A parliament of owls

Detail from The Falling Star by Catherine Hyde

Studio 1

At this time of year the mornings are dark, so I climb the hill to my studio on a pathway lit by moonlight and stars. I unlock the cabin, light the lamps, and Tilly settles sleepily on the couch. Behind us, the oak and ash of the woods are silhouettes cut out of black paper; below, the village lies in a bowl of darkness, the outline of the moor on its rim. I can hear water in the stream close by, and owls calling from the woodland beyond. The sun rises late, the days are short, and the owls are a regular presence.

In the myths and lore of the West Country, the owl is a messenger from the Underworld, and a symbol of death, initiation, dark wisdom. She is an uncanny bird, a companion to hedgewitches, sorcerers, and the Triple Goddess in her crone aspect. There are owls in the woods all year long, of course, but winter is when I know them best: as I climb through the dark guided by a small torch, and my dog, and the owls' parliament.

Studio 2

In her essay "Owls," Mary Oliver writes of her search for the birds in the woods near her home -- describing her quest, and the passage from winter to spring, in prose that takes my breath away:

The Wild Night Ascending by Catherine Hyde"Finally the earth grows softer, and the buds on the trees swell, and the afternoon becomes a wider room to roam in, as the earth moves back from the south and the light grows stronger. The bluebirds come back, and the robins, and the song sparrows, and great robust flocks of blackbirds, and in the fields blackberry hoops put on a soft plum color, a restitution; the ice on the ponds begins to thunder, and between the slices is seen the strokes of its breaking up, a stutter of dark lightning. And then the winter is over, and again I have not found the great horned owl's nest.

"But the owls themselves are not hard to find, silent and on the wing, with their ear tufts flat against their heads as they fly and their huge wings alternately gliding and flapping as they maneuver through the trees. Athena's owl of wisdom and Merlin's companion, Archimedes, were screech owls surely, not this bird with the glassy gaze, restless on the bough, nothing but blood on its mind.

"When the great horned is in the trees its razor-tipped toes rasp the limb, flakes of bark fall through the air and land on my shoulders while I look up at it and listen to the heavy, crisp, breathy snapping of its hooked beak. The screech owl I can imagine on my wrist, also the delicate saw-whet that flies like a big soft moth down by Great Pond. And I can imagine sitting quietly before that luminous wanderer the snowy owl, and learning, from the white gleam of its feathers, something about the Arctic. But the great horned I can't imagine in any such proximity -- if one of those should touch me, it would be the center of my life, and I must fall. They are the pure wild hunters of our world. They are swift and merciless upon the backs of rabbits, mice, voles, snakes, even skunks, even cats sitting in dusky yards, thinking peaceful thoughts. I have found the headless bodies of rabbits and bluejays, and known it was the great horned owl that did them in, taking the head only, for the owl has an insatiable craving for the taste of brains. I have walked with prudent caution down paths at twilight when the dogs were puppies. I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world.

Studio 3

"In the night," writes Oliver, "when the owl is less than exquisitely swift and perfect, the scream of the rabbit is terrible. But the scream of the owl, which is not of pain and hopelessness, and the fear of being plucked out of the world, but of the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer, is more terrible still. When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life -- as, for example, my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I too live. There is only one world."

Studio 4

Sleepy Tilly

Like Oliver, I strive to create and inhabit a "becalmed, intelligent, sunny" life -- fashioned from ink and paint, old storybooks, and rambles through the hills with the hound -- but darkness, mortality, and mystery are the flip side of that coin. I remember this during the winter months, on the dark path up to my studio. I remember it when my body fails and death glides by on a horned owl's wings; it does not come to my wrist, not yet, thank god, but some day it must, and it will. I remember it when the dark daily news intrudes on my studio solitude, demanding response, outrage, activism. I resist the dark. My life has known too much dark and I want no more of it. I'm a creature of dawn...but the nightworld is our world too. There is only one world.

"Most people are afraid of the dark," writes Rebecca Solnit (in a beautiful essay on Virginia Woof). "Literally, when it comes to children; while many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure. And yet the night in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed.

The Soft Hush of Night by Catherine Hyde

"As I began writing this essay," Solnit continues, "I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: 'The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.' His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble. Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness. Gonzalez adds, 'Researchers point out that people tend to take any information as confirmation of their mental models. We are by nature optimists, if optimism means that we believe we see the world as it is. And under the influence of a plan, it’s easy to see what we want to see. It’s the job of writers and explorers to see more, to travel light when it comes to preconception, to go into the dark with their eyes open.' "

That is indeed our job. So I climb through the dark, and open myself to its beauty, its terrors. And I sit down to write.

The Running of the Deer by Catherine Hyde

The art today is by Catherine Hyde, an extraordinary painter based in Cornwall. Catherine trained at Central School of Art in London, and has been exhibiting her work in galleries in London, Cornwall, and father afield for over thirty years. In 2008 she was asked to interpret Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s fairytale The Princess’ Blankets, which won the English Association’s Best Illustrated Book for Key Stage 2 in 2009. Her second book, Firebird written by Saviour Pirotta,  was awarded an Aesop Accolade by the American Folklore Society in 2010. Her third book, Little Evie in the Wild Wood written by Jackie Morris, is a twist on the Red Riding Hood fairy tale. She both wrote and illustrated The Star Tree, which has been nominated for the 2017 Kate Greenaway Award and shortlisted for the 2017 Cambridgeshire Children’s Picture Book Award. I recommend all four books highly.

Regarding her work process, she says: "I am constantly exploring the places between definable moments: the meeting points between land and water, earth and sky, dusk and dawn in order to capture the landscape in a state of suspension drawing the viewer to the liminal spaces that lie between dream and consciousness.”

Please visit Catherine's website, blog, and online shop to see more of her art.

The Golden Path by Catherine Hyde

The Sleeping Earth by Catherine HydeThe passage by Mary Oliver is from "Owls" (Orion Magazine, 1996). The passage by Rebecca Solnit is from "Virginia Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable"  (The New Yorker, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is from New & Selected Poems by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 1992). All right reserved by the authors. The paintings by Catherine Hyde are: a detail from The Falling Sar, The Wild Night Ascending, The Soft Hush of Night, The Running of the Deer, The Golden Path, and The Sleeping Earth. All rights reserved by the artist.


The tales we tell

Diplomat by Virginia Lee

As I mentioned yesterday, author and scholar Marina Warner has been exploring the importance of Story in the lives of refugees, migrants and other displaced peoples in her timely and valuable cross-border project Stories in Transit. The following passage comes from Dame Warner's "Stories in Transit: Telling the Tale in Times of Conflict":

Life in a Nutshell by Virginia Lee"‘In order to have a story’, comments Lorraine Daston, in order to become historical, ‘one must have listeners, with whom one shares a common language, fellow feeling, and an understanding of the home left behind. All these things are denied the modern exiles. At most, a journalist or a Red Cross official takes down a telegraphic version of the catalogue of horrors suffered: a sound byte, not a story.’ She goes on to ask, ‘What does it take to have a story, a life that makes sense in a senseless world of forced wandering that shatters all continuity? … Even the luckiest exiles, those who are able to settle and prosper in a new land, must face the bitter truth that their native tongue will no longer be spoken gladly by their own grandchildren, that their stories will be increasingly lost in translation’.

"Cultural and literary transmission of myth and story is a process of constant, deep and fruitful metamorphosis, acts of memory against forgetting, acts of bonding against forces of splitting. These metamorphoses take place in dialogue with written texts, but are not constrained by writing: indeed mobile narratives are a dynamic feature of contemporary culture because the internet and digital technologies have opened up a vast arena for varieties of performance, recitation, speech, combining sound, image, voice. The traffic in mobile myths is rising with the strong and omnipresent return of acoustics to communication -- we have entered a hybrid era, in which the oral is no longer placed in opposition to the literate. When Borges commented that he had always imagined Paradise 'will be a kind of library’, it is interesting to remember that the great writer was himself blind for a great part of his life, and he was read to -– books for him were sounded.

Minatour by Virginia Lee

"The United Nations has started to respond to the immaterial needs of displaced peoples -- that cultural heritage -- connectedness and belonging established through memory and imagination, might be a human right has become what is being called the new frontier. Such compass points are formed, often, not by material goods, but by immaterial artefacts: by words spoken, recited, performed, sung, and remembered. They may be preserved in books but they also travel by other ethereal conduits, especially in the age of the internet when they are at one and the same time vigorous and fragile. They may inhere in...things, containers of memories and history. In 2003, Unesco declared protection for intangible cultural heritage, but the dominant implication was that this applied principally to the culture of unlettered peoples -- to orature. This needs adjusting -- highly literate civilisations also flourish through oral -- performed, played -- channels of transmission."

Indeed they do, and this is an important point to be championing.

Three Hares Tor by Virginia Lee

The extraordinary artwork today is by my friend and neighbor Virginia Lee.

Virginia grew up in Chagford, studied Illustration at Kingston University, and worked for a time on The Lord of the Rings trilogy in New Zealand (sculpting architectural statues and merchandise for the films). She has since illustrated several children’s books, including The Frog Bride (a retelling the Russian fairy tale), Persephone: A Journey from Winter to Spring, The Secret History of Mermaids and Hobgoblins. She has also illustrated cards for The Storyworld, a toolkit for the imagination, and The Enchanted Lenormand Oracle. For her personal work, she says: "I use my own visual language to explore themes of transformation and connection to nature, creating realms where deep aspects of the psyche are embodied in folkloric characters and revealed in the mythic landscape."

To see more of her work, visit Virginia's website, blog, and Etsy shop.

Tides of Emotion by Virginia Lee

The passage above is from "Stories in Transit: Telling the Tale in Times of Conflict" (Museo Internazionale delle Marionette G. Pasqualino, Palermo, Italy, January 2016). You can read the full piece online here (pdf). Virginia Lee's images, from top to bottom, are: "The Diplomat," "Life in a Nutshell," "Minotaur," "Three Hares Tor," and "Tides of Emotion." All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Sheep with lamb by Henry Moore

This week, while there's so much talk of walls, borders, and other means of dividing us from each other, physically and metaphorically, I've chosen five songs from the border-crossing Gaelic music tradition here in the British Isles.

Above:  "Arrane Sooree," a Manx Gaelic song performed by Ruth Keggin, a young musician whose aim is to bring Manx music, language, and culture to a wider audience. The song is from her second album Turrys (2016). The video was shot on the Isle of Man.

Below: "Buachaillín Deas Óg Mé," an Irish Gaelic song performed Skipper's Alley, from Dublin. The band released their spirited debut album, Skipper's Alley, in 2014.

Above: "A Ghaoil, Leig Dhachaigh Gum Mhathair Mi," a Scots Gaelic song performed by the extraordinary Julie Fowlis, who grew up in a Gaelic-speaking community on a small island in the Outer Hebrides. She's released numerous solo and collaborative albums; her most recent of the former is Gach Sgeul (2014).

Below: "Gura Mise Tha Fo Mhulad," a Scots Gaelic song performed Rachel Newton, from Glasgow. Newton must be one of the hardest working musicians in the folk music genre, playing with The Furrow Collective, The Emily Portman Trio, The Shee and Boreas as well as with her own band, the Rachel Newton Trio. The song is from her lovely new solo album, Here's My Heart Come Take It.

Henry Moore

And last, below: "Samhradh Samhradh," an Irish Gaelic song beautifully performed by The Gloaming. The group consists of folk music stalwarts Iarla Ó Lionáird (vocals), Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett. Their gorgeous second album, 2, came out earlier this year.

For more border-crossing, try Mary Jane Lamond's "Seinn o," a song that crossed the Atlantic with Scottish immigrants during the Highland Clearances and is now part of the Gaelic music tradition of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.

Sheep by Henry Moore

Sheep drawings by Henry Moore (1898 - 1986)


The language of moving

Goose Girl by Helen Allingham

The new issue of EarthLines (a magazine I highly recommend if you're not already a subscriber) is packed with treasures, including an insightful article on "The Language of Moving" by Alex Klaushofer. This captured my attention not only because I've moved many times myself over the course of my life (sometimes willingly, sometimes not, each move disruptive in its own way), but also because our daughter has recently moved back to Chagford after several years in London. It's just for the summer, a pause between the end of her undergraduate studies and the next phase of life (a Masters degree) -- but even this temporary move has thrown up unexpected challenges, reminding me that there is a mythic quality to the act of pulling up roots and transplanting them. It's never truly simple, not on the practical level and especially not in the deeper, barely-conscious realm of dream, soul, and creative inspiration. 

In "The Language of Moving," Klaushofer's relocation from suburban London to the Cotswolds was one she'd chosen and long desired, yet the difficulty of the transition from one sort of life to another took her by surprise:

"Moving brought with it an uprooting, a displacing not acknowledged in the dominant discourse, especially not by those of my generation. Social talk about moving tends to focus relentlessly on the positive, with comments on the excitement that a new house and surroundings will bring. Perhaps not surpringly, since they come from a time when life was less atomized, it is older people who seem to understand the rupture involved in changing place.  My eighty-something godmother enquires solicitiously again and again as to how I am feeling: am I settling? Do I feel strange?"

Kentish Cottage by Helen Allingham

In the Spring by Helen Allingham

A little later in the article she comes back to the general absence of societal recognition of just how difficult moving can be:

"I'm coming to think that this absence is part of a broader lack in our language about our relation to place. Standard English has just one word for feelings of longing for a particular place: 'homesick.' The word implies a polarity: you are at home or away, and suggests the simple solution of going home; it carries no sense of the process of adapting to a new place or of mixed or complex feelings. Other languages of the British Isles do much better at capturing the range of feelings and experiences that make up the human attachment to place. Welsh has 'hiraeth,' a word that connotes a yearning for place that is lost or may not exist, a feeling of longing to be 'at home' in the sense of achieving a sense of belonging, of finding your paradise. Its cognate 'cynefin' denotes 'habitat' or 'customary abode'; the place which formed you, and with which you are most familiar. In a definition which encompasses cultural, social and geographical influences, Nicholas Sinclair describes it as 'the place of your birth and upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatized.' The Scottish Gaelic 'dùthchas' conveys the collective nature of a heritage that connects people to a particular place, historically also the tribal system of land rights accorded to the members of a clan. The fact that the Scottish Gaelic equivalent of homesickness, nostalgia or longing for home, cianalas, has given rise to a genre of Gaelic poetry written by emigrees called bàrdachd cianalais is perhaps testament to how a profound sense of rootedness finds linguistic expression."

East End Farm by Helen Allingham

We think of moving as a straightforward proposition: the bags are packed, the house is emptied, the old door is shut and locked one final time, and then we're to the next adventure. Hey ho, here we go! We arrive in our new location: the suitcase is unpacked, the books placed in their new setting, morning coffee is poured into familiar cups but the kitchen window has a brand new view ... yet after the relief that the move is finally "over" often comes a sense of ... flatness. Of nameless anxiety. Of self-doubt and three-in-the-morning fears Dog and Hens by Helen Allinghamthat the move was a terrible mistake.

"This is all perfectly normal," we assure our daughter, as she misses London and finds herself doubting all the reasons she'd had for coming back home. I remember friends making similar assurances to me after various uprootings. We don't move from one phase of life to another as easily and clearly as stepping through a door; there is a time of transition, a liminal space between there and here to be moved through as we re-form into the person who is going to live in this new place. The length of time is different for each move, but the one thing I've learned after all these years is that the mythic journey through the threshold of change is shorter, gentler, and less overwhelming if we remain aware of the transitional process, and accept it. Better still, respect it.

The Saucer of Milk by Helen Allingham

Klaushofer notes that we have more words in English for the various aspects of "attachment to place" when it comes to animals, not human beings. Such as this one from sheep husbandry:

" 'Hefting' describes the process by which a ewe learns, traditionally through its mother, to stay in one particular area; once 'hefted,' the hill farmer has no need to confine the flock with fences because it will naturally incline to one pasture.

"The existence of a word for the ovine attachment to place is a reminder that, in its sparsity, our language of place forgets that we too are animals, with a pre-cognitive, non-economic attachment to the places we inhabit. Like the fox I used to see patrolling the streets of south London at the same time and in the same order every day, humans also have their runs and routines, whether built around exercise, dog walking or errands, that reflect their attachement to their habitat. Yet in a post-agricultural society which fosters a belief in our independence from the earth we almost never think in these terms."

Apple Orchard by Helen Allingham

Settled in the Cotswolds, but not yet truly settled, Klausofer writes:

"I'm aware that I haven't quite hefted, that I'm in the midst of a transition, the in-between time that goes unacknowledged in the dominant discourse about moving."

Hefted. That's a wonderful word, and one I will remember and use.

For further insights into the art of moving place, I recommend reading Klaushofer's article in full.

Beside Old Church Gate by Helen Allingham

The art today is by Helen Allingham (1848-1926), a Victorian painter, illustrator, and the first woman artist granted full membership in the Royal Watercolour Society. Born in Derbyshire, raised in Birmingham, Allingham was encouraged in art from an early age -- for both her grandmother and her aunt were professional artists, which was still unusual at that time. She studied art at the Birmingham School of Design, at the National Art Training School in London (now the Royal School of Art), and in night classes at the Slade -- where she met fellow illustrator Kate Greenaway, a life-long friend. Over the course of her professional career she illustrated books for both children and adults, and created art for national newspapers and popular magazines.

In 1874 she married the Scottish poet William Allingham (author of The Fairies: "Up the airy mountain/Down the rushy glen,/We daren't go a-hunting/For fear of little men..."). The couple moved from London to Sussex to raise their family, where Allingham fell in love with the rural landscape and began the work for which she is best known: watercolors of women, children, animals, and the country cottages of Sussex, Surrey, and Kent.

Although her work has largely fallen out of favor, castigated for its Victorian sentimentality, her gentle renditions of domestic life are known to have influenced many younger artists, including the young Vincent van Gogh (who found them in English magazines). In preparing this post, and thinking of artists whose work demonstrates a deep love of "place" and "home," Helen Allingham came immediately to mind.

Gathering Flowers by Helen Allingham

Wood Gatherer and Polly by Helen Allingham

Harvest Moon by Helen Allingham

The passage above by Alex Klaushofer is from "The Language of Moving" (EarthLines: The Culture of Nature, edited by David Knowles & Sharon Blackie, July 2016); all rights reserved by the author. Related posts: Kith & Kin. and Hiraeth. A related essay: The Folklore of Hearth & Home.


Crossing Over

Mermaid in Flight by Fay Ku

In the following passage from Brenda Peterson's Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals, the author is swimming with a dolphin pod on the Florida coast:

" 'Crossover' is a word scientists use to describe dolphins' soaring over seas, their traveling so free and fast, so high-spirited and almost effervescent that their sleek bodies barely skim the waves. The suggestion of splashes from tail and pectoral leaves a luminous wake across the water. For these crossover miles, the dolphins, like their human terrestrial mammal kin, belong more to the element of air than the sea....

"Held in [the dolphins'] fluid embrace, I pulled my arms close against my sides and our communal speed increased... Racing around the lagoon, I opened my eyes again to see nothing but an emerald underwater blur. And then I remembered what I had either forgotten long ago or never quite fully realized. This feeling of being carried along by other animals was familiar.

Art copyright by Juliana Swaney

"Animals had carried me all my life," Peterson continues. "I was a crossover -- carried along in the generous and instructive slipstream of other species. And I had always navigated my life with them in mind, going between the human and animal worlds -- a crossover myself. By including animals in my life I was always engaging with the Other, imagining the animal mind and life. For almost half a century, my bond with animals had shaped my character and revealed the world to me. At every turning point in my life an animal had mirrored or influenced my fate. Mine was not simply a life with other animals, but a life because of animals.

"It had been this way since my beginning, born on a forest lookout station in the High Sierras, surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness and many more animals than humans. Since infancy, the first faces I imprinted, the first faces I ever really loved, were animal."

Fox Confessor by Julie Morstad

If you haven't yet read Brenda's luminous work (which includes fiction, essays, memoirs, and anthologies), please do seek it out. Her website is here, and her blog (on books, nature, seal watching and more) is here.

Hank by Carson Ellis
Words: The post above originally appeared in August, 2012. I'm re-visiting it today in the context of our recent discussions on borders and border-crossing, and also in case newcomers to Myth & Moor are unfamiliar with Brenda's wonderful work. Today's passage comes from her essay collection Build Me an Ark  (W.W. Norton, 2001); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The drawings & paintings above are "Mermaid in Flight" by Fay Ku, "Sky Pack" by Julianna Swaney, "Fox Confessor" by Julie Morstad, and "Hank" by Carson Ellis. Please visit their websites to see more of their art. All rights to the imagery here reserved by the artists.