Recommended reading and viewing

The Wire Fence

In several posts over the last couple of weeks we discussed the history of the Enclosures here in Britain (in which millions of acres of Common land were transferred into private hands for the profit of the few), and how this affected folkloric traditions dependent on the Commons and communal ways of living.

The selling off of the UK's public lands, resources, and services continues to this day, of course. I recommend "Pete," a short video by Matt Hopkins that has just been posted on the Aeon Magazine site, looking at the loss of communal spaces and affordable housing in London -- and how this effects young people, including those making attempting to make their living in the arts. Which is never easy at the best of times....

Real England by Paul Kingsnorth, one of the founders of The Dark Mountain Project, is well worth a read on the subject of modern Enclosures too.


The Common Life

Steve, Rima, long-haired Howard, misty Miriam, and sweet Tilly

From "The Common Life," an essay in Scott Russell Sanders' excellent collection Writing from the Center:

"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, Howard and Rimatouch, 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.

"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. 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."

Jason, Thomas, Steve, Rima, and Howard

"It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home," says Terry Tempest Williams. "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. 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.

"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."

Community bonfire, Spring Equinox, 2011

The pictures here, which hold the essence of "community" for me, come from a 2011 post about a neighborhood bonfire on the eve of the Spring Equinox...back when Howard's hair was long, and Rima Staines still had her dreadlocks, and when our beloved friend, folklorist & artist Thomas Hine, was still alive. It feels so long ago now. And it feels like yesterday.

Here's what I wrote about these pictures at the time:

"Music and a bonfire on a Devon hillside to celebrate the spring equinox (Monday, March 21st) in traditional fashion. Musicians: Howard (guitar, accordion, shakers), Steve Dooley (drums), Rima Staines (accordion, clarinet, flute), Tom Hirons (clarinet, guitar), Jason of England (drum), Thomas Hine (fiddle) and Damien Hackney (not pictured, fiddle). Bonfire hosts: Jason and Ruth Olley. Dogs: Tilly, Macha, Warlock, Ash, and Pigsy. Friends, neighbors, parents, grandparents, and children. Food cooked on the fire, painted eggs, and laughter. And a whole lot warmer than it was last time. Spring is finally here."

"It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold:  when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade." -  Charles Dickens


The Visitors by Rima Staines


Words: The passage above by Scott Russell Sanders comes from 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. Picture: "The Visitors," a watercolor painting by Rima Staines.


The mystery of storytelling

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Carrying on with our Ben Okri Week:

"The mystery of storytelling," he writes, "is the miracle of a single living seed which can populate whole acres of human minds. It is the multiplicity of responses which a single text can generate within the mind's unfailing capacity for wonder. Storytellers are a tiny representative of the greater creative forces. And like all artists they should create beauty as best they can, should serve truth, and remember humility, and when their work is done and finely crafted, arrowed to the deepest points in the reader's heart and mine, they should be silent, leave the stage, and let the imagination of the world give sanctuary."

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"There are two essential joys in storytelling," Okri continues. "The joy of telling, which is to say of the artistic discovery. And the joy of listening, which is to say of the imaginative identification. Both joys are magical and important. The first involves exploration and suffering and love. The second involves silence and openness and thought. The first is the joy of giving. The second is the joy of receiving. My prayer is to be able to write stories that, to paraphrase T.S. Elliot, can be read so deeply that they are not read at all, but you become the story, while the story lasts. With the greatest writers, you continue to become more of the story long after you have finished it."

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Ben OkriThe passages quoted in this post and in the picture captions are from Ben Okri's "The Joys of Storytelling 1"  and "The Joys of Storytelling 3."  Both essays can be found in Okri's fine essay collection A Way of Being Free.


Tunes & Words for a Monday Morning

It's been another week of news that pushes us daily closer to despair, from the tragedies in Nepal and off the Italian coast to the horrific scale of police violence against nonwhite Americans, while political campaigners in both the UK and US studiously avoiding speaking civilly, seriously, and honestly of anything that truly matters. So I am pushing back against hopelessness by sharing some of my favorite videos from this year's Bioneers conference -- words rather than music today -- although also a little music to get us started from the conference's opening ceremony. Bioneers, based in New Mexico, is a nonprofit organization founded by Nina Simons and Kenny Ausubel, bringing Illustration by Charle Vessscientists, scholars, artists and activists together to "highlight breakthrough solutions for restoring people and planet."

As an American living abroad, I find it both sad and painful that my country is primarily known outside its borders through facile Hollywood representations, and for the darker, nuttier, Fox-News-amplified side of American life (and foreign policy) -- whereas those of us who have lived there know that the other side of America is equally strong: the land of civil rights, gay rights, passionate feminism, proud union men and women on the picket lines, and a bred-in-the-bone tradition of volunteerism; a land of organic farms and alternative communities and tireless activists on behalf of the North American wild; a land of kind, open-hearted, and generous people from a dizzying number of ethnic backgrounds and cultural traditions. The three speakers here come from my America, not the media's: the leftist, progressive American tradition that formed me; the beautiful, vast, diverse, and deeply complicated land that I still love, warts and all.

Above: Opening music and a few wise words from Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai. He's from Tucson, and his music never fails to make me homesick for the desert.

Below: Writer, educator, and activist Terry Tempest Williams, from Utah, discuses "A Love That is Wild." She says, "Finding beauty in the broken world is creating beauty in the world we find," and this is so very true.

Above, Robin Wall Kimmerer, biologist and author of Braiding Sweetgrass, discusses "Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass." Kimmerer is the director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment in Syracuse, New York.

Below, educator, activist, and author John A. Powell discusses the need for "Beloved Community." Powell is the head of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley.

Illustration by Charles Vess

"If we are going to address these issues around climate change, food, health, each other," says Powell, "we have to  not only think about how we're related, we have to structure our societies, we have structure our policies, we have to tell our stories, we have to engage a practice that acknowledges our deep connection and our relationships with each other."

And that's where we come in, as Mythic Artists: telling stories. For the land and for each other. Stay strong.

Art above: Sonoran Desert drawings by Charles Vess


The Windigo

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I'd like to end the week with one last passage from Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass -- this time dipping into the myth of the Windigo. I was planning to illustrate this post with Windigo illustrations, but I found them all too scary! So instead: the Devon hills, misty and mysterious in the early morning light, and a furry black protector to scare off any monsters in lurking in the bracken.

"The Windigo is the legendary monster of our Anishinaabe people," writes Kimmerer, "the villain of a tale told on freezing nights in the north woods. You can feel it lurking behind you, a being in the shape of an outsized man, ten feet tall, with frost-white hair hanging from its shaking body. With arms like tree trunks, feet as big as snow-shoes, it travels easily through the blizzards of the hungry time, stalking us. The hideous stench of its carrion breath poisons the clean scent of snow as it pants behind us. Yellow fangs hang from its mouth that is raw where it has chewed off its lips from hunger. Most telling of all, its heart is made of ice....This monster is no bear or howling wolf, no natural beast. Windigos are not born, they are made. The Windigo is a human being who has become a cannibal monster. Its bite will transform victims into cannibals too....It is said that the Windigo will never enter the spirit world but will suffer the eternal pain of need, its essence a hunger that will never be sated. The more a Windigo eats, the more ravenous it becomes. Consumed by consumption, it lays waste to humankind."

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"Traditional upbringing was designed to strengthen self-discipline, to build resistance against the insidious germ of taking too much. The old teachings recognized that Windigo nature is in each of us, so the monster was created in stories, that we might learn why we should recoil from the greedy part of ourselves. This is why Anishinaabe elders like Stewart King remind us always to acknowledge the two faces -- the light and the dark side of life -- in order to understand ourselves. See the dark, recognize its power, but do not feed it.

"The beast has been called an evil spirit that devours mankind. The very word, Windigo, according to Ojibwe scholar Basil Johnston, can be derived from roots meaning 'fat excess' or 'thinking only of oneself.' Writer Steve Pitt states 'a Windigo was a human whose selfishness has overpowered their self-control to the point where satisfaction is no longer possible.'

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"No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices -- addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, technology, and more -- as a sign than Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, 'any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.' And just as Windigo's bite is infectious, we know all too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims -- in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

"The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth's resources 'not for need but for greed.' The footprints are all around us if you know what to look for."

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"We are all complicit," notes Kimmerer. "We've allowed the 'market' to define what we value so that the redefined common good seems to depend on profligate lifestyles that enrich the sellers while impoverishing the soul and the earth. Cautionary Windigo tales arose in a commons-based society where sharing was essential to survival and greed in any individual a danger to the whole. In the old times, individuals who endangered the community by taking too much for themselves were first counseled, then ostracized, and if the greed continued, they were eventually banished. The Windigo myth may have arisen from the remembrance of the banished, doomed to wander hungry and alone, wreaking vengence on those who spurned them. It is a terrible punishment to be banished from the web of reciprocity, with no one to share with you and no one for you to care for.

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"I remember walking a street in Manhattan, where the warm light of a lavish home spilled out onto the sidewalk on a man picking through the garbage for his dinner. Maybe we've all been banished to lonely corners by our obsession with private property. We've accepted banishment even from ourselves when we spend our beautiful, singular lives on making more money, to buy more things that will feed but never satisfy. It is the Windigo way that tricks us into believing that belongings will fill our hunger, when it is belonging that we crave. On a grander scale, too, we seem to be living in an era of Windigo economics of fabricated demand and compulsive overconsumption. What Native peoples once sought to rein in, we are now asked to unleash in a systematic policy of sanctioned greed.

"The fear for me is far greater than just acknowledging the Windigo within. The fear for me is that the world has been turned inside out, the dark side made to seem light. Indulgent self-interest that our people once held to be monstrous is now celebrated as success. We are asked to admire what our people once viewed as unforgiveable. The consumption-driven mind-set masquerades as 'quality of life' but eats us from within. It is as if we've been invited to a feast, but the table is laid with food that nourishes only emptiness, the black hole of the stomach that never fills. We have unleashed a monster."

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Later in her book, Kimmerer discusses how to defeat the Windigo in our midst through the "economy of the commons, wherein resources fundamental to our well-being, like water and land and forests, are commonly held rather than commodified. Properly managed, the commons approach maintains abundance, not scarcity. These contemporary economic alternatives strongly echo the indigenous world view in which the earth exists not as private property, but as a commons to be tended with respect and reciprocity for the benefit of all.

"And yet, while creating an alternative to destructive economic structures is imperative, it is not enough. It is not just changes in policy that we need, but also changes to the heart. Scarcity and plenty are as much qualities of the mind and spirit as they are of the economy. Gratitude plants the seed for abundance.

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"Each of us comes from people who were once indigenous. We can reclaim our membership in the cultures of gratitude that formed our old relationship with the living earth. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to Windigo psychosis. A deep awareness of the gifts of the earth and of each other is medicine. The practice of gratitude lets us hear the badgering of marketers as the stomach grumblings of a Windigo. It celebrates cultures of regenerative reciprocity, where wealth is understood to be having enough to share and riches are counted in mutual beneficial relationships. Besides, it makes us happy."

Indeed.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall KimmererThe text above is from Braiding Sweetgrass by Potawatomi author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed Editions, 2014), which I highly recommend reading in full. The poem in the picture captions is from Jacklight by Ojibwe poet & novelist Louise Erdrich (Flamingo, 1996), which I also recommend. All rights reserved by the authors.