Hope and despair

Nattadon Hill 1

Late autumn in Devon. Tilly and I travel the winding pathways of the dying year: through yellow leaves and rust red hills and green grass fields turned white with frost, through trees that seem to flame and wither between one heartbeat and the next.

I am wrapped in a warm and threadbare coat, skirt snagged by brambles, boots caked in mud, my steps unsteady, moving slowly through the quiet landscape of fragile health and recovery. It is not a straight trail. The pathway dips and rises, loops back, moves forward, then turns back again. My destination lies somewhere ahead: I can smell the wood smoke of  its welcoming fire, see the golden glow of the back porch light, guiding me toward stability, certainty, strength of body, mind, and spirit. I'll get there. I am getting there. But the journey is my life right now: the taste of wind and sound of water and the damp grass slippery underfoot. The journey has its necessities, its lessons...its pleasures too, if I am open to them. If I am present on the trail and not putting life and art on hold until that moment of arrival.

Nattadon Hill 2

There's nothing like the slow and tedious progression through an illness to bring to mind the words "hope" and "despair,"  although one's own tiny drop of discomfort seems so damn small, so insignificant when measured against the wounded world around us. I'm reminded daily of that old alchemical principal: As above, then so below. We harm the natural world; our bodies are nature; and we are not immune from ecological disruption, echoed in our blood and bones.

Nattadon Hill 3

How do we balance hope and despair when daily life, or health, or work, or engagement with the world puts us on the narrow path between them? How do we avoid despair's passivity, or false hope's blindness to the challenges ahead? The ecological writer Joanna Macy suggests that despair and hope are not oppositional, but two sides of the same coin:

"By honoring our despair," she says, "and not trying to suppress it or pave over it as some personal pathology, we open a gateway into our full vitality and to our connection with all of life. Beneath what I call our 'pain for the world,' which includes sorrow and outrage and dread, is the instinct for the preservation of life. When we are unafraid of the suffering of our world, and brave enough to sustain the gaze and speak out, there is a redemptive sanity at work.

"The other side of that pain for our world is a love for our world. That love is bigger than you would ever guess from what our consumer society conditions us to want. It's a love so raw, so ancient, so deep that if you get in touch with it, you can just ride it; you can just be there and it doesn't matter. Then nothing can stop you. But to get to that, you have to stop being afraid of hurting. The price of reaching that is tears and outrage, because the tears and the power to keep on going, they come from the same source."

Nattadon Hill 4

Nattadon Hill 6

The transformation of despair into hope is alchemical work, creative work. And what all transformations have in common, writes Rebecca Solnit, is that they begin in the imagination.

"To hope is to gamble," she says. "It's to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope."

Nattadon Hill 5

Gorse blossoms

The trail dips down, rises again. Tilly dances ahead, a four-footed embodiment of exuberance and joy; and I follow after, taking courage from the stalwart gorse blossoms, bright among the thorns.  I have known despair, we have all known despair, but on this beautiful morning I am chosing hope. I am chosing movement, action, transformation. Art is the "ax" I carry: sharp and not too heavy, fit to the strength I have. And stories are the lights that guide me, the golden porch light that will lead me home.

Nattadon Hill 7The Joanna Macy quote above is from "Women Reimagining the World" (in Moonrise, edited by Nina Simons, 2010); the Rebecca Solnit quote is from her book Hope in the Dark (2004).


On the magic of cities

The Crystler Building

In response to a post last week, Raquel Somatra wrote:

"I lived on a mountain in North Carolina for six months with no car. The nearest grocery store was 1.5 miles away. Down the mountain, over several hills, through a dark tunnel, passed the old hotel that still has a sign that says 'now with color TV!'... People always think it must have been such a horrific time, to walk to the store once or twice a week and carry home groceries. But I loved it.....There is something about motion and pilgrimage that magically and deeply connects us to ourselves, to our insides, and to the earth. I think I got to know that landscape more in six months than locals who had lived their whole lives there. I knew where you could find pairs of bunnies in the spring, where the robins liked to feast along the ends of the roads, where wild roses grew, that tiny, wild pansies grew everywhere, fairy flowers hidden in the grasses. What else is there than connection to the land, ourselves, and each other? We must do this slowly -- I agree with Rebecca [Solnit]. Our minds move as slow as our feet, there can be no other way.

"P.S. I was thrilled to find that here in Brooklyn, I make a similar journey with groceries. There aren't mountains and pansies, but there are wondrous sights and people, a train, and much, much walking."

The post below comes out of thoughts prompted by Raquel's words, and I want to begin by acknowledging that debt.

Trees of New York

Despite the bucolic nature of this blog, written as it is from the English countryside, I think the words of the various writers quoted in these pages -- attesting to the importance of "land" and "place" -- are useful reminders to all of us, no matter where we live, that our aim should be to fully live wherever it is we find ourselves. As Mary Oliver tell us in beautiful poems that repeatedly enjoin us to pay attention, living a creative life is not just about the novels or paintings we produce (let alone manage to publish or sell), it's about living in a state of openness and attention -- beginning  with the ground on which we stand: its flora, folklore, mythology, history, its weather patterns and daily rhythms, and the lives of those with whom we share it, human and nonhuman alike.  This is as true, I believe, for city, town, and suburb dwellers as it is for me here in rural Devon.

"Urban Fantasy," which emerged as a sub-genre of fantasy fiction in the 1980s and '90s -- when the term referred to works by writers like Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Megan Lindholm (a.k.a. Robin Hobb), Francesca Lia Block, and Neil Gaiman, not paranormal romance and detective stories --  had at its heart a metaphorical search for wonder and natural (rather than supernatural) magic in city settings. These writers were asserting that one needn't travel to imaginary lands, the medieval past, or even to the countryside to find a magical (dare I say "spiritual"?) connection to place: it was available to all...yes, even at the heart of the beast: the big, noisy, crowded, diverse, dangerous, exciting modern city. (And remember that these writers began working in the '80s, when urban decline rendered many cities far less appealing than they are today.)

The High Line, NYC, 2012

Charles de Lint's Ottowa (Moonheart) and Newford (Dreams Underfoot), Emma Bull's Minneapolis (War for the Oaks), Megan Lindholm's Seattle (Wizard of the Pigeons), Francesca Lia Block's Los Angeles (Weetzie Bat), Neil Gaiman's London (Neverwhere) -- along with more recent creations such as Delia Sherman's Manhattan (Changeling) and Holly Black's Jersey Shore (Tithe) -- are urban spaces in which the mythopoeic history of the land has re-asserted itself. The human protagonists of their books are those who hunger, in one way or another, to find that connection...and then to use it in concert with the unique gifts that cities alone can offer.

The High Line in winter

As Raquel says in her post script above, a city traversed on foot can be just as creatively inspiring as a woodland path or wilderness trail, at least for those open to its rhythms; for those who are paying attention. The following passage on urban walking comes from Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which devotes several chapters to the subject. To me, as a former New Yorker, this description of "city magic" rings absolutely true:

"There is a subtle state most urban walkers know, a sort of basking in solitude -- a dark solitude punctuated with encounters as the night sky is punctuated with stars -- one is altogether outside society, so solitude has a sensible geographical explanation, and there is a kind of communion with the nonhuman. In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers, and to be a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one's secrets and imagining those of the people one passes, is among the starkest of luxuries. This uncharted identity with its illimitable possibilities is one of the distinctive qualities of urban living, a liberatory state for those who come to emancipate themselves from family and community expectation, to experiment with subculture and identity. It is an observer's state, cool, withdrawn, with senses sharpened, a good state for anybody who needs to reflect or create. In small doses, melancholy, alienation, and introspection are among life's most refined pleasures.

The newspaper carrier

"Not long ago I heard the singer and poet Patti Smith answer a radio interviewer's questions about what she did to prepare for her performances onstage with, 'I would roam the streets for a few hours.' With that brief comment, she summoned up her own outlaw romanticism and the way such walking might toughen and sharpen the sensibility, wrap one in an isolation out of which might come songs fierce enough, words sharp enough, to break that musing silence. Probably roaming the streets didn't work so well in a lot of American cities, where the hotel was moated by a parking lot surrounded by six-lane roads without sidewalks, but she spoke as a New Yorker.

The Flat Iron Building NYC

"Speaking as a Londoner, Virginia Woolf described anonymity as a fine and desirable thing, in her 1930 essay 'Street Haunting.' Daughter of the great alpinist Leslie Stephen, she had once declared to a friend, 'How could I think mountains and climbing romantic? Wasn't I brought up with alpenstocks in my nursery and a raised map of the Alps, showing every peak my father had climbed? Of course, London and the marshes are the places I like best.' Woolf wrote of the confining oppression of one's own identity, of the way the objects in one's home 'enforce the memories of our experience.' And so she set out to buy a pencil in a city where safety and propriety were no longer considerations for a no-longer-young woman on a winter evening, and in recounting -- or inventing -- her journey, wrote one of the great essays on urban walking."

You can read Woolf's brilliant essay here.

The trees of Riverside

The passage by Rebecca Solnit is from Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Viking, 2000); all rights reserved by the author. The photographs were taken in New York, the city where I came of age as young writer/editor, and that I still think of as my urban home. I highly recommend Patti Smith's book Just Kids, a wonderful memoir of her own youth in New York; Lauren Elkin's Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London; and Olivia Laing's The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. For more on the history of the Urban Fantasy genre, see Austin Hackney's survey of the field. For a post on the life and work of Urban Fantasy writer Charles de Lint, go here.

[Editorial changes, 2018: Urban Fantasy novels by Holly Black and Delia Sherman were added to the text above, and the works by Elkin, Laing, and Hackney were added to the reading recommendations.]


Stepping into the Wild

Beneath the Oak Elder

"Always in big woods," said Wendell Berry, "when you leave familiar ground and step off alone to a new place, there will be, along with feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your bond with the wilderness you are going into. What you are doing is exploring. You are understanding the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is the experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes common ground, and a common bond, and we cease to be alone."

Oak Gardian at the Woodland's Edge.

The small woodland behind my studio is only a "prettyish kind of a little wilderness," as Jane Austen might describe it, and not a proper wilderness. And yet the wild can be found here. It's in the ancient language of oak and owl, and the air-ballet of spore and seed. It's in the midnight revels of the badgers, and the morning light on leaf, moss, and rock.

Badger Sett and Pathway

Woodland Still Life in Green, Red, and Gold

Light & Shadow: A Woodland Meditation

“Of course," said Henry David Thoreau, "it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither.  I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit."

Moss & Rock: A Woodland Prayer

Ivy, Oak, and the Secrets of the Forest

Sometimes Tilly and I roam old, familiar trails grown unfamiliar with each turning of the seasons, and sometimes I just pick a spot and sit. Until my spirit is truly present. Listening. Watching. Learning. Healing. Practicing the art of being still.

Woodland Companion

Where It All BeginsThe Berry quote is from An Unforseen Wilderness, and the Kingsolver quote from Small Wonder. The woodland photographs were taken yesterday afternoon. Today is stormy, and Tilly (who hates thunder) is hiding under the bedclothes.


Daybreak in the Devon Hills

Daybreak 1

In her fine book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit writes:

"These linked paths and roads form a circuit of about six miles that I began hiking ten years ago to ward off my angst during a difficult year. I kept coming back to this route for respite from my work and for my work too, because thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It is best done as disguising it as something, and the something closest to nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals."

Daybreak 2

"Walking, ideally, is a state in which mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts."

Daybreak 3

Daybreak 4

"The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or simulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consenance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as thought thinking were traveling rather than making. And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete -- for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.

"Walking can also be imagined as a visual activity, every walk a tour leisurely enough both to see and think over the sights, to assimilate the new into the known. Perhaps this is where walking's peculiar utility for thinkers comes from. The surprises, liberations, and clarifications of travel can sometimes be garnered by going around the block as well as going around the world, and walking travels both near and far.

"Or perhaps walking should be called movement, not travel, for one can walk in circles or travel around the world immobilized in a seat, and a certain kind of wanderlust can only be assuaged by the acts of the body itself in motion, not the motion of the car, boat, or plane. It is the movement as well as the sights going by that seems to make things happen in the mind, and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile: it is both means and end, travel and destination."

Daybreak 5

Poet & essayist Gary Snyder adds:

"Walking is the great adventure, the first meditation, a practice of heartiness and soul primary to humankind.  Walking is the exact balance between spirit and humility."

And so it is, on this hushed moment at dawn on Natttadon Hill.

Daybreak 6

Daybreak 7Words: The quotes above are from Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit (Penguin, 2001) and Practice of the Wild: Essays by Gary Snyder (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990); all rights reserved by the authors. Both books are highly recommended. Pictures: Nattadon and Meldon Hills after the rain, everything glistening.


A walk on the hill

Nattadon Hill

"Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito's wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry -- determined to make a day of it."

- Henry David Thoreau (Walden)

Nattadon Hill

Nattadon Hill

Nattadon Hill

"Our lives are fittered away by detail....Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!"

- Henry David Thoreau (Walden)

Nattadon Hill


Nature's gift to the walker

Dragonfly

Details from Unity by Marja Lee Kruyt

From To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing, in which the author walks the River Ouse in Sussex from its source to the sea:

Unity by Marja Lee Kruyt"It was a day of uplift. Everything was rising or poised to rise, the mating dragonflies crashing through the air, the meadow browns clipping sedately by....

"I was getting into one of those trances that come from walking far, when the feet and the blood seem to collide and harmonise. Funnily enough, Kenneth Grahame and Virginia Woolf both wrote in praise of these uncanny states, which they thought closely allied to the inspiration writing required. 'Nature's particular gift to the walker,' Grahame explained in a late essay, 'through the semi-mechanical act of walking -- a gift no other form of exercise seems to transmit in the same high degree -- is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe -- certainly creative and supra-sensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside you and as it were talking to you, while you are talking back to it.'

"As for Woolf, she wrote dreamily of chattering her books on the crest of the Downs, the words pouring from her as she strode, half-delirious, in the noon-day sun. She compared it to swimming or 'flying through the air; the current of sensations & ideas; & the slow, but fresh change of down, of road, of colour: all this is churned up into a fine sheet of perfect calm happiness. It's true I often painted the brightest of pictures on this sheet: & often talked out loud.' "

Chattering her prose. I do that too. Thank heavens there's only Tilly to hear me as we roam the hills on these bright summer days.

To the River by Olivia Laing

To the River by Olivia Laing

ChatteringThe beautiful painting above is by my good friend and Chagford neighbor Marja Lee Kruyt.


Climbing

Nattadon

I am currently climbing a mountain regarding the "Big Life Stuff,"  and so once again daily posts may not be possible during this stretch of the terrain....

Nattadon

There are mornings when Tilly's steady presence is what gets me up, outside, and keeps me going.

Nattadon

Dog teach us how to live in the present moment instead of the landscape of our worries -- with our eyes and our hearts wide open, our souls expansive, our bodies soft and supple. They show us how to keep on climbing while still "creating the environment" for joy.

Nattadon


The Unmapped Country

Nattadon Hill

"We all get lost once in a while, sometimes by choice, sometimes due to forces beyond our control. When we learn what it is our soul needs to learn, the path presents itself. Sometimes we see the way out but wander further and deeper despite ourselves; the fear, the anger or the sadness preventing us returning. Sometimes we prefer to be lost and wandering, sometimes it’s easier. Sometimes we find our own way out. But regardless, always, we are found."  - Cecelia Ahern (Thanks for the Memories)

Nattadon Hill

''There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms.''  - George Eliot (Daniel Deronda)

Nattadon Hill

''To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away...To be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.'' - Rebecca Solnit (A Field Guide to Getting Lost)

Nattadon Hill

"One thing has led to the next in my life, but like lines of a poem. I suppose I've thrown in my lot with love, and don't know any other way to go on breathing.''  - David Guterson (The Other)

Nattadon Hill

"We must hold in our minds these utterly contradictory thoughts: not one of us matters at all; each of us is infinitely precious."  -  Janice Emily Bowers (A Full Life in a Small Place: Essays from a Desert Garden)

Nattadon Hill