Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Old Stories - Why Would We Need Them?

Well, we have set foot back in old Devon, which is still playing out the last dance steps of what i gather was a fairly serious winter. We are all jetlagged, wandering the corridors at 4 a.m., looking for hot tubs and margaritas and the yip of the Coyotes that stalked the woods behind our apartment up on California's Inverness Ridge. A long and beautiful trip - thank you to Jonah and the Storytelling Project at Stanford, the Sufi i met on a street corner, the hundreds of new friends, all that attended the Mythteller three month intensive up in Point Reyes, the nimble trackers that took us out early one morning to trail pawprints in much the same way i trail stories - with curiosity and wonder, and most of all to the generous, lion-hearted, poetry souled Lisa Doron. We are grateful, and we remember.

I turn my head also to some upcoming collaborations: With Satish Kumar on the 'Earth Pilgrim' week at Schumacher College, June 17th-22nd, and then with David Abram for 'Wild Land Dreaming: Living Language and the Erotics of Place' - a full week - 1-7th July, also at Schumacher in Devon. Can't wait. Both David and i will be leaning into some very new ground for this collaboration - there have been some great conversations and companionship down the phone lines between here and New Mexico.

Todays missive is a response to several enquiries i had last year from ecological friends asking why i felt this connection to myths and fairytales - and couldn't i just articulate my own emerging stories from time in the wild as the 'new myths', and be done with the grubby, complicated, book heavy world of (especially) European folk tales? To the enquirers, those stories felt too 'contaminated' to still be of use - they longed for something pristine and unencumbered by human history, just an authored expression of delight with the living world. That has its place, but if myth has no author, this also has its setbacks.

I write a little about my preparation for approaching Snowy Tower - my telling of Parzival - and begin with where i first starting feeling my way through these image-based ideas, up in Snowdonia, Wales.


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. This apparent sophistication has crafted a speech that can seem to sit uneasily in the panorama of the wild, with 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, the mountain 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?

Certain myths, certain stories, are a bridge to the muscled thoughts of the living world. These thoughts we could call ‘wild mythologies’.

Some stories these days do not offer that avenue of perception. Like genetically modified crop, their intrinsic design is so shaken up, so bent only to allegory, that this root-connection is lost. Their taste is briefly sweet but lacks texture and weight. Nuance is ironed out. If the hand of the human community is too impacted, then story becomes only pastoral, an affirmation of what we already know. We don’t need stories like these. Many of us long for the prophetic, the unruly, the associatively spacious, the ones that awake our animal soul to pad lonesome tracks in sweet dusky meadows at the edges of our imagination.

At the same time, stories gathered from the wild places, if authored and spoken by just one individual, will lack the psychic weight and difficult edges that many myths and fairy tales hold - even ones gathered between the pages of a book. Receptivity to natures humors is the great opening, the essential vehicle, but the passing of the story through time and community also enables it heft, maturation, authority, the hard yards of living between the horizontal and divine worlds.

Having sat round hundreds of campfires for twenty years hearing powerful, truly deep stories pour from the mouth of returning vision questers - stories ablaze - i have wept at their mythic truth, but have not quite heard a myth. A subtle distinction, but important. They carry the ‘I’ elegantly, but not always the ‘We’ that the great stories reveal. The storied images have not passed through enough lives, communities and culture. They are intensely beautiful rivers, but they are not the ocean.

It was the waiting tribe, many years ago, that would help the initiate dig the tributary that took their river to the bigger tribal soul-story. The ancient stories, rather like our vast, majestic seas, may have occasional temporary pollutants, but are not to be abandoned, but cherished, worked with, carried, honored. They carry silvery shoals of insight, slow moving crab wisdoms that survive at great depth and under intense pressure, many limbed aquatic revelations that give themselves up for our nets, time and time again.

On one level myth is not really about ‘a long time ago’, but a kind of vitalized, ritual present, but at the same moment, the opening up to that heightened liminality through many centuries and communities both deepens and broadens the power of the images. Repetition has enormous weight. So, although the myths usually refers to eternal concerns, the repeated practice of invoking that very ‘timelessness’ is one of the elements that, on the human side at least, gathers resonance and psychic vigor to the telling, like moss around a stone. It’s very mysterious.

Although some would rather be done with myths and folktale and produce, almost overnight, new stories of harmonious and stress-free relatedness to the living world, it is like trying to out run your own shadow. Naive. All those power games and paradoxes that myths and fairy tales engage with - they keep revealing to us difficult inner-material, material that comes with the labour of being a human - a human with a history of betrayal, urbanity and a tricky lower intestine- and not always the pristine mind of the elk or indigo bunting. That’s useful as we turn our head towards wild intelligence. Its rather domestic grit reminds us of the village we come from as well as the forest we long for. Human initiation always calls forth dwelling in the crossroads of both.

With a great deal more investment and community rather than solitary focus on wilderness, those individual stories from the wild may indeed collude, over time, into something lasting, with broad shoulders that can carry the wider soul-story again. But i balk at the notion that we must choose one over the other. The great stories, the ones that challenge, mystify and wake us up, if they have origination points at all, will come from these earthy eruptions, and to this very day contain vast windows to the Otherworld and the Animal Powers. But, like us, some contain the soot of city streets and contemporary agendas garlanded around their feathered neck. I don’t think they would be so hard to loosen up, to get their wingspan free of the oiled and inked page. The stooping hawk catches the dawning and is gone.

It is myths like these that carry the dreamtime of what came to be called Europe, bedded down in the blue green forests and the nomad lines from India and the Caucasus Mountains, its rich loam carrying the loose wild fields of pagan thought clear of the accelerated logos of Descartian advance. Things survived, down there, in the spidery mossy gleam of the hearth fire tellings, compacted images of such animistic intelligence that they send brilliant shivers of recognition continually into the orbit of anyone that gets near them. They are Yeats Wild Swans of Coole.

So do we just tip toe away from this complex inheritance, and rattle off endless cut and paste ’new’ myths after an afternoons brisk walking on the Brecon Beacons? I think this would prove to have little sustenance. It would lack authenticity. We need the experiential, the great un-shackling, a loosening, but bardic thinking would entail that encounter then challenging and deepening the existing mythos, not abandoning it completely. This is where study arrives. We won’t get into heaven without it.

My own policy is that of a pirate - steal the stories back. It’s why i was lead to Parzival - to form an associative link between my experiential practice in the wild and the great treasury of myth, and then only to realise that that very link was in fact a circle, that the stories very core came from the ground.

To tell Parzival in a good way, i first took it back to the fireside for several years - to woodsmoke, and low bellied badgers, rustling beds of nettles and a hundred thousand stars overhead. Up on the dreaming flank of Dartmoor i once told the story for three days straight, eyes weeping from the wet kindling, great draperies of mist settling around our small gang, iron rain paddling our thin canvas shelter hanging from the oaks, the drops fierce thrumming, the roe-buck shaking dew from its flank in the thicket. Toothwort, meadowsweet, skullcap, coltsfoot, black horehound, silverweed, eyebright - the murmurings of the herb world scuttled through those long grasses of its telling. This time gave the story a chance to stretch its old and powerful paws, examine its frosty whiskers in the cool, green reflection of a moorland lake. The wet feathered rooks, adders, and loping hares of that place reclaimed the tale - the embers splutter and brooding clouds got all snarled up in the syntax of the telling, and dropped their amiable flurries into these very pages. We could do the same with other stories - reconsecrate them in the living world. That’s a radical act, and will certainly produce results. How that turning of the story towards wildness actually appears is almost a chthonic element, more a sensation in the beholder than anything else, a kind of curiosity, or freshness in its expression. We should try not to over think its external manifestation.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013


whitewave said...

Perfect! Just what I needed to read as I get ready for my workshops next week at The BIPP. Thank you, Martin.

Unknown said...

The water is running clear here Martin. Reads like a John Bonham bare handed drum solo.