Sunday, March 29, 2015

The River, the Bough

"Lay me down
Let the only sound
Be the overflow
Pockets full of stones"
Florence and the Machine - What the Water Gave Me

When it comes to harnessing the elemental forces for dramatic effect, pop-culture proves itself hopelessly one-dimensional. Fire is power. Water is surrender. Forests are dark. Without getting into the larger issue of underused natural iconography for now, I'd like to ramble on the subject of water. Water has started to bore me. I want some trees.

"All this time the river flowed
Endlessly like a silent tear"
Sting - All This Time

Maybe I'm hearing too much of this because I've listened to too many Sting songs. Sting's an Englishman, in or out of New York, and Britannia rules the... do they even have forests anymore atop the sparkling cliffs of Albion? In any case, desert roses aside, Sting sees shadows in rain and sails to his islands of souls.

"If a prayer today is spoken please offer it for me
When the bridge to Heaven is broken and you're lost on the wild, wild sea"
The Wild Wild Sea

And hell, it's not just the Brits. I suppose it's no accident that last song reminds one of notable suicide-king Aegeus. European civilization was long dominated by the water at the middle of the earth, and that ever-present, untamed wasteland dominated the thoughts of the rich aristocrats and merchants whose denial of funding choked artistic expression. Such imagery has been carried from empire to empire into public consciousness. If you've listened to at least a few songs about suicide, you may have noticed that oceans, seas, rivers and any puddle deep enough to inhale tend to make frequent appearances.

"And I descend from grace
In arms of undertow
I will take my place
In the great below"
Nine Inch Nails - The Great Below

Or perhaps you're a fan of Poe? He may have mentioned the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir, but still all the night-tide he lay down by a tomb by the sounding sea. One of Poe's fanboys, Lovecraft, has done a great deal to maintain our fear of the clammy, unknowable deeps, but though the tides are occasionally portrayed as a menace, water in general remains the ultimate oubliette.

Take The Cat Lady, for instance. Much of its effect, as with many roleplaying / adventure games, depends on helping the player identify with the playable character. Thus, much of The Cat Lady hinged on the interlude provided by chapter three, the snippet of Susan's lonely existence, a nearly inevitable descent toward a nervous breakdown. Her attempts to trudge through the minute, neverending chores and indignities of mundane life are bracketed by quotes from a poem about suicide by drowning.
Which is kind of odd, since water plays little or no part in the rest of the game. Not that the notion of a sack of drowning kittens is lost on me and it's a beautiful scene in a great piece of interactive fiction, but I can't help thinking a poem about suffocating clouds or premature burial might've served the same purpose better, in context. Maybe something about maggots gnawing at roots.

See, I'm not a scion of an ocean-spanning major empire but happen to be descended of hill-folk and to me, forests hold at the very least equal symbolism to running water. Someone to whom I gave a few of my attempted short stories for evaluation noted that a couple of them ran along the same theme: suicide by plant. In fact, much of European folklore was imagined by dirt-farming peasants who would never see the great salt waste. To many of our ancestors, woods held the secrets of magic and dread, doom and escape, inhuman life both bountiful and fearsome. The stories collected by the Brothers Grimm grew out of the outskirts of the Black Forest, as did the Celtic faeries out of the equally defunct foliage of Caledonia. Baba Yaga in her endless incarnations lurked just beyond any East-European forest's edge and even the seafaring ancient Greek mythical bestiary included both Naiads and Dryads. Aegeus could have his pick, really.

Maybe the issue is one of accessibility. Poe, bless his psychotic heart, really did acknowledge the charm, grandeur and melancholy of plants - and those are the stories no-one bothers to read. Everyone can envision death by suffocation and the sinking feeling of depression translates quite easily to slipping beneath the waves. Forests are too diverse, wear too many faces for their symbolism to be worked into most narratives. Even sticking to flowers alone, can anyone remember the interpretations of pansies, rue, myrtles and roses? How about parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme? I wrote a page-long piece of flash fiction on the assumption that readers would know oleander leaves are poisonous. That's the sort of thing which just doesn't get you staged as a musical.

However, some of the best authors manage it. Princess Mononoke mixes water, a forest glade and vulnerable flesh into a single memorable icon of nature. Tolkien, reviving European folklore amidst the giddy technocratic progress of the interbellum, painted nature's uprising not only in the rise of the Bruinen against corruption but the march of the Ents. Poe's Morella borrows nature as symbol of inhuman, saprophagous renewal. Occasionally, you'll get a song in which water is used to paint more than wistful melancholy.

"It's you that moves me, hydroelectric"

Yet it's difficult to portray such melding of symbolism concisely, whether depressive or uplifting, rooted or flowing, past or future. How about all of it in a single image? Back when DeviantArt used to be worth browsing, before it became utterly choked by highschoolers drawing My Little Pony fanart, it was actively populated by some truly gifted artists. Arcipello's Forget Me Not manages more in a single frame than most artists can do with ninety minutes.

I am not seeking a complete shift but a growth and interconnection of subjects which are too often treated as facile set pieces. If you're tempted to write of the fanged wood, turn it into the assault of the tide against a rocky shore. If you seek surrender beneath the waves, find it in deciduous rot instead. Watch a high-altitude forest after a rainfall. That should be our inspiration. Water flows to plants which exude water and every wer-wolfe needs a water-hole. Blood flows and ice can cut. Forget-me-nots grow in muddy riverbanks, nurtured by the rich decay of corpses upstream.

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