Tunes for a Monday Morning

Boreas by John William Waterhouse

I'm in the mood for old songs and balladry today, and I hope you are too. But beware, there's dark water ahead. Ballads rarely end happily ever after....

First, two songs of thwarted love from the Anglo-Irish quartet The Haar (Cormac Byrne, Molly Donnery, Murray Grainger, and Adam Summerhayes), whose debut album was released last year. The videos here were recorded this spring, during the latest Covid lockdown.

Above: "Black is the Colour," a traditional song with variants found in the Irish, Scottish, and Appalachian folk traditions.

Below: "Annachie Gordon," Child Ballad #239. (For more information about Francis Child and his influential collection of English & Scottish ballads, go here.)

Above: "The Cruel Brother," Child Ballad #11, performed by the Anglo-Scots folk trio Lau (Kris Drever, Martin Green, and Aidan O'Rourke). This murderous tale appears on their new album Folk Songs (2021).

Can we get any darker? Yes, we can. Below: "Young Johnstone," Child Ballad #88, performed by the great English folksinger June Tabor. The song is from her sixteenth solo album, An Echo of Hooves (2016).

Above: "The Gardener," Child Ballad #219, performed by the English folk trio Lady Maisery (Hazel Askew, Hazel James, and Rowan Rheingans), from their first album, Weave & Spin (2011). "This is a very mysterious dialogue between a gardener and a woman who does not appreciate his flowery propositions," they say. "It's a Child Ballad which Hannah has adapted from a few different versions." 

Below: "King Henry," Child Ballad #32, a wonderful "loathly lady" song performed by Alasdair Roberts, Emily Portman, and Lucy Farrell (of The Furrow Collective). It was was recorded for The Mark Radcliffe Folk Sessions (BBC Radio 2) in 2014.

Above: "The Slighted Lover" performed by Jarlath Henderson, a multi-instrumentalist from Northern Ireland, with Duncan Lyall, Hamish Napier, and Innes Watson. The song is a broadside ballad with a complicated history, going back at least to the 17th century. There's no murder here, but that's not to say love goes smoothly in this ballad either. Hendersen's rendition appeared on Hearts Broken, Heads Turned (2016).

Moving from ruin to madness, below: "Bedlam Boys" (also known as "Mad Tom o' Bedlam), a 17th century song performed by the Anglo-Welsh folk trio The Trials of Cato (Tomos Williams, Robin Jones, and Polly Bolton). It's from their new album, Gog Magog, due out later this year. 

Ophelia by John William Waterhouse

Art above: "Boreas" and "Ophelia" by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).


Come into animal presence

Encounter with a Bear by Kristin Bjornerud

Ever since humans have lived upon earth, writes Lyanda Lynn Haupt,

"we have made our homes and conducted our movements in proximity to other animals. The more prominent our enclosed modern dwellings, encapsulated modes of transportation, indoor workplaces, and every-present technology become in everyday life, the more we are separated from the presence of other animals who have always been a part of human life-making. The beloved domestic dogs and cats who share our homes are a delight, but no substitution for time alert to the vivid intricacy of wild visitations and interactions. 

"We are experiencing now an isolation named species loneliness by Michael Vincent McGinnis in a 1993 paper for Environmental Ethics. In his book Our Wild Calling, Richard Louv describes this modern human condition as 'a desperate hunger for connection with other life....All of us are meant to live in a larger community, an extended family of other species.' Without this, a number of pathologies grow within us and 'the family of humans loses comfort, companionship, and perhaps even the sense of higher power, however one defines it.' Animals, too, have evolved with humans among them -- and this distant relationship in which we currently live may be an incalculable, unknowable loss to them as well."

Caterwauling by Kristin Bjornerud

Communication between animals and humans, notes Jay Griffiths,

"is a fixture of science and has led to curious discoveries: dolphins communicating with humans will modulate the pitch of their calls to stay within the realm of human hearing; orangutans will modify their gestural signals according to the comprehension of their human audience. 

"Such unfeigned communication, unbuyable and uncommandable, delights us as if they the unfallen were in that moment inviting us to step across, right through the curtain into the Dreaming. 'Everything has and tells a story. Everything communicates, through its own language and its own Law,' say Indigenous Australian Yolngu people from Bakawa in north-east Armhem Land. Indigenous cultures have kept faith with the animals as part of what it means to belong, and the world is larger and more vivid when animals and birds and insects are imbued with spirit and significance, when there is Mind of unknowable diversity, elastic and ecstatic, until the very air is electric with Message and there are more stories than stars.

Exile by by Kristin Bjornerud

Conjuration by An Oath by Kristin Bjornerud

"The communication between animals and humans is sometimes a terrible reproach. While elephants in captivity can speak human words, wild elephants have a word for 'human being' and, points out animal philosopher Eva Meijir, in Animal Languages, it indicates 'danger.' I have always wanted to hear a koala call. I have never wanted to hear one cry for help, its fur singed, its paws and nose burned, crying little bleats of bewilderment, and whimpering with pain in the arms of the Australian woman who rescued it from one of the bushfires caused by the climate crisis. Something in me died that day, and I am not alone. We need their well-being, their voice, their happiness, their life.

In Your Skin by Kristin Bjornerud

"When other creatures speak to us, a breach feels healed into wholeness, wellness. Worldwide, shamanic lore has included the art of shapeshifting; these animal transformations are often treated as fact without much analysis but the revelation to me is that healing, whether individual or social, is thought to come about through animal mind. Animals are the Healers, if we would but let them. This is physically true, as we know that, for example, heart surgery patients recover more quickly if they have a cat on their bed. Dogs can detect certain cancers through their heightened sense of smell and some dogs are now being trained to detect Covid-19. Emotionally, animals are the first-responders for the human heart, and eschewing the natural world is life-denying, refusing its most potent medicine: vitality.

"Vitality is at the heart of healing traditions: acupuncture or yoga, the concepts of Chinese Chi or Indian Prana, the life force in flow. It is among the five 'character strengths' most correlated with happiness, according to The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, the others being curiosity, optimism, gratitude and the ability to love and be loved. Vitality means living in vividness, alert, the senses picking up everything. It is the embodiment of life, keener and more alive. It is a core strength and not necessarily correlated with age: an eighty-year-old can be elastic with vitality. It is zest, enthusiasm, energy: sheer sap-rising, the very quick of life....Vitality is the aspect of human happiness that is most keenly associated with natural connection, as natural environments improve emotional functioning and attention. To notice, to attend the world, to be alive to its co-vitalizing, amounts to biophilia, the term used by biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson to describe that lovely innate quality of life loving life, and the particular kind of energy it offers is that shining momentness that, in the Homeric world, surrounds the gods: energeia. It is intense presence, wildness incarnate. In this sense, wild animals are the gods still walking -- swimming, tumbling, climbing, pouncing -- in the world."

Tiger by Kristin Bjornerud

The passages above are from Lyanda Lynn Haupt's new book Roots: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit, and Jay Griffiths new book, Why Rebel. Both are highly recommended. The title of today's post is taken from Denise Levertov's classic poem "Come into animal presence," which you can read here. For animal and human relationships from a folklore point of view, see "The Speech of Animals" and "Married to Magic: Animal Brides and Bridegrooms." 

Breathing Space by Kristin Bjornerud

Beneath by Kristin Bjornerud

The images today are by Canadian artist Kristin Bjornerud, who was born in Alberta, studied at the Universities of Lethbridge and Saskatchewan, and is now based in Montreal. She's received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Saskatchewan Arts Board, the Ontario Arts Council and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. Her work has been exhibited nationally and is represented in numerous public collections

"My watercolour and gouache paintings," Bjornerud writes, "explore contemporary political themes, ecological motifs, and personal narratives through the lens of folktales, dreams, and magical realism. In these delicately painted tableaus, a world is revealed wherein dream logic pervades, where women swim with narwhals and vivify hand-knit fauna. These eccentric landscapes are uncanny projections of a possible world where familiar activities are imbued with a mythic quality while, at the same time, extraordinary deeds are carried out with unruffled poise by proud, unconventional heroines.

"My aim is to create contemporary fairy tales that act as a medium through which we may consider our ethical obligations to the natural world and to each other. Retelling and reshaping stories helps us to understand how we are entangled, where we meet, and how our differences may be viewed as disguises of our sameness."

Please visit the artist's website to see more of her wonderful work.

When You Were Wild by Kristen Bjornerud

The titles of the artworks by Kristen Bjornerud above (top to bottom) are: Encounter With a Bear, Caterwauling, Exile, Conjuration, In Your Skin, Tiger, Breathing Space, Beneath, and When You Were Wild. All rights reserved by the artist. The text quoted above is from Roots by Lynanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown Spark, 2021) and Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths (Penguin/Random House, 2021). All rights reserved by the authors.

A few other posts on animal/human relationships: Kissing the lion's nose, Keeping the world alive, The blessing of otters, Liam Henegan's Beasts at Bedtime, The animal helpers of T.H. White, and Wild Neighbours.


The language of loss and love

Old Oak 1

In her splendid little book Why Rebel, Jay Griffiths despairs of the way we commonly tell the story of climate crisis, noting how it distances us from the urgency and enormity of the ecological devastation unfolding around us. She writes:

Night Owl in the Woods by HJ Ford"The language we use for this is itself deadly. The mass of ocean writing is a heap of broken plastic words: stock, fisheries, industry, off-shore, tonnage, commercial fleets, sea cages, fish farms, subsidies. Through the language it is hard to see the ocean's true nature, whose vitality needs to be rendered as beautiful as iridescence itself. We speak of an 'extinction event' or 'species decline' because of 'intensive agriculture.' These are lifeless phrases. How easily the eye bypasses them. They are words of tarmac and traffic, not the lovely writhy ivy words of the woods. 

"I cannot touch or taste terms like 'habitat loss' or 'pollution' because they are unbeloved words which carry within themselves the toxicity of lifelessness. Humans, we are told, need insects for 'the function and services they provide.' Cold language, cold as coins on corpse eyes, cold as the philosophy that put us here. Words of heart are needed.

The Lion Falls in Love by H.J. Ford"There is a new word in the air: defaunation: the loss of absolute animalness. Defaunation includes the loss of individuals and the loss of abundance. Defaunation, argue researchers in Science magazine, should be as familiar and influential as the word 'deforestation.' Another term for the loss of the world's wild fauna is 'biological annihilation.'

"Please tell me you understand the immensity of this. And if you don't, please think, alone and quietly perhaps, of the unfolding ending. Let me speak simply into the simplicity of your heart, then, and let me just ask you what you love, what makes you happy.

"Is it a child? Is it your partner? Do you love your friend or, Little Prince, do you love your rose? Do you love your dog, your cats, your church, your home, your garden? Your books, perhaps, or the poetry you make, or the music? The meaning you have made of your life, maybe, your health, status, honour or all of these? And this love, then, this happiness that you hold so dear, tell me how it will even exist without the tiniest of beings, the insects, against which we have been so pitiless? Without the insects for the food and the flowers and the soil?"

Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths

Old Oak 7

Red Campion

Barry Lopez is another writer who entwined the language of loss with the language of love in his remarkable and influential books, which changed the way that many of us viewed the world and our place within it. In his essay "Love in a Time of Terror," published shortly before he died (in January), he wrote:

Storks and Pelicans by Helen Stratton"Evidence of the failure to love is everywhere around us. To contemplate what it is to love today brings us up against reefs of darkness and walls of despair. If we are to manage the havoc -- ocean acidification, corporate malfeasance and government corruption, endless war -- we have to reimagine what it means to live lives that matter, or we will only continue to push on with the unwarranted hope that things will work out. We need to step into a deeper conversation about enchantment and agape, and to actively explore a greater capacity to love other humans. The old ideas -- the crushing immorality of maintaining the nation-state, the life-destroying belief that to care for others is to be weak, and that to be generous is to be foolish -- can have no future with us.

"It is more important now to be in love than to be in power. It is more important to bring E. O. Wilson’s biophilia into our daily conversations than it is to remain compliant in a time of extinction, ethnic cleansing, and rising seas. It is more important to live for the possibilities that lie ahead than to die in despair over what has been lost.

The Lion and the King by HJ Ford"Only an ignoramus can imagine now that pollinating insects, migratory birds, and pelagic fish can depart our company and that we will survive because we know how to make tools. Only the misled can insist that heaven awaits the righteous while they watch the fires on Earth consume the only heaven we have ever known....In this trembling moment, with light armor under several  flags rolling across northern Syria, with civilians beaten to death in the streets of Occupied Palestine, with fires roaring across the vineyards of California, and forests being felled to ensure more space for development, with student loans from profiteers breaking the backs of the young, and with Niagaras of water falling into the oceans from every sector of Greenland, in this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?"

Old Oak 2

Griffiths and Lopez, of course, are not the only writers urging us to pay attention to the language we use when speaking of the more-than-human world. In previous posts, Robin Wall Kimmerer explained how the "grammar of animacy" can foster more respectful relationships with plants and animals; Lyanda Lynn Haupt reflected on the language of inter-species communion; David Abram argued that our conception of language itself as a purely human gift is much too limited; John O'Donohue spoke of animals and compassion from a Celtic point of view;  N. Scott Momaday reminded us that speech itself is an ancient form of magic ... and there are so many others (fiction writers, poets, mythologists and storytellers included) who are working to re-enchant our words, re-wild our stories, and re-imagine our place in the living world.

Barry Lopez asks: Is there still time, and is this still possible? I have to believe it is. The great work of loving, of rebelling, and of storytelling carries on. It has only just begun.

Old Oak 8

The piskie flower

Words: The passages quoted above are from Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths (Penguin/Random House, 2021) and "Love in a Time of Terror" by Barry Lopez (Literary Hub, August 7, 2020); all rights reserved by the authors. Lopez's last published book was Horizon (Vintage, 2019), which I highly recommend. You can read a post about it here.

Pictures: The fairy tale illustrations today are by H.J. Ford (1860-1941) and Helen Stratton (1867-1961).