Wild healing

Lords & Ladies

Another fine book I'd like to recommend is Emma Kennedy's The Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us. In this beautiful diary enriched by nature drawings, paintings, and photographs, Emma recounts the ways that immersion in nature helps her to live with chronic depression, records her encounters with the flora and fauna of the Cambridge fens, and discusses the science underpinning her thesis: that being in nature produces physical and neurological change in the human body.

Bank Vole by Emma MitchellIn the book's Introduction she writes:

"Of course, I am not the first to have noticed the consolation of walking outdoors. Literature is peppered with references to striding in the countryside as a means of easing melancholy, inspiring creative thought and hastening recovering. The 19th-century Danish philosopher, poet and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, exalted a daily stroll: 'Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.' Elizabeth von Arnim wrote one of my favourite novels, The Enchanted April, in the 1920s, and her feelings on walking through the countryside echo my own: 'If you go to a place on anything but your own two feet you are taken there too fast, and miss a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside.' "

Lords & Ladies

Woodland triptych

A few pages later she notes:

"Joint research from the University of Madrid and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences published in 2007 showed that simply seeing natural landscapes can speed up recovery from stress or mental fatigue, and hasten recovery from illness. Studies published in 2017 from the University of Exeter have demonstrated that the presence of vegetation in an urban landscape diminishes levels of depression, anxiety, and perceived stress levels in city dwellers, and the same raft of work showed that time spent outdoors alleviates low mood....

Bluebells in a Devon wood

"Research aimed at understanding the Shrinrin-yoku phenomenon [the practice of 'forest bathing' in Japan] has show that walking in green space has a direct positive effect on several systems in our bodies. Blood pressure decreases, levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop, anxiety is alleviated and pulse rates diminish in subjects who have spent time in nature and particularly among trees. Levels of activity in the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for our fight or flight response to stress, drop away and the activity of a particular kind of white blood cell called natural killer (NK) cells, which can destroy virally infected and certain cancerous cells, increases when humans spend time in a woodland environment."

Lords & Ladies

The science is still progressing, Emma writes, "but I'm fascinated by the idea that the balance of the chemistry of my brain, and my hormonal and nervous systems, are changing as I linger among trees and plants, and that this can impact the tone of my thoughts and my mental health. I have felt the curative effects of my surroundings as I walk in a wild place numerous times, and it is reassuring to know that there is something I can do to help myself on dark days."

Hound in a Devon woodland

Wildflowers around a badger sett

Wild Remedy

"At no point would I suggest standard treatments for this condition can be replaced by dawdling near a dog rose," she adds; "I rely on antidepressants and talking cures to prevent my illness from becoming overwhelming, but depression varies in its grip on my mind, depending on the season and on daily stress levels. I have found that the basal level of respite provided by antidepressants and therapy is sometimes insufficient to prevent my thoughts falling down a well. It is at these times that I find walking among hazels and hawthornes can help to dial down cortisol levels and cause the shift in neurotransmitters that I need to fend off the black dog."

(Sorry, Tilly. She doesn't mean you, dear.)

Woodland creature

Lords & Ladies among the Bluebells

Although my own health problems are physical rather than neurological, the two are inextricably linked, of course, and much of this gentle, artful, informative book spoke to me on a personal level. I, too, find healing among the trees. Thus I recommend Wild Remedy to all who travel through illness of one kind or another...and since, sooner or later, that is all of us, this book is for every reader who loves, or might come to love, the natural world.

Wild Remedy

Woodland wanderer

Words: The passages above are from Wild Remedy: How Nature Mends Us by Emma Mitchell (Michael O'Mara Books, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Jay Griffith's unusual and brilliant book on her journey with bipolar disorder, Tristimania (Penguin, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Emma Mitchell's artwork from Wild Remedy, and photographs from my own rambles through the Devon woods. Every year I wait for the Lords & Ladies to appear in a certain place, and they never fail to warm my heart -- it's like catching up with old friends. (Americans may known the plant best under the name Jack-in-the-Pulpit.)


Myth & Moor update

Nattadon Hill

I can't cope with the news from either of my countries (US & UK) this morning -- so I'm heading out for a walk with the hound to clear my head and get good earth under my feet. My apologies for the delay in getting the Myth & Moor "Monday Tunes" post up...look for it this afternoon, if my workload permits, or tomorrow.

"Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle. And let us not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil."

- Vincent van Gogh (The Letters of Vincent can Gogh)

Hill 2


A walk in the woods

A Walk in the Woods, copyright by by Alan Lee, all rights reserved

From The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit:

"Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

Plymbridge Woods 1

"These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time. In the children’s there are inanimate objects that come to life, speaking statues, rings and words of power, talismans and amulets, but most of all there are doors, particularly in the series that I, like so many children, took up imaginative residence in, for some years, The Chronicles of Narnia.

Plymbridge Woods 2

Plymbridge Woods 3

Plymbridge Woods 4

"I read one in fourth grade after a teacher who barely knew me handed it to me in the Marion school library; I can still picture his moustache and the wall of books. I read it and read it again and then began to save up to buy the seven books, one at a time. The paperbacks came from Amber Griffin, the enchanted bookstore in the middle of town, whose kind proprietor rewarded me with the case in which the seven books fit when I had paid for the last one. I still have the boxed set, a little tattered though I think no one has ever read them other than me. When I took one out recently, I noticed how dirty the white back of the book was from my small filthy fingers then.

Plymbridge Woods 5

"Much has been written about the Christian themes, British boarding school mores, and other contentious aspects of the series, but little has been said about its doors. There is of course the wardrobe in the first book C.S. Lewis wrote, the wardrobe made of wood cut from an apple tree grown from seeds from another world that, when the four children walk into it, opens onto that world. Two of the other books feature a doorway that stands alone so that when you walk around it it is just a frame, three pieces of wood in a landscape, but when you step through it leads to another world. There’s a painting of a boat that comes to life as the children tumble over the picture frame into the sea and another world. There are books and maps that come to life as you look at them.

Plymbridge Woods 6

Plymbridge Woods 7

"And there is the Wood Between the Worlds in the book The Magician’s Nephew, which tells the creation story for Narnia, a wood described so enchantingly I sometimes think of it as a vision of peace still. It’s more serene and more strange than the busy symbolism in the rest of the books, with their talking beasts, dwarves, witches, battles, enchantments, castles, and more. The young hero puts on a ring and finds himself coming up through a pool to the forest.

'It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals, and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing. The pool he had  just got out of was not the only pool. There were dozens of others -- a pool every few yards as far as his eyes cold reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive.'

Plymbridge Woods 8

"It is the place where nothing happens, the place of perfect peace; it is itself not another world but an unending expanse of trees and small ponds, each pond like a looking glass you can go through to another world. It is a portrait of a library, just as all the magic portals are allegories for works of art, across whose threshhold we all step into other worlds."

Plymbridge Woods 9

Plymbridge Woods 10

Words: The passage above is from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2013) -- a simply marvelous book, full of musing on many things, including fairy tales. I highly recommend it. It also appears in Solnit's article "A Childhood of Reading and Wandering" (Lit Hub, 2017). The poem in the picture captions is from Toasting Marshmallows by Kristine O’Connell George (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The exquisite drawing above is "A Walk in the Woods" by my friend and neighbor Alan Lee, who is often inspired by the woods and rivers of Dartmoor. All rights reserved by the artist.


The Gentle Art of Tramping

Footpath

Robert Macfarlane wandered all across the British Isles before writing such fine books as Holloway, The Old Ways, and The Wild Places; and in this passage from the latter, he pays tribute to a kindred spirit, the Scottish writer Stephen Graham:

"Graham, who died in 1975 at the age of ninety, was one of the most famous walkers of his age. He walked across America once, Russia twice and Britain several times, and his 1923 book, The Gentle Art of Tramping, was a hymn to the wilderness of the British Isles. 'One is inclined,' wrote Graham, 'to think of England as a network of motor roads interspersed with public-houses, placarded by petrol advertisements, and broken by smoky industrial towns.' What he tried to prove with The Gentle Art, however, was that wildness was still ubiquitous.

Scottish author Stephen Graham

"Graham devoted his life to escaping what he called 'the curbed ways and the tarred roads,' and he did so by walking, exploring, swimming, climbing, sleeping out, trespassing, and 'vagabonding' -- his verb -- round the world. He came at landscape diagonally, always trying to find new ways to move through them.

Footpath 2

" 'Tramping is straying from the obvious,' he wrote, 'even the crookedest road is sometimes too straight.' In Britain and Ireland, 'straying from the obvious' brought him into contact with landscapes that were, as he put it, 'unnamed -- wild, woody, marshy.' In The Gentle Art, he described how he drew up a 'fairy-tale' map of the glades, fields and forests he reached: its networld of little-known wild places.

'There was an Edwardian innocence about Graham -- an innocence, not a blitheness -- which appealed deeply to me. Anyone who could sincerely observe that  'There are thrills unspeakable in Rutland, more perhaps than on the road to Khiva' was, in my opinion, to be cherished.

"Graham was also one one among a line of pedestrians who saw that wandering and wondering have long gone together; that their kinship as activities extended beyond their half-rhyme. And his book was a hymn to the subversive power of pedestrianism: its ability to make a stale world seem fresh, surprising and wondrous again, to discover astonishment on the terrain of the familiar."

Footpath 3

Footpath 4

'The adventure," Graham insisted, "is the not getting there, it is the on-the-way. It is not the expected; it is the surprise; not the fulfillment of prophecy but the providence of something better than prophesied. You are not choosing what you shall see in the world, but are giving the world an even chance to see you."

Footpath 5

In her beautiful book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit looks at the history of walking through the lens of philosophy, sociology, environmental science, politics, literature and other arts:

"Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors," she observes, "disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it."

P1070929

When I look at the way that Tilly takes in the world, "inside" and "outside" are alike to her, with only the annoyance of human doors between them. Nattadon Hill is home to Tilly . . . and I mean all of the hill, from top to bottom: its Commons, its woods, its tumbling streams, the brown bracken slopes, the green farmers' fields, and our warm little house on the woodland's edge. It's all home to her, both the land that is "ours" and the larger landscape that is not.

Footpath 6

And perhaps I'm not so different from Tilly. The whole hill has become my home ground too. The concept of "home" is complex for me (being the woman that I am, with the history that I have), but the wind and rain and snow of the hill is paring that concept down to essentials:

Home is a house that I share with my loved ones. It's a landscape walked with a good black dog. It's a hill that knows my particular footsteps, and a wood where the trees all know my name. It's as simple and as solid as the earth below...but also fragile, ephemeral, therefore all the more precious. Like life itself.

Footpath 8

Footpath 6

I'm down with flu right now and can't manage to write a new post today, so I was reminded of this one (from 2013)  while listening to "Old Shoes," the lovely Salt House song about walkers and wanderers in yesterday's post.

Words: The passages above are from The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane (Granta, 2008), The Gentle Art of Tramping by Stephen Graham (Holmes Press reprint edition, 2011), and Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit (Penguin, 2001); all rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly at the bottom gate to Nattadon Commons.


Light and shadow, part two

Path 1

"When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening." - Madeleine L'Engle (Walking on Water)

Path 2

Path 3

PATH 4

I'd been looking forward to a solitary, calm, work-focused week while my husband was up in London...but it turned into one of crisis-management instead, the quiet of my creative voice drowned out by a louder chorus of life's demands. The stress level rose in my studio, and by Friday Tilly had clearly had enough. Normally if I'm too busy or tired for our morning walk she accepts it with good grace, but this time she would simply not give up. She stared and stared. She tapped my knee with her paw, eyes wide, her intention clear. She walked to the door and back, over and over, and then tapped me on the knee once more. And so, at last, I gave in, closed down the computer and laced up my boots.

Path 5

I followed her out the garden gate, through the woods and onto Nattadon Hill, carpeted now with bluebells and swaths of stitchwort like little white stars.

Path 6

Path 7

Work fell away. Words fell away. Heart-ache and worry slowly fell away too. We climbed, and climbed, the air tasting of flowers, and I grew a little lighter with every step. Re-discovering, as Madeleine L'Engle would say, time for being. And for listening.

Path 8

Path 9

Path 10

Path 11

Path 12

An hour later we came back down, following the path through wildflowers and bracken back to the studio. The problems pressing on me hadn't solved themselves, the work on my desk hadn't disappeared, and I wasn't magically flooded with new insight and energy for tackling both those things...but it was better. A subtle, almost imperceptible change, but it was enough.

Path 13

Path 14

As long there are moments of beauty on the hard, dark days, I know that I can keep on going.

Path 15

Path 16

And that you can too.

Path 18

Path 19

Path 20The Madeleine L'Engle quote is from Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art (Wheaton Literary Series, 2001). The poem in the picture captions is from Where Many Rivers Meet by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 2004). All rights reserved by the authors.


The law of the living Earth

Kissed by a Fox by Priscilla Stuckey

Lasts week's posts on the "nature mysticism" to be found in the works of Elizabeth Goudge reminded me of the following passage from Priscilla Stuckey's fine book, Kissed by a Fox -- for although Goudge wrote from a distinctly Anglican perspective, while Stuckey draws on a very wide range of world religions and philosophies, both share a love of the earth, a delight in the numinous, and an unsentimental belief in the good in human nature.

The passage begins with a quote from the 13th century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi:

Fox drawing by Inga Moore   The speech of water, the speech of earth, and the speech of mud
   Are heard by those who listen with the heart.*

"Rumi," notes Stuckey, " is often taken to mean that only mystics can hear the earth speak -- and that mystics are a strange kind of bird. But to read him that way goes against what Rumi yearned for above all -- for every heart to be struck open by divine longing, for love to pierce every breast.

   What is needed, Rumi said, is to polish the heart like a mirror.
   Do you know why the mirror does not reflect?

   Because the rust is not removed from its surface.*

Ramble 1

"Sufis often call this surface tarnish the 'rust of otherness.' Clean your mirror of all that is not love, Rumi was saying. Remember the radiance that suffuses each heart, and polish your own mirror until you can reflect it clearly. Hearing the speech of Earth may be easy when one is overcome with awe in [pristine wilderness], but it is much harder in the hubbub of the mundane.

Ramble 2

"My friend Annette recently heard the poet Gary Snyder speak. At the end of his reading, she says, a member of the audience asked Snyder how people can be inspired to save the planet. Snyder thought for a moment and said, 'The planet doesn't need us to save it. The planet needs us to save ourselves. If we learned how to be better people, we would be doing good work.' The room full of activist sat in stunned silence, trying to absorb his words. Snyder went on to say, 'The planet, if we notice, takes care of itself. Watch a place for a while. Look at the seasons, the weather, the animals, our own inner rhythms. Walk trails and notice things. We don't have to do a thing.'

Ramble 3

"Becoming better people. It will involve remembering how to listen -- to the land as well as to one another. Relearning the rhythms of give-and-take, in our own bodies as well as our relationships with others. Remembering the radically communitarian nature of life on Earth, which means remembering how to share. 

Ramble 4

"For however great is the divide between the very rich and the rest of this country, the gap between the industrialized nations and the rest of the world is far, far greater. The statistic is well known: less than 20% of the world's people are now consuming more than 80% of the world's resources. Anishinaabe leader Winona LaDuke says we cannot continue to use more than our share and expect to be sustainable. 'You can't do that and live in accordance with natural law. That is simple logic. Most of our teachings say that.'

"We don't need to save the planet, but we are in desperate need of saving ourselves.

Ramble 5

"Will we learn to build an Earth-friendly culture before it is too late? Plenty of other people have done so, and their varied experiences offer some guidelines to what works. They value reciprocity and fairness, and they build interdependence into their systems of exchange. They teach their children to respect others, both human and other than human. They minimize inequality among themselves, for the alternative is costly in terms of damaged health and human relationships. They observe nature closely, seeking to pattern their relationships on those of the more-than-human world. They listen to the voices of the animals and plants, clouds, fish, soil, and wind, for these are relatives whose choices, along with those of humans, are in every moment creating the world.

Ramble 7

"They remind themselves continually that the only way to survive and live well is to fit into the processes of the place called home -- to dwell in symbiotic relationship with the land, using the gifts of Earth sparingly and taking only what is needed to live. They honor individuality among humans as part of the ongoing creative work of nature. They treasure the individuality of their place and work to preserve its unique personality, eating native foods and building homes with nearby materials. They use local resources, yes, but first of all they love those resources as relatives.

Ramble 6

"They consider themselves guests on the planet rather than owners, and so they value a mind-set of gratitude and wonder. They accept death as well as life. They shower children with love and support. They practice caring for one another and the wider land-community because love is the surest route to flourishing -- and the more enjoyable way to live. They reward giving as well as taking.

"For what is gathered in must be given out. What is at one time collected, another time must be dispersed. Breathed in, breathed out. This is the law of the ground, the law of the living Earth. "

Ramble 8

Ramble

* The first Rumi couplet was translated by Richard Holtz & Frederick Denny (quoted in Kissed by a Fox); the second Rumi translation is from Mohammed Ruston's "The Metaphysics of the Heart in the Sufi Doctrine of Rumi" (Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses, no. 3, 2008: 4). The  passage by Priscilla Stuckey above is from Kissed by a Fox & Other Stories of Friendship in Nature (Counterpoint, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from No Nature: New & Collected Poems by Gary Snyder (Pantheon, 1992). The little fox drawing is by Inga Moore. All rights reserved by the authors & artist.

 Pictures: The first photo is mine: "Coffeebreak by a stream, with wild daffodils."  The rest of the photographs were taken by husband Howard on one of his long "medicine walks" through the hills with Tilly.


Back in the woods again, at last

Woods 1

Woods 2

"I feel safe in the woods, safer when I’m alone. Some people find that solace in church, others by listening to music, or reading quietly by a fireplace. For me it’s always been nature. Yesterday I took a long walk in the woods behind my house. I’ve been there dozens of times, but each time I see something new. Nature is brutal and relentless, but it is also gorgeous and balanced. I came home dirty, wet and happy. I’ve learned more from being alone in the woods than anything else."

Chris Offutt  (author of Out of the Wood, The Good Brother, No Heroes, etc.)

I couldn't agree more.

Woods 3

Woods 4

Woods 5

"The World is not something to look at, it is something to be in."  - poet Mark Rudman

And I'm so very glad to be back in the World.

Woods 6

Woods 7The quote by Chris Offutt is from an interview in Salon (March, 2016). I recommend his books, for he's among the still-too-few American authors skillfully depicting rural and working class lives. His latest, My Father the Pornographer, is a memoir about his father, fantasy (and porn) writer Andrew Offutt -- who, oddly enough, I worked with years ago, having been given the assignment of editing his "Conan" and "Red Sonja" novels when I was a very young editor at Ace Books in New York. It was a strange experience, to say the least.

The poem in the picture captions is from Poems: 1960 - 1967 by Denise Levertov (New Directions, 1983), and was inspired by the Mark Rudman quote. All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


Wandering the labyrinth: arrival and return

Deer Park 1

From The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit:

"A labyrinth is an ancient device that compresses a journey into a small space, winds up a path like thread on spool. It contains beginning, confusion, perserverance, arrival, and return. There at last the metaphysical journey of your life and your actual movements are one and the same. You may wander, may learn that in order to get to your destination you must turn away from it, become lost, spin about, and then only after the way has become overwhelming and absorbing, arrive, having gone the great journey without having gone far on the ground.

"In this it is the opposite of a maze, which has not one convoluted way but many and offers no center, so that the wandering has no cease or at least no definitive conclusion. A maze is a conversation; a labyrinth is an incantation or perhaps a prayer. In a labyrinth you're lost in that you don't know the twists and turns, but if you follow them you get there; and then you reverse your course.

Deer Park 2

Deer Park 3

"The end journey of a labyrinth is not the center, as is commonly supposed, but back at the threshold again: the beginning is also the real end. That is the home to which you return after the pilgrimage, the adventure. The unpraised edged and margins matter too, because its not ultimately a journey of immersion but emergence. Ariadne gives Theseus a spool of thread to help him escape the labyrinth in Crete (which must have been a maze by our modern definitions). You unspool the thread on the journey to the center. Then you rewind to escape.

"In this folding up of great distance into small space, the labyrinth resembles two other manmade things: a spool of thread and the lines and pages of a book. Imagine all the sentences in a book as a single thread around a spool...imagine they could be unwound, that you could walk the line they make, or are walking it. Reading is also traveling, the eyes running along the length of an idea, which can be folded up into the compressed space of a book and unfolded within your imagination and your understanding.

Deer Park 4

"All stories have this form, but fairy tales are often particularly labyrinthlike. Something happens, and as to get from the periphery to the center of a labyrinth you twist and turn, turn away from the center, journey to the farthest reaches before you can reach your destination, so in a fairy tale you are interrupted, cursed, cast out, bereft, and in order to get back to the place you're in, have to go back of the north wind or the top of a glass mountain. The route is rarely direct, and it often ends in a return to the beginning point."

Deer Park 5

"Anatomists long ago named the windings of the inner ear, whose channels provide both hearing and balance, the labyrinth," Solnit notes. "The name suggests that if the labyrinth is the passage through which sound enters the mind, then we ourselves bodily enter labyrinths as though we were sounds on the way to being heard by some great unknown presence. To walk this path is to be heard, and to be heard is a great desire of a majority of us, but to be heard by whom, by what? To be a sound traveling toward the mind -- is that another way to imagine this path, this journey, the unwinding of this thread?"

Deer Park 6

Deer Park 7

"To be heard literally is to have the vibrations of the air travel through the labyrinth of the listener's ear to the mind, but more must unfold in that darkness. You choose to hear what corresponds to your desire, needs, and interests, and there are dangers in a world that corresponds too well, with curating your life into a mirror that reflects only the comfortable and familiar, and dangers in the opposite direction. Listen carefully.

Deer Park 8

"To hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear; to listen is to travel the other way to meet it. It's not passive but active, this listening. It's as though you retell each story, translate it into the language particular to you, fit it into your cosmology so you can understand and respond, and thereby it becomes part of you. To empathize is to reach out to meet the data that comes through the labyrinths of the senses, to embrace it and incorporate it. To enter into, we say, as though another person's life was also a place you could travel to.

"Kindness, compassion, generosity are often talked about as though they're purely emotional virtues, but they are also and maybe first of all imaginative ones."

Deer Park 9

Photographs: A walk in our local Deer Park last month with Tilly and my mother-in-law. The sculpture at the end of the beech avenue is by Peter Randall-Page, who lives nearby. The patterns in the stones are neither labyrinths nor mazes but evocative of both, and so seem appropriate today. Follow the link to see more of Peter's beautiful work.

Deer Park 10The passage above is from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry Magazine (April, 1959). All rights reserved by the authors.


The storyteller's art

Nattadon 1

From "The Joys of Storytelling 1" by Ben Okri (A Way of Being Free):

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

Nattadon 2

"I can see them now, the old masters. I can see them standing on the other side of the flames, speaking in the voices of lions, or thunder, or monsters, or heroes, heroines, or the earth, or fire itself -- for they had to contain all voices within them, had to be all things and nothing. They had to have the ability to become lightning, to become a future homeland, to be the dreaded guide to the fabled land where the community will settle and fructify. They had to be able to fight in advance all the demons they would encounter, and summon up all the courage needed on the way, to prophesy about all the requisite qualities that would ensure their arrival at the dreamt-of land.

"The old masters had to be able to tell stories that would make sleep possible on those inhuman nights, stories that would counter terror with enchantment, or with a greater terror. I can see them, beyond the flames, telling of a hero's battle with a fabulous beast -- the beast that is in the hero."

Nattadon 3

"The storyteller's art changed through the ages. From battling dread in word and incantations before their people did in reality, they became the repositories of the people's wisdom and follies. Often, conscripted by kings, they became the memory of a people's origins, and carried with them the long line of ancestries and lineages. Most important of all, they were the living libraries, the keepers of legends and lore. They knew the causes and mutations of things, the herbs, trees, plants, cures for diseases, causes for wars, causes of victory, the ways in which victory often precipitates defeat, or defeat victory, the lineages of gods, the rites humans have to perform to the gods. They knew of follies and restitutions, were advocates of new and old ways of being, were custodians of culture, recorders of change."

Nattadon 4

"These old storytellers were the true magicians. They were humanity's truest friends and most reliable guides. Their role was both simple and demanding. They had to go down deep into the seeds of time, into the dreams of their people, into the unconscious, into the uncharted fears, and bring shapes and moods back up into the light. They had to battle with monsters before they told us about them. They had to see clearly."

Nattadon 5

"They risked their sanity and their consciousness in the service of dreaming better futures. They risked madness, or being unmoored in the wild realms of the interspaces, or being devoured by the unexpected demons of the communal imagination."

Nattadon 6

"And I think that now, in our age, in the mid-ocean of our days, with certainties collapsing around us, and with no beliefs by which to steer our way through the dark descending nights ahead -- I think that now we need those fictional old bards and fearless storytellers, those seers. We need their magic, their courage, their love, and their fire more than ever before. It is precisely in a fractured, broken age that we need mystery and a reawoken sense of wonder. We need them to be whole again."

We do indeed.

A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri

The photographs above are from the quiet Sunday morning when I sprained my ankle at the top of Nattadon Hill, in the beautiful hour before that fateful step. No matter how much we plan our lives, we never truly know just what's ahead...and that's good to remember, because creative work is like that too. We plan, we plan, we plan, but we never really know what the end result will be.

As Neil Gaiman 0nce wrote (in The Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections): ''It is sometimes a mistake to climb; it is always a mistake never even to make the attempt. If you do not climb, you will not fall. This is true. But is it that bad to fail, that hard to fall?'' 

It feels hard, of course. To fail or to fall. But we heal, and life goes on.

Meldon Hill, viewed from Nattadon Hill


The Library of the Forest

The hill at dawn, 1

The Library of the Forest

From The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane:

"The library of Miquel Angel Blanco [in Madrid, Spain] is no ordinary library. It is not arranged according to topic and subject, nor is it navigated by means of the Dewey Decimal system. It's full name is the Library of the Forest, La Biblioteca del Bosque. It has so far been a quarter of a century in the making, and at last count it consisted of more than 1,100 books -- though its books are not only books, but also reliquaries. Each book records a journey made by walking, and each contains natural objects and substances gathered along that particular path: seaweed, snakeskin, mica flakes, crystals of quartz, sea beans, lightning-scorched pine timber, the wing of a grey partridge, pillows of moss, worked flint, cubes of pyrite, pollen, resin, acorn cups, the leaves of holm oak, beech, elm. Over the many years of its making, the library has increased in volume and spread in space. It now occupies the entire ground floor and basement of an apartment building in the north of Madrid. Entering the rooms in which it exists feels like stepping into the pages of Jorge Luis Borges story: 'The Library of Babel' crossed with 'The Garden of the Forking Paths,' perhaps....

A book-box in the Biblioteca del Bosque

"The Library of the Forest owes its existence to storm and snow. Between 30 December 1984 and New Year's Day 1985 a severe winter gale struck the Guadarrama Mountains, the sierra of granite and gneiss that slashes north-east to south-west across the high plains of Castille, separating Madrid (to the south) from Segovia (to the north). Thousands of Scots pines that forest the Guadarrama were toppled. For those tempetuous days, Miguel was trapped in his small house in Fuenfría, a southern Guadarraman valley. When at last the storm stopped and the thaw came, he walked up into the valley, following a familiar path but encountering a new world: fifteen-foot-deep drifts of snow, craters and root boles where trees had been felled, sudden clearings in the forest. As he walked, he gathered objects he found along the way: pine branches, resin, cones, curls of bark, a black draughts piece and a white draughts piece. When he returned home to his house he placed the gathered items in a small pine box, lidded the box with glass, sealed the glazing with tar, bound pages to the box with tape and gave the whole a cover of card-backed linen.

The hill at dawn, 2

"In this way the first book of the library was made. Miguel called that original book-box Deshielo, 'Thaw,' and it became the source from which a stream of works began to flow.

Dawn on the hill, 3

"His manufacturing method is unchanged in its fundamentals. All his book-boxes contain objects he has collected while walking; the results of chance encounters or conscious quests. The found objects are held in place within each box by wire and thread, or pressed into fixed beds of soil, resin, paraffin or wax. Thus mutely arranged, each book-box symbolically records a walk made, a path followed, a foot-journey and its encounters. And the library exists as a multidimensional atlas -- an ever-growing root-map, and a peculiar chronicle of a journey without respite."

Book-box by Miguel Angel Blanco

"Each of my books records an actual journey but also a camino interior, an interior path."
- Miguel Angel Blanco

The Old Ways & The Wild Place by Robert MacfarlanePhotographs: Early morning coffee break in the Devon hills; and Blanco's Library of the Forest.