Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Ship Is About to Sail - friends, grab an oar!

Just three days till the beginning of the 2013 School of Myth year programme! Contact us today - not tomorrow - if you feel the call to high adventure - tina.schoolofmyth@yahoo.com is the one. Ok, onwards.....

As i hear the news bleat distantly about England's lack of quick financial revival after the economic crash, i find myself pondering the notion of the word poor. Growing up in a house without phone, television or car, and having produced a little yellow meal ticket for school dinners back in the far distant 1980's, it's a word that has been hurled in my direction once or twice, despite not really feeling so.

The word poor leads us to thoughts of deprived diet, housing and work opportunities. But poor has other, more insidious connotations. To be in poor in spirit, to be far from soul. It is odd that in the growing Western preoccupation with organic food, yoga and un-feisty thoughts, that we often neglect myth as another kind of food – a literal soul food. Maybe we sense that its full fat, often barbecued and calorific content may create too much disturbance in suburbia or the ashram. But it could be a crafty way of getting some protein without risking heart disease.

It was awareness of this kind of soul-poverty, a cultural deprivation in all of the material abundance that lead to the forming of a hedge- school down here in Devon. The idea with a hedge school is quite literal – an Irish notion that you assemble some kind of rough structure against the side of a hedge and begin to teach underneath it from whatever skills you have. It’s all very simple, and comes from a time of tremendous hardship.

Many friends suggested this wasn’t a good idea, or to wait for some kind of government funding, or possibly an arts council grant. I do not compute this kind of thinking. No pirate could stomach its cautious implications, its lily-livered, half-wish of an idea. Even in a county positively overflowing with spiritual sorts – and packed programs on bodywork, psychology and vegetarian cookery - there seemed little hope for a wayward, no qualification at the end, headlong immersion into the nature of myth, wilderness and rites-of-passage. And the lure? The sweet lure to get folks to sign up?

At its centre was four days with an empty belly, headache and nightmares, glued to the side of a ghostly Welsh mountain in the pouring rain. An advertising dream, surely.

Well, it appeared my friends may be right. For the first year the school had three students. I was partially catering as well as teaching, running back and forth with plates of food. Cara was the real engine room of the kitchen, eyes weeping from chopped onions (well, that’s what she tells me). The next year was a big step upward – we now had four students. Big time. Any profit amounted to a six pack of cold beer and a packet of fish’n’chips after everyone had left on the Sunday night. I clearly remember the first time I had enough money left over to buy a book on the Monday morning. I still keep it close by.

The early years were intense. We’d rise at dawn, grab towels and walk in silence through a mile of forest down from our raggedy tent till we got to a small river. We always began the course in the depths of winter, just to increase its edge. We would go down backwards into the water, float to the very bottom, get a good soak of icy rapture, before back to fire making, cups of hot tea, and the day's unfolding curriculum. There was absolutely no time off: myth, ritual, poetry and a little food, hard at it between 6am and 11pm. Much of the time was spent traversing gnotted forest, jumping into the ocean with wild flowers, chocolate and poetry for Mannanan MacLir, or deep in the clutches of some esoteric old story. It seemed quite wonderful to all of us. We were a strange Fianna, frisky hares drunk on moonlight.

Next time round we had 30 folks and a waiting list. Were I to tell you of what was required to move it so dramatically in numbers it would require another book. The truth is that we were never size-ist. Were that hedge school still three in number, no doubt I would still be there, sheltering from the rain, telling indecent jokes, drinking tea and teaching as best I could.

We have been blessed beyond measure by the folks who became immediate family – like something from the old stories. Remember Jonny Bloor? Not only was he the school's very first student, he went on to become a right hand man: leader of music, general encourager and apprentice poet. In fact all three of the first years – Scott, David and Jonny, went on to play vital roles within the emerging school. Chris Salisbury, the outdoorsman and storyteller, brought a wealth of practical forest knowledge, experience of the performative side of storytelling and a calm eye. The women started to roll in too – Sue, Sam, Tina, Rebeh and beyond. We are adrift with cooks who play the banjo, mechanics who tell the epic of Gilgamesh, surgeons who have remembered they are really bandit queens, grief counsellors who have not stopped laughing, life coaches who have not stopped weeping. We have been buffeted by weather, death, illness, financial scrapes, wayward leadership, but, for anyone dreaming of a more complicated life, we are right there.

And what of Dartmoor, the seat of the school? Dartmoor has been submerged in ocean, a tropical island, a red wood forest, and over time, an interlaced consortium of wild and domestic interaction. Its surface is highly ridged with human impressions. Go down to Merrivale just before dawn in May and you’ll see a double row of stones near the road side. As it gets lighter you will see that the stones point devotionally to the star cluster of the Pleiades rising up from the east. These jagged eruptions guided the seeding and the harvesting of precious crops, five thousand years past.

It’s not hard to detect the remnants of corn-drying barns, longhouses, the banked up reaves which marked the fields, the cromlech tomb of Spinster’s Moor, the stone circles of Scorhill and Grey Wethers, the standing stone of Drizzlecombe, then down through the dreaming into the hillfort at Hembury, then Lydford and its Anglo-Saxon patterning that still lives under its street design today, the clapper bridges and stannery routes, or old Brentor church - wrenched and groaned into life atop a volcanic outcrop in the 12th century, caught on a ley line that stretches from Cornwall to East Anglia.

Most of the tors were originally people: Bowerman out hunting with his dogs, interrupted a coven of witches who promptly turned him and the hounds into stone. Vixiana the Witch was hurled into a swamp and the grandmothers say that the grassy bristles sticking out are from her hairy chin, just feet beneath the surface.

There is barely a copse, stretch of lane, or fecund outcrop that lacks a name and a story. Three hundred and sixty five square miles of intrigue and layered myth. But even Dartmoor, seemingly so permanent, is a shape-shifter, just like the stories are. The red-ochre soils we enjoy here today are the remnants of what was once a kind of desert sand, carried by flash floods down from the highest points of the moor.

It has been cultivated, abandoned, mined, regenerated, feared, shorn bald of its tree crest. From a human eye it has been both cramped and lonely, fertile and barren. It carries a word-hoard of story, is a vascular intermingling of animal intelligence. It is its own wild consciousness, its own fluid mythology, whatever shape a particular millennium places upon it. These are just temporary bumps along the way, little snippets
of clock time pecking at its great, eternal tumps.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013


Charlotte said...

These stories, wanting to be told, wrapped in the teaching of tales all bound up in a story of its own. I love it.

rosierabbit said...

As a wayward piratical vegetarian yogi I would part with weighty gold to be able to sit up against that hedge...so far far away....

Dani Crundell said...

"a vascular intermingling of animal intelligence". You have such a way with words. I have only just, by the strangest of coincidental chance, found you and your work (if i told you how I'd have to kill you). I think I am hooked.