The wonder of the Lost Words

In my Christmas Round up I mentioned my main present deserved a blog of its own. Having had time to reflect and enjoy reading it I now feel ready to comment on this book of wonder. I’ve only wanted to read a few pages a day so I could prolong the joy.

For Christmas Amy bought me The lost words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris. I’ve been aware of the book before its release and had held off on buying it hoping I would receive it as a present. The concept of the book is brilliant for nature lovers and as a teacher who promotes outside learning irresistible. The Oxford Junior dictionary took out 50 nature related words and replaced them with words considered more relevant. These were mainly computer related words such as, “chatroom,” and, “broadband”.

I remember the news story back in 2015 informing us of this decision. While I can understand the reason it saddens me that it is considered more use for children to know what an attachment is rather than an acorn. Many of the changes were seen as a continuation of the disintegration of childhood. Children increasingly have more solitary lives, less time outside and a disconnect form nature. All of this adds up to less resilient children and potential increases in mental health issues. While an argument could be made that the computer time still allows children to interact with people on a global scale it isn’t the same as face to face interaction. This coming from an avid blogger and twitter reader. I appreciate the use of the internet in creating new communities, but it isn’t a replacement for being outside with your friends.

The lost words takes these nature words to use as a basis for an acrostic poem. One poem for each word. Then each word has a title page of the word and then an illustration page. Presented as a beautiful A3 hardback the artwork gets the space it deserves. It feels like a quality package, but is selling at a very reasonable price for something that feels so special. I’ve been a fan of Jackie Morris’s artwork after buying, “something about a bear”. I went onto buy many more of her beautifully illustrated books. The style is perfectly matched to Robert MacFarlane’s words. MacFarlane’s nature writing has been nominated and won many accolades over the years. The partnership between the two on the lost words is a perfect blend. The poems are written as spells. These poems are wonderful fodder for the imagination.

While Alice is currently to young for understanding the poems I like the idea that in the future we use the book as a basis for a wildlife treasure hunt. A fieldguide for childhood lost. We’d attempt to find all the items from the book. Some are readily available in our garden, some would require hunting. A book to go back to again and again. It’s currently making for a perfect fireside read during the cold Winter nights.

And as if by magic a goldfinch has been summoned to my garden.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

It’s the time of the year to register for the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. The birdwatch is over one weekend. Just an hour is needed to sit and count birds in your garden. The data collected is invaluable for conservation efforts. 

https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/packrequest/
Last year saw me record a respectable 11 species, but I’m hopeful for more this year after a year of feeding the birds and making the garden more wildlife friendly. 


Folklore Thursday- squirrels

It’s been a while since I did a folklore Thursday post. Yesterday, while out for a walk with Alice and Amy, we saw several squirrels and managed a few photos. So they seem a good focus for this weeks folklore. Published a day late as I didn’t finish it for Thursday.

Following on from The Dark is rising reading group the British folklore seem most appropriate. The squirrel is connected to Queen Mab; the fairy queen. First written reference to to her was by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. Mab is presented as something of a hag bringing blistered lips to young women and sometimes interpreted as herpes.

Her chariot is an empty hazelnut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,

Queen Mab may have come from the Irish Queen Medb. Medb is often represented with a squirrel or magical birds on her shoulders. A fairly promiscuous goddess featuring within the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. Her main part in the story is setting the cattle raid of Cooley in motion. It has been suggested that her name possibly originates from mead, meaning intoxication and linking us nicely back to TDIR. Medb is also connected to the Morrigan, who opposes Medb warning the bull to felle before the cattle raid of Cooley. Again linking us back to Alan Garner’s writing, which has featured much within discussions of TDIR reading group.

Squirrels are often used for a symbol for mischief and anyone who has watched them on their bird feeders can see why. While it was a grey squirrel I photographed and it is an invasive menace to the red squirrel I can’t bring myself to dislike one of the few wild mammals I get to see on a regular basis.

The dark is rising days 7 and 8

Over days 7 and 8 of the TDIR reading group we’ve been asked two questions by Julia Bird. What are our theological thoughts and what is the significance of the bread and honey?

The church scene indicates the old ones portrayed as older than the church. The other old ones are dismissive of the Reverend’s efforts to hold back the dark. They state it’s only natural he’d try, but futile before freezing him out of the attack. Will comes across as more accepting of the church, but he is still in a position of greater knowledge of the world. The world of the old ones being of an older, greater power. While the book makes use of Christian symbolism it is clear that the light isn’t the same as following the Christian path.

The symbolism of the honey is interesting. Honey being associated with great pleasure it fits well with the light. The land of milk and honey. The light working through joyous emotions. Hawkins requests honey. This may be a throw back to his pleasure working for the light or just a familiar food source from his own time.

Within a biblical context honey has the symbolism of joy and pleasure, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel (God with us). Butter and honey shall He eat, that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good.” Isa 7:14, 15. Honey also signifying truth.

 Within Celtic traditions honey and mead, in particular, is the drink of immortality. Within Greek mythology Pythagoras ate nothing but honey giving him knowledge. To look wider, bees have a strong association with rebirth which plays a large part in the story with the seasonal cycles of Winter back into Spring. The dark rising with the winter cold.

Or it could, of course, have no symbolism beyond Susan Cooper having a love of honey.

Honey haiku

Sweet, heavenly treat

gift from benevolent gods

Bringing joy and light

Christmas Day

Now the gluttony of Christmas day is done I can sit back and reflect on the last two days. For once, Alice decided to sleep in on Christmas day. However both me and Amy were up as we no longer sleep, having had our sleep patterns ruined by a year and a half of parenthood.

Alice started with a box of in the night garden figures. As a result she lost interest in the idea of opening others for a while. She still isn’t at an age where she has a full understanding of what is happening, so present opening is a slow laborious process. But well worth while as she was over the moon with what she has been given. We’ve been storing things from charity shops, sales and second hand sites, so haven’t gone mad on how much we’ve spent. I can’t say Alice has missed out as a result. She loved her second hand in the night garden toys giving them all many kisses.

Her second present needed some assembly, but she enjoyed pushing it around the kitchen. I can now set her on moving the weeds I dig out to the compost bins.

The process, of opening presents, was so slow we had to pause for breakfast, some of it eaten out of the new wheelbarrow.

Before returning to one of the biggest presents.

Having got the idea she was able to help open Amy’s presents.

We relocated to my parents where Alice enjoyed a day of eating everything she likes: fruit, cheese straws, chocolate and flapjack. Presents were opened with the rest of the family. The nephews gave the toblerone game away to Daz of what his triangular prism shaped present would be. Alice liked my mums star decoration. Star is currently one of her favourite words.

Alice received a picnic set and doll accessories from her Aunty Em. She’s loved feeding her baby and pretending to put nappy cream on her.

We finished the last of the presents. My dad was excited for some of his favourite French mustard brought back from my sisters trip to France. My sister, brother in law and nephews departed to the other side of their family for dinner. Alice went down for a nap for the start of Christmas dinner, but only stayed asleep for the starters.

She did enjoy her beans though. No traditional dinner for her yet. After she chilled with granddad. She’s loved staring at all of his moving Christmas scenes and has been very good about not grabbing hold of them. She’s happily laid and watched parts moving around.

Boxing day we chilled at my parents for the morning, before going to my sisters for dinner.

Alice enjoyed some quiet time with her new crayons.

Aunty Em liked that they’d both gone for dungarees.

Two lovely days. My mum and sister did splendid jobs on the food front. We’ve been surrounded, as with last year, by love and affection again this year. 

Alice has been very lucky with friends and families generosity and I’m sure she will enjoy much of what she got for a good while beyond Christmas Day. We got too many wonderful things for her to mention them all, but thank you to all who have given her a fantastic day.

I haven’t talked about my main present, but I think I’ll leave that for another blog to discuss its delights. I hope everyone reading has had as lovely a Christmas season as we have had.

 

The dark is rising-day 6 Street names

In TDIR Will is protected from the witch Maggie as he walks on one of the old one’s paths. He is reminded to be aware of the names of streets. Cooper ties in protection with what has been there a long time bringing another aspect of landscape to the story. The older landscape being associated with the light. Since reading I’ve been keeping an eye on my local street names. It’s not looking hopeful for me. No street names that suggest old ways for protection. There all a bit too modern. At least if you take 200 years or so to be modern.

Alice has been excited for jumping in puddles on our town exploring, now proffering her wellies to other forms of footwear.

I’ve had a lovely Christmas day, but that will form the subject of another blog. Hope everyone else had super days.

The dark is rising-day 5 contemporaries and influence

Today’s question poised by Robert MacFarlane: 24 December: Day 5 of #TheDarkIsReadingTo which other books/writers do you think TDIR is related? Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Holdstock; also The Mabinogion, WG Hoskins, Jacquetta Hawkes…

And – where is Cooper’s influence visible in recent/contemporary (YA) writing? https://t.co/5RiAO6Izxq

The most obvious contemporary writer to Susan Cooper would be Alan Garner. Both wrote books based on Arthurian lore. Their stories were heavily based in the British landscape and folk traditions of the land. Other connections could easily be made to T.H. White and his story of Merlin compiled as the once and future king. Much like Cooper and Garner they all have a good understanding of the land and animals present in the British Isles. 

But looking at their work in isolation with regards to literature seems a mistake. The late 60s saw a folk revival in music. Much of this with a pagan nature. Bands like the incredible string band and pentangle form a backdrop to Garner’s and Cooper’s work. Many of these bands drawing on the same source material of Arthurian legend and the Mabinogion. Within movies the 70s saw many darker horror movies with similar rural backgrounds. The Wicker man being the most famous, but Robin Redbreast and Penza’s fen deserve a mention too. 

Kids TV took similar dark turns with the ITV children of the stones. A wonderfuly scary show that would never be made now. The TV adaptation of Garner’s the owl service didn’t go quite as dark, but deserves a mention.

Reading the twitter thread on this question many people are linking Cooper’s work to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. While these are based in magical worlds within modern day settings I’d say the magic comes from a more contemporary setting. The world of folk tales and legend plays a role, but there are other authors more strongly following Cooper and Garner’s work. Not that I’m critising Harry Potter. I just don’t think they have the same grounding in landscape, the myths and legends of the British Isles and nature of the Isles. Diana Wyne Jones with a smattering of Merlin through her stories seems more of a follow on. Albeit with a bit more humour. Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s spiderwick chronicles come through in similar ways. There is a background of folklore placed in the contemporary setting.

But however you look at TDIR, in terms of influence or not, it’s a very enjoyable winter read.

Tonight is Christmas Eve so our family traditions were observed. In TDIR Will and family head out carol singing. In my family we stick a candle in a potato cut in half to light the way for Father Christmas. Who knows where these traditions come from, but they must be observed each year.

Tomorrow will be full of excess so if I don’t get a chance I’ll say it now; Merry Christmas to all my blog readers. May your day be full of joy.

The dark is rising-day 4 the magic of names

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” J.K. Rowling

Today’s set question on the dark is rising: Speaking aloud (en-chanting) is vital in TDIR, as is the knowing of names. What are the powers of language in this book (from which so many people read aloud?

Within TDIR people can gain power by knowing someone’s true name. Maggie Barnes is prevented from harming Will early on through the use of her true name. The concept of names having magic is an old one in folklore. Rumpelstiltskin being one of the best known. An old tradition states that un-named children could be stolen by fairies and replaced by changeling’s. In the hobbit Bilbo avoids giving Smaug his name. More recently in the Studio Ghibli movie spirited away the character Chihiro loses her name to the witch Yubaba.

The ability to name things correctly remains important for the modern world. Conservation efforts need accurate identification of species to support them appropriately. Unfortunately the loss of knowledge like wildflower names, bird names and insects endangers these efforts.

Within my own practises mantras play a part. A sacred syllable instilled with power by uttering it out loud.  Within other faiths prayer plays a significant role as does communal recitals of readings, songs and prayers. Words undeniably have power. Within TDIR Maggie is stopped through the use of her name. The light characters avoid their names being known. The lady also avoids her true name being used when first meeting Will.

I have just reached the chapter, the book of gramayre. Robert MacFarlane having posted this as the word of the day; Gramayre being the old French for knowledge. The book being a grimoire. So it looks that words will playing a role over the next chapter.

Today ended with a bright red sunset. Knowing the old rhyme this can only bring ill for Will tomorrow.

“Words are, of course, the most powerful powerful drug used by mankind”

Rudyard Kipling

My passion for trees

A quick recommendation for some TV viewing. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Judy Dench tell us all about her trees in My passion for trees. The documentary took us through the seasons, detailing different aspects of trees. How they respond to threats, communicate, grow, and deal with the seasons. She listened inside the tree with a special microphone. Digital mapping measures the extent of trees in her garden. The historical uses of trees are looked at. The role of trees in reducing green houses gasses is examined. It made me happy that within my school garden I have planted several new trees, with the children, within our garden. One of the latest being this bare root pear tree. Hopefully come Spring it will have rooted and we’ll see blossom.

pear tree.jpg

Also a quick shout out for a tree related book on sale in kindle twelve days of kindle sale.

The hidden life of trees.

From the blurb:

Are trees social beings? How do trees live? Do they feel pain or have awareness of their surroundings?

In The Hidden Life of Trees Peter Wohlleben makes the case that the forest is a social network. He draws on groundbreaking scientific discoveries to describe how trees are like human families: tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, support them as they grow, share nutrients with those who are sick or struggling, and even warn each other of impending dangers. Wohlleben also shares his deep love of woods and forests, explaining the amazing processes of life, death and regeneration he has observed in his woodland.

A walk in the woods will never be the same again.

And another taking my fancy for pushing story telling with the young.

Into the woods.

Into The Woods is a revelation of the fundamental structure and meaning of all stories, from the man responsible for more hours of drama on British television than anyone else, John Yorke.

We all love stories. Many of us love to tell them, and even dream of making a living from it too. But what is a story? Hundreds of books about screenwriting and storytelling have been written, but none of them ask ‘Why?’ Why do we tell stories? And why do all stories function in an eerily similar way?

John Yorke has been telling stories almost his entire adult life, and the more he has done it, the more he has asked himself why? Every great thinker or writer has their theories: Aristotle, David Hare, Lajos Egri, Robert McKee, Gustav Freytag, David Mamet, Christopher Booker, Charlie Kaufman, William Goldman and Aaron Sorkin – all have offered insightful and illuminating answers. Here, John Yorke draws on these figures and more as he takes us on a historical, philosophical, scientific and psychological journey to the heart of all storytelling.

What he reveals is that there truly is a unifying shape to narrative – one that echoes the great fairytale journey into the woods, and one, like any great art, that comes from deep within. Much more than a ‘how to write’ book, Into the Woods is an exploration of this fundamental structure underneath all narrative forms, from film and television to theatre and novel-writing. With astonishing detail and wisdom, John Yorke explains to us a phenomenon that, whether it is as a simple fable, or a big-budget 3D blockbuster, most of us experience almost every day of our lives.

The dark is rising-day 3 the nature of evil

Continuing with TDIR I’ve read on through until Christmas Eve. Will has discovered something of his powers and has gained another sign from the walker.

Today from Robert MacFarlane:

“I’ve been thinking about evil in TDIR & across the sequence. In Silver on the Tree The Dark is violently racist; elsewhere it’s grimly autocratic & seeks pernicious control of the powerless. 

What is the nature of evil here? And of good?”

It would be too simple to place dark in the story as evil and light as good. While the symbolism of good and evil is used in the rider’s black horse and the white mare it has more to it than that. The dark is more obviously evil, but light will use mortals to accomplish tasks deemed necessary. The key difference being light seems to have some remorse and makes their choices with an ultimate good outcome in mind.

“It is a burden. Make no mistake about that. Any great gift or power or talent is a burden and this more than any, and you will long to be free of it. But there is nothing to be done. If you were born with the gift, then you must serve it, and nothing in this world or out of it may stand in the way of that service, because that is why you were born and that is the Law.”

The walker for example was once a servant of light, but his choices lead him to the dark. The walker was entrusted with the responsibility of looking after the book of gramayre. He fails in his duty being tempted by the dark. As a punishment he has to carry the bronze sign for 600 years in fear of both the dark and light to pass the sign to Will; the one. This side of good and evil comes through. Good people do their duty. It is often harder, sometimes more of a chore, but they do it placing other above themselves.

“He will have a sweet picture of the Dark to attract him, as men so often do, and beside it he will set all the demands of the Light, which are heavy and always will be.”

Dark is portrayed as ruthless, without mercy. On first meeting Will, the rider has no hesitation in trying to kill him even though at that stage he poises no threat. The dark works through fear and temptation.

“They love to twist good emotion to ill”. Merriman The dark is rising

The book has an element of postwar fears. The autocratic nature of the dark showing fears of the time. There are times there is symbolism of the nuclear age. The Cold War hanging over peoples heads seems to have shaped some of the more evil elements of the dark and light.

It’s tempting to make links to other fantasy works such as The Lord of the Rings and more modern works such as Harry Potter and Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights books. Evil, again, is shown as autocratic, fascistic in nature. Tolkien’s thoughts on evil are quite an interesting read. The LOTR is often placed within the context of WWII forgetting much of it was conceived before the war. However all of these have similar views on evil to TDIR. The choices we make are where evil is done.

“Evil labours with vast power and perpetual success, but in vain, preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.” Tolkein

Winter Solstice

Winter solstice has been and gone. The days will begin to get lighter. I captured two photos of the night sky. One an odd mix of flash and rain and the second showing the lovely crisp colour of the night sky.