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.

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

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"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."

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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.

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"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.

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"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.

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"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.

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"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.

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"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.

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"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."

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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

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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."

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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.


The ties that bind us

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Another book I've been carrying with me during my travels -- and reading slowly to make it last -- is Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper.

The subject of these essays is family, community, and relationships in their many forms: relationships with siblings, housemates, friends, lovers, books and their authors, objects, food, and (most poignantly for me) the fellow members of a care circle surrounding a friend with cancer. Although Hopper's own upbringing was unusual (her parents were "religious hippies" in a cultish Evangelical sect), the underlying dynamics of the familial and social ties she examines are nonetheless relatable as hell. Plus, it's a beautifully written book, and even the lightest of essays (a discourse on binge-watching the old American television show Cheers, for example) is made luminous by the the author's clarity, honestly, and unfailing compassion for the ways we both support and fail each other as we move through life.

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In the opening essay, "Lean On," Hooper takes issue with America's cultural adulation of the Solitary Hero (Ralph Waldo Emerson's ideal self-reliant man,  Joan Didion's ideal self-sufficient woman) and articulates the value of leaning on others, and letting others lean on us. In response to Didion's assertion that the solitary self is the authentic self, she writes:

"My scepticism about the authenticity of solitude is partly rooted in experience. I don't see why the person I am when I'm rising to the occasion for students in the classroom is less truly myself than the person I am when I come home and kick off my shoes and collapse on the couch. There are verses of hymns I know by heart that I can only remember in church, but they will still be part of me till I die. I never feel more myself than when I'm writing, and I always write for readers. My sisters know I'm bossy and my friends know I'm kind, and when I'm alone I'm neither, but really I am both. My identity is not an independent state.

"I cannot imagine a solitary self even in theory. What would it even mean, after all, to be truly alone with yourself, an independent and dispassionate critic of your own individual character? You would need to be able to trace the contours of your personality as if they had never meant anything to anyone; to scour your brain of love's neural traces; to forget where your hands have been. You would need a body and soul free of microscopic chimeras, unmarked by social judgements past and present. You would need to redact yourself from every file and delete yourself from every inbox. You would need an unlisted number and a rotary phone with a severed cord. You would need to have forgotten all the books you'd read, or never read them in the first place. You would need to be the last living speaker of a dying language. You would need to have been abandoned as an infant by a wolf who refused to raise you."

(You can read the full piece online here.)

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An essay about Hopper's complicated relationship with her brother starts with this delicious opening:

"There is a form of intimacy that consists of being harangued by someone in a bathrobe. A brother. He might be standing and pacing and you might be lying down on a couch under an afghan. He is exasperating in a way that tends towards escalating energy, and he intermittently throws off or emits sparks, like a grindstone, like a rasp, like a pronged plug in proximity to a faulty socket. The stakes are high for him. He suspects that your way of thinking is suspect. You suspect he may be right. You further suspect it is not just your way of thinking that he finds dubious but the person you have turned out to be.

"You find yourself arranged together this way -- pacing, bathrobe; reclining, afghan -- because you share a home. In other words, you share a domestic space in which seriousness does not depend on dignified dress or ordinary standards of civility. In this home, certain protective coverings (shirts and pants) can be dispensed with, while other kinds of protective coverings (afghans) can be piled on or, in particularly tense moments, pulled over one's face and supine body like a shroud of surrender. But it is never really surrender: just a way to collect yourself and breathe warm condensation breaths under the wool while presenting an implacable surface to the man who is talking. You are biding your time until it is your turn to speak.

"And you will inevitably speak. You will always have your say. You are arranged this way, after all, because you are brother and sister, tumbled together since childhood like agates in a rock polisher, generating your own conversational grit since you first had enough shared language to talk."

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Hopper writes about the complex nature of friendships (a subject deeply under-represented in our literature) better than just about anyone. The essay on her brother ("Oh Octopus") also reflects on the family bonds we make with friends:

"Armistead Maupin, the chronicler of the legendary queer saga Tales of the City, calls families found in adulthood 'logical.' 'Sooner or later,' he writes, 'no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us.' I understand what he means. At the same time, in my experience all families are fairly illogical, and all of them (even biological ones) have their own crazy logic. A term I sometimes use instead is 'invented family,' because it implies the work of creation. It is family as a mutually agreed upon fiction. But then, all families are invented, even biological ones. A family is not reducible to legal status or DNA; it is also a provisional hypothesis constructed from surviving documents; a collection of dissonant or harmonizing stories. Perhaps the best phrase for my purpose is 'found family.' It evokes something of the feeling of lost or cast-out sheep who find themselves once again in the safe fold.

"What I love about found family is that it can accomodate all the love and meals and holidays and hospitals visits of any other family -- all the true confessions and late-night conversations and child chaos and quotidian mess and hugs and endearments and quality time; and yet it is often kinder than original family, and more miraculous, because it is a gift given when you are old enough to appreciate it, a commitment continuously made when you know what that commitment costs and means. A family found in adulthood can never attain the involuntary intimacy of siblings who have known you since birth, and squabbled with you in bathrooms and at breakfast tables from time immemorial. But sometimes, perhaps for this reason,  a found family can know and love you for who you are -- not for who you once were, or who you never were."

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If the passages quoted above don't make your heart beat a little fast (someone is finally writing about this!), then Hard to Love may not be the book for you. But if they do, seek out a copy post haste. It's quietly extraordinary.

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Words: The passages above are from Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper (Bloomsbury, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Birds, Beasts, and Seas, edited by Jeffrey Yang (New Directions, 2011). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Writing and reading outdoors this morning, with the hound close by.


Living and working in place

Leat 1

One of the books I carried with me during my travels over the last few weeks was How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, an artist and writer based in northern California (the center of the American tech industry). I read it slowly, doling it out, because it presented so much food for thought -- and now that I've finished, I recommend Odell's book for anyone engaged in the deep, slow work of making art in the shallow, fast world that Silicon Valley is busy creating. 

Here's a passage from the book's introduction that will give you a taste of what's inside:

"We know that we live in complex times that demand complex thoughts and conversations -- and those, in turn, demand the very time and space that is nowhere to be found. The convenience of limitless connectivity has neatly paved over the the nuances of in-person conversation, cutting away so much information and context in the process. In the endless cycle where communication is stunted and time is money, there are few moments to slip away and fewer ways to find each other.

"Given how poorly art survives in a system that values only the bottom line, the stakes are cultural as well. What the tastes of neoliberal techno manifest-destiny and the culture of Trump have in common is impatience with anything nuanced, poetric, or less-than-obvious. Such 'nothings' cannot be tolerated because they cannot be used or appropriated, and provide no deliverables."

How to Do Nothing

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Odell writes that her book is "a field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy": to social media, apps, and other technological tools that are increasing co-opting our time, our focus, and our lives.

"A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are not enough. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as an ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to everyone lucky enough to be alive."

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Odell is not suggesting that we banish the Internet from our lives altogether. Nor does she endorse the notion that merely taking periodic "offline Retreats" (which is one of my own practices) is an adequate means of addressing the myriad ways the attention economy is re-shaping societal norms. When "doing something," in a hyper-capitalist culture, means "doing something productive" (ie, making money) -- as opposed to the things we do in the private parts of our lives that cannot or should not be marketized -- then re-framing the idea of what "productivity" means is a radical act.

"The fact that the 'nothing' that I propose is only nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity explains the irony that a book called How to Do Nothing is in some ways also a plan of action. I want to trace a series of movements: 1.) a dropping out, not dissimilar from the 'dropping out' of the 1960s; 2.) a lateral movement outward to things and people that are around us; and 3.) a movement downwards into place. Unless we are vigilant, the current design of much of our technology will block us every step of the way, deliberately creating false targets for self-reflection, curiousity, and a desire to belong to a community. When people long for some kind of escape, it's worth asking: What would 'back to the land' mean if we understood the land to be where we are right now? Could 'augmented reality' simply mean putting your phone down? And what (or who) is that sitting in front of you when you finally do so?"

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Later in the Introduction she notes:

"The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn't to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive. My argument is obviously anticapitalist, especially concerning technologies that encourage a capitalist perception of time, place, self, and community. It is also environmental and historical: I propose the rerouting and deepening one's attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one's participation in history and in a more-than-human community. From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of 'doing nothing' is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.

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"I am not anti-technology. After all, there are forms of technology -- from tools that let us observe the natural world to decentralized, noncommercial social networks -- that might situation us more fully in the present. Rather, I'm opposed to the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention, as well as to designs and uses of technology that enshrine a narrow definition of productivity and ignore the local, the carnal, and the poetic. I am concerned about the effects of current social media on expression -- including the right not to express oneself -- and its deliberately addictive features. But the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction. It is furthermore the cult of of individuality and personal branding that grow out of such platforms and the way we think about our onlines selves and the places where we actually live."

It's a fascinating book, yet not a prescriptive one. Each of us must determine for ourselves how phones and apps and Twitter and Facebook can best be used (or not used) in our lives. But what Odell has done -- for this reader, at least -- is to reframe the debate on the subject: widening its context and acknowledging its complexity. I'm still thinking about the questions she poses...and already my relationship to the attention economy is changing.

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Words: The passages above are from How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell (Melville House, 2019). The poem in the picture captions first appeared inTin House (Winter, 2018). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Working by the leat on a bright spring morning.


On home, land, and the view out the window

Zandvoort Fisher Girl by Elizabeth Forbes

In her essay "Home," Mary Oliver writes about the value of those homely, undramatic landscapes that we come to know in an intimate way by living in them day after day, year after year, season after season. Reading her words, I was reminded of my own patch of ground: the small woodland behind my studio and the rise of Nattadon Hill beyond, whose modest beauties are deepened by my steady relationship with them. I walk their paths nearly every day: I know the trees and the stones in all kinds of weather; I know where the sicklewort grows, and the Jack-in-Pulpits; I know where the badger setts are, where the owls come to roost. I grieve when storms damage the stalwart old oaks and celebrate when the bluebells return. All this makes the hillside dear to me, but one needn't live in the countryside to value the physical world we live in -- including the good green lungs of our cities, the raffish edgelands between country and town, and those blessed pockets of wilderness that break through in even the tamest of suburbs. We are all affected by the land that we live on (for good or for ill), if not always properly attentive to that soul-deep connection.

In the following passage from Oliver's essay, she speaks of the way her own familiar landscape, on the north-east coast of America, shaped her psyche and creative work:

A Girl With Hands Behind Her Back (charcoal drawing) by Elizabeth Forbes"A certain lucent correspondence has served me, all my life, in the ongoing search for my deepest thoughts and feelings. It's the relationship of my own mind to landscape, to the physical world -- especially to the part of which, over the years, I have (and not casually) become intimate. It's no great piece of furniture in the universe -- no Niagara, or rainforest, or Sahara. Yet it is beautiful, and ripples in the weathers as lively as any outpouring from the Great Lakes.

"In its minor turns, and tinsels, and daily changes, this landscape seems actually intent on providing pleasures, as indeed it does; in its constancy, its inexorable obedience to laws I cannot begin to imagine much less understand, it is still a richer companion -- steady commentary against my own lesser moods -- my flightiness, my indifferences, my mind and heart absences.

"I mean, by such flightiness, something that feels unsatisfied at the center of my life -- that makes me shaky, fickle, inquisitive, and hungry. I could call it a longing for home and not be far wrong. Or I could call it a longing for whatever supercedes, if cannot pass through, understanding. Other words that come to mind: faith, grace, rest. In my outer appearance and life habits I hardly change -- there's never been a day that friends haven't been able to say, at a distance, 'There's Oliver, still standing around in the weeds. There she is, still scribbling in her notebook.' But at the center I am shaking, I am flashing like tinsel....

"Daily I walk out across my landscape, the same fields, the same woods, and the same pale beaches; I stand by the same blue and festive sea where the invisible winds, on late summer afternoons, are wound into huge, tense coils, and the waves put on their feathers and begin to leap shoreward, to their last screaming and throbbing landfall. Times beyond remembering I have seen such moments: summer falling to fall, to be followed by what will follow: winter again: count on it. Opulant and ornate world, because at its root, and its axis and its ocean bed, it swings through the universe quietly and certainly."

Landscape near Paul  Cornwall by Elizabeth Forbes

Here We Are Gathering Nuts in May by Elizabeth Forbes

And on that land, she continues,

"I build a platform, and live upon it, and think my thoughts, and aim high. To rise, I must have a field to rise from. To deepen, I must have bedrock from which to descend. The constancy of the physical world, under its green and blue dyes, draws me toward a better, richer self, call it elevation (there is hardly an adequate word), where I might ascend a little -- where a gloss of spirit would mirror itself in worldly action. I don't mean just mild goodness. I mean feistiness too, the fires of human energy stoked; I mean a gladness vivacious enough to disarrange the sorrows of the world into something better....

"It is one of the great perils of our so-called civilized age that we do not acknowledge enough, or cherish enough, this connection between soul and landscape -- between our own best possibilities, and the view from our own windows. We need the world as much as it needs us, and we need it in privacy, intimacy, and surety."

As I walk the paths of the hill and woods, over and over and over again, following after my bouncy black dog, I'm aware that I do need this place, this connection with something both older and larger than I am. My dreams are steeped in its soft morning mists and cold winter rains; my art is shaped by its moss-covered rocks, its hoary old oaks, its rowan trees bright with red berries. It's not the first or the only landscape I've loved. It will probably not be the last. But every day I walk on the hill...and look...and listen, paying attention.  I "stand around in the weeds" and scribble in a notebook. On good days, on bad days, I'm here. On the hill.

Rooted.

Fearing storms, but still standing.

Soft Music & The Leaf by Elizabeth Forbes

The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Elizabeth Forbes

The Road to the Farm & A Dream Princess by Elizabeth Forbes

The Black Knight by Elizabeth Forbes

The art today is by Elizabeth Forbes (1859-1912), a leading member of the Newlyn School of art. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, Forbes studied in London, New York, and Munich, and spent time in the Pont-Aven art colony in Brittany, before settling in Cornwall: first in St. Ives, then in the fishing village of Newlyn (where she married fellow painter Stanhope Forbes). She was only 52 when she died of cancer, yet she created an extraordinary body of work -- ranging from rural scenes influenced by the plein air movement to illustrative works reflecting her love of folklore and fairy stories.

Shepherdess of the Pyrenees by Elizabeth Forbes

To learn more about this remarkable women, I recommend Singing from the Walls: The Life & Art of Elizabeth Forbes by Judith Cook, Melissa Hardie, and Christiana Payne.

Jean, Jeanne at Jeanette by Elizabeth Forbes

The Life & Art of Elizabeth Forbes

The text quoted above is from Long Life: Essays and Other Writings by Mary Oliver (Da Capo Press, 2004). All rights reserved by the author's estate.


Spinning straw into gold, pain into art

Morning on Nattadon Hill

As a writer, and as a woman with health problems, I have a particular interest in a genre of books sometimes referred to (affectionately or condescendingly) as "sick lit": reflections on living life with a serious illness or disability. I seek out such books not only to discover how other writers think about these issues, but also how they've managed the alchemical work of turning hard experience into art -- for this is something I strive to do myself, and fail at more often than I succeed.

Upper bench, Nattadon Hill

Disability literature is plenty, and increasing. The dog-earred volumes on my own shelves include The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde, Illnesss as Metaphor by Susan Sontag, essay collections by Nancy Mairs and Floyd Skloot, The Anatomy of Illness by Kat Duff, Elegy for a Disease by Anne Finger, Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett, A Match to the Heart by Gretel Ehrlich, One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, The Still Point of a Turning World by Emily Rapp, An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison, Hillbilly Gothic by Adrienne Martini, Tristomania by Jay Griffiths, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison,  It's Just Nerves by Kelly Davio, Kissed by a Fox by Priscilla Stuckey, and The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey.

Each of these is well worth a read, but one volume I've only recently discovered is in a league of its own: Pain Woman Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber. It's simply the best account that I've yet read of living a writer's life in a body that does not function properly, told in language so exquisitely crafted that it took my breath away.

Painwoman Takes Your Keys by Sonya Huber

The collection begins with "What Pain Wants," a short piece in the interstice between poetry and prose, in which Huber personifies pain as an implacable yet poignant figure with "the inscrutable eyes and thin beak of an egret." Trapped in "a body that is ill-fitting for its unfolded shape," Pain communicates in symbols and signs -- then, faced with human incomprehension, puts its "beaked head in its long-fingered wing hands in frustration and loneliness." Huber's image of pain as tormentor and tormented, a Hib Sabin Trickster god come to life, has the ring of mythic truth about it, and is one I won't soon forget.

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She then goes on to explore the physical, emotional, political, sexual, and practical aspects of living, working, and raising a child while dealing with disability and navigating the maddening medical world. There is sorrow, frustration, and anger in these essays, of course, but also comedy, wisdom, and sharp, bright joy -- lifted from reportage to art by the poetic precision of Huber's writing.

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"Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick," for example, begins like this:

"When I am ill, only the kingdom of the ill is a comfort. The image of laughing, limber-limbed bodies with shining hair is not bitter because I long for it. It is bitter because it does not have anything to teach me and because it makes me forget the solidity of my own ground. I cannot aim for that bright country of the well anymore. It is barred to me, and as I hold it in my mind's eye, there is no room for crushing nostalgia. The taste is bitter because it is the taste denied.

"What I learn is that the kingdom of the ill is a vast bedrock. We appear weak and reclined, yet we cannot be invaded or defeated. Look at us: We are unbreakable in our brokeness. We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible. We have dropped down the well. We reel in a slow-motion dance, treading where others fear to tread, continuing to breathe in the postnormal existence. We are the zombies, the undead. We are the good and bad witches, double-sighted.

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"The kingdom of the ill is mighty and legion, and it is the borderland all bodies must pass through. And we have set up tents, encampments, and homes. We wave at you from beyond the gates.

"When you have arrived, you have arrived. Welcome and blessings."

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Some of the essays in the volume are straight-foward in construction; others stray from linear narrative in order to conjure the experience of pain, describing the indescribable. I admit I'm often wary of experimental modes of writing, for in unskilled hands such forms can be affectations rather than necessary to the text. But here, the breaking of convention works. It is purposeful, controlled, sparingly applied, and thus powerfully effective.

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I found myself reading Pain Woman slowly...doling it out...savouring each essay, reluctant for the book to end. I turned the last page on a bright winter's day on the hill behind my studio -- exhilarated by Huber's prose, and sad that there was to be no more of it.

Shaking myself from under its spell, I looked up and found a herd of Dartmoor ponies drifting toward my bench.  They'd climbed up from the fields below, heading over the hill and out to the moor. Soon they surrounded me and Tilly, their breath steaming lightly in the cold air. The end of a book is a super-charged moment, particularly if the book has been good, and the presence of ponies felt like a benediction on the surge of emotions Pain Woman had raised.

Dartmoor ponies

Pony

The hound and I watched quietly as the herd slowly drifted away again, disappearing over the crest of the hill. Then I packed up my things, whistled for Tilly, and headed back down to the studio. In that moment, I knew I would write this post: on language and ponies and life in a body that fails me, then heals again, time after time. I knew I needed to recommend Huber's book, both to those who know the sly/shy Trickster god of pain, and those who don't, at least not yet.

It's a searing, honest, beautiful read...

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...and now blessed by wild ponies too.

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The passage above is from Pain Woman Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber (The University of Nebraska Press, 2017). The poem in the picture captions is from New Ohio Review (Spring, 2011). All rights reserved by the authors.


The call

Ponies on the Commons

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From "The Miracle of the Mundane" by Heather Havrilesky:

An illustration from More Celtic Fairy Tales by John Batten"On a good day, humankind's creations make us feel like we're here for a reason. Our belief sounds like the fourth molto allegro movement of Mozart's Symphony no. 41, Jupiter: Our hearts seem to sing along to Mozart's climbing strings, telling us that if we're patient, if we work hard, if we believe, if we stay focused, we will continue to feel joy, to do meaningful work, to show up for each other, to grow closer to some sacred ground. We are thrillingly alive and connected to every other thing, in perfect, effortless accord with the natural world.

"But it's hard to sustain that feeling, even on the best of days -- to keep the faith, to stay focused on what matters most -- because the world continues to besiege us with messages that we're failing. You're feeding your baby a bottle and a voice on the TV tells you that your hair should be shinier. You're reading a book but someone on Twitter wants you to know about a hateful thing a politician said earlier this morning. You are bedraggled and inadequate and running late for something and it's always this way. You are busy and distracted. You are not here."

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"We are living in a time of extreme delusion, disorientation, and dishonesty," Havrilesky notes later in the essay. "At this unparalleled moment of self-consciousness and self-loathing, commercial messages have replaced real connection or faith as our guiding religion. These messages depend on convincing us that we don't have enough yet, and that everything valuable and extraordinary exists outside of ourselves.

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"It's not surprising that in a culture dominated by such messages, many people believe that humility will only lead to being crushed under the wheels of capitalism or subsumed by some malevolent force that abhors weakness. Our anxious age erodes our ability to be open and show our hearts to each other. It severs our ability to connect to the purity and magic that we carry around inside us already, without anything to buy, without anything new to become, without any way to conquer and win the shiny luxurious lives we're told we deserve. So instead of passionately embracing the things we love the most, and in doing so reveal our fragility and self-hatred and sweetness and darkness and fear and everything that makes us whole, we present a fractured, tough, protected self to the world. Our shiny robot soldiers do battle with other shiny robot soldiers, each side calling the other side 'terrible,' because in a world that can't see poetry or recognize the divinity of each living soul, fragility curdles into macho toughness and soulless rage. All nuance is lost in a fearful rush to turn every passing though or idea or belief into dogma.

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"Against this landscape, anything that celebrates the wildness and complexity of the human soul is worthy of celebration. This is true in a global sense, in communities, and it's true within a single human being. The antidote to a world that tells us sick stories about ourselves and and poisons us into thinking we're helpless is believing in our world and in our communities and in ourselves."

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Bog water

"We are called to resist viewing ourselves as consumers or as commodities," she concludes. "We are called to savor the process of our own slow, patient development, instead of suffering in an enervated, anxious state over our value and our popularity. We are called to view our actions as important, with or without consecration by forces beyond our control. We are called to plant these seeds in our world: to dare to tell every living soul that they already matter, that their seemingly mundane lives are a slowly unfolding mystery, that their small choices and acts of generosity are vitally important. "

I couldn't agree more.

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Hound on the Commons 1

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I highy recommend seeking out Havrilesky's inspiring essay to read in full -- which you'll find it in her new collection What If This Were Enough?, along with other treasures. (Her essay on the subject of "bravado" is another one I can't stop thinking about.)

Hound on the Commons 3

What if This Were Enough by Heather Havrikesky

Words: The passages above are from What if This Were Were Enough? by Heather Havrilesky (Doubleday, 2017). The poem in the picture captions is from The House of Belonging by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 1997). All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: Dartmoor ponies grazing in the bog-land by the village Commons on a wet and wild day. The drawing is by English illustrator John D. Batten (1860-1932), who was born just across the moor in Plymouth.

A few related posts: For a discussion of avoiding the tyrany of critical voices on the Internet (and inside on our own heads), see "On Fear of Judgement." For a variety of thoughts on living life deliberately and contemplatively, see the thread of writings under the topic In Praise of Slowness.


Finding the Words

Budleigh Salterton 1

From "Writing With and Through Pain" by Sonya Huber:

"It’s an odd thing to continue to show up at the page when the brain and the fingers you bring to the keyboard have changed. Before the daily pain and head-fog of rheumatoid disease, I could sit at my computer and dive headlong into text for hours. Like many writers, I had a quasi-religious attachment to the feeling of jet-fuel production, the clear writing process of my twenties: the silence I required, the brand of pen I chose when I wrote long-hand, those hours when I would sit and pour out words and forget to breathe.

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"Then, I thought that my steel-trap focus made for good writing, but I confess that I’m not sure what 'good writing' means anymore. For example, what happens when the fogged writing you thought was sub-par results in your most popular book? ...

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"Today I am tired -- despite a full night’s sleep -- merely because I had a busy workday yesterday. I’m actually hungover, in a sense, from standing upright and talking between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm. Before I got sick, I would have declared this day a rare lost cause. But this is the new normal. Now, even the magic of caffeine doesn’t allow me to smash through the pages like I used to. As my body and mind changed, I feared that I would become unhinged from text itself, and from the thinking and insight that text provides. In a way, that did happen. Over the past decade, I have had to remake my contract with sentences and with every step of the writing process. The good thing is that there’s plasticity in that relationship, as long as I am patient.

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"I don’t know a lot about neurology, but here’s what it feels like: there’s a higher register, buzzing, logical, and mathematical, in which I could often write when I was at full energy. And then there’s a lower tone, slower and quieter -- my existence these days. The music of the words sounds completely different at this lower register, producing different voices and different shapes, but it still resonates. It requires me to intuit more, to pay much more attention to non-verbal senses and emotional structures and to try to put them into words, rather than to follow the intellectual string of words themselves.

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"Although our diseases are very different, I have felt what Floyd Skloot describes in his essay 'Thinking with a Damaged Brain,' in which he traces the ways his thought processes have been altered by the aftermath of a virus that ravaged his attention and memory:

'I must be willing to write slowly, to skip or leave blank spaces where I cannot find words that I seek, compose in fragments and without an overall ordering principle or imposed form. I explore and make discoveries in my writing now, never quite sure where I am going but willing to let things ride and discover later how they all fit together'

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"I do work more slowly. Of necessity, I place more faith in Tomorrow Me. When I stop writing, daunted by a place where I’m stuck, my energy plummets and I hand it off, knowing I’ll pick up the challenge on the next session....The dim semaphore through which my sentences arrive today leads to a strange by-product: I have less energy to worry about all the ways in which I might be wrong (though maybe age and confidence have also helped). In plodding along slowly, my voice has become clearer, at least in my own head. This slow writing forces me to make each word count."

Drawing by Helen Stratton

Please take the time to read Huber's insightful essay in full (published online at Literary Hub), as this is just a small taste of it. I also recommend her collection Pain Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System, as well as her other fine books.

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Some other good pieces on writing with, or about, illness and pain:

"Stephanie Burgis Talks about Snowspelled" (Mary Robinette Kowal's blog)
If you're having trouble with this link, try this url: https://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/favorite-bit-stephanie-burgis-talks-snowspelled/

"Out of My Mind" by Sarah Perry (The Guardian)

"On the Harmed Body: A Tribute to Hillary Gravendyk" by Diana Arterian (Los Angeles Review of Books)

"On Telling Ugly Stories: Writing with a Chronic Ilnness" by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (The Paris Review)

"Writing & Illness: More Than Metaphor" by Victoria Brownworth (Lambda Literary)

"The Heart-Work: Writing About Trauma as a Subversive Act" by Melissa Febos (Poets & Writers)

My own various writings on illness, posted on this blog, are collected here.

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"In order to keep me available to myself," wrote Audre Lord in The Cancer Journals,  "and able to concentrate my energies upon the challenges of those worlds through which I move, I must consider what my body means to me. I must also separate those external demands about how I look and feel to others, from what I really want for my own body, and how I feel to my selves."

This is also a challenge for all of us, the sick and the well alike.

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Words: The passage above is from "Writing With and Through Pain" by Sonya Huber (Literary Hub, June 25, 2018). The Andre Lorde quote is from The Cancer Journals (Aunt Lute Books, 1980). The poem in the picture captions is from Guts Magazine (November 19, 2015).  All rights reserved by the authors. Drawing: "The Little Mermaid" by Helen Stratton (1867-1961). Photographs: A walk on the pebble beach at Budleigh Salterton on the south Devon coast, late summer, with my old friends Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, and my husband Howard.