The unwritten landscape

Loch Snizort on the Isle of Skye, south-east of Lewis in the Inner Eebrides

I'm still following the thread that began with a discussion of Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles (about the wild western coasts of Ireland and Scotland), then continued on through selkie tales and otter brides and other stories of the Celtic fringe. Today we're up in the Hebrides, on the Isle of Lewis (in the text) and the nearby Isle of Skye (in the pictures)....

In the following passage, Alice Starmore describes the relationship between language and place, and how fragile that relationship is in a rapidly changing world. It's from her beautiful essay "Isabella's Crag: Language, Landscape, and Life on the Lewis Moor":

"Although too insignificant to be named on any map, Creagan Iseabal Mhartainn [Isabella's Crag] is a towering feature of the 'unwritten landscape' -- a rich vocabulary of geographical co-ordinates known, loved and spoken of by generations of the families who spent their summers in the crag's vicinity. Today, I count only a half a dozen people, myself included, who could name that crag and guide you to it. The youngest of us is sixty, so the future of the unwritten language is far shorter than its past: the acumulation of knowledge and respect that engendered it is now de-valued and close to being forgotten, like Isabella herself, for not even the half-dozen knows who she was or when she lived. Yet her modest crag stands as a paradigm for the whole Lewis moor: for its past, present and possible future.

Trees in the ruins of a blackhouse.

"Over my whole career, my greatest and most consistent artistic inspiration has stemmed from the childhood summers I spent on the Lewis moor during the 1950s and 1960s. For six weeks of each year of my childhood, my family moved from our usual home to the àirigh of our ancestral geàrraidh (pasture) on the moor just south of Stornoway. I belong to the very last Hebridean generation to take part in this traditional form of transhumance, for the practice had died out by the end of the 1960s.

"For centuries, the custom of transhumance in Lewis was an essential part of life in crofting villages, as arable land was limited. In order to provide enough fodder for the cattle to survive the winter and early spring, it was necessary to take them away to moorland pastures for the summer months so the village pastures could be harvested for winter feed.

An old croft house on Skye

"This was especially necessary in the Eye Peninsula, also known as the Point, where my family comes from. Point was a well-populated crofting area with virtually no hill grazing in the immediate district due to its peninsular situation. The summer hill grazing was on the far side of Stornoway, which involved a long march with the cattle through the town and then over hill and burn to the àirigh.

"In my parents' youth, the men, women and children and animals walked the many miles to their summer pastures, carrying all their essential foodstuffs, clothing and utensils. This was known as An Iomraich (The Flitting).

Blackhouse door

Spinning wheel

Crofting tools

"By the time I was a child, only the cattle and herders came on foot while we loaded all our chattels, including all domestic pets, in a small lorry hired for the day. We children perched on the top of the load like latter-day dustbowl Okies and headed off to glorious freedom and the joyful company of our little summer community.

"Each village tended to have its own geàrraidh and quite often they were named after the crofting village, such as Geàrraidh Shiadair (Shulishader's Pasture). Others were named after the original long-gone owner of the first àirigh. For example, Àirigh an t-Sagairt (the Priest's Sheiling) was still known long after priests had departed these Presbyterian shores. Many more were named after a feature of the landscape, such as Àirigh a' Chreagain (the Sheilings at the Crag), or sometimes even a measure of distance such as Àirigh Fad As (the Faraway Sheiling).

Ladder to the orchard

 "Place names were of great importance to us; as well as having a romance all of their own, they were a means of communicating where we were going or where we had been on our wanderings. My father would describe the journeys of his 1920s boyhood from Bayble in Point to the very furthest grazing at Loch Dubh nan Stearnag (the Black Loch of the Terns) in the heart of the Lewis moor. After walking twelve miles, they stopped to rest overnight at Àirigh na Beiste (the Animal Sheiling) before going through Àirigh Leitir (the Sheilings on the Slope) and then on to their own pasture called Àirigh Sgridhe at the foot of the Beinn a' Sgridhe in the Barvas Hills.

"My father's journey was epic by Lewis standards, and the pastures he passed through to get there were equivalent to the main towns on a road map. But the unwritten landscape held a treasury of terms with which to describe our journeys. My father could name every little feature he stopped at or passed by. Likewise, we children could tell our parents exactly where we were going, or where we had been."

Cows above Loch Snizort

"Knowing the landscape gave us the freedom of it. Our parents could get on with their day and trust that we would not get lost or drown in the vast network of lochs, burns and bogs that were all ours to explore....We lived on the border between micro and macro -- our detailed observations were balanced against the broad sweep of the open moor. Constant unsupervised exploration, with no time restrictions, allowed our imaginations to run free. We observed facts of nature, but it was also easy to believe in kelpies and shape-shifters when walking the moor in the late evening."

Thistle

Outdoor life on the summer pasture, notes Starmore,

"contributed to an intimate knowledge of the place, its  history, and all the life within it. Though as a small child I was free of the cares of adults, it was obvious that everyone was very happy on the moor, and as the time approached to return home it was difficult not to be sad. Latterly, there were just three families on our pasture and none of us wanted to be the first or last to leave. We therefore tried to co-ordinate our flitting so that we would all leave on the same day. Alexina, the sky reader, gave voice to all our feelings about the geàrraidh when she admitted one day, when we were packing up to go, that she was extremely sad at the thought of 'fágáil an geàrraidh na aonar' (leaving the pasture in loneliness).

"To us it had a spirit, a heart and soul, just as we had ourselves."

Sheep by the loch

A sheep trots after the herd

For those of us writers and illustrators drawn to pastoral works of fantasy, set in magical lands full of rolling fields and farms, great swathes of ancient woodland and fishing villages nestled by the sea (Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle, Patricia McKillip's Riddle-Master Trilogy, Diana Wynne Jones' Dalemark Quartet, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Pyrdain, etc.), it is both inspiring and instructive to read about historical and contemporary life in the remote regions of the world we inhabit, and the ways that landscape, language, and folk tradition shape the people and the stories that emerge from them.

Many writers live far from such rural spaces themselves. Can we conjure pastoral landscapes and people convincingly from writing rooms in modern cities or the suburbs, out of lives mediated by computer screens, not wind and rain and the cycles of the wild earth? I believe we can. That is what imagination and the writing craft are for. We're not social realists, we're fantasists. We tell the truth, like poets, but we tell it slant -- we clothe it in symbol, archetype, and metaphor. But if we are to write or illustrate fantasy well we must do the work of understanding the classic tropes we use as best we can. Through reading. Through research. Through curiosity and sensitivity about lives and traditions far different than our own. Through building a relationship to the wild wherever we are. Know the place and the land on which you are rooted, and then move outward from there.

The long road home

Disappearing into Faerie

Words: The passage above is from "Isabella's Crag" by Alice Starmore (EarthLines magazine, May 2012); highly recommended. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The Isle of Skye (2017), south-east of Lewis in the Inner Hebrides. The final photograph, of Howard and me, was taken Ellen Kushner. You can see Alice Starmore's photographs of the Lewis moor here, from her lovely exhibition "Mamba."


A language of land and sea

The Fairy Glen 1

Many of the selkie stories we've been discussing in previous posts come the western and northern islands of Scotland, where they are rooted in the Gaelic storytelling tradition. Now a study from the University of the Highlands and Islands has warned that the Gaelic language is in serious decline. Without intervention, it could die out within the next decade, taking the heart of a culture and its worldview with it. In her book Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting writes: 

Love of Country"Every nation has its lost histories of what was destroyed or ignored to shape its narrative of unity so that it has the appearance of inevitability. The British Isles with their complex island geography have known various configurations of political power. Gaelic is a reminder of some of them: the multinational empires of Scandinavia, the expansion of Ireland, and the medieval Gaelic kingdom, the Lordship of the Isles, which lost mainland Scotland, and was ultimately suppressed by Edinburgh. The British state imposed centralization, and insisted on English-language education. Only the complex geography of islands and mountains ensured that Gaelic survived into the 21st century.

"What would be lost if Gaelic disappeared in the next century, I asked, when I visited hospitable [Lewis] islanders who pressed me with cups of tea and cake. There is a Gaelic word, cianalas, and it means a deep sense of homesickness and melancholy, I was told. The language of Gaelic offers insight into a pre-industrial world view, suggested Malcolm Maclean, a window on another culture lost in the rest of Britain. As with any language, it offers a way of seeing the world, which makes it precious. Gaelic's survival is a matter of cultural diversity, just as important as ecological diversity, he insisted. It is the accumulation of thousands of years of human ingenuity and resilience living in these island landscapes. It is a heritage of human intelligence shaped by place, a language of the land and sea, with a richness and precision to describe the tasks of agriculture and fishing. It is a language of community, offering concepts and expressions to capture the tightly knit interdependence required in this subsistence economy.

The Fairy Glen 2

The Fairy Glen 3

"Gaelic scholar Michael Newton points out how particular words describe the power of these relationships intertwined with place and community. For example, dúthchas is sometimes translated as 'heritage' or 'birthright,' but conveys a much richer idea of a collective claim on the land, continually reinforced and lived out through the shared management of the land. Dúthchas grounds land rights in communal daily habits and uses of the land. It is at variance with British concepts of individual private property and these land rights received no legal recognition and were relegated to cultural attitudes (as in many colonial contexts). Elements of dúthchas persist in crofting communities, where the grazing committees of the townships still manage the rights to common land and the cutting of peat banks on the moor. Crofting has always been dependent on plentiful labor and required co-operation with neighbors for many of the routine tasks, like peasant cultures across Europe, born out of the day-to-day survival in a difficult environment.

The Fairy Glen 4

"The strong connection to land and community means that 'people belong to places rather than places belong to people,' sums up Newton. It is an understanding of belonging which emphasizes relationships, of responsibilities as well as rights, and in return offers the security of a clear place in the world."

The Fairy Glen 5

Bunting also notes:

"Gaelic's attentiveness to place is reflected in its topographical precision. It has a plentiful vocabulary to describe different forms of hill, peak or slope (beinn, stob, dún, cnoc, sròn), for example, and particular words to describe each of the stages of a river's course from its earliest rising down to its widest point as it enters the sea. Much of the landscape is understood in anthropomorphic terms, so the names of topographical features are often the same as those for parts of the body. It draws a visceral sense of connection between sinew, muscle and bone and the land. Gaelic poetry often attributes character and agency to landforms, so mountains might speak or be praised as if they were a chieftain; the Psalms (held in particular reverence in Gaelic culture) talk of landscape in a similar way, with phrases such as the 'hills run like a deer.' In both, the land is recognized as alive.

"Gaelic has a different sense of time, purpose and achievement. The ideal is to maintain an equilibrium, as a saying from South Uist expresses it: Eat bread and weave grass, and then this year shall be as thou wast last year. It is close to Hannah Arendt's definition of wisdom as a loving concern for the continuity of the world."

And, I would add, to the Dineh (Navajo) concept of hózhó, or Walking in Beauty.

Howard in the Fairy Glen

For more on endangered and lost languages, I recommend Judith Thurman's poignant essay "A Loss for Words." She writes:

"There are approximately seven billion inhabitants of earth. They conduct their lives in one or several of about seven thousand languages -- multilingualism is a global norm. Linguists acknowledge that the data are inexact, but by the end of this century perhaps as many as fifty per cent of the world’s languages will, at best, exist only in archives and on recordings. According to the calculations of the Catalogue of Endangered Languages (ELCat) -- a joint effort of linguists at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, and at the University of Eastern Michigan -- nearly thirty language families have disappeared since 1960. If the historical rate of loss is averaged, a language dies about every four months."

Heather Altfelt's essay "Every Day Another Language Dies" is unusual and powerful. Here's a taste:

"It turns out that there was an ancient civilization that could speak Tree. They could understand the language of roots and the noise of the fungi, a highly developed tongue albeit difficult to translate. They refused to write down the sounds because they could hear the molecules of the papyrus crying. They also had one word that they learned from the wind that they only used with stones -- and absolutely never with each other -- that, if uttered, was a spell, a name you could carry with you that would open the gates to the city of forever. The word died with them, buried in the folds of old brains and skin, zippered into the earth beneath a tel somewhere between the Tigris and the Yellow River.

Altfelt's piece was selected for the 2019 edition of The Best American Essays, edited by Rebecca Solnit, and is simply exquisite.

Lamb nursing in the Fairy Glen

Words:  The passages above are quoted from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta, 2016),  "A Loss for Words" by Judith Thurman (The New Yorker, March 30, 2015), and "Every Day "Another Language Dies" by Heather Altfelt (Conjunctions #70, and LitHub, May 29, 2018). The Kathleen Jamie poem in the picture captions is from Best Scottish Poems 2013, edited by David Robinson (The Scottish Poetry Library). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Sheep (and Howard) in the Fairy Glen, near Uist on the Isle of Skye, Inner Hebrides, 2017. A related post: True names.


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.


Words to live by

The pony on O'er Hill

"There are really only two questions for activists: What do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style." - Rebecca Solnit

I'd say the same for writers and artists too.

Pony on O'er Hill

Words: The quote above is from Rebecca Solnit's essay "We Could Be Heroes" (The Guardian, Oct. 15, 2012). The quotes in the picture captions are from Solnit's books The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013) and Men Explain Things to Me (Granta, 2014), both of which are highly recommended. Pictures: A Dartmoor pony on O'er Hill.


The language of the animate earth

Ponies 1

From The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception & Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram:

"The sense of being immersed in a sentient world is preserved in the oral stories of indigenous peoples --in the belief that sensible phenomena are all alive and aware, in the assumption that all things have the capacity for speech. Language, for oral peoples, is not a human invention but a gift of the land itself.

Ponies 2

Ponies 3

"I do not deny that human language has its uniqueness, that from a certain perspective human discourse has little in common with the sounds and signals of other animals, or with the rippling speech of the river. I wish simply to remember that this was not the perspective held by those who first acquired, for us, the gift of speech.

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

Ponies 6

"Human language evolved in a thoroughly animistic context; it necessarily functioned, for many millenia, not only as a means of communication between humans, but as a way of propitiating, praising, and appeasing the expressive powers of the surrounding terrain. Human language, that is, arose not only as a means of attunement between persons, but also between ourselves and the animate landscape.

Ponies 7

Ponies 8

Ponies 9

"The belief that meaningful speech is a purely human property was entirely alien to those oral communities that first evolves our various ways of speaking, and by holding to such a belief today we may well be inhibiting the spontaneous activity of language. By denying that birds and other animals have their own styles of speech, by insisting that the river has no real voice and that the ground itself is mute, we stifle our direct experience. We cut ourselves off from the deep meanings of many of our words, severing our language from that which supports and sustains it.

"We wonder then why we are so often unable to communicate even among ourselves."

Ponies 10

Ponies 11

Ponies 12

Ponies 13

The pictures today are of our local Dartmoor pony herd and their newborn foals. (The last time I posted pony photos here, the mares were still pregnant.) These semi-wild ponies travel between the hills of Chagford (full of tender green grass for grazing) and the open moor; the sheltered slope of our village Commons is where they come to give birth each year. It's been a good season for the ponies: we've counted ten new foals in all. I watch the movement of the herd across the valley from the windows of my hillside studio, and the hound and I make daily visits to the Commons to check on the foals' progress. They are exquisite.

Ponies 14

Ponies 15

Words: The passage above is from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996). The poem in the picture captions, "A Blessing" by James Wright, is from Above the River: The Complete Poems & Selected Prose (Wesleyan University Press, 1990). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Photographs of the new crop of foals on the village Commons, taken shortly after they were born, earlier this spring. More recent photos to follow. 

Related posts: Living in a storied world, Animalness, Relationship & reciprocity, and The speech of animals.


The mnemonics of words on the Isle of Lewis

Scorhill

In his gorgeous, soul-stirring book Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane writes about the interconnection of language and place on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides:

"Ultra-fine description operates in Hebridean Gaelic place-names, as well as in descriptive nouns. In the 1990s an English linguist called Richard Cox moved to northern Lewis, taught himself Gaelic, and spent several years retrieving and recording place-names in the Carloway district of Lewis's west coast. Carloway contains thirteen townships and around five hundred people; it is fewer than sixty square miles in area. But Cox's magnificent resulting work, The Gaelic Place-Names of Carloway, Isle of Lewis: Their Structures and Significance (2002), runs to almost five hundred pages and details more than three thousand place-names. Its eleventh section, titled "The Onimasticon,' lists the hundreds of toponyms identifying 'natural features' of the landscape. Unsurprisingly for such a martime culture, there is a proliferation of names for coastal features -- narrows, currents, indentations, projections, ledges, reefs -- often of exceeptional specificity. Beirgh, for instance, a loanword from the Old Norse, refers to ' a promontory or point with a bare, usually vertical rock face and sometimes with a narrow neck to land,' while corran has the sense of 'rounded point,' derived from its common meaning of 'sickle.'

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

"There are more than twenty different terms for eminences and precipices, depending on the sharpness of the summit and the aspects of the slope. Sìthean, for example, deriving from sìth, 'a fairy hill or mound,' is a knoll or hillock possessing the qualities which were thought to Looking into the Faery Hill by Alan Leeconstitute desirable real estate for fairies -- being well-drained, for instance, with a distinctive rise, and crowned by green grass. Such qualities also fulfilled the requirements for a good sheiling site, and so almost all toponyms including the word sìthean indicates sheiling locations. Characterful personifications of place also abound: A' Ghùig, for instance, means 'the steep slope of a scowling expression.'

"Reading 'The Onomasticon,' you realize that Gaelic speakers of this landscape inhabit a terrain which is, in Proust's phrase, 'magnificently surcharged with names.' For centuries these place-names have spilled their poetry into everyday Hebridean life. They have anthologized local history, anecdote and myth, binding story to place. They have been functional -- operating as territory markers and ownership designators -- and they have also served as navigational aids. Until well into the 20th century, most inhabitants of the Western Isles did not use conventional paper maps, but relied instead on memory maps, learnt on the island and carried in the skull.

A tributary of the Teign

"These memory maps were facilitated by first-hand experience and were also -- as Finlay [MacLeod] put it -- 'lit by the mnemonics of words.' For their users, these place-names were necessary for getting from location to location, and for the purpose of guiding others to where they needed to go. It is for this reason that so many toponyms incorporate what is known in psychology and design as 'affordance' -- the quality of an environment or object that allows an individual to perform an action on, to or with it. So a bealach is a gap in a ridge or cliff which may be walked through, but the element beàrn or beul in a place-name suggests an opening that is unlikely to admit human passage, as in Am Beul Uisg, 'the gap from which the water gushes.'  Blàr a' Chalchain means 'the plain of stepping stones,' while Clach an Line means 'rock of the link,' indicating a place where boats can be safely tied up. To speak out a run of these names is therefore to create a story of travel-- an act of naming that is also an act of wayfinding.

Scorhill

"Angus MacMillan, a Lewisian, remembers being sent by his father seven miles across Brindled Moor to fetch a missing sheep spotted by someone the night before: 'Cùl Leac Ghlas ri taobh Sloc an Fhithich fos cionn Loch na Muilne.' 'Think of it,' writes MacMillan drily, 'as an early form of GPS: the Gaelic Positioning System.' "

Dartmoor sheep

Dartmoor cows

The history and significance of place-names in land-based societies is something that those of us writing mythic fiction would do well to bear in mind -- whether we're working with myth or folktales born from a specific landscape, or creating an imaginary one.

"Invented names are a quite good index of writers' interest in their instrument, language, and ability to place it," says Ursula Le Guin. "To make up a name of a person or place is to open the way to the world of the language the name belongs to. It's a gate to Elsewhere. How do they talk in Elsewhere? How do we find out how they talk?"

Perhaps by knowing the land they walk. Which begins with knowing our own.

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

Words: The passage by Robert Macfarlane is quoted f rom Landmarks  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016). The passage by Ursula K. Le Guin is quoted from her essay "Inventing Languages," in Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie (Picador, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures:.Not the moors of Lewis but of our own moor, Dartmoor, taken at Scorhill, a bronze age stone circle not far from our village. The illustration is "Looking Into the Fairy Hill" by my friend & neighbor Alan Lee, from his now-classic book Faeries, with Brian Froud (Abrams, 1978). All rights reserved by the artist.


Working with words

Pony 1

Pony 2

I'm preparing a post on our last Modern Fairies session in Newcastle, planning to post it later this week. In the meantime I'd to revisit this piece on the magic inherent in words, as this was a subject that came up in discussions with the songwriters on the Modern Fairies project....

"Where words and place come together, there is the sacred,"  writes Kiowa poet and novelist N. Scott Momaday. "The question 'Where are you going?' is so commonplace in so many languages that it has the status of a universal greeting; it is formulaic. There is an American folksong that begins:

Well, where do you come from, and where do you go?
Well, where do you come from my cotton-eye Joe?

"The questions are so familiar that they are taken for granted. But their implications, their consequent meanings, are profound. In the deepest matter of these words are the riddles of origin and destiny, and by extension the stuff of story and ritual. I belong in the place of my departure, says Odysseus, and I belong in the place that is my destination. Only in this spectrum is the quest truly possible. The sense of place and the sense of belonging are bonded fast by the imagination. And words, in all their formal and informal manifestations, are the best expression of the imagination.

Pony 3

Pony 4

Pony 5

"Linguists have long suggested that we are determined by our native language, that language defines and confines us, " he notes. "It may be so. The definition and confinement do not concern me beyond a certain point, for I believe that language in general is practically without limits.

"We are not in danger of exceeding the boundaries of language, nor are we prisoners of language in any dire way. I am much more concerned with my place within the context of my language. This, I think, must be a principle of storytelling. And the storyteller's place within the context of his language must include both a geographical and mythic frame of reference. Within that frame of reference is the freedom of infinite possibility. The place of infinite possibility is where the storyteller belongs."

Pony 6

Pony 7

Pony 8

Pony 9

In an earlier interview, Momaday stated:

"Words are intrinsically powerful. And there is magic in that. Words come from nothing into being. They are created in the imagination and given life on the human voice. You know, we used to believe -- and I am talking about all of us, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds -- in the magic of words. The Anglo-Saxon who uttered spells over his field so that the seeds would come out of the ground on the sheer strength of his voice, knew a good deal about language, and he believed absolutely in the efficacy of language.

"That man's faith -- and may I say, wisdom -- has been lost upon modern man, by and large. It survives in the poets of the world, I suppose, the singers. We do not now know what we can do with words. But as long as there are those among us who try to find out, literature will be secure; literature will be a thing worthy of our highest level of human being."

Pony 10

Pony 11

Pony 12

Pony 13

Like Momaday, I believe that words have a magic and a power of their own, which those of us working in mythic arts and the fantasy field would be wise to remember. A good fantasy novel is literally spell-binding, using language to conjure up whole new worlds, or to invest our own with magic. The particular power of fantasy comes from its link with the world's most ancient stories, and from the author's careful manipulation of mythic archetypes, story patterns, and symbols.

A skillful writer knows that he or she must tell two stories at once: the surface tale, and a deeper story encoded within the tale's symbolic language. The magical tropes of fantasy, rooted as they are in world mythology, come freighted with meaning on a metaphoric level. A responsible writer works with these symbols consciously and pays attention to both aspects of the story.

Pony 14

The second pony

Hillside with ponies

In her fine book Touch Magic, Jane Yolen writes: "Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."

I believe that those of us who use the magic of words professionally should remember how powerful stories can be -- for children especially, but also for adults -- and take responsibility for the tenor of whatever dreams or nightmares we're letting loose into the world. This is particularly true in fantasy, where the tools of our trade include the language, symbolism and archetypal energies of myth. These are ancient, subtle, potent things, and they work in mysterious ways.

Tilly 1

Tilly 2Words: The first passage by N. Scott Momaday is from The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages (St. Martin's Press, 1997); the second passage is from Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets by Joseph Bruchac (Sun Tracks/U of Arizona Press, 1987). The poem in the picture captions is Momaday's "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee" (Tsoai-Talee being one of Momady's own names), from In the Presence of the Sun: Stories and Poems, 1961-1991 (St. Martin's Press, 1991). All rights reserved by Momaday and Bruchac. Pictures: A magical encounter on our hill. Tilly is very good with these free-roaming Dartmoor ponies; she knows not to hassle or startle them...though sometimes they startle her.

The power of language: Go here for previous posts on the subject, featuring Ben Okri, Jeanette Winterson, Jane Yolen and others; here  for a short article by John Kelly on the rat-slaying poetry of the Irish bards; and here  for an exploration of another form of language: the howling of wolves.


Words and acorns

Tilly and oak

These are words I am living by right now, pinned to wall above my desk:

"Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle. And let us not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil.'' - Vincent van Gogh (Letters)

Oak leaves & acorn

If you haven't yet read The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, I highly recommend them. I have the old Penguin edition, edited by Ronald de Leeuw; but if you can afford the six-volume Vincent Van Gogh: the Letters, published by Thames & Hudson, it's extraordinary.

Oak leaves & words

Fabric art card by Michele Campling

The lovely art above is a card made by my friend Michele Campling, who is a fabric artist here in Devon. The poem in the picture caption is from Selected Poems by Barbara Guest (Sun & Moon Press, 1995). All rights reserved by the author and artist.


Sentences & Mermaids

Sea Nymph by Edward Burne-Jones

It's my personal belief that it's not possible to be a truly good writer without a love of words and sentences. Plotting and storytelling skills will only you take you so far, for writing is the art of language: how it rests on the page, how it sounds in the mind's ear, how it sinks down deep like a stone thrown into the unconscious, leaving ripples of metaphor and meaning behind. Today's quotes come from a variety of writers, reflecting on sentences and the writer's craft.

The mermaid art is a response to the beautiful poems by Jane Yolen and Wendy Howe in the comments under yesterday's post.

Sea Maidens by Evelyn de Morgan

Stanley Fish:

"In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, 'Do you think I could be a writer?' 'Well,' the writer said, 'do you like sentences?' The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that 'if he likes sentences he could begin,' and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. 'I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, "I like the smell of paint." The point, made implicitly (Dillard does not belabour it), is that you don't begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other."

A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse

Annie Proulx:

"A lot of the work I do is taking the bare sentence that says what you sort of want to say -- which is where a lot of writers stop -- and making it into an arching kind of thing that has both strength and beauty. And that is where the sweat comes in. That can take a long time and many revisions. A single sentence, particularly a long, involved one, can carry a story forward. I put a lot of time into them. Carefully constructed sentences cast a tint of indefinable substance over a story….

"There is difficulty involved in going from the basic sentence that’s headed in the right direction to making a fine sentence. But it’s a joyous task. It’s hard, but it’s joyous. Being raised rural, I think work is its own satisfaction. It’s not seen as onerous, or a dreadful fate. It’s like building a mill or a bridge or sewing a fine garment or chopping wood—there’s a pleasure in constructing something that really works."

The Land Baby by John Collier

Barbara Kingsolver:

"My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it's because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head."

Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

Ernest Hemingway:

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences and I have to get rid of them fast -- talk them or write them down."

Mermaid by Howard Pyle

Colm Tóibín:

"The sentences I write have their roots in song and poetry, and take their bearings from music and painting, as much as from the need to impart mere information, or mirror anything. I am not a realist writer, even if I seem like one."

Murmur of Pearls by Gina Litherland

Alice McDermott:

"I've got to hear the rhythm of the sentences; I want the music of the prose. I want to see ordinary things transformed not by the circumstances in which I see them but by the language with which they're described."

The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac

John Burnside:

"I love long sentences. My big heroes of fiction writing are Henry James and Proust -- people who recognize that life doesn't consist of declarative statements, but rather modifications, qualifications and feelings."

The Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

Gwendolyn Brooks:

"My sentences tend to be short and rather spare. I'm more your paragraph kind of gal."

Merfolk by Virginia Lee

John Banville:

"When you're writing there's a deep, deep level of concentration way beyond your normal self. This strange voice, these strange sentences come out of you."

Undine by Arthur Rackham

Wendell Berry:

"A sentence is both the opportunity and limit of thought-- what we have to think with, and what we have to think in."

The Little Mermaid by Sulamith Wulfing

Jhumpa Lahiri:

"Even printed, on pages that are bound, sentences remain unsettled organisms. Years later, I can always reach out to smooth a stray hair. And yet, at a certain point, I must walk away, trusting them to do their work. I am left looking over my shoulder, wondering if I might have structured one more effectively."

Mermaid in Flight by Fay Ku

Zadie Smith:

"Don't romanticize your 'vocation.' You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no 'writer's lifestyle.' All that matters is what you leave on the page."

Looking for mermaids

The Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

 The pictures are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


The words that matter

Charles Robinson

“For adults, the world of fantasy books returns to us the great words of power which, in order to be tamed, we have excised from our adult vocabularies. These words are the pornography of innocence, words which adults no longer use with other adults, and so we laugh at them and consign them to the nursery, fear masking as cynicism. These are the words that were forged in the earth, air, fire, and water of human existence, and the words are: Love. Hate. Good. Evil. Courage. Honor. Truth."

 - Jane Yolen (Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood)

Aesops illustrations by Charles Robinson

"Storytelling, like rhetoric, pulls us in through the cognitive mind as much as through the emotions. It answers both our curiosity and our longing for shapely forms: our profound desire to know what happens, and our persistent hope that what happens will somehow make sense. Narrative instructs us in both these hungers and their satisfaction, teaching us to perceive and to relish the arc of moments and the arc of lives. If shapeliness is an illusion, it is one we require -- it shields against arbitrariness and against chaos’s companion, despair. And story, like all the forms of concentration, connects. It brings us to a deepened coherence with the world of others and also within the many levels of the self.''

- Jane Hirshfield (Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry)

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by William Heath Robinson

"Words are intrinsically powerful. And there is magic in that. Words come from nothing into being. They are created in the imagination and given life on the human voice. You know, we used to believe -- and I am talking about all of us, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds -- in the magic of words. The Anglo-Saxon who uttered spells over his field so that the seeds would come out of the ground on the sheer strength of his voice, knew a good deal about language, and he believed absolutely in the efficacy of language. That man's faith -- and may I say, wisdom -- has been lost upon modern man, by and large. It survives in the poets of the world, I suppose, the singers. We do not now know what we can do with words. But as long as there are those among us who try to find out, literature will be secure; literature will be a thing worthy of our highest level of human being."

N. Scott Momaday (Survival This Way: Interviews with American-Indian Poets)

William Heath Robinson

The art today is by brothers Charles Robinson (1870-1937) and William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), who were raised in a family of artists in Finbury Park, north London. 

The Little Mermaid by William Heath Robinson