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

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