The advent of winter is here, and like so many others, I’m turning inward. To lick wounds. To tend to the things I can manage. To imagine a time when my heart will fill up again.
When ice on the river is shot with blue
Do not leave your empty heart
on the table overnight.
Pour in sawdust, stove ash, cobwebs, dirt –
anything that helps you sleep quietly.
When an unknown force binds imagination
and your hope thrashes wings against a cage:
wait. Break kindling against your knee.
Tend to the things you can manage.
After midnight, whisper yourself outside;
heave the pump until water flows.
Before you can mourn the passing clouds
you’ve captured the moon in a bucket.
Unburden yourself to the crows inside
so they roost easy among your ribs.
Their dreams of persimmons and the wind
will heal you if you let them.
When the old wolf shadow nips your cheek,
cover your face with the feathered mask.
Shriek down your own wasting sickness
using lung, wing, heel, fire and fist.
Sort your seeds while the earth is thawing;
listen for those who lie dormant below.
Clear last year’s bracken from around your heart.
Chop and carry until the sweet sap flows.
Go quickly under the next new moon;
steal an ember from the blacksmith’s forge.
Walk home along the fenceline, and don’t forget:
any light will serve, even if it’s not your own.
Pull on your boots and mend the plow;
let nettle fronds absorb your tears.
Carry wax-filled hives from the hay-strewn barn
to the crumpled meadow where the dead fawn lies.
At sunrise, do not speak, just work;
feed your hope on wild ginger and thorns.
Every seed knows its moment, after all –
lord knows you must know yours.
Make a wheel from willow boughs
to link your thoughts to earth and air.
Chase the wheel across the land;
kneel where it falls and dig, dig.
Plant your silence, your pains, your plans
along with purslane, yarrow and sage.
Whistle to the wind to tell the rain
to come along and drench your treasure.
Now fill yourself with mugwort and wine.
Tend to the fire; mend your shirts.
feed the song sparrows, the towhees, even the jays,
and beckon your heart back home.
My heart is broken. 2016 has been a long year of heartbreaks, and this is the one that has brought me to my knees. I am not connected in an obvious way to the Ghost Ship community – or to any other of the many art/live/work warehouses spaces here in Oakland. Like so many others, I grieve for the lost lives, the terror of that night, for the families and loved ones of those lost to the fire. I am learning about those who perished one by one, mostly through social media, when friends and acquaintances share their grief, and share insights into the lives and passions of those now gone. I may be a few degrees from those most directly affected, but make no mistake: my heart has a shape like Ghost Ship. A labyrinthine cabinet of wonders. A place where the creative process reigns supreme, no matter how little society at large values that. A place where exorbitant costs of living, and the resulting culture of stress disappear for a time, and new art and music emerge. Where celebrations bring joy not only among people, but also in honor of creative expression and the importance of art in what makes us human (and what makes our culture healthy). I can’t speak to many layers and dimensions of the Ghost Ship family, but I can say this loss strikes deep into me. I write novels and I do that mostly in isolation. Even though I live and work in a more conventional setting than the Ghost Ship community did, the sacrifices made in my family so that I can pursue my work are real, and that’s something I struggle with all the time. We sacrifice and make compromises so we can survive with our passions intact. I am sorry for those who might judge the drive to create, to contribute to the river of stories, art, music that have enriched human civilization since pretty much its beginning, as frivolous or “selfish.” That leads to a marginalization of essential cultural knowledge and traditions. Here in Oakland, it’s so easy to see the way neighborhoods are drained of character, artistic expression, and vitality. Flipping houses is a big business. Most houses in my neighborhood are sold without even being publically listed. For all cash to flippers. Warehouses turn into condos. We all know the story. All I know is that sometimes it’s hard to keep creating, to keep going, and this is one of those times. No one wants to live in a society without artists, right? I hope I’m right.
Since 2010, I’ve been writing a novel that has revealed itself over the years to be an uncanny love letter to the far north. In 2013, I was invited to participate in an expeditionary residency to Svalbard – which is where my novel takes place. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my blog and to many in person, this trip via sailing ship up the west coast of Spitsbergen (the Svalbard archipelago’s largest island), was a life-changing event in many ways. Foremost was the chance to reconcile the imaginative Svalbard of my novel with the real place, and to glean new threads of the story to incorporate into the framework I’d already created. To engage in this process on board a ship full of equally awestruck artists and makers and an intrepid crew of sailors and wilderness guides, gave me an unprecedented chance to leap forward in my vision and craft.
Once I returned home to my normal life, I had trouble processing all I’d seen and felt. Everything in Svalbard had been over the top, from the ship and camaraderie to the ice/tundra/crags/continuous sunlight equation of Svalbard; an inevitable funk arose upon reentry to my life at home. I have been writing novels since I was twenty years old, so I have no problem working in isolation for long periods, but The Arctic Circle residency was an experience that pulled a group of artists together in a unique way, in a rugged and remote place, and that bond had so much meaning for me that for the first time in my artistic life I felt…lonely.
One evening shortly after my return, I went on The Arctic Circle’s website and looked through the names of program alumni. Clicking through the artists’ websites, I really got a sense of the body of work that is emerging from the residency – arctic landscapes and connections with climate change, the poetics of glaciers, and lone figures standing sentinel in the backgrounds of paintings and drawings – invocations of our wilderness guides during the trip, who watched for polar bears while we doodled and journaled on shore. I was just starting to feel the camaraderie again when I clicked on Cedra Wood’s name and found a video of her exquisite arctic journal (Svalbard begins at 04:40)
Even though I couldn’t actually read the writing, Cedra’s eloquent expressions of her Arctic Circle residency, paired with the soothing cadence of the page-turning itself (maybe it’s a writer thing) were a balm for the loneliness I felt post-arctic, and I began following her work via social media. I soon discovered that beyond the arctic connection, Cedra’s work inspired me on many levels. It is concerned with wild nature within and without, and her interest includes species commonly referred to as ‘invasive’ and she puts them in close relationship with humankind. Her work is vividly mythological and timeless, and leaves room for the viewer to distill different meanings. And perhaps the element that is most provocative and inspiring to me personally: many of her works are concerned with the creative process itself. She sews garments to be worn by models in her paintings; she uses video for performance art that also serves as painting fodder; her journals are cohesive artworks that express a creative journey. Above all, Cedra embodies artistic integrity and focus – two qualities I admire and to which I aspire.
Last month, I took the train from Emeryville, CA to Reno, NV to visit Cedra and her partner, comics artist/painter Christopher Baldwin, and to see Cedra’s solo exhibit, A Residency on Earth, at the Nevada Museum of Art where she is a fellow at the Center for Art and the Environment. Each of the gallery walls of her exhibit show work from places Cedra has traveled: Australia, Svalbard, and the American Southwest. Cedra gave an artist’s talk while I was there, and graciously gave me permission to reprint some of what she discussed. Excerpts from Cedra’s notes are italicized.
My parents are not storytellers, but once they told me about the invention of my name. In their courtship, they were riding my dad’s motorcycle, brainstorming the names of their potential future children (as one does). My dad being a forest ranger at the time and very interested in trees, his surname being Wood, and both of them evidently feeling whimsical, they settled on the name of their firstborn girl child as a pun: Cedra (Cedar) Wood. (My dad joked, “It could have been worse. we almost named you Sandal.”) I loved this story because this conceiving of my name (1) links me with the natural world. (2) The very idea of me was born in motion, going down the highway. And (3) it’s playful. I can’t think of three characteristics that I’d rather embody.
The series below was created in southern Utah, where Cedra considered the fleeting yet extreme ecosystem of ephemeral pools. These pools are naturally occurring sandstone basins that collect rainwater and windblown sediments and organisms. Cedra focused her process on one such organism, the tadpole shrimp (!). In an attempt to emulate the shrimp’s lifestyle and make art along the way, Cedra buried herself in the dry pool, leaving only her carapace and caudal rami exposed.
I find that the right odd moments,–juxtaposed–complete and compliment and complicate each other, begin to harmonize into a composition, like a bunch of dissonant sounds suddenly resolving into a chord.
Cedra’s painting is on the left in the photo above, and the three photographs on the right were taken by the artist Lauren Greenwald.
Transplants, 2014. For this work, Cedra made two costumes out of burlap, linen, cotton, yucca fiber, cottonwood fluff, juniper berries, velvet grass, sunflower leaves, and leafy spurge. You can see from the images behind the costume that models wore the clothing in sketches for eventual paintings. The costumes were made in Ucross, Wyoming, and the landscape that appears in the backdrop of the draft drawing is Mount Edith Cavell, in Jasper NP (Alberta).
The ranch [at Ucross] supports efforts that are agricultural and economical, narrative and aesthetic, observational and analytical; but one seemingly central element was the abundant plant life…fodder for conversation as well as cattle.With this in mind, I referenced clothing patterns from the late 1800s to create homesteading-era costumes, covering the garments with hand-gathered plant materials.
These pants are made out of sunflower leaves!
Not long after I got my MFA, I went with a small band of Land Arts alumni to Australia. I was a sort of bashful ambassador in an exchange of ideas with the field studies program at the Australian National University. I had never been out of the country before.
As before, found myself in completely alien surroundings. To find my bearings, I found myself thinking of the field expeditions as a game. A game that there are hundreds of ways to win…all you have to do is learn something…and the only way to lose is to have a really, irredeemably bad time.
The trick was to land in the middle of things and not to panic. I gave myself permission not to try to leap to solutions or goals or conclusions, or worry whether I could immediately produce a work of genius–but to trust that over time, the things that stood out would prove their significance later. The idea of invasive species was something that kept coming up over and over in AU—that some introduced plant or bird or animal would thrive at the expense of biodiversity by outcompeting or exterminating its fellow species. Even dingos weren’t free from this controversy, despite having been there for several thousand years.
These are prickly paddy melons [photo below, on right], which were growing in abundance near Calperum Research Station in South Australia. As further articulated, the objective of the fieldwork game is to absorb an experience of a place fully by any means available to me, and later articulate the significance of that experience. So my first move was to blindly follow impulses toward things I wanted to understand better. Like what it meant to feel overwhelmed or oppressed by an excess of something. Or, the flip side of that coin, what it could mean to have a really personal, maybe significant, interaction with a bounty of something that has value on its own merits.
Once, when I was a kid helping my mom clear the garden, I asked my mom what the difference between a flower and a weed was. She said, ‘a weed is a flower that grows where it’s not wanted.’ The large and global story of invasiveness, migration, and the subjectiveness of being wanted or unwanted, hit home for me personally too in Australia, as I was in a strange place, an invader whose amplified social anxieties led me to place myself firmly in the invasive category.
My immediate goal was just to keep track of everything that surprised me. Seek out the tensions. Keep an eye out for symbols. Listen to the themes that emerge in conversation.
During her residency onboard the tall ship Antigua, Cedra Wood and the artist Christy Georg braided Cedra’s hair into the rigging. Another example of what could be called performance art that later became fodder for a breathtaking painting (not done justice in the photo below).
[While onboard] I had decided I wanted to make myself a part of the ship. It was quickly evident how much we depended on the ship for survival (food, warmth, companionship, etc). Wanting to be as useful to it as it was to me. Fruitless of course. I just finished—last night, truly—the painting that’s the culmination of this performance.
This photo shows the painting being hung up for the exhibit. I had the good fortune to be hanging around with Cedra while she finished it the night before in her small hotel room in Reno.
As I hone in on finishing my novel-in-progress, Cedra’s work has provided a deep level not only of inspiration, but also insight into another artist’s process, interests, and vision.
Oh, and while I was in Nevada, Cedra and Christopher took me to Pyramid Lake at sunset. Sadly, we didn’t see any Cui uis, but the land- and lake-scape were sublime.
What a pleasure to be included in Megan Harlan‘s lovely interview series, Farsickness Journal. In it, she collects travel stories and the web of creative threads inspired by place. Also, what a delight to have short pieces published while I’m deeply immersed in the process of novel writing. My interview is here.
Recently, I read a large number of online lists of favorite books. In general I found these lists inspiring. Sometimes, they frustrated me, i.e. will I ever read W.G. Sebald? Will I ever be in the in-group? I considered posting a list of my own but I didn’t quite get around to it, and like most other online flurries, the lists soon disappeared. But something stuck in the back of my mind, and eventually I realized what it was.
The truth is, if I heeded the hilarious instruction of one pass-it-on type posting to “not think too much before responding,” my favorite books were obvious. But in this age of cultivated online personae, how could I broadcast to the world that my all-time favorite books were published by Time Life, and I read them when I was 12?
Well, Vincent Price’s 1985 TV commercial for the books helps with that a bit.
I received the first one from my parents: Fairies and Elves. Soon to follow were Legends of Valor, Wizards and Witches, Ghosts, Magical Beasts, and Water Spirits. I don’t know who Time Life’s editors and consultants were for the Enchanted World series, but the stories and artwork they picked are classic, gorgeous, and not at all rated PG. Ghosts is terrifying, and that made it the best one of all. I fell in love with the Pre-Raphaelite paintings of nymphs and the lady of Shalott, Japanese fairy-tale illustrations, and provocative drawings of all manner of shapeshifters, hollow-mountain dwellers, undersea horsemen, selkies, warlocks, tricksters, ethereal fairies and elemental priestesses. The stories are told as if around a campfire. In them, there is a strong sense that magic lives in the world, even if it is declining. These stories of the fantastic, eerie, mysterious, and magical seeped into me in the best possible way. Deep, and entwined with my budding ideas about the creative process and making imaginative meaning of the world.
I adored these books for years, and then, during the second half of adolescence, I drifted away from my fantasy roots. I was embarrassed that as a kid I’d read mostly Arthurian legends and trilogies of novels in which the heroines maintained telepathic links with their soul-mate spirit animals. Pretty soon I was an English major reading the 20th century literary canon (oh that horde of Johns!). That’s all fine, and Rabbit, Run is still one of my favorite books, but I had left the enchanted world behind. Then I was writing my first novel, set in Washington State’s Skagit Valley. Then 9/11 happened, then I was in graduate school. Then I found the love of my life. Then I was writing Among the Wonderful. Then I was navigating the publishing world and trying to market the book. Then my child was born.
Last August at my parents’ house, I saw those enchanted, albeit dusty, spines for the first time in a decade and a half, even though they’d been sitting in plain sight all those years. While my daughter slept, I opened up the books and again fell in love – this time with a gasp of unexpected love for my former self . I recognized the art on every page and realized that myth and folkways are threaded together with my reason for writing fiction in the first place, my connection with wild nature and my deepest aspiration as the mother of a wee one.
In an urban world that I often find confusing and troubling, there is a crucial nourishment and comfort for me in mythic stories and artwork, from the Inuit to the Scottish Highlanders. Partially for me, and partially for my daughter, I reclaimed the Enchanted World. Then, I poked around online, since I’d never heard anyone else mention the series in all those years. To my delight, I discovered there are 21 books in the series, and I have only ever read 7. New titles (well, new to me) included Night Creatures, Spells and Bindings, Seekers and Saviors, Giants and Ogres (shoot! I should have had that one while I researched Among the Wonderful), and Fall of Camelot. Even right now, at the moment I am writing this, I am giddy; I can’t wait to dive into those other enchanted worlds. How did I not know there were more?
It turns out that my good fortune didn’t end there. During that same haphazard online research session, somehow I landed on writer, artist, and editor Terri Windling’s blog, Myth and Moor. The post I read that day was Swan Maidens and Crane Wives, which exquisitely explores not only the power, lightness-with-knowing, and archetypal force of the swan, but also the complexities and difficulties of domestic life when part of your spirit is wild. As a new mother and a novelist, I could relate. Utilizing literary, artistic and musical (yes, the Decembrists’ Crane Wife is there too) sources, Terri Windling draws from the same well as the Enchanted World series to conjure a provocative portrait of these avian women, and she relates it all to the world as it is, right now. Terri Windling’s thoughtful, magical blog helped me then, and helps me now to anchor firmly in the world of myth and the fantastic that I’ve always loved, while also linking that world securely to the here-and-now of creative process.
One day, on Myth and Moor, I discovered that Terri Windling was packing up Endicott
West, the writers retreat she cofounded with Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman in the Sonoran desert near Tucson, Arizona. Through Terri’s blog posts, I commiserated with Terri, and then Ellen too, as this powerful retreat for mythic artists folded up shop. But when they announced an online auction of books from the Endicott West library, I felt the enchanted world rush in. In recent months, I’d been challenged and enlivened by elements of the fantastic creeping into my novel-in-progress. I’d been wanting to read mythic novels and stories for inspiration and lessons on craft. Here was my chance! In a blur I bid on and then won two boxes of “mystery fiction” to be chosen by Terri. The auction proceeds were to help pay for shipping costs for Terri to bring part of the library back to Devon, England, where she lives.
After I found the boxes on my doorstep, I left them unopened for many hours, just so I could savor my exquisite excitement. But of course I couldn’t wait for long. And so it is that one enchanted world leads to another and another, and it just may be that magic is not declining after all. In me it grows.
Llisten to the patterns of tree rings and birds on a wire – translated to music.
From Livescience.com: Artist Bartholomäus Traubeck has custom-built a record player that is able to “play” cross-sectional slices of tree trunks. The result is his artpiece “Years,” an audio recording of tree rings being read by a computer and turned into music, much like a record player’s needle reads the grooves on an LP. The custom record player takes in data using a PlayStation Eye Camera and a stepper motor attached to its control arm, and relays the data to a computer. A program called Ableton Live then uses it to generate an eerie piano track.
And here’s what Jarbas Agnelli says about his musical work, Birds on the Wire:
“Reading a newspaper, I saw a picture of birds on the electric wires. I cut out the photo and decided to make a song, using the exact location of the birds as notes (no Photoshop edit). I knew it wasn’t the most original idea in the universe. I was just curious to hear what melody the birds were creating.”