Wild Neighbours: the folklore of animals

Some of the

Our phone & internet line went down yesterday -- and although it's up and running again, I lost an entire work day to chasing down the phone company's repair service. Now I'm catching up, and I'm afraid I don't have time for a new post today. Instead, here's a post from 2013 which seems to me to be worth a re-visit. Not only does it fit in with the theme of "stories and storytelling" we've been following lately, but over on Folklore Thursday they're focusing on animal myths & folk tales this week....

In her elegiac essay "Into the Woods," poet and scholar Ruth Padel writes:

"What would Robin Hood have made of Country Life's recent excavation into the fantasies of British 7-to-14-year-olds concerning the wild life and wild places of their native land? Two thirds had no idea where acorns come from, most had never heard of gamekeepers (do they From Wind in the Willows illustrated by Stephen Dooleymug people or protect the Pokemons?), and most believed there were elephants and lions running round the English countryside. A third did not know why you had to keep gates shut -- was it to keep the elephants in (or was some joker taking the piss just then?), or stop cows 'sitting on cars,' upsetting the countryside's most vital beast -- the traffic?

"In a closed, traditional society there is something special about animals born in the land where you, too, were born. The British used to look lazily at gardens, thickets, and moors, and know -- without bothering to think about it -- that foxes, hedgehogs, badgers, squirrels, and deer were out there flecking the undergrowth....

"Dangerous or vulnerable, shy or cunning, a pest or welcome visitor, our native animals are part of our romance with the secret wildness of the place we live, even if we never see much of them. We grew up with them in imagination. They were inside us, furry heroes of nursery rhymes, pictures and stories through which we learned the world. Little Grey Rabbit. The Stoats and Weasels of the Wild Wood. The Fox who Looked Out on a Moonlight Night. The Frog who would A Wooing Go. They are deep in British folk song, poetry, and popular art. 'Three Ravens Sat in an Old Oak Tree.' The holly and the ivy, the running of the deer. Landseer's 'Monarch of the Glen.'

"But that's the way it used to be. We are not a mono-traditional society any more -- most kids' traditions center on the TV and the city street. To most children, a weasel is as unknowable as daffodils to a young Indian struggling with Wordsworth during the Raj."

Weasel

How did we become so disconnected to the land we live on, and the wild neighbors we share it with? I think it's partly because we're losing the stories specific to the local landscape: the stories about this plant that grows on the hill nearby and that bird that migrates here each spring and not just the pan-cultural stories we share with everyone on the television and cinema screens. We no longer know the tales of the animals, and, increasingly, we no longer know animals themselves.

What a different attitude is conveyed by these words from a member of the Carrier Indian nation in British Columbia (quoted by David Abram in Becoming Animal):

"We know what the animals do, what are the needs of the beaver, the bear, the salmon, and other creatures, because long ago men married them and acquired this knowledge from their animal wives. Today the priests say we lie, but we know better. The white man has only been a short time in this country and knows very little about the animals; we have lived here thousands of years and were taught long ago by the animals themselves. The white man writes everything down in a book so it will not be forgotten; but our ancestors married animals, learned their ways, and passed on this knowledge from one generation to another."

Badger

The old story of a woman who marries a bear, for example, is one that used to roam widely, like the bears themselves, throughout North America. In a Nishga version recounted by Agnes Haldane of the Wolf clan of Gitkateen (in Wisdom of the Myth Tellers by Sean Kane), a tribal princess picking berries in the forest steps on a bit of bear scat and mutters angry remarks about the bears. As the women head for home, her basket breaks; repairing it, she is left behind. Two handsome men appear and tell her they've come to fetch her and lead her from the forest. Instead of leading her home, they take her to the village of the Bear People. The princess tricks the People into believing she is a woman of great power, and as a result she ends up marrying the son of the Bear Chief. She lives with him rather happily, and gives birth to two fine bear sons. But during a period of hibernation, her own brothers find her husband's cave and kill the bear in a rescue attempt. Her husband has foreseen this event. "When they skin me," he'd instructed her, "tell them to burn my bones so that I may go on to help my children. At my death they shall take human form and become skillful hunters. Now listen as I sing my dirge song. This you must remember and take to your father. My cloak he shall don as his dancing garment. His crest shall be the Prince of Bears."

Merlin

The bear's sacrifice of his life for the benefit of human beings might seem suprising, but it's not an unusual theme in the indiginous tales of North America, where many story traditions say the animals were the First People, here before humans came. Sacred tales from many different Indian nations recount how Bear, or Coyote, or Eagle, or Deer first gave humans the precious, vital gift of fire; while in other tales language, hunting skills, dancing, even love-making, were first taught by animals. Though we've come to expect such respectfulness towards and from other species in American Indian lore, it can also be found in many other storytelling traditions around world -- such as in the sacred stories of the Ainu of Japan. As Gary Snyder notes (in The Practice of the Wild):

"In the Ainu world, a few human houses are in a valley by a little river. Food is often foraged in the local area, but some of the creatures come down from the inner mountains and up from the deeps of the sea. The animal or fish (or plant) that allows itself to be killed or gathered, and then enters the house to be consumed, is called a 'visitor,' marapto. Bear sends his friends the deer down to visit humans. Orca [the Killer Whale] sends his friends the salmon up the streams. When they arrive their 'armor is broken' -- they are killed -- enabling them to shake off their fur or scale coats and step out as invisible spirit beings. They are then delighted by witnessing the human entertainments -- sake and music. (They love music.) Having enjoyed their visit, they return to the deep sea or the inner mountains and report, 'We had a wonderful time with the human beings.' The others are then prompted themselves to go on visits. Thus if the humans do not neglect proper hospitality, the beings will be reborn and return over and over."

Salmon

In another essay in the same volume, Snyder writes:

"A young white woman asked me: 'If we have made such good use of animals, eating them, singing about them, drawing them, riding them, and dreaming about them, what do they get back from us?' An excellent question, directly on the point of etiquette and propriety, and putting it from the animals' side. The Ainu say that the deer, salmon, and bear like our music and are fascinated by our languages. So we sing to the fish or the game, speak words to them, say grace. Periodically we dance for them. A song for your supper: performance is currency in the deep world's gift economy. The other creatures probably do find us a bit frivolous: we keep changing our outfits and we eat too many different things. Nonhuman nature, I can't help feeling, is well inclined towards humanity and only wishes that modern people were more reciprocal, not so bloody."

Otter

The idea that animals love human song reminds me of this passage from Linda Hogan's gorgeous novel Power:

"[T]he panther remembers when humans were so beautiful and whole that her own people envied them and wanted to be like them. They admired the humans and the way the two-legged people stood beneath trees with leaves leaning down over them as they picked ripe fruits, how their beautiful eyes were fully open. How straight they walked! How beautiful the beads about their necks, the dresses women made in fabric that was the dark green of the trees and the light colors of flowers. How intelligent the little shell and wooden bowls they ate from, how good they were at devising ways to catch fish with simple bone and metal, at making trails through the thickets. They stood so gracefully and full of themselves, they sang so beautifully; it remembers all this, how they sang. The whole world rejoiced with their voices....

"[The panther] remembers when its own people surrounded the humans and gave them life and power, medicine to heal, to hunt, even to direct lightning and stormclouds away from their beautiful dark-eyed children....But now they have turned against her. Now that they have no need for her, Sisa and her people,  the panther, are leaving. They leave in sadness and grief. Now so few of the humans have songs or presence, so many have such heaviness that they can barely walk or move, raise themselves from their beds in the morning. And Sisa believes, sees, that the world could end with their human misery."

Grey Heron

And in Wild: An Elemental Journey (another book that I highly recommended), Jay Griffiths shares this:

"Creatures are gente, I'm told, everywhere I go in the Amazon: they are 'people like us' with customs and homes and they are accorded gentleness for being gente. You must address the world gently, I was told, even to the wind you should speak con cariño -- with tenderness. The Harakmbut say that all animals were people más allá -- long ago -- and there is therefore a profound equality between us and them; they are like distant family, and one has duties and expectations as one would with family members. People are 'familiar' with the habits and ways of animals, and this familarity is cherished. (By contrast in the West, close familiarity with animals was considered devilish: the witch and her 'familiar.')

"Animals should be treated kindly, even in hunting, for they are kin to humans. 'We owe...kindliness to other creatures: there is an intercourse and mutual obligation between them and us,' wrote Michael de Montaigne, sounding uncannily like an Amazonian Indian."

Fox

Homo sapiens, wrote the late naturalist Ellen Meloy (in Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild):

"have left themselves few scant places and scant ways to witness other species in their own world, an estangement that leaves us hungry and lonely. In this famished state, it is no wonder that when we do finally encounter wild animals, we are quite surprised by the sheer truth of them."

Barn owl

Louise Erdrich portrays this sense of surprise in a passage from her novel The Painted Drum:

"Coming down off the trail, I am lost in my own thoughts and unprepared when a bear chugs across the path just before it gives out on the gravel road. I am so distracted that I keep walking towards the bear. I only stop when it rears, stands on hind legs, and stares at me, sensitive nose pressed into the air, weak eyes searching. I have never been this close to a wild bear before, but I am not frightened. There is no menace in its stance; it is not even curious. The bear seems to know who or what I am. The bear is not impressed."

No, I don't expert that the bear would be impressed with many of us these days, nor the bees and badgers, the hares and hedgehogs and other wild folk here in the hills of Devon. We don't know their stories any longer. We've forgotten their songs. We don't "stand with presence."

Victorian illustration  artist unknownIn From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner discusses the role of "beasts" in fairy tales, and how our perceptions of these stories have changed as attitudes towards animals have changed:

"Just as the rise of the teddy bear matches the decline of real bears in the wild, so soft toys today have taken the shape of rare animal species. Some of these are not very furry in their natural state: stuffed killer whales, cheetahs, gorillas, snails, spiders and snakes -- and of course dinosaurs -- are made in the most inviting deep-pile plush. They act as a kind of totem, associating the human being with the animal's capacities and value. Anthropomorphism traduces the creatures themselves; their loveableness sentimentally exaggerated, just as formerly, belief in their viciousness crowded out empircal observation."

Brown Hare

Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

This is clearly true, and a world in which children interact only with animal-shape-objects while remaining ignorant about the creatures outside their own back door (be it country badger or urban fox) is clearly a world out of balance.  And yet, for me, those soft animal toys awakened my interest in and life-long love of the wild, as did the anthropomorphised animals of tales like Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, and Wind and Willows. I'm thinking quite a lot about this these days, as I work on a book project involving bunny girls and other animal children. I want these magical beings to lead children back to nature, not to be nature's safe, cuddly substitute. Is this possible? At this point in the process, I have more questions than I have answers....

When I think back to my own childhood, what I wish is that someone had noted my passion for animals and placed a wildlife guide in my hands alongside those tales of Mole and Rat and Benjamin Bunny...or better still, led me out of doors and into the wild, and told tales of the land we then lived on. Not in place of those books, which had done their work in opening the door into wonder for me, but as the next necessary step of attaching wonder to the living world around us.

Bunny Sisters

In Becoming Animal, David Abram asks:

"How, then to renew our viceral experience of a world that exceeds us -- of a world that is wider than ourselves and our own creations?"Does a revitalizing of oral [storytelling] culture mean that mean that we must renounce reading and writing? Must we empty our bookcases? Must we unplug our computers and drag them down to the dump?

"Hardly. The renewal of oral culture entails no renunciation of books, and no rejection of technology. It entails only that we leave abundant space in our days for interchange with one another and with our surroundings that is not mediated by technology: neither by television nor the cell phone, neither by the handheld computer or the GPS satellite...nor even the printed page.

"Among writers, for example, it entails a recognition (even an anticipation) that there are certain stories we may stumble against that ought not to be written down -- stories that we might instead begin to tell with our tongue in the particular topography where those stories live. Among parents, it requires that we set aside, now and then, the books that we read to our children in order to recount a vital story with the whole of our gesturing body -- or better yet, that we draw our kids out of doors in order to improvise a tale about how the nearby river feels when the fish return to its waters, or about the wild wind that's even now blustering its way through the city streets, plucking the hats off people's heads.... Among educators, it requires that we begin to rejuvenate the arts of telling, and of listening, in relation to the geographical place where our lessons actually happen."

Noctule Bat

"Can we renew in ourselves an implicit sense of the land's meaning, of its own many-voice eloquence? Not without renewing the sensory craft of listening, and the sensuous art of storytelling. Can we help our students to carefully translate the quantified abstractions of science into the qualitative language of direct experience, so that those necessary insights begin to come alive in their felt encounters with cumulus clouds and bleaching corals, with owls and deformed dragonflies and the intricate tangle of mycelial mats? ... Most important, can we begin to restore the health and integrity of the local earth? Not without restorying the local earth."

Water shrew

We are of the animal world, Linda Hogan reminds us (in her beautiful collection of essays, Dwelling: A Spiritual History of the Living World):

"We are part of the cycles of growth and decay. Even having tried so hard to see ourselves apart, and so often without a love for even our own biology, we are in relationship with the rest of the planet, and that connectedness tells us we must reconsider the way we see ourselves and the rest of nature.

"A change is required of us, a healing of the betrayed trust between humans and earth. Caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time, and perhaps that stewardship is finally our place in the web of life, our work, our solution to the mystery of what we are."

Indeed. Part of that stewardship, surely, is caretaking our local, traditional stories as well as the land that gave birth to them. And listening for the land's new stories. Telling them. And singing, so the animals can hear us.

Hedgehog

Pictures: The photographs above, of our four-footed and winged neighbors here in Devon, come from the Devon Wildlife Trust. The art above is "Ratty" (from Wind in the Willows) by my two-footed neighbor Steve Dooley; "Woman & Bear," a Victorian illustration (artist unknown); Peter Rabbit by the great Beatrix Potter; and my wee Rabbit Sisters. Words: The passages quotes above are from "Into the Woods" by Ruth Padel (The Journal of Mythic Arts), and from the following books: Becoming Animal by David Abram, The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder, Power and Dwellings by Linda Hogan, Wild by Jay Griffiths, Eating Stone by Ellen Meloy, The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich, and From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner -- all of which are highly recommended.  All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artists and authors.

Related posts: Married to magic: animal brides and bridegrooms, The speech of snimals., and The dance of joy and grief.


The birdsong wilderness

Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman

From "The Wilderness Within" by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"I have absolutely no idea when I first read or heard the tale of Sleeping Beauty. I don't even remember (as I do for some stories) the illustrations, or the language, of a certain edition. I certainly read it for myself as a child in several collections, and again in various forms when I was reading aloud to my own children. One of those versions was a charming Czech-made book, an early example of the pop-up genre; it was good magic, the way the thorny rose-hedge leapt up around the paper castle. And at the end everybody in the castle woke, just as they ought to do, and got right up off the page. But when did I first learn that that was what they ought to do?

Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman

Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman"The Sleeping Beauty is one of those stories that I've 'always known,' just as it's one of those stories 'we all know.' I wasn't aware that it held any particular meaning or fascination for me until, along in my sixties, I came on Sylvia Townsend Warner's evocation of the tale in a tiny poem (it is in her Collected Poems):

  The Sleeping Beauty woke:
  The spit began to turn,
  The woodman cleared the brake, 
  The gardener mowed the lawn.
  Woe's me! And must one kiss
  Revoke the silent house, the birdsong
  wilderness?

"As poetry will do, those words took me far beyond themselves, straight through the hedge of thorns, into the secret place. For all its sweet brevity, the question asked in the last two lines is a total 'revisioning' of the story, a subversion of it. Almost, it revokes it.

Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman

"The pall of sleep that lies upon the house and grounds is supposedly the effect of a malicious spell, a curse; the prince's kiss that breaks the spell is supposed to provide a happy ending. Townsend Warner asks, was it a curse, after all? The thorn-hedge broken, the cooks growling at their cook-pots, the peasants laboring again at their sowing or harvesting, the cat leaping upon the mouse, Father yawning and scratching his head, Mother jumping up sure the servants haven't been misbehaving while she was asleep, Beauty staring in some confusion at the smiling young man who is going to carry her off and make her a wife -- everything back to normal, everyday, commonplace, ordinary life. The silence, the peace, the magic, gone.Sleeping Beauty by Roberto Innocenti

"Really, it is a grand, deep question the poet asks. It takes me into the story as no Freudian or Jungian or Bettleheimian reduction of it does. It lets me see what I think the story is about.

"I think the story is about that still center: 'the silent house, the birdsong wilderness.'

From the Briar Rose series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

From the Briar Rose series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

"That is the image we retain. The unmoving smoke about the chimney top. The spindle fallen from the motionless hand. The cat asleep near the sleeping mouse. No noise, no bustle, no busyness. Utter peace. Nothing moving but the slow, subtle growth of the thorn bushes, ever thicker and higher all about the boundary, and the birds who fly over the high hedge, singing, and pass on. It is the secret garden; it is Eden; it is the dream of utter, sunlit safety; it is the changeless kingdom.

From the Briar Rose series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

"Childhood, yes. Celibacy, virginity, yes. A glimpse of adolescence: the place hidden in the heart and mind of a girl of twelve or fifteen. There she is alone, all by herself, content, and nobody knows her. She is thinking: Don't wake me. Don't know me. Let me be. At the same time she is probably shouting out the windows of other corners of her being, Here I am, do come, oh hurry up and come! And she lets her hair down and the prince comes thundering up, and they get married, and the world goes on. Which it wouldn't do if she stayed in the hidden corner and renounced love marriage childbearing motherhood and all that.

Lady in the Meadow by Kinuko Y. Craft

"But at least she had a little while by herself, in that house that was hers, the garden of silence. Too many Beauties never even know there is such a place."

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

A detail from Burne-Jones' Briar Rose series

Pictures: Four Sleeping Beauty illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman and one by Roberto Innocenti, three panels from the Briar Rose series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, "Lady in a Meadow" by Kinuko Y. Craft, "Woman & Fox" by Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova, and a detail from Burne-Jones' Briar Rose series. Words: The passage above is from "The Wilderness Within" by Ursula K. Le Guin, first published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, Second Expanded Edition, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Anchor Books/Random House, 2002). In the essay, Le Guin goes on to discuss the ways in which her story "The Poacher" was inspired by the fairy tale and Sylvia Townsend Warner's poem.

Related posts, on Sleeping Beauty: Enchanted Sleep, Fairy Blessings, and The 13th Fairy. On Sylvia Townsend Warner: Hen wives, spinsters, and Lolly Willowes.


The stories we choose

Sleeping Beauty by Mercer Mayer

From "Sharpening an Imagination With the Hard Flint of a Fairy Tale" by Alice Hoffman (author of Practical Magic, Second Nature, The Story Sisters, etc.):

"I read fairy tales early on. They terrified, delighted, disgusted and amazed me. They were far more grown-up than any other children's books I read, scarily so at times. Like most children, I could feel the disturbing aspects of the stories even if I couldn't intellectually understand or articulate their underlying meanings. Still, I knew. I shivered. I thrilled to them. I learned. Everything in them rang true: the unspoken sexuality (a woman loves a beast, a girl is nearly eaten by a wolf, a frog wishes to be the husband of a princess), the violence (bad mothers, absent fathers, foul murders), the greed (the house of candy, the cage of gold).

Sleeping Beauty by Mercer Mayer

Sleeping Beauty by Mercer Mayer

"I didn't realize it, of course, but the tales were allowing me to examine fear, anxiety, desire, sorrow. It was a dangerous world, but truer to reality than anything else we were allowed -- those safe books with their happy endings. How could the trivial nature of the here and the now compare with journeys in which heads or hands were suddenly chopped off, bones were tied in silk and buried under trees, foolish brothers became swans, and a traveler might suddenly be beset by cruel spells, horses' heads that could speak and other twists of fate and circumstance?

The Wild Swans and The Goose Girl by Mercer Mayer

"Why such tales should feel more real to me and to most child readers than 'realistic' fare is both a simple and complex phenomenon. Fairy tales tell two stories: a spoken one and an unspoken one. There is another layer beneath the words; a riddle about the soul and its place in the greater canvas of humanity. Surely every child who reads Hansel and Gretel feels that he or she, too, is on a perilous path, one that disappears and meanders, but one that must be navigated, like it or not. That path is childhood: a journey in which temptations will arise, greed will surface, and parents may be so self-involved that they forget you entirely....

The Frog Prince by Mercer Mayer

"Do people choose the art that inspires them -- do they think it over, decide they might prefer the fabulous to the real? For me, it was those early readings of fairy tales that made me who I was as a reader and, later on, as a storyteller. For me, there was no examined life without an imagined life. Just as a person is more exposed by his dreams than by his casual conversation, the imagination reveals more about one's soul than the concrete. My impulse as a beginning writer was not to write about my own life but to create another life entirely.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

"I wasn't able to recall how I moved from 'reader' to 'writer' (How did it come about? Why did it happen?) until the day some years ago when I was cleaning out my mother's house because she'd become too ill to live at home. I found a loose-leaf folder in which I had busied myself during grade-school classes by inventing various new identities for myself. Everything about the characters was written down, much like that tried-and-true exercise for writers who wish to create 'real' characters: Write everything down; know the people inside out -- their favorite songs and colors, what they like to eat for lunch, whom they love, where they've traveled, what they yearn for in the future, what they fear most. Know who they are. It seems right that I began my career by creating a series of false identities. Did I have an unhappy childhood? It goes without saying. Did I long to escape it? Absolutely. I did so not by walking out the door, but by reading.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

"The world of the imagination had the greatest emotional value for me as a reader and writer. What I knew, what I experienced came through those black marks on white paper, and that imagined life seemed much more real to me than the one I had actually led. Eventually, the two bled together; my reading life and my real life became one. I found subtexts not only in the stories I read, but in the lives being lived around me. A description of the here-and-now would not do. Not if there was a soon-will-be and a once-upon-a-time.

"Fairy tales, it is believed, began as stories told by women. They were 'kitchen tales,' remembered and repeated by grandmothers through the generations, later retold and written down by men such as the Grimm brothers, but still called "Household Tales." How marvelous that such fabulous stories had such a down-to-earth name, for that is what they are: Tales meant to reveal the subtext of our households and explain us to ourselves, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, beloved and lover. Real life indeed, although they stray as far from realism as possible."

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

The imagery today is by American book artist Mercer Mayer, creator of over 300 books for children. Mayer grew up in Arkansas and Hawaii, studied at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and The Art Student League in New York, and published his first book, A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog, in 1967. Today, he's best known for his "Little Critter" series, and for beautiful fairy tale editions including The Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Favorite Tales from Grimm, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

Beauty and the Beast by Mercer Mayer

 The passage above is from "Sharpening an Imagination With the Hard Flint of a Fairy Tale" by Alice Hoffman (The Washington Post, April, 20004). All rights to the text and art in the post reserved by the author and artist.

Related posts: The books that shape us, Once upon a time, The road between dreams and reality, Fairy tales and fantasy, and Threads and stories.


Spells and tunes for a Monday Morning

The Lost Words

The Lost Words, a magnificent book created by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane, began "as a response to the removal of everyday nature words from a widely used children’s dictionary, but then grew to become a much broader protest at the loss of the natural world around us." This beautiful volume contains twenty of Robert's poems/chants/spells entwined with Jackie's paintings of larks, acorns, otters and other wild things, conjuring the names of common animals and plants back into our language.

In the Waterstones interview above, Robert talks about the magical power of words, and of a collaborative process not only between writer and artist but also with the land itself.

Below, Jackie summons otters from a blank white page while reciting Robert's words. The video was filmed in her studio on the wild coast of Wales.

Spell Songs is a companion project in which eight fine folk musicians (Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, Kris Drever, Kerry Andrew, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter, and Jim Molyneux) were invited to create new songs inspired by The Lost Words. The project began with a residency in the Herefordshire countryside in January; the songs were taken on tour in February; and the music is now being released as an album, followed by more performances -- including the BBC Proms.

Spell Songs

Easter Hare byJackie MorrisAbove: The Snow Hare, from Spell Songs. "The mountain hare, or snow hare, the only truly Arctic animal of Scotland, is under threat due to rapid ecological shifts. A creature that has evolved winter camouflage becomes immensely vulnerable when the snows don’t come as they used to. This song, led by Julie Fowlis and Karine Polwart, speaks to that fragility."

Below: Selkie-Boy. "Tales of the seal people are a big part of Hebridean folklore, especially in North Uist, Julie Fowlis's home island. Her fascination with these stories, of Norse royalty, enchantment, separation and isolation, led Robert to gift her with a new spell, Grey Seal. 'I began the selkie song thinking it was a drowning song,' he says, 'but by the time I'd added the final verses realised it needed to be, like the selkies themselves, neither quite one thing or the other, neither drowning nor dreaming, seal or human, land or sea, elegy or eulogy, and how it was taken would depend on how it swam into the mind of the listener.' "

Selkie by Jackie Morris

Birds from The Lost Words

Above: Charm on, Goldfinch. Beth Porter, who composed this song, was inspired "by her walks in Wigtown along the Martyrs’ Stake, where she often saw goldfinches along the path and in the trees, and by the end to Robert's new Goldfinch Spell, which forms the chorus: Charm on Goldfinch, charm on Heaven help us when all your gold is gone."

Below: My favourite of the songs, The Lost Blessing. "Karine Polwart suggested the idea of a blessing borrowing images and phrases from many of the Lost Words spells  (Bluebell, Dandelion, Fern, Heather, Heron, Kingfisher, Lark, Otter, Raven and Starling), as well as from new spells (Goldfinch and Grey Seal). The form is inspired by blessings in Scottish Gaelic, particularly from a beautiful collection of charms and incantations called Carmina Gadelica."

The album can be ordered here. To learn more about the book, go here.

Tilly and The Lost Words

Related posts:  Making friends with monsters & other advice for artists and The wild sky.


The eye and ear are different listeners

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

In one of the essays published in her seminal book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood, Jane Yolen explores the metamorphosis of folk and fairy tales from the oral tradition to the printed page, noting that there are strengths in each but also indelible differences:

"The eye and the ear are different listeners. Each storyteller has the ability to select: to select those characters who are just right, to select those details that set the stage, to select the glass mountain that must be climbed, the thorny bush that must be passed or the ring or sword or crown to be won. The storyteller is an artist, and selection is essential to art. There are thousands upon thousands of characters, thousands upon thousands of details, thousands upon thousands of motifs. To know which one to chose requires a kind of magical touch, and that is what characterizes the great storytellers.

Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel by Trina Schart Hyman

"But the eye and ear are different listeners. The modern audience is not the same as the ancient one, and for a good reason. Ancient man took in the world by listening, and listening meant remembering. Thus humans both shaped and were shaped by the oral tradition. The passage of culture went from mouth to ear to mouth. The person who did not listen well, who was tone deaf to the universe, was soon dead. The finest rememberers and the most attuned listeners were valued: the poets, the storytellers, the shamans, the seers. In culture after culture, community after community, the carriers of the oral tradition were honored. For example, in ancient Ireland the ollahms, the poet-singers, were more highly thought of than the king. The king was only given importance in times of war.

"An anthropologist friend of mine once observed that people in preliterate cultures that are still more of the ear than the eye say, 'I hear you,' when they mean they understand something. But we say, 'I see.' We modern listeners see life more clearly through pictures. We trust the picture more than the spoken word. A picture, we are told, is worth a thousand words. In the last century we created the moving picture and credit it, more than anything else, with shaping our children's thoughts.

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

Three illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman

"But the eye and ear are different listeners, are different audiences. And the literary storyteller is one who must try to bring eye and ear into synchronization. But it is a subtle art. Just as the art of typography has been called 'the art invisible,' subliminal in the sense that it changes or manipulates a reader's perceptions without advertising its own presence, so, too, the art of storytelling in the printed book must persuade and captivate.

"It must hold the reader as the spoken tale holds the listener."

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

I've been focusing on oral storytelling in recent posts -- not because I think that those of us creating mythic fiction and poetry must immediately drop our pens and start performing our work, but because there is much we can learn from this ancient art -- particularly when it comes to stories born in the edgelands between the human and more-than-human worlds.

Little Red Riding Hood by Trina Schart Hyman

Little Red Riding Hood by Trina Schart Hyman


Even David Abram, that great champion of oral culture, doesn't suggest we give up the printed word:

"For those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines," he writes, "a world of textures, tastes, and sounds other than those that we have engineered, there can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning away from all writing. Our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land.

"Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves -- the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or with the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs -- letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf."

That's a task worth doing, and the Mythic Arts field is a perfectly good place to do it.

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

The imagery today is by American book artist Trina Schart Hyman (1939-2004), born in Philadelphia and raised in rural Pennsylvania. She often credited her mother will instilling her love of stories, especially myths and fairy tales. "I figured out at four years old that somebody had made the pictures in my books," she said, "and though I didn’t know what these people were called, I knew I wanted to be a book illustrator." 

Trina studied at the Philadelphia Museum Collage of Art, the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and then went on to illustrate over 150 books over 30 years in the field. She received the Caldecott Medal (for Saint George and the Dragon) and was awarded Caldecott Honors three times, among many other honors. Sadly, she died much too young (from the complications of breast cancer), but her work lives on to enchant and inspire new generations of readers.

Rapunzel by Trina Schart Hyman

Touch Magic by Jane Yolen

The passages above are from Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 1981; August House, 2000), and The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996), both highly recommended. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and the artist's estate.

Related posts: Tough magic, Stepping over the threshold, The Enclosure of Childhood and Words that matter.


An apprenticeship to story

Grey Wethers by Simon Blackbourn

I've been following a thread over the last two weeks leading into the magical heart of story: the stories we tell, the stories we write, and the stories in the land around us. David Abram spoke on the relationship between story and place, Martin Shaw on stories for our time and stories that carry the tang of wild, Robin Wall Kimmerer on listening to the stories the land tells about itself, and David Whyte on finding poetry in close attention to the world around us. Now I'd like to give you one last passage from Martin Shaw's book Scatterlings, describing the path he followed to become the extraordinary storyteller, mythographer and cultural historian of Dartmoor that he is today:

"It was a labour born and rooted entirely in my openings in the wilds," Martin writes. "There were no courses to attend, no elocution lessons, no lines of ink to memorise till I could scattergun the first row with my literary recital of the oral tradition. It just wasn't going to come from there. At least not at first. It had to come from the source: the living world....

Grey Wethers Stone Circle on Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"So, as a young man I took myself out to a little stretch of old-growth wood, mostly oak and elder, and dug in. If myth really was the power of a place speaking, the I had to bend my head daily to its murmurs.

Scorhill Clapper Bridge by Simon Blackbourn

"The vast majority of time I spent over those years outdoors was not in full voice but in listening. A kind of tenderising of the heart. A shaggy equilibrium painfully wrought, where I felt and could maintain the sensation of being flooded by a place. Not an emptying but a filling. And as the weeks would unfold, this roving ecosystem gradually settled in shape somewhat; out of the ravenous floods cascading through my frame, things calmned, and the few same animals, birds, and insects as well as, occasionally, certain regal energies that stand alongside them, started to show up.

On Sittaford Tor by Simon Blackbourn

"The time for this work was usually dusk. I would wait for a frittering of delicate lights to lace the air; they would denote whether it was time to settle back on my goatskins or to cross the rickety bridge and make my way back up the hill to my tent. This kind of vagabond sit took place hundreds of times over those years. I was in the presence of mighty things, and, in their way, they presented me with the big thoughts, over and over.

Zig Zag by Simon Blackbourn

"This is weft and the weave of story for me. The endless lyrical emerging of the earth's tremendous thinking and the humbling required to simply bear witness to it. And the extraordinary day, when for an hour or so you realise that you too are being witnessed. You are part of the big sound. You have pushed the coats aside and walked through the back of the wardrobe.

View from Hound Tor

"When my mouth had chewed on enough silence and my body had located its fragility in the face of winter, when darkness and sorrow had bruised up against solitude, I began to taste, fully, the price of my labour, and slowly I began to speak. And what came was praise.

Dartmoor Pony by Simon Blackbourn

"Inventive speech appears to be a kind of catnip to the living world. Especially prized has been the capacity to name, abundently and gracefully, dozens or even hundreds of secret names for beings you had spent your whole life strutting past, and muttering: willow, holly, bat, dog-rose. They are not their names. Not really.

Sentinels by Simon Blackbourn"So the first big move was not one of taking anything at all -- I'd done that quite successfully my whole life -- but of actually reorganising the detritus of my speech to formulate clear and subtle praise for the denizen I beheld in front of me. Not 'the Goddess of the River' but 'River Goddess.' The moment I squeezed 'of the' into the mix, thereby hovered an abstraction, and the fox-woman fled the hunter's hut.

  Green Curve
  Udder of the Silver Waters
  The Hundred Glittering Teeth
  Small Sister, Dawning Foam,
  On the Old Lime Bank.

This wasn't even particularly imaginative. It wasn't flattery.
And most of all, it wasn't for me. I wasn't comparing myself. It was simply describing, acutely, what I witnessed in front of me. Some things I realised I was never going to behold clearly. I wouldn't have language for butterfly, birch, ivy, and clay. There it is; they remain indistinct. Admired, but indistinct. But, grindingly slowly, some beings made themselves known to me, became a lintel overhead, a den in which I could claim a degree of kinship. Not what I would choose, but what chose me.

The Lone Tree bySimon Blackbourn

"So the first part of my apprenticeship to story began in a tiny stretch of woodland glade -- a corral of about twenty feet -- tenderising my own nature until the beings that wished stepped forward, and gave me the slow and halting opportunity to name just a few of the hundred secret ways they have of being themselves. Maybe four thousand years ago they weren't so secret...

Black-a-tor by Simon Blackbourn

"If I'd believed the propoganda of our times, I would have seen England as too farmed, too crushed-tight with humans and their history, soil too poisoned, forest too hurt and impoverished for such an education -- better to turn to the vastness of Siberia or some other pristine wilderness. Thank God I didn't. The eye of the needle is everywhere, abiding patiently for you to quilt your life to the Otherworld, which is really our deep natural function anyway. Small pockets of absolute aliveness, greenness, riven-deep mystery are all over our strange and bullishly magnificent isle.

Highland Cattle on Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"So my first move towards story was to give one up, beginning the slow move from a society of taking to a culture of giving. The living world was not there for my temporary edification or a transitory backdrop for my 'healing'; it was home. A home that scared me, rattled me, soothed me, shaped me. Without the investment of time and focus, the words I longed to speak would simply be phony on my tongue. The worst aspect of storytelling is when you hear the words spoken but know the teller never took the journey to get them. The teller just squatted by the well and stole the words when one who had made the journey crawled out of the Underworld. 

The Freedom of the Moor by Simon Blackbourn

The North Teign River Flowing Over Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"Well, I sure wasn't much of a teller at that point, but I knew I had river mud on my boots and green vines in the wine of my blood."

* * * * *

Scorhill Tree by Simon Blackbourn

Once again, I have paired Martin's words with Simon Blackbourn's evocative Dartmoor imagery. Simon is a photographer and moorland wanderer who lives down the road from me here in Chagford. You'll find more of his work in this previous post, as well as on his Instagram page. The title of each photograph can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) 

Both words and pictures have caused me refect on my own long apprenticeship to story...which was different to Martin's in many ways, but oddly similar in others. It was not an easy path by any means, but it's brought to place I am now, to hill and hound and husband and family. It gave me the tales I hold, and carry gently, and then pass on.

Sunset at Hound Tor by Simon Blackbourn

Delilah by Simon Blackbourn

The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.

Related posts: The mnemonics of words (Robert Macfarlane) and In the story made of dawn (David Abram).


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.


The names of mosses

Moss

Gathering Moss

Gathering Moss: A Natural & Cultural History of Mosses is Robin Wall Kimmerer's first book, for which she won the John Burroughs Medal for Natural History Writing in 2005. As in her second, better-known book, Braiding Sweetgrass, this text is written from the liminal place between two ways of understanding the natural world: through Kimmerer's training as a botanist, biologist, and environmental scientist, and through her relationship with plants as an indigenous woman of the Potawatomi Nation.

Black bear, artist unknownIn the introductory chapter of Gathering Moss, Kimmerer relates as uncanny experience at the Cranberry Lake Biological Station: a forested wilderness in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state. This remote region, accessible only by boat, was deeply familiar to her, for she had studied its mosses, lichens and other plants for many years -- first as a student, and then as a professor leading students there herself. On this particular day, however, she was stunned to discover something new: 

"I've walked this path more times than I can tell you," she writes, "and yet it was only today I was able to see them: five stones, each the size of a school bus, lying together in a pile, their curves fitting together like an old married couple secure in each other's arms. The glacier [which formed the landscape] must have pushed them into this loving conformation and then moved on.

Moss 2

"I circle all around the pile, in silence, brushing my fingertips over its mosses.

Moss 3

"On the eastern side, there is an opening, a cave-like darkness between the rocks. Somehow I knew it would be there. This door which I have never seen before looks strangely familiar. My family comes from the Bear Clan of the Potawatomi. Bear is the holder of medicine knowledge for the people and has a special relationship with plants. He is the one who calls them by name, who knows their stories. We seek him for a vision, to find the task we were meant for. I think I'm following a Bear."

Moss 4

Kimmerer crawls into the darkness between two boulders, following the sandy floor downward and around a corner, where a green light shines ahead.

"I think I must have crawled through a passage leading from beneath this pile of rock and out the other side. I wriggle from the tunnel and find myself not in the woods at all. Instead, I emerge into a tiny, grass-filled meadow, a circle enclosed by the walls of the stone. It is a room, a light-filled room like a round eye looking into the blueness of the sky. Indian paintbrush is in bloom and hay-scented fern borders the ring of the standing stones. I am inside the circle. There are no openings save the way that I have come and I sense that entrance closing behind me. I look all around the ring but I can no longer see the opening in the rock. At first I'm afraid, but the grass smells warm in the sunshine and the walls drip with mosses. How odd to hear the redstarts calling in the trees outside, in a parallel universe that dissipates like a mirage as the mossy walls enclose me.

Moss 5

"Within the circle of the stones, I find myself unaccountably beyond thinking, beyond feeling. The rocks are full of intention, a deep presence attracting life. This is a place of power, vibrating with energy exchanged at a very long wavelength. Held in the gaze of the rocks, my presence is acknowledged.

Moss 6

"The rocks are beyond slow, beyond strong, and yet yielding to a soft green breath as powerful as a glacier, the mosses wearing away their surfaces, grain by grain bringing them back slowly to sand. There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents. This is what has been called the 'dialectic of moss on stone -- an interface of immensity and minuteness, of past and present, softness and hardness, stillness and vibrancy, yin and yang.' The material and the spiritual live here together.

Moss 7

"Moss communities may be mysteries to scientists, but they are known to one another. Intimate partners, the mosses know the contours of the rocks. They remember the route of rainwater down a crevice, the way I remember the path to my cabin. Standing inside the circle, I know that mosses have their own names, which were theirs long before Linnaeus, the Latinezed namer of plants. Time passes.

Moss 8

"I don't know how long I was gone, minutes or hours. For that interval, I had no sensation of my own existence. There was only rock and moss. Moss and rock. Like a hand laid gently on my shoulder, I come back to myself and look around. The trance is broken. I can hear the redstarts again, calling overhead. The encircling walls are radiant with mosses of every kind, and I see them again, as if for the first time. The green and the gray, the old and the new in this place and in this time, they rest together for this moment between glaciers. My ancestors knew that rocks hold the Earth's stories, and for a moment I could hear them.

Moss 9

"My thoughts feel noisy here, an annoying buzz disrupting the slow conversation among the stones. The door in the wall has reappeared and time starts to move again. An opening into this circle of stones was made, and a gift given. I see things differently, from the inside of the circle as well as from the outside. A gift comes with responsibility. I had no will at all to name all the mosses in this place, to assign their Linnean epithets. I think the task given to me is to carry out the message that mosses have their own names. Their way of being in the world cannot be told by data alone. They remind me to remember that there are mysteries for which a measuring tape has no meaning, questions and answers that have no place in the truth about rocks and mosses.

Moss 10

"The tunnel seems easier on the way out. This time I know where I am going. I look back over my shoulder at the stones and the set my feet to the familiar path for home. I know I am following the Bear."

Moss 11

Moss 12

Gathering Moss

Words: The passage above is from Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Oregon State University Press, 20013). The quote within Kimmerer's text is from Moss Gardening by George Schenk (Timber Press, 1997). The poem in the picture captions is from Weaving the Boundary (Arizona Press, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Photographs of the mossy woods of Devon, and a vintage drawing of a black bear (artist unknown).

Related posts: Loving the wounded world and The magic of the world made visible.