As a kid, I spent time playing in the small wooded areas nearby and imagined all sorts of critters living there. I know I did, but at some point I lost the ability (or willingness, or perhaps leisure? I remember an increase in homework around the same time). By the time I read of the enormous woodlands in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I remember having trouble imagining the really large trees of Lothlórien or Mirkwood, or how Ents might be mistaken for trees.
You see, I grew up two hours south of the Arctic Circle. We have woods up there, of course, thanks to the Gulf stream. The trees may not necessarily grow very big, however—although there are exceptions—and the ones that do grow tall tend to be relatively thin and arrow-straight instead of bulky and gnarly. (Two examples here and here. Both are further south than where I grew up, but nevertheless very similar.)
So, even I can easily imagine how a forest might invoke stories of elves, trolls, ents, and other creatures on the basis of photos of Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor, Devon, England.
Isn’t it breathtaking? It’s like there are Ents about to walk out from behind a tree at any moment!
Apparently in Pennsylvania, there’s a town—Centralia—all but abandoned due to a coal mine fire that’s been burning underground since 1962.
There is disagreement over the cause of the fire. It seems that one way or another a surface fire moved into the system of mining tunnels below the town.
The effects are indisputable and scary: unstable ground, sink holes, damaged roads, plumes of hot steam, vents of smoke and toxic gases (like lethal levels of carbon monoxide), and, finally, evictions plus abandoned and/or demolished buildings.
Speculative fiction that takes place in a post-catastrophy world of some sort immediately comes to mind, and no wonder. Even the little that I read gave me a glimpse on the variety of reactions people can have to major environmental disruptions and their aftermath. Not to mention that photos of the abandoned parts of Centralia are stunning. They remind me of Pripyat after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which is the closest equivalent I can think of from my childhood in Finland.
A few more possibilities for speculative writers and artists looking to break out of the Eurocentric worldbuilding mold, this time from among the Earth’s birds, snails, and mushrooms.
The male pink robin (Petroica rodinogaster) has a bright fuchsia chest and belly; the female looks drabber, with merely pinkish-tinged underparts. These small birds live in the cool temperate forests of southeastern Australia.
The many-colored fruit doves (Ptilinopus perousii) live on islands in the south-west Pacific Ocean (Fiji, the Samoan Islands, and Tonga). The male is yellow on the wings and back, red on the head and neck; the female is greener, darker on the back and greyer on the head and breast.
The violet snail (Janthina janthina) is a small purple mollusk found floating on the surface in tropical and temperate seas worldwide.
Indigo milk cap (Lactarius indigo) is a species of generally blue or blueish mushrooms found in eastern North America, East Asia, and Central America. The milk that oozes out of a cut or broken mushroom is also indigo blue, but slowly turns green upon exposure to air. According to Wikipedia, it’s edible and sold in rural markets in China, Guatemala, and Mexico.
Yareta or llareta (Azorella compacta) is a low evergreen that grows in the Andes mountains in Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile, and Argentina.
Looking at the landscape where it’s found, it seems that the yareta latches onto ground or rock and grows up and out into the rounded shape over the years.
The rounded, cotton-ball-like shape reminds me of how some mosses grow. Unlike them, though, the yareta can grow in dry conditions and nutrient-poor soil, if slowly. (According to Wikipedia, their growth rate is approximately 1.5 cm / 0.6 inches per year; however, an article in Pharmacognosy Magazine cites 1 cm in 20 years.)
Apparently the Andean people used yareta since Pre-Columbian times for the treatment of colds, pains, diabetes, asthma, bronchitis, womb complaints, gastric disorders, backache, wounds, and altitude sickness (Pharmacognosy Magazine Aug 2014).
Yareta looks like a great option for speculative writers and artists looking to break out of the Eurocentric worldbuilding mold.
Images: Yareta at Ollague Volcano lookout by Miguel Vieira via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Yareta – Bolivian Altiplano by Knut-Erik Helle via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.
It’s cold outside, at least hereabouts where we are, which always sends my thoughts to the depiction of cold weather and the people who have to cope with it in the media I enjoy. The experience of serious cold weather is one that’s hard to convey to someone who hasn’t lived with it, so perhaps it’s no surprise that while some books, movies, and tv shows get it right, others really don’t.
If you want to get it right in your stories, here are a few things to know about the effects of cold and how to deal with them in pre-modern settings:
Exposed skin is bad. Very bad. Especially skin with lots of blood vessels close to the surface like heads, necks, ears, noses, cheeks, hands, and feet. That’s how you lose heat, and if you lose too much heat, you can start losing body parts, too. If you find yourself out in the cold unexpectedly, the first thing you should do is cover up as much skin as you can.
Layers are good. Layering clothing creates air pockets, which is what keeps heat in. Metal provides poor insulation. Leather and cloth are better. Any cloth will do, but wool is particularly good. Fur is excellent, but if you’re wearing fur for warmth (rather than as a fashion statement), you want the fur on the inside where it can trap air more effectively, not the outside catching snow. For body parts that you can’t cover with clothing, such as your face, a layer of hair or grease will help, but not nearly as much as proper clothing.
Frostbite is VERY bad. Frostbite is not “Ah, it’s a little chilly, I think I’ll stick my hands in my pockets to warm them up.” Frostbite is when ice crystals form inside your body and kill your cells. It is treatable if caught in time, but it’s serious. This is how people lose fingers, toes, even limbs to the cold. Less serious than frostbite is frostnip, when the body pulls blood away from exposed skin. Frostnip is treatable just by warming up, but do not rub! Rubbing frostnipped or frostbitten skin can cause damage to tissues made fragile by the cold.
Dangerous cold doesn’t always feel cold. The experience of frostbite and frostnip doesn’t necessarily feel cold. The affected area may actually feel hot or just numb. This is the result of nerve cells shutting down or dying. In extreme cases, some people suffering hypothermia will start taking off their clothes because they feel overheated, even though they are literally dying of cold. Alcohol increases blood flow to the skin and extremities which makes you feel warmer (and can be useful when you’ve come in out of the cold into warmer surroundings), but can be dangerous when you’re still exposed to cold temperatures.
People are mammals. That means, in addition to some other fun features, we make our own heat. That heat comes from the same place the rest of our energy comes from: food. Cold makes you hungry. Eating keeps you warm.
Cold makes you go. Your body responds to cold by pulling blood away from the extremities into the core. Your kidneys respond to all that blood rushing around by going into overdrive trying to purge excess fluid from your system, leading to a full bladder.
These are all things to remember as you write about characters braving the harsh winter weather. I’ll leave the last word, though, to Magnar of Finn:
Post edited for clarity.
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writershere.
Norwegian Theodor Kittelsen (1857-1914) developed into one of Scandinavia’s most popular artists. He’s especially well known for his nature paintings and illustrations of fairy tales, legends, and trolls.
His art clearly shows how strongly the Norwegian nature inspired him. Kittelsen’s style is said to include aspects naturalism, mysticism, and Art Nouveau.
The element of a boy on a white horse is connected with water spirit tales. Apparently some näkki water spirits (to use my native Finnish term) can turn into horses to capture humans to pull underwater. I don’t remember that aspect of the näkki stories from my childhood; perhaps there’s a difference between the Scandinavian and Finnish tales.
The landscapes in Kittelsen’s paintings remind me of the Finnish wildernesses a lot. There’s also something solemn and contemplative in the mood of his imagery that makes me connect it with Tolkien’s art and writing, on one hand, and, on the other, with the illustrations of Tove Jansson (see examples of her work on Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit provided by The Official Moomin site).
Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.
Photographer Beth Moon‘s new series Diamond Nights documents baobabs and quiver trees against moonless, starry night skies with breathtaking results. For a Nordic city dweller like me, the images might as well be from a different planet.
In her artist’s statement, Moon writes of the technical aspects of shooting:
“The majority of these photographs were created during moonless nights, shot with a wide angle lens and ISO of 3200 – 6400. […] Exposures up to 30 seconds allowed enough light to enter the lens without noticeable star movement. Each location required a lot of experimenting. and different lighting techniques. Sometimes a short burst of diffused light from a flashlight was sufficient, or bounced light from multiple flashlights was used for a softer more natural glow.”
Photos like these remind me of the incredible diversity of our planet, and how much more of the world we can see and share through the power of Internet than even our parents. Love it!
I just ran into a collection of photos of woods and other natural areas by photographer Ellie Davies. I thought many of the forest photos in particular looked magical or fairylike. Take a look:
The photos above come from her series Stars from 2014-2015. I couldn’t figure out how Davies made them. Turns out that they are composites of forest photos and Hubble images of the Milky Way, Omega Centauri, the Norma Galaxy, and embryonic stars in the Nebula NGC 346, provided by Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and NASA. Very neat!
Some of Davies’s past projects incorporate photoshopped elements, small-scale construction, or objects into the landscapes she photographs.
Despite the man-made additions, the photos stay in an apparitional realm, playing with the otherwordly. And it’s intentional. In her artist’s statement, Davies writes:
“UK forests have been shaped by human processes over thousands of years and include ancient woodlands, timber forestry, wildlife reserves and protected Areas of Outstanding Natural [Beauty]. As such, the forest represents the confluence of nature, culture, and human activity. Forests are potent symbols in folklore, fairy tale and myth, places of enchantment and magic as well as of danger and mystery. In more recent history they have come to be associated with psychological states relating to the unconscious.
“Against this backdrop [my work] explores the ways in which identity is formed by the landscapes we live and grow up in. Making a variety of temporary and non-invasive interventions in the forest, my work places the viewer in the gap between reality and fantasy, creating spaces which encourage the viewer to re-evaluate the way in which their own relationship with the landscape is formed, the extent to which it is a product of cultural heritage or personal experience, and how this has been instrumental in their own identity.”