Seasons’ Readings – and Returnings…

There’s something I’ve noticed about my reading in recent years. I seem to move through phases. Like the moon. Or the seasons. Quartering the year with rolling colours of moods; kaleidoscope changes that meld thoughts, like fragments of stained glass, into patterns – never exactly the same twice, but falling loosely into the same corner of the year; same time, same place.

I’ve noticed that around the autumn – September through to November – the excitement of the turning globe, the tightening drawstring of migration, the freefall of the trees – and the belt-loosening outbreath of the land as it settles down beneath its knee-blanket of frost – all turns me outward.  I want to be outside, or by the window – to be watching, noticing, swept up in the passing. I want to take records, to ponder, to be a naturalist, a citizen scientist; to look for the tiniest detail on a goldfinch’s wing; the last glint of a dragonfly on a leaf; the bloom of fungi in rotting wood.

For a short while, my reading turns almost wholly towards nature writing, natural history, landscape, sky. I immerse myself in it. Storing for the inner times. I pick up another book, and see the pages ahead as another portal into the grass, water, trees, mountains, clouds; the slippery cloak of the eel winding its way around me – delivering me into animal worlds.

And then, the season will turn. The kaleidoscope shifts. Nearing Christmas, maybe around solstice, the pattern gathers around light-gleaming colours of gold, green, red – firesides and indoor-coddled trees, laden with glittering reflection. Worlds within worlds; glimpsed, hidden.

My thoughts turn to Magic, Imagination; to back-of-the-wardrobe doorways whose frosted hinges crack open into eerie, snow-covered enchantment; to the silence of the forest; witches on brooms; armoured bears; goblets of fire; signs of power; hobbits dodging dragons with trickster words.

The pattern also traces its way into dark, mud-splashed streets, to crumbling houses filled with mystery; their gables and chimneys jutting jaws of stubborn secrecy. Ghosts and memories haunt these places, hovering close to their traditional places by the winter hearth. Clustered in this corner jostle stories tinged with the Gothic, with explorations of rooms behind locked doors, the creaking stairway; the chilly breath that extinguishes the candle.

Or, conversely, the tales invited to the hearth will beam with congenial mirth, placing around my shoulders a blanket against the freezing winds outside. Or best of all, the cosy and the mysterious will take turns by the firelight, mixing their roles within the very same tale.

During Christmas 2013, with the clan gathered together, there was little opportunity for private reading – but we pocketed ourselves away in those safely muffled days, and watched in shared contentment the season’s offering of films, many of them the stuff of the stories above. At the cinema, my daughter and I travelled amongst dwarves and wizards to meet the Elven King (via The Hobbit, Part Two, The Desolation of Smaug); and at home, the whole family journeyed, via television, to Narnia and into the world of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart.

A wonderful, spontaneous ‘Family Story-Gathering’ occurred one day when, happening to check the Radio Times, we saw that, in tribute to the late Joan Fontaine, Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was about to begin on TV. Instantly, we bunched up on the sofa, ready to dream of returning to Manderley again…

2013 had its ups as well as its downs, but was generally a very difficult year, filled with worry and strain. The ever changing reading-kaleidoscope was still pulling my thoughts in various directions – but, each pattern was no more than glimpsed before it had to be shaken loose. There wasn’t much time, or spare mind-space, for actually sitting down to pause, calm the mind and open a book.

On my bedside cabinet there is a tower of unfinished volumes, left suspended at moments when my attention was scattered and my energies were needed elsewhere. At the turn of the New Year, I needed to re-gather and to rest. I needed to read. I hadn’t realised how much I needed to read; how unwell in myself I’d begun to feel without that natural, meditative rhythm the turn of the page gives as the year and days go by. Back in November, reading Julian Hoffman’s beautiful book The Small Heart of Things had been a glorious re-aligning of an inner, homeward compass. And, for a while, I’d also been carrying with me a very timely reminder gifted by the pages of Valerie Davies’s wise and wonderful blog – and I knew I needed to slow down what hours I had available, and to seek some ‘Hestia moments’ of proper, deep solitude…

I selected a volume from the ‘tower’ – slipped into a book-enclosed space – and all the fragments of my scattered self began to return; each one fitting, piece by piece, into its home-place.

I’ve already read more books in the last couple of months than I managed to complete during the whole of 2013 – and it has done me So Much Good. Whole books finished! Not experienced in halted fragments, not stalled by the thought that I should be blogging about one before I move on to the next. My reading has returned to the natural undercurrent of thought-flow, and to the wayfarer tug of change. Some of that reading will float up towards the surface of this blog – soon, or eventually; whenever the time is right. Some may stay deep amongst the fish-haunted rocks and not need to blink in the light to make its presence felt.

I’ve also been spending some time just ‘Being amongst my Books,’ drinking them in, dipping in –

A Section of my bookshelves

 

‘There is also that kind of reading which is just looking at books. From time to time – I can’t say what dictates the impulse – I pull a chair up in front of a section of my library. An expectant tranquillity settles over me. I move my eyes slowly, reading the spines, or identifying the title by its colour and positioning. Just to see my books, to note their presence, their proximity to other books, fills me with a sense of futurity.’

Sven Birkerts, Notes from a confession (1987)

‘I am quite transported and comforted in the midst of my books: they give a zest to the happiest, and assuage the anguish of the bitterest, moments of existence! Therefore, whether distracted by the cares or the losses of my family, or my friends, I fly to my library as the only refuge in distress: here I learn to bear adversity with fortitude.’

Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – 79)

Oh, yes!

So, in between daily family stuff, I’ve been in a kind of metaphorical cave; in retreat. But, it’s been far from an idle time. It’s been a returning. A regaining of energy and focus, allowing me to be more useful to those around me – and more productive too! I’ve found my way back, through paper, pen and daydreaming to unearthing old rhythms; finding space to let the patterns form and shift towards new ideas and inspiration. I’ve swum my way (over and around various mind-blocks) back into concentrated and determined working on writing projects which I’ve been longing (for a lifetime!) to follow through to fruition.

‘There is renewal in retreat.
This is where you refill the cup.
This is how a writer comes home.’

‘Creativity is a voracious animal. It needs to be fed regularly. If you leave it untended for too long, you run the risk of starving your passion and diminishing your spirit.’

From The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb.

Seasons-of-the-mind always seem to lay trails to follow – pearls made of serendipity and the gritty rub of the subconscious, gleaming their way from book to book, thought to thought.  Tales of selkie folk seem to be tugging me towards a certain roll of the waves. From Berlie Doherty’s beautiful Daughter of the Sea, to the enchantment of Heather Dale singing The Maiden and the Selkie, via a reading (many years ago now) of Susan Cooper’s Seaward, I see ripples behind me that have helped drive me back into the water and towards productive creativity.

One of the books I’ve been dipping into since starting to write this post is Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, published by Rider (Random House Group)

Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, published by Rider (Random House Group)

With the current kaleidoscope turn of my mind already on the lookout, my eye was drawn to Chapter 9 – Homing: Returning to OneSelf. There, Pinkola Estes explores the selkie/ sea maiden stories – and tells Sealskin, Soulskin, her version of these ancient tales ‘told among the Celts, the Scots, the tribes of northwest America, Siberian and Icelandic peoples.’ From Pinkola Estes’ explorations, I could pick out dozens of quotes that chimed for me – and which I’m sure, though the book focuses on women, are true for men’s experiences too. Here’s a handful:

‘The psyches and souls of women also have their own cycles and seasons of doing and solitude, running and staying, being involved and being removed, questing and resting, creating and incubating, being of the world and returning to the soul-place. When we are children…the instinctive nature notices all these phases and cycles. It hovers quite near us and we are aware and active at various intervals as we see fit.’ (p.255/6)

‘Home is the pristine instinctual life that works as easily as a joint sliding upon its greased bearing, where all is as it should be, where all the noises sound right, and the light is good, and the smells make us feel calm rather than alarmed. How one spends one’s time in the return is not important. Whatever revivifies balance is what is essential. That is home.

There is not only time to contemplate, but also to learn, and uncover the forgotten, the disused, and the buried. There we can imagine the future and also pore over the scar maps of the psyche, learning what led to what, and where we will go next…..

…..The most important thing I can tell you about the timing of this home cycle is this: When it’s time, it’s time. Even if you’re not ready, even if things are undone, even if today your ship is coming in. When it’s time, it’s time. The seal woman returns to the sea, not because she just feels like it, not because today is a good day to go, not because her life is all nice and tidy – there is no nice and tidy time for anyone. She goes because it is time, and therefore she must.’ (p. 284)

‘In the story, the seal woman dries out as she stays too long…… When a woman is gone too long from home, her ability to perceive how she’s truly feeling and thinking about herself and all other matters begins to dry and crack. She is on “lemming status.” Because she is not perceiving what is too much, what is not enough, she runs right over her own edges.’ (p.278).

‘Long ago the word ‘alone’ was treated as two words, ‘all one.’ To be ‘all one’ meant to be wholly one, to be in oneness, either essentially or temporarily. That is precisely the goal of solitude, to be all one. It is a cure for the frazzled state so common to modern women, the one that makes her, as the old saying goes, “leap onto her horse and ride off in all directions.” (p.292)

– From Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.

Circumstances, and various mindsets, have kept me on the rocks for far, far too long (years and years!) The recent arrival of another birthday made me even more conscious of how Time and Chance need to be grabbed before the tide carries them away. And, having donned my sealskin/ soulskin (at last!), I feel quite shocked (in a liberating way!) how very covetous I am right now about keeping it wrapped around me. I’m back, riding the wave of the storyteller impulse, which has been rooted in a kind of ‘home season-of-the-mind’ for as long as I can remember. And, during this intense simmering-stage of creating longer pieces of writing, I feel a huge urge to hide away with my notebooks, to put an impenetrable tangle of seaweed around my section of sea, and to immerse myself there completely every precious moment I can. To write, write, write.

Opportunities to do that, and to research, read and to think – and to keep this blog going – all have to share the same very limited pot of time. I’ve already been away too long from my undersea “cave” (struggling over this ‘first-hurdle-post’ back into blogging/internet-mode has taken me an unbelievable number of days – leaving me feeling less like I’m running with the wolves, and more like I’m howling at the moon…) It’s been so, so hard to drag myself away from my notebooks, and I must get back. The Muse (always a tricky character) is drumming her fingertips impatiently – and I’m anxious to keep her by my side. But staying in touch with you, the lovely and inspirational blogging community, is so important to me too, and I want to keep on surfacing in the blogosphere whenever I can. As well as all the unfinished books, there are lots of half-written blog posts left over from last year; lots of fragments waiting to complete their full patterns…

I’ll do my best to keep Bookish Nature rolling along, but the shape of the blog may have to become a bit more quick-moving and streamlined for a while; a good adaptation, I hope, for darting in and out of different waters – and for making sure that blogging remains part of the sealskin/ soulskin adventure…

Thanks so much for sticking with Bookish Nature during my long silence.

More posts are on their way…

Spring is here – and a whole new season of reading is shifting into pattern…

Book Selection

Lesser celandine

More book treasures!

Wood anemone

 

Selkies and ‘the eternal present of song-time’

Chasing a thought as it darts amongst the ripples left by Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea, here’s another telling of a selkie tale; this time in song form – not told through the ‘lilts and hissings’ of Eilean o da Freya’s strange ‘language of…singing’ – but via, once more, the beautiful voice of Heather Dale

This is her version of The Maiden and the Selkie, written by Emily Holbert-Kellam (from Heather Dale’s album The Green Knight):

I must, must get myself a copy of David Thomson’s The People of the Sea. It’s been on my wish list for too long now; ever since I first heard a piece on the radio about Thomson’s vital work, undertaken during the middle of the last century, to collect and record the old selkie stories before the tellers and traditions passed from memory.

I can’t remember when or what radio programme it was… just that what I heard was magical and earthy and connected to deep pasts. David Thomson was a writer and producer of radio documentaries for the BBC from 1943 to 1969 – and the warp and weft of the voices with which he made such empathic connection during his folklore-gathering travels, reached out beyond his radio work to become bound into the pages of his book. The poet, Seamus Heaney, was a friend of Thomson and has written the introduction to Canongate’s reissue of the The People of the Sea. (You can read The heart of a vanished world, taken from Heaney’s introduction, on the Guardian website).

In it he writes that:

‘David Thomson’s book is luminously its own thing; it had its origins in one man’s rambles round the highlands and islands of Scotland and the west coast of Ireland, in search of stories and folklore surrounding the “selchie” or grey Atlantic seal. It was written at a great moment in the history of radio, during the 1940s and 1950s, when the BBC employed poets and writers to record and collect oral material and – most important – gave them permission to re-create it in a new artistic form.’

Heaney relates how, as he re-read the book, Wordsworth’s poem The Solitary Reaper kept coming to mind. Also written after a tour of Scotland, the poem was inspired by an incident recorded in the notes of Wordsworth’s friend Thomas Wilkinson – and is, writes Heaney, ‘…about the experience of listening to one of the local people express herself unforgettably in her native Gaelic’ :

‘Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending;
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.’

This final stanza of The Solitary Reaper, Heaney goes on to say, ‘…manages to shift into the eternal present of song-time an incident that might otherwise have remained part of the accidental record.’ Heaney likens the ‘poetic achievement’ that is The People of the Sea to this Wordsworthian fixing in ‘song-time.’ What he describes as Thomson’s ‘Total respect, intuitive understanding, perfect grace and perfect pitch’ create a similar surety that ‘what was heard in the “chaunt” of the storyteller gets fixed on the page, only to rise in all its formality and down-to-earthness at each re-reading.’

As I read Seamus Heaney’s evocation of the character and effect of the man and his work; how Thomson’s The People of the Sea ‘…makes the reader a kind of dual citizen, at once the inhabitant of a poetically beguiling world of pure story and of a realistically documented world of fishermen and crofters’; of how Thomson’s ‘…writing combines a feel for the “this-worldness” of his characters’ lives with an understanding of the “otherworldness” they keep a place for in their consciousness,’ I felt again those ripples of deep story-time I experienced in Berlie Doherty’s Daughter of the Sea – and in the musical cadences of The Maiden and the Selkie.

The song-time of the selkie tales, echoing from somewhere between (to re-apply Heaney’s words) the ‘here-and-nowness’ and the ‘there-and-thennness’ seems, to me, to abide most powerfully in a concept Seamus Heaney beautifully apprehends when he writes that The People of the Sea ‘…at the mythic level presents us with an image of ourselves in those amphibians we have evolved from, all of us (to quote Wordsworth again) “inmates of this active universe”…’

Inmates of this active universe’. It says so much. It is the kind of phrase in which Wordsworth’s worth to the world most shines – a stepping stone phrase, helping to pave the pathways of poetry with gold.

And Heaney’s poet’s heart cannot resist scattering extra shimmer by layering alongside it the words of another poet, emphasising how the ‘fundamental understanding’ of the characters within The People of the Sea ‘…is shaped by what the poet Edwin Muir once termed “that long lost, archaic companionship” between human beings and the creatures.’

And, building on his own golden stepping stones of insight and expression within the book’s introduction, Heaney adds: ‘Plainly, memorably, repeatedly, instances of this old eye-to-eye and breath-to-breath closeness between living things appear in the narrative.’ He describes the selkie stories as possessing an ‘irresistible holistic beauty.’ They are not, he says: ‘…escapist fantasies but a form of poetry, especially if we think of poetry in terms of its definition as a dream dreamt in the presence of reason.’

In song, in story, the figure of the selkie reminds us of relationship: vital, life-and-death interrelationship between human and all other animal life – and between land and sea.

They sing of interdependence, these selkie tales; of the give and take, the not knowingness of beginnings and endings, the impossibility of defining where land and sea retreat or extend. They sing of the blending of past, future, present in cycles of belonging and leaving; and of how each of us exists in our own moment of shifting nows, thens and tomorrows; living as part of nature’s fathomless shaping of her own mysterious tale.

And – to bring us, appropriately, darting back along those cyclical ripples – just such an instance and endlessness of relationship shifts into ‘the eternal present of song-time’ in Seamus Heaney’s own poem Lovers on Aran (another shimmering offering to grace the golden pathway…):

Lovers on Aran

The timeless waves, bright, sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas

To possess Aran. Or did Aran rush
to throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?

Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the waves’ collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity.

– Seamus Heaney

Story, Legend and Mordred’s Lullaby

The power of story – and its importance in our lives and endeavours – is an abiding theme here on Bookish Nature. Myth and legend are at the beating heart of a deep human need; the storyteller by the fire an essential part of any culture.

The Arthurian legends linger in Britain’s mists like memories rising from the land. They are an essence of something felt, but not articulated directly – something that is released in language only in the form of poem, symbol and tale; darting through an alchemy of words, lithe as a fox.

Susan Cooper says of the fourth in her The Dark is Rising sequence of children’s novels, so steeped in ‘the mythic history of the land’ and the legends of King Arthur:

‘….Above all, I owe ‘The Grey King’ to the power that’s been singing for centuries out of the land itself; the ancient, haunted mountains and valleys of Cymru, Wales.’

Both timeless and mutable, myths are passed on and inherited; blended, shaped and reshaped by many tellings, many hands. Time past, present and future, they address our deepest concerns about human nature and contain the elemental moods of the land, the spirit of place; who we feel we are in relationship to it, and how it shapes us…

My daughter and I stumbled upon Heather Dale’s music on the internet, and instantly felt we had found something wonderful. Many of Heather’s songs are inspired by myth and folklore, and are infused with storytelling and explorations of Arthurian legend.

In her album The Trial of Lancelot, Heather Dale crafts her telling of the tale through various voices. This song, Mordred’s Lullaby, is from the first person perspective of Morgan le Fay. Haunting and dark, it tangles its fingers in the themes of betrayal, hatred and corruption, the toxic nature of vengeance, the turning from the light – and keeps sight of the complexities inherent to the ways in which light and darkness glimmer…