Saturday, 15 December 2012

Winter Retreat in San Diego Jan 25/26th

Hey folks,
don't want to interrupt the rustle of christmas present wrapping, but some news just in on a Southern Californian event for late January. Impressed with the child care and bagels angle - that gets some gold stars in my book.


It will be held at Bard Hall, at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Hillcrest.

Friday and Saturday January 25th and 26th
(Child care will be available on Friday night)

Join the UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST MEN’S FELLOWSHIP (UUMF) in an interactive lecture and workshop on storytelling and mythology, supported in part by the fellowship’s Program Enrichment Fund*.

Both Women and Men are invited.

This year, the UUMF has invited Dr. Martin Shaw to facilitate our exploration. Through Martin’s inspired storytelling, we will consider the stories we “carry” and the potentially universal themes embodied in them.

Our fellowship often uses mythology and stories to help us unlock our feelings and reach deep levels of sharing. We meet in small groups for discussions maintaining confidentiality which develops a trustworthy environment. We honor the right to reticence – no one is pressured to share, but all are invited to participate. These have proven to be powerful and useful techniques, offering profound opportunities to discover meaning in our lives.

Program Schedule:
Friday 7:00PM to 9:00PM. Through myths and story telling, Dr. Shaw will share the importance of stories in our lives.

Saturday– 8:30AM – 3:30PM. Bagels, juice and coffee will be available in the morning and lunch will be provided at noon. There will be small group discussions of the shared story as it relates to our own personal history.

About Dr. Martin Shaw Author and guide Martin Shaw has been described by Robert Bly as “a true master… one of the very greatest storytellers we have.” Based in Devon, in the UK, Shaw is Director of the Westcounty School of Myth and Story. He leads year long programs and wilderness retreats. He is available for lectures and workshops throughout the year. He is currently teaching a class (The Oral Tradition: Myth, Folklore and Fairy Tale) at Stanford University.

Dr. Shaw’s new book, A Branch From the Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wildness (White Cloud Press), is a collection of seven myths that he describes as “prophetic” and which speak to the challenges we face today.

*The UUMF has been generously endowed by present and past members to expand its role as a San Diego men’s resource. Our mission is to support men in the quest for lives of compassion, integrity, responsibility, and balance.
UUMF at:

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Caw Blimey - the Crow Puppets, Books and More.

Exciting Musical Happenings for 2013:

Are the links to a fantastic couple of musical storytellers, Crow Puppets. First one gets you to the strange, smokey den of their music, second to their Facebook page where by clicking 'like' you put your elbow of support towards their wild and elegant sound.

I'm not going to say too much about them, but let their music do the talking. They don't need my yakking. They seems to be their own kingdom - with fierce weather patterns, clumps of gold hidden on blustery, midnight hillsides, strange old men praying to gods no one remembers anymore. So there they are - moon pirates - catch em' while you can - they won't be a secret for long.

Books, Books: not all from this year

Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest Ann Skea

Rowboat: Poetry in Translation (Issue no3) Editor Jay Leeming (and Katherine Rauk and Norman Minnick amongst others, all hugely gifted poets)

Dark Mountain Issue 3. Editor and collaborator of mine Paul Kingsnorth, another smorgasboard of writers and ideas.

The World of Storytelling: Revised and Expanded Edition Anne Pellowski

Dancing at the Devil's Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic
Alicia Ostriker

Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition Frances Yates

Hummingbird Sleep: poems 2009 - 2011 (upcoming) Coleman Barks

Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology David Abram

Which leads me to announce, or whisper, because it hasn't quite gone through the books yet, but a collaboration with David Abram and myself the first week in July at Schumacher College, in the UK. We were up till the small hours last night with him on the phone from a crackly-lined New Mexico planning something so hair-raisingly exciting that we have trouble actually getting its essence into prose (needed for promotional uses etc). We may just utter a few feathered yelps and an eruptive twitter as dawn breaks.

More as i have it....

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Merlin and New Recordings

is the link to some live recordings of prose-poem like folktales i have been working on. Please forgive my less than usual contribution to the blog - the Stanford residency begins just the other side of the new year, and bags are being packed, presents for loved ones prepared. Look out for a possible evening with myself and Coleman Barks at Stanford in february - will confirm when its nailed down.

Wishing you luck and warmth and companionship in this cold month - here's a few lines from one of the recordings - something of a battle speech from Merlin - something he lives to regret.
Well, viva peace! i say this christmas. More gadzooks, less humbug.

More soon,



(From Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini 1150.)

It was then, in that time

that Myrddin - our Merlin-
drew wisdom and laws

from the nettle-grass
and horse chestnut
of South Wales.

He issued seership and instruction
to the proud Demeti.

He had the bracken ear
the coltish tongue
the dark speech
required for such largeness of task.

His gleeful word
could school the temperament of young princes.

His curling language could lend a swan elegance.


Unflinching with truth.
Ordering a firm house in the roar of court.

Son of an incubus -

he still claims residence
to some inner animal.

And he is friend
to the Old-Man-in-the-Fur-Coat - the bear.

He has gathered red berries by the cold stream,
He has pressed his mind
through gorse and hemlock.

To the men his outer-being is calm :
but inside it rattles with knowing,
a ripping hail, a speech-blizzard carving up
the skull of his woken-ness.

Double-tongued is he:
faithful enquirer to
the wolf’s epiphany
and the politics of the long-house.


To Merlin, alone in his secret den,
This gut-black-power, this second sight
has brought him a new worry.

Peredur of Wales,
prince of the Venedoti of the North,

was drinking blood-buckets
from the veins of the peoples of Gwenddolau,

-Gwenddolau, king of the woad-country
in the far north.

Britain sags with the keening.
The bruised hills hold a mother's terror,

The tree line is a blood-comb
from war’s many bragging roosters.

The bone hills fire-up across the moor.


A battle is arranged, punctual.

Warrior-gear a gleam; straight turf and firm;
Under foot, no bog: A good killing map.

Merlin backs Peredur,
as does Rodarch, High Man of Cumbria.

Rodarch’s brothers come too --three boars
tusk-drunk for the fight, chanting low behind him.

The good seer, Merlin--smeared thick with dirt and rook blood
struts a tawny mile in front of the soon-to-dying men.

His task is to raise a hail-storm in their souls.

He calls out the enemy :

Let your hearts rip like bursting cliffs.
Let shit fill your veins
Let your cocks shrivel;
Let your balls be lumped coal that never sires
your bowels cluck with terror
at the sight of we western men
We handsome destroyers.

Let your eyes be as milk
and battle-blindness descend
leading you to the red pasture
of Welsh blades.
Let you feel good horror
at our bastard strength and our hoof-power.
Let our anvil bludgeon
loose your feeble brain-mush
as compost for our noble soil.

Have at them.

This black father, Merlin,

Hurls dark speech like warfare
and all his loving sons charge the field.

The three brothers of Rodarch,
electrified by speech

seek the field's deepest trouble,
to be witnessed aflame by their terrified men.

Fame will not come
to those that don’t.

But speech can be fragile; as any man knows
our best prayers may land this side of the river.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Monday, 12 November 2012

Bird-Spirit Thinking

...(the above isn't the book cover, just a visual reference whilst i was writing).

A chunk this week of the book i have been working on this last year - 'The Bird-Spirit King: myth as migration, a wild land dreaming'. As 'Snowy Tower' is now on White Clouds desk getting formatted for a Spring release, my attention this last week has been a slow read through and edit of what came from an autumn, winter and spring wandering the myth-lines of a quiver of local stories across Dartmoor. It's a very esoteric manuscript: three chapters on what i'm calling English Liminal Culture - from the Medieval wild woman to the ecstatic politics of Gerrard Winstanley. It feels a fitting conclusion to the Mythteller trilogy - which began with Lightning Tree.

PS - The family and I will be arriving in Northern California on New Years Eve no less, for good adventures, fellowship and to begin my program at Stanford University teaching Oral Traditions and Mythology. I am also in discussions with my old Point Reyes compadre Lisa Doron concerning a winter intensive (one weekend gathering per jan/feb/mar) up in PR. This is all very exciting, and the family are all looking forward to catching up with old friends. I will add info here the moment i have it.

The Winged King
Locals still tell of a story of the creation of much of Dartmoor’s landscape, of a time when King Arthur himself arrived on the moors and took on a malevolent dark spirit that lurked in its forests. Arthur is often said to come from the Royal House of Dumnonia, an ancient kingdom that would have included Devon as its centre. The two furies aimed at each other vast quoits (a kind of heavy ring of iron), brave Arthur solid on Blackystone rock, the spirit up to the north on Hel Tor.

Even in the pubs of Ashburton and Widdicombe they will tell you that the combat lasted days, weeks, even a month before the sheer strength of Arthur’s arm sent the dark one packing. Each of the hundreds of quoits hurled back and forth had, at the exact moment they hit the soil, transformed into the great lumps of granite that we know as Tors, in fact that mighty land as we know it today was actually forged in the intensity of the fight between Arthur and the foul creature.

What is also said is that from the day he left his body, Arthur’s spirit has entered into a chaw – a local name for a chough (which again is an English jackdaw) – that watches over the whole of Britain, trying to wake its deepest connections to its people, animals, and land mysteries.

That the ancient sovereign of Britain is to be found in the ribcage and beak and coak-black feathers of a bird is something we should pay great attention to.

So in this gathering of Devonian lore, this kistvean treasury of story, this call to olde England, this animistic nostalgia to create good meat for our children’s future bellies, I call on the feathered and sweet black wings of Arthur’s spirit to come again, with power – to the neuted hamlets of the rich, to towns drunk on Friday's pay-packet violence, to the travellers camp dotted bleak on coastal roads, to the golden house of fallen politics on the scat-black Thames.

Arthur is not sleeping in a hill, but a-roaming the lanes, blessing the ruts in a lonely Norfolk field, flying hard over the glitter of London, rustling the spook-trees of the Forest of Dean, endlessly nesting above any market square worth the name. He is looking for you. This longing of Arthur’s has sometimes been called The Hope of the West.

Make no mistake, the bird-spirit of the true king of Britain is still abroad.

Dangerous Talk
I sat eating steak and drinking with the writer Alastair McIntosh. We were in the White Hart bar in Dartington, just getting dark. It was mid-summer, we’d taught all day, and brown ale gently coaxed some hard thinking. Towards the end of the evening, the conversation got round to the idea of how to save notions of Englishness from the likes of the British National Party, that casual racism that so glibly provokes a distant nostalgia and then uses it as a crude but emotive tool. How to actually invoke the magical consciousness of England that sits so quietly under the lonely framework of concrete and pylons, something way before empire's troubled inheritance; to even briefly put down the wider notion of Britain and Ireland: the green lanes of beloved Ceredigion, or the Galway shore, or the forest of Caledon and focus on England.

England. We remember its old villages and hamlets – Buckland, Painswick, Ryhall, Ponsworthy. Names with stories attached. We remember the rebel spirit of Robin Hood, Emily Pankhurst, Bert Jancsh – feisty souled but also noble spirited, rather than the bilious kings and feudal lords that fill our history books.

We throw bone to the crows to celebrate the energy that rose up through the feet of Merlin when caught in dragonish prophecy, or the black faced Morris dancer today, gloriously amok in pheasant feathers, fierce staff gripped in paw. We call out in swelled voice to the Holly King – the wintering spirit, for the Wassail, for the Women of the Wells.

That’s a vast proposal in terms of storytelling – and one that I know would include Anglo-Indian, Anglo-Caribbean, Romany and many other rich seams in the mix. These stories are a great blessing to a land that has always been a country of immigrants. Ground I felt clearer on was simply following the myth-line that Devon stories evoke. Englishness is a big question and to approach it would take many volumes, but Dartmoor?

Yes, I know a little of what that place feels like – its grumpy and magnificent landscape. When we finally parted in the small hours of the morning, some seed was planted. A thicket of stormy tales spread across the flank of Dartmoor – that I knew. My feet had the ache-information of long steps across the fragrant grasses, my eye the views seen since a wee boy, my gut the charged stories of that tor, that pool, that gully. Yes, maybe something could happen with this. I will address some wilder aspects of marginal English culture, but it is in no way exhaustive.

Some of the stories i walked - almost half - did not wish to be written about, rather told in their original setting. So, discretion and honouring was required. A place radically informs the speaking of a story. The buffeting wind, the iron sky, the crumbling bark, the eager rivers gush, would all seep into the galloping horse of story-speech; they would nestle under the feathered syntax and in some way massage the way the words jostled their telling out into the crisp air. So the land witnessed some sparky-glimpses of itself in the mutual speech.

And talking of mutual speech,if you are going to go walkabout, it's always good to introduce yourself, in some humble, or grand, or strange but always sincere manner. It shrugs off some of the electrical pylons, quiz shows and airplane food that slides through us, and gets to some hoofed speech that old places seem to like.

The Rattle-House of Sound:
Beating the Boundaries
(From the study, looking up to the south moor)

I am in the hut. The warm hut of myself.
Where language is a herding magic, nine inky mares galloping loose on the bone-white page, an equine flood.

Up in the crag-world do you hear these whinnies? Let the loom of my tongue craft the wild bees furry speech. Black clouds I am a-lightning; I hurl rain-daggers into mud. Black clouds I am a-shire, loosening my muscle hoofed stomp.

The geese that flew for Parzival, I love. The hawk that claimed three drops of their blood, I love. The snow it fell on to, I love.

The hut is a rattle-house of sound. A croft for wolves. It stands in dark privacy. Deep nested, wine briared from the drifting snows. The floor is erotic dirt, the air is sweet like stored apples.

Walls are the big trees – Grimm’s trees, Siberian, enormous Irish voyaging stories. Bark shines wet, the roots are mad and deep. I ramble under the billowing skirts of love’s tall pines.

This twigged hump holds the vastness of a stag’s breastbone, a pirate’s cathedral, it is a smokey den of gaudy leaps.

Gawain’s bent head in the green chapel, I love. The heavy horse alone in the orchard, I love. The woman who lives at the edge of the world, I love.

Grasses hum with beehive. I break chunks of honeycomb and offer them up to Dartmoor.
The hut shudders with foamy energy, reaching northwards to coax the rivers – the Tavy, the Plym, the Erme, the Avon, the Dart, and The Teign. Brittle gods are amok in the tourists' sour heather.

I call the names under the names of old Devon - Broken Court - Breazle, Dark Stream - Dawlish, Great Wood - Cruwys Morchard, all shimmering in the leafy gramarye of this Kingdom of Dumnonia.

I carry green waves from the bright girdle of the sea, generous beer in a bronze cup for the spit-wind. I come in the old way.

I leave a hollowed out hoof filled with apple-blossom on the turf, I haunch the dream path of the adder up to Hay Tor, Lucky Tor, Hound Tor, Benji Tor, Yal Tor.

The dry-stone wall, I love. The moon over corn, I love. Branwen of the white breast, I love.

At forty years old, I bend my head. I come in my father's boots, and Alec’s, and Leonard’s, and Bryan’s. I carry dark bundles of my mother's hair, and Christine’s, and Monica’s, and Jenny's.

The blood holds Shaw, Gibson, Causer, Thackery. I come to walk the boundaries. I come to find a myth-line. This spreading turf is the moor – once a desert, a tropical island, a red wood forest.

I clamber flanks of bailing twine and rusting tractor engine to get nearer to your gurgled speech. I break the hard crust of snow with blue paws. I lace granite with whisky and milk. Within the stag’s bone there is a hawkish wine, in the glisten of the hare's paw lies the old singing.

Let the tusks of Dermot’s Boar get soaked in the wine of your education, Let your milk heavy udders splash hot into our story-parched mouth, Let the wild swan at dawn rise to meet Christ’s dark fire.

I ask for protection from the good power.

Let all stories hold, heal and nourish my small family. Let they be hazels for our mouths. Nothing but goodness – no fear, no meanness, no envy.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Saturday, 3 November 2012

THE ROOSTER AND THE TORTOISE: Something on the Masculine

I have been asked about my involvement with men's work, so here's a quick peak at part of an interview that should be out in 2013. As always, some of it i do hope is relevant to women, and so please take anything of use.


an Interview with Martin Shaw

"men's work is not about enforced separation between genders, it’s about depth and respect on the return - it’s about a love affair"

What is your interest with men's work?

Well, during its first experience overground (in the media) - in the late eighties and nineties - i was unconnected to it, i was in my teens and twenties and would have regarded it as a little strange, i do remember some of the media propaganda about naked white men bashing out of tune drums and weeping about their father issues. That wasn’t appealing.

Like a lot men of my age - around forty - i come from a background very sympathetic to feminism, so had a radar sharp detection for any sense of secretive groups of pissed off guys moaning about their wives, i wouldn’t and still wouldn’t want any part of that. To my regret i didn’t engage with any further investigation. I was suspicious, i suppose, of homophobia, or some nutty kind of Masonic set up.

So i was living outdoors, getting soaked in weather and holding a tent together through British winters, and involved with wilderness rites-of-passage work during the mens work most visible era - i say visible because it was cooking merrily underground for half a decade before Iron John and has continued in various incarnations every since.

However, i was aware and reading the work of some of its main teachers - Robert Bly, Michael Meade, James Hillman - so i received a kind of distant mentoring through the ideas - like thousands of other men.

I felt that the strong emphasis on the need for men to initiate men was actually a subtle point, and not very well handled. I would agree that there is a crucial point in adolescence where a boy needs a period exclusively under the guidance of older men, but that is not the only initiatory stage, there are many before and after that profoundly involve women.

So i felt that could have been communicated more fully and saved alot of confusion and hurt. Speaking to Robert about this years later he said if he wrote it again, he would have given over twenty pages to the grief of women at that point in adolescence when the son breaks certain intricate connections to their mother.

At that point it was less the emphasis on the masculine that really caught me, but a wider connection between myth and our lives - something with a similar scent was going on with Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Marion Woodman - who i also loved. So just that relationship between the images in stories and our everyday lives was mind blowing to me - more than specifically a gender issue.

I had an instinct for metaphorical language, and just loved the sophistication and deep intelligence of these men from across the water. Standing behind the American origin of these guys however, is an immersion in a European tradition - the fairy tale and its exegesis in the work of Marie-Louise Von Franz and Carl Jung. Bly was already fifteen years into leading the seminal mythopoetic conference, The Great Mother Conference, so the idea of him being opposed to the feminine was rather grotesque.

In reflection, it was this wider impact that took a hold, rather than entirely a reflection on the masculine. However, i wasn’t a father at that point, so as I absorb the joy and labour of being a parent, much of that work returns with even greater intensity.

The father is such a mysterious figure in modern families - so many of us are just trying to figure what on earth it looks like these days. Neither as the Saturnian figure of old or a kind of mother substitute. It’s felt a very corrupted image, distrustful.

Well, it can’t remain that way. Just can't. If a family is a like an old growth forest, something fundamental happens when you remove a big tree - there is an absence, and there are consequences, vaster than we can imagine. The whole bio-region changes. After twenty years experience of working with at risk youth, i can say candidly that the vast majority of the young men i work with have not only not grown up with a responsible male, they have rarely met one. That’s old news, but still shocking. I have many friendships and great admiration for many single mothers negotiating this terrain.

Of course, most of us would prefer an absence to a brute, which is the quickest and most demonstrative example of what’s been called an uninitiated man - a boy. So, right now, that is the overriding concern i have around the masculine. And to men who are not fathers i would suggest, to take these ideas towards whatever they are birthing, stewarding, or care-taking in their own lives.

Over the last six years or so i have worked side by side with Robert, Hillman, Malidoma Some, Daniel Deardorff, Robert Moore and many others at conferences and smaller events. Despite the inventive leaps that all these thinkers produce, it is clear that the nitty-gritty of men’s work is still done in small groups, with men risking some vulnerability, tasting the unique experience of sharing grief, living their desires, letting others go, shouldering more responsibility in their communities, being far more open to the feminine in themselves and in women, and developing the ability to praise what deserves to be praised.

This is slow work, and needs to be so, otherwise it lacks a certain groundedness, which appears to be part of this fathering business many of us long for.

So, to the surprise of my younger self, through men’s work i have found some of the most steadfast, playful, courageous men it could be anyones good fortune to meet.
And in doing so, have been forced, by example, to review my own inhibitions about the notion of fathering, and make a room in myself for the reality of a generous, warm-spirited masculine. It’s been a revelation.

In 2012, what are its concerns?

Well i can only speak of my own, and a few friends around me engaged with the same issues. Although men’s work continues in small groups, it doesn’t really have figures like Bly anymore to bring together the many different groups, and there is a woeful lack of books and ideas around to really create some sense of momentum. When it just becomes an old boys club you can count me out.

Although many hate to admit in, men respond to leadership, and there would have to be a move from a deep passivity into personal motivation to change this slumbering trend - especially from guys who have been involved in this work a long time. To teach it is a real art form; if you handle the material of story, ritual, wilderness work clumsily then you invite havoc. I remain hopeful of some coming through though. We would have to become as adept in spirit as we have in the business of soul for men's work to catch some urgency again.

But, many of the concerns of twenty years ago - the lack of initiation experience in a mature rather than faux fashion for young men for example - have increased in urgency.

A large amount of the men that entered these ideas in their forties are now in their sixties, and an ideal age to start getting involved with active mentoring - the kind they themselves would have longed for. A common mistake is that all the blessing occurs from the mentor down to the youth - but the mentor requires the blessing of the younger’s eyes and attention in the first place to get it started. Without that flow, nothing much will happen.

Three issues i find myself working through in my own life are:

Damaged Eros: The access to hardcore pornography through the internet is causing a massive interference to mens erotic imagination, and a lack of real relating to their flesh and blood partners. That’s something that has rapidly accelerated in the last two decades. I would suggest we need to stake some claim to our own passions again, to revive the old gods of imagination that stand behind sexual appetite and ingenuity - Dionysus, Eros, Pan. Porn chucks all that into some shadowy hinterland that we find hard to talk about. Shame and desire are weird but very common bedfellows. We enter relationships already ashamed of ourselves. I’m interested in a different approach.

External Work: The strand of mens work i am connected to - what is often called mythopoetic - is very engaged with relationship to an inner life - through myth, poetry, ritual and the wider arts. This is a huge step for many men. I feel that that awakeness, needs to be taken into an outer experience of caretaking some some area of the natural world. Plant according to the moon, cultivate difficult relationships, think carefully about what you abandon, find ways to display some real gallantry, pay attention to what is happening to the mountains and arctic ridge, invest in the outer world in some way that feels of service. Be visible for gods sake. There has been some admirable work creating ways out into the wilderness for young people, but far less on an integrated return - to engage in the ‘things of the world’. Something wakes up in man when he sees something beautiful and true crafted by his own hands flourish in the outside world.

I struggle with some of this myself, to be clear. Whilst i think the gathering of time for women just for the company of women, and men for men is important, i’m more interested finally in the coming back together to be directly engaged in the raising of wild, snuffling kids, protecting owls and whiskery field mice when they need it, crafting art, working hard on things that connect us to oak trees and star formations. Ultimately men's work is not about enforced separation between genders, it’s about depth and respect on the return - it’s about a love affair. And we get there by time apart - allowing longing as well as constant proximity into the experience. Something holy can break out in that absence.

Shaking your Tail-Feather, but Going Steady:
Quite a few men i meet have either abdicated entirely from any kind of cohesive parenting, or they are are unsure of how it looks in a man, so they mimic the skills of the mother. Clue: women will always do it better. It’s old news that some men learn their emotional expression through women, because they haven’t seen the masculine range embodied. But there seems to be some damage in this - their feathers wilt, their coat lacks shine, they lack a certain decisiveness. So how could we get some of that back, whilst also displaying a greater commitment to our loved ones?

For this, i go back to the old stories, and the images within them. The god of the storytellers is Hermes - and storytelling is always a job of both parents - the father, just like it is the mother. Two totem animals of Hermes are the rooster and the tortoise - I would suggest we could focus on the steady diligence of the tortoise (who carries a house on its back remember), but not sacrifice the plumage, display and general panache of the rooster. To find a connection between those two animal powers could be a great step towards simply being a deeper human being.

The tortoise seems to be to do with the issue of trust. Some quiet steadiness, some resilience, not caught in the hysteria of the new. And then rooster - a place for the lover - that place not crippled by shame, that allows our funky little shape to howl its love-cry up to the yellow moon. In the Greek world this is relationship between the Puer and the Senex - the luminous boy who feels a little like god, and the old man who keeps a gnarled fist around their ankle as they float off towards the sun. Ensuring that neither quite wins over the other is the business of growing up i think.

I like this because it provides an image to work with (rather than just a concept) and an image from the animal world. What i’m not going to do is give a five point plan for ‘reclaiming the rooster’ - that’s to be figured out oneself, and those connections suffer when dragged into the thin light of the literal. In my own life i seem to gather the stories, friendships and challenging situations that call forth these seemingly opposed forces. I think an adult is someone who has absorbed and maintained certain tensions in their life and transformed them into something rather stylish. They know their own mind but are curious enough to change it.

copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Friday, 2 November 2012


# hello folks, here are the dates for the 2013 School of Myth year programme. Please note we have have taken 50% of available places within one week of releasing the dates, so please email tina at today to avoid disappointment. For more details, check the 'courses' page at

April 26th to 28th 2013

June 28th to 30th 2013

August 2nd to 4th 2013

October 4th to 6th 2013

December 6th to 8th 2013

£200 per weekend, non-refundable deposit of £250 required to secure place.

The Rattle-House of Sound, The Stag-Boned Hut that is a Poacher's Chapel, The Den of Smoky Language…

The school attracts a diverse set of students: from storytellers to surgeons to racing car drivers to artists. No one is too experienced or too new to myth to not find their way into this groundbreaking programme. All are assured a very warm welcome by Martin and the team. The success rate of the programme can be noted by the wonderfully diverse and idiosyncratic way that students of the school have taking their own way of relating and expressing the mythic imagination out into the wider world.

Most weekends are held in cosy residential centres on the moors-hot water, bed, woodburning stove, great food and fellowship.

This is not just a course about storytelling, but the wider ways that story informs and deepens the experience of our own life - that we are in fact in a living myth whether we know it or not. The programme gives us an extraordinary set of tools to enjoy that exploration.

The weekends revolve around the telling and exegesis of several myths. Implicit in these vivid expeditions is attention to the age old relationship with civilisation and the wild - animal-lore, philosophy, poetry and ritual practice. For 2013 onwards, Shaw is re-visioning much of the programme, with accompanying work on radical, wild-infused ideas through British history – from the Bardic schools, to medieval dream-poetry, to the Cunning Man and Woman to the ideas of the radical Leveller, Gerard Winstanley. These will be given as optional lectures late on the Saturday afternoon.

The school is centred on the teaching, myth telling and scholarship of Dr. Martin Shaw. The year programmes structure is organised around Shaw’s trilogy of writings: ‘A Branch From The Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wildness, Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet Black Branch of Language, The Bird-Spirit King: Myth as Migration, A Wild Land Dreaming. Both ‘Snowy Tower’ and ‘The Bird-Spirit King’ are forthcoming for 2013/14, so the school remains the place to be for these ideas and stories to be explored in one place before publication.

"Martin Shaw has hung around a great deal in the Underworld. There is woodsmoke and fox fur in his thinking - a wild mix of stories and troubling ideas." Robert Bly

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Giants at Samhain

Ahoy - Samhain descends. Just enjoyed a quick visit from Dark Mountain founder Paul Kingsnorth and his wonderful family. We are planning many juicy twists and turns for our weekend at the end of November - sold out with big waiting list alas.

Something on Giants, regression and the more positive aspects of Mars this week. This comes from a commentary on the story of Brutus of Troy - who, on arriving on the coast of what became Devon, has to encounter a race of aggressive giants. Taken as indications of what happens as we get to know our own psyches better - an inner journey - we find our own Giants pop out. So, this follows that lead....

PSYCHE AND EROS day in Dartington (please scroll to last post), is speedily filling up - get in touch today if you'd like to book a place, or risk losing a seat.

Giants of Regression: Taking the Strain

Giant energy is a harsh force when not aligned to a great cause. It is giant energy that pours through a community when they tie a woman to the stake and light the kindling. Giant energy has no eye for nuance, or the patiently grown herb garden, the subtle array of greys and blues in a painting by Cezanne. It towers too high off the ground to catch the scent of the wild lilies, its irritable eyes struggle to make out distinctions on the small canvas. Giant energy is distrustful of difference, of paradox, of ambiguity. Anything other than a yes or no enrages it.

Growing up in the eighties I would encounter it first hand in the terrorising of our local pubs by right wing skinheads. They had a rigid dress code, brutal fists, were utterly aligned around an intense but basic symbolic language, and if you did not fit within that language then they would gleefully inflict as much damage as they could.

In the Greek world that stands behind much of this story, Zeus had to defeat the giants, or Titans, to instigate culture and civic order. Hesiod, the oral poet and shepherd (of somewhere between 750 and 650 BC), claims the etymology of Titan is “to strain”. So the sense of the Titan’s in our own being is one of stress. Stress being a major killer in the new century, we see that it is creating a flesh harvest in Hades. If domination by giants indicates that gods are no longer present (i.e. no Zeus), then in losing our mythos, we allow a damaging flood of exhausting strain.

We all have giant energy. Harnessed well it is a tremendous source of will. It is giants who are in service to saints who get some of the great cathedrals built in old Gaelic stories. It is a raw reserve of sheer grunt power; if we deny it or fail to educate it, then we exile a great deal of momentum and stamina. It is not to deny giant power but to anchor it.

Brutus encountering the giants is like moments in our lives when we face up to large energies within our own being that have grown hostile. Whatever we neglect, or unduly abandon, tends to become aggressive. Greasy, mean-eyed, sadistic. To get to our own mythic ground and all its lucid abundance, we have the challenge of absorbing these marginal impulses that we would far rather ignore. But, in the process of any real growth, low and behold out they trot – sharp yellow teeth and club swinging, god only knows how long they have been languishing.

We have a tendency to view these exiled parts with great suspicion. We may 'decide' to be a free thinking artist, loose and unconstrained - groovy. Immediately anyone in a suit looks suspicious. Down into the cellar goes that part of ourselves that keeps a close eye on the contract, works to a deadline, balances the books – frankly that’s so uncool. But as the years pass and we end up selling our work for far less than its worth, or get tied up in knots with the tax man, or are beset with rip offs, we may have to pick up the key and wander down to the cellar where we exiled that part of ourselves so many years before. Do you think they will be pleased to see you?

For others, the lover could be down there - starved of dusk, the scent of sun on skin, the joy of erotic friendship – locked up by a life rigid and only focused on statistically viable results. No one down there, no exiled energy, is going to show you anything but the giant when they emerge. They’re pissed, regressed, woefully hostile. So, to repeat, we can see Brutus’s journey as one within ourselves towards the interior world, contact with what’s called the soul.

Those who had difficulty absorbing the fury of some feminism towards the masculine during the sixties and seventies may benefit from studying this story. If you had been squeezed down, relegated, abandoned, then what would your mood be when you finally got some space? It’s no great mystery.

Blake regarded many of these cellared beings as more than personal – as “divine influxes”, that rage and lust and grandeur drew us closer to a world soul. To repress them entirely is to numb routes out into wider consciousness. When we engage them, we start to get a sense of what they are about.

Being named after Mars, always associated with war, has been an interesting dynamic in my own life. But I use the word dynamic deliberately. Few want associations of mass bloodshed, annihilated villages or heads on poles, as connections to the name they carry. But Mars, when allowed out from the cellar, has other things to do.

It could be tempting to view the accomplishment of Mars, and indeed all these
giants, as apocalypse, nuclear war, the end of everything. But James Hillman reminds us that Mars asks us for engagement, not wipe-out, that even victory is not essential.

Mars is about instigation - a god of beginnings. The ram god mobilises. No Mars, and we have indistinct paranoid fumblings,vagueness. Apocalypse is not on his radar because it is the ending of all things. When Mars (really a god of agriculture, not of the city) arises, with all the drama and attendant movement, then we need to get closer to the message, not further away. We need to differentiate his passions. So to cure something of what we dread involves knowledge of the deity behind it.

The Homeric Hymn to Mars (Ares) calls for a devotion that assists understanding, that grows ever more subtle: “beam down from up there your gentle light on our lives and your martial power so that I can shake off cruel cowardice from my head, and diminish that receptive rush of my spirit, and restrain that shrill voice in my heart that provokes me to enter the chilling din of battle”. So real attention to Mars creates discernment, helps you choose your battles, calls on an expert's eye in the field of rousing activity, hones a point to angry, aimless spears. Throw all that away, and you just invite mayhem.

I have occasionally worked alongside the writer and therapist John Lee. John’s phrase for recognising when you are in the grip of one of these powerful entities is to “grow yourself back up!” In his book of almost the same name, he lays out the thought that regression is the moment we leave the present moment. So to be caught in the grip of the giant is a moment when we are utterly cut off from what is actually happening now and hurled into a place of imagined powerlessness, to be without choice, inflated with rage, unable to articulate what it is that we need.

To act ‘the giant’ is a leap away from the vulnerability that feeling small evokes. We tumble away from the present moment, often into a childhood scene where we first experienced the unique wounding that instigates regression in the first place.

His “red flags” of regression include – raging and hysteria (classic giant behaviour) and unreal time – when we are in it, time slows in perfect synch with our anxiety and we have utterly tragic imaginings that we can’t appear to control, we are full of childish questions. A favourite question of his is 'do you love me?' It's loaded with neediness. His advice is to ask the far grittier question: 'how well am I loving you?' Lee associates regression with the possibility of trance-states, states that we slip in and out of daily, depending on our triggers. Following this lead we see that to be a sovereign of your own kingdom requires an encountering and tempering of regression.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Tuesday, 16 October 2012


PSYCHE AND TATTERHOOD: The Women are Coming - new (and very ancient) for November.

Back in body but only just in spirit from en extremely rich MYTHTELLER gathering - the first of that name. Laughing, crying, deep in the stories, fellowship, the fireside, Dartmoor in autumn, perfect.

We will be announcing the 2013 year course dates at the beginning of November, so all that missed this or where on the waiting list, jump on quick, as these places will go - we have a maximum of 20.

I now have a little time to settle back into my studies, and also keep preparing for the winter migration to California. There will be myth-work in the Point Reyes area as well as Stanford (no access to that course unless student i'm afraid) - more on that and contact details soon.

I also have news of two short events over the Fri/Sat of November 23/24th. First up is an evening up in Dorset at Bridport Art Centre, then second, an all day workshop in my local ground of Dartington. It had been suggested to me that i may do something due to a lot of folks that could not get places at the Mythteller and Prophet weekends,so they still get at least a taste of what the school is all about.

Why not come to both, and make something of a weekend of it?

The below workshop will be the very FIRST time i have worked with this gutsy epic. I can't wait, i must admit. The poster above is rather small - so here's the info.

A Living Myth
A workshop with mythologist
Dr. Martin Shaw

Sat November 24th 10-4.30, Dartington Village Hall, Devon £50

This ancient Greek story is packed with information about how modern men and women experience the trials that love creates. A startling myth, it contains rich metaphors for loves stages, and how they inform our wider growth as human beings. As the telling unfolds over a day, we experience its giddy beginnings, its rough betrayals, the funeral contained within a wedding, the long road out of the Underworld and the hard won ecstasies of the lovers chamber.

To book a place, ring 01364 653723 today or email

“Her name? Psyche - the yellow breast of the moon shines through her - milk
surges from dark soil when she strolls by, even sea bandits praise her name”

I am also happy to announce a telling of that swaggering and magnificent fairy tale TATTERHOOD at Bridport art centre in November. Last time i was there it was packed, so you may want to book tickers asap if you are thinking of coming. I will tell the story and then as a wild little one-evening-tribe we will explore its many delicious layers together.

Here's the art centres info on it:



23 November 2012, 19:30
Ecstatic Myth
Mythologist, author and shamanic teacher Martin Shaw is a skilled and witty wordsmith. He explores the idea that myth is nothing to do with A Long Time Ago – it’s about a place you can inhabit at almost any time.

“Story is a Sharp Knife – not as allegory, repertoire or form of psychology but as an independent energy. How do we nurture it if it decides to be told by us?” Martin Shaw.

“Martin Shaw is a true master. One of the very greatest storytellers we have”. Robert Bly

Suitable for adults and older younger ones.

£7/£5 concessions

Excerpt below from my telling of the story - a king and queen who cannot conceive are visited by an old woman of the woods who has information on how to change the situation:

The nieces runs to the sovereigns,
“i have news!’
I have met a leafy-girl -
who says her granny
can make bellies swell
like a browning loaf:

She sings salt back to the ocean
she calls the owl to nestle in the lonely croft
of your hips.”

They are summoned.

And the dark stick
behind our raggled-girl

Hawk nosed, thistle-haired,
yoke fat with cobra-knowledge

Pockets a-clatter with magics,
brown fingers
dragging rooster blood
from the heart of the moon.

In the grandeur of the hall
at first she denies the powers.
That the child is tongue-eager,
bent to exaggeration.

But as the dusk shadows flood
over the gold, she relaxes.
In that time before candles are lit,
she shows some form.

Her proud shape
juts into the room.

She is:

mearcstapa - the boundary walker
zaunreiter - a hedge straddler
hagazussa - hag

She gulps brandy
and spits chicken-claw words:

“you will never grow large.
Your bed is too high, too smart,
too far from dirt.

In your far off tower,
a woman’s eggs grow dizzy
a mans pearling will be as a drizzle
of stagnant water.

You can rut
Like the creamy whale
ablaze with its concubine
in the indigo kingdom

but nothing much will happen.

Take your bed
Your pillows that hold your thinking
your graceful sheets

Out to the furthest stable
with the pitted earth floor.

Tonight, woman,
after you bathe,
carry the water, a-clink down the stairs,
sloshing with your filth.

Give it to the stable dirt,
four directioned, intended,

Then drag the bed
over the pool
and start the steady grind
of your seeding.

At dawn
push the bed aside.

There will be two flowers -
white and red.

Eat the white.

Under no circumstances eat the red.

Do this and all will change.”

Her speaking is strange.

Like words gathered from underneath
a stone.

By now the hall is almost completely dark.

As the page lights the first candle,

the women canter out

on the dark horses of their pride.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Deep in the Story: Mid-West, September 2012

Something this week on some old Devon phrases and origins - it comes from a wider essay on the nature of Brythonic animal call words - so don't be surprised if a few parts of the last paragraph or so don't make much sense - they are referencing earlier, un-seen writing. This stuff is a developed stream in the Bird-Spirit-King book (2014)- this is just the tiniest taster.

Both school of myth autumnn weekends - 'Prophet' and 'Mythteller' are filled to capacity - but both have waiting lists if you would like to get your name in the hat.

Broken courts and dark streams

Devon is filled with combes; Widdicombe, Babbacombe, Combe Martin, Staddiscombe are just a few. Combe has the same Celtic root as the Welsh ‘cwm’, and Cornish ‘cum’, meaning ‘valley’. As we can see, it is more often than not tagged onto other words to flesh out the description.

A few Celtic place names include: Breazle (meaning broken court), Carley (fort place), Crowdy Mill (pig sty), Dawlish (dark stream), Gaverick (goat like), Duvale Barton (dark peak), Cruwys Morchard (great wood), Poltimore (pool by the large house), Whimple (white pool), Hemyock (summer like). When we factor in the number of churches named after Celtic saints: St Urith, St Brannock, St Budoc, St Necton, St Petroc and on, we realise that the Saxon influence is nothing like as severe in the west as in the midlands and east.

The local dialect still carries Celtic traces and it is also there that we find a greater Anglo-Saxon route to all sorts of phrases. Just a few riches are:

Axwaddler – a peddler of ash, one who collected ash to use when strained with water as “lie”, a way of washing clothes before the common use of soap.

Baastins – the first milk when a calf is born, extremely rich and very desirable to local folk.

Blimmer – a mild swear word.

Champeen – a champion.

Cryin the Neck – ancient pagan ceremony on completion of the harvest; a “neck of straw” was twisted and kept safe, talismanically, till the next harvest.

Kerping – finding fault.

Musicker – musician.

Gaw Sparkin – to go courting.

Tacker – a small boy.

Among the people
I heard some of this language growing up in the 1970s, trailing around with my father as he first cut his teeth as a local Devon preacher. This was still a time of the heavy horses – the gypsy cobs, the clydesdale, the percheron, that would sometimes block the tiny lanes we queasily drove along. There were still horse fairs, red beer, young men and women getting sunburnt romping on the hay bales. I would peer out at them from the back window on the way to some remote chapel and wonder.

My father Robert had been a boy who lost his father young, and grew up in a house of middle-aged women. Their composite of the ideal man was a mixture of Noel Coward and David Niven. Butch. Whilst getting to know my mother as a young man, he started to attend her local church. Possibly under threat, he, of a sudden, received the impact of older men speaking with eloquence and tremendous authority over matters of the soul. I think he is still recovering. Preachers like the Scottish baptist Peter Barber taught, not just by theological knowledge, not just by oral dexterity, but by the slow labour of how they crafted their day-to-day lives.

We would borrow my grandparents' car and take to the lanes, occasionally stopping due to the nausea invoked by the twists and high hedges. We would arrive at the church, often methodist, and be greeted by some positively ancient keeper of the keys. There would be a gas bottle fire spluttering in the corner, trying to persuade the damp to briefly vacate the premises. After a while, maybe 10 to 15 folks would shuffle in and settle in the hard wooden rows. Some smiling benignly at the young man with the long hair and the bible, others less so. These were often straight forward farming folk, or retired teachers, all had been working people with faces marked deep with joy and loss.

As Clement Marten points out in his study of the Devonshire dialect, much of the county is ‘chapel’ – meaning Wesleyan or methodist. They show up in the wildest, shaggiest, most remote of locations. The “laukel praicher” or “methody praicher” was a subject of keen interest.

As should be clear, these weren’t the super-churches of the American mid-west, or with developed out-reach programmes for bringing in new converts. These were rural community gatherings, and to the outside eye, would have seemed to be in decline. Dad’s style was pretty straight line evangelical, not much metaphor, but theologically sound and always engaging. And why engaging? Because he was a natural storyteller and never made a scholarly point without warming its embers with an anecdote. I’ve never seen him use smoke and mirrors – he always works hard to be understood. So, when people ask me who or what influenced me as a storyteller, this scene holds many clues.

A major factor is the willingness to turn up and do the work, regardless of size or pay. My father has dreams just like anyone else, but he tries not to let those dreams drip like a poison into the sanctity of his vocation. Only four years ago, I drove him out to yet another rural methodist congregation amongst the cabbage fields of Lincolnshire. Thirty years on, we parked up, were greeted by yet another beaming geriatric and let into the church. Look, there’s our friend the heater, spluttering away, and the tea and coffee, perched ready for after the hymns. Maybe 12 showed up.

With a smile, he began a sermon that he may have rehearsed a couple of hundred times. Relaxed, self deprecating, and always with an ear to the arrival of the holy, he did good service to his god and all the preachers who stood in the pulpit at Upton Vale Baptist Church four decades ago. As they pressed the pay into his hand, possibly enough for gas money, I was proud to be his boy. A local rural audience is hard to impress. They have buried loved ones with their own hands, been diminished by recession, witnessed their world change almost utterly over the decades. Dainty illusions to metaphor and ambiguous religious leanings would have caught short shrift in their eyes.

And there they sit; some of them still using the very animal call words used in the middle east three thousand years ago, others biding their sheep with yan, tan, tethera, others still with memories loaded with the old Dartmoor stories. I remember strange fitting suits, hearing aids, very brown skin, small eyes, blinking occasionally. Some would be the great, great grand daughters of cunning men, and others sons of the right and proper women of chapel. A flank of Devon history gazed levelly on him most Sundays. He must have been pretty good, he survived.

copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Myth and Transition: An interview with Rob Hopkins and Martin Shaw

Just back from the U.S.- mid-west and Vermont. Much joyful work, new friends and dusty miles on my boots. I'm happy to announce a visiting lectureship in mythology and oral culture at Stanford university for the winter semester - Jan/April 2013, so if any of my californian friends know of a cabin/yurt/boat/gypsy wagon/apartment in roughly the bay area then please get in touch. Email is on the right of this blog.

The 'Prophets of Rock and Wave' weekend has sold out with long waiting list - i strongly advise the 'Mythteller' weekend if you have been disappointed.

Below is an interview with Rob Hopkins, founder of the worldwide transition movement - a treasury of good ideas - which we conducted in his office just a couple of weeks ago. Ok - i'm going to try and sleep again now, jetlag can't last forever.

An interview with Dr. Martin Shaw:
“A lot of opportunity is going to arrive in the next 20 years disguised as loss”

A few weeks ago I attended the West Country Storytelling Festival at Embercombe. A remarkable event, the highlight for me was hearing Dr Martin Shaw speaking at several events. Martin is a painter, mythologist and wilderness teacher, and author of ‘A Branch from the Lightening Tree”. Sometimes I hear someone speak and think “that person is holding an important part of all this”. I was especially touched by one thing he said in a workshop about the relationship between storytelling and sustainability:

“I have not a clue whether we humans will live for another 100 or 10,000 years. We can’t be sure. What matters to me is the fact we have fallen out of a very ancient love affair – a kind of dream tangle, with the earth itself. If, through our own mess, that relationship is about to end, then we need to scatter as much beauty around us as we possibly can, to send a voice, to attempt some kind of repair. I think of it as a kind of courting – a very old idea. This isn’t about statistical hysteria, it’s about personal style. Any other response is just not cool”.

Intrigued, I met him the following week for an interview that covered storytelling, myth, and what it might all mean for Transition.

To start could you perhaps tell us a bit about your work for people who aren’t familiar with it?

Storytellers are people who are always keen to know if you come from a storytelling tradition of one kind or another, and the wonderful truth about this revival of storytelling that we’re experiencing is that it’s in its infancy, and there are very, very few people that come from some unbroken tradition. In actual fact the art form which we all practise has many different heads.

The poet Rumi says “there are many ways to kneel and kiss the ground”, and that’s what I like about this storytelling thing, there’s no particular way to do it. However, I do have a specific interest in it that is not broad, it’s quite specific. It’s really this notion of mythology as the heart of ecology, that among the statistics and the seemingly bad news of now, is actually tremendous opportunity, if you have the eyes to see it and you have the heart to follow it.

I like the notion – this comes from the American writer Sean Cain, he says “myth is the power of a place speaking”. Myth is not just allegory, it is not just societal control, it’s not just to keep us in line, it is actually what I think of as a kind of echo location coming out of the ground designed to rub up against people whose ears are tuned enough to hear it.

As the question arises of what stories do we need now, what are the – I don’t particularly like the term ‘narrative’ because it’s just got no salt in it – but what are the narratives of now, what are the stories of now, I think it’s a good question, but I don’t think we can co-opt, or cut-and paste particularly, things that have enough resonance in them to really sweep people up.

Myth means ‘no author’. The reason why certain stories land so deeply within us is because they’ve been passed like water over dark stones through many different communities and many different people’s lives who’ve all dealt with seemingly hopeless causes. So the images have a resonance that one person alone cannot muster, no matter how brilliant. Over the last decade, I suppose I’ve been drawn to those kinds of stories, stories that seem to talk about a very real living relationship between the complexities of our life, wilderness, the natural world, and these big stories, what some people call ‘fairy tales’.

My interest, as I now come to the end of another decade living in Devon where I grew up as a child, is specifically in local stories, and I am interested in the local stories of farmers and shepherds and people that have lived here, but also the stories that have been embedded in the place for a long time.

How do new myths get created then? When does a story become a myth?

Well, don’t set your watch any time soon! But don’t get depressed either, because what we can have is mythic stories. It doesn’t mean there’s no myth in them, but a myth is something that really comes from a kind of dreaming. When I think about what I know of Transition, I really like the amount of spirit and clarity in what’s happening.

But the old, aboriginal idea of how are we to live – and when I say aboriginal I don’t mean Australia, I mean wider than that – is actually the dreaming of a human being, the logos, the intelligence of a human being, can only go so far. Then there comes a point when you actually need to get dreamt by the land itself. Now that sounds rather esoteric, but actually it’s been a common policy in tribal groups all over the world for thousands and thousands of years.

My background is in wilderness rites-of-passage. I’ve been taking folks up to Snowdonia in Wales where you go out onto the land and for four days and nights you fast. Now what tends to happen is, around the fourth day you’ve got through the issues with your mother, you’ve got past that relationship that went wrong, you’ve got past your societal and psychological stuff. Around the fourth day, you experience what tribal people tend to call “the wild land dreaming”, so you get dreamt by the land.

The stories that folks come back with have a very different quality to them, than had they tried to think them up in their study in Croydon, or Ashburton. In other words, I don’t think we can suddenly produce a myth. I don’t think that the big problem of climate change or everything attached to it will come from one big answer. But the genius of myth is that its illuminations, its truths are polyphonic, they come from lots of different places, and I would suggest that we need to tune our ear.

It’s an interesting thing. Big questions for me are around the European tradition of story, which is essentially Greek, Gaelic and Celtic, and the kind of images and understanding you get from Siberia for example, or the Iroquois, they’re bringing stories with them that are very different and, I think, have something to say.

I’m very interested in the fact that in the last 20 years as you’re well aware, the migration patterns of animals have radically changed. The migration patterns of stories have also radically changed, so you can go to a pub in Plymouth now and see a guy that’s never left the West Country tell you a Seneca Indian story and that’s really remarkable. What does that mean?

You go over to Canada and certain animals, certain birds are wintering 200 miles further north than they used to, and they’re having to deal with what I would call their myth-line orientating to a new situation, a new nest, a new season, when when do I give birth, all of that. I think, the migrational patterns of stories and the migrational patterns of animals, are telling us something about the malaise we’re in. They’re telling us something about what we’re in now. This is a very long answer to your question, but it’s those sorts of areas I think are going to give us the stories with the kind of soul-food we need.

The stories we have now culturally are completely inappropriate stories, those that we get through the media and so on, so what you’re suggesting is that rather than sit down and create our own and write the stories for now, it’s more that we need to connect with the wisdom we have in our myths. It’s about choosing the most appropriate myths?

Whether you are religious or spiritual or story-orientated or not, we’re all worshipping something. Every day we get up and we go to some kind of temple or another. My question would be, to something like Transition, what temple are you entering every day when you go to work? What stands behind what you do? For some people that’s a temple with a lot of money in it, for others it’s different again.

So I would say the stories we’re being fed now are not myths, they’re what I would call toxic mimics. They’re not myths. But when we’re deprived of the real thing, we will take even an echo of that and grab on to it. In other words the most horrible lies always have a little bit of truth in them, just enough. It’s not an easy task.

I would suggest folk spent more time investigating the stories and the people they loved when they were children. I’ve been thinking about this recently. I don’t know how old you are but I’m at the very beginning of my mid-life, and I recognise more and more that the kind of man I want to be is the kind of person I loved when I was a very small child. The old (not that I’m going to be an old woman) the woman who turns up at the party with lots of chocolate in her pockets and gold coins and is gambling and the old man that starts an outrageous fight with an uncle.

That’s the kind of thing I like! But I would say a place to begin, in all of this rambling, a place to begin is as simple as an apprenticeship to a 20 mile radius of where you live. In other words to say I am going to limit my boundaries.

We’re in a very rich area here, we’ve got the songs of the Brixham fishermen as they go out in the morning, we’ve got all the folklore attached to Dartmoor. The Aboriginal idea is of a songline going over a land, and you go to this tor and this river and you know the story of that place.

My challenge is, both to myself and to other people, to build up a web of your own myth-lines about a place. Also not to be snobby, so I’m not saying this has to be of the natural environment, William Blake found a lot of this in East London. He’d gaze under a bush and he’d find Ezekiel when he was 8! So this is something that can be found anywhere.

As you know, we don’t have a lot of wilderness in England, but we do have a lot of wildness. You only have to go between two derelict buildings and see a little sliver of weeds and it’s – BINGO! Don’t be sizeist, that’s where you can make your apprenticeship.

You were talking at the West Country Storytelling Festival about that idea of becoming a cultural custodian of a 5-mile radius…

Yes, that was very specific …

… around us, and you mentioned Gary Snyder saying everyone can be “famous for five miles”. How would that work in practice? How would someone start to embody that in their daily life?

There’s actually an old Gaelic word, the old Gaelic word for this kind of cultural custodian, cultural historian is called a seannachai, and they were a particular kind of storyteller, and I think we need a re-visioning of this particular character, and I’ll explain why.

They were somebody that was thoroughly drenched in a place. They had their personal relationship to it, they knew the great dreaming myths of the place, but they also knew about the agricultural patterns. They knew about the hedgerows, they knew about particular flowers, they knew about remedies, and they gathered it all together in an extremely unpretentious manner and they just embodied something, they walked something whether they knew it or not.

I like the idea that rather than getting het up about whether people are story-tellers or not, we should work with the notion of the story-carrier. The story-carrier again is a tribal idea that whoever you are, from whatever disposition, you’re carrying the walk of your own life. You may not like it, you may need to change the story, but I’m interested in a culture of story-carriers, and that means a certain amount of self-esteem. It means you can’t be so caught up in European self-loathing that you think your story’s not worth telling. So I like the Snyder thing that “famous for 5 miles” means that no matter how green you think you are, you still carry what I would call an interior king or queen within you.

Over the summer I’ve been to various events with a lot of anarchist groups and a lot of road protesters, many of whom I admire, but I have to say look, with the best will in the world, it’s only when your interior king or queen has died that you start giving over that kind of power to the kind of idiots we see in government at this point. In actual fact you want to reclaim some of your grandeur, reclaim the belief, call certain parts of yourself out of exile. Many stories end in a wedding, they end in a wedding for one reason, the storyteller is saying to you, call to the wedding the parts of you that have got edited and cut away as you age, bring it all back to the feast.

I like that kind of language. I’m a language person, I’m an apprentice wordsmith, and so one of the things that interests me with the concerns we have at the moment, with Transition and others, what interests me is handling of language. That it is imaginative, that it is lively, that it has nuance and depth to it. Now that’s difficult when you’re trying to get across to a lot of people, I am very aware of that, but I think it can be done.

We live surrounded by the stories of place in the walls and the hills and the trees and the place-names and so on, but we also need to make changes to these places where we live so that we can actually move forward from here, some of which might be seen as being challenging. How do new and old stories sit alongside each other in a culture that needs to reinvent itself quite fundamentally?

Paradoxically. That’s how they do it. Paradoxically. The God of the storytellers is a character called Hermes. If you are in touch with Hermes, Hermes has something called the third ear in a conversation. As soon as things polarise, as soon as it’s one way or this way, you’ve lost Hermes, he’s not there. What I feel very strongly about, as soon as I feel that polarisation happening, I’m anxious, because the thing that stands underneath, the Roman name for Hermes is Mercury so if you have a mercurial conversation it means it has energy in it, it’s exciting, there’s possibilities and ideas. Every time that happens a god is in the room, so there’s going to be paradox.

I think mythological thinking is not from the past. I think it’s already in the future and we’re moving, re-moving towards it through the last hundred years of psychology actually. It’s going to be ugly at times, there’s going to be losses on some sides and gains on the other, but I wouldn’t want to live in any other time but this. I think it’s fantastic. I do, I think it’s fantastic.

But we have to be tuned to paradox. We have to be rather like the French word, a bricoleur, the old artist that walks along and says “here’s something from here. Here’s something from here. Hmmm, they may not fit together but I’m going to try it in the hope that what I do is so beautiful that the sun rises in the morning and the moon comes out at night”.

That’s what the old gypsies believe, they say that if your life doesn’t carry enough beauty with it, the sun won’t come up. Now that is a new definition of self-esteem (laughs)! I like that very much, it’s good for our kids, and that’s what I feel so strongly. You’ll be very familiar with the native notion of the next seven generations, what are we doing now. Something I’ve been aware of with this Transition thing is this idea of what will be said about us now. I like that, that is sufficiently stirring.

But what all stories talk about, stories always begin with some sort of seeming calamity, and a need to gather spirit amongst people. But spirit isn’t the same thing as soul. It’s slightly different. What will be interesting over the next decade or so as this movement grows and others, is to see what happens when the spirit moves from the fiery speech that gets people working, into the deeper, slower, more reflective business of soul. But it is out of that, it is out of the combination of soul and spirit you’ll get a true mythos, you’ll get something that will just hit people on the deepest level.

Your sense is that that process, from its fiery bit through to its deeper bit, should be accompanied by a storyteller who is able to input the most appropriate myths at the most appropriate time?

I wouldn’t want to place too much importance on the storyteller’s shoulders because I think a lot of the story will really come out of the community, it will come out of the people. I dare say that a lot of what is binding this together is this sense of a really great common goal.

I’m in Ashburton, and for the first time in a generation there’s a waiting list for allotments. That is fantastic! My little daughter is growing up in the consciousness … you know, today we’ve just grown our first ever courgettes, we got a few past the slugs, and we’re sitting there chopping them up…’THIS CAME FROM OUR GARDEN! THIS IS IT!’

In other words, it’s not so much someone coming in didactically and saying this is what it means, but I would suggest that people take that task on. There are people designed to be pragmatic and strategic and there are other people designed to dream, to ponder, to walk and to be a bit obscure. Every Arthur needs a Merlin. Every movement needs a dreamer, it needs a Merlin, it needs someone getting dreamt.

All traditional cultures combine what you could call the wisdom of the village and the knowledge of the forest, and all rites-of-passage are about taking what’s best of the village, going out into the wild, getting loosened up by nature and bringing back that visionary content to the village.

The reason why, in my humble opinion, we’re in the state that we’re in now, is because of an absolute amnesia about this ancient process. What happens is when you deny the wild, you get the feral, you get the savage. I’ve probably said I was watching the riots last year and my heart was breaking because I was looking at all these young men and women perfectly tuned for initiation turning savage instead of wild. It’s the mosh pit, not the flamenco dance. I’d like to formally invite 17,000 Eastenders to come up with me to Snowdonia next year and go out on the mountain. I think it would be great, why not?!

Joanna Macy who talks a lot about this, she says that the Agricultural Revolution took thousands of years and the Industrial Revolution took hundreds of years, but what we need to do now needs to take 10 years, 15 years, and if we do pull it off people will tell stories and sing songs about it. In a sense, if we manage to get it right over that period, it’s not for us, it’s for the people that come after us to tell the stories about what we did, rather than for us to tell the stories about it now?

Yes, because we’re in the experience. All storytelling is a reflection on something, it doesn’t happen in the moment. So our stories need to settle in 100 miles of dark soil before they flower, and any premature flowering will not be convincing.

To use an old fashioned word, the soul is not convinced by much. You really have to do something dramatic for it to pay attention which is why normally it takes a car-accident or an illness or a divorce, something to rock everything we have around us for the soul to go “oh, something could be happening here”. Now a lot of my work is, how do I stay in conversation with the soul without setting fire to my own life, how do I do that? I think the challenges we have right now and the opportunities we have are a perfect opportunity to do that. A lot of opportunity is going to arrive in the next 20 years disguised as loss.

You mentioned about the role of young people. The work that you do, you’ve worked in prisons and with young men quite a lot, what’s your sense of what the need is there, and the power of what you can bring to that. How have you seen the power of that? Where are we going wrong with our young people?

That’s enormous! You and I were both at that conversation about story and sustainability (at the West Country Storytelling Festival), and it immediately polarised between this notion that we have young people in Deptford divorced from all feelings of the wild, and any ownership of it, no story, and this kind of tree-hugging place we all live in down here where everything’s fine. You and I both know that that is a false distinction, because you only have to wander out into the back streets of Totnes or Newton Abbot or Torquay to see a mass disassociation.

It’s not as if the West Country is a cure-all for anything. But what I’ve been doing for the last couple of decades is simply taking people who are within a nanosecond of a jail-sentence, being pulled back, taken out into a wild place, to present them with something that is infinitely wilder, and more unruly than anything they could have been prepared for. That’s the thing.

A lot of people ask me about this weird thing what is an elder? It’s an old fashioned word in Totnes, it’s been used a lot, but I’m interested in it. The notion of an elder is someone who, when faced with an opportunity for self-advancement doesn’t immediately take it but looks around and says “how does this affect everybody else?” I’m a bit slow to that one. But that’s what I’m aspiring to, that wider thing.

Secondly, I meet a lot of people that say, “well I’m too damaged for that kind of work because I didn’t get that, how can I give what I haven’t got?” Second response is, “if you haven’t been fed, become bread”. There just comes a point when it’s not appropriate any more in the business of being an adult to talk about what happened when you were three. You’ve got to become bread.

Thirdly, finally, the elder, in my opinion and my experience, is somebody that has taken the tangled walk of their life and can see an evident story within it and knows how to tell it, and when they tell it, they tell it without lies. In other words it’s not self-aggrandising particularly, it’s not what you’d put on your CV. But it carries. How do you take failure and turn it into an elegant expression of beauty? How do you do that?

All these stories that we really love are filled with complexity and failure. They’re very rarely a quick ascension. If it’s a quick ascension it’s not a terribly interesting story. We are in a really interesting story. At the Storytelling Festival, without ever making it overt, the stories that I brought were specifically stories that I think are about right now, specifically, and I would love to tell them within that context, within the context of people asking those questions about now.

Normally I’ll tell a story and then I’ll spend an evening or a day or two days going into its deeper implications, and when you start to look at the deeper implications of these stories, one of which has a serpent wrapped four times around the world squeezing the oil out of it, I mean, my God, what more do you want? This is 2,000 years old, it’s perfect!

The business of story is that it’s telling us about a malaise of us inside as well as the malaise of what’s going on outside. Now that might be unfashionable, it might sound like hippy jargon, but if this stuff is really going to take fire there has to be that, the inner and the outer. I suppose what I’m looking for is people with a little bit of credibility to present those ideas, so you trust them. I think what is going wrong with young folk or what they don’t have, they’re trying to be initiated by siblings, and that’s never happened in any culture before.

In other words, all of their self-esteem, all of their information, everything that they build around them is coming from the horizontal, it’s coming from their age group. It’s never worked like that before: they may have loathed their parents, they may have loathed their uncles and their aunts, but there was a sense of a multi-generationed experience of living. Out of that multi-generationed experience of living, you saw people die for example, and when you see people die it means hopefully you won’t walk backwards into your own death, so you learn to die a little bit every day.

I don’t mean that in a dramatic way, but I think that’s part of what it is. Now, with the amplification of the teenager, which we know is a more recent invention, they are more disassociated and more disappointed than ever. In the old Celtic tradition, they said if you want to do anything interesting with your life you need to be wrapped in what they called the swan feather cloak of story, and you need to have a real relationship to the land around you.

If you don’t have those two things, it is as if your skin is too sensitive to deal with the inevitable disappointments that will come towards you, you need some kind of cloak, you need some kind of protection, and story and connection to the outside world has provided that. Because we don’t have that, I think this malaise is going on, not just with young people but all over the shop.

I remember one of the things that really stuck with me…was about young men who wherever they’re from, boss the place, in the woods on their own for the night, that actually they find it far scarier than anything else.

You have no idea! I’ve seen it again and again. I’ve physically broken into crack dens and grabbed kids who’ve agreed to do this, stuck them over my shoulder, fought my way out, thrown them in the car and driven to Wales. And I have witnesses. Because they want to do it, and when it gets near to the knuckle they don’t, and I’ve seen guys like at who have ‘love/hate’ on the knuckles whimper as the indigo-black settles around them and you say, “for the next four days you are miles and miles and miles away from anybody”.

At night you don’t have a fire. You don’t even have a tent, just a bit of tarp, so you’re utterly open. But in that darkness occasionally there will be the movement of a deer or a fox or a badger, and that is edgy. The reason why initiation has traditionally been so successful is it takes frankly young people who think they know everything into a position where they go, “I think I know quite a little”. And they pay far more attention to older folk that have been through that experience when they get back.

And they get praise, they get blessing. We’re not a praise culture any more, we’re a sort of sugary, horrible, affirming, ghastly thing. Up until 100 years ago in Russia for example, the toast you would get at a meal where someone says, I am toasting you because I saw you do this thing and at this time. It’s a quote I use a lot but I have a friend from the Deep South who says, “if you know a young woman or man and you care for them and they take you seriously, if you haven’t praised them in the last two weeks then you are hurting them. You’re hurting them”.

That’s enough for me, I can just take that one statement and do that for ten years, that’s enough. I think those things are utterly connected to Transition and connected to the wider ecological questions of now.

Absolutely, so a Transition initiative should praise everything around it on a regular basis. There was some research a while ago about couples that stay together. There was a ratio of if you said six nice things for every unpleasant thing you said to your partner your relationship was far more likely to stay together, but if it was the other way round…

I’m going to take that, Rob! Thank you very much, that’s a good idea! Someone once said to me, how important is it for you to be right in a domestic with someone you really love? How important is it? Choose your battles. So yeah, I learnt from that (laughs).

Lastly, with Transition there are people in thousands of communities now around the world who are trying to gently nudge the place they live through creating stories I suppose in terms of the projects they’re doing and sharing those stories, and certainly at Transition Network a lot of my job is telling the stories of what they’re doing in Brixton or what they’re doing in Dunbar in Scotland, what they’re doing in Totnes. The story that’s unfolding here in Totnes is absolutely fascinating and resonates around the world, which is why so many people come to see it. That sort of story, documenting story and communicating story is a big part of what Transition groups do. What would be your final thoughts or advice for them on how to do that deeper, richer, better?

I’m very bad at answering direct questions because the way I was taught – I was taught really through tribal people who do answer questions but it’s very circuitous.

(Pauses) When the Normans invaded Britain … (laughs) … they really, really torched this country (this isn’t building up to a rant about the French or anything like that!) when they did this, what happened was nobles in rich feudal families disappeared into the woods, they fled. Not only did they flee, a lot of the folks who had worked for them and actually had a very warm relationships, as what we call peasants, also fled into the forest, they just disappeared overnight, a generation of Britons fled to the forest.

Now, the Normans gave them a name, they called them the Sylvaticae (‘People of the Forest’). During that period of devastation, Britain came under what they call the ‘Norman Yoke’, and they said we are never going to get rid of these people, they’re too emphatic in their destruction. But what happens is, over about 150 years of this strange forest thing going on where dignitaries are befriending and forming families with local people back and forth, you get what we now call ‘The Greenwood Spirit’, because out of that come the Robin Hood ballads and Hereward the Wake, this very affirming culture of resistance that grew up in Old Albion, it grew up in Britain.

I get a huge goose-bump sort of excitement when I hear about the Sylvaticae, so what I would offer to Transition is a sort of Sylvaticae programme where someone, a storyteller, travelled from community to community and heard and witnessed the stories, in fact maybe just wrote them down in some enormous leather-bound book.

In King Arthur’s time you couldn’t have a feast without an adventure occurring, you could not eat until something had kicked off. Bring that back! Then the whole thing gets this swagger. I’m really interested in words like panache and swagger at the moment, because that’s something traditionally that us on the left, we lack a bit. If we brought that back, I would say, an appreciation of the local, a recognition that it has this mythic undercurrent to it, a collecting of those stories – I’m sure you’re already engaged in books and things like that about it.

But I like this notion that underneath Britain, underneath the concrete and underneath the towns, there is this old, ancient, dreaming spirit that is just waiting for people to live in the right way, and when you do it, you have a kind of genius underneath you that you as a person don’t just possess, it’s something greater than that, some divine wind comes. All I know is if this happens and folks live with this, not only will they feel nourished, not only will their experience of living be stronger, there’s something coming from the ground itself. I know that sounds very esoteric, but I stand by it.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Storyteller panel and photos from Westcountry Festival 2012

Places going fast: this and Prophet weekend the ONLY school events till spring 2013

Sex, Sustenance and Salvation: The Wild Man and Woman

(thanks to Richard Beaumont for photographs. Slange)

In the medieval era, we begin to find literary accounts of hairy men and women living outside the village – often tremendously strong, with animal and elemental attributes – as cunning as fox, fierce as a bear, swift as the wind. The women carried pendulous breasts that they slung over their shoulders, the men had vast beards; both were often entirely covered with hair.

As Hayden White points out (White 1972 :25) these shaggy characters live surprisingly close to our own world, just over the hill, in a forest, by a deep pool everyone knows but dares not visit. They are not entirely remote. The distant desert or far off mountain is the place of the more emphatically malignant being – the monster.

These wild people are known for a loose erotic nature, they are not bound by the labour-heavy, chapel-spun existence of the villagers. The wild man and woman are not regarded as consciously being sinful or wicked, rather innocent, their lifestyle is all they have ever known.

To the medieval villager, most clung pretty rigidly to what has been called the three securities:

Sex (enjoyed and given reign within the sanctity of marriage)
Sustenance (you will be provided for within the structures of social, political and economic institutions.)
Salvation (through the church)

From the distant tree-line, the wild couple see this and will have none of it. Stability is not high on the hairy one’s agenda. One day they feast to excess on a haunch of venison, the next it is watercress and rainwater. There is no call to the plough, no cold pew on a Sunday, no combing of little Jed’s tresses. They live just out of earshot of the crowing cockerel, make love in the sun heavy meadow, crawl belly down through the long grass to wrestle the musty stag. They are not blessed by the dainty water of the priest, their manners not pruned for the neighbours. There is no insurance, no after-life, no restraint – at least a restraint that the villagers can detect. To notch up the outrage still further, they are not even regarded as responsible parents. Legend persists that babies drop from the vulva of the wild women onto the forest floor. If the little one survives life in the darkening wood then so be it, if not, so be it.

But they are not Barbarians; they are not bringing apocalypse with them, all will not be put to the sword. They are not the three-eyed giant of the resolute desert. They are not quite evil, even to the thin interpretation of the villagers.

The relationship between village and forest is porous, with the wild ones as unruly mediators, transgressors. They whisk away the occasional sheep or chicken, can outfox the red faced gamekeeper, carry off well fed little children into the emerald boughs. Anything unexplained becomes explained by blaming them. To the villager, everything beyond the tree line is subject to their imaginations. Orgiastic scenes, pagan rituals, the free pillaging of the king's deer, it could all be going on just over the hill. And the exhausted washer-woman, on her way home to thin-lipped Elias and his rough hands, wonders just who is the better off. Not something to repeat at chapel, but she wonders.

So we detect in the locality of the wild people, and their nature furiously imagined by the villagers, a fairly straightforward case of suppression having to have an outlet: if we’re all being good subjects then somebody, or something near, is doing things we barely admit we may love to do. They’re taking a walk on the wild side. All the natural impulses that are being repressed in the village rise like agitated bees and descend onto the frolicking meadows and sweet grass copses. So the wild men and women from this way are still working within the function of the community, they are not utterly other, they are being a good scapegoat.

This is a very simplistic picture of the wild man and woman, ladled heavy with an incomplete christianity. Around the 12th Century, something very interesting happens, the picture becomes an image – it deepens, develops nuance. Folk lore around this time begins to shift emphasis. These seemingly base creatures start to become associated with a certain ethical ground. They start to become wise. They come to represent the preservation of animals, and a strand of knowledge that can only be found beyond the gatekeepers gaze. They are seen as connected to seasonal turns, weather patterns, protecting denizens, genius loki - they are keepers of an earthy magic.

By this time, agricultural advances had begun the slow taming of the vast European forests, the human hand was forging a new shape onto a previously nature dictated landscape. This shape would effect the psyche as well as the soil and silvery waters. It could be that this handling diffused the intense fears that many felt about travel into wilderness. It could also be that it coincided with a revival of classical, Aristotelianism thought, or could be a peasant reaction to heavy handed evangelising, but from this point onwards the wild couple start to grow in sophistication. Within time they will transmute into the ‘noble savage’, a kind of variant of the Robin Hood theme that is there to act as a kind of leafy reminder to civilisation about what they could be losing. So the wild couple become almost eden-esque rather than licentious. Of course neither is the real picture - inherent paradoxes within wildness make it cumbersome for use as a societal polemic.

In White’s essay “The Forms of Wildness” he makes an important distinction between the words primitivism and the word archaism that I want to layout here:

Primitivism: the raising up of any group as yet unbroken to civilisational discipline.

Archaism: the idealisation of real or legendary remote ancestors.

The latter of the two is the more popular, the more constant. It can appeal to both the conservative minded and the ecstatic Winstanleys of this world. It is a harking back, a nostalgia, for a time before time almost, when the world was simply less corrupt. We see this as a constant in both political agendas and the creation of new cults. It pulls on an impulse that many feel - once upon a time life wasn’t so complicated. In a conservative society it can mask revolution as reformation, a reaching back to a golden age, rather than a complete kicking over of the feasting table.

The first is more complicated. It is similar in the sense of its amplification of old world values, but it also suggests that this lost world can still be found amongst the corruption of modernity. It is not about a superior form of human being from some misty era, but an unshackling of ways of being that have become too unwieldy to carry any longer. In short, we have gone down the wrong road. Nature people, past and present, represent a wisdom that we desperately need. The views of nature within the two are very different; for archaism think of Dante’s vico – the terrible mutable forest, or the ‘dark wood’ of Lucretius. It’s all about life feasting on life, claws, steaming entrails, treacherous paths shrouded in mist, vast moving shadows. It’s a macho scene, and only those adept at conflict will survive. It’s heroic. It is viewing wilderness through village eyes, as epic but treacherous.

The primitivist brings more serenity with it, more of the lovers' garden. It is the move from the rapacious screw in a lighting storm to Persian poetry read together under a Linden tree. As White reminds us, this is the place where the virgin tames the unicorn, when the wild couple step forward as wise teachers, not enemies of culture.

By the time of Han Sach’s Lament of the Wild Man about the Unfaithful World (1530) this secondary position is gaining strength. The wild man is occupying the kind of conscience-pricking eco role of the head dressed Native American on a modern day greeting card. Sach’s text encourages a wild learning, that those bogged down by city life would do well to recharge their inner-nobility, to take to the green wood, to see the world afresh. The old association with virility is never quite lost either. From Sachs, it is only fifty years till a true flowering of European primitivism in Montaigne’s essay Of Cannibals. By 1719 some of these notions go viral in Daniel Defoe’s The Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe - a book that radiates the charm of a bucolic existence to a citified England.

The two images of the wild couple have never quite been reconciled. If civilisation is elevated from nature, then they are still lecherous, ignorant beast-people; if you draw inspiration from the living world then they are visual clues to wholeness, to spontaneity, to true stewarding of the land. In the former corner stands Freud and Jean-Paul Sartre, waving their gloves in the other is Rosseau and Debuffet.

It appears that once we feel safe, settled, then we quite enjoy a sense of the wild. Once wilderness is not quite the threat it once was, then roll out the sentiment. But when we are truly buffeted by the society changing radicalness of Gerrard Winstanley, or by living cheek to jowl with the dark eyed gypsies, then there is often a reversion to hatred and suspicion. We don’t like change, and a part of being alive to wildness is change. When the wild is no longer wholly in the hands of the romantic poets and forest rangers, when it is up close and personal, then we wonder if much has changed these last few thousand years. To tolerate, even embrace, otherness is a very sophisticated idea. But it’s an idea, despite the upsets and abuse, that has made England the country it is today. We are a swarming nest of immigrants.

It may be that this very changeable notion of wilderness has helped contribute to the climatic change we see today. Wilderness is never more celebrated than by people who live in cities and rarely visit. Its titillation is fed by its absence.

Unfortunately, many who do make it to the wild have a very different agenda – consumption. Change is certainly on the agenda now, real, life altering change. And tied up with that, with all of this, is the notion of an animate earth. That has been a tireless message from all indigenous cultures. That doesn’t mean that they get everything right, doesn’t mean we should all live in yurts and eat carrots and peas, but it points towards a profound, and hopefully fairly rapid, re-orientation to the notion of earth as teacher – because it is certainly calling the shots now.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012