Wednesday, 20 May 2009

THE CRISIS IN TRIADIC VISION: An inteview with Martin Shaw, author of 'A Branch From The Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wildness'(Ragnell Press 2009)

Q: What is the book about?
Shaw: Wild thinking, wild places and wild story are its root position. As we watch Coyote-like chunks disappear out of both our economy and eco-system it feels desperately important to re-vision our relationship to wild nature-both in landscape and ourselves. Many of us are aware that in both initiatory rites and the structure of many myths there appears to be a three-fold pattern-a severing from community, a period of trial and revelation and then a return to society where the visionary nature of the expulsion is confirmed and integrated into the whole.

After well over a decade of leading rites-of-passage work (frequently involving a four day and night fast in the wilds of Snowdonia in Wales), I’ve become convinced that in the 21st century the moment of greatest peril is now the return to a society indifferent or actively hostile to the individual having had such an experience. The period of trial and all it’s mystical implications are not, I believe, as under extreme a threat.

Personal vision requires these three stages to flourish; a severing, an opening of the soul,a return- in some subtle way it has to be witnessed-to remain on the fringes after the initiatory experience is to create a marginal life out of a marginal experience-not the aim at all.

Defending against our own Beauty

So an initial idea in the book is that this time honoured process is psychically turning on its head; the whole dynamic is in flux. Without great focus being attended to the process of integration, this process will cease to have a transformative quality. There is a level of beauty in this transformation that makes society at large very uncomfortable-I would say that we are generally trying to defend against a sense of our own beauty most of the time. Not vanity, but the real leathery, nimble, ferocious and delighted being that we are. This has nothing to do with lip-o-suction and anything we can buy, but a connection to what most of us call soul. Soul not so much as a particular religious idea, but as a way of experiencing life, a kind of inner-atmosphere we cultivate.

The Currency of Longing and the Malignancy of Disappointment

I think we are becoming societally addicted to the act of severance. We sever from relationships, jobs, communities, even countries with ever alarming speed.Bands rarely get a chance to develop for more than one record before they've been replaced, along with the phone, trainer or car. I myself have lived in fourteen parts of the UK. I have found myself asking why?
When we undergo profane severance (i.e. outside of a ritual setting)in our lives we often do so with an avoidance of the grief that entails, and a hypnotic desire to ‘move on’ to the next situation. This very avoidance short circuits any capacity for longing, ‘vertical attention’ or yearning that exists in the deeper story of the experience. When longing is replaced in a society of satiated want we are likely, ultimately, to fall into disappointment. Prolonged disappointment is then a place where the ability to praise, nurture, challenge and bless-in short create community-becomes almost impossible. Hence the three-fold process described by Van Gennup and Campbell’s ‘Heroes Quest’, starts to malfunction. As an Archetypal pattern it won’t disappear, but there is a growing dissonance between this Initiatory triad and the societal wants of the 21st century.

Black Elk said ‘you have to live the vision so the people can see’ without some performative gesture it just won’t be birthed.

Without longing beauty becomes hard to locate- satiated want won’t offer its bittersweet complexity, and so, as we said, in some way society is defending us against an experience of our own beauty. If we located our own beauty, our own sovereignty, there would be a far greater sense of personal accountability.

We are also at sea when confronted with our personal shadow material and are uneasy with the Trickster paradoxes that help us live in our divine murk. So we are occupying a weedy middle road between both clear perception of beauty and shadow-also the place they join-Initiation is the tool that brings both into focus-through ritual, myth and a sense of the sacrality of living.

Dark Chivalry: Honouring the Sovereign and the Trickster

We need to be paying particular attention to the Trickster and the King or Queen right now-especially of sovereignty in profound service to the land. So we are personally galvanised but looking into the shadows and margins of culture and our psyche to see the steps to take. I have recently been calling this the emergence of a kind of ‘dark chivalry’. This is not an easy tension-hence the emphasis on both on paradox and excess in the book-it is not a moderate road. The chivalry now needs to be directed to the earth, rather a woman in a far off castle. Chivalry requires poetry as well as statistics, mythic etiquette that wakes all the sleeping warriors that live in the secret heart of any decent hill.

Mythology is the Heart of Ecology-We have the facts but do we have the story?

Genius in crisis always comes from the margins and can wear the costume of the fool or Positive Trickster (see Parzival arriving and the court in chaos). We should be looking for stories of relationship with the animal powers and the earth-shapeshifting stories-rather than expecting the Greek Gaia image to hold it all- it won’t.I feel we need to look towards energies outside 'classical' myth,whist not denying its brilliance. We need a word-hoard of complex variety- vision can be killed by over simplification.

When a Culture Shape Shifts

We are in huge cultural 'leaping of shape'right now, so we need the stories of how to make the leap well, how to flourish as well as survive-climate change,the economy, at-risk youth, all are pointing towards a re-visioning of the old stories-How did Taliesin move from a salmon,to a hen to a grain of wheat? How do we break from our lethargy, old patterns and disappointments?

Many Visonary fires: the book offers four major initiatory stories that show huge diversity within the classic three-fold motif. That many myriad of experiences exist within that framework.This is followed by three different faces of longing.

It also suggests a re-visioning of the Hero through the energies of the Grief Man/Woman and Crone, an attempt to re-open but also honour the phrase-to not 'throw the baby out with the bath water’. We freeze a great deal of personal energy when we try and deny the need for the authentically heroic. I would call this the difference between Grandiosity and Greatness.

Q: How do you view the book now it’s finished?
Shaw: Well, I think as a ‘10 easy stages to a soulful’ type of thing it’s a disaster-it’s wilfully obtuse at times-almost gnostic, the language is carried on the back of the many tusked owl of metaphor and it’s not for the purist academic either. Much of the writing has little sheltered areas for animals and spirits to live in, many of the sentences seem to bound along like the tempo of antelope hooves. You can’t write about wildness and not move to the edge of your thinking, you have to let in some furry shapes and night dreams into the sentences.

Much of the dream/thinking came when I was living in a black tent on the side of a hill for four years, so it seems to have secreted endless days of rain across the valley and twittering bird song. is also emphatic in its praise for long dead poets and thinkers, so my attention is partially towards them as well-I’m trying to offer a kind of libation. Unless the reader is really curious, prepared to study or on-fire for some interior relationship to wildness I suggest they buy something else. At the same time it is a rallying call-that mythology is the heart of ecology, that both longing and grief can lead to a strange kind of vocation in this world. It’s honestly trying to articulate something that feels important right now.

It is calling towards a value system that has a level of integrity but is also not naïve, that is a paradoxical crossroads between a delight in solitude and the fiery horse of the tongue-a way to express desire and passion. It carries grief and hope in either hand.

Whilst writing it I also came to believe that a third of the idea of community should live in the imagination; that opens the door to all the long dead poets, animal powers and dreams that we’re all so interested in. We shouldn’t always look to a human hand for a confirmation, or believe we’d all be better off living on tiny stretches of land grimacing at our neighbour over breakfast and a sweatlodge. So it’s pointing to imaginative leaps around what could constitute the returned–to-community.

Lightning Tree is available at

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