Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Seven Ravens by Teresa Jenellen

Illustration by Honore AppletonI'm out of the office this morning in order to take Tilly to the vet (she has an immune system impairment that requires monthly shots) -- which is a complicated procedure in the middle of Cornonavirus quarantine. Rather than leave you with no music to start the week, I pulled some favourite songs from this blog's archives. Inspired by the rich bird life we're experiencing during this quiet time of the world's "great pause," all the music today is on the theme of birds in the folk tradition....

Above: "King of the Birds," written and performed by Karine Polwart, who grew up in a musical family in Sterlingshire, Scotland. This beautiful, folkloric song comes from Powart's fifth album, Traces (2012).

Below: Polwart performs another original song, "Follow the Heron," at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival in 2011. It comes from her second album, Scribbled in Chalk (2006).

Above: "Three Ravens" (audio only) performed by Breton harpist Cécile Corbel, from Finistère. It's a variant of Child Ballad No. 26 (also known as "Twa Corbies," as performed here by Bert Jansch), and was recorded for the first of Corbel's five albums, Songbook 1 (2006).

Below: "Hela'r Dryw: Hunting of the Wren" (audio only), performed in Welsh by Fernhill, one of the leading bands in the "Welsh Renaissance" of folk music. The song concerns an old folk tradition once common throughout the British Isles, and still practiced in some communities today. The recording is from Fernill's Amser (2014).

The song above isn't exactly a folk song but I'm going to throw it in here anyway: Paul McCartney's "Blackbird" performed in Gaelic by Julie Fowlis, from the Gaelic-speaking island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Fowlis has released six solo albums, of which Alterum (2017) is the latest.

Below: Kate Rusby, from Barnsley, Yorkshire, performs "Mockingbird" at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2011. The song, written by Rusby, was first recorded on her ninth album, Make the Light (2010), and was also included on her double album, Twenty (2012).

Above: "Hawk and Crow" (audio only), a traditional ballad sung by Emily Smith, from Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. You'll find it on Smith's eighth solo album, Echoes (2014).

And to end with: "Come Home Pretty Bird," a lovely song co-written by Emily Smith & David Scott, performed in Switzerland in 2012. This one comes from Smith's third album, Too Long Away (2008).

Martha by Gennady SpirinIf you'd like a few more bird songs this morning, try: "Blackbird," an old English ballad performed by Cécile Corbel, Show of Hand's version of "Crow on the Cradle" (by Sydney Carter), and three traditional songs for lark lovers: "The Lark in the Morning" sung by Maddy Prior; "The Lark" sung by Kate Rusby (backed up by Nic Jones), and "Waiting for the Lark" sung by the peerless June Tabor. Also, two fairy-tale-like songs: "The Gay Goshawk" (Child Ballad No. 96) performed by the folk-rock band Mr. Fox, and Natalie Merchant's beautiful rendition of "Crazy Man Michael" (by Richard Thompson & Dave Swarbrick), from Fairport Convention's Liege & Leaf.

The Seven Doves by Warwick GobleSpeaking of birds, I highly recommend The Bird's Child by Sandra Leigh Price (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins Australia, 2015), an utterly enchanting novel set in Australia in the 1920s. It's beautifully written, steeped in both bird lore and magic (of the sleight-of-hand variety), evokes a fascinating period of Australian history, and is well worth seeking out. Francis Hardinge's Young Adult fantasy novel Fly by Night (Macmillan, 2018), about a girl and a goose in a magical version of the 18th century, is also a gem. She is one of the best fantasy writers of her generation: brilliant, quirky, and consistently original. Four good (and very different) novels inspired by the "Wild Swans" fairy tale: Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, Wild Swans by Peg Kerr, Ursula Synge's Swan's Wing, and Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Seventh Swan. For more about the fairy tale, go here. For a post about swan maidens and crane wives, go here.

The artwork today, in order of appearance, is "The Seven Ravens" by  Teresa Jenellen, an illustrator based in Wales;  a drawing by British book artist Honor C. Appleton (1879-1951);"Martha" (from the book of the same name) by the Russian author/illustrator Gennady Spirin; and "The Seven Doves" by British book artist Warwick Goble (1862-1943).

The Bird's Child by Sandra Leigh Price


Fantasy in Times of Crisis

For those who missed yesterday's online Fantasy Symposium, here's the recorded version.

I thoroughly enjoyed discussing our field with five colleagues whose works I admire so much (plus our excellent moderator, Gabriel Schenk) -- despite the gremlins in the broadband wires who kept bouncing me off of Zoom. I was forced to flee the studio mid-symposium, run down the hill, and hook up to the broadband in our house...but fortunately, that did the trick! 

Howard took the photo below before it all started. Coffee in hand on the studio steps, I was feeling quite relaxed at that moment, little knowing there were gremlins ahead....

Many thanks to all of you who took time out of your day to join us live on Zoom and YouTube. Although I still prefer real gatherings to virtual ones, it's good to keep the conversation going any way we can during these challenging times; and it was wonderful to be connected to so many fantasy readers all around the world. I hope we can do more things like this again.

Terri Windling at the Bumblehill Studio, by Howard Gayton


Today!

Symposium-2020

Today I am taking part in the Symposium on Fantasy Literature sponsored by the good folks who run the annual "Tolkien Lectures" at Pembroke College -- which is Tolkien's old college at Oxford University. The symposium is online, it's free, and all are welcome. More information can be found here.

The Symposium takes place on Zoom (register here) from 4:00 to  5:30 pm British time (11 am – 12:30 U.S. Eastern time). It will also be broadcast live on YouTube -- so if Zoom reaches its limit of attendees, you can head over there.

The other speakers are Kij Johnson, Adam Roberts, Lev Grossman,  V.E. Schwab, and Rebecca F. Kuang, and I'm honored to be among them. Our topic for discussion is a timely one: the importance of fantasy literature in times of crisis.

I hope you can join us.

Tolkien's old college at Oxford

The sponsors are inviting donations for The Society of Author’s COVID-19 Crisis Fund, which responds to the loss of income many writers have faced as a result of the coronavirus. (Please don't worry if you've lost income yourself and can't.)  My apologies if this is the first you've heard about this event. I've been passing the word on Facebook and Twitter, and didn't even realize I'd failed to mention here. Mea culpa!


Harvesting stories

Flowers and hills  Corrary Farm

From Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"Gary Snyder gave us the image of experience as compost. Compost is stuff, junk, garbage, anything, that's turned to dirt by sitting around a while. It involves silence, darkness, time, and patience. From compost, whole gardens grow.

"It can be useful to think of writing as gardening. You plant the seeds, but each plant will take its own way and shape. The gardener's in control, yes; but plants are living, willful things. Every story has to find its own way to the light. Your great tool as a gardener is your imagination.

Corrary Farm

"Young writers often think -- are taught to think -- that a story starts with a message. That is not my experience. What's important when you start is simply this: you have a story you want to tell. A seedling that wants to grow. Something in your inner experience is forcing itself towards the light. Attentively and carefully and patiently, you can encourage that, let it happen. Don't force it; trust it. Watch it, water it, let it grow.

Polytunnels  Corrary Farm

Organic vegetables

"As you write a story, if you can let it become itself, tell itself fully and truly, you may discover what its really about, what it says, why you wanted to tell it. It may be a surprise to you. You may have thought you planted a dahlia, and look what came up, an eggplant! Fiction is not information transmission; it is not message-sending. The writing of fiction is endlessly surprising to the writer.

Corrary Farm  turf-roofed office

"Like a poem, a story says what it has to say it the only way it can be said, and that is the exact words of the story itself. Why is why the words are so important, why it takes so long to learn how to get the words right. Why you need silence, darkness, time, patience, and a real solid knowledge of English vocabulary and grammar.

"Truthful imagining from experience is recognizable, shared by its readers."

Howard in the yurt cafe  Corrary Farm

I urge you to read Le Guin's lovely essay in full. You'll find it here in Words Are My Matter, from the good folks at Small Beer Press.

Welcoming committee

Words: The passage above is from "Making Up Stories," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016); all rights reserved by the author's estate. The poem in the picture captions is from Circles on the Water by Marge Piercy (Knopf, 1988), all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Corray Farm on Scotland's west coast, near Glenelg, photographed on a trip up to the Hebrides three years ago. (Gracious, has it really been that long?) Pictured here are the farm's polytunnels (with the tiny figures of Charles Vess, Karen Shaffer, Irene Gallo and Greg Manchess), its turf-roofed office, Howard reading in the yurt cafe, and the four-footed welcoming committee. Some day we'll all be able to travel again...and I would very much love to do so in the same company.


Recommended reading

On the bench outside the studio

"The essayist's job," writes Rebecca Solnit "is to gather up the shards or map them where they are, to find the pattern out there or make one with words about the disconnections and mysteries. This reading of the word is a form of travel, questing and searching and gathering. Essays are restless literature, trying to find out how things fit together, how we can think about two things at once, how the personal and the public can inform each other, how two overtly dissimilar things share a secret kinship, how intuitive and scholarly knowledge can cook down together, how discovery can be a deep pleasure."

I couldn't agree more. We're living in a Golden Age of essays due to the number of online magazines and journals that publish them -- particularly personal essays, many of them incredibly moving. It's a shame that the word "essay" connotes something dry and scholarly to many readers. The essays I love are anything but, and prejudice against the form (like the old prejudice against fantasy fiction) causes too many people to miss out on a whole field that is incredibly vital and exciting right now.

Best American Essays

A friend of mine only recently stumbled upon the particular pleasure of essays, and in order to feed his growing addiction he wrote to ask for a list of my favorite collections published in last few years. 

"The best essays?" I answered. "That's easy. Start with Best American Essays, edited by Robert Atwan, along with a different guest editor every year. I read it religiously and always discover new writers there."

"I'll check them out," my friend replied. "But what I really want are your favourite writers. Over the last, oh, two-three years, which collections did you truly love? I'm making a reading list."

A stack of good reading

I duly compiled a list for my friend -- and, with his blessing, I'm also sharing it here: an extremely subjective handful of recent favorites. (By "recent," following my friend's guidelines, I stuck to books published from 2017 to the present.)

My bias runs to personal essays (of a memoirist nature) and those on the subjects of writing, nature, or living with illness...but there's not a lot that I won't at least try. Restricting my picks to a reasonable number was hard, so I made this my measure: Did I like the book enough to re-read it? Or, in the case of more recent publications, am I likely to re-read it? That whittled the list down to eight.

Tilly disapproves

In alphabetical order, so that I don't have to rank them:

1. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (Martiner Books, 2018)

In this stunning collection, Chee writes about his childhood in coastal Maine, his years as a gay activist in San Francisco, and his long, fraught process of becoming a novelist in New York City. Chee's childhood included abuse, so I ought to give a trigger warning here. He writes about the subject in manner that isn't dark and heavy but the opposite: compassionate and luminous. These are wonderful essays, beautifully rendered: honest, funny, searing, inspiring.  (Go here for my post on the book.)

2. Out of the Woods: Seeing Nature in the Everyday by Julia Corbett (University of Nevada Press, 2018)

The title says it all really. These are wide-ranging essays on nature in urban and other non-wilderness settings: informative, eloquent, and fascinating. I picked this one up when I saw it had won the 2018 Reading the West Award, thoroughly enjoyed it, and learned a thing or two about the natural world as well.

3. Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper (Bloomsbury, 2019)

I adore this book, full of smart, beautifully written, warm-hearted essays about family, community, and relationships in their many forms: relationships with siblings, housemates, friends, lovers, books. (The linked essays about the "friendship circle" around a fellow writer dealing with cancer are particularly wonderful.) Please read my post about it, and then please seek out a copy. I've re-read this one twice already, only to love it more each time.

Three excellent collections

4. Pain Woman Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber (The University of Nebraska Press, 2017)

Here's another collection I still can't get off my mind -- a beautifully rendered inquiry into living with illness and disability. I know that sounds grim, but it's not -- and the quality of Huber's writing is not to be missed. (I wrote about it here: Spinning straw into gold, pain into art.)

4. Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books, 2019)

Although I've admired the previous books by this Scottish poet and naturalist, nothing prepared for the power and beauty of Surfacing. With settings ranging from the Orkney islands to Alaska and China, these essays emerge from liminal place where nature and culture meet, written in prose that invites comparison to Nan Shepard and Barry Lopez, which is no small praise. (I wrote about Surfacing here.)

5. The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy (Penguin, 2019)

I read an excerpt from Levy's slim, powerful collection, and immediately had to track down a copy -- which I then devoured in one long sitting. It was worth the lost sleep! Although written in the form of essays, each essay builds on the ones before it to create an incisive memoir covering the end of Levy's marriage, the death of her mother, and the raising of her teenage daughter, entwined with life as a working writer in London. So many of the other memoir-style essays I've enjoyed in the last few years have been by the younger generation of authors (Briallen Hooper, Emilie Pine, Jia Tolentino, etc.), whereas Levy is writing about the concerns of middle-age, with the insights that come only from years of hard experience. Her wit is sharp, her language exquisitely precise, and the book is unforgettable.

Hound

6. Notes to Self by Emilie Pine (Penguin, 2019)

This debut collection from a young Irish writer is incredibly assured and beautifully penned. Pine writes personal essays grounded in her own life, but wrests universal insights from her material -- whether she's discussing her deeply eccentric parents (one of whom was a celebrated Irish journalist), the female body (her essay on menstruation is a tour-de-force), the fertility industry, or emotional burnout among Irish academics. I loved this book, which deserved its place on so many Best of the Year lists last December. 

7. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison (Pisces Books, 2019)

It's a bit of a grab-bag of material, this one -- but since I'd happily read Morrison's grocery lists, it is well worth seeking out nonetheless. The best of the work gathered here is smart, fierce, provocative, and inspiring, and even the minor pieces are good. What a giant of literature we have lost.

8. Erosions: Essays of Undoing by Terry Tempest Williams (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019)

Williams is another writer whose work I can't get enough of, and her latest collection is no exception. Based in the Utah desert, she argues passionately for the land and its people, in prose that is achingly personal as well as political. Her work is endlessly inspiring to me, and this gorgeous new collection is one I'll return to many times. (But if you are new to Williams, don't start here; start with Refuge and work your way up.)

Erosion by Terry Tempest Williams

P1100386

And here are a few other good reads:

Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (HarperCollins, 2019) and Heather Havrilesky's What if This Were Enough? (Doubleday, 2018) are debut collections from two young American journalist, mixing personal essays with cultural pieces that are smart and insightful. (I wrote about the latter book here.) Late Migrations: A History of Love & Loss by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed Editions, 2019) is a lyrical volume of very short, bittersweet pieces on nature and family in the American south. Illustrated by the author's brother, it's a beautiful book and not quite like anything else. Forms of Enchantment: Writing on Art & Artists by British mythographer and scholar Marina Warner (Thames & Hudson, 2018) contains erudite essays on fine artists whose work has a magical bent -- and not necessarily artists you would expect, mixing the likes of Paula Rego and Kiki Smith with Louise Bourgeois, Tacita Dean, and Jumana Emil Abboud.

For feminist essays that really make you think, I loved The Mother of All Questions and Call Them by Their True Names by American cultural philosopher Rebecca Solnit (Granta, 2017 and 2018), and Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults (Bloomsbury, 2018) by the fearless young British writer Laurie Penny.

Forms of Enchantment by Marina Warner

Late Migrations

I am genuinely addicted to the Best American Essays series -- including the excellent backlist of older volumes. Each edition has a slightly different emphasis depending on the guest editor of the year. The 2009 edition, for example, was edited by Mary Oliver, and thus contains a larger-than-usual  number of nature essays; the most recent was edited by Rebecca Solnit, and is weighted toward political and cultural pieces.

P1080846

I also highly recommend Slightly Foxed, a quarterly magazine full of charming, informative essays about books and authors of an older vintage: favorite books, forgotten books, notorious books, and much more. The magazine is published here in England, but well worth the extra postage price if you subscribe from other parts of the world. It's simply delightful. (And very English.)

Online, I recommend Longreads, which links to essays and interesting works of journalism from a wide variety of sources, as well as commissioning original material themselves. For fantasy essays, I love The City of Lost Books, the wonderful blog produced by Rob Maslen, head of the Fantasy Literature masters programme at the University of Glasgow. And finally, for all who love fairy tales: if you aren't already following Sabrina Orah Mark's extraordinary essays on fairy tales and motherhood in Paris Review, head over to her "Happily" column and read them immediately.

Slightly Foxed

Are you an essay lover yourself? If so, what else would recommend (published between 2017 and the present)? Many of the authors I've listed above are female, white, and writing in English, so recommendations of recent essay collections by male and nonwhite authors would be especially welcome. 

Still no dogs.

The quote by Rebecca Solnit is from The Best American Essays, 2019, edited by Solnit and Robert Atwan (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 2019). All rights reserved by the author.


The myths we make, the stories we tell

Bluebells 1

In her early memoir Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton (1912-1995) recounted the experience of buying and renovating a late-18th century house in a tiny village in rural New Hampshire, where she crafted a life dedicated to poetry, nature, and solitude. At a time when selfless commitment to marriage and family was still the standard measure of a woman's virtue, Plant Dreaming Deep celebrated the pleasures of independence, self-reliance, and living alone. 

Its author, mind you, was not a hermit. Sarton's days were amply stocked with friendship, romance, travel, adventure, and the international web of connection arising from a long literary career. She spent time with lovers and friends in Boston, she taught, she travelled around the country giving readings...but she did her best work in solitude, and work was her priority.

Bluebells 2

A woman living alone and unmarried by choice, privileging her writing over other social bonds, was rare enough when Plant Dreaming Deep was published in 1968 that the book caused something of a stir. "Sarton chose the way of solitude with all its costs," wrote feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun (in an essay published in 1982), "and heartened others with the news that this adventure, this terrible daring, might be endured."

This was a message that many in Sarton's generation hungered for and Plant Dreaming Deep was a popular success, appealing particularly to women who had given up their own creative work after marriage and children, and who had little solitude themselves. They romanticized the life she led, imagining a tranquil idyll of poetry and music and flowers from the garden -- not the hard labor and professional ups and downs of life as a working writer.

Bluebells 3

Sarton herself came to feel that she'd painted too rosy a picture of her sojourn in the country -- and so her next memoir, The Journal of Solitude, aimed to set the record straight. In this volume she recorded her doubts, her creative struggles, her professional frustrations, her poignant loneliness. The woman who emerges from this text is prickly, moody and exasperating, compared to the narrator of Plant Dreaming Deep, but also thoroughly human. Sarton's rigorous honesty throughout the book is astonishing, brave, and unsettling.

Bluebells 4

I recently dipped into these two volumes again, re-reading Sarton's reflections on solitude in light of the global pandemic that has isolated so many. Like Sarton, I have a taste for solitude, so days of semi-isolation are easier on me than on those of a more extroverted stamp -- but solitude chosen freely is a different beast than solitude imposed by crisis. My temperament is generally steady, and yet I, too, have been strangely moody of late. My heart soars as spring unfolds around me, plunges with the horror of the daily news, rises in my peaceful studio, and falls again as the world crowds in. Each day I ground myself in work, finding strength and purpose in language and paint; each night that ground crumbles underfoot as worry and fear move through my dreams.

In Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of Solitude, Sarton acknowledges both aspects of self-isolation: the deep pleasure and concomitant pain of retreating from the wider world. It's the mixture of the two that makes this time, for me, feel so surreal.

Bluebells 5

Plant Dreaming Deep

In Plant Dreaming Deep, Sarton reflects on the difference between an "isolated" and "quiet" life, in words that echo my initial experience of the current lock-down:

"In that first week [in the farmhouse] I felt I was running all the time. There were hundreds of things I had in mind to do, things about the house, things about the garden, besides the spate of poems that had been pushing their way out. But I imagined that, as time went on, this state of affairs would calm down and I myself would calm down, to lead the meditative life, the life of a Chinese philospher, that my friends quite naturally imagine I must lead here, way all alone in a tiny village, with few interruptions and almost no responsibilities.

"But in all the eight years I have lived here, it has not yet become a quiet life. It is a life lived at a high pitch. One of the facts about solitude is that one becomes as alert as an animal to every change of mood in the skies, and to every sound. The thud of the first apple falling never fails to startle the wits out of me; there has been no sound like it for a year....The intense silence magnifies the slightest creak or whisper.

"But more than any such purely physical reasons for staying on the qui vive, there are inner reasons for being highly tuned up when one lives alone. The alertness is also there toward the inner world, which is always close to the surface for me when I am here, so it may be a mouse in the wainscot that keeps me awake, but it may just as well be a half-formed idea. The climate of poetry is also the climate of anxiety. And if I inhabit the house, it also inhabits me, and sometimes I feel as if I myself were becoming an intersection for almost too many currents of too intense a nature."

Bluebells 6

In Journal of Solitude, she speaks of the darker side of seclusion: the fears that arise, and the courage required to overcome them and keep on making art:

"I have said elsewhere that we have to make myths of our lives, the point being that if we do, then every grief or inexplicable seizure by weather, woe, or work can -- if we discipline ourselves and think hard enough -- be turned into account, be made to yield further insight into what it is to be alive, to be a human being, what the hazards are of a fairly usual, everyday kind. We go up to Heaven and down to Hell a dozen times a day -- at least I do. And the discipline of work provides an exercise bar, so that the wild, irrational motions of the soul become formal and creative. It literally keeps one from falling on one's face....

"We fear disturbance, change, fear to bring to light and to talk about what is painful. Suffering often feels like failure, but it is actually the door into growth."

Journal of Solitude

By acknowledging both sides of solitude, Sarton helps me understand why my experience of pandemic self-isolation varies so widely from day to day, or even hour to hour. The joy I feel as the world slows down, and the deep anxiety that this produces, are just two sides of the same coin.

Bluebells 7

Knowing this, I'll continue to value the quiet hours the lock-down gives me -- and make my peace with the fretful, fearful dreams that are part of it too. 

Make a myth of your life, says Sarton. Learn what hardship has to teach you, and use in your art.

 I am making myths, and telling stories, and trying to do just that.

Bluebells 8

Words: The quotes above are from May Sarton's Journal of Solitude (W.W. Norton, 1973). The poem in the picture caption is from Sarton's Letters from Maine (W.W. Norton, 1984). All rights reserved by the authors estate. Pictures: The bliss of bluebells.


Time and creativity

P1600494

I'm out of the studio today due to other commitments requiring attention -- including a commitment to myself to take some walking-and-thinking time to focus on a difficult passage in my novel-in-progress. I'll be back here bright and early tomorrow morning, and Myth & Moor will resume!

The Bumblehill Studio

Studio 7

''Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends' embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce....

''Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end. Leaving the desk for a while can help. Talking the problem through can help me recall what I was trying to achieve before I got stuck. Going for a long walk almost always gets me thinking about my manuscript in a slightly new way.''

- Sarah Waters ("Sarah Waters' Rules for Writers")

Studio 2

''To allow ourselves to spend afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend rereading Chekhov stories -- to know that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing -- is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives. The British author and psychologist Adam Phillips has noted, 'When we are inspired, rather like when we are in love, we can feel both unintelligible to ourselves and most truly ourselves.' This is the feeling I think we all yearn for, a kind of hyperreal dream state. We read Emily Dickinson. We watch the dancers. We research a little known piece of history obsessively. We fall in love. We don’t know why, and yet these moments form the source from which all our words will spring.''

- Dani Shapiro (Still Writing: The Perils & Pleasures of a Creative Life)

P1600493

Words: The Sarah Waters quote is from "Sarah Waters' Rules for Writers" (The Guardian, 23 February, 2010). The Dani Shapiro quote is from Still Writing (Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013), which I recommend. The quotes in the picture captions are from a variety of sources. (Move your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: My work studio,  a small cabin by the woods on a Devon hillside.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

As Tilly and I roved out on a May morning...

Let's start the week with songs of love lost and found in the countryside. I send them out to all of you locked down in urban spaces right now, and longing for a bit of green....

Above: "Down by the Sally Gardens" (from a poem William Butler Yeats, 1889, set to the air The Maids of Mourne Shore), performed by Emily Mae Winters -- a singer/songwriter born in England, raised in Ireland, and now based in London. The song appears on her gorgeous album Siren Serenade (2017).

Below: "The Lark in the Morning" (a traditional song collected in Sussex in 1904), sung by The Imagined Village's Eliza Carthy, with guest vocalist Jackie Oates. The song appears on the band's second album, Empire & Love (2010). 

Above: "I Wandered by the Brookside" (a traditional song collected in Oxfordshire, circa 1916), performed by The Askew Sisters (Hazel and Emily Askew). The song appears on their album Enclosure (2019), a beautiful meditation on nature, Britain's Enclosures Acts, and enclosures of all kinds. 

Below: An American Appalachian version of "Riddles Wisely Expounded" (Child Ballad #2), performed by folk musician, actor, and theatre director Sophie Crawford, based in London. The song appears on her first album Silver Pin (2019), which is well worth a listen.

Above: "The Gardener" (Child Ballad #219), performed by singer, cellist, fiddler, and viola player Rachel McShane, from north-east England. Best known for her work with Bellowhead, this song appeared on McShane's fine solo album No Man's Fool (2009).

Below: "The Broomfield Hill" (Child Ballad #43), performed by the long-running Scottish folk band Malinky. It's from their terrific album Flower & Iron (2008).

Above: "As I Roved Out," a traditional Irish song performed acapella by American singer-songwriter Becca Stevens and bluegrass mandolin master Chris Thile, filmed for the Live From Here television program (January, 2020).

And to end as we began, with William Butler Yeats...

Below: "Golden Apples of the Sun" ( from a poem by Yeats, 1899), performed by American folksinger Judy Collins. The song appeared on her classic album of the same title (1962).

Bluebells in the local Deer Park

For more information on Child Ballads, go here. Photos: Tilly in the local deer park, full of bluebells this time of year.


Time passing

Ponies

Ponies 2

Here in Chagford, one way to mark the passage of time is to watch the local pony herd, coming down from the moor each year to birth their foals on the village Commons.

The first of the foals was born just after the Corvid-19 lock-down began. There are nine foals now (the last time I counted), some of them still clinging to their mamas, others big and bold enough to prance across the grass together in play. My heart lifts every time I see them. There is too much death  and grief right now, yet there is also new life everywhere I look: foals, lambs, fledgling birds, a litter of puppies down our road, and a baby girl born to good friends. The Great Wheel continues to turn, nothing stays still, everything is change.  

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

In his beautiful letter to the generations of the future, Scott Russell Sanders writes:

"When I think of all the wild pleasures I wish for you, the list grows long. I want you to be able to chase fireflies as they glimmer in long grass, watch tadpoles turn into frogs in muddy pools, hear loons calling on clear lakes, glimpse deer grazing and foxes ambling, lay your fingers in the paw prints of grizzlies and wolves. I want there to be rivers you can raft down without running into dams, the water pure and filled with the colors of sky. I want you to thrill in spring and fall to the ringing calls of geese and cranes as they fly overhead. I want you to see herds of caribou following the seasons to green pastures, turtles clambering onshore to lay their eggs, alewives and salmon fighting their way upstream to spawn. And I want you to feel in these movements Earth’s great age and distances, and to sense how the whole planet is bound together by a web of breath.

Ponies 6

Ponies 7

"As I sit here in this shaggy yard writing to you, I remember a favorite spot from the woods behind my childhood house in Ohio, a meadow encircled by trees and filled with long grass that turned the color of bright pennies in the fall. I loved to lie there and watch the clouds, as I’m watching the high, surly storm clouds rolling over me now. I want you to be able to lie in the grass without worrying that the kiss of the sun will poison your skin. I want you to be able to drink water from faucets and creeks, to eat fruits and vegetables straight from the soil. I want you to be safe from lightning and loneliness, from accidents and disease. I would spare you all harm if I could. But I also want you to know there are powers much older and grander than our own -- earthquakes, volcanoes, tornados, thunderstorms, glaciers, floods. I pray that you will never be hurt by any of these powers, but I also pray that you will never forget them. And remember that nature is a lot bigger than our planet: it’s the shaping energy that drives the whole universe, the wheeling galaxies as well as water striders, the shimmering pulsars as well as your beating heart.

Ponies 8

Ponies 9

Ponies 10

"Thoughts of you make me reflect soberly on how I lead my life. When I spend money, when I turn the key in my car, when I vote or refrain from voting, when I fill my head or belly with whatever’s for sale, when I teach students or write books, ripples from my actions spread into the future, and sooner or later they will reach you. So I bear you in mind. I try to imagine what sort of world you will inherit. And when I forget, when I serve only my own appetite, more often than not I do something wasteful. By using up more than I need -- of gas, food, wood, electricity, space -- I add to the flames that are burning up the blessings I wish to preserve for you....

Ponies 11

Ponies 12

Ponies 13

"If Earth remains a blessed place in the coming century, you’ll hear crickets and locusts chirring away on summer nights. You’ll hear owls hoot and whippoorwills lament. You’ll smell wet rock, lilacs, new-mown hay, peppermint, lemon balm, split cedar, piles of autumn leaves....If we take good care in our lifetime, you’ll be able to sit by the sea and watch the waves roll in, knowing that a seal or an otter may poke a sleek brown head out of the water and gaze back at you. The skies will be clear and dark enough for you to see the moon waxing and waning, the constellations gliding overhead, the Milky Way arching from horizon to horizon. The breeze will be sweet in your lungs and the rain will be innocent....

Ponies 14

"Thinking about you draws my heart into the future. I want you to look back on those of us who lived at the beginning of the 21st century and know that we bore you in mind, we cared for you, and we cared for our fellow tribes -- those cloaked in feathers or scales or chitin or fur, those covered in leaves and bark. One day it will be your turn to bear in mind the coming children, your turn to care for all the living tribes. The list of wild marvels I would save for you is endless. I want you to feel wonder and gratitude for the glories of Earth. I hope you’ll come to feel, as I do, that we’re already in paradise, right here and now."

Ponies 15

Ponies 16

Ponies 17

Words: The passage by Scott Russell Sanders above is from "We Bear You in Mind," first published in Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril (Trinity University Press, 2012), and reprinted in Orion Magazine. The poem in the picture captions, "Another Spring" by Denise Levertov (1923-1997), first appeared in Poetry Magazine, October/November, 1952. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Our local pony herd and some of their foals, spring 2020. For more information on Dartmoor's beloved ponies, go here.


The "wild time" of the sickbed

Come Away oh Human Child

Following on from yesterday's post, here's another piece on the flexible nature of time from the Myth & Moor archives, discussing the odd way we experience time during periods of illness and crisis....

As those who also have medical issues can concur, it's not just the large, dramatic things (surgery, chemo, and the like) that disrupt our schedules and overturn our plans, it's often the small things too: the side-effects of a medication, for example; or the body's shock after an invasive test; or a winter bug that's making the rounds, knocking others out for a couple of days while knocking us out for a couple of months. Illness takes time, and time for artists is a crucial resource. Writing, editing, or illustrating a book, for example, takes hours and hours of focused attention; and whenever we are knocked from the ladder of health, it feels like our time has been stolen.

Yet the loss is not really of time itself, but of one particular form of it: the "productive" time prized in our commerical culture, which priviliges results and finished products over process. "Time is money," as the old saying goes, and a sick person's time is not worth a bad penny. Yet paradoxically, when we're in poor health we are often rich in time, but in the wrong kind of time: the "unproductive" time of the sickbed. After a lifetime lived in the liminal space between disability and good health, I have come to believe "unproductive" time has its place and its value as well.

The Perfumier's Clock

The business world operates on a linear concept time, structured in regular working hours, measured by schedules, spreadsheets, targets; products made, marketed, and sold. Art-making is not a linear process, but those of us who work in art professions do our damn best to pretend that it is: writing books to deadline, making music, film, or theatre to schedule, etc., while walking a precarious tightrope stretched between the muse and the marketplace. It's not an easy balance, but we do it. We live in a market culture, after all, and daily life jogs along by its rules. But illness cares nothing for markets; we do not heal in a linear fashion; and the common symptoms of failing health (the brain-fog, fatigue, and fevers of a body engaged with repairing itself) are at odds with the fast and furious pace of an industrialized, digitalized world.

Time, during an illness, slows and meanders: we sleep and wake, sink and rise, drift through the days absorbed in the mysteries of the body -- its fluids and fevers, its terrors and comforts, its cycles of pain and merciful release -- while our colleagues rush past in a bright busy world that seems far removed and unreal.

The Old Mother Time Clock and The Wedding Clock

The Acocado Tree Clock

In her poetic memoir of illness, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elizabeth Tova Bailey reflects on the time she spent bedridden with a semi-paralysing auto-immune disease:

"The mountain of things I felt I needed to do reached the moon, yet there was little I could do about anything and time continued to drag me along its path. We are all hostages of time. We each have the same number of minutes and hours to live within a day, yet to me it didn't feel equally doled out. My illness brought me such an abundance of time that time was nearly all I had. My friends had so little time that I often wished I could give them what I could not use. It was perplexing how in losing health I had gained something so coveted but to so little purpose."

The Rootpond Clock

The Hedge-Brother Clock and The Word-Owl Clock

I sympathize with Bailey's despair about the "mountain of things" she suddenly could not do, (I've often felt the same), but I resist defining the slowed-down time of the sickbed as time that has no use. There are many modes of experiencing the world, and linear time is just one of them. During illness, I enter a different mode: slower, stranger, cyclical, tidal. Attuned to the immediate environment. I see it as a form of Wild Time, a term coin by cultural historian Jay Griffiths (in her excellent book on time, Pip Pip) -- defined as time that's not been dictated by modern industrial cultural norms; time rooted in the body, the land, the ebb and flow of sea and psyche.

It is always hard to remember the exact qualities of time experienced in the sickbed when we're back in the flow of the linear world; it blurs around the edges, bright and elusive as a fever dream. What I recall best about the strange Otherworld I enter whenever my body fails is how the world shrinks to the size of my bedroom, to the dimensions of a bed littered with books, and to a window view of the garden, the hill, and the oaks at the woodland's edge. Unable to summon the focused attention required to write, paint, or simply communicate, I surrender to those things that illness allows and facilitates: Reading, deeply and widely. Watching the natural world through window glass. Thinking the kind of thoughts that rise, for me, only in stillness and isolation.

Illness prevents me from being active. From climbing the hill up to my studio and re-engaging with the work I've left undone. But the art that I make in "productive" time is informed by the things I feel (and watch, hear, read, reflect on) during the slow, strange hours of fever and pain. Both aspects of life -- the busy studio, the quiet sickbed -- combine to make me the artist that I am.

The November Clock

Writing in EarthLines magazine in 2013, Jeppe Dyrendom Graugaard described a conversation with musician and philosopher Morten Svenstrup about time in relation to nature and art -- reflecting on the way that time slows down when we are fully engaged in listening to music, looking at a painting, reading a book ... or, I'd add, communing with the body during the slow sensory days of an illness.

"Around the time this conversation took off, Morten was writing his thesis Time, Art, and Society, in which he explores the insight that when we engage with an artwork, we pay attention in a way we don't always do with other objects. The composition of an art piece, its inherent timing, cannot be forced to fit whatever our personal sense of time may be. Being a cellist, he was very aware that if we want to really engage with music, we have to surrender our immediate sense of time and listen. The question arose: what happens if we take the kind of attention we bring to bear on a painting, a symphony, or a poem into our everyday surroundings and listen to the inherent time of our neighbourhood, a nearby woodland, or our own bodies?

The White Rabbit checks his pocket watch  an illustration from Alice in Wonderland by John Tenniel"Doing this, we encounter an astonishing diversity of timescales which make a mockery of the idea that there is such a thing as a singular, universal, abstract Time. The present is made up of a multiplicity of lifetimes, and getting past our personal view and tuning into what can best be described as a symphonic view of time, we immediately acquire the sense of the richness of life. By sidestepping our notion of time as something outside ourselves and independent of us, we see that everything has its own time, an Eigenzeit. This can work as an antidote to the speed that marks a society driven by principles of efficiency and growth. It is a practice which begins with noticing the world around us, paying attention and becoming present -- but which leads to a deeper understanding and connection with the places we inhabit."

Graugaard notes that an unrushed relationship with time is valuable in a digital age which constantly fractures our powers of concentration, and explains why cultivating Wild Time is a radical act.

"Wresting our attention from the flurry of information that is hurtled at us through fibre-optic communication and turning it toward the depth of time is not just about engaging new ways of seeing and honing the lifeskills we need to live fully in the context of a digitalized world. It is also a way of finding joy in the places we live in, whether they are urban or rural. Surrendering and accepting what is, and figuring out what we want to hold onto and what we can let go of. Without attention we are lost. Whatever distracts attention kills our potential to be free.

"This is why resisting the progressive notion of time as linear, singular, and above all placeless is profoundly political. It is about power. Tuning into the timescapes of the other allows us to dissolve the separation that modern life requires from us. That is what is meant by the beautiful metaphor of 'thinking like a mountain.' By thinking like a mountain, we open the possibility of becoming other." 

The Hare Mycomusicologist Clock

There are many ways we can "think like a mountain" and pull ourselves from the frantic pace of the mechanized world into periods of soul-enriching (perhaps even soul-saving) Wild Time. We can take breaks from the Internet, for example; or immerse ourselves in nature; or cultivate "deep attention" by making art and engaging with art. And although it's not a method most of us would choose, illness, too, allows us to surrender to time in a slower, wilder way, thereby fostering a deeper, richer connection to the physical world we live in.

Don't get me wrong, I prefer good health. I prefer to be energetic and active. But during those times when I'm back in bed again, too weak, too tired, too pain-raddled to keep up with the friends and colleagues racing ahead on time's straight track, I am learning to accept that mine's a slower, more meandering trail. But it has its value. It has its use. It will get me where I want to go.

Wild time

The Hummingbird Clock (full clock & detail)

About the art:

The wonderful painted clocks in this post are by my friend and Dartmoor neighbour Rima Staines, a multi-disciplinary artist who uses paint, wood, word, music, animation, puppetry, and story to "build a gate through the hedge that grows along the boundary between this world and that." Born in London to a family of artists, and raised on the roads of Bavaria in her early years, Rima has always been stubborn about living the things that make her heart sing.

With her partner Tom Hirons, Rima also runs the Hedgespoken folk arts project. For part of the year, they travel the lanes and byways of Britain in a glorious old truck converted into an off-grid venue for storytelling, folk theatre, and puppetry. In the winter months, they return to us on Dartmoor and focus on writing, painting, and running Hedgespoken Press.

Rima’s inspirations include the world and language of folk tales, folk music, folk art of Old Europe and beyond, peasant and nomadic living, wilderness, plant-lore, magics of every feather, and the beauty to be found in otherness. To see more of her extraordinary work, visit her website: Paintings in a Minor Key, her blog: The Hermitage, and seek out her book, Tatterdemalion, co-created with Sylvia V. Linsteadt

We Three & the Moon Balloon Clock and The Nisse Mother Clock

The Mad Hatter Clock

The clock paintings above are by Rima Staines (the charming titles are in the picture captions - run your cursor over the pictures to read them); and all rights are reserved by artist. The drawing of Alice's White Rabbit checking his pocket watch ("Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!") is by John Tenniel (1820-1940).

The passages quoted above are from The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin Books, 2010), and Jeppe Dyrendom Graugaard's introduction to an interview with Jay Griffiths (EarthLines magazine, 2013). I highly recommend Jay Griffith's book Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time (Flamingo, 1999). All rights reserved by the authors.