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April 2010

Letting Language Take Root




It's Digital Detox Week, an annual event sponsored by Adbusters – which for me, along with the unfolding signs of spring (the primroses thick on the hillside now and the daffodils running riot through the woods) reminds me each year to take a look at my online life and my outdoor life, and to make sure these two things are in hózhó, harmany, good balance. This year that's meant pruning back my online presence, limiting the number of emails I can reasonably expect myself to answer each day, and adhering to our household policy of keeping computers entirely off on Sundays. 

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not one of those people who believes that the Internet is the devil's tool, intent upon destroying face-to-face community and replacing real life with a virtual simulation. It can do those things, of course; and it can also do the opposite: enrich and facilitate community life and our experience of the physical world. Like any communication technology, it depends entirely on how we use it.


Mule Deer Child


It's not surprising to me  that so many of us in the Mythic Arts field have embraced the Internet so enthusiastically, for as a medium for the transmission of stories and ideas it's not only  powerful and endlessly adaptable, but also remarkably accessible and democratic.  I love the way that young artists (like Rima Staines and Danielle Barlow, for example) and young writers (like the folks at Goblin Fruit) can now find audiences for their work without being dependent (as we were in my generation) on the Gatekeepers of traditional media; I love the blogs (like In the Labyrinth, Grand Tour, and Seven Miles of Steel Thistles) that allow writers to communicate with their readers beyond the confines of a novel's pages; and I love watching mythic artists use modern mediums to keep ancient tales alive.

Overall, I love the Internet. And yet I also know that I have to put boundaries around my use of it.  As a writer, I spend enough time as it is behind these plastic computer keys...and although I do so in order to weave tales of earth and sky and wind and rain and animals and spirits on the printed page,  I want my tales to reflect my experience of the natural world, not replace that experience. As much as I love wandering the woods of myth, as much as I love conjuring those woods in stories of my own, the real woods lie beyond the front door and that's where I must always go first. For my soul's sake. And for my art's sake.


White-Tail Deer Woman

In his luminous book Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram discusses the many ways that moving from an oral culture to a print culture has impacted, and even impoverished, our experience of the world around us. (His thesis is a nuanced and persuasive one; I won't try to encapsulate it here, but recommend reading it in full.) As a folklorist, I'm fascinated by David's argument; while as a writer, I find it more challenging, for I dearly love books and the printed page. Yet David isn't attempting to suggest that we turn our backs on literacy now, but rather that we understand its cultural, spiritual, and environmental implications. Addressing his fellow writers, he says:

“For those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines, a world of textures, tastes, and sounds other than those that we have engineered, there can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning away from all writing. Our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves--the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or with the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs -- letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf.” 


Deer Mother and Child


What does all this mean for me, personally? First, that I try to do as David Abram suggests when I sit to write or paint: to bring the physical world into my work, whether desert or moorland or city street. And second, that I strive to live in such a way that writing and art springs out of my life; it doesn't become my life. And that means turning off the computer every now and again, putting down my paint brushes and pens, lacing up my boots, whistling for the dog, and going out my front door. It means that I try to never forget that “community” begins at home: with my family, with my village, with the inter-species community of rooted and winged and four-legged beings among whom I live on this green hillside. And from this place, with my tap roots deep in the soil below, my “community” can then slowly spread: via books and paintings, via letters in the post, via pixels on the computer you, dear Reader. And to the land you live on, and the ones you share it with.

The poem I've chosen for today is, once again, by Mary Oliver – a poet who, above all others, reminds me to live in the body and not just in the mind;  who pushes me out the front door. The poem is one I always keep pinned to my studio wall: Five A.M. in the Pinewoods.


The paintings above come from my Desert Spirits series. Follow the link if you'd like to know more about them.

In Want of Fox

Fox-wife of Rushford Wood

Having just re-read Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman, the poem I've chosen for today is Fox by Adrienne Rich. (Those of you who know the novel, which is one of Hoffman's most disturbing, will understand the connection. Lord have mercy but that woman can write.)

We have lots of foxes in the woods behind our house, bright-eyed little English tricksters slipping through back gardens, teasing dogs, eying chickens, and congregating in the hills by moonlight. Are you, like the fine poet above, in want in foxes? Here are some places where you will find them:

Fox fiction & folklore

(Click on book covers to enlarge. The painting above is The Fox-wife of Rushford Wood.)

Of Leaves & Pies




Some years ago a friend of mine here in the village had a birthday party for which she requested that her guests bring pies to share. I thought about bring a shoofly pie from my Pennsylvania Dutch childhood -- but not only is this something of an acquired taste, it also would have required me to actually cook...and I'm not much of a cook, and even less of a baker, at the best of times. I solved the problem by bringing a Poetry Pie instead: lining a glass pie plate with a "crust" of autumn leaves, filled with acorns, small pines cones, bits of lace and sundries and small scrolls of paper tied in red ribbon: each little scroll containing a poem hand-written in gold ink. Each party guest could then choose a scroll from the pie (I'd made sure that there were enough for all), and whatever poem they found inside "belonged" especially to them. It was food for the spirit, the sweet taste of language, art and dessert rolled into one.

All these years later, I still see poems from that pie pinned to bulletin boards all around the village....

The poem I've chosen for today, "Aunt Leaf" by Mary Oliver, was in that pie.

(Painting above: The Green Woman)

Myth, Magic, and Poetry in the month of April

Rabbit Maiden

“What’s writing really about? It’s about trying to take fuller possession of the reality of your life. “
-- Ted Hughes

For those of us working in the field of mythic arts, myth and magic is the reality of our lives: the ability to see the world through the lens of metaphor, poetry, and the oldest stories of humankind.

In honor of National Poetry Month, please go here to hear Ted Hughes read his gorgeous, gorgeous work. I love his poems, particularly those those rooted deep in myth and in his love of the natural world. He lived in a village not far from here and I used to see him on occasion, dining at a restaurant just down the street from my old cottage. It's sad to think we'll see no more of him...but his poems live on.

Marge Piercy: Sleeping With Cats

Segur 1
I'm still under the weather health-wise (although the actual weather is lovely at the moment) -- but, as I've mentioned in a previous post, one of the few benefits of a long illness is that it gives one time to catch up on reading. I've been on a Marge Piercy binge this month, re-visiting old favorites (Braided Lives, Small Changes, Vida, Gone for Soldiers, etc.) alongside her fascinating, feline-obsessed memoir, Sleeping With Cats -- which is honest, raw and inspiring, like everything the woman writes. It was interesting to re-read Braided Lives after the memoir and to realize just how intensely autobiographical that particular novel is. Being set in the 1950s and early '60s (roughly my mother's generation), the book was a sharp reminder of just how much life has changed for women (and those of us with working class backgrounds) in the last 50 years.   

“In fiction, I exercise my nosiness," Piercy says. "I am as curious as my cats, and indeed that has led to trouble often enough and used up several of my nine lives. I am an avid listener. I am fascinated by other people's lives, the choices they make and how that works out through time, what they have done and left undone, what they tell me and what they keep secret and silent, what they lie about and what they confess, what they are proud of and what shames them, what they hope for and what they fear. The source of my fiction is the desire to understand people and their choices through time.”

I know exactly what she means.

I also love this quote, which may have to join the others I've handwritten (in gold ink, of course) on my office/studio wall:

“Writing sometimes feels frivolous and sometimes sacred, but memory is one of my strongest muses. I serve her with my words. So long as people read, those we love survive however evanescently. As do we writers, saying with our life's work, Remember. Remember us. Remember me.”

The picture above is by the French fairy tale illustrator Adrienne Ségur, another great lover of cats, whose best known work, The Golden Book of Fairy Tales, was published in the 1950s. The sketch below is one of mine, a little doodle for my cat-loving goddaughter Ely.

Cat & Mouse

The Tilly Report


She's eight months old now, and starting to look more like the dog she'll be than the pup she's been. Above, a picture taken this week. Below, Tilly at eight weeks old, back in September when we first brought her home.

Tilly at 8 weeks old

Bits & Pieces of News

The Beastly Bride  * My latest anthology is now out on the bookstore shelves. Called The Beastly Bride, and co-edited with Ellen Datlow (as usual), it's the fourth and final volume in the "YA mythic fiction" series we've been editing for Viking (following The Green Man: Tales of the Mythic Forest, The Faery Reel: Tales of the Twilight Realm, and The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales). This time, we're looking at animal-human transformation myths from cultures around the world. The book contains new stories inspired by such myths from Christopher Barzak, Peter Beagle, Steve Berman, Richard Bowes, Carol Emshwiller, Jeffrey Ford, Gregory Frost, Terra Gearheart, Hiromi Gotto, Ellen Kushner, Tanith Lee, Stewart Moore, Shetwa Narayan, Lucius Shepard, Midori Snyder, E. Catherine Tobler,  and Marly Youmans; and new mythic poems by Nan Fry, Jeanette Hall Gaily, Delia Sherman, and Jane Yolen. The cover art, once again, is by Charles Vess.

* For those of you in New York City, there will be a reading from The Beastly Bride on Monday, June 7 (7:00 - 8:30 pm) at McNally Jackson at 52 Prince Street. Ellen Datlow will be there, and the reading authors will be Jeffrey Ford, Richard Bowes, Carol Emshwiller, Gregory Frost, Nan Fry, Steve Berman and Marly Youmans. (If you're a Facebook user, Ellen has set up a page for the event here.)

* There's a terrific new issue of Goblin Fruit online. You'll find it here. Enjoy!

The Solstice Award

A Gold Star For You
I'm pretty flabbergasted by this, and honored indeed to be listed in the company of Tom Doherty (creator and publishers of Tor Books) and Don Wollheim (creator and publisher of DAW Books), two giants of the American publishing field. Thank you, SFWA.

Many thanks also to the Endicott Mythic Fiction Reading Group, for inviting me to do a Question & Answer session on The Wood Wife this past week. It was interesting and fun. The group is reading The Coyote Road in May, and these other fine books thereafter:

June: The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson
July: The Girl in the Glass by Jeffrey Ford
August: The Tree Bride by Bharati Mukherjee
September: Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
October: The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich

All are welcome, and you can join the group here.

The Wood Wife on Goodreads....

Cuddle Bunnies

Thumper by Brian FroudI'm still off dealing with health issues as the moment (and may continue to be for awhile), but I'm popping in quickly just to say that there's a Question and Answer session about The Wood Wife this week over on the Endicott Mythic Fiction Group's pages at Goodreads, if you're interested.

 While you're there, take a look at their previous Q&A with Christopher Barzak, Small  Rabbit Trickster on Chris's terrific novel One For Sorrow, which is eloquent and fascinating.

(The drawing to the left is of "Thumper," from The Wood Wife, by Brian Froud. The other sketches are by me, of course. And you'll find an article on hare and rabbit lore here if, like me, you're partial to the critters.)

Thank you for all your kind "get well" messages on my last post.