Moonacre Manor

Compton Castle

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth GoudgeOne of my favourite books in the world is The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, written in 1946 and set in a magical version of Devon. I dearly wish I'd known it when I was young, for Goudge's brand of magic (gentle, wind-swept and rain-kissed) would have perfectly suited the child I was. Instead I read it three years ago, fell entirely under its spell, and then spent a whole winter devouring all of her other books for both kids and adults. (I was sick in bed for some of those months, and Goudge was the perfect companion.)

In an excellent essay on Goudge, Kari Sperring writes: 

"With the exception of her children’s books, most of her work is not what most people would think of as fantasy. The children’s books are all set in a version of our real world, too, though her towns and landscapes in them are imaginary. Yet in all her work the boundaries between worlds are thin. Folklore and poetry, transcendent experience, and glimpses of the immanent pervade them, and her characters -- especially the youngest and the oldest -- slip between these worlds easily. Her characters channel folktales and legend through their lives and their connections with others.

Books by Elizabeth Goudge

From ''The Secret of Moonacre''"This is most clear in her children’s books, in particular, her three best known -- The Little White Horse, Henrietta’s House, and Linnets and Valerians (recently retitled The Runaways). In TLWH, which is the most directly fantastical of Goudge’s books, the protagonist Maria must explore the history of her family and their ancestral home via a blend of fact and magic -- the injustices done by her forefather Sir Hrolf were real enough, but their context and consequences belong as much to the realm of magic and the liminal as to reality. A white horse and a giant dog come and go throughout the history of her family -- and her own experience -- guiding, observing, and sometimes leading Maria to the discoveries she needs to make. The dog -- another Hrolf -- is real enough but seemingly immortal, but the horse is a unicorn and a creature of the sea and not to be grasped or owned. The story sounds soppy, and the recent film (titled The Secret of Moonacre) tried hard to make it soppy by replacing the very real magic of Goudge’s writing with sentiment and gloss, but in the book, it is not. Rather, everything is tied together by extra-mundane bonds, so that Maria’s friend and ally, Robin, is at first a boy in dreams who becomes real, and the white horse brings not only Maria but the book’s main antagonist to a solution to the ancient problem they face that is partly realistic, yes, but rooted in liminal experience."

Elizabeth Goudge at her writing desk

Four books by Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth de Beauchamp Goudge was born in 1900 in the cathedral city of Wells, where her father was a clergyman and theological scholar. His career took the family to Ely and Oxford (two cities she loved and would later write about) -- but his early death meant the loss of their Oxford home and sudden impecunity. Reeling from the loss, Elizabeth's semi-invalid mother announced they would take a month's holiday in Devon. Her elderly Nanny, now a permanent part of the family, was to come along too. In her autobiography, Elizabeth writes:

Elizabeth's autobiography"Devon? Why Devon? We knew no one there and where could we stay? But my mother had seen an advertisement in the paper. A small wooden bungalow could be cheaply rented for a summer holiday at a village called Marldon, and she was quite certain that was where we must go. So Nanny and I dragged ourselves out of the ooze of our exhaustion and we set off, driven by a friend who had a large comfortable car and said he knew the way. More or less he did and very late in the afternoon we found the wooden bungalow and inside it our unknown landlady, who kept a guest-house next door, had lit a glowing fire.

"For it was what those who do not love Devon call 'a typical Devon day'; that is to say it was raining, that steady relentless rain that lifted the Ark about the primeval flood, and at the same time, since the day was windless, a thick mist covered the earth. We could know nothing of our surroundings except that the bungalow seemed poised upon the summit of a hill and that its wooden walls did not look very weather-proof.

Elizabeth Goudge and her mother in Devon

"It was felt that food would be reassuring and Nanny and I began quickly getting some sort of meal together, but the friend who had brought us down took me away from the preparations for a few moments to the western-facing window. 'Look,' he said, 'what do you think is out there?' The downpour was slackening at last and no longer drummed on the roof. A small wet green lawn sloped from the window and appeared to fall into the mist as though it was green water sliding over the edge of a precipice. We could see nothing through the mist yet we were aware that behind it was the westering sun, and also it seemed to fill a deep valley and rising beyond the valley was -- what? 'Something grand,' said our friend. 'You'll know in the morning.' A tremor went through me, and I think through him too, for we seemed to be sharing one of those inexplicable moments of expectation and intimation that come sometimes when a small earthly mystery seems to be speaking of a mystery beyond itself.

"I was woken the next morning by a sound I had not heard for a long time, a cock crowing in the garden, across the lane, eastward where the sun would soon be rising. Had the mist lifted? When later I pulled the curtains it was still there, but the morning sun was shining through it and turning it to gold, and every bush and tree that lined the lane was glistening with diamond drops.

Sheep and gorse

"It was what lovers of Devon call 'a typical Devon day,' that is to say, a morning of clear shining after rain. Because of the slope of the land the hill seemed higher than it actually was; it seemed high as Ararat, with the wooden bungalow perched like the Ark on its summit. The valley below was even wider and deeper than I had realized the night before and it seemed to hold every beauty that a pastoral Devon valley knows, woods and farms and orchards, green slopes where sheep were grazing, fields of black and white cows, and where there were fields of tilled earth it was the crimson of the earth of South Devon and looked like a field of flowers. And along the eastern horizon lay the range of blue hills called Dartmoor.

"I felt I had come home. I have never felt so deeply rooted anywhere as I was in the earth of Devon. Or rather I did not so much put roots down as find roots that were already there. And yet I had not been born in Devon, I had been born over the border in Somerset. I could not understand it then and I do not understand it now. The only tremor was the realization that in a few weeks time we should have to leave this earthly paradise."

Marlsdon

Marlsdon

But in fact, they did not leave. World War II began and the family stayed in Marldon -- where Elizabeth lived for the next twelve years. She wrote some of her best books there, paying the bills with the steady work of her pen. A deep love of Devon shines through every single page of The Little White Horse...as well as through Linnets and Valerians, and her quietly beautiful adult novel The Rosemary Tree.

Apple crop

apples

The village of Marldon is not far away from us, just on the other side of the moor, so I wanted to go see those hills for myself -- especially since learning that Moonacre Manor, the enchanted setting of The Little White Horse, was inspired by Compton Castle: an old manor house in Marldon parish. South Devon has changed since Elizabeth's day; it's now less remote, more heavily populated, but still full of orchards, woodlands, and farms, and Marldon itself has retained its old charm. I wanted to see the lanes she once walked, the bungalow where she lived, and her old village church. I especially wanted to see Compton Castle, now a National Trust property.

I finally made the journey last year at this time, as autumn colored the hedgerows and fields, in the company of four other writers who also love Goudge: Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, Liz Williams and Veronica Williams. We started with lunch at Marldon's Church House Inn, where Ellen read us some relevant passages from Goudge's autobiography...

The Church House Inn

Ellen reads from Elizabeth Goudge's memoir

...and then made our way through the winding lanes to the gates of "Moonacre Manor."

Comptom Castle, a fortified manor house, was the seat of Sir Maurice de la Pole during the reign of King Henry II. It passed into the de Compton family, and then, through marriage, to the Gilbert family. The house was enlarged in the mid-14th century, fortified in 1520, and then sold in 1785 -- after which, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it fell into ruin. A descendant of the Gilbert family bought the property in 1931, began the castle's restoration, and then gave it to the National Trust -- on condition that the family would continue to occupy the house, which they do to this day.

Compton Castle  Marldon  Devon

The Little White Horse's Kingdom of Moonacre

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Map of Moonacre Manor

Compton Castle

Compton Castle is considerably smaller than Moonacre Manor in The Little White Horse -- but the soaring main hall, the kitchen gardens, the orchard full of vivid red apples and the emerald-green hills full of fleecy white sheep, all hold the magic she drew upon to create her timeless story.

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

We were thrilled to discover a kitchen well just like the one at Moonacre Manor. Sitting beside it, I could almost believe that Goudge's story was real after all, and Serena the hare would come tumbling over the grass, followed by the noble dog Hrolf.

(Her talent for creating distinctive animal characters was second to none.)

Compton Castle

The famous well at Moonacre Manor

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

In a recent essay for Slightly Foxed, Victoria Neuman has this to say about Goudge and her work:

In the doorway of Compton Castle"Whether she is describing a young child climbing over slippery rock steps from a sea cave or uncovering the glories of a tangled garden in Devon, she is one of the only modern prose writers to capture the spirit of the 17th-century mystic Thomas Traherne:

"'The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which should never be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things...'

"Like Trahern Goudge was an ardent Anglican. But although religion can be an oppressive presence in her adult novels, in her children's books it manifests itself merely as a sense of embracing safety. One of her obituaries quoted Jane Austen's famous line from Mansfield Park, 'Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.' Her fictional world is devoid of malice...Loyalty, kindness, affection, the wonder of nature, the smells of good, plain English cooking, a hot bath and clean clothes, the appealing personalities of pets: these are the things she celebrates. In Goudge's children's books, to use Louise MacNeice's phrase, there is 'sunlight on the garden' and the equation always comes out."

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

I should note that unlike Neuman I don't feel oppressed by the Anglican threads within Goudge's work. As the daughter of a clergyman, she was writing about the world she knew best. I enter it as I do any other unknown culture, trusting the writer as my guide, and her generous, mystical, nature-based version of Christianity allows even a wooly old pagan like me to feel welcome within her tales. Goudge, as Kari Sperring writes, "never preaches, nor lays out moral parameters, and, to paraphrase Louisa Alcott, she does not reward the 'good' with gilded treats and the 'bad' with dire punishments. Indeed, I’m not sure she deals in good and bad at all: she writes rather about compassion and understanding and resolution through empathy. Her work is not showy and it is not melodramatic. It is, however, often surprising and sometimes startling. And she rarely if ever does what the reader expects."

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

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"As the world becomes increasingly ugly, callous, and materialistic," Goudge once wrote, "it needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself."

That statement sums up why I love Elizabeth Goudge, and why I continue to read and re-read her. She, too, believes beauty is vital in a troubled world, and the promise of hope. Her work is old-fashioned, quiet, and slow. I say this without apology, for these qualities have genuine literary value in an our loud, aggressive, and fast-paced culture.

If you'd like to read more about Goudge's life in Devon, here are two previous posts on the subject: A Sense of Otherness and The Magic of Moor and Hill. To learn more about Compton Castle, go here. (You can even stay overnight at the castle, in its charming Watch Tower.) To learn more about the author's life and work, visit the Elizabeth Goudge Society. Or better still, go read her marvelous books if you haven't already.

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

The Little White Horse

The Little White Horse in Devon

Words: The text quoted above is from "Elizabeth Goudge: Glimsping the Liminal" by Kari Sperring (Strange Horizons, February 22, 2016), The Joy of Snow: An Autobiography by Elizabeth Goudge (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974), and "In Search of Unicorns" by Victoria Neumark (Slightly Foxed, Winter 2018), all of which I recommend. A good biography of Goudge has yet to be published.

Pictures: Marldon and Compton Castle,  South Devon, with thanks to my lovely companions on the journey. The photos are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


On poetry and paying attention

Ponies 1

From an interview with David Whyte (author of In The House of Belonging):

"I’ve written poetry since I was very small. I had very powerful experiences with poetry where I felt literally abducted, taken away by poetry and just like a hawk had come down and taken me in its claws and carried me off. I remember reading Ted Hughes when I was young -- and he must’ve been young then too -- and having that feeling, and a very powerful feeling, that this was language that adults had written who had not forgotten the primary visions and insights of childhood.

Ponies 2

Ponies 3

"But when I was 14 years old, I saw Jacques Cousteau, the famous French marine zoologist and inventor of the aqualung, sail across our little television set in the north of England. I really couldn’t believe you could have work like this in the world. You could actually follow the life of the dolphin aboard the good ship Calypso. I was so astonished by it that I gave up all my art subjects and put myself into the salt mines of biology, chemistry, and physics. Then I emerged with a degree in marine zoology many years later. Through sheer luck and fortune, I found myself on the shores of the Galapagos Islands as a naturalist guide. That was really astonishing, and experiencing those islands led me back into poetry and philosophy, really.

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

"I went back into poetry because I felt like scientific language wasn’t precise enough to describe the experiences that I had in Galapagos. Science, rightly, is always trying to remove the 'I.' But I was really interested in the way that the 'I' deepened the more you paid attention. In Galapagos, I began to realize that because I was in deeply attentive states, hour after hour, watching animals and birds and landscapes -- and that’s all I did for almost two years -- I began to realize that my identity depended not upon any beliefs I had, inherited beliefs or manufactured beliefs, but my identity actually depended on how much attention I was paying to things that were other than myself and that as you deepen this intentionality and this attention, you started to broaden and deepen your own sense of presence.

Ponies 6

Ponies 7

Ponies 8

"I began to realize that the only places where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you, that whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it. But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass, and what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. It’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level. Half of what’s about to occur is unknown both inside you and outside you.

"John O’Donohue used to say that one of the necessary tasks is this radical letting alone of yourself in the world, letting the world speak in its own voice and letting this deeper sense of yourself speak out."

Ponies 9

Ponies 10

And likewise, Mary Oliver said: "To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work."

For writing poetry, telling stories, making mythic art, and creating artful, thoughtful lives, no matter where they unfold: city, town, suburb...or the green hills of Devon, where wild ponies roam.

Ponies 11

Ponies 12

Words: The passage above is from "David Whyte: The Conversational Nature of Reality" (On Being with Krista Trippett, American Public Radio, April 7, 2016). I recommend listening to the full interview, which you'll find here. The poem in the picture captions is from Everything is Waiting for You (Many Rivers Press, 2003). All rights reserved by David Whyte and Krista Trippett. Pictures: Dartmoor pony foals on our village Commons.


Chasing beauty

Ponies 1

From "Beauty" by Scott Russell Sanders:

vintage dragonfly drawing"As far back as I can remember, things seen or heard or smelled, things tasted or touched, have provoked in me an answering vibration. The stimulus might be the sheen of moonlight on the needles of a white pine, or the iridescent glimmer on a dragonfly's tail, or the lean silhouette of a ladder-back chair, or the glaze on a hand-thrown pot. It might be bird-song or a Bach sonata or the purl of water over stone. It might be a line of poetry, the outline of a cheek, the savor of bread, the sway of a bough or a bow. The provocation might be as grand as a mountain sunrise or as humble as an icicle's jeweled tip, yet in each case a familiar surge of gratitude and wonder swells up in me.

Ponies 2

"Now and again some voice raised on the stairs leading to my study, some passage of music, some noise from the street, will stir a sympathetic hum from the strings of the guitar that tilts against the wall behind my door. Just so, over and over again, impulses from the world stir a responsive chord in me -- not just any chord, but a particular one, combining notes of elegance, exhileration, simplicity, and awe. The feeling is as recognizable to me, as unmistakable, as the sound of my wife's voice or the beating of my own heart. A screech owl calls, a comet streaks the night sky, a story moves unerringly to a close, a child lays an arrowhead in the palm of my hand, my daughter smiles at me through her bridal veil, and I feel for a moment at peace, in place, content. I sense in those momentary encounters a harmony between myself and whatever I behold. The word that seems to fit most exactly this feeling of resonance, this sympathetic vibration between inside and outside, is beauty.

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

"What am I to make of this resonant feeling? Do my sensory thrills tell me anything about the world? Does beauty reveal a kinship between my small self and the great cosmos, or does my desire for meaning only fool me into thinking so? Perhaps, as biologists maintain, in my response to patterns I am merely obeying the old habits of evolution. Perhaps, like my guitar, I am only a sounding box played on by random forces.

Ponies 5

"I must admit that two cautionary sayings keep echoing in my head. Beauty is only skin deep, I've heard repeatedly, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Appealing surfaces may hide ugliness, true enough, as many a handsome villain or femme fatale should remind us. The prettiest of butterflies and mushrooms and frogs include some of the most poisonous ones. It's equally true that our taste may be influenced by our upbringing, by training, by cultural fashion. One of my neighbors plants in his yard a pink flamingo made of translucent plastic and a concrete goose dressed in overalls, while I plant my yard in oxeye daisies and jack-in-the-pulpits and maidenhair ferns, and both of us, by our own lights, are chasing beauty.

Ponies 6

Ponies 7

"Must beauty be shallow if it can be painted on? Musn't beauty be a delusion if it can blink on and off like a flickering bulb? I'll grant that we may be fooled by facades, led astray by our fickle eyes. But I've been married now for thirty years. I've watched my daughter grow for twenty-four years, my son for twenty, and these loved ones have taught me a more hopeful possibility. Season after season I've knealt over fiddleheads breaking ground, studied the wings of swallowtails nectaring on blooms, spied skeins of geese high in the sky. There are books I've read, pieces of music I've listened to, ideas I've revisited time and again with fresh delight. Having lived among people and places and works of imagination whose beauty runs all the way through, I feel certain that genuine beauty is more than skin deep, that real beauty dwells not in my eye alone but in the world.

Ponies 8

"While I can speak with confidence of what I feel in the presence of beauty, I must go out on a speculative limb if I'm to speak about the qualities of the world that call it forth. Far out on that limb, therefore, let me suggest that a creature, an action, a landscape, a line of poetry or music, a scientific formula, or anything else that might seem beautiful, seems so because it gives us a glimpse of the underlying order of things. The swirl of a galaxy and the swirl of a [human-made object of beauty] resemble each other not merely by accident, but because they follow the grain of the universe. The grain runs through our own depths. What we find beautiful accords with our most profound sense of how things ought to be.

"Ordinarily we live in a tension between our perceptions and our desires. When we encounter beauty, that tension vanishes, and outward and inward images agree....

Ponies 9

"As far back as we can trace our ancestors, we find evidence of a passion for design -- decorations on pots, beads on clothing, pigments on the ceilings of caves. Bone flutes have been found at human sites dating back more than 30,000 years. So we answer the breathing of the land with our own measured breath; we answer the beauty we find with the beauty we make. Our ears may be finely tuned for detecting the movements of predators or prey, but that does not explain why we should be so moved by listening to Gregorian chants or Delta blues. Our eyes may be those of a slightly reformed ape, trained for noticing whatever will keep skin and bones intact, but that scarely explains why we should be so enthralled by the lines of a Shaker chair or a Durer engraving, or by the photographs of Jupiter."

Ponies 10

Ponies 11

"I am convined there's more to beauty than biology, more than cultural convention. It flows around and through us in such abundance, and in such myriad forms, as to exceed by a wide margin any mere evolutionary need. Which is not to say that beauty has nothing to do with survival; I think it has everything to do with survival. Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us. It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature. By giving us a taste of the kindship between our small minds and the great mind of the Cosmos, beauty assures us that we are exactly and wonderfully made for life on this glorious planet, in this magnificent universe. I find in that affinity a profound source of meaning and hope. A universe so prodigal of beauty may actually need us to notice and respond, may need our sharp eyes and brimming hearts and teaming minds, in order to close the circuits of Creation."

Ponies 12

Words: The three passages above are from "Beauty," an essay by Scott Russell Sanders (Orion Magazine, 1998). The poem in the picture captions is from Thirst by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2007). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The beauty of wild ponies. encountered this morning on our hill.


On awe, ethics, and elders

Kestor Valley

A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders is the story of the writer's coming-of-age in American midwest in the shadow of the Cold War and Vietnam, entwined with reflections on spirituality, creativity, and our place in the natural world. In the opening to the book he writes:

A Private History of Awe"On a spring day in 1950, when I was big enough to run about on my own two legs yet still small enough to ride in my father's arms, he carried me onto the porch of a farmhouse in Tennessee and held me against his chest, humming, while thunder roared and lightning flared and rain sizzled around us. On a spring day just over twenty years later, I carried my own child onto the porch of a house in Indiana to meet a thunderstorm, and then, after thirty more years, I did the same with my first grandchild. Murmuring tunes my father had sung to me, I held each baby close, my daughter, Eva, and then, a generation later, her daughter, Elizabeth, and while I studied the baby's newly opened eyes I wondered if she felt what I had felt as a child cradled on the edge of a storm -- the tingle of a power that surges through bone and rain and everything. The search for communion with this power has run like a bright thread through all my days.

"In these pages I wish to follow that bright thread, from my earliest inklings to my latest intuitions of the force that animates nature and mind. In the world's religions, the animating power may be called God, Logos, Allah, Brahma, Ch'i, Tao, Creator, Holy Ghost, Great Spirit, Universal Mind, Manitou, Wakan-Tanka, or a host of other names. In physics, it may simply be called energy. In other circles it may be known as wildness. Every such name, I believe, is only a finger pointing toward the prime reality, which eludes all descriptions. Without boundaries or name, this ground of being shapes and sustains everything that exists, surges in every heartbeat, fills every breath, yet it is revealed only in flashes, like a darkened landscape lit by lightning, or in a gradual unveiling, like the contours of a forest laid bare in autumn as the leaves fall."

Kestor Valley 2

Kestor Valley 3

Kestor Valley 4

In an interview, Sanders discussed his own religious roots (he was raised in the Methodist faith) and how this influenced the book:

"The Bible is a great library of tales, songs, images, and instructions, and for me it’s a very resonant library, because I began taking it in when I was quite young. From childhood on, I read and reread this bewildering book, heard it cited in sermons, heard it quoted over the supper table or paraphrased in hymns, so that the rhythms and stories go very deep in me. I’m grateful for that. In A Private History of Awe I tried to give a fair accounting of how much I owe to this tradition.

"I’ve also tried to acknowledge how deeply Christian I am, in spite of my having let go many of the beliefs that I now regard as mythic -- the six-day creation, heaven and hell, the virgin birth, the walking on water, the bodily resurrection, and the claim that Jesus is God incarnate. Those are, for conventional Christians, core beliefs, which I no longer share. But my sense of how I should lead my life, the ethical vision that shapes my response to war and poverty and inequity and racism -- that I learned from the Bible, in particular from the Hebrew prophets and the teachings of Jesus. I was instructed, as well, by my parents and by the preachers and Sunday school teachers whom I encountered in country Methodist churches.

"I feel certain I could have learned very much the same values had I been reared a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Hopi, or a Navajo. But I learned them through Christianity. So in that sense my whole ethical framework is Christian, even though my philosophy and cosmology are at odds with conventional Christianity."

Kestor Valley 5

"Part of what I took in from my religious upbringing was the understanding that talents are gifts that come to us by birth rather than by any virtue of our own, and that we have a responsibility to use these gifts for the benefit of others. One person might have a talent for music, another for visual art, another for storytelling, another for mathematics or mechanics. The Lakota holy man Black Elk said that gifts are never meant for the individual but for the tribe; a vision, a song, a healing touch, or any other such blessing takes on meaning, for the Lakota, only when it is danced before the people, only when it is shared. Publishing a book is a way of dancing before the people. The making of poems or stories or essays is a way of giving back to the world something of what you have received from your life experience, a way of sharing your verbal gifts."

Kestor Valley 6

Kestor Valley 7

"I’m aware that I have a strong didactic impulse. I try to rein it in, but I don’t always succeed. Some readers have complained about a preachiness in my writing, and I sympathize. But I can’t hide my feelings of indignation, grief, and anger about the suffering we humans impose on one another, on other creatures, and on the earth. My dismay at the American cult of violence runs right through A Private History of Awe, as it runs through my life. Similarly, I couldn’t avoid writing about the Civil Rights movement, because awareness of racism cuts through my life like a wound. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t write about my social concerns, but I try not to suggest that I know how to cure us of these ailments, or that I am entirely free of them myself.

"A Private History of Awe traces the formation of one person’s conscience, not because I hold myself up as a model that other people should emulate, but simply because everyone has a conscience that has been shaped by family and friends, by reading, by school, by church or synagogue or mosque, by events in the greater world, and by other influences. In writing about my formation, I wanted to invite readers to consider how they acquired their own deepest values and concerns. I wanted them to think about how they came to love what they love, because, in the long run, we only take care of what we love."

Kestor Valley 8

"I don’t regard myself as a prophet or seer, someone granted clairvoyant understanding, but in recent years I have come to see myself as an elder. This is not a role one seeks, nor does it come automatically with age; it is a role one is given by others, as they ask for guidance and consolation. An elder must tell the truth about what’s amiss in a society. 'You know,' the elder says, 'this torturing of prisoners, this bombing of civilians, this unsettling of the climate, this extinguishing of creatures is not only wrong, but also unwise; it will cause trouble for us, and for those who come after us.' While warning of dangers and injustices, the elder must also keep witnessing to the sources of healing and renewal.

"I feel, now, the responsibility to pass on what I have learned, to say what I believe to be true, no matter how imperfect my wisdom. I feel the call to help younger people find their way, just as many elders have helped me, elders met in books as well as those met in the flesh. Some of my own most important teachers I met only briefly -- as in the encounters with Father Daniel Berrigan and Martin Luther King Jr. I tell about in A Private History of Awe. Dr. King galvanized my conscience at a crucial time in my development. Becoming an elder means, among other things, I can never give in to despair, because I owe to my children, my students, my readers, and all those who come after me a sense that there is always good work to be done."

There is indeed.

Tilly and the oak elder

Autumn leaves

The passages above are from A Private History of Awe (Northpoint Press, 2007) and "A Conversation with Scott Russell Sanders" by Carolyn Perry and Wayne Zade (Image Journal, Issue 53). The poem in picture captions is from The House of Belonging by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 1997). All rights reserved by the authors.


Art slips through

Path to the Commons

Encounter on the Commons

This week, while the UK government begins to negotiate our exit from Europe -- a severing that so many of us do not want -- here's a passage from Jeanette Winterson's fine essay, "What is Art For?" (2014):

"We live in a money culture," writes Winterson. "[There is] a general public feeling that if our economy is in good shape, the world is in good shape. And governments are praised not by their health and education provision, or their welfare record, or by employment or foreign policy, but by the robustness  -- or not -- of the central economy. Capitalism says that society must become richer and richer, that whatever the cost, economies must grow. Once we subscribe to money as the core value, what follows is a deregulated, 24-hour society, where the right to sleep, the right to peace and quiet, the right to human-friendly work patterns and human-friendly hours all become far less important that the right to make money.

"Against this golden calf in the wilderness, where everybody comes to buy and sell, art offers a different rate of exchange. The artist does not turn time into money; the artist -- whether writer, painter, musician -- turns time into energy, time into intensity, time into vision. And the exchange that art offers is an exchange in kind -- of energy for energy, intensity for intensity, vision for vision.

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"Can we make the return? Do we want to?" she asks. "When people complain that art is hard work, they really mean that our increasingly passive entertainments do not equip us for the demands that art makes. Art is not a passive activity. We have to get involved. Imagination always means involvement, and as soon as your mind is open to a different level of seeing, thinking, hearing, or understanding, you start asking questions. Money culture hates questions.

One of several foals born to the herd this spring

"Part of the triumph of capitalism has been to make itself seem natural -- not only the best way to live but also the inevitable way, the only way. Art asks questions. I don't mean directly, or politically, though that is sometimes the case. I mean that art, by its very nature, is a question. A question about who we are, about what things matter.

Foals

"Art stands as an eternal question mark at the end of money's confident rhetoric. This is partly because artists themselves cannot work in the way money culture demands -- that is, to order, with guaranteed results in a specified time -- and partly because art just can't be controlled. It doesn't fit in with any economic models. It can't be predicted. It can't be done away with or phased out or put on growth hormones. So either we ignore it and say it's not essential, not important -- might have been once, but isn't now -- or we indulge it and see it as a kind of charming charity, a sort of ornament to life the way that ladies were once ornaments to gentlemen.

"But art is not an ornament, or a charity, or a waste of time. It is a completely different way of looking at the world. At the core of art is an intensity of experience totally lacking from a money culture, whose purpose is to dilute every other value to below the value of itself. Art wants you to concentrate; money wants you to dissipate. Far from being about hard work, a money culture is about incredible waste of effort, as people labor for no other purpose than to make more of the same: money. You can waste your life, but money has to be saved -- because money is precious and life is not.

foal

"But what can art do for us, in a world of corporate culture? Isn't it just temporary relief, or escapism?

"When I sit down to read a book without interruption or to listen to a piece of music at home or in the concert hall, without interruption, or to look at a painting, without interruption, the first thing I am doing is turning my gaze inward. The outside world, with all its demands and distractions, has to wait -- not something it likes doing. As I turn my attention away from the world, I draw my energy away from the world. I'm not passive, but I'm in a state of alert rest, where the artwork can reach me with its own energies, very different energies to the getting and spending going on all around me. The creativity and concentration put into the making of the art-work begins to cross-current into me. It's not simply about being recharged, as in a good night's sleep or a vacation; it's about being charged at a different voltage.

Foal

"When I read Emily Dickinson or William Carlos Willams, I'm not just reading a poet's take on the world -- I am entering into a completely different world, and I don't mean a fantasy screen. I mean a world built from the beginning on different principles. William Carlos Williams wrote: It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.

Foal

"Art's counterculture, however diverse, holds in plain sight what a material world denies: love and imagination. Art is made out of a passionate, reckless love of the work in its own right, as though nothing else exists, and an imaginative force that generates something new out of disparate materials....

"For the maker, and later the reader or the viewer or the listener, there is no obvious reward. There is only the-thing-itself, because you want it, because you're drawn to it. It speaks to the part of us that is fully human, the part that belongs fully to ourselves, not mechanized, socialized, pacified, integrated, but voice-to-voice, across time, singing a song pitched to the human ear, singing of destiny, of fear, of loss, of hope, of renewal, of change, of connection, of all the subtle and fragile relationships between men and women, their children, their country, and all the things not measured or understood by the census figures and gross national product.

Foal

"Art slips through, and us with it -- slips past the border police and the currency controls, to talk as we've always wanted to, about matters of the spirit and the heart, to imagine a world not dominated by numbers, to find in colors and poetry and sand an equivalence to our deepest feelings, a language for who we are."

Foal

Words: The passage above is from "What is Art For?" by Jeanette Winterson, published in The World Split Open (Tin House Books, 2014); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: A quiet morning's encounter with our local herd of Dartmoor ponies. They often come down from the moor to shelter their foals on the slope of the village Commons. A related post: Art, the Marketplace, and Narrative Loss.