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I am “Lady of the Lake”

One of the few helpful aspects of social distancing and self-isolation during this horrible time of the COVID-19 has been taking the time, in solitude, to read, write, organize, create, sketch, and to revisit old favorite hobbies, and passions, like art. Back in March, when my university transitioned to online courses, and my state governor issued a Stay-at-Home order, I felt reasonably “ok” with that, since I felt it was a good time to focus on my graduate study, which requires a lot of reading and writing. Last fall, two of my faculty advisors asked me a difficult philosophical question about why researching the topics I’d proposed was important to me–personally--and my answers then seemed flaky, e.g. “I am Lady of the Lake!” So, I have been thinking about how to answer those questions. It seems like I should be prepared to answer thoughtfully.

In May, I received Honorable Mention for my poem, “My Glacial Erratic,” in the 2020 Fish Poetry Prize, judged and selected by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins. My poem will appear in the 2020 Fish Anthology, coming out later this summer. (That’s with Fish Publishing, which holds a number of writing contests each year, based in Ireland.) Since then, I’ve written new poetry, and started drawing images that go with my poetry, and some of it is inspired by recent coursework. Selkies, mermaids, the Irish merrow, bog-women, the Lady of the Lake, and other supernatural female figures in literature (Romanticism as well as other periods, particularly Gothic literature and Arthurian lit) have captured my imagination.

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“Irish Merrow” – one of my watercolors

Enter art journaling. To work through some of my ideas, I’ve started art journaling. It’s now summer, and I’m still self-isolating, and spending a great deal of time at home, on my own, creating. I’ve started working in a blank canvas art journal (Jane Davenport’s supplies).

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Painting on my deck. This piece is one of my mermaid characters from my “Blue Dog and the Sea Fan” series.

It never occurred to me to use my art (and poetry) to think critically about my proposed research, or to answer philosophical questions about my interdisciplinary research. I’d been approaching it methodically, seriously–with critical annotations, a working bibliography, term papers as building blocks, outlines. Now I’m approaching it differently, and I’ve got images of mermaids, selkies, bog-women, and memories of Ireland in my head.

Painting in my art journal– a scene from my trip to Co. Cork, Ireland in 2019

Part of that’s influenced by the research I did on Traditional Ecological Knowledge of seaweed harvesting in Ireland for a term paper. Part of it’s inspired by a Celtic Studies class I’m taking led by Dr. Sharon Blackie. I read her book, Foxfire, Wolfskin, and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women (September Publishing, 2019) which I loved.

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I loved this book by Sharon Blackie!

There’s something very liberating about making art. And it’s a good exercise to pick up a different tool–any tool–whether it’s a paint brush or fountain pen–but a physical tool, one that can be held in the hand to transmit ideas from the mind to the page. I love color. I’ve always responded emotionally to color. As a kid, the gift of a set of colored pens delighted me more than dolls or toys. I still love art supplies and colored pens. Recently, I’ve become quite smitten with art supplies by Jane Davenport, an Australian artist and designer, known as an “Artomologist,” a play on her nature photography, and particularly her love for ladybugs, and other insects. I’ve also really enjoyed her books, such as Marvelous Mermaids. Jane Davenport has a series of art tutorials on Youtube, and I’ve really enjoyed rediscovering my love for making art, partly inspired by her wonderful books, tutorials, and using some of her supplies. The “Mermaid Markers” are some of my favorite supplies, a water-reactive brush pen, like a watercolor alternative, that’s been fun to use. But my absolute favorite thing of hers is the fountain pen, an INKredible pen.

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Inkredible ink fountain pen by Jane Davenport and one of my journals

Twenty years ago, I took a watercolor painting class at College of the Atlantic. Prior to that, I was a writing-art double major (or English major, art minor) at St. Lawrence University. For at least ten years, from high school through college, at four different schools, I loved making art. I incorporated art visuals into my poetry projects and liked making books. Then, in 2004, while in grad school at COA, I was living in a small cottage with a 15-year-old water heater, which leaked badly, flooding my little home, and saturating all of my possessions. My draft master’s thesis, which I’d meticulously organized into piles and chapters, along with my notes and data on my living room floor, floated in ankle-deep water on a soggy shag carpet. Even my old Dell laptop was submerged. One of the fatal losses that really crushed me at the time, three full art portfolios containing all of my art from more than four years in studio art classes–drawings, paintings, photography, self-portraits, watercolors, some of which I’d planned to frame someday (when not working on my master’s thesis). All of my art disintegrated. It was so shocking and sad, I focused on other things, like completing my master’s degree, and moved forward with other projects, and left my ruined art and love for making art, in the past.

In recent years, I’ve rediscovered my love for Kettle Cove State Park (southern Maine), and I have been lucky enough to swim in that small cove over an eelgrass meadow, where I swam and toddled around as a baby more than thirty-five years ago.  Recently, I swam at high tide, in the wake of the New Moon Solar Eclipse in Cancer this June.

Kettle Cove State Park, Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Stetson photo

Every time I swim there, I am flooded with sensations, poems, ideas, and epiphanies. I’m rediscovering myself. I’m reinventing myself. Below is a weird “inner self-” portrait I painted, using watercolors and real Maine eelgrass, which coiled and wrapped around my neck and arms as I swam at Kettle Cove in June.

I collected a few blades of eelgrass, which was floating in the water, and coiled around my wrists as I swam to shore. It also washes ashore along with rockweed, so it’s easy to find there. I incorporated the eelgrass into my art journal.

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“Inner self-” portrait,  multimedia,  “Lass in the Eelgrass” LCS  June 2020

Now, twenty years after my watercolor class in spring 2000 at COA, I’ve picked up my paint brushes again. I’ve started making art again, almost on a daily basis, for the past month. At some point, during the process of social distancing, self-isolating at my home in the Lakes Region of Maine, I felt inspired to start sketching some drawings of symbols and seaweed as part of projects, like the one I did for Folklore and Environmental Policy class. Then, I started sketching ideas for other aspects (inspired by literary works by Romanticism-era writers like Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft) while I organized a strategy for doing my graduate research. That led to the idea of starting an art journal that’s connected to the research I’ve been doing as a student in the Interdisciplinary PhD program. I’m a poet and “ecoheroine,” researching the Eco-Gothic and Arthurian lit in a tenacious pursuit of deep Romantic ecology of wetlands.

All of these images and photos are mine. Please don’t share my images. My art is work-in-progress. Thank you!

A few years ago, I wrote a short story, which was an attempt at sci-fi fantasy. It failed miserably. But I loved the world I created in the story of Asrai, a mermaid, and Blue Dog, a shape-shifting surfer (who transformed into a mackerel shark at will). I’ve played with the themes in the story and some of them roll into my poems now and then. I started a “Sea Fan Girl” series with three poems, and these are a continuation of those poems, that I’ve just written this week. These might be failed experiments, too, but a failed experiment is sometimes necessary to get to the real work. Meanwhile I’m having some formatting problems with WordPress. Blame it on the rain.  -Leah

Asrai. IV

Some nights she didn’t swim but instead just stood on Scarborough Beach
In the full moon’s glow. She’d spread out a tattered cape on the cold sand,
Nibble urchin eggs and crab legs. Dragontails of sea kelp let her arms reach
Into upper inlets of a brook, where she’d left her purse, and came to understand
That the shark she’d been watching, the mackerel shark, was him, Blue Dog,
The same surfer who stared at her red spiraling hair underwater in the waves.
She studied the tidal pools through a lens of moonbeams like a lit scope or fog
Illuminating crevices full of colorful creatures—a sea anemone, a purple urchin
Its living needles supple & working as instruments to gather food; a hermit crab
Crawled along the bottom with its house on its back. She plucked a needle from
A dead urchin and began to repair her swimsuit, which was coming undone.
It was a drab-green kelp two-piece and a very last-minute choice.

Asrai V

Her mother hunted for treasure, before her, and took Asrai on great adventures
As a mermaele, when Sedna cared for her young. That was before her mother
Joined the band of the Lock-Breakers, who mapped man-made enclosures,
Sought to break the locks, the gates and tear apart fishing nets, alluring gear.
Asrai never met her father, although she often wondered if he was a kelpie.
Something in her blood longed for wide expanses of undersea meadows
And sand bars, where she could gallop and play. Sable Island had been
A favorite vacation spot and she enjoyed watching the horses canter
Along the strange ten mile sand dune in the North Atlantic.
It was said that the Arabian horses brought to Sable Island were,
In fact, kelpies that had lost their ability to swim into the sea.
She often wondered if one of them knew her father but never asked.
If a kelpie was startled, the endangered sea horse
Might drag a mermaid to death. So, she invented stories
An imagined history of her father, the “knight,” or “victor.”
Trouble was, there wasn’t any royalty in her bloodline,
Only conspiracy-theorists.

Asrai VI

Reproductively speaking, it didn’t make sense for a mermaid to put
All her eggs in one basket. The Sea Fan King encouraged diversity
And opposed fears of intermingling between species. You could not
Discriminate in the ocean. This was deep law. Or, a deep ecology.
Over the decades, she had fallen into the bad habit of fostering certain
Stereotypes about species—including her own. Despite the deep laws,
Asrai believed that most, if not all, dolphins were date-rapists; manatees—
Too needy; sharks liked to tag-team, and seals had bad breath. Walruses
Had a reputation no mermaid wanted them to prove. Her private fantasies
Revolved around the secretive, tragic narwhals, and one who was lost.

Asrai VII

This was all funny to her until she swam past a school of hourglass dolphins,
An omen of time. Her mother had shown her how to split her tail for make-shift
“Legs,” so she could scramble onto dry land in strategic treasure hunt missions.
Islands, sand bars and coastal inlets were the best places to lift rocks and sift
Through shell middens and find buried artifacts. More recently she sought
Sunken treasures of Marie Antoinette, whose ships were sent to Maine
In preparation for her escape from France. When the queen never arrived
In Wiscasset, Maine, her ships were looted; bejeweled things and mahogany
Went overboard in scuffles. Asrai was drawn to the mystery and felt alive,
Uncovering gems in the mudflats of the Sheepscot. When she didn’t find any,
She liked to slink ashore a tiny island and collect sea glass to tide her over.
Sucking on saltgrass, she breathed in the sea wind, however uncanny,
And strummed the byssal strings of her driftwood lute, inlaid with paua
Shell, her favorite violets and teals decorated the neck, a natural beauty.

LCS

Poet’s note: I came across a writing prompt to take a piece of fiction (that I wrote) and attempt to turn it into poetry. Let me know what you think.

Blue Dog & the Sea Fan Girl

Most of the beach-bums packed their vans
And kids, to leave Scarborough at happy hour.
Blue Dog carried his longboard down a path
Sharply netted with the shoots and sour

Blades of dune grass. His stocky form
Read like a rap sheet, pale pink scars
Cave diving, rock climbing, surfing
With the big boys off Alaska, Hawai’i.

He didn’t wear a wetsuit, or own a car
(Commandeered a bike, or hitch-hiked)
An old shaper taught him how to carve,
Make his first board out of balsa scraps,
Coat it with resin, smooth as shark skin.

Leans into his element, a bird on a current,
High in the sky; waves, wind—he needs.
Body limp, arms held down at his sides,
Loose and controlled at the same time,
Pressed into waves like palms to wet sand.

Shoulders rolled as though waves themselves.
For fun, sometimes he let it pummel him
Into tunnels of clashing tides and flow
Of the undercurrent. Or else he might fly
Down that blue slope, rope left, tilted low
Leaning to let go, his deep ecology.

In a swoosh, Blue Dog flipped
His board, suspended upside-down
Red hair coiled, hanging jellyfish
Tentacles off a translucent face.

She moved so fast it looked to him
As though she had the tail of a fish
But kelp trailed behind her legs,
Kicking together dolphin-ish.

She smiled at him. This wasn’t
The typical reaction he got
From females; when he tried it,
Blue Dog was too aggressive, not

Good at flirting. Here was Asrai,
Waving flat coral, a sea fan to signal
One thing or another, mermaids always
Expect others to have the manual.

She snaked his waves, for once
He didn’t care; impressed
With her telehydrokinesis,
Tripped over her jets, crushed.

A sea-lust mates of another kind
Neither man nor woman satisfied
In the dark of night, at high tide
He found her in a pool, lying

In her throat, flecked mussel necklace.
His half-moon went taut, his claspers,
Stiffened. Her scent drenched his snout
As if she’d been riding on top of his head.

Asrai splashed. Suddenly he slid upon her
Scaled curvy figure and thrashed as his nose
Broke the surface. Half in the water, half out,
The shark lover rolled over, then rough-shod

Four limbs to hold her, a mouth
To kiss, not rows of teeth for a spine,
Not some island nightmare myth;
But Asrai had other treasure hunts
In mind.

Leah C. Stetson

Recently I discovered Ondine ~ a brand of pre-cooked lasagna pasta, named after the Ondine, a mythological mermaid (or group of mermaids), who dwelled along the rivers. Also spelled “Undine,” they were water spirits who showed up in European folklore. In one eerie version of the story, the Ondine had the ability to “gain a soul” by marrying a man and bearing his child. In a German version of the myth, called “the Ondine’s Curse,” the water spirit, or mermaid, casts magic on an unfaithful man so that he would stop breathing during sleep. Apparently this “curse” and mythology fed the early medical thinking on those who suffer from frequent hyperventilation. I’ve heard several variations of the diagnosis for my sudden and frequent lapses in breathing–but from now on, I am going to think of it as my Ondine’s curse. That’s a little easier to swallow than all of the other freakish-sounding medical explanations from doctors over the past 25 years. It’s my spiritual mermaid self just channeling ancient memories.

NymphsI was nine years old when I stopped breathing one day, while washing my hands in the bathroom sink. I had no way of calling to my mother for help, so I clapped my hands and banged against the counter. A sharp pinch in my lung prevented air from going out or coming in, so I couldn’t breathe in either direction. My mother called 911 and the first responders arrived, and examined me in the living room. I hadn’t been breathing for several minutes–but suddenly began to inhale and exhale tiny puffs, like sipping the steam off the top of hot cocoa. My chest burned. I gathered from the look on my brother’s face, I was turning funny colors, and freaking him out. One of the emergency responders told me I had a touch of pleurisy, an inflammation in the lining surrounding the lungs. It causes sharp intense pain in the chest (the lungs, specifically) and can be brought on by taking a deep breath, coughing, or even laughing. Over the years as I grew up, and to this day, I occasionally stop breathing. Sometimes I am engulfed with laughter with friends, or talking on the phone, and suddenly I go dead quiet. My closest friends and family know this about me, so they know to either wait it out, or my best friends will continue laughing–since frequent hyperventilation is inconvenient and embarrassing, and sometimes funny. Not in a ha-ha kind of funny, more of an obtuse Addams Family dinner way. Oh, she’s stopped breathing again. A part of me wants to think this is the basis for my constant need to speak fast and furious, and to interrupt others with enthusiastic bursts of creative thinking–because there is the likely scenario that I might stop breathing mid-sentence and lose the thought completely. This is a bit difficult to explain to people in the work place, and can sound melodramatic. When I taught writing classes in my usual exuberant and entertaining way, I sometimes clutched my chest and lost my breath. After this happened once in front of horrified students, who thought I looked young enough to be one of their classmates, I explained it away in my best impression of SNL “Coffee Talk,” and told them I was verklempt and for them to “talk amongst themselves.”

Now I find myself sipping raspberry zinger at my desk. The inside flap of the box has this description of the tea: “According to Roman legend, raspberries were originally white – but turned red when the Cretian nymph Ida scratched herself on a thorny raspberry bush.” (Celestial Seasonings) It’s too bad these descriptions don’t make it on the grocery store shelves like the hand-written recommendations of bottom-shelf wines: “Full-bodied and dishes it right back.” I think in another life, I’d like to be responsible for writing the descriptions of teas and under-sold wines. raspberries

Ondine Movie Pic“Ondine” is also a beautiful 2009 Irish romantic drama starring Colin Farrell and Alicja Bachleda. This is one of my favorite movies from recent years. It makes me want to go to Ireland really really bad. (Plus, I’m Irish.) Check it out: http://www.ondinefilm.com/

Tonight I shall experiment with tomato Ondine lasagna with roasted root vegetables, goat cheese and tomato basil sauce.

Leah

Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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