"The shape of my life today starts with a family. I have a husband, five children and a home just beyond the suburbs of New York. I have also a craft, writing, and therefore work I want to pursue. The shape of my life is, of course, determined by many other things; my background and childhood, my mind and its education, my conscience and its pressures, my heart and its desires. I want to give and take from my children and husband, to share with friends and community, to carry out my obligations to man and to the world, as a woman, as an artist, as a citizen. But I want first of all -- in fact, as an end to these other desires -- to be at peace with myself.
"I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact -- to borrow from the languages of the saints -- to live 'in grace' as much of the time as possible. I am not using this term in a strictly theological sense. By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony. I am seeking perhaps what Socrates asked for in the prayer from Phaedrus when he said, 'May the outward and the inward man be at one.' "
- Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Gift from the Sea)
"The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration -- how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?" - Rebecca Solnit (A Field Guide to Getting Lost)
"[The Navjo concept of] hózhó means ‘beauty’ or ‘beautiful conditions,’ but this term also expresses the intellectual notion of order, the emotional state of happiness, the physical state of health, the moral condition of good, and the aesthetic dimension of harmony. The Navajo do not look for beauty; they…find themselves engulfed in it. When it is disrupted, they restore it; when it is lost or diminished, they renew it; when it is present, they celebrate it." - Gary Witherspoon ("Dynamic Symmetry & Holistic Asymmetry in Navajo Art & Cosmology)
"Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave -- that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing." - Marilynne Robinson (Gilead)
"We should never be at the mercy of Providence if only we understood that we ourselves are Providence." - Vera Brittain (The Testament of Youth)
"Always in big woods," said Wendell Berry, "when you leave familiar ground and step off alone to a new place, there will be, along with feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your bond with the wilderness you are going into. What you are doing is exploring. You are understanding the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is the experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes common ground, and a common bond, and we cease to be alone."
The small woodland behind my studio is only a "prettyish kind of a little wilderness," as Jane Austen might describe it, and not a proper wilderness. And yet the wild can be found here. It's in the ancient language of oak and owl, and the air-ballet of spore and seed. It's in the midnight revels of the badgers, and the morning light on leaf, moss, and rock.
“Of course," said Henry David Thoreau, "it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit."
Sometimes Tilly and I roam old, familiar trails grown unfamiliar with each turning of the seasons, and sometimes I just pick a spot and sit. Until my spirit is truly present. Listening. Watching. Learning. Healing. Practicing the art of being still.
"Oh how can I say this: People need wild places," writes Barbara Kingsolver. "Whether or not we think we do, we do. We need to be able to taste grace and know again that we desire it. We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers. To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of which love their lives as much as we do ours, and none of which could possibly care less about us in our place. It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd. It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence many future generations, we ought to choose carefully. Looking out on a clean plank of planet earth, we can get shaken right down to the bone by the bronze-eyed possibility of lives that are not our own."
The Berry quote is from An Unforseen Wilderness, and the Kingsolver quote from Small Wonder. The woodland photographs were taken yesterday afternoon. Today is stormy, and Tilly (who hates thunder) is hiding under the bedclothes.
After finishing Olivia Laing's To the River, in which the author walks the River Ouse from its source to the sea, my next re-reading project is to revisit two of my favorite books about walking -- Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit and The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane -- before moving on to another first-time read: A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.
What better time of year could there be for walkers' tales of holloways, hedgerows, green roads, ghost roads, pilgrim ways and nights under the stars? Every time I ramble through the woods with Tilly my feet want to carry me on and further on, the flag of her tail waving jauntily ahead...until I catch myself succumbing to the "rapture of the pathway," stop, give a whistle, and turn for home; work must be done and life attended to, as the clocks tick tock, and the telephone rings, and nevermind how sweetly the sun filters through the trees, nevermind, nevermind. Come along, dear girl. We must away.
But in my imagination, we don't turn back, we keep on climbing through ash, old oak, thickets of holly, tall stands of pine, while the little woodland grows large around us, becoming a proper forest now, and the trail and the tale wind on and the tree tops shiver and the story begins:
Once upon a time....
"I have long been fascinated," writes Robert Macfarlane, "by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place, and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thoughts, but actively produce it. Landscape, to borrow George Eliot's phrase, can 'enlarge the imagined range for self to move in.'
"As I envisage it, landscape projects into us not like a jetty or peninsula, finite and bounded by its volume and reach, but instead as a kind of sunlight, flickeringly unmappable in its plays yet often quickening and illuminating. We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places -- but we are far less good at saying what places make of us.
"For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? and then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?"
Yes, those are, indeed, the right questions....but I'm troubled by Macfarlane's use of the word "vainly." What precisely can he mean by this? That the question is a narcissistic one, with its assumption that the land gives a toss about us? Or that it's a question asked in vain, to which we will never have an answer?
It's my belief that the second question can be answered, for it is possible to have a conversation with the landscape and to hear (at least to the degree we are capable of hearing) what the land around us has to say. Art is one time-honored way to facilitate such a dialogue; another, used by animist cultures around the globe, is through sacred rituals specifically designed to mediate between the human and nonuman worlds. The conversation requires a relationship with the landscape...and patience, time, the ability to truly listen, and a certain humility...but there's nothing extraordinary or supernatural about it. Young children talk to the land instinctively. It's only as adults that we forget.
"Tell me the landscape in which you live," said the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, "and I'll tell you who you are."
His quote is written in gold on my studio wall, for it sums up everything I write and paint.
Some stories last many centuries,
others only a moment.
All alter over that lifetime like beach-glass,
grow distant and more beautiful with salt.
There is a stage in us where each being, each thing, is a mirror.
Then the bees of self pour from the hive-door,
ravenous to enter the sweetness of flowering nettles and thistle.
Next comes the ringing a stone or violin or empty bucket
gives off --
the immeasurable's continuous singing,
before it goes back into story and feeling.
In Borneo, there are palm trees that walk on their high roots.
Slowly, with effort, they lift one leg then another.
I would like not minding, whatever travels my heart.
To follow it all the way into leaf-form, bark-furl, root-touch,
and then keep walking, unimaginably further.
The ephemeral "land art" here is by the British sculptor, photographer, and installation artist Andy Goldsworthy, whose influential work has been documented in Wood, Stone, Time, Arch, Passage, Hand to Earth, and other gorgeous art books. Goldsworthy was born in Cheshire, grew up in Leeds, studied fine art in Lancashire, and now lives and works in Scotland. You'll find his reflections on his work in the hidden picture captions. (Run your cursor over the photographs to see them.)
"Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest -- the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways -- and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world's longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in - to learn from it what it is. As its sounds come into his hearing, and its lights and colors come into his vision, and its odors come into his nostrils, then he may come into its presence as he never has before, and he will arrive in his place and will want to remain. His life will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place, and take its place among them. He will be with them -- neither ignorant of them, nor indifferent to them, nor against them -- and so at last he will grow to be native-born. That is, he must reenter the silence and the darkness, and be born again." - Wendell Berry (The Art of the Commonplace)
My world turns and goes back to the place
Where, a thousand forgotten years ago,
The bird and the blowing wind
Were like me, and were my brothers.
My soul turns into a tree,
And an animal, and a cloud bank.
Then changed and odd it comes home
And asks me questions. What should I reply?
Photographs above: Tilly by the Woodland Gate. Drawing: "Beauty as the Beast" by Virginia Lee.
Let the trees be consulted before you take any action
every time you breathe in thank a tree
let tree roots crack parking lots at the world bank headquarters
let loggers be druids specially trained and rewarded
to sacrifice trees at auspicious times
let carpenters be master artisans
let lumber be treasured like gold
let chain saws be played like saxophones
let soldiers on maneuvers plant trees give police and criminals a shovel
and a thousand seedlings
let businessmen carry pocketfuls of acorns
let newlyweds honeymoon in the woods
walk don't drive
stop reading newspapers
stop writing poetry
squat under a tree and tell stories.
Photographs above: Tilly beneath a beech tree, a rowan tree (spring and autumn), an oak tree (summer and winter), and nestled among the oak tree's roots. The drawings are by two Chagford friends and neighbors: "Chestnut Nuptials," an absolutely charming pen-and-ink sketch by Virginia Lee, and David Wyatt's initial pencil sketch for In the Word Wood, his beautiful painting of Tlly and me in our beloved woods.
John Wright's untitled poem comes from Earth Prayers: 365 Prayers, Poems, and Invocations from Around the World, edited by Elizabeth Roberts & Elisa Amidon. Austin Hackney gave me my copy of the book years ago, and I recommend it highly.
Robert Macfarlane begins his book The Wild Places at the top of a 30 foot beech tree situated in a city woodland. "I had started climbing trees about three years earlier," he tells us. "Or rather, re-started; for I had been at a school that had a wood for its playground. We had climbed and christened the different trees (Scorpio, The Major Oak, Pegagsus), and fought for their control in territorial conflicts with elaborate rules and fealties. My father built my brother and me a tree house in our garden, which we had defended successfully against years of pirate attack. In my late twenties, I had begun to climb trees again. Just for the fun of it: no ropes, and no danger either.
"In the course of my climbing, I learned to discriminate between tree species. I liked the lithe springiness of silver birch, the alder and the young cherry. I avoided pines -- brittle branches, callous bark -- and planes. And I found that the horse chestnut, with its limbless lower trunk and prickly fruit, but also its tremendous canopy, offered the tree-climber both a difficulty and an incentive.
"I explored the literature of tree-climbing," Macfarlane continues; "not extensive, but so exciting. John Muir had swarmed up a hundred-foot Douglas Spruce during a Californian windstorm, and looked out over a forest, 'the whole mass of which was kindled into one continuous blaze of white sun-fire!' Italo Calvino had written his magical novel, The Baron in the Trees, whose young hero, Cosimo, in an adolescent huff, climbs a tree on his father's forested estate and vows never to set foot on the ground again. He keeps his impetuous word, and ends up living and even marrying in the canopy, moving for miles between olive, cherry, elm, and holm oak. There were the boys in B.B.'s Brendan Chase, who go feral in an English forest rather than return to boarding-school, and climb a 'Scotch pine' in order to reach a honey buzzard's nest scrimmed with beech leaves. And of course there was the realm of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin: Pooh floating on his sky-blue balloon up to the oak-top bee's nest, in order to poach some honey; Christopher ready with his pop-gun to shoot Pooh's balloon down once the honey had been poached....
"There was nothing unique about my beech tree, nothing difficult in its ascent, no biological revelation at its summit, nor any honey, but it had become a place to think. A roost. I was fond of it, and it -- well, it had no notion of me. I had climbed it many times; at first light, dusk, and glaring noon. I had climbed it in winter, brushing snow from the branches of my hand, with the wood cold as stone to the touch, and real crows' nests black in the branches of nearby trees. I had climbed in in early summer, and looked out over the countryside with heat jellying the air and the drowsy buzz of a tractor from somewhere nearby. And I had climbed it in monsoon rain, with water falling in rods thick enough for the eye to see. Climbing the tree was a way to get perspective, however slight; to look down on a city that I usually looked across. The relief of relief. Above all, it was a way of defraying the city's claims on me."
The city (Cambridge, England) is Macfarlane's home, the center of his work and family life...but even his forays into the city's trees did not satisfy his craving for the natural world and his hunger for true wilderness. "Anyone who lives in a city," he writes, "will know the feeling of having been there too long. The gorge-vision that the streets imprint on us, the sense of blockage, the longing for surfaces other than glass, brick, concrete and tarmac....I have lived in Cambridge on and off for a decade, and I imagine I will continue to do so for years to come. And for as long as I stay here, I know I will have to also get to the wild places."
Macfarlane's need for "wild life" is our good fortune, for out of that need has come four gorgeous books that I highly recommend: The Wild Places, The Old Ways, Holloways (with Stanley Donwood & Dan Richards) and Mountains of the Mind. (He also wrote the introduction to the new ebook edition of M. John Harrison's fine novel, Climbers.)
In a piece for the Guardian a few years back, Macfarlane lauded Richard Preston's The Wild Trees, an account of the the scientists who research (and climb) the giant redwoods of California and Oregon. "I first encountered Preston's book about two years ago," he noted, "in its ur-form as a long New Yorker essay. It stayed with me as an influence as I wrote a book of my own, describing the journeys I made in search of 'other worlds' - the remaining wild places of Britain and Ireland. That search took me from the sea cliffs of Cornwall to the river mouths of Sutherland, from East Anglia's shingle beaches to the salt marshes of Essex, from the moors of the Pennines to the mines and sea caves of North Wales.
"I traveled widely, and I tried to travel wildly. I walked, swam and climbed through landscape and seascape. Wherever possible, I slept out. I traveled in all four seasons, in sunlight, rain and blizzard, and by night as well as day. I also sought out the company of native guides: people who had lived in those landscapes for many years, or come to know them intimately as scientists, artists, shepherds or foresters - people who had acquired the wisdom of sustained contact with a place. I tried, in short, to find new ways of approaching this much-written-about archipelago of ours. Ways of 'coming at the landscape' - as the Georgian travel writer Stephen Graham memorably put it - 'diagonally'....
"Woods and forests were important features of my journeys. I explored the dwarf hazel forests of the Burren in County Clare, the oakwood 'thicks' of Suffolk, and the wild hedgerows of Dorset. I went alone to the Black Wood of Rannoch, the cloud forests of Dartmoor, and the birch woods of Cumbria.
"Wherever I could," Macfarlane adds, "I climbed trees."
Another way to experience life in the trees is to create a dwelling nested in the branches. I always wanted a tree house as a child and never had one, so I covet these grown-up versions:
The Bird's Nest room at the Treehotel in Swedish Lapland.
In 2008, the Japanese sculptor and installation artist Tadashi Kawamata created the Tree Huts project in Madison Square Park in New York City -- a small park that I happen to know well, as I worked for many years for Tor Books in the elegant old Flat Iron building (pictured in the photo below), and before that for Ace Books, just a few blocks north on Madison Avenue.
For this site-specific project, Kawamata built twelve wooden huts high in the trees of the park, created out of raw lumber, found objects, and construction scraps. For the artist, this artwork explored ideas about the meaning of shelter in an urban context....but for children (and those of us with magically-inclined imaginations) it was as though Peter Pan and his tribe of Lost Boys had taken up residence in this most urban of settings, or perhaps some tree-dwelling clan of faeries who were now staking an urban claim. The huts appeared in early October, charmed residents and tourists alike for several months...and vanished with the turning of the year, leaving the faintest trace of Mystery behind.
"To the great tree-loving fraternity we belong," Henry Ward Beecher (an early defender of the American wild) once said. 'We love trees with universal and unfeigned love, and all things that do grow under them or around them -- the whole leaf and root tribe."
I spent a good deal of time high in trees when I was young -- both for the physical pleasure that climbing gave me and also as an escape from home: in the tree tops I could think, cry, read, or do my homework undisturbed, high above the world. All these years later, I can still remember what it feels like to shimmy up an oak's rough trunk or to sway in the slender branches of a birch; to be strong, quick, supple, and fearless, climbing higher than others dared to go. I still count myself a member of the "leaf and root tribe" though my forays into trees are rare and tame these days; I'm slower, stiffer, an earthy root elder now, not a budding green leaf. On the outside, I'm a middle-aged woman with health concerns, who sometimes looks like the wind could blow me over; inside, I'm still that strong, quick, straw-haired girl who could and did climb anything.
A friend of mine, from a troubled background, describes his upbringing as being "raised by wolves." I was raised by trees, whenever and wherever I could find them.
And thank heavens they were there.
The aboreal art above is: "The Faery Reel" and "Puck" (from A Midsummer's Night Dream) by the brilliant, incomparable Charles Vess;"The Baron in the Trees" by Yan Nascimbene; and "The Baron in the Trees" by Leredana Canini; "The Baron in the Trees," Italian edition (artist uncredited); "Pooh and the Honey Pots" by Howard Earnest Shepard (1879-1976); "Tapping the Dream Tree" by Charles Vess; two drawings by Virginia Lee: "The Capture" and "Tree People"; "Nest," a photograph by Ione Rucquoi; sundry photographs of tree houses and huts; a little tree girl of mine; and "Red Dog and Jackalope" by Charles Vess (from Medicine Road).
From The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane:
"Before coming to the Black Wood, I had read as widely in tree lore as possible. As well as the many accounts I encountered of damage to trees and woodland -- of what in German is called Waldsterben, or 'forest-death' -- I also met with and noted down stories of astonishment at woods and trees. Stories of how Chinese woodsmen in the T'ang and S'ung dynasties -- in obedience to the Taoist philosophy of a continuity of nature between humans and other species -- would bow to the trees which they felled, and offer a promise that the tree would be used well, in buildings that would dignify the wood once it had become timber. The story of Xerxes, the Persian king who so loved sycamores that, when marching to war with the Greeks, he halted his army of many thousands of men in order that they might contemplate and admire one outstanding specimen. Thoreau's story of how he felt so attached to the trees in the woods around his home-town of Concord, Massachusetts, that he would call regularly on them, glady tramping 'eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or yellow-birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.'
"When Willa Cather moved to the prairies of Nebraska, she missed the wooded hills of her native Virginia. Pining for trees, she would sometimes travel south 'to our German neighbors, to admire their catalpa grove, or to see the big elm tree that grew out of a crack in the earth. Trees were so rare in that country that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons'....
"Single trees are extraordinary; trees in number more extraordinary still. To walk in a wood is to find fault with Socrates's declaration that 'Trees and open country cannot teach me anything, whereas men in town do.' Time is kept and curated and in different ways by trees, and so it is experienced in different ways when one is among them. This discretion of trees, and their patience, are both affecting. It is beyond our capacity to comprehend that the American hardwood forest waited seventy million years for people to come and live in it, though the effort of comprehension is itself worthwhile. It is valuable and disturbing to know that grand oak trees can take three hundred years to grow, three hundred years to live and three hundred years to die. Such knowledge, seriously considered, changes the grain of the mind.
"Thought, like memory, inhabits external things as much as the inner regions of the human brain. When the physical correspondents of thought disappear, then thought, or its possibility, is also lost. When woods and trees are destroyed -- incidentally, deliberately -- imagination and memory go with them. W.H. Auden knew this. 'A culture,' he wrote warningly in 1953, 'is no better than its woods.' "
From Ross Anderson's interview of Robert Pogue Harrison (in The LA Review of Books):
Robert Anderson: Your book [Forests], particularly the end of it, criticizes some of the basic ideas that motivate environmentalism and ecology. In particular you argue that when we conceive of deforestation as "loss of wildlife habitat," or "loss of nature," or "loss of biodiversity," we're not capturing the full loss that we face. First of all, what is the extent of that loss, and in your view has ecology changed much in the past twenty years?
Robert Pogue Harrison: That's a good question. When I'm critical of modern approaches to ecology, I'm really trying to remind my reader of the long relationship that Western civilization has had to these forests that define the fringe of its place of habitation, and that this relationship is one that has a rich history of symbolism and imagination and myth and literature. So much of the Western imagination has projected itself into this space that when you lose a forest, you're losing more than just the natural phenomenon or biodiversity; you're also losing the great strongholds of cultural memory.
Is there a sound? There is a forest.
What is the word? The word is wilderness.
What is the answer? The answer is the world.
What is the beginning? A beginning is happiness.
What is the end? No one lives there now.
What is a beginning? The beginning is light.
Since yesterday was a holiday, our "Monday Tunes" are on Tuesday this week, and we're still roaming among the trees, led on this time by women's voices....
Above: "Stags Bellow," a wonderful woodland (and ocean) song by Martha Tilston, who lives not far from here on the Cornish coast. It's an autumnal piece, but it fits our theme, if not the season, and is too lovely to wait until autumn to share. It comes from Tilston's 9th album, Machines of Love and Grace (2012).
I wish I could also play her Little Riding Hood song, "Red," this morning -- but there are no good videos for it, alas. (There's a poor quality one here, but it doesn't do the song justice.) "Red" is on Tilston's 2004 album Bimbling, and if you're a fairy tale fan, it's well worth seeking out the recorded version.
Next, two songs by the American folk singer and songwriter Alela Diane, who is based in Portland, Oregon.
Above: "Pieces of String," a lovely song from her debut album, The Pirate's Gospel, back in 2006.
Below: "The Alder Trees, " a gently magical arboreal song from her second album To Be Still, 2009.
"The Willow Tree," a sad but very beautiful song performed by the Celtic harp trio Triskela (Diane Stork, Portia Diwa, and Shawna Spiteri), from the Bay Area of California.
And for the last song, let's add some men's voices too:
Here's "Oak, Ash, and Thorn," sung by the English folk singer & folk scholar Fay Hield, backed up by The Hurricane Party: Rob Harbron, Sam Sweeney, Andy Cutting, and Hield's partner Jon Boden. This impromptu performance was filmed in the bar at Cecil Sharpe House (home of The English Folk Dance and Song Society) after Hield's gig there last autumn. The words are from a Rudyard Kipling poem, put to music by the great Peter Bellamy.
I'm away today, as it's the start of a long holiday weekend here in the UK. I'll be back at my desk, and back to the "Into the Woods" series of posts, on Tuesday, May 28. Have a good weekend, everyone.
“I want so to live that I work with my hands and my feeling and my brain. I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this, the expression of this, I want to be writing. (Though I may write about cabmen. That’s no matter.) But warm, eager, living life — to be rooted in life — to learn, to desire, to feel, to think, to act. This is what I want. And nothing less.” ― Katherine Mansfield
"In the mid–path of my life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood," writes Dante in The Divine Comedy, beginning a quest that will lead to transformation and redemption. A journey through the dark of the woods is a motif common to fairy tales: young heroes set off through the perilous forest in order to reach their destiny, or they find themselves abandoned there, cast off and left for dead. The path is hard to find and treacherous, prowled by wolves, ghosts, and wizards...but helpers, too, appear along the way: good fairies, wise elders, and animal guides, usually cloaked in unlikely disguises. The hero's task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward.
The Dark Forest is not the merry greenwood of Robin Hood legends, or a Disney glade where dwarves whistle as they work, or a National Park with walkways and signposts and designated camping sites; it's the forest primeval, true wilderness, symbolic of the deep, dark levels of the psyche; it's the woods where giants will eat you and pick your bones clean, where muttering trees offer no safe shelter, where the faeries and troll folk are not benign. It's the woods you may never come back from.
"The woods enclose," writes Angela Carter (in The Bloody Chamber). "You step between the fir trees and then you are no longer in the open air; the wood swallows you up. There is no way through the wood anymore; this wood has reverted to its original privacy. Once you are inside it, you must stay there until it lets you out again for there is no clue to guide you through in perfect safety; grass grew over the tracks years ago and now the rabbits and foxes make their own runs in the subtle labyrinth and nobody comes.... "
"I stood in the wood," Patricia McKillip tells us (in Winter Rose). "Now it was a grim and shadowy tangle of thick dark trees, dead vines, leafless branches that extended twig like fingers to point to the heartbeat of hooves. The buttermilk mare, eerily, eerily pale in that silent wood, galloped through the trees; tree boles turned toward it like faces. A woman in her wedding gown rode with a man in black; he held the reins with one hand and his smiling bride with the other. She wore lace from throat to heel; the roses in her chestnut hair glowed too bright a scarlet, mocking her bridal white…When they stopped, her expression began to change from a pleased, astonished smile, to confusion and growing terror. What twilight wood is this? she asked. What dead, forgotten place?"
The goblins of the glen, in Christina Rossetti 's great poem "Goblin Market," are thoroughly dangerous creatures. When young Laura buys but will not eat their fruit...
"Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbow’d and jostled her,
Claw’d with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking,
Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,
Stamp’d upon her tender feet,
Against her mouth to make her eat."
To know the woods and to love the woods is to embrace it all, the light and the dark -- the sun dappled glens and the rank, damp hollows; beech trees and bluebells and also the deadly fungi and poison oak. The dark of the woods represents the moon side of life: traumas and trials, failures and secrets, illness and other calamities. The things that change us, temper us, shape us; that if we're not careful defeat or destroy us...but if we pass through that dark place bravely, stubbornly, wisely, turn us all into heroes.
"The sense of secrets, silence, surprises, good and bad, is fundamental to forests and informs their literatures," notes Sara Maitland (in Gossip from the Forest). "In fairy stories this is sometimes simple and direct: Hansel and Gretel get lost in the woods, and then suddenly they come upon the gingerbread house. Snow White runs in terror through the forest and suddenly stumbles upon the dwarves' cottage; characters spending scary nights in or under trees suddenly see a twinkling light -- and they make their laborious way towards it without having any idea what they will find when they arrive.....
"The forest is about concealment and appearances are not to be trusted. Things are not necessarily what they seem and can be dangerously deceptive. Snow White's murderous stepmother is truly the 'fairest of them all,' The wolf can disguise himself as a sweet old granny. The forest hides things; it does not open them out but closes them off. Trees hide the sunshine; and life goes on under the trees, in thickets and tanglewood. Forests are full of secrets and silences. It is not strange that the fairy stories that come out of the forest are stories about hidden identities, both good and bad."
Appearance deceive in the dark of the woods. You must beware of the helpful wolf by the path, of the beautiful woman who asks for a kiss, of the cozy little house with its door standing open, a meal on the table, and its owner nowhere in sight. No matter how tired you are, warns Lisel Mueller (in her poem "Voice from the Forest"), do not enter that house, do not eat the bread, do not drink the wine: "It is only when you finish eating and, drowsy and grateful, pull off your shoes, that the ax falls or the giant returns or the monster springs or the witch locks the door from the outside and throws away the key."
But if you must enter, Neil Gaiman advises (in his poem "Instructions"), be courteous. And wary. "A red metal imp hangs from the green–painted front door, as a knocker, do not touch it; it will bite your fingers. Walk through the house. Take nothing. Eat nothing."
Those last words are important. Folk tales from all over the world warn that eating the food of a witch, a demon, a djinn, a troll, an ogre, or the faeries can be a dangerous proposition. You might owe your youngest child in return, or be bound to your host for the rest of your life. Likewise, don't kiss the beautiful woman who offers you a meal and a bed in her sumptuous chateau hidden deep in the woods. By morning light she'll be a monster, and her house but a pile of rocks and bones.
And yet, despite all the fairy tale warnings, sometimes we're compelled to run to the dark of the woods, away from all that is safe and familiar -- driven by desperation, perhaps, or the lure of danger, or the need for change. Young heroes stray from the safe, well-trodden path through foolishness or despair...but perhaps also by canny premeditation, knowing that venturing into the great unknown is how lives are tranformed. When Gretel walks into the woods, writes Andrea Hollander Budy (in her poem "Gretel," from The House Without a Dreamer), "she means to lose everything she is. She empties her dark pockets, dropping enough crumbs to feed all the men who have touched her or wished." In Ellen Steiber's "Silver and Gold," Red Riding Hood is asked to explain how she failed to distinguish her grandmother from a wolf. "It's complicated," she answers. "Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the ones who love you and the ones who will eat you alive." But what she doesn't say is that if the wolf comes again, she will surely follow. Why? Carol Ann Duffy answers in her poem "Little Red-Cap" (from The World's Wife): "Here's why. Poetry. The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods, away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place lit by the light of owls." To the place of poetry and adventure. The place where the hard and perilous work of transformation begins.
Sara Maitland compares the transformational magic in fairy tales to the everyday magic that turns caterpillars into butterflies. "[S]omething very dreadful and frightening happens inside the chrysalis," she points out. "We use the word 'cocoon' now to mean a place of safety and escape, but in fact the caterpillar, having constructed its own grave, does not develop smoothly, growing wings onto its first body, but disintegrates entirely, breaking down into organic slime which then regenerates in a completely new form. It goes as a child into the dark place and is lost; it emerges as the princess, or proven hero. The forest is full of such magic, in reality and in the stories."
My husband uses the term the Dark Forest to refer that part of the art-making process when we've suddenly lost our way...when the creation of a story or a painting or (in his case) a play reaches a crisis point...when the path disappears, the idea loses steam, the plot line tangles, that palette muddies, and there is no way, it seems, to move forward. This often occurs, interestingly enough, right before true magic happens: first the crisis, then a breakthrough, an unexpected solution, and the piece comes to life. In a journal Howard wrote while creating a fairy tale play with students in Portugal he notes:"Today I arrived in the middle of the Dark Forest, and the path has almost disappeared. It is scary now, and all the certainties have gone. The cast members are weary, and their ability to come up with interesting work has diminished. Even our opening meditation today felt tired. The Dark Forest. I knew I was heading into it, and, as always, the forest has its own way of manifesting in each creative project. Perhaps the students are getting stuck and are unable to develop their parts. Perhaps it's that our storytelling has become flat, or that I'm forgetting important, simple things, like the development of the boy's character throughout the play. Or maybe it's all of these things....
"It's difficult to keep my original vision of the piece as I travel through the forest. I have to trust the vision I had at the start of the work, and that the ideas that have been set in motion will somehow come to fruition. I know that I can't lose faith now, even though at this point in the creative process one often starts to question the show, the cast, and one's own ability.
"I can't turn around. I have to keep going, through this tough period, and find energy from somewhere! I'm reminded of the first day of the pilgrimage I took seven years ago, across the mountains of France and Spain to Santiago de Compostela. I cycled up route Napoleon late in the day, as the sun was setting, knowing that no matter how exhausted I was I had to push on to Roncesvalles. I could not turn back as I was too far along the path — but if I did not get to the monastery before sundown, I would surely lose my way and die of exposure in the Pyrenees. This is the feeling I have now: I'm exhausted, I don't know when the turning point will come, but I have to plough on."
So what should we do when we're in the Dark Forest, creatively or personally? Perservere. As Howard says, plough on. The gifts of the journey are worth the hardship, as writer & writing teacher Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew notes: (I've quote this passage before, but it's well worth repeating in this context.)
"When you enter the woods of a fairy tale," says Andrew, "and it is night, the trees tower on either side of the path. They loom large because everything in the world of fairy tales is blown out of proportion. If the owl shouts, the otherwise deathly silence magnifies its call. The tasks you are given to do (by the witch, by the stepmother, by the wise old woman) are insurmountable -- pull a single hair from the crescent moon bear's throat; separate a bowl's worth of poppy seeds from a pile of dirt. The forest seems endless. But when you do reach the daylight, triumphantly carrying the particular hair or having outwitted the wolf; when the owl is once again a shy bird and the trees only a lush canopy filtering the sun, the world is forever changed for your having seen it otherwise. From now on, when you come upon darkness, you'll know it has dimension. You'll know how closely poppy seeds and dirt resemble each other. The forest will be just another story that has absorbed you, taken you through its paces, and cast you out again to your home with its rattling windows...."
And as Rainer Maria Rilke suggests (in his beautiful little book Letters to a Young Poet), "Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love." Including the bears and the beasties, the fungi and faeries, the wolves and witches hidden in the deep forest...and the frightening, spell-binding, life-changing stories to be found only in the dark of the woods.
Art above: "Fur, Feather, Tooth and Nail" by Arthur Rackham, "The Faery Ring" by Alan Lee, two illustrations for Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" by Arthur Rackham, "Chase of the White Mouse" by John Anster Fitzgerald, "Goblins" by Brian Froud, "The Gingerbread House" by Trina Schart Hyman, "The Queen's Pearl Necklace" by John Bauer, "Hansel and Gretel" by Arthur Rackham, "The Lamb and the Serpent" by Arthur Rackham, "Little Red Riding Hood" by Richard Hermann Eschke, "The Briarwood" (from the Briar Rose series) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, "Troll in the Wood" by John Bauer, and "She Kissed the Bear on the Nose" by John Bauer.
"Time and time again I am astounded by the regularity and repetition of form in this valley and elsewhere in wild nature: basic patterns, sculpted by time and the land, appearing everywhere I look. The twisted branches in the forest that look so much like the forked antlers of the deer and elk. The way the glacier-polished hillside boulders look like the muscular, rounded bodies of the animals -- deer, bear -- that pass among these boulders like loving ghosts. The way the swirling deer hair is the exact shape and size of the larch and pine needles the deer hair lies upon one it is torn loose and comes to rest on the forest floor. As if everything up here is leaning in the same direction, shaped by the same hands, or the same mind; not always agreeing or in harmony, but attentive always to the same rules of logic and in the playing-out, again and again, of the infinite variations of specificity arising from that one shaping system of logic an incredible sense of community develops . . .
. . . felt at night when you stand beneath the stars and see the shapes and designs of bears and hunters in the sky; felt deep in the cathedral of an old forest, when you stare up at the tops of the swaying giants; felt when you take off your boots and socks and wade across the river, sensing each polished, mossy stone with your bare feet. Felt when you stand at the edge of the marsh and listen to the choral uproar of the frogs, and surrender to their shouting, and allow yourself, too, like those pine needles and that deer hair, like those branches and those antlers, to be remade, refashioned into the shape and the pattern and the rhythm of the land. Surrounded, and then embraced, by a logic so much more powerful and overarching than anything that a man or woman could create or even imagine that all you can do is marvel and laugh at it, and feel compelled to give, in one form or another, thanks and celebration for it, without even really knowing why."
- Rick Bass ("The Return," Orion Magazine)
“Ethics that focus on human interactions, morals that focus on humanity's relationship to a Creator, fall short of these things we've learned. They fail to encompass the big take-home message, so far, of a century and a half of biology and ecology: life is -- more than anything else -- a process; it creates, and depends on, relationships among energy, land, water, air, time and various living things. It's not just about human-to-human interaction; it's not just about spiritual interaction. It's about all interaction. We're bound with the rest of life in a network, a network including not just all living things but the energy and nonliving matter that flows through the living, making and keeping all of us alive as we make it alive."
― Carl Safina (The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World)
“If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go. We are talking about the body of the beloved, not real estate.” - Terry Tempest Williams
More art from the woods of Devon: "What He Didn't See" by Brian Froud, , woodland faery sculpture by Wendy Froud, woodland faery drawing by Alan Lee, "Imbolc" by Marja Lee Kruyt, "The Gidleigh Goat" by David Wyatt, Tilly among the roots, "Summer Land" by Virginia Lee, and "Bluebell Honeymoon" by Rima Staines.
The Green Man is a pre–Christian symbol found carved into the wood and stone of pagan temples and graves, of medieval churches and cathedrals, and used as a Victorian architectural motif, across an area stretching from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east. Although commonly perceived as an ancient Celtic symbol, in fact its origins and original meaning are shrouded in mystery. The name dates back only to 1939, when folklorist Lady Raglan drew a connection between the foliate faces in English churches and the Green Man (or "Jack of the Green") tales of folklore. The evocative name has been widely adopted, but the legitimacy of the connection still remains controversial, with little real evidence to settle the question one way or the other. Earliest known examples of the foliate head (as it was known prior to Lady Raglan) date back to classical Rome — yet it was not until this pagan symbol was adopted by the Christian church that the form fully developed and proliferated across Europe. Most folklorists conjecture that the foliate head symbolized mythic rebirth and regeneration, and thus became linked to Christian iconography of resurrection. (The Tree of Life, a virtually universal symbol of life, death and regeneration, was adapted to Christian symbolism in a similar manner.)
The Jack in the Green is a figure associated with the new growth of spring, fertility, and May Day celebrations. In a number of English towns (such as Hastings in East Sussex) the Jack pageant is still re-enacted each year. The Jack in the Green is played by a man in a towering eight–foot–tall costume of leaves, topped by a masked face and a crown made out of flowers. He travels through the streets accompanied by men (and now women) dressed and painted all in green, others dressed and painted entirely black, and children bearing flowers. Morris and clog dancers entertain the crowds while the Jack, a trickster figure (and traditionally lecherous) chases pretty girls and plays the fool. When he reaches a certain place, the Morris dancers wield their wooden swords and strike the leaf man dead. A poem is solemnly recited over his body, and then general merriment breaks out as the crowd plucks Jack's leaves off for luck.
("The killing of a tree spirit," notes James Frazer in The Golden Bough, "is always associated with a revival or resurrection of him in a more youthful and vigorous form.")
Tree men aren't unique to the British Isles; they can be found in folk pageants all over Europe. In Bavaria, for example, a tree–spirit called the pfingstl roams through rural towns clad in alder and hazel leaves, with a high pointed cap covered by flowers. Two boys with swords accompany him as he knocks on the doors of random houses, asking for presents but often getting thoroughly drenched by water instead. This pageant also ends when the boys draw their wooden swords and kill the green man. In a ritual from Picardy, a member of the Compagnons du Loup Vert (dressed in a green wolf skin and foliage) enters the village church carrying a candle and garlands of flowers. He waits until the Gloria is sung, then he walks to the alter and stands through the mass. At its end, the entire congregation rushes up to strip the green wolf of his leaves.
The Green Man's female counterpart is the Green Woman, or the Sheela-Na-Gig . . .
. . . usually depicted in stone carvings as a primitive female form giving birth to a spray of vegetation. Green Women are far less common than Green Men, being rather harder to adapt to Christian iconography or Victorian decoration -- and yet quite a few them appear in Romaneque churches built before the 16th century. Although Ireland has the greatest number of Sheela-Na-Gigs, they can be found throughout the British Isles, as well as in France, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Czech Republic.
Like the sacred "yoni" carvings of India, it was once customary to lick one's finger and touch the Sheela-Na-Gig's vulva for good fortune.
A number of contemporary artists have found inspiration in the ancient lore of the wood, including Brian Froud in Devon (creator of the Green Man painting and Green Woman drawing in this post) and Fidelma Massey in Ireland (creator of mythic sculpture like the magical tree-woman above, "A Shrine to the Mother of All Birds"). There have also been two international art series recently that have drawn their inspiration from the folklore of the wild: Eyes as Big as Plates (originating in Norway) and Wilder Mann (originating in France).Eyes as Big as Plates, an ongoing project dreamed up by artists Riitta Ikonen (originally from Finland) and Karoline Hjorth (from Norway). "Inspired by the romantics’ belief that folklore is the clearest reflection of the soul of a people," says Ikonen, "Eyes as Big as Plates started out as a play on characters and protagonists from Norwegian folklore. During a one month residency at the Kinokino Centre for Art and Film in south-west Norway, Karoline and I collaborated with sailors, farmers, professors, artisans, psychologists, teachers, parachuters and senior citizens. The series then moved on to exploring the mental landscape of the neighborly and pragmatic Finns." The third chapter of the project has taken Ikonen and Hjorth to New York City this spring.
“This blending of figure and ground," explains the artists, "recalls the way in which folk narratives animate the natural world through a personification of nature. The slippage of elderly figures into the landscapes suggests a return to the earth, a celebration of lives lived, reinforcing the link between humanity and the natural world.”
The images below come from Wilder Mann, a photography series by Charles Fréger (based in Rouen, France), who spent two years traveling around Europe documenting the folk pageants and festivals of what he calls "tribal Europe." The resulting photographic exhibition just moved from New York to Switzerland, and the images have been collected into a stunningly beautiful art book. (You can see more of Fréger's photographs here.)
As Rachel Hartigan Shea explains in an article about the series, "Traditionally the festivals are a rite of passage for young men. Dressing in the garb of a bear or wild man is a way of 'showing your power,' says Fréger. Heavy bells hang from many costumes to signal virility. The question is whether Europeans — civilized Europeans — believe that these rituals must be observed in order for the land, the livestock, and the people to be fertile. Do they really believe that costumes and rituals have the power to banish evil and end winter? 'They all know they shouldn’t believe it,' says Gerald Creed, who has studied mask traditions in Bulgaria. Modern life tells them not to. But they remain open to the possibility that the old ways run deep.'"
Likewise, the mythic scholar Daniel C. Noel is struck by the masculine power of Green Man lore: "Whether the Green Man, is some sort of Jungian archetype 'returning' from a primeval past, a Celtic survival in the psyche, seems not as important to me as the metaphor he constitutes for men, and for the gender-embattled culture, in the present and future. Whatever the metaphysics of this fascinating figure, it is enough that he is a green ideal and a good idea arriving from wherever to inspire us. We have needed a Father Nature for a long time, and never more urgently than now, when all over the planet, armored men, in or out of uniform, terrorize each other, women and children, and what remains of the wildwood."
Let's give Henry David Thoreau the last word today on why the wild and the folklore of the wild still matter: "Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?" he asks (in Walden). "Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?"
The art above: A Green Man painting by Brian Froud; a Green Man carving in a church near Birmingham; Jack-in-the-Greens in Oxford and the City of London (photographs from the "In the Company of the Green Man" blog); a Green Woman drawing by Brian Froud; a Sheela-na-gig carving at a church in County Clare, Ireland; "A Shrine for the Mother of the Birds" by Fidelma Massey; three photographs from Riitta Ikonen and Karoline Hjorth's "Eyes as Big as Plates" collaborative art project, the first from Norway, the second two from Finland; and four photographs from Charles Fréger's "Wilder Mann" series: a sauvage in Switerland, three kurkeri in Bulgaria, a careto in Portugal, and a devil in St. Nicholas' retinue in the Czech Republic. All art works are copyright by the artists.
Recommended reading... Nonfiction: "Gossip from the Forest" by Sara Maitland (published as "From the Forest" in the US), "Forests" by Robert Pogue Harrison, "Green Man" by William Anderson & Clive Hicks, Sheela-Na-Gigs" by Barbara Freitag, and "Meetings With Remarkable Trees" by Thomas Pakenham. Fiction: The Mythago Wood Series by Robert Holstock; "Forests of the Heart," "The Wild Wood," and "Jack in the Mist" by Charles de Lint; "In the Forests of Serre," "Winter Rose," and "Solstice Wood" by Patricia McKillp; and "The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest," a Datlow-Windling anthology. For children: "Grumbles from the Forest" by Jane Yolen & Rebecca Kai Dotlich and "Into the Forest" by Anthony Browne. Poetry: "The Forest" by Susan Stewart. Art: "Wood" by Andy Goldsworthy and "Wilder Mann" by Charles Fregér.
I'm running late this morning as I'm a bit under the weather today, but here are the Monday Tunes at last: some music from the woods and wilds in order to keep to our woodlands theme. These songs come from Soundcloud rather than YouTube because I couldn't find video performances of the pieces I particularly wanted to play this morning....
First up, "Home" by the Michigan alt-folk trio Breathe Owl Breathe, gently calling us out of the house and out of doors:
Next, "On Trees and Birds and Fire," a magical little tune from I Am the Oak, the band of the Dutch singer/songwriter Thijs Kuijken, based in Utrecht:
Third is "Furr," a charming story of woods, wolves, and transformation from the Oregon alt-folk band Blitzen Trapper:
Next, "The Wild Hunt," a rather upbeat song about death and the Wild Hunt legends of northern Europe: myth meets Bob Dylan. It comes The Tallest Man On Earth, which is the stage name of the Swedish singer/songwriter Kristian Matsson:And last, here's the English alt-folk band Matthew & the Atlas, calling us back from the wilds again with their utterly gorgeous song "Come Out of the Woods":
The drawings above are "Tree Nymph" and "Beauty as the Beast" by the always-amazing Virginia Lee, no stranger to the wilds herself.
From Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairy Tales by Sara Maitland (which I'm reading now and highly recommend):
"Forests to the [early] Northern European peoples were dangerous and generous, domestic and wild, beautiful and terrible. And the forests were the terrain out of which fairy stories, one of our earliest and most vital cultural forms, evolved. The mysterious secrets and silences, gifts and perils of the forest are both the background to and source of these tales....
"Forests are places where a person can get lost and also hide -- and losing and hiding, of things and people, are central to European fairy stories in ways that are not true of similar stories in different geographies. Landscape informs the collective imagination as much as or more than it forms the individual psyche and its imagination, but this dimension is not something to which we always pay enough attention.
"I believe that the great stretches of forests in northern Europe, with their constant seasonal changes, their restricted views, their astonish biological diversity, their secret gifts and perils and the knowledge that you have to go through them to get anywhere else, created the themes and ethics of the fairy tales we know best. There are secrets, hidden identities, cunning disguises; there are rhythms of change like the changes of the seasons; there are characters, both human and animal, whose assistance can be earned or spurned; and there is -- over and over again -- the journey or quest, which leads first to knowledge and then to happiness. The forest is the place of trial in fairy stories, both dangerous and exciting. Coming to terms with the forest, surviving its terrors, utilising its gifts and gaining its help is the way to 'happy ever after.'
"Now fairy stories are at risk too, like the forests. Padraic Column has suggested that artificial lighting dealt them a mortal wound: when people could read and be productive after dark, something fundamental changed, and there was no longer need or space for the ancient oral tradition. The stories were often confined to books, which makes the text static, and they were handed over to children.
"The whole tradition of [oral] story telling is endangered by modern technology. Although telling stories is a very fundamental human attribute, to the extent that psychiatry now often treats 'narrative loss' -- the inability to construct a story of one's own life -- as a loss of identity or 'personhood,' it is not natural but an art form -- you have to learn to tell stories. The well-meaning mother is constantly frustrated by the inability of her child to answer questions like 'What did you do today?' (to which the answer is usually a muttered 'nothing' -- but the 'nothing' is cover for 'I don't know how to tell a good story about it, how to impose a story shape on the events'). To tell stories, you have to hear stories and you have to have an audience to hear the stories you tell. Oral story telling is economically unproductive -- there is no marketable product; it is out with the laws of patents and copyright; it cannot easily be commodified; it is a skill without monetary value. And above all, it is an activity requiring leisure -- the oral tradition stands squarely against a modern work ethic....Traditional fairy stories, like all oral traditions, need the sort of time that isn't money.
"The deep connect between the forests and the core stories has been lost; fairy stories and forests have been moved into different catagories and, isolated, both are at risk of disappearing, misunderstood and culturally undervalued, 'useless' in the sense of 'financially unprofitable.' "
From Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths:
"What is wild cannot be bought or sold, borrowed or copied. It is. Unmistakeable, unforgettable, unshamable, elemental as earth and ice, water, fire and air, a quitessence, pure spirit, resolving into no contituents. Don't waste your wildness: it is precious and necessary.”
Fairy tale illustrations above: "The Princess in the Forest" by John Bauer (Norway), "He Too Saw the Image in the Water" by Kay Nielsen (Denmark), "Lost in the Woods" by Charles Robinson (England),"Thumbelina" by Adrienne Segur (France), "The Frog Prince" by Warwick Goble (England), and "Catskin" by Arthur Rackham (England).
“The image of a wood has appeared often enough in English verse. It has indeed appeared so often that it has gathered a good deal of verse into itself; so that it has become a great forest where, with long leagues of changing green between them, strange episodes of poetry have taken place. Thus in one part there are lovers of a midsummer night, or by day a duke and his followers, and in another men behind branches so that the wood seems moving, and in another a girl separated from her two lordly young brothers, and in another a poet listening to a nightingale but rather dreaming richly of the grand art than there exploring it, and there are other inhabitants, belonging even more closely to the wood, dryads, fairies, an enchanter's rout. The forest itself has different names in different tongues -- Westermain, Arden, Birnam, Broceliande; and in places there are separate trees named, such as that on the outskirts against which a young Northern poet saw a spectral wanderer leaning, or, in the unexplored centre of which only rumours reach even poetry, Igdrasil of one myth, or the Trees of Knowledge and Life of another. So that indeed the whole earth seems to become this one enormous forest, and our longest and most stable civilizations are only clearings in the midst of it.” ― Charles Williams (The Figure of Beatrice)
"I’ve often thought of the forest as a living cathedral, but this might diminish what it truly is. If I have understood Koyukon teachings, the forest is not merely an expression or representation of sacredness, nor a place to invoke the sacred; the forest is sacredness itself. Nature is not merely created by God; nature is God. Whoever moves within the forest can partake directly of sacredness, experience sacredness with his entire body, breathe sacredness and contain it within himself, drink the sacred water as a living communion, bury his feet in sacredness, touch the living branch and feel the sacredness, open his eyes and witness the burning beauty of sacredness.” - Richard Nelson (The Island Within)
"He sounded faintly sad. Perhaps he finds beauty saddening -- I do myself sometimes. Once when I was quite little I asked father why this was and he explained that it was due to our knowledge of beauty's evanescence, which reminds us that we ourselves shall die. Then he said I was probably too young to understand him; but I understood perfectly.” - Dodie Smith (I Capture the Castle)
“All forests have their own personality. I don't just mean the obvious differences, like how an English woodland is different from a Central American rain forest, or comparing tracts of West Coast redwoods to the saguaro forests of the American Southwest...they each have their own gossip, their own sound, their own rustling whispers and smells. A voice speaks up when you enter their acres that can't be mistaken for one you'd hear anyplace else, a voice true to those particular tress, individual rather than of their species.” ― Charles de Lint (The Onion Girl)
How I Go to the Woods
Ordinarily I go to the woods alone,
with not a single friend,
for they are all smilers and talkers
and therefore unsuitable.
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree.
I have my ways of praying,
as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone
I can become invisible.
I can sit on the top of a dune
as motionless as an uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned.
I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me,
I must love you very much.
Robert Pogue Harrison (author of the Forests: The Shadow of Civilization) recommends the work of four other fine poets of the forest: Andrea Zanzotto, Susan Stewart, A.R. Ammons, and W.S. Merwin. But Harrison's fear is that "the rapidity with which our society is losing daily contact with the natural world will make it more and more unlikely that we will have poets of the forest like Zanzotto or Merwin, or Stewart, who grew up on a farm in the midst of Pennsylvania's forests. The more our worlds are detached and abstracted from nature in this daily way, the more I fear that poets will invoke the forests in only the most superficial of ways, without the kind of full-bodied authority that a lived relationship to the forest creates."
The late naturalist John Hay would have agreed that the forest poet must be one who knows the land, which takes both proximity and time. "There are occasions," he wrote (in The Immortal Wilderness), "when you can hear the mysterious language of the Earth: in water, or coming through the trees, emanating from the mosses, seeping through the under currents of the soil, but you have to be willing to wait and receive.”
As Tilly and I scramble over rock and root, as we do most mornings, rain or shine, I pray that our own small patch of woods remains safe, remains wild, remains here for future generations to come "home" to. I pray for patience to wait, and ears to listen, and a heart wide open, ready to receive. I want to be wild myself, like the woodland creatures in these paintings, in my quiet scribbler's way. But what is the wild? asks Louise Erdrich (in The Blue Jay's Dance). A place? A state of mind? The conjunction of these things? "What is wilderness?" she muses. "What are dreams but an internal wilderness and what is desire but a wildness of the soul?”
Bernard Malamud's answer is simple and speaks to all of us, rural and urban, young and old. “The wild," he says, "begins where you least expect it, one step off your normal course."
All of the "wild art" above comes from artists here in the village: An illustration for JRR Tolkien's "The Hobbit" by Alan Lee, faery sculptures in the daffodils by Wendy Froud, Spring Watch by David Wyatt (from his Local Characters series), trolls by Brian Froud (from his new book "Trolls"), Telling Stories to the Trees by Rima Staines, and Wolf Boy by Danielle Barlow.
"A writer is, first and last, a reader. Who do you write for? Gertrude Stein was asked, and famously replied, 'Myself and strangers.' That self, the reader-self who is allied with strangers, may be a writer's better half, more detached, more trust-worthy, than the writing self who swaggers through a lifetime of prose. It is difficult -- and diminishing -- to separate the self who writes from the one who reads. Both acts belong to the communion of the word, which is a writer's life."
- Patricia Hampl (I Could Tell You Stories)
"As you read a book word by word and page by page, you participate in its creation, just as a cellist playing a Bach suite participates, note by note, in the creation, the coming-to-be, the existence, of the music. And, as you read and re-read, the book of course participates in the creation of you, your thoughts and feelings, the size and temper of your soul.”
“I spent my life folded between the pages of books. In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction.”
- Tahereh Mafi (Shatter Me)
From an interview with Richard Ford in The Paris Review:
Ford: "I want to write, partly at least, for the kind of reader I was when I was nineteen years old. I want to address that person because he or she is young enough that life is just beginning to seem a mystery which literature can address in surprising and pleasurable ways. When I was nineteen I began to read [William Faulkner's] Absalom, Absalom! slowly, slowly, page by patient page, since I was slightly dyslexic. I was working on the railroad, the Missouri-Pacific in Little Rock. I hadn’t been doing well in school, but I started reading. I don’t mean to say that reading altogether changed my life, but it certainly brought something into my life—possibility—that had not been there before."
Interviewer: "What was it about Absalom, Absalom!?"
Ford: "The language—a huge suffusing sea of wonderful words, made into beautiful, long paragraphs and put to the service of some great human conundrum it meant to console me about if not completely resolve. When I was old enough to think about myself as trying to be a writer, I always thought I would like to write a book and have it do that for someone else."
Images above: "Sequel" (and tree leaves from "Sequel") by UK artist Nicola Dale, book architecture by Dutch artist Frank Halmans, book sculpture by UK artist Emma Tayor, and details from "Proverbial Threads" by US artist Robbin Ami Silverberg.
On the hill this morning, the snow still falling, deer tracks winding through holly and birch, the sound of the church bells, bird song, Wellies crunching, ice cracking beneath paw and foot, a dog black as coal, a field white as milk, a wheat haired woman in her husband's brown coat, and the oak tree telling its stories of cold and deep winter, once upon a time.
The Wood Wife:
A mythic novel set in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. This link goes to the US edition; a UK edition is available here; and the new French edition is here. (For those who might be interested, I did a Q-&-A session on the book over on the Good Reads site.) Winner of the Mythopoeic Award.
A Midsummer Night's Faery Tale:
This is the first book in the Old Oak Wood series for children, deeply rooted in the landscape and folklore of Dartmoor. I wrote the story, and the art is by master dollmaker Wendy Froud. The other two volumes are The Winter Child and The Faeries of Spring Cottage.
Snow White, Blood Red:
The first of six anthologies containing fairy tale inspired stories for adult readers. The other volumes are: Black Thorn, White Rose; Ruby Slipper, Golden Tears; Black Swan, White Raven; Silver Birch, Blood Moon (winner of the World Fantasy Award); and Black Heart, Ivory Bones.
A Wolf at the Door:
The first of three anthologies containing fairy tale inspired stories for 8-to-12 year old readers. The other two volumes are Swan Sister and Troll's Eye View.
The Green Man:
Tales from the Mythic Forest, for YA readers. Winner of the World Fantasy Award.
The Faery Reel:
Tales from the Twlight Realm, for YA readers. A WFA nominee.
The Coyote Road:
Trickster Tales, for YA readers.
The Beastly Bride:
Tales of the Animal People, for YA readers.
New works of fantasy & mythic fiction for adult readers. Winner of the World Fantasy Award.
Dark fantasy for YA readers. Short-listed for the Shirley Jackson Award.
Welcome to Bordertown:
The latest volume in a classic Urban Fantasy series for YA readers. (An Audie Award nominee, for the audio book edition.) For information on the previous books, visit the Bordertown website.)
New dystopian tales for YA readers. What comes after ecological, political, technological, or cultural disaster...?
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells:
Brand new works of "Gaslamp Fantasy" (stories set in magical version of the 19th century) for adult readers.
Good Faeries/Bad Faeries
I was the editor and folklore consultant for this wonderful book by Brian Froud.