Nature as Muse: Creepy and Crawly

An interesting thing about nature is that its humbler critters are every bit as awesome as high profile creatures such as wolves or cats. Watch things up close and the web of interconnection becomes enormous and beautifully complex. For this reason, I am captivated by the creepy crawly side of life. I would not kill a snake or knock down a hornet’s nest. I warn the frogs in the pond to avoid the cats if they know what’s good for them. I don’t mind the big spider in the kitchen window; she looks after things. And the earthworms in my compost pile are magnificent.

As all these things have their place in the woods, they also creep into my stories as actual creatures, similes or metaphors. I enjoy painting them, too. In this post we’ll visit the wise frog, conscientious spider, sneaky snake, elegant fish and crafty raven.

Frog

‘Tis not where water is a frog will be, but where a frog is water will be. ~ Traditional

Frog Medicine, by F.T. McKinstryFrogs are a staple of fairy tales. Witches tend to traffic with them; a handy, unattractive shape for a handsome prince or worse, an ingredient in a simmering cauldron. Of themselves, frogs have an otherworldly air, dwelling on the borders of earth and water, calling for rain.

Far be it for me to create a witch and not mention a frog. The following verse is uttered by a girl in trouble, and it summons a very special frog (hint: it’s not a prince).

These things three, your garden needs
To make the dark and light the same.
Slis, a frog,
Gea, the spring and
Retch, the oldest wizard’s name. – “The Trouble with Tansy,” Wizards, Woods and Gods

Spider

“If anyone wanted ter find out some stuff, all they’d have ter do would be ter follow the spiders. That’d lead ‘em right! That’s all I’m sayin’.” ~ J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Spider Web, by F.T. McKinstryI have a great deal of respect for spiders. They are good at what they do and they are elegant about it. A common human phobia is named after them as a result. It’s a primordial thing. I wouldn’t harm a spider out of hand, but if one got on me I would scream like the girl I am and not be ashamed.

A well-placed spider will demand one’s immediate attention. Lorth of Ostarin, a protagonist in The Chronicles of Ealiron, bears a scar from a spider bite that nearly killed him. Being an assassin, he appreciates hunters and creatures of the dark side. Perhaps this is why a wisewoman dragged him out of the swamp and saved his life.

He had not known the face of his own death before that, though he knew death in every part of his nature, being the hand that so often dealt it. Now, the spider bite lived in his body as a presence just below the surface of thought. It sensed the nature of events around him, and intensified when anything came along to which he needed to attend.The Hunter’s Rede

Snake

I’m a tiger when I want love, but I’m a snake if we disagree. ~ Jethro Tull

Ribbon Snake, by F.T. McKinstryI once kept a ribbon snake named Kali. I knew she was female because she gave birth shortly after I acquired her. Extraordinary creature; smooth as silk, silent, patient, and breathtakingly fast when she wanted to be. She ate live goldfish.

In myths and legends the snake is an ambivalent being, portrayed as both wicked and wise. It is associated with the Otherworld, as it can vanish into hidden places and replace its skin, a symbol of rebirth. In the following excerpt, the snake provides a visual for a dark place that serves as the Otherworld for a time.

Water rose, echoing in a hollow space. Black and slick as the gullet of a snake, the jaws of the cavern enveloped a small light, a candle in the vastness of mortal despair. A soul flowed out as the sea flowed in, driven by the unnatural wrath of the storm.The Gray Isles

Fish

Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.
Why, as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones.
~ William Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Fish Kingdom, by F.T. McKinstryI’m an aquarium geek. If you ever want to discover firsthand how smart nature is, try setting up a tank with fishes and live plants and keep them thriving. In the natural world, there is a balance between them, a symbiotic relationship that depends on countless variables difficult to replicate. I don’t look at my pond in quite the same way anymore. I am in awe of it.

Fishes make lovely impressions. A sensitive, calm, and sinuous creature reflecting the qualities of water itself, a fish is hidden beneath the surface, ruling the depths. In the following excerpt, one of my characters is transforming into a creature of the sea—and becoming personally familiar with the nature of fishes.

Like a fish startled by a vibration in the water, his nocturnal senses flitted into edged focus, sidelong, obscure, and hunted.The Gray Isles

Raven

I have fled in the shape of a raven of prophetic speech. ~ Taliesin

Winter Moon Raven, by F.T. McKinstryA raven is not exactly creepy or crawly, unless you consider that birds evolved from reptiles. But like the snake or the spider, the raven gets points for being emotionally controversial. Mythology and literature abound with raven lore, associating these birds with wolves, death and trickery. Dark, mysterious and incredibly intelligent, the raven is also linked with healing and initiation, processes that tend to usher mortals into the void.

The raven holds a special place in my universe: the symbol for the highest Order of the Keepers of the Eye, a hierarchy of wizards who maintain balance in the world of Ealiron. The following excerpt involves a mysterious wizard of this order. Folks say he can turn back time, talk to apple trees and change himself into a wolf or a snowstorm.

Tansel’s home faded quickly behind as she hurried after the Raven of Muin. He had said something to Mushroom in a weird tongue that somehow convinced the cat to stay close. Tansel had a harder time keeping up. With remarkable agility for one so old, the wizard moved through the forest like something wild, graceful, and alert to the presence of predators. He took no path or common road. His presence had all the physical immediacy of a dream, reminding Tansel that he had appeared from thin air in the center of her garden.The Winged Hunter

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Nature as Muse: Warm and Furry
Nature as Muse: Root and Stone
Nature as Muse: Water and Sky

© F.T. McKinstry 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Nature as Muse: Warm and Furry

It’s been said that one doesn’t know how complex a tree is until one tries to paint it. The same can be said of writing. Some days, conveying the essence of something using words is about as easy as shapeshifting into a dragonfly. For this reason, writing stories has given me an awareness of nature that surpasses objectivity.

Nature lives in the confluence of knowledge and imagination. In a story, nature can serve as a setting, a threat, a friend, a symbol or a metaphor. Animals, trees, landscapes or seasons can convey moods, meaning or visuals to characters and situations. The natural world is an infinite palette of impressions. The wizards in my worlds attain their powers in hierarchies defined by the correspondences between trees, birds, colors and geometric symbols. My protagonists have animal friends, can speak to animals or pools using ancient languages, shapeshift into wild creatures, trees or mist, and interact with imaginary beings that are born of stars or reflect the essence of earth, sea or sky. At a deeper level, the manner of a cat or the sound of wind in a tree can describe a face, a mood or the way someone moves. It can describe a personal cataclysm.

Words and nature belong together.

This series of posts will feature some of my favorite flora and fauna, landscapes and luminaries, including illustrations and excerpts from my books and stories. We’ll start with some mammals: the ubiquitous cat, powerful wolf, sensitive hare, clever fox, and graceful fawn.

Cat

Authors like cats because they are such quiet, lovable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons. ~ Robertson Davies

Oona Creeping, by F.T. McKinstryCats run my life and I only half joke about it. With characteristic poise, they pad into my work and influence things, elegant, elusive, predatory, fey, cavalier. Aside from inspiring similes and metaphors, cats also star as characters in their own right. In the following excerpt, an assassin named Lorth talks to a feline friend. Formidable though he is, Lorth likes animals.

Smiling, he turned as a small orange cat leapt from the edge of the pier and trotted to his feet, her tail raised and curling at the tip. Lorth had learned a long time ago that energy shields did not fool animals; they saw right through them. He knelt and moved his hand over her fur as she rubbed her body against him, purring loudly. “Graemalkin,” he said, using the Aenspeak word for a cat. “I explained this, ay? Where I go, you cannot follow.”The Hunter’s Rede

Wolf

All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel. ~ Margaret Atwood

Gray Wolf, by F.T. McKinstryTo honor this noble creature, I gave it a special place by associating it with the most powerful and mysterious deity in the world of Ealiron: the Old One, the primordial, feminine force of cycles, birth and death and the Mother of all things. On those rare occasions that she appears, it is usually in the form of a wolf.

A long winter in the wilds would give one chilling respect for wolves. When a human being expresses wolf-like traits, a similar thing happens, though whether it comes from awe or fear depends on the perceiver.

Lorth spoke a word and came into focus, though he had learned from experience that his features, the ghost-pale skin of a Northman with the gold-green eyes of a wolf, were almost as unnerving to a Tarthian as the shadowy form of a cloaking spell.The Hunter’s Rede

Hare

Drumming is not the way to catch a hare. ~ English Proverb

Snowshoe Hare, by F.T. McKinstryThe hare is nocturnal, elusive and careful, as many things hunt them. It is also associated with the otherworld, the between realms, which gives it an eldritch air. The hare is a creature of the Old One. In this excerpt, a master shapeshiftress is in the form of a hare when she discerns the presence of something sinister in the forest.

In a warm burrow sheltered by blackberries and grass lay a snowshoe hare. She had returned with the dawn, her belly full of fiddleheads and clover, and slept. She awoke with a start, warm, alert, her heart thumping like a birch leaf shimmering in the breeze. Darkness moved in the forest. It flew by like the wind, unseen but felt. She twitched. Positioned in her resting place for escape in the event that a predator came upon her, she sprang out and came to rest in a soft bed of ferns.The Winged Hunter

Fox

The fox will catch you with cunning, and the wolf with courage. ~ Albanian Proverb

Red Fox, by F.T. McKinstryAside from its well-known cleverness and adaptability, the fox is another creature of the shadowy borderlands between known and unknown. A fox has an uncanny ability to blend with its surroundings like a shapeshifter. In the following excerpt, a woman calls upon this skill by changing into a fox herself.

Tree frogs sang to a new moon rising as Oona limped from the underbrush on slender paws, with blood-caked fur and thoughts a fox should not have. She slowed and crouched, panting in the shadows of a snakeroot hedge in sight of the castle. She put her snout to the air, hoping for the scent of Rosemary. But first, she had to find a way over the wall.Wizards, Woods and Gods

Fawn

Twilight, a timid, fawn, went glimmering by, and Night, the dark-blue hunter, followed fast. ~ George William Russell

Fawn, by F.T. McKinstryUnbelievably beautiful, a fawn is the essence of grace and innocence. Hard to pass up the vision of a fawn while in the mind of a man—especially a hunter—as he admires the woman he loves.

The priestess unfolded her legs, stood up and unfastened her dress. It slid over her hips and kissed the floor in a silken rustle. She stood there as an animal strengthened by seasons, fell from hunting, hiding and stealth, and replenished each day by wind, rain and cool sunshine. With the grace of a fawn, she lowered herself into the pool.The Hunter’s Rede

In Part Two, “Creepy and Crawly,” we’ll look at some cold-blooded critters…and one extraordinary bird. Until then, keep an eye on the borders of woods and streams.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Nature as Muse: Creepy and Crawly
Nature as Muse: Root and Stone
Nature as Muse: Water and Sky

© F.T. McKinstry 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The Reflecting Pool

I see creativity as a reflecting pool. We gaze into the darkness and something appears on the surface, reflected by the light. The water is mostly unseen, rendering this process not only mysterious but also unnerving. To my mind, seeing a slavering monster is less uncomfortable than seeing nothing at all. The monster has form, at least.

I have a penchant for the darkness beneath the reflection. When I write or paint, I stare right into it, past the images, past the lily pads and the ripples on the surface, past what makes sense. My hands shake and my heart pounds. The archers man the walls in the middle of the night. But the self is much greater than the sum of its parts. It creates them.

Writing fantasy is my ultimate mirror, a way to explore the paradox of darkness and light through worlds, characters, places, and events. I tend to spin up stories that deal with the nature of the pool itself, beings and ideas that live in fairy tales, myths, and legends. Here are some variations on a theme.

Lone Wolf, by F.T. McKinstryIn the Ostarin Mountains, it is said, only wizards and hunters know the true meaning of darkness. – From The Hunter’s Rede

This was the first line I put down in this tale. I didn’t really understand what it meant; I had to write the book before it came into focus (which it’s still doing, by the way). It’s a simple enough idea on the surface: a wizard brings light from the darkness; and a hunter—local vernacular for an assassin—brings light into the darkness. The void is the common denominator. But that tells us nothing about the void, let alone its true meaning.

It cost the hero of this story quite a bit of trouble to figure this out, and he bears the skills of both a hunter and a wizard. Perhaps that gave him an advantage, though his shortcomings were every bit as powerful. That’s usually how it goes. The brightest light casts the darkest shadow.

Like a cat, the heart sees in the dark where the mind is blind. This is where the simple explanations end. The heart is connected to everything. It knows every thread in the cosmic tapestry and one must learn, often under great distress, to hear the whispers, subtle as they are. Like a force of nature, the heart does not particularly care what structures are destroyed to clear the ground for seedlings. This happens individually and collectively, in real worlds and imaginary ones. The darkness is terrifying because we can’t see what’s happening there until it comes into the light.

The void is the source. And that is a mystery.

Stars and Sea, by F.T. McKinstryThe forces of the sea give rise to imagination, which reflects them according to the nature and disposition of the perceiver. The sea itself is undifferentiated and without bias. – From The Gray Isles

The sea. What an awesome metaphor for the vastness and mystery of the unconscious self. As if the heart of every conscious being in the universe took shape in time and space to show us its nature. I focused on this without thinking, and came up with the fey progeny of a god and an immortal sea serpent, a child hidden in a mortal body and fraught with a restless heart indeed. It didn’t whisper. It clutched him by the head and shouted.

Here, metaphor and reality became one. A legend can abandon, isolate, or even kill. It isn’t real but it is and the sea, being a natural realm of mystery, passion and the perils of the unseen, can appear as anything: dreams, monsters, witches, assassins. Like the seemingly indifferent forces of the heart in its movement towards expression and illumination, the sea is bottomless.

When one is born of the sea, it will protect even as it destroys to bring forth life.

Echinacea, by F.T. McKinstryGardens are made of darkness and light entwined. – From The Winged Hunter

A girl recalls her lost mother’s words in a moment of crisis, when her beautiful garden is frozen dead by a roguish wizard who disturbed the balance of the seasons. While writing that frightening scene, it occurred to me that the balance can only be disturbed—or preserved—because light and dark are one.

If you want to see this in action, watch nature. In full bloom, vibrant with life, a garden is a wonderful thing of the light. Look more closely and you’ll see the threads of darkness: a leaf chewed clean by a caterpillar, a flower withering after its bloom, a tender seedling returning to the earth because it didn’t get enough sun. Roots find the darkness; rain and decay nourishes them. The cat catches a bird. The big spider in the blackberry patch snares a dragonfly.

Soon this cycle expands, and a larger one includes it. Late in the summer, the shadows start to change. Like a sigh at the end of a long day, the heavy boughs on the trees and the flourishing canopies of brush and perennials turn inward with a kind of longing. These forces are implacable. Try to start a tulip bulb from dormancy, or place a cheery annual in a window over a long winter. You can hear them pine for the void—and likely as not, they’ll return to it despite your mothering, like souls needing rest in a cold grave.

In the fall, I clean out my gardens with sad, cold intent, like some votary of the Destroyer. It’s like weeding in the larger spiral. I take it all down into the dark and when the earth is bare, I grieve for a few days. But in the gray and white silence of a long winter, when my gardens are but a dream, I feel them waiting.

 
© F.T. McKinstry 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Water, Earth, and Shamanism

The process of writing a story has a way of revealing one’s knowledge or fascination in terms that extend beyond conscious understanding. A powerful lens into the nature of experience, metaphor conveys information that literal explanations can only attempt. Somewhere inside, our hearts make the connections.

Generally speaking, the ancient practice of shamanism involves learning to perceive those connections via a journey into the Otherworld, the realm of essence and the source of exteriorized reality. This typically happens during some years-long cataclysmic life event such as illness or loss whereby the shaman endures the dissolution of personal boundaries, limitations, and false perceptions, and thereby emerges from the Otherworld not only expanded but also connected to the source. It is essentially a mystical experience.

Mistress of the Sea, by F.T. McKinstry

Mistress of the Sea

When I began writing The Gray Isles, I didn’t sit down and think, “How about a story about shamanic initiation?” It started as a story about a young fisherman’s son named Hemlock who has big dreams that contrast miserably with his lot in life. Through him, I embarked upon a sailing trip over the shining waters of an attractive cliché and was promptly accosted by a sea monster with its own ideas. My story grew into a novel complete with tempests, swords, and teeth.

The shamanic initiation often heralds a crushing landslide of doubts and questions about the nature of reality. It’s hard to ignore the forces of the Otherworld when one’s life falls apart at the hands of one’s deepest dreams and desires. At the same time, everything one once imagined possible becomes an illusion in the face of actual experience. It’s a paradox. Transformation inherently implies death: one can’t change unless something is released. For the shaman, this is everything that blocks connection to the Otherworld and understanding of his or her place in the overall scheme of things.

Hemlock of Mimir, by F.T. McKinstry

Hemlock of Mimir

Hemlock’s journey begins with a classic refusal of the call. His perception of reality is shaky as it is, even by the estimation of the wizards he serves, ironically. But he has a deep, visceral connection to the sea. When it shows itself, he naturally assumes it’s just another fantasy. When he gets the idea of trying to prove otherwise—to defend his sanity, of course—he crashes headlong into the implacable clutches of initiation.

This takes Hemlock down, rends him asunder and spits him out on the other side. Now a lost soul, his roots to the earth begin to disintegrate beyond his control. But, cruel as they are, the forces of the cosmos are on his side in the guise of wizards and assassins—and the sea itself, a literal metaphor in this case. A bridge between earth and water, Hemlock is transformed quite nearly to the destruction of everything around him. So it goes. Who would possibly sign up for such a thing if they knew what it would mean?

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Cover Art, The Gray IslesThe Gray Isles, Book Two in the Chronicles of Ealiron.

The legends of sailors and wizards collide in an epic tale of witchery, secrets, curses, and the birth of an immortal.

 
© F.T. McKinstry 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Where Veils are Thin

The physical world, some believe, is held and permeated by the Otherworld, an invisible realm most often perceived in dreams, visions, and fairy tales. At certain points in time, such as twilight or All Hallows Eve, the natural boundaries between the physical and the unseen become thin. In certain places, this happens by virtue of location or meaning; such as bridges, caves or the edge of a forest. People who are sensitive to the Otherworld are said to possess second sight.

Lorth of Ostarin, an assassin and the protagonist of The Hunter’s Rede, is such a one. Trained by a wizard, he has more faculties than the average seer and does not shiver at the appearance of the strange. When the dark-cloaked figure of a woman with a wolf’s face begins to haunt his dreams and visions, he puts it down to exhaustion and the stress of having a price on his head. But when a flesh-and-blood woman leads an armed company into the woods to hunt him, Lorth pales with confusion as, in clear sight of the men accompanying her, she draws back her hood to reveal what has, until now, remained safely in the dark.

The Old One, by F.T. McKinstry
She emerged into the light, cloaked in black and moving with the sinuous, primeval grace of all women.  She reached up with a pale hand, touched the edge of her hood and turned, drifting like fog without a sound across the earth.  A wolf gazed over the fire with pale gold eyes staring deeply, completely, until she turned away and vanished into the shadows.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Hunter's Rede CoverThe Hunter’s Rede, Book One in the Chronicles of Ealiron.

A swords-and-sorcery tale of one warrior’s transformation by the forces of war, betrayal, wizardry and love.

 
© F.T. McKinstry 2018. All Rights Reserved.