Friday, 27 December 2013

goodbye 2013: stories/animals/frontiers

Well how goes it with you?

the last of the relatives are heading home to Norfolk, the oven is filled with cold meats and a dizzying array of present wrappers, piles of books, bags of coal and bottles of rubied ale fill the house. Martin Simpsons beautiful "Vagrant Stanzas" record is the sound of the holidays here at Tregonning House. it's been a blessed year for work: collaborations with David Abrams and Coleman Barks, the poetry work with Tony Hoagland, play writing with Peter Oswald, working with Dr. Helen Geake on Time Team's Dig Village: where archeology meets mythology, becoming visiting fellow at Schumacher college and the delight of moving into the Shepherds Hut (find master craftsman Duncan Passmore to build you one), a wonderful year course with lively brilliant people, and just now receiving the proofs for the early 2014 release of SNOWY TOWER. Ole! Allah! and amen.

Don't worry - there were also all the usual nightmares, distractions, hold ups, and sheer exhaustions that gets us kissing the hem of Saturns cloak. Here's a brief one from the work with Tony:

Scottish-Gaelic; traditional folk charm

I kneel and pluck
the smooth yarrow

to spell-make,
to intrigue the stars to me.

Give elegance to my figure.
Subtract a little from the hips.

May my voice carry cheer,
like the yellowed sun,

may my lips be succulent, full and red,
like the juice of strawberries.

I shall be an island
in the blue-black waves,

a wooded hill on the land,
a sturdy ash staff when my heart is weak.

And just to be clear:

I shall wound every man,
but no man shall wound me.

The Shaw-Patterson tribe move en-masse, in just a few days, to winter in Northern California - Point Reyes Station - where i will be leading the Oral Tradition course at Stanford university from early january. About forty minutes below San Francisco. Class is full with waiting list i'm afraid. So bags are being packed and sartorial choices abound in what we will and won't cart along with us. My avalanche of tweeds will not be needed in Palo Alto i suspect.

I've had many emails from west coast friends bemoaning the lack of weekend intensives this time round - i'm looking for more space on this trip for family and personal study i'm afraid. But - look out for the launch of SNOWY TOWER in early march - and a day and evening event affiliated with Point Reyes Books. Looking forward very much to seeing old and new friends. More as i have it. There is also rumor of me joining forces with pultizer prize winning poet Robert Hass and others to pay tribute to the mighty Seamus Heaney on St. Patricks day - again - more as i have it.

Our SOM 2014 year course has a growing waiting list: don't be afraid to get in touch. For those signed up expect the reading list in the next week. It's going to be a grand tenth year.

There's a job offer too: we have received major funding for the play version of Parzival to be held here in Devon next summer. We need a producer - if you have the experience and passion - then please get in touch with the below right away: the interviews are next month.

In apology for my tardiness of entries in December here is a long piece that rambles and growls. I'm sympathetic that out of it's wider context it may seem a little elastic, but hope you can find some moments to rub up against here and there.

Wishing you the very best kind of New Year that you could possibly have.

A Protean Era

On a whiskered lion’s shape,/ a serpent then; a leopard; a great boar;/ then sousing water; then a tall green tree.
Homer on the God Proteus

With the revival of the storytelling tradition, and a simultaneous focus on the bio-regional, it seems appropriate to recognise that local folklore can be just as nourishing as a plate of fresh vegetables from the garden or a haunch of venison from a nearby forest. It is a form of soul food. Just as the farmers markets are growing happily against the onslaught of the supermarket, and allotments have waiting lists for the first time in a generation, I am suggesting that the vitality of localised myth can be just as crucial to the health of our own inner-ecosystem. In this next section I will move between both the gains involved in this immediate, local knowledge, and acknowledging the wider pantheon of story that is now readily available. It may be a frustration that I will not promote one entirely over the other, but I hope that as we go my thoughts will become clear.

Story orientates: and not just to the geographical landscape but to wider, eternal concerns: concerns of the soul. It’s for this reason we sense the resonance of a Russian epic right down in the gut, we laugh out loud at the bawdy intelligence of a wolverine tale from Labrador, despite having been raised in a different time and space. I would call that nomadic recognition – past the cultural flavours and directly to the energy that lives behind it. It’s the power of a truly vital image; we are shot clean of everyday reference and abide in an almost electrical refreshment, that, for a moment, hangs above specific fields of cultural association. However, for most there has not always been such a wide field of reference.

Many human groups throughout history, have, for the most part, enjoyed a land specific relationship to the stories they tell. Oral culture has almost always been inherently local. Of course, a certain amount of cultural diffusion can be present, but it's often waywardly pulled into the local over time. This generation spanning, steady telling I would call slow ground. It’s a localised cosmos that roots you steady in it. It confirms you, your thinking, your rituals and your tribe; establishes place, and reveals with a slow drip drip drip, the mythic energies you stand upon. There is a social memory around those stories that we rarely have anymore.

This slow ground is becoming rapidly fragmented in what many call a Protean age. Proteus is a shape-shifting god of the sea – mutable, able to swiftly change position. With the hammering barrage of information that we daily face, a kind of mimic of the nomadic leap becomes far more common parley than this slow ground. This endless changing of ground is more rooted in confusion than some mercurial brilliance. I have referred to it as “the addiction to severance”. The message is to expect the unpredictable and inconstant. We multi-task to the last, digesting intestinal-wrecking amounts of stress in the bargain. The TV show, jerkily cutting from camera to camera, illustrates this malaise in a way we all understand. It seems to be revealing some great restlessness of spirit, way down inside.

The Commons of the Imagination
A major factor of nomadic recognition within storytelling – this experience of unknown but somehow emotionally recognised image - is then the move back to slow ground, to enable it to be rooted in the repetitive discipline of crafting and telling the story: the performative. It re-finds its ground by the labour of telling – it grows roots. It cannot entirely replace the origination point of the story, but stories are living beings, origination points are a birthing, but not always an ending of it. Slowly the story becomes settled visually in the inner-landscape of the teller and the listeners. That settling will be wherever you apply some long term focus. The inner landscape will not be the same for everyone.

Although the experience can be very deep, we are beholding different locations, geographies, visual triggers. The image-net is wider. James Hillman talks about “the return to Greece” not as a physical journey to the Mediterranean, but as a revival of pantheistic consciousness. That is the trade for the learning of these stories.

They enter a cross-culture commons of the imagination. A commons as a place of universal commingling. They abide not on a local hill or green jawed gully (except for a very few listeners) but have ended up in the wide, rainbow’ed vista of collective information. From this commons many apprentice storytellers wander excitedly through, gathering a bulb of Hungarian folklore here, a herb or two from Tibet over there.

Of course, this all seems like a snapshot of much that is wrong with modern life. That the specific and vital becomes the generic and jumbled.

As Tom Waits says: “A song needs an address”. We en-soul something by naming it, a detail anchors it in more than a floating intelligence. By taking the original localised references out of the story, have we somehow robbed it of its soul? Yes and no - I cannot go along with that entirely. I would suggest that what is needed within this collective information is a greater connection to ones own roots. To do away with the rainbow’ed, new age picture of everything as a blend, and more the image of a sea port, or desert meeting place, or crossroad’s inn, where cultures and travellers swap stories, recipes, opinions, songs - and all leave deepened by the exchange, but also confirmed in their own ground.

My concern within myth is that the commons is overwhelming the local – we end up with storytellers floating several feet above their own ground, constantly enthralled with the exotic, wider picture.

A Frontier is not a Border
The writer David Anthony (Anthony 2007 :102) reminds us of the difference between the notion of border and the notion of frontier. A border lacks the charge and excitement of a frontier – it is nothing special, just a thin, officious mark between two areas of geography – usually halting a flow of movement. But a frontier; that feels edgier, richer, dynamic; more of the crossroads' tavern, less of the bored official flicking through your passport.

In the centuries before large states, frontiers were generally ephemeral, fluid; there was usually an ebb and flow of bodies in and out. Titles like Teuton, Pict or Celt, were often transitory, umbrella terms for smaller, ethnic groups that would have found this larger, almost national identity untenable. For reasons of negotiation, it may have been politically expedient for local tribes to team up whilst in negotiation over territory with outside agents, but it generally took a matter that pressing to enforce it. Once that matter was settled, individual concerns and identity took precedent.

A frontier also did away with the sharp edges of one language crashing uncomfortably into another. There was usually a gradient of language – porous connecting points – and intergrading local dialects. You could bluff your way through. It is only with the creation of the nation-state that aggressive and pronounced ethno-linguistic borders start to appear – in Europe it really increases with the late Eighteenth Century arrival of the French Revolution. Borders with the least amount of human traffic have the most pronounced linguistic difference. Frontiers are also biologically mutable, not normally a defining indication of gene pool – people transgress all kinds of line when it comes to mating. Of course, there are always exceptions, and a frontier is more crucial as a statement than a constant geography – we only have to think of the Celt/Anglo-Saxon frontier dance across Britain in the years 400 – 700.

Despite this, Anthony evokes what he calls ‘robust frontiers’. Welsh to English for example, has remained strong for over a thousand years. And the Celtic Bretons are sitting on fifteen hundred years of difference to the wider French – clear in diet, art, music, and philosophy. There comes a subtle but tangible moment when identity becomes tied up with not being like those others over the hill, and the intriguing give and take of a frontier sharpens up into the spear bristled wall of the boundary.

But what of the midnight crossings, these bribers, these exotics - the migrators? Anthony lists war, failure of crop, religious intolerance, even the ancient favouring of the oldest sibling (leaving the youngers to leave the den and go wandering for fortune) as incentives. These are all pushes from the nest. Pulls, lures and intoxicants include the perennial hope of the west, or north, or south, or east, that things will be better someplace else. Following a dream. Messages from loved ones who have gone before will encourage the packing of the tent, the slow wagon trail out into the conifer forests and the bandit strewn path between settlements. Often the lures would seem woefully different to the finally- arrived-at reality. There are typically two migratory paths: leapfrogging and chain.

Leapfrogging is a heads down, determined slog through any number of different regions until you arrive at the land of milk and honey – the area most highly rated, the place that got you and your family up and moving in the first place. You could pass through any number of flowered meadows and verdant oases, but will not make deep camp until you get to your destination. Chain migration is more to do with following an established route, it may not be the most abundant, the most overflowing with opportunity, but it’s the safest possibility in an extremely risky enterprise. So, one goes for a tunnel vision glory, the other, some kind of thin assurance of a safe reception.

Mythtelling in its essence is frontier work; a triadic, bustling confluence of story, teller and listener. When it is entirely scripted it becomes a boundary – maybe an ornate, delicate, grand boundary – but a boundary none the less. The porosity, the give and take, is lost. Mythtelling favours not the leapfrogging or the chain, but wanders; open-eyed and meandering through every scene that presents itself. It has an idea of the final destination, and certain watering holes along the way, but the lushness of the bridle-path hedges, or the far distant lope of the mountain lion, are a constantly unfolding wonder. So it is clear to see how diffusion could and did occur in the movement of stories from one place to another. Even in the ‘robust borders’ of Wales and England, stories, like undercover lovers, sneak through and take root in another language, imagination, and yes, culture. There will be no immediate switch to entirely new ways of thinking but a kind of residual hinterland, a testing period, whilst the story goes ‘smokes way’ – snaky – through the fireside tellings and storyteller gossip, into the hearts and psyches of a new group. The firmer the move from tribal ground into civilised states, the harder this becomes.

The Turning: Migrational Changes to Animal and Myth
We know that snow geese are wintering up to 200 miles further north these days, purple finches trouncing even that with a 400-mile hike from their normal nesting areas. The ruby-throated hummingbird is moving from southeast to central Alaska in this resolute move northward. An Audubon Society study recently released, reveals that an astonishing half of 305 bird species in North America – a lively assortment of owls, robins, chickadees and more, are all wintering 35 miles further north than they did 40 years ago.

Urban developments and deforestation all have a part to play, but the sheer variety and scale of these new migrations are bringing many to the inevitable conclusion of climate change. Milder winters mean less shivering for the birds, less hard nights to get through, fewer calories to have to gather. But there is confusion - cranes wintering in Germany rather than their long established southerly flights to Spain or Portugal. This is a risky strategy – to remain in a climate that could suddenly turn freezing, by which point the migration is equally hazardous.

Some birds, like the pied flycatcher, are altering the timing of their migrations in an effort to keep up with the changes. The problem is that the animals and plants that are waiting at the other end of the long flight are in a different state to the old familiar patterning – a state not conducive for the hungry beaks of their nestlings. The siberian crane is facing a 70 per cent decline of its tundra habitat. These wetland migratory birds are down to just 3,000 in number, the last of the grand, ancient tribe. Their attempted migrations between the Arctic and the Yangtze river is facing a myriad of bedfuddlements.

The world is a-slither, a-crawling, ascending to higher latitudes as it gets hotter. The moths on Borneo’s Mount Kinbalu have gone from a steady rise of 43 ft per decade to a staggering 475. After a hiatus of almost 75 years, mosquito born dengue fever has made a re-appearance in the United States. Fish once seen as southern and exotic, like the red mullet and the anchovy, have been caught on the coast of England’s North Sea.

So the animal’s myth-lines are in a wild state of flux, re-invention and flat out disaster. No one knows how this is going to pan out. What we do have is exotic creatures arriving in new and sometimes hostile destinations; ancient fly patterns trashed in desperate mimics of new weather fronts that cannot be predicted. Nests of chicks born in a land that still sleeps, briar unbudded, soil frozen.

There was a time when the mythteller held their hinge position well; between what was resolutely of the people, the village, and what was to be received from the land's own echo location, this was in turn fed back into the ritual life of the tribe and this wider, feathered elucidation kept all locked in it.

Frontiers extended out from the mythteller towards a wider communion of speech: an embodied, primary gestural language that drew in the hummingbird and the profound slowness of how a granite tor thinks. The mythteller would grasp the excitable body language between aligned animals and old friends; what bubbles up in rapid nods and trills, or the twelve tyne antler thrust in defiance of a new threat. They were expert in the endlessly varied plateaux of communication. The verbal greetings were often secondary to the twitch of a shoulder, or the rapid change in a bird's wing speed. To communicate a story well, this all had to be understood and integrated.

Frontiers also burst into spirit communication; the invisible world. Hair raising vigils in the cave depths of a Welsh mountain brought back authentic, prophetic information to the tribal stories – of fairy, and numinous, magical bartering that utilised all the rapid fire eloquence one had – ensuring that mythtelling was more than just a market square theatre.

These changes in weather we are facing, these disappearing animal pathways, would have found their way quickly into the heart of the wider stories around the campfire.

Just as fairytales and myth are moving rapidly into a new commons of the imagination, so too are the animal powers splashing, hovering, padding, and winging their way desperately into previously uncharted areas of the earth, wrenched from the home ground. Even as I write this, out there in the dark and the wild stretches, these migrations are occurring constantly in their thousands. As we sit in front of our flat screens, read our newspapers and sip our cappuccinos, it may be just some kind of background noise at the edge of our thinking. For now.

What are the new stories that these migrations and desperations will engender to the animals? Who has the receptivity, the furred ear, to absorb and include those emerging myths in the wider frame of stories that humans carry like precious cargo? Without that coming together, then things will fragment with every greater speed.

What these chaotic times are inducing is rapid move back to frontier consciousness; the indigo bunting will pay no regard to passport control. But land it must. And negotiate new policies, bartering, and opportunity; familiarise itself to new stories. All these migratory animals are having a vast education in emerging mythologies; their own constants, their Olympians, are but drizzle over the vastness of the grey oceans they fly over. Tundra is becoming forest, all is new. Jungle is becoming prairie.

It could be that stories are being forced to move from their old geographical habitations because they have something important to say about this wider crisis. As the crane settles in a new and unfamiliar German forest as snow falls, so a Seneca shaman story is told in the tentative surroundings of a Plymouth pub. I believe the two emerging migrations are connected. They are speaking over the frontier divides – crow to myth to waterfall to folktale. Both need tuned ears.

What they have to say will not arrive as statistical data, but images that tug on the heart of the listener, that are sufficiently weighty and straight-up-startling to share new light on many coming storms. And a light that is suffused with the eternal, that ‘time before time’, rather than just the strained, stressed-out strip light of the now.

It is not enough to say that we ‘must’ create stories to narrate what is happening to the earth. It is less creating, more listening. Ideas like the literary movement Dark Mountain project have energy to them – especially to then go out and fast on a dark mountain to get a sense of what the mountain is thinking. That’s very literal but has its charm. The gifts of writers are secondary to the surrendering of that gift to the primary experience of these mythic echoes. If we merely use them to back up our fevered imaginings, then we are still experiencing the psyche within us, rather than us within the wider, wilder psyche. We still watch from the city gates.

Remember Holderlin:

I’m sick of you hypocrites babbling about gods!…
As for you gods, be calm! You are decorations in their poems
(Holderlin 1980 :39)

Copyright Martin Shaw 2013

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