Morning has broken

Easter sunrise, Nattadon Hill

Happy Easter to all of you who celebrate it, and happy springtime to all of you don't. Sadly, the Easter Sunrise Service usually held on the hill behind our house did not take place due to the UK's pandemic lockdown, but here's a post about it from a previous year. Tilly and I made the climb up the hill by ourselves this morning, and said our own quiet prayers....

The ancient church at the heart of our village hosts an annual Easter Sunrise Service -- held on the top of Nattadon, the tall hill just behind our house. I happened to wake very early on Easter morning, so while the rest of the family slept I dressed in my warmest jumper and skirt, laced on my studiest walking boots, whistled for Tilly, and headed out in the cold and dark.

We climbed through the oaks of Nattadon Woods and onto the open slope of the hill, the rain-rutted pathway grown visible now in the indigo light of dawn. Tilly raced ahead while I straggled behind, stopping often to catch my breath. During better times, the hound and I climb Nattadon almost every day, bounding up and down like mountain goats -- but health problems over the last several weeks have kept me on lower, easier trails. I was sorry to see how much strength I had lost as I wound my way slowly upward.

Easter sunrise, Nattadon Hill

Easter sunrise, Nattadon Hill

 At last we reached the top of the hill. A number of people were gathered there, sharing tea and coffee and hot-cross buns, while a small fire blazed and the sun slowly rose behind clouds laying thick on the moor. *

It touched me to receive a warm welcome, despite not being Christian myself. I thought about all the centuries in which a pagan woman like me would have much to fear from the Christian church -- and so, as the Easter Service began and I silently added my own form of prayer, I felt a bone deep gratitude for this moment of inter-faith fellowship. A long time coming (historically speaking), hard won and precious. May it always be so.

Easter sunrise, Nattadon Hill

The hymn chosen for the service was one I love: "Morning Is Broken" by Eleanor Farjeon. Yes, the same Eleanor Farjeon who wrote The Glass Slipper (a classic retelling of Cinderella) and other works of children's fiction.

I first knew the song through Cat Stevens' version in 1970, when I was growing up on America's east coast, and it has personal significance. There were nights as a child when I could not sleep at home due to my stepfather's violence, so I'd sleep instead somewhere outdoors (if the weather was warm enough), or in the family car (if it was cold) -- sometimes alone, and sometimes with my young brothers curled up beside me. I've always been an early riser, and many a morning as the sky lightened I'd sing "Morning Has Broken" to cheer myself up. Back then, I could not have imagined I'd also sing it one day in the hills of south-west England, with my neighbors around me, my good dog beside me, my husband and daughter fast asleep in our warm and safe little house below....

Yes, reader, I cried. I admit it.

Morning had broken. And we headed home.

Easter hound, Nattadon Hill

Easter sunrise, Nattadon Hill

A solitary Easter morning on Nattadon Hill during the global pandemic of 2020:

Easter morning 2020

* I didn't photograph the Sunrise Service, or the people attending, in respect of privacy and the sacred nature of the event. These pictures of the fire were taken afterwards, with the Vicar's permission.


The folklore of rabbits & hares

Three Hares by Jackie Morris

As Easter approaches, here's a bit of seasonal folklore....

The symbol of our village is three hares in a circle, their interlinked ears forming a perfect triangle -- an imge found in roof boss carvings in seventeen Devon churches, including ours. Known locally as the Tinner Rabbits, the design was widely believed to be based on an old alchemical symbol for tin, representing the historic  Three Hares by Brian Froud importance of tin mining on Dartmoor nearby -- until a group of local artists and historians created the Three Hares Project to investigate the symbol’s history. To their surprise, they discovered that the design’s famous tin association is actually a dubious one, deriving from a misunderstanding of an alchemical illustration published in the early 17th century. In fact, the symbol is much older and farther ranging than early folklorists suspected. It is, the Three Hares Project reports, "an extraordinary and ancient archetype, stretching across diverse religions and cultures, many centuries and many thousands of miles. It is part of the shared medieval heritage of Europe and Asia (Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism) yet still inspires creative work among contemporary artists."

The earliest known examples of the design can be found in Buddhist cave temples in China (581-618 CE); from there it spread all along the Silk Road, through the Middle East, through Hungary and Poland to Germany, Switzerland, and the British Isles. Though now  Nature in Art by Eleanor Ludgateassociated with the Holy Trinity in Christian iconography, the original, pre-Christian meaning of the Three Hares design has yet to be discovered, but we can glimpse possible interpretations by examining the wealth of world mythology and folklore involving rabbits and hares. In numerous traditions, these animals were archetypal symbols of women, femininity, female deities, and women's hedgerow magic, associated with the lunar cycle, fertility, longevity, and rebirth. If we dig a little deeper into their stories, we find that they are also contradictory, paradoxical creatures: symbols of both cleverness and foolishness, of femininity and androgyny, of cowardice and courage, of rampant sexuality and virginal purity. In some lands, Hare is the messenger of the Great Goddess, moving by moonlight between the human world and the realm of the gods; in other lands he is a god himself, wily deceiver and sacred world creator rolled into one.

The Mockingbird and the Hare by Kelly Louise Judd

The association of rabbits, hares, and the moon can be found in numerous cultures the world over -- ranging from Japan to Mexico, from Indonesia to the British Isles. Whereas in Western folklore we refer to the "Man in the Moon," the "Hare (or Rabbit) in the Moon" is a more familiar image in other societies. In China, for example, the Hare in the Moon is depicted with a mortar and pestle in which he mixes the elixir of immortality; he is the messenger of a female moon deity and the guardian of all wild animals. In Chinese Wishing on a Blue Moon by Karen Davisfolklore, female hares conceive through the touch of the full moon's light (without the need of impregnation by the male), or by crossing water by moonlight, or licking moonlight from a male hare’s fur. Figures of hares or white rabbits are commonly found at Chinese Moon Festivals, where they represent longevity, fertility, and the feminine power of yin.

In Egyptian myth, hares were also closely associated with the cycles of the moon, which was viewed as masculine when waxing and feminine when waning. Hares were likewise believed to be androgynous, shifting back and forth between the genders -- not only in ancient Egypt but also in European folklore right up to the 18th century. A hare-headed god and goddess can be seen on the Egyptian temple walls of Dendera, where the female is believed to be the goddess Unut (or Wenet), while the male is most likely a representation of Osiris (also called Wepuat or Un-nefer), who was sacrificed to the Nile annually in the form of a hare.

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

Brown Hare, Suffolk, photographed by Michael Rae

In Greco-Roman myth, the hare represented romantic love, lust, abundance, and fercundity. Pliny the Elder recommended the meat of the hare as a cure for sterility, and wrote that a meal of hare enhanced sexual attraction for a period of nine days. Hares were associated with the Artemis, goddess of wild places and the hunt, and newborn hares were not to be killed but left to her protection. Rabbits were sacred to Aphrodite, the Thumper (from my novel The Wood Wife) by Brian Froudgoddess of love, beauty, and marriage -- for rabbits had “the gift of Aphrodite” (fertility) in great abundance. In Greece, the gift of a rabbit was a common love token from a man to his male or female lover. In Rome, the gift of a rabbit was intended to help a barren wife conceive. Carvings of rabbits eating grapes and figs appear on both Greek and Roman tombs, where they symbolize the transformative cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

In Teutonic myth, the earth and sky goddess Holda, leader of the Wild Hunt, was followed by a procession of hares bearing torches. Although she descended into a witch-like figure and boogeyman of children’s tales, she was once revered as a beautiful, powerful goddess in charge of weather phenomena. Freyja, the headstrong Norse goddess of love, sensuality, and women’s mysteries, was also served by hare attendants. She traveled with a sacred hare and boar in a chariot drawn by cats. Kaltes, the shape-shifting moon goddess of western Siberia, liked to roam the hills in the form of a hare, and was sometimes pictured in human shape wearing a headdress with hare’s ears. Eostre, the goddess of the moon, fertility, and spring in Anglo–Saxon myth, was often depicted with a hare’s head or ears, and with a white hare standing in attendance. This magical white hare laid brightly colored eggs which were given out to children during spring fertility festivals -- an ancient tradition that survives in the form of the Easter Bunny today.

Eostre by Danielle Barlow

Easter Rabbits by Mr. Finch

Eostre, the Celtic version of Ostara, was a goddess also associated with the moon, and with mythic stories of death, redemption, and resurrection during the turning of winter to spring. Eostre, too, was a shape-shifter, taking the shape of a hare at each full moon; all hares were sacred to her, and acted as her messengers. ((I should mention that our understanding of the Ostara/Eostre myth is controversial, with mythologists divided between those who believe she was and was not a major figure in the British Isles.)

Hare sculpture by Beth Cavener StichterCesaer recorded that rabbits and hares were taboo foods to the Celtic tribes. In Ireland, it was said that eating a hare was like eating one’s own grandmother -- perhaps due to the sacred connection between hares and various goddesses, warrior queens, and female faeries, or else due to the belief that old "wise women" could shape-shift into hares by moonlight. The Celts used rabbits and hares for divination and other shamanic practices by studying the patterns of their tracks, the rituals of their mating dances, and mystic signs within their entrails. It was believed that rabbits burrowed underground in order to better commune with the spirit world, and that they could carry messages from the living to the dead and from humankind to the faeries.

As Christianity took hold across Europe, hares and rabbits, so firmly associated with the Goddess, came to be seen in a less favorable light -- viewed suspiciously as the familiars of witches, or as witches themselves in animal form. Numerous folk tales tell of men led astray by hares who are really witches in disguise, or of old women revealed as witches when they are wounded in their animal shape. In one well-known story from Dartmoor, a mighty hunter named Bowerman disturbed a coven of witches practicing their rites, and so one young witch determined to take revenge upon the man. She shape-shifted into a hare, led Bowerman through a deadly bog, then turned the hunter and his hounds into piles of stones, which can still be seen today. (The stone formations are known by the names Hound Tor and Bowerman’s Nose.) "Demonic" hares and rabbits are found on cathedral carvings and in other forms of Christian sacred art...but we also find the opposite: the pagan Three Hares symbol (mentioned above) representing the Holy Trinity, and unblemished white rabbits symbolizing purity, piety, and the Holy Virgin.

Cottontail sculpture by Mark Rossi

Desert jackrabbit (Wikipedia photograph)

My drawing of a desert bunny girl with prayer feathers

Among the many different Native American story traditions, Trickster tales featuring Coyote or Raven tend to be best known to non-Native audiences, but there are also a large number of tales that feature a trickster Rabbit or Hare, particularly among the Algonquin-speaking peoples of the central and eastern woodland tribes.

Mimbres Rabbits by Pablita Velarde  Santa Clara Pueblo

Nanabozho (or Manabozho) the Great Hare, for instance, is a powerful figure found in the tales of the Algonquin, Fox, Menoimini, Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Winnebago tribes. In some stories, Nanabozho is a revered culture hero -- creator of the earth, benefactor of humankind, the bringer of light and fire, and teacher of sacred rituals. In other tales he’s a clown, a thief, a lecher, or a cunning predator -- an ambivalent, amoral figure dancing on the line between right and wrong. In Potawatomi myth, Wabosso is the Great White Hare (and the younger brother of Nanabozho) who travels north to become the greatest of magicians among the supernaturals. The Utes tell the story of Ta-vwots, the Little Rabbit, who shatters the sun and destroys the world, all of which must be created again; and an Omaha rabbit brings the sun down to earth while trying to catch his own shadow. The Cherokee, the Creek, the Biloxi and other tribes tell humorous stories of a mischievous Rabbit who is cousin to Br’er Rabbit and Compair Lapin, outwitting foes and puncturing the pride of friends with his clownish antics.

Boxing Hares (from The Independent)

The jackalope legends of the American Southwest are stories of a more recent vintage, consisting of purported sightings of rabbits or hares with horns like antelopes. The legend may have been brought to North American by German immigrants, derived from the Raurackl (or horned rabbit) of the German folklore tradition.

The March Hareby John Tenniel

Rabbits and hares are both good and bad in Trickster tales found all the way from Asia and Africa to North America. In the Panchatantra tales of India, for example, Hare is a wily Trickster whose cleverness and cunning is pitted against Elephant and Lion, while in Tibetan folktales, quick-thinking Hare outwits the ruses Moon Rabbit netsuke by Eiichi  circa 19th centuryof predatory Tiger. In Japan, the fox is the primary Trickster animal, but hares too are clever, tricky characters. Hares in Japanese folktales tend to be crafty, clownish, mischievous figures (usually male) -- as opposed to fox Tricksters (kitsune), who are more seductive, secretive, and dangerous (usually female). In West Africa, many tribal cultures, such as the Yoruba of Nigeria and the Wolof of Senegal, have traditional story cycles about an irrepressible hare Trickster who is equal parts rascal, clown, and culture hero. In one pan-African story, the Moon sends Hare, her divine messenger, down to earth to give mankind the gift of immortality. "Tell them," she says, "that just as the Moon dies and rises again, so shall you." But Hare, in the role of Trickster buffoon, manages to get the message wrong, bestowing mortality instead and bringing death to the human world. The Moon is so angry, she beats Hare with a stick, splitting his nose (as it remains today). It is Hare’s role to lead the dead to the Afterlife in penance for what he’s done.

Hare by Charles Robinson

African hare stories traveled to North America on the slavers’ ships, mixed with rabbit tales of the Cherokee and other tribes, and were transformed into the famous Br’er Rabbit stories of the American South. These stories were passed orally among slaves, for whom Br’er (Brother) Rabbit was a perfect hero, besting more powerful opponents through his superior intelligence and quicker wits. the The Br’er Rabbit stories were
Country Bunny by Marjorie Hackwritten down and published by Joel Chandler Harris in the 19th century in a now classic collection narrarated by the fictional Uncle Remus. At the same time that Chandler Harris was recording Br’er Rabbit stories from the African American oral tradition, folklorist Alcee Fortier was setting down the folk tales of the Cajun (French Creole) culture of southern Louisiana -- including delightful stories of a fast-talking rabbit Trickster called Compair Lapin. Like Br’er Rabbit, or the hares of West African lore, Compare Lapin is a rascal who manages to get himself into all kinds of trouble -- and then smoothly finds his way back out again through cleverness and guile. (Bugs Bunny owes more than a little of his character to this folkloric archetype.)

More of my bunny girls

Peter's Bedroom and The Math Lesson by Chris Dunn

Whether hovering above us in the arms of a moon goddess or carrying messages from the Netherworld below, whether clever or clownish, hero or rascal, whether portent of good tidings or ill, rabbits and hares have leapt through myths, legends, and folk tales all around the world -- forever elusive, refusing to be caught and bound by a single definition. The precise meaning, then, of the ancient Three Hares symbol carved into our village church is bound to be just as elusive and mutable as the myths behind it. It is a goddess symbol, a Trickster symbol, a symbol of the Holy Trinity, a symbol of death, redemption and rebirth…all these and so much more.

Rabbit study by Beatrix Potter

The Robbit's Christmas Party by Beatrix Potter

The March Hare from Alice in Wonderland

Hare by Albrecht Durer the Younger

Images above: "Three Hares" by Jackie Morris, "Three Hares" by Brian Froud, "Nature in Art" by Eleanor Ludgate, "The Mockingbird and the Hare" by Kelly Louise Judd, "Wishing on a Blue Moon" by Karen Davis, "Girl and Rabbit" photographed by Katerina Plotnikova, "Brown Hare (Suffolk)" photographed by Michael Rae, "Thumper" (from my novel The Wood Wife) by Brian Froud, "Eostre" by Danielle Barlow, "Easter Rabbits" by Mr. Finch, "Hare" sculpture by Beth Cavener Stichter, "Desert Cottontail" sculpture by Mark Rossi, Desert Jackrabbit photograph (Wikipedia), my "Desert Bunny Girl with Prayer Feathers" sketch, "Mimbres Rabbits" by Pablita Verlarde (Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico), "Boxing Hares" photograph (The Independent), "The March Hare, Dormouse, and Mad Hatter" by John Tenniel, "Moon Rabbit" netsuke by Eiichi (Japan, late 19th Century), illustration from "The Tortoise and the Hare" by Charles Robinson, "Country Bunny" by Marjorie Hack, two more of my Bunny Girls, "Peter's Bedroom" and "The Math Lesson" by Chris Dunn, a rabbit study and "The Rabbit's Christmas Party"  by Beatrix Potter, the March Hare at "The Mad Hatter's Tea Party" by Arthur Rackham, and "Young Hare" by Albrecht Dürer.

Go here for a related post on Witch Hares. According to Devon folklore, our village (Chagford) is rife with them.


Underneath the old oak

Old oak 1

Daily life is always quiet in a Dartmoor village where the residents are outnumbered by the sheep, but ever since the UK lock-down started the quality of the silence has deepened, and the greening hills seem to ring with it. No cars pass by. No planes fly overhead. Life moves at a stately walker's pace. Bird song, wind, and water running in the stream behind my studio, have long been the soundtrack of my days, but now their music is crisp and clear, like the unpolluted air itself, and I can feel it entering my writing. I hear it in the words forming on the page.

What stories does silence want to tell? In the days ahead, I'll find out....

Old oak 2

"Since childhood," says Scott Russell Sanders, "I’ve been attracted by the musical quality of language, the sound of individual words and the rhythm of lines and sentences. To this day I write very slowly because a sentence has to sound right to me before I’m willing to type it onto a screen. My revising process involves going over and over the prose, listening to it, seeking a vigor and precision and rhythmic pleasure. Attention to sound is bound up, for me, with a regard for silence. The pauses between words or sentences or paragraphs, the white space surrounding the inky trail of letters, these are what give shape to the music. Sound is married to silence. And one shouldn’t interrupt silence unless one has something beautiful or meaningful to say.

Meldon Hill

Wild Dartmoor ponies

Chagford from Nattadon Hill

"A sense of awe also runs through all of my writing," he adds, "from the feverish poems I wrote in college to the fiction and essays of recent years. This word names a complex emotional response to what is both wonderful and terrifying in our existence. I’ve adapted the Quaker notion of spiritual openings to describe those moments of awe. Often in my writing I’m seeking to make a home for such openings."

Oak and pony

Surprise pony encounter

And so am I.

Hound and oak

Writing in silence

Words: The quotes are from an interview with Scott Russell Sanders in Superstition Review, Issue 5. I highly recommend his books, particularly Writing From the Center -- but they're all good. The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry Magazine, February 2006. All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: A coffee break underneath our favourite old oak. One of the local Dartmoor pony herds comes thundering by...and just when we think they've all gone past, Tilly has a surprising encounter.


On disaster, joy, and re-creating the world

Dartmoor journey

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster was the one Rebecca Solnit book that I hadn't gotten around to reading yet; but with a global pandemic unfolding, I decided that this might be the appropriate time. Despite loving all of her other books, I admit I hesitated over this one because it sounded . . . well, depressing. It turns out that I needn't have worried, and nor should anyone else: A Paradise Built in Hell is engrossing, surprising, and ultimately both hopeful and inspiring.

Solnit's aim is to dispel the misconception that disasters (whether natural or man-made) bring out the worst in people, reducing "the masses" to brutish, selfish behaviour in the scramble for survival -- when in fact, as the historical record makes clear, it generally does just the opposite: bringing out the best in the vast majority of us, providing a forum in which our most compassionate, co-operative, community-oriented selves emerge and flourish. This truth has been affirmed over and over by historians and sociologists who have studied disasters all over the world. Yet the tenor of media coverage of disasters tends to perpetuate the darker myth -- as do most fictional representations. (Think of virtually every disaster movie you have ever seen.) In reality, the shared experience of calamity serves to pull people together, not drive them apart. It summons the better angels of human nature, as we see around us every day during the current pandemic. The "fights for loo roll" tutted over in the media are a minority reaction to the emergency at hand, when in fact people all over the world are responding to the crisis with good sense and thoughtfulness, while inventing ways to ease its strain constructively and creatively.

A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit"In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic," Solnit writes, "urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbours as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressive savage human beings in times of disaster has little truth to it. Decades of meticulous sociological research on behaviour in disasters, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and storms across the [North American] continent and around the world, have demonstrated this. But belief lags behind, and often the worst behaviour in the wake of calamity is on the part of those who believe that others will act savagely and that they themselves are taking defensive measures against barbarism. From earthquake-shattered San Francisco in 1906 to flooded New Orleans in 2005, innocents have been killed by people who believed or asserted that their victims were the criminals and that they themselves were the protectors of the shaken order. Beliefs matter."

Dartmoor 2

Dartmoor 3

Dartmoor 4

"Today Cain is still killing his brother proclaims a faded church mural in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which was so devastated by the failure of the government levees," Solnit continues. "In quick succession, the Book of Genesis gives us the creation of the universe, the illicit acquisition of knowledge, the expulsion from Paradise, and the slaying of Abel by Cain, a second fall from grace into jealousy, competition, alienation, and violence. When God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain asks back, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' He is refusing to say what God already knows: that the spilled blood of Abel cries out from the ground that has absorbed it. He is also raising one of the perennial social questions: are we beholden to each other, must we take care of each other, or is it every man for himself?

P1080028

"Most traditional societies have deeply entrenched commitments and connections between individuals, families, and groups. The very concept of society rests on the idea of networks of affinity and affection, and the freestanding individual exists largely as an outcast or exile. Mobile and individualistic modern societies shed some of these old ties and vacillate about taking on others, especially those expressed through economic arrangements -- including provisions for the aged and vulnerable, the mitigation of poverty and desperation -- the keeping of one's brothers and sisters. The argument against such keeping is often framed as an argument about human nature: we are essentially selfish, and because you will not care for me, I cannot care for you. I will not feed you because I must hoard against starvation, since I too cannot count on others. Better yet, I will take your wealth and add it to mine -- if I believe that my well-being is independent of yours or pitted against yours -- and justify my conduct as natural law. If I am not my brother's keeper, than we have been expelled from paradise, a paradise of unbroken solidarities.

"Thus does everyday life become a social disaster. Sometimes disaster intensifies this; sometimes it provides a remarkable reprieve from it, a view into another world for our other selves. When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up -- not all, but the great preponderance -- to become their brothers' keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amid death, chaos, fear, and loss. Were we to know and believe this, our sense of what is possible at any time might change. The astonishing gap between common beliefs and actualities about disaster behavior limits the possibilities, and changing beliefs could fundamentally change much more. Horrible in themselves, disaster is sometimes a back door into paradise, the paradise at least in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire, and each are our sister's and brother's keeper."

Dartmoor 6

Dartmoor 7

Solnit chronicles the spontaneous communities that spring up in disaster's wake, as neighbour helps neighbour and strangers band together, casting aside rigid divisions of class, gender, and ethnicity, to feed and tend and nurse one another, sharing labour, resources, and a common sense of purpose. Survivors' accounts, both historic and contemporary, tell of loss, hardship, and tragedy, yes, but also of laughter, fellowship, and joy. The latter is referenced over and over. "This book," writes Solnit, "is about that emotion, as important as it is surprising, and the circumstances that arouse it and those that it generates."

She adds that these things matter "as we enter an era of increasing and intensifying disaster. And more than that, they matter as we enter an era when questions about everyday social possibilities and human nature arise again, as they often had during turbulent times."

Dartmoor 8

Dartmoor

Dartmoor 9

"The existing system is built on fear of each other and scarcity," she writes, "and it has created more scarcity and more to be afraid of. It is mitigated every day by altruism, mutual aid, and solidarity, by the acts of individuals and organizations who are motivated by hope and by love rather than fear. They are akin to a shadow government -- another system ready to do more were they voted into power. Disaster votes them in, in a sense, because in an emergency these skills and ties work while fear and divisiveness do not. Disaster reveals what else the world could be like -- reveals the strength of that hope, that generosity, and that solidarity. It reveals mutual aid as a default operating principle and civil society as something waiting in the wings when it's absent from the stage.

"A world could be build on that basis, and to do so would redress the long divides that produce everyday pain, poverty, and loneliness and in times of crisis homicidal fear and opportunism. This is the only paradise that is possible, and it will never exist whole, stable, and complete. It is always coming into being in response to trouble and suffering; making paradise is the work we were meant to do."

Dartmoor 10

Dartmoor 11

The pictures in this post were taken on Dartmoor on a cold, crisp day. Walking a labyrinth, according to local folklore, helps to set the world back on its rightful path. Here's Howard, doing his folkloric duty, dreaming a new world into being.

Dartmoor 12 - Labyrinth

Dartmoor 13

The passages quotes above are from A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2009). The poem in the picture captions is How We Became Human by American Poet Laureate Joy Harjo of the Muscogee/Creek Nation (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004). All rights reserved by the authors.


Tension, balance, and walking in beauty

King Stone  Scorhill

Friday's post, "Doing it for love," touched on the difficult balance between making art and earning a living, and why we should be wary of allowing the latter to determine our self-worth -- particularly during a global pandemic when funds are drying up everywhere. But we must also be wary of valuing our work solely through other public marks of success: publications, exhibitions, praise from critics, etc., fine though all these things may be. As the world slows down in response to the pandemic, and the public side of our work is swept away (book launches postponed, concert tours cancelled, rehearsal stopped, galleries closed), what we are left with is the daily practice of art-making, and the personal value we find within it. Which is, I firmly believe, the most valuable thing of all. 

Some years ago, I came across the following passage in Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by the American abstract sculptor and color field artist Anne Truitt (1921-2004) -- who, despite major recognition in the form of museum shows and prestigious fellowships, still found it difficult to support herself and her three children through making art. Truitt wrestled with how to determine the worth of her work: was it by the praise she received from galleries and critics, or by her failure to make a sustainable living with it? She concluded that the answer was neither of these; the true measure of her work rested closer to home:

"I don't know why I seem to be able to make what people call art. For many long years I struggled to learn how to do it, and I don't even know why I struggled. Then, in 1961, at the age of forty, it became clear to me that I was doing work I respected within my own strictest standards. Furthermore, I found this work respected by those whose understanding of art I valued. My first, instinctive reaction to this new situation was, if I'm an artist, being an artist isn't so fancy because it's just me. But now, thirteen years later, there seems more to it than that. It isn't 'just me.' A simplistic attitude toward the course of my life no longer serves.

"The 'just me' reaction was an instinctive disavowal of the social role of the artist; a life-saving disavowal. I refused, and still refuse, the inflated definition of artists as special people with special prerogatives and special excuses. If artists embrace this view of themselves, they necessarily have to attend to its perpetuation. They have to live it out. Their time and energy are consumed for social purposes. Artists then make decisions in terms of a role defined by others, falling into their power and serving to illustrate their theories.

Scorhill 1

Scorhill 3

"The Renaissance focused this sole attention on the artist's individuality, and the focus persists today in a curious form that on the one hand inflates artists' egoistic concept of themselves and on the other places them at the mercy of social forces on which they become dependent. Artists can suffer terribly in this dilemma.

"It is taxing to think out and then maintain a view of one's self that is realistic. The pressure to earn a living confronts a fickle public taste. Artists have to please whim to live on their art. They stand in fearful danger of looking to this taste to define their work decisions.

Scorhill 4

Scorhill

"Sometime during the course of their development, artists have to forge a character subtle enough to nourish and protect and foster the growth of the part of themselves that makes art, and at the same time practical enough to deal with the world pragmatically. They have to maintain a position between care of themselves and care of their work in the world, just as they have to sustain the delicate tension between intuition and sensory information.

"This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that artists are, in this sense, special because they are intrinsically involved in a difficult balance not so blatantly precarious in other professions. The lawyer and the doctor practice their callings. The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin their work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out to the public gaze."

Scorhill 6

Scorhill 8

Keeping a careful balance between our public selves and our private selves is important for everyone, I think, but vital for those of us in the Arts. Turn too far inward, and you may find yourself creating work that doesn't communicate with anyone else...which is, at very least, a lonely place to be. Turn too far outward to the gaze, the applause, the financial rewards of the marketplace, and you may lose connection to the vital spark that fuels your art, and your love of the practice of your craft. Creating art, like creating an artful life, is all about balance. About standing firmly in the center of the circle, and not tipping toward one extreme or another.

"I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos," said the Nobel-Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow. "A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."

Indeed it does, as the strange new world of a global pandemic reminds us. 

Scorhill 7

The photographs here were taken at Scorhill, a Bronze Age stone circle on the open moor past Chagford and Gidleigh. From its center, the sun balances and sets on the largest stone on Midsummer's Eve. Whatever else it may be, it's also a work of art, holding age, time, and stillness in an embrace of sky and granite.

Walking among the ancient stones, I thought about Gretel Ehrlich's words from The Solace of Open Spaces: "The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly, light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding."

Athough Truitt's art was very different from Ehrlich's, or mine, I think she'd agree.

Scohill 8

As Howard and I turned to leave the stones, I spoke a prayer I learned long ago from the Diné (Navajo) people of my own country: Beauty above us. Beauty below us. Beauty in the four directions. May we walk in beauty. May we walk in beauty.

All of us are artists as we create our lives, our families, our communities. All of us balance the conflicting demands of the marketplace and our deep, earth-centered selves. At Scorhill, the noise and flash of the consumer world disappears, and there is only this, granite and sky. There is only this, and it is enough.

May we walk in beauty. May we walk in beauty.

Scorhill 9

Terri Windling 2015

Words: The quotes above are from Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt (Penguin, 1984), The Solace of Open Spaces (Penguin, 1986), and Conversations With Saul Bellow (University Press of Mississippi, 1994). All rights reserved by the authors. Two related posts: On fear of judgement, (about pernicious perfectionism), and a lovely piece on the Pale Rook blog about why you should stop apologising for your work.


Tunes for a Monday Morning: self-isolation and the peregrini

Ynys Enlli, viewed from Mynydd Mawr - photograph by Alan Fryer (Creative Commons)

In his book The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane writes about his journey to Yns Enlli (Bardsey Island), off the coast of the Llŷn Peninsula in Wales:

"Yns Enlli was among the many remote places of the west and north-west coasts of Britain and Ireland to be settled between around AD 500 and 1000," he tells us. "During those centuries, an extraordinary migration occurred. Monks, anchorites, solitaries and other devoted itinerants began to travel in their thousands to the bays, forests, promontories, mountain-tops and islands of the Atlantic littoral. In frail craft and with little experience of seamanship, they sailed out across dangerous seas, in search of something we might now call wilderness. Where they stopped, they build monasteries, cells and oratories, dug cemetaries for their dead and raised stone crosses to their God. These travelers were known as peregrini: the name derives from the Latin peregrinus and carries the idea of wandering over a distance, giving us our word 'pilgrim.' "

Enlii, The Blessed Isle - photograph by Eric Jones (Creative Commons)

At a time when so many are locked down at home to stop the spread of Covid-19, I find myself wondering what the peregrini might have to tell us about the gifts found in self-isolation. Macfarlane notes we know little about them for certain, "yet reading the accounts of their journeys and of their experiences on places like Enlli, I had encountered a dignity of motive and attitude that I found salutary. These men were in search not of material gain, but of a hallowed landscape: one that would sharpen their faith to its utmost point. They were, in the phrasing of their own theology, exiles looking for the Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum -- the Promised Land of Saints.

"A long Christian tradition exists that considers all individuals as peregrini, in that all human life is seen as exile. This idea was perpetuated in the Salve Regina, the chant often recited as a last night prayer. Post hoc exilium, the prayer declares: all will be resolved after this exile. The chant, when sung, sounds ancient and disquieting. It is unmistakably music about wilderness, an ancient vision of wildness, and it still has the capacity to move us.

"Antiphona: Salve Regina," medieval chant

"Much of what we know of the life of the monks of Enlli, and places like it, is inferred from the rich literature they left behind. Their poems speak eloquently of a passionate and precise relationship with nature, and the blend of receptivity and detachment which characterized their interactions with it. Some of the poems read like jotted lists, or field notes: 'Swarms of bees, beetles, soft music of the world, a gentle humming; brent geese, barnacle geese, shortly before All Hallows, music of the wild dark torrent.' Others record single charmed instants: a blackbird calling from a gorse branch near Belfast Loch, foxes at play in a glade. Marban, a ninth-century hermit who lived in a hut in a fir-grove near Druim Rolach, wrote of the 'wind's voice against a branchy wood on a day of grey cloud.' A nameless monk, responsible for drywalling on the island of North Rona in the ninth century, stopped his work to write a poem that spoke of the delight he felt  at standing on a 'clear headland,' looking over the 'smooth strand' to the 'calm sea,' and hearing the calls of 'the wondrous birds.' A tenth-century copyist, working in an island monastery, paused long enough to scribble a note in Gaelic beside his Latin text. 'Pleasant to me is the glittering of the sun today upon these margins.'

"Gleanings such as these give us glimpses of the nature of faith of the peregrini. They are recorded instants which carry purely over the long distances of history, as certain sounds carry with unusual clarity within water or across frozen land. For these writers, attention was a form of devotion and noticing continuous with worship. The art they left behind is among the earliest testimonies to human love of the wild."

"Salve Regina in C Minor" by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

The music:

In the first video above, "Salve Regina," a Marian antiphon hymn of the Middle Ages, is performed by the Ensemble Organum. The video was filmed by David Wilkes at Canterbury Cathedral, Holy Trinity Church in Coventry, Winchester Castle, and Windsor Castle.

In the second video, "Salve Regina in C Minor," a re-working of the chant by the 18th century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, is performed by L'Arco Magico Chamber Orchestra at the Cathedral of Orvieto in Umbria, Italy. The director is Antonio Puccio, and the soprano is Silvia Frigato.

Below, an exquisitely beautiful "Salve Regina" by the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is performed by the Coral Reyes Bartlet, the Coro de Cámara Mateo Guerra, the Coro Juvenil David Goldsmith, and the Orquesta del Encuentro de Música Religiosa de Canarias in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife.

"Salve Regina" by Arvo Pärt

 Sara Maitland is another writer fascinated by the peregrini.  "On island after island," she writes in A Book of Silence, "the more isolated and far-flung the better -- on St. Kilda, on the Farnes, on the Shiants, throughout the Hebrides and the northern islands, off the coast of Ireland, around Iceland and possibly even North America -- the traces of hermits can be found. This history is confused and uncertain, but originating in Ireland in the fifth century, there was a well-developed form of Christian spirituality which valued the silent eremitical vocation extremely highly.

A ''cleit'' (stone hut) on St Kilda

"In Britain, the most famous such voluntary exile was Columba, who left Ireland in the mid sixth century and crossed the Irish Sea to become first a hermit and later a missionary and founding father based on the tiny island of Iona, which is just to the west of Mull. His community later spread across Scotland and converted north-east England as well, but he was by no means unique: over the next several centuries hermits settled alone or in tiny communities all over western Scotland and further afield too....These adventures were known in Ireland as 'green martydoms' -- to distinguish them from the 'red martyrdom' of being slain, shedding blood for the faith. To leave home and travel out beyond civilization was a martyrdom (the word means 'witness'), death of the ego, a self-giving that seems absolute."

Iona by Torsten Henning

Shetland ponies on the Isle of Foula

"We do not know very much about the spiritual theology of these early hermits," Maitland continues. "Their lives are lost in legend and story, their physical markers faded or wiped out by the wildness of the places where they dwelt."

One of these hermits was St. Cuthbert, bishop of the monastery on Lindisfarne, a center of Celtic Christianity in the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast. A great lover of nature, he issued regulations to his monks for the special protection of Eider Ducks, which are called Cuddy Ducks ("Cuthbert's Ducks") to this day. He retired to live an austere and solitary life on Inner Farne Island in 676, and died there in 687.

Lindisfarne Abbey and St Marys by Russ Hamer

Cuddy Ducks

Sara Maitland explains that we know more about St. Cuthbert than most other Christian hermits because he was personally known and loved by Bede, author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. "But what interested Bede is somewhat different than what interests me," writes Maitland. "So, for example, Bede records that Cuthbert would pray all night standing up to his neck in the frigid waters of the North Sea and, indeed, when he emerged otters would come and warm him with their tongues and fur. This combination of the ferociously ascetic and the miraculous engages Bede, for what he is writing about is the ultimate form of something so obvious to him that he never says anything about what Cuthbert thought he was trying to achieve, nor about the content of those prayers.

Otter, Farne Islands

Grey seal & newborn calf, The Farne Islands, Northumberland

"It is not until rather later, from the tenth to twelfth centuries, that we begin to get accounts that attempt to explain what the island hermits were seeking, in the beguiling poetry of the Irish monks:

" 'Delightful I think it to be in the bosom of an isle, on the peak of a rock, that I might often see there the calm of the sea. That I might see its heavy waves over the glittering ocean, as they chant a melody to their Father on their eternal course. That I might see its smooth strand of clear headlands, no gloomy thing; that I might hear the voice of its wondrous birds, a joyful tune. That I might hear the sound of the shallow waves against the rocks; that I might hear the cry by the graveyard, the noise of the sea. That I might see its splendid flocks of birds over the full-watered ocean; that I might see its mighty wales, greatest of wonders. That I might see its ebb and its flood-tide in their flow; that this might be my name, a secret I tell, "He who turned his back on Ireland." That contrition of heart should come upon me as I watch it; that I might bewail my many sins, difficult to declare. That I might bless the Lord who has power over all, heaven with its pure host of angels, earth, ebb, flood-tide.' "

Birds on the Farne Islands by Bob Jones

Puffins on The Farne Islands by Joe Cornish

Unlike Maitland and the hermit monks she admires, I am not a Christian, yet my morning prayers on Nattadon Hill aren't so different from those of the nature-loving peregrini:

Delightful I think it to be in the green hills of Devon, climbing through bracken and brambles to the granite peaks above, that I might often see the sheep-dotted fields, and the grey tors of Dartmoor beyond. That I might hear the wind singing in the trees, a choir of oak, ash, rowan, and beech; and the bells of the village church; and the bleating lambs; and the hooting of owls in the woods. That I might see this hillside covered in bluebells, stitchwort, and foxgloves, no gloomy thing; and that I might hear the voice of its rooks and its robins, a joyful tune. That I might see the badgers live undisturbed; and the small red deer, shyest of wonders; and watch wild ponies graze in the tall grass as they flow between valley and moor. That I come nameless to this hill, no more, no less than others creatures here, living quietly, gently upon its slopes. That I walk these paths with respect, attentiveness, open eyes, open ears, open heart. That I might bless Mystery within all of us; and my good neighbors, human and nonhuman alike; and the air, the water, the fire, the earth, ebb and flood-tide. Mitakuye oyasin.

Meldon Hill

Mother and foal

Spring lamb, Chagford
Photo by Helen Mason

Words: The passage by Robert Macfarlane above is from The Wild Places (Granta, 2008); the passage by Sara Maitland is from A Book of Silence (Granta, 2009); both books are highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors. For more information on the subject, see Songs for the Peregrini by Sara Gibbs Casey (University of Pittsburg, 2003).

Pictures: The photographs of islands in Scottland and north-east England (and their birds and animals) are Creative Commons images. They are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) The last photo, of a young Chagford lamb, was taken by my friend Helen Mason. The two photographs right above that are mine: Tilly on our hill, with Meldon Hill behind her, and a newborn foal with its mother, April 2020.  


Doing it for love

Love is Enough

In yesterday's post, Wendell Berry argue for the importance of love (that old-fashioned word) in maintaining the bonds of community; and what could be more important when facing the challenges of a global pandemic?

Today, I'd like to focus on love as a vital part of the art-making process too. Love is the fuel that keeps us creating in fearful, uncertain times -- despite isolation, despite worries for loved ones, despite the desperate loss of income, despite projects halted and performance tours cancelled, despite theaters, studios, galleries, classrooms and concert halls shutting their doors. I see so many artist friends struggling right now and yet they keep on going: working at home, working online, working in any manner they can. In a world grown dark, their art provides sparks of light, and they do it for love.

Novelist, poet, and memoirist Erica Jong once wrote:

"Despite all the cynical things writers have said about writing for money, the truth is we write for love. That is why it is so easy to exploit us. That is also why we pretend to be hard-boiled, saying things like: 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money' (Samuel Johnson). Not true. No one except a blockhead ever wrote except for love.

"There are plenty of easier ways to make money. Almost anything is less labor-intensive and better paid than writing. Almost anything is safer. Reveal yourself on the page repeatedly, and you are likely to be rewarded with exile, prison or neglect. Ask Dante or Oscar Wilde or Emily Dickinson. Scheme and betray, and you are likely to be rewarded with wealth, publicity and homage; but tell the truth and you are likely to be a pariah within your family, a semi-criminal to authorities and damned with faint praise by your peers. So why do we do it? Because saying what you think is the only freedom. 'Liberty,' said Camus, 'is the right not to lie.'

"In society in which everything is for sale, in which deals and auctions make the biggest news, doing it for love is the only remaining liberty. Do it for love and you cannot be censored. Do it for love and you cannot be stopped. Do it for love and the rich will envy no one more than you. In a world of tuxedos the naked man is king. In a world of bookkeepers with spreadsheets, the one who gives it away without counting the cost is God."

Love is Enough

A couple of years ago when I first read those words, I was feeling a bit cynical myself. " 'Do it for love, not money," I grumbled to Tilly. (I admit it, I talk to my dog.) "Well, that's easy for Erica Jong to say when her very first novel was a best-seller. She's not fretting about electricity bills or putting food on the table."  But in fact, Jong's essay is not about the business of earning a living through art; it's about the deep, complex, mysterious feelings that cause us to make art at all. And when I ponder her words from this different perspective, I couldn't agree with her more.

We do it for love, of one kind or another. Love of the work, of the practice of our craft. Love of the painstaking process of bringing interior visions out into the world. Love of the various tools we use: ink, paper, paint, clay, fiddler's bow, photographer's light, the finely trained bodies of dancers and actors. Love of the solitary trance of creation, or the buzzy give-and-take of collaboration. Love of the first idea, of the rendering process, and then of the final product...followed by a reader's, viewer's, or listener's engagement. Love of completion, success, and achievement; and the harder love of set-back, failure, rejection, and all the things they teach.

Doing our work, with commitment and focus, is what makes us writers, visual artists, performers -- not the size of the paycheck our art-making earns. Most of the writers I've edited over the years (and these include well-known authors with multiple books, devoted readers, and prestigious awards) don't make enough to life on by writing alone. I wish they did. In a better world they would. They are writing for love.

Tulip and Willow

And yes, most writers write with the intention of being published and read -- which usually means putting on our business hats and venturing out into the marketplace. This is the part of the art-making process that separates "real" artists from amateurs -- or so, in a hyper-capitalist, transactional culture we are led to believe. When I meet someone new and they learn I'm a writer, often the very first thing I am asked is: Have you published anything? Followed by: What name do you write under? Would I have heard of you? And sometimes, baldly: Does it pay?

No, I say gently, you probably won't have heard of me...unless fairy tales and myth-oriented fantasy happens to be your cup of tea. No, I don't make my living entirely from writing; I also work as an editor to get by. This generally ends the conversation. My querent's suspicions are now confirmed: I am not a "real" writer after all. Or else I'm just not a very good one, since I'm neither rich nor famous. I could protest that I've published many books and essays, won a clutch of awards in my field, been translated into ten languages. But I don't say any of this of course. A list of achievements isn't what matters. It isn't what makes me a writer.

I am a writer because I love words, and the process of shaping words into stories. I am an artist because I love line, color, and the process of pictures growing under my fingers. I am a writer, artist, and anthologist because I took the time, over many years, to learn the technical skills these crafts require; and because I work at them seriously and persistently. If you do as well, then you are qualified to call yourself a "real" artist too.

The money I earn through creative work matters each month when bills are due; I won't pretend that it doesn't. And it buys me the time to make more art. But it doesn't measure the worth of my work -- and it is not the measure of yours. I've made art, in one form or another, for as long as I can remember: good art, bad art, successes and failures. Art that paid the rent, and art that cost me money. I do it out of love, and out of need. I do it because it is who I am. I do it because it's what I do best, and I'm not well suited for anything else. I do it because the tales I hold inside me want to be passed on.

Pomegranate

"I never remember a time when I didn't write," says Jong. "Notebooks, stories, journals, poems -- the act of writing always made me feel centered and whole. It still does. It is my meditation, my medicine, my prayer, my solace. I was lucky enough to learn early (with my first two books of poetry and my first novel) that if you are relentlessly honest about what you feel and fear, you can become a mouthpiece for something more than your own feelings."

I know this to be true.

"People are remarkably similar at the heart-level -- where it counts," she adds. "Writers are born to voice what we all feel. That is the gift. And we keep it alive by giving it away."

Indeed.

This is why all over the Internet you see artists offering their work for free right now (stories, concerts, workshops, and more), an outpouring of creativity to brighten the gloom, turn straw into gold, and strengthen the ties that bind us all. Those on the front-lines of fighting Covid-19 (doctors, nurses, medical staff), as well as those keeping vital services going, are the true heroes of these challenging times -- but I'm proud of the arts community too. And I am grateful to every one of you who continues to tell the world's stories, re-imagine the future, and keep wonder alive. 

Honeysuckle

The artwork today is by William Morris (1834-1896), a man who has long been a hero of mine not only for his vision (rooted in nature and myth), and the astonishing range of creative endeavors he mastered, but because Morris firmly believed art belongs to everyone, rich and poor alike. As a leading figure in Britain's early Socialist movement, his writing and art was entwined (like the intricate vinework in his designs) with his tireless social activism. He left the world a better, kinder, more beautiful place. May we all do the same.

Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris

Willow design by William Morris

''Sweetbriar'' pattern by William Morris

Pictures: The "Love is Enough" book cover design by William Morris, with gold stamping on a forest green cloth (via The Victorian Web). The "Love is Enough" pattern by Morris reproduced on cloth. Morris' "Tulip & Willow," "Pomegranate," and "Honeysuckle" designs in progress. A photograph of Ned (Edward Burne-Jones) and Topsy (William Morris), best friends since their university days. Morris' ''Willow" design; and the "Sweetbriar" design, with quote.

Words: The passage by Erica Jong is from "Doing It for Love," an essay published in The Writing Life, edited by Marie Arana (Public Affairs, 2003). All rights reserved by the author.


Frogs, Toads, and Days of Gold

The Frog Princess by Gennady Spirin

Devon frog

Devon frogs

We've just spotted the season's first frogs in the little pond in front of my studio. In honour of them, as well as for this week's "Thread of Hope" theme over on Folklore Thursday, I'm re-posting this piece about the pond's history:

In her beautiful memoir A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L'Engle explored the murky subject of creative struggle and failure by drawing on the fairy tale "Diamonds and Toads":

A detail from The Frog Bride by Virginia Lee"Just as we are taught that our universe is constantly expanding out into space at enormous speeds, so too our imagination must expand as we search for the knowledge that will in its turn expand into wisdom, and from wisdom into truth.

"But this is violent, and therefore frightening.

"Children are less easily frightened than we are. They have no problem in understanding how Alice could walk through the mirror into the country on the other side; some of them have done it themselves. And they all understand princesses, of course. Haven't they all been badly bruised by peas? And then there's the princess who spat forth toads and snakes whenever she opened her mouth to speak, and her sister whose lips issued pieces of pure gold.

"I still have many days when everything I say seems to turn into toads. The days of gold, alas, don't come nearly as often. Children understand this immediately; why is it a toad day? There isn't any logical, provable reason. The gold days are just as irrational; they are pure grace; a gift."

Gennady Spirin

Bumbehill frog,  April 2020.

Arthur Rackham

Now me, I've always liked frogs and toads, and I want to tell you my own little story about them. There's a tiny pond outside my studio door, but it was mud-choked and rank when I first moved in, housing nothing remotely so interesting. I cleared out the trash, the dead vegetation, stocked it with plants to re-balance the water, and then asked a friend, knowledgeable in these matters, how I might get frogs or toads. 

"You don't need to 'get' them," he told me, "just create the environment for them, and they will come."

Warwick Goble

Thumbelina by Lizbeth Zwerger

Weeks passed. Months passed. The frogs didn't come. What was I doing wrong? I asked.

"Just be patient," my friend told me gently. "These things take time."

Froglessness, 2011

And yet time, I'm afraid, was not on my friend's side. He died the next winter (too soon, too young), my little pond remained stubbornly empty, and I wondered if his advice had been right. He'd been a folklorist, after all, and perhaps this was just an old wives' tale.

Buddha and frogs, 2014

Another summer passed. No frogs. No toads. In deference to my friend, I did nothing more than tend the pond, keep the pondweed in check. I could say I was patient, but really I was busy and distracted and I stopped thinking about it.

Then one day I looked through the studio window and saw my husband crouched by the pond. I put down my pen and notebook and went outside to see what he'd found.

The Frog Prince in my pond

A frog? Oh yes. Not one, but dozens. Frogs and more frogs, everywhere we looked -- hiding in the weeds, sunning on the rocks, bobbing together in the golden pond water. How had we'd never seen them before? And how could one tiny pond hold so many? Big frogs and small frogs, brown, red, and green, all looking like they'd lived there forever.

Frog companions

Now the frogs re-emerge in the pond every spring, grinning up at me from the water and weeds, watching the studio's comings and goings from their sun-dappled kingdom nearby.

I wish I could tell my friend he'd been right. Create the environment and they will come. He'd also been right when he answered every inquiry with, "Terri, just be patient."

Frog King and Queen

I believe it's the same with creativity. Feel dry, uncertain, empty of ideas? Then create the proper environment: a space you can work in, the right tools at hand, and good work habits, regular and steady. Inspiration will come. Be patient, and it will come.

It's pure grace; it's a gift.

Why, hello.

The Frog Prince by Arthur Rackham

Words: The Madelaine L'Engle quote is from the first volume in her Crosswick Journnals: A Circle of Quiet (HarperCollins, 1998). 

Pictures: the art above is "The Frog Princess" by Gennady Spirin, a detail from Virginia Lee's "The Frog Bride," "Darwin's Frog" by Gennady Spirin, "Alice and the Frog Footman" by Arthur Rackham, "The Frog Prince" by Warwick Goble, "Thumbelina" by Lizbeth Zwerger, and "The Frog Prince" by Arthur Rackham.


I think it is love

Wild words 1

We've often talked here about the value of slowing down, paying attention, being fully present in the place where we live, the lives that we create, and the work that we do. Yet sometimes -- like now, in a world-wide pandemic -- life knocks us off-center and we struggle to regain our sense of hózhó (as the Navajo call it): of balance and "walking in beauty." How do we re-center ourselves in the art-making process (or, indeed, in the life-making process) when this happens?

Daffodil Fairy by Cicely BarkerWendell Berry proffers this insight in his essay collection Standing by Words:

"What can turn us . . . back into the sphere of our being, the great dance that joins us to our home, to each other and to other creatures, to the dead and unborn? I think it is love. I am perforce aware how baldly and embarrassingly that word now lies on the page -- for we have learned at once to overuse it, abuse it,  and hold it in suspicion. But I do not mean any kind of abstract love (adolescent, romantic, or 'religious'), which is probably a contradiction in terms, but particular love for particular things, places, creatures, and people, requiring stands, acts, showing its successes and failures in practical or tangible effects. And it implies a responsibility just as particular, not grim or merely dutiful, but rising out of generosity. I think that this sort of love defines the effective range of human intelligence, the range within its works can be dependably beneficent. Only the action that is moved by love for the good at hand has the hope of being responsible and generous. Desire for the future produces words that cannot be stood by. But love makes language exact, because one loves only what one knows."

Wild writing 2

For Berry, it all comes back to place (whether rural or urban), and our intricate web of connection to the human and more-than-human neighbours we share it with.

"I stand for what I stand on," he says, "the local landscape, the local community: human, animal, and vegetable alike. I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality, that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving. We are alive within mystery, by miracle."

Wild writing 3

That, for me, is precisely where art, inspiration, balance and beauty can be found: within mystery, by miracle: the everyday miracles of the place we call home. Spring flowers emerging. A partner's sweet smile. The good scent of coffee on a crisp April morning. A wild spot in the woods to write wild words while Tilly pads quietly nearby.

Wild writing 4

In his poem "Healing" (2006), Berry writes:

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One's inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one's most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.

Wild daffodils on my desk

Words: The two Wendell Berry passages above are from Standing By Words: Essays (Counterpoint, 2011) and What Are People For: Essays (Counterpoint, 2010).  The last quote is from "Healing," published in Given: Poems (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006). The poem in the picture captions is from This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems (Counterpoint, 2013). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Writing in the woods behind my studio. The "Daffodil Fairy" painting is by Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973).