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June 2013

Into the Woods, 15: Living Wild

Bluebells 1

"Thomas Merton wrote, 'there is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.' There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.

"I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock -- more than a maple -- a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you."

  - Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

Bluebells 2

"Maybe freedom really is nothing left to lose. You had it once in childhood, when it was okay to climb a tree, to paint a crazy picture and wipe out on your bike, to get hurt. The spirit of risk gradually takes its leave. It follows the wild cries of joy and pain down the wind, through the hedgerow, growing ever fainter. What was that sound? A dog barking far off? That was our life calling to us, the one that was vigorous and undefended and curious.” 

Peter Heller (Hell or High Water)

Bluebells 3

“If it's wild to your own heart, protect it. Preserve it. Love it. And fight for it, and dedicate yourself to it, whether it's a mountain range, your wife, your husband, or even (god forbid) your job. It doesn't matter if it's wild to anyone else: if it's what makes your heart sing, if it's what makes your days soar like a hawk in the summertime, then focus on it. Because for sure, it's wild, and if it's wild, it'll mean you're still free. No matter where you are.”  ― Rick Bass

Bluebells 4

“There are so many unsung heroines and heroes at this broken moment in our collective story, so many courageous persons who, unbeknownst to themselves, are holding together the world by their resolute love or contagious joy. Although I do not know your names, I can feel you out there.”   - David Abram

"It is never too late to be what you might have been.
"  - George Elliot

Bluebells 5

Into the Woods, 14: Art From the Fairy Tale Forest

Nancy Ekholm Burkert

"What was the appeal [of fairy tales]? It's hard to be definite about that. The stories didn't have any direct application to our real lives. They weren't much good from a practicle point of view. At this time, we were living half the year in the Canadian north woods, and we knew if we went for a walk there, we were unlikely to come upon any castles, if we met any wolves or bears they wouldn't be the talking kind, if we kissed a frog it would most likely pee on us, and if we got lost, we wouldn't find any short-sighted, evil old women with patisserie cottages and child-sized ovens. Rescue, if any, would not be applied by princes. So it wasn't our outer lives that Grimms' tales addressed: it was our inner ones. These stories have survived as stories, over so many centuries and in so many variations, because they do make such an appeal to the inner life -- you could say 'the dreaming self' and not be far wrong, because they are both the stuff of nightmare and magical thinking. As Margaret Drabble says, there is a mystery in such stories which is beyond the rational mind."    - Margaret Atwood

Illustration for Snow White by Yvonne Gilbert

"From time to time, I still pull [Grimms' Fairy Tales] down from the shelf, especially when I am writing; I recently discovered details from 'The Maiden Without Hands' and 'Godfather Death' popping up in the novel at which I am currently at work. I found myself rereading the stories, mesmerized once again.; I was startled to realize that the fairy tales were still deeply twined into my unconscious life, and because the act of writing taps the vein of the unconcious so silently, the tales flood back into my current stories with their metaphors and morals at the times when I am most unaware, most deeply immersed in creation. I thought I could leave the Grimms brothers behind, but -- as with any strong and complicated relationship -- it has not proved to be nearly as simple as that."  - Linda Gray Sexton

Illustration for The Twelve Dancing Princesses illustrated by Ruth Sanderson

Nadezhda Illarionova

"Fairy Tales were the refuge of my troubled childhood. Despite all the messages contained in them about being a dutiful daughter, a good girl, which I internalized to some extent, I was most obsessed with the idea of justice, the insistence in most tales that the righteous would prevail.”
  - bell hooks

Illustration for Donkeyskin by Toshiyuki Enoki

"The more one knows fairy tales the less fantastical they appear; they can be vehicles of the grimmest realism, expressing hope against all the odds with gritted teeth.”  - Marina Warner

Daniel Egnéus

"Early on I realized that stories could  save you. " - Julia Alvarez

An illustration from Little Red Cap by Lisbeth Zwerger

Kinder– und Haumärchen
by Diane Thiel

Liegt in dem Märchen miener Kinderjahre
Als in der Wahrheit, die das Leben lehrt.
—Frederich Schiller

(Deeper meaning lies in the fairy tales of my childhood
than in the truth that is taught in life.)

Saint Nikolaus had a giant gunny sack
to put the children in if they were bad.
It was a hole so deep you'd never come back.
A porch swing full of stories, where the smoke
went up in hot, concentric, perfect rings
and filled our heads with unbelievable things

A nursery heavy with a history
where nothing was whatever it had seemed,
where Aschenputtel's sisters cut their feet
half off — so desperate they were to fit.
And in the end, they also lost their eyes
when steel–grey birds descended from the skies.

Rotkäppchen's wolf was someone that she knew,
who wooed her with a man's words in the woods.
But she escaped. It always struck me most
how Grandmother, whose world was swallowed whole,
leapt fully formed out of the wolf alive.
Her will came down the decades to survive

in mine — my heart still desperately believes
the stories where somebody re–conceives
herself, emerges from the hidden belly,
the warring home dug deep inside the city.

We live today those stories we were told.
Es war einmal im tiefen tiefen Wald.


"This earth that we live on is full of stories in the same way that, for a fish, the ocean is full of ocean. Some people say when we are born we’re born into stories. I say we’re also born from stories."
  - Ben Okri

Indeed, we are.

Illustration for Sleeping Beauty by Kinuko Y. Craft

Sleeping Beauty illustration by Mercer Mayer

The art of the fairy tale forest above is: "Snow White" by Nancy Ekholm Burkert, "Snow White" by Yvonne Gilbert, The Twelve Dancing Princesses" by Ruth Sanderson, "Donkeyskin" by Nadezhda Illarionova, "Donkeyskin" by Toshiyuki Enoki, "Little Red Riding Hood" by Daniel Egnéus, "Little Red Cap" by Lisbeth Zwerger, "Sleeping Beauty" illustrations by  Errol Le Cain, Kinuko Y. Craft, and Mercer Mayer.

Deep in the Forest, a guest post by Valerianna Claff

What would it be like to live and work at the heart of a forest? I put this question to artist and educator Valerianna Claff, whose RavenWood Forest Studio nestles among the hemlocks of western Massachusetts....

Early morning sun in the forest

"Early morning sun finds its way through the trees in long, angled rays," writes Valerianna, describing a typical day at RavenWood. "Dew rises from the glistening mosses becoming a gentle mist, a hermit thrush sings far off in the forest. I sit in a chair outside the back door, watching the majesty of the morning, taking note of the inch or two of unfurling the ferns have managed since yesterday. Sipping coffee, I mostly look and listen – a kind of morning meditation – letting my mind wander and feeling the shape of twinleaf and foamflower in my body. I feel the gentle movement of the long, lacelike hemlock boughs, blown by a slight movement of air. The towering trunks bring me to the awareness of my spine and I watch as a red eft meanders through the woodland garden. I rise and pinch a bit of new spring hemlock needles, put it in my mouth, tasting yellow-greenness and a slight hint of citrus. Under the Grandmother tree, I bend and pick a partridge berry – not very tasty – but offering some red to my morning nutrition. Kicking off my clogs, I find a place on the mosses, and go through my Qigong routine. Swatting at mosquitoes, I wish I might become evolved enough to let them be. Pasha brushes past my leg, damp from his morning wander, full of purrs and stories, a wild glint in his green-gold eyes.

Red Eft

Green Man


"It has been ten years since I came to this forest, and I think I am beginning to know something of the nature here. I am not so far from civilization, only a mile from the center of town, but such a tiny town with nothing more than a library (about the size of my downstairs), a general store, church, fire station, post office and a few bed-and-breakfasts. Not one stoplight or gas station or pub. Livestock and wildlife outnumber people, and the lack of human-made sounds is noticeable. Unlike my years in the city, when I hear a lawnmower here, it seems to bring me some comfort, as if to say, no, you are not completely alone in the wilderness. A twenty-minute drive brings me to Northampton, a small city with a big heart. From there, the road leads to small towns and cities, famous educational institutions, museums and the house of Emily Dickenson, which seems always to be waving at me from across the valley.

"When I arrived here, I had a plan of a small retreat center with drum circles and large seasonal gatherings and guest teachers and performances. Wandering the land in that first autumn, my plans fell off me, floating to the earth to mingle with oak leaves. As I began to feel the spirit of this forest, I understood that this was not a place of grand views and loud, expansive expression, but a quiet, inward land, asking for listening and rooting and reflecting beside still pools and moss covered ledges. On the first misty walk my mother took with me here, she said she was expecting King Arthur to ride over the hill, as the land seemed to be whispering stories as we walked.

Forest stories

"As the steward of a deep and inward forest, I am called to sit and listen and trust in stillness. Again and again, as the twenty-first century woman that I am becomes uncomfortable with stillness, I am asked to wait, to listen longer, remain still, root deeper.

"The seasonal gatherings to celebrate Equinoxes and Solstices do happen, but they are small, intimate gatherings around a small fire where songs and stories are shared and owls and coyotes offer their calls to the circle. Small groups of seekers come to do their inner work, learning from the stillness and remembering something about dreaming and how to let their bodies be held by the earth and to find ways of communicating and knowing beyond words and intellect.

Forest dreaming

"The forest has taught me – as any wild place would – to embrace the long, dark days of winter as a time to nourish the soul with fire and stories and deep, deep dreaming. I understand something of a dark underworld journey, and the enormous gifts of seeing it through to the end. A few years ago, after the loss of a loved one, I found myself on such a journey… it seemed to never end. I had to ignore impulses to go out and manifest and DO as a stronger voice continued to tell me to wait. One cold February morning, I awoke with a clear knowing of how to move outward again. I understood that I needed to bring my teaching more fully to the forest, to integrate all the parts of me, to share my relationship with the wild and to invite others to know stillness. I needed a grant to build a studio. I looked up a grant I had heard about that offers assistance to forest-based businesses encouraging forest owners to keep their land forested. The grant had not given out money in several years, but that year they were offering grants and the application was due in a month. I applied, got the grant, and RavenWood Forest, Studio of Mythic & Environmental Arts was built.

The studio

"A precious gift I have received from this forest is the gift of remembering. Finding a place just far enough away from the bustle, where the wild feels bigger than the human world, I remember myself as a soul being, quite removed from the definitions, boxes and labels that culture puts on me. When the owl comes to spend the day on her sunny perch outside my window, or a bear lumbers by, or I find a luna moth resting in a shady spot under a leaf, or I walk out to a garden filled with hundreds of dragon flies, darting this way and that, I am entranced and fully present with what is left of the wild within me.

Owl on her perchOwl on her perch

A bear comes out of trees, seeking ants to eatA bear comes out of the trees, seeking ants to eat

"But there are shadows here, too. One cannot spend years peering into the dark, still pools without being brought to one’s knees. Living alone here, I sometimes need to seek refuge in a town to walk around and look in shops and NOT be down under the towering trees. I need to go to the ridge top and be loud and expansive. My job as an adjunct art professor helps with getting me out, and, as teaching does, keeps my world full of young folk and forces me out of dreaming and into intellectual conversation. This is good for me. The long commute and the less than fair pay isn’t so good, but I stay connected.

"So it might seem that I have become a bit like the witch in the woods, like the character from my favorite childhood film, “The Three Lives of Thomasina”. She lives in an idyllic cottage in the forest, knows the language of birds and foxes, grows her own food and is the wise woman healer that the children bring their injured animals to. This is the romantic version, in truth, I can’t quite get enough light for a vegetable garden to grow well, there is a big mortgage to pay, I live very close to the financial edge, and my sensitivities to chemicals and mold have me flattened more than active these days.

"Being flattened however, isn’t always a negative thing, I am called to stillness again, and there is good medicine in that. As a storyteller in image, words and song, whose inspiration is the mystery of the forest, quiet dreaming is essential to my creative work. This past year, as I grieve the loss of my mother, and am healing the roots of my illness, I find myself painting images that tell the stories of the deep forest. I’m beginning to get at the essence of this place - a dark and mysterious woodland – with gentle wildflowers growing from the leaf mold, and root-tangled caverns under fallen trees that might well lead to the underworld. The stories that find me here are fierce as well as gentle. I live amongst large predators who might eat my beloved cat friend or even me, where the tiny Woolly Adelgid threatens to kill all my trees, and the well has run dry once or twice, leaving the herbs in the garden to wilt. I sometimes fantasize about life in a gypsy caravan, traveling from town to town, telling stories and singing with my drum, but I am more like a tree than a songbird, and its good to know who I am, lest I follow someone else’s dream and find myself utterly lost without my tribe of trees.

Late Winter Forest"Late Winter Forest,” watercolor, 11” x 15”, V. Claff, 2013

Strange Light"Strange Light,” watercolor, 22" x 30", V. Claff, 2013

Forest Mystery"Forest Mystery,” watercolor, 22" x 30”, V. Claff, 2013

"I spread my mother’s ashes in the moss garden on the last day of May, as she asked me to do. I think about the blessing of this – of how humans of old stayed where their ancestor’s bones decayed and became part of the soil, and how their very DNA became a part of that land. I wonder how living on land where one’s ancestors have been buried for centuries might be – would it be easier to speak with stones? Will the mosses begin to whisper their secrets to me, now that my mother’s spirit mingles with the ground here?

Winter Mists "Winter Mists,” watercolor, 11” x 15”, V. Claff, 2013

"The path beneath my feet is soft and spongy. I think about the generations of trees that have fallen to earth and become this ground, the tree-ancestors of the forest. Bones of the Eastern Woodland Indians and the first European settlers, long gone to dust, mingle here. The bear who didn’t put on enough fat before an unusually long winter is curled beneath the roots of an enormous pine tree, her body nourishing its roots as she dreams her forever dream. As I walk, I hear the call of a raven, shattering the quiet and filling the vast space between us. I sit on a boulder I call the whispering stone, my quiet cat beside me, listening as the raven’s call fades and the sound of black wings thrums past overhead."

Forest drum

Valerianna Claff

Three Seed Stones"Three Seed Stones," ink on paper, V. Claff

To see more of Valerianna's beautiful work and learn more about the RavenWood Forest Studio of Mythic & Environmental Arts, please visit the RavenWood website and blog.

Into the Woods, 13: Once Upon a Time, Re-imagining Fairy Tales

Illustration from East of the Sun, West of the Moon, by Kay Nielson

" 'Once upon a time,' the stories would particular time, fictional time, fairy-story time. This is a doorway; if you're lucky, you go through it as a child, aurally, before you can read, and if you are very lucky, you become a free citizen of an ancient republic and can come and go as you please. These stories are deeply embedded in my imagination. As I grew up and became a writer, I found myself going back and using them, retelling them ever since, working partly on the principle that a tale which has been around for centuries is highly likely to be a better story than one I just made up yesterday; and partly on the deep sense that they can tell more truth, more economically, than slices of contemporary realism. The stories are so tough and shrewd formally that I can use them for anything I want -- feminist revisioning, psychological exploration, malicious humour, magical realism, nature writing. They are generous, true, and enchanted."  - Sara Maitland

Detail from an illustration by Kay Nielsen

"Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life."  - Johann C. Friedrich von Schiller

A detail from Kay Nielsen's ''Deliverance of the Three Princesses''

"Do people choose the art that inspires them — do they think it over, decide they might prefer the fabulous to the real? For me, it was those early readings of fairy tales that made me who I was as a reader and, later on, as a storyteller."  - Alice Hoffman

"For most of human history, 'literature,' both fiction and poetry, has been narrated, not written -- heard, not read. So fairy tales, folk tales, stories from the oral tradition, are all of them the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labor created our world."  - Angela Carter

Illustration 2 by Kay Nielsen

The illustrations above are by the great Kay Nielsen (1886-1957). To learn more about his enchanted and tragic life in Denmark and California, go here.For further reading on the authors quoted in the post, follow the links above.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

My apologies for being gone for so long. Health issues and exhaustion swallowed me up, but I'm back in the office this morning, attempting to get back on my feet.

Today's music is "Passacaglia: Partita for 8 Voices" by Caroline Shaw -- who, though only 30, won the Pulitzer Prize for music this year. In the video above, Shaw's composition is performed by the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

"They say that a young artist should master the idioms of the past before discarding them for whatever’s next," says J. Bryan Lowder (in an article about the piece worth reading in full). "Despite the unconventional markings, Shaw has clearly done this. She raids the vocal traditions of different eras and cultures in order to assemble something fresh and yet familiar, but only just.... This is a deceptive sort of music, with an elegant, easy smoothness built from distinct and fascinating bits-and-pieces. Listening to it is a little like examining a great mosaic, both from a distance and occasionally with a magnifying glass, the better to see the grout between the tiles. Perhaps coincidentally, one of Shaw’s idiosyncratic style guidelines is 'silk shoes gliding over marble mosaic.' She’s trying to tell her musicians how to sound, but she might as well have been telling us how to listen—no description could be more apt. "

Below, Shaw herself, as a member of Va Vocals (Martha Cluver, Caroline Shaw and Mellissa Hughes), singing "I Want to Live Where You Live" by David Lang. This simple but haunting performance was recorded in the Rare Book Room in the Strand bookstore, New York City, this past April. The song comes from Shelter, a musical collaboration between Lang, Michael Jordan, and Julia Wolfe.


Tilly contemplates the mystery of life.

As I climb back into life again, following a period of poor health, I'm thinking about cycles of life and art and moon and stars and the land around us: the bright and the dark...the gentle and the cruel...the soft, sweet days and the days as hard as stone...the art that flies and the art that fails...the words that flow and words that choke...the physical strength that comes and goes. The seasons turn. The days roll by: we wake, we sleep, we wake again. Our lives are lived in cycles that take no notice of schedules, lists and plans, embedded as we are in larger turnings: the rising of the sap and the falling of the leaves; the rhythmic slap of water on the shore; the world breathing in and out, in and out, as we rise and fall, and rise once more.

"Illness is one of the Mysteries," says poet Marjorie Clarke. "I fear it. I respect it. I learn from it.''

I want to be fully present in this world; to move with its rhythms and not against them; to accept and respect the dark days too. To learn. To breathe. To fall and rise again. And again. And again.

Bluebells on the hill

And what else can we do when the mysteries present themselves

but hope to pluck from the basket the brisk words
that will applaud them,

the heron, the turtle, the catbird, the seed-grain
kneeling in the dark earth, its body
opening into the golden world?

- Mary Oliver (from "Mysteries, Four of the Simple Ones")

Devon bluebells

''Where is our comfort but in the free, uninvolved, finally mysterious beauty and grace of this world that we did not make, that has no price? Where is our sanity but there? Where is our pleasure but in working and resting kindly in the presence of this world?''

- Wendell Berry (from The Art of the Commonplace)

Widdershins: Dartmoor Mythic Arts

Widdershins exhibition - Summer 2013poster art by Brian Froud

The Widdershins exhibition is now open, running until August 10 at the Green Hill Arts Centre in Moretonhampstead, Devon. If you're in the West Country, or coming down here over the summer, please stop in. Beautifully curated by Carol Harvey, the main exhibition contains works by seven artists from Chagford (David Wyatt, Rima Staines, Brian and Wendy Froud, Alan and Virginia Lee, and me), plus artists from Moretonhampstead (Neil Wilkinson Cave), the Devon coast (Hazel Brown), and the New Forest (Paul Kidby). Mythic works from additional artists and craftworkers (including Chagford's Danielle Barlow) are on display in the Gallery shop. I should mention that this is one of the most thoughtfully hung "group shows" I've ever seen. The artists work in many different mediums and styles, yet the curator has displayed them in a way that flows beautifully, emphasizing the mythic spirit they have in common.

I'll be giving a talk on women in fairy tales (looking at the adult history of the tales), with storytelling by Howard, next Saturday evening, June 29. I'll also be at an "art & coffee morning" at the gallery on Saturday, June 29, to moderate a discussion with David Wyatt, Virginia Lee, and Hazel Brown. There are many other magical events connected to the show (thanks to program co-ordinator Katheryn Hope), including music, workshops, puppetry, poetry, comedy, storytelling, a screening of The Dark Crystal with a talk by Brian & Wendy Froud, and more.  Information can be found on the Green Hill website.

Below, just a few pieces on display in the exhibition....

Detail from a painting by David Wyattdetail from a painting by David Wyatt

Rima Stainesdetail from a painting by Rima Staines

Hazel Brown and Wendy Froudfairy boxes and books by Hazel Brown, with fairies by Wendy Froud

Virginia Lee 2detail from a painting by Virginia Lee

Virginia Leedetail from a sculpture by Virginia Lee

Drawing copyright by Alan leedrawing by Alan Lee

One corner of the exhibition, with works by David Wyatt, Brian Froud, Virginia Lee, and Paul Kidby, photographed by David Wyattone corner of the exhibition, photographed by David Wyatt -- with paintings by David, Brian Froud, and Virginia Lee, and sculpture by Paul Kidby and Viriginia

183155_10151636357944379_86204359_nposter art by Alan Lee

You can see more photos from the exhibition here, here, and here. Better still, go to Green Hill Arts, if you possibly can. The show has been extended to August 10th.