Three writers on aging

High Tor Guardian by David Wyatt

From A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle:

"I am part of every place I have ever been: the path to the brook; the New York streets and my 'short cut' through the Metropolitan Museum. All the places I have ever walked, talked, slept, have changed and formed me. I am part of all the people I have known.  There was a black morning when [a friend] and I, both walking through separate hells, acknowledged that we would not survive were it not for our friends who, simply by being our friends, harrowed hell for us. I am still every age I have ever been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be. Because I was once a rebellious student, there is and always will be in me the student crying out for reform.

"Far too many people misunderstand what putting away childish things means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I'm with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grownup, then I don't ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child's awareness and joy, and be in my fifties, then I will really learn what it means to be a grownup. I still have a long way to go."

Fetching Water by David Wyatt

From an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin:

"The whole process of getting old -- it could have been better arranged. But you do learn some things just by doing them over and over and by getting old doing them. And one of them is, you really need less. And I’m not talking minimalism, which is a highly self-conscious mannerist style I can’t write and don’t want to. I’m perfectly ready to describe a lot and be flowery and emotive, but you can do that briefly and it works better. My model for this is late Beethoven. He moves so strangely and quite suddenly sometimes from place to place in his music, in the late quartets. He knows where he’s going and he just doesn’t want to waste all that time getting there. But if you listen, if you’re with it, he takes you with him. I think sometimes about old painters -- they get so simple in their means. Just so plain and simple. Because they know they haven’t got time. One is aware of this as one gets older. You can’t waste time."

Old Goat's Home by David Wyatt

From an interview with Barry Lopez:

"Up until recently, the phrase 'my work' meant solely what I was writing. Now I'm not sure what it means. I feel a sense of urgency, a sense of national threat. Because of that I've become more involved in the past few years with higher education, with public presentations and collaborative work, with The Last Puppeteer by David Wyatttrying to advance the work of younger writers. I have to be honest with you and say I have doubts about doing these things. I feel the weight of an enormous amount of experience, travel experience in particular, which I've not written about. Sometimes I worry that without my knowing it a half-formed story will leave my imagination, as if it'd become impatient. For someone who's not a social activist, I seem suddenly to be up to my neck in such things....Maybe what I'm really working on, by writing autobiography and pursuing what I suppose is an effort at public service, is grappling with my own reputation as a writer and what to do with it. A curious thing can happen to you as a writer. You go along in your twenties and thirties and forties, writing books and articles. Then people really want to talk to you, they want to know what kind of book is coming next. They have expectations. If their perception -- your reputation -- makes you self-conscious, or anxious, it can ruin your work.

"I've seen an ambivalence emerge in some writers as they enter their fifties. You ask yourself, what am I really up to here? In a very small way I've become something of a public figure in my fifties. If you find yourself in this position, what are you supposed to do? The answer -- for me -- is to take it for what it's worth. Lend your name to worthy causes and help younger writers. Read other people's manuscripts. Try to open doors for young writers who are devoted to story and language, and who have serious questions about the fate of humanity. You say to yourself, once older writers gave to me (or didn't); now, regardless, I have to see who's coming along and how I can help them."

I couldn't agree more.

Lopez wisely adds: "But you must draw a line in all this, too, to protect your own writing time."

Gidleigh Goat and Fancy a Biscuit? by David Wyatt

The art today is by our friend and neighbor David Wyatt, one of Britain's premier book illustrators (as well as the great love of Tilly's life). These paintings are from his deeply magical Mythic Village and Old Goat series.

"I grew up in West Sussex," he says, "drawing a lot and messing around in rivers a lot. Nothing has changed much, except I do them on Dartmoor now."

To see more of David's work, please visit his beautiful website and charming illustration blog. His prints are available here.

Spinning Moonlight by David Wyatt

The passages above come from: "Ursula K. Le Guin: The Art of Fiction No. 221" by John Wray (Paris Review, Fall 2013),A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle (Harper San Francisco, 1972 ), and "The Big River: A Conversation with Barry Lopez on the McKenzie River" by Michael Shapiro (Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2005). All rights reserved by the authors.


Grandfather's Garden Studio

The Love Song (inspired by a Breton folk ballad) by Edward Burne-Jones

In her charming little book Three Houses, novelist Angela Thirkell looks back on the houses of her late-Victorian childhood -- including The Grange, an 18th century house in North End Lane in West Kensington, London, the home of Angela's grandparents: Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and his wife Georgie.

Edward Burne-Jones and his granddaughter Angela"On Sunday my grandparents kept open house," Angela remembers. "Two or three extra places were laid at lunch for any friends who might drop in, but whoever came, I sat next to my grandfather. I was allowed to blow into the froth of his beer, 'to make a bird's nest,' or to have all the delicious outside from the mashed potatoes when they had been browned in the oven. If, disregarding the truth, I said that at home my toast was always buttered on both sides, my statement was gravely accepted and the toast buttered accordingly. There can have been few granddaughters who were so systematically spoiled as I was and it is a legend that the only serious difference of opinion which ever arose between Gladstone and Burne-Jones was as to which of them spoiled an adored granddaughter more."

''Pilgrim in the Garden'' by Edward Burne-Jones

The Wedding of Cupid & Psyche by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

After lunch, the children were left to their own pursuits: to explore the house, play games in the garden, or sneak into her grandfather's Garden Studio: a long, white, rough-cast building between the orchard and the road.

"It was a little alarming to us: the red-tiled entrance and steps which led down to the furnace-room where we were never allowed to go and where anything, one felt, might live; the iron grills in the floor to let in the warm air for winter days; the tall narrow slit in the outer wall through which the larger finished pictures were passed. Sometimes those pictures went to exhibitions, but more often straight to the friend or patron (in the very best sense of the word) who had commissioned them and was content to wait for years if need be for the perfect expression of the artist's mind.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

"In this studio there was a very high set of steps with a higher and lower platform on which the artist worked at the upper portions of his pictures. I remember sitting on these steps, my head wrapped in a many-colored piece of silk and bound with a coronet, while my grandfather made studies of crown and drapery for one of the mourning queens in the great unfinished picture of Arthur in Avalon which is now in the Tate Gallery.

Burne-Jones at work in his studio"Because there is a certain likeness between the little girl who wore the coronet and some of her grandfather's pictures, she has also been asked whether she sat to him. As far as I can remember he never used me for a model except on that one occassion when I wore the crown and veil. Nor in any case could he have drawn me often, as I was not yet eight years old when he died.

"Neither did my mother who was a pure 'Burne-Jones type' sit to him much. The curious thing is -- and it ought to open a fresh field of inquiry into heredity -- that the type which my grandfather evolved for himself was transmitted to some of his descendants. In his earlier pictures there is a reflection of my grandmother in large-eyed women of normal, or almost low stature, as against the excessively long-limbed women of his later style. But the hair of these early women is not hers, it is the hair of Rossetti's women, the masses of thick wavy hair which we knew in 'Aunt Janey,' the beautiful Mrs. William Morris. When I remember her, Aunt Janey's hair was nearly white, but there was still the same masses of it, waving from head to tip. To anyone who knew her, Rossetti's pictures -- with the exception of his later exaggerated types -- were absolutely true. The large deep-set eyes, the full lips, the curved throat, the overshadowing hair were all there. Even in old age she looked like a queen as she moved about the house in long white draperies, her hands in a white muff, crowned by her glorious hair."

Laus Veneris by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Sometimes after Sunday lunch at The Grange, the children were put into a carriage "and taken to other gardens with studios in them, where our parents would talk and pace the paths, and we would play among rose trees and apple trees and the very sooty creeping ivy peculiar to London gardens.

Margaret Burne-Jones, May Morris, Jenny Morris, & Philip Burne-Jones

"All through the long afternoons the gardens waited for us. Draycott Lodge, where the Holman Hunts lived; Beavor Lodge and the Richmonds; the Vale, home of the de Morgans -- all bricks and mortar now. Melbury Road, even then only a ghost of its old self where the Princeps used to have their friends in a yet more golden age, and where the Watts still lived. Grove End Road, with Tadema's stories which were so difficult to understand until his own infectious laugh warned you that he had reached the point, the agate window and the brazen stairs. Hampstead, Chelsea, Hammersmith, gardens were waiting for us everywhere and people who made noble pictures and were constant friends."

Briar Rose by Sir Edward Burne Jones

Briar Rose sequence by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Briar Rose by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Although the circle of mythic artists here in Devon isn't quite so illustrious as the one Angela grew up in (Burne-Jones and his friends were, by then, among the most celebrated artists of their time), her words make me wonder what younger generations here in Chagford will remember about their myth-rattled, paint-spattered, faery-haunted parents and grandparents. And if any of them will write about it one day.

If they do, I hope they will be kind.

A detail from The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The Mill by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The passage above is from Three Houses by Angela Thirkell (Oxford University Press, 1931); all rights reserved by the author's estate. The paintings and photographs are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


The Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic:
an alternative view

The ''Briar Rose'' design by William Morris, in progress

Whenever discussing Pre-Raphaelite house design (as we were yesterday), I'm always reminded of this wry description of Edward Burne-Jones' country place, North End House in Rottingdean, as seen from a child's perspective. The child is his grand-daughter, who grew up to be the novelist Angela Thirkell:

Edward Burne-Jones, painter,  and his grand-daughter Angela"Curtains and chintzes were all were all of Morris stuffs, a bright pattern of yellow birds and red roses," Angela writes. "The low sofa and oak table were designed by one or another Pre-Raphaelite friend of the house, or made to my grandfather's orders by the village carpenter. As I look back on the furniture of my grandparents' two houses I marvel chiefly at the entire lack of comfort which the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood succeeded in creating for itself. It was not, I think, so much that they actively despised comfort, as that the word conveyed absolutely nothing to them whatever. I can truthfully say that neither at North End Road [in London] nor at North End House [in Rottingdean] was there a single chair that invited to repose, and the only piece of comfortable furniture that my grandparents ever possessed was their drawing-room sofa in London, a perfectly ordinary large sofa with good springs, only disguised by Morris chintzes. The sofas at Rottingdean were simply long low tables with a little balustrade round two, or sometimes three sides, made of plain oak, or of some inferior wood painted white. There was a slight concession to human frailty in the addition of rigidly hard squabs covered with chintz or blue linen and when to these my grandmother had added a small bolster apparently made of concrete and two or three thin unyielding cushions, she almost blamed herself for wallowing in undeserved luxury.

Sussex chairs by Morris & Co

"The best sofa in the house was a massive wooden affair painted shiny black. It was too short to lie on and you could only sit on it in an upright position, as if you tried to lean you hit your head against the high back. It was upholstered in yellow-brown velvet of such rich and excellent quality that it stuck to one's clothes, making it impossible to move about, and the unyielding cushions and rigid bolsters took up more room than the unlucky users.

Ladies & Animals sideboard by Edward Burne-Jones

"Each bedroom was provided with an oak washing-stand of massive proportions and a towel-horse conceived on aethetic lines but sadly wanting in stability and far too apt to fall heavily forward on to a small child, smothering it in bath towels. As for Pre-Raphaelite beds, it can only have been the physical vigour and perfect health of their original designers that made them believe their work was fit to sleep in. It is true that the spring mattress was then in embryonic stage and there were no spiral springs to prevent a bed from taking the shape of a drinking-trough after a few weeks' use, but even this does not excuse the use of wooden slats running lengthways as an aid to refreshing slumber.

"Luckily children never know when they are uncomfortable and the Pre-Raphaelites had in many essentials the childlike mind."

Painted settle in the hallway at Red House

''Topsy and Ned Jones Settled on the Settle in Red Lion Square'' by Sir Max Beerbohm

Words: The text above is from Three Houses, a short but delightful memoir by Angela Thirkell (Oxford University Press, 1931); all rights reserved by the author's estate.

Pictures: The Briar Rose design by William Morris, in progress. A photograph of Burne-Jones with his grand-daughter Angela. The classic, simple "Sussex chair" produced by Morris & Co. "Ladies & Animals," a painted sideboard by Burne-Jones. The front hallway of Red House, an Arts & Crafts building designed by William Morris & Phillip Webb. Topsy (Morris) and Ned (Burne-Jones) on a hand-painted settle in their rooms at Red Lion Square, drawn by satirist Max Beerbohm for his book Rossetti and His Circle (1922).


Election Day

Suffrage march, 1913

The U.S. election is today (thank heavens, for how much more of this could we take?), and the historic nature of it keeps disappearing beneath the media circus of it all. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, and whatever you think of the two candidates, let's please taking a moment to appreciate the history-making fact that there is, finally, a viable female candidate on the presidential ballot. Whether she wins or loses (perish the thought), that is a big step forward for America.

When my grandmother was born, women could not vote; the 19th Amendment giving us that right wasn't signed into law until 1920. When my mother was born, it was still legal to deny us jobs, housing, banking service, mortgages, and the power to make our own health care decisions; the first laws addressing these issues weren't signed until the 1960s. When I was born, it was still legal for a man to rape his wife in all 50 states; the first state law against it wasn't signed until 1973. We've come a long way, baby...and, sadly, we have not come nearly far enough, as the depth of the misogyny unleashed during the campaign season we've just endured has surely made clear.

Suffragists in New York City

Today, there are women in America wearing white as they head to the voting booth, in honor of the Suffragists who fought so hard to give us this right. Although I've already voted with a mail-in ballot, I'm wearing white here in Devon too. While I am, of course, praying that we'll see a woman in the White House at the end of this process, we're making history today regardless of the outcome. Women have run for president before, but never as a major party nominee, and never with a chance in hell of succeeding. It shouldn't have taken this long, it shouldn't have been this hard, but we're finally here.

American suffragist Alice Paul

Suffragette  2017

For women of my generation (and older), this is more momentous than some of our younger feminist sisters and brothers can perhaps conceive. The world that we were born into was very different from today. As novelist Barbara Kingsolver writes in The Guardian:

Suffragist arrested at the White House, 1918"When I was a girl of 11, I had an argument with my father that left my psyche maimed. It was about whether a woman could be the president of the US.

"How did it even start? I was no feminist prodigy, just a shy kid who preferred reading to talking; politics weren’t my destiny. Probably, I was trying to work out what was possible for my category of person -- legally, logistically -- as one might ask which kinds of terrain are navigable for a newly purchased bicycle. Up until then, gender hadn’t darkened my mental doorway as I followed my older brother into our daily adventures wearing hand-me-down jeans. But in adolescence it dawned on me I’d be spending my future as a woman, and when I looked around, alarm bells rang. My mother was a capable, intelligent, deeply Educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethuneunhappy woman who aspired to fulfilment as a housewife but clearly disliked the job. I saw most of my friends’ mothers packed into that same dreary boat. My father was a country physician, admired and rewarded for work he loved. In my primordial search for a life coach, he was the natural choice.

"I probably started by asking him if girls could go to college, have jobs, be doctors, tentatively working my way up the ladder. His answers grew more equivocal until finally we faced off, Dad saying, 'No' and me saying, 'But why not?' A female president would be dangerous. His reasons vaguely referenced menstruation and emotional instability, innate female attraction to maternity and aversion to power, and a general implied ickyness that was beneath polite conversation.

"I ended that evening curled in bed with my fingernails digging into my palms and a silent howl tearing through me that lasted hours and left me numb. The next day I saw life at a remove, as if my skull had been jarred. What changed for me was not a dashing of specific hopes, but an understanding of what my father -- the person whose respect I craved -- really saw when he looked at me. I was tainted. I would grow up to be a lesser person, confined to an obliquely shameful life."

Suffragists in New York City, 1917

Suffragists outside the White House

I, too, had that conversation -- not with my father (I didn't have one), but with my grandmother; and not, I blush to confess, about any such lofty ambition as becoming president. What I wanted was to be a radio DJ like Cousin Brucie, whose New York-based show, full of British pop music and Motown, I listened to religiously. I must have been six or seven when my grandmother sat me down and explained that, being a girl, this would be impossible. Girls, she said, could be housewives, teachers, nurses, or secretaries, and that was pretty much it.

It was only then that I realized that, no, there were no women on any of the radio shows I listened to, or in any of the other wide-ranging jobs I fantasized about holding one day. I mean no disrepect towards teachers, nurses, secretaries, or stay-at-home parents; there are awesome women and men in all those roles, but those weren't the things I was dreaming of. My jobs of choice were DJ, explorer, motorcycle racer, artist or veterinarian (pretty much in that order). And like Barbara, I went to sleep that night in tears, feeling the world collapse around me.

''News Girls'' distributing suffrage literature, New York

African American suffragists

I know little about my grandmother's politics, as it wasn't a subject we talked about. But as I grew older, my mother -- a soft-spoken, unrebellious kind of woman -- became a passionate supporter of equal rights, aware her own life had been unhappily constrained by traditional gender scripts. She worked hard, with few leisure hours, and yet she made time to volunteer for her local branch of the League of Women Voters, fighting past the shyness she felt as a working class woman in a middle class organization (or so it was her neighborhood) because of her conviction that women must use the vote to gain equality and independence.

My mother died fifteen years ago, but as I sat down at my kitchen table with my overseas ballot and checked the box by Hillary Clinton's name, I found myself feeling surprisingly emotional. I completed the form, sealed the envelope, and said out loud:

"This one's for you, mom."

My mother & grandmother, 1940s, and my mother & me, 1960s
Good luck today, America. May the best woman win.


Photographs above: The black-and-white photographs are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) The final two photographs are of my grandmother & my mother in 1940s; and my mother & me in the 1960s.

Video above: "Bad Romance: Women’s Suffrage,"  a fabulous parody of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." Released by Soomo Publishing in 2012, the video is "an homage to Alice Paul and the generations of brave women who joined together in the fight to pass the 19th Amendment."


The tales we tell

Diplomat by Virginia Lee

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

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

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

Minatour by Virginia Lee

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

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

Three Hares Tor by Virginia Lee

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

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

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

Tides of Emotion by Virginia Lee

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


Tunes for a Monday Morning

In the hush of a winter morning on Dartmoor, as we move gently into a new week and new year, I'd like to re-visit the music of Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi, reflecting on themes of time and change. Einaudi was raised in Turin, studied at the Conservatorio Verdi in Milan, and now resides Torino, creating works in the intersitices between classical music and other genres and art forms.

The video above was filmed for "Walk," an exquisite song from Einaudi's In a Time Lapse (2013).

In the video below, the composer discusses his creative process, noting similarities between the construction of an album and the reading or writing of a novel.

Below: "Divenire," from Einaudi's 2006 album of the same name, on the theme of "becoming." The performance was filmed in the Palazzo Te in Mantova, Italy.

And last: Einaudi discusses the inspiration behind his gorgeous new album, Elements (2015).

At this time of year, it is dark when I climb the path to the studio each morning. The cabin rattles with every wind; the stream behind it is roaring, swollen with rain. I switch on a lamp, turn on the stereo, and Einaudi's music blends into the song of the storm. Tilly circles, then settles beside me; coffee steams in my cup; and a new day begins.

"It's only when we become aware or are reminded that our time is limited that we can channel our energy into truly living," Einaudi once said.

The difficult year that I've just left behind has been an all-too-effective reminder that life and time are limited indeed, but today a brand new year lies before us. It's an empty white page, a blank canvas, a fresh notebook.

An invitation to possibility.

Possibility

Ludovico Einaudi


The spirit of place

Cross over the boundary of the woods,

A misty day in the hills

In his excellent new book Rising Ground, Philip Marsden tramps across the moor and through the woods of Cornwall in search of the "spirit of place," discussing the history and mythology of this ancient land along the way. From Bodmin Moor to Tintangel and Land's End, he explores the many faces of the county: the natural landscape, the sacred landscape, the working landscape of miners and farmers, the Cornwall of antiquarians and artists, and the "spirit of place" as experienced by the author himself, who has lived there for many years.

At the core of the book is Marsden's renovation of a remote farmhouse at the edge of Ruan Creek (a "creek" being a tidal channel or estuary and not a small stream, as Americans use the term). The surrounding woods have reclaimed the crumbled stones of an older settlement, and now Marsden and his family settle in to write a new chapter in the land's long story.

"Our children had been been given a picture book called A Street Through Time: A 12,000-year Journey Along the Same Street," he tells us. "On the first page is a Mesolithic settlement, on the next a Neolithic one, and so on. Every time you turn the page there is the same topography, the same river and the same hill -- but everything else changes. The forest is cut back, huts appear and disappear, defences come and go; early on, a barrow and a stone circle pop up on the hill, fall out of use, and are swallowed up again by the forest; an Iron Age fort becomes a Roman fort among whose ruins a medieval castle is built which is burned down during the Civil War and whose broken walls, on the final page, serve as a visitor attraction.  The foreground of the last page is a frenetic scene with cars on the road, planes in the air, wine bars in basements, pedestrians on mobile phones and on the river, a small dredger and a couple in a rowing boat.

We'll follow an overgrown stone wall

through a land turned green and gold with rain.

"I imagined a version of that narrative here, on the tidal section of the Upper Fal. The first pages would be similar: the shoreside attracting early settlers, the tumulus in our field, the Roman garrison up-river at Golden Mill, the castles at Ruan Lanihorne and Tregony, the church at Lamorran. On the late medieval page, in our little creek, a couple of punts are pulled up on the shingle. A lugger is bringing in maunds of mussels. A small settlement stands on the shore, a scatter of barns and cottages and stock-pens ringed by the enclosure of the demesne lands. The stream drives a small mill. At the center of the scene is a medieval manor -- mullioned windows and high chimneys, and beside it a chapel. The next page is the late eighteenth century: the manor house in poor repair, only partly inhabited, but a new quay on the creek, with a lane running down to it and several people disembarking from a small coaster. Bales of goods lie on the shingle. In the woods across from the river they are felling oak, stripping the bark for the newly expanded tannery.

"It is at this point that our version diverges from the steady modernising in the picture book. The next page here, the mid-nineteenth century, would show the buildings in ruin, and only a much smaller house, our house, among the old walls. Otherwise, the scene is emptying of people, emptying of river traffic. The silting process is beginning to accelerate. On the following pages there are fewer and smaller coasters, then none at all. The quays fall into disrepair, the lime-kilns disappear. The track is less used. There is some activity in the woods, where timber is still taken for the tannery in Grampound, but that comes to an end in the later twentieth century. On the last page are just trees and mud flats, and a cluster of roofs in the wooded emptiness of the valley."

The spirit of this place is soft as the moss,

as hard as the granite, as tenacious as the gorse.

In Marsden's vision, all of Cornwall is a palimpsest, a page over-written by history: readable here, indecipherable there, but beautiful in its layering. Even the section of the county ravaged by clayworks has its stories and its poetry, and the final chapters of the book -- on Lyonesse and the Isles of Scilly -- are pure poetry themselves. It's an unusual book, falling somewhere in the interstices between nature writing, travel writing, history and memoir. By the end, you feel as if you've walked across Cornwall too, and that's a trip worth taking.

The spirit of this place sings softly, just below the wind.

If you happen to be within striking distance of Dartmoor, Philip Marsden will be speaking at Chagword, our village's literary festival, on Saturday, March 14 -- and I believe there are still some tickets left. Perhaps I'll see some of you there.

Shhhh! Can you hear it?

Rising Ground by Philip MarsdenPhotographs above: Tilly and I explore the spirit of place in our own Devon hills.


The subtle element of time

The Sun, The Moon by Germaine Arnatauyck

Here's another lovely passage from Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, this one on the nature of time:

"Long, unpunctuated hours pass for all creatures in the Arctic. No wild frenzy of feeding distinguishes the short summer. But for the sudden movement of chasing wolves and bolting caribou, the gambols of muskox calves, the scamper of an arctic fox, the swoop of a jaeger, the Arctic is a long, unbroken bow of time. Twilight Inuit Art Quarterly cover by Germaine Arnatauycklingers. There are no summer thunderstorms with bolts of lightning. The ice floes, the caribou, the muskoxen, all drift. To lie on your back somewhere on the light-drowned tundra of an Ellesmere Island valley is to feel that the ice ages might have ended but a few days ago. Without the holler of contemporary life, that constant disturbance, it is possible to feel the slope of time, how very far from Mesopotamia we have come.

"We move at such a fast clip now. We draw up geological charts in a snap, showing the possibilities for oil in Tertiary rocks in the Sverdrup Basin beneath Ellesmere's tundra. We delineate the life history of the ground squirrel. We list the butterflies: the sulphers, the arctics, a copper, a blue, the lesser fritillaries. At a snap. We enumerate the plants. We name everything. Then we fold the charts and the catalogs, as if, except for a stray fact or two, we were done with a competent description. But the land is not a painting; the image cannot be completed this way.

"Lying on your back on Ellesmere Island on rolling tundra without human trace, you can feel the silence stretching all the way to Asia. The winter face of a muskox, its unperturbed eye glistening in a halo of snow-crusted hair, looks at you over a cataract of time, an image that has endured through all the pulsations of ice.

"You can sit for a long time with the history of man like a stone in your hand. The stillness, the pure light, encourage it."

The Shaman's Apprentice & You Will Have My Father's Name by Germaine Arnatauyck

Jay Griffiths has this to say on the subject of time in her engrossing book on the subject, Pip Pip:

"Amongst many peoples, 'Time' is a matter of timing. It involves spontaneity rather than scheduling, sensitivity to a quality of time. Unclockable. The San Bushmen of the Kalahari do not plan when to hunt, but rather ‘wait for the moment to be lucky', reading and assessing animal patterns, looking for the 'right' time. Timing for many indigenous peoples, for example, the Ilongot of the Philippines, is variable and The Cycle of Life by Germaine Arnatauyckindeterminate and unpredictable. Time is a subtle element where creativity and improvisation, flexibility, fluidity and responsiveness can flourish. People's responses to timing issues are subtle and graceful. But the dominant culture, far from respecting these socially graceful ideas of time, chooses to refer disparagingly to being 'on Mexican time,' 'on Maori time', 'on Indian time.'

"What subverts the dead hand of the dominant clock? Life itself. The elastic, chancy, sensitive times chosen for hunting depend on living things: how the living moment smells. There is a 'biodiversity of time' imaged in cultures around the world, time as a lived process of nature. There is a scent-calendar in the Andaman forests, star-diaries for the Kiwi peoples of New Guinea and Aboriginal Australians who begin the cultivation season when the Pleiades appear. In Rajasthan a moment of evening is called 'cattle-dust time,' the Native American Lakota people have the 'Moon of the Snowblind.' One indigenous tribe in Madagascar refers to a moment as 'in the frying of a locust.' The English language still remembers time intrinsically connected to nature, doing something 'in two shakes of a lamb's tail' or the (arbitrary and sadly obsolete) phrase 'pissing-while.'

"For nature shimmers with time; and interestingly, many areas rich in myth and indigenous history are shown to be places of high biodiversity; living history, life at its liveliest. Both past and present equally vivacious, in a vital land."

The Power of Tunniq & When Their Was No Light by Germaine Arnatauyck

Sedna, the Sea Goddess by Germaine Arnatauyck

The art today is by the contemporary Inuit painter and printmaker Germaine Arnatauyck. Born near Igloolik, Nunavut in 1946, Arnatauyck was raised in a traditional hunting camp, educated at a Catholic mission school, then studied fine art at the University of Manitoba, graphic art at Algonquin College in Ottawa, and printmaking at Arctic College in Nunavut. Her work is inspired by Inuit myth, particularly women's stories. "I never questioned being an artist," she says. "I guess I was lucky. It seemed I knew exactly what I wanted to be."

Mother Earth & Always My Baby by Germaine Arnatauyck

Motherhood by Germaine Arnatauyck The titles of Arnatauyck's prints can be found in the picture captions. A related post: "On Time, Technology, and a Celebration of Slowness."


Stones in My Pocket:
On Grief, Change, and Myths of Death & Rebirth

A winter day in Devon


Winter

The earth now lies through nights drenched
in the still dark benediction of the rain
and dusky houses and branches stand out bleak
each day in mist, in white, and in the rustling wet.
All, all is rich and restful, with heavy
and secret and rich growth finding its way
through warm soil to every leaf and shoot
and binding everything – near, far – mysteriously
with moisture, fruitfulness, and great desire
- till one clear afternoon suddenly we see
the glistening grass, the tenderly rising grain
and know that life is served by rest.
How could I ever have thought of summer
as richer than this season’s mystery?

- N.P. Van Wyk Louw


Van Wyk Louw's poem "Winter" has become a touchstone for me during the dark part of the year, for it reminds me not to measure my days by action and accomplishment only; it reminds me that life is also "served by rest," and that winter is the natural time for retreat, hibernation, and introspection. I seem to need a lot of rest these days -- obstensively because I am healing from an illness, but my spirit is in need of rest and healing too: of time in the dark, in the underworld of the psyche. It is winter. It is not yet time to bloom.

One year ago I was in Arizona closing down the Endicott West Arts Retreat, which was my last and longest home in the desert, and the final home of my American life. The closing of E-West was anticipated, planned for, and accomplished in the best possible way -- and yet I mourned its lost, and I've continued to mourn with each new season of the passing year. In folk wisdom it is said that the sharpest phase of grief must be weathered for a full year and a day, and I find this prescript strangely accurate, as though loss must be carried through all four seasons before its weight begins to lighten and life goes on.

 winter day in the desert

I didn't, however, expect to be quite so rattled that E-West had come to its end. "It's just a life change," I tell myself firmly, exasperated by the strength and persistence of the feeling. "You wanted to move to Devon full-time. For heaven's sake, no one has died."  

But, in fact, someone has died: the person I used to be in Arizona. My desert self. My younger self, who seems so different than the woman I am now, for she was physically stronger and thus quicker, bolder, In Arizona, 1990smore intrepid in adventure than I am today...if also less wise, less tempered, less steady: the gifts of age and experience. That young woman is inside of me, of course, but I am not her; I will never be her again; and packing up my last home in the desert brought me face to face with this "little death."

For many months I have carried the weight of loss like stones in the lining of my pocket -- stones rubbed smooth by handling -- finding comfort in their feel, their rattling sound, their familiarity. But eventually we must empty out our pockets, for life is full of these "little deaths" and if grief is left to accumulate, then the garment of our soul becomes threadbare, misshapen, and our spirit just as heavy as the stones. Death, as myth constantly reminds us, is not an end point but a station one passes through as life turns on the Great Wheel of renewal: each self (representing the stages of our lives) dies so that the next one can be born; death and birth, endlessly repeated. We can't move forward (with our lives, our art) without these endings, these little deaths, these acts of letting go, which create the space for new ideas and fresh momentum.

Saint Francis holding stones

In the mythological calendar, the passage from winter into spring is the perfect time for giving stones back to the earth. The Corn King/Year King/Winter King has died, and will be re-born with the greening of the hills: a virile young consort for the Goddess, his seed ensuring the land's fecundity...until he, too, withers with the dying of the year and emerges again next spring.

This ancient theme of an agricultural king who dies and regenerates each year is reflected in the traditional British folksong of John Barleycorn:

          
There was three men come out of the West

Their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in
Throwing clods all on his head
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead.

They've left him in the ground for a very long time
Till the rains from heaven did fall
Then little Sir John's sprung up his head
And so amazed them all
They've left him in the ground till the Midsummer
Till he's grown both pale and wan
Then little Sir John's grown a long, long beard
And so become a man . . .

(Read the full lyrics and hear the song here. )


Mythic scholars have linked John Barleycorn to Beowa (the Anglo-Saxon god of barley, grain, and agricultural), and to Byggvir (the Norse god of barley, grain, and the art of milling),  for similar stories of sacrifical death and resurrection are associated with all three figures.

Persephone by Virginia Lee

Persephone by Virginia Lee

One of the best known stories of death and re-birth is the Greek myth of Persephone, who was the daughter of Demeter, goddess of grain, fertility, and patroness of marriage. (Demeter's name derives from "spelt mother," spelt being an early form of wheat.) When Persephone is abducted to the Underworld by Hades (god of the dead), her mother's grief causes the seasons to stop, love-making to cease, and all living things to fail to grow...until Zeus intervenes and Persephone is returned, but only for six months of each year. The girl has eaten pomegranate seeds in Hell, binding her to Hades in the autumn and winter. Each spring, she returns to her mother, and the greening of the earth begins anew. 

The veneration of Demeter, Persephone, and the cosmic cycle of death and re-birth was at the core of the Eleusinion Mysteries, whose initiatory rites took place each year just as the crops were sown. Beginning in an old cemetery in Athens, the participants walked in procession all the way to Eleusis, stopping at certain places along the route to shout obscenities. (This was in honor of Iambe, an old woman who's earthy stories had made Demeter laugh during her season of sorrow.) In Eleusis, the initiates fasted for a day (as Demeter did during her period of grief), then broke their fast with a special medicinal brew of barley water and mint. Little is known about the final rituals as the participants (sometimes several thousands of them) gathered together in the sect's great hall, for it was strictly forbidden for such sacred things to be spoken of in public.

Demeter Mourning Persephone by  Evelyn De Morgan

Demeter, often pictured wearing a wreath of wheat or corn, has much in common with Selu, the Corn Mother of the Cherokee Nation, also associated with agriculture, fertility, and the sanctity of marriage. When her grandsons break a strict taboo and spy on Selu's mysteries, she tells them she will have to leave them and die -- but that even in death she will look after them, provided they restore the harmony they have broken by performing certain rituals. "Clear a circle of land in front of the house," she says. "Take my body and drag it seven time around the circle. Then you must keep watch all night and see what happens."

The boys follow their grandmother's instructions, and from the places where Selu's blood speckles the ground comes the very first crop of corn, a sacred food which is still an important staple of the People today. In some versions of the story, however, the lazy boys clear only a small piece of land, and drag Selu's body only twice around the circle, which is why corn doesn't grow everywhere and we must work hard to cultivate it.

Selu sculpture by Raymond Moose on the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina

Many carnival celebrations around the world are rooted in older pagan rites honoring the passage from winter to spring:  anarchic, riotous affairs in which laughter and satire are given a social outlet and a sacred context. Alan Weisman described carnaval as it's still practiced in the villages of northern Spain:

"In Laza, the event is known by its Galician name, entroido: introduction, entry. Elsewhere in Spain and Europe where it is still observed, and in Latin America, where it has been transplanted, it is called carnaval. Centuries ago, when Christianity superimposed its holy calendar on the cycles of nature, the formerly pagan celebration became a brief, sanctioned burst of scheduled excess before 40 somber days of Lenten abstinence and repentance. (One theory holds that the word carnaval derives from 'carne va'—'there goes the meat.') Lent concludes with Easter, the celebration of Christ's Resurrection, coinciding handily with the spring equinox -- resurrection of the pagan sun god."

This, notes Alan, is the  one time of year when authority figures are ignored, or mocked, and the people reign. "Power is concentrated in the masks thundering by, borne by the sons of the village itself, lashing the crowd ever harder. Priest and politician alike must hide or be pummeled with insult and ridicule; the world is turned upside-down and shaken until the established order cracks loose. Anything is possible, everything is allowed: Humans transform themselves into animals; males become females; peons strut like kings. Social station is scorned, decorum is debunked, blasphemy goes unblamed. In neighboring villages, normally sober citizens drench each other with buckets of water; in Laza, they sling rags soaked in mud until everyone is reduced to muck. Bags appear containing ashes, flour, and -- most prized of all -- fertilizer crawling with red and black ants. A frenzy erupts; the air fills with stinging, fragrant grime, coating everyone with the earth's sheer essence. Men and women throw each other to the ground and roll in the street. With any luck, the heavens will be shocked and the new season jarred awake. Then, once again, day can steal hours back from the night, vegetation will arouse from hibernation, spring will heave aside winter, and what was dead can live again."

(To read Alan's full article, go here.)

Spanish Carnaval

Photograph by David Bacon

Re-enactment of the mythic cycle of death and re-birth can still be found in many sacred traditions, from the ritual practices of Siberian shamans to the Easter pageants of Christianity. In the Border region of southern Arizona, where Mexican American, Native American and European American cultures all come together, the Easter ceremonies of the Yaqui (Yoeme) tribe contain a fascinating mix of religious traditions (similar to those of the Mayo and other tribes of northern Mexico).

Private spiritual rituals practiced in the months between Christmas and Easter, most intensively during the weeks of Lent, culminate in a public drama enacting an unusual version of Christ's Passion, blending ancient Yaqui mystical  beliefs with 17th-century Spanish Catholicism. The "three Marys" (figures of the Blessed Virgin) are Yaqui Deer Dancerguarded in an open-sided church by hymn-singing women, matachins (a dance society of men and boys), pahkola dancers (a kind of holy clown), and the deer dancer -- an enchanted figure from the old Yaqui "religion of the woods." Opposing them are the forces of Judas: faceless fariseos, dressed in black, and chapayekas wearing elaborate masks, strings of rattles, and painted wooden swords.

These dark figures march and dance around the church for many days and nights...and eventually, on the last day before Easter, they attack. The church bells ring, the deer dancer leaps, the faithful pelt the dark forces with flowers. The watching crowds throw flowers and confetti, shouting "Gloria! Gloria! Gloria!" The dark ones fall back, regroup, march...and then attack once more. Again they're driven back. On the third attack they are overcome by the forces of good: by songs, prayers, armloads of flowers. They strip off weapons, black scarves and masks (subsequently burned on a huge bonfire), and relatives drag the exhausted men back into the safety of the church -- a ritual resurrection, dedicating new lives to the forces of good.

The deer and pahkola dancers have been incorporated into this ritual, yet come from the tribe's pre-Christian past. They are, in one sense, shamanic figures, able to cross over the borders between the human world of the Baptised Ones, the modern Yaqui, to the flower world of the ancestors, a magical people called the Surem.

The Seven Ravens by Lisbeth Zwerger

When we look at traditional folktales, it's striking how many address the subject of loss. A sizeable number of tales begin with the loss of a parent, a sibling, a fortune, a home, or an identity -- and rarely does that which is missing return, intact and unchanged, at the end of the story. Instead, loss is the catalyst that leads to transformation. 

The older versions of fairy tales were unflinching in their portrayal of calamity: kings abruptly beggared, queens dying young, children orphaned, cursed, and disowned. In The Handless Maiden, the heroine's hands are cut off at the wrist by her own father. The subsequent story of her journey through the world, rendered nearly helpless by her loss and yet still possessed of kindness and courage, speaks to everyone who has ever felt the wound of a loved one's betrayal. In The Seven Ravens, retold by the Brothers Grimm, seven princes lose their humanity due to their The Handless Maiden by Jeanie Tomanekfather's carelessness. Salvation comes from their young sister, who bravely suffers a loss of her own: she must cut off her little finger to make the key to unlock their prison. Beauty gives up her home and future to save her father from a beast; Cinderella is transformed by the loss of her mother from a coddled daughter to a kitchen drudge, until the simple loss of a shoe transforms her again and she becomes a princess. Sleeping Beauty loses one hundred years of life; her parents lose a precious daughter as the vines grow high and her bedchamber is shrouded in roses and silence.

These were tales, in their older forms, meant for adult audiences, not the nursery; and in some of them, the depiction of grief and loss is sharp and brutal. This is particularly true of the literary fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which were beloved by adult readers across Europe in Andersen's lifetime. Here, unlike Disneyfied fairy tales today, we're never assured of a happy ending; here, the Little Mermaid is forgotten by her prince, the Brave Tin Soldier melts in the stove, and the Little Matchgirl dies alone, frozen by the breath of winter.

Though children also experience grief (and sometimes love the saddest of tales), the subject of loss as a literary theme becomes more and more resonant as we age -- as the passing years bring with them the inevitable loss of friends and family members; of homes and jobs; of innocence; of wild lands lost to development and memories lost to the ravages of time; of the many things we cling to, mourn in passing, and learn to live without.

The Little Mermaid by Sulamith Wulfing.

"To live in this world," advised poet Mary Oliver, "you must learn to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go."

Like myth, the great fantasy tales of our day have much to tell us about "loving what is mortal" and then letting it go. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, for example, and Ursula Le Guin's early "Earthsea" books, revolve around the adventures of young heroes -- but loss, change, and the impact of life's "little deaths" are also major themes. (In "Earthsea," the aging of the heroes is beautifully explored as the series progresses.)

Ellen Kushner -- who entered the fantasy field, like me, as a young writer/editor in the 1980s -- has pointed out that our generation of fantasists is now middle-aged or beyond. "Our concerns are different now," she muses. "If we stick to writing fantasy, what are we going to do? Traditionally, there's been the coming-of-age novel, and the quest novel, which is the finding of self. We're past the early stages of that. Does fantasy demand that you stay in your adolescence forever? I don't think so. Tolkien's books are not juvenile. The Lord of the Rings is about losing things you've loved, which is a very middle-aged concern. Frodo's quest is a middle-aged man's quest, to lose something and to give something up, which, as you age, is what you start to realize is going to happen to you. Part of the rest of your life is learning to give things up."

The Scribe by Alan Lee

Learning to give things up.... 

I'm thinking now of my last night at Endicott West, saying goodbye to a place that had held so much of my life and so many of my dreams. I'd wanted to let it go lovingly, gracefully, and I was surprised by just how hard that was. The ghost of my younger self stood beside me, growing thinner, paler, more insubstantial with every moment that passed.

My partners and I lit one last blaze in the campfire circle beneath the stars, and thanked the spirits in the old tribal way: with sage, cedar, and the desert tobacco that I'd grown and cured on that beautiful land. Then we popped the cork on a bottle of champagne and reminisced about the days of building the Retreat, acknowledging all the blessing we'd received there, all the blessing we'd carry on from it. This is what I wanted to take back home to Devon: this good fellowship and these good memories, not the stony weight of loss and grief for a phase of life that had reached its natural end. But of course we don't control these things. Grief comes when it will, and takes the time it takes, and there's no short-cut to moving through it. Grief must be honored. It's the heart's clear measure of the value of what we've loved, and what we've lost.

Endicott West fire circle at dawn.

Mesquite kindling, reading to be lit

"In my own worst seasons," wrote our former E-West neighbor Barbara Kingsolver (in her essay collection High Tide in Tucson), "I've come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.''

Stones

Well, I've not been in "despair" exactly, I've just been feeling a little bit...off. Blame it on poor health. Blame it on the weather, which is wet and cold, unlike the winters of the desert. Blame it on exhaustion; I've been carrying these stones for a full year and a day, and it's time to put them down.

Here in Devon, it's been a long grey winter...but every now and then the sun breaks through. I put on muddy boots, whistle for the dog, and we squelch our way through hills that glimmer "in the rustling wet" (to quote Van Wyk Louw's poem) like the saturated colors of a watercolor painting.  These colors remind me that grief will pass. Winter will pass. The months, the seasons, the Great Wheel will turn. I have re-learned joy many times before, and I am simply doing it one more time. The land that is now my home lifts and sustains me.

And spring is coming.

Woodland snow.

The first wild daffodil shoots in the woods.Image credits and descriptions are in the picture captions. Run your cursor over the pictures to see them. This essay is dedicated to Ellen & Delia.