Tunes for a Monday Morning

Starling murmuration

As a follow-up to last week's music, here are a few more songs with the rustle of wings....

Above: "Seven Hundred Birds" by Monika Gromek's band Quickbeam, from Glasgow, Scotland. The atmospheric video was filmed in the hills of Cumbria. 

Below: "Starlings" by Welsh composer and guitarist Toby Hay. The song first appeared on his Birds EP -- five songs inspired by starlings, ravens, curlews,  and red kites. It can also be found on his fine album The Gathering, which came out last year.

Above: "The Lark" performed by singer/songwriter Kate Rusby, from South Yorkshire, with Nic Jones, based here in Devon. The song appeared on her album The Girl Who Couldn't Fky (2005).

Below: "Hour of the Blackbird" performed by Ninebarrow (Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere), from Dorset, accompanied by Lee Cuff (from Kadia) on cello. The song appeared on their album The Waters and the Wild (2018).

Above: "The Sweet Nightingale" performed by folksinger and fiddle/viola player Jackie Oates, from Staffordshire. The song appeared on her album Saturnine (2010)

Below: Lal Waterson's "The Bird," performed by Oates on her album The Joy of Living (2018).

Above: "What's the Use of Wings," written by Brian Bedford, performed by Jackie Oates and Megan Henwood, a singer/songwriter from Oxfordshire. Oates and Henwood are accompanied here by video clips of starling murmurations, and Pete Thomas on double bass.

Below: "The Cuckoo" performed by British folk duo Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker on their EP The Birds (2017).

And one more, below: "The Wren and the Salt Air" by Scottish singer/songwriter Jenny Sturgeon (of Salt House), inspired by the wildlife and human history of St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides. (St. Kilda was discussed in a previous post here.)

I also recommend Sturgeon's album Northern Flyway with Inge Thomson (from the Shetland Isles): a musical exploration of birdsong, ecology, folklore, and themes of migration (discussed in a previous post here).

Starling murmuration photographed by Daniel Biber  2018

Images above: starling murmurations. For more photographs, go here. For the folklore of birds, go here.


Wild Communion

Charlotte by Laurence Winram

In yesterday's post, I recommended Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a marvelous book about Mozart's bird companion (Star), the writer's own pet starling (Carmen), and reflections on this common bird, widely detested in North America for being nonnative and invasive. Today, I'd like to quote a beautiful passage from the latter chapters of the text looking at the nature of our wild relationships with the more-than-human world, a subject that often comes up in our discussions in the Mythic Arts field.

Haupt writes:

"When I set out to follow the story of Mozart and his starling, I saw in its center a shining, irresistible paradox: one of the greatest and most loved composers in all of history was inspired by a common, despised starling. Now I muse upon the many facets of this tale, and it is wonderful, yes, even more wonderful than I had imagined. But looking back at the trail that I have wandered with these kindred birds -- one in history and one in my home -- I see also that, as both humans and animals so often are, I have been tricked by my attraction to the shiny little object. For in the end, it is not the exceptionality of this story that is the true wonder. It is its ordinariness.

"In the creatures that intertwine with our lives, those we see daily and those that watch us from urban and wild places -- from between branches and beneath leaves and under eaves and stairwells and culverts and the sides of walks and pathways -- we share everything. We share breath, and biology, and blood. She share our needs for food and water and shelter. We share the imperative to mate and to give new life and to keep our young safe and warm and fed. We share susceptibility to disease and the potential to suffer and an inevitable frailty in the face of these things. We share a certain death. We share everything, constantly, every moment of the day and night, across eons. And in this shared earthly living, when we give our attention to it, we find the basis of our compassion, and our empathy for other creatures....

Each creature has its particular ways and wiles. Each being has its own presence, voice, silence, song, body, place. We are bound by our sameness and uniqueness in equal measure -- both spring from our shared being on a vital, conscious earth. This is wild communion. And it is in this recognition that we move beyond simple compassion to a more certain, more essential sense of relatedness, of kinship.

Mihaela 1 by Laurence Winram

"Mozart felt this, I know. Like me, he was drawn at first to the shiny thing -- in his case it was Star's singing back to him the song he himself had written. But in his elegy poem [written upon Star's death] we see that a different relationship evolved. The bird's mimicry is not once mentioned. This is a poem to a kindred creature whose presence brought play, sound, song, joy, and friendliness to the maestro's life. And in the work that Star inspired, this is what we see too. A shared sense of mischief, music, and delight. The word kinship comes from the Old English -- of the same kind, and therefore related. Kindly and kindness also grow from this root -- the bearing toward others that kinship inspires.

Nikita II by Laurence Winram

"I have always thought of all creatures -- all organisms really -- as relations. Whether wandering alone in deep wilderness or just leaning against a tree growing beside an urban sidewalk, I have no difficulty feeling, as if in a dreamtime, the roots of our relatedness -- ecologically, yes, but also with an overlay of the sacred, the holy. Starlings, though pretty, were a rift in this vision. They fluttered outside this wholeness. But my thinking has evolved. Ecologically, it is true -- starlings do not belong in this country, this city; but relationally, it is not true. We live together in a tangled complexity. I listen to the starlings mimic back to me my own profound ecological shortcomings. Carmen is a creature with a body, voice, and consciousness in the world. In this, we are sisters. And all these unwelcome starlings on the grassy parking strip? Yes, they are my relations too.

Charlotte 1 by Laurence Winram

"The Cartesian belief in the absolute separateness of lives, bodies, and brains maintains a foothold in the traditions of our modern culture. We see it in the ways we are pitted against one another in commerce, in education, and in the small, daily jealousies of our own minds. We see it in the ways that we continue to find it culturally acceptable to diminish animals in agriculture, in entertainment, and in scientific experimentation. And yes, when we are attentive, we find that we are not separate, not alone. We are not isolated little minds wandering on a large, indifferent earth. We are surrounded by our kin, by all of life, beings with whom we are wayfarers together. Instead of walking upon, we walk within, and this within-ness brings our imaginations to life. We are inspired -- literally "breathed upon" -- together.

"Our creativity and our connection to other beings is tangled in a beautiful etymology. The words creative and creature spring from the same Latin root, creare, "to produce, to grow, to bring into existence." It was Ged, Ursula Le Guin's beloved young wizard of Earthsea, who learned after the fall of his individual pride that the wise person is "one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the slow gestures of trees." Through such understanding we arrive at a new wholeness. We become more receptive and free in body and imagination, and our unique potential for creative magnificence is enlivened. We become the listening artists of our own lives and culture."

Yes, indeed.

Fiona I by Laurence Winram

The art today is by Scottish photographer Laurence Winram. The imagery here is from his Shadow, Conemen, and Mythologos series. Please visit Winram's website and blog to see more.

"The ancient Greeks made sense of their world not only by logic but by myth too," says the artist. "They saw it was necessary to view things in these opposite ways in order to have a balanced understanding of their lives. I feel we have moved out of that balance, unconsciously letting go of that mythic element to our lives. As a result we've lost touch with our own personal vision and creativity. We let a dogmatic scientific perspective rule everything, from our dreams to our notions of the spiritual.

"I try to reflect on this, creating images that sometimes imagine a world where logic has been sidelined by the mythic, or images that mock our need to analyse and break down those parts of our life that we should truly respond to more intuitively."

Hazel Flew by Laurence Winram

Otto's Flight II by Laurence Winram

The passages above is from Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown & Co., 2017); all rights reserved by the author. Thanks again to William Todd Jones (via composer Hillary Tann) for passing the book on to me; and to Steve Toase for recommending Laurence Winram's work. All rights to the photography above reserved by the artist.


Life as bird

Arthur Rackham 1

In his introduction to Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children's Literature, Irish ecologist and poet Liam Heneghan writes this touching passage about the imaginative connection between children, birds, and animals:

Arthur Rackham 2"Newly arrived in the United States and setting foot on the red soils of Georgia for the very first time, Fiacha, our eldest and then a three-year-old, perched himself on top of a fire ant mound. It's a rare child who makes that mistake a second time since fire ants sting ferociously. We had moved into a small ranch house a few miles from the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens, where I was to work for four years. The house was aesthetically unremarkable. There were parched lawns to the front and rear, both of which hosted innumerable fire ant mounds. In the front yard, right outside the door, grew two desiccated shrubs. What that neighborhood lacked in conventional wildlife it made up for with feral dogs. They howled all night and packed together in the morning, leisurely hunting the neighborhood for those who, like me, were foolish enough to go walking in the early hours. It was in this unpromising location that Fiacha -- an Irish name that means 'raven,' and whose second name is Daedalus, the father of Icarus -- became a bird.

Arthur Rackham 3

"The care and feeding of a bird who is morphologically and physically human, though psychologically somewhat avian, is not an entirely trivial undertaking. While he was in motion, there was little inconvenience to us -- he simply flapped his featherless wings as he migrated from place to place.

Arthur Rackham 4"He was something of a restless bird: now in the living room, now the kitchen, and now perched in his bedroom. Whenever and wherever he perched, the primaries on his wings would tremble, occasionally he would ruffle the length of his wings, and, at times, he would fold them back and tuck them close to his little body. We learned to live with the concerned glances of strangers. Feeding time could be a little strenuous, although we could entice him with shredded morsels that he would grab by his 'beak' and toss back into his mouth. Sometimes he would disappear from the house, and after those initial panicked occasions where we searched high and low for him, we knew he could be found sequestered in one of those forlorn-looking shrubs in the front yard. He would cling to a lower branch, peering out at the world through the patchy foliage. At least he was safely out of the reach of the packs of dogs and of the fire ants.

"In those early years, we read a lot about birds, looked at a lot of birds, and drew a lot of birds; and by sketching birds on folded pieces of paper and then cutting them out, we made innumerable models of birds. It lead to a later interest of his in dinosaurs, then aircraft, then military history, after which there was another thousand twists and turns in his interests. That bird now studies philosophy, but he remains an avid birder. He admitted to me recently that he occasionally writes with a quill. To this day if you look at him long enough, you may still spot his flight feathers flutter ever so slightly, even on windless afternoons."

Arthur Rackham 5

Heneghan goes on to explain that Beasts at Bedtime was written for the parents, teachers, librarians and guardians of children who might think they are birds:

Arthur Rackham 6"It's possible, of course, and not at all uncommon, that your child might assume themselves to be a cat or a dog; this is a book for those families also. It's also for the family of a child I've learned of recently who alternates between a crocodile, a rhino, and a snake. When she was quite young, a friend imagined herself to be a gorilla. A child of another friend thinks he is a deep-sea shrimp that scares predators who get too close by squirting out a glowing substance. He alternates this with being a porcupine. You should give this child wide berth....

"Some children do not identify with being any animal other than the higher primates they already are. The stories that I write about here will be instructive to guardians of these children also, for it is a rare child who is not already inclined to nature.

"Central to the task of caring for your little creature is to create the most nurturing environment for them. This, quite obviously, is not as simple as attending to their peculiar physical needs. It requires a careful tending to their spirits. This later task can be assisted by the stories you tell and read to them. To help with the task, this book is intended to illustrate the thematic richness of children's stories. There is a surprising depth of environmental information in many of the titles that children find immensely appealing." 

Arthur Rackham 7

Heneghan's text covers pastoral stories, wilderness stories, urban stories, and "children on wild islands" -- ranging from fairy and folk tales to Peter Rabbit and Pooh -- and then onward to White's Forest Sauvage, Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Le Guin's Earthsea, and much more. I loved re-visiting favorite tales through the eyes of an ecosystem ecologist, and heartily recommend this charming, informative, bird-filled and beastly book.

Arthur Rackham 8

Beasts at Bedtime by Liam Heneghan

Arthur Rackham 9

Words: The passage quoted above is from Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children's Literature by Liam Heneghan (University of Chicago Press, 2018). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The illustrations above are by the great Golden Age book artist Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), from editions of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie, The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Aesop's Fables, and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Related posts: Kissing the Lion's Nose (on children and animals) and Finding the way to the green (on children and nature).


The song of owls

Falling Through Starlight by Catherine Hyde

The little woodland behind my studio is thick with owls. I hear their cries each morning as I start my work at the break of dawn. I hear them again at the midnight hour in our little house just down the hill, the song of owls slipping the bedroom window into my dreams. 

In this luminous passage from her book Dwellings, Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan follows the call of the owls who gather near her home in the American south-west:

Lightly Through the Darkness by Catherine Hyde"It was early in February, during the mating season of the great horned owls. It was dusk, and I had hiked up the back of a mountain to where I'd heard the owls a year before. I wanted to hear them again, the voices so tender, so deep, like a memory of comfort. I was halfway up the trail when I found a soft, round nest. It had fallen from one of the bare-branched trees. It was a delicate nest, woven together of feathers, sage, and strands of wild grass. Holding it in my hands in the rosy twilight, I noticed that blue thread was entwined with the other gatherings there. I pulled at the thread a little, and then I recognized it. It was a thread from one of my skirts. It was blue cotton. It was the unmistakeable color and shape of a pattern I knew. I liked it, that a thread of my life was in an abandoned nest, one that had held eggs and new life. I took the nest home. At home, I held it to the light and looked more closely. There, to my surprise, nestled into the grey-green sage, was a gnarl of black hair. It was also unmistakeable. It was my daughter's hair, cleaned from a brush and picked out in the sun beneath the maple tree, or the pit cherry where birds eat from the overladen, fertile branches until only the seeds remain on the trees.

First Star Gleaming by Catherine Hyde

After Midnight by Catherine Hyde

"I didn't know what kind of nest it was, or who had lived there. It didn't matter. I thought of the remnants of our lives carried up the hill that way and turned into shelter. That night, resting inside the walls of our home, the world outside weighed so heavily against the thin wood of the house. The sloped roof was the only thing between us and the universe. Everything outside our wooden boundaries seemed so large. Filled with the night's citizens, it all came alive. The world opened in the thickets of the dark. The wild grapes would soon ripen on the vines. The burrowing ones were emerging. Horned owls sat in treetops. Mice scurried here and there. Skunks, fox, the slow and holy porcupine, all were passing by this way. The young of the solitary bees were feeding on pollen in the dark. The whole world was a nest on its humble tilt, in the maze of the universe, holding us."

The Dark Orchard by Catherine Hyde

The Sleeping Earth

The art today is by fellow owl-lover Catherine Hyde, who trained at the Central School of Art in London and now lives and works in Cornwall. Catherine has published five books (The Princess’ Blankets, FirebirdLittle Evie in the Wild Wood, The Star Tree, and The Hare and the Moon), all of which I recommend. Her art is extensively exhibited in London, Cornwall, and father afield.

“I am constantly attempting to convey the landscape in a state of suspension," she says, "in order to gain glimpses of its interconnectedness, its history and beauty. Within the images I use the archetypical hare, stag, owl and fish as emblems of wildness, fertility and permanence: their movements and journeys through the paintings act as vehicles that bind the elements and the seasons together."

Please visit the artist's website to see more of her exquisite work.

1 by Catherine Hyde

The passage above is from one of my all-time favourite books, Dwellings: The Spiritual History of the Living World by Linda Hogan (W.W. Norton & Co, 1995), which I highly, highly recommend. The paintings are by Catherine Hyde. All rights to the text and art in the post reserved by the author and artist.


When women were birds

The Strayaway Child by Terri Windling

The quote above is from When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams (Sarah Crichton Books, 2012) -- a sequel (of sorts) to Williams' equally beautiful book Refuge. Both books are meditations on family, art, voice, the natural world, and, yes, many many birds. The drawing is one of mine, called "The Strayaway Child." All rights reserved by the author and artist.


Storks in the spring

Hans Christian Andersen's The Storks illustrated by William Heath Robinson

As we end our second month in the UK lock-down, here's something to celebrate: wild white storks have hatched in southern England for the first time in six centuries. Isabella Tree, co-owner of the estate where the storks are nesting, says: "There’s something so magical and charismatic about white storks when you see them wheeling around in the sky, and I love their association with rebirth and regeneration. They’re the perfect emblem for rewilding. A symbol of hope. It’s going to be amazing to have them back in the British countryside, bill-clattering on their nests in spring -- perhaps even setting up nests on our rooftops like they do in Europe. When I hear that clattering sound now, coming from the tops of our oak trees where they’re currently nesting at Knepp, it feels like a sound from the Middle Ages has come back to life."

In Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit, poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming tells us: 

Ba (the soul) bringing sustenance"Stork stories go back millenia, crossing the cultures that the birds have crossed in their flight along their pilgrimage through time. Stork is a hieroglyph that transcends death in ancient Egypt, where the bird is depicted as Ba, an untranslatable concept according to Egyptologist Louis V. Žabkar, who published the first extensive study of the Ba in 1947. Ba is not unlike the Judeo-Christian idea of the soul, a duality between the material and the spiritual. It is not a constituent part of the human, but 'one of various modes of existence in which the deceased continues to live.' Ba is considered to 'represent the man himself, the totality of his physical and psychic capabilities.' In gods, Ba is the embodiment of the divine powers; in kings, the  embodiment of kingly powers; and in citizens Ba is the embodiment of vital force.

"Ba has a quantum strangeness, interweaving the very notions of living and dead. It frees itself of the body at death but maintains contact. The Ba of the deceased man, depicted as a stork on the papyrus of Nebqed, flies down the shaft of the tomb to deliver food (a whole fish!) and drink to sustain his very own mummy. In this context 'living' and 'dead' conflate and confuse like 'particle' and 'wave' in the study of light. Elsewhere Bas are depicted as falcon-headed humans attending as servants or as a human-headed stork perched calmly on the arm of a scribe. But it is the image of the story as Ba flying down the shaft of the tomb to bring life-giving nourishment to the dead that owns me. The Ba flies on the papyrus on stairs that are flanked by rows of a scribes careful hieroglyphic inscriptions. I imagine the hand that inked that bird, the scribe who chose to make everything else on the page -- hieroglyphs, sarcophagus, cheetah pelt -- clear and heavily inked, while this Ba, performing the most important task of bringing the promise of the renewal to the realm of the dead, is inked with so delicate a hand that the image is barely perceptible. Such is the challenge of speaking of the 'soul.'

The Storks by Dugald Stewart Walker

"Stork is a fable of moral instruction in ancient Greece. Aristotle wrote that 'it is a common story of the stork that the old birds are fed by their grateful progency.' Stories tell that a stork will carry an aged parent on its back when it has finally lost its feathers and is unable to fly, a lesson in filial duty. Aesop, or the unnamed scribe who gathered the tales attributed to that name, tells the tale of the bird catcher and the stork. The bird catcher has set his nets for cranes, and he watches from a distance. A stork lands amid the cranes and the bird catcher captures her. She begs him to release her, saying that far from harming men, she is very useful, for she eats snakes and other reptiles. The bird catcher replies, 'If you are really harmless, then you deserve punishment anyway for landing among the wicked.' The moral: 'We, too, ought to flee from the company of wicked people so that no one takes us for the accomplice of their wrongdoing.' This particular fable had some legal backup. In ancient Thessaly, a law prohibited the killing of storks because of their usefulness in killing snakes.

The Storks by Harry Clarke and Aesop's The Fox & the Stork illustrated by Milo Winter

"In another Aesop fable, the fox and the stork are on visiting terms and seem to be very good friends. So the fox invites the stork to dinner. For a joke he serves her soup in a shallow dish from which the fox can easily lap but the stork can only wet the tip of her long bill. 'I am sorry,' says the fox, 'that the soup is not to your liking.'

The Fox and the Stork by Randolph Caldecott"'Pray do not apologize,' says the stork.

"She returns the dinner invitation. When the fox arrives, the meal is brought to the table contained in a long-necked jar with a narrow mouth, into which the fox cannot insert his snout. All he can do is lick the outside of the jar.

"'I will not apologize for the dinner,' says the stork. 'One bad turn deserves another.' It is a tale of skillful means.

The Fox and the Stork by Walter Crane

"Lessons in skillful means, or, in Sanskrit, upāya, come from Mahāyāna Buddhism, a school of Buddhism that originated in India. And it is no surprise to see the spirit of ancient India embodied in an ancient Greek fable, because Aesop gathered stories from the same sources as did The Panchatantra, India's age-old treasure trove of animal stories that came up through the oral tradition and were first recorded some fifteen hundred years ago. This tradition influenced Aesop's and La Fontaine's fables, the tales of the Arabian Nights, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. They are stories of 'wise conduct' meant to 'awaken the intelligence.' Storks and stories share the same migratory urge. 

The Marsh King's Daughter by William Heath Robinson

Stork drawing by William Health Robinson"Storks in the great American marketplace carry forward one of the most pervasive associations with the bird: its relationship to the arrival of human babies. Baby announcements, greeting cards, wrapping paper, baby lawn ornaments and diaper services all boast the brand. Stork carries a newborn in a downy sling draped from its long bill. German folklore tells that storks find babies in caves or marshes then carry them in baskets on their backs or in their beaks into human houses. Sometimes the babies are dropped down the chimney. If a baby arrives disabled or stillborn, the stork may have dropped it on the way to the house. Households could leave sweets on the windowsill to give notice they wanted a child. Slavic folklore tells of storks bringing unborn souls from the old paradise of the pagan religion in spring. 

"In spring, white storks, flying from Africa and over Mecca, arrive in eastern Europe during the season when the old pagan fertility rituals of pole dancing and wreath strewing and forest coupling would be performed. Call it synchronicity that great and graceful white birds would arrive and join the joviality each each year, making it easy for imagination -- that great coupling force between inner and outer reality -- to fuse the bird with the love of life and promise of resilience that is what spring means and has meant in temperate climes for aeons."

William Heath Robinson

The Storks by William Heath Robinson

Zoologies by Alison Hawthorne Deming

Words: The passage above is from  Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorn Deming, whose gorgeous work comes from the edgelands between the arts and sciences. Zoologies was published by Milkweed Editions (2014); all rights reserved by the author. 

Pictures: Hans Christian Andersen's "The Storks" illustrated by William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), Ba (the soul) bringing sustenance on an ancient Egyptian papyrus, "The Storks" illustrated by Dugald Stuart Walker (1883-1937), "The Storks" illustrated by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), Aesop's "The Fox and the Stork"  illustrated by Milo Winter (1888-1956), "The Fox and the Stork" illustrated by Walter Crane (1845-1915), two illustrations from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Marsh King's Daughter" and two other stork drawings by William Heath Robinson. 

Related posts: Swans Maidens & Crane Wives and The Folklore of Birds.


Following the birds

Blackbirds & Berries by Angela Harding

Still thinking about birds, I love the following description from Through the Woods, the story of a year in an English woodland by H.E. Bates (1905-1975). He's writing here about the busy, beautiful, bird-filled months of the passage from winter to summer:

Blackbird Stealing Red Currants by Angela Harding"And now, with the cherry in full blossom, the primroses at their fullest floppy lushness and the dark smoke of bluebells obscuring and finally putting out the fritillary lamps of the anemones, there is no longer any doubt about the wood or the spring. They have become synonymous, full of tree blossom and ground blossom and the ceaseless passion and passage of birds. The wood is alive as it will never be again. It is still a month from the edge of summer, trees are still more branch than leaf and all day long the birds have no interval of silence at all. And if the fullest frenzy of song, with nightingales and blackbirds mad in the drowsy hay-noons of June, has not been reached, there is a clarity and a shouting of bird life everywhere that is like a silver mocking of winter. The wood is full of it.

"The trees, just full enough in leaf to form a light sound canopy, seem to take the sound of singing and fluting and pinking and scissoring and throw it down the aisles and ridings until it is magnified through a new crescendo into a new beauty. One thrush fills a whole wood with a clash and jingle of silver. One pigeon moans and moans it into an almost summer slumber. A solitary cuckoo beats it with a bold and endless double note into an echoing monotony. The wood now is never silent. There is a constant mad rushing of blackbirds, low and fierce in flight, from place to place among the hazels, a sudden spring laughing of woodpeckers in the treetops. Noons are as noisy as mornings, evenings even fuller of clamour than afternoons. That summer break for silence, the hot bird-stifled uncanniness of June and July, is still a long way off. There is an everlasting restlessness everywhere. "

Y is for Yellow Hammer by Angela Harding

But it's not, Bates writes, until a few weeks later (when the bluebells, campions and orchis are in full bloom) that the wood looks its best, and sounds its best:

"Cuckoo and blackbird and nightingale, by the middle of May, are calling together, the blackbird all day long and in spite of everything, the cuckoo and the nightingale passionate in the warm spells, shy and almost silent at the slightest turn to cold and wet. The cuckoo mocks everything in the too bright early mornings and is himself mocked to silence before noon by wind and cloud. He goes with the weather like a cock on a church. He is all clatter of arrogance in the sunshine, charming us to death, monotonously cuckooing us into wishing him silent. The suddenly he shuts up, vanishes. All through the spell of cold and wet we hear him from some mysterious distance, as though he had found, somewhere, an inch of summer for himself.

Owl and Moon by Angela Harding

"The nightingale is also fickle, but on a different plane. He seems amazingly temperamental. Far up in the thickening oaks, nothing but a slim bud himself, he is hard to see; also, like the cuckoo, he often vanishes completely, effaced by wind and wet into silence. But when he sings at last, there is no mistaking it. There is a notion that, since he is so named, he sings only by night. It is quite mistaken. He sings all day and, at the height of passion, all night.

Marsh Owl by Angela Harding

"It is a strange performance, the nightingale's. It has some kind of electric, suspended quality that has a far deeper beauty than the most passionate of its sweetness. It is a performance made up, very often, more of silence than of utterance. The very silences have a kind of passion about them, a sense of breathlessness and restraint, of restraint about to be magically broken.

"It can be curiously seductive and maddening, the song beginning very often by a sudden low chucking, a kind of plucking of strings, a sort of tuning up, then flaring out in a moment into a crescendo of fire and honey and then, abruptly, cut off again in the very middle of the phrase. And then comes that long, suspended wait for the phrase to be taken up again, the breathless hushed interval that is so beautiful. And often, when it is taken up again, it is not that same phrase at all, but something utterly different, a high sweet whistling prolonged and prolonged for the sheer joy of it, or another trill, or the chuck-chucking beginning all over again."

Two for Joy by Angela Harding

For me, the challenge in writing fantasy fiction springing from the myths and folklore of the land is to evoke the numinous world of nature with such precise yet poetical language. Others have done it. Hope Mirrlees, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Patricia McKillip, Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Yolen, Alan Garner, Robert Holdstock, Graham Joyce...to name just a few. Not all fantasy does this, of course. It's a very broad form of literature, containing many different approaches to the "lands beyond the fields we know." But this is the kind of fantasy that thrills me best, and the tradition I want to follow. Whether writing rural stories or urban stories, whether set in this world or wholly imaginary lands, I want to go further and further into the green....

Following the birds.

Snape Bird and Nest by Angela Harding

The art today is by printmaker and painter Angela Harding, from Rutland, in the East Midlands of England. "For the past 10 years," she says, "I have worked solely at my art practice in the village of Wing -- which is very apt for a women inspired by birds. My studio is at the bottom of the garden and houses all I need to make my work, including a recently acquired Rochat Albion press. The studio overlooks sheep fields surrounded by gentle sloping hills. It’s not a dramatic landscape but somehow a comforting one and to me feels very much like home. The Rutland countryside does have a wealth of animal and bird life that is a constant inspiration for my work. Rutland Water is just over the ridge which attracts a great diversity of bird life that is world renowned."

To see more of her beautiful work, please visit her website and online shop -- which includes a "Bird Alphabet" series of wood engravings, and her illustrated RSPS Bird Book.

And one last thing: I hope you all know the Singing With Nightingales project by folksinger, folk song collector, and environmental activist Sam Lee and The Nest Collective. If not, please do follow the link and have a listen....

 

Blackbirds and Mulberries by Angela Harding

Words: The passage quoted above is from Through the Woods by H.E. Bates (Little Toller Books edition, 2011). Pictures: The images are identified in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artist and author's estate. 


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Seven Ravens by Teresa Jenellen

Illustration by Honore AppletonI'm out of the office this morning in order to take Tilly to the vet (she has an immune system impairment that requires monthly shots) -- which is a complicated procedure in the middle of Cornonavirus quarantine. Rather than leave you with no music to start the week, I pulled some favourite songs from this blog's archives. Inspired by the rich bird life we're experiencing during this quiet time of the world's "great pause," all the music today is on the theme of birds in the folk tradition....

Above: "King of the Birds," written and performed by Karine Polwart, who grew up in a musical family in Sterlingshire, Scotland. This beautiful, folkloric song comes from Powart's fifth album, Traces (2012).

Below: Polwart performs another original song, "Follow the Heron," at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival in 2011. It comes from her second album, Scribbled in Chalk (2006).

Above: "Three Ravens" (audio only) performed by Breton harpist Cécile Corbel, from Finistère. It's a variant of Child Ballad No. 26 (also known as "Twa Corbies," as performed here by Bert Jansch), and was recorded for the first of Corbel's five albums, Songbook 1 (2006).

Below: "Hela'r Dryw: Hunting of the Wren" (audio only), performed in Welsh by Fernhill, one of the leading bands in the "Welsh Renaissance" of folk music. The song concerns an old folk tradition once common throughout the British Isles, and still practiced in some communities today. The recording is from Fernill's Amser (2014).

The song above isn't exactly a folk song but I'm going to throw it in here anyway: Paul McCartney's "Blackbird" performed in Gaelic by Julie Fowlis, from the Gaelic-speaking island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Fowlis has released six solo albums, of which Alterum (2017) is the latest.

Below: Kate Rusby, from Barnsley, Yorkshire, performs "Mockingbird" at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2011. The song, written by Rusby, was first recorded on her ninth album, Make the Light (2010), and was also included on her double album, Twenty (2012).

Above: "Hawk and Crow" (audio only), a traditional ballad sung by Emily Smith, from Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. You'll find it on Smith's eighth solo album, Echoes (2014).

And to end with: "Come Home Pretty Bird," a lovely song co-written by Emily Smith & David Scott, performed in Switzerland in 2012. This one comes from Smith's third album, Too Long Away (2008).

Martha by Gennady SpirinIf you'd like a few more bird songs this morning, try: "Blackbird," an old English ballad performed by Cécile Corbel, Show of Hand's version of "Crow on the Cradle" (by Sydney Carter), and three traditional songs for lark lovers: "The Lark in the Morning" sung by Maddy Prior; "The Lark" sung by Kate Rusby (backed up by Nic Jones), and "Waiting for the Lark" sung by the peerless June Tabor. Also, two fairy-tale-like songs: "The Gay Goshawk" (Child Ballad No. 96) performed by the folk-rock band Mr. Fox, and Natalie Merchant's beautiful rendition of "Crazy Man Michael" (by Richard Thompson & Dave Swarbrick), from Fairport Convention's Liege & Leaf.

The Seven Doves by Warwick GobleSpeaking of birds, I highly recommend The Bird's Child by Sandra Leigh Price (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins Australia, 2015), an utterly enchanting novel set in Australia in the 1920s. It's beautifully written, steeped in both bird lore and magic (of the sleight-of-hand variety), evokes a fascinating period of Australian history, and is well worth seeking out. Francis Hardinge's Young Adult fantasy novel Fly by Night (Macmillan, 2018), about a girl and a goose in a magical version of the 18th century, is also a gem. She is one of the best fantasy writers of her generation: brilliant, quirky, and consistently original. Four good (and very different) novels inspired by the "Wild Swans" fairy tale: Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, Wild Swans by Peg Kerr, Ursula Synge's Swan's Wing, and Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Seventh Swan. For more about the fairy tale, go here. For a post about swan maidens and crane wives, go here.

The artwork today, in order of appearance, is "The Seven Ravens" by  Teresa Jenellen, an illustrator based in Wales;  a drawing by British book artist Honor C. Appleton (1879-1951);"Martha" (from the book of the same name) by the Russian author/illustrator Gennady Spirin; and "The Seven Doves" by British book artist Warwick Goble (1862-1943).

The Bird's Child by Sandra Leigh Price


The myths we make, the stories we tell

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In her early memoir Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton (1912-1995) recounted the experience of buying and renovating a late-18th century house in a tiny village in rural New Hampshire, where she crafted a life dedicated to poetry, nature, and solitude. At a time when selfless commitment to marriage and family was still the standard measure of a woman's virtue, Plant Dreaming Deep celebrated the pleasures of independence, self-reliance, and living alone. 

Its author, mind you, was not a hermit. Sarton's days were amply stocked with friendship, romance, travel, adventure, and the international web of connection arising from a long literary career. She spent time with lovers and friends in Boston, she taught, she travelled around the country giving readings...but she did her best work in solitude, and work was her priority.

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A woman living alone and unmarried by choice, privileging her writing over other social bonds, was rare enough when Plant Dreaming Deep was published in 1968 that the book caused something of a stir. "Sarton chose the way of solitude with all its costs," wrote feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun (in an essay published in 1982), "and heartened others with the news that this adventure, this terrible daring, might be endured."

This was a message that many in Sarton's generation hungered for and Plant Dreaming Deep was a popular success, appealing particularly to women who had given up their own creative work after marriage and children, and who had little solitude themselves. They romanticized the life she led, imagining a tranquil idyll of poetry and music and flowers from the garden -- not the hard labor and professional ups and downs of life as a working writer.

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Sarton herself came to feel that she'd painted too rosy a picture of her sojourn in the country -- and so her next memoir, The Journal of Solitude, aimed to set the record straight. In this volume she recorded her doubts, her creative struggles, her professional frustrations, her poignant loneliness. The woman who emerges from this text is prickly, moody and exasperating, compared to the narrator of Plant Dreaming Deep, but also thoroughly human. Sarton's rigorous honesty throughout the book is astonishing, brave, and unsettling.

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I recently dipped into these two volumes again, re-reading Sarton's reflections on solitude in light of the global pandemic that has isolated so many. Like Sarton, I have a taste for solitude, so days of semi-isolation are easier on me than on those of a more extroverted stamp -- but solitude chosen freely is a different beast than solitude imposed by crisis. My temperament is generally steady, and yet I, too, have been strangely moody of late. My heart soars as spring unfolds around me, plunges with the horror of the daily news, rises in my peaceful studio, and falls again as the world crowds in. Each day I ground myself in work, finding strength and purpose in language and paint; each night that ground crumbles underfoot as worry and fear move through my dreams.

In Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of Solitude, Sarton acknowledges both aspects of self-isolation: the deep pleasure and concomitant pain of retreating from the wider world. It's the mixture of the two that makes this time, for me, feel so surreal.

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Plant Dreaming Deep

In Plant Dreaming Deep, Sarton reflects on the difference between an "isolated" and "quiet" life, in words that echo my initial experience of the current lock-down:

"In that first week [in the farmhouse] I felt I was running all the time. There were hundreds of things I had in mind to do, things about the house, things about the garden, besides the spate of poems that had been pushing their way out. But I imagined that, as time went on, this state of affairs would calm down and I myself would calm down, to lead the meditative life, the life of a Chinese philospher, that my friends quite naturally imagine I must lead here, way all alone in a tiny village, with few interruptions and almost no responsibilities.

"But in all the eight years I have lived here, it has not yet become a quiet life. It is a life lived at a high pitch. One of the facts about solitude is that one becomes as alert as an animal to every change of mood in the skies, and to every sound. The thud of the first apple falling never fails to startle the wits out of me; there has been no sound like it for a year....The intense silence magnifies the slightest creak or whisper.

"But more than any such purely physical reasons for staying on the qui vive, there are inner reasons for being highly tuned up when one lives alone. The alertness is also there toward the inner world, which is always close to the surface for me when I am here, so it may be a mouse in the wainscot that keeps me awake, but it may just as well be a half-formed idea. The climate of poetry is also the climate of anxiety. And if I inhabit the house, it also inhabits me, and sometimes I feel as if I myself were becoming an intersection for almost too many currents of too intense a nature."

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In Journal of Solitude, she speaks of the darker side of seclusion: the fears that arise, and the courage required to overcome them and keep on making art:

"I have said elsewhere that we have to make myths of our lives, the point being that if we do, then every grief or inexplicable seizure by weather, woe, or work can -- if we discipline ourselves and think hard enough -- be turned into account, be made to yield further insight into what it is to be alive, to be a human being, what the hazards are of a fairly usual, everyday kind. We go up to Heaven and down to Hell a dozen times a day -- at least I do. And the discipline of work provides an exercise bar, so that the wild, irrational motions of the soul become formal and creative. It literally keeps one from falling on one's face....

"We fear disturbance, change, fear to bring to light and to talk about what is painful. Suffering often feels like failure, but it is actually the door into growth."

Journal of Solitude

By acknowledging both sides of solitude, Sarton helps me understand why my experience of pandemic self-isolation varies so widely from day to day, or even hour to hour. The joy I feel as the world slows down, and the deep anxiety that this produces, are just two sides of the same coin.

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Knowing this, I'll continue to value the quiet hours the lock-down gives me -- and make my peace with the fretful, fearful dreams that are part of it too. 

Make a myth of your life, says Sarton. Learn what hardship has to teach you, and use in your art.

 I am making myths, and telling stories, and trying to do just that.

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Words: The quotes above are from May Sarton's Journal of Solitude (W.W. Norton, 1973). The poem in the picture caption is from Sarton's Letters from Maine (W.W. Norton, 1984). All rights reserved by the authors estate. Pictures: The bliss of bluebells.


Time passing

Ponies

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Here in Chagford, one way to mark the passage of time is to watch the local pony herd, coming down from the moor each year to birth their foals on the village Commons.

The first of the foals was born just after the Corvid-19 lock-down began. There are nine foals now (the last time I counted), some of them still clinging to their mamas, others big and bold enough to prance across the grass together in play. My heart lifts every time I see them. There is too much death  and grief right now, yet there is also new life everywhere I look: foals, lambs, fledgling birds, a litter of puppies down our road, and a baby girl born to good friends. The Great Wheel continues to turn, nothing stays still, everything is change.  

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In his beautiful letter to the generations of the future, Scott Russell Sanders writes:

"When I think of all the wild pleasures I wish for you, the list grows long. I want you to be able to chase fireflies as they glimmer in long grass, watch tadpoles turn into frogs in muddy pools, hear loons calling on clear lakes, glimpse deer grazing and foxes ambling, lay your fingers in the paw prints of grizzlies and wolves. I want there to be rivers you can raft down without running into dams, the water pure and filled with the colors of sky. I want you to thrill in spring and fall to the ringing calls of geese and cranes as they fly overhead. I want you to see herds of caribou following the seasons to green pastures, turtles clambering onshore to lay their eggs, alewives and salmon fighting their way upstream to spawn. And I want you to feel in these movements Earth’s great age and distances, and to sense how the whole planet is bound together by a web of breath.

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"As I sit here in this shaggy yard writing to you, I remember a favorite spot from the woods behind my childhood house in Ohio, a meadow encircled by trees and filled with long grass that turned the color of bright pennies in the fall. I loved to lie there and watch the clouds, as I’m watching the high, surly storm clouds rolling over me now. I want you to be able to lie in the grass without worrying that the kiss of the sun will poison your skin. I want you to be able to drink water from faucets and creeks, to eat fruits and vegetables straight from the soil. I want you to be safe from lightning and loneliness, from accidents and disease. I would spare you all harm if I could. But I also want you to know there are powers much older and grander than our own -- earthquakes, volcanoes, tornados, thunderstorms, glaciers, floods. I pray that you will never be hurt by any of these powers, but I also pray that you will never forget them. And remember that nature is a lot bigger than our planet: it’s the shaping energy that drives the whole universe, the wheeling galaxies as well as water striders, the shimmering pulsars as well as your beating heart.

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"Thoughts of you make me reflect soberly on how I lead my life. When I spend money, when I turn the key in my car, when I vote or refrain from voting, when I fill my head or belly with whatever’s for sale, when I teach students or write books, ripples from my actions spread into the future, and sooner or later they will reach you. So I bear you in mind. I try to imagine what sort of world you will inherit. And when I forget, when I serve only my own appetite, more often than not I do something wasteful. By using up more than I need -- of gas, food, wood, electricity, space -- I add to the flames that are burning up the blessings I wish to preserve for you....

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"If Earth remains a blessed place in the coming century, you’ll hear crickets and locusts chirring away on summer nights. You’ll hear owls hoot and whippoorwills lament. You’ll smell wet rock, lilacs, new-mown hay, peppermint, lemon balm, split cedar, piles of autumn leaves....If we take good care in our lifetime, you’ll be able to sit by the sea and watch the waves roll in, knowing that a seal or an otter may poke a sleek brown head out of the water and gaze back at you. The skies will be clear and dark enough for you to see the moon waxing and waning, the constellations gliding overhead, the Milky Way arching from horizon to horizon. The breeze will be sweet in your lungs and the rain will be innocent....

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"Thinking about you draws my heart into the future. I want you to look back on those of us who lived at the beginning of the 21st century and know that we bore you in mind, we cared for you, and we cared for our fellow tribes -- those cloaked in feathers or scales or chitin or fur, those covered in leaves and bark. One day it will be your turn to bear in mind the coming children, your turn to care for all the living tribes. The list of wild marvels I would save for you is endless. I want you to feel wonder and gratitude for the glories of Earth. I hope you’ll come to feel, as I do, that we’re already in paradise, right here and now."

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Words: The passage by Scott Russell Sanders above is from "We Bear You in Mind," first published in Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril (Trinity University Press, 2012), and reprinted in Orion Magazine. The poem in the picture captions, "Another Spring" by Denise Levertov (1923-1997), first appeared in Poetry Magazine, October/November, 1952. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Our local pony herd and some of their foals, spring 2020. For more information on Dartmoor's beloved ponies, go here.