Giving back

Rowan tree in autumn

I'm working on a long post for tomorrow, so for today just this:

"The effort to know and care for and speak from your home ground is a choice about living as well as about writing. In that effort you are collaborating with everyone else who keeps track, everyone who works for the good of the community and the land. None of us is likely to fulfill the grand ambition of Joyce's young artist, Stephen Dedalus, to forge in the smithy of our souls the conscience of our race; but we might help to forge the conscience of a place, and that seems to me to be ambition enough for a lifetime's labor. Trees tap into the soil, drawing nourishment and returning fertility. Capturing sunlight, breaking down stone, dropping a mulch of leaves, replenishing the air, trees improve the conditions for other species and for the saplings that will replace them. So might writers, through works of imagination, give back to the places that feed them a more abundant life. "

- Scott Russell Sanders ("Writing from the Center")

Oak elder in autumn

The pictures today: Tilly under rowan and oak on an early morning walk on Nattadon Hill, brushing past rosehips and under the oak boughs. Bracken turns orange and gold all around us. Blown like a seed from New York to Boston to the Arizona desert and rooted at last on a green hill in Devon, this is the place that I strive to give back to, in stories and paintings alike.

Rosehips by Nattadon leat

Black dog under the oak boughsWords: The passage above is from "Writing from the Center," an essay in Scott Russell Sander's collection of the same name (Indiana University Press, 1995). The poem in the picture captions is by Denise Levertov (1923-1997)  from This Great Unknowing: Last Poems (New Directions, 1999).  All rights reserved by Scott Sanders and the Levertov estate.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Awake  Awake by Marry Waterson

Today, music from four different counties, illustrated or animated in four different ways....

Above, a charming video with paper cut art and simple animation by Marry Waterson, an artist & musician from the famous Waterson family of folk musicians in Yorkshire. The song is "Awake, Awake," performed by Cumbrian folksinger Maz O'Connor on her debut album, This Willowed Light -- which makes Waterson's use of William Morris' "Willow" design in the video rather clever. "Awake, Awake" is a traditional folk song also known as "The Drowsy Sleeper" and "The Silver Dagger." There's another fine version of it sung acappella on the Full English album, which I also highly recommend.

Below, a touching video by graphic artist & filmmaker Monkmus, from Los Angeles, for "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" by the American indie band Death Cab for Cutie, from Bellingham, Washington. I love the story (life-affirming and heart-breaking all at once), and the whole notebook/sketchbook theme.

Below, a thoroughly delightful stop-motion animation by artist Sydney Smith & filmmaker Jason Levangie, both based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The song is "Horska," exuberantly performed by the Gypsy jazz band Gypsophilia, also from Halifax. It's Smith & Levangie's second collaboration with the band; the first was "Agricola & Sarah" in 2009.

And to end with, a lovely little piece of black-and-white animation by Esteban Diácono, who comes from Córdoba, Argentina, and is now based in Buenos Aires. The music is "Slowly, Slowly Comes the Light" by Ólafur Arnalds, from Mosfellsbær, Iceland.

This one, so simple and yet so beautiful, just lifts my heart.


Recommended reading and viewing

The Wire Fence

In several posts over the last couple of weeks we discussed the history of the Enclosures here in Britain (in which millions of acres of Common land were transferred into private hands for the profit of the few), and how this affected folkloric traditions dependent on the Commons and communal ways of living.

The selling off of the UK's public lands, resources, and services continues to this day, of course. I recommend "Pete," a short video by Matt Hopkins that has just been posted on the Aeon Magazine site, looking at the loss of communal spaces and affordable housing in London -- and how this effects young people, including those making attempting to make their living in the arts. Which is never easy at the best of times....

Real England by Paul Kingsnorth, one of the founders of The Dark Mountain Project, is well worth a read on the subject of modern Enclosures too.


The borders of language

In the video above, "Between Two Worlds," the wonderful Bill Moyers (whom you may remember from his program on Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth) interviews a friend of mine from back in my Tucson days: Luis Alberto Urrea, who now lives with his wife and children up north, in Illinois. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, Luis writes about the U.S./Mexico border region better than just about anyone, forming that work into fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, all of it highly recommended. (You'll find a discussion of his luminous novel The Hummingbird's Daughter in this previous post.)

In featuring this interview, I don't want to veer our exploration of borders into the contentious realm of immigration politics -- an important topic in its own right, but one that falls beyond the purview of this blog. Rather, what I want to spotlight here are the ways that writers (and other artists) use their gifts in response to the world around them: whether it's Elif Shafak telling stories of  her Turkish childhood, or Miquel Angel Blanco preserving the old lore of Spain in his library of trees, or Rachel Taylor-Beales reinterpreting selkie myths to reflect on modern tales of exile and displacement, or Jackie Morris following a falcon's journey to the human world and back into the wild.

As writers and artists we use words and paint (among other materials) to witness and re-create the world -- whether we do this directly as journalists and creators of Realist works, or indirectly (but subtly and deeply) through the symbolism of Fantasy and Mythic Arts.

Grand Canyon Prayer Tower, Arizona by Stu Jenks

In his 1998 essay "Nobody's Son," Luis had this to say about the border-crossing nature of words themselves:

"Home isn't just a place, I have learned. It is also a language. My words not only shape and define my home. Words -- not only for writers -- are home. Still, where exactly is that?

"Jimmy Santiago Baca reminds us that 'Hispanics' are immigrants in our own land. By the time time Salem was founded on Massachusetts Bay, any number of Urreas had been prowling up and down the Pacific coast of our continent for several decades. Of course, the Indian mothers of these families had been here from the start.'

Miller's Spiral, Pima County, Arizona by Stu Jenks

"Forget about purifying the American landscape," Luis continues, "sending all those ethnic types back to their homelands. Those illegal humans. (A straw-hat fool in a pickup truck once told my Sioux brother Duane to go back where he came from. 'Where to?' Duane called. 'South Dakota?')

"The humanoids are pretty bad, but how will we get rid of all those pesky foreign words debilitating the United States?

"Those Turkish words (like coffee). Those French words (like maroon). Those Greek words (like cedar). Those Italian words (like marinate). Those African words (like marimba).

"English! It's made up of all these untidy words, man. Have you noticed?

"Native American (skunk), German (waltz), Danish (twerp), Latin (adolescent), Scottish (feckless), Dutch (waft), Caribbean (zombie), Nahuatl (ocelot), Norse (walrus), Eskimo (kayak), Tatar (horde) words! It's a glorious wreck (a good old Viking word, that).

The Folly Atop The Biscuit, the Mustang Mountains, Arizona by Stu Jenks

"Glorious, I say, in all its shambling mutable beauty. People daily speak a quilt of words, and continents and nations and tribes and even enemies dance all over your mouth when you speak. The tongue seems to know no race, no affiliation, no breed, no caste, no order, no genus, no lineage. The most dedicated Klansman spews the language of his adversaries while reviling them."

Without Bozette, Dripping Springs, Arizona by Stu Jenks

"I love words so much," Luis concludes. "Thank god so many people lent us theirs or we'd be forced to point and grunt. When I start to feel the pressure of the border on me, when I meet someone who won't shake my hand because she has suddenly discovered I am half Mexican (as happened with a landlady in Boulder), I comfort myself with these words. I know how much color and beauty we Others add to the American mix."

Wupatki Flame Spiral, Arizona by Stu Jenks

Over here in the old world of Europe, it's both easy and fashionable to look down one's nose at the crass racism of Little Sister America...and yet the immigration and refugee crisis unfolding on European borders is not so very different.

In Britain, as in America, there are those demanding that "they" be sent back where they came from (whoever "they" may be, Syrian children or Polish carpenters); and there are those reaching out a helping hand; and there are those going about their daily lives pretending none of it is happening...not necessarily due to hard-heartedness, but, sometimes, to sheer exhaustion from what their daily lives entail.

Gidleigh Church, Gidleigh, Devon by Stu Jenks

East of Merrivale, Dartmoor, Devon by Stu Jenks

A question that often arises in our various discussions on this blog is: What, as artists, can we do about _____ ? Whatever _____ may happen to be: displaced people fleeing war and poverty, hungry families in Foodbank queues here at home, vanishing animal habitats, oceans ailing...forests falling to the ax...and on and on and on. I have no simple answer, for it's a question I still ask myself, in one way or another, almost every damn day. But what I do know is this:

I believe that the ability to create (in any form, whether at the desk or easel -- or in the kitchen, the garden, the community hall) -- is a gift, and gifts are meant to be passed on. They are meant to be used, to be of use, and that's a geis, a wyrd, I do not take lightly.

Some of us use our gifts in the direct service of activism; others, in the indirect service of creating "beauty in a broken world" (to use Terry Tempest William's phrase), as a means of lifting hearts, mending spirits, and reminding us of what we're fighting for. Either way, it is important, I think, to be mindful of what we're putting out into the world. Art can envision, conjure, build, bind, heal, witness, dignify, and illuminate.  It can also destroy, distract, diminish, deflect, justify, obfuscate, and lie.

"I don't think writers are sacred," Tom Stoppard once said, "but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little..."

And so it bears thinking about just what direction we are nudging it in.

West Kennet Long Barrow by Stu Jenks

Scorhill Stone Circle, Dartmoor, Devon by Stu Jenks

Like Luis Urrea, Terry Tempest Williams is a writer skilled in placing "the right words in the right order," such as these, which are tacked above my desk:

"Bearing witness to both the beauty and pain of our world is a task that I want to be part of. As a writer, this is my work. By bearing witness, the story that is told can provide a healing ground. Through the art of language, the art of story, alchemy can occur. And if we choose to turn our backs, we've walked away from what it means to be human."

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall by Stu Jenks

The beautiful art here, as you may have recognized, is by the Tucson-based photographer Stu Jenks. The top five photographs were taken in northern and southern Arizona; the lower seven in Devon and Cornwall while he was visiting us in 2013. Please go to Stu's blog to learn more about his art, music, and books.

Moor Pony Foal, Dartmoor, Devon by Stu Jenks

Tilly Windling-Gayton with Daffodils, Nattadon Woods, Chagford, Devon by Stu JenksBetween Two Worlds appeared on American Public Television in 2012, and can be found online in the Moyers & Company archives. The passage by Luis Alberto Urrea comes from his essay collection Nobody's Son (The University of Arizona Press, 1998).  The quote by Tom Stoppard is from his play The Real Thing (1982). The quote from Terry Tempest Williams comes from an interview in Listening to the Land: Conversations About Nature Culture and Eros by Derrick Jensen (Chelsea Green, 2004); you can read a longer passage from the interview here.  All rights to the video, text, and imagery above are reserved by their creators.


Just stories

The Reader in the Forest by Robert Henri

I'm afraid that the post I'd been planning for today, on the folklore of Devon, has been delayed while I track down a book I need to complete it. In the meantime, I'd like to re-visit this marvelous TED talk by Elif Shafak (below), filmed in 2010, which addresses the power of storytelling, the magic of circles, and both the strengths and limitations of identity politcs -- an  issue that many writers from different cultures and social classes continue to wrestle with today.

"I started writing fiction at the age of eight," Shafak said in World Literature Today, "not because I wanted to become a novelist (I didn’t even know there was such a possibility, such a way of living) but because I was a lonely and hopelessly introverted child, on my own most of the time, observing things and people from an unbridgeable distance. There was a gap between my inner space and the outside world; a gap that I was painfully aware of. Books saved me. Books held my pieces together. Books loved me. And I loved them in return. I loved them with my entire soul."

The painting above is "The Reader in the Forest" by Robert Henri (1865-1929)