Hard by a great forest

Bluebells and old ivy

From Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin (1943-2006):

"To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed. It is no accident that in the comedies of Shakespeare, people go into the greenwood to grow, learn and change. It is where you travel to find yourself, often, paradoxically, by getting lost. Merlin sends the future King Arthur as a boy into the greenwood to fend for himself in The Sword and the Stone. There, he falls asleep and dreams himself, like a chameleon, into the lives of the animals and trees. In As You Like It, the banished Duke Senior goes to live in the Forest of Arden like Robin Hood, and in A Midsummer Night's Dream the magical metamorphosis of the lovers takes place in a wood 'outside Athens' that is quite obviously an English wood, full of the faeries and Robin Goodfellows of our folklore.

Following the call

Bluebells in the woods

"Pinned on my study wall is a still from Truffaut's L'Enfant Sauvage. It shows Victor, the feral boy, clambering through the tangle of branches of the dense deciduous woods of the Aveyron. The film remains one of my touchstones for thinking about our relations with the natural world: a reminder that we are not so far away as we would like to think from our cousins the gibbons, who swing like angels through the forest canopy, at such headlong speed that they almost fly like the tropical birds they envy and emulate in the music of their marriage-songs at dawn in the tree-tops....

Oak leaves

"Most of the world still cooks on wood fires, and the vast majority of the world's wood is used as firewood. In so far as 'Western' people have forgotten how to lay a wood fire, or its fossil equivalent in coal, they have lost touch with nature. Aldous Huxley wrote of D.H. Lawrence that 'He could cook, he could sew, he could darn a stocking and milk a cow, he was an efficient woodcutter and a good hand at embroidery, fires always burned when he had laid them and a floor after he had scrubbed it was thoroughly clean.' As it burns, wood releases the energies of the earth, water and sunshine that grew it. Each species expresses its character in its distinctive habits of combustion. Willow burns as it grows, very fast, spitting like a firecracker. Oak glows reliably, hard and long. A wood fire in the hearth is a little household sun.

Animal guide

Bugle

"When Auden wrote, 'A culture is no better than its woods,' he knew that, having carelessly lost more of their woods than any other country in Europe, the British take a correspondingly greater interest in what trees and woods they still have left. Woods, like water, have been suppressed by motorways and the modern world, and have come to look like the subconscious of the landscape. They have become the guardians of our dreams of greenwood liberty, of our wildwood, feral, childhood selves, of Richmal Crompton's Just William and his outlaws. They hold the merriness of Merry England, of yew longbows, of Robin Hood and his outlaw band. But they are also repositories of the ancient stories, of Icelandic myths of Ygdrasil the Tree of Life, Robert Graves's 'The Battle of the Trees' and the myths of Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough. The enemies of the woods are always enemies of culture and humanity."

Oak Elder 1

Stickwort and brambles

Sara Maitland notes that the ancient forests that used to stretch across Britain and northern Europe, "with their constant seasonal changes, their restricted views, their astonish biological diversity, their secret gifts and perils and the knowledge that you have to go through them to get anywhere else, created the themes and ethics of the fairy tales we know best. There are secrets, hidden identities, cunning disguises; there are rhythms of change like the changes of the seasons; there are characters, both human and animal, whose assistance can be earned or spurned; and there is -- over and over again -- the journey or quest, which leads first to knowledge and then to happiness."

Oak Elder 2

But until we understand what the land is, writes Wendell Berry, "we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest -- the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways -- and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world's longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in -- to learn from it what it is."

Hillside

"Step across the boundary and the trespass of story will begin," says Jay Griffths enticingly. "The forest takes a deep breath and through its whispering leaves an incipient adventure unfurls. The quest. In the lull -- not the drowsy lull of a lullaby but the sotto voce of a woodland clearing, scented with story as it is with with wild garlic -- this is the moment of beginning, the pause on the threshold before the journey. So many tales begin here, hard by a great forest...."

What, do you suppose, is yours?

A tale begins

The passages above are from Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin (Penguin, 2007), Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests & Fairytales by Sara Maitland (Granta, 2013),  The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2002), and Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape by Jay Griffiths (Hamish Hamilton, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 1999). All rights reserved by the authors.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Underwater sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

Today, five composers creating music in response to the natural world.

Above: "Music in the Antropocene," an inspiring talk (with music) by Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014. "Today a growing number of geologists believe we have left the Holocene and entered a new geologic period, the Anthropocene, in which the dominant geologic force is humanity itself," he says. "What does this mean for music? What does it mean for my work as a composer, or for any artist working in any medium today?" He goes on to discuss his move from full-time environmental activism to art-making, and why he believes that the latter is as necessary as the former. This relates, I believe, to all art forms at their best, including fantasy and mythic arts.

Below: "In a Treeless Place, Only Snow" by John Luther Adams, performed by the faculty and fellows at the Bang on a Can Summer Marathon at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2016. (I've chosen an indoor piece as it's hard to experience Luther's outdoor pieces fully through a short video.)

Above: Italian composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi discusses his beautiful new album series Seven Days Walking -- seven albums, released over seven months, inspired by his walks through the Italian Alps. The series began in March, and three of the albums are available so far.

Below: "Fox Tracks" from Seven Days Walking: Day I, with Einaudi on piano, Federico Mecozzi on violin, and Redi Hasa on cello.

Above: "Usal Road" by Breton composer and multi-instrumentalist Yann Tiersen,  from his new album All (2019), a meditation on place and the natural world, blending music with field recordings made in Brittany, Devon, and elsewhere. It's the first of Tiersen's albums to be recorded in his studio on Ushant, the small island in the Celtic Sea between Brittany and Cornwall where he makes his home.

Below: "First of the Tide" by Scottish composer and multi-instrumentalist Erland Cooper -- from his new album Sule Skerry (2019), the second in a triptych inspired his Orkney homeland and the works of Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown

Orkney seal

To end with: "Waloyo Yamoni (We Overcome the Wind)" by American composer Christopher Tin, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Angel City Chorale, Prima Vocal Ensemble and Lucis choirs conducted by Tin in London, 2016. It's the final piece on his album The Drop That Contains the Sea -- a gorgeous song cycle on the theme of water, each song sung in a different language. This one is in Lango, a Southern Luo dialect spoken by the Lango people of Uganda.

"In the coming century water, and water management, is going to be the most important global issue to all people and across all countries,” he says. “Between melting Antarctic ice sheets and rising ocean levels and droughts and increased devastation from hurricanes and so forth, water is literally going to shape the way we draw our maps.”

When I despair at all the destruction we humans are responsible for, I remember we are also capable of this, and my heart lifts a little:

Underwater sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

Today's music is dedicated to the brave young people who created the Extinction Rebellion, and to the older folks who stand alongside them-- which I hope is all of us here. The photographs at the top and bottom of the post are of underwater sculptures by environmental artist Jason deCaires Taylor. The middle photograph is of a harbour seal in Orkney archipelago. It is their home, too, we are fighting for.


Wildflower season

Gate

I love the spring months here in Devon, when wildflowers turn the woods and fields and hedgerows into Faerieland, scenting the air with their perfume and the echo of ancient stories....

Bluebell wall

Bluebells are especially loved by faeries, and as such they are dangerous. A child alone in a bluebell wood might be whisked Under the Hill and never seen again, while adults can find themselves lost for days, or years, until the faery spell is broken.Other names the plant is known by: Faery Thimbles, Wood Hyacinths, Harebells (in Scotland, for they grow in fields frequented by hares), and Dead Man's Bells (because the faeries are not kind to those who trample willfully upon them).

Oak mother

Bluebells and rain

Bluebells in the house can be lucky or unlucky, depending on where in British Isles you live. Here in Devon, it's the former: a bouquet of bluebells, picked with gratitude and tended with care, confers the faeries' blessings on the household and "sweetens" spirits sagging after a long winter. Love potions are made of bluebell blossoms, and a bluebell wreath compels the wearer to tell the truth about his or her affections. Despite this association with love, bluebells in Romantic poetry are symbols of loneliness and regret; while in the Victorian's Language of Flowers they represent kindness, humility, and a sense of wonder.

Bluebell path

Devon Bluebells

Bluebell Faery by Brian Froud

In Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Graham Joyce captured the uncanny magic of a bluebell wood:

"The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and the bushes seem to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down to the earth floor; and I didn't know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky."

Graham's faery novel for adult readers is both magical and sinister, and highly recommended; as is The Limits of Enchantment, a fine novel rich in the folklore of plants and hares.

Devon bluebell wood

Harebell Faery

Wild violets are often associated with the Greek myth of Persephone, for she was out in the fields gathering the flowers when Hades abducted her into the Underworld; they are flowers of change, transition, transformation, and the cycle of death-and-rebirth. In the Middle Ages, the violet represented love that was new, uncertain, changeable or transitory; yet by Victorian times, in the Language of Flowers the violet was a symbol of constancy.

Here in Devon, old country folk are wary of bringing violets (and snowdrops) into the house, for this will curse the farmwife's hens and make them unable to lay. Dreaming of violets is lucky, however, as is wearing the flowers pinned to your clothes...but only if the violets are worn outdoors. Take them off at your doorstep and leave them for the faeries, alongside a bowl of fresh milk.

Wild violets

Wild violets

Milk for the faeries

Primroses guard against dark witchcraft if you gather their blossoms properly: always thirteen or more in a bunch, and never a single flower. On May Day, small primrose bouquets were hung over farmhouse windows and doors to keep black magic and misfortune out, while allowing white magic to enter freely. Primroses were braided into horses' manes and plaited into balls hung from the necks of cows and sheep as protection from piskie mischief on May Day and Beltane.

Primrose Faery by Brian Froud

Primroses

Hedgewitches made primrose oinment and infusions for "women's troubles" (menstrual cramps) and "melancholy" (depression), while oil of primrose, rubbed on the eyelids, strengthened the ability to see faeries. Primrose wine was a courting gift, proclaiming the giver's constancy -- though by Victorian times, in the Language of Flowers, primroses symbolized the opposite, so a gift of them demonstrated how little you trusted a fickle lover's fine words.

Primroses in a bunny jug

Blue sicklewort (also known as bugle, bugleweed, middle comfrey, and horse & hound) is related to the mint family, and has longed been used as a medicinal herb. The foliage contains a digitalis-like substance, which causes a mild narcotic effect when ingested. In folklore, too, it's a medicine plant, associated with the healing of the body and of hearts broken by sorrow. Once, during a time of great sadness, I felt myself compelled to keep visiting this patch of blue sicklewort in the woods behind my studio. I'd sit on the ground with my coffee thermos and notebooks, finding a strange kind of comfort there. It was only later that I discovered the plant's traditional use as a healer of heartbreak.

Blue sicklewort

The wild orchid is another flower associated with faeries, particularly those who delight in seducing mortals in the woods. It is a plant associated with faery revels, amours, and sensuality. The dried root was a faery aphrodisiac.

Wild orchid

The old folk of Devon still know pink stichwort as "piskie" or "the piskie flower." Anyone who dares to pick them (as I do) is in danger of being piskie-led.

Pink stitchwort

Foxglove, with its long pink and white spires, has long been associated with the faeries. Some scholars believe that ''fox'' is a corruption of ''folk,'' and that the name thus means ''the gloves of the Good Folk'' (the faeries). Foxglove used to be known as goblin's gloves in the mountains of Wales, where the flowers were worn by hobgoblins. In Scandinavian lore, foxglove is associated with both foxes and faeries, for the faeries taught foxes to ring the bell-like flowers in warning when hunters approached.

Devon foxgloves

In her lovely book Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland, my friend Lisa Schneidau writes:

"I was lucky. I was a little girl growing up in 1970s Buckinghamshire with a mother and grandmother who loved wild plants, and six fields of ridge-and-furrow, green-winged orchid meadow behind our house. I remember when the moon daisies were nearly as tall as me, when we picked field mushrooms from the fairy rings and fried them for breakfast, when I could run through the middle of ancient hawthorne hedgerows and travel by secret ways down to the magic old willow tree over the pond. I remember the carpets of cowslips, the endless butterflies, the quivering quaking grass, and the blackberries in autumn....I inherited an insatiable curiosity for plants of all kinds and, with a vivid imagination as always, I wanted to know the stories: why? what? how does it feel to be a green living plant, a meadowsweet compared to a bee orchid?"

Foxgloves

"Flowers lure us into the present moment by the miracle of their beauty," writes another friend, Judith Berger (in Herbal Rituals, a beautiful book about medicine plants through the four seasons). "Watching and waiting for a particular plant to bloom gives birth to patience within us. We slow our rhythm down in order to fully experience the process of flowering; expectancy and excitement deepen hand in hand with our patience. As we observe, we come to see that the full unfolding of the flower petals is the culmination of an unhurried dance in which the flower senses and responds, moment by moment, to the environmental conditions which surround and penetrate it. These conditions include termperature, moisture, light, and shadow, as well as the more subtle influences of sound vibrations, heartful care, and respect.

"In Buddhist poetry, there is a verse which reads: 'I entrust myself to the earth, the earth entrusts herself to me.' To entrust is to place something in another's hands with the confidence that what has been given will be cared for."

Through the gate

VioletAnd so in the changeable days following winter -- now warm, now cold, now wet, now dry -- I entrust myself to the flowers of our hill: bluebell, primrose, blue sicklewort, white and pink stitchwort, red campion. They all emerge whatever the weather, bursts of color and joy in the rain-soaked hills. They do not wait for a "perfect" day to bloom...and neither must I await the "perfect" time to write, or paint, or to pick up the reins of daily life again after illness knocks me flat during the winter. Recovering one's health is not like stepping through a gateway into bright sun; there is no clear line between "sick" and "well," only the deep, invisible processes of healing, slowly unfolding day by day. To wait for strength, ease and "perfect" pain-free hours is to wait for life to begin instead of living.

This is life. This is spring. Bright and beautiful yesterday. Cold, wet, and grey now. Tomorrow, something else again. But full of wildflowers.

Literary and medicinal plant lore

Plant lore books

Hound and flowers

Words: The passages quoted above are from Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce (Doubleday, 2012), Botanical Folktales of Britain & Ireland by Lisa Scheidau (The History Press, 2018), and Herbals Rituals by Judith Berger (St. Martin's Press, 1998). The quotes in the picture captions are from a variety of sources, including Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker (Shire Classics, 2008), A Contemplation on Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth & Literature by Bobby J. Ward (Timber Press, 2009) and Hedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal (Merlin Unwin Books, 2008).  All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The paintings, by Brian Froud, are from Faeries by Brian Froud & Alan Lee (Abrams, 1978). All rights reserved by the artist. Parts of this post first appeared in 2016, but this version has been expanded with additional photographs, quotes, and plant lore.


Speaking the language of the grasses

On the hill with the hound

Looking at Meldon Hill from Nattadon Hill

From Red by Terry Tempest Williams:

"I want to write my way from the margins to the center. I want to speak the language of the grasses, rooted yet soft and supple in the presence of wind before a storm. I want to write in the form of migrating geese like an arrow pointing south toward a direction of safety. I want to keep my words wild so that even if the land and everything we hold dear is destroyed by shortsightedness and greed, there is a record of participation by those who saw what was coming. Listen. Below us. Above us. Inside us. Come. This is all there is."

Hillside joy

I recommend "Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass," an inspiring talk by Native American biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of two excellent books: Braiding Sweetgrass and Gathering Moss.

Meadow flowers

Meadow dog

More meadow flowers

Hound in the buttercups

P1590077

The passage above is from Terry Tempest William's essay collection Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert (Pantheon, 2001). The passage in the picture captions is from Anne Michael's Infinite Gradation (Exile Editions, 2018). All rights reserved by the authors.


The ties that bind us

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Another book I've been carrying with me during my travels -- and reading slowly to make it last -- is Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper.

The subject of these essays is family, community, and relationships in their many forms: relationships with siblings, housemates, friends, lovers, books and their authors, objects, food, and (most poignantly for me) the fellow members of a care circle surrounding a friend with cancer. Although Hopper's own upbringing was unusual (her parents were "religious hippies" in a cultish Evangelical sect), the underlying dynamics of the familial and social ties she examines are nonetheless relatable as hell. Plus, it's a beautifully written book, and even the lightest of essays (a discourse on binge-watching the old American television show Cheers, for example) is made luminous by the the author's clarity, honestly, and unfailing compassion for the ways we both support and fail each other as we move through life.

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Meadow 4

In the opening essay, "Lean On," Hooper takes issue with America's cultural adulation of the Solitary Hero (Ralph Waldo Emerson's ideal self-reliant man,  Joan Didion's ideal self-sufficient woman) and articulates the value of leaning on others, and letting others lean on us. In response to Didion's assertion that the solitary self is the authentic self, she writes:

"My scepticism about the authenticity of solitude is partly rooted in experience. I don't see why the person I am when I'm rising to the occasion for students in the classroom is less truly myself than the person I am when I come home and kick off my shoes and collapse on the couch. There are verses of hymns I know by heart that I can only remember in church, but they will still be part of me till I die. I never feel more myself than when I'm writing, and I always write for readers. My sisters know I'm bossy and my friends know I'm kind, and when I'm alone I'm neither, but really I am both. My identity is not an independent state.

"I cannot imagine a solitary self even in theory. What would it even mean, after all, to be truly alone with yourself, an independent and dispassionate critic of your own individual character? You would need to be able to trace the contours of your personality as if they had never meant anything to anyone; to scour your brain of love's neural traces; to forget where your hands have been. You would need a body and soul free of microscopic chimeras, unmarked by social judgements past and present. You would need to redact yourself from every file and delete yourself from every inbox. You would need an unlisted number and a rotary phone with a severed cord. You would need to have forgotten all the books you'd read, or never read them in the first place. You would need to be the last living speaker of a dying language. You would need to have been abandoned as an infant by a wolf who refused to raise you."

(You can read the full piece online here.)

Meadow 5

An essay about Hopper's complicated relationship with her brother starts with this delicious opening:

"There is a form of intimacy that consists of being harangued by someone in a bathrobe. A brother. He might be standing and pacing and you might be lying down on a couch under an afghan. He is exasperating in a way that tends towards escalating energy, and he intermittently throws off or emits sparks, like a grindstone, like a rasp, like a pronged plug in proximity to a faulty socket. The stakes are high for him. He suspects that your way of thinking is suspect. You suspect he may be right. You further suspect it is not just your way of thinking that he finds dubious but the person you have turned out to be.

"You find yourself arranged together this way -- pacing, bathrobe; reclining, afghan -- because you share a home. In other words, you share a domestic space in which seriousness does not depend on dignified dress or ordinary standards of civility. In this home, certain protective coverings (shirts and pants) can be dispensed with, while other kinds of protective coverings (afghans) can be piled on or, in particularly tense moments, pulled over one's face and supine body like a shroud of surrender. But it is never really surrender: just a way to collect yourself and breathe warm condensation breaths under the wool while presenting an implacable surface to the man who is talking. You are biding your time until it is your turn to speak.

"And you will inevitably speak. You will always have your say. You are arranged this way, after all, because you are brother and sister, tumbled together since childhood like agates in a rock polisher, generating your own conversational grit since you first had enough shared language to talk."

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Hopper writes about the complex nature of friendships (a subject deeply under-represented in our literature) better than just about anyone. The essay on her brother ("Oh Octopus") also reflects on the family bonds we make with friends:

"Armistead Maupin, the chronicler of the legendary queer saga Tales of the City, calls families found in adulthood 'logical.' 'Sooner or later,' he writes, 'no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us.' I understand what he means. At the same time, in my experience all families are fairly illogical, and all of them (even biological ones) have their own crazy logic. A term I sometimes use instead is 'invented family,' because it implies the work of creation. It is family as a mutually agreed upon fiction. But then, all families are invented, even biological ones. A family is not reducible to legal status or DNA; it is also a provisional hypothesis constructed from surviving documents; a collection of dissonant or harmonizing stories. Perhaps the best phrase for my purpose is 'found family.' It evokes something of the feeling of lost or cast-out sheep who find themselves once again in the safe fold.

"What I love about found family is that it can accomodate all the love and meals and holidays and hospitals visits of any other family -- all the true confessions and late-night conversations and child chaos and quotidian mess and hugs and endearments and quality time; and yet it is often kinder than original family, and more miraculous, because it is a gift given when you are old enough to appreciate it, a commitment continuously made when you know what that commitment costs and means. A family found in adulthood can never attain the involuntary intimacy of siblings who have known you since birth, and squabbled with you in bathrooms and at breakfast tables from time immemorial. But sometimes, perhaps for this reason,  a found family can know and love you for who you are -- not for who you once were, or who you never were."

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If the passages quoted above don't make your heart beat a little fast (someone is finally writing about this!), then Hard to Love may not be the book for you. But if they do, seek out a copy post haste. It's quietly extraordinary.

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Meadow 3

Words: The passages above are from Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper (Bloomsbury, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Birds, Beasts, and Seas, edited by Jeffrey Yang (New Directions, 2011). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Writing and reading outdoors this morning, with the hound close by.


Living and working in place

Leat 1

One of the books I carried with me during my travels over the last few weeks was How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, an artist and writer based in northern California (the center of the American tech industry). I read it slowly, doling it out, because it presented so much food for thought -- and now that I've finished, I recommend Odell's book for anyone engaged in the deep, slow work of making art in the shallow, fast world that Silicon Valley is busy creating. 

Here's a passage from the book's introduction that will give you a taste of what's inside:

"We know that we live in complex times that demand complex thoughts and conversations -- and those, in turn, demand the very time and space that is nowhere to be found. The convenience of limitless connectivity has neatly paved over the the nuances of in-person conversation, cutting away so much information and context in the process. In the endless cycle where communication is stunted and time is money, there are few moments to slip away and fewer ways to find each other.

"Given how poorly art survives in a system that values only the bottom line, the stakes are cultural as well. What the tastes of neoliberal techno manifest-destiny and the culture of Trump have in common is impatience with anything nuanced, poetric, or less-than-obvious. Such 'nothings' cannot be tolerated because they cannot be used or appropriated, and provide no deliverables."

How to Do Nothing

Leat 2

Odell writes that her book is "a field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy": to social media, apps, and other technological tools that are increasing co-opting our time, our focus, and our lives.

"A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are not enough. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as an ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to everyone lucky enough to be alive."

Leat 3

Leat 4

Odell is not suggesting that we banish the Internet from our lives altogether. Nor does she endorse the notion that merely taking periodic "offline Retreats" (which is one of my own practices) is an adequate means of addressing the myriad ways the attention economy is re-shaping societal norms. When "doing something," in a hyper-capitalist culture, means "doing something productive" (ie, making money) -- as opposed to the things we do in the private parts of our lives that cannot or should not be marketized -- then re-framing the idea of what "productivity" means is a radical act.

"The fact that the 'nothing' that I propose is only nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity explains the irony that a book called How to Do Nothing is in some ways also a plan of action. I want to trace a series of movements: 1.) a dropping out, not dissimilar from the 'dropping out' of the 1960s; 2.) a lateral movement outward to things and people that are around us; and 3.) a movement downwards into place. Unless we are vigilant, the current design of much of our technology will block us every step of the way, deliberately creating false targets for self-reflection, curiousity, and a desire to belong to a community. When people long for some kind of escape, it's worth asking: What would 'back to the land' mean if we understood the land to be where we are right now? Could 'augmented reality' simply mean putting your phone down? And what (or who) is that sitting in front of you when you finally do so?"

Leat 5

Later in the Introduction she notes:

"The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn't to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive. My argument is obviously anticapitalist, especially concerning technologies that encourage a capitalist perception of time, place, self, and community. It is also environmental and historical: I propose the rerouting and deepening one's attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one's participation in history and in a more-than-human community. From either a social or ecological perspective, the ultimate goal of 'doing nothing' is to wrest our focus from the attention economy and replant it in the public, physical realm.

Leat 6

"I am not anti-technology. After all, there are forms of technology -- from tools that let us observe the natural world to decentralized, noncommercial social networks -- that might situation us more fully in the present. Rather, I'm opposed to the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention, as well as to designs and uses of technology that enshrine a narrow definition of productivity and ignore the local, the carnal, and the poetic. I am concerned about the effects of current social media on expression -- including the right not to express oneself -- and its deliberately addictive features. But the villain here is not necessarily the Internet, or even the idea of social media; it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction. It is furthermore the cult of of individuality and personal branding that grow out of such platforms and the way we think about our onlines selves and the places where we actually live."

It's a fascinating book, yet not a prescriptive one. Each of us must determine for ourselves how phones and apps and Twitter and Facebook can best be used (or not used) in our lives. But what Odell has done -- for this reader, at least -- is to reframe the debate on the subject: widening its context and acknowledging its complexity. I'm still thinking about the questions she poses...and already my relationship to the attention economy is changing.

Leat 7

Words: The passages above are from How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell (Melville House, 2019). The poem in the picture captions first appeared inTin House (Winter, 2018). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Working by the leat on a bright spring morning.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Into the forest

Today's music comes from brothers and sisters, and starts with a journey to the wildwood....

Above: "This Forest" by The Rheingans Sisters (Anna & Rowan Rheingans), from the Peak District of Derbyshire. The song appears on their lovely album, Bright Field (2018). The video is by Harriet Holman Penney.

Below: "Goose & Common" by The Askew Sisters (Hazel & Emily Askew), who are based in London. The song refers to the mass enclosure of Common land throughout Britain from the 17th century onward. It's from their fine new album, Enclosures (2019), examining the relationship between in people and land in various ways.

Above: "The Lowlands of Holland" performed by Ye Vagabonds (brothers Brían & Diarmuid Mac Gloinn), from Dublin, Ireland. The ballad appeared on their debut album, Ye Vagabonds (2017); this version was filmed at the Celtic Colours International Festival on Cape Breton Island in March.

Below: "Sing My Sister Down" performed by The Henry Girls (sisters Karen, Lorna & Joleen McLaughlin), from Donegal, Ireland. The song was filmed at Lily's Bar in Malin, Co. Donegal, earlier this year.

Above: "Mexico" by The Staves (sisters Jessica, Camilla & Emily Staveley-Taylor), from Hertfordshire. The song appeared on their first album, Dead & Born & Grown (2011).

Below: "Mount the Air" by the The Unthanks (sisters Rachel & Becky Unthank and their band), from Northumberland. The song appeared on their fifth album, Mount the Air (2015), and performed at the British Folk Awards 2016...with some clog dancing too.

One more to end with:

"We All Need More Kindness in This World" by We Banjos 3 (brothers David & Martin Howley, Enda & Fergal Scahill), from Galway, Ireland. The song appeared on their first album, Roots of the Banjo Tree (2012). This performancd was filmed for BBC Radio Ulster in 2013.

Forest 2


A quiet day in the studio

Tilly in the studio

From an interview with Anthony Doerr (author of All the Light We Cannot See, etc.):

"Life is wonderful and strange, and it’s also absolutely mundane and tiresome. It’s hilarious and it’s deadening. It’s a big, screwed-up morass of beauty and change and fear and all our lives we oscillate between awe and tedium. I think stories are the place to explore that inherent weirdness; that movement from the fantastic to the prosaic that is life."

The writing/editing side of the studio

Desktop

In the the studio

Words: The passage by Anthony Doerr is from an interview in Ways Revue. The poem in the picture captions is from The American Academy of Poets Poem-a Day, June 21, 2017. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The small, cozy cabin where I work on a green hillside at the edge of the moor...and its resident hound.


Home again, home again

The signpost to our hill

I'm back from a series of travels and adventures, and have many things to tell you about...but first I must catch up on all that I missed at home and work while I was away, and reassure my anxious Hound that I'm not heading off again anytime soon. As I unpack my bags, sweep the dust from the studio, and prepare to dive back into E.M. Taylormy manuscript-in-process, I've been re-reading these bracing words from Ben Okri's The Mystery Feast:

"In ancient Africa, in the Celtic lands, storytellers were magicians," he says. "They were initiates. They understood the underlying nature of reality, its hidden forces. The old Celtic bards could bring out welts on the body with a string of syllables. They could heal sickness with a tale. They could breathe life into a dying civilization with the magic of a story.

"The historian deals with the past, but the true storyteller works with the future. You can tell the strength of an age by the imaginative truth-grasping vigour of its storytellers. Stories are matrices of thought. They are patterns formed in the mind. They weave their effect on the future. To be a storyteller is to work with, to weave with, the material of time itself."

Sniffing the bluebell scented air

Okri then challenges us to be these kinds of storytellers today:

"Storytellers, reclaim the fire and sorcery of your estate. Take an interest in everything. You cannot be a magician in stories if you are not a magician in life. Go forward into the future, but also return to the secret gnosis of the bards.

Bluebells under a mossy oak

Bluebellls on the forest floor

"As the world gets more confused, storytellers should become more centered. What we need in our age are not more specialists and spin-doctors. What we need are people deeply rooted in the traditions of their art, but who are also at ease in the contemporary world.

Animal Guide on the border of Faerie

"Storytellers are the singing conscious of the land, the unacknowledged guides. Reclaim your power to help our age become wise again."

That's a difficult challege, admittedly; but these are difficult times. And we all have our part to play, no matter how small, no matter how quiet the stories we tell.

Bluebells in a pickle jar

The Studio Muse at work

Thoughts on Storytelling

Drawing by E.M. Taylor (1909-1999)


Heading north

The East Wind by Edmund Dulac

Myth & Moor will be on hiatus for the next week and a bit, because I'll be on the road again.

This time, I'm heading up to Scotland for the Symposium on Fantasy & the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow (Friday, May 10) -- where I'm giving the Keynote address on The Power of Storytelling: Re-creating the World Through Fantasy. It is a subject I feel rather passionate about, and if you're anywhere near Glasgow, please do come. The talk is open to all (not just Symposium partipants), and the tickets are free but you need to book them as space is limited. You'll find more information here.

On May 11th & 12th, I'll be in Dungworth, Sheffield for a Soundpost folk music gathering & singing weekend, where several of us from the Modern Fairies project will be giving workshops on how to use folk tales as a source of creative inspiration in music, writing, and art. In the video below, Fay Hield explains all. Please join us if you possibly can. (The song Marry Waterson is singing in the background of this video, by the way, is based on a gorgeous fairy poem by our own Jane Yolen.)

I'll be back in my Devon studio, and back here at Myth & Moor, on Thursday, May 16 -- and wish you all good, creative days ahead.

Remember in the midst of dire news headlines and daily chaos that seeds are stretching upwards through the soil, bluebells are nodding in the wind, a fox slips by unseen in the shadows, and the world is still a magical place.

Bluebell magic

The painting above is "The East Wind" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953)