The impudent heroines of fairy tales

The Green Serpent by H J Ford

Kate Bernheimer Lecture  Tucson  Arizona  Oct 2020

My friend and colleague Kate Bernheimer is one of the modern masters of the fairy tale form, having worked with the tales throughout her career as author, editor, teacher, collector, lecturer, and founder of The Fairy Tale Review. I highly recommend her recent lecture Power Imagined: Fairy Tales as Survival Strategies, in which she discusses Little Red Riding Hood, Donkeyskin, Snow White, fairy tale history, Jewish history, family trauma, women's trauma, Anne Frank, Amy Winehouse, and so much more. It's simply brilliant. Go here to see it.

How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy TalesI also recommend Kate's books -- including her adult fiction (The Complete Tales of Kezia Gold, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold, Horse Flower Bird, and How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales), her children's fiction (The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum, The Lonely Book, and The Girl Who Wouldn't Brush Her Hair), and her essay collections (Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales and Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales).

I particularly recommend My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, winner of the 2011 World Fantasy Award. This book presents fairy-tale-inspired stories by Aimee Bender, Francesca Lia Block, Kathryn Davis, Karen Joy Fowler, Neil Gaiman, Shelley Jackson, Kelly Link, Joyce Carol Oates, Katherine Vaz, Joy Williams, and many others from across the mainstream fiction/fantasy divide, with a dazzling range of styles from straight-forward retellings to exquisitely fractured experimental forms.

In the volume's Introduction, Kate writes:

Little Red Riding Hood by G.P. Jacomb-Hood"A few years ago I presented a short manifesto about fairy tales to a large audience of creative writing professors and students. I was on a panel dedicated to nonrealist literature. I made an argument that fairy tales were at risk -- they had been misunderstood, appropriated without proper homage by the realists and fabulists alike. Only at a writers' conference could this sort of statement produce a gasp. (Yes, say what you will.) I am always that person in the room telling everyone, genuinely, that I love it all -- realism, high modernism, surrealism, minimalism. I like stories. But apparently my defense of fairy tales, which I consider so poignantly inclusive, marginalized, and vast, was seen as outlandish....My statement, intended to be inspiring, to gather support for this humble, inventive, and communal tradition, created vibration, metallic and sharp. I realized the full weight of the fact that celebrating fairy tales in the center of a talk about 'serious literature' to a roomful of writers was controversial....I realized then that while people may know and love -- or love to hate -- these stories, they really are not aware of the many ways they pervade contemporary literature.

"As merely one example, the National Book Foundation, which administers the [American] National Book Awards, states that 'retelling of folk-tales, myths, and fairy-tales are not eligible' for their awards. Imagine guidelines that state, 'Retellings of slavery, incest,and genocide are not eligible.' Fairy tales contain all of those themes, and yet the implication is that something about fairy tales is simply...not literary. Perhaps the snobbery has something to do with their association with children and women. Or it could be that, lacking any single author, they discomfort a culture enchanted with the myth of the heroic artist. Or perhaps their tropes are so familiar that they are easily understood as cliché. Possibly their collapsed world of real and unreal unsettles those who rely on that binary to give life some semblance of order."

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales

Kate has done more to champion modern fairy tale literature than anyone else I know, and I could not admire her more for this work. I urge you to take the time to listen to her insightful, timely, witty, and deeply moving talk above.

Wild Swans by Helen Stratton

The passage quoted above is from My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Penguin Books, 2010). All rights reserved by the author. The fairy tale drawings above by H.J. Ford (1860-1941), G.P. Jacomb-Hood (1857-1929), and Helen Stratton (1867-1961).


Telling stories back to the land

White Horse Hill by Danielle Barlow

Hedgehog, Deer, and Salmon by Danielle Barlow

Devon landscape  summer  by Danielle Barlow

I was delighted to learn that Sharon Blackie (author of If Women Rose Rooted, etc.) also uses the term "re-storying" the land to describe the role that mythic artists can play to help restore our imaginative and physical connection to the beautiful, ailing planet we live on. Re-wilding, re-storying, re-engaging with the natural world in whatever place that we live -- urban, suburban, or rural -- is creative work, restoration work, justice and healing work all in one.

In an essay for the Center for Humans and Nature, Sharon writes:

"There are two key elements to this work of re-storying the Earth: first, coming to know the stories which are already existent in the land, and second, weaving our own stories into the fabric of the land, by engaging with it in ongoing acts of co-creation.

"When the places and features of the landscape are tied to its old stories, knowing and remembering those stories as we walk through the land can help to weave us into its history, connecting us to ancestral voices and raising our awareness of the continuity of human relationship with the place -- so helping us to establish meaningful and enduring bonds with the land in which we live."

You can read the full essay here.

Weasel and Wood Mouse by Daniel Barlow

Kestor Row by Danielle Barlow

I can't think of an artist whose life and work embodies this more than my friend and village neighbour Danielle Barlow. Painter, illustrator, herbalist, incense maker, pony keeper, moor woman, myth spinner and hedgewitch, she is constantly listening to the whispered stories of Dartmoor, and weaving tales of her own into the land's Dreaming.

"I trained in textiles, and then in horticulture," she writes, "before returning to painting, my first love. These days I work primarily in ink and watercolour. I still juggle all three elements - painting, stitching and herbalism. Deeply rooted in this ancient landscape of ours, my work draws heavily on folklore and mythology, and explores the deep connection, both physical and spiritual, between people and the land they inhabit. The spirit of this land has sunk deep into my heart, and as I wander its ancient tracks, I find myself endlessly fascinated by the shifting relationships between human, animal, plants and land. My  paintings above all attempt to capture the elusive ‘Genius Loci - Spirit of Place’."

Otters by Danielle Barlow

Selkie by Danielle Barlow

Visit Danielle's website to see more of her work, including her beautiful, Dartmoor-inspired oracle deck. Visit her Facebook page to see new pieces, works-in-progress, and sumptuous photographs of the green world around her; and to learn more about her process as she works with paints, textiles, and plants. You'll also find her on Instagram and Etsy. She has recently finished the enormous labour of creating a new tarot deck, The Witches' Wisdom Tarot (Hay House Publishers), in collaboration with writer Phyllis Curot. Many Chagford friends and neighbours posed for the artwork in this one (including me). It comes out at the end of October, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon UK here, and Amazon US here.

Between Times by Danielle Barlow

Wolves and a Beltane hare by Danielle Barlow

Drawing by Danielle Barlow

Danielle Barlow

All rights to the quoted text and imagery above reserved by Sharon Blackie and Danielle Barlow.


Telling the hard stories

Vasilisa

In "Fairy Tale Logic: A Conversation With Alice Hoffman," the author discusses why she drew on folkloric elements to tell a story about the Holocaust in her recent novel The World That We Knew:

"I grew up read­ing fairy tales and, as a kid, I always pre­ferred them to oth­er children’s lit­er­a­ture, because I felt like they told the truth. I felt like sym­bol­i­cal­ly, they got to the deep­est emo­tion­al truth. That feel­ing about fairy tales has stayed with me, and also the feel­ing that these were the orig­i­nal sto­ries, told by grand­moth­ers to grand­chil­dren, to intro­duce them to the world — all that’s good and all that’s bad, what to be wary of and how to live your life. The oth­er part of it, though, was that there have been so many nov­els writ­ten about the Holo­caust, and I real­ly haven’t read any of them. I have read a ton of lit­er­a­ture on the Holo­caust, but not nov­els. The sto­ry of the Holo­caust is so illog­i­cal and irra­tional. It makes no sense. Why would peo­ple act this way? It’s inhu­mane. It just defies log­ic. The only way that I felt I could tell it was to use fairy-tale log­ic to try to make sense of a world where noth­ing made sense."

Hansel & Gretel by Charles Robinson

In an earlier piece, from 2004, Hoffman also defended the value of fairy tales and why we are drawn to tell and re-tell them:

"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.

"It has long been my belief that writers of fiction fall into two categories: those who write to explain their lives, and those who write to escape them. Both, I suppose are looking for some 'truth' about their experiences, but the former are shackled by their worlds; the latter are free to imagine new ones. 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."

Hansel & Gretel by Lisbeth Zwerger

Hoffman's World War II novel, The World That We Knew, follows a trail blazed by several previous works of Holocaust literature making use of fairy tale themes: Jane Yolen's novel Briar Rose (1992), Lisa Goldstein's short story "Breadcrumbs and Stones" (published in Snow White, Blood Red, 1993), and Louise Murphy's novel The True Story of Hansel and Gretel (2003) in particular -- as well as Peter Rushford's Kindergarten (1976), a too-little-known novel for young readers centered on a fairy tale artist with a Holocaust history.

In listing these antecedents to Hoffman's book, I don't mean to imply that her work is derivative, for it is the nature of fairy tales to be retold, and the nature of fantasy books to be in conversation with each other -- in fact, it's one of the hallmarks of our field. Whether or not Hoffman is familiar with the stories I've listed, a certain number of her readers will be, and it is through readers as well as through writers and their texts that the Great Conversation continues.

Legend of Rosepetal by Lisbeth Zwerger

Ellen Kushner and I were recently talking about this aspect of fantasy literature as she was preparing her talk for the launch of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow. We can read fantasy books as stand-alone works, of course; and, if the tale has been well constructed, the experience will be a satisfying one; but to fully appreciate the best works in our field requires knowing something of its history. Fantasy fiction is rarely (if ever) sui generis; it exists within the context of a rich and varied tradition, written in reponse to, or against, what has come before. It is an art form that does not depend on novelty for effect, but constantly references older stories and tropes, re-fashioning them into new shapes.

Fantasy writers, said Lloyd Alexander (as quoted in last Thursday's post), "draw from a common source: the 'Pot of Soup,' as Tol­kien calls it, the 'Cauldron of Story,' which has been simmering away since time immemorial. The pot holds a rich and fascinating kind of mythological minestrone. Almost everything has gone into it, and almost any­ thing is likely to come out of it: morsels of real history -- spiced­ and spliced -- with imaginary history, fact and fancy, daydreams and nightmares. It is as inexhaustible as those legendary vessels that could never be emptied."

The Arabian Nights illustrated by Edmund Dulac

In the contemporary fantasy field, Tolkien's 'Pot of Soup' contains not only the myth cycles, epics, and heroic romances he drew upon for The Lord of the Rings but also fantastical stories of a more recent vintage, including those by Tolkien himself. Themes, characters, imaginary landscapes, evocative metaphors and arresting images from works produced in the 19th and 20th centuries now swirl in that pot, flavouring the stories of writers today in ways both obvious and subtle.

In some fields, "influence" is a suspect thing, as though influence equals imitation. (It doesn't, and shouldn't.) Our field, by contrast, celebrates the influence of older stories and older works of art, bringing the old and the new into dialogue. For example: Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea cycle is, among many other things, a response to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis' work: a conversation about what magic is, what power is, and what an imaginary world might be like if it grew from nonWestern mythic traditions. Stardust by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess is, among many other things, a lively conversation with Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist and Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter. Snow White, Blood Red, the fairy tale anthology Ellen Datlow and I published back in 1993, was a direct response to Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber (1979) and Tanith Lee's Red as Blood (1983); just as The Starlit Wood, edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien (2016), is now in conversation with us all.

Although I've savoured Hoffman's work since her very first novel (Property Of, 1977), I haven't yet read The World That We Knew. You have to be ready to enter the hard stories, and I haven't been ready until now. As I turn through its pages, I will hear the whispered voices of Jane's Briar Rose, Lisa's "Breadcrumbs and Stones," Louise Murphy's The True Story of Hansel and Gretel and Rushford's Kindergarten, along with the echoes of fairy tales told and retold down through the centuries. Knowing the antecedents, the lineage, the tradition that Hoffman is working in will add to, not diminish, my appreciation of the book she's created. 

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

In her fine essay collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Folklore and Faerie in the Literature of Childhood, Jane Yolen writes:

"We have spent a good portion of our last decades erasing the past. The episode of the gas ovens is closed, wrapped in the mist of history. It is as if it never happened. At the very least, which always surprises me, it is considered a kind of historical novel, abstract and not particularly terrifying.

"It is important for children to have books that confront the evils and do not back away from them. Such books can provide a sense of good and evil, a moral reference point. If our fantasy books are not strong enough -- and many modern fantasies shy away from asking for sacrifice, preferring to profer rewards first as if testing the faerie waters -- then real stories, like those of Adolf Hitler's evil deeds, will seem so much slanted news, not to be believed."

It is important for adult readers to have such books as well, as the daily news keeps reminding us.

I am grateful to the writers who tell the hard stories. And I am grateful to be part of the conversation.

Stories told and re-told

Rapunzel by Trina Shart Hyman

Words: The passages above are quoted from  "Fairy Tale Logic: A Conversation with Alice Hoffman" by Jamie Wendt (Jewish Book Council: PB Daily, August 31, 2020); "Sharpening an imagination with the hard flint of fairy tale" by Alice Hoffman (The Washington Post, April 4, 2004); "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance" by Lloyd Alexander (Horn Book, Dec. 16, 1971); and Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 1981; August House, expanded edition, 2000). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: "Vasilisa" by Ivan Bilibin, "Hansel and Gretel" by Charles Robinson, "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Legend of Rosepetal" by Lisbeth Zwerger, an illustration for "The Arabian Nights" by Edmund Dulac, and "Snow White" and "Rapunzel" by Trina Schart Hyman. All rights to the contemporary works reserved by the artists.

Related reading, on the subject of influence and tradition: "On finding your voice," Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence, and "In the Tradition" by Michael Swanwick, which can be found in his book The Postmodern Archipelago (1997), and in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror,  Volume 8 (1995).


The only real story

Ducks by Lieke van der Vorst

From "Knowing Our Place" by Barbara Kingsolver:

"In the summer of 1996 human habitation on earth made a subtle, uncelebrated passage from being mostly rural to being mostly urban. More than half of all humans now live in the cities. The natural habitat of our species, then, officially, is steel, pavements, streetlights, architecture, and enterprise -- the hominid agenda.

"With all due respect to the wondrous ways people have invented to amuse themselves and one another on paved surfaces, I find this exodus from the land makes me unspeakably sad. I think of children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant's way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in....

Campfire by Lieke van der Vorst

"Barry Lopez writes that if we hope to succeed in the endeavor of protecting natures other than our own, 'it will require that we reimagine our lives....It will require of many of us a humanity that we've not yet mustered, and a grace we were not yet aware we desired until we had tasted it.'

Starry Nights by Lieke van der Vorst

"And yet no endeavor could be more crucial at this moment. Protecting the land that once provided us with our genesis may turn out to be the only real story there is for us. The land still provides our genesis, however we might like to forget that our food comes from dank, muddy earth, and that the oxygen in our lungs was recently inside a leaf, and that every newspaper or book we pick up...is made from the hearts of trees that died for the sake of our imagined lives. What you hold in your hands [when you hold a book] is consecrated air and time and sunlight and, first of all, place. Whether we are leaving it or coming into it, it's here that matters, it is place. Whether we understand where we are or don't, that is the story: To be here or not to be.

Birth by Lieke van der  Vorst

Two illustrations by Lieke  van der  Vorst

"Storytelling is as old as our need to remember where the water is, where the best food grows, where we find our courage for the hunt. It's as persistent as our desire to teach our children how to live in this place that we have known longer than they have. Our greatest and smallest explanations for ourselves grow from place, as surely as carrots grow from dirt. I'm presuming to tell you something that I could not prove rationally but instead feel as a religious faith. I can't believe otherwise.

"A world is looking over my shoulder as I write these words; my censors are bobcats and mountains. I have a place from which to tell my stories. So do you, I expect. We sing the song of our home because because we are animals, and an animal is no better or wise or safer than its habitat and its food chain. Among the greatest of all gifts is to know our place."

Bison by Lieke van der Vorst

I agree with Barbara that telling tales of the land and of the more-than-human world is crucial in these increasingly urbanized times ... and yet, there is nature to be found in the city too, and folklore, and magic, and animal life, and numinous stories worth the telling.

Go here for a previous post on the magic of cities (and the early Urban Fantasy genre).

Illustration by Lieke van der Vorst

The imagery today is by Lieke van der Vorst, an illustrator based in the Netherlands. She studied graphic design at Sint Lucas, illustration at the Sint Joost Art Academy, and now creates dreamlike imagery inspired by her love of animals, plants, gardens, cookery, and the wild world. 

"I grew up in Kaatsheuvel, a little village in the southern part of the Netherlands," she says. "Every summer my parents would pack up our De Waard tent and we would drive thirteen hours to Provence, France to camp among the lavender fields. These times spent in nature have had a strong influence on my life and work; and being kind to animals and the environment is an important part of my vision. I use my illustrations to try to make a positive impact on the world, while practicing green living as much as possible."

Please visit the artist's website or Instagram page to see more of her work.

Lieke van der Vorst's studio

Cat Woman by Lieke van der Vorst

The passage quoted above is from "Knowing Our Place" by Barbara Kingsolver, published in Small Wonder: Essays (HarperCollins, 2002). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


The landscape of story

Old Oak

From "The Right Place for Love" (Of Landscape and Longing) by Carolyn Servid, who grew up in India but found her heart's home on the wild coast of Alaska:

Old Oak 2"In his book The Land, theologian and historian Walter Brueggemann recognizes a human yearning for place -- and acknowledges that yearning as a primary human hunger. I think of it as an instinctual desire and need for my own habitat, a word primarily used to describe an ecological home range that allows a given species to thrive. We usually don't think of ourselves as the sample species, but I'd like to consider the notion of habitat in a human context for a moment. For those of us who use the English language, it is interesting to note that habitat is related to a cluster of other words -- habit, ability, rehabilitate, inhabit, and prohibit. They all come from a common Latin root, habere, and spin off a fundamental concept of relationship: 'to hold, hence to occupy or possess, hence to have.' They constitute a family of words that ground us by describing where we live, how we live, what we are able to do, how we heal ourselves, what our connections are to the landscape around us, what the boundaries are for our behavior. Together, they offer a set of parameters that might allow us to thrive in a place we think of as home.

"Given the biological evidence that the earth is our home, it's not difficult or even particularly imaginative to assert that we in Western societies have been living for centuries in a perpetual state of homesickness. We have worked hard -- somewhat blindly and somewhat successfully -- to disconnect ourselves from the source of our being. Our efforts have only partially succeeded because we cannot, in fact, separate ourselves from the fundamental truth of the context of our lives....The human hunger for place that Brueggemann speaks of might be thought of as a longing to be reconnected to the very source of our being. That longing is also a hunger for love -- for the nurturing that a home place provides, for its familiarity, its comfort, its human community, is natural community, its light and landscape. I believe, too, that our hunger for place is a yearning for a sense of the holy, for home ground sacred enough to sustain our faith, sacred enough that we will not violate it, sacred enough that our commitment to its holiness will not falter."

Tilly and Old Oak

Servid returns to the theme in a second essay, "The Distance Home":

"Homesick, we say, when our hearts reach back to those places that have embraced us, our language allowing us the truth that when we're away from them we feel unhealthy, ill at ease. Sentimentality, another voice says, urging me to ignore the bonds that form between the human heart and peculiarities of the earth. But perhaps the sentiments we attach to place are more natural to us than we know. Perhaps what is at work is an instinctual desire, a need, for a set of specific details to help determine our bounds, our own habitat, a particular context in which we can come to know how to best live our individual lives, how best to survive not only within the human community, but in a distinct region of the larger natural community that is our only real home."

Tilly and Old Oak 2

Tilly and Old Oak 3

For me, "home" is powerful concept, attached to the land I live on as much as to the family and community I live within, and much of my creative work is nurtured by the specifics of place: flora, fauna, geology, weather, and the folklore attached to all these things. It is shaped by the person I am, now, in this landscape and not another.

But what of those whose "home place" is a transient one, whether by preference or circumstance? Or those who are homeless, or exiled from home? Or the many of us who are immigrants, transplanted from distant countries and continents? What of those (the majority now) for whom home is an urban environment? Or those who have never found a place, outside of fiction and dreams, that feels like the place they truly belong? And how does this effect the creation of fantasy and mythic art, when myth itself is so often rooted in the land?

Tilly and Old Oak 4

In his essay "The Dreaming of Place," storyteller and folklorist Hugh Lupton writes:

"The ground holds the memory of all that has happened to it. The landscapes we inhabit are rich in story. The lives of our ancestors have contributed to the shape and form of the land we know today -- whether we are treading the cracked cement of a deserted runaway, the boundary defined by a quickthorn hedge, the outline of a Roman road or the grassy hump of a Bronze Age tumulus. The creatures we share the landscape with have made their marks, too: their tracks, nesting places, slides and waterholes. And beyond the human and animal interactions are the huge, slow geological shapings that have given the land its form. Every bump, fold and crease, every hill and hollow is part of a narrative that is both human and prehuman. And as long as men and women have moved over the land these narratives have been spoken and sung.

Tilly and Old Oak 5

"This sense of story being held immanent in landscape, is most clearly defined in the belief systems of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. In Native Australian belief everything that is not 'here and now' is described as having gone 'into the dreaming.' The Aborigines believe that the tangled skein of remembered experience, history, legend and myth that constitutes the past -- that is invisible to the objective eye or the camera -- has not gone away. It is, rather, implicit in the place where it happened, a potentiality. It is a living memory that is held between a place and its people. It is always waiting to be woken by a voice.

Tilly and Old Oak 6

"I remember the Irish storyteller Eamon Kelly once telling me that in the parish of County Clare where he grew up, every field had a name, and every field name was associated with a story. To walk from one end of the parish to the other was to walk through a landscape of story. It occurred to me that the same was probably once true for any parish in Britain.

Drawing by Eleanor Vere Boyle"What does it mean for a culture to have lost touch with its dreaming? What can we do about it?

"It seems to me that as writers, artists, environmentalists, parents, teachers and talkers, one of our practices should be to enter the Dreaming, that invisible, parallel world, and salvage our local stories. We need to re-charge the landscape with its forgotten narratives. Only then will it regain the sacred status it once possessed. This might involve research into local history, conversations with elders in the community, exploration of regional folktales, ballads and myths...

"And then an intuitive jump into Imagination."

I couldn't agree more.

Acorns

Ecologists talk of "re-wilding" the land. I believe we must "re-story" the land as well...and who else better than the writers of fantasy, steeped as we are in mythic traditions, to weave new myths out of the old, creating the vital tales we need in complex, troubled times.

Tilly and Old Oak 7

Of Landscape & Longing by Carolyn Servid

Words: The passages quoted above are from Of Landscape and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge by Carolyn Servid (Milkweed Editions, 2000), and "The Dreaming of Place" by Hugh Lupton (EarthLines magazine, Issue 2, August 2012).  The poem in the picture captions is an extract from Elegies by Muriel Rukeyser (New Directions, 1949). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates. Related posts: Kith & Kin, The Center Called Love, On Loss & Transfiguration, and The Tales We Tell.

Pictures: Tilly and her friend, Old Oak, who she visits almost every day. The two drawings are by Scottish book artist Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916). 


We are made for this

River 1

Last month we discussed the divide between science and art, and the particular pleasure of  literary works inhabiting the edgelands between them -- such as nature writing, certain kinds of poetry, and fantasy fiction well-rooted in the magic of the natural world. (You can read that discussion running across three posts beginning here.)

Scott Russell Sanders is another writer, like Eva Saulitis and Alison Deming, who is equally at ease on both sides of the border. He came to his love of science after a church-and-bible childhood in rural Ohio, and both of these things have shaped his mind and his art. No longer Christian, he still finds value in the moral core of his religious upbringing, and plenty of scope for wonder and awe in the workings of the world around him.

River 2

In his fine new collection The Way of the Imagination, Sanders writes:

"The study of science fosters a greatly expanded sense of kinship, one that stretches from the dirt under our feet to distant galaxies. Exploding supernovas produced the calcium in our bones and the iron in our blood, along with all the elements heavier than helium that make up our bodies, our built environment, and our rocky, watery globe. We are kin not merely to a tribe or nation, not merely to humankind, but through our genes and evolutionary history we are linked to all life on Earth, plants and fungi as well as animals. We are made for this planet, creatures among creatures....

River 3

"What humans have learned about our world and ourselves is no doubt dwarfed by what we don't yet know, and may never know. Still, it's amazing that a short-lived creature on a dust-mote planet, circling an ordinary star near the edge of one among billions of galaxies, has managed to decipher so much about the workings of the universe. And the more we decipher, the more we realize that everything is connected to everything else, near and distant, living and nonliving, as mystics have long testified. The connectedness, this grand communion, is what I have come to think of as soul -- not my soul, as if I were a being apart, but the soul of Being itself, the whole of things.

River 4

River 5

River 6

"I have abandoned the religious creed in which I first encountered words like soul, sacred, holy, reverence, divinity, and awe, but I refuse to abandon the words themselves. For they point to what is of ultimate value, what claims our deepest respect. As a writer, I wish to say that nature is sacred, deserving of reverence for its creativity, antiquity, majesty, and power. I wish to say that Earth is holy, precious, surpassingly beautiful and bountiful, deserving of our utmost care. Although our survival is at stake, an appeal to fear won't inspire such care, because fear is exhausting and selfish. Although we need wise environmental policies, laws alone will not elicit such care, nor will a sense of duty, shame, or guilt. Only love will. Only love will move us to act wisely and caringly, year upon year, our whole lives long."

River 7

River 8

River 9

River 10

Any new book from Sanders is a cause for celebration, but The Way of the Imagination is especially wise (in its quiet, gentle way), and especially timely. I recommend it highly.

River 11

The Way of the Imagination by Scott Russell Sanders

Words: The passage above is quoted from "A the Gates of Deep Darkness" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in The Way of the Imagination (Counterpoint, 2020). The poem in the picture captions is from Tin House (Winter, 2018). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Down by the River Teign, early autumn.


Dipping from the Cauldron of Story

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) was the author of The Chronicles of Prydain, The Westmark Trilogy and other myth-laced novels for readers young and old, widely acknowledged as classics of our field. In this passage from "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance," he looks at the roots of fantasy literature, gives advice to writers today, and talks about his own experience of writing The Black Cauldron and The Book of Three:

"While its full meaning remains tantalizingly unknown, we can trace mythology's historical growth into an art form: through epic poetry, the chansons de geste, the Icelandic sagas, the medi­eval romances and works of prose in the Romance languages. Its family tree includes Beowulf, the Eddas, The Song of Roland, Amadís de Gaule, the Perceval of Chretien de Troyes, and The Faerie Queene. In modern literature, one form that draws most directly from the fountainhead of mythology, and does it consciously and deliberately, is the heroic romance, which is a form of high fantasy. The world of heroic romance is, as Professor Northrop Frye defines the whole world of literature in The Educated Imagination, 'the world of heroes and gods and titans..., a world of powers and passions and moments of ecstasy far greater than anything we meet outside the imagination.'

"If anyone can be credited with inventing the heroic romance as we know it today -- that is, in the form of a novel using epic, saga, and chanson de geste as some of its raw materials -- it must be William Morris, in such books as The Wood Beyond the World and The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Certainly Morris showed the tremendous strength and potential of the heroic romance as an artistic vehicle, which was later to be used by Lord Dunsany, Eric Eddison, James Branch Cabell; by C. S. Lewis and T. H. White. Of course, heroic romance is the basis of the superb achievements of J. R.R. Tolkien.

The Mabionogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"Writers of heroic romance, who work directly in the tradition and within the conventions of an earlier body of literature and legend, draw from a common source: the 'Pot of Soup,' as Tol­kien calls it, the 'Cauldron of Story,' which has been simmering away since time immemorial. The pot holds a rich and fascinating kind of mythological minestrone. Almost everything has gone into it, and almost any­ thing is likely to come out of it: morsels of real history -- spiced­ and spliced -- with imaginary history, fact and fancy, daydreams and nightmares. It is as inexhaustible as those legendary vessels that could never be emptied.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee"Among the most nourishing bits and pieces we can scoop out of the pot are whole assortments of characters, events, and situa­tions that occur again and again in one form or another through­ out much of the world's mythology: heroes and villains, fairy godmothers and wicked stepmothers, princesses and pig-keepers, prisoners and rescuers; ordeals and temptations, the quest for the magical object, the set of tasks to be accomplished. And a whole arsenal of cognominal swords, enchanted weapons; a wardrobe of cloaks of invisibility, seven-league boots; a whole zoo of dragons, helpful animals, birds, and fish.

"But -- in accordance with one of fantasy's own conventions -- nothing is given for nothing. Although we are free and welcome to ladle up whatever suits our taste, and fill ourselves with any mixture we please, nevertheless, we have to digest it, assimilate it as thoroughly as we assimilate the objective experiences of real life. As conscious artists, we have to process it on the most per­sonal levels; let it work on our personalities and, above all, let our personalities work on it. Otherwise we have what the com­puter people delicately call GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. Because these conventional characters -- these personae of myth and fairy tale, though gorgeously costumed and capari­soned -- are faceless, the writer must fill in their expressions. Colorful figures in a pantomime, the writer must give them a voice.

The Mabionogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"Since I have been talking about the 'Cauldron of Story,' I am now reminded of the Crochan, the Black Cauldron that figured in one of the books of Prydain. Now, cauldrons of one sort or another are common household appliances in the realm of fan­tasy. Sometimes they appear, very practically, as inexhaustible sources of food, or, on a more symbolic level, as a lifegiving source or as a means of regeneration. Some cauldrons bestow wisdom on the one who tastes their brew. In Celtic mythology, there is a cauldron of poetic knowledge guarded by nine maidens, counterparts of the nine Greek muses.

"There is also a cauldron to bring slain warriors back to life. The scholarly interpretation --  the mythographic meaning --  is a fascinating one that links together all the other meanings. Im­mersion in the cauldron represented initiation into certain re­ligious mysteries involving death and rebirth. The initiates, being figuratively -- and perhaps literally -- steeped in the cult mys­teries, emerged reborn as adepts. In legend, those who came out of the cauldron had gained new life but had lost the power of speech. Scholars interpret this loss of speech as representing an oath of secrecy.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"One branch of The Mabinogion, the basic collection of Welsh mythology, and one of my own prime research sources, tells of such a cauldron of regeneration, and how it ended up in the hands of the Irish. And, in the tale of Branwen, the Welsh princess rescued from the Irish by King Bran, a great number of slain Irish warriors came back to life. Naturally, this cauldron posed an uncomfortable problem for the Welshmen, who were constantly finding themselves outnumbered; until one of the Welsh soldiers sacrificed his life by leaping into the cauldron and shattering it. This incident gave me the external shape of the climax of The Black Cauldron. Though changed and manipulated con­siderably, the nub of the story is located in the myth -- except for one detail of characterization: the essential internal nature of the cauldron, its inner meaning and significance beyond its being an unbeatable item of weaponry.

An illustration for the Mabiongion by Alan Lee

"And so I tried to develop my own conception of the cauldron. Despite its regenerative powers, it seemed to me more sinister than otherwise. The muteness of the warriors created the horror I associated with the cauldron. Somehow, I felt that these voice­less men, already slain, revived only to fight again, deprived even of the oblivion of the grave, were less beneficiaries than victims. As the idea grew, I began to sense the cauldron as a kind of ultimately evil device. My 'Cauldron-Born,' then, were not only mute but enslaved to another's will. If they had lost their power of speech, they had also lost their memory of themselves as living beings -- without recollection of joy or sorrow, tears or laughter. They had, in effect, been deprived of their humanity: a fate, in my opinion, considerably worse than death. The risk of dehumanization -- of individuals being manipulated as objects in­ stead of being valued as living people -- is, unfortunately, not confined to the realm of fantasy.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

2

"Another example of the same kind of creative invention on the part of a writer has to do with the birth of a character; and in this case a most difficult delivery. Writing The Book of Three, the first of the Prydain chronicles, I was groping my way through the early chapters with that queasy sensation of desper­ate insecurity that comes when you do not know what is going to happen next. I knew vaguely what should happen, but I could not figure out how to get at it. The story, at this point, needed another character: Whether friend or foe, minor or major, comic or sinister, I could not decide. I only knew that I needed him, and he refused to appear.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee"The work came to a screaming halt: the screams being those of the author. Day after day, for better than a week, I stumbled into my work room and sat there, feeling my brain turn to con­crete. I had been reading a very curious book, an eighteenth-cen­tury account of the various characters in Celtic mythology. One of them stuck in my mind -- a one-line description of a creature half-human, half-animal. The account was interesting, but it was not doing much to solve my problem. I was convinced, by now, that I had suffered severe brain damage; that I would never write again; the mortgage would be foreclosed; my wife carried off to the Drexel Hill poor-farm; and I -- quivering and gibbering, moaning and groaning -- I did not even dare to imagine what would become of me. The would-be author of a hero-tale had begun to show his innate cowardice, and I was feeling tremendously sorry for myself.

"At four o'clock one morning, I had gone to my work room for what had become a routine session of sniveling and hand-wring­ing. I had decided, one way or another, to use this hint of a half­ animal, half-human creature. The eighteenth-century text had given him a name -- Gurgi. It seemed to fit, but he still refused to enter the scene. I could see him, a little; but I could not hear him. If I could only make him talk, half the battle would be over. But he would not talk. And so I sat there, expecting to pass the morning as usual, crying and sighing. All of a sudden, for no apparent reason what­ ever, I heard a voice in the back of my mind, plaintive, whining, self-pitying. It said: 'Crunchings and munchings?' And there, right at that moment, there he was. Part of him, certainly, came from research. The rest of him -- I have a pretty good idea where it came from.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"My point, in these examples, is simply this: A writer of fan­tasy, like any writer, must find the essential content of his work within himself, in his own personality, in his own attitude and commitment to real life. Whatever form we work in -- fantasy or realism, books for children or for adults -- I believe that the fundamental creative process is the same. In his work, the author may be very heavily disguised, or altogether anonymous. I do not think he is ever totally absent.

The Mabinogion illustrated by Alan Lee

"On the contrary, his presence is required; not as a stage man­ager who can be seen busily shifting the cardboard scenery, but as the primary source of tonality and viewpoint. Without this viewpoint, the work becomes more and more abstract, a play of the intellect that can move us only intellectually. It may be tech­nically brilliant, but it becomes sleight of hand instead of true magic. If art -- as Plato defined it -- is a dream for awakened minds, it should be, at the same time, a dream that quickens the heart.

"High fantasy indeed quickens the heart and reaches levels of emotion, areas of feeling that no other form touches in quite the same way. Some books we can enjoy, some we can admire, and some we can love. And among those books that we love as chil­dren, that we remember best as adults, fantasy is by no means least."

***

The Mabiongion illustrated by Alan Lee

The art today is from The Mabinogion, magnificently illustrated by Alan Lee. The paintings first appeared in an edition published by Dragon's Dream in 1982 (translated by Gwyn Thomas and Thomas Jones, 1949), and can now be found in a volume published by HarperVoyager in 2000 (translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, 1838-1845). The Easton Press published a sumptuous limited edition (with the Guest translation) in 2015.

More of Alan's artwork, including other Mabinogion paintings, can be found in this post from last week.

An illustration for the Mabiongion by Alan Lee

The passage above is from "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance" by Lloyd Alexander (The Horn Books, Dec. 16, 1971). You can read the full essay here. All rights reserved by the author's estate. The paintings above first appeared in The Mabinogion, translated by Gwyn Jones & Thomas Jones, illustrated by Alan Lee (Dragon's Dream/JM Dent & Sons Ltd, 1982). All rights reserved by the artist.


The poet and the scientist

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If, like me, you are a working artist striving to combine a love of nature with the creation of fantasy literature (or other forms of mythic art), it is sometimes a challenge to overcome the cultural divide between science and the arts -- in which knowledge of the flora, fauna, and biological processes that make up our world is deemed the domain of scientists, while artists working with the tropes of myth and fantasy are relegated to more ethereal realms.

When I need help crossing the barriers that convention (and my humanties-focused education) placed between the two, I turn to the increasingly-poetic field of contemporary nature writing for inspiration. The following passage, for example, is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," an excellent contemplation of the subject by American poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming:

"Historically, cultures have been informed by places, by the natural features and resources available to people living in a specific geographic habitat. The 'globalization of culture' is the term in fashion for the phenomenon of everyone becoming more contiguous, contingent, more like us. We lament the dilution of local cultures in the floodwaters of global capitalism, feel a justifiable panic about the pace of this change, and wonder how we will know ourselves and others in the future if our nationalistic and ethnic identities melt away. It is not a contradiction that people by the droves are looking for their own cultural roots, castigating others for past cultural injustices, and documenting difference wherever they can find it, at a time when place-based culture is fading fast. We know something archetypal and precious is leaking from the world.

Meldon 2

"But culture is not only place-based. Culture is also based on discipline, profession, affinity and taste, and in these forms has been around since the beginning of civilization. The problem with the future is that it is difficult to know what will happen there. But it seems likely that these non-place-based forms of culture will become increasingly important. Culture will become more and more our habitat, as cultural learning continues to supplant the poky genetic code. I'm not suggesting we relax our vigilance in protecting actual places and preserving the knowledge acquired by deeply place-based cultures, only that our motivation and ability to do these things may change -- may even improve -- as new cross-cultural affinities emerge. My affinities for literary writers and natural scientists probably say as much about who I am as the geographic fact that I am a tenth-generation New Englander, and nourish me in ways that make my best work possible. Cultural exchanges across disciplinary boundaries can be as fruitful as those across geographic ones. Unlike C.P. Snow, I do not see 'the intellectual life of the whole of western society being split into two polar groups,' literary intellectuals at one pole and scientists at another. I have always been struck, perhaps naively, by the fundamental similarity between the poet and the scientist: both are seeking a language for the unknown....

Meldon 3

 "The view from either side of the disciplinary divide seems to be that poetry and science are fundamentally opposed, if not hostile to one another. Scientists are seekers of facts; poets revelers in sensation. Scientists seek a clear, verifiable and elegant theory; contemporary poets, as critic Helen Vendler recently put it, create objects that are less and less like well-wrought urns, and more and more like misty collisions and diffusions that take place in a cloud chamber. The popular view demonizes us both, perhaps because we serve neither the god of profit-making nor the god of usefulness. Scientists are the cold-hearted dissectors of all that is beautiful; poets the lunatic heirs to pagan forces. We are made to embody the mythic split in Western civilization between the head and the heart. But none of this divided thinking rings true to my experience as a poet."

Meldon 4

A little later in the essay, Deming notes:

"Today fewer Americans than ever believe scientists' warnings about global warming and diversity loss. Their scepticism stems, in part, from the fact that to a misleading extent the process of science does not get communicated in the media. What gets communicated is uncertainty, a necessary stage in solving complex problems, not synonymous with ignorance. But the discipline itself is called into question when a scientist tells the truth and says, in response to a journalist's prodding, 'Well, we just don't know the answer to that question.' ... What science-bashers fail to appreciate is that scientists, in their unflagging attraction to the unknown, love what they don't know. It guides and motivates their work; it keeps them up late at night; and it makes that work poetic. As Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz has written, 'The incessant striving of the mind to embrace the world in the infinite variety of its forms with the help of art or science is, like the pursuit of any object of desire, erotic. Eros moves through both physicists and poets.' Both the evolutionary biologist and the poet participate in the inherent tendency of nature to give rise to pattern and form.

Meldon 5

As a poet, Deming finds herself drawn to the precise language of science:

"...the beautiful particularity and musicality of the vocabulary, as well as the star-factory energy with which the discipline gives birth to neologisms. I am wooed by words such as 'hemolymph,' 'zeolite,' 'crytogram,' 'sclera,' 'xenotransplant' and 'endolithic,' and I long to save them from the tedious syntax in which most scientific writing imprisons them."

Meldon 6

 Likewise, science writers like Rachel Carson, Oliver Sacks, and Stephen Jay Gould demonstrate how researchers can use literary tools to describe scientific processes:

"...in particular, those aspects of the experience that will not fit within rigorous professional constraints -- for example, the personal story of what calls one to a particular kind of research, the boredom and false starts, the search for meaningful patterns within randomness and complexity, professional friendships and rivalries, the unrivaled joy of making a discovery, the necessity for metaphor and narrative in communicating a theory, and the applications and ethical ramifications of one's findings. Ethnobiologist and writer Gary Paul Nabhan, one of the most gifted of these disciplinary cross-thinkers, asserts that 'narrative and metaphor are more honest, precise and comprehensive ways of explaining an animal's life history than the standard technical format of hypothesis, materials, methods, results and discussion.'

"Much is to be gained when scientists raid the evocative techniques of literature, and when poets raid the language and mythology of scientists. "

Meldon 7

The challenge for a poet, says Deming, is "not merely to pepper the lines with spicy words and facts, but to know enough science that the concepts and vocabulary become part of the fabric of one's mind, so that in the process of composition a metaphor or a paradigm from the domain of science is as likely to crop up as is one from literature or her own back yard."

And that, I believe, is the challenge for fantasists and mythic artists whose work is rooted in the natural world. The divide between art and science doesn't help us here. We, too, must breach the wall.

Meldon 8

Meldon 9

The Edges of the Civilized World

Words: The passage above, and the poem in the picture captions, is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," published in The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Picador, 1998), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Our village nestles against two hills -- one behind my studio, where the hound and I walk most mornings, and the other, pictured here, rising high above the village Commons.


The language of whales

Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

Marine biologist Eva Saulitis studied killer whales (or orca whales) in the coastal waters of Alaska for over thirty years, while also writing poetry and nonfiction blending nature writing and memoir.  The following passage is from her first collection of essays, Leaving Resurrection:

Standing Raven by Preston Singletary"During my first summer out in Prince William Sound as a volunteer, one of my tasks was to decide on a project for my master's thesis. Initially, I felt drawn to the quieter ways of humpback whales, who stayed in protective areas near Whale Camp to feed. But small groups of killer whales kept passing by camp, hugging the shoreline. They were AT1 transients, mammal-eaters about which little was known except that they were mostly silent and difficult to follow....

"One day, my friend and I followed two AT1 transients from a small inflatable as they hunted harbor seals along an island shore. We lost them for several minutes, and then spotted silver mist above a rock. We let the boat drift near. Clinging tightly to the rock, its head craned back, eyes huge and black, a seal pup crouched above the water line. A transient nudged the rock, but couldn't reach the seal, at least not yet; the tide was rising. Abruptly, the whale turned, joined the second whale, and swam rapidly across an open passage. We left the lucky seal and raced to catch the transients, but they'd vanished. Cutting the outboard in mid-passage so we might hear their blows, we stood up, scanning with binoculars.

"I felt something through the bottom of my feet before I heard it. From the inflatable's wooden floorboards, a wail rose, and another, and another. My friend and I stared at each other.

"'It's the whales. They must be right under us. Let's drop the hydrophone,' I said.

"I scrambled for the tape recorder, and we huddled over the small speaker adjusting knobs as long, descending, siren-like cries reverberated against underwater island walls. In the distance, other whales answered, faintly. I'd never heard transients call before. It was like a stone had sung. I knew then. I wanted to learn the language of the whales that were mostly silent.

Side view of the Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

"In grad school, I learned the art of detachment, learned to watch how I said things, to listen for anthropomorphism, like applying the word language to non-humans. As scientists, we distinguish ourselves from whale huggers, lovers, groupies, and gurus, from those who think of whales as spiritual beings. We learn the evolutionary, biological basis for an animal's behavior. We study the various theories and counter-theories and debate their merits: reciprocal altruism, game theory, optimality theory, cost-benefit analysis.

Raven by Preston Singletary"At scientific meetings, in animal behavior seminars, we don't debate whether animals have feelings. It's terra incognita. But on the research boat, or at the breakfast table, before the meeting begins, some of us talk about these things. One non-scientist friend, puzzled by the ways of science, asked, 'Isn't it strange to assume that humans are the only creatures with feelings, that we are so different from other animals?' Is it 'animapomorphic' to ascribe animal behaviors to humans? If it's wrong to suppose animals might share qualities with humans, then how do we see ourselves? Alone at the tip of some renegade branch of the tree of life?

"Out in the field, summer after summer, we search for knowledge, employing the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, data collection, analysis, discussion, conclusion. Poet and biologist Forrest Gander says that this method 'has endured as a scientific model, and a very successful one, for it predicts that when we do something, we will obtain certain results. But if we approach with a different model, we will ask different questions.' To create a new model: that prospect challenges all of the questions I've learned to ask -- and not to ask."

Detail from the Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

As the book goes on, Saulitis returns to this subject again and again. Is the language of science the only way, or even the best way, to understand the whales she is studying? What about the language of poetry, song, and story? What about the tales told about the whales by indigenous peoples whose lives have long been entwined with them?

In the book's final essay she reflects on local stories about the whales, such as this one:

"Very long ago, when someone died, the killer whales would come take them to a certain cove, dress them like killer whales, and release them into their new form. According to this story, the only difference between whales and humans is our skins. Zipping and unzipping this skin is like lifting up the cloth of the sea to go under, to effortlessly enter the killer whale realm. It seems magical, this lifting of cloth, this zipping on of skin. But it's much like the evolution story, in which killer whales shed body shapes to become what they've been now for five million years. Killer whales know some things about living here. Maybe we have to shed the skins we're wearing, find our way back into the weave, rejoin the ecosystem, put back on our animal skins....

Kéet by Preston Singletary

"A woman from Dolovan, near Nome, told me of a time that killer whales helped her people to find food. When she was a baby, her family was moved from Elim to Dolovan. Some people went overland. Her grandmother and others went by rowboat around Cape Darby, in the Bering Sea. She herself was in the boat, wrapped in a rabbit-skin parka. The people were hungry and cold, so someone called to the killer whales and asked them for food. The next day, big pieces of muktuk washed up on the beach. The people ate it raw, they were so hungry, and the oil stained their clothes, which had to be burned.

" 'You never play with or harm or hunt or harass a killer whale,' she said, 'because they are so close to people.' She told me that a woman in Dolovan married a white man who didn't know all of the traditional rituals or rules, and one day he shot a baby killer whale. 'A person who harms a killer whale will die,' she said. An adult killer whale showed up and started swimming through the bay back and forth. The white man finally confessed to his wife what he'd done. She blamed herself for failing to teach him properly, so she went to a point far out in the water and apologized to the killer whale, saying that her husband didn't know, that it was her fault. The whale eventually forgave them and left.

Family Story Totem by Preston Singletary

"Inupiaq people say that killer whales drove seals onto the ice for hunters to catch. Tobacco was thrown into the whales' open mouths, in thanks. Those stories from many places in coastal Alaska, of killer whales opened mouthed, lips pulled back, revealing their teeth to hunters in boats, remind me of Matushka. We first saw her in Prince William Sound in 1987 with some of her relatives on my first day volunteering on a research project with Craig. While some of the whales swam rapidly around us, Matushka breached and tail-slapped repeatedly within a few meters of the skiff, dousing us with water. I was twenty-three and naive, didn't know this wasn't ordinary killer whale behavior, so I screamed and jumped around and tried to touch her. Finally, I looked at Craig, salt water dripping from his beard, and saw his unease. It was weird, he said, for transients to interact with a boat this way. We couldn't even take identification photos for fear of ruining the camera, but more so, because the whales were too close. We finally had to back away from them, but they charged after.

Killer Whale by Preston Singletary"That was my initiation into killer whale research, and I see it now as both a welcoming and a warning, a warning that my stories would have to change. My imagination would have to expand to include Matushka as she glided along the hull of the boat, her mouth wide open, showing me her teeth. I would have to look into my own animal nature.

"It's not impossible to imagine killer whales and humans having once spoken the same language, interchanged body forms. We are still dependent on each other, and the stories tell us that we must act that way, unless we want killer whales to exist only as mythical creatures, like the thunderbird, who, in one story, did battle with a killer whale, driving it into the sea, where it's lived to this day. Our big, imaginative brains define us. Deprived of the creatures who inspire our stories, will we be human? Or will we be proto-something else?

"Just as language shapes our thoughts, the way we tell stories shapes the way we see, and the way we see -- what we look at, the amount of time we spend on the water, in the woods -- shapes our imaginations. Jurgen Kremer asks, 'What if we have established a big thought system at the foundation of which is one giant rationalization? What if we need to turn things upside-down?' Is that the difference between knowledge and wisdom? Is wisdom knowledge turned upside-down? 

"I write poetry these days, a craft that encourages the holding of opposing truths in the mind at the same time. While my logical mind grapples to reconcile the Tlingit story of the origin of the killer whale with the paleontological story, in my other mind, they coexist. Both are essential."

Killer Whales photographed by Eva Saulitis

Killer Whale Canoe by Preston Singletary

Eva Saulitis died of breast cancer four years ago, at the age of 52. She wrote about her illness as she wrote about her whales: with the clear observations of a scientist and the emotional depth and language of a poet. (For example, see her gorgeous piece on nature and dying, "Wild Darkness," in Orion magazine.)  

I highly recommend Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist; Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discover and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas; and her last essay collection, Becoming Earth -- as well as her poetry, published in Many Ways to Say It and Prayer in the Wind.

X'aat by Preston Singletary

The imagery today is by Preston Singletary, a Tlingit artist based in Seattle who primarily works glass. His creations often feature killer whales because of the whale's significance as one of the crests of his clan.

"When I began working with glass," he says, "I had no idea that I'd be so connected to the material in the way that I am. It was only when I began to experiment with using designs from my Tlingit cultural heritage that my work began to take on a new purpose and direction. Over time, my skill with the material of glass and traditional form line design has strengthened and evolved, allowing me to explore more fully my own relationship to both my culture and chosen medium. This evolution, and subsequent commercial success, has positioned me as an influence on contemporary indigenous art. Through teaching and collaborating in glass with other Native American, Maori, Hawaiian, and Australian Aboriginal artists, I've come to see that glass brings another dimension to indigenous art. The artistic perspective of indigenous people reflects a unique and vital visual language which has connections to the ancient codes and symbols of the land. My work with glass transforms the notion that Native artists are only best when traditional materials are used. It has helped advocate on the behalf of all indigenous people -- affirming that we are still here -- that that we are declaring who we are through our art in connection to
our culture."

To see more of Singletary's beautiful, deeply spirited work, go here.

The Air World by Preston Singletary

Words: The passages quoted above are from Leaving Resurrection by Eva Saulitis (Boreal Books, 2008); all rights reserved by the author's estate. The Jurgen Kremer quote is from Indigenous Science: Introduction (ReVision 18, no, 3, Winter 1996).

Pictures: The art above is by Preston Singletary; all rights reserved by the artist. The name of each piece is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


The Outermost House

Cannon Rock by Winslow Homer

In previous posts we've been discussing the oceans and islands of Ireland and Scotland, but there is a wealth of good writing about the sea from North America too -- such as The Outermost House by Henry Beston, first published in 1928.

Beston was born to a French and Irish family in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1888; he attended Harvard, and served in World War I as an ambulance driver (for the French army) and war correspondent (for the US Navy). Upon returning home, he worked as a magazine editor while also writing two books of fairy tales (The Firelight Fairy Book and The Starlight Wonder Book), and finding solace for wartime trauma through a love of birds and the natural world. In the 1920s, he built a tiny house on an isolated stretch of Cape Cod beach, then spent a year living alone there, observing the sea through four full seasons. He writes:

Henry Beston at the Fo'castle"My house stood by itself atop a dune, a little less than halfway south on Eastham bar. I drew the homemade plans for it myself and it was built for me by a neighbor and his carpenters. When I began to build, I had no notion whatever of using the house as a dwelling place. I simply wanted a place to come to in summer, one cozy enough to be visited in winter could I manage to get down. I called it the Fo'castle. It consisted of two rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen-living room, and its dimensions over all were but twenty feet by sixteen. A brick fireplace with its back to the wall between rooms heated up the larger space and took the chill off the bedroom, and I used a two-burner oil stove when cooking.

"My neighbor built well. The house, even as I hoped, proved compact and strong, and it was easy to run and easy to heat. The larger room was sheathed, and I painted the wainscoting and the window frames a kind of buff-fawn -- a good fo'castle color. The house showed, perhaps, an amateur enthusiasm for windows. I had ten. In my larger room I had seven; a pair to the east opening on the sea, a pair to the west commanding the marshes, a pair to the south, and a small 'look-see' in the door. Seven windows in one room perched on a hill of sand under and ocean sun -- the words suggest cross-light and glare; a fair misgiving, and one I countered by use of wooden shutters, originally meant for winter service but found necessary through the year. By arranging these I found I could have either the most sheltered and darkened of rooms or something rather like an inside out-of-doors. In my bedroom I had three windows -- one east, one west, and one north to the Nauset light....

"I had two oil lamps and various bottle candlesticks to read by, and a fireplace crammed maw-full of driftwood to keep me warm. I have no doubt that the fireplace heating arrangement sounds demented, but it worked, and my fire was more than a source of heat -- it was an elemental presence, a household god, and friend."

Northeaster by Winslow Homer

Lost on the Grand Banks by Winslow Homer

The Maine Coast by Winslow Homer

Beston began his year of solitude on the dunes almost by accident:

"My house completed, and tried and not found wanting by a first Cape Cod year, I went there to spend a fortnight in September. The fortnight ending, I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go.

"The world is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot. In my world of beach and dune these elemental presences lived and had their being, and under their arch there moved an incomparable pageant of nature and the year. The flux and reflux of the ocean, the incomings of waves, the gatherings of the birds, the pilgrimages of the peoples of the sea, winter and storm, the spendour of autumn and the holiness of spring -- all these were part of the great beach. The longer I stayed, the more eager I was to know this coast and to share its mysterious and elemental life; I found myself free to do so, I had no fear of living alone, I had something of a field naturalist's inclination; presently I made up my mind to remain and try living for a year on EasthamBeach."

I highly recommend this quietly beautiful, influential book, by an author now recognized as a pioneer of American nature writing.

The Outermost House by Henry Beston

The New Novel by Winslow Homer

The art today is by American painter and printmaker Winslow Homer (1836-1910). Born (like Beston) in Massachusetts, Homer began his career as a self-taught illustrator for newspapers and magazines, including a stint as a war artist on the front lines of the American Civil War for Harper's Weekly. After studying oil painting in New York and France, he gave up illustration to focus on landscape painting full time. Retreating from urban life from the 1870s onward, Homer lived a series of fishing villages in New England and northern England, finally settling on the coast of Maine, while also travelling extensively to paint and fish in Key West, Cuba, the Carribean, and the Adirondack Mountains. To see more of his work go here.

The Mussel Gatherers by Winslow Homer

Summer Squall by Winslow Homer

Looking Out to Sea by Winslow Homer