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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Holiday Show, Part II

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s holiday show continues with storytellers Rick Bass, Dovie Thomason and Fiona Ritchie. In this segment, The Thistle and Shamrock host Fiona Ritchie reads a tale of trows – creatures of winter and the underworld – written by author George MacKay Brown.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And welcome back as we celebrate the solstice with Rick Bass, Fiona Ritchie, and Dovie Thomason. We just heard Dovie tell the story of the battle between the North and South Winds. Dovie, I'm wondering, do you tell the story the same way every time?

THOMASON: No, goodness no. When I first began telling stories, I think I tried very hard to be meticulous and precise. I think that can become an academic or archaeological way of looking at culture, you know. And it's not just that we're here because we're preserved so much, but we're here because we are living these things. And we're repeating these things. And so, I shape them and they shape me, and so it always comes out a bit different.

CURWOOD: The story happens, huh?

THOMASON: Exactly.

CURWOOD: It happens.

RITCHIE: So many parallels with the traditional music and storytelling over here. Oh yeah. I mean, what you said about a living tradition, I mean that's so important, that traditional music or storytelling not be something that sort of sits in a glass case, and we take it out, and we treat it very preciously. But something that's worn all the time and that gets kind of tatty, and, you know, used. And has a sense that each generation picks these things up and handles them and works with them and makes of them what they will and passes them on. I mean, I love that, and I think it's vital. I think that as soon as something becomes, as you say, only academic, then it's kind of dead.

CURWOOD: What were your first thoughts when you heard that Living on Earth was thinking about stories on hibernation?

RITCHIE: Well, I love the winter. And I like northern places, and I like the things that happen in winter and the things that don't happen in winter. (Laughs) So, those were some of the thoughts that came to mind, and it made me want to look for a piece of writing to read for you, which gave a sense of harnessed energy. The sense of a hidden world and a hidden life and something lying in wait for the turn of the season.

In the northern islands, December is a dark month. The lamps are burning when people go to their work. Light thickens again in the early afternoon. The weather, more often than not, is cold and stormy. There are also calm, clear nights, when the hemisphere of sky is hung with stars. And in the north, the aurora borealis rustles like curtains of heavy yellow silk.

It is the season of the Nativity. It is also the time of trows. To the islanders, the earth they tilled was an element of dark, dangerous, contending energies. The good energy of the earth raised their crops into the sun and rain and wind. But there were other earth energies bent on famine, sickness, death. These energies were active always. Especially in the dark, cold time of the year when nothing grew, the earth seemed to belong to them entirely.

The island farmers knew this evil brood as trows. And the trows were more than vague, abstract energies. They had shape and substance. They could dance. They could speak. They could travel between the hill and the plowed field. They were often seen, but only by people who had the gift.

The trows belonged to the underworld, to the kingdom of night. Hideous shapes they represented, all the curses of unredeemed nature. The best way to contain the kingdom of winter and death was to lead a decent life. For the trows were, among other things, embodiments of the seven deadly sins. And it was best to observe duly the rituals of Christianity, as well as other rituals that were old when the megalithic people built the stones at Brodgar.

The corn and animals had to be protected. The trows grew strong and bold in winter in proportion, as the creatures of light paled and dwindled. Straws in the form of a cross were fixed to the lintels of barn and byre, so these places were sained, made holy. The most precious creatures in a croft and the most liable to corruption were the children. A special care was taken of them on Helya's Night, the twentieth of December. In Shetland, the old grandmother went round each bed and cradle and committed the young ones to the care of the Virgin Mary. "Mary Midder had de haund/Ower aboot for sleeping-baund,/Had da lass and had da wife,/Had da bairn all its life./Mary Midder had de haund,/Round da infants o'oor laund."

If the children were not protected, it was easy for the trows to steal them. What happened was this: The trows left their own offspring in the cradle, and these winter children generally grew up sick and deformed. So the people say of someone who looks permanently ill that he is trowie.

December the twenty-fourth was a night specially holy and terrible. The trows, in dark hordes, lingered outside every croft. The terror of darkness was held in check by a strictly-observed ritual. The mother brought out a basin and filled it with water. The man of the house, priest-like, took three live embers from the fire and dropped them in the water. So in midwinter, the elements of fire and water were true to the tryst of purification.

In this condensed drama, all nature, light and darkness, the four elements, plant and beast and man, were seen as part of a divine festival. The creatures of nature kept their trysts in season. They could not behave otherwise. Man, with his scattered and distracted energies, the flesh tugging forever against the spirit, moving between the trow-infested earth and the angel-fretted sky, proclaimed his allegiance to the kingdom of light in the form of a willed and strictly observed ritual. One by one, each member of the family washed himself all over in the fire-kissed water and put on clean clothes. The rooms had been swept already. Everything dirty had been bundled away. The dishes and the dresser glinted in the lamplight. The children were put to bed.

Midnight was approaching. The other members of the family retired, one by one, until only the parents were left. They made then an act of great faith. Though the night outside was thick with trows, they unfastened the door and left the lamp burning, and went to bed. It was possible that Our Lady and St. Joseph with their as-yet-hidden treasure would come to their croft that night seeking shelter.

Early on Christmas morning, the man of the house rose before daybreak while the others were still asleep. He lit a candle in the skull of a cow, carefully fixing it in the eye socket. He went into the byre, carrying this lantern. He fed the beasts by its light, giving them more to eat than usual. It was a re-enaction of the scene in the byre at Bethlehem. The animals had also been present at Christ's nativity. The flame in the skull was a reminder to them that they shared both in mortality and, in this blessed time, the kindling of the one true light in the world's darkness. There was nothing to be afraid of now. The trows had returned to their burrows, defeated. Christ was born among the fields.

The children were awake when the crofter came back. They had a small candle each, that they lit and set here and there about the room. The crofter filled a bowl with whiskey. Quintessence of earth's ripeness, the heavy rich blood of summer. Solemnly he carried the bowl to each person in turn. Even the children had to wet their lips. The bread lay on the table -- not the course, everyday bannock but Yule-brunnies, little round yellow cakes of rye and fat, pinched at the edges to represent the sun's rays. A Yule-brunnie for everyone in the house.

The Christmas breakfast was a festival of candlelight. The eating of the cakes was a kind of pre-Christian, non-sacramental communion. In the heart of winter, they devoured the sun, and so filled their days with light and gaiety and fruitfulness.

THOMASON: Well, I feel completely unsurprised that so many Scot-Irish people came over here and married my people. (Laughs) The stories are just - there's just pieces of them, they feel so familiar. The coming together of the elements and the care of fire, and renewal and putting out fire and bringing in water. And all of those ceremonial and seasonal things that happened in the northeast at midwinter where, you know, we think of the spirits and the space between this world and the spirit world and the thinning of it.

BASS: You know, literally we are walking somewhat above the earth in winter. And maybe that's part of that primal impulse or affinity we have toward the notion of hibernating that, you know, when you've got six feet of snow on the ground, you're that far above the place you used to be before the snow came. And maybe on some level that makes us miss where we were before the snow came. I grew up in the south, but that's one of the things I love most about being up here in northern Montana, is the four seasons. It's like Dovie's story -- each time she tells it, it's not the same. And no season, no winter, no spring, is ever like another previous season, another previous winter or spring. But they all have the same elements and the same tones and stories.



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