Half way through the Tagorefest. Good night in the Great Hall on tuesday evening - packed, and lots of Rumi from Duncan MacIntosh and choral and ecstatic chants from Chloe Goodchild. I was telling stories - 'The She-Wolf in the Midnight Orchard' or as many call it, 'The Handless Maiden'. I can't tell you how much i loathe that title.This woman is a lupine surge of holy intensity. I missed and continue to miss Coleman but read a little Rumi on his behalf - he is recovering well and we hope to be on the road in Norway by the end of next month. Back there today for Andrew Motion and Simon Armitage - do you have his translation of Gawain and the Green Knight? Hope so.
Here's another bit of taster from 'A Branch From The Lightning Tree'. The context is some reflection from myself on some years i spent living outdoors and its relationship to the bigger wilderness fasts i was engaged with. Please surprise White Cloud Press by pre-ordering! They aim to have it on the streets in about three-four weeks.
# please note: when i talk about storytellers below i am not just referring to writers and tellers but a much wider, stranger group - a storycarrier, rather than just teller. We are all in this.
THANK YOU for words of encouragement re: doctorate and my general work.
After the Mountain: Four Years in the Black Tent
Once winter sets in, the wood-burning stove rarely goes out. In a climate as wet as Britain’s, mold can play havoc with damp canvas, and any tent dweller is constantly sourcing supplies of dry, seasoned wood to see them through the hard months till April. You become accustomed to continually scanning the surrounding hedgerows and copses for any kind of kindling to spark up life-giving heat. To re- turn before dusk with a cord of wood, to light the paraffin lamps, to brew up coffee and warm yourself by the stove are immense pleasures: Wild rabbit in the pot and potatoes in the embers, and reading Cold Mountain poems by the Chinese hermit Han Shan.
Any tent can take awhile to heat, so there’s often a bottle of Lagavulin whisky amongst the axes, billhooks, and rope to sip as the tent creaks into warmth. Weather is to be relished, sworn at, combated, and ultimately worked with. You quickly learn who has the upper hand, and you follow its directives respectfully.
The years in the tent were nomadic; I moved around, but the first location supplied plenty of fallen timber in the surrounding land. What came to my attention, in a field just past the stream, under the barbed wire fence, was a huge oak that had been struck by lightning. Lying on its side, perfectly seasoned by now, it would be, I knew, a very beautiful source of heat for the upcoming winter. Bow saw and rope in hand, I would make my way to the great beast, take what I needed and head back. I could never get too greedy on each trip, as the return journey required too much manoeuvring to carry more than an armful at a time. The wood itself was bleached by weather, almost like driftwood, and burned ferociously. Collecting it was like arriving at the lair of some prehistoric deity with muscled limbs in all directions, and a huge ancient trunk. My time with this tree went through heavy snows, baking summers, and endless British rain. Under a full moon it seemed to glow.
A fire from this source always felt sweeter, more precious. When I fed wood cut to size by the billhook into the hungry mouth of the iron burner, I would sit back and close my eyes, tracing the journey I’d just been on. Words came, mad poems, ornate drawings. After grappling the wood back over the stream and under the fence, some weird excitement would emerge and prowl across the energy of the written word, looking for nests.
Early on I spent a week at a travelers’ camp up on the border between Wales and England. There on the highest field of a well-meaning farmer’s land were a grizzled assortment of Irish travelers, vagabond English, and a small group of traditional Albanian gypsies—a rare mix. The Gypsies, settled for a season or two, were planting the earth, repairing caravans, and traditional wagons, and, apart from berating me to get a haircut, were generally friendly. In the evening they would sit on buckets around an open fire, smoke, and play music, often switching languages as they did it. The stories they told were highly speculative and veered wildly between epic sagas and rough little street tales, packed with intelligence.
What I gained from this experience, in addition to the haircut, was a certain elegance in living outside and a sense of connection to ancestry. It felt precious even then; ten years on I doubt I could even find such a group in England again. As the Gypsies’ music pirouetted defiantly up toward low clouds and old gods, their sons and daughters were focusing their attention on getting an apartment in town or getting a job that paid more than minimum wage. It’s not my business to judge that, because I haven’t lived their life. So I continued wandering and looked for myth tellers, what the Gaelic peoples call the Seanchai—tellers of the deep words. I was lucky enough to meet a few of these people, whether they knew what they were or not.
Their stories were not simple allegories, they were like small bushes of flame. I might hear them up at base camp at Caer Idris, or on a smoke trail from a visiting Mayan, rarely from an “professional storyteller.” I was dazzled, edified and despairing at ever being able to catch some of that nourishing eloquence in my own small beak. I would stagger back to the black tent and watch the word magic bounce around the breathing canvas. Everything that came out of my mouth seemed stumpy, blunt, and factual. It was embarrassing. No wonder my wife had left!
I continued my own journey of listening to the living world. This time it involved being sealed into a small dark structure, like a miniscule sweat lodge, up in the forests of Wales, miles from anyone but my base camper, without food or water. Unable to see my hand in front of my face, or sit up, I was left in the pitch black, clutching three crow feathers and already thirsty. This time the journey was profoundly internal. Deprived of visual light, within a day or so images began to appear across the blackness, like waking dreams. The imagined straight line of time dissolved into something much more profound. The lodge filled with sparks of light and whiskery old voices, the structure itself shook violently. Whole chunks of my future, at that point seemingly unlived, passed by me that night. During the twilight of the second night (not that I could tell), immense storms rolled in from the Irish ocean and set about my tiny structure, assailing it for hours at a time.
When my vigil was done and David, my base camper and long suffering mentor, appeared, I found that trees had come down, the long grasses had flattened, and my tent was awash with water. We made the long and treacherous descent through the forests to David’s car. When we arrived, there was a note from a ranger, worried that the owner had gone out to commit suicide—a popular pastime in that part of Wales. Well, we were both alive in the literal sense, but truly, some part of me had gone up there to die. I remember talking to a Choctaw medicine man about a Lakota friend we had in common, when he said, “Do you
know why he gets so much love? When he walks into the pow wow everyone knows he has died, over and over again.”
As the months moved into years it became clear that the vision-language of tribal people was not just an anthropocentric invention, but arose from a continual openness to the still-latent energies hidden in brook, desert, and moor. I would return from my fasts to the black tent, the old cat, the lightning tree, the witches moon, and wonder.
The Land is a Huge, Dreaming Animal
Places long to speak: great polyphonic blasts of forest oratory or the thin keening of the hemlock. I tried to bathe my head in the golden chatter of holy places, and sometimes caught a word or two, sometimes silence, sometimes a whole stanza of some great epic, buried in the granite of a Dartmoor Tor. The earth’s rough harmonies are more than the metaphors of this writer, but the primordial, root relationship between us and the living world. I have begun to suspect that underneath the ancient caves, buried arrow heads, and mineral deposits, the continents of this world are huge, dreaming animals.
Any gatherings on Ecology may benefit from myth tellers from each country attending and sharing culturally specific stories, so the animals underneath the countries have a chance for the image-language to speak for them. I think these animals have quite different characters and desires.
We could say that earth is relaying a lot of information right now, and not all of it is accessible with statistics and logic. I believe it is a call to the prophetic within us—a big word. The pastoral-creative work designed to appeal and comfort mass civilisation completely lacks the receptivity for the task.
However, without a process similar to the one I am describing, it would be very difficult to engender the psychic readiness required. To be clear: to function in their deepest vocation, the storytellers/ teachers/ poets should stand in the ground of prophetic image, a scarecrow of words, pushed by invisible winds. There’s a great deal of grandeur in that statement, and all sorts of problems, but I’m sticking with it.