Losing and finding ourselves in books

Chris Dunn

"We use the expression 'being lost in a book,' but we are really closer to a state of being found," writes Carol Shields. "Curled up with a novel about an East Indian family, for instance, we are not so much escaping our splintered and decentered world as we are enlarging our sense of self, our multiplying possibilities and expanded experiences. People are, after all, tragically limited: we can live in only so many places, work at a small number of jobs or professions; we can love only a finite number of people. Reading, and particularly the reading of fiction, allows us to be the other, to touch and taste the other, to sense the shock and satisfaction of otherness. A novel lets us be ourselves and yet enter another person's boundaried world, share in a private gaze between reader and writer. Your reading can be part of your life, and there will be times when it may be the best part....

"We need literature on the page because it allows us to experience more fully, to imagine more deeply, enabling us to live more freely. Reading, you are in touch with your best self; and I think, too, that reading shortens the distance we must travel to discover that our most private perceptions are, in fact, universally felt."

Chris Dunn

In fantasy stories especially, writes Jane Yolen, "we learn to understand the differences of others, we learn compassion for those things we cannot fathom, we learn the importance of keeping our sense of wonder. The strange worlds that exist in the pages of fantastic literature teach us a tolerance of other people and places and engender an openness toward new experience. Fantasy puts the world into perspective in a way that 'realistic' literature rarely does. It is not so much an escape from the here-and-now as an expansion of each reader's horizons. A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?"

Night-time Reading by Chris Dunn

The great James Baldwin once said: "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive."

It was the same for me.

Mice Carol Singers (from Wind in the Willows) by Chris Dunn

Bedside Visit and Autumn Scribe by Chris Dunn

The wonderful watercolour paintings today are by Chris Dunn, a young artist based in Wiltshire whose work I completely adore. Please visit his website and blog to see more.

Settling In by Chris Dunn

Just Married by Chris Dunn

The Carol Shields quote is from Startle and Illuminate (Random House Canada, 2016). The Jane Yolen quote is from Touch Magic (Philomel, 1981; August House, expanded edition, 2000). I'm afraid I don't know the original source of the James Baldwin quote. All rights to the text and art above reserced by the authors and the artis

Wild Neighbors

Some of the

"What would Robin Hood have made of Country Life's recent excavation into the fantasies of British 7-to-14-year-olds concerning the wild life and wild places of their native land?" asks poet and scholar Ruth Padel. "Two thirds had no idea where acorns come from, most had never heard of gamekeepers (do they From Wind in the Willows illustrated by Stephen Dooleymug people or protect the Pokemons?), and most believed there were elephants and lions running round the English countryside. A third did not know why you had to keep gates shut -- was it to keep the elephants in (or was some joker taking the piss just then?), or stop cows 'sitting on cars,' upsetting the countryside's most vital beast -- the traffic?

"In a closed, traditional society there is something special about animals born in the land where you, too, were born. The British used to look lazily at gardens, thickets, and moors, and know — without bothering to think about it -- that foxes, hedgehogs, badgers, squirrels, and deer were out there flecking the undergrowth....

"Dangerous or vulnerable, shy or cunning, a pest or welcome visitor, our native animals are part of our romance with the secret wildness of the place we live, even if we never see much of them. We grew up with them in imagination. They were inside us, furry heroes of nursery rhymes, pictures and stories through which we learned the world. Little Grey Rabbit. The Stoats and Weasels of the Wild Wood. The Fox who Looked Out on a Moonlight Night. The Frog who would A Wooing Go. They are deep in British folk song, poetry, and popular art. 'Three Ravens Sat in an Old Oak Tree.' The holly and the ivy, the running of the deer. Landseer's 'Monarch of the Glen.'

"But that's the way it used to be. We are not a mono-traditional society any more -- most kids' traditions center on the TV and the city street. To most children, a weasel is as unknowable as daffodils to a young Indian struggling with Wordsworth during the Raj."


How did we become so disconnected to the land we live on, and the wild neighbors we share it with? I think it's partly because we're losing the stories specific to the local landscape: the stories about this plant that grows on the hill nearby and that bird that migrates here each spring and not just the pan-cultural stories we share with everyone on the television and cinema screens. We no longer know the tales of the animals, and, increasingly, we no longer know animals themselves.

What a different attitude is conveyed by these words from a member of the Carrier Indian nation in British Columbia (quoted in Becoming Animal by David Abram):

"We know what the animals do, what are the needs of the beaver, the bear, the salmon, and other creatures, because long ago men married them and acquired this knowledge from their animal wives. Today the priests say we lie, but we know better. The white man has only been a short time in this country and knows very little about the animals; we have lived here thousands of years and were taught long ago by the animals themselves. The white man writes everything down in a book so it will not be forgotten; but our ancestors married animals, learned their ways, and passed on this knowledge from one generation to another."


The old story of a woman who marries a bear, for example, is one that used to roam widely, like the bears themselves, throughout North America. In a Nishga version recounted by Agnes Haldane of the Wolf clan of Gitkateen (in Wisdom of the Myth Tellers by Sean Kane), a tribal princess picking berries in the forest steps on a bit of bear scat and mutters angry remarks about the bears. As the women head for home, her basket breaks; repairing it, she is left behind. Two handsome men appear and tell her they've come to fetch her and lead her from the forest. Instead of leading her home, they take her to the village of the Bear People. The princess tricks the People into believing she is a woman of great power, and as a result she ends up marrying the son of the Bear Chief. She lives with him rather happily, and gives birth to two fine bear sons. But during a period of hibernation, her own brothers find her husband's cave and kill the bear in a rescue attempt. Her husband has foreseen this event. "When they skin me," he'd instructed her, "tell them to burn my bones so that I may go on to help my children. At my death they shall take human form and become skillful hunters. Now listen as I sing my dirge song. This you must remember and take to your father. My cloak he shall don as his dancing garment. His crest shall be the Prince of Bears."


The bear's sacrifice of his life for the benefit of human beings might seem suprising, but it's not an unusual theme in the indiginous tales of North America, where many story traditions say the animals were the First People, here before humans came. Sacred tales from many different Indian nations recount how Bear, or Coyote, or Eagle, or Deer first gave humans the precious, vital gift of fire; while in other tales language, hunting skills, dancing, even love-making, were first taught by animals. Though we've come to expect such respectfulness towards and from other species in American Indian lore, it can also be found in many other storytelling traditions around world -- such as in the sacred stories of the Ainu of Japan. As Gary Snyder notes (in The Practice of the Wild):

"In the Ainu world, a few human houses are in a valley by a little river. Food is often foraged in the local area, but some of the creatures come down from the inner mountains and up from the deeps of the sea. The animal or fish (or plant) that allows itself to be killed or gathered, and then enters the house to be consumed, is called a 'visitor,' marapto. Bear sends his friends the deer down to visit humans. Orca [the Killer Whale] sends his friends the salmon up the streams. When they arrive their 'armor is broken' -- they are killed -- enabling them to shake off their fur or scale coats and step out as invisible spirit beings. They are then delighted by witnessing the human entertainments -- sake and music. (They love music.) Having enjoyed their visit, they return to the deep sea or the inner mountains and report, 'We had a wonderful time with the human beings.' The others are then prompted themselves to go on visits. Thus if the humans do not neglect proper hospitality, the beings will be reborn and return over and over."


In another essay in the same volume, Snyder writes: "A young white woman asked me: 'If we have made such good use of animals, eating them, singing about them, drawing them, riding them, and dreaming about them, what do they get back from us?' An excellent question, directly on the point of etiquette and propriety, and putting it from the animals' side. The Ainu  say that the deer, salmon, and bear like our music and are fascinated by our languages. So we sing to the fish or the game, speak words to them, say grace. Periodically we dance for them. A song for your supper: performance is currency in the deep world's gift economy. The other creatures probably do find us a bit frivolous: we keep changing our outfits and we eat too many different things. Nonhuman nature, I can't help feeling, is well inclined towards humanity and only wishes that modern people were more reciprocal, not so bloody."


The idea that animals love human song reminds me of this passage from Linda Hogan's gorgeous novel Power:

'[T]he panther remembers when humans were so beautiful and whole that her own people envied them and wanted to be like them. They admired the humans and the way the two-legged people stood beneath trees with leaves leaning down over them as they picked ripe fruits, how their beautiful eyes were fully open. How straight they walked! How beautiful the beads about their necks, the dresses women made in fabric that was the dark green of the trees and the light colors of flowers. How intelligent the little shell and wooden bowls they ate from, how good they were at devising ways to catch fish with simple bone and metal, at making trails through the thickets. They stood so gracefully and full of themselves, they sang so beautifully; it remembers all this, how they sang. The whole world rejoiced with their voices....

"[The panther] remembers when its own people surrounded the humans and gave them life and power, medicine to heal, to hunt, even to direct lightning and stormclouds away from their beautiful dark-eyed children....But now they have turned against her. Now that they have no need for her, Sisa and her people,  the panther, are leaving. They leave in sadness and grief. Now so few of the humans have songs or presence, so many have such heaviness that they can barely walk or move, raise themselves from their beds in the morning. And Sisa believes, sees, that the world could end with their human misery."

Grey Heron

And in Wild: An Elemental Journey (another book that I highly recommended), Jay Griffiths shares this:

"Creatures are gente, I'm told, everywhere I go in the Amazon: they are 'people like us' with customs and homes and they are accorded gentleness for being gente. You must address the world gently, I was told, even to the wind you should speak con cariño -- with tenderness. The Harakmbut say that all animals were people más allá -- long ago -- and there is therefore a profound equality between us and them; they are like distant family, and one has duties and expectations as one would with family members. People are 'familiar' with the habits and ways of animals, and this familarity is cherished. (By contrast in the West, close familiarity with animals was considered devilish: the witch and her 'familiar.')

"Animals should be treated kindly, even in hunting, for they are kin to humans. 'We owe...kindliness to other creatures: there is an intercourse and mutual obligation between them and us,' wrote Michael de Montaigne, sounding uncannily like an Amazonian Indian."


"Homo sapiens," wrote the late naturalist Ellen Meloy (in Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild) "have left themselves few scant places and scant ways to witness other species in their own world, an estangement that leaves us hungry and lonely. In this famished state, it is no wonder that when we do finally encounter wild animals, we are quite surprised by the sheer truth of them."

Barn owl

Louise Erdrich portrays this sense of surprise in a passage from her novel The Painted Drum:

“Coming down off the trail, I am lost in my own thoughts and unprepared when a bear chugs across the path just before it gives out on the gravel road. I am so distracted that I keep walking towards the bear. I only stop when it rears, stands on hind legs, and stares at me, sensitive nose pressed into the air, weak eyes searching. I have never been this close to a wild bear before, but I am not frightened. There is no menace in its stance; it is not even curious. The bear seems to know who or what I am. The bear is not impressed. ”

Black bearNo, I don't expert that the bear would be impressed with many of us these days, nor the bees and badgers, the hares and hedgehogs and other wild folk here in the hills of Devon. We don't know their stories any longer. We've forgotten their songs. We don't "stand with presence."

In From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner discusses the role of "beasts" in fairy tales, and how our perceptions of these stories have changed as attitudes towards animals have changed. "Just as the rise of the teddy bear matches the decline of real bears in the wild," she notes, "so soft toys today have taken the shape of rare animal species. Some of these are not very furry in their natural state: stuffed killer whales, cheetahs, gorillas, snails, spiders and snakes -- and of course dinosaurs -- are made in the most inviting deep-pile plush. They act as a kind of totem, associating the human being with the animal's capacities and value. Anthropomorphism traduces the creatures themselves; their loveableness sentimentally exaggerated, just as formerly, belief in their viciousness crowded out empircal observation."

Brown Hare

Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

This is clearly true, and a world in which children interact only with animal-shape-objects while remaining ignorant about the creatures outside their own back door (be it country badger or urban fox) is clearly a world out of balance.  And yet, for me, those soft animal toys awakened my interest in and life-long love of the wild, as did the anthropomorphised animals of tales like Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, and Wind and Willows. I'm thinking quite a lot about this these days, as I work on a book project involving bunny girls and other animal children. I want these magical beings to lead children back to nature, not to be nature's safe, cuddly substitute. Is this possible? At this point in the process, I have more questions than I have answers....

When I think back to my own childhood, what I wish is that someone had noted my passion for animals and placed a wildlife guide in my hands alongside those tales of Mole and Rat and Benjamin Bunny...or better still, led me out of doors and into the wild, and told tales of the land we then lived on. Not in place of those books, which had done their work in opening the door into wonder for me, but as the next necessary step of attaching wonder to the living world around us.

Bunny Sisters

"How, then to renew our viceral experience of a world that exceeds us -- of a world that is wider than ourselves and our own creations?" asks David Abram (in Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology). "Does a revitalizing of oral [storytelling] culture mean that mean that we must renounce reading and writing? Must we empty our bookcases? Must we unplug our computers and drag them down to the dump?

"Hardly. The renewal of oral culture entails no renunciation of books, and no rejection of technology. It entails only that we leave abundant space in our days for interchange with one another and with our surroundings that is not mediated by technology: neither by television nor the cell phone, neither by the handheld computer or the GPS satellite...nor even the printed page.

"Among writers, for example, it entails a recognition (even an anticipation) that there are certain stories we may stumble against that ought not to be written down -- stories that we might instead begin to tell with our tongue in the particular topography where those stories live. Among parents, it requires that we set aside, now and then, the books that we read to our children in order to recount a vital story with the whole of our gesturing body -- or better yet, that we draw our kids out of doors in order to improvise a tale about how the nearby river feels when the fish return to its waters, or about the wild wind that's even now blustering its way through the city streets, plucking the hats off people's heads.... Among educators, it requires that we begin to rejuvenate the arts of telling, and of listening, in relation to the geographical place where our lessons actually happen."

Noctule Bat

"Can we renew in ourselves an implicit sense of the land's meaning, of its own many-voice eloquence?" David wonders. "Not without renewing the sensory craft of listening, and the sensuous art of storytelling. Can we help our students to carefully translate the quantified abstractions of science into the qualitative language of direct experience, so that those necessary insights begin to come alive in their felt encounters with cumulus clouds and bleaching corals, with owls and deformed dragonflies and the intricate tangle of mycelial mats? ...Most important, can we begin to restore the health and integrity of the local earth? Not without restorying the local earth."

Water shrew

"We are of the animal world," Linda Hogan reminds us (in her beautiful collection of essays, Dwelling: A Spiritual History of the Living World). "We are part of the cycles of growth and decay. Even having tried so hard to see ourselves apart, and so often without a love for even our own biology, we are in relationship with the rest of the planet, and that connectedness tells us we must reconsider the way we see ourselves and the rest of nature.

"A change is required of us, a healing of the betrayed trust between humans and earth. Caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time, and perhaps that stewardship is finally our place in the web of life, our work, our solution to the mystery of what we are."

Indeed. Part of that stewardship, surely, is caretaking our local, traditional stories as well as the land that gave birth to them. And listening for the land's new stories. Telling them. And singing, so the animals can hear us.


Pictures: The photographs above, of our four-footed and winged neighbors here in Devon, come from the Devon Wildlife Trust website. The art above: "Ratty" (from The Wind in the Willows) by my two-footed neighbor Steve Dooley; a vintage illustration of a black bear (artist unknown); "Peter Rabbit "by the great Beatrix Potter; and my wee "Rabbit Sisters." All rights reserved by the artists and photographers.

Words: The passages quoted above are from "Into the Woods: On British Forests, Myths & Now" by Ruth Padel (The Journal of Mythic Arts); Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram (Vintage, 2011); Wisdom of the Mythtellers by Sean Kane (Broadview Press, 1984); The Practice of the Wild, essays by Gary Snyder (Counterpoint Press, 1990/2010); Power, a novel by Linda Hogan (WW Norton & Co., 1999); Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths (Penguin, 2008); Eating Stone: Imagination & the Loss of the Wild by Ellen Meloy (vintage, 2006); The Painted Drum, a novel by Louise Erdrich (Harper Perennial, 2006); From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales & Their Tellers by Marina Warner (Vintage, 1995), and Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World, essays by Linda Hogan (WW Norton & Co, 1995). This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2013. All rights reserved by the authors.

Wild Marriage

Kay Nielsen

Once upon a time there was poor man who had barely enough to feed his family. As he sat before the fire, sighing over his misfortune, he heard a knock on the window. When he opened the shutters, he found a great white bear standing in the snow. "Don't be afraid. I have come to ask for the hand of your youngest daughter," said the bear. "Only let me take her away, and you shall be paid in silver and gold." The man asked his daughter if she would consent to marriage with the great white bear. "No," she said. The man replied, "But think of your poor family. The bear shall give us silver and gold." At last she agreed. She dressed in her best rags and stepped out into the snow. "Climb upon my back," said the bear, "for we have very far to go."

Frederick RichardsonThus begins the Scandinavian fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon -- an Animal Bridegroom tale that bears some resemblance to Beauty and the Beast but is older, stranger, more overtly sensual than the latter story. In East of the Sun, West of the Moon, the heroine and her monstrous suitor live as man and wife before the beast's transformation. Each night the bear turns into a man and comes to the heroine's bed. She is not allowed to see his face -- but at length she breaks this prohibition, lighting a candle and spilling three drops of tallow on the shirt he wears. "If only you'd been patient," rebukes the bear, revealed now as a handsome prince. "My step-mother placed a curse on me. Had you restrained your curiosity until the space of a year had passed, the curse would have lifted. But now I must go east of the sun, west of the moon, and marry the bride she's chosen for me, with a nose that's three ells long."

The heroine proves her loyalty and courage by finding her way to this distant place, transported there by the winds and carrying magic from three ancient crones. She reaches her lover's side the day before he's due to marry a troll. He's overjoyed to see her, and together they hatch a plan. The next morning he tells the troll princess, "I wish to be married in this shirt. But see here, it's marked by spots of tallow. I bid you to wash them out for me, for I shall only marry the woman who can make this shirt clean once more." The troll princess agrees, thinking that this will be an easy task — but the more she washes the shirt, the dirtier and dirtier it gets. Her maids of honor fail as well, and the prince snatches the shirt and cries, "Why, even the beggar at the gates can wash better than you!" The beggar, of course, is his own true love. She easily washes the stains away -- whereupon the prince's troll step-mother bursts into pieces with her rage, the prince's curse is lifted, and the lovers are re-united.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Ruth Sanderson

This story is similar to Cupid and Psyche, a tale that appears in The Golden Ass (a novel by Lucius Apuleius from the second century AD), where it's told by an older woman to a young girl being held for ransom. Psyche is a girl so beautiful that the goddess Venus grows wild with jealousy. She orders Cupid, her son, to harm the girl but he falls in love instead. An oracle tells Psyche's parents to leave her on a mountain top, for it is Psyche's destiny to marry a fierce winged serpent. Her parents protest, but Psyche knows they cannot thwart the will of the gods. She travels to the mountain top, stands bravely to meet her fate, whereupon a gentle breeze carries her to a beautiful palace. In that palace, she's tended and entertained by kind, invisible servants, and each night she's joined in bed by an unseen lover in human shape. This (unbeknownst to the girl) is Cupid, disguised as a winged serpent by day lest his mother find out that he's disobeyed her orders.

John BattenEventually the girl grows homesick. The obliging breeze is dispatched to fetch Psyche's sisters, who travel to the palace amazed to find that she's been living in splendor. The jealous sisters convince Psyche that her lover must surely be a monster -- for otherwise, they say, she would be allowed to see his face. That night, shaken by her sisters' words, Psyche takes a lamp and a knife to bed -- but when she lights the lamp, she sees it's a beautiful youth who is lying beside her. A drop of oil falls from the lamp, singes his shoulder, and wakes him up. "Is this how you repay my love," Cupid cries, "with a knife to cut off my head? Return to your sisters, whose advice you prefer to mine. You'll never see me again." Whereupon the god and the palace disappear. Pregnant now with Cupid's child, Psyche sets off to search for him and eventually comes before his mother, the source of her misfortune. She humbles herself before the goddess, but Venus is not easily appeased. She sets the girl three impossible tasks, including a journey to the Underworld. With some timely help from Cupid, who still loves her, Psyche succeeds in completing the tasks. In the end, Jupiter intervenes, soothes Venus, and turns Psyche into an immortal. He then blesses the marriage of Cupid and Psyche, and their daughter, a child named Pleasure.

Tristan Elwell

The three motifs common to Animal Bride and Bridegroom stories are evident in Apuleius's tale: marriage to (or cohabitation with) a mysterious non-human figure; the breaking of a prohibition and subsequent departure of the magical spouse (or suitor, or lover); and a pilgrimage to regain the loved one and achieve a more lasting union. A number of tales from the folk tradition, however, end after the second part of this cycle. These are tragic tales (or horrific ones) in which the union of lovers from human and non-human worlds cannot be sustained. The selchie tales of the British Isles and Scandinavia generally fall in this category. In a typical story, a fisherman spies a group of seals emerging from the sea. They shed their skins and turn into beautiful maidens upon the shore. As the selchies dance under the moon, the fisherman steals one of the skins. When the maidens turn back into seals and depart, they leave one seal-woman behind, for she is unable to transform herself without the magic of her seal-skin. She begs the man to return it -- but he refuses, insisting she be his wife. Resigned, she follows him to his cottage and learns how to live on shore. Eventually she comes to care for husband, and she bears him seven sons. One day, however, she finds the skin -- and she swiftly returns to her life in the sea. In some versions, she departs without another thought for the family left behind; in other versions, the sons also turn into seals and vanish with her. And in other variants of this tale, she joins a large bull seal in the waves. "I loved you," she calls back to the fisherman, "but I love my first husband more."

Mikhail Vrubel

Similar tales are told of swan maidens in Sweden, of frog wives in Russia, China, and Tibet, of bear women in North America, of peries (fairies) in Persian folklore, and of aspares (nymphs) in Hindu myth who take the shape of waterfowl. Yet in some stories, Animal Brides and Bridegrooms are less benign figures. In the English tale Reynardine, for instance, a young woman is pledged in marriage to a handsome red-haired stranger -- who Virginia Leeactually intends to murder and eat her in his ruined mansion in the woods. The fox-wives of Korea and Japan are beautiful, sensual, highly dangerous creatures who feed on the life energy that they slowly drain from their bewitched lovers. In The Lindworm, a story told in Sweden, a barren queen finally gives birth to two sons, the eldest of whom is a hideous lindworm (a serpent, or dragon). Before the king is told of the birth, she casts the eldest off in the woods, and the youngest son grows up believing that he is the heir to the kingdom. When it's time for the younger son to wed, the lindworm makes his appearance at court. "You shall get no bride," he threatens the prince, "until I have a mate and have lain by her side." Frightened, the king and queen agree to wed the lindworm to a slave. The marriage is performed, and in the morning the slave girl's body is found torn to pieces. Another bride is found, and then another; and each time the bride is killed.

Kay Nielsen

Finally, a woman from the country steps up and offers her step-daughter in marriage. The girl is kind, beautiful, and well-loved, and the step-mother means to be rid of her. The girl prays on her mother's grave, then comes to the palace determined to be brave. She'll wed with the lindworm, she says, but her bridal chamber must first be prepared. She asks for a strong pot of lye, seven scrubbing brushes, and seven new shirts made of soft white linen. Now she is ready. The marriage is sealed, and she's left with her terrible husband. The lindworm orders his wife to undress. "Undress yourself first!" she tells him boldly. He's puzzled. "None of the others bade me do that." "But I bid you," she answers. Then the lindworm begins to groan and writhe and he soon slithers out of his outer skin, whereupon his bride takes off one of the seven white linen shirts. Again he orders her to undress; again she tells him to undress first. In the end, there are seven white shirts on the ground, and seven hideous snake skins. The lindworm is now a slimy mass. The girl takes up a scrubbing bush, and she scrubs him all over with lye until she has worn out all seven brushes. When she is done, a handsome young prince stands before her, the spell that had held him broken. He declares his love for the clever, beautiful girl who has set him free. The tale goes on from there, for the wicked step-mother has not exhausted her tricks, but in the end, the couple live happily and rule over the kingdom.

Adrian Arleo

Not all animal brides or bridegrooms are really humans in disguise. Some are magical beings who take on human shape. In an Arabic story told by Scheherazade in The Thousand and One Nights, there once lived a mighty sultan whom Allah had blessed with three strong sons. When it came time for his sons to marry, he sought the advice of his councilors, who recommended leaving the choice of brides to destiny. The sultan had each of his sons blindfolded. Bows and arrows were put in their hands. "Shoot," he said, "and wherever your arrow lands you shall find your bride." The first son's arrow fell at the feet of the daughter of a noble lord. The second arrow fell at the feet of the daughter of a wealthy merchant. The third son's arrow fell in the courtyard of an unknown house. The only creature who lived there was an enormous tortoise. "Shoot again," said the sultan. The second arrow landed beside the first. "You must shoot yet again, my son." But this arrow too landed by the tortoise. The sultan sighed and said, "It seems that Allah does not mean for you to wed -- for see you here, this tortoise is not of our race, our kind, or our religion." But the young man cried, "All praise to Allah, but this tortoise is my destiny. I shall marry her, for I swear that my time of celibacy is over." "How can a man wed a tortoise?" said the sultan, astonished. "That would be a monstrous thing!" "I have no predilection for tortoises, it is true. Nevertheless, this one will be my bride, for it is the will of Allah," said the son, and the sultan had to agree.

Edmund Dulac

The weddings of the sultan's sons commenced. The first two weddings were splendid indeed, but the third wedding was a strange affair and caused much mocking laughter. The eldest brothers refused to attend, and their wives would not help the tortoise to dress or lay her down in her bridal bed afterwards, as was the custom. This saddened the youngest son but still he faithfully honored his wedding vows. He passed the night with his tortoise bride, and every night thereafter. Whispers flew around the court. How could a man couple with a tortoise? The bridegroom would not speak, or hear a word against his bride.

Three years passed. The sultan grew ill, for his youngest son was dear to him and the circumstances of the boy's strange marriage preyed upon his mind. "Our very own wives shall prepare your food," said the eldest and the middle son. "This will tempt your appetite and bring you back to health." Each hurried home and instructed his wife to prepare a dish finer than any known -- for surely the son whose wife restored the sultan's health would become the favorite. The youngest son went home and conveyed these tidings to his tortoise wife. "Do not despair," she assured her husband. "Just wait and see what happens." She sent a message to the first brother's wife. "Please be so good as to send me all the mouse dung you can collect in your house. I am preparing food for the sultan, and I never cook with any other condiment." The first wife said, "Why should I help a tortoise? There must be some kind of magic in this. I'll use the mouse dung for myself, and get the better of her." The tortoise sent a message to the second brother's wife, "Please be so good as to send me all the hen droppings you can collect in your yard. I am preparing food for the sultan, and I never cook with any other condiment." The second wife said, "Why should I help a tortoise? There must be some kind of magic in this. I'll use the hen droppings myself, and get the better of her."

Edmund DulacThe tortoise prepared a meal in a silver dish set upon on a golden tray surrounded with yellow rose petals, and she sent it to the sultan. When each of the dishes had arrived, the sultan summoned his sons to him. "I intend to give my kingdom," he said, "to the man whose wife restores my health." He lifted the cover from the first dish. The smell of rat turds was overpowering. The old man swooned, and the fetid dish was hastily removed. When the sultan recovered, he lifted the lid of the dish prepared by his second son's wife. The stench of bird droppings filled the air. "Are your wives trying to kill me?" he cried. His sons begged his forgiveness, for this mystery passed their understanding. "Try the third dish," begged the youngest son. "What, do you mock me?" the sultan demanded. "If my other sons' wives could not prepare food fit for eating, what can a tortoise do?" The youngest begged his father to try the food. At last the old sultan consented. As he lifted the lid, a scent finer than the sweetest perfume wafted through the room and every man licked his lips, longing for a taste of the morsels inside. With one bite, the old man's eyes grew clear. With the second bite, his spine straightened. With the third bite, the sultan felt younger, fitter, and stronger than he had in years. He ate every morsel in the dish, drank a sherbet of musk and snow, and burped three times to show his satisfaction with the meal.

The story goes on…two other tests are demanded of the daughters-in-law, and each time the tortoise triumphs, turning the spite of the other wives against them. Finally, the tortoise-wife is summoned to appear before the sultan and his court -- and she reveals herself as a beautiful, wise, wealthy, and well–mannered young woman. The sultan, delighted, signs his kingdom over to his youngest son -- and the tortoise-wife has her old shell burned so that she's never tempted to return to it.

Gennady Spirin

Similar tales can be found in other fairy tale traditions, such as the Russian story The Frog Princess and the French story The White Cat -- although these tales are more decorous in the depiction of the tasks, and avoid sexual conjecture. In the Russian story, the frog–wife transforms into human shape in her husband's bed; in the French tale, marriage doesn't take place until after the cat turns back into a woman. In these later tales, we're assured that the Animal Brides had actually been human at birth, changed to animal shape by a fairy's whim or a witch's curse. In older stories, like that of the tortoise wife, the bride often begins as an animal (or as a magical shape-shifting creature), consenting in the end to give up her true form in order to live in the human world.

Gennady Spirin"Just as marriage between two people unites their families, so marriage between a person and an animal in myth and fairy tale joins humanity with nature," writes folklorist Boria Sax, noting that changes in the tales as they pass through the centuries have reflected the changing relationship between man and the natural world. The oldest known Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales are generally those limited to the first part of the story cycle: the romance and/or marriage of human beings and animals (or other nature-bound creatures). Tales of this sort include ancestral myths such as the Chinese stories of families descended from the marriage of humans and shape-shifting dragons, or the lore of Siberia shamans who trace their power and healing gifts to marriages between men and swans. Such tales evoke an ancient world view in which humans were part of the natural world, cousin to the animals, rather than separate from nature and placed above all other creatures.

Anne SiemsAnimal Bride and Bridegroom stories that go on to the second part of the cycle -- ending with the loss of the animal lover -- arise from a world view in which sharper distinctions are made between the human sphere (civilization) and nature (the wilderness). In such tales, humans and their animal lovers come from distinctly separate worlds, and any attempt to unite the two is ultimately doomed to failure.

Stories that move on to the third part of the cycle, like East of the Sun, West of the Moon, end with the lovers reunited and the transformation of one or both. Such tales, notes Sax, express "an almost universal longing to re-establish a lost intimacy with the natural world" -- and although the tortoise might burn her shell in order to live in the sultan's court, she brings the scent of the wild with her as she steps into civilization. She will never be an ordinary woman; she'll always be the Fantastic Bride -- joining the hero to the mysteries of nature.

The history of animal-human marriage tales reaches back to legends of animal deities and their various mortal lovers, found in Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, early Greek, and other ancient mythologies. In the lore of a number of Native American tribes, the Animal People were the first people to inhabit the earth; intermarriage between them and the second people, human beings, could be a blessing or a disaster.

Susan Seddon Boulet

Gene & Rebecca Tobey

In the Alaskan story of Sedna, for instance, a beautiful young woman is tricked into marriage with a man who is really a sea-bird in disguise; he takes her to live among the birds, where she's cold and miserable. Sedna seizes an opportunity for escape when her father comes to visit her: she hides in his kayak and he paddles away with the bird in hot pursuit. The sea gods send a storm, angry with Sedna for breaking her marriage vows. Her father, in order to save his own life, casts the girl into the sea. As she clutches onto the kayak, her father stabs her fingers to loosen her hold. Three times he stabs her with his knife, and each time that her blood flows to the sea new creatures emerge from it: the very first seals, walruses and whales. At last Sedna sinks to the bottom of the ocean, the new creatures following after her -- and there she's lived ever since, joined by her father and her faithful dog. Men now pray to Sedna to send them whales, walruses, and seals to hunt. Bitter and capricious, nursing her sore fingers, sometimes she honors the hunters' requests, and sometimes she takes their lives from them, just as the sea gods once took hers.

Germaine Arnatauyck

In old folktales, marriage between humans and animals broke certain taboos, and could be dangerous, but these relationships weren't generally portrayed as wicked or immoral. Even when such marriages were doomed to failure (selchie wives returning to the sea, for example), often a gift was left behind in the form of children, wealth, good fortune, or the acquisition of magical skills (such as the ability to find fish or game in plentiful supply).

By the Middle Ages, however, animal-human relationships were viewed more warily, and creatures who could shift between human and animal shape were portrayed in more demonic terms. Witches were said to have animal familiars with whom they had unnatural relations, and in some witch trials, animals were hung and burned alongside their mistresses. One of the best known Animal Bride tales of medieval Europe was the story of Melusine, written down by Gervasius of Tilbury in 1211. A count met Melusine beside a pond and fell in love in love with her. She agreed to marry on one condition: he was never see her on a Saturday, which was when she took her bath. They wed, and she bore the count nine sons -- each one deformed in some fashion. Finally, breaking the prohibition, the count spies on her at her bath and discovers that she's a snake from the waist down on every seventh day. When the trespass comes to light, Melusine becomes a serpent and vanishes -- appearing thereafter only in spectral form to warn of death and danger. The brutish sons are evidence here of Melusine's demonic nature -- although in older versions of her story, Melusine is simply a water fairy. The emphasis of the older tales lies on her husband's misdeed in breaking his promise, thereby losing his fairy wife, rather than on his discovery that he is married to a monster.

Jean d'Arras (15th century)

Helen Stratton

In the 15th century, a wandering alchemist by the name of Paracelsus wrote of magical spirits born from the elements of water, earth, air, and fire, living alongside humankind in a parallel dimension. These spirits were capable of transforming themselves into the shapes of men and women, and lacked only immortal souls to make them fully human. A soul could be gained, Paracelsus wrote, through marriage to a human being, and the children of such unions were mortal (but lived unusually long lives). Several noble families, it was believed, descended from knights married to water spirits (called "undines" or "melusines") who had taken on human shape in order to win immortal souls. Paraceslus' ideas went on to inspire the German Romantics in the 19th century -- in tales such as Goethe's The New Melusine, E.T.A. Hoffman's The Golden Pot, and especially Friederich de la Motte Fouqué's Undine -- the tragic story of a water nymph in pursuit of love and a human soul. Fouqué's famous tale, in turn, inspired Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, along with other literary, dramatic, and musical works of the Victorian era. Many folklorists consider such tales to be part of the Animal Bride tradition, depicting as they do the union of mortal men and creatures of nature.

The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac

In the years between Paracelsus and Fouqué, fairy tales came into flower as a literary art of the educated classes, popularized by Italian and French publications that eventually spread across Europe. Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales were part of this enchanting literary movement. Basile's influential collection Il Pentamerone, for example, published in Naples in the 17th century, includes The Snake (a story that follows the traditional three-part Animal Bridegroom cycle), about a princess who marries a snake, loses him, and then must win him back. Later in the century, the term "fairy tale" (conte de fées) was coined by the writers of the Paris salons, who drew inspiration for their tales from folklore, myth, medieval romance, and prior works by Italian writers. Although Charles Perrault is the best known of them today, the majority of the contes were written by women authors, many of whom used fairy tales to critique the French court and restrictions place upon women of their class. In particular they railed against a marriage system in which women had few legal rights -- no right to chose their own husband, no right to refuse the marriage bed, no right to control their own property, and no right of divorce. Often the brides were fourteen or fifteen years old, given to men who were decades older. Unsatisfactory wives risked being locked up in mental institutions or distant convents. The fairy tale writers of the French salons were sharply critical of such practices, promoting the ideas of love, fidelity, and civilité between the sexes. Their tales reflected the realities they lived with, and their dreams of a better way of life. Their Animal Bridegroom tales, in particularly, embodied the real-life fears of women who could be promised to total strangers in marriage, and who did not know if they'd find a beast or a lover in their marriage bed.

Adrienne SegurMarie-Catherine D'Aulnoy, for example, one of the leading writers of the contes, had been married off at age 15 to an abusive baron thirty years her senior. (She rid herself of him after a series of adventures as wild as any fairy story.) By contrast, the lovers in D'Aulnoy's tales are well-matched in age and intellect; they enjoy books, music, good conversation and each other's company. D'Aulnoy penned several Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales that are still widely read and loved today, including The Green Snake, The White Cat, The White Deer, and her tragic King-Lear-type story called The Royal Ram. As Marina Warner points out (in her book From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers), "Romance -- love-in-marriage -- was an elusive ideal, which the writers of the contes sometimes set up in defiance of destiny." In the 17th century, such ideas were startlingly modern and revolutionary. Today, however, (when romantic, companionable marriage is the expected norm), the emphasis on love and marriage in the contes can seem sentimental, quaint, even anti-feminist. An understanding of the context these stories sprang from reveals them to be quite the opposite.

In the 18th century, another French woman, Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, borrowed from the Animal Bridegroom tradition to create an original fairy tale that would become one of the best loved of all time: Beauty and the Beast. Villeneuve's original narrative is over one hundred pages long, and is somewhat different in theme than the shorter version we know today. As Villeneuve's story begins, Beauty's destiny lies in the hands of her father, who gives her over to the Beast (to save his own life) and thus seals her fate. The Beast is a truly fiercesome figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur -- a creature lost to the human world that had once been his by birthright. The emphasis of this tale is on the transformation of the Beast, who must find his way back to the human sphere. He is a genuine monster, eventually reclaimed by civilité and magic.

Angela Barrett

Angela Barrett

Sixteen years later Mme Leprince de Beaumont, a French woman working as a governess in England, shortened Villeneuve's story and published this new version in a magazine for well-bred young ladies. She tailored her version for her audience, toning down its sensual imagery and implicit critique of forced marriages. She also pared away much unnecessary fat -- the twisting subplots beloved by Villeneuve -- to end up with a tale that was less adult and subversive, but also more direct and memorable. In the Leprince de Beaumont version (and subsequent retellings) the story becomes a more didactic one. The emphasis shifts from the Beast's need for transformation to the need of the heroine to change — she must learn to see beyond appearance and recognize the Beast as a good man before his transformation. With this shift, we see the story altered from one of critique and rebellion to one of moral edification, aimed at younger and younger readers, as fairy tales slowly moved from adult salons to children's nurseries. By the 19th century, the Beast's monstrous shape is only a kind of costume that he wears -- he poses no genuine danger or sexual threat to Beauty in these children's stories.

Adrienne SegurIn 1946, the tale started making its way back out of the nursery in Jean Cocteau's remarkable film version, La Belle et la Bête. Here, the Beast literally smolders with the force of his sexuality, and Beauty's adventure can be read as a metaphor for her sexual awakening. This is a common theme in a number of Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales from the mid-20th century onward, when fairy tale stories, novels, and poetry became increasingly popular with adult readers. Angela Carter was the leading light in this movement with the publication of her ground-breaking story collection The Bloody Chamber in 1979, containing two powerful, darkly sensual riffs on the Animal Bridegroom theme: "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" and "The Tiger's Bride." With the works of Carter and writers of her ilk (in mainstream literature, fantasy literature, and feminist poetry), we have come full circle -- these are Animal Bride and Bridegroom tales intended for adults once again, exploring issues of gender, sexuality, race, culture, and the process of transformation.

One distinct change marks modern re-tellings however -- reflecting our changed relationship to animals and nature. In a society in which most of us will never encounter true danger in the woods, the bear who comes knocking at our window is not such a frightening creature; instead, he's exotic, almost appealing. Where once wilderness was threatening to civilization, now it's been tamed and cultivated (or set aside and preserved); the dangers of the animal world now have a nostalgic quality, removed as they are from our daily existence. This removal gives "the wild" a different kind of power; it's something we long for rather than fear. The Animal Bride or Bridegroom, the Beast, the Other from the heart of the woods -- they re-unite us with a world we've lost, re-awakening the wild within us.

We see this theme explored in contemporary fiction such as The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich, Second Nature by Alice Hoffman, The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson, When Fox Was a Thousand by Larissa Lai, Medicine Road by Charles de Lint, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, Beast by Donna Jo Napoli, Through Wolf's Eyes by Jane Lindskold, Once Upon a Winter's Night by Dennis McKiernan, East by Edith Pattou, The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley, Swim the Moon by Paul Brandon, Sealskin by Su Bristow and numerous other "animal bride or bridegroom"  novels -- as well as in films such as The Secret of Roan Inish; and in a wide range of visual artworks, including those featured here.

Tricia Cline

Sirens of Rutino by Adrian Arleo

On relationships between mortal women and Animal Bridegrooms, Marina Warner writes: "In her encounter with the Beast, the female protagonist meets her match, in more ways than one. If she defeats him, or even kills him, if she outwits him, banishes him, or forsakes him, or accepts him and love him, she arrives at some knowledge she did not possess; his existence and the challenge he offers is necessary before she can grasp it."

On relationships between mortal men and Animal Brides, Midori Snyder writes: "It is the task of the hero to wrestle with the ambiguous power of the fantastic world and return with its fully creative potential in hand. The young Prince proves his loyalty and compassion, and from the [animal's] Woman & bearbeastly skin there emerges a beautiful bride. The bride is unlike her mortal counterparts, no matter how brave and courageous they may appear in the other tales, for she presents a union, a partnership between the human hero and the creative forces of the fantastic world."

The Animal Bride and Bridegroom represent the wild within each one of us. They represent the wild within our lovers and spouses, the part of them that we can never fully know. They represent the Others who live unfathomable lives right beside us -- cat and mouse and coyote and owl; and the Others that live only in the dreams and nightmares of our imaginations.

Katerina Plotnikova

For thousands of years, their tales have emerged from the place where we draw the boundary lines between animals and human beings, the natural world and civilization, women and men, magic and illusion, fiction and the lives we live. Those lines are drawn in sand; they shift over time; and the stories are always changing. Once upon a time there was a poor man who had barely enough to feed his family. Yesterday a bear knocked at his window. Today Edward Scissorhands stands at the door. Tomorrow? There will still be Beasts, and there will still be those who transform them with love.

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

The beastly artwork above is: "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" illustrations by Kay Nielsen and Frederick Richardson; white bears by Lucy Campell, Anton Lomaev, & Jackie Morris; "The Snow Princess" by Ruth Sanderson; "Cupid & Psyche" by John D. Batten; "Daughter of the Sea" by Tristan Elwell; "Swan Princess" by Mikhail Vrubel; "The Frog Bride" by Virginia Lee; "The Lindworm" by Kay Nielsen; "Turtle with Hands" by Adrian Arleo; "Scheherazade" and "She Stirred the Brazier" by Edmund Dulac; "The Frog Princess" and "The White Cat" by Gennady Spirin; "Bear Girl" by Anne Siems, "Deer Woman" by Susan Seddon Boulet; "Big Horn Sheep Shaman" and "Keeper of the Trust" by Gene & Rebecca Tobey; "Sedna" by Germaine Arnaktauyck; an illustration for "Melusine" by Jean D'Arras (14th century); "The Little Mermaid" by Helen Stratton and Edmund Dulac; "The White Deer" by Adrienne Segur; two "Beauty & the Beast" illustrations by Angela Barrett; "Beauty & the Beast" by Adrienne Segur; "The Exit of the Manticore," "The Exile of the Deer," and "Ursula's Kid" by Tricia Cline; "Sirens of Rutino" by Adrian Arleo; "The Princess & the Bear," a Victorian illustration (artist unknown); and two photographs by Katerina Plotnokova. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.

Words: Some of the text for this post was drawn from my introduction to The Beastly Bride & Other Tales of the Animal People, co-edited with Ellen Datlow (Viking, 2010); all rights reserved. For further reading, I recommend two fine essays by Midori Snyder: "The Swan Maiden's Feathered Robe" and "The Monkey Girl."

The secular sacred

Herring Gulls by Ekaterina Bee

Here's another lovely passage from Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore -- a book that I keep returning to over the years, and love afresh with each re-reading. In her essay "The Time of the Singing of the Birds," Moore writes:

"This is a story a friend gave to me. I am giving it to you.

"There was a man who searched and searched for the sacred in nature -- in the forest, at the beach -- and sure enough: one day as he was walking along the coast, he heard a voice, loud and clear.

" 'Stand here,' it said, 'and God will speak to you.'

"The man stood. What else could he do? What would you have done? He stood for a very long time, shifting his weight from one leg to another. His back stiffened up. A flock of brants flew down the trough between the breakers. The wind came up and died back. The tide flowed in. He zipped his jacket and unzipped it, zipped it again as the sun went down and gulls cried out and flew to their roosts. He shivered in fog that came with the night, and finally he went home.

''Realm of the Seychelles'' by Thomas Peschak

Weddell seals by Laurent Ballesta

"I'm not sure what he hoped to hear. The sound of the wind bringing rain, the rattle of surf-driven stones -- these didn't tell him what he needed to know? That he is alive in this place, at this time, alive in the midst of all this life. That he is aware in the midst of all that is mysterious, every fact that might have been and yet is. Stinging sand, the storm-driven waves, the swirling gulls --they are all cause for surprise and celebration.

Sperm whales in Sri Lanka by Tony Wu

Night of the Turtles by Ingo Arndt

"Instead of standing still and waiting for instructions, what if he had laid his back in the midst of the mussels, laid there with barnacles poking his scalp, felt -- in the hollow echo chamber of his ribs -- the breakers pound against rock, listened to the shouts of faraway children and the pop of sand fleas next to his ear, as all the while tide crept in around him and surf exploded closer and closer to his brain?

"Then what would he have heard?

Female humpback whale  by Wade Hughes

"I don't want to say he would have heard the voice of God.

"I want to say he would have heard -- really heard, maybe for the first time -- the squeak of mussels, the smash of surf, the peeping of sandpipers. Maybe a fish crow cawing or a chainsaw cutting cedar drifted in on storms.

"And I want to say this is enough. I want to say that this is astonishing enough -- the actual Earth, the extraordinary fact of the ticking, smashing, singing, whistling, peeping Earth -- to make me feel I live in a sacred place and time.

"I want to say there is a secular sacred, that this phrase, paradoxical as it seems, makes good and profound and important sense.

Nesting leatherback turtle by Brian Skerry

"Here is what I believe: that the natural world -- the stuff of our lives, the world we plod through, hardly hearing, the world we burn and poke and stuff and conquer and irradiate -- that THIS WORLD (not another world on another plane) is irreplaceable, astonshing, contingent, eternal and changing, beautiful and fearsome, beyond human understanding, worthy of reverence and awe, worthy of celebration and attention.

"If the good English word for this combination of qualities is 'sacred,' then so be it. Even if we don't believe in God, we walk out the door on a sacred morning and lift our eyes to the sacred rain and are called to remember our sacred obligations of care and celebration.


"And what's more, is the natural world is sacred and 'sacred' describes the natural world; of there are not too worlds but one, and it is magnificent and mysterious enough to shake us to the core; if this is so, then we -- you and I and the man on the beach -- are called to live our lives gladly. We are called to live lives of gratitude, joy, and caring, profoundly moved by the bare fact that we live in the time of the singing of birds."

Great Crested Grebes by Knut Erik Alnæs (Norway)

If we allow for the concept of the "secular sacred," then I suppose that Wild Comfort is one of my sacred texts -- along with books by Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner, Patricia McKillip, John Crowley, Jane Yolen, Lloyd Alexander, David Abram, Lewis Hyde, Rebecca Solnit, and so many others. They honor the mystery. Restore my sense of wonder. Remind me to be astonished by the world, and call me to gratitude and joy.

Spanwing brook trout David Herasimtschuk

Pictures: The glorious photographs above are from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, running at The Museum of Natural History in London until the May 28th. They are identified & credited in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) You'll find more on the NHM website.

Words: The passage above is from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter Books, 2010); all rights reserved by the author.


From Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far beneath ourselves. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complex than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”  - Henry Beston (The Outermost House)

From Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Francis Sterrett

“How monotonous our speaking becomes when we speak only to ourselves! And how insulting to the other beings – to foraging black bears and twisted old cypresses – that no longer sense us talking to them, but only about them, as though they were not present in our world…Small wonder that rivers and forests no longer compel our focus or our fierce devotion. For we walk about such entities only behind their backs, as though they were not participant in our lives. Yet if we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us – and if they still try, we will not likely hear them.”  - David Abram (Becoming Animal)

From Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett

"Maybe it's animalness that will make the world right again: the wisdom of elephants, the enthusiasm of canines, the grace of snakes, the mildness of anteaters. Perhaps being human needs some diluting."  - Carol Emshwiller (Carmen Dog

From Tanglewood Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett (1921)

The art today is by American illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931), who was born Chicago, but raised in Missouri after the early death of her father. She studied briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving a full scholarship when she was just 15 -- but had to leave when her mother grew ill and she took on sole support of her family. She worked in Chicago's advertising industry, and obtained her first book commission at the age of 19: illustrating Comtesse de Ségur's Old French Fairy Tales for the Penn Publishing Company in 1920, followed by Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales in 1921.

At the same time Virginia's own health was failing and the diagnosis was grim: tuberculosis. The family moved to the warm, dry climate of California, but her health grew worse and worse, and she entered a sanatorium in Pasedena at age 24. She continued to work, but her output slowed, and her third book, The Arabian Nights, was not published until 1928. She was working on her last commission, Myths & Legends, when she died in 1931.

From Tanglewood Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett

In a tribute to Sterrett, the Saint Louise Post-Dispatch reported: "Her achievement was beauty, a delicate, fantastic beauty, created with brush and pencil. Almost unschooled in art, her life spent in prosaic places of the West and Middle West, she made pictures of haunting loveliness, suggesting Oriental lands she never saw and magical realms no one ever knew except in the dreams of childhood....Perhaps it was the hardships of her own life that gave the young artist's work its fanciful quality. In the imaginative scenes she set down on paper she must have escaped from the harsh actualities of existence."

Old French Fairy Tails illustrated by Virginia Francis SterrettThe quotes above first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2012, reposted today with updated art.

Holding the world in balance

A stag who appears on New Year's Day in Romania (photograph by Charles Fréger)

Ceremonial deer dancers in the Mayan, Portuguese, and Bhutan traditions

Following on from yesterday's post, here's a passage from an interview with Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan noting the role of traditional ceremonies in mediating our relationship with animals:

"There were times when animals and people spoke the same language, or when the animals helped the humans. For instance, our mythology says it was the spider who brought us fire. I’ve thought about these human-animal relationships for years -- is this true? Well, humans and animals existed together for many thousands of years without creating the loss of species. There was enormous respect given to animals. I have to trust the knowledge of indigenous people because it held a world in balance.

"I have a special interest in ceremonies. I look at a ceremony called the Deer Dance. In the ceremony, I watch the entire world unfold through the life of the deer and a man dressed as a deer. The man dances all night. It is as if he were transformed into a deer. This is a renewal ceremony for the people. The deer that lives in the mountains far from the people provides them with life.

"The purpose of most ceremonies -- such as healing ceremonies -- is to return one person or group of people to themselves, to place the human in proper relationship with the rest of the world. I thought that we were out of touch with ourselves twenty years ago. Now, with computers and email and cell phones, we are even more out of touch. How many of us even stay in touch with our own bodies? If we aren’t inhabiting our own bodies, how can we understand animal bodies of the world?"

Deer dancer at the Crane Festival in Bhutan 2

Tibetan Cham Deer  in the early 20th & 2st centuries

Women's deer dance in Bali

An urban deer dance by artist Carolyn Ryder Cooley

"Indian people," says Hogan, "must not be the only ones who remember the agreement with the land, the sacred pact to honor and care for the life that, in turn, provides for us. We need to reach a hand back through time and a hand forward, stand at the zero point of creation to be certain we do not create the absence of life, of any species, no matter how inconsequential they might appear to be. "

Yaqui Deer and Pascola Dancers, Sonora, Mexico

Deer Dance by Kyle Bowman

Yokai spirits in Akita Prefecture, Japan (photograph by Charles Fréger)

Pictures: A traditional stag dancer on New Year's Day in Romania (photographed bCharles Fréger); Mayan, Portuguese, and Bhutan deers dancers (the second photograph by Fréger); a deer dancer performing at the Black Crane Festival in Bhutan; Tiben Cham Deers, early in the 20th & 21st centuries; a women's deer dance in Bali; an urban deer dance by American artist Carolyn Ryder Cooley; Yaqui Deer and Pascola Dancers in procession in Sonora, Mexico; a Yaqui Deer Dancer in Arizona (photograph by Kyle Bowman), and Yokai spirits in Akita Prefecture, Japan (photographed by Charles Fréger). Please note that there are rules and taboos about photographing sacred ceremonies; I've only used photographs taken with permission.

Words: The first passage above is from an interview with Linda Hogan by Camille Colatosti, published onlne in The Witness. (Alas, it no longer appears to be available.) The second passage is from Hogan's essay collection Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World (WW Norton, 2007), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.

Further reading: "Deer Woman and the Living Myth of the Dreamtime" by Carolyn Dunn, "Where the White Stag Runs" by Ari Berk, and two previous posts: "Wild Folklore" and "Homemade Ceremonies."

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.