Myth & Moor update

Tilly and her friend Old Oak

I'm afraid I'm dealing with health issues again, and have to preserve the limited energy I have for work that has pressing deadlines. I'll be back to Myth & Moor just as soon as I can. I hope that will be soon. Thanks for your patience.

Tilly & Old Oak in the sun

Tilly, meanwhile, is doing well. We have to monitor and manage her health condition, but the meds are working, so we are daring to hope for the best.

Old Oak in the golden light of early autumn

Three young oaks

Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Star Dress by Arthur Rackham

This week, a collection of Child Ballads: traditional songs compiled by American folklorist Francis James Child (1825-1896) in his influential five-volume text, The English and The English & Scottish Popular BalladsScottish Popular Ballads. Professor Child defined the “popular ballad” as a form of ancient folk poetry, composed anonymously within the oral tradition, bearing the clear stamp of the preliterate peoples of the British Isles. (If you'd like to know more about Child and his work, I've written about him here.)

Little is known for certain about how the oldest ballads would have been performed -- but most likely they were recited, chanted, or sung without instrumentation. Right up to the 20th century ballads were traditionally sung a cappella, though now they are performed in a wide variety of ways. Let's start with one well-rooted in the tradition while also modern and delightfully wacky:

Above: "The Fair Flower of Northumberland" (Child Ballad #9) performed by Alasdair Roberts, Amble Skuse, and David McGuinness. It's from their fine collaborative album What News (2018).

Below: "Hind Horn" (Child Ballad #17) performed by The Furrow Collective (Alasdair Roberts again, with Emily Portman, Rachel Newton, and my Modern Fairies colleague Lucy Farrell), from their wonderful new album At Our Next Meeting (2021).

Above: "Mirk Mirk Is This Midnight Hour" (a variant of "Lass of Loch Royal/Lord Gregory" Child Ballad #76) performed by Scottish musician Karine Polwart. It's from her lovely album of ballads, Fairest Floo'er (2007). 

Below: "Three Ravens" (a variant of "Twa Corbies," Child Ballad #26) performed by Malinky, based in Scotland. It's from their early album Three Ravens (2002), when the members of the band were Karine Polwart, Steve Byrne, Mark Dunlop, and Kit Patterson. 

Above: "Outlandish Knight" (a variant of "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight," Child Ballad #4), performed by English folk musician Kirsty Merryn. It's from her second album, Our Bright Night (2020).

Below: "My Father Built Me a Pretty Tower" (a variant of "The Famous Flower of Serving Men," Child Ballad #106), performed by the English folk duo The Askew Sisters (Emily and Hazel Askew). You'll find it on their latest album Enclosure (2019), a collection of songs about the relationship between people and place. And just in case you don't know already, Delia Sherman wrote a very magical, gender-bending novel based on "The Famous Flower of Serving Men," titled Through a Brazen Mirror. I highly recommend it.

Lying Asleep by Arthur Rackham

The art above is by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Pilgrims' progress

As regular readers of Myth & Moor will know, three weeks ago my husband Howard set off from the center of London to walk to the UN Conference on Climate Change in Glasgow, a journey of over five hundred miles travelled over nine weeks. He's part of Listening to the the Land: Pilgrimage for Nature, a core group of twenty pilgrims drawn from performance arts, environmental sciences and other walks of life, joined together in their concern for the natural world at this perilous time. They are meeting with farmers and other land workers, earth scientists, environmentalists, and a wide variety of community groups in the towns and villages they pass through, with the aim of weaving their voices into a performance piece presented at COP26. They also welcome all who want to walk beside them for a day, a half-day, an hour. (Information on how to do so here.)

Our good friend Jane Yolen (multi-award winning novelist, poet, and children's book writer) gifted us with a poem for the Nature Pilgrims at the beginning of their long walk -- and in the video above Howard reads her poem (with Jane's permission of course). The setting is the orchard in Oxfordshire where the Pilgrims made their first camp.

Apple orchard

In three week since then, the Pilgrims have walked the Ridgeway across Oxfordshire, received a pagan blessing at Uffington and an Anglican blessing at Birmingham Cathedral, walked up Shakespeare's Way in Staffordshire, crossed Cheshire via Alderley Edge (Alan Garner country), were blessed again at The Monastery in Manchester, and are now in Lancashire near Pendle Hill (a site associated with witches and Quakers). They've camped at farms, in fields, in the grounds of stately homes, in green spaces both rural and urban, and even had a few rare nights indoors in welcoming churches. 

Local residents inspect the Pilgrims' camp in Oxfordshire

I've spoken to Howard most days on the road, allowing me to follow the Pilgrims' progress: the tough first week of acclimatising to walking and camping; days of exhilaration since then, but also of practical challenges; nights of conviviality around the fire, but also of aching weariness; deep conviction in the process of pilgrimage punctuated by moments of self-doubt, of hilarity, of sheer exhaustion...the ups and downs that mark any sacred journey, whether actual or metaphorical...and in this case both.

The Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire

Today, the walkers begin Week Four, heading north into the Lake District. The weather is becoming wetter and colder, the days are drawing in, and the terrain they will be crossing is more challenging than the gentle hills of the midlands. But they are also finding their group rhythm now, allowing them more time to focus on the creative aspects of the project alongside the daily work of the walk itself. The spirit of the land is changing...and the Pilgrims are changing too, individually and collectively, transformed by a walking meditation on fluidity, biodiversity, open-heartedness, and the healing of our planet.

Pendle Hill in Lancashire

You can get a glimpse of what they're up to on the project's blog, Facebook and Instagram pages -- but please note that it's only a glimpse. Jolie Booth and Anna Lehmann, creators of Listening to the Land, didn't design it as a media event but as a proper old-fashioned pilgrimage: a journey across Britain in slow time, real time, step by step -- an experience of full engagement with the tactile, physical world. In our hyper-connected, media-saturated culture, this alone is a radical act.

If you're interest in what it's like to be a Nature Pilgrim, however, Howard has begun to record a video diary, talking about his experiences en route.  You'll find those videos on Facebook here (and you needn't "friend" his page or join Facebook to see them). Comments are welcome, as are words of encouragement to brighten the harder days. He has also just started new pages on Instagram and Twitter, so please give him a follow if you're on either of those platforms.

Nature Pilgrim

At the top of The Cloud in Cheshire

As Tilly and I walk our own beloved land down here in the mossy green South-West, Howard is often on our minds. I wonder: Where is he now? What is he doing? Is he happy, healthy, getting enough sleep? Tilly's thoughts are more succinct: When is he coming home?

We pray to Mercury, god of the crossroads, to light his way and keep him safe. We pray to the ancient spirits of the British Isles for all his fellow walkers: for their work, their art, their collective intention, their love of the more-than-human world and their commitment to being a voice for change. Below is a photo of the offering we left yesterday at the local Fairy Springs on the Pilgrims' behalf: wildflowers and ripe blackberries, with an old dog's thoughts and a quiet woman's prayers and a whisper of wild poetry....

Tilly at the Fairy Springs

Our offering

As I write this, the Pilgrims are walking north. They are walking for all of us.

A journey into the green

Please note: The fund-raising campaign for Listening to the Land continues, to replace a final piece of funding that didn't come through at the very last minute. If you can help, by contributing or spreading the word, the crowd-funding page is here

"Pilgrimage" by Jane Yolen is copyright 2021; all rights reserved by the author. Also, don't miss "Dear Pilgrims," a letter to the Nature Pilgrims written and read by Jackie Morris.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Nocturne by James McNeill Whistler


More water songs, fresh and salty....

Above: "Anchor" by singer/songwriter Emily Mae Winters, who was born in England, raised in Ireland, and is now based in London. The song appeared on her album Siren Serenade (2017).

Below: "Great Northern River" performed by  the The Unthanks (sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank), from Northumbria. They first recorded this song by Teeside musician Graeme Miles for their album Songs from the Shipyards (2012). The live version here is from the compilation album Other Voices, Series 11, Volume 1 (2013).

Above: "Queen of Waters" by the Anglo/Australian folk duo Nancy Kerr & James Fagan, performed at the Bath Folk Festival in 2013. The song can be found on their album Twice Reflected Sun (2010).

Below: "Fragile Water," a deeply magical song by Nancy Kerr about transformation, and fluidity, mythological and otherwise. The song appeared on her solo album Instar (2016).

Above: "Lady of the Sea" by Seth Lakeman, who hails from the other side of Dartmoor. This live version was recorded in February 2021 for an online concert celebrating the 15th anniversary of the album Freedom Fields. The backing musicians are unlisted on the video, but I recognised my Modern Fairies colleague Ben Nicholls playing bass for the concert.

Below: "Leave Her Johnny," performed by The Longest Johns, a folk & sea shanty band from Bristol, and their Mass Choir Community Video Project produced during the pandemic lockdown last year. "We originally hoped for 100 submissions for this project," they say. "When almost 500 turned up, we had to rethink our plans. It's so amazing to watch this video and see the faces of people still keeping Folk Music and Sea Shanties alive all around the globe. A huge thank you to everyone who took part, and remember to keep singing!"

Let's take a moment and marvel at the amount and diversity of art that has come out of this long, hard pandemic. The human spirit at its best.

The previous "water songs" post can be found here. The art today is "Nocturne," an etching by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).

The voices of the River Dart

The River Dart running to the sea

The River Dart, which gives Dartmoor its name, begins with two primary tributaries up on the high moor: the East Dart, with its source at Cranmere Pool, and the West Dart, starting north of Rough Tor. They join at Dartmeet, then the river flows south past Buckfast Abbey, Dartington and Totnes, turning tidal as it runs to the sea through the estuary at Kingswear and Dartmouth.

The name of the river most likely derives from the old Celtic Devonian language, possibly meaning "river of oaks," "oak stream," or "the sacred place of oak" ... and indeed, stretches of the the Dart still twist through low hills of ancient oak woodland.

Dawn from window

I love the does Alice Oswald, a widely acclaimed poet (the first woman to serve as the Oxford Professor of Poetry in the position's 300 year history), and a family friend (her husband and mine run a theatre company together). Some years ago, when Alice was still living on Dartmoor, she walked the river from moorland to estuary to create a book-length poem titled Dart: a gorgeous evocation of the river's history, mythology, and shape-shifting presence in the life of the land.

At the start of the book Alice notes that the poem "is made from the language of people who live and work on the Dart. Over the past two years I've been recording conversations with people who know the river. I've used these records as life-models from which to sketch a series of characters -- linking their voice into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea. There are indications in the margins where one voice changes into another. These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river's mutterings."

The poem begins with the river's source at Cranmere Pool, seven miles from the nearest road:

Dart by Alice OswaldWho's this moving alive over the moor?

And old man seeking and find a difficulty.

Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
does he fully intend going in over his knees off the
   military track from Okehampton?

keeping his course through the swamp spaces
and pulling the distance around his shoulders

and if it rains, if it thunders suddenly
and all that lies to hand is his own bones?

Tussocks, minute flies,
           wind, wings, roots

He consults his map. A huge rain-coloured wilderness.
This must be the stones, the sudden movement,
the sound of frogs singing in the new year.
Who's this issuing from the earth?

The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it?
trying to summon itself by speaking ...

The walker replies:

An old man, fifty years a mountaineer, until my heart gave out,
so now I've taken to the moors. I've done all the walks, the Two
Moors Way, the Tors, this long winding line the Dart

this secret buried in reeds at the beginning of sound I
won't let go man, under
his soakaway ears and his eye ledges working
into the drift of his thinking, wanting his heart

I keep you folded in my mack pocket and I've marked in red
where the peat passes are the the good sheep tracks
cow-bones, tin-stones, turf-cuts.
listen to the horrible keep-time of a man walking,
rustling and jingling his keys
at the centre of his own noise,
clomping the silence in pieces and I

I don't know, all I know is walking. Get dropped off the military
track from Oakehampton and head down into Cranmere pool.
It's dawn, it a huge sphagnum kind of wilderness, and an hour
in the morning is worth three in the evening. You can hear
plovers whistling, your feet sink right in, it's like walking on the
bottom of a lake.

What I love is one foot in front of another. South-south-west and
down the countours. I go slipping between Black Ridge and White
Horse Hill into a bowl of moor where echoes can't get out


and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal
of a river

The little cabin on the River Dart

From here the "muttering voices" include a fisherman, a forester, a water nymph, the King of the Oak Woods, a tin-extracter, a woolen mill worker, a swimmer, a boatbuilder and many others.

"I'm very interested in water," Alice says. "I'm interested in the way that it is a natural art form -- it actually pictures the world for you. You walk outside, and you are suddenly able to see a flat world reflected in the river. It's almost like nature's way of representing the world to you. But I think perhaps more than that, I'm an incredibly restless person, and I really admire the way water sheds itself all the time. I learn a lot from that. I aim to be as fluid as water if I can be. I don't like settling into one kind of character -- I like to shed myself as I go along."

Dart is a gorgeous book that seems to bubble out of the peat of Dartmoor itself. I urge you to seek it out.

Writing on the river

About the imagery in this post:

The first picture above shows the tidal portion of the River Dart after it comes off the high moor, running through the south Devon countryside to the sea. (It's a Wikipedia/Creative Commons photograph.)

The other pictures, also of the tidal Dart, were taken by me a few years ago, during a solitary writing retreat at a waterside cabin loaned to me by good friends. 

Water, light, and solitude

I lost my heart to the river during those long, quiet days, and the Dart has it still.

My river home

Misty morning

The passage quoted above is from Dart by Alice Oswald (Faber and Faber, 2002), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. All rights reserved by the author.