This week has a steady sense of expectancy about it, because on saturday a small group of us will assemble - from folks as far away as New Mexico and as near as Leicester - up in the foothills of Snowdonia, Wales. Yep, the wilderness fast. That ancient, solitary dreaming with the animal powers and the rivers and the mist.
Once i get back, a summer of festivals will quickly assemble - two that may be especially relevant to this diary are the Dark Mountain Festival in Hampshire, and the Westcountry Storytelling Festival here in Devon. Info on line in abundance i'm sure if you type in those names.
I am excited to be giving my Parzival manuscript, Snowy Tower, a last polish before handing over to White Cloud for an early 2013 release. The experience of the week long telling of it at the Great Mother Conference has just landed the last reflections i needed for it to feel really cooked. Below is a little taster from it, describing the build up to to the fast, and my perception of how stories leap from it.
The garden is looking good, the slugs are not. Think of me about 10.30 every night, wandering the dripping vines with a wind-up torch.
Ok, i have a group of lanterns in front of me with wicks that need replacing, a tarp that needs stitching up, and wheels to pump on the motor. Please wish us some sun. But ah, we get what we need. Well, that's what all good vision quest guides repeat when the storm clouds come.
See you on the other side....
THE OLD TURF
I’m not fond of waking. But, if I absolutely have to do it, then I like best to wake in my black tent. It’s early morning, and I can see spots of light through pinpricks of thinning black canvas. Even with two quilts, goat and reindeer skin piled high, I can feel the chill of early autumn. Tea. My thoughts turns to the woodburner, iron savior as we move into the wintery time of the year. My hand reaches out from the skins and catches a handful of kindling from the wooden bucket, swiftly opens the burner's door – hanging by one screw by now – and chucks it on the embers. I’m in luck, it's ash, a good burning wood. The high whistle of the kettle atop the burner rouses me again some minutes later.
Stacked up by the door of the old yurt are boxes, boxes full of kit. Lanterns, six, glass cleaned and heavy with paraffin; two coils of good rope; a billhook; a splitting axe and saw. With a belly full of hot tea, but still under the skins, I gingerly pull across the floor my Mongolian camel bags, lately having become my wardrobe. Several pairs of levis, thick socks, old flannel shirts and a Harris tweed gradually emerge. A battered trilby, Mexican boots, burgundy scarf, hipflask of lagavulin and I’m ready to go. I start carrying the boxes out to the car in the early morning mist, careful not to spill the paraffin. The cat follows me out, looking displeased - she can tell I’m away for a week or two.
I’m in love with an artist who lives three lanes and half a dozen fields away, and she’s gallantly offered to feed the cat whilst I’m gone. There is something cooking between this woman and myself, and at least one child, but that’s all up ahead somewhere. Right now it’s time to take the old familiar trip, up to Snowdonia.
Towards Exeter there is always the resplendent opening of Dartmoor just glanced on your left as you approach Telegraph Hill. By now the bracken is brown and losing height, giving more space to the robust granite hilltops – the tors. Once upon a time it was an unbroken canopy of oak and ash. Before that a giant redwood forest grew on the higher ground, and before that it was an island in a tropical sea, many millions of years past. I imagine I can catch a glimpse of Ponsworthy, where my parents honeymooned, or the scattered rowans above Hexworthy, but that’s all it is, my imagination – I have to keep my eyes on the wheel. The moor-edge towns of Ashburton, Chudleigh and Bovey Tracey are but a blur in my left wing mirror. I have many miles to go.
Just outside the cathedral town of Gloucester I pull over into a service station. There they are. Dave and Jonny, my companions on this trip. Jonny has bought bacon butties and a flask of coffee. Perfect timing. I’ve known him since he was five years old, a good man Jonny. Guitar player, poet, student of the fiddle – financial and musical. Jonny and I have erected sodden yurts in blizzards, watched in horror as the roof flies off into the night, cut fingers and bust knuckles hauling gear on our backs up treacherous mountain paths, wept over lost loves, and thrown countless coins, notes, cheque books, days, months, years and sanity into the gaping mouth of this nomadic life.
Dave, well, Dave has a lot to answer for. Ten years before, he, a wilderness rites-of-passage guide, had got me up on the mountain to fast for four days and nights. He lived with the consequences of that when I returned. Still, he held his nerve and has remained a source of warmth, intelligence, and mild anarchy. No one in Britain knows the wilderness fast better than he does. Dave is puffing on a roll up and asking if it’s too early in the morning to go for a quick pint. It is.
After the usual shifting between cars of tent pegs, bags of rice, fruit, vegetables, pasta and an ice box full of meat, we set off. We skirt the border of Wales for a while, past Ross-on-Wye, Leominster and into Hereford, then take a left out into the wild country. Something happens at the Welsh border. The fields steepen up into dark pine forests, distant rooks hop from sodden branches. ‘Croeso I Gymru’ - ‘Welcome to Wales’ – says the battered sign as we pass. Large drops of rain hit the windscreen. Somewhere I stop for chocolate. The day rolls on. We head to Rhyader, and then right across green country to the coast and the town of Barmouth, before one last rather savage turn right and up into the high country of Snowdonia.
This has been David’s camp for many years, several hundred folks have been thoroughly cooked in its tangles. The locals know it as a fairy place, and most stay well clear. The word ‘fairy’ has links to ‘fate’ and surely enough people meet that here. But picture if you can the scene – directly opposite the camp is old Caer Idris, the mountain herself – ‘The Seat of Arthur’, hypnotic and magnificent. To your right is the Irish Sea, that ancient stretch of water. A salt breeze still touches our noses, even inland. The valley holds mixed forest - douglas fir, norway spruce and several oak groves. Every now and then a merlin or goshawk catches that breeze and glides out, high above the estuary. If you keep your eye on the heather you may see a black grouse – white tail feathers, rounded shape, defiant wattle of red over the eye. Had we been earlier in the year we may have caught their dawn courtship rituals. The males, the black ones, strut around singing and generally drawing attention to themselves -– it's called a lek, they are lekking. The females, the brown ones, who have seen all of this before but don’t mind a show, look on with a steady eye.
David and I are leading a retreat. Within the hour of striking camp, we see the familiar scene of cars laden with gear struggling up the track and over the cattle grids. Eyes blinking from the long drive from London or further, folks of all ages, races and dispositions stretch, get out of their vehicles and take in the view. After several days intensive preparation, they are loosened out into the nooks, crannies and secret parts of the valley to begin an epic descent of the psyche, what some call the wilderness fast. For us at base camp, watching them wobble off with their backpacks into the early rising sun, the hard end of our job really begins. The waiting.
It’s often in the waiting that the stories come. Not the human fireside banter, but a kind of slow emergence from the tree line – a mist of story. This is the earthy fulcrum from where stories of a place emerge – about that cave, that estuary, that Rowan tree. Not in the clipped tempo of the written sentence, but a galloping, roaming, rampant language that tears into the soul like the vivid colors of a jungle bird.
At a certain point in time, that specific image glows with a translucent truth that is more than just the place, it has moved into myth, it is its own axis-mundi. It is the job of the myth teller to simply help the story move into the stream of human language before heading back into the ground. The ecology of the spirit-world, and the murmurs I describe, would find their way into the emerging of the stories held holy by tribal people, it shaped them with a noble panache.
It is hard for us to imagine the time when human language was primarily just a sound in a wider polyphony of earthy expression – the splashing brook, the patterning of bird song. Hard for us to hear human sound without drawing on the resource of visualizing letters if needed. The inside of our heads has changed dramatically in this regard. The sophistication has required created a speech that can seem to sit uneasily in the panorama of the wild, its burbles, chirrups and thunder. Human language can seem like the voice of a guardian or overlord, rather than the confirming murmurs of a being placed absolutely within this textured web.
Some distance away the leisurely bellow of long horn cattle gently re-orientates a calf back to their emerging story of the trip to the watering hole. Watching it all, Caer Idris holds the shadow of scudding clouds gracefully in its lap. Caer is also a good thief, capturing differing colors as the day progresses, sometimes golden crested, sometimes muddy red and green - the mountain is telling a story of the value of shape-shifting for anyone ready to behold it. These stories are the legacy of time bent open to the archaic hymns of the land. But this non-usual language, this fragrant cluster of apple-blossom words, how can it be spoken of to the rinky-dink world, the world we can see glittering below in nearby Barmouth?
Over ten years up there, both fasting and then in the labour of becoming a guide myself, such stories from place arrived and decided they wanted to be told. I could be taking an early evening walk and return with the impact of another encounter. It seemed the rivers were singing chords of deep music. I moved in and out of a kind of land dreaming for many years. But a dreaming of clarity, a waking up, not an enchantment. It’s a hard thing to put in a book, or into everyday language. Possibly a little rash. The old nature powers are not metaphor.
After a while these stories followed me everywhere, even London, the place I was staying when I first went on the mountain. The door was open and there was no going back. There is nothing exceptional about this.
Copyright Martin Shaw 2012