The language of whales

Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Side view of the Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

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

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

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

Detail from the Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

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

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

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

Kéet by Preston Singletary

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

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

Family Story Totem by Preston Singletary

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

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

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

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

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

Killer Whales photographed by Eva Saulitis

Killer Whale Canoe by Preston Singletary

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

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

X'aat by Preston Singletary

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

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

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

The Air World by Preston Singletary

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

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


The Outermost House

Cannon Rock by Winslow Homer

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

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

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

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

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

Northeaster by Winslow Homer

Lost on the Grand Banks by Winslow Homer

The Maine Coast by Winslow Homer

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

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

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

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

The Outermost House by Henry Beston

The New Novel by Winslow Homer

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

The Mussel Gatherers by Winslow Homer

Summer Squall by Winslow Homer

Looking Out to Sea by Winslow Homer


The animals returning

A Deer by Jessica Roux

"Animals Are Entering Our Lives" by Liesel Mueller

“I will take care of you,” the girl said to her brother, who had been turned into a deer. She put her golden garter around his neck and
made him a bed of leaves and moss."  -  from an old tale

Deer by Jessica RouxEnchanted is what they were
in the old stories, or if not that,
they were guides and rescuers of the lost,
the lonely, the needy young men and women
in the forest we call the world.
That was back in a time
when we all had a common language.

Then something happened. Then the earth
became a place to trample and plunder.
Betrayed, they fled to the tallest trees,
the deepest burrows. The common language
became extinct. All we heard from them
were shrieks and growls and wails and whistles,
Taproot illustration by Jessica Rouxnothing we could understand.

Now they are coming back to us,
the latest homeless, driven by hunger.
I read that in the parks of Hong Kong
the squatter monkeys have learned to open
soft drink bottles and pop-top cans.
One monkey climbed an apartment building
and entered a third-floor bedroom.
He hovered over the baby’s crib
like a curious older brother.
Here in Illinois
Zaftig illustration by Jessica Rouxthe gulls swarm over the parking lots
miles from the inland sea,
and the Canada geese grow fat
on greasy leftover lunches
in the fastidious, landscaped ponds
of suburban corporations.

Their seasonal clocks have stopped.
They summer, they winter. Rarer now
is the long, black elegant V
in the emptying sky. It still touches us,
though we do not remember why.

But it’s the silent deer who come
and eat each night from our garden,
as if they had been invited.
The Deer and the Oats by Jessica RouxThey pick the tomatoes and the tender beans,
the succulent day-lily blossoms
and dewy geranium heads.
When you labored all spring,
planting our food and flowers,
you did not expect to feed
an advancing population
of the displaced. They come,
like refugees everywhere,
defying guns and fences
and risking death on the road
to reach us, their dispossessors,
who have become their last chance.
Shall we accept them again?
Shall we fit them with precious collars?
They scatter their tracks around the house,
closer and closer to the door,
like stray dogs circling their chosen home.

(from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, 1996) 

Red Squirrel by Jessica Roux

German-American poet and translator Lisel Mueller left us in February, at the age of 96.  Learning of her death, I pulled her books down off the shelves and have been taking them with me on my walks with Tilly, stopping beneath a favourite tree, or by the stream, or at the crest of the hill to re-read her life's work...marvelling again at how fine it is, and how much of it has steeped into my dreams and language over the years.

The piece above is Mueller's folkloric response to Phillip Levine's "Animals Are Passing from Our Lives" (named for a line in an Isak Dinesen interview). The Levine poem was published in 1968, but still resonates in our own age of factory farming and ecological crisis; while Mueller's response, published in 1996, seems remarkably pertinent now, in the "great pause" of the global pandemic, as wildlife resurges and reclaims space usually dominated by humankind. 

(For a previously posted Mueller poem, "Why I Need the Birds," go here.)

Tricksters and Wild African Dog by Jessca Roux

The art today is by Jessica Roux, whose work (animal lover that I am) I just adore. Raised in the woodlands of North Carolina, Roux studied at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia, and now works as a freelance illustrator and stationary designer based in Nashville.

"I can’t get enough of history," she says. "Old lithographs and studies by early naturalists are some of my favorite things. I love medieval bestiaries and the early Northern Renaissance. I’m also really inspired by nature. There are just so many strange plants and animals out there that I want to know more about."

You can see more of Roux's art in a previous post, Skunk Dreams, as well as on the artist's beautiful website

Sleeping Fox by Jessica Roux

"Animals Are Entering Our Lives" is from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press, 1996). All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artist and the author's estate. 


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.


Following the birds

Blackbirds & Berries by Angela Harding

Still thinking about birds, I love the following description from Through the Woods, the story of a year in an English woodland by H.E. Bates (1905-1975). He's writing here about the busy, beautiful, bird-filled months of the passage from winter to summer:

Blackbird Stealing Red Currants by Angela Harding"And now, with the cherry in full blossom, the primroses at their fullest floppy lushness and the dark smoke of bluebells obscuring and finally putting out the fritillary lamps of the anemones, there is no longer any doubt about the wood or the spring. They have become synonymous, full of tree blossom and ground blossom and the ceaseless passion and passage of birds. The wood is alive as it will never be again. It is still a month from the edge of summer, trees are still more branch than leaf and all day long the birds have no interval of silence at all. And if the fullest frenzy of song, with nightingales and blackbirds mad in the drowsy hay-noons of June, has not been reached, there is a clarity and a shouting of bird life everywhere that is like a silver mocking of winter. The wood is full of it.

"The trees, just full enough in leaf to form a light sound canopy, seem to take the sound of singing and fluting and pinking and scissoring and throw it down the aisles and ridings until it is magnified through a new crescendo into a new beauty. One thrush fills a whole wood with a clash and jingle of silver. One pigeon moans and moans it into an almost summer slumber. A solitary cuckoo beats it with a bold and endless double note into an echoing monotony. The wood now is never silent. There is a constant mad rushing of blackbirds, low and fierce in flight, from place to place among the hazels, a sudden spring laughing of woodpeckers in the treetops. Noons are as noisy as mornings, evenings even fuller of clamour than afternoons. That summer break for silence, the hot bird-stifled uncanniness of June and July, is still a long way off. There is an everlasting restlessness everywhere. "

Y is for Yellow Hammer by Angela Harding

But it's not, Bates writes, until a few weeks later (when the bluebells, campions and orchis are in full bloom) that the wood looks its best, and sounds its best:

"Cuckoo and blackbird and nightingale, by the middle of May, are calling together, the blackbird all day long and in spite of everything, the cuckoo and the nightingale passionate in the warm spells, shy and almost silent at the slightest turn to cold and wet. The cuckoo mocks everything in the too bright early mornings and is himself mocked to silence before noon by wind and cloud. He goes with the weather like a cock on a church. He is all clatter of arrogance in the sunshine, charming us to death, monotonously cuckooing us into wishing him silent. The suddenly he shuts up, vanishes. All through the spell of cold and wet we hear him from some mysterious distance, as though he had found, somewhere, an inch of summer for himself.

Owl and Moon by Angela Harding

"The nightingale is also fickle, but on a different plane. He seems amazingly temperamental. Far up in the thickening oaks, nothing but a slim bud himself, he is hard to see; also, like the cuckoo, he often vanishes completely, effaced by wind and wet into silence. But when he sings at last, there is no mistaking it. There is a notion that, since he is so named, he sings only by night. It is quite mistaken. He sings all day and, at the height of passion, all night.

Marsh Owl by Angela Harding

"It is a strange performance, the nightingale's. It has some kind of electric, suspended quality that has a far deeper beauty than the most passionate of its sweetness. It is a performance made up, very often, more of silence than of utterance. The very silences have a kind of passion about them, a sense of breathlessness and restraint, of restraint about to be magically broken.

"It can be curiously seductive and maddening, the song beginning very often by a sudden low chucking, a kind of plucking of strings, a sort of tuning up, then flaring out in a moment into a crescendo of fire and honey and then, abruptly, cut off again in the very middle of the phrase. And then comes that long, suspended wait for the phrase to be taken up again, the breathless hushed interval that is so beautiful. And often, when it is taken up again, it is not that same phrase at all, but something utterly different, a high sweet whistling prolonged and prolonged for the sheer joy of it, or another trill, or the chuck-chucking beginning all over again."

Two for Joy by Angela Harding

For me, the challenge in writing fantasy fiction springing from the myths and folklore of the land is to evoke the numinous world of nature with such precise yet poetical language. Others have done it. Hope Mirrlees, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Patricia McKillip, Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Yolen, Alan Garner, Robert Holdstock, Graham Joyce...to name just a few. Not all fantasy does this, of course. It's a very broad form of literature, containing many different approaches to the "lands beyond the fields we know." But this is the kind of fantasy that thrills me best, and the tradition I want to follow. Whether writing rural stories or urban stories, whether set in this world or wholly imaginary lands, I want to go further and further into the green....

Following the birds.

Snape Bird and Nest by Angela Harding

The art today is by printmaker and painter Angela Harding, from Rutland, in the East Midlands of England. "For the past 10 years," she says, "I have worked solely at my art practice in the village of Wing -- which is very apt for a women inspired by birds. My studio is at the bottom of the garden and houses all I need to make my work, including a recently acquired Rochat Albion press. The studio overlooks sheep fields surrounded by gentle sloping hills. It’s not a dramatic landscape but somehow a comforting one and to me feels very much like home. The Rutland countryside does have a wealth of animal and bird life that is a constant inspiration for my work. Rutland Water is just over the ridge which attracts a great diversity of bird life that is world renowned."

To see more of her beautiful work, please visit her website and online shop -- which includes a "Bird Alphabet" series of wood engravings, and her illustrated RSPS Bird Book.

And one last thing: I hope you all know the Singing With Nightingales project by folksinger, folk song collector, and environmental activist Sam Lee and The Nest Collective. If not, please do follow the link and have a listen....

 

Blackbirds and Mulberries by Angela Harding

Words: The passage quoted above is from Through the Woods by H.E. Bates (Little Toller Books edition, 2011). Pictures: The images are identified in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artist and author's estate. 


The Path of Breadcrumbs & Stones

Another Night Journey by Jeanie Tomanek

In anticipation of International Women's Day (coming up on Sunday), here's a fourth post on the theme of women in myth and folklore. This time I'd like to honour the work of American painter Jeanie Tomanek, along with all women who find their voice and power later in life....

Some people find their creative passion early, while for others it comes more slowly, revealing itself only over time as their lives unfold. In our youth–obsessed culture, it can be disquieting for those whose Muse requires maturity -- and yet sometimes an artist's vision is so remarkable and unique that it seems to need years to germinate slowly, fully, preparing itself deep in the psyche...and then suddenly blossoming with astounding power.

Seed by Jeanie Tomanek

Coming to ones artistic vocation later in life is more common than many people realize, and can enrich ones work with qualities impossible to achieve at any younger an age.

The great Japanese artist Hokusai once commented that it was only with age that he really understood how to draw:

"By the age of fifty I had published numberless drawings, but I am displeased with all I have produced before the age of seventy. It is at seventy–three that I have begun to understand the form and the true nature of birds, of fishes, of plants and so forth. Consequently, by the time I get to eighty, I shall have made much progress; at ninety, I shall get to the essence of things; at a hundred, I shall certainly come to a superior, indefinable position; and at the age of a hundred and ten, every point, every line, shall be alive. And I leave it to those who shall live as I have

The American painter Jeanie Tomanek, whose work I love, is a fine example of an artist who found her true creative "voice" with maturity.

Old Dog's Dream by Jeanie Tomanek

Born in Batavia, New York, in 1949, Jeanie grew up in the rolling pasturelands of the Genesee Valley. She drew and painted all of her life, but she took these skills for granted and created art only infrequently while working at (and hating) "real jobs" in accounting, real estate, and other fields.

In 1969 she married her husband, Dennis, in Cleveland, Ohio. They had one daughter, Mara, and moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1983. For many years, Jeanie used poetry as her primary creative outlet, publishing in a variety of literary journals. Yet still she knew she hadn't yet found her true path and her soul's vocation.

Crumbs by Jeanie Tomanek

Sometimes in the Forest by Jeanie Tomanek

"In 1999," she tells me, "after searching for many years for that creative thing that would be my passion, I started drawing again and eventually realized it was painting that I was supposed to do all along. By 2001, I'd escaped corporate life and was painting full time, developing my style and voice. My 'little baldies' started emerging on the canvas, telling whatever stories they needed to tell. I began to show my work in places such as the Atlanta Artist's Center, The Atlanta College of Art, and Trinity Gallery. People said my paintings spoke to them -- which is something I still find hard to believe.

Moon of the Long Nights & Kindling by Jeanie Tomanek

Capturing the Moon by Jeanie Tomanek

"As I made the transition from the business world into a full-time painter's life, I read The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron -- a book that changed the way I thought about my creativity.

"Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés also had a huge influence on me. It was there that I first read the Handless Maiden folktale, which echoed the quest I was on to discover what I was meant to do. The tale is about a woman’s journey toward wisdom and self-realization, and the obstacles and helpers she encounters. I suppose most women can find elements of their own lives in the Handless Maiden's story.

The Handless Maiden by Jeanie Tomanek

"As part of my quest to become artist, I even decided to change my name. I was born Shirley Jeanne Robinson, but had been called Jeanie by my family as a child. In order to go forward as a new person, I wanted to reclaim what that child used to be. Imagine how hard it was to get everyone who had known me as Shirley in my adult life to now start calling me Jeanie -- including my husband!

Silver Hands and the Numbered Pears

Silver Hands by Jeanie Tomanek

Thoreau's Pumpkin by Jeanie Tomanek

"I paint to explore the significance of ideas, memories, events, feelings, dreams and images that seem to demand my closer attention. Some of the themes I investigate emerge first in the poems I write. Literature, folktales, and myths often inspire my exploration of the feminine archetype. My figures often bear the scars and imperfections, that, to me, characterize the struggle to become.

Care and Feeding by Jeanie Tomanek

Wingspan by Jeanie Tomanek

Multitudes by Jeanie Tomanek

Paintings by Jeanie Tomanek

"In my work I use oils, acrylic, pencil and thin glazes to create a multi-layered surface that may be scratched through, written on, collaged, or painted over to reveal and excavate the images that feel right for the work. In reclaiming and reconstructing areas of the canvas, the process of painting becomes analogous to having a second chance at your life, this time a little closer to the heart’s desire."

My Familiar

You can see more of Jeanie's artwork on her website; at the Greyhouse Art Studio; in her luminous book, Everywoman Art;  and in a video, The Art of Jeanie Tomanek, accompanied by the music of Arvo Pärt. You'll find an interview with the artist here, and visit to her studio here.

Blessing by Jeanie Tomanek

The paintings above are by Jeanie Tomanek; all rights reserved by the artist. The title of each painting can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Fateful Women

Three Fates by Jacqueline Morreau

In anticipation of International Women's Day (coming up on Sunday), here's a second post on the theme of women in myth and folklore....

Artists have always expressed themselves in the metaphoric language of myth -- from the earliest carvings and pottery decorations to Picasso's Minotaur drawings and beyond. Today I'd like to draw attention to one of the best of the women artists working in this vein: painter and printmaker Jacqueline Morreau (1929-2016), who used mythic symbolism to explore psychological and political themes of contemporary life. Born in Wisconsin, Morreau studied and worked in California, France, New York, and Boston before settling London in 1972, where she established herself as a painter, printmaker, educator, curator, and tireless champion of women's art. "Morreau," wrote Catherine Elwes, "had a keen sense of how history affects present social conditions, and the legacy of conflict, religious intolerance and patriarchal oppression were recurrent themes in her work. However, she went beyond protesting against injustice in a social realist style. She devised cultural forms of resistance in her reimaginings of mythological and biblical themes and sought to redefine accepted notions of gendered identity."

The Divided Self by Jacqueline MorreauThe image on the right, "The Divided Self," is one of Morreau's metaphoric self portraits, while the etching above depicts the dreaded Three Fates of classical myth. These women spin and measure out the life threads of mortals and immortals alike: Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis determines its length, and Antropos cuts it off when life is at its end. According to Hesiod, all was Darkness at the beginning, all was void and nothingness, until the cosmos stirred and Chaos split from Darkness, containing the potential for life within it. In the very moment of that separation, the Three Fates emerged from the depths of Chaos. They are primal, powerful female divinities that do not bow to any god, holding sway over every living creature, for better or for ill. (As a sidenote, it's interesting to know that the earliest fairies of Europe were related to the Fates -- they were known as Fateful Women, from the Latin word fatare, meaning “to enchant,” and they appeared when a child was born, to bless or curse their destiny.) Three more of Morreau's Fate images are below: Fate as a Potter, Fate with Roller, and the three fates doing their endless, timeless work Under the Sea.

Fate as Potter & Fate with Roller by Jacqueline Morreau

Under the Sea Three Fates by Jacqueline Morreau

The Greek tale of Eros and Psyche (or Cupid and Psyche in the Roman version) is another story that stirred Morreau's imagination, providing rich symbols for expressing ideas about sexuality and identity. Psyche is a girl so beautiful that the goddess Aphrodite is filled with jealousy. She orders Eros (the god of Love) to harm the girl -- but he falls in love with her instead, and arranges for Psyche to be safely carried away to a distant palace. Each night, under the cover of darkness, a tender lover comes to Psyche's bed. She does not know that this is Eros, and she's not allowed to see his face. Although she's surrounded by mysteries, Psyche is happy for a time…until she grows homesick and Eros allows her sisters to visit her.

Disclosing Eros by Jaqueline Morreau

The sisters, believing Psyche is dead, are amazed to find her living in splendor. Jealous of her now, the sisters convince Psyche that her lover must surely be a monster -- for otherwise, they say, she would be allowed to see his face. That night, shaken by her sisters' words, Psyche takes a lamp and a knife to bed -- but when she lights the lamp, she sees it's a beautiful youth who is lying beside her. A drop of oil falls from the lamp, singes his shoulder, and wakes him up. “Is this how you repay my love,” Eros cries, “with a knife to cut off my head?” The ground trembles and the god and the palace disappear from Psyche's sight.

Psyche Awake, Eros Asleep by Jacqueline Morreau

Pregnant now with Eros's child, Psyche bravely sets off to search for him and eventually comes before Aphrodite, the source of her misfortune. She humbles herself before the goddess, but Aphrodite is not easily appeased. She sets the girl three impossible tasks, including a journey to the Underworld. With some timely help from Eros, who still loves her, Psyche succeeds. In the end, Zeus intervenes, soothes Aphrodite, and turns Psyche into an immortal. He then blesses the marriage of Eros and Psyche, and their daughter, a child named Pleasure.

On the Beach Eros & Psyche by Jacqueline Morreau

Morreau's various works based on the Persephone story are examinations of conflicted relationships: between men and women, between mothers and daughters, between the powerful and the powerless, between the forces of life and death.

Below is a charcoal study for Hades in her hard-hititng triptych, Persephone: A Season in Hell, along with the first painting in the triptych, "Rape and Abduction."

Hades & The Abduction of Persephone by Jacqueline Morreau

She also turned her sharp gaze on the stories of women in Biblical myth, capturing potent moments of transformation, for good or ill. In the drawing below, Lot's wife is about to make the fateful step that will turn her to salt. In "Paradise Now" (depicted below in two different mediums), Eve and Adam stand with apple in hand. The whole of earth is the Garden, they seem to suggest. Or it could and should be.

Lot's Wife Leaving by Jacqueline Morreau

An early version of Paradise Now by Jacqueline Morreau

Paradise Now (Adam & Eve) by Jacqueline Morreau

Like Käthe Kollwitz, Morreau was an overtly political painter, best known for powerful imagery responding to social injustice and the horrors of war (from the Children's Crusade to World War II to the contemporary Middle East) -- yet she also made art that celebrated life, such as her sensual, luminous series of paintings depicting bed sheets, water, and swimmers in the sea. In one interview, she was asked about these dual strands in her body of work:

"Perhaps this represents the basic conflict in my life," she answered, "which I have tried to express in the subject matter, delving into the dark and celebrating the light. I was born into the knowledge of evil in the 1930s, which no one of my generation could escape. That shadow often oppresses me; at the same time, I have had a love affair with nature, which sustains me. I see the world as full of intricacies, complexities and wonders and surprises, yet in spite of that, most things are constant. Because of the legacy of violence, most art of the 20th century focuses on the dark, the distorted, the ugly, and has found strength there. However, that has meant that the light, the beautiful and the joyful are seen as weak. In fact, it is much harder to depict such feelings.

"As I grow older, I'm much more interested in the light."

The Swelling Sea by Jacqueline Morreau

Girls in Water by Jacqueline Morreau

Words: The Jane Yolen poem in the picture captions is reprinted from The Journal of Mythic Arts; all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: All rights to the paintings, prints, and drawings above reserved by the Jacqueline Morreau estate. Personal note: I had the great fortune of meeting the artist back in the 1990s, when a mutual friend took me to Jacqueline's house in London for a studio visit and tea. I own and treasure one of her etchings: the Three Fates, pictured at the top of this post. She was an inspiring and remarkable woman. To see more of her work, go here.


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.


The language of the earth

Magpie by Catherine Hyde

From "Speaking of Nature" by biologist, educator and author Robin Wall Kimmerer, of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation:

Running hare by Catherine Hyde"I have had the privilege of spending my life kneeling before plants. As a plant scientist, sometimes I am collecting data. As an indigenous plant woman, sometimes I am gathering medicine. These two roles offer a sharp contrast in ways of thinking, but I am always in awe, and always in relationship. In both cases the plants provide for me, teach me, and inspire me. When I write as a scientist, I must say, 'An 8 cm root was extracted from the soil,' as if the leafy beings were objects, and, for that matter, as if I were too. Scientific writing prefers passive voice to subject pronouns of any kind. And yet its technical language, which is designed to be highly accurate, obscures the greater truth.

"Writing as an indigenous plant woman I might say, 'My plant relatives have shared healing knowledge with me and given me a root medicine.' Instead of ignoring our mutual relationship, I celebrate it. Yet English grammar demands that I refer to my esteemed healer as it, not as a respected teacher, as all plants are understood to be in Potawatomi. That has always made me uncomfortable. I want a word for beingness. Can we unlearn the language of objectification and throw off colonized thought? Can we make a new world with new words?

Hare in September by Catherine Hyde

Running hare by Catherine Hyde"Inspired by the grammar of animacy in Potawatomi that feels so right and true, I’ve been searching for a new expression that could be slipped into the English language in place of it when we are speaking of living beings. Mumbling to myself through the woods and fields, I’ve tried many different words, hoping that one would sound right to my leafy or feathered companions. There was one that kept rising through my musings. So I sought the counsel of my elder and language guide, Stewart King, and explained my purpose in seeking a word to instill animacy in English grammar, to heal disrespect. He rightly cautioned that 'our language holds no responsibility to heal the society that sought to exterminate it.' With deep respect for his response, I thought also of how the teachings of our traditional wisdom might one day be needed as medicine for a broken world. So I asked him if there was a word in our language that captured the simple but miraculous state of just being. And of course there is. 'Aakibmaadiziiwin,' he said, 'means a being of the earth. '

Hare in October by Catherine Hyde

"I sighed with relief and gratitude for the existence of that word. However, those beautiful syllables would not slide easily into English to take the place of the pronoun it. But I wondered about that first sound, the one that came to me as I walked over the land. With full recognition and celebration of its Potawatomi roots, might we hear a new pronoun at the beginning of the word, from the 'aaki' part that means land? Ki to signify a being of the living earth. Not he or she, but ki. So that when the robin warbles on a summer morning, we can say, 'Ki is singing up the sun.' Ki runs through the branches on squirrel feet, ki howls at the moon, ki’s branches sway in the pine-scented breeze, all alive in our language as in our world.

Hare in November by Catherine Hyde

"We’ll need a plural form of course, to speak of these many beings with whom we share the planet. We don’t need to borrow from Potawatomi since --lo and behold -- we already have the perfect English word for them: kin. Kin are ripening in the fields; kin are nesting under the eaves; kin are flying south for the winter, come back soon. Our words can be an antidote to human exceptionalism, to unthinking exploitation, an antidote to loneliness, an opening to kinship....

September bird: the Owl by Catherine Hyde

"I have no illusions that we can suddenly change language and, with it, our worldview, but in fact English evolves all the time. We drop words we don’t need anymore and invent words that we do. The Oxford Children’s Dictionary notoriously dropped the words acorn and buttercup in favor of bandwidth and chatroom, but restored them after public pressure. I don’t think that we need words that distance us from nature; we need words that heal that relationship, that invite us into an inclusive worldview of personhood for all beings."

You can read Kimmerer's full essay online here, and listen to a short podcast in which she talks about it with Helen Whybrow here.

The Hare and the Moon by Catherine Hyde

The art today is from Catherine Hyde's new book, The Hare and the Moon, a gorgeous country almanac that follows a hare's journey through the landscape, seasons, and phases of the moon. Catherine pairs her paintings with folkloric information on the tree, flower, and bird associated with each month, rendered in poetic prose that echoes the mystic lyricism of her imagery.

This book is a treasure of mythic art.

Chough by Catherine Hyde

Oak by Catherine Hyde

Catherine trained at Central School of Art in London, and now lives and works in Cornwall. She has published four previous books (The Princess’ Blankets, Firebird, Little Evie in the Wild Wood, The Star Tree), as well as fine art prints and calendars, and has been exhibiting her work in galleries in London, Cornwall, and father afield for over thirty years.

“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.

Hare in April by Catherine Hyde

Tilly and Catherine

The passage by Robin Wall Kimmerer is from "Speaking of Nature" (Orion Magazine, June 12,, 2017). The art and text by Catherine Hyde is from The Hare and the Moon: A Calendar of Paintings (Zephyr/Head of Zeus , 2019). All rights reserved by Kimmerer and Hyde.


To the rebel soul in everyone

Horse of Armagh by Charles Fréger

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

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

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

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

Onjishi by Charles Fréger

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

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

Nuuttipukki - Sastamala, Finland by Charles Fréger

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

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

Sagi by Charles Fréger

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

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

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

Yokainoshima by Charles Fréger

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

What are yours?

Onjishi by Charles Fréger

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

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

Mamuthones, Mamoiada by Charles Fréger

Two visions of the wild

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

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