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September 2012

August 2012

Holding on to what's good

Oak tree, Nattadon Hill

Oak tree by John Constable

Rowan and oak entwined

"One of the things we continue to learn from Native Peoples is that stories are our medicine bundles. I feel that way about our poems, our essays, our fictions. That it is the artist who carries the burden of the storyteller. Terrence Des Pres speaks of  'a prose witness' that relies on the imagination to arrive at the heart of the matter. I believe this is our task as writers to respond to the world as we see it, feel it, and dare to ask questions that will not allow us to sleep. Imagination. Attention to details. Making the connections. 'Art -- right word to station the mind and hold the heart ready.' "   - Terry Tempest Williams

“Hold on to what is good even it is a handful of earth. Hold on to what you believe even if it is a tree which stands by itself. Hold on to what you must do even if it is a long way from here. Hold on to my hand, even when I have gone away from you.”  -  Nancy Wood

Tilly among the oak roots

I'll be off-line all of next week, and then back in the office (and back to this blog) on Monday, September 3rd. Have a good week, everyone.

Art above: Oak tree drawing by John Constable (1776-1837)

Holding the World in Balance

Mule Deer Child copyright by Terri Windling

From an interview with Chickesaw writer Linda Hogan:

"There is the story that so many tell of the time when humans and animals could change into each other. There were times when animals and people spoke the same language, or when the animals helped the humans. For instance, our mythology says it was the spider who brought us fire.

"I’ve thought about these human-animal relationships for years – is this true? Well, humans and animals existed together for many thousands of years without creating the loss of species. There was enormous respect given to animals. I have to trust the knowledge of indigenous people because it held a world in balance.

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

Yaqui and Mayo Deer Dancers

A deer dancer in Bhutan

A women's deer dance in Bali

Tibetan Cham Deer

"The purpose of most ceremonies – such as healing ceremonies – is to return one person or group of people to themselves, to place the human in proper relationship with the rest of the world. I thought that we were out of touch with ourselves 20 years ago. Now, with computers and email and cell phones, we are even more out of touch. How many of us even stay in touch with our own bodies? If we aren’t inhabiting our own bodies, how can we understand animal bodies of the world?"

(I recommend reading the full interview here.)

Deer Girl

Flam Chen

Images above: "The Mule Deer Child," Yaqui and Mayo deer dancers (photographed during public dance displays, not sacred ceremonies), a deer dancer in Bhutan, a women's deer dance in Bali, a Tibetan Cham Deer; a deer dance by performer and installation artist Carolyn Ryder Cooley; and performers from the Tucson "circus and fire theatre" troupe Flam Chen. Further reading: "Deer Woman and the Living Myth of the Dreamtime" by Carolyn Dunn, "Where the White Stag Runs" by Ari Berk, and "Balance of the World, Parts I and II" by Howard Gayton.


Perched by Kelly Louse Judd

From the Introduction to The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People, a YA anthology I edited with Ellen Datlow:

"Contemporary writers use animal-transformation themes to explore issues of gender, sexuality, race, culture, and the process of transformation...just as storytellers have done, all over the world, for many centuries past. One distinct change marks modern retellings, however, reflecting our changed relationship to animals and nature. In a society in which most of us will never encounter true danger in the woods, the big white bear who comes knocking at the door [in fairy tales] is not such a frightening prospective husband now; instead, he's exotic, almost appealing. 

Two prints by Kiki Smith

"Whereas once wilderness was threatening to civilization, now it's been tamed and cultivated; the dangers of the animal world have a nostalgic quality, removed as they are from our daily existence. This removal gives "the wild" a different kind of power; it's something we long for rather than fear. The shape-shifter, the were-creature, the stag-headed god from the heart of the woods--they come from a place we'd almost forgotten: the untracked forests of the past; the primeval forests of the mythic imagination; the forests of our childhood fantasies: untouched, unspoiled, limitless.

Book and Tiger by Julia Morstad

"Likewise, tales of Animal Brides and Bridegrooms are steeped in an ancient magic and yet powerfully relevant to our lives today. They remind us of the wild within us...and also within our lovers and spouses, the part of them we can never quite know. They represent the Others who live beside us--cat and mouse and coyote and owl--and the Others who live only in the dreams and nightmares of our imaginations. For thousands of years, their tales have emerged from the place where we draw the boundary lines between animals and human beings, the natural world and civilization, women and men, magic and illustion, fiction and the lives we live."

Bitch by Fay Ku

Images above: "Perched" by Kelly Louise Judd (Kansas City), two prints by Kiki Smith (New York), "Book and Tiger" by Julie Morstad (Vancouver), and "Bitch" by Kay Fu (Brooklyn). Please follow the links to see more of their work. Further reading: "Into the Woods: On British Forests, Myth and Now" by Ruth Padel.

Crossing over

Mermaid in Flight by Fay Ku

A passage from Brenda Peterson's Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals, in which she is swimming with a dolphin pod on the Florida coast:

"'Crossover' is a word scientists use to describe dolphins' soaring over seas, their traveling so free and fast, so high-spirited and almost effervescent that their sleek bodies barely skim the waves. The suggestion of splashes from tail and pectoral leaves a luminous wake across the water. For these crossover miles, the dolphins, like their human terrestrial mammal kin, belong more to the element of air than the sea....

"Held in [the dolphins'] fluid embrace, I pulled my arms close against my sides and our communal speed increased... Racing around the lagoon, I opened my eyes again to see nothing but an emerald underwater blur. And then I remembered what I had either forgotten long ago or never quite fully realized. This feeling of being carried along by other animals was familiar.

Art copyright by Juliana Swaney

"Animals had carried me all my life. I was a crossover--carried along in the generous and instructive slipstream of other species. And I had always navigated my life with them in mind, going between the human and animal worlds--a crossover myself. By including animals in my life I was always engaging with the Other, imagining the animal mind and life. For almost half a century, my bond with animals had shaped my character and revealed the world to me. At every turning point in my life an animal had mirrored or influenced my fate. Mine was not simply a life with other animals, but a life because of animals.

Fox Confessor by Julie Morstad

"It had been this way since my beginning, born on a forest lookout station in the High Sierras, surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness and many more animals than humans. Since infancy, the first faces I imprinted, the first faces I ever really loved, were animal."

Hank by Carson Ellis
If you haven't yet read Brenda's luminous work (which includes fiction, essays, memoirs, and anthologies), please do seek it out. The link above goes to her website, and her blog (on books, nature, seal watching and more) is here.

Images above: "Mermaid in Flight" by Fay Ku (Brooklyn), "Sky Pack" by Julianna Swaney (Portland), "Fox Confessor" by Julie Morstad (Vancouver), and "Hank" by Carson Ellis (Portland). Please visit their websites to see more of their art.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Miranda (from The Tempest) by John W. Waterhouse

Following on from Friday's post, today's tunes are all inspired by the sea.


Caorolyn Allan and Jenny Keldie sing the old Scottish ballad "The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry," and explain it's meaning to Phil Cunningham. The beautiful video comes from Scotland's Music, with Phil Cunningham, produced for the BBC.


"Rockpool," a song from the lovely Martha Tilston in Cornwall, off her Lucy and the Wolves cd.

Tilly the seal-dog

And last:

"The Old Ways," from the great Canadian singer/songwriter and music scholar Loreena McKennitt, off her Nights in the Alahambra dvd. (A longer post on McKennitt is here.)

Small Craft Warning by Jeanie TomanekImages above: "The Tempest: Miranda" by John W. Waterhouse (1849-1917), Tilly on the Cornish coast, and "Small craft Warning" by Jeanie Tomanek.

The companionship of water

Demoiselles du Rhin par Arthur Rackham.


From Brenda Peterson's Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals, & Spirit:

"When I describe for my far-away friends the Northwest's subtle shades of weather -- from gloaming skies of 'high-gray' to 'low-gray' with violet streaks like the water's delicate aura -- they wonder if my brain and body have, indeed, become water-logged. Yet still, I find myself praising the solace and privacy of fine, silver drizzle, the comforting cloaks of salt, mold, moss, and fog, the secretive shelter of cedar and clouds.

"Whether it's in the Florida Keys, along the rocky Maine coast, within the Gulf of Mexico's warm curves, on the brave Outer Banks; or, for those who nestle near inland seas, such as the brine-steeped Great Salk Lake or the Midwest's Great Lakes -- water is alive and in relationship with those of us who are blessed with such a world-shaping, yet abiding, intimate ally.

Tilly on the coast of Cornwall

"Every day I am moved by the double life of water -- her power and her humility. But most of all, I am grateful for the partnership of this great body of inland sea. Living by water, I am never alone. Just as water has sculpted soil and canyon, it also molds my own living space, and every story I tell.

"...Living by water restores my sense of balance and natural rhythm -- the ebb and flow of high tides and low tides, so like the rise and fall of everyday life. Wind, water, waves are not simply a backdrop to my life, they are steady companions. And that is the grace, the gift of inviting nature to live inside my home. Like a Chambered Nautilus I spin out my days, drifting and dreaming, nurtured by marine mists, like another bright shell on the beach, balancing on the back of a greater body."

Tilly on the north Devon coast

Tilly on the Devon coast

Art above: "Rhine Maidens" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), Tilly & Victoria on a misty beach, and Tilly (our ocean loving seal-girl) on the Cornish and Devon coasts.

Animal stories, continued


Another excerpt from Linda Hogan's essay "First People":

"[T]he old stories of human relationships with animals can't be discounted. They are not primitive; they are primal. They reflect insights that came from considerable and elaborate systems of knowledge, intellectual traditions and ways of living that were tried, tested, and found true over many thousands of years and on all continents.

"But perhaps the truest story is with the animals themselves because we have found our exemplary ways through them, both in the older world and in the present time, both physically and spiritually. According to the traditions of the Seneca animal society, there were medicine animals in ancient times that entered into relationships with people. The animals themselves taught ceremonies that were to be performed in their names, saying they would provide help for humans if this relationship was kept. We have followed them, not only in the way the early European voyagers and prenavigators did, by following the migrations of whales in order to know their location, or by releasing birds from cages on their sailing vessels and following them towards land, but in ways more subtle and even more sustaining. In a discussion of the Wolf Dance of the Northwest, artists Bill Holm and William Reid said that 'It is often done by a woman or a group of women. The dance is supposed to come from the wolves. There are different versions of its origin and different songs, but the words say something like, 'Your name is widely known among the wolves. You are honored by the wolves.'


"In another recent account, a Northern Cheyenne ceremonialist said that after years spent recovering from removals and genocide, indigenous peoples are learning their lost songs back from the wolves who retained them during the grief-filled times, as thought the wolves, even though threatened in their own numbers, have had compassion for the people....

"It seems we have always found our way across unknown lands, physical and spiritual, with the assistance of the animals. Our cultures are shaped around them and we are judged by the ways in which we treat them. For us, the animals are understood to be our equals. They are still our teachers. They are our helpers and healers. They have been our guardians and we have been theirs. We have asked for, and sometimes been given, if we've lived well enough, carefully enough, their extraordinary powers of endurance and vision, which we have added to our own knowledge, powers and gifts when we are not strong enough for the tasks required of us. We have deep obligations to them. Without other animals, we are made less."


Sacred stories about the relationship between humans and animals can be found not only in North America but in mythic traditions all around the world. For further reading, I recommend Lady and the Beasts: The Goddess and Her Sacred Animals by Buffie JohnsonAnimals in Celtic Myth and Life by Miranda Green, and the Animal Series from Reaktion Books.

The gorgeous pictures above are by Rachel Lauren, an artist in central Ohio who specializes in photographing canines, both wild and domestic. The photographs here feature Lucian (Rachel's North American Wolfdog) and Grace Nuth (mythic artist and author of The Beautiful Necessity and Domythic Bliss blogs). Visit Rachel's website and blog to see more of her beautiful work, and Lucian's Facebook page to learn more about Wolfdogs.

"First People" was published in Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals, edited by Linda Hogan, Deena Metzger, and Brenda Peterson (Fawcett Columbine/Ballatine, 1998).

Animal stories


Cows on Chagford Commons

From Linda Hogan's essay "First People":

"What finally turned me back toward the older traditions of my own [Chickasaw] and other Native peoples was the inhumanity of the Western world, the places--both inside and out--where the culture's knowledge and language don't go, and the despair, even desperation, it has spawned. We live, I see now, by different stories, the Western mind and the indigenous. In the older, more mature cultures where people still live within the kinship circles of animals and human beings there is a connection with animals, not only as food, but as 'powers,' a word which can be taken to mean states of being, gifts, or capabilities.

Cow on Chagford Common

Tilly running on the village Commons

"I've found, too, that the ancient intellectual traditions are not merely about belief, as some would say. Belief is not a strong enough word. They are more than that: They are part of lived experience, the on-going experience of people rooted in centuries-old knowledge that is held deep and strong, knowledge about the natural laws of Earth, from the beginning of creation, and the magnificent terrestrial intelligence still at work, an intelligence now newly called ecology by the Western science that tells us what our oldest tribal stories maintain--the human animal is a relatively new creation here; animal and plant presences were here before us; and we are truly the younger sisters and brothers of the other animal species, not quite as well developed as we thought we were. It is through our relationships with animals and plants that we maintain a way of living, a cultural ethics shaped from an ancient understanding of the world, and this is remembered in stories that are the deepest reflections of our shared lives on Earth.

Tilly at the gate, Chagford Commons

Tilly at the gate, Chagford Commons

"That we held, and still hold, treaties with the animals and plant species is a known part of tribal culture. The relationship between human people and animals is still alive and resonant in the world, the ancient tellings carried on by a constellation of stories, songs, and ceremonies, all shaped by lived knowledge of the world and its many interwoven, unending relationships. These stories and ceremonies keep open the bridge between one kind of intelligence and another, one species and another."

Tall plumes of flowers on the Village Commons "First People" was published in Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals, edited by Linda Hogan, Deena Metzger, and Brenda Peterson (Fawcett Columbine/Ballatine, 1998).


Picture 4

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

Lamb on Dartmoor by Helen Mason

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

Sheep on Dartmoor by Helen Mason

Victorian illustration for Little Bo Peer, artist unknown

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

More Celtic Fairy Tales

Art credits:  The painting at the top of this post is by Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931), an American illustrator who died tragically young from tuberculosis. The piece here (titled "Blondine Threw Her Arms Around Him") was commissioned for an American edition of Comtesse de Ségur's Old French Fairy Tales, published when the artist was just 19. The two photographs of Dartmoor sheep are by my friend Helen Mason, followed by a 19th century illustration  (artist unknown). The final drawing, by the English illustrator John Dickson Batten (1860-1932), is from Joseph Jacob's More Celtic Fairy Tales.