The stories that take root

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We've been talking about the process of art-making this week, and the dark places it can take us to -- but not about why we do it anyway, even when the going is hard. I was reminded of this post from the Myth & Moor archives, first published in 2015. (I can't get over how young Tilly looks!) There's nobody better than Jeanette Winterson at explaining why art matters.

From "Testimony Against Gertrude Stein," published in Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson:

"We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others. The so-called facts of our individual words are highly colored and arbitrary, facts that fit whatever fiction we have chosen to believe in. It is necessary to have a story, an alibi that gets us through the day, but what happens when the story becomes scripture? When we can no longer recognize anything outside our own reality?

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"We have to be careful not to live in a state of constant self-censorship, where whatever conflicts with our world view is dismissed or diluted until it ceases to be a bother. Struggling against the limitations we place on our minds is our own imaginative capacity, a recognition of an inner life often at odds with the internal figurings we spend so much energy supporting.

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"When we let ourselves respond to poetry, to music, to pictures, we are clearing out a space where new stories can root, in effect we are clearing a space for new stories about ourselves."

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The passage just quoted nails, for me, precisely why we need art in our lives and not just the familiar, repetitive stories of mass entertainment, enjoyable as they may be. Entertainment amuses, distracts, and consoles us, and that has its use and it has its value, but it's not the same use or value of art. Art enlarges us. Transforms us. Heals what is broken inside us. Deepens our understanding of ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

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"Art is central to all our lives, not just the better-off and educated, " Winterson once said in an interview. "I know that from my own story, and from the evidence of every child ever born -- they all want to hear and to tell stories, to sing, to make music, to act out little dramas, to paint pictures, to make sculptures. This is born in and we breed it out. And then, when we have bred it out, we say that art is elitist, and at the same time we either fetishize art -- the high prices, the jargon, the inaccessibility -- or we ignore it. The truth is, artist or not, we are all born on the creative continuum, and that is a heritage and a birthright of all of our lives."

Amen.

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The first quote by Jeanette Winterson is from Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy & Effrontery (Jonathan Cape, 1996); the second quote is from "Up Front: Talking With Jeanette Winterson" (The New York Times, Dec. 19, 2008). All rights reserved by the author. 


Embracing the bear

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

I've long used the term "embracing the bear" for those moments when I'm moving forward into something I fear, but don't want fear to stop me; thus I was intrigued to encounter the same phrase in Terry Tempest William's Unspoken Hunger (discussed yesterday), where it has a slightly different but related meaning. In a gorgeous essay on women and bears, Williams includes a description of Marian Engle's Bear, a highly unusual, memorable novel which portrays a woman and a bear "in an erotics of place," evocative of mythic stories worldwide about animal brides and bridegrooms.

"It doesn't matter whether the bear is seen as male or female.The relationship between the two is sensual,Victorian illustration, artist unknown wild.

"The woman says, 'Bear, take me to the bottom of the ocean with you, Bear, swim with me, Bear, put your arms around me, enclose me, swim, down, down, down, with me.'

" 'Bear,' she says suddenly, 'come dance with me.'

"They make love. Afterwards, 'She felt pain, but it was a dear sweet pain that belonged not to mental suffering, but to the earth.'

William writes that she, too,

"has felt the pain that arises from a recognition of beauty, pain we hold when we remember what we are connected to and the delicacy of our relations. It is this tenderness Victorian bear illustration  artist unknownborn out of connection to place that fuels my writing. Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free. This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories.

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

"By undressing, exposing, and embracing the bear, we undress, expose, and embrace our authentic selves. Stripped free from society's oughts and shoulds, we emerge as emancipated beings. The bear is free to roam....

"We are creatures of paradox, women and bears, two animals that are enormously unpredictable, hence our mystery. Perhaps the fear of bears and the fear of women lies in our refusal to be tamed, the impulses we arouse and the forces we represent....As women connected to the earth, we are nurturing and we are fierce, we are wicked and we are sublime. The full range is ours. We hold the moon in our bellies and fire in our hearts. We bleed. We give milk. We are the mothers of first words. These words grow. They are our children. They are our stories and our poems."

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

Words: The text above is fromAn Unspoken Spoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Willians (Pantheon, 1994); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The images above are by the Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova, based in Moscow; all rights reserved by the artist. The pen-and-ink drawings are Victorian illustrations, artists unknown.


Following the bear

The White Bear King by Theodor Kittelsen

As the old year ends, and a new one begins, and the grey winter months roll on and on, I find myself think of bears -- and of something Terry Tempest Williams once said about bears as symbols of life held in balance.

For Williams, the bear embodies "opposing views, that we can be both fierce and compassionate at once. The bear is above ground in spring and summer and below ground, hibernating, in fall and winter -- and she emerges with young by her side. I think that's a wonderful model for us, particularly as women. And it's one I've tried to adopt." 

Ice Bear by Jackie Morris

She goes on to explain that she divides her years into halves. From April Fool's Day to The Day of the Dead (November 1st), she lives a public life as a writer and activist, doing any traveling or public speaking or teaching during these months. From The Day of the Dead until April Fool's Day, however, she stays at home -- to spend time with her family; to write; to live within the rhythms of her creativity. The bear, she suggests, "offers us a model of how one lives with that paradox, of public and private life, of a creative life as well as a life of obligation."

The Ice Palace by Angela Barrett

Williams also addresses this theme in her essay "Undressing the Bear," pointing out that the she-bear has two sides her nature: both fierce and maternal, wild and nurturing. In mythic terms, this oppositional duality held in instinctive balance is the point.

Art by Lucy Campbell and Virginia Lee

"If we choose to follow the bear," she writes, "we will be saved from a distracted and domesticated life. The bear becomes our mentor. We must journey out, so that we might journey in. The bear mother enters the earth before snowfall and dreams herself through winter, emerging with young by her side. She not only survives the barren months, she gives birth. She is the caretaker of the unseen world. As a writer and a woman with obligations to both family and community, I have tried to adopt this ritual of balancing public and private life. We are at home in the deserts and mountains, as well as in our dens. Above ground in the abundance of spring and summer, I am available. Below ground in the deepening of autumn and winter, I am not. I need hibernation in order to create."

Dream Basket by Susan Seddon Boulet

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist and storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés notes the age-old connection of women and bears in the mythic traditions of many different lands. "To the ancients," she writes, "bears symbolized resurrection. The creature goes to for a long time, its heartbeat decreases to almost nothing. The male often impregnates the female right before hibernation, but miraculously, egg and sperm do not unite right away. They float separately in her uterine broth until much later. Near the end of hibernation, the egg and sperm unite and cell division begins, so that the cubs will be born in the spring when the mother is awakening, just in time to care for and teach her new offspring. Not only by reason of awakening from hibernation as though from death, but much more so because the she-bear awakens with new young, this creature is a profound metaphor for our lives, for return and increase coming from something that seemed deadened.

Brown bear and cubs

Bear cubs copyright Terri Windling

"The bear is associated with many huntress Goddesses: Artemis and Diana in Greece and Rome, and Muerte and Hecoteptl, mud women deities in the Latina cultures. These Goddesses bestowed upon women the power of tracking, knowing, 'digging out' the psychic aspects of all things. To the Japanese the bear is the symbol of loyalty, wisdom, and strength. In northern Japan where the Ainu tribe lives, the bear is one who can talk to God directly and bring messages back for humans. The cresent moon bear is considered a sacred being, one who was given the white mark on his throat by the Buddhist Goddess Kwan-Yin, whose emblem is the crescent moon. Kwan-Yin is the Goddess of Deep Compassion and the bear is her emissary.

The Snow Maiden by Edmund Dulac

"In the psyche, the bear can be understood as the ability to regulate one's life, especially one's feeling life. Bearish power is the ability to move in cycles, be fully alert, or quiet down into a hibernative sleep that renews one's energy for the next cycle. The bear image teaches that it is possible to maintain a kind of pressure gauge for one's emotional life, and most especially that one can be fierce and generous at the same time. One can be reticent and valuable. One can protect one's territory, make one's boundaries clear, shake the sky if need be, yet be available, accessible, engendering all the same."

Bear Friend by Alexandra Dvornikova

Father Bear Comes Home by Maurice Sendak and Bear Dancer by Susan Seddon Boulet

Bear scuptures by Gene Tobey

Though Williams and Estés are focused on women and women's issues in the passages above, the oppositional nature of bear symbology is useful to all artists, men and women alike, who struggle to balance their public and private selves, and the often-conflicting demands of family life, community engagement, and creative work. To be available to others, while protecting time to be available only to ourselves and our muse...is this not the dilemma that all creative artists (if we're not complete monsters of self-importance or self-effacement) face again and again?

Bearskin by Trina Schart Hyman and East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Liga Klavina

And even when we are alone in the studio, the symbol of the mythic bear and cyclical hibernation is a useful one. As a culture, we tend to prize action, accomplishment, and public expression over stillness, retreat, and quiet reflection -- but creativity needs all parts of the cycle: the taking in, the pause, the putting back out. Art is born in the movement between them, the mythic rhythm at the heartbeat of our lives.

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

The winter months have always been a challenge for me. I love sunshine, dry weather and warmth (the hotter the better), and for many years I avoided the cold by wintering in the Arizona desert -- where bears roamed above us on the mountain peaks, but did not venture down to the heat of the valley.

By living full-time on Dartmoor now,  however, I am learning to appreciate winter's stark gifts: it slows me down, turns my thoughts inward, keeps me closer to hearth and home, strengthening the introverted side of my nature, without which I couldn't write or paint. I am learning at last to follow the bear; to trust in the process of hibernation and gestation. I am learning patience. Slowness. Stillness.

All things have their season. And spring always comes.

Sleeping bear by Marc Simont

Bear stories

It's a good time of year to be reading about bears -- in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and myth. The bearish tales above are three of my favourites, along with Tender Morsals by Margo Lanagan, Bear Daughter by Judith Berman, The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, East by Edith Pattou, Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Once Upon a Winter's Night by Dennis L. McKiernan, Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede, The Ice Bear by Jackie Morris, Bearkskin by Howard Pyle (illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman), "Bear's Bride" by Johanna Sinisalo (published in The Beastly Bride, Datlow-Winding eds.), and Marion Engle's strange but compelling Bear. What are some of yours...?

She Kissed the Bear on the Nose by John Bauer

Pictures: The bear art above is by Theodore Kittelsen, Jackie Morris, Angela Barrett, Lucy Campbell, Virginia Lee, Susan Seddon Boulet, me, Edmund Dulac, Alexandra Dvornikova, Maurice Sendak, Gene Tobey, Līga Kļaviņa, Trina Schart Hyman, John Bauer and Marc Simont. Titles and artist credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists.

Words: The passages quoted above are from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006); "Undressing the Bear," published in An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams (Vintage, 1994); and Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Ballentine, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors.


On the New Year and fresh starts

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Once again I've been asked to re-post this piece written back in 2018, with my heartfelt thanks to the kind readers who remembered and requested it. Of my two younger brothers mentioned in this piece, one of them died last February and the other has been missing for more than a decade. My mother, too, is long gone, and my great-aunt Clara (who raised her). I'm thinking of them all on this New Year's Day, and dedicate this post to them.

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

As Christmas approaches, I'm been asked 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.

Gerda and the Reindeer by Edmund Dulac

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.) I recommend a related article by Derek Johnstone, published in The Conversation: "Why Ghosts Haunt England at Christmas But Steer Clear of America." Also, don't miss "Father Christmas: A New Tale of the North," a perfectly magical story by Charles Vess.


Breaking open

Waterfall 1

From Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore:

" 'There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature,' Rachel Carson wrote. 'The assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.'

"I have never felt this so strongly as I do now, waiting for the sun to warm my back. The bottom may drop out of my life, what I trusted may fall away completely, leaving me astonished and shaken. But still, sticky leaves emerge from bud scales that curl off the tree as the sun crosses the sky. Darkness pools and drains away, and the curve of the new moon points to the place where the sun will rise again. There is wild comfort in the cycles and the intersecting circles, the rotations and revolutions, the growing and ebbing of this beautiful and strangely trustworthy world.

Waterfall 2

Waterall 3

"I settle back on the rock and drag my sleeping bag over my knees. Diffuse light silvers the water; I can just make out a dragonfly nymph that crawls toward the surface with no expectation of flight beyond maybe a tightness in the carapace across its back. No matter how hard it tries or doesn't, there will come a time when the dragonfly pumps the crinkles out of its wings, and there they will be, luminous as mica, threaded with lapis and gold.

Waterfall 5

Waterfall 6

Waterfall 7

Waterfall 8

 "No measure of human grief can stop Earth in its tracks. Earth rolls into sunlight and rolls away again, continents glowing green and gold under the clouds. Trust this, and there will come a time when dogged, desperate trust in the world will break open into wonder. Wonder leads to gratitude. Gratitude into peace." 

Waterfall 9

Waterfall 10

Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore

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Where, or how, do you find wild comfort?

Leap

 The passage above is from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, essays by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter Books, 2010); all rights reserved by the author. The text is the picture captions is adapted from a  post after winter storms in 2012.


Wild Prayer

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After many days of rain and mist, there is blue sky and a rainbow over our village. In a darkening season of water-soaked fields and foot trails ankle-deep in mud, it feels a blessing.

The sky is blue over 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."

Rainbow 2

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.

Rainbow 3

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.


And now for the goats

''So much to see!'' by photographer Adrienne Elliot

In myths all around the world the goat is associated with wilderness. The Greco-Roman gods who inhabited the forest depths and remote mountaintops roamed the backlands with goat companions, and appeared in the Pan, a sculpture by Wendy Froudform of goat-men themselves: Pan, Silvanus, Faunus, Bacchus, Dionysis, goat lovers all. Female goats were sacred to Artemis/Diana, goddess of female independence and the hunt, and goat milk was a common offering with which to honor or propitiate her.

In Sumerian myth, goats belonged to Marduk, the ancient god of magic and patron deity of Babylon, and were regarded as potent, uncanny beings due to this association.  Agni, the Vedic god of fire, rides a chariot pulled by goats in some Hindu tales; as does Thor, the god of thunder, strength, and virility in Scandinavian myth. Thor's goats, called Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, are slaughtered and feasted on each night, but when their bones are carefully gathered together these magical goats return to life.

The Yule Goat, found across northern Europe, is a straw figure traditionally made from the very last sheaf of grain to be harvested each year. It can range in size from tiny to huge, and has magical properties. The custom is pagan in origin, but has been become attached to A Swedish Yule Goat, 1917Christmas lore in a number of northern countries: Father Christmas is sometimes pictured as riding on the back of a goat in Scandinavia, for example, and "going Yule goat" refers to the custom of carolling or wassailing. In some regions, a man dressed as a goat accompanies the singers as they go from house to house; he is a Trickster figure, playing pranks on households not sufficiently hospitable. In other traditions, the Yule Goat is a gentle, invisible spirit who watches to make sure the winter rituals are correctly carried out, or a figure who, like Santa Claus today, distributes presents to children.

Yule Goat by John Bauer

Yule Goat in Gefle, Sweden, 2009

The Krampus is a relative of the Yule Goat, but he is far less benign. Known largely in Alpine regions, he's a hairy, frightening beast-man with the horns and hooves of a goat, wearing rattles and bells around his waist. He distributes gifts to good children and drags the naughty ones off into the forest.

Krampus figures photographed by Charles Fregere

Oldgoatshome

The symbolism attached to goats varies a great deal around the world. In some places, they represent gentleness, endurance, spiritual purity, and sacrifice; in others, independence, lust, virility, fertility, The Gidleigh Goat by David Wyattcreative vigor, and stubbornness. Those born in the Chinese year of the goat are said to be shy, creative, and prone to perfectionism, while in Persian myth, goats symbolize leadership, forcefulness, and strength. This range reflects the nature of goat themselves. Though they were among the earliest of animals to be domesticated by humankind, they are also among the quickest to return to a feral state when opportunity arises.

In old stories ranging from Aesop's Fables to fairy tales and nursery rhymes, goats are cannier than sheep (think, for example, of the clever Three Billy Goats Gruff), and though they're generally not full Trickster characters, they tend to retain an edge of Trickster's wiliness and wildness. Even in more recent stories for children -- such as Heidi, the classic by Johanna Spyri (which I adored as a child) -- they represent our connection to nature and life lived in tune with nature's cycles...carrying the echo of goat-legged Pan wherever they roam the mountains, and wherever we follow. 

Heidi and the Goats by Jessie Wilcox Smith

Goat sketch by Diego Rivera

"From sunrise to sunset, I was in the forest, sometimes far from the house, with my goat who watched me as a mother does a child," wrote Mexican painter Diego Rivera (in My Art, My Life). "All the animals in the forest became my friends, even dangerous and poisonous ones. Thanks to my goat-mother and my Indian nurse, I have always enjoyed the trust of animals -- a precious gift. I still love animals infinitely more than human beings."

Girls Combing the Beads of Goats by Richard Doyle

Katrina Plotnikova

Pictures: goats photographed by Adrienne Elliot, a sculpture of Pan by Wendy Froud, a Swedish Yule Goat photographed in 1917,  "Yule Goat" by John Bauer (1882-1918),  a straw Yule Goat in Sweden (2009), a photograph of Krumpus figures by Charles Fregere (from his brilliant Wilder Mann series), "Old Goats Home" by David Wyatt (initial sketch for a painting), "The Gidleigh Goat" by David Wyatt (Gidleigh is a village close to Chagford), "Heidi and the Goats" by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), a goat sketch by Diego Rivera (1886-1957), "Girls Combing the Beards of Goats" by Richard Doyle (1834-1883), and a goat image from the Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova.


The folklore of sheep

The Royal Ram by Adrienne Segur

Donkey Nanny, Lombardy, Italy, photographed by Elspeth Kinneir

Sheep are associated with Christmas in folk tales told across northern Europe and the British Isles. On Christmas eve, these tales report, all sheep face east, bow three times, and are gifted with the power of speech from the stroke of midnight until the rise of the sun. This holy ritual cannot take place under the gaze of human beings, but provided the sheep are unobserved and unaware, their conversations can be Head of a Ewe, Sumerian, Protoliterate period (c 3500–3000 BC)overheard. In some accounts, the sheep sing hymns; in others, they foretell events of the year to come; and in some they gossip, praising or bemoaning the conditions in which they live. A grumbling sheep, mind you, is a cause for worry, because sheep are especially beloved and protected by Mother Mary in the folklore tradition, and a black mark is lodged in the heavenly accounts against farmers or shepherds who treat them ill.

Going back to myths older than Christianity: Duttur was the Sumerian pastoral goddess associated with ewes, milk, and arts of the dairy; she was the mother of Tammuz: the shepherd god of rebirth, fertility, and new growth in spring. Likewise, the ram-headed Khnum in Egyptian myth was a god of rebirth and pastoral regeneration. As one of the oldest of Egyptian deities, he also the god of creation,  forming human bodies in clay on a potter's wheel and placing them inside their mother' wombs. In Greek myth, Aristaios (son of Apollo and Cyrene) was the god of shepherds and beekeepers. The island of Ceos was the center of his cult (though he is also associated with the founding of Thebes), where his followers practiced "weather magic" and were renown for their fine herds and dairy skills.

Drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger

Girl With Lamb by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

In Irish myth, Brigid (the goddess of poetry and husbandry, among other things) was the owner of Cirb, a castrated ram (or wether) who was king of all the rams and sheep of Ireland -- including the seven famous magical sheep owned by the sea god Manannán. These sheep, it was said, could produce enough wool to clothe every man, woman, and child the world over.

The "lamb of god" -- representing innocence, purity, and sacrifice for the greater good -- is a symbol found in all three of the major Abrahamic religions and especially in Christianity, where it's been widely represented all forms of Christian art and iconography.

Lambs on Dartmoor by Helen Mason

Little Miss Muffet and Her Sheep by Kate Greenaway

Hans Ole Braseh painting and an Edwardian postcard

By contrast, lambs play little part in either Buddhist or Hindu lore, though the old and virile ram appears in Asian myth in a variety of ways. A ram was present at the birth of Buddha, is a symbol of the passing year in Tibet, and is sacred (like the goat) to Agni, the Vedic god of fire, in the Hindu pantheon. Agni's ram is a symbol of sacrifice, but not a physical sacrifice of the animal itself; rather, of personal sacrifice in the form of spiritual practice and devotion.

Those born in the Chinese Year of the Sheep are said to be especially sensitive, creative, empathetic, and anxious; while those born under the sign of Aries the Ram in Western astrology are daring, lusty, quick-witted and honest, but also rather obstinate.

In Bulgaria, and other parts of eastern Europe, rams are said to be beyond the reach of evil; thus their image became a totem used to keep bad luck and illness at bay through carvings found on household utensils, domestic buildings, stables, and barns.

Chinese ram carving, 17th/18th century

Painting by Akitaka Ito

Baa Baa Black Sheep by Edmund Caldwell

 

"Sheep breeding," writers Dr. Vihra Baeva, "has always been the main source of livelihood in the Bulgarian lands. That is why, in traditional culture, shepherds are held in high esteem and a large flock of sheep is sung praise of as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The bells on the sheep’s necks, called chan or hlopka, which chime in harmony also give a sense of pride. Christmas carols express wishes that the flock may yagni (derived from the word for lamb) but also blizni (twin-lambs). They sing of fine-wool sheep, horn-twisting rams and white-faced lambs. The animal described as vaklo is especially prized -- i.e. animals that are white with dark rings around the eyes. That is why a pretty lass, who by and large would have black eyes is compared to a lamb that is vaklo, gentle and loved."

Baa Baa Black Sheep by Paula Rego

In the folklore of the British countryside, black sheep were largely considered lucky creatures -- in contrast to European lore where exactly the opposite was true, from which we get idioms like "the black sheep of the family" and the black sheep of children's rhymes and fairy tales.

The phrase "a wolf in sheep's clothing" is of Biblical origin (from The Gospel of Matthew), but can also be found in Aesop's Fables. "Two shakes of a lamb's tail," meaning to do something quickly, appears to have come from early settlers in either America or New Zealand (depending on which source you consult), popularized by Richard Barham’s book Ingoldsby Legends (1840). It's believed to have derived from way that high-spirited lambs wag their tails while feeding.

Sheep with lamb by Henry Moore

Sheep Studies by Henry Moore

''Archie Parkhouse Leading His Sheep by James Ravilious

There are many different theories on where the idea of counting sheep in order to fall asleep comes from, but one of the most interesting is that it's rooted in the old Celtic dialects, used by shepherds to count their sheep long after general use of these dialects had disappeared. This repetition of numbers, chanted in an ancient language in a sing-song manner, was said to send children into peaceful slumber as their elders watched over the herds.

Training Day by David Wyatt

The fairy folk of Brittinay, Wales, and here in the West Country keep flocks of fairy sheep (and cattle), and are said to steal the sheep of local farmers in order to replenish their stock.  Various charms, herbs, and rituals can be used to keep straying sheep safe from fairy hands. In some accounts, fairy sheep are diminutive in size, while in others they resemble ordinary animals except for the strange color of their eyes. Sheep who appear on Dartmoor roads at night and disappear in the blink of an eye are ones who belong to piskie folk, and woe betide any who harm them.

Strayed Sheep by Pre-Raphaelite painter William Homan Hunt

Our own dramatic sheep encounter occurred early one morning several years ago, when Tilly began barking frantically and our daughter went outside to investigate. A few moments later Victoria was back again, dumbfounded. "There's a sheep in our back garden," she reported.

Our visitor turned out to be a young ram (a fact we discovered by a clear view of his tackle from below)  -- a handsome fellow who was not best pleased to find himself in this unfamiliar terrain, far from his herd. He had wandered over Nattadon Hill and through the woods, across a stream, past a garden gate, through a gap in the hedge and then up some stairs onto the porch of the Howard's studio cabin  -- where he snorted and snuffled, while Tilly barked in hysterics but didn't go close. (Good dog.)

The ram on the cabin porch

Howard was called, stumbled out half-awake, and the poor ram grew more and more agitated as we discussed how on earth to get him off the darn porch and back to his herd. This being the 21st century, Howard turned to the Internet for advice on "how move a ram," and we learned we should herd him slowly, slowly, with plenty of space between him and us. Otherwise the poor fellow might panic and bolt and end up heaven knew where.

We must have been a fine sight that morning, all of us in our pyjamas still, Tilly dancing at our feet, while we slowly guided our  visitor down the cabin's stairs...through the break in the hedge...past my studio...through the gate behind it...over the stream...and into the woods. The young ram, finding his bearings as last,  disappeared through trees with a flash of his hooves -- heading to the open hillside beyond, where the rest of his herd was waiting.

If I hadn't snapped the picture above, I'd be wondering now if we'd dreamt the whole thing.

Shep guarding the sheep by Beatrix Potter

Ewes Watching Shooting Stars by Mary Newcomb

Information on each of the paintings, drawings, and photographs above can be found in the picture captures. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists. This post first appeared in December, 2014, and is re-published today with additional art. A related post on the folklore of goats is here.


Veriditas and the vegetable soul

Bean Longpod by Charles Jones

For those of you making Thanksgiving feasts today, here's a post rooted in garden soil....

"The word vegetable comes from the root that means the very opposite of immobile, passive, dull, or uneventful. Vegere means to animate, enliven, invigorate, arouse. Vegete means to grow, to be refreshing, to vivify, animate. From these roots come words such as vigil, vigilant, and vigor, with all their connotations of being wide-awake, alert, of keeping watch. 'The understanding...was vagete, quick, and lively," observed one critic in 1662. Ben Jonson described what he saw as desirable characteristics in woman, 'faire, young, and vegetous.' Such respect for the vegetable soul was not confined merely to a robust sensual life, but extended into the religious dimension. 'Man is righteous in his Vegetated Spectre,' proclaimed Blake when commenting about the beliefs of the ancient Druids. Elsewhere it was insisted that 'A vegetous faith is able to say unto a mountain, Be moved into the sea.'

"The downward pull of vegetables, of the vegetable soul, has also provided exemplary images of being placed, of being grounded, of having roots. For example, Jung said, 'I am fully committed to the idea that human existence should be rooted in the earth.' He bemoaned modern culture's lack of earth-based ancestral connections. As Henry Corbin put it, the past is not behind us, but beneath our feet. What better way to touch the ground than through cabbages, which the poet Robert Bly says 'love the earth.' The word root comes from the Indo-European root ra, meaning to derive, to grow out of. To be 'radical' is get back to the roots. Radish stems from the same etymological roots."

- Peter Bishop (The Greening of Psychology: The Vegetable World in Myth, Dream, and Healing)

Cabbages (Larry's Perfection) by Charles Jones

Good People, most royal greening verdancy,
rooted in the sun, you shine with radiant light.

Hildegard of Bingen (''Original Blessing'')

Potatoes by Charles Jones

"A cornerstone of Hildegard of Bingen's spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator. Hildegard celebrated the sacred in nature, something highly relevant for us in this age of climate change and the destruction of natural habitats.''

- Mary Sharratt ("Eight Reasons Why Hildegard Matters Now")

Peas by Charles Jones

"I'm a champion of subtley. The subtler something is, the more you have to pay attention, and that's a good thing. Remember, it's not always the big, loud species that are the best teachers. Sometimes it's the little, quiet, humble ones.

"Plants have the ability to transmit energy. Plants draw in and transform earth and water and nutrients and light and make their bodies out of them. Plants are a manifestation of these forces being woven together, and we humans have relied on them to sustain us since the beginning of our evolution. In cultures that are close to the earth I see a recognition of the power of plants to hold and draw energy and to move it along, thereby changing in a healing way. The plant world is constantly whispering to us, if we can hear it."

- Kathleen Harrison ("Women, Plants, and Culture," Moonwise)

Turnips by Charles Jones

Onions by Charles Jones

" 'Eating is an agricultural act,' as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world -- and what is to become of it."

- Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals)

Plums by Charles Jones

The photographs in this post are by Charles Jones, a Victorian gardener and photographer born in Wolverhampton, Staffordshire in 1866. His work was largely unknown (even to his family) until hundreds of his images were discovered in a suitcase at an antiques market in south London in 1982; since then his beautiful images of vegetables and flowers have appeared in major museum exhibitions and been published in a book, The Plant Kingdoms Of Charles Jones (1998).

More information on the artist can be found here, and additional photographs can be seen here.

McGreedy's Scarlet by Charles Jones