OK folks, today is nothing but a full on, unbridled attempt to get you to come to the upcoming day gathering with Alastair McIntosh and myself, on July 6th, at the Chicken Shed (better than it sounds), just behind Schumacher College, Dartington, Devon. For any old students of the school, this and the Bardic summer school are absolutely designed to keep pushing forward of study of that which is fiery, mysterious, earthy, celestial, bawdy and true.
To book a place please ring 01364 653723 or send name, contact details and full amount made out to ‘the school of myth’ at Tregonning House, 27 Eastern rd, Ashburton, TQ13 7AP.
You are probably aware of Alastair through his many articles and at least three books, Soil and Soul, Hell and High Water, and Rekindling Community. This man is not a statistic wagging doom-monger, but an impassioned, lucid, occasionally furious, often hilarious, mystical and truly bright thinker. He is a poet, great prose writer and very decent teller of tales. He is also very busy which is WHY we are so lucky to have this day gathering with the man on some extremely deep and important issues, washed down with story, poetry and a good dollop of informed speculation. McIntosh's work is a genuine joy to read - so far past most attempts to handle ecological and psychological material it's not true.
I have come to his work very recently, and include a section of an essay i had just finished when i finally started to read him. And readers of his work will understand why i immediately loved it - he's pulling at many of the threads below, but very fleshed out and thought through - hence this gathering. This segment is part of a larger essay examining the diversive mythic impulses that live within us, regardless of how political correct we think we may be on the surface. It's also a caution against assumptions of leftish harmony - i like a bit of harmony when it arises naturally, but not at the entire expense of wildish discourse. Where this essay will lead in the end is an expansion on what the word harmony could mean...
Don't waste time being offended by the following, unless its worth consideration - i place myself entirely in its line of thought too.
More than ever, the young folks I meet are often incredibly informed and activate as regards climate change. They are done with going on retreats into wild places, examining their navels, they are out there making a very real, very practical difference. I find this incredibly exciting. It makes me want to work harder. They have their ‘quest’, and it is the biggest one imaginable, to save the planet. However, the very oldest tools we have for crisis – stories - tell us that without an inner journey, that underworld knowledge, those hard scars from the Witch, then the outer life won’t quite align itself. This is where they come unstuck. This reflective work doesn’t offer the clear picture of the heroism of planet saving, it’s murkier, conflicted and hidden. To do with your own clogged oceans and toxic skies. No reward attached, no news report or twitter from your cave on the mountain.
There is a kind of smugness in us lefties that can be unpleasant. Our aspirations are seemingly just, but we still carry a subterranean trail of compressed ambitions and toothy animal drives with us – these can be harder to spot than those in the mainstream. We are more sophisticated at hiding, or we channel our grandiosity into wider causes. We pass the talking stick at meetings, speak ‘from the heart’ and always remember to do the recycling. We organise rallies and strut up and down our own ‘green’ towns and ignore actually going to that acutely depressed working class district five miles up the road. We leave all that stuff like soup kitchens and aid to the poor to the Christians we view as so spiritually unsophisticated. We funnel our kids through alternative schools for ludicrous fees that rarely prepare them for the intensities of modernity, and all the while do we think we are free of hierarchy, of judgement, of ambition? I think not. We’ve just stuck a rainbow coloured jumper over the armour.
We seem rightfully proud of our ecological credentials, our diligent harangues at local government and expensive organic produce. But this isn’t a sign of soulfulness, just an activated will. It’s crafty to suggest that these good deeds are of themselves spiritual but I don’t altogether buy it. Who exactly are they benefiting? Where are the poor, the marginal and the elderly in the mix? I see much of this hypocrisy in myself. It’s not enlightenment, just the same impulse system our parents had to keep up with the Jones’s, just moved a smidgeon to the left. It also has that whiff of ‘we’re all getting on Noah’s boat and the rest can drown’. It can be stiff with judgement though delivered with a queasy ‘namaste’.
At it’s worst it becomes a kind of profound self-absorption, something the New-Age recognises in its target audience. We read half a chapter of the Gnostic gospels over soya lattes and think we are ready to demolish the King James Bible.
Moving into a mythic perspective, which requires the interior world, saves us from continually trying to address the situation from linear, statistical, clock time. Attention to the eternal as well as the historical is a key insight into the inner situation around climate change. Stories give us images that have a genius that statistics and rallying do not. Statistics are bad for your health. They lower the immune system. Ted Hughes claimed that too much prose writing in neglect of poetry made him sick. Everything happening out there is somehow happening inside us too, so we as human animals could benefit from looking both ways. That soul work that maybe their parents did, or older siblings, that they are ‘done with’? could just be a key. The deeper story of ecology is wild mythology, and that realisation holds tremendous promise.
Are we addicted to harmony? This is very dangerous. Sign in at the door to collect your hemp year planner. Actually, scratch that, lets all ‘live in the moment’ with Eckhart Tolle and his enormous bank account. But, wherever you choose to live, or lifestyle you embrace, your inner figures – Warrior, Shrew, Queen, Hermit, will accompany you. They may have no intention of signing up for your politically correct lifestyle, and will burrow up into the most benign of situations, waving guns and bibles around. Well, maybe not a bible, but at least a book on raw food recipes. A mythological imagination would help us to comprehend what glides underneath our outwards compliance like hard eyed sharks. When life is truly regenerative it is a swarm of opinion and passions, not statistics and a kind of subliminal Puritanism. Harmony could be enjoyed when it arrives but not pursued. That doesn’t mean rough agreements aren’t needed – of course they are - but not so as they crush wild pockets of insight.
When people are anxious, when it seems some dark beast is coming to gobble our world, they have a tendency to look for something absolutely fixed, as a talisman against the strain of uncertainty that these challenges represent. Obsession with unified fronts, an assumed collective belief, harmony with a rod, often comes from fear. We feel overwhelmed and so are comforted by imagined absolutes. Even when we appear so very radical.
Terror of the end of time masks a true realisation that much is going to have to die – old habits and a childish dependency on the idea of harmony. As far as the gods go, right now is a Trickster moment we’re living in, more than Goddess time, Zeus time, or any other kind of time. We need to get clear on that.
The mythic is to do with polyphony – independent bursts of imagination arising in response to the mystery of existence – the doors to many temples are open. In other words, it’s promiscuous, allergic to dogma. The polyphonic is also the entrance to the ecstatic for many cultures –the colliding patterns of log drums and vocal chatter trip the intellect up until it falls headlong into spirit-time. The Trickster is always a polyphonic Bricoleur, a strategic heretic who conjures new art from this sometimes bruised assemblage of eruptions. A Bricoleur is an artist that assembles creation from things that wouldn’t normally be expected to fit together. It is an unusual beauty that emerges. We don’t hear polyphonic music on the radio, it’s tough on the ears.
When a room erupts with imaginative thoughts after the telling of a story it is present. Steamy, outraged and joyous opinions burst from the tongues of those present. And the Bricoluer starts to assemble a new boat on the messy sea. To aim always for harmony is to concrete up a fertile trail to the mythic. We lose many new insights. Myth, with its endless variations, comings and goings, erupting crisis’s and labyrinth like dilemmas, its wayward orchestrations of sudden brilliance, is the oldest, most inventive, and wonderfully anarchic vehicle we have for approaching today’s challenges.
But the answer will not come from one story but from many. A big problem will not be solved by a big answer.
As for myths place in this, It comes from wily Siberian folk tales, to Indian love stories, from the tacit whispers of the desert at night to great epics like this (Parzival). It will not be one beautifully held chord on a synthesiser but guttural and lucid eruptions from all corners of the myth-world. We, like shape-shifters, will have to contort to help create new dance steps from these implicit disclosures. It will not be a moment, but a slow residue of unruly insights. If we are lucky.
copyright Martin Shaw 2011
ECOLOGY, MYTH AND THE NOTION OF HOPE
Invoking the Bardic Tradition Today
An exploration of social, environmental and spiritual transformation with Alastair McIntosh and Martin Shaw
Wens 6th July 10 – 5 £60
Acclaimed author, environmental activist and poet Alastair McIntosh, alongside mythologist and wilderness rites-of-passage guide Martin Shaw team up for a days exploration of what could be meant by McIntosh’s term “bardic engagment”. He views the words as more than just poetry, but as the very essence of life’s primordial fire, as love made visible, applied to the needs of the challenges we face today. This kind of soulful awakening is what they aim to explore, and its implications to ecological concerns and personal accountability.
Shaw will start the gathering by telling an ancient Hebredian tale to give us a mythic perspective on theme, and offering insights as the day progresses. Alastair will lead a presentation, and his wider perception on the word ‘bardic’ to include the arts and spiritual practice. This will take much of the day. There will be both formal input and informal discussions and small groups. This promises to be an extremely rich and fruitful experience- do not miss this one!
Alastair McIntosh is the bestselling author of ‘Soil and Soul’, ‘Hell and High Water’. Described as “truly mental” by Thom Yorke of Radiohead and “life changing” by the Bishop of Liverpool, he has bought a genuine wild intelligence to many pressing cultural questions of our time.
Dr. Martin Shaw is author of the critically acclaimed ‘A Branch From The Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wildness’. Robert Bly describes him as “a true master. One of the very greatest storytellers we have”, the Independents Rosie Boycott, “visceral and highly imaginative.”
In more depth..... FROM ALASTAIR
We stand at a challenging time for movements that seek to advance social justice and environmental sustainability. Poverty remains ingrained even in the UK. Our country remains constantly at war. And the political progress that had been achieved on tackling major environmental issues like climate change has gone into reverse. People who don’t care have never had it so good. Those who retain the capacity for empathy, for altruism, and a concern for future generations worry, and with good cause. What has happened to the dream of an alternative society? Where stands the deep work for love, justice and peace?
In his book about climate change, Hell and High Water, described as a source “to quarry for inspiration” by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Alastair distinguishes between optimism and hope. He argues that while cause for optimism on the things that matter to us may have dimmed, we must never let go of hope. But what are the roots of hope? How do we get in touch with that fire of life that can feed inner meaning for our work even at times when it struggles outwardly?
From his campaigning work with land reform and environmental protection described in his earlier book, Soil and Soul, Alastair believes that outward political action on its own is not enough. We need that deeper source of hope if the oil in the lamp of life is neither to sell out nor burn out. One way into that, and one way of expressing it, is through bardic work. Alastair sees the bardic tradition as something that can be alive and working in us today. It is more than just poetry. It is the poetic fire of life, life as love made visible, applied to the needs of people and place in today’s world. It is that shift in consciousness, and the things that bring about that shift, which opens us to seeing the spiritual interiority and not just the physical or social exteriority of what concerns us.
During this day Martin Shaw will layout mythic themes, tell a story and convene the event. Most probably Alastair will start with a presentation looking at where we stand, and giving examples from his own work of what he means by bardic engagement. He uses this term to mean the arts and spirituality in general, and not just “poetry” as such. There will be space for both formal input and small group discussion.
Alastair McIntosh is best know for his work on Scottish land reform and helping to stop the proposed Isle of Harris superquarry, but underpinning these concerns has been a passion to convey the meanings of community, and how our work comes unstuck and egocentric if it is not grounded in the sacred. His books have variously been described as “world changing” by George Monbiot, “life-changing” by the Bishop of Liverpool, “inspirational” by Starhawk and “truly mental” by Thom Yorke of Radiohead. He is a Fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology, a visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde, and has guest lectured such unlikely groups as the Russian Academy of Science, WWF International, the World Council of Churches, Lothian and Borders Police and, for the past 15 years, on the Advanced Command & Staff Course at the UK Defence Academy.