Wild stories for our time

Promise by Catherine Hyde

A friend of mine just finished participating in a weekend gathering of The Westcountry School of Myth, run by Dr. Martin Shaw on the other side of the Dartmoor -- reminding me of just how much I've been inspired by Martin's words and work over the years. I recommend At the Storyteller's Table, a recent video about the power and importance of Story, filmed in Martin's kitchen by Andreas Kornevall. You can watch it here. I also recommend his various books, all deeply grounded in mythic scholarship and in daily interaction with the more-than-human world. You can read passages from Scatterlings here and here; purchase his contribution to Hedgespoken's Seven Doors series here; and learn about his latest, Wolf Milk: Chthonic Memory in the Deep Wild, here.

The Westcountry School of Myth

Scatterlings by Martin Shaw

Golden Apples by Catherine Hyde

The two paintings above are by West Country artist Catherine Hyde. Photographs: students at the Westcountry School of Myth, and my copy of Scatterlings.


Myth & Moor update

HJ Ford

I'm out sick today with a bug I picked up in London over the weekend, but hope to be back in the studio very soon. When I return, I'll tell you about my travels -- which were full of music, selkies, and the art and lives of Pre-Raphaelite women.

HS OwenIn the meantime, some recommend reading:

*  Chabon's moving tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin (Paris Review

* C.J. Hauser's sad and beautiful essay "The Crane Wife" (Paris Review)

* Sabrina Orah Mark's "I Am the Tooth Fairy" (Paris Review)

* Nick Holland's "Folklore, Faeries and the Brontë Novels" (on his Anne Brontë blog) 

The art today is "The Princess Carried Off by the Bees" by Henry Justice Ford (published in Andrew Lang's Green Fairy Book, 1892), and an illustration for the Grimms fairy tale The Robber Bridegroom by H.S. Owen (published by Blackie & Sons in 1922). The latter book is a wonderful thing, full of rats in traditional Japanese dress for no apparent reason....


Let's talk about magic

Devon autumn 1

My friend Briana Saussy has written a deeply enchanting book, Making Magic: Weaving Together the Everyday and the Extraordinary. It is, yes, about the art of making magic -- but if you're imagining something airy-fairy, this couldn't be more opposite. Bri (like me) believes that true magic is Illustration by Helen Strattonthreaded throughout our everyday lives and rooted in the ground below. It's a way of perceiving the world, not manipulating the world; of engaging with nature and the more-than-human realm, not of seeking power over it.

Making Magic is a guide to the earthy magic of hedgewitches and rootworkers; healers, mystics, and curanderas; medicine workers of differing traditions, all attuned to the natural world. Bri's writing, like her magical practice, is lucid, folkloric, and backed by years of scholarship; her suggestions for bringing the qualities of magic back into daily life are simple and down-to-earth.

This is a book that will easily be of interest to other readers of a pagan/animist bent -- but I also recommend Making Magic to writers of fantasy literature. Whether you're creating Imaginary World stories pulsing with enchantment, or Magical Realist tales with only the lightest of otherworldly shimmers, this guide to the lore, world view, and still-living practices of the natural magic tradition is a useful text. In my years as fantasy editor, I've read far too many manucripts in which magic is portrayed like a form of auto mechanics: entirely lacking in mystery or genuine connection to the living world. For a more numinous approach, we have only to look at the actual history of natural magic as it has evolved in cultures the world over...and is still quietly practiced in the West today, as this wise and lovely book makes clear.

Devon autumn 2

Devon autumn 3

"Now is the time to remember ourselves," writes Bri, "not just a little bit or piece by piece, but wholly and completely. Magic of leaf and root, hearth and home, needle and thread, candle and prayer, feather and fang. Magic that weaves all that is extraordinary back into right relationship to our everyday lives, bridging the ways that we have grown divided -- against ourselves and each other. Magic that heals and restores....

Devon autumn 4

"Magic is a wild animal. It is hawk and eagle, raven and owl, coyote and fox, wolf and wildcat, badger and bear. It shifts into all the shapes and forms in between. Magic has been hunted and harried, tortured and trapped. It has witnessed its kin killed and its natural habits destroyed. And like all wild creatures that find ways against the odds to survive, magic has grown careful and cautious, wise and wily. It is seen only in its glimpses -- a flash of eye, a swish of tail, a blur of motion -- and then we are left with only trees and shadows and stars. It cannot be pursued in the usual ways. It's not something you can buy with money, earn through good behavior, or attain through the heat of drama and risk. The wilderness in which this particular animal resides is not found in some faraway and exotic place. It is here, and absurdly, wildly, free.

Devon autumn 5

"For magic, like the wild itself, is not found in a place we go to. Rather, it resides in the places where we always are. Magic moves through the wilderness of the soul and is found in the soul soil of everyday life and experience. It is found in the doing of the laundry, the making of beds and grocery lists, catching up with friends, having babies, taking lovers, going to school, making money, commuting to work, buying clothes, and cooking dinner. Every single one of these acts has been marked up and down and all around with the paw prints of magic. Each seemingly banal activity bears magic's scent trails and claw marks.

Robin in autumn

"It is hard to see this at first and almost impossible to believe. All mysteries, so we have been told, have been discovered, named, bagged, and tagged. There is nothing unknown, nothing of wonder to find here, nothing to see. This conventional wisdom has been the greatest teacher in the present age, and it has taught us incorrectly. A world without wild things is greatly diminished, this we know. The same is true for lives lived without the touch of magic. In all places we look, magic is a mark carrying depth and scope, an essential ingredient for a life well lived.

Tilly listening

"Magic is present in our earliest civilizations in the form of a dazzling array of rituals, ceremonies, and holy places both made and found. It has moved through all of our great religions, despite what the official teachings and proclamations might say. It has even traveled in surprising places like the roots of rational thought and philosophy fathered by Socrates, a man who heeded a wise oracle and listened to the voice emanating from his soul. When we begin to see all of the places that magic has walked and stalked, denned and fed, we see clearly that it has been with us, loping, running, flying by our side and throughout our daily lives since time beyond time. Where else would we expect to find it if not exactly here in our midst, hiding in plain sight?"

Making Magic by Briana Saussy

Autumn magic border=

The passage above is from Making Magic by Briana Saussy (Sounds True, 2019). The quotes in the picture captions are from a variety of sources. All rights reserved by the authors. The illustration above is by British book artist Helen Stratton (1867-1961).

Four related posts on magic: Tenderness, the Breaker of Curses; Working with words; In the Story Made of Dawn: on magic and magicians; and Reclaiming the fire and sorcery.


To the rebel soul in everyone

Horse of Armagh by Charles Fréger

Over the last few posts I've been quoting passages from Jay Griffith's Kith, her wide-ranging exploration of childhood -- but as much as I love that book (and all the rest of her work), the one I return to again and again is Wild: An Elemental Journey.

Wild  took Griffiths seven years to write, and lead her around the globe in a quest to understand concepts of wildness and wilderness. She explains:

"This book was the result of many years' yearning. A longing for something whose character I perceived only indistinctly at first but that gradually became clearer during my journeys. In looking for wilderness, I was not looking for miles of landscape to be nicely photographed and neatly framed, but for the quality of wildness, which -- like art, sex, love and all the other intoxicants -- has a rising swing ringing through it. A drinker of wildness, I was tipsy before I began and roaring drunk by the end.

"I was looking for the will of the wild. I was looking for how that will expressed itself in elemental vitality, in savage grace. Wildness is resolute for life: it cannot be otherwise, for it will die in captivity. It is elemental: pure freedom, pure passion, pure hunger. It is its own manifesto.

Onjishi by Charles Fréger

"I began this book with no knowing where it would lead, no idea of how hard some of it would be, the days of havoc and the nights of loneliness, because the only thing I had to hold on to was the knife-sharp necessity to trust to the elements of my elemental self.

"I wanted to live at the edge of the imperative, in the tender fury of the reckless moment, for in this brief and pointillist life, bright-dark and electric, I could do nothing else. By laying the line of my way along another, older path, I would lay my passions where they belonged, flush with wildness, letting their lines of long and lovely silk reel out in miles of fire and ice."

Nuuttipukki - Sastamala, Finland by Charles Fréger

She based her travel path, and the format of her book, on the four elements of ancient Greece: wild earth, wild air, wild fire, wild water --  and then added a fifth, wild ice.

"Part of the journey was a green riot and part a deathly bleakness. I got ill, I got well. I went to the freedom-fighters of West Papua and sang my head off in their highlands. I got to the point of collapse. I got the giggles. I met cannibals infinitely kinder and more trustworthy than the murderous missionaries who evangelize them. I went to places that are about the worst in the world to get your period. I wrote notes by the light of a firefly, anchored a boat to an iceberg where polar bears slept, ate witchetty grubs and visited sea gypsies. I found a paradox of wilderness in the glinting softeness of its charisma, for what is savage is in the deepest sense gentle and what is wild is kind. In the end -- a strangely sweet result -- I came back to a wild home."

Sagi by Charles Fréger

Griffiths didn't limit her travels to pristine landscapes or those devoid of human culture, indigenous or otherwise, writing:

"To me, humanity is not a stain on wilderness as some seem to think. Rather the human spirit is one of the most striking realizations of wildness. It is as eccentrically beautiful as an ice crystal, as liquidly life-generous as water, as inspired as air. Kerneled up within us all, an intimate wildness, sweet as a nut. To the rebel soul in everyone, then, the right to wear feathers, drink stars and ask for the moon. For us all, the growl of the primal salute. For us all, for Scaramouche and Feste, for the scamp, tramp and artist, for the furious adolescent, the traveling player and the pissed-off Gypsy, for the bleeding woman, and for the man in a suit, his eyes kind and tired, gazing with sad envy at the hippie chick with the rucksack. For all of us, every dawn, the lucky skies and the pipes.

"Anyone can hear them if they listen: our ears are sharp enough to it. Our strings are tuned to the same pitch as the earth, our rhythms are as graceful and ineluctable as the four quartets of the moon. We are -- every one of us -- a force of nature, though sometimes it is necessary to relearn consciously what we have never forgotten; the truant art, the nomad heart. Choose your instrument, asking only: can you play it while walking?"

Yokainoshima by Charles Fréger

My own instruments are pen and paintbrush, but there are so many others to choose from -- instruments of family-making, community-building, earth-preserving, children-teaching, elder-caring, animal-loving, and more. All can be tuned to the deep pitch of the earth, all can hold our wild hearts, all can played while walking, working, living.

What are yours?

Onjishi by Charles Fréger

The imagery today is by French photographer Charles Fréger, from his excellent, eerie, earthy books Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage and Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters. Both volumes document the still-living tradition of representing (and embodying) local folk spirits, monsters, guardians, and ghosts during festivals, feast days, and ceremonies: across Europe in the first book, and the Japanese countryside in the second.

To learn more about Fréger and his work, please vist his website.

Mamuthones, Mamoiada by Charles Fréger

Two visions of the wild

Words: The passages above are from Wild by Jay Griffiths (Hamish Hamilton, 2007), published in the U.S. as Savage Grace. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The photographs above are from Wilder Mann (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012) and Yokainoshima (Thmas & Hudson, 2017) by Charles Fréger. All rights reserved by the artist.

Some of the previous posts on Jay Griffith's work: Wilderness, Finding the way to the green, Storytelling and wild time.


Recommended reading

Undine by Arthur Rackham

"Mermaids: What and who are they? What do they look like? How are they different from sirens? How are they related to other water beings around the world? What are the cultural, religious, and popular beliefs that sustain specific plots of human‑merfolk encounters? Why do we continue to tell stories about eerie mermaids and other water spirits in the 21st century?"

Fairy tale scholar Cristina Bacchilega answers these questions and more in her insightful, beautifully written essay "How Mermaid Stories Illustrate Complex Truths About Being Human," published today on Literary Hub. Please don't miss it.

The Little Mermaid in Her Element by Helen Stratton

Art by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) and Helen Stratton (1867-1961).


Myth & Moor update

Legend of Rosepetal illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger copy

I'm out of the office again due to health care issues, but hope to be back very soon. For your morning reading in the meantime, I highly recommend Sabrina Orah Mark's "Happily" series of essays on fairy tales in Paris Review.

Sleeping Beauty illustrated by Honor Appleton and William Heath Robinson

Art:  "The Legend of Rosepetal" by Austrian book artist Lisbeth Zwerger. "Sleeping Beauty" by Honor Appleton (1879-1951) and William Heath Robinson (1872 - 1944).


The names of mosses

Moss

Gathering Moss

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

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

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

Moss 2

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

Moss 3

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

Moss 4

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

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

Moss 5

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

Moss 6

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

Moss 7

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

Moss 8

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

Moss 9

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

Moss 10

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

Moss 11

Moss 12

Gathering Moss

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

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


The community of the forest

Beech Tree Cloister by Howard Phipps

I followed my reading of Richard Powers' The Overstory (discussed yesterday) with Robert Macfarlane's new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey -- which proved to be a perfect pairing. Underland is an absolutely brilliant exploration of the various underworlds to be found in nature, myth, and literature;  and one section of the text is devoted to the complex understorey of forests.

In Chapter 4 of Underland (set in London's Epping Forest), Macfarlane writes:

Boxing Hares by Howard Phipps"In the early 1990s a young Canadian forest ecologist called Susan Simard, studying the understory of logged temperate forests in north-west British Columbia, observed a curious correlation. When paper birch saplings were weeded out from clear-cut and reseeded plantations, their disappearance coincided with first the deterioration and then the premature deaths of the planted Douglas fir saplings among which they grew.

"Foresters had long assumed that such weeding was necessary to prevent young birches (the 'weeds') depriving the young firs (the 'crop') of valuable soul resources. But Simard began to wonder whether this simple model of competition was correct. It seemed to her plausible that the paper birches where somehow helping rather than hindering the firs: when they were removed, the health of the firs suffered. If this interspecies aid-giving did exist between trees, though, what was its nature -- and how could individual trees extend help to one another across the spaces of the forest?

A Beech Shaded Hollow, Cranborne Chase by Howard Phipps

"Simard decided to investigate the puzzle. Her first task was to establish some kind of structural basis for possible connections between the trees. Using microscopic and genetic tools, she and her colleagues peeled back the forest floor and peered below the understory, into the 'black box' of the soil -- a notoriously challenging realm of study for biologists. What they saw down there were the pale, super-fine threads known as 'hyphae' that fungi send out through the soil. These hyphae interconnected to create a network of astonishing complexity and extent. Every cubic metre of forest soil that Simard examined held dozens of miles of hyphae.

Knowle Hill, Broadchalke by Howard Phipps

"For centuries, fungi had generally been considered harmful to plants: parasites that caused disease and dysfunction. As Simard began her research, however, it was increasingly thought that different kinds of common fungi might exist in subtle mutualism with plants. The hyphae of these so-called 'mycorrhizal' fungi were understood not only to infiltrate the soil, but to weave into the tips of plant roots at a cellular level -- thereby creating an interface through which molecular transmission might occur. By means of this weaving, too, the roots of the individual plants or trees were joined to one another by a maginificently intricate subterranean system.

"Simard's enquiries confirmed that beneath her forest floor there did indeed exist what she called an 'underground social network,' a 'bustling community of mycorrhizal fungal species' that linked sapling to sapling. She also discovered that the hyphae made connections between species: joining not only paper birch to paper birch and Douglas fir to Douglas fir, but also fir to birch and far beyond -- forming a non-hierarchical network between numerous kinds of plants.

Ox Drove by Howard Phipps

"Simard had established a structure of connection between the saplings. But the hyphae provided only the means of mutualism. Its existance did not explain why the fir saplings faltered when the birch saplings were weeded out, or details as to what -- if anything -- might be transmitted via this collaborative system. So Simard and her team devised an experiment that could let them track possible biochemical movements along this invisible buried lattice. They decided to inject fir trees with radioactive carbon isotopes. Using mass spectrometers and scintillation counters, they were then able to track the flow of carbon isotopes from tree to tree.

Chilcombe by Howard Phipps

"What this tracking revealed was astonishing. The carbon isotopes did not stay confined to the individual trees into which there were injected. Instead, they moved down the trees' vascular systems to their root tips, where they passed into the fungal hyphae that wove with those tips. Once in the hyphae they travelled along the network to the root tips of another tree, where they entered the vascular system of that new tree. Along the way, the fungi drew off and metabolized some of the photosynthesized resources that were moving along their hyphae; this was their benefit from mutualism.

Ox Drove in Winter by Howard Phipps

"Here was proof that trees could move resources around between one another using the mycorrhizal network. The isotope tracking also demonstrated the unexpected intricacy of the interrelations. In a research plot thirty metres square, every single tree was connected to the fungal system, and some trees -- the oldest -- were connected to as many as forty-seven others. The results also solved the puzzle of the fir-birch mutualism: the Douglas firs were receiving more photosynthetic carbon from paper birches than they were transmitting. When paper birches were weeded out, the nutrient intake of the fir saplings was thus -- counter-intuitively -- reduced rather than increased, and so the firs weakened and died.

Ebble Valley Oak by Howard Phipps

"The fungi and the trees had 'forged their duality into oneness, thereby making a forest,' wrote Simard in a bold summary of her findings. Instead of seeing trees as individual agents competing for resources, she proposed the forest as a 'co-operative system,' in which trees 'talk' to one another, producing a collaborative intelligence described as 'forest wisdom'. Some older trees even 'nuture' smaller trees that they recognize as their 'kin,' acting as 'mothers'. Seen in the light of Simard's research, the whole vision of a forest ecology shimmered and shifted -- from a fierce free market to something more like a community within a socialist system of resource redistribition."

Win Green from Berwick Down by Howard Phipps

Noonday Shade and March Hare by Howard Phillips

A little later in the chapter, Macfarlane notes:

"Little of this thinking is new, however, when viewed from the perspective of animist traditions of indigenous peoples. The fungal forest that science had revealed...seemed merely to provide a materialist evidence-base for what the cultures of forest-dwelling peoples have known for thousands of years. Again and again within such societies, the jungle or woodland is figured as aware, conjoined and conversational. 'To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature,' wrote Thomas Hardy in Under the Greenwood Tree. The anthropologist Richard Nelson describes how the Koyukon people of the forest interior of what we now call Alaska 'live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes. A person moving through nature -- however wild, remote...is never truly alone. The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified. They feel.' In such a vibrant environment, loneliness is placed in solitary confinement.'

"There in the grove [of Epping Forest], I recall Kimmerer, Hardy and Nelson, and feel a sudden, angry impatience with modern science for presenting as revelation what indigenous societies take to be self-evident. I remember Ursula Le Guin's angrily political novel, set on a forest planet in which woodland beings known as the Athsheans are able to transmit messages remotely between one another, signalling through the medium of trees. On Athshe -- until the arrival of colonists committed to the planet's exploitation -- the realm of the mind is integrated into the community of trees, and 'the word for world is forest'. "

Eggardon Hillfort by Howard Phipps

I highly recommend seeking out Underland and following the author's journey into the dark of the woods, into the mysteries underground, and into the depths of the human psyche.

Lewesdon Hill Beeches by Howard Phipps

Engaver's Tools by Howard PhippsThe exquisite arboreal art today is by Howard Phipps: a painter, printmaker and illustrator who specializes in wood engravings. Phipps studied at the Cheltenham Art College and University of Sussex, worked in west Devon the late 1970s, then moved to Salisbury, Wiltshire, where he has been based ever since. A long-standing member of the Royal West of England Academy and The Society of Wood Engravers, his art is widely exhibited throughout the UK; he has also illustrated books for the Folio Society and numerous publishers. (I first came upon his work in the literary journal Slightly Foxed.)

To see more of Howard Phipp's beautiful place-based art, visit Messums Wiltshire, Bircham Gallery, The Society of Wood Engravers, or The Arborealists; or track down copies of his two books of engravings, Interiors and Further Interiors (Whittington Press, 1985 and 1992). I also recommend "A Short Walk With Howard Phipps" on the Frames of Reference blog, which examines the craft of wood engraving and the artist's process.

Salisbury from King Manor Hill by Howard Phipps

Ebbesbourne Wake, Wiltshire by Howard Phibbs

The River Ebble at Fifield Bavant and Sunlit Interior by Howard Phipps

"Owl hoot. Dog bark. Back in the clearing the fire dims, songs fall silent. The canopy of the pollards spreads above me, whispering in the night breeze. There's something you need to hear....Seeking sleep, my mind follows leaf to branch, branch to trunk, trunk to root and from there down along the hyphnae that web the earth below."  - Robert Macfarlane (from Underland)

Underland by Robert Macfarlane

Words & art: The passages above are from Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2019). All rights to the trext and art above reserved by the author and artist.

Related posts: The library of the forest and Knowing the world as a gift.


Here by the grace of trees

Trees 1

I've finally read Overstory by Richard Powers -- a sprawling novel composed of interlocked stories about people, trees, and the relationship between them -- and I highly recommend it to all who are interested in the intersection of nature, art and story.

Trees do most of the things we do, just more slowly, writes Barbara Kingsolver (in her review of Overstory):

"They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees -- to name one example -- with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.

"And for all that, trees are things to us, good for tables, floors and ceiling beams: As much as we might admire them, we’re still happy to walk on their hearts. It may register as a shock, then, that trees have lives so much like our own. All the behaviors described above have been studied and documented by scientists who carefully avoid the word 'behavior' and other anthropomorphic language, lest they be accused of having emotional attachments to their subjects.

"The novelist suffers no such injunction, but most of them don’t know beans about botany. Richard Powers is the exception, and his monumental novel The Overstory accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size."

Trees 2

Trees 3

Trees 4

In an excellent interview with Richard Powers, Bradford Morrow notes:

"Some of our greatest novelists, from Thomas Hardy to Willa Cather and beyond, have so deeply invested their natural landscapes with the power of personality that nature becomes an active, even interactive, character in their work. Certainly, the trees in your novel similarly achieve an undeniable kind of selfhood, a soulful, communicative, and vital presence. They are families. Some of them are individuals with complicated lives....So, yes, Hardy, Cather, even J. R. R. Tolkien and others, have their ways of approaching nature as a character.

"What," he asks Powers, "is your trajectory here, philosophically, aesthetically, along other avenues, of making this come to life for you?"

"The choice to give these trees central roles in the plot and the cast of the novel," Powers answers, "is both elemental and elementary. At the core of the book (in the heartwood, if you will) is a rejection of human exceptionalism -- the idea that we are the only things on earth with agency, purpose, memory, flexible response to change, or community. Research has shown in countless marvelous ways that trees have all of these. Tree consciousness -- which we’ll need to recover in order to come back home to this planet and stop treating it like a bus station bathroom -- means understanding that trees, both singly and collectively, are central characters in our own stories.

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"Related to this insight is the research of Patricia Westerford into the intensely collective nature of trees. Just as in the standard novel of psychological revelation that often plays social and group will against the individual, so, Westerford discovers, there is always a society of trees, sustaining and regulating the lives of its single stems:

'It will take years for the picture to emerge. There will be findings, unbelievable truths confirmed by a spreading worldwide web of researchers in Canada, Europe, Asia, all happily swapping data through faster and better channels. Her trees are far more social than even Patricia suspected. There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree. It seems most of nature isn’t red in tooth and claw, after all. For one, those species at the base of the living pyramid have neither teeth nor talons. But if trees share their storehouses, then every drop of red must float on a sea of green.'

"Tolkien, by the way, was indeed an inspiration in some of this. His Ents must surely be among his most spectacular creations. Slow to anger, slow to act. But once they get going, you want them on your side."

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"To live on this primarily nonhuman planet," says Powers later in the interview, "we must change how we think of nonhumans. They are not here merely to serve as our resources. They are intelligent agents, deserving of legal standing, creatures that want something from each other and from us. They, much more than we, have created this place. We are not their masters; our dependence on them should make us more like their resourceful servants. They are gifts, and all of us know how sparingly and reverently a gift is best used. As a friend puts it: How little we would need if we knew how much we have.

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"The salvation of humanity -- for it’s us, not the world, who need to be saved -- and our continued lease on this planet depend on our development of tree consciousness. We are here by the grace of trees and forests. They make our atmosphere, clean our water, and sustain the cycles of life that permit us. Just begin to see them. See them up close and personal. See them from far away across great distances. Notice all the million complex beautiful behaviors and forms that have always slipped right past you. Simply see, and the rest will begin to follow. Every other act of preservation depends on that first step.

"For writers: ask yourself how many invisible nonhuman actors and agents are required to enable your tale of individual self-realization or domestic drama, then make those hidden sponsors visible.

"For readers: let the beauty of whatever book you’ve just read teach you to read the world beyond what we human beings call the real world. And for all of us, there is always Thoreau: 'Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, resign yourself to the influence of the earth.' "

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Please don't miss this remarkable novel, which demonstrates one of the ways that artists today can use the tools of our various crafts -- language, paint, music, etc. -- to speak for the more-than-human world.

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The Overstory

Words: The passages quoted above are from "The Heroes of This Novel are Centuries Old and 300 Feet Tall" by Barbara Kingsolver (The New York Times Book Review, April 9, 2018) and "Richard Powers: An Interview" by Bradford Morrow (Conjunctions: 70, Spring 2018). The poem in the picture captions is from Everything is Waiting for You by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 2003). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Visiting with the tree elders in the oak and beech woods on our hill, and the remarkable root systems of fallen giants.

Related posts: Children in the woods and In the forest, the child; in the child, the forest.


The logos of the land: living, working, and writing fantasy while rooted in place

Books by David Abram

David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception & Language in a More-Than-Human World has been a touch-stone text ever since I first stumbled upon it in a Tucson bookshop in the 1990s (when I was writing my desert novel The Wood Wife) -- and it has never ceased to be relevant during the many times I've re-read it. The questions it raises concerning our fraying connection to the natural world -- and the role that Story plays in strengthening or weaking that connection -- are questions that echo in my creative work, albeit in the metaphoric, poetic, slant-wise language of myth, folklore and fantasy.

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In a latter chapter of the book, David writes:

"The deer on this island [in the Pacific North-West] have recently molted, forsaking their summer fur for a thicker winter coat. I watch them in the old orchard at dusk. No longer the warm brown color of sunlight on soil, their fur is now grey against the shadowed trunks and the all-grey sky. These quiet beings seem entirely part of this breathing terrain, their very texture and color shifting with the local seasons.

"Human persons, too, are shaped by the places they inhabit, both individually and collectively. Our bodily rhythms, our moods, cycles of creativity and stillness, and even our thoughts are readily engaged and influenced by shifting patterns in the land. Yet our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs. Transfixed by our technologies, we short-circuit the sensorial reciprocity between our breathing bodies and the bodily terrain. Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses -- once the crucial site of our engagement with the wild and animate earth -- become mere adjuncts of an isolated and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary.

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"The alphabetized intellect stakes its claim to the earth by staking it down, extends its dominion by drawing a grid of straight lines and right angles across the body of a continent -- across North America, across Africa, across Australia -- defining states and provinces, counties and countries with scant regard for the oral peoples that already live there, according to a calculative logic utterly oblivious to the life of the land.

"If I say I live in the 'United States' or in 'Canada,' in 'British Columbia' or in 'Mexico,' I situate myself within a purely human set of coordinates. I say very little or nothing about the earthly place that I inhabit, but simply establish my temporary location within a shifting matrix of political, economic, and civilizational forces struggling to maintain themselves, today, largely at the expense of the animate earth. The great danger is that I, and many other good persons, may come to believe that our breathing bodies really inhabit these abstractions, and that we will lend our lives to consolidating, defending, or bewailing the fate of these ephemeral entities rather than to nurturing and defending the actual places that physically sustain us."

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How precient those words seem today, when the the borderlines between countries and cultures have become hotly contested, shaking our systems of governance to their foundations -- all while climate crisis rolls on, and cannnot be stopped at the passport gate. Fantasy, too, is a literature full of borders crossed, and borders that may not be crossed. In thinking about the boundaries and borders drawn on maps of imaginary lands, I wonder how we might re-envision them...and thereby give language to other ways of living in the physical, tactile world we share with our four-footed, scaled, and winged neighbours.

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The land has its own articulations, David writes,

"its own contours and rhythms that must be acknowledged if it is to breathe and flourish. Such patterns, for instance, are those traced by rivers as they wind their way to the coast, or by a mountain range that rises like a backbone from the plains, its ridges halting the passage of clouds that gather and release their rains on one side of the range, leaving the other slope dry and desertlike. Another such contour is the boundary between two very different kinds of bedrock caused by some cataclysmic event in the story of a continent, or between two different soils, each of which invites a different population of plants and trees to take root. Diverse groups of animals arrange themselves within such subtle boundaries, limiting their movements to the terrain that affords them their needed foods and the necessary shelter from predators. Other, more migratary species follow such patterns as they move with the seasons, articulating routes and regions readily obscured by the current human overlay of nations, states, and their various subdivisions. Only when we slip beneath the exclusively human logic continually imposed on the earth do we catch sight of this other, older logic at work in the world. Only as we come close to our senses, and begin to trust, once again, the nuanced intelligence of our sensing bodies, to we begin to notice and respond to the subtle logos of the land.

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"There in an intimate reciprocity to the senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us; as we lend our ears to the local sounds, and ally our noses to the seasonal scents, the terrain gradually tunes in with us in turn. The senses, that is, are the primary way that the earth has of informing our thoughts and of guiding our actions. Huge centralized programs, global initiatives, and other 'top down' solutions will never suffice to restore and protect the health of the animate earth. For it is only at the scale of our direct, sensory interactions with the land around us that we can appropriately notice and respond to the immediate needs of the living world.

"Yet at the scale of our sensing bodies the earth is astonishly, irreducibly diverse. It discloses itself to our senses not as a uniform planet inviting global principles and generalizations, but as this forested realm embraced by water, or a windswept prairie, or a desert silence. We can know the needs of any particular region only by participating in its specificity -- by becoming familiar with its cycles and styles, wake an attentive to its other inhabitants."

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As a fantasy writer/editor long past youth, with 30+ years of experience in the field, I still feel like the merest apprentice to the ancient art of crafting stories. I am also apprenticed to the local terrain: the patchwork of moorland hills where I live. I walk and re-walk the same network of paths through woods and meadows and riverside fields, learning the quiet green language spoken here, day after day, season after season. These things are connected: the writing, the walking. They are part of the same apprenticeship. It is slow, patient, weather-wise work to discover the stories the land wants to give you. It is slow, patient, weather-wise work to craft the words in which they are passed on.

I look to the words of other writers for guidance: fantasists, naturalists, folklorists, poets who point the way down the wild, crooked trails that lead to a well-storied world. The Spell of the Sensuous is one such guide. There are other authors and other texts that have taught and inspired me over the years, but this is one I keep coming back to...and every time it has new things to tell me.

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Words: The passage above is from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996). The poem in the picture captions, "Looking, Walking, Being" by Denise Levertov, is from Poems: 1960-1967 (New Directions, 1983). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The bluebell fields on the slopes and top of our hill at the end of May.

Related posts: Kith and Kin, Twilight Tales, Crossing Borders, and The enclosure of the Commons: borders that keep us out.