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 bewtween 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).


The tang of fox

The North Teign River by Simon Blackbourn

As must be evident from my last post, I've been re-reading Scatterlings by storyteller, writer, and mythographer Martin Shaw -- and finding it just as rich, insightful, and magical as I did the first time around. Martin, who grew up a stone's throw from Dartmoor, runs the West Country School of Myth on the other side of the moor from us, and is soaked in the mythic history of the West Country through and through. In the pages of Scatterlings, he rambles the moor, shares its lore, and describes an apprenticeship in storytelling that is earthy, tricksy, and rooted firmly in the land. His work is geared to storytellers working in the old oral tradition, but it has much to say to those of us writing land-based fiction and nonfiction too.

Back to the Stone by Simon Blackbourn

The passage from the book that I'd like to share today begins with a story:

"Once upon a time," he writes, "there was a lonely hunter. One evening, returning to his hut over the snow, he saw smoke coming from his chimney. When he entered the shack, he found a warm fire, a hot meal on the table, and his threadbare clothes washed and dried. There was no one to be found.

Nun's Cross Farm by Simon Blackbourn

"The next day, he doubled back early from hunting. Sure enough, there was again smoke from the chimney, and he caught the scent of cooking. When he cautiously opened the door, he found a fox pelt hanging from a peg, and a woman with long red hair and green eyes adding herbs to a pot of meat. He knew in the way that hunters know that she was Fox-Woman-Dreaming, that she had walked clear out of the Otherworld. 'I am going to be the woman of this house,' she told him.

"The hunter's life changed. There was laughter in the hut, someone to share in the labour of crafting a life, and, in the warm dark when they made love, it seemed the edges of the hut dissolved in the vast green acres of the forest and the stars.

Christmas Day Rainbow by Simon Blackbourn

"Over time, the pelt started to give off its wild, pungent scent. A small price, you would think, but the hunter started to complain. The hunter could detect the scent on his pillow, his clothes, even his own skin. His complaints grew in number until one night the woman nodded, just once, her eyes glittering. In the morning she, and the pelt, and the scent were gone. It is said that to this day the hunter waits by the door of his hut, gazing over snow, lonely for even a glimpse of his old love.

Dartmoor Hawthorn by Simon Blackbourn

"We are that hunter, socially and, most likely, personally. The smell of the pelt is the price of real relationship to wild nature: its sharp, regal, undomesticated scent. While that scent is in our hut there can be no Hadrian's Wall between us and the world.

"Somewhere back down the line, the West woke up to the Fox Woman gone. And when she left, she took many stories with her. And, when the day is dimming and our great successes have been bragged to exhaustion, the West sits, lonely in its whole body for her. For stories are more than just a dagger between our teeth. More than just a bellow of conquest. We have turned our face away from the pelt. Underneath our wealth, the West is a lonely hunter.

Dartmoor Pony by Simon Blackbourn

"Around halfway through the last century, something wonderful happened. Mythology and faerie tales regained a legitimacy amongst adults as a viable medium for understanding the workings of their own psychological lives. By use of metaphor, tales of sealskins and witches' huts became the most astonishing language for what seemed to lurk underneath people's everyday encounters. The use of metaphor granted greater dignity and heightened poetics to the shape of their years.

"What was the glitch that lurched alongside? A little too much emphasis on these stories as entirely interior dramas that, clumsily handled, became something that removed, rather than forged, relationship to the earth. The inner seemed more interesting than anything going on 'out there.' We and our feelings still squatted pretty happily at the center of the action. There was not always that sharp tang of fox.

Resting by Simon Blackbourn

"When the Grimms and others collected folktales, they effectively reported back the skeletons of stories; the local intonation of the teller and some regional sketching out was often missing. Ironically, this stripped-back form of telling has been adopted into the canon as a kind of traditional style that many imitate when telling stories -- a kind of 'everywhere and nowhere' style.

Bog Cotton on Branscombe Loaf by Simon Blackbourn

"Now, while it's certainly true that there are stories designed for travel, for thousands of years even a story arriving in an entirely new landscape would be swiftly curated into the landscape of its new home. It would shake down its feathers and shape-leap a little or grow silent and soon cease to be told. No teller worth his or her salt would just stumble through the outline and think it was enough; the vivid organs would be, in part, the mnemonic triggers of the valley or desert in which the story now abided. This process was a protracted courtship to the story itself. It was the business of manners.

Scorhill Stone Circle by Simon Blackbourn

"Oral culture has always been about local embedding, despite the big human dilemmas that cannot help but sweep up between cultures. This may seem an unimportant detail when you are seeking only to poke around your childhood memories in a therapist's office, but it falls woefully short when this older awareness is reignited -- the absence of wider nature becomes acute, the tale flat and self-centered.

"I don't think we have the stories; the stories have us. They charge vividly through our betrayals, illicit passions, triumphs, and generosities. Pysche is not neatly contained in our chest as we scuttle between appointments; we dwell within psyche: gregarious, up close, chaotic, astonishing, sometimes tragic, often magical.

Dartmoor Foal by Simon Blackbourn

"Well, something piratical is happening. It is time to rescue the stories, rehydrate the language, scatter dialectic inflection amongst the blunt lines of anthropological scribbles, and muck up the typewriter with the indigo surge of whale ink. We're singing over the snow to the fox-woman."

As, indeed, we are -- in hedgerow storytelling and nature writing; in mythic arts and land-based fantasy fiction; in paint, puppetry, music and other mediums; in creative forms of environmental activism; and in the stories we craft of our lives.

Scorhill Stone Circle by Simon Blackbourn

I Am Sheep by Simon Blackbourn

Lone Tree at Fox Tor Mires by Simon Blackbourn

The very beautiful art today is by Simon Blackbourn, who lives and works here in Chagford. He has spent the last ten years immersing himself in Dartmoor, photographing its colours, shapes, textures and moods, its trees, rocks, bogs, rivers, wildlife, and weather. To me, this is the perfect pairing with Martin Shaw's words, for both of them illuminate the soul of the moor through the mediums of language and light.

To see more of Simon's photographs, please visit his Instagram page. The title of each piece here can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images.) 

Brent Tor by Simon Blackbourn

View from Greater Rocks, Hound Tor 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: A skulk of foxes, Fox stories, and Making sense of the more-than-human world.


The Pre-Raphaelites, re-imagined

Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Venus Verticordia by Donna Stevens

The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

from Love Letters to Rossetti

Today, let's look at contemporary photography inspired by Pre-Raphaelite art: images based on specific paintings by Rossetti, Millais, and others; and those that simply conjure the spirit of the art, with a moden twist.

Above, for example, Australian photographer Donna Stevens re-creates "Venus Verticordia" and "The Blue Bower" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti for her Love Letter to Rossetti series.

Below, English photographer Tom Hunter sets two classic Victorian paintings -- "Ophelia" by John Everett Millais and "Home from Sea" by Arthur Hughes -- in the Hackney Marshes of London. (For other works in this series, see: Reinterpreting the Pre-Raphaelites.)

from Life & Death in the Hackney Marshes

Ophelia by Millais

from Life and Death in Hackney

Home from the Sea by Arthur Hughes

And here are a few more art and fashion photographers who have come under the Pre-Raphaelite spell...

Below: Fashion shoots for Italian Vogue by American photographer Annie Leibovitz and Polish photographer Małgorzata Maj (now based in London).

Annie Leibovitz and Małgorzata Maj

Małgorzata Maj

Below, fashion shoots for Italian Vogue by English photographer Miles Adridge .

Pre-Raphaelite inspired photograph by Miles Adridge

Miles Aldridge

Below, "The Forgotten Duchess" and "The Fishmonger's Widow" by American photographer Caroline Knopf.

Caroline Knopf

The Fishmonger's Widow by Caroline Knopf

Below, two darkly Pre-Raphaelite images by German photographers Billy & Hells (Anke Linz and Andreas Oettinger).

Billy Und Hels

Billy Und Hels

Below, "Ophelia" by Russian photographer Ekaterina Belinskaya.

Ekaterina Belinskaya


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Avebury by Stu Jenks

With Halloween, Samhain, and the Days of the Dead approaching, here are songs of witchcraft, hauntings, devilish deeds, and magic by moonlight....

 Above:  "Lancashire, God's Country" from Cunning Folk (George Nigel Hoyle), a musician, folklorist, and storyteller based in London. The song, based on the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, comes from his gorgeous album Ritual Land, Uncommon Ground (2017). I also recommend the Cunning Folk blog for good posts on folklore, magic, and history.

Below: "Magpie," by the The Unthanks, from Northumbria. The song, written by David Dodds, is based on traditional counting rhymes, and appears on The Unthanks sixth album, Mount the Air (2015).

Above: "Devil's Resting Place" by singer/songwriter Laura Marling, based in London. The song is from her fourth album, Once I Was an Eagle (2013).

Below: "Pretty Polly," a murder ballad performed by Vandaveer (Mark Charles Heidinger and Rose Guerin), based in Kentucky.  This traditional song comes from the British Isles, but can also be found in American Appalachian songbooks. It appears on Vandaveer's album of murder ballads, Oh, Willie, Please (2013).

 

Above: The spooky, folkloric video for "Black Horse" by singer/songwriter Lisa Knapp, from south London. The song appears on her second album, Hidden Seam (2013), and features vocals by James Yorkston.

Below: "La Fille Damnee" (The Damned Girl)  by Breton harpist and songwriter Cécile Corbel. The song appears on her second album, SongBook Vol. 2 (2008).

The images today are of Avebury in Wiltshire and Callanish on the Isle of Lewis, photographed by my friend Stu Jenks. Visit Fizziwig Press to see more of his beautiful work.

Four Stones by Stu Kenks


And the horses rush in

Stu Jenks


Before the birth, she moved and pushed inside her mother.
Her heart pounded quickly and we recognized the sound of horses running:

                                                                                     the thundering of hooves on the desert floor.

Her mother clenched her fists and gasped.
She moans ageless pain and pushes: This is it!

Chamisa slips out, glistening wet and takes her first breath.
                                                                                     The wind outside swirls small leaves
                                                                                     and branches in the dark.

Her father's eyes are wet with gratitude.
He prays and watches both mother and baby -- stunned.

This baby arrived amid a herd of horses,
                                                                                      horses of different colors.

- Luci Tapahonso (from "Blue Horses Rush In")


Stu Jenks

Stu Jenks

I'm mixing the two lands that I love today: photographs of the ancient, mythic expanse of Dartmoor; and words from the ancient, mythic expanse of the Arizona desert.

The photographs are by Stu Jenks, who lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. He's best known for his gorgeous desert imagery -- but these pictures were taken when he visited us here on Dartmoor a few years ago. (To my eye, he has captured the spiritual connection of these two vastly different landcapes.)

The poem excerpt above is from Sáanii Dahataal/The Women Are Singing by Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso, who is also from Arizona.

Stu Jenks

''A Brown Pony Rubbing His Ass Against An Ancient Stone  A White Pony Scratching Her Neck Against Another  Scorhill Stone Circle  Dartmoor'' by Stu jenks

"The combination of song, prayer, and poetry," writes Tapahonso, "is a natural form of expression for many Navajo people. A person who is able to 'talk beautifully' is well thought of and considered wealthy. To know stories, remember stories, and retell them well is to have been 'raised right'; the family of such an individually is also held in high esteem. The value of the spoken word is not diminished, even with the influences of television, radio, and video. Indeed, it seems to have enriched the verbal dexterity of colloquial language, as for instance, in names given to objects for which a Navajo word does not exist, such as béésh nitsékees or 'thinking metal' for computers and chidí bijéí or 'the car's heart' for a car battery. I feel fortunate to have access to two, sometimes three languages, to have been taught the 'correct' way to use these languages, and to have the support of my family and relatives. Like many Navajos, I was taught that the way one speaks and conducts oneself is a direct reflection of the people who raised him or her. People are known by their use of language."

In this contentious political and social media age, "talking beautifully" is a concept worth thinking about, practicing, and spreading.

Stu Jenks copy

Stu Jenks

My online reading recommendation today also comes from the Arizona desert: "One Morning, a Stranger at Home" by Aleah Sato. It's one of my many book-marked pages from her beautifully ruminative blog, The Wild Muse -- but do have a look at some of the more recent posts too, if you're not already following Aleah's work.

And while I'm recommending treasures from the desert, Greta Ward's artwork is simply stunning, rich in the ineffable numinous spirit that the Sonoran Desert and Dartmoor share.

To end with, here are three Dartmoor pictures by Stu that I love for more personal reasons:

The first, called "Chagford Hoop Dance," brings spiral magic to our village Commons. The second is a portrait of Howard, performing with his band The Nosey Crows. The third is a portrait of our Tilly, in the woods behind my studio.

Chagford Hoop Dance

Howard Gayton performing with the band Nosey Crows  by Stu Jenks

Tilly by Stu JenksThe photographs above are by Stu Jenks (the titles can be found in the picture captions); all rights reserved by the artist. The poem except above is from "Blue Horses Rush In" by Luci Tapahonso, which can be found in the collection of the same name, and in Sáanii Dahataal/The Women Are Singing. Both books are published by The University of Arizona Press. All rights reserved by the author.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Kirsty Mitchell

I'd been thinking of chosing darkly gothic music for today in honor of Halloween...but in truth, the world seems plenty dark already. For me, ghosts and ghouls lose their appeal when the daily news provides nightmares enough. Instead, here are three songs full of light to keep us going during troubled times.

First, above: "Receive" by The Danberrys (Ben DeBerry & Dorothy Daniel),  an American roots duo from Nashville, Tennessee. This performance by The Danberrys and friends was filmed in Nashville a few months ago.

Second, below: "Beauty in these Broken Bones," a gospel tune from Red Moon Road and friends, filmed in Winnipeg, Mantibo in 2014.  Red Moon Road is a Canadian alt-folk trio consisting of Sheena Rattai, Daniel Péloquin-Hopfner, and Daniel Jordan. Their three albums mix original tunes with traditional songs in both English and French.

And last, below: a beautiful performance of "Seasons" by Red Moon Road and friends in Winnipeg earlier this year. It comes from their fine third album, Sorrows and Glories (2015).

The Way Home by Kristy Mitchell

The magical images today are by English artist, designer & photographer Kristy Mitchell.

"My earliest memories were always of the stories read to me by my mother as a child," she says, "how it felt to be curled into her side, listening to the rush of her breath as she paused for effect, before launching into yet another characters voice. She was an English teacher, and read to me almost everyday, to an age I could no longer admit to my friends. She instilled in me the most precious gift a mother could, her imagination and a belief in beauty, it became my root, and the place I constantly try to return to in my work, and my dreams."

Dryad by Kristy Mitchell

The Last Door of Autumn by Kristy Mitchell


Death in Folk & Fairy Tales

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Once upon a time there was a poor tailor who could barely feed his twelve children. When the thirteenth was born, the distraught man ran out to the road nearby determined to find someone to stand as godfather to the child. He knew of no other way that he could provide for his newborn son. The first person to pass was God, but the poor tailor rejected him. "God gives to the rich and takes from the poor. I'll wait for another to come." The second to pass was the Devil, but the poor tailor rejected him too. "He lies and cheats and leads good men astray. I'll wait for another." The third man to pass was Death, and the poor tailor considered him carefully. "Death treats all men alike, whether rich or poor. He's the one I'll ask."

Godfather Death by John B. GruelleNow Death had never been asked such a thing before, but he agreed at once. "Your child shall lack for nothing," he said, "for I am a powerful friend indeed." The years went by and he kept his word. The boy and his family lacked for nothing. When the boy finally came of age, his Godfather Death appeared before him. "It is time to establish you in the world. You are to become a great physician. Take this magical herb, the cure for any malady of this earth. Look for me when you're called to a patient's bed. If you see me at its head then give them a tincture of the herb and your patient will be well. But if you see me at the foot, you'll know it is their time to die. Your diagnosis will always be right, and you will be famous around the world."

And so it was. The young man became the most famous doctor of his time, and his fame spread far and wide until it reached the ears of the king. The king lay sick in his golden bed and he summoned the tailor's son to him. But when the young doctor arrived at last in the richly appointed bedchamber, he saw that the king was gravely ill and that Death stood at his feet. Now this king was much beloved and the young man wanted to cure him very much. He quickly instructed the court attendants to turn the bed the opposite way, and he then restored the king to health with a tincture of the magical herb. Death was not pleased. He shook his long, bony finger at his godson and said, "You must never cheat me again. If you do, it will be the worse for you."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

The young man took this warning to heart and did not cross his godfather again -- until the king's daughter fell ill and he was summoned back to the palace. This was the good king's only child. He was desperate to see her well. "Save her life," said the king, "I shall give you her hand in marriage." The doctor went to the lovely maiden's bedchamber, where Death was waiting. He stood at the foot of the princess's bed, ready to take her away. "Don't cross me again," his godfather warned, but the doctor was half in love already. He ordered the princess's bed to be turned and he gave her the herbal tincture.

The princess was healed immediately, but Death reached out a cold, white hand and clamped it on his godson's arm, saying. "You'll go with me instead." He took the young man into a cave, its wall niches covered with millions of candles. "Here," he said, "are candles burning for every life upon the earth. Each time a candle grows low and snuffs out, a life is ended. This one is yours." Death pointed to a candle that had burned down to a pool of wax. "Please," his godson begged, "for many years I was your faithful servant. Please, Godfather Death, won't you light a new candle for me?" Death gazed at him remorselessly. The candle sputtered and flickered out. The young doctor fell down dead.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

This story, titled Godfather Death, comes from the German folk tales of the Brothers Grimm. It can also be found in variant forms in a number of other countries as well -- such as The Shepherd and the Three Diseases from Greece, The Just Man from Italy, The Soul-Taking Angel from Armenia, The Contract with Azrael from Egypt, Dr. Urssenbeck from Austria, and The Boy With the Keg of Ale from Norway. It's one of a number of folk and fairy tales in which Death is personified: sometimes as a frightening figure, sometimes as a compassionate one, and sometimes as a matter-of-fact man or woman with a job to do.

There are many tales in which Death is out-witted, such as Jump In My Sack from Slovenia -- in which a young man pleases a powerful fairy who offers him two magic wishes. He asks for a sack which will suck in whatever he names, and a stick that will do all he asks. These wishes are granted, and the young man uses the sack to bring him meat and drink, until he comes to a great city and falls in with a group of gamblers. Death (or the Devil, in an Italian version of the tale) is among the gamblers in disguise, amusing himself at the gaming table by luring men to financial ruin and then collecting their souls when they are driven to suicide. The young man sees through Death's disguise. He orders the sack to suck Death up, then orders the stick to beat him soundly. At length Death begs for mercy, promising the young man whatever he wants. The young man asks for the restoration to life of all his gambling friends, and then orders Death to leave at once and to stay far away from him. But many years later, old and ill, he has second thoughts about this bargain. He now uses the sack to call Death back, and is grateful to be led away.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

In a number of tales Death is outwitted and banished with dire consequences. The old, the ill, and the fatally wounded do not die, but linger in agony until finally the importance of Death's role can no longer be ignored. In a Spanish tale, an old woman traps Death in her pear tree and will not let him go until he promises to never come back. The woman's name is Tia Miseria (Aunt Misery), and as long as Death keeps his promise to her, we'll have misery in the world. In a similar tale from Portugal, Death outwits the old woman in the end -- but finds her so shrewish, he promptly brings her back to her house and flees.

Some tales feature a Godmother Death, such as versions of the stories told in Slovenia and Moravia, and across the sea in America's Appalachian Mountain region. The depiction of death as male or female depended on the culture, the times, and the storyteller, but examples of both are widely found in folk tales the world over. In Death and the Maiden, a story known in both folk tale and folk ballad form, the interaction of a male Death figure and the well-born young woman he's come to claim has an almost seductive quality. She tries to bargain for her life, offering up her gold and jewels, as he gently explains that she must go with him that very night. In some pictorial representations of the story, Death is portrayed as a knight clad in black; in others, more frighteningly, he is a skeleton in knightly clothes. (Franz Schubert drew on this tale for his lovely Quartet in D Minor: Death and the Maiden, composed in 1824.) In a Turkish fairy tale, The Prince Who Longed for Immortality, a male Death figure is pitted against the Queen of Immortality. They wager over who will get the hero by throwing him up in the air. In a story from northern Italy, Death is portrayed as a lovely young woman. She's an unwelcome guest in the palace when her true identity is revealed (as she takes the handsome young king away) — but a welcome guest in the cottage of a poor, old woman who's been waiting for her.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

In early medieval representations, Death was usually masculine: powerful, pitiless, omnipresent. Clad in black, he was the Grim Reaper who cut men and women down in their prime, prince and poet and pauper alike. In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, we find more examples of Death as a woman — such as Donna La Morte in Petrarch's famous poem, "The Triumph of Death," who appears suddenly all "black, and in black" to claim the life of a young noblewoman. The Dance of Death (or Danse Macabre) first appeared in the middle of the 14th century as the Black Death ravaged its way across Europe. The Dance of Death originated in the form of a Christian spectacular play, performed in churchyards and cemeteries among charnel houses and graves. Death appeared here as masked, skeletal figures intent on leading away a series of victims (twenty-four in number) from all classes of society. The victims would protest, offering reasons why they and they alone should be spared, but in the end all are danced off to the grave while the fiddlers play. This was paired with sermons stressing that death could strike anyone at any time, exhorting the audience to prepare themselves and live free of sin.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

In Italy in the following century, death spectacles were more elaborately staged. As Charles B. Herbermann and George Charles Williams describe them (in the Catholic Encyclopedia): "After dark a huge wagon, draped in black and drawn by oxen, drove through the streets of the city. At the end of the shaft was seen the Angel of Death blowing the trumpet. On the top of the wagon stood a great figure of Death carrying a scythe and surrounded by coffins. Around the wagons were covered graves which opened whenever the procession halted. Men dressed in black garments on which were painted skulls and bones came forth and, seated on the edge of the graves, sang dirges on the shortness of human life. Before and behind the wagon appeared men in black and white bearing torches and death masks, followed by banners displaying skulls and bones and skeletons riding on scrawny nags. While they marched the entire company sang the Miserere with trembling voices."

Death in the Rider Waite tarot deckThere are many pictorial representations of the Triumph of Death and the Dance of Death, such as the woodcuts created by Hans Holbein in 1538. Holbein's series begins with the Creation, Temptation, Expulsion, and Consequences of the Original Sin, resulting in Death's entry into the world. The fifth woodcut depicts the dead as skeletons in a cemetery, cavorting with musical instruments. The subsequent images show various figures being danced to their graves, from a high-born Pope to a lowly Beggar. The final images show the Last Judgment, and the triumph of God over Death. Death also appears as a skeleton in the earliest extant Tarot cards, which first appeared in Italy and France in the 14th century. Use of the cards was limited then because each deck had to be painted by hand. With 16th century printing techniques, their use became more widespread. In the Marseille deck from this period, Death is a genderless, skeletal figure, holding a scythe and standing on a field of bones. The better known Rider Waite Tarot deck (illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith) dates back only to 1910, but draws on symbolic imagery from an earlier period. Here, Death appears as a skeletal knight, dressed in black armor, seated on a white horse. This imagery echoes Holbein's woodcuts, and Albrecht Dürer's 16th century engraving "Knight, Death, and the Devil."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

My friend and colleague Midori Snyder is a writer who has worked with the folklore of death in several ways ( in her elegiac faery novel Hannah's Garden, her children's story "Jack Straw" [read it online here], and in a novel-in-progress based on an Italian fairy tale),  so I asked her for her thoughts on the subject:

"There are many characters in folklore associated with death," Midori responded, "various death-announcers and death-dealers, but I would suggest that they are not actually Death figures, as in a Mr. or Ms. Death personified. Morrigan, the Irish goddess of War, for example, revels not only in the glory of war but also its violence and carnage: the taste of fear, the scent blood, the dying moments of warriors on the battlefield. Flying above the battle in the form of a black crow, she is a figure of Fate, like the Valyries of Norse myth, foretelling who will live and who will die...but she is not Death herself. The various incubi and succubi of European folk legend are death-dealers, in their actions are fatal to the luckless mortals who get tangled up with them...but they aren't Death, either. Their interest is in specific individuals (generally those who catch their sexual interest), whereas Death is an equal opportunity killer. Death takes the child, the adult, the old, the young, the strong, the weak. Death doesn't discriminate, but moves over everything in a constantly shifting, unpredictable pattern. That is what is so terrifying, the way death resists being slotted into a known plan. All we know is that it will happen -- but never when and never how. Tales such as Godfather Death, or the medieval Dance of Death, specifically addressed this idea and this terror -- as opposed to folklore's other death-dealing creatures, who select very specific victims. Edgar Allan Poe's frightening story 'Masque of the Red Death' plays with the idea that one imagines one can foretell and identify Death, and therefore keep him/her out. And what is chilling in the tale is the sheer ease with which Death infiltrates the masque with the rest of the revelers."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez 10

"I've also been thinking about the differences in those stories where the dead live in an alternate world to ours," Midori continues. "The Greek god of the Underworld, Hades, is not a Mr. Death figure, but, rather, he is the King of the Dead, content to rule over the souls who have come to him instead of going out and nabbing them himself. Likewise in the Christian tradition, where those who die are 'born to eternal life' in heaven or hell, Christ isn't a Mr. Death, and neither is Satan (especially if one thinks of Dante's image of him, frozen in a bed of ice), although both have something to say about dead souls in the afterlife.

"When we look at myth, specifically at that cycle of tales in which death is brought into the world (often by a bumbling Trickster figure), death is rarely personified. It moves like a force of nature, invisible and ubiquitous. Death happens. But in folk and fairy tales, death acquires a face, a figure, a point of consolidation -- which allows the protagonist of the tale, when confronted with his or her mortality, to recognize the moment at hand. The personified images of Mr. or Ms. Death are generally of the wanderer, the traveler, the one not bound by place or position. The very anonymity and flexibility of personified Death insures the equality with which death meets us all...high and low.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

"Death is also a mirror reflection of ourselves. In medieval and Renaissance pictorial representations, Death often wears a tattered, mirror version of the clothes his victim wears. It is, after all, for each of us, our Death that we meet, no one else's. In the stories where he appears, Mr. Death is a reflection -- a concrete, externalized image of the protagonist's death. And therefore his/her appearance has something to say about the character whose death it is that has arrived. From the Grim Reaper of medieval legend to the elegant young stranger in Peter Beagle's story 'Come Lady Death' or the 'woman in white' in Bob Fose's All That Jazz, from Shiva with her voluptuous form and deadly arms to Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch's haunting film Dead Man, Death appears in a variety of guises but also functions differently as a narrative sign. Coyote's death in Trickster myths, for example, is experienced (and read) very differently than the death proffered by the skeletal knight who comes to take the Maiden away. The first is read as temporary, because Coyote always come back to life -- while the other is frighteningly permanent. The skeleton reflects what the Maiden will become. Indeed, what we'll all become."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Death is a frequent theme in fairy tales -- as well as the stark realities of death's aftermath, for many stories begin with the death of one or both of the hero's parents. Fairy tale historian Marina Warner points out that death in childbirth was far more common in centuries prior to our own and the prevalence of step-children and orphans in fairy tales reflected a social reality. Many of these tales (in their pre-Victorian forms) were exceedingly violent, including those gathered by the Brothers Grimm in editions published for German children. Though the Grimms are known to have edited their fairy tales with a rather heavy hand, stripping them of sensuality and moral ambiguity, they had no such qualms about leaving much of the worst violence intact. (Indeed, as scholar Maria Tatar has noted, in some stories they beefed it up.) Murder, cannibalism, and infanticide are staples of the fairy tale genre. From Bluebeard with his chamber of horrors to the goodwife in The Juniper Tree who decapitates her inconvenient step-son, death is a very real threat in the tales -- yet it does not always have the last word. In Fitcher's Bird (a Bluebeard variant), the heroine not only outwits the wizard who aims to marry then murder her, but she's able to bring the hacked-up bodies of her predecessors back to life. The step-son in The Juniper Tree returns to earth in the form of a bird. Cinderella's dead mother returns as a fish (in the oldest, Chinese version of the story), a cow (in a Scottish variant), or a tree (in the version found in Grimms), watching over her daughter and whispering wise words of advice.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Another good example is the story of Snow White. Our heroine is not merely sleeping but dead, in the early versions of her tale: displayed in a glass coffin, her form incorruptible, like a saint's. The necrophilic overtones of the story are most evident in a 16th century Italian version called The Crystal Casket. In this tale, the heroine is persuaded to introduce her teacher to her widowed father. Marriage ensues, but instead of gratitude, the teacher treats her step-daughter cruelly. An eagle helps the girl to escape and hides her in a palace of fairies. The step-mother then hires a witch, who sells poisoned sweetmeats to the girl. She eats one and dies. The fairies revive her. The witch strikes again, disguised as a tailoress with a beautiful dress to sell. When the dress is laced up, the girl falls down dead -- and this time the fairies will not revive her. (They're miffed that she keeps ignoring their warnings.) They place the girl's body in a fabulous casket, rope the casket to the back of a horse, and send it off to the royal city.

Photograph by Daniel VazquezThe casket is soon found by a prince, who falls in love with the beautiful "doll" and takes the body home with him. "But my son, she's dead!" protests his mother. The prince will not be parted from his treasure; he locks himself away in a tower with the girl, "consumed by love." Soon he is called away to battle, leaving the doll in the care of his mother. The queen ignores the macabre creature -- until a letter arrives warning her of the prince's impending return. Quickly she calls for her chambermaids and commands them to clean the neglected corpse. They do so, spilling water in their haste, badly staining the maiden's dress. The queen thinks quickly. "Take off the dress! We'll have another one made, and my son will never know." As they loosen the laces, the maiden returns to life, confused and alarmed. The queen hears her story with sympathy, dresses the girl in her own royal clothes, and then, oddly, hides the girl behind lock and key when the prince comes home. He immediately asks to see his "wife." (What on earth was he doing in that locked room?) "My son," says the queen, "the girl was dead. She smelled so badly that we buried her." He rages and weeps. The queen relents. The heroine is summoned, her story is told, and the two are now properly wed.

Author and fairy tale scholar Veronica Schanoes notes, "Many fairy tales and myths concern the fantasy that if you love someone enough, you can bring them back from the dead. In fairy tales, that effort is usually successful and the wish is fulfilled: Sleeping Beauty wakes up; Snow White revives; the older sisters in Fitcher's Bird are resuscitated; the heroine recovers her prince in East of the Sun, West of the Moon; etc. But in myth, the stories tend to be more poignantly about the limits of human love and its inability to defeat death: Gilgamesh can't bring back Enki; Achilles can't bring back Patroclus; Theseus cannot rescue Pirithous; Orpheus fails; and even though she is a goddess, Demeter's love for Persephone can only bring her back part-way."

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

The fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen often touch on the subject of death, but the ones that address the subject directly are among his most pious and sentimental, better suited to Victorian tastes than they are to ours today. One of the more interesting of them is The Story of a Mother, in which Death knocks on a woman's door and takes her beloved son away. The distraught woman determines to follow, and makes her long, weary way to Death's realm. There, she finds a greenhouse filled to the bursting with flowers and trees of all kinds -- each one representing a single life somewhere on earth. When Death arrives, she tricks him into giving back the life of her son -- but Death shows her the future and the terrible life her child will lead. She knows then that his death is god's will, and a mercy, and she is at peace.

Andersen's very best tale about death has deservedly become a classic. The Nightingale is the story of a Chinese Emperor and a bird with an exquisite song. The Emperor dotes on the bird for awhile, then replaces the humble, faithful creature with a golden mechanical replicate...until the night that Death comes for him, squatting heavily on his chest:

Opening his eyes he saw it was Death who sat there, wearing the Emperor's crown, handling the Emperor's gold sword, and carrying the Emperor's silk banner. Among the folds of the great velvet curtains there were strangely familiar faces. Some were horrible, others gentle and kind. They were the Emperor's deeds, good and bad, who came back to him now that Death sat on his heart.

"Don't you remember?" they whispered one after the other. "Don't you remember—?" And they told him of things that made the cold sweat run on his forehead.

"No, I will not remember!" said the Emperor. "Music, music, sound the great drum of China lest I hear what they say!"

But nothing will drown out the whispers. The Emperor's mechanical bird sits silent, for there is no one to wind it up. Then the real nightingale arrives, having heard wind of the emperor's plight. He sings so beautifully that the phantoms fade and even Death stops to listen. The nightingale bargains for the emperor's life, and Death departs.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

Death underlines the magical stories that make up The Arabian Nights, for it is the reason Scheherazade spins her tales: to save herself and her sister. "There's something almost Trickster-ish about Scheherazade," Midori points out. "She uses storytelling to keep death at bay -- but she does so by never finishing the tale in the morning, where its conclusion might signal the arrival of her own promised death. Instead, she leaves off at a cliffhanger, which requires yet another night to finish -- and then promptly starts another tale before the night is over. The moment of completion (the rehearsal of 'death') does come -- but in the middle of the night, which enables her to resurrect herself in another tale before the sun rises. So it's as though each story produces its own moment of death, followed by a new work that resurrects the storyteller. It's like trickster's death in the Coyote stories, a death that is never final. He's always returning, repeating a movement between death and creation."

It fairy tales, too, death is not always final; it's sometimes an agent of change and transformation. Sleeping Beauty in her death-like sleep, Snow White in her glass coffin: this is a mere rehearsal for death, and out of it new life is created (literally, in the case of Sleeping Beauty, who gives birth to twins as she lies asleep and wakes as they try to suckle). In Trickster myths, the connection between death and life, destruction and creation, is usually made clear; but in fairy tales too, death is not always an ending, or at least not just an ending. It can have within it the seeds of new life, of change, of transformation — which is what these tales, at their most basic level, are so often all about.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

"Death in folklore, when not associated with the more violent sorts of death-dealers, is generally rather ambiguous," Midori concludes, "which is of course the nature of death itself. At some point we must accept and embrace it, because it is the fate of us all -- yet we resist it (at least at certain times in our lives) because of its finality. Death figures in folk and fairy tales allow us to personalize our contact with death long enough to confront it, to argue with it, to pit our wits against it . . . and perhaps, if we are lucky, to finally make peace with it."

This is fertile ground for fantasy writers, some of whom have already made good use of it: Ursula K. Le Guin in The Farthest Shore, Jane Yolen in Cards of Grief, Rachel Pollack in Godmother Night, Neil Gaiman in his Sandman comics, etc.. But there's still much territory to explore as the fantasy genre ages and matures... and as we fantasy writers and artists age and mature along with it.

Photograph by Daniel Vazquez

For an excellent discussion of death in fantasy literature, I highly recommend "Imagined Afterlives," a new essay by Katherine Langerish.

The marvelously macabre photographs today are by the American photographer Daniel Vazquez, who lives and works in the Bay Area of California. Please visit his "American Ghoul" website and Instagram page to see more of his stunning work (and to purchase his prints).

Photograph by Daniel VazquezPictures: The photographs above are by Daniel Vazquez; all rights reserved by the artist. The illustrations are: "Godfather Death" by Johnny B. Gruelle (1880-1938) and the Death tarot card by Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951). Words: Many thanks to Midori Snyder for her contribitions to this essay. (Go here to read some of her own essays on myth and folklore, highly recommended.) All rights to the text above reserved by the authors.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Dorothea Lange

With all the troubles in the UK and America right now, I initially thought about posting uplifting songs today...but decided to go in the opposite direction instead, showing how folk musicians past and present have looked at hard times unflinchingly, and created works of art from them.

Above, "Hard Times of Old England" performed by Gigspanner, a trio consisting of master fiddler Peter Knight (formerly of Steeleye Span), Roger Flack and Vincent Salzfaas. The song is a folk classic from the 18th century; the video pairs it with the hard times caused by Thatcher, and her brutal response to the miners' strikes of 1980s. It comes from Gigspanner's third album, Layers of Ages (2015).

Below: "Trouble in the Fields" by Nanci Griffith, a song about the American Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, accompanied by photographs of the period -- most of them by Dorothea Lange. The song was originally released on Griffith's fifth album, Lone Star State of Mind (1987).

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

Above, a song about families on the road during the Great Depression, looking for work and shelter wherever they could find it. "Harvest Gypsies" was written by Boo Hewerdine,  sung here by Kris Drever, from Orkney, Scotland. It comes from Drever's first solo album, Black Water (2006).

Below: "Hard Times," performed by the American roots duo Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. The song was written by Welch, recorded on their sixth album, The Harrow & the Harvest (2011).

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

Above,  "It's a Hard Life" by Nanci Griffith, from her eighth album, Storms (1989). Griffith was raised in Texas but has Scots-Irish roots;  the song draws upon both sides of her history.

And last, below: "The Poorest Company," performed by Kris Drever, John McCusker, Roddy Woomble, and Heidi Talbot in Glasgow, Scotland. The song is by Drever, recorded on the Drever, McCusker, Wooble album Before the Ruins (2008).

If we turned from folk to blues, of course, we'd have a whole genre of music inspired by hard times...but that's a post for another day....

Dorothea Lange

The photographs are by the great documentary photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), taken during the 1930s and 1940s. They are identified in the picture captions.


The borders of language

In the video above, "Between Two Worlds," the wonderful Bill Moyers (whom you may remember from his program on Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth) interviews a friend of mine from back in my Tucson days: Luis Alberto Urrea, who now lives with his wife and children up north, in Illinois. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, Luis writes about the U.S./Mexico border region better than just about anyone, forming that work into fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, all of it highly recommended. (You'll find a discussion of his luminous novel The Hummingbird's Daughter in this previous post.)

In featuring this interview, I don't want to veer our exploration of borders into the contentious realm of immigration politics -- an important topic in its own right, but one that falls beyond the purview of this blog. Rather, what I want to spotlight here are the ways that writers (and other artists) use their gifts in response to the world around them: whether it's Elif Shafak telling stories of  her Turkish childhood, or Miquel Angel Blanco preserving the old lore of Spain in his library of trees, or Rachel Taylor-Beales reinterpreting selkie myths to reflect on modern tales of exile and displacement, or Jackie Morris following a falcon's journey to the human world and back into the wild.

As writers and artists we use words and paint (among other materials) to witness and re-create the world -- whether we do this directly as journalists and creators of Realist works, or indirectly (but subtly and deeply) through the symbolism of Fantasy and Mythic Arts.

Grand Canyon Prayer Tower, Arizona by Stu Jenks

In his 1998 essay "Nobody's Son," Luis had this to say about the border-crossing nature of words themselves:

"Home isn't just a place, I have learned. It is also a language. My words not only shape and define my home. Words -- not only for writers -- are home. Still, where exactly is that?

"Jimmy Santiago Baca reminds us that 'Hispanics' are immigrants in our own land. By the time time Salem was founded on Massachusetts Bay, any number of Urreas had been prowling up and down the Pacific coast of our continent for several decades. Of course, the Indian mothers of these families had been here from the start.'

Miller's Spiral, Pima County, Arizona by Stu Jenks

"Forget about purifying the American landscape," Luis continues, "sending all those ethnic types back to their homelands. Those illegal humans. (A straw-hat fool in a pickup truck once told my Sioux brother Duane to go back where he came from. 'Where to?' Duane called. 'South Dakota?')

"The humanoids are pretty bad, but how will we get rid of all those pesky foreign words debilitating the United States?

"Those Turkish words (like coffee). Those French words (like maroon). Those Greek words (like cedar). Those Italian words (like marinate). Those African words (like marimba).

"English! It's made up of all these untidy words, man. Have you noticed?

"Native American (skunk), German (waltz), Danish (twerp), Latin (adolescent), Scottish (feckless), Dutch (waft), Caribbean (zombie), Nahuatl (ocelot), Norse (walrus), Eskimo (kayak), Tatar (horde) words! It's a glorious wreck (a good old Viking word, that).

The Folly Atop The Biscuit, the Mustang Mountains, Arizona by Stu Jenks

"Glorious, I say, in all its shambling mutable beauty. People daily speak a quilt of words, and continents and nations and tribes and even enemies dance all over your mouth when you speak. The tongue seems to know no race, no affiliation, no breed, no caste, no order, no genus, no lineage. The most dedicated Klansman spews the language of his adversaries while reviling them."

Without Bozette, Dripping Springs, Arizona by Stu Jenks

"I love words so much," Luis concludes. "Thank god so many people lent us theirs or we'd be forced to point and grunt. When I start to feel the pressure of the border on me, when I meet someone who won't shake my hand because she has suddenly discovered I am half Mexican (as happened with a landlady in Boulder), I comfort myself with these words. I know how much color and beauty we Others add to the American mix."

Wupatki Flame Spiral, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Over here in the old world of Europe, it's both easy and fashionable to look down one's nose at the crass racism of Little Sister America...and yet the immigration and refugee crisis unfolding on European borders is not so very different.

In Britain, as in America, there are those demanding that "they" be sent back where they came from (whoever "they" may be, Syrian children or Polish carpenters); and there are those reaching out a helping hand; and there are those going about their daily lives pretending none of it is happening...not necessarily due to hard-heartedness, but, sometimes, to sheer exhaustion from what their daily lives entail.

Gidleigh Church, Gidleigh, Devon by Stu Jenks

East of Merrivale, Dartmoor, Devon by Stu Jenks

A question that often arises in our various discussions on this blog is: What, as artists, can we do about _____ ? Whatever _____ may happen to be: displaced people fleeing war and poverty, hungry families in Foodbank queues here at home, vanishing animal habitats, oceans ailing...forests falling to the ax...and on and on and on. I have no simple answer, for it's a question I still ask myself, in one way or another, almost every damn day. But what I do know is this:

I believe that the ability to create (in any form, whether at the desk or easel -- or in the kitchen, the garden, the community hall) -- is a gift, and gifts are meant to be passed on. They are meant to be used, to be of use, and that's a geis, a wyrd, I do not take lightly.

Some of us use our gifts in the direct service of activism; others, in the indirect service of creating "beauty in a broken world" (to use Terry Tempest William's phrase), as a means of lifting hearts, mending spirits, and reminding us of what we're fighting for. Either way, it is important, I think, to be mindful of what we're putting out into the world. Art can envision, conjure, build, bind, heal, witness, dignify, and illuminate.  It can also destroy, distract, diminish, deflect, justify, obfuscate, and lie.

"I don't think writers are sacred," Tom Stoppard once said, "but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little..."

And so it bears thinking about just what direction we are nudging it in.

West Kennet Long Barrow by Stu Jenks

Scorhill Stone Circle, Dartmoor, Devon by Stu Jenks

Like Luis Urrea, Terry Tempest Williams is a writer skilled in placing "the right words in the right order," such as these, which are tacked above my desk:

"Bearing witness to both the beauty and pain of our world is a task that I want to be part of. As a writer, this is my work. By bearing witness, the story that is told can provide a healing ground. Through the art of language, the art of story, alchemy can occur. And if we choose to turn our backs, we've walked away from what it means to be human."

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall by Stu Jenks

The beautiful art here, as you may have recognized, is by the Tucson-based photographer Stu Jenks. The top five photographs were taken in northern and southern Arizona; the lower seven in Devon and Cornwall while he was visiting us in 2013. Please go to Stu's blog to learn more about his art, music, and books.

Moor Pony Foal, Dartmoor, Devon by Stu Jenks

Tilly Windling-Gayton with Daffodils, Nattadon Woods, Chagford, Devon by Stu JenksBetween Two Worlds appeared on American Public Television in 2012, and can be found online in the Moyers & Company archives. The passage by Luis Alberto Urrea comes from his essay collection Nobody's Son (The University of Arizona Press, 1998).  The quote by Tom Stoppard is from his play The Real Thing (1982). The quote from Terry Tempest Williams comes from an interview in Listening to the Land: Conversations About Nature Culture and Eros by Derrick Jensen (Chelsea Green, 2004); you can read a longer passage from the interview here.  All rights to the video, text, and imagery above are reserved by their creators.


Kissing the lion's nose

Elena Shumilova

Elena Shumilova

I'm going to stay with Jay Griffith's juicy book Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape for two more posts, the first on the subject of children and animals:

"That children love animals is a manifest truth," writes Griffiths, "and they also seek love from them. So crucial are animals to children's happiness that in a significant UNICEF study of childhood well-being children specified that pets were one of the top four most important things for their happiness. 'I want a kitten...a puppy...a horse,' children clamor for years, and this is perhaps only the most audible part of their love. Children talk wordlessly to their pets, taking a dog in their arms or, upset, burying their faces in a cat's fur and crying. They whisper secrets to their pets and feel understood by them. Children want to talk with the animals, eat with them, curl up with them and think with them, for children intuitively understand that animals are guides for the mind in metaphor-making."

Elena Shumilova

"Children's authors, peopling their books with animals, know that children are fascinated by tales of crossing the species-fences, and the stories work carnally, suggesting a nuzzling sensuality, fostering a child's animal nature and answering a longing deep within children to be suckled by earthmilk, pressing their faces into the warm flank of horse, lion or wolf, breathing in the spicy messageful air of animals, falling asleep in their paws.

Elena Shumilova

"Aslan. To run your fingers through his golden mane, to see 'the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes,' to feel that humming, purring warmth and its ferocious power; 'whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten,' the children cannot say. The writer Francis Spufford recalls a tender trespass of his childhood when he was suddenly seized with the desire for Aslan and reached his face up to a poster of the lion on his bedroom wall. Stealthily, heartfeltedly, he kissed the lion's nose. From early childhood, I remember that feeling, wanting to nudge myself into the musk and silage, the mushroom, rust and grass of an animal's den, wanting to know with my whole body the felt world of fur and pawpads and to feel the animal world in its fullness, its yawls, hackles and green-scent, to be batted by the paws of the furred earth, my senses drunk with it, living in the whiskey of animality. And to kiss the lion's nose.

Elena Shumilova

"There's a fox in the garden. Those words would thrill us to the core. My brothers and I would crowd to the window in pressed silence, breathless, excited and honored that something so wild might bestow on us for a Elena Shumilovaflickering moment its feral presence. Birds and animals come into our lives as 'guests,' say Mohawk tales, and people must treat them well....Animal-helpers snuffle in the hedges of fairy tales and they feather the tree-tops with bird-advice. In the nick of time, the winged lion or armored bear swerve into stories. If the fairy tale hero treats an animal kindly, it offers its skills, pecking out grain or tracking a scent beyond human guesswork.

"Creatures are friends to the psyche of a child. When Henry Old Coyote, from the Crow nation, was a boy, his grandfather would wake him early to listen to the birds and encouraged the child to know the exuberant joy of this bird medicine and to keep it inside him all day. I'm told that in Tamil Nadu, India, a child suffering nightmares may be cured by walking under an elephant's belly, being blessed by Ganesh. The nightmares, knowing better than to contend with an elephant, beat a retreat."

Elena Shumilova

Elena Shumilova

"'In the old days the animals and the people were very much the same...They thought the same way and felt the same way. They understood each other,' says Simon Tookoome, an Inuit elder, recalling a belief common to many indigenous cultures. As a child, he adopted animals, including a caribou which followed him everywhere like a dog, and, at different times, five wolves."

Elena Shumilova

Elena Shumilova

"One strange peculiarity of modern childhood in the West is its estrangement from the animal world and the consequent silence of that world, its unmessaged, listless, speechless vacancy. Poet Gary Snyder speaks of the necessity to 'Bring up our children as part of the wildlife,' but the dominant culture treats wildlife as insignificant to children's happiness, which, as children themselves know, is a terrible oversight. Children's classics such as Anna Sewell's Black Beauty and Michael Morpurgo's mesmerizing War Horse touch the hearts of millions of children as they willingly listen to the experience of creatures other than human."

Elena Shumilova

"Shape-shifting is an epistemology, a way for people to increase their sensitivities, to perceive the world with an imaginative leap, to feel through the body of another, metaphorically. Pueblo Indian children, from three years old, transform themselves into antelope and deer, they don fox skins, deer hooves or parrot feathers. In rituals and dances, through lyrics, choreography and costume, the child embodies earth-knowledge -- of corn and cloud, of sun and lightning, of buffalo and skunk -- and steps through the looking glass. Animal nature is another side of human nature, a mirror, by twilight, by twolight, where the twinnedness of those myths is reflected....Through a relationship with animals, we human add to the repertoire of our senses the beady alertness of a bird, the scent-subtlety of a mole, the smooth-swum escape of the fish. This is the apprenticeship which children gleefully follow, given half a chance."

I certainly would have followed it as a child, being one of those kids with no interest in dolls but who carried stuffed animals everywhere. I've been making up for lost time ever since, inviting animals into my writing, art, and life. Embracing "the whiskey of animality," to use Jay Griffith's wonderful phrase, and kissing the lion's nose. Or at least my dog's, which is just as good.

Elena Shumilova

The images in this post are by Elena Shumilova, who has become known around the world for her photographs of her sons and other children and animals on a farm in rural Russia. To see more of her charming work, go here.

Elena Shumilova

Elena ShumilovaRelated posts: Wild Neighbors, The Speech of Animals, "Word Magic, and The Animals That We Are."