Tunes for a Monday Morning

Starling murmuration

Today, music for the birds....

Above: "Seven Hundred Birds" by Monika Gromek's band Quickbeam, from Glasgow, Scotland. The atmospheric video was filmed in the hills of Cumbria. 

Below: "Starlings" by Welsh composer and guitarist Toby Hay. The song first appeared on his Birds EP -- five songs inspired by starlings, ravens, curlews,  and red kites. It can also be found on his fine album The Gathering, which came out last year.

Above: "Song Long Forgotten" by Ye Vagabonds (Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn), from Dublin, Ireland. It comes from the brothers' excellent first album, released last year.

Below: "Hour of the Blackbird" performed by Ninebarrow (Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere), from Dorset, England, accompanied by Lee Cuff (from Kadia) on cello. I recommend both Ninebarrow albums, Releasing the Leaves and While the Blackthorn Burns.

Blackbirds

Above: "Song of the Jay" by Edgelarks (Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin), from here in Devon. "The Californian bush jay," they explain, "has been observed by scientists to give 'funerals' for other birds -- gathering, and giving a special call, known as a 'scold' -- regardless of species."

Below: "Echo Mocks the Corncrake" (audio only) by Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart. The song was written for the Songs of Separation project (discussed in a previous post here), in which 10 English & Scottish women folk musicians gathered on the Isle of Eigg to create an album reflecting on "separation" in its many forms. Eigg, in the Scottish Hebrides, is one of the few remaining strongholds for corncrakes in the UK.

Corncrake (photograph by Nick Truby)

Above: "The Wren and the Salt Air" by Scottish singer/songwriter Jenny Sturgeon, inspired by the wildlife and human history of St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides. (St. Kilda was discussed in a previous post here.) Sturgeon's new work-in-progress is Northern Flyaway with Inge Thomson (from the Shetland Isles): a musical exploration of birdsong, ecology, folklore, and themes of migration. Visit the Northern Flyaway Facebook page to learn more about the project, and to watch it evolve.

Below: Two accomplished young English musicians team up to perform "Wings," written by Brian Bedford. Jackie Oates is a folksinger and fiddle/viola player from Staffordshire; her latest album is The Spyglass and the Herringbone. Megan Henwood is a singer/songwriter from Oxfordshire; her new album is River. Oates and Henwood are accompanied here by video clips of starling murmurations and Pete Thomas on double bass.

To end with: "Hægt, kemur ljósið (Slowly, comes the light)"  by Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds. The beautiful black-and-white animation is by Esteban Diácono, based in Buenos Aires. 

Detail from a sculpture by Susan Hannon

Images above: A starling murmuration, blackbirds in a hedge, a Hebredian corncrake, and a detail from a paper sculpture by Susan Hannon.


When we had wings

Metamorphosis by Christian Schloe

From When Women Were Birds: 54 Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams:

"Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated."

Perhaps it's time to re-claim our wings and song, men and women alike.

The Jungle Book (detail) by Christian Schloe

The Gentleman by Christian Schloe

The magical imagery today is by Austrian digital artist Christian Schloe.

Fairy Tale Night by Christian Schloe

The quote above is from When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams (Picador, 2012). This thoroughly gorgeous "poetic memoir" is a sequel to Williams' Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. All rights to the text and art in this post reserved by the author and artist.


Magpie Moon

Blodeuwedd Night by Jackie Morris

Magpie and Raven by Jackie Morris

From Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams:

"Flocks of magpies have descended on our yard. I cannot sleep for all their raucous behavior. Perched on weathered fences, their green-black tales, long as rulers, wave up and down, reprimanding me for all I have not done.

"I have done nothing for weeks. I have no work. I don't want to see anyone much less talk. All I want to do is sleep.

Drawing by Jackie Morris

"Monday, I hit rock-bottom, different from bedrock, which is solid, expansive, full of light and originality. Rock-bottom is the bottom of the rock, the underbelly that rarely gets turned over; but when it does, I am the spider that scurries from daylight to find another place to hide.

Owl Wore the Moon as a Halo by Jackie Morris

"Today I feel stronger, learning to live with the natural cycles of a day and to not expect so much from myself. As women, we hold the moon in our bellies. It is too much to ask to operate on full-moon energy three hundred and sixty-five days a year. I am in a crescent phase. And the energy we expend emotionally belong belongs to the hidden side of the moon."

This is something I constantly forget: that not every day can be a full-moon day, no matter how many plans and schedules I make. There are cycles in everything, including writing and art-making. I am trying to work with and not against my natural rhythms. To ebb and flow; breathe in, breathe out. My goal is not to push, push, push, but to gently stay in motion....

They Nested in a Porcelain Bowl by Jackie Morris

The art today, of course, is by Jackie Morris, who lives in a house full of books, animals, and nature's magic on the coast Wales. I highly, highly recommend her new book, The Lost Words: a breath-takingly beautiful collaboration with Robert Macfarlane.

The Lord Words

Solstice Badger by Jackie Morris

The passage above is from Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams (Random House, 1991) -- a wonderful book that weaves personal memoir with bird lore and natural history. All rights to the text and art in this post reserved by the author and artist.


Mozart, starlings, and the inspiration-wind

A Luminosity of Birds

From Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt:

"People always ask how I get ideas for by books. I think all authors hear this question. And, at least for me, there is only one answer: You can't think up an idea. Instead, an idea flies into your brain -- unbidden, careening, and wild, like a bird out of the ether. And though Starlingthere is a measure of chance, luck, and grace involved, for the most part ideas don't arise from actual ether; instead they spring from the metaphoric opposite -- from the rich soil that has been prepared, with and without our knowledge, by the whole of our lives: what we do, what we know, what we see, what we dream, what we fear, what we love....

"And as a writer, of course, I live by inspiration. I watch it come and go; when it's missing, I pray for its reappearance. I light a candle and put it in my window hoping that this little ritual might help inspiration find its way back to me, like a lover lost in a snowstorm. The word itself is beautiful. Inspire is from the Latin, meaning 'to be breathed upon; to be breathed into.' Just as I ponder the migrations of birds, I ponder the migrations of inspiration's light breeze. If it's not with me, where has it been? Who has it breathed upon while it was away, and when, and how? Over and over again, I have come to terms with the sad truth that inspiration never visits at my convenience, nor in accordance with my sense of timing, nor at the behest of my will. Most of all, the inspiration-wind has no interest whatsoever in what I think I want to write about."

Haupt is an ecophilosopher and naturalist who has has studied birds for much of her life; she has also worked as a raptor rehabilitator, and once this history became known in her neighborhood, "it seemed that all the injured birds within a fifty-mile radius had a way of finding me." So it's no surprise that birds are the focus of several of her books, including Crow Planet, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent, and Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds. What did surprise her was when inspiration came in the form of a starling.

Bird Girls

In conservation circles, she explains, starlings are easily the most despised birds in all North America: a ubiquitous, nonnative species that has invaded sensitve habitats and outcompetes native birds for food and nest sites.  One day as she sat at her desk, she looked out the window and saw "a plague of starlings" on a strip of grass beyond the house. Other birds find starlings intimidating, so Haupt pounded on the window to make them leave. This had little effect. "So I rapped the window harder," she writes, "and again they lifted. But this time, they turned toward the light and I was dazzled by the glistening iridescence of their breasts. So shimmery, ink black and scattered with pearlescent spots, like snow in sun. Hated birds, lovely birds. In this moment of conflicted beauty, a story I'd heard many times came to mind.

"Mozart had kept a pet starling."

Bird Children from my sketchbooks 2

"Mozart discovered the starling in a Vienna pet shop," Haupt explains, "where the bird had somehow learned to sing the motif from his newest piano concerto. Enchanted, he bought the bird for a few kreuzer and kept it for three years before it died. Just how the starling learned Mozart's motif is a wonderful musico-ornithological mystery. But there is one thing we know for certain: Mozart loved his starling. Recent examinations of his work during and after the period he lived with the bird shows that the starling influenced his music and, I believe, at least one of the opera world's favorite characters. The starling in turn was his companion, distraction, consolation, and muse. When his father, Leopold, died, Wolfgang did not travel to Salzburg for the services. When his starling died, two months later, Mozart hosted a formal funeral in his garden and composed a whimsical elegy that proclaimed his affinity with the starling's mischievousness and his sorrow over the bird's loss."

Bird child and friendsWhile Haupt was was watching the starlings and thinking of Mozart, the Pandora station she was listening to began to play the composer's Prague Symphony -- and with this co-incidence she felt a new obsession take root. "I could not stop wondering over the tangled story of Mozart and his starling and felt I was being pulled through an unseen gateway as I began to follow the tale's trail, uncovering all I could from my 250-year remove.

"What did Mozart learn from his bird? The juxtaposition of the hated and sublime is fascinating enough. But how did they interact? What was the source of their affinity? And how did the starling come to know Mozart's tune? I dove into research, making detailed notes on the starlings in my neighborhood. But gaps in my understanding of starling behavior remained and niggled, and within a few weeks I reluctantly realized that to truly understand what it meant for Mozart to live with a starling, I would, like the maestro, have to live with a starling of my own."

And so she did.

The book and the starlingThe resulting book is Mozart's Starling, which I highly recommend: a skillful blend of musical history, natural science, and personal memoir, with meditations on creativity, migration, and so much more.

"Following Mozart's starling, and mine," Haupt relates in the Introduction, "I was led on a crooked, beautiful, and unexpected path  that would through Vienna and Salzburg, the symphony, the opera, ornithological labs, the depths of music theory, and the field of linguistics. It led me to outer space. It led me deep into the natural world and our constant wild animal companions. It led me to the understanding that there is more possibility in our relationships with animals -- with all the creatures of the earth, not just the traditionally beautiful, or endangered, or loved -- than I had ever imagined. And in this potential for relationship there lies our deepest source of creativity, of sustenance, of intelligence, and of inspiration."

Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Words: The passages above are from Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown & Co., 2017); all rights reserved by the author. Many thanks to William Todd Jones (via composer Hillary Tann) for passing the book on to me.

Pictures: My collage "The Luminosity of Birds" and a various "bird children" from my sketchbooks. All rights reserved.


Swan Maidens and Crane Wives

Swans by Gennady Spirin

I generally compose each morning's post in the quiet and solitude of the early hours before my work day begins...but this morning was not a quiet one at Bumblehill, for a variety of mundane household reasons. (Ah, the eternal tug-of-war as art and family/community life pull in separate directions.) My window of time for posting has now passed and I must get on to working on my manuscript-in-progress. So here's one from the archives today, first posted on Myth & Moor back in 2013:

From "The Swan Maiden's Feathered Robe" by novelist and folklorist Midori Snyder:

"It is hard to imagine a more visually beautiful image in folk tales than the one presented by the figures of the swan maiden and her sisters. With a flurry of wings, they swoop down from the sky to glide The Swan Maidens by Walter Crane
elegantly across a clear pond. Then, throwing off their feathered gowns, they bathe and frolic in the water as women. They are always lovely, sensual, a combination of exotic sexuality and innocent charm.

"In the traditional swan maiden narrative, a hunter or young prince is smitten with love at first sight for the youngest swan sister — smitten enough to commit several crimes against the very object of his desire for the sole purpose of keeping such a magical creature within his grasp. These crimes culminate in marriage and the attempted domestication of the wild, fantastical swan maiden, turned into a wife and mother. But this is less a tale about love than one about marital coercion and confusion. Neither husband nor wife is on the same page; their union is at best a tenuous détente, made possible only by the husband's theft of the swan maiden's feathered gown, forcing her to remain human and estranged from her own world. The husband has done nothing to earn such a Lohengrin by Walter Cranepowerful wife, and the swan maiden has no opportunity to choose her own fate. This is a marriage that cannot last in its fractured form. It must either go forward to find a level playing field for husband and wife, or it must end in miserable dissolution.

"Let us consider a European version of the tale reconstructed from a variety of sources by Victorian author Joseph Jacobs. A hunter is spending the night in a clump of bushes on the edge of a pond, hoping to capture wild ducks. At midnight, hearing the whirring of wings, he is astonished to see not ducks but seven maidens clad in robes of feathers alight on the bank, disrobe, and begin to bathe and sport in the water. The hunter seizes the opportunity to creep through the bushes and steal one of the robes. When dawn approaches, the sisters gather their garments and prepare to leave, but the youngest sister is distraught, unable to find her robe. Daylight is coming and the older sisters cannot wait for her. They leave her behind, telling her 'to meet your fate whatever it may be.'

"As soon as the sisters are out of sight, the hunter approaches her, holding the feathered robe. The young maiden weeps and begs for its return, but the hunter, already too much in love, refuses. Instead, he covers her with his cloak and The Child Finds the Feather Dress, from the Europa's Fairy Book, 1916; artist unknowntakes her home. Once there, he hides her robe, knowing that if she puts it on again, he will lose her. They are married, and she gifts him with two children, a boy and a girl. One day, while playing hide–and–seek, the little girl finds the hidden robe and brings it to her mother. Without a moment's hesitation, the wife slips on the robe. We can almost imagine the mother's sigh of relief to be herself again, her true fantastic self, and not the pale wife weighted down by domestic drudgery. And yet, she offers a spark of hope for the future of the marriage. 'Tell your father, if he wishes to see me again, he must find me in the land East o' the Sun and West' o' the Moon,' she says to her daughter just before flying out the window.

Wings by T Windling"No matter how compliant a swan maiden may appear as a wife, there remains an unspoken anxiety and tension beneath the surface of her marriage. Her husband can never be certain of her affection, for it has been held hostage by her stolen skin. He offers her his cloak, but it is an exchange of unequal goods. Her feathered robe is the sign of her wild nature, of her freedom, and of her power, while his cloak becomes the instrument of her domestication, of her submission in human society. He steals her identity, the very thing that attracted him, and then turns her into his most precious prize, a pale version of the original creature of magic.

"Conflict is never far beneath the veneer of the swan maiden's compliance. In a German version of the tale, a hunter captures a swan maiden's skin, and although she follows him home pleading for its return, he offers her only marriage. She accepts, not out of love but to remain close to the skin which is her identity. Fifteen years and several children later, the hunter leaves to go on a hunting trip, for once forgetting to lock the attic. Alone in the house, the wife searches the attic and finds her skin in a dusty chest. She immediately puts it on and flies out the window before the startled eyes of her children, with nary a word of farewell....

"The swan maiden stories suggest that there are marriages that will themselves to dissolution because of the inability of the pair to mature and to integrate into each other's world. In the human Illustration by John Bauerworld, the swan maiden loses her fantastic nobility and is subjected to the daily labors of a human wife – including childbearing, which is portrayed as so distasteful the swan wives often seem to have few qualms about leaving their children behind the moment they recover their skins. The husband either cannot find her world (and dies of melancholy), or, when he does succeed in arriving in her domain, he cannot accept the fantastical world on his wife's terms. These are, at best, temporary reunions....

"There was considerable renewed interest in the swan maiden tales in Europe throughout the late 19th century. For the English Victorians it was the era of the 'Married Woman's Property Acts' and of the 'New Woman.' Marriage roles, divorce, and the appropriate role of a wife were being re-examined and questioned.  The swan maiden, with her ability to effectively fly away from her marriage and her children, became a fascinating study for Victorian folklorists, who saw in the narrative the evolution of the institution of marriage. According to Carole Silver in her illuminating article 'East of the Sun and West of the Moon': Victorians and Fairy Brides, the interpretations of the tale varied widely, and depended on one's attitudes toward women's role in marriage, an imbalance of power between the sexes and women's sexuality.

"Joseph Jacobs felt that the reader's sympathy lay with the abandoned husband, not the swan maiden as representative of a matrilineal society with 'easy and primitive' marriage bonds that could be more easily broken. Silver reports that Jacobs believed 'that the "eerie wife," in separating from her mate, forfeited the audience's respect; her behavior reinforced the listener's sympathy with the husband. "Is he not," Jacobs asked, to be "regarded as the superior of the fickle, mysterious maid that leaves him for the break of a On the Shores of the Land of Death by Akseli Gallen-Kallelataboo?" ' Silver argues that folklorists like Jacobs were expressing anxiety over the emerging institution of divorce, believing that the looseness of the marriage bond was a trait among 'savages.' Silver continues: 'Clearly, free and easy separation was associated with primitive societies and savage eras. Complex and difficult divorce, on the other hand, was the hallmark of a highly evolved society. . . .By diminishing the claims to superiority of the fairy bride, neutralizing her sexuality, and limiting or denying her right to divorce, Victorian folklorists rendered her acceptable to themselves and their society.'

"Can we love the swan maiden? She seems to offer both an image of feminine power and feminine weakness: a girl who submits to the deceptions of a suitor and a woman who rejects the terms of an unfair marriage. She is at once a doting mother and one who will happily abandon her children in favor of her own needs. Her ambiguous tale can be read as the suppression of women's rights and women's creative power through enforced domestication, but it can also show such a woman's resolve to not only survive a questionable marriage but to remain true to her nature. When given the chance, no amount of suppression can keep the swan maiden down. I feel a terrible tenderness for the youngest swan–girl, abandoned by her sisters to her fate on the ground. I want to shelter her from the routine ordinariness of her human marriage, given over to the demands of others. And I want to cheer, relieved and inspired, when she finds her own true self again, and rises to soar."

(Read Midori's full article here.)

Swans by Jeanie Tomanek

The Six Swans by Warwick GobleWhen the change came
she was floating in the millpond,
foam like white lace tracing her wake.
First her neck shrinking,
candle to candleholder,
the color of old, used wax.
Wings collapsed like fans;
one feather left,
floating memory on the churning water.
Powerful legs devolving;
Powerful beak dissolving.
She would have cried for the pain of it
had not remembrance of sky sustained her....

- Jane Yolen (from "Swan/Princess")



The Crane Wife by Diana Torledano

"The Crane Wife," from Asia, is a closely related tale in the animal bride tradition. Details vary according to country, century, and teller, but the basic story is this: A poor weaver (or sailmaker) finds an injured crane on his doorstep (or in the fields, or by the side of a moonlit lake), dresses her wounds, and nurses her back to health. He kindly releases the crane back into the wild...after which a beautiful woman appears (the crane in human form), and the two of them promptly marry.

All goes well for a while, until the man's business falls on hard times. The crane wife tells her husband that she can lift them out of poverty by weaving a bolt of wondrous cloth (or an extraordinary sail) --  but he must solemnly promise not to watch her as she does it. She weaves the cloth, they sell it for a tremendous price, and soon the couple is rich. But now the man grows greedy, and he pressures her to make more and more. His wife grows tired and begins to waste away, but the man ignores this and continues to press for more cloth. Finally, at death's door, she tells her husband she can make only one more bolt. That night her husband decides it's time to learn what the secret of her weaving is. Spying on her as she works, he's horrified to see a crane at the loom, plucking feathers from her own breast and weaving them into the magical cloth. He cries aloud, and the crane wife knows he's broken his promise to her. She flies away, and he spends the rest of his life lamenting his lost love.

A Crane Wife illustration by Gennady Spirin

A Crane Wife illustration by Gennady SpirinJeannine Hall Gailey gives voice to the Crane Wife's sorrow and anger in her poignant poem based on the folktale:

I flew away, a crane who had given you
her white glory, and you knew the cloth

to be the sacrifice of my own skin, my feather coat.
A thousand cranes descended on your hut,
crying with betrayal. You searched all of Japan for me
until you found a lake of cranes, those white ciphers,

cried your goodbyes, useless, now, with age.
You had the gift of my wings, knew the lift
of flight and the gentle neck. Now, old man,
remember, when you watch a flash in the sky,

remember me, remember

The folk tale also inspired the title poem in Sharon Hashimoto's debut poetry collection The Crane Wife, winner of the Theodore Roerich Poetry Prize -- a haunting volume that explores the author's Japanese heritage and life in the Pacific Northwest.

Patrick Ness' new adult novel, The Crane Wife, explores the folk tale's theme of love and betrayal, transplanting its setting to modern-day London. In an interview in Polari Magazine, Ness explains why he find the old tale so compelling:

The Crane Wife by Cheryl Kirk Noll"[U]nlike most folk and fairy tales, it starts with an act of kindness.Most start with an act of cruelty, but this one starts with a kind act and then turns into [a tale about] that kind person making a mistake, and letting their worst instincts get the best of them, and that's why it appeals to me. It's a really different flavour than most tales. It ends tragically but you can understand it in human terms, that you're given a chance with the eternal, the beautiful, the magical, but you blow it. I think that's really human."

Ness was inspired not only by the story itself, but by the Crane Wife songs penned by Colin Meloy and recorded by his alt-folk band, The Decemberists.

Lyrics for Colin Meloy's The Crane Wife 3Meloy first came across the Crane Wife folk tale several years ago in the children’s section of a bookstore in Portland, Oregon. “I thought that it would be a great thing to try to put it to some sort of song form, be it a single tune or something longer,” Meloy says. “So I struggled with that for years until finally I realized that it just needed more parts and set about building those.” He ended up with a collection of songs, three of them based on the Japanese story and the rest using other old folk motifs: death, war, greed, and murder.  (The full lyrics to Crane Wife 1 & 2 are here, to Crane Wife 3 here, and Meloy discusses his songs on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" program here.)

Below, Meloy sings a stripped-down, solo version of the three Crane Wife songs at the Ace Hotel in New York City (recorded  in October, 2010).

"There were as many truths - overlapping, stewed together - as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story's life. A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew." - Patrick Ness (from The Crane Wife)

Swans by Walter Crane

The illustrations above are: "Swans" by Gennardy Spirin (Russian); "Swan Maidens" and Lohengrin" by Walter Crane (English, 1845-915); "The Child Finds the Feather Dress," artist unknown (from Europa's Fairy Book, NYC, 1916); a swan maiden drawing of mine called "Wings" (inspired by a Kim Antieau poem); "Wild Swans" by John Bauer (Swedish, 1882-1918);  "On the Shores of the Land of Death" by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (Finnish, 1865-1931) ); "Swans" by Jeanie Tomanek (American); "Six Swans" by Warwick Goble (English, 1862-1943); "The Crane Wife" by Diana Torledano (Spanish); three "Crane Wife" illustrations by Gennardy Spirin (Russian); a "Crane Wife" illustration by Cheryl Kirk Noll (American); lyrics for Colin Meloy's Crane Wife 3, art by Carson Ellis; and "Swans" by Walter Crane (English, 1845-915).


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Pink-footed geese in flight. (Photography from the Norfolk Wildlife Trust)

In 2016, Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart, working with sound designer Pippa Murphy, presented Wind Resistance at The Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. As Imogin Tilden explained Polwart's solo show in The Guardian:

"Every year, 2,400 pink-footed geese arrive from Greenland to winter at Fala Flow, a peat bog in the Lammermuir Hills, south-east of Edinburgh. The village of Fala is the home of singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, and this intimate solo show is her hymn to the gentle Midlothian landscape: to its birds, its insects, its plants and trees, and its human inhabitants past, present and future.

"This is Polwart’s first piece of theatre, but she’s a natural storyteller and steers a path effortlessly between personal memoir, anecdote, gig, philosophical musings, history and nature lecture. Her language is rich and poetic, and speaks of her deep connection with – and love for – this countryside. 'I’m filled up with space at Fala Moor' she tells us. Its peatbogs are 'the lungs of our land.' " (Read the full review here.)

Now the show has been turned into an album, and it's simply gorgeous: rich in story, myth, lore, and natural history. I've loved all of Polwart's albums, but this one I cannot recommend highly enough to music lovers in the Mythic Arts field.

Above : a lovely little video about the creation of Wind Resistance.

Below: the newly released video for a song on the album, "All of a Summer's Evening."

This is not the first time birds have winged their way through Polwart's songs:

Above is "King of the Birds" from Traces (2012). Below is "Follow the Heron" from Scribbled in Chalk (2006). Both were filmed for BBC Alba.

One more tune to end with today:

"Rivers Run" from This Earthly Spell (2008), filmed in an improptu backstage performance with Steven Powart and Inge Thomson.

For a previous post on the folklore of birds, go here.

''When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.''

- John Muir


The world is a proliferation

Ponies 1

It's taken me a long while to be receptive to the work of Scottish novelist and playwright Ali Smith, almost as if I had to learn how to read her -- but Smith's Autumn is the book that taught me how to do so, and now I'm hooked on them all. (I blush to think that I felt the same about Virginia Woolf when I was young. Thank heavens that changed.)

Another favorite writer, Olivia Laing (author of To the River, The Lonely City, etc.), noted this in a profile for The Guardian:

"I’ve known Smith since I was 17 (her partner, the artist and film-maker Sarah Wood, is my cousin). In the 1990s we used to write each other letters. Recently I unearthed a blurry photograph she sent me 20 years ago of a cat’s tail dangling over a sofa. 'I have a long-term plan to write a novella for each season,' she’d written on the back. 'It seems to me the seasons are so gifted to us that it’s a kind of duty, a very nice one.'

"Though she jokes now that she sounds like Katherine Mansfield pretending to be charming, this talk of gifts and duties gets to something essential about Smith. She believes in unselfish communal values such as altruism and generosity and has an infectious faith in hospitality, be it to new ideas or strangers. In addition to writing eight novels and five collections of short stories, she has fought against the mass closure of public libraries ('libraries matter because we’re living in an age of disinformation') and the proposed scrapping of the Human Rights Act; is a patron of the charity Refugee Tales and a staunch advocate for young writers and writers who have fallen out of fashion. She’s not, in short, an artist who seeks to wall herself off from the world."

Even in the Mythic Fiction field, where we render life through myth and metaphor, many of us are likewise determined not to wall ourselves off from the world but to use our art to guide each other through the dark. Smith shows how to do so without slipping from storytelling into didactism.

Ponies 2

From Autumn, Smith's poetic and powerful "post-Brexit" novel, published last year:

"Her mother sits down on the churned-up ground near the fence. I’m tired, she says. It’s only two miles, Elisabeth says. That’s not what I mean, she says. I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity. I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says. I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says. "

Lord, yes.

Ponies 9

Horse 1

From Public Library & Other Stories:

"Elsewhere there are no mobile phones. Elsewhere sleep is deep and the mornings are wonderful. Elsewhere art is endless, exhibitions are free and galleries are open twenty-four hours a day. Elsewhere alcohol is a joke that everybody finds funny. Elsewhere everybody is as welcoming as they’d be if you’d come home after a very long time away and they’d really missed you. Elsewhere nobody stops you in the street and says, are you a Catholic or a Protestant, and when you say neither, I’m a Muslim, then says yeah but are you a Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim? Elsewhere there are no religions. Elsewhere there are no borders. Elsewhere nobody is a refugee or an asylum seeker whose worth can be decided about by a government. Elsewhere nobody is something to be decided about by anybody. Elsewhere there are no preconceptions. Elsewhere all wrongs are righted. Elsewhere the supermarkets don’t own us. Elsewhere we use our hands for cups and the rivers are clean and drinkable. Elsewhere the words of the politicians are nourishing to the heart. Elsewhere charlatans are known for their wisdom. Elsewhere history has been kind. Elsewhere nobody would ever say the words bring back the death penalty. Elsewhere the graves of the dead are empty and their spirits fly above the cities in instinctual, shapeshifting formations that astound the eye. Elsewhere poems cancel imprisonment. Elsewhere we do time differently. Every time I travel, I head for it. Every time I come home, I look for it."

And so do I.

Ponies 8

 From Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis:

"And it was always the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse. They made us be natural acrobats. They made us brave. They met us well. They changed us. It was in their nature to."

Ponies 4

From Autumn:

"It's a question of how we regard our situations, how we look and see where we are, and how we choose, if we can, when we are seeing undeceivedly, not to despair and, at the same time, how best to act. Hope is exactly that, that's all it is, a mater of how we deal with the negative acts towards human beings by other human beings in the world, remembering that they and we are all human, that nothing human is alien to us, the foul and the fair, and that most important of all we're here for a mere blink of the eyes, that's all."

Ponies 10

From Autumn

"There's always, there'll always be, more story. That's what story is."

Ponies a

And from a fine interview with Smith in 2014 by Alex Clark:

"Smith describes herself as 'a really uncool, geeky enthusiast.' Was she aware of the power of books from a young age? 'Oh, always!" she laughs. 'I was profoundly changed by Charlotte's Web. When you fall in love with a book something especially interesting and exciting is happening because of the way language works on us as human beings. And I love language. And I also love butterflies, and cloud-shapes, and types of train. What can I say? The world is a proliferation."

Ponies 13

Words: Follow the links above to read the full articles by Olivia Laing and Alex Clark. The poem in the picture captions is from the Food/Land issue of of the Canadian magazine Guts (Fall, 2015); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies on Chagford Commons on a winter's day.


Vade mecum

Girl Holding a Book by Gwen John

Robert Macfarlane's "Word(s) of the Day" is one of the delights of Twitter (a medium that swings from soul-enriching to soul-crushing, depending on how you curate your Twitter feed). Yesterday Robert offered vade mecum: a Latin term, he explained, meaning: "literally 'go with me'; figuratively a book that one keeps by one’s side or close to hand -- so that it may be readily consulted for guidance or inspiration. A lodestone text to which one returns. What’s your vade mecum?"

Study for The Convalescent by Gwen John

Despite my fierce passion for books, his question is one I find difficult to answer. There are just so many books that I return to again and again -- from fantasy to realist fiction, from folklore studies to nature writing, from artist and writer biographies to poetry. To chose a single lodestone text is impossible for me: influence and inspiration is everywhere. As soon as I come up with single title, a dozen others crowd close behind it, and then a dozen more.

I like these words by British novelist Ali Smith, who was posed a similar question in an interview last year:

"What book has most inspired me? The question just made my brain explode into fizzing little pieces. I can't choose one. There are so many. I think I've been by everything I've ever read one way or another, and I don't mean just books, I mean things on hoardings, things on the sides of pencils, things that catch your eye on the sides of buses, the words FRAGILE BREAK GLASS on the front of a firehose cabinet in an Italian hotel. My partner Sarah just said, stop being inspired by everything. Is this piece of newspaper really inspiring to you? Yes, I said, so don't throw it away. (She threw it away anyway, but that was inspiring too, because it inspired me to write this paragraph.) Inspiration is everywhere. It's as everday as what it means, which is literally in-breath, the act of breathing in. If we think about it like that, inspiration becomes not just natural, first nature, but how we live, how we stay alive -- a matter of heart, blood, rhythm."

Indeed.

Tabby cat by Gwen John

What do you think, dear readers? Do you have a vade mecum (or two, or three), and if so, what? 

Or does the question make your brain go into meltdown, as it does to mine? 

Interior of the Artist's Room by Gwen John

The imagery today is by the great Welsh painter Gwen John (1876-1939), who is one of my all-time favourite artists. I wrote more about Gwen back in the autumn of 2011. You can find the post here.

Gwen John by Susan Row

Girl Holding Cat by Gwen JohnWith thanks to the good folks at #WomensArt, who reminded me today of my love for Gwen's work. And, of course, to Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places, The Lost Words, etc.


First day back in the studio

Signpost 1

Over the last few days, I've been asking friends how they feel about New Year's celebrations, and from my small sampling (mostly of writers and artists) this is what I've learned:

The vast majority answered with the equivalent of a shrug: The New Year's holiday? They could take or leave it. A smaller (but emphatic) group detest it for a variety of reasons: the social pressure to be happy on New Year's eve, the guilt-tripping nature of New Year resolutions, the arbitrary designation of the year's end in the Gregorian calendar, or simply the bad timing of yet another celebration on the heels of Christmas. I found just a small minority who genuinely love New Year's Eve and Day, and I am one of them. In fact, it's my favorite holiday (despite spending it in bed with flu again this year), and so I've been thinking about the reasons why -- especially since I generally mark the changing of the seasons by the pagan, not the Christian, calendar.

Signpost 2

I grew up with the Pennsylvania Dutch traditions of my mother's large extended family: nominally Christian, but rich in folklore, folk ways, and homely forms of folk magic. One of those traditions was my mother's practice of taking down the Christmas tree on New Year's day, cleaning the house from top to bottom, and then opening the kitchen door (with a great flourish) to sweep the old year out and welcome in the new: my mother, my great-aunt Clara, and I each taking turns with the broom. Christmas was a hard time for my mother and always ended in tears, but she would rally by New Year's day, relishing the act of making order out of chaos: a woman's ritual, shared only with me and not my brothers. (Boys doing housework? Unthinkable in that time and place.)

Signpost 3

At some point in the midst of all that cleaning, my mother and I would sit down at the kitchen table, eat the last of the kiffles (a traditional cookie made only at Christmas; it is bad luck to eat them past New Year's Day), and talk about plans for the year ahead. These were not New Year's resolutions, exactly; no lists were made, nothing was written down. It was more like a verbal conjuring, a vision of what we'd do differently and better, spoken at the right folkloric time when words held the power of an incantation: the pause between the old year and the new when anything seemed possible.

Signpost 4

My mother was a great believer in new beginnings, in a way that was both painful and brave. We moved around a lot when I was young, in search of work for my stepfather, whose alcoholism and violent temper ensured that employment never lasted long. In each new place my mother would mentally sweep her troubles out the kitchen door and make a brand new start: each house, each job, each new school for my brothers and me would be different and better, she insisted. We would finally settle down.

Since the new house was usually worse than the last, she would set herself to transforming it, ingeniously making small amounts of money go a long, long way: she'd paint our rooms in surprising colors (dictated by the paint choices in the bargain bins); make new curtains in cheap, cheery fabrics edged with bright Ric Rac and Pom Pom trim; scour yard sales for pretty new dishes and lamps (constantly broken in my stepfather's rages).  For a while she'd be happy and fiercely optimistic...until the usual troubles caught up with us. There would be fights, and tears, and everything would shatter. My mother would collapse, her husband disappear to the bar. Then she'd pick herself up, we'd move again, and she'd start afresh with quiet courage.

Signpost 5

As a kid I moved even more often than my mother, bouncing between her, my grandparents and other relatives, with a couple of  stints in foster care -- and so I needed my mother's lesson in embracing change rather more than most. Many people from peripatetic childhoods react with a deep dislike of change. My own reaction is a mix of opposites. My childhood has left me with a soul-deep need for home, place, and community -- yet I also love stepping into the unknown and using the act of relocation as a catalyst for transformation and renewal. In this I am my mother's daughter. I like transitions, beginnings, the changing of the seasons, the turning of the calendar's pages. As I wrote in a previous New Year post:

I have a great affection for those moments in time that allow us to push the "re-set" buttons in our minds and make a fresh start: the start of a new year, the start of a new week, the start of a new morning or fresh endeavor. As L. M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables) once wrote, "Isn't it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?"

The American abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher advised: "Every man should be born again on the first day of January. Start with a fresh page." Some people, of course, find a blank page terrifying...but that's something I've never quite understood. I love the feeling of potential inherent in an untouched notebook, a fresh white canvas, even a new computer folder waiting to be filled. It's the same sense of freedom to be found at the start of a journey, when all lies ahead and limits haven't yet been reached.

Signpost 6

My mother died from cancer sixteen years ago, at roughly the age that I am now, and she never managed to turn those new beginnings into the calm, stable life she craved. The determined optimism she practiced wasn't always entirely admirable. Optimism can also be blind or foolish, and prevent the solving of problems through the refusal to accept reality. A fresh start can only tranform a life if it is followed by the hard and clear-eyed work of making substantive change: leaving the violent husband, for example, rather than putting fresh paint on walls that will soon be bloodied once again.

But there were reasons my mother couldn't make those harder changes, so I'm not going to sit in judgement of her now. I'm just going to love her for who she was. Acknowledge her quiet bravery. And appreciate the gifts that she's passed on: kiffles and a broom on New Year's Day. And a love of new beginnings.

Signpost 7

 Yesterday I swept the house. Today I am the sweeping the studio. I'm thinking about what I'll do differently, and better.

The world is full of possibilities.

Signpost 8

Pictures: The photographs today are from Queen's Wood, an ancient woodland in London's Muswell Hill: 52 acres of oak and hornbeam trees, abutting Highgate Wood. The pictures were taken during the Christmas holiday, which we spent with our daughter in the city. I recommend "The History and Archaeology of Queen's Wood" by Michael Hacker if you'd like to know more about this beautiful place: a tranquil, magical piece of wild preserved within a bustling cityscape. (Tilly loved it.) The last photo was taken by Howard.

Words: The poem in the picture caption is from Tell Me by Kim Addonizio (BOA Editions, 2000); all rights reserved by the author.