Telling stories back to the land

White Horse Hill by Danielle Barlow

Hedgehog, Deer, and Salmon by Danielle Barlow

Devon landscape  summer  by Danielle Barlow

I was delighted to learn that Sharon Blackie (author of If Women Rose Rooted, etc.) also uses the term "re-storying" the land to describe the role that mythic artists can play to help restore our imaginative and physical connection to the beautiful, ailing planet we live on. Re-wilding, re-storying, re-engaging with the natural world in whatever place that we live -- urban, suburban, or rural -- is creative work, restoration work, justice and healing work all in one.

In an essay for the Center for Humans and Nature, Sharon writes:

"There are two key elements to this work of re-storying the Earth: first, coming to know the stories which are already existent in the land, and second, weaving our own stories into the fabric of the land, by engaging with it in ongoing acts of co-creation.

"When the places and features of the landscape are tied to its old stories, knowing and remembering those stories as we walk through the land can help to weave us into its history, connecting us to ancestral voices and raising our awareness of the continuity of human relationship with the place -- so helping us to establish meaningful and enduring bonds with the land in which we live."

You can read the full essay here.

Weasel and Wood Mouse by Daniel Barlow

Kestor Row by Danielle Barlow

I can't think of an artist whose life and work embodies this more than my friend and village neighbour Danielle Barlow. Painter, illustrator, herbalist, incense maker, pony keeper, moor woman, myth spinner and hedgewitch, she is constantly listening to the whispered stories of Dartmoor, and weaving tales of her own into the land's Dreaming.

"I trained in textiles, and then in horticulture," she writes, "before returning to painting, my first love. These days I work primarily in ink and watercolour. I still juggle all three elements - painting, stitching and herbalism. Deeply rooted in this ancient landscape of ours, my work draws heavily on folklore and mythology, and explores the deep connection, both physical and spiritual, between people and the land they inhabit. The spirit of this land has sunk deep into my heart, and as I wander its ancient tracks, I find myself endlessly fascinated by the shifting relationships between human, animal, plants and land. My  paintings above all attempt to capture the elusive ‘Genius Loci - Spirit of Place’."

Otters by Danielle Barlow

Selkie by Danielle Barlow

Visit Danielle's website to see more of her work, including her beautiful, Dartmoor-inspired oracle deck. Visit her Facebook page to see new pieces, works-in-progress, and sumptuous photographs of the green world around her; and to learn more about her process as she works with paints, textiles, and plants. You'll also find her on Instagram and Etsy. She has recently finished the enormous labour of creating a new tarot deck, The Witches' Wisdom Tarot (Hay House Publishers), in collaboration with writer Phyllis Curot. Many Chagford friends and neighbours posed for the artwork in this one (including me). It comes out at the end of October, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon UK here, and Amazon US here.

Between Times by Danielle Barlow

Wolves and a Beltane hare by Danielle Barlow

Drawing by Danielle Barlow

Danielle Barlow

All rights to the quoted text and imagery above reserved by Sharon Blackie and Danielle Barlow.


The only real story

Ducks by Lieke van der Vorst

From "Knowing Our Place" by Barbara Kingsolver:

"In the summer of 1996 human habitation on earth made a subtle, uncelebrated passage from being mostly rural to being mostly urban. More than half of all humans now live in the cities. The natural habitat of our species, then, officially, is steel, pavements, streetlights, architecture, and enterprise -- the hominid agenda.

"With all due respect to the wondrous ways people have invented to amuse themselves and one another on paved surfaces, I find this exodus from the land makes me unspeakably sad. I think of children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant's way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in....

Campfire by Lieke van der Vorst

"Barry Lopez writes that if we hope to succeed in the endeavor of protecting natures other than our own, 'it will require that we reimagine our lives....It will require of many of us a humanity that we've not yet mustered, and a grace we were not yet aware we desired until we had tasted it.'

Starry Nights by Lieke van der Vorst

"And yet no endeavor could be more crucial at this moment. Protecting the land that once provided us with our genesis may turn out to be the only real story there is for us. The land still provides our genesis, however we might like to forget that our food comes from dank, muddy earth, and that the oxygen in our lungs was recently inside a leaf, and that every newspaper or book we pick up...is made from the hearts of trees that died for the sake of our imagined lives. What you hold in your hands [when you hold a book] is consecrated air and time and sunlight and, first of all, place. Whether we are leaving it or coming into it, it's here that matters, it is place. Whether we understand where we are or don't, that is the story: To be here or not to be.

Birth by Lieke van der  Vorst

Two illustrations by Lieke  van der  Vorst

"Storytelling is as old as our need to remember where the water is, where the best food grows, where we find our courage for the hunt. It's as persistent as our desire to teach our children how to live in this place that we have known longer than they have. Our greatest and smallest explanations for ourselves grow from place, as surely as carrots grow from dirt. I'm presuming to tell you something that I could not prove rationally but instead feel as a religious faith. I can't believe otherwise.

"A world is looking over my shoulder as I write these words; my censors are bobcats and mountains. I have a place from which to tell my stories. So do you, I expect. We sing the song of our home because because we are animals, and an animal is no better or wise or safer than its habitat and its food chain. Among the greatest of all gifts is to know our place."

Bison by Lieke van der Vorst

I agree with Barbara that telling tales of the land and of the more-than-human world is crucial in these increasingly urbanized times ... and yet, there is nature to be found in the city too, and folklore, and magic, and animal life, and numinous stories worth the telling.

Go here for a previous post on the magic of cities (and the early Urban Fantasy genre).

Illustration by Lieke van der Vorst

The imagery today is by Lieke van der Vorst, an illustrator based in the Netherlands. She studied graphic design at Sint Lucas, illustration at the Sint Joost Art Academy, and now creates dreamlike imagery inspired by her love of animals, plants, gardens, cookery, and the wild world. 

"I grew up in Kaatsheuvel, a little village in the southern part of the Netherlands," she says. "Every summer my parents would pack up our De Waard tent and we would drive thirteen hours to Provence, France to camp among the lavender fields. These times spent in nature have had a strong influence on my life and work; and being kind to animals and the environment is an important part of my vision. I use my illustrations to try to make a positive impact on the world, while practicing green living as much as possible."

Please visit the artist's website or Instagram page to see more of her work.

Lieke van der Vorst's studio

Cat Woman by Lieke van der Vorst

The passage quoted above is from "Knowing Our Place" by Barbara Kingsolver, published in Small Wonder: Essays (HarperCollins, 2002). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


We are made for this

River 1

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

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

River 2

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

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

River 3

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

River 4

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River 6

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

River 7

River 8

River 9

River 10

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

River 11

The Way of the Imagination by Scott Russell Sanders

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

Pictures: Down by the River Teign, early autumn.


I think it is love

Wild words 1

We've often talked here about the value of slowing down, paying attention, being fully present in the place where we live, the lives that we create, and the work that we do. Yet sometimes -- like now, in a world-wide pandemic -- life knocks us off-center and we struggle to regain our sense of hózhó (as the Navajo call it): of balance and "walking in beauty." How do we re-center ourselves in the art-making process (or, indeed, in the life-making process) when this happens?

Daffodil Fairy by Cicely BarkerWendell Berry proffers this insight in his essay collection Standing by Words:

"What can turn us . . . back into the sphere of our being, the great dance that joins us to our home, to each other and to other creatures, to the dead and unborn? I think it is love. I am perforce aware how baldly and embarrassingly that word now lies on the page -- for we have learned at once to overuse it, abuse it,  and hold it in suspicion. But I do not mean any kind of abstract love (adolescent, romantic, or 'religious'), which is probably a contradiction in terms, but particular love for particular things, places, creatures, and people, requiring stands, acts, showing its successes and failures in practical or tangible effects. And it implies a responsibility just as particular, not grim or merely dutiful, but rising out of generosity. I think that this sort of love defines the effective range of human intelligence, the range within its works can be dependably beneficent. Only the action that is moved by love for the good at hand has the hope of being responsible and generous. Desire for the future produces words that cannot be stood by. But love makes language exact, because one loves only what one knows."

Wild writing 2

For Berry, it all comes back to place (whether rural or urban), and our intricate web of connection to the human and more-than-human neighbours we share it with.

"I stand for what I stand on," he says, "the local landscape, the local community: human, animal, and vegetable alike. I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality, that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving. We are alive within mystery, by miracle."

Wild writing 3

That, for me, is precisely where art, inspiration, balance and beauty can be found: within mystery, by miracle: the everyday miracles of the place we call home. Spring flowers emerging. A partner's sweet smile. The good scent of coffee on a crisp April morning. A wild spot in the woods to write wild words while Tilly pads quietly nearby.

Wild writing 4

In his poem "Healing" (2006), Berry writes:

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One's inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one's most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.

Wild daffodils on my desk

Words: The two Wendell Berry passages above are from Standing By Words: Essays (Counterpoint, 2011) and What Are People For: Essays (Counterpoint, 2010).  The last quote is from "Healing," published in Given: Poems (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006). The poem in the picture captions is from This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems (Counterpoint, 2013). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Writing in the woods behind my studio. The "Daffodil Fairy" painting is by Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973).


The stories that come out of silence

Spitits of the Great Hunt by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Although I've loved the previous books by Scottish poet and naturalist Kathleen Jamie, nothing prepared for the power and beauty of her latest essay collection, Surfacing. With settings ranging from the Orkney islands to Alaska and China, these essays emerge from liminal place where nature and culture meet, written in prose that invites comparison to Nan Shepard and Barry Lopez. 

Her essay "In Quinhagak," for example, tells the story of Jamie's summer on an archaeological dig in a Yup'ik village on the Bering Sea. Towards the end of the summer, she joins a colleague for an afternoon of bird-watching:

Sedna by Abraham Anghik Ruben"We chose to sit quietly, and in a short space of time, maybe twenty minutes of looking out over the landscape, I realised my eyes were adjusting, my vision was sharpening....We looked at the land, and at a pond where Melia had noticed a number of different ducks and waterfowl; it was these she wanted to watch. Grebes and shovellers with little parties of chicks setting sail across the blue water. Sometimes, a rare and beautiful Aleutian tern flew in. I was happy just to sit quietly in the company of someone who also enjoyed spells of quietude.

"After thirty minutes or so, I could see colours better, until the haze distorted them. Details emerged. How had I failed to notice the three grass stems next to my right knee, bound together by a ball of spiderweb? When a pale bee entered a fireweed flower, it was an event.

"A quiet meditation. Melia sat some yards away, half turned to look southward, occasionally lifting her binoculars, naming a bird she saw. My hearing sharpened too: after forty-five minutes I could distinguish the different sounds the breeze made in the various grasses. A little bird nearby made a buzzing noise, like a small electrical fault. The ripple of pondside reeds, the light on distant mountains. Then an owl appeared, labouring toward us with a fat lemming drooping from its claws. It landed silently fifty yards away, watching us. We hoped it was feeding the young one we'd disturbed. Its cat-like owl eyes stared at us through the long grass-stems.

"We watched the tundra, but the tundra, they say, is watchful too. The people say, 'It's like something's looking at you.'

Gathering of Spirits by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Shaman Beckoning Sedna & Sedna Transformed by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Biography by Abraham Anghik Ruben

"There are stories of disappearance and reappearance out on the tundra.

"Was it John [a Yup'ik colleague on the dig] who told the story of the two men out on the tundra in fog? The fog was so low, just above their heads. But a hole appeared in the fog and from the hole they could hear laughter and merriment. 'Give me a leg up,' said one of the men. 'I want to see what's happening.' 'Okay, but you must reach for me in turn, and pull me up too,' said the other. So the first man entered the world above the cloud, but at that moment the hole closed and the bank of fog moved on, and the first man was never seen again.

"The story of another man, who got lost on the tundra and was given up, but who walked back into the village years later, wearing the very same clothes.

"The story of the little spirit woman appearing to a lost hunter, with a drum, dancing to the beat of her drum. She was on a hillock. 'But I knew I mustn't follow her. I knew I mustn't....'

"The story of the rain-cloud. The woman was out collecting berries and had stayed too long, become a bit exposed and sunstroked. 'But,' she said, 'a little cloud came, right above my head and let down rain, it filled the leaves with rain for me to drink. How grateful I was to that cloud!'

Sedna with Children & Into Greenland Waters by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Eaglets by Abraham Anghik Ruben

"After an hour, my senses were still clarifying. Perhaps it would never stop.

"Now a loon was passing overhead, against the bright clouds, with a long thin fish trailing from its beak.

"Then Melia saw cranes. She called my attention and together we watched seven or eight sandhill cranes flying in, flying low, then land one by one, and begin to stalk through the grass on long legs.

"By then the grasses were so vibrant I could almost taste them. This, after only an hour of attention. What would a year be like, a lifetime, a thousand years? How attuned a person, a whole people, could become.

"Who can say which story is 'true' and which not, when the tellers' senses are so acute?"

Who indeed?

I highly recommend Surfacing, a book that is quietly exquisite.

Passage of Spirits by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Psssage of Spirits 2 Abraham Anghik Ruben

Passage of Spirits 3 by Abraham Anghik Ruben

The art in this post is by Inuit sculptor Abraham Anghik Ruben, who was born in a camp south of Paulatuk in the Northwest Territories. His great-grandparents, noted shamans Apakark and Kagun, came from the Bering Sea region of Alaska. Until the age of eight he lived with his family on the land, migrating with the changing patterns of the seasons; and then, like so many of his generation, he was sent away to a white-run boarding school -- the trauma of which he has subsequently explored in some of his most powerful pieces of art. After studying at the Native Arts Centre at the University of Alaska, Ruben established an art career exploring the stories, myths, and traditions of his ancestors in sculpture, prints, and drawings. Today, his art is exhibited and collected across the United States and Canada. 

"The Inuit believed in the existence of the Soul in all living things," he says. "The concept of reincarnation was central to family and community beliefs. As a vigorous group of Arctic people, the Inuit came from west to east in wave after wave of nomadic bands in search of new land and game. With the re-curved Asiatic bow and toggle harpoon they hunted sea and land mammals. They traveled by kayak and umiak in summer and by dog team in winter. The Inuit Shaman acted as mediator between the world of man, animals, and the spirit world. He was the keeper of Inuit stories, myths and legends, the repository of knowledge of the land and the secret worlds. 

"As a storyteller, I have sought to bring life to these ancient voices from a time when northern people held a reverence for the land and for all living things therein that provided sustenance and survival."

Migration: Umiak with Spirit Figures by Abraham Anghik Ruben

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

The passage quoted above is from Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books, 2019). All rights to the text and art in this post are reserved by the author and artist.


Art, culture, and radical hope

Frost 1

In The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture, poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming asks:

"What is civilization? Where and how is it being formed? On what assumptions is it founded? What should we hope for the future of humanity and our world? To what extent can our ideas, hopes and will shape the future? What has civilization blurred and rejected that we might clarify and call back into our shepherding intelligence? What lessons did our ancestors learn that we should not forget? And what of their practices would we be better off in leaving behind?

Frost 2

At this point in modernity, Deming writes,

"one can do nothing without doubts and questions. We see everything from multiple perspectives: most of civilzation's gains have been earned at the expense of others, and for all its marvelous advances civilization has led the natural world to the edge of collapse. We can count, like the numbers on a doomsday clock, the species being driven out of existence. We can measure the hole we have made in the sky and the dirty pall that threatens to smother the Earth. We can predict the outcome of continuing to consume the world, but we cannot seem to stop ourselves from consuming it. The result seems to be that one either revels in consumption and forgets the future, or one retreats into solipsistic rage, lament and self-hatred. 'If humanity's the enemy,' writes the poet Chase Twichell, 'the enemy is me.'

Frost 3

"Knowing that civilization has been the royal standard under which conquest, genocide and enslavement have been committed throughout history, how can one justly consider civilization's spiritual aspect: the good progress of humanity as we struggle to transcend the qualities in ourselves that rob us of faith in our own nature and rob others of their future? What antidote can be found to counteract the poison of anticipating an apocalyptic future in which human power destroys not only its own best inventions, but the very conditions under which life is given? Can we restore faith in civilization as an expression of radical hope in the best of the collective human enterprise on Earth -- those acts and accomplishments that honor beauty, wisdom, understanding, inventiveness, love and moral connection with others?

"Perhaps such questions are not the province of art, which thrives on being present in the moment, attending to what's local, peculiar, off-kilter and half-seen. Or perhaps such questions are the only province of art -- the attempt to understand, as John Haines once put it, the terms of one's existence. Art is a materialization of the inner life, so when a question persists, no matter its unwieldy or hazy nature, one knows one is stuck with it -- it is the needle through which one must pass the thread."

Frost 4

In Letters to a Young Poet (1929), Rainer Maria Rilke advised:

"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

Frost 5

Frost 6

Seven decades later, Terry Tempest Williams reflected on those words:

"I think about Rilke, who said that it's the questions that move us, not the answers. As a writer I believe it is our task, our responsibility, to hold the mirror up to social injustices that we see and to create a prayer of beauty."

Frost 7

Frost 8

Words: The passage by Alison Hawthorne Deming is from The Edges of the Civilized World (Picador, 1998). The passage by Rainer Maria Rilke comes from Letters to a Young Poet, a wonderful little volume published by the recipient of the letters in 1929, three years after Rilke's death from a long-undiagnosed illness that turned out to be leukemia. The quote by Terry Tempest Williams is from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The splendid poem in the picture captions is from Out There Somewhere by Native American poet Simon J. Ortiz (University of Arizona Press, 2002). All right reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The path to the village Commons on a recent frosty morning.


Nature and beauty

In the tangled heart of a wet winter wood,

in the rustle of leaves,

Today, one last passage from The Moth Snow Storm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy, accompanied by some photographic time-traveling: a journey through the woods behind my studio from winter to spring and back.

McCarthy writes:

"It is a peculiar property of the earth that it offers us beauty as well as the means to survive, but it is also a wondrous property, and it greatly moved us -- as behaviourally modern humans, anyway. Hence over about forty thousand years we have steadily formalised our appreciation and our celebration of it, in what we have come to call art, from Lascaux to Leonardo. Until, that is, the last century. In the last hundred years or so, with the advent of modernism, a new artistic philosophy for an industrial age (and also for a world whose optimism had been irreparably fractured by the First World War), many of our society's high cultural elites have consciously rejected the primacy of beauty, seeing its veneration as outmoded and complascent, and holding that the true purpose of art should be to challenge preconceptions; and they have largely forgotten all about, or simply ignored, where beauty comes from in the first place, which is the natural world. 

"In more recent decades the process has gone even further, and beauty has become suspect.

in the silence of moss,

in the damp and the dark

"[...] There is no denying that the veneration of the beauty of nature, which Wordsworth made the fount of his philosophy, has largely ceased to figure in high culture since modernism contemptuously swept it aside; and modernism's triumph was of course comprehensive, in painting and sculpture, in music and in poetry. In the early part of the 20th century, for example, there was a substantial group of English poets collectively known as the Georgians who wrote extensively about nature and were read by large audiences; some were quite good, some were not, but all except one were consigned to lasting oblivion by T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland in 1922 and the modernist revolution which followed (the exception, of course, being the wonderful Edward Thomas, who was anyway very much more than a 'Georgian nature poet'). We retain the legacy of those attitudes. So beauty in general and the natural beauty of the earth in particular have gone largely unsanctioned as objects of relevance by the cultural elites of the 20th and now of the 21st century, and we hear little of them from those quarters; and yet, of course, many ordinary people who do not feel they must be aligned with prevailing cultural modes of thought have been drawn to the beauty of nature as much as people ever were, and I am one of them.

in the cold and the clear,

"Let me tell you about a wood. Five times in one week, I went to this wood. Five separate trips, on five successive days. And each time, after the first time, I stopped at the gate, I paused before entering. I savoured the moment. It felt like the minute before sex, with a new lover who is making ready -- the elevated heartbeat, the skin-prickle, the certainty of impending pleasure -- but it was even more than that, it was the anticipation of a sort of ecstasy, at beholding what the woods contained, hidden in its depths, which was something truly exceptional, as exceptional as a crashed flying saucer, I found myself thinking....Each time I stopped at the gate I said to myself, I know what is in there....

A gate swings open. Enter, my dear.

BluebellsIt was a blue.

It was a blue that shocked you.

It was a blue that made you giddy. 

It was a blue that flowed like smoke over the woodland floor, so that the trees appeared to be rising out of it, which was not solid like a blue door might be but constantly morphing in tone with the light and shade, now lilac, now cobalt, a blue which was gentle but formidably strong, so intense as to be mesmerising: at some moments it was hard to believe it was composed of flowers. But that was the beauty and the joy of the bluebells, their floral richness and their profusion, a dozen blue bell-heads nodding on every stem, a hundred thousand stems pressing together in every glade until it ceased to be plants, it was just an overwhelming incredible blueness at the bottom of a wood....

Cross over the threshold, the bridge, the stile,

slip through that small secret door in the hill,

into the green, and into the blue,

"In that wood, in that spring not long ago, for five days in succession I was struck dumb by the beauty of the earth. For five days I went back purposely to look at that colour, that living colour, because when I accidentally came across it, it was at its peak, and I knew that soon it would fade. Day after day after day after day after day. And I told no one. I think I was...what? Ashamed? No, not at all; but I am influenced by prevailing cultural norms as much as the next person, and I suppose I felt that declaiming about five successive days of bluebell-peeping would be regarded as eccentric? Or something? Yet I was drawn back there ineluctably, to glut my senses on colour. Without telling a soul. It felt almost like being a part of the underground....

into Faerieland, clever child, foolish child.

Where magic lives,

and where you shall live too,

forgetting your world for a year and a day,

"For if the beauty of nature is not high in official cultural favour, as we set out into the 21st century, it still holds its magnetism for countless unpolemical minds, with a force that strongly suggests it is rooted in our underlying bond with the natural world, and that culture is being trumped by instinct. That is certainly the case with me.

and only then will you find your way home,

"I do not care a fig that modernism may have cast beauty aside, and that the legacy of that rejection may be with us today; to me, the beauty of the natural world retains its joy-giving power and its importance undiminished by artistic, cultural or philosophical fashion -- indeed, its importance is increased immeasurably by the fact that now it is mortally threatened."

pockets full of faery gold that has turned into leaves. And sorrow. And poems.

Pictures: Winter, spring, and winter again on our Devon hillside. Words: The passage quoted above is from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. The little poem/tale in the picture captions today is mine. 


Nature and joy

Migrant Megamoths (convolvulas hawkmoths in the Apuan Alps) by Lorenzo Shoubridge

The Moth Snowstorm

Here's another absolutely beautiful passage from The Moth Snow Storm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy:

"The way we might love the natural world, as opposed to being wary of it, or instinctively conscious of its utility, may be thought of as commonplace; but over the years it has increasingly seemed to me a remarkable phenomenon. For after all, it is only our background, our context, the milieu from which, like all other creatures, we have emerged. Why should it evoke in us any emotion beyond those, such as fear and hunger, that are needed for survival? Can an otter love its river? And yet it is the case that the natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy.

"Although I feel strongly that this is one of the greatest things in our lives -- never more important than now -- it seems quite mysterious in its origins, and certainly in the force it can exercise. To be able to be swept up, to be swept away by an aspect of nature such as butterflies; tell me, is that something in nature itself, or is it something in us? Once, Christianity offered a ready explanation: our joy in the beauty and life of the earth was our joy in the divine work of its creator. But as Christianity fades, the undeniable fact that the natural world can spark love in us becomes more of an enigma.

Portrait of a Mother (wild pumas) by Ingo Arndt

Frozen Moment (two male Dall sheep in the Yukon, Canada) by Jérémie Villet

"You can see far more easily why it engenders some other powerful emotions, with, for example, the big beasts. The first big beast I ever saw in the wild was a black rhino, in Nambia. It was about a hundred yards away, a ton of double-horned power glaring straight at me with nothing but low scrub between us; and although I knew it had poor eyesight, it was twitching its ultra-sensitive ears like revolving radar antennae, trying to pick me up and draw a bead on me, and I was transfixed: my heart pounded, my mouth dried, I looked around for shelter. But if I was afraid, there was a stronger and stranger feeling coursing through me. I felt in every way more alive. I felt as alive as I had ever been.

"The next day I saw an African buffalo for the first time, a great black mass of menace which made me even more nervous than the rhino had, yet I experienced precisely the same sensation: mixed in with the anxiety, with the fear of being killed, and buffalos will kill you, was the feeling in the animal's proximity of living more intensely, of somehow living almost at another level. And when later that day in a dry riverbed I saw, close to, my first wild elephant, the most dangerous of them all, I felt again, intermingled with the wariness, something akin to passion.

A Taste of Peace (elephant in Mozambique) by Charlie Hamilton James

Canopy Hang-out (brown-throated three-toed sloth) by Carlos Pérez Naval

"They are surely very old, these feelings. They are lodged deep in our tissues and emerge to surprise us. For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constant reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.

The Aquabatic Antelope (red lechwe, south central Africa) by Branson Meaker

"It is to those fifty thousand generations that our fascination with the big beasts harks back; their magnificence triggers an awe in us, the still surviving awe of our ancestors who pursued them, full of fear and hope, piously painting their images on the walls of caves. On the rock faces of Lascaux and Chauvet, where the fear and hope coalesce into worship, we have astonishing insights into a world of long-gone people whose lives revolved around dangerous animals and their slaughter, and who must therefore have lived, with mortality ever present, at that elevated and passionate level we still sense when we come up against the great beasts ourselves, in their natural surroundings.

"Yet a stray thought plays about my mind, haunts its corners, refuses to leave: it must also be the case that the hunter-gatherers saw butterflies. Were they indifferent? All of them? Even to swallowtails? Somehow I doubt it. I think the point must have arrived where such unlikely, brilliant beings could not but register with observers, even those obsessed with survival and violence and death -- for a moment must have come in prehistory when someone, for the first time, waited for a swallowtail to settle, to better look on it, and marvelled at what was there in front of them."

Meadow Beauty (pearl-bordered fritillary, Sweden) by Alfons Lilja

War Dance (desert toad-headed agamas) by Victor Tyakh

McCarthy argues that the joy and wonder that the natural world evokes in us should take a role in our defence of it, especially for those of us working in the arts in various forms:

"In a famous preface to one of his short novels, Joseph Conrad pointed out that the enterprise of the scientist or the intellectual may have a more immediate impact, but that of the artist is more enduring because it goes far deeper; the statement of fact, however powerful, does not take hold like the image does. I believe that in defending the natural world, the time has come to offer up the images.

"What I mean is, it is time for a different, formal defence of nature. We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about it, which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.

Dinner Duty (great grey owls, Sweden) by Tommy Pedersen

"This has been celebrated, of course, for centuries. But it has never been put forward as a formalised defence of the natural world, for two reasons. Firstly, because the mortal threat itself is not centuries old, but has arisen merely in the space of my own lifetime; and secondly, because the joy that nature gives us cannot be quantified in a generalised way. We can generalise, or, indeed, monetise the value of nature's services in satisfying our corporal needs, since we have all broadly the same continuous requirement for food and shelter; but we have infinitely different longings for solace and understanding and delight. Their value is modulated, not through economic assessment, but through the personal experiences of individuals. So we cannot say -- alas that we cannot -- that birdsong, like coral reefs, is worth 375 billion dollars a year in economic terms, but we can say, each of us, that at this moment and at this place it was worth everything to me.

"Shelley did so with his skylark, and Keats with his nightingale, and Thomas Hardy with the skylark of Shelley, and Edward Thomas with his unknown bird, and Philip Larkin with his song thrush in a chilly spring garden, but we need to remake, remake, remake, not just rely on the poems of the past, we need to to it ourselves -- proclaim these worths through our own experiences in the coming century of destruction, and proclaim them loudly, as the reason why nature must not go down. 

"It is only through specific personal experience that the case can be made, which is why I will offer mine...and I will do so not just as a celebration of [nature], but as a conscious, engaged act of defence. Defence through joy, if you like. For nature, as human society takes a wrecking ball to the planet, has never needed more defending."

I couldn't agree more.

The Albatross Cave (Te Tara Koi Koia, New Zealand) by Thomas P Peschak

I urge you to read McCarthy's passionate, poignant, and beautifully written book. It is heart-rending, but also heart-mending, and as deeply moving as a book can be.

The Plumage Parade (penguins on Marion Island) by Thomas P Peschak

The gorgeous imagery today is from 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, which runs until May 2020. The titles and photographer credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

Early Riser (female gelada, Ethiopian highlands) by Riccardo Marchegiani

The Charm of Ruthy (female striped hyena) by Ariel Fields

The passages quoted above are from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015); all rights reserved by the author. Right to the photographs above are reserved by the photographers, and The Natural History Museum.

Two related posts: The Blessings of Otters and The Dance of Joy and Grief. I also recommend the recent interview with folk singer Sam Lee published in The Evening Standard (8 January, 2020).


The language of the earth

Magpie by Catherine Hyde

From "Speaking of Nature" by biologist, educator and author Robin Wall Kimmerer, of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation:

Running hare by Catherine Hyde"I have had the privilege of spending my life kneeling before plants. As a plant scientist, sometimes I am collecting data. As an indigenous plant woman, sometimes I am gathering medicine. These two roles offer a sharp contrast in ways of thinking, but I am always in awe, and always in relationship. In both cases the plants provide for me, teach me, and inspire me. When I write as a scientist, I must say, 'An 8 cm root was extracted from the soil,' as if the leafy beings were objects, and, for that matter, as if I were too. Scientific writing prefers passive voice to subject pronouns of any kind. And yet its technical language, which is designed to be highly accurate, obscures the greater truth.

"Writing as an indigenous plant woman I might say, 'My plant relatives have shared healing knowledge with me and given me a root medicine.' Instead of ignoring our mutual relationship, I celebrate it. Yet English grammar demands that I refer to my esteemed healer as it, not as a respected teacher, as all plants are understood to be in Potawatomi. That has always made me uncomfortable. I want a word for beingness. Can we unlearn the language of objectification and throw off colonized thought? Can we make a new world with new words?

Hare in September by Catherine Hyde

Running hare by Catherine Hyde"Inspired by the grammar of animacy in Potawatomi that feels so right and true, I’ve been searching for a new expression that could be slipped into the English language in place of it when we are speaking of living beings. Mumbling to myself through the woods and fields, I’ve tried many different words, hoping that one would sound right to my leafy or feathered companions. There was one that kept rising through my musings. So I sought the counsel of my elder and language guide, Stewart King, and explained my purpose in seeking a word to instill animacy in English grammar, to heal disrespect. He rightly cautioned that 'our language holds no responsibility to heal the society that sought to exterminate it.' With deep respect for his response, I thought also of how the teachings of our traditional wisdom might one day be needed as medicine for a broken world. So I asked him if there was a word in our language that captured the simple but miraculous state of just being. And of course there is. 'Aakibmaadiziiwin,' he said, 'means a being of the earth. '

Hare in October by Catherine Hyde

"I sighed with relief and gratitude for the existence of that word. However, those beautiful syllables would not slide easily into English to take the place of the pronoun it. But I wondered about that first sound, the one that came to me as I walked over the land. With full recognition and celebration of its Potawatomi roots, might we hear a new pronoun at the beginning of the word, from the 'aaki' part that means land? Ki to signify a being of the living earth. Not he or she, but ki. So that when the robin warbles on a summer morning, we can say, 'Ki is singing up the sun.' Ki runs through the branches on squirrel feet, ki howls at the moon, ki’s branches sway in the pine-scented breeze, all alive in our language as in our world.

Hare in November by Catherine Hyde

"We’ll need a plural form of course, to speak of these many beings with whom we share the planet. We don’t need to borrow from Potawatomi since --lo and behold -- we already have the perfect English word for them: kin. Kin are ripening in the fields; kin are nesting under the eaves; kin are flying south for the winter, come back soon. Our words can be an antidote to human exceptionalism, to unthinking exploitation, an antidote to loneliness, an opening to kinship....

September bird: the Owl by Catherine Hyde

"I have no illusions that we can suddenly change language and, with it, our worldview, but in fact English evolves all the time. We drop words we don’t need anymore and invent words that we do. The Oxford Children’s Dictionary notoriously dropped the words acorn and buttercup in favor of bandwidth and chatroom, but restored them after public pressure. I don’t think that we need words that distance us from nature; we need words that heal that relationship, that invite us into an inclusive worldview of personhood for all beings."

You can read Kimmerer's full essay online here, and listen to a short podcast in which she talks about it with Helen Whybrow here.

The Hare and the Moon by Catherine Hyde

The art today is from Catherine Hyde's new book, The Hare and the Moon, a gorgeous country almanac that follows a hare's journey through the landscape, seasons, and phases of the moon. Catherine pairs her paintings with folkloric information on the tree, flower, and bird associated with each month, rendered in poetic prose that echoes the mystic lyricism of her imagery.

This book is a treasure of mythic art.

Chough by Catherine Hyde

Oak by Catherine Hyde

Catherine trained at Central School of Art in London, and now lives and works in Cornwall. She has published four previous books (The Princess’ Blankets, Firebird, Little Evie in the Wild Wood, The Star Tree), as well as fine art prints and calendars, and has been exhibiting her work in galleries in London, Cornwall, and father afield for over thirty years.

“I am constantly attempting to convey the landscape in a state of suspension," she says, "in order to gain glimpses of its interconnectedness, its history and beauty. Within the images I use the archetypical hare, stag, owl and fish as emblems of wildness, fertility and permanence: their movements and journeys through the paintings act as vehicles that bind the elements and the seasons together."

Please visit the artist's website to see more of her exquisite work.

Hare in April by Catherine Hyde

Tilly and Catherine

The passage by Robin Wall Kimmerer is from "Speaking of Nature" (Orion Magazine, June 12,, 2017). The art and text by Catherine Hyde is from The Hare and the Moon: A Calendar of Paintings (Zephyr/Head of Zeus , 2019). All rights reserved by Kimmerer and Hyde.


To the rebel soul in everyone

Horse of Armagh by Charles Fréger

Over the last few posts I've been quoting passages from Jay Griffith's Kith, her wide-ranging exploration of childhood -- but as much as I love that book (and all the rest of her work), the one I return to again and again is Wild: An Elemental Journey.

Wild  took Griffiths seven years to write, and lead her around the globe in a quest to understand concepts of wildness and wilderness. She explains:

"This book was the result of many years' yearning. A longing for something whose character I perceived only indistinctly at first but that gradually became clearer during my journeys. In looking for wilderness, I was not looking for miles of landscape to be nicely photographed and neatly framed, but for the quality of wildness, which -- like art, sex, love and all the other intoxicants -- has a rising swing ringing through it. A drinker of wildness, I was tipsy before I began and roaring drunk by the end.

"I was looking for the will of the wild. I was looking for how that will expressed itself in elemental vitality, in savage grace. Wildness is resolute for life: it cannot be otherwise, for it will die in captivity. It is elemental: pure freedom, pure passion, pure hunger. It is its own manifesto.

Onjishi by Charles Fréger

"I began this book with no knowing where it would lead, no idea of how hard some of it would be, the days of havoc and the nights of loneliness, because the only thing I had to hold on to was the knife-sharp necessity to trust to the elements of my elemental self.

"I wanted to live at the edge of the imperative, in the tender fury of the reckless moment, for in this brief and pointillist life, bright-dark and electric, I could do nothing else. By laying the line of my way along another, older path, I would lay my passions where they belonged, flush with wildness, letting their lines of long and lovely silk reel out in miles of fire and ice."

Nuuttipukki - Sastamala, Finland by Charles Fréger

She based her travel path, and the format of her book, on the four elements of ancient Greece: wild earth, wild air, wild fire, wild water --  and then added a fifth, wild ice.

"Part of the journey was a green riot and part a deathly bleakness. I got ill, I got well. I went to the freedom-fighters of West Papua and sang my head off in their highlands. I got to the point of collapse. I got the giggles. I met cannibals infinitely kinder and more trustworthy than the murderous missionaries who evangelize them. I went to places that are about the worst in the world to get your period. I wrote notes by the light of a firefly, anchored a boat to an iceberg where polar bears slept, ate witchetty grubs and visited sea gypsies. I found a paradox of wilderness in the glinting softeness of its charisma, for what is savage is in the deepest sense gentle and what is wild is kind. In the end -- a strangely sweet result -- I came back to a wild home."

Sagi by Charles Fréger

Griffiths didn't limit her travels to pristine landscapes or those devoid of human culture, indigenous or otherwise, writing:

"To me, humanity is not a stain on wilderness as some seem to think. Rather the human spirit is one of the most striking realizations of wildness. It is as eccentrically beautiful as an ice crystal, as liquidly life-generous as water, as inspired as air. Kerneled up within us all, an intimate wildness, sweet as a nut. To the rebel soul in everyone, then, the right to wear feathers, drink stars and ask for the moon. For us all, the growl of the primal salute. For us all, for Scaramouche and Feste, for the scamp, tramp and artist, for the furious adolescent, the traveling player and the pissed-off Gypsy, for the bleeding woman, and for the man in a suit, his eyes kind and tired, gazing with sad envy at the hippie chick with the rucksack. For all of us, every dawn, the lucky skies and the pipes.

"Anyone can hear them if they listen: our ears are sharp enough to it. Our strings are tuned to the same pitch as the earth, our rhythms are as graceful and ineluctable as the four quartets of the moon. We are -- every one of us -- a force of nature, though sometimes it is necessary to relearn consciously what we have never forgotten; the truant art, the nomad heart. Choose your instrument, asking only: can you play it while walking?"

Yokainoshima by Charles Fréger

My own instruments are pen and paintbrush, but there are so many others to choose from -- instruments of family-making, community-building, earth-preserving, children-teaching, elder-caring, animal-loving, and more. All can be tuned to the deep pitch of the earth, all can hold our wild hearts, all can played while walking, working, living.

What are yours?

Onjishi by Charles Fréger

The imagery today is by French photographer Charles Fréger, from his excellent, eerie, earthy books Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage and Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters. Both volumes document the still-living tradition of representing (and embodying) local folk spirits, monsters, guardians, and ghosts during festivals, feast days, and ceremonies: across Europe in the first book, and the Japanese countryside in the second.

To learn more about Fréger and his work, please vist his website.

Mamuthones, Mamoiada by Charles Fréger

Two visions of the wild

Words: The passages above are from Wild by Jay Griffiths (Hamish Hamilton, 2007), published in the U.S. as Savage Grace. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The photographs above are from Wilder Mann (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012) and Yokainoshima (Thmas & Hudson, 2017) by Charles Fréger. All rights reserved by the artist.

Some of the previous posts on Jay Griffith's work: Wilderness, Finding the way to the green, Storytelling and wild time.