Monday 18 April 2011

A Wayfarer's Cabinet of Curiosities

THESE ARE THE BLOSSOMS of the Wayfaring Tree, a shrub common along the lanes of Southern England, which could be confused with Elder, except that it flowers earlier and bears a scent not nearly as sweet. Its leaves can be used to make a black hair dye, and its name was told to us on a recent happy wayfaring to visit our dear friends Andy (writer, professor, bagpiper, musician extraordinaire) and Nomi (rope-swinging aerialist, MA student in Gender Studies, artist extraordinaire) in Oxford.

Goodness! What a cornucopia of enchantments they offered to us on these balmiest early April days. Artfully they whisked us through a plethora of wonders - musical and museological and memorable. On the Thursday evening we were treated to the open-mic delight of song and story that is Oxford's legendary Catweazle Club, where anybody can come and perform their art to a warm and friendly room of folk. Sitting on the floor listening to extremely good and unknown musicians playing just there is a tremendous thing. There was storytelling and poetry too, most notably by Alan Buckley. Catweazle is also the place where Andy's wonderful darkly crafted folk band Telling the Bees met some years back.

Friday saw us tripping through the old and sunny city.We walked along towpaths where narrowboats hung in the quiet greenblue world-just-outside-the-city that is the canal, festooned with new spring leaves and joyous birdsong.

(above photograph by Nomi)

There were even boats within boats.

We were taken through eminent doors,

down interesting lanes,

past ancient tomes,

under green men;

we walked in quadrangles

(above photograph by Nomi)

and stepped into museums...
And oh! The cabinets of curiosities that awaited!
The Oxford Museum of the History of Science houses scientific instruments of golden and intricate beauty, painstaking craftsmanship and alchemical intrigue...

Medieval Islamic astrolabes and orrerys and compasses and Chinese incense clocks and planetary spheres

(please click to look in detail)

and tables for communicating with angels

and satirical snuffboxes

and paintings of old alchemists

and Chinese Feng Shui compasses

And then, to stir our curiosity-cauldrons even deeper we stepped into the dimly lit Aladdin's cave of the Pitt Rivers Museum. I really cannot believe that I've never been to this wondrous place before, but I shall most definitely have to return, with a bagful of time and sketch books.

Its crowded display cases of objects apparently pillaged from all four corners of the world at the end of the 19th Century are themselves crowded in the main museum court, forming a mazelike network of passages between them, where at every turn you are stopped in your tracks by wildly astounding and often horrific anthropological artefacts.

The arrangement of the objects within the cases appealed to my cave-hoarder nature: things were crammed together in cabinets of curiosities arranged by theme rather than by any cultural identity; but I liked this, and spent ages peering through the glass and reading the hand written labels which were sometimes obscured by another treasure placed on top. There were drawers too beneath the cases which could be opened and explored.
I took many many photographs, though mostly they were taken without flash in the museum half-light, so I've ended up with yellowed and blurred images which suggest some sort of dark magic hallucinatory reverie, though actually this conjures the experience very well.
To avoid long strings of photos, I've bundled them together by theme, just like the Pitt Rivers' display cases themselves. They'll be too small to see detail unless you click to enlarge them, which I heartily and gruesomely encourage you to do!...

There were cases and cases of amulets and charms, magics from North, South, East & West, beads and bones and divinations...

There were masks to frighten and delight, beautifully and powerfully made.

These below are wooden carved and painted Japanese Noh masks.

And from masks to actual heads, we came abruptly to the cabinet rushed to by children visitors on arrival at the museum: The Shrunken Heads! These shrunken heads or tsantsas form part of the "treatment of dead enemies" display and come from tribes of the Upper Amazon region of South America. A shrunken head was made by removing the skull and brain and boiling the skin and then shaping the features with hot pebbles, sewing up the mouth and eyes with thread and blackening the skin with vegetable dyes before stringing the head on a cord to wear around the neck. The making of tsantsas was part of a ritual which pacified one of the dead enemy's three souls which resided in the head. This was believed to form a post mortem kinship between the enemy and the killer's tribe.
The dead enemies cabinet housed some gruesome and disturbing exhibits, the shrunken heads are in the top right and bottom left of the image below.

There were cabinets full of gods,

beautiful Buddhas crouching between cases

and plump Syrian bronze birds.

But the cabinet which drew me to linger longest was the collection of folk magic artefacts. Such strange and wonderful curses and cures: hag stones, mandrake roots carved into men, moles' feet (to ease toothache), a bottle said to contain a witch, curious cloth hearts, stuck with pins (for witchcraft purposes) and an object said to be a toad, stuck with thorns (for witchcraft purposes)... oh I was captured!

(please do click to enlarge and read the wonderful labels)

The dark materials we found in these museums put us strongly in mind of Philip Pullman's Alethiometers and trepanned heads, and I am sure he found inspiration there too. Indeed, we've been inspired since to revisit his marvellous Oxford again by way of the unabridged author-read audiobook whilst we work.


And then, as if that was not illumination enough, evening took us down past Port Meadow, a tranquil water meadow which lies just minutes from Andy and Nomi's home. By day it was green and blue and calm, edged by grazing horses and blossomed branches and dipped in by herons.

By night, it had turned amber under the setting sun as the last duck floated home.

And on that orange and mauve evening we walked by the water to find the cluster of trees beyond where we would gather with friends that night. And there Nomi hung lanterns and bunting whilst firewood was collected and people crept in.

Sometimes occasions just collect goodness to them, and the minutes settle themselves into the fire like sticks, tessellating into the perfection of the night, and you recognise that clear familiar joy under the stars of being outside by a fire with the edge-folk you love so.
It was a beautiful gathering, and we were blessed with the most exquisite music you could wish for. Sharing the fire with such accomplished musicians makes for quite a stirring experience, and I am happy to share a little of that magic here for you:

The firelit musicians' faces are those of three quarters of Telling the Bees, and all three members of Brythonic folk-dance band Wod - you can hear English bagpipes, fiddle, guitar, flute, and Anglo concertina. While they played the sparks wrote fiery hieroglyphs on the windless night, we held hands over the curled dog between us, and we smiled.


Our journey home was broken by an lovely pause at Cadbury Iron age hill fort in Somerset, which is reached by an ancient track carved by centuries of feet into the hillside. On top we sat with a thermos and snack looking out over the green Somerset levels until dusk and the rest of the road to Dartmoor urged us on.

Dartmoor welcomed us back with blackthorn blossoms of delicate and exquisite beauty.

And Macha treads once again on her carpets of Celandine and Bluebell-to-bloom, looking for things that smell delicious under the trees.

We are in the eye of a happy Spring whirlwind at the moment though. There are fairs, which you are all cordially invited to, whether you are near by or far off. First, on Friday 22nd April, there's a Spring Artisan Fayre in Chagford (<- flyer over there to the left) at which I'll be selling prints and my Tom will be selling his incredible handmade leather masks which I've seen emerging over these past weeks. They'll be available online soon too, but this is a small local unveiling of sorts, and I secretly think he'll sell out!

In May we're off to the always brilliant Weird & Wonderful Wood fair in Suffolk on May 14th & 15th, and there'll be more as the year rolls on. Do come along and say hello if you're about. If you're not, please come by my online stall and come buy! There are a few originals for sale in the shop just now too, some of them professionally framed. All this roll-upping is an attempt to boost the coffers because of an exciting hillock on our happy road... we're moving house!

This little cottage has been sweet and just the thing, but two of us and a hound and an inordinate number of elbows seem to be poking out of its seams. We long for a garden and fields to step out into, for a bath, and vitally - a room that isn't also the living room to work in. And this is just what we've found! An ancient thatched cottage on a Hill of Trees, with room to grow vegetables and to dream green expansive dreams.

I shall tell more of this exciting new chapter soon, but for now, I'm away to contemplate the bedroomful of cardboard boxes and just what vegetables to plant and other such Spring busies. It's all rather wonderful, actually!