Yogurt and grainola is working for me for breakfast.
Whenever I travel (as I've done quite a bit this autumn), whether within England or further afield, it serves to remind me how essentially American I am, despite having dug my transplanted roots deep into the Devon soil. And although I grew up in the North-East, near New York, I also spent many years in the desert South-West, which seems to have permanently altered my soul. Thus I love the National Geographic's big exhibition, Photographs of the American West: 125 years of iconic photography through the lenses of 75 different photographers.
I've been reading my way through Rebecca Solnit's backlist lately, and I was struck by this passage from Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, which says what I've so often wanted to say when conversation turns to the country of my birth:
"A year ago," she writes, "I was at a dinner in Amsterdam when the question came up of whether each of us loved his or her country. The German shuddered, the Dutch were equivocal, the Brit said he was 'comfortable' with Britain, the expatriate American said no. And I said yes. Driving now across the arid lands, the red lands, I wondered what it was I loved. The places, the sagebrush basins, the rivers digging themselves deep canyons through arid lands, the incomparable cloud formations of summer monsoons, the way the underside of clouds turns the same blue as the underside of a great blue heron's wings when the storm is about to break.
"Beyond that, for anything you can say about the United States, you can also say the opposite: we're rootless except we're also the Hopi, who haven't moved in several centuries; we're violent except we're also the Franciscans nonviolently resisting nucelar weapons out here; we're consumers except the West is studded with visionary environmentalists...and the landscape of the West seems like the stage on which such dramas are played out, a space without boundaries, in which anything can be realized, a moral ground, out here where your shadow can stretch hundreds of feet just before sunset, where you loom large, and lonely.”
That's it exactly. And it's why I'll always miss the Arizona desert, despite the fact that Dartmoor is now truly home.
The idea of "home," of losing it, finding it, creating it, is a theme that often crops up in my work...not a surprising obsession, I suppose, for someone who grew up tossed between various relatives, with occasional stints in foster care. As the great Western writer Wallace Stegner once noted, in his novel Angle of Respose: "Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend." (And yet, paradoxically, despite those fraught beginnings, I find myself blessed by strong family ties today.)
In Storming the Gates of Paradise, Rebecca Solnit writes: "The desire to go home, that is, a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be the constellation-maker and the center of the world, that center called love. To awaken from sleep, to rest from awakening, to tame the animal, to let the soul go wild, to shelter in darkness and blaze with light, to cease to speak and be perfectly understood.”
Let's end today with a passage from Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by the late English naturalist Roger Deakin. I've quoted this before, but Deakin's words seem particularly relevant to the topic at hand:
"All of us," he wrote, "carry about in our heads places and landscapes we shall never forget because we have experienced such intensity of life there: places where, like the child that 'feels its life in every limb' in Wordsworth's poem 'We are seven,' our eyes have opened wider, and all our senses have somehow heightened. By way of returning the compliment, we accord these places that have given us such joy a special place in our memories and imaginations. They live on in us, wherever we may be, however far from them."
Information on the photographs can be found in the picture captions, viewed by running your cursor over each photo. Please visit the Photographs of the American West website for more information on the exhibition.
When is one officially "old," I wonder? To me, being "old" seems to come and go, present one day and not the next. There were times as a child when I felt as old as the hills -- and there are times now when I feel like the downiest of fledgling chicks, still flapping my wings, and still just beginning.
Of the two photographs below, the first was taken when I was in Second Grade, in Manville, New Jersey; the second was snapped by my husband in our Devon garden this autumn. The Atlantic ocean, and nearly a half-century of time, stretches between the two. What surprises me is not how much I've changed during those years, but all the ways that I haven't.
"The great secret that all old people share," wrote Doris Lessing, "is that you really don't change in seventy or eighty years. Your body changes, but you don’t change at all. And that, of course, causes great confusion."
An old neighbor of mine, sharp and vigorous well into her nineties, would have disagreed with this, however. She felt that changing as you age is exactly the point. "The thing about growing older, dear," she once told me, "is that you don't ever stop being the age you were, you just add each new age to it. So I never envy the young, because I'm still twenty years old myself, and thirty, and forty, and so on. By the time you're my age, you have so many selves to be, and draw upon, and enjoy, that I can only feel compassion for young people, who still have so very few."
Sometimes I'm actually glad that health traumas caused me to doubt, at times, if I'd live to grow old -- for aging to me is precious and magical, and I'm grateful for it. Thus I love these words from rock-and-roller Pat Benatar's memoir (Between a Heart and a Rock Place):
"I've enjoyed every age I've been," she says, "and each has had its own individual merit. Every laugh line, every scar, is a badge I wear to show I've been present, the inner rings of my personal tree trunk that I display proudly for all to see. Nowadays, I don't want a 'perfect' face and body; I want to wear the life I've lived.”
Time writes across the body in a language that we must all come to know as we grow and age: the language of experience, loss, revelation, endurance, and mortality. Today, I'm simply thankful for the roads, dark and bright, that brought me to the miraculous present; as well as for the unknown roads, dark and bright, that still lie ahead of me. I'm another year older. I'm travelling a little slower. I carry multitudes inside. But I'm here, well-ringed like the oak trees of Nattadon Hill. And I am only just beginning.
Today, mythic music from the moors and shores of Devon...
Above: "Lady of the Sea" by Seth Lakeman, who lives across the moor near Tavistock, and writes songs based on the history and legends of Devon and Cornwall. This is an older song (from his third album, Freedom Fields, 2006), which is one of my favorites.
Above: "Blackbird," a beautiful song written by Andy Letcher for his "darkly crafted folk" band, Telling the Bees. The band was based in Oxfordshire for many years, but Andy now lives in Chagford. I highly recommend their two albums (Untie the Wind and An English Arcanum), both with cover art by Rima Staines. A third album is in production.
Below: "The Happy Bus" by Mad Dog Mcrea, a wonderfully energetic (and, yes, mad) folk/gypsy/bluegrass band from Plymouth, a city on Devon's south coast. They've releasted three albums so far: Away with the Fairies, Sophisticated Hat Manouvres, and The Whirling Dervish.
Above: Katy Marchant's excellent medieval music group Daughters of Elvin, based in nearby South Zeal, performing for The Bagpie Society last year. Follow this link to hear more of their gorgeous music, from the albums Galdrbok and The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Below, a rougher recording but a delightful song: "The Franklin Nights" by The Kestor String Band, a "purple moorgrass" band from Chagford & Moretonhampstead, performing at Moreton Music Day this past summer. Here's what they say about the piece: "Our banjo player wrote the lyrics to this one based on an old Devonshire legend (with a modern twist) and we based the tune on Steve Gillette’s wonderful instrumental version of an even older song, the Erlking. The introductory tune is Irish: the Maids of Mitchelstown, and the devilish finale is the Glasgow Reel, sometimes known as Tam Lin." The Kestor String Band is at work on their first album.
And last, just to bring it all full circle...
"Cruel River" by the long-running Devon folk band Show of Hands (Steve Knightly, Phil Beer, & Miranda Sykes), joined by Seth Lakeman on hammered dulcimer. Steve and Phil explain the history of the song (inspired by the folklore of Dartmoor's River Dart), recorded for their 13th studio album Wake the Union.