Tunes for a Monday Morning

Selkie by Jackie Morris

Above: "Teif on da Lum" by fiddler and composer Vicky Gray, from the Shetland Islands. The song appears on her debut EP, Atlaness (2021). The video is by Shetland film-maker JJ Jamieson.

Below: "The Grey Selkie of Sule Skerry" (Child Ballad 113), a traditional song of the Orkney and Shetland islands, performed by singer/songwriter Maz O'Conner. The video of seals is not by 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). For previous selkie posts, go here.

Above: "Selkie-boy" by Julie Fowlis, from the Outer Hebrides, based on the words of Robert Macfarlane, the art of Jackie Morris, and the lore of selkies. The piece was created for The Lost Words: Spell Songs (2019), a glorious album and concert series that turned the "spells" found in Jackie & Robert's beautiful book The Lost Words into equally beautiful music. The video was filmed near Jackie's home on the coast of Wales, where she inked the verses of "Selkie-boy" onto stone as a gift to the sea. “When we went in search of seals for the film it was almost as if they knew," she says. "There were many seals in a cave where usually there were only a few. The water was crystal clear, so we could watch them move under water. They seemed almost to welcome us, just sitting beneath the skin of the sea and yes, beckoning us down, to where we belonged. And the colour of the water, the light on it, was a deep green.”

Below: "The Arms of the Ocean" by Gaelic singer/songwriter Rachel Walker, with Alec Dalglish (from Skerryvore). The song was released as a single in 2017. Walker's most recent solo album is Gael (2020), and it's a beauty.

Above: "Charmer" by Salt House (Jenny Sturgeon, Lauren MacColl, Ewan MacPherson), a trio based in Scotland whose music I listen to constantly.  This one is from their gorgeous second album Undersong (2018). The album was made and the video filmed on the Hebridean island of Berensay.

Below: "Caim Chaluim Chille chaoimh (The encompassing of Columba the kindly)" by Julie Fowlis, Éamon Doorley, Zoë Conway, and John McIntyre. The piece "is based on a text from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica, a multi-volume collection of Gaelic prayers, incantations, charms and songs collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland over one hundred years ago. The musicians have also woven into the text some words from a blessing from the Middle-Irish period. Their composition bridges the Sea of Moyle and generations of tradition in a contemporary and layered arrangement using voices, guitar, bouzouki, violin and oboe to commemorate the remarkable Columba -- a man who left an indelible mark on the life, literature and landscape of both Ireland and Scotland. In the video they have made to accompany their composition, the four musicians and singers have invited artist Ellis O’Connor to respond in paint, inspired by the music they have created."

For a previous post on Columba and other "peregrini" of the northern islands go here.

From ''The Seal Children'' by Jackie Morris

The art today is from The Seal Children by Jackie Morris (Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2005, & Otter-Barry Books, revised edition, 2016), which I highly recommend. And speaking of seal and selkie tales, there's been a discussion on Twitter recently on just how good Margo Lanagan's selkie novel The Brides of Rollrock Island is. 


The language of whales

Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Side view of the Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

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

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

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

Detail from the Killer Whale Totem by Preston Singletary

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

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

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

Kéet by Preston Singletary

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

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

Family Story Totem by Preston Singletary

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

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

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

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

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

Killer Whales photographed by Eva Saulitis

Killer Whale Canoe by Preston Singletary

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

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

X'aat by Preston Singletary

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

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

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

The Air World by Preston Singletary

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

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


The Outermost House

Cannon Rock by Winslow Homer

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

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

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

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

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

Northeaster by Winslow Homer

Lost on the Grand Banks by Winslow Homer

The Maine Coast by Winslow Homer

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

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

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

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

The Outermost House by Henry Beston

The New Novel by Winslow Homer

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

The Mussel Gatherers by Winslow Homer

Summer Squall by Winslow Homer

Looking Out to Sea by Winslow Homer


One last selkie tale

Grey seal and pup, Lincolnshire. Photograph by Dan Kitwood.

From "The Selkie Wife's Daughter" by Jeannine Hall Gailey:

    I always wondered why she sang so strangely

    at the spinning wheel, why her eyes held all

    the mourning of the darkest sea. And why

Grey seal and pup, Yorkshire. Photograph by Steve Race.

    she held me away,

    as if afraid of my skin, why my feet and

    hands were webbed with translucent sea–skin.

Grey Seal

    I used to bring her armfuls of yellow

    water iris to almost

    see her smile. I wondered why father

Grey Seal and pup, Norfolk. Photograph by Friends of Horsey Seals.

    never let me swim out against the waves,

    never let her walk the shores alone....

Grey seal pup, Norfolk. Photograph by Friends of Horsey Seals.

To read the full poem, go here.

Seal mother tickling her pup. Photograph by Elmar Weiss.

Words: The poem extract above, inspired selkie legends is from  Becoming the Villainess by Jeannine Hall Gailey (Steel Toe Books, 2006), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The photographs above are by Dan Kitwood, Steve Race, Elmar Weiss, and Friends of Horsey Seals (Norfolk). All rights reserved by the photographers.


Another selkie tale

''Dancing Seals,'' North Carolina, from The Telegraph, photographer unknown

Grey seal, Farne Island, photographed by Dan Kitwood


From "A Taste of the Sea" by essayist & novelist Scott Russell Sanders:

"A selkie takes a great risk in changing from a seal to a man, for he may not be able to change back again. No matter how carefully he hides his pelt, someone may find it. A child playing along the shore may take it for a plaything, a beachcomber may take it for a rug, a fisherman may sell it to the fur dealer, a woman intent on keeping him in her arms may lock it in a chest. Without that pelt, a selkie cannot return to the sea. Nor can he return if he has fallen in love with the woman who called him ashore to father her child.

"It is said that male selkies are the seducers, charming female humans with our fathomless dark eyes and our muscles sculpted from swimming. Although that may be true for others, it is not so for me. I did not choose to shed my skin and walk on two legs away from the ocean, any more than salmon choose to abandon saltwater for spawning and death in their native streams. I was summoned from the water by a maiden who wept seven tears into the cove where I floated, asleep and dreaming....

To read the rest of Sanders' short, evocative story, please go here. His new collection, The Way of the Imagination, is coming out this month from Counterpoint Press.  

(Previous selkie posts here.)

Grey Seal, Farne Islands, photographed by Jason Neilus

''Dancing in the rays,'' photographed by Dmitry Starorstenov

Seal family, Hopkins Isle, photographed by Peter Verhoog

Words: The text quoted above is from "A Taste of the Sea" by Scott Russell Sanders (Orion Magazine, May 19, 2020); the poem in the picture captions is "The Fisherman's Farevwell" by Scottish poet Robin Robertson (Poetry, January 2013); all rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The photographs above are by Dan Kitwood, Jason Neilus, Dmitry Starorstenov, and Peter Verhoog; all rights reserved by the photographers.