Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Grey Wethers

The sun is out - Devon is in shock, but lively with happiness. I'm just about to spend a day teaching on Satish Kumars 'Earth Pilgrim' Program. After discussion, we will be heading up to the Grey Wether's Stones - up near Sittaford tor- where i will tell the story of that place and it's mythic underbelly as best i can.

About 18 months ago i posted the below on the blog - the commentary of walking some of the geography of the story - and it seems fitting to lay it out again today. The old Dartmoor folktale is about a peat worker, Lynhur, many centuries ago, hearing of an old ritual where he could shear the wool from a sheeps back (for the rest of the year a Grey Wether Stone), and, under a variety of ritual conditions, assist it turning to gold. Hearing the story from a perspective of financial gain and not initiation the experience does 'not go well for him'. It's a wise story - partially about right relationship to Belus, God of the Sun. I'll put it up on the blog soon.

Without a map I descend into the spillage of muddied lanes and dirt tracks between the Postbridge road and the descent into Chagford. There is hay bound in black lining like huge sticks of liquorice on the fields' sluiced edges. Somewhere en route I am looking for signs for Fernworthy reservoir, and the pine woods that surround it. It is through them that I will eventually get to the open moor and the circles. Today, all signs seem to suddenly stop, and I am almost on the descent into Chagford before I realise that something must be up. This can’t be right.

I’m hot and irritated. Why is it so hot? I have been up and down this steep road more than once, assuming I would get spoon fed by signs for the route to the forest. As this sits angrily with me, a large hawk bursts from the low cover, to my left, and sweeps across my path, only several feet ahead, initially at shoulder height. Epic wing span, mottled with dashes of exposed white, fierce mouth; that’s about all I can take in. I could have reached out and touched it. And lost a finger. It is a great thrumming blast of feather and clarity; cutting utterly through my pouty mood. Wing span clears five foot, easy. It’s not a buzzard – I know the colourings of the common and rarely seen rough legged buzzard, even have a fair idea of the further more obscure honey buzzard. This is something else again. (The buzzards have grown more visible on the moors since a lessening of game keeping aggression, large ‘wakes’ of them being reported).

Hawk hefts itself upwards, catches a current, and forces my head far right. In the distance I can see the formal shape and ‘cut out’ pattern of a conifer forest, past more lanes, dips and old growth copses. Thank you.

Hawk, friend to Hera, Isis, Circe, clawed instructor of patience but companion to lovers – king lover Gawain means ‘Gwalchmei’ – Hawk of May. Its vigour makes me done with whines.

The Anxious Forest

I get into some focused walking, almost a slow jog, to cut through the time spent on tarmac. All Devon lanes are crooked and seem to lead you round on yourself before you get anywhere near your destination. Rather like a Devon conversation. When I finally enter the forest at its sweetest spot, I see that the dry stone walling at its entrance is almost entirely covered – the old stones appear like mossy loaves of bread, or the curls of a green sea. There is an ocean scent, up from the coast, that only leaves when I move further into the shadowed forest, and the unmistakable aroma of pine drifts fragrantly towards me . At the centre of the dirt track is a wide ice ridge, although most of the ground is without snow. I can’t help but enjoy jumping from puddle to puddle, breaking the iced top. There seems to be no one about.

Tracking the ice ridge I slip, scamper, and steady myself on this white arrow of intention leading, some miles ahead, to the Grey Wethers stones. Was Lynhur so enthused on his walk to the stones – was it a glory swagger he carried with him? Had his winter starvations burnt all caution from his whip-thin frame? Today my companions are invisible, but they stomp alongside – the peat diggers, the solar worshippers, the transgressor of the sacred. I am many.

These pine trees, planted out of necessity for wood in the first war, carry war-paint – dashes of white horizontal against the steep trunks and endless shades of black. They seem poised for the chainsaw, to suffer without complaint. Occasionally, in the soldiering lines of timber, a strong gold light warms small areas of earth. It is strange to think that these non-native forests were planted out of a sense of anxiety. Maybe it can be sensed, I see no animal tracks but the occasional horse and sheep scat as I get nearer the moor.

These trees are voracious wanderers. Read the statistics: from the Canary Islands to the far East of Russia they are found, from Africa to Scotland, from New Zealand to Chile. They have become a tree of empire, of building, they have a knack of wiping out the local. Like most invaders they are tall. Tall and long living – some going for as long as a thousand years. A god stands behind them, the immortal Prometheus, the stealer of fire from Zeus. Well, like their inspirational deity they too have spread like a wild fire. A pine found in California was a true ancient, and aged at almost five thousand years old, and was named after the god whose liver is eaten daily by an eagle and regenerated every divine night. The woods feel efficient certainly, but lonely. They absolutely do not hold the panache of an old growth stretch of oak and ash.

I come to an earlier stone circle. 27 small stones, roughly 20 metres or 30 strides in diameter, probably four thousand years old. When first discovered, the inside face of the stones were black with charcoal – from ritual: funeral or feasting. Hair, teeth, flickering flame, lurching figures, raised incantation, tears, offering. As I make my way towards them I can see sunlight glittering; taking my attention to something placed by one of the entry stones to the circle. There is a bundle - letter, photograph, map – curled now through weather, but clearly a message to a lost and young friend. The photo is taken at what seems to be a rock festival, a group of young men, handsome wide open faces, lean together in camaraderie. It’s clear one hasn’t made it.

There are water logged and now ice stiffened pieces of cloth here and there, purple and red. And then more - witching gear, fifth fath. A bound rough figure in lightning struck wood, placed on the top of a stone. I leave the wood, the letters, the map, all of it, well alone. The very public-ness of the offerings seems a little clumsy. This strange charcoaled circle is clearly in use. Maybe not with the elegance and precision of original design, but there is something here that drags the bereft, the mystically ambitious, the straight out curious, to its humours.

The Bone Pile
The track rises, passes a crossroads, more air, more blue sky. Like all these walks I relish the sheer aloneness. I can see for miles and there really isn’t anyone around. Some part of me uncurls into that space as I start thinking about having turned forty some months ago, of my father’s illness, or my life now. As these unwieldy thoughts crash about, I re-focus my attention to the present. I gaze around.

Stacked up, probably a dozen on either side of me, maybe fifteen foot high, are stacks of bones. Bone Hills. I blink, and look again. It’s not bone, but erratically assembled piles of bleached wood. They look like Mongolian shrines; I await the yip of the swift ponied Asian rider. Where is the dark Altai cry? Each skulled hump looks like it deserves flowering orchids, bowls of frothing beer, silks tied to branch, rough slabs of jungled chocolate, quiet attention, goat meat for the circling hawk. Each one looks like a little death, some small ending that has occurred during my life. All the grieved and un-grieved moments I have dragged my still limping frame through. It’s a kind of review of all sorts of passages I simply have not allowed myself time to feel. Really, it’s a very strange moment.

And oddly, it’s OK. In this sudden graveyard I can map my own travels, places I have lived, erratic betrayals, crooked loves, emphatic healings, street brawls, lonely Sundays counting the hard cards of grief. In the smaller piles, I see many little routes I have not taken; friendships cut short, choked at the hilt, strangled, mashed and bruised with bill hook flails. There are kindling piles of hubris and simple stubborness. We can’t follow every trail. We are not meant to hear every voice that speaks to us. So it is. Things pass back into the composting earth. I feel a strange pleasure that there is something to show for these few decades. There is a story. The brightness makes it all visible, concealment no kind of option.
I have preferred moonlit nuance on the piles before now. The wind is up, and freezing, I keep going. Apart from that insistent wind, it is deeply quiet.

I linger awhile on the edge of the forest, and note a reluctance to come out from its shades into open moor. My lunar nature is developed, instinctive, but this appointment in the palace of the sun god is making me nervous. I’ve avoided it many, many times.

The Courtly Stones
I finally cut out from the forest entirely and head across open moorland, keeping in the tree-line's shade, although cold, the sun is fiercely beating, too much for my pale wintered face. The grasses are stumpy bolts, blown into extreme clusters, meaning a constant meandering, no straight line kind of way across broken down walls, more moorland, over small, semi-frozen streams until finally the stones.

They are two circles. I count twenty stones in the northern circle, the southern has twenty nine. This second circle seems far more substantial, large, strangely shaped chunks of rock. Someone has placed a black stone, glittering with crystal, in a worn spot where a stone must have once been. Somewhere in Birmingham, an occultist feels pleased with themselves. Between the two courts of stone is a gap, a grassy runway, heading way off into open moor. The sky is criss-crossed with plane fumes. Again, my attention is drawn to the unusual late winter heat. Then it hits me. Belus! This is his place. No wonder the rocks bake on a February day in a sub-zero wind.

And how did I get here? Not ordinance survey map, not compass or grinning local, but by the sweeping grandeur of a hawk. A hawk- messenger of the sun gods. Friend to bright Apollo, head of Ra, feathered loyalty to Armenti, the Great Mother. Friend to Belus. The Celts said truly that a hawk's feathers carries sunlight with them. The hawk is more than a familiar of choice for Merlin, but actually the shape he would skin-crawl into. Dear hawk, bold pathmaker where there is no clear path, what the Seanchai storytellers fiercely name as the oldest animal of the Celts. Fly above me, fly above me, always.

Here, like the other circle, are signs of ritual use. This though, rather more charged. There are the remains of a flesh offering, just a scrap left, and some bloodied icicles, hanging off a particularly distinguished stone.

This place was here during the battle of Hastings, the witch hunts, the Tudors, the Great War. It sat steady through the reformation, Cromwell, 9/11.

Businesses go bust, empires go haywire, proud people make love, have families, dream, fight, and die. Endless thousands of dramas played out. And still the circle, the wind, the great empty hold their eternal council. It is a constant scene. There is no stagnation here, only permanence. I’ve never been in such a place that seemed so entirely to itself, almost its own ecosystem, its own consciousness.

These stones seem vast and elemental, the current ceremonial detritus I have witnessed scratchy and without consequence. But they bring some ghost memory from our guts, the real excavation is not of them but something inside of us. It is like arriving at any extraordinary theatre set without a description of the play, the actors gone for lunch, but a fierce longing to see it. It is as if older eyes watch from the tree-line, seeing us puzzle over the jigsaw. It is not a strange thing that we bring our brokenness here, our fragmented imaginations; we have to have something to lean on.

On this day, I am not confronted with the drama of the Lynhur story but something of my own. The times I have shied from light, averse to clarity. My own scepticism of bright things, of success. The bone-piles I carry with me. That it is alright to follow a bird's grand flight rather than a badger’s earthy snuffle sometimes. The blessings I have squandered.

Hours later, I emerge from where I began this walk, my face is salty, scorched by the sun.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013


Simon Hodges said...

Such a rich post! Thanks Martin.

Ryan Rasmussen said...

My son, nearly five, is named Hawk. At some point I learned, with my head, that in some old Indo-European manner it meant "to seize," which is perfect in its own way. And here this Celtic history offers new layers I am sure will continue to unfold. Thank you, Martin, for sharing this sky-fed ramble.