We are made for this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Way of the Imagination by Scott Russell Sanders

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

Pictures: Down by the River Teign, early autumn.


Nature's gift to the walker

Dragonfly

Details from Unity by Marja Lee Kruyt

In To the River, Olivia Laing walks the River Ouse in Sussex from its source to the sea, mediating on its flora, fauna, history and literary associations along the way. This morning, as dragonflies hovered over the stream running past my studio, I re-read this passage from Laing's lovely book:

Unity by Marja Lee"It was a day of uplift. Everything was rising or poised to rise, the mating dragonflies crashing through the air, the meadow browns clipping sedately by....

"I was getting into one of those trances that come from walking far, when the feet and the blood seem to collide and harmonise. Funnily enough, Kenneth Grahame and Virginia Woolf both wrote in praise of these uncanny states, which they thought closely allied to the inspiration writing required. 'Nature's particular gift to the walker,' Grahame explained in a late essay, 'through the semi-mechanical act of walking -- a gift no other form of exercise seems to transmit in the same high degree -- is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe -- certainly creative and supra-sensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside you and as it were talking to you, while you are talking back to it.'

"As for Woolf, she wrote dreamily of chattering her books on the crest of the Downs, the words pouring from her as she strode, half-delirious, in the noon-day sun. She compared it to swimming or 'flying through the air; the current of sensations & ideas; & the slow, but fresh change of down, of road, of colour: all this is churned up into a fine sheet of perfect calm happiness. It's true I often painted the brightest of pictures on this sheet: & often talked out loud.' "

Chattering her prose. I do that too. Thank heavens there's only Tilly to hear me as we roam the hills on these bright summer days.

The beautiful artwork at the top of this post is by my dear friend and village neighbour Marja Lee. To learn more about her work, go here. The charming paintings below are illustrations for Kenneth Grahaeme's The Wind in the Willows and The Reluctant Dragon by Inga Moore, an Australian artist who now lives and works in England. To see more, go here.

To the River by Olivia Laing

Kenneth Grahaeme's The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

To the River by Olivia Laing

Kenneth Grahaeme's The Reluctant Dragon illustrated by Inga Moore

Chattering

The passages quoted above and in the picture captions are from To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surfaceby Olivia Laing (Canongate Books, 2011). All rights to the text and art in the post reserved by the author and artist.


Down by the river

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I've been out of the studio today for health reasons again -- not my own health this time, but Tilly's. She has an immune system condition that requires monthly injections, which is usually a simple affair -- but with our local vet centre closed during the Covid-19 lockdown, it requires a trip to another town and elaborate procedures to do it all safely. Our poor girl hates every minute of it, so her reward for being a Very Good Dog is a walk and swim in the River Teign. 

Tilly loves water in all of its forms: rivers, ponds, lakes, oceans, she plunges fearlessly into them all. And had the morning been just a little bit warmer, I would have been right behind her....

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"I am haunted by waters," writes Olivia Laing in her book To the River. "It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby. 'When it hurts,' wrote the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, 'we return to the banks of certain rivers,' and I take comfort in his words, for there's a river I've returned to over and over again, in sickness and in health, in grief, in desolation and in joy."

For me, that river is the Teign, running from Dartmoor to the south Devon coast.

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"Everything in nature invites us to be constantly what we are," says American naturalist Gretel Ehrlich. "We are often like rivers: careless and forceful, timid and dangerous, lucid and muddied, eddying, gleaming, still. Lovers, farmers, and artists have one thing in common, at least -- a fear of 'dry spells,' dormant periods in which we do no blooming, internal droughts that only the waters of the imagination and psychic release can civilize. All such matters are delicate, of course. But a good irrigator knows this: too little water brings on the weeds while too much degrades the soil....In his journal Thoreau wrote, 'A man's life should be as fresh as a river. It should be the same channel but a new water every instant.' " 

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I'll be back in the studio tomorrow. Today, I am following the river...and a wet, happy hound.

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Erhlich & Laing

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The passages quoted above are from  To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing (Canongate Books, 2011) and The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich (Penguin Books, 1985). The poem in the picture captions is from The Caged Owl: New & Selected Poems by Gregory Orr (Copper Canyon Press, 2002). All rights reserved by the authors.


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.


'Lord, increase my bewilderment'

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From Jenn Ashworth's fascinating, challenging new book Notes Made While Falling (a memoir and cultural study of illness, trauma, and creativity):

"Zadie Smith, when writing about the work of her friend David Foster Wallace after his death, remarked on the way his writing was a gift -- not only in terms of a talent but one that he dispatched, like faith, into the void. She characterises the moment of giving -- of writing -- as 'the moment when the ego disappears and you're able to offer up your love as a gift without expectation of reward.' At the moment the gift hangs, like Federer's brilliant serve, between the one who sends and the one who receives, and reveals itself as belonging to neither. We have almost no words for this experience of giving. The one we do have is hopelessly degraded through misuse. The word is prayer.

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"The word prayer here very easily brings one towards precarity. 'Precarious' is related to the Latin adjective precaria, from precārius, 'obtained by prayer, given as a favour,' which relates to precari,  'to ask or beg for help.' It helps to remember that prayer is an entreaty, a request for both attention and care. If I understand anything about praying or writing, I have come to believe in a demythologised form of them both: a de-enchantment of prayer and a making magical of writing. Neither process is a way of conjuring or manipulating necessary care or favour from a separately existing power, but a practice which gently and gradually adjusts the self to the terrible truth of its own precarity -- to its own need of care."

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To do creative work in a failing body requires facing the precarity of ones life squarely, Ashworth argues:

"[and] to abandon the illusion that there's a future moment that can be striven to, or imagined, or drunk or eaten or earned or run or cut or dreamed towards. It means here. There's no cure for the chronic condition of human nature. These are the facts that I live with. I have always lived with them, but surrendering to them entirely is the thing that finally brings the fiction back: the will and capacity to imagine, the conditions of compassion and curiosity that are essential for inhabiting the mind of a sentence, a story, a fictional other. Still, I will always struggle, and I will probably always fail, to find a way to write fiction that honours these facts and does not attempt to decorate nor numb nor conceal them. Though now I've come to realise that writing itself unsticks me, when I let it.

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"It is a process that, when its hopeless difficulty is adequately surrendered to, dismantles all forms of expertise, specialism, and mastery. When I let the writing work, any carapace of teacherly or writerly authority swiftly dissolves into mere curiosity. It is a way of getting lost -- between disciplines and subject positions. It lets me do and be, make and consume, be alone and connected -- simultaneously. There is an ethical gentleness to writing: I get curious about what works, what's appropriate, and what helps, rather than what is right or wrong. When process and product, thinking and feeling, and making become entwined, I become more tolerant of ambiguity and confusion. At its best writing does not only allow me to try and report on what I have seen, experienced and felt of this confusing and painful world, but it expands my available range of seeing, experiencing and feeling.

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"It becomes something other than work, is what I'm saying. This type of not-work writing/praying -- a holidaying, a truancy, a way of loving -- is a move towards the type of implicated, uncontrolled seeking /paying -- that Fanny Howe identifies in her essay 'Bewilderment.' Not a technique of a method or a subject matter -- though all of these things too -- but mainly 'a way of entering the days as much as the work' -- a matter of ethics and politics as well as a matter of craft. There's a prayer in this too -- and Howe quotes it at the start of her essay, 'Lord, increase my bewilderment.'

"There's something reckless about this dislodging from certainty into fiction's possibility: a fall into love."

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Words: The passage above is from Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth (Goldsmiths Press, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Rose by Li-Young Lee (BOA Editions, 1986). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The waterfall on our hill, swelled by autumn rain.


On art and silence

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"Why is silence important to writers?" Lorraine Berry asked Utah-based writer Terry Tempest Williams in an interview in 2013. "Is silence something that we all, regardless of whether we’re writers or not, need access to? And how do we find that in our increasingly tuned-in, turned-on world?"

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"Silence is where we locate our voice," Williams answered, "both as writers and as human beings. In silence, the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin. Silence takes us to an unknown place. It’s not necessarily a place of comfort. For me, the desert holds this space of quiet reflection; it’s erosional, like the landscape itself.

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"You also ask why is it important that writers write and not embrace a life of silence. In many ways, we do embrace a lifestyle of silence, inward silence, a howling silence that brings us to our knees and desk each day. All a writer really has is time. Time to think. Time to read. Time to write.

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"Time for a writer translates into solitude. In solitude, we create. In solitude, we are read. If we’re lucky, our books create community having been written out of solitude.

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"It’s a lovely paradox. It’s the creative tension that I live with: I write to create community, but in order to do so, I am pulled out of community. Solitude is a writer’s communion."

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Words: The passage above is from "Terry Tempest Williams: Silence is Where We Locate Our Voice" by Lorraine Berry (Talking Writing, June 17, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from The Continuous Life: Poems by Mark Strand (Knopf, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Down by the River Teign on a hot summer day.


The stories we need

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From Scatterlings by Martin Shaw:

"We hear it everywhere these days: time for a new story -- some enthusiastic sweep of narrative that becomes, overnight, the myth of our times. A container for all this ecological trouble, this peak-oil business, this malaise of numbness that seems to shroud even the most privileged. A new story. Just the one. That simple. Painless. Everything solved. Lovely and neat.

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"So, here's my first moment of rashness: I suggest that the stories we need turned up, right on time, about five thousand years ago. But they're not simple, neat, or painless. I also think this urge for a new story is the tourniquet for a less articulated desire: to behold the earth actually speaking through words again, more than through some shiny, new, never-considered thought. We won't get a story worth hearing until we witness a culture broken open by its own consequence.

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"No matter how unique we think our own era, I believe that these old tales -- faerie tales, folktales, and myths -- contain much of the paradox we face in these storm-jagged times. And what's more, they have no distinct author, are not wiggled from the penned agenda of one brain-rattled individual, but have passed through the breath of countless number of oral storytellers.

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"Second thought: The reason for the purchase of these tales is that the deepest of them contain not just -- as is widely reported -- the most succulent portions of the human imagination, but a moment when our innate capacity to consume (lovers, forests, oceans, animals, ideas) was drawn into the immense thinking of the earth itself, what aboriginal teachers call 'Wild Land Dreaming.'

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"We met something mighty. We didn't just dream our carefully individuated thoughts: We. Got. Dreamt. We let go of the reins.

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"Any old Gaelic storyteller would roll his eyes, stomp his boot, and vigourously jab a tobacco-browned finger toward the soil if there was a moment's question of a story's origin.

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"In a time when the land and sea suffer by our very directive, could it not be that the stories we need contain not just a reflection on, but the dreaming of a sensual, powerful, reflective earth?

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"It is an insult to archaic cultures to suggest that myth is a construct of humans shivering fearfully under a lightning storm or gazing at a copse and reasoning a supernatural narrative. To make such a suggestion implies a baseline of anxiety, not relationship. Or that anxiety is the primary relationship.

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"It places full creative impetus on the human, not on the sensate energies that surround and move through them. It shuts down the notion of a dialogue worth happening; it shuts down that big old word animism.

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"Maybe the ancient storyteller knew something we've forgotten."

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Scatterlings by Martin Shaw

Words: The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from Secrets from the Center of the World by Joy Harjo of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, the new U.S. Poet Laureate, with photographer Stephen Strom (University of Arizona Press, 1989). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The Chagford stretch of the River Teign, as it runs from the heights of Dartmoor to the sea.

Related posts: Trailing stories (with Martin Shaw), The love of poets, Working with words, and The storyteller's art.


Knowing our place

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Continuing last week's conversation on the connection between our interior and exterior landscapes, here's a passage from Sharon Blackie's fine book The Enchanted Life:

"We think of ourselves as 'in' landscape, but sometimes we forget that landcape is also in us. We are formed by the ground we walk on: that which lies beneath our feet. That which holds us, supports us, feeds us. Ground is where we stand, the foundation for our lives. Whether its hard and cold or warm and soft, ground is the foundation of our being in the world.

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"Ground is the safe place at the heart of us; we 'go to ground' when we are trying to hide or escape from something which is hurting us. We 'hold our ground' when we stand firm against something which challenges or threatens us. We 'have an ear to the ground' when we are properly paying attention to what is going on around us. To 'keep our feet on the ground' is to be realistic, not to get too big for our boots. Without ground, we are nothing.

"Some pieces of ground are also 'places.' To find our ground, then, is to find our place -- but what makes ground into a place is so much more than just a defined (or confined) location. Places have their own distinct names, features, landforms, environmental conditions -- but places are more than just physical: they are reflections of the human cultures which formed from them and belong to them.

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"As human animals who are inextricably enmeshed in the world around us, it is hardly surprising that the nature of our relationship with our places is critical to our ideas about who we are, and what it might be possible for us to become. We construct the daily texture of our lives and our systems of meaning in relation to our places: they are part of our existence, intrinsic to our being; they are more fundamental to us than the language we speak, the jobs we hold, the buildings we live in and the things we possess. It's in our places that we come face to face with (or sometimes, perhaps, choose to turn away from) the bright face of the Earth to which we belong. The need to make sense of, and find meaning in, our relationship to the places we inhabit is a fundamental and universal part of the human journey in this world.

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"To put it quite simply, we cannot be human without the land. Our humanity cannot exist in isolation: it requires a context, and its context is this wide Earth that supports us, and the non-human others who share it with us.

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"Every ecology, every community of plants and animals and soil, has its own particular kind of personality, or intelligence, which affects the people who live in it many different ways. We all know it; we feel it in the places we live, and we feel it especially as we move around the planet. Modern science might use different words, but it tells us exactly the same thing: the topography of a place, its weather, the flora and fauna which inhabit it alongside us -- all these aspects of a place contribute to the character and sense of identity of the people who live there. The experience of inhabiting high, bare granite hills bears little similarity to the experience of inhabiting lush, grassy, chalk downlands; to occupy a city, with its manufactured concrete floors and walls, shapes you in an altogether different way.

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"Psychologist Carl Jung called this process of shaping 'the conditioning of the mind by the earth': every country, he said, along with the people who belong to it, is characterized by a collective attitude or state of mind called the spiritus loci. 'The soil of every country holds...mystery,' he wrote. 'We have an unconscious reflection of this in the psyche.' "

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"I have lived in several countries, and spent time in many different landscapes during my life," Blackie notes, "and each in its own way has left its mark on me. Inside me is [a remote Scottish island] on which I once became stranded, castaway; on which I merged so deeply with the oldest, hardest rock on the planet that I feared petrification. But inside me too is the gentleness of the rain-haunted west of Ireland, and the dense silence of a misty early morning bog. There is a stripped-to-the-bone south-western American desert, fierce sun laying bare all my imagined inadequacies; there are lush green oak-groves in an ancient Breton wood where Merlin sleeps still, trapped in a tree. I am a collection of all the landscapes I have loved.

"I have never been rainforest, though, and I could never be jungle -- there is nothing of me or mine in those humid, colourful, shouting places. And isn't this true for so many of us? That there is a single kind of landscape in which we feel a sense of homecoming; a particular kind of landscape in which we feel so much more whole? For the lucky ones among us, those are the landscapes in which we finally have come to rest; for others, they're the hauntingly vivid landscapes of the imagination which never quite let us go.

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"What surprises me still, perhaps, is that so many of us can resonate so deeply with a landscape we've imagined, but to which we've never actually been. In his masterful book Space and Place, geographer Yi-Fu Tuan offers the example of C.S. Lewis, a lifelong devotee of the far north. As we can clearly see from the vividly portrayed winterlands of his Narnia chronicles, Lewis loved the idea of 'northerness.' It was, Tuan says, a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of northern summer which drew him, and which appealed to something very deep in his psyche. But not only did Lewis never live in northern lands -- he never even travelled to the extreme north.

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"We think we imagine the land," she concludes, "but perhaps the land imagines us, and in its imagining it shapes us. The exterior landscape interacts with our interior landscape, and in the resulting entanglements, we become something more than we otherwise could ever hope to be."

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The Enchanted Life by Sharon Blackie

Words: The passage above is from The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday by Sharon Blackie (September Publishing, 2018). The poem in the picture captions is from Rounding the Human Corners by Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan (Coffee House Press, 2008). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Waterfalls swelled with winter rains on our greening, dreaming hillside.


Standing our ground

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From Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World by Scott Russell Sanders:

"My friend Richard, who wears a white collar to his job, recently bought forty acres of land that had been worn out by the standard local regimen of chemicals and corn. Evenings and weekends, he has set about restoring the soil by spreading manure, planting clover and rye, and filling the eroded gullies with brush. His pond has gathered geese, his young orchard has tempted deer, and his nesting boxes have attracted swallows and bluebirds. Now he is preparing a field for the wildflowers and prairie grasses that once flourished here. Having contemplated this work since he was a boy, Richard will not be chased away by fashions or dollars or tornadoes. On a recent trip he was distracted from the book he was reading by thoughts of renewing the land. So he sketched on the flyleaf a plan of labor for the next ten years....

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"I think about Richard's ten-year vision when I read a report chronicling the habits of computer users who, apparently, grow impatient if they have to wait more than a second for their machine to respond. I use a computer, but I am wary of the haste it encourages. Few answers that matter will come to us in a second; some of the most vital answers will not come in a decade, or a century.

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"When the chiefs of the Iroquois nation sit in council, they are sworn to consider how their decisions will affect their descendants seven generations into the future. Seven generations! Imagine our politicians thinking beyond the next opinion poll, beyond the next election, beyond their own lifetimes, two centuries ahead. Imagine our bankers, our corporate executives, our advertising moguls weighing their judgements on that scale. Looking seven generations into the future, could a developer pave another farm? Could a farmer spray another pound of poison? Could the captain of an oil tanker flush his tanks at sea? Could you or I write checks and throw switches without a much greater concern for what is bought and sold, what is burned?

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"As I write this, I hear the snarl of earthmovers and chain saws a mile away destroying a farm to make way for another shopping strip. I would rather hear a tornado, whose damage can be undone. The elderly woman who owned the farm had it listed in the National Register, then willed it to her daughters on condition they preserve it. After her death, the daughters, who live out of state, had the will broken, so the land could be turned over to the chain saws and earthmovers. The machines work around the clock. Their noise wakes me at midnight, at three in the morning, at dawn. The roaring abrades my dreams. The sound is a reminder that we are living in the midst of a holocaust. I do not use the word lightly. The earth is being pillaged, and every one of us, willingly or grudgingly, is taking part. We ask how sensible, educated, supposedly moral people could have tolerated slavery or the slaughter of Jews. Similar questions will be asked about us by our descendants, to whom we bequeath an impoverished planet. They will demand to know how we could have been party to such waste and ruin. They will have good reason to curse our memory.

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"What does it mean to be alive in an era when the earth is being devoured, and in a country that has set the pattern for that devouring? What are we called to do?

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"I think we are called to the work of healing, both inner and outer: healing of the mind through a change in consciousness, healing of the earth through a change in our lives. We can begin the work by learning how to abide in a place. I am talking about an active commitment, not passive lingering. If you stay with a husband or wife out of laziness rather than love, that is inertia, not marriage. If you stay put through cowardice rather than conviction, you will have no strength to act. Strength comes, healing comes, from aligning yourself with the grain of your place and answering its needs....

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"In belonging to a landscape, one feels a rightness, at-homeness, a knitting of self and the world. This condition of clarity and focus, this being fully present, is akin to what the Buddhists call mindfulness, what Christian contemplatives refer to as recollection, what Quakers call centering down. I am suspicious of any philosophy that would separate this-worldly from other-worldly commitment. There is only one world, and we participate in it here and now, in our flesh and our place."

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Staying Put by Scott Russell Sanders

Rock hound

Words: The passage above is from "Settling Down," published in Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World by Scott Russell Sanders (Beacon Press, 1993). The poem in the picture captions is from The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Native America poet Joy Harjo  (WW Norton & Co., 1994). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The waterfall on our hill, swollen with winter rain.

A few related posts: Down by the Riverside, The Dance of Joy and Grief, The Landscape of Story, and, from a slightly different slant, On Loss and Transfiguration.


A walk in the woods

A Walk in the Woods, copyright by by Alan Lee, all rights reserved

From The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit:

"Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

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"These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time. In the children’s there are inanimate objects that come to life, speaking statues, rings and words of power, talismans and amulets, but most of all there are doors, particularly in the series that I, like so many children, took up imaginative residence in, for some years, The Chronicles of Narnia.

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"I read one in fourth grade after a teacher who barely knew me handed it to me in the Marion school library; I can still picture his moustache and the wall of books. I read it and read it again and then began to save up to buy the seven books, one at a time. The paperbacks came from Amber Griffin, the enchanted bookstore in the middle of town, whose kind proprietor rewarded me with the case in which the seven books fit when I had paid for the last one. I still have the boxed set, a little tattered though I think no one has ever read them other than me. When I took one out recently, I noticed how dirty the white back of the book was from my small filthy fingers then.

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"Much has been written about the Christian themes, British boarding school mores, and other contentious aspects of the series, but little has been said about its doors. There is of course the wardrobe in the first book C.S. Lewis wrote, the wardrobe made of wood cut from an apple tree grown from seeds from another world that, when the four children walk into it, opens onto that world. Two of the other books feature a doorway that stands alone so that when you walk around it it is just a frame, three pieces of wood in a landscape, but when you step through it leads to another world. There’s a painting of a boat that comes to life as the children tumble over the picture frame into the sea and another world. There are books and maps that come to life as you look at them.

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"And there is the Wood Between the Worlds in the book The Magician’s Nephew, which tells the creation story for Narnia, a wood described so enchantingly I sometimes think of it as a vision of peace still. It’s more serene and more strange than the busy symbolism in the rest of the books, with their talking beasts, dwarves, witches, battles, enchantments, castles, and more. The young hero puts on a ring and finds himself coming up through a pool to the forest.

'It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals, and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing. The pool he had  just got out of was not the only pool. There were dozens of others -- a pool every few yards as far as his eyes cold reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive.'

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"It is the place where nothing happens, the place of perfect peace; it is itself not another world but an unending expanse of trees and small ponds, each pond like a looking glass you can go through to another world. It is a portrait of a library, just as all the magic portals are allegories for works of art, across whose threshhold we all step into other worlds."

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Words: The passage above is from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2013) -- a simply marvelous book, full of musing on many things, including fairy tales. I highly recommend it. It also appears in Solnit's article "A Childhood of Reading and Wandering" (Lit Hub, 2017). The poem in the picture captions is from Toasting Marshmallows by Kristine O’Connell George (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The exquisite drawing above is "A Walk in the Woods" by my friend and neighbor Alan Lee, who is often inspired by the woods and rivers of Dartmoor. All rights reserved by the artist.