Spells and tunes for a Monday Morning

The Lost Words

The Lost Words, a magnificent book created by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane, began "as a response to the removal of everyday nature words from a widely used children’s dictionary, but then grew to become a much broader protest at the loss of the natural world around us." This beautiful volume contains twenty of Robert's poems/chants/spells entwined with Jackie's paintings of larks, acorns, otters and other wild things, conjuring the names of common animals and plants back into our language.

In the Waterstones interview above, Robert talks about the magical power of words, and of a collaborative process not only between writer and artist but also with the land itself.

Below, Jackie summons otters from a blank white page while reciting Robert's words. The video was filmed in her studio on the wild coast of Wales.

Spell Songs is a companion project in which eight fine folk musicians (Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, Kris Drever, Kerry Andrew, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter, and Jim Molyneux) were invited to create new songs inspired by The Lost Words. The project began with a residency in the Herefordshire countryside in January; the songs were taken on tour in February; and the music is now being released as an album, followed by more performances -- including the BBC Proms.

Spell Songs

Easter Hare byJackie MorrisAbove: The Snow Hare, from Spell Songs. "The mountain hare, or snow hare, the only truly Arctic animal of Scotland, is under threat due to rapid ecological shifts. A creature that has evolved winter camouflage becomes immensely vulnerable when the snows don’t come as they used to. This song, led by Julie Fowlis and Karine Polwart, speaks to that fragility."

Below: Selkie-Boy. "Tales of the seal people are a big part of Hebridean folklore, especially in North Uist, Julie Fowlis's home island. Her fascination with these stories, of Norse royalty, enchantment, separation and isolation, led Robert to gift her with a new spell, Grey Seal. 'I began the selkie song thinking it was a drowning song,' he says, 'but by the time I'd added the final verses realised it needed to be, like the selkies themselves, neither quite one thing or the other, neither drowning nor dreaming, seal or human, land or sea, elegy or eulogy, and how it was taken would depend on how it swam into the mind of the listener.' "

Selkie by Jackie Morris

Birds from The Lost Words

Above: Charm on, Goldfinch. Beth Porter, who composed this song, was inspired "by her walks in Wigtown along the Martyrs’ Stake, where she often saw goldfinches along the path and in the trees, and by the end to Robert's new Goldfinch Spell, which forms the chorus: Charm on Goldfinch, charm on Heaven help us when all your gold is gone."

Below: My favourite of the songs, The Lost Blessing. "Karine Polwart suggested the idea of a blessing borrowing images and phrases from many of the Lost Words spells  (Bluebell, Dandelion, Fern, Heather, Heron, Kingfisher, Lark, Otter, Raven and Starling), as well as from new spells (Goldfinch and Grey Seal). The form is inspired by blessings in Scottish Gaelic, particularly from a beautiful collection of charms and incantations called Carmina Gadelica."

The album can be ordered here. To learn more about the book, go here.

Tilly and The Lost Words

Related posts:  Making friends with monsters & other advice for artists and The wild sky.


Tales from the Hedge

Seven Doors in an Unyeilding Stone

Tom Hirons & Rima Staines

Earlier this year, I received an intriguing invitation from my friends Tom Hirons & Rima Staines -- storytellers, mythic wanderers, and proprietors of Hedgespoken Press. They were planning an unusual new project, and asked if I'd like to join in.

Drawing by Rima StainesThey envisioned a series of pocket-sized books designed and published by Hedgespoken. Seven authors. Seven beautiful books. Seven ways to approach the unapproachable and speak about the unspeakable.

"We picture," they said, "a small book found somewhere in the wilds or in some threshold place: a railway station or the waiting room of an undertaker or a nurse; the book is a flash of lightning, a searing experience, something initiatory. We imagine a reader finding a book unexpectedly, picking it up and being drawn in, to another world, leaving that world slightly stunned and perhaps a little changed."

What a marvelously mythic concept! And also, what a challenging one. I wondered what on earth I could write...but, of course, I said "yes" at once.

The seven small books are now complete, and will be available as of mid-November. There's a launch party at Dartington Village Hall on November 10th, and all are welcome -- so please come join us for stories and revelry if you happen to be in travelling distance of Dartmoor.

The ''Seven Doors'' series from Hedgespoken Press

Seven Little Tales

My own contribution to the series is a collection of seven tiny tales that fall somewhere between poetry and prose: mythic messages that you might find buried in ivy and leaves or under a mossy stone. Tom calls them "poems-prayers-chants," and that's as good a description as any. The other authors in the series are Jay Griffiths, Martin Shaw, Sylvia V. Linsteadt, and Joanna Hruby, plus Tom and Rima themselves. For more information, or to pre-order the books (either individually or as a boxed set), please visit the Hedgespoken Press site. And while you are there, please ramble through their other fine book and art offerings as well.

Leaves

Terri Windling & Rima Staines, 2011

Leaves

Seven Little Tales


Unfolding our wings

The Angel of Childhood by Terri Windling

I recently re-read My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, and was struck by the following passage about young Mary Ann Evans, an editor and critic for The Westminster Review in the years before she transformed herself into the writer George Eliot.

" [H]er critical judgement could be instringent, even snarky, and she enjoyed the professional attention she got through exercising it. If one is accustomed to think of George Eliot as she ended up -- the novelist famous for the generosity of her comprehension -- it's shocking, George Eliotand not a little thrilling, to read her early essays and discover how slashing she could be. I wouldn't exchange the large, sympathetic capacities she later uncovered for these lesser dagger blows, but there's something very satisfying about knowing she once had it in her to land them. It's oddly reassuring to know that before she grew good, George Eliot could be bad -- to realize that she, also, had a frustrated ferocity that it gratified her to unleash, at least until she found her way to a different kind of writing, one that allowed her to lay down her arms, and to flourish without combativeness or cruelty.

"Beyond the pages of the periodicals, too, she could be acid and spiky, defensive in anticipation of attack. 'Treating people ill is an infallible sign of special love with me,' she wrote to a friend. New acquaintances were not sure what to make of her. 'I don't know whether you will like Miss Evans," Bessie Raynor Parkes, who became Eliot's good friend, wrote to Barbara Bodichon, who became an even better one. 'At least I know you will like her for her large unprejudiced mind, her complete superiority to most women. But whether you or I should ever love her, as a friend, I don't know at all. There is yet no high moral purpose in the impression she makes, and it is that alone which commands love. I think she will alter. Large angels take a long time unfolding their wings, but when they do, they soar out of sight. Miss Evans either has no wings, or, which I think is the case, they are coming, budding."

Boy, did Bessie get that right.

I love the passage not only for the glimpse we get of women's friendships (always a subject close to my heart), but also for the insight into how Eliot changed and deepened over the years . . . not unlike writers I know today. It takes time to grow into into the person, and thus the artist, you are going to be. It takes time to find your true voice.

The Angel of Language by Terri Windling

My Life in Middlemarch

I highly recommend My Life in Middlemarch, which is a skillful blend of literary history and memoir. As Mead explained in an interview:

"The book began with a piece that I wrote for The New Yorker, an essay about George Eliot, specifically investigating the source of a quotation which is often attributed to her: 'It's never too late to be what you might have been.' I believed, and I still do believe, that she didn't say that. It doesn't appear to be in any of her books, and I haven't been able to find an original source for it anywhere.

"When I was 42 or so, thinking about doing this, I felt very strongly that it was too late for certain things to happen. I mean, one does, at that age. You know, it's too late to have kids, or it's too late to marry the person that you didn't marry earlier in your life… you realize that there are things that you haven't done that are going to remain undone. So it was in that mood, that mood of reflection, that I wanted to go back to Middlemarch and to think about the ways it had influenced me and shaped my understanding of myself and my own life....

"I don't think Middlemarch tells you how to live your life; thank god it doesn't! It's not a set of instructions, it's not a self-help book, and it would be bizarre to try to read it and follow its 'rules' or something. But I do think that our own life experience obviously informs how we read, and it means that our readings of different novels through different times become richer and change, and that's the measure of a great work of literature -- that you can go back to it time and again, time and again, and it will tell you something new, not just about what's in it but what's in you."

Middlemarch book art by Stephen Doyle

Words: The passage by Rebecca Meade is from My Life in Middlemarch (Crown Publishers, 2014). The quote is from an interview with Ron Hogan (BuzzFeed, November, 2014). All rights reserved by the author and artists. Pictures: The etching of George Eliot is from a chalk drawing by Frederic William Burton, 1864  (National Portrait Gallery, London). The Middlemarch book art is by Stephen Doyle. The angel paintings are old ones of mine (oil paint on paper). All rights reserved by the author and artists. Related post: The Art of Creating a Life: Barbara Bodichon.


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.


Coming up this weekend:

Hedgespoken's The Singing Bone

Rima Staines & Tom Hirons are launching their summer show at Lowton Farm this weekend: The Singing Bone, a lovely piece of storytelling woven with music and puppetry. Soon after, Hedgespoken hits the road, carrying stories, art, and magic to festivals, communities, and off-grid performances spaces across the British Isles. We won't see much of them again until autumn, which is when they return to Lowton Farm to work on their first full-lenth theatre piece, The Hedgehog's Bride: devised by the Hedgespoken puppetry team, and directed by my husband Howard.

Beautiful Lowton Farm

Howard Gayton and Rima Staines at Lowton Farm

Tom Hirons at Lowton Farm

This weekend's event is also a celebration of the Hedgespoken dream, and of all who have supported it. Once upon a time this traveling folk theatre was just a gleam in Tom & Rima's eyes -- but after a successful crowd-funding campaign, followed by a lot of hard, hard work, this amazing couple have it all up and running as they'd planned, with several projects now coming to fruition.

The Hedsgespoken Truck

One of these projects is Tatterdemalion, a beautiful and deeply folkloric new book by Rima and Sylvia Linsteadt that has just been published by Unbound. The text, by Sylvia, was written in response to Rima's paintings, and the result is pure enchantment. Here's Sylvia explaining the project:

Below: Tilly gives our brand new copy of Tatterdemalion her seal of approval.

Tilly gives Tatterdemalion her seal of approval

If you're anywhere within striking distance of Devon, please come join us at the Hedgespoken show this weekend. (Tickets here.) I'll be there on Saturday, at the 3 pm show. Howard, as part of the Hedgespoken team, will be there on both Saturday and Sunday, debuting his new "Punch & Judy" puppet show as one of the side attractions.

Below: The wicked, incorrigible Mr. Punch making an impromptu appearance in the Hedgespoken doorway....

Mr. Punch makes an appearance in Hedgespoken's doorway

Rima watching Mr. Punch

Tom watching Mr Punch

Dame Judy confront the naughty Mr. Punch

Crow, that old trickster

  

Also, for any of you who live Totnes-way, Howard will be at the Totnes Party in the Town on Friday night, directing the performers who are part of Alice Oswald's poetry procession at 8 pm. (Look for the crows!)