Wolf Moon

I missed the superbloodwolfmoon thing this week: cloud hid it in Oxford, although lots of amazing pictures emerged around the place. I tried, in compensation, to write a blog post linking back to my earlier explorations of Wolves and Red Riding Hood (my “Jack Zipes schitck” as someone described it) and the stuff I mull over a lot around outdoors and storytelling and wolves, and maybe (although this is where I stumbled and tripped) on the Black Dog of depression, nipping my heels nearly all this Christmas.

However, the death of Mary Oliver prompted me to buy a collection of her poems and comment on them. Social Media had all sorts going on – as is the way, some friendly and some not-so-friendly – but with today’s cold weather in England, I thought I would cite one of her bleaker pieces as apt for the weather and the moon:

Wolf Moon

Now in the season
of hungry mice,
cold rabbits
lean owls
hunkering with their lamp-eyes
in the leafless lanes
in the needled dark;
now is the season
when the kittle fox
comes to town
in the blue valley
or early morning;
now is the season
of iron rivers,
bloody crossings,
flaring winds,
birds frozen
in their tent of weeds,
their music spent
and blown like smoke
to the blue of the sky;
now is the season
of the hunter Death;
with his belt of knives,
his black snowshoes,
he means to cleanse
the earth of fat;
his gray shadows
are out and running – under
the moon, the pines,
down snow-filled trails they carry
the red whips of their music,
their footfalls quick as hammers,
from cabin to cabin,
from bed to bed,
from dreamer to dreamer.

Superb, and as bleak as the landscape and weather she is writing about.  It’s over ten years since I began to explore children’s literature as means to look at the outdoors, and literature continues to be a lens I use to look at how we react to landscape. My brother, I note (as I type), is in the snow at the Cat and Fiddle – close to Thursbitch in the snow. I think of Jack Turner, and the car off the road we saw in the fog by there:  worlds collide.

In Wolf Moon Oliver picks up the themes of Death and cold –  “his belt of knives,” “his gray shadows” –  in an almost Grendel (ettin or þurs)-like way; this is a Big Thing to terrify, with the wolves’ howling as the “red whips of their music” disturb the night. Because it is (perhaps) a simple point to make, but I feel it needs making: Mary Oliver is a good poet, not always writing comfortable nature poetry about childhood or inspirational lines about

I was thinking
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray.

Five A.M. in the Pinewoods

and her sharp eye and the writing that comes from it is able to look at the aspects of nature that humanity finds inimical – and has, in some ways dedicated a lot of its evolutionary history to conquering.  She is able to write about the “roaring flamboyance” of the sea and the “hallowed lime” of owl pellets: the memento mori we can gain outdoors  that I mentioned in my earlier post.

The response of literature to the winter is itself interesting, and writers such as J R R Tolkien (think Caradhras the cruel) and Kenneth Grahame give vivid pictures of its dangers: although snow in The Wind in the Willows is softening, almost redemptive, the creepiness of Mole’s wintry experiences in the Wild Wood are very expressive “Then the faces began…Then the whistling began…Then the pattering began.” The winter wood; the dark wood; img_1355the wild wood as evening closes in. More modern writers have given us some great examples of snowy landscapes and confronting death: Philip Pullman works the theme extremely well in Northern Lights; Michelle Paver is terrifying in her adult book Dark Matter but also richly descrtiptive as Torak  battles the limits of human (and animal) endurance in the snow, and (again for adults – I wonder if this is significant) Garner deals with death and loss in the ice in Boneland, a death that stalks both strands of the book in different ways.

It seems to me that the immediate reaction is to see “outdoors” as somewhere positive, just in the same way as Mary Oliver is seen as uplifting – but we take on these broad judgments without thinking at our peril: literature does well to remind us that the outdoors is not always friendly, as sudden blizzards by Cat’s Tor can show.

Hope you’re OK, Mark.

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