Sweet marie, it's december. How has this happened? The leaves are off the trees and i guess we must consider the possibility that it is early winter. Autumn, champion of seasons has been way to short for me this year. Getting my clothes and rugs together, and coaxing the stories into my crane-skin bag of for this weekends 'COYOTE MAN AND THE FOX WOMAN' weekend, has reminded me of earlier, rather more robust gatherings, long before we considered cosy, lovely residential centers and were entirely tent orientated. Remembering those, and also sensing a distinct change of mood in Dartmoor itself, leads me to this weeks offering - a little remembering of a certain ritual etiquette when entering the wild.
So, come december - i enjoy the next few weeks often a little more than christmas itself. So lots of cooking, music - especially medieval, troubadour and a frisson of Arvo Part, red wine, friends, open fires. I am deeply into the writing of my new book and my current draft of my new Parzival book will be out doing the publishing rounds in the new year.
It’s raining as we start up the loose stoned track up onto the moor from the hamlet of Scoriton. My battered (car door savagely booted the night before by a stray cow – it never got fixed) Saab, although low slung, picks her way gingerly over the loose shale and occasional boulder. My black pearl is loaded with a 16ft yurt, wood burning stove, Persian rugs, a trivet to cook over a fire, several Persian rugs for a floor, half a bottle of Jameson’s whisky, local eggs, and a staggering assortment of smoked bacons and sausage from Ashburton’s finest butcher, Rodney Cleave. Stuffed in the pockets of a battered Harris Tweed is enough dark chocolate to barter your way out of the Underworld itself. About half way up the track we pull over onto the glistening long grass of Tony’s field. Tony is a local farmer – whip thin, skin as brown as hazel nut, utterly generous and with an almost aboriginal look in his eye.
It is the beginning of a years study of myth, initiation and both's relationship to the wild. We gingerly lay the thinning black canvas out over the Saab rather than directly on the wet grass. For now the rain is more of an atmosphere rather than direct assault. As I gaze at the patched up canvas and run my hand gently over its thread, my mind leaps.
For four years that tent had been my home, my roof, my ground. We had been nomadic, starting life up near the Welsh border for a couple of years, before the magnetic pull of my old turf, Devon, got too strong and I headed back to the apple-heavy west. With cat in tow I had found good natured folks who didn’t object to a strange bearded man and familiar living down by the tree line of their land. So for a while I lodged just outside Stoke Gabriel, shaded by a Eucalyptus tree. The final destination for this stretch of walkabout was in the ramshackle gardens by the lodgehouse of the grievously haunted Berry Pomeroy Castle.
It had been an elegant and testing time. Many of us sense mystery, what storytellers call the Otherworld, out of the corner of our eye, but lead lives so busy that it remains a brief intuition, rather than a full investigation. There will always be babes to feed, reports to write, pints to drink, bleary eyed school runs to navigate. Well, when I was in my early twenties I had gone up to Snowdonia to undertake a wilderness fast – four days in a wild place, without food, tent or fire. I’m sure many of you are familiar with this process and so will not overlabour it here. The experience had utterly shaken me to the quick, and a protracted change of life style was necessary.
My tent time was an attempt to orientate myself full time towards the mysteries. I had no agility as a practical man but just about got by, I could gather kindling for the burner, keep the tent toasty over a fierce winter, proof the hide, walk the valleys, copses, and summering lanes of the far west. Somewhere in all this I became a storyteller.
And a storyteller who would still be living in that tent on Dartmoor itself were the legal restrictions not so snare-tight! As it was, towards the end of the time I describe, I had fallen in love and a baby was growing in Cara’s belly. So, at the very bottom of that Scoriton track was a lane, Rosemary lane, and on it lived our small family, babe and all.
My reverie is broken by a yelp. My right hand pirate, Jonny Bloor, is walking swiftly towards me with a mouthful of blood. Whilst erecting the trellis for the yurt and stretching what we call Bunji ropes across them to keep them taught, one flies free and the sharp iron hooked end, with lightning speed, lodges itself in the bottom lip of young Jonny. The Bunji is now removed but a gaping hole pissing blood remains. Never one to miss a ritual opening, I suggest that Jonny lets it drip down onto the soil of the moor as we begin our enterprise. Then fill up the hole with chewing gum soaked in vinegar, or tobacco, or maybe even something vaguely sensible. So Jonny parades the borders of the field with his dripping mouth, ever brave, whilst I notice the rain is picking up.
With the help of another good man, the steel eyed David Stevenson, we soon get our creaky home erected. The occasional bucket is produced for sporadic leaks – very occasional I swear, and, praise allah!, the fire is lit, trivet set and the smell of roasting coffee drifts out from the smoke.
Later our tent fills with people. Cars parked at the bottom of the track, they have wobbled up to us with heavy rucksacks and anxious eyes. Jonny has met them in the darkening rain with a lantern and ruptured bottom lip, claiming I had lost my temper with him. Far from it, but they’re not to know. Still, the burner is valiant – providing life giving heat to our assorted bones. All are here for story, for wild adventure, for the night sea journey.
So focused am I on telling the first nights story I only partially register that the temperature has dropped. In fact it’s freezing, even with grandfather fire crackling out his story for all its worth. I glance up. The roof of the yurt has, utterly silently, flown off and down the hill into the indigo night. So completely caught in the stories unfolding, none of us had noticed its departure. A hundred thousand stars twinkle overhead.
Bust-mouth Jonny is first out the door, scampering like Finn’s hounds after the far distant sight of a crimson guy rope disappearing over the tump. This rather introverted group, with some gentle bellowed encouragement from myself, follow him out, grabbing all manner of hand tools and coils of ropes as they go, steel-eyed Dave sweeping them all on, holding up the rear with a large bill hook.
By now the temperature has dropped below freezing – it’s January. Hands have become numb blue bricks as we scamper after this knackered piece of cloth holding our world together. Finally we catch our whimsical shelter, just before it takes a sub-zero drenching in the bottom stream. The wind is now howling so aggressively that the usual technique of throwing a kind of lasso over the top of the yurt and dragging the canvas across is almost impossible. The enraged wind gods are throwing their spit right towards us and are facing the way the canvas needs to go. In the end two participants are splayed like inebriated spiders half way up either side of the trellis as a brick tied to a rope is hurled just over their delicate heads to land, just for a second, on the other side. Like a swarm we slosh through the heaps of dead bracken to get round and heave our shelter back onto the top of the tent. Frozen stumps of hands pass me boulders in the shuddering dark to support the guy ropes and suddenly the wind drops entirely. All is utterly calm. The story picks up perfectly from where we left off.
Later, when our fellow travellers sleep a mildly traumatised sleep (we will be bathing in a local stream at six), Dave, Jonny and I stretch out on the rugs by the blaze and reflect on what a ferocious gatekeeper of its secrets Dartmoor is. It had laid out some ground rules for our work. Like the ornately carved doorway to an Asian temple, its intricately designed images offer caution to those who enter. Be aware, go respectfully or you may taste blood, be aware, go respectfully or you may lose the roof of your house.
copyright martin shaw 2011