A little more this week from my just finishing book on the Dartmoor stories. I also live in a house within which each corridor is stacked thick with enormous canvas's of mine, brooding away, and so there has been a family banning on me making any more for the time being. Hence having to utilise things that i have no knowledge of- watercolours- that i have had the temerity to place above. So the below briefly mentions that the books stories - i call them a patterning - form a kind of circuitous line from the opening of the river Dart up to the hamlet of Scoriton.
The second section: 'Hut Poetics' just briefly refers to some of the steps i went to find this patterning, and the notion that there is a Hermits Hut within every modern house.
Culture seems to be beyond the rational control of civilisation.
This myth-line is a subtle hive of nerve endings just under the turf of Devon. A line confirmed by three decades of a life caught up in its stories, a body washed clean by early mornings in the freezing Dart, dozens of nights by fires on the south moor, an empty belly and no tent fasting in its wilds. There is a patterning – starting where the Dart arrives into Old Totnes and ending in Scoriton on a twelfth night, the hamlet where we first starting the raising of Dulcie, our daughter.
Dulcie would be often carried in the folds of my battered Harris Tweed into the fiery warmth of our local, The Tradesman’s Arms. We would drink the local beer and eat vinegary chips whilst she slept, wrapped in my coat, us listening to folks play music and to swap stories awhile, before stepping out into crisp Dartmoor air amok with history.
To the south is Torbay graveyard, and Leonard, Monica and Lee, my grandparents and aunt – away down the crow road. To the north, up Tony the farmer’s track, is a crooked treasury of Dartmoor story, drifting down in the sharp air and just tickling the tip of the baby’s nose. We catch the scent of fresh manure and diesel oil as we pick our way carefully over the cobbles of Rosemary lane with our precious bundle and all pile into bed. And around us the great ship Dartmoor creaks and groans under the indigo heavens, the unattached stars drift like long distance runners above our small cottage.
I mention Dulcie because there is nothing like becoming a parent to get you think about what really sustains you, and how you pass that on. I slowly absorbed it into my body as a child through rough dens in the elm woods, surreptitious midnight feasts, delicious nibbles of spoken poetry, just as I urge her to reach out and tenderly find her lines of connection across this archaic county.
We know a little of the Aborigine’s song-line. The visual, mystical, pragmatic tracks left by what they call ‘the Ancestors’. The song-line creates a kind of trail across geographic terrain. They elucidate history, water sources, food and magical no-go areas. This almost unbearably sophisticated web of information is so potent that the locals regard pregnancy not as matter of sex but of traversing a spirit-child spot that leaps up into the womb of the crossing woman. That is where the action is really taking place. A place so potent that many years later that local may well seek out the land where their spirit first leapt up from the dirt to die there.
To be in touch with this singing requires incanting the activities of the Ancestors in certain tuned-up spots, as well as the lone walkabout in the bush. You face your brothers and sisters in ritual as well as solo time focused on the invisible world. It involves being a cultural historian, a historian of what I will call liminal culture – the tipping point out of the everyday, forward thrusting clock time (clock time being something that will be familiar to almost all but a very few now), and into circling, truly hallucinatory, flushed upswings of consciousness. This great dream is more than just an individual epiphany, but is confirmed and drawn closer to this wide old web of relationship between elder, watering hole, and deity. It is more than just a monitoring of human, tribal behaviour, but holds a spacious ear to the spirit-emanations of the land.
We hear tales of those travelling with Aborigine’s by truck and being told stories from a song-line at break neck speed, due to the velocity of the truck’s movement. The emphasis is that the stories are to be told at a walking pace, a pace dictated in large part by the physical response of the land to having you in it.
This image gives us a worrying insight in a possible price for the progress of wheels and gears: the old alignment becomes garbled, “the centre cannot hold” bellows Yeat’s over a violent wind. The human language – the storying - that assists these song-lines becomes hysterical at the pitch required for modern life. It simply stops working. More than just a human tragedy, an enormous intersection of magical reality shudders and starts jump back into the forest, lake and tussock – the Sidhe (the people of the hill), the Fairy, these Ancestors, seem to slide from view in seconds. There are almost no spots left in the world where some variation of this is not at work.
This mystical-historical reference that the Aborigines have had is not readily available in this culture. The social memory is not strong enough. As soon as we associate land with property then consciousness dramatically tips. We in the west hold the grief – consciously or not - of this severing from a consolidated canon of earthy relationship. And yet, my work as a wilderness rites-of-passage guide these last two decades tells me (and confirmed by many of my colleagues), that it is still quite possible to be rooted into a relational awareness to the wild that many presume is entirely lost. It is not. We cannot replicate over night, or decade, or century, a kind of Aboriginal song-line, but a powerful doorway into both the land and the latent regions of your own psyche is available. A place to start. Not glamorous, inflated or grand, sometimes utterly at odds with modernity, but available.
When presented with even an echo of this aboriginal relationship, or Native American, or Scythian, there can be for many of us a sense of diminishment about our own relationship to nature. That subtle change in awareness as we walk our dog through a frost white meadow on an autumn morning, or the exhilaration of thickening clouds before a winter storm. Even worse than diminishment is a sense of helplessness – that all is lost in the face of industry and enforced ‘progress’. Again, I say this is not so. But it involves valuing, not diminishing your own story within the luminosity of the wild – right where you stand today. Whilst it is true that it takes a focused intent to deepen it, the book suggests that we have the facilities and opportunity to make great steps towards an involved dialogue with the earth and its budding mysteries.
O Light im schlafenden Haus!
O Light in the sleeping House!
Richard von Schaukal
In my tent years I would enjoy tufts of grass sticking out from between the faded canvas and the trellis. Robins would fly round the tent ribs then out again. There were always drafts; no feather could ever fall straight. Summer months you could sleep with the tent ajar to the nights dreaming, the roe buck trail nearby, the badger discovering last night’s dishes in the grass, old seasonal spirits shuffling about. Winter required muscle: canvas frozen on the inside, endless scouring for kindling, sleeping under a leathered mass of skin and blanket, throat creeky with sudden temprature drop, only mouth revealed from the dark pile, gasping wintered air. The place, the circled hut, was a conjunction, a polyphonic murmuring, a den of natured languages. It was psychoactive. All this made visitors, sometimes even other yurt dwellers, uneasy. “Why not do away with that tent entirely and have done with it?” muttered one. But I needed the tent. The tent was the ritual marking out; the frontier inn that invited all the chattering denizens in for a drink and a gossip.
That white bearded genius Gaston Bachelard knew well that all of us have such a hut. That a house, flat or apartment contains a kind of Russian doll set of other containments. The further down we go we finally get to our own hut. All it takes is a lit candle, or a snowflake at the window, rain a blissful-clatter on the roof, and the hermit wakes, with their immense ‘in’-ness, from behind our daily face.
Bachelard reminds us that the hut is no monastery, or semi-detached, it offers solitude. But outside the human universe it can be a busy place- solitude can be lively. He also poses the challenge of interiorization, that the spacious of the imagination rather than a literal change of location is key. We all know what it is like to end up on a foreign beach and to your horror you realise that you have bought yourself with you.
So, you can put this book down, light a candle, lie under a blanket and find the hut anytime you want. What a relief. The hut is a vast image of poetic reverie, it seems utterly alive - the spluttering peat fire, the coming storms, the story as axis-mundi in a volatile situation. Bachelard rightly loves the image of the lamp in the window of the hermit’s hut, as a symbol of the vigil, the diligent listener, that someone is keeping watch, studying hard, a friend to night, while I sleep on. Our image (from story this is commenting on) is even shaggier; it is the gasp of relief when a stranded walker sees a distant light in the mist and knows their life is saved. The madness of the fog increases ten fold the warmth of the fire.
Rilke describes the experience of seeing a lit hut at night from a distance with three friends as so powerful it could not but separate and isolate the experience for the friends, as their individual interior worlds all lept up and went “see! see!”. The inner-life, so long brooding in the embers of such an image could not share it around like a common item. Rembrant is extraordinary in somehow invoking and protecting this sensing in his paintings.
In the writing of this book I found notes and drawings from this time in the tent I’m referring to – including these few scrawled lines that seem to have been incubating many years for this exact moment. I’ll drop more line in now and then if appropriate.
Crumbling autumn comes
The hermit lets the water spill from his hands
the papers drift into the leaf banks and the frost
No publisher or Abbot will coo over his smoulders,
gaze at the legacy of sixty nights by the angry cairns
He made a vessel of problems
collected from theology and old magic
built humming structures around their thick air
made love with ferocity to what many thought forgotten
His isolation was the hardest song he ever made,
sent to the moving herds of the open plains
Snow will come soon
and the small doors let in hail
but for now the only heat is from the papers fed into the stove
radiating small circles of red into the dark,
and the fox moving at distance
stills herself, and moves forward towards the glow.
(notes from tent years)
The last stanza is almost a re-write of the sentiment of Hughes’s ‘Thought-Fox’ poem, although I have no idea if I had read it at this point on not. His is brilliant, this less so. The phrase ‘isolation’ reminds me of the darker strands to the experience, and the general feel helps me remember my longing for an elder, a hermit, a magician. I was trying to dream such a person closer to me. it worked too.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2012