New Years Day and fresh starts

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Once again I've been asked to re-post this  piece, written three years ago, with my heartfelt thanks to the kind readers who remembered and requested it....

Over the last few days, I've been asking friends how they feel about New Year's celebrations, and from my small sampling (mostly of writers and artists) this is what I've learned:

The vast majority answered with the equivalent of a shrug: The New Year's holiday? They could take or leave it. A smaller (but emphatic) group detest it for a variety of reasons: the social pressure to be happy on New Year's eve, the guilt-tripping nature of New Year resolutions, the arbitrary designation of the year's end in the Gregorian calendar, or simply the bad timing of yet another celebration on the heels of Christmas. I found just a small minority who genuinely love New Year's Eve and Day, and I am one of them. In fact, it's my favorite holiday, and so I've been thinking about the reasons why -- especially since I generally mark the changing of the seasons by the pagan, not the Christian, calendar.

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I grew up with the Pennsylvania Dutch traditions of my mother's large extended family: nominally Christian, but rich in folklore, folk ways, and homely forms of folk magic. One of those traditions was my mother's practice of taking down the Christmas tree on New Year's day, cleaning the house from top to bottom, and then opening the kitchen door (with a great flourish) to sweep the old year out and welcome in the new: my mother, my great-aunt Clara, and I each taking turns with the broom. Christmas was a hard time for my mother and always ended in tears, but she would rally by New Year's day, relishing the act of making order out of chaos: a woman's ritual, shared only with me and not my half-brothers (my stepfather's sons). Boys doing housework? The very notion was unthinkable in that time and place.

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At some point in the midst of all that cleaning, my mother and I would sit down at the kitchen table, eat the last of the kiffles (a traditional cookie made only at Christmas; it is bad luck to eat them past New Year's Day), and talk about plans for the year ahead. These were not New Year's resolutions, exactly; no lists were made, nothing was written down. It was more like a verbal conjuring, a vision of what we'd do differently and better, spoken at the right folkloric time when words held the power of an incantation: the pause between the old year and the new when anything seemed possible.

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My mother was a great believer in new beginnings, in a way that was both painful and brave. We moved around a lot when I was young, in search of work for my stepfather, whose alcoholism and violent temper ensured that employment never lasted long. In each new place my mother would mentally sweep her troubles out the kitchen door and make a brand new start: each house, each job, each new school for my young brothers and me would be different and better, she insisted. We would finally settle down.

Since the new house was usually worse than the last, she would set herself to transforming it, ingeniously making small amounts of money go a long, long way: she'd paint our rooms in surprising colors (dictated by the paint choices in the bargain bins); make new curtains in cheap, cheery fabrics edged with bright Ric Rac and Pom Pom trim; scour yard sales for pretty new dishes and lamps (constantly broken in my stepfather's rages).  For a while she'd be happy and fiercely optimistic...until the usual troubles caught up with us. There would be fights, and tears, and everything would shatter. My mother would collapse, her husband disappear to the nearest bar. Then she'd pick herself up, we'd move again, and she'd start afresh with quiet courage.

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As a kid I moved even more often than my mother. Unwelcome in my stepfather's home, and a regular target of his fists, when things got too bad I was shunted off to my grandmother, or my great-aunt Clara, or some other relative, along with a couple of stints in foster care -- and so I needed my mother's lesson in embracing change rather more than most. Many people from peripatetic childhoods react with a deep dislike of change. My own reaction is a mix of opposites. My childhood has left me with a soul-deep need for home, place, and community -- yet I also love stepping into the unknown and using the act of relocation as a catalyst for transformation and renewal. In this I am my mother's daughter. I like transitions, beginnings, the changing of the seasons, the turning of the calendar's pages. As I wrote in a previous New Year post:

I have a great affection for those moments in time that allow us to push the "re-set" buttons in our minds and make a fresh start: the start of a new year, the start of a new week, the start of a new morning or fresh endeavor. As L. M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables) once wrote, "Isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?"

The American abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher advised: "Every man should be born again on the first day of January. Start with a fresh page." Some people, of course, find a blank page terrifying...but that's something I've never quite understood. I love the feeling of potential inherent in an untouched notebook, a fresh white canvas, even a new computer folder waiting to be filled. It's the same sense of freedom to be found at the start of a journey, when all lies ahead and limits haven't yet been reached.

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My mother died from cancer in 2001, at a younger age that I am now, and she never managed to turn those new beginnings into the calm, stable life she craved. The determined optimism she practiced wasn't always entirely admirable. Optimism can also be blind or foolish, and prevent the solving of problems through the refusal to accept reality. A fresh start can only transform a life if it is followed by the hard and clear-eyed work of making substantive change: leaving the violent husband, for example, rather than putting fresh paint on walls that will soon be bloodied once again.

But there were reasons my mother couldn't make those harder changes, so I'm not going to sit in judgement of her now. I'm just going to love her for who she was. Acknowledge her quiet bravery. And appreciate the gifts that she's passed on: kiffles and a broom on New Year's Day. And a love of new beginnings.

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Today I will sweep the house. Tomorrow I'll sweep the studio. I'm thinking about what I'll do differently, and better.

The world is full of possibilities.

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Pictures: The photographs today are from Queen's Wood, an ancient woodland in London's Muswell Hill: 52 acres of oak and hornbeam trees, abutting Highgate Wood. The pictures were taken during a  pre-pandemic Christmas spent with our daughter in London. I recommend "The History and Archaeology of Queen's Wood" by Michael Hacker if you'd like to know more about this beautiful place: a tranquil, magical piece of wild preserved within a bustling cityscape. (Tilly loved it.) The last photo was taken by Howard.

Words: The poem in the picture caption is from Tell Me by Kim Addonizio (BOA Editions, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.


The folklore of winter

Santa Claus by Arthur Rackham

Each year as Christmas approaches I receive requests to re-post this piece on the tales and folk customs of winter holiday season....

A cold wind howls, stripping leaves off of the trees, and the pathways through the hills are laced with frost. It's time to admit that winter is truly here, and it's here to stay. But Howard keeps the old Rayburn stove in the kitchen well fed, so our wind-battered little house at the edge of the village is cozy and warm. Our Solstice decorations are up, and tonight I'll make a second batch of kiffles: the Christmas cookies passed on through generations of women in my mother's Pennsylvania Dutch family...carried now to England and passed on to our daughter, who may one day pass it to children of her own.

Mexican Santos on kitchen mantle,
and the Rayburn stove pumping out its warmth.

My personal tradition is to talk to those women of the past generations as I roll out the kiffle dough and cut, fill, roll, and shape each cookie: to my mother, grandmother, and old great-aunts (all of whom have passed on now)...and further back, to the women in the family line that I never knew.

Shaping the kiffles

Finished kiffles

Kiffles are a labor-intensive process (as so many of those fine old recipes were), so I have plenty of time to tell the Grandmothers news and stories of the year gone by. This annual ritual centers me in time, place, lineage, and history; it keeps my world turning through the seasons, as all storytelling is said to do. Indeed, in some traditions there are stories that can only be told in the wintertime.

Breakfast table during the dark days of winter

Here in Devon, there are certain "piskie" tales told only in the winter months -- after the harvest is safely gathered in and the faery rites of Samhain have passed. In previous centuries, throughout the countryside families and neighbors gathered around the hearthfire during the long, dark hours of the winter season, Jack Frost by Arthur Rackhamgossiping and telling stories as they labored by candle, lamp, and firelight. The "women's work" of carding, spinning, and sewing was once so entwined with storytelling that Old Mother Goose was commonly pictured by the hearth, distaff in hand.

In the Celtic region of Brittany, the season for storytelling begins in November (the Black Month of Toussaint), goes on through December (the Very Black Month), and ends at Christmas. (A.S. Byatt, you may recall, drew on this tradition in her wonderful novel Possession.) In early America, some of the Puritan groups which forbade the "idle gossip" of storytelling relaxed these restraints at the dark of the year, from which comes a tradition of religious and miracle tales of a uniquely American stamp: Old World folktales transplanted to the New and given a thin Christian gloss. Among a number of the different Native American nations across the continent, winter is also considered the appropriate time for certain modes of storytelling: a time when long myth cycles are told and learned and passed through the generations. Trickster stories are among the tales believed to hasten the coming of spring. Among many tribes, Coyote stories must only be told in the dark winter months; at any other time, such tales risk offending this trickster, or drawing his capricious attention.

Winter Wood by Arthur Rackham

In myth cycles to be found around the globe, the death of the year in winter was echoed by the death and rebirth of the Winter King (also called the Sun King, or Year King), a consort of the Great Goddess Fairy Linkmen Carrying Winter Cherries by Arthur Rackham(representing the earth's fertility) in her local guise. The rebirth or resurrection of her consort (representing the sun, sky, or quickening winds) not only brought light back to the world, turning the seasons from winter to spring, but also marked a time of new beginnings, cleansing the soul of sins and sicknesses accumulated in the twelve months passed. Solstice celebrations of the ancient world included the carnival revels of Roman Saturnalia (December 17-24), the Anglo-Saxon vigil of The Night of the Mother to renew the earth's fertility (December 24th), the Yule feasts of the Norse honoring the One-Eyed God and the spirits of the dead (December 25), the Persian Mithric festival called The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (December 25th), and the more recent Christian holiday of Christmas, marking the birth of the Lord of Light (December 25th).

Stockings Were Hung by the Chimney With Care by Arthur Rackham

Many symbols we associate with Christmas today actually come from older ceremonies of the Solstice season. Mistletoe, holly, and ivy, for instance, were gathered in their magical potency by moonlight on Winter Solstice Eve, then used throughout the year in Celtic, Baltic and Germanic rites. The decoration of evergreen trees can be found in a number of older traditions: in rituals staged in decorated pine groves (the pinea silvea) of the Great Goddess; in the Roman custom of dedicating a pine tree to Attis on Winter Solstice Day; and in the candlelit trees of Norse Yule celebrations, honoring Frey and Freyja in their aspects of Hunter, Huntress, and Protectors of Forests. The Yule Log is a direct descendant from Norse and Anglo-Saxon rites; and caroling, pageantry, mummers plays, eating plum puddings, and exchanging gifts are all elements of Solstice celebrations handed down from the pre-Christian world.

Even the story of the virgin birth of a Divine, Heroic or Sacrificial Son is not a uniquely Christian legend, but one found in cultures all around the globe -- from the myths of Asia, Africa and old Europe to Native American tales. In ancient Syria, for example, a feast on the 25th of December celebrated the Nativity of the Sun; at midnight the sun was born in the form of a child to the Virgin Queen of Heaven, an aspect of the the goddess Astarte.

The Night Before Christmas by Arthur Rackham

Likewise, it is interesting to note that the date chosen for New Year's Day in the Western world is a relatively modern invention. When Julius Caesar revised the Roman calendar in 46 BC, he chose January 1 -- following the riotous celebrations of Saturnalia -- as the official beginning of the year. Early Christians condemned the date as pagan, tied to licentious practices, and much of Europe resisted the Julian calendar until the Strawberries in the Snow by Arthur RackhamGregorian reforms in the 16th century; instead, they celebrated New Year's Day on the 25th of December, the 21st of March, or various other dates. (England first adopted January 1 as New Year's Day in 1752).

The Chinese, Jewish, Wiccan and other calendars use different dates as the start of the year, and do not, of course, count their years from the date of Christ's birth. Yet such is the power of ritual and myth that January 1st is now a potent date to us, a demarcation line drawn between the familiar past and the unknowable future. Whatever calendar you use, the transition from one year into the next is the traditional time to take stock of one's life -- to say goodbye to all that has passed and prepare for a new life ahead.  The Year King is symbolically slain, the sun departs, and the natural world goes dark. Rituals, dances, pageants, and spiritual vigils are enacted in lands around the world to propitiate the sun's return and keep the great wheel of the seasons rolling.

The Dance of Winter and Gnomes by Arthur Rackham

The Snow Queen by Charles Robinson

Special foods are eaten on New Year's Day to ensure fertility, luck, wealth, and joy in the year to come: pancakes in France, rice cakes in Ceylon, new grains in India, and cake shaped as boar in Estonia and Sweden, among many others. In my family, we ate the last of those scrumptious kiffles...if they'd managed to last that long. They could not, by tradition, be made again before December of the following year, and so the last bite was always a little sad (and especially delicious). The Christmas tree and decorations were taken down on New Year's Day, and the house was thoroughly cleaned and swept: this was another Pennsylvania Dutch custom, brushing out any bad luck lingering from the year behind, making way for good luck to come.

May you have a lovely winter holiday, in whatever tradition you celebrate, full of all the magic of home and hearth, of oven and table, and of the wild wood beyond.

Winter in Kensington Garden by Arthur Rackham

The Night Before Christmas by Arthur Rackham

The paintings above are by three great artists of the Golden Age of Book illustration: Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), and Charles Robinson (1870-1937). You'll find titles in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) 


Wild prayer

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After a spate of wild, stormy weather there was blue sky and a rainbow over our village. In a season of water-soaked fields and foot trails ankle-deep in mud, it felt like a blessing.

Today there is sun on Meldon Hill, though a bank of dark clouds hovers over the moor. Sun or rain, I am ready for both. Rainbow-blessed and vision restored, I'm reminded to love the earth's full palette: the delicacy of winter blue, the wet vibrancy of green and gold, but also the spectrum of color that gives us grey days, comfortless as they sometimes seem. Grey is the color of mist, mystery, mythic entrances to the Otherworld. Grey is the hidden and the unseen -- which we sometimes need to be ourselves.

Meldon Hill

In her essay collection Wild Comfort, Kathleen Dean Moore takes sorrow and the hardships of life into nature, seeking clarity, solace, and a form of prayer unattached to the religion she was raised in and no longer practices. Alone in her kayak on a small mountain lake, she is enclosed in the grey world of falling snow, cut off from sight of the land by the storm. In the thick of the snow squall, she writes:

"a frog began to sing. It must have been a tree frog, Hyla regilla. Of course I couldn't see it; I couldn't see anything but snow beyond my vanished bow. But I knew that song, and I could imagine the tiny frog up to its eyes in water, snowflaked falling on its head fiery green enough to melt the snow.

 "As long as the frog sings, I will not be lost in the squall. The song tells me where the cattails are, and the cattails mark the shore. I am sure of this much, that Earth lights these small signal fires -- not for us, but among us -- and we can find them if we look. If we are not afraid, if we keep our balance, if we let our anxious selves dissolve into the beauties and mysteries of the night, we will find a way to peace and assurance. Signal fires burn all over the land."

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Here is the prayer Moore finds in the middle of the storm, and that she offers to us:

"May the light that reflects on this water be a wild prayer. May water lift us with its unexpected strength. May we find comfort in the 'repeated strains of nature,' the softly sheeting snow, the changing seasons, the return of blackbirds to the marsh. May we find strength in light that pours under the snow and laughter that breaks through the tears. May we go out into the light-filled snow, among meadows in bloom, with a gratitude for life that is deep and alive. May Earth's fires burn in our hearts, and may we know ourselves to be part of this flame -- one thing, never alone, never weary of life."

May it be so. Mitakuye Oyasin.

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Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore

The two passages quoted above are from Kathleen Dean Moore's essay "Never Alone or Weary" in Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature (Trumpeter Books, 2010); the poem in the picture captions is from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions, 2013); all rights reserved by the authors. I wrote about rainbows in my own personal symbology here, back in 2010.


Up in the trees

The Faery Reel by Charles Vess

Robert Macfarlane begins his book The Wild Places at the top of a thirty foot beech tree situated in a city woodland. He writes:

"I had started climbing trees about three years earlier. Or rather, re-started; for I had been at a school that had a wood for its playground. We had climbed and christened the different trees (Scorpio, The Major Oak, Pegagsus), and fought for their control in territorial conflicts with elaborate rules and fealties. My father built my brother and me a tree house in our garden, which we had defended successfully against years of pirate attack. In my late twenties, I had begun to climb trees  again. Just for the fun of it: no ropes, and no danger either.

"In the course of my climbing, I learned to discriminate between tree species. I liked the lithe springiness of silver birch, the alder and the young cherry. I avoided pines -- brittle branches, callous bark -- and planes. And I found that the horse chestnut, with its limbless lower trunk and prickly fruit, but also its tremendous canopy, offered the tree-climber both a difficulty and an incentive.

Puck by Charles Vess (from A Midsummer Night's Dream)

The Baron in the Trees by Yan Nascimbene

The Baron in the Trees by Leredana Canini

"I explored the literature of tree-climbing, not extensive, but so exciting. John Muir had swarmed up a hundred-foot Douglas Spruce during a Californian windstorm, and looked out over a forest, 'the whole mass of which was kindled into one continuous blaze of white sun-fire!' Italo Calvino had written his The Baron in the Trees, Italian editionmagical novel, The Baron in the Trees, whose young hero, Cosimo, in an adolescent huff, climbs a tree on his father's forested estate and vows never to set foot on the ground again. He keeps his impetuous word, and ends up living and even marrying in the canopy, moving for miles between olive, cherry, elm, and holm oak.  There were the boys in B.B.'s Brendan Chase, who go feral in an English forest rather than return to boarding-school, and climb a 'Scotch pine' in order to reach a honey buzzard's nest scrimmed with beech leaves. And of course there was the realm of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin: Pooh floating on his sky-blue balloon up to the oak-top bee's nest, in order to poach some honey; Christopher ready with his pop-gun to shoot Pooh's balloon down once the honey had been poached....

Pooh with his honey pots by Howard Earnest Shepard

"There was nothing unique about my beech tree, nothing difficult in its ascent, no biological revelation at its summit, nor any honey, but it had become a place to think. A roost. I was fond of it, and it -- well, it had no notion of me. I had climbed it many times; at first light, dusk, and glaring noon. I had climbed it in winter, brushing snow from the branches of my hand, with the wood cold as stone to the touch, and real crows' nests black in the branches of nearby trees. I had climbed in in early summer, and looked out over the countryside with heat jellying the air and the drowsy buzz of a tractor from somewhere nearby. And I had climbed it in monsoon rain, with water falling in rods thick enough for the eye to see. Climbing the tree was a way to get perspective, however slight; to look down on a city that I usually looked across. The relief of relief. Above all, it was a way of defraying the city's claims on me."

Tapping the Dream Tree by Charles Vess

The city (Cambridge, England) is Macfarlane's home, the center of his work and family life...but even his forays into the city's trees did not satisfy his craving for the natural world and his hunger for true wilderness. "Anyone who lives in a city," he writes, "will know the feeling of having been there too long. The gorge-vision that the streets imprint on us, the sense of blockage, the longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac....I have lived in Cambridge on and off for a decade, and I imagine I will continue to do so for years to come. And for as long as I stay here, I know I will have to also get to the wild places."

In a piece for the Guardian a few years back, Macfarlane lauded Richard Preston's The Wild Trees, an account of the the scientists who research (and climb) the giant redwoods of California and Oregon:

Tree People by Virginia Lee"I first encountered Preston's book about two years ago in its ur-form as a long New Yorker essay. It stayed with me as an influence as I wrote a book of my own, describing the journeys I made in search of  'other worlds' - the remaining wild places of Britain and Ireland. That search took me from the sea cliffs of Cornwall to the river mouths of Sutherland, from East Anglia's shingle beaches to the salt marshes of Essex, from the moors of the Pennines to the mines and sea caves of North Wales.

"I traveled widely, and I tried to travel wildly. I walked, swam and climbed through landscape and seascape. Wherever possible, I slept out. I traveled in all four seasons, in sunlight, rain and blizzard, and by night as well as day. I also sought out the company of native guides: people who had lived in those landscapes for many years, or come to know them intimately as scientists, artists, shepherds or foresters - people who had acquired the wisdom of sustained contact with a place. I tried, in short, to find new ways of approaching this much-written-about archipelago of ours. Ways of 'coming at the landscape' - as the Georgian travel writer Stephen Graham memorably put it - 'diagonally'....

"Woods and forests were important features of my journeys. I explored the dwarf hazel forests of the Burren in County Clare, the oakwood 'thicks' of Suffolk, and the wild hedgerows of Dorset. I went alone to the Black Wood of Rannoch, the cloud forests of Dartmoor, and the birch woods of Cumbria.

"Wherever I could, I climbed trees."

Nest by Ione Rucquoi

Another way to experience life in the trees is to create a dwelling nested in the branches. I always wanted a tree house as a child and never had one, so I covet these grown-up versions:

Bird's Nest Tree HouseThe Bird's Nest, on the California Coast near Big Sur

Inside_of_nestInside the Bird's Nest

Two French tree housesTwo French tree houses: one hidden in the trees in La Croix-Valmer, and one perched elegantly in Rambouillet Forest.

Bird's Nest room at the TreehotelThe Bird's Nest room at the Treehotel in Swedish Lapland.

In 2008, the Japanese sculptor and installation artist Tadashi Kawamata created the Tree Huts project in Madison Square Park in New York City -- a small park that I happen to know well, as I worked for many years for Tor Books in the elegant old Flat Iron building (pictured in the photo below), and before that for Ace Books, just a few blocks north on Madison Avenue.

 Tree Huts in Madison Park NYC by Tadashi Kawamata

Tree Huts installation, NYC

For this site-specific project, Kawamata built twelve wooden huts high in the trees of the park, created out of raw lumber, found objects, and construction scraps. For the artist, this artwork explored ideas about the meaning of shelter in an urban context....but for children (and those of us with magically-inclined imaginations) it was as though Peter Pan and his tribe of Lost Boys had taken up residence in this most urban of settings, or perhaps some tree-dwelling clan of faeries who were now staking an urban claim. The huts appeared in early October, charmed residents and tourists alike for several months...and vanished with the turning of the year, leaving the faintest trace of Mystery behind.

Tree Huts in winter, NYC

"To the great tree-loving fraternity we belong," Henry Ward Beecher (an early defender of the American wild) once said. 'We love trees with universal and unfeigned love,  and all things that do grow under them or around them -- the whole leaf and root tribe."

TreechildI spent a good deal of time high in trees when I was young -- both for the physical pleasure that climbing gave me and also as an escape from home: in the tree tops I could think, cry, read, or do my homework undisturbed, high above the world. All these years later, I can still remember what it feels like to shimmy up an oak's rough trunk or to sway in the slender branches of a birch; to be strong, quick, supple, and fearless, climbing higher than others dared to go. I still count myself a member of the "leaf and root tribe" though my forays into trees are rare and tame these days; I'm slower, stiffer, an earthy root elder now, not a budding green leaf. On the outside, I'm an older woman with health concerns, who sometimes looks like the wind could blow me over; inside, I'm still that strong, quick, straw-haired girl who could and did climb anything.

A friend of mine, from a troubled background, describes his upbringing as being "raised by wolves." I was raised by trees, whenever and wherever I could find them.

And thank heavens they were there.

Red Dog and Jackalope by Charles Vess

The aboreal art above is: "The Faery Reel" and "Puck" by the brilliant, incomparable Charles Vess;"The Baron in the Trees" by Yan Nacimbene; "The Baron in the Trees" by Leredana Canini; "The Baron in the Trees,"  Italian edition (artist uncredited); "Pooh and the Honey Pots" by Howard Earnest Shepard (1879-1976); "Tapping the Dream Tree" by Charles Vess; "Tree People" by Virginia Lee: "The Capture" and "Tree People";  "Nest," a photograph by Ione Rucquoi; sundry photographs of tree houses and huts; a little tree girl of mine; and "Red Dog and Jackalope" by Charles Vess (from Medicine Road by Charles de Lint).


Deep in the forest

Early morning sun in the forest

Forest painting by Valerianna Claff  2016

What would it be like to live and work at the heart of a forest? Back in 2013 I put this question to artist and educator Valerianna Claff, whose RavenWood Forest Studio nestles among the hemlocks of western Massachusetts. Describing a typical day at RavenWood, she wrote:

"Early morning sun finds its way through the trees in long, angled rays. Dew rises from the glistening mosses becoming a gentle mist, a hermit thrush sings far off in the forest. I sit in a chair outside the back door, watching the majesty of the morning, taking note of the inch or two of unfurling the ferns have managed since yesterday. Sipping coffee, I mostly look and listen – a kind of morning meditation – letting my mind wander and feeling the shape of twinleaf and foamflower in my body. I feel the gentle movement of the long, lacelike hemlock boughs, blown by a slight movement of air. The towering trunks bring me to the awareness of my spine and I watch as a red eft meanders through the woodland garden. I rise and pinch a bit of new spring hemlock needles, put it in my mouth, tasting yellow-greenness and a slight hint of citrus. Under the Grandmother tree, I bend and pick a partridge berry – not very tasty – but offering some red to my morning nutrition. Kicking off my clogs, I find a place on the mosses, and go through my Qigong routine. Swatting at mosquitoes, I wish I might become evolved enough to let them be. Pasha brushes past my leg, damp from his morning wander, full of purrs and stories, a wild glint in his green-gold eyes.

Green Man

Pasha

"It has been ten years since I came to this forest, and I think I am beginning to know something of the nature here. I am not so far from civilization, only a mile from the center of town, but such a tiny town with nothing more than a library (about the size of my downstairs), a general store, church, fire station, post office and a few bed-and-breakfasts. Not one stoplight or gas station or pub. Livestock and wildlife outnumber people, and the lack of human-made sounds is noticeable. Unlike my years in the city, when I hear a lawnmower here, it seems to bring me some comfort, as if to say, no, you are not completely alone in the wilderness. A twenty-minute drive brings me to Northampton, a small city with a big heart. From there, the road leads to small towns and cities, famous educational institutions, museums and the house of Emily Dickenson, which seems always to be waving at me from across the valley.

"When I arrived here, I had a plan of a small retreat center with drum circles and large seasonal gatherings and guest teachers and performances. Wandering the land in that first autumn, my plans fell off me, floating to the earth to mingle with oak leaves. As I began to feel the spirit of this forest, I understood that this was not a place of grand views and loud, expansive expression, but a quiet, inward land, asking for listening and rooting and reflecting beside still pools and moss covered ledges. On the first misty walk my mother took with me here, she said she was expecting King Arthur to ride over the hill, as the land seemed to be whispering stories as we walked.

Red Eft

"As the steward of a deep and inward forest, I am called to sit and listen and trust in stillness. Again and again, as the twenty-first century woman that I am becomes uncomfortable with stillness, I am asked to wait, to listen longer, remain still, root deeper.

"The seasonal gatherings to celebrate Equinoxes and Solstices do happen, but they are small, intimate gatherings around a small fire where songs and stories are shared and owls and coyotes offer their calls to the circle. Small groups of seekers come to do their inner work, learning from the stillness and remembering something about dreaming and how to let their bodies be held by the earth and to find ways of communicating and knowing beyond words and intellect.

Forest dreaming

Forest stories

"The forest has taught me – as any wild place would – to embrace the long, dark days of winter as a time to nourish the soul with fire and stories and deep, deep dreaming. I understand something of a dark underworld journey, and the enormous gifts of seeing it through to the end. A few years ago, after the loss of a loved one, I found myself on such a journey… it seemed to never end. I had to ignore impulses to go out and manifest and DO as a stronger voice continued to tell me to wait. One cold February morning, I awoke with a clear knowing of how to move outward again. I understood that I needed to bring my teaching more fully to the forest, to integrate all the parts of me, to share my relationship with the wild and to invite others to know stillness. I needed a grant to build a studio. I looked up a grant I had heard about that offers assistance to forest-based businesses encouraging forest owners to keep their land forested. The grant had not given out money in several years, but that year they were offering grants and the application was due in a month. I applied, got the grant, and RavenWood Forest, Studio of Mythic & Environmental Arts was built.

The studio

"A precious gift I have received from this forest is the gift of remembering. Finding a place just far enough away from the bustle, where the wild feels bigger than the human world, I remember myself as a soul being, quite removed from the definitions, boxes and labels that culture puts on me. When the owl comes to spend the day on her sunny perch outside my window, or a bear lumbers by, or I find a luna moth resting in a shady spot under a leaf, or I walk out to a garden filled with hundreds of dragon flies, darting this way and that, I am entranced and fully present with what is left of the wild within me.

Owl on her perch

A bear comes out of trees, seeking ants to eatAn owl on her perch, and a bear comes out of the trees seeking ants to eat

"But there are shadows here, too. One cannot spend years peering into the dark, still pools without being brought to one’s knees. Living alone here, I sometimes need to seek refuge in a town to walk around and look in shops and NOT be down under the towering trees. I need to go to the ridge top and be loud and expansive. My job as an adjunct art professor helps with getting me out, and, as teaching does, keeps my world full of young folk and forces me out of dreaming and into intellectual conversation. This is good for me. The long commute and the less than fair pay isn’t so good, but I stay connected.

"So it might seem that I have become a bit like the witch in the woods, like the character from my favorite childhood film, “The Three Lives of Thomasina”. She lives in an idyllic cottage in the forest, knows the language of birds and foxes, grows her own food and is the wise woman healer that the children bring their injured animals to. This is the romantic version, in truth, I can’t quite get enough light for a vegetable garden to grow well, there is a big mortgage to pay, I live very close to the financial edge, and my sensitivities to chemicals and mold have me flattened more than active these days.

"Being flattened however, isn’t always a negative thing, I am called to stillness again, and there is good medicine in that. As a storyteller in image, words and song, whose inspiration is the mystery of the forest, quiet dreaming is essential to my creative work. This past year, as I grieve the loss of my mother, and am healing the roots of my illness, I find myself painting images that tell the stories of the deep forest. I’m beginning to get at the essence of this place - a dark and mysterious woodland – with gentle wildflowers growing from the leaf mold, and root-tangled caverns under fallen trees that might well lead to the underworld. The stories that find me here are fierce as well as gentle. I live amongst large predators who might eat my beloved cat friend or even me, where the tiny Woolly Adelgid threatens to kill all my trees, and the well has run dry once or twice, leaving the herbs in the garden to wilt. I sometimes fantasize about life in a gypsy caravan, traveling from town to town, telling stories and singing with my drum, but I am more like a tree than a songbird, and its good to know who I am, lest I follow someone else’s dream and find myself utterly lost without my tribe of trees.

Late Winter Forest"Late Winter Forest,” watercolor, 11” x 15”, V. Claff, 2013

Strange Light"Strange Light,” watercolor, 22" x 30", V. Claff, 2013

Forest Mystery"Forest Mystery,” watercolor, 22" x 30”, V. Claff, 2013

"I spread my mother’s ashes in the moss garden on the last day of May, as she asked me to do. I think about the blessing of this – of how humans of old stayed where their ancestor’s bones decayed and became part of the soil, and how their very DNA became a part of that land. I wonder how living on land where one’s ancestors have been buried for centuries might be – would it be easier to speak with stones? Will the mosses begin to whisper their secrets to me, now that my mother’s spirit mingles with the ground here?

Winter Mists "Winter Mists,” watercolor, 11” x 15”, V. Claff, 2013

"The path beneath my feet is soft and spongy. I think about the generations of trees that have fallen to earth and become this ground, the tree-ancestors of the forest. Bones of the Eastern Woodland Indians and the first European settlers, long gone to dust, mingle here. The bear who didn’t put on enough fat before an unusually long winter is curled beneath the roots of an enormous pine tree, her body nourishing its roots as she dreams her forever dream. As I walk, I hear the call of a raven, shattering the quiet and filling the vast space between us. I sit on a boulder I call the whispering stone, my quiet cat beside me, listening as the raven’s call fades and the sound of black wings thrums past overhead."

Forest drum

To see more of Valerianna's beautiful work, please visit her website and the RavenWood Forest: Studio of Mythic & Environmental Arts site.

Three Seed Stones"Three Seed Stones," ink on paper. All rights to the art and text above reserved by Valerianna Claff.