For each piece I work on, only the illustrations found within that particular book are used. Colour is added using inks or watercolours where I consider that they will enrich and enhance the final effect, giving a sense of depth and energy. These intricately worked 3D books provide tantalising glimpses into a rich past, becoming miniature worlds that allow the viewer to simply tumble into them.

"My work is a means of distilling the essence of a book, whilst releasing the images and allowing them to reach a new audience. I view it as a collaboration, a partnership with the past, giving new purpose to old volumes that may otherwise never see the light of day or simply end up in recycling. As technology threatens to replace the printed word, there has never been a better time to reimagine the book."

Book sculpture by Kerry Miller

The passage by Margaret Atwood above comes from The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992); I recommend reading the essay in full. All rights to the text and art above are reserved by the author and artist.


The Library of the Forest

The hill at dawn, 1

The Library of the Forest

From The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane:

"The library of Miquel Angel Blanco [in Madrid, Spain] is no ordinary library. It is not arranged according to topic and subject, nor is it navigated by means of the Dewey Decimal system. It's full name is the Library of the Forest, La Biblioteca del Bosque. It has so far been a quarter of a century in the making, and at last count it consisted of more than 1,100 books -- though its books are not only books, but also reliquaries. Each book records a journey made by walking, and each contains natural objects and substances gathered along that particular path: seaweed, snakeskin, mica flakes, crystals of quartz, sea beans, lightning-scorched pine timber, the wing of a grey partridge, pillows of moss, worked flint, cubes of pyrite, pollen, resin, acorn cups, the leaves of holm oak, beech, elm. Over the many years of its making, the library has increased in volume and spread in space. It now occupies the entire ground floor and basement of an apartment building in the north of Madrid. Entering the rooms in which it exists feels like stepping into the pages of Jorge Luis Borges story: 'The Library of Babel' crossed with 'The Garden of the Forking Paths,' perhaps....

A book-box in the Biblioteca del Bosque

"The Library of the Forest owes its existence to storm and snow. Between 30 December 1984 and New Year's Day 1985 a severe winter gale struck the Guadarrama Mountains, the sierra of granite and gneiss that slashes north-east to south-west across the high plains of Castille, separating Madrid (to the south) from Segovia (to the north). Thousands of Scots pines that forest the Guadarrama were toppled. For those tempetuous days, Miguel was trapped in his small house in Fuenfría, a southern Guadarraman valley. When at last the storm stopped and the thaw came, he walked up into the valley, following a familiar path but encountering a new world: fifteen-foot-deep drifts of snow, craters and root boles where trees had been felled, sudden clearings in the forest. As he walked, he gathered objects he found along the way: pine branches, resin, cones, curls of bark, a black draughts piece and a white draughts piece. When he returned home to his house he placed the gathered items in a small pine box, lidded the box with glass, sealed the glazing with tar, bound pages to the box with tape and gave the whole a cover of card-backed linen.

The hill at dawn, 2

"In this way the first book of the library was made. Miguel called that original book-box Deshielo, 'Thaw,' and it became the source from which a stream of works began to flow.

Dawn on the hill, 3

"His manufacturing method is unchanged in its fundamentals. All his book-boxes contain objects he has collected while walking; the results of chance encounters or conscious quests. The found objects are held in place within each box by wire and thread, or pressed into fixed beds of soil, resin, paraffin or wax. Thus mutely arranged, each book-box symbolically records a walk made, a path followed, a foot-journey and its encounters. And the library exists as a multidimensional atlas -- an ever-growing root-map, and a peculiar chronicle of a journey without respite."

Book-box by Miguel Angel Blanco

"Each of my books records an actual journey but also a camino interior, an interior path."
- Miguel Angel Blanco

The Old Ways & The Wild Place by Robert MacfarlanePhotographs: Early morning coffee break in the Devon hills; and Blanco's Library of the Forest.


The power of words (part IV)

Alexander Korzer-Robinson

"I tumbled for words at once....There they were, seemingly lifeless, made only of black and white, but out of them, out of their own being, came love and terror and pity and pain and wonder and all the other vague abstractions that make our ephemeral lives dangerous, great, and bearable."
  - Dylan Thomas (Notes on the Art of Poetry)

Steven McPherson

"Perhaps it is the language that chooses the writers it needs, making use of them so that each might express a tiny part of what it is."  - José Saramago (Ricardo Reis)

Donna Ruff

Ellen Bell

"A word leaves a smoke trail behind it that curls into the past. Every word is surrounded by complex energies. There are meanings underneath a word as well as its obvious meaning. Think of a word as a pendulum instead of a fixed entity. A word can sweep by your ear and by its very sound suggest hidden meanings, preconscious. Listen to these words: blood, tranquil, democracy. You know what they mean but you have associations with those words that are cultural, as well as your own personal associations." - Rita Mae Brown (Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers' Manual)

"When I cannot see words curling like rings of smoke round me I am in darkness -- I am nothing."   - Virginia Woolf (The Waves)

Katerina Panikanova

"When we are young, the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape."  - Louise Erdrich (The Plague of Doves)

"The words emerge from her body without her realizing it, as if she were being visited by the memory of a language long forsaken."  - Marguerite Duras (Summer Rain)

Ekaterina Panikanova

"The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary."  - Italo Calvino (The Literature Machine: Essays)

"Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking." - John Maynard Keynes (The New Statesman and Nation, July  15, 1933)

M.J. Goerke

"You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write."
  - Annie Proulx (The Paris Review, Spring 2009)

"Words should be an intense pleasure, just as leather should be to a shoemaker. If there isn't that pleasure for a writer, maybe he ought to be a philosopher."  - Evelyn Waugh (The New York Times, Nov. 19, 1950)

Jodi Harvey-Brown

Louise Richardson

"We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out of control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us kinship where all is represented as separation."  - Adrienne Rich (The Best American Poetry 1996, Introduction)

Inspired by Louise Richardson

"I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all." - Richard Wright (Black Boy)

Thomas Wightman

Thomas Wightman

"The natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us."  - Ursula K. Le Guin (Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places)

12793280373_7dcb2a83cb_h

A Field Guide to Snails by Ashley Lamoureux

"I had lines inside me, a string of guiding lights. I had language. Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination. I had been damaged, and a very important part of me had been destroyed - that was my reality, the facts of my life. But on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel. And as long as I had words for that, images for that, stories for that, then I wasn't lost."   - Jeanette Winterson (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?)

Vally Nomidou

Date Due by Jody Alexander

Louise Richardson

"As readers, as writers, as citizens...[we] have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time."  - Neil Gaiman (The Guardian, Oct. 15, 2013)

"The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words."   - William Gass  (A Temple of Texts)

Drink Me by Jodi Harvey-Brown

Louise Richardson

Briar Rose by Terri Windling

The book art, paper sculptures and paper collages above are by Alexander Korzer-Robinson, Steven McPherson, Donna Ruff, Ellen Bell, Ekaterina Panikanova, M.J. Goerke, Jodi Harvey-Brown, Louise Richardson, Thomas Wightman, Ashley Lamoureux, Valley Nomidou, and Jody Alexander. Run your cursor over the pictures for individual titles and credits. The last collage is one of mine, and contains this poem by Delia Sherman.