'Lord, increase my bewilderment'

Waterfall 1

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.

Waterfall 2

Waterfall 3

"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."

Waterfall 4

Waterfall 5

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.

Waterfall 6

Waterfall 7

"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.

Waterfall 8

"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."

Waterfall 9

Waterfall 10

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

River 1

River 2

"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?"

River 3

"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.

River 4

River 5

River 6

"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.

River 7

"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.

River 8

"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."

River 9

River

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

River 1

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.

River 2

"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.

River 3

River 4

"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.

River 5

"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.'

River 6

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

River 7

River 8

River 9

"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.

River 10

"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?

River 11

"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.

River 12

"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.

River 13

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

River 14

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

Waterfall 1

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.

Waterfall 2

"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.

Waterfall 3

"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.

Waterfall 4

"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.

Waterfall 5

"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.

Waterfall 6

"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.' "

Waterfall 6

"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.

Waterfall 8

"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.

Waterfall 9

Waterfall 10

"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."

Waterfall 11

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

Waterfall 1

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....

Waterfall 2

"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.

Waterfall 3

"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?

Waterfall 4

"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.

Waterfall 5

"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?

Waterfall 6

"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....

Waterfall 7

"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."

Waterfall 8

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.

Plymbridge Woods 1

"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.

Plymbridge Woods 2

Plymbridge Woods 3

Plymbridge Woods 4

"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.

Plymbridge Woods 5

"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.

Plymbridge Woods 6

Plymbridge Woods 7

"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.'

Plymbridge Woods 8

"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."

Plymbridge Woods 9

Plymbridge Woods 10

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.


Breaking open

Waterfall 1

From Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore:

" 'There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature,' Rachel Carson wrote. 'The assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.'

"I have never felt this so strongly as I do now, waiting for the sun to warm my back. The bottom may drop out of my life, what I trusted may fall away completely, leaving me astonished and shaken. But still, sticky leaves emerge from bud scales that curl off the tree as the sun crosses the sky. Darkness pools and drains away, and the curve of the new moon points to the place where the sun will rise again. There is wild comfort in the cycles and the intersecting circles, the rotations and revolutions, the growing and ebbing of this beautiful and strangely trustworthy world.

Waterfall 2

Waterall 3

Waterfall 4

 "I settle back on the rock and drag my sleeping bag over my knees. Diffuse light silvers the water; I can just make out a dragonfly nymph that crawls toward the surface with no expectation of flight beyond maybe a tightness in the carapace across its back. No matter how hard it tries or doesn't, there will come a time when the dragonfly pumps the crinkles out of its wings, and there they will be, luminous as mica, threaded with lapis and gold.

Waterfall 5

Waterfall 6

Waterfall 7

Waterfall 8

 "No measure of human grief can stop Earth in its tracks. Earth rolls into sunlight and rolls away again, continents glowing green and gold under the clouds. Trust this, and there will come a time when dogged, desperate trust in the world will break open into wonder. Wonder leads to gratitude. Gratitude into peace." 

Waterfall 9

Waterfall 10

Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore

Waterfall 11

Waterfall 13

Where, or how, do you find wild comfort?

Leap

 The passage above is from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, essays by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter Books, 2010); all rights reserved by the author. The text is the picture captions is adapted from a  post after winter storms in 2012.


On Thanksgiving Day: elemental gratitude

Nattadon waterfall

Prayer for the Great Family
by Gary Snyder (after a Mohawk prayer)

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day —
and to her soil: rich, rare, and sweet
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 2

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing light changing leaf
and fine-root hairs; standing still through wind
and rain; their dance is in the flowing spiral grain
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 3

Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and the silent
Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
clear spirit breeze
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 4

Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers teaching secrets,
freedoms, and ways; who share with us their milk;
self-complete, brave, and aware
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 5

Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
holding or releasing; streaming through all
our bodies salty seas
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 6

Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
bears and snakes sleep — he who wakes us –
in our minds so be it

Waterfall 7

Gratitude to the Great Sky
who holds billions of stars — and goes yet beyond that –
beyond all powers, and thoughts
and yet is within us –
Grandfather Space.
The Mind is his Wife,
so be it
.

Waterfall 8

To which I add:

Gratitude for the things that will help us get through the long winter ahead: warmth and light, friendship and art, good talk, good music, good books, good dreams, good single malt whiskey (hey, whatever it takes). Gratitude for the storms that shake us, and the sweet calm after.

Gratitude for it all.

Waterfall 9

Waterfall 10

The poem above is from Turtle Island by Gary Snyder (New Directions, 1974); it first appeared on Myth & Moor in the winter of 2014. The poem in the picture captions is from Orpheus by Don Paterson (Faber, 2006). All rights reserved by the authors. The photograph of me and Tilly was taken by Ellen Kushner. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


A river of words

Belstone

From Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"In workshops on story writing, I've met many writers who want to work only with memoir, tell only their own story, their experience. Often they say. 'I can't make up stuff, that's too hard, but I can tell what happened.' It seems easier to them to take material directly from their experience than to use their experience as material for making up a story. They assume they can just write what happened.

Belstone 2

Belstone 3

"That appears reasonable, but actually, reproducing experience is a very tricky business requiring both artfulness and practice. You may find you don't know certain important facts or elements of the story you want to tell. Or the private experience so important to you may not be very interesting to others, requires skill to make it meaningful, moving, to the reader. Or, being about yourself, it gets all tangled up with ego, or begins to be falsified by wishful thinking. If you're honestly trying to tell what happened, you find facts are very obstinate things to deal with. But if you begin to fake them, to pretend things happened in a way that makes a nice neat story, you're misusing imagination. You're passing invention off as fact: which is, among children at least, called lying.

"Fiction is invention, but it is not lies. It moves on a different level of reality from either fact-finding or lying.

Belstone 4

"I want to talk here about the difference between imagination and wishful thinking, because it's important both in writing and in living. Wishful thinking is thinking cut loose from reality, a self-indulgence that is often merely childish, but may be dangerous. Imagination, even in its wildest flights, is not detached from reality: imagination acknowledges reality, starts from it, and returns to enrich it. Don Quixote indulges his longing to be a knight till he loses touch with reality and makes an awful mess of his life. That's wishful thinking. Miguel Cervantes, by working out and telling the invented story of a man who wishes he were a knight, vastly increased our store of laughter and human understanding. That's imagination. Wishful thinking is Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich. Imagination is the Constitution of the United States.

Belstone 5

"A failure to see the difference is in itself dangerous. If we assume that imagination has no connection with reality but is mere escapism, and therefore distrust it and repress it, it will be crippled, perverted, it will fall silent or speak untruth. The imagination, like any basic human capacity, needs exercise, discipline, training, in childhood and lifelong.

Belstone 6

"One of the best exercises for the imagination, maybe the very best, is hearing, reading, and telling or writing made-up stories. Good inventions, however fanciful, have both congruity with reality and inner coherence. A story that's mere wish-fulfilling babble, or coercive preaching concealed in a narrative, lacks intellectual coherence and integrity: it isn't a whole thing, it can't stand up, it isn't true to itself.

Belstone 7

"Learning to tell or read a story that is true to itself is about the best education a mind can have."

Belstone 8

Words: The passage above is from "Making Up Stories," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from High Country (Sandstone Press, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: A walk by the river near Belstone on Dartmoor, with Howard and the hound.


The landscape of story

Riverside 1

From "The Dreaming of Place" by Hugh Lupton:

"The ground holds the memory of all that has happened to it. The landscapes we inhabit are rich in story. The lives of our ancestors have contributed to the shape and form of the land we know today -- whether we are treading the cracked cement of a deserted runaway, the boundary defined by a quickthorn hedge, the outline of a Roman road or the grassy hump of a Bronze Age tumulus. The creatures we share the landscape with have made their marks, too: their tracks, nesting places, slides and waterholes. And beyond the human and animal interactions are the huge, slow geological shapings that have given the land its form. Every bump, fold and crease, every hill and hollow is part of a narrative that is both human and prehuman. And as long as men and women have moved over the land these narratives have been spoken and sung.

Riverside 2

"This sense of story being held immanent in landscape," Lupton suggests, " is most clearly defined in the belief systems of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. In Native Australian belief everything that is not 'here and now' is described as having gone 'into the dreaming.' The Aborigines believe that the tangled skein of remembered experience, history, legend and myth that constitutes the past -- that is invisible to the objective eye or the camera -- has not gone away. It is, rather, implicit in the place where it happened, a potentiality. It is a living memory that is held between a place and its people. It is always waiting to be woken by a voice.

Riverside 3

 "I remember the Irish storyteller Eamon Kelly once telling me that in the parish of County Clare where he grew up, every field had a name, and every field name was associated with a story. To walk from one end of the parish to the other was to walk through a landscape of story. It occurred to me that the same was probably once true for any parish in Britain.

"But today we are forgetting our stories. We have been forgetting them for a long time. Few of us live in the same landscape as our grandparents. The deep knowledge that comes from long familiarity has become a rarity. Places are glimpsed through the windows of cars and trains. Maybe, occasionally, we stride through them.

"What does it mean for a culture to have lost touch with its dreaming? What can we do about it?

Riverside 4

"It seems to me that as writers, artists, environmentalists, parents, teachers and talkers, one of our practices should be to enter the Dreaming, that invisible, parallel worl, and salvage our local stories. We need to re-charge the landscape with its forgotten narratives. Only then will it regain the sacred status it once possessed. This might involve research into local history, conversations with elders in the community, exploration of regional folktales, ballads and myths...

"And then an intuitive jump into Imagination."

Riverside 5

Riverside 6

Words: The passage by British storyteller, folklorist, and novelist Hugh Lupton is from EarthLines magazine (Issue 2, August 2012). The poem in the picture captions is by Scottish poet Judith Taylor, first published in The Interpreter's House (Issue 59, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly in our local river (the Teign), and me (snapped by Howard) with a very wet dog. Related post: on place and the importance of local stories, "Wild Neighbors."