More folklore of the wild flowers

Wildflower path

Following on from Friday's wildflower post...

As the woods and fields, green hills and hedgerows continue to burst with color and bloom, here's a little more of the wildflower lore that's rooted in the land below our feet. I love knowing and passing on such things. "Re-storying" the land is, I believe, an important part of re-wilding the land, re-wilding our culture, and re-wilding ourselves.

In the springtime, writes herbalist Judith Berger,

"the earth herself seems overtaken with desire to create for the sake of beauty and joy, unveiling at an astounding rate those creations which were conceived and protected in winter's ground-dark womb. Young, delectable leaves shoot up out of the soil, becoming clorophyll-rich as they soak up the food of the sun's fire. Food and medicine plants carpet the ground abundantly, delighting the eyes and tastebuds with a palette of green hues and an array of distinctive earthy flavors. Daily, as light seeps into the unfurling leaves, the plants grow greener and greener with the blood of the sun. As we ingest these plants, we increase our inner fires and pulse with the blood of life, thus inspired to move through our days with the same abandon as the maiden goddess of spring."

Stichwort, buttercups, hound, and sun.

Stitchwort (below), appears in Devon in two distinctive colors: white and pink. Greater stitchwort, with its white star-like blooms, also goes by the name star flower, thunder flower (because picking it will cause a storm), Mother Shimbles, snick needles, and snapjacks (due to the popping sound made by its seed pods as they ripen). Lesser stitchwort, with its small pink flowers, is known as piskie, or piskie flower, here in Devon -- though in fact both kinds of stitchwort are under the special protection of the piskies (our local faery folk). They zealously guard the flowers against hedgewitches, who use them for making medicines and charms of protection against piskie mischief -- including a salve that heals the "side stitches" caused when mortals are hit by elf-shot.

White stitchwort

Pink stitchwort, nettles, ivy, and ferns.

Stickwort often grows among stands of nettles -- which is certainly one way to protect it from being picked. Nettles themselves are a wonderful plant (despite their sting), prized by witches, cunning men, herbalists, and wild food foragers. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are faery dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against faery enchantment, black magic, and other forms of sorcery. Historically, nettles have had a wide variety of uses, from making medicines to making cloth. "Nettle oil preceded paraffin," notes folklorist Margaret Baker; "the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness." Today, many of us still harvest the tender top leaves of nettles in the spring. Rich in iron and vitamins, they are an excellent tonic for the immune system when cooked in soups and stews, or brewed for tea.

(For a lengthier discussion of the folklore and use of nettles, go here.)

Following her nose

Speedwell

Germander speedwell ( above), also known as birds-eye or angels-eye, is a flower associated with vision, with magical oinments allowing mortals to see faeries, and with healing afflictions of the eyes -- whether medical or caused by witchcraft. Although largely unmentioned by modern herbalists, it was once considered a valuable plant in hedge-lore here in the West Country. A tea made from its leaves and flower petals is said to be good for coughs (when brewed at strength), or settling the nerves (when brewed more delicately),  while also fostering clarity of vision, focus, and purpose.

Wildflower path

Welsh poppies

According to Welsh folklore, wild Welsh poppies (above) don't flourish outside Wales itself, but in fact they can be found throughout the West Country, and in parts of Ireland too. Although the Welsh poppy (Meconopsis cambrica) is somewhat different than the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), it too is associated with sleep, dreams, the spirit world, and various forms of divination. Yellow poppies must never be brought into the house -- they will cause headaches, storms, or lightning strikes -- but wild poppy seeds placed under a pillow will show a young man or maid their future lover's face, or give the dreamer the answer to any question posed while falling asleep. The seeds can also be carried in one's pocket, or strewn in a circle around one's home, to provide protection from faery enchantments, especially those that cause confusion or memory loss.

Through the meadow gate.

Cuckoo flowers and buttercups

The cuckoo flower (above) is said to herald the first cuckoo of spring. It grows in damp, grassy meadows and bogs, its petals tinted pink or lavendar, and is also known by the names lady's-smock, milkmaid, May flower, and fairy flower. Associated with the revels of May, hedgewitches used various parts of the plant for love potions and fertility spells -- as well as for the opposite: charms intended to keep love and fertility at bay. Cuckoo flower teas and tonics restored appetites diminished by poor health, while also aiding digestion, treating survy, and easing bowel complaints. The leaves, when young, are edible, tasting peppery, like cress.

Buttercups

In the folk tradition of the West Country, buttercups (above) are a benificent plant -- associated with the sun, yellow butter and the dairy, and ease in domestic labor. On May Day, farmers rubbed the udders of their cows with buttercup flowers to increase the yield and richness of their milk; this also protected them from theft by faeries -- who were always eager to improve their herds of fairy cattle by interbreeding with cows from mortal fields. Buttercups are toxic to ingest so medicinal use of the plant is limited, although some old herbals suggest that a poulstice made of the crushed flowers and leaves is helpful in relieving colds, coughs, and bronchial complaints. "Buttercup water," made by infusing the flower petals in water heated by the sun, was used to bathe sore eyes, and "sweeten" the complexion. Buttercups are part of Rananculus family, related to spearwort, crowfoot and lesser celandine. It was once believed that swallows fed their young on a diet of these flowers, giving them prophetic abilities and clear sight.

White stitchwort and hound on Nattadon Hill

Red campion in the bracken and briars.

Red campion (above and below) -- also known as ragged-robin or robin flower -- is associated with Robin Goodfellow (or Puck), a faery Trickster who is charming, sly, amoral, and rather dangerous to encounter. In some parts of country, the picking of campion is discouraged, for this invites the faeries' attention -- but here in the West Country, it's a lucky flower. Campion in the house represents the faeries' blessing, provided it's been picked with care and respect. Red campion is not edible, and its herbal use is limited -- but the roots have been used to make a soap substitute, and the flowers for charms and spells to ward against loneliness. 

Hedgerow flowers

In Norse myth, wild columbine (below) is the flower of Freya, goddess of love, sensuality, and women's independence; in Celtic lore, too, it's a flower associated with women and their Mysteries. Columbine's primary use in hedgerow medicine was as an abortificant: its seeds were ground and mixed wine and other herbs to produce this effect; and then used with wine and a different set of herbs to restore the woman's strength. Also known as Granny's bonnet, lady's shoes, sow wort, and lion's herb, the flower is linked with both the dove and the eagle, with peace and war, and the balancing of opposites: strength in fragility and fragility in strength. Columbine was used for spells invoking courage, wisdom, and clarity in making choices. 

Wild columbine

Herb Robert (below) is a modest little flower, but it's become one of my favorite sights in the hedgerows...and in our garden too, where it kept appearing in spaces that I'd intended for other things. At first, I confess, I pulled it out as a troublesome weed, until its gentle persistence caused me to look a little closer at this tiny wildflower. I learned that the plant was once much prized by herbalists (and magicians!) in medieval times; and that herbalist today hail its ability to boost the immune system (precisely the thing I most needed). In folklore, according to Margaret Barker, herb Robert is known as "the plant of equality, all its parts being equal and harmonious." It's also another faery plant: its appearance in the garden betokes the blessing of the particular spirits who "quicken" all green living things. The great mystic and herbalist Hildegard of Bingen extolled the virtues of this humble flower, recommending its use (in a powdered form, eaten on bread) to strengthen the blood, balance the mind, and ease all heartbreak.

Herb Robert

Valerian (below) is another that has moved itself from the hillside to our garden, rooting firmly in a sunny front slope. "Valerian's botanical name (Valerianna officinalis) comes from the Latin word valere, 'to be strong,' " writes Margaret Baker. "It is said to be a witch-deterrent, to provoke love, and to be a telling aphrodisiac. In the West of England a girl who wore a sprig would never lack lovers." Well. You can't beat that.

Pink valerian

In her lovely book Herbal Rituals, Judith Berger envisions the springtime as the Goddess in her maiden aspect:

"In Hebrew the word for life, chai, is also the root of the word meaning wild she-animal, (chaiya), and this is how I see the spring: as a wild, untamed maiden bounding over the dark earth, her footfall touching all life with more life. Hair flying behind her, she leaves in her wake a trail of color, scent, and nourishment, her mood of wicked delight spreading across the ground like green fire. Roused by her passion, the green nations leap toward the sun, brimming with sheer joy, until everywhere we turn our heads we find life unfolding, changing shape, and blossoming, each form in nature dripping with beauty and transformed by the nurture of sun, rain, earth, and air."

Welsh poppies

Above, the Lady of Bumblehill (a statue made by my friend Wendy Froud) stands in our back courtyard with flowers at her feet. The flowers change a little every year, as Welsh poppies, foxgloves, columbine and other plants self-seed and move about the land.  I love these untameable flowers...and so does Tilly. Here she is at just ten weeks old, mesmorized by a hawkweed's bloom. Entranced by its colour. Scenting its magic. And listening closely to its stories.

Tilly and her flower

The passages quoted above are from Herbals Rituals by Judith Berger (St. Martin's Press, 1998) and Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker (Shire Classics, 2008).  All rights reserved by the authors.


The places that claim us

Sheep field

Here's one more passage from The Enchanted Life by Sharon Blackie, reflecting on her own life's journey and the "holy mysteries of place":

Bee skep drawing"I never had a strong, visceral pull to a specific place, combined with a feeling of somehow being in tune with the land, until I first came to Connemara at thirty years old -- by which time I'd travelled around the five major continents of the world, and experienced a variety of beautiful and diverse landscapes. What was it that attracted me to this place, above all others? No doubt it was all tied up with an ancestral longing for the land of Ireland which had been with me since childhood. But it was more than that, because I hadn't been affected so deeply by any other place in Ireland, including the equally wild and beautiful Dingle and Iveragh peninsulas of County Kerry, in the south-west.

"'Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave,' Frances Mayes writes in Under the Tuscan Sun. And in that sense, the places we love reflect some something -- or someone -- we wish to be. What did I wish to become that was reflected in that famously changeable west coast light? From the islands scattered like a broken necklace in its stormy seas, to its crystal-clear interior lakes; from its central ranged of folded granite mountains to its ubiqitous wide-open bogs -- there was nothing in this place that didn't speak to me. The message was all to do with clarity, and integrity: the commanding, unrelenting presence of land that is entirely and fully itself -- that couldn't be broken, couldn't possibly ever be made into something else.

Stone wall on O'er Hill

"Connemara was, quite simply, the place where I began to wake up. It is also the place where I have finally been able to return. I believe, too, that it's the place where I'll stay -- because sometimes, like your first 'proper' human love, the place that you first truly love will hook itself deep into your heart and won't let you go. Sometimes a place just claims you, right from the very beginning. Mine, it says. Mine. And nowhere else, not even remotely, will ever really feel like home....

Chagford sheep

"I've always believed you can learn to sort-of-belong to any place, if you choose -- indeed, that there's a moral imperative to do so, because the land which bears us and nourishes us deserves no less of us. I know how to cultivate that kind of belonging. Learn the ecology, history, language, culture, mythology of your place. Go out into it for long periods of time, every day. Sit in the same place every day for an entire year, in all the seasons and weathers; talk to the land and listen to it, and maybe then you have some claim on belonging to it. And a feeling of being at home, for however long you happen to be in that place -- because not all loves are forever; not all places are forever. Sometimes we have to leave. Sometimes we need to leave. But wherever I go, I feel obligated to root. I am a serial rooter, perhaps, but I try to root deeply into every place I've inhabited, to live fully in that place. It's the only sane way to live: to be fully present in the place where your feet are actually planted, right here, right now. It's also the only way to live that is deeply respectful of the earth.

The two hills

"That's one kind of belonging: the kind you learn to do, wherever it is that you happen to be living at the time. Then there's the feeling of belonging that comes with heritage: a sense of belonging to a place which you may or may not ever inhabit, which is encoded in your DNA....

"But maybe there's another kind of belonging altogether: the kind of belonging that happens when a place claims you -- when it makes itself known to you, and you in turn open yourself fully to it. These are the places we've been to once, but can't get out of our heads; the places we can't seem to help but return to on vacation, year after year; the places we look for as settings in the novels we choose to read.

Nattadon and Meldon Hills

"This 'claiming' kind of belonging is expressed perhaps in the beautiful old story of Gobnait, an Irish saint who lived in the early sixth century. Gobnait was born in County Clare, and when she was older she fled a family feud, taking refuge in Inis Oírr in the Arran Islands. While she was there, Deer drawing by Walter Cranean angel appeared and told her she must leave, because this was 'not the place of her resurrection.' She should, the angel said, look for a place where she would find nine white deer grazing.

"So Gobnait wandered through Waterford, Kerry and Cork. First she saw three white deer in Clondrohid in County Cork, and she followed them to Ballymakeera, where she saw six more. But it wasn't until she arrived in Ballyvourney, in the south-west corner of Cork, that Gobnait saw nine white deer grazing all together. This was where she settled, and founded her monastic community. That was the 'place of her resurrection,' and there she remained: a beekeeper, and a woman who is now thought of as the patron saint of bees.

Hound on a hillside

"From the first moment I heard the story of Gobnait, it resonated with me, and with a life in which I'd been wandering, like her, from place to place, in search of who knows what. Learning to sort-of-belong to each of them, but always, sooner or later, feeling some sense of being driven on. In search of the 'place of my resurrection'? The place where the soul is happiest on earth, from where it will happily and freely leave the body, when the time comes? It's been rambling and rather peripatetic, this journey of mine. I've imagined time and again that I've found my final resting  place, when in fact what I've found were beautiful but temporary sanctuaries along a path I didn't even know I was following -- each place offering its own lessons, its own transformations.

Hound on a hillside 2

"But these days, with the benefit of long perspective, above all I see my journey from place to place not so much as a form of restless wandering, but as the acceptance of an invitation -- an invitation to delve more deeply into the holy mysteries of place. And I see myself undertaking that journey as pilgrims do, knowing that something is lacking, but not ever knowing quite what it was until they've reached their journey's end.

Hounds on hillside 3

"So here I am: not really a line but a meshwork of places. A unique web of placeworlds lives in me -- informing, creating, teaching, as I've walked my own Dreaming into the land. Places that made me -- literally, contributing air and water and food; places where I've left parts of myself behind -- contributing skin cells, hairs, bodily fluids, breath. But through it all, there has always been Connemara. Tugging, tugging. Nipping. Biting. Itching. Come home, Connemara called, and I did."

Hound on the Commons path

Trees on the village Commons

The Enchanted Life by Sharon Blackie

Words: The passage above is from The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday by Sharon Blackie (September Publishing, 2018). The poem in the picture captions, based on the folk custom of "telling the bees" of a death in the household and other major life events, is from Poetry magazine (September 2008). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: A vintage drawing of a bee skep (artist unknown), a deer drawing by Walter Crane (1845-1915), and photographs of the hills that claimed me many years ago, on the edge of Dartmoor.


The Folklore of Hearth & Home

Photograph of Terri Windling by Alan Lee, 2007

If you follow Folklore Thursday on Twitter or Facebook, then you know that this week's theme is the folklore of "home, hearth and household." It seems the perfect time to re-visit this piece I wrote some years ago, when I was leaving the old cottage here in Chagford where I lived before marrying Howard: "The Folklore of Hearth & Home."

The picture above, by Alan Lee, was taken  in the courtyard garden of that beloved old place. Friends live there now (their son was recently born in my old studio), so it's in good hands.


Honoring the wild

Great Raven Crosses the Divide by Hib Sabin

The Robe of Inner Silences & The Long Game by Hib Sabin

"I believe we need wilderness in order to be more complete human beings, to not be fearful of the animals that we are, an animal who bows to the incomparable power of natural forces when standing on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, an animal who understands a sense of humility when watching a grizzly overturn a stump with its front paw to forage for grubs in the lodgepole pines of the northern Rockies, an animal who weeps over the sheer beauty of migrating cranes above the Bosque del Apache in November, an animal who is not afraid to cry with delight in the middle of a midnight swim in a phospherescent tide, an animal who has not forgotten what it means to pray before the unfurled blossom of the sacred datura, remembering the source of all true visions.'' 

- Terry Tempest Williams ("A Prayer for a Wild Millennium," Red)

Guardians of Dreamtime by Hib Sabin

Voyage to the End of Time by Hib Sabin

"Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth -- our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human."

- David Abram (The Spell of the Sensuous)

Raven Sings His Journey by Hib Sabin

Owl Totem & Trickster by Hib Sabin

"What we need, all of us who go on two legs, is to reimagine our place in creation. We need to enlarge our conscience so as to bear, moment by moment, a regard for the integrity and bounty of the earth. There can be no sanctuaries unless we regain a deep sense of the sacred, no refuges unless we feel a reverence for the land, for soil and stone, water and air, and for all that lives. We must find the desire, the courage, the vision to live sanely, to live considerately, and we can only do that together, calling out and listening, listening and calling out."

- Scott Russell Sanders (Writing from the Center

Death of Totem by Hib Sabin

Raven Mask, Raven Singer, & The Storyteller by Hib Sabin

"The wild. I have drunk it, deep and raw, and heard it's primal, unforgettable roar. We know it in our dreams, when our mind is off the leash, running wild. 'Outwardly, the equivalent of the unconscious is the wilderness: both of these terms meet, one step even further on, as one,' wrote Gary Snyder. 'It is in vain to dream of a wildness distinct from ourselves. There is none such,' wrote Thoreau. 'It is the bog in our brains and bowls, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires the dream.'

"And as dreams are essential to the psyche, wildness is to life.

"We are animal in our blood and in our skin. We were not born for pavements and escalators but for thunder and mud. More. We are animal not only in body but in spirit. Our minds are the minds of wild animals. Artists, who remember their wildness better than most, are animal artists, lifting their heads to sniff a quick wild scent in the air, and they know it unmistakably, they know the tug of wildness to be followed through your life is buckled by that strange and absolute obedience. ('You must have chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star,' wrote Nietzsche.) Children know it as magic and timeless play. Shamans of all sorts and inveterate misbehavers know it; those who cannot trammel themselves into a sensible job and life in the suburbs know it.

"What is wild cannot be bought or sold, borrowed or copied. It is. Unmistakeable, unforgettable, unshamable, elemental as earth and ice, water, fire and air, a quitessence, pure spirit, resolving into no contituents. Don't waste your wildness: it is precious and necessary."

- Jay Griffiths (Wild)

Bowl of Becoming by Hib Sabin

Totemic Journey by Hib Sabin

The imagery today is by Hib Sabin, an American artist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Born in 1935, Sabin received a BFA in Art and Art History from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, worked with peace groups in Russian and Uzbekistan, and studied shamanism with indigenous peoples in Mexico, Tanzinia, Australia, and the American West. Working primarily in juniper wood, he carves totemic sculptures, masks, spirit bowls, and canoes inspired by world-wide mythology expressing the depth of the interconnection between the human, animal, and spirit realms. The titles of the works presented here can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

"My goal," he says, "is not to recreate a mythology, but bring past and present together in a multi-dimensional form that speaks to its mystery.  What is the spirit of a bird and the power within it?  To convey this artistically is to bring the physical and spiritual together in a carving that has power.  What is the essence of this power and what does it mean to connect with it in the most primitive, archetypal sense?  For the answer to this I turn to the mythologies of the world, for it is they that have the potential to divulge the mystery of these immortal characters."

Go here to see the online catalog of his 2017 exhibition, The Long Game, as well as catalogs of previous shows.

The Journey by Hib Sabin

Spirit Ascending by Hib Sabin

Trickster Spirit Canoe (Coyote & Raven)

Coyote Hawk Fetish by Hib Sabin

The passages above are from Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert by Terry Tempest Williams (Vintage, 2002 ), The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception & Language in More-Than-Human World by David Abram (Vintage, 1997), Writing from the Center by Scott Russell Sanders (Indiana University Press, 1995), and Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths (Hamish Hamilton, 2007) -- all of which are highly recommended.  All rights to the text and art above are reserved by the authors and artist.

A few related posts: The Blessings of Otters, Keeping the World Alive, Making Sense of the More-Than-Human World, Wild Neighbors, The Speech of Animals, and On Animals & the Human Spirit,


Trailing stories

Oe'r Hill gate

From an interview with storyteller, writer, and mythographer Martin Shaw, upon being asked how to find new stories relevant to times we live in:

Joanna Concejo"First thing we gotta do is trail the stories not trap them," Martin answers. "If you trap a story, you’ve put it in a little allegorical cage where you pretend you know what it means. The moment you think you know what the story means from beginning to end, it’s lost its nutrition, it’s lost its protein, it’s lost its danger.

"Seamus Heaney, the poet, says that a poet is somebody with a tuned ear. And in a way tuning your listening to stories is a discipline. You know we are living in a world where people spend endless amounts of time in the gym, endless amounts of time toning their body, but their minds lack discipline. You know what it is: you have to let a story have its way with you. You can’t tell the story what it is. You learn to sit in the radiance of it until something comes from the story that disturbs you or bugs you or makes you happy, until you have to do something with it. But that is not the same thing as using a story to make a psychological point or to support a contemporary polemic.

Sweet sheep 1

Hound and oak leaves

"Because I’m a storyteller and a writer, people are always saying to me, 'Can you find us a story so we can make this point? We want to make a point about climate change. We want to make a point about gender. Will you send us something over that supports it?' Now that’s backwards to me. Story is first. You have to be in the presence of the story, which I regard as a living being: it’s a wild animal; it’s got tusks, udders; it’s got a tail; it doesn’t behave; half the time you want it to be there it’s disappeared, it’s shuffled off somewhere else. Stories should be filled with so much consequence and danger, they won’t behave for your polemic."

Sweet sheep 2

Oe'r Hill

"There’s no way we can’t create stories," he adds, "which are the things that really feed our bones; that’s what we’re hunkering down for. Stories bring in what is at the edge of our vision and not right at the center. So in other words, in an old myth, if there’s a crisis in the story, the remedy for the crisis always comes from the edge not the center. So when I think about the times we’re in, and I think about what is actually happening to our gaze -- what we are fundamentally staring at all the time -- I think, that’s not a mythological move. A mythological move is to be aware of all the hundred trembling secrets at the edge of your vision. Because they are the things that want to secrete their intelligence into you about the problem that’s right in front of you.

Dartmoor pony 1

"But if you think about great myth -- if you keep staring at Medusa, you get turned to ashes. And when I meet a lot of activists at the moment, I meet a lot of people utterly consumed with the seemingly horrible narrative of our times. I see a lot of burn out, because they have no shield to reflect, they have no art to reflect, the immensity of what’s right in front of them. If all you do is stare into hell, you will become ashes.

"Stories are a way, an artful way, of negotiating very difficult things in such a fashion that, in the very demonstration and articulation of those stories, more beauty works itself out into the world."

Dartmoor ponies

Following the trail home

Words: The two passages above are from "Mud and Antler Bone," the transcript of a podcast interview with Martin Shaw by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee (Emergence Magazine). The poem in the picture captions is from Fishing for Myth by Heid E. Erdrich (New Rivers Press, 1997), whose five poetry collections I recommend. All rights reserved by the authors. Photographs: Visiting our animal neighbours on a fine autumn day. Art: The charming little drawing is by French illustrator Joanna Concejo


I Shall Go Into a Hare....

In the Land of the Faires by John Anster Fitzgerald

Last week I took a train up north for the second meeting of the Modern Fairies working group. Our project (outlined in a previous post) started with a workshop at Oxford University, and then we'd carried on working from our different parts of the country (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales) until it was time to meet up again.

Now we were coming to the University of Sheffield with a wide range of works-in-progress to share: songs and poems and other creations exploring the many facets of fairy lore. We brought tales of shape-shifters and shadow hauntings....of strange happenings at the edge of perception...of the fractured nature of fairy time and the power of magic in the old wild places...of white ravens, green children, witch hares, otter brides, and ghostly hounds crumbling into the dust...and of fairies infesting the planes of World War II and the depths of the internet.

Flint Hall at the University of Sheffield

A fairy ring

"The earliest storytellers were magi, seers, bards, griots, shamans," writes novelist Ben Okri. "They were, it would seem, as old as time, and as terrifying to gaze upon as the mysteries with which they wrestled. They wrestled with mysteries and transformed them into myths which coded the world and helped the community to live through one more darkness, with eyes wide open and hearts set alight."

In this project we're looking at Britain's fairy tradition, seeing what such stories have to tell us today. To do our work well, perhaps we must all become griots or shamans ourselves, steeped in Mystery, letting the old tales speak through us as they will.

Ben, Marry, and Jackie's notebooks

Andy and Lucy fall into enchantment

Music is one of the Mysteries to me. I love folk music in all its forms, and yet I am not a musician myself -- so in Sheffield I listen, spell-bound and enchanted, as music rises from the corners of the workspace. New songs are born...take shape...take flight...

Calling the spirits...

...conjured by cello, viola, bass, and banjo...by mandolin, squeezebox, saw, and voice...

Calling the fairies.

...by artist's pencil and composer's pen.

Calling the ghost hounds and the geese...

Jackie and Fay plot witchery

''I shall go into a hare,'' Fay sings.

I've never worked on a project like this before. I've collaborated many times, yes, but always with fellow writers and illustrators in the publishing field...

Fairy tales and fairies' tales.

Sarah finds fairies in cyberspace.

...never with artists from such a wide range of backgrounds, disciplines, and genres. It's an interesting brief, but a daunting one, pushing me out of my comfort zone. I know how to write a book, a story, an essay...but a song? a spoken word narrative?

Andy and Carolyne pull the project's research all together

Fairies Dancing by William Blake

I am married to a theater director, so I know very well that performative arts are very different than the literary arts, created in a very different way. I have to ignore my usual working methods, throw out all my preconceived ideas and approach the work (as my husband likes to say) with a "beginner's mind." I am walking in unknown territory...a perfect metaphor for walking into Faerie itself.

The magic of music

The magic of play

Wait! Wait! by Arthur Rackham

The magic of collaboration.

The magic of song

The magic of sound.

The magic of word and film

Twilight Fantasy by Edward Robert Huges

I'm reminded of these words by Ursula Le Guin about magical tales in all their forms:

"Fantasy is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence," she said. "It is not anti-rational, but para-rational; not realistic but surrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud's terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes, which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe."

No, I don't feel safe. Why should I feel safe? The Faerie Realm is a dangerous one. But I do feel inspired, and awed by the creativity around me. I am happy to be on this journey.

The magic shaped by an artist's hands.

The magic that swims across the page.

The magic that takes on a life of its own.

The creativity produced by this team could, I swear, power the lights of the city. Our days in Sheffield fairly crackle with energy, with ideas emerging, shape-shifting, coalescing into song, art, and story. I find that I keep turning to my companions to say: I don't want the week to end.

But it does end, of course. On the final eve, we share some of our work-in-progress with a small audience in a Spiegeltent at The Festival of the Mind...and this is a bit nerve-wracking too. We're all used to presenting work in completed form: a book, CD, a canvas or show, honed and polished. A work-in-progress is a rough, raw thing. What on earth would an audience make of it all?

The fairies are clearly with us that night, and every one of them is in Trickster mode: microphones don't work, other tech goes wrong...but none of that matters in the end. When Ewan sings of fairy shadows, and Lucy of the shifting properties of time, and Marry of the Green Children legend, and Fay of turning from woman to hare, the old stories come to life again. Perhaps they had never really died.

The Spiegeltent at the Festival of the Mind

Marry sings an old, old tale...

...while Fay, Lucy, Ewan, and Ben summon the fairies to our modern world

And so, the journey continues. Our next meeting is in Newcastle in January, then we're aiming for a public presentation (of some kind) at The Sage in Gateshead in late April. If you'd like to keep up the project's evolution, please visit the Modern Fairies website and blog, Facebook page, and Twitter page.

I'll continue to post on our progress here too, and share our discoveries with you.

Hare by Jackie Morris

Fay's banjo

Tales  Songs  and Hares

I Shall Go Into the Hare

The Modern Fairies team is: Fay Hield, Carolyne Larrington, Lucy Farrell, Sarah Hesketh, Jim Lockey, Ewan MacPherson, Jackie Morris, Barney Morse Brown, Ben Nicholls, Marry Waterson and me, all pictured above, plus Patience Agbabi and Inge Thomson, who could not join us in Sheffield. Andy Bell (of Hudson Records) and Stephen Hadley provide adminstrative and production support for the project.

Credits:  The beautiful drawings & notebooks belong to Jackie Morris. The "hare woman" oil paint sketch is one of mine. The four fairy paintings are by John Anster Fitzgerald  (1819-1906), William Blake (1757-1827), Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), and Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914). The photographs were taken by me, Jackie, Fay, Marry, and others on the Modern Fairies team. They are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the imagery and text pictured here are reserved by their makers.


Modern Fairies

In the Dark Forest by Arthur Rackham

Fairies in Oxford

Modern Fairies (& Loathly Ladies) is a year-long project bringing folk musicians, folklorists, poets, artists, and filmmakers together to explore Britain's stories of the Twilight Realm and their meaning in modern life.

The project was created by folksinger/ musicologist Fay Hield, with folklorist and medieval literature scholar Carolyne Larrington (author of The Land of the Green Man: A Journey Through the Supernatural Landscapes of the British Isles). The rest of the team is Patience Agbabi, Lucy Farrell, Sarah Hesketh, Jim Lockey, Ewan MacPherson, Jackie Morris, Barney Morse Brown, Ben Nicholls, Inge Thomson, Marry Waterson and me, with administrative and production support from Andy Bell (of Hudson Records) and Stephen Hadley.

In July we began the project with a gathering of the working group at St. John's College, Oxford University...

Modern Fairies team, Oxford University, July 2018

Barney, Marry, Patience, Ewan and Fay the Modern Fairies workshop, Oxford

The fairy circle

Music begins to emerge

The Modern Fairies workshop, Oxford

Fay works on a song

...and this week we'll be meeting up at the University of Sheffield. We're travelling to Sheffield from all over the country -- books, pens, drawing pencils, cameras, and instruments in hand -- to see what happens when a group of artists collaborate with the notoriously tricksy Fair Folk.

If you live near Sheffield, please come to a "Fairy Gathering" on Thursday evening, September 28th, at The Spiegeltent, Barker's Pool. It's a free event, running from 5.30 to 7pm as part of Sheffield's Festival of the Mind. We'll discuss the project, present work-in-progress, and then ask you to join us in a discussion on fairies in life and art. For more information, go here.

To keep up with the project over the year, and for notification of other public events, please visit the Modern Fairies website & blog, Twitter page, or Facebook page. I'll also write further posts here as our work evolves, which you'll find under the Modern Fairies Project link.

Now here's a toast to the fairies, modern and old. May we do right by their tales.

Here's to the fairies!

Frolicking fairies by Arthur Rackham

Fairy art by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The photographs above were taken by me, Jackie Morris, and other members of the Modern Fairies project.


May Day morning on Dartmoor

Beltane Border Morris

After waking before dawn for an outdoor Easter Sunrise Service a few weeks ago, this morning I rose in darkness again for a celebration rooted in the pagan faith: a gathering of Border Morris dancers on a quiet road by Hay Tor, on Dartmoor, to call up the sun at the dawn of Beltane with the pounding of feet, the cracking of sticks, and the music of fiddle, squeezebox and drum. 

My favorite troupe (or "side," as they're traditionally called) is Beltane Border Morris: a wild and wonderful group of dancers who describe their art as the dark side of folk. This isn't the "bells and hankies and tea with the Vicar" sort of Morris dancing, it's fierce, eerie, athletic, unbridled -- invoking magic from the bones of the land and the old country lore that has not been forgotten.

Beltane Border Morris

Beltane Border Morris

Beltane Border Morris

Border Morris originated in the west of Britain -- probably sometime in the late Middle Ages, arising from dance traditions that were older still -- developed primarily by dancers and musicians along the border between England and Wales. The distinguishing characteristics of Border Morris (as opposed to other forms) are shorter sticks, higher steps, ragged costumes, blackened faces, and larger bands of musicians. The history of the blackened face is much disputed: it may have had ceremonial significance in the dance's deeply pagan origins; or it might have originated as a form of disguise adopted in years when Border Morris was frowned upon as rowdy, subversive, and un-Christian. It's important to remember today, however, that it is a form of masking, making the dancers anonymous and Other than their usual selves, and not intended to mimic black skin.

Beltane Border Morris

Beltane Border Morris 12a

Beltane Border Morris 8

Border Morris certainly is rowdier than most other forms of Morris; it's also more overtly pagan, and thus (to me) more powerful. Often performed at sacred times in the Celtic lunar calendar, the dances are tied to the seasons and the mythic wheel of life, death, and rebirth. Like other forms of sacred dance the world over, the drum beat and the dancers' steps weave patterns intended to keep the seasons turning and maintain the balance of the human/nonhuman worlds. Yet in contrast to other, more mannered forms of Morris, Border dancers unleash an energy that is earthier, lustier, more anarchic...both joyous and unsettling to watch, especially by dawn, dusk, or firelight. 

Beltane Border Morris

Border Morris at Hay Tor

This morning, there were two other local sides dancing with Beltane: Grimspound Border Morris, and a small group bedecked in ribbons whose name I didn't catch. The air was cold, nipping fingers and toes, as they danced the sun up over the moor and beat out a rhythm for summer's return.

Grimspound Border Morris

Border Morris at Hay Tor, 2018

Border Morris ay Hay Tor, 2018

When the sun was high, we said our goodbyes and made our way home across the moor, then down to Chagford through hedgerow lanes turned yellow with flowering gorse. It was early still. The village was quiet, and my own household still fast asleep. But while they slept, at the foot of Hay Tor the remnant of an ancient folk ritual ensured that another summer would come. The land had been blessed. We'd all been blessed: dancers, watchers, and sleepers alike.

Beltane Border Morris 7

To learn more about Beltane Border Morris, please visit their lovely new website. You can watch a short video from this morning here -- and from previous May Days here and here. For more information about the folklore behind May Day and Beltane, go here.

Beltane Border Morris

I wish you an abundance of May blossoms and wildflowers, fecundity in your creative work, fluid communion with our animal neighbours and all the non-human world, the lusty good luck of the Jack-in-Green, and all of the season's good blessings for growth and renewal -- especially for those of you who live on the world's other side, entering the Long Dark of the year.

I wish you stories, poems, pictures, tunes, and collective or personal ceremonies to ease the transition from winter to summer...and summer to winter.

I wish you dreams of drums, and of feather-clad dancers who move like a murder of crows taking flight.

I wish you a blessed, wild, and merry Beltane. Up the May!

Hay Tor

Hay TorWith thanks to my May Day morning companions, Miriram and Denise.


Prowling Plymbridge Woods

Plympbridge Woods 1

"To be in touch with wilderness," writes storyteller & mythographer Martin Shaw, "is to have stepped past the proud cattle of the field and wandered far from the Inn's fire. To have sensed something sublime in the life/death/life movement of the seasons, to know that contained in you is the knowledge to pull the sword from the stone and to live well in fierce woods in deep winter.

Plymbridge Woods 2

"Wilderness is a form of sophistication, because it carries within it true knowledge of our place in the world. It doesn't exclude civilization but prowls through it, knowing when to attend to the needs of the committee and when to drink from a moonlit lake. It will wear a suit and tie when it has to, but refuses to trim its talons or whiskers. Its sensing nature is not afraid of emotion: the old stories are are full of grief forests and triumphant returns, banquets and bridges of thorns. Myth tells us that the full gamut of feeling is to be experienced.

Plymbridge Woods 3

Plymbridge Woods 4

"Wilderness is the capacity to go into joy, sorrow, and anger fully and stay there for as long as needed, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Sometimes, as Lorca says, it means 'get down on all fours for twenty centuries and eat the grasses of the cemetaries.' Wilderness carries sobriety as well as exuberance, and has allowed loss to mark its face."

Plymbridge Woods 5

I'm reminded of these words from the American writer, naturalist, and activist Terry Tempest Williams:

"So much more than ever before, I feel both the joy of wilderness and the absolute pain in terms of what we are losing. And I think we're afraid of inhabiting, of staying in, this landscape of grief. Yet if we don't acknowledge the losses, then I feel we won't be able to step forward with compassionate intelligence to make the changes necessary to maintain wildness on the planet."

And the wild within ourselves.

Plymbridge Woods 6

Plymbridge Woods 7

Plymbridge Woods 8

Words: The long passage above is from A Branch from the Lightening Tree:  Ecstatic Myth & the Grace in Wilderness by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2011). The quote first appeared on Myth & Moor in a post from 2012, with different photographs. The gorgeous poem in the picture captions first appeared in the Comments below the same post, and is copyright © 2012 by the author, Jane Yolen. The Terry Tempest Williams quote is from a radio interview reprinted in A Voice in the Wilderness, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Plymbridge Woods, on the other side of Dartmoor, between winter and spring.


Myth & Moor update

Tilly and the rowan tree

My apologies for the lack of posts lately. I'm continuing to have health issues, and despite having excellent medical support, it's simply not clear what precisely is going on. Living with long-term health conditions can be like this, I'm afraid (as many of you reading this know from personal experience): both western science and alternative therapies are a huge blessing for us all, but they're not infallible. Sometimes the ups-and-downs of health stubbornly resists exact diagnosis, and the healing process is a great Mystery. I'm still having medical tests of various kinds, so perhaps the Mystery will be solved...or perhaps not and I'll simply find my way back to health without any clear answers, as sometimes happens.

Devon tree childI seem to be doing a bit better this week. I managed to get out of the house for two events (for a big anti-Brexit rally last Saturday, where our friend Sam Campling was speaking; and then for a class last night), so that's progress. But strength and energy vary from day to day; I never quite know what to expect. I'm hoping to be back the studio, and thus to Myth & Moor, after the long Easter weekend. Fingers crossed.

Deep apologies to everyone I owe email to (and there are a lot of you). My mailbox is so backed up right now that it's quite daunting, but I'll make my way through it, I promise.

Have a lovely weekend, everyone. Though the weather is dreary and cold right now (when is spring going to finally arrive?), we're looking forward to a nice few days at Bumblehill. Our daughter is down from London, planning to cook a goodly holiday feast with her dad. (They are both wonderful cooks.) And Tilly is delighted to have her pack all under the same roof again. Me, I'm simply delighted to be out of bed. I want to keep it that way.

Happy Easter/Passover/pagan spring festivities...or whatever else you might be celebrating this weekend.

Easter Bunny with a basket of eggs

An English Brown Hare photographed by Michael Rae

The Devon for Europe march, 2018At the #DevonForEurope march in Exeter, with Sam, Howard, and 2500 of our West Country neighbours, in support of freedom of movement, diversity, inclusion, cross-border alliances, & our children's future. It was my first venture out of the village in several weeks, but for such a good reason -- and with these two lovely men to keep me going.