There is no time for despair

Bumblehill Studio 1 This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2016. Alas, it's still relevant today....

When the news is grim, and the clamour of the Internet is harsh and cacophonous, I find it grounding, healing, and necessary to turn away from keyboard and screens, and be fully present in the tactile world: in the morning light sifting through the studio, in the rising of the wind through the trees behind, in the words slowly forming in ink on fresh white paper spread out on my wooden desktop.

Drawing by Arthur RackhamInstead of flicking through Web pages, imbibing the Internet's manic energy and then coming offline feeling fractured and spent, I pull books from down the shelves and turn their rustling pages at a measured, more human pace...and my soul unclenches. My attention deepens. Something vital in me is quickened back to life. And yes, I am using a keyboard now to share these thoughts with you online, but it's not a full rejection of the Web I am after in my life. It's proportion and balance.

The Internet is a useful communication platform, and an increasingly important one...but books, oh, books are more than paper and ink. They are powerful medicine. Real books, I mean. Physical books, sitting on the dusty shelves of my studio and surrounding me like old friends, dog-earred and battered with love and use, their pages thick with margin notes and underlines. How could I ever doubt that art matters? Words have saved me over and over. Words are saving me right now. Books are what I turn to when the world grows dark, and they never fail to give me strength.

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This morning, for instance, Ben Okri asks me:

"What hope is there for individual reality or authenticity, when the forces of violence and orthodoxy, the earthly powers of guns and bombs and manipulated public opinion make it impossible for us to be authentic and fulfilled human beings?"

I've been asking myself the same question all week.

"The only hope," he answers, "is in the creation of alternative values, alternative realities. The only hope is in daring to redream one's place in the world -- a beautiful act of imagination, and a sustained act of self becoming. Which is to say that in some way or another we breach and confound the accepted frontiers of things."

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Then Rebecca Solnit joins the conversation:

"Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward," she notes, "but history is not an army. It's a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later, sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope."

"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic," adds Howard Zinn. "It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many -- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction."

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Barry Lopez pulls me out of a Western-centric point of view, reminding me of the things I share in common with people the world over:

"I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved," he says, "to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one's life. Wherever I've traveled -- Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan -- I've found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us."

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Terry Tempest Williams concurs, and affirms the role that artists play in the transmission of such stories:

"Bearing witness to both the beauty and pain of our world is a task that I want to be part of. As writers, this is our work. By bearing witness, the story that is told can provide a healing ground. Through the art of language, the art of story, alchemy can occur. And if we choose to turn our backs, we've walked away from what it means to be human."

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Then Toni Morrison takes me firmly by the shoulders and sends me back to my desk again:

Troubled times, she says, are "precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

"I know the world is bruised and bleeding," she adds, "and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge -- even wisdom. Like art."

Like art indeed.

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Studio Muse with Bone

Decoration by Arthur Rackham

Words: The first five quotes above are from the following books, all recommended: A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix, 1998); Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (Nation Books, 2005); You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn (Beacon Press 2002), About This Life by Barry Lopez (Vintage, 1999), and A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The Toni Morrison quote is from her essay "No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear" (The Nation, March 2013). The quotes in the picture captions come from a variety of sources, each identified with the text. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The drawing and painting above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The photographs are from my studio cabin, perched on a Devon hillside at the edge of a small wood. They were taken in the spring and autumn of 2016, but little has changed in the workspace since then.


The truth of fantasy

The Fairy Scribe by Alan Lee

From "Perilous Realms: A Colloquy" by Lloyd Alexander:

"The pitfall in writing fantasy is not adding enough realism. Fantasy deals with the impossible, not the illogical. Creating a secondary world where the impossible becomes ordinary does not carry with it a license to do as one pleases. In conception, and in its deep substructures, the fantasy world must, if anything, be more carefully rationalized than the real world.

"The real world, as we all know, sometimes to our bewilderment, is often illogical, inconsistent, a kind of elaborate random walk. In fantasy, magical elements have to make sense in their own framework. The goal, of course, is to make fantasy seem absolutely real and convincing. This statement applies not only to setting but to characters as well. The writer may populate his imaginary world with all manner of imaginary creatures, human or otherwise. But within that world they must be as carefully observed as in any work of realism. They must have weight, solidity, dimension. Their fantastic condition must speak to our real one.

Fairy Queen by Alan Lee

Fairies in the Wood by Alan Lee

"Sheer inventiveness can be amusing, entertaining, even dazzling, and I don't mean to downgrade it. The danger is that too often it can turn into sheer gimmickry. Choosing the wrong form is, I think, probably the biggest risk in any kind of creation. Fantasy, however, seems to offer special temptations. To the unwary writer it promises such fun and freedom, great soaring flights of unbounded imagination. This promise can turn out to be a siren song. Before listening to it, the writer would be well advised to ask, Why fantasy instead of some other form? Unless fantasy is the best and only way a writer can express what is deepest in his mind and heart, the writer should consider some other mode and spare himself, and his readers, much labor and grief.

Fairy hounds by Alan Lee

"This is not to say that writers of realism have it ay easier or are any less vulnerable to dangers. If a work of fantasy can fail through lack of realism, a work of realism can fail can fail through lack of fantasy. In this case I use the word fantasy in the sense of transformative imagination. Realism is not reality. The magic of realism is that it can seem to be real life, more real even than life itself. But this marvelous illusion comes from the transformative imagination of the writer -- imagination that shapes, manipulates, and illuminates. Without it the work is only a play of surfaces.

" 'True to life' may not always be true enough. The difficulty is perhaps in confusing truth with objectivity. By its very nature, art can never be objective. Try as we might, we can't 'tell it like it is.' We can only tell it the way it seems to us. And this, of course, is what we must do -- in realism or in fantasy -- if we hope to create anything of durable value.

"We have always needed good art to sustain us, to strengthen us, even to console us for being born human. Where better can we learn to see through the eyes of others, to gain compassion, to try to make sense of the world outside ourselves and the world within ourselves?"

Indeed.

An illustration from Merlin Dreams by Alan Lee

The glorious drawings in this post are by my friend and village neighbour Alan Lee. He's known best as the illustrator of J.R.R. Tolkien's books, and for his Oscar-winning design work on the Lord of the Rings films -- but he's also created art for numerous other beautiful editions, including Black Ships Before Troy and The Wanderings of Odysseus with Rosemary Sutcliffe, Merlin Dreams with Peter Dickinson, The Moon's Revenge with Joan Aiken, Faeries with Brian Froud, and stunning editions of The Mabinogion and Ovid's Metamorphoses.

"I spend as much time as I can sketching from nature," he says. "Dartmoor contains such a rich variety of landscape -- as many boulders, foaming rivers, and twisted trees as my heart could ever desire. When I look into a river, I feel I could spend a whole lifetime painting that river, from source to sea, and nothing else."

To learn more about Alan's work, go here. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

The Sorceress by Alan Lee

The passage above is from "Perilous Realms: A Colloquy" by Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007), published in Inncocence & Experience: Conversations and Essays on Children's Literature,  edited by Harrison & Maguire (Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard Books, 1987). All rights to the art and text in this post reserved by the artist and author.


Where the wild things are

Charles Vess

From "Turning Our Fairy Tales Feral Again" by Sylvia V. Linsteadt:

"Humans are storytelling creatures. We need story, we need deep mythic happenings, as much as we need food and sun: to set us in our place in the family of things, in a world that lives and breathes and throws us wild tests, to show us the wildernesses and the lakes, the transforming swans, of our own minds. These minds of ours, after all, are themselves wild, shaped directly by our long legacy as hunters, as readers of wind, fir-tip, animal trail, paw-mark in mud. We are made for narrative, because narrative is what once led us to food, be it elk, salmonberry or hare; to that sacred communion of one body being eaten by another, literally transformed, and afterward sung to.

The Winter King by Charles Vess

"The narratives we read, and watch, and tell ourselves about the relationship between humans and nature have cut out the voices of all wild things. They’ve cut out the breathing world and made us think we are alone and above. If these narratives don’t change -- if the elk and the fogs don’t again take their places and speak -- all manner of policies, conservation efforts and recycling bins won’t be worth a damn. We live in a world where, despite our best intentions, the stories we read -- literary, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, poetry -- are almost wholly human-centric. Wild places and animals and weather patterns are stage sets, the backdrop, like something carved from plywood and painted in. They have no voice, no subjective truth. In our dominant narratives, we are not one of many peoples -- grass people, frog people, fox people -- as the Hupa Indians of the Klamath River region say. We are the only people.

Charles Vess

"This makes sense on one level, as we live in a world in which we believe the only things that are truly and wholly animate are ourselves. Mostly all of what we have been taught is predicated on this assumption. On another level, this is complete lunacy, complete insanity. At what point did we loose the sense of stories and myths actually arising from the world around us, its heartbeats, its bloodflows, its bat-eared songs?"

''Charles Vess

"At some point, one asks, 'Toward what end is my life lived?'" writes Diane Ackerman (in The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds). "A great freedom comes from being able to answer that question. A sleeper can be decoyed out of bed by the sheer beauty of dawn on the open seas. Part of my job, as I see it, is to allow that to happen. Sleepers like me need at some point to rise and take their turn on morning watch for the sake of the planet, but also for their own sake, for the enrichment of their lives. From the deserts of Namibia to the razor-backed Himalayas, there are wonderful creatures that have roamed the Earth much longer than we, creatures that not only are worthy of our respect but could teach us about ourselves.”

Charles Vess

"Storytellers ought not to be too tame,"  Ben Okri advises in his inspiring essay collection A Way of Being Free. "They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society. They are best in disguise.  If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys."

Charles Vess

"When we walk, holding stories in us, do they touch the ground through our footprints?" asks Sylvia Linsteadt. "What is this power of metaphor, by which we liken a thing we see to a thing we imagine or have seen before -- the granite crag to an old crystalline heart -- changing its form, allowing animation to suffuse the world via inference? Metaphor, perhaps, is the tame, the civilised, version of shamanic shapeshifting, word-magic, the recognition of stories as toothed messengers from the wilds. What if we turned the old nursery rhymes and fairytales we all know into feral creatures once again, set them loose in new lands to root through the acorn fall of oak trees? What else is there to do, if we want to keep any of the wildness of the world, and of ourselves?"

Charles Vess

"The word 'feral' has a kind of magical potency," said T. H. White (in a letter to a friend, 1937).

And it does indeed.

Charles Vess

The gloriously wild art here is by Charles Vess, of course -- one of the great storytellers and mythic artists of our age. Charles and I grew up together in the fantasy field in New York City in the 1980s; he now lives and works in wild hills of rural Virginia. I particularly recommend his extraordinary illustrations for the new complete edition of The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Saga Press, 2018) and Drawing Down the Moon: The Art of Charles Vess (Dark Horse Books, 2009), and his various collaborations with Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman, in addition to all his other gorgeous books and comics.

I still remember these words from an interview with Charles published in 2006, which seem even more germane today: "What I get mostly from the news," he said, "is that nobody wants to pay attention to what anyone else believes or thinks, everyone wants to think that they know the only true story. The world seems to be getting very violent about 'I'm right and you're wrong, and you're going to go to hell if you don't believe what I believe.' To me, that is probably the biggest problem in our contemporary world. I think that using fantasy and mythology you can show that there are thousands of different stories and all of them are true. If you can get someone to accept that, then it's an easy step for them to accept others who are totally different, with a totally different mythology, with a totally different set of stories. They come to see that others' stories are just as valid as their own."

Please visit Charles' website to see more his art, and read his posts on the Muddy Colors illustration blog to learn more about the thoughts behind it.

The Books of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, illustrated by Charles Vess

Books illustrated by Charles Vess

Old friends (photo by Howard)

Words: The passage above are from "Turning Our Fairy Tales Feral Again" by Sylvia V. Lindsteadt (written for The Dark Mountain Project, reprinted in Resilience, March 2103); Rarest of the Rare by Diane Ackerman (Random House, 1995); and A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix, 1998). The T.H. White quote is from White's Letters to a Friend (Putnams, 1982). The Charles Vess quote is from an interview with the artist in the International Conference for the Arts Journal (2006). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: (1) She Came Out of the Forest Like a Ghost. (2 ) A sketch for The Winter King. (3) A sketch for The King of the Summer Country and His Bride of Flowers. (4 & 5) Illustrations for Medicine Road by Charles de Lint.  (6 & 7) Illustrations for The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint. All rights reserved by the artist.

Photographs: (1) The new edition of The Books of Earthsea, Saga Press, 2018. (2) The hound contemplating Drawing Down the Moon, Instructions, A Circle of Cats, and The Cats of Tanglewood Forest. (3) Charles and me on the Isle of Skye, June 2017.


Working with words

Pony 1

Pony 2

I'm preparing a post on our last Modern Fairies session in Newcastle, planning to post it later this week. In the meantime I'd to revisit this piece on the magic inherent in words, as this was a subject that came up in discussions with the songwriters on the Modern Fairies project....

"Where words and place come together, there is the sacred,"  writes Kiowa poet and novelist N. Scott Momaday. "The question 'Where are you going?' is so commonplace in so many languages that it has the status of a universal greeting; it is formulaic. There is an American folksong that begins:

Well, where do you come from, and where do you go?
Well, where do you come from my cotton-eye Joe?

"The questions are so familiar that they are taken for granted. But their implications, their consequent meanings, are profound. In the deepest matter of these words are the riddles of origin and destiny, and by extension the stuff of story and ritual. I belong in the place of my departure, says Odysseus, and I belong in the place that is my destination. Only in this spectrum is the quest truly possible. The sense of place and the sense of belonging are bonded fast by the imagination. And words, in all their formal and informal manifestations, are the best expression of the imagination.

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Pony 5

"Linguists have long suggested that we are determined by our native language, that language defines and confines us, " he notes. "It may be so. The definition and confinement do not concern me beyond a certain point, for I believe that language in general is practically without limits.

"We are not in danger of exceeding the boundaries of language, nor are we prisoners of language in any dire way. I am much more concerned with my place within the context of my language. This, I think, must be a principle of storytelling. And the storyteller's place within the context of his language must include both a geographical and mythic frame of reference. Within that frame of reference is the freedom of infinite possibility. The place of infinite possibility is where the storyteller belongs."

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Pony 7

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Pony 9

In an earlier interview, Momaday stated:

"Words are intrinsically powerful. And there is magic in that. Words come from nothing into being. They are created in the imagination and given life on the human voice. You know, we used to believe -- and I am talking about all of us, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds -- in the magic of words. The Anglo-Saxon who uttered spells over his field so that the seeds would come out of the ground on the sheer strength of his voice, knew a good deal about language, and he believed absolutely in the efficacy of language.

"That man's faith -- and may I say, wisdom -- has been lost upon modern man, by and large. It survives in the poets of the world, I suppose, the singers. We do not now know what we can do with words. But as long as there are those among us who try to find out, literature will be secure; literature will be a thing worthy of our highest level of human being."

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Pony 11

Pony 12

Pony 13

Like Momaday, I believe that words have a magic and a power of their own, which those of us working in mythic arts and the fantasy field would be wise to remember. A good fantasy novel is literally spell-binding, using language to conjure up whole new worlds, or to invest our own with magic. The particular power of fantasy comes from its link with the world's most ancient stories, and from the author's careful manipulation of mythic archetypes, story patterns, and symbols.

A skillful writer knows that he or she must tell two stories at once: the surface tale, and a deeper story encoded within the tale's symbolic language. The magical tropes of fantasy, rooted as they are in world mythology, come freighted with meaning on a metaphoric level. A responsible writer works with these symbols consciously and pays attention to both aspects of the story.

Pony 14

The second pony

Hillside with ponies

In her fine book Touch Magic, Jane Yolen writes: "Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."

I believe that those of us who use the magic of words professionally should remember how powerful stories can be -- for children especially, but also for adults -- and take responsibility for the tenor of whatever dreams or nightmares we're letting loose into the world. This is particularly true in fantasy, where the tools of our trade include the language, symbolism and archetypal energies of myth. These are ancient, subtle, potent things, and they work in mysterious ways.

Tilly 1

Tilly 2Words: The first passage by N. Scott Momaday is from The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (St. Martin's Press, 1997); the second passage is from Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets by Joseph Bruchac (Sun Tracks/U of Arizona Press, 1987). The poem in the picture captions is Momaday's "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee" (Tsoai-Talee being one of Momady's own names), from In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 (St. Martin's Press, 1991). All rights reserved by Momaday and Bruchac. Pictures: A magical encounter on our hill. Tilly is very good with these free-roaming Dartmoor ponies; she knows not to hassle or startle them...though sometimes they startle her.

The power of language: Go here for previous posts on the subject, featuring Ben Okri, Jeanette Winterson, Jane Yolen and others; here  for a short article by John Kelly on the rat-slaying poetry of the Irish bards; and here  for an exploration of another form of language: the howling of wolves.


After the dark...

Saint Lucia's Day by Carl Larsson

Painting by Kay Nielsen...light.

Let us bless
The imagination of the Earth,
That knew early the patience
To harness the mind of time,
Waited for the seas to warm,
Ready to welcome the emergence
Of things dreaming of voyaging
Among the stillness of land.

And how light knew to nurse
The growth until the face of the Earth
Brightened beneath a vision of color...

Let us ask forgiveness of the Earth
For all our sins against her:
For our violence and poisonings
Of her beauty.

Let us remember within us
The ancient clay,
Holding the memory of seasons,
Marianna and the Whippits by David WyattThe passion of the wind,
The fluency of water,
The warmth of fire,
The quiver-touch of the sun
And shadowed sureness of the moon.

That we may awaken,
To live to the full
The dream of the Earth
Who chose us to emerge
And incarnate its hidden night
In mind, spirit, and light.

- John O'Donohue

"It could be said that this is a hellish moment on earth environmentally, but I don't choose to see it that way. We are definitely disconnected. We know the litany of horrors: the degredation of resources, the level of consumption...I could go on and on. My grandfather would always say, 'I'm as low as a snake's belly.' So what do we do to pick ourselves up from the realities of the world we live in? I believe it is through art we can find our lifeline."  - Terry Tempest Williams

And so do I.

Spinning the Moon by David Wyatt

St. Lucia's Day by Carl Larsson

Pictures: The first and last paintings above are by Swedish painter Carl Larsson (1853-1919); the second picture is a detail from "Out Popped the Moon" by Danish book artist Kay Nielsen (1886-1957); the third is a detail from "Marianna and the Whippets" by our friend and village neighbor David Wyatt; and the fourth is "Spinning the Moon," also by David.

Words: The poem is an excerpt from "In Praise of the Earth" by Irish poet & philosopher John O'Donohue (1956-2008), from his beautiful book To Bless the Space Between Us (Convergent Books, 2008). The Terry Tempest Williams quote is from A Voice in the Wilderness, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The poetry excerpts tucked into the picture captions are by Andrew Colliver, Elizabeth Reniger, Theodore Rothke, Mary Oliver, and Denise Levertov.

All rights to the works above reserved by the artists and authors.


Happy Winter Solstice

The title of this magical animation by paper cut artist Angie Pickman refers to the winter solstice, but it's also symbolic of other "long nights" we face in life: a mental or physical health crisis...a period of grief, hardship, or trauma...or the political situations unfolding in Westminster, Washington DC, and other troubled places around the world.

"We are always on a journey from darkness into light," the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue reminds us. "At first, we are children of the darkness. Your body and your face were formed first in the kind darkness of your mother's womb. You lived the first nine months in there. Your birth was the first journey from darkness into light. All your life, your mind lives within the darkness of your body. Every thought you have is a flint moment, a spark of light from your inner darkness. The miracle of thought is its presence in the night side of your soul; the brilliance of thought is born of darkness. Each day is a journey. We come out of the night into the day. All creativity awakens at this primal threshold where light and darkness test and bless each other. You only discover the balance in your life when you learn to trust the flow of this ancient rhythm."

Copyright by Karen Davis

In the mythic sense, we practice moving from darkness into light every morning of our lives. The task now is make that movement larger, to join together to carry the entire world through the long night to the dawn.

Stray by Jeanie Tomanek

Capturing the Moon by Jeanie Tomanek

The art above is"The Spirit Within" by Karen Davis (UK); "Stray" and "Capturing the Moon" by Jeanie Tomanek (US). The video is by Angie Pickman (US); go here to see more of her work. The quote is from Anam Cara (Bantam Books, 1997) by John O'Donhue (1956-2008, Ireland). All right to the video and art above are reserved by the artists; all rights to O'Donohue's text are reserved by his estate.


On the cusp of winter solstice

Nattadon and Meldon Hills in winter

Contemplating winter solstice

The Nattadon path

Lines for Winter

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
Drawing by Arthur Rackhamwalking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon's gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

 - Mark Strand (from Selected Poems)

Trollsin Starlight by John Bauer

Pictures: The drawing is by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939); the painting is by John Bauer (1882-1918). Words: "Lines for Winter" is from New Selected Poems by Mark Strand (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007); all rights reserved by the author.


The Folklore of Winter

Santa Claus by Arthur Rackham

I'm been asked to re-post this piece on the tales and folk customs of winter holiday season, so here it is:

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, oven and table, and the wild wood beyond.

Gerda and the Reindeer by Edmund Dulac

Winter in Kensington Garden by Arthur Rackham

The Night Before Christmas by Arthur RackhamThe 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.


Following the bear

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Lucy Campbell

Many thanks to Dee Dee Chainey (author of A Treasury of British Folklore) for reminding me of this post from the archives. As winter approaches, it's good to be thinking of bears, and all they can teach us....

While thinking about the value of taking periodic retreats from the online world, I was reminded of something Terry Tempest Williams once said about the symbology of bears...so I searched through her interviews (published in A Voice in the Wilderness) until I found the right passage. 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." 

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."

Ice Bear by Jackie Morris

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.

"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."

Hibernation by Susan Seddon BouletIn 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 sleep 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.

Bear Woman by Susan Seddon Boulet"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.

"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 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?

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.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Frederick Richardson

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.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Līga Kļaviņa

Sleeping bear by Marc Simont

This post was first published in the winter of 2014, re-posted with additional art. The imagery above is by Lucy Campbell (Scotland), Jackie Morris (Wales), Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997; UK, Brazil & US),  Gene Tobey (1945-2006, US),  Frederick Richardson (1862-1937, US), Līga Kļaviņa (Latvia), and Marc Simont (1915-2013; France & US). Titles can be found in the picture captions.

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 artists and authors.


On loss and transfiguration

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

"The classic makers of children's literature," writes Alison Lurie, "are not usually men and women who had consistently happy childhoods -- or even consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain -- or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one country to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and transfigured, their lost worlds. "

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

J.M Barrie falls into this category, the happiness of his early childhood vanishing into darkness and gloom when an elder brother, the family favorite, died in a skating accident, after which Barrie's mother retreated permanently to her bed. C.S. Lewis was ten when he lost his mother to cancer (and just four when his beloved dog, Jacksie, was killed by a car -- a loss that so effected him that he insisted upon being called Jack for the rest of his life). George MacDonald lost his mother to tuberculosis at the age of eight. Enid Blyton's happy childhood in Kent ended Inga Mooreabruptly when her beloved father left the family for another woman, leaving Enid behind with a mother who disapproved of her interest in nature, literature, and art.

The sudden loss of a happier childhood world doesn't turn everyone into a children's book writer, of course, but it's interesting to note how many fine writers' backgrounds are marked by such loss; and Lurie may be correct that the desire to re-create the lost world lies at the heart of a particular form of creative inspiration. Or perhaps I'm just struck by Lurie's idea because it maps onto my own childhood, which was, from a child's point of view, safe and stable for the first six years when I lived in my grandmother's household (with my teenage mother and her sisters), and then plunged into darkness upon my mother's marriage to a brutal man, a stranger to me until the day of the wedding. Loss of home at a tender age can indeed send an unhappy child inward, seeking lands in imagination uncorrupted by the treacherous adult world.

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

In many previous posts (such as this and this), we've talked about concepts of home, place, connection to the landscape, and the way these things influence our creative work. In yesterday's post, we looked at longing -- for a lost home, a lost world, a lost way of life -- as a frequent theme in fantasy fiction. But loss can come about in so many different ways, and needn't be dramatic to cause lasting trauma. I'm thinking, for example, of a loss all too common today in our over-populated world: the loss of treasured chilhood landscapes to the unchecked sprawl of cities and suburbs, of beloved old houses and places we can never return to, buried under shopping malls and parking lots. 

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The Secret Garden by Inga Moore

In her essay collection Language and Longing, Carolyn Servid writes poignantly of her husband's childhood in an isolated valley in the mountains of Colorado. Lightly populated by old ranching families, artists, and hermits, the valley was a sanctuary for humans and animals alike...until the development of the nearby Iga Mooretown of Aspen into a ski resort and playground for the wealthy began to raise property prices on Aspen's periphery. When the dirt road into the valley was paved, change was not long behind: land speculation, housing developments, a golf course. The valley as generations had known and loved it was gone.

Servid writes that her husband "had witnessed this gradual transformation during summers home from college. He witnessed more changes every time he visited after marriage and various jobs took him out of the valley. He chronicled those changes to me before he ever drove me up the Crystal River Road to the Redstone house. The landscape stunned me the first time I saw it, and I watched it bring a deep smile of recognition to Dorik's eyes, but I knew his memories were of a wholeness that was no longer there. I realized he held a kind of perspective and knowledge that has been lost over and over again in the settlement of the continent, over and over again in the civilzation of the world."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

A little later, he learns that a neighbor's ranch has been sold off to a developer. "I watched his face tighten," Servid writes, "and knew that a deepening ache was filling him. Places and people he loved were both caught in the wake of rampant development that grew like a cancer. The impact was like a diagnosis of the disease itself, as though one of the most fundamental aspects of his life was being eaten away. I wondered then about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love. This grief doesn't have much standing among the range of emotions that our society values. We have yet to fully acknowledge and accept just how much our hearts are entwined with the places that shape us, tolerate us, hold us, provide for us. We have yet to openly testify and accede to the necessity of such places and love of them in our daily lives. We have yet to fully understand that our links as people living together in communties will never be more than transient and vulnerable without rootedness in the place itself."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

Just as Servid wonders "about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love," I wonder about the ways such a loss impacts us as writers and artists. Grief is a powerful thing, and especially so when it rumbles away, unexpressed, in the depth of our souls, the quiet but constant base note of our lives. Grief for landscapes paved over, ways of life that are gone, for whole species that are rapidly vanishing around us. Grief can indeed be a spur to art, leading us to "re-create or transfigure" our cherished lost worlds, or it can do the reverse: deaden and silence and paralyze us.

Your thoughts?

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The art today is by Inga Moore, who was born in Sussex, raised in Australia (from the age of eight), and returned to England when she reached adulthood. Joanna Carey, in her lovely portrait of the artist, writes:

Inga Moore"An imaginative, somewhat subversive child, she drew constantly, illustrating not just her own stories but also her schoolbooks, her homework, tests and exam papers. 'If you'd only stop all this silly drawing,' said the Latin teacher, 'you might one day amount to something.' She did stop -- 'for a long time' -- and is still resentful about that teacher's attitude. She regrets not going to art school, and endured 'one boring job after another' before eventually getting back to the drawing board. Supporting herself making maps for a groundwater company, she embarked on a series of landscapes and happily rediscovered her passion for drawing."

Moore worked as an illustrator in London until the economic downturn caused her to lose her home there -- a fortunate loss, as it turns out. She relocated to the Gloucester countryside, discovered this corner of England to be her heart's home, and produced the remarkable illustrations for The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden for which she is now justly famed. The pictures above are from those two volumes; the picture below is from The Reluctant Dragon.

Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon, illustrated by Inga MooreThe passage by Alison Lurie is from Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature (Little, Brown Publishers, 1990). The passage by Carolyn Servid is from Of Language and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge (Milkweed Editions, 2000). The quote by Joanna Carey is from "Inga Moore, illustrator of The Wind in the Willows" ( The Guardian, Feburary 6, 2010). All rights to the text and art above reserved by their creators. This post first appeared on Myth & Moor three years ago, and relates to yesterday's post on "longing" in fantasy fiction.