Keeping the world alive

Decoy by Kati Thamo

From "First People" by Linda Hogan, an American poet, essayist, and novelist of the Chickasaw Nation:

"When I was younger...I heard stories of the times when humans and animals spoke with one another, but even while I concerned myself always with the lives of animals, caretaking the wounded ones, visiting the healthy, I never gave the old stories as much thought as they deserve. They were just stories, as if stories didn't matter. I didn't think then, as I do now, that a story is a container of knowledge. It is not only how we know about the world, but story is also how we find out about ourselves and our place of location within this world, as species, as Indian people, as women.

According to people who are from the oldest traditions, the relationship between the animal people and the humans is one of most significance. And this relationship is defined in story. Story is a power that describes our world, our human being, sets out the rules and intricate laws of human beings in relationship with all the rest. And for traditional-thinking native peoples, these rules of conduct and taboo are in place to keep a world alive, to ensure all life will continue.

'Once the world was occupied by a species called Ikxareyavs, "First People," who had magical powers. At a certain moment, it was realized that Human Beings were about to come spontaneously into existence. At this point, the First People announced their own transformation -- into mountains or rocks, into disembodied spirits, and above all into the species of plants and animals that now exist in the world....At the same time, it is ordained how the new species, the Human Beings, will live.'   - Mamie Offield (Karok)

Shadow Me Home by Kati Thamo

"As a young person, I didn't notice the similarity of stories the world over, that the Dineh people say we are the relatives of the animals, and that the aboriginal people of Australia say we are only one of many kinds of people. Nor did the old stories fit with my American education. Even though I was a half-hearted student at best, this education taught what my own, indigenous people once knew were the stories of superstitious and primitive people, not to be believed, not to be taken in a serious light. But we live inside a story, all of us do, and not only does a story prescribe our behavior, it also holds the unfathomed and and beautiful depths of a people, fostering and nurturing the very life of the future.

Incommunicado by Kati Thamo"The traditional native complex of laws and religion creates a way of seeing the world that doesn't allow for species loss, whether animal, plant, or insect. It has also been in the indigenous traditions, the place of ancient stories and ways of telling, that I have found the relationship between between humans and other species of animals most clearly articulated. Or, I might better say that the stories have found me. In this half-century-old Chickasaw woman they have found a ground in which to grow; they have found their place.

"What finally turned me back toward the older traditions of my own and other Native peoples was the inhumanity of the Western world, the places -- both inside and out -- where that culture's knowledge and language don't go, and the despair, even desperation, it has spawned. We live, I see now, by different stories, the Western mind and the indigenous. In the older, more mature cultures where people still live within the kinship circle of animals and human beings there is connection with animals, not only as food, but as 'powers,' a word that can be taken to mean states of being, gifts, or capabilities.

Land of Longing by Kati Thamo

Rabbit Running by Kathi Thamo

"I've found out too that the ancient intellectual traditions are not merely about systems of belief, as some would say. Belief is not a strong enough word. They are more than that: They are part of a lived experience, the ongoing experience of of people rooted in centuries-old knowledge that is held deep and strong, knowledge about the natural law of Earth, from the beginning of creation, and the magnificent terrestrial intelligence still at work, an intelligence now newly called ecology by the Western science that tells us what our oldest tribal stories maintain -- the human animal is a relatively new creation here; animal and plant presences were here before us; and we are truly the younger sisters and brothers of the other animal species, not quite as well developed as we thought we were. It is through our relationships with animals and plants that we maintain a way of living, a cultural ethics shaped from an ancient understanding of the world, and this is remembered in stories that are the deepest reflections of our shared lives on Earth.

In Pursuit by Kati Thamo

"That we held, and still hold, treaties with the animals and plant species is a known part of tribal culture. The relationship between human people and animals is still alive and resonant in the world, the ancient tellings carried on by a constellation of stories, songs, and ceremonies, all shaped by lived knowledge of the world and its many interwoven, unending relationships. These stories and ceremonies keep open the bridge between one kind of intelligence and other, one species and other."

The Journey (solarplate etching) by Katie Thamo

The beautiful imagery today consists of collographs, etchings, linocuts, and shadow prints by Australian artist Kati Thamo. Born in Western Australia to Hungarian parents, she studied art at Edith Cowan University and the Hobart School of Art, and now lives an works on the far south-west coast. From her website:

"The telling of tales has always been integral to Kati's art practice, and she draws on personal stories and incidents along with grander narratives to devise a form of visual fable. Using a cast of characters including animals and objects, her storylines describe the mystery, frailty, hopefulness and anxiety of life. She says, 'I often think of my images as small theatre settings where various dramas are enacted.' Her art is often imbued with her Eastern European heritage, and a journey to trace her migrant family's homelands in 2010 is reflected in subsequent exhibitions, and in the development of a series of works. More recently, Kati has been exploring the natural world, looking at ways to depict the fragility and complexity of natural ecosystems." 

Casting Shadows by Kati Thamo

Shifting Ground by Kati Thamo

The passage above is from "First People" by Linda Hogan, published in Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women & Animals, edited by Linda Hogan, Deena Metzger, and Brenda Peterson (Fawcett Columbine, 1998), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


Skunk Dreams

The Skunk and the Magnolias by Jessica Roux

I'm sure I was not the only child who dreamed of sleeping with wild animals, although the closest I've come to that Jungle Book fantasy is to curl up with Tilly snoring beside me. The reality of animal life in the wild is different than fantasy tales of course -- as Louise Erdrich reminds us in this passage from her essay "Skunk Dreams":

"When I was fourteen, I slept alone on a North Dakota football field under the cold stars on an early spring night. May is unpredictable in the Red River Valley, and I happened to hit a night when frost formed in the grass. A skunk trailed a plume of steam across the forty-yard line near moonrise. I tucked the top of my sleeping bag over my head and was just dosing off when the skunk walked onto me with simple authority.

The Mouse and the Buttercup by Jessica Roux"Its ripe odor must have dissipated in the frozen earth of its winterlong hibernation, because it didn't smell all that bad, or perhaps it was just that I took shallow breaths in numb surprise. I felt him -- her, whatever -- pause on the side of my hip and turn around twice before evidently deciding I was a good place to sleep. At the back of my knees, on the quilting of my sleeping bag, it trod out a spot for itself and then, with a serene little groan, curled up and lay perfectly still. That made two of us. I was wildly awake, trying to forget the sharpness and number of skunk teeth, trying not to think of the high percentage of skunks with rabies, or the reason that on camping trips my father kept a hatchet underneath his pillow. 

"Inside the bag, I felt as if I might smother. Careful, making only the slightest of rustles, I drew the bag away from my face and took a deep breath of the night air, enriched with skunk, but clear and watery and cold. It wasn't so bad, and the skunk didn't stir at all, so I watched the moon -- caught that night in an envelope of silk, a mist -- passing over my sleeping field of teenage guts and glory. The grass in spring that has lain beneath the snow harbors a sere dust both cold and fresh. I smelled that newness beneath the rank tone of my bag-mate -- the stiff fragrance of damp earth and the thick pungency of newly manured fields  a mile or two away -- along with my sleeping bag's smell, slightly mildewed, forever smoky. The skunk settled even closer and began to breath rapidly; it's feet jerked a little like a dog's. I sank against the earth and fell asleep too.

The Deer and the Oats by Jessica Roux

"Of what easily tipped cans, what molten sludge, what dogs in back yards, what leftover macaroni casseroles, what cellar holes, crawl spaces, burrows taken from meek woodchucks, of what miracles of garbage did my skunk dream? Or did it, since we can't be sure, dream the plot of Moby Dick, how to properly age parmesan, or how to restore the brick-walled, tumbledown creamery that was its home? We don't know about the dreams of any other biota, and even much about our own. If dreams are an actual dimesion, as some assert, then the usual rules of life by which we abide do not apply. In that place, skunks may certainly dream themselves into the vests of stockbrokers. Perhaps that night the skunk and I dreamed each other's thoughts, or are still dreaming them. To paraphrase the problem of the Chinese sage, I may be a woman who has dreamed herself a skunk, or a skunk still dreaming she is a woman....

The Hare and the Oak by Jessica Roux

"Skunks don't mind each other's vile perfume. Obviously they find each other more than tolerable. And even I, who have been in the direct presence of a skunk hit, wouldn't classify their weapon as mere smell. It is more on the order of a reality-enhancing experience. It's not so pleasant as standing in a grove of old-growth red cedars, or watching trout rise to the shadow of your hand on the placid surface of an Alpine lake. When the skunk lets go, you are surrounded by skunk presence: inhabited, owned, involved with something you can only describe as powerfully there.

"I woke at dawn, stunned into that sprayed state of being. The dog that had approached me was rolling the grass, half-addled, sprayed too. The skunk was gone. I abandoned my sleeping bag and started home. Up Eighth Street, past the tiny blue and pink houses, past my grade school, past all the addresses where I had baby-sat, I walked in my own strange wind. The streets were wide and empty; I met no one -- not a dog, not a squirrel, not even an early robin. Perhaps they had all scattered before me, blocks away. I had gone out to sleep on the football field because I was afflicted with a sadness I had to dramatize. Mood swings had begun, hormones, feverish and brutal. They were nothing to me now. My emotions seemed vast, dark, and sickeningly private. But they were minor, mere wisps, compared to skunk."

The Goat and the Willow by Jessica Roux

The Chipmunk and the Bay Laurel by Jessica Roux

The art today is by Jessica Roux, an American painter whose work is rich in carefully-observed flora and fauna. Raised in the woodlands of North Carolina, Roux studied at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia, and now works as a freelance illustrator and stationary designer.

"I can’t get enough of history," she says. "Old lithographs and studies by early naturalists are some of my favorite things. I love medieval bestiaries and the early Northern Renaissance. I’m also really inspired by nature. There are just so many strange plants and animals out there that I want to know more about."

The images here are from Roux's "Woodland Wardens" series, an oracle deck in progress. (I hope it's completed and published soon.) For those of you in or near Tennessee, the series can be viewed in the Jessica Roux exhibition at Gallery 205 in Columbia through Dec. 1st.

You can also see more of her work on her website and in her print shop here.

The Fox and the Ivy by Jessica Roux

The passage above is from "Skunk Dreams" by Louise Erdrich, first published in The Georgia Review (1993). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


The dance of joy and grief

A young Mandrill (Equatorial Guinea) by Joel Sartore

This post first appeared on October 1, 2014:

Shaken by the news that the earth has lost 50% of its wildlife in the last forty years, I turn to the words of Terry Tempest Williams and the photographs of Joel Sartore. The following passage comes from a radio interview with Williams conducted by Justine Toms in 1994:

"I think about how, for all practical purpses, the Tahoe salmon are gone as we know them," Williams muses. "Less than a hundred years ago, according to the stories of native peoples [on the American west coast], you could walk across the backs of salmon to reach the other side of the river. Now we're lucky if we see one or two. What does that mean? What does that mean in terms of our idea of community? What does that mean in terms of the sustainability of our relations, deep relations?

Eurasian lynx by Joel Sartore

Kootenai River white sturgeon, Idaho, by Joel Sartore

Hawaiian geese by Joel Sartore

"So much more than ever before, I feel both the joy of wilderness and the absolute pain in terms of what we are losing. And I think we're afraid of inhabiting, of staying in, this landscape of grief. Yet if we don't acknowledge the losses, then I feel we won't be able to step forward with compassionate intelligence to make the changes necessary to maintain wildness on the planet."

Young female snowy owl by Joel Sartore

Warthogs by Joel Sartore

Toms responds: "You talk about the paradox of feeling the joy in what is still available and the pain of what we are losing. Let's stay with the paradox for the moment. How does it help us to stay there and feel both places?"

"I don't know," Williams answers frankly, "except that I believe it's a dance. And I believe that it makes us more human. I love Clarice Lispector when she writes in her book, An Apprenticeship, that 'what human beings want more than anything else is to become human beings.' If we don't allow ourselves to feel the full range of emotion -- deep joy and deep pain -- then I think we are less than who we can be."

Pygmy marmoset by Joel Sartore

How do we express, even use, this dance as writers, or as other kinds of creators? In "Last Days, Last Words" (Dark Mountain, Issue 3), John Rember advises:

"There's plenty to write about in this word, especially if you can keep existentially funny and honesty grief-stricken about it."

Nebraskan coyote pups by Joel Sartore

"You ask what gives me hope," says Terry Tempest Williams in a later interview. "Two words: forgiveness and restoration."

My heart beat faster when I read those words. They apply to so many things.

St. Andrews beach mouse by Joel Sartore

Pronghorn antelope by Joel Sartore

For further reading poised on that narrow ground between joy and grief, I recommend: The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds by Diane Ackerman, Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths, An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field by Terry Tempest Williams, Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals, and Spirit by Brenda Peterson, Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World by Linda Hogan, A Field Guide to Becoming Lost by Rebecca Solnit, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram, Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea, & Human Life by George Monbiot, Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore, The Fish Ladder by Katherine Norbury, Trace by Lauret Savoy, Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane, The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris, and the books produced by The Dark Mountain Project. This isn't an exhaustive list by any means, just a good place to start.

The photographs here are from Joel Sartore's  Photo Ark project, sponsored by National Geographic. "For many of Earth’s creatures, time is running out,"  he explains. "Half of the world’s plant and animal species will soon be threatened with extinction. The goal of the Photo Ark is to document biodiversity, show what’s at stake and to get people to care while there’s still time.  More than 3,700 species have been photographed to date, with more to come."

I highly recommend Sartore's beautiful (and heart-breaking) book Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species, as well as his other works on endangered animals around the world. You can see more of his photographs, and buy prints of them (to support the Photo Ark project) on Sartore's website.

San Lucas marsupial frog by Joel Sartore

Coquerel's sifaka by Joel Sartore

Words & pictures: The interview passages above are from A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). All rights to the text and photographs above reserved by the authors and artist. Though this post was written in 2014, I've added a few books published since then to the Recommended Reading list.


Making sense of the more-than-human world

The Winter Guest by David Hollington

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

"A story must be judged according to whether it makes sense. And 'making sense' must be here understood in its most direct meaning: to make sense is to enliven the senses. A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and the ears to their real surroundings, tuning the tongue to the actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin. To make sense is to release the body from the constraints imposed by outworn ways of speaking, and hence to renew and rejuvenate one's felt awareness of the world. It is to make the senses wake up to where they are."

After the Prophet by David Hollington

Central image from Debt of Love by David Hollington

"Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth -- our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human."

The Rapture/Wake Up by David Hollington

"The practice of realignment with reality can hardly afford to be utopian. It cannot base itself upon a vision hatched in our heads and then projected into the future. Any approach to current problems that aims us toward a mentally envisioned future implicitly holds us within the oblivion of linear time. It holds us, that is, within the same illusory dimension that enabled us to neglect and finally to forget the land around us. By projecting the solution somewhere outside of the perceivable present, it invites our attention away from the sensuous surroundings, induces us to dull our senses, yet again, on behalf of a mental idea.

"A genuinely ecological approach does not work to attain a mentally envisioned future, but strives to enter, ever more deeply, into the sensorial present. It strives to become ever more awake to the other lives, the other forms of sentience and sensibility that surround us in the open field of the present moment. For the other animals and the gathering clouds do not exist in linear time. We meet them only when the thrust of historical time begins to open itself outward, when we walk out of our heads into the cycling life of the land around us. This wild expanse has its own timing, its rhythms of dawning and dusk, its seasons of gestation and bud and blossom. It is here, and not in linear history, that the ravens reside."

Healing Place by David Hollington

The marvelous art today is by British painter David Hollington. He studied at Harrow School of Art and at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, and is now represented by The Rowley Gallery.

"Animals and birds are messengers, healers and protagonists within the narrative structure of my paintings," he says. ""I feel closely connected to forms of Shamanism where a channel is opened between the human world and the world of animals. I can't control this process when I am drawing, objects that are undetermined, shift and change shape until I begin to understand what the message is that I am receiving. At this point a key animal will appear and take the lead, this will be one of my trinity - the fox, the hare or the owl (often white). Once the animal or bird has taken the lead it will engender the possibility of including a mortal or god, sometimes a Hindu or Celtic deity. Then the tone of the painting will crystallise, this can take a considerable time, sometimes months, but once it does I begin to see in colour and feel the time of day the story is taking place."F

Follow this link to read his wonderful meditation on the fox in folklore, literature, and art.

Medea by David Hollington

The Garden by David Hollington

Words & Pictures: The passage above is from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996), a book that has had a strong impact on my work since I first read it upon publication, and that I return to often. I highly recommend it, along with David's follow-up book, Becoming Animal. The titles of David Hollington's beautiful pictures can be found in the picture captions. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


The Animal Helpers of T.H. White

Young Arthur by Alan Lee

From "The Beast in the Book" by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, though about King Arthur, is crowded with animals. In the first chapter King-Arthur-to-be, currently known as the Wart, takes out a goshawk, loses him, and meets Merlyn's owl Archimedes.

Merlin and Archimedes by Dennis Nolan"Oh what a lovely owl!" cried the Wart.

But when he went up to it and held out his hand, the owl grew half as tall again, stood up as stiff as a poker, closed its eyes so there was only the smallest slit to peep through...and said in a doubtful voice:

"There is no owl."

Then it shut its eyes entirely and looked the other way.

"It's only a boy," said Merlyn.

"There is no boy," said the owl hopefully, without turning round.

"Merlyn undertakes Arthur's education, which consists mostly of being turned into animals. Here we meet the great mythic theme of Transformation, which is a central act of shamanism, though Merlyn doesn't make any fuss about it. The boy becomes a fish, a hawk, a snake, an owl, and a badger. He participates, at thirty years per minute, in the sentience of trees, and then, at two million years per second, in the sentience of stones. All these scenes of participation in nonhuman being are funny, vivid, startling, and wise.

Merlyn by NC Wyeth

"When a witch puts Wart into a cage to fatten him up, the goat in the next cage plays Animal Helper and rescues them all. All animals rightly trust Wart, which is proof of his true kingship. That he goes along on a boar hunt does not vitiate this trust: to White, true hunting is a genuine relationship between hunter and hunted, with implacable moral rules and a high degree of honor and respect for the prey. The emotions aroused by hunting are powerful, and white draws them all together in the scene of the death of the hound Beaumont, killed by the boar, a passage I have never yet read without crying,

"At the climax of the book, Wart can't draw the sword of kingship from the stone anvil by himself. He calls to Merlyn for help, and the animals come.

Young Arthur by John Lawrence & Dennis Nolan

"There were otters and nightingales and vulgar crows and hares, and serpents and falcons and fishes and goats and dogs and dainty uincorns and newts and solitary wasps and goat-moth caterpillars and corkindrills and volcanoes and mighty trees and patient stones...all, down to the smallest shrew mouse, had come to help on account of love. Wart felt his power grow.

"Each creature calls its special wisdom to the boy who has been one of them, one with them. The pike says, 'Put your back into it,' a stone says, 'Cohere,' a snake says 'Fold your powers together with the spirit of your mind' -- and:

The Wart walked up to the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard.

Merlin by Frank Godwin & The Sword in the Stone by Walter Crane

"T.H. White was a man to whom animals were very important, perhaps because his human relationships were so tormented. But his sense of connection with nonhuman lives goes far beyond mere compensation; it is a passionate vision of a moral universe, a world of terrible pain and cruelty from which trust and love spring like autumn crocus, vulnerable and unconquerable.

Merlin & Arthur by Scott Gustafson

"The Sword and the Stone, which I first read at thirteen or so,  influenced my mind and heart in ways which must be quite clear in the course of this talk, convincing me that trust cannot be limited to humankind, that love can not be specified. It's all or nothing at all. If, called to reign, you distrust and scorn your subjects, your only kingdom will be that of greed and hate. Love and trust and be a king, and your kingdom will be of the whole world. And to your coronation, among all the wondrous gifts, an 'anonymous hedgehog will send four or five dirty leaves with some fleas on them.' "

Owl and Hare by Jackie Morris

The Sleeping Earth by Catherine Hyde

Words: The passage above is from Words Are My Matter: Writings About Books & Life  by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The art above is by Alan Lee, Dennis Nolan, N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), John Lawrence, Frank Godwin (1889-1959), Walter Crane (1845-1915), Scott Gustafson, Jackie Morris and Catherine Hyde. The images are identified in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the artists.

Further Reading:  T.H. White by Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Goshawk by T.H. White, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. A previous post on White: "T.H. White: a rescued mind."
 


Running with writers

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

In his essay "Childhood of a Writer," E.L. Doctorow describes how his passion for fiction ignited when he was eight years old:

"Back home [from an appendix operation], and more or less on my feet again, I took out of the library the two great dog novels of Jack London, published together for my convenience in one sturdy binding, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, the one about a civilized dog who is kidnapped and enslaved as a sled-husky in the Yukon and, under the brutal pressures of human masters, finds freedom and self-realization in reverting to the primeval wolf ways of his remote ancestry, the other about a savage wolf who, under the ministrations of a decent human being, becomes a civilized human-friendly dog. On such tales as these he became the most popular writer in America, and he is still widely read around the world, though he sits at literature's table below the salt while the more sophisticated voices of modernist and postmodernist irony conduct the conversation.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

"The tests and trials to which Buck, the dog in The Call of the Wild, is subjected, and the way he meets them and learns and grows in moral stature, make Buck a round character, while the human beings in the book are, in their constant one-note villainy, flat. This is irony too, a fine irony. Furthermore, this little speed-readers' novel, written at the level of a good pulp serial, is in fact a parody of the novel of sentimental education, not only because the hero is a dog, but because his education decivilizes him, turns him back into the wild creature of his primordial ancestry. I appreciate that now, but then I only knew that Jack London was different from the picture-book writer Aesop, he was not tiresome as Aesop was, he took animals seriously, granting them complex character as the veterinarily incorrect Aesop never did. The moral of the Jack London book was not something you knew already without having to be instructed. But it was there and it was resonant with my own life.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis"Every day, it seemed, old men knocked on the front door to ask my mother for money to help bring Jews out of Europe. Playing with my friends in the park, I had to watch out for older boys who swept up from the East Bronx to take at knifepoint our spaldines and whatever pocket change we were carrying. My father, the proud owner of a music shop in the old Hippodrome theater at Sixth Avenue and Forty-Third Street, a man who knew the classical repertoire inside and out and stocked music that nobody else had, a man whom the great artists of the day consulted for their record purchases, lost his store in the 'little' Depression of 1940. My ancient grandmother, growing more and more insane each day, now ran away to wander the streets until the police found her and brought her home. We were broke, what the newspapers called war clouds were growing darker and more ominous, my brother was of freshly minted draft age, and The Call of the Wild, this mordant parable of the thinness of civilization, the savagery bursting through as the season changed in the Bronx and a winter of deep heavy snows, like the snows of the Yukon, fell upon us, the whole city muffled and still, made me long to be in the wild, loping at the head of my pack, ready to leap up and plunge my incisors into the throats of all who would harm me or my family.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

"At one point I must have realized the primordial power belonged not to the dog, or not in fact to the dog, because around this time -- I was perhaps nine years old -- I decided I was a writer. It was a clear conviction, not even requiring a sacred vow; I assumed the identity with grace, as one slips on a jacket or sweater that fits perfectly.

"It was such a natural assumption of my mind that for several years I felt no obligation to actually write anything. My convalesence had left me flabby, out of shape, with less energy for running around. I was more disposed than ever to read or listen to radio stories, and I was now reading not only to find out what happened next but with that additional line of inquiry of the child writer who is yet to write: How is this done? It is a kind of imprinting.

"We live in the book as we read it, yes, but we run with the author as well -- this wild begetter of voices, this voice of voices, this noble creature of the wild whose linguistic lope over any sort of terrain brings it into being."

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

Photographs by Paul Croes

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

The extraordinary imagery today is by Belgian photographer Paul Croes and his studio assistant Inge Nelis. Please visit their Behind Eyes Studio website to see more.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis


Bringing ourselves into our work

Encounter

From "Fail Better" by Zadie Smith:

"It is deeply unfashionable to conceive of such a thing as a literary duty; what that might be, and how writers might fail to fulfil it. Duty is not a very literary term. These days, when we do speak of literary duties, we mean it from the reader's perspective, as a consumer of literature. We are really speaking of consumer rights. By this measure the duty of writers is to please readers and to be eager to do so, and this duty has various subsets: the duty to be clear; to be interesting and intelligent but never wilfully obscure; to write with the average reader in mind; to be in good taste. Above all, the modern writer has a duty to entertain. Writers who stray from these obligations risk tiny readerships and critical ridicule. Novels that submit to a shared vision of entertainment, with characters that speak the recognisable dialogue of the sitcom, with plots that take us down familiar roads and back home again, will always be welcomed. This is not a good time, in literature, to be a curio. Readers seem to wish to be 'represented,' as they are at the ballot box, and to do this, fiction needs to be general, not particular. In the contemporary fiction market a writer must entertain and be recognisable -- anything less is seen as a failure and a rejection of readers.

"Personally, I have no objection to books that entertain and please, that are clear and interesting and intelligent, that are in good taste and are not wilfully obscure -- but neither do these qualities seem to me in any way essential to the central experience of fiction, and if they should be missing, this in no way rules out the possibility that the novel I am reading will yet fulfil the only literary duty I care about. For writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world. If that sounds woolly and imprecise, I apologise. Writing is not a science, and I am speaking to you in the only terms I have to describe what it is I persistently aim for (yet fail to achieve) when I sit in front of my computer.

Encounter 2

Encounter 3

"When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people's, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment -- once you have removed all that warps experience into a shape you do not recognise and do not believe in -- what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception. That is what I am looking for when I read a novel; one person's truth as far as it can be rendered through language.

Encounter 4

"This single duty, properly pursued, produces complicated, various results. It's certainly not a call to arms for the autobiographer, although some writers will always mistake the readerly desire for personal truth as their cue to write a treatise or a speech or a thinly disguised memoir in which they themselves are the hero. Fictional truth is a question of perspective, not autobiography. It is what you can't help tell if you write well; it is the watermark of self that runs through everything you do. It is language as the revelation of a consciousness." 

Encounter 6

Encounter 6

Words: The passage above come from Zadie Smith's wonderful essay "Fail Better" (The Guardian, Jan. 7, 2007), which you can read in its entirety online here. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The hound and I have bovine encounters during our morning walk on Nattadon Hill.


The art's heart's purpose

Conversation by Sophie Ryder

From an interview with David Foster Wallace (1962-2008):

"I've gotten convinced that there's something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn't have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent....Talent's just an instrument. It's like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn't. I'm not saying I'm able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art's heart's purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It's got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.

Sitting by Sophie Ryder

Kneeling Hare by Sophie Ryder

Hugging by Sophie Ryder

"I know this doesn't sound hip at all...But it seems like one of the things really great fiction writers do -- from Carver to Chekhov to Flannery O'Connor, or like the Tolstoy of 'The Death of Ivan Ilych' or the Pynchon of Gravity's Rainbow -- is 'give' the reader something. The reader walks away from the real art heavier than she came into it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can't be for your benefit; it's got to be for hers. What's poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out."

Which is precisely why this kind of work is necessary. Especially here in the mythic arts field.

Bending, Crouching, Kneeling, Standing Figures by Sophie Ryder

The Minotaur and the Hare by Sophie Ryder

Girl Hugging Dog by Sophie Ryder

The marvelous sculptures and drawings today are by English artist Sophie Ryder. Born in London in 1963, she was raised in England and the south of France, studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, and now lives and works in an enchanted hand-crafted farmhouse in the Cotswolds. Ryder's world "is one of mystical creatures, animals and hybrid beings made from sawdust, wet plaster, old machine parts and toys, weld joins and angle grinders, wire 'pancakes,' torn scraps of paper, charcoal sticks and acid baths."

Her hare figures, she says, "started off as upright versions of the hare in full animal form, and now they have developed into half human and half hare. I needed a figure to go with the minotaur -- a human female figure with an animal head. The hare head seemed to work perfectly, the ears simulating a mane of hair. She feels right to me, as if she had always existed in myth and legend, like the minotaur."

Luigi by Sophie Ryder

Wire Dog by Sophie Ryder

Ryder's dogs (whippets crossed with Italian greyhounds) also appear frequently in her work. "I have been breeding these dogs since 1999," she explains, "and since then have achieved the most perfect companions and models -- Elsie, Pedro, Luigi and Storm. Now we are a pack and they are with me twenty-four hours a day. We run, work and sleep together -- although they do have their own beds now! Living cheek-by-jowl with these dogs means that their form is somehow sitting just under my own skin. I can draw or sculpt them entirely from memory. They are my full-time companions so I am never lonely. The relationship between the Lady Hare and the dog is very close, just as is my bond with my own family of dogs."

To see more of Ryder's art, please visit her website; or pick up Jonathan Benington's book Sophie Ryder, published by Lund Humphries (2001). There's an interview with the artist here, and delightful pictures of her farmhouse here.

If you'd like to know more about the folklore of hares and rabbits, go here and here.

Drawings by Sophie Ryder

Sophie Ryder working on Curled Up Number 2

All rights to the art, video, and text above reserved by the artist, filmmaker, and the author's estate. An interesting related article is "David Foster Wallace Was Right: Irony is Ruining Our Culture" by Matt Ashby & Brendon Carroll.


We are the words, we are the music

Stray sheep

Etchings by Bill Yardley

Last week we discussed Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" (an essay I recommend reading in full) -- examining the roles of experience and imagination in the creation of fiction.

There's one more passage I'd like to share. It begins with a quote by Virginia Woolf, from a letter to her friend Vita Sackville-West. "Sackville-West," Le Guin explains, "had been pontificating about finding the right word, Flaubert's mot juste, and agonizing very Frenchly about syle; and Woolf wrote back, very Englishly:

Sheep etching by Bill Yardley'As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here I am sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.'

Sheep and lamb, reunited.

"Woolf wrote that seventy-five years ago," notes Le Guin; "if she did think differently next year, she didn't tell anybody. She says it lightly, but she means it; this is profound. I have not found anything more profound, or more useful, about the source of story -- where ideas come from.

"Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention -- beneath words, as she says -- there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer's job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, find it, move it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find the words."

So simple. So true.

The gate to O'er Hill

Le Guin adds this at the close of the essay:

"Prose and poetry -- all art, music, dance -- rise from and move with the profound rhythms of our body, our being, and the body and the being of the world. Physicists read the universe as a great range of vibrations, of rhythms. Art follows and expresses those rhythms."

Sheep in the shade

Old stone wall

I'm reminded, in turn, of these words from Woolf's luminous essay "A Sketch of the Past":

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we -- I mean all human beings -- are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself."

A stream on the Commons

Hound and stream

Waiting

Words: Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" can be found in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014); it also appears, in an altered form, in Le Guin's essay collection The Wave in the Mind (Shambhala, 2004). Both books are recommended. The first Woolf quote can be found in The Letters of Vita Sackville West & Virginia Woolf, edited by Mitchell Alexander Leaska (Cleis Press, 2004); the second in Moments of Being (Mariner Books, 1985). 

Pictures: The etchings above are by Bill Yardley (1940-2012), an artist inspired by life on his Warwickshire farm.

All rights to the text & images above reserved by authors & artists, or their estates.


Spring on Dartmoor

Dartmoor sheep 1

Here on Dartmoor, which is sheep country, we know that spring is truly here when the lambs are gamboling in the fields. These photographs of whiteface sheep and their lambs were taken by my friend Helen Mason at a farm high on the moor.

Dartmoor sheep 2

Dartmoor sheep 3

Dartmoor sheep 4

When the Animals
by Gary Lawless

When the animals come to us
      asking for our help
      will we know what they are saying?

Dartmoor sheep 5

Dartmoor sheep 6

Dartmoor sheep 7

When the plants speak to us
      in their delicate, beautiful language
      will we be able to answer them?

Dartmoor sheep 8

Dartmoor sheep 9

Dartmoor sheep 10

When the planet herself
      sings to us in our dreams,
      will we be able to wake ourselves and act?

Dartmoor sheep 11

Dartmoor sheep 12

Helen Mason and TillyPhotographer Helen Mason and Tilly, Spring 2017

Credits: "When Animals" by Gary Lawless was published in First Sight of Land (Blackberry Books, 1990); "Nass River" by Robert MacLean (in the picture captions) was published in In a Canvas Tent  (Sono Nis, 1984). All rights to the text and imagery above reserved by the authors and photographers. This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in the spring of 2015 -- except for the final picture, which I took recently on Nattadon Hill.