Recommended reading: Thin Places

Wild Strawberry Unicorn by by Tamsin Abbott

One of the very best books I've read this year is Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh, a volume born from the edgelands between nature writing and memoir, but also well rooted in folklore, myth, and history.

At the core of the text is Ní Dochartaigh's account of growing up in Northern Ireland during the violent years of the Troubles, of her subsequent flight from the land of her birth, and of her eventual return. Although the story is necessarily dark, the telling is made luminous by the author's exquisite prose, shot through with flashes of bright connection to the twinned worlds of myth and nature.

Otter House, Allotment of Plenty, and Sacred Spring by Tamsin Abbott

Here's a taste of Thin Places:

"What does it mean to come from a hollowed-out place? From a place that is neck-deep in the saga of loss? ... What effect does where you come from, and what that land has been through, have on the map of your self? How deeply can a person feel the fault lines of their home running through their own veins?

"In Celtic lands it is not unusual to use the landscape as a mnemonic map. Geographical features hold a particular importance for our history, beliefs and culture -- places make up the lines of our very being. There is an understanding that we are part of and not separate from the land we inhabit. Celtic legends place the natural world at the very heart of story, maybe even inside its bones. In such stories things in the natural world can possess a spirit and presence of their own; mountains, rocks, trees, rivers -- all things of the land and the sea -- sing their own lament. Locations can be associated with a particular warrior, hero or deity. Places are tied to stories by threads that uncoil themselves back beyond known history, passed on through oral tradition, only some of which have been written down.

Young Stag Ancient Oak by by Tamsin Abbott

"Amongst these geographical features, whether manmade -- such as ancient mounds and standing stones -- or naturally created features, it is not unusual for some to be associated with the worship of pre-Christian deities. The aos sí (or aes sídhe) is an Irish term for a race that is other than human, that exists in Irish, Scottish and Manx mythologies, inhabiting an invisible world that sits in a kind of mirroring with our own. They belong to the Otherworld, Aos Sí -- a world reached through mist, hills, lakes, ponds, springs, loughs, wetland areas, caves, ancient burial sites, cairns and mounds. The island from which I come had no choice, really, than to find a name for these dancing, beating, healing places where the veil between so very many things is thin, where it has been known to lift, right before our humble, grateful eyes. 

"The folklore of almost every culture holds room for these liminal spaces -- those in-between spaces -- those unnameable places, not to be found on any map. Are these thin places spaces where we can more easily hear the land, the earth, talking to us? Or are they places in which we are able to feel more freely our own inner selves? Do such places as these therefore hold power?

Old Brock by Tamsin Abbott

"We have built up a narrative over many years -- decades, centuries? -- of 'nature' as 'other'. There is so much separation in the language we use with each other; we seek to divide humanity from its own self again and again, and this has naturally bled into how we view the land and water that we share with one another -- and with other species. What do we mean when we talk about 'nature'? About 'place'? I want to know what it all means. I need to try to understand. When we are in a place where the manmade constructs of the world seem as though they have crumbled, where time feels like it no longer exists, that feeling of separation fades away. We are reminded, in the deepest, rawest parts of our being, that we are nature. It is in us and of us. We are not superior or inferior, separate or removed; our breathing, breaking, ageing, bleeding, making and dying are the things of this earth. We are made up of the materials we see in the places around us, and we cannot undo the blood and bone that forms us.

"In thin places people often say they experience being taken 'out of themselves', or 'nearer to god'. The places I return to over and over -- both physically, and in my memory -- certainly do hold the power to make me feel light and hopeful, as though I am not quite of this world. Of much more power, though, is the way in which these places leave me feeling rooted -- as utterly and completely in the landscape as I ever feel, as much a part of it as the bones and excrement that lie beneath my feet, as the salt and silt that course through the water. For me, it is in this that the absolute and unrivalled beauty of thin places lie."

White deer by Tamsin Abbott

Thin Places is one of those books that I long to buy multiple copies of and gift to everyone I know. It's a beautiful book, and a timely one. I urge you to seek it out.

For another slant on "thin places," have a listen to Philip Marsden on Scotland Outdoors (BBC Sounds) discussing The Summer Isles, his book about the wild western coasts of Ireland and Scotland. Go here for the interview, and start at the 29:50 mark.

Hare by Tamsin Abbott

The glorious stained glass art today is by Tamsin Abbott, based in rural east Herefordshire. Tamsin received a first class degree in English literature from Stirling University (where she specialised in the medieval period); she then returned to school to study art at Gloucester College of Art and Technology, and trained in stained glass at Hereford College of Art and Design. Her work has been featured in Country Living, on Country File, and is sold in galleries and shops across the UK.

The Guardians by Tamsin Abbott"I have always been influenced (and almost obsessed) by nature," she says, "but most specifically animals, continuously drawing and painting them; for a long time I dreamed of speaking with them, and of being absorbed into their world in a way that seemed more natural to me than this human community.  I don’t think I am alone in this as I find that this animal ‘spirit’ speaks directly to others too.  However, I am also inherently inspired by the idea of myth and legend as well as fairytale and medieval romances, and the sense that our ancestors, who inhabited this land, have left an imprint on it throughout the ages.  I also love the idea of the timelessness of the cosmos that overarches everything now as it would have done since time before humanity. It is the intermeshing of all these things that contribute towards my internal universe which I hope manifests in my work.

"Behind all this inspiration the underlying sense of what I am trying to portray is how much life goes on around us constantly but outside our awareness. Be it a shrew foraging for its young in the hedgerow as we walk by, or a giant spirit dragon that soars above us in the night sky.  Conversely, I also wish to capture a sense of the magic of the everyday in my work; the sacred washing line, the reverential bonfire, the glory of a scrap of garden."

To learn more about her work, please visit Tamsin's website, or read an interview with the artist here.

Golden Fox by Tamsin Abbott

Raycomb House by Tamsin Abbott

Thin Places

The passage quoted above is from Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh (Canongate, 2021); all rights reserved by the author. The stained glass art is by Tamsin Abbott; all rights reserved by the artist.


There and back again

Beech Whisperer by David Wyatt

I've recently returned from a week of woodland wandering, and I'm still feeling betwixt and between: moving from the mythic realms back into ordinary life (with its own ordinary magic). I've been camping in the hills just south of here as part of Songdreaming for Albion, led by Sam Lee and Chris Salisbury: a deep dive into the folk songs and tales of Dartmoor, listening for the songlines of the moor, and "recalibrating how we engage with the land and converse with our brother/sister nations of plants, trees and beings."

Tales were told. Songs were sung. Food was cooked on open fires and music shared till the midnight hours. Dartmoor blessed us with dry, clear days and star-filled nights (never a given here). Then Howard and Tilly fetched me and brought me over the hills and home.

0ld Goat's Home by David Wyatt

In myth, the safe return from the woods (or the mountainside, or the spirit world) often marks a time of new beginnings: fresh starts, new paths, or lives newly illuminated by gifts brought back from the Otherland. Thomas the Rhymer, in the old Scottish ballad, returns to the mortal realm after seven years with the Faerie Queen bearing the gift of prophesy. Merlin returns from his time of exile and madness in the forests of Wales with new magical abilities and the gift of speaking with animals. Odin hangs in a death-like trance for ten days from the world-tree Yggdrasil, and comes back with the secret of runes from the dark land of Niflheim. I haven't come back with anything so grand as runes or prophesy -- but songs and dreams and spiderwebs of wild connection are just as precious, and as necessary.

I took no camera, no computer, no phone -- nothing between me and the moss green world -- so I have no photographs from the week to share with you. Instead, the pictures in this post are by my old friend David Wyatt -- who was, until just recently, a neighbour of ours here on the moor. There are many ways into the Dreaming, and art-making is one of them.

Song, as I learned again last week, is another...and perhaps the most direct of all.

Pencil sketch by David Wyatt 2

The art above: Beech Whisperer, Old Goat's Home, and a rough sketch (in preparation for a painting) by David Wyatt. All rights reserved by the artist. 


Speaking with animals

East of the Sun  West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen

Seven Little Tales

Seven Little Tales

Seven Little Tales

Brother and Sister by Edmund Dulac

"A Spell for Speaking With Animals" is one of seven little pieces of mine published in Seven Little Tales (Hedgespoken Press, 2018). For a look at the folklore behind the poem, see: "The Speech of Animals."

For general animal folklore, go here. For tales on marriage between animals and humans, go here. Or follow these links for rabbits and hares, wolves, pigs, foxes, cats, sheep, goats, bears, swans & cranes and other birds in folklore, myth, and mythic fiction.

The Lady and the Lion by Arthur Rackham

Seven Little Tales

Poor Little Bear by John Bauer

The art today is by four artists from the Golden Age of Book Illustration: East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen (Danish, 1886-1957), Brother and Sister by Edmund Dulac (French/British, 1882-1953), The Lady and the Lion by Arthur Rackham (British, 1867-1939), and Poor Little Bear by John Bauer (Swedish, 1882-1918). 


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Vintage photograph of Mummers

On a blustery morning in January, here's a parcel of winter songs for you to drive away the wind and cold....

Above: a spoken word introduction to A Winter Miscellany by Ashley Hutchings, with Becky Mills and Blair Dunlop: a wonderful album of winter songs, both old and new (2020). "This album was recorded in Ashley's Derbyshire home, deep in the countryside," explains Mills, "each song recorded between tractors clattering up and down the lane and Ashley looking out of the door shouting 'do it quickly, there’s nothing coming!' "

Below: "Animals Carol" from A Winter Miscellany. "The words," says Mills, "are from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In the Willows, newly set to music which I composed specially for this album. It is a song to remind us to be kinder to our animal friends in the winter months because after all, it was them who were the first to bid Noel all those years ago in the stable."

Above: a short clip from Here We Come a-Wassailing, a programme on winter folk rituals broadcast on the BBC 1977, with music by Ashley Hutchins and The Albion Band.

Below: a wassailing song sung by The Watersons, the great folk music family from Yorkshire. This song was traditionally sung in apple orchards to ensure a good harvest in the new year.

Above: "The Wren, The Wren" performed by Irish singer/songwriter Lisa O’Neill. The Hunting of the Wren is folk tradition "celebrated on St. Stephen's Day (26 December) in a number of countries across Europe. The tradition consists of 'hunting' a fake wren and putting it on top of a decorated pole. Then the crowds of mummers, or strawboys, or wren boys, celebrate the wren by dressing up in masks, straw suits, and colourful motley clothing. They form music bands and parade through towns and villages."

Below: "The King," a traditional wren boy blessing song performed by Lady Maisery (Hazel Askew, Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans), Jimmy Aldridge, and Sid Goldsmith. It's from their absolutely gorgeous winter album, Awake Arise (2019), which I just can't get enough of.

Above: "Hope Is Before Us" from Awake Arise. The song, composed by Hazel Askew, is based on the words of William Morris (from his 1885 collection Chants for Socialists).

Below: "A Winter Charm of Lasting Life" performed by the Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningam (1957-2003) and Irish singer Susan McKeown, accompanied by guitarist Aiden Brennan, on their collaborative album A Winter Talisman (2009).

Above: Steve Ashley's "Fire and Wine," performed by Yorkshire folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow. The song appeared on their fine winter album WinterFolk, Vol. 1 (2019).

Below: Richard Thompson's "We Sing Hallelujah," performed by O'Hooley & Tidow.

Wren boys in Ireland, 1947

Vintage photographs above: a mummer's group, and Irish wren boys. See the International Mummer's Festival page for more on mumming, historic and contemporary.


The writer's journey

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

What makes the writer's journey exhilarating, says Eleanor Cameron, is that "one never knows what will emerge from the unconcious, memories that, suprisingly enough, begin coalescing into a pattern, only dimly perceived at first. But before long, for some mysterious reason, this pattern begins taking on the substance and detail that tell the writer that another novel, not necessarily of the past, is coming into being.

"It is something to be grateful for because it can be devastating to see nothing in the offing. I remember Lloyd Alexander saying, when I congratulated him on his latest book, 'Oh, but I haven't an idea what to do next. It's terrible -- I'm utterly barren and it frightens me!' He had not the faintest notion that  The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha would appear within the next two years, not to speak of the Westmark Trilogy during the four after that.

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

"There are seven lines near the end of Cavafy's poem 'Ithaka' that particularly move me:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

"As we sit at our desks, struggling to bring a conception into existence, we are always trying -- if we are serious and not simply working for money and attention -- to make ourselves worthy of the vision, no matter how modest the accomplishment. There, for me at least, lies the mingled hardship and true joy of writing, the journey taken."

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

''The life journey is a hero's journey," John Rowe Townsend agrees. "Although we may not feel very heroic, we are all embarked on the heroic quest, to live lives that have meaning for ourselves and others. We are on our individual Odysseys, our personal roads of trials. We have had our adventures, and we shall have more, but we shall come to Ithaka at last.''

The Wanderings of Odysseus Alan Lee

The art today is from The Wanderings of Odysseus by Rosemary Sutcliffe (1920-1992), a re-telling of the Odyssey for young readers, sumptuously illustrated by Alan Lee. Go here for an interesting interview with Alan on this book and many others.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.   
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


            - translated by Edmund Keeley

Words: The Eleanor Cameron and John Rowe Townsend quotes are from Innocence & Experience: Essays & Conversations on Children's Literature, edited by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maquire (Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1987). The poem in the picture captions is from C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems(Princeton University Press, 1975). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.

Pictures: The illustrations above are from The Wanderings of Odysseus by Rosemary Sutcliff (Frances Lincoln, 1995). All rights reserved by the artist.