The sídhe and the sìth

Looking into the Fairy Hill by Alan Lee

I'm focused on The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden this week, which I highly recommend seeking out. In the following passage, Marsden is en route from the northern tip of Ireland to the wild west coast of Scotland. He writes:

"The north and west of Ireland and the west of Scotland share a similar history, language, and ethnicity....Comparable too is the geology. The 'Dalradian Supergroup' is not a Glaswegian rock band but a band of rock, 'a metasedimentary and igneous rock succession that was deposited on the eastern margin of Laurentia between the late Neoproterozoic and Early Cambrian'. Right. It makes up a large part of the defining features of both Ireland and western Scotland, the same mountains, the same high sea-cliffs, the same curiosities (Giant's Causeway in Antrim, Fingal's Cave off Mull), the same peaks and open moor, the same islets and reefs, the same sense of a primal clash between rock and ocean. And it is that backdrop -- the gritty topography, the fractured shoreline, that has helped sustain the coastline's metaphysics, helped generate the wilder projections of outsiders and inhabitants alike, phantom islands from beyond its headlands, otherworlds from beneath its turf.

"In Ireland, they are sídhe, in Scotland, sìth -- each is pronounced the same: 'shee'. The fairy population share a folk DNA, as the human ones do. The definition of the Scottish folklorist John Gregorson Campbell covers them both: 'The Fairies, according to the Scoto-Celtic belief, are a race of beings, the counterparts of mankind in person, occupations and pleasures, but unsubstantial and unreal, ordinarily invisible, noiseless in their motions, and having their dwellings underground, in hills and green mounds of rock or earth.'

Fairies by Alan Lee

"In a piece published in the Scots Observer in 1899, W.B. Yeats noted how prevalent the 'fairy belief' remained in both countries. Over the years, though, the sídhe and the sìth had diverged. The Irish once, he claimed, were much better, or at least rather nicer: 'For their gay and graceful doings you must go to Ireland, for their deeds of terror to Scotland.' He cited the Scottish tale of a child cutting turf. The child is struggling, until a hand is pushed up out of the bog with a sharp knife. The child's brothers respond by slicing off the hand with the knife. Yeats claimed that would never happen in Ireland, where 'there is something of timid affection between men and spirits'. In Scotland, he claimed, an innate mistrust existed of that unseen world: 'You have made the Darkness your enemy...you have discovered the fairies to be pagan and wicked. You would like to have them all before the magistrate.'

Fairy Woman by Alan Lee"As for the islands, the western coast of Scotland frays into many more actual islands than that of Ireland, but fewer imaginary ones. One tale that is found, though, in several versions in the Hebrides begins with a man in boat, lost in a fog. He comes across an unknown island, and landing on it, he meets a woman. He stays with her, they have children. After many years on the island, he goes back to his former life. One day when he is old and blind, the man is brought a fish that no one can identify. Fingering it, he recognizes its shape. He asks to be taken out to the waters where it was caught, and there is the island. He is put ashore, and he and the island disappear.

"It is a simple and beautiful story, and one that challenge's Yeats's partisan point. Many aspects of fairy belief do not stand up to any kind of literal scrutiny: little people living in holes in the ground, stealing the substance of people, or changing them into animals. But behind them lies a more persistent thought -- common not just to the closely related fairies of Ireland and Scotland but to belief worldwide: that other versions of our own life exist. They could be in the past, in the future, or in the never-never. They might be over the horizon, or on an imaginary island. But at one time or another, we will go looking for them. Perhaps we're always looking. "

The Scribe by Alan Lee

The art today is by my friend and village neighbour Alan Lee, recipient of the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration among many other honours. Some of the images above are from his classic book Faeries (with Brian Froud), and other drawings are from Alan's private collection. To learn more about the wider range of his exquisite work, go here.

The Fairy Court by Alan Lee

The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden

Words & Pictures: The passage above is from The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019). The artwork is by Alan Lee. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.

Further reading: For more information on fairy lore, "Fairies in Legend, Lore, and Literature" and "Tales of Fairy Changelings."


The simple intensity of being alive

The Summer Isles

I'm focused on The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden this week, so here's a second passage from this wonderful book. The following section takes place on the unihabited island of Inishdooey, off Ireland's Donegal coast. Marsden writes:

"Long ago, when magic was still on tap for the righteous, Saint Dubhthach and Saint Columba had a competition. They both wanted the challenge of ministering to Tory Island, so they stood beside each other on the mainland, and each saint swung his crozier with huge force. Columba's landed on Tory, some five miles off. Dubhthach could only manage a couple of miles and his reached here, on Inishdooey.

"The walls of Dubhthach's monastery were still discernible. I stepped inside, with an immediate awareness of hallowed ground. Lumps of quartzite dotted the stonework. Above the east window, the stones of the lintel fanned out like a sunrise. The opening itself was little wider than a slit, designed to celebrate the daily wonder of light returning, by capturing so little of it. [...]

"Out on the high cliff, I lay face down to look over the rim. A pool was spread out far below, enclosed in an almost complete circle of sheer rock. The circle was perforated at sea level by several low arches, and the sun shone through these arches, filling the sea inside with a brilliant green translucence. Rays of light penetrated the top layer of water,  flickering beneath it like fish backs. It was a minor miracle, an everyday occurrence that went on happening even though there was no one to see it; the sort of prospect that once invited those solitaries living in such places to write:

     Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle
     On the crest of a rock
     That I may look there on the manifold
     face of the sea.

Cliff Face  Tory Island by Derek Hill

"From across the golden centuries of Irish letters, few lines now have the raw impact of the verses known as the early 'nature poems'. What survives of them -- a fraction, probably -- suggests a tradition that began in its written form in about the eighth century. They were unlike anything else in medieval literature. What their authors drew on was what was normally sublimated to the collective or the divine, something that out here on the rocky fringes of the world was often in full flight: the individual sensibility. Their subject was the natural world -- so familiar, so quotidian, it was rarely considered worth writing about. But the verses' ease and confidence suggest that it had been expressed for a long time.

The Quiet Wave by Derek Hill

" 'Comparing these poems with the medieval European lyric,' wrote the scholar K.H. Jackson, who anthologized them, 'is like comparing the emotions of an imaginative adolescent who has just grown to realize the beauty of nature with those of an old man who has been familiar with it for a lifetime.' Seamus Heaney sensed in them the 'tang and clarity of a pristine world full of woods and water and birdsong'. He marvelled at the 'little jabs of delight in the elemental' noting that, in their distinctiveness, they make 'a spring-water music out of certain feelings in a way unmatched in any other European language.'

"The poems were the work of Irish monks, part-Christian in spirit and part-pagan, who pursued their devotions in the remotest of places, like here on Inishdooey. Some of the works were formal, or merged into longer cycles of story -- in Buile Suibhne or Immram Brain. Others were more direct -- simple observations, for instance, of the sounds heard outside a hermit's hut:

Cliff Face by Derek Hill    The voice of the wind against the branchy wood
     Grey with cloud;
     Cascades of the river,
     The swans song, lovely music.

Or of summer:

    The smooth sea flows,
     Season when the ocean falls asleep;
     Flowers cover the world.

Or of a cherish island: 

     Gleaning of purple lichen on its rocks,
     Grass without blemish on its slopes,
     A sheltering cloak over its crags;
     Gambolling of fawns, trout leaping.

From the late nineteenth century onward, the nature poems were rediscovered, translated and celebrated by Celticists, along with every other surviving word of early Irish. In 1911, Kuno Meyer defined them by their modest intent: 'To seek out and watch and love Nature, in its tiniest phenomena as in its grandest.' And he was not shy in declaring their significance: 'these poems occupy a unique position in the history of the world'.

"Like Japanese haiku and tanka, the Irish poems achieve their effect through immediacy. The act of recording what makes up a particular moment -- birdsong, trees, sun and clouds -- is more than just an assembling of scenic elements. It's a way of saying something timeless and urgent: do away with the not-here, this is what there is, the simple intensity of being alive:

     The woodland thicket overtops me,
     the blackbird sings me a lay, praise I will not conceal:
     above my lined little book
     the trilling of birds sings to me.

"Plain statement gives the verse the crisp purity of snow. 'Its makers', thought another of its scholarly advocates, Gerald Murphy, 'possessed a secret of keeping the reader's mind alert and happy, which they seem to have learnt from the story-tellers of the Old Irish period. It consisted in never saying more than was necessary, in passing rapidly over the abstract and discursive.'

Tory Island from Tor More by Derek Hill

"Similar nature poems, of the same period, are found in Welsh. But one thing that distinguished the Irish ones is their treatment of the sea -- a 'genuine delight mingled with terror'. It is the view of people for whom the sea was a part of everyday life, a coastal or island view of what brought pilgrims and supplies, storms and raiding Norsemen, and which offered the physical backdrop to prayer and contemplation. 'The ocean is full, the sea is in flood / Lovely is the home of ships.'

The Book of Dimma, Irish, 8th century

The same focused attention can be found in the marginalia of the period. While the monks dutifully transcribed Latin texts from one manuscript to another, they often jotted down their thoughts, in Irish, on the edge of the page. In themselves they are hardly revelations, but in the context of their time, their confessional tone is remarkable. On one manuscript from the early ninth century -- Cassiodorus's commentary on the Psalms -- is a series of scribblings that offer an almost filmic view of the scribe, a sentient individual. He complains about the vellum. One folio is too 'hairy', another too 'bald'. He is feeling slow: 'My brain is heavy today. I don't know what is the matter with me.' The scriptorium he works in is chilly and gloomy: 'It's cold today. It's only natural. It's winter.' 'Welcome to us is the season coming next. We won't hide what it is -- it is summer.'

From The Book of Kells"The changing seasons produced some of the most powerful of the Irish nature poems. To celebrate the hinge-points of the year were the two great annual festivals -- Bealtaine and Samhain. At the beginning of November, Samhain marked the moment when the harvest was all done, the fruits gathered and the meat ready for salting. But the Irish winter poems go far beyond the practical. In their unadorned details, they manage to suggest not only deep threat but also the sensation of the coming season, in all its wild beauty. It's hard to read such lines without shivering:

   My tidings for you: the stag bellows,
   Winter snows, summer has gone.

   Wind high and cold, low the sun,
   Short his course, sea running high.

   Deep-red the bracken, its shape all gone -
   The wild goose has raised his wonted cry.

   Cold has caught the wings of birds,
   Season of ice - these are my tidings.

"I looked north across the water, towards Scotland. The evenings were growing longer, the early mornings chillier. There was still a long way to go before the Summer Isles, and autumn was now waiting at the days' edges."

Midnight at Tory Island

Words: The passage above is from The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The paintings are by Derek Hill (1916-2000), an English portraitist and landscape painter who spent many years working from a hut on Tory Island, near Inishdooey. The early Irish manuscripts pictured are The Book of Dimma (8th century) and details from The Book of Kells (9th century). To learn more about them, visit the online "Early Irish Manuscripts Project" from the Library of Trinity College Dublin.

A related post from earlier this year, on the Celtic monks of Ireland & Scotland: "Self-isolation and the peregrini."


Sailing to the otherworld

As I'm sure you all know by now, I love recommending books here on Myth & Moor, sharing my appreciation for authors whose work has fired my imagination or touched my heart, and might do the same for you. Every once in a while, though, I read a book that I love so much that I don't know how to talk about it; every description seems inadequate. The Summer Isles: A Voyage of Imagination by Philip Marsden is such a book: it's simply one of the best that I've ever read.

The basic premise of the text is this: Mardsen sails from his home in Cornwall (on the south-west tip of England) to the the Summer Isles (on the far north coast of Scotland), taking in the remote islands of western Ireland and the Scottish Hebrides along the way. He makes the long journey alone in an old wooden sloop -- and while re-counting this thrilling, harrowing adventure he also meditates on the myths, literature, language, and history of Britain and Ireland's western coasts, and the imaginative hold islands have had on us from antiquity to the present.

Prospero sails to his island of exile  by Edmund Dulac

Here's a taste of Marsden's prose, from the opening of The Summer Isles:

"Long ago -- when the saints had not yet reached these western shores, and heroes were still in possession of superhuman strength, and poets could cut down kings with a single satire, and music could put even the most fearsome warrior to sleep -- another region of the earth existed, another layer to the earth's surface. The Celtic, or Brythonic, otherworld was a magical place where there was no sin or labour, no old age. It was a place of beauty and joy and shimmering palaces, where they trees hung heavy with fruit and blossom, fountains burst with cool water, and cauldrons remained full, however much was drawn from them. 

The Sea King's Daughter by Gennady Spirin"In the manuscripts of medieval Irish literature are a group of stories known as echtrai -- 'outings' or journeys to the otherworld. Only a few have survived, but what they reveal is the extraordinary hold that the otherworld exerts on the imagination. Magical apples, pure love and strange beasts all feature. In Echtrae Chonnlai, Connlae, son of Conn, is invited by a woman to visit the otherworld, and her description of it is so enticing that he is overcome by longing (éolchaire). He disappears with her in a glass ship, and is never seen again. Cormac was the nephew of Conn, and he too was taken to the otherworld, but returned. He told of two forts surrounded by bronze walls and thatched with wings of white birds, and a golden cup that shattered if an untruth was ever uttered.

"A good deal of scholarly work has been carried out to try and pinpoint the otherworld from literary sources, to unpick Christian elements that may or may not overlay pagan origins, to trace recurring features and examine possible outside influences. But when dealing with such a subject, conclusions have a habit of sliding like sand between your fingers. Reading the stories, letting the images take shape, is a much better way to understand their significance. They grew from the imagination, and it is the imagination that links us to them across the ages. The otherworld might not be the term we still use, but the ability to believe in places that are invisible, to build stories around them and inhabit them, remains the defining attribute of our species. The great Celtic scholar John Carey, who has studied early Irish history as rigorously as anyone, concludes: 'I would suggest the Irish Otherworld's characteristics are, by and large, those of the imagination itself -- more specifically, of the imagination as expressed in narrative.'

The Children of Lir by Gennady Spirin

"Natural mounds and hillocks, old castles, ancient burial sites, misty hollows or lakes -- these are the sort of places where the passing traveller might encounter the otherworld. But nowhere is more closely associated with its fantastic features than offshore islands. The risk of a sea passage add a certain allure to anywhere across the water, while the coast itself tends to throw up its own visual ambiguities -- refractive tricks of the light, land-like fog banks. Add to that the boundlessness of the ocean, the colourful tales of returning sailors, and it is no wonder that the western sea became such a bountiful playground of imaginary places.

More illustrations from The Tempest by Edmund Dulac

"In those days, when navigation was little more than cosmic speculation, the waters to this side of Britain and Ireland has many more islands -- Tír na nÓg ('and of the young'), Tír na mBeo ('land of the living'), Tír Tairngire ('land of promise'), Emain Ablach, Avalon, Kilstapheen, Imaire Buidhe, Lyonesse, Heather-Bleather. There were islands that appeared once every seven years, islands that drifted around like giant plankton, populated islands beneath the sea. There were enchanted islands like Inishbofin, and longed-for islands like Hinba and the Green Islands of Hebridean lore. There were islands that turned out not to be islands but great sea monsters when the crews of St. Brendan and Máel Dúin lit fires on their scaly shores."

The Enchanter by Alan Lee

Islands reflect our inner wishes and beliefs, as much now as in the past. He writes:

"We may have purged our charts of the imaginary, but that doesn't mean we do not long for mythical places. Our lives are still shaped not by reason but by hope and fear, by narrative, by projection. We seek to give form to such abstractions by attaching them to the shape of the world: hope is a hill, memory a house, fear is a cliff, disappointment an empty field. For all the pinpointing of every ruckle and molehill on the earth's surface, satellite imagery does not even begin to show the planet as we see it. Our maps may tell us where places are, and what they are, but they do nothing to reveal what they mean. Mircea Eliade suggested that mythical geography is 'the only geography man could never be without'. Oscar Wilde put it rather more graphically: 'A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail'.

The Argonauts by Edmund Dulac

"The islands of Britain and Ireland were themselves once regarded by Rome as an alter orbis -- semi-mythical places detached from the three great continents of Africa, Asia and Europe. That they should make their own satellite islands into otherworlds is hardly surprising. 'It would seem that the Irish Fairy Talesnotion of the otherworld have a very particular resonance for writers in the North Atlantic archipelago,' writes medievalist Aisling Byrne. 'National landscape shapes national literature, as the multifarious Greek islands gave episodic shape to the Odyssey, the unbounded reaches of the North Atlantic informed fantasies of insular travel and discovery'.

"The otherworld is more than just a fantasy island, full of strange creatures, magical trees and time-warps. It is all those places that we imagine, that we long for, that sustain our brief span on this earth. Out here in the far west, along the fractured coastline of Britain and Ireland, lies Europe's dreaming frontier, its open horizon, where the solid becomes fluid, the fixed wobbles a little and the cliffs and seas grow their own elaborate mythology. It has always occupied a certain place in the collective consciousness, and drawn a certain type to its shore."

During this time of global uncertainty, when physical travel is now difficult (and for some of us impossible), I highly recommend this armchair journey through islands real and imaginary....and those shifting, tricksy, liminal places that are neither one nor the other.

This book is pure enchantment.

The Sea King's Daughter by Gennady Spirin

The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden

Words: The passage above is from The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Illustrations for "The Tempest" by Edmund Dulac, illustrations for "The Sea King's Daughter" and "The Children of Lir" by Gennady Spirin, two more illustrations for "The Tempest" by Edmund Dulac, "The Enchanter" by Alan Lee, "The Argonauts" by Edmund Dulac,  "Becuma of the White Skin" (from Irish Fairy Tales) by Arthur Rackham, and "The Sea King's Realm"  by Gennady Spirin. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower by PJ Lynch

After songs of the sea last week, here are songs of sailors and sailing ships from the British Isles and North America....

Above: "The Bonny Ship the Diamond" performed by Beoga (Sean Og Graham, Damian McKee, Niamh Dunne, Eamon Murray, Liam Bradley) from Co. Kerry, Ireland. The song appeared on their seventh album Before We Change Our Mind (2016).

Below: "Banks of the Newfoundland" peformed by Teyr (James Patrick Gavin, Dominic Henderson, Tommie Black-Roff), based in London. The song appeared on their debut album, Far From the Tree (2016).

Above: "William Taylor" performed by multi-instrumentalist Sam Sweeny and singer and accordionist Hannah James.  The song appeared on their second collaborative album, State and Ancientry (2012).

Below: "Cruel" performed by singer/songwriter Kate Rubsy, from Yorkshire. The song appeared on her sixth album, Underneath the Stars (2003). For information on the use of "press gangs" to force men into the military, go here.

Above: Cyril Tawney's "The Grey Funnel Line," performed by the great English folk singer June Tabor. She first recorded the song with Maddy Prior for their collaborative album Silly Sisters (1976). This haunting solo version appeared on Tabor's Ashore (2011).

Below: "Maid on the Shore" performed by folk singer and fiddle player Eliza Carthy, from Yorkshire. The song appeared on her seventh solo album Rough Music (2004).

Above: "Demon Lover" (also known as The House Carpenter, Child Ballad #243), performed by American roots musician Tim O'Brien, with backing vocals by Irish singer Karen Casey. The song appeared on O'Brien's album Two Journeys (2001). 

Below: "The Golden Vanity" performed by the American folk & bluegrass band Crooked Still, sung by Aoife O'Donovan (whose solo work I also recommend, as well as the trio I'm With Her). The song was filmed last year for Chris Thile's television program Live from Here.

One more to end with: "Lord Franklin," a 19th century broadside ballad about Franklin's ill-fated expedition to the Artic in 1845. This simple, lovely version is from John Smith's album Hummingbird, recorded in Somerset last year.

The art today is by the extraordinary Irish book artist P.J. Lynch. To see more of his beautiful work, go here.

The North Wind by PJ Lynch


The secular sacred

Herring Gulls by Ekaterina Bee

From Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore

"This is a story a friend gave to me. I am giving it to you.

"There was a man who searched and searched for the sacred in nature -- in the forest, at the beach -- and sure enough: one day as he was walking along the coast, he heard a voice, loud and clear.

" 'Stand here,' it said, 'and God will speak to you.'

"The man stood. What else could he do? What would you have done? He stood for a very long time, shifting his weight from one leg to another. His back stiffened up. A flock of brants flew down the trough between the breakers. The wind came up and died back. The tide flowed in. He zipped his jacket and unzipped it, zipped it again as the sun went down and gulls cried out and flew to their roosts. He shivered in fog that came with the night, and finally he went home.

''Realm of the Seychelles'' by Thomas Peschak

Weddell seals by Laurent Ballesta

"I'm not sure what he hoped to hear. The sound of the wind bringing rain, the rattle of surf-driven stones -- these didn't tell him what he needed to know? That he is alive in this place, at this time, alive in the midst of all this life. That he is aware in the midst of all that is mysterious, every fact that might have been and yet is. Stinging sand, the storm-driven waves, the swirling gulls --they are all cause for surprise and celebration.

Sperm whales in Sri Lanka by Tony Wu

Night of the Turtles by Ingo Arndt

"Instead of standing still and waiting for instructions, what if he had laid his back in the midst of the mussels, laid there with barnacles poking his scalp, felt -- in the hollow echo chamber of his ribs -- the breakers pound against rock, listened to the shouts of faraway children and the pop of sand fleas next to his ear, as all the while tide crept in around him and surf exploded closer and closer to his brain?

"Then what would he have heard?

Female humpback whale  by Wade Hughes

"I don't want to say he would have heard the voice of God.

"I want to say he would have heard -- really heard, maybe for the first time -- the squeak of mussels, the smash of surf, the peeping of sandpipers. Maybe a fish crow cawing or a chainsaw cutting cedar drifted in on storms.

"And I want to say this is enough. I want to say that this is astonishing enough -- the actual Earth, the extraordinary fact of the ticking, smashing, singing, whistling, peeping Earth -- to make me feel I live in a sacred place and time.

"I want to say there is a secular sacred, that this phrase, paradoxical as it seems, makes good and profound and important sense.

Nesting leatherback turtle by Brian Skerry

"Here is what I believe: that the natural world -- the stuff of our lives, the world we plod through, hardly hearing, the world we burn and poke and stuff and conquer and irradiate -- that THIS WORLD (not another world on another plane) is irreplaceable, astonshing, contingent, eternal and changing, beautiful and fearsome, beyond human understanding, worthy of reverence and awe, worthy of celebration and attention.

"If the good English word for this combination of qualities is 'sacred,' then so be it. Even if we don't believe in God, we walk out the door on a sacred morning and lift our eyes to the sacred rain and are called to remember our sacred obligations of care and celebration.

65

"And what's more, the natural world is sacred and 'sacred' describes the natural world; there are not two worlds but one, and it is magnificent and mysterious enough to shake us to the core; if this is so, then we -- you and I and the man on the beach -- are called to live our lives gladly. We are called to live lives of gratitude, joy, and caring, profoundly moved by the bare fact that we live in the time of the singing of birds."

Great Crested Grebes by Knut Erik Alnæs (Norway)

If we allow for the concept of the "secular sacred," then I suppose that Wild Comfort is one of my sacred texts -- along with books by Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner, Patricia McKillip, John Crowley, Jane Yolen, Lloyd Alexander, David Abram, Lewis Hyde, Kathleen Jamie, Martin Shaw and so many others. They honor the mystery. Restore my sense of wonder. Remind me to be astonished by the world, and call me to gratitude and joy.

Spanwing brook trout David Herasimtschuk

Pictures: The glorious photographs above were exhibited at The Museum of Natural History in London in the spring of 2016. They are identified & credited in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the MNH and the photographers.

Words: The passage above is from "The Time of the Singing of the Birds," published in Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter Books, 2010); all rights reserved by the author.


On the shores of mystery

The Little Mermaid illustrated by Edmund Dulac

From Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore:

"Some people suggest that science is the enemy of the sacred. This puzzles me. I suppose the argument is that the more we understand or think we understand, the smaller the realm of mystery becomes; under the hot light of scientific knowledge, the sacred warps and shrinks, like Styrofoam in flames. But this argument won't work because mystery is infinite, the only natural resource that humans can't exhaust in this giant fire sale we call an economy.

"The physicist Chet Raymo thinks of scientific understanding as an island in a sea of mystery. The larger the island, the longer its coastline -- that area where the deep sea of what we don't understand slaps and smacks at the edge of what we think we know, a rich place of bright water and dark, fecund smell.

The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac

The Little Mermaid illustrated by Helen Stratton

"If so, then this is our work in the world: to pull on rubber boots and stand in this lively, dangerous water, bracing against the slapping waves, one foot on stone, another on sand. When one foot slips and the other sinks, to hop awkwardly to keep from filling our boots. To laugh, to point, and sometimes to let this surging, light-flecked mystery wash into us and knock us to our knees, while we sing songs of celebration through our own three short nights, our voices thin in the darkness."

Me & Tilly on the Devon coast

Sea Maidens by Evelyn de Morgan

Words: The passage above is from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter Books, 2010). The poem in the picture captions is from Red Bird by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2009). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Two paintings for Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953); a drawing for "The Little Mermaid" by Helen Stratton (1867-1961); Tilly & me on the Devon coast, pre-pandemic; and "Sea Maidens" by Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919).


The magic of the world made visible

A detail from Underworld Beauty by Virginia Lee

From "Learning to See" by Robin Wall Kimmerer (author of Braiding Sweetgrass):

"I remember my first encounter with the North Pacific, at Rialto Beach on the Olympic Peninsula. As a landlocked botanist, I was anticipating my first glimpse of the ocean, craning my neck around every bend in the winding dirt road. We arrived in a dense gray fog that clung to the trees and beaded my hair with moisture. Had the skies been clear we would have seen only what we expected: rocky coast, lush forest, and the broad expanse of the sea. That day, the air was opaque and the backdrop of the coastal hills was visible only when the spires of Sitka Spruce briefly emerged from the clouds. We knew the ocean's presence only by the deep roar of the surf, out beyond the tidepools. Strange, that at the edge of this immensity, the world had become very small, the fog obscuring all but the middle distance. All my pent-up desire to see the panorama of the coast became focussed on the only things that I could see, the beach and the surrounding tidepools.

Mer Village by Virginia Lee

"Wandering in the grayness, we quickly lost sight of each other, my friends disappearing like ghosts in just a few steps. Our muffled voices knit us together, calling out the discovery of a perfect pebble, or the intact shell of a razor clam. I knew from pouring over field guides in anticipation of the trip that we 'should' see starfish in the tidepools, and this would be my first. The only starfish I'd ever seen was a dried one in a zoology class and I was eager to see them at home where they belonged. As I looked among the mussels and limpets, I saw none. The tidepools were encrusted with barnacles and exotic-looking algae, anemones, and chitons enough to satisfy the curiosity of a novince tidepooler. But no starfish.

Merfolk by Virginia Lee

On the south Devon coast

"Disappointed, I straightened up from the pools to relieve the growing stiffness in my back, and suddenly -- I saw one. Bright orange and clinging to a rock right before my eyes. And then it was as if a curtain had been pulled away and I saw them everywhere. Like stars revealing themselves one by one in a darkening summer night. Orange stars in the crevices of a black rock, speckled burgandy stars with outstretched arms, purple stars nestled together like a family huddled against the cold. In a cascade of discovery, the invisible was suddenly made visible.

The Selkie by Virginia Lee

Tilly on the north Devon coast

"A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity, an experience both humbling and joyful."

You can read the full essay in Kimmerer's Gathering Moss, a lovely collection of linked essays on the natural and cultural history of mosses.

Merwyna by Marja Lee

The magical ocean imagery today is from two Chagford artists who are also mother and daughter: Marja and Virginia Lee. (Each picture is  identified in the hidden captions. Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

Marja Lee is a painter and harpist inspired by Celtic art, music, myth and mysticism. Born in the Netherlands, she studied art in Amsterdam, worked as a fashion illustrator in London, and then settled and raised her family here in Devon. Her delicate watercolor paintings and drawings are rich in esoteric symbolism, and fall into the Visionary tradition of such arists as Odilon Redon, Jessie M. King, and Sulamith Wulfing. The drawing just above and the painting below are by Marja. To learn more about her work, go here.

Virginia Lee is a painter and sculptor inspired by folklore, Surrealism, and the mythic landscape of Dartmoor. She has illustrated several fine books for children and adults, including The Frog Bride, Persephone, and The Secret History of Mermaids. She was also a sculptor on the set of the Lord of the Rings films, and has published exquisite decks of "oracle" and "story world" cards. To learn more about her work, go here.

Mermaid by Marja Lee

Words: The passage above is from Gathering Moss by Native American author & plant biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (Oregon State University, 2003). Pictures: The art above is by Marja and Virginia Lee; all rights reserved by the artists. The photographs of me and Tilly were taken by Howard.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

South Devon coast

Here in Devon, we're on a peninsula with two beautiful coastlines, north and south. Neither coast is particularly far from Dartmoor, but due to pandemic travel restrictions we haven't seen the ocean for months -- and as much as I love the moorland hills, I miss the sound and the scent of the sea. Today, let's listen to songs of the waves from across the British Isles.

Above: A short introductory film about Sea Songs -- an 18th-month project undertaken by Belfast musician M. Cambridge (Mark McCambridge), exploring traditional sea chanties, Ulster weaver-poetry, and sea-faring ballads old and new. The resulting album, Sea Songs: Anatomy of a Drowning Man (2019) is an unusual blend of music and spoken word, and well worth a listen. The film is by Sam O'Mahony.

Below: "My Sailor Boy," from Sea Songs: Anatomy of a Drowing Man

Above: "Port na bPúcai" by Irish folksinger Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, with Billy Mag Fhloinn. This traditional song from the Blasket Islands of Co. Kerry tells the story of a woman "from across the waves" who has been stolen away by the fairies, never to return.

Below: "Thaney" by the Scottish folk band Malinky, from their early album Three Ravens (2002). The ballad (written by Karine Polwart) recounts the medieval legend of Saint Thaney, the daughter of the King of Lothian, who was raped by a callous prince of Wales and conceived a child by him. Her father, infuriated by the pregnancy, commands his daughter be hurled from the cliffs to the sea. Miraculously surviving the fall, Thaney is put on a tiny coracle and set adrift on the Firth of Forth. She survives this ordeal too, and gives birth to a son, Saint Kentigern, the founder of the city of Glasgow.

"But wonders on the bonnie lady / Wonders on the silver spray / Cradled by five thousand fishes / It's she has reached the Isle o' May / Through the turning tide they tumbled / Through the rattlin', rollin' storm . Safe at Culross Kirk she has landed / There she has her baby born."

Above: "Dh’èirich mi moch, b' fheàrr nach do dh’èirich" by Scottish singer/songwriter Julie Fowlis, from the island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The song appeared on her most recent album, Alterum (2017). "My work is steeped in tradition and historical reference specific to the Highlands," she says. This song evokes the contrasting elements of land and sea, with owl feathers symbolic of journeys, transitions, and ancient rites of women's mysticism and intrigue.

Below: "Òran an Ròin,"  another song from Alterum, with a new video that was released last month. This one, says Fowlis, "is a traditional Gaelic song from the voice of the seal people or selkies: creatures who were said to shed their seal skin and take on the human form at certain times of the year, moving between the parallel worlds of sea and land, but never truly belonging to either."

Above: "The Selchie Song," written and sung by Scottish singer/songwriter Jenny Sturgeon, accompanied by Jonny Hardie, on the Isle of May in 2014. Sturgeon has a new album coming out this autumn inspired by Nan Shepherd's classic book The Living Mountain; and her two albums with Salt House, Undersong and Huam, are just stunning.

Below: "The Grey Selkie of Sule Skerry" (Child Ballad 113), a traditional song of the Orkney and Shetland islands, performed by English singer/songwriter Maz O'Conner. The video of seals is not from O'Connor but underscores the song beautifully, filmed by divers off the coast of Coll in the Inner Hebrides, and the Farne Islands of Northumberland. The song itself can be found on O'Conner's second album, This Willowed Light (2014).

And one more song to end with, below:

"The Sailor's Farewell" by English singer/songwriter Ange Hardy, based in Somerset. The song appeared on her third album, The Lament of the Black Sheep (2014).

South Devon

Photographs: Howard and Tilly on the south Devon coast, near Burgh Island, pre-pandemic.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

An Illustration from The Seal Children by Jackie Morris

Having been immersed in selkie lore recently, my dreams are still rolling with the waves ... so I'm starting the week with songs about sea and shore, and the liminal space between them.

Above: "The Great of Sule Skerry" (Child Ballad 113), a traditional song of Shetland and Orkney sung by Julie Fowlis (from the Isle of Eigg in the Hebrides) and The Unthanks (from Northumbria) for the Port programme on BBC Alba.

Below: "The Selkie Song" by Scottish singer/songwriter Jenny Sturgeon, accompanied by Jonny Hardie on the Isle of May in 2014.

Above: "Lord Franklin," a classic ballad about the 19th century Arctic explorer who perished on the search for the North West Passage. This lovely version was recorded by Irish fiddler Kevin Burke and the late Irish singer, guitarist and folklorist Mícheál O Domhnaill (co-founder of The Bothy Band) in 1979. The backing vocals are by Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill.

Below: "The Maid on the Shore," an oceanside variant of the "The Broomfield Hill" (Child Ballad #43), recorded by The John Renbourn Group in 1980. The singer, of course, is Jacqui McShee.

Above: "The Fisherman's Wife" by Matthew and the Atlas (English singer/songwriter Matt Hegarty and his band), recorded in 2015.

Below: "Mackerel," an award-winning song by the Rheingans Sisters (Anna and Rowan Rheingans), from Derbyshire. The song appeared on their first album Already Home (2015).

And one more to end with: "The Sailor's Farewell" by singer/songwriter Ange Hardy, from Somerset. The appeared on her third album, The Lament of the Black Sheep (2014).

The art today is by Jackie Morris, from her enchanting book The Seal Children. Go here to learn more about it.

Another illustration from The Seal People by Jackie Morris

Some previous songs of the sea can be found here and here.


The sea, the sea

Mermaids by Arthur Rackham

Undine illustrations by Arthur Rackham

I'm in Sheffield right now, preparing for The Secrets of the Selkies tonight, immersed in the lore of seals and sea ... and I'm reminded of these salty, mysterious words from Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard:

"Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, a dawn fast over the mountains split....

"I open my eyes. The god lifts from the water. His head fills the bay. He is Puget Sound, the Pacific; his breast rises from pastures; his fingers are firs; islands slide wet down his shoulders. Islands slip blue from his shoulders and glide over the water, the empty, lighted water like a stage.

Neptune's Horses by Walter Crane

Prospero and Miranda by Edmund Dulac

"Today's god rises, his long eyes flecked in clouds. He flings his arms, spreading colors; he arches, cupping sky in his belly; he vaults, vaulting and spread, holding all and spread on me like skin.

Dreamland and Sea Fairies by Florence Susan Harrison

The Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

"I came here to study hard things -- rock mountains and sea salt -- and to temper my spirit on their edges...[And what I face is] sea, and unimaginable solid islands, and sea, and a hundred rolling skies. You spill your breath. Nothing holds; the whole show rolls....Land is a poured thing and a time a surface film lapping and fringing at fastness, at a hundred hollow and receeding blues....

Illustrations for The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac

Tilly on the Devon coast

"Here is the fringy edge; where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam.

An illustration for The Tempest by Edmund Dulac

Tilly on the Devon coast

"The salt sea and the islands, molding and molding, row upon row, do not quit, nor do winds end nor skies cease from spreading in curves. The actual percentage of land mass to sea in the Sound equals that of the rest of the planet: we have less time than we knew. Time is eternity's pale interlinear, as islands are the sea's. We have less time than we knew and that time is bouyant, and cloven, luscent, and missile, and wild."

On the south Devon coast

Undine by Arthur Rackham

Words: The passage above is from Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard (Harper & Row, 1997). The poem in the picture captions is from The Last Selchie Child by Jane Yolen (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2012) -- run your cursor over the images to read it. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The illustrations above are: Mermaids by Arthur Rackham, Neptune's Horses by Walter Crane, Prospero and Miranda (from The Tempest) by Edmund Dulac, Dreamland and Sea Fairies by Florence Susan Harrison, The Little Mermaid (drawing) by Helen Stratton, The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac, another illustration from The Tempest by Edmund Dulac, and water spirits by Arthur Rackham. The photographs are not of Puget Sound, but of me and sea-loving Tilly on the north Devon coast a while back. (The one of me was snapped by Howard.)