Hiraeth

Footpath signpost

Footpath gate

Here's another interesting passage for our on-going discussion of 'writers and place" -- from an essay by Susan Cooper, the British-born author of The Dark Is Rising series:

"When I was twenty-six years old," she writes, "I left every aspect of home: place, friends, occupation, nation -- the lot, and I married an American and came to live in the USA. If put back in the same situation, I should probably do the same again, but I wouldn't say it was a reasoned choice. When you are uprooted in this way, and leave home completely and suddenly, what you leave is not a place only, but the whole fabric of life. You leave the sights and sounds and smells of your native environment, familiar and reassuring; the particular patterns of day and night, climate and weather, roads and rivers, and above all, people, all the different layers of relationships. You lose things you had never realized you possessed: a way of thinking, an ingrained pattern of assumptions and prejudices, and of delights felt never so acutely as when they are no longer there. Of course, you gain things too, but they don't fill these particular holes, because they are a different shape."

Bluebells 1

A little later in the essay, Cooper adds:

"I can tell you a lot about homesickness; I am an expert on the matter of living and loving across a divide, on the kind of ache that is bearable only because its absence would signify emptiness, the loss of all feeling. The Welsh call this ache hiraeth, and by that word they mean something more than homesickness: they mean a kind of deep longing of the soul. They guard the value of the word, and are contemptuous of those who use it lightly....My Dark is Rising books were written out of hiraeth, the longing; it infuses every image and description in them.

Bluebells 4

"Like many authors published for children, I've often said I don't write for children, but for myself, and in the case of these books it's especially true. It's true, that is, of the last four of the five books in the sequence, which were written after I'd lived for more than ten years in the United States. These four are quite different from the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, which was written when I still lived in London. (For one thing, they're better books, and I should hope so after ten years of practice. The worst thing you can ever say to an author is, 'Oh, my favorite of all your books is the first' -- it's like telling him that his whole life has been a downhill slide.) Those last four Dark is Rising books are layered with Englishness and Welshness, the two sides of my mongrel British nature; they're full of the history and geography of the British Isles, their time and place, their people and weather and skies and spells, all echoing to and fro. I couldn't live there in reality, so I lived there in my books. Perhaps the sequence put hiraeth to rest, in its most painful and acute form, because I seem not to have written anything about Britain since, except for three small retellings of folktales.

Bluebells 2

"Everyone leaves the first home. Time passes, nothing stays the same. We all leave childhood behind, even though that process may take decades, and not really be completed until our parents die. It's not an easy process; perhaps there's no such thing as easy growth, unless you're a dandelion. It isn't easy because you have to fight all the way against the pull of home.

Bluebells 3

"Not all the aspects of that world are warm and cozy," Cooper cautions; "there are many that are sinister. There's home as octopus, home as snare; home as Venus Flytrap, home as black hole. Home can be the place you can't escape from, or haven't the courage to leave or replace; the womb you have never really left. This is the dark side of home, and we should never lose sight of it, in a romantic haze of nostalgia.

"If one is to grow, home has to be replaced, over and over again, in a progression through life."

Pathway

Woodland Gate

Credits: The passages above are from "Moving On," published in Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children by Susan Cooper (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1996). The exquisite poem in the picture captions is from Selected Poems by Gillian Clarke, who is currently the National Poet of Wales (Picador, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors. Related posts: Kith and Kin and On Loss & Transfiguration. (For more on the subject of stories, place, and home, click on the "home &  homelessness" link below.)


Home is Imaginary: the power of imagination

Woodland gate

This week has a dark significance: it is the time of year, statistically, when the most suicides take place; and the majority of those suicides are related to depression.

Depression is on a sharp rise in the West, increasingly afflicting our young people -- and young men in particular. Several conversations with friends this last week have centered on what we -- as writers, as artists, as members of geographic and artistic communities -- can do to support younger generations to grow into lives that are mentally healthy, balanced, grounded in values beyond the marketplace, and connected to the physical, natural world, to the numinous, and to each other.

Art plays a role in this, of course, for the imagery we put out into the world helps to shape it, for good or for ill..and each of us is responsible for our small part in the collective creation.

Through the leaves

Here are some useful thoughts on the subject from an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for compentence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive.

"When children are taught to learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs.

Leaf and moss

"Nothing else does quite as much for most people, not even the other arts. We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.

"Through story, every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people -- Hmong, !Kung, Hopi, Quechua, French, Californian....We are those who arrived at the Fourth World.... We are Joan's nation.... We are sons of the Sun.... We came from the sea.... We are people who live at the center of the world.

Rock hound 1

"A people that doesn't live at the center of the world, as defined and described by its poets and storytellers, is in a bad way. The center of the world is where you live fully, where you know how things are done rightly, done well.

"A child who does not know where the center is -- where home is, what home is -- that child is in a very bad way.

Rock hound 2

"Home isn't Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn't where they have to let you in. It's not a place at all. Home is imaginary.

"Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can't get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it -- whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.

Through the leaves again

"All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people....What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow us freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.

"Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.

"Reading is an act of listening."

Entangled

The quote above is from "The Operating Instructions," an essay I recommend reading in full. You'll find it in Le Guin's latest collection, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books, 2000-2016 (Small Beer Press, 2016).

Related reading:

* Danuta Kean's recent article "Library cuts harm young people's mental health services" (The Guardian, January 13, 2017)

* Jane Yolen on the value of fantasy in "Children, reading and Tough Magic" (Myth & Moor, August 26, 2016)

* My own thoughts about early storybooks in "The stories we need" (Myth & Moor, February 25, 2016)

* Jay Griffiths on children and nature: "In the forest, the child. In the child, the forest" (Myth & Moor, June 11, 2015).

On the hillside

Words Are My MatterThe text above is from "The Operating Instructions," a talk given at a meeting of Oregon Literary Arts in 2002, and reprinted in Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). All rights reserved by the author.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

On October 3rd, 2013, a boat carrying approximately 500 African migrants was wrecked near Lampedusa (an Italian island near Sicily), causing 366 deaths. Awa Ly, a Sengalese singer born and raised in Paris, wrote the song above in reaction to the tragedy -- and as an appeal for more help for migrants and refugees as the crisis continues.

"The video," says Ly, "tells the story of a man who decides to leave his country for more promising horizons. He is a teenager when we see him packing his luggage, but it is as a grandfather that he climbs onto the boat that will take him away...and to his death. Thus his life is summed up in single day: teenager in the morning, man in the afternoon, grandfather in the evening. The difficulties of everyday life are represented by the beauty and hostility of the desert; the acquisition of the knowledge and experience are represented by a baobab tree. [Sengalese hiphop singer] Faada Freddy and I are the 'storytellers' in the film. Like the spirits, we sing into the ear of the traveler to dissuade him from leaving home."

Below: A sequence of songs performed by Faada Freddy for Le Ring in France. Freddy is an alt-Gospel, Soul and hiphop singer from St. Louis in Senegal, making music entirely out of percussion and voice.

Above: "La fille sans nom"  by Breton singer & harpist Cécile Corbel with Faada Freddy, from Corbel's new album Vagabonde.  The video was filmed in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and le Finistère, Brittany.

Below: American singer/songwriter Alicia Keys performs her song "Hallelujah" on an Italian television program. The song was written for her short film "Let Me In," supporting people around the globe forced to flee conflict and disaster. The song & film were released earlier this year on World Refugee Day, as part of the We Are Here movement.

"I want us all to imagine if we were the refugees," says Keys; "as if we were the ones torn from the arms of our families and loved ones. While some seek to stoke the flames of division and turn us against our fellow neighbors, we’re here to make the case for love and compassion. How would we feel if it were happening to us?” 

Hand in hand


The tales we tell

Diplomat by Virginia Lee

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

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

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

Minatour by Virginia Lee

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

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

Three Hares Tor by Virginia Lee

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

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

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

Tides of Emotion by Virginia Lee

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


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Gannets over St Kilda by Jill Harden (BBC)

Today, an extraordinary musical project: The Lost Songs of St. Kilda.

The islands of St. Kilda, at the westernmost edge of Scotland's Outer Hebrides, had been continuously inhabited for over two millenia until its last residents were officially evacuated in 1930.

Inhabitants of St. Kilda

Women & girls of St Kilda

The Lost Songs of St Kilda is a collection of traditional tunes from those islands -- all of which would have been lost forever were it not for Trevor Morrison, who had learned them from his piano teacher, a St. Kilda evacuee. Morrison made a home-recording of the songs, and after his death in 2012, the recording eventually found its way to the offices of Decca Records. Decca then asked Sir James Macmillan and other Scottish composers to develop the St. Kildan tunes, aided by the Scottish Festival Orchestral and additional musicians (including Julie Fowlis). The result is this very beautiful album: a tribute to a lost musical tradition and a vanished way of life.

Above, a short video about the project.

Below, the returning of the Lost Songs, after all these years, to the place where they were born.

Above, "Soay," a tune named after one of the smaller islands of St. Kilda. The name is derived from Seyðoy, meaning the Island of the Sheep in Old Norse. The piece is performed by composer Sir James Macmillan on Hirta, the largest of the islands.

Below, "Hirta," named for the larger island, with film footage from the 1920s, and contemporary photographs. There are several theories about the orgins of the island's name, including its possible derivation from Hirt, the Norse word for shepherd, or from h-Iar-Tìr, a Scots Gaelic word meaning "westland."

To learn more about the project, visit the Lost Songs of St. Kilda website or Facebook page.

I also recommend Hirta Songs (2014), a fine album of music by Aladsair Roberts and poetry by Robin Robertson. The piece below is from Hirta Songs: "The Leaving of St. Kilda" (audio only). 

And one more recommendation: Night Waking (2011), a novel by Sarah Moss that was partially inspired by St. Kilda's history. The story takes place on a fictional Scottish island, split between contemporary and Victorian narratives: darkly comic and mysterious by turns. It's the first in a sequence of interconnected novels, followed by Bodies of Light (set in Victorian Manchester and London) and Signs for Lost Children (set in Cornwall and Japan). I personally think Moss is one of the best writers working in Britain today.

Children of St Kilda

St Kilda islanders