Wild empathy

Walking with Tilly

In yesterday's post, Scott Russell Sanders discussed the act of empathy with animals, and others unlike ourselves, in relation to shamanic shape-shifting: as a means of "reaching out in imagination to a fellow creatures."  Reflecting on this has led me back to Jay Griffith's essay "Forests of the Mind" (2012), on the power of metaphor in shamanism and art. She writes:

"[Shape-shifting] is part of the repertoire of the human mind, cousin to mimesis, empathy and Keats’s 'negative capability,' known to poets and healers since the beginning of time. It did not hold literal truth, quite obviously, but had a 'slanted, metaphoric truth' ....

"Shape-shifting is a transgressive experience, a crossing over: something flickers inside the psyche, a restless flame in a gust of wind, endlessly transformative. The mind moves from its literal pathways to its metaphoric flights. Art is made like this, from a volatile bewitchment, of a self-forgetting and an identification with something beyond.

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"Ted Hughes once said that the secret of writing poetry is to 'imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it ... Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn your self into it.' One writing exercise Hughes suggested for students was titled: 'I am the Amazon.' We are what we think, and we humans have a way to become other, in a necessary, wild and radical empathy.

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"Shape-shifting involves a willingness to make mimes in the mind, copying something else. Art, meanwhile, depends on mimesis furthering our desire to know and to understand. In a recent, Ovidian, dance piece, 'Swan,' French dancers performed and swam with live swans, imitating the birds in a mime which alluded to the metamorphosis of all art, and to the artists’ ability to lose themselves in order to mirror something beyond.

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"'But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we/breathe ourselves out and away,' wrote Rilke in 'The Second Elegy.'

"In making art, the artist expires, breathing herself out to allow the inspiring to happen, the breathing in of glinting universal air, intelligent with many minds, electric and on the loose. Artist, shape-shifter, shaman or poet, all are lovers of metamorphosis, all are minded to vision, insight and dream."

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Meadow flowers

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I recommend reading Griffith's essay in full, as well as her splendid book Wild: An Elemental Journey -- an exploration of "wildness" and "wilderness" in nature, culture, myth, and art.

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Words: The quoted passage by Jay Griffiths above is from "Forests of the Mind" (Aeon Magazine, 12 October, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from Dark Sweet: New & Selected Poems by Linda Hogan (Coffeehouse Press, 2014). All rights reserved by the authors. 

Pictures: An afternoon walk and a visit with some of our neighbours in the Devon hills.


Wild Communion

Charlotte by Laurence Winram

In yesterday's post, I recommended Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a marvelous book about Mozart's bird companion (Star), the writer's own pet starling (Carmen), and reflections on this common bird, widely detested in North America for being nonnative and invasive. Today, I'd like to quote a beautiful passage from the latter chapters of the text looking at the nature of our wild relationships with the more-than-human world, a subject that often comes up in our discussions in the Mythic Arts field.

Haupt writes:

"When I set out to follow the story of Mozart and his starling, I saw in its center a shining, irresistible paradox: one of the greatest and most loved composers in all of history was inspired by a common, despised starling. Now I muse upon the many facets of this tale, and it is wonderful, yes, even more wonderful than I had imagined. But looking back at the trail that I have wandered with these kindred birds -- one in history and one in my home -- I see also that, as both humans and animals so often are, I have been tricked by my attraction to the shiny little object. For in the end, it is not the exceptionality of this story that is the true wonder. It is its ordinariness.

"In the creatures that intertwine with our lives, those we see daily and those that watch us from urban and wild places -- from between branches and beneath leaves and under eaves and stairwells and culverts and the sides of walks and pathways -- we share everything. We share breath, and biology, and blood. She share our needs for food and water and shelter. We share the imperative to mate and to give new life and to keep our young safe and warm and fed. We share susceptibility to disease and the potential to suffer and an inevitable frailty in the face of these things. We share a certain death. We share everything, constantly, every moment of the day and night, across eons. And in this shared earthly living, when we give our attention to it, we find the basis of our compassion, and our empathy for other creatures....

Each creature has its particular ways and wiles. Each being has its own presence, voice, silence, song, body, place. We are bound by our sameness and uniqueness in equal measure -- both spring from our shared being on a vital, conscious earth. This is wild communion. And it is in this recognition that we move beyond simple compassion to a more certain, more essential sense of relatedness, of kinship.

Mihaela 1 by Laurence Winram

"Mozart felt this, I know. Like me, he was drawn at first to the shiny thing -- in his case it was Star's singing back to him the song he himself had written. But in his elegy poem [written upon Star's death] we see that a different relationship evolved. The bird's mimicry is not once mentioned. This is a poem to a kindred creature whose presence brought play, sound, song, joy, and friendliness to the maestro's life. And in the work that Star inspired, this is what we see too. A shared sense of mischief, music, and delight. The word kinship comes from the Old English -- of the same kind, and therefore related. Kindly and kindness also grow from this root -- the bearing toward others that kinship inspires.

Nikita II by Laurence Winram

"I have always thought of all creatures -- all organisms really -- as relations. Whether wandering alone in deep wilderness or just leaning against a tree growing beside an urban sidewalk, I have no difficulty feeling, as if in a dreamtime, the roots of our relatedness -- ecologically, yes, but also with an overlay of the sacred, the holy. Starlings, though pretty, were a rift in this vision. They fluttered outside this wholeness. But my thinking has evolved. Ecologically, it is true -- starlings do not belong in this country, this city; but relationally, it is not true. We live together in a tangled complexity. I listen to the starlings mimic back to me my own profound ecological shortcomings. Carmen is a creature with a body, voice, and consciousness in the world. In this, we are sisters. And all these unwelcome starlings on the grassy parking strip? Yes, they are my relations too.

Charlotte 1 by Laurence Winram

"The Cartesian belief in the absolute separateness of lives, bodies, and brains maintains a foothold in the traditions of our modern culture. We see it in the ways we are pitted against one another in commerce, in education, and in the small, daily jealousies of our own minds. We see it in the ways that we continue to find it culturally acceptable to diminish animals in agriculture, in entertainment, and in scientific experimentation. And yes, when we are attentive, we find that we are not separate, not alone. We are not isolated little minds wandering on a large, indifferent earth. We are surrounded by our kin, by all of life, beings with whom we are wayfarers together. Instead of walking upon, we walk within, and this within-ness brings our imaginations to life. We are inspired -- literally "breathed upon" -- together.

"Our creativity and our connection to other beings is tangled in a beautiful etymology. The words creative and creature spring from the same Latin root, creare, "to produce, to grow, to bring into existence." It was Ged, Ursula Le Guin's beloved young wizard of Earthsea, who learned after the fall of his individual pride that the wise person is "one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the slow gestures of trees." Through such understanding we arrive at a new wholeness. We become more receptive and free in body and imagination, and our unique potential for creative magnificence is enlivened. We become the listening artists of our own lives and culture."

Yes, indeed.

Fiona I by Laurence Winram

The art today is by Scottish photographer Laurence Winram. The imagery here is from his Shadow, Conemen, and Mythologos series. Please visit Winram's website and blog to see more.

"The ancient Greeks made sense of their world not only by logic but by myth too," says the artist. "They saw it was necessary to view things in these opposite ways in order to have a balanced understanding of their lives. I feel we have moved out of that balance, unconsciously letting go of that mythic element to our lives. As a result we've lost touch with our own personal vision and creativity. We let a dogmatic scientific perspective rule everything, from our dreams to our notions of the spiritual.

"I try to reflect on this, creating images that sometimes imagine a world where logic has been sidelined by the mythic, or images that mock our need to analyse and break down those parts of our life that we should truly respond to more intuitively."

Hazel Flew by Laurence Winram

Otto's Flight II by Laurence Winram

The passages above is from Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown & Co., 2017); all rights reserved by the author. Thanks again to William Todd Jones (via composer Hillary Tann) for passing the book on to me; and to Steve Toase for recommending Laurence Winram's work. All rights to the photography above reserved by the artist.


The song of owls

Falling Through Starlight by Catherine Hyde

The little woodland behind my studio is thick with owls. I hear their cries each morning as I start my work at the break of dawn. I hear them again at the midnight hour in our little house just down the hill, the song of owls slipping the bedroom window into my dreams. 

In this luminous passage from her book Dwellings, Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan follows the call of the owls who gather near her home in the American south-west:

Lightly Through the Darkness by Catherine Hyde"It was early in February, during the mating season of the great horned owls. It was dusk, and I had hiked up the back of a mountain to where I'd heard the owls a year before. I wanted to hear them again, the voices so tender, so deep, like a memory of comfort. I was halfway up the trail when I found a soft, round nest. It had fallen from one of the bare-branched trees. It was a delicate nest, woven together of feathers, sage, and strands of wild grass. Holding it in my hands in the rosy twilight, I noticed that blue thread was entwined with the other gatherings there. I pulled at the thread a little, and then I recognized it. It was a thread from one of my skirts. It was blue cotton. It was the unmistakeable color and shape of a pattern I knew. I liked it, that a thread of my life was in an abandoned nest, one that had held eggs and new life. I took the nest home. At home, I held it to the light and looked more closely. There, to my surprise, nestled into the grey-green sage, was a gnarl of black hair. It was also unmistakeable. It was my daughter's hair, cleaned from a brush and picked out in the sun beneath the maple tree, or the pit cherry where birds eat from the overladen, fertile branches until only the seeds remain on the trees.

First Star Gleaming by Catherine Hyde

After Midnight by Catherine Hyde

"I didn't know what kind of nest it was, or who had lived there. It didn't matter. I thought of the remnants of our lives carried up the hill that way and turned into shelter. That night, resting inside the walls of our home, the world outside weighed so heavily against the thin wood of the house. The sloped roof was the only thing between us and the universe. Everything outside our wooden boundaries seemed so large. Filled with the night's citizens, it all came alive. The world opened in the thickets of the dark. The wild grapes would soon ripen on the vines. The burrowing ones were emerging. Horned owls sat in treetops. Mice scurried here and there. Skunks, fox, the slow and holy porcupine, all were passing by this way. The young of the solitary bees were feeding on pollen in the dark. The whole world was a nest on its humble tilt, in the maze of the universe, holding us."

The Dark Orchard by Catherine Hyde

The Sleeping Earth

The art today is by fellow owl-lover Catherine Hyde, who trained at the Central School of Art in London and now lives and works in Cornwall. Catherine has published five books (The Princess’ Blankets, FirebirdLittle Evie in the Wild Wood, The Star Tree, and The Hare and the Moon), all of which I recommend. Her art is extensively exhibited in London, Cornwall, and father afield.

“I am constantly attempting to convey the landscape in a state of suspension," she says, "in order to gain glimpses of its interconnectedness, its history and beauty. Within the images I use the archetypical hare, stag, owl and fish as emblems of wildness, fertility and permanence: their movements and journeys through the paintings act as vehicles that bind the elements and the seasons together."

Please visit the artist's website to see more of her exquisite work.

1 by Catherine Hyde

The passage above is from one of my all-time favourite books, Dwellings: The Spiritual History of the Living World by Linda Hogan (W.W. Norton & Co, 1995), which I highly, highly recommend. The paintings are by Catherine Hyde. All rights to the text and art in the post reserved by the author and artist.


Recommended reading

On the bench outside the studio

"The essayist's job," writes Rebecca Solnit "is to gather up the shards or map them where they are, to find the pattern out there or make one with words about the disconnections and mysteries. This reading of the word is a form of travel, questing and searching and gathering. Essays are restless literature, trying to find out how things fit together, how we can think about two things at once, how the personal and the public can inform each other, how two overtly dissimilar things share a secret kinship, how intuitive and scholarly knowledge can cook down together, how discovery can be a deep pleasure."

I couldn't agree more. We're living in a Golden Age of essays due to the number of online magazines and journals that publish them -- particularly personal essays, many of them incredibly moving. It's a shame that the word "essay" connotes something dry and scholarly to many readers. The essays I love are anything but, and prejudice against the form (like the old prejudice against fantasy fiction) causes too many people to miss out on a whole field that is incredibly vital and exciting right now.

Best American Essays

A friend of mine only recently stumbled upon the particular pleasure of essays, and in order to feed his growing addiction he wrote to ask for a list of my favorite collections published in last few years. 

"The best essays?" I answered. "That's easy. Start with Best American Essays, edited by Robert Atwan, along with a different guest editor every year. I read it religiously and always discover new writers there."

"I'll check them out," my friend replied. "But what I really want are your favourite writers. Over the last, oh, two-three years, which collections did you truly love? I'm making a reading list."

A stack of good reading

I duly compiled a list for my friend -- and, with his blessing, I'm also sharing it here: an extremely subjective handful of recent favorites. (By "recent," following my friend's guidelines, I stuck to books published from 2017 to the present.)

My bias runs to personal essays (of a memoirist nature) and those on the subjects of writing, nature, or living with illness...but there's not a lot that I won't at least try. Restricting my picks to a reasonable number was hard, so I made this my measure: Did I like the book enough to re-read it? Or, in the case of more recent publications, am I likely to re-read it? That whittled the list down to eight.

Tilly disapproves

In alphabetical order, so that I don't have to rank them:

1. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (Martiner Books, 2018)

In this stunning collection, Chee writes about his childhood in coastal Maine, his years as a gay activist in San Francisco, and his long, fraught process of becoming a novelist in New York City. Chee's childhood included abuse, so I ought to give a trigger warning here. He writes about the subject in manner that isn't dark and heavy but the opposite: compassionate and luminous. These are wonderful essays, beautifully rendered: honest, funny, searing, inspiring.  (Go here for my post on the book.)

2. Out of the Woods: Seeing Nature in the Everyday by Julia Corbett (University of Nevada Press, 2018)

The title says it all really. These are wide-ranging essays on nature in urban and other non-wilderness settings: informative, eloquent, and fascinating. I picked this one up when I saw it had won the 2018 Reading the West Award, thoroughly enjoyed it, and learned a thing or two about the natural world as well.

3. Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper (Bloomsbury, 2019)

I adore this book, full of smart, beautifully written, warm-hearted essays about family, community, and relationships in their many forms: relationships with siblings, housemates, friends, lovers, books. (The linked essays about the "friendship circle" around a fellow writer dealing with cancer are particularly wonderful.) Please read my post about it, and then please seek out a copy. I've re-read this one twice already, only to love it more each time.

Three excellent collections

4. Pain Woman Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber (The University of Nebraska Press, 2017)

Here's another collection I still can't get off my mind -- a beautifully rendered inquiry into living with illness and disability. I know that sounds grim, but it's not -- and the quality of Huber's writing is not to be missed. (I wrote about it here: Spinning straw into gold, pain into art.)

4. Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books, 2019)

Although I've admired the previous books by this Scottish poet and naturalist, nothing prepared for the power and beauty of Surfacing. With settings ranging from the Orkney islands to Alaska and China, these essays emerge from liminal place where nature and culture meet, written in prose that invites comparison to Nan Shepard and Barry Lopez, which is no small praise. (I wrote about Surfacing here.)

5. The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (Penguin, 2019)

I read an excerpt from Levy's slim, powerful collection, and immediately had to track down a copy -- which I then devoured in one long sitting. It was worth the lost sleep! Although written in the form of essays, each essay builds on the ones before it to create an incisive memoir covering the end of Levy's marriage, the death of her mother, and the raising of her teenage daughter, entwined with life as a working writer in London. So many of the other memoir-style essays I've enjoyed in the last few years have been by the younger generation of authors (Briallen Hooper, Emilie Pine, Jia Tolentino, etc.), whereas Levy is writing about the concerns of middle-age, with the insights that come only from years of hard experience. Her wit is sharp, her language exquisitely precise, and the book is unforgettable.

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6. Notes to Self by Emilie Pine (Penguin, 2019)

This debut collection from a young Irish writer is incredibly assured and beautifully penned. Pine writes personal essays grounded in her own life, but wrests universal insights from her material -- whether she's discussing her deeply eccentric parents (one of whom was a celebrated Irish journalist), the female body (her essay on menstruation is a tour-de-force), the fertility industry, or emotional burnout among Irish academics. I loved this book, which deserved its place on so many Best of the Year lists last December. 

7. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison (Pisces Books, 2019)

It's a bit of a grab-bag of material, this one -- but since I'd happily read Morrison's grocery lists, it is well worth seeking out nonetheless. The best of the work gathered here is smart, fierce, provocative, and inspiring, and even the minor pieces are good. What a giant of literature we have lost.

8. Erosions: Essays of Undoing by Terry Tempest Williams (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019)

Williams is another writer whose work I can't get enough of, and her latest collection is no exception. Based in the Utah desert, she argues passionately for the land and its people, in prose that is achingly personal as well as political. Her work is endlessly inspiring to me, and this gorgeous new collection is one I'll return to many times. (But if you are new to Williams, don't start here; start with Refuge and work your way up.)

Erosion by Terry Tempest Williams

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And here are a few other good reads:

Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (HarperCollins, 2019) and Heather Havrilesky's What if This Were Enough? (Doubleday, 2018) are debut collections from two young American journalist, mixing personal essays with cultural pieces that are smart and insightful. (I wrote about the latter book here.) Late Migrations: A History of Love & Loss by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed Editions, 2019) is a lyrical volume of very short, bittersweet pieces on nature and family in the American south. Illustrated by the author's brother, it's a beautiful book and not quite like anything else. Forms of Enchantment: Writing on Art & Artists by British mythographer and scholar Marina Warner (Thames & Hudson, 2018) contains erudite essays on fine artists whose work has a magical bent -- and not necessarily artists you would expect, mixing the likes of Paula Rego and Kiki Smith with Louise Bourgeois, Tacita Dean, and Jumana Emil Abboud.

For feminist essays that really make you think, I loved The Mother of All Questions and Call Them by Their True Names by American cultural philosopher Rebecca Solnit (Granta, 2017 and 2018), and Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults (Bloomsbury, 2018) by the fearless young British writer Laurie Penny.

Forms of Enchantment by Marina Warner

Late Migrations

I am genuinely addicted to the Best American Essays series -- including the excellent backlist of older volumes. Each edition has a slightly different emphasis depending on the guest editor of the year. The 2009 edition, for example, was edited by Mary Oliver, and thus contains a larger-than-usual  number of nature essays; the most recent was edited by Rebecca Solnit, and is weighted toward political and cultural pieces.

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I also highly recommend Slightly Foxed, a quarterly magazine full of charming, informative essays about books and authors of an older vintage: favorite books, forgotten books, notorious books, and much more. The magazine is published here in England, but well worth the extra postage price if you subscribe from other parts of the world. It's simply delightful. (And very English.)

Online, I recommend Longreads, which links to essays and interesting works of journalism from a wide variety of sources, as well as commissioning original material themselves. For fantasy essays, I love The City of Lost Books, the wonderful blog produced by Rob Maslen, head of the Fantasy Literature masters programme at the University of Glasgow. And finally, for all who love fairy tales: if you aren't already following Sabrina Orah Mark's extraordinary essays on fairy tales and motherhood in Paris Review, head over to her "Happily" column and read them immediately.

Slightly Foxed

Are you an essay lover yourself? If so, what else would recommend (published between 2017 and the present)? Many of the authors I've listed above are female, white, and writing in English, so recommendations of recent essay collections by male and nonwhite authors would be especially welcome. 

Still no dogs.

The quote by Rebecca Solnit is from The Best American Essays, 2019, edited by Solnit and Robert Atwan (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 2019). All rights reserved by the author.


Moving forward like water

Waterfall on Nattadon Hill

These words from Terry Tempest Williams' new book, Erosion, were written long before the global pandemic yet seem especially resonant right now:

"It is morning. I am mourning. And the river is before me. I am a writer without words who is struggling to find them. I am holding the balm of beauty, this river, this desert, so vulnerable, all of us. I am trying to shape my despair into some form of action, but for now, I am standing on the cold edge of grief."

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The wet, green landscape I live in now is a world away from the Utah desert where Williams makes her home, and yet these essays speak directly to my soul -- and not just because I'm a former desert-dweller. Erosion is a work of beauty, sorrow, joy, rage, and bottomless compassion. 

"Let us pause and listen and gather our strength with grace," she writes, "and move forward like water in all its manifestations: flat water, white water, rapids and eddies, and flood this country with an integrity of purpose and patience and persistence capable of cracking stone."

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Here on quiet hillside in Devon, as the springtime unfolds in all of its wonder and the pandemic rolls on in all of its horror, I've been finding strength in Williams' words, and also in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Plagued by poor health throughout his working life (eventually diagnosed as leukemia), Rilke knew a thing or two about living with the dark. He is a writer I keep returning to, at every stage of life, and he never fails me. Today it's this, from Sonnets to Orpheus, that is giving me courage:

Quiet friend who has come so far,

Helen Strattonfeel how your breathing makes more
  space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of
  your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

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Erosion

Water flow

Words: The Terry Tempest William quotes above and in the picture captions are from Erosion: Essays of Undoing (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). For a further taste of this exquisite book,  you can read one of William's essays online here. Please don't miss it. Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower" is from Sonnets to Orpheus: Book II, 29. This lovely translation is from In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rilke's Duino Elegies & Sonnets, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows (Echo Point Books, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The drawing is by British illustrator Helen Stratton (1867-1961), who was born in India, trained in London, and spent much of her working life in London and Bath. The photographs are of the waterfall on our hill, swelled with rain.


Living at a walker's pace

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It's our fifth week of lock-down in the UK, and the circumference of our daily lives has shrunk to places we can reach on foot, "walking for exercise" being one of the few acceptable reasons to leave the house. I live in the country and work from home, so this isn't an enormous change for me -- but for many, accustomed to fast-paced lives mediated by cars or public transit, re-discovering the physical, mental, and creative benefits of experiencing the world solely on foot has been one of the rare gifts of this hard and worrisome time.

Illustration by E.M. TaylorIn her beautiful book WanderlustRebecca Solnit looks at the history of walking through the lens of philosophy, sociology, environmental science, politics, literature and other arts. Reflecting on her own practice of walking in the hills near San Francisco, she writes:

"These linked paths and roads form a circuit of about six miles that I began hiking ten years ago to ward off my angst during a difficult year. I kept coming back to this route for respite from my work and for my work too, because thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It is best done as disguising it as something, and the something closest to nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals."

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"The rhythm of walking," she notes, "generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or simulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as thought thinking were traveling rather than making. And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete -- for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.

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"Walking can also be imagined as a visual activity, every walk a tour leisurely enough both to see and think over the sights, to assimilate the new into the known. Perhaps this is where walking's peculiar utility for thinkers comes from. The surprises, liberations, and clarifications of travel can sometimes be garnered by going around the block as well as going around the world, and walking travels both near and far.

"Or perhaps walking should be called movement, not travel, for one can walk in circles or travel around the world immobilized in a seat, and a certain kind of wanderlust can only be assuaged by the acts of the body itself in motion, not the motion of the car, boat, or plane. It is the movement as well as the sights going by that seems to make things happen in the mind, and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile: it is both means and end, travel and destination."

Walking b

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For all her love of the natural world, Solnit, a long-time city dweller, recognizes that a city traversed on foot can be just as creatively inspiring as a woodland path or wilderness trail, at least for those open to its rhythms; for those who are paying attention.

"There is a subtle state most urban walkers know," she writes, "a sort of basking in solitude -- a dark solitude punctuated with encounters as the night sky is punctuated with stars -- one is altogether outside society, so solitude has a sensible geographical explanation, and there is a kind of communion with the nonhuman. In the city, one is alone because the world is made up of strangers, and to be a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one's secrets and imagining those of the people one passes, is among the starkest of luxuries. This uncharted identity with its illimitable possibilities is one of the distinctive qualities of urban living, a liberatory state for those who come to emancipate themselves from family and community expectation, to experiment with subculture and identity. It is an observer's state, cool, withdrawn, with senses sharpened, a good state for anybody who needs to reflect or create. In small doses, melancholy, alienation, and introspection are among life's most refined pleasures.

"Speaking as a Londoner, Virginia Woolf described anonymity as a fine and desirable thing, in her 1930 essay 'Street Haunting.' Daughter of the great alpinist Leslie Stephen, she had once declared to a friend, 'How could I think mountains and climbing romantic? Wasn't I brought up with alpenstocks in my nursery and a raised map of the Alps, showing every peak my father had climbed? Of course, London and the marshes are the places I like best.' Woolf wrote of the confining oppression of one's own identity, of the way the objects in one's home 'enforce the memories of our experience.' And so she set out to buy a pencil in a city where safety and propriety were no longer considerations for a no-longer-young woman on a winter evening, and in recounting -- or inventing -- her journey, wrote one of the great essays on urban walking."

Walking c

Whatever landscape we inhabit (urban, suburban, rural, or other), walking and re-walking the land or neighborhood each day confirms our place in it, deepening our connection to the more-than-human world and expanding our concept of home.

"Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors," Solnit observes, "disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it."

Walking 15

Walking

When I look at the way that Tilly takes in the world, "inside" and "outside" are alike to her, with only the annoyance of human doors between them. Nattadon Hill is home to Tilly . . . and I mean all of the hill, from top to bottom: its Commons, its woods, its tumbling streams, the brown bracken slopes, the green farmers' fields, and our warm little house on the woodland's edge. It's all home to her, both the land that is "ours" and the larger landscape that is not.

Walking 4

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And perhaps I'm not so different from Tilly. I have walked this hill day after day, season after season, year after year, and it has become my home ground too. The concept of "home" is complex for me (being the woman that I am, with the history that I have), but the weather that sweeps across the hill has pared that concept down to essentials:

Home is a house that I share with my loved ones. It's a landscape walked with a good black dog. It's a hill that knows my particular footsteps, and a wood where the trees all know my name. It's as simple and as solid as the earth below . . . but also fragile, ephemeral, therefore all the more precious. Like life itself.

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Daybreak 7

The passages quoted above are from Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit (Penguin, 2001); all rights reserved by the author. The drawing is by New Zealand illustrator E.M. Taylor (1906-1964).


On disaster, joy, and re-creating the world

Dartmoor journey

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster was the one Rebecca Solnit book that I hadn't gotten around to reading yet; but with a global pandemic unfolding, I decided that this might be the appropriate time. Despite loving all of her other books, I admit I hesitated over this one because it sounded . . . well, depressing. It turns out that I needn't have worried, and nor should anyone else: A Paradise Built in Hell is engrossing, surprising, and ultimately both hopeful and inspiring.

Solnit's aim is to dispel the misconception that disasters (whether natural or man-made) bring out the worst in people, reducing "the masses" to brutish, selfish behaviour in the scramble for survival -- when in fact, as the historical record makes clear, it generally does just the opposite: bringing out the best in the vast majority of us, providing a forum in which our most compassionate, co-operative, community-oriented selves emerge and flourish. This truth has been affirmed over and over by historians and sociologists who have studied disasters all over the world. Yet the tenor of media coverage of disasters tends to perpetuate the darker myth -- as do most fictional representations. (Think of virtually every disaster movie you have ever seen.) In reality, the shared experience of calamity serves to pull people together, not drive them apart. It summons the better angels of human nature, as we see around us every day during the current pandemic. The "fights for loo roll" tutted over in the media are a minority reaction to the emergency at hand, when in fact people all over the world are responding to the crisis with good sense and thoughtfulness, while inventing ways to ease its strain constructively and creatively.

A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit"In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic," Solnit writes, "urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbours as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressive savage human beings in times of disaster has little truth to it. Decades of meticulous sociological research on behaviour in disasters, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and storms across the [North American] continent and around the world, have demonstrated this. But belief lags behind, and often the worst behaviour in the wake of calamity is on the part of those who believe that others will act savagely and that they themselves are taking defensive measures against barbarism. From earthquake-shattered San Francisco in 1906 to flooded New Orleans in 2005, innocents have been killed by people who believed or asserted that their victims were the criminals and that they themselves were the protectors of the shaken order. Beliefs matter."

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"Today Cain is still killing his brother proclaims a faded church mural in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which was so devastated by the failure of the government levees," Solnit continues. "In quick succession, the Book of Genesis gives us the creation of the universe, the illicit acquisition of knowledge, the expulsion from Paradise, and the slaying of Abel by Cain, a second fall from grace into jealousy, competition, alienation, and violence. When God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain asks back, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' He is refusing to say what God already knows: that the spilled blood of Abel cries out from the ground that has absorbed it. He is also raising one of the perennial social questions: are we beholden to each other, must we take care of each other, or is it every man for himself?

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"Most traditional societies have deeply entrenched commitments and connections between individuals, families, and groups. The very concept of society rests on the idea of networks of affinity and affection, and the freestanding individual exists largely as an outcast or exile. Mobile and individualistic modern societies shed some of these old ties and vacillate about taking on others, especially those expressed through economic arrangements -- including provisions for the aged and vulnerable, the mitigation of poverty and desperation -- the keeping of one's brothers and sisters. The argument against such keeping is often framed as an argument about human nature: we are essentially selfish, and because you will not care for me, I cannot care for you. I will not feed you because I must hoard against starvation, since I too cannot count on others. Better yet, I will take your wealth and add it to mine -- if I believe that my well-being is independent of yours or pitted against yours -- and justify my conduct as natural law. If I am not my brother's keeper, than we have been expelled from paradise, a paradise of unbroken solidarities.

"Thus does everyday life become a social disaster. Sometimes disaster intensifies this; sometimes it provides a remarkable reprieve from it, a view into another world for our other selves. When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up -- not all, but the great preponderance -- to become their brothers' keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amid death, chaos, fear, and loss. Were we to know and believe this, our sense of what is possible at any time might change. The astonishing gap between common beliefs and actualities about disaster behavior limits the possibilities, and changing beliefs could fundamentally change much more. Horrible in themselves, disaster is sometimes a back door into paradise, the paradise at least in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire, and each are our sister's and brother's keeper."

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Solnit chronicles the spontaneous communities that spring up in disaster's wake, as neighbour helps neighbour and strangers band together, casting aside rigid divisions of class, gender, and ethnicity, to feed and tend and nurse one another, sharing labour, resources, and a common sense of purpose. Survivors' accounts, both historic and contemporary, tell of loss, hardship, and tragedy, yes, but also of laughter, fellowship, and joy. The latter is referenced over and over. "This book," writes Solnit, "is about that emotion, as important as it is surprising, and the circumstances that arouse it and those that it generates."

She adds that these things matter "as we enter an era of increasing and intensifying disaster. And more than that, they matter as we enter an era when questions about everyday social possibilities and human nature arise again, as they often had during turbulent times."

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"The existing system is built on fear of each other and scarcity," she writes, "and it has created more scarcity and more to be afraid of. It is mitigated every day by altruism, mutual aid, and solidarity, by the acts of individuals and organizations who are motivated by hope and by love rather than fear. They are akin to a shadow government -- another system ready to do more were they voted into power. Disaster votes them in, in a sense, because in an emergency these skills and ties work while fear and divisiveness do not. Disaster reveals what else the world could be like -- reveals the strength of that hope, that generosity, and that solidarity. It reveals mutual aid as a default operating principle and civil society as something waiting in the wings when it's absent from the stage.

"A world could be build on that basis, and to do so would redress the long divides that produce everyday pain, poverty, and loneliness and in times of crisis homicidal fear and opportunism. This is the only paradise that is possible, and it will never exist whole, stable, and complete. It is always coming into being in response to trouble and suffering; making paradise is the work we were meant to do."

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The pictures in this post were taken on Dartmoor on a cold, crisp day. Walking a labyrinth, according to local folklore, helps to set the world back on its rightful path. Here's Howard, doing his folkloric duty, dreaming a new world into being.

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The passages quotes above are from A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2009). The poem in the picture captions is How We Became Human by American Poet Laureate Joy Harjo of the Muscogee/Creek Nation (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004). All rights reserved by the authors.


Wintering

Ponies 1

Here in Devon, we're on the cusp of spring (daffodils in the woods, new lambs in fields, wild Dartmoor ponies beginning to foal), but I'm reading a book about about winter right now and finding it full of interest. Wintering by Katherine May explores the winter season metaphorically (as a symbol for those hard times in life that I refer to as the Dark Forest), as well as the actuality of winter as it is experienced in northern climes. She weaves her meditations on the cold and dark with a personal memoir about her own period of  "wintering," when illness in her family -- first her husband's, and then her own -- shook every foundation they had built their lives on.

"There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world," May writes, "and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on. Somwhere Else is where ghosts live, concealed from view and only glimpsed by people in the real world. Somewhere Else exists at a delay, so that you can't quite keep pace. Perhaps I was already teetering on the brink of Somewhere Else anyway; but now I fell through, as simply and discreetly as dust sifting between the floorboards."

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"Everybody winters at one time or another," she explains; "some winter over and over again.

"Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you're cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of the outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness; perhaps from a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humilation or failure. Perhaps you're in a period of transition, and have temporararily fallen between two worlds. Some winterings creep upon us, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of care responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone new. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely and deeply painful.

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"Yet it's also inevitable. We'd like to imagine it's possible for life to be one eternal summer, and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves. We dream of equatorial habits, forever close to the sun; an endless, unvarying high season. But life's not like that. Emotionally, we're prone to stifling summers and low, dark winters, to sudden drops in temperature, to light and shade. Even if, by some extraordinary stroke of self-control and good luck, we were able to keep control of our own health and happiness for an entire lifetime, we still couldn't avoid the winter. Our parents would age and die; our friends would undertake minor acts of betrayal; the machinations of the world would eventually weigh against us. Somewhere along the line, we would screw up. Winter would quietly roll in....

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"In our relentlessly busy contemporary world, we are forever trying the defer the onset of winter. We don't ever dare to feel its full bit, and we don't dare to show the way that it ravages us. A sharp wintering, sometimes, would do us good. We must stop believing that these times in our life are somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower. We must stop trying to ignore them or dispose them. They are real, and they are asking something of us. We must learn to invite winter in."

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That's what her new book is about, May says: "learning to recognize the process, engage with it mindfully, and even to cherish it. We may never choose to winter, but we can choose how."

I recommend this wise and beautiful text for those going through their own wintering...which I expect may be a lot of us now, facing the life-altering consequences imposed by a global pandemic.

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As the Great Wheel turns from winter to spring, I've been contemplating my own winterings and the gifts they have given me, over and over. Those gifts are going to be useful now as we cope with unimaginable challenges ahead. Eager for springtime's warmth and sun, I celebrate each flower, each lamb, each foal affirming the steady turning of the seasons....

But I'm also grateful for the dark and cold, and the lessons of slowness, of quiet, of healing.

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Wintering by Katherine May

Words: The passage above is from Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen by English novelist/memoirist Katherine May (Penguin/Random House, 2020). The poem in the picture captions is from Fugitive Colours by Scottish poet Liz Lochhead (Polygon, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Our local herd of Dartmoor ponies, many of them pregnant with this year's foals. I love encountering them on walks with Tilly, grazing on the village Commons and roaming the hills behind my studio.


The gift of stillness

Dunes, north Devon

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland explores the cultural history of silence and retreat while seeking to create more room for silence within her own life. It's a fascinating book, leading through myth, religion, philosophy, sociology, natural history and literature to a place of stillness at the center of them all. As life slows down in response to the global pandemic, particularly for those of us in lock-down and other forms of isolation, the practice of retreat takes on new meaning. What gifts might a slower life give us? And what does silence have to teach us?

Dog, waves, sand, north Devon

Early on in her quest for silence, Maitland arranged to spend forty days alone at Allt Dearg, a remote cottage on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, Scotland's Isle of Skye, noting the changes in her psyche and imagination as the weeks went by and her silence and solitude deepened. Describing the last days of her time on the island, she says: "Part of me had already moved on from Allt Dearg, and another part of me never wanted to leave. The weather became appalling so that I could not go out for a final walk or round off the time with any satisfying sense of closure. I had to clean the house and then drive a long way. I had felt quite depressed for about forty-eight hours...

Dog at play, north Devon

"...and then, the very final evening, I suddenly was seized with an overwhelming moment of jouissance. I wrote:

'They say it is not over till the fat lady sings. Well, she is singing now. She is singing in a wild fierce wind -- and I am in here, just. Now I am full of joy and thankfulness and a sort of solemn and bubbling hilarity. And gratitude. Exultant -- that is what I feel -- and excited, and that now, here, right at the very edge of the end, I have been given back my joy.'

Light, north Devon

"For several hours I enjoyed an extraordinary rhythmical sequence of emotions -- great waves of delight, gratitude, and peace; a realization of how much I had done in the last six weeks, how far I had traveled; a powerful surge of hope and possibility for myself and my future; and above all a sense of privilege. But also a nakedness or openness that needed to be honored somehow.

Beast on the prowl, north Devon

"I experienced a fierce joyful ... joyful what? ... neither pride nor triumph felt like the right word. Near the end of Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore (the third part of The Earthsea Trilogy), Arren, the young prince-hero, who has with an intrepid courage born of love rescued the magician Sparrowhawk, and by implication the whole of society, from destruction, wakes along on the western shore of the island of Selidor: He smiled then, a smile both somber and joyous, knowing for the first time in his life, and alone, and unpraised and at the end of the world, victory.

"That was what I felt like, alone on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, The Winged Isle. I felt an enormous  victorious YES to the world and to myself. For a short while I was absorbed in joy. I was dancing my joy, dancing, and flowing with energy. At one point I grabbed my jacket, plunged out into the wind and the storm. It was physically impossible to stay out for more than about a minute because the wind and rain were so strong and I came back in soaked even from that brief moment; but I came back in energized and laughing and exulting as well. I was both excited and contented. This is a rare and precious pairing. I knew, and wrote in my journal, that this would not last, but it did not matter. It was NOW. At the moment that now, and the enormous wind, felt like enough. Felt more than enough.

Stillness, north Devon

"And once again," Maitland concludes, "I am not alone. Repeatedly, in every historical period, from every imaginable terrain, in innumerable different languages and forms, people who go freely into silence come out with slightly garbled messages of intense jouissance, of some kind of encounter with nature, their self, their God, or some indescribable source of power."

Gazing out to sea, north Devon

Dune grass, north Devon

I first read Maitland's A Book of Silence some years ago, when confined to bed by health problems. I was not alone -- I had Tilly snuggled at my side, and my gentle husband nearby -- but the quiet and stillness of recovering from an illness can be another form of retreat from the rapid rhythms of the noisy modern world. There were long hours when the only sounds were Tilly's snores, the rustle of a book's turning page, rain or bird song outside the window glass. Like a spiritual retreat or pilgrimage, illness takes us deep inside ourselves, shaking away all other concerns except those of the body, those of the soul. Afterwards, I always return to life changed. The world is restored to me piece by piece, with each step noted and celebrated: the first hour out of bed; the first morning outdoors, tucked up in a blanket on the garden bench; the first slow climb to my studio on the hill; the first shaky walk in the woods with Tilly. There's a joy in all this that we rarely speak about, as if to admit that there's any pleasure or value in illness might be to dismiss its overwhelming difficulties. We'd all prefer, of course, to plan our times of retreat, not to have them forced upon us by physical collapse, overshadowed by pain or fear. But there is a gift to be found in illness...and perhaps in our current pandemic lock-down as well: the gift of long hours of quiet and stillness, precious and rare in these fast-paced times.

And when this time of enforced retreat is done, we may find it has given us these gifts too: jouissance, wonder, and fresh gratitude for our fragile bodies, our fleeting lives, and the exquisite beauty of the world we return to.

SilencePhotographs: Tilly on the north Devon coast. When will we see that beach again?


The stories that come out of silence

Spitits of the Great Hunt by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Although I've loved the previous books by Scottish poet and naturalist Kathleen Jamie, nothing prepared for the power and beauty of her latest essay collection, Surfacing. With settings ranging from the Orkney islands to Alaska and China, these essays emerge from liminal place where nature and culture meet, written in prose that invites comparison to Nan Shepard and Barry Lopez. 

Her essay "In Quinhagak," for example, tells the story of Jamie's summer on an archaeological dig in a Yup'ik village on the Bering Sea. Towards the end of the summer, she joins a colleague for an afternoon of bird-watching:

Sedna by Abraham Anghik Ruben"We chose to sit quietly, and in a short space of time, maybe twenty minutes of looking out over the landscape, I realised my eyes were adjusting, my vision was sharpening....We looked at the land, and at a pond where Melia had noticed a number of different ducks and waterfowl; it was these she wanted to watch. Grebes and shovellers with little parties of chicks setting sail across the blue water. Sometimes, a rare and beautiful Aleutian tern flew in. I was happy just to sit quietly in the company of someone who also enjoyed spells of quietude.

"After thirty minutes or so, I could see colours better, until the haze distorted them. Details emerged. How had I failed to notice the three grass stems next to my right knee, bound together by a ball of spiderweb? When a pale bee entered a fireweed flower, it was an event.

"A quiet meditation. Melia sat some yards away, half turned to look southward, occasionally lifting her binoculars, naming a bird she saw. My hearing sharpened too: after forty-five minutes I could distinguish the different sounds the breeze made in the various grasses. A little bird nearby made a buzzing noise, like a small electrical fault. The ripple of pondside reeds, the light on distant mountains. Then an owl appeared, labouring toward us with a fat lemming drooping from its claws. It landed silently fifty yards away, watching us. We hoped it was feeding the young one we'd disturbed. Its cat-like owl eyes stared at us through the long grass-stems.

"We watched the tundra, but the tundra, they say, is watchful too. The people say, 'It's like something's looking at you.'

Gathering of Spirits by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Shaman Beckoning Sedna & Sedna Transformed by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Biography by Abraham Anghik Ruben

"There are stories of disappearance and reappearance out on the tundra.

"Was it John [a Yup'ik colleague on the dig] who told the story of the two men out on the tundra in fog? The fog was so low, just above their heads. But a hole appeared in the fog and from the hole they could hear laughter and merriment. 'Give me a leg up,' said one of the men. 'I want to see what's happening.' 'Okay, but you must reach for me in turn, and pull me up too,' said the other. So the first man entered the world above the cloud, but at that moment the hole closed and the bank of fog moved on, and the first man was never seen again.

"The story of another man, who got lost on the tundra and was given up, but who walked back into the village years later, wearing the very same clothes.

"The story of the little spirit woman appearing to a lost hunter, with a drum, dancing to the beat of her drum. She was on a hillock. 'But I knew I mustn't follow her. I knew I mustn't....'

"The story of the rain-cloud. The woman was out collecting berries and had stayed too long, become a bit exposed and sunstroked. 'But,' she said, 'a little cloud came, right above my head and let down rain, it filled the leaves with rain for me to drink. How grateful I was to that cloud!'

Sedna with Children & Into Greenland Waters by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Eaglets by Abraham Anghik Ruben

"After an hour, my senses were still clarifying. Perhaps it would never stop.

"Now a loon was passing overhead, against the bright clouds, with a long thin fish trailing from its beak.

"Then Melia saw cranes. She called my attention and together we watched seven or eight sandhill cranes flying in, flying low, then land one by one, and begin to stalk through the grass on long legs.

"By then the grasses were so vibrant I could almost taste them. This, after only an hour of attention. What would a year be like, a lifetime, a thousand years? How attuned a person, a whole people, could become.

"Who can say which story is 'true' and which not, when the tellers' senses are so acute?"

Who indeed?

I highly recommend Surfacing, a book that is quietly exquisite.

Passage of Spirits by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Psssage of Spirits 2 Abraham Anghik Ruben

Passage of Spirits 3 by Abraham Anghik Ruben

The art in this post is by Inuit sculptor Abraham Anghik Ruben, who was born in a camp south of Paulatuk in the Northwest Territories. His great-grandparents, noted shamans Apakark and Kagun, came from the Bering Sea region of Alaska. Until the age of eight he lived with his family on the land, migrating with the changing patterns of the seasons; and then, like so many of his generation, he was sent away to a white-run boarding school -- the trauma of which he has subsequently explored in some of his most powerful pieces of art. After studying at the Native Arts Centre at the University of Alaska, Ruben established an art career exploring the stories, myths, and traditions of his ancestors in sculpture, prints, and drawings. Today, his art is exhibited and collected across the United States and Canada. 

"The Inuit believed in the existence of the Soul in all living things," he says. "The concept of reincarnation was central to family and community beliefs. As a vigorous group of Arctic people, the Inuit came from west to east in wave after wave of nomadic bands in search of new land and game. With the re-curved Asiatic bow and toggle harpoon they hunted sea and land mammals. They traveled by kayak and umiak in summer and by dog team in winter. The Inuit Shaman acted as mediator between the world of man, animals, and the spirit world. He was the keeper of Inuit stories, myths and legends, the repository of knowledge of the land and the secret worlds. 

"As a storyteller, I have sought to bring life to these ancient voices from a time when northern people held a reverence for the land and for all living things therein that provided sustenance and survival."

Migration: Umiak with Spirit Figures by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

The passage quoted above is from Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books, 2019). All rights to the text and art in this post are reserved by the author and artist.